(123-06-24) Among the Cheeky Monkeys
Among the Cheeky Monkeys
Summary: Esme and Viola both suffer greatly from being obliged to superintend boys. They fight back as best they can, which is quite well indeed.
Date: 24/06/2016
Related: None

The red and yellow grocery shop on the corner where Oldtown Square meets the Shambles is a hive of activity this morning. Mistress Esme is delivering an impromptu lecture on cleanliness (spoiler: it's next to godliness) to half a dozen delivery boys gathered in a half-circle between her and the door and all of them itching to get away (one of them just plain itching). Some of them are as tall as she is, in her plain brown leather sandals and her green and orange striped dress and her appallingly yellow headscarf; she nonetheless manages to convey the impression of a general addressing troops before battle.

Meanwhile a shop girl up a ladder (Katla) is passing down the contents of a top shelf to a shop girl at ground level (Talia, the new one, who always wears grey — it's said that young as she is, she's a widow), preparatory to putting to use the bucket of soapy water and the scrubbing brush waiting nearby.

Esme's wagging finger singles out the boy who's scratching; "You," she declares, "can give your basket to Ned and don't you let me set eyes on you again till you've had a good wash. Good mornin', Mistress Viola," for her speech was interrupted by the tinkling of the bell over her door, and all at once as she looks up to see who has come in her hectoring air segues into a warm, professional welcome. Then she glances again at her captive audience. "Go on! Off with you!" And she shakes her apron at the lads; and they scarper. One or two cast curious glances at Viola. The others are just glad to get away. It's the last run of the morning and after this lot of baskets've been delivered, they'll be left to their own dreadful devices for a few hours.

"Now, what c'n I do for you?" Esme inquires of her new customer.

Restless boys with a job to do that they aren't doing is a plague today, it would seem, for one such young soul has accompanied Viola into the shop. Like the woman, he's clad in simple servant's clothes that feature the a dull green; unlike his elder, however, his are not so fastidiously clean and pressed, and are plainer still. The mark of a servant even less likely to be glimpsed by noble eyes than Viola.

"… in the Square an' look at the gods-damned stalls instead've tripping over my feet another second, you daft fool," she's telling him before she gets around to replying to the shopkeeper. A deep salt-of-the-earth voice, full of the murk and green of the Riverlands … rough about the edges, but not unkind, all told. There's that crinkle around her aging eyes that's too far removed from cruelty. Reasonably tired, more like. Anybody ought to be tired if they had Viola's job, particularly when it comes with a fresh and dopey servant boy getting himself more underfoot than anything else. He scurries off, becoming one with the departing herd of delivery boys. She casts a sharp eye over her shoulder as she approaches the counter. "I don't know whether to count myself lucky or unlucky if he disappears with the lot o' them," she says as much to herself as Esme. "Floundering as a newborn babe, that one. I've my suspicions about where he came from." The dangling sentence that has the distinct tone of hearsay, however, that definitely was to Esme.

Usually, it is a servant beneath Viola — but far higher than the aforementioned boy — that sees to the household orders, besides the kitchen, which (theoretically) organizes itself. And usually, there comes an eventual time that she's decided they've done it all wrong. When you want something done right… "I've brought the list this time," she says, plucking a literal scrap of rolled parchment out of the pocket of her dress. "You'd think they rewrite the bloody thing on the walk over from Garden Isle."

By now Esme has bustled back behind her counter, not to sit upon her high wooden stool but to stand attentively by — for House Tyrell is an important customer, its senior branch at any rate (we don't discuss Little Bellhorn Holdfast), and it isn't the passing trade from the square or even the bits and pieces that go out in baskets which puts bread on her table and then proceeds to butter it, oh no. She smooths her apron and leans forward in her most commiserating manner to accept the scrap, which she then holds carefully between her work-worn hands. "If there's been trouble with your orders lately, Mistress Viola, I'm right sorry to hear it," she apologises in a hush, her gaze running over the list and then flicking up to the younger woman's face. "You know I'm always honoured by House Tyrell's custom and any request from Garden Isle I see to as quick as I can. But, ech," and, chewing her lower lip, she set down the bit of parchment on her side of the counter, "one or two o' those lists lately… They ain't quite been what I'd usually have expected…" She trails off and tilts her head, quietly speculating.

