Julina of Blackstone - 078 - Dedicated Followers of Fashion

Supervisors old and new, official and unofficial

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

078 – Dedicated Followers of Fashion


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
078 – Dedicated Followers of Fashion

Merry had told Davvy and I quite a lot of information about the Royal Party, some of which she emphasised we were not to bandy about to the general public, for security reasons. She reminded us pointedly what had happened when Her Highness left here last time. But she was content to describe some of their activities and some of the events that had occurred.

What initially surprised us both was that, actually, the Royal Party was already markedly reduced.

Just after the last Assembly meeting, the one at which Davvy had made her suggestion, Count Terinar (Terry she named him of course, as ’twas just between the three of us) and four guardsmen had departed along with the Count Haldren from Vardenale and his two mining experts, Boroladin and Tikaram. Those eight men had travelled down to Brayview in company with Yarling and two of his aides. From there, they all headed up the Chaarn road to explore Ptuvilend in more depth of detail. With a basis of eleven men in the party then, of course, a wagon was required to accompany them, with a driver and two wagon company guards. So all this meant that fourteen men had departed Blackstone virtually unnoticed! I was pleased to note that Blackstone Wagons had secured that contract.

Furthermore, there was something which I myself found even more surprising than the foregoing, which was that Prince Torulf, with all the remaining mobile Einnlander guards plus two others, would leave on the morrow morning, also headed to Ptuvilend; but they were going to forge a path down from the crest at the end of Blackstone Vale. Being used to mountainous regions, the Prince had declared that he and his men could easily broaden and otherwise develop the wildlife track (the one that had been seen from the top) into a passage that could be used safely by frayen riders, thus enabling a shortcut, admittedly somewhat restricted, from Ptuvilend to Blackstone; a shortcut which should save about a day’s travel when compared with going via Brayview.

On top of all that, Captain Subrish and two of his men would accompany this small party to not only give assistance, but also better to learn the lie of the land.

And going along with them would also be a Journeyman Joiner and two assistants, as those earlier observations from above had suggested strongly that there was a suitable ledge upon which to construct a mountain hut – this would provide some crude shelter to travellers along the route, intended for use only in emergencies; it would be stocked with firewood and long-lasting dried foodstuffs just like any other mountain hut. The very infrequent travellers were expected to replenish any stocks they used, if ’twere at all possible. Naturally, such huts were unoccupied more or less on a permanent basis. Someone would be allocated the task of periodically checking the hut for its stocks and its maintenance. I briefly wondered if that track would also come under the heading of ‘roads’ that Papa and his department would eventually be responsible for. Now that was interesting. I knew of several other huts dotted around, of which I had heard tales during my life…

I dragged my thoughts back to the more immediate subject matter of our conversation after a subtle dig in the ribs from Davvy.

Both these reduced parties, the Count Terinar one and the Prince Torulf one, were to meet with the main Royal Party at Brayview in a twelvenight’s time.

The third topic which was surprising in its way was that ‘my’ Djerk (although that word ‘my’ was by then increasingly inaccurate), even though he was not considered fully mobile at this moment in time, was to be sent down to Brayview a few days into the future, spending a night at the Forest Roadhouse on the way, and inspecting Bezlet if time and weather permitted. This was so that he could then organise and co-ordinate the accommodation for all those three diverse parties to come together at Brayview before moving on downvalley in the one large group.

A tiny place like Brayview would be strained by such a large party descending upon them, as had been seen on their way up to us. Particularly with such little notice as they had had. It was deemed sensible to be a little more organised this time around, and with Djerk ‘available’ so as to speak, they all felt this was a rather neat solution.

Djerk would have about a week in all to get everything arranged, a week in which, of course, he would continue to recuperate, with the aim of being back to full strength before they all left Brayview. He was walking already, but his muscles needed to be strengthened to get back to his full capacity. Two or three wagons with drivers and wagon guards (as opposed to military guards) would travel down with him, being laden with some of the Royal Party’s belongings that would no longer be required up here for their last week or so; things like Count Terinar’s belongings, Prince Torulf’s as well and our Prince’s more formal attire, the gear and accoutrements of the guards who had been detailed to go on the ‘side trips’ and so on. With those wagons, there was an added advantage in that he, Djerk, would not need to be reliant upon the Shuttle.

We were sworn to secrecy about all these movements of men, wagons and animals, lest potential enemies somehow got to hear about them all. These arrangements were exactly what the big, current guards’ meeting was about over at the Barracks, and why Merry was walking around Town with no guards. Merry told Davvy and I not to mention anything to any of the guards at any time, for she realised she should not have told us at all, and ’twould be awkward for her if it got out. Her warning was just in time, for the two female guards came to find her not five moments – hold, not five minutes - later.

We chatted on for a further quarter bell during which time I explained about my Consociation of Cooks, which the Countess (with the guards there, we were back to being formal in our address) enthused about to a far greater extent than I thought it actually warranted. “Indeed, Mistress Julina, ’twould be a boon to travellers all over, for some roadside fare is pretty dire, I can tell you! If only some basic knowledge could be imparted to all the roadhouses, standards would soon improve.”

