Julina of Blackstone - 059 - Juggling

Julina deals with many subjects

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Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

059 – Juggling


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 © 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
059 – Juggling

“Maker!”

There was little else for any of us to say, for none of us five women from the South Point Mansion were in any position to argue with the very determined group of local residents. The very vocally determined group of local residents.

They had proceeded to explain their by-now even more palpable antipathy. They started by claiming that, in the first place, Trooger had gained his house by underhand means, although these were never fully explained to us. The impression I got was that he had done some work for the previous owner and then threatened him with something or other, and had forced the man to sell, and to sell for less than its apparent worth.

They went on to explain that, once he had settled into the house and established himself in the neighbourhood, he began to spread a malign influence on the small suburb, a malignancy that had continued daily ever since. They actually blamed him for the demise of their little local store, for the lack or delay of many local improvements, for all the little but ill-feeling-generating annoyances they claimed he had suffered upon them. And on top of all that, his underhanded ways of gouging coin from them.

He had apparently always been the last one to give permission to the authorities for essential maintenance tasks like resurfacing the roads, or replacing the drains and things like that. Those authorities naturally could not start until everyone who lived thereabouts had given their approval and/or permission, but Trooger would set his feet stubbornly and wait until his neighbours had managed to persuade him to do so. Their dislike of him, a dislike that amounted almost to hatred, was for all the extra payments they had had to make over the years when Trooger had held up changes or renovations until the others gave him a small financial inducement to finally give his consent. At first, he had been quite subtle about it, and his demands were modest, but recently he had just been blatantly open about it, sending round urchins to each of his neighbours, rather than speaking in person even, with a figure he would accept, from each of them, for withdrawing his objections. Figures that were becoming increasingly large.

He claimed that it was just a business thing to do, just the same as the Count charging money for permissions to operate businesses within the town and the Count's lands. So why should his neighbours get all upset when he did the same thing? It's just sensible business, he continually claimed. The locals had already drawn up plans to break his influence and were about to swing into action when Jaffy's death meant that a newcomer would come along and need to be brought to understand the situation.

“But the way things have transpired, 'twas a fortunate side effect of an unfortunate happening that brought you amongst us, Mistress Julina. For you and Mistress Megrozen here have been the instruments of that horrid man's demise. We shall all be forever grateful. And now his own actions shall condemn him.”

Nayet's neighbour, a retired tallyman and accountant for one of the mining companies, then told us that he had added up all the contributions made by all the neighbours over the past two hands of years and the total came to something close to four times the value of Trooger's house.

These local residents were not going to allow Trooger to get away with anything more, and being able to force him to sell his house for half its worth was a pleasure none of them was prepared to give up. Particularly when it was coupled with his perforce ejection from their community.

“Very well, but we must make it quite clear to you all that we ourselves have not suffered as you have, and so cannot allow ourselves to be involved in this transaction. We need to be seen to be squeaky clean in all our transactions, for the build-up of a sustainable reputation.

“We are meeting Master Ruckem again in the 'Nest' for a light luncheon and I will make sure I have all the funds necessary to hand to pay you, Goodman Voysin, for your house. As we agreed last night, we shall pay you half of the Proper Price, the rest upon receipt of a satisfactory report from an independent house inspector. That way, you shall have on hand the funds to pay Trooger. Perchance you could attend the 'Nest' as well, then you can receive the money directly? And we can discuss, at the same time, the future of Meglina Accommodation and your involvement.”

“So shall it be, Mistress Megrozen. At noon?”

“No, the first bell after noon. We have an appointment now with some potential drivers and beast sellers up in Junction Square. And we still have to sort through all Jaffy's belongings here. Poor Mistress Julina has much to do before she departs back to Blackstone on the morrow.”

“So be it!”

… … …

The two girls made their way back to the South Point house as the rest of us made our way across and up to Junction Square, filling Subrish in on some more detail of our next task as we went. Although he had a general idea of what we were about, for we had arranged several things towards the end of our session around the dining table last night, once the guests had gone home, he still required more detail. We had, on the evening before, skimmed over the subjects rather than drag it out to make an even later night of it; hence the requirement to expand more fully now.

Subrish knew also that several urchins had been despatched first thing in the morning and all had been successful in terms of arranging the things we had wanted to be arranged, and indeed some of them had subsequently been sent on other missions as results of their previous tasks. So we took this opportunity to put all those factors into focus for him.

Our Junction Square meeting, the one to which we were now heading, was to do with Blackstone Wagons in particular, and our walk afforded we three women, for the first time, a chance to explain to Subrish in more detail those specific requirements, and why that meeting had been arranged in Junction Square and so on.

We COULD I suppose have discussed this a little earlier, however we had all deliberately kept as far from business over our breakfast as we could. We chatted lightly about family members and life in Blackstone, and matters like that.