"Oh, you know how it is," Viola says with a shrug of one broad shoulder, her eyes — that blue that isn't quite wholly blue — kind, exempting the hard-working shopkeeper from any wrongdoing. "Someone gets to thinking they know what'd be better — for them. Not stoppin' to even consider it puts the whole system out of sorts and makes more work for someone else." Her, without a doubt. Even so, her complaint isn't as bitter as it could be. It's ingrained, old hat. She waves one of her own work-worn hands and gives the counter two quick solid jabs with her pointer finger beside the list, tap tap!! "This is what's what, this time and the next — well," she gives a bit of a dramatic scoff in her throat, "unless there's another shake-up at Garden Isle. I'll run over and tell you myself if something changes."

"I'll bear that in mind," says Esme respectfully, turning her gaze down again upon Viola's excellent list and awarding it another judicious nod of her head, "and I'll not fill any order that don't come direct from you, Mistress Viola. At least not till I hear otherwise, eh? … I'm sorry somebody's been makin' a muddle of your arrangements," she adds in sympathetic tone, one aproned despot to another; "I reckoned it must've been quite a shake-up, that led to you folk needin'—" And she pinches the bridge of her nose and quotes the last shopping list she received ostensibly from Viola, which begins innocuously enough, but winds toward an unlikely conclusion including a few small bits and pieces the housekeeper herself may never have set eyes upon.

Viola gives a "ha!" that is both deep and sharp. "Aye, you've got that right. That was roundabout the time the whole slew of Tyrells and Merryweathers flooded in to keep us all busy. A clever enough time to slip a little something onto the list, but those kids weren't long realizing they can't pull the wool over my eyes." Keen eyes they are, too. The other servants are likely to hear a repeat scolding from Viola, now that Esme has filled in some blanks. "A shame they're too harebrained not to try it again." The housekeeper is in no hurry to be in and out of the shop, taking to lean against the counter sideways with one elbow. She points a finger casually at Esme. "Count your blessings you can pick and choose your own shop girls."

Esme makes an appalled face at this revelation. "Cheeky little monkeys—!" she exclaims. "I wish now I'd thought to question it, but as it happens I did hear somethin' about Garden Isle havin' a lot o' guests — I reckoned anythin' out of the ordinary, that'd be for them, or for the betrothal party or what not. And the list came by the usual lad, too, and it looked like your writin' — I reckon you've got someone in your servants' hall who's been studyin' your hand," she prophesies darkly. "You might want to look into that. Ooh, I do thank the Seven I'm my own mistress here, and there's no word above my own. I hire 'em as I please and dismiss 'em as I please, too," she adds appreciatively, "and just knowin' it helps keep 'em in line."

"One a' these days," Viola vows off-handedly. One of these days, she'll do the hiring and firing all herself. She's a hair's breadth away from it now, and she has a hearty influence, but there's always higher. Certainly, she has the look, the demeanour, of someone in charge. "He'll be lucky he has a hand to plagiarize with next time," she thinks back on the lad and threatens. "Ought to start writing in code, see what he makes've it then," she jokes with a laugh as hearty and salty as her voice, right from the belly.

"One o' these days," agrees Esme, because that's what you always say to anyone hoping to set up in business for themselves. You say it to some of them right till they're on their deathbeds. And then: the idea of coded shopping lists may be brought up in jest, but Esme doesn't laugh. "… We could," she agrees mildly, drumming her fingertips behind the counter. "That'd show your lads you're a mite too clever for their tricks, wouldn't it—?"