Even the guards were nodding in agreement with the Countess’ remarks. And the maids.

Our casually conversational meeting was eventually broken up by Kelly who required my help in the kitchens, so we parted; the Countess, her maids and the guards leaving by the back passage after checking the clock in the dining room. It was noticeable that they were all familiar with it. It still seemed so new to me, to us, however.

… … …

“And what is that thing there on the wall over to the side of you?”

“Father, ’tis a clock, a new sort of clock and it shows us the time rather than us having to hear the bells and keep track in our heads.”

Even though this was what seemed to be the millionth time that question had been asked this week, I was especially pleased to hear it at this particular juncture. Davvy would explain to her family, and also to the other diners, which would help her get used to public attention. I was doubly pleased as it happened, for it had come so early in the sitting, so service would be less interrupted.

I was not surprised by the events that immediately followed. As I hinted just now, and as had by now become usual, many other diners at neighbouring tables all paused and, those that needed to, turned to hear the explanation. I believe that actually that time only a pair of diners did not turn round and look at Davvy as I urged her to stand and explain to everyone. Her red face reminded me of myself not so long ago, before I somehow had become accustomed to being the centre of attention. When did THAT happen?

Included in her audience were also the diners seated at the table closest to the one occupied by Davvy and her parents; this was important to me as the diners at that closely neighbouring table were all from my family.

Yes, I had done some arranging that some have suggested might be able to be considered sneaky.

I had organised it so that Uncle Steef was seated with his back to Dilligas, Davvy’s father. Davvy was also dining in the Salon this evening rather than working, so they had a table for three as did my ‘lot’ - Papa, Swayga and Steef. Both the ‘three-er’ tables were up against a wall, so we weren’t wasting places since each of the little tables had only three open sides, so as to speak.

Uncle Steef used the question to turn round and look at Davvy as though he were really interested in the answer, but in all actuality, Senidet and Sigsten had already been down to the Roadhouse and installed one of these new clock things down there.

(They were busy now installing them at various other places up here in Town. I shall return to this subject a little later, though, since I must for now describe events in the Salon on that evening, an evening some four or so after the day the Countess had her little fall and had sprained her wrist. It was the night after I had taken my farewell of Djerk.

We spoke together up there in his room. We both understood finally what had happened to us and why each had reacted as they had. I kissed him one more time, his beard tickling me as I did so. His lips were as gentle as mine, and after that final contact, we both gently stroked the other’s cheek. I turned on my heel, raised a hand in farewell and left his room to go back down to the kitchens. Kassama was just passing as I came out, her arms full of bedding from one of the other rooms. She smiled at me and I smiled back. My eyes may have been just a little bit brighter with water than normal, and my smile may have been just that little bit wobblier, but otherwise my departure from Djerk was relatively painless. I suppose that I should tell you at this point that from that moment on, I never ever saw him again.)

But back to the events in the Salon.

I had discussed these in advance with Uncle Steef and also, to a certain extent, with Davvy. I didn’t want her to be too flustered and overact the surprise I required from her and her family. She was still quite self-conscious, but some advanced notification had been required. Fortunately, since nearly every diner had turned to look at her, her blushes and stammers and so on were put down to a nervousness of talking publicly to so many people, for which task she had risen to her feet and positioned herself below the clock.

“We call these two displays ‘dials’. This dial here shows us the time of day, or, as in this instance, night, in terms of our Bells. See here,” she pointed with her good arm, “this number tells us which was the last bell announcement, whilst this number here shows us the quarters as they come along. This final indicator shows a sun when it is daytime and a moon for when ’tis night, although most of us know how to look out of the window to glean THAT information.”

She flushed, but with pleasure, when all the diners laughed along with her. This reaction gave her more confidence which was noticeable to us all, particularly manifesting itself in both her voice and her bearing as she continued, after a brief pause, with a sparkling grin on her lips and a teasing note: “Now we all know that many things have changed since Her Highness came to Palarand ...”

Again, there was some good-hearted laughter and many smiles.

“… but some of the more important changes have been down in Palarand City amongst the Questors, as we used to call them. It appears that they require suddenly far more accuracy when it comes to times and timings. Our King has decided that we shall measure our time in a different way, in the same way as they do in Her Highness’ home lands.

“In both systems, the word ‘day’ is used to indicate a complete cycle of bells as well as the times when the sun is up. However, there exist two very large differences with their method when compared to our method. First of all, their larger unit of time within a day is called an ‘hour’ and their day is split up into twenty-four of them. So each hour is shorter than each of our bells, since there are more of them to fit into the one day. The second very important difference is that their day starts at midnight! Now that may seem at first...”

She raised her voice slightly to continue over the inevitable gasps of surprise from those to whom this was all new, but her explanation of it all was precise, detailed and readily graspable by all there. The whole thing took at most ten thingies, what’s-its, not moments, ah yes, minutes. She sat down once more to great applause and received effulgent praise and thanks from everyone; her cheeks were burning but her eyes were dancing with pride, a pride matched by her parents, whose faces were also tinged with a touch of awe. They could not believe the change in their daughter. Nor the extent of her new-found knowledge.

