Julina of Blackstone - 063 - The Journey May Be Over ...

Just because she is off Trumpa doesn't mean Julina's day is over

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

063 – The Journey May Be Over ...


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
063 – The Journey May Be Over ...

“Maker! I wouldn't know where to start! Where hasn't changed?” She paused for thought, and began again slowly: “I deem, with the impending arrival of Her Highness, perchance I should start with the Community Hall. After all, that was her only real request before she left last year, wasn't it?”

“Indeed, it was. And I was a little involved with some of the design of it! She will be impressed, I deem and hope, with that which we have produced.”

“Quite! It is indeed most impressive. So light and airy inside, and yet so solid. And the way the lines seem to flow into the kitchen block as well. 'Tis indeed most grand.”

“So how has that been changed? Or mean you more simply that it has now been completed?”

She laughed a little wryly. “Nay, 'tis yet to be finalised. There was a difficulty with that. There remains a … a ... certain amount of tasks, yes that's the best way to say it, a certain amount of tasks to be completed.”

I looked at her quizzically. I had not long to wait before she gave me the explanation.

“Now the big difficulty that we had, and indeed still have, is the uncertainty of how many are in the Royal Party. So we had to make certain assump...”

“Hold!” I cried swiftly. “Pyor here and I saw their column close up, as did Rabeez.”

“Maker!” She gasped. Then she surprised us by swinging wildly round and shouting: “Marnie! Marnie, girl! Come quickly!”

I looked up and saw the girl stop immediately what she was doing, which was talking to some customers with her order pad to the ready, and rush towards us, concern written across her face. Even though she had not grown up in Blackstone, her face was still a picture I could readily read. I daresay such a face was as easily read by all my companions. And then it changed as rapidly as her direction when Sookie called: “Get an urchin to bring His Honour back! He cannot have gone far.”

She turned back to us: “Why on Anmar did it not occur to me before? I had all the information! I could have thought of this when he was still here.”

“Sookie, er … I apologise, Mistress Sukhana I meant,” I corrected myself because we were not all on informal terms with each other, “I, that is we, understand not ...”

“Forgive me!” she hastily said. “Master Pyor, Mistress Julina, Goodmen Rabeez and Kulyer, I must needs apologise. 'Twas rude of me, but urgency was required. The very utmost of urgency.

“We live in a small town, greater perchance than 'twas here this time last year, but 'tis still a small town. We have a steadily increasing population which gives us a constant problem of accommodation. And now we are to be visited by the most important caravan ever in our history, and up to now, we have no knowledge of how many beds we are required to supply. I have even had a need to clear out part of my wagon storage in case the Royal Party have more than I can fit in, and more than space exists for them up at the Community Hall. That's why Goodman Jafferkin's old wagon, now Mistress Julina's, has been moved to near her house. We just don't know what is about to arrive nor how we are to cope with it when it does. Certain assumptions have had to have been made, of course, ...”

“And it must be as perfect as we can make it when they get here, for Her Highness' sake!”

Our heads whipped round at the sound of His Honour's voice; we had not heard him come back.

“Mistress Sukhana, your girl ... Marnie is it not? ... caught me on the street just outside, as I was talking to your Master Brydas. She mentioned something about it being urgent? I have an Assembly meeting to attend in just a few moments.” This last statement made Em gasp, and I suspected she might have forgotten about that meeting temporarily.

“Indeed Captain, I was talking to 'Lina here, er Mistress ...”

The Captain waved his hand to stop all the formal nonsense which would serve to save a few heartbeats as we went along.

“'Lina and these three men have actually SEEN the Royal Party close up to them, they could give us a reasonably accurate estimation of their numbers. I thought 'twould benefit us all to get some idea...”

“Excellent thinking!” His piercing eyes turned my way, even as Em hissed in yet another breath, presumably because she felt she herself should have thought of it. “And might Marnie here be sent for a sheet of paper and a reedlet, perchance?”

The girl was off on that errand before Sookie even issued a command, which brought forth a smile from us all. The Captain turned his attention to me and asked: “Julina?”

I was a little taken aback at being the one to be asked. As I thought about it, I realised that I had assumed the men would be interrogated in preference to me.

Hah! Even I, who had taken such a great and public stand against women being treated as inferior to men, even I myself had done exactly that, unthinkingly.

I filed that thought away for later. I was about to correct Sookie's introduction because Kulyer had not been there, but His Honour's impatient demeanour drove me to get on with my description.

“Let me see now! I must first ask you to please bear in mind that 'twas raining a miserable dismal drizzle so they were all wrapped up. But the caravan was led by a single mounted guard carrying a soaked pennant which I THINK was the Ptuvil pennant the town presented to Milady's guard last year, but 'twas wrapped around its carrying pole in a most droopy manner.

