Julina of Blackstone - 080 - The Question

Julina wavers back and forth as a certain amount of untidiness precedes the departure of the Royal Party

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

080 – The Question


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 © 2018 Julia Phillips. All rights reserved.

It uses some of the associated characters and situations that arise from the world called ‘Anmar’ created by Penny Lane, whose stories
are also copyright © 2010 - 2018 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.


Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles
080 – The Question

Silence.

Complete and utter silence.

Even the house was silent – no creaks, bangs, drips, whistling draughts, door hinge squeaks. Nothing.

Not a rattle of a button nor of a clasp nor a toggle. Nor of a sword nor any other weapon.

Not a whisper of a breath.

Every person was also silent; not a word.

- The guards and the Commander, because it was not their place to comment.

- The Countess, because she was waiting, reedlet paused, for an answer that she could record accurately.

- The Prince, because he had just posed the question and was waiting in eager anticipation.

- I, simply because the shock was enormous.

A shock that had, it seemed, frozen me completely, body AND brain.

I found, when some little feeling returned, I was yet holding my breath – and by now that was becoming painful.

The Prince looked at me for the longest time. His smile wavered as enthusiasm, eagerness and hope slowly drained from his face.

Time, however, still ticked inexorably away.

No movement, from anyone or thing.

A steadily rising tension.

Finally, finally, there came a sound.

’Twas the sound of my breath blowing out between pursed lips.

Another hour or two passed. (Subjectively speaking, that is. It was probably about a full minute in all actuality, which is nevertheless an extremely long period of time, given those circumstances.).

“Kallisthena!” I whispered, breaking the silence. But again the noise was only just audible, the whisper was pitched so low.

Before I went all introspective again, my brain racing, racing, racing.

The eerie quiet descended once more. The Prince’s eyes were showing that an increasing confusion was whirling inside him. The Countess looked a little confused somehow. The Commander was frowning.

Now as I describe this scene in all its excruciating detail, it must be borne in mind that His Highness had caught me at my lowest possible moment. Remember, I had been viciously attacked in the street, my nose had been broken during the incident, I had had a run in with a menacingly stupid man outside the doors to my own Mansion and, to top it all off, I had just started my Call; all that within the early part of the morning and then I had lost consciousness somehow and been carried back to my bed - ’twas not even yet a normal food time on the day AFTER all this. And I realised that I was hungry. Very hungry.

So it is, I deem, understandable that they were mostly negative thoughts that were zooming around in my head. Which naturally kept me somewhat tongue-tied.

Consequently, let me continue this report quickly with the POSITIVES that came out of this.

I was proud, honoured, humbled and above all excited at the thought of travelling downvalley.

And now for the not-so-positives:

I was worried, frightened, indeed scared to my very roots at the thought of travelling downvalley.

And then of there starting up something that I didn’t actually know, in a place that I didn’t actually know, with people I didn’t actually know.

And so on.

And so forth.

Oh my poor fizzing, aching brain; thoughts were attacking my consciousness from right, left and centre.

And then, suddenly, I had another thought.

A big thought.

A really big thought.

No, an enormous thought.

A drive-all-other-thoughts-away thought.

A thought that was so massive that it froze my brain, my lungs, my body once more into a state that was rapidly becoming all too familiar.

But even deeper than before. Indeed, all other processes seemed to have shut down there and then.

Again a silence, but one that was radiating a deep anger on my part. I was aware of the others sort of backing away somehow.

The silence was broken once more.

By me once more.

The tears rolled down my cheeks in torrents. (Which the Countess told me later was the most frightening thing, for there was, at first, no sign of breathing, no gasps, nothing. Just a sudden flood of tears. Copious quantities of tears.)

And then came the noise of them spattering upon the table top, not the silence-shatterer I would ever have envisaged.

This situation could not last, of course. Probably just a quarter of a minute.

I wailed.

At the top of my lungs.

And I looked at the wincing Prince with daggers in my eyes, vaguely aware that everyone else was wincing from the noise too, and that the outside guard had even stuck his head in swiftly to find out what was happening.

… … …

“Forgive me,” said the now less green looking Countess. Tandra was rubbing the Countess’ back with one hand whilst holding her hair out of the way with the other. I handed the Countess a constant stream of damp cloths, at least that’s the way it seemed to me. And held a mug of water for her. And still my brain wouldn’t shut down the other thoughts, even though I was performing my ‘emergency’ tasks at the time.

The mind is a very funny thing. Even though I was so bitterly upset with the Prince, and therefore by extension with the Countess, I couldn’t just switch off my instincts. I was the hostess to these visitors and that fact also added to my stresses and strains, for it behoves a host and/or hostess to be welcoming.

And yet, here was the Countess in her own form of discomfort; a discomfort that seemed to me to be quite extreme. It seems amazing to me now that part of my mind was inspecting the toilet room and pleased that it was clean and tidy. Except maybe for that ‘racked-knee’ in the far corner busily spinning its gossamer trap; though what it imagined it would catch inside this room as opposed to the comparative veritable riches of food elsewhere, I had not the faintest idea. It suddenly occurred to me that actually I could ask the Countess a question that had been vaguely bothering me for what seemed like years. What was the correct way to write that name? Was it really ‘racked-knee’?

But then I remembered that I was annoyed and upset with her as well as with that Prince outside.

The Countess heaved again. Despite my anger, I began to feel sorry for her.

“Is this normal?” I somewhat stupidly asked the back of her head, for she was on her knees in front of our toilet.

I was shocked when she replied: “Yes! Apparently so.”

I found myself looking across to Tandra, a question in my eyes.

“Pregnant!” was the short, surprising and somehow sobering reply.

I confess such an answer came as a mild shock. A sort of double shock if you like. The first shock was that the Countess was pregnant! And the second was more of a question: how could the world just carry on so normally after dealing me such a huge blow, after placing me in such an impossible situation?

I re-examined in my head just how we had now managed to get to where we were.

Almost as soon as the Great Wail had left my mouth, the Countess had stood up abruptly, her face tinged a peculiar shade of green.

Tandra it was who said pressingly: “Julina! Toilet or bathroom. Urgent. NOW!”

I found that my deeply ingrained habits forced me to act immediately. I broke eye contact with the Prince and rushed to show the women the way to our facilities.

