Darid 2, 1015
“Well,” said Joyce, “this is it.”
Berach swallowed and nodded. He was saving his actual words for the meeting they had set up with Master Carey.
He wasn’t sure why they had to come to the capital to do it, though. Master Carey had wanted to meet in a tavern, which was all well and good. But Berach knew he and his family lived in the same square that he and Joyce had lived in for a time, and there was a tavern there. So why come all the way to the capital?
Not that it mattered. When the steward said he wanted to meet with you in the capital … you met in the capital. Or you did if you wanted him to support your venture to the lord.
Berach swallowed. The tavern.
They finally had enough money.
Joyce reached across and squeezed his hand. Berach smiled at her and squeezed back. Then Joyce had to go and ruin that image of perfect wifedom by shooting him a saucy wink and practically dragging him toward the tavern. But what was that if not Joyce being as close as she could be to a perfect wife?
Soon they were pushing open the blue doors and blinking in the light and warmth.
It didn’t take them long to find Master Carey. “So … what are the rules about animal engagement in this place?”
“… Animal engagement, sir?”
“Sure. Tortoises, dire chinchillas, bunnies, armadillos …”
“Sure, armadillos! You’ve never seen one?” Master Carey asked. “They’re about the size of a small dog, very scaly, they roll up in a ball when they’re scared–”
“Er, ye mean hedgehogs, sir?”
“No, I said scaly, not spiky. Anyway, I was thinking of trying to curl with them. I was having pretty decent luck with the tortoises, but that blasted Sudroth wouldn’t let me do it in his tavern. He gave me a lifetime ban, can you believe that?”
Berach slowly, so as to not draw attention, looked at Joyce. Joyce wasn’t looking at him. She was staring at Master Carey with what could most charitably be called polite horror.
“Hey, there you two are!”
Berach’s gaze snapped around — and there was Master Carey, ambling toward them with his hand outstretched. Berach extended his own just in time.
“Good–good evenin’, Master Carey,” said Berach. “Thank’ee for agreein’ ter meet with us.”
“No problem. This about the tavern, right?”
“Excellent. So!” Master Carey brought his hand up to his chin and began to tap it.
Berach held his breath.
“What are your thoughts on the subject of lifetime bans from taverns, Goodman Brogan? Personally I think they’re horribly unfair, especially when nobody ever said you could get a lifetime ban for holding a frog race …”
“They really ought to have a sign on the door, you know!” Master Carey went on. “And personally, I think a limit of instigating only three food fights per person is far too low.”
Oh dear Lord.
“I mean, I spaced them out over a whole week, it’s not like I did three food fights in one evening …”
“But–but Master Carey,” Joyce interrupted. If Berach could have double-held his breath, he would have. “I know, speakin’ as a future tavern owner meself, spreadin’ ’em out over a week? That’s worse. If ye did yer three food fights in one night, then the tavern keeper’s only got ter clean it all up once. Three times in a week? That’s three times the cleanin’.”
JOYCE! Berach thought. WHY ARE YOU GIVING HIM IDEAS?
“Hey!” Master Carey nudged Berach. “I like how she thinks! You picked a good one! Not that I don’t love my Thetis, but all she said when I complained was that I ought to have not started the food fight in the first place.”
I can’t imagine why. “Is that so?” Berach forced himself to ask, trying to smile in a way that didn’t look like a grimace.
“Believe it or not, it is. But hey, I shouldn’t make you two keep standing around. Come on, I saved us a table with some grub.”
“Armadillos included?” Joyce muttered. Berach elbowed her, but he had to admit that the giggle she let out was as soothing to the nerves as a gallon of straight whiskey without the nasty aftereffects.
They sat. As as soon as Berach’s arse hit the stool, Master Carey started, “So. Your tavern. You think you’re ready?”
Berach gulped. When Master Carey put it like that …
“Aye,” Joyce answered for him.
“I thought you didn’t want to take out a loan?” asked Master Carey, turning to Berach.
Good Lord, the man had a good memory! They hadn’t talked about the tavern since that lunch a year ago. And he still remembered the reason for Berach’s hesitation!