“Now I think on't, the entire column was mounted in pairs, except for the lead man and the end man who were the only singles. So there were three pairs of guards before the man I assumed to be the Prince was alongside Commander Feteran. He, the Commander, came up to us later, so I know for certain that that man was indeed Commander Feteran.

“After them came a pair of others. One was bearded and the other carried himself like a high lord or a commander or some such – they both did actually, now I see them once again in my head.

“They were followed by two also bearded guards, bulkier somehow, squatter than those who had headed the column. And also more so than the pair that immediately followed behind them, who were in Her Highness' colours, the little bits I could see of it under their rainwear. One was left-handed, so the edge of the cape was tucked behind his sword handle on his side nearest us. That showed a glimpse of the uniform beneath. It's funny how much the brain ...”

I broke off as both Em and the Captain allowed a shadow of a frown of impatience to flit across their visages. I gulped, and realised all they wanted were the facts, just the facts. I realised too that they both checked my account, even as I was talking, with the other men who had been present at the time. They spoke not but simply nodded their confirmations.

“Next came the first wagon, two men on the seat, one the driver … Oh! No need to say that really - of course one was driving.” Again I had given some irrelevant information, so I hurried on: “The wagon was flanked by two guards on foot. Indeed ALL the wagons were so guarded. And all trailed at least two frayen on leading reins, and were then followed by two mounted guards, except between this first wagon and the first carriage.

“For that was what came next in the procession, neither frayen nor guards between the wagon and the carriage. I deem it, that is this carriage, oh, and the second, were both filled with the women; Her Highness, Milady Merizel, maids and whoever else, all sheltering from the rain. I guess it was because of that that the blinders were drawn down across the sides. I really could not be sure which was Her Highness with just a small gap to look through.

“Next came two more mounted guards, and then that second carriage, again, as I sort of said, with blinders drawn down. And again trailed by two mounted guards. They were followed by the next wagon. And that by three pairs of mounted guards, the last two pairs also seeming to be again those bulkier types. It was one of these bulkier men, the one nearest us in the middle row of the trio of pairs, that Subrish challenged ...”

“Subrish? Who an Anmar is he?” said the Captain in somewhat shocked tones. “And challenged you said? Why woul...” he broke off abruptly. “Nay, hold! Tell me later. I need just the numbers now. What came after this trio of pairs?”

“Another wagon, this one with three on the seat. Two foot soldiers besides it, as I said. And trailed by frayen then came two more guards amounted. After that I am unsure of my accuracy for I was distracted by the challenge I mentioned earlier.”

The Captain directed his fierce attention to the men seated with me. As it so happened, he asked Kulyer directly: “Do you have a better recollection, Goodman?”

“I regret, Your Honour, that actually I was not there, I was then a bell or so behind them, having to fetch a load from somewhere else entirely. These two men were there though.” He waved his hand at Rabeez and Pyor.

Almost before the Captain could look at him directly, 'twas Rabeez who piped up. At the time, it was a little bit of a shock, but a swift, more efficient thought told me that it was something which was not all that surprising really, since Pyor had been seated next to Subrish and I, and therefore as likely as we had been to hear the challenge and be distracted by it.

“There were anuvver wagon, like. I remembers it well, 'cos this were the only wagon not trailed by at least two mounted guards, 'cepting the one that Mistress Julina already told yer 'bout. It were a clump of riders really, not specific guards. I could tell that 'cos the men, and they all seemed to be men to me, mainly 'cos I didn't know ladies ride, not until we came up here, like, anyway these men were not armed the same as the guards and they weren't … weren't … weren't military, like. Well except for one of 'em, he was like frowning at the seeming lack of discipline. Oh and anuvver, but I guess as how this last uvver one was, like, the Wagonmaster. Why, I deem ...”

“Excuse me Goodman, 'tis the numbers we need!”

“Oh, aye, Yer 'Onour. Errm. A hand, nay more than a hand. Lemme see...”

Just then Marnie ran back with paper and two reedlets. I raised an eyebrow at that, making a mental note that she had brought a spare, just in case! Good thinking that girl.

“Very well, Goodman, you think on it while I quickly scribble down what we know so far. 'Lina, please confirm as I write ...”

I must confess I was impressed as he had cut through all my extra description and had indeed a clear idea in his head of what I had said.

Here is what he wrote:

One guard in the van with pennant
Two guards
Two guards
Two guards
The Prince (?) and Feteran
Two more Commanders (?) (???) (maybe one is Count Terinar, or he was with Fet and this is Keren. The other? Bearded?)
Two bulky guards
Two guards
Wagon with two guards aflanking
Carriage #1
Two guards
Carriage #2
Two guards
Wagon with two guards aflanking
Two guards
Two bulky guards (one made a challenge?)
Two bulky guards
Wagon with two guards aflanking
Two guards
Wagon with two guards aflanking
Extra men of the party, one military(?), one Wagonmaster (?)

