Home > Devastation (Beastly Tales #3)(17)

Devastation (Beastly Tales #3)(17)
M.J. Haag

Her house was in much better repair. All of the wood was solid, no rot, and there were no gaps between the boards.

“With your permission, I’d like to try trading it with the woman in that house,” I pointed, “in exchange for her daughter.”

“Meg has had plans for her daughter since she flowered. She’s just waiting for the right buyer,” she said quietly.

“Do you think your home might tempt her?”

“Not when all she needs to do is wait for me to leave.”

“Yes, but so is everyone else.”

Determined, I walked to Meg’s door and knocked again. She answered with a surly expression.

“The house for the girl,” I said without preamble.

Her eyes drifted behind me, and she laughed.

“I have no chance at that place. As soon as you leave there’ll be a fight for who gets it.”

“Unless we help the new owner move her belongings there and make it official.” She glanced at the structure, her interest plain. “The girl will only be pure once,” I said, the words souring my belly. “But that home will keep you warm for more than one winter.”

“Retta, come here.” A young woman stepped into the light of the doorway. A little girl held her hand. “You’re going with this woman. Go.” She waved her hand at me. The little girl started crying.

“Want both of them?” the woman asked, looking at the younger child with no obvious affection.

“Yes.”

* * * *

While Egrit led everyone to the top floor to air the rooms and settle in before dinner, I went to find Mr. Crow.

He sat behind his desk, staring down at a piece of parchment. When he saw me, he wilted a bit and without a word handed me the paper. Scanning the list, I understood his despondency. We did not have enough to feed us for the winter, especially with the additional staff I’d brought.

Absently, I sat across from him and stared out the window. Surviving with meager supplies was familiar to me. But would that knowledge help produce an excess of food for a feast? It had to. I turned to Mr. Crow, who watched me expectantly. I gave him a reassuring smile.

“There are plenty of fish in the rivers to the northwest and southeast. On the estate land, a skilled hunter could also find more large game.” We just needed the men to fish it and hunt it. “We will succeed.” I stood. “I’ll speak with Lord Ruhall about having three of the men hunt and fish every day for the next several weeks. It will keep the cooks busy. Meals will need to be simple. See if you can recall any of the families who may have attended in the past. We’ll need to create a guest list quickly.”

Leaving Mr. Crow, I went to search for Father or Lord Ruhall. As I approached the library, I heard them both.

“What good could milk possibly do?” Lord Ruhall’s angry voice rang through the room.

“I’m sure her reasons are sound,” my father said.

I caught a glimpse of Alec, pacing in his study. His wide shoulders were hunched and his head bent as he worked his path. I could imagine his expression. No doubt the news of Rose’s letter had upset him.

“My reasons are quite sound,” I said, walking into the study. His tense face swung in my direction. “Lord Ruhall, I’m sure Father’s explained Rose’s letter.” I handed him the note I still carried. “I left with the milk and returned with several additional servants.”

He studied me for a long moment, his anger fading to frustration.

“We can’t afford to employ more,” he said, bracing his fisted hands on his desk. “You, yourself, suggested trimming their numbers.”

“Their wages will not be paid in coin. You have a teacher who is not teaching. So I brought a mother who could never afford an education for her two children and several older children who are willing to work in the morning and evenings in exchange for their education. It’s a fair trade.”

“Children, Benella?” my father said with shock.

“Father, here we will not ill-use them. They will have the sleep they need, a warm bed, food in their bellies, and an education in exchange for four hours of work a day. It is a far brighter future than what waited for them where they were.”

Though Father continued to look troubled, he nodded.

“Benella, servants aren’t enough.” Lord Ruhall straightened away from the desk and began to pace behind it once more. “What she’s asking is impossible for three hundred coins.”

I agreed, but I kept quiet. He already looked ready to yell. He didn’t need me to further his despair. He needed hope, at least until I could look at the ledgers to discover the cost of past feasts. So, I walked toward the desk and leaned in until we met eye to eye.

“As impossible as freeing a beast from a fifty year enchantment, I imagine. Allow me a chance to try.”

As his gaze swept over my face, the rest of the anger faded. Another expression took hold. Tenderness. I couldn’t call it anything else. My stomach flipped, and my cheeks warmed in response.

“Of course,” he said. “Tell me what needs to be done.”

I straightened, putting distance between us.

“Please speak with your teacher and inform him he will have students starting tomorrow. There are seven aged between four and twelve. Most cannot read. He should start teaching after they’ve eaten. The children are not to be given work during their schooling hours, and Mrs. Palant’s children aren’t to be given work by anyone other than their mother.

“Also, if possible, we need three of the five men to focus on hunting and fishing. We need a larger quantity of game to store in the next few weeks.”

Unable to maintain eye contact any longer, I cleared my throat, and met my father’s gaze.

“Father, I need you to work with Mr. Crow and determine a guest list from Konrall and the Water. Mr. Crow said that, in the past, they filled the ballroom. I’d like to be conservative with the invitations while still meeting Rose’s requirements. Next year, we can pack the room. As soon as you have a count, please let me know.”

Chapter 5

The daunting task of cleaning loomed before me. Even with the extra help, cleaning the ballroom, parlors, dining room, and main sitting rooms before the feast would be difficult. But not impossible. Since Egrit, Mrs. Palant, and the children would remain occupied with airing the attic until after dinner, I meant to make some progress in the ballroom yet that day.

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