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Guild (Forge #3)

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The year 375, the eighth month. (The year 1886 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

He smelled the horses before he saw them.

The Commoners' Guild – Toler had discovered through a discreet enquiry at the Commoners' Library – was located on Court Street. But to approach the main entrance would mean walking past the courthouse and jail. Toler had never been to either location; as a Seeker, he had normally been permitted to travel only as far as the magisterial rooms in the palace. But the men running the courthouse and jail were, in their own way, representatives of the Queen. Toler would just as soon not think about the Queen while Elsdon's murder remained raw in his mind.

So he took the back way. Through a side street, and when he reached the crossroads to the alley, that was when he saw the horses: a livery stable and a carriage house.

The alley was filthy with manure. He considered the problem, then left the road and walked up the grassy hill.

He soon encountered a barrier: a wooden fence that was in the midst of being whitewashed by a servant. Toler contemplated that fence; it was low enough that he could easily step over it. But starting this visit by breaking and entering did not seem to him to be the right approach.

The servant took note of him for the first time. Doffing his cap, he opened the fence gate for Toler. Toler murmured his thanks and tipped the man. Only when Toler was past, and the man had returned to his work, did Toler notice the badge on his jacket.

It was the badge of a member of the Commoners' Guild.

Too late to correct his mistake, so Toler strode on, eyeing the men crowded around the back of the building. They were in the midst of whitewashing the bricked building, which would be quite an accomplishment if it meant whitewashing the entire two-storey building, all the way up to the bell tower. As Toler came forward, they looked up at him and exchanged looks; then, to a man, they took off their caps.

He was not sure what to do, so he did what came natural – which, he realized in retrospect, was exactly the wrong thing to do. He said, "I am Mr. Forge. I have come to enquire about membership in your guild. Will you tell me, please, where I might find Mr. Gaugash?"

The guildmen did not precisely laugh – one does not laugh in the presence of one's betters – but their smirks suggested they were highly amused by this cultured introduction. Openly grinning, one of the men said, "I'm Davis. Gaugash is across the street, arranging bail for one of our members. Want to wait inside . . . sir?"

He could feel the flush cover his face. Once again, he fell back on his training. "Thank you; that is very kind. I hope I do not put you to any trouble."

Davis raised his eyebrows, as though he wasn't used to elite men conveying gratitude to him. All he said, though, was, "It's this way, sir."

Toler followed him through a back door. Inside, the building had the appearance of a school that has been suddenly abandoned: there were child-high hooks for coats in the entryway. Ahead, the front door lay open, showing that the jail was located directly across the street. Conveniently located, one might say.

Toler had no opportunity to see whether Gaugash was returning from the jail with the released guild member, for Davis led him rapidly up the stairs to the second floor. The landing was well lit from windows, revealing that the second floor was divided into rooms by accordion panels, rather than by walls. Davis pushed open one of the panels, saying, "You can wait here, sir."

Toler resisted his impulse to tip Davis. Instead he said, "Thank you for the generous gift of your time." He walked in. Davis slid the panel shut between them with a slam.

The room – Toler realized after a quick calculation – must take up half the space on the second floor. The building had four rooms in all, then – a rather cramped headquarters for so large a guild. This particular room held very little. The windows facing Court Street were shuttered; Toler could hardly blame Gaugash for shutting out sight of the jail and courthouse. At the far end of the room, facing south, was a squat stove whose pipe was attached to a chimney. At the north end of the room, against the panel, stood a blackboard stand. Immediately in front of the blackboard – next to the door, the last place one would expect to find it if this were an ordinary office – was a desk that was clearly designed for the schoolmaster. Schoolmistress, Toler corrected himself as he caught sight of a feminine-dainty heart carved into the desk by a lovesick schoolboy.

All of the pupils' desks and benches had been removed except for one bench, close to the desk. The only other object in the room was a bookcase, nestled between the windows facing east. Toler went over to the bookcase, only to find his attention snagged by the view from one of the windows.

It was a magnificent view, the guild headquarters being located on the same commanding hill as the courthouse and jail. From here, the land sharply fell down toward the creek that bisected the capital; between the buildings, Toler thought he could glimpse the river bend that was nicknamed Love-mates' Leap. Turning his gaze hastily toward the northeast, he found himself staring at the buildings of the Alleyway district's Main Street, with the smoke from the tannery smudging the horizon. Further out were the more elegant districts, but he could not see them from here. Nor could he see the palace hill in which the Eternal Dungeon was housed; that lay west, behind the shuttered windows.

