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  • Rachel Rossano

Once Upon 2021: Grace by Contract - Chapter One

Chapter One


That fall the rains came early. A quarter of the crops rotted in the fields as my tenants dejectedly measured their meager harvests against the tributes due at the season’s end. My personal fields fared no better, constraining me to demand the whole portion from the people required by law.

As I predicted, come nigh the end of Octen, the assizes were filled with grim faces as they tried to bargain with my bailiff. Though, to be fair, the rain relentlessly beating the dirt into the churned mud just beyond the village’s open-air pavilion didn’t help. I was thankful to be sitting in the back corner, in the shadows behind the bailiff and out of the rain.

“I have seven mouths to feed, Bailiff. Every bite means the difference ’tween life and death,” the wheelwright’s rotund wife pleaded with a babe in her arms and twins of barely two clinging to her ragged skirts. All four were soaked to the skin from standing in the rain, waiting their turn to meet with my bailiff. She made a pitiful sight, but that was her purpose. Why else would she bring three such little ones along when she had two elders perfectly capable of watching their siblings?

My bailiff, Rambler Foreman, didn’t need any prompting from me to see through her scheme. “Your husband never lacks for work, Madam Wheeler, and the duke pays him well. He will be guaranteed income to buy food all winter long.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Only if there is food available for purchase.”

My bailiff pointed to the scales for weighing the produce. “There will be.”

With evident reluctance, Madam Wheeler crossed to the scale to place her goods—apples, turnips, and a significant portion of squash—into the shallow pan on one side of the scale. With more finesse than I expected, she attempted to tip the scale in her favor with her knee while scolding the twins for getting in her way. The maneuver earned her a glare from the man overseeing the weighing. He signaled the closest guard, who shooed her away before the weights were added to balance the scales.

“Short by half.”

Rambler noted it in the ledger. “What do you offer to make up the balance due your lord and master, Madam Wheeler?”

“I have nothing.”

“Not true.” Rambler lifted his disconcerting gaze to assess the woman for the barest of moments before he pulled a square of rough paper from the block of similar scraps next to his ledger. He scribble