Slowly, he began again, starting to move as if he were coming back to life. He walked to the table and sat down heavily across from me. “She did a lot of things around here, didn’t she? So many things. You never miss the water until the well runs dry.”
I looked at him. He sighed. “We’ll save her scented candles. For you. And as for those other things, well. Your sister Nettle already told me that I’d best hire more help to keep the house in better order. I suppose she was right. She might be planning to visit here more often and to bring friends with her when she comes. So there will be other people coming to live here and help us do things. I’ve already sent for my cousin. She’ll arrive in a few days. Her name is Shun. She’s about twenty. I hope you’ll like her.”
Mild and Tavia were listening in so hard, it made a sort of silence in the kitchen. I wanted to demand how I could have a cousin I’d never heard of. Did that mean my father had a brother or sister I didn’t know about? I wanted to ask but could not while they were listening so hard. I spoke bluntly. “I don’t want anyone else to come and live here. Can’t we just manage on our own?”
“I’d like that, too,” my father replied. Tavia came to set a fat steaming pot of tea on the board. We didn’t usually breakfast in the kitchen, but I knew she was hoping he’d stay where he was and keep talking. I wondered if he was aware of their keen interest as much as I was. “But that’s not realistic, Bee. Not for either of us. Sometimes I have to be away from Withywoods, and you’ll need someone to look after you while I’m gone. You’ll need someone to teach you all the things a girl needs to know, not just how to read and figure, but how to sew and how to take care of yourself and do your hair and, well, all those things that girls know.”
I stared at him anxiously, realizing that he didn’t know what those things were any more than I did. I offered, “It would be a lot easier if I were a boy. Then we wouldn’t need anyone else coming to live here.”
That choked a brief laugh from him. Then he grew grave again. “But you aren’t a boy. And even if you were, we would still need to hire on more help. Nettle and I have spoken of it, several times. I’ve been neglecting Withywoods. Revel has been after me for months about a blocked chimney in one room, and a leak down the side of a wall in another. I can’t put it off any longer. The entire house needs a good cleaning, and then it needs to be better maintained. Your mother and I talked about it in spring, all the things we would fix over the summer.” He halted again, his eyes going far. “Now winter is upon us, and none of it’s done.” The cup that Tavia set down at his elbow clattered slightly in its saucer. She slid it carefully toward him.
“Thank you,” he said, the courtesy a reflex. Then he turned and looked at her. “I’m so sorry, Tavia. I should have given you a lot more notice. Riddle will be escorting my cousin here, and possibly staying a few days as well. We’ll have to decide what rooms to give Shun and, well, I don’t know exactly what else will need to be done. Her branch of my family is fairly well-to-do. She may expect to have her own maid …”
My father’s words faltered to a halt and his brows knit together as if he had just recalled something that was not pleasant. He fell silent. Cook Nutmeg had been pounding and kneading dough when I came into the kitchen. I glanced over at her. She was squishing it quietly on the breadboard, listening with every pore of her skin. I dared to break the quiet. “I did not know I had a cousin.”
He took a short breath. “My family is not close, I’m afraid, but for all that, when trouble calls, they recall that blood is thicker than water. And so Shun will come to help us, at least for a time.”
“Shun Fallstar is her name.”
“Did her mother not like her?” I asked and I heard Mild titter nervously.
My father sat up straighter and poured tea from the pot into the waiting cup. “As a matter of fact, she did not. So, when she comes, to be kind, we will not ask her about her name nor about her home. I think she will find it as great a relief to come to us as we shall be grateful to have her. When she first arrives, she may feel awkward and may be wearied from her journey. So we shall not expect too much of her at first, shall we?”
“I suppose not,” I said and felt my confusion swirl faster. Something was not right here and I could not put my finger on it. Was my father lying to me? I watched his face as he sipped his tea and could not tell. I started to ask and then bit back the question. I should not make him admit he was lying in front of Tavia and Mild and Cook. I would ask him later. Instead I said, “I had a special dream last night. I will need pen, ink, and paper to write it down.”