Celebrations were planned throughout the winter—feasts, balls, receptions.
Aristocracy from every corner bundled themselves against the cold, piled their carriages with their finest clothes and gifts, and made the pilgrimage to Teamair. Local families slept in their kitchens to lend out their rooms to the overflow of well-wishers. Every crevice of the Caiseal was cleaned and polished, spiders chased from their long-secured homes behind dusty tapestries and chandeliers. Each hour was busy with arrivals, of guests, food, of candles, fabric and peat, which stacked in tottering mountains in the kitchen courtyard. A makeshift stable had been hastily erected outside the city walls to accommodate the animals and to allow the usual stables to be cleaned and temporarily converted into servant quarters. A month before the winter solstice and the mood was as merry and abundant as if every night was that darkest day of longest celebrations.
Fiachrin suffered this as well as he could.
His every moment was choked with activity. The trappings of his station hardened around him in layers. Soft and silken new wardrobes sealed beneath hard and burnished plates of fresh armor and swords. A ring of ever-present servants buffering the fatty layer of governors and their wives and children, marbled through by the glittery veins of lords and ladies, and their children; together constructing impenetrable walls of adulation and admiration. While Fiachrin did his best to be humbled by the outpouring and grateful for wealth of gifts and kindnesses, he garnered no pleasure from the spectacle. The more time he spent in bland conversations over rich food, his eyes dazzled with gold and jewels, the less he felt capable of breathing.
His sole relief arrived twice a day, at noon and at eventide.
At those times, Caoinlin materialized, as the Mhasc Caoin, to meet with him and his father, in the war room, to make report and consult on the slow but steady machinations of governance. In truth, particularly after the first month of Fiachrin’s return, Caoinlin was ruling the kingdom. Despite the fact that she was as celebrated as Fiachrin, perhaps more so, since she was the one who had returned him, her presence was never required at the social functions that consumed Fiachrin’s day. No one expected to see the Mhasc Caoin partaking of gossip or wine or dancing. Had such a thing occurred, people would have been bewildered and, probably, horrified. The Mhasc Caoin was expected to be as elusive and serious as death. And like death, no one asked after the wolf. No pretty lady was heard to inquire, craning her powdered neck,
“Where is that Mhasc Caoin? He promised me a dance.”
The question rang with nightmarish quality in Fiachrin’s ears. So, when he sat in the musky shadowed spaces of his father’s war room (that continued to elude the cleansing rags of harried servants) and Caoinlin appeared, calm and assured behind her mask, and began to talk of tax revenues and harvest stores, her words prompted his lungs to stretch full and the steady cadence of her voice coaxed them to exhale with almost euphoric release.
In the first week, Tireachan was dubious, questioning Caoinlin’s every sentence in manner that Fiachrin was certain the king had never used upon Conlan. But Caoinlin replied, respectfully, and without showing the least bit of injury for the clear discrimination Tireachan was exercising due to his knowledge of her sex. As the celebrations reached whirlwind proportions, Tireachan fell into old habits. Whether he had come to some acceptance or was simply too busy to waste time second-guessing, either way, Tireachan deferred to Caoinlin’s judgment more and more. It became Fiachrin who would ask the most questions, not pointless ones meant to test Caoinlin’s intellect, but fair and critical ones, meant to deepen his knowledge of the workings of his kingdom.
At the noon meeting, the Mhasc Caoin was staunchly in place, like an unbroken sheet of cold metal. Later, by nine or ten, when Fiachrin and Tireachan were finally able to excuse themselves to meet her, the metal was thinner and worn away in spots. In the earlier meetings, Fiachrin maintained focus on the easily dealt with issues, the obvious solutions. At night, he would find one of those holes in the Mhasc Caoin’s façade and push a more difficult problem through to Caoinlin.
