Alec looked at the clock ticking its way toward lunch and grimaced. He’d dealt with the guards from the day before and was now avoiding the requested meeting with Her Ladyship.

It was a necessary hurdle though, she’d waylay him otherwise and he’d never get out to check on Kid.

Nathan was on kitchen invasion duty. His smiles regularly charmed the staff in the lower reaches of the castle and would produce treats galore for their visit to the cottage. More than they’d need no doubt, but Nora’s other charges – injured beings of the feathered or furred variety – would surely enjoy them as well.

He made his way to the solar where the ladies were usually to be found, with their various embroidery or tapestry projects. He didn’t quite understand the need, although the tapestry hangings came in very useful in keeping the place warm during the winter storms.

His appearance at the door caused twitters through the room. He set his jaw and tried to keep his eyes from rolling.

Spotting Lady Mellisande sitting in a bright window embrasure, he made is way across the room and bowed, just, “Your Ladyship wished to discuss the caverns.”

“Yes, thank you for reporting so promptly Captain. You may accompany me to the garden to select lavender for Nerida and Jocelyn’s pillows. No thank you ladies, I am quite safe with the Captain and the tapestry for the main hall must be complete in time for father’s birthday feast.”

This was apparently a quelling reminder and all heads bent back to their work.

Mellisande walked towards the gardens originally laid out for her mother. A smooth, graceful glide that also managed to cover a surprising amount of ground Alec discovered.

She waved a careless hand to catch the attention of a passing maid, “Have tea sent to the waterfall pavilion.”

The girl bobbed a curtsy and hurried off.

They continued to the garden and paused by the lavender hedges so Her Ladyship could instruct the nearest gardener on the harvest and delivery of lavender for the ladies’ scented pillows. Alec was surprised she asked for it to be brought to her, rather than taken directly to the women working several floors above.

As they continued on their meandering path to the waterfall and the little shelter next to it, Mellisande murmured, “If the ladies think I supervised the harvesting myself, they’re less likely to query the amount of time I spend out here.”

Alec gave her a sharp glance, then moved ahead of her to check the pavilion before nodding for her to enter.

“Very cautious Captain, most commendable.”

“We’ve already established what my orders are Your Ladyship.”

“Yes, and that’s precisely why we’re next to the waterfall my mother had created. She trained me slightly better than father knows and this location allows us to talk without being overheard, and if you stand over there, while I sit and wait for my tea, we can see anyone approaching from any direction.”

“Unless they come down the wall.”

“Yes, unless they come down the wall, but it’s better than nothing. I’m trying to keep your non-existent discovery quiet and this is the best I can come up with so please be helpful rather than a hindrance.”

She sat, and settled her skirts, “Now I’m assuming you took it to the healer in the forest, is there anything she appears to be lacking in provisions or supplies? I do like to ensure our subjects and tenants are properly cared for.”

This was a new side to Mellisande, something Alec had suspected but never been given solid evidence of. She was clearly far more astute than generally believed and he wondered how much she really knew about her father’s activities at court.

He stood silently and mulled his options while two servants brought a selection of teas and biscuits for Her Ladyship’s consideration. Once her selection was made, they were waved away and his thinking time was over.

He decided to trust Kid’s assessment and his own observations.

“Clothes, especially smaller sizes in softer but durable fabrics. Her various charges need to be kept warm and dry and adult clothing is too cumbersome.”

Mellisande nearly spilled her cup at this clear statement of faith in her ability to keep a secret but, aware of constantly hovering garden and serving staff, she recovered quickly and hid her answer behind a sip of tea.

“How quickly is she likely to need these items?”

“Not for a few days, her injured creatures often need to be kept abed for the first while.”

She looked up sharply in concern, not quite as adept at playing the political game as she’d like to think. She had the basics but needed more practice in hiding her reactions.

Alec hid a grin, once she hit her stride at court, he had a feeling there’d be no stopping her.

“Maybe I should visit her myself, to ensure she’s well.”

“I’d caution against too much attention in a short space of time You Ladyship. There are a couple of spites in the village that could get jealous enough of her apparent rise in status to accuse her of unsavoury things.”

“I hope such baseless accusations would be squashed quickly and with appropriate force Captain.”

“Nonetheless, it may be a better strategy to show beneficence to the gossips most likely to cause trouble first. That way they’ll be too busy preening and competing with each other to notice a forest excursion in a week or two.”

Mellisande narrowed her eyes at him, “And where did you learn politics Captain?”

“It’s not politics Your Ladyship, it’s military strategy. This particular manoeuvre is a simple variance of heading them off at the pass.”

The gardeners at the nearby hedge gaped at the sight of Lady Mellisande laughing, for no apparent reason, while sitting in the pavilion, drinking tea with a stern guard at her back.

“I’m going to have to watch you Captain, I think there’s rather more to you than you like to let on.”

“If that’s what you’d like to believe Your Ladyship.”

“I think I do.”

She resumed her calm, reserved demeanour until another gardener approached with an armful of cut lavender. She waved him across to Alec, who resignedly took charge of the fragrant bundle and shadowed her back to the solar.

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