Somewhere Else Entirely -121-

Garia, accompanied by all those women who will be her attendants, goes to the Palace wardrobe to fit the gowns they will wear for her wedding. After lunch, a small party rides about the city looking for a mansion for House Blackstone, finding one near a friendly establishment. Later, a Messenger arrives with an important proposal.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

121 - First Fitting

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) 2011-2015 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.



The large group of women filled the corridor as they walked through the palace. Servants, seeing the mob approaching, hastily backed into cross-corridors or empty rooms to let them pass. Almost all of the group were excitedly chatting to each other and paying little attention to their surroundings or their route. Their destination was easy for all to find. Every woman in the palace knew by heart where the Wardrobe was located.

For this excursion, the group were escorted by four of the palace's new intake of guardswomen, all correctly turned out in their newly-designed uniforms and equipped with long-swords, counter-guard knives and a spear two strides in length. The reason for the escort was the ranking woman of the group, Lady Garia, Baroness Blackstone, who to her immense regret could no longer travel even inside the palace without armsmen or women, such was her importance to the Kingdom.

She was also the one woman not chattering away nineteen to the dozen.

"What's the matter, Garia?" Merizel asked. "Are you not excited by what the seamstresses have wrought? This will be a marriage gown fit for a Queen, which is as it should be. When your day comes, no-one shall deny that you will be worthy of the title."

Garia momentarily closed her eyes. "Don't. I know you are trying to cheer me up, Merry, but I'm still having a hard time seeing myself as a Princess, let alone a Queen."

"Oh, my apologies, this is not..." a boy thing. "...something you would have been accustomed to dreaming about, is it? It is every woman's dream to become a Princess." Merizel leaned closer, conspiratorially. "Between you and me, I think becoming a Princess is enough, myself. I do not envy the Queen her responsibilities."

Garia turned to her friend with a wry smile. "Are you trying to cheer me up or what? When Keren eventually becomes King I'll end up with those responsibilities and probably more besides."

Merizel rolled her eyes. "There's no arguing with you, is there? Why don't you just enjoy this morning like you're supposed to? I know the rest of us certainly will."

"As you say. I must admit to being surprised at the number of us getting fitted today."

"It is traditional for the bride of the Crown Prince, as you have already been told. You need not be concerned, your task is but to walk the chosen path, stand beside your Prince and speak the customary words. The rest of us will be delighted to assist you in your passage to join the one you love."

Behind Garia and Merizel walked every woman of House Blackstone. This was traditional and Garia was relieved that because Blackstone was a newly-founded House her entourage wasn't so much greater. Since this included all the maids the number, to her mind, was still impressive.

It's a wedding, Jim, but not as we know it. Just treat it the same as the other odd ceremonies you have had to attend since you came here. Only difference with this one is, you end up with a Prince once it is over.

"Yeah, I know, Merry," Garia replied with a sigh. "I know I seem like a wet blanket sometimes but I promise not to spoil your fun - just so long as you remind me. I'm relying on you to keep me focused for this - so that means you have to remain focused as well."

"As you command, Milady."

At the entrance to the Wardrobe a line of seamstresses was waiting to take charge of the group. The Head of the Wardrobe stepped forward and curtseyed to Garia as her armswomen took station outside the doors.

"Lady Garia, welcome to you and your attendants."

"Lady Dyenna, thank you for setting aside time to see us all like this."

"It is no trouble, Milady. Of course I have not organized a royal wedding before but this gathering is traditional." Dyenna gestured. "If you would all follow me. I will attend personally to your own fitting and my women will see to your attendants."

As they filed through the chambers Garia asked, "This can't be completely traditional, can it? I mean, don't royal brides usually have their own people to make their gowns?"

"It varies, Milady. When a bride may come from far away, as the present Queen did, then it makes sense for us to sew her attire and that of her attendants. If it was to be a wedding nearby, such as when Princess Malann married Prince Jarith of Vardenale, we were able to provide her attire also." Dyenna turned to Garia as they walked. "In your case, Milady, you have definitely come from a place I would call 'far away'. The Royal Wardrobe is honored to provide you and your attendants with suitable attire."

"Thank you. I just hope this all goes off smoothly. I don't want to cause any fuss if it's possible. It is perhaps just as well Keren isn't marrying Eriana."

Dyenna shuddered. "Maker! I had not considered that prospect! Milady, you need have no fear of upsetting us. Although some of your recent requests have been novel, to my mind, we have found them to be practical and of great utility to the other women of the palace. Today's session will involve only traditional garments so you may put your mind at rest. Ah, here we are."

Rather than one of the many huts still filling one of the courtyards, they entered one of the larger chambers in the palace proper. This was a little like the Royal Questor's laboratory, in that it had a double-height ceiling and windows both sides, one side letting in the sunlight of a crisp, winter morning. Under the windows of the other side were cutting tables while the end walls held shelving loaded with rolls of fabric. At each end was a roaring fire keeping the large space sufficiently warm for the seamstresses, who normally occupied chairs scattered throughout the room. Hanging rails stood with part-finished garments while tailoring dummies held various projects.

"I don't think I've ever been in here before," Garia remarked.

