(123-05-19) The Ghost of Cheeses Past
The Ghost of Cheeses Past
Summary: A man of the Night's Watch, lately arrived in Oldtown, wishes to discuss… cheese. (With apologies to anyone who feels this set looks oddly familiar, one was in a rush.)
Date: 18-19/05/2016
Related: None

The sun has risen high over Oldtown Square, oppressing somewhat the enthusiasm of the hawkers and peddlers who come and go so irregularly, selling 'fresh' vegetables out of barrows and funny-looking carpets from abroad and so on and so forth — and serving only to heighten the inevitable pungent fragrances of this open area sandwiched between the stockyards on one side, and the Shambles and its abattoirs on the other. By this hour of the day the constant one-way morning traffic of cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens has slowed, as it were, to a trickle, yet evidence of their passage remains here and there underfoot. Some of the 'ladies' of the Bawdy Bard are fanning themselves on a shaded balcony over the way, calling down to prospective customers. The life of the city passes through this square. More languidly in the heat, or else at speed.

On the corner of the square and the Shambles is a red and yellow grocery shop, bright and beckoning, open from the cool hours of the morning till after the sun has set, closed only on holy days of the Faith of the Seven. The owner is a devout woman, elderly, given to wearing dresses as garishly striped as her shopfront. Faded red and blue and yellow linen this afternoon, beneath a clean white apron, and a headscarf in a subtly different yellow which fails utterly to flatter her complexion. She has just opened her shop door (causing the bell over it to tinkle) and is standing on the threshold holding the door with her hip whilst she delivers a stern parting injunction to a delivery boy, who looks hardly big enough to be bearing such a grand covered basket.

"And mind you come back with somethin' on account from her at number twenty-three, and look where you're goin'—!" This last in the aggrieved tones common to mothers, grandmothers, and put-upon nursemaids the world over, as she rocks up onto her toes and peers after him, lips pursing.

He is not dressed for the warmth. In layer upon layer of black fabric he stands out in the crowd, sweating in the Oldtown heat. The toggles of his jacket are undone to the middle of his chest, a fine shirt similarly undone to the collarbone, a third black shirt hangs open at his throat. Black gloves are tucked into his black belt, black boots climb to the knee of his sturdy black trousers. The scabbard of his sword is black, the stone in the ring on his finger. Even his hair and the stubble at his chin, black to match his wardrobe.

He shops the square, and to an untrained eye his wandering might seem random. To a shrewd observer, though, he is a man who tries to seem aimless as he draws ever nearer the gaudily-colored dry goods store.

The laugh lines at the corners of his mouth, the ready grin offered the catcalling ladies of the bard, are at odds with his somber attire. His manner is easy and affable, though as he draws nearer his destination it is tinged with unease. Nervousness. He tenses a moment when the bell rings, and the thought of withdrawal from the scene is painted across his features. Only for a moment, though. Steeling himself, his smile now strained, he steps toward the woman in the doorway with a small cough and a single word. "Mistress?"

The little shopkeeper affects to jump, lifting a startled hand to her bosom as she turns toward the voice off to the side of her. "Oh, you startled me," she exclaims, chuckling; and she looks up into his face without a hint of recognition. "Must've been daydreamin'. Is there aught I can do for you, ser?" But though her posture is easy and her smile politely inquiring, her black eyes squinting against the noonday sunshine do venture to hold his.

He smiles with eyes downcast - it may even pass for sheepish - but lets his gaze meet hers as he answers. "I thought I might have a look at your cheeses, Mistress, if you've a moment?" He hooks his thumbs into his belt, rocking back onto his heels as he looks her over. "I have a mind to try a taste of something rich and fresh." The briefest pause and he adds, the words rushed, "If it's no trouble at all."

Having stared down this great big burly well-dressed and well-armed knight as long as is prudent for a tiny, elderly smallfolk woman with the eyes of Oldtown Square upon her, Esme drops her gaze to his boots and smooths her apron and is all apologies. "Oh, dear, I'm afraid I don't think I can be of any help to you, ser," she says, sounding as though she means it, lifting regretful eyes up to his face again. "What a shame. The cheeses I have in are all spoken for at present, and a blessing it is for me to have such loyal customers, I'm sure," she adds virtuously. "I could give you the name of a shop down t'other end of the Shambles where you might find somethin' in…?" she offers.

He opens his mouth to speak, but instead his jaw only hangs there. A ready look becomes, by degrees, a crestfallen one, until finally he forces his gaping mouth to close. Shoulders rise and fall with a deep breath, and he nods once slowly, and again for good measure. Once he has the hang of it, nodding, he allows another pair before he speaks. "I see, then. Well…" His attention drifts upward to just above the door of the shop, as though it suddenly were difficult to meet her eye. "I think we both know I've been a fool about cheese, as it were, in the past. But I've learned since then, Mistress, and if you've a mind to show me your wares in the future I flatter myself to think you might find me a more useful customer than some." His grin is a practiced mix of confidence and self-deprecation as he adds, "A damn sight more useful than I myself was, when I was a younger man."

