She looked at me, her mouth working strangely as if she were gumming food. Then she suddenly flung herself from her chair and launched herself at me, to land against my chest, sobbing loudly. I caught her before we both fell over. Her voice shook wildly as she said, “They tried to kill me with poison. The cook’s little boy stole a tart from the platter, my favorite, a little berry tart, and he died with blood and foam coming out of his mouth. That’s what they wanted to do to me. To make me die that way. Poor little Rono, who’d never done anyone any harm save thieving. He died instead of me, and he died in pain. Little Rono.”
She was shaking all over. I held her firmly to keep from tipping out of my chair. “It wasn’t your fault,” I told her. “And you are safe now. You’re safe.”
I wondered if that was true.
I turned my head sharply. Something in Bee’s tone told me that she expected me to be ashamed of myself. She stared at me holding Shun, and then crossed her arms on her chest. “Shun’s very upset,” I told her, but the cold glare Bee was giving me told me that, in her opinion, that excused nothing. When Shun did not try to move clear of me, I managed to stand and sat her firmly in my vacated chair. “Are you feeling better, Bee?” I asked, to build on my falsehood that she had felt ill.
“No,” she replied icily. “Actually, I feel worse. Much worse. But that isn’t why I came to find you.” She tipped her little head at me, and I felt as if she were drawing back a bow. “I had to leave my room, just for a few minutes. When I came back … I came to tell you that our other guest is missing.”
“Other guest?” Shun demanded.
“Missing?” Riddle echoed. As he entered the room, he looked tousled, as if he had run all the way back from the village. He was still breathing hard as he looked from Bee’s disapproval to Shun’s tearstained face and then at me. “The message I received was that the injured traveler had left.”
“Yes. She did.” I felt like a weathercock as I spun from Riddle to my daughter. “It’s all right. She’s not missing, Bee. She felt better and wanted to go. I should have told you.” With my eyes, I tried to convey to her that I was lying, and needed her help to be convincing. She glared at me.
“Injured traveler?” Shun demanded. “There was a stranger here? How do you know she wasn’t an assassin?” She caged her hands over her mouth and looked at all of us with alarm. Her green eyes were huge above her tangled fingers.
“She was just an injured traveler, one we helped on her way. There’s no cause for alarm, Shun.” I turned back to Riddle and made a wild leap for normality. “We were just having a bite. Riddle, are you hungry?” It was all I could do to keep my voice level. Tripping over deceit, tangled by my lies. The horrid sinking feeling was all too familiar. Shun’s question had shaken me more than I wanted to betray. How indeed did I know that the young White was truly a messenger, and not someone who meant me and mine harm? Her resemblance to the young Fool had led me to bring her into my home with no thought as to her presenting a danger. And then I had put her in the room adjoining my daughter’s bedchamber. And now Bee said she was missing. And most likely somewhere within the rambling confines of Withywoods.
Shun had been right. I had definitely lost my edge. I was out of practice at intrigue. My mind raced. The messenger had said that she was being hunted. Had her pursuers entered Withywoods and captured her and carried her off? In the rambling old house, it was entirely possible. I had seen her injuries; it seemed unlikely to me that she could present a real danger to anyone. And equally unlikely that she had simply decided to run away, her message undelivered.
The silence had hung long in the room. I looked at Riddle.
“I could eat,” Riddle replied uncertainly. His glance moved from Bee to Shun and then fixed on me. Bewilderment that was all his.
“Excellent.” I smiled like an idiot. “I’ll just let the kitchen staff know while you keep Shun company. She’s feeling a bit unsettled at being here. I was trying to assure her that she would be safe now. And welcome.”
“Warmly welcomed,” Bee said in a low and venomous voice.
I concealed my surprise and added, “I’ll be taking Bee back up to her room. She’s obviously not feeling well.” I reached for my daughter but she sidled out of my grasp and preceded me to the door.
No sooner had it closer behind us than she spun to me. I saw her chest rise and fall, and to my horror tears welled in her blue eyes as she accused me with, “I only came to tell you she was gone, and what do I see? You hugging that woman!”