With perfect timing, Steef tapped Dilligas on the shoulder. “How proud you must be of your talented daugh...” He broke off as Dilligas swung round to face him. “Hold! I know your face! From downvalley, I deem.”

Uncle fell silent again, his face making it obvious to all in the room that he was wracking his brains for the elusive memory. I confess that he acted as well as anyone in Berdon’s troupe. Even I was almost convinced, and I knew I had told him all the details he needed to know already!

Our unspoken objectives were met when Dilligas said: “Indeed, Master! ’Twas, I believe, something to do with barging.” He in his turn thought for a little while and then apparently just managed to beat Uncle to the moment: “Hold! Are you not Master Stiff?”

“Steef, if it pleases. And yes, it also comes back to me now. From the barging company we tried to start. D something. Diffident or Diligent, but yet neither???” He finished with a tone of enquiry.

“Dilligas, Master Steef. Yes, that were a sad business, were it not? I never did discover why all those bright hopes just crumbled.”

“’Twas the Count down in Tranidor that caused it!

“Milord, the Count Trosanar, took it upon himself to decide that he would require tribute from all traffic, including riverborne, that passed his town. When we bargers raised objections to this, he applied pressure to all of his neighbours to deny the building and use of wharves and warehouses, by threatening increased levies against their citizens if they wished to sell their goods in Tranidor and its markets. It all became far too expensive, in both time and coin, much of which was lost to the many of us who were funding the barging company. I must delightedly report now though that our Princess has since made him see the error of his ways, and we are once again developing a barging connection. We… Hold! I have just had a thought. What make you of yourself now? What brings you here to Blackstone?”

“Work, and the low taxes here! I would fain be waterborne again, but alas my family takes priority for I must feed them. My wife here, Talbet, has put up with much from me and I owe it to her to ensure she is as comfortable as I can make her, with what I can provide – for ’tis a man’s responsibility to provide for his family. And my daughter Davabet here is but recently employed...”

He broke off as Steef jumped in: “By my niece Julina, over there.”

“Your niece!?” exclaimed both Davvy’s parents at the same time.

“Indeed, my sister here, Mistress Swayga, is married now with Julina’s father. May I present them, if you please? This is Master Kordulen. And this Mistress Swayga. This is Master Dilligas and his wife, Mistress Talbet. You all already know young Davabet, of course.”

I tried to keep my face on the other diners for I had seen Talbet whip her head towards me suddenly, but I could NOT manage to not look at her swiftly.

Our eyes met.

I knew at that instant that she knew I had done some arranging of this meeting. I blushed and was grateful for a need to attend upon one of the tables.

… … …

The girls and I were clearing up, Davvy insisting upon helping, since she wanted to leave her father and Steef to thrash out some details about barging and the possibility of work there. Those two men and Mistress Talbet were the only ones still in the Dining Room. I had slyly managed to set an extra half-jug of wine on their table – to help the conversation you will understand. And to further my so-far undisclosed plans.

Steef and I had worked out beforehand a particular hand gesture he was to make when they needed my attendance upon their discussions. I was determined to include Davvy as well, for she was closely involved on several levels. She also knew, and approved of, the basis to that which I wanted to achieve that evening – night, really by then. So I made sure that my duties kept me mostly in the dining room, and I kept chatting with Davvy so she remained close by.

The hand gesture duly came, so, when requested by Uncle, I took Davvy by the elbow and sat her down with her parents so that the five of us could talk quietly but also in earnest. The only ones amongst the hand of us that did NOT know what I was about to propose was Dilligas and Talbet herself. The rest of the girls all found something that needed doing in the kitchens.

Uncle Steef started it off: “Julina! Could you perhaps join us? I have just offered Master Dilligas here a job with the barging company I have been commissioned to form by the Steward and, by extension, Her Highness. And in which you, amongst others, have seen fit to invest some of your own coin. I shall commence by announcing that earlier today, a trio of us (consisting of the Steward, Representative Jepp and I), formally created a company to be named the ‘Bray and Palar Navigation Company’ and it is to be based downvalley in Bezlet.

“But for an efficient barging operation there are other facilities that we shall need which we shall either build or rent, or maybe even join in with if they are already established, up and down the river between Bezlet and Haligo, so I must also concentrate upon those areas, particularly now in the relatively short time before the rains.

“You should be made aware that I have offered Master Dilligas here the position of Supervisor of all that shall happen, both on the land and on the water, in Bezlet in particular but also in the entirety of Blackstone lands; Supervisor that is of anything that involves Bray and Palar Navigation. I deem it obvious from the delight on his face that he would love to accept that position, however he wishes to be sure that yet another move for his family would be the right thing to do. As you are his daughter’s employer…” I admired the way he phrased that, hiding my true intent as it did, “… I was wondering if you had anything to help assuage some of his and his wife’s fears?”

