“When would you like the carriage, Your Grace?”
Isidore looked down at her dusty skirts. “It will take me at least two hours to make myself presentable.”
It actually took three, but when she climbed into the carriage, she felt fairly certain that she was perfectly attired: duchesslike, yet not too grand. She brought along Lucille and a footman carrying a thick purse. If there was one thing she was not going to do, it was order on credit.
The village consisted of six or seven establishments: baker, butcher, smithy, pub and a shop that seemed to sell everything from cloth to ceramic pitchers. Plus a church. She hesitated for a moment, thinking that the vicar was undoubtedly important, but what did she have to say to a vicar?
Two seconds later she was inside the general shop. It was rather dark because the ceiling was hung with a maze of objects. A table was jumbled with fabric, ribbons, buttons, cooking implements, a butter churn.
“Your Grace,” Lucille whispered, “what on earth are we doing here?”
Just then a lean-faced man, with such pronounced hollows in his cheeks that they looked like small caves, came forward. He bowed deeply.
Isidore pulled off her gloves.
“May I help you?” he asked.
“Yes, I would like to buy something.”
His expression didn’t change. “A ribbon?”
There was something just faintly, faintly insolent in his tone. As if a duchess would only want a pretty ribbon, like a small child, or perhaps as if a duchess could only afford a ribbon.
“A bolt of woolen cloth,” Isidore said, picking the largest and most useful thing she saw. She needed to buy something large, something that would give the shopkeeper confidence that the Duchy of Cosway was solvent.
“A bolt of cloth,” he said. “Of course, Your Grace.”
So he did know who she was. There was an odd sucking sound and the man’s cheeks suddenly popped inward. Then he turned around, plucked up a bolt of russet wool and thumped it down before her. “Will this do? It’s eight shillings a yard. How many yards would you like? I accept only ready money in this shop.”
Not enough. Not nearly enough. “I’d like more,” Isidore said.
“More cloth?” He sucked his cheeks in again, with an audible pop. “I have blues, grays, greens, and more russet. How many yards would Your Grace need this morning?”
He was mocking her. Isidore’s eyes narrowed. “A great deal,” she said, giving him a blindingly cheerful smile. “Probably every yard you have. I do like cloth.”
“Wool,” he said, “is a universal taste.” He turned around and bawled, “The bolts!”
Isidore took the purse from her footman. “How many houses are there in the village?”
“I’ll have five yards per household.”
“There are a few huts down by the river.”
“I shall buy for twenty-seven households, then, which would be 135 yards, if I’m not mistaken.” She opened her purse.
“Over one thousand shillings,” the storekeeper said, his voice a bit strangled.
“One thousand and eighty,” Isidore said cheerfully. “Or fifty-four pounds.” She counted them out, then deliberately put a guinea on the counter. “For delivery to each house in the village.” The shopkeeper almost smiled.
She put down another guinea, and his eyes widened. Another. They formed a small golden pile. Deliberately, she built it into an unsteady mountain.
There was an audible pop. No one made a sound; even the footman seemed to be holding his breath.
“There are twenty-seven houses,” she said. “I shall add an extra guinea, so that you might provide some thread and needles to go with the fabrics.”
“Yes,” the man said, his voice half strangled. “Though there’s no need—”
“I am the Duchess of Cosway. I always pay for the value of the merchandise I buy, and naturally, for its delivery as well. There is nothing more valuable than your time, Mr….”
“Mr. Mopser, Your Grace, Harry Mopser.”
Isidore held out her hand. “Mr. Mopser, it has been our pleasure to frequent your establishment.”
“Ba, ba—” he said, but finally managed to say, “Yer Grace.”
She swept from the store, hiding a smile. In the bakery, she ordered twenty-seven meat pies. In the church, having come up with something to say to the vicar after all, she promised a new steeple.
By the time she reached the smithy, Isidore felt like an ambassadress to a foreign country. The vicar had welcomed the idea of giving each household in the village a measure of wool with great enthusiasm; the baker had confided that she sent up a few pound cakes to Revels House weekly, in memory of the late duke’s mother; Isidore promptly paid for five-years’ worth of pound cakes.
The smithy had a low door and a pungent odor, like sulphur. “There’s nothing to buy here,” Lucille protested.
“Then we’ll just greet the smith,” Isidore said cheerfully.
Once inside the smithy, all she could see was a low ceiling, blackened beams, and the dim glow of the fire. Before she could say anything, her footman called, “The Duchess of Cosway.”
There was a clatter and a man rose from the hearth. He didn’t bow, or even smile. He just put his hands on his hips and stared at her, and it wasn’t a nice look. He had a crooked nose and his eyes looked like the sunken coals of his own fire. “The new duchess, I suppose,” he stated.
“A newly minted duchess,” he drawled. “Flanked by a footman, the better to protect you in case a starving villager manages to sling mud in your direction.”
He had the air of someone of incredible strength and yet he was surprisingly gaunt. Behind her, Lucille made a little sound, as if she were a mouse scurrying away.
“Do you wish you had some mud to hand?” she asked, meeting his eyes.
“A duchess who’s not afraid of an insult…how peculiar.”
“Not that I’ve noticed,” she said, putting out a hand as her footman took a menacing step forward. “No one is as impolite to each other as equals, in my experience.”
“Do they chide each other with talk of starving children, then? Of fields rotting at the stalk due to bad seed? Of betrayal and coarse unconcern at the hands of those who should take the greatest care?”
Isidore’s heart was beating fast. This was the heart of the matter. She looked around and saw a three-legged stool, covered with dust. With no hesitation she walked over, sat down, and folded her hands. “Lucille, I’ll thank you and John to wait for me in the carriage. I’ll sit for a moment and talk to Mr….”
“Pegg,” the smith said. “Silas Pegg.”
“Oh no, Your Grace,” Lucille moaned, looking toward the door as if it was heaven’s gate itself.
Isidore fixed her with a duchess stare and a moment later the smithy was empty.
“You may sit down,” she said.
He just looked at her.
“If you wish.”
“I only sit amongst my equals.” His teeth were very white. “Duchess.”
Isidore had the distinct impression that she had been deemed lower than an equal. “Please tell me about the children,” she said, “and the fields.”