(123-01-29) Rhubarb Club
Rhubarb Club
Summary: Camillo has a napkin to return and a very important question to ask.
Date: 29/01/2016
Related: Two days before.

The summer sun is at last on its way down, the hawkers and their barrows have deserted Oldtown Square, and now even the red and yellow grocery shop known for opening early and closing late is having its shutters put up by the meek young woman who serves behind its counter whenever the mistress of the establishment is out, or side by side with her during busy hours. The door isn't bolted yet, though, and the bell still offers the same cheerful little tinkle to herald the arrival of a customer… or a visitor.

An oil-lamp on the counter takes up where the sunlight has been shut out, illuminating Esme in a dress of lime-green and burnt-orange stripes which to be quite frank benefits from the low lighting. She looks up at the shadow of a man outlined in her doorway, squints, and correctly identifies: "Master Camillo. This is a surprise." She beams. "I'm not quite shut yet," though she is standing at the outside of the counter, leaning her elbows upon it as she pages through her ledger; "is there something I can do for you?"

Camillo slips in, jingling that merry bell less than some customers do, though of course it sounds to announce him. He reaches into the bag he carries on one shoulder. "Your napkin," he says. "I came to return it." He approaches with the object and hands it over. It's been laundered, so all trace and scent of the pie he was given the other morning is now gone, leaving the soft linen clean and as bright as it's going to be after so many uses.

At that the little shopkeeper's surprise only deepens. She files her quill neatly in its holder attached to her inkwell, and turns to Camillo to accept the proffered napkin with both hands. For a long moment she looks down at it as though it were an object of far greater value, or a personal and sentimental treasure she never expected to see again — and then she lifts her eyes to meet those of the fine fellow who has restored it to her. "Do you know," she inquires frankly, "how many people in this world promise to return things and never do? Let alone so soon after they've had them."

Camillo draws his brows down in that thoughtful way of his as he looks at Esme's face. "I thought you might have need of it," he explains. "And that it would be better to bring it back soon than risk forgetting it or mixing it in with the house linens."

Esme looks up at him for the length of another breath and then turns away, beginning to laugh, to set the napkin down upon her counter and smooth her hand over it in satisfaction. "Oh, I doubt anything of mine could be mistaken for the house linens at the Hightower," she chuckles, "but thank you all the same, Master Camillo. I never like to break up a set, even though these'll be a set of dusters in another year or two. Thank you," she repeats.

Camillo can't argue that the napkin would more likely see service at the servants' table than any nobles, but he nods and says, "Of course, Mistress Esme," in response to the thanks. "Besides… A man who is given a slice of pie and won't even trouble to return the napkin…may see fewer pieces in the future."

In point of fact Esme's assumption was that her napkin would appear ancient and threadbare by the standards of the Hightower's servants' hall; so she and Camillo are on a remarkably similar page. "Did you like my pie, then?" she asks, having finished laughing for the time being but having another quick smile for him — but the bell sounds again and her blue-frocked shop assistant appears in the doorway, a wooden bucket in one hand — and she's distracted by reminding the girl that she wants the insides of the windows scrubbed this evening, and that before she does the floor, because they'll drip.

"Yes, Mistress Esme," the girl answers, wilting visibly.

"And draw fresh water, mind. What are you waiting for, winter to come? Get along with you," her employer chides, firmly but without rancour, and the shop girl and her bucket trudge away via the shop's miniscule back room.

"I did like the pie," Camillo confirms, not saying more because of the girl's entrance. He waits until the shopkeeper and employee have sorted out the evening's tasks. "…It was very good," he says after that long pause. And then asks, "How do you choose a shop girl for hire?"

One elbow propped on the counter, Esme first murmurs a gratified word or two on the subject of pie — and then falls silent, thinking. "The same way I choose whether or not to take on a girl who applies to clean for me," she says after a moment. "I talk to her for a little while and I watch how she answers my questions and then I decide. I'm not often wrong," she admits, "though I don't think I could put my finger on what it is. There are some customers," and one corner of her mouth lifts to form a briefly sour expression, "I never take my eye off, if I fancy they've something shifty about them. In a shop one sees all sorts, and one learns to tell 'em apart soon enough."

