Somewhere Else Entirely -123-

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Garia inspects the two mansions she has bought, discovering that while the hotel is almost ready for occupation, Blackstone House is already occupied by her retainers. She reveals a close secret and meets an old friend.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

123 - Blackstone House

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.



Jenet joined Garia on the balcony outside her suite. Both were wearing their fluffy robes since they had only just finished in the bathroom, but neither was cold yet. Garia, as usual, was trying to figure out what to wear.

"Is it just me or does it feel different out here today?"

"I believe you are right, Milady. There is a certain calm in the air and it may not be as cold as recently. Perhaps we have seen the last of the winter and the new year is about to awaken."

"I hope you're right, Jenet, though by my reckoning it still feels like February -"

"Milady?"

"That's the name of the month we have back on Earth, Jenet, that's about the same as we are now. Say, round about six or seven weeks after the New Year. How long does it take before spring properly arrives around these parts?"

"I could not say, Milady. It varies from year to year, as any weather does. Most years, I deem, we will have some weeks like this before it becomes warmer and the green things begin to sprout from the soil. There will still be frosts for a month or maybe even longer, Milady. I would not discount a final storm or two before the winds change to bring the warmer weather we look forward to."

Garia nodded. "Sounds much like home, really. Oh, except for the storms, but then I didn't live anywhere near the sea. Do you know if there's anything special happening this morning?"

"I do not remember Lady Merizel saying anything last night, Milady. You suggest that you may wear your usual exercise attire."

"Might as well. If I'm not meeting anyone important or going out to a workshop I'll carry on with my normal exercise routine." Garia smiled. "I don't mind getting all dressed up if I have to impress but there's a time and place for fancy clothes and the Self Defense Training Room isn't it."

"I'm sure Lady Dyenna would agree, Milady, as she would have to repair the destruction. But..."

"Jenet?"

"Milady, what would happen if you are caught, attired as for an evening meal or for a dance? How may you then defend yourself? I have often wondered what would happen. I am confident that you may deal with any assailant while in your exercise attire, or that of the Guard, but you are not always attired thus."

Garia's eyes narrowed. "Aye, you're right, Jenet. The last few times - listen to me! I make it sound normal! The last few times we have been caught I have more or less been wearing the right things, haven't I? I've gotten away with it. At Dekarran, when we arrived at Blackstone, at both battles, I could do what I needed to. Even when we first met Marlin, do you remember?" She scowled. "I got it wrong at Harvest Festival, but I had no alternative then. I can't see my luck lasting out much longer. Jenet, let's have a talk with Feteran, though I know exactly what he will say."

"He will tell you to leave such matters in the hands of those whose duty it is, Milady, and he would be right." When Garia turned to Jenet with an objection she added, "But neither he nor any armsman was there in Dekarran, Milady, and I believe you are right in insisting on being able to defend yourself at need. Though we have pushed those of Yod back to their own borders I deem there is still danger in the streets and houses of Palarand."

Garia turned to go inside. "I won't disagree, Jenet. I'm hoping things will ease off once I'm married but that's still a month and a half away. Let's see what we can do. In the meantime, exercise gear it is."

* * *

"What's gotten you all excited, then?"

"Boss, I discovered what that Gullbrand was up to! It seems she has bought two mansions in the city and is looking for staff for them."

Serdel half rose from his seat in surprise. "What? How sure of your information are you?"

"I had word from a clerk in the Assembly tax office about the properties. We was speaking of other things and he happened to mention it in passing. Aye, boss, two big mansions in the West Dranatil district, fairly close to each other."

"But -" Serdel chewed over the new information. By now he was getting used to changes in circumstances but he still didn't like things that could upset plans. However, this seemed an opportunity...

"Why two properties? I cannot believe that she has so much coin to scatter like this. Mayhap the King provides for her. Very well," he said. "We'll keep the existing plan going but if there's an opportunity we'd better see if it provides us a better chance." He looked at the men around the breakfast table, bowls scattered in front of them. "If nothing else we may obtain better information now our palace connections are so poor. I need some volunteers to go and ask about work. I want people with good enough experience that they can actually do the work as well."

"Boss?"

Serdel said patiently, "We must needs find out what's going on. If there's a way to get at her while she's visiting one of these mansions then we'll need plans, timetables, routines, you know the drill by now. That means you go there, get a job and do it. Nobody must suspect that you are anything but a mansion servant."

"How many do you want to try, boss?"

Serdel shrugged. "As many of you as can go, I think. Not you, Brod, or Torkan or Steb. You might manage to carry trays of food for a single night at a fancy meal but you don't have the background for real serving work. The rest of you, clean yourselves up and get over there. One or two of you might stick."

* * *

"Morning, Garia!"

"Good morning to you, Merry! Where's Terry?"

Merizel looked around, her now-regular ponytail swinging over her shoulders. "No idea. I haven't seen him yet this morning. He'll be along any moment, I imagine."

"Jenet doesn't think we have anything important this morning."

"Aye, she is correct, Garia. As I can see from your attire, we assumed you would exercise this morning and then we can go visit our beasts." Merizel thought. "This afternoon, we are to visit your mansions, you recall. Terry says that he thinks we have sufficient furniture and equipment to start moving in."

"What, today? That's great. I want to have the buildings settle down into a routine before we are forced to move over there."

"Aye. I will find it strange, I have never before moved into a house that has been empty before."

"Not so, Merry. What about the Claw?"

"Ah, yes." Merizel smiled at fond memories of their time in Blackstone. "But the Ptuvil's Claw was somewhat different, was it not? I trust we can find some people of Sookie's abilities to run these mansions of yours."

