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

Convenient Join

Yasline was in the small private sitting room that Mistress Beatrix maintained when she wanted an informal chat, rather than the grand and intimidating reception room she had deployed when she had first interviewed the traveller known as Triss Higolter. Not that the interview had particularly intimidated Higolter, to Beatrix's continued annoyance; the apothecary seemed to have been entirely immune to the supposedly inauspicious setting. Still, the business arrangement she had agreed might indeed turn a profit, especially since her actual investment was really very small.

Cups of a mildly intoxicating infusion were served to both women by one of the quietly efficient staff that the Mansion of Mistress Beatrix employed in large numbers, who then padded away closing the door behind them.

"So, Yasline," Mistress Beatrix said, putting aside her teacup, "It had been two weeks since this Triss Higolter first visited us. Am I correct in suggesting that you have been, ah, indulging his every whim in that time?"

Yasline too set down her cup neatly on a side table.

"I have, as you instructed, been helping Triss in his activities," she began, "I feel sure you have been receiving reports about our pursuits, via various routes but, in summary, I have been assisting in his preparations, sampling his potions and sharing his bed."

Mistress Beatrix raised a very carefully shaped and plucked eyebrow.

"And you are happy about this arrangement?"

"I am," Yasline replied, "His tonic draught seems to be doing me a great deal of good, his makeup products feel smooth and are easy to apply, and his lotions and lubricants are a delight to use."

Mistress Beatrix studied the young woman in the chair opposite with practiced eyes. She looked well, very well indeed; her dark hair shone with that naturally glossy sheen which was impossible to achieve with even the most expensive shampoo; her skin seemed almost translucent, as if glowing from within. Her makeup was quite different, too - somehow simultaneously more natural-looking and more provocative - and she seemed to be filling out her - admittedly, alluringly revealing - garment in ways she had not done before.

"And how do you feel, in yourself?"

"Good," she replied immediately, "Very good indeed. I feel, oh, full of energy and, somehow, ready for whatever new and exciting experience comes my way."

Mistress Beatrix leaned forward in her chair and touched the other woman on the wrist solicitously.

"And your other, ah, little problem?"

Yasline's smile softened into sadness for a moment.

"Entirely gone, dealt with," she said quietly, "No pain, and surprisingly little blood. I was, uh, indisposed for a few hours. But now I am fully recovered and I have already been fulfilling my duties as you expect me to do."

"Indeed, I am pleased."

Mistress Beatrix had noted that Yasline had become very popular amongst her clientele in the last week or so; one young lordling, brought to the Mansion by an older man who was the lad's uncle, was immediately struck by the younger woman’s allure and had returned unaccompanied several times since. Each time, of course, he had deposited a quantity of gold and silver which had contributed usefully towards the upkeep of the establishment.

Mistress Beatrix sipped again at her beverage, then set it down.

"And How would you describe Mister Higolter himself, in the bed?" she went on.

Yasline sat up straight for a moment, evidently composing her thoughts.

"Considerate," she answered, eventually, "He likes me, I can see that plainly, and he always makes it immediately clear to me what exactly he wants, without embarrassment or beating about the bush. He seems to be one of those men who gets more pleasure when the woman is also pleasured at the same time."

Yasline paused, again looking thoughtful.

"I was taught to make certain movements, noises, when a client was close to the edge," she said carefully, "With Triss, I have never needed to fake any such reactions and, I suspect, he would know immediately if I even attempted to do so."

She thought for another moment, then added, "It's almost as if he was once a woman, felt things as a woman feels them. Ridiculous, I know, but it does something seem like he is remembering what to do when he pleasures me."

Mistress Beatrix nodded understandingly.

"Well, Yasline, thank you for your candour," she said, "It had been most useful to me in making an important decision.

Yasline nodded in acknowledgment then, understanding that she had been dismissed, moved to stand and leave.

"No, stay, please," Mistress Beatrix said, again placing a hand on the younger woman's wrist, "I would like your opinion on my next visitor."

Yasline subsided into her chair, looking confused.

"I have asked Mister Higolter to join us," the older woman went on, "I believe he is waiting without."

She rang a little bell that sat on the table next to her cup. The door opened almost immediately and Triss Higolter stepped inside. Yasline turned as he entered and smiled broadly at the man, her face lighting up in a way which was not lost on the keen eyes of the Mistress of the Mansion.

Mistress Beatrix gestured to a chair; Higolter sat, looking relaxed. Mistress Beatrix indicated the pot and cups on a side table; Higolter declined with a minimal shake of his head.

"So, Mister Higolter," the older woman began, "Our agreed trial period is at an end."

"It is," he agreed.

"I profess to find the result of the experiment satisfactory," Mistress Beatrix said, "I would like to make our arrangement permanent, and to ask you manufacture enough of your potions and ointments and tonics for all my ladies."

"I would very much like to accept your generous offer," he replied at once, "But there are some minor conditions I must ask you to consider."

Mistress Beatrix looked immediately suspicious.

"And what are these conditions?" she demanded.

Higolter smiled charmingly.

"First, I would like Yasline to continue her present duties - all of them - as hitherto. Her skill and successes in the marketplace - and elsewhere, if I may make so bold - has been a vital part of the process."

Mistress Beatrix glanced at Yasline, who nodded minutely.

"I feel sure that Yasline would not object to such an arrangement," she replied, "And so I accept."

