Julina of Blackstone - 058 - Petard

A conman conned

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

058 – Petard


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 © 2013 - 2018 Julia Phillips. All rights reserved.

It uses some of the associated characters and situations that arise from the world called ‘Anmar’ created by Penny Lane, whose stories
are also copyright © 2010 - 2018 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles
058 – Petard

“Maker ! I can't believe it! Is that really you, Subrish? Is that really really really really you?”

Epp was giggling, laughing, sobbing, talking, crying and hugging the stranger all at the same time.

Shemel looked on in wonder, wanting to help his woman, but not wanting to interrupt what was obviously a very personal moment. Karmanya and Jogantha stood there ready to leap in if called, but ready to escort this stranger out if that was what would be required, although by then we all knew that it was highly unlikely that the man would be so summarily evicted.

Pomma and I also looked on in amazement. She, Pomma that is, had no clue at all as to what was going on, but my mind was churning. The name Epp had said, Subrish, that name I had heard before, somewhere else entirely.

Epp's past, I was sure. Let me think …

The answer slipped into my head and I was just about to tell Pomma when Epp pulled back from the man, still sniffling.

She announced: “Everyone, this is my brother Subrish. I have not seen him since I went off with Willen all those years ago. Girls, run and make a room ready for him, the best one available of course. Subrish, this is my man Shemel and these two ladies are staying with me here, down from Blackstone, Mistress Pomma is the wife of our saddler up there, Waldan, and the younger one is my protégée, friend, confidante and business partner, Mistress Julina. My two boys, Willen was the father, shall be back here for our evening meal.”

We studied the man before us. Slim he was, perchance too slim, as though he was quite severely undernourished. However, his whole posture suggested he was one of those men that are filled with a wiry strength, a strength that surprises you when you see the person employ it. He was shorter than Shemel, but only just, which meant he was taller than any of we women. Mohini, I deemed, might be less than him and Termerik would be about the same height. His clothes were not new, but were well cared-for, perhaps a little travel stained.

Later, when Pomma and I compared notes, we agreed though that his clean-shaven face was the most striking feature. That and his hair, so I will deal with the hair first. Full-bodied, long, tidy, clean, well cared-for and utterly silver. Men of his age mostly have many signs of their original colour of hair, but his was just that uniformly deep and burnished silver.

And his face! That face had been lived in. There was a strain in it which I originally attributed to the rigours of travel. There were deep lines which I would have put down to worry on any other man, but on him there was something a little different. And yet it was familiar somehow. A look I had seen before somewhere. A memory that slipped and squiggled its way away from me the more I tried to pin it down.

His voice, when he spoke, was calm and smooth, a pleasant, light man's voice, but again there were hints of steel: “Well met, all. I must first apologise to my sister and Master Shemel here, for I have travelled to be here for their wedding but delays on the route have made me miss the grand occasion. And I am delighted to meet you ladies. Perchance we shall have a chance to know each other better over an evening meal? But I deem we shall all be more comfortable somewhere else entirely rather than standing around here in an entrance hall.”

Epp, looking far more flustered than I had ever seen her before, blushed red and, with far too many apologies, ushered everyone into the family room. But then, half way there, she remembered that we were all supposed to be going out.

Before she could say anything, I interrupted: “Dear Epp, a blind man could see you have far too much on your plate right at the moment, so Pomma and I will simply slip out and leave you to your family reunion. We shall return in good time for the evening meal.”

Thus it was that just Pomma and I went through the streets to Master Tapio's place of business.

Where, of course, the first person we met just HAD to be the one I really didn't want to.

“Mistress Julina! What … excuse me …” He swallowed and started again. “How may I help you, Mistresses?”

“I am here, Bormio, to see Master Tapio. If you could be so kind as to fetch him? I require no more than a hand of moments.”

I was so taken aback that I spoke a little harshly, and Pomma later confirmed my impression that I had been at less than my politest. But nevertheless Bormio went off to do my bidding.

“Mistress Julina, how wonderful to see you again!”

“Master Tapio, may I present Mistress Pomma, wife of Master Waldan, our saddler up in Blackstone. Mistress Pomma, this is Master Tapio. I have told you much about him, but worry not Master Tapio, not everything!”

The two of them laughed and the ice was broken.

Tapio turned to Bormio and dismissed him by giving him a task to do. He remained silent until the other man had gone out of earshot, then turned to me and said: “I deem that our Bormio is actually beginning to understand his crimes, for I do believe I heard some contrition from him last week. He is indeed a talented Glassman and I am certain he is grateful to you for preventing the chopping off of his hand. I deem we might make something of him by the time his two years is up.

“Last week, however, he was less in control of his emotions. It appears that his wife has deserted him, running off downvalley with some other man. I have never seen anyone quite so happy as when Bormio was informed! He almost forgot that the Guild had stripped him of his Mastership and that he would have the bare minimum of income.

“However, that means that his shop, which was also his workshop AND his home, is now largely unattended, for he spends most of his time here, of course. He doesn't quite know what to do. He has no income any more to pay someone to look after his place and feels he might need to sell it, but then would require somewhere to sleep. He sees no way out of it. And it's complicated by the fact that actually all his assets were given to Mistress Megrozen to administrate if you remember.”

“Aye, Master, I do recall. We are staying with her and I shall mention it to her tonight over dinner. However, her brother, whom she has not seen for many a year, has unexpectedly turned up, so I doubt that she shall be able to concentrate on much else for a while!”