Dyenna pulled a face. "I am told I must not disparage my predecessor, but this room was packed with items from past festivals and ceremonies, most of which were no longer required. Since there was so much in here, the fires could not be lit and so the space was just used as a store. It seemed to me to be a criminal waste of a useful space." Her lips set. "That will not happen again, Milady."

"I agree. With all this light... are you having the new panes of glass put in here?"

"I do not know, Milady. Do you think it would make a difference?"

Garia considered the room and what it might be like in the heat of summer.

"I don't know what the palace guildsmen will tell you, but if it were me I'd put them in on that side only," she pointed to the cutting tables, "because the sun won't come that side. If you have them the other side, you could end up with so much light and heat in summer you wouldn't be able to work."

Dyenna nodded thoughtfully. "As you say, Milady. I will remember that advice. Now if you would come this way."

In one corner of the room stood a table with piles of parchment and scraps of paper. This seemed to be where Dyenna controlled the activity of the room from. Beside it stood two dummies, one with an elaborate undergarment on it.

As Dyenna began unlacing Garia's morning gown, Garia commented, "That petticoat seems a bit complicated, if you don't mind me saying so."

"It is a compromise, Milady. Your gown must needs have an undergarment to provide it the correct shape and fall. The problem is that the time of your wedding is Spring Dawning, and should spring be late this year your attire must provide you warmth during your progress through the city. Should spring be early, however, you would not desire to be too hot, I deem."

"I understand the problem. Where I came from, people with spring weddings have been surprised when we've had a sudden fall of late snow, for example. Or an early heatwave. The weather can ruin the most carefully laid plans."

Garia stepped out of her gown and Dyenna hung it on a nearby rail, turning her attention to Garia's underwear. The petticoat came next, held in place only by tapes. Dyenna looked critically at what was left.

"Oh, yes. I've just begun my Call. Is that going to be a problem?"

"Not at all, Milady. Kalikan rules all women, as you well know, and we must bow to her demands." Dyenna did a quick calculation in her head. "I deem that you will be having your Call when you are wed. Will this cause you a problem?"

How did I miss that? Keren won't be pleased! Well, we've waited this long, a day or three more shouldn't make that much difference.

"I don't think so. Will that make a difference to the fit of everything?"

"We will make the necessary allowances, of course, but in fact if your dimensions today are to be those of the day you are wed then we may achieve a better fit. A bigger matter will be the need for you to take any necessary breaks while you are wearing your gown."

"Oh, yes. I'm going to be in that gown all day, aren't I?"

"That is correct, Milady. If I may later consult with Jenet, she may offer some suggestions."

"Of course. Do what you need to, Dyenna. So, I'm guessing that that petticoat has to come next. Or do you want me to change bras as well?"

"I think what you wear presently will suffice for today, Milady. Here, let me lift it for you."

Dyenna settled the garment and then began tying the tapes to secure it. The bodice was of smooth cotton-like fibers without any adornment that might have shown through the upper part of the gown. The skirt, which fell right down to Garia's ankles in a gentle cone, was composed of a curious collection of layers and pockets.

She picked at one. "How does this work, then?"

"You know how your legs may become very warm in a full-length gown? That is one reason why we prefer a shorter length during the day, especially in warmer seasons. These pockets allow heat to escape from inside, the heat will seep slowly out through the wedding gown itself. That should keep you comfortable."

"Oh, I see." Garia fingered the cloth, noting how the bottoms of the pockets opened inside the garment. "What about when the weather is cold, then?"

"Then, Milady, a simple stitch may close sufficient pockets to keep you warm."

"Ah, right." She tugged at the bodice. "Is this loose, or is it something to do with Kalikan?"

"Again, Milady, it is an attempt to keep you cool by providing a small gap for air to flow. If the weather is not what we expect, then there is room for a fine undervest beneath the petticoat to keep you warm."

"Oh, I see." Garia reddened slightly. "You must think me stupid, asking all these questions. Most ladies must know about all this already."

Dyenna replied, "The staff of the Palace Wardrobe are not indiscreet, My Lady. We do not expect all to have the knowledge and experience that we have, who make such garments each and every day. Besides, I know you come from a place where your attire was entirely different. Your questions are natural, Milady."

My attire was entirely different? That would be one way to put it. You don't know the half of it!

Garia twisted, feeling the petticoat swirl around her, but as a complete unit. The structure meant that it would hold its shape, even after the wearer had been sitting down a while.

"So next must come The Gown, then."

"Not so, Milady. Before we may fit your gown we must put the matching shoes on your feet."

"Of course."

Dyenna lifted two white shoes from a shelf and placed them in front of Garia, holding up the front of the petticoat so that her feet could find them. Garia shucked off the shoes she had worn to come to the Wardrobe and put on the white ones, newly made by the Wardrobe's cobblers. They had a lower heel which was wider, a fact for which she was thankful. Much though she would have liked to appear taller beside Keren, the thought of wearing high heels all day and on rough ground - for that is how the Shevesty Field could be regarded - was unappealing. Lower, safer heels would help her survive the day much better.

"They don't feel too bad," she said.

"Is this the first time you've worn them?" Dyenna asked.

"Sort of. I did a quick size check when the cobbler first stitched the parts together, but this is the first time I have worn the finished product."

"Are they loose, tight, too short, too long?"

