“Sir,” asked Benoic, “is there a reason why we decided to make this excursion when Lady Guinevere and Princess Jessica would be at the palace?”
“Yes,” Lancelot replied. It was because he knew damn well that what he was about to do would never happen in Glasonland. He would be laughed out of the court if anybody ever heard about this. A lord, a lord with some of the largest tracts of land in the kingdom, going out of his way to meet a family of commoners who had just arrived? To introduce himself, like a … neighbor? It just wouldn’t be done. Lancelot was not even certain it would be done in Albion.
Thus, it was best to do it and let the rest of the kingdom deal with it as a fait accompli — if they ever heard about it at all. Lancelot was somewhat hoping that they wouldn’t.
“Why would that be, sir?”
“I’ll … explain later,” Lancelot decided as they mounted the last of the wooden steps to the shop. Andavri’s Antiques and Oddities read the sign over the door.
Benoic’s gloved hand reached for the handle. “Wait!” Lancelot yelped. “We should knock!”
“Knock? But isn’t it a shop?”
… You were in trouble, Lancelot decided, when a robot whose personality and thought processes were taken from you ended up being smarter than you were. “Er … right. Of course. Let’s go in.”
Benoic opened the door and Lancelot stepped inside. He blinked as his eyes adjusted from the bright fall day outdoors to the relatively dim interior of the shop. The first thing he noticed was that the shop was already filling up with customers. The second was that the walls were plastered in the same design as his dining hall. The third was the proprietor of the shop — or at least, Lancelot assumed it was the proprietor. He didn’t know who else would be observing an out-of-stock item and making notes on a hornbook.
Lancelot briefly thought of coughing to draw attention to himself but realized immediately that he’d never be heard over the din of the customers, all grumbling about the length of time the line was taking. He settled for rubbing the back of his neck and waiting patiently.
The proprietor turned around, and Lancelot blinked. An eye-patch? How in the world had an unassuming merchant managed to lose an eye? Then again, there were many merchants who did not spend their lives behind a shop counter. Look at Richard Ferreira — he’d made his fortune sailing his cargoes from one end of the world to another. Between highway robbers, pirates on the high seas, recalcitrant customs agents on the shore … no, it was perhaps more of a miracle that most merchants had both eyes than that some lacked one or the other.
“Sir!” the proprietor called out. He strode up to Lancelot with the rolling gait of a seaman. “How can I be helpin’ you, this fine morning?” His voice was slow and drawling, rich as honey and cream.
“Er, hello,” Lancelot replied. “I’m here to see –”
“Rare and wonderful finds from all over the world? You’ve come to the right place! Now, you …” The proprietor stepped back, stroking his smooth-shaven chin with one hand. “You look like a man after some vases straight from the Dousa Desert.”
“I do?” Lancelot yelped. Vases from the Dousa Desert? What on earth would he do with that?
Although there was that one corner in the library that Guinevere kept looking at as if it were her worst enemy … perhaps a vase with fresh-cut flowers … but then what would they fill it up with in the winter?
“Oh, aye, sir, you do. And fine vases these are. Very rare, you see — it’s all in the clay. The sun there is hotter than any kiln, but do you know what they do?”
“Why, they let it dry in the sun — and then they bake it in a kiln! Twice as dried-out, you see. You’d think that would make the clay more brittle, but it only makes it stronger!”
“It … does?”
“Aye, aye, sir! Here, let me show you. I’d offer to drop it to prove it to you, but you see, the last time I tried that, I dropped it on my foot — and while the vases are near-indestructible, my foot isn’t.”
“Oh! Oh, I wouldn’t ask you to do that.”
“Thank you! Now, would you like to have a look?”
“Er …” Well, why not? If he came home with the vase, nobody would think to ask what he had been doing at the antique shop. Or they wouldn’t ask it for long, anyway.
The proprietor led him to one of the shelves and proudly let his arms fly. One of them hit one of the vases, and the man dove — dove with superhuman instincts — to catch it. He shot a weak smile at Lancelot.
“Everything … all right?” Lancelot asked.
“Oh, aye! Just … well the vases are indestructible, but the statues underneath, they aren’t. You know?”
Lancelot heard a sound that sounded suspiciously like a snort, but when he glanced over his shoulder at the lady at the cash box, she was frowning over her counting beans and seemingly paying not a whit of attention to anything else.
