“It feels odd to leave her here alone,” Nettle objected uncomfortably as Molly drew a lacy covering over the cradle.
“Not really,” Molly replied calmly. She moved about the room, letting down layer after layer of curtains. It became twilight, the warm firelight the only illumination. And as she turned to look at her elder daughter, she sighed and said, “You have been too long at court. You should find a way to have time to yourself. Come here, or go visit one of your brothers. Get away from the suspicions and that careful dance you always seem to be treading. Look. She’s already dozing off. She’ll be fine here.”
“I’m certain she’ll be fine here alone, Nettle,” I lied agreeably. I ventured closer and looked down into the cradle. Bee’s eyes were almost completely closed.
“Come,” Molly said, taking my hand. “We’d best go meet the Queen.” I let her lead me from the room.
Steward Revel did a far better job of being the lord of the manor than I could ever attempt. We did not go to the entrance hall, where I was sure he was sorting our guests into levels of importance. The guards and lesser servants would be bustled off to simple but clean rooms and offered an immediate opportunity either to visit the Withywoods steams or to warm their faces and hands with hot water before descending to a casual and hearty meal of soups, bread, butter, cheese, ale, and wine. Revel had nothing but sympathy for frequently hard-used servants. While they visited Withywoods, they would be treated as the guests of our own servants. I was sure they would welcome his hospitality after the morning’s chilly ride through the freshly fallen snow.
With the expertise of a general marshaling his troops, he had recruited temporary help from the village. Any lesser nobility would be entrusted to these willing but less experienced hands as luggage was carried to rooms, washwater fetched, fires built up, and any other small chores accomplished. To our experienced staff would go the honor of waiting on the highest echelon of guests, with Revel putting himself and his right hand, Dixon, at the full service of Lady Kettricken. All of these arrangements had been tediously explained to me the day before. I had nodded endlessly and authorized everything he suggested.
Molly, Nettle, and I hurried to the Great Hall where Revel had decreed we would welcome our guests. I entered to find that the room had been transformed overnight. The paneled walls gleamed with a fresh wiping of some fragrant oil, a large and welcoming fire burned in the hearth, and a long table had been brought in and decorated with vases of flowers. My ladies peremptorily stationed me there to await our refreshed guests, as they made a final dash to the kitchens to be sure all was in readiness. I waited until I could no longer hear their slippers pattering hastily down the hallway. Then I stepped out into the hall and heartlessly detained one of our temporary serving boys.
“Lad, I’ve forgotten something in my rooms. Just stay here for me, and if anyone arrives, assure them that Lady Molly and Nettle will both return very shortly, and that I shall be down soon.”
His eyes widened. “Sir, mayn’t I fetch whatever it is you’ve forgotten? I don’t know how to talk to a Queen, sir, even if she isn’t the Queen anymore.”
I smiled ruthlessly at him. “And that, my lad, is exactly why you are the perfect person for this task. If you greet her with the same warmth and respect you’d accord your own grandmother, that will be more than sufficient.”
“But, sir!” I didn’t realize he had freckles until he went so pale they stood out on his face.
I laughed genially and pitied him in my heart. “Only a moment, only a moment.” And I left him, striding off down the hall with a fine clacking of boots.
The moment I turned the corner of the corridor, I stooped, removed my boots, and then ran as light-footedly as if I were the serving boy himself. This would be the time I would choose, were it my mission. Was I being foolish? Had I, like Nettle, lived too long at Buckkeep among the multiple layers of intrigue there? There was only one way to find out. I swung the door of the nursery open just wide enough for me to enter. I slid into the room and froze beside the door. I eased it shut behind me. My Wit told me I was alone in here except for my daughter. Nonetheless, no board shifted under my tread, and my shadow never crossed the firelight as I carried my boots to the corner and concealed them there. A quick glance into the cradle as I passed it. She was there, but I did not think she was asleep. Quiet, I begged her. Stay quiet. I ghosted into the most shadowy corner behind the two pansy screens and composed myself, setting my feet and finding my balance. Not a sigh of breath, not a shift of weight on the old floor timbers. I raised all my walls, blocking my Skill and my Wit into my own mind. I became an empty place in the darkness.