Two rumors began to circulate after the solstice.
The first being that the prince would be married before the spring. A mysterious young woman resided in the Caiseal, looking after her ill uncle and it was heard that the prince met with her daily. A happy rumor for many, except for those young ladies who had failed to capture the prince’s interest.
The second rumor was that the Mhasc Caoin had vanished. This was whispered in cold alleys iced over in fear. Mouths barely able to speak the words, dreading that when they did either the Ulic would return and destroy them all, or the Mhasc Caoin would return and simply destroy the body belonging to the mouth speaking.
Fiachrin was aware of these stories, but he was not prepared to be as disquieted as he was by the people’s paranoia. He could feel their eyes turning to him, now that they believed the wolf had abandoned them. It was not the pressure of expectation that bothered him, but the weight of the wolf’s shadow. There was simply nothing he could do that would lift him to the heights of Mhasc Caoin in the people’s esteem. Nor had he any desire to prove himself. All that he desired was for the people to see that their hero had not left at all, but was simply hiding in the tower, behind yet another mask—that absurd, ever-present veil.
As much as the veil infuriated him, worse was the fact that Caoinlin refused to see him without a chaperone present. Always the same dowdy fluff of a nurse, with milk-fed eyes and steel-brush hair, a silent apparition that plagued the corners of his eyes like bits of dust.
In the morning he ate with Caoinlin. And after his evening meeting with his father, now bogged by babbling ministers and petty officers, he played chess with her. But any depth of conversation was hindered by the white puff ball seated on the couch, by the fire place, doing absolutely nothing that he could detect. Occasionally she would get up and check on Nevan, whose health came and went like the winter sun.
All the rumors of marriage where, as far as Fiachrin was concerned, true. Though there had been no discussion on matter, thanks to a certain floating sphere of fluff, he guessed that Caoinlin’s game of being a proper lady, was in part an understanding that, in order for her to be Queen, she needed to assume the trappings of the station. That was what he guessed. In truth, he had no idea what was going through Caoinlin’s head. The more the wounds on her face healed the more removed she became. Ever since the night he had found her, veiled and distraught, the level of intimacy had fallen off steeply. There was always a table or a chair or an airy semblance of a puffy woman between them. He had taken to kissing her hand every time he departed, simply to elicit some physical contact.
Spring was three months away and there were many long nights of winter before then. Some of the guests, those stalwart, stupid or simply homesick, began to make their excuses and depart, primarily those who lived close enough to make the journey in a week or so. As reassuring as this downturn in frothing celebration should have been to Fiachrin, it was merely replaced by activities gnawing with anxiety. Balls and feasts were replaced with interminable debates. Tireachan had not yet announced the Mhasc Caoin’s resignation, nor had he answered rumors about the champion’s disappearance, but the soldiers knew. Whatever had happened, wherever their general was, he was no longer discharging orders. To replace Caoinlin’s counsel, Tireachan began to bring in various men of varied expertise. During which time, it became glaringly apparent how dependant Tireachan had become upon Caoinlin. He had little sense of these men, some of whom were at the heads of his armies and provinces. To determine the extent of their knowledge and the roots of their opinions was tedium enough, but to then have to assess whether their advisements were worth acceptance, consideration, or in need of scrutiny, brought Fiachrin innumerable headaches. Messages and requests plied in precarious mounds around the war room, unconsidered, unread, some not even opened. All around men sniffing the vacancy of power jostled their way before the king and put on displays of the most boring and obvious kind.
Worse, the governors and lords in attendance for Fiachrin’s homecoming were becoming aware of the maelstrom growing around the king. Men who had been cloyingly sycophantic turned into assiduous assessors, testing every circumstance for proof of weakness on the part of the king and therefore, the burgeoning Blackstone Empire. Word had not yet circulated that Tireachan had returned Redthorn kingdom, it would not reach Ruairi for some time still, but when it did, Fiachrin was certain there would be rumblings of dissent from those retaining loyalty to their deposed kings. And with the Mhasc Caoin missing, the possibility of war grew evermore likely. Tireachan planned a tour, along the Broad Road, to visit the whole of his kingdom. He had not yet informed anyone but Fiachrin of his intent. Fiachrin saw it for it was. A symbolic gesture. An attempt to affirm his control over the totality of his empire. Fiachrin feared that everyone else would see it for it was as well. An acknowledgement of weakness. Besides, Fiachrin felt with dire certainty that if his father did not act decisively, soon, Tireachan would be forced to see the whole of the island, as he fought to maintain control over it.