After we rose from the table, I and Pomma had been surprised when Subrish joined in with us during our Tai Chi session. He had obviously done this before, somewhere, somewhen, somehow. I determined there and then that I would let him tell his story in his own time. As far as the Tai Chi was concerned, he was a quick learner when we reached a stage beyond that with which he was familiar; we had also seen that he was a little rusty during the early forms. Pomma however proved not to be quite so patient. When she asked, he again put us off until the evening meal – I accepted that quite a lot more easily than Pomma did!

So there we were, all discussing Blackstone Wagons as we approached Tranidor's major hub, its major hive of activity as it seemed to me, what with all the stores and businesses clustered all about. Sure, there were other hubs like the Market, and the Castle's bailey and so on, but Junction Square seemed to have a special call somehow to all who lived here.

We were almost in sight of it, still talking about the details of waggoning, when Subrish suddenly stopped in the middle of one stride. We could all see he was concentrating with a ferocious focus on a particular thought, but none of us could have expected his next question.

“Are you aware of the location of an inn named the 'Drekhil and Grennis'?”

Pomma and I shrugged, we two could and would have no idea, therefore only Epp amongst us could possibly answer. But she would actually have not much reason to frequent local inns, so her answer came as no surprise.

“I regret not, oh brother mine. But why on Anmar is an obscure inn of relevance right now?”

“The wagoneer who brought me here from Teldor, he was on his way here to look for more steady work. He had heard down in Palarand City that more and more wagons were needed up the Palar Valley. He was making barely enough to keep himself in food down there since an ever-increasing amount of available work was being taken by the big firms, and most of the new industry had moved out of town into the surrounding areas, where there were far fewer lodgings available. He found he was forever having to rise earlier and earlier just to try to get noticed as a possible hire. He has a sturdy wagon and a not too old dranakh. He might be interested in joining you.”

“How do you know that he will still be at this inn?”

“He told me that he himself needed a full day's rest, and his dranakh, so that will have been yesterday, and today he wanted to do some maintenance on the wagon and the traces and so on.”

“His name?”

“Kulyer. A Goodman, of course.”

Epp looked around and about before she spotted an urchin lurking in the mouth of a nearby alleyway, half in the shadows, She snapped her fingers and beckoned him over. He scurried towards us with a cheeky grin breaking out. We all approved of his eagerness.

“Good morrow, Master, Mistresses. Can I 'elp, like?”

“Good morrow, young 'un. Do you perchance know the 'Drekhil and Grennis'?”

“Aye, Missus. 'Tis just across the Palar Bridge, just into West Tranidor, like.”

“Can you get there yourself, or shall you require us to find another?”

“'Tis a fair distance, Mistress, 'twould prolly, like, be quickest wiv a Wender. But I ain't got no coin for a Wender.” He looked downcast, as if he could see a good commission disappearing.

“Come with us, we're going to the Shuttle Shed at Junction Square, and I shall purchase you a Wender ticket. But we shall need speed from you today, is that clear?”

His face brightened as his cheeky grin returned: “Speed is, like, my middle name! And wot d'yer want me ter do, like?”

Subrish took over at that point: “You need to find a wagoneer staying there named Kulyer. Got that? Kulyer is the name.”

“Wagoneer. Kulyer.”

“Please give him my compliments, and say to him that Acting-Captain Subrish requests he report to the ...” he looked at Epp for confirmation as he said “... Shuttle Shed for a potential commission. As quickly as he can. We shall reimburse his Wender ticket. And yours.”

The grin got even more delighted as he repeated his instructions in typical urchin fashion: “Acting-Captain Soobrush, Shuttle Shed, potential commission. Wagoneer, Kulyer. Drekhil and Grennis.”

“Good.”

Epp, Pomma and I had all looked at Subrish in some consternation. My mind was racing as I kicked myself for a certain amount of stupidity. And also for the associated slowness.

For now much fell into place in all our minds. That look on his face that had been somehow familiar. His Honour, our Captain Bleskin, had it too, and Em had it to a lesser degree. The mention of a fort. His general bearing. Of COURSE he was a military man. And I deemed he had seen some hard action. Why had I not realised before now? At times I can be such a pakh-head!

We all three looked at him in a new light, but he waved us away with all our questions in our eyes, getting the urchin to once more repeat his instructions. Then again.

By the time the lad had finished his second recitation, we had reached Junction Square and Shemel had seen us, waving us over to where he was waiting with some other men, a small group of about a hand in all – which group, we saw as we neared, included Quizzen.

There were the usual long-drawn out introductions, and then we had to urgently find a Wender to send the young urchin on his way. I shall ever remember the look of delight on his face when Epp purchased a 'Day Card' for him, such a ticket card being available to the public for the first time today.