“So Mistresses, you came to visit me. Was this just a visit to cheer an old man up, or was there some other underlying reason?”

“A little of both, actually,” I laughed. “I could not visit Tranidor without paying my respects, and this time my visit is somewhat urgent and yet must be cut as short as possible. I shall be returning very soon, the morning after next actually. I am in town because ...”

And so I filled him in on the Jaffy story, and the Blackstone Wagons story, and the Brayview story. Pomma mentioned the Bat Bacs story when she explained where we were dashing off to as soon as we finished here.

I finished off the explanations by saying: “... so you see we shall require everything to set up this business! I must rush round the necessary suppliers on the morrow to get all the things set in motion.”

“Businesses, more like! You are almost over busy I deem. Now please don't take this in any other way than as meant. I am so very grateful to you for the vast change you have made in my fortunes and would like to present you with a little gift for your new transport enterprise. Please attend for a mere moment or two.”

He dashed off, leaving Pomma and I looking at each other in a sort of wonder. Neither of us had expected any such reaction on his part.

He returned with Bormio and another man who worked there, all three debating some point as they went along. I gathered from their talking that the third man was the establishment's storekeeper, who was confirming some quantity of something was indeed available.

Once they reached us, Tapio ushered Bormio forward to be the first spokesman. I could see that he was extremely nervous, but nevertheless he was steadfast in his speech, and appeared far more sincere than I had ever seen him.

“Mistress Julina, I must first say that I apologise for my appalling behaviour towards you, Mistress Megrozen and all your friends. I was blinded by greed, and have subsequently suffered my fate because of it. That 'twas you who saved my hand means I shall ever be in your debt. Without that hand, I would be a starving, penniless beggar with no future to continue with my work. That someone whom I wronged so grievously could act as my saviour was a severe shock to me, and may well have been the first step towards my recovery.

“Master Tapio here has explained that you are starting a new venture. We here in his establishment have a semi-permanent order with Master Tanon's company to supply them with Beam Lanterns. They appreciate we shall be unable to supply all their needs in this respect in one fell swoop, and I understand that Master Pocular up in Blackstone is likewise supplying them as he may. There is also now a Glassmaker in Holville, one in Haligo and one in Teldor who are likewise feeding Master Tanon's demands. For all we know there may also be others in Dekarran and Palarand itself.

“Despite all this, it shall still be a year or more, at the most conservative of estimates, that the demand from just this one source shall be met. We also have other demand sources requiring them. As a result of all this, we work hard daily producing them. So many, that we now have a stockpile that we build up weekly and deliver to Master Rohid's office in one large consignment. Master Tapio informs me that your four wagons shall be leaving on the morning after next, the morning of the 16th from Master Rader's site. Please allow us to send four Beam Lanterns there, to be attached to your wagons prior to their departure. As a gift from us all here in Master Tapio's establishment. As just a small token of our gratitude.”

To say I was a little surprised would probably be the understatement of the year. I found I needed to gather my thoughts before I replied. It would be too confusing, too complicated to correct the numbers at that heartbeat, so I determined that I would accept the offer, with little explanation, but with an added order.

“Bormio, I find I myself must apologise. I apologise for my lack of politeness when we arrived. I was taken aback to find myself having to address you, for our last meeting was nothing less than acrimonious. So I present my apology now, and I accept your apology. I am unable to accept it upon Mistress Megrozen's behalf, but I assure you I shall inform her of it when next I see her.

“As to the gift, then I thank you, and your companions here for such a very kind thought. I accept such a generous offer with alacrity.” I grinned at them as I said that, hoping my sincerity was obvious. But I was not yet finished with my words. First I would add a quick rider to their generous offer: “If they could be delivered to Master Rader's, care of Journeyman Pyor, then I would be most appreciative.”

The storekeeper made a note of the names I had given, having taken out a pad of papers, much like my own that I always carried with me.

I took a breath. Half of my mind was amazed at the hammering of my heart as I went ahead and made my first business decision alone, at least one with regard to Blackstone Wagons.

“In my capacity as an owner of Blackstone Wagons, then I shall today issue my first commission and order a further eight of the Beam Lanterns, all these eight to be delivered together to Master Shemel at South Point Mansion, who shall pay the reckoning. I would also add to that same order a dozen General Lanterns, three hand mirrors and four full length flat glass mirrors, these latter being framed and with hanging attachments. Please address the reckoning to 'Blackstone Wagons'. Incidentally, these latter items shall be required for a building project that has yet to begin and are thus less urgent than the others. Shall this commission be acceptable to Master Tapio's business, or must I take my order elsewhere?”

I had rapidly calculated that it would be the same getting the glassware done here or up with Pocular, who I knew was also busy.

A stray thought leapt into my head: Would there eventually be a glassmaker in Brayview? How big would Brayview …?

It was with difficulty that I dragged my mind back to the matter at hand. But Pomma helped by jokingly saying: “Do I say 'Heard and witnessed!' now?”

We all laughed.

But Tapio and Bormio looked worried and somehow regretful.

I clapped my hand to my mouth. They obviously thought I wanted them to supply all this for free. I felt dreadful. Our company could not expect to get such things for free, and so I might as well place the orders with friends than with strangers. Of course, we would also need windows for the new buildings at Brayview, but I was not prepared to order them just yet. The buildings had yet to be designed, even! I made a mental note to ask up in Blackstone about the pre-made windows and frames, and whether the sizes had to be fixed.

