The townspeople begin to discover just how extraordinary their new liege is, as they see her in action and speak to her and Keren. Sukhana gets a mount and Snep gets a new friend while the womenfolk of Blackstone inspect the latest fashions from the palace.
by Penny Lane
73 - Show and Tell
Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2013 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.
The boy walked down the center of Blackstone's main street towards his home. It was early morning, and still cool, so he was glad of the warmth that the two loaves, each the shape of a flattened basketball, gave him as he clutched them to his chest. The baker had been late this morning and his mother was waiting for the loaves to feed his brother and sisters their breakfast.
His route took him past the old inn where the new liege of Blackstone had taken residence. He wasn't sure exactly what a 'liege' was, and the girl appeared to be young to be somebody in charge, but the ways of the world were strange and no doubt he would soon find out how things stood. The Prince who had come with her was interesting, though. He was about the same age as his older brother and he could imagine that one sitting on a throne and handing out orders, there was just something about the way he moved and spoke. Why, only yesterday -
His thought processes evaporated as he heard shouts and a girlish cry of laughter from the courtyard of the old inn. Automatically, his curiosity dictated that his footsteps swerved toward the carriage arch leading into the courtyard. Once able to view the scene within he stopped and stared, astounded by what he saw happening.
His undivided attention was only broken by the burning of the hot loaves against his chest. Starting, he turned, ran out into the street and made for home as fast as he could. A very short time later he was back, towing his two sisters by the hand with a reluctant older brother bringing up the rear. Once back through the carriage entrance he pointed and hissed, "See? Told you so!"
The four watched disbelieving until their mother, furious at the way the loaves had been dumped and her children then deserting the kitchen, came up behind them with the intention of severely scolding them and dragging them back home for their breakfast. Once she had gotten over the shock of what was happening in the courtyard she gathered her children in front of her, her arms around their shoulders, to join them watching.
Keren dived left out of the way as Garia aimed a kick at his neck which would have snapped it if she had made contact. He rolled and came up to aim his own kick at her back, but she turned and swayed out of his range, her feet automatically adjusting her balance. Their arms simultaneously came up, ready for the next attack. She feinted a duck forward and he saw the intended opening, aiming a kick at her face. She twisted sideways, grabbing the foot as it went past, unbalancing him and pulling him down on his side. She had to twist and roll to keep away from his falling body, he took advantage by thrusting his other foot into her side.
"Oof! That was unfair!"
"It wasn't unfair when you did almost the same thing to me before," he smirked.
She pouted back and then grinned. "I acknowledge the hit," she said formally. "Time for a breather, I think," she added. "We've had enough fun, now it's time for some of our men to have theirs."
Sukhana came from the kitchen with a tray of steaming mugs and all the participants stood around drinking and discussing the action. The boys took the opportunity to slide out into the street and spread the word. By the time that two of the armsmen were facing one another on the makeshift mat a small crowd of onlookers had formed, discreetly positioned in the shade of the carriage entrance.
Sometime during the subsequent tuition and practice Garia noticed her audience and turned, giving a quiet word to two of the armsmen who stood watching. These two headed unobtrusively into the common room and out of sight of the watchers. Eventually Keren and Garia decided that everyone had done sufficient and called an end to the session. Towels were distributed and more drinks were brought out.
Garia walked directly toward the onlookers, who suddenly realized that perhaps their presence there might have been unauthorized. The younger members of the small crowd, now numbering around twenty, turned and made to run off but found their way barred by the two armsmen, who stood across the carriage entrance with spears held horizontally to prevent passage. Knowing they could not escape, all turned and bowed or curtseyed low toward the young woman.
"Rise, please," she told them. "It's all right, I don't mind you watching what we're doing in here, I really don't." She smiled at them. "I might change my mind if the whole town turns up, but if you have nothing better to do then I think that it's right that you can see how we train. We have nothing to hide here. I really only came over here to give you a warning, though."
The mother put her arms around her children's shoulders, worried.
"Please, don't, under any circumstances, attempt to do what you have seen us do here this morning," Garia warned them. "Our exercises are not just tumbles and fun, they are designed for fighting among men - and women - and can easily kill or cause permanent injury. We are all well trained and know exactly what our opponent intends to try. I don't want you children to try out any of the moves you have seen us do here this morning and accidentally hurt one another because you didn't have the knowledge or control over what you did. Do you understand me?"
The audience all stared at Garia, too afraid to know how to answer.
"I'll ask again, do you understand what I am telling you? What we do here is dangerous. Yes or no?"
There was a chorus of "Yes, milady", together with some shuffling of feet.
Garia regarded her small audience critically before adding, "There are some useful exercises that can be done by everyone, which we ask all our men and women to do before we begin training them. Hmm. I'm not sure if we'll have enough time to begin teaching them to anyone in the town but I'll think about it if any of you are interested. I see some older boys here and I wonder if any of you are thinking of becoming a man-at-arms. I'm not promising anything, but if you are you could come along some time and we can talk about it. All right? We've finished here so I think it's time you all went about your business."
Garia nodded to the armsmen and they raised their spears, allowing the onlookers to depart. It was only when she had turned and walked halfway back to the group near the kitchen door that she remembered that she had no skirt on.
Keren and Garia had washed and changed after their exercise and spent some time that morning dealing with various small problems connected with their move across the street. There were guard details to arrange, shifts to organize, minor wrangles to be smoothed out. Merizel had continued her previous activities along the street in the Steward's house with Jepp, straightening out all the paperwork that had been neglected by Trogan. They were sitting in the common room enjoying yet more pel when Brydas came in through the front door.
