Anla refused to go shopping for another outfit to impress Al’s mother, instead wearing the tan blouse and multi-threaded wool skirt that somehow matched her blue-gray-brown eyes. His mother would have to understand that they traveled and that her apparel needed to be more functional for living on the road. Still, she had bathed the night before and made sure her hair was as neat as possible. She arrived at the house bleary-eyed but three minutes early, according to the tarnished pocket watch of the hansom driver.
His mother was already coming down the trellised path with Glendina, so Anla waited by the wooden gate. Another hansom clopped and creaked down the cobbled street, passing the one Anla had taken. She was ignored by Al’s mother, then ushered into the carriage by Glendina, who sat in the middle.
The two women talked the whole ride about the upcoming day, mainly about whatever projects or accounts that needed their attention. Glendina supplied Al’s mother with meetings and time lines. Their tiny world was all business and Anladet had no part in it, no way to get a word in edgewise.
The hansom stopped in front of a wooden building. It was located in Topely Square, which was predominantly Br’vani in housing and business. Most of the women she saw at the nearby market or in the stores wore something similar to what she herself was wearing, the new fashions of Gheny adopted by those adopting tradition only when it called for it . The men wore Ghenian outfits, too, sometimes in materials and cut slightly different.
The office was shockingly different from the outside. Out on the road it appeared to be a building that could have once been a house with white shutters against red clapboard. Inside it was a peaceful serenity with a paved walkway lined with boxes of flowers. Potted plants, likely not of Ghenian origin, were hung and tucked into corners, bringing bright fuschias and purples to a neutral room in a light golden brown.
There was a man at a desk in the front near the door who stood quickly and took any effects the women had, which were basically gloves and shawls. Anla had none, since effects had commonly been things forgotten or stolen, and therefore she had never grown used to the idea of parasols, overcoats, and bonnets. Her wool cloak was usually the only source of heat and comfort she needed.
Glendina took off to some other place in the building. Anla followed behind Al’s mother into her office and stopped short when his mother turned around. Though taller than Glendina, she was a small women, even shorter and thinner than Anla herself. “Now,” she said, pouring herself a small cup of tea. “You’re a pretty girl and you seem smart, but are you taking care of my son?”
“As well as I can,” she said. She was going to stop there, but she felt his mother wanted more reassurance. “He was a bit naive when I first met him. I had to help him understand how to barter and negotiate with vendors so they wouldn’t take advantage of him. There were a few other things like that. He’s smart, just very trusting.”
“As he should be,” she said, crossing her arms. “I know you abendi do things differently, but here its how things are.”
“Of course,” she said carefully. “He was wasting a lot of money, though, so it became a necessity. Otherwise we’d have little to spend and save.”
She nodded and finally sat, gesturing Anla to do the same. “You’re Arvonnese,” she said.
“Yes. My father was from Tapenstri, along the southwestern coast. I was born here in Gheny.”
“And your mother?”
“Also born here, in Ashven.”
“Where do they live?”
She swallowed the lump in her throat with a hot mouthful of tea. “They, um, they live in Hanala. We visit them as often as we can.”
“I see,” she said. “There’s no issues for wizards visiting their in-laws, I presume?”
“None that I know of.” She cleared her throat. “He spoke of you often. He wished he could visit you, especially when we traveled to Baradan. It was only recently that he began to question it. We did our research, spoke to other wizards, looked into past legal cases, and realized that it wasn’t quite as dire as he had been taught. He’s still concerned about breaking the law, but his intent isn’t against the king. We felt it was worth a quick visit.”
Al’s mother sipped her tea. “Despite the intent, I think he shouldn’t have broken the law. I’m glad to see him, and to finally meet you, but in the future it might be wise to take a different course of action. If his line of thinking is true, then perhaps in the future he could write to Amandorlam and ask for permission instead of asking for forgiveness if he’s caught.”
“That’s a better idea,” Anla said.
“I would think I taught him better. He knows to follow the rules and how to work within the confines of them, figuring out how to stretch the letter of the law ’til it bends.”
Things about Al’s morals were becoming more clear to Anla. “I think that he saw Amandorlam as the giant he didn’t want to fight. They teach law there and have plenty of experts in the field on staff. It would have been difficult and expensive. Our employer is generally patient, but that would have stretched his good graces to break.”
“Tell me more about this employer of yours. You said you were a clerk for him, so I assume he’s a businessman of some kind.”
