(123-06-16) Customs and Curiosities
Customs and Curiosities
Summary: Esme receives a visit from Oldtown's genial customs master, Lord Lars Costayne. He is of course a cheese customer, but with a twist.
Date: 19/06/123
Related: None

In the little red and yellow-painted grocery shop on the corner where the Shambles meets Oldtown Square, the morning flurry of delivery boys and baskets is in full swing; both shop girls are on deck, the green and the grey; and the front door hardly has time to shut before it's pushed open again by another small and hurried hand. The proprietress herself is clad in lurid red and blue stripes and crowned with her green headscarf with the tiny yellow polka-dots. Absorbed in checking each basket before it goes out to one of her far-flung customers throughout the city, she's less than usually attentive to the tinklings of the bell over her door — Lord Lars Costayne is over the threshold and several paces inside before she notices him, and then only because he's nearly mown down by one of her boys.

"… You little monkey, look where you're goin'!" she snaps, seizing him by his collar and administering rough justice by means of a clout upon his ear. … Not very rough, however, because Jon is her favourite despite all his transgressions. "There's no runnin' in my shop! Now, say you're sorry to his lordship, and beg his pardon," she demands, the intimation being that his collar will be retained until he does. The apology is forthcoming at once, but almost drowned out by orders given to Katla regarding the pork chops which ought to have been in the last basket Esme opened and weren't yet. Would Katla by any chance know where they are? … Oh, she would, would she? Good.

Esme releases the boy's collar and he gives vent to his natural sarcasm by means of an exaggeratedly slow walking pace the rest of the way to the front door. Meanwhile she runs a hand over her headscarf, tucking away a stray wisp of grey hair she finds in the process, and finds at last a distracted smile for someone who is, after all, an important customer and more besides. "Good mornin', Lord Lars, and what a mornin' we're havin'! I am sorry about that; I do my best but you know there's no tellin' some boys, is there," and she invites his sympathy, one authority figure to another, by means of an inclination of her head. "You'll've come about the cheese, eh?" she asks knowledgeably. Her paperwork is in order. She's certain of it.

“Entirely my fault for being in the way,” the Lord smoothes over, granting the girls and delivery boy an indulgent uncle sort of amused smile. He dusts off a single speck of dirt from his front, the only thing daring to mar his otherwise impeccably tidy appearance despite the clouds of dust kicked up outside by passing traffic. It’s as though even dirt doesn’t want to ruin his cheerfulness. “It’s lovely to see you as always, Esme. Is this a bad time, though? It’s really no trouble if you’d rather I came back later? Minor issues, only minor issues, you know how it is. I’m sure they can wait… oh, that looks marvellous Katla, I must come and buy some of those chops for my wife,” he adds as a basket hurries past him.

The girl Katla gives him a nervous smile. It’s been that sort of a morning.

Esme’s grey eyebrows lift at his minor issues. “It’s no trouble at all, your lordship,” she insists, albeit in a more subdued, more thoughtful tone, suggesting she’s a mite taken aback and wondering to herself what might be the matter. “If you can spare me just a minute to put things in order here — not that I've much hope of it, with these two dreamin' like cows in a field," she opens and shuts the lid of a passing basket by way of punctuation, and nods to Talia and Katla, who certainly appear to be hard at work with checklists, "I'll be right with you. I’m sure I wouldn’t like to leave any business you and I might have outstanding.” She nods earnestly. “… And then,” because she has a shop to run, two in fact, “p’raps we can see about some o’ those chops, if you think your lady would fancy them; we could send them right round, I’m sure.”

“Of course, of course,” Lars allows with a faintly effeminate wave of his hand. “I shouldn’t like to disturb you when you have so much business to contend with. Trade must be good, hm? I’m awfully pleased for you. It’s always nice to see an honest, hardworking woman doing well for herself.” He folds his hands behind his back, neatly stepping aside as another delivery is bundled past him, keen eyes taking in every inch of activity within the shop, every movement of the shop girls and the delivery lad, every crease of Esme’s lurid headscarf, and every precise gesture of her hands.

There’s nothing to see that Esme doesn’t show on purpose; only just such an honest, hardworking old woman, her hands wrinkled by time and callused by labour, her colourful garments just on the respectable side of threadbare, her temper being visibly, conscientiously held in as she spends another minute or two in dealing with her minions. She’s the queen bee of this little hive, fragrant with onions and spices and smoking bacon; in here, she has the same power as a great lady out there, even if she does drop a G or two every time she exercises it.

Then, with a last, “Oh, get along with you,” directed at another departing delivery boy, apropos of a half-hearted smack which misses the back of his head, she turns again to Lord Lars Costayne. “Shall we step in my back room, then, your lordship?” she asks, smoothing her apron, nodding towards the door at the back of the shop.