He forced himself to turn his attention to the bookcase. He could tell at once that it had not been stocked by Bainbridge, for the guild leader's own books were placed prominently upon the top shelves. Then came a few books promoting the activities of the Commoners' Guild, and then—

Toler squinted, not sure he saw what he thought he saw, despite the distinctive gold lettering upon the binding. He reached out to take the book from the shelf.

And nearly dropped it as he shoved the book back onto the shelf, whirling around. His heart was thundering. It was said in the Eternal Dungeon that nothing was capable of startling the High Seeker. Presumably, those who said that had never witnessed Layle Smith when a woman walked unexpectedly into his presence.

Or even expectedly.

It had been her scent that alerted him. She wore no perfume, but the scent of a woman always told him when danger arose. Now he stood frozen, trying to make sense of what he saw. The woman was standing behind the high-backed chair of the schoolmistress's desk, her arms folded upon the back of the chair. She was bareheaded but had her gloves on; she had evidently just arrived from the outside. She was quite young.

That much Toler saw before he heard himself say to the secretary, with admirable calm, "Excuse me, miss. I'm here to see Mr. Gaugash."

"I am Gaugash," said the woman. "Please have a seat, Mr. Forge."

He sat himself on the bench, only because he was not sure of his body's ability to keep from rushing forward and grabbing her. He was cursing Bainbridge with every curse he knew. Why had the man not warned him? Bainbridge knew very well what women did to Toler. The entire world knew, thanks to Bainbridge's ballads.

So absorbed was he in these thoughts that he missed the moment when the young woman sat down. Bainbridge's assistant, Mistress Gaugash, was far too small for the chair; she looked like a pupil who has taken over the schoolmistress's chair for sport.

"I would like to thank you for offering to assist the Commoners' Guild," she said as she removed her gloves. "We are certainly much in need of aid from the highborn, and I will be glad to outline some ways in which you can be of help to us. I am afraid, however, that the particular type of assistance you have offered is not possible. Only commoners are permitted to join the guild."

He took a deep breath. He had prepared himself for this; he knew that the Yclau accent he had learned from his mother revealed all too clearly that his mother's family was highborn. His father had been mid-class, but even if that fact had carried any weight here, he could scarcely expect Mistress Gaugash to be moved by hearing him speak in his father's Vovimian accent.

If he had chosen to make use of Bainbridge's card of introduction, that would not have permitted him entry into the guild either. The only thing that could help here was the truth – or at least part of the truth.

"I was born of the elite," he said, "but that changed when I was young. I was arrested and imprisoned when I was fifteen. I've only recently been released."

Mistress Gaugash seemed not at all impressed by this information. He supposed she was used to creative lies from the Queen's spies who tried to worm their way into the Guild. "Do you have any records to show this?" she asked politely.

Alas, he did, although the record was one he had hoped he would not have to supply. He took another deep breath.


He had managed to impress her this time. She raised her eyebrows. "You have a remarkable memory. Could you say that again? Slowly?" She took up the pen next to her, briefly unscrewed the barrel to check that the cartridge had sufficient ink, and then began scribbling down the letters and numbers.

A couple of minutes later, she stood up and fetched the sixth revision of the Code of Seeking – the private edition, not the edition sold to the public, which would have had red lettering on its spine. How Bainbridge had managed to get his hands on the private edition, Toler could not imagine; the private edition could not be removed from the Eternal Dungeon, by law.

It took her a minute to locate the appendix with the prison codes. Then it took her many minutes more to translate what Toler had told her. Several times she paused to reread what she had written. Toler hoped that she was simply experiencing difficulty in transcribing his long list of crimes. He would have liked to have been able to shorten them; even more, he would have liked to have been able to eliminate the references to the dates on which he arrived and departed the Eternal Dungeon, which unfortunately matched the dates on which Layle Smith had arrived and departed.

