Julina of Blackstone - 067 - Clearing Some Of The Backlog

Julina packs even more into her afternoon and evening

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

067 – Clearing Some Of The Backlog


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
067 – Clearing Some Of The Backlog

“Maker, Julina! When you get into your 'busy mode' you are like a force of nature. You are REALLY REALLY scary. Do you ever operate at a slower pace?”

“That's not fair, Kelly. There's just so much to be done and so little time to do it in. We have already been interrupted by Royal Party business, that could happen more and more, so we need to clear as much away as we can, as and when we can. That's all I'm trying to do, clear as much away as much as possible.”

“Yes, 'Lina, I understand all that, it's just that you see about five times as much as anyone else and you see them as things to be done. And you are always right. Most of us would not have seen all that. So … allow me to present, from your left to right, Josian, Dravna and Brenna. All three of these girls are interested in working with us and were in my opinion the best of those that applied. There are maybe a hand of others I deem also suitable, but various factors persuaded me to select these ones, pending your and Em's approval, of course.”

“Hello girls! No need to look quite so worried. I don't bite or anything. My name is Julina, and I started this whole thing up, along with my best friends. Now, as you are aware, I have only just seen her so I have not spoken to Kelly about you at all. I have no idea of what she might have said to you. And therefore I shall say what I have to, and hope you have not already heard it.

“We have all worked hard here and have, in a relatively short amount of time, made this one of the most in-demand eating places in all of North Palarand. Our reputation is widespread. Mistress Megrozen, who recently travelled all the way to Palarand City came back from there and told us that some all the way down there even had heard of us.”

I let the significance of that settle in for just a little while.

“And this excellent reputation came about from one thing, and one thing only.”

I paused again as I looked sternly at each one of them. I was pleased to see that none of them flinched, at least not too much anyway. I was using all my mothering skills that I had had to develop over the years, so I deem I managed the right balance of friendliness, encouragement and sternness.

“Teamwork. That is what we have here, and why we are so successful. Teamwork. Without it, we are nothing. And our customers will disappear like late spring snow in the sunshine. Then we will all have to find other employment.

“We had one woman who was a disaster and nearly ruined us, but I suspect that, in the end, that entire unfortunate episode actually strengthened us. However you must be aware from the very get-go that we are a team here, and anyone who does not fit in will be sent packing.

“For that reason, we operate a trial system, where we teach you but observe you as well. If any of you here feel that they cannot work closely with others, or cannot take orders from Kelly, for she is in charge, or indeed from any one of the others in the team, and that means the other three young girls too, then tell us now and make it easiest for us all. Kelly has selected the three of you as being the best of a good bunch. If you feel you cannot do it, then you will simply have prevented someone else from doing so. So tell us now. Right this heartbeat.”

They resolutely looked back at me, and it was only when my face relaxed that they did too.

“Right then, you have been warned. Don't ever say that you don't know what you're getting into!” I said as I laughed.

“There are many facets that we teach here, and that we expect our girls to observe. Part of being a team is knowing that you can rely on any and everyone else and each is open and honest with all the others. We do not talk about others behind their back, nor do we say something to a face and then do other things behind their back. We are a happy bunch here, and if any nasty feelings arise then the first suspicion shall land upon the newcomers.

“But you will learn much and will gain extra knowledge, and you will earn more coin than you have ever had before. Opportunities will open up that you have never even considered, for I know more than most about how this town shall develop, and I know there are already openings for more than a hand of capable bodies.

“A good thorough training here will stand you in good stead wherever you may move to in the future. For we do not expect that you shall want to spend the rest of your lives here. One day you might marry and your man take you off elsewhere, or you might be offered a position as head cook somewhere. Who knows what the future may bring. My own life has changed in directions I never even dreamed of. A year ago I was trying to feed a family and keep out of the way of a bandit!

“I will be asking each of you why you want to join us, how you heard of us, what makes you think you would be able to contribute to us. I will give you some time to think about that, starting from the left, my left, with Josian. I do NOT expect any of you to tell me, us, what you THINK we want to hear. We NEED to know the truth, the exact truth. For only then can we decide if you shall fit in or not. In the meantime, do either of you others have any questions?”

“Yes, Mistress Julina, if you please?”


“I am somewhat confused. You say that you are the instigator of all this. You are asking us questions. We require your approval to be accepted. And yet you also say that Mistress Kellonika is in charge?”

“That's a fair question, Brenna. You should think of it as follows: Until yesterday, I was indeed in charge. From today, Kelly – Mistress Kellonika – is. This is because I have another few businesses to run and can no longer devote as much time to just this one as I have been able to in the past. And this job requires long bells and tiring conditions, so I regret I am no longer able to contribute a full person’s amount.