“We haven’t,” Joyce answered for the both of them. “But I had a real good summer with the dance troupe. We were at every faire, an’, well …”
“I’ll bet you had a good year,” replied Master Carey, looking Joyce over in a way that Berach strongly objected to, and if Mistress Carey had been around, she wouldn’t have liked it much, either.
Luckily for both Berach’s honor and Master Carey’s jaw — to say nothing of the plans for the tavern — Joyce openly rolled her eyes. “Like I was sayin’ — it were a good season. An’ I fer one would like ter get the tavern built an’ open fer business before winter starts. ‘Cause me earnings go way down in the winter.”
“And we won’t be having as much need of you in the fields,” added Master Carey, nodding at Berach.
Berach nodded. “Aye, sir. I know … well, I know it’s customary fer one o’ us ter be workin’ on the lord’s lands … but I’m hopin’, once I get things goin’ with the tavern, that we might want ter … ter let that slide under the rug, if it’s possible?”
“Don’t see why not. Farm laborers are a dime a dozen, reasonable tavern owners are a lot thinner on the ground,” Master Carey shrugged. “Although you never did give me your thoughts on lifetime bans …”
“Why, Master Carey, we didn’t?” asked Joyce. “What a shame. Well, I don’t think Berach an’ me have given much thought ter that, yet, ’cause at present we’re more worried about gettin’ custom an’ keepin’ it than chasin’ it away. That right, Berach?”
“Aye,” said Berach, grateful that Joyce was taking the lead on this one. “That’s exactly right.”
Unfortunately, she didn’t quite know where to stop. “But that bein’ said, I can’t imagine that the steward of Sir Lam–er–little Lord Percival’s lands would ever be gettin’ a lifetime ban from our tavern.”
“You know,” Master Carey remarked, turning to Berach, “I like the way your wife thinks!”
Berach smiled nervously. I’m glad one o’ us does.
“So armadillo curling is all right by you?” Master Carey continued.
Bloody hell! Before Joyce could say anything, Berach was mercifully able to come up with, “Well–it would be–exceptin’ I’m thinkin’ it would be mighty mean ter the armadillos.”
He almost regretted it when he saw the disappointment cross Master Carey’s face. Almost. “Oh … you’re right … their armor isn’t that strong, is it?”
“I don’t think it is,” Berach agreed.
“Huh …” Master Carey seemed to fold into himself. Then he perked up without warning. “Tortoises it is then!”
“Oh, but Master Carey! Is that really any nicer ter the tortoises?” Joyce asked. “Think about it — if ye’re gonna be curlin’ with them, they’ve got ter be on their backs so they don’t go walkin’ away, an’, well, if there’s a sadder sight ter see than a turtle on his back, little legs flappin’ in the air, tryin’ ter get himself turned back around, well, I don’t know what it is.”
Again, Master Carey’s face crumpled like a child’s. “I … never thought about it like that …”
Then he brightened. “Oh well! Fox football it is!”
“As long as ye play it outside,” Berach replied. He didn’t know where it came from — but it sounded like something he’d say when Leah was asking, or more properly, begging, wheedling, and cajoling, for permission to do something messy.
“Outside?” Master Carey asked.
“Sure thing! I mean, if it were jest up ter us, we’d be happy ter let ye play it inside — but the other patrons, they ain’t gonna like gettin’ fox fur in their food. An’ if they’re all complainin’, well, that puts us in a right tough spot. An’ ye wouldn’t be wantin’ that, would ye, Master Carey?”
Master Carey turned to Berach. “You do know your wife could sell booty to a pirate, don’t you?”
Then, without waiting for a reply — or maybe the panic that Berach was sure was written all over his face was all the reply Master Carey needed — he looked back to Joyce. “You know, Goodwife Brogan, if you keep that up, you and your husband will be in business until you’re both slowly putrefying in the grave, right?”
“Well,” Joyce replied, “I wouldn’t’ve put it like that, on account o’ still wantin’ a stomach fer me dinner –”
“Would disintegrating in the grave be better?”