The smile cast across Viola's mouth is still one of easy (if sly) jest; when Esme agrees, however, it turns truer, brighter, only to simmer into a grin. "Look who's clever now, Mistress Esme," she directs at the shopkeeper, amused. Her gaze becomes acute, and when cleverness dances in her eyes they seem just a tinge darker, more violet than blue, a trick of the light. "I reckon you've a whole ledger of ciphers behind that counter, eh then?"

Esme's eyes widen and she lets out a scandalised chuckle. "Really, Mistress Viola," she laughs, scarf flashing yellow as she shakes her head, "what do you think I'm sellin' here—?" But before they can delve any further into such questions the bell sounds once more; and what she sells, at least this time, is a pound of flour and half a dozen tallow candles. A paltry enough transaction which she treats as though it were serious business indeed, weighing the flour with care, marking it down to the account of the child's mother, and sending him on his way again with an injunction to pass along her best regards.

Then she turns again to Viola, with a distracted air. "Now, what was I… oh, yes." She snaps her fingers. "I just reckoned we could work out somethin' or another to confuse your lads," she confides. "Can't be too difficult, when we've such a wealth of experience between us, and they're just a pack of cheeky little monkeys what ought to know better and don't yet."

Viola watches — again keenly, with an apprising eye for Esme's fastidiousness with the customer — while keeping well out of the way. "Oh, sure, sure," she agrees then, sidling back up to the counter she'd briefly stepped away from. "Sounds like almost a waste've effort on the likes've them, but it'd be worth it to teach 'em a lesson." She gives another hearty laugh, this one lower, the scheme putting her in higher spirits. "All the more f'only I could see their faces when they read it." Her eyes narrow, and she scratches beneath her chin. "No, it has to be the one lad. There ain't many can read let alone copy my hand."

"Well, if he makes any good faces while he's in my shop, I'll be sure to tell you after," promises Esme, by way of consolation. "It's good you know which one — saves accusin' the rest unjustly, too." She takes a step to the side and bends down behind her counter and soon produces two squares of parchment, much more neatly trimmed than Viola's scrap, but each of them having been thriftily scraped clean that they might be written upon a second time.

"Here, let me think for a minute," she says, unscrewing the lid of a dented tin inkwell and setting both pieces down next to the parchment. "I don't know if you'n'I've ever talked of anythin' so personal like, but as it happens my late husband," whose ring has vanished from her left hand since last Viola came into the shop, leaving only a band of paler skin to mark what was its place for nearly thirty years, "was a ship's captain, once. He sometimes had need of sendin' a private message about trade and the like, and I remember he told me…" She has by now a ratty-looking quill in her hand; she waves it vaguely. "Somethin' about all this. I'm sure I can remember if I think for a minute."

"I didn't even know you were ever married until now," Viola replies in an easygoing, gruff-around-the-edges kind of way that seems to be one of the servant's default states. The smile she flashes has a reassuring tinge, for one reason or another. "A ship's captain, hunh? I met a good deal of those in my day." She rests her forearm on the counter and leans just enough to watch Esme's quill in mild anticipation. She waves her hand on and off of the counter. "I learned a trick from a lady at the Dun Fort. Used to send letters to her lover — a knight in King's Landing, he was. They'd be innocent as a peach on the outside, nothing but pleasant 'n' dull enough to bore a person to tears, but it was all bullshit," she's happy to report. "Double meanings. That's where the juicy part was."

The ratty-looking quill begins to write, but nothing of very great interest. The alphabet, in two columns, the second filled in with the weights and measures in which Viola most commonly orders provisions for the Garden Isle Manse. On the second piece of parchment, why, Esme writes just the same.

Meanwhile she's nodding along with the other woman's tale; her brow just barely furrows into a wince at the earthy language, but she lets it pass. Good customers hath their privileges. "Aye, well, I was," she says placidly, "till eleven years ago when he passed over, Seven keep him. He'd had a ship of his own, before," her gaze lifts upon that significant word, "but one thing and another… He was the butcher here, and now it's our son." She also lets pass the question of where Viola supposed she came by a son without being married. "I reckon there must be plenty o' people of one kind or another who have need of sendin' word privately now and again, even if it's only to flummox a naughty boy," she muses. Then she regards her two pieces of parchment — inscribed identically in her own small, neat hand — and moves them farther apart so that she can write on the left-hand one without smudging the right-hand one, and begins to write in… different weights and measures. Absurd ones. Half a dozen now equals half a hundred. A pound is now fourteen pounds. An order made out according to such a scheme would surely make any thinking boy blush to recite it, and realise the joke was on him.