Garia wriggled her feet. "A little tight, but then they're new so I expect them to stretch a little like most new shoes. Can I take them away to get used to them? I'll only be wearing them in my suite, so they won't get dirty or scuffed or anything."

"As you wish, Milady, but I will require them returned for some final finishing before the day."

"That's understood."

Garia walked a short distance, getting a feel for the new footwear. This allowed her to see that the rest of the room was full of laughing, chattering, excited women all prancing about and swirling their new gowns.

"I think these will do just fine," she said, returning to Dyenna. "Where's the -"

The second dummy held The Dress. Since this was early in the process, to ensure that the garment fitted Garia the way it was intended to, it was nothing more than a simple full-length gown in undyed silk. Dyenna went to the back of it and began fiddling with the closures to release it from the dummy.

"Your pardon, Milady," she explained. "Instead of the customary lacing Master Fulvin has devised some new kind of arrangement which works well but is fiddly to do up and to undo. This may take me - ah! Just this last one."

The gown came off and Garia stepped into it, carefully feeding her petticoat through the gap in the back. Dyenna pulled it up and Garia slipped her arms into the sleeves. As the seamstress slowly did up the back, Garia had a question.

"What Master Fulvin made, it isn't a zipper, by any chance?"

"Oh, no, Milady! While I find the idea of such devices to be of great interest, such heavy things would never do for such a fine gown as this! This is another idea of his, little squares of silver, made into hooks by one of his new machines and clipped together. They are strong, light and almost undetectable. I do not think they will last for many wearings of the gown, perhaps, but I do not think you will be marrying the Prince more than once, is it not so?"

"I certainly hope not, Dyenna. Something new, you said? If I may have a look after you take it off, please."

"Of course, Milady."

"Oh, and I can tell you that though the zippers Fulvin makes are large and heavy, in time he will learn to make them so fine you'll be able to sew them in gowns like this, no problem."

"Do you tell me? That is interesting news! But I must wait for some years to see zippers such as those."

"Yes, I regret you're probably right. They will come in time."

"They could make a great change in the appearance of a gown, could they not? Yet more ideas for our designers to apply to their craft. Now, Milady, how does that feel? If you could walk over there and turn."

The gown was a very simple shape, having a short round-necked bodice which stopped below the bust, attached to a long skirt which followed her waist, then swelled over her hips before gently broadening to fall to the floor. There was a short train but Garia didn't think it would cause her any problem. The sleeves were slender rather than full but widened from the elbow down to allow some movement.

Dyenna came and walked around Garia, studying the gown carefully. She bent down and adjusted the hem in several places with pins before turning her attention to the upper portions.

"That is good for a first fitting," she said, "there is very little that needs remedy. Two places on the hem, perhaps, and if I may take a half-finger's width from here at the rear," she pinched the cloth at Garia's waist, "then I will be satisfied. Are you comfortable, Milady?"

"It feels good to me," Garia said, and meant it. Once she had gotten used to the feel of silk on her skin she had always liked it, even if she sometimes felt guilty at wearing it so ostentatiously.

"If you would raise your arms, Milady."

Garia did so and felt the silk slide up her arms. There didn't appear to be any obvious tightness at the shoulders, which did occur on some of her riding gear. She lowered her arms and stood waiting.

"There is one final touch, Milady."

Dyenna went to the shelf again and returned with a small silk cap which she clipped to Garia's hair.

"There!" She smiled and stood back to admire her handiwork. Finally she nodded. "Good."

Merizel's voice came from behind. "Aren't you going to turn round, Garia?"

She did so to find all the others standing in a semicircle watching the show. Feeling very self-conscious, she attempted a curtsey and was rewarded with a spontaneous round of applause.

"Ooh, you look so good, Milady, so regal," gushed Lanilla. "Just how I expected a Princess to look."

Some of the others darted in to feel the fabric and Dyenna shooed them away.

"Be careful, girls! We must not damage the material, it is delicate."

"As it should be," Merizel agreed with a smile. "Fit for a Princess, indeed."

All the women Garia had brought with her had gowns in a fairly similar style, cut expertly to each body. The major difference was that the sleeves of their gowns ended at the elbow and there was no train. Garia remembered she had been told that the female attendants to the wedding of a noblewoman were given the gowns as gifts and were expected to use them at their own weddings, should they not already be married.

It occurred to her that several of those in front of her might be making use of their gowns before her own big day.

I'd better have a word with the Queen and soon. If I don't this could all get very complicated.

"Girls, you all look great," she told them. "Now let's get them all off carefully so that Dyenna and her needleworkers can do the rest of the job. They still have a lot to do before we can put these on again."

The process of removal began and Garia could hear Dyenna muttering as she struggled with the unfamiliar fixings. Once off she gave the garment to Garia so that she could see what Fulvin had done. Garia examined the little metal squares while Dyenna undid the tapes of the petticoat.

"Interesting," she said. "I think I see how these work, I'll have a word with Fulvin next time I see him. Do all the gowns have these, Dyenna?"

"No, Milady. It was though best to keep things simple for the other gowns, but you are one only, and special, so he made this effort for you."

"As you say." Garia thought. "Dyenna, A few of my women are going to be married this spring as well as me. Does this mean that they'll be wearing their gowns first? Is there going to be any problem with wear or cleaning?"

