An old man, leaning on a cane, stood at the end of the hallway.
The Oathtaker froze. Her eyes narrowed. “Bernard?” she whispered.
He bowed. “At your service. And you are?”
“Bernard!” Therese exclaimed. “Don’t you recognize us?”
He shook his head. “Excuse me?”
“I said, ‘don’t you recognize us?’”
“I’m sorry, miss. I don’t see so well these days.”
Bernard had served as a doorman at the palace for decades. Basha recollected how when she’d last seen him, he was well into the fall of his life. Now, winter had set in. He stood even more stooped over than before, his build was even more slight than in the past, and apparently, his eyesight was even less acute.
“Bernard, it’s me—Therese.”
“You know, Rowena’s sister, Therese.”
He cocked his head right to left, then back again, looking the visitor over. “Therese.” He shook his head as though in disbelief. “I’d heard you lived after all.”
“That’s right. The family thought I’d been assassinated. Remember? That day we all went on a picnic near the cliff above the Mando River?”
“I remember.” It seemed, perhaps, that the one thing advanced age had not changed, was Bernard’s memory.
“What are you doing here?” Basha asked him.
He glanced her way, a question in his eyes.
“It’s me, Basha.”
“Oh, Basha. Yes, of course! Sorry. The hearing’s not so good anymore.” He brushed his hand over his ear.
“Bernard, what are you doing here?” Therese repeated Basha’s inquiry a bit louder.
He moved his cane forward, took a step, then repeated the procedure as he neared the women. “Waiting for the family to return, of course.”
“Oh, Bernard,” Basha cried, “let’s find you a seat.”
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” he insisted as he took another slow step.
The women approached him, then each took one of his elbows. They directed him back in the way from which he’d come, to the formal dining room.
Basha grabbed a chair, noticing the table set with clean plates, shining silver, and sparkling crystal.
“Sit here,” she said.
He sat. He took a deep breath. “So, how many will there be for dinner? I’ve a lot of preparations to make.”
The women pulled chairs out and sat next to him.
“Bernard, did you do this?” Therese asked, motioning toward the table.
“Oh, yes! Yes, of course. The table is always ready . . .”
“I’m sorry, the family is not coming home—at least not yet. Hopefully it will . . . soon.”
“Oh, well . . .”
“Basha and I are just stopping in to . . . Well, to have a look.” Therese paused. “How long has the place been empty?”
“Empty? Oh, yes, empty. Yes. Well, let’s see. I guess it wasn’t long after Lilith left that Janine and Sally moved on.”
“Sally and Janine have been gone all these years?” Basha asked. “I thought they’d have stayed here. Where did they go?”
“Go? Oh, you mean Sally and Janine. Where did they go?” He pursed his lips. “Where did they go?” he muttered. “Hmmmm, I’m not sure.” He hesitated. “I thought I heard them say something about . . . Well, about Chiran . . . But, you know, the hearing,” he motioned again with a hand to his ear, “it’s . . . not so good.”
“Well, maybe. Maybe not. I’m not sure I heard them correctly.”
“But you think that’s where they may have gone.”
“Maybe. Maybe.” The doorman glanced at the table. “So no one is coming for dinner again tonight?” The sparkle that had lit his eyes when he first recognized the visitors, wavered.
“No, Bernard,” Therese said as she stroked his forearm, “I’m sorry. No one will be here for dinner this evening. Well, no one except for Basha and me.”
“Ahhh! I’d best get busy then.” He stood.
Together, the women gently eased him back into his chair.
“We’ll stay for dinner, Bernard, under two conditions,” Therese said.
“Yes. First, Basha and I will see to dinner, and second, you will join us.”
The man smiled as he glanced from one of the women to the other. “You’re making dinner? Sorry, the hearing . . . It’s not so good.” One more time, he gestured at his ear.
“That’s right,” Therese said, raising her voice. “Does that sound good?”
“I’d like that. Yes, I’d like that.”
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