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

Successful Test

The following morning found Yasline setting out for the market. She was now garbed in the heavy black robes and veil of the recently widowed, which would have been an effective disguise against those who did not recognise exactly how the slender young woman walked. She was accompanied by a hired guard, the gleaming edged weapons which denoted his trade displayed prominently so as to deter any misguided attempt at theft, and a gangling street boy carrying a large and currently empty wicker basket.

The marketplace had not changed significantly since Yasline had last visited - this was Brunanburh, after all - and she had no problems in tracking down all of the ingredients Triss Higolter had listed. She did have to visit a couple of the less popular apothecaries for a few of the most obscure items; eyebrows were certainly raised at her confident requests, although the deployment of appropriate silver was more than enough to dispel any qualms or misgivings. Guard and porter seemed stoic and were happy enough to accept her apparently rambling route around the market and environs. Her leather purse of silver emptied quickly but, when she checked, there was a surprising amount of small copper in the bottom of the bag.

Two or so hours later, she returned to the discreet side-street entrance to the Mansion of Mistress Beatrix; an entrance rarely used and, it could be surmised, unknown to the vast majority of the citizenry. The lad was now labouring under the weight of the full basket; at Yasline's direction, he deposited his load just inside the door and was rewarded with the few coppers his status and service expected. The guard would not enter the premises, but saluted smartly when presented with the last silver piece in Yasline's purse and marched off as briskly as his role demanded.

The unmarked side entrance was guarded, or at least carefully watched from within, by a tiny homunculus of a man who was reputed to have been already ancient when Mistress Beatrix had opened her first establishment and had moved with her as the size and quality of her enterprise had grown over the decades. The guardian of the side door scowled ferociously at the young porter, causing the youngster to scuttle back outside to collect his reward, then leered at Yasline while shutting the door behind her.

"Your horse-wrangler is here," the little man grunted, "I've shown him into the old storeroom, as Mistress instructed."

"Excellent," Yasline replied, pulling back her veil with some relief, "So just bring that basket along, so that he can get started."

She turned her back and strode on ahead precisely so that she did not have to see the annoyed glare on his face.

Yasline swept into the suite of rooms that Mistress Beatrix had allocated, removing her hat and outer coat and hanging them on a coat-stand she did not recall having seen earlier. She looked around. Higolter had obviously been busy in her absence, arranging furniture according to some plan seemingly etched on his mind. The inner space was now curtained off, while the remainder had been populated by a motley collection of benches, tables and worksurfaces, none of which seemed new but all appeared sturdy.

Higolter turned at her entrance.

"You're back," he said, looking pleased, "How did you get on?"

"I managed to get everything on your list," she said, holding up the purse, "And I still have a little copper left over."

"Excellent," he replied, "I suggest that you present the Mistress with the change forthwith, then hurry back here."

She turned on her heel and left just as the little doorkeeper huffed in, part-dragging, part-carrying the heavy basket which he then dumped just inside the door.

"Thank you so much," Higolter said politely, hefting the heavy basket onto a stout bench without apparent effort.

The homunculus scowled and grunted, then scurried off to resume his vital task of watching the inside of a closed door. Higolter grinned at his retreating back, then set about unpacking the basket and organising the contents. He inspected the purchases carefully as he did so, in some cases unstoppering a flask and smelling the contents or rubbing some dried herb between his fingers.

Yasline returned promptly, less the leather purse, and set herself rather primly on a hard wooden chair, which was actually the only visible seating in the room.

"Was Mistress Beatrix pleased?" Higolter asked, over his shoulder, while inspecting a tiny phial of darkened glass.

"She was surprised," Yasline answered, "Both by the earliness of my return and by the weight of the purse I gave her."

"Excellent. That was well done, indeed," he said warmly, adding, "I always find, when dealing with people like Mistress Beatrix, it is best to under-promise and then over-deliver."

Yasline grinned, then asked, "Are the materials satisfactory? I did look out for the better quality items, where that was possible."

