(123-01-23) Cheese Club
Cheese Club
Summary: Naturally a customer who so frequently purchases good firm cheese wires, must be in the market for fine soft cheeses. Mistress Esme is here to help.
Date: 23/01/2016
Related: None

Morning in the Shambles — and every housewife in Oldtown and half the servants are engaged in a grim game of elbow-my-neighbour, trying to see to the day's marketing before the sun can rise any higher. The cries of hawkers in nearby Oldtown Square ring out above the chattering throngs; a shop bell tinkles in every instant; doors swing open and shut and tempers fray.

In the butcher's shop nearest the square, the butcher himself seems above the chaos, patiently and methodically seeing to each of his customers in the order in which they arrive, doing only one thing at a time but doing it efficiently, and looking up whenever he hears his own bell to greet the newcomer, often by name. His bell has a sound subtly different from the bell next door, and the bell in between. The staff here can always tell which is which.

His knife separates a string of a dozen sausages into two half-dozens; "Good morning, Master Camillo," he recites dutifully, wrapping the first half-dozen and presenting it with both hands to the woman waiting with an already-laden basket. "There you are, Mistress Cayra, and thank you for your business." The other half-dozen sausages are put back whence they came; he turns at once to the next of the customers milling together at the front of the shop. Everyone knows Edmyn the butcher is a little slow. But everyone also knows he's a damn good man with a cleaver — and most in this neighbourhood know too that the cows and the pigs and the little lambs follow him gladly to the chopping block, and he pats their heads and says 'thank you' to them, too.

Before Camillo can begin to suspect the Hightower's custom is less valued here than it was of yore, another bell tinkles overhead and the butcher's mother, Mistress Esme, whose sharp black eyes caught sight of him through the panes of leaded glass in the door which connects his shop and hers, steps through: a small woman, quick and lively despite her years and her wrinkles, her dress striped in red and blue and gold beneath her spotless white apron.

"Why, Master Camillo," she utters in tones of pleased surprise. "What can we do for you today?"

Camillo has changed in the time he's been coming to the shop, but not as much as one might think. He's gotten a little less hang-dog over the past year or so, a little less scruffy. But even though the word around town is that he's a high-level servant now, and lately he's been coming in with the large orders instead of just for suddenly-needed sundries, he doesn't often wear fancy Hightower livery as he goes about his business. He's a little more patient than the younger servants because he's less likely to get cuffed round the ear or shouted at by a cook. "Good morning," he tells the butcher. "We'll be needing—" but by the time he starts ordering, the shop mistress is upon him already. He nods his head to her. "Good morning," he repeats. "We'll be needing two sides of beef and six pork loins for delivery at the Hightower, please." He's never very good at initiating any sort of chat.

"Two sides of best beef, six pork loins," repeats Mistress Esme crisply, nodding her head. A single wisp of grey hair has crept free of her bright red linen headscarf, framing her unremarkable elderly face. "As soon as possible, I take it? Tonight's dinner? Don't worry, we'll have the meat in your cooks' hands in plenty of time," she promises him, and they both know it to be the truth — or he wouldn't keep bringing in such orders. "And will there be anything else for yourself, by chance?" She eyes him as the retailing challenge he is. "I've several rather fine soft cheeses in from up Honeyholt way," she suggests, for at the very least he's a known cheese-fancier.

Camillo nods along, obviously quietly appreciating that Esme is so efficient and thoughtful, and saves him making a lot of demands on his own. He looks momentarily thoughtful — or perhaps puzzled — but he allows a nod at some length. "I will have some cheese for myself," he allows, and so her very first suggestion scores her an upsale already. He often declines to buy anything for himself, so it is perhaps a surprise how easily he acquiesces, today. He thinks a little more. "Have you any herbs from out of the area?" he asks. "Dried is all right."

The butcher's mother, the previous butcher's widow, gives Camillo an encouraging smile and pats his arm with one worn, bony hand. "Step through and have a whiff of the cheese and we'll see what we can find for you."

In her own shop, painted in blithe red and yellow stripes on the outside and crowded floor to ceiling with a moveable feast of everyday necessities and exotic treats within, a girl in a somewhat more sober blue dress and an identical white apron is hurrying to and fro behind the counter, taking payments for purchases or marking down sums against accounts, and trying to watch every shelf and every basket at once. Mistress Esme has a positively flaying tongue if anything is found to have gone missing in her absence.