“I retain the overall view, Bailiss Michet retains the overall permissions for this is her house after all. She takes in all the money, she pays all the bills and she allocates to us that which we shall be paid. We leaders get more than you juniors, of course. But as you improve, so shall your coin portion. Kelly is now responsible for the day to day running. Which reminds me - there is also another entity from which you shall require permission to work here. The Assembly of this town!”

I paused for the inevitable gasps of surprise, which I was totally unsurprised to receive. I raised a hand to once again gain a silence so that I could answer the question that was clearly written on each of their faces.

“For our dining room is also their Assembly meeting room. Before you are allowed unsupervised access to the Dining Room, as we consider it, but which they consider to be their Meeting Room, then you shall require the permission of the Assembly. It should come as no surprise that they listen to Kelly, myself and Em – er, that is Bailiss Michet – when considering granting their permissions.”

I looked keenly at them as they absorbed this new information, but then I had to look away, for the door had opened and two people came in.

“Surtree! Thank you for being so prompt! I assume Mistress Michet, our Bailiss, showed you where I could be found, else why should she too have come with you? But right now I need to concentrate on what I have just started so would beg of you to stand or sit over there in that corner and not interrupt until I have finished this task. You're welcome to listen. I deem you will learn something. I promise I shall get to you very soon.”

I turned to the other and said: “Em, you could not have come at a better time. I trust you have a hand of moments? These three are potential newcomers to our team and would require your approval before Kelly takes them on.”

Her eyebrows raised but she nodded to me to confirm she had the time, and I motioned to Josian to start talking.

“Er, let me see, what was it you wanted to know?”

I would have been annoyed at any other time, for my directions had been quite clear; however, I recognised this was just a normal ploy to gain a little time now the circumstances had just changed once more. So I gave her the benefit of any doubt. This time.

I just looked quizzically at her which made her swallow and hurry on: “I have heard of the reputation of this place and had also heard that 'twas run by young women, which, after seeing the example given us by Milady last year, made me more determined to do something with myself. My father, in an attempt to do what he calls 'save' me, has kept me virtually locked up in my own bedroom. Sure, I can go out on various commissions as long as I am with my mother and/or sister, but ever since I have got to an age when, as Father says 'boys will notice me', he has been most strict.

“There is much talk in the Town of how much you, Mistress Julina, have contributed and you even have one of those Park things named after you – frankly, you have become one of my heroines. I know I am capable for Mama tells me so frequently. And my family all approve of my cooking abilities. And then the other day, in the street, we met Paivi, a girl I have known, but not closely, for nearly all my life. She is so much different since she started working here and even her strict father now approves of her doing so. So when she suggested I apply, Mama told me I should. And here I am. If Paivi, and all you others can do it, then so can I!”

A little unfairly, but deliberately, I replied: “So you are only here because your mother wants you to be?”

“No, no. I want to make something else of my life. I am here because my mother approves, not because she is pushing me in some way.”

Em then asked a question, which at first seemed very strange: “So what is the view from your window?”

We all, myself included, looked a little blank, so she explained a little deeper: “Your father kept you in your room, you say. What future did you see for yourself as you were in that room? Did you look out of your window and wish and hope? Or did you feel driven to find a way to join the world outside your window?”

“Oh! I understand now. I have become determined to do something, or somethings, like Julina has, and I have become determined to learn things like Julina can teach. And I love helping Mama with the cooking, so I thought I would try to start here. It is after all the best.”

Kelly then threw in a question: “Learn things? Can you read, write, number? Or did your father keep you away from the lessons that Julina and others have been giving?”

“Oh no! Mama and I have been to many of the lessons. Writing is still awkward, but we are getting so much better at reading now.”

Eye-speak between Kelly, Em and I agreed that at least she could start with us. If what she said was true, and her voice was most convincing, then we had a keen student on our hands.

And so it went with the other two as well. They were all smiles as we sent them to their homes, with instructions to return in the morning, at the second bell.

Whereupon I could turn to Surtree even as Em left us once more, telling us she was going to the Claw to continue to welcome the Royals – she was an Assembly Member after all.

“Well, young Surtree, what news?”

“Mistress Yanda sends her regrets but she is full, however, Master Graber was there when I asked the Mistress, and he immediately said you could use a corner of the Miners' Hall. He sent an urchin up there to get it arranged.”

At that point, he blushed deeply, which made Kelly and I wonder; we both said “And?” at the same time.

He squirmed a little. “Master Graber called for a brief silence, and then made me announce that you would be up at the Miners' Hall in half a bell, maybe just a little longer, should any wish to meet with you. Mistresses, I have never spoken aloud to so many people in my life. I was terrified.