I faced the two anxious parents. “I am able to say here and now that I am more than delighted with Davvy, with her progress and with how she has matured and grown even in this short time. I deem her blushing at praise seems to be lessening as she becomes accustomed to it! And she garners much praise almost every day!”

We all smiled at her bright red face as I said that.

“I further deem you can both see her ever-increasing maturity and confidence. I have need of her, I state frankly, and I firmly believe that she has need of me. Only a catastrophe would render asunder our association and should such a catastrophe occur, then from what I know of your family habits you would up sticks again and try to start anew. The difference in the circumstances that have now arisen, is that you would see less of your daughter than you are used to. And Mistress Talbet, you have already mentioned this to me in a prior private conversation.

“If you are uncertain as to how to proceed - for I deem that if Master Dilligas were to accept this position then you would move downvalley to Bezlet, in which case you should do that swiftly as the rains are not so far away - then I would say that ’tis time for your little bird to leave her nest and fly. She cannot be with you for all her life, she too must experience ‘Real Life’ such as it is. I am fully aware that all this makes it seem as though everything is happening so swiftly that you feel less in control and that it involves great and wrenching changes.

“And indeed you would be right.

“Everything is hurtling along at an ever franticer pace. But we must go along with them, these hectic events, if we are all to take advantage of these unique times. Change is in the environment; in the earth beneath our feet, in the very air we breathe. A friend of mine writes many of the words that are used by the acting troupe here in Town, and she said something that struck deeply home to me recently.

“’Twas something like:

"Never wait nor hesitate
Get in there before it's too late
For we may never get another chance.
To everyone, youth’s just a mask,
And ‘tis one that just doesn't last,
So live it now, live it long and live it fast."

“And I deem we shall never again have such a wide-sweeping opportunity as that which pertains amongst us in these days. We have the chance, NOW, to lay the foundations for our society for the next generations.

“Now Mistress Megrozen and I, in our capacities as the owners of Meglina Accommodation, have at least two establishments already planned if not actual down in Bezlet and we wish to expand even further there, since we know what is to come. Meglina require a supervisor for Bezlet, just as Bray and Palar Navigation do. Mistress Pachet runs what has become effectively an Inn down there, named ‘The Clay Pot’, but she has indicated to Mistress Megrozen, myself and …”

I looked directly at Uncle Steef at this point, who actually blushed himself when he suddenly realised I understood where his attentions, and even possibly his intentions, lay.

“… Bargemaster Steef that she is at the limit of her capabilities and is finding the expansion is straining her too much. That is simply the current expansion, let alone all that is already planned. And is taking into account nothing of what is yet to be planned.”

I paused again, and made sure I looked into every pair of eyes around our little table, before fixing Talbet with my gaze once more.

“Mistress Talbet, I am authorised to offer you such a position. As the Bezlet Supervisor for Meglina Accommodation.”

She gasped in shock, but I swear I did see a flash of hope in her eyes, which then clouded with sadness. I could read her mind perfectly at that … second.

I swiftly continued, trying to get her to see the positives rather than dwell upon the negatives: “What this would mean is that the two of you could start afresh down in Bezlet, both doing tasks for which you are eminently suited. I am aware that it seems almost as if ’tis but a story, and one that happens to other people at that! Forget not that you would both be doing work you enjoy doing as opposed to just plodding slowly on doing things that do not excite you.

“Bear in mind also that your family would thus more than double their current earnings and you will be able to afford to live much more in the style you both deserve. Meglina will cause a Supervisor’s House to be built down there for you to live in, in fact there is already started one we consider would be perfect, but I had notice today that a room can be reserved for you in the Clay Pot for as long as you require it.

“It will cost you a larger separation from your only child, but contact will still be maintained, I hereby swear an oath to that effect. It seems to me the benefits outweigh by far the disadvantages. But it WILL be hard work. And,” I added slyly, “you would needs learn to ride a frayen. Meglina would buy you both beast and saddle.”

Talbet fixed me by the eye. “Was this entire evening a set-up, Mistress Julina?” she questioned sternly, almost angrily.

I was aware of the men drawing back slightly at her tone, and of Davvy starting to worry, but I maintained the eye contact. “Indeed not, Mistress Talbet. The decision to invite you for dinner was made a long time ago and our chance meeting after the unarmed combat demonstration just made it all come together. The invitation was issued then, you will recall – and you will also recall I had difficulty in persuading you to accept it. Your invitation here was simply, as I have already stated, a thank-you for producing Davvy and allowing her into my life.

“When Mistress Megrozen and I chatted with you, then your history from your own lips, which we did not know beforehand you should remember, qualified you immediately in our eyes for the vacant Supervisor’s position in Bezlet. But our difficulty would be to try to persuade you to accept such a position with all its inherent upheavals.

“And then Uncle Steef here, Bargemaster Steef to give him his official title, came to visit his sister and the finished idea simply sprang into my head; an event which, as I am sure Davvy has told you, happens quite frequently with me. Bezlet, barging, supervisors. It all seemed to just be there in my head, suddenly. And all neatly tied together somehow.

