Tyves 8, 1013
“Dilly?” Nyasha called as she entered the kitchen, wiping her hands on the apron she’d hastily donned. “Dilly, I’m home!”
Home. How odd to say that. She had only been here for two months, but already the Ferreira manor was beginning to feel like a home.
Not home home, though. That was still the nunnery, with Mother Julian and the other girls. This was the first year in recent memory where a new girl hadn’t gotten big enough to move from the little one’s orphanage to the nunnery. Rhoslyn said that the table still felt empty and odd without Nyasha. Mother Julian never indicated anything of the kind … but Nyasha thought that she made more excuses than were strictly necessary to seek Nyasha out, talk to her, check in with her, even though the other students, all of whom with parents who were paying a great deal for their education, probably needed her attention just as much.
… No, Nyasha realized as she wiped her hands on her apron and looked around for Dilly. No, they didn’t. They all had mothers, or stepmothers, or fond aunts, or grandmothers, or nannies. Mother Julian had been the closest thing Nyasha ever got to have to a mother. She would remember that, next time she felt guilty for taking up Mother Julian’s time.
Nyasha kept looking for Dilly (her fully name was Delia, Delia Buffone, though she insisted on being called Dilly), but there was no sign of her. “Dilly?” she called again, voice half-lifting up in panic. Dilly was the one thing that was making Ferreira Manor into something of a home for her —
“Right here, love!” called Dilly, emerging from the larder with a tray full of vegetables. “Sorry. Was tryin’ to find where the blasted lettuce had gotten to.”
Nyasha smiled. “No — no problem. Where — where had it gotten to?”
“Behind the basket of eggs, of all places! For goodness sake! I keep tellin’ those girls, if you don’t know where I want somethin’, ask me! I don’t bite!” Dilly’s odd double gaze — the product of the spectacles perched on her nose — turned to Nyasha. “I don’t bite, now, do I?”
“Never,” Nyasha giggled. “What do you want me to do, Dilly?”
“The family just wants a light salad, so I’ll fix that, and you can have a seat and keep me company.”
Nyasha flushed. “Dilly … I should be helping.” Dilly had taken Nyasha on as her kitchen girl. It was bad enough that Nyasha was in school for all of the morning and some of the afternoon, but to not even be helping for the late lunch that the Ferreiras preferred …
“Don’t be silly. If there was anything for you to do, I’d have you doin’ it. But as I can make a salad for six with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back, you can sit your behind in that chair and tell me how school was.”
“Now, where did I put that knife — ah, here it is!” Dilly found it and brandished it, grinning like a madwoman. The first time she had done it, Nyasha had been taken in by the smile and had stared at Dilly in horror — but she knew better now. There was more than a little bit of the jester in Dilly. Nyasha giggled.
Dilly turned to attacking the lettuce, onion and other vegetables. “So, lass. Who was your teacher today?”
“Brother Galahad,” Nyasha answered, doing her best to keep the sigh between her teeth.
“Hmm,” Dilly remarked.
“Oh, nothin’. Just hmmm.”
Nyasha chewed on her lip and waited for the response. Dilly rarely “hmmed” without reason.
Finally the reason came out when she spoke. “You know, I’ve got a cousin out Avilion-way — she says that Brother Galahad is madder than a cat who thinks he’s a chicken. Any truth in that?”
“A cat who thinks he’s a chicken?” Nyasha repeated incredulously.
“Or maybe it’s a chicken who thinks he’s a cat,” Dilly mused, the knife flashing as it went up and down, up and down, over the poor, defenseless onion. “Probably that. I’ve never met a cat who thinks he’s anything but what he is, but a chicken? Well, lass, have I ever told you about the time my cousin decided to put a chicken’s egg in with the duck eggs, just to see what would happen?”
Nyasha shook her head.
“Well, that chick, once it hatched, decided he was a duck, he did! Followed the mama duck around, ate what she ate, acted just like a duckling! Except when it came time to swim … then the chick seemed to realize that something was wrong and refused to get in the water. After a day or two, it went back to the other chickens and seemed to realize just what it was. Still. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a chicken or two in the world’s history that somehow or other got itself attached to a cat and convinced itself it was just the world’s strangest-lookin’ kitten — at least for a little while.”
