What consternation! What joy!
Yesterday afternoon a sky-sloop came to Bois-de-Bas out of the west. It was greeted by screams and shouts; for of course all here remember the coming of Le Cochon's sloops during the war. The shouts drew Amelie and I out of the house, along with most of my fellow townsfolk, and we watched in horror as (so it seemed to us) the bad times came again. Jacques Pôquerie came and stood by my side.
The sloop drew near and descended over the green, just as those had. Then I noticed that the sloop was flying the colors of Cumbria-in-Armorica, the colors flown over Lord Doncaster's residence in Mont-Havre; that the sloop's gun ports were closed; and that Jack was waving to me from the quarterdeck.
The sloop did not settle on the green, leaving a deep rut, as the Provençese sloops had. Instead it paused a careful two feet over the thin layer of snow, a ladder of rope and wood was thrown over the side, and down came a pair of smartly dressed marines in red coats, followed by His Lordship's aide, my Aunt Maggie's son Jack. He was equally smart in a red coat of his own, though somewhat different design; for Jack is not a marine.
Jack smirked at me as I ran up to him.
"What is the trouble, Coz? You invited me to come visit, after all."
"Yes I did, you damned fool, but I didn't invite you to stop all of our hearts!" But even as I said that I was embracing him and pounding him on the back.
Quite a crowd had gathered around the edges of the green by this time. I turned around to face them.
"My friends, there's nothing to worry about. You all remember my cousin Jack. He has chosen this melodramatic way to join us for Christmas, instead of spending it in Mont-Havre."
There were cheers, and much nodding, with smiles and a cheerful greeting or two. There was also a frown or two on the faces of some of the men with daughters of a certain age, for Jack had entranced a number of those daughters on previous visits—without, I hasten to add, having done anything to deserve the opprobrium of their male parents beyond being cheerful, dashing, and friendly.
"But what of your sloop, Jack," I asked him. "Is it going to remain with us?"
"That's one of the things we need to discuss," he answered me quietly. "For now, I assume there is a better place for it to stay on Christmas Eve than in front of the church."
"Certainly there is. How close do you wish them to be to the center of things?"
"Near enough," he said. "It is Christmas, after all, and I am sure they would like to visit Sergeant Allen's inn for some Christmas cheer."
"Will they be needing to pitch tents?"
"No, no, they will be snug enough aboard the Polliwog for tonight."
"I believe M. Gaston has the closest field to the inn; and of course there is nothing growing there now. But I see him over there. A moment."
M. Gaston proving willing to host the Polliwog for a few days, Jack's marine escort ascended to the sloop's deck, the sloop rose gently and sailed off, and Jack came home with Amelie and I for dinner.
After the meal—for we always have a plain, simple meal on Christmas Eve—Jack said, "Armand, we must talk." He and I left the rest of the family circle in the parlor, where Luc was reading yet another chapter from The Mystery of David Silverfish, and went to my workshop. I built up the fire in the pot-belled stove on the customer side of the counter, and we sat down on the settee like two of my old men.
"So, Jack, what is it? And how long will you and your extravagant conveyance be staying?"
"That's precisely what we need to speak about. I shall be here for a few days, or perhaps a week; the Polliwog rather longer. Indefinitely, in fact."
"What do you mean?"
"It's really all your fault, you know. His Lordship wanted to have you and your wagon-works in Mont-Havre, where he could keep you safe. You would not oblige him—for which he bears you no ill will—but he must see to your defense and security. Someday Cumbria will be at war with Provençe, or Andaluse, or Hanondorf; and when that happens your sky-wagons may be what turns the tide. In sum, Trust me, Armand, like it or not you have become an asset of the realm."
I suppose I looked stunned. Jack laughed at me, as he has laughed at me so often before. "Second city of Armorica, Armand? Haven't I heard those words on your lips? What did you expect to happen?"
He settled down with his pipe and let me absorb all of this.
"So, we are to have a garrison, then," I said at last.
"In a word, yes."
"What are His Lordship's expectations? For though I'm the mayor I can't simply make decrees. My people trust me because my decisions make sense to them."
Jack laughed again. "His Lordship has no desire to cause you trouble. If he did you and yours would be settled in Mont-Havre whether you liked it or not." And then he outlined for me what Lord Doncaster wants from us: a piece of land on which to build a barracks for a small garrison and berthing for the Polliwog; food and other supplies to support the garrison; and a small self-motivated sky-cart or wagon to use for courier duty. All of these to be properly paid for by His Lordship, and Jack to return to Mont-Havre in the sky-cart.
"Only one such cart?"
"He shall want several over the next year. But he only needs one this week."
That was yesterday; today we had a service in the Church, with much singing of carols, though no mass since we still have no permanent priest of our own. I suppose I must make a visit to the Bishop in Mont-Havre and request one. That was followed by a glorious meal, and the giving of presents, and much talk and frivolity, and if there were any difficulties at Sergeant Allen's inn or in M. Gaston's field, no one brought them to my attention.
Tomorrow I shall go to the wagon-works and put His Lordship's sky-cart in train; I have a few ideas. Jack will negotiate the purchase of some land, and no doubt drink much ale with the seller. Then, over dinner he will introduce me to the captain of the new garrison, and to the Polliwog's commander, two men with whom I suppose I shall become quite familiar.
Things are changing once again. Jack is right, it is all my fault. I hope I have not mounted a tiger.