A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Common Business

The winter snows lay thick and pure and white on the rooftops of Brunanburh, settling crisply on the ledges and gargoyles of the churches and mansion houses, the chapels and guild buildings. At ground level, of course, the snow was far from white and quite definitely not pure; a prudent man would not seek to determine exactly what detritus was admixed with the frozen water. Still, the thaw and the spring rains would soon wash away the ordure and excrement, to be replaced by a fresh layer ready to be baked in the heat of the summer.

The traveller had been engaged as the assistant to a blacksmith and farrier for several months now. The old smith had inherited a forge conveniently close to that part of the market square where the stables used by the animals for riding and those deployed to draw the great carts and carriages that tradesmen and gentry alike relied upon so much. After a short trial period, which was terminated early once the blacksmith saw the traveller's evident skills with the tools of the trade, his aplomb in handling the beasts themselves and his evident strength when it came to operating the bellows and moving the anvil, he had settled in without fuss.

The old blacksmith was a widower of many years. His marriage, although bountiful, had produced only girls - all now married off, of course, as was the convention, although he was pleased to see that his daughters' marriages seemed to be at least tolerably happy, and that grandchildren – even grandsons! - had started appearing. So, to his evident delight, he might yet have a strong boy to take over his business, in the fullness of time but meanwhile, he was not getting any younger and he found himself relying fairly heavily on the quietly spoken journeyman who seemed to have fallen into his lap.

After long hours in the forge, shoeing the animals as they were presented by their owners and, in between times, working on the backlog of wrought iron gates, fences and miscellaneous door furniture - orders for which seemed to come in a steady stream - the traveller would frequently join the old farrier around the fire in the tiny cottage adjacent to the forge.

The elder blacksmith, whose name was Jahn the Smith as far as his neighbours and acquaintances were concerned, seemed more than happy to fill pewter tankards with a strong dark winter ale drawn from a barrel in the cellar - a beverage the traveller encountered surprisingly little difficulty in finding a taste for - and to indulge in the swapping of tall tales.

On the traveller's part, his stories were mostly true, although of course embellished in the telling and embroidered around the edges for the amusement of the audience; the provenance of the tales told by the old blacksmith were unclear but in any case did not matter overmuch to the traveller. All in all, these were quietly convivial evenings to be enjoyed before the traveller was able to retire relatively early to his sleeping space under the eaves, where his straw mattress was dry and tolerably clean, the blankets thick and numerous, and the room nicely warmed by the embers in the fireplace below.

Occasionally, the traveller would pull on heavy boots and a greatcoat against the chill and tour a couple of the ale houses and taverns of the town, taking in a different area on each trip: the public houses frequented by the boatsmen and porters by River Gate, which led down to the wharves and busy docks and then onto the short arched stone bridge across the river Brun; the tap houses used by the market traders wedged untidily into the north side of the square, and many others too. In these places, the traveller would consume a small measure of the weakest beer and make the acquaintance of one or more of the other drinkers; always listening for talk of weird occurrences or lights in the sky or strangers mysteriously disappearing, and rewarding any such talk with a tankard or two of the strongest brew in the house.

On this particular evening, the traveller had a different destination in mind; in fact, two different destinations. Working all day in the heat of the forge in the presence of heavy beasts of burden tended to give a man a fairly rich and earthy scent. As often as he thought prudent - sometimes as much as twice a week - the traveller would seek out the bathhouse where he would soak and scrub and steep until he was tolerably clean and mostly rid of the smell of hot coals and sweaty animals.

His second and final destination was the Mansion of Mistress Beatrix which was, quite frankly, a whorehouse.

Mistress Beatrix's establishment was the finest kind of bordello: clean, stylish, discreet, comfortable, catering for every imaginable requirement and was, therefore, eye-wateringly expensive. Its clientele were uniformly from the rich and powerful; such clients were carefully chaperoned from place to place within the rambling buildings housing the facilities, so that one could safely attend from time to time without the risk of coming face-to-face with one's business colleague, temple priest, political rival or family member.

The traveller approached one of the more public entrances to Mistress Beatrix's bagnio in a clean and sober state of mind, rang the doorbell once only and stood back, smiling slightly for the hidden observers which logic told him must be present, for all that he could not detect their presence. Half a minute later, the door was opened by a curvaceous young woman wearing a diaphanous gown, a great deal of jewellery, slightly too much makeup and a welcoming smile which seemed, even to the traveller's sharp and experienced eyes, entirely genuine.

"Good evening, stranger," the woman said winsomely, "How may we be of service?"

The traveller deployed his most charming smile, to obvious effect.

"I seek an interview with Mistress Beatrix herself," he stated simply, "I have an item of business - another kind of business, to be clear - to discuss with her."

The young woman's smile stayed fixed on her face, although whatever emotion or enthusiasm had placed it there seemed to have evaporated without trace. She stepped back, throwing the door wide.

"Please come in, good sir," she simpered, gesturing towards the plushly decorated lounge within.