“Yes. He specializes in rare and antique items,” she said, using the ploy she had become familiar with these past few months. “He maintains a store down in Riyala and a smaller one in Hanala where he collects and sells his wares. I have to keep meticulous records as to where he buys each item and from whom, a description, likely materials used in its making, and how much he bought it for.”
“Interesting. Does he have any interest in Br’vani antiques?”
She pretended to think about this. “Not particularly, but he has bought a few. It’s more where he thinks the market is and if he can resell it. Like fashion, antiques trend and are more valuable or less depending on what people are buying.”
“I may want to talk to your employer then,” she said. “Could you arrange a meeting with him before you leave Baradan?”
“I will definitely pass your interest along to him.”
“Now, I have several meetings here today. You are welcome to sit in on any you’d like, but I will expect you to speak to me before speaking to my client. Otherwise, feel free to explore where you’d like.”
Al’s mother was not cold per se, but still unyielding towards her. She was unsure if this was how she was or if she didn’t like Anla for some reason. If attending meetings could endear her to the woman, and also help improve her magical skills, she would do it. “Are there any you think I could help with?”
She tilted her head at this. “Likely not. Do you feel you have better instincts than your boss when it comes to purchases?”
“Sometimes. There have been a few occasions when he’s bought things I thought he was being swindled on, and we discovered later that he had been.”
“Then perhaps there are a few meetings I wouldn’t mind your input. Come back in one hour.”
As Anla was standing to leave, Glendina poked her head in the office. “A few things before you meet with Rashial. Um, Carasan?”
“Push it off,” she said, waving her hand.
“Migan and Sons?”
“Push it off.”
“But, ma’am, that’s three months overdue…”
“I’m not going to repeat myself,” she said, icily.
“Yes, ma’am. Westlake, Harsham, and…”
“Glendina, I have the utmost faith that you can handle those for the time being.”
Glendina nodded and left.
Anladet spent the next hour exploring the business. The first floor only consisted of Al’s mother’s office, the secretary’s post, a waiting area, and a bathroom with plumbing. Upstairs were several offices, including Glendina’s. A few other workers occupied some of the rooms, none of them really interested in speaking with her.
There was a basement, but Anla felt her journey there would be both uninteresting and prohibited. She spent a large portion of her remaining time on the second floor, watching the street below from an open window and listening to the pedestrians.
A man was at the front door giving the secretary his hat when she returned again to Al’s mother’s office. She looked up at her knock and gestured to a chair that had been put in the corner. She sat and waited for the gentleman to be introduced about five minutes later.
The meeting wasn’t overly long, perhaps twenty minutes. They discussed matters boring to Anla that she would need a better understanding of Baradanian business to understand, new laws, ordinances, numbers, projections, and guesses as to whether or not what Al’s mother said could be done would be done. From what Anla gathered, her business was much like the one in New Wextif where the clerk who had stalked the lady had worked; some sort of middleman between shipping and train suppliers and buyers in Baradan. Only, her business wasn’t just a few companies, but a majority share of the market.
“Any comments?” Al’s mother asked after the man had left.
“If I had to use the same instincts as I had before, I’d say he’s withholding something about the government’s support. I don’t think he believes the lawmakers are going to enact the legislature you wanted.”
“Really?” she said, making a few notes. “How correct have you been?”
“Pretty on the nose.”
“Hmm. For curiosity’s sake, I’d like you to stay for the next meeting, then.”
She did. It was another tedious back-and-forth, this time with a man and a woman about projected sales and interested parties and shipments and delays and demand. “They were lying about the Winekept. Something about his mannerisms when discussing it…” And that rock-grinding sound about its minimal delay, she thought.
Al’s mother turned and raised an eyebrow. “If my son hadn’t introduced you, I’d think you were too good to be true. I received word yesterday through other channels that theWinekept was lost at sea. Hmm. How would you like to go to a luncheon meeting?”
She liked it very much, whether or not she actually enjoyed it. And she also liked sitting in the corner for every other meeting Al’s mother had that day. What she actually liked was sitting in the middle on the hansom ride home.
Al was there waiting when they arrived. He looked at Anla, eyebrows raised, eyes darting between her and his mother. She gave him a big smile and he relaxed.
* * *
Dinner was less formal, since only Arista and his padra were there besides Al and Anla. Still, as he always had when he was younger, he sat and folded his hands, awaiting his mother’s arrival. Most households didn’t bother with the tradition unless it was a major holiday, but the Choudril’s always did.
