(123-01-27) Prayers, Pastimes, and Pies
Prayers, Pastimes, and Pies
Summary: Esme's early morning devotions at the Starry Sept draw the attention of a young septa; and then she finds herself in company with Camillo, a customer of hers who undertakes to see her home. Young people today, they're so sweet and dutiful.
Date: 27/01/2016
Related: None

Beneath the soaring star-pocked indoor sky of the sept's greatest dome, the gaunt little figure of Mistress Esme, a shopkeeper from the Shambles, appears less than ever significant. She doesn't look up at the splendour of it — she never looks up. She only comes in alone, early, and makes her way (as she has done several times a month for the past quarter of a century, longer indeed than many of the septas and septons themselves have served here) from the Mother to the Father, the Maiden to the Warrior, the Smith to the Crone, and at last even the Stranger himself, kneeling before each in turn to spend a copper upon the cheapest kind of candle — and spend anything from two or three to twenty of her minutes in earnest prayer, her head bowed.

To get her old bones up off the marble floor again after such lengthy and humble communion with the Divine is of course trying work.

She spares the statue of the Crone a wry glance as she smooths her bony, work-worn hands over the cheerful blue and green and yellow stripes of her linen dress (the scarf covering her grey hair today is green with small yellow spots), and then plants them squarely on the floor and tilts her weight forward onto them. One foot under her, then the other — that's it.

Miranda's voice is soft and sweet as she sings the quiet hymns to the Seven, doing her best not to overshadow the septons leading the hymns along. The youthful septa does not interfere with the aged matron's prayers but does scurry over to make an offer of her arm. "Good-woman, if it will help you, please.."

Camillo is a worshipper known to show up at all sorts of times, but early mornings are a particular favorite, before the nobles are out of bed and ringing bells. His course takes him first to where the candles can be bought, but he sees an older woman struggling her way up. He takes a few steps that way, but the septa is there before him. He hesitates, and neither crosses the rest of the distance nor goes back toward the candles, but ends up just standing in place.

The grey robes rustling towards her don't take Esme by particular surprise, for she's found herself being picked up off the floor of the sept by solicitous young creatures with ever-greater frequency in recent years. She takes it graciously, however she may feel. "Thank you, dearie," she sighs, slipping her hand through the strong young arm proffered for her aid, and pushing up from the floor with her other hand. She attains her full height of 5'2" with a distinct crackling in the knee region. "My knees," she whispers apologetically, beneath the hymn. "I hope you'll never suffer so at your own prayers, mmm? … But aren't you a pretty thing," she sighs, looking up into the septa's sweet sun-kissed face.

Miranda glances past Esme to Camillo and offers a polite nod of acknowledgement. But she looks back down at the poor old thing and offers a kind smile. "All the faithful are pretty in the eyes of the Gods, Good-woman, but thank you." She frowns for a moment before thoughtfully suggesting, "Would it do yourself and others good if we had pillows perhaps? For the knees. I know some of the septons believe the pain of kneeling helps us focus our prayers, but I think it's hard to be honest to our faith if we're distracted by discomfort."

Camillo ultimately decides Miranda has the situation in hand. He nods at her and moves toward the candles at last. He selects one relatively fancy one, and one inexpensive one. The fancy one he lights in the area people sometimes use to honor the dead with candles, staying long enough to offer a prayer. Then, he brings his remaining candle quietly over towards the Stranger's image, and toward Miranda and Esme as well.

Releasing the septa's arm Esme presses a hand to the small of her back and leans against it, as though to ease an ache there as well; the furrows upon her brow deepen as she considers the well-spoken young woman's words. "Life is full of pains, dearie," she remarks softly, drawing the seventh and final tallow candle out of the pocket of her striped dress, "and this one hardly worth the name. I don't know that I notice it, when I'm brought so near the Seven in prayer," she considers; "my knees are as far away then as the rest of our imperfect world. I only feel it after," and she gives an amused little sniff, "when I want to get up on my feet again. It's kind of you to think, dearie, but pillow or no pillow, I'm not too old yet to show the gods the respect They deserve in Their own house, and I thank Them for it."

Miranda smiles at the gentle wisdom and bows her head. "And no doubt They thank you for it, Goodwoman. Seven Blessings go with you." She steps aside for Esme to go to the less populated altar of the gathered.

