The scrape of the door opening woke Keven. He rolled off the bed landing in a crouch, drawn sword in his hand.
“H…highness?” A female voice came from the door. Keven saw a shape silhouetted in the doorway.
“Move not.” Keven edged around the room until he could see the other person by the moonlight spilling through the door. He lowered the sword. “Shirn?”
She stood facing him, her face half shadowed in the moonlight, her hands clutched in front of her. She wore sandals and a simple shift that fell to just above her knees.
“It is late, goodwife. What brings you hither?”
“It was thinking that his highness might be wishing company. I…”
“Goodwife…” Keven stopped, unsure what to say.
“Goodwife you call me.” The words dripped derision. “I was scarce married to Jeren before the King’s men came through and were taking him for the fighting.” She sank to a crouch, making herself small on the floor. “I never quickened from our brief time and now? You have been seeing the village. Children and old men. I will be dying old and alone.”
Keven closed his eyes and swore silently. After a moment he opened them and squatted next to Shirn.
“My father was a royal bastard,” Keven said. “Did you know?”
Shirn shook her head.
“He had two legitimate brothers. My father was the elder but being bastard he could not inherit. And so he apprenticed to a seaman, worked his way up to sailing master. Then one day his brothers made rebellion against their father. My father…thwarted their plans, some say killed them with his own hands.”
Shirn turned up her face at this, her eyes wide.
Keven smiled. “I know not what transpired, but the old King made my father his heir. And so, in his time, Marek became King of Aerioch.”
“I am not understanding. What is that meaning to…” Her eye turned sideways in the direction of the bed.
Keven sighed. “Suppose some day a young man comes to Aerioch from Shendar. He declares himself my son and demands to be made my heir. Am I to tell my father ‘it could be’?”
Shirn’s head tilted to the side. “I still am not understanding. A bastard cannot…”
“Did you not hear my tale? My father was bastard and became heir. How can he then say ‘no’ to another bastard?” Keven shook his head. “Someday I must marry both to secure the succession and to cement some alliance. How can I cement an alliance when some byblow might arise and throw the succession into disarray? I dare not allow that chance.”
Keven stood. “I will not shame you, Shirn. If you wish to remain the night, you have my leave. But I will not lie with you. Forgive me.”
Keven turned and strode to the far side of the small cottage. He sat on the floor, wrapped his cloak tight around him and lay down to sleep. He squeezed his eyes closed and wished he could close his ears to the sound of sniffling behind him.
Sleep was a long time coming.