She nodded again, gravely, but corrected me, saying, “I helped the White Prophet. I was called to do so and have never regretted it.”
Again the silence stretched between us. It was like trying to converse with a cat. I resorted to banality. “I hope you and your family are well.”
And like a cat, her eyes narrowed for just an instant. Then she said, “My son is not here.”
She took up her rag again, wiping her fingers very carefully. The grandson returned with a small tray. A little cup, smaller than my closed fist, held one of the aromatic tisanes of the Mountains. I was grateful for the distraction. I thanked him and then sipped from it, tasting wild currant and a certain spice from a Mountain tree bark that I had not tasted in years. It was delicious. I said so.
Jofron rose from her workbench. She walked across the room, her back very straight. One wall of the room had been shaped in a bas-relief of a tree. It must have been her work, for it had not been that way the last time I had stayed here. Leaves and fruit of all sorts projected from its carved branches. She reached over her head to a large leaf, gently eased it aside to reveal a small cubby, and brought out a little box.
She returned and showed it to me. It was not the Fool’s work, but I recognized the hands curved protectively to form a lid over the box’s contents. Jofron had carved his hands as a lid for her box. I nodded at her that I understood. She moved her fingers and I heard a distinctive snick, as if a hidden catch had given way. When she opened the little box, a fragrance came from it, unfamiliar but enticing. She was not trying to hide its contents from me. I saw small scrolls, at least four and possibly more concealed under them. She took one from the box and closed the lid.
“This was his most recent message to me,” she said.
Most recent. I knew a moment of the sharpest, greenest envy I had ever felt. He had not sent me as much as a bird message, but Jofron had a small casket of scrolls! The soft brown paper was tied closed with a slender orange ribbon. She tugged at it and it gave way. Very gently she unrolled it. Her eyes moved over it. I thought she would read it aloud to me. Instead she lifted her blue gaze and met my eyes in an uncompromising stare. “This one is short. No news of his life. No fond greeting, no wish for my continued health. Only a warning.”
There was no hostility in her face, only determination. “A warning that I should protect my son. That I should say nothing of him to strangers who might ask.”
“I don’t understand.”
She lifted one shoulder. “Nor do I. But understanding completely is not necessary for me to take heed of his warning. And so I tell you, my son is not here. And that is all I will say about him.”
Did she think me a danger? “I did not even know you had a son. Nor a grandson.” My thoughts rattled like seeds in a dry pod. “And I did not ask after him. Nor am I a stranger to you.”
She nodded agreeably to each of my statements. Then she asked, “Did you enjoy your tea?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“My eyes tire easily these day. I find sleeping helps, for then I wake refreshed, to do my best work in the early dawn light.” She spindled the little brown paper, and looped the orange ribbon round it. As I watched she returned it to the box. And shut the lid.
The Mountain folk were so courteous. She would not tell me to get out of her house. But it would have been the worst of manners for me to attempt to stay. I rose immediately. Perhaps if I left right away, I could come back tomorrow and try again to ask more about the Fool. I should go now, quietly. I knew I should not ask. I did. “How did the messages reach you, please?”
“By many hands and a long way.” She almost smiled. “The one who put this last one into my hands is long gone from here.”
I looked at her face and knew that this was my final chance for words with her. She would not see me tomorrow. “Jofron, I am not a danger to you or your family. I came to bid farewell to a wise King who treated me well. Thank you for letting me know that the Fool sent you messages. At least I know that he still lives. I shall keep that comfort as your kindness to me.” I stood up and bowed deep to her.
I think I saw a tiny crack in her façade, the smallest offer of sympathy when she said, “The last message arrived two years ago. And it had taken at least a year to reach me. So as to the White Prophet’s fate, neither of us can be certain.”
Her word brought cold to my heart. Her grandson had gone to the door and opened it, holding it for me. “I thank you for your hospitality,” I said to both of them. I set the tiny cup on the corner of her worktable, bowed again, and left. I did not try to return the next day.