"Ah, Master Brydas, what can we do for you?"
Brydas bowed and then asked, "May I join you?"
Keren waved a hand and Brydas sat opposite Keren and Garia. This late in the morning the common room was quiet, with most of the men busy washing clothes, cleaning kit or attending to beasts.
"Highness, Milady, I hear a tale," Brydas began, "I find almost impossible to believe. A Prince and a Baroness, the girl seemingly half-dressed, battling without weapons in the courtyard beyond. If my informant was right, no quarter given yet no injuries taken."
He said no more but simply raised an eyebrow. Keren and Garia both laughed.
"Let me explain," Keren said. "When the baroness first came to the palace, long ago, she insisted that she used to exercise every morning. Eventually my father permitted her and then it was necessary to invent some suitable clothing for her to wear. She wears, in fact, the same as the palace guard do, as I do myself when I join them for training.
"She has taught us an unusual style of unarmed combat, as she calls it, which she gives the name of 'Martial Arts'. It is not suited to open battle but is very useful in close quarters or inside buildings. It takes some months to become proficient and she has trained a number of the guard who have now become instructors. Naturally, to continue to practice what we have been taught is important if we are to keep our reflexes."
"Highness, this is a useful addition to the arts of war?"
"Master Brydas, it is." Keren's face became serious. "You have heard us speak of attempts to kidnap the baroness." Brydas nodded. "During one of those attempts, she killed an assailant with a single kick. Mayhap you have heard of Duke Jarwin?"
"Aye, Highness, his depradations among the womenfolk are notorious even in these remote regions." His eyes narrowed. "Do you tell me that he attempted to..?"
Keren gave a hard smile. "Not quite. The baroness resisted his attentions, having been warned about the man. Jarwin switched to Lady Merizel and was only foiled by Garia's efforts. The following morning she somehow contrived a duel between herself and the Duke in the circle of honor, with herself as forfeit."
"Maker! She did that?"
"Don't worry, Brydas. Jarwin was never going to win. Garia basically kicked him apart, breaking two of his ribs, smashing a knee joint and then knocking him out. His reputation is quite destroyed, he is retired to the country now."
"Do you tell me?" Brydas shook his head with amazement. He looked at Garia with new respect. "Milady, it seems you knew what you were doing when you met Trogan in the street."
Garia shrugged. "Trogan, yes. But martial arts can't help you against swords or crossbows."
The smith nodded. "That's why you wear those knitting pins, then."
"As you say. They are only intended for defense, though. My place is not on a field of battle."
"I should think not, milady!" He nodded. "But to be able to defend yourself, I can understand the reasoning." He cocked his head. "This land you come from... are the women there all like yourself?"
"Some are, some aren't, Master Brydas. Most are just like those here but we are educated differently than people in Palarand are so we see things differently."
"You wish to change the ways of Palarand, then."
"To begin with, yes. But it will be a slow process. Um, did you have some reason to find us other than the passing of rumor?"
Brydas smiled. "One of my journeymen watched your exercises, milady. It took me some while to find out what he was talking about. He also said that you were recruiting armsmen."
Garia sighed. "Rumors again. What I said was, if anyone was interested, I'd speak with them, that's all. I'm not actively here to recruit, if that's what you mean."
"Ah, I thought it was something like that."
"I only have five men with me, you see. There is also one who has returned to the palace with my double and my commander is somewhere near Tranidor with his father who has just lost his wife. Those seven men I have effectively stolen from the palace guard, although it was with the King's blessing. I am told I should have more. Armsmen, that is."
"...and you can't keep stealing from the King, can you? Milady, I see your problem." Brydas nodded. "It would make sense to have some of your armsmen from your own lands, milady. It will strengthen the bond between the town and yourself, though I doubt you need it myself."
Keren smiled. "I agree. She has that effect on people, we find."
"Would you permit me to put names forward, milady? There are a small number of young men who might benefit from a wider view of the world."
"As you wish. No more than two or three, I think. Any more and they might become a liability in so small a force."
"I understand, milady. Now, as to the real reason for my visit. There is the question of the offices of the town. I know you have not had long to consider, but we will have need of a Messenger Agent, a Watch Master and, once you have departed, a Steward."
"We've talked about a Messenger Agent, but none of us know exactly how to go about making one legal, or whatever you call it. I haven't thought about a Steward yet and we have a week or two to decide what to do there. The Watch Master, who is that? What does he do? Is he the person who should be operating out of the offices where your daughter was held?"
"Aye, milady. He regulates the petty law in Blackstone, though normally we have little need of such services. He'll help find lost animals, break up minor fights, investigate thefts, that kind of thing. He is a member of the Assembly, and he reports to it."
"But there is no Watch Master now," Keren observed.
"Highness, he is one of those we sent to Tranidor to find out if Trogan was who he claimed to be. We have assumed, since help did not arrive, that he was waylaid along the road and killed."
"So we need someone new," Garia said. "Does he need special training or can anyone be appointed?"
"He would normally be one of the Assembly, milady, which means he would be educated enough to understand the common law of the land. Naturally he would have the help and support of the rest of the Assembly, particularly Master Jepp who has some past experience of legal matters."
Garia nodded. "I suppose it would be me who appointed the Assembly, wouldn't it?"
"Aye, milady. Before you were granted these lands it would be the Steward who made the appointments."
Garia looked unhappy, then nodded. "I understand. Will you let me think about this for a few days? Apart from the Messenger Agent we don't need Watchmen or Steward while we are here so we have some time." She looked speculatively at Brydas. "I think I might want to try something different."
