I picked my way through the crowd so I would not need to shout. As I drew near to Kim I could see that her black dress was decorated with some kind of rainbow parrots. The design was woven, not dyed, which meant it was probably worth more than all my clothes together. That was without taking the buttons into account. Each one was a unique piece of the finest glasswork, such as the highest value coins were made of. Such were the benefits of being married to a cleric.
"Kim, I..." Of course I should have expected her to be here. "Here we both are."
"Yes! It has been far too long."
"Nearly a week." I had of course seen her at the weekly convocation.
"Well yes, but I meant casually."
"Today is about as far from casual as you can get, Kim."
She actually giggled at that. "Oh you know what I mean, Charity. This is a festive occasion, and it is all about you!"
I shook my head. "It is about my father, not me. And it is hardly a day to celebrate. We lost a patrolman to exile, and Forty Thousand Day is cancelled."
"Now stop being so low pressure, Charity. That patrolman — Fresh? Fish? — he will be back in a few months. And he is but a refugee, not... Just imagine if your father had been the one in front! Now that would be a true tragedy. And as for Forty Thousand Day, just look around." She turned around in a circle with her hands outstretched. A few people had to shuffle or be pulled out of her way. "None of that preparation is going to waste, and everyone who can bake has baked up a storm!" She reached out a perfectly manicured hand to take mine. "Come on, I really must show you around the food tables. You really want to get some food in you before the ceremony starts. Besides, I would really like to get out of the sun."
I was not so sure I could or should eat, but I took her hand regardless. No one got in the way of Kim's skin care without regretting it. I did not bother to point out that no part of her pale skin was exposed to the sun. Even her hands were in the shadow of her remarkably wide-brimmed straw hat. "Lead the way."
We negotiated a path through the crowd, past a dozen tables of food and drink, and to the front door of the blacksmith itself. Through the wide display windows, the familiar cabinets and racks of wares for sale were gone, and in their place were more tables bearing the finest foods. Many decorative pieces of metalwork remained on hooks on the walls, and the dark hardwood floor appeared to have been newly polished. Kim gained us entry with a simple nod to the doorkeeper. He was a junior cleric, wearing a ubiquitous black suit over a white shirt. Though young, he was tall, and so had to step out of the way to avoid being hit in the shoulder by the brim of Kim's hat.
"Perhaps you should take that off," I said as she tilted her head to the side in order to fit through the doorway without brushing her hat against the frame.
"Oh no, that would utterly ruin my hair. I had it threaded through the hat. It took all morning! Was it worth it?"
"Definitely," I said, just fast enough to avoid leaving an awkward pause. "Protecting your skin without hiding your hair... I cannot imagine anything quite so... genius!"
"It really is," Kim said, swerving suddenly to avoid hitting an unfamiliar businessman who was talking business with a wealthy local carpenter. Not that I was eavesdropping. "Now, here is the really good food. Roast beef from Miranda and fresh seafood from Nesquay, all brought across the gap this very morning. And as a special guest, you are welcome to have all you can eat, rather than pay coppers for goat sausage sandwiches outside."
I had nothing against goat sausage sandwiches, but disagreement would only upset Kim. I followed her example and loaded up a plate with far too much semi-unfamiliar food. We found a quiet corner to stand and eat. We had a clear view of the street, where children were trying not to burn their mouths on miniature meat pies, and sipping weak lime cordial from paper cups. "So... all the food outside is for a price?"
Kim pursed her lips as she briefly considered the question. "I believe I saw a sign saying 'Free Ginger Tea'. Some of the children made it. Spelled it wrong too, silly dears." She crunched down on a very large prawn. Seeing people eat whole prawns made me uncomfortable. I much preferred the prawn crackers that fluffed up when dropped in hot oil, but those were beneath Kim.
A lot of things were beneath Kim, as she had been betrothed to Cleric Riggs for five years before their marriage last summer, a fact which she never let anyone forget. She had always had her sights set on social elevation, and had deftly achieved her goal. She had been greatly aided by her natural beauty and her parents' guidance. My father had understood her potential too, and often reminded me to do my utmost to remain on the best possible terms with my childhood friend. And so I did, dutiful daughter that I was.
I scrabbled around for a comfortable conversation topic. I did not want to think about the ceremony, and wanted to discuss fashion that was far beyond my means even less. I almost pointed out Mister Friche's actual name, but I knew she would immediately forget and mangle it again. Chastity would have already thought of something worth discussing, but I tended to struggle. I did not want to selfishly talk about my own interests, but asking her about her interests when I did not really care about the answer did not feel genuine. After slowly chewing a piece of roasted pumpkin to stall for time, I resorted to the one obvious topic. "So how is the, uh... Should you be eating prawns?" Smooth.