“Most of those there had just been gawping at the arrival of Prince Keren and were discussing the lack of his wife. Apparently, the King has sent her on an urgent mission to somewhere, although I deem I heard hands and hands of different destinations. And I must remember this was in the Bell, not the Claw, where the Prince and his party have gathered first, so I don't know quite what to believe. However, I do know that you are expected up at the Miners' Hall.”

“Maker! Thank you Surtree, you have done well. Now wait here for a moment or two please, I have had another idea and I deem you could be of assistance. But then I will need you to rush about taking messages to various people and places. … Surtree, I will hire you for the next week, I deem. Yes, that shall be the thing ... Actually, Surtree, please go and find the three girls and tell them to attend me here in five moments, not a heartbeat sooner, and you stay with them until then. Kelly and I have something very private to discuss.”

The lad scurried off with a broad grin on his face, his fingers waving a sort of salute in the air.

I drew Kelly close and used my quietest tones: “What passed with Venket this morning? Did Berdon and Bettayla help in any way? Venket seemed more relaxed when I got back!”

She replied equally quietly: “Em and Kassama informed me first thing of her problem, and Berdon and his wife did indeed help. They are quick to think and quick to come up with a convincing playacting scenario. To cut it short, Kassama sent Venket up to their room on some pretext or other and they had their backs turned to the door when she got there. They were talking about men who would be women they knew down in Tranidor and Venket heard their words as if they were a continuance of an already established conversation. Without directly saying anything, they let poor Venket know that she was not alone, that there were others like her around in this country. And somehow they let it be known that they were available for talking to about it, for that is what Venket did just before the Royal Visitors arrived.”

“Who knows? And does Venket know who all knows?”

“Kassama, Em, You, Me, Berdon, Bettayla all know. As far as I know, Venket only knows about B and B.”

“Excellent! Thanks for the information. I am a little relieved. We shall have to make Venket more and more relaxed as the days go by. That needs to be thought about in the back of our heads. But I am pressed for now, so we must move on. Next I deem I must needs tell you and the three 'new' girls – we are going to have to find another word for them, now we have three 'new new' girls! Anyway, I have had an idea but you need also to approve of it, so I need to get the girls in now – I am thinking particularly of Paivi, but maybe you have ideas for improvements.”

“Very well. I am intrigued. I shall go and beckon them in. You have been a lot less than your original hand of moments!”

And so we six gathered again, Surtree with the three 'new' girls, Kelly and I.

“Right all, I must be swift, as you are all aware. Today I have been over to the Artisans' Area for a major change to Blackstone and its surroundings. For I have been commissioned by the Assembly to build and run an inn and/or restaurant over there.”

All of them except Surtree straightened in surprise. Kelly mouthed an 'Oh' at me, but I grinned for I had not got yet to my surprise. I was looking forward to their faces when I did eventually get there. For the heartbeat I decided to let them think the surprises were over.

“Surtree can confirm. For he was with me, along with Gyth and Master Pyor. He has seen us stake out the land claim for the place where that inn shall be built. Between us we established that there is a requirement for an eatery over there. This is because, currently, the workers either have to take small food with them of a morning, or they have to travel back to Town to eat.”

I paused, but they thought I was finished and piled in with exclamations of wonder and delight. I held up my hand again for silence. Kelly of course knew me best and could see my twinkling eyes, so she knew immediately there was more to come. The others caught on quite rapidly after that and a silence fell as they eagerly awaited my continuance.

“One of the major things that had come up was of course the best spot for such a building, and I discussed it with Master Brydas and several others over there. The final site was actually the best compromise we could come up with, and the workers at the end nearest the head of the valley will be torn as to which is nearer – Town or the new place, which I am minded suddenly to call The Stoop, for 'tis near the junction of the Stone Sea Road and the Loop Road; Stone and Loop; Stoop.

“But I digress. It occurred to me that we here in the Salon are the town's leaders in what has become one of the most popular foodstuffs recently – and Paivi is our expert. Yes, I mean the peet-zers.”

I could see their brains working and 'twas Paivi and Surtree who got there first. They were about to say something when I added: “Lunches only!”

Paivi nodded and then went back to thinking. Venket looked puzzled, Kelly expectant as she knew I had more to say. Then Frowka's eyes widened and I nodded encouragingly to her.

She began hesitantly. “So … er … we could open another restaurant … just for lunches … would that be just for peet-zers?”

“I think principally yes, but maybe pies and pastries too. Easy things we can prepare in advance. And easy things for the customers to consume. HOWEVER ...”

They stopped their chatter again and once more I had their full attention.

“... I deem we do not need a full building over there. The rains will be a bit of a trial, of course, but outside of that, and except for the deepest depths of winter, the peet-zers can be eaten outside. Maybe have a tarpaulin for a roof that spreads quite wide, just like the new Auction Shed up at the Market Place which made me think of this, with a few tables and benches underneath the shelter maybe. For that could be erected in just a few hands of moments, and can be folded down and rolled up again after use.