“So the only manipulation I did was to seat you two families next to each other, hoping that something would happen to get the two men talking.

“And it did happen, didn’t it? So I deem this evening should be seen as a celebration of serendipity. You had a decent meal… er, you DID enjoy it, I trust?”

“Indeed Mistress, that we did. The reputation is well deserved,” she answered swiftly, but still quite stiffly.

“That it were. That it were,” added Dilligas in confirmation, reaching over and patting his wife’s hand as he did so. I was unsure if his nodding at the same time was agreement about the quality of the food, or encouragement for her to accept the new position with Meglina and all that that entailed. Mayhap ’twas both.

Steef threw in his encouragement too: “So, you had a decent meal and you both now have solid and reliable job offers. Surely one of the better evenings of your lives?”

Talbet looked at us all, each of the four in turn. She could see the sincerity in all our gazes. Her own expression softened as she accepted my explanation and Steef’s encouragement. She reacted as I used to do so often.

She burst into tears.

… … …

“Mistress Julina!”

I whirled round and recognised her chubby and diminutive form immediately. “Mistress Brogla! What a delight to see you again. You are here of course for the Grand Gown evening.”

“As you say, Mistress. Mistress Michet directed me up here to find you, for I am sleeping in her house – your Salon house – last and this night. I arrived on the shuttle last e’en, and we went to the Ptuvil’s Claw for a supper and a planning session to arrange the timings for tonight. You were not, it appeared, to be disturbed last night, so I wanted to look you up first thing this morn.”

“I see. And indeed I am honoured. But first, please allow me to introduce Mistress Davabet. She is my almost constant companion nowadays and is a firm and delightful friend, as well as a great boon. For with her with me, I need not find and persuade other friends with other tasks to accompany me everywhere. Davvy, may I present Mistress Brogla, the lady who rules the kitchens down in Brayview?”

“Mistress Brogla.”

“Mistress Davvybett. Charmed, I’m sure.”

Davvy and I smiled gently at the subtle mispronunciation of her name and the somewhat dated expression but neither of us said anything to correct her.

“Davvy and I are as two snow flakes, so close have we become, and, I dare say, so alike have we become. Therefore, may I suggest we drop all the tiresome ‘Mistressing’, for we are all alone at this heartbeat and ’tis tedious in the extreme. I have been meaning to say that to Mis… er... Brogla for quite some while now.”

“Maker! I deem I have not deserved such an honour. ’Tis most welcome I find… Julina,” replied Brogla to my make-friends overtures, her face pinking slightly with obvious pleasure.

“So shall it be, then. We two are Julina and Davabet, but we also answer to ’Lina and Davvy!”

I turned once more to my companion as I felt she may not have gathered the full meaning of the upcoming ‘celebration’. “Davvy, just in case you are unaware of the significance of this evening’s celebration, then I shall remind you that a party of a dozen travelled from Blackstone lands down to the capital for Their Highnesses’ wedding. Two hands left from here, and Mistress Brogla and another man, who came from the village of Tamitil, joined with them at Brayview.

“Her Highness, as a present, arranged for the six women in that party to have gowns made by one of the foremost dressmakers of Palarand, a Master Korond and his staff. Tonight, all six women shall wear those gowns once more, for to leave them packed away, never again to see the lights, would be folly of an enormous measure. And the entire mass of womenfolk of our town are intrigued to see them being worn. Desperate to see them worn would perchance be a more accurate statement.”

“Oh! Is that why...”

I hurriedly hushed her and flashed her an annoyed look. Brogla looked steadily at me, then at her and then back to me, a knowing grin on her lips. But she had the sense and maturity not to take the subject any further. Davvy blushed and nodded acceptance of my admonishment.

I aided that acceptance by swiftly talking once more: “Only the seamstresses up here have actually seen the gowns so far, and some have taken inspiration and created some Blackstone versions of high fashion for the invited Townswomen to wear tonight. So those in charge have arranged for a quick display to the Town before all those shall be dining with us in the Salon; the entire dining party shall parade the short distance from the Claw up Main Street to us. This shall be for the later sitting and ’tis a closed event, attended by the women and the Prince of course, and the Countess who shall be the Prince’s companion this e’en. The Steward shall also be there, along with various of the senior Assembly members and their partners. The Dining Room shall be filled to capacity and we shall all be rushed off our feet, I have no doubt.

“But hush, Davvy, don’t let Brogla here know anything of the special dishes we have prepared and will serve them. Let her be surprised by it all along with the rest.”

Davvy nodded again even as Brogla spoke up once more: “Ah! I had not thought of that, Julina. I was wanting to see your kitchens before I have to go and get ready – for it does take a fair while for anyone to make ME look presentable – but I suppose that there might be surprises in there that would be exposed if I came in!”

“Davvy, run and tell the kitchens that Brogla and I shall make an inspection in ten minutes, would you?”

