marry a thirteen-year-old girl, but rather than giving me a little peace she invited the duchess’s daughters to come visit! I’m sure she thought she was very subtle, being away with her husband at the royal court of Caelrhon while the twins were here, so as not to appear to be putting any pressure on me, but it’s still obvious why she invited them. I thought the three of us, the twins and I, had made it clear years ago that none of us wanted to marry each other, but apparently we’re going to have to do it all over again.”

“Are you quite so sure they wouldn’t want to marry you?” I asked.

Paul crossed his booted legs and smiled. “Of course not. We’ve known each other all our lives. Neither one of them wants to marry anyone. Celia just wants to study her Bible, and Hildegarde intends to become a knight.”

This was news to me, though maybe it shouldn’t have been. “But women can’t be knights!” Or, for that matter, wizards, I added to myself. But Antonia had said she was going to be a wizard.

Paul laughed. “Try telling that to Hildegarde. I’ve never had any luck changing her mind.”

So far I hadn’t been able to work in any discussion of the fact that a king without an heir should not imperil himself for a joke. But fathers, I told myself, had to act responsibly even if no one else did. “Aren’t there any adult princesses who would consider marrying you, even if the twins won’t?” I asked. “After all-”

He didn’t give me a chance to finish. “Of course there are, Wizard,” he said, looking at me levelly. “Last winter, when I spent several months in the great City by the sea with those relatives of Mother’s, there were ladies enough who would have been more than willing to marry me or, for that matter, do anything else I wanted.” He shook his head in disapproval-or a good imitation. “Incomprehensible, of course,” which I thought showed a remarkable lack of insight. “Not a few of them even had royal blood! I expect wizards don’t get proposals like that, so you won’t know how startling it can be.”

I prudently kept silent.

“So of course there are women of appropriate rank who will have me-the problem is that I wouldn’t be willing to marry any of them. If I ever do decide to get married, it’s going to be to someone who excites me to the very core of my being, someone who feels as though she and I were two halves of the same whole, waiting from before our births to be reunited: not just someone who would be politically appropriate. So what do you think, Wizard?”

His green eyes sought mine. I wondered briefly if he might be someone who would never find women romantically attractive, which would of course make the succession much more problematic. Without any good answer, I looked out toward the twilight courtyard and stammered, “Well, a king of course, that is- I mean, minds have been known to change-”

But whatever Paul was hoping I would say, it was not what he had been hearing from the queen and the Lady Maria. “I really don’t know what you should do, sire,” I said, meeting his look. “You certainly shouldn’t force yourself to marry someone you find less appealing than your horses. And you can’t look at every woman you meet with both of you wondering if this is the one. Perhaps after a period of time-”

Paul rose before I had to carry this inadequate advice any further. “Well, at least I know I have one more ally in the castle,” he said, settling his belt. “Maybe I’ll go see Gwennie.” He ducked his head to go out through my door.

“Gwennie?” I said, startled. “But she-”

“She should be done with her evening chores by now. She’s always been a good person to talk to-almost as good as you, Wizard,” he added generously. “She was the one who helped me decide how to break it to Mother the other year that I wasn’t going to marry either of the twins.”

And he was gone, leaving me looking thoughtfully after him. That Gwennie was the daughter of the cook and the castle constable was only one of the reasons why I did not think her the best person with whom the king might discuss the question of whom he should marry.

When I went to find Antonia in the morning, she was wearing a yellow scarf belonging to one of the twins and finishing a big bowl of porridge with gusto. “Guess what, Wizard!” she said with an excited smile. “Hildegarde and Celia are going to teach me to ride a horse!”

“It’s very good of you, my ladies,” I began, “to help take care of my, uh, niece, but you really-”

“We want to do it, Wizard,” said Hildegarde.

“They were going to teach me to read,” said Antonia, “but I told them I already knew how.”

“Then later today,” said Hildegarde cheerfully, “we’ll teach her how to deal cards off the bottom of the pack.”

“What?!” I glared at the twins while Antonia grinned in anticipation.

“It can be a very useful skill for a lady,” said Celia, effecting a serious tone, “learning how to spot cheating so she will not be tricked herself. So we’ll see you this afternoon, after our ride. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we need to put on our riding habits.”

“Make sure the door is tight,” I heard Hildegarde say as it swung shut in my face. “He’s an old man. The shock of seeing us dressing couldn’t be good for him.” And all three of them-including, I was mortified to hear, my daughter-began to giggle.

Since it looked like I wasn’t going to spend the morning trying to make Antonia feel as comfortable with me as she apparently already did with the twins, I instead went to look for Gwennie.

I found her in the kitchen, slicing mushrooms for lunch. We grew mushrooms in the castle cellars, and the cook made excellent soup with them. If Paul had not yet persuaded his mother that he was unready to marry anyone, Gwennie had yet to persuade her own mother that she would never be a cook.

I worked the pump for her. “Antonia seems happy that you put her in the suite with the twins, Gwennie-uh, Gwendolyn,” I said.

But her frown had nothing to do with Antonia or with whatever I chose to call her. She shook the water from a handful of mushrooms and moved her knife so fast I could scarcely follow. “Paul told me he’d talked to you yesterday,” she said after a quick glance around showed her mother and the kitchen maids all at the far side of the room. That she called him simply by his name, without his title, and didn’t even seem to notice that she had, told me how distressed she had been by their conversation.

“I can’t see him marrying a child princess any more than he can,” I said encouragingly.

“But she might be the best person for him,” Gwennie said, pushing away a strand of hair from her face with a damp wrist. The knife flashed again. “If he told the queen he’d marry her when she was five years older, then he wouldn’t be bothered in the meantime by a parade of other candidates. And in five years, anything-” She stopped herself. “The girl would have to be better than the duchess’s daughters.” She allowed herself a smile. “I’m sorry, Wizard. I shouldn’t be talking to you like this.”

“Better me than anyone else,” I said, working the pump again. Wizards in royal castles have always been in somewhat of an ambivalent position, with a power beyond that of kings if they cared to use it, yet on the paid staff like any servant. Most wizards manage to cultivate airs of authority and mystery that make everyone, from kings to stable boys, treat them with deference. In spite of twenty-five years of intermittent trying, I had never gotten anyone at Yurt to treat me with deference and had decided it was not worth the effort.

“I didn’t tell Paul any of this, of course,” Gwennie said, scooping mushrooms from the board into a bowl.

“How about telling him not to challenge an armed man for fun?” I said, but she wasn’t listening.

“If I started telling him the same things everyone else is saying,” she said, “he’d stop coming to talk to me.” Although Gwennie and Paul were almost exactly the same age and had played together as children, I had imagined they had grown apart in the last fifteen years. Perhaps I was mistaken.

“So don’t you agree, Wizard,” she said, looking at me with serious eyes that should have been bright and laughing, “that the best thing for him to do would be to marry the little princess? She’s certainly of a suitable station for him”-with only the slightest catch in her breath-“and I’m sure will be well trained to become a gracious queen of Yurt and mother of Paul’s children.”

She turned away abruptly at that, making the gesture into rinsing off her knife with more than necessary energy.

The thought flashed through my mind that if Paul was going to wait until someone grew up, then even Antonia might some day be old enough for him. But the illegitimate daughter of a witch and a wizard would never be of suitable station for a king-even less than the daughter of a cook and castle constable.

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