‘No, father, I’ll stay right here. My manor house is just a little too isolated, and it’s very important for Garion to have people around him while he’s growing up. A hermit wouldn’t make a very good king.’
‘And you actually like it here, don’t you Pol?’ he asked shrewdly.
‘It’s as good a place as any, father. I’m doing something that I like to do, and very few people stop by here. I like these people, and they like me. I’m as happy here as I’d be anyplace, I guess. Besides, if Garion grows up here, he’ll be honest, anyway, and honesty’s a rare commodity on thrones lately, I’ve noticed.’
‘Do you really want to submerge yourself in this rustic setting, Pol?’
‘I think that maybe I do, father. I’m still bleeding from what happened in Annath, and steady work and quiet surroundings help to heal that sort of thing.’
‘It is a step down the social scale, Pol. You started out as the Duchess of Erat, ruling over this entire kingdom, and now you’re only the head cook on a remote farm. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to take Garion to Sulturn or Muros and buy him an apprenticeship the way you’ve done with the others?’
‘No, father. Garion’s not like the others. He’s going to be the Child of Light – if he isn’t already – and I don’t want to clutter his mind with cabinetry, tombstones, or shoe-making. I want him to have a good mind, but one that’s uncluttered and undeveloped. That’s the best way I know of to prepare him for some of the surprises that’ll pop up as he goes along.’
‘I don’t see how keeping him stupid is going to prepare him for what’s in store for him.’
‘How old were you when you stumbled across the Master’s tower that snowy night seven thousand years ago?’
‘Not very. Fifteen or sixteen at the most, I think.’
‘You turned out all right – except for a few bad habits – and you were probably much stupider than Garion’s going to be. I’ll see to that personally.’
‘You’re going to stay here, then?’
‘I think I should, father. I’m having one of those feelings. This is the place where Garion’s supposed to grow up. It’s not fancy, and he won’t be important here, but this is the place. I knew that when I first saw it. It’s a little isolated and awfully provincial, but there are people here who Garion absolutely has to get to know, and I’ll do what’s right for him, no matter what it costs me.’
Father lifted the drowsing baby and stroked his bushy face across the little boy’s nose. Garion giggled, and father laughed. ‘Garion, my boy,’ he said expansively, ‘you may just be the luckiest fellow in the world to have your Aunt Pol to look after you.’ Then the old fraud gave me a sly look and winked. ‘That’s except for me, of course. She’s been looking after me for longer than I care to remember. I guess that makes us both lucky, wouldn’t you say?’
Garion giggled again.
I looked fondly at this shabby old man and the giggling baby, and I remembered something uncle Beltira had said a long time ago. He’d been explaining the unspoken game father and I have been playing with each other for centuries. He’d told the young prince that our sometimes spiteful-seeming remarks were not what they really appeared on the surface. The gentle twin had smiled and had said, ‘It’s just their way to avoid coming right out and admitting that they’re genuinely fond of each other, Geran. They’d be too embarrassed to admit that they love each other, so they play this little game instead. It’s their own private and peculiar way to keep saying “I love you” over and over again. They might not even know it themselves, but they say it to each other almost every time they meet.’
I was ruefully forced to admit that the twins and Beldin had seen through our little subterfuge all the time – even if father and I hadn’t. I’d spent three thousand and more years trying to avoid that simple admission, but finally it was so obvious to me that I wondered why I’d gone to all the trouble. I loved my father. It was as simple as that. I loved him in spite of his many flaws and bad habits. That stunning realization brought tears of happiness to my eyes as that love filled my heart.
‘There, now,’ mother’s voice echoed a little smugly in my mind. ‘That wasn’t really all that hard, was it?’ There was a slight difference to that usually sourceless voice this time, however. It seemed to be coming from the kitchen doorway. I turned sharply and stared unbelievingly at the little nanny-goat standing there looking intently at me with her mischievous golden eyes.
‘Somebody had to feed the baby, Pol,’ mother’s voice explained. ‘I thought it might be best to keep it in the family.’
I gave up entirely at that point and burst out in a sort of rueful laughter.
‘What’s so funny, Pol?’ father asked me in a puzzled voice.
‘Nothing, father,’ I replied. ‘Nothing at all.’
IT WAS A GREY, THREATENING sort of winter day on the Isle of the Winds. His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Geran of Riva spent the day up on the battlements of the Hall of the Rivan King making snowmen – or snow-soldiers, to be more precise. Wolf was with him, as always. Wolf didn’t really contribute very much to the project, but watched quizzically with his chin resting on his crossed paws instead. There were a lot of things that went on in the Hall of the Rivan King that Wolf didn’t understand, but he was polite enough not to make an issue of them.
It was about noon when one of mother’s ladies in waiting brought Geran’s four-year-old sister, Princess Beldaran, up to the battlements. ‘Her Majesty says that the little one needs some fresh air, your Highness,’ the Countess – or whatever she was – told Geran. ‘You’re supposed to watch her.’
Prince Geran sighed. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his baby sister, but he was currently involved in a work of art, and no artist likes to be disturbed when he’s afire with creativity. Princess Beldaran was bundled up in furs to the point that she could barely move her short little arms. Beldaran didn’t contribute much to her brother’s masterpiece either, but made snowballs instead, gravely inspecting each one as it was completed, brushing off a few protruding lumps with one mittened hand, and then throwing it at her brother without so much as a change of expression. She didn’t hit him very often, but it was just often enough to distract him. He ground his teeth together and ignored her. He loved her, but he did ignore her a lot. He’d discovered that it was quieter that way. Beldaran’s voice was very much like mother’s. ‘Expressive’ was father’s word for it. Geran had some other words he used to describe his sister’s penetrating voice, but he was very careful not to use those words around mother.