Rabeez couldn't read well enough - he said - but Pyor and I could and we confirmed what had been written down.

Between us, we completed describing the column as we had seen it. Both of us, though, were unsure of the exact composition after the extra men had formed that clump of riders. I would have tended towards Rabeez' evidence, since we admitted we had been distracted.

The list was therefore completed thus:

Two guards
Wagon with two guards aflanking
Two guards
Two guards
Two guards
Tail-end man

“So we have, let me see,” he counted rapidly as he reread his notes, “36 guards, plus 6 bulkier guards that you all seem to find a need to differentiate from the others, 4 commanders, 5 wagons (and therefore drivers) 2 carriages (and therefore drivers) and a 'clump' of mounted men, possibly as many as a dozen, counting the others sat next to the drivers of the wagons. Are we all agreed?”

We all nodded to let him know there were no gainsayers.

“Plus Her Highness with an unknown number of women of all ranks.”

“Now, that seems a normal military way of formation for such a column.” He looked at Em and got a nod of agreement. “I would have expected 40 men, for we have files of ten men, so four files. However, these bulkier guards intrigue me. I have no idea who they might be. But before we continue, Julina, if I might gently correct you on a couple of points, for 'tis no longer Milady Merizel, but rather Countess Merizel. And ...”

An urchin came in running: “Yer Honour, Yer Honour. The Assembly meeting attends you.”

“Oh very well. Em, we must dash. Thank you Julina and gentlemen for this valuable information, and Sookie thank you for calling me back. I regret I really must, must, must go.”

“But Captain, I can tell ...”

“Not now, Julina, not now – I have no time.” He and Em dashed off, both showing slight signs of being a bit flustered. Em's display being somehow more acceptable to me than that of the Captain, who was already discussing some point with Em as they dashed out. I was grateful for the Captain's reminder about the Countess, but I was a trifle put out when I could not complete my information giving; but as he said, the numbers were at that moment the most important.

So it was thus that I never got the opportunity to tell him that the bulkier men, guards, were in all probability Einnlanders. And I never did manage to explain to him who Subrish was. (He found all that out for himself on the morning after the next.)

The urchin that had fetched him was then despatched by Em up to Trokos' place, the Wheelwright, to ask about Pyor's being accommodated there. He was to return here with the answer. It wouldn't be long, of course, for the Wheelwright's was the set of buildings between Uncle's Smithy, and Waldan's (and Pomma's) Saddlery.

And so, at long, long last, we got back to Sookie's telling of the changes that had happened in Town during my absence.

… … …

“… we realised, in the light of the changes we made to the Community Hall, just after you left, that Her Highness' chief maidservant and her Commander had been married, and by now His Highness probably has a manservant; so there was ANOTHER reason to include some changes. We, well they really, needed to add some more space in there, but 'twas already built. So they got clever by erecting some more outside walls, and then cutting through the ones that had been made earlier.

“So, on the middle floor, the room originally designated as being for the Servants has been extended outwards to the south to add about half as much again to the room. Internally the layout has changed, with an internal corridor, so that the Commander and his wife can have a room there, and the manservant too, if there is one. If not, then extra storage space is never a bad idea. The other side of the corridor shall be for the female servants.

“Now that the Assembly have a better idea of the numbers concerned, I await with interest their decisions about the disbursements of the members that are expected.”

“I understand far better now. What else has happened then?”

“Well, we did have a great street party without you being there. Your restaurant had a major success with those Peetzer things, they seemed to be the most popular item sold, when we speak of food items. My pies stood little chance, although some declared them to be delicious.”

“But why was there such a party?”

“The water, my dear. The water!”

“Sorry, Sookie, I seem to be somewhat slow today. Mayhap after spending almost four bells in the saddle, my brain has been benumbed as much as my … bottom. What water?”

“The Yarling waters were connected into the town's Cistern!”

“Maker! They have actually done that?”

“Oh yes! And the siphon what's it thingy worked perfectly. But even as the water flow was established, His Honour commissioned some men to develop ideas that would not waste water.

“The flow is now restricted, quite simply actually. A giant what they call a 'header tank' has been constructed inside the mountain. I deem your water tank idea was a large contributory factor to all that. Pumps are used, steam-driven pumps, to maintain the level of this header tank. The output from this tank is controlled by gates which are opened wide when the Cistern levels drop to a certain height, and are closed down when demand is less. So the Cistern levels are maintained to always have enough, but not too much. I am quite sure it is far more complicated than that, but that's how I see it in my mind, anyway.

“And at the same time, the Captain detailed another team to remove the old Aqueduct, modernise it, improve it – and the road along its upper surface! From above the Community Hall, all along the way to the Market Place. But 'tis to be done after Their Highnesses depart.”

