Tireachan hung on to Fiachrin, in perplexed bliss, dazed, looking from Fiachrin and Caoinlin and back.
Fiachrin could not say if the king noted the silent battle occurring between his son and his champion.
Her pleading gaze meeting his firm repulsion. Her scathing anger clashing against his resolve.
Please, don’t, she was saying.
But he was stalwart. If she would not reveal the truth, then he would.
Finally, her shoulders sagged. But he did not feel any victory. And in fact, he was quite certain she had known this would happen. Otherwise, she would not have submitted as quickly as she did.
As if each movement took concentration, she reached up and unfastened the top buckle of her mask and then the bottom.
Hand spread against the mask, her fingertips pressed those cold, silver half-moons.
Tireachan was rapt, his hand sweating against Fiachrin’s.
The mask peeled from her face and fell in slow arc to her side.
The mail and leather coif slipped off.
Caoinlin, eyes closed, appeared.
The wounds on her face were redder and thicker, open in spots, scabbed in others.
“Well, I . . .” Tireachan murmured, skimming disappointment. He did not see it yet. Did not understand.
Caoinlin opened her eyes and looked squarely at the king, who gave her a second, more thorough examination.
“What is this?” Tireachan asked, a storm brewing. “What—”
“Father,” Fiachrin said, “This is Caoinlin. She is the Mhasc Caoin.”
“She is—” Tireachan tottered back. Fiachrin steadied him.
“Yes, Father, your champion is a woman,” Fiachrin stated.
Tireachan’s gaze groped at the air, as though he could catch the shadow of Conlan before he passed away forever.
“How—When did this happen?” Tireachan sputtered.
Caoinlin emoted nothing.
“About the time she was born,” Fiachrin said.
“Impudent boy,” Tireachan chided. He righted himself, releasing Fiachrin. The color bloomed across his face, like red dye ballooning in a pail of water. His eyes narrowed. “You deceived me.”
Fiachrin hardened. “Father—”
“Do you realize,” Tireachan was addressing Caoinlin, “what you’ve done? The consequences of what you’ve done?”
Fiachrin did his best to keep his voice level. “Consequences?”
“Yes!” Tireachan pointed a daggered finger at Caoinlin. “She paraded herself as a man, and a warrior and played at the worst sort-of deception, to me! Allowed me to be made fool of—”
“How have you been made a fool of?” Fiachrin asked.
“Through this obscene farce—”
“Father,” Fiachrin stepped in front of Tireachan, blocking his accusations from Caoinlin. “Nothing has changed.”
“Everything has changed!” Tireachan bellowed, revived by his indignation and fury, Fiachrin almost hated to disarm him of it. The king thrust his finger past Fiachrin at Caoinlin. “That, that—”
Fiachrin closed his hand over his father’s finger, collapsing it.
“That is the Mhasc Caoin,” Fiachrin said in calm report. “The same who defeated Arthor, who drove away the Ulic hoards. The same who conquered the whole of this island in your name, in allegiance to you.”
“The same person who restored me and brought me to you,” Fiachrin said, grimly witnessing his father shrink into himself. “The one, to whom, you pledged faithful and everlasting gratitude. And to whom you owe a great many debts, which you may begin to repay by displaying humility and deference to your honored champion, who is no less than she was before she removed the mask.”
A final puff of rage puttered from his father’s mouth. “But—a woman?”
“Yes,” Fiachrin said, “A woman. A woman succeeded in tasks that thousands of men died attempting. Is it any wonder, after this display, that she felt compelled to deceive you? To deceive everyone?”
Fiachrin stepped aside then. Caoinlin stood still as stone, the mask crumpled in her hand.
“How will I explain?” Tireachan said, combing over Caoinlin, whose eyes remained downcast. “The people will not understand. And the soldiers, the men, what will they think? What will they do?”
“They will not do anything, your highness.” Caoinlin crammed her head back into the coif and flashing Fiachrin a murderous look, replaced the mask. “They need never know.”
“Yes, yes of course.” Tireachan eagerly accepted this, relief flooding his face when the mask returned.
“Caoinlin—” Fiachrin started warningly.
“Your Majesty,” Caoinlin ignored Fiachrin and spoke the king, “I will discuss this matter with you at another time, privately. “ Her stinging stare raked at Fiachrin. “There are duties I have to attend. I will leave you with your son.”
Caoinlin stormed away before Fiachrin had an opportunity to stop her.