I was invited by Amelia Smith to participate in a work-in-progress blog hop. I’ve written about Amelia and her “odd-jobs and adventures” approach to writing (from her Amazon central bio) before–her book Scrapplings, the first in the Anamat series, came out in the fall. She posted last week about the next book in the series, Priestess. You can read about it here.
For my part, I’d decided to post the beginning of Stargazy Pie, which I’m in the midst of editing, but discovered as I was figuring out where to stop my excerpt that I don’t like my new beginning very much. (So if it achieves nothing else, this has been an educational blog post for me!) Until I remedy my slow beginning, I am instead going to post a longish excerpt of two scenes from what is currently the second chapter (and was the initial first chapter … this is why I don’t usually post excerpts of my works-in-progress. I do a lot of back-end editing).
What you need to know from the first chapter is that Jemis Greenwing, our narrator, went to the bakery for a mid-morning snack and has just been given the cut direct by one of the local noblewomen, been creepily propositioned by an eccentric local wizard, and then found a fish pie left on the side of the town fountain. This is not making his first day at work go any better.
Excerpt from Chapter Two:
I believe that my employer, Mrs. Etaris of Elderflower Books, Ragnor Bella (duchy of Fiellan, kingdom of Rondé, the old imperial province of Northwest Oriole, Alinor, etc.), is the real person behind the ‘Modern Etiquette’ column in the New Salon. It’s not so much that she’s the starchiest woman I know—there are plenty of contenders for that title in Ragnor Bella alone—but she does have a remarkable gift for aggressive courtesy that suggests to me, at least, that she’s something more than just our local bookmistress. Mind you, I’d not been working there a day when I came to this thought, so I could well be mistaken.
Let me explain why I, a young gentleman of excellent education, am working in the bookstore of my home town, notoriously the least interesting place in Oriole.
Actually, no. Let me explain how. The reasons why I’m working there are complicated.
Mrs. Etaris knew my mother from back in the day, and my stepfather’s second wife from the Embroidery Circle, and must like her, for I’d not been back in town a day when Mrs. Buchance told me to dress like a solid respectable young burgher (in not quite those words) and report to Elderflower Books for a job interview.
There wasn’t much to be done about it. I’d been delayed returning to Ragnor Bella, and had missed both my stepfather’s funeral and the Midsomer Assizes. I’d intended to stay in town only as long as it took to read the will and confirm my lack of inheritance, but the law states that the will must be read in the presence of all named parties at one of the two assizes, and since we’d missed Midsomer we had to wait for Yuletide. Being a practical woman, Mrs. Buchance had had a room for me and a job lined up within six hours of my return to town.
I’d arrived back in Ragnor Bella on Tuesday: on Friday morning I went into the bookstore, ready for my new life as one of the working class. Mrs. Etaris smiled at my entry, waited while I hung my coat and hat on the coatrack, and then said, “Mr. Greenwing, if you would come over here—”
I couldn’t help it; I had to interrupt. “It’s Jemis, ma’am. In Morrowlea, the fashion is to call people by their first names. Even the professors.”
There was a short silence. At first I thought this was on account of my name, which has made more than one person take pause—though on second reflection Mrs. Etaris has long since had time to become accustomed to it—but no.
Mrs. Etaris looks like everyone’s upper form mistress: short, plump, fair-skinned, gingery hair, somewhat pretty in a middle-aged way, nothing out of the ordinary at all. She does have amazing posture, I’ll grant her that. We used to call her the Poker.
She said, “How egalitarian of them. We do not follow the southern fashions here, I’m afraid. If you’ll follow me to the back room, Mr. Greenwing, I’ll show you how we process incoming orders.”
The Etiquette Mistress, I tell you.
I spent that first morning learning where the different sections were, watching Mrs. Etaris deal with the few customers (none of whom I knew, and all of whom looked at me with more than mild surprise when Mrs. Etaris introduced me as her new assistant, Mr. Greenwing), and reading through The New Salon on a pretence of familiarizing myself with the critical book reviews (which I’d already read on the stagecoach across from Ghilousette) while actually trying to figure out whether the clue for Seventeen Down, Friends of ill repute, or Jospin’s Band (eleven letters), really was ‘a Red Company’, and, if so, what that implied, when Mrs. Etaris said, “Mr. Greenwing, I think it’s time for refreshments. Would you be so good as to step across to the bakery and acquire us something? Here’s a bee. You can choose the cake—but do be sure to bring back coffee as well. I’ve sugar and cream here, so bring a jug.”
“I should be delighted, Mrs. Etaris,” I replied, with a little bow.
And really, I should be.
When I came back in Mrs. Etaris had just put another piece of wood into the stove heating the four rooms comprising the bookstore. Her welcoming smile didn’t falter when I sprinkled water into the middle of the store when removing my coat; instead she took the jug of coffee so I could put the cinnamon buns down on the parcel table. She did blink twice at the pie.
“Thank you, Mrs. Etaris,” I said when I’d sorted myself.
“Thank you, Mr. Greenwing.” She paused. “I hadn’t realized Mr. Inglesides had started making, ah, savoury pies.”