Brydas bowed his head. "As you wish, milady."
"Brydas," Keren said after a short silence, "Milady Garia is entertaining some of the townswomen after lunch. Matters of great importance to the female mind, so I am told."
Garia shot Keren a fierce look which did not go unnoticed by Brydas, who had to struggle to keep a straight face.
"While she is so occupied it occurred to me that I might entertain some of the townsmen down here. I can give you news of what has transpired in the rest of the kingdom while you were all penned up in the town. Although I have spent much of my life within the palace yet my father makes sure that I am kept abreast of all that is of concern. Would that be of interest to you?"
"Why, Your Highness, it would! I am sure that there is much we might learn of what has transpired elsewhere. You wish me to gather others?"
"Aye, Master Brydas. It is short notice, I know."
"I can think of few who will resist such a summons to come and listen, especially from the King's son." Brydas looked pleased. "We are honored that you might think of us, Highness."
"If there is one thing that associating with Milady Garia has taught me, it is that one can never learn too much about anything, Master Brydas. I shall expect you and your friends after lunch, then."
"There's one thing," Garia added. "We have no beer here yet. You'll have to ask Mistress Yanda to send some over."
The two men both gave her looks of complete innocence.
"Is this the best one?" Garia asked, eyeing the frayen with a critical gaze.
"I regret, milady, that it is," Sethan replied. "Master Trogan didn't have much regard for his beasts and his men were no better. Sometimes it was all we could do to control them when they required attention."
"Sookie?" Garia turned. "It looks like he will need a little taming before you will be able to ride him."
"As you say, milady," Sukhana replied. "I wonder, this project of mine seems doomed to fail."
"Don't say that!" Garia tried encouragement. "In the palace we found that a little decent treatment can bring even the most awkward frayen around."
She held out her hand to put it on the beast's head, but before she touched it it flicked its head out of the way and went for her fingers with a snap of teeth. Garia swiftly moved her hand and slapped it on the snout. The animal stared back, its eyes showing instant hostility.
"Does it have a name?" Garia asked.
"Milady, Master Trogan didn't bother to name his beasts of burden." His voice softened. "He barely bothered naming his men, especially Narrin and myself."
"So, Sookie, you get to choose a name for him yourself."
"Uh, milady, it is a her, not a him."
"Oh? Oh, well, that just means you have to choose from a different set of names, doesn't it?"
She addressed another member of the group standing in the courtyard. "Jarrin, do you know if female frayen are different than male ones? Anything we should look out for?"
"No, milady. As far as riding goes, they are much the same. In fact, if you can tame this one Mistress Sukhana should find it a quieter ride. I will be interested to find out if you can do that, milady."
Garia smiled. "I've not had many failures so far. D'Kenik, will you let Snep out, please?"
D'Kenik grinned at Garia. "As you command, milady. Harness?"
She shook her head. "That won't be necessary, just let him out as he is."
D'Kenik walked into the stable and opened Snep's stall. The frayen gave an inquiring look at D'Kenik then ambled out of the stall and into the courtyard. He walked straight over to Garia and nuzzled her. She responded by digging a cube of sweet vegetable out of her sash and offering it to him. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the ears of the other frayen swivel up and forward.
While she rubbed Snep's neck with one hand she faced the other frayen. The beast had clearly watched the exchange and now, hesitantly, she put one foot forward before withdrawing it. Her head tossed uncertainly as she tried to reconcile what she remembered about treatment by humans with what she had just seen happen in front of her. She tried again, bringing her other foot up to match, then walked unsteadily forward, her head down. When she reached them she nuzzled Snep briefly before looking up at Garia.
"See? These beasts are smart, if we allow them to be. She's seen that Snep is comfortable around me and she wonders if there's anything in it for her."
Garia raised her hand again and this time managed to put it on the frayen's head. The beast flinched but otherwise did nothing.
"Good girl," Garia said, digging another treat out and offering it to the frayen. The animal gently took it from her hand and began munching. Snep gave his owner an inquiring look. Garia smiled fondly at him.
"Don't worry, greedy-guts, you haven't suddenly gotten competition. I'm just convincing your lady friend that there are better ways of doing things than she's known before. Here, have another nibble."
"Remarkable, milady," Jarrin said.
"It seems you have a touch I do not, milady," Sethan added. "I have endured many bites from these particular animals - and before. I would take your instruction, milady."
Garia fed Snep another treat after which he turned and began investigating his companion by gently smelling her body with his nose.
"Milady," Jarrin said, "Frayen are herd animals in the wild. It is said that if frayen are left for a time without our husbandry they will return to their natural state."
Sethan started. "Oh! Milady, that had not occurred to me. Those six have been left to pasture these few days." He bowed. "I offer my apology."
"I don't think a few days is going to make that much difference, Sethan," Garia replied. "I think it was more the way that Trogan's men had treated them that has made them like this. And you could do little while you were locked in the cells, could you? Don't worry about it, it wasn't your fault."
Garia turned to Brazan. "It's a good point, though. Perhaps we should bring them all in from the field? There's enough room in the stable, isn't there?"
"Ample, milady. If I take a couple of our men and their beasts, we should be able to round the others up without any problem."
"This one," Garia mused, "could benefit from a little civilizing influence, don't you think? Perhaps we could put her in the same stall as Snep? If that's not possible, have we bigger stalls they could share?" She turned bright red and giggled. "Oh! I'm not thinking this through properly, am I? A boy frayen and a girl frayen...are we asking for trouble?"
