Her words had come faster and faster and her voice had become shriller as she spilled out her sad little tale. I should have felt sympathy for her, but her manner of telling it was too self-absorbed. Only with extreme restraint did I prevent myself from leaping up and fleeing the room. I fervently hoped she would not break down into tears.
Her face crumpled like a piece of paper written over with too many secrets. “I can’t live like this!” she wailed. “I just can’t!” She collapsed forward onto the table, her head pillowed on her arms as she sobbed.
A better man than I could have reached into his heart and found kind words for her. Could have seen her as a youngster suddenly cast adrift from all that was familiar. But of late her words were the very ones I wanted to roar at fate every night as I faced my cold and empty bed. I told her what I told myself. “Yes. You can. Because you have to. There is no real alternative, unless you want to cut your own throat.”
She lifted her head from her folded arms. She stared at me, eyes suddenly red, face wet with tears. “Or hang myself. I don’t think I could cut my own throat, but I could hang myself. I’ve even learned to tie that knot.”
That, I think, was what made me realize how serious she was. That small bit of information, the step she had taken to be one notch closer to planning her own death. Every assassin knows what his selected exit would be. Not poison for Shun, but the jump from the stool and the snap of her neck, with no waiting, no time to repent the decision. As for me, it would be the slash, the gouting blood, and yes, those few waning moments to say farewell to my life. With a leap of intuition, I knew this was why Chade had sent her to me. Not just because others had threatened her life, but because she was a danger to herself. It incited me to horror rather than sympathy. I did not want the responsibility. I did not want to wake to a maid shrieking that her mistress was dangling from a noose, did not want to Skill such tidings to Chade. It was impossible for me to protect her. What can anyone do for a person who wishes to harm herself? My heart sank at the thought that I must soon search her room. What tools would Chade have supplied to her? Nasty little blades, a garrote … poisons? Had he even considered that in her state, she might use them against herself instead of in her own defense? I felt a flash of anger toward Chade at the bubbling kettle he had sent to my home. Who would be scalded when she finally boiled over?
She was still looking at me. “You must not do that,” I said feebly.
“Why not?” she demanded. “It would solve all the problems. Everyone’s life would be simpler. My mother would be happy that her spoiled son would inherit with no cloud on his right. My hidden father would not have to fear that I’d somehow be discovered. And you wouldn’t have an inconvenient half-mad young woman invading your home!”
She dragged in a sobbing breath. “When I was fleeing to Buckkeep, despite all that had befallen me, I had hope. Hope at last! I’d get away from my life in the shadows. I thought that at last I would be at court, with other young people, with music and dancing and life. Just life! And then Lord Chade claimed me. He said I was in danger and I could not go to Buckkeep, but that in his care, once I had learned an assassin’s skills, well, then I could both defend myself and perhaps the Queen.” Her voice shrilled higher and choking. “Imagine that! Me, at the Queen’s side, defending her. Standing beside her throne. Oh, I wanted that so much. And I tried to learn all Quiver had to teach me. That awful, smelly woman, and her stupid endless drills! But I tried, and I tried. She was never happy with me. And then Rono died, poisoned, and it was meant for me. And I had to flee again. Sent off I knew not where, with only that ruffian to guard me. This time, I thought, this time surely I will be taken to Buckkeep! But where does Lord Chade put me? Here. I’ve done no wrong, yet here I am, in this drafty place with workmen hammering and where no one cares for me. Where there is no future, nothing lovely and cultured, nothing exciting. Where I’m nothing to anyone, only a burden and a disruption!”
One always falls back on one’s strongest talents in time of distress. So I lied. “You’re not a disruption, Shun. I know what it is to feel that there is no place that one belongs or is welcome. So I’ll tell you now that, however strange Withywoods may be to you now, you can consider it your home. You won’t be turned out of here, and for as long as you are here, I’ll do everything in my power to protect you. You’re not a guest here, Shun. You’re home. While it may not suit you now, we can make the changes you need. It can be made lovely for you. You can find comfort here. You are welcome for as long as you need to be here.” I took a breath and added a small thread of the truth. “While you are here, I consider you part of my family.”