Somewhere Else Entirely -80-

Garia takes a ride as far as the dam which supplies Blackstone with water. On her return she finds two puzzled Questors waiting. The afternoon answers many of their questions and Jaxen learns about a new form of transport.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

80 - The Questors


Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2013 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.



"How far do you wish to go, milady?"

"I thought we'd ride as far as the dam, captain," Garia replied. "It's enough to give us a little exercise but close enough we won't be out too long."

Garia looked around at her little party. Besides Keren she had been joined by Bezan, Yarling, Bleskin, Merizel, Jenet and Sukhana. Brazan and five of Keren's men provided the escort. Sukhana looked self-conscious in her riding skirt, pea coat and bowler hat but seemed determined to make the ride count.

"Everybody ready? Then lead the way, Brazan."

Her second-in-command led the way out the rear entrance to the courtyard and into the fenced pasture beyond. They walked in pairs past some of the other frayen who stopped grazing and looked up as the party passed. Garia by chance rode beside Bleskin.

"I still find it odd to see women astride beasts, milady," he commented. "Even though you appear natural riders, it seems. It will take some while for Palarand to become accustomed to the sight."

"Not, perhaps, as long as you think, captain," Garia replied with a smile. "We had a wheel problem just before Tranidor and had to unload the wagon. Once Sookie saw our saddles and discovered whose they were she immediately decided that she was going to ride as well. Until her saddle was made and delivered she nagged everybody silly."

"You think there will be a clamor from the women of Palarand to ride?"

"I do! It may take some of them longer than others, perhaps, and some of the older ones may not want to bother, but I think in a couple years time women on frayen-back will be a common sight in the streets of Palarand."

"It will be an interesting change for these old eyes, milady. I must admit, though, that you do appear natural as a rider. I cannot think why the practice was frowned upon previously."

"Huh! Particularly as some women had been doing it anyway. Even the Queen."

"As you say, milady. But 'even the Queen' was discreet when she rode."

"You are right, captain. But I'm not the person to ask about that, assuming you really want to find out why. I've barely been here seven months, after all. The answer might be related to some unfortunate accident we couldn't discuss in mixed company."

"Ah... as you say, milady. Pehaps it is best left a conjecture while we accustom ourselves to our new circumstances."

They let themselves out of the paddock and took a narrow trail which followed the north bank of the river. Snep carefully picked his way through the rough, tufted grass which made the typical terrain at this level. Down here, the rock was mostly shale and mostly hidden under turf and weeds but occasionally there were bare patches where the trail narrowed. On the slopes there were occasional clumps of low bushes and rough brush with a few low, straggly trees attempting to find sustenance.

Garia asked, "What do you think of Blackstone, captain?"

Bleskin shrugged. "Much as I expected, milady. Perhaps a few more buildings than when I came here in my youth. The taking over of the town by Trogan and his fellows was a shock, though. I did not expect so brazen an act in His Majesty's lands."

"As you say. It came as a shock to us all, as you might imagine! Only... Master Jaxen had an idea things might not be right as we traveled here, although he didn't know what the problem might be."

"Oh, milady?"

"He's been around, so I guess he gets a feel for when things aren't right, or... you know what I mean. I would think that you have the same kind of sense, captain."

"Me? I have spent much of my time in the palace, milady. The country guard units may have more of a feel, as you put it, than I do."

"Oh. Yes, of course. Now you're here, what do you think of my plans for the town?"

Bleskin smiled. "Having watched you work wonders in the palace, milady, I cannot but wait for the changes which will come to Blackstone. Until now it has been a lonely place, at the very edge of our Kingdom, but you will bring work and prosperity to the town which it desperately needs."

"I'm going to upset a lot of the locals."

"Aye, milady, but most know what the alternative would be. I'm sure that most will benefit from the changes you have begun here."

"And what of yourself? What will you do when we have to go back to the palace? Will you go back to wherever Jaxen found you?"

"Milady, I would be of service to you. My plans for my retirement have changed. I no longer have..." Bleskin closed his eyes and grimaced, "...so many ties to the place I thought to see out my remaining years. My family are either in Palarand or in your service, milady."

"Oh! I'm sorry, captain! That was a thoughtless question to ask."

"Not so, milady. You asked about my future plans. There are people in Blackstone known to me, even distantly related to me. I may reside here as well as in any other place. If I may do so and be of service to you, milady, then I shall." Bleskin hesitated. "If I may ask, milady, what will happen to Blackstone when you depart? Have you yet given though how you would wish your lands administered?"

Garia shook her head. "Not at all, captain. There's just too much going on in my head at the moment. I was going to leave all that until we came back from our ride to the end of -"

Garia gestured vaguely with her free hand at the narrow valley ahead of them.

"As you say, milady. If you would give me leave, perhaps I can spare some of my time to find out what you will require. As you know, I visit Mesulkin each afternoon now and I may glean some of his long experience at the task of Steward."

"Do you think he could do the job for me, captain?"

"Alas, milady, I do not believe so. He will live, it is certain, but I fear the cost of administering your town would become too great for him, especially when the changes to come are included."

