The torch burned quite merrily on the front stoop. Richard cast it an appraising look and an appraising sniff. Yes, there was plenty of hay for the flame to burn — it would last all night without a problem — and some of it had been doused in oil to help it burn that much brighter. Richard barely held back a smile. So the Porters were doing well. He wouldn’t argue with that. After all, whatever the nobles might think about the matter, Richard had found that those at the top tended to do even better when those at the bottom were comfortable as well.
But all of that was neither here nor there. He brought his hand to the door and executed a smart rat-a-tat-tat.
“Who is it?” called Neil’s voice.
“M’lord!” Wood scraped on wood, the sound of a chair being hurriedly pushed back. Heavy boots pounded against the floorboards. The door flew open, leaving Richard looking into Neil’s open, honest, and unaccountably nervous face.
No — not unaccountable. Richard sighed inwardly. While he certainly didn’t object to now being treated as something resembling a Sim by the nobles — well, those nobles who already hadn’t been taking their training in courtesy quite seriously — he wished the bloody title wouldn’t stand between him and men who hadn’t quite risen so high. Couldn’t they see that the title was only a means to an end, and not the end in itself?
Well, there was one way to get Neil to treat him the same as he always had: treat Neil the same as he always had. Richard stuck out his hand. “Good evening, Goodman Porter.”
Neil blinked, but he held out a shaky hand. “Good — good evenin’, m’lord.” They shook.
“Here — m’lord, let me take yer cloak.” Richard almost jumped to hear the soft voice coming from his elbow. But of course it was Ailís. She smiled briefly on him before her eyes ducked down to her skirts.
Richard would have dismissed it as ridiculous, the way peasants tip-toed around the lords … but this was Ailís. She had been like that, even when she was a little girl who came into the bakery from time to time clinging to Lilé’s skirts.
And Neil? Neil had been even worse when Richard had first hired him, mumbling to his boots whenever asked a question. A skinny lad, eager to work, but seemingly terrified of the other dockworkers. He spent his lunch breaks sitting in the shade of the boxes, leaning back against one of them, chewing his pie or his pasty and staring up at the gulls wheeling across the sky. And — this was what drew Richard’s attention to him — he ready to climb any precarious pile, lift any box that ought to have by rights weighed twice as much as he did, if there was a promise of extra pay or extra responsibility attached. Richard might have been — in fact he was — a little suspicious at such supreme effort, and so many risks, all for just a little bit of extra money. And then Richard heard that Neil was saving up for a wedding. Not just any wedding, either, but a wedding to a girl with a rotten home life whom he was desperate to rescue.
Richard watched Ailís take his cloak and hat and hang them neatly on the hook. Eventually, Neil had grown tired of waiting and had indentured himself — indentured himself — to wed his girl and keep her safe. Which brought them to where they were now. Richard’s indentured family … that he had plans for.
He took a deep breath — and sniffed appreciatively. “Goodwife Porter! You didn’t say you had dinner on. I’ll come back when it’s more convenient –”
“No, no, m’lord, have a seat!” Ailís smiled. “There’s plenty for everyone. Nellie, get Mas–Baron Ferreira a bowl an’ let him sit next ter Da, all right?”
The bigger of the two girls did as her mother said and soon scrambled into a seat, shooting Richard a nervous glance through her lashes. Richard responded with his biggest smile as he took his seat, including the smaller girl in it, too.
Much like Nellie, the other girl — drat it, what was her name? Neil talked about his children all the time! — only peeked at him through her lashes and tucked into her food with more of a will.
Richard glanced at said food. Kasha — simple, he could see, but hearty and nourishing. Good. He’d hate to think of any family under his control — at least in theory — having trouble feeding themselves and their children. And that might have been as much a reason for Richard trying to get the Porters free as any.
While he was at it, he stole a glance at the big serving bowl up on one of the counters. It was almost empty … but unless his nose was steering him very, very wrong indeed, there was another pot cooking away on the stove. Also good. He’d hate to deprive growing children of second helpings if those were what their stomachs were crying out for.
“Is there anythin’ else I can get ye, m’lord?” asked Neil, his bum practically hovering over the chair before he allowed himself to sit.