Esme glances through the open door into the shop; then she makes way for a departing customer with a heavy basket, uttering a friendly word of hope that she'll be feeling right as rain in another day or two. Her gaze seems to follow this neighbour's retreat and then drift back to the would-be cheese-fancier, taking in the square and the hawkers and the passersby, just casually. Again she smooths her apron. "That's as may be, ser, and fine words never polished no floors." There is a pause. "I might wonder," she concedes, giving him a quick, hard, searching look from beneath her eyelashes, then looking away again as though that boy selling pies out of a barrow were suddenly of great interest to her personally, "what a crow's about, flyin' so far south."

The black-clad knight turns with Esme to face out into the square, his thumbs still hooked into his baldric. "If you mean to have me polish your floors, you'll find me game," he suggests with a half-hearted laugh. "Seven know I owe you that and more, don't I?" The words are pitched low enough that they'd ben difficult for anyone else to make out, unless perhaps they were passing through the door just at that moment, and he doesn't look down at Esme while he speaks. "But what this crow is about?" His bottom lip juts out in a frown as he considers, but it doesn't take long. "I suppose I mean to make a nest, of sorts. I'm a sworn brother of the Night's Watch, you see, and I'm the sort of brother as finds more brothers." Finally looking at Esme sidelong, he adds in a stage-whisper, "It's my place to spread our misery to other fools as may have need."

The smile with which Esme faces the square — scanning for prospective customers? — is amiable. Her tone, however, grows sour. "You'd know a thing or two about that," she allows, "and about featherin' a nest…"

He doesn't argue the point, and is in fact quick to agree, even if he does come at it crosswise. "A man learns to accept his faults, Mistress, and in time mayhaps he even learns to work around them a bit?" There's no real conviction in that last, though, suggesting that that's some he strives for rather than something he feels he has attained. "But the Mother in her mercy birthed each man of us with strengths, too, and I've others aside from spreading misery. Loyalty," he says, and this time it has the full force of his personality behind it. "Cleverness, and I don't forget a debt."

"The Mother in her all-seein' compassion understands a man's strength and his weakness for what they are; but with my poor old mortal eyes I see only what he chooses to show me," is Esme's rather tart answer. "… You must be swelterin' in all that, ser, in this heat," she observes. "But gods forbid anyone should take you for less than the grand fellow you are, eh?"

"There are doors," he responds at length, "as are only open to grand fellows. Mouths too, I find." His shrug isn't precisely an apology, but it does lean in that direction. "And a fellow like me, who isn't as grand as he might like to be, needs to make his impression straightaway, doesn't he?" His eyes narrow as he looks at Esme without turning his head. "If folk start to ask questions, then I've already lost."

The little shopkeeper smiles vaguely out into the square, arms folded over her chest. "O' course, the impression to be made, that depends on the occasion, don't it?" she points out softly. Her expression changes into pleased surprise as she recognises a customer — they call out greetings and share a laugh over some old jest that wasn't even funny to begin with, and the woman passes on.

One hand comes free of Rayford's belt to gesture, palm up, as he concedes: "Even your old friend the undertaker has one hat for mornings at the Sept and another for those times as he takes the shovel in hand to meet a customer, doesn't he?" Shuffling one foot, he adds, "If I wear two hats, well then I came by 'em both honestly, didn't I?"

The only sign of Esme's amusement is a soft breath let out through her nose, which in another woman might be the precursor to laughter. "Since you an' your fine hats are so new-arrived in the city," she allows, every syllable tainted by reluctance, "and so fond of cheese and not knowin' where to buy it, I daresay I might be able to put you in the way of the occasional half a pound. Not on account, mind. My business runs on narrow margins, ser, and I'm careful where I give credit. You understand, I'm sure."

"I do, of course," Rayford agrees, the ghost of old habit drawing the words from him quickly. "And I'd be happy to buy whatever you might sell me. I'm sure, for my part, that I can pay you for whatever you find. If you had some thought as to my account being in arrears all this time, well, I might entertain a reasonable discourse on that subject… So long as it weren't aimed at ruination? Which is a goal I might have achieved on my own, if I were left to, and some time ago."

"Shocked you haven't," is Esme's frank estimation of his character and habits. She draws in a breath and lets it out in a crisp sigh, and unfolds her arms and jerks a thumb towards the comparatively cool and dim interior of her shop. "The cheese is out the back, ser," she explains; "the smell upsets some people."

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