“Indeed?” Our tutor was unruffled. As Taffy had spoken for all to hear, he asked aloud, “Can you read or write, young man?”
“I’ll assume you meant to say, ‘No, Scribe Lant.’ I’m sure you’ll do better the next time I ask you a question. Can you reckon? On paper, or in your head?”
Taffy gave his bottom lip a swipe with his tongue. “I reckon that I don’t want to be here.”
“Yet here you are. And as your father wishes it, I will teach you. Return to your place.”
Taffy sauntered away. It was my turn. I was last. I rose and went to stand before the scribe’s table. He was still making notes about Taffy. His dark curls were formed in perfect spirals. I looked down at his handwriting. It was clean and strong, even upside-down. “Insolent and unwilling,” he had noted next to Taffy’s name.
He glanced up at me, and I snatched my gaze away from the paper to meet his. His eyes were a soft brown, with very long lashes. I looked hastily down again. “Well, Lady Bee, it is your turn now.” He spoke softly. “It is Lady Nettle’s earnest wish that you learn to read and write, at least a little. Or as much as you are able. Do you think you could try to do that, for her?” His smile tried to be kind, but it was a false kindness.
It shocked and hurt me that he spoke to me so condescendingly. It was much worse than when he had looked at me earlier with such disdain for my poor manners. I glanced up at him and then away. I did not speak loudly but I took care to form my every word as clearly as I could. I knew that sometimes my speech was still garbled and muted. I would take care that would not happen today. “I can already read and write, sir. And I can work with numbers up to twenty in my head. Beyond that, if I have tally sticks, I can get the correct answer. Most of the time. But not swiftly. I am familiar with the local geography, and can place each duchy on the map. I know ‘The Twelve Healing Herbs’ and other learning rhymes.” That last was a gift from my mother. I had noticed that none of the children had spoken of learning rhymes or sayings.
Scribe Lant gave me a guarded look as if he suspected me of something. “Learning rhymes.”
I cleared my throat. “Yes, sir. For instance, for catmint, the rhyme begins, ‘If you set it, the cat will get it. If you sow it, the cat won’t know it.’ So the first thing to know of that herb is that if you try to start it with tiny plants in your garden, the cat will eat them. But if you plant the seeds, it will come up and the cat will not notice it so much, and the plants will be able to thrive.”
He cleared his throat. “It’s a clever little rhyme, but not something that we could count as learning here.”
Someone giggled. I felt blood creeping up into my face. I hated my fair skin that showed my humiliation so plainly. I wished I had not chosen the simplest of my mother’s rhymes to share. “I know others, sir, which are more useful, perhaps.”
He gave a tiny sigh and closed his eyes for a moment. “I am sure you do, Lady Bee,” he said, as if he did not wish to injure my feelings over how ignorant I was. “But I am more interested in seeing your writing now. Can you make some letters for me on this?” He pushed a piece of paper toward me and offered me a bit of chalk. Did he think I did not know what a pen was?
My humiliation boiled over in anger. I reached over his hand to take up his fine pen. In careful strokes, I inscribed, “My name is Bee Badgerlock. I live on Withywoods Estate. My sister is Lady Nettle, Skillmistress to His Majesty King Dutiful of the Six Duchies. “I lifted the pen, regarded my writing critically, and then turned the paper back toward him for him to read.
He had watched me write with ill-concealed surprise. Now he regarded the paper in disbelief for a moment. Then he returned it to me. “Write this. ‘Today I begin lessons with Scribe Lant.’”
I did so, more slowly, for I found I was not certain how to spell “Lant.” Again I turned it back to him. He next shoved at me a black wax tablet on which he had been scribing words. I had never seen such a device before, and I ran my finger lightly over the heavy coating of wax on the wood plank. He had written with a stylus, carving the words into the wax swiftly and gracefully.
“Well. Can you read it or not?” His words were a challenge. “Aloud, please,” he added.
I stared at the words. I spoke them slowly. “It is a wicked deceit to pretend to ignorance and inability.” I looked back up at him, confused.
“Do you agree?”
I looked at the words again. “I don’t know,” I said, wondering what he intended by the words.