One night they spent three hours discussing the potential solutions to a troublesome feud in the lands of Orangehill and Greensea, one whose origins were based in old rivalries and grudges that remained ingrained in the memories of the people for generations. While they outlined each side’s grievances, some going back hundreds of years, debating what would be accepted by some families and not by others and why and what compromises might be found to satisfy them all, Tireachan dozed in his chair. But Fiachrin felt more awake than he had all day. Caoinlin challenged him to be more creative, to explore all the possibilities, even the ones that might seem ludicrous. And he drew her out, daring her to invest emotionally in the issues, to follow the connecting threads to their emotional centers, to her emotional center. He reminded her that a man’s recompense began with the material, but in order for him to feel truly placated his sense of justice had to be met. These people were not fighting because of money or land, those were merely the tangible factors, but it was their sense of what was right and fair that was bleeding through the generations.
Fiachrin would have stayed there all night, into the next day, for the rest of the winter, but Tireachan woke with a snort sometime near midnight and broke up the intense conference. He reprimanded them both for allowing him to sleep while they continued to discuss matters of state and his dismissed Caoinlin curtly. As Fiachrin walked with his father up to their rooms, he considered, for the hundredth time, telling his father exactly how it was that the spell had been broken. He had explained how he had met Caoinlin, how he had trained her, how he had assisted her father while she was gone (assisting Tireachan) and how when she had come back, she had broken the spell. But he had never said just how she’d done it.
After meeting dozens of young ladies, Fiachrin knew full-well what was on their minds and their parents and undoubtedly, his father’s. He wondered if his father had any idea of what was on Fiachrin’s mind.
“Father,” he said as they ascended the quiet curving stairs.
“Yes, son?” Tireachan said, taking each step into consideration before he mounted it.
“There are many talented, intelligent and beautiful women here,” Fiachrin said.
“Indeed,” Tireachan said, edging Fiachrin a peaked glance.
“Would I be wrong in assuming,” Fiachrin said, “that it would please you to see me married to one of them?”
“Any father would be filled with joy to see his son married,” Tireachan said, “I should think.”
“And so I have your consent to do so?”
Tireachan paused, placing his hand on the wall. “So soon? You’ve been back but two months, you’ve met someone who pleases you in that short time?”
“You will give me your consent, won’t you, Father?”
“I can be assured that she meets the standards worthy of a king?”
“Being of royal blood, experienced in the duties of court and governance, unerringly faithful?”
“You have met someone?”
Tireachan squeezed his son’s arm in little pulses. His eyes rippling like the surface of a green pond.
“And do you love her?”
“Does that matter?”
The king gave this question due consideration.
They both knew, by the strictest measures, love did not matter.
Fiachrin knew his father’s thinking, had been raised with it, had been cursed and exiled for thirteen years because of it. Martial love grew from years of companionship, based on mutual needs and reassurances. The love of two compatible persons fulfilling their obligations as established through years of precedent. A wife does this. A husband does that. When both met their ends to the other’s satisfaction, love can flourish in that faithful execution. It had happened and would happen again and was not diminished because of what it was not, but endures because of what it was.
Fiachrin never asked if his father and mother loved each other. They had been betrothed, they had been kind and generous and compassionate. Surely there was love between them. The depth and clarity was for their hearts to understand and not for Fiachrin to scrutinize.
Had Fiachrin loved Caoinlin right away? No. And not because she had been a child at the time. He had never met a girl who wanted to fight, who wanted to run away from luxury and pomp to hardship and war. He had never been taught to engage a female in conversations of tactics in politics and battle. He had never imagined that a woman could or would want to be a warrior, a champion, a victor. He had not loved Caoinlin at first because he had not known how to love her. But he had learned. He was learning still. And now he could not imagine loving anyone else as fiercely or completely.
Through crystal orbs, the candle light was strewn across the stairwell like stars. They nicked illumination out of Tireachan’s craggy skin, like missing chips of paint revealing the clear white pottery beneath.
“If you love her,” Tireachan said. “I will give my consent.”
But the question was not if Fiachrin loved her. The question was how could he get past the wolf to find her again.