“Ah.” Gallard looked uncomfortable. “Come into my office. There’s a lovely fire in there. So comforting on a cold evening such as this. Butler? Could you arrange for another setting?”
Butler tipped his head. “I’ll also inform Housekeeper that a guest room will be needed this evening.”
“Guest room?” Kermilla shrieked. “I want—”
She saw it in Gallard’s eyes. Nerves. Maybe even fear. Which was why she didn’t say anything when the shield dropped and Gallard took her arm and led her into his office.
“There’s beef stew tonight,” Gallard said. When they reached the small dining table that was against one wall of his office, he released her arm. “Cook added a different spice, I think. Gives the stew a bit of heat.”
“Who is that man?” Kermilla shrugged out of her coat and tossed it toward a chair.
Gallard picked up the coat where it had fallen on the floor and carefully laid it over the chair’s back. “He’s the butler. Considering who he reports to, it is in our best interest to maintain as amiable a relationship with him as possible.”
“Who does he report to?”
“Lady Sabrina’s Steward.”
A tapping on the door. Butler walked in with a tray. He set another bowl of stew on the table, another cup and saucer, and a small plate of fruit and cheese.
Kermilla sniffed. At least Therantried to set a better table. “I haven’t decided if I want that for dinner.”
“That’s what there is,” Butler replied. “If you don’t want it, do without.”
Too shocked to respond, she watched him leave the room.
“Sit down, Kermilla,” Gallard said. “The food isn’t fancy, but it is good.”
She sat—and tried to ignore his gusty sigh of relief as he settled the napkin on his lap and continued his meal.
Gallard ate as if he feared an interruption would take him away from the food. She ate because she was hungry. She didn’tsay anything, but she made sure he knew she considered the meal an insult.
“That man is intolerable,” Kermilla said when Gallard poured coffee for both of them. “He has to be dismissed.”
“Can you afford to replace him?” Gallard asked. “He serves the Territory Queen, and his wages, along with the housekeeper, the cook, the maid, and the footman, come from her. If you dismiss any of these people, you will not get a replacement unless you can pay that person’s wages. And I can tell you right now, anyone who agrees to work here will want their wages in advance.”
“Fine. Then we’ll pay for respectful servants.”
“The tithes, of course!”
“There are no tithes.”
She bobbled her cup and almost spilled the coffee.
Gallard’s sadness spread over her like a smothering blanket.
“The court is beggared, Kermilla. I apologize for the criticism, but you spent so extravagantly when you first took over rule of Bhak and Woolskin that we haven’t been able to pay all the debts.”
Kermilla swayed in her seat. “Then raise the tithes. Squeeze a little more out of the damn landens.”
Gallard dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “When you demanded that I raise the summer tithes in order to provide you with money you needed during your visit, I obeyed and used some of the extra income to pay down your debts. However, when I went to pay the guards their quarterly income, I discovered the village treasury had been drained. The men were given half their wages, and they all began to fall into debt because they couldn’t pay their bills. You demanded more money. I raised the tithes again. When told what they would be required to pay for the autumn tithes, the landens refused to harvest their crops. They let them rot in the fields. They said that since their children were going to starve anyway on the little that was left, they saw no reason to work and sweat in order to feed you.”
“How dare they!”
“We tried to keep things contained, but you didn’t answer my letters, and you ignored my pleas for your return. Then Lady Darlena and Lady Sabrina’s Stewards showed up to review the accounts and to personally receive the Queens’ shares of the autumn tithes. They were almost buried under the complaints, pleas, and accusations from both villages.”
“That’s done,” Kermilla said crossly. “I’m back now, and I’ll fix things with the mighty Queens. What can you give me for income now?”
“Of course there’s something. Household funds.Something. ”
“Don’t you have—”
He shook his head too quickly. Resentment bubbled up inside her.
“I’ll see Sabrina tomorrow and fix this,” she said tightly.
“Tomorrow is the first day of Winsol,” Gallard said. “Except for emergencies, the Queen doesn’t grant audiences during Winsol.”
“Thisis an emergency!”
“No, my dear, it is not. But it is a smear on our reputations that we must all work to overcome. Everything has a price. We acted imprudently, and now we must pay the consequences.”
It wasn’t a smear onher reputation. Just because her First Circle hadn’t had balls enough to keep things under control didn’t meanshe should bear the blame.
“How soon can the servants open up my side of the house?”
“You would have to discuss that with Lady Sabrina or her Steward. He closed that side of the house since it wasn’t in use.”
She wasn’t getting anywhere with him. He wasn’t saying the things he should be saying. “Where is Jhorma?”
“Jhorma is celebrating Winsol elsewhere this year,” Gallard said. “Since none of us are from Bhak, everyone else is spending Winsol in their home villages. I elected to stay and catch up on paperwork—and to maintain the court’s presence in the village. After darkest night, the Master of the Guard will return, and I’ll go home for a visit.”
“And what am I supposed to do? My house is closed up, my court is scattered, and no one seems to care that I came back to celebrate the most important holiday with my people!”
“We didn’t know you were returning. Frankly, Kermilla, we had no reason to believe you would return to Bhak.”
“Why wouldn’t I return? I rule here.”