His consent obtained she holds the door for him, letting him precede her into that claustrophobic little chamber so full of boxes and crates and barrels and the paraphernalia of floor-scrubbing and window-washing that two people can hardly stand up together decently. In here the air is redolent of strong cheeses, several of which are set out upon a tray on the little table wedged into the corner, each wrapped in fine clean cheesecloth and only wanting to be loved.

Esme pulls the door to and with a nervous cough edges past Lord Lars to lean, as she often does, against that tiny corner table. A draw in it contains ragged quills, scraps of thriftily re-used parchment, odd keys and the detritus of years. “What seems to be the matter, your lordship?” she asks then, squinting up at him. “Have I made a mistake in my figures somewhere?” Hardly likely: the file he has on this shop and its proprietress, going back nearly three decades, betrays her unmistakably as a woman of great practical intelligence, with a head for numbers.

Lars's attention is drawn naturally to the cheeses, one delicate finger going to carefully pull back a corner of the cheesecloth to see the state and ripeness of the delicious, creamy cheese beneath. "Oh, no no no no no, nothing like that I assure you. I'd say this is a social visit, were it not for a teensy item of business I really must put to bed. You know how it is, dotting the Is and crossing the Ts. If this isn't spoken for, could I get a quarter of this to go with the chops?" he adds, folding the cheesecloth back over and giving the wheel of cheese a reverent look. "It looks absolutely delicious. Do you know a fellow called Franz? Captain of one of those southern boats."

The customs master is a frequent visitor, after all, to Esme's back room. Sometimes a cheese is just a cheese. Well-acquainted with his predilections she turns aside, letting him at the tray to which he is drawn as a moth to a flame: and she speaks the magic words.

"It ain't spoken for or I'd've had it out front," she reveals, affecting relief at his reassurances. "Franz, eh? Now, let me think a moment…" And she pinches the bridge of her nose, concentrating. "I reckon I know the name," she concedes, having had her moment, "but I can't put a face to it, nor name his ship. Might be I've heard talk of him round the docks — you know I go down two or three times a week to buy fish for my son so he can have a change. Or I might be thinkin' of somebody else… I'm startin' to think my memory's goin'," she confides, shaking her head as though she doesn't know what the world's coming to. "What’s this Franz been up to?" she inquires, inclining her head nearer — for she has in common with other women of her age and station, a great thirst for gossip.

Gossip might as well be Lars's middle name. As Esme's interest picks up, so Lars taps his fingers together, becoming more animated by the moment. "Well, he's an interesting sort of fellow, Esme. You'd think a Dornish captain would be bringing in all sorts of spices and bottles and exotic cloths, wouldn't you? I mean, I know you get a lot of your most wonderful spices from the south - speaking of which, did I thank you for that bottle? My wife adores it, absolutely adores it. Where was I?" He takes a moment to gather his thoughts, or at least give the appearance of it. Esme's too canny to dismiss the keen intelligence in his eyes, however, even when he's doing his best to appear a bumbling fool. "And yet he's put in to Oldtown with barely enough cargo to cover his journey here, he's still at the docks three days later, and not a single sign of fresh cargo to go aboard. Does that seem… a little odd to you? So I thought to myself, Lars, old fellow, I thought, let's go and see Esme and see if she knows anything about this fellow, and what exactly it is he might be waiting for." He gives Esme a brilliant smile at that, folding his hands once again behind his back.

The little shopkeeper stands with her arms folded over her chest and hangs upon his every word, nodding now and again, her black eyes intent upon his face, her curiosity innocent and plain to see. She assures him he's most welcome for the bottle — it's only traditional, isn't it, when importing foreign plonk, to make a gift of it to the customs master? — and then, as he goes on, she shakes her head and tsk-tsks. "That ain't no way to run a business," she agrees, "unless it's some other business he ain't s'posed to be runnin'." She bites her lower lip and appears to be thinking. "Shall I ask around for you, then?" she suggests, slowly, as though the idea is an exotic one she's trying on for size. "Quiet like? A lot of people come in my shop, one way and another, and talk over the counter… Might be I could find out somethin' from those as wouldn't feel so free to talk to a customs man, and a lord. You've got me curious now," she confesses, ducking her head; "I’d quite like to know what's goin' on."

"I'm sure the fellow's just fallen on hard times and is trying to find a decent cargo to take away with him now," Lars insists amiably. "I'd sleep more soundly in my bed if I knew that the chap had a hold full of something honest and legitimate to take away with him. If you do hear anything, I'd be eternally grateful if you could send word. If it's not too much trouble, that is, I know you're a busy woman. Or if there's some sort of cargo he's bringing that might have just slipped his mind, well, then I'm sure one of my chaps can go down there and they can have a good chuckle over it and get all the right paperwork filled in. It must be an easy thing to do, as a ship's captain, to let little things like forms and paperwork slip your mind. You'd know more than me, of course, wasn't your husband a seaman?" Again he flashes that guileless smile.