"As you say, captain." Garia sighed. She had felt deeply the lasting effects of Trogan's depredations on the town and had been upset by how badly some of its people had been treated. She turned and smiled at Bleskin. "Yes, if you would. I can't do everything myself but it's taken me a long time to understand that. I know I have a band of willing helpers and that you are one of them, captain. Find out for me what you can, please."

The ground grew less even and the valley closed in on the riders. Garia could see that, while it would be possible to make a road up here, it would take much time and effort.

What's the problem? You are considering a brand-new highway all the way from Blackstone to Tranidor. A feeder road up here would be nothing.

A road for modern American cars and trucks, maybe. They won't like dragging wagons up these slopes.

Why not? The wagon trains did exactly that all the way across the west.

Because they were going somewhere, that's why. Up here, there's nothing at the end, just wilderness. All we need is some means to get miners and equipment up here and coal out. A rough track will do, along with a conveyor belt or possibly a cable lift.

Round a bend in the valley a high overgrown wall blocked their way, the river trickling down a slime-covered spillway in the center. They angled to the left and urged their mounts up the steep slope beside the ancient dam. At the top they found themselves on top of the aqueduct, just as Garia had planned. Ahead, the way was almost blocked by a lake which occupied the whole valley width, only a narrow track allowing passage beyond the expanse of water.

Garia decided to dismount and let the animals take care of themselves. The others joined her, gazing about at their surroundings. Immediately, Snep ambled to the water's edge and lowered his head to drink. The other frayen followed suit.

"This dam seems in good condition, milady," Bezan reported. "I was not sure, some of the other Chivan works I have inspected have been in a woeful state."

"Aye, Bezan," Yarling said, "but I would suggest that we clear the brush from the face of the dam and examine it closely for weaknesses. There may be cracks hidden beneath the weeds."

Bezan nodded. "As you say, Master Yarling. The town depends on this supply, it is our duty to ensure it remains so."

The lake, shaped like a long, thin triangle, disappeared into the distance until the valley kinked again and the upper reaches remained hidden from view. Yarling examined the terrain closely, his eyes shaded by a hand, inspecting the rock wherever it showed through the ground cover.

"Milady, I would need to climb about the rocks to properly determine what is here, but what I can see suggests that the coal seams continue this far into Blackstone Vale. There is one, significant drawback to mining the coal in this place, though."

"Oh?"

"Any mine shaft near here would almost certainly contaminate the town's water supply, milady. It would be next to impossible to prevent spillage or waste falling in the lake."

"We could build a high wall," Bezan suggested. "Prevent runoff getting into the lake."

The expression on Yarling's face showed what he thought of that idea.

"I wouldn't concern yourself about details like that right now," Garia said. "We need to survey the whole valley before we can begin making detailed plans."

"Milady!"

Brazan's call drew the group's attention to some gray shapes which had appeared at the far end of the lake. One or two of the men began walking towards their mounts to retrieve weapons but when the animals came properly into view everyone relaxed. The two dranakh ambled towards the end of the lake, bent their heads and began drinking.

"Where did they come from?" Merizel wondered.

"If you look yonder, milady," Brazan said, "up the valley to your left, there are others. Mayhap they have been grazing on the ridge above."

"Whose are they?" Garia asked. "Are they always allowed to run free like this?"

Brazan shrugged. "We know not which dranakh they may be, milady. The beasts are allowed their freedom by ancient custom, so I believe. Dranakh are trustworthy and will always present themselves whenever they are required by their owners. We do not know how they divine the intentions of their owners, but they always do."

She asked, "Do you think those dranakh are the reason the grakh were scared off the other day?"

Brazan replied, "Who knows, milady? Perhaps. If they presently graze on the ridge above then the grakh must needs have seen them."

Bezan stared at the distant beasts. "Do you think they swim in this water? If so, the town's supply is already polluted."

One of the beasts lifted its head from the water, turned in the party's direction and let out a loud bleat.

Garia grinned. "Guess that answers that question, Bezan. I don't think they swim in here because they know that we depend on the water. I know next to nothing about dranakh but I do know two things, firstly they are a lot smarter than any of us realizes and secondly, I think that they are able to at least partly read our minds."

Bezan boggled at Garia. "Read minds, milady?"

"Oh, I don't mean that they can figure out what our words mean, or anything like that, but they can do something with people they know. Enough to work out our intentions or to know what might be a good idea or a bad idea. Like swimming in that water, for example." Garia pointed. "That beast just worked out what your question implied and felt it worth while giving us an answer. Do you doubt what that answer was?"

Bezan stared at her. "No, milady," he answered finally. "I do not doubt it, and I do not know why I do not doubt it. It seems I have much to learn about an animal I thought familiar to me."

Keren asked, "Garia, did you want to go any further?"

Garia looked at Sukhana, who shook her head. "This is far enough, Keren. If we try and go further we wouldn't be back before lunch time. Sookie wanted a ride and I wanted to see the dam and we've both done what we set out to do. Let's go back. Snep! Here, boy! Time to go."

