Then Bee’s rooms, and here I found a task I must do. Tomorrow I must feign anger about vermin, and demand that bedding be burned and the room scrubbed. That meant that tonight I must remove Bee’s precious things to keep them safe from too thorough a cleansing. There were candles to gather, and her jumping jack and top, and other small items I thought might be precious to her. I took them and hid them in my own bedchamber in the trunk that locked.
For no reason except that I couldn’t sleep, I went down to the kitchen. The kitchens at Withywoods were smaller and far less busy than those at Buckkeep Castle, but the smells of the bread dough rising and a broth in a covered vat barely simmering at the back of the hearth were comforting to me. I unwrapped the last of the previous week’s bread and cut a chunk, and then went through to the pantry for some sharp cheese from the wheel there. I drew a mug of ale as well and sat down at the kitchen worktable. The kitchen was probably the warmest room in Withywoods. The big hearth in the corner never went cold and the heat from the baking oven in the other wall never completely left the room. I ate and drank and kept my mind on kitchens and cooks that I had known.
Then I gave up. I folded my arms on the table, put my head on them, and stared into the fire. Why, Fool? Why after all the empty years? Why hadn’t you come yourself? Were you in danger as the messenger had implied? And if you were, why hadn’t you sent a map or instructions as to how to find you? Did you think I wouldn’t come to your aid?
I woke to thudding that vibrated through my skull. Cook Nutmeg had an immense mound of bread dough on the worktable and was kneading it. Every so often, she would lift one edge of it, fold it over, and then hit it energetically with the palms of her hands. I drew a deep breath and sat up straight. For a moment I felt a boy again, watching the predawn activity of Buckkeep’s great kitchen. But it was only Withywoods, and instead of a score of workers, there were only six. Tavia turned from stirring the morning’s porridge and met my gaze with a raised eyebrow. “Ale a bit stronger than you expected?”
“I couldn’t sleep. I came down here. And then, I suppose, I found I could sleep.”
She nodded, and then respectfully but firmly informed me, “You’re in our way.”
I nodded back. “I’ll move,” I said, and stood, stifling a yawn. “It smells so good in here,” I told her, and both of them gifted me with smiles.
Tavia spoke. “It will smell even better when it’s brought out to table. Lady Shun seemed a bit disappointed with our rustic efforts yesterday, so I’ve told the help that we need to shine today. If that pleases you, sir.”
“As would make our Lady Molly proud. Time to lift up our heads and be a proper household again. Revel has been chewing his own teeth over how things had begun to go down. So we’re all glad to see you taking more of an interest in the house, sir. And it’s good to have more folk here, to work and to live. Bring life back to the place.”
Life. After Molly’s death. I nodded, not sure that I agreed with her, but letting her know I valued what she was telling me. She gave me a firm nod in return, emphasizing that she was right. “Breakfast done proper won’t be ready for another hour or so, sir, but I can bring you some tea if you wish.”
“I do wish,” I assured her, and let myself be herded out of her kitchen. My back ached and my head ached and I still smelled of smoke. I rubbed my face and became aware of the growth of whiskers. One of the perils of trying to be clean-shaven for my daughter. I’d have to tend to my face every morning now. “Tavia!” I called after her. “You can wait on the tea. I’ll ring when I’m ready.”
Coward that I was, I found one of the little kitchenmaids and sent her to tell my steward I’d found vermin in my daughter’s bed and burned her bedding in the night. I told her to tell him to address it as he thought best, and left it at that. I fled to the steams.
One of the things I missed most from my boyhood days were the steams at Buckkeep. They were a year-round comfort, warming a man through and through in the depths of winter and sweating sickness out from a body at any time of the year. They were a legacy from Buckkeep’s days as a fortification, with multiple rooms and benches. There were separate chambers for the guardsmen, prone to be rowdy and pugilistic after a night’s drunk, and some for the castle servants, and a different set for the nobility.
The men’s steams at Withywoods paled by comparison. There was a single chamber, not much larger than my bedchamber, with benches round the walls. The great brick oven that heated it was at one end of the room, and a brick-lined pool of water was in the center of the room. It never pulsed with heat like the steams at Buckkeep, but a determined man could do a good job of cleansing himself there. All the folk at Withywoods, great and small, used the steams. This morning Lin the shepherd was in there with two of his grown sons.