It had been a very good day.
As His Highness the King of Vere had requested--advised! Advice, personally, from the King!--Charls had paid his visit to the palace in Ios. His meeting with the Akielon king had gone unexpectedly well: it turned out that King Laurent was not the only royal who enjoyed a little espionage, and so Charls was fortunate to have already made the warm acquaintance of King Damianos, albeit unknowingly.
Think of it! He, personally, a humble merchant of international renown, had played some small but crucial part in restoring two rightful kings to their thrones. To top it all off his pockets were thick with papers, orders from King Damianos himself, and war between Vere and Akielos would be averted: once again the kyroi would lay their spears aside and indulge their interests instead in fine cotton, and the roads would stay open to supply carts in order that Charls would be able to deliver.
The inn, being quite close to that gleaming marble palace Charls had so recently departed, at which he had enjoyed a personal meeting with the King of Akielos, was not painted in the whitewash that clumsily adorned the outer limits of the city, but was instead built of chalk stone that made Charls squint in the noonday glare. Of course, the Akielon aesthetic was elegant in its own simple way, but he was happy to leave it behind and enter the gentler lighting of the spacious interior and, after a brief word with the innkeeper, to ascend the stairs to his room.
Ah, but he must depart soon, he thought. An order from a king, directly to him, for fine silks and even finer cottons, that must take absolute priority. Should he send Guilliame ahead? It wouldn't do to be without his assistant, but an order from the King--
There was a woman in his room.
Charls froze in the doorway. He felt to the depths of his very boots that to enter would be the height of impropriety, even here in Akielos where such things were acceptable - even here in Akielos, people talked. From where had she come? He had stayed at this inn many times; not once had anyone sent him a woman.
After a moment, the woman said, "Hello, Charls."
"Your Highness!" Charls gasped, for indeed it was his king standing by the open window, gilded in sunlight so that Charls couldn't see his face and clad in an ill-fitting and poorly cut blue silk dress whose quality seemed questionable even at a distance. Even more offensive was that His Highness the King of Vere was wearing it, such an appalling example of Charls' life's work.
Nevertheless he hastened to close the door, managed obeisance, and tried to collect himself.
King Laurent, with all the graciousness of his nature, only said, "I am here to ask a favour of you."
"Of course!" Charls said immediately. "It is my honour to help my king in any way I can." Now that his shock had worn off, he adopted a congenial, conspiratorial tone. "What is it this time? Do you require a better fitting disguise? Another escort through hostile territory? Or perhaps you prefer to be passed off as my son this time?"
"You know, it's funny you should say that, Charls." King Laurent nodded at the table by the window, indicating that they each should take a seat. Charls was impressed by the foresight: it was furnished with a jug of wine, honey-drizzled cheese, and a plate of cold meats. After Charls had poured for them both, King Laurent said, "There is a child."
"I see!" said Charls, who didn't.
"His family are unable to care for him. He was brought here by my late uncle," King Laurent said. "I would appreciate it if you would take him on as an apprentice."
Charls used the time bought by a sip of wine to think. It was in the best interests of any successful merchant to develop a keen eye for the tastes of his customers, and he had often plied his trade in Arles. And, he thought, it was in the best interests of royalty to grow deft with tact, which King Laurent was, effortlessly.
"I see," said Charls, who now, starkly, did. He continued, with great solemnity, "Your Highness, it would be my honour to apprentice this child for you."
"I will pay for his expenses - food, board, clothing, anything he requires," King Laurent said. "In return, you will give him a trade, and you will keep his origins a secret." Here, a small hint of amusement appeared, warming King Laurent's expression. "Say he was sent to you by your cousin."
King Laurent was not only tactful, Charls thought, but benevolent and generous: an apprentice would usually be their own payment, as their growing skills brought more riches to their master, and yet here King Laurent was offering him money in addition to an extra pair of hands. And the child would be taken, under Charls' protection, away from all memory of what had befallen him.
"You strike a very generous bargain, Your Highness," Charls said.
King Laurent nodded, a single dip of his regal chin. "Thank you. He will be delivered here tomorrow morning," he said, and stood, sending his thin skirt into an ungraceful flop of inertia.
Charls could hold back no longer. "Your Highness," he said in a rush. "Before you leave--the dress, it's very threadbare--a great shame--you will bake in the sun without sleeves--please, would you allow me to lend you my cloak?"
After he had left, Charls went downstairs to send Guilliame ahead and make his own arrangements. He would not, as he had initially planned, be leaving at dawn: now his departure would be delayed in making additional provisions for an unexpected child - and one entrusted to him by the King, at that. Once again, he had been taken into King Laurent's confidence in exceedingly unusual circumstances. He viewed Charls, it seemed, as someone very dependable, and very loyal. King Laurent, so wise, had seen in an instant all the truth of Charls' steadfast heart, and had been pleased! In fact, he held Charls in esteem! An honour, and a great fortune. As he set about his new preparations, Charls couldn't help the swelling of pride in his chest.
Although an early riser by nature and by trade, Charls rose next morning before the sun, sleepless with something he could only call a fretful roiling of excitement. He bustled in his room restlessly as he waited and then, as soon as the sun rose, he flew downstairs with his sample books and traveling bags to take breakfast and wait some more.
