I watched Kettricken’s expression as she looked down into Bee’s answering stare. For the baby was silent but awake, meeting her gaze with eyes as blue as her own. Kettricken gave so tiny a gasp that perhaps no one else remarked it. Her smile did not fade, but it grew stiffer. She took two steps to a chair and sank into it. Then, as if determined to prove something to herself, she loosened the blanket that wrapped Bee.
My daughter was dressed in a confection of silk and lace such as none of Molly’s other children had ever worn. Even taken in to fit our tiny babe—for Molly had sewn it months before the birth—it only emphasized how tiny she was. Bee’s hands were curled onto her chest, and Kettricken stared at the fingers as small as a bird’s toes. As if daring herself, she touched Bee’s left hand with her forefinger.
The other guests had drawn closer, expecting that they, too, would be allowed to see her. Kettricken glanced up, not at me, but at Lady Solace, her healer. The woman had moved to the old Queen’s shoulder to look at the child, and now as her gaze met Kettricken’s I knew what her resigned countenance conveyed. I had seen it in the eyes of our household women. In her healer’s opinion, Bee was not a child who would remain long in this world. Whatever Kettricken thought of her pale hair and blue eyes, she said nothing of it. The old Queen gently folded the blankets around her and covered her face again. The action chilled me, for her fingers were as gentle as if she were shrouding a dead child. “She’s so tiny,” she said as she offered Bee back to her mother. She offered sympathy. Somehow her words conveyed that she understood why Bee had not been announced to a world where she would stay only briefly.
As I watched Molly’s arms enfold her, I sensed her relief to have Bee safely back in her embrace. Molly’s back was straight as a guardsman’s, her eyes calm, and her voice level as she added, “But perfect.”
“And she’s growing every day,” I lied heartily.
Silence followed my words and I wished I could call them back. Every woman worked out their import in her own mind, but only the healer spoke. “How tiny was she when she was born? Did she come early?” The room stilled, awaiting a response.
But Molly only gathered Bee to her and walked over to stand by the fireplace. She rocked and patted her as she stood silently, and as if rebuked the guests receded to take chairs. Even Kettricken found a comfortable seat; only Lady Solace remained standing. She studied Molly and suddenly observed, “You seem to have recovered very swiftly from your confinement, Lady Molly.” An unspoken question. Is the baby truly yours?
“I had an easy time of it,” Molly replied modestly, and glanced aside from the men present in the room. I could feel how avid Lady Solace was to ask more questions; she had the healer’s drive to know every root of a problem and then apply her skills to solving it. Molly sensed that, too, and it made her uneasy. When she looked at our child, she saw nothing amiss, save that Bee was much smaller than all her other babies had been. But in the healer’s inquisitive glance, Molly read that the woman saw Bee as damaged or sickly. Were she given over into that woman’s care, she would attempt to fix our babe as if Bee were a broken toy. I felt a rush of antipathy toward the woman; how dare she see my Bee as less than perfect! And beneath that, a cold river of trepidation that she might, somehow, be right. The urge to get her safely away from the healer’s anxious eyes raced through me. I did not wish to hear anything the woman might say about Bee. My glance met Molly’s. She held our baby closer and then smiled.
“You are so kind to be concerned for me. It is so thoughtful of you, for of course I do tire easily. It is not easy to be a new mother at my age.” Molly smiled round at her guests. “Thank you kindly for understanding that my daughter will take up my duties as hostess, for I know you will understand my need to retire early. But please, do not feel you must emulate me. I know that my husband has longed for company, and seldom gets a chance to spend hours in conversation with old friends. I shall trouble him only to move Bee’s cradle for me, and then I shall send him right back to you.”
I hoped I covered my surprise. It was not just that she had made such a sudden decision, but the imperious way in which Molly informed all gathered that she had done so. I had a glimpse of Nettle’s face; she was already calculating how to repair the social damage. In the set of her mouth I saw two things: She shared her mother’s fear that Lady Solace might find something wrong with Bee, and shared her cold tide of certainty that the healer would be right.
But I had a cradle to lift. Again. And a long flight of stairs before me. I stitched a smile to my face and took up my load. Our guests treated us to a chorus of swift good nights. Molly preceded me and I came behind, my pride creaking as much as my back. As soon as the door closed behind us, Molly whispered, “She sleeps in our room tonight, by my bedside.”