"Oh, of course, of course," agrees Esme, eyes twinkling at the customs master's sincere interest in the welfare of Oldtown's sea captains. "If I hear anythin' at all, I'll be sure to send word along," she promises; "I'm sure it's just as you say, though, and it'll straighten itself out soon enough — p'raps with a little help from your lads, to be sure."

At the mention of her late husband her arms unfold and her right hand wraps absent-mindedly about her left hand, where only a band of paler skin marks the place from which her wedding ring was lately removed. "Why, yes, he was," she remarks, mildly startled, mildly flattered that he's remembered; "not really a forgetful sort, mind you. He was the one taught me how to do the paperwork for your office, when we'd just opened the shops here," she nods in the direction of the grocery, and the butchery beyond, "and I was startin' to see about gettin' things in from our old acquaintances in Essos, just to give people a bit of variety now'n again — and to make sure he could have what he liked best for dinner," she chuckles. "He always did like foreign food."

"I'm sure you could teach me a thing or two about the paperwork, I confess," Lars notes with a chuckle, eyes drifting once again to the older woman's hands. "Really, they employ me because it looks good to have a Costayne on the roster, not because I'm particularly good at what we do. I rely completely on the goodwill of our captains and merchants, and am fortunate enough to be able to abuse my meagre authority to see where all the best goods are coming in that I might like to buy. You're always very good to me, for which I'm greatly appreciative. Things are well with you, I hope?" A very slight nod towards her finger. "Through choice, and not hardship, I trust?"

Though she's toying with the rings absence Esme's eyebrows lift in surprise when her visitor alludes to the lack of it. "What? Oh, the—" And she nods, and ducks her head, a trifle abashed by the question. "No, I ain't sold it, nor lost it," she explains diplomatically, looking up to meet his eyes again. "It's very kind of you to inquire, your lordship. I'm sure all of us doin' business in and out of the city are glad to have a gentleman of your standing in charge of customs — it may look good, but more'n that it is good," she says firmly. "Better'n the last fellow had your job, if you don't mind my sayin' so. We didn't suffer much here from what he got up to, but some of the folk we knew…" She breathes in noisily through her teeth. "Well, least said, soonest mended," she concludes.

"Well, I appreciate your time, and your help with the curious matter of Captain Franz," Lars insists, waving his hand as though that might dismiss any ill feeling left by his predecessor. "I'll try not to waste any more of your valuable time with these little trifles. What do I owe you for some of those delicious chops, now?" he asks, hand going to pull open his purse and begin to count out reassuringly solid coins.

Without pause for thought Esme names the price per chop, and then the cost of a quarter of the cheese, and then the total for a pair of chops and the cheese. Like all her prices they're just a trifle steeper than if one were buying from one of the lesser butchers along the Shambles, or off the back of a cart brought into the city by a local farmer. But then, in her establishment, one need have no qualms about the quality; and unlike the carts, it's always there… "You know I'd be most happy to open an account for you, your lordship," she reminds him, offering her work-worn palm for the coins; "I don't say that to just anybody, of course, not round here, but I'd have no fear with you, I surely wouldn't. It's no waste of my time, neither; I always like to know what's goin' on in the city, and I always like to see you. Leastways as long as you're not comin' on worse business," she chuckles, glancing once at the coins in her hand to count them, then squirreling them away in one of her jingling pockets.

"And then there's a record," Lars reminds her as his exquisite purse gets tucked away on his exquisite belt - this is not a man who dresses shabbily, "and then awkward questions come up as to why I buy from you and not from the chap down the street, and as much as I can say it's all about the quality, you just know there'll be some ruffian somewhere who chooses to make a thing of it, and then I end up having to buy from all our merchants equally and then where will I be? No, no, a few coins as and when means I never have to buy a maggoty steak or a threadbare hat, simply in the name of fairness. Besides, I do so much enjoy coming down here to see the bustling businesses. It makes a man feel genuinely proud of his work."

And Esme, who invariably ducks her head in receipt of personal compliments, looks quietly satisfied and smooths her apron again when it's her goods coming in for praise. "Well, nobody's goin' to be lookin' through my books but me and my girls, and they don't talk out of turn — there's only room for one chattering woman here, and that's me," she chuckles, "but as you like, your lordship, as you like. If there's nothin' else, shall I see about your cheese—?" For Esme has a deft hand with a cheese-wire. It is known.

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