Talty stepped to the edge of the flagstone path to avoid a wriggling earthworm. A sunrise shower had left the gardens behind her brother’s Dublin home sparkling like jewels in the morning sun. The fragrance of rich, damp earth spiced the air. Hungry birds chirped over acres of manicured lawn. Bees buzzed in colorful borders of flowers.
Liam pointed out a planting of new azaleas. “How’s the house coming along?”
“Lovely. We’re only waiting for some last minute things, y’know?”
“I do. It wasn’t long ago that Maurie and I were fixing up this place.” He nodded toward Bardan House, the magnificent brick mansion named for the Boru prince who’d built it two centuries earlier. The recent year-long effort to restore the place for Ireland’s present Crown Prince and Princess had transformed it into a modern, luxurious residence.
The gardens, Talty knew, had personally challenged Liam. He’d had the overgrown jungles ripped out and taken a proud hand in their new design. She scanned them with admiration. “I feel like I’m in paradise, Li. Our gardens are piles of mud. It’ll be years before they look like this.”
“It won’t take as long as you think. Once the gardeners get in with their machines, things will move fast.”
Liam’s thick, well-styled hair, the same auburn shade as Talty’s, glowed like burnished bronze in the sunlight. Marriage and fatherhood clearly agreed with him. He appeared content, though his usual cheer seemed subdued. She suspected her impromptu visit had somehow inconvenienced him. Of course, he’d never say as much, and so she let it go. For now, she’d follow him on a botanical tour. At the right moment, she’d request the help of this brilliant young scholar who’d ranked at the top of his law school class.
“You and Neil must have put on a good show last night,” he said. “Mum called Maurie this morning and raved about the house and the food.”
“Did she mention the near meltdown between Dad and me?”
Liam grinned. “No. What happened this time?”
“Another typical Boru dinner. I suppose it went well enough. The staff was nervous having the king and queen in the house, but they rallied and did an excellent job.”
“You’ll be doing the big parties before long, and maybe an occasional tiny one for your own darlin’ brother.”
“We’ll have you down soon. You can give me ideas for the gardens.” They approached a fledgling rose garden. “Have you planted a rose for Patrick yet?”
Liam waved his arm toward a precisely positioned rosebush blooming in the sun. “There he is. Patrick’s Inspiration, my first rosebush for my first child. I plan to have a whole garden full.”
“And you’ll have a whole new audience for your stories.”
The idea clearly pleased him, as it should. Since he was a little boy, Liam’s dramatic renditions of the old Irish tales had mesmerized listeners of all ages. He loved to visit schools and hospitals to entertain the children, but his duties as Crown Prince left him little time for it now.
“I don’t get much practice these days,” he said, “though I did manage to drop in on a rowdy band of second-graders last week. It was great fun.”
Talty pictured the scene and smiled. “Which one did you tell them?”
“One of my favorites: Dermot and the Boar of Ben Bulben. There’s something special about an enchanted boar who’s really your half-brother.”
“Yuck!” Talty stared open-mouthed at her grinning brother. “You have so little time to tell stories, and you couldn’t pick a better one? Yuck, Li!”
His eyes gleamed with mischief. He stepped back and began reciting. Though the story repulsed her, she stood entranced as he brought Dermot and the boar to life.
“Dermot caught hold of the boar and held on, riding him like a pony. The boar charged down the hill, but he couldn’t rid himself of Dermot. He came to a stream and leapt backward and forward across it, but he couldn’t shake Dermot from his back. At last he freed himself.”
His cadence and dramatic intonation transported her to the scene. She envisioned Dermot falling to the ground, winced when the blade of his sword shattered on the boar’s neck, cringed when the boar attacked and ripped Dermot’s belly open.
“Poor Dermot’s bowels spilled down his legs, but before he fell, he smashed the boar’s head with the hilt of his sword and slew the beast at last.”
“Gross, Li! How could you tell such a story to little children?”
Liam’s eyebrows arched in a theatrical blend of innocence and indignation. “Well I didn’t write the thing, did I? It’s a traditional tale of the Fianna, that band of rogues you belong to.”
“I know, but really.”