"That may yet happen, Merry. Gullbrand reminds me that some of our men are married and, for Blackstone House at least, there may be wives who could take on that job."

"Aye. For the other - Ah, here come our men."

Keren and Terinar, talking and joking together, entered the dining room and headed for the girls. Both were dressed for exercises. Everybody in the room made the customary bow or curtsey towards Keren and then carried on their conversations. Both men hugged their fiancees and then gave them a modest kiss of greeting. In the family dining room such displays were acceptable.

"Morning both!" Keren gave them a smile. "Exercising this morning, Garia?"

"Of course, Keren. Then we'll go feed up our greedy frayen as usual."

"Heh. I'll join you, I think. Merry, what have you two planned for this afternoon?"

"We are going to visit Garia's mansions, Keren. Terry says there is enough furniture there people can start moving in."

"Oh? That's good to hear. Do you desire my presence, Garia?"

"You can join us if you like, Keren. If your father has something else for you to do, that's fine."

"Garia," Merizel put in, "do not forget there is a Council meeting this evening."

Terinar raised an eyebrow at Merizel. "Would this be the Council of the Two Worlds you speak of?"

"Aye, Terry. I regret you are not invited."

He waved a dismissive hand. "No matter. There is plenty of work that requires the attention of Gullbrand and myself. Garia, do you not recall we seek servants for your new hotel? For all those we accept, we must investigate their backgrounds and this means following up the stories they tell us."

Garia frowned. "I remember. Merek said something to me a day or two ago. Is this really necessary?"

"I regret it is, Garia. We sought stable staff for The Blackstone Hotel but two who applied were thieves known to the City Watch. We know that some from the Residency of Yod still reside in the city, although they have not yet been found despite many searches. If one such should obtain employment, then -" he shrugged. "Better that they do not get so far."

Garia nodded. "I guess you're right, Terry, but I don't have to like it. Carry on, then."

Keren said, "Here are my parents. Good, I'm beginning to want some breakfast."

* * *

Snep raised his head to look at Garia. She rubbed the hard hide of his nose and his eyes closed momentarily in contentment.

"You old softy! Here you go."

Her other hand held out the chunk of vegetable for him and he took it carefully. There was a question in his gaze.

"Not this morning, I'm afraid," she said. "This afternoon we'll go for a ride through the streets, okay? There's not much we can do while the weather is still cold but I'm hoping to get out some more once spring gets here. What do you say? We'll be off to Blackstone then and you'll get to ride in the hills once more."

Snep nuzzled her again but accepted that he wouldn't be going out for a while. Garia found the stiff brush and began rubbing him down, checking legs, feet and other body parts as she did so. All her friends were scattered through this part of the stables performing similar tasks on their own mounts.

All the fuss and organization I do normally, she thought. It is nice sometimes to just come here and be with someone who has simple needs, someone I can attend to by myself and let my worries take a back seat.

"My Lady?"

Garia turned to face a brown-clad man she had come to know well.

"Braskath! Is there something I can do for you?"

"My Lady, I have heard you have taken houses in the city and were looking for servants. I would ask that we be considered."

"We?"

"Myself, Sorin Labslayer and Korf Woodsman, My Lady. You know us well, we would be honored to serve you and repay your kindnesses toward us."

Garia stood away from Snep, the brush in her hand. "Well, I don't know. Technically, you three are still enemies in Palarand, even if you have given your parole to the King. I know that the three of you will probably stay in Palarand once the war is finished but until then..." She shrugged. "If it were my decision, I'd probably take you. I know that you have done well in the stables and the other two have behaved themselves as well. However, it isn't my decision. I think Captain Merek wants you where he can keep an eye on you, at least until we all know where we stand."

"My Lady, I know where I stand already. If I were permitted a sword, it would be at your feet as we speak."

Garia flushed. "Thank you, Braskath, for putting your trust in me. I'll make you a promise. If there has been no change in your status by the time some kind of peace treaty is signed, then I'll take you and I'll do the same for your friends. Will that be enough?"

Braskath bowed low. "My Lady. It is more than enough. We came under arms into your lands to capture you or to kill you and we now know that was wrong. Those of Yod, those who rule us, see the world differently than those who live in the rest of the Great Valley and I say to you they are wrong. They are mistaken but it is we who must pay for that mistake. Once they are vanquished, then I may ask again."

Garia smiled. "It wouldn't be my junior maid, by any chance, that plays a part in your desires?"

It was Braskath's turn to flush. "My Lady, I may not deny it, but you may dispose of your servants as you desire. I would take whatever you might offer me."

"I don't think you have much to worry about, Braskath. I look forward to resuming this conversation sometime soon, I think."

Braskath raised an eyebrow. "You are that confident of victory, My Lady?"

"Not me, Braskath. I don't know what's happening so far away any more. However, it seems that Yod have annoyed a lot of Valley states this time and they are building a big combined army to push them back. I don't think they'll want to stop at Yod's borders this time, somehow."

"As you say, My Lady. Let us hope they succeed. There are many of my countrymen -" He paused. "Well, they were once my countrymen, I suppose. I no longer consider myself to be of Yod. There are many of the ordinary folk of Yod, let us say, who earnestly desire the end of the present order and I would see them as free as those of Palarand."

He bowed again, before turning to leave. "My Lady."

~o~O~o~

"Will you look at that crowd!"

Keren pointed at a mob surrounding the carriage entrance leading to what would soon become The Blackstone Hotel. There must have been fifty standing there, evenly divided among men and women.

Garia asked, "How many jobs are we offering, Terry?"

Terinar replied, "Ten to twelve presently, Garia. There is no point employing more until the house begins to take guests. There would be too many with little to do."