"Milady? I know of Mistress Jenet and Mistress Milsy, I assumed their marriages would follow your own."

"Well, that's a problem, isn't it? When I go to the Shevesty Field with the Prince nobody is going to take much notice of anyone else's wedding, are they? I want to go and see the Queen, see if I can do something for my girls."

"That is very thoughtful of you, Milady! What did you have in mind?"

"I want them to get married first and leave the Prince and me till the following day. What do you think?"

Dyenna considered. "In practical terms, Milady, there should be no problem with what you propose. Unless, perhaps the weather is bad for them, which might mean the gowns become dirty. Will they be married in the palace, do you know?"

"I don't, I'm afraid. Oh, and as well as Jenet and Milsy, Senidet will be marrying one of my armsmen and, if he arrives soon enough, I expect Lady Merizel to marry as well." Garia lowered her voice. "He hasn't asked her yet, but anyone who isn't blind can see what is going to happen."

Dyenna's eyes went round and Garia held up a finger.

"Please! No rumors! Some of the girls find this whole business embarrassing enough anyway. I had to make some fairly unsubtle suggestions to Feteran as it was."

"As I mentioned before, Milady, we of the Wardrobe are discreet. Once the wedding plans of your retinue are known, come back to me and we can make detailed plans for the ceremonies." She started. "Oh! Of course all the men will required suitable attire, will they not? Though their garments are easier to make, I must needs apportion time and expertize for their creation. Milady, I must know numbers and locations as soon as you may find it possible."

"Of course, Dyenna. I'll do what I can."

Garia removed the cap and examined it. A simple disc like those worn for religious purposes on Earth, it was again plain undyed silk with a fine wire to hold it in shape. Around the edge was plaited another wire of silver.

"Ah, Milady, when your day arrives there will be fresh flowers woven into the mesh, so that you may wear a coronet of blooms. This is customary for every bride in the Valley."

Garia finished dressing in the clothes she had arrived in and walked into the middle of the chamber, where she clapped her hands for attention.

"Ladies! Things just got complicated!"

There were several sighs, some grins and at least two people rolled their eyes.

"I have to go see the Queen as soon as I can. The gowns you have just taken off are customarily given for your own weddings and it occurred to me that might cause some complications. When I have news I'll gather you all together again and we can work out what we are going to do."

"Garia," Milsy objected, "You're going to marry Prince Keren. Surely you can't do anything about that ceremony?"

"Yes and no." There were giggles. "It's not me, it's the rest of you. Some of you might end up married before I do, so you'll be wearing those gowns twice in a short space of time. Like I said, complications. Now, are we all ready to go?"

There was a chorus of assents. Garia gave a wave to Dyenna and led her mob back into the palace warren. During the journey back to the main part of the structure several groups peeled off until she was left with Merizel, Jenet and Tandra. Questioning a footman revealed that the Queen was presently in the downstairs parlor.

"Ma'am? Would it be possible to speak to you? It won't take long."

"Come in, dear, and Merizel too. Sit down and tell me what it is you desire."

"Um, well, it's like this, Ma'am. A number of my womenfolk are going to get married in the spring and it didn't seem fair to me that their day should be overshadowed by mine, if you see what I mean. So... what I wondered was, perhaps they could get married first, and have their day, and then my wedding could happen a day later. Is there any particular reason I have to get married the day of Spring Dawning, Ma'am?"

"Why, I don't know, dear! And such a wonderful thought, thinking of others before your own needs. Let me see. I think we must needs ask Kendar if there is any reason why a particular day must be chosen but I suspect there is none. Hmm. Delaying your own ceremony by a day may be for the best, as it happens. It means that the Spring Dawning celebrations may go ahead without the fuss of a royal wedding... how many weddings do you propose?"

"Well, there's Jenet and Feteran, of course."

Terys looked up and smiled fondly at Jenet. "I am so pleased for you, dear Jenet. And for Feteran. His father will be delighted."

Jenet curtseyed. "Thank you, Ma'am."

"Then there's Milsy and Tarvan," Garia continued, "not to mention Senidet and Tedenis." She looked at Merizel out of the corner of her eye. "If a certain nephew of Your Majesty ever gets here, there might even be another wedding."

Merizel reddened as Terys beamed at her. "Quite so, young woman. There is but two months until Spring Dawning, do you not write?"

"Ma'am, I do," Merizel replied. "We have even sent messages, short ones, by the telegraph. I haven't heard from him for almost three weeks now. I don't know what is going on."

Terys tutted. "The young folk these days! Still, your situation is like many in these times. Of course, when I married the King I arrived in Palarand to be presented to him and his parents and never left again. The land of my birth is too distant to permit frequent travel. It is ever the same with Elizet, as I expect you know. Merizel, I do not think you have great cause to be worried. Unfortunately neither we nor Garia can do anything until you are formally asked."

"As I understand, Ma'am. Thank you for your comfort."

Terys's eyes narrowed. "Now, if that were to happen -" She shook her head. "Let us not concern ourselves with detail until we know for certain who will do what with whom. Garia, dear, your suggestion has great merit and I will speak with Kendar and with the King later today."

Garia stood and bowed. "Thank you very much, Ma'am. I know it will mean a lot to the others."

