Friday, February 25, 2011

Another Winter

We have been here and away much this season. I have lost track of Miss Ama while we were settling into the aftermath of the battle with the monster in the bay. I find reports for Doamnă from Miss Ama on how Mr Antfarm is doing, and some on Dr Beck which make no sense to me, but make Doamnă snap pens. I started ordering the steel barrel pens for her.

Then the news from home that Doamnă’s younger sister had passed away. I had never met Lady Alexandra, as she had been living in hospitals as long as I have been with the family. Travelling back to the schloss was not a happy occasion. Doamnă’s grandmother was not behaving any better to her, and even hosted a tea scheduled during the memorial services. There was nothing that would have excited scandal, as Doamnă ignored the snub. I don’t know why the Old Bat is so hateful.

Back in Steelhead, the same ocean that kept the city tolerable in the summer is an open space for the winds to whip through with a frenzy. Bitterly cold weather is nothing new to me, but it does have a depressing effect on the clerks I work with. Even so, I’ll admit I’m tired of being cold.

I am also learning to be patient. My Beloved leaves me notes to let me know he is well, and that he misses our brief times together. I hope to look forward to at least a little time with him, if my duties permit. And we still need to properly introduce him to Doamnă.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Problems Escalate

Oh, where to begin - I suppose where the concierge of the hotel woke us with tea and pastries, just after 6 o’clock. “Good morning, sir and miss. Please be assured you both still have your heads.” Not a hint of censure, and a little bit of humor, served with breakfast. Even fully dressed, it was a night spent together, and I blushed a bit as Perun smiled down at me. “You could have gone up to your room, my heart. No need for you to be so uncomfortable.”

I shrugged, “I was so comfortable I dinna remember falling asleep.” and handed him a cup. It seemed silly to be so nervous about the night, in the morning with sun streaming in the windows. Perun stayed only for one cup, and then dashed out of the lobby. I thanked the concierge for his kindness before going up to my room to prepare for the day. The though struck me as I left my room to meet the others traveling to the office, I had not told Perun of the ring again.

Reports have been coming in from all over, and I helped transcribe some of the ones written in Romanian to English, for the Baron to share with the sheriff and managers. The dreams are related, heralding something that was fond of heads. I got to read bits of Madame Kitlalmina’s report, and if I thought things were uncanny before, this made my head hurt. My higher maths are in accounting, but this looked like the figures and formulae that the madboys use in the reports to the Baron. A little bit of physics here, and something here that was like the formula for compounding interest, but the period shortened by a regular interval? It made no sense to me, I hoped the Baron would get better use of it.

The report from the Quester made a little more sense to me. They found fingerprints in the tar, but is seems they were mostly people poking at the graffiti. Measuring the height from the ground to the angle of the brushstrokes (more formulas here, but not as arcane as Madame Kitlalmina’s) showed the person to be a certain height. The footprints in the soft ground (where it was preserved) were for a rather large man, size-wise, but his weight did not seem to be steady, the calculations showed that the person had been losing weight from the first of the findings to the most recent ones.

The rumors were bad as well, there were a few more people reported missing, and the hysteria in certain quarters made it dangerous to travel there even in daylight. The terrace district of Shanghai was marginally safe, but the docks were not to be dared without a full patrol.

Later that evening, Perun dropped by to let me know he found the ring in his waistcoat pocket. “Sorry to disturb you, my heart. I just had to thank you for your gift.” He did seem better for the rest, but there were still dark circles under his eyes, just barely visible through his goggles.

“I hope you do not think it was forward of me to give you the ring, but I ... erm... I asked one of the uncanny ones at the office to ... help.” I had a sudden thought and paled, ducking my head to hide it. What if he refused help from that sort?

“Mo cridhe, I gave you a ring, and that was forward. I hardly think,” then he paused, catching what I had said, “ of the uncanny ones?”

“Well, she does a lot of investigating work with Madame Kitlalmina, and when I told her I was worried about you, she said she would make a shield for you like the rest of the staff,” I was suddenly not so sure of myself, and focused on the floor, “...I mean, with everybody having nightmares except for the sisters and suchlike.”

He took some time to digest the news. “Ah, so - this is something ... supernatural? The problem and the cure?”

