Maude’s mother-spirit was rebelling.
It just wasn’t right, she felt, for her own daughter to be clucking over her and fussing over her health like a worried mother hen. Clucking and fussing were mother-jobs, not daughter-jobs. And all over a little cold, too!
Maude sighed and turned another page in her book. Pleading and cajoling for her to stay in bed, just because of a little cough, a little sneeze, a little sniffle — it was madness, plain and simple. She was sixty-six years old, for Wright’s sake! She knew when she needed to be confined to her bed, and needed no one else to tell her — and certainly not her own daughter, whose diapers she had changed, coughs she had soothed, and sniffles wiped away!
Really, the only reason she was in here was because she knew Bianca needed someone to fuss over. Bianca had a mother-spirit, too, a mother-spirit suddenly bereft of children and husband. She didn’t even have the businesses to fuss over, since Richard had set everything well in hand before he left. The poor thing was just bored.
Besides, Maude had another reason for staying in bed, even though she was perfectly healthy. One did not reach the age of sixty-six without realizing that days that could be spent lazing about in bed with nary a twinge of conscience were few and far between. Only a fool would not take advantage of them when they came.
She wiggled her hips into a more comfortable position as her brow furrowed in puzzlement at what she was reading. More fool she, taking one of the history tomes that Richard had picked up when there was a perfectly serviceable romance by Lady Guinevere sitting right there on the shelf beside it. But she thought she ought to be doing something edifying if she was going to be confined to her bed all day. After all, one was never too old to learn something.
Though I’m more than old enough to not want to put up with useless bores, Maude thought. Why does it matter exactly how many men with unpronounceable names died at the Battle of Pylaetherm — just tell me who won the damn battle, already!
She was about to toss the book aside in disgust and call to Bianca to ask her to be a dear and grab that new romance, when she heard a shriek arise from downstairs that sounded suspiciously like Bianca’s.
Maude was on her feet in an instant — and back down on her rear in half an instant, immobilized by a fit of coughing. Damn cold! Now when Bianca saw her, she would be sure she was right in making Maude rest! And by the sound of feet running up the steps, that would surely be soon —
Yet when Bianca burst through the door, her hands pumped in the air and she scarcely seemed to notice Maude’s coughing. “Richard sent a letter!”
Ah, so that was a shriek of joy. It would have been nice to know, before panicking and what-not.
Bianca brought the letter to her lips and kissed it with a flourish that would not have been out of place on any of Lady Guinevere’s romantic heroines. “Would you like to hear what he has to say?” Bianca asked, her green eyes lighting up.
There was no mother-heart that could bear to say no to eyes like that and a smile like that. “Of course,” Maude replied, her voice a little raspy as she swung her legs back onto the bed.
Bianca frowned. “Mother, are you all right?”
“Of course I am, Bee-Bee.” It wouldn’t hurt to remind her just who was the mother here.
“Are you –” But Bianca took the hint and shook her head. Then she darted from the room to pull a chair inside. Her hands trembled as she sat and laid out the crinkling parchment.
“My dearest Bianca,” she began to read. “I send you the fondest greetings any heart can give, and pray that this letter finds you as well as it leaves me at present.
“My days here in Takemizu are long, but short at the same time. Every minute is spent negotiating contracts and turning mere contacts into associates and partners — for while I am here, why should I not seek to expand our business, instead of laboring to keep the status quo? But though I end each day confident that I have done all with it that any Sim could reasonably expect to do, even though I end each day glad to collapse into the bed at the cottage I am renting, I wish I had a few more hours between sunup and sundown. Even a single extra hour a day might, conceivably, bring me home to you a day sooner.”
“Only your husband,” Maude remarked, “would think to combine romantic sentiments with talk of how many new contracts he’s landed, and how he wishes there were a few extra hours in the day, so he could land some more.”
“Mother! It’s not like that!”
Maude smiled, even though she wanted to roll her eyes. “Of course it isn’t, honey. I’m just teasing. What does he say next?”