Terys smiled at them. "Well, my dears, I think it will soon be time for lunch. Why don't you go and make yourselves ready?"

~o~O~o~

Garia opened the door in her sitting room and stepped out onto the balcony, peering up at the sky.

"What do you think, Jenet? It looks okay to me but I don't know if it might rain later."

Jenet joined her and inspected the thin layer of cloud.

"I know little of weather lore, Milady, but I deem there is little chance of rain today. I regret the cloud will keep the sun away, so it might be cold for you. I do not think you need fear getting wet but you must wear enough layers."

"That's what I thought, Jenet. Come on, the afternoon light won't last that long."

Outside Garia's suite they were joined by Keren and Feteran, both muffled up against the winter temperatures. Both bowed before Keren led them through the palace to the stables. Already present were Merizel, Milsy, Tarvan and Bursila together with Gullbrand and another man Garia guessed to be the guildsman Gullbrand had mentioned.

"Highness, My Lady, we're ready," Merizel greeted them, "but Tandra didn't feel safe riding just yet so Bursila offered to do double duty. This is Loranar, the surveyor Gullbrand mentioned yesterday."

The man bowed. "Pleased to be of service, My Lady."

"Glad you could come along," Garia told him. "You're comfortable riding? Do you know where we're going?"

"I am, Milady, and I know where all the properties are. I have not, of course, had any opportunity to inspect any of them. This has been somewhat sudden."

"Yes, I'm sorry. It has been pointed out to me that vacant properties are likely to be rented out during the Spring Dawning celebrations so we have to find something quick."

"As you say, Milady."

Keren spoke. "Then let us mount and be about our business. Feteran? Your men are ready?"

"Aye, Highness."

The party all collected their mounts, suitably prepared against the cold with blankets and boots, and made their way out of the palace by one of the rear gates. Gullbrand led the way with Feteran, guiding their party through the streets until he inevitably became uncertain which way to go.

Loranar called out, "If you would turn left, My Lord."

"Thank you, Guildsman. Although I came this way but three days since I am not yet used to so large a city. Forgive me."

After some more turns and streets they pulled up in front of a well-kept town house.

"What do you think, Garia?

"I'm not sure, Keren. The only building I really know is the Ptuvil's Claw. Let's go in and see, anyway."

Gullbrand found the watchman who let them in through the carriage entrance. They all dismounted and some of the men were detailed to tend their frayen while they looked around inside. The building had obviously been a well-kept family home and the rooms were bright and clean, with no obvious signs of wear.

"Hmm. It's not as big as the Claw, is it? It would be good enough for me if I was just looking for somewhere to live, but I can't see this being big enough for House Blackstone, do you?"

Keren replied, "As you say, Garia. The stables are decently sized and there are storage chambers behind the kitchens, but I must needs agree with you. There would be no room for Tarvan and Milsy except as a domestic setting."

Garia had thought of something else. "Merry, do you have any idea how many will be coming down from Blackstone for the weddings?"

"Why, no, Garia! I have not had time to consider matters like that. You know very well we have had other concerns. I have no idea who would come or how many."

Garia turned. "Feteran, do you think your father would make the journey down? I would not blame him if he decided it was too far."

Feteran's smile was regretful. "Since I have only today written to inform him, it may be some time before we learn his intentions. I cannot say whether he would attend or not."

Milsy said, "Why should it take so long, Commander? Why not use the telegraph?"

Feteran was startled, as were Keren and Merizel.

"I regret," Feteran said with a sheepish smile, "my mind is not yet accustomed to the speed of the telegraph. Aye, it shall be done, as soon as we return to the palace."

"Where will he stay if he does come?" Garia persisted. "I imagine the palace will be full of Kings and Dukes and whatever elses, not to mention their retinues."

"Do not trouble yourself, Milady," Feteran replied. "Did I not tell you I was his eldest child? I have brothers and sisters in the city where he may find a welcome bed. However, you raise an interesting point, Milady. I deem there will be some number come from Blackstone and, as you have said, the city may be crowded."

"That's why I'm looking at this place. Suppose we rent it for the use of anyone coming from Blackstone? Gullbrand? Can we do that?"

"You can, Milady, so far as I know, although the owners would prefer a sale to a short rental. But first I might ask you to consider the other properties. You may find another to be more suitable for that purpose."

"You're right, of course. Well, in that case I think we'd better move on. There can't be much daylight left."

The next property was some distance from the first, on the other side of the city. Their party rode through almost-deserted streets, most people keeping inside out of the cold. This mansion was much bigger than the first. As before, they dismounted in the courtyard and followed the watchman-come-caretaker inside.

"It is bigger than the Claw, at any rate," Keren remarked. He turned to the watchman. "Who lived here, goodman? What reason is it empty now?"

"Highness, Count Merian owns the mansion. His father acquired it many years since when his family had lands and income from farms to maintain it. The present Count is not so careful with coin and so," he spread his hands wide, "he has retreated to the family castle in Kendeven and wishes to relieve his coffers of this burden. Is it Your Highness's desire to buy the mansion, then?"

"Not me, goodman, but Lady Garia here. She seeks a building which she may call the city home of House Blackstone. If we may visit the other buildings on the land?"