"Oh, no need to worry, these are the freshly cooked prawns, not the raw prawns." She patted her belly. "The baby will be fine." She smiled sappily, and I smiled back equally sappily, genuinely happy for her. "I am so excited! And a bit frightened. But mostly excited! And really, really happy."
"Drinks?" The question came from one of the young women tasked with serving drinks to the honoured guests of the clerics. There were no paper cups in the blacksmith's repurposed display room, only the finest glasses on silver serving trays.
"Ooh is that Missus Patel's new berry blend?" Kim set down her plate on an empty shelf and took one as soon as our server began an almost negligible nod.
"Thank you," I said, taking my own glass of what I quickly found was a blend of apple and pear juices.
"You are quite welcome, Miss Wilison, Missus Riggs," our server said.
I did not recognise the stocky blonde woman, but that did not surprise me. Given the size of the event, the regular hands would not be sufficient. "Are you local, or...?"
"Came up from Exaltation this morning," she said. "I'm Mary. Abigail, uh, roped me into this." She was holding the drinks tray with her right hand, and used her left to indicate her ill-fitting deep blue dress.
Kim cleared her throat emphatically, and Mary started to move away. "Stop talking to the help!" Kim hissed, definitely loudly enough that Mary could hear her.
"Sorry," I mumbled, and shoveled a forkful of food into my mouth. Undercooked onion. Ugh.
"What were we... Oh, right. The baby! Just think, a few more months and you will have one of your own on the way, and I can help you though... No, by then you will be living in Deepbloom. What a pity! I mean, it will be great, but, maybe, you can visit me? For the birth! And then I can visit you for your birth!"
This was just the sort of opportunity Father would insist I...
The crash of breaking glass almost startled us into dropping our plates. I whirled away from the window to look at the damage. The fragments of at least two of Mary's glasses were on the floor, surrounded by a rapidly-spreading puddle. More drink was pouring off her tray, and most of the remaining glasses were on their sides.
The steely silence of offended men was broken by Abigail Dileon, the head server. "Rebeccah, mop. Priscilla, bucket. Mary, put that down before you spill any more."
The murmuring began and rapidly rose in volume as each man made judgemental remarks to his companions. A group of older wives of clerics was in the opposite corner to Kim and me, and they drew into a tighter huddle, to better ignore the situation while making cutting but nonspecific remarks about the indiscretions of the young. Or so I imagined.
"What do you suppose is her problem?" Kim asked, and took a long sip from her drink. She looked very pleased with herself from having scored a glass right before the spill.
I had no idea, so I sipped more daintily. Kim would have plenty to say regardless of my input.
"She looks like she normally moves much heavier loads than drink trays." Kim said it as if that was a bad thing.
"I like your idea, about us visiting each other. For the births," I said, remembering the invitation and not wanting to hear more of her dismissiveness of others' labour.
"Yes, we really must arrange it. And it has been too long since we sat down together for a proper meal. Not since the baby, in fact! You must come over to mine for lunch in a week or two. How does that sound? I will speak to my husband about it and let you know at next convocation."
I had no problems with that, so I nodded along while chewing roast beef. It really was quite good.
An approaching rumble and a muted whistle announced the arrival of a train. "Sounds like we are about to be swamped with even more guests. This was a really bad time for a spill," I said, glad to have something I could comfortably comment upon.
"There is no good time, but I see what you mean. Oh, that means the ceremony starts in about twenty minutes. My husband is overseeing the prisoner. They have it locked up in one of the blacksmith's storerooms right now. But there is no danger of contamination. You can be certain of that, or they would not allow us in here."
I shuddered, partly at the thought of our proximity to such a dreadful being, and partly at the reminder of what we would soon see. "So there is absolutely no chance that it can do... you know what?"
Kim inaudibly mouthed the forbidden word. "Magic? No, its wrists are very tightly bound and all its belongings were confiscated to be purified. Everything is under guard at the bakery, which is an amply safe distance away."
"Good," I said, deeming that sufficient according to my rather limited knowledge of the subject. Such information was so dangerous only select clerics were allowed any specifics about what magic could do. Dire warnings were sufficient for everyone else.
Kim leaned in closer so she could talk in a true whisper. "So, about your hand... I heard it was possessed? Is it natural, or...?"
"Kim! Do you think they would let me be here if it was corruption? It was just a scratch on a fence, nothing sinister."
"Sorry, sorry, I meant nothing by it! But, to be using a boon... I thought there would be more to it."
I looked around for a more comfortable topic, but it was hard to see a natural way to avoid talking about the very significant event which was due to occur in only a few minutes. Perhaps finding an escaping was my best option. My eldest brother Charles had to be somewhere outside, and I had hoped to catch up with him over lunch.