We both stared at the pie. I sneezed twice, not very hard, and fished in my pocket for a clean handkerchief. Sniffles had become the background of my days after a bad cold last winter and a worse relapse in the spring, and I’d taken to carrying spares.
There were seven fish heads sticking out of the pie; the fish seemed to be grinning at our discomfiture.
“I didn’t get it at the bakery,” I responded after a moment. Fish heads! “Someone left it on the side of the fountain.”
“Oh? Whyever did you bring it in?”
I started sneezing again out of sheer embarrassment. I felt beet-red at the mere thought of Dominus Gleason. And Dame Talgarth putting me into my new place. I shook my head vigorously and returned to my purpose in going out, and set the cinnamon buns onto the counter beside her. “I’m afraid I sneezed on it. Here’s your change, Mrs. Etaris.”
She accepted the coins with a sudden air of distraction. “Did you indeed, Mr. Greenwing?”
I blushed a bit harder. Mrs. Etaris hadn’t made much comment on my sneezing fits, even when the bowl of carnations she’d had on the counter that morning (“To cheer me up in this run of grey days,” she’d said) had made me sneeze so hard she’d had to remove them from the premises before I could even begin trying to make a good impression. “I thought I shouldn’t leave it there,” I muttered, “and I didn’t know what the person in the grey cloak was doing.”
“Oh? Oh!” She laughed, obviously entirely unconcerned about possible random acts of poisoning. “How curious!” Mrs. Etaris poured out the coffee, but just as I joined her in the comfy chairs she jumped up again and strode over to the shelf of cookbooks. “I’m sure I’ve read about this sort of pie before. You didn’t see who left it there, did you?”
I glanced at the pie. The crust was a rich burnished gold, as beautiful a pie as I’d ever seen—except for the fish heads sticking up out of the party. And tails. There were tail fins sticking out, too. I swallowed. “No … Dominus Gleason was crossing the square, and a stranger in a grey cloak … Dame Talgarth and her sister were in the bakery, but I left before them.”
“Well, no matter.” She cocked her head at the bookcase tucked beside the door to the second room. “I don’t think you’ve had a chance to look through the cookery shelves yet, have you?”
I might as well do the thing properly, I thought, and brought her coffee over. “No, Mrs. Etaris. How are they arranged?”
“Badly,” she sighed, pulling out Household Hints of Mont-Brisou-of-the-Snows and replacing it next to Fanciful Dishes of the Lesser Arcady. “At one point I had them by region, but people kept asking for them by type of food, and then I received half the library of the Honourable Mrs. Waverley, who collected cookbooks for fifty years, and my previous assistant put them on the shelves all higgedly-piggedly, and everything got even worse out of order.”
She considered the shelves for a moment. This was the first I’d heard about a previous assistant. I wondered who it had been and what had happened for him not to be there any longer, apart from being bad at sorting books.
“Perhaps you might spend some time next week re-arranging them.”
“Yes, Mrs. Etaris.”
She sipped her coffee, then sneezed delicately as a soft cloud of dust rose up out of Vegetable Entrées of the Farry March.
“The Lady preserve you,” I said solemnly, backing up a step, but the dust didn’t set me off again. At Morrowlea we’d started to say … well. Not that little piety. I’d gone through a period of nasal congestion (so the physicker called it) last winter, and my friends instituted a kind of competition for what to say, which rather took off, as the sensitivity to whatever-it-was, alas, continued.
I winced away from the thought of a particular young lady who’d led the teasing, arm wrapped fondly around mine, laughing over books and ideas and the endless witty conversation that followed them both. I’d promised myself I’d stop thinking about that when I returned to Ragnor Bella, once I finally got the spring’s horrible influenza—apart from the lingering sniffles and propensity for sneezing—and companion headaches, aching bones, utter lack of appetite, and all out of my system, and was able to think straight. More or less. Sometimes I felt I hadn’t been able to think straight since leaving Morrowlea.
“Thank you, Mr. Greenwing. Now … let me think … well, we might as well use this as an example of doing research for a customer. Who would have fish pies?”
I forced my thoughts back to the matter at hand. “Coastal areas? Fiella-by-the-Sea?”
“I was raised there, I’m sure I should have heard of a pie like this.” Then she stopped and smiled ruefully. “Not that that helps with our hypothetical researcher, does it?”
“Good thinking. Could you step on the ladder and see what’s on that higher shelf, please? I believe there are several Ghilousetten works out of Harktree there. Next to the one with the orange cover.”
Mrs. Etaris is not the shortest woman in Ragnor Bella. People usually—or at least used to—say that distinction goes to Red Bess over at the Green Dragon, although then again it’s not very polite to mention Red Bess over at the Green Dragon, so I didn’t share my thoughts with Mrs. Etaris—I just climbed up the brass ladder and pulled down the top-shelf cookbooks.
While I was lunging after one on the far side of the shelf the shop door opened. I jerked in surprise at someone crying, “Halloo the house!” in a huge voice, and nearly toppled off the ladder onto Mrs. Etaris, but was caught by someone with strong hands amidst a gust of air smelling like wet wool and stable muck. A big buoyant laugh followed.