“And we would only need to use it at lunch time. The only permanent thing we would need over there is an oven for making the peet-zers, and for brewing water for pel. Maybe some plates and knives, but most seem to eat the peet-zers with their hands. So other things we serve could be, as I said, pies and pastries and so on, maybe even honeycakes, all things that can be held in the hand. Dirty plates could be brought back here for washing up later.

“The fresh ingredients would be sliced and prepared here, the dough balls too, and so on, and then carted over there in buckets. If this zeer thing works as I hope, then we will have somewhere cool to store the food. Whoever is on duty there can then make the peet-zers to order.”

This time, my pause was for more thought.

“Hmmm. Let me see. What sort of timings are we thinking about? Load up a cart here, drive over there, one or two of you, fire up the oven which will take half a bell to get hot enough so in the meantime set up a cooking table, draw across the roofing and set out the eating tables and benches. Say a bell for lunch service, half a bell to strike the camp so to speak, half a bell back here. Say three bells in all. What think you all?”

There was a pause before they all started clapping.

This was a reaction I had not anticipated. And it made me blush.

“Now I would recommend Paivi be the one to set this all up, but 'twould be too much to expect her to just spend all of her time a-peet-zering for she must needs learn other things too, over here. So I propose that she and young Surtree here go over there first thing in the morning to try to identify a good site. But say nothing to anyone over there just yet. Then come back here to report if you have found anything sensible, and think how to handle it and so on. Is that a good idea?”

“With the greatest of respect, why Surtree, he is a mere lad?” asked Frowka.

Based on my experiences of the lad earlier that day and the questions he had asked and so on, I made a sudden decision there and then. I would employ Surtree permanently.

“I have employed Surtree as my assistant in various matters, this being one of them. 'Twas originally for this week, but his behaviour, his willingness and his intelligent questions have convinced me to make it permanent. Just like you three are being rewarded for your progress and your contributions, then Surtree too shall be. Gyth and Master Pyor are the only other two who know anything about this, and they shall not be available to show Paivi tomorrow, for they are going downvalley, the Master permanently, Gyth for a number of weeks. So that leaves just myself and Surtree. And I cannot do so in the morning, I have many other things to deal with then. And we cannot afford to let someone else jump in with this opportunity.”

“I accept the idea,” said Paivi with an excited laugh.

And Surtree was grinning broadly whilst at the same time looking a little shocked that suddenly he had a real job, a coin-earning form of employment.

I turned to him and said: “Right, I shall arrange a bac for you both to pick you up here at the second bell. Your job is to guide Paivi to the place, point out areas we rejected, others we considered and so on, and our reasons for coming to our decisions. Show her the Stoop as well, so she can get an idea for the distances those over there shall have to cover. But remember that it is Paivi who is in charge, your role is to advise her, as a part of the team she heads. Clear? You heard most of our discussions today and you have shown an ability to take an idea and refine it, so I trust you to help her.”

He nodded, so I continued: “Now I need you to run and tell the following people that the new venue for my meetings this afternoon is in the Miners' Hall ...”

He listened to my list, repeated it faithfully and then dashed out.

Then it was the turn of the girl to receive her instructions: “... and do not go too far away, for the farther away you go, the more time it will take each day. But be far enough away to provide a sensible service to those over there. Also keep a sensible distance from the Stoop, so get Surtree to show you where that shall be. Ask Surtree for anything he might be able to contribute and use him to bounce ideas off. He has a brain and will I'm sure use it sensibly. Remember not to choose a place that might flood in the rains – Surtree learnt much about that today. I expect you two to form a team to make recommendations to Kelly and I this time tomorrow.”

“Very well, Julina. Thank you for your faith in me.”

“Excellent. Do your best. No-one can expect anything else.

“Now you two, Venket and Frowka, you are going to have to sort some things out amongst yourselves. You are both going to be busy with some extra tasks too. As you both know, Molly and Gyth are no longer with us, although Gyth will return, I expect, in a few weeks' time. So Kelly will need to rely upon you two and upon Kords, with Kassama's help as well.

“Now, you two have been most recently through the training we gave you to get you started, so you two are going to be expected to bring Dravna, Brenna and Josian into a state of being helpful and productive just as soon as they can be. Kelly will help you of course, but use your recent experience to guide you. With so few of us here, and with an expanding workload, this entire business is relying on you two to bring the others along. Can we in fact so rely upon you both?”

The two swallowed somewhat but their backs stiffened as they replied together: “Absolutely!”

“Then we shall trust you to do so.”

There was a lot of emotion sloshing around just then.

Then Kelly got practical.