Bianca’s eyes fell back to the letter; she squinted as she tried to read through Richard’s small, cramped handwriting. Richard knew the power of conspicuous spending when it came to things like homes and clothing and ships, but he was still a frugal merchant at heart when it came to things like parchment. He’d probably fit double the amount of words on that one sheet than any sensible nobleman would. But that was Richard all over.
“Since I know, though, that you will not sleep well unless you know that I am taken care of, let me assure you that I am well cared for indeed. I mentioned that I have rented a cottage, but ‘cottage’ is not what the owners call it. They have, rather euphemistically, named the place Bí Dú Jia Bessoo — which I am told means “Exclusive Villas of Jade,” or something along those lines. These places are certainly not villas, but luckily, they provide a housekeeping service and meals-to-order. So my living space is kept clean, my clothes are laundered, I have a comfortable place to sleep, and I can enjoy their approximations of Glasonlander cooking on the days when I am feeling too adventurous to content myself with the local fare.
“The cottages are located on a main thoroughfare, which makes transportation easy, and directly on top of a marsh. Some of the buildings are, in fact, ingeniously placed on stilts so as to allow them to be built over the water — though whether they were built when the land was dry, knowing it would soon become wet again, or whether this land has always been a marsh, I cannot pretend to say.
“I can, however, assure you, dear wife, that my cottage is built firmly on land that appears to be mostly dry.”
Bianca let out a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness.”
“Thank goodness? You think any place that prides itself on being ‘exclusive’ is going to let its not-quite villas fall into the drink?”
“No, Mother — but you know that living on top of water isn’t very healthy.”
Maude did know that, but she failed to see how living five feet away from marsh water was much healthier than building one’s house directly atop it. Yet, if it made Bianca feel better, who was she to argue?
Bianca continued to read. “Rather than wear out my hand again by detailing to you each of my attempted deals — you can read of my exploits in the notes I have just completed writing to Francis –“
“So he writes to his business manager before his wife!” Maude mused.
“I think he was just saving the best for last, Mother,” Bianca replied. “Besides, Francis is no fool — he gave me the reports Richard wrote him when he delivered this letter.”
“Did he read them first?”
“He made his way through the first couple pages on the carriage ride. He’s reading the rest in the parlor.”
“We wouldn’t have hired him if he wasn’t,” Bianca pointed out.
“Your logic astounds me as ever, Bee-Bee. Anyway, what else does Richard have to say?”
Without further ado, Bianca began again to read. “Rather than wear out my hand again by detailing to you each of my attempted deals — you can read of my exploits in the notes I have just completed writing to Francis — I will attempt to entertain you with a description of my day. You may rest assured that many of my days are spent in the same way, the only differences being in just where my associates and I decided to meet, and how exactly our negotiations went.”
“In other words, in everything he sent to the business manager, which you will very shortly be reading?”
“Exactly, Mother. Now let me see — ah! The merchant with whom I am negotiating, Master Guo Himara, wished to conduct our negotiations in a certain park, over a game of Mah-Jong. Naturally, I complied.
“The park, I should mention, contains a shrine to — something — my guide could not quite explain it to me — from what I understand, it is something like an angel. The guide explained it as a spirit that guards and protects the park, and that it was the custom to toss a coin into the small shrine, for luck. You see, though the Sminese have large temples and places of worship, as we do, their landscape is dotted with these small shrines. In any case, I tossed in a coin in compliance with the local custom.
“Lest you fear for my faith, Bianca, let me assure you that I was only attempting to be a good guest by conducting myself according to local ways. In any case, no good effects have come from my attempt to placate the local spirits — if spirits even exist. Quite the opposite, in fact. A slight rash, which I had contracted on the ship and which I thought had gone away, chose just that moment to re-emerge!
“My guide assures me that there are many herbal mixtures which can prove to be quite helpful in cases such as these, and he managed to procure one for me. In fact, I applied that same cream before I began to write this letter — it is quite helpful. I shall see if my guide can procure the recipe, come morning. As long as the herbs grow in Albion, I see no reason why we should not add this cream to our list of them at the milliner’s and cosmetics shop. Surely the good wives of Albion can find as much use for a topical cream as they can for makeup and hats!”
