Leila was up early the next day. She washed and slipped into her brown dress, this time with the cream bodice beneath. It would help her fade into the background a little, what with the shop’s wood panelling within and cream paint without.Juanita was already in the kitchen, lighting the stove and pulling food for the day from storage bins and the deep, cool recesses of the pantry. She looked around and smiled as Leila entered.
“All set for your first day then? Remember you’re learning, so don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t let Bianca be too hard on you either. She’s decent sort but does like to be queen bee.”
“That’s good to know, thank you. What can I do to help?”
Juanita waved her off. “This time of day? I’ve got everything down to a fine art and help only slows me down. Best thing you can do is sit yourself down and chat. A nice conversation always makes things quicker and easier.”
Marya entered a few minutes later, walking in on a discussion of the hierarchy of the island and how to know where someone sat within it.
Juanita said. “So the long and the short is that anyone who lives on The Hill has wealth and the higher they are, the more money they have.”
Marya chimed in. “And the more bored, and boring, their daughters are.”
Leila’s brows pinched together in confusion. “Why’s that?”
Marya replied as she helped herself to porridge from the large pot on the stove. “They’re not raised for a trade. Their only ambition in life is to marry some man rich enough to be able to support someone who’s only capable of sitting around and occasionally looking decorative.”
Juanita tutted and Marya tossed her head as she took her seat.
Leila looked between the two of them, still confused. Juanita explained. “A few months ago, the family of one of Marya’s closest friends moved to The Hill. They’re not supposed to associate any more as Rosalina is now a young lady, not a trader’s girl.”
Marya huffed. “Which is just silly. Everyone knows the Scattered Isles aristocracy, such as it is, all value practical skills and knowledge. The Royal Family most of all.”
“What do you mean?”
Marya brightened, as she always did when asked for a story. “Well, there’s not a single ruler in our history who has married one of those high and mighty lord’s sons and daughters. Our current queen married a foreign prince for the sake of a treaty, but all the others were matches with artisans or merchants.”
Juanita added. “And our King Consort is as practical as any native of the Isles, he’s insisted on all three of their children learning a proper set of skills.”
“What do the nobles of the Sun Empire value?”
Leila thought of the families who’d frequented her parents’ weaving house. “Appearance mostly. At least when it comes to the girls. The boys are expected to be versed in either the priesthood or the military. Some houses place a high value on intelligence and education but certainly not all.”
“What do they do with themselves?” Marya asked.
Juanita replied before Leila had a chance. “Likely laze about and gossip about what other people do and don’t do. Just like two other girls I know who are about to be late for work.”
Leila gasped and lept from the bench, Juanita put out a calming hand. “I’m exaggerating. You have time but it would be better applied to eating and walking than stories.”
As she and Marya left the inn a few minutes later, Leila found herself part of a quiet stream of people all heading to work. Some nodded a friendly greeting but talk was unusual, and quiet when it did occur. More than one person rubbed bleary eyes or tried to finger-comb bed-ruffled hair.
She made it to the shop without incident, leaving Marya at the bakery door.
She tried the door handle, locked. She knocked, a nervous tap on the wooden panels of the door.
The covering on the window next to the door twitched, then the lock clunked and Miklos was in front of her, ushering her inside.
He smiled. “We should come up with a code of some sort so I know it’s you. We have some customers who believe if there’s someone in the shop, then we’re open and desperate to serve them.”
Leia squinted around the dim room. “Is that why you don’t have the lamps lit?”
“Yes, and why you won’t put the blinds away until we’re ready to unlock the door. At certain times of the year it can get downright uncivilised.”
And so the morning went, first with the list of tasks to complete before opening the doors, and then introductions to the customers. Some of the morning’s visitors recognised her and were happy to engage in discussions on the relative merits of different fabric types and what colours and patterns were in vogue in Carra, as compared with the Scattered Isles.
Timon appeared late morning with a neat little metal box. “Your lunch.”
Leila said. “Oh, I completely forgot about lunch. Thank you.”
She turned to Miklos. “I can’t eat in the shop though, is there a quiet bench or somewhere nearby?”
Miklos grinned and shook his head. “No need, we shut the shop for lunch and you’ll take it with us of course.”
He looked over at Timon with a twinkle in his eye. “What’s really in the pail?”
Timon grinned back. “Oh, just some of Juanita’s citrus cake. Possibly enough for three adults and three active children.”
Leila hugged the container to her. “You knew?”
He replied. “Bianca dropped by the inn this morning to check whether you had any bad reactions to shellfish, and pick up some of Juanita’s famous seafood pie.”
Lunch was a busy affair. Leila wasn’t used to children and found Miklos and Bianca’s three a little overwhelming.