Jarrin cracked a one-sided smile. "Milady, as Sethan says, she has been out to pasture these few days. It is quite possible she is already with foal. They are usually named as bucks and does, milady. It is a natural hazard that does will bear foals from year to year. It is one of the reasons that the castle guard - and other guards, of course - normally only select bucks for their mounts."
"That's true," Sukhana agreed. "Jaxen says the same holds true for the caravan folk." She frowned. "Will that mean that I won't be able to ride this one? Would it be better to choose another?"
"You should be able to ride until the depths of winter, mistress. If she is in foal, and I'm not sure I can tell this early, I do not have the art, it would usually be born in the spring."
"Very well," Garia decided. "We'll keep this one. We have a little time before lunch, so let's get started. I want all of you except Sookie to clear the courtyard, please. If you want to watch stay on the walkways or go up on the balcony."
The men all moved away until only Garia and Sookie were standing in the center of the courtyard with Garia holding the female frayen's halter and Snep as an interested spectator.
"What are you going to call her, Sookie?"
"Um, Tixi, I think. Does that sound a good name to you, milady?"
"Don't ask me, Sookie. All the names here in Alaesia are nothing like the names we have at home, people or beasts. Tixi it is, then. Okay, watch and learn."
Garia stood at Tixi's head, but not facing the beast directly. She began talking to it in a low tone, not saying anything in particular but just letting the animal become used to the sound of her voice. Gradually it began to visibly relax and Garia was able to put her hand on its neck and then its back, gently rubbing the tough hide from front to back. Eventually she came back to Tixi's head and offered both frayen a sweet treat before turning to Sukhana.
"This is how we do it, Sookie. I've heard it said that it's something in a woman's voice but I don't completely believe that since the men can learn to do it as well. I think the trick is to not just treat them as a dumb beasts you force to do what you want them to, although that certainly works, but to treat them instead as a kind of child. You can't baby-talk them but they will understand the tone of your voice. Obviously all frayen are different and Snep here is one of the smarter ones but you should be able to make your new friend understand that you and she are going to be partners. If you look after her kindly, she'll do the same for you when you need it the most."
"If you say so, milady." Sukhana smiled. "Why, I do believe that your beast is smarter than some men I have known!"
Garia returned the smile. "That probably wouldn't be difficult, would it? Look, there's someone hanging out the kitchen door, let's go and get these two settled in the stables because I guess lunch is almost ready. I can't spare you any time this afternoon but we can have another session tomorrow morning."
"After exercises and combat practice?" Sukhana asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Why, of course! And now you have the kitchen well organized you can join us for the Tai Chi."
"Nonsense! If Jenet can do it you can. Here, Snep. I'm afraid that's all the action you're going to see today, boy. We'll put you next to this lovely lady, though, you can tell her all about it."
"Brazan, about all those chests you moved up to our room."
Her armsman gave her a wary glance. "Yes, milady?"
Garia smiled to defuse the request. "After we've finished having lunch I'm hosting a group of the town's women. They'll want to look over all the nice clothes I have which came out of the palace, you know? We'll go up and use the women's dormitory because we can be all private up there. Can you find someone and move all our chests into the dormitory for this afternoon? Put them against the wall next to the corridor, please."
"As you command, milady. And will you want them moved back afterward?"
"We'll want them out of that room but there's really too many for where we sleep so we'll choose some you can put in another room, if you would."
Brazan nodded. "As you wish, milady. Ah, do you require seats for your guests?"
"That all right, a couple of Keren's men are taking some of these benches up once we've cleared the lunch things away. If you could just move those chests, they're all ready to go."
Brazan straightened, saluted and left the common room. Merizel's gaze followed him out of the door with an appreciative look.
"You certainly do have the gift of command, don't you? Ordering those men around like that, and they're happy to go and do whatever you ask!" Her eyes grew dreamy. "I was once told, I forget by who, that that was the best state for a woman to be in. She has men who protect her and look after her but who will do everything just as she asks them to. I wonder if I'll ever be in that state?"
Garia smiled. "Depends on what Terinar inherits, doesn't it?"
Merizel grew red. "That's unfair. He's written me one letter, that's all. I have no expectation that anything more will develop."
"You wrote him back, didn't you? Give it time, girl. We'll be passing through Dekarran on our way back, don't forget."
"How can I forget, Garia?" Merizel looked pensive. "What chance does a low-status noblewoman like me stand with the nephew of the King? Is this a foolish enterprise? Is this just a silly daydream of mine?"
"What if it is? You're entitled to have silly daydreams, silly. And at least you got to meet the King's nephew and he likes you, so why not?" Garia's voice lowered as she glanced at Keren, giving directions to his men at the other end of the common room. "You have a better chance of landing your man than I do with mine."
Merizel opened her mouth to speak but closed it again without saying anything. She regarded her friend unhappily. Most of those in their party knew and fully appreciated the obstacles in Keren and Garia's way. Most understood the pressures they faced, with possibly a kingdom at stake.
Sukhana came through the rear door and headed for their table, wiping her hands on a cloth as she did so. She sat down next to Merizel facing Garia.
"Milady, milady." She made a face. "It was so much easier when you two were just Buffy and Karizma. Well. I am ready for this meeting with the townswomen, even though it will use time I could better employ elsewhere." She held up a hand. "Don't misunderstand me, milady. Knowing the womenfolk of this town and making their acquaintance will make my life so much easier, it is just that there is so much to do."
"Are you regretting taking over the Claw?" Merizel asked.