“'Lina, you must dash up to the Miners' for your follow-up interviews as soon as you may. The rest of you need to get busy. Kords is also due any heartbeat, thank the Maker, and we have two full sittings this e'en, just three or four spare places in all, so we have little time to spare. I deem I shall send an urchin to see if little Kissa is also available. Let's go! Venket, I would like you to ...”

Kelly showed again why she was the right one to take over the day to day running from me. I turned on my heel and walked out, surreptitiously wiping away a little tear as I went.

When I reached Main Street, I turned uphill and headed up to make a start on clearing the backlog of tasks I had piling up on me. I needed to follow up yesterday's broad interviews with some that were far more detailed. I would of course have liked to go down to the Claw and be nosy and, yes, gawpy, but I simply could not afford the time. My head did turn however in that direction.

“Maker!” I exclaimed aloud and stopped in my tracks.

There, coming up the road towards me, but obviously not coming to see me in particular, was Em escorting two men and with two females alongside.

Em needed no introduction, which goes without saying.

However, the two females were strangers to me, but were armed and accoutred as guards! In whatever colours they were wearing, NOT Her Highness', but I just knew they had recently arrived with the Royals.

The male on the left (as I looked at them) was likewise a stranger. He was tall, not overweight in any way and he too was in uniform, but I again knew not enough to be certain just what those particular colours meant. His gait and posture would have told even a blind man that he was a soldier.

The final member of this group, was the second male. He saw me staring. His face split into a huge grin. He waved.

It was Subrish!

I squealed and ran down to meet them, calling his name as I went. And caring not that I was going away from where I should be. We met halfway between Em's and the Claw.

“Subrish! Subrish! You chose to come up here after all. Do you stay long? Where shall … oh at Epp’s of course!”

The other man looked me up and down and then peered into my face, a frown writ large across his own.

Then his brow cleared: “Ah yes, Subrish! The young lady in the wagon when you challenged that Dschorg as we entered Tranidor. Difficult to recognise without the rain clothing.”

By this time, Em was ready with the formal introductions and I met Quadrant Ponstib properly for the first time. I learnt that he had volunteered to leave the Duke’s guard so that he could take over as the first Quadrant up here. It seemed that promotion was difficult down in Dekarran, and that was for an apparently not uncommon reason. He was overdue his advancement but down there there was nowhere to promote him to, all such ranks being already filled, and with relatively youthful incumbents. Experienced leaders were required up here to handle the massive expansion that was planned, and it seemed that his and the town’s mutual problems could be at least partway solved by this simple transfer.

The two female guards – I confess I was even then still amazed at that – were named Gowdet and Tanita; they wore Palace colours, they explained. Apparently, there was now an entire File of women in the Palace Guard, these two having been in the second intake of four; another two had joined a month after them. There had been one intake of four initially, two of whom had actually fought with Subrish, I knew. They did say that it was rare indeed when the entire File was together, for they seemed to be lent out in pairs to various expeditions or exercises.

“The Quadrant requires Blackstone Colours as soon as he may so I was taking him here …” she indicated the Watch Complex “… to ask Haka if she could manage the task. Gowdet and Tanita are with me to learn a little of the town, to gather their bearings so to speak. Also the Quadrant shall take my last room until he finds something for himself. My urchin I sent told me that Kelly has agreed to fit him in into the second sitting.”

She then turned to him and spoke directly: “Quadrant, that house from which Julina emerged is mine. You shall be billeted there. 'Tis also the best restaurant in North Palarand. So your dinner this night shall be one of the best you have ever had. As a welcome, the cost to you for tonight shall be nothing for the food. What you drink, however, must be from your own purse.”

“I thank you most heartedly, Mistress Michet.”

Just then we all heard much bellowing and shouting from inside the Watch block.

Gowdet and Tanita were quick to draw their weapons, while Ponstib put his hand on his own hilt. Subrish was sweet, actually, as he gathered me in one arm to protect me. Both he and Ponstib had eyes that were thoughtfully scanning everywhere, even behind us whilst the two girl guards were concentrating upon the source of the noise.

There were more loud grunts and groans from within until suddenly there came a high-pitched whimper – followed by a silence.

Em and I looked at each other whilst the others looked confused. Not to say that Em and I weren't confused, that is. We were. But we had the advantage of knowing that building's purpose.

A hand of heartbeats went by and then the Watch House door opened and Suril emerged, gently closing the door behind him.

When he achieved a position outside far enough away from the building but still out of sight of the recently upgraded windows, he put his head back and silently howled to the skies whilst shaking his right hand up and down. He even jumped up and down a few times. All silently.

This strange activity ceased abruptly when I called : “Suril! 'Tis a bright afternoon. Are you well? We have visitors for your wife. Allow me to present Captain Subrish of the Forguland Military Whatsits, Quadrant Ponstib previously from the Dekarran Garrison but now of Blackstone County forces, whatever they are to be called, and Guardswomen Gowdet and Tanita of the Palace Guard. All, this is Senior Deputy Suril, second in command of our Watch here in town.”