"Would you look at that," Viola murmurs appreciatively over the ridiculous numbers. "Seven thank your husband for his gumption, Seven rest his soul, that is clever. Ha!" She slaps the counter lightly and stands up straighter, pleased as can be; the laugh-lines around her mouth appear particularly etched-in. "Well, I have to say, Mistress Esme, I've never looked forward to the household to running out of essentials more." It's the little things.

Esme is now, slowly and with a degree of concentration suggested by the pressing of her narrow lips together, and the focused gaze of her dark eyes, mixing up the letters as well as the measures. "Patience, now," and she looks up again, flicking Viola a warm, motherly smile. "Or I could leave you a wee bit short with your next delivery, if you'd rather not wait, eh? The lords and ladies won't go short of anythin'," she hastens to assure her, because professionalism is all, "but you an' I'll have our fun a mite sooner."

Viola chuckles, warm to the idea. "Be sparse on a variety, that way the lad'll think he has a better chance of confusin' the list," she suggests. She keeps a close eye on Esme's figures, although at this point, it's out of curiosity more than study.

There's a small clamber outside the door as the boy who'd been so underfoot — not the guilty party, as it happens — stomps his way inelegantly to the threshold of the grocery. "Look who didn't get lost in the Sound. I'll be out in a minute," Viola announces with at least partly contrived impatience, waving him out as soon as he's in. He stomps prompty back out.

Whilst Viola is dealing suitably with her hanger-on, Esme puts the finishing touches upon the second copy of this very simple cipher key. Then, she explains it. "See, you write out some of 'em in plain words with a funny amount," she waves her quill over the weights and measures at the bottom right, "and then throw in a few with the letters changed so as to make new words the boy won't understand. But I'll know what you mean on account of I've got the other copy o' this." She favours Viola with a conspiratorial smile and draws towards herself the right-hand copy, which has yet the wettest ink. "And I'll make sure you run low on— ooh, all sorts of things," she promises faithfully, "and I'll be sure to put aside what you'll need to make up just so's nothin' goes wrong. These lads, they need a lesson every so often," she agrees, tucking the quill away and reaching for the lid of the ink-well, "but I'd not like you to get into any bother whilst you're teachin' it."

Viola nods over the cipher, seeming to grasp the idea of it straight away, perhaps before it's been fully explained; she smiles as she looks it over again, clearly still getting a kick out of it. "I wouldn't be keen on the idea if I didn't trust your good business sense." She gives the shopkeeper a wink. "I'd like to think they'll be better for it down the line," she says of the lads, although it's on the wistful side. She doesn't put tremendous faith in their ability to retain lessons, but their loss is the housekeeper's gain. In amusement. " She takes her fancy new cipher key, flaps the parchment about a bit to dry up any hints of still-damp ink, rolls it up neatly, and tucks it away where her list came from, never to be so much as glimpsed by any servant boy. "Well, on we go, time to soldier on," she says through a sigh, turning toward the door and thus to the next set of errands for Garden Isle. "Good day to you, Mistress Esme!"

"And a good day to you, too, Mistress Viola," says Esme sincerely, feeling she has done her part in the war against cheeky monkeys. "Mind how you go, eh? And I'll be seein' you again before long, I trust," she chuckles.

As her bell sounds Viola's departure she takes up her own copy of the code, holding it carefully by one corner; a whimsical smile creeps over her face as she re-reads those little letters and numbers. Oh, yes, that'll do it.

Disclaimer: No NPCs were callously forgotten during the playing of this scene. They were just cleaning the entire time. Yes. That’s it.

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