“Talking of roads, did I see the road up to the Stone Sea was already complete? Surely that would be an impossibility in such a short time?”

“Does it seem so? Whence saw you that? Ah! From the road in, I wager! Nay, 'Lina, 'tis not to the very top, but 'tis now to the horizon level we see from below. There is some increasing traffic now, as Her Highness has found a use for the stone material from that so-called sea. Well, she didn't exactly find the use, she suggested it. And her suggestion has been taken up enthusiastically. It seems it is useful in making cement, and a cement factory has been built almost opposite Holville on the West Bank of the Palar. There are other uses too, but it seems that the cement trade shall be the bulk of it.

“But coming back to the road up there, then the drivers are instructed to take much care not to make deep ruts up there until a road can be fashioned. I am told that the old ramshackle hut thing that that Larsenar used to live in has been made into a refuge for the workers up there. Just a place to brew some pel, or cook a simple stew. A handful of cot beds in case some want to stay up there overnight. That sort of thing.

“Now let me think! Other changes. Other changes. Ah yes! The flour mill down at the forest's edge has shut down. Master Levin and family have now moved downvalley to some place called Tammy something, a little village ...”

“Tamitil – yes, we know quite a lot about that village, actually!”

“Do you tell me? I first heard of it from another of the wedding party, Goodman Linan. But how know you so much?”

I started my explanations and got maybe halfway through, when the door opened and the urchin returned, along with Master Trokos himself. The usual introduction exchanges took place, in with which I joined after sending the urchin up to the Salon with a message to the girls that I was back. He grinned broadly, for his day had been good, so many commissions in such a short time. I learnt that his name was Surtree. His engaging grin reminded me strongly of young Max down in Tranidor.

I was an interested observer as the two Wheelwrights sounded each other out; they sort of interviewed each other it seemed to me, taking more than a quarter bell in all. Some of the questions were of a highly technical nature and left Sookie and I gawping with a lack of knowledge, and Sookie of course had far more knowledge than I. Even the two drivers were amazed, I could tell.

At the end of that period, the two men went off together, all smiles. I had granted Pyor my whispered permission to tell Master Trokos about the needs of Blackstone Wagons. As those men went off, Sookie detailed one of her wagoneers to take Rabeez and Kulyer upstairs to the dormitory and suddenly Sookie and I were left alone.

We chatted generally about this and that as another pot of pel was brought, and then I asked her about what catering arrangements were likely to be made for the Royal Party. Would Mousa have to relinquish the kitchens up at the Community Hall and so on. The conversation darted about as we went along, so I suppose you could say that it was a murid of a conversation. For example, Sookie introduced one topic almost out of the sky:

“Oh! And something else! When Epp and I were down in Palarand, we were present, on far too few occasions for they were always fun with the two of them laughing and joking and grinning, when Her Highness was with Tenant Maralin; you probably remember him as being described as someone from her own home. Even a blind man could tell they enjoyed an excuse to speak their own tongue together. We grinned a lot on those occasions not just at their jokes and antics, at least the ones we understood, but also because, without realising it, they would switch in and out of their own language as they spoke. But that's not my point, really. The Tenant mentioned a problem he had seen in every kitchen he had ever entered in the Great Valley.

“Now this is not so much a problem that we here, in Blackstone particularly, actually have, for we use coal for nearly all our burning in the ranges. However, as I know well, but perhaps you do not, the other kitchens further away are filled with faggots.”

“Maker!” I replied, “Do you tell me? Yes, I suppose that makes a kind of sense. Easier to load when in a hurry and not so messy, but unwieldy, lumpy and with many edges that can catch on things. Now you have pointed it out, I can, and do, understand; they don't know about coal really, do they?”

“Precisely! So, as you sort of mentioned, when those faggots are stacked in a kitchen, the sticks in each one jut out and frequently catch pail handles, or belts, or scratch legs, tear clothes and so on. Some kitchens even have faggots stacked in every available spot, on working surfaces even, in some of them, particularly when small. Others have attached faggot stores to try to keep the interference down.”

“I confess to having done most of those things myself, even though we only have a few faggots in our kitchen. We use them for rekindling the banked fires at the start of our day.”

“As do we! But, as a result of this conversation between the Her Highness and the Tenant, others those two commissioned have now asked me to test some fuel things for them, as suggested by Her Highness. For the coke plant, down at the Forest's Edge now has an extra wing to make charcoal and to experiment with it. And what was the flour mill shall soon be converted to process some of the stone fetched down from the Stone Sea. But we need many more wagons for all this. So tell me more about your Blackstone Wagons.”

So you see how quickly our chat switched from kitchens to wagons? It made sense to both of us at the time and 'twas only as I was scribing this report that I realised how disjointed it might seem to an outsider.

This further meant that my few moments of time with Sookie spread out to nearly two weeks, or so it seemed at the time. I doubt we were much more than a bell, certainly not two for I did a lot more that day!