The way back down the valley was slightly easier because it was all downhill. They went back the same route as they had come, since riding on the aqueduct would leave them at the high end of town and further to go before they reached the Claw. Nearing the end of their journey Brazan's call attracted Garia's attention. He pointed a finger. She looked into the distance, along the road into town. It was late morning, so nothing was expected, but she could see a wagon approaching, too far away to make out any detail.

"Who's that? Are we expecting anyone?"

"Not to my knowledge. Perhaps someone from the roadhouse? Maybe they have a problem."

Garia shrugged. "Time enough to find out. Let's get into the stable and settle our frayen. That wagon will have gotten here by then."

Briswin came to the stable block to tell them that the wagon had arrived. Garia and Merizel hurried out the carriage entrance, closely followed by Jenet, Keren, Sukhana and Bleskin. The wagon had just pulled up, the driver a stranger - not that that was unusual, these days. Beside him sat an older man who looked uncomfortable after the journey. Accompanying the wagon on frayen were Jaxen, another man who Garia thought looked familiar, and four caravan guards. Jaxen dismounted.

"Milady, greetings! I have brought two travelers from Palarand as well as yet more mail." He grinned. "You have doubled the amount of mail passing between Dekarran and Tranidor. When you and His Highness return south everyone will wonder what has happened."

Jaxen turned and gestured. "Doubtless there will be more formal introductions but the fellow being helped from the wagon is Master Rindal who you may have heard of. The man climbing from his frayen is Master Jerrit. Both, so I am told, are Questors."

Garia turned. "Bring them both in, Jaxen. Um, Sookie will know if we have room for them to stay but first we ought to find out what they are doing here."

Despite the fact that lunch was only half a bell away Sukhana ordered pel for the travelers and interested parties. They clustered round one of the tables in the common room. The Questor who had been riding pulled out a scroll.

"I'm not sure who I should be presenting this to," he said. "Who is in charge in this place?"

"That would be me," Garia said. "I am Baroness Blackstone and this old inn is presently my headquarters while I'm in the town. Jaxen tells me that you are both Questors."

The two men bowed toward Garia. "Aye, milady," the first one continued. "I am Jerrit, I remember you now from the conclave. My specialty is the rocks of the earth. My companion here is Questor Rindal, who catalogs plants and other vegetable matter."

"Please be seated," Garia said, "and help yourself to pel. We haven't long to go for lunch so we'd better keep this meeting brief. What brings you to Blackstone? I can understand a geologist, perhaps, but not a botanist."

The eyes of both men widened as she named their subjects. Jerrit handed the scroll to Garia acoss the table and then turned to Rindal.

"See? I told you. Milady is much more than she appears."

The scroll was an official appointment from the palace of the two men to Garia's party for as long as she wished. She lowered the parchment and regarded the two.

"I don't understand this. This document bears the palace seal but I don't think the King would have ordered you here, surely?"

"It's... complicated, milady," Jerrit explained. "Master Brovan, who as you know is presently the Royal Questor, received a request from Guildmaster Parrel for certain specialists. Master Brovan suggested Rindal and myself for this task but there were... disputes over who could give orders to who." He flushed. "We are not yet familiar with this new system where Questors and Guildsmen actually consult one another. Master Parrel appears to have some influence with the King and we were summoned to the palace to be told that we had been volunteered for this duty."

"I don't mind being sent to distant parts of the kingdom, milady," Rindal added, "but I am puzzled as to our purpose here. I have visited Blackstone many, many years ago to collect specimens so I know all the plants that grow in this region." He winced, shifting his position. "However, I am beginning to find riding a saddle uncomfortable at my age. These wagon seats are almost as bad. I do not look forward to the journey back to Palarand."

"I know what you mean, Master Rindal," Garia soothed. "I used those same wagon seats for most of the journey here myself. You remind me of a possible alternative. Jaxen? A word with you later, if I may."

Jaxen grinned, knowing that something interesting would be forthcoming. "Aye, milady."

Garia continued, "I think you'll both be talking to Master Yarling, our mining expert. Jaxen has brought a whole load of mail with him and the answer might be in one of those bags."

Jaxen nodded. "As you say, milady. I'll get those bags up to the agent immediately." He thought, then turned. "Sookie, how's room at the Claw? Can you fit these two gentlemen in?"

"If they will consent to share a room, brother, then we can," she replied, before turning to Garia. "With milady's consent?"

"Of course, Sookie."

Jerrit was puzzled. "A miner, milady? What possible business could either of us have with him?"

Garia shrugged. "You know rocks, he digs rocks out, I don't see any difficulty there. Master Rindal, though... I'm not sure." A memory came, then, of some of the rock samples Yarling had shown her. She grinned. "Ah, yes. Master Rindal, I'm about to improve your knowledge. You'll also be speaking to Master Yarling. But, we have need of your expertise in Blackstone as well. Shortly this town will increase in size as miners come to dig out the coal and take it away. We need to know if you can help us increase the amount of crops grown so that we can support the extra population."

Rindal nodded. "A worthy project, milady. Yes, I will give it all my attention."

"Dig out the coal, milady?" Jerrit asked, puzzled. "What use is coal to anyone?"