"Excellent. And I would ask you to continue funding to the tune of" - he mentioned a surprisingly modest sum of silver - "weekly for the purchase of ingredients from the market stalls and elsewhere."

"Agreed. And what would be your renumeration for your efforts?"

"Ah. This would be my final condition. I seek no salary for my work here but," he answered, pausing for emphasis, "But one day I may come to you seeking a favour in lieu of any payments."

"And what would this favour be?" the Mistress asked, intrigued in spite of herself.

"I cannot tell you," Higolter said, "Because I do not yet know myself. Indeed, I may never ask for any favour. But my terms must include a firm promise to me at some unspecified time in the future."

Mistress Beatrix looked at Higolter strangely for a long moment.

"Very well," she said eventually, "If you should ever find yourself in need of a favour, then the resources of the Mansion - such as they are - will be available to you."

Higolter beamed widely, then stood up and bowed low to the Mistress.

"In which case," he said, "I am delighted to agree to your generous offer and I will commence discharging my responsibilities immediately."

Mistress Beatrix nodded politely in response. Yasline could not keep a broad smile off her face.

*

Yasline, in her widow's weeds, soon became a familiar sight in the marketplace and emporiums of the town - accompanied by her basket-boy and bodyguard - selecting ingredients and other goods with skill and care, and bargaining firmly to get the best price. The stall-holders and shop-keepers began to recognise her - at least from her dress and deportment - and sought to attract her business, even volunteering to help with sourcing some of the more unusual items she required. Nobody seemed to associate this slender widow with the Mansion of Mistress Beatrix, and Yasline took great care that she was not followed on her return to the bordello.

As the winter snows thawed and spring rains came and went, Higolter quietly ran down his involvement with the blacksmith. Jahn had now been joined by his eldest grandson, still a gangly teenager but rapidly growing and would very soon be a big strong lad. The youngster already showed some talent with the hot metals and forge tools, and even more with the great beasts, unafraid and able in that difficult-to-define way to impose his will, by body language alone, on an animal ten times his mass and thirty times his strength.

Higolter increased both the range and quantities of the potions and ointments he produced; they were uniformly well-received by the working ladies of the Mansion and, even more so, by the clients of the house. These wealthy visitors increased both in number and frequency, much as he had predicted when first proposing this arrangement and very much to the satisfaction of Mistress Beatrix herself. The Mansion itself now exhibited a pervasive buzz which was absent when Higolter first visited, the silver was rolling in and Beatrix found the confidence to expand her operations, taking in and training more pretty girls wishing to escape a life of drudgery on an almost weekly basis.

It was approaching the season where, in previous years, Higolter would have donned his travelling garb and persona and set off on his perambulations, spending mostly of the warmer months on the road. But, he considered, becoming peripatetic again would be a predictable thing, given recent summers; it was time for a change. Besides, this little town of Brunanburh would do well enough for a longer stay: it was far away from any big city or important centre of commerce and quietly made its own way in the world without impacting anything very much.

*

It was late springtime when Higolter requested another interview with Mistress Beatrix. He was again invited to the private sitting room where he found the Mistress of the house sipping some warm infusion evidently just poured by another of the silent servants. Beatrix beckoned him forward, gesturing economically to the chair opposite and the cluttered drinks tray. He sat economically and accepted a steaming cup, tasting the drink with approval while the servant padded away.

"So, Mister Higolter," Mistress Beatrix asked, "What brings you to my parlour this day?"

"Firstly," Higolter began smoothly, settling aside his cup, "I wish to enquire as to your satisfaction, or otherwise, of the services I have been providing over these last months."

The Mistress set down her own cup and looked levelly at the man opposite.

"I think you already know the answer to this question," she said directly, "I must assume that you are using this as a polite way of broaching another subject. So why don't you just tell me what it is you actually want?"

Higolter smiled wryly, shaking his head.

"You will recall, I'm sure, that many months ago I asked for a favour - then unspecified - in lieu of any renumeration for my apothecary work," he said carefully, "And I am here now to ask for that favour."

Mistress Beatrix stiffened noticeably.

"I did so agree," she said, equally carefully, "So you must tell me your requirements."

"Indeed. I wish you to release Yasline from her contract and allow her to leave with me."

"Well, I had expected something more, well, exotic from your request," Mistress Beatrix said, sounding relieved, "But why? What use would you have for a whore, even one in good standing and now excellent health?"

"I intend to ask Yasline to marry me," he said simply, "And to set up a home for us here in the town. Oh, don't worry, I won't stop working here, producing the many elixirs which you have found, if I may make so bold, so important to your business prospects. Oh, don't worry: I won't be making them for anybody else. We have a deal. I just wish to achieve a more, well, conventional social standing."

Mistress Beatrix nodded in understanding.

"Have you asked Yasline about this proposed arrangement?" she asked.

"I have not. I thought it both polite and prudent to approach you first," he replied, "I have high hopes that such a proposal would be welcomed by Yasline, but I considered it better to talk to you directly in the first instance, rather than raise the poor woman's hope only to have it dashed to the floor in front of her."

Mistress Beatrix, having seen the way in which Yasline looked at Higolter when she thought herself unobserved, considered that his assessment of her likely reaction was probably correct. Indeed, from a purely business perspective, releasing a woman would have provided excellent service for her clients for many years would do little damage - none of it irreparable - in the grand scheme of things.

"I accept," Mistress Beatrix said grandly, "You may take Yasline away at your earliest convenience - assuming she'll have you, of course."

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