But to continue to report our conversation, I replied: “Indeed I shall, for I have many questions of you as regards Blackstone Wagons, but first I must tell you about the bacs.”

“Backs? You have a problem with your back?”

“No, no,” I laughed. “Bac is a made-up word from the starting letters in the phrase 'Beck and Call'. Well, it's like this ...”

… … ...

I realise now that it would be far too confusing for me to report all the conversations we had, and the interruptions to them, in the sequence of their happenings, so please allow me to just mention them here, now, by topic.

First, to continue from what I reported before, Sookie was taken with the idea of the bacs; so much so that she agreed to start the system immediately. We called Kulyer inside to the office where Mutab was sitting and checking load manifests, and the four of us thrashed out a way to make it all happen. My contribution was to have several specially-designed carts/wagons commissioned with Trokos, and perchance Pyor. The latter course of action would be cheaper for me, since Pyor was an employee of our company, but 'twas unlikely he could do much up here in Blackstone, so mayhap 'twould be better to have Trokos make them. So much depended upon the use the Assembly saw to make of our wagons. I would find out more on the morrow, I supposed.

Mutab surprised us all when he said: “...and 'tis something that I myself could do, for sitting in this office all day and just shuffling documents is slowly driving me mad. To know I could have a bell or so of actually driving, and being outside in the fresh air, would make the bearance of the rest of the day so much easier.”

“I had not appreciated you felt so strongly, Mutab! I always had the impression that you liked the office work?”

“Oh Mistress Sukhana, I do like the office work, and I cannot imagine doing any more of those long routes, with my damaged leg, and I am proud that I help you, and Master Tanon, with the necessary job I do in this office, but I need, I find, some small change in my life. These bacs thingies shall provide exactly what I require.”

The two men then went up the slope of Main Street to find the wheelwrights and to make a first start.

As for the kitchens, Sookie and I went there soon after so I could inspect these new-fangled things made of charcoal and coke that Sookie and her head cook Maglaga were testing for the men commissioned by Her Highness.

“Well Mistresses, I approve of the orderliness of these things. We can stack more of them and neater than the sacks of coals we have so far used. I can only say that they are MUCH better for stacking than faggots. However, we still need the faggots first thing, for these ...”

And 'twas here that I learnt a new word that has since become a word of its own in Palarandi parlance, but of course I knew not then how to scribe it! It sounded at first like 'Sir Ger' or 'Sergg' followed by a hesitation! Our way of saying our letter 'g' is close to, but not the same, as the way we say our letter 'k', so I was at first confused as to whether or not to spell it with a 'k' or even two.

“... 'Serggers' catch not so quickly nor so easily. A faggot or two of a morning bring up the fires in a matter of moments. These serggers, they need time and constant attention, unless the fire is already established. So we stir the embers from the last night, throw in one or two faggots. We start here with this range, and we work our way round that way. All the way round until we get back to the first, making sure we included the water heaters.

“Then we throw in the charcoal serggers, working our way round the kitchens again. By the time the serggers are to be thrown in, then nine times of out ten, the faggots have caught and are crackling merrily. I have found that the charcoal serggers then catch best, but they burn not so fiercely, so now we use the charcoal ones as second-stage fire lighters.

“Finally, we do a third circuit of the room, throwing in the coke serggers. They burn most hot, and we use far less of them than we would have to do were we reliant upon just faggots. So we can stack one week's worth of them in the space that one day's worth of faggots would have taken. But when we have such easy access to coal, I would be hesitant to recommend the use of serggers up here in Blackstone, 'tis not worth the expense.”

They showed me than what the serggers looked like. The charcoal ones were smaller, shorter and thinner, than the coke ones, but they were all the same basic shape. None of them had any sharp edges, they were rounded at each end, and the middles were simple cylinders. Sort of like a finger, but much thicker. Each was longer than from the tip of my middle finger to my wrist, and of course, being round, they were easy to stack, being so much more stable, compact and neat than faggots. But much dirtier and dustier than faggots.

“Why name them so?” I asked Sookie.

“Actually I know, but do not know.” She grinned as she said that.

“Well, that's no answer!”

“Well you see, 'twas what I was saying earlier. Her Highness and the Tenant were speaking about them, and the Tenant laughed when he said to Her Highness: 'Well adult shop references would be wasted here, so we have a chance to make our own word.' She laughed and blushed slightly, saying simply 'Don't!'

“None of us listening had a single idea what that exchange meant. And then they both reddened when they realised they had spoken in Palarandi and not their home tongue, so they dropped back into that. Naturally, we understood not what they they were saying, but they swiftly came to some agreement.

