“Burn my body,” she said insistently.
“If it comes to that, I will. But for now …”
“It will come to that. My companion searched the wounds. I told you. What went in won’t come out.”
She shook her head. “Eggs. They’ve hatched now. They’re eating me.” She winced and coughed again. “Sorry. Burn bedding. With me.” Her eyes opened and her blank gaze wandered over the room. “You should put me outside. They bite and burrow. And lay eggs.” She coughed pink. “Punishment for traitor.” She blinked, and drops of red oozed from the corners of her eyes. “Treason is unforgivable. So punished with unstoppable death. Slow. It takes weeks. “She shuddered and then squirmed. She looked up at my father. “The pain is building. Again. I can’t see. They’re eating my eyes. Are they bloody?”
I heard the sound of my father swallowing. He sank down beside the bed until his face was on a level with the girl’s. A stillness had taken his face; I could not tell if he felt anything. He asked quietly, “Are you finished, then? That was the whole message?”
She nodded. She rolled her head to meet my father’s gaze but I knew she could not see him. Blood in ruby drops clung to her eyelashes. “I’m finished. Yes.”
My father lurched to his feet. He turned as if he would run from the room. Instead he snatched up the empty ewer. He spoke sternly. “Bee. I need cool fresh water. And bring some vinegar in a cup. And …” He paused to think. “Go to Patience’s garden room. Bring me two double handfuls of the mint that grows closest to the statue of the girl with the sword. Go.”
I took the ewer and a candle in a holder and went. The darkness made the corridors longer. The kitchen was a place of lurking shadows. The vinegar was in a large crock, and the containers to carry it all up out of my reach. I had to push benches and climb. I left the heavy ewer of water and the vinegar and threaded my way through the sleeping house to Patience’s garden room. I found the mint and tore at the plants recklessly, filling a fold of my nightshirt with the aromatic leaves. Then I trotted back to the kitchen, candle in one hand and the other holding my hiked-up nightshirt with the mint. In the kitchen I tied up the mint in a clean cloth and gripped the knot in my teeth. I abandoned my candle to clutch the heavy ewer in one arm and the vinegar in my other hand. I hurried as fast as I could, trying not to think of maggots eating me from the inside. By the time I reached the door of my room and set everything down to open the door, I was out of breath. I felt as if I had been running for the whole night.
A horrifying sight met my eyes. My featherbed was on the floor. My father knelt beside it. He had his boots on, and his heavy cloak was on the floor beside him, so he must have gone back to his room. He had torn one of my coverlets into strips and was using them to tie the bundle he was making. His face was gray when he looked up at me. “She died,” he said. “I’m taking her outside to burn her.” He had not paused in his feverish bundle making. My featherbed was taking on the shape of an immense cocoon. There was a dead girl inside it. He looked away from me and added, “Strip to the skin, here. Then go to my room. You can find one of my shirts to sleep in. Leave your nightshirt here. I’m going to burn it with her.”
I stared at him. I set the ewer down, and the vinegar. The bundled mint fell from my shirt to the floor as I let it drop. Whatever medicine he had intended to make, it was too late now. She was dead. Dead like my mother. He pushed another strip of blanket under the bundle, brought up both ends, and snugged it tight in a knot. My voice came out very little. “I’m not going naked through the corridors. And you can’t do this all alone. Should I get Riddle to help you?”
“No.” He squatted back on his heels. “Bee. Come here.” I went to him. I thought he was going to hug me and tell me it would be all right. Instead he had me bend my neck, and he looked all through my shorn hair. Then he rose, crossed to my clothing chest, and opened it. He took out last year’s wool robe. “I’m sorry,” he said when he came back to me. “But I have to keep you safe.” He took the hem of my nightshirt and stripped it off me. Then he looked at me, all over, under my arms and at my bottom and between the toes of my feet. We were both very red in the face before he was finished. Then he gave me the wool robe and took my nightshirt to add to his bundle. “Pull on your boots and a winter cloak,” he told me. “You’ll have to help me. And no one can ever know what we do tonight. No one can know the message she brought. Or even that we found her again. If other people know, that child will be in greater danger. The boy she spoke about. Do you understand that?”