In Which Exploring Becomes a Full-Time Occupation
Lara’s next rest day came five days after she began exploring the tunnels in earnest. She had made significant progress mapping out the pathways that dissected the palace. Her map was internal because she wanted to avoid a physical copy falling into the wrong hands. Plus, it would be evidence against her should she be caught. Her explorations were for her own interest, but making a map would say otherwise.
Most rest days were spent with Danrick Huxley and his wife, Maeve. Dan was the City Watchman who had lost his leg in the same fire that killed Lara’s parents. He felt indebted to her father for pushing him out of the way when the beam fell. He lost a limb, yet kept his life.
Dan’s recovery was long and painful, but he made it a priority to regularly check in on the little girl who had lost both parents in one night. Six-year-old Lara had gratefully accepted his attention. No one else was quite as patient with her frequent tears and newly formed fears. They were able to grieve together. That friendship had continued as Lara grew.
Maeve bustled around the tidy kitchen. She soon brought over a loaded tray and set it on the low table in the warm sitting room. “Eat up, dearie. You could stand to put on some weight. Plump is pleasing, more for squeezing.” She settled in on the settee next to her husband.
Lara raised an eyebrow at her familiar chiding and looked at Dan. The big man shrugged in agreement. His wife was amply squeeze-able. Lara laughed lightly. The love in the room was tangible.
“How have your latest carvings been coming along?” She gestured to the partially finished piece her gruff mentor held. After losing the ability to keep up physically, Dan had resigned from the City Watch. They had offered him a paper pushing position, but he preferred to be more hands-on. After some experimentation, he began making clock housings of various shapes and sizes. His intricate carvings adorned many fine clocks on mantles and desks throughout the city. The former hobby now provided a more than adequate living.
“Not bad, not bad-” he began.
“Yes, darling, it’s lovely,” his wife stopped him before he began describing each step in detail along with every quirk of this particular piece of wood. If allowed, Danrick’s love for woodcarving could lead him to talk more than the Elba birds in the Royal Menagerie.
“I want to know how you’re doing, dearie,” Maeve continued.
“But before she starts in on you—” Dan interrupted his wife’s flow— “could you work your magic on my glasses?” He held out the pair in question. “Lately I can’t seem to get them clean enough. They are still blurry.”
“Of course,” Lara agreed. She walked over to the water Maeve had heated for gearn, a beverage she imagined was similar to the tea she had read about in her books. “My method is fairly simple; I’m sure you could copy it.” She smiled over her shoulder at him as she carefully poured some of the no-longer-boiling water over the spectacles she held above the sink.
Dan lifted one shoulder, then let it drop. “I’ve tried, and so has my bride. Neither of us is quite as skilled as you, I’m afraid.” His smile was bright as he wiggled his eyebrows.
Lara laughed as she rubbed each lens with a soft cloth. “Mmhmm, well. By the time I’m done, your glasses will work perfectly for you.” She finished off by pouring a little more water across the newly scrubbed surface. The trick was to use water hot enough to evaporate right away without leaving water marks.
“Here.” She passed over the sparkling clean glasses. “See if that works.”
Dan slipped them on and examined the wood chunk resting by his scone plate. Maeve had yet to convince him to put his work away for something as minor as meals. “Ah. Perfect. Everything is sharp again.” He picked up a small knife, ready to putter until his wife placed her hand over his and gave him a look.
She had managed to hold her questions in while Lara completed her task. Now that everyone’s attention was once again available, she wasted no time capturing it.
“Are you still working in the scullery? Have you convinced that harridan in housekeeping to let you move up yet?”
Lara smiled into her bite of scone. Maeve made the best pastries. And asked the same things every week. Next would be the questions about her love life.
“Yes, I’m still on dish duty. No, I haven’t been able to persuade Mrs. Brassard to let me have the job I was originally hired for yet. She still maintains that we are shorthanded in the scullery and I haven’t proved myself.” She set down her scone to pick up her mug. “I traded shifts with Brad though. Maybe if she sees me willingly taking the worst shifts, she’ll change her mind.”
“Oh Brad! He’s that nice young man with the lovely lady friend, right?” Maeve had never met either of them, but she was invested in the stories Lara shared about her housemates and co-workers. “Did you have the morning shift?” She barely waited for confirmation. “Now he’ll have more time to see his girl.” A sappy smile graced her comfortable face. “I fully expect to see ribbons set up by the river soon. Speaking of which, how about you, dearie? Any new men in your life? Or old ones?”
And there it was. Like the clocks her husband worked with, Maeve could be depended on to ask Lara about her romantic prospects before Danrick had even begun his second scone. Every single time.
“You want me to go after old men?” Lara teased with an innocent expression.
“Oh, you.” A plump hand waved in her direction. “You know what I mean. Are you interested in any of the men you already know?” Maeve scoffed.
“Because if it’s an old guy you’re after, I’ll have you know that Henry has proposed thrice this week alone. Maybe I should give him a chance. What do you think?” Lara asked sweetly.
Dan snickered into his gearn. His wife settled more firmly into the couch.
“Fine. I won’t bother you about it anymore,” she groused. “Today,” came the amendment.
Lara knew better than to expect a longer reprieve. She also knew the prodding came from a place of love. The Huxleys had her best interests at heart. They had met and married only a few years ago and both wanted that same happiness for Lara. It seemed unlikely that the couple would produce offspring as Maeve had recently turned forty and Dan was older still. Lara suspected that part of their pushing for her to marry was so Maeve would have babies to coo over. She would make a good grandma.