“Her Highness finally announced in Palarandi: 'Call them serggers, then'. The Tenant then said; 'Well 'tis not as if they smoke anything here …' and then they switched back to their tongue. So all I can say is that there is a reason, but that reason has been lost in another language.”

(A note from Older Julina: At that time, I knew not the correct spelling of the word, and I confess I taught a myriad of my students the incorrect version. It was only when I myself finally visited Palarand, and was invited to the Palace, that I learnt how they consider the correct spelling to be. The lesson came by accident for I had been given a manifest for a large load. I had to ask someone what a weird word was on the piece of paper they had handed over to me. By that time, I vouchsafe that every kitchen in the Great Valley was using the 'cigars' as standard. But I shall continue to refuse to correct the spelling I have here used, until such time as I learnt the truth, for I feel that much flavour of the times might be lost.)

Sookie could not leave the Claw at that juncture, so she told me about other things in the town that had changed, which basically meant what construction was going on. She told me of the progress at making the Parks and a change to be implemented: “Your suggestion of naming a park after Jaffy has been retained, but that park shall not be the one at the top of and to the east of East Street. Jafferkin Park is now to be a large three-sided plot immediately to the north of the Community Hall kitchens, as the work on the old aqueduct shall release a little space there.

“The original park shall still be located where it is and there shall be ...” a strange look flitted across her face just then and she flushed slightly, which intrigued me but I had no chance to dig a bit deeper to find out why, because the door opened at that juncture, and in came all but one of the girls from the Salon along with Kassama and Kords too.

Maker! You would have thought I had been away to Moxgo or Yod or somewhere impossibly far like that. When the excitement died down a bit, Sookie offered us all some pel, which meant I needed to get up and make room for it, and then we had a thoroughly girly half bell as they tried to bring me up to date with everything all at the same time, and at the same time as demanding to know what I had got up to. Sookie beat a wise retreat early on and we finger-waved to each other.

I was all but dragged up the road to Em's by the bunch of them, and I confess a satisfying feeling of contentment swept over me when I entered my restaurant. We had to go via the back entrance of course, for there was that Assembly meeting in the dining room at the moment. Not having seen them for just over a week, I was amazed at the changes in them all, particularly the ones I called 'The New Girls' back in those days. The need for thinking for themselves, for making their own decisions, for dealing with the public had made them mature very rapidly. Even shy and retiring little Venket was walking straighter and not so slow to say what she thought. She certainly smiled a lot more easily.

“So tell me, did that Topor have his dinner with his team?”

“Indeed he did, and they were all very polite, complimentary and generous with contributions to our 'appreciation coin' pot. Model diners, I would say,” explained Kelly. “They also made sure that the other diners were disturbed to a minimum. Master Topor then suggested another date for the team of them, in a pair of weeks or so, and the entire team agreed most enthusiastically. Later, Master Topor asked me to make sure we had enough of what has become their favourite wine, and also hinted that maybe Mistress Sukhana's ale be on hand in generous quantities.”

“Well I congratulate you all on coping so well – I deem you don't really require me around! I shall go and sulk now!”

There was a burst of laughter, which I cut short, reminding them that there was an Assembly meeting we should not interrupt. “Now I need a quick word with Kelly, I'm sure you all have something to do to prepare for tonight. 'Tis already mid-afternoon.”

They all grinned and got down to some task or other while Kelly and I went out the back and sat on the doorstep.

“So, Kelly – how has it been? Really?”

“Good, 'Lina. The new ones are coming along nicely, the atmosphere is good. I deem we need to have Kords a permanent member as soon as we can. I need to talk with you about expanding the kitchen area, you and Em as well, of course. I gave the girls each a task of coming up with new ideas for meals we can serve, they must select one from their private lists and present it to me each week, saying why it would be good for our clients, for the restaurant and for the cooks. Little Venket has given me the best idea this week! I was going to talk to you about it tomorrow, for I wasn't certain what time you would get back today.”

“That sounds excellent! Now I want you to consider something, seriously, and to give me an answer in the morning, after you have had a chance to think it through thoroughly and talk it over with your family and other friends.”

“Wow! You sound serious!”

“I am serious. Very serious indeed. I want you to take over running the Salon from me. I shall enjoy working there still, but as a member of YOUR team and not the other way round. I shall still make suggestions, but I want YOU to be in charge, I want YOU to be the one Em comes to to ask things, I want YOU to be the one the suppliers come to. Of course, you shall receive more coin for the additional responsibilities, and I shall receive less, but I must tell you now, without giving all the details, otherwise we shall be sitting here until the morning, but I have suddenly twice as many if not more responsibilities outside the Salon. I cannot do it all by myself, I must find time and space for me to do these other things as well.”

“I deem that is the first time I have ever heard you say you are unable to do something! I must make a note of this date!”

