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

Settled Existence

The marriage between Triss Higolter and the widow Yasline Matracene was as low-key and inconspicuous as these events could be in the town of Brunanburh. A modest donation of silver to the coffers of the church ensured that no difficult questions were asked (like 'where is your late husband buried?') and produced a small number of witnesses to support the happy couple during the ceremony. Vows and promises were exchanged, parish registers were updated and certificates signed and issued. Job done, the priest retired to his accommodations to enjoy some of the strong dark wine that the donation was able to afford him, the witnesses disappeared into the side-streets clutching useful amounts of copper, and Triss and Yasline walked arm-in-arm the short distance to their new abode.

The newly-wed's accommodations were, quite literally, over the shop, although this was much less of a hardship than might have been imagined. Higolter had used a large fraction of the silver he had secretly amassed over the years to rent a large and well-constructed building set in a side street just off the market square. The property had two upper floors of rooms: one with a salon, dining room and a boudoir with two separate dressing rooms; the other with many attic rooms for servants of various classes. The ground floor accommodated a decent kitchen, scullery and pantry, separate workroom and storerooms, and a large double-fronted space which opened onto the street which Higolter planned to open as, yes, a shop.

The shop itself was refitted over a period of several weeks under Higolter's direction, hiring tradesmen of various descriptions to fit shelves and cupboards and counters to his specifications. Meanwhile, the newly-minted Goodwife Yasline took a great deal of pleasure in ordering and arranging furnishings and crockery and a multitude of other chattels to her own satisfaction in the upper part of the building, much of which was paid for from a purse of silver which Mistress Beatrix had pressed upon her during her rather emotional departure from the Mansion.

Higolter's contribution to the domestic decorations was limited but noticeably idiosyncratic in nature. At considerable expense, he ordered and had delivered several large maps in elaborate frames showing details of different aspects of the world, all said to be the work of the best cartographers available. He also acquired a large and carefully painted glass ball set in a complex framework of cunningly-wrought metal which purported to be an accurate representation of the globe and all the continents thereupon, as well as the position of the moons above.

Yasline also took charge of interviewing and retaining domestic staff. She rapidly engaged a widow as housekeeper and cook, and her youngest daughter as maid, as well as a wiry lad who quite failed to hide his intelligence and enthusiasm as a porter-cum-assistant in the shop.

The shop that Higolter set up was not an apothecary; he intended to honour the promise he had made to Mistress Beatrix that he would only make potions and ointments for the use of her ladies. His new business was to stock and supply only the ingredients required to concoct the kind of salves and medicinals he was making in the privacy of his other workroom within thre Mansion. The business was based on Yasline's experiences in the difficulty of acquiring the more unusual herbs, spices and other exotic constituents he had been utilizing in the town's markets and emporia. He anticipated trading in a range of exotics: herbs and spices, earths and minerals, and even some animal parts with useful medicinal properties.

He also took up the manufacture of intermediate products useful to apothecaries, herbalist, pharmacologists, naturopathic physicians, herb-doctors and alchemists: the tinctures and extracts and infusions that needed to be combined to form the final preparation ready to be administered. Even when the base herbs could be purchased easily for a few coppers from several stalls in the market, much of the real skill - and quite a lot of hard work - was in the processes required to turn the dead plants into useful ingredients.

Yasline continued to make many purchases in the market and surroundings, both for the apothecarial ingredients for their shop and for comestibles for their own stores; she still wore a veil and was accompanied by guard and porter, although her dresses were more colourful now. Other, more exotic materials Higolter traded for more directly, often secretly, with hooded tradesmen appearing with bundles at the back door after dark on a regular basis.

Freed of the domestic drudgery Yasline had feared and run away from by much silver, as well as efficient and well-treated servants, she blossomed, smiling often and even singing to herself at times, as well as providing Higolter with all the entertainment she could think of in the boudoir. She was, of course, an experienced practitioner in the bedroom, although she was frequently surprised and delighted by twists and alternatives with which she was not familiar.

Higolter split his time between the shop itself - greeting customers and advising on the most appropriate goods for their requirements and purses - the workroom at the rear - where the eagerness of the young lad under his direction was only slightly diminished by the amount of hard work he was required to undertake - and the Mansion of Mistress Beatrix, whose business was doing very well indeed and the influx of very attractive young women was a joy to behold.

Higolter also continued his habit of occasionally visiting taverns and drinking houses in various parts of the town, and therein engaging in conversation with anybody who might have tales to tell. He rewarded stories of strange happenings and ghostly appearances and unnatural behaviours with generous measures of strong drink. Yasline considered that it was only natural that a man would sometimes wish to seek the company of other men to talk and drink; she was privately delighted that, although her husband returned late, smelling of beer and smoke, he was never really drunk and certainly perfectly willing and able to enjoy her company in their bed.

The days - and nights - went by pleasantly enough, each one different enough to be interesting but not so different as to be unduly stressful. Higolter found the hours passed quickly, working to produce quality ingredients and finished potions using recipes he already knew, as well as finding the time to engage in a few experiments. Yasline found that splitting her time between her market perambulations - spending a little of that time to pass the time of day with acquaintances about the town - and more domestic pursuits while at home - and the opportunity to gossip with the housekeeper - very much to her liking.

So, Yasline was both surprised and distressed when her husband returned early from his day's work at the bordello’s apothecary workshop and an evening drinking beer and gossiping, and sporting a face like thunder.

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