The Perfect Wife (Page 26)

The Perfect Wife(26)
Author: Lynsay Sands

"Theydo not lookvery welcoming. " Diamanda moved astep closerto Avelyn as they neareda groupof women gossiping outside a rowof tiny, dilapidated hutson theedge of the village. The women turnedto gawkatthem,their expressions cold andsuspicious. "Weare notgoing to talk to them, are we?"

Hearing the fearin the younger girl’s-voice, Avelyn gave in to herown cowardice and shook her head. "Nay. We shall go to thevillage center. Perhaps we can find someonethere who appears morehelpful. "

Diamandamade a sound that couldhave been agreementor not, then asked,"Are you sure thisis a good idea?"

"Aye," Avelyn answered firmly,but she wasbeginning to wonder. It had seemed a fine ideawhen she’d come up with it, but as theypassed one villager afteranother and were met with silent resentment each time, she beganto doubt her plan would work. Bythetime they reached the village center, she was even beginning to doubt their chances of escaping thevillage without beingattacked,at leastverbally.

Chapter Sixteen

"We have a following," Diamanda murmured, glancing nervously over her shoulder.

Avelyn did notlook back. She’d been aware ofthe growingcrowd following them as they walked. It was part of the reason her confidence in the endeavor was becoming shaken.

Afraid to stop walking lest it spur their followers on to actuallydoing orsaying something, Avelyn glanced around a bit anxiously. Whereas they had passednothing but smallcruck housesonthe outskirts of the village,here inthecenter wereseveral larger wattle-and-daub buildings that servedas bothhome andbusiness. The biggest bore asign so faded theonly word legible was Inn.

Relief pouring through her, Avelyn turned her steps towardit and tried to maintain an unhurried pace.

The women released arelieved breath as they steppedinside the dim buildingand thedoor closed behindthem. That relieflasted as longas it tookfor theireyesto adjustto the lowlight. They stood in a mid-sized room lit only by a couple of torches. There were twolarge trestle tables,one oneither sideof theroom. There was also a door directly across from them, presumably leading to the kitchens.

Thereweresix men inthe room, five customers spread out over thetwo tables and a man Avelyn assumed was the innkeeper. He stood in frontof the dooracross from them,arms crossed andstance belligerent. Every last one of themen waseyeing them with suspicion and intense dislike.

Avelyn sighed. it was obvious thateveryone knew they werefrom the castle. She supposed the fact that they were on foot would be telling, not to mention their clothing… orat least, Diamanda’sexpensive gown. Her own dressfit inrathernicely withthe villagers’garb, she noted witha grimace. Though the cloth was a fine expensive weave,it was dark and drab and ill-fitting, as weremostof thegarments the villagerswore.

Straighteningher shoulders, Avelyn ignored the silent glancesaroundthemand led Diamanda andRunildato anempty space at thetable on theright. While the other twosat, Avelyndid not. Shesuspectedtheywereunlikely to get serviceifthey waited, so she didn’t bother. Instead, she asked Diamanda and Runilda if they wished food and drink. Despite complaining of hunger on their walk there, Diamanda shook her head. Apparently,she had lost her appetite. EvenRunilda said nay.

Avelyn noddedandwalked to theinnkeeper, pasting apleasant smileonherface.

She saw aflickerof surprise in his eyesas she approached, butthat was all. He did notevenask whatshe wanted. Aye,thesepeoplereally resented theirpresence, she thought on an inward sigh, then simply widened her smile. "Iwill havethree…"

she paused to glance around attheothercustomers andnoticed mostof themwere eating some sort ofmeat pasty. Knowing itmust be the bestfood they served, she pointed to thenearest man and finished, "three of whathe is having,as well as three meads and an ale, please. "

Avelyn beamed another smileat him as if completely obliviousto the animosity in the air, then turned and walkedback to joinDiamandaand Runilda, afraid that if she gave him the chance,the man would refusetoservethem. She held herbreathas she waited for the man’s reaction. Hewas still hesitating where she’dleft himas Avelyn squeezed herself in the smallspace between Diamanda and Runilda, but after a moment, hehuffed with irritation and turned to walk into the kitchen.

Avelyn letherbreath outslowly, grateful atleast that hehadn’t thrown themout.

The threewomen were silentas they waitedfor theirrepast. It didn’ttake long.

Within moments,the innkeeper was back, slamming the drinksdown beforethem.

"Why did you order four drinks?" Diamanda asked as the man movedback into the kitchen.