“Cheeky pakh-head!” I laughed back. “But seriously, I have to start up the Consociation ...” a surprised looked shot across her face, which made me wonder for a heartbeat, but then I realised she had probably forgotten our discussion about the Consociation, “... as well as two other companies, one of which will have two, maybe more branches, so that all has to happen, and can happen only with me in attendance. So I shall only be available part-time really!”

Just then Em came out to us and gently interrupted: “Julina, our meeting is finished for the day, we have all been allocated tasks to do and we need to report back to another meeting on the morrow. The Captain sends his compliments and asks if you would be available to attend tomorrow's meeting, and further asks if we could start at the sixth bell, which shall be the bell after the noon announcement, and have the room for a maximum of two and a half bells?”

Kelly and I looked at each other and laughed. “You see, Kelly, I shall have even less time now!” I turned back to Em. “I have been away upwards of a week, and have no real feel for the situation. I deem 'twould be better if you ask of Kelly about the timings. As for my attendance, then I shall be honoured.”

Em swung her gaze to Kelly, who answered simply: “Indeed, that would be in order. We shall have enough time to set up the place afterwards before the first diners arrive.”

“We thank you,” said Em as she swung on her heel to go back to report, I assumed, to His Honour.

“I have not the time now to explain about these other companies, but I had an idea that I deem would please our Gyth immensely. But that shall mean she is away downvalley doing a task for me for maybe as much as two weeks, make that three with travelling time too.”

“Well, we both know that she is here for two reasons really; her loyalty to you and her desire for some coin. She will be going sooner or later, we are both certain. What did you have in mind for her?”

“Oh Kelly! There is so much to explain. Just take it from me I shall fill you in on the details sometime else, but for now I shall say I need a minimum of two, perhaps as many as a hand of buildings to be designed, nay, 'pon further thought, mayhap seven or even eight! In Bezlet, Brayview and in Tranidor. I am assuming her mother could travel with her for she shall need a companion. Do you know anything I do not? Anything that would prevent Waxerwet from going along?”

“Nnnnoooo,” she said slowly. “Gyth's mother earns a little coin from helping several of the seamstresses with little jobs, I believe she has become quite the expert on making those bras, and she makes some extra coin by helping part time up in the Miners'. There's nothing of which I am aware that would keep either of them tied to Blackstone. I know Gyth would love to see more, and Waxerwet is a little like her daughter, I deem. Mayhap Gyth's lust for wandering actually comes from the mother!”

“And could you spare her from the Salon – remembering that I shall be back and will give you help too, but with the Royal Party arriving soon, you may feel she should not go? And I could not do as full a job for you as Gyth.” I grinned as I added: “Probably achieve as much, though, in less time, for we know dear Gyth is so scatter-brained sometimes.”

“How urgent is this house designing?”

“You see? You really ARE the proper one to take charge here. You ask the right questions! I regret that this opportunity is only really for now. If I cannot get her working on it in the next week, then the occasion will have passed by.”

“Hmmm! That would mean we would really need to find someone else, but that Paivi has seized her chance and impresses us all every day. I believe that between us we can persuade the others to work a little longer and harder. I deem 'twould be difficult, but we could let her go, as you would be indeed more efficient.”

“In that case, I shall ask her, but I have so far said nothing until I had your approval.”

Kelly got to her feet, brushed her bottom then twitched her skirts into place. She grinned at me as she whirled round. “I'll send her out then!”

I sat there in the pleasant warmth of the late spring day but keeping in the shadows of the walls, and I actually began to fall asleep. So I was fair prey for Gyth's sense of humour when she came out. It took me a little while, but not more than three moments, surely, to come fully awake and alert again and begin to return Gyth's jibes with relish. We were both laughing so much before I managed to get the conversation round to my proposal.

“We may have a little job for you,” I said whilst looking at my hands. I would have burst out laughing some more if I had not so distracted myself.

“Oh aye?”

“I have seen ... nay, let me start again, WE have seen how good you are at designing rooms and the like. When I say we, I mean Epp and I. And Epp and I have started a company together to provide bed and breakfasts in Tranidor, in Bezlet and soon up here in Blackstone. We would pay you for these services. I would like you to travel down to Tranidor to inspect the buildings we have and suggest layouts and room designs and decorations with the people who shall operate them. In Tranidor, you can stay at Epp's house – and that is by far the largest of the projects, at the others I shall have to pay for your rooming.”

“Oh 'Lina, I would love to do that, as you know only too well. But I could not go alone,” her face showed her disappointment as that last thought hit her.

“I have thought of that also, my dear. Unless you would object to travelling with your mother? I would pay her some coin too, for without her presence, you obviously couldn't go.”

Hope surged once more into her face, and she launched herself at me with a little squeal: “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“Hold! Hold, I say!” I was forced to respond, laughing. “Wait until you have the full picture before you say anything. There is more to it, more to this proposal than you yet know.”

