The Fool had always loved riddles and puzzles, and loved his privacy even more. But this did not feel like one of his pranks. It felt more as if he had sent every bit of information he dared, inadequate as it was, and hoped that I would have the resources to find whatever else I needed to know. Did I? Was I still the person he hoped I was?
The strange part was that I actually hoped I wasn’t. I’d been a sly, resourceful assassin, capable of spying, running, fighting, and killing. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I could still feel the warmth of the girl’s skin under my thumbs, feel the feebling grip of her hands on my wrists as her struggling gave way to unconsciousness and then death. I’d made it quick for her. Not painless, for no death is without pain. But I’d made the pain much briefer than it otherwise would have been. I’d granted her mercy.
And I’d once more felt that surge of power one gets when one kills. The thing that Chade and I never discussed with anyone, not even each other. The nasty little burst of supremacy that I continued to live when someone else had died.
I never wanted to feel that again. Truly, I didn’t. Nor did I want to wonder at how quickly I had decided to grant her the mercy of a swift death. For decades now, I had insisted that I did not want to be an assassin. Tonight I doubted my sincerity.
An assassin flinched and turned his scrutiny on the small girl. For a moment I didn’t recognize her. I struggled to find my way back to being her father. “Molly,” I said, the word bursting from me, aloud, making Bee’s face grow pale so that her reddened cheeks and nose stood out as if splashed with blood. Molly had kept me safe. She had been the waymarker on a different path my life could take. Now she was gone and I felt as if I had fallen over a cliff’s edge and was hopelessly plunging toward ruin. And I had pulled my child over with me.
“She’s dead,” Bee said in a small voice, and suddenly it was real all over again.
“I know,” I said miserably.
She reached up and took my hand. “You were leading us off into the dark and the fog, toward the pasture. Come this way.” She tugged my hand, and I realized I had been walking toward a misty forested strip of land beside the pasture. She turned us back toward Withywoods where lights shone dim in a few windows.
My child guided me home.
We moved silently through the darkened corridors of Withywoods. Across the flagged entrance, up the curved staircase, and along the hallway we softly paced. I paused at the entrance to her room and abruptly recalled that she could not sleep there. I looked at her and hated myself. Her nose was a bright-red button. She wore a winter cloak and boots and, under that, only a woolen nightdress. It was now soaked to the knee. Oh, Bee. “Let’s get you a clean nightgown. Then you’ll sleep in my room tonight.” I winced at the thought, recalling the boar’s nest that my room had become. No help for it now. I wanted every scrap of bedding in her room destroyed to avoid contagion from whatever horrid creatures the messenger had carried within her. I suppressed a shudder at the thought of the vicious judgment passed on her. So irrevocable. So their punishment for being a traitor was lingering and painful death, one that no apology or explanation would halt. I still was not sure who “they” were, but already I despised them.
I kindled a candle at her hearth while Bee went to her clothing chest. Her nightgown dragged a wet trail on the floor. She lifted the heavy lid, wedged a shoulder under it to hold it open, and began to rummage through the contents. I glanced around the room. The stripped bed looked stark and accusing. I’d killed a woman in this room tonight. Did I ever want my child to sleep here again? She might not be haunted by what I’d done, for surely she had no idea of it. She would believe the messenger had just died of her wounds. But this killing would bother me for a long time. I didn’t want my daughter sleeping in the bed where I’d killed someone. Tomorrow I’d broach the idea of moving her into a new room. For tonight—
“Stop! Just stop, please! Leave me alone! Please!” It was Shun’s voice, rising to a shriek on the last word.
“Stay here!” I barked at Bee and left the room. Shun’s temporary chamber was at the end of the corridor. I was only a few steps down the hall before Riddle, in his nightshirt, knife in hand and his hair standing up in wild tufts, burst out of his room and into the corridor. Shoulder-to-shoulder we ran. Shun’s voice rose again, ascending in terror. “I’m sorry you’re dead. It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t my fault! Leave me alone!”
The door to her bedchamber was abruptly flung open and a wailing Shun sprang into the dim hall. Her auburn hair was loose about the shoulders of her nightgown. She had a knife in one hand, a fine and slender blade, and even in her terror she carried it as if she would know how to use it. She shrieked even louder at the sight of us running toward her. Then she recognized Riddle and, breathlessly shouting his name, ran into his arms, narrowly missing the knife he carried. She seemed not to notice when he caught her wrist and with a pinch made her drop her own blade.