“An’ if it’s trout yer wantin’, sir, we’ve got a fresh catch in jest this mornin’.”
“Hmm,” replied the customer. “Fresh or ‘fresh’?”
“Sir!” Grady gasped, or pretended to gasp. “Why, half a day ago, they were still swimmin’ around an’ makin’ their plans fer the evenin’! How much fresher d’ye want?”
“Hmm …” But Grady knew that look in a man’s eye, the way he was stroking his chin. It was the look of a man who would soon be making a purchase. Yes, Grady was good enough to sell fish to a man named Haddock.
But more importantly, Grady was selling this fish in his own shop — on his own land — earned with his own money, beholden to nothing and nobody. He’d be keeping a lot more of the profit he’d made, since neither Lord Pellinore nor his father’s bottomless cup would be demanding their share of it.
In other words, he, Grady Brogan, half-illegitimate son of peasants and peasants and some more peasants, had made it.
And he couldn’t have done it without Toinette.
Look at her go! Getting tight-fisted Mother Julian to seriously consider a basket full of oysters — oysters! Extravagant oysters! Oysters that made a man and his wife get all hot and bothered of an evening! His wife was selling oysters to a nun!
And to think — at the beginning of the year, he’d been furious with her and her “unreasonable” ultimatum. But now he was seeing that this was the best thing he had ever done, getting out from under his father’s thumb. And Lord Pellinore’s, but mostly his father’s. Katie and Paddy might have some fuzzy bad memories — that was, unfortunately, unavoidable — but Nora, Sean, Aileen? With luck, they would reach adulthood and not even think to cringe when they saw a half-full tankard of ale or something stronger on the table.
It had been Toinette who protected them from that. Thank the Lord for Toinette. She was, at the end of the day, her mother’s daughter. A very sweet mother’s daughter, but when she wanted something done, she got it done. What a team they made!
Even now, she hired a village girl to watch the little ones — Aileen was old enough to be left with someone who wasn’t Mama for a few hours — and came in to help him out. Village girls just needed for watching the littlest ones came cheap. Boys or men or even village girls who could help him out in the shop didn’t. Toinette could be home with her babies, now that she didn’t need to be out treading the boards to earn a few extra coins for the emancipation fund. But she chose to come here with him and help him get the new business running. The Good Book said that the price of a good woman was above rubies, but St. Robert must have never met a woman like Toinette, or else he would have named something else — something even more valuable.
Maybe the price of a good woman was above gold. Or diamonds. Or joy, or freedom. Certainly not above love — what was the point of a good woman if you traded your capacity to love for her? But rubies! To even say that good women were above that was an insult to good women everywhere.
Grady watched her as he figured what the man Haddock owed him, and what Sir Mordred’s steward Barber owed him, and what Mother Julian owed him. Toinette wended her way through the shop, checking the inventory. They didn’t catch their own — Grady had fisherman’s blood, but besides a predilection for angling on a sunny afternoon, he did not have a fisherman’s skill. However, there were plenty of men who sailed out every morning or every evening, and they were happy enough to take a lower price in return to a guaranteed buyer for their wares. Who knew? Maybe they even ended up the winner over the long term. Grady just had to win more.
And Toinette? Toinette had one of the best heads for tracking things that Grady had ever seen. She seemed to know, already, just which types of fish sold the best, which ones sat on the shelves until they began to smell, and which ones they could usually get into a customer’s hands and out of their shop before that horrible fate occurred. Grady wasn’t sure what he would do with this information just yet, because it was a bit hard to try to buy more of the quick-selling stuff when he couldn’t control what came in. But he knew which fish to bargain down as low as he could, and which to allow the fishermen to win on. That knowledge alone was more than worth Toinette’s time and trouble.
Mother Julian left with her oysters in hand, and Grady stood still, listening to the scratch of Toinette’s quill and not much else. A rare moment of quiet in the shop. He was a damned lucky man that these moments were rare — but he’d be a luckier one if he could take advantage of this one. He circled out from behind the counter and walked up to his wife. “Hey,” he said, tucking one finger under her chin.