Another stray thought leapt into my mind. I suddenly realised how I could get the designs done quickly. It might mean a little extra work for me and my friends, but I was sure 'twould be doable. Maybe I should send a semaphore to …

I whipped out my little pad from my carrybag, and a reedlet, and scribbled myself a note. Then I dragged my mind back to the present.

“Mistress Julina,” began Tapio formally, “we are delighted to accept such a commission and shall fulfil it as rapidly as we may. I confirm our local contact here shall be Master Shemel at South Point Mansion. The extra Beam Lanterns shall be delivered to Journeyman ...” he broke off as he snatched a glance at the storekeeper's pad which was swiftly offered up to his eyes, “... Pyor in the care of Master Rader.

“However. I regret that I shall have to disappoint you in some ways. I have heard of these full-length mirrors but I have never seen one. We do not have the facilities here to make them. They require many more workers in one place than are employed by all the glassmakers in Tranidor put together. I can pass on your order to ...”

“No! No, Master Tapio. I was unaware of the difficulties of production. Just forget that part of the order! I have seen one in the Inn at Blackstone, 'twas sent to Milady, er now Her Highness, when she was up there. She donated it to the Town, so I sort of assumed that they were easy to produce and were not that uncommon. I see I have been making invalid assumptions!”

“Now you have mentioned them, I shall find out all I can about them. I have learnt to trust your instincts and ideas. Bormio, I deem we have a new project before us. And we shall remember Mistress Julina's part in bringing this idea to our notice, shall we not?”

This last was said with an undercurrent of menace and I realised that it was given to Bormio as a warning. Perchance his habits had not yet been completely realigned.

“In that case, I regret we must dash away, lest we be late for something we very much wish to see. Our business for today is concluded. Mayhap I shall be able to make a more social call on the morrow. Goodnight gentlemen.”

I had to say the last for I knew not how to address Bormio nowadays, he was no longer a Master, and I had no idea about the storekeeper's status.

“Goodnight Mistresses Julina and Pomma. Hopefully until the morrow.”

I had another quick thought and departed, leaving my words floating in the air behind us: “I shall be in the 'Nest' for a luncheon from the noon bell, should you wish to join us?”

… … …


Pomma and I turned to each other in amazement.

The Bat Bacs experiment had been extremely popular.

Even though the terms were explained, and the extra costs, even then every one of the carts that turned up, and there were four hands or so of them, were engaged within moments. We saw Plostrum and he waved to us when he caught sight of us. His first hiring must have been for a short travel, for we saw him return and manage to take up a second set of passengers. Nearly every one of the drivers was wreathed in smiles when they came back, and the lines of people attending the next Wender were also smiling, some because they would have less time to wait, some because they realised the people running these public services were actually considering their needs.

Yes, Pomma and I spent a while going around asking those there. We soon understood that they all approved of the Wender system, and this extra Bac system would be a 'Good Thing'.

Some even suggested that the Bacs should just freely roam around Town during the day, they were convinced that there would be a demand not just in what one of them had named the 'scurry hour'. I liked that name, it described exactly what it felt like at that time of evening when everyone was scurrying about to get home.

We met Master Rohid while we were there, and he was beaming too with the success of this latest idea. I mentioned the idea that that passenger had planted in my mind, about making the Bacs available at other times, just running around until someone hailed them. He went immediately thoughtful, obviously working out how such a method might be handled.

Just then Plostrum turned up again and offered to take Pomma and I back to South Point – for free. Rohid agreed to meet once more at the 'Nest' on the following day and Pomma and I hopped aboard.

Rohid saw us on or way with the words: “Mistress Julina, what a wonderful idea you have had. This evening, I deem, was a great success. I am amazed that people were so ready to part with extra coin just to get home quicker. But I notice that people are now carrying more, I assume that means that they are purchasing more. So everyone is pleased, especially the businesses that are taking increased coin.”

We waved to him and Plostrum got us underway. I broke the silence that had fallen after we had gone some hundred strides or so by asking Plostrum: “One of the passengers we asked suggested that Bacs should just circulate freely during the day even, just waiting for someone to hail them. What think you of that development?”

“Oh Mistress! That had not occurred to me, like. Allow me please to gather my thinking...”

We settled back and watched the passers-by for the next two or three moments.

“My first thought is that would not be sensible, like. Surely most people have their routines and will be inside for the most part of the day, mid-morning and mid-afternoon especially. And we carters, we have other tasks in the mornings especially, delivering small loads from warehouses to customers, for example, like. 'Twould surely be a huge gamble to just cruise the streets on the off-chance someone might need you. I see not how it could be made to work, like. You might spend a whole day and not earn a soo! I doubt any of us would be prepared to take quite such a risk, like.”

I thanked him for his thoughts and we chatted about other things until we got back 'home'. We sent him off with our thanks and cheerful wishes for a good evening. But he had given me several new facts to think over, to chew upon, if you like. Like. I giggled to myself as I added that last word.

I had a surprise when we entered the house, for the dining room door stood open and I could see many more places had been laid up than I was expecting.

… … …

“Goodman Voysin, please don't feel so embarrassed. We are all friends here, and hope that you too shall be soon. Please treat this evening as just something different and as perchance a learning experience. None of us are too old to still be learning. Indeed we are relying on you for some important information, so WE require YOU.”

Epp managed to settle the poor man down for he was obviously thinking that he was out of his depth here. However, soon things settled down a tad and our discussions started.

