Somewhere Else Entirely -112-

At the ending of the year there are two important occasions Garia must attend. First comes the last ever gathering of the Guilds of Palarand before they merge to form a new combined engineering institute. Then, as the old year ends, there is the festival of Midwinter's Night, where each family gathers together to remember the past and prepare for the new year to come.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

112 - Midwinter's Night


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) 2011-2014 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.


12th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

The Castle in Virgulend, about the 4th Bell of night



My Dearest Love,

This journey has not been, so far, as I expected. Those who I thought indifferent are close friends while those I deemed friends are less so. I expected a warm greeting by Duke Mariswin but it seems he has many concerns that needed my attention before he would offer alliance.

It did not help that his brother was presently in residence when I arrived. I tried to be polite but words were exchanged and Mariswin was forced to order Jarwin to withdraw. I regret this changed the atmosphere and made my task more difficult.

Fortunately Marshal Dalbinar was more helpful, assisting me in obtaining the alliance we desired and providing me with the latest news. Perhaps you were right, perhaps I am not as good at this as I imagined.

I wish I had thought to bring a typewriter on my travels! The amount of writing I have had to do, my poor fingers ache as ours did when we were in Blackstone. It would have been a useful thing to show to my hosts, since some were skeptical about the inventions you bring. A steam engine, even a small one, would have been too much for a pack beast. Nobody refused the presents of forks, though!

I miss having you near me, dearest. I didn't realize what difference you make in the palace, that I have not felt elsewhere on my travels. I am anxious to be back again by your side, sharing in your projects and adventures.

The river has become difficult, I am afraid. Do not depend on any letters from me, I do not know how long they may take. I know this is hard for you but it will not be for long. I will soon return to stand beside you.

Until we are in each others arms again,

Keren



"Well at least you did get his letter," Merizel observed. "I wondered if he would arrive back before any more could get here."

Garia pulled a face. "Looks like it might be the last one for a while. Does the river often act up in winter?"

Merizel shrugged. "I have no idea, Garia. Remember, the Sirrel stopped flowing past South Reach centuries ago. I think I would believe Keren, though. He has had to cross it what, twice already?"

"So the Queen says. I just hope he isn't thinking of doing anything stupid, that's all."

"What? The only place he can go from Smordan is into Joth, unless he makes a long detour around the south." There was a pause. "Oh."

"Oh. Exactly. I know what I'd do if I was there but then I'm not going to be the next King, am I? It's so frustrating! I have no idea how far apart all these places are! I just hope he understands the risks, that's all."

"Are you going to say anything to anyone else?"

"Me? Heck, no! If they can imagine him doing such things, that's fine. We'll keep our own suspicions to ourselves, won't we, Merry?"

"As you desire, Garia." Her eyes narrowed. "What date did you say he wrote that?"

Garia perused the letter. "The twelfth, it says here. Hey! It's the seventeenth today, isn't it? Five days to get here?"

"Four. He wrote it after dark, it would have been sent first thing the morning of the thirteenth, and it arrived here late last night." Merizel shrugged. "As I have no idea how far it has traveled either, I don't know if that's good or bad. Did I tell you Fulvin found me a box to put your letters in? Shall I fetch it for you?"

"If you insist."

Merizel skipped through the bedroom into Garia's dressing room, returning with a lacquered wooden box about as long as her forearm and half as wide.

"Here! What do you think?"

Garia pulled a face. "If you say so, Merry. Here you are."

Merizel opened the box, lifted out the letter inside, added the new one to the bundle and tied a pink ribbon around them before returning them to the box. She closed the lid before beaming at Garia.

"There! All safe and sound, for when you want to read them again."

As she walked off to replace the box Garia asked her maid, "Is this what girls do, Jenet?"

"Having lived only in the palace, Milady," Jenet replied, "I could not say. I can tell you that both Elizet and Malann had such a box. Of course, it helps if one can read, Milady."

"Oh!" Garia reddened. "How thoughtless of me, Jenet. I didn't think."

"Not so, Milady. While I may yet only have the rudiments of my letters I can observe what others of higher status do. I just have not observed that many in my life so far, Milady."

"That's told you," Merizel said, returning to the sitting room. "So, are you looking forward to today's outing?"

"Yes and no." Merizel poked her tongue out at Garia, who continued, "Last time it was amazing, Merry, but this time it will be both interesting and sad, as it will be the end of the Guild system in Palarand. I don't know what ceremonies there will be or how long it will take." She added thoughtfully, "The food will be good, you can be certain of that."

"Who's coming with us? You, me, the King and Queen, all our maids. Is Milsy invited?"

"Yes, and Senidet, and both their maids as well. There will be more females in that building than there have ever been before. Jenet, I'm assuming that your discussions with the Guild officers have been satisfactory?"

