A polite cough disturbed Iona’s train of thought and she looked up to see her housekeeper standing in the study door way with a complex expression questioning look on her face and a towering militia officer with his helmet tucked under his arm standing behind her.
“Thank you Leonora,” she said rising carefully from her seat and meeting the woman’s quizzical look with a ‘your guess is as good as mine’ expression. “Do come in officer. Close the door and tell Shayla we’d like some tea, thank you Leonora.” She motioned for the officer to step into the room and gave Leonora another complicated glance that said ‘don’t wander too far when you’ve closed the door’. Then she turned to the officer, who she could tell was a corporal now she could see the rank stripe on his sleeve. Clearly this wasn’t too serious a visit, most of the things she expected the militia to call on her about were matters for more senior officers. Relaxing slightly, although not entirely, she smiled at the corporal. Then she turned to her desk and flicked the folder shut, covering the plan she had just been reviewing. Reminding herself that she was a Lady and therefore gracious under pressure, she indicated that the officer should take a seat by the window, as far from her desk as it was possible to sit. Perching opposite him on the edge of the armchair by the fireplace, she said in a honey-sweet voice,
“I’m sure you are aware that I am Lady Iona, Duchess of Pringle.” It was a small cruelty that brightened her day, watching the officer trying to work out whether he ought to stand up, where to look and whether to offer her a hand or not. “And you are?”
“I’m Corporal Elvin Fisher,” grumbled the militiaman, addressing his naval and keeping his gaze fixed on his boots.
“Very pleased to meet you,” lied Iona charmingly, offering the corporal a hand to shake, which he accepted warily. “Now corporal, how can I help you?” She smiled trying not to bare her teeth.
“Um, it’s like this, your Lady-ship,” he said uncomfortably, staggering over the word lady-ship. “I’m one of the duty officers at the Docklands Militia Base. It’s about two miscreants we’ve got in custody down at the Docklands nick. We’ve had a request from the clink, I mean the gaol house, for you to bail them out, and truth be told we’d be most grateful if you was in the position to oblige. They’re playing merry wossname with the duty officer apparently, saying they was only performing and that as members of the Bard’s Guild they’re entitled to perform anything they liked. We’ve put them in the end cell but they’re still creatin’.” At this point Iona’s face was fighting against a cacophony of expressions. Already she was entirely certain who these two gaol birds were and she was torn between blind fury, side-splitting laughter and polite confusion. It made her look as though she was suppressing a sneeze.
“Really?” she said to the now beleaguered looking corporal, “How dreadful.” As she said dreadful a snort of amusement escaped, which the corporal took for a sneeze and uttered ‘bless you,’ under his breath. “What are the names of these miscreants? It is possible they might be associates or tenants of mine.” The officer dipped into his pocket and pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket.
“The name they originally gave us was ‘The Amazing Bazooka Sisters’, then they claimed to be Sister Daisy and Mori Silerbanis, then one of them claimed she was a personal friend of the Frisian Ambassador and the other one was his mistress.” At this point, the poor man cleared his throat and continued valiantly. “After an hour in the stockade they finally admitted to being called Bread and Butter Pudding and Custard the Goblin of the Aberddu Chaos Temple and Miss Clara Euphemistia Cropper of no fixed abode.” As he read out the names he flushed red with embarrassment. Managing to contain her mirth, Iona nodded with mock solemnity.
“I am aware of both these, what was the word you used? Miscreants, and I am in a position to pay the bonds on both of them. How much is it?”
“Seventeen florins the pair, and you’ll have to come down to the militia building to sign the papers,” he said with a look of gleeful optimism dawning in his eyes. He had clearly thought this a fool’s errand but now it seemed likely that he might actually return to the base victorious.
“Give me five minutes to collect my things and bring the chaise around,” said Iona with an edge of well-mannered exasperation, “and we’ll go.”