“And why just the wives?” asked Maude. “I’ve never met a husband who would rather be itchy than apply a cream he knows might work!”
“Well, the wives will buy them for the husbands — do you think Richard could have found that cream on his own, even in Albion?” Bianca murmured, her eyes darting along the lines of the letter. “In any case, my dear, I am grateful for the relief, since Master Himara made his appearance soon after the itch flared up, and I have been forced to sit all the day in rather serious discomfort, without daring to scratch myself for fear of appearing rude.”
“That’s all in where you scratch yourself, my boy!”
“Oh, Mother!” Bianca laughed. She shook her head as she continued to read. “I should explain something about Sminese greeting customs here, my dear. Here, it is not only great men who are greeted with a bow — it is all men who greet each other with bows. Women, too! There are, I am told, different gradations in the angle and length of the bow depending upon rank, but a foreigner like me would not be expected to know them. In any case, my guide informed me that Master Himara gave me the bow he would give to an equal — quite a compliment, my guide assured me, since the Sminese nation gives great respect to its elders, and Master Himara is indeed an elder. My guide tells me that the lowliest of peasants, should he be above the age of fifty or so, can get away with giving the slightest of bows to the emperor — provided, of course, that the emperor is a younger man than he.”
“Great respect for elders, hmm? I wonder if it’s too late to move to Smina?”
“You’d miss us too much, Mother. And you would have to humiliate yourself like Richard — I fear that my bow was not nearly as respectful as his, since I obviously botched it more than a little bit. My guide, however, assures me that the fact that I am a foreigner and attempted to bow at all more than makes up for any deficiencies in its form.”
“That guide seems to be telling Richard a great deal of what he wants to hear, I think!”
“If that’s the case, then why does Richard write next, I feel I can trust the guide, for Master Himara seemed quite impressed with my attempt at politeness, and was nothing if not cordial to me for the duration of my visit.”
“Indeed, Mother. We repaired instantly to the Mah-Jong chambers, where Master Himara introduced me to his grandson, Hwan Moon. I am unsure whether the boy is acting as an apprentice in the business, or whether he is Master Himara’s secretary, or whether Master Himara merely wants his company — in any case, he stayed with us for the whole time, and said very little.
“I cannot pretend to be able to tell you how the games went — we played too many, and since no money changed hands, I felt free to concentrate more on the conversation than the game at hand. My guide assures me that this is a good sign. Apparently, if a business associate — a new business associate, that is — suggests that one play for modest stakes, that is a sign that he is not truly interested in doing business at this time. My guide explained that this symbolizes an interest in doing business at some future time, since he is quite willing to let his money mingle with yours. Someone who is not interested would not accept the invitation to play at all.
“It strikes me as a very inefficient way of doing business, but who am I to criticize the habits of another? Doubtless Master Himara would find the common practice here of solidifying business deals over a pint positively dangerous, or something along those lines.
“In any case, I suppose I should tell you a bit more about Master Himara. The letter I sent to Francis has all the details — it will suffice to say here that Master Himara is a dealer in luxury items, particularly spices, exotic woods, and silk — raw materials, in other words. This works out very well for us, as you of course know.”
“How does that work out for you, again?” Maude asked. “Sorry. I always get confused when you and Richard start talking business.”
“It’s too expensive to ship luxury furniture and clothing, Mother,” Bianca explained. “And not to mention impractical, in the case of clothing. Fashions are so different between Smina and here, we would only have to take everything apart and remake it.”
“That explains fashion, and furniture?”
“Too easily damaged in shipping. Since we have copies of the furniture here, we can simply ship the woods and fabrics and other supplies and make them here. If wood or fabric gets damaged in shipping, we can cut away the damaged parts, or make sure they’re on the inside or something like that.”
“Thank you for explaining to your poor old mother.”