Their cavalcade approached the entrance and the mob parted to make way, all bowing and curtseying as they recognized the riders. As they rode through Garia stopped under the entrance and turned Snep to face the applicants.

"I'm sorry, a lot of you are going to be disappointed today. At the moment the house is empty so there won't be a lot of work to do. Maybe later, once people come to stay, we'll take on some more, okay?"

There was a murmur of acknowledgement and more bowing and scraping. Garia turned and followed the others into the courtyard. One of her armsmen took the reins as she dismounted.

"Thank you, Soomit. I hope the next time we come we'll have stable staff to do all this."

"As you say, Milady."

She turned and followed the others into the house, two armsmen taking position outside the courtyard door. Inside, there were smells of fresh cut wood and wax polish. The floors had been swept clean, the walls and window openings dusted and the windows washed, allowing plenty of light to reach the hallway they had entered. She looked around as Gullbrand approached along the corridor towards them.

"Welcome, Your Highness, My Lady, to Blackstone Hotel. I regret there is as yet no paint on walls or woodwork since paint, like much else, is in short supply these days."

"Tis the story of Palarand, it seems," Keren replied for the party. "Greetings, Gullbrand. You reside here already?"

"I have, Highness, these past four days. We have barely enough staff already employed to provide essential needs like cooking and cleaning. There are others who also reside here temporarily, artisans like carpenters and plumbers, making the place ready for use by guests. If I may show you and Lady Garia around?"

The room between the hallway, which ran from street to courtyard, and the carriage entrance, was bare except for a table and four chairs.

"With your permission, Milady, we intend to use this as the reception place and office for the establishment," Gullbrand explained. "Though it is at present barely furnished we will in time obtain cupboards and shelves for the inevitable mound of documents we shall generate."

Garia nodded. 'Reception Desk' was written all over the area. Gullbrand led them along the lower floor, showing them the rooms to each side.

"Here will be two comfortable rooms for guests to recline in, Milady. You will notice we have but few chairs. We have craftsmen making settees to furnish both rooms, they should be finished before our first guests arrive."

"You're enjoying yourself, aren't you, Gullbrand?"

Gullbrand smiled. "I never thought myself an inn-keeper, Milady, but aye, I am enjoying this part of setting up your establishment. Whether such duties will continue to be enjoyable, once difficult and obstructive guests arrive, may be another matter."

"Guests who behave like Eriana did, perhaps?"

Gullbrand pursed his lips. "You understand my fears well, Milady."

After inspecting some smaller rooms which could be used for meetings or private correspondence they followed the corridor round a corner. To one side a stair went up to the upper floor, doubling back on itself to end above their heads. Facing them was a door past two small rooms and then into a large space that occupied the whole of the wing.

"The dining room, Milady, with small rooms should guests require privacy to eat. I suggest we climb to the upper floor to continue."

The upper floor held four reasonable sized sleeping chambers along the front with two smaller sleeping chambers beside the head of the stairs. In this building, a balcony ran around the inside of the upper floor, unlike that in the Ptuvil's Claw which was on the street side. This connected the main building with the servants' quarters over the stables.

Over the side facing the stables was where the previous owners lived, a collection of chambers of various sizes, some of which would be reserved for women guests. A rear stair led down to the back door, from where they entered the other end of the dining room. There was a collection of tables, benches and chairs of varying types and styles, obviously obtained second-hand from wherever they could be found.

"I like this," Garia said. "I wonder why they didn't do this in the Claw?"

Keren replied, "It is not the custom, Garia, to have separate rooms in inns and taverns as they do in private dwellings. In any inn, one may both eat and drink, whereas a private house would have no need for a drinking room."

"Oh, of course. But in a private house it makes sense to have the dining room as close to the kitchens as one can get, doesn't it?"

"Aye, separated only by bath house and toilets. Shall we go there next?"

The bath house was spotless and well maintained, with shining plumbing in evidence.

"Milady," Gullbrand explained, "We must needs obtain further supplies of bath robes and towels before we may open for business. We do have sufficient for the staff presently. There is a supplier of soap and other bathing requirements in the street behind, we shall not lack for our other needs."

The kitchen was also spotless, necessary since those working to make the building ready for use already took their meals here. Gullbrand had somehow found a full set of cookware and utensils from somewhere. Behind, through a narrow passage, were two large store-rooms with shelving capable of providing food storage for the whole household over a bad winter. These rooms had also been carefully cleaned.

Across the access to the warehouse they entered the stables, finding their mounts being looked after by three of their escort. Garia saw that there would be plenty of room for the mounts of all the guests the hotel was likely to take.

Gullbrand noted, "We must needs obtain a little more fodder, Milady, though we will not need so large a reserve until we begin taking guests."

"We have suppliers nearby," Terinar added. "Items like fodder are going to be awkward until we know who is likely to be staying here. Better to leave the fodder at the supplier than have it rot here because there was no need for it."

Keren nodded. "That's good sense. Now, what about that great big warehouse out the back?"

Gullbrand spread his hands. "Highness, the carpenters, joiners and upholsterers have made use of it to finish what furniture they have already made. I foresee it being used to store carriages and wagons at first, but if the number of visitors to the city is as great as Lord Kendar forecasts then we may press it into duty for guests to camp under cover. I am told this would be acceptable for short periods, especially during Festivals."

"Aye," Keren nodded. "At the last Harvest Festival the whole of the field behind the palace was covered with tents for the retinues of the Dukes who came to stay. The Large Training Hall was used for carriage storage and almost every room in the palace was made use of. I doubt not that, with Kings and Dukes coming for Spring Dawning and what will follow, that every space in the city will be taken."