I nodded, “Doamnă says that's the leading theory. Since it has been working so far... you aren't angry, are you?"

Thankfully, he seemed surprised, “Angry? How can I be angry with you, my heart? I may not understand it, but I do believe that there are things we can't explain. And that your gift has helped me sleep, I cannot deny!”

“I - I didn't think about it might go against your beliefs, just that... I was worried.” I was still staring at my toe, twisting a hole in the floor in my nervousness. “...just wanted you to be a little safer.”

He gently raised my chin with one finger, "Sweet Mary, thank you! I am not upset, I am grateful. I wish to understand more about this, but I am not angry -- please believe me!”

“I dinna understand it much, either... But it was a bit like - like some madboy's force-shield, only quieter.”

He smiled, releasing my chin, "Much quieter. Those things hum rather deafeningly."

I smiled up at him, blushing, "I would ask you in, but I think that sleeping in the lobby is the extent that we should get away with for now."

He glanced up and down the hallway rather obviously, and winked at me, "Yes, indeed. That's why I'm standing here in the hallway, attempting to be inconspicuous."

I grinned mischievously, “If I were a naughty girl, I would have dragged you in already. But you were shorter of sleep than one night would repair, I think. So I really ought to let you go.” When his chuckle was interrupted by a surprising yawn, I reached up to kiss him goodnight. "Sleep well, dragul meu."

"Sleep well, my heart, mo cridhe, my sweet." He walked down the hallway to the stairs, where he turned and lifted a hand in farewell - and I saw a glint of brass on his finger. So he was safe for now.

The next morning, we had the reports of the bodies being found. Reading the news, I scoured the descriptions, noting that each of them were abroad the night before alone... until Mr Messenger mentioned seeing Perun at the tea-cart down the hill from the hotel that morning. I nearly cried with relief.

More reports this morning, this time from Miss Ama. I got her tea and a scone, while we waited for Doamnă to finish with the courier just in from Italy. The folder of laboratory requests from the Quester was handy and she was able to dictate her report for the Baron on her observations during her last patrol. More uncanny stuff, I just typed what she said, and only had to ask for spelling once or twice this time.

Everything was filed properly as she finished her tea, and the courier left. Someone sneezed, and I wished whoever it was “health” out of habit. When it was Doamnă who responded, I was confused for a moment. Doamnă does not get sick. Miss Ama immediately started quizzing her, and issuing orders. She framed them as requests, but she was suddenly very authoritative. She said to get the Captain, so I hurried through the places he might be, ending up at the door to the barracks. I got as far as “Miss Ama needs you to see Doamnă...” and he was off like a shot, running back to the offices.

As they bundled Doamnă out of the office, I quietly asked if we were to cut off all reports to her, and Miss Ama agreed she could do some reviews. Watching the three of them walk towards Harborside, I wondered how I got to the point of not even noticing Miss Ama’s wings.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Shared Dreams

The staff briefing the morning I returned to the office was one of the odd ones. Mr Messenger seemed to be the only one who was chipper, and there were a lot of angry grumbles about the graffiti. Doamnă gave us the information she could, what the investigators had released for general consumption, and the angry grumbles became confused murmurs. We understood why we were advised to travel in pairs, and the usual safety precautions for a city under Incident Log Watch. The request to report all out-of-norm dreams to Madame Kilta or one of her assistants was new.

The part where we were having similar dreams did cause me to stop and think. I don’t know what Miss Ama did to allow me to sleep, but I knew Perun had written to let me know he had returned late the night before. The note arrived while I was sleeping, and if this was affecting everyone, I needed to get help to him.

I found Miss Ama in the kitchen area. It was easier for me to talk to her there, with Mrs Parks making sure we had scones and tea in the nook by the door. “I - I don’t want to know how, really, as uncanny things don’t seem to stick in my head, but is it.. could you... can you make a ring for someone else?”

She nodded, adding more lemon to her tea, “You want to make sure your young man doesn’t wear himself out like you were?”

I blushed and nodded. I brought out the brass gas line fitting I had found in the lab reject bin, “I think it might be large enough, and I filed the rough spot out. It won’t be useful for the lab, but maybe...”