Perhaps, he found himself thinking, this was how a new mother felt. The child - would he like Charls? Was an instant rapport too much to expect? Would they, in fact, be able to stand each other? What if Charls didn't like him?
A servant from the palace, accompanied by a single guard whose sword seemed to be merely ceremonial, arrived with his first payment--a pouch so heavy with coin that it made no noise--and the child, who was very young; no more than eleven. His large eyes, which matched his hair, were a soulful brown, his face was sullen, and his build waifish. Charls found himself wondering if he was strong enough to lift even a single bolt of fabric as he approached, putting on his most affable smile.
"Young man!" he said. "I am Charls, and pleased to meet you."
He held his hand out. The child did not take it.
Charls returned his hand to his side and continued gamely, "And your name?"
The child said nothing. Charls watched as he was given a withering once-over, from the top of his head to his booted toes and back again. He felt himself catalogued and categorised, as the child judged thoroughly his quality and status with a single look.
Charls found that he was beaming.
"I know you have been told that you will be my apprentice, young man," he said. "But listen, because now I tell you this: you will do very well."
Despite Charls' best efforts, the child, whose name Charls still did not know, remained reticent throughout the day, while at the same time managing to make his displeasure very clear. He sighed hugely, lolled his head, and kicked his heels over the side of the little cart Charls had fastened to his horse to carry them both. The only thing the child hadn't seemed annoyed by was breakfast.
"My assistant Guilliame waits for us just south of Kesus," Charls said. "We'll reach him by sundown."
No response. The child watched, without much interest, as they passed little towns and rolling hills, in silence. He wasn't the only one unhappy with his lot: Charls' horse, unused to the cart, had spent the first few hours of their journey in silent complaint, throwing her head and kicking her hooves in a persnickety trot.
"His Highness is very good, isn't he?" Charls hazarded.
"He killed my friend," the child said, and then added, viciously, "I hate him."
Charls winced. Instinctively, he looked around, but the only creature within hearing distance was his horse, who, ever loyal, told no tales.
"Your friend?" he asked.
"But Laurent is the king."
"The real king," the child said. "His uncle."
How sad, Charls thought. The late Regent must have had ample opportunity to poison the poor boy's mind against King Laurent, as he had done with many in Arles. Too young to defend himself against malicious whispers, and trusting of authority, the child had been disarmed of the truth.
Charls rallied. "But King Laurent has given you a wonderful opportunity."
The child heaved a sigh and rested his head on the lip of the cart.
As dusk drew near, casting their surroundings in gloom punctuated by pinpricks of lamplight, the boy said, in a resigned tone, "When we arrive you'll want me to suck you, I suppose."
Charls faltered, aghast. If he'd been walking, he would have come to a stop; as it was, the cart trundled on, impassive.
"That is not what you are here for," Charls said sharply. Many awful things crowded in the forefront of his mind, but the worst of them was how bored the child had sounded at the prospect. The poor lamb! So used to--no, it was too awful to contemplate. Charls took a breath and continued, in a careful tone, "You are my apprentice, young man; your only task is to learn the trade which I am here to teach you. Nothing more. Understand?"
The child cast him a dubious look, but said, "Yes, Master Charls."
The rest of the journey was conducted in silence, for which Charls found himself newly grateful. Doubly so, because it didn't last long: as night began to fall in earnest they reached the inn, a daub and whitewash affair, well appointed, whose hospitality Charls had enjoyed often over the years.
Guilliame met them in the courtyard, a friendly face at last.
"And who is this?" he said, crouching amiably so that his eyes were on a level with the boy's.
"My new apprentice," said Charls.
"From your cousin?"
"Well! Come in, both of you; we've got a table near the fire. You're hungry, I'm sure," Guilliame said, straightening and taking the packs Charls handed him. "The heat was insufferable, wasn't it? I'm Guilliame, by the way."
This last was to the boy, and was clearly a prompt for him to give his own name in return but, once again, he did not.
"He is Charls," Charls said, thinking quickly.
"Another Charls!" Guilliame laughed. "And soon to be another merchant. Your family has no imagination at all," he added, with some fondness. "Come along, Young Charls."
A day spent traveling without pause in the dry Akielon heat had left Young Charls--for that was how Charls, for lack of alternate options, quickly began to think of him--quite exhausted. Lulled by ample food and the gentle warmth of the spit fire, his head quickly began to loll and his eyes blinked slowly. Charls found himself charmed. Despite the unpleasantness of their day together, Young Charls was after all just a boy.
"Here is your pallet," he said, indicating the pile of furs by the fire in his room. "Later, I will come up to sleep there, in my own bed." He added this last perhaps unnecessarily, but he felt it prudent to be amply clear on this matter.
"He's very quiet," said Guilliame, when Charls returned.
"It has been a long day," Charls said, and gratefully took the wine Guilliame poured for him.
The night passed uneventfully. In the morning they crossed the border into Kesus and, over the next few days, made their way north.
The capital of Kesus, nestled sprawlingly in a valley close to the border of three provinces, was a gleaming sea of mercantile opportunity; the market there was famous throughout the region, and Charls was eager to pay it a visit - as well as to restore within himself a sense of normality. Beside him in the cart, Young Charls was no more talkative than he had been on the first day. Charls had hoped that he'd feel more at ease with the passing of time, but mostly what he seemed to be feeling was bored.