Camillo hesitates again when he nears the shop mistress. He certainly recognizes her, but perhaps he's hesitant to interrupt a person's communion with the Seven. Still, he does speak up, if quietly. "Are you all right, Mistress Esme?"

"Seven Blessings upon you as well, septa," the little shopkeeper replies pleasantly, and turns from the girl towards the last of the sept's altars.

The shortest path to it is via Camillo. Somehow she doesn't appear surprised to see this particular customer of hers, or to hear him address her; perhaps she caught sight of him out of the corner of an eye accustomed to watching all at once every shelf and every bin in her shop. She comes nearer, greeting him with a small nod; "Of course I am, Master Camillo," she promises him in a hushed tone matched to his own, whilst the voices of the religious lift in song nearby, devotion echoing up to the starry ceiling. "At my time of life my knees get a bit stiff, that's all." A rueful smile. "Good of you to ask."

She gives his arm a gentle pat in passing, nods to him again, and is soon mortifying the joints in question before the great hooded black statue of the Stranger. The altar here, always the least attended, was cleaned for the day not long ago and has only a token candle upon it, placed by one of the sacristan's assistants with fresh tapers for worshippers who might come to light their own votives therefrom. Esme does so, and places her cheap but sincere tallow candle close by that first one, and sits back on legs folded modestly beneath her striped skirts and folds her hands in her lap.

Camillo nods softly and kneels also, not one to obstruct anyone's prayer. He bows his hed and appears to pray very sincerely. His brow wrinkles now and again with some thought or hope or wish or worry. Thankfully, he doesn't make the murmuring noises some supplicants make. And he is very still. At last, he opens his eyes and looks up at the statue once more before he finally stands. But once he's up, he pauses there for a moment, just in case Esme might need help rising again. But he keeps his eyes on the statues rather than on her so as not to hurry or embarrass.

Rather than shutting her eyes at once Esme seems to look up for a breath or so, perhaps to admire the play of candlelight upon the Stranger's statue and its sparkling fragments of dragonglass… No, of course not. She's only gathering her thoughts. Her head is soon bowed, her eyes closed. Her kneeling figure, so small, so luridly striped, hardly seems even to breathe.

Time passes.

Her spotted headscarf lifts again a minute or two after he rose from his place so near to her own, where she is so unaccustomed to having company. If she's aware of his lingering presence she gives no sign of it, but puts her hands to the floor again, shifts her weight again, gingerly lifting herself.

Camillo does nothing to rush Esme's prayer or her rise. Only when she moves does he turn a little to watch and be sure she won't take a fall or need a little help. But he doesn't jump in with help if she doesn't look like she needs it. He waits until she is up before he speaks. "Do you often come this time of day?" he asks softly.

No, Esme doesn't ask for help. It's not quite in her nature. She manages. Her knees make that crackling noise again, this time of a certainty within Camillo's hearing; but they've never yet actually cracked. She shakes out her skirts the way any woman does who has been kneeling on any floor, even one of such scrupulously polished marble, and takes a step nearer him with a distracted murmur of, "Yes — yes, before I open the shop." Her gaze lifts to his face. "I wager it's the only hour you have to yourself, as well, isn't it?"

"Some days," Camillo admits, nodding once. "But my position has increased somewhat. Some evenings I have of my own, now." He glances at the door, then back to Esme. "Shall I see you to your shop?" he offers. "Or would you rather walk alone?"

Esme nods her head judiciously. "I had a feeling you were on your way up in the world, Master Camillo," she confides softly. And then, when he makes that most courteous offer, she appears to give it a moment's consideration. "That's very good of you. I'd not say no to the company, if you're sure it won't take you too far out of your way this morning." Along Old Street, into Oldtown Square, it's hardly the way to the harbourfront — but perhaps he has some other errand in the city. She doesn't pry. Oh, no.

Camillo looks slightly surprised at Esme's compliment, but he shakes his head at her concern. "It's no trouble to me, Mistress Esme," he says. "The kitchen maids are only just lighting the fires."

