In the end it seemed an easy thing. I guess that was the difference between Failbhe’s position and everyone else’s. A bride was picked, a political match that served to strengthen the Laird’s influence to the east of the capital. Sophia was thrilled to be the chosen one, so very, very thrilled that it didn’t even occur to her to think that something might be unusual in her fiancé’s lack of interest in an intimate meeting with her.

The other girls were distributed among the court and nobility according to the Lion’s whim. The Chamberlain was surprised at his sudden acquisition of a new bride but could say nothing without risking offence. He was a man in comfortable old age with a wife he had not troubled for many years. He was also a man who was good at his job and who could recognise ability. It was only a matter of time before he realised the value of the very aware and very calculating strawberry blond whose name had been whispered into the Laird’s ear.

I was not mentioned.

Though his behaviour was obvious to the inner court none would openly draw attention to the young man who seemed to have taken up residence in the Laird’s rooms. I guess it was a case of least said and all that. No one wanted to make an issue of my presence so that forgetting about me would be easier after the embarrassing whim had passed. Some distracted themselves by commenting on a new spring in his step – surely in anticipation of his upcoming nuptials. Only a few, a very close few allowed themselves to see the other changes, the new brightness in his eyes, a tightening in his skin.

One day Deborah told me she had noticed the loss of the tremor that had started Failbhe’s left hand the year before. As his personal doctor I knew she wanted to ask me what I’d done to her Laird to cause these changes. I also knew that – as his subject – she could not, would not, dared not ask the question. I pretended ignorance of the matter. As a mother I wasn’t certain how she would react to finding out that a similar thing had happened to her son.

The build up was long and the ceremony lavish for the time. A great celebration and affirmation of the power of the Laird – as state events have always been. So much effort put into the display, the pomp was an ideal distraction from the truth. In the weeks immediately before the match Sophia’s family strutted and preened their way around the palace, her father so impressed by the match that he gave no thought to the presence of the anonymous hooded figure who sometimes appeared by the Laird’s side and was never mentioned by the court. They left shortly after the sham observance, happy and none the wiser.

“As easy as that?”

“Ok, I’m glossing some. Things settled down after the initial shocks. There was no way I was going to be a full-time distraction. Failbhe never stopped visiting his women, on the contrary it was commented that he had regained much of the vigour of his youth. The other wives soon realised the value of my presence as a focus for things they preferred to avoid – the man was not sweetness and light to be with. There was no way I could be a threat to them so most of them were happy to be friendly and we all avoided mentioning what might go on in his private suite. There were ups and downs, of course, but that was only to be expected in such an extended marriage group. Nothing we thought we couldn’t handle. Top up your drink?”

Within the first year that stupid bitch Sophia nearly upset things. She threatened to tell dear Daddy that she was not a true bride, finally outraged that she was passed over for such an ugly, uncivilized and disgusting piece of meat. That was me, in case you wondered. She thought she could easily match anything I could offer the Laird. That she couldn’t was a secret she would never be party to. The whining could go on and on some days, and she made no real friends among the women who’d seen the full range of her husband’s moods.

She picked the wrong night to make an issue of it. Trade negotiations with Cymraig were dragging; Failbhe was frustrated at the lack of progress, he’d been drinking and it was clear that he wanted to let off steam. The other wives steered clear of him, Sophia did the exact opposite. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone so misnamed. We might not have been friends, but she really had no clue how bad it could be. Eilionoir and the Chamberlain told me to mind my own business. This powerful pair had decided that it was time for her to realise just how fortunate she had been to have the prestige – and none of the drawbacks – of being a wife to the Lion of Alba.

Weeks passed before she was seen out in public again. In an outrageously successful piece of spin the news was reported that she had suffered a miscarriage and would not be able to have children in the future. Clever trick for a virgin. She was never quite so sure of things after that. It wasn’t too long before she took herself off to some convent or other and the rest of us relaxed. Still, a double bonus for her social climbing family, she was a bride and a holy woman.

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