There were murmurs of greeting all around and then Em and I asked Suril what had been going on. We could all see Suril think rapidly even as he said: “Town business really. Let me see how best to say it. Errm … the Venk business. “ We both reacted as we realised what he really meant, but was being discreet. “Venk's father has been beating the mother and child. Quite severely.

“He is blaming his offspring's … unusual behaviour … for his actions, claiming that as an excuse for his bullying.”

Em and I realised that the group of those in the know about Venket had now been increased further.

“Now he has vigorously resisted arrest and Fedren and I have both been injured. Normally my whispering does the trick but this time we had to get physical. I hurt my hand hitting him, but we cannot let him know. He MUST believe that he is bested by us. If he even thinks he has some advantage, however small, our task will be that much harder. He is such a person.

“His wife is now crippled for life; the healers, who also know everything about this case, can do nothing for the poor woman, it has been too long since the injury. I reckons as how this shall be a minimum of 5 years on a galley or treadmill or whatever, but as we know, a trial must be undertaken. My worry is that when all the facts are made public, then more suffering will occur.” He held Em's and my eyes, so we knew he was worried about Venket's future.

Another problem for us to think about.

“Now, you wanted our Haka. She's round the back with the little 'uns, in the house. She'll be right pleased to see you, I know. Particularly you, 'Lina.”

“Regretfully I am late for an appointment and must dash. But Em will take them round.” I turned to the others. “Excuse me all, I really must scurry, I have hands of people awaiting upon me. Subrish, we shall meet later, I deem.”

With that, I went once more on my way uphill, the farewells from the little party ringing in the air behind me.

… … …

It brings little to describe in detail all that went on in my talks in the Miners' Hall, but suffice it to say I found people willing to wait a few weeks before starting as housekeepers in the three places for which I now had to find staff – The Stoop, The Consociation and what had now become the Frolicsome Frayen, rather than the Frolicking Frayen. Hey! It wasn't built yet, so it didn't really matter – mayhap it shall end up being the Dancing Dranakh or the Gyrating Gavakhan! The Ganifil and Gallin? The Dozy Dooclor? Whatever.

I also found some people who might be prepared to staff the kitchens of the various projects, but that was of course much further into the future, so I just promised to keep them in mind when the time came.

So I was rushing again back down to Em's to help with the evening meals preparation, but had to go to the Claw first to arrange a bac for Paivi and Surtree on the morrow, when I met another small group coming up the Main Street, led by Master Bezan. Even as we neared each other, my eyes were scanning the group of ten people in all.

Apart from Master B, there were:

  • Countess Merizel and what seemed to be three maids, one of whom looked familiar somehow
  • A young woman who also seemed strangely familiar
  • Two young guardsmen in the Princess' colours; I rubbed my eyes for they too seemed familiar
  • Two of those Einnlander guards in what I could now recognise as the Palace colours

I was torn at which of these characters to look at first, though.

Milady Merizel was smiling kindly at me, but the other young woman and the two young guardsmen were as well, as was one of the maids. These last four, as I said, were familiar to me and yet not.

But my brain refused to dwell on that problem because my eyes were dragged, with a most peculiar feeling in my tummy, to one of those Einnlander guards. It was that Jerk fellow. It took all of my will power to drag my eyes away when their leader began talking.

“Good afternoon, Mistress Julina,” began Bezan. “You know I believe the Countess Merizel? She has been telling me of the correspondence the two of you have maintained since she was last here. These two you will of course recognise as Guardsmen Tedenis and Briswin, and Mistress Senidet as well, I deem. Alongside the Countess is another former resident of Blackstone, the Countess' assistant Lanilla. These two maids are Tandra and Geska, and the two unusual guards are Jerk and Maarku, they are ...”

“Of Einnlander origin but are in the Palace Guard now,” I interrupted, accurately to Milady's and Bezan's surprise. “Milady, Countess rather, it is a great honour to meet you once more and I thank you for the continued support and indeed help that your letters have afforded me,” I said as I dropped a formal curtsey to her.

“Milady is fine, Julina!” she said, inclining her head to allow me to continue to greet the others.

“As for the rest of you I can scarce believe how you have all changed in such a short time.

“Lanilla, you used to be so pale and skinny, but you have now developed into, if I might say it, a beautiful woman now you have filled out. You have noticeable curves, so much so that I confess I feel pangs of jealousy. I deem the food downvalley must be good for you.

“Senidet, you too are looking wonderful, married life obviously agrees with you.

“And your man here! Well Ted, you have grown up and Briswin too.

“I am delighted to see you all again.”

Only then did I allow myself to look at the other two men.

