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“Hello,” I said.

She smiled. “Hello.”

“I asked Nettle if she wanted to come with me, but she didn't want to ride through the storm.”

“I can't blame her. And I think it's hard for her to come home, sometimes. Things are far humbler here than at Buckkeep Castle.”

“You could move to Withywoods. It's yours now, you know.”

“I know.” A shadow passed over her face and I wished I hadn't mentioned it. “But it would be too many changes, too fast. The boys are still becoming accustomed to the idea that their father is never coming back. And, as you see, Chivalry is courting.”

“He seems very young for that,” I ventured.

“He's a young man with a large holding. Another woman in the house would make things much easier for all of us. What should he wait for, if he's found a woman who loves him?” she countered. When I had no answer to that, she added, “If they marry, I don't think Thrift will want to move far from her parents' home. She is very close to her sister.”

“I see.” And I did. I suddenly saw that Molly was no longer someone's daughter, to be whisked off from her father's house and become mine. She was the center of a world here, with roots and ties.

“Life is complicated, isn't it?” she said to my silence.

I looked at her, in her simple, somber-hued robe. Her hands were no longer smooth and slender; there were lines in her face that had not been there when she was mine. Her body had softened and rounded with the years. She was no longer the girl in the red skirts, running down the beach before me.

“I have never wanted anything so much in my life as I've always wanted you.”

“Fitz!” she exclaimed, glancing up at the loft, and I suddenly realized I had spoken the words aloud. Her cheeks glowed and she lifted both hands to cover her mouth with her fingertips.

“I'm sorry,” I said. “I know it's too soon. You've told me that. And I will wait. I'll wait however long you want me to wait. I just want to be sure you know that I am waiting.”

I saw her swallow. She said huskily, “I don't know how long it will take.”

“It doesn't matter.” I stretched out my hand, palm up, on the tabletop. She hesitated, and then set hers in it. And we sat, not speaking, until the boys came in with a load of snowy kindling to be scolded by their mother for not wiping their feet.

I stayed until afternoon. We drank tea and I talked about Nettle at the court, and told the boys stories of Burrich when he had been a younger man. I saddled Myblack and bade them farewell before Chivalry and Hearth returned. Molly walked out to say good-bye and kissed me. On the cheek. And I rode three days back to Buckkeep Castle.

Riddle continued to carry letters between her cottage and Buckkeep Castle. They all came up for Spring Fest, and I managed to dance with Molly once. It was the first time I had ever danced with her, and the first time I'd attempted to dance in years. I danced with Nettle, afterward, who advised me never to attempt it again. But she smiled as she said it.

I saw Hap in the early days of spring. He and Sawtongue came through Buck at the beginning of their summer travels. Hap was taller and leaner and seemed content with his life. He'd seen a great deal of Bearns and now was off to Rippon and then Shoaks. He'd made two songs of his own, both humorous, and both seemed well received when he sang them for us at the lesser hearth. Web and Swift came back to Buckkeep later that month. Swift had widened through the shoulders and was more introspective than I recalled him. Web stayed at Buckkeep while Swift went home to spend a week with his family. He returned with news that Chivalry would be getting married in three months.

I went down for the wedding. Watching him stand before Thrift and pledge himself to her while she blushed and smiled, scarcely able to look at him, envy burned in me. It would be so simple for them. They met, they loved, they married. I suspected they'd have a baby in the cradle before the year was out. And I could get no closer to Molly than the touch of her hand and a kiss on the cheek.

Summer grew strong and hot. It was a good summer. Elliania was pregnant and the whole of the Six Duchies seemed abuzz with it. The crops seemed to grow before my eyes. Myblack learned the way to Molly's cottage and back. I helped Chivalry raise the beams on the extra rooms he was building, and watched Molly and Thrift cook companionably together. I watched her as she moved around the room at her simple tasks, watched her laugh and stir the soup and brush her lengthening hair back from her eyes. I had not been so fevered with desire since I was fifteen years old. I could not sleep at night, and when I did, I had to ward my dreams. I could see Molly and speak to her, but it was always in Burrich's house or with Burrich's sons clinging to her hands. There seemed no place in her world that I could claim, and I grew irritable with everyone.

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