"They sell excellent horses in Acquitart," Charls said, with forced joviality. "A merchant's life is one of travel; we should buy one for you there." If only to spare his own horse the indignity of the cart, Charls added to himself. She was a noble beast who ably performed any task demanded of her, but the yoke was clearly not her preference.
"Horses are all right," said Young Charls. "I had one in Arles."
"Did you now?" Charls said eagerly.
Young Charls nodded. "A dappled gelding. It was a gift from the King."
Was it possible there was no subject that was safe? Everything seemed to lead back to that horrible man.
"Well," Charls managed. "I will buy you a new one."
Guilliame, who had ridden ahead the night before, had made it in time to secure an ideal location for their stall in the thick of the market. He and Young Charls set about assembling their wares--as Charls had suspected, Young Charls' waifish frame struggled under the ungainly weight of a single bolt of linen--while Charls himself draped the choicest samples alluringly across the table at the front.
Business was excellent, though Charls did say so himself; he chatted and charmed while Guilliame cut cloth with expert dexterity. His good mood was only hampered by Young Charls, who had set up camp amongst the bolt stacks and was engaged in a constant, withering commentary.
"Don't you have a contract with the barbarian king?" he said. "These people are peasants. Your silk is too good for them."
Charls took heart in the fact that, at least, he confined himself strictly to Veretian.
"Every customer is as worth your time as a king, if they have coin," Charls said over his shoulder. Young Charls scoffed. "More pertinently," Charls continued doggedly, "There are only so many kings, and they only require so much cloth. Commoners are, as you can see, abundant."
This seemed to mollify Young Charls somewhat, but still his comments were unending. "Look at him," he said of a man who had wandered over from his fruit stall during a lull to peruse Charls' wares. "He's dressed so finely and his pouch tinkles, but he isn't going to buy anything. He's wasting your time. And who's this? A soldier? What does a soldier want with silk?"
"I like to take an interest," said the soldier, in perfect, accentless Veretian.
In fact, now that Charls looked closely, he saw that, under the helmet, it wasn't a soldier at all.
"Your High - I mean, sir!" he whispered, aware that once again King Laurent was undercover and thus would not appreciate indiscretion. "What are you doing here?"
"Taking in the sights," King Laurent said. His eyes glimmered. "Which is difficult to do when you're traveling with a retinue."
"Indeed, indeed," Charls nodded.
He glanced down each end of the wide street bordered by brightly adorned stalls. Occasionally a cart made its awkward way by, obstructed by the crowd. Amongst this throng he spotted the back of a dark head, taller than most, and when the sea of people parted to let another cart through he was able to see that, indeed, it was King Damianos, dressed as a soldier as well and perusing some pottery without much interest: waiting, clearly. Charls let out a small sigh of relief. King Laurent was of course very capable in his own right, but Charls felt better for knowing that in the unlikely event that trouble should befall him, he wouldn't be alone.
"Back to Vere?" he asked.
"Soon, yes. And I have something of yours."
From within a rough leather satchel, he produced Charls' cloak, neatly folded. Charls took it with some reverence. King Laurent had gone out of his way to return such a small thing! It was astounding. Charls had known him, and even had the honour of traveling with him, for some time, and yet Charls never ceased to be surprised by the thoughtfulness and grace with which he was treated.
This unusual transaction completed, King Laurent looked as if he was ready to continue his surreptitious exploration, then hesitated. In a low voice, and with a nod to indicate his meaning, he said, "How is he?"
"Opinionated, as you heard," Charls said, with a backwards glance at Young Charls, who was scowling as menacingly as a young boy could. "But he has a keen eye; he will learn quickly."
"Good," said King Laurent, who handed over another overfull pouch before taking his leave, with Young Charls glaring daggers at his armoured back.
With peace assured, and assuredly enduring, interest in Charls' wares was growing to its peak as the seasons began their cooler turn. They stayed in the capital three days before, wagons considerably lightened of wool and thick cotton, making their way north through Mellos, across to Dice, and then into Sicyon.
Charls spent his days instructing Young Charls, which for the first few weeks consisted mostly of instructing him to keep his more cutting remarks to himself as they neared Delfeur, and by night set about constructing a special sample book, in which crude, undyed linens sat alongside the most opulent Veretian brocades.
"You should be selling that to the peasants," Young Charls said one evening, as he inspected the book by the light of a table lamp.
"Oh?" said Charls mildly. "And why is that?"
"Because it's awful."
Guilliame, who sat on Young Charls' other side, laughed into his wine. "Have you touched it? That cotton's from Bazal. Look at that weave! You won't find better on this side of the mountains; only the best Vaskian wools can rival it for feel, and they're nowhere near as light."
Young Charls screwed up his face, but did as instructed. "It's soft, I suppose," he conceded. "But it's so boring."
"Boring is what Akielos likes," Guilliame said indulgently. "Boring of the finest quality."
Delfeur, so often war-torn along its borders even in times of official peace, was a green expanse of tragic splendour pockmarked with ruins, holds, and fortified towns. Its population was often eager for a little luxurious respite; Charls always did well there, and now that they had reached a province where anyone would be as likely to speak Veretian as Akielon, Young Charls' education could begin in earnest. They spent several weeks traveling throughout the region, renewing friendships both personal and mercantile, and although Young Charls seemed to derive much joy from appearing bored, he was also more astute than he made himself look: more than once Charls watched as his young apprentice cast a judgmental eye over a prospective customer and then, ably, feigned charm to raise a price, or annoyance to inspire sympathy for his suffering master.
