“Well. I know that I would agree. Lady Bee, you should be ashamed of yourself. Lady Nettle has been full of concern for you, believing you were both simple and near-mute. She has agonized over how you would fare in this world, over who would care for you as you grew older. And now I arrive here, thinking that my task would be to give you basic instruction in the simplest things, and I find you fully capable of reading and writing. And of being quite saucy to a lady who deserves your respect. So, Lady Bee, what am I to think?”
I had found a small knot in the wooden table. I stared at the dark whorl of the wood grain and wanted to vanish. It was all too complicated to explain it to him. All I had wanted was not to appear strange to others. Small chance of that. I was too small for my age and too intelligent for my years. The first should have been obvious; saying the second aloud would make me appear to be as conceited as he believed me rude. I felt the heat come in my face. Someone spoke behind me.
“Yah, she pretends to be a half-wit so she can spy on people. She used to follow me all the time, and then she got me in trouble. Everyone knows that about her. She likes to make trouble.”
And now the blood left my face and I felt dizzy with its absence. I could hardly get my breath. I turned to stare at Taffy. “That’s not true,” I tried to shout. It came out as a jagged whisper. He wore a jeering smile. Elm and Lea were nodding confirmation, their eyes glittering. The goose children looked on, eyes wide with wonder. Perseverance’s gaze slid past me and focused on the gray sky framed in the window. The other children just stared at me. I had no allies there. Before I could turn around and look at FitzVigilant, he ordered me tersely, “Sit down. I know where to begin your lessons now.” He continued speaking as I returned to my spot on the floor. My neighbors slid away from me, as if the tutor’s disapproval was contagious. He went on speaking. “I’m afraid I did not expect so many students and so diverse a level of learning, so I did not bring enough supplies. I do have six wax tablets and six styli for writing on them. These we will have to share. Paper I have, and I am sure we can find a supply of good goose quills for pens.” Here the goose children smiled and wiggled happily.
“But we shall not use pens and ink and paper until we merit them. I have written the letters out large and clear on papers, and each of you shall have one of them to take with you. Every night I wish you to trace the letters with your fingers. Today we will practice the shapes of all the letters, and the sounds of the first five.” He glanced at the gardener’s boy and added, “As you are already quite capable, Larkspur, I shall not bore you with these exercises. Instead there are several excellent scrolls and books here that have to do with gardening and plants. Perhaps you would like to study them while I work with the others.”
Larkspur glowed with his praise and quickly rose to accept a scroll on roses. It was one I’d read several times, and I recognized that it had come from one of Patience’s libraries. I pinched my lips shut. Perhaps my father had told him he could make free with the books of Withywoods. When he handed me the letter sheet, I did not protest that I, too, already knew my letters. I knew this was a punishment. I would be made to do tedious, useless exercises to demonstrate his disdain for my supposed “deceitfulness.”
He walked among us as first he named each letter aloud, and then we repeated it and traced it with a finger. When we had traced all thirty-three of them, he took us back to the first five, and asked who could remember their names. When I did not volunteer, he asked me if I was still pretending to be ignorant. That had not been my intent; I had resolved to accept my punishment in silence. I did not say so, but only looked at my knees. He made a sound in the back of his throat, a noise of impatience and disgust with me. I did not look up. He pointed at Spruce, who remembered two of them. Lea knew one. One of the sheep children knew another one. When the scribe pointed at Taffy, he stared at the page, scowled, and then announced, “Pee!” with earnest mockery. Our teacher sighed. We began again to repeat each one as he said it, and this time the results were better when he called on one of the goose children to recite the letters.
It was, I think, the longest morning of my life. When he finally released us just before noon, my back ached and my legs hurt from sitting still so long. I had wasted a morning and learned nothing. No. I corrected my thought as I staggered to my feet on stiff legs and spindled my sheet of letters into a roll. I had learned that Taffy, Lea, and Elm would always hate me. I had learned that my teacher despised me and was more interested in punishing me than in teaching me. And lastly, I had learned how quickly my own feelings could change. The infatuation with FitzVigilant that I had tended and nurtured since I had seen him arrive had been abruptly replaced with something else. It wasn’t hate. There was too much sadness mixed with it to be hate. I didn’t have a word for it. What would I call a feeling that made me want to never encounter that person again, in any situation? I suddenly knew I had no appetite for a noon meal at the same table with him.