“Hey yerself,” Toinette smiled. “What is it ye’re needin’?”
“Nothin’. Other than mentionin’ how great ye are. Have I told ye that lately, love?”
Toinette smiled, and under her tired eyes and drawn skin, Grady saw the lissome-limbed, laughing-eyed girl he had fallen in love with — Lord — was it almost twenty years ago? Of course, it had taken some time for him to turn her head, but still … She could have done so much better than him, back then. There were plenty of strong farmers’ sons who were falling over themselves for her hand. Boys with good prospects, too, boys who didn’t have mothers worn to the bone and fathers determined to drink every last copper the family earned. She didn’t have to marry into the mess that was the Brogan family.
Five children, they’d had together, and still Grady could span her waist with his hands. He smiled into her eyes. She smiled into his. He leaned in for a kiss, not even hearing the little bell above the door ring.
“Er … is this a bad time?”
Grady and Toinette sprung apart like a guilty lass and guiltier lass, not an old married couple with five children to their name. “Master Ferreira!” Toinette, the first to regain her voice, gasped.
“Richard,” he corrected, smiling.
“Sir!” Grady added.
“Richard,” he corrected again, the smile deepening.
“Richard,” Grady added, stepping forward to pump the man’s hand. Of course, at that moment the shop bell rang again, and Toinette hurried forward to deal with that customer.
But before she quite made it, she turned her head to glance at Richard. “Our condolences ter ye, sir, fer yer mother-in-law. An’ ter yer — yer lady.”
The smile turned tired. The sigh that followed wasn’t much more awake. “Thank you, Mistress Brogan.”
Mistress — his wife was no mere goodwife anymore, but a mistress! Mistress of her own house and shop and the husband she was now, Grady decided, free to henpeck as much as she liked, since the house and shop wouldn’t have been truly hers if not for her efforts. Grady, he had had the dream, but he could never done it without Toinette.
Still, he had a customer in front of him, a customer high in the Guild. “Hope ye’re well, Richard,” Grady said, since he wasn’t sure the man was, in fact, well. Richard turned back to him with a half-smile.
“Oh, well,” he said dismissively, waving one hand, “I can’t complain. Especially not considering what you had to deal with last year.”
His mother. Well, when Richard put it like that … “They’re both in a better place, sir. Or so we can only hope.”
“And hopefully my mother-in-law is leaving your mother to her quiet contemplation and nice rest. Then again, she can’t have stopped working the mischief she’s pent up all these years on her relatives that have gone before,” Richard chuckled. “Your mother, by the way, would be prouder than proud to see you now.”
“Thank — thank’ee, sir,” Grady replied, trying to keep his voice from growing thick and full. “I hope so.” Would Lilé have rejoiced in their rising, or would she have sighed to see him abandoning his father?
But they wouldn’t have abandoned him, if Lilé had been alive, because that would have meant abandoning Lilé too. And if Lilé had been the survivor, then Grady would have bought her freedom, too, and brought her to live with them, to relax in her sunset years. Grady prayed that somehow, some way, wherever she was, she knew that. If Grady could have made things easier for her, he would have.
“So!” Richard asked, rubbing his hands together with the glee of a merchant about to talk business with another merchant. “How are things?”
“Oh, goin’ well, sir!” Better than he had dared to hope, really, but he had to massage his pride and appear at least a little more confident than he felt. “Ain’t got no trouble keepin’ a roof over me kiddies’ heads and keepin’ food in their bellies — an’ there ain’t nothing much more ye can axe fer.”
“Is that all you’re affording?” Richard smirked, his gaze falling on — Grady’s shoulder? What was on his shoulder?
Oh. His new tunic. And trews. And shoes. Of course the man that built half of his fortune on the inspired back of his wife’s dressmaking business would recognize when a man was wearing something of good quality and completely new. “Heh,” Grady shrugged, the new fabric settling unsurely over him. “Toinette wanted a bit of a splurge, she did. An’ who was I ter say no ter her?”