Mistress Megrozen and I were totally honest, Mistress Nayet vouched for us, Mistress Pomma also confirmed what we were saying and Master Subrish sat back, acutely observing his sister and her partners, both life and business, as they went about explaining their plans. The two lads were taking sidewards glances to the new arrival, and he too seemed to be measuring them in return as well as almost judging everyone's conversations and contributions. I think we were all just a little unnerved by it at first.

I found it very gracious of him to allow Epp and I to do our business while we could take advantage of my presence. He was of course fully aware that my time in Tranidor was so limited. Although we were very much interested in Subrish's story, he announced that it could wait until the following evening for tonight should be more business, as I had just a single full day left in which I could attempt to arrange all I must.

It took less than a bell around the dining table for all the normal titles to be dropped and Voysin proved to be a quite intelligent man, knowledgeable when within his areas of expertise, but not really knowing much outside of his work and his home.

Around the table, he contributed little to our discussions about Wenders, Bat Bacs, Blackstone Wagons and Brayview. We did noticed his eyebrows raise on several occasions, and I, with my experience of pupils, believed I could see a mind stirred into action. We could all tell those occasions when some of our thoughts rang with something inside him. And when we had thoughts that he had hitherto not considered. He mentioned some things that we should consider in the construction of our buildings in Brayview, which were very helpful. He knew construction well, it soon became apparent.

But he also knew his neighbours well and warned us of what would most likely be Trooger's approach to any negotiations, when the subject switched to the apparent offer to purchase what was now my house on the Lane of the Inner Ramparts. It was obvious he held Trooger in the lowest regard.

We mentioned our plan for the morrow and he laughed along with us too: “What a splendid show! I deem you have read the man correctly, and he will expect you to be an uneducated young girl out of her depth in the 'big city'. If you can do that impression, and that scenario with the documents, and I deem he WILL try to browbeat you with further documents, long-words and demands for quick decisions; then he should be extremely surprised at the end.”

I replied: “We would appreciate it if you and Mistress Nayet could be present such that you may hear all that is going on and yet remain, at first, unseen. For no doubt afterwards he will attempt to twist his reportings to his favour. We hope to embarrass the man into better behaviour, that is the wished for upshot of our approach. He annoyed us and we have now learned that he has upset all his neighbours consistently over the years. He needs some rude awakening.

“Now if I might ask you about another topic? You shared a building with our friend Jafferkin, so Julina here particularly is interested in the state of the building. Did you ever discuss this with Jafferkin, or did the two of you perchance share any costs of any repairs? We shall get in someone to inspect Jaffy's half, as you would expect, but do you have any further knowledge of anything like this. If you wish, we could ask our inspector to look over your house at the same time?”

“Well, yes. Actually he and I were very much in agreement with the maintenance of our building. Over the years ...”

And so it was that we began to discuss the subject of the shared building.

We deliberately did NOT mention the possibility of our buying his half, we were determined not to have him think that he was invited this evening only because we wanted something from him. Our plan was to approach him after the Trooger showdown in the morning. He agreed with Epp's ideas of a fair price for my half that Trooger should offer and we all noticed that he was pleased that we had done our investigative 'homework' if I might make a little word joke there. We called the agreed price the 'Proper Price' so we could always know exactly what we were referring to.

We talked some more about tactics for the morrow and probable happenings and then the conversation somehow drifted off into Nayet's realms, discussing her own situation and hopes.

It was while we were talking with her, that yet another idea sprang into my mind, and I needed my little pad once more.

And my friends around the table issued the by-now normal warnings. And ignored my by-now normal glares. I noticed Subrish sniggering at our antics. He suddenly looked years younger.

I was called for explanations, but simply replied: “Not yet. I need to ask someone else about something else first. But I do believe I may have a neat solution to several problems that have occurred today.”

Nayet said: “As we are talking about me, then I must say I hope that you are not considering buying the building I currently live and work in? I made enquiries of my landlord recently, and he explained that he is oath-bound to keep the building until he dies. I know that you are looking to buy … oh …”

She faltered as she realised that she might have inadvertently let slip that we were looking for a house to buy and that actually drew more attention to her words than if she had just carried on. None of us could come up with a way to change the focus before Voysin said: “Do you tell me?”

“Indeed Voysin. The Mistresses are looking for a property similar to Jafferkin's to buy, somewhere nearby as well. They still have some plans to fill first though, and asked me not to mention it to anyone. I let it slip by accident since we are all having a friendly gathering. It just slipped out somehow.”

'Twas Subrish who smoothly diverted some of the attention by saying: “You hadn't told me THAT, sister of mine!”

I kept my face still, for I knew that actually she HAD told him but now Voysin would not feel himself to be the only one from whom secrets were being kept.

Epp herself proved how quickly she could think: “Oh it's no problem, Nayet dear, we just didn't want people generally around us to know we were looking to buy. That way prices always seem to raise slightly! We are all just friends here and none of us will breathe a word about it outside this room, will we?”

Voysin started laughing.

I wondered if it was because we had been caught out so to speak, but soon we were laughing along with him as he explained: “Trooger! Oh how wonderful! He thinks he is going to buy your house cheaply, when all along you want to BUY somewhere. Oh he won't like THAT! You have no intention of selling do you? Oh that makes everything so much better. I would not miss the meeting tomorrow for all the gallin in our land.”

He waited until our laughter was fading when he said: “More seriously though, are you really looking for somewhere to buy?”