However, he could not alter the code. The final numbers were a security confirmation, designed to ensure that none of the previous letters and numbers were transposed or eliminated. The security confirmation was determined by such a complex formula that even Layle Smith, who had read the prison codes of every prisoner who entered the Eternal Dungeon for the nearly thirty years of his High Seekership, could not have altered his own code without checking the tables available only in the Codifier's office. Nor could Toler provide someone else's code, for prison codes were so lengthy that he did not have any of them memorized except his own.

What his own code told he knew all too clearly.

Second month of 320: Birth (place of birth not noted). Sixth month of 335: Arrested. Charged with captivity, theft, rape, and murder of a female, virgin. Searched at Blackstone Prison under procedures applicable to youth prisoners. Confessed to guilt. Charges added as a result of confession. Charged with captivity of five males; captivity and theft of eight males; captivity, theft, and torture of nine males; and captivity, theft, torture, and murder of eleven males. Confessed to guilt. Sixth month of 335: Sentenced to execution. Sentence commuted to life imprisonment in Blackstone Prison. Tenth month of 338: Transferred and resentenced to eternal commitment in the Eternal Dungeon. Third month of 348: Voluntarily surrendered for crime and confessed to guilt. Charged with sexual assault of an incapacitated prisoner – female, married. Fourth month of 348: Sentenced to removal of privileges for three months. Seventh month of 355: Voluntarily surrendered for crime and confessed to guilt. Charged with physical assault of a prisoner – male. Seventh month of 355: Sentenced to removal of privileges for six months. Twelfth month of 374: Released from eternal commitment by the Codifier of the Eternal Dungeon, by reason of health.

The description of his criminal career was more than a little deceptive. The sexual and physical assaults he had committed during his time as High Seeker, although a monstrous breach of ethics from the point of view of himself and the Eternal Dungeon, had consisted of nothing more than a light kiss and a brief shove against the wall. Nor did the record reveal – as it was intended not to reveal – that his eternal commitment to the Eternal Dungeon had been voluntary, part of the process of becoming a Seeker. The Eternal Dungeon deliberately refused to make any legal distinction between its Seekers and its other prisoners. In this manner, the Eternal Dungeon impressed upon Seekers that, if they broke the rules of the dungeon, they would receive no better treatment than any other criminal.

That much of the record was deceptive, as was the portion of the record speaking of his execution being commuted to life imprisonment in Blackstone Prison. This was the manner in which the Codifier had initially managed to disguise to the rest of the world the fact that Layle Smith had begun his career as a torturer in Vovim's Hidden Dungeon. What was all too accurate, alas, was the list of crimes Toler had committed before he was delivered to the Hidden Dungeon.

"Well!" said Mistress Gaugash, raising her pen from the translation. "You seem to have most thoroughly acquired the qualifications to be a member of the Commoners' Guild. I congratulate you."

There was a hint of dryness to her tone. Uncertain whether he was being scolded, Toler said, "I hope that my past is not an insurmountable barrier to my membership in your guild. If you wish a guarantee of good behavior—" He hesitated, wondering who could be called upon to offer such guarantees on his behalf. Broaddus? But Toler got along with Broaddus precisely by avoiding any mention of his criminal past.

"It would be more to the point to offer a guarantee of bad behavior." There was definite dryness in Mistress Gaugash's voice now. "You do realize, I hope, that every member of this guild is in danger of arrest, simply by being a member. One would expect a man of your background to be especially wary of entanglements with the law."

He tried to imagine how the new High Seeker would react if Layle Smith was delivered to him as a prisoner. With glee, no doubt. There was no love lost on either side of their relations. "I understand, miss."

The guild leader's assistant moved restlessly in her seat. "I prefer to be addressed as Gaugash," she said, rising to her feet. As she came round to the front of the desk, Toler realized for the first time that she was wearing puffy pantaloons, like a clown – the infamous "lady-trousers" that were said to be popular among radical women who were pressing for the right to vote. The pantaloons were accompanied by only the skimpiest of skirts, covering the groin area.

He just managed to suppress a sigh as he rose to his feet out of gentlemanly courtesy. Bloody women, always taking over the roles of men. He had endured that several times in the Eternal Dungeon, though he was willing to concede that the experiment to hire lady Seekers had been a successful one. He supposed there might be some advantage here to such an experiment, though he could not envision it.