“I wonder what would happen when it tried to catch mice,” Nyasha mused.
Dilly laughed. “You’re more optimistic than I am, Nyasha!”
“Huh? Why’s that?”
“I was wonderin’ what would happen when the cat got hungry.”
Nyasha gasped. “Dilly!”
“What? A chick’s a small, fluffy, mostly defenseless thing — cats eat small, fluffy, mostly defenseless things. Stands to reason that the chick wouldn’t last very long.”
“Indeed,” Dilly nodded. “But about Brother Galahad. So — how mad is he?”
Nyasha chewed on her lower lip. “He’s very kind.”
“My cousin said that, too. Kind to a fault, she said he was.” Dilly’s eyes peeked at Nyasha from over the half-moon spectacles. “But she also said he was …”
“Mad,” Nyasha finished. “I — I don’t know, Dilly. I’m not ever afraid of him …”
“Oh, goodness, I don’t mean that kind of mad!” Dilly gasped. “No, no! I just mean … well, you know. Not all there. Not walkin’ around on the same earth with all the rest of us.”
“Oh. That … sounds about right. But he’s a good teacher! I think,” Nyasha added.
“Wonder how he manages to be a good teacher while not bein’ here with the rest of us,” Dilly mused.
Nyasha didn’t answer. She was just relieved that Dilly didn’t light on that “I think” as evidence that there might be something more going on, something that Nyasha wasn’t bringing up. But there was … still, it wasn’t something Nyasha could talk about.
The truth of the matter was that Nyasha didn’t have time to study anymore. She was keeping up with the rest of the class, but just barely. She knew she could be doing better … but when she got back from school, there was the kitchen garden to see to, which Dilly didn’t let the gardeners anywhere near, there was lunch and supper to help prepare, there was the washing-up to do, the beginnings of breakfast to prepare for the morning … Nyasha could usually only manage to grab an hour or two for herself before bed. She studied what she could, then she slipped into exhausted sleep.
She knew she shouldn’t feel bad about it. The first day she had gotten there, the first day Dilly had claimed her from the housekeeper and put her under her especial charge, Dilly had taken Nyasha aside and told her to think of this as an apprenticeship. She would teach Nyasha everything she knew, and by the time she was eighteen or twenty, she would know enough about the kitchen and everything in it to be able to walk into any kitchen in the country and get herself a fine job.
The only problem with that scenario was that Nyasha was indentured to the Ferreiras, something she wasn’t sure Dilly knew. Dilly was a freewoman; she had lived in Camelot and been one of the cooks at the palace before coming to work for the Ferreiras. If Dilly decided she didn’t like it here, she could leave tomorrow if she wanted. But Nyasha couldn’t leave the shire, not permanently, not unless she wanted to become a nun.
… Or get married. There were so few indentured peasants that the lords didn’t even try to keep women on the estates. As long as as indentured women married indentured men, everything evened out eventually. But Nyasha couldn’t be certain that would be an option for her. Who would marry an orphan bastard like her?
Still … maybe, if she got good like Dilly said, she might be able to work in different kitchens in Port Finessa. Baron Ferreira was trying to build up the area and get other merchant families to become wealthy. If any of them needed a cook, maybe Nyasha could work for them someday.
Book learning didn’t seem so important when Nyasha forced herself to remember that she wasn’t doing anything as frivolous as studying for the Camford exam, which she would never take. She was learning how to keep and fend for herself. That was a skill she would need.
“All right, we’re all set,” said Dilly, drizzling the the mixed greens and vegetables with a bit of oil and vinegar. She tossed it a few times, then poured it onto a silver serving tray. “Get that served, and once you’re done, we’ll have our own lunch.”
“Yes, Dilly,” Nyasha replied. She took the plate. She didn’t take a deep breath and square her shoulders, even though she felt she needed to. Dilly always laughed at her when she did that, not unkindly, but a laugh all the same. She would say that if she herself didn’t scare Nyasha, the Ferreiras shouldn’t.
But they did.
Nyasha pushed the door open and headed into the main hall.
