They had reached the little stone wall separating the cottage’s front garden from the path, now little more than a walking track, and found the place pleasantly busy with people cleaning, building, and planting.
Leila was enchanted. She’d never seen a place quite like this little stone cottage, sitting alongside two others in a fold in the hill, hiding them from people walking the path until the very last minute.
Each of them backed hard up against the hillside, almost vertical here and surmounted by a stone wall. Master Kebur gestured towards it. “End of the Governor’s garden there. Has a view worth seeing, especially at sunset.”
Leila nodded, to show she’d listened, then leaned a hand on the top of the cottage’s little stone wall, watching two women clearing a border around the inside of it, bickering happily over what to plant in the freshly cleared dirt once they were done.
One of them looked up at Leila. “And what do you think?”
Leila shook her head, wide-eyed. “I don’t know enough about the plants that grow well here.”
The other smiled encouragingly. “But what would you like the plants to be like? Pretty? Sweet-smelling? Good to eat?”
Leila thought about it, then said. “For all I should be practical and say a good vegetable crop or something, if I was to be here, and sitting with the windows open, or out on the front step, then I’d love a mixture of the first two.”
The women looked at each other, then headed for the cottage door, one went inside, while the other perched on the front step, not quite blocking the doorway.
A minute later, the first one appeared at one of the windows, opening them, and leaning thoughtfully on the windowsill.
A man emerged from inside, sidestepping the contemplative gardener and raising a brow at the sight of the visitors outside the gate. “So, Master Kebur, this is the lass you think might fit End Cottage?”
The gatekeeper nodded. “Mistress Leila, weaver from the Sun Empire, now working for Miklos and Bianca. Gave Grigor here the model for those fashionable little looms of his.”
He turned to Leila. “This is Tomas, he’s the head of the village and chief gardener for the Governor’s estate.”
She dipped her head, hand to heart. “I saw a little of your gardens when I attended Lady Oren a while ago, they’re beautiful.”
Tomas failed to suppress a pleased smile. “It’s a big job, and the team’s small, but it’s a good one and we’re all proud of what we do.”
Marya had skipped around Tomas as they’d been talking and made her way inside. She reappeared in the doorway, calling. “Do come and look, it’s perfect. And it even has a secret passage!”
Master Kebur murmured. “If it was a secret before, it certainly isn’t now.”
Leila spluttered, then left the men to their conversation. The woman who had been sitting on the step was now at the window with her friend, so Leila was able to walk straight in to what might become her new home.
It wasn’t a topic she’d given any thought to. Content where she was in the comfort of Timon and Juanita’s family circle, there’d been no need to think of a future. Now, though, as she stepped over the threshold, something inside her chest sighed, and relaxed.
Her own little place. Somewhere to retreat from the world, or share time with friends. A space that was hers to create, and improve, and work and play, and dream and do.
The cottage’s main front room enjoyed sunlight from three windows and stretched the full width of the building. A door in the back wall led to a small bedroom with another window, looking across a small space of green to the wall of the cottage next door and a storage room that then led through to a washing area with its own narrow door to the outside.
The secret passage was a nook at the back of the storage room, carved into the hill itself. For all Marya insisted it had another space behind it, Leila saw nothing but a good place for storing those items best kept cool.
She returned to the main room and continued to explore. The fireplace was set so its back would warm the bedroom on chilly nights, while the brighter side of the house, on the side with no neighbour, had been kept clear, other than a sturdy table set against the side wall window. A perfect place to set up a full-sized loom if she were ever to find, or pay for, one.
She turned to Marya. “Did you plan this?”
Her friend shook her head. “I had a little hope, when Master Kebur sent the invitation, that something had come up. But not two, and this place is just perfect for you. I can come and visit for dinner, and if you don’t want to cook some evenings, you can come over to the galleon.”
“What will your parents say?”
Marya laughed. “They’ll say they’re glad to see the back of both of us, taking up room and chattering about the place. I’ll wager you my best green bodice though, if we’re not there at least once a week for a meal and a chat…”
Leila joined her laughter. “And I do not want to find myself in Juanita’s bad books. But, did they know you wished to move here?”
