Abruptly, I was hungry. I turned the handle on my door and pushed it open and slipped out of my room. It was early and the house was quiet. I moved silently down the flagged hall and then down the wide stairways. Ever since I’d experienced that little private chamber in the spy-corridors, Withywoods had seemed even more immense to me. To descend the stair was little different to me from being outside. The ceilings seemed almost as distant as the sky, and certainly the drafts that blew through the house were almost as chill as the winds outdoors.
The table was not yet set for breakfast. I went into the kitchens, where Tavia and Mild were already at work. The week’s bread was rising in a big covered crock near the hearth. As I went in, Elm went out, calling that she would look for eggs. Liar.
“Hungry, moppet?” Tavia greeted me and I nodded. “I’ll toast you a bit of bread then. Hop up to the table.”
I did what I’d always done since I could climb, which was to crawl up onto a bench and then take a seat on the table’s edge. Then, after a moment’s thought, I moved down and sat on my feet on the bench. It made me almost tall enough to be comfortable at the board. Tavia brought me my small mug full of milk and gave me a curious glance. “Growing up, are we?”
I gave her a nod.
“Then you’re old enough to talk,” Mild observed. “At least say ta.” As always, her comments to me had a sharper edge. I’d been in the act of picking up my mug. I stopped. I turned so I was looking only at Tavia. “Thank you, Tavia. You are always so kind to me.” I enunciated each word carefully. Behind me, I head Mild drop her stirring spoon.
Tavia stared at me for a moment. “I’m sure you’re very welcome, Bee.”
I drank from the mug and set it carefully back on the table.
Tavia said, softly, “Well. She’s certainly her father’s daughter.”
“Yes. I am,” I agreed firmly.
“That’s a certainty,” muttered Mild. She breathed out through her nose and added, “And here I scolded Elm for telling tales when she said Bee could talk if she wanted to.” She began to beat whatever she was stirring very hard. Tavia said nothing, but brought me a couple of slices of last week’s bread, toasted to freshen it up and slathered with butter.
“So. You’re talking now, eh?” Tavia asked me.
I glanced at her and suddenly felt embarrassed. I looked at the table. “Yes. I am.”
I saw her curt nod out of the corner of my eye. “That would have pleased your lady mother. She told me once that you could speak a great many words, but were shy.”
I looked down at the scarred tabletop, feeling uncomfortable. I resented that she had known I could speak and said nothing. But I also valued that she had kept my secret. Perhaps there was more to Tavia than I had believed.
She set a little pot of my mother’s honey on the board next to my bread. I looked at it. Now that Mama was gone, who would tend the bees in the summer and harvest the honey? I knew I should do it, but doubted I’d be successful. I’d tried over the last few months, but my solo results had been uneven. I had watched my mother and helped her, and yet when I tried to harvest the honey and the wax by myself, I had made a terrible mess. The few candles I had made were lumpy and graceless, the pots of honey tainted with small bits of wax and possibly bits of bees. I hadn’t had the courage to show them to anyone. Cleaning up the mess to leave the honey-and-candle room tidy had taken me hours. I found myself wondering if we would buy all our candles now. Where did one go to buy candles? And would we buy scented ones for special days? They could not be scented like my mother’s had been.
I looked up as my father came into the kitchen. “I was looking for you,” he said sternly. “You weren’t in your bed.”
“I was here, getting food. Papa, I don’t want to burn Mama’s candles anymore. I want to save them.”
He stared at me for three heartbeats. “Save them for what?”
“Special times. Times when I want to remember how she smelled. Papa, who will do all the things she did? Who will tend the hives and put up the honey and sew my clothes and put little bags of lavender in my clothing chest? Do all those things just stop now that she’s gone?”
He stood very still in the kitchen, looking at me with his dark, broken eyes. He was untidy, his curly hair growing out raggedly from his mourning cut, his beard a tattered thing, and his shirt still wrinkled from last night’s rain. I could tell he hadn’t shaken it out and put it neat, but had taken it off and tossed it onto a chair or the bedpost. I felt sorry for him; Mama had always reminded him to do things the right way. Then I remembered I hadn’t brushed my hair before I left my room. I hadn’t brushed it out last night, either. It wasn’t long enough to braid. I reached up and felt it standing up in tufts all over my head. We were a pair, he and I.