Everyone else around the table grinned. Garia said, "It seems we are about to educate you as well, Master Jerrit, but we have no time to answer your questions right now as Mistress Sukhana needs to set this room out for lunch. Later, if you would. Jaxen, you can bring the men's gear in and we can get them settled before lunch. We can have a proper discussion this afternoon when all the right people will be available."

~o~O~o~

Garia looked up from the pile of fat packets on the table.

"Lanilla, can you ask Sookie to find me a runner, please? I need someone to go and find out if Mistress Patilla can come down and visit sometime this afternoon."

"As you wish, milady."

The young girl curtseyed and let the office. Merizel smiled.

"She's much better now that the enforced tension between her and Jasinet is no more. Both of them are working well and the atmosphere is more relaxed, have you noticed?"

Garia nodded. "Yes, I had. Is there any reason we can't take both of them with us when we go?"

"Not that I can see, Garia. I think they'll love it when we arrive at Dekarran, not to mention when we get back to the palace!"

Garia turned to Jenet, who nodded.

"Milady, both have much to learn but, as you have said, both are now willing. In any event I do not think it would be wise to leave Jasinet in this place without your protection."

"I can't do that, Jenet. It wouldn't be fair."

Lanilla returned with one of the stable boys. Garia gave him instructions and he left, running across the courtyard towards the carriage arch.

"Did you have a letter explaining those two Questors, in the end?"

"Yes," Garia said, holding up a typed sheet of paper. "I have it here. It seems that Guildmaster Parrel has been doing some longer-term thinking. Yarling and Bezan haven't come back yet, I thought we could deal with that matter once they return."

"I thought they would be here by now," Merizel said. "They went along the road to have a look at the condition of the pavement. They hadn't planned to be out long."

"Ah, I see. Well, we can deal with Mistress Patilla first, then, if she is available."

"I cannot see any who live in the town refusing a summons from their baroness," Merizel observed. "She should be with us presently."

Sure enough, a curious Mistress Patilla was with the stable boy when he returned. Garia bade her be seated at the office table.

"Milady, is there some problem? I thought that the repair to your pleated skirt was most carefully done, if I may say."

"No, that's fine, Mistress Patilla! There's no problem at all. I have had - as you can see - some mail from the south, and there's an item here that is intended for you and your fellow seamstresses. Here."

Garia stood, leaned forward and unfolded a large, flat package.

"Why, what is that, milady? Patterns of some kind?"

"Yes! I asked for a complete set of bra patterns to be sent up and here they are."

The package contained a thick pile of parchment sheets, all of which had been densely printed with annotated shapes. There was an accompanying set of smaller sheets giving instructions on the use of the patterns.

Garia smiled as Patilla stood to examine the pile.

"I think you'll have to cut all the shapes out of the sheets in order to use them," she explained. "Myself, I have never sewn anything so I'll leave that to your judgment. These sheets here explain how to measure somebody up and choose which pieces to make the bra with and then how to sew the pieces together. Look, there are tables. You find the different chest measurements in the tables and that will tell you which pattern size you need. I would appreciate it if you could tell me how easy it all is to do so that I can report back to the printers."

Patilla was now reading the instruction sheets.

"This is very strange writing, milady. Is this a new lettering that the scribes do? It is very easy to read, although I do not understand these numbers, if that is what they are."

"That is an example of what we call printing, mistress. Each sheet is produced in one go and takes very little time. Since the bra patterns are going to every town in Palarand somebody decided that it would be worth printing them. The strange symbols you see are what is called Garian numbers." Garia blushed. "I did not give them that name, somebody else decided that. You should find a sheet explaining how they are used. Once you are familiar with how they work I think you'll find it much easier to measure up the work you produce."

Patilla's brow furrowed as she found the 'Garian numbers' sheet and tried to make sense of it.

"If you say so, milady." She looked up. "If any of us have difficulty with these new patterns or the numbers, may we ask for help?"

"Of course you may! As I said, it will make your life easier so it is in everyone's interest to help you learn them. You can ask here, or if we are out then you could try Master Brydas or Master Jepp. Both of them know the new numbering system, as does Master Brydas's daughter Senidet."

Patilla cast a sidelong glance at Garia. "It seems to me that lately, both Master Brydas and Senidet may be found in this place, is it not so?"

Garia smiled. "That may be so. They are both helping Mistress Sukhana with her accounts. At least, that is what I am told. I cannot tell you what else they may be doing while they are here."

Patilla returned Garia's smile. "As you say, milady. Only time will tell. May I take these pattern pieces away, then?"

"You may. You might as well keep them in that wrapper, at least until you start cutting them up. Oh, and the pattern set belongs to the town, not to you personally. Anyone who wishes to make use of them may borrow them, is that understood?"

"Milady! Of course, that is how we seamstresses conduct our business. We would not think of refusing to lend out a pattern to another."

"I'm sorry, Mistress Patilla, I intended no insult. I'm not familiar with the workings of a small town yet."

"As you say, milady. You are so young, and you have not been brought up in such a place as this. We accept that there might be occasional misunderstandings. With your leave?"