The man bowed. "Of course, Highness. If you would follow me."

The courtyard was wider than that of the Claw but no deeper. The stables ran down past the kitchen block and when they walked through the gap they discovered a huge warehouse behind the kitchens.

"This is more like it!" Milsy said. "Plenty of room in those stables, I deem, for dranakh and wagon as well as frayen, and this warehouse is enormous. Plenty of room here for doing our experiments."

"Mistress," Feteran cautioned, "Such a large space will be difficult to heat in winter. You must needs partition it to make chambers you could keep warm."

"Aye," the watchman nodded, "that was one of Count Merian's problems. 'Tis good enough for keeping vegetables and meat fresh in winter but not so good for other produce. He lost a fortune when a consignment of soft fruit was destroyed by an early winter frost."

"Oh, dear," Garia said, echoing the thoughts of all of them. "But we wouldn't want to keep produce in the warehouse, fortunately." She turned to Loranar. "Have you any observations about this property?"

Loranar shrugged. "From what I can see it is reasonably well-found, Milady. Since the owner abandoned it some months since it has suffered some neglect." He turned to the watchman, apologetic. "I intend no criticism of you, goodman. Doubtless your principal does not wish to spend any more coin on the property than he must."

"As you say, Master. I do what I can, but it is never enough."

The guildsman gave him a hard smile. "It was ever thus, goodman."

Keren turned. "Well, I think we have seen all that we need, do you not agree, Garia? Let us find our last property before the sun goes and leaves us in the gloom."

The third property was a block down and a block round the corner. From the outside, it looked very similar both in size and state to the previous one. This time, it was a stable hand from a neighboring mansion who let them in.

The courtyard was bigger, almost square, and a wide lane went between the stable block and the kitchen and bathing block. Leaving that area for later, they went into the mansion itself and looked around.

"This looks interesting," Garia remarked. "There are what, four rooms along the front?"

"Five, Milady," Gullbrand said. "Two appear to be chambers for living purposes and at least one might have been used as an office, or so I have been told. In Einnland, none but the King had anything that would be thought of as an office. We did not use that word."

By now they were all carrying lanterns as they moved from room to room. The sun had not yet set but the amount of light, especially in the downstairs rooms, was becoming poor. At the side, in the space where Sukhana had her rooms in the Claw, they found two small offices and a large dining room filling the whole of the rear.

"That's a sensible idea," Merizel remarked. "The dining room is right next to the kitchen so the food will be hot when it arrives."

"And will not suffer should the weather be bad," Tarvan added.

They moved up the wide stairs and peeped in all the bedchambers discovering most to be of reasonable size.

I have to remember these places aren't made to the same dimensions as the palace or Dekarran, Garia thought. Still, one could be very comfortable here.

There were more bedrooms than they had expected. Perhaps some were used for family members or employees running whatever business had been conducted here.

"What reason is this mansion empty, goodman?"

"Highness, those who resided and traded here have moved to larger premises beyond the city walls, their business having grown somewhat in recent months."

"Oh? What did they do?"

"Highness, they were makers of wagons and carriages."

Garia looked at Keren, both realizing why the trade had suddenly taken off.

"What's down this way?"

"My Lady, the owner came from a large family. I believe that brothers, aunts and other relatives used these chambers. The servants' quarters are, as is customary, over the stables."

The side corridor did not overlook the courtyard, like the one in the Claw, but ran down the center of the wing with rooms opening both sides. The rooms they looked in were of varying sizes.

"Commander. If our men were to use these rooms, do you think they would be suitable?"

"Aye, Milady. Depending on how many were quartered here, I would suggest two bunks in the smaller rooms and four in the two largest."

Back in the courtyard they investigated the stables finding them large, clean and well-appointed. At the rear of the courtyard, the kitchen and bathing block had the approval of the women.

"If they had that many family living here, Garia," Merizel said, "it is no surprise these tubs are so large. They are almost as well appointed as those in the palace."

"Milady," Loranar added, "the boiler is larger than I would have anticipated, no doubt for that reason."

They walked through the carriageway between the kitchen and the stables to find their next surprise. Either side of the roadway were two warehouses... or were they workshops?

"In here, Milsy," Tarvan called. "Look, furnaces!"

Since the furnaces were brick-built they had remained, but all of the other equipment had been stripped out. It was plain, however, that the building had been used for making wagon and carriage parts, being divided into a number of separate areas for iron and wood working.

Between the two buildings was a space almost the width of the other courtyard. From the state of the stone flags which paved the yard it was clear that much work had taken place out here, at least when the weather permitted.

The building on the other side was one large space which Loranar thought might have been a storage area for the necessary raw materials and for finished parts and vehicles. The final surprise was at the end, where a separate gate opened onto the street behind the property, and each of the two workshops had office blocks facing that street!

"We'll take it," Garia said. "I don't need to see any more. Loranar? Any particular problems I ought to know about before I spend a lot of coin?"

"I can see nothing obvious, Milady, though in this gloom it might be easy to miss something. If I may return tomorrow with an assistant, I will fully measure the property and inspect it closely for any problems. I assume that minor matters would not deter you from purchase?"

"You assume correctly, Master Loranar. Let's go back to the main building, then. I want to think through what we have seen today."