Camillo nods thoughtfully. "I suppose that's true," he says, "Though…I expect some lifelong shopkeepers are not as skilled at it as others. I have heard of clerks who rob their masters blind and the shopmaster is the only one who never knows." He pauses. "Though I doubt that happens here." Which sounds more like a sincere evaluation than last-minute flattery.

Esme laughs again. "Yes, I've heard of those shopmasters too," she agrees. (The girl wanders back through with her bucket and sets it down, and then begins shifting bins of onions and neeps and so forth to leave a clear area below the windows. A slow task, given their weight, but Esme it would appear screens for physical as well as moral fortitude.) "We had an apprentice next door," and, lowering her voice, she jerks a thumb in the direction of the butchery, "a few years ago it was now, who thought because my son's not the brightest he could get away with what he liked at the back door. He was collecting night soil last I heard — not a guild would take him on when I'd finished putting the word round." She sniffs with grim and righteous satisfaction. "I try to be charitable, Master Camillo, and as forgiving as the Seven would have me be, but I do draw the line at taking advantage of old women and the simple-minded." Not that advantage was taken, mind you.

Camillo listens to the story without putting a word in until Esme is done. "It's a dangerous thing to get a reputation as a thief," he says gravely, nodding once. "But a thief who hunts the weak is worse, still."

"He's not doing much thieving these days," Esme explains, with a modest degree of pleasure in the thought, "now that everyone hereabouts knows his face and what he tried." Her voice lifts. "The corners, Katla." Then, again more conversationally, as the shop girl's wet soapy cloth delves with the required enthusiasm into each corner of the leaded glass pane presently receiving her attentions, "Have you found yourself a pastime yet?"

"He must have family near here," Camillo comments softly, half to himself. It is perhaps a strange comment to make. But Camillo can be strange in conversation. He smiles slightly at the next question. "I am afraid I am not so quick as that, Mistress Esme. I think I may get a corner of some garden but…what would I plant? I find it hard to decide."

The little shopkeeper's eyes gleam. "To have stayed, you mean? That he has — he wasn't stealing to feed his old mother, though, or anything so noble. My profits were going straight into the coffers of the Bawdy Bard. It's not for the sake of Madam Jessilyn's girls I've been working all these years," she informs him drily. "Plant what you like to eat, for starters. That's what I'd do if I had room for a garden here. Tomatoes," she suggests.

Camillo nods as Esme guesses his meaning, but he doesn't seem shocked or let down by the news that the lad was using his ill-gotten gains whoring. "But it seems a little strange," he says, "Planting food next to a whole kitchen garden. When they give us all meals."

"A pastime doesn't have to make sense," offers Esme, "and I've heard it said a vegetable tastes better when you've grown it yourself." She cants her head, looking up at him from the inside of that very green headscarf she selected this morning. "You don't strike me as a flower man, but then, I'm not always right. Not often wrong," she reiterates, "but not always right."

Camillo seems a little puzzled by the concept, still. "The Hightower has flower gardens, as well," he says. "But perhaps there is some uncommon vegetable or herb I could grow." He sounds far from sure.

Esme sizes him up again, and only seems confirmed in whatever conclusions have inspired her to this line of advice. "Vegetables you can eat, at least," she points out, "and I think there's a mite more satisfaction in having made something that wasn't there before, something that's of use to you, than simply in having less of whatever you had before. Be it your time or your coin or…" She trails off and spreads her hands, wordlessly encompassing all the more frivolous, the acquisitive or merely wasteful pastimes an idle fellow might take up. "That's why the better taste, I should think."

Camillo nods again, but it's clear he remains somehow undecided or uncertain. "Where would I get the seeds for a vegetable that the kitchen doesn't have?" he asks. "Do you sell seeds?"