“Your employer had no qualms with me borrowing Burdet today?” his mother asked as the wine was being poured.
“No, he was fine with it. He took a rest day and I saw to his comfort while he enjoyed reading some books and sipping wine by the fire.”
“I hope he feels better. I might get to meet this employer of yours soon.”
Al looked at Anla, who gave an apologetic look. “If he’s not too busy. Today would have been the best day, since he cleared his calendar.” He paused for a few moments. “Why did you want to meet with him?”
“Why, to convince him to retire early and let me steal you two away from him. I was very impressed with Burdet today. And I’m sure I can find you a job in the city, doing your wizard thing. Or something else. You’re not too old for an apprenticeship. I’m sure someone with an Amandorlam degree would be highly sought after here in Baradan.”
“Thank you, madra.” He was genuinely happy for a few moments. He had forgotten briefly that everything he’d told her thus far had been a lie.
Conversation shifted to Arista’s work, then to Al’s father’s day, who worked near the dockyards as a fishmonger. Al picked at his food and listened half-heartedly. His mind was elsewhere, thinking about how things had been when he lived here. He missed it. It had been simple; just do what your mother tells you to do, and do it. Make her happy and proud.
They sat in the great room near the fire, telling stories. His mother liked Anla, who seemed to have won her over that afternoon. It surprised him, since she didn’t like many people. She’d never liked any of the beaus he’d had in secondary school and hadn’t warmed to any of his friends.
Since his mother kept early hours, they retired not long after sunset. “Al,” Anla said, “your bedroom is bigger than my family’s whole house!”
“You should see my madra’s,” he said.
It was as he had left it, save dusted and laundered by a maid. Anla walked over to his wall of books, brushing her fingers along the titles. “These are educational books. Geometry, history, law, philosophy. Oh, wait,” she said, moving her finger along. “There we are. Tichen, Tichen, Tichen. Nine books by Tichen?”
“He wrote fifty-six, not including eighty-something articles and hundreds of letters to friends.”
“Yes, but, didn’t you read anything for fun?”
He quirked his eyebrows up and smiled, walking over to a bureau near the bed. The drawers had been cleared, which made wiggling the bottom out from one much easier. Al pulled several paperbacks out and tossed one to Anla. “Oh!” he said with a laugh. “I haven’t read Firzy and Boge in a long time!”
“No Arvonnese alley novels?” she asked.
“I didn’t get into those until I left for Amandorlam. Kiesh the Black, however… I have a few of those hidden here.”
“They’ve been writing those for fifteen years now?” she asked.
“More like thirty-five,” he said, walking over to his bookcase. “Some say the author, Kreslen Dimarth, sold the series to someone else who writes under his name. The arc with the Brostchik Brothers seems to be a departure in writing style for Dimarth.”
“I see,” she said with mock seriousness. “What if Dimarth suffered a stroke or amnesia? Maybe he had to learn to write all over again?”
“That’s a thought about it, but I don’t believe it,” he said. “Now, shh, I don’t want my madra to find out.”
“Why? You’re a grown man with a job and a wife. You can do whatever you’d like.”
“Being a rino, a little boy, never ends,” he said, looking over at her “I will always be my madra’s little boy. I will always be cared for and protected, but I will also always be held to a high standard. Rinos did their schoolwork and didn’t spend their allowances on frivolous tales of adventure. And I’d like my madra to think that I always behaved, even when I didn’t.”
“I can understand that. Your mother molded you into the man you are today.”
“She tried.” He began fiddling with a grate near the bookcase.
“What are you doing? Is that another hiding place?”
“Br’vanese houses have these little cubbies to hold strong scented wax or herbal oil in dishes. When the fire gets warm enough, they give off aromas to make the room smell good. I used to put my latest Kiesh novels in those, though I doubt they’re still there.”
He finally unscrewed the grate and pulled it off. He reached inside, brushing past the warm silver dish to the back of the hole. Instead of paper, he found something hard and warm. “Huh,” he said, pulling it out.
“What is it?”
He pulled it out and held it up to the fire. It was a metallic icon with three horizontal lines, each getting shorter the farther down they went. “A Brother’s cross? No, there are two extra arms.”
“Al…” Anla said.
“What? What is it?”
“It doesn’t look familiar to you?” She walked over and took the icon, holding it up to her face.
It took him a few moments to realize what she meant, and another to get over the sinking feeling in his stomach. “A trirec symbol? But why…? You said my madra wasn’t his target.”
“She isn’t, Al. She’s the one who hired him.”