“I find it’s best to humor one’s wife in this things,” Richard chortled.
“Well, ye’d know, sir, if anyone would!” Grady laughed.
“Grady. Enough with the ‘sirs,'” Richard said, shaking his head — but with a smile. “We’re equals now, if we weren’t before.”
“But …” Grady rubbed the back of his neck. “I doubt we will be fer long. Eh?”
Instead of preening and puffing up at the thought of his impending nobility — as Grady himself would have, given half a chance — Richard shrugged. “Equals are made on ability, not on blood. Or titles.”
Grady blinked. “But … but, ye, sir, ye’ve worked so hard ter … ter get up there …”
“Well, yes. But that hardly makes me a better man than you. Perhaps a worse one, by some men’s definition. Certainly the Church’s.”
“If that’s what they think, Richard — hope ye don’t mind me disrespect — but they don’t know what they’re talkin’ ’bout.” Certainly the Church in Albion would be stupid to fault any more for rising. They weren’t like the Church in Glasonland, sitting on a pile of gold that could feed every last starving orphan and weeping widow in Wrightendom. The better the Albionese did, the better the Church did.
But far from minding the disrespect, Richard chuckled. “They would be, wouldn’t they? And too many of them, I fear, have taken good St. Robert’s rule of ‘treat others as you would wish to be treated’ entirely to heart.” He winked. “Anyway, I didn’t come here to engage you in a debate about the Church or rising or anything else. I came to make sure you got an invitation to the next Guild meeting.”
“G-Guild meeting?” Grady choked. He was being invited into the Guild — fully into the Guild — already? He’d scarcely been a freeman for more than a few months!
“Well,” Richard half-sighed, half-laughed, “when I say ‘Guild meeting,’ I mean ‘meet at a pub with Mark Wesleyan, his sons, and me.’ Somehow we’ve never gotten around to building a hall.” Richard sighed. “That will be you young men’s job, I suspect.”
“I –” Good Lord. Mark Wesleyan was older than Richard Ferreira by a good three years or so, Richard would soon be a noble and out of the Guild, and Wesleyan’s sons were both several years younger than Grady. It was not inconceivable that Grady would go in five to ten years from being the most junior to the most senior member of the Guild, in age if not in experience. “I’d love ter! Where d’ye folks meet?”
“The Misty Morn — it’s the pub right across from my warehouse. There’s a tearoom upstairs, by the way, if your wife wants to join mine and Helena — Mark’s wife. My daughter might be there, too. We usually leave the kids with …”
Richard kept speaking, but Grady stopped listening. His eyes were fixed on the door.
It was all going to come crashing down around him, wasn’t it? Lord Pellinore would have discovered an irregularity on his taxes from five years past — or one of the coins he gave him was discovered to be bad — or else there had been some legal “i” he hadn’t dotted or “t” he hadn’t crossed. It didn’t matter. Lord Pellinore was going to take everything. Grady knew it had all been going far too well!
Richard seemed to sense his inattention and looked over his shoulder. “My lord!” he called in a tone of welcome. “How do you do?”
“Well, Master Ferreira. And you? My condolences, by the way.”
“Thank you — thank you.” Wait. Lord Pellinore was condoling Richard? Whatever he was here for couldn’t be that bad if he was being that polite, that pleasant. Lord Pellinore had a good poker face, but his voice wasn’t that good at masking what he felt. Grady started to relax.
“And Master Brogan!” Lord Pellinore reached for Grady’s hand. Grady gave it a hearty shake, reveling over the “Master Brogan” as he hadn’t before. “How are you, my good man?”
“Well! Well! An’ ye, sir?”