As we almost ran from the room, I heard the Prince say: “What on Anmar …? Fet, what did I do? Did you see that look she gave me? And as for ...”

But, by then, we were gone into the small room, and the Countess sank to her knees, throwing up her breakfast. Any further statement from the Prince and also any answer the Guard Commander might have given was lost to my ears, bouncing about in the air somewhere behind us.

The vomiting attack was over quite soon actually, and the Countess, supervised by Tandra but with my help too, was returned once more to a degree of acceptableness.

’Twas she, the Countess, who yanked the subject back to the Prince and his ‘request’.

“Why on Anmar did you react so? I was sure you would jump at the chance to see more of Palarand. But what happened was that it looked rather that you would jump at the Prince and scratch his eyes out.”

Even though things were now at some remove, the tears jumped to my eyes once more. “How dare he? Huh?How could he even think to put me in that position? I cannot answer the Prince at this moment, I am too angry. ’Tis most unfair. He first made me oathbound not to discuss any of this with anyone else. He wants me to have to make this decision entirely alone without being abl...”

“Now hold right there, Mistress! That was NOT the oath you took.” Her voice was actually quite fierce. Its probably deliberate harshness had the desired effect.

I felt the blood drain from my face. What mistake had I made? Had I got it really so wrong? Was my anger based on my false interpretation of events?

“But … but … but he made me so swear. And you heard and witnessed. I am forbidden to discuss this with anyone outside that room.” My thumb jerked over my shoulder as I spoke.

“No, no he didn’t.”

“But excuse m...”

“Will you listen to me for a second, please? I must say now that I did wonder at the time. There was something about you that suggested you had not comprehended exactly what was being asked of you! You seemed to be already off somewhere else in your head, and were not paying full attention.” I was startled by Tandra’s almost enthusiastic nodding in agreement.

“But … but … but … to what then DID I swear?”

“To keep the secrets of Her Highness’ mission and the hoped-for return with the artifacts. That is all.” She took a breath.

“Oh!” But then I frowned once more. “But then what w...”

But the Countess had not paused to let me speak, merely to collect her own thoughts. She rode over my utterances without hesitation.

“What sort of monster do you think the Prince is? He would never make you answer without being able to discuss it with others. He just about said so, actually. He mentioned your friends and your family and your business associates. He just suggested that you travel downvalley to open the Consociation down there, a subject that gives cause to your journey, an OPEN subject for discussion with all and sundry - and almost incidentally, whilst you were there, you could have this almost secret mission on the side as it were, about which you must remain silent. I deem you have misinterpreted his words and, in the process, you have severely misjudged him.”

I had a sudden twinge down below, which was reflected in my face and in one hand that I instinctively pressed to my abdomen. I could see a sudden further understanding dawning in both the other women’s eyes. My condition was established with eye-speak. They were suddenly somehow far more accepting of my earlier reactions and outbursts now. And I knew they understood my shortness of temper was being exacerbated.

We chatted swiftly on, covering some important ground. I previously reported what I thought I had heard, but now it seemed as if I had not fully comprehended it all.

I was oathbound to keep quiet about another subject before we left the sanctuary of the facilities. No-one was yet to know about the reasons for the Countess’ sickness. (Which situation, I confess, afforded me some great deal of surprise!)

So it was that we three returned to the dining table, situated in a room in which there was a Prince who was striding about most agitatedly. He was about to say something when I held up a hand to stop him. (A peremptory action that gave me the acutest embarrassment when I considered it shortly afterwards. I had actually interrupted the Crown Prince and ordered him about as if he were just a man of my acquaintance! This is the first time I have ever mentioned it, and I trust ’twill be the last.) He was gracious enough though to allow me to say my piece.

“It seems, Your Highness, that I must apologise to you. I misinterpreted some of what you said and was falsely believing that you wished me to make this decision in isolation, being oathbound not to talk about ANY of it with anyone. Not able to talk with my friends, my relatives, my business associates about any of the reasons for a removal downvalley – THAT, I deemed, to be a most cruel request. The Countess has however corrected my errant thoughts, and I find I must needs apologise for the fact that I ever thought you could be so heartless.”

At any other time, I might have giggled at the sheer delighted relief that shot swiftly across his face, although he did manage to hide it quite well. The older he got, I felt, the more he would be able to control his features from such revealing displays, but we mothers, part-time or no, could still read faces uncannily well.

But his still-boyish traits made me more than ever ashamed of myself that I had so maligned him. Then he sort of made it worse in one way, for he took the blame to himself: “You must forgive ME, Mistress Julina, for not making it as clear as it should have been. I understand now the depths of your distress.” He glanced over at the Commander and they both gave the other a sort of nod of realisation and raised their eyebrows.

It took some hand of moments further for all the lingering doubts on all sides to clear away, helped I deem by my making us all, including the guards inside and out, a big pot of pel. And finding a few pastries, declined by the Countess which I noticed from the corner of my eye made the Prince raise his eyebrows once again to the Commander. I half wondered just how long the Countess thought that she could get away with no-one knowing, but my attention was demanded by the more serious discussions which must needs get under way.

By the time we had finished our now mostly mistrust-free discussions, taken fully and frankly, we were all far more relaxed and I agreed to send word to the Countess as to when, if at all, I felt I could make the trip to start a new life downvalley. There was going to be no possibility at all for me to be joining their party for the trip down, I would require far more time than that; even though I learnt that Epp would travel down to Tranidor with them, tempting me with a familiar companionship for the first part of a long journey.

I knew without being told that the Countess would be bending Epp’s ear on this subject as they went along. I promised to come to a decision before the rains set in and I would then inform the Countess. The Countess would then relay my decision to the Prince, as there was, and could be, no conception that the Prince could (nor indeed should) just wait around until I made up my mind. His duties may well take him hither and thither, the Countess being more likely to remain comparatively static.

(But I find I must report that, on the next few occasions, there was a slight shadow, just a little awkwardness, in any of the then infrequent dealings I had with the man who had made that breath-taking suggestion, our Crown Prince Keren.)