He put the tiny phial on a high shelf, then turned to face her.

"Actually, they're good. Certainly good enough for my purposes," he replied, "So I'll just get this lot put away and then I can make a start on the potions I promised the Mistress."

He scurried about the room, placing the assorted vials, bottles, flasks and ampoules that she had purchased on various racks and shelves according to some scheme of his own invention, it seemed. Yasline certainly could not see any logic or reason to the placement: pots of dried herbs next to empty glass flasks; vials of essences and tinctures next to heavy mortars and grinding stones.

"So, Yasline, tell me," Higolter said, placing a large flagon of spirits on a low shelf next to a collection of oil lamps, "How is it that you came to be employed by Mistress Beatrix?"

Yasline sighed, looked downcast.

"I was the eldest of six sisters," she said eventually, "So it fell to me early to stand in for my mother when one of the little ones needed something while Mam was feeding the baby. We lived all on top of one another in a tiny labourer's cottage on one of the larger landowner's estates not so very far from here."

Higolter sighed and put down the stoppered clay pot of dried herbs he was inspecting and came and sat cross-legged at Yasline's feet, looking for all the world like some overgrown school-child attending closely to the schoolmarm's lessons.

"Father was rarely there, it seemed," she continued, "Leaving at daybreak and returning after the sun went down, working all hours to put food on the table for hungry mouths, returning home just to eat and fall asleep exhausted in front of the fire."

"Ah," Higolter murmured, "Go on."

"Then Mother got sick, after the last baby, able to do less and less for herself and her children, although she was always trying to help," she went on, adding with more anger in her voice, "And always instructing me on the correct way of performing any task, even when it was obvious, or even more obvious that there was a better, quicker way."

She paused for a moment, apparently collecting her thoughts.

"I could see what the future would hold for me: running a household full of growing children with a sickly mother, with never enough money or food or time for everything," she resumed, "Then, after a decade of that drudgery, I would be old and tired before my time, and I would be married off to some stupid lump of a man with little manners and less conversation. I would be expected to be delivered of my first child by year's end and then repeat the whole dull thing juggling my own children with not enough to go around, for the rest of my life."

"So what did you do?"

"I ran away, one on of our rare family visits to Brunanburh," she said simply, "I hid, I don't know where, until the break of day, knowing that my father would have to return the previous evening to resume his labours. I had heard talk of the kind of establishment like the one run by Mistress Beatrix, so I knew what I was looking for; perhaps it was just good fortune that I came upon her house rather than one of the rougher places I now know exist, and that I had the wit and courage to present myself for consideration."

Higolter shook his head sadly.

"Whichever it was, Mistress Beatrix took me in, seeing some potential in a tall and gangly child, I suppose. It was explained to me exactly what it was I was expected to do; I considered this was a better option than back at home. I was given guidance, training, in all kinds of things. I became good, I think, at what I was doing; certainly, I have become very popular with certain of our guests."

Yasline paused again, staring into space.

"Oh, I dare say my actions were selfish," she went on, "That I put my mother and the older of my sisters under more strain than if I had stayed like a dutiful daughter. But I do not regret my actions. My life here has been good, I have not been bored, or lonely, or permanently tired or hungry."

Higolter's eyes might, for a brief moment, have been shining with tears.

"I think," he said slowly, "that we both need a little wine."

"I think," she echoed, "I agree."

Yasline stood, picked up a little bell, carried it to the door and rang it a couple of times. Higolter unfolded himself from the floor and returned to his task of sorting the basket of goods. Within a minute, one of Mistress Beatrix's silent grey-uniformed servants appeared.

"Wine and water, please," Yasline requested, "For two."

The servant glanced at Higolter, who nodded almost imperceptibly, then turned and padded off. She returned only moments later and set down a silver salver on the end of the closest bench, set with two fine wine glasses, a pewter jug of water and an opened bottle of a rich red wine that Higolter recognised from his travels. He nodded appreciatively, eliciting a short bow from the servant who then quietly left. Higolter poured modest measures of wine and water into each glass and handed one to Yasline.