Jassi, was the eldest, at eight and took a great deal of pride in her long dark hair and its intricate braids and decorative ribbons. Much of the conversation at lunch was her account of the morning’s lessons.
Five-year-old Toni wriggled and jiggled in his seat, argued with his sister, and had to be sternly reminded several times that it was not yet time to leave the table.
Little Nana, not yet two, stayed pressed against her mother’s side the whole meal, eyeing Leila suspiciously.
Miklos smiled at Leila’s wide-eyed gaze. “You get used to it surprisingly quickly.”
Bianca joined her in the shop for the rest of the day and Leila discovered just how different the afternoon customers were, and how well Bianca managed them.
Finally it was time to close the door and put up the blinds. It took another half an hour to tidy the shop to Bianca’s satisfaction and Leila staggered out of the door wondering how she was going to survive the next day, let alone a life of this work.
Juanita tutted sympathetically and sent her for a hot bath before dinner. “It will help. Marya was just the same. You were asleep that first evening, so you missed all her moaning and groaning. Tomorrow will be hard but it gets easier from there.”
The bath did help and she made an early night of it, falling asleep as soon as she lay down and waking reluctantly at Juanita’s knock the next morning.
She limped through the day but found Juanita’s prediction correct, and as the end of the week loomed, Leila worried more about keeping the job then surviving it.
The afternoon of her second-last trial day was a busy one. Bianca found the time to suggest why. “Word’s come through we have a changeover of the island’s garrison and the ladies on The Hill want to make an impression on the new officers.”
A nearby customer leaned in with a wink and a smile. “The junior officers are often unmarried and have good prospects. In short, they’re new fodder for the marriage market.”
Leila bit her lip on a giggle, the bustle now made sense.
Halfway through the afternoon, as Bianca run through a complicated order that seemed to consist half of fabric, and half of gossip, Leila found herself serving a well-buttressed woman with a loud voice and seemingly permanent frown.
She introduced herself as Mistress Gilder and then began to hold forth.
She put Leila so strongly in mind of one of her mother’s most troublesome clients, it took all her concentration to keep her face serious and gaze focused as the older woman held forth, gesturing at the rolls of fabric standing, soldier-straight along the far wall and then waving her hand at her awkward, uncomfortable daughter.
Leila listened as Mistress Gilder lamented the cruel fates who had delivered her such a gangly, ungainly child. The child in question, sixteen-year-old Rosalina, stared at her feet and tried to make herself smaller.
Mistress Gilder wound into her crescendo. “It wouldn’t be so bad if she weren’t so near the same age as Sophia Napolina. Sophia is, perfection.”
Leila had met the incomparable Sophia earlier in the day and hadn’t been impressed.
She wondered how to approach this.
She started hesitantly. “It would seem, Mistress, that you wish Miss Rosalina to not need to compete with Miss Sophia.”
Mistress Gilder snorted. “And how do you propose to achieve that? Drop Sophia in the harbour?”
Leila deliberately turned and looked the girl up and down. “We play to your daughter’s beauty, not the convention set by Miss Sophia’s mother.”
Mistress Gilder bridled, Leila continued. “I believe you know, Mistress, I’m recently arrived from Carra, and my family there are master weavers. My parents produce fabric for the court gowns of that city’s nobility.”
The older woman paused, a calculating gleam entering her eye. “Continue.”
Leila smiled and bobbed a neat curtsey. It always helped to make a client feel like royalty.
She chose her words carefully. “A few years ago, as the Crown Prince of the Sun Empire returned to the capital and people began whispering of his need for a wife. A number of young women came to my parents for gowns to dazzle and enchant him.”
She shook her head and went on. “Many of those favoured by the city’s gossips matched Miss Sophia in appearance. However, one did not.”
Leila approached Rosalina and circled her. “The lady was taller than your daughter, Mistress, and every bit as slender. Her parents made a virtue of it. They dressed her in greens and blues, instead of the reds and golds of the other girls, and chose fabrics that made her look like a tree or water spirit come to life.”
She paused and added thoughtfully. “Of course, the young lady in question made sure she deepened that impression. She moved like the branches of a willow in the wind.”
She smiled and leaned towards Mistress Gilder, Rosalina also leaning in, holding her breath. “She caught every eye, had partners for every dance. And now…”
Leila paused for effect. “Now she is Her Serene and Royal Highness, Crown Princess Zaria of the Sun Empire.”
Half an hour later, Leila waved the Gilders out of the door, having sold them a bolt of fabric in a shade of blue to flatter Rosalina’s colouring, rather than her usual pale yellows and creams; and made a quiet wager with herself that Miss Rosalina would be increasing her time with the city’s dance mistress in the coming weeks.