Before Garia could reply, Merizel reminded her, "Garia! Remember your gowns?"

"My gowns? Huh? Oh! Yes, now that you mention it. Mistress Patilla, I have noticed some of my gowns are getting tight, particularly across the, uh, chest. I wonder if -"

"But of course, milady! A young lady such as yourself is still growing, it is not surprising that your gowns might need alteration. I remember from when you showed your wardrobe to us that the seams were generous, it should not be difficult to let them out as you may need." Patilla looked at the contents of the table. "Perhaps we should come by at another time to see the problem? I see that you have important matters to attend to presently."

"Yes, that's a good idea, mistress. Merry? Make a note."

Merizel rolled her eyes. "Aye, milady."

Patilla left, bearing her patterns, and Merizel looked at Garia.

"We've been here almost four weeks now," she said. "How much longer had you planned to stay? It's definitely getting colder in the mornings, now."

"What's the rush? It won't begin snowing yet, will it?"

"It may have begun once we reach the Sirrel, Garia." Merizel considered, then shook her head. "No. We still have at least two months to go before winter begins, I think. But if we leave it too long the journey home will be miserable with cold, wind and rain. I was thinking that you have not yet said anything about the ride you planned to take up Blackstone Vale. That, if you remember, was your original reason for wanting to ride a frayen."

"You're right, Merry. We have just been so busy! All right. I definitely want to take that ride and it is better to do it before the weather turns." Garia scowled. "But not for a week yet, if you would. It is about time for my next Call."

"Oh? How are you feeling?"

"A little snippy, but I think I've managed to keep it under control so far. Provided I take it easy the next few days and provided nothing happens I should be good to ride once the Call is over. There's nothing to stop you making preparations, if that's what you are thinking."

"Me? I know nothing about planning an expedition such as this, Garia. Feteran would be the man to do that, I would suggest, together with assistance from his father."

"We'll ask them to do that, then. We can mention it to Feteran at the evening meal."

~o~O~o~

The two Questors came into Garia's office and looked at the occupants.

"Ah, there you are," she said. "Please, come in and find yourself some seats."

They did so, looking curiously at those already seated.

"To my left is His Highness, Prince Keren," she indicated with a wave of her hand. "I'm sorry, you met him when you arrived but I forgot to formally introduce you. To his left is Master Bezan, a guildsman from the masons. Next to me here," she indicated her right side, "is my secretary Lady Merizel. Next to her is Master Yarling, a miner who specializes in mine planning. Keren, this is Master Jerrit, a geologist, and Master Rindal who studies plant life. Guildmaster Parrel had the idea of sending them to us."

The Questors both stood and bowed to Keren.

Rindal addressed Garia. "Milady, I am still not sure why either of us is here in Blackstone. I understand, from some talk we had earlier with some of your men that there is a project here of some importance to the crown." He nodded to Keren. "The King was most insistent that, as Guildmaster Parrel recommended our presence, we should make our way here."

"All will be explained today," Garia told them. "We are planning to extract huge amounts of coal from the lands around Blackstone. It is the coal which gives the town its name, of course."

"But why, milady?" Jerrit put in. "I know of no use for coal. The miners," a nod to Yarling, "tell me it is rubbish that weakens their workings."

"A thing we were not aware of," Keren explained, "before Garia came to Palarand, is that coal has a number of extremely important uses, some of them critical to the future of our Kingdom. You may not have realized it but your lunch today was cooked on coal. Every house in Blackstone uses coal for cooking and heating. Coal is a fuel, and it is a much more efficient fuel than wood. The people of Blackstone discovered this long ago but it seems that the use of coal has become a fable away from this valley."

Rindal inspected Garia closely. "You are not of Palarand, milady? Yet you have a title, so you must recognize our King as your liege."

"I am a subject of the King now, Master Rindal, but I was not born in the kingdom, no. I come from another land, far away, somewhere else entirely, and knowledge in the country of my birth is much more advanced than it is here. There is absolutely no chance I can ever go home, since nobody has any idea where it is, so I have offered to give my knowledge to Palarand." She smiled at Rindal. "Master Jerrit can tell you what happened when I addressed the Conclave of Questors, if he hasn't already done so."

Jerrit grinned. "As you say, milady. I have described, briefly, the meeting to him but I am not sure that he has grasped the significance of your visit. As I remember it, we were all in shock."

"I remember now," Keren said. "Master Rindal was away when Morlan was killed. You were his deputy in the Society, I believe?"

"Aye, Highness, I was. I had made an expedition to the upper reaches of the Sirrel, involving nearly a year of travel. When I returned I was amazed at what I found in the city." He turned to Garia. "But I'm still not sure why I am wanted here in Blackstone, milady."

Now Garia grinned. "Master Yarling, bring out your samples, please."

Yarling stood and collected a number of small cloth bags which had been carefully piled in one corner. He opened and emptied each one, placing the sample on top of each bag on the table. Rindal stood to examine the rocks, his eyes wide.

"Milady... there are plants in these rocks!" He turned to Garia. "How is this possible?"

"All right. What you see before you is Questor business. Let's get through what else we have to do and then I'll explain everything you need to know about how coal is formed."

