This is an extract from a book I started then realised I wanted to place in a different part of the Princelings timeline. Either that or bring certain characters in earlier. There are some more extracts from it later in the month.
In which George rocks the foundations and Fred’s burden increases
Fred came out onto the terrace beside his seminar room and looked over the balcony. It was a fine day for winter. The reeds were cracking in the marshes and a few people were out gathering them for firestuff and to patch roofs that had been damaged in the past week’s gales. A small party had gone out on a second wagon to the forest to gather what wood had fallen down. The first wagon had come back fully laden, with two stranded travellers as well as a stack of gleanings from the forest floor.
The murmuring in the room behind him encouraged him. His team of cartopetrarchs, as they styled themselves, were working together well, putting together their latest observations and measurements. One of the ideas discussed at last year’s summer school was to start recording the differences in soils and rocks around the land, as well as the relationship of the places to each other. And that was in addition to recording the positions of forests and mountains and rivers… Yes, I really do want to map the world, Fred thought to himself, with a smile. Then a sigh. If only he could spend all his time on it instead of having to run things as well.
The whole castle shook as a huge noise came from inside the walls of the courtyard below. Persons were rushing out of the archways, pursued by a blast of thick black smoke and dust. Birds flew up, cawing raucously, and people appeared at windows, leaning out and craning their necks to see what was going on. A few screams came from elsewhere in the castle, but they sounded more of fear than of pain, and a general hubbub of running feet on stone stairs and corridors started to echo through the building.
Fred looked down anxiously to see his brother George emerging, not from his usual door but from a side one further away from the main blast area, dusting his coat down as it seemed to have turned him a fetching lilac colour instead of his customary ginger. He looked up at Fred and waved sheepishly, then signed that it was one of those things, as if no harm had been done. Fred watched George as he checked all his students were there. He seemed quite unconcerned, despite the gathering press of people in the courtyard, so Fred assumed that the castle was in no immediate danger. Some of his own students had come out to look at the scene, but interestingly, more of them had stayed huddled over their maps and notes. Fred smiled and decided to leave his project in their safe hands.
Fred turned as someone ran up behind him.
“Would you mind coming down, sir?” said the young person, whom Fred recognised as one of George’s students.
Fred followed him, letting him run on as he walked more sedately, pondering the range of people in the Castle these days. This lad was from one of the places there’d been some trouble. Three very pleasant families had moved from there in the summer, with useful skills and nice young people among them. Castle Marsh’s reputation as a seat of learning had been one of the factors in them coming here, they had said. He’d been very pleased to hear that.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to put all this side of the castle off limits,” George said to him as soon as he reached the courtyard.
Fred frowned. ‘This side of the castle’ included both the Great Hall and the Small Hall, and most of the public routes to other parts of the castle, including the Registry.
“Safety checks, I suppose?” he asked and received a nod from George in response as he walked towards the centre archway from where the smoke had emerged. Dust floated round the passageways and made him cough, then sneeze.
“Yes, and plenty of time for the dust to settle,” said George, “but we also need to work out why it happened, look at the clues.”
“Ok, well if you and your students prepare a preliminary report… we’ll need you to present it an emergency meeting of the Quorum. How soon can you do that?”
“Good. Then I’ll order the Quorum to meet at, say, 6 o’clock in the… er, which room shall we use?” he finished, realising that it wasn’t going to be in the Small Hall.
“Why not use Jupiter’s upstairs room then we can check everywhere out properly without you tripping over us,” said George placidly, since he suspected Fred might over-react.
“Oh, yes… hang on… why do you need to check everywhere out?” Fred added suspiciously.
“Just checking, brother, just checking,” and he put a hand on Fred’s shoulder and ushered him towards the archway leading down to the main square where Jupiter had her tavern. “Go and ask her now. Or tell her. Whichever you’d like to do but make sure that’s the room you use,” he finished.
“So although the structure appears to have experienced no lasting damage,” George concluded, “I recommend that we avoid using the Great Hall and the Small Hall for a week at least, to make sure the dust has settled and no unexpected movement has occurred.”
He sat down to a series of murmurs from the assembled crowd.
George had chosen well when he had manipulated Fred into using the upstairs room at Jupiter’s tavern, since it was large enough to seat the Quorum. However it was too small to accommodate most of the people who generally came along to observe the Quorum’s meetings in the Small Hall, which meant that he could say some of the things that needed to be said without alarming people. Like the Castle was safe but vulnerable.
“What you didn’t say though, Prince Engineer George,” said Jupiter, standing up, “was why the explosion happened in the first place,” and she sat down again.
“Er, thank you, Mistress Jupiter,” replied George. “It was the result of a procedure which we were testing on one of the new engines. My apprentice was adjusting something involved with the cooling experiment and put the cooling liquid flask on the floor for a trivial reason. One of the junior engineers thought it was a flask of strawberry juice that he had put on a table and was no longer there. So the cooling liquid was used in the procedure instead of the strawberry juice.” He had already explained what had happened next, so he wasn’t going to say any more on the subject. Not in public at any rate.
“When is the next function due in the Great Hall?” Fred asked his young steward, who was sitting by his side with a pile of reference books.
“Solstice is in three weeks, Green Willow Day is ten days after that. Oh, and your niece’s birthday but we can move that.”
“She won’t like her birthday being moved,” muttered Fred.
“Oh, no, sir, I meant we can do something more exciting for her like a treasure hunt with the tea and other games being held somewhere else.”
“Will we be ready to use the Great Hall in three weeks, George?” he asked.
“Um, probably. I’ll give you an update next week.”
“Is everybody happy with that then?” asked Fred of the assembled Quorum. There was a general nodding from around the table. “Well, in that case I’ll see you all later then.” And Fred stood up to signify the meeting was over.
Most of the members of the Quorum also stood to leave, only to be tackled immediately by a castle resident wanting to get information or give their opinion. Fred smiled. This did seem to be a way of keeping everybody involved in the castle. His grandfather would have turned in his grave to see all the discussion on his decisions, well, their decisions. Fred just kept things focused, he didn’t want to take all the decisions.
George was beside him as they left the tavern. They crossed the corner of the square and were joined by Haggis, who suggested they might step up to his room above the gatehouse.
“Anything wrong, Haggis?” asked Fred when they had settled comfortably in his room and opened a couple of bottles of ale.
“I didn’t like to say in front of everyone,” he said. “Let’s call it the case of the missing flask of strawberry juice. There’s also an awful lot of strangers seeking refuge here.”
Fred looked at his ale and said nothing. He knew about the strangers, and it needed some good Thinking. He hoped he might be the only one to have noticed that there was a missing flask of strawberry juice, since George had rather skipped through that part.
George also said nothing. He didn’t want to think about the missing flask of strawberry juice. It was more than just strawberry juice. He’d been experimenting for some time now with different additives. He hoped no one except his three most advanced junior engineers would understand the significance of this particular ingredient. He wanted to talk to Fred about it on his own, but it looked like Haggis might have to be involved. He shifted in his chair a little, then set his ale down and stood up.
“Why not come and talk to me tomorrow morning about it, Haggis. In my room?”
“Right sir,” said Haggis, standing up since Fred had followed George’s lead and they were now heading towards the door. “Just as long as it’s not explosive itself.”
It was a good thing he couldn’t see George’s face as he and Fred went down the staircase into the dark of the winter’s night. That would have really worried him.
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