She smiled, then took the fitting and examined it closely. I had never noticed her eyes were a brilliant purple until she was focused on the fitting, then there was a flash of blue reflected in them before she took my hand and placed the ring in my palm. Covering my hand with hers, the brass seemed to warm suddenly, then she nodded. “That should do it. If it doesn’t fit him, have him keep it within arms reach, ‘specially when sleeping.” She added more lemon to her tea (I wondered if it was more lemon than tea by now) and downed it, pocketing a scone as she rose, “Must dash, have a few more people to catch. Good idea with the ring, though.” She was gone swiftly, the door almost shutting off her last words.

Mrs Parks was busy at the other side of the kitchen, and did not seem to notice I was there. The fitting felt a little heavier, now, and I caught a glimpse of engraving inside, where the threads had been before. The block script shone through the Damascus-like swirls of metal, Inima mea bate alaturi de a ta... well it was true, but how.... I shook my head, cleared the table for Mrs Parks and headed back to my desk.

After work, I joined the group of clerks lodging at the hotel as they headed home, listening to them chatter about the news from the docks with half an ear. Meeting Perun as he came from the telegraph office, I was struck by how gaunt he seemed. His smile could not hide the circles under his eyes, and I finally convinced him to join me at supper in the hotel. The other girls giggled, but I was worried enough I did not acknowledge their teasing.

He drank far too much coffee at supper, and though obviously fatigued, he seemed loathe to leave. When he suggested we continue our visit in the lobby, I was torn. It had been a very long time since I had seen him, but I did not want him walking alone late at night, not with the uncanny goings on. He seemed to have lost weight. I could not tell if it was lack of sleep or just not taking care of himself when he traveled.

“Not to worry, mo cridhe, it is only je- I am just tired from the last journey.” He smiled at my worry and asked about the news in town. When I began relating the incidents of the nightmares, he flinched, and I asked if he could take something for sleep. Shaking his head, “No, that is not a possibility, my heart, I have... not good results with laudanum, nor with the usual medicines... here.” He quickly changed the subject to next year’s calendar, I did not have the chance to offer him the ring Miss Ama had worked on for him. I was unsure of how to present it.

When I finally ran out of the news that had happened since I last saw him, we sat in companionable silence. I know I should have brought up the nightmares again, but just sitting with him, staring into the small fire the bellhop had lit when the lobby had gotten chilly, was very home-like. He had draped his arm across the back of the davenport, and I was seated perhaps a little too close for the customs at my home village, but it was very comfortable to snuggle with him, as I had done in my dream the night before. When I heard him snore softly, I smiled, and tucked the ring in his waistcoat pocket.

The night manager stopped by, checking to see if we needed anything. Weeks earlier, he might have chased Perun out as a visit this late was unseemly, but now it seemed everyone understood the need to have someone to watch while one slept. He nodded his understanding at my wish to not disturb Perun’s sleep. After pointing out that his desk was within shouting distance if we needed anything, he left us alone. I might not have slept as well as if I was in my rooms, but he seemed to need the rest, and I was content, snuggled into his shoulder.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sleep is not welcome

I cannot sleep. When I am able to drift off at all, the dreams are suffocating. I have never seen fog in Steelhead this thick, and the fireplace does not warm me as it should. The unreality follows me through my daily routine, to the part when I rise to find I have lost my head! Then I wake in reality, and the terror grips me until fatigue draws me in...

It has been growing slowly for the past week, but last night I could not manage a moment's rest. If I slept, it was in that terror-filled fog, and awake, I was not really aware. The haze of fatigue made me not realize how late it was.

When the knock at my door came, I was gripped in fear that I did not know what was real anymore.

"It's Ama, from the office - I came by to check on you."

I quickly opened the door, hoping for an anchor in reality, "Do I still have my head?"

Well, what followed was not exactly what I thought reality would be. I slowly began to feel I was normal again as the medic poked and prodded, and shone bright lights into my eyes. Then she did... something. One of the uncanny things that I would not have believed if someone told me. It felt like I was wrapped in a warm, soothing blanket, and then she said she linked it to Perun's ring.

I worried that it might have changed things, but she laughed, and teased me much as Miss Davies would do when I was being doubtful.

I am afraid I yawned in her face, incredibly rude of me. She was very practical about it and told me to sleep myself out. Then she was gone.