"You won't be able to get away with that for much longer," Charls told him as the three of them packed up the stall for the night and loaded it into the wagons.
"But I can get away with it for now," Young Charls said cheekily.
Weeks of uneventful proximity had transformed him from a silent, sullen boy into a bright young thing who delighted in complaint and manipulation, but who was also studious: every evening Guilliame quizzed him on his patchwork sample book, and every day Charls instructed him in the more subtle art of merchant persuasion.
When they reached Marlas, a bustling town overshadowed by the imposing silhouette of the nearby fort, Charls found that excitement was at a fever pitch: Delfeur, it seemed, would be returned to Vere, a gift from the Exalted King of Akielos. What's more, said a traveling cobbler in a conspiratorial tone outside the inn, rumours were flying that the kingdoms would be joined, and that Marlas would be made capital of them both.
Charls, who suspected that this last tidbit could be attributed to nothing more substantial than renewed national pride, made interested noises as he paid for the repair of Young Charls' boots. He did however have to concede that it was a very widely-flying rumour when Mathelin, who had come through Patras, arrived with the same story that evening.
"Who cares what King Laurent does?" said Young Charls, weaving restlessly in his seat as only an overtired child could. "I hope Patras invades. I hope he gets killed in a war."
"Young man!" Charls scolded. "How can you say such a thing?"
"Easily," Young Charls said. "I'll say it again. I hope he gets stolen by Vaskian raiders."
Guilliame, tactfully, chose this point to usher both himself and Young Charls to their beds, but Charls was shaken. He himself had never harboured such violent fantasies as a boy, let alone voiced them - and against a king! In the heart of newly ardent Delfeur!
"I really don't know about that boy sometimes," he told Mathelin mournfully. "He's got a clever head on his shoulders, but sometimes he's too clever by half."
"He'll grow out of it," Mathelin said. He patted Charls' shoulder companionably. "My eldest was the worst for it, always trying for a reaction. Her poor mother feared to take her out in public."
Charls sighed despondently into his wine.
When they set off the following morning, Charls chose to forgo his horse in favour of the wagon, where Young Charls sat amongst the bolts. It was very cramped, very hot, and very uncomfortable but, Charls thought as he loosened the laces at his collar, he had a duty.
"I know," he began, reciting the speech he had assembled while he fretted the previous night, "That the King's late uncle told you many things about His Highness - unkind, unsavoury things. But I have known him personally. I have traveled with him; we have shared meals and inns, just as I do with you now, and I tell you with authority that what you have heard is wrong."
"He killed his uncle."
"His uncle was a traitor. He was executed justly."
"His uncle was protecting Vere while Laurent gallivanted around Akielos in a chiton!" said Young Charls hotly - and that, Charls was sure, was from the late Regent verbatim. "He was kind to me! He gave money to my family! Laurent chopped his head off, and then he sent me to you." The last word he practically spat, thick with disdain. "I was at court. Now I'm stuck in a wagon all day so that I can go to some stupid town and sell cheap cloth to commoners. I hope raiders take me too."
Charls didn't know what to say. He had thought, once Charls had explained the situation as it really was, that Young Charls would see the error of his ways and come to view King Laurent as Charls himself did, with pride and admiration. Now he was at a loss. Such a ferocious defence of someone who had acted so terribly was completely unexpected.
Eventually, Charls said, "I think, in time, your mind will change. But we will say no more of it now. I only ask that you don't voice these strong opinions in public. It's bad for business. Yes?"
Young Charls paused, then turned away from him with a muttered, "Yes, Master Charls."
The truce, if indeed it was possible to negotiate a truce with an eleven year-old, was honoured for the rest of the journey. Young Charls behaved well even when they arrived in Acquitart, whose residents, particularly loyal to the crown, gave the boy ample opportunity to break out in vicious rebuke. Having first-hand knowledge of how strongly-held Young Charls' opinions were, and how impulsive children could be, Charls was by turns grateful for and admiring of his restraint.
Their itinerary in Acquitart was simple: once his initial business was concluded, Charls, Guilliame, and Young Charls went up to the fort, wagons heavy with renewed stocks, to take orders.
Having made this journey many times over the years, it became, as they approached, instantly clear to Charls that something unusual was taking place. As soon as they were close enough to hear them, the metallic sounds of tack, underscored by the softer rumble of many booted feet, made themselves apparent. An army? But that made little sense; if war was at hand he would have heard, and all he'd heard was talk of peace.
"Who goes there?" a watchman called out.
"It is Charls, the renowned Veretian cloth merchant!" Charls shouted back, cupping his hands so that the sound carried rather than being whipped away by the wind.
"So it is! Come in; I've been needing a new cloak."
The gates opened, revealing the familiar little courtyard and the very unfamiliar sight of twenty--no, thirty--no, at least forty Akielons with their horses, dressed in the finest cotton overlaid by leather armour that, on second glance, looked largely ceremonial. Still, Charls quailed; it was a matter of long instinct to feel uneasy about the idea of that many Akielons inside any Veretian fort.