His surprise seems to tilt her head, to lift her eyebrows; and then she says once more, "If you're sure," and falls into step at his side, her headscarf bobbing along at about the level of his shoulder. "Do they breakfast late in the Hightower, then, usually?" she asks, by way of making conversation. "If the kitchen-maids are only just up now… a good breakfast on such a scale, that's real work, however much you put by the night before."

"Oh, not the kitchen fires," Camillo is quick to amend. "They get breakfast started and then we spare one or two to light the fires in the nobles' rooms so that the rooms are warm when they wake. Breakfast is served soon after." He leads the way out of the sept, keeping his voice low until they're clear of it. But then, it seems he is not in the habit of talking loudly even in the open air.

The manses along Starry Street are asleep, but for a few scattered persons of their own class, servants and retainers seeing likewise to early morning business before their betters rise up and demand attention.

Esme breathes out a quiet "Ahh" of understanding almost at once, nodding her head, listening to the rest of Camillo's explanation with respectful interest. "Of course, that makes much more sense. I didn't understand at first what you meant. Of course," she repeats, "but naturally they eat a bit later than the rest of us. I've only two to cook for now, as a rule," she muses, "but at one time— well," and the spotted headscarf inclines nearer, "I don't miss it, shall we say? Though with the butchery downstairs it's less a question of where to find three meals a day than how to use up what doesn't sell."

"Did you cook for a large number before?" Camillo asks cautiously, not quite bold enough to pry directly about family or former employ. "I have not had to do it very much, but have learned a little. Sometimes a noble needs accompanied on a long ride." He glances aside at that colorful headscarf.

"I was in service," the little shopkeeper admits, "when I was a girl… But lately, only for my family. Still, with the way my son eats, that's why I haven't free evenings such as yours," she chuckles. "You looked so surprised, Master Camillo, when I said I thought you'd bettered your position lately — did you really think two sides of beef and six pork loins," she quotes his latest order placed with her son, "don't tell a tale all by themselves?"

Camillo nods, perhaps having guessed that from the way she spoke, but not having liked to presume. "He is lucky to have a mother to look after him that way," Camillo says softly, and surely he means it as a compliment. He shakes his head a little about his position. "Of course," he says. "I just wasn't sure what you meant, I suppose. But it is true. Now I set some of the tasks and schedules and make large orders."

The smile with which Esme looks up at him then constitutes a silent but rather pleased answer to his compliment upon her care for her son. Why, yes, she does do a good job with him. It's a fact. And then she says, sympathetically, in that lower middle class accent which could belong as easily in charge of the wooden spoon of culinary authority as behind the counter in a shop, "It's good to be a little more one's own master, isn't it? Or mistress, of course," she reflects. "I'm glad to see an old customer doing well, and that's the truth. I'm sure you've worked very hard for the Hightowers to be where you are."

Camillo looks a little uncertain, but this is common for a conversation for Camillo. He always seems to put thought into what he is about to say rather than prattling fluently. Some people take it to mean that he is slow, and others take it to mean that he has a philosophical turn of mind. If there even are so many as would think about Camillo and his mind. "It is good, to have more liberty," he allows carefully, "But then…I am not accustomed to filling time on my own. I am still learning what to do with it."

As it happens, Esme has thought about Camillo and his mind — and, being herself possessed of a son who really isn't the swiftest little thinker in Oldtown, she can tell the difference between a a man whose thoughts are considered and one whose are merely laboured. It's one of the reasons he was subtly pointed to the best cheese, and one of the reasons he's walking with her now. He's not your average domestic. "You don't have to do anything with it," she comments. "That's what liberty means, eh? You can throw it away if that's what you like. The nobility — they throw away time even more than they throw away money… But I know what you mean," she concludes. "I sit still to pray, to eat, and to make sure my accounts tally. That's it."

Camillo gives a gentle nod. "People say I should…find a pastime, or a hobby," he says. "But I am not sure how to go about it. They say I should choose what pleases me. But how would I know?"

Here they must cross at a corner just becoming, at this hour, a busy one; Esme takes those few seconds of watching for oncoming carts to consider what he has said. "You might have a feeling," she suggests, "but it sounds as though you haven't. Try something and see what you think of it? Beyond that I don't know what to tell you. I'm fond of making pies," this concession coming perhaps unexpectedly after her mixed opinions on cooking; "but what pleases me, if I'm honest, is a job well done. Even if it hasn't a pastry lattice."