They, those in charge, had decided upon a particular shade of blue for it. The method devised was that the ticket collectors on the Wenders, well the first one that encountered it anyway, were to write the date on the ticket so that it could not be used on another day, and also to punch a small hole in it to show it had been used. Our urchin was brandishing it to any and everyone around with sheer and utter delight. He waved to us as his Wender took him westwards. We all grinned, for we knew he would be spending the rest of the day riding Wenders. And actually, the cost of the day ticket was not that much more that the coin we would have paid him for doing such a long task anyway. We might yet employ him again that day, so it was a worthwhile investment.

Then we had to explain to Shemel why the lad was doing that task for us, and why there was quite such an urgency about it.

“Subrish suggests that this man may be looking for work and perchance we could use him, either permanently or as a short-term hire in our early days. He is up from Palarand City with a wagon and dranakh searching for more regular work as most independents have been getting more and more problems down there, now that the businesses and workshops and factories are moving further and further out of town.”

“A good idea, and Quizzen and I can interrogate him about his experience and the like. I thank 'ee, brother,” Shemel clapped Subrish on the shoulder in appreciation. Subrish grinned back. A good bond was being forged between the two men.

And then it was time to listen as Shemel went on to explain to us what he had achieved that morning, he and Quizzen between them.

This boiled down, to cut a lengthy explanation short, to the fact that two dranakh had been purchased to be based at Brayview, which made sense to me after I thought it all through, and one driver had been permanently hired. We already had two dranakh up in Blackstone, Josten and Taneesa. …

I suddenly realised that actually that was rather a large assumption. Hmm, I would need to think on that …

My musings were interrupted by Shemel as he then took leave of the other two men in his group, the men from whom the beasts had been purchased. They were both acquaintances of Quizzen, who had been the first contact in finding available animals. The two men went off after the more formal leave-takings, and making arrangements for the delivery of the animals.

This then allowed Shemel and Quizzen to introduce us women (and also Subrish) more specifically than the earlier more casual acknowledgements to the said driver, which naturally took quite a while for there were a lot of us, I felt. Myself, Epp, Pomma and Subrish all had to be named and described.

After so naming us, Shemel continued: “This is Goodman Rabeez, who has been looking for such a position for a little while now, since his dranakh died of old age, and he could not find enough coin to replace it. He is an experienced driver but without a regular position; Master Tanon, well Master Rohid in the name of Master Tanon, employs him when he can, but must naturally give priority to his own permanent staff.”

We all greeted him formally, by name and title but perchance I was the one who most closely examined him.

I saw a man, not yet old but certainly mature, with faint signs of the odd grey hair appearing. He had indeed had wide experience and seemed to me, at first view, to be a valuable addition to our still-fresh team. I however realised that I must allow Shemel and Quizzen to evaluate his driving skills, but I was relieved that I liked the look of this man; I took no immediate dislike to him and did not therefore have to interfere.

Once all the business of meeting a new person, an employee I suddenly realised, had been completed, then Shemel completed his report. Two frayen had also been purchased, for single riders or for the two together to pull a smaller wagon, dray or cart. Shemel, Quizzen and Rabeez were now looking for loads that could be delivered to Blackstone preferably, but any intermediate point would actually do.

We had one large wagon and one small wagon to be based at Brayview, but that large one was not going to be there immediately, for we had earmarked Shemel's second wagon for that task when it returned from its travels downvalley.

Shemel's first wagon and Jaffy's two large ones were to be up in Blackstone, along with Jaffy's other smaller one. But only one of Jaffy's larger ones was painted in our new livery; the second one, already up in Blackstone was as yet unpainted, as was Shemel's. The latest idea was that Pyor would travel with us all the way to Blackstone to fetch that other one down to his workshop to paint it. This would at first glance help with the fact that we had more wagons than we actually had drivers.

Then Subrish surprised us. Even as he was listening, his mind was active finding solutions to the problems. And he began to speak to us, outlining those solutions.

He started out apparently a little diffidently, as though he were uncertain of something and yet his tones somehow brought immediate attention: “Might I be allowed to make a suggestion or two? The basic idea is sound, but perchance you shall also employ Kulyer, so that makes for an added factor. The first thing that strikes me is that you have a wagon that is already up in Blackstone and that is detailed to be based there. It seems an ill-conceived idea to me to bring it all the way down here just to send it back up again, unless you have a profitable load for it in each direction. I strongly recommend that that wagon stays there and is painted there.

“But that leaves a problem of a driver. Indeed, you have insufficient drivers for all your wagons. You will have to find some more, and I wonder if, in all actuality, many such could be found in Blackstone. I know insufficient about this place. I feel I must visit there as soon as I may to see the locality for myself. It seems to me to be a bed of changes. But I do have to return to duty at some time, and will need a good week or more to get there, so I deem I cannot leave it too long before doing so. 'Twould be folly to come so close to Blackstone, then return home and have such a long journey to get here once more.

“But back to my suggestions where I would recommend the following:

“One – paint the fourth wagon up in Blackstone; after all, if it is based there, then 'twill be less likely to visit Pyor whether that worthy is here or in Brayview. And other Blackstone-based wagons shall need maintenance from someone up there anyway, so get alongside that person as soon as you may.