She grinned to show the full message was understood and trotted off down the hill whilst Brogla and I followed more slowly.

“Ten whats, did you say? I seem to remember something about them from when we were down to the Palace, but I confess I paid too little attention. I was suffering from an attack of awe on each and every one of those days.”

“Ah! Come with me, then, to our Dining Room first. There I shall show you, for ’tis easier so to do than try to paint a word picture. We have a new clock-type thing up here nowadays...”

… … …

“Seekomris! So many! I am astounded that you have prepared so many so quickly. But why are some halved and some ‘attacked’ in a different way?”

’Twas Venket who replied: “Mistress Brogla, it all depends upon what they are to be used for. If we are to use them as little boat-type things, filled as they will be with various fillings, then we split them in half down through the stalk, and then cut out the seed balls that live in the centre. But if they are to be used in thin strips, then all we do is slice off the bottom, for that way we can afterwards slice down towards the stalk, and just inside the ribs here, and then we don’t have to do the fiddly bit of cutting out the stalk and the seed ball.”

“How simple! And yet so easy, I am annoyed I thought not of that for myself.”

Mistress Brogla was, I deem, impressed by much of what we did in the kitchens. I could see her filing information in her mind. Cutting techniques that would make life quicker and simpler for her when she got back to her kitchens. Ways of keeping food both warm and cool. Timings that would help a smoother flow. Half-cooking as preparation, thus reducing times required later. Many options for her to implement when she returned.

But the traffic of information was not limited to just one way. She herself introduced certain ideas that we in these kitchens could adopt and/or adapt. One in particular attracted my interest and I knew that I would need to experiment with the base of that idea. If it worked out as I suspected, then that would add another level to the refinement of things that we could serve in the future.

Brogla was with us in the kitchens for just under a bell, probably an hour all told, before Em popped in to fetch her for the declared purpose of showing her more of the Town as time was becoming limited before they both had to gather at the Claw for the great ‘get ready’ session. As soon as they were out of the door, the ‘secret’ or the ‘surprise’ dishes were whipped out again and we carried on working on those for half a bell before I told everyone to finish off what they were doing and give me their attention.

When I had it, I bent down with Surtree and we removed a new piece of equipment from a cupboard under the work surface. It was covered with a cloth and no-one else in the kitchens had ever seen it. We grunted as we brought it out, for it was most heavy and unwieldy.

I had been idly wondering about this possibility for some while and had fallen to musing about it once with Senidet. She had then drawn up a design and she, Brydas, Sethan and I had fiddled with it for a few weeks now. I wanted to try it out today and if possible use it for one of the dishes to be served later and so I chose that moment to reveal it. All the other three, and Surtree, had been sworn to secrecy so it was hardly surprising when all the others in the kitchens gathered round; flocked round would be better for they were all a’twittering like avians.

“I shall need that new metal table that appeared last week, and I shall need it over here, next to the main oven range. Please carefully clear it off, make passageway for it to move, and two or three of you then drag it over there, while I explain more about it and this new… device.

“You will all remember how I wanted to apply heat to the upper surface of a split seekom we had stuffed with cheese and vegetables a few weeks ago, but we had no easy means of doing it? The only way we could get close to it was to have special metal discs made, placed on the top and then we had to flip the food over, which nearly worked but was more than a little messy until it all got hot enough to sort of seal itself.”

There were nods all round, and not a few smiles as we remembered some of the messes that came about.

“So I started wondering how we could direct heat onto food from above without having nasty soot and cinders fall as well. I have tried waving a hot spill above the food and all sorts of things like that. That took far too long and was extremely inefficient. Mistress Senidet then got involved and we talked about it, which meant that soon afterwards Master Brydas was also involved. Before long, Sethan and Surtree came into the group too. Many ideas were tried but in the end we came back to this, the simplest one.

“So we have here a stone-built tower, open on one of its four sides. ’Tis of stone so that most of the heat shall remain inside it. The stone is, of course, made of oven brick. But because it is stone, it is heavy, so we have had to find a balance between weight and size. For that reason we have two of these… tools here, but for now, for testing purposes, I have brought just the one out.

“Gather round and look carefully at it, peer inside it, see how ’tis made. But be reasonably swift for we still have much to do for the meals this e’en.

“At the top, you will notice, inside ’tis lined with shiny metal for we found that shiny metal loses less heat than dull metal, and seems to reflect that heat much like a glass does the light in a lantern. Thus also the outside top of the tower shall heat up less rapidly. We have here a slot which is where the heat supply shall be pushed in. Beneath that slot are various other slots as you can see, the middle one of which is occupied by a metal grille. This is so that the thing can cope with differently sized foods, varying from thin to thick. We just slide the metal grille into the appropriate slot so that the top of the food is close to the heat source.

“But what is that heat source? Why ’tis simply a metal plate that we heat up in the fires of our ranges. When required, we remove the plate of metal from the firebox with special handles and slide it in here, in this uppermost slot. ’Twill retain its heat for many moments, by which time the food should be cooked. If ’tis not, then we just replace the now cooler metal plate with another taken from the fires.