She quickly looked a little wary, but we had been friends all our lives and I knew she would immediately see any deceit in me, so she studied my face intently before sitting back down on the step beside me.

“Go on!”

“I have also started a new haulage company with Master Shemel, Epp's man.”

Her head jerked a little at that, and a question arose in her eyes. She didn't ask it though, she just waved me on with her hands.

“He will be based down in Tranidor, I will be based up here and we shall also have an office and a wheelwright's workshop in Brayview. The Brayview office manager shall move his family from Tranidor to Brayview. So there are two, three or four buildings not even built yet down in Brayview that we want you to suggest designs and decorations for. An office, the workshop, the family home and maybe a home for the wheelwright himself.”

“So you already know who shall be working at Brayview. I would not wish to design a house without speaking with him and his family. And as for the workshop, I don't know. That worries me, that one, I know nothing about what a wheelwright would require. I suppose I could go and ask Master Trokos.”

“No need, my dear, I even have a bit of a solution to that one myself. Let me give you a wider picture. The Office Manager man down in Brayview is called Master Quizzen. He shall do a job as a driver as well as arrange loads and so on. His wife's relatives live nearby to Brayview, and his son has just finished his apprenticeship/journeymanship – as a wheelwright! Master Pyor is his title. He came up here with us and is even now with Master Trokos. He shall be your driver to take you downvalley, so you will have plenty of time on the journey to gain an understanding of all the family shall require. I would estimate you would require two weeks to do all this, and another half week each way for the travelling.”

“You really are a marvel, aren't you, 'Lina? How do you think of all these things? Oh!” she exclaimed as another thought hit her. “How on Anmar will you have time to do all this and run the Salon and start that Cook's Consociation?” She too seemed to gulp a bit when she mentioned the Consociation. My brain started to think about that, in background mode.

“Ah, dear Gyth, that is where I have MY difficulties! I am going to turn over the Salon operation to Kelly – I shall still work here, but Kelly shall make the decisions.”

“And this haulage company thingy, will that start once the Royal Visit is over?”

“Not at all my dear, it has already started! Indeed, His Honour, the Steward, has commanded one of our vehicles for the morrow.”

“Maker! So how urgent is this building design work down in Brayview?”

“That is, as you say, of immediate importance. I would require you to depart with Master Pyor when he goes. That shall be the day after the Royal Party arrives. I have set that date so that you can have a chance to see Her Highness, once she gets here. Then, I deem, you will be under pressure for the next two weeks or so. You will miss the chance of cooking and/or serving her in the Salon – for His Honour has already planned at least one such night for Her evening meal! And Sookie too has planned another night so that all the women of the Wedding Party can wear their gowns once more, the ones that Her Highness gifted to them.”

Her face fell as she said: “Oh, I would so love to see those gowns being worn.” She brightened as another thought hit her. “Oh! The Royal Party shall be here for more than three weeks, like last time. I shall persuade Em to do her dressy dinner after I get back!”

“So my dear, do I gather from that remark that you want this commission? I have asked you first, of course, before asking your mother. Or would you rather have another companion with you? Kelly shall not be in a position to let another of her workers go, I feel it only fair to warn you!”

At last, Gyth had the full position and she had grasped all the ramifications of the decision she had to make.

“I need to discuss this with Mama, I deem.”

“A good idea! Why don't you go now, I will do your duties in the kitchens here until you get back. But take not too long, I have much more I have yet to do today!”

“Very well, I shall inform Kelly.”

And so it was that I went and worked for nearly a bell and I chatted and giggled with the others, passed on a few tips and prepared them for the possibility that their workload would increase soon – it was going to happen with the Royal Party in town anyway, irrespective of if Gyth decided to take up my offer.

I said, you will have noticed, that I worked for nearly a bell. It took Gyth longer than that before she returned, but I was not there then. Another interruption had taken me away.

All the girls were there, Kords had arrived soon afterwards and even Kassama dropped in to give aid where she could. We were well into the swing of things, when that interruption occurred.

The door was flung open, and Papa and Master Pocular both came in, the former looking a little annoyed and the latter a little anxious.

Then Papa shocked us all with his very loud voice, even though I knew him well enough to see behind the bluster and to take note of the sparkle in his eyes as he apparently berated me: “So, daughter! Your family is no longer of interest to you? I am saddened to hear that you have been back for several bells and yet you have not even taken the time to greet us! You shall be punished. Not the sort of behaviour I would have expected of the Julina of old. Now come along with Pocular and I, we have no time to waste.”

Papa looked and sounded so very ferocious that those who knew him not that well all cowered away from him, worry written clear upon their faces.

Venket in particular reacted strongly.

But the way she did so was simply startling.

She scrabbled and scurried across the room and squatted in a corner as she clamped her hands over her ears, looking wildly about her as she did so, her face contorted in fear, tears streaming down it.

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