The whole day had begun to be impossible to believe, and yet, I did feel more relaxed. I curled up in bed, and as soon as I fell asleep, the fogs rolled in again. This time, I was not alone. Perun and I found our way to the inglenook at the hotel lobby fireplace, and the fog receded. There was still the feeling that there was something *out there*, but the odd woman in the courier's uniform appeared. Miss Ama laughed and told us not to worry, so I didn't.

I slept through to the next morning, and was refreshed enough that the news of the grafitti did not frighten me as much as make me angry that whoever did this, they *wanted* us to be afraid.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Summer Afternoon Surprise

I am often surprised by the heat in the flatlands during the summer months. It makes me glad that my postings here so far have been seaside towns. In the late afternoons, when the sun has baked the streets, the cooling breeze from the ocean makes proper office wear for the town bearable. Leaving the office after the sun touches the trees to the west of the civic plaza means I can spend the heat of the day catching up the archival files in the basement, and still have light to work by in the late afternoon, and a breeze as well.

Doamnă Loewenstein remarked this was good schedule management, and a positive note in my interim review this week past. So I was already in a cheerful mood as I strolled towards my lodgings at the hotel, when I chanced to meet one who cheered me even further. He hailed me, “What luck, meeting you here -- just got off the train. How are you, mo cridhe?”

I managed to remember to behave myself in the public street, “I am well!”, and blushing, murmured, “I missed you.”

"And I you, my heart." He smiled down at me, “Do you have plans this evening? Whatsay to a spot of dancing? Once I've changed out of this outlandish garb, that is. Unless you mind dancing with a vagabond, smelling of sand, sweat and engine oil?”

I grinned, and then ducked my head, "I would not have noticed the dirt, if you had not mentioned it... just the man under it."

He laughed, and doffed his pith helmet in a sweeping bow, “Shall I call on you this evening? I saw a lovely place in Harborside just before I left. Waterfalls, cavorite, scenic beauty that would pale next to your own radiance....”

I giggled at his exaggeration, and we made plans to meet later that evening. When he escorted me to the ballroom, balanced precariously on a free-floating hill of cavorite ore, I did have to admit it was beautiful. It was odd to find such a fantastic setting could feel familiar, but it did somewhat resemble the lake at the schloss. My confusion ended when I noted the signature. “Oh! this the the Doamnă's work?”

“Yes, indeed. She has quite a grand touch, and she's a dab hand at dance machines.” He muttered, "Who would have guessed?"

His tone caught my curiosity, and I asked, “What, that such a straight-laced organizer would be good at dance things?”

He chuckled, “Ah. Something like that, yes.”

“I think she must be sitting in the corner, scribbling, with all the notes she has for me the mornings after dances.” I sighed, “She often puts in full day at the office before a ball, and the day after. Sometimes I think she does not sleep.”

Perun asked, “Perhaps she is one of those who needs little sleep? History has known such. Usually quite brilliant in their fields... office, dances, lab. Does she have any hobbies?”

That gave me pause. I realized I had no idea what she did when she was not on duty. “I... am not sure.” I giggled and pointed to the waterfall backdrop, “She builds a bit.”

He glanced over his shoulder where I had indicated, and smiled. "A bit, yes."

Still, his comment had me thinking. "If she does not enjoy her work, or the dances, I do not think she does have a hobby."

“Building and dancing are certainly creative work, they could be hobbies if she enjoys them, of course.” He looked thoughtful, “Some who seem driven are in reality changing constantly between things which give them joy.”

I bit my lip, thinking hard again. "Her husband has been away a long time. I don’t even recall seeing him during Master Wolfgang’s troubles. Perhaps she is filling time."

I was still deep in thought when he asked, “And how do you fill your time?” When I looked up, he caught my gaze with his and smiled.

I sighed, "Work, mostly... some research for the Doamnă... and unseemly dreams." I blushed scarlet, but did not turn my eyes from his.

Perun quirked a small grin, eyes twinkling. “We're alone, Sweet Mary, quite alone -- what manner of thing would be ‘unseemly’, pray tell?”

“Well, sometimes we are dancing, and sometimes, “ I flushed deeper, "....y’ canna really mistake it for dancin’...."

He chuckled, “... and yes. Quite often I believe I dream the same.” and he winked.