But to get back to that momentous meeting, once those initial doubts and misunderstandings on my part had been swept away then I could be far more relaxed and matter of fact about his request; I actually came quite swiftly to admire the way he had thought to combine two objectives at the same time, with an almost perfect excuse to just have to talk about one of them. He had certainly thought it all through very well, it was only my lack of both trust and attention that had caused the problem. I felt ashamed once again.

The small Royal Party rose from the table and took their leave. I realised that my family would see them go and would rush back to confront me, wanting answers to the myriad questions they would have. My heart sank at the thought and I very nearly dashed to get dressed more sensibly for the outdoors but realised I would not have time before my inquisitors returned.

I resigned myself to my fate.

… … ...

So my mind started thinking about it. Properly thinking about it, far more practically and far less emotionally. But first I must needs conjure up a believable sort of tale that would reveal the minimum I wanted to at the moment.

At the same time, my mind was turning to ways and means of achieving that task, looking for positives.

But that same mind was already even then throwing up a negative thought after each and every positive one that occurred.

I can tell you frankly, and still with some memories of the distaste, that ’twas was from that moment on that I began to have the almost constant back-brain indecision that was to infect me for the next days and weeks and months. And which affected each and every one of my relationships with others.

Do I? Don’t I?

… … …

“… explained that the proposed Consociation was seen to be of great assistance to the development of the entire land, and would I therefore consider opening it far nearer the centre of the land, so that all could benefit from it without having to travel quite so far?”

“But that would mean you moving away!”

“Precisely!”

Already I was gritting my teeth and struggling to answer that last ‘question’ politely. Less than a day had passed since the meeting with the Prince and the Countess, and I must have had to answer that statement/question, or at least react to a close variation of it, a minimum of a million times or more.

Very well, that might be a slight exaggeration I used there.

But whatever, I was nowhere nearer a decision. If anything, even further away.

Do I? Don’t I?

… … …

The most difficult session I had had in that time was the children’s lesson in the Salon the following morning. This was also the last lesson at which Countess Merizel would appear during her stay up here. The children were all sad, and my introspective and distracted mood, accompanied with the ‘natural’ downs that come with Those Days, meant that I was failing in my attempts to lighten the mood there. Her need to rush to the facilities twice in the lesson also served to make the occasion less happy than normal. Only Master Horbelan seemed unaffected.

This had followed on after another ‘Inquisition’ session with my family, who, as I foresaw, had all bombarded me with questions as soon as they had returned after the departure of our visitors the day before. They kept it up until I ‘had a headache’ and retired to the peace and quiet of my room, which afforded me at last complete privacy.

I did not emerge until the younger ones were abed, and then I had to say firmly to all the older ones that: “… now is not the time for any further discussions.” I was really very snappy about it, and the rest of the evening wasn’t exactly relaxing. For any of us.

Which didn’t stop me thinking about it of course, and it was impossible to keep separate the remarks they had made, a very few points of which had been validly relevant, but nevertheless repetitive.

They had had both negative and positive thoughts about it all; but not ONE of those thoughts of theirs was in any way original, for these very same concerns and excitements had already shot through my brain.

More than once.

Indeed more than a hand of times.

And yet they still found it necessary to rehash those very same arguments for and against on the next morning, after a night in which I tossed and turned trying to find at least some beginning of a solution, or even a very tiny solution to just one of the millions of not-necessarily-tiny problems I had come up with.

I had spent some of this time formulating a list of people I would need to talk to. I just hoped I would remember that complete list after waking. If I slept, that is. But even that little stream of sensible consciousness was soon once again swallowed up by the enormity of it all, and the thousands and thousands of questions, affects and results that I could readily see would come up.

They, my family that is, went on and on - even whilst we were Tai Chiing, which amounted (to me at least) to being against the point of it all – I now had to query my family’s understanding of the ‘process’. I managed to last a little while before I made my short-tempered escape, leaving half the Tai Chi unfinished. I ignored the raised eyebrows and the inevitable questions which they even started shouting after me as I got further and further away.

I needed help, not statements of the obvious. Why couldn’t they see that?

Davvy and Surtree started to gallumph after me, but I just shook a hand in their direction and turned my face away.

I stomped (yes, my nose could by then just about handle proper stomping) up to the Salon where I once again ‘enjoyed’ my own company, with the wretched question lurking forever in the neighbourhood. This lasted for an hour or so before the children, and, just a little later, the Countess arrived with Master Horbelan.

Both the Countess and Tandra were concerned about my obvious state of exhaustion, and we had to tell the children something about what had happened.

“Does that mean you will move away too, ’Lina?”

I sent out a huge (but silent) “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!” which I saw Tandra notice, and a look of some understanding raced across her face. Which was surprisingly reflected in the surge of not exactly happiness that shot through me. As I said, not exactly joy but the relief that I now knew SOMEONE had an inkling of my frustrations.

At least I was further pleased that some part of my mind starting wondering about Tandra now instead of staying on what I already by then recognised was rapidly becoming an unhealthy fixation.

I rearranged my face into a semblance of a smile for the children: “Only if I accept!”

But still...

Do I? Don’t I?

… … …

And then, once the lesson was over and the farewells, with some tears on both sides, were made, we three women passed into the Salon's kitchens, accompanied by the inevitable guards – the Countess suddenly deciding she needed something to nibble on. “Or bring up later,” said Tandra in an aside to me, which the Countess heard. She grinned at her maid and said simply: “Just you wait!”

What? Was Tandra pregnant too? How...? Who...? I dragged my scattered wits back to the present.

Surtree and Davvy had found out my big news yesterday – of course – and had, I hoped, prepared the way somewhat with the workers there in the Salon kitchens. Thankfully, it transpired that they had, but only to a certain extent.

Even so, I was surprised when I walked in. For only two were missing, the ones who had gone across to the Tree. Even Em and Kassama were there waiting to pounce on me it felt. My heart sank as all conversation, indeed all activity in there, ceased.

“Does this mean you are leaving Blackstone, 'Lina?”

Now it was my turn to be shocked as a blood curdling wail emanated from Tandra of all people. It killed the one rising in my own throat stone dead. (I only realised afterwards that the Countess had given her permission! I further think the word of that eruption got around fairly swiftly for the dumb question appeared to me to arise far less frequently afterwards.)

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrggggggghhhhhhh! If I hear that stupid question one more time I shall start tearing people limb from limb!”

