I nodded, and gestured to Revel to begin serving. I made no comment on Bee or how we had brought her into the dining room. Kettricken understood and did not broach the topic. The meal commenced. It was served with considerably less formality than a dinner at Buckkeep Castle, yet more pomp than we usually observed at Withywoods. Nettle had instructed Revel to keep the visit simple, and though he had chafed at this, he had almost complied. So dishes were passed and I served the wine, and the conversation was casual and sometimes merry. We learned that Lady Solace often traveled with Kettricken now, for she had begun to have problems with her joints. At the end of the day she welcomed her handmaid’s oil rubs as well as the hot drinks she concocted. Lord Stoutheart and Lady Hope had joined them simply because they were bound for their own homes for the winter after a pleasant visit at Buckkeep Castle. Withywoods was on the route that they must travel. Indeed, the bulk of the servants and guards accompanying Kettricken were not her own people but Lord Stoutheart’s.
The smells of the food and the pleasant clatter of eating might have lulled another man. I took this time as my opportunity to study my guests. I considered Lady Solace’s presence as genuinely the product of Kettricken’s wish, but reserved judgment on Lord Stoutheart and Lady Hope. I wondered if the youthful assassin had come as part of Kettricken’s retinue. If he had, did Kettricken know the full of what he was or had the royal assassins added him as an anonymous member of her party? Perhaps he had been slipped in by Lady Rosemary as a stable boy for the traveling party. I had often served in that capacity when Chade wanted eyes or ears somewhere he himself could not go. Yet the lad had been well dressed, not in a stable hand’s leathers but in silk and linen. I watched Lant as he picked at his food and wondered again if he was a lure to distract me. I was glad we had not left Bee alone in the room, and decided I would inspect the entire nursery before I put her to bed there tonight. No, I abruptly decided. I would put the cradle by my bed and watch over Bee myself.
The relief I felt at that decision was palpable. I found my tongue and became more talkative and jocular, and Molly, Nettle, and Kettricken all smiled to see me so. The conversation was lively, ranging from the late apple crop, to the hunting prospects near Withywoods and Buckkeep Castle, to news of old friends who lived in the Mountain Kingdom. Kettricken asked after Molly’s children, and relayed the latest news from the Princes. The minstrel and his two assistants arrived, with their small drums and pipes, and added music to our enjoyment. The meal lasted long and the hour was late when the last dish was finally cleared from the table.
“Shall we move to a cozier room?” Molly suggested, for the large dining hall was inevitably drafty and cool on a stormy night.
“Let’s,” I agreed, and Kettricken replied, “A warmer room will be a pleasanter place for me to meet your little daughter.”
She did not ask, she assumed. I smiled at that. We were old partners at this sort of gaming. She had recognized my gambit, respected it, and now advanced her own. Nonetheless, I resolved that I would win this round against her for Bee as I had not won for Nettle. As Molly and I and our guests rose, I smiled but did not verbally respond to Kettricken’s words. I reached the cradle quickly and held the gauzy drapery aside to allow Molly to gather Bee up. She draped a blanket around the baby as she did so, and then waited confidently for me to once more lift the cradle. I managed it without a groan. A quick glance told me that Nettle had detained the former Queen with some minor conversation, and that she then motioned for her to precede her out of the room. Molly and I came last, following our guests as Nettle led the way to a sitting room.
A stranger might have assumed this room was my den. In addition to comfortable seating and a roaring fire in the hearth, the walls were lined with shelves and held many books bound in the Jamaillian style. Above them, on racks, were older scrolls and vellums. There was a desk in the corner near the heavily draped window, and on it was an inkpot and blank paper. It was all for show. On these shelves a spy might find a journal of the birds I had seen in the last four years, or notes on the operation of Withywoods. There were enough estate records and papers in this room to make at least a casual thief believe he had found my lair. But he would find no sign here of FitzChivalry Farseer or of the work I did for Chade.
Once again the cradle was carefully placed but as Molly moved to install Bee in it, Kettricken swept past Nettle to her side. “May I hold her?” she asked, and there was such simple warmth in her request that no one could have refused it. Perhaps only I saw how Molly’s smile stiffened as she offered our bundled child to the former Queen. As she took Bee into her arms, blanket and all, Kettricken’s brows lifted in subtle surprise. Nettle moved closer; I felt my older daughter’s Skill thrumming wariness. I think it was a pack instinct to protect the smallest that operated on a level so profoundly deep that she was scarcely aware of how she joined her Skill to mine. The moment could not be avoided. Molly lifted the light covering that had hidden our baby’s face.