Lara moved the topic onto Maeve’s volunteer work with the disabled Watch and Veterans group. This distracted the gentle woman for quite some time and the conversation flowed easily for the rest of the afternoon.
Not too long after her rest day visit with the Huxley’s, an Event was observed from the secrecy of the tunnels that had Lara scrambling for more information. The results of that investigation led to another confrontation with the castle’s head of housekeeping.
“I have it on good authority the job I was originally hired for is open again.” Lara didn’t bother with a greeting. Mrs. Felicity Brassard knew why she was here.
“Hello to you too, Miss Stone.” The woman who had yet to evince any ‘felicitous’ feelings in public didn’t deign to look up from the papers covering her workspace.
“Hello, Mrs. Brassard.” Lara grit her teeth and offered a quick nod and polite smile without correcting the mispronunciation of her last name. She wondered again if the title was an affectation or reality. Who in possession of all his faculties would willingly marry her? Maybe willingness had nothing to do with it.
“Why should I move you?” The disdain bashing Lara’s ears interrupted her ill-timed musings. “How have you proven yourself worthy?” the battle-ax sniffed.
Lara ruthlessly shoved back the uncomplimentary names she had for the woman lest she slip and say one aloud.
“If you’ll look at the scullery records for the last two weeks, I have been trading with other crew members to work the middle shift. As you are aware, this is a less desirable shift. I am willing to put in the effort required to move up.”
“We still require every possible hand in the scullery. Especially now as we come into the Council Sessions. We have more banquets, balls, and guests than we did last year. What would we do without you?” Mrs. Brassard picked up a stack of papers and tapped them on the counter to neaten them.
“Well, if we lack necessary help, I’m sure there are people in need of jobs that you could hire.” Lara kept her voice as neutral as possible.
“Hiring people takes time. Time I don’t have.” The pinched lips told Lara that she was about to be dismissed.
“Perhaps we could come to an arrangement,” Lara suggested.
“What did you have in mind?” This finally earned Lara actual eye contact.
“Well, you need more workers and it would be easier to hire folks if they were slated for either the early or late shift. I could—” Lara made sure her words sounded as though she was giving up something valuable— “stay on the middle shift until the Council adjourns. In exchange, I would be given the diplomatic services position at the end of it.” She hoped her face displayed the right amount of humility and sacrifice.
“Hmm,” Mrs. Brassard hesitated. “I suppose we could do that.”
Lara kept a tight rein on her emotions. It would not work in her favor for the cranky woman to discover the middle shift was no longer onerous for Lara now that she had the tunnels.
“Fine,” the dragon lady said in the tones of one conveying a great boon on the undeserving. “You stay on the middle shift through this social season and we’ll go from there.”
“And I’ll be moved up,” Lara corrected.
“Yes, yes, whatever. Get back to work.” She dismissed Lara with a grimace that said she found the whole thing distasteful.
“Yes, ma’am. As soon as we have our agreement in writing.” On the desk, she set a page with the following statement: ‘Lara Stone will be transferred to an open position within the Diplomatic Corps after meeting the following requirements …’ She leaned forward, snagged a pen from the jar at the corner, and filled in the last details.
Mrs. Brassard’s lips had moved past thin and now approached invisible. She dropped her eyes to scan the sheet while keeping her scornful expression aimed at the object of her displeasure.
Lara held her breath until Mrs. Brassard’s pristine signature disfigured the bottom. It had been a risk to force her hand like this. She had refrained from writing down the conditions ahead of time because she needed the other woman to believe the bargaining had gone in her favor and lacked premeditation.
Lara slipped the signed promise off the desk, then threw her right fist toward her left shoulder in a move that might be considered akin to the standard gesture of respect before scurrying out. She wanted to escape before the impeccably dressed ogress could retrieve and destroy the informal, but still binding, contract. Success! I am one step closer.
When Lara had first left the BOH, she had been recruited by a current member of the Diplomatic Corps. The position was approximately equivalent to a scullery maid in the kitchen hierarchy. The promise of advancement and probable travel had enticed Lara like no other job offer had yet, but when she arrived at the castle for her first day of work Mrs. Brassard ambushed her. And since Lara’s signature already adorned the form stating castle employees worked at the discretion of management, there was little she could do about the reassignment. Even attempts to find the original recruiter in the palace proper had gone astray due to the housekeeper’s propensity to haunt the back hallways.
It had worked. The Council had convened and eventually adjourned while Lara alternated scrubbing and exploring. The entry position with the diplomatic service had been filled again during that time and very recently unfilled after another Event that was nearly identical to the original incident she had observed. Mrs. Brassard had begrudgingly moved Lara out of the scullery and into the castle. There had been one last attempt to renege that was thwarted when the page bearing her official signature was whipped out.
Now she sat in the palace proper waiting for what she knew came next. Her official job called for a great deal of cleaning still. At the moment, she was supposed to be organizing and wiping down a small room of shelves filled with forgotten clutter. Since the accumulated items were all from various ambassadorial trips, the task fell to the lowest grunt, ahem, newest member of the diplomatic corps. As the secondary assistant to the assistant of the third aide to one of the junior ambassadors’ secretaries, Lara did as she was asked without protest while keeping her ears perked to listen and her fingers ready to tap.
The second day brought about the Event she had been anticipating. With a plan already in place, Lara tapped the details into her memory with her right hand and finished cleaning while she could. It wouldn’t do to leave the assigned task undone as so many others clearly had. She finished with plenty of time to gather the items she needed to prove her point the next day.
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Megan is an avid reader trying her hand at writing. So far she has a plot, characters she talks to more than real people, and a fantasy world that includes dragons. She also tends to laugh at her own jokes. All in all, not a bad start.