Gathered in the largest of the downstairs front rooms they had a quick review of what they had seen and satisfied each other that the complex would be suitable for the varied needs of those who would live and work there. The man who had shown them round listened in silence with a certain amount of amazement.

"Gullbrand," Garia said, "I'd like to consider taking that second property we saw as well."

"Milady?"

Garia waved a hand. "Oh, not for House Blackstone use but for people coming down from Blackstone itself. I want to rent it until, say... Harvest Festival, perhaps, but I'll buy it if I have to. Who knows? Perhaps we can do it up as a hotel for townsfolk who have to come to the city for anything. If they have problems or they need anything, House Blackstone will be just around the corner."

Gullbrand bowed. "I will see what I can do, Milady."

Keren added, "That's one thing I like about you, Garia. You always consider other people."

Garia gave him an innocent look. "Only one thing?"

He waved a finger. "I didn't say that, Milady."

They collected their mounts and gathered outside the gates, watching as the man chained them up again.

"My master will be pleased," he said. "Master Tanon does not like empty properties, it encourages thieves, despoilers and the homeless. He will be delighted to learn you have decided to take the place, Milady."

"Master Tanon? Your master?"

"Aye, Milady. Did you not realize? His mansion lies yonder."

The man pointed to the mansion which occupied the adjoining block. Garia had visited it briefly, on the day she had first arrived in the city, but had little memory of it or where it had been in relation to the palace. To have Tanon as a neighbor... already she was thinking of ways to make use of that fact!

Keren said, "Do you want to pay your respects, Garia? I know of your close connection with Tanon, of course."

She studied the sky. "I don't know."

The sky was almost dark, but there was a certain amount of light because the cloud had thinned and the stars shone brightly.

"Milady," Feteran said, before she could make up her mind, "I would advise against it. Even if you called for the shortest time we would be traveling back to the palace in full dark and the streets of the city are not well lit. There is time enough to call once we have obtained the mansion for your house."

"Quite right too," she agreed. "Let's go, then. Goodman, thank you for your valuable time. Please let Mistress Merina know that we called here and what we decided."

The man bowed. "I will, My Lady. Good-night to you and to Your Highness."

The party set off for the palace, at a trot now because they all knew where they were headed. It was getting colder now the sun had set and no-one had any wish to remain outside any longer than they had to. Their route back meant that they entered through the front gates of the palace and Feteran led them down the side access to the stables.

Once inside, saddles and harness were removed from their frayen and the stable staff helped them rub down the beasts and make sure they had access to fodder. Keren now led the way back into the palace proper, leaving their escort to change and relax while Garia picked up four fresh armsmen for the evening.

"What bell is it, Jenet?"

"I do not know, Highness. I have not heard one since we returned to the palace."

"Very well."

Keren took a side corridor, the others following in puzzlement which turned to understanding when they reached the kitchens. A quick question of the nearest staff informed them that, if they did not bathe but merely changed, they would be in time for the regular evening meal.

* * *

There was minor excitement at the end of the meal when a Messenger entered the dining room, saddlebags across his shoulder. Kendar immediately rose from his place to take charge of them. Robanar frowned at the interruption since mail people were usually not permitted this far into the palace. The reason became clear when the young man came to attention beside the King's chair and saluted.

"Terinar? You are a Messenger now?"

"Aye, Your Majesty. A special commission from Duke Bardanar. As I was traveling here from Brugan he thought to send with me some sensitive letters."

"You've just come from Brugan?" Keren asked, surprised.

"Aye, I left there after lunch yesterday." He felt for the back of his tights. "It was a hard ride, Keren. The Messenger riders certainly earn their coin."

Terys asked, "Have you yet eaten, Terinar?"

"No, Your Majesty. I came directly here, having taken my lunch at the Moxgo road junction." He looked at the diners and at the servants clearing the tables. "I thought I would arrive here sooner, but 'tis not to be." He grinned, a smile that lit his face up. "I will eat whatever the kitchen has left, I deem. If I may have somewhere to wash and change?"

"Of course." Robanar waved a hand. "Kendar, find Count Terinar a chamber and see that he has all he desires. Send some food to the chamber, he can then sup at his own leisure. Terinar, when you are well fed and rested, I may have words for you in our parlor, but do not seek to hurry your meal, I deem you have hurried enough these last two days."

Terinar bowed. "As you command, Sire."

He turned and his gaze caught that of Merizel, who sat as if poleaxed. He gave her a slow nod and then strode off after Kendar, who gestured as he beckoned Terinar away from the diners.

Terys looked at Merizel. "Dear, this is certainly a surprise."

Merizel managed to find her voice. "Aye, Ma'am. I didn't expect - I mean, I thought he couldn't get across the Sirrel yet."

"If he has come from Brugan," Robanar reasoned, "then Gilbanar must have directed him there for some reason. We all know that traffic must come by that route till the river quietens, perhaps that was his plan."

"But he didn't just come that route, father," Keren said, "he visited Bardanar. I deem he was sent to the Duke with packets from Uncle Gil." He shrugged. "We will learn all in time, no doubt."

"As you say, Keren." Robanar considered. "I think, Keren, you and I ought to discover what manner of letter we have been sent. If you would join me in the parlor."

"Aye, father."