The family — well, most of the family — was sitting down at the table already. Lady Clarice was missing. However, today was one of the days she took appointments in her surgery. She would probably be here as soon as she got cleaned up and changed for lunch.
Lady Ferreira heard the door open and close and turned to Nyasha. She nodded once. “You can begin serving. Clarice should be here in just a moment.”
“Yes, m’lady,” Nyasha replied. She began scooping platefuls of salad and placing them before Ferreiras. She hesitated, though, when she had put the last plateful in front of Clarice’s usual place. “Will — will there be guests today, m’lady?”
“No, Nyasha. It’s to be just us today.” She smiled.
Nyasha nodded, waiting for her dismissal. The housekeeper had been quite clear about that when she explained Nyasha’s duties, insofar as they involved “the family”: she was not to leave until she had been formally dismissed. Usually Lady Ferreira did that as soon as the plates were served.
But she didn’t today. Lady Clarice, hurrying down the stairs and smoothing her dress as she went, forestalled that. “I’m so sorry!” she said, hurrying into her chair.
“Oh, don’t worry about that, dear,” replied Lady Ferreira.
“We haven’t even started eating yet,” added Baron Ferreira.
Nyasha could hear Lady Clarice’s sigh of relief. It was very odd, how she acted — that is, when Nyasha got to see her, which wasn’t very often. She always seemed nervous, on edge with Baron Ferreira and his wife. But she and Master Frederick had been married for over a year. The maids did insist that Lady Clarice was much more relaxed around Lady Ferreira than she was around the Baron, but it was still very, very strange.
Or maybe it wasn’t. What did Nyasha know of families, of in-laws?
“So, Freddy,” asked Baron Ferreira, clearly picking up the thread of an earlier conversation, “how is the bridge coming?”
“Well. Very well. We’ve got the dam built, so we ought to be able to start digging holes for the foundations. We’re building in stone this time,” Freddy answered. He hesitated, then added, “It–it never should have been built in wood to start with. And the supports weren’t properly guarded against the water. It was only a matter of time before it collapsed.”
“Such a tragedy,” Lady Ferreira sighed, shaking her head.
“One that shouldn’t have happened.” Master Frederick’s nostrils flared. “That bridge was never built for the foot traffic it ended up taking. And the wagons and all the cargo, too … I don’t know what the builders were thinking.”
“Freddy, Freddy …” Baron Ferreira shook his head. “That was twenty years ago. We needed a bridge — there was a ferry, but it was the slowest boat (if you even want to call it a boat, which I don’t) I ever went on — and we needed it quickly. The king found a carpenter who said he could do it, and he built a bridge that … well, didn’t collapse at once. And not for twenty years, either. None of us knew much about building things to last back then.”
“But …” Lady Clarice spoke hesitantly. “Freddy, didn’t — didn’t five men die in that collapse?”
“That’s a point, Richard,” Lady Ferreira added. The people-watcher in Nyasha wished she could see her expression. Lady Ferreira’s tone indicated that she was quite, quite serious.
“Men who shouldn’t have even been there,” Master Frederick fumed. “We knew that bridge was under too much stress. I told the King so!”
“And he said he sent Ambrosius around — he must have gotten to Sir Mordred’s estate too late,” Baron Ferreira replied, trying to soothe. “Besides, Freddy, you should know that nothing lasts forever. Not even bridges.”
“We’re still using some of the roads the Remans left,” Master Frederick retorted. “And considering how well-built they are, they’ll still be here when Reme is just a memory.”
Baron Ferreira chuckled. “Well, Freddy, if it makes you feel better — the carpenter, Master FitzGerald, who made that bridge? He’s just a memory, too. He passed on, five … maybe six years ago? Seven?” He glanced at Lady Ferreira.
“I think it was nine,” Lady Ferreira answered.
“That long? Good Lord,” Baron Ferreira muttered. “But there you have it, Freddy. It outlasted Master FitzGerald by almost nine years. That has to mean something, eh?”
“To whom? To the families of the men who were killed?” Master Frederick asked.
Lady Ferreira patted her husband’s shoulder. “I think you should give up, dear. You’re not going to win this one.”
“I’ll decide when I’m not going to win something, thank you,” Baron Ferreira answered — but there was no hiding the smile in his eyes. Then he turned back to his son. “And when did you become so earnest and noble-hearted, eh?”
