New Neighbours

Leila and Marya walked home together, laughing over everything and nothing. They were stopped just outside the gate by a stone-faced soldier.

“What is your business on the Governor’s estate?”

Marya looked him up and down. “We live here.”

“You’re not staff, please turn around and leave.”

She spoke a little slower. “No. We live here; we work in town. We are going home.”

The man’s jaw firmed and his chin went up. “Only the Governor’s staff are permitted access to the property. You will leave now, or I will have you arrested.”

Marya’s jaw dropped. “Are you evicting the Shipwreck Village then? Are you going to steal our homes and destroy an island landmark? Does the Council know about this? Does the Prince know you’re throwing hard-working citizens onto the street? What authority do you have to bully and harass innocent people?”

She poked him in the chest every few words, walking forward until she had him backed up against the gate. Leila fought a laugh. Marya barely came up to the man’s shoulder but she clearly had the upper hand.

She got to the end of her tirade, stepped back, and shouted for Master Kebur. The man winced. Leila wondered whether it was the volume, or the name, that had him cringing.

Master Kebur strode out of his cottage, fierce and ready for battle.

When he saw the soldier, his brows descended further. “Xavier. Taking action before taking facts again? I thought I trained that out of you.”

Marya snorted. “He says we’re not allowed in as we’re not employed by the Governor. We’re to scurry back to town, or he’ll throw us in gaol.”

Master Kebur sighed, then opened the gate and waved the two girls through, ignoring Xavier’s strangled protest. “You get along, ladies. I’ll take care of our over-zealous security guard.”

The whole village converged on the galleon’s deck that evening for dinner.

Marya and Leila had been the first home that evening. Other, later, city workers had been introduced to Captain Xavier by the gatekeeper.

Grigor’s wife had been quite impressed. “There was Master Kebur, introducing each of us as we came through, and Captain Xavier asking after what we did for a living and how we came to the Village. I felt very important.”

Marya scoffed. “He’s truly the Captain of the Prince’s guard? I would have thought a brain would be necessary for that.”

Master Kebur chuckled as he came aboard. “He’s quite a bright lad in truth. New into his role though, and over-reacting as many do. He’ll settle down soon enough. Especially once he gets to understand the estate and its workings a little better.”

Marya’s neighbour on the galleon, Petra, asked. “Is the Prince going to ask for End Cottage back then?”

Leila paled. She’d forgotten her home had previously been allocated to the Governor’s staff. Master Kebur patted her hand. “No he’s not. Leila’s staying right where she is.”

Petra looked disappointed. “Oh, I was thinking it would be fun for Leila to take my place.”

Leila asked. “You’re leaving?”

Petra blushed. “Sandor proposed last month and we’re pledging in three days. His parents have given us their old cottage out in the olive groves, so I’m going to have to learn to be a country wife.”

Marya eyed her. “You kept that quiet.”

The girl blushed harder. “I didn’t think anyone would be that interested. Not with the Prince arriving and all.”

The whole table protested, and wine found to toast the new bride.

Leila looked over at Master Kebur and quietly asked. “Who will be moving in, when Petra goes?”

The older man looked rueful. “I think you can guess, given you’re staying put. I also think your best friend isn’t going to be happy about it.”

Leila blew out a breath. “I think you’re right. You’re going to have to tell her though, or she’ll have him kicked off the ship for trespassing.”

Master Kebur grimaced, but went over to where Marya was dancing with two other Villagers, and Grigor’s four-year-old son.

The whole group paused at Marya’s outraged screech.

“He can’t do that. You can’t do that. What about it being a village council decision?”

Tomas spoke from where he sat with his wife. “It was a village council decision. We made it some time ago, to offer the next place to a member of the Governor’s staff.”

He stood, waving a hand to the hill behind him. “Our homes sit on his land. It’s best for us all, to be amiable neighbours.”

Marya sighed and plonked down next to Leila, pouting. “Fine, I understand, but why does the stupid, horrible man have to live next to me?”

Leila leaned across, bumping their shoulders together. “Look on the bright side, between your early hours at the bakery and his late ones with all those parties the Hill people are talking about. You’ll probably never see each other.”

