A summons from one’s boss was rarely good. But today, Neil found it hard to worry too much about what it was that Master Ferreira wanted. It was hard to worry when your hands were chilled to the bone and your back creaked with every last whistle of the wind.
The cold autumn wind blew into the warehouse around him, rustling pages and scattering leaves and other detritus in its wake. A wind like that could either be a boon for the sailors or a bane. It all depended, really, on which way the sailors were sailing. Anybody who wanted to get into port was in luck. Anybody who wanted to get out of it and who were beyond the reach of the tide was out of it.
But there were few who wanted to sail out of port these days. Winter was coming on, her ice-cold breath blowing before her. Few ships chanced leaving from places like Albion in winter. There would still be ships coming in, of course, but they tended to come from warmer climes, places like the Twikkii Islands or Smina. Still, ships not going out tended to cut the workload in half for men like Neil — and give them time to get cold.
He moved over to Master Mason, Master Ferreira’s manager. “Master Ferreira said he wanted ter see me?”
“Aye,” replied Master Mason. Neil blinked. Not even a sneer? Or a glower for the lowly dockworker who dared to interrupt a clerk at his duties? Then again, maybe Master Mason was being practical. Winter was coming on. Neil was one of the trusted ones who weren’t let go in the winter, but were transferred to help in the warehouse on slow days. Master Mason and Neil would be seeing a lot of each other in the coming months. Best to get along.
“He’s in his office, upstairs. But he’s seeing Lord Pellinore now.” Neil barely restrained himself from jumping — ah, there was the sneer. Master Mason had been planning to let fly that dart all along. No wonder he was so pleasant at first. “Master Ferreira says you’re to wait upstairs, and he’ll call you in when he’s ready.”
“Ah. I see. Thank’ee, sir.” Neil bobbed his head — he wouldn’t doff an imaginary cap to a man who, as far as Neil could see, was only a freeman from a lucky accident of birth — and mounted the steps to the loft two at a time. Anything to warm up.
He seated himself on an old barrel someone had thoughtfully placed an unused bag of feathers on. Then, as he blew on his fingers and tried to warm them up, he had time to worry.
What the hell did Master Ferreira want from him?
And why was Lord Pellinore there?
Good lord, he wasn’t going to be let go for the winter, was he? Neil couldn’t afford that. True, he was a cautious man, and Ailís a thrifty housewife, and they had more money than before thanks to her taking over her mother’s old job at the bakery, but Ailís’s job didn’t take in near what Neil’s did. And Master Ferreira would know that better than anyone! He owned the bakery!
But maybe, if Master Ferreira couldn’t keep him on, he’d gotten Lord Pellinore to agree to help him out, maybe give him a job on his lands for the winter. Neil relaxed at the thought. That would be much more like Master Ferreira. Neil could understand if he couldn’t keep on as many hands this winter; he was becoming a lord, his son was getting married, he had just finished fixing up that fine manor house. A man had expenses; Neil could understand that. But it would be much more like Master Ferreira to find a way to take care of the men he couldn’t afford to pay.
As if fate had only been waiting for Neil to come to that conclusion before rewarding him for his astuteness of pulling the rug out from under his feet, the floorboards creaked under the footsteps of another man. The door to the office opened and Master Ferreira stuck his head out. “Ah, good, you’re here! Come on in, Goodman Porter. Have a seat.”
“Aye, sir.” By the time Neil was inside, Master Ferreira had already seated himself. Neil tugged his forelock to him and to Lord Pellinore, and took the seat that Master Ferreira waved him to.
“Neil,” Lord Pellinore said with a smile. “How are you? And your wife, your children? I hope they’re well too.”
“Fine — fine, m’lord, we’re all fine — an’ ye? An’ yers?””
“Well indeed, all of us, thank the Lord.” Lord Pellinore smiled and folded his hands on his lap, quiet and contented as a cat just finished with a bowl of cream.
… Or the family canary …
Lord Pellinore glanced at Master Ferreira, and Neil looked that way too. His jaw almost fell to see the amused look in his boss’s eyes. But maybe Master Ferreira didn’t have to be afraid of Lord Pellinore anymore. His becoming a baron was a sure thing, now. They’d set a day for the investiture! Barring Master Ferreira being struck by lightning in the next week, it was a sure thing, now.
