Some people talk to cats. Some cats talk to people. It never hurts to try. “If you will follow me in here and spend a day killing rats and mice back here, I will give you this whole slab of fish.”
He lifted his striped face, opened his mouth, and turned his face from side to side, taking in the scents of my warren. I know it smelled mousy to me. He made a low noise in his throat, and I felt he approved the prospect of hunting as well as the fish.
“I’m going to put this up in my den. When you’ve killed the rats and mice, come tell me. I’ll give you the fish and then let you out again.”
His round yellow eyes met mine, and I had no doubt that he understood our bargain well. He brushed past me, head down, tail straight. Once his tail was well clear of the hatch, I pulled the small door until it was almost entirely closed. I picked up my candle and took the fish, sausage, and fruit back to my den.
But even with my explorations, I spent a long and dull afternoon behind the walls. I wished I had stolen more of my father’s old writings to read. I wrote about the cat, took a nap bundled in my blanket, ate some fruit and drank some water, and then waited. And waited. When finally my father returned to open the door for me, I was stiff and sore from being still so long. I had been watching for him, and as soon as he opened the panel, I was out. “All safe?” I asked him, and he nodded wearily.
“We think so,” he amended. “There is no sign of her anywhere in the house. Though, as you know, it’s a big house with many rooms. None of the servants has commented on seeing her. It’s as if she vanished.” He cleared his throat. “I confided only to Riddle that we should search the house. He agreed. So the servants know nothing of the missing girl. And I’ve insisted to Shun that she left.”
I followed him out of the secret den and out into the corridors of Withywoods. I was silent. I knew hundreds of places to hide in our house. My father could not possibly have searched them all, not even if Riddle was helping him. Surely he knew that. I walked for a time at his side. I thought carefully and then said, “I should like a knife and a sheath, please. Like my mother always wore.”
He slowed his stride, and I no longer had to hurry. “Why?”
“Why did my mother always have a knife?”
“She was a practical woman, always doing things. She had a knife to cut a bit of string, or trim back a bush or cut flowers, or cut up fruit.”
“I can do all those things. Or could, if I had a knife.”
“I’ll see about getting you one, and a belt sized for you.”
“I should like to have a knife now.”
He stopped then and looked down at me. I looked at his feet.
“Bee. I know that you are a bit afraid. But I will keep you safe. It’s right that you should have a knife, for you are old enough to be sensible with it. But …” He halted, floundering.
“You don’t want me to stab someone if they’re threatening me. Neither do I. But I don’t want to be threatened and not have anything at all to protect myself.”
“You’re so small,” he said with a sigh.
“Yet another reason why I need a knife!”
“Look at me.”
“I am.” I looked at his knees.
“Look at my face.”
Unwillingly, I shifted my gaze. My eyes wandered over his face and met his eyes for a moment; then I looked aside. He spoke gently. “Bee. I will get you a knife, and a sheath, and a belt for it that you can wear. More than that, I will teach you to use it, as a weapon. It’s not going to happen tonight. But I will.”
“You don’t want to.”
“No. I don’t. I wish I could feel like it was something you didn’t have to know. But I suppose you do. And perhaps I have been remiss in not teaching you before this. But I didn’t want you to live that sort of a life.”
“Not being prepared to defend myself doesn’t mean I’d never have to fight for my life.”
“Bee, I know that is true. Look. I’ve told you what I’ll do, and I will do it. But for now, for tonight, can you trust me to protect you? And let this be?”
Something tightened in my throat. I spoke to his feet, my voice gone hoarse and strange. “How can you protect me when you are going to be looking after her and keeping her safe?”
He looked shocked, then hurt, and then tired. I watched out of the corner of my eye as the expressions flitted across his features. He composed himself and spoke calmly. “Bee. You have nothing to be jealous about. Or to worry about. Shun needs our help, and yes, I will protect her. But you are my daughter. Not Shun. Now let’s go. You need to brush your hair and wash your face and hands before we go to dinner.”