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

Fair Employment

For an intelligent and still handsome woman, one who had been stunningly beautiful in earlier life, no doubt, Mistress Beatrix could still manage an extremely impressive annoyed scowl.

"I am quite sure," she said indignantly, "That I don't know what you mean."

"But it is all so plain, so apparent," the traveller said, spreading his hands as if to take in the whole room, the whole building, "Money is tight, so you save it in little ways. The oil in your lamps, for example: in here, they are perfumed, unlike the more public areas and, even then, you dilute it with unperfumed stuff."

Mistress Beatrix's scowl deepened.

"I took a quick glance at the girls waiting so patiently in your anteroom," the traveller went on, "Lovely young women, of course, but not, how can I say this, as brightly welcoming or well turned out as they could be. Their clothes are obviously beautifully tailored and painstakingly fitted, but they are not new and are showing signs of careful but repeated repair. As are your own garments, I see."

Mistress Beatrix must have realised that scowling at such sharp observations from the traveller did not make them any less true, and was becoming just a little impressed by the astuteness of his words. She did her best, however, to avoid making this apparent to her guest.

"And their makeup," he continued, watching his host's reactions carefully, "It is expertly applied, in general, although some seem to want to apply too much. But the materials are not the best quality, being likely to smear and run with only a little energetic activity or unexpected dampness."

The traveller held his hands forward beseechingly.

"And your ladies seem to have lost the spark of excitement in their deportment, their faces," he went on, "The ability to ignite the frisson of an unknown adventure with a smile, to fuel the passion and excitement of a journey with a companion who delights and teases and surprises. Instead, all of them seem nervous, even afraid, although they are trying hard to conceal it. They know that times are hard, that customers are becoming fewer, and that regulars are returning more infrequently."

The traveller cocked his head sharply to one side, as if suddenly hearing a noise from without.

"You will have overheads, in a business like this," he observed solemnly, "Overheads you cannot avoid and must be paid on time, with painful, perhaps even fatal penalties for defaulting."

Mistress Beatrix sat back in her chair, looking askance at the irritatingly - indeed, worryingly - correct analysis she had just heard.

"So what could a skilled apothecary, such as I, provide for you?" the traveller said rhetorically, holding his hand to his chest in what was obviously an ironic way, "What you need, what all your girls need, it seems to me, are tonics to aid the digestion and improve the complexion and lift the spirits; ointments to ease discomfort in many, ah, intimate places, and unoiled assistants to avoid future tenderness in those parts."

The Mistress of the House nodded minimally at the traveller.

"They all need to feel better in their own bodies and their own minds; they need the threat to their future, their lives removed. Oh, and they need better makeup materials," he said, adding, "I can make all these things for you. Very quickly, I predict, you would find that paying customers - very well paying customers, I imagine - would come flocking back, your reputation restored and enhanced in private corners of large houses about the town, and your financial worries entirely removed."

"I see," Mistress Beatrix said, speaking in a soft but still irritated voice, "Suppose this were all true. What would you get from supplying me with such tinctures and nostrums?"

The traveller smiled, as if anticipating this part.

"I would require but a few simple and inexpensive things from you, Mistress," he replied, "Things you can easily afford to give me."

"And those are?" Mistress Beatrix growled.

"Firstly, I will need a large room, or perhaps a suite of rooms," the traveller said, "Somewhere on your premises. On the ground floor, with decent ventilation and ideally close to one of your, err, shall we say, less well-known entrances."

"Well, I dare say something of the kind could be accommodated," Mistress Beatrix said, sounding amused, "But why do you want such a thing?"

"I wish my apothecarial efforts to be undertaken away from the sight of the common people of the town," he answered, "I have a different persona to live up to, out there."

"Well, that seems reasonable enough," she said, smirking, "Especially since it means your potions and philtres will not be widely available elsewhere."

"I see no need that they should be," he agreed amicably, "That is certainly in my interests, too. Secondly, I need you to invest some small silver in ingredients, from the market and other traders. You might consider this your direct investment in this little enterprise."

"How much silver?" she demanded.

The traveller mentioned a sum which was indeed very modest by the standards of the Mansion of Mistress Beatrix, although did represent several weeks of renumeration for a common labourer.

"That is the initial requirement," the traveller went on, "There might be further demands on your purse, if we are to go ahead with this arrangement. But if that comes to pass, you will not begrudge the additional amounts."

