For Bee had had the right of it. Girls did not have to hit to hurt. But did I want her to learn that sort of fighting from Shun’s example, with Lant’s confirmation?
“… your place to correct him, not mine or Lant’s. Does not it bother you that he has insulted me? And Lant? Are you listening? Holder Badgerlock!”
When she uttered my name, I jolted back into the ongoing conversation. But I did not turn to her to respond but to FitzVigilant. My mind seized on an odd bit of information I needed. “How many wax tablets were you hoping to purchase?”
Behind me, Shun made an exasperated sound at being ignored. It bothered me not at all. FitzVigilant looked startled at the turn of conversation. He hedged suddenly and I suspected he feared there would be a budget constriction. “The merchant did not have many, of course. The double ones, I am sure, could be shared easily enough by sibling students and …”
“We will buy what he has.” I leaned back slightly from the table. I was watching the door of the inn for Bee to return. I worried suddenly about all the chestnuts and sweets she had eaten. Was she all right? “I’ll reserve one for Bee’s use; I’ll be taking over her education. I do not find you fit to teach her.”
He stared at me, and it was a very young look. Humiliation and panic, dismay and shock vied to control his face. None of them triumphed and so he simply stared. If it had not been Bee at stake, I might have felt sorry for having to do this to him. It took a few moments for him to find his tongue. He spoke very carefully and precisely. “If I have given offense somehow, or failed in your estimation, sir, I do—”
“You have,” I cut in. I refused to feel any pity or remorse. Had he pitied Bee when he’d rebuked and humiliated her in front of the other children?
His lower lip actually quivered. Then his face went very stony. He sat up very straight. “When we return tonight, I will immediately pack my things and leave Withywoods.”
His posturing wearied me. “No. Much as you both annoy me, I cannot allow that. No matter how little I wish it, you must remain at Withywoods. I have seen that neither of you is ready to teach nor protect my child. How, then, do you imagine I find you ready to protect yourself? FitzVigilant, you can continue to attempt to teach the other children. And I will be your instructor in both the axe and the sword, and in how to respect any man who can meet your eyes honestly.” More of my time claimed, but at least it might eventually make him able to fend for himself. And Shun? I looked at her regal outrage. “I will ask Steward Revel to see you instructed in whatever is most likely to win you a husband. I judge that not to be dancing or singing, but the management of a household within a budget.”
She stared at me coldly. “Lord Chade will hear of this!”
“Indeed, he will. And from me before your message reaches him.”
She narrowed her eyes to a cat’s squint. “I will not return to Withywoods. I will, this very night, take a room here in Oaksbywater and abide here, alone. And to Lord Chade you will answer for my leaving.”
I sighed. “Shun. It’s nearly Winterfest. The inns are full. And you will return this evening to my home, where we will prepare to celebrate it for the sake of my little daughter. I will not hear, from either of you, any more threats of leaving. You will not, for I have given my word to someone I respect that I will watch over you.” I looked from Lant to Shun.
Her mouth actually dropped open. She shut it with a snap and then abruptly demanded, “Badgerlock, how dare you assume any authority over me! Lord Chade put you at my disposal, for my convenience and protection. Send your message however and whenever you will. I will see that he corrects any misconceptions you have about our positions.”
And there it was, exposed in that single sentence. Despite Chade’s careless dropping of my name, she had not put the pieces together. She was glaring at me as if she expected me to stumble back from her, bowing and apologizing. While she might be illegitimate, she was confident of her superiority to me. Lant, though a bastard, had been acknowledged by a noble father, and was hence her equal.
But not the serving boy. Nor me, nor Riddle. Because in her eyes, I was as lowborn as my daughter.
“Shun. That’s enough.” That was all I said. Her eyes narrowed and grew cold with fury. I almost wanted to laugh as she decided to exercise her authority.
“You are not permitted to speak to me like that,” she warned me in a low voice.
I had almost thought of what I would reply when Riddle arrived at the table. He came bearing their dishes of food, cleverly balanced up one arm, and their mugs of cider in the other hand. With two thunks and a flourish, he set it all out before me. There was a glint in his eyes, his determination to put the events of the day behind him and be merry. Then his determined smile was suddenly replaced with a worried look and the question, “Where’s Bee?”