Jerrit was gently handling the samples. "Milady, I had no idea that things like this were inside coal." He thought. "I have seen some rock falls where the skeletons of strange animals were exposed... is this the same thing?"

"It is, sort of, but... let's get business done first, if you would."

The two men subsided, turning their attention to Garia. It was evident that some part of each mind was elsewhere since they both stole glances at the samples from time to time.

"Right," she continued. "Coal is important because... as well as using it for heating and cooking, you can do something else with it. If you treat it as you treat charcoal you get a material called coke. This can be used to make iron and steel, and the quality will be far superior to anything you can make using charcoal. We intend to mine this coal and send it to new, huge blast furnaces that will produce, cheaply, large quantities of high-quality steel. This steel can be use for many new purposes of which I can tell you a few."

Garia then gave the two astonished men her potted salesman's pitch regarding the production and uses of steel. Their jaws dropped as she told them of railroads, cars, trucks and ships made of steel as well as bridges, long viaducts and buildings so tall they could barely imagine them. She told them of food preserved in steel cans, domestic items made from cast or sheet steel, warehouse buildings large enough to swallow the whole of Blackstone and items small and ubiquitous such as razor blades, nails, needles, pins and cutlery, stamped out by the million and available to everybody for next to nothing.

"So you see," she concluded with a smile, "we expect to produce a lot of steel, and to do that we'll need a lot of coal. This is the valley within Palarand where coal is most easily obtained right now so we'll begin here. That means many miners and all that goes with a mining district. Master Rindal, all those extra mouths will need feeding, as will all the beasts of burden the miners will have with them. We need to make the best use of the land we have available, so that means food crops that can grow on the kind of soil we have in the valley."

Rindal nodded. "I will need to inspect the land, milady. I saw the pakh farms on the way in but did not realize that they would be part of the reason for my presence."

"That's one part of it, yes. In addition, the mines and the new buildings will need large quantities of timber, and we can't just go on cutting down forests to get the wood. We'll have to make a detailed plan for planting fast-growing trees to replace those we'll be felling." Garia remembered something. "Ah! Another thing! We'll need yet more trees because we'll soon be installing telegraph wires the length and width of the kingdom. Later on we'll be doing the same with power lines, I imagine. We can source those from other areas since we'll be using them all over. So, for those we'll need trees that grow fast, with a single trunk that just goes up and up, some kind of fir or pine is what we used at home."

The botanist nodded again. "I know of pine trees which grow fast, milady." He considered. "Perhaps here in the far north of Palarand, where the climate is warmer, we may try tree types which fare better than in the cooler south. In fact, I have seeds of several species found during my recent travels which may do well here."

Keren frowned. "I thought you traveled to the upper reaches of the Sirrel, Rindal? Surely that must be much further south than we are here?"

Rindal smiled at Keren. "That is what most believe, Highness, but it is not so. It is true that the Great Valley runs from north-east to south-west, so it is reasonable to suppose that the river must do so also. But even the Great Valley comes to an end, and in those remote regions the river curls to the north, passing through a semi desert region before entering the grassland which lies to the north of Palarand. The source of the Sirrel, which I did not reach, appears to lie in a belt of heavy jungle far to the north of the grassland. I believe that is where some of our traders obtain their exotic woods, tropical spices and rare gemstones."

Keren nodded thoughtfully. "As you say, Rindal. I did not know what you have just told me. The official maps do not give much detail of what lies beyond those lands which border Palarand or the Great Valley. You will take this knowledge to the palace, so that it can be added to the maps?"

"Of course, Highness. If I had not been directed to come to Blackstone by the King then describing my travels for the archivists is one of the duties I would have been doing today." Rindal turned to Garia. "Milady, I am overwhelmed by what I have been shown and told today. I will attempt to provide what you have requested of me, but I must advise you that it may be a year or two before we know which crops and trees may best suit the soils of your lands."

"I wouldn't expect anything else, Master Rindal. Thank you for your help."

"And myself, milady?" Jerrit asked. "What is it you wish of me?"

"I'm not so clear on that, Master Jerrit," Garia replied. "My best guess is this. Master Yarling is our mining expert, but all his experience is on finding valuable ores such as gold, silver, tin and copper. Like yourself, the miners regarded coal as a nuisance to be avoided wherever possible. Therefore, he has little knowledge of how and where coal is to be found and the best methods for getting it out of the ground."

She looked at Yarling and he nodded agreement.

"One big difference," she continued, "is that coal seams can be a lot bigger than the usual ores the miners look for. For instance, at the higher end of the town there is a coal seam at least five strides thick." Jerrit's eyes widened. "What I think you need to do is to work with Master Yarling and combine your experience to enable us to find coal and to get it out of the ground safely and efficiently." She smiled. "At the same time I promise that both of you will learn more about the rocks in the ground than you had ever imagined. Do you think that you can do that for us?"

Jerrit looked at Yarling for a long moment before returning his attention to Garia.

