Fool's Assassin / Page 173

Page 173


It was a warm felted nightrobe. Red. My favorite color. I carried it closer to the fire to look at it. It was new and unworn. I turned the collar inside-out and knew the stitches. My mother had made this. For me. Made it and set it aside, as she had so often done, to be pulled out the moment I outgrew my old one.

I shed my wet garments where I stood and pulled the new nightrobe on over my head. It fit well, save that it was a bit long. I lifted it to walk. It made me feel elegant to have to catch up my skirt when I walked, even if it was only the train of my nightrobe.

The ghost cried out, a long, distant wail that lifted the hair on the back of my head. I stood frozen for an instant. Then it came again, closer and louder. Two things happened in that moment. I knew I should never have left a cat in the spy-maze, and I abruptly deduced that yes, my chamber did have an entrance to the secret corridors. It just wasn’t where I had thought it would be.

I pushed open the door to the maidservant’s room. The firelight barely reached into the room. I went back for a candle. The pale stranger’s bedding was as she had left it, crumpled on the bed. I knew better than to touch it. I edged around it and as I did, my feet tangled in something and I nearly fell. I cried out, in fear of the infected bedding, and the ghost cried in response.

“Just a minute!” I hissed low. “I’m coming. Be quiet and I’ll give you a big piece of fish.”

Water. The cat wanted water. I should have known that. He’d already found and claimed his salt fish reward, and now he was thirsty. “Water, then. And sausage from the pantry. But be quiet until I can get to you. Please.”

A rumbly meow of agreement and warning. If his reward was slow in coming, he was going to sing the stones down around me.

Heart thundering, I looked down at my feet, fearing to see a flood of biting insects climbing my legs. Instead I saw only the hem of my nightrobe and, when I lifted it, my bare feet against the plank floor. Holding my robe high and bringing my candle close, I stooped. I stared. I could feel that my foot was on top of something that was not the floor, but I couldn’t see anything there.

I hiked my robe higher so I could grip the hem in my teeth and curled my toes. They clasped fabric. Light and soft. I reached down and pinched it between my forefinger and thumb and as I did, a flap of it fell over, revealing once more the butterfly-wing pattern on the underside. I dropped it, startled. And again, my foot was apparently bare against the floor, but half of my toes were gone. One corner of the cloak was upturned to show the delicate panes of color. As I stared in astonishment, my toes slowly formed on the fabric. I could feel that the cloth covered them but I could see them.

I pinched the butterfly-color part of the cloak up between my thumb and forefinger and stood. Now I could see it. It hung from my uplifted hand, a garment of riotous color and very little weight. This, then, was how we had not seen her in the bed. The strange words of the messenger came back to me. “It takes on the colors and shadows.” No wonder she had cautioned us not to discard it. It was a treasure from an old tale! Abruptly my fear of contagion vanished, to be replaced with the certainty that if my father saw this, he would take it from me and probably destroy it to protect me.

I set my candle on the floor and, standing carefully free of the bedding’s touch, shook out the cloak and folded it, butterfly-side-out. It made a surprisingly small packet. I thought to myself that such thin fabric would be delicate and of small use against wind or rain. I resolved to take great care with it.

Stripy Cat meowed again. “Hush!” I cautioned him. Then I suggested, “Dig or scratch where you see my light. I’m trying to find the door.”

The faint scrabbling came from under the bed. I didn’t want to touch the bed frame but I did. I seized it in both hands and with an effort pulled the heavy bed away from the wall. It seemed to me it was much heavier than it needed to be, and I suspect it had been made so just to discourage a servant from moving it.

I lifted my candle and edged past the bed frame to the wall, to peer and poke at the wooden panels. The cat clawed diligently, even frantically. I could not see an opening or trigger, but when I put my hand where he was scratching I felt a draft. And the sound, it seemed to me, was much louder than it should have been. “Be patient,” I warned him again, and suddenly thought of the door in the study. I shut the door to the room and studied the hinges. No false hinges, but there was one plank of wood behind the door that was narrower than its fellows. I caught my nails in the edge of it and tugged at it till it swung out. Behind it was a lever covered in cobwebs and spotted with rust. I pulled it and it groaned. It did not travel far, but a section of wall behind the bed suddenly moved out of alignment. The cat’s excited meow was louder now.

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