"Which was the reason I wanted these two properties in the first place," Garia added. "It looks like I'll be moving into Blackstone House two or three days before the Spring Dawning festival and staying there until my wedding." She looked around, nodding. "You have both done good work, Terinar, Gullbrand. I like what I see. I just hope the setup works once people come to stay. None of us are inn-keepers, are we?"

"Milady, I have interviewed one such who may be of use to us, along with a woman who kept house for a family in the city. Both claim to be experienced in the services we require."

"Claim to be?"

Gullbrand shrugged. "I have asked officials in the city and the palace if they can obtain references for these two, Milady. If I am satisfied, I will offer them for your approval."

"Good. What about that crowd outside?"

"Stable servants and cleaners mostly, Milady. Lord Terinar will remain here with the woman house-keeper to interview for the posts we require while I accompany you to your other mansion. By watching her interview, we may obtain some idea of her own experience."

"That's a clever idea, Gullbrand. Keren, any questions about this mansion?"

"Nothing to think of, Garia. If we can move on to the other one? Time passes, I have just heard the sixth bell."

"A good idea. If that's going to become Blackstone House I want to give it a closer inspection than we have done to this place. Gullbrand?"

"As you wish, Milady."

The Einnlander moved off to find his own frayen while the visitors reclaimed their own and mounted. Once everybody was ready they moved off back towards the carriage entrance with Terinar following on foot. As before, the crowd waiting before the entrance separated to let them through before crowding back around Terinar.

"All right!" they could hear him say. "We'll talk to all of you before we make any decisions, understand? It will take us some time so why don't you all come in and wait in the dining room? I can have some pel made while we..."

The ride to the mansion that was to become Blackstone House took little time. When they reached the mansion there was no crowd outside, only Tedenis standing outside the carriage entrance in Blackstone colors with a spear. She nodded to him and he banged a fist on his chest before she led the party through into the courtyard.

Inside, she discovered that Tedenis had probably seen her party turn into the street and warned the household, since they were all standing around the edge of the courtyard waiting for her, men, women and children. She was surprised by that, since she had forgotten that a number of her armsmen were already family men.

As she dismounted Snep gave her a long look. You call that a ride? Despite the lack of expression she could tell he was disappointed.

"Hey, greedy-guts." She patted his neck. "Sometimes we just have to do our duty, you know? I gotta have a look around in here and then we can go back home, okay? I'm sure these fine people will look after you for a bell or so."

Keren grinned as he dismounted. "Talking to animals now?"

She retorted, "I bet Snep understands me better than a lot of men I could mention! We just rode through a few streets and he wanted to do something more interesting, that's all."

"Aye, it's not fun being an animal in winter, I deem. Still, he's better looked after than those that have to suffer the fields through the cold and storms."

"As you say. Now, if you don't mind, I want to look at all these people."

Garia turned and went to the end of the line, saying hello to everyone there, shaking hands and even crouching down to speak to some of the smaller children. It looked like every single one had come from the palace and were preparing themselves to do something useful in their new home. Partway through the line she turned to Gullbrand, who had walked with her.

"You were right, we didn't have to look for anybody to help run this place, did we?"

Gullbrand bowed. "Once I knew who would reside here, Milady, I counted the numbers and realized what you have now done, that we have enough to run Blackstone House without bringing in... outsiders, if you would. Most are skilled in the household arts and I deem these children will make this a happy place."

Garia's eyes narrowed. "We'll need a schoolroom..."

"Already taken care of, Garia," Merizel said. "There is a nearby establishment that can take the older boys and girls but between ourselves and the mothers we may teach the younger ones at home."

Further along Garia had a shock.

"I am Sulinet, My Lady." The woman gave a deep curtsey. "I am Toranar's wife, these are our children Megren, Salia and Heliga."

She waved an arm and Garia looked at a boy of perhaps eleven, a girl who couldn't be much older than seven, and a girl who -

My God! I had forgotten her!

Heliga... Ellika... Alrik! Trust my luck to get her back. Well, perhaps it is for the best. Keep it in the family and all that. Even if the secret spreads they'll...

Her thoughts trailed off as she swiftly looked around the courtyard at the others.

Typical! I bet every single Einnlander is standing in this courtyard and will likely end up living here. How do I get out of that one?

She smiled at the older girl. "Heliga, is it? Do you think you'll like living here?"

"I liked living in the palace, Milady," the young girl answered. There was a noticeable accent but Garia thought that might fade over time. She was young enough. "This large house is interesting, I hope I will like it here."

Sulinet smiled. "Everything is still raw and new, Milady. It will take us some time to settle in but I'm sure we will all enjoy living here and we can all help looking after the house for you."

Megren gave his mother a black look that didn't go un-noticed.

"Megren," Garia turned to him and said with a straight face, "If you don't want to help out then that's fine with me. It just means you'll have to go back and be a drudge in the palace kitchens."

The boy looked alarmed. "Milady, no! I mean, I wanted -" His expression changed to one of confusion.

"It's okay," Garia told him. "What you're feeling is all part of growing up, you know. We all felt like that, even His Highness there. Do you have any interests? Stables? Cooking? Woodwork? Sword work? Perhaps even helping Mistress Milsy from time to time?"

"Really? I thought -" He clammed up, aware that he was causing a delay.

Garia turned to his mother. "Sulinet, we must have a talk sometime soon. You have two problems we must discuss, and soon."

Sulinet curtseyed again. "Aye, Milady, and thank you."

Garia carried on to the end of the line, discovering, as she had thought, all the Einnlanders she had taken in.

Could be interesting, she thought. They all know each other from the voyage but at least they won't be split up all over the palace like I first thought. The only thing is, what do I do about... Heliga? Somebody is going to work it out and they might get the wrong idea when they do.

The last two people waiting were Tarvan and Milsy.