"Aye, Milady. Some of the toilets have been rebuilt to accommodate us, but it was not intended that so many would attend at once. Today will be an unusual occurrence."

"As you say. I think we'll manage, won't we? It isn't as if we'll all be there all day."

"As you say, Milady."

Garia looked at the table, which she could barely see beneath the weight of paperwork.

"Right. I'd better try and clear some of this before we have to get changed. How much time do we have before we go?"

"About a bell and a half, Milady."

"So. Merry, have you looked at this note from Hurdin? He's talking about that new hand-mirror idea they thought up in Blackstone. He says..."

* * *

"Are you ready, my dear?"

"We are, Sire."

At the front porch five carriages were drawn up waiting for their occupants to board. The King and Queen would take the first one, naturally, and Garia and Merizel would take the next, together with their maids. Milsy and Senidet would have the third and Haflin, Fulvin, Pitchell and Tarvan were in the fourth, with some other selected palace guildsmen using the final one. Surrounding the procession were two mounted files of the Palace Guard in full ceremonial attire and weaponry.

"Then let us seat ourselves. Coming, dear?"

Robanar ushered Terys to their carriage and saw her seated before climbing in himself. The others found their own seats and the procession pulled out of the palace courtyard. Unlike the first time they had visited the Hall of the Guilds, the day was fine and sunny, if somewhat cold. This time Garia was able to see the sights of the city as they drove through. The streets were busy, with people taking advantage of the weather to finish up their preparations for the forthcoming festival, and those on the sidewalks stopped and cheered as the procession wound by.

Waiting on the steps of the Hall of the Guilds was Hurdin, in his capacity as the present Master of the Hall. He bowed before Robanar and then waited until everybody had dismounted before gesturing at the double doors behind him.

"Your Majesties, Guildsmen and Guildswomen, welcome." He smiled. "I'll save all the formalities until we are seated as this is an unusual meeting. If you would follow me, Sire."

As they walked through the richly-decorated corridors Garia's thoughts went back to her first visit here.

It was when I first realized that I could think seriously about... boys... and not be grossed out. She shivered. It was the first time I realized there was something special between Keren and myself, although back then I really had no idea what was happening to me.

"Garia? You looked funny for a moment."

"It's nothing, Merry. Just remembering the first time I came here." She smiled. "I'm so pleased that you get to come here as well. It shows how much things have changed since that visit."

"Aye, though I still think I am unworthy of such an honor."

"Not so, Mistress Merizel," said Pitchell from behind them. "I have examined your work and without exception discovered it to be well above the quality I would expect from a journeyman - or woman."

Merizel ducked her head, blushing furiously.

"Master Pitchell," Garia told him, "You have embarrassed Merizel with your kind words. We all know how good she is at what she does."

"Aye, Guildmistress, and it proves how short-sighted the guilds were to ignore the fairer members of our society. She makes a fine example for others who may wish to apply to the new Institute." He coughed. "As do you, Guildmistress, of course."

If there's anybody here today who is a fraud, it's me. All I have is what I remember. Most of these here today are way brighter than I am.

"If you say, so, Master Pitchell."

As the group reached the double doors they were pulled open from inside. Hurdin stepped through first and waited until everybody else had joined him.

"All rise for your King and Queen!" His voice could be heard throughout the hall, as the rumble of conversation had ceased the moment the doors had opened. "King Robanar of Palarand attends our hall, accompanied by Queen Terys. They are joined today by Guildmistress Garia, Guildmaster Haflin and some few guildsmen and guildswomen from the palace."

The men, who had all stood when Robanar entered, all began applauding as Hurdin led their party around the diners to the top table. Along the way Merizel, Milsy and Senidet were intercepted and led to one of the lower tables, to be seated alongside several other guildswomen. When all were positioned in front of their chairs, the applause died away and Hurdin spoke again.

"Your Majesty, Your Majesty, please be seated."

Once the King and Queen had made themselves comfortable everyone else sat down. Garia took the opportunity to check out the room. The first thing she noticed that there were more tables than before. The previous meeting had been a special one, called at short notice and mostly limited to Guildmasters, for the express purpose of making Garia a Guildmistress. Today, by contrast, there were more guildmembers and even journeymen and women present. This meant that in front of the top table there were six long tables crammed into the hall. Those at the far sides would have to crane their necks round to see their King.

Another difference was that a protocol had been established for the existence of maids. Every seated woman had a maid standing behind her chair ready to do whatever was required, in addition to the men the Hall normally employed for service. Hurdin stood again and the Hall quieted.

"Your Majesties, Guildsmen. Our lunch here today is a special one, a historic one and in some ways a sad one, as it is the last ever meeting of the Guilds of Palarand by that name. When we next attend, we will be another body, a single body for all the craftsmen and engineers of our great country. I will leave the speeches until later, for now, let us eat."