As the days ticked down to the Governor’s first ball (as the Hill girls called it), the crowds in Miklos’s shop ebbed and swelled. First, it was the fabric for the dresses, then a lull, then the trim and ribbons for edging and accessories. Finally, as families started issuing invitations of their own, it was the threads and yarns for the handicrafts to be laboured over, then displayed as if carelessly tossed on a table as nothing terribly special.

Leila enjoyed the challenges from her morning customers, hunting down the perfect ribbon trim for the ensemble in impossible colours one matron had insisted on; or suitable lace inserts for the dress who’s neckline a mother had declared too scandalously low for her daughter.

The afternoon was harder. Dani and Bianca were in their element, chatting, cajoling, guiding and flattering.

The crowd of brightly dressed women reminded Leila of raucous parrots. The ones she’d seen crammed into cages lining the stalls of Carra’s portside markets. Every bird trying to out shout, and out flaunt its neighbour in the hope of getting attention, and freedom from their confinement.

She fluttered and flew between them, finding, measuring, checking and cutting according to the customers’ wishes. In truth, the easiest thing to do was simply follow the orders of the other two, hiding in the busyness of fetching and carrying.

She slipped from the shop each afternoon and made her way home with relief. Hopefully things would settle soon enough and in the meantime, she still had the long, golden evenings for weaving.

A week before the ball, the Hill women converged with faces like thunder. Bianca scanned the silent, sullen group, and exchanged a bewildered look with Dani.

Mistress Gilder caught the look and grimaced. “Report from the Governor’s housekeeper this morning. She’s been asked to allow for extra guests at the event as His Highness has received word of a number of families planning to visit from the capital.”

Sophia wailed. “How can we even hope to catch the eye of one of the royal entourage if they’re being monopolised by ladies they already know, in all the latest fashions?”

Rosarina patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, they’ll always notice you, you’ll be the prettiest there, even if they are wearing things we haven’t seen before.”

Sophia gave the other girl a watery smile. “And you’ll be setting a fashion of your own they’ll all want to copy.”

The other girls in the shop scowled and silence descended again.

Leila took a deep breath. “But, if they all already know each other, and haven’t declared any interest before, why would it change simply because they’ve come to a new place?”

Dani chimed in. “And you can be sure those fancy young women would only be making the bother of the journey to cast eyes at the Prince. Not one of the others.”

Bianca added. “There’s bound to be young men accompanying them too, who want to find a position on the Prince’s staff, or at The Citadel now it’s nearly done.”

The mood brightened, and in no time at all, Leila’s flock of parrots was back.

The fancy families from the capital arrived, and complained mightily over the accommodation.

The Mivarts, one of the Hill’s oldest families bought an empty, run-down place further down the slope. Then shocked the whole of Port Watch by moving into the new purchase and converting their ancestral home into an eye-wateringly expensive hotel.

Leila wasn’t sure how much of the shock was caused by the action and how much by its speed. The new hotel took in its first guests on the morning of the governor’s ball.

Mistress Mivart laughed when asked about the move in the fabric shop. “Ancestry doesn’t mean much to merchants. A good business opportunity on the other hand, means a great deal. Besides, I can now create the home I’ve always wanted to live in, rather than making do with that dotty old dowager’s version of style.”

From what Leila heard, the dowager in question had been strongly predisposed to excessive ornamentation and dark red. Tradespeople called to advise on the new home project reported strong preferences for spare elegance and green.

The visiting families had, of course, brought full, fashionable wardrobes with them.

It didn’t stop them from stalking through the shops of Port Watch, trying not to look impressed by the range and quality of wares available throughout the city.

One superior matron graced Miklos’s shop with her presence in the early afternoon. She frowned. “Are those real Sundarian silks? And how do you have the winter-wools from Trolheim already? They don’t arrive until mid-autumn at best.”

Bianca’s lips twitched, Leila could tell she was suppressing a smirk. “We’re the Shifting Sea’s largest trade hub. Trolheim ships stop here before they continue on to the rest of the Scattered Isles, as do the Sundar merchants.”

The woman frowned. “Well that’s not right.”

Bianca shrugged. “The question is, Mistress, do you want to want to buy the fabric now, and be wearing it on your return to the capital? Or join your friends in haggling over the stock still available once it arrives in your shops.”

The woman’s face pinched but she turned to the rolls of cloth with a determined gleam in her eye.

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