Well, she wouldn’t. Not ever again.
There were other messages on my desk, accounts that needed to be paid for supplies brought in from the outlying farms. There was a lot of tallying to do for men who had worked the hayfields in exchange for a share. Here was a note that we’d have to hire more workers for the grape harvest, and if we wanted good ones, we’d best secure them now. Everything needed to be done now.
And another list, poorly written and spelled worse, of various foodstuffs. I stared at it for a time. I must have looked perplexed because Bee wandered over to peer past my elbow at it. “Oh. Cook Nutmeg wrote that, I think. She always asked Mama what meals she would like for the week to come, so Cook could be sure she had all she needed on hand for them. Mama used to write the list for her to send to town.”
“I see. And this?”
She scowled at it for a minute. “I’m not sure. I think that word is meant to be ‘wool.’ And that might be ‘cobbler.’ Mama was talking of winter woolens for the help, and new boots for you and me.”
“But it’s summer!”
She cocked her head at me. “It’s like the garden, Papa. You have to plan now what you want to have three months from now.”
“I suppose.” I stared at the unintelligible scribbling, wondering if I could somehow persuade Revel to translate and assume command of whatever this was. It was suddenly all too much. I set it down and pushed away from the desk. “We should go look at the apple trees.”
And so we did, until evening.
Day by aching day, we groped toward a routine. We made our needless daily inspection of the stables, the sheep pens, and the grapes. I did not throw myself into the work; I did not have the focus—but the accounts did not go too late, and Revel seemed almost relieved to take up the meal planning. I didn’t care what he put before me; eating had become a task to accomplish. Sleep evaded me, only to ambush me at my desk in the middle of the afternoon. More and more often Bee followed me to my private study in the evenings, where she amused herself by pretending to read my discarded papers before drawing lavish illustrations on the backs of them. We talked little, even when we played games together. Most evenings ended with her asleep on the floor. I would carry her back to her bed, tumble her into it, and then return to my study. I let go of far too many things. I felt sometimes as if we were both waiting for something.
The evening that I realized I was waiting for Molly to come back, I put my head down on my arms and wept useless bitter tears. I only came back to myself when I felt a soft hand patting my shoulder and heard her voice saying, “It can’t be changed, dear. It can’t be changed. You must let go of the past.”
I lifted my head and looked at my little daughter. I had thought her asleep on the hearth. It was the first time she had touched me of her own volition. Her eyes were such a pale blue, like Kettricken’s, and sometimes she did seem—not blind, but as if she looked past me into another place. Her words were not ones I would have expected from a child. They were Molly’s words, the words she would have spoken to me to comfort me. My little child, trying to be strong for me. I blinked my eyes clear of tears, cleared my throat, and asked her, “Would you like to learn how to play Stones?”
“Of course,” she said, and even though I knew she didn’t mean it, I taught her that night and we played until it was almost morning. We both slept in until nearly noon the next day.
The message came, delivered in the usual way, as autumn was winding to a close. When I sat down at the breakfast table with Bee, there was a fat brown acorn with two oak leaves still attached to it on the table. Once, I had carved such a motif on the top of a little box where I kept my poisons, the kit of my trade as an assassin. The box was long gone, but the meaning was the same. Chade wished to meet with me. I scowled at the acorn. For as long as I’d lived at Withywoods, he’d been able to do this. No one on the staff would admit to putting the acorn on the table, nor to leaving a door unbarred or a window unlatched. Yet there it was, a reminder from my old mentor that no matter how clever and wary I thought myself, he could still steal through my defenses if he wished to. He’d be waiting for me by evening at an inn called the Oaken Staff at a crossroads near Gallows Hill. That was a two-hour ride away. Which meant that if I kept the rendezvous, I would be very late returning, perhaps not getting back until dawn if this was one of Chade’s convoluted discussions. Whatever it was, he was not going to Skill to me about it. That meant no one in the coterie knew of it. It was another of his damned secrets, then.