“Well, Goodman Porter,” Master Ferreira began, “you’re perhaps wondering just why I asked you to come up here, interrupting your work so.”
Master Ferreira wasn’t a lawyer like Lord Pellinore, all fine words and pleasantries and fluff. He was a sailor, a working man in his bones, no matter the silks he wore. So Neil answered as he would another working man: “Aye, sir. Is everythin’ all right? Am I in trouble?”
“Goodness, no!” Lord Pellinore broke in. “Why ever would you think that, Neil?”
Master Ferreira’s raised eyebrow and faint smile gave Neil the go-ahead to continue, so Neil did. “Well, m’lord,” he said to Lord Pellinore, “when a man’s called in by his boss, he does wonder. With all due respect, I’m sure even Sir William has a wonder when ye’re callin’ him in an’ he weren’t expectin’ it.”
“He has you there, my lord,” Master Ferreira chuckled, even as Lord Pellinore looked startled and surprised — and maybe even a little dismayed. “But come now, surely you know how it feels. How do you feel when the King sends for you and you weren’t expecting it?”
Lord Pellinore pondered that for a moment, then he replied, “I must admit that, given the character of our King, it generally doesn’t occur to me to be unduly alarmed. Especially since things do often crop up unexpectedly. However, I was clearly foolish not to — not to have considered what effect a sudden change in routine can have in one’s subordinates. I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future.”
“Eh, I wouldn’t worry about it, my lord. Most time the subordinate is happy enough not to be in trouble that he’s willing to forgive his boss for have giving him an attack of apoplexy — or at least I hope Goodman Porter will be forgiving, given what I’m about to say next.”
Oh, Lord. It was his job. It had to be his job. And Lord Pellinore, even if he did take him on, wasn’t going to pay him as much as Master Ferreira did. A careful, intelligent man was an asset on the docks, with so many breakable things and expensive merchandise about. In the fields? What good was a careful man when it came to digging ditches or building fences?
“Goodman Porter, as I’m sure you know, I’m scheduled to be invested as a baron in a few days’ time?” asked Master Ferreira.
Neil nodded. He could do no more.
“And as such … well, the Council has decided that it’s only fit and proper that I get a family or two of indentured men, to start me off, as it were. Lord Pellinore volunteered to … blast, there’s no good way to say this. Well, since Lord Pellinore has the most families under him, he offered to let me come to an arrangement with one of his families. And of course, Goodman Porter, the first family I thought of was yours.”
Neil blinked. “Mine, sir?”
“Indeed. I’ve known you for years, you know. Ever since you were a weedy young man willing to lift whatever boxes you had to, in order to save up money for your wedding. And of course I’ve known your wife’s family since they came to Albion. It seemed to me to be the most beneficial arrangement for all concerned.”
“However,” Lord Pellinore broke in, “we would not dream of completing such a weighty alteration without your enthusiastic support. Heaven forbid! You know it’s illegal to transfer a man’s indenture without his consent.”
It was all Neil could do to keep his face straight and schooled. Illegal — ha. When the laws were made by lords, and everybody knew it! A lord could bend his peasant to his will, no problem. Nothing stopping him from throwing the peasant in the dungeon until he agreed? Nothing stopping him from upping the taxes until the peasant was reduced to chewing on the thatch from his own roof. What was a peasant’s consent worth when it could be so easily coerced?
Except … Lord Pellinore wasn’t that kind of lord. If Neil said no, that would probably be an end of it.
But what kind of lord would Master Ferreira make?
Neil let his gaze slowly move to the other side of the table. He stalled. “Well, m’lord — sir — that’s a … that’s a weighty offer, it is. I’d have ter think about it. An’ talk ter me wife, o’ course.”
“Of course, of course,” Lord Pellinore replied. “We weren’t expecting you to make a decision right away! Heaven forbid!”
“But all the same,” Master Ferreira added, “I hadn’t finished making my offer.” He shot Neil half a smile. “We couldn’t have you making a decision without knowing all the facts, of course.” He glanced at Lord Pellinore. “Isn’t that right, my lord?”
“Quite right, quite right,” Lord Pellinore nodded.
But even as Master Ferreira faced Lord Pellinore, that half-smile stayed, deliberately including Neil in … in whatever the hell it was Master Ferreira had up his sleeve. For he was planning something, he had to be. A man didn’t go from where Master Ferreira started to where he was now without always having something planned.