Tarvan bowed with a grin. "My Lady, welcome."

"Tarvan. Are you two settling in okay?"

"Indeed, Milady. We must needs make some preparation before the workshops are fit to use but we are content." He grinned. "The only difficulty is that Master Fulvin must needs make his way here whenever he desires to discover something or to show off his latest invention."

"Oh, right! Still, it will do him good to get out of the palace occasionally."

"His words exactly, Milady."

Garia climbed the steps to the main entrance and turned to face the courtyard.

"Thank you all for welcoming me," she said, in a voice loud enough to carry over the courtyard. Those who were standing the other side of the frayen grouped in the middle streamed round so that they were all gathered in front of her and could see her properly.

"As you know, this mansion and other buildings will become the base of House Blackstone, to which you all belong. It will be the seat of my Barony but as I have only been granted one set of lands a long way away your main task will be dealing with matters concerning the town and with my personal concerns. Of course I also have a number of other interests." Here there was some general laughter. "...So there will be lawyers and accountants, clerks and guildsmen based here as well. Some of you might end up filling some of those posts in the future, if you don't already have a career planned out. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, depending on your viewpoint, I won't be living here much myself. That is mainly because of that fine young man down there who I will be marrying soon."

Everybody broke out into applause directed at Keren, who grinned at them all like a fool.

"I will be coming to stay here a few days before Spring Dawning until the day of my wedding since the palace will be filled with all kinds of Kings, Dukes and the like from the length of the Valley." She paused. "Well, almost the length of the Valley. I doubt that those of Yod would send someone to my wedding, but you can't have everything."

She turned. "Right! Let's get ourselves inside, it's getting cold out here. Gullbrand? Lead the way."

She followed Gullbrand in the entrance while those in the courtyard dispersed to resume whatever they had been doing when she arrived. The layouts of the two mansions were fairly similar so there was a room to the right, between the entrance hall and the carriage gateway.

"My Lady, this room will serve as office for me and also for your housekeeper, once we have appointed one." He gestured along the corridor. "Here are two rooms to be used as reception rooms, that you may greet visitors as your status requires. As yet we have little furniture for them, the same joiner who makes settees for the hotel will be furnishing these for you."

Gullbrand carried on through the building, showing Garia the progress that had been made. Since this one was needed to relieve space in the palace, Gullbrand had given it priority and it was mostly ready for occupation. The first room they inspected upstairs was a large bed chamber with attached dressing room, reserved for Garia's use.

"But you shouldn't! I'm not going to be here that much, Gullbrand."

"On the contrary, Milady. It is important that a suite is reserved for Baroness Blackstone, since one day that person will be someone else, Milady. Once you bring forth an heir to the Crown you must needs choose another to administer the assets of the barony."

"But..." Garia stopped. "You're right, of course. Did Kendar explain all that to you?"

"Aye, Milady." Gullbrand's grin was intense. "The King desired that none may rob you of your barony by marriage, even a Prince, so the charter has explicit conditions. I fully approve of such arrangements, Milady, and wish there were more such in Palarand."

Keren said, "It will come in time, Gullbrand. Such changes in ownership, especially where a woman is concerned, are radical and confront our present customs. Garia's charter is but the first step on a long journey."

"Aye, Highness." Gullbrand bowed and gestured. "If we may continue?"

There were other chambers for guests at the front of the building and down the side were rooms occupied by her single armsmen. Garia stopped to chat with some of them, assuring them that they had not been overlooked or slighted by being moved away from the palace.

"We understand, Milady," one said. "We know that we will be rotated with those who presently reside in the palace, that each may have his turn protecting your person."

"I'm glad you understand," she told them. "What I'm doing is probably a bit strange and after the wedding it will likely get even stranger."

"But, Milady, after your wedding to His Highness, surely you will be escorted again by the Palace Guard, as befits your status?"

"Well, that's what I meant. We're not sure how this is going to work afterwards. I think that probably, when I'm doing official things with my husband -" Garia blushed, "- I'll have palace guards but when I'm off to visit the Engineers or Questors or some industrial site or other, I'll use my own people." She shrugged. "As yet nobody knows and right now Captain Merek has more important matters on his mind."

"As you say, Milady."

"Right. Any problems, anything you see that ought to be different or better, you tell Feteran immediately, do you hear? Securing this place isn't like guarding the palace so it will be different for all of us. This is supposed to be a quiet area of the city but once people know Blackstone House is here that might change."

The men bowed. "It shall be as you command, Milady."

Garia walked back round the balcony running around three sides of the courtyard to get to the servants' quarters over the stables. This was where the families had elected to live and she was surprised to find five of them with around twelve children between them. Fortunately, because of the space provided for frayen below, the quarters were sufficient and roomy for those living there. The living space actually extended above the first part of the workshops beyond the stable block, Gullbrand explaining that some of those working for the wagon builder had lived on site.

Garia looked at the children gathered in their chosen common room and sighed.

Best to get this over and done with, I guess.

She turned to Gullbrand. "Gullbrand, can you gather together all the Einnlanders for me? I want you to find a room or chamber somewhere we can have a private meeting. It won't take us long."

He looked at her oddly but bowed and left to collect the required people.

Garia turned to Sulinet, choosing her words carefully to avoid spilling the beans to the others in the room. "I'm sorry. When I did what I did I didn't think we would all end up together like this. I think it would be best if you and Heliga join me downstairs for a short while. Do you understand why?"

Sulinet curtseyed. "Aye, Milady. I wish it were not so, but... Heliga, come with me, please."

The three walked down into the yard and found a quiet corner, Keren and the others remaining upstairs. Behind Garia, several puzzled Einnlanders made their way past her and into the large warehouse opposite the workshops.