This time there was no puzzlement of the use of forks. Every guildsman had one now, as did a significant proportion of those who lived in the city. Infiltration of the eating implements to the wider countryside and smaller towns would take many months, if not years. Forks, after all, still had to be purchased in order to be used.

Garia looked out over the tables as she ate. Everybody here knew her now, even if she did not know all of them. There was no fuss over the presence of women at their tables, in fact Milsy was in an earnest discussion with someone she thought was a papermaker and Senidet was explaining herself to a man who might have been a mason. It seemed they were both being taken seriously and not patronized.

The servants and maids cleared the plates and Hurdin stood again.

"On the last occasion that His Majesty joined us for lunch, it was to witness an extraordinary event in the history of the Guilds of Palarand. That was the installation of our first ever Guildmistress, Lady Garia of Blackstone. She proved several things to us, firstly that someone so young could be so knowledgeable. She did not need to undergo an apprenticeship or prove herself with years as a journeywoman but received her knowledge while yet a child. This shows plainly that we have seriously underestimated the amount of knowledge or experience someone so young may obtain. His Majesty no doubt has some scheme whereby this flaw in our methods of learning may be corrected.

"Secondly, she is a woman. She proves by merely existing that we ignore the fairer members of our land at our peril. Guildmistress Garia has herself revealed others who are of like bent, firstly, her own secretary who has become a fine Journeywoman Scribe. Then there is Guildswoman Milsy, who before she encountered the Guildmistress was but a kitchen worker in Castle Dekarran. Once she arrived at the palace she demonstrated that she was more clever than those who taught her. We found it necessary to make her Guildmember immediately, since her contributions to clock-making and the new study of Electricity could not be denied. Lastly, there is Journeywoman Senidet, daughter of Blackstone's own smith, who has shown a rare understanding of the making and interpreting of the drawings we must needs use to continue our various crafts.

"Guildmistress Garia has shown us one final thing, and that is the thing that brings us here today. She has shown us that we must needs change ourselves to meet the future and that is because there will be great overlap between the different crafts and disciplines to achieve that which must be done. To do that, the separate Guilds of Palarand will cease to exist in four days' time, to emerge in the new year as The Royal Palarand Institute of Engineers. A single body, containing all of us, with, for the present, a department representing each Guild. In time we may discover some better means of organization but for now that will suffice.

"Today, Guildsmen and Guildswomen, I ask you to remember the past, because the toil the Guilds have done for Palarand was honorable and made our fair land what it has become today. I ask you to think of the future, since the demands which will be pressed on us are already great and we must find some way to meet them. I ask you to think of the present, of those guildsmen, aye, and guildswomen, who toil today handling more work we could ever have dreamed of, before the Guildmistress came to live with us."

Without a word everybody stood, goblet in hand. Haflin, looming large at the back of the hall, proposed the toast.

"To Guildmistress Garia, in gratitude for the work she has given us. For the new devices and ideas she has brought us. For showing us the future."

The response was from every throat, including that of the King and Queen.

"Guildmistress Garia."

Haflin hadn't finished, however.

"May she have a long and productive life, guiding the Institute in its future affairs. May she have a long and fruitful life as our next Queen of Palarand."

"Guildmistress Garia."

Hurdin turned. "Your Majesty."

Robanar stood and Hurdin regained his seat.

"Guildsmen and women," Robanar began. "I can only echo what the Master of the Halls has said. When Garia arrived, unannounced, at our court we did not know what to think. A young girl, alone and wearing strange clothes... The tale she told was even stranger, and we sought with difficulty to understand what she told us. It did not take long for her to demonstrate to us that her story was true and we understood that her coming was a sign that things must change."

There was a certain shuffling in the hall at that statement. Robanar waved a dismissive hand.

"Oh, I do not think magic was involved, or gods, or anything like that. Rest assured I do not propose to overturn the findings of the Great Convocation. However, the test the Convocation made for those who claimed any power or belief was always, prove it. Garia proved within a week of arriving at the palace that she knew more than anyone, Guildsman or Questor, living in Palarand. She comes from a world where their society is like ours may become in two hundred years' time.

"Guildsmen, she also made it clear that what was to come would come in any event, whether she was here or not. On her world, however, their Industrial Revolution was long, dangerous, difficult, unpleasant for many and fraught with mistakes and accidents. It seemed to me that we could take her advice and bypass many of those errors which her world made, and for that reason I support her efforts completely. You know what is to happen to Palarand in the coming years, Guildsmen. This time, with that knowledge, let us do it right."

Robanar sat and the applause began. Haflin stood again and proposed the next toast.

"His Majesty the King!"

There was an immediate response and the toast was echoed by all. Then it was Garia's turn. There was a churning in her stomach as she stood.

I thought this would get easier with time. It will damn well have to, if I become Queen.

