“Are you listening?” Nettle demanded, and I startled. Her dark eyes could flash fire just as her mother’s had.
“No. I’m sorry, I wasn’t. I was thinking of all the things I’d need to teach her, and it distracted me.” And gave me more reason than ever to keep her safely at Withywoods with me. I recalled an incident with a horse and felt cold. If Bee was Witted, then home was the safest place for her. Feeling against the Witted was not as publicly hostile as it had been, but old habits of thinking died hard. There would still be plenty of folk at Buckkeep who would think even a Witted child was best served by hanging, burning, and being cut into pieces.
“And are you listening now?” Nettle persisted. With an effort I pulled my gaze from Bee and met her eyes.
She folded her lower lip into her mouth and chewed on it, thinking hard. She was going to offer me a bargain, one she didn’t much like. “I’m coming back here in three months. If she looks neglected in any way, I’m taking her with me. And that’s the end of it.” Her tone softened as she added, “But if anytime before then you realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, let me know and I’ll send for her immediately. Or you can bring her to Buckkeep Castle yourself. And I promise I will not say, I warned you. I’ll just take her over.”
I wanted to tell her, That is never going to happen. But over the years I’ve learned not to tempt fate, for it has always seemed to me that the very things I swore I would never do are the ones that I ended up doing. So I nodded to my formidable daughter and replied mildly, “That seems fair. And you should get to bed and get some sleep if you’re making an early start.”
“I should,” she agreed. She held out a hand to the child. “Come, Bee. Now it’s bedtime for us both, and no argument.”
Bee hung her head, her reluctance obvious. I intervened.
“I’ll put her to bed. I’ve said I can take care of her in all ways. It’s fitting that I begin now.”
Nettle rocked, hesitant. “I know what you’ll do. You intend to let her stay there until she falls asleep on the hearth, and then just trundle her into her bed as she is.”
I looked at her, knowing what we were both remembering. More than once I had fallen asleep on Burrich’s hearth in the stables, some bit of harness or simple toy in my hands. Always, I woke under a woolen blanket on my pallet near his bed. I suspected he had done the same for Nettle when she was small. “Neither of us took any harm from that,” I told her. She gave a quick nod, her eyes filling with tears, and turned and left.
I watched her go through misted eyes. Her shoulders were rounded and slumped. She was defeated. And orphaned. She was a woman grown, but her mother had died just as abruptly as the man who had raised her had. And though her father stood before her, she felt alone in the world.
Her loneliness amplified my own. Burrich. My heart yearned for him suddenly. He was the man I would have gone to, the one whose advice I would have trusted in dealing with my grief. Kettricken was too contained, Chade too pragmatic, Dutiful too young. The Fool was too gone.
I reined my heart away from exploring those losses. It was one of my faults, one that Molly had sometimes rebuked me for indulging. If one bad thing befell me, I immediately linked it to every bad thing that had happened in the last week or might happen in the coming week. And when I became sad, I was prone to wallow in grief, piling up my woes and sprawling on them like a dragon on a hoard. I needed to focus on what I had, not what I had lost. I needed to remember there was a tomorrow, and I had just committed myself to someone else’s tomorrow as well.
I looked at Bee, and she immediately looked away. Despite my aching heart, I smiled. “We two, we need to talk,” I told her.
She stared into the fire, still as stone. Then she nodded slowly. Her voice was small and high, but clear. Her diction was not a child’s. “You and I do need to talk.” She flickered a glance in my direction. “But I never needed to talk to Mama. She just understood.”
I truly had not expected any response from her. With her nod and earlier brief words, she had already exceeded most of her previous communication directed at me. She had spoken to me before, simple requests when she wanted more paper or needed me to cut a pen for her. But this, this was different. This time, looking at my small daughter, a cold realization filled me. She was profoundly different from what I had always assumed her to be. It was a very strange sensation as the familiar tipped away and I spilled into the unknown. This was my child, I reminded myself. The daughter Molly and I had dreamed of for so long. Since Molly’s strange pregnancy and Bee’s birth, I had been trying to reconcile myself to what I thought she was. In one night nine years ago, I had gone from fearing my beloved wife was delusional to being the father of a tiny but perfect infant. For the first few months of her life, I had allowed myself the wild dreams that any parent has for a child. She would be clever and kind and pretty. She would want to learn all Molly and I had to teach her. She would have a sense of humor and be curious and lively. She would be company for us as she grew, and, yes, that trite concept, a comfort to us in our old age.