“Steady there, man! You’ll crush the bookmistress if you light on her!”
I caught my breath and relaxed my death grip on the cookbooks, which Mrs. Etaris probably cared for more than whether or not she’d be crushed if I fell on her, given the care with which she took them from me. In the middle of the store, filling the space between the main shelves and the inglenook, stood a large young man.
My age—twenty-one or -two—he was tall and broad-shouldered and had dark blond hair done up in the curling Beaufort style that in Morrowlea said dandy and in Ragnor Bella old money. He wore hunting breeches in a scarlet that must have been bought before the Fall, since I’d not seen anything that splendid a colour in the haberdashers of the Rondelan duchies on my tour. He had quite tremendously muscular thighs.
I blinked up from his mud-spattered boots, which raised enormous envy in me—I’d never be able to afford riding boots of that quality, any more than the horse that would go with them—past the hunting dagger at his belt with its gold hiltinset with red carbuncles, and up to where he was beaming at Mrs. Etaris with an expression between affable pleasure and amused befuddlement.
“Now, what did I come in here for?” he demanded to himself, and finally I recognized him. The expression had not been anything like I remembered from four years past, nor the clothes, and he seemed to have put on about fifty pounds of musculature. I suppose I’d grown some while away at university, too, though nowhere near that much. “Gadsbrook! It’s gone straight out of me head.”
Mrs. Etaris smiled at him. “Would you like a cup of coffee while you consider, Master Ragnor? Mr. Greenwing, would you fetch another cup, please?”
There was a pause—I was obviously going to have to get re-accustomed to them—and then: “Mr. Greenwing!” said the Honourable Master Roald Ragnor, heir to the barony, with hearty amazement. “I didn’t see your face as you toppled off the ladder! When did you get back from Morrowlea?”
“Earlier this week,” I replied, and, at a glance from Mrs. Etaris, added, “sir.” Then I did my little bow and went into the back room.
I returned to find him lounging in my chair (well, all right, it was the chair for customers) and poking at the pie with the tip of his dagger. Mrs. Etaris was flipping through the indices of cookbooks, looking, I supposed, for a recipe for fish pie. I passed the Honourable Master the cup and started through another pile of them.
“You found this on the lip of the fountain, I hear?” he said, with another booming laugh. “Just laying there?”
I wondered what he’d ended up taking at Tara. Not that I’d dare ask if he didn’t tell me … Probably half the town knew. He didn’t look like he’d learned to keep secrets in his time away; quite the opposite. (Tara being the oldest and best university in the whole world (they vaunted, in all the Nine Worlds), people aren’t exactly discreet that they went there, whether they got in by money or talent.) I shrugged. “Someone was leaning over it. I couldn’t see whether they’d left it there or were just curious.”
“Didn’t think to ask? Pretty girl, was it?”
“Someone in a cloak. Sir.”
“Now that’s an old-fashioned style.” He patted his exceedingly to-the-mode riding coat, which was as beautifully tailored as the rest of his clothing, sleek and slimming and black as a beetle. A jewelled gold ring he wore on his signet finger caught the light in the facets of its red stones. “Not much use out riding in a wind, cloaks. What did you get up to in Morrowlea? Hunt much?”
There was a whole history in that question, one I’d prefer not to bring up. I tried to keep my voice level. “We preferred other activities. Sir.”
“It was all falconry up in Tara,” he said, “but up in the mountain estates there was good game—”
Mrs. Etaris made a soft exclamation, and we both looked at her. “My apologies for interrupting you, Master Roald. I’ve found a Ghilousetten recipe for a fish pie of this description.”
“Heads and all?” said the honourable baron’s son, sticking the tip of his knife into one of the eyes and drawing it out. He considered it for a moment. The eye was a horrible white orb with a squamous glitter. I could smell eggs and bitter saffron under the fishiness, which didn’t help my stomach any; nor my nose. Although I wasn’t altogether unhappy that having to suppress another attack of sneezes prevented me from explaining why he might not want to eat any of it.
Master Ragnor popped the eye into his mouth and crunched down on it happily before plucking out the next. “Want one?”
“No, thank you,” I managed.
“Gone squeamish, have you?”
“Stargazy Pie,” Mrs. Etaris said. “Calling for pilchards, saffron, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes …”
I swallowed another mouthful of coffee. Master Ragnor had muck on his fancy boots and had tracked it all over the floor of the bookstore and onto the rug laid before the wood stove. I’m sure it never once would occur to him to worry about such things. I probably wouldn’t have, either, before Morrowlea.
He swallowed another fish eye with every evidence of pleasure. “These ain’t pilchards, Mrs. E. Any fisherman could tell you they’re herring.”
Alice Degan is next up on the tour. She’s an academic, a novelist, and an Anglo-Catholic, with degrees in English, Shakespeare, and Medieval Studies. She currently has out a series of urban fantasy stories set in present-day Toronto and a novel of metaphysics and romance set in 1925 Toronto, From All False Doctrine. You can find her blog here.