I had decided my trousers were presentable and hastily left the room we once had shared. Why was I fussing over my appearance? After all, it was only Riddle and Shun.
I had hoped to have Bee at my side, but though I had called her when a boy came running to tell me that horses were coming up the drive, she had not answered me. Of late she had taken to disappearing within the house. Although she had begun talking more, I felt as if she said less to me. She still avoided meeting my eyes. I was accustomed to that, but not to the sidelong gazes she sent me, as if she were evaluating me and studying my responses. It was unnerving.
And I’d had no real time to devote to understanding it. A veritable deluge of work had drenched me in details. Winter always brings out the worst in a house. If a roof is going to leak, winter storms make it happen. Clogged chimneys filled guest rooms with smoke and stench. It seemed to me that just as I was already overwhelmed the manor turned on me and developed every imaginable problem. The crown provided Nettle with a generous allowance for her tasks as Skillmistress of Dutiful’s coterie. And Queen Kettricken had bestowed a further allowance for the upkeep of Withywoods as an acknowledgment of all that Burrich had done for the Farseer monarchy during his life. So there was coin to effect the repairs, but it did not make the noisy and unsettling process of having workmen come into the manor any more palatable to me. Nor lessen my irritation with myself that I had let it all go all summer.
So in the midst of workmen coming and going, and carts arriving with timber and plank and brick, and folk mixing mortar in tubs, Shun and Riddle arrived. Riddle, damn him, did not bother to conceal his amusement, while Shun’s dismay was plain on her face. I called a stable lad to take their horses, and Revel appeared to direct a new housemaid to find someone to carry Shun’s trunks to the guest room. He told me that he had arranged refreshments in the Mockingbird Room, a relatively quiet parlor. I thanked him and asked them to follow me there. As we arrived, the new kitchen girl was just leaving. It took me a moment to recall that her name was Opal. I thanked her. There was a fat steaming pot of tea on the table, and an assortment of little cakes. She told us that she’d be back in a moment with sausage rolls fresh from the kitchen and asked if there was anything else we would fancy. Shun studied the table and requested wine. And perhaps some cheese, and cut bread. And butter. Opal bobbed a curtsy and said she would tell Cook Nutmeg. I added to her tasks, asking her to see if anyone could find Lady Bee and send her to us. Then she was gone and I turned to Shun and Riddle.
“I’m sorry about the clatter. It seems that as soon as I discovered one thing needed repair, it led to another. I promise that the room you’ll have tonight is snug and warm, and they’ve told me that by the end of the week, your apartments should be fully habitable. We haven’t had many long-term guests here at Withywoods, and I’m afraid the house hasn’t been kept up as well as it might have been.”
The dismay in Shun’s eyes deepened.
“Lady Bee is not here? Is she well?” Riddle intervened. Perhaps he had hoped to change the subject.
As if summoned by his words, there was a light tap on the door and Bee drifted in. There was no other word for how she moved. Her body was languid with grace, and the pupils of her eyes were so dilated that her eyes looked almost black. She stared at me, and when she spoke, her words were thick. “It’s today,” she said. She smiled ethereally. “The butterfly in the garden, Father. The wing is on the ground and the pale man awaits you.”
She fell silent as we all stared at her. I felt heartsick; was she drugged? Sick? This was nothing like any Bee I had ever seen. Riddle looked horrified. He stared at her and then turned accusing eyes on me. Sometimes I forgot how young she appeared to folk who did not know her well. To hear such words from a nine-year-old would have been alarming enough, but most onlookers would have guessed her age at merely six. Shun spoke. “I thought you said you had a daughter? Who is this little boy? Do your servants often speak to you so?”
I scarcely heard her. “Bee, are you well?”
She tipped her head as if finding me by sound rather than sight. Her expression was beatific. “It feels so good to be right. When the circle closes. And it actually happens. You should go quickly. There isn’t much time.” She shook her head slowly. “The messenger has come such a long way to die at the doorstep.”
I found my wits. “I fear my child is ill.” I crossed the room and caught her up in my arms. At my touch, she went rigid. Hastily, I sealed myself. “Riddle, please take care of everything else.” Riddle said something as I left, his voice anxious. I shut the door on his words.