Although, now that Lancelot looked … she was dressed awfully oddly for a merchant’s wife. The last time Lancelot had seen that much bare female shoulder on public display … actually, even if he could remember seeing that much bare female shoulder, it hadn’t been on public display. He was, after all, fairly certain that he and Gwen had closed the curtains, and even if they hadn’t, surely their bedchamber was too high up for anybody to see anything?
“So, what do you think?” the proprietor asked, a shade eagerly even for a merchant.
“Er — I’ll take it,” Lancelot said, if only to get this part of the conversation over. “But that’s not what I came here for.”
“Oh? You’re here for an exotic screen?”
“A rare and tasteful statue?”
“Actually,” Lancelot interrupted, “I’m here to introduce myself. I’m Sir Lancelot du Lac.”
Lancelot did not consider himself to be a vain man. But even if he was a dull one, well, even the dullest knife will sharpen if you apply the whetstone long and hard enough. The whetstone of experience had been applied to Lancelot’s dull head: when a man said that he was a knight, generally the commoners before him sat up and paid attention.
They did not, as the proprietor before him did, blink and ask, “Oh? Oh — and I’m Bart Andavri, at your service.”
“Er, pleased to meet you, Master Andavri.” Lancelot continued to wait for the reaction.
All he got were a series of slow blinks.
“You’ve not …” Did he even want to squeak this out? He heard how rude and snobbish it sounded, and he hadn’t even said it yet! Still, out it came. “… heard of me?”
“… Should I have?”
“I’m the, er, lord around these parts.”
A yelp was the only answer he got to that — but not Andavri’s yelp. Lancelot looked up to see the woman behind the counter bent over, rubbing her stomach, the drawer of the cash box just inches away. She managed a slightly sick smile at him, then cast a furtive green-eyed glance at her husband.
“The … lord?” Master Andavri asked.
“Aye. I came to, er …” He could hear how stupid it sounded, even now. “Introduce myself …”
“Ah!” Master Andavri stuck out his hand. “Then it’s pleased I am to be meetin’ you, sir!”
Lancelot breathed a sigh of relief. So this wasn’t a complete disaster! He shook the other man’s hand with vigor. “I’m pleased to welcome you — officially — to Avilion. And Albion, of course. You have no idea how glad I am to see a new family come to settle in our borders.”
Master Andavri bowed slightly, but gave no reply.
“And where do you hail from, originally?” Lancelot asked, mostly to make some kind of conversation.
“Bledavik?” Lancelot yelped — because of his yelp, he didn’t notice the way a great deal of coin fell with a clatter and the glare the red-haired woman sent to Master Andavri. “Isn’t that the pirate island?”
“Pirates? Oh, aye, sir, there’s a few!” Master Andavri laughed, was it a shade nervously? No, Lancelot had to be imagining it. “A fair amount of smugglers, though — but of course you know how restrictive Reme and Glasonland are with their trade, sir. Why, when you scarcely let anything be brought into the ports, smuggling becomes the only way honest men can make a clipped copper!”
Well, Lancelot had heard something of the kind. That was Arthur’s rationale for Albion’s trade policy, or rather its lack of policy. (Arthur had also pointed out that Albion had, as of yet, no craft guilds of its own to protect, and thus no reason not to befriend merchants the world over by opening up a market for their goods.) So perhaps Bledavik was mostly smugglers, and not pirates, as he had always heard …
“And more importantly, sir, even pirates need to eat. And if they’ve a house, why, they need furniture for it. And bedding, and clothes, and fixtures … that’s where folks like my wife and me come into it, sir.”
“Ah!” Lancelot replied. “So you provided pirates with the means of life? Isn’t that aiding and abetting?”
Lancelot didn’t see it, but the red-haired woman’s eyes bulged. Master Andavri, however, only smiled insouciantly. “The nice thing about Bledavik,” he replied, “is that it’s outside everybody’s — what’s the word, Sorcha?”
“Jurisdiction?” replied the red-haired woman, her voice the kind of growl only producible by an angry woman speaking through clenched teeth.
“Aye, that. You see, if it’s outside all known laws … why, then, whose laws are we breaking?”
Lancelot had no answer for that.