"We will see," Mistress Beatrix muttered, "Anything else?"

"Just one," he replied immediately, "I will need an assistant. I was speaking with a young woman while waiting, I don't know her name..."

"She is Yasline," Madame Beatrix interrupted sharply, "I have been informed that you diagnosed her condition at a glance, which is impressive, although she had not thought fit to tell me about it."

"To be an effective apothecary, one has to have a good knowledge of the workings of the human body," the man called Triss Higolter said modestly, "And that too is a problem I can resolve for you. And her, painlessly and quickly. So, my suggestion is that you lend this Yasline to me, for two days a week for two weeks."

Mistress Beatrix ring a small silver bell that had hitherto stood on a side table. The peals had barely ceased when the young woman who had acted as doorkeeper appeared at the door.

"Bring Yasline," Mistress Beatrix instructed curtly.

"Yes, Mistress," the doorkeeper replied, then scurried off.

Yasline must have been waiting somewhere close by, since she appeared in the doorway almost immediately, looking nervous.

"You sent for me, Mistress?" Yasline asked, holding her head high to disguise her unease.

"I did," the Mistress of the house answered, "Come forward."

Yasline moved to stand near the traveller, looking increasingly puzzled. Higolter glanced at her in his worryingly appraising way.

"Now, Yasline, Mister Higolter here..." Mistress Beatrix began.

"Call me Triss," the traveller interjected, smiling warmly at the younger woman.

"Triss, then," Mistress Beatrix continued, "Has a business proposal which I am considering. For part of that arrangement - *proposed* arrangement - he requests an assistant and is suggesting that you provide that assistance."

"Me?" Yasline squeaked.

"Yes, you," Mistress Beatrix confirmed in a firm tone which suggested argument was not an option.

"So what will I be required to do?" Yasline asked.

Mistress Beatrix nodded at the traveller.

"I expect to be setting up an apothecary's workshop, here in these buildings, away from prying eyes," Triss Higolter said promptly, "I would wish you to meet my needs and requirements in three ways."

"And these are?"

"Firstly, I wish you to buy herbs and other materials, from the market and traders of the town. I will supply you with a list of things to purchase and Mistress Beatrix here will provide the necessary silver - assuming she agrees to this arrangement, of course."

"I could manage that," Yasline said, "Although it is some time since I have appeared in the marketplace."

"Even better," Higolter said brightly, "Secondly, Mistress Beatrix doubts the efficacy of the remedies I have promised. One cannot fault her for being cautious" - he bowed to the Mistress - "So you will help demonstrate my craft to her satisfaction."

Yasline looked even more nervous.

"Don't worry," the traveller went on reassuringly, "I will sample every potion before you drink. It's not in my interest to poison you!"

Yasline brightened.

"I could agree to that," she said, "Perhaps I could do with a pick-me-up in any case."

Higolter turned to Mistress Beatrix.

"So, my lady, do we have a deal?"

Mistress Beatrix inclined her head, looking at the traveller through narrowed eyes.

"I think," she said eventually, "That we do."

"Excellent! I will return on the morrow," the traveller said cheerily, producing a slip of paper from some hidden inside pocket and handling it to Yasline, "These are the ingredients I require. Try not to buy more than a very few things from any one vendor and buy from the market stalls in preference to the apothecaries as much as you can."

Yasline read the list quickly; the traveller's sharp eyes were pleased to note that she read fluently. He was pleased with his choice of assistant; she was evidently at least a little educated and her flagrantly provocative appearance belied her evident intelligence. She would do well, he considered privately.

"This is quite a list," she said eventually, "Most things I recognise, and I am sure I can track down the rest. But it will be expensive."

The traveller glanced at Mistress Beatrix, who repeated the sum in silver he had given earlier. Yasline frowned, clearly deep in thought.

"That should be enough, if I am careful," she said cautiously, "Perhaps I can even save a few coppers."

Mistress Beatrix nodded in unexpected approval.

"Very good," he said, sounding pleased. He turned back to Mistress Beatrix.

"Perhaps I can prevail upon you to show me the rooms I am to use?" he asked.

"I will arrange it momentarily," Mistress Beatrix said, "But first, a question. You said there were three tasks for which you needed an assistant. But I have heard only two."

Higolter turned to Yasline, grinning from ear to ear. Despite herself, she smiled back.

"Well," he answered, "I am a man..."

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