Berach watched Joyce’s mouth open and shut a few times. “Sure,” she said. Berach silently applauded. Maybe she was learning when not to engage. “But all the same, bein’ in business until we’re dead, or until we’re old enough that we can hand it off ter the kiddies, is what we’re hopin’ fer.”
“Right,” Master Carey agreed. “And what are your thoughts on buying out your indentures?”
“Our–our indentures, sir? Joyce an’ me ain’t got nowhere near enough money fer that,” Berach tried to hedge.
“Obviously you don’t now. But here’s the thing about businesses. They tend to make money.” Master Carey thought about that for a moment. “Well, some of them do. The ones that don’t tend to crash and burn and then are never heard from again — but we’re more worried about you making money than losing it, because, though I hate to say it, if you make too much money, we could be in trouble.”
Oh, bloody hell, thought Berach, looking to Joyce for inspiration.
Luckily she had some. “With all due respect, Master Carey, if I’m rememberin’ correctly, us buyin’ out our indentures didn’t come up last time we discussed this.”
“Well, no, they didn’t. And that was because you were dealing with Sir Lamorak,” Master Carey answered. “Now … you’re dealing with Lady Garnet and Sir Aglovale.”
“Lady–Lady Garnet is worried about indentures?” Berach asked. He couldn’t claim to know Lady Garnet, but … well … somehow, when he saw her on the lands, talking with Master Carey, or riding (not very often now, given her condition) on the estate … he never thought of her as that type.
Master Carey didn’t answer.
That told Berach all he needed to know.
Joyce, too. She was nodding. “Well … Berach an’ me ain’t discussed indentures, really.”
“Aye,” Berach agreed. “Ye see, we … well, we were jest focusin’ on the tavern, really. That’s … that’s what I want. A tavern. Fer its own sake, really, an’ because it’ll make us more comfortable, an’ help us get the kids off ter a good start.”
“An’, really, Master Carey, taverns ain’t exactly money mints,” Joyce pointed out. “Who’s ter say we could ever earn enough ter put by enough money ter buy out all our indentures?”
Master Carey’s eyebrows went up. “Who’s to say that you could earn enough from a roadside fruit and vegetable stall to buy out an indenture for a man, a wife, and five kids, then buy a new house and a nice business, without even having a farm to sell back to Lord Pellinore to help make up some of the deficit?”
Well, bloody hell … “Grady ain’t me, sir,” replied Berach.
“An’ while I ain’t gonna say it’s impossible that we could make that kind o’ money,” Joyce added, “we don’t got no reason ter be leavin’ the shire. Grady did. Or …” She glanced sidelong at Berach, then turned back to Master Carey. “Well, did ye not hear that part of the story?”
“About your father-in-law? Some men cast a long shadow,” replied Master Carey. “Particularly in taverns.”
Berach shuddered. Yes, he could well imagine that … though, now that he thought of it, while his father had been kicked out of many a pub or tavern, he’d never been banned for life. He eyed Master Carey as surreptitiously as he could. What exactly was he dealing with here?
… Maybe Master Carey just didn’t drink enough in comparison to the mayhem he caused. Finley had always drank like a fish, and while he was a belligerent, nasty drunk, he usually didn’t get into barfights. He saved his drunken rages for when he got home. Master Carey, on the other hand, seemed to cause mayhem just by walking into a room, and if he got around to ordering a drink, well, it was an unexpected bonus.
Berach made a mental note to ask Joyce to always try to sell Master Carey the drinks that made them the most money. He had a feeling they were going to need it.
But there was a negotiation at hand, and Berach would be stupid not to pay attention to it. “That’s true, sir. Ter be blunt — me brother wanted ter get himself an’ his kiddies away from me father. An’ I don’t blame ‘im fer it one bit. But … well, me father ain’t gonna be a problem no more. There’s nobody we’d want ter get away from.”
“An’ we’d have the tavern ter keep us in one spot,” Joyce added. “Grady, he didn’t much care about the stall. Fer him, it were a way ter make money, an’ once he had the money, he was fine with movin’ on ter the next thing. But we want the tavern, an’ ye can’t jest pick up and move a tavern.”
