She held a long tale, I sensed. I did not think she was up to telling me all of it, but felt the urgency of knowing the Fool’s message right away. “I’m going to dress these with some honey and oil. I just need to fetch the oil. When I come back, do you think you could give me my message?”
She looked at me with pale eyes so like the Fool’s had been. “Useless,” she said. “I’m a useless messenger. I was sent to warn you of the hunters. So you could find the sun and run before them.” She sighed out, long, and I thought she had lapsed into sleep. With her eyes closed, she admitted faintly, “I fear I may have led them right to your doorstep.”
Her words made small sense to me, but her anxiety was agitating her and taking all her strength. “Don’t worry about that just now,” I told her, but she had sagged back into unconsciousness. I took advantage of that lapse to fetch oil and dress her injuries. When I had finished, I gathered her cut clothing around her as well as I could. “I’m going to move you now,” I warned her. She made no response, and I tried to be gentle as I gathered her into my arms.
I took a little-used servants’ corridor and stair and went by a roundabout path to my own room. I shouldered the door open and then halted, shocked. I stared at the rucked linens and bunched blankets on my bed. The room smelled closed and sweaty, a boar’s den. Discarded clothing sprawled across the top of the storage chest and dangled to the floor. Melted candle stubs littered the mantelpiece. The heavy curtains were closed, shutting out the winter’s light. Not even in Chade’s messiest days had his den ever looked this dismal.
After Molly’s death, I had sequestered myself here and ordered the servants to let all things be in the room. I had not wanted anything to change from the last time Molly had touched them. But change they had, on their own. The wrinkles in the linens on the unmade bed had become set like ripples in the bottom of a slow river. The light perfume that had always seemed to follow Molly had been replaced with the stink of my own sweat. When had the room become so oppressive? When Molly had shared it with me there had not been wax drippings down the candelabra, nor a coating of dust on the mantelpiece. It was not that she had tidied after me, no: I had not lived so brutishly under her roof. The wolf in me curled his lip and wrinkled his nose in distaste at denning in such a fouled place.
I thought of myself as a tidy person; this room suddenly looked like the cell of a madman or a recluse. It stank of despair and loss. I could not bear to be in it and I backed out so hastily that I tapped my charge’s head on the door frame. She made a small sound of distress and then was still.
Bee’s room was just down the corridor. In it, a connecting door led to a small chamber designed for a nurse or nanny. I pushed that door open and went inside. It had never been used for its intended purpose, but had become a storage place for odd bits of furniture. It was not much larger than a cell, but there was a narrow bed beside a dusty stand with a ewer on top of it. An airing rack for linens leaned drunkenly in the corner next to a broken footstool. I dragged the faded coverlet off the bed and deposited my pale victim there, pillowing her head on her butterfly cloak. I built up the fire in Bee’s hearth and left the door open for the heat to wander in. I made a trip back to my room and found a clean blanket in the linen chest. It smelled of cedar when I took it out and a touch of something else. Molly.
I hugged it tight to me for a moment. Then I sighed past my tight throat and hurried back to the girl. I covered her warmly and considered my options. Time was trickling swiftly past me. As I wondered if Riddle was on his way back and if I should maintain the lie once he returned to Withywoods, I heard the door behind me sigh open. I spun, going into a fighter’s crouch.
My daughter was not impressed. She halted, frowned at me in puzzlement, and then nodded as I straightened. “I see why you put her here. There’s water in my washstand ewer still.” As she spoke, she fetched it from her room and carried it back with her cup. As I filled the cup, she spoke. “You should go down and tell Tavia I don’t feel well and I need a tray of food in my room. I’ll stay here and watch over her while you go find something to keep Shun busy. I confess, that’s a task that is beyond me. Are you sure she has come to help us? She seems the most useless person I have ever met. Full of sniffs and sighs, as if nothing meets her approval. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wanted to leave with Riddle when he goes.”
“Glad to see that you’re getting along so well,” I said.
She looked at me and replied, “I didn’t bring her here to help me, you know.”