"Aye, milady, if the guildsman is willing. I am, after all, a Questor, and if I may learn more about something I am interested in then I cannot complain." His eyes strayed to Yarling's samples. "You have already hinted at a mystery here which I am anxious to discover the answer to."

"As am I," Rindal agreed.

Garia sat back in her chair. "Okay. Are you two agreed on why you have been sent here and what you can do for us? Good. Then, let's add to your knowledge of the world you live in." She smiled again. "Just how old do you think Anmar is?"

She could see the confusion on their faces. Whatever they had expected to be asked, that was not one of the questions.

Rindal said, "We do not know, milady. A long time, perhaps. Maybe several thousand years?"

She looked at Jerrit, who replied, "Milady, it is evident that some of the rocks we see around us are ancient. Perhaps as much as a million years?" He studied the expression on her face. "More? How much more, milady?"

"Well, I can't say for sure, since I don't know very much about the age of this world at all. The world I came from, which is called Earth, is estimated to be about four and a half thousand million years old."

Their faces were white, now. Rindal stammered, "You came from another world, milady?"

"Oh, yes. I'll have to tell you part of the story, I guess. Jenet, can you ask Sookie to send in some pel, please?"

~o~O~o~

"Tomorrow, I think," Garia said. "Anyone any objections?"

She looked at those seated round the common room table. Nobody seemed to find any reason to want another date.

"Great. We'll all meet here tomorrow afternoon, then, after lunch. Let's see if we can get most of a plan together then. Jaxen, you have a question?"

"Ah, milady, you made a suggestion when we arrived in town." Garia looked puzzled. "Something about making traveling easier?"

Her face cleared. "Oh, yes! You'll like this. Merry, have you a couple sheets of paper and a pencil? Keren, would you mind moving over so that Jaxen can see what I'm drawing?"

The people sitting round the table rearranged themselves, those facing Garia leaning forward to see what fresh novelty would be forthcoming.

"There was a time," she began, "when the middle of my country was empty. We had colonized both sides but getting from one side to the other involved either a very long sea voyage or a long trek across lands roughly similar to the grasslands to the north."

Rindal asked, "About how far is the journey you describe, milady?"

"Um, about... seven thousand marks or so, Master Rindal. The country consists of rivers, mountains, plains and badlands. Wagons can do it, and did, but, as you have found, they can be uncomfortable at times. Once we had established routes to cross the country it was decided that there was a need to communicate easily from one side to another." She nodded at Jaxen. "That's why your description of the Messenger Service sounded familiar. We had something similar called the Pony Express. Now a pony is an animal about the size of a frayen. The riders would ride them hard from one station to the next then change mounts and continue while their old mount rested."

Jaxen nodded back. "As you say, milady. That is how the most urgent messages are conveyed on the major routes."

Garia continued, "So eventually the amount of mail - letters and packets - became too great for a rider to carry. The most urgent mail was still sent that way but the rest was carried on a special carriage called a stage coach. A stage coach could take the mail but it also had room for passengers who wanted to get somewhere quickly. Let me draw one for you."

Garia sketched out a stage coach, describing the features as she did so.

"The main point about the stage coach services is that they were regular, so that you could always rely on one leaving at, say, the second bell each morning from a particular town. They would do so whether or not they had mail or passengers, since they had to be at the other end of the route in order to come back on time, do you see? You always knew when one would arrive or depart. It's not like now, where the Messenger Agent waits until a bag is full before he sends it. The second point is that a stage coach was fast. Well, fast compared with a wagon. They were pulled by teams of horses, which were like ponies only bigger and stronger. Think of a frayen standing two strides or more high and you'll have an idea of the size I mean."

Jaxen examined Garia's drawings. "Interesting, milady. Of course, we do not have these animals you name. What would you suggest we use instead?"

"Frayen, of course, rather than dranakh. You'll need at least four and possibly six. Of course, if you are full of passengers and mail then you might need more. You would need to change horses - uh, sorry, frayen - about where the normal road houses are, so most of your costs will be in building the stage coaches and in handling the extra livestock."

"Your pardon, milady," Bleskin said. "How is this different than the methods of travel we presently use?"

"Faster, for one," she replied. "Smoother, for another. Stage coaches were built for the comfort of the driver and passengers. With the excellent quality roads around most of Palarand that shouldn't be a problem. Regular, as well. If you needed to go somewhere, you'd just call the agent for your town and arrange a seat on the coach. You wouldn't need to contract a wagon or a frayen just for your journey."

"As fast as a frayen at a canter," Keren mused, "but with the comfort of a carriage. And without the expense of owning or hiring either." He nodded. "I could see that this idea might become popular, especially with the very young or the old or infirm. Presently the only means for such to travel is to hire a wagon, unless you are rich enough to own a carriage."

Jaxen looked thoughtful. "This would be a different kind of business than Master Tanon runs now, milady. His concerns are mostly freight. The carriage of letters is mostly because he already has wagons using those routes. You are talking about letters and passengers only, milady."

"But Master Tanon already runs boarding houses and inns for his drivers and guards," Garia pointed out. "This is not so much of a big step as all that. He has offices and depots in all the major towns in Palarand and far beyond."

