“Thank you, Tavia,” I said after the silence had fallen and Shun had made no response to her.
“You are very welcome,” she replied. She poured tea for each of us, and left.
I took my teacup from the tray and went and sat on the hearth. Shun looked down at me.
“Does he always let you stay awake and be with the adults?” She obviously disapproved.
“Adults?” I asked, looking around me. I smiled at her as if puzzled.
“You should be in bed by now.”
“It’s what is done with children in the evening. They go to bed so that adults can have conversations.”
I thought about that, and then looked into the fire. Would my father start sending me to bed in the evening so that he and Shun could stay awake and talk? I took up the poker and hit the burning log with it firmly, sending up a shower of sparks. Then I hit it again.
“Stop that! You’ll make the fire smoke.”
I hit it one more time, and then put the poker back. I didn’t look at her.
“I suppose it’s as well that you are not wearing skirts. You’d dirty them down there. Why are you sitting on the hearth instead of in a chair?”
The chairs were too tall. My feet dangled. I looked at the newly swept bricks. “It’s not dirty here.”
“Why are you dressed like a boy?”
I looked down at my tunic and leggings. I had a few spiderwebs on my ankle. I picked them free. “I’m dressed comfortably. Do you like wearing all those layers of skirts?”
Shun flounced them out around herself. They were pretty, like the spread petals of a flower. The outer skirts were a blue one shade lighter than Buckkeep blue. The petticoat beneath was an even lighter blue, and the lacy edge of it showed deliberately. It matched the pale blue of the bodice of her dress, and the lace was the same as the lace at her throat and cuffs. That dress and petticoat had not come from any crossroads market. They’d probably been made especially for her. She smoothed them with satisfaction. “They’re warm. And very pretty. They were expensive, too.” She lifted her hand and touched her earrings, as if I could have failed to notice them. “So were these. Pearls from Jamaillia. Lord Chade got them for me.”
I wore a simple tunic, sewn by my mother and made long enough to be modest, over a long-sleeved wool shirt. My tunic was belted at my waist with a leather belt and came to my knees. Below it, I wore only my woolen leggings and slippers. No one had ever suggested before that I was dressed like a boy, but now I recalled how the stable boys dressed. Not so different from me. Even the kitchen girls wore skirts, all the time. I looked at the cuffs of my sleeves. They were soiled with cobwebs and chalk from my earlier adventure. The knees of my leggings were dirty, too. I suddenly knew that my mother would have made me change my clothes before I came down to dinner with guests, into my red skirts perhaps. She would have put ribbons in my hair. I lifted my hand to my hair and smoothed down what was left of it.
Shun nodded. “That’s a little better. It was standing up like feathers on a bird’s head.”
“It’s too short to braid. I cut it because my mother died.” I looked at her directly for one instant.
Shun met my gaze coldly. Then she said, “I can only wish my mother were dead. I think it would make my life easier.”
I stared at her knees. Her words cut me and I tried to understand why. After a moment it came to me. She considered her pain more significant than mine. I felt she had said that her cruel mother’s life going on was a greater tragedy than my mother’s death. In that moment I hated her. But I also discovered another important thing. I could do as my father did: that is, lift my eyes and meet her gaze and let nothing of what I was thinking show in my face.
That thought surprised me. I studied her, saying nothing, and realized that she did not share my ability. Everything she felt at the moment was writ broad and plain on her face. Perhaps she thought I was too young to read her face, or that it was unimportant if I could. But she was not trying to hide anything from me. She had known her callous words would hurt me. She was miserable and resented being in my home and was irritated by being left with me. And in her misery, she was striking out at me because I was there. And because she thought I could not strike back.
I did not feel pity for her. She was too dangerous for me to pity. I suspected that in her thoughtless wretchedness she could employ cruelty such as I had never experienced from an adult. I suddenly feared that she could destroy all of us, and take whatever little peace my father and I had found. She sat there in her pretty clothes and pearl earrings and looked at me, so small and, she thought, very young, and dirty and common. Of course. She thought me the daughter of commoner Tom Badgerlock. Not the lost Princess of the Farseer family! Just the daughter of Withywoods’s widowed caretaker. Yet I had a home and a father who loved me and memories of a mother who had cherished me. None of that seemed fair to her.