He chuckled and steered her toward a perennial garden. “The boys always love the bowel-spilling part. The girls always squeal and squawk, like you just did.”
They rambled on, she arranging her thoughts, he waiting patiently to hear the reason for her visit. At last she said, “Thanks for meeting me, Li.”
“Thank you, love, for keeping me away from Tara Hall on this lovely morning. Now tell me how I can make my Lady Sister smile again.”
His words were enough. She smiled.
“That’s better. Are you and Neil getting along all right?”
That brought a bigger smile. “Oh yes. He’s so good to me. He’s busy, though. A lot busier than I am.” She sighed and stopped. “Everyone is. That’s what I came to see to you about. Dad won’t allow me to work at the Hall till I’m done with ISF.”
“Is that what you argued about last night?”
“We didn’t really argue, but, yes. Once upon a time, I asked you to help me write my resignation. It was supposed to be effective immediately, but it’s taking forever. Do you think you can find a loophole to make it effective now? Will you try? Please?”
A mask of inscrutability fell over his face. He peered at her through shrewdly squinting eyes. “Are you looking to ease me out of a job, Tal?”
His tone startled her. He was not only prepared to defend his position as heir to the throne, he considered her—her!—an enemy. Uncle Peadar was seldom wrong, but he’d been dead wrong this time. “No! That wasn’t my intent.”
“And it wasn’t my intent to make you cry. I was trying to broach the subject with a joke, and look what I’ve done. Don’t cry, Tal.”
“I am not crying!” She dabbed her fingers at her eyes.
“Of course not. What was I thinking?” Kind affection warmed his smile. Then the smile faded. He pointed to a stone bench. “We have to talk.”
They sat. He took her hand and formally kissed her fingers. “Taillte Rosaleen Boru, you are the true heir to the throne of Ireland. I’m not, and I believe Dad has been finagling to boot me out. The old tyrant is clearly letting me know I’m not living up to his expectations.”
“But I thought it’s what you both wanted. I thought you enjoyed being Crown Prince.”
“I hate it, and that’s the truth. Ever since that treaty stripped away your title and gave it to me, lucky fella that I am, I’ve done my best to be a good little heir apparent, but I simply don’t have the knack. You know what they say: ‘The finest shoe makes a sorry hat.’ I’d be a great shoe, Tal. I’m good with protocol and law. I could be one of Dad’s advisers, if he’d listen. One day, years and years from now, I’d be a great adviser to you.”
“Why haven’t you said anything? Why hasn’t Dad?”
“I’ve been waiting for you to bring it up. I suspect he has too. Or maybe he’s waiting for you to part company with ISF for good. I don’t know what he thinks, really.”
She shook her head. “I can’t do it, Li. I’ve been gone too long.”
“You’re the only one who can do it. Listen, Tal. The Law School has invited me to teach early Irish law and help develop new programs. It would be a dream come true, but I can’t accept, not with the obligations I have now. You’re telling me you have none. As I see it, the solution for both of us is quite simple.”
No! “You’re wrong, Li. Dad wants you for his heir!”
“Oh sure. That’s why he has me hopping about like a hen on a hot griddle. ‘Get in here, Liam. Why did you do this, Liam? Why didn’t you do that, Liam?’ Sometimes I think he nags me on purpose so I’ll beg you to come back. Listen to me, Tal. I’m begging you to come back. At least you’d stand up to him better than I do.”
She didn’t answer right away. He didn’t press her. They left the bench and walked toward a stand of ornamental plum trees. Birds in leafy branches twittered and flew away. Talty wanted desperately to fly off with them, though guilt for her brother’s undeserved misery resigned her to the loss of her own cherished freedom.
“If it’s that bad, we’ll fix it.” She tried to smile for him but failed. “First you have to help me get my discharge, if you can.”
He grinned, though she didn’t see what was so funny. “We have a deal. I’ll help liberate you from ISF so you can liberate me from Dad. Now let’s go have a cup of tea.”
Much happier than he’d been at the start of their walk, Liam chose a different path back to Bardan House. Talty, however, barely noticed the dwarf crabapple trees they passed, or the glorious display of hostas in their shade.