Epp answered him more soberly: “Indeed we are, Voysin. This is what we want to do ...”

And so the Meglina story came out. Subrish showed considerable interest.

Voysin in particular listened to us as we outlined our vision, nodding frequently as he found various points he agreed with. Once we had finished with our explanations, he held up his hand for attention.

Once he had it, he surprised us with: “Mistresses, I believe that indeed I can help you. In more than one way. My friend and neighbour here, Nayet, knows that I have been considering something for quite a while now, and you have shown me that you are prepared to prepare your ideas and are obviously honourable people. As a result of all this, and including other factors as well, I have just now decided that you may purchase my half of the building! It makes complete sense, for I wish to retire down to my family near Holville, soon. Or maybe I should say soonish.

“However, I will do so on one, nay two, conditions. I would ever be wondering what the building itself shall look like, knocked through to be one large house. So I would wish to be a part of the construction team that does the alterations! And I would definitely wish to be present for the meeting with that Trooger, just to see his face when the story reverses upon himself.”

“Are you serious, Voysin? I would not want you to think that you must be nice to us! We had no intention of discussing a sale of your half with us around this table when we invited you for dinner tonight.”

“Julina, I have never been so serious in my life. It makes perfect sense to me that this building becomes a single house and Jafferkin's legacy is put to good use. I am no longer a young man, but I have experience in the construction world and would give of that experience to bring this project to fruition.”

There was a short silence as we all took stock of the situation. Yes, we had wanted to discuss the sale with him eventually, but we really did not want to do it this night. He was there with us to help plan our campaign against Trooger as well as give us a feel for the neighbourhood. Which was also the reason that Nayet was invited of course, mainly because of my limited time I had for this visit. Now, if we manage to ...

Then Epp brought me back to the thread of the conversation when she said formally: “Goodman Voysin, on behalf of Meglina Accommodation, I hereby make a formal offer to purchase your house in the Lane of the Inner Ramparts and shall pay what we have already deemed to be the Proper Price, subject always to the house being in a sound condition as determined by an independent inspector. Other purchasing conditions shall apply as discussed here and at this dining table in the last hand of moments.”

I think that she was now so used to it, so 'twas Pomma who first said: “Heard and witnessed!” Several others repeated it just after her.

“Mistress Megrozen, acting as the owner of the house in question, I, Goodman Voysin of the Lane of the Inner Ramparts in Tranidor, formally accept your offer to purchase my house at the price mentioned. All conditions of the sale shall be confirmed within the next week.”

“Heard and witnessed!”

And so Epp bought her half of the initial building in our accommodation enterprise.

A stray thought made me ask: “Voysin, have you ever managed a construction project?” I made it sound like I was enquiring about his past, but I had another angle in my mind.

“Nay Julina, I have assisted on several, but I have never been in overall charge. On one, the Project Manager fell ill soon after the commencement and I had to make decisions for the next three months before he came back, but no, I never rose to those 'dizzy heights', the opportunities never seemed to occur.”

I looked at Epp, then at Shemel and then at Nayet. They all nodded back.

“Would you, Goodman Voysin, be prepared to be the Project Manager for the conversion of the houses into one combined one, on behalf of Meglina Accommodation. Details of your employment to be finalised in the next week? Always assuming that nothing occurs to prevent the sale of the house to Meglina!”

This time, it was Voysin's turn to be surprised, but even so he was not all that slow in answering: “I accept your offer of employment, Mistress Julina. And, by extension, Mistress Megrozen.”

“Heard and witnessed!”

“Now,” I began, “let me tell you about steam engines, pumps and water pipes. Oh and water tanks and perchance toilets, even though the last topic is scarcely appropriate for a dinner table. Anyway …"

For the next bell, we discussed things like that, things I had picked up from observations and my own earlier discussions. Epp added in some details and even managed to add to my knowledge by explaining what Her Highness had called 'S-bends' in such a way that even I could understand not only how they worked, but also their reasons and their construction. She had found out about them on her trip down to the capital and had heard a discussion on the topic.

“Oh!” said Subrish, “I wish we had had known that down in the Fort! On warm days, the smells were barely supportable.”

“Fort, Subrish?”

“I deem 'tis too late tonight for a full explanation. I shall do that on the morrow, with all your permissions?”

… … …

The following day started normally. Term and Mo had scooted off early to their businesses, and Shemel had time to greet us before he went off to discuss loads and drivers and beasts and the like with Quizzen and his other contacts.

We women and Subrish had a more leisurely period breaking our fasts, before we all went to Jaffy's house and arranged things to our liking for the upcoming meeting. We called in on Nayet and Voysin to lay our final plans, and then we were set.

We had not long to wait.

“Which of you then is this Julina girl?”

“Good morrow, sir. Are you Master Trooger?”

I looked up at the man who had just been ushered in by Jogantha. I was quite pleased to see that he was already annoyed, and would therefore be more likely to be off balance, even if ever so slightly.

I let my nervousness show, which was something so very alien to my normal behaviour. I was about to playact to unsettle this man further and I felt nervous about it, which helped me look nervous, so it was a good thing really. For that was exactly the impression we wished to convey, as step one in our strategy to turn the tables on this man, a man who was found by all his neighbours to be obnoxious.

Of course, as it stood at that very heartbeat, he had done nothing of damage to us. Nothing of real damage, that is. He had been overbearing, abrupt and very rude. But so far, he had caused us no actual harm.