"I believe," Higolter said slowly, "That you and I need to become friends. I will have certain requirements of you, and I think your lot can be improved if you help me. So, a toast: to friendship."

He held up his glass. Yasline looked at his strangely for a long moment, then returned the salute.

"We will see about friendship, perhaps," she said softly, "But I am directed by Mistress Beatrix to do whatever it is you require of me."

"That's good enough, for the time being," Higolter said, drinking from the glass in his hand, then looked the slender young woman in the widow's clothing up and down in that worryingly appraising way that he had.

Yasline looked down at herself, then looked Higolter in the eyes. She drank daintily from her glass then set it back on the salver.

"What should I do now?" she asked.

"Well, I have to make some preparations right now, to begin to fulfil my side of the bargain I made with your Mistress," he replied, gesturing at the laden shelves and benches, "So, why don't you retire for two hours, and return in, ah, your usual attire for this place?"

"Very well," she answered, glancing at him curiously and then collecting her hat and coat from the stand.

Yasline returned to her boudoir, undressed and hung up the heavy widow's weeds which had been her disguise, washed and dried herself thoroughly, brushed and braided her hair skilfully, applied her makeup with more than her usual care and selected a provocatively revealing dress from the small collection she maintained.

At the appointed hour, she returned to the old storeroom which was now the apothecary's workshop. She stopped in the doorway and looked around. The place now smelled strongly but pleasantly of some herb she did not recognise. Higolter appeared to be finishing the task of putting flasks and vials back on the shelves, while the basket which she had filled in the market had disappeared. The curtains in the corner had been partially drawn back revealing a large bed, a washstand with jug and bowl, and a tall mirror.

"Come in," Higolter suggested, smiling broadly, "And close the door behind you."

She did as he requested. He gestured at three stoppered containers which stood on an otherwise uncluttered workbench.

"I've made three potions for you - us - to try," he went on, picking up a small glass container which looked to Yasline very much like a perfume bottle. The wine glasses still stood on the salver; Higolter topped up both from the wine bottle and added a few drops of the potion.

"This is a general tonic," he explained, picking up the salver, "Improves the functioning of all parts of the body, brightens the eyes and lightens the spirit."

He offered the salver to Yasline who selected a glass; Higolter picked up the other.

"Drink it all," he directed, swallowing the contents of his own glass in a gulp.

She sipped cautiously at her glass; there might have been a slight herby flavour but otherwise it was much like the watered wine she had consumed earlier. Higolter put the salver down again and placed his glass on it. He watched while she consumed the remaining liquid, then took the glass from her hand.

"How was that?" he asked solicitously.

"Um, fine, I think. I don't feel any different," she replied, frowning.

"It will take some time," he said, picking up the little bottle and pressing it into her hand, "I want you to take three drops of this every day, with water or wine. You will feel much the better for it, I promise."

"Very well. I will remember."

"Excellent. Now, the second potion," he said, pouring a little water into each glass and adding a splash of wine, "It will gently undo the effects of your pregnancy. You may very well not even notice the change. In any case, it will be a minor effect."

Higolter opened the second container, a narrow earthenware jar with a tightly-fitted cork lid, and put a pinch of the powder within into each wineglass. He handed her one and took the other.

"This one has no effect on men," he asserted, "Or indeed women under normal circumstances. Drink up."

Again, Yasline sipped cautiously. She could not taste anything unusual. Higolter swallowed the drink whole.

"It will take a couple of days to take effect. You might want to warn Mistress Beatrix you might be unavailable for a day."

She nodded, finishing the glass and putting it back on the salver.

"And what is the third potion?" she asked, pointing at a wide pot with a loosely-fitting lid.

Higolter smiled.

"This one is an ointment, a lubricant," he said, taking up the pot with one hand and grasping her hand with the other, "You may be requiring this later on."

He drew her, willingly enough and both smiling, in the direction of the bed.

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