Does she sell seeds. Well, now that he mentions it. "Yes, a few sorts," admits Esme, "even in the city some people like to try keeping up the odd little patch of garden. But I imagine they're much the same you could have from the gardeners at the Hightower." She pauses. "Shall I see if I can find you something uncommon? You did ask me, not long ago…" Though not specifically for seeds. Herbs. Dried herbs. Anything unusual, from out of the Reach.

Camillo nods once. "If you find something," he says, "I'll buy it from you and have a try. But don't go to any special trouble." He lapses into thought again for a moment. "Do you have a favorite plant?"

"If it comes up," agrees Esme, who has already drawn up a small mental list of places to look and people to ask. She's quiet when he is, watching him think, as though genuinely interested in what's going to come out. "Apart from tomatoes? Rhubarb." She pauses. "Oh, you mean — not to eat. No," she lies pleasantly, "I can't say that I've any real favourites."

"I've eaten rhubarb once or twice," Camillo recalls. "It's sour, isn't it. I've heard someone say it's easy to grow."

Somehow Esme, some inches shorter than he, gives the impression of gazing down at him from a great height. "Good fresh rhubarb isn't sour," she explains, "but it is a wee bit tart. If you do it with just enough sugar, not too much, it's tart and sweet and makes a very fine pie. I like to put in strawberries or raspberries once in a while, if they're not too dear. Keeps your bowels moving, too." Because what little old lady worth her salt (or sugar) would fail to draw attention to such a sterling advantage.

Camillo is just such a creature who is conducive to these illusions, who makes the small seem tall and the young seem fully mature. He takes this information in quite attentively. "I suppose berries are very hard to grow, with the birds and other creatures," he imagines. He pauses. "Mistress Esme, has your husband passed away?"

"Netting," supplies Esme, who probably does or at any rate could supply it. "Over the berries," she explains, walking round the counter to her usual place, "to let the sun in but keep the birds off." Then she turns the ledger to face her and, closing it and stowing it below, adds, "Almost eleven years ago now." The effect is almost as though she was reckoning up the length of her widowhood from the nat columns of figures inscribed in her hand — and occasionally, with prayerful care, the girl's — though perhaps she was only checking the date. Or looking for something to do with her hands. "Why?"

"I only wondered," Camillo says. "I've only been in Oldtown perhaps two years. I did not know if you had built this shop up on your own, or if it was your husband's that you have taken over…." As only two of many possibilities. "But…can not the birds poke their beaks through the net? Or is it a very fine net?"

"I see." And, because it's a reasonable degree of curiosity, Esme goes on. "We opened both shops at almost the same time, around… oh, twenty-six years ago now. Going on for twenty-seven. My husband was the butcher in the beginning, and by the time he passed Edmyn and I both knew the trade well enough to carry on. The grocery's always been mine, though." She draws the napkin over to her side of the counter and smooths it again with her palm. "I've seen," she confides, "such a net put up on stakes so it's above the berries."

"I see," Camillo replies, concluding, "So you were married before you opened." He looks at the napkin. "And do the birds not come from underneath? Or mice?"

Apparently Esme's life story is less interesting than bird netting. That's just the way she likes it, oddly enough… "I don't know," she admits, leaning on the counter again with her fingers steepled. She does still wear a wedding ring, a thin band of gold. "I only know what I noticed in passing. The gardeners at the Hightower could tell you all about it, I'm sure. But if you end up growing red berries," and she eyes him thoughtfully, "bring me a few handfuls and we'll put them in a pie with rhubarb. You'd like it better than you think."

"I would trust your judgment, Mistress Esme," Camillo says, nodding once. "But I should leave you, for now. I have a few last tasks before I can sleep tonight."

"And I've the supper to get," agrees Esme, flicking a glance towards her shop girl who has by now scrubbed and rinsed and wiped almost halfway across the windows, and is reaching up on tip-toes to get to the top of the next one; "but it was good of you to stop in, Master Camillo, and to bring back my napkin." She pats it again. "I'll see you soon, I'm sure. Mind how you go."

Camillo nods to show that he will. "Thank you again for the pie, Mistress Esme," he is sure to say before he goes. And then he goes.

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