Everyone turned to look at Tandra, many with mouths agape.

“If she accepts, which is still open to question, then what on Anmar do you expect to happen? That she shall shout her lessons from here, and see the good and bad things that people are doing without straying from Blackstone? Maker, people! She has a HUGE decision to make and needs help, constructive help, for her to come to that decision. Not stupid, unthinking remarks that serve merely to antagonise and not construct. Engage your brains ...”

“Thank you, Tandra! That will do! I will be speaking with you later.” Her Mistress' harsh voice grated across the room.

Tandra ground to a stifled and abrupt halt and managed even to blush a little as her mistress forced a stop to the maid's angry tirade. However, I knew them well enough to just pick up a few tell-tales that told me this was all pre-arranged. That in itself was another shock. When had they had the time?

I took a few heartbeats to admire how it was done and what had been achieved:
I had not said anything, so I had not ruffled anyone's sensibilities
Exactly the same could be said for Her Ladyship
A powerful message had been sent and word would get around rapidly. Which would make my life considerably easier, I anticipated.

I was extremely grateful, I can tell you. But nevertheless, I was no further advanced in finding a way out of my quandary.

And so it was that we fed the Countess, and Tandra, whose hand I gave an extra squeeze to, and the guards before seeing them all off through the back door and out into the courtyard.

After a quick amazed chat yet again about the feeding habits of the military then the inevitable started.

Refreshingly, this time it became very rapidly constructive. In fact, ’twas the first such conversation I had had since the Prince had sprung his … his … trap?

I shocked myself with my mental verbalisation of a fear I had not even appreciated I had.

Amongst many other subjects, we looked at the staffing I might require down there if I did go, and whom I could take with me. Which meant that we discussed the staff of not only the Salon but some of the other establishments. I repeat, we had to determine first who MIGHT be travelling with me – and remembered that not all of those would be here in this room right now. We discussed just how to work it all out, and agreed to start with a long and comprehensive list from which names could be removed as circumstances dictated. (By the way, I deem I did in fact remember all my thoughts on this subject from my toss-strewn bed session of the previous night.)

So we all knew no conclusions would be reached right now. But we all established some … determinates, if you like, as to the range of the discussions which would inevitably ensue.

It was a useful session, one which didn't actually interrupt our tasks too much, which mainly consisted of setting things out to work with through the afternoon.

As it happens, this was a task for which we were well over-staffed just then, so I decided to go and set up some meetings with Master Simman to discuss the Market Place Mansion. For ’twas he who had now been placed in charge of the rough finishing of that building, a sensible appointment since he was in charge of the development of all the parks in Town. And the Market Place Mansion was a very fundamental contributor to the entirety of Julina Park, forming as it did (and still does) the northern boundary.

But nevertheless, 'twas still there. That wretched question which had taken a life upon itself, I felt.

Do I?

Don't I?

… … …

Now I cannot leave the description of that day without mentioning that other event that occurred; as you shall see, it turned out not to be quite so simple as I had imagined. I shall dwell upon it in some detail, for there were many repercussions, both shortly after and some indeed years after.

Davvy, Surtree and I walked up there quite early on, as I mentioned just now, to get it done before the more desperate rush of preparations began for the evening meals. We were going to be full in the Salon that night, both sittings, and I knew things would get very hectic later on. We briefly discussed that and were about to return to my quandary, when I jerked to a halt, as did the other two, our eyes widening.

For we were all three fundamentally shocked when we reached the Market Place itself.

A full day had passed since the first market session had ended. The streets and footways there were, frankly, a disgusting mess. Where previously (i.e. all my life) there had been cleanliness and tidiness, now there were discarded things littering almost the entire area. Apart from the unpleasantness just for the flavour it gave our Town, I didn’t want my building to be presented in such dismal surroundings, I can tell you.

And it really reflected badly upon the Town itself, we all thought disappointedly. What on Anmar would any visitor make of that mess?

Discarded boxes, some still usable, were unorderedly scattered all around on the ground. Unsold goods had just been dropped and the unsuccessful vendors had wandered away, obviously no thought given to tidying up behind themselves. A closer inspection of these wares led me to believe they were simply shoddy goods that had probably been used to swell the display, rather than being present in expectation of being exchanged! The ground’s surface was quite churned up and it made me wonder just what would happen on damper days. Some parts of the ground were stone-covered of course, but other parts were not. At one place, a deeper dent had been made that would need more complex filling to make the ground even again.

I sighed as my brain was flashing me messages of what would be required to be done.

“Surtree, can you please fetch … hmmm, let me see ... the Steward, preferably, but he will be busy I expect with the Prince and the impending departure of the Royal Party. Failing that, then Representative Jepp, or even, I suppose, the Bailiss. If all else fails, then the Sheriff. We must have someone with authority see this. I would suggest that that Market Manager be called too, Filagro, Filagor or whatever his name is. Here’s some coin for the urchins. Then find Kulyer, Mutab or Sookie, and try to get a free wagon, driver and a labourer or two. Tell them it's dirty work for mayhap two bells. I shall stay here, after popping into the Mansion to tell Simman where I am.”

Another huge sigh escaped my lips: “Now I shall have to make a decision as to where to dump all this rubbish.”

I turned to Davvy and grimaced. She was thinking about it, I could see, and her eyes widened not so long later as the full implications crossed her active brain. I was secretly proud of her for catching on quite so quickly.

But then a shadow crossed her face: “Oh 'Lina. How come you are so quick to identify and recognise all these needs and yet I myself have to strain just to see in a whole minute what you see in a mere second?”

“A little longer, surely, than a mere second ...”

We both then gasped as eye-speak made us realise that the use of the new time units had somehow become almost second nature to us. It made us laugh out loud, despite the relative seriousness of the situation.

“Davvy, dear, it will simply come with practice, I assure you. When you have brought up a few children, you will learn to anticipate such things, not just think about them afterwards.”

“So this rubbish that's left, can we come up with some solutions, however temporary?”

“Well I look and see a certain amount of broken and discarded wood. We already know what we can do with all that. To the woodpile at the railroad works.”

“Of course! And maybe one of those still usable boxes could be filled with the discarded food that shall rot. Then that could be taken up to the feltris’ spot for the wild animals to use as some fodder?”