“Anyway,” Master Ferreira continued, looking back at Neil, “I’ve got a nice parcel of houses built, centered around a well and some good garden space. I’d be happy to let you and Goodwife Porter have a look at it whenever it’s convenient for you.”
“Good garden space?” Neil asked.
“Nice, flat land. No hills, no gullies. No need to put in steps just to get to the garden.” Master Ferreira grinned.
Good Lord, wouldn’t that be nice. The thought of Josie or Jake — or even Nellie, big girl that she was! — getting out, trying to go down those steps too fast, and falling and hurting herself or worse was the sort of thing to wake him up in a cold sweat. And a well right around the garden … no more lugging full pails up all those steps, and as for irrigation, forget it, not while water always flowed downhill.
Instinctively, Neil glanced at Lord Pellinore, expecting him to counter the offer. After all, Neil was a man with a good farm, even it was a small one, good money in taxes. Why wouldn’t Lord Pellinore have a counteroffer?
But Lord Pellinore said nothing, only smiled at him.
Neil turned back to Master Ferreira — to a grinning Master Ferreira. “Well,” Neil replied, slowly, intentionally drawing his voice out to make it sound more rustic and yokel-ish, “that’s a mighty fine offer, sir. I suppose the taxes would be higher?”
“Same rate as Lord Pellinore,” Master Ferreira shrugged.
Neil blinked. Same rate? A better house? And —
“Closer ter here, sir, I guess?”
“But farther to the kiddies’ school,” Neil mused.
“True,” Master Ferreira agreed. “But once there were enough children in the village, I would build my own school and hire teachers to staff it. Granted, that might take several years.”
“It is also farther from your wife’s family, Neil. I would urge you to keep that in mind.”
Good Lord, did Lord Pellinore want him gone? Nothing against Berach and Grady, but any miles between Neil and Finley Brogan were good miles. And Port Finessa was in the opposite direction of where Finley liked to go wandering on a drunken evening. This deal was looking better and better.
At least, it was to Neil. Ailís might have a different opinion.
Lord Pellinore’s mouth opened to add something else, but the sound of church bells wafting in from the window forestalled him. “Oh, blast! I do apologize, sirs, but I have another appointment I simply must keep.”
“No trouble,” replied Master Ferreira. “I’m sure we’ve given Neil enough to think about for one day.”
Neil agreed, and bid Lord Pellinore a polite farewell as he got up and scurried from the room.
Neil too was about to get up and go back to his work, but a raised hand from Master Ferreira forestalled him. “Hold on there, Goodman Porter. I wasn’t quite finished with you yet.” He grinned. “I was hoping Lord Pellinore would give us some time. He’s a stuffy old codger, but his heart’s in the right place. I’d hate to give him apoplexy with what I’m about to tell you.”
Apoplexy? Neil’s eyebrows went up.
“You see,” Master Ferreira continued, “even though the Council decided that I must have an indentured family of my own, to grow my estate … they never said that the family has to stay indentured.”
“Stay — indentured?” Neil croaked.
“I have plans for you, Goodman Porter.”
Master Ferreira smiled, leaned back, rested his head on his hands. “You haven’t yet asked, Goodman Porter, what I intend to do about lands. Food production.”
“I –” Oh, no. Would Master Ferreira want him to do that, forever? But that barely paid anything! He had a family to feed!
“I was planning on having whoever it was who took me up on my offer do that. But not,” Master Ferreira added, “the way you seem to be fearing. As in, you work the lands and I make all the profit. No, no, I’d be willing to rent lands to whoever was willing to work them. You do all the work, you make most of the profit, I get a set fee. That seems reasonable, don’t you think?”
“Rent …” Neil murmured. “Sir, I couldn’t do that an’ the docks. An’ that’s a chancy way of earnin’ a livin’.”
“Grady Brogan managed to get his whole family out of servitude with a small vegetable shop.”
“Well, that’s so …” Neil said slowly. But I’m not Grady.
Master Ferreira watched him, eyes narrowed. Then he nodded to himself, as a man who had just come to a decision would, and stood up. “Come with me, Goodman Porter. I want to show you something.”
The house? Already? But Ailís wasn’t here! Or was it the lands?
Still, Neil got up and followed Master Ferreira without another word. It, after all, could hardly hurt to have a look.