She leaves Camillo by the counter and steps into her tiny back room; and returns seconds later with a tray upon which she's hastily arranged half a dozen small cheeses, obviously two of each size and shape, done up in cheesecloth which some fastidious creature pleated neatly about them. "I haven't had a good look myself," she confesses to him, sliding the tray onto one end of the counter and banishing her employee and the ongoing stream of transactions to the far end, "I've been in a rush all morning. Let's see what we have." Her short, clean fingernails are already picking at a knot.

Camillo comes through to the other shop and stands patiently by the counter. He looks curiously at the little cheese bundles. "To tell the truth, I don't know which kind I'm in the market for," he confesses. "I will take your suggestion." He watches her hand at the knot.

"Oh, my advice is just what you shouldn't take," chuckles the shopkeeper; "I'm the one who eats what doesn't sell." She parts the cheesecloth to reveal the golden rind within, and leans over to sniff speculatively. "Though I don't think," she admits as she straightens, "you could go wrong with any of them, I've had nothing bad from that farmer, in eight or nine years."

Camillo nods thoughtfully, looking at the cheese. "Then I'll have this one," he requests, with evident trust. "Oh, and I'll need two candles," he thinks to add, while his gaze roams the shop.

Esme's quick fingers wrap it up again almost as neatly, twitching and smoothing the cheesecloth into something like the pleats it remembers. "I'm sure you'll enjoy the eating of it," she opines, nodding again, "and will that be beeswax or tallow for you, and tapers or pillars?"

"Tallow tapers, if you will," Camillo requests. "And I am sure I'll try another cheese the next time and will tell you the comparison of it, if you like," he offers.

The idea seems to strike Mistress Esme as a fortuitous one. "Aye, do that," she agrees, "thank you, Master Camillo. I'm always interested in knowing what my customers think, what they don't like as well as what they do," she confides beneath the hubbub on the other side of the shop, "and my taste isn't everyone's, goodness knows. Now, were there any herbs in particular you were looking for, or…?" She inclines her head nearer. "I don't know if you know, but my late husband was once a seafaring man. One or two of his old cronies still do pick up a few little things for me, this and that for the shop, when they're abroad on their travels. And for my own cooking too, of course."

"I will, Mistress Esme," Camillo promises with a dip of his head. Then he tilts his head a bit at the question of herbs. "To be honest, I hadn't one in mind. I'm a Reachman all my life. But I take an interest in things that grow. I wondered…maybe there are herbs I know less of farther away. If I see a name clear in a book, I'll come and ask you for it," he says.

This seems fair. The little shopkeeper nods again. "If you bring me a name, I'll see what can be had," she pledges. "Maybe we'll both learn a thing or two, eh?" Her own accent is lower-middle-class Oldtown, with a bit of King's Landing somewhere therein. Nothing remarkable. And, having finished tying up his cheese again, she steps across to a basket of candles and selects two tallow tapers for him, turning each over in her hand to check for damage, stepping behind the counter and producing a square of cheap brown paper to roll them up in. "There's a box for the cheese," she adds, "I'll fetch it for you in a moment. Wouldn't want anything to happen to it untimely."

Camillo seems unsure about all the trouble of getting a box, but he ultimately trusts to Esme and dips his head to indicate that he will wait.

Doing up the candles in brown paper and the absolute minimal quantity of string, measured by eye, is the work of seconds for the woman who has reigned behind this counter for quarter of a century; and then she leaves his cheese of choice next to his candles and takes the rest into the back, returning with a box just barely large enough to fit it. It's really more of a cage, constructed of thin pieces of wood connecting the top and the bottom. Just enough protection to keep the shape of the cheese within intact.

"There you are," she pronounces at last, pushing cheese and candles across the counter to him, and mentioning a sum of money almost as an afterthought.

Camillo roots in the bag slung over his shoulder for coin and comes up with it presently, the exact amount, which he hands over. "Thank you," he says, not reminding the mistress of the Hightower order as she has never yet disappointed him. He sticks his goods in his back, and with that he's on his way out the door.

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