“But here!” Master Andavri called. “Enough politics, sir. You haven’t even been introduced to my wife! Hey, Sorcha!”
The red-haired woman sauntered around the counter. Lancelot narrowed his eyes. Something … was not making sense. He knew, of course, that different countries had different styles of clothing. It only stood to reason. He also knew that Bledavik was to the north, where parts of the very seas would freeze. Only the pirates (and the smugglers, and the lawful merchants) knew the secret ways through the ice floes, the better to elude capture and punishment. That was all well and good, but …
Why on earth would the native style of Bledavik, such a cold place during half of the year, include so much exposed skin?
Then again, Lancelot glanced at Mistress Andavri’s layers and layers of skirts. Perhaps one or more was meant to be used as a shawl in cold weather? But what about modesty?
“Sir Lancelot,” she smiled. Her gait as she walked over to him was as rolling as her husband’s. “So pleased to meet you, I am.”
Her grip as she shook his hand was as firm and dry as any man’s. And there was something in her eyes, an appraising look, even as she smiled at him. He felt suddenly as he often felt whenever Lady Morgan turned her inscrutable gaze on him: naked, exposed, evaluated from the tips of his hair to the very marrow of his bones. Mistress Andavri’s smile turned a little crooked as she pulled away from him, the scar on her cheek twisting into a half-smile of its own. So, he had been weighed, he had been measured, and he had been found … satisfactory, apparently.
But why on earth did he have a sudden irrational urge to introduce this woman to Leona?
“Likewise,” Lancelot replied. He glanced between husband and wife. They were no spring chickens, either of them. But he could hear nothing in the wider house that indicated the presence of little ones … Well, it couldn’t hurt to ask. It was the sort of question that new acquaintances asked each other, wasn’t it? And if he stuck his foot in it, well, that was the story of his life. “Have you any children?”
“Oh, aye,” Mistress Andavri replied. “Four of them!”
“Cherry, Jack, Banana –” Master Andavri began.
“Annabeth,” Mistress Andavri corrected.
“Banana,” Master Andavri counter-corrected, “and Benny. Ages sixteen …”
“To two,” Mistress Andavri chuckled.
Lancelot looked between the two of them. But he could not resist. “Banana?” he asked weakly.
“Oh, it’s a clever thing, that!” Master Andavri laughed. “Why, if your first daughter is a redhead named Cherry, what are you to call the second?”
“Banana!” Master Andavri laughed. “Even if her given name is Annabeth. But she likes Banana.” He raised his eyebrows at his wife, as if daring her to make something of it.
“Aye, she does now,” agreed Mistress Andavri. “But what of when she’s thirteen? How will she like the gentlemen who come a-callin’ to be callin’ her Banana?”
“For now, she’s six — and any gentleman who comes a-callin’ when she’s but thirteen can deal with the sharp end of my cut–my dagger,” Master Andavri corrected, glancing sidelong at Lancelot.
Lancelot tried to laugh. “I understand just what you mean. I’ve a daughter too.”
“Aye — Leona — but she’s grown up, now. All my children are.” Lancelot did his level best to avoid sighing. “The younger two are in Camford, the eldest married — with his first babe on the way!” The idea of grandchildren certainly did make the bitter pill of grown-up children go down much easier.
“His first babe?” Mistress Andavri asked. “So your daughter is in Camford?”
“Ah! … But of course, you must have had all sorts of private tutors for her …” Mistress Andavri continued, surveying her nails as if the question was not of the least importance.
“Oh, no. She was educated by the nuns in the capital, same as … well, same as most of the well-to-do children in the kingdom.
Mistress Andavri’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Oh?” She cast a knowing and excited glance at her husband.
“Finally!” exploded a voice as the door to the house flew open. “Finally that boy’s down for his nap! I swear, Bart, you turn ’em out more an’ more restless each time!” The old man on his way out suddenly stopped short. “A Servo!”
“Er … yes?” Benoic murmured.
“Cap’n!” Master Andavri called, grabbing the old man’s shoulder and steering him to Lancelot. “Cap’n, meet Sir Lancelot — our lord.” He nudged the old man’s ribs and said something with his eyes that Lancelot couldn’t read. “Sir Lancelot, Cap’n Andavri — my father.”