Searching for a change of topic before I embarrassed myself, I murmured, “I was glad you were able to write, this time.”

“As was I -- you got them all, then?”

“I think so, one about every four days?” At his nod, I continued, “It didn’t keep me from worrying, but it made the worry less sharp. I did write back, but I fear they are waiting for you at your lodgings.”

“Ah. Not to worry -- awkward to find me while travelling, regardless. And I can enjoy them at leisure now.” He then distracted me by asking, “ So tell me what you think, Sweet Mary: I've changed one outlandish garb from another, fished it out of my pack before I called on you -- thought I should have something appropriate to wear in Shanghai.”

I smiled at his sudden preening, “It is a lovely blue, close to what the Baron wears to the Shanghai festivals. His is patterned with birds, I think."

“Ah! Of course. Wulfenbach Blue, very old traditional.”

I nodded, "One of the many costumes he has that give Mrs Parks fits with the special laundry steps." When he chuckled, I said, “She was hired locally, when it looked like the school and the office staff were going to need a household manager. I have begun to help out in the kitchen, now and again. Mrs Parks has been learning to cook things from home, and I am learning what to do with some of the local foods.”

“Oh, capital! A versatile cook who is also a patient laundress is worth her weight in gems.”

“The stories that Mr Messenger tells about the ‘local specialties’ she served when she started are very funny.He's a bit of a food snob, but then his home village was outside the Wastelands.” I smiled, "He’s been a bit like an older brother to me here, helping me learn the assistant’s duties."

“Then I should make a point of meeting him, wouldn't you say?” I giggled, and he continued, “Are you still happy in your work, then?” His tone sounded as if he was trying to distract me, or himself.

“I am happy. It is work I can do well, and with good people...”

He smiled into my eyes and lightly squeezed my hand. "I'm glad."

I sighed, “ ...well, most of them are good co-workers.” At his prompting, I continued, "There is a courier, she isn't one of the good ones..."

I felt him tense slightly, “Dangerous? Or merely annoying?”

I shrugged, “Nothing threatening, just - she has been harsh to me at times, but I have friends in the office to help.” Giggling, I said, “She has called you my imaginary beau, before...”

His eyebrows were expressive above his goggles, “Ah! Yes, the phantom, the figment, the elusive....”

A sudden memory made me exclaim, "Oh! Mr Messenger has seen you, though you have not been introduced."

“Has he, by Jove? Where were we when we met?”

I blushed again, “He spotted us on your balcony, when we were, ah - very distracted.”

He chuckled, then frowned and muttered, "Messenger, Messenger .... ah! You mean my neighbour, of the opposite balcony!" I nodded, and he continued. “We haven't spoken, but each knows the other is there, I believe. I've admired his curtains. In fact, I've added curtains, you know! It quite opens up the flat, counter-intuitively enough.”

“That does seem backwards.”

“Ah, well! I'm able to block off the windows, you see, so I'm no longer having to use furniture to the purpose. One large room, instead of three smaller ones. Enough room to waltz now, I daresay.” At my blush, he chuckled again, “I did indeed mean waltzing, mo cridhe.” Then he whispered in my ear, "Other things need less room."

We danced a few moments longer when he cleared his throat, and said, “I heard the newsboy at the train station say the city had raised an impressive total for the Relay. Did I hear that the Sheriff would be shaving his head in celebration?”

I nodded, “They say it will just be his human head."

He frowned a bit, “Ah, the werewolf rumours?”

I shrugged, "He is the one who took charge during Master Wolfgang's problems, so I canna say what is rumor or no."

"Regardless, a quarter million lindens is noteworthy for a city the size of Steelhead."

“It is a growing city, but still manages to not be... overbearing.” I shivered a bit, thinking how lost I felt whenever I had duties that took me to New Babbage.

“Mo cridhe? Are you cold, then?”

I shook my head, “Ninini - I - I just don't care for big cities.”

He nodded, "Children of the country, you and I, yes. Although cities have their use, and appeal ..."

I shook off the feeling and went on, “We have been busy in the office, but I heard there were insane amounts of money raised at auctions all over since you have been away.”

“Insane? How insane?”, he chuckled.

“Several thousand lindens for several of the auction lots, by themselves.”