“Two – depending upon your success, or lack thereof, of finding other drivers, then you COULD say you have a load already for the large wagon that shall travel all the way. The large wagon's load can be the small wagon!”

We all gasped at the pure simplicity of it.

Quizzen was the first to comment: “But we have not access to a load lengthener to load the one on t'other. If we do it in Pyor's workshop, then 'twill never roll out of the door, the door lintel there is too low.”

Subrish laughed. “You need not load it onto the belly of the larger wagon, simply hitch the smaller behind the larger and drag it along behind using its own wheels for their designated purpose. We often have had to do that with military vehicles ...” a shadow passed across his face “... when we are forced into a situation of there being fewer drivers than vehicles.”

We all pretended not to have noticed the underlying reasons for his statement. Nor the slight injection of sadness into his tone.

“Three – Master Shemel shall be based down here in Tranidor, as I understand it, with at least one large wagon in his control. Goodman Quizzen we all know shall be responsible for setting up the entire operation in Brayview. So two of your three drivers, and you have but three at the moment, are located. But the very name of your company tells Anmar that you have an important third centre of operations, so can Goodman Rabeez perchance be your Blackstone organiser, should he prove capable?”

“I had thought that perhaps Mistress Sukhana would be of assistance in arranging our early loads when the Assembly up there allow us to take loads for ourselves, so to speak. But you are right, there shall need to be eventually a dedicated coordinator of our activities up there. What think you, Rabeez?”

“Masters, Captain, 'tis a wonderful opportunity, but I feels like that 'twould most prolly be beyond my skills. Mayhap this other one what the urchin's gone to fetch like?”

Subrish gently corrected the man, but nevertheless made sure Rabeez understood how his future was going to be in a firm way: “'Tis good that you are prepared to evaluate yourself so honestly, I'm sure that your employers Mistress Julina and Master Shemel are grateful for your frank opinion, but I'm sure the Mistress in particular will look to you for advice and indeed help when you are up in Blackstone, for she lives there and will be ready to give you her commands.”

Rabeez coloured slightly as he accepted Subrish's point. He didn't highlight his previous error by apologising to us women for not including at least a 'Mistresses' in his past statement, but he simply made a reference to it by stating another: “Aye, Captain, you are correct. Masters, Mistresses and Goodmen, I look forward to working closely with you in the near future!”

I sort of admired him for smoothly correcting his mode of address without showing noticeable embarrassment, but I made a note to make sure he was reminded of it occasionally when we were up home, and to give a warning to Sookie that he might still be a little old-fashioned about women in business.

We decided to continue our discussions as we walked down to the Nest, so we left a message at the Shuttle Shed for our urchin and Kulyer before we chose a back street to use, to avoid the more crowded Main Street. Much was discussed as we went, all of it Blackstone Wagons business, a lot of which made Rabeez raise his eyebrows as he learnt more and more about us.

… … ...

“Master Tapio, what a pleasant surprise!”

“Mistresses Julina and Megrozen, and Pomma if my old brain remembers correctly.” He looked around the others gathered there, and satisfied himself that he knew several of them, nodding to each as he spoke their name in greeting. “Ruckem, Rohid, Shemel. These other four I know not. I am, as you heard, Master Tapio, a glassmaker. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” This last word rose in tone along with his eyebrows, making almost more a question, as he looked first at each of them before shifting his piercing gaze to the next, after a quick nod to acknowledge the previous answer.

“Voysin, Master – a Goodman, worked with wood all my life and have some construction skills. Honoured.”

“Quizzen, Master. Also Goodman, although Journeyman would be more accurate nowadays, a long-time wagoneer but skilled in office duties too. I too am honoured to meet you.”

“Mallam, Tapio. I am a Master Scribe, and specialise in documenting agreements. Ruckem here asked me to be present today, and already the assembled company have nigh worn out my wrist!”

“Acting-Captain Subrish of the Forguland Military Command, at your service, Master.”

“Forguland! That's a fair pace away. What brings you here?”

Subrish put his arm around Epp. “My sister!”

“Ah!”

We were again in the more secluded end of the Nest, and had met those others when they arrived within a hand of moments after us. Voysin was the most nervous of those there but we all made great efforts to put him at his ease.

It was partly because of that that we started with Meglina Accommodations and sought the advice of the assembled experts in their various fields. I was a trifle shocked to hear both Ruckem and Master Mallam agree that Voysin's formal declarations were indeed binding in Tranidorean and Palarandi law. In the end, we agreed to purchase Trooger's house from Voysin at the agreed Proper Price, assuming satisfactory inspections. It had been explained to Voysin that his first thoughts about his joining in with us would involve a complete rewrite of the articles of association of our enterprise and would be complex to handle, since Epp and I were both contributing equal amounts towards all the costs and so on. And Voysin himself was going to be a cost to us.