A young servant apologised his way through the crowd and came to meet him. "My lord!" he said, as a stablehand took Charls' horses and Guilliame with them. "This way, please. Sorry, sorry - are you seeking an audience with the King?"
"The King is here?"
Charls cast a nervous glance at Young Charls beside him, whose face was very carefully blank.
"For a hunt, yes--excuse me, sorry--everything is in complete disarray, my lord, let me tell you."
That explained all the finely-dressed Akielons, at least. Ah! Such deft diplomacy! Both nations held their hunting in high regard; it was wise to strengthen ties through such a mutual love.
"At the moment His Highness is otherwise engaged, but - yes, wait here," the servant continued. "I'll announce you."
They were left in a neat antechamber. Guilliame joined them soon after, encumbered by a modest stack of Charls' best sample books.
"You know the King is here?" he said, placing the books on a low wooden bench.
"Yes. How unexpected!"
"It's a stroke of good luck, so long as this one can keep his mouth shut," Guilliame said, with a fond wink at Young Charls, before explaining, "It's good to throw around a bit of coin in front of royalty. Shows you've got enough influence to waste some."
"And if they waste it on the finest silks Varenne can weave, all the better," Charls added.
"That's all they're good for, anyway," said Young Charls darkly.
Charls decided not to comment: getting into a heated argument within earshot of the King was not a wise choice. And, he noted, Young Charls had been exceedingly careful not to insult King Laurent directly. In a way, Charls admired the dexterity.
"Now, you know how it's done, I'm sure," Charls began, as if Young Charls had said nothing at all. "Be respectful in every action; speak only if you are invited to; follow the lead of Guilliame but listen to me very closely. Understand?"
"Yes, Master Charls."
"That's the way. Good man."
Young Charls took a moment, endearingly, to preen. Young boys often aspired to be men, Charls reflected. He had been the same.
To his surprise, they didn't have to wait long. A few moments of tranquil silence was all the interlude they were given before they were ushered into the great hall.
It was a long room, old but, like the rest of the fort, in good repair. At the far end was a dais, and, close by, a long table, at which sat His Highness the King of Vere and the Exalted King of Akielos, accompanied by nobles of both countries. Unused to the chill of the foothills, the Akielons were still wearing their thin cloaks, made to withstand only the mild Akielon winters. They had just finished a meal; plates and platters were being cleared away as Charls approached, but they left the wine jugs.
Charls made obeisance first to his own king, and then to Akielos'; Guilliame gently placed the sample books by his feet and did the same. Young Charls, unfamiliar with the Akielon style, only made a cursory gesture to King Laurent before straightening quickly.
King Laurent made no comment, for which Charls was infinitely grateful. Instead, he turned his benevolent eye on Charls and said, "This is a surprise."
"For me too, Your Highness, I assure you," said Charls. "A very pleasant surprise indeed."
"Have you come to sell me something?"
Charls paused. The last time they had met, it had been because King Laurent had gone out of his way to do Charls the kindness of returning his cloak, and now here Charls had come with nothing. How awful! He must appear ungrateful. Alas, he would have to make up for it later.
While his mind set about the task of inventing a suitable gift, Charls said, "Indeed, Your Highness, I have. I have been fortunate to acquire very recently a consignment of the most intricate Barbinian brocade - I inspected the bolts personally and was astounded at their quality. And," he added, nodding at the Akielon delegation, "The finest cotton from Bazal, woven by masters of their craft."
Around the table, subtle interest was piqued. As Guilliame and Young Charls set open sample books on the long wooden table, Charls continued, "I also have in stock nine crates of Vaskian fox fur; very light, exceedingly beautiful, and as hard-wearing as the Vaskians themselves. With proper care, I have seen cloaks made with this fur last up to a decade."
The subtle interest turned into a murmur as cold Akielons inspected samples of said fur, which prompted Charls to add, with a daring glance at King Laurent, "My colleague the respected silk merchant Mathelin recently told me, of his travels through Patras, that it was becoming very fashionable in the winter to wear their chitons past the knee, and with sleeves. In his foresight he has supplied me with enough stock to make one hundred such chitons in wool and cotton, with a promise of another consignment within the next few weeks. But interest on the border is very high. Which is why, my lords, I pay my first visit to you."
Charls made obeisance again and rose just in time to see the corner of King Laurent's mouth twitch. He cast a sly look to King Damianos beside him, who met his eyes for a moment and then immediately looked away, biting his lips into a thin line.
"Your entrepreneurial spirit continues unabated," King Laurent said. He nodded to Young Charls. "And I see it's paying off."
"Yes, Your Highness. I am very fortunate to have need of my new apprentice, sent to me very recently by Charls, my cousin. He is called Charls."
King Damianos snatched up his cup and held it to his mouth for a long moment.
The meeting went even better than Charls could have expected. Akielons eager for warmth and style ordered crates of fur and bolts of cotton, and the Veretians were not to be outdone; Charls and Guilliame, accompanied by servants, made many trips back to the wagons, and Young Charls, feeling perhaps that some grand swindle had taken place, ran back and forth with a sharp grin and bolts taller than he was tucked one under each arm.