Master Frederick turned a confused glance to his wife, who inclined her head — perhaps passing on the confused glance to Lady Ferreira. “He’s always been like that, Richard,” Lady Ferreira laughed.
“And where did he get it from? Not me!” Baron Ferreira argued.
“Well,” Lady Ferreira chuckled, “perhaps he got it from me.”
Baron Ferreira’s mouth opened. It shut. If Nyasha watched him closely, she could see the many gears in his mind whirring with every rapid blink.
Finally Master Frederick laughed. “It’s no use, Dad! Give it up. You can’t win that one.”
But Baron Ferreira had not given up yet. “You know who I think he got it from — ultimately?” he asked.
“Oo-oh?” asked Lady Ferreira.
“Your mother,” Baron Ferreira replied, smiling a bit unctuously and waggling his eyebrows. “Maude always was a bit of a crusader, wasn’t she?”
Master Frederick laughed. Lady Ferreira leaned back, but when she spoke, something in her voice suggested a smile. “Nice one, dear. And speaking of Maude, we’re going to visit Dannie this afternoon. Dannie says Maude is rolling all over the place now, and we have to see it.”
Baron Ferreira took a deep breath, looked at his wife’s face, and thought better of what he was about to say. “I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”
“Give Dannie and the babies my love, won’t you?” Master Frederick asked. “I have to–” He stopped, eyes narrowing …
“Nyasha, is there something you need?” he asked.
And — perhaps for the first time since she had come here — the gaze of each member of the family (except for little Colin) came to rest on Nyasha at once. Nyasha’s stomach plunged to her feet.
“N-n-no, s-sir …” Nyasha murmured. She wanted to bolt into the kitchen, but she couldn’t — not while they were all looking at her!
“Is something the matter?” asked Lady Ferreira, eyebrows creased in concern.
“No, no! You–that is–I was never dismissed, m’lady.”
“Never dis–” Lady Ferreira began, and gasped. “My goodness! Nyasha, you don’t have to stand here and wait! You can leave as soon as you’re finished serving. You must be starving, poor dear, go and eat!”
“I–I–yes, m’lady. Thank you.” Nyasha dipped in a hasty curtsey, then she walked as quickly as she dared to the kitchen.
She didn’t breathe again until after the door clicked shut behind her. But before the door clicked, she heard the family begin to talk and laugh again.
“That took a while,” Dilly remarked as soon as the door was safely shut. She glanced at Nyasha over her spectacles. “Everything all right?”
Something must have shown in her face, for Dilly frowned. “What happened?”
“Lady Ferreira forgot to dismiss me. I … I didn’t say anything … I heard some of what they were talking about …”
“Were financial details or plans for immanent crimes mentioned?” asked Dilly drily.
Nyasha cracked a smile.
“That’s what I thought. Don’t worry about it. Lady Ferreira didn’t say anything to you, did she?”
Nyasha shook her head. “She … she seemed almost sorry for keeping me waiting. She said I must be starving …”
“And you should be! I know I am! Grab a plate, Nyasha.”
Nyasha did as she was told and followed Dilly to the little table tucked into the corner.
“So!” Dilly asked as soon as they were settled. “Were they talking about anything interesting?”
Nyasha gasped. “The — the family?”
“No, the Reman army — of course the family, silly! If there was anything juicy, you ought by rights to tell me. My goodness, you think there’s a servant in Albion who doesn’t gossip all the time about the family she serves?” laughed Dilly.
“I … I don’t know,” Nyasha admitted.
“That’s because there isn’t one. Now, spill!”
“Well …” Nyasha ran over the conversation in her head, hoping that would speak louder than Mother Julian’s strictures against gossiping. Still, there was very little that had been said that Nyasha thought Dilly would find interesting. What were either of them going to have to say about roads and bridges? “Apparently Baby Maude — the Ferreiras’ granddaughter — is rolling over now. And Baron and Lady Ferreira will be visiting Mistress Wesleyan to see her.”
“Always good information to have. Very well, young one. You’re learning.” Dilly winked.
And Nyasha? She smiled.
Maybe she was fitting in better than she thought she would.