Camillo appears to give this some thought as well, and nods faintly. "I am sure you accomplish many things in your days," he says. "You seem…precise, in your shopkeeping."

A pause. "Thank you," says Esme, in a mildly surprised tone of her own. It's so nice when someone notices. "Our profit margins in the shops don't leave much room for sloppiness and waste, I'm sure you understand. That's why I've always kept up the other business as well. And to keep busy, of course."

"Of course," Camillo agrees. "But I am sure you have no trouble in being busy, Mistress Esme," he replies, "And that none of that busy-ness goes to waste."

"I try to see it doesn't." They're passing through Oldtown Square now, skirting the early hawkers on the way to her still-shuttered shopfront, its red and yellow stripes marking it indelibly as the property of a woman who'd dress in… well… what she's wearing. One can never mistake Mistress Esme. "Of course you could always," she suggests, reverting to the earlier subject of his unusual leisure, "spend more of your time in sleeping. Most people would consider that a pleasant luxury… I don't sleep much myself, I never can." She casts a rueful smile up in his direction. "You'll satisfy my curiosity, I hope, and tell me if you do find a pastime you enjoy."

"That is true," Camillo says of sleep. He seems for a moment like he might say something else on the topic, but thinks better of it and instead nods. "Yes," he says. "If it does make you curious. Someone told me I should try…carving." He shrugs uncertainly.

"Wood, I take it, not meat?" asks Esme, quirking her eyebrows in curiosity. "That might be relaxing. But perhaps, working indoors, you might like a hobby that would take you out in the sunshine. You expressed the other day an interest in things that grow — what about a little patch of your own in the kitchen garden? I'm sure you could sort it out with the gardeners, their advice on how to keep your plants alive and sprouting in exchange for your help with something or another. There's always something, isn't there?" she points out. "And as you're an upper servant now…"

"Well, yes," Camillo confirms with a small smile. Carving meat might not be the hobby for everyone. He nods a little at this advice about gardening. "I would have to see with the cook," he says. "It isn't my land to claim." He nods at Esme's shrewd knowledge of servant politicking. "But there are ways, it's true."

Rather than stopping at her grocery Esme has led him round the corner into the Shambles, where one door of the butcher's shop is already open and her tall simple son in his white apron smeared with fresh blood is busily hanging the carcass of a promisingly fat pig from one of the iron meathooks beneath the awning. "Good morning, Mother!" he calls happily, waving to her with evident pleasure at her return from the sept. "A fine day, is it not, Master Camillo?"

"Good morning, Edmyn," his mother answers, her voice likewise pitched to carry. It is their third such exchange. He'll keep saying 'good morning' slightly more than is usual until he's had his luncheon. She lowers her voice to its normal register again for Camillo. "If you've a moment to wait, I'll bring you down a slice of steak and kidney pie. I've another one to take across to the bakehouse now they're open but we still haven't finished the last. At the worst the gardeners might appreciate a few hours of labour now and again, it being summer. Enough for you to try it and see."

"It is fine, Edmyn," Camillo returns. He seems subtly cheered by the young man's sunny disposition. And at Esme's offer, he ducks his head gratefully. "Thank you," he says. "That's very kind. A nice change from morning oats." He nods along with her advice about the garden, and he does seem to be seriously considering it, but he doesn't say more about it now. Perhaps there are decisions to be made, personal squabbles and favors to take into account.

"It needs eating," is Esme's opinion on the pie. She doesn't press him on the subject of the garden; she knows how it is. "I won't keep you but a moment."

She passes through the side door in the butchery and up the stairs it conceals, and returns shortly with a generously weighty and rather fragrant bundle tied up in a cloth of undyed linen washed and dried so many times it has achieved an exquisite softness. "There you are," she pronounces, "and I'll have the napkin back, if you don't mind, the next time you're passing. No hurry."

Camillo takes the cloth in both hands. "Of course I'll return it," he promises. "I hope you don't mind if I take it and go. There is work. But…I hope you will have a fine day, Mistress Esme," he adds sincerely.

"Of course, of course," the little shopkeeper insists at once, patting his hand; "don't let me keep you any longer from your day. Seven blessings upon you, Master Camillo, and I hope we'll see you in the shop again soon."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License