Jerk's eyes were boring into mine, it seemed. I never managed to look at that Maarku.

I again forced myself to drag my eyes back to the others as I tried desperately to collect my wits.

“Tandra and Geska, welcome to Blackstone,” I managed to stammer.

But I was drowning in a whirlpool of emotions, which is probably what all the others were smiling about. Which in turn was all the more embarrassing.

It was Ted who began to rescue me. “Julina - Bris and I, well I have to report we've seen battle. It is not pretty. We are no longer the simple youths we were. We have grown up. And it seems to us that you too have developed over the intervening months. You have blossomed in the looks department and yet also seem … seem … efficiently busy, I deem.”

“Just so, you always had a wise head but there is more now. You seem somehow like a leader or something,” added in Senidet.

“Oh yes,” said Bezan heartily. “The things that Julina has done are really quite magnificent. Why recently she has found a simple method of keeping things cool that she taken out an open Exclusivity Licence on, for she obtained it from a traveller from Chaarn. That reminds me, Julina. Have you read that letter? I am awaiting the suggestions of the sands.”

“Oh Bezan, I had forgotten all about it, I have been that busy.”

“I'm not surprised, I confess. Quite how you keep going with all your enterprises and yet still have such wonderfully simple ideas, I shall never ...”

I was saved from any further embarrassment when a little figure rushed up to us from down the hill and barged into our conversation by piping in a shrill and nervous way to the Countess: “Are you the Cuntiss Mezireel?”

Everyone smiled.

Everyone that is, except me. I was so embarrassed by the interruption, and a little bit annoyed. Which may seem strange to you, for I just said I was being saved from further embarrassment.

This was however another type of embarrassment and so I felt I needed to tell this impetuous lad off, and quite strongly.

But before I could say anything, the Countess said: “Indeed I am, young man. Well found. I deem you have a message for me?”

The lad took a deep breath, half closed his eyes and spouted all in one go, as though there was no punctuation: “Mistress Jent says Community Hall well appointed. She and her Odd Guard will distribute boxes and chests. Space for all, including Count Halldrin. Civilians and Wagoneers not. Some guards will need to find other beds.”

The lad was about to dash away again when I finally yelled at him, which made him look round at the rest of the people gathered there. His face drained of all its colour when he saw me.

“I was just urchining, 'Lina. Papa said I could.” He was most defensive in that statement. “And you're not my mother any more anyway,” he added, sullenly and with a pout. He was certain I was about to tell him off, particularly embarrassing to him in front of all these strangers.

I smiled an embarrassed apology at everyone there.

I realised that we could have a large problem here if I let it get out of hand, so I made sure I used only the most gentle of tones: “Dear 'Kin. If you want to be a good urchin, then you really should wait to see if the person to whom you have just delivered your message wishes to send a reply or needs you for anything else. You will gain much more coin that way, little brother.

“And now, I'm sorry but I do have to tell you off ever so slightly, in that I need to give you another tip or two as far as your 'urchining' goes.

“First, when you address a high-born lady like this, you should always call her 'Milady'. Or 'Your Grace' if she's the wife of a Duke. Or 'Your Highness' if she's a Princess or a Queen.

“Second, you should NEVER just jump in on a conversation as you just did. I know you were nervous as you are just a starting urchin, but you need to consider your manners; manners which I have tried to teach you your entire life. You should wait for an acknowledgement of your presence. It's very like the table manners we employ at home. You wait until you are spoken to, or there is otherwise some indication that you may speak.

“Third, if you are passing on a verbal message like you just did, then do it slowly and clearly. You must admit you just babbled it out just now. How many times have I told you not to babble at home, eh? This is the reason why. You are talking to other grown-ups now, so just calm down. All right, sweetie?”

I think he was surprised when I didn't tell him off any more strongly than that.

And then he remembered that I really shouldn't call him 'sweetie' in public, so he tried to get huffy. I gave him the Glare, a toned-down version and then I grinned. He couldn't help but grin back and his little face lit up which I knew stirred the hearts of all the females around who found it so cute.

“So Kin was it? Your name that is?”

He nodded, then added: “Kordulkin, actually... Milady.”

“Could you tell me please if Mistress Jenet send this message to someone else? Someone other than me?” The Countess smiled down at him in a very friendly manner.

“Yes, she did … Milady.” His eyes jerked again to me when he remembered to address her properly. “It was to Commander Fettran in the Claw who sent me up here with the same message for you.”

She was about to say something else, when 'Kin added: “Oh yes. And the Commander said to say he confirms home bills for the lads, whatever that means.”

“Was the word perhaps 'billets'?”

“Oh yeah. That was it.”

I coughed pointedly.

“Milady,” he added hastily. “Oh, and that they were off duty until first Bell up at the Community Hall. I just remembered that bit. Milady.”