“What a good idea! And some of these metal bits I deem Uncle Brydas might be able to re-use, not that I am in any way an expert in such matters. So another box for metals.”

“What else is there here then? I see some leather, some cloth even. And over there … do bones count as going on the fodder pile?”

“Come Davvy, sweet, let us see if Master Simman has time for us, even though it shall have to be out here lest the others I have sent for begin to arrive. At least we have a warm and pleasantly sunny day for remaining outside.”

“Very well, 'Lina,” she agreed as we threaded our way through the steady but not yet busy traffic to my double front doors. “You know,” she continued, “I am surprised at the number of still usable boxes we can see. Are the merchants here so rich already that they can afford to just lightly throw away items that could, and probably should, have been retained?”

“I confess to being more than somewhat surprised at that myself, Davvy.”

I flung open my doors; poor Davvy of course had only one arm, so door flinging was really beyond her.

And I swore loudly: “BALTH!” as I found my easy passage partially blocked by that wretched market stall of Gobitoo’s.

Davvy didn’t help at that moment. All she did was giggle, stupid child!

But then she rapidly got serious.

For Simman was there, with the works-appointed doorman I had met the other day. Present were also Filagor, Suril … and Gobitoo. Plus two other rougher men. And two men with pads and reedlets.

The wretched Gobitoo was, to my absolute unsurprise, protesting loudly and seemingly trying to fight all the other four, with some tentative assistance from the two men who I saw rapidly were with him, but seemed to be less enthusiastic about it all.

“And just WHAT is going on here?” I exclaimed in my most censorious of tones.

All except Gobitoo stopped what they were doing. He just grabbed a handful of wares from the stall wagon and tried to stuff them into a carry bag. This caused Suril to shout: “Hold, man. You have been told this visit is simply to record the inventory here. You are here merely to confirm what is recorded. Put it back this instant!”

Gobitoo just sneered at him and reached for another handful or two. “Don’t be so stupid man. Now I am here, I shall take what is rightfully mine. And you can get those stupid crippled women out of here,” he snarled, waving a hand in our general direction, “this has nothing to do with them.”

A mistake. A HUGE mistake.

On several interpretations.

And I was not the only incensed one.

For within three heartbeats, he was writhing on the floor clutching his knee and adding considerably to the noise. Suril had simply temporarily crippled him by assaulting his left knee. His weight could not be borne by that damaged joint for a little while.

But by then, my temper had risen almost to breaking point. I forced myself to not explode with fury. It took several swallowings and not a few self-pinchings.

And then I found that a cold rage had settled upon me, which made itself eminent by ever-expanding circles of an utterly icy calm that made even Davvy quail. I knew not what was driving out these waves of determined anger, but when whatever it was reached them, they each and every one visibly felt something. I saw Master Simman’s face take on a nervous look as he stared at me in something more than just surprise. Filagor actually backed away a pace or two. The two recorders looked as if they might soil their hose at any moment. And the two rougher men actually paled.

I could but shake my head at his, Gobitoo’s, utter stupidity. He seemed to think that the normal standards of behaviour did not apply to him. Everyone and everything were there for his use and his use only. He paused but briefly as my anger force reached him but he just seemed to shrug himself and the effects off. He returned to considering his own concerns.

I realised immediately that he overduly needed a lesson. Furthermore though, I also realised that I was not certain he was intelligent enough to understand it. Maybe, intelligence was not the correct requirement. Maybe he just lacked any degree of social consciousness. Nevertheless, I was by now determined to try to make him see, if not reason, then the error of his ways.

I would make every effort I could to ensure ’twould be a lesson he would never ever forget.

I pointed at him and openly sneered. “Please remove that … person from my house. Immediately. I will not have him in here ever again. And you two?” I swung round on the other men, the two rougher-looking ones. “Why are you in here? Did I invite you in? Or any of my representatives?”

“Er… Not exactly, Mistress. Goodman Gobitoo here asked us for assistance in removing his wares from the stall here.”

“Not QUITE right, Mistress,” interrupted the second one, glancing at his companion, and then back to me, repeating this eye shift over and over again, obviously fearful of my wrath should I discover he was lying. “He asked us for help to wheel away the market stall barrow thingy. He was going to pay us some coin once we had done it.”

I had enhanced my rage by employing full ‘angry mother’ status. Experience told me that I had just a few more seconds before my hold over them all dissipated. Now ’twas the right time to get them once more on the defensive.

“I see. So he did not inform you that the barrow has been confiscated because of his false positioning of it, nor that it had been carried in here for its protection, protection of both the barrow AND the wares? That it is here in fact as a protection for HIMSELF?”

They shook their heads and all turned to look at Gobitoo. Was that a spark of realisation that maybe he had missed something in his calculations?

I hurried on: “That in fact he is awaiting a court trial and that ’tis possible the barrow may be declared to be forfeit? Which by the way further means that if you move it, or take it away, or any of the wares displayed upon it, then you yourselves could be arrested?”

“No Mistress, that he did NOT. Can this be true?” But they were both glaring at the miscreant as this was uttered.

We all swung round as a new voice said: “Indeed it is so.”

“Sheriff, good day to you. Thank you for coming so promptly.”

“Mistress Julina, good day to you too. Mistress Davabet, Master Simman, Goodmen all. What is going on here?”

Gobitoo, ever the stupid one, complained in a very whiny way: “That ridiculous, squeaky, little, pakh-brained girl,” he snarled whilst pointing at me, “is repeatedly interfering in a private matter, whoever you are. I want her out of this place while we finish this transaction.”

Fedren just stared him in the eyes until even he realised that he had just made another mistake.

But he didn’t know exactly what that mistake was. So his uncertainty just made his blustering ramp up a notch. But he could not express it, not while Fedren held his stare. We could all see his temper rise. Never a show of remorse, just of recalculation and ill-tempered little bratty behaviour.

He looked down for a brief glance, at which point Fedren spoke: “Your name is I believe, Gobitoo? A nod will suffice for now.” He waited, as did we all, until a very grudging nod was given.

“I am Fedren. I am the man responsible for law and order in this Town. My title is Sheriff. Your case has been reported to me so I already have the bare bones of it. And I know you have already been informed that you stand currently inside a private property. A private property belonging to Mistress Julina here, whom you have just severely insulted inside her own four walls.”