"You might need to make it a separate but linked business," Keren suggested. "There's no reason you can't share facilities, like you do already in Tranidor."

"As you say, Highness." Jaxen nodded again. "If I may take these drawings, milady, I will write a letter to Master Tanon and put your arguments to him." He grinned, suddenly. "There is little that you have described to us since we discovered you that has been a waste of breath. I can almost guarantee that my letter will cause Master Tanon to set up such a business as you describe."

~o~O~o~

"You're quiet this evening."

Garia said nothing but just snuggled into Keren's chest. Right at that moment, that was what she wanted. At first, when she had discovered that she was female, her responses to men - and boys - had been at the purely animal level, too low to even be called instinctive. Over time she had learned that her body had definite ideas what it liked and disliked and she had followed her body's responses with interest and a certain amount of trepidation. Over time, with exposure to those in palace and city who she had encountered over the months, she had adapted to her new reality. Now, after more than half a year on Anmar, she had become completely adjusted to life as a young woman and she understood fully why such a woman would wish to find the comfort and assurance of a strong, young man.

Eventually she decided that her man deserved a response.

"As you well know, I've just spent all afternoon talking. I just about managed to get through the evening meal and then Jaxen reminds me about stage coaches. My throat is raw, Keren." She paused. "Not to mention, Kalikan is about to call."

"Oh. I didn't know."

"No reason why you should, is there? I've told Sookie I won't be riding for a couple days or so but it shouldn't affect much else."

"As you say. But, remember, you'll be spending much of tomorrow talking as well."

"I haven't forgotten. If I can get past tomorrow the Call will give me an excuse to take it easy for a day or two." She sighed. "I faintly remember this trip was supposed to give us a chance to relax. We've spent the bulk of the time fighting off people one way or another."

"Aye. Perhaps our ride up Blackstone Vale will be more relaxing. Apart from the odd grakh there shouldn't be anything to cause us problems."

"Yeah, right."

"The... Call. You are managing all right? I haven't noticed any change in you this time."

"Keren!" She thumped his back gently with a fist. "I don't turn into a monster once a month, you know. I sometimes get more emotional, is all." She snuggled again. "Having you here is a great help, though. I'm not sure what I would be like without you."

"Hmph. I had to be good for something, I suppose."

"Silly boy. One day you are going to make a brilliant King."

The courtyard was lit by an oil lamp in each corner but the yard was large and little light was thrown. Keren and Garia stood in the center while Jenet and Feteran kept watch on the covered walk in front of Sukhana's quarters. Behind them, on the balcony in front of the servants quarters over the stables, a bored armsman kept watch. From the open doorway into the common room could be heard the faint sounds of laughter as the men who would take the night watch played dice before starting their shift.

"You seem to have started something, Garia," an amused Keren said. "It seems that there is an agreement between your senior maid and the commander of your men. Do you approve?"

"Of course I do! I'm not going to stand in the way of other people's happiness."

"As you say. And then there's Sookie and the smith, not to mention the smith's daughter and that young man who wants to join your armsmen. It seems that wherever you go, people are pairing up."

"Don't think I hadn't noticed, Keren. Oh, you forgot Merry and that young man who lives in Dekarran. Tell me, are weddings expensive in Palarand?" She hesitated. "And what about the most important pairing up of all? At least to you and me? Have you reached any conclusions yet?"

"Oh, Garia! Don't think I haven't tried. All I have concluded so far is that we shall be part of one anothers' lives in the future, that much is certain. Wait, I haven't finished! Whether we shall be as man and wife is a different matter. I cannot answer this riddle."

"We can't keep putting it off, Keren. You know what I want and I know what you want. What neither of us is sure of is what your parents want, or what Palarand wants."

"Maybe. Perhaps the riddle will be answered when we explore your vale."

"Maybe not! What will you do then? Put it off some more?"

Keren's shoulders slumped. "We have until we return to the palace to give our answer, I think. Perhaps not even then."

Garia was beginning to become annoyed. "Have you thought that perhaps your father is testing to see if you're indecisive? Nobody likes a ruler who doesn't make the tough decisions."

Keren was silent for a while, then, "Is that what you think, Garia? Do you also think that nobody likes husbands who won't make tough decisions? I'm sorry, I have to discover the root of this puzzle for both our sakes. Our whole future - Palarand's future, indeed - depends on what I decide. That is a big burden for any man."

"I'm sorry, Keren! I didn't mean to sound as if I doubted you. I trust you, and I trust you to make the right decision when the time comes."

"Aye. But to find the answer, I must first know the question. That has always been the problem."

Garia drew in a breath. "It's beginning, I think."

"What is?"

"The monthly female fun. Keren, I think I'll have to say good-night to you now. I have a late appointment in the bath-house."

"Oh. I'm sorry you have to put up with all this."

"If it means I can have children, Keren, maybe your children, I'll put up with it. Good-night."

Keren's head bent down to meet her face, which tilted up. The kiss would have drawn sparks from any nearby metal.

"Good night, Garia."

Keren watched Garia walk off into the darkness toward Feteran and Jenet.

My children.

"Good night, my love," he said softly.



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