"I wish to tryboth the mead and the ale," Avelyn answered, but didn’t explain further. Instead, she tried the mead, sippingitcautiously, then relaxing when it did notturn out tobe soured or otherwiseunpalatable. She’d almost feared the man might do somethingtotheir food or drinks to discouragetheir enjoyingit. Of course, thefood hadn’t comeyet, shereminded herself asshe set the meaddownand tried the ale.

Avelyn pausedas theliquid filledher mouth. Although the mead was average, the ale was fine. Quite fine.

"Who makes your ale?" Avelyn asked when the innkeeper returned with their pasties.

"Ida What ofit?"

Avelyn peered around the innkeeper to see awomanstandingin the kitchen door, staring at themcoldly. Hiswife, she suspected. The womanhad probablycometo peekthrough the door atthem, then stepped out on hearing Avelyn’s question.

"Mycompliments," Avelynsaidsolemnly. "It isvery fine ale, someof the best I have ever tasted. "

The woman’s expression became stiffer as if suspecting Avelyn was up to something until she added, "The mead is good enough, butnot as fine as the ale. "

Suchhonesty seemedtoconvincethewomanthat Avelyn wasn’tbuttering herup forsomething, andsherelaxedenough that she was at least no longer scowling as she noddedandsaid,"The mead today is notmybesteffort. It isusuallybetter. "

Avelyn nodded, believing her. "May I ask your name?"

She hesitated, then saidin a short, clipped tone, "Avis. "

"Thank you, Avis. I am Avelyn. " She smiled faintly, then asked,"Can youmake both the mead and the ale in quantity?” The woman blinked, then said warily, "I could. "

"Then I wouldaskthat you doso and sendasmuch as you can make to the castle. "

Avishesitated, probably debating whether shecould afford to tell her to goto the devil. But her eyes widened asAvelyn statedhow much she was willing to pay per keg for each beverage.

There was silence as Avelyn waited for some response, butsheseemed to have shockedthe woman to the pointof being unable to speak. Avelyn supposed that, as poor asthevillagewas,no one was able to pay much for goods. What she offered must havesounded exorbitant, butit wasa fair price, and she told her solest the innkeeper’s wifethink she was tryingto buy her way out of their resentment. The price Avelyn offered was no more than hermother paidon the rare occasionswhen she purchased such things. Straughton had its own alewife, so rarely needed to purchaseextra unlessan event such as aweddingcroppedup.

"Willyou do that?" Avelyn asked finallywhenthe silence had drawn out so long it was becominguncomfortable.

"O’course shewill," the innkeepersaid, even as his wife finally nodded. Theman was almostsmiling now, she noted.

"Thank you,"Avelynmurmured, but noticedthe womanwas hesitating by the door, shifting on her feet as if she wanted to get right to work buthad a questionto ask.

"Willyou want it regular?" Avis finally asked. "Or are youhaving acelebration or  – "

"Wewill need itregularly," Avelyn assuredher. "Wehave no alewife asyet. "

Eyes wide and slightly dazed, Avis nodded several times,then turned and hurried back into the kitchen. Theinnkeeper hurried afterher,and Avelyn picked upher pastieandtook atentative bite.

"Thisis quitegood too," shemurmured encouragingly toDiamandaand Runilda after chewingandswallowing the firstbite.

Both women reluctantly began to eat, obviouslyuncomfortable underthe stares of the men around them. While the attitude of the innkeeper and his wife may have thawed toward them, theothermen were still eyeing themwith opendislike. It made the meal uncomfortable,but Avelyn would not allow them to scare her. Still, she was grateful when they hadfinishedand could leavewithout looking asifthey hadbeen frightened off.

They steppedout of the innto findthat the crowd outside had grown in size.

Avelynsensed Diamanda andRunilda movingcloser toher,butmerely led them toward what lookedto be a baker’s premises. She didn’t experience anyrelief at all on entering the shop, since the crowd followed theminside. As many ofthem who could packedthemselves into the small front room of the baker’s, while the rest crowded aroundthe open door.

On first entering, therewas nosignof the baker, and Avelyn wasjust wondering whatto do when there was a disturbance by the door and she heard someone snarling, "Get outof thebloody way, you fools,’tismyshop. "

She watched theround little man enter, noted the anger onhis faceand knew she was infor atimeof it. Shewasn’t surprisedwhen hefinally struggledinto the room, tuggedhis clothinginto place,glared at her andsnarled,"I’m not Avis, sodon’t be thinking youcan buyyerway intome good graceslike I hear ye did her. Now be off withye!"

Avelynstood very still asa murmurofapproval wentthrough the crowd,then nodded calmly. "Very well,sir. "

DiamandaandRunilda started to move towardthedoor, only to pause whenthey realized Avelyn wasn’t moving. Theyturned reluctantly back as sheadded to the baker, "However,I feel I shouldtell you I couldn’t care lessabout your good graces.