He let a little surprise show on his face, “Indeed? What manner of lots went so high?”

“Some gowns and dates, though the doamnă was very upset that the Baron was the first one on the block for New Babbage. He volunteered, but still, the first lot is always low.” Perun raised a skeptical eyebrow, but I continued, “He went for only L$4000 this time, and she was furious... not so anyone outside the office would notice. She only broke four pens the day after.”

He raised both eyebrows in surprise, “They auctioned off Baron Klaus Wulfenbach?”

I nodded, “It was for a dance at the ball. The date auction two years ago was much more.”

He was perplexed, and he slowed his steps in the dance. “I .... see. How much more?”

“Office rumor is all I have to go on. I think someone said it was at least L$30,000. You haven't been to many of the big state balls, have you?”

He looked as if someone had smacked the back of his head with a board, which is understandable, for that amount of money. “And this was for charity? Hmm. No, I have not had that pleasure.”

I nodded, “Da, the charities are a lot of what they do, especially summer and fall.”

He seemed distracted, still, but went on, “Do they really? How odd, I wonder why ...”

When he did not say anything else, I went on, “Anyroad, from the reports I have seen while filing, the big state affairs can have a 3 to 1 ratio of women to men in attendance. So, having the Baron dance with someone as long as they care to have him is a selling point.” I did not realize I had sighed until Perun asked me about it. I explained, “I would have to be up on my hand-to-hand if we were to attend one of the Babbage affairs. Even though they haven't really have a fistfight on the dance floor in over a year, from what I have heard, the single girls can get pushy.”

“And if I choose to dance only with the most beautiful woman in the Steamlands, they would try to cut in, would they?”

I nodded, ignoring his exaggerations again, “They would try, da - I do not share well.”

“Good. Neither do I.”

“I might need some steel-toed dance slippers to make my point,” I said with a grin, and snuggled into his arms.

“Ah, my formidable flower! Trained with your auntie, am I right?” I nodded, and he continued, “It does my heart good to know you have such training, mo cridhe.”

“She did not have time to teach me the full combat dancing forms, but she did give a few pointers.” I looked up at his chuckle, and he dipped his face in to mine for a quick kiss. Well, it started as a quick kiss, but the embrace was no longer pretending to be a dance. After a few moments of eternity, I sighed contentedly, "Missed you terribly, mi dragul."

“And I, you, mo cridhe... I... should see you home. Before I am any more tempted to take you home with me...”

"Before I am tempted to let you, da," I agreed, softly.

He kissed my cheek, “Someday. And that doesn't help the moment, does it?"

I quietly said, “Promise.”

He nodded, taking a deep breath. "Promise. And now, shall I see you back to your lodgings, my Sweet Mary?”

I wrapped my arms around his neck and breathed softly into his ear, "Best do it now, before we get carried away."

He growled a little as he stepped back, “I would like to get carried away. But... you're quite right, my heart, mo cridhe...” and he held out a hand for me, smiling. When I took it, he tucked my hand into the crook of his arm, and walked me back to the hotel. In the lobby, I took him by the lapels and kissed him soundly, under the disapproving eye of the front desk clerk and the concierge. He chuckled softly when I released him, “Sweet dreams, Sweet Mary.”

Blushing, I nodded, “See you there, mi dragul.”

“Always, mo cridhe,” then he stepped back and kissed my hand. Halfway up the spiral stairs to my floor, I noticed him speaking quietly to the concierge, their hand movements suggesting a surreptitious gratuity being passed. I quickly moved on before they could notice I had paused.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Unsettling Times

I never know what to expect here.

Doamnă has been shut in her office most of the day, not even coming out for tea.

I dropped off some files for her review, and she barely said anything. She usually has questions for me.

I hope there has not been bad news from home.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring, Memories and Thoughts

Spring has come to Steelhead, yet I find no joy in the season this year.

In my home village, spring brings relief from winter's grip, and at the schloss it was the signal that the caravans would be mounting up as soon as the roads dried out sufficiently. Travel by airship is dangerous to mountain holdings, due to the capricious winds, so it is reserved for only the most dire emergency, though passing over the mountains is safe enough by air. And if spring means the bandits start oozing out of their foul dens at snowmelt, it also means more sport for the Jaegerkin.