"Heliga," Garia said to the young girl. "When I spoke to the Queen I thought she would have you adopted by someone still living in the palace so that you wouldn't come into a lot of contact with all the other Einnlanders. It was just my luck that she chose Toranar and Sulinet. I expect she thought she was doing me a favor, but of course around here somebody is going to work out who you are and there might be trouble."

Heliga replied, quietly, "I understand, Milady. I am afraid what they might think."

"My thoughts exactly. They might think you are actually a boy who wants to become a girl." Heliga's eyes widened, she hadn't considered that possibility. Garia continued, "If I get them all together and let you explain it to them then we can stop the rumors from even starting. I'm sure they will all vow to protect you once they find out the truth."

Heliga digested this. "Thank you, My Lady. I think that would be for the best."

"Sulinet? I'm sorry to have to do this but I don't think we can hide it much longer."

"I understand your reasoning, Milady."

Gullbrand appeared at a respectful distance. When he had Garia's attention he bowed.

"We are gathered in the warehouse, Milady."

They followed Gullbrand into the warehouse. The carpenters had gone home for the day and the place was otherwise deserted. The Einnlanders had lit some of the lanterns to provide sufficient light at one end as the daylight faded. All turned to face Garia when she entered and they gathered round, looking curiously at Sulinet and Heliga.

«It seems that, by chance, all the Einnlanders who came to the palace have ended up living in Blackstone House,» she began. «All of them.»

She waited for that to sink in but most looked merely puzzled. The first to realize the truth was Geska, who fixated on Heliga and began to speak. Garia held up a finger to stop her.

«Gullbrand, who isn't here?»

«But, Milady, we are not all here in Blackstone House. You forget Olof and Kjellmund who are now armsmen for His Majesty.»

Garia realized that she had forgotten two Einnlanders. «You're right, Gullbrand. I don't think those two will have any bearing on what I wanted to say, though. Who else might be missing?»

«Why, Alrik, Milady. You told me that he was being looked after by a family in the palace.»

Gullbrand turned, puzzled, and then saw Geska's intent stare. He looked at Heliga with amazement.

«By Woden, I am blind!» He turned to Garia. «What means this, Milady? Is this child youth or maid?»

«She was known in Einnland as Ellika. To conceal her origins, her name has been slightly changed to make it more like the names we use in the Valley. Heliga, tell them your story.»

Haltingly, Heliga told how she had run away from an abusive uncle and had determined to find somewhere safer, only to become trapped as Eriana fled from her father. Although she had wanted to reveal herself on several occasions throughout their journey to Palarand, the right circumstances had never occurred, so she had been forced to continue her deception. She described how Garia had found her out and asked the Queen to find a family to look after her, ending up in the one place where everybody who had known Alrik had also gathered.

Once revealed, everybody could see who she, he, had pretended to be. Knowing the truth, they were all prepared to swear oaths to protect Heliga as she grew from child to woman. Garia breathed a sigh of relief.

"I'm going to leave Heliga in the care of Toranar and Sulinet," she told them. "I don't want to disturb whatever arrangements they have already made for her. I'm sure you will all have occasion to keep her in touch with her Einnlander heritage but she will no longer be alone." They understood the play on their country's name. "Although you will always be Einnlanders you will have to become Palarandis just the same as I have. We remember our pasts but our futures are here."

There was a murmur of agreement and the men present all banged their chests.

"Right, that's about all I have to say. Are you all settling in? Any particular problems you might have that the others don't?"

"Some still have trouble with the language, Milady," Gullbrand answered for them. "They can understand almost everything you say and make themselves understood, but... there are many new words we must needs learn. Palarand is a complicated place."

Garia grinned. "And what you very politely didn't say is that I am the one bringing most of these new words to Palarand. I'm afraid there is little I can do about that. In fact, the new words might be easier for you to pick up than for the general population, since it will all be new to you."

Gullbrand bowed. "As you say, Milady."

"Anything else? Good. Let's go join the others, then. It's getting cold in here."

As the group rounded the corner into the courtyard a small boy ran up breathlessly and bounced to a stop in front of Garia.

"My Lady, there is a lady visitor waiting to speak to you." He frowned with concentration. "Her name is... Murya, I think."

"Murya? Oh, do you mean Merina?" The boy nodded, relieved. "Then I'll come immediately." She turned to Gullbrand. "Merina is Tanon's wife. She was one of those that found me up in the mountains last summer."

Gullbrand nodded. "If I may join you, Milady?"

He dismissed the others and followed Garia into the front of the mansion. The small boy was sent to fetch Keren and Merizel. In the entrance hall, Merina stood waiting with Silna and they curtseyed as Garia entered.

"My Lady. I thought to come and pay my respects to my new neighbor."

Garia went to her and gave her a strong hug. "You and Tanon will always be welcome here, Merina!" She gestured. "This is Gullbrand, who is managing the house for me. Gullbrand, this is Merina, who is Tanon's wife. Tanon and Merina, yes, and Jaxen and the others, are the nearest thing I have to family on Anmar. I will always be grateful to them for finding me on the mountainside, looking after me and bringing me to the palace. I owe them a debt of gratitude."

Merina blushed. "Not so large a debt any more, Milady. Since you came to Palarand Tanon's business has grown at least five-fold. It is because of you that the wagon-makers must needs move from this mansion to a larger place and Tanon was one of their best customers. We have profited greatly by the wonders you have brought to us."

Garia asked, "Where is Tanon today? Will we see him at the meeting tonight?"

"Aye, Milady, he will be there tonight. Presently he is meeting with some... bankers, I believe they are now called, to arrange the opening shortly of this new way of handling coin."