"Your Majesties, Guildsmen. Thank you for your kind words. I am here on Anmar by accident, and Palarand has been kind enough to take me in. Your country is now my country. I'm still not sure I'm really qualified to be a Guildswoman, let alone a Guildmistress, so I'll say what I said before. It is an honor, and I'll try to live up to your standards as best as I can.

"This lunch isn't about me, though, it is about the ending of your Guilds, an ending I inadvertantly brought about. As the King said, it would probably have happened eventually, but between now and then I can imagine there would have been a lot of in-fighting, a lot of jostling for power and influence." There were some looks from the tables which showed her words had found a mark. "You need each other too much to permit any rivalry between Guilds any more. You are all colleagues, all necessary to each other for the future to be successful."

She smiled. "And if you make a little more coin on the side, who is to complain? I won't say much more except, what has happened so far is only a bare beginning. You have a lot of surprises to come, a lot of new and unexpected ideas you must figure out how to handle. Expect the unexpected. Be prepared for unintended consequences. Think big. Think of your countrymen, how they will adapt to that new future. Think of other countries, how they might react to the wealth that will flow out of Palarand. Think of the land, how you might by accident or design despoil it, and find ways to avoid that happening or to clean it up afterwards.

"That's all, Guildsmen and Guildswomen. I'll finish with a toast of my own, if I may. The Guilds of Palarand. An honorable beginning to what I hope will be a great future for all of us."

Everybody stood. "The Guilds of Palarand."

Hurdin stood again as everyone regained their seats.

"I declare this final meeting of the combined Guilds of Palarand to be closed. The next time we meet, in the second week of the new year, we will be members of The Royal Palarand Institute of Engineers. There are many details still to be decided so for now we will continue with the existing arrangements. That is all. With your permission, Sire?"

As soon as everybody left their seats they converged on Garia. Hurdin had to put up his hands to stop the mob.

"Guildmembers! Please! So many of you cannot attend the Guildmistress at the same time. I know she has many demands on her time -" a steely glance at the other Guildsmen, "- so I must ask you to apply at the palace if you desire her attention."

There were many looks of disappointment at that request. Hurdin turned to Garia.

"I trust you may satisfy those who wish to consult you in due time, Guildmistress?"

"I wish I could say yes," Garia replied. "Unfortunately, Marshal Forton needs to talk with me and I'm also handling a project for Princess Eriana. We are also concerned about the progress of Prince Keren."

"Of course. But you find time to speak to our Guildsmen, Guildmistress?"

"I do. Also with Questors, the Palace Wardrobe, the new Signals Department and I don't remember who else. Guildmaster, I try but there are so many demands on my time."

"Aye," Robanar rumbled. "I do not want my adopted daughter overworked, do you hear?"

"Perhaps I'll have more time in the new year," Garia added, more in hope than expectation.

"As you say, Sire, Guildmistress."

As the royal party walked through the corridors on their way out, Robanar bent to Garia.

"My dear, that was a very thoughtful and mature speech you gave."

"It was, Sire! I knew I'd have to say something and I didn't want to go repeating all you and Master Hurdin had said, so Merizel, Milsy and Tarvan helped me work out something to say. Of course I had to swap things around once you had both spoken but I think I got my point across."

Robanar grunted. "As you say, my dear. It does nothing but confirm how right we were to make the choices we did, back when you first arrived."

"Thank you, Sire." Garia was silent for a while as they walked, then added, "We still have a war to fight, Sire."

"Aye, my dear. Let us hope you can give us the advantage we need to prevail."

"So do I, Sire. Um, Sire, have you heard from Keren? I had a letter this morning but it doesn’t really say very much."

"Dear," Terys said from the other side. "Does he not profess his love for you?"

"Of course, ma'am! I meant, he doesn't say much about the situation or those he was meeting. I wondered if he had told you or the King any more."

Robanar replied, "Only of the negotiations with Mariswin, Garia. I expect to receive a much longer letter once he has reached Smordan, that being the furthest he may safely travel. While there he may learn the temper of those lands nearer Yod, those who have already been violated by the invader."

"Oh. As you say, Sire."

"Here are our carriages. You will join our meeting of the War Council this afternoon?"

"At your command, Sire."

~o~O~o~

"Ma'am, I'm getting worried. We've heard nothing from Keren for four days."

It was Midwinter's Eve, and Garia and Terys were waiting for Robanar to appear to begin the evening meal.

"I know, dear. I am just as worried as you. But, do you not trust your man? Do you not deem he must needs judge every action he makes carefully, that he may not place himself in any peril? The weather these last few days has not been good, perhaps it is that which prevents his letters from reaching us."

Garia's brow furrowed. "You're right, of course, ma'am. That storm that blew through yesterday was bad, wasn't it? I guess I wouldn't like to be crossing the Sirrel when that lot appeared." She brightened. "Just as well it only lasted three bells or so, wasn't it? Do you think there will be another one tonight, ma'am?"