After, with stocks considerably depleted and coin pouch newly weighted, Charls lingered a while in the stables with Guilliame to confer--they would need to detour through Varenne for more silk, and a new order for cotton must be sent to Bazal--while Young Charls inspected the King's horses. He seemed to have taken to one in particular, a chestnut with a fine head who kindly allowed Young Charls to pet her nose in exchange for a few handfuls of grass.
In the end it was lucky they lingered: King Laurent had extracted himself from his retinue and come to find them in the stables. More accurately, he had come to find Charls.
"Your payment," he said, once they were out of earshot. "For the boy."
Discreetly, he slipped a pouch into Charls' hand, expert finesse unhampered by the fact that he was looking elsewhere, at the subject of their transaction, who was now weaving the mare's forelock into a messy plait.
"Thank you, Your Highness," Charls said dutifully. "Guilliame tutors him in cloth every evening, and he is doing very well. He does everything I ask of him with no complaint." He did not add that what Charls asked of him was, chiefly, to hold his tongue.
"I'm glad to hear it." After a moment of contemplation, King Laurent added, "There's more than enough in there for a horse."
"Oh, Your Highness, thank you, indeed! He will have a very fine one, you can rest assured," Charls said. In truth he had been saving the last of King Laurent's most recent payment for just such a purchase, to be made down at the market before they set off tomorrow, but a little extra coin would go a long, long way: like before, the pouch King Laurent had given him was too full to clink.
"If he requires anything further, send word to me in Arles," King Laurent said, and then departed.
Buoyed by their success, Charls took Young Charls down to the market that very afternoon, where he picked out a sturdy dark bay whose deep chest and large, lightly feathered hooves told Charls all he needed to know of her endurance: in equine quality, the horse rivaled Charls' own. King Laurent, he thought, would have been very pleased to have made this purchase himself, and so it was without a doubt worthy of his coin.
"And what is this?"
Young Charls frowned at the cloth sample which, by the firelight, was difficult to see clearly. He touched the ragged edge, and then said, "Aeginan cotton."
"Yes?" Charls prompted.
"Aeginan cotton, the finest in all of Akielos," Young Charls recited in a sing-song voice. "Bleached with piss and so thin that it wears holes in the bum after a week, which is why the Akielon highborn love it. Barbarians hate clothes."
A few feet away, he heard Guilliame snort, muffled by the tent whose middle pole he'd been wrestling with for some time.
"I'm sure I didn't tell you that last part," Charls said mildly. Then, over his shoulder, "Do you need some help?"
"No, I've got it--" Guilliame said, as the tent collapsed around him.
Charls, assisted by Young Charls, managed after a brief struggle to retrieve him from the heavily oiled folds. "I don't think you do," he said, holding out his hand to help Guilliame upright.
Lys, bordered by mountains all along its eastern flank, was very beautiful but mostly farmland, and inns were hard to come by. Usually, Charls had little need to come through, opting instead to travel the more populous cities and towns of Toutaine, but through Lys was the quickest route to Varenne, where his silk suppliers were based. It did, however, mean more than a little rough sleeping.
With six hands and a hammer, they made quick work of the tents, and then ate. It was poor food, made to last more than to taste: meat salted and boiled, bread so hard it could be used as a weapon, and watered wine that, upon sipping, Charls opted to share instead with the fire, which hissed its displeasure.
While they ate, he and Guilliame took turns flipping through the sample book Charls had made, asking Young Charls questions as they did. Charls added more pages as new stock came in, so that over the last few weeks it had grown into an unwieldy tome; soon, he would have to begin another.
"Commoners like this in Ladehors and Chasteigne," said Young Charls of a rough but brightly decorated brocade. "Because they think it's what the aristocracy likes. It's poor; the dyes run out after a year. Really, they shouldn't bother," he added sourly. "Who cares what the King likes?"
"Thank you for your commentary," Charls said, sternly enough that this diversion would end, but not so sternly that Young Charls would feel the need to defend himself. Turning aside a few scraps, he said, "And this?"
Once again Young Charls frowned, leaned in to peer more closely and, very gently, touched the sample of fur. "Vask," he said. "It's soft."
When it was clear he had nothing more to add, Charls said, "Yes. Wolf pelt from Ver-Kindt, where they treat it expertly. The difficulty in taking it makes it very prized. It does especially well in...?"
Young Charls thought a moment. "Alier?"
"And?" Charls prompted.
Young Charls, with an enormous grumbling sigh, threw up his hands and then himself back in the grass. "Just tell me," he said. He still had his legs crossed.
"And here, boy!" Charls said, mouth twisting terribly to hide his amusement. "Here, in Lys, where we are right now."
"It keeps the cold out very well," Guilliame supplied. "I had a little cloak lined with it when I was a boy."
The rest of the evening passed without further outburst; Guilliame's earnest, placid nature was ideal for avoiding the conflict Young Charls so often sought. He regaled them both with stories of his childhood in the foothills of Toutaine, which more often than not involved sheep, for several hours.
"Terrible wool, but the mutton can't be beaten," Guilliame concluded with a wistful little sigh before ushering the boy to his tent.
Business was excellent in Varenne. As soon as Charls refilled his wagon, the silk and furs were gone again, apart from a few yards that Charls made sure to set aside for his own purpose - he had, at last, decided upon a suitable gift for the King. They spent a few weeks making their slow way west, stopping every few days to sell a little and buy a little more.
