Two agonizing months passed, and the troupe returned to Dawnmist at last. Keelath found an excuse to visit Mirium at least once every day. He was slowly catching on now, that despite the bold face she put on for her shows, she seemed to crave anonymity and quiet. So he learned to be low-key when he saw her, delivering the mail to her troupe, or taking the breezerider for its daily exercise near the fairgrounds when she just happened to be out and about. Sometimes he’d do no more than call a greeting to her and then leave just as quickly.
Tyrric seemed to approve. “You have to put some mystery in it, have to make her want to pursue you!” he advised Keelath.
It didn’t sound right to Keelath. He was just content Mirium was paying him some attention now, and he was subtle only because it seemed to be what she preferred, not some elaborate plan to capture her heart.
Though he wished it would.
The holiday was over too quickly for everyone’s taste, and beyond an encore performance for the village’s children, the troupe performed no more plays. It stabbed at Keelath to find they would be moving on again so soon. Though he reminded himself that the troupe reliably came by every season, he pined to think of so much time spent away from Mirium when it seemed they were just now beginning to know one another.
“You never know,” his mother advised him, as she sat up in her bed to drink the broth he had brought for her. “You might find someone you like even more.”
“Mirium’s the one,” said Keelath firmly.
“You never know,” his mother repeated softly, and he didn’t want to bother her with another rebuttal as she slipped off into another dream-sleep, her wounds from the Kingslayer War still troubling her.
The year slowly passed after that, and Keelath met Mirium again when the troupe was next in town. At his enthusiastic greeting, she made him promise not to try and act in any plays again, to which he said he wouldn’t, so long as she continued to see him on the side. His heart felt like it was trying to win a race when she accepted the deal.
It was after Mirium left for the First Green holiday the following year, as her troupe planned to perform in another village that spring, that his father called Keelath in to see him. He met Keelath in his study rather than the training yard, by which Keelath knew the matter was serious.
“I am due to retire,” Keelon told his son. “The time is drawing near wherein I will name you my official heir, and then it will be your duty to beget an heir of your own.”
While Keelath was blushing, thinking about it, his father pressed him.
“Tyrric tells me you are seeing one of the troubadour girls.”
“She’s hardly a girl now,” said Keelath, flustered.
“She is hardly a noble, either. Ilph’mar blood runs in their veins, Keelath. I would much prefer you seek purer stock in the city.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but I don’t think my heart is meant for anyone but Mirium,” said Keelath quietly but firmly.
Keelon was silent for some time. “You may change your mind,” he finally said, and dismissed him.
“Why did you tell him?” Keelath asked Tyrric later. His brother was finally beginning to put on muscle, losing his boyish figure that had kept the village girls from eyeing him with much interest, though Tyrric was still prone to flashes of jealousy of Keelath’s height and weight. Keelath uneasily wondered if such was what was driving his brother now.
“Because it’s not proper,” said Tyrric. “She’s not fit to be a baroness, with her upbringing.”
“She is more than smart enough,” Keelath snapped back.
“Oh, I’m sure of that. Someone has to be your brains! Just… think of it this way, brother. You only see her a few times a year. How many other men is she with between those times? How many other men has she kissed like she has you?”
“How dare you!” snapped Keelath, but Tyrric wasn’t deterred.
“Can you say for sure? She is a troubadour. It’s practically part of their job.”
“I would know if she were cheating!” Keelath claimed hotly.
“Would you?” Tyrric pressed. “How? Have you even Marked her yet?”
It was their word for ending one’s virginity, often by pledging one’s self to a single mate, before the ceremonial binding of a marriage. Keelath felt his cheeks grow hot, and he said nothing.
Tyrric knew that to be a no. “There, you see?” He had just enough grace to sound sorrowful rather than triumphant. “I don’t tell you this to hurt you, brother. I just want you — and all of us under you when you’re the baron — to have a good future. A woman who sells her voice and looks on stage is hardly that.”
Keelath stormed off, but the next morning, he regretted it. He came back to his brother to apologize for his behavior, but Tyrric said not to worry about it, with a look in his eye indicating their troubles weren’t over.