Things are a bit softer here. The area around Mt St Helen is still wilderness, but if one of the neighbors has troubles, help reaches them quickly. The one place that gets more dangerous once the weather warms is Shanghai, but I have not had occasion to go there. He has not been back long enough to visit. If it were not for the brief notes he drops off in the dead of night at the hotel front desk for me, I would not know he had returned at all.

Luckily, the teasing of my co-workers in the clerks' den has found another target. No longer do I have to hear jests about my imaginary beau, thanks to Mr Messenger's courtship. I have only listened to the gossip with half an ear, partly because of my assignments for research my doamnă asks of me. Truth is, I am envious of his arrangement, where his beloved is safe here.

The sniping back-and-forth between him and Miss Davies reminds me much of the bickering between my older siblings, so I am able to tune much of it out. It is harder to not notice the spells he has when he grins foolishly at the pictures of Miss Burton that he keeps on his desk, and writing notes to her, slipping out to the post-box at the corner at odd times.

I keep Perun's picture in my desk, it keeps the teasing from having a focus. However, tuning out the bickering meant I did not notice when it slowed down. I thought I was keeping quiet enough I would escape notice, when that rather odd courier breezed through yesterday. Miss Bialowsky is one of the more... blatant and aggressive women here. Back home, she would have been mistaken for one of those fast British girls. She stopped at my desk and asked in a loud and snide tone how my courtship with my imaginary beau was progressing.

It could not have hit at a worse time, as I had been fretting over not hearing from him in the past two weeks. I sat in stunned silence, looking up at her sneering grin, and all I could think of was that I was not going to cry in front of her. My rescue came from an odd quarter. Miss Davies tore into her for her attitude, "Don't you start that garbage here again! I suppose your loose ways are better? It's embarrassing to us all the way your escapades reflect on the rest of us!"

Then, of all people, Mr Messenger stepped in. As the Baron's secretary and personal courier, he ranks the rest of us, but I had never seen him use it before. I was afraid he was going to dress down Miss Davies, but he addressed Miss Bialowsky instead. "There is a reason why you have not been assigned a permanent office, here or at any other outpost. Your manner is too familiar to your betters. Your attitude to your co-workers is too superior, even though you have the highest number of lost packets of anyone in the courier service. You are already on report for falsifying expense accounts, assaulting Consulate allies and inappropriate behavior. Do you want to add insulting the Vice Consul's assistant to that list? I am sure there are quite a few here that would not have any trouble filling out the report."

Miss Bialowsky stared at the circle of people that had gathered around my desk, then turned an ugly shade of red and stalked out of the ring of observers. Mr Messenger nodded, and said "That will do for now, let's get back to work." Then he sat down at his desk as if nothing had happened. I found the files that needed to go to the archives and hurried off before anyone could say anything.

An hour later, Miss Davies found me at the card-catalog desk near the cold storage. It was the least-used office in this peaceful posting, and the drafts could explain my sniffles. "She's gone now, and the others have mostly forgotten her, except the ones filing harassment reports. You might want to let Missus Lowey know what happened, though." She handed me a handkerchief, and continued, "At least you have someone, which she doesn't, no matter how many assignations she might say she has had. She's envious of your devotion to your beau, figment or not."

"My neighbor is not a figment of her imagination." The voice at the door was Mr Messenger, shrugging a bit in apology for eavesdropping. "Though I did not think it was best to tell the entire office you two were snogging on the balcony last month."

I blushed, "Thank you both. I hope you can meet him, he is supposed to come see Doamnă Lowey soon." Mr Messenger coughed, shuffling his feet, and I blushed harder. Miss Davies was confused, until Mr Messenger said, "Yes, well - at least he is following the forms. Now that I know you are still researching, I can report you are all right."

She turned to me, "He hasn't given you a ring, has he?" she asked, looking at my left hand. I showed her my right hand, saying, "It is a promissory ring, until he has official permission to court me."

"That sounds... complicated." Miss Davies looked doubtful.

"It is a little old-fashioned, and some might call it backwoods, but I think I like it that way." I touched the ring again, smiling.

Mr Messenger chuckled, "Even if his picture in your desk is not that old-fashioned." I blushed again and laughed as Miss Davies threw a paper-wad at him. It felt almost like home.