“No, not at all! Thank you.” Neil sat and Richard took a taste. “Excellent,” he said, shooting a grin at Ailís. “Not that I’d expect any less out of my chief baker.”
Ailís smiled. “Thank’ee, m’lord.”
The family ate in near-silence, the kind of silence that made Richard twitchy. It wasn’t because of — of him, was it? It had to be. He hadn’t sat at that silent of a family dinner in … well … it must have been when he was still a boy, and his father would sail into town and take him out to the pub for an evening. Of course, Richard’s father mostly spoke Simspanish with a smattering of Glasonlander, and Richard only spoke Glasonlander with not even a smattering of Simspanish. Still, though, Richard had tried to talk!
… Then again … Richard was of a different stock than the Porters, wasn’t he? And Lord knew his children were. He loved his children, but they wouldn’t know a quiet dinner if it came up and hit them over the head with a fencepost. Wouldn’t see the point of it, either.
“So, m’lord,” asked Neil, finally breaking the silence, “what brings ye out this way tonight?”
“Actually, Goodman Porter, I wanted to talk to you — and to you, Goodwife Porter — about your plans for the coming year. The lease on my lands, after all, does become effective as soon as the spring rolls around.”
Neil’s eyes narrowed. “Ye said, m’lord, that I could start workin’ earlier than that …”
“Of course. The lands, after all, are just sitting there. Far be it from me to keep someone from improving my property.” He shrugged and winked.
Neil watched him with eyes narrowed over a twitchy smile, but after a moment the smile relaxed.
“And I would have come sooner,” he added, “but you should know — of all people, you should know — that things in my house have been a bit busy lately.”
Neil grinned. “Aye, m’lord! An’ how’s little Lord Colin?”
Richard hadn’t bothered to study up on the correct forms of address for all the different ranks and shades of nobility — he’d delegated that task to Bianca, who wasn’t any more interested in it than he was, but was a lot more interested in not getting it wrong — but all the same, he was pretty sure that the grandson of a baron wasn’t addressed as “Lord.” Even if his other grandfather was an earl. And even if his cousins were princes and princesses, more’s the pity.
Still, what did it matter? “He’s doing very well, thank you! I swear he gets a little heavier every day. His mother, of course, is thrilled by that, and so is his father, because he knows enough to be thrilled when his wife is.” Richard winked in Ailís’s direction, who chuckled. “A quick study, my son is!”
“Indeed!” laughed Neil. “Good Lord, he’s not been married a year an’ he already knows what’s what! How long did it take me ter get me head on straight, Lí–Ma?”
“Yer head was always on straight, Da,” Ailís shook her head, “it were gettin’ it out of the clouds that were the problem.”
“Oh, dear.” Neil turned to the smaller of the two girls. “Me head’s still in the clouds. I’m in trouble, ain’t I, Jo?”
Jo–Josie! That was the littler girl’s name. And the boy was … Jake, yes, that was it. And the new girl … Lora! Yes, he had it!
Josie giggled, even if she kept shooting sidelong glances at Richard. “But I like yer head in the clouds, Da!”
“Hey, Ma, ye hear that?” Neil pointed to Josie. “She thinks I’m jest fine!”
Ailís shook her head. “Da, if I didn’t think ye were a good sight better than fine, d’ye think I’d have married ye?”
Richard could wonder — or at least, he could have wondered if the words were said in anything other than such a matter-of-fact tone. After all, who had been letting Lilé Brogan bring home extra loaves to her family for two decades, or at least until Grady dragged the family into stability? But Ailís didn’t seem like a woman who had married her man only to get away from her family. And Neil didn’t seem like a man who at all suspected that that would be the case — and if it was, Richard would have bet his best ship that Neil would have figured it out.
“True! Ye girls listen ter yer ma,” Neil added to the lasses, “an’ by listen ter her, I mean listen ter what she’s sayin’ now — not whatever she says whenever yer poor Da ain’t around ter hear — about marryin’. Marry the lad ye like the way he is, girls, not the lad ye think ye can make over the best.”
“Neil!” Ailís laughed, then slapped her hand over her mouth.
“Oh! Ma! Ye called Da his grown-up name!” giggled Nellie, before she looked at Richard and her mouth shut in a hurry.