He had been trained at an early age to be polite, however. He bowed in response. She hesitated in her step, as though unused to such courtesy. Then she placed her backside against the desk— Toler managed to pull his gaze away from her legs, flimsily covered. He was not going to resume his criminal career.

She was saying, "Was there a particular aspect of the guild's work that you wished to volunteer for, Forge? We are currently pressing for shorter work hours, safer work conditions, higher wages, abolishing the blacklists, abolishing child labor, abolishing monopolies . . ."

It was a very long list; Toler had not realized that the Commoners' Guild was involved in so many enterprises. At the end of the list, he waited, to see whether she would say more. Then he asked in an undemanding manner, "The guild is not currently fighting to better the prisons? I believe I heard it had done so in years past." Dwelling deep beneath the palace, he had mainly been shielded from the raucous near-riots in the city. But of course as High Seeker he had received reports on the protests at the palace gates . . . as well as unofficial reports from Elsdon on his brother's repeated arrests during those years.

She frowned. "We understood that torture has finally been forbidden in the Eternal Dungeon – is this not so?"

"It is," he conceded, not making the mistake of offering his opinion on the folly of that change.

"Well, then . . ." She waved away the matter with one hand. When he said nothing, she added, "Our leader did mention, before he left, that he hoped the guild would do more work on prison reform in the future. But since he will be investigating conditions in Mippite prisons, I would rather await his reports."

He had to bite his tongue to keep from speaking. She was a civilian, he reminded himself. Young as she was, she had likely never been imprisoned. She did not understand how important timeliness was, where prisoners were concerned. She did not realize that a single day could make all the difference, if a prisoner was ill-used.

And it was no longer his job to reprimand and punish, but to serve in whatever capacity the guild desired him to take. That was the compromise he had reached with himself during his past six weeks of contemplating the future: to continue to fight on behalf of justice, but to do so in the capacity of a follower, not a leader.

He must not have been good at controlling his expression; it was a skill he had not needed during his decades of wearing a hood over his face. She asked slowly, "You believe otherwise?"

He did his best to explain the concern that had been upon him since reading Bainbridge's account of his time in life prison. Toler concluded, "If Mr. Bainbridge is correct, then it appears that the guards at that prison have a deliberate policy of driving prisoners to their deaths."

Her lips were pressed thin now. "That is the policy in every prison. Commoners are always fodder to the elite."

"No, madam— Gaugash, I mean." His voice was firm; this was a subject he knew well, from having pored through hundreds of charts of prison mortality over the years. "Accidental deaths occur everywhere, and certainly accidental deaths are common in poorly run prisons, where prisoners receive only the barest minimum of food and shelter, and where guards may misuse their power over the prisoners. But only in the most ill-run prisons – those in Vovim, say – is there a deliberate policy of killing prisoners. I know of only one case in the Eternal Dungeon of a Seeker who deliberately tried to force death upon his prisoners; that Seeker was charged and convicted of murder." Layle Smith had taken that case himself. It had been one of the few times in his career when he had allowed himself to feel satisfaction at the hanging of a prisoner.

Gaugash was frowning now. "So you are saying that the life prisons are especially dangerous to commoners."

"Particularly since we know so little of them," he emphasized. "Mr. Bainbridge's account is the first I have heard of any public report emerging from a life prison. If matters are as bad as he says, dozens of prisoners must be driven to their deaths each year. Thousands, if we take into account the life prisons in the country districts."

She drew in her breath sharply. Close to, it was clear that she was even younger than Toler had originally thought; she could not be older than twenty-one. Toler wondered what strange notion had come upon Bainbridge, that he would appoint a journeyman-aged girl to hold so great a post in his absence.

However, her voice was reassuringly matter-of-fact as she said, "I see. Well, then, we must indeed carve out time in the guild's schedule to protest against conditions in the life prisons. I gather that you are willing to take charge of the protests?"

He hesitated, uncertain how to respond. Then her gaze narrowed, and he realized she was setting a test for him.

"I am," he said firmly. He might as well be hung for leadership as for being a follower, he supposed. He hoped that the new High Seeker would have the grace not to question Toler himself. Thankfully, Weldon Chapman would not be called upon to undertake this duty; he was retired.

The broadness of her smile told him that he had passed her test. "Not, of course, that we would expect you to be the public face of such protests," she added. "It would be better if we picked someone from a more respectable background to represent our interests. But you may coordinate matters in the background." She pushed herself away from the desk. "I have work to do this morning, but would you care for a brief tour of our meeting spaces before we part? It will not take long, I assure you."