"I hope not, dear. There have been occasions when we have held the gathering in the Receiving Room because of the weather but the last one was so crowded and there are even more of us now. I do not think we would all fit."

"As you say, ma'am." Garia felt guilty again. "I think I'm to blame for most of the extras, ma'am. What with all the armsmen and Merry and Milsy and Tarvan and the clerks and accountants -"

"- and your stable staff, dear. But there is also Eriana and her people, of course. Presently there are only three apart from herself, but soon there may be another twenty-five or thirty." Terys emitted a sigh. "The King is responsible for some of the additional people as well, dear. Remember, we are now at war and Haflin has extra help in his workshop, Bowdran has more leatherworkers, not to mention the new clerks to consider the supply situation. You are not entirely at fault, dear. Do not concern yourself."

"Thank you, ma'am. I think finding ourselves a property in the city can only help as time goes on, though."

"Perhaps you are right, dear. Thinking of which, have you spoken to Master Levanar recently? He sent me a courtesy note but I am puzzled by what you wanted to speak to him about. Something to do with a moneylender in Tranidor, I believe?"

"Oh, yes! ma'am, I had his letter but," Garia rolled her eyes, "you know how busy we've been. I think I'd probably have met him by now if it hadn't been for Eriana and the whole getting betrothed thing."

"As you say, dear."

"Do you remember, a long time ago, I told you about banks? The moneylender in Tranidor... what was his name? Oh, Moshan, that's right, we met him at Trosanar's castle on the way back from Blackstone and I described a bank to him. He sounded interested so we've been exchanging letters on the details. Master Levanar is going to open a branch of the bank here in the city once we decide how it is going to operate."

"A bank? My dear, your memory is better than mine. I do remember a discussion but there have been so many..." Terys smiled fondly at Garia. "You are so full of ideas, dear, and sometimes it can become confusing, especially when we do not see the result of an idea straight away."

"As you say, ma'am." Garia thought carefully. "I think... I'm going to have to sit down with you and the King sometime and explain fully what I mean by a bank. You see, in almost every country on Earth, the country itself, or rather the government of that country, also operates a bank, in order to manage the country's wealth."

"As you say. But, what is a bank? I understand it is like a moneylender, but I'm not sure -"

Kendar banged his staff and announced the King.

"- we will have to wait, dear," Terys concluded. "Let us eat now and then prepare ourselves for the gathering."

Robanar approached and everyone in the room paid their respects.

"Dear," Terys said to him, "Garia speaks of banks. Do you remember such a talk before?"

The King nodded. "Aye, my dear. Though not in great detail." He turned to Garia. "Is this something of importance, Garia?"

"It could be delayed, Sire, but Levanar in the city and Moshan in Tranidor want to get one going by the Spring festival. It should make a big difference to the way money, uh, coin flows around the country. It occurred to me that the State itself should have one, meaning yourself, Sire."

"Coin, eh? Very well, have that clever secretary of yours find a bell when we three may speak, if you would." He held up a finger. "One bell only, I can permit. I am too busy, as well you know."

Garia gave him a twisted smile. "You have as much as a full bell free, Sire? Tell me the secret."

Robanar laughed at that. "Your wit lightens our evening, Garia. Come, let us be seated, the others are looking restive."

As they ate, Terys said to Robanar, "We were talking about Keren, dear, before we spoke of money matters. Have you heard anything recently?"

Robanar shook his head. "Not since that last letter, what, four days ago? Why? Are you concerned over his safety?"

"I am, dear, and so is Garia, as you might expect."

"I would not worry, my dear, and neither should you nor Garia, not yet. The weather is bad enough that letters may take many days from such a distance, as you well know." He waved a hand. "He is smart - both you and Garia know that! He can take care of himself."

Garia asked, "Suppose Yod got hold of him, Sire?"

Robanar's expression was stiff. "Do not think of such a thing, Garia. Those of Yod have already committed so much evil, I would lay their land waste if they took my son."

"Sorry, Sire. I shouldn't have mentioned it."

"It is natural for you to be concerned, my dear, especially when he is so far away. Let us speak of more pleasant things instead."

"As you say, Sire."

Terys said, her voice low, "This will be the first time we have celebrated Midwinter's Night without any of our children, my dear. Have you thought of that?"

"It was inevitable, my dear," Robanar replied. "Our daughters are grown, married into other families and with families of their own now. Even though Keren remains, we could never guarantee that he would be here every winter for such a gathering. We do have Garia, of course. Since we adopted her, she will share our gathering with us, as is proper."

Garia asked, "What will happen, ma'am?"

"Tonight is the longest night of the year," Terys explained. "Every family in the Valley gathers together to remember the year past and to prepare for the year to come. Each person holds a candle and there may be speeches, there may be songs. It can vary from family to family. In the palace, everybody is part of our family, so we gather on the training field since there is no room in the palace of sufficient size. You should enjoy it, dear. Jenet will make sure you are warmly attired against the cold."