“I deem I need not point out all the possibilities for personal danger from these new tools, so we must all of us be extremely aware when using them. Think of your, and others, safety and health.”

I gazed sternly round at them all and only let go of their eyes once they had nodded to acknowledge what I had just said.

“And now let’s test it!”

I do believe that they were all as intrigued as I. Surtree showed them how to fit the special handle into the two holes in the metal heat source plate, and then he slid it and a partner one into the fire to warm up, releasing the handle each time with a surprisingly deft twist of his wrists. It seemed to me the lad had been practising that movement!

I took one of the blue seekomris from the pile near me and split it lengthways down through the stalk. I then cut out the seed ball from just under where the stalk penetrated the skin. The two halves then wobbled on the work surface – not surprising since the seekom is just a globe when it grows – and so I sliced off a thin slither from the undersides of the two half-globes. They then settled far more stably. With just a little milk, some bread crumbs, some other vegetables and some crumbled cheese, I swiftly made up two balls of somewhat squidgy ingredients and pressed them down into each of the two seekom halves, finally scraping any excess off so that nothing protruded above the thick skin edges. I removed the food-carrying grille from our brick tower and placed the two halves upon it, ready to get going as soon as Surtree declared the heat source to be ready and he had slid it into place.

It seemed to take years before Surtree allowed anyone to look into the firebox.

“Why ’tis glowing red, I deem,” called Paivi as she took the first allowed look.

Surtree quickly picked up the special handle and said: “Now keep a long way clear. This is so hot it could set you on fire should it touch you!”

The girls all scattered backwards and watched with bated breaths as Surtree bent down, inserted his handle’s rods into the designed holes and extracted one of the plates from the fires. Paivi slammed the range door shut as soon as he had passed out of the way.

Surtree carried the metal plate (and I deemed she was right, ’twas indeed glowing a faint red with heat) up to the brick tower and slid it into the uppermost slot just where it was designed to do so. We all squealed a little as a dust ball burst into flame along one edge, but Surtree remained steady and thrust the piece home.

I held my hand inside the brick tunnel/tower thingy at the lowest level and raised it up towards the heat, but could only last a few heartbeats before the temperature became too unbearable. “Now I am going to slide these half-seekomris into this lowest slot here, to maximise the distance of the food from the heat source, just to see what happens…

“Hmmm, I deem that is too low a temperature. Let us raise the grille one slot...”

And so we found out that, for that dish, the slot two below the highest was the best. The food cooked entirely as I had hoped. We all were impressed and we tried a piece of the results and gave our opinions. But we did get one suggestion, from Kelly, that made all the difference and which made that dish the great success it became.

“I find the whole thing extremely tasty. Well done, ‘Lina. A good recipe you have invented there. I do have a little question in my head though. I find that the seekom itself, although delicious as I said, is just a little hard, a little tough. Could we try just briefly cooking the empty half-globe first, maybe smeared with a little oil, just to soften it and only then stuff it with the mixture and finally cooking THAT?”

Thus it was that the ‘Top Heater’ proved its worth on its very first day. We soon developed many more dishes for cooking in those, and we had five of them in all in the kitchens at the end. That first time, we could only use one for doing eight portions, so the second one was quickly brought into action. With thirty-odd diners in that second sitting we only just managed to handle it all.

Which was, in its way, much of the theme for that evening.

… … …

We, of course, were far too busy to attend the triumphant parade up Main Street from the Claw to us. The kitchens were completely full, every single one of us being there so we had hands aplenty, just not that much space.

But I too had another surprise for the diners in that second sitting that night. For we had all had made a sort of uniform for those of us who worked there, including Kassama. Haka was the talented one who had put them all together for us, and I had the usual battle with her to accept sufficient coin for her work. She still felt that she owed me so much for turning her family’s fortunes about. All the girls loved their new working dresses, Venket perhaps being the most delighted, for I had tried to make sure that they were elegantly feminine as well as sturdy working dresses. Surtree also had a matching tunic so that all the staff looked professionally similar.

The major problem we had first of all that evening was encouraging the first sitting diners to leave. They all wanted to be as close as possible to the ‘entertainment’ and so we almost had a stand-off with nowhere for the paraders to come in to. I partially solved it by allowing some of them to stand in the front family room, and had the rest of them form an ‘honour guard’ that clapped the newcomers in. We behind the scenes were under great strain at that moment, clearing away dirty dishes and tablecloths and setting out fresh places after bunching the tables together into the required configuration. And also changing into our new ‘uniforms’ for they only came out then. If only those first sitting diners had left at a more normal time and in a more normal fashion. But with three new new girls, three new girls, we three ‘old’ girls, and then Kords, Kissa, Kassama, Surtree and even Davvy, none of the diners were any the wiser about just how close run it had all been.

Now it could be considered to be unbecoming on my part to report that that evening was an unmitigated success, but I shall do so anyway. That was one of the most successful evenings we had ever had in the Salon during those early days.