“Oh pish, man. Everyone knows that women don’t own property. I checked a while ago and this property was purchased by a partnership of Masters Kordulen and Pocular. Do YOU yourself know these men? They are of great importance up he...”

“Gobitoo, you really don’t work very well at all, do you? You have just confirmed to us all here gathered that you do not even follow your own thoughts to their very end. Allow me to point out some more facts. Master Kordulen and Master Pocular did indeed purchase this building plot, you were right as far as that goes. However, they subsequently gave it on as a reward to Mistress Julina here - for she has had ideas that have made those two Masters quite wealthy already. Let me further add that Master Kordulen, as simple questioning would readily have established, is the father of Mistress Julina.”

That struck home. We could all see him start to rethink something or things.

“As I said, simple further research would have revealed that, but you failed to go far enough, didn’t you? The handover to Mistress Julina was duly made and witnessed by all the highest citizens up here, at one of our Assembly Meetings. Yes, I too am a member of the Assembly of this town.

“I can absolutely confirm that this building does indeed belong to Mistress Julina. She has more right to be in here than you do. It is her private property. Legally deeded and witnessed. And all this is known as fact by a minimum of half the citizens who live here.

“Furthermore, you would do well to remember that this entire region, which spreads down to beyond Brayview, is owned by our Princess, the woman who will one day be your Queen. So much for your ridiculous statement that women don’t own property.”

We could all still tell that Gobitoo decided to ignore those inconvenient truths, almost as if they were not worth considering. He simply refused to acknowledge them in any way, shape or form.

There was a small break, a small pause in proceedings. Gobitoo then started complaining about undue force, and unwarranted attacks, and groundless arrests and so on and so on and so on and so on ...

For some reason, everyone looked at me. I had effectively only just arrived, had walked into the middle of an altercation, and yet all those strong brave men decided that I was to be the one to explain. I shook my head at the sheer stupidity of it all.

And then explained from the very beginning to Master Fedren. In detail. Some of which Gobitoo tried to protest. I made sure that all there heard the full and complete story and made sure Gobitoo’s arrogance and intransigence was made aware to all.

“Thank you Mistress Julina. I see from many nods that there is agreement with your details, the only negative being from the prisoner Gobitoo.” He somehow subtly emphasised the word ‘prisoner’.

His eyes swept round us all before fixing on the strange pair of men.

“So you two men are what you will now call yourselves ‘innocent bystanders’ - is that it? Light labour, hired to do an inoffensive job, the background to which being something of which you had no prior knowledge and no direct concern?”

There was no initial response so his voice hardened: “You do now know that I am the man responsible for law and order in this Town? Ah, thank for your nods. Right, be off with you. My Deputy Suril there and I have a good memory for faces. You will be in grave difficulties if we have to interact with you two anytime in the near future. Understood? Good! Now go… Now.” They scuttled out, nodding their heads and touching their forelocks and the like. And casting further looks of dislike at Gobitoo.

“You two! You are the recorders of the inventory from that market barrow? Good. Please continue your work under the supervision of Goodman Filagor and Master Simman, who shall represent Mistress Julina here. For as it happens, SHE has called me here for some other business, as yet to be explained.

“Now you, Gobitoo. You are our prisoner, arrested yesterday for flagrant breaches of our regulations. You were invited here today just to see that all was being conducted fairly. But you have decided that such considerations do not apply to you. Where on Anmar did you think you were going to after leaving here? You must know you were to be returned to the cells. And yet you tried to take the wares from here in a carry bag, a carry bag that would simply have been removed from your grasp.”

He too shook his head at the stupidity of it all.

“Mistress Julina. Am I to understand that you have made a declaration concerning this person? That he is not welcome in your house?”

My towering rage must have been evident in every syllable I uttered.

“Indeed so, Sheriff. From this instant and forever more, he is banned from these premises, even if he merely wants to purchase some refreshment when he is enjoying the facilities of the Park out the back. Nevermore to have one foot inside this building. I am tempted to include those other two you sent off just now. I will not have uninvited people in here, certainly not without supervision. I find I even object partially to Filagor being here, although I deem I now understand his presence. Why was I not informed that this event was taking place, that I too could have been involved?”

Fedren looked across at Suril, who replied: “Gobitoo was making such a fuss about his items being stolen that I deemed ’twould be most efficacious were the whole thing dealt with as soon as we might. I sent to Representative Jepp for two recorders, and sent to Filagor and Juli… Mistress Julina via urchins. I can only assume that the urchins are still searching for you, Mistress!”

That was entirely plausible, so I attempted to reply a little less angrily.

“I confess I have had reasons to try to remain somewhat alone this day so far, and this fuss has just made me even more angry than I already was.”

That anger rose visibly again. “I want this Gobitoo out of here now, and never ever let him in here again. Have you heard that, Gobitoo? You are not welcome in here at any time. Nor on the doorsteps. Nor under my eaves. In fact, upon further reflection, nor within any of my buildings – and yes I do own several more. Up here. And downvalley. Even if there is someone in here or there that you wish to speak with or do business with, you shall never be allowed inside any of them. That business of yours will from now on forever be conducted outside, whatever the weather. At pain of instant arrest. I cannot believe that even someone as stupid as you cannot comprehend what I have just said. Have you understood it?”

He just looked at me, not deigning to answer.

I looked around at the people gathered there who were all still quite surprised by my vehemence; all except the one man at whom it was all directed. The icy rage had long since dissipated, but the violent core was still in evidence.

After a couple of heartbeats, I raised an eyebrow, obviously inviting some action to take place.

’Twas Davvy, of course, who caught on first: “Heard and witnessed.”

Foreheads unfrowned and even a smile or two flitted across a face or two. A positive chorus of “Heard and witnessed” echoed around the room, even nearly drowning out Gobitoo’s persistent complaints and protests. He still insisted I had no rights whatsoever as to his movements. It just did not seem to occur to him that I really did own this building.

However, his protests used words that showed clearly he had just heard what had been uttered.

Master Fedren took over again: “You have been duly informed of the ban placed upon you by the acknowledged and legal owner of this property. There are many witnesses here to that fact. You shall never be able to say you have not been told. I, as Sheriff of this Town, are hereby informing you on an official basis, with the backing of the entire Assembly, that you shall be arrested if you encroach upon any of Mistress Julina’s properties or businesses.”

