(123-10-03) Old Acquaintances, Anew
Old Acquaintances, Anew
Summary: Esme finds an old acquaintance in her shop. Someone she's known since he was just a lad…
Date: 03/10/2016
Related: None!

The facade of the grocery shop on the corner where Oldtown Square meets the Shambles was repainted not long ago: its familiar colours glow brighter than ever. It has also been enlivened (you'd hardly have thought it possible) by a pair of striking striped windowboxes on the second floor. The wider stripes are blue and orange. The narrower stripes have undertaken to fill in most of the rest of the rainbow, except (for some unknowable reason) pink and purple.

It's mid-morning on a warm summer's day and the windows are open to a curtain-ruffling breeze which sets blindingly white muslin all a-flutter. The proprietress herself is standing in one of these windows, on slug patrol, peeking beneath the leaves of her basil and sage and rosemary, holding back lavender flowers with gentle fingers, and cautiously touching even the soil itself to see what's going to want watering and when. She at least is unchanged to the casual eye, in a dress of orange and green stripes which seems to have faded with her shop's brightening, a scarf which appears green at any distance (but grows tiny and magical yellow polka-dots as one comes nearer) protecting her grey hair from that cheeky wind coming down Beacon Boulevard.

She keeps one eye on the people and animals passing through the square below her. (Really, as an observation post the windowboxes are so useful she wishes she'd thought of them herself, years ago.) Cows and chickens coming to their deaths, industrious hawkers motivated by the scent of baking bread and the hope of a good meal tonight, her neighbours going about their usual routines, the servants of the mighty coming shopping with wide-open purses. Esme knows all the regular denizens of her square by sight — knows, often, their names, their worries, and their secrets. What's usual, her sharp little dark eyes filter out. What's new to her, she studies with discreet fascination.

A man is pacing his way through the Shambles — a soldier, tall and rangy, with coal-black hair. He's wearing the armor of some noble House not often seen in Hightower, a minor Reach House. An axe and longknife hang from his belt. His beard is somewhat lighter than his hair. And there are other indicators — his brows are gingery, for one.

For another, the soldier does a slow loop of the Shambles, taking in the sights, perhaps. Or perhaps he's scoping out whether or not he's being followed. He carries a simple rucksack on his shoulder, and the way he moves hints that fighting as a soldier ought — with a shield, in a line — is not his way. There's a grace to this figure.

He pauses just below the butcher's shop, looking up at the second story window for a long few moments. Longer than he's looked anywhere else. And then he steps inside, smiling just slightly. The soldier browses downstairs in silence, keeping his head down.

It's the walk which draws Esme's eye first, and the dissonance between his easy, graceful steps and that cheap armour blazoned with the two-headed pelican of House Dunn. An immediate candidate for further study from beneath her lowered eyelashes as she waters her rosemary from a plain wooden cup brought with her to the window and left on the sill, just in case. She hums to herself, exhibiting no interest at all in that man passing by, or any other; oblivious, or so you'd think, to the scrutiny offered her in return.

It just happens that as he turns to enter her shop, she leaves her window empty. Taking the cup, lest her sharp turn about seem anything but the sign of her high-altitude gardening being finished for the nonce.

Seconds later she comes in through the butchery, nudging the door open before her whilst her hands are busy tying a clean white apron about her waist. She goes up to the counter as though it were her only aim, resting a hand on the edge of it as she calls upon the girl on the other side to satisfy her curiosity as to whether she's finished copying those orders into the book. (The girl is pleased to be in the position of answering with a truthful 'yes'.)

Then, catching sight of the soldier, she greets him as she would any other customer: "Good day to you, goodman, and what can we do for you on this fine mornin'?" She takes a step or two nearer to where he's browsing amongst the onions and affects a mild and pleased surprise; "Why, aren't you— aren't you Ned and Jessy's lad?" she asks him, all grandmotherly interest. "The second boy, what went for a soldier…?" Whether or not he confirms this, she beams as though he did. "You've the look of your da, all right — how are they gettin' on since they went up Ashford way, d'you know? D'you have a minute to talk?" she asks eagerly. Just another friendly old shopkeep looking for gossip.

"Why, Miss Esme! I wasn't even sure you'd be around anymore, it's been so many years." The Dunn soldier smiles hugely, showing just a touch too many teeth — it's something he can't help, really. He considers the older woman for a moment, then looks past her to the younger. And his eyes flash briefly as he takes in that pretty young frame. But he's quick to return his attention to Esme.

"For you, madam, I've all sorts of time. M'lord sent me in as a courier. Nothing urgent, now that the task's complete." The lean, graceful soldier hesitates, making a show of looking around for the stairs. "Da's doing well, but I hate t'say it, madam, Ma just isn't well. She misses the city, like."

A brief sigh, and the man reaches up to run a hand through his hair — but he stops himself, looking down at his palm before reluctantly lowering it again.

Esme listens, rapt, murmuring something about his being very kind to an old woman; then she makes a sad little clucking noise. "Ah, well," she says sympathetically, "some country folk don't take to the city, and some city folk don't take to the country, either, I s'pose. I know I'd not like to live on a farm," she confides, as though it were a great character failing of hers, "even for good fresh eggs and plenty o' cheese! … I remember," and now she's giving the soldier an appraising up-and-down look, "you never used to turn up your nose at a slice of my steak and kidney pie. Would you like to—?" And she gestures toward the connecting door to the butcher's shop next door, beyond which there's another door leading to the staircase he can't find.

"I've never forgot your steak-and-kitchen pie." The lean soldier smiles as he peers through the connecting door. But there's something else in his expression, a just barely-noticeable hint of wariness that Esme, who knows him so well, would detect but that no one else would've been able to spot. It's the new locale, certainly. "I cannot tell you how much a slice'a that would mean. It's like coming back home after all these years." And he's setting off toward the staircase as though the gesture were an invitation.

"Oh, bless you." A parting word for her shop girl, and Esme rushes after her young friend, somehow managing to get ahead of him to open the door to the stairs, and then falling behind again to shoo him up into the flat above. "It's always such a treat," she's saying as she shuts the door behind them, cutting off their conversation from the bustling butchery and any listeners therein; "to hear all about people's news after a long time…"

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