“Jessiah Andavri, sir, please t’meet you.” The old man seized Lancelot’s hand with a force that made the latter’s eyes bulge, and pumped it with enough energy to power a medium-sized mill.
“Like-wise,” Lancelot gasped, only able to breathe once the other man released his hand. He wondered if he ought to just go have Kata Thatcher have a look at it now, or wait for the stars to fade from his vision first. “Captain?” he asked.
“Merchant marine,” Master Andavri — Bart — replied, shooting a glance at his father that Lancelot could not quite read.
The Cap’n read it, raised his eyebrows at it, and turned back to Sir Lancelot. “Not quite,” he said. Both Master and Mistress Andavri seemed to hold their breath. “Kids these days! Not willin’ to acknowledge their roots! Why, in my day … eh, in my day, I’d have probably done the same thing. But I ask you, Sir Lancelot, what’s the harm in a little bit of smuggling to get the kiddies some pretty toys, and the old lady a nice dress every now and then?”
“Old lady?” Mistress Andavri laughed.
“In a matter of speaking,” the Cap’n replied. He glanced sidelong at Sir Lancelot. “She wasn’t much of a lady,” he winked.
“And you, my metal friend!” the Cap’n changed the subject, turning to Benoic. “A real Servo! Why, I haven’t seen one of you since my good friend Gamma …”
“Your good friend Gamma, sir?” asked Benoic politely.
“Er … fell overboard,” the Cap’n sighed. He moved to doff his cap, except, of course, that he wasn’t wearing one. “Sunk like a stone, he did. I guess there wasn’t enough air in him to keep the metal floatin’. Ah, well! May he rest in peace — or at any rate in one piece. And let that be a lesson to you, my tin friend! Don’t get yourself into any water that you can’t stand up in!”
“I cannot go into the water at all, sir. It makes me rust.”
“Hmm,” the Cap’n murmured, stroking his hand along his chin. The scratching sound reverberated through the shop. “That would explain why he didn’t bring any rum along — only oil.”
“Ah, oil! It works very well for loosening up the joints!”
“Does it, now?” asked the Cap’n. “And what about those things that aren’t precisely joints?”
“Er … sir?”
“You know — fleshy, but sometimes a bit stiff … only not as always as stiff as you’d like it to be …”
Lancelot’s eyes began to bulge just as Master Andavri gasped, “Cap’n!”
“What? You aren’t always going to be as young as you are now! Pay attention, lad! You’ll need this information someday!” He glanced back at Benoic. “So, you were saying?”
“Cap’n,” Master Andavri snarled, grabbing his father’s bicep, “I think this might not be a conversation we want to have with virtual strangers …”
“What, you’d rather be havin’ it with me one-on-one?”
“No, but –”
“Then who, lad? Other than me, who in this country isn’t a virtual stranger — or else twelve years old? Or two?”
Lancelot stared at the quarreling father and son and then at Benoic. It was not easy to read the Servo’s expressions — as a rule, he didn’t tend to have any — but this time, Lancelot was sure he could read a bewilderment to mirror his own.
Just when he thought the confusion was complete, the door burst open. “Mum! Dad!” called a young woman’s voice. Lancelot found himself soon staring at a young girl and a young boy — he’d peg the girl’s age in her late teens, while the boy couldn’t have been quite at the teen stage yet.
“Oh good! Cherry, you’re here. Help the customers at the till,” Mistress Andavri said.
“Mum! I’m worse at maths than you are!”
“All the more reason for you to practice — and Jack, you can help your father move that screen from the back room.”
“Mum! Can we trade?” the boy asked, looking at his sister.
“I’m for it,” the girl replied.
It was time, Lancelot realized — very quickly realized — to beat his retreat. If the children were starting to return home from school — at least, that was Lancelot’s guess — it was time for him to get home. “Well, it was nice meeting you,” he said. “All of you. If you have need of anything … er … well, I’m in the big castle to the south of here. You … honestly, you can’t possibly miss it.”
He disappeared out the front door, leaving the chaos behind him. Benoic followed on his heels. “I don’t suppose,” Lancelot murmured as loudly as he dared, “that you noticed anything … odd about that family?”
“Were you able to put your finger on what it was?”
“No, sir, I wasn’t.”
“Damn,” sighed Lancelot. “Neither was I.