“Heard and witnessed,” I added in my coldest tones. The others around also repeated the formal words. I was a little surprised at the feeling evidenced behind some of those short and simple utterances. I was not the only one who detested the man, it appeared.

Master Simman let out a complex yet short series of curt and penetrating whistles. Two burly construction workers appeared quite rapidly, responding to what had now become apparent to be a summons. They looked at us curiously before silently asking him for their instructions. Simman indicated me with a hand and nodded to them to take my orders. My anger was still insufficiently controlled that it made my voice quiver; slightly, but nevertheless noticeably.

“Take this pile of refuse outside and dump him on the road please, away from anything that could be construed as being in or of this building. I don’t care how roughly you handle him. I would rather not have any blood on my property, and mayhap you should try to avoid letting him get squashed by any passing traffic. But I have to confess that that would not bother me in the slightest, were it to happen. The Sheriff and the Deputy will then escort him back to the cells from there. Sadly, at this moment, one more pile of disposable rubbish outside won’t make that much difference.”

They were just about to drag the still-moaning and self-justifying man out, when another thought occurred to me.

“Hold! All this fuss has quite discombobulated me. I called for the Sheriff and Goodman Filagor to observe the disgusting state the Market Place has been left in after yesterday’s otherwise extremely successful market opening. The inventory taking will have to be put on hold whilst we all go outside to inspect, and the removal of Gobitoo to the cells shall have to wait until these persons in authority have witnessed the lamentable state of affairs out there. Master Simman, can your two men please remain outside with what they are about to dump? Just until the Sheriff and the Deputy are free to carry on? Shall we say a quarter bell, maybe? Also, you two recorders should step back from the barrow and wait until Goodman Filagor and I return, then it can all be done, properly witnessed and accounted for and so on. That pathetic Gobitoo will have no ground for complaint nor accusations of improper behaviour.”

And so I paraded back outside, back stiff and neck unbending. I was trailed by a column of others, including one struggling and wriggling. And still complaining.

I almost burst out into laughter when I realised something.

For a whole while now, I had NOT been asking myself the wretched question: Do I? Don’t I?

… … …

“… correct, Mistress. This cannot be allowed.”

We all looked at Filagor. To us this was obviously a part of any Market Manager’s job. He realised that too – after a little while thinking about it.

He flushed and he too started to bluster, but he wasn’t as good at it as Gobitoo: “It wasn’t specified when they made the job description for the task I accepted...”

We all tutted and otherwise expressed our dis … dis … dis … disapproval, disappointment as well as disbelief.

“But I shall make it my responsibility in the future,” he hastily added.

We looked at him again, this time with a degree of reserved approval, from which he visibly gained a little more self-confidence. Mayhap that was the problem? He was too nervous, too uncertain, to assert himself?

I continued: “I have sent for some workers to clear all this away. Davvy and I thought that foodstuff should be gathered into one of those usable boxes and taken up to the Feltris’ Feeding place … oh, that’s a point! Where is that feeding point nowadays; it used to be down on the slope below what is now the Community Hall? Hmmmm.”

“Well, actually I think they are still debating...”

“I’m sorry to override you, Sheriff, but that wasn’t really a question. Just a mental note to myself to find out a fact. Let me carry on, for we needs be swift. My time has suddenly become very limited today.

“I have thought that the wooden bits to be scrapped probably should be delivered to the wood pile for the end of next month’s Longest Day celebrations. Metal bits could be gathered into another of the boxes for transport across to the Smithy, and I don’t really have any idea about any of the rest.”

“But who shall pay for this? As far as I know there are no rules or regulations covering this?” almost-whined Filagor, his self-confidence beginning to ebb once more.

“Oh pish man. I shall cover the costs of today’s work. But I fail to see why I should have to carry this financial burden forever. We shall just have to set some regulations.”

“But how?”

I shrugged. Surely it was obvious? “Basically, there are two main methods – rewards or punishments. Fining people who leave a mess would be one way, but possibly difficult to prove and/or collect.

“Or, say, charge every stallholder a fee – call it a market fee – just for being able to have a stall. Explain it covers costs of repairs and clean-up and so on. Simply return their coin, or part of it, when all the costs have been deducted. The other stallholders will surely then place pressure on the messier ones and it will probably end up being a self-controlled system.”

“Sensible ideas, Mistress,” was the general consensus it seemed to me. But the whole thing seemed also to me to be ridiculously clear and straightforward. Why couldn’t these people see that? And at least I wouldn’t have to be involved in the actioning of it. And why had this incompetent Filagor been appointed in the first place? Although, to be fair, it was obvious he was trying to learn and to apply the lessons as they came along. Maybe I was being just a little harsh.

“And I deem we must have this entire place paved!” I added, which again raised a flutter of anxiety in my flock of listeners. All except Simman, who looked at me with laughter in his eyes as he made a rolling gesture with his arm, encouraging me to keep up the pressure.

At that point, I nearly said something which might have given a clue to the military secrets with which I had been entrusted. I only just managed to stop myself saying it, and that sobered me a lot. I was oathbound in several ways, you will remember. I must not let my loss of temper make my tongue slip. And maybe Filagor was not one of those ‘in the know’. Maybe that’s why they had appointed someone with obviously limited abilities – so far?

I led the way across to the large dent in the ground I had noticed earlier. “Look over here, at this great crater that has been dug into the surface. It looks to me as though a barrow was lifted too high, and its corner, or mayhap a handle, has been forced deep into the earth here, and a great deal of soil has been shifted. That will not be a simple fill and tamp repair.”

I knew the others had forgotten my father’s career, and I had naturally picked up some of the terms he used. They just looked amazed that I knew the correct words! (Davvy, the impossible wretch, began giggling behind her hand!)

“Master Simman, who do you imagine would be the best person to approach to get this Market Place repaired and protected from future damage?”