All the while, the one person with the power to halt the unraveling of Blackstone’s rule posed herself on the edge of the chair, working hard to keep her ankles together and her back arched, pumicing her calluses and softening her hard-conditioned body with excessive inactivity; all together, thoroughly infuriating Fiachrin.
After one particularly excruciating meeting, in which absolutely nothing was accomplished, Fiachrin stalked into Caoinlin’s compartments in a dour, pugnacious mood. He sat down across from Caoinlin at the chess table and glared at her.
The veil was pushed back, away from her face. Her wounds were little more than tight pink smudges, indicators of future scars, but since she only ever saw the nurse, Fiachrin, Nevan and a few other servants, she was not so careful about obscuring them. The headband and long train of the veil also hid the fact that her hair was barely six inches long, sometimes she would catch the untucked ends and twist them around her finger as she contemplated her next move.
There were already menacing clouds forming in her eyes when she met his disgruntled gaze.
“It’s your move,” she said, ignoring his clear agitation.
He leaned over the chess set and lowered his voice. “This has to end, Caoinlin.”
Thunderheads darkened. She scooted back, reclining a little, her hands hung lazily off the polished, curled arms of the chair. “Afraid you’re going to lose?”
“I don’t mean the game,” he said.
The puffball stared distantly at the windows: the afternoon was winter dark outside, a deep gray that promised a wintery storm.
“Don’t you?” She straightened, warning flashes in her eyes. “Then I don’t know what you could be talking about.”
“I’m not asking you to resume—” He checked on the puffball—no signs of life. “Partaking of games you’d rather not play, but it’s idiotic that you refuse to offer any insight to assist those who continue to play when your skills are far superior. You’ve left me playing with a hoard of dull-witted children.”
“I’m sorry that you’re having difficulties, Your Highness,” she said, cold winds in her voice. “But I’m sure you’ll find a way to play without me.”
“I’ll be playing without a board soon if you don’t help.”
Her elbows thunked on the table, the pieces skittered. Thunder. The puffball stirred, glanced vaguely in their direction , and then resumed her hazy staring into the ether.
“What do you want me to do?” Caoinlin said under her breath.
“I need to talk to you, alone,” Fiachrin growled.
“That wouldn’t be appropriate.”
His teeth clicked together in frustration. “This isn’t a game, Caoinlin. This is my father’s kingdom, my kingdom.” His voice had risen as he spoke, drawing the puff ball’s attention. Caoinlin tried to glare him into silence, but he was fed up.
“Excuse me.” Fiachrin turned to the puffball, whose round brows arched upward in clear surprise at being addressed. “Would you be so kind as to get out?”
“Your Highness!” Caoinlin
The puffball stood and looked from Caoinlin to Fiachrin.
“Get out, Your Highness?” Her voice was as white and wispy as the snowflakes that had begun to fall out of the sky.
“Yes,” he hissed. “Please step out into the corridor. Take a stroll through the castle. A long one.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Caoinlin said. “He’s being impertinent.”
“How can I be impertinent?” Fiachrin countered sharply. “I’m the prince. The only person I might be impertinent toward is my father.”
“Fine,” Caoinlin snarled, at full tempest, “You’re being an ass.”
The puffball wrung her pudgy hands and seemed to float listlessly above the floor. “Your Highness? It would be highly inappropriate.”
“I’m dismissing you for the evening,” he commanded.
“No, he’s not,” Caoinlin said.
“This is absurd.” He stood and straightened his jacket. Caoinlin sprung up next to him, in a fury.
“Am I the prince?” he said.
The puffball curtsied to him, glancing at Caoinlin.
“Don’t look at her,” Fiachrin said. “She’s not in charge here.”