"No! Not at all, Milady Merizel. It is just that I have two years of neglect to remedy and a shortage of everything that was not nailed down." Her face darkened. "Not to mention the loss of all my pots, though the townspeople have been very good at providing substitutes until my brother returns." She turned to Garia. "You must agree, milady, that without my help you would be sorely pressed to organize your own men, and those of His Highness."
"That's very true," Garia admitted, though she added, "I'm sure the townspeople would have taken us in if you had not offered to run this place."
"Maybe so," Sukhana agreed, "but they are all strangers to you and your ways and I consider that I am neither a stranger nor do your ways surprise me any more." She grinned. "At least, I know now to expect almost any happening whenever you are involved, Milady Garia. Are we to expect more of the same this afternoon?"
"I don't know, Sookie," Garia responded. "I have to remember that these people live a relatively sheltered life far from what you or I might call civilization. In fact, you have probably seen more life than I have, considering your travels with the caravans. The fact that Trogan was here for, what, eight months probably hasn't helped much."
"As you say." She looked up as a guardsman in palace colors came to the table. "Yes? Is there something you need?"
Varno cleared his throat. "Uh, milady, mistress, His Highness desires the tables and benches moved for his meeting this afternoon..." He tailed off, embarrassed to be implying that he was ordering his betters to shift themselves.
"Ah, yes," Sukhana said. "Milady, if we should find somewhere else to stand while these fine men move the furniture."
"Of course. Let's go out into the courtyard," Garia agreed.
"We may find that some of the townswomen have already arrived," Merizel suggested.
Under the carriage arch there were a group of women waiting and Garia, as hostess, formally introduced Merizel, Sukhana and Jenet to them. They waited, making only small talk, until the last stragglers arrived before Garia led them across the courtyard to the women's stair. As they reached it Brazan came down and thumped his chest.
"Milady, all is ready for you and your party. I shall stay at the bottom of the stairs to ensure your privacy, and should you require anything."
With a nod to her armsman Garia led the women up the stairs and into the dormitory. Her guests looked around at the bare room.
"It looks so bare without all the furnishings, Tilla," one remarked. "Do you remember the drapes, the wall-hangings and the fine bedding?"
"I never came up here when the Ptuvil's Claw was an inn," the woman called Tilla replied. "I do not doubt it looked better than it does now. What is that stain on the ceiling?"
"That," Garia told them, "is where the man Sethan fell through the ceiling when we were chasing him. He had gone into the roof space to hide from us when we searched the building. Ladies, please find yourselves seats. I'm sorry, you have all told me your names but I may get them wrong this afternoon. Don't take offense, please."
Four benches had been placed along one wall under the windows, facing the fifth which was in front of a line of their chests. Garia, Merizel, Sukhana and Jenet made themselves comfortable on the fifth and faced their audience, who numbered eleven. Garia smiled at the townswomen, who ranged from approximately mid-twenties in age to one of the oldest women she had seen since coming to Anmar.
In truth she felt uncomfortable facing these women. This was not like facing Guildsmen, Questors, nobles or even armed kidnappers but knowledgeable individuals who naturally assumed that she was the same as themselves. Her status might be enough to cover the cracks but her confidence of carrying the afternoon off wasn't high to begin with.
"I'm sure you have many questions to ask and you'll want to see all that we have in our chests," she began. "I must tell you that I cannot answer every question you might have for me, partly because there are many things I just don't know and partly because there are some things that the King thinks it better left untold at the moment. I hope you won't be offended if I refuse to tell you something, but I'll do my best wherever I can. I've already told some of you that I have not been a noblewoman long and that I'm unused to local customs. Just treat me as if I was a visitor from a different place and that is exactly what I am, except that I can't go back home. So, who wants to begin?"
The row of women all looked at her, their expressions varying. The younger ones seemed to be interested to find out what the new girl in town was wearing and why, while the older ones appeared more disapproving. No-one seemed inclined to actually open their mouth and start a conversation yet. Garia sighed internally.
This is going to be like getting blood from a stone.
"Look, if you're all going to just sit there we'll waste the time we have. Perhaps I'd better begin by telling you how I came here and what has happened to me so far. After that I think we'd better talk about Mistress Sukhana's wants since she'll need to go downstairs and supervise our evening meal. After that we can have a look at the rest of what we have with us."
"Milady," the one called Tilla ventured, "I must ask pardon on behalf of my sisters. In Blackstone we have had nothing to do with any noble in all the years that any of us can remember, yet you do not fit what we believed a noblewoman to be. If you see confusion on our faces, it is because we are confused."
"I can understand that, mistress. Let me start from the beginning, then."
Garia gave them a carefully-edited summary of her life since coming to Palarand and an even more carefully edited version of her life before, leaving out the fact that she had not been female on Earth. That kind of information would only cause unnecessary confusion for these people. The fact that she had come from another world was difficult enough for some of her audience to comprehend.
"So you see," she concluded with a smile, "that's how I came to be in the palace with basically no suitable clothing of my own. Most of what I'll show you comes from the palace wardrobe and in fact some of the gowns previously belonged to His Highness's sisters. Thinking about it, Milady Merizel is in a similar situation, since her father's holdings are right at the southern edge of Palarand, and she's told me that it is very rural there. She has also been given gowns from the palace wardrobe, which holds vast rails of clothes for all who might have need."
"Do they all dress so fine in the palace then, milady?" an older woman asked.