Eriana was listening to this explanation.

"Sire, Ma'am, in Einnland we also celebrate the changing of the year. There is usually a huge fire of wood, around which there will be singing and dancing, whole animals roasted before the fire and considerable quantities of ale will be drunk. Our festival is known by the name Yule, which is thought to come from the Gods we followed before we came to Anmar."

Garia nodded. "That's right, Eriana. We have Yuletide now on Earth, though it has been taken over by our modern religions."

"Ah? So much is a mystery to us, Garia. We have stories and sagas, it is true, but many think them little more than tales of fantasy. It is hard to know what is real and what is not. I am pleased to learn that Yule is real."

"Do you have a winter celebration at home in Kansas, Garia?" Terys asked.

"It's complicated, ma'am, as usual. There's two celebrations - no, three, really. The first would have been about a month ago and we call that Thanksgiving. I think that's about the closest that we have to what I understand will happen tonight. Then we have Christmas which... when I think about it now, is almost unbelievable. It seems to me that it is a great way for people to send each other gifts they do not want, eat lots of food they don't need and generally indulge too much."

"Sounds like Yule to me," Eriana remarked.

"Perhaps, but the shops sell stuff for Christmas months ahead. You just can't avoid it. Okay, there's singing, and soppy stories that come out every year, but it's really all about the shops and manufacturers making money." She pulled a face. "I think we could talk about that one day, Sire."

"As you say, Garia."

"Christmas is supposed to be about the birth of God's son as a human," Garia explained, then shook her head. "If I were to tell you the story you'd want the background and we'd be here all night. It's very complicated."

"God's son?" Eriana asked. "Which God is this, Garia? Do you speak of the God of the Saxons? The All-father?"

"Sort of, Eriana. Only, it's complicated, like I said. A week after Christmas there's a third celebration, New Year's Eve, which generally means a get-together, family if you can, friends if you can't, with some food and drink and some good music and generally have a good time. At midnight itself there are often fireworks -" Garia stopped. Fireworks meant explosives, and that was a sensitive subject right now. "- um, I can't really describe those, perhaps I'll leave that for another day, Sire, if I may."

"As you wish, Garia."

"I wonder," Terys mused. "I like the idea of a big, blazing fire we could all gather round, dear, particularly if the weather is cold. It is too late this year, of course, but perhaps we could consider something like that next year?"

Robanar grunted. "It is a thought, my dear. I liked the idea of an outdoor roast, though that would be more complicated to arrange." He nodded. "Perhaps we may consider such a change next year, my dear. Eriana, thank you for telling us of your peoples' celebration. We may consult you later about the details."

"Humph," Terys said, but she was not serious. "I suspect you were more interested in the large quantities of ale Eriana mentioned. We'll see."

"Who, me?" Robanar said, with an air of innocence.

Terys said nothing, just gave Eriana and Garia a knowing look.

As the tables were being cleared there was an interruption. A palace servant with a messenger headband came into the room, almost running, and stopped by Robanar's chair.

"What is it?"

"An urgent message, Sire."

Robanar held out his hand for the yellow-ribboned scroll the man held and he looked embarrassed.

"Sire, I regret that it is not for you, it is for Baroness Blackstone."

Garia started. "Me? Who could be sending me urgent -"

Her blood ran cold as she held out her hand to receive the scroll.

It's Keren! Something's happened to him!

Feverishly she pulled the ribbon off and unwrapped the scroll, to find she was looking at a semaphore message form. Hastily she scanned down it, becoming more and more confused by the minute.

"But I don't understand..."

"Garia?" Merizel held out her hand. "Would you like me to look at it? I can decode the message symbols for you if you like."

"As you wish."

Garia handed the message across the table to Merizel while Robanar and Terys looked on, concerned. Chatter in the room had died down with the appearance of the messenger, in case it had been bad news, but now there was complete silence as Merizel worked her way through the coding.

"It says here... BLAM to PALP, that's Blackstone Main to Palarand City, Palace, um, P3, that's priority three, that's very urgent, to Baroness Blackstone, message not coded."

"Blackstone?" Garia asked, "Why would anyone in Blackstone be sending me an urgent message, today of all days? Has there been a bad accident or something? A death?"

Merizel shook her head while reading the message. Finally she looked again at the header and smiled.

"Sire, My Lady, with your permission I would like Kendar to read this message to the whole room. There is nothing in it which must needs be kept confidential."

Garia was feeling more confused than ever. "Merry?"

"It is good news of a sort, Garia. News that concerns the whole Kingdom."

"Then go ahead, Merry."

Robanar added, "You may proceed, Lady Merizel. Kendar!"

The Chancellor came and collected the message form from Merizel and took it to the end of the table. He read it through himself and then smiled before bracing to attention.