As for Voysin, he acknowledged that 'twould perchance be better not to be a full partner in our venture, due to the above and also due to complications with the tax status and so on. We would agree to assign a fraction of the profits to him during his lifetime. We would pay him a fixed fee per month first to run the rebuilding project. As soon as all the required alterations were completed to our satisfaction, then the profit-sharing clauses would come into effect. I am fairly certain I saw Voysin relax a little when he was not included as a partner in our venture – I deem he realised that he had spoken a bit too early without thinking everything through.

We pointed out that, as a direct benefit from being employed by ourselves, he would become the most knowledgable builder with regard to the modern house plumbing and toilets and the like in the whole of Tranidor, which knowledge he could easily market to later clients. He perked up at that, and we could all see him thinking hard about maybe a new venture; certainly there was an enthusiasm there as he contemplated his rapidly altered future. Mayhap, his travelling to Holville was not quite so immediate as had been at first envisaged.

With many 'Heard and witnessed's and much associated scribing, the appropriate contracts were drawn up. With much good-natured grumping from Master Mallam.

Master Ruckem handed Epp a purse which contained the coin she had previously requested. With most of our bodies, we hid the display of such riches from any prying eyes in the rest of the establishment, and Epp counted out the agreed amount before sliding it across to Voysin. After another bout of 'heard and witnessed' the coins disappeared silently into Voysin's various pockets.

We were about to start in on Blackstone Wagons business when Tapio made his entrance.

It transpired that he had come down with a letter for me to take to Pocular back up in Blackstone, and another for my father. Voysin used that opportunity to leave us, saying loudly as he backed away from us: “I have a construction crew to recruit, so I shall ...”

His words were drowned by some shouts from the main body of the restaurant, men offering their services as construction workers. Voysin grinned at us, and then turned to those who had hailed him. We all dragged our minds back to the business we still had to conclude.

But the temptation to see how Voysin was faring was almost impossible to ignore. Thankfully, 'twas just almost.

“I am glad you are here, Tapio. I have had an idea that needs discussing with you and Mistress Megrozen,” I said turning to them. “With regard to Bormio. I deem that Masters Ruckem and Mallam could also offer their considerable experience and advice. I know not how best to arrange it, for I deem that we should not discuss Bormio's private situation with Masters Rohid and Shemel, nor Goodman Quizzen, nor Captain Subrish. Nor indeed, perhaps, with Mistress Pomma.”

Pomma, Subrish and Shemel got the message, and I believe Rohid did as well, for it was certain that Quizzen should not be singled out to be excluded. “We can discuss Blackstone Wagons developments, bring Rohid up to date with this morning's developments whilst you huddle together over there. That way, we shall not be directly involved,” said Shemel as the others nodded their acquiescence.

We others then huddled a little closer and spoke in hushed tones. I started: “It seems to me that there is a problem with Bormio's former workshop, shop and accommodation. You mentioned earlier that little is being done to maintain the building. Master Mallam, the situation is as follows ...”

I explained the background in outline, indicating that the Count had given Mistress Megrozen full control over all Bormio's assets. His breath hissed in as he heard the story, and Ruckem confirmed all that I said. Epp remained silent for the moment, since she knew me well enough that I would explain all as soon as I might.

“My idea is that Mistress Nayet, who requires larger premises, takes over Bormio's place, which will solve her problems and also the one of having the place maintained. She needs the space, the space needs someone – an easy solution I deem. If the rest of you, particularly Mistress Megrozen, agree, how best might we arrange such?”

Master Mallam showed his worth just then, asking first Epp what she had decided in her capacity as determinator of what should be done with Bormio's assets.

“I have so far determined that any monies I get from sales of any of his stuff, shall be held in a ledger for him, for when he needs to start again on his own – after deducting the costs of the repairs to my home. Master Ruckem here can confirm that I have opened such a ledger for those funds, and Master Tapio can confirm that we have had many a conversation about Bormio and his reformation of character. Bormio does NOT know about this, as we deem he needs to believe that he is penniless. We both believe that he is showing signs of genuine regret and a wish to atone for his behaviour. So, actually, I have all the glass adornments he made, and that his dreadful wife did not steal before she fled, in a special storage unit, intending only to sell them when necessary expenditure needs to be covered.”

Tapio chipped in with the comment: “I know he no longer likes the place, it brings back too many memories. It is far too large and I deem he near dreads having to return there of an evening.”

We batted the conversational exchanges back and forth, and came upon a solution, proposed by Master Mallam as it happens, and seconded by Master Tapio. What it meant was that I would buy Bormio's place, and treat it from that moment as mine. I would offer it to Mistress Nayet to rent, with a purchase option if the venture proved successful. Epp should not buy it herself, as that might be seen in the future as her manipulating things just to get her hands on the property. And for the same reason, it should not be seen as a part of Meglina Accommodations.