The tour indeed did not last long. For the headquarters of Yclau's largest guild, the building was oddly small.

"The building is not very old," commented Gaugash as she led Toler back onto the stair landing. "We bought it from the school that used to own it. They had outgrown the building in the short time since it was built. They had an offer of a larger building, and we were willing to pay cash to buy this building. It suited us to live across the street from the jail." With these ominous words, she pulled back the panel of the room opposite her own.

Nothing lay there except tools clearly intended for the renovation of the building. Toler was beginning to wonder whether the men outside were the only inhabitants of the building. He commented on the emptiness of the top floor of the headquarters, and Gaugash nodded. "It is our perennial problem," she said, closing the panel. "How to run a guild with the help of men and women who cannot afford to take time off from work, when we do not have funds to pay them. None of us receive salaries; all of us must work for our livings. I believe that Mr. Bainbridge is currently engaged in seeking work in Mip."

Toler turned his attention to Gaugash. Her accent, like Bainbridge's, was mid-class, and in defiance to commoner custom, she referred to her leader by courtesy title. It was one of the traditions that had always set the Eternal Dungeon apart – that it granted courtesy titles to all its prisoners, including its many commoner prisoners.

Toler asked delicately, "Have you known Mr. Bainbridge for long?"

"For some time," she replied in a vague manner as she led him down the stairs.

Toler thought about this, then said, "If you are a close acquaintance of his, you must know a great deal about running a guild."

Her startled look as they reached the ground floor told him that she rarely – if ever – received this comment. Then suddenly she looked tired. She replied, "I am not currently seeking a husband, but thank you."

He could think of no appropriate response to this misunderstanding except to chuckle. "I will keep that in mind," he assured her. "But my comment was genuine, I assure you. If you have known Mr. Bainbridge since you were young, it must have been like being raised in the trade."

"Somewhat like that, yes," she said, giving him a cautious look, obviously unwilling to believe that his compliment was genuine. "Though I was already something of a rebel when I first came to know Mr. and Mistress Bainbridge. They simply helped me to see that many of my troubles were shared by all commoners, and that we are all oppressed by the elite."

She paused with her hand on the door of one of the rooms downstairs, obviously waiting to see whether he would dispute this assertion. He simply nodded. He was past his boyhood folly of thinking that all elite men and women were stagecraft villains, but he remained well aware of how much the lives of the elite were supported by the sweating labor of the commoners . . . not to mention the severe restrictions placed upon the commoners. It was one of the reasons he had taken care to better the lives of the Eternal Dungeon's laborers, as well as to strengthen the long-standing dungeon tradition of permitting Seekers no better lives than their prisoners enjoyed. He supposed that, in a sense, he had been raised "in the trade" as well.

He glanced inside the room that Gaugash had opened for him and saw at once that this was the room where letters – and perhaps handwritten broadsheets – were prepared. In the newer fashion of such matters, all of the secretaries at the many desks were women. Perhaps some of them, Toler reflected to himself, belonged to families who could spare them from the workplace, at least during their childbearing years.

Which left one obvious question. As the door closed, Toler said, "You have a number of young women working for you. Is it difficult for them, finding family members who will care for the children while their mothers are busy?"

She gave him a steady look before saying, "Do you object, then, to women working outside the home?"

"Not at all," he murmured, keeping his voice soft enough that he could not be heard by others. "There are many female laborers in the Eternal Dungeon. The dungeon has a nursery for their children, in order to free the mothers from finding minders for their children."

"Ah, perhaps that is how Mr. Bainbridge gained the notion, then," said Gaugash, and swept open the door to the last remaining room in the building.

The moment that the thick door opened, Toler could hear the chatter of high voices. Looking inside, he saw a room crowded with young children, including one baby who was currently lying in the arms of the only adult in the room. Toler could just barely sight the baby. It was obscured by the bulk of the baby's minder, who was leaning forward to listen to a small girl, distressed over the breaking of a toy she had been playing with.

Mistaking the surprise on Toler's face, Gaugash said, "Yes, we could do with a few more volunteers here, but we are really lucky to have Mistress Mildred. She is very good with children."