“Oh yes. They probably knew about both the apartment and the cottage before Master Kebur even spoke to me. For all Papa loves to talk, he’s very good at secrets when he chooses.”
Master Kebur entered the cottage, ducking his head a little to get through the door. “So, what do you think? Is this somewhere a Sun Empire weaver could make herself comfortable?”
Leila replied. “Yes, it’s lovely. You must have a huge list of people wanting to live here.”
He tipped his head from side to side. “There’s interest. Many like the idea, then decide the walk into town is too far. Others are less concerned about the walk but may not be a good addition to the community here. The names will go to the next village meeting for discussion and an invitation for both the cottage and the apartment will be issued after that.”
Marya squeezed Leila’s arm, asking Master Kebur. “When? When is the meeting and when would the invitations come out?”
Tomas poked his head in the front window. “We’ve not seen all the candidates yet, so probably not for another week or so.”
Marya whimpered. “I’m not sure I can last that long.”
Leila gave the hand gripping her arm a comforting squeeze in return. “We’ll just have to distract each other. And we can start by seeing if Master Kebur is still prepared to show us the Governor’s gardens.”
She looked hopefully at the man standing with them and he laughed. “Most certainly I am, and if we’re lucky, Tomas may just join us.”
The gardener scanned the activity around them. “You know, I just might. Work looks well on its way to done, and my daughter and wife are taking charge of this garden’s design, so I’m better being away and not getting into trouble for helpful suggestions.”
Two months later, Leila perched on the sun-warmed stone next to the front door of her cottage and smiled at the world. It was mid summer and in the long, golden evenings this was a perfect spot to sit and weave, and sing.
Grigor’s wife, who had something of a poet within her, said Leila’s songs sang the sun to a peaceful rest each night.
Dani had been less lyrical when she’d heard about Leila’s new home. She’d been hankering for a spot in the Shipwreck Village, but hadn’t even been told there were places available. She stomped around the shop, glaring and scowling, until Bianca had told her to find a smile or find a new job.
The next morning, while Leila had been cleaning the outside of the shop’s windows, she’d heard Miklos through the open door, speaking to the other girl. “I know it’s not fair, but it’s not Leila’s fault. It’s not comfortable, but you might want to think what prompted them to choose her, and Marya, over anyone else.”
As she straightened from her work and humphed at the determined smudges still adorning the lower parts of the window, a man came to stand alongside her.
She looked at him, an older man, neatly dressed with the straight back of a soldier. A stranger as far as she could tell. Not that she knew everyone yet but there was something in the way he held himself. He moved a little nodding to her with a polite smile. “Fair bit of work on those windows. How often do you need to clean them.”
She sighed. “Once or twice a week, when the shop’s quiet. It should be done more often, the mud splashes up and I think people deliberately run their hands over the panes every time they walk past.”
That made the man laugh. He pulled a cloth from his pocket and gave the window an experimental wipe with the hand nearest her. That was when she realised he only had the one. He was missing an arm.
He said. “I have a business proposition for you or your boss.”
Miklos poked his head out of the shop’s door. “Is everything alright out here?”
Petros gave a half-bow, half salute, as if he couldn’t quite decide which was suitable. “My name’s Petros and I was just telling your assistant here, I may be able to help with your window-cleaning efforts.”
And that was how Petros became the window cleaner for half the shops in the Old Town. He had some secret method that left the glass sparkling like crystal, and quickly became a familiar figure around the town, cleaning his windows in the morning, laughing and swapping tall tales with the men in Timon and Juanita’s inn during the afternoons.
Timon told her and Marya one evening, when they were visiting for dinner. “He fought here in the Pirate Battle, you know.”
Marya gasped. “Is that how he lost his arm? Did he fight with the Princess and Prince?”
Her father replied. “Petros isn’t one to boast, or share much of his view of the battle, but from what he’s let drop, I believe he and the Prince served together.”