"He is? That's great! I wasn't sure how easy it would be for them to organize a bank... I'll get all the details from him tonight, I expect."

"As you say, Milady. I find banks to be very confusing, though Tanon says they are not complicated once you understand how they operate."

"Aye, Mistress Merina," Gullbrand agreed. "We all found the idea strange at first but agree it will be needful as Palarand expands."

Garia turned and said, "Gullbrand, if you have any problems settling in, drains or water supply or anything else local, then send next door to Merina, won't you? She'll know how to get problems fixed around here."

"I will do that, Milady."

Garia had a thought. "I wonder, Merina. I called you family and there is a favor you and your husband might do for me."

"Milady?"

"I am told that it is customary for a maiden to have her family by her side at her wedding. Since my own parents are somewhere else entirely I would be honored if you would stand by me at mine. As I said, I consider you and Tanon's men all to be family."

Merina's eyes glistened. "My Lady, the honor is all ours. Of course we will stand by you, as you say, it is only appropriate."

"I'm not going to cause you more trouble, am I?"

"My Lady, to be a part of the wedding of such a remarkable person as yourself, not to mention the Crown Prince -"

"What about me?" That was Keren, walking through the entrance followed by Merizel and Feteran.

"Tanon and Merina are my family on Anmar," Garia explained. "I want them to stand by me at our wedding."

"Of course!" Keren smiled at Merina. "I can think of nothing more fitting. I remember, it was Tanon and Merina who brought you to the palace, that first day. Aye, they shall have places of honor, I will so inform Kendar."

Merina curtseyed. "Thank you, Your Highness." She turned to Garia. "Then, by your leave, Milady, I will withdraw and let you continue whatever brings you here." She curtseyed again.

"Thank you for coming, Merina. You are always welcome as you know."

Garia looked around. "What else have we to do here today? Feteran, how much time is there before it gets too dark?"

"You have perhaps a bell, Milady. I would leave here no later than that."

"Merry?"

"There's the workshops and the warehouse, oh, and those two buildings by the rear gate."

Garia frowned. "I don't think we can manage all that today. I've been in the warehouse and it looks fine. Gullbrand, why don't you organize some pel for us all and have it ready in the dining room while we go over and look at the workshop space. We won't take long."

Gullbrand bowed. "As you desire, Milady."

When Garia and Keren reached the workshops they found Tarvan, Milsy and two armsmen manhandling a bench into place. They watched and waited until the operation was completed before interrupting.

"Is this what you wanted?"

Tarvan replied, "Aye, Milady. The furnaces are intended for the rims of wagon wheels and it will take time to adapt them as we might require. It is only a small matter. A wagon will come tomorrow bringing all our electrical equipment, carefully packed, from the laboratory and we will spend a little while arranging everything as we desire." He grinned. "Then we shall begin experiments we could not do in the laboratory for fear of disturbing the other contents."

Garia nodded. "Good. Anything you might need?"

"If we have need for anything, we will inform Gullbrand, Milady." Tarvan's face lit up. "I have news, Milady! I have managed to get the refrigerator working. It seems that though I thought I understood how the process worked, I did not understand how the piping functioned. I have learned that the pipes do not need to be completely filled, Milady."

Tarvan's calling me Milady now instead of Guildmistress. Perhaps that's because he's now working in my mansion instead of the palace.

"That sounds good. Can I see?"

"Regrettably the box is still in the palace, Milady. I can tell you that the inside is noticeably colder to the touch than the outside. Senidet is considering plans for a much larger prototype and I am thinking of ways an electric motor may be used to drive the compressor."

"Senidet. Where is she? I expected her to be around today."

"One of the guildsmen is testing her drafting abilities today, Milady. They are very impressed with her skills and understanding. She should return here before the evening meal, I think, but you will probably have departed by then."

After a tour of the workshop space they walked over to the dining room for refreshments, after which Feteran thought that they should consider leaving. The sky was overcast and it had already begun to get dark. With many farewells from the residents Garia led the party out through the carriage arch, riding beside Keren.

~o~O~o~

"What?"

Many of the other drinkers and eaters raised their heads at Serdel's outburst.

"I told you, boss," the man said, his voice low. "It looks like the mansion that was taking servants on is going to be used for paying guests from that village of hers. The one she'll be living in didn't take no new staff on, they're using people of hers from the palace."

Serdel banged his tankard down on the table in frustration.

"We did get two inside, boss," the man continued. "We have Brif in the stables and I'm in the kitchen, though there's no guests staying there presently. It is a strange arrangement, not an inn but a kind of boarding house, I deem. You can't stay there unless you come from Blackstone so we couldn't get anyone in as a guest. Do you want us to back out?"

"No," Serdel said sourly. "You're there, you might as well find out if there is a way of getting any useful information."

Serdel didn't ask, nor did the man offer any information about pay or the servants' accommodation at the hotel. Serdel didn't think it relevant and the two men had discovered their conditions and wages would suddenly improve once they started work, so wanted to keep it quiet.

"Aye, boss. Uh, it does mean we won't be able to go to the, uh... you know. Not unless Her Ladyship needs some extra servants, which I don't believe for a moment."

Serdel glared at the two men. Mondo wouldn't be pleased, but between the two groups there ought to be enough bodies for the job... and if it all went as planned, there would be plenty of bodies once the night was done. He waved a hand.

"Never mind. We'll manage. In fact, it might be an idea to have a couple of you out of the way, in case anything goes wrong. Come to the safe house if you can and I'll tell you how to contact someone... like Mondo... if you have to."

"Uh, boss, I don't know if we can just walk about like that. We'll do what we can."

Serdel scowled with frustration. How hard could it be to kill a small girl?