As for Bormio's accommodation, then he could move into one of Meglina's rooms, once ready, or perhaps into Nayet's rooms. Epp said she would use some of his funds for a room in the inn for a temporary solution, if required. And also that we could have some of Bormio's glass jewellery on display in the seamstress' workshop, which all thought to be a good idea.

Papers were drawn up, contracts and sales documents, and more 'heard and witnessed's. More grumbles from Master Mallam, although he was grateful when Epp and I wrote some of the documentation for him, at his dictation. This activity helped me focus on something other than what had just occurred, but as soon as I stopped, reality hit me again.

Maker! I now owned another building!

Master Tapio took his leave then, promising not to mention any of this to Bormio until I sent word that he could no longer sleep there.

We then rejoined the others. Our next priority was to get all the Wagons business done, starting with a contract for Rabeez, and the establishment of still more ledgers. Everyone chipped in in the following discussions.

Then our group was expanded as our little urchin entered, looked around, then gestured the man accompanying him to join us. The introductions were performed by Subrish. Before the urchin could slip away, Epp beckoned him to her and whispered another command into his ear. He grinned and scuttled out again. I caught Epp's eye and she mouthed to me, indicating Master Mallam, “Jogantha contract”. 'Twas my turn to raise my eyebrows, silently curse myself for not thinking of that, then nodded my approval.

Kulyer listened to us, to our intentions, asked us many questions, answered many of our own. Shemel, I, Epp, Rohid and Quizzen all nodded to each other, even Rabeez did. We were all of a like mind. Shemel signed that I should do it, to repeat the message to Rabeez as well as to instil some sense of reality into Kulyer's mind.

“Goodman Kulyer, as co-owner of Blackstone Wagons, I offer you employment in our company on the terms we have just discussed. You shall commence as our co-ordinator in Blackstone, with a review of progress weekly for the first month then monthly for the next two months. You being tested, so to speak, for a period of three months.”

“Heard and witnessed!” came a quick voice. I carefully didn't smile, although the temptation was there, for Pomma was the first to say it.

“Mistress Julina, Master Shemel.” He looked at us both in turn. “I, Goodman Kulyer of Brikant and formerly resident of Palarand City accept the offer of employment tendered to me by Blackstone Wagons.”

“Heard and witnessed!”

“Welcome Goodman,” I continued. “Just formally, I must give you now your first instruction. You shall be ready to travel upvalley with us on the morrow, details yet to be arranged of the meeting place and the time.”

“Agreed!”

And so it was that we welcomed another employee to Blackstone Wagons, along with another dranakh and another wagon.

Master Mallam joked: “Now maybe my poor wrist might have a rest ...” He broke off as I and Epp solemnly shook our heads. “What now, Mistresses?”

“An employment contract for our head housekeeper for Meglina. Jogantha is her name, and she should be here soon to swear her agreements in front of witnesses. You could make a start already if you wish!”

He groaned, but did so somewhat theatrically. I know I caught a glimpse of a grin before his head ducked down once more.

'Twas not long before Jogantha came in, and the offer of employment explained and then made to her. Her face grinned like a child's when it was all over.

… … ...

Master Ruckem handed me a large purse, as had also been agreed by messenger, one of those we had despatched early in the day, and I paid Kaffer our bill along with a not inconsiderable amount as a thank you for all he had done for us. Ruckem agreed that the costs could be written down as being business expenses, so we apportioned it such that half would be from the Wagons and half from Meglina.

At long last, our intensive, complicated, hectic, wide-ranging and tiring business meeting was concluded. We took our farewells, exchanged details as necessary and then split up to head off to our various next destinations. Shemel came with us, his muscles likely to be required, but Quizzen, Rabeez and Kulyer decided to stay for a little while, no doubt to consolidate their working together, and to fix the meeting for our departure on the morrow. Rohid went swiftly back to wherever he needed to be, Ruckem and Mallam left together and headed up Main Street.

The rest of us trudged back to Jaffy's house, to complete the clear up – but Pomma and I stopped in to talk with Nayet, promising to be only a moment or two.

“Julina, my dear, what can I do for you?”

“You remember when I first came down to Tranidor and I met you and you recommended that we visit that Bormio's shop?”

“Aye, I do that, m'dear – and have bitterly wished that I had never mentioned his name to you, for all the trouble he caused. Why I could ...”

“Nayet my dear, just hush a moment if you will. I have limited time and we must needs clear out Jaffy's this afternoon. The others are already awaiting me. But I have some news for you, and wanted to present it to you in person.”

I took a breath for I felt I was gabbling a little in my haste: “Voysin has agreed to do the conversion work and Megrozen and I are forging ahead with our scheme. But to get back to Bormio, how would you like to use that shop and location for your business?”

“But that would be impossible, my dear. He would never sell that place. 'Tis an excellent location, being just on the main access route to our town. Why, to be ...”

“Nayet! Hush now! Please! Just think it over. For the place was sold today.”

“Do you tell me? But how do you know that the new owner would allow me there?”

