As I did so, it became something entirely different. Not a butterfly’s wing, but an airy cloak of impossible lightness. It floated like a lady’s veil, and suddenly the colors were revealed as a corner lining of a much larger piece of fabric. The fabric itself was exactly the shades of the moss and the shadows that dappled it, blending perfectly with the ground under the evergreen trees. As I lifted, I revealed more of the gaudy butterfly-wing lining of the cloak, and then I uncovered what had been concealed beneath it.
Pale and slight as he had been when we were boys together, he huddled on the bare ground. His arms were drawn in tight to his body and he was curled up, chin tucked to chest. His ice-white hair was loose, some matted to his cheek and some tangled against the deep moss. I hated that his cheek was pressed against the cold earth. A beetle crawled on the moss by his lip. He was not dressed for this weather: He had come here from a much warmer place. He wore a long cotton tunic with a pattern of large rust shapes against a wheat-colored background, over simple loose trousers of a slightly darker color. He had a boot on one foot; the other was bare, dirty, and bloodied. His skin was alabaster, his eyes closed, and his lips pale pink as a fish’s gills. He was still. Then my eyes resolved that the large rosettes on the back of his shirt were actually bloodstains.
There was a roaring in my ears and darkness at the edges of my vision.
“Papa?” Bee tugged at my sleeve, and I realized she had been worrying it for some minutes. I was on my knees by the Fool. I could not say how long I had been transfixed there.
“It will be all right, Bee,” I told her, certain it would be nothing of the kind. “Run along back to the house. I’ll take care of this.”
Some other man took charge of my body. I set my fingers to his throat under the angle of his jaw. I waited and when I was certain there was no pulse, I felt one. He wasn’t dead, not quite. His flesh, never warm to the touch, was cold as meat. I bunched the butterfly cloak around him and lifted him, heedless of his wounds. He’d carried them for some time. Delaying to be careful of them now would not save him, but keeping him longer in the cold might finish him. He did not make a sound. He was very light in my arms, but then, he had never weighed much.
Bee had not obeyed me and I found I didn’t care. She trotted at my side, crackling questions like a sap log in the fire, very much my child again. I ignored them. Her peculiar fit seemed to have passed. It still concerned me, but not as much as the unconscious man in my arms. I would tend to my crises one at a time. Calmly. Dispassionately.
Abruptly, I wondered what I was feeling. The answer came to me quite clearly. Nothing. Nothing at all. He was going to die and I was determined to stop feeling anything about it before it happened. I’d had enough pain with Molly’s death. I wasn’t going to feel any more. He had been gone from my life for years. If he’d never come back, I wouldn’t have experienced any new sense of loss. No. There was no sense in feeling anything about regaining him when it was so obvious I was about to lose him again. Wherever he had come from, he had journeyed a long way to bring agony to my door.
I wasn’t having it.
I found that somehow I had retraced the whole length of my wild garden chase of Bee. She waited for me by the door to Patience’s garden room. I didn’t look at her. “Open the door,” I said, and she did, and I carried him inside. My mind halted for an instant, fighting to decide what to do, but my body and my daughter did not. She ran ahead of me, opening doors, and I followed her without thinking.
“Put him there. On that table,” she said, and I realized she had led me to the small workroom where Molly had done her hive-work. It was tidy, as she always left it, but still it smelled of her and her work, the fragrant honey, the wax, even the musky scent of dead bees from when she had cleaned out a wooden hive. It was actually a good choice, for there were cloths, washed and dried and folded, and buckets and …
He made a small gasping sound as I lowered him to the table, and I caught his meaning. As gently as I could, I turned him, putting him on his belly. He still gave a whimper of pain, but I knew the injuries to his back would be the worst ones.
Bee had watched in silence. Now she picked up two small buckets meant for honey. “Hot water or cold?” she asked me gravely.
“Some of each,” I told her.
She paused at the door. “Honey is good for infections,” she told me gravely. “The butterfly man will feel more at home here, for bees are not, perhaps, so different from butterflies.”
She left and I heard her small feet pattering down the hall. I wondered what Riddle thought of my sudden abandonment of him, and what he would say to Nettle and Chade. It was so rude of me. I unfastened the glorious cloak and set it aside. Strange garment; it weighed scarcely more than spider silk. It reminded me of the amazing tent that the Fool had brought with him to the Out Islands. I thrust the memory down. I hoped Shun was not feeling neglected. Would her temporary chambers please her? I thought about that carefully, and what excuses I could make for any delay, as my hands cut away his bloody tunic. I peeled his garment away from his back as if I were skinning a deer. The blood-soaked fabric was stiff as a frozen hide and clung to the wounds. I gritted my teeth and tried to be gentle as I tugged it free. Two of the injuries broke open afresh, leaking watery blood. He lay very still, and only when I had stripped his clothes away did I pause to think how very gaunt he was. I could count the knobs of his spine below the nape of his neck, and his ribs pushed tight against the skin of his back.