Young Charls was beginning to flourish; gone were the days when he would amuse himself by kicking his heels against bolts of expensive cotton, and so too the days when he would feign the insolent child in service of his master. Now he plied his trade with a boyish, earnest enthusiasm, made all the more charming for his occasional fumble. Charls looked on as he imagined a father would, with proud benevolence, as Young Charls played the innocent merchant flower Charls knew him very well not to be: he had, in fact, heard Young Charls proclaim, with a pride-swelled chest, someone to be his very first customer five times in the last three days.
It was good that Young Charls was adding quite a lot of extra coin to their pouches; he was beginning to sprout up like a vine, and had an appetite to match. Charls spent the last of King Laurent's coin on boots for him, fine leather but a few sizes too big so that they could be grown into. Once they arrived in Arles, where Charls had longstanding relationships with many of the best tailors, he had new clothes made for the boy as well, which he was happy to pay for himself - compared to the tailoring fee for the garment of silk and fur, it was nothing.
Fashions had changed since the last time Charls had been in Arles. Exuberant rolls and puffs had fallen out of favour; now everyone wanted a more subtle touch, demanding brocades whose patterns, although exceedingly intricate, were difficult to discern from more than a few feet away.
Charls spent a month buying up stock and selling the last of his out of style wares. The tastes at court were ever-changing, but filtered out from the palace slowly; if he was prudent, he could ride that wave all the way back to Delfeur.
All this he told Young Charls, though Young Charls soured to hear it. His distaste for their king had, over the course of months, expanded to include the entire court; no longer did he speak highly even of the late Regent. Now he spoke highly of no one whatsoever except for his horse, whom he loved dearly, and Guilliame, who was far easier to adore than to provoke.
It was for this reason that when, just as he was preparing to leave for Barbin, Charls was summoned by the King, he chose to leave Young Charls behind.
It was also for this reason that, when the King appeared at the inn instead, dressed as a simple tradesman, Charls' anxiety reached its peak.
Young Charls scowled as soon as King Laurent sat down at the table in their shared room. He had been poring over sums by the fire with a little crease in his brow, and although he tried, rudely, to return to his studies, he clearly couldn't; he was reduced to staring holes in his parchment instead, shoulders tight with impotent fury.
Graciously, as he had so often done before, King Laurent ignored him.
"I have a proposal," he said in a clipped, businesslike tone that commanded careful attention. "I thought it would be best for us to meet here, as equals, so that each party may negotiate honestly and in their own best interests."
"Your Highness, please," Charls said rather loudly to cover the sound of Young Charls' derisive snort. "It's my honour to do anything you ask."
King Laurent nodded. He did not take compliments lightly, but treated them with the solemnity with which they were given. After a moment, he said, "You have heard that Marlas is to be the seat of the crown?"
Charls nodded. He did not volunteer that he had dismissed the idea as mere rumour immediately upon hearing it.
"The hold will be renovated and expanded. Eventually, it will be my palace. I'll need cloth," King Laurent said. "I want it from you."
Charls gasped and scrambled for paper and ink. A royal contract! Another royal contract, in fact, for Charls had only just last week received notice from Ios that, his first delivery having arrived in excellent quality, they would like another, at a very agreeable price.
An entire palace! Uniforms for the servants, curtains and draperies, bedding, covers for seats and cushions for benches, all deliveries staggered over the course of years--Charls would have to order a great deal. They spent the afternoon drawing it up together, Charls quoting prices on the fly which King Laurent immediately haggled down.
"Sixty bolts of Aeginan cotton at fifteen sols a bolt? For such a large order?"
"I will speak to my contacts," Charls promised. "I could, if I paid a visit personally, take it down to ten, I'm sure."
"And you'd be eating the loss," Young Charls snapped.
Charls turned. Young Charls had been listening intently under the standoffish facade. And, Charls saw, he had turned over his page: not only had he been listening, he had been calculating, just as Charls had.
Now, he stood up and approached the low table where Charls and the King sat.
"Aeginan cotton is eleven sols a bolt straight from the weavers and fifteen from the merchant, because commoners," he spat, "Need to eat. My master is loyal to the crown, the most loyal I've ever met. So he will do your royal bidding, never doubt it, and we will starve."
"We won't starve, my boy, it won't come to that," Charls stammered, darting a nervous glance to King Laurent. "You needn't worry about that."
"Thirteen, then," King Laurent said. "And news travels; what I get cheaply you'll gain in reputation ten times over. A royal contract to furnish the capital of our nations? Your master will be eating off that well into old age."
"I thought we were negotiating as equals?" Young Charls said. "Of course, the thing about a king is you can be equal with him until the moment he decides there's no advantage in it anymore - then he employs his levers."
"Young man!" Charls cried, drawing himself up to his full height. "That's enough, I say, that's quite enough. Apologise to your king this instant, and continue your sums downstairs."
Young Charls scowled at him. For a moment that stretched out, fraught with tension, Charls feared that the boy would try to hold his ground. But the moment ended.
"Your Highness, I apologise," Young Charls said, making obeisance so elaborately that it flirted with sarcastic. "Please, out of the kindness of your heart, do not let my impertinence reflect on the honest nature of my master."
Charls closed the door behind him and, after making his own far more sincere apologies, again took his seat. His hands, he realised, were shaking; he clasped them together on the edge of the table.
King Laurent watched him.