“You would have the first choice. If you refuse, then the new owner shall find someone else. But she has stated in front of witnesses that you shall determine who it shall be that takes it over.”

“But why? Who is she? Do I know her?”

“Nayet, 'tis I who have bought it!”

She looked at me in shock, then looked at Pomma and her eyes widened when Pomma confirmed my tale.

“And you thought of me? But that's … But why? … But ...”

“Nayet, we must rush. I cannot let others do my work for me. I have to do something with my coin, for 'tis better to make it work for you rather than sit there doing nothing. Please discuss it fully with Megrozen, and then let her know if you wish to move into there. Promise me? 'Twould please me if you took it on, and I deem 'tis an advantage for you. You are a friend, so you get first choice. Now we must go.”

We left her there with her mouth hanging open.

… … ...

“... my father was working for a wagon company. He had brought back my mother from a trip down south, all the way to Forguland. She was an orphaned niece of the assistant to the Master of the Royal Household there, or at least that was what Father told us but I know now that Forguland is actually a Duchy, therefore he would have been the Master of the Ducal Household. Nevertheless, as a result Mama had learnt her letters and numbers. Both she and her Uncle were pleased when her hand was sought after by a dynamic Wagon Master, since she was a bit of a drain upon the resources of her family and relationships were occasionally strained.

“Father explained that there had been an opportunity for betterment that he had turned down as it involved yet another move and he didn’t want to wear out Mama with all that again. Going all the way to Brikant would have been too much, he felt, even if it meant she would be that much nearer her relatives. But now Mama was gone to her pyre it made much sense to change, to help get over the shock. He was sure that he could find me work and was hesitating only for Gro's sake.”

He looked over at his sister fondly: “She took some of his worries away when she decided 'twas time to be married and so we parted company, never ever thinking, none of us, that that would be last time we were all of us gathered together.

“Father and I settled down in Brikant, and I grew taller, stronger and more rebellious. After one particularly heavy argument, Father told me to take myself off. 'Go and visit some of your mother's relatives. Then come back when you can keep a civil tongue in your head.' He was quite right, of course, but I was not of an age to see that then.”

Subrish had travelled on and found work with relatives in Forguland. Through them, he was introduced to a second cousin or something who was in the Forguland Military Command. We were led by Subrish to understand that he, Subrish, was a bit of a wild youth, and, without actually saying it, we understood that he had a choice between a punishment detail or signing up. After his first year, he took an extended leave, with permission, to go and visit his father, to whom he at last apologised. After that, they kept in quite close communications.

But with his oath now given to Duke Sildenar, opportunities to make the quite long journey to Brikant were few and far between. Everyone was surprised, not the least Subrish himself, when his leadership qualities manifested themselves quite early on. It was the making of him, having responsibilities and needing to consider others. He discovered an ability to teach, to educate, as well as above-average prowess with several of the set of weapons they all used.

Once a year, the Forgulanders had mock battles against the Feren forces, both nations being on the friendliest of terms. This was partly due to a stronghold built up on the shoulder of the Great Valley, on a piece of rock that jutted quite a way into the valley itself, when compared to the shoulders on either side. It was originally built by Forguland as a defence of its capital city. Sometime after it was built, a stormy winter altered the course of the Sirrel which now flowed between Forguland City and its fort. For several years there were discussions, meetings, missions and treaties, for the fort was now effectively in the uplands that logically should be a part of Ferenis.

After immensely hard work, the matter was brought to a solution by a Forguland General named Boldan. His suggested compromise was accepted by all, and the fort would be manned by Forgulanders permanently, with their forces given free access for a regular changing of the guard. Not only that, but the thin strip of land to the north of the Sirrel, between it and the foot of the shoulders there, would also be manned by Forguland troops. This littoral strip would be defined as being along the bank of the Sirrel up to the confluence of the Fer River. At that point, an imaginary line would be drawn directly to the nearest base of the valley wall, thus marking the end of the territory ceded to the Forgulanders.

“... and I say, with no little pride, that the battles were won mostly by us Forgulanders. There was a fellow on their side, a Quadrant like myself. He was named Forbarin, and he and I pitted our wits most keenly. We met often and our mutual respect meant that quite frequently we were not entirely sober when we parted. We even got our most unsteady when I was invited to his promotion party. He had become Captain Forbarin, and our respective duties did not match so well after that.”

He paused at that point, and his shoulders dropped slightly. A more sombre tone entered and we all understood that our little giggles and chuckles and amusing asides were no longer appropriate. I'm sure we all leaned in a little closer.

“Then Yod invaded Ferenis.

“I suppose you could say ...” he grinned wryly “... that they did so at the right time. For it was the wrong time. No-one invades another country at that time of the year, so soon before the rains. So we were not on our highest alert levels, at least the Ferens weren't. News reached us of course and we had some more warning than the poor Ferens, but even so we were still slow – far too slow.”