We received many compliments and Em reported that all the diners were entertained and enthralled not only by the food but also by the assembled company, with many diverting discussions and conversations. Berdon and Bettayla were amongst their numbers, and they provided some light relief as well, but this was no rehearsed and practised set of routines.

We had for once a sitting in which absolutely no emergency, whether minor or otherwise, arose in the kitchens and all diners expressed their pleasure at the five-course dinner we gave them.

Mistress Jenet, the Commander’s wife, discreetly called for me early in the proceedings and met me just outside the dining room door. We arranged for a small table to be set up in the front family room so that the maids and guards could be fed two at a time as the evening progressed. The grins of appreciation on the guards faces were well worth all the effort we had invested. The maids, too, congratulated us afterwards, even the Einnlander ones!

Once again, at the end of the evening, the company of diners called us all in to applaud us. I ushered everyone else in first and stood at the back, so I can’t say how many blushes were thrown out by my companions. But at one point, I noticed the Prince and the Countess speak softly to each other and then they both turned and looked directly at me. The look in their faces, the Prince’s particularly, gave me great cause to wonder. The look was a calculating look somehow, yet one of approval as well. Of course, I eventually understood what had just passed but ’twas only much later that I finally managed to piece together everything.

Despite that nagging thought in the back of my head, I must confess that I was moved beyond normal by the way things had gone, and we were all basking afterwards in that warm feeling of a job well done, Em having joined us once she had escorted a slightly tipsy Brogla up to her room. Having broken the back of the clearing up, just a few last dishes and the preparations for the room for the morning, and the banking of the fires, we had all gathered in the Dining Room; sixteen tired but proud hard workers as we gently wound down after a highly successful evening. Em had approved the opening of a bottle or two of wine and we all had some, watered down to different strengths depending upon ages and/or maturity – Em and I being the judges!

We talked about various things as we enjoyed, nay savoured, both the wine as well as the togetherness.

“Those Top Heaters are an excellent idea Julina. I trust you have the Exclusivity Licence on them?”

“Indeed I have, but already I wish to change the design. They are unwieldy, restrict space in our kitchen, add to the temperature in there and take a long while to cool sufficiently to be stored away again. I deem we should have a shelter just outside the kitchen door where they might be used still in a handy way, and yet reduce the disadvantages.”

“That is a good idea!” replied Em. “I have been thinking for a little while that we should actually make the kitchen bigger. We certainly have the coin now for an expansion. It’s just the inconvenience. ’Twould mean closing the Salon for a while, of course.”

“Unless we use the old VMS building for much of our preparation work as I suggested a while ago?”

And so we chatted on. Amongst the many subjects spoken, one thing that Kelly said managed to surprise us all.

And gave me furiously to think.

We were talking about the ‘modern’ changes, the clock in particular, when she suggested that her family and their traditions were now in danger. In the same breath, it seemed, she also touched on some of the cooking arrangements. All of which made me sit up a lot straighter, I must confess, my senses twitching in some indefinable way.

“… With these new clocks, which I must say are very good, then my family seem to be slowly turning into electrics experts rather than the long-established Bellringers, well-respected members of the Timekeepers’ Guild. We now know how to charge one of these battery thingies, and how to replace it in what Senidet calls ‘the circuit’. And now we have to do it for the Steward’s clock too and for this one as well. And no doubt for the others that Senidet is installing around Town. For there shall be no-one else with such knowledge once the Royal Party depart. In my nightmares, I see a time when electrics takes over, no person being there to ring the bells even.

“But on the other hand, I must say I prefer the Princess’ way of counting time. Why just today, oh yesterday now I see, we needed to know how long those seekomris required cooking under the Top Heater thingy. With the new time system we can make a note of how long things take, instead of keeping squeezing, or prodding or slicing things to test for doneness. Just by measuring the time we can know that something is cooked. This dish takes so and so many minutes each time – things like that...”

Soon we were all discussing that development with exclamations of wonder and delight. The twists and turns of normal conversation all came together then and we were all quite animated but we stayed on topic; which was quite unusual for us, I can tell you. Some good ideas were thrown out then, and Em wondered if we could even change the way we do things, where currently diners ordered their meals a few days in advance, to being able to give them a list of options even as they were seated.

We threw that idea backwards and forwards for a good few minutes before we decided to reject it. We would not want to be in a position where we would have to tell diners that their meal option was no longer available as we had sold too many portions of it already. With the current system of them ordering in advance, we could be sure to cater to their desires.

Not long afterwards, Papa and Swayga together knocked and entered, claiming that it was way too late for Kissa to still be up, and they felt that both Kords and I were pushing our limits.

Kissa immediately got all huffy and whined bad-temperedly: “Ah! Mother! Papa! Did you have to? We were having such a good gathering here...”

It was at that point that it really hit me. I realised finally that I really and truly was no longer responsible for my sisters and brothers, that I was indeed my own woman now. And that they no longer needed me in that way.

Which revelation was just in time, for that was the last evening I ever had in that phase of my life. Events on the morrow were going to rock my entire world.

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