He was surprised when they want out the docks door of the warehouse rather than the street door. But perhaps that was just Master Ferreira’s way. Certainly he often had more cause to go by the docks than down the street, unless he was returning home for the evening.
But Master Ferreira stopped short, right in front of the fire-dancer’s mat. “There!” he announced. “There, Goodman Porter! Tell me, what do you see?”
“What, right now, sir?”
“In the direction we’re both lookin’?”
“Er …” Well, it would disappoint him, Neil was sure, but it had to be said. Anything else would be a lie. “All I see is the White Lady, sir.”
Master Ferreira did not sigh or roll his eyes or snort. He only smiled. “I see the future. Buying and selling, Goodman Porter. That’s where the money, the power, will be. Now it’s on the land, but someday — and not too far off, too — it’ll be on the sea.”
“But sir, Sims have got ter eat.”
Master Ferreira nodded his head. “Indeed, they do. But look at the lords. They’ve managed to corner the market on food — and how many men does it take them to produce it? And how much are those men paid?”
“Not much,” Neil replied, thinking of Berach.
“And how much do the lords make?”
Far more than they were willing to pay their peasants.
He didn’t say it out loud — at least, Neil was sure he hadn’t spoken aloud — but Master Ferreira treated his pause exactly the same as if it were a reply. “Precisely, Goodman Porter. Precisely.”
“Aye, sir, that’s all true, but … what is it ye’re wantin’? Why don’t ye want ter playin’ the lords’ game, now that ye’re gonna be one?”
“Several reasons, Goodman Porter. Most of them completely selfish. One,” he counted the first off on one finger, “I have not the time, in my old age, to be taking on another business. I also have not the inclination for farming. I’m a city boy. Grew up in Port Graal and spent my youth on the ocean. My aunt’s house had a small garden and some chickens, but beyond that, I don’t know much about how food goes from the ground to the plate. And I really don’t want to have to learn. Secondly … I always try to sail with the tide, Goodman Porter, not against it. You can’t sail against the tide. And the tide, I think, is going out on the lords and their current way of making their living.”
Neil furrowed his brows. “Ye can’t be thinkin’ that the lords will fall, sir. That don’t make no sense. They’re wealthy men. They’ll find ways ter go on bein’ wealthy.”
“Of course, Goodman Porter. They’ll survive in some way or other. Wealthy men do. And those in Albion, I believe, are an uncommonly sharp lot. Sir Lancelot’s having the coast of Avilion built up, you know. The land might not be used for farming, but it’s all his, and he’ll get sales or rents on it no matter what what the occupiers do with it. As for Lord Lot, he made quite a name for himself breeding and selling fancy horses. Sir Mordred is carrying on the venture. They’ll adapt — or die out, like pig-headed idiots like Sir Bors. But I, Goodman Porter,” he turned to Neil conspiratorially, “see no reason to invest in a dying system. And I think you’re bright enough to want to sail with the tide, too.”
“Hmm,” was all Neil would reply. “So … so what ye’re wantin’ me ter do, Master Ferreira, would be ter rent yer land, farm it, keep what I have ter fer me an’ me family, an’ sell the rest.”
“And, Lord willing, make a handy profit so doing and buy yourself and your family out of your indentures.”
“I can’t do that an’ work on the docks, sir.”
“Of course. That’s understood. I would be sad to see you go, but I think you could further yourself and your family better this way.”
“But winter’s comin’ on, sir.”
“True,” Master Ferreira replied. “I’m not suggesting that you start tomorrow, Goodman Porter! Take your time, think it over. You couldn’t do anything until spring, anyway.”
“Hmm,” Neil murmured. “If ye were ter be a good employer, Master Ferreira, an’ a good lord … I could do both, fer a little bit. While I’m still gettin’ the hang o’ it, learnin’ the ropes, as it were … I could come by the docks a couple o’ days a week, help out … have a guaranteed wage, make sure me kiddies get fed no matter what …”
Master Ferreira’s eyebrows went up. “You are very risk-averse, Goodman Porter.”
“I’ve got kiddies ter feed, sir.”
“If it doesn’t work out,” Master Ferreira answered, “you can have your old job on the docks back — and I’ll let you rent from me and work on the docks when you can. How does that sound?”
Neil grinned and stuck out his hand. “It sounds, sir, like — assumin’ me wife is willin’ ter agree — like ye might have yerself a deal.”