“Ma’s allowed, sweet, don’t ye worry none about that,” Neil replied.
“How come?” asked Josie.
“‘Cause Ma’s Ma an’ Ma makes the rules, that’s why.”
“Neil!” Ailís gave a little shriek. “Ye’re gonna make Ma–Baron Ferreira think I’m a right shrew, ye are!”
“Oh, believe me, Goodwife Porter,” Richard replied, in all sincerity. “I would never make that mistake. I’ve met shrews.” Indeed, have you met my sister-in-law? “You’re not a shrew.”
“Well, that’s sweet o’ ye ter say, m’lord …”
“Nothing but the truth, Goodwife Porter.”
“… but all the same, I wish me husband would give his poor wife some peace.”
Neil sighed and shook his head, sharing with Richard a look familiar to husbands everywhere — the look of husbands who were hardly henpecked, but who liked to tease their wives by pretending they were. Richard himself often employed that same look with Mark, with Joshua, with anyone who would reciprocate.
But all the same, he did have business to consider. “So what kind of improvements have you made so far, Goodman Porter?” Richard asked, dipping his spoon into the kasha and letting his raised eyebrows ask more eloquently than he could.
“Oh …” Damn, maybe he shouldn’t have tried to turn the conversation. Neil had clammed up, the same as he used to when he was just a boy. “Jest a few things, m’lord. Jest gettin’ everythin’ ready fer the spring plantin’. Ye know … clear some stumps, get the rocks out. That kind o’ thing.”
“Wise,” Richard replied. “That ought to help you, once spring settles in. You can concentrate on getting your crops planted, then.” And spring was almost here — only a little more than three weeks away by the calendar. The winds were already starting to change, and activity around the docks had picked up from its wintertime murmur to a steady hum.
“Will it be helpin’ me all that much, m’lord?” Neil asked his bowl. “After all, it’s yer land.”
“I believe so,” Richard replied. “After all, the lease is still in force. And if substantial improvements are made … we might be able to renegotiate, after some time.” Richard shrugged. “Seems a bit unfair for me to have a man improve my land and charge him the same rent as a man who barely does more than scratch the soil and throw in a few seeds in the dirt.”
What Richard did not say was that he was planning, if his experiment was successful and Neil made a freeman and a merchant of himself, to unload a good-sized parcel of land — say, the fields Neil had been working and improving — onto Neil himself. Oh, he’d get a good price for it — or at least, for what the land had been worth when Neil first signed the lease. But Richard was not man of property. He was a man of the dirt, the one who knew how to spit on his hands and grab a shovel when a ditch needed to be dug. Except Richard didn’t dig ditches. He dug canals. Canals could, after all, turn a headier profit than a mere ditch.
But a shovel was a shovel, and dirt was dirt no matter who was turning it over. That was what the nobles didn’t understand.
Richard, however, thought that Neil just might be able to get that.
But he would need to have a more calm and quiet conversation with him to ascertain that. In the meantime … like any good sailor, he would go with the flow. Let the conversation eddy and drift around him. Swim with the tide. After all, what he had to discuss with Neil was business.
And not all families were like his and Bianca’s. There were some dinner tables where business just wasn’t meant to be discussed. Some places where the focus could be, and should be, on the Sims around that table, not about their profitable or not-so-profitable ventures in the wild world outside.
Richard could wait. The girls were wolfing down their food as growing girls ought to, even if Neil and Ailís were more fastidious. They would talk soon enough.
In the meantime, Richard might as well enjoy himself.
“Are ye sure I can’t get ye nothin’ else?” Neil asked, standing hesitantly over Richard. “I know the girls are gonna be clamorin’ fer somethin’ sweet any second now. We could get ye somethin’, ye know.”
“Clamoring?” Richard gasped. He stared around Neil to the girls playing docilely enough at the table. “Goodman Porter … do your girls even know how to clamor?”
He laughed, rich and slow, as he settled onto the sofa. “M’lord, ye ain’t never heard Nellie when Josie’s stolen her doll. Again.”
Richard snorted. “Still. See how my children operate someday. I somehow can’t shake the feeling that your kids’ ‘clamoring’ is my children’s ‘normal speaking voice.'”