But his attitude, even in our extremely short acquaintance, had been subtly offensive to us, so we had not needed much persuasion to attempt to bring him down a notch or two. We suspected that he would try to cheat a poor uneducated country girl in some way, probably by browbeating her to sell the house for a lower price than was current. We all knew what the Proper Price was. And he had mentioned purchasing the house. However, it was possible that he might want to just establish an unwarranted control over the shared alleyway between our houses. We needed first to uncover his intentions, somehow.

I was seated in the middle of the empty, but still dusty, room; Pomma was also seated to one side of me and Epp to the other. Only the two girls from South Point Mansion were also present. They were standing behind us. It didn't take much for them to look nervous. I kept glancing to the women on either side of me, again trying to show nervousness.

It was working, apparently, for we could see him relax slightly, trying not to smile as he surveyed us.

Jogantha and Karmanya had gone next door to fetch Trooger to us. We had given them precise instructions that he MUST come to us. We had prepared a very plausible excuse which had its basis in fact. They were to tell him that a woman does not go to a man's house uninvited, should he have objected to the change in venue for this discussion, but only say that if he tried to insist I went to his house.

A pre-arranged signal from Jogantha told us that he had indeed objected, but the lack of another signal told us that she had not needed to resort to the final persuader – that the discussions would not be held at all unless he came here. It was he who wanted something after all, I could not care about him, other than not wishing to have bad feelings with a neighbour.

Thus we knew that he was fairly intent upon his purposes, but we so far knew not what those purposes were. Sure, we could guess, but we did not actually KNOW.

“I am indeed Master Trooger. Are you this girl that has somehow managed to get her clutches on Jafferkin's inheritance? If so, you must be this unknown country girl who has taken this house from my friend.”

“I am, Master. I am named Mistress Julina. And I have indeed inherited all dear Jaffy's property.” We had deliberately decided not to introduce the others seated to my sides unless it was unavoidable, so I made no attempt so to do.

We all noted that his first mention of Jaffy had been totally soulless, as if he were just some person that he had heard about. His friend indeed!

“Well I must say that I am disappointed in your attitude. I told your cleaning women yesterday that you were to come to my house.”

He was looking around for somewhere for himself to sit, but there was no other chair available, and we had taken out any table that he might be even more discomfited. He had indeed brought along a stack of documents with him. As Nayet had suggested yesterday, we needed to keep him from settling, change his prepared plans. He apparently was not the most fluid in thinking, so we needed to keep him off balance, so to speak.

“I regret my upbringing prevented me from so doing, Master. I cannot enter a man's house without an invitation and without having met him beforehand. You cannot be surprised unless habits are so completely different down here in such a large and frightening town.”

“I deem you shall find town habits to be very different to your upcountry ones. Have you spent a lot of time in towns?” His smile was that of a predator, and we all felt better about the scheme upon which we had now embarked.

“Not in quite such a large one as this, not very many days at all.” I started counting on my fingers, deliberately starting all over again a couple of times, and breathing the numbers as I ticked off my fingers. “I believe I may have had six or even seven days here before. Perchance more, but I am unable to recall them to number further.”

It was now time for me to take a little gamble. I was fairly sure that he would not know the connections with my name, but I wished to convey the thought that I was sort of 'townstruck' as it were. “These new Wender thingies are such a marvel aren't they?” I smiled in a nervous way, trying to convey my eagerness to please him.

“They are just one of the many wonders we have down here that I doubt you will have previously encountered.” Again the insincere smile.

“Now, Master Trooger, tell me, what sort of Master are you? What is your speciality?”

“That's not relevant,” he said, waving one hand dismissively. “I organise many things that you would not understand. I would not like to confuse you.”

“You are very considerate. The women yesterday told me you wished to discuss something with me, something to do with some agreement that you had with poor dear Jaffy.”

“Indeed. Poor dear Jaffy indeed.” His lack of fondness in his references to Jaffy were beginning to anger me. This was so obviously just a sham. “We were neighbours you must know, we shared the alleyway between our houses. Somehow, you have laid claim to this house and yet I know nothing of you. I have never heard a single mention from him of your name. In fact the only woman I ever heard him talk about was a Mistress Megrozen, one of the more successful citizens in this town because she inherited the foundation of her wealth. ...”

A cough came from my right and I dared not look at Epp at that moment. He didn't seem to notice and just blithely continued with his self-important setting out his sales pitch.

“... Dear Jaffy and I had an agreement that when one of us died, the other would purchase his house. We ...”

“Hold sir, just a moment.” It was time to disconcert him once again, so Pomma piped up, with nervousness in her voice. “Are you suggesting that we, er that is Julina here, should not own this house?”

I nearly giggled, because she made herself look so very guilty when she said that. We could all see a shocked surprise dawn in Trooger's face. Maybe there was something else to this story, he was clearly thinking.

And he suddenly wore a calculating look.

We knew he was thinking of some way that he could try and force us to his will using what he was now convinced was our guilt. Guilt about something, certainly. Perhaps we were imposters? He was busy calculating a new approach.

Epp's turn: “You wanted this meeting, Master Trooger. What was it you wanted?” She too managed to look both nervous and guilty at the same time.

His head turned to her and then came back to me when I added impatiently: “Yes, what?” But I let the nervousness out some more.

He had a choice now. Should he go ahead with what he had originally thought was just an easy way to browbeat a bunch of mere women, or should he try to gain some more advantage?

He decided.