"To My Lady Garia," he read in a loud voice, "from her Loyal Steward and the people of her town Blackstone, greetings. We have today received a test message direct from Dekarran by means of the new semaphore network. With the completion of the network it occurred to me that today would be a good day to offer our greetings for your continued health and happiness in the next year. For the people of the Town and Barony of Blackstone, Bleskin."

"Why would he - wait a minute, an end to end test, he said?"

Merizel replied, "Not exactly, Garia. From Dekarran to Blackstone."

Robanar asked Kendar, "What time was that message you hold sent, Kendar? Does it say?"

Kendar read the form. "I am not as familiar with the new system as Lady Merizel, Sire, but if I read this correctly it was sent at a quarter bell before noon today."

"Today?" Robanar leaned back in his chair and blew out a breath. "Astonishing! A message sent from Dekarran to the furthest part of the Kingdom and a reply received, here, in the palace, the same day! Astonishing!"

There was a ripple of applause from the diners at this.

Merek leaned forward. "Milady, do you know how much of the network is completed?"

"No, Captain," Garia shook her head. "In fact I thought you would be more likely to know how much is complete."

"The main routes only, Milady. Tranidor I knew, with a gap at Haligo, which I assume from your message is now completed. I did not know it had been completed from Tranidor out to Blackstone. The route to Brikant is also complete, since there is a military interest in making it so. Kendeven requires more time, since the gap across Crescent Lake presents some kind of technical difficulty." Merek shrugged. "I have no knowledge of other directions, Milady."

Robanar stared at Merek. "So we may send a message, a command, from the palace and it shall arrive anywhere in the Kingdom the same day?"

Merek gave a seated bow. "As you say, Sire, although not every town and village is yet connected to the network. If we can send a message direct to Blackstone, though, it means that most towns and villages will be but a single day away from any semaphore station."

Garia had an idea. "Sire, there is a tradition in my country which you might like to start here, and it involves the semaphore."

"Hmm? What might that be, Garia?"

"Each year, at Christmas, our President makes an address to the whole country. Other countries do similar things, I'm told. You could do that, if there is a way for the message to be routed everywhere at once. There's no Christmas here but I'm sure Midwinter's Night will be just as suitable."

Robanar looked at Garia and then at Merek.

"Sire, there is such a routing, reserved for royal decrees and proclamations. It was more intended for emergencies but I see no reason why it cannot be used for such a purpose." He paused. "However, it is too late to send such a message today, as it is now dark. Perhaps in the future, when we may use the new lanterns for signalling, we may try, but such a message as Milady proposes could be sent tomorrow."

"Will not the semaphore crews be at ease tomorrow, Captain?"

"Sire, the men draw lots for such duties. With such a means to pass urgent messages, perhaps of invasion, we dare not leave the stations unmanned."

Robanar nodded. "I understand, Captain." He turned to Garia. "Yet another good idea we must thank you for, my dear. I will draft such a message and give it to Kendar for sending at first light tomorrow."

"Thank you, Sire. Um, may I send a reply to Captain Bleskin?"

"Of course! Without his quick thinking we may not have grasped the significance of today's events."

Bleskin's a military man. He's understood immediately what almost-instant long distance communications will mean to the country.

"As you say, Sire. I'll get onto it right away, there's time before we have to go outside, isn't there?"

"Aye, Garia. I have my own message to craft. Let us retire, then, and consider the words we might address to our people."

* * *

For the late evening event Jenet suggested a winter gown with a hem that just showed her ankles. There was no snow, and the grass was merely damp, so no need for a shorter skirt tonight. The gown was made from a thick, soft woolen weave that folded round Garia's body like a cozy blanket. Unfortunately it was so warm that she had to leave her coat off for fear of overheating in her chambers. Jenet carried that, as well as her own coat, while Garia insisted on bringing the hats and gloves for both women.

Outside her suite Feteran was waiting with four of her men. Four of the Palace Guard were outside Eriana's rooms and she appeared almost immediately. Tonight Feteran was not in any uniform but rather 'civilian' clothes similar to those he had worn while they were traveling. With a nod of assent from Garia he reached out and took Jenet's free hand as the group of fourteen headed for the rear of the palace.

When they reached the Large Training Room they paused to put on coats, hats and gloves against the cold. There were many of the palace staff already there and engaged in similar activities. Tarvan, Milsy and Senidet appeared with their maids and escort armsmen and before they were fully attired Merizel arrived along with Tandra.

"Well met, Garia. I suppose this will be the first time you have attended anything like this?"

"I don't know, Merry. Until I have experienced one I won't be able to tell you whether it is like anything on Earth or not." She yawned. "We have New Year's celebrations, but of course they are likely to be different than whatever will happen tonight."

"Of course this is the first time I will have celebrated away from my own family, so to speak." Merizel smiled at Garia. "Now, of course, I am part of your family and pleased that you have allowed me to become so."