“You are acting like a complete—”
“Caoinlin, I hardly think the type of language you’re using and likely about to use is befitting a lady,” he said, pinning her where she was, mid-eruption. “And I doubt very much that you’ll find another lady in the whole of this island directly contradicting the orders of a prince. Now, are you a lady or not?”
“If she leaves, then that will certainly come into question,” Caoinlin retorted.
“By whom? No one even knows who you are.” He could feel the perilous ground cracking all around him. “She will go and you will stay. And no one will question the sanctity of your honor, because if they were to do so, I’m sure, in short order, they’d find that their tongues had gone missing. Now, good woman,” Fiachrin waved the puffball toward the door, “if you would be so kind. Leave, now!”
The puffball rushed out the doors, closing them behind her, shooting Caoinlin an apologetic look.
“If you think that I’m going to help you after that,”—Caoinlin flung herself down into her chair in an immoveable way—“then you’re not only an ass, you’re a dumb—”
“Caoinlin.” He sat down across from her again. “Believe it or not, the welfare of my father’s kingdom is a far more pressing issue on my conscience than sustaining the trivial rituals of decorum.”
She glowered at him, heated and unrelenting. “Did it ever occur to you to simply write down whatever matters you feel so necessary to share with me?”
He bit down on the inside of his lip.
“No,” he admitted.
“This has nothing to do with the affairs of the kingdom,” she said. “This is about you. About what you want.”
“And what is that?”
A quick shake of her head dispelled the implications of his softened tone.
“Now that you’ve had your little temper tantrum—” She stormed to the desk and sat down, taking out a piece of paper and a pen. Her movements were brisk, striking. “What is it that is so imperative?”
He was true to his word, though he might have turned the conversation in a direction guided by the twisting of his stomach. He utilized their time that evening for nothing but matters of state. Caoinlin quickly made a list of all the officers she considered to be of good moral compass and ethical standing, marking which might be more experienced in certain areas than others. Likewise with governors and lords. She also made an opposing list, of those she suspected to be motivated by less by loyalty and altruism, and delineated how they might be most successfully managed. They then turned to mundane, but crucial, matters of resource allocations.
During this time, the puffball poked her head in to find the lamps blazing; Caoinlin was hunched over the desk scribbling furiously and Fiachrin leaned against the far wall, his arms and eyes crossed, deep into the swampy details of ruling an Empire.
When they heard the latch click, they both paused and looked over. The puffball peered at them, obviously not seeing what she expected to see.
“Oh, it’s you,” Fiachrin rubbed his forehead wearily. “Go to the kitchens, bring us something to eat and tea, will you?”
The puffball was gone again.
“You know,” Caoinlin looked at him for the first time in what seemed hours. “It would not hurt you to be congenial.”
Fiachrin’s eyes rolled up to the trays of the ceiling, but he did not see the flourishing gold leaf, all he saw were numbers: grain by the bushels, lumber by the ton, expenses accruing.
“I’m perfectly amiable.”
“Is that what you call it?” She made a very Nevan-like grunt and returned to outlining the priorities for the southern provinces.
“All I’m saying is that you might as least learn her name,” Caoinlin said, her back to him. “It’s a small kindness to address someone by their name, instead of saying, ‘Oh, it’s you’.”
“Do you realize how many names I’d have to remember if I tried to do that?”
She lifted her head, her chin came into line with her shoulder. A stolid disappointment straightened her lips. “Yes, Your Highness, I do.”
He felt like sliding to the floor and hanging his head. He wished that he could pinpoint the moment she had become the teacher and he, the student.
“What are you thinking about?” Caoinlin asked, turning her full attention on him.
He closed his eyes. “I’m thinking I wish you wouldn’t call me, Your Highness.”
“I’m sorry, Fee,” she said softly, turning back to the papers in front of her.
“I’m not—” The pen rose from the paper and then fell again. “I’m not ready. Do you understand?”
“Some things happen whether you’re ready for them to or not,” he told her.
“Perhaps,” she said, not sounding convinced. “What did your father decide about the bridge in Isle Blue?”