“Ah, well, I can hardly complain, can I?” Lord Pellinore replied, small smile on his lips. And Grady remembered all that he had heard. Lord Pellinore’s oldest daughter’s marriage was in shambles — he’d been strong-armed by the King into having his oldest son marry the sister of his worst enemy, the man who had broken his daughter’s heart — his younger son had just married somewhat scandalously to an increasing girl of commoner stock. Apparently even lords could have their problems.
That wasn’t even counting the fact that Grady had abandoned his father and Ailís and Berach both were refusing to have anything to do with him until he cleaned himself up — and Berach not even then — which effectively made Finley Lord Pellinore’s problem.
“But I must apologize, Master Brogan,” Lord Pellinore continued, “I fear I came here only for business.”
“You’re apologzing for coming to a merchant’s shop … for business?” Richard laughed.
Lord Pellinore blinked his flame-heart blue eyes at him — then he laughed himself. “Goodness! I never thought of it like that. It does sound silly, doesn’t it?” He turned to Grady with a small smile, inviting him to share in the joke. Grady grinned.
Everything was going to be all right!
“But, in any case,” Pellinore continued, “my wife has decided that we shall be having fish for supper tonight, and somehow, I am the one picked to make the selection.” He sighed. “Don’t ask me how it happened; I’m not quite certain myself.”
It was only the fact that Grady was the owner of the shop, and this was his profit on the line, that kept him from raising his eyebrows. Richard, who had no such reason to keep his face calm, was openly raising his.
“Unfortunately, I fear I have … very little idea of what I am doing …” Lord Pellinore continued, looking close to — but not quite — nervous and unsure.
“Well, I can be helpin’ ye with that, m’lord. Here, will ye be havin’ a look at what we’ve got?”
“Thank you, Gr–Master Brogan, I would much appreciate that.” And with that, Grady led him over to their freshest catch.
It was then that Lord Pellinore really did begin to look lost and nervous unsure. Poor man — he’d probably only seen fish either in the water or on the plate, not in the in-between stage. And he probably had no idea what he was looking for, or what to pretend to be looking for.
Would it be cruel to put him on the spot? But Grady didn’t have to — Toinette’s sensible shoes clunking on the floorboards alerted him to her presence. “Is there anythin’ I can be helpin’ ye with, m’lord? Grady?”
“Mistress Brogan!” Lord Pellinore cried, turning his smile on her. “My goodness, but you are looking well this afternoon.”
“Why, thank’ee, m’lord. Ye’re lookin’ quite fine yerself. Now, is there anythin’ I can be helpin’ ye with?” she said. A twinkle lit in her eye, and she winked at Grady. I got this, she seemed to be saying. Ye go off an’ finish yer conversation with Master Ferreira, now.
Lord, but he had married a treasure.
“Well,” Lord Pellinore murmured, “I will need enough to feed … goodness … eight people, but two of them are children — and then there’s the servants, my wife says that what we eat, they eat …”
Sensing that Lord Pellinore was in even more capable hands than his, Grady slowly shuffled out of the way.
“Hmm,” Richard murmured, once Grady got back into his earshot. “Bet you ten silvers that he’s just being nosy.”
“T-ten silvers?” Grady stammered, if only because it was mildly less embarrassing to stammer that than to stand open-mouthed at the idea of betting on a nobleman’s motives — well, betting while the nobleman was standing right there, in earshot.
“Sorry. That was a bit harsh, wasn’t it? That was … well, the price of one of your kids … wasn’t it?”
“Aye,” Grady admitted, finding that was all he could say.
Richard murmured something under his breath — something that sounded dangerously close to too high — but he turned back to Grady with a bit of a grin. “Anyway, I wouldn’t worry, if I were you. He’s just satisfying his curiosity. And making sure you’re all right, I would expect.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Grady lied.
“Right. Right. Of course you weren’t.” Richard winked, a just-between-us-friends sort of wink. Grady managed to smile at him.
“Besides,” Richard continued, “you’re a freeman and a merchant now, eye? Barring an attack of the four horsemen — what have you really got to worry about?”
Grady grinned. Not much, he thought. Not now.
He’d made it.