“You sure?” asked Master Carey.
Now even Joyce got nonplussed. “What?”
“Oh, it’s just a dream I had once.” Master Carey sighed in happy remembrance. “I could see the whole country from a bird’s-eye view, and a giant hand reached down from the heavens and started moving buildings around like they were pieces on a chess board … it’s the best dream I ever had that didn’t involve my late lady’s rack …”
Berach and Joyce exchanged a glance. Then, satisfied that the mutual message — DON’T ASK! — had gotten through, they looked away.
Though part of Berach found himself wondering about this rack …
“Anyway, sometimes I think that maybe there’s more to that dream than it appears. Like maybe our lives are a giant game, and we’re being played and controlled by somebody on the other side of a window. And they can pick up buildings and move them at will …”
“But, sir, wouldn’t somebody notice that the buildings were now on the opposite side o’ the kingdom?” asked Joyce, interjecting common sense in that way she had.
“I doubt it. Most people are pretty stupid and unobservant,” Master Carey shrugged.
“I don’t think anybody could be that unobservant,” Berach muttered.
“Well, suit yourself. We’ll see who’s right,” Master Florian replied.
There were times in a man’s life when it was best to just smile and nod. This was one of them.
“But all the same — even if we assume that you won’t be picking up and moving the tavern, I’ve got to point out, you have kids, and if you don’t buy out your own indentures, you could buy out theirs. Which would make certain parties just as angry,” Master Carey continued. “If you got the money –”
“Well, hold on now,” Joyce held up her hand. “Let’s be–thinkin’. Three o’ our kids are girls. They wouldn’t be stayin’ on the estate no matter what.”
“That’s hardly a guarantee. Widow Shepherd has a little boy, doesn’t she? Not that I care,” Master Carey added, “but, you know, some people will. And then there’s your son.”
“Ye’re axin’ whether we’d buy him out,” Berach murmured. He hesitated. “Ye know, we could have more sons–”
“Not anytime soon we’re not!” Joyce interrupted. “Look, Master Carey, I don’t know what ye’re gonna say ter — certain folks. But between ye an’ me — Berach an’ me are gonna do what’s best fer our kids. If buyin’ ’em out is what’s best, an’ we can afford it, that’s what we’ll do. But if Malachy wants ter be havin’ the tavern when we’re dead an’ gone … well, we might not buy ‘im out then, ’cause if he’s gonna stay on the estate anyway, what would be the point?”
“An’ if certain folks can’t understand that,” Berach added, “well, with all due respect, I’d hate ter see what kind o’ parents those certain folks are.”
“And since I like the idea of having a tavern I’ll never be banned from, I won’t be repeating that to certain parties.” Master Carey reached for his cup, then hesitated. “We have agreed on the no lifetime bans, yes?”
“Fer ye, Master Carey, we certainly have,” Joyce replied with a grin. Berach couldn’t help but share it. After all, if Master Carey was talking about no lifetime bans …
That meant they had him convinced, didn’t it?
“Excellent! Then I propose a toast!” Master Carey lifted his cup and Joyce and Berach hurried to follow suit. “To tortoise-curling, fox football, and breeding new subspecies of dire chinchillas in the basement!”
“There ain’t gonna be a basement,” Berach said. He hadn’t met with builders yet, but as of now, that was going to be the most important stipulation on the plans.
“Aw. Rats. What about closets?”
“Too much money ter axe the builders ter be puttin’ up those extra walls,” Joyce replied, almost apologetically.
“You two are no fun,” Master Carey. “But anyway — to your no-fun tavern!”
“To our tavern,” Berach repeated. Joyce lifted her glass as well. They all drank.
And when Berach brought the cup to his lips, he knew he ought to have felt triumphant. He should have felt accomplished. He was one step closer to his tavern! This was a cause for celebration!
But all he could do was look at the man who he suspected would be his most frequent, if not necessarily best, customer, then look at Joyce, and wonder …
What the hell have I gotten myself into?