“You’re welcome. Now, where … ah, here! In terms of his personality, I found Master Himara to be rather inscrutable at first. He plays with his cards close to his chest — or his tiles, considering that this is, in fact, Smina. Even when I tried to engage him in a discussion on prices, quantities, etc., he would reply with some proverb that I found had nothing to do with the subject, though my guide looked at me like I was a fool when I told him as much.
“I still don’t see what blind bears picking corn have to do with trying to gain as many contacts and associates as possible — so if, say, another contact man dies, I do not have to journey out here again — but I have not the heart to ask my guide to explain.
“In any case, I was not able to get as much business as I wanted done over the game — none at all, in fact. Master Himara kept changing the subject when I tried to nail him down to specifics. I watched his grandson’s face for clues as to what the old man may be doing. The poor boy looked confused. My guide assures me that he was only confused because of my apparent bungling of the situation — apparently, in Smina, these sorts of introductory conversations do not deal in specifics at all, only in generalities and getting to know one another.
“… Come to think of it, my dear, that isn’t very reassuring, is it?
“But Master Himara did not seem offended, on the contrary, he invited me to a food stall nearby for lunch. The cook greeted him by name, allowing me to assume that this is a regular haunt of his — he did not even have to order, come to think of it; the cook merely served him while I guessed at random as to which food would be best.
“Master Himara was a bit more forthcoming over lunch, though not concerning business. He was eager to talk about his family — his daughters, his wife, and how his grandson was shaping up. Apparently he has no sons, but it is not at all uncommon here for a businessman, as opposed to a landowner, to leave the bulk of his business to his any son or son-in-law that he choses. Indeed, having a surfeit of daughters is considered to be a good thing among Sminese merchants, for while a man can pick his son-in-law, he cannot pick his son.
“The Sminese also seem to believe that education is no detraction to a woman, for Master Himara mentioned — full of fatherly pride — that his prettiest daughter is attending the Willow School, which I take to be something like Camford for girls. I told him about Dannie and Camford — though he was a little surprised at how old she is, and still in schooling, when I explained that this schooling would likely help her to find a better husband, he understood. Not that Dannie hadn’t already found her husband-to-be before leaving, but I did not see fit to mention that.
“In any case, I had a few more appointments after luncheon, so Master Himara and I took our leave of each other. I shall not bore you with the details of those meetings — it was business of the most mind-numbing type, re-arranging for warehouse space and dock space and so on. The merchants of Smina are quite accommodating — I think it is because they send all of their disagreeable sons into the civil service!
“I will instead skip to when I re-arrived at the villas. Imagine my surprise to find Master Himara waiting there for me! I think, this time, my bow was a little bit better — I was surprised, I supposed, into doing it correctly.”
“Poor Richard, needing to be shocked in order to get a bow right!”
“Well, Mother, you know he’s been having problems with his back lately — all those shipboard injuries …”
“I know, I know. Well, what did Master Himara want?”
“Let’s see … apparently he wanted to have tea with Richard!”
“That’s what the letter says,” Bianca shrugged. “Master Himara immediately invited me over to the small table that the owners of the villas had placed outside, apparently for the purpose of serving tea.”
Bianca read on. “Master Himara was cryptic as usual — or perhaps it was merely my less-than-perfect Sminese that hindered my understanding — but you can imagine my surprise when, halfway through our conversation, I realized that he had accepted my proposal, and was negotiating terms!
“Needless to say, once I came to that realization, the negotiations went much more quickly — and by the end of our tea, I had introduced him to an Albionese handshake, and he was assuring me that his secretaries would be writing up contracts all the night. So, if all goes well …”
Bianca’s voice trailed off, and she stared at the letter.
“Bianca?” Maude asked, sitting up on her elbow.
A gulp, and Bianca was flipping through the sheafs of parchment, to the very top one. She gulped again — but when she looked up, it was with a grin whose brightness put the very sun to shame.
“Mother, he says that if all goes well, he should be leaving in a fortnight!”
“Well –” Maude began.
“And he wrote the letter two months ago! Do you know what this means?”
“HE’S COMING HOME!”
Well, Maude thought, watching her daughter hit the ceiling, and here I thought Bianca couldn’t jump!