I scarcely heard her words. I felt dull and wooden. Careful tugged and worried at my hair, desperately trying to make it look longer and more girlish. There was enough now that it had a color at least and my scalp no longer showed through. She dressed me with little help from me. I tried, but my fingers were fat, sleepy sausages and my head a heavy weight on my shoulders. She sighed over my tunic, but I was glad of its warmth over my linen shirt. When I was as primped as she could manage with such a bland canvas, she sent me off to breakfast with the admonition that I should have fun and think of her if the trinket tables were out for Winterfest.
Winterfest! I woke slightly to that thought. I had scarcely thought of that holiday, but she was right, it was almost upon us. In my memories it was a warm and yet festive time at Withywoods. There were minstrels and puppeteers, and immense logs burning in the hearth, and sea salt to fling at the burning wood to make the flames leap up in different colors. Always on Winterfest eve, my mother came down to dinner wearing a holly crown. Once she left a winter staff leaning by my father’s chair. It was as tall as he was, and decorated with ribbons, and for some reason it made all the servants roar with laughter and my father blush a deep scarlet. I had never understood the joke, but knew only that it was a reminder of something special that both of them shared. That night of all nights, they always shone with love, and it seemed to me that they were but boy and girl again.
And so I did my best to rally my spirits, for I knew that this year must be a sad reminder for my father. I tried to banish my peculiar dreams and be cheery at our breakfast of porridge and sausages and dried berries and hot tea. When Riddle came in and my father invited him to join us, I anticipated a good day. But then Riddle reminded us both that this was the day he was to set out on his return journey to Buckkeep.
“You can ride with us to Oaksbywater,” my father urged him. “It’s on your way, and we shall have a meal together in the tavern there before you begin the rest of your journey. I am told that the merchants will have begun to display their wares for Winterfest. Perhaps Bee and I can find a few small things to send to her sister.”
It was the perfect bait for Riddle. I could almost see him thinking that he might choose a small gift or two for her as well. At Winterfest sweethearts often exchanged tokens for the coming year. It pleased me that he would want to get a gift for my sister. It meant that Shun had no real hold on him. He was thinking of something green for her, a green scarf or green gloves for her pretty little hands. He could almost imagine slipping them onto her hands. I blinked. I had not known my sister’s favorite color was green. Riddle nodded to my father and then said, “I can certainly delay a bit for that, as long as I leave in time to reach Woodsedge before nightfall. I’ve no wish to sleep outside with snow coming down.”
“It’s snowing now?” I asked stupidly. My voice sounded thick, even to me. I tried to make my wandering mind return to the spoken conversation at the table.
Riddle was looking at me kindly, as if he thought I feared we would cancel our trip. “A light fall of snow. Nothing that need dissuade any of us from our errands.”
I reached for the conversation. “I like the snow,” I said quietly. “It makes all new. We walk where no one has ever trodden before when we walk in fresh snow.”
They both stared at me. I tried to smile, but my lips went too wide. The steam was rising from the teapot. It curled as it rose, twisting in on itself, becoming itself again in a new form. Coiling like a serpent in the sea, or a dragon in flight. I tried to follow it as it dispersed.
“She has such engaging fancies,” Riddle said in the distance. He poured tea into my cup for me. I watched how honey spun from the spoon into my cup, and then I stirred it and the tea and the honey swirled into one. I let my mind swirl with it. The men talked and I simply was for a time.
“Dress warmly, Bee,” my father said. I blinked. Their plates were emptied. I recalled that we were going to ride through the snow to Oaksbywater. The market. Winterfest. Today my father and Riddle would see me ride Priss. I suddenly wished Perseverance could come with us. Dared I ask for such a strange favor?
I was on the point of standing when Shun and FitzVigilant breezed in to join us. The scribe seemed startled to see our empty plates. “Are we late?” he asked in surprise, and I realized my father had called me early to breakfast. He smiled at them both and said heartily, “No, we were early. Enjoy your meal and a restful day. We are off to the market today, and will see you again near nightfall.”
“The market! What good fortune! I was dreading a tedious day. I shall eat quickly and join you.” Shun was absolutely radiant at the thought.