Robanar raised an eyebrow at Terys, who said, "I will leave you to it, husband. I must needs speak with Garia presently. Garia, shall you and Merizel join me in our sitting room? I would learn what you discovered on your ride this afternoon."

I never said anything and she still figured it out! I don't think she'll complain this time, though.

In the Queen's sitting room they made themselves comfortable.

Terys began by saying, "Before we speak of your ride, dear, I must tell you that the King, Kendar and I have spoken about the request you made this morning. The King is in favor of your proposal and Kendar also agrees. It seems there is no set day for any marriage, it is merely custom that many will marry on the day of Spring Dawning." Aside, she added, "You may not know this, dear, but marriages before Spring Dawning are not viewed favorably. Partly this must be because of the weather but also because it may indicate some indiscretion by the two parties concerned."

Garia took this as a polite way of saying that anyone who married in haste was probably doing it because the girl was already pregnant. She didn't know what this society thought about children born out of wedlock. Surely the lower classes weren't that uptight about such things?

On the other hand there were still a great many things she didn't know about Valley society. And here she was, about to become Queen-in-waiting...

Terys continued, "Both the King and Kendar approve of your proposal since it will help avoid several procedural headaches such marriages always seem to cause. Since there are always royal guests to such occasions, the palace is always filled, despite its size." Another aside, "You remember what happened at Harvest Festival, I deem. Then there is the celebration itself. Choosing another day for your marriage can only help with the planning, or so Kendar tells me."

"There's another reason Dyenna pointed out this morning," Garia said. "My Call began today and Spring Dawning is exactly two months away." Terys winced. "You understand, Ma'am. The timing is awkward. A day or two delay can only help Keren and me."

"Indeed, dear. What Kendar proposes is this, there would be no ceremonies of marriage on the day of Spring Dawning itself, the country shall celebrate the day in the customary manner. On the following day we will marry together all your staff -" Terys smiled. "It certainly seems that way, dear, does it not? These weddings shall take place in the Receiving Room in the palace, one after the other. Feteran and Jenet have been loyal palace servants all their lives and deserve some recognition, we do not begrudge Milsy and Senidet the same honor. There may be other betrothals among the palace staff, if we discover them we shall offer them the like privilege.

"Then on the following day, we shall hold a full royal marriage ceremony as is customary, at the Shevesty Field. This will permit all to make the necessary preparations without distraction from other events. You still intend to travel north with your new husband to visit your people?"

Garia was thrown by the sudden switch but answered, "Yes, Ma'am, we did. It will be almost the same as last time but we'll be able to properly visit every town along the way and let the population see us."

"Another excellent idea, dear. Since you must needs go by way of Dekarran, the King has decided that we shall accompany you so far, with some of his guests from other realms." Garia's face fell, so Terys explained, "We do not seek to spoil your happiness together but it is true that the castle provides better accommodation for such talks than the palace may do. Those attending may depart by the trade road, thus avoiding another river crossing. Dekarran is big, you may easily find some secluded place to be together."

Garia nodded a reluctant understanding. "As you desire, Ma'am. I guess it will be for the best."

"That is settled, then. Of course, no-one may know what the future will bring so we must always allow for sudden changes, is it not so?" Terys smiled. "There, I am done. Now, dear, you may tell us about your ride this afternoon. You went seeking a mansion for House Blackstone, did you not?"

"Ma'am, I think I much prefer to ride in the country, and when the weather is warmer, but it was an opportunity we couldn't let slip. You see, Gullbrand mentioned that a great many people would come for the festival and the wedding, so accommodation might get short -"

Garia and Merizel gave a detailed description of their ride around the city and told an interested Terys what they had discovered, together with Garia's reasons for making the choices she had. Terys seemed to think that Garia had enough cash to buy the two properties but said that the Crown would underwrite the purchases if there was any doubt.

It was while they were talking about the financing that a knock came at the door. Kenila opened it to admit Terinar. He bowed toward the Queen and then addressed Garia.

"My Lady, I desire your permission to speak privately with Lady Merizel."

The look on Merizel's face told her volumes.

"My Lord, you may," Garia replied, "and... you may."

The smile that came over Terinar's face was huge. Garia could see the family resemblance to Keren and realized he was just as attractive as his cousin. Merizel bolted from her seat and stood hesitant.

"Ma'am?"

"Go, my dear. I'm sure this fine young man has questions he would ask you."

Terinar took Merizel's hand and led her from the room. Once the door had closed Terys turned to Garia.

"You realize I did not speak before of any marriage for Merizel."

"I hadn't noticed, Ma'am, but you're right, you didn't."

"That is because there is a circumstance which you would probably not be aware of. You must realize that Terinar is third in line to the throne, after Keren and Gilbanar. His marriage must needs be with the consent of the King and conducted in his presence, as of course must be your own."

"Oh, of course, Ma'am. What does this mean?"

"It is another reason for us to travel to Dekarran, dear. Terinar shall wed Merizel, if that is what they agree, but in his own home when we are there. Will this cause you any problems, do you think?"

"I can't think of any, Ma'am, but we have two months to sort out any wrinkles, haven't we?"

"Just so, dear. Now, we were talking about your accounts, were we not? I believe I heard you mention a bank at one time."

"Yes, Ma'am. Well -"



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