"Thank you," the traveller said, stepping inside and nodding politely to the huge man in dark clothing sitting in the shadows just inside the door.

"Please, take a seat," the girl went on, "And I will send a message to Mistress Beatrix to see if she is accepting calls this evening."

"Again, my thanks. Do please encourage the Mistress of the house to look favourably upon my request, as it might very well result in some advantage to herself."

The young woman gulped and nodded, waving the traveller in the direction of a comfortable couch in a quiet corner of the lounge.

"I will look to your request directly, good sir," she said, then turned and hurried off.

The traveller sat composedly and looked around within interest. The space was comfortably lit with numerous oil lamps burning, he noted, the finest lamp oil: no smell of burnt fleece or aroma of badly-cooked animal. The lamps also contributed to the great warmth of the space, which was just as well, since there seemed to be a plethora of young women wearing almost no clothes disporting themselves on pads and couches and chairs in every direction.

After a few minutes, one of the young women peeled herself from the divan where she had been lounging gracefully and approached the traveller. Her clothing seemed to insist on covering her in gauze from the waist down while simultaneously emphasising the shapely curves of her breasts and the tautness of her nipples.

"May I press you to some refreshment?" she asked, nodding in the direction of a tray overflowing with exotic-looking bottles. All were familiar to the traveller, having been in parts of this world where such bottles were an everyday feature at backstreet wine stalls and sellers of hooch.

"No, thank you," he replied, "Although you might assist me in another way, if you would be so kind."

"And what form would that assistance take?" she asked haughtily, standing even straighter so as to emphasise the slenderness of her form.

"Stand before me," he said, smiling, "And turn about a time or two."

She looked at him strangely, but complied nevertheless, swivelling on her toes while keeping her chin raised high.

"You are with child," the traveller said flatly, "Only a few weeks as yet. You probably know, but I suspect nobody else does and I dare say you have not yet summoned the courage to mention it to the management."

The woman's eyes filled with tears and her face reddened with shame and worry and embarrassment. She spun on her heel and stalked off, followed by the eyes of everybody else in the room with expressions variously condescending, sympathetic and indifferent.

The traveller sat quietly, apparently deep in thought; none of the other ladies in the room thought it prudent to interrupt his reverie. Some ten or so minutes later, the doorkeeper returned and approached the traveller with undisguised urgency in her step.

"Mistress Beatrix will see you now," she said breathlessly, then turned and hurried away without even waiting for the traveller to follow.

The traveller stood and strode swiftly after the doorkeeper, who led him to an imposing doorway which was nonetheless not entirely obviously located. She pulled the heavy door open with obvious effort and gestured the traveller inside. The space was large and warm and lit with more oil lamps; these were perfumed and filled the room with a rich scent. The walls were festooned with dark drapes which could conceal almost anything: a squad of armed guards, a clutch of crossbows on hair triggers, a bevy of exotic dancers to entertain guests. The traveller ignored them.

The room was apparently empty apart from a woman in a long purple dress who sat very straight in a large and ornate chair which might, in another setting be called a throne. Her face was pale and unlined; her hair long and dark and formed into an elaborate coiffure on the top of her head; the traveller formed the opinion that this appearance was the result of elaborate attention from a skilled makeup artist and coiffeuse. Her eyes were dark and full of wit and intelligence and amusement; the traveller liked her immediately.

He walked forward to what he judged was a polite distance and bowed low, then waited with every evidence of patience for the Mistress to speak.

"So, you are the journeyman in the employ of Jahn the Smith?"

The traveller nodded once but said nothing.

"Hmm. I had expected an unwashed brute smelling of the forge. But you seem to be a man of some refinement."

He nodded again, smiling.

"A man who arrived in our fair town alone and almost unremarked in the last days of autumn. A man whose skills with hot metal and large beasts seems to have attracted a degree of attention, even approval. A man who has casually made the acquaintance of many in the market square and the docks and the taverns here and there. A man who is known to many people but still nobody knows your name."

"Ah, names," the traveller answered, smiling even more broadly, "I'd wager that your name is now not quite the one your mother gave you and, as it happens, neither is mine. Nevertheless, in this time and place, I am Triss Higolter."

Her face twisted into a wry grin.

"So, a man of some humour and intellect, I see," the Mistress said, approvingly, then narrowed her eyes, "And now, Mister Higolter, my girl suggested you have a business proposition for me. I am intrigued by the possibility that a blacksmith might have something that I would want or need."

"Mistress, I have travelled far in our world and I am, perhaps, older and wiser than I look," the traveller said calmly, "And I have skills beyond that of a journeyman farrier. In particular, in another place, I was an apothecary and herbalist of some repute, whose renown had spread far and wide - although not, I fancy, as far as here."

"You may, or may not, be some kind of herb doctor," Mistress Beatrix said suspiciously, "But I do not need any such skill here."

"Oh, but you do," the traveller replied earnestly, "Your ladies have many problems: disease, pregnancies, injuries, failures of the mind and spirit. Your business is threatened, perhaps closer to collapse that you realise. You really do need my help."

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