Grinning, Grimme clipped down the stairs and into the great hall and waited for all the women to gather. That, he thought, was the most rousing entertainment he’d had in a while. Grimme, get your arse out of bed! He laughed until he was bent over and started to cough. She’d kicked the door in! He straightened, met Brìghde’s somewhat sheepish expression and started to laugh again. She flushed, huffed, and crossed her arms over her chest, but would not look at him because she was trying not to laugh.
That girl was trouble, and he could not wait to see what she did next.
He inhaled, his chest expanding, then bellowed,
“IF I PAY YOUR WAGES, REPORT TO THE GREAT HALL IMMEDIATELY!”
It took some time and he gestured for Brìghde to come stand beside him. He started to laugh again and draped his arm over her shoulders, squeezing her to his side, planting a kiss on the top of her head.
“Och!” She dropped her arms and leaned against him.
He was going to lose his chamberlain today, which would hurt, but she wanted him to enforce her position as he’d bargained, so that was what he was going to do.
Father Hercule appeared at the door of the chapel, the boys popping up from behind him and squeezing past.
Sir John’s door opened and he shuffled out. Grimme waved him over to his side also.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“The countess is not impressed with her reception last night.”
“Oh, I know I—”
They waited. And waited. And waited. Until no more servants trickled out. He remained silent until all of them looked appropriately terrified. His women were off to his left, on the side, also looking terrified. His sons were watching with anticipatory glee.
“Papa,” Grimme asked, “does this look like the correct number of servants?”
He sighed heavily. “I don’t know.”
Grimme began. “This is Lady Kyneward, my countess. Other than I, she is the supreme authority here. And with that, I am off.”
“Oh, no,” Brìghde said, grabbing the tail of his tunic before he could flee.
He huffed and dropped his head back. “Very well.”
All eyes were on her as she studied them for a few long moments, then she looked at Grimme’s chamberlain. “You,” she said sweetly, “are dismissed. No reference. Present yourself to Sir John’s study with your belongings and you may collect your wages after I have ascertained that you have not stolen anything.”
The chamberlain, his color gone and his eyes wide, looked to Grimme. “My lord … ”
Grimme shook his head. “Did it not seem odd that a brunette in an expensive gown whom you did not know was knocking on my door in the middle of the night? After I had just returned with a countess? Did you think that perhaps you should have fetched me? Or even inquired as to who she was? Begone. Now, my lady,” he said, sketching a deep, mocking bow and sweeping his hand out toward the gathered servants, “they are yours to do with what you will.” He straightened. “Do not involve me in household business again.”
And with that, he sauntered out of the great hall, howling with laughter all the way.
Brìghde looked at Sir John and began to laugh. She laughed so hard she was squeezing tears out of her eyes and the befuddled look Sir John gave her made her laugh harder. “Oh,” she breathed, fanning herself as she wound down, wiping her eyes, “what a splendid morning!”
Thus she was happy and smiling as she looked around. The chamberlain had dragged himself up the stairs to pack his belongings. She could paw through his things all she wanted and wouldn’t know what he had or had not stolen, but he didn’t know that.
First, she looked at the mistresses. “The maidservants referred to you as ‘ladies.’ You shall not be referred to as ladies, because you are not. You shall be addressed as ‘Mistress,’ as is proper for commoners.” She waited a few seconds for effect, then looked around at the fifty or so servants. There should have been three times that many for a keep this size.
“Today, we start anew. We will consider that today is your first day, and that you have no history here. I do not plan to dismiss anyone else. Yet.” She looked directly at the cooks and bakers who had fed her that morning until every one of them recognized her and their eyes grew wide. “Carry on as you have been for now. That is your reward for excellent food and being kind to a stray. We shall go over menus later.”
They bobbed curtsies and bowed and whispered, “Thank you, my lady.”