“Aw, come now, m’lord. Ye know I’ve talked with Master Freddy loads o’ times. He’s a calm-spoken man if I ever met one.”
“Aye, Freddy …” Richard stroked his beard. “Well, I suppose there’s one in every family. Somebody has to keep his head when everyone else is shouting to the heavens, after all. And pick up the pieces up when it’s all over.” Richard winked at Neil.
But Neil didn’t wink back. Didn’t even smile. “Somethin’ wrong, m’lord?”
Richard’s jaw fell.Good Lord, how did he … Of course there was something wrong with Freddy and … the family. Not his family, good Lord, no! Freddy had all of Bianca’s solid common sense, without the drama of the artistic streak. But the family that Richard had short-sightedly married Freddy into … well … Clarice had a huge heart under her stiff and shy manner, and Freddy adored her, so that was all right. The Crown Princess also seemed to be sweet, for all her sadness. But the rest of that family … Sir Bors was a headache and a half, and his son was shaping up to be just as bad. There had been troubling rumors about the younger daughter, too, the nun. And Lady Claire …
Well, if popular rumor was right and she had gone truly mad at that nunnery, and not merely needed a rest, then Richard was slowly becoming more and more sure that it was from the pressure of being the only sane adult in that house.
Then you added in the in-laws — the Crown Prince, who seemed craftier than anyone had given him credit for being as a boy. Lady Leona, who also had a huge heart, but was the most voluble person Richard had ever met. What the hell had he married his son into?
But that was neither here nor there. At least, that wasn’t why he had intruded on Neil’s evening. “Eh, every man has his troubles. But what I wanted to know from you, Neil, is … are you still interested in what we talked about at the end of last autumn?”
“Becomin’ a freeman,” Neil murmured.
“Again,” Richard pointed out.
“It ain’t that simple, m’lord.” The water splashed in Ailís’s basin as she continued with the washing-up. “I’ve got a family ter think o’.”
“But you seemed, at dinner, willing enough to try that you were making improvements to the land.”
“Aye … there’s that …” Neil looked again at his wife, at his girls playing at the little table. “But … I don’t even have a shop, sir. An’ I don’t know how I’d get ter buy one.”
“I can always build and rent you one,” Richard shrugged. “Until you make enough to buy it outright.”
“Sir, ye’re willin’ ter take that kind o’ risk on me? That’s a lot o’ coin ye’re spendin’ …”
“Hardly much of a risk. If you don’t want or can’t support the shop, there’s at least ten other men who’d be willing to rent it. This is a growing kingdom, after all.”
“Still, m’lord … why are ye doin’ this? I ain’t stupid. An’ no matter what ye said last fall … it can’t jest be that ye don’t want ter be bothered with the farmin’, m’lord. Men don’t do what ye’re doin’ jest ’cause they don’t want ter be bothered with somethin’ else.”
“Ah — that’s an easy one.” Richard grinned. “It’s simple. You live in my shire. You pay taxes to me. And if you have a shop here, a farm here, you’ll be disinclined to move. Therefore, as you get richer, so will I.”
“How does that work, if I’m payin’ less in taxes as a freeman?”
“Because you’ll have more money. Neil, when I was a commoner, I may have technically paid less in taxes as a percentage of my net worth than you do now, but believe me, the nobles and the King saw a lot more silver out of me than out of you.” He leaned back, resting his head on his folded hands. “It’s like this — I might get a smaller share of your pie, relative to the whole pie — but if I manage to grow the pie, then I shall get a much bigger piece of pie.”
“But I ain’t ye, m’lord. I ain’t gonna start an empire like ye … that I don’t have in me.”
“Ah, but that’s the beauty of it! You don’t have to be me. I can be me. And at the end of the day, we’ll be both be stuffing our faces full of your wife’s delicious berry pie. It’s one of our top sellers at the bakery, you know.”
Neil watched him with the look of a man making sure he followed every last twist and turn of the logic to the very end of the path. He must have liked what he found there, for he grinned. “I think, m’lord, that I like the way ye think.”
“Excellent!” Richard leapt to his feet, Neil following. “Then do we still have an accord?”
Neil smiled and stretched his hand out. “Yes, m’lord. We do indeed.”