Another courtesy title, but clearly the woman in charge had earned it. For she was somehow simultaneously managing to comfort the baby, soothe the distressed girl, end an incipient quarrel among a group of boys, and direct a bit of play-acting that was taking place among most of the children, who were fighting out some long-ago battle with toy swords.

Toler cleared his throat. "Most admirable. How did you obtain her?"

"Oh, she came to us. Her case was most sad. Do you recall the Luray Shirtwaist Company fire?"

He did. News unrelated to prison matters rarely leaked into the Eternal Dungeon, but there had been suggestions at the time that charges might be filed. "The employer was accused of negligence, was he not? He locked in the girls, to prevent them from taking breaks from their work."

Gaugash nodded. She had left the nursery door open. Her gaze was travelling over the children – still too young to work, but that would change for most of them within a short while. Commoner children started work even before their apprentice years. Gaugash said, "We raised money afterwards for court fees. We hoped to bring suit against the employer and thus establish the basis for better conditions of employment elsewhere. But the employer was murdered shortly thereafter, possibly at the behest of some rival manufactory owner who did not wish to risk us winning the suit that would affect all manufactories. And so we were unable to pursue justice for the poor girls who died in the fire."

Toler said gravely, "That is a great shame. But how does this case relate to Mistress Mildred? Surely she is too old to have been one of the girls who escaped the fire."

"No, she was home at the time. She was fortunate enough to have married a man who earned just enough to allow her to stay at home . . . but not enough to establish savings."

"Ah." Toler's voice sank quieter, though there was no sign so far that Mistress Mildred had noticed the conversation. Indeed, the question was how she kept from going deaf amongst the children's chatter and cries. The play-acted battle had reached the stage of dying warriors, with their women weeping over the warriors' bodies. Toler noted with interest that some of the "warriors" were little girls, and some of the "women" were little boys. Mistress Mildred appeared to be more broad-minded in her play-casting than most Yclau whom Toler had known.

Gaugash nodded as though Toler had elaborated on his monosyllabic response. "Yes, her husband died in the fire. He was working as a guard on the ground floor; he was one of the men who tried to free the girls from their imprisonment. It was terrible for Mistress Mildred. She did not even have enough money to see him decently buried; he ended up in a pauper's grave. Their house was not yet fully paid for, so she lost her home and all her belongings. Fortunately, she had sense enough to seek out the help of the guild. We were able to find her a job cleaning houses, though I believe she is still very poor."

"And yet here she is, volunteering her time." Toler had his eye on the back of Mistress Mildred's head as she bent down to inspect one of the wounded warriors.

"Yes, it is truly remarkable," said Gaugash. Her voice had grown stronger throughout the conversation, as though feeding upon Toler's interest. "She comes here faithfully every afternoon in order to look after the children, so that their mothers can work for us. I do not know how we would manage without her. Would you like an introduction?"

Toler was saved from replying as Davis suddenly appeared. Giving Toler a wary look, he leaned over and murmured something in Gaugash's ear that Toler pretended he could not hear.

Gaugash nodded, then said to Toler, "I apologize. We've just received another attempt by the Queen's government to shut us down. That's the third time since Mr. Bainbridge was released. I must go deal with this. Does your work-master's schedule for you permit you time to work for us in the afternoons?"

"I am entirely free for your service," he said, avoiding a direct answer.

"Splendid. I will see you tomorrow afternoon, then." She swept out the front door of the building, already deep in conversation with Davis.

Toler lingered in the doorway to the nursery. Without moving from her chair, Mistress Mildred was managing to coordinate the pageant before her, like a director upon a stage. Within a short time, the ruins of the battle were picked up and the children were gathered around her, listening to a story. Then, the story finished, they lay down on the floor to nap.

Finally Toler made up his mind. Weaving his way between the sleeping children, he went to the center of the room and stood silently in front of Mistress Mildred. There was no surprise on her face as she looked up, but she seemed unable to meet his eye.

He knelt. It seemed more polite to place himself at her level. "Mistress Char," he said, "I regret most bitterly my exceeding rudeness upon our last meeting. May I dare to hope that you will forgive me and return to the most excellent work you were doing for me?"

Her hair, as always, fell in front of her face, hiding most of her expression. But after a minute, her head jerked in a nod.