"Fourteen sols," he said.
The negotiations extended well into the night. To Charls' surprise--and his great shame--King Laurent seemed to have taken the insolent chastisement of his apprentice to heart, and made sure to ask the going rate before offering his own price; Charls would, in the end, not gain exuberant riches for this contract, but neither would he need to count every copper, and King Laurent was correct: the additional business Charls would gain from those eager to associate themselves with the renowned cloth merchant who held an exclusive contract with the crown would more than make up for any losses.
"I'll have the contract drawn up and sent for your approval next week," King Laurent said, shuffling his own papers, copied from Charls', into a pocket. "Thank you for your service."
"It was, as always, my honour and great pleasure," Charls said, and escorted him to the door.
King Laurent paused on the threshold and then, as he had done in Acquitart, discreetly passed over a pouch heavy with coin. "Buy him something nice," he said, pushing a memory, which had been niggling obscurely, to the forefront of Charls' mind.
"One moment, Your Highness, before you leave!" he exclaimed, and ran to the foot of his bed where his packs and satchels sat in a neat row. From one he produced his gift, wrapped in fine, dark cotton and tied off with lace. "A token of my gratitude."
"I'm not sure the wrappings go with my outfit," King Laurent said, rich with amusement.
It was true: his clothing was plain and serviceable, like that of a farrier. Perhaps, Charls thought, that was where he'd got it from; there were farriers aplenty near the palace.
King Laurent tucked the package safely under his arm and said, with profound sincerity, "Thank you, Charls."
Alone in his room, Charls took a moment to breathe very deeply; on the whole their meeting had not gone badly, and they had parted as usual on excellent terms, but something horribly nervous still jangled within him, left over from Young Charls' rude intrusion.
After a few more deep breaths, he went downstairs, where he found that Guilliame had returned from his errands and was talking with Young Charls over their meal.
"Young Charls told me what happened," Guilliame said, handing Charls a cup full almost to the brim with wine. "I wish I'd been there."
"Don't encourage him," Charls snapped between sips. "I am still most displeased."
"Did I say something encouraging?" Guilliame said mildly.
"How did it go?" Young Charls asked.
"Better for your absence," Charls said, too sharply. He sighed, shook his head, and forced himself to deflate. "No, I apologise. Let me start again. I am happy to say it went very well, thank you. But we will have to delay our departure; the contract is to be finalised next week."
"I'll see to it," Guilliame said, and got up to speak to the innkeeper.
"I am sorry," Young Charls said. "To you. Not to him."
"Thank you," Charls said. It was better than nothing, which he had been expecting. "I appreciate the assistance you attempted to provide; I only wish you'd put it a little more delicately. Ah, well," he smiled, conciliatory. "Next time, yes?"
"Yes, Master Charls," Young Charls said dutifully.
Later, after Young Charls had been sent to his pallet for the night, Guilliame, who was deep into his cups, said, thoughtfully, "You know, it's strange, but the King does look very much like your cousin, doesn't he?"
"Does he? I've never noticed."
"I've always thought so."
"No," Charls said after a moment of feigned consideration. "I can't say I see the resemblance."
As promised, the contract arrived the following week. The three of them went over it together--it was good for Young Charls to learn to parse such things, even if it gave him a temper--and, all being in order, made their way south along the coast a few days later. Much of the silk and brocade that King Laurent required could be organised through messengers, but the cotton, as Charls had predicted, along with the linen, would have to be negotiated for in person.
The palace at Marlas would progress slowly, as all large undertakings did. But King Laurent was a particular man, which Charls wholeheartedly approved of. It was right, he thought, that so many moving parts should be accounted for at the earliest possible moment. Wise, very wise; such a temperament was ideal in a king, as it was in a merchant, although of course Charls would never go so far as to compare himself in that way directly.
This mission--assigned to him personally!--would have Charls traveling throughout northwestern Akielos during their mild winter and returning just in time to escape the harsh summer, and so was doubly agreeable. They restocked as they went, taking on fine wools and heavy linens to replace the brocades that, news having traveled of the fashions in Arles, were in very high demand - a stroke of excellent luck, and prudent planning.
"What I want to know," said Young Charls, who had grown thoughtful over the last few weeks as they crossed the southern border of Delfeur into Sicyon, "Is why it matters. Why do people care so much about what they wear at court?"
"Status," Guilliame called from the wagon. "Everyone likes to look like royalty."
Young Charls reined his horse in, in order to walk it by Guilliame's side. "But they're not worth looking like," he said. "They're not worth anything at all."
"Well now," Guilliame said, hedging. "That's one opinion."
"One which you would do well to discard, Young Charls," Charls said. "It doesn't matter what you think; what matters is that what they buy in Arles is prized in Arran, and paying attention to it will serve you well. Look at me, now," he added. "Once I was a humble merchant--"
"Internationally renowned," Guilliame interjected.
"--Thank you, yes, but humble," Charls said primly. "But now see how fortunate I am! I have exclusive contracts with two kings and standing orders with the best clothmakers throughout these lands, and what I sell is in high demand because it is I who sell it. I will be able to retire very comfortably, indeed. All because, on one fateful night in Nesson, I paid my respects to the crown. And, of course, because of that, I also have you."
"Your cousin is that loyal to the King?" Guilliame asked.
"No - well, yes! But what