Two days later, a week before the winter solstice, Caoinlin asked to be excused from the evening meeting early.
“Why?” Fiachrin asked before his father could dismiss her.
Caoinlin regarded Fiachrin as though he had done something exceedingly inappropriate. Not that he cared, if his lungs were going to be robbed of half and hour’s less breath, he wanted a reason.
“Nevan has taken a bad turn,” she answered.
“How are his accommodations?” Tireachan inquired, not looking up from the shuffle of papers spread before him.
“Exceedingly generous, sire.” Caoinlin bowed. “Thank you.”
“And the rest is to your satisfaction?” Tireachan asked conversationally.
“To the utmost,” Caoinlin said, though she did not sound particularly satisfied. “All but that final matter.”
“Yes,” Tireachan said. “I have it here.”
A sealed scroll was held out over the table, before Fiachrin’s sparking eyes. Caoinlin took it and bowed.
“Let it not be said,” Tireachan said in that same falsely causal tone, “that I am not a man of my word.”
“I am honor-bound to challenge any who might utter such prevarications,” Caoinlin stated, “to his death.”
“Of course,” Tireachan said. “You’re dismissed.”
“Sire.” Caoinlin bowed to the king. “Your Highness.” She bowed to Fiachrin, who would not be fooled by this charade and offered her the look that told her so, which she ignored utterly.
The moment she was out the door, Fiachrin turned to his father.
“What was that?” Fiachrin demanded, though he had no right do so.
“What was what?” Tireachan skimmed over a supply order.
“The one you gave to your general.”
“Ah.” Tireachan glanced up at the closed door, where perhaps he saw the answer to Fiachrin’s question written in invisible ink. “That.”
“Yes, that,” Fiachrin said.
“A decree,” Tireachan said, not meeting his eye.
“Of what sort?”
“Removing my armies and returning the lands of Redthorn and the crown to its king,” Tireachan said, scratching his pen to approve funds for more wool to be made into uniforms for the army. “Not to be challenged or revoked so long as I live.”
Fiachrin’s jaw felt unhinged, hanging loose. “You did what?”
Tireachan set aside the freshly signed order and rested his heavy gaze on his son.
“Did you not hear me?” Tireachan said.
Fiachrin sank back in his chair. “What will the people think?”
“They will think I have gone quite insane,” Tireachan said, his voice pealing with the bells of warning. “I’m not certain they would be entirely mistaken. But for my son, I would never have considered making such concessions. We will be fortunate if the rebellions this action provokes does not lose us our tenuous hold on the rest of the island, especially now that the Mhasc Caoin is—”
His father’s words abruptly halted behind crimped lips.
“Now that the Mhasc Caoin is what?”
“Nothing.” Tireachan picked up another supply order to be signed, this one for lumber.
“Is what?” Fiachrin persisted. “A woman?”
Tireachan grumbled something indecipherable and huddled over his papers.
“Damn it,” Tireachan bellowed, “can’t you see I’ve a kingdom to manage here? If you’re not going to be any help, go to bed!”
Fiachrin was pushed back to the age of ten in a matter of seconds. It took him a few moments to shake away the disembodied sensation of being addressed like a pesky child. How was it that a parent could revoke the years with but a choice tone and the right combination of words? An effect that was as near magic as the curse that had made him a frog. And without the magic words to undo what his father had done, Fiachrin left the war room and went to bed.
The next day, Caoinlin did not appear at the noon meeting. More disturbing, Tireachan began discussing matters as though her absence was usual.
“Father,” Fiachrin said shortly after his father had begun ruminating on just how much butter a brigade of men really needed.
“Where is Caoinlin?”
The lines of Tireachan’s face were sucked into the surrounding shadows.
Outside it was a dark, howling day. Snow and rain intertwined in lashing whips wielded by a merciless northern wind.
“Caoinlin?” The king repeated her name as though it gave him indigestion.
“Yes, the Mhasc Caoin?”
Tireachan cleared his throat. “The Mhasc Caoin has left us.”
“What?” Fiachrin was jarred out of his chair. “What do you mean left?”
Tireachan’s eyes darkened and he inspected his son’s face harshly, obviously disappointed with what he found there.
“The Mhasc Caoin proffered his resignation and I accepted,” he said in blunt force. He curled back into his chair and gazed at the rolling scape of papers before him. “He put forth Killeen as a potential replacement. The lad maybe competent as a general, but as my personal champion . . . I don’t know. The injuries he sustained at—”
“Father!” Fiachrin slammed his fist onto the table. “Where is Caoinlin?”
Tireachan’s eyes traced Fiachrin’s looming shape. He was ruminating again, strolling through the grumbling thoughts of an old man. “I should’ve seen it. Perhaps I did. Well, there’s no use for it now, what’s done is done. I’m a man of my word.”
Fiachrin leaned forward, close to his father’s face. “Where is she?”
Tireachan straightened and turned his nose to his papers again. “I hope you will not . . . disapprove. We have such limited space, with all the guests, eating every damn thing and drinking as though wine were air and their stomachs lungs, gluttonous—”
“Father,” Fiachrin growled.
“I did what was asked of me,” Tireachan grumbled. “Find a suitable, comfortable place for him. It was the best, the very best. Inappropriate, perhaps, but what other accommodations could I offer him? Every other room taken up, no beds left in the whole of Gaidtach Tuath.”
Fiachrin inhaled, his fingernails scratched against the table.
“Who are you talking about?”
“Nevan,” Tireachan said, stabbing his pen into the ink well. “I had to put him in your mother’s rooms. They were all I had left.”
“That’s very generous of you, Father,” Fiachrin managed.
“Yes, I know,” Tireachan acknowledged, scrawling his name across the order illegibly.
“And where is Caoinlin?”
“His niece,” Tireachan said.
“Nevan’s niece,” Tireachan said, “tends to him.”
“Wonderful,” Fiachrin snarled, “but where is Caoinlin?”
“You should leave her be,” Tireachan mumbled. “If she wanted you to know where she was then she would’ve told you herself. Smart. She’s smart.” Tireachan ceased brooding over the message in his hand and gazed up at the far wall, somewhere below one of his old war swords, mounted on the wall by the door. “What will I do without her?” His hand went to his mouth and for the first time, he seemed to comprehend all that Caoinlin had done for him. The look of revelation, as when it finally hits that someone is dead, truly gone, stuck in his glassy eyes and molded to his face.
Fiachrin hung his head. She would not have left, just left, without saying goodbye, without telling him. Would she? Of course, if she had tried to leave, he would have stopped her. She would have known that and if she really wanted to flee from him, then she would have had no choice. Where would she have gone? Back to her father? In the middle of winter, it would be a dangerous journey.
Tireachan’s hand settled on top of Fiachrin’s. A fresh, bright look cutting the King’s eyes into faceted green prisms.
“Have you been to see Nevan?” His voice was strong, clear.
“Not in weeks,” Fiachrin said weakly. “Father, I have to go after—”
Tireachan patted his hand. “Before you do, go and give your best wishes to Nevan.”
“Father, I don’t think you understand,” Fiachrin said, “I mean I have to leave Teamair, I can’t just let—”
“And I said,” Tireachan interjected dryly, “Before you leave, go and see Nevan.”
“Have you forgotten where your mother’s rooms are?” Tireachan asked, as though it was an actual possibility.
“No, Father. I—”
“Then go,” Tireachan said. He cocked one hot eye at an immobile Fiachrin. “Go!”