Simman puffed his cheeks out. “We are working hard to get this Mansion finished, in terms of weather tightness for we shall have much work to do returning the Community Hall to its better configuration. We also have the unfinished buildings around here and down by what will be Jepp Park. And then there are buildings over at the Artisan’s Area, and an extension to the Bunkhouse. All have to be done before the rains. We are hard pressed as it is. This is why we must needs get the Market Place Mansion ticked off our list, that the workers can be assigned to other buildings. Better said, we need to get this Mansion done now, then all hands can work on the Community Hall, then they can split off to different projects. I deem Master Bezan will need to decide about fitting in this extra work.”

The Sheriff nodded his thanks. And we could all see Filagor make a mental note to approach Master Bezan.

I deem it took mayhap a further quarter of an hour for everything to be planned out and arranged, Filagor being told in no uncertain terms by Master Fedren, in the name of the Assembly, that it was his responsibility to see these measures were acted upon – with the unsaid implication that an unsatisfactory report would be made to the Assembly; such implication being left unsaid, as I reported, but nevertheless ’twas dangling there in the air for all to ‘see’.

Only then was Gobitoo escorted, without the carry bag, back to the cells, walking briskly all the way – and running his mouth all the way. The Sheriff and Suril just ignored him as they hustled him along. It seemed to bother him somewhat that they were ignoring him and I wondered if that was related to the grounds where he had developed his taste for ignoring other people and facts.

I explained to Surtree what orders to give to the clean-up crew when they arrived, made doubly sure that Filagor understood that this was a one-off as far as I was concerned and then I went into the Mansion so that at last the inventory on the barrow could be properly recorded.

It took another half an hour for that task to be done. The two recorders had their independent lists duly signed and witnessed by both Filagor and I as representing the ‘wronged’ parties and, under protest, by Master Simman on behalf of Gobitoo.

An hour or more later than I had planned, I eventually got to speak with Simman. We discussed in detail the to-be-changed internal layout of my Mansion. He was somewhat surprised at some of my specifications and he was then further surprised when I explained the Prince's request to him. But at least he understood then most of what I said and why I had said it. And most of why I wanted the alterations to be done eventually, but there was no rush to get them done right now.

Some of those were definitely going to be major alterations, mind you. A new staircase. An entrance hall that spread up to the very roof with a balcony all around at the first floor level. And a realisation that we would needs have some form of light accessed from above, as the internal walls would make the ground floor in particular very dark. But we agreed that the building-in of a glass window up above would have to wait until after the rains. Trying to do that now would delay the workings on too many other buildings. The good thing about that though was we would have time to consider the problem and to come up with some informed and sensible designs to achieve the stated requirements.

At least, so we hoped!

I left Simman frowning as he made notes of the new requirements. As for myself, I almost skipped away with more of a happy disposition than I had had for some long while. And I also extracted a promise from Simman that he would add to the security of the building, access to be restricted to only essential people. I gave him a list of those people I would trust to be allowed in.

That good mood was but of short duration. It didn't last long as we three made our way back to the Salon.

THE question seemed to have been hiding somewhere and now it rushed out at me with some force, ambushing me and all the rest of my thoughts. It seemed to me to be more forceful that it had been before. Mayhap it was jealous that I had not been giving it some more attention?

So, Julina. do you? Don't you?

… … …

I was preparing the fish courses for the first sitting, when I remembered how Swayga had shown me how to do it. I flashed a picture in my head of me teaching others the same thing.

Sigh.

Do I? Don't I?

… … ...

And so my days passed ever so slowly, it seemed to me. All was buried under the weight of that dreadful ‘Do I? Don’t I?’ question.

Mundane, routine stuff happened, interspersed with flashes of positives and negatives. I turned inward upon myself, even when I had the necessary discussions with friends and relatives, not forgetting with those aforementioned business associates. I daresay I was quite boring and almost depressing to those forced to be around me. Most people were kind enough to keep their distaste from showing, although a couple of them did demonstrate a lesser level of patience occasionally.

The days drifted mostly meaninglessly from one into another, my brain forever tossing The Question back and forth, back and forth.

Of course, there were some events that were out of the ordinary. But just because they were out of the ordinary did not mean they were not expected; however, neither did that mean that they were necessarily met by me with any greater degree of enthusiasm:

- The farewell speech from the Prince, given from the first floor balcony of the Community Hall, in which he thanked us, congratulated us and encouraged us. And dropped various hints that seemed directed at me and my decisions. It was noticeable that, even though the speech itself was less stirring than those made on the first visit, it still managed to enthuse many of us, and there were more than just a few tears adripping when he finished. Not least because he could not guarantee that he himself would return for the autumn visit to Blackstone; he mentioned there was a possibility of another young woman being sent as his representative, someone called Milsy if I heard aright. I knew I had heard the name before, but couldn’t, at that very moment, place it. This news was strangely but only slightly disquieting somehow. The weather was actually quite beautiful as he made that speech, which helped with the positivity. We onlookers were all in summer gowns or lighter attire so the references to the upcoming rains seemed almost inappropriate.

- The big departure was early in the following morning, but still most of the Town turned up to watch them go. I suppose I should have been gratified by the number acknowledging nods I received from so many of the party, guards, commoners and nobles alike, but summoning the enthusiasm just to respond properly was almost more than I could bring myself to do.

Almost.

I gripped Epp’s hand quite forcibly as the caravan lumbered off down to the bridge and over it, heading for the Forest’s edge. It was a moving sight, and I suddenly felt a strong longing to dash to the Claw, find my trusty frayen and join in with them. The feeling quite astonished me, coming as it was to someone who was completely unaware that such an event might occur.

Epp had changed her mind and determined to stay on a few more days, even though she ‘knew’ she had been away too long already. She needed to talk with me about our company and our sites and so on, as well as about my quandary. We made arrangements to travel together down to Bezlet, to see the developments down there. With both principals of our company present, certain decisions could be thus implemented more efficiently and rapidly.

We watched the convoy make its way down past the Fish Farm, almost to the Bunkhouse. I swear I saw the Countess’ arm wave.

Epp looked at me. I was aware of her so doing, but still kept my eyes on the receding wagons, frayens, people. We must have been watching for nigh on an hour!

When she asked her question, it seemed to break me out of a thrall. I looked around and there were no other people about.

Well except for the workers already making their way inside the Community Hall to begin the alterations in there.

She had a sad grin on her face, but yet her eyes were both sad and joyful.

“Julina?”

“Yes, Epp?”

“I have a question ...”




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