His greed overrode his thinking.

“I wanted to buy this house from you, but I doubt you actually own it now. There is something wrong here.”

This was one bit we had rehearsed, so I had to convince him. “How much?” I said it with urgency and worry.

We could all see him recalculate his options and knew that he was now thinking he could buy it cheaply, then denounce us to the authorities and get his money back.

He quoted a figure and we all could barely hold back our gasps of surprise. It was less than one quarter of what it was worth, of the widely-agreed 'Proper Price'.

Again I asked quickly: “Do you have the necessary documents with you? Can we get this done this morn?”

“Er, yes. I believe I do, and we can. Can you read?” he finished, trying to be nonchalant.

My eyes went from side to side and my hands were twitching nervously: “Enough,” I answered truthfully, but with everything else about my demeanour telling him I was lying.

He selected some documents from his pile and handed them to me. I dropped them in my nervousness and stooped down, eventually picking them up. I made sure the top one was upside down and then pretended to read it, running my finger along the words, and muttering to myself.

I could not look at him, but the others told me that his broad smile told them he was convinced he had won.

I kept the act up for nearly a whole moment and then looked up at him and said: “This all seems to be in order.” In fact, the parchment piece he had handed me was simply a list of some goods stored somewhere. I made absolutely sure that my face did not betray anything, but now we had definite proof of his duplicity. Any possible doubts we might have had were dissipated at that very heartbeat. I handed the parchment nonchalantly to Epp, keeping his attention on me so he would not see her tuck the document away.

“So Master Trooger, it appears I can trust you. How do we now proceed? I must return to my village soon, and would take some coin with me. I need to conclude this deal as soon as I might.”

He smiled at me with a smile that did not reach his eyes. A smile that switched off suddenly when I asked my next question: “And you do completely assure me that this is a fair price for Jaf, er, for MY house?”

He tried to plaster a simpering grin on his face, but the predator kept shining ever stronger through.

“Of course it is. I would not take advantage of a poor girl from the country,” he smarmed. “I am aware that you must be out of your normal sphere here. You may trust me implicitly, my dear.” He tried to put on a winning smile, but he really was not good at this. Surely no-one would ever believe or trust him? But we continued with our scheme.

“Are you sure?” asked Epp then. “Seems to me that this is all a bit too easy. We heard that you Townies are a sharp bunch, and that we should be wary.”

“Oh no! Not all of us. I personally am above suspicion, yes! Definitely. And that price? That IS the going rate. You could check with other folk around who live here, but I assure you there is no need.” If his meaningless grin got any wider, he would have been swallowed by his own mouth, I felt.

“Quite sure?” This time 'twas Pomma.

I winced slightly, and I deem Epp did too, for this was surely pushing the point too far? But, in retrospect, it was right. She knew her stuff, did Pomma. If this had been a realistic situation, then there was no way the third woman would sit there and remain silent.

His temper began to fray as he replied: “I have said so. Do you doubt a man's word?” His whole attitude now began to show his belief that women should not be in business deals. He started down the anger track, but hauled himself back. Some of his instincts obviously still work, and he felt that anger might alienate us. The insincere smile reappeared.

At this point we had reached the position we wanted to achieve and our plan was then to reveal to him who we really were, and to spring one further surprise upon him. We wanted to just haul him up on his own errors and point them out, letting him know that he had made a BIG error.

But something made me ask one more question.

I know not where this came from, but somehow it did: “So YOU would sell your house for this price, if someone offered you that amount?” I tried to strike a note of being a little out of my depth, and not totally convinced of his reliability.

I wanted somehow to make him squirm just a little more. If he said no, then it would be driving the price of MY house upwards.

If he was to continue with this farce, then he could answer in only one way.

“Of course,” he said quickly, “I have given you my word that this is the correct market place value. Mine is however in much better condition so I deem I might get just a little more for it.” Then he decided it was time to bully us. “Do you dare to doubt me?” He started to use apparent offence as his reason for pressuring us some more. It was a point where he thought he could allow his irritation, his anger, to come through and thus make us feel less than him, make us scared of him in a way.

Epp butted in then: “So anyone offering, say, twice that amount would be foolish, and you would be foolish to turn them down at THAT valuation?”

He narrowed his eyes at that, but Epp smoothly continued: “Master Troogan, ...” getting his name slightly wrong deliberately, “... I am just making sure that Julina here understands entirely. For it is her decision as to accept your generous offer or not. I am making her look at this in HER terms! In the way we look at things back home, is all.” She dropped her voice slightly as she continued: “She understands twices and halves most readily, Master!” implying that anything else confused me.

We all almost burst out with laughter when he accepted her nonsense and turned back to me. Employing his most slimy tones, he said: “Julina, I have said what is a fair value, did you really not understand that? If anyone was indeed so stupid as to offer me twice what I have said, then I would sell it to them in an eyeblink.” He went for his even more sincere look, the one that would never quite make it to his eyes.

Which look dropped like a stone from his face as there was an unexpected interruption from the doorway behind him.

“Heard and witnessed,” came from a female voice I recognised as being Nayet's. This was followed by a further chorus of voices saying the same thing as a hand and more of the neighbourhood residents came in. Trooger's head whipped round in total shock. Even Epp and I were surprised at how many neighbours had foregathered.

“What? What means this? What are you all doing here?” His face had paled completely.