At the big double doors to the field some servants at a trestle table were handing out candlesticks and candles, which they lit for the recipients. The candlesticks were simple turned wood shapes with a base, a stem to hold, a saucer-like top to catch drips and a depression for the wax candle. This burned with a clear, yellow light. Every person who went through the doors onto the field was given a lit candle.

The night was dark, with only Annis to provide some illumination. The Veil was a summer visitor so was not visible at all during the dark months of winter, when the light might have been helpful. Garia thought of American cities, often so brightly lit that the sky was not visible at all. With her entourage she turned towards the back of the field, where a constellation of candles showed where everybody was gathering.

At the bottom of the field, around and on the stone paving where the pyres were usually lit, she found the rest of her armsmen and all the other servants and retainers she had somehow accumulated over the months, standing slightly separate from the palace servants. Almost all were out of uniform, but that seemed to be the normal practice for this gathering. This was not a place where rank and status were of significance. All made a respectful murmur of greeting as her party joined them.

There was a low murmur of talk as their numbers swelled. It was difficult to see in the dark but the sheer number of candle-points flickering in the growing crowd showed just how many people worked in the palace.

Some of the palace staff must have families of their own, Garia thought. They won't be here tonight, I guess. Or perhaps they have brought their families here? I don't know the custom.

Looking around she could see children of all sizes among the adults. Most parents, by unspoken agreement, filtered forward so that the children were at the front and could see, rather than being hidden by the crowd. A space was left clear in the center, a space blackened by the funerals for loyal palace servants through the years.

A ripple in the crowd signaled the arrival of the King and Queen, just as the bells of the clock indicated a quarter before midnight. Terys came over to stand by Garia, reaching out and taking her hand, while Robanar moved to the center of the cleared space.

"This year has been unlike any other," he began. "You all know the reason why. I regret, I must apologize, that I have made more work for some of you, placed many of you in danger, shocked and surprised some and annoyed others. Such is life in Palarand's service. I must name those who have given their lives for the Crown this year." Robanar recited their names from memory. "I will not list everything that has happened but I'm sure that palace gossip is as efficient as it ever was, so you already know most of it. Personally, the Queen and I have gained a daughter, unexpectedly, and my son and heir has found a suitable bride. If any doubt how suitable she is I would ask them to observe the new clocks which we have placed in each dining hall, the steam engine which pumps our water tirelessly into the cistern in the High Tower and the large panes of glass which are being fitted in many of the palace windows.

"Next year I regret it will be much the same. There will be a royal wedding to prepare for. No doubt there will be other improvements in the palace which will cause some upset before they make our lives better. Do not forget that we are also at war with Yod, an enemy who seems not to understand the rules of war that countries in the Valley have followed for centuries. Even if this war comes not to Palarand itself, we will feel its effects here as our men answer the call and seek to repay the injury done to our lands.

"I will not end on talk of war tonight. The future of Palarand looks bright, my people. There will be more changes but there are always changes. As the old year ends and another begins, let us remember the past, for it will not do to ignore the lessons it teaches us. Let us prepare for the future, for it is never what we expect it to be."

Robanar fell silent and everyone was left alone with his or her thoughts. The silence drew out until it was broken by the clang of the midnight bell. Garia discovered that Terys no longer held her hand, but had an arm around her shoulder while her own arm fit comfortingly around the Queen's waist. She wondered what would happen next but everybody seemed unwilling to break the quiet of the night.

Then, from somewhere in the crowd, a voice began singing very quietly. Soon it was joined by another and yet another. She could not make out the words but she suspected that they weren't in the Valley tongue at all but some older ancestor language. Female voices at first, but then male voices slowly began to add a counterpoint. This was not the crazy music that musicians played at receptions, this was music fundamental to her soul, and it raised the hairs on her neck.

Soon, she began to determine the words that were being sung and she joined in, even though she had no idea what she was singing or what the tune was. It was not a simple tune but one that seemed to never quite repeat itself, instead progressing as more and more voices joined in. Soon the whole crowd was giving full voice to the anthem. When Garia thought it could not possibly get any louder it began to do the opposite, gradually dying away as more and more stopped singing until finally the last few notes were sung by a deep baritone voice she recognized as Haflin's.

He stopped and there was an audible sigh throughout the crowd. Quietly, they turned as one and began trickling back to the palace buildings. Garia wiped her gloved hand over her face, removing the tears on her cheeks, and she noticed other women doing the same.

"What did you think, dear?" Terys's voice was low.

"That was beautiful, ma'am. I never imagined anything could be so moving. I'm not sure adding a fire would be a good idea."

"As you say, dear. Still, we have plenty of time before we must decide on any changes, haven't we? Come, it is getting colder and you are yawning."

Garia yawned again. "You're right, ma'am. It is way past my bed-time. Coming, Merry?"



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