"Er, please excuse me Miss Wilison, Missus Riggs." It was the serving girl again. Mary, looking very uncomfortable and awkward.
"If we must, but do be more careful in the future," Kim said imperiously.
Mary looked helplessly to me.
"Is there something you needed?" I asked, wanting to offer help without looking too willing while Kim was watching and judging me.
"Abigail sent me out for more cinnamon rolls, but—"
"She 'neglected' to give you directions? She wants you out of the way," Kim said, punctuating her declaration with a dismissive sweep of her arm.
Mary's face fell. "What should I do?"
"Better start looking. You might find it eventually. At least you have a chance of drying out your dress."
"I can take you," I said without really stopping to think about the consequences. I had had enough of Kim's condescension.
Kim glared at me with the heat of a dozen mirrors. "But! You—"
"Sorry Kim, I need to see my brother and check in with my father. See you at convocation!" I took Mary's hand and strode for the door before Kim could object.
"Maker bless!" I heard Kim call behind me.
Allowing that to go unreturned would be very poor form, and doing so with such an esteemed audience... that was unthinkable. I stopped and swivelled to face her. "Maker bless!" I said with every gram of fervency I could muster.
I turned back and found the door blocked by a black wall. It was Kim's husband's superior, Cleric Quire, in all his understated finery. From a distance he might look like a mere man in a suit. Up close, he could not be mistaken for anything less than the second most powerful man in Forrester's Crossing. He could not be mistaken for a mere businessman, as his suit jacket bore the clerical standard, headed prominently with the letters 'CPQF'. This represented the clerical passphrase which meant, 'The Clerics and the People of Faith.'
This was not a man to be trifled with. Even less so, given that he had been involved in arranging my marriage. My intended, Timothy Douglas, was a close friend of the cleric before his reassignment to Forrester's Crossing. I performed a careful curtsey. "It is a great honour, Cleric Quire," I said with utmost respect.
"Ah, Miss Charity Wilison, today it is you who is an honoured guest. Do you find the refreshments to your liking?"
"Indeed I do, cleric. Though is it not my father who is the most honoured today?"
"Truly the honour was his to pass along to whomever he chose, and you are a most worthy one to receive it."
"It is as you say, cleric. Though I cannot help but feel that if I was truly so worthy, I would not be in such a need as this."
He chuckled, a deep sound which unsettled me. That was not easy to do, given how unsettled the circumstance had me feeling. "I see you are quite humble as well. You are indeed an excellent choice. Were you... going somewhere?"
"Yes, cleric. I was hoping to speak with my married brother, Charles. And..." I looked to my right where I had thought Mary was standing, but she wasn't there. "And I should find my father before the ceremony starts."
"Then I will leave you to it. But be sure to be back here within ten minutes. We will begin as soon as the train leaves." He stepped aside, restoring my view of the door.
"I thank you, cleric, and Maker bless."
"Maker bless," he returned, sounding amused at something.
I walked as fast as I respectably could and was finally out the door. It was a relief not to have a roomful of clerics, businessmen, and women of the highest social order watching and judging my every move.
"We should get a move on."
I jumped. It was Mary, beside me again. "Where? How?"
"Everyone was looking at you. No one was watching me, so I left." She shrugged her broad shoulders. "So, the bakery?"
I took her hand again. "Follow closely. If you lose me in this crowd..."
The crowd did not extend too far, so I was able to let go only halfway up the street. I had almost given up hope of finding Charles, as he could have been anywhere, but I was Maker-blessed to hear his distinctive chortle. We had always enjoyed making him laugh, and happily his wife was the same.
"Hey, Charles!" I called. He never minded my interruptions.
He quickly spotted me and pulled me into a hug. Charles gave the best hugs. "Charity, there you are!" he said with the enthusiasm of a big brother.
"Uh, I really want to catch up, but now is a really bad time," I said. "Can you find me after?"
"For sure. All the best!" He grinned, and for a moment I felt like there were two suns.
I grinned back. "Thanks Charles. Oh, if you see Father before the ceremony, could you let him know I am running a quick errand to the bakery? Great, thanks."
Mary had started tapping a foot impatiently. "Sorry about that," I said. "Last interruption." I resumed a quick walk up the street and headed left at the intersection. "We should be out of view now. Are you up for a run?"
"Sure thing, Miss Wilison."
"You can call me Charity," I said, starting to jog.
"I really can't."
I wanted to argue the point or ask her more about herself, but not while I was running. We jogged in silence for about a minute, until we reached the next intersection. I pointed to the right. "The bakery is three doors up. Impossible to miss."
"Um, so this is a bit embarrassing, but... do you know what cinnamon rolls look like? I've never actually..."
I sighed and checked how short my shadow was. "Fine. We are cutting it close, but there is enough time."
"Thanks, Miss Wilison."