We all laughed at that, Jerk's laugh causing me more internal ructions. The Countess nodded to Lanilla who slipped out a coin and pressed it into 'Kin's hand. Then 'Kin was sent away again, and I waved at him as he went, his little eyes still searching mine for approval. Approval which I beamed at him and he grinned as he scampered off.

Then I remembered something.

“'Kin! 'Kin! Come back. There is another message for you to take.”

He screeched to a halt and bounded back to us, looking up at the Countess expectantly.

She laughed: “Not I, young man. Not I. I deem it is your sister this time.”

He swung round to me.

“So is it,” I confirmed. “Please find Goodman Mutab, or Goodman Kulyer down at the Claw, if not, then Mistress Sukhana. Tell them I need a bac for the morning until at least noon, from the second Bell, at Em's.”

“Righty ho!”

“Errrm. All the best urchins repeat the message to show that they have understood. Why don't you practice doing that with me, now?”

He rolled his eyes and sighed.

But he did as I suggested: “Mutab or Kulyer in the Claw – if not, then Sookie. 'Lina needs a bac at Em's for the entire morning, from second Bell until at least noon.”

He turned to go, but I still had something to say: “No! Hold! You are an urchin now, so collect your coin. You aren't my brother any more, for this matter, you are an urchin. So here, take this.”

His eyes widened, and he took the coin gently from my fingers. The Countess gently suggested: “I deem 'twould be best to always thank your patrons, young 'Kin!”

“Thank you, 'Lina.”

“Thank YOU, urchin!”

And so it was that I spent a few moments more chatting with the group before I made it back to the Salon's kitchen. We started with the topic of keeping things cold, and they told me they had these marvellous machines just being developed that could cool things down – they called them fridges. Senidet was most enthusiastic about them, and explained, in far too much technical detail for me to grasp, that they were being tested even as we spoke, and that we could expect them to be efficiently workable and available within a hand of years.

All driven by something called 'Lectrix' it sounded like.

But I could not stay and chat too long, I was busy and they were off to see their respective families. I hugged Senidet and Lanilla and welcomed them and the boys back to their home town.

Then I made it finally to the kitchens of the Salon, which was a mass of steam, and working bodies and all that. I busied myself there and tried not to think too much about what had been happening to my insides whilst I had been conversing out there.

I wasn't very successful. Well, not at first.

Eventually the routines and the rush, the hecticity of it all, made me forget. Plus all the other thoughts I had racing through my head about Meglina and Blackstone Wagons. Plus the thoughts I tried to remember, but then realised I would have to write down, of things that should be taught once the Consociation started up properly.

The dinner appeared to go smoothly and we had much in our Thank-you Pot at the end of it all.

So it was that our day came to an end.

Or neared it anyway.

Ponstib was the last to rise from table and head off to his bed. No sooner had he gone than we started closing things down and so on; Kelly, I and Kassama. Then Ponstib reappeared with a dented and well-worn drinking vessel and a small pouch of herbs and leaves.

“May I request some hot water? I like always to have this particular infusion before I retire of a night.”

“Of course, Quadrant, it will be but a heartbeat. We have yet to bank the fires.”

We made his infusion for him as he waited, talking generalities as we did so. He made sure we didn't have to cease our activities and waved us to continue working as we talked. He promised to keep out of the way. We scurried here and there, putting things away, the final washing and drying, the banking of the fires.

But all of it that night was overlaid by something new.

Soon after pouring the water over his leaves and herbs, the kitchen was filled with a wonderful aroma, one I had not scented before. None of us had so far wished to embarrass him by asking too many personal questions, but I knew that I would have to find out what this particular concoction was.

So I decided to just tackle the subject head on so to speak: “Quadrant Ponstib, the aromas of that infusion are particularly seductive. Might I enquire what it is?”

“'Tis no real secret, Mistress Julina, many know of it. But 'tis not found in very many places. 'Tis from Dekarran Castle, well a particular part anyway, but I understand is not widely available outside. We name it ...”

“Whistler's Whetstone!”

We swung round as Em came in and completed his statement for him. His eyebrows rose in surprise.

“Mistress Michet, may I ask how you know that name? 'Tis a name, I believed, to be from the Dekarran barracks, and not widely bandied about.”

“Indeed, Quadrant! It is a fair while since I smelled that. It evokes so many memories. Might I perchance steal a mugful of that. I would fain rekindle my memories with a taste of it, as well as that smell. Oh how it takes me back to those barracks.”

“YOU were in those barracks? But how? When?”

“A complicated story, Quadrant, one that mayhap will be told as we share our Whetstones?”

They were still talking about the Dekarran Garrison when the three of us left a bell or so later. I doubt they noticed us go.

'Twas midnight as I reached my bedroom – a long and full day indeed.

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