~o~O~o~

12th Femurin, about the 3rd bell of night

Royal Palace, Palarand


To my most excellent Steward in Blackstone, Greetings.


Dear Captain Bleskin,


I briefly wrote earlier that I had bought two properties in the city and now I can tell you about them and what they will be used for. They are large mansions and previously owned by merchants or craftsmen. I didn't just want somewhere that House Blackstone could be based in the capital, I needed somewhere that Milsy, Tarvan and their helpers could experiment without causing trouble in the palace.


The first place is on the Street of the Thatchers and in the next block to Master Tanon's mansion, if you know where that is. I intend to use that as House Blackstone's base and I will call it Blackstone House (of course).


I am told I won't be able to live there myself. Captain Merek doesn't think it a good idea and after I'm married I'll be with Prince Keren anyway. Lady Merizel won't live there either since she will be marrying Count Terinar and they will be entitled to a suite in the palace.


Apart from my personal escort about half my armsmen will move out to Blackstone House, along with Milsy, Tarvan, Senidet, Gullbrand and a number of attached maids and family members. In future you can address all official communications for House Blackstone there and Gullbrand will take care of them. Anything personal or important can still come to the palace and of course you can always reach me urgently using the semaphore system.


Of those who came from Blackstone, Tedenis will of course join Senidet at Blackstone House but Briswin will remain in the palace with me, as he is still taking archery instruction. Lanilla will remain with me presently as my junior maid.


The second property I have bought to use as a hotel by residents of Blackstone who have business (or pleasure) in the capital. This mansion will be called The Blackstone Hotel. Anyone who resides on Blackstone lands, including of course yourself, will be eligible to stay there but it won't be an inn open to all. We can accommodate perhaps twenty in bedchambers but there is a huge covered warehouse at the back where we can put up many extra people for a short time, such as over the festivals.


This is because it is anticipated that the city will be full to overflowing for Spring Dawning and the weddings that will follow. I wanted to make sure that my loyal people had somewhere safe and familiar to stay. If there is any difficulty, this property is just two blocks from Blackstone House in Copper Street so help is nearby.


Over the festival period so many heads of state will arrive that Lady Merizel and I, together with all our maids and the rest of our armsmen, will move out to Blackstone House for perhaps three or four days beforehand to make room in the palace. It will be from there that I will set off for the various celebrations.


If you feel well enough to join us in the capital, I would be delighted to see you again. There is doubtless much we have to tell each other that gets overlooked when writing letters.


I am very much looking forward to meeting you once again.


Garia.


~o~O~o~

Keren and Garia were walking through the palace corridors, Jenet and her escort keeping a discreet distance behind. Keren's arm was around Garia's waist and she was snuggled against him.

"We managed a great many things tonight in the meeting."

"Yes," she replied. "I am surprised at how easily we can deal with so many different subjects now." She looked up at Keren's face. "Having a good personal assistant helps."

"Aye, but you now have two," Keren countered.

"Gullbrand is only dealing with the Blackstone stuff. Between you and me I think he has his hands full right now. Merry is familiar with the Two Worlds stuff and handles that side really well."

"I think having Terry around helps. It was the first time he has been invited and I think he was surprised at some of the things we discussed. I think in time he will make a good administrator, assuming I don't do something stupid, of course, and he ends up King."

"Which is why your father invited him, of course. If anything does happen he has to know what has been going on and what's at stake."

"Aye. And with the dispatches arriving from upriver it will become even more important that we all know what is happening. Can you believe that report from Forguland? Maker, those Einnlanders frighten me! I'm glad they fight for us and not for our enemies."

Garia was smug. "I did tell you so! Those people have a fearsome reputation on Earth and I'm glad they still have some of the same attitudes even a thousand years after arriving on Anmar. What do you think will happen to them now, Keren?"

"It seems that most, as they swore, are returning to Palarand for our wedding, including Eriana. Of the rest I know not."

"Perhaps they will join the regular Palarand army as it moves upriver. Merek said they had just reached Joth. Maybe they'll come across a friend of ours there."

"Aye. But he will not tell them his origins, I deem." Keren was silent a moment, and then said, "Speaking of what's at stake, what is happening in that other place you go to? You haven't said anything lately."

Garia was silent and then replied, "I don't know, Keren. You know I can't predict when I go there and when I can't? I think there's something going on but they won't tell me yet. The last couple times I've managed it Nurse hasn't been there and all I had to talk to was the two monitors. They deliberately avoided most of my questions, although I think I have improved a very little." She shrugged. "If they do tell me, I doubt it can be anything important. These Beings think in terms of centuries, not days."

"Perhaps. They moved fast once they discovered your presence there, did they not? Maralin's appearance was a direct result of that."

"You're right, I didn't think of that. Oh, well."

They had arrived in the family corridor. Garia asked, "Keren, what will I do once we're married? I'm assuming that I'll be moving in with you, won't I? I have a lot of clothes and my dressing room is filled. Your dressing room must be the same size as mine, mustn't it? How will we manage?"

Keren smiled down at her. "But it is not so, Garia, my love. My suite is the same as that of my parents but it is not the same as those of my sisters. Perhaps I should give you a tour one morning."

Garia blushed. "By yourself?"

He snorted. "I doubt it. I expect my mother will be close by my side at the very least, and you will of course be attended by your many maids." Garia poked her tongue out at him and he grinned. "You shall discover how we will live after... our big day."

"Oh, Keren! It is hard to wait for so long. At least it seems long."

"Centuries, at least, isn't that what you said?"

She pouted. "You're not taking this seriously."

His expression changed immediately. "I am taking this very seriously, my love. In my world, there is nothing more serious."

His head bent down for their kiss.



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