Victor heard the click of the lock on his door and moments later the footsteps lightly coming across his floor towards his bed. He sat up to greet his intruder only to feel the strength sap from his body. The small figure paused before him as he felt his body wither and his breath shorten. He was both relieved and disturbed to see the maid child before him with a tray prepared for his breakfast.
“Sir, you’re awake already,” she said uncertainly. “You are still so ill.”
“Startled only, child,” he said, dismissively. “Please keep the cover on the meal. I’m not yet ready to try to eat.”
“The tea I have brought you,” the girl said, setting down the tray on a small table out of sight of the bed. “Please do not wait to drink it. It becomes bitter when it gets too cold.”
He watched her with a mix of fascination and a bit of caution as she set the cover over his meal and turned her attention to the steaming tea that had come on the tray. She made no motion to add anything or even offer to as she carefully lifted the saucer and steadied the small bone china cup by the tiny, delicate handle.
A part of him wanted to reject it. He knew that she had to be the one to be doing this to him. The one to be keeping him alive. It was only good sense. She was, after all, dependent on his survival and that was in some jeopardy these days. Though he was mending quickly, he knew that he might yet succumb to illness if he should weaken. A condition that left him very much in her care. It was a damning place to be and though he’d been kind to the child, he’d been distant. Instinctively, he’d treated her almost like a relative that he did care for but he couldn’t tell why. He knew better than to believe that it might save him, ultimately. He knew that the people of this world could be vipers wearing the skins of compassion and goodness. He only hoped that this child, whatever her motives, might not yet be tainted by the greed that seemed to be the lifeblood of this wretched little county.
“I will let you rest and I will return when I’ve finished with the guest room down the hall,” the girl said, handing him the saucer very carefully. “If you are not hungry by then, I will bring your dish back to the kitchen, if you prefer.”
“Before you leave,” Victor said, carefully, “I would very much like to know what kind of tea this is. I don’t recognize the smell.”
“It’s a wild flower tea,” the girl replied, her voice softer. “It will help you rest.”
“And it was prepared by the kitchen?”
“There are only two types of teas stocked in the kitchen, child,” Victor said, calmly. “We do not have wild flower teas there. Answer me truthfully now. Did you make this?”
“I did,” she said, bowing her head. She looked to him as though he might strike her and took a step back. “The purple flowers are harmless. They help people sleep but they cannot hurt anyone. They turn bitter when they get cold but they won’t make you ill.”
“Not like the poisonous fruit that is found in the forest,” Victor said, pausing before he finally sipped the tea. “You know which fruit that I speak of, yes?”
“It only grows in shade,” she said, shamefully. “I swear to you that I have never touched it.”
“No, but my sister has and while I do not believe that you are the culprit behind this recent turn of events, I should suspect that you might be able to help me find out who might have led her to find out about such things,” Victor said, motioning for her to pull up a chair.
“The other rooms,” the girl protested. “The head maid will be most upset if they are not dusted before noon.”
“And she is under my employ and if I should decide that I enjoy the look of the dust this afternoon, she will simply have to accept that,” Victor said, taking another sip. The slight tingle on his tongue told that there would be bitterness to follow but for the moment, the hot tea was pleasant enough. “Sit with me and tell me what you know of this fruit and how Charlotte came to know of it.”
“I fear you will not believe me if I tell you,” the child replied, dejected as she pulled up a small chair. Even in the tiny chair that he sat in easily, she looked more like a doll with a dirty face, seated like she was awaiting a tea party.
“I’m not sure if you hear such things but we live in crazy times, child,” Victor sighed, looking out the window. “The world around us is changing so fast. There are many things that the older people of this world don’t understand and the young ones have no words to tell them. I know that I will not understand you but I demand to know anyway. Speak to me and tell me the truth about this bitter fruit and its poison in me. Tell me how a wretch like my sister might have come to know it.”
“The world has always been crazy, sir, but things here never change,” the girl sighed, the words seeming to make her sound like she was decades older than she was. She spoke to her own swinging shoes, dangling above the floor. “Even when people die, they are not gone. They never leave here. I know this. I can still hear her voice sometimes, whispering to you or your sister. Telling me tales like she did when I was afraid in the night.”
“And who is she that speaks to me?”
“The woman who once owned this land and lived in the woods,” the child replied, her voice steady but her lips trembling. “My beloved Memère.”
Victor felt his want to demand a true answer bubbling underneath his resolve but he swallowed it before it could show in his face. The child wiped at her eyes and looked away. He sighed and forced himself to soften his tone.
“Go on, child. Surely there is more to tell than this. Why does your Memère speak to me? How does she do it?”
“She speaks on the wind,” the girl replied, her voice sounding more far away now. “She speaks in the trees. They know her language or she once knew theirs. They speak to her still and she replies. They remain angry that she is gone. That she cannot tend to them as she once did.”
“She speaks to me because I am here where she once was?”
“She speaks to you because you are not one of them,” the girl said and quickly went silent. She looked away and flinched as though she were awaiting a reprimand.
“Please, child, I will give you my word from here to my death bed, I will not raise a hand to you or anyone under my employ,” Victor urged. “You can speak in safety. I confess that I don’t understand but I must know. This voice had called to Charlotte to kill me, yes? Is this what was to be done?”
“No,” she said, surprised. She placed a small hand on his own. “No, Memère does not wish for the world to see you. She knows there are many people out there who wish to find her secrets. People who might see you harmed. She is cruel but Memère would not see you dead. I swear it!”
Victor looked at her tiny hand on his own. A hand meant to give comfort and some form of care to an elder man. A man too old for his own body. His soul, aching against his flesh, felt like it had aged a hundred years since the beginning of this ordeal. He felt the tug of the tea in his blood, lulling him to a comforting drowsy state.
“And these people who would see me harmed,” Victor said, easing back, feeling the heaviness of his own limbs. “She knew them? She knew what they might become?”
“They were cruel, horrible people when she knew them in France,” the girl frowned. She looked on the verge of tears at the memory of something she could not bring herself to say. “She knew them for what they had become then. She knew then that they would do to her-”
The girl looked away as the tears rolled down her cheeks. Discreetly, she pulled a small handkerchief from her apron and dabbed at her cheeks.
“She had warned us all once and now she seeks to speak the words she would never say in life,” the girl said, steadying herself now. She swallowed, still dabbing at her eyes. “She speaks the words that I have always feared she would.”
“And what words does she speak now?”
“She speaks the language of vengeance.”