“I intend to make this a noble house. How many of you know what this means?” About half the servants raised their hands. “Excellent! If you have suggestions, bring them to me. I will listen. You won’t believe me. I ken. Hopefully you will come to trust me as I find problems and repair them. When I have everything the way I want it, I will hire a housekeeper. Tomorrow morning, after lauds, you will line up at Sir John’s study, where I will take your names and positions. Now!” she said breathily, clapping her hands together and looking at the mistresses. “Which one of you is the favorite one again? I can’t tell you apart.”
Sir John bent to whisper, “Emelisse.”
Ah, yes, the French one whose face was contorted with rage. “Who is your chambermaid?” Her jaw grinding, she slowly pointed. The girl stepped forward. “Are you happy with her?” Now she looked suspicious, then nodded. “Excellent.” She looked at the chambermaid and said, “Shoo.” The girl ran up the stairs. “Now you may choose another maidservant.”
She looked very, very shocked, then she surveyed the gathered servants and pointed. “Her.”
That girl looked as if she had just been told to eat pig shit. “All right, then,” Brìghde said. “Go. Go, go.” She looked at the mistress. “You’re excused.”
“Gaston,” the mistress said sharply at the boys in the doorway of the chapel. “Max. Come.”
Brìghde looked between them and their mother. They did not want to go. “Go!” she barked. The boys, startled, also ran up the stairs. Their mother gave her a dagger stare and Brìghde called, “You’re welcome! Who’s next?”
Sir John advised, “The next one is Dillena, the quiet one.”
Brìghde repeated the process with her and the last two mistresses. The sons of those women were left behind. “Who takes care of the young masters’ chambers?”
Four hands went up. “Go on.” They too, flew up the stairs. She looked at the two remaining boys and said, “Go to the kitchen for some sweetmeats or … whatever suits you, then go out and play.”
Shocked, they stayed frozen for some seconds, then raced each other across the hall and down the stairs.
“Who would like to be my chambermaid?” Not one hand. She snickered. “Who is the most experienced one here?” Everyone turned to look at one girl, who shrank into herself. “My bedchamber only has a bed that is about to collapse. It has no linens. I want you to oversee my chambers’ transformation as best you can with what little furniture may be in this keep, and I suspect there is not much. I want to see how you do without direction. If you please me, you shall be well rewarded. You have my permission to command anyone to do anything so long as it is for my benefit.” Her eyes were wide. “Who here is the least experienced?” Everyone turned to look at another girl, who nearly whimpered. “You shall be my other maidservant, and take direction from my chambermaid. I will ask you your names later. I will never remember all of you. My chambers are across the hall from Lord Kyneward’s. Go. Make of it the absolute best with what is available, as you are outfitting for a countess. You have until midnight.”
They didn’t move, but exchanged glances.
“Aye?” Brìghde asked kindly. “Speak.”
The experienced one curtsied. “My lady. We will need manservants to move furniture.”
“Oh, aye. Of course you will. Stay there.” Brìghde studied all the men. “Who would like the chance to earn the position of chamberlain for Lord Kyneward?” Multiple hands went up. “All of you stand over there.”
She tugged on Sir John’s sleeve and when he bent, she whispered, “What did Grimme’s chamberlain do?”
“Grimme hates shaving himself,” he whispered back, “and he’s meticulous about it. A decent barber could be his chamberlain and he’d never know, and he’s been able to dress himself since he was three.”
She chuckled, then looked at the pile of men. “Who wants to try shaving the earl’s face without a nick or bump?”
Not one hand. She traded glances with Sir John, who looked down in an effort to hide his impending laughter.
“Very well.” She looked to her new maids and said, “Take whom you please.” Some silent communication passed between the two girls and all of the men, and four men disappeared up the stairs with the girls.
“Kitchen staff, you are excused.” That left a fraction of servants left. “I do not know what you do, and right now I do not care. Go about your normal duties if you have any.”
Father Hercule disappeared into the chapel and she and Sir John were alone. A grin slowly started to widen his face. “Oh, my lady. I don’t think Grimme realizes what he has unleashed.”
She smiled and clapped, looking up at him and quivering with delight. “I know.”