'Twas Voysin who answered on their behalf: “We have been listening to every one of your lies, Trooger. We followed you in the front door and have been gathered there listening to your farrago of lies. You tried to deceive these women as you offered a price far too low for this house, and you tried to browbeat them with your bluster and smarm.

“Perchance you should know more of those seated in front of you. Perchance you should learn from them. The lady seated in the middle in front of you, is indeed the designated inheritor of OUR friend, Goodman Jafferkin. Her name is indeed Mistress Julina, bearing an appellation you have signally failed to grant her consistently during this meeting, despite her giving you the correct form of address from the outset.

“And talking of appellations, since when have you been a Master? Goodman is your correct form of address.

“But back to these ladies you see before you. Mistress Julina is well known in both this town, and also up in Blackstone, where she has lived most of her life; she is in fact one of the founding teachers at the schools up there, where she teaches pupils to read and write. I near burst out laughing when she persuaded you that she could not read. She also runs what has been described as the best restaurant in North Palarand.

“Next to her sits Mistress Pomma. She is the wife of the saddler up in Blackstone, and she is Mistress Julina's travelling companion.

“As for the other lady seated there. You even managed to disparage her by her name. For this is none other than Mistress Megrozen. She is just as well-known up in Blackstone as she is down here. And her business in Blackstone, which she didn't inherit but built up entirely on her own, is as equally successful as her business here in Tranidor, which she incidentally also built up on her own, she inherited only her house.”

Trooger's face was a picture now; he was utterly shocked, embarrassed, feeling guilty that he had been found out and angry at being shown up. We all knew that the anger would gain dominance!

But Voysin showed him no mercy: “These women did their homework before this meeting. Something you yourself should have done. You should know that they have asked about Town and found out what was a proper price to pay for such a house. These women, Trooger, have been in town for less than two full days, and yet they gathered all the information necessary for the discussion with you. You, on the other hand, did nothing to prepare yourself. And look just where that laziness and arrogance have now got you.

“And now, Trooger, I have some several things to say to you, in front of witnesses.

“You never were friends with Jafferkin, he couldn't stand even the sight of you. This can be confirmed by anyone here in this room who lives in this area. You had no agreement with him whatsoever. And yet you attempted to inveigle your way to buying this house at a vastly underrated price by claiming just such a friendship. But you tried to achieve your ends underhandedly. And now those underhand tactics shall rebound upon you.”

He paused, before there came the biggest shock of the morning.

Voysin loudly and formally made an offer to buy Trooger's house at a price twice Trooger's offer for mine, plus one soo.

Everyone called: “Heard and witnessed!”

And then we all looked at Trooger. He was however speechless.

“All here heard you state clearly and decidedly that you would sell your house in an eyeblink if there came an offer for it at a certain price. And now all here have heard you receive such an offer. I, for your information, have sold my house to Mistresses Julina and Megrozen, so they own this entire building now. I shall move into your house next week. You shall have the coin for it by the end of today. This is a binding contract according to the laws and customs of our land, and I fully intend to enforce it. I have put up with you and your attitude for long enough in my life and all of us will line the street and cheer as we wave you off.”

Then it was time for me to let him know what I thought of him.

I walked up to him brandishing his document and read aloud what it said, which was a further excuse for all to laugh at him.

I flung my accusations at him, at last able to let my anger loose: “Agreement indeed! You really are not very good at whatever it is you do, GOODMAN Trooger. So how come you promoted yourself to Master? Just how we didn't laugh at your pretensions, I have no idea. You have been shown to be a man of extreme dishonour, you tried to cheat someone you thought to be from out of town and uneducated. And you did it all in front of your neighbours. They have all witnessed your deceit, and your lies and your cheats. I do not believe you have ANY credibility left here. Now get out of MY house.”

Trooger got almost to the door before his bluster returned: “I'll report you to the Watch for this.”

I called back to him: “Please do. I'm sure Master Jalmond will be interested in your activities when he hears all that has passed here today. Yes, I do know Master Jalmond well. Oh, and Masters Dokker, Dicksen, Barmbee. And a few more. Please do just go and involve the Watch. We will welcome it. I shall mention all this to the Countess Lasalenne when I see her later.” This last was not actually true, but I felt it was more than justified to counter his bluster with some of my own. Everyone else also gasped and I nodded to acknowledge their unspoken question.

The thoroughly defeated Trooger left with shoulders slumped, but in high dudgeon. We all cheered when he went.

After that, Epp and I explained to the assembled neighbours what we intended to do. I deem that most were immediately grateful that we would breathe a fresh wind into their little corner. The ones with slight doubts were won over the more they listened to our explanations.

One exclaimed: “Mayhap we could have a little shop again. Our last one had to close because there were not enough customers to keep it worthwhile. With more overnighters around, then perchance we could have a local convenience once more!”

There was a murmur of general agreement from the other residents. Epp and I looked at each other, wondering if we could incorporate this idea in our overall plans.

“Staff,” I said – and Epp nodded her agreement.

So we quickly discussed the running and staffing of our ideas.

Jogantha was reduced to tears when she heard our plans for her.

Then Voysin said: “I will provide your company with a third house, for a share of the profits I have no doubt will come. Trooger's house would probably be the right place for both a shop and for staff accommodation ...”

“Goodman Voysin, we must needs talk of this. We never intended that Mas, er, Goodman Trooger would be so sorely treated. It sits not comfortably with us that the terms are so harsh, as they seem to be to our ears. We are not so familiar with the man of course, but we deem his dealings with us deserve not such ferocity.”

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