All I bought from Avis is aleand mead, enough for two hundred soldiers and servants, and allI wanted from you isenough baked goods to feed as manypeople. "

She-wasmost satisfiedbythe realization that dawned on theman’sface.

"Two hundred people?" heaskedfaintly.

"Aye. Irealize ’tis a large quantity, butI thoughtmayhap youcould get the women inthe village who are the best cooks tomake some in theirhomes. It would have helped you and allowed them toearn some coin too," Avelyn pointed out,knowing the baker couldnot possibly handle such a large orderonhis own.

"I must confess, I do not understand your attitude, sir," Avelyn continued.

"Especially since Iam neither Legere,nor Lord Wimarc, but thenew lady of the castle whois inneed of goodsand would rather purchase themfrom the people. of her village – whoarein needof the trade – than sendthecoins out toanother town or village. However, as you are fool enough to turn down good coin for your pride…"

Shrugging, she moved tojoin Runildaand Diamanda by the door asif preparing toleave. Shehadn’t taken two steps when the man spoke. "Wait. "

Avelyn nearly saggedwithrelief, but, aware ofall the eyes watching her, she tried to hide her feelings and simply turned backto the man tonegotiate terms with him.

Inmoments, the baker was smiling, his pockets jingling when next sheturnedaway.

Avelynled Runilda and Diamandato the door,noting theway thecrowdwent silent and parted asshe approached. She paused in thedoorway and peered over the sea of faces. Shecould notsee theother tradesmen’s shopswith all the people there and so had no idea where to gonext. Aftera hesitation, she asked,"Are there any carpenters here?"

Severalhands went up. One man didn’t bother to raise his hand, but made his way tothe frontof thecrowd. "I ama master carpenter. "

"Did you make the trestle tables inthe inn?" Avelynasked aftera reflective pause.

They had been good,sturdytables, yetlookedeasily collapsible andhad shownfine attentiontodetailin the carvingof thelegs.

"Aye. " He appearedsurprised.

Avelyn nodded. "You willneedhelpfor what I want. "

"Ihave it ifI need it," hesaid calmly, not looking as if hebelieved her.

Avelyn shrugged inwardly,thenannounced, "I need new trestle tables. Enough for two hundred men and servants to sit at. Benches of course, and four chairsfor the high table. Four more chairs for thefireside and – nay, make that six chairsfor the fireside," shecorrected herself. As Lord and LadyGerville would probably visit often and she had noidea how long Diamanda and Lady Helen would stay, six seemed smarter. "I shall also need three large beds. " Avelyn hesitated again, wondering about how much she should spend justnow. Could sheafford to get chairs foreach bedchamber as well? It would be nice tohavea chairto siton while she dried her hair by the fire. Two chairsin their room would allowher and Paento sit by the fire of acold winternight.

Avelyn decided to get thechairs. Shehad her owncoins. Herparentshad always spoiled her and hadincluded coins among the chestsof goods they’d sent with her.

"Six morechairs forthe bedchambersandseveralsmall tables. "

When she finished, there were several moments of complete silence; then the carpenter cleared his throat and admitted painfully, "Even with the help of every capable man here I cannotprovide this much furniture as fast asa larger – "

"I realize that, sir,"Avelyn assured him,impressed with his honesty. Another carpenter would have beencalculatingthe coinsthis would bring him and unwisely assuring her he’d have it for her ina trice. Speakingclearly sothata good deal of the crowd could hear,Avelyn said, "WhileI would like the furnitureas quicklyas you can manage, I am willing to wait. Iwouldprefer to keeptheprofit from this venture herein ourvillage. "

He nodded slowly. "Whatwould youlike first, my lady?"

"The tables, then the beds, then the chairs, then the smaller tables," Avelyn answered, then glanced around at the crowd, becomingaware that the feeling in the air had changed. Shehadnot won them allover, butthe crowdwas swaying.

Raising her head,she calledout, "Is there a grocer here whocansupplymewith herbs?"

"Oh, Avy!You were wonderful!" Diamanda enthused as they left the villagein late afternoon.

"I was, wasInot?" Avelyn grinned, buoyedup byher success. It had certainly not startedout well,andfor awhile she had fearedshe’dmade ahuge mistake,but it hadworked out wellin the end. She was very satisfied.

"Iwas ever so impressed," Diamanda admitted. "Ido notknow where you found the courage to standuptothe baker when he was someantous, butyou yelled right back and even calledhim a fool. " Her eyes were huge and round. "I never would have had the courage to talk to him so. "