He shook his head.

“And disorganised.”

Again a grimace crossed his features.

“And assumptious.”

He relapsed into silence; a silence none of us round the dining table dared to break. It seemed to me that a year or two passed before, with a deep sigh, he started again.

“Over the centuries, there have been many occasions for war between the lands of the Great Valley. I deem most often concerning Yod and, because they are Yod's closest neighbours downvalley, most of those most often occasions have involved Ferenis too. So the Ferens have developed an effective strategy to hold the Yodans back. And the Yodans know it almost as well as the Ferens.

“Feren forces retired to mass in their pre-arranged positions. Feren farmers fired their fields, forcing the Yodans to have their supplies delivered all the way from their home country – a nuisance rather than a significant military factor, but still building in a slight delay to Yod's expansions.

“The Yodans would mass at the landings by their crossing points. Forces of both sides would advance and meet. A battle would ensue.

“But the Yodans – this time, they had other plans, and a most dreadful weapon. This is a weapon ...”

“Do you speak of the gun things?” asked Epp. I nodded as did Pomma. We could tell the menfolk were all surprised that we might know anything of them. Subrish's eyes widened.

“I was down in Palarand City for the Princess' wedding, remember my dear brother? I was in the presence of Captain Bleskin for the journey down there and back. We were guests of Her Highness, and we heard the details of the various attacks and attempts against her. How could I, we, NOT know about guns, particularly when they were used against the Princess for the first time up in Blackstone Vale?”

Even this break from Subrish's narrative did nothing to disperse the fascination with which we were all listening.

“Then you know just how terrible the damage is that these guns can do. And how much of a surprise they were to the Ferens at first, and later to us. But 'twas not merely the guns. The Yodans had new, strange uniforms which made them more difficult to see, somehow, and which were surprisingly effective at absorbing the force behind many if not most crossbow bolts.

“Despite all this, I deem the Ferens would still have held the Yodans once the surprise factors had been absorbed.

“Except the Yodans had another surprise for us. It was only afterwards that we understood their plans, and they used diversionary tactics well to keep those plans hidden. To cut the potentially very long story short, the Ferens were not Yod's target. At least not all of Ferenis. Oh no! Not at all!

“We were!”

We all gasped.

“Yes, the Yodans had drawn their plans to take over our littoral, and to gain control of our fort atop Boldan's Rock. Once they controlled the fort, then our capital would always be endangered. They reasoned that thus they could keep Ferenis quiet, they having always to guard against expansion from the supply corridor the Yodans would establish. And Forguland too would be threatened to such an extent that we would be virtually neutralised. They didn't want the whole of Ferenis, they just wanted a secure corridor across Ferenis, and to circumvent us.

“And why, you might ask? Why would they want to do that? Between Yod and Palarand there are six countries. Ferenis, Forguland, the island of Joth, Smordan, Virgulend and Brugen. With Ferenis and Forguland wrapped up so as to speak, they could use our littoral as an advanced base from which to invade Joth. Which is exactly what they did; they took Joth City and thus controlled all of Joth effectively. They had moved their advanced base nearly half way to Palarand, and had done so most efficiently and at such a time that most of us could not retaliate before the rains came.

“And all of this had just one simple objective. To capture or kill your Princess Garia.”

THAT produced consternation around the table.

But before we could continue, there was an interruption. Karmanya came in and announced some visitors – Goodman Voysin and Mistress Nayet.

Subrish promised to continue once this business was concluded, so we all left to go into the family room, leaving the table for the girls to clear up.

… … …

“... and Master Jalmond shall arrive shortly to interview you.”

Voysin had come to inform us that Trooger had been arrested. 'Twould appear that the man had lost his mind for he was attempting the biggest, most heinous of crimes that anyone could do in a town such as Tranidor. He had attempted to set fire to Jaffy's old house. In a town built mostly of wood, this was a hanging offence, for with wind and sparks, the entire town could be easily consumed.

Trooger had been ranting about a conspiracy to defame him, to cheat him out of his home but he had been caught red-handed by Master Dicksen and there was no gainsaying what he was attempting to do. Even as we spoke, he was languishing in the Watch's cells.

Epp had the presence of mind to send an urchin to fetch Master Ruckem, in the hope that he could find the time to be present when Master Jalmond was here, but Nayet interrupted her to say that they had already done that.

While we were all awaiting the further visitors, we discussed the matter thoroughly and a sort of silence fell when we reached the point of repeating ourselves. To fill that silent moment, Nayet told Epp and I that she would take us up on the offer of Bormio's place. All of us seized upon that topic with gratitude, a welcome diversion from the Trooger business.

Then Masters Jalmond and Ruckem both arrived within a moment of each other, Ruckem being the first.

But when Master Jalmond entered the now crowded room, he looked first around at everyone else and then straight at me, fixing me in place with his penetrative stare.

Without even a hint of a smile, he sighed very loudly and said: “I might have known!”




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