When, twenty minutes later, Iona drew her well known chaise and greys up outside the Docklands militia base, every eye in the street was on her and the embarrassed officer that had just jumped down from the passenger seat. Very few people would be presumptuous enough to leave a vehicle of this quality parked in this neighbourhood but Iona dared. No thief in their right mind, or even a wilful child with a piece of chalk, would lay their hand on Iona Pringle’s chaise. The militia officer opened his mouth to suggest it was unwise but before he could get the words out she turned to him and with a wry smile said,
“I’m sure the illustrious citizens of Aberddu can be trusted not to steal a cart belonging to a widow-woman from outside of a militia building.” Then, she turned smartly on her heels and headed towards the open door of the base before he could object.
In the entrance hall, a cat fight between to dockland streetwalkers was being tentatively managed by a massive sweaty militiaman who had them both by the hair and had pushed them each to arms length. His shiny face was turned to one side to keep it out of scratching and spitting range. Around the edge of the room a gang of their colleagues, each in a set of heavy steel cuffs and still dressed in their working clothes, were participating in some colourful social commentary at the top of their voices.
Beyond the shrieking and cursing prostitutes, Iona could hear the usual after dark remonstrations coming from the ground floor cells. She stopped by the door, removed her gloves and hat and without batting an eye lid turned to Corporal Fisher and said,
“Do lead on,”
“Er, yeah,” he mumbled, now regretting his success in getting Lady Pringle to accompany him down to the base. Between her unguarded chaise and the fact she didn’t seem to have any sense of self-preservation in the face of a bunch of cat fighting hookers, he had a feeling things were going to end badly. “Walk this way your lady-ship”
With some trepidation, he lead her across the crowded hall and down the narrow stairs. He knocked on the door at the bottom and was let through by a squat, disgruntled woman in a green tabard who handed him a large ring of keys without a word. Picking up her skirts so that she had a good three inches of clearance, Iona took a step on to the foul floor of the corridor. She had heard Pudding and Clara the moment she had passed through the doorway. It really was a masterful talent they had between for creating an Indaba even whilst incarcerated. Iona allowed herself a private smirk as she heard Pudding serenading an irate gaoler with the old music hall favourite “I like it like a well boiled ham, firm and pink and juicy.” The atonal section as she escalated to the middle eight was a stroke of genius.
Corporal Fisher turned to Iona and shouted over the cacophony of singing and the shouts of the other prisoners for her to stop,
“As I said, we would be most grateful if you would pay the bonds for them.” Iona nodded, having managed to chorale her face back to polite compliance just in time. “If you come this way, you can have a brief word with them before the private takes you up to the office to fill out the bonds.”
“Thank you,” said Iona graciously as she tiptoed through the effluent on the gaol floor fighting back the urge to ask them when the last time they had hosed it down. She had actually walked through cleaner sewers, no wonder people complained about militia detention. It was a long walk to the end of a long narrow corridor with cells either side, the occupants either hunched in the shadows or catcalling at her and flailing through the bars. Then, faced with a t-junction she followed Fisher to the left passed a cell of arguing pickpockets some of whom she recognised. Neither she nor they acknowledged this acquaintance as she passed, they just came to the grille to watch what was happening.
Clara and Pudding were in the cell at the end just as Fisher had said and when Iona came into view Pudding stopped in the middle of the second verse of “Well Boiled Ham” and they broke into a chorus of the far less subtle “You can tell she’s a Lady by what she charges,” in glorious two part disharmony. They were clearly steaming drunk and judging by the state of them had either fallen into someone’s cesspit or Doc Loladge’s city slurry works. They looked almost exactly the same as they had when Iona had importuned them on Fisherman’s Walk, apart from the fact they were even dirtier, there were no apples, Pudding was actually wearing her hat and Clara had been swamped by a large woollen coat that dragged on the floor as she hopped about in the cells. Iona sighed and immediately regretted taking such a deep breath.
“Shut it you two,” she hissed before Corporal Fisher had the chance to bark any recrimination. “You’ve got some explaining to do.” Clara and Pudding shut up immediately and looked at Iona with mock shame. Infuriated that Iona’s hissing had succeeded where his threats and taunts had failed, the gaoler glowered. “And this’ll be coming out of your wages,” Iona added smartly as she turned her back on them and took herself back to the stairs.