Garia smiled. "Yes and no, mistress. Of course the King, Queen and their children have to have fancy clothes for ceremonies and that sort of thing but the wardrobe also provides clothing for all the servants, guardsmen and officials who work in the palace. For those who live in the palace as well, there are everyday clothes as well as special outfits. We don't walk around in fine silk all the time." Garia remembered the Harvest Festival preparations. "There is a whole set of special clothes ready for ceremonies like Harvest Festival." Some of the women nodded. "And one time we had a funeral out the back of the palace, I had to wear a long gray mourning gown in the heat of summer, that wasn't comfortable at all."
"We wear gray gowns to show respect for the dead," one of the older ones said. "Comfort is a lesser requirement at such times."
"Show some sense, Jorine!" another woman said, "Milady has just told us that all her clothes came from the palace wardrobe. She has had none made to fit her own figure so it is not surprising that her gown was uncomfortable, being shaped for another."
"As you say, Hasinet. Milady, please forgive my thoughtlessness."
"That's okay, mistress. This is an unusual situation for all of us. You probably don't know many who have to wear clothes made for other people."
"Not so, milady," Tilla said. "In Blackstone as in many of the poorer regions, folk are forced to wear clothes made for their older siblings, indeed, perhaps made for their parents or other older relatives. Normally, of course, a seamstress would adjust the garments but sometimes the family is not even able to afford that small service."
Garia blushed, embarrassed. "It is my turn to apologize, ladies. The practice of hand-me-downs is well-known among the poorer folk of my own country. In my case very little of what I wear has been altered to fit me, and I have to add that of course I have had clothes made especially for me as well. Most of those clothes would be for activities that the ladies of the court don't usually do, like exercise or ride."
"As you say, milady," Tilla agreed. "Would those garments include those which Mistress Sukhana desires, perhaps? You mentioned riding attire earlier."
"Yes, that's right. Sookie, have you the pieces you already cut out there? Good. Whose skirt did you base that one on?"
"Milady Merizel's dark blue skirt, milady."
"Merry, can you find that skirt and put it on, please? That will show the ladies what it looks like."
Merizel, with Jenet's help, found her chest, pulled out her riding skirt and put it on, walking up and down in front of them to show them how it sat and swung.
"Oooh! I like that," one said. "Notice how the hem swirls."
"Aye, mistress," Merizel said with a smile. "It seems that the eyes of the young men who pass by take notice as well. Now Milady Garia has a swing to her walk I do not and her skirt moves in a way that even I find fascinating."
"It seems a little short," one of the older women observed critically.
"Remember that these skirts are part of a riding outfit," Garia explained. "There is ample cloth to cover everything when you are in the saddle. It is just sufficiently long enough when standing to permit modesty. Both the King and Queen have approved the design."
Jorine asked, "Milady, it would seem that your attire is suitably modest when you ride, then. But what of climbing on and off your beast? It would seem to me that certain parts of your body must therefore be seen by others."
Garia smiled. "I'm glad you asked that, mistress. Underneath the skirt we wear another garment for that very reason. Jenet, can you pull out Merry's breeches, please?"
There was a concerted gasp from the women as Jenet held up the breeches and it became apparent what they were.
"In normal wear," Garia explained, "They are hidden beneath the skirt. When you are standing you might just see the bottom edges of the legs where they are buckled below the knee. In practice, no-one can see anything."
"Might we examine the garment, milady?"
"Sure. Hand it over, Jenet."
The women ooh'ed and aah'ed over the breeches, which were examined closely by all. Questions were asked about the patches of leather, the shape of the upper part, how warm they were and what happened when Kalikan called. Garia explained that the whole thing was a compromise between comfort, modesty, safety and durability and that the design was a work in progress. She explained what had happened on the way when she had climbed down to inspect the Chivan markstone.
"You wish us to make a pair of these for Mistress Sukhana, then, milady?"
Garia looked at Sukhana, who nodded.
"That was the plan. Actually, a single pair probably won't be enough. Like the skirt, she'll probably need between two and three of each to begin with. I expect, as fall continues and the weather becomes cooler, that we'll need others made in thicker materials."
There was an intense discussion between the seamstresses about sizing, pattern-making, selection of cloth and leather and so on resulting in a request to Sukhana that someone could come and measure her properly. This was agreed, so talk moved on to other garments any of them might wish to be made for them. Once that had ended Sukhana stood and curtseyed to Garia.
"Milady, I must return to my duties, since the cooks will now have begun preparing the evening meal."
"That's fine, Sookie. I know you can't afford to stay any longer."
Sukhana smiled. "Thank you, milady. I wish I could, since even I have not seen you wearing some of your fine gowns yet."
"You'll likely have the chance soon enough."
Sukhana curtseyed again and departed. Garia turned to the women.
"It looks like it's time for Merizel and myself to do some modeling for you all."
Once the term had been explained Jenet began opening the lids of all their chests and the women gathered round.
"So," Garia said with a forced smile, "Where would you like me to begin?"
"So you see, gentlemen," Keren told his listeners, "Milady Garia is like no other girl presently on Anmar. While she seems a young woman, indeed one who might be my own sister, she has learning far beyond anything we know here in Palarand. As I have mentioned all in her world are taught from very young until our own age and for many for some years to come. Every man and woman can read and write and does so easily. There is common everyday knowledge of subjects we would find astounding." He lowered his tankard to the table. "Yet she has chosen to give as much as she can to Palarand, to speed our progress in the arts and sciences."
An older man pointed a finger. "Highness, my wife tells me that she saw the Baroness taking exercise this morning among her men and yours, all the while being half-dressed. Is this what she expects us to do?"
Keren fought to keep a smile from his face. The questioner had an important point which had to be taken seriously in order to keep Garia's reputation pure.
"Sterrold, is it? What your wife saw was true. Milady Garia trains with the men as I do myself. In fact, what she saw this morning was the Baroness teaching the men. She brings to our lands a special art called unarmed combat and she is an expert at it. I can tell you that I have with my own eyes seen her break a man's ribs and cripple his leg permanently. She has also killed a man, who attempted to abduct her, with a single kick to the head." His face became serious. "Master Sterrold, what your wife witnessed was no light-hearted game. She trains the men to incapacitate, to maim and to kill."
Sterrold didn't seem convinced. "But, Highness, I am told she wore no gown this morning."
Keren shrugged. "She wears the attire of the palace guard when she trains, good master, as do I. Let me assure you that nothing is visible which ought not to be and the men have learned," he grinned, "often the hard way, that she is to be treated with respect. No allowance is made for the fact that she is female and no concession is made for her size. Trust me, she is the equal of any man in both our retinues."
Another man asked, "Highness, you wear guard fatigues while training, that I may - just - understand. Yet, when any blow falls, you cannot expect to be attired thus. What of milady's training, whenever she does wear a gown?"
"A good point, master. In fact, this caused her some trouble when we were attacked during the Harvest Festival this year. She was wearing the customary festival gown and -"
Keren went on to explain what had happened and his audience was suitably shocked that a lady could be attacked in that fashion.
"Since then her clothing has been subtly modified in style to permit her to respond to any further attacks. The changes turned out to be appropriate when she was again attacked in the corridors of Dekarran castle. It was there that she killed the man I mentioned before."
"Maker, Highness! Are her people then all warriors, men and women? Are we in danger from them?"
"You need not fear an attack from Garia's people, master. Their world lies too far away, somewhere else entirely, and I do not think they even know which direction Anmar is or that she is here. Just be pleased, instead, that she chooses to share this valuable knowledge with us while she is here. As to her people being warriors, she tells us that the fighting she teaches us the men and women of her world mostly do for fun, without harm to one another. That is how we train, but we also know how to finish the movements to injure our enemies." He sobered completely. "She has also told us, privately, how her people make war. They use devices we may barely comprehend and the damage they can cause is beyond belief. We hope, sincerely, that such devices are never brought to Anmar."
"Milady, what is that?"
"What? Oh, this! This is a bra. I've introduced them to Palarand. In the palace nobody wears bodices any more, we all wear bras instead. They support your breasts much better, are cooler in hot weather and allow your body more freedom. Besides which, they are dead easy to make, using tiny scraps of cloth. Jenet?"
Jenet had already fished a spare bra out of a chest and it was handed round the women.
"Are you all wearing these... bras now, milady?"
"Yes, we are. Um, we don't have any spares, of course, so I'm not sure how we can do this."
Merizel suggested, "They need a set of patterns, milady."
"As you say." She turned to the women. "Once I showed the women in the palace how to make these we realized that it would be awkward to keep patterns for everyone as each woman is of course slightly different. However, all the women who work or live in the palace were measured up and we discovered that of around two hundred women, about half could be fitted with only twelve patterns, and half the rest with another eleven patterns. So that's what the wardrobe do, they keep a set of patterns and each woman's pattern number is kept with her record. I'll ask for a set of patterns to be sent up, I should have thought of it before Jaxen went off."
A woman, fingering the bra, said, "Milady, I don't think we would need the patterns you suggest. Surely we can make these garments, should we need them, without such a pattern?"
"We-ll, you can, but I'll tell you that it could be tricky. Although the pieces of cloth are small they have to be cut pretty accurately and sewn together carefully as well. If you don't get it right you could end up looking a strange shape or be uncomfortable. It is much easier just to use the pattern pieces. Remember, you'll need more than one of these per woman. You'll want at least three and then, when Kalikan calls, you'll probably want one or two of a larger size as well."
"As you say, milady. I had forgotten how our breasts may swell during the Call. Then we shall await the arrival of the patterns with anticipation. You say that all in the palace wear these garments now?"
"I do, mistress, even the Queen. The practice is spreading to the city even now and I've had to have patterns sent to Dekarran as well. You'll be seeing these in Blackstone sometime even if I didn't send for the patterns for you."
"Milady," another woman was inspecting the bra, "these little buckles on the bra. How are these made, and who shall provide them for us?"
"A good question. The first few were made by the palace jeweler, actually, although I believe they are now made in bulk in the city. You'll need a lot of them, as each bra has four and you'll have, say, five bras each... Hmm. Perhaps I'll send a note to Fulvin asking him to ship some out here to get you started. There are substitutes you can use. It is possible to use metal rings, although I'd have to think about how that would work. Merry, add those things to the list, would you?"
"Highness, does the Baroness really intend to mine all the coal in Blackstone? All who have come here before considered it little better than rubbish. They laughed at us when we used it to cook and heat our houses."
"What nobody knew until Milady Garia explained it to us, master, is that coal can be treated the same way we treat wood to make charcoal. If you do the same to coal the result is a substance called coke which can be used instead of charcoal in the making of iron and steel. Not only is it easier to dig coal out of the ground than to grow forests and cut them down all the time but she tells us that coke makes better quality steel than charcoal. In Palarand's future we shall need to make a great quantity of steel so we will need your coal. Milady has, however, stated that the supply of coal for domestic use here in Blackstone shall be preserved for all time."
"Steel, Highness? What will all this steel be used for?"
"Making vehicles, to begin with. She plans something called a railroad from here to the capital, similar to the iron roadways which the miners use to move their ores about." Several of the men nodded. "Only the railroad will be much larger and be able to haul huge loads long distances in times so short I thought that she was crazy until it was explained to me. It will also be able to haul passengers." Keren smiled at his listeners. "How would you think of traveling from here to, say, Teldor and back in a single day? Or from here to Dekarran in a day? We cannot yet conceive of bridges that would cross the Sirrel -"
"Highness! What you suggest is madness!"
"Are you so sure, Sterrold? With a goodly supply of steel she assures us that similar rivers on her own world have been bridged numerous times. If bridging the Sirrel is not possible, then we may instead go underneath."
"A tunnel, Highness? Surely one would die through lack or air!"
Keren shrugged. "The Sirrel is but three marks across at Dekarran, masters. It takes a ferry two bells to cross when the tides are right. If that is so, and the railroad train is quick enough to travel from here to Dekarren in a day, then crossing the Sirrel will not take long. I do not think you would be unable to breathe during such a short journey."
"Highness! What you suggest is incredible!"
"Aye, I know it, but I have also seen the proof that such things are possible. The world our children will grow up in will be very different than we or our fathers have known."
"And you may be King by then, Highness."
"Aye. I do know what I am likely to face, and what my country is likely to face. Gentlemen, these changes shall come to Palarand, and the Valley, and all Alaesia, whether we wish them or no. All we may do is to attempt to manage what happens. We cannot stop what is to come, nor may we delay it. All we can try is to profit by the mistakes that happened on the Baroness's world when those same changes happened to them."
"Ah! Highness, all now becomes clear. We understand what faces us all and you may be assured of our full support."
The women, all animated now, crowded around Garia, Merizel and Jenet at the foot of the stairs.
"Thank you, thank you so much for allowing us to see your fine gowns, milady! We are delighted to see the latest fashions!"
"Oh," Garia said quickly, "I told you before, nothing I own is the latest fashion, so far as I know."
"But for us, in far away Blackstone, they are the latest fashions, milady. It is so sweet to see a young woman in gowns that suit her face and figure. Even your short hair style suits you so well."
"Thank you, Mistress Jorine."
"And the attire you have designed for exercising and for riding," one said, "You show real talent and an eye for detail. I'm sure you shall see such garments in Blackstone before long."
The youngest added, "You have shown us that there is more a woman may do than she has done before. In the future, perhaps, you may find that more of us are exercising and riding and trying some of the other things you mentioned."
"You are not at all what we expected," the oldest woman told her. "We have little knowledge of the ways of nobility but you make a refreshing change from those who have visited our remote town in the past."
"You are so young and so easy to talk to," another said, "Not like we imagined a noblewoman to be at all! We all enjoyed our visit to your chambers."
"So mature, too," a third added.
"Indeed! His Highness is very fortunate to have you as his consort. You will make a fine Queen for Palarand. Good-night to you, milady."
The unexpected nature of the final comment left Garia speechless as the women curtseyed, crossed the courtyard and left to make their way home. Finally she turned to Merizel.
"I didn't see that coming."
"Really? You must be the only person in the entire town who didn't, then. You're the center of attention here and everybody is watching you and His Highness very closely. How is it that we can all see what you do not?"
A frustrated Garia threw up her hands. "If only it was that simple, Merry! If what you say is really true then a lot of people are going to be disappointed whatever we decide. Come on, let's go back upstairs and put everything back in the chests so that Brazan can move them again. Then we can choose what to wear for the evening meal."
"Keren, all the women think we are betrothed! What are we going to do?"
"The men also, Garia. It is not surprising, really -"
"It was to me!"
"Your attention has been elsewhere. You are their liege, there is much that occupies your mind lately. It is not surprising, though, that the townspeople consider us betrothed when you think how we behave, how we speak of one another. In their place I would probably come to the same conclusion. Did you correct their assumption?"
"I didn't! I was so surprised I couldn't say anything. Did you?"
"In a way, although I did not deny it. I told the men that, although we are close to one another, there has yet been no formal declaration. I said that it was possible that my father may have other ideas given the customs of the Valley."
"I suppose that's better than nothing, Keren. If I said one thing... no, I didn't, did I? If I led them to believe one thing and you told them the opposite it would cause all kinds of confusion and we have enough of that already. What shall we do?"
"Take extra care in future, I think. Who's there? Sookie, is that you?"
"Highness, Milady, I know that you meet here each night and I am sorry that I am interrupting a private conversation, but I think this is important."
Keren and Garia both turned to face Sukhana.
Garia asked, "What is it?"
"I been thinking, milady, but the numbers keep going round in my head and I can't seem to get it right. See, you gave me Tixi this morning and I got to thinking about the other five frayen and then I started thinking about the men Trogan brought with him and I can't make the numbers add up."
"What do you mean?" Keren asked.
"Well, Highness, it's like this. When we arrived there was that battle in the street, right? Three were killed then and the other three captured. Those were the three you tried and executed, milady, weren't they? So that's six. Then there's that man Sethan and his cousin Narrin who died falling off the roof, that's eight."
"Yes, that's right."
"Then there's the two who were with Sethan here in the Claw before you captured him. You remember, he said that they had run off taking his frayen with them. That makes ten altogether, don't it?"
Garia nodded. "That's right, Sookie. Ten was the number we reckoned, including Trogan himself. What of it?"
"Well, it's the frayen, see? There was six out the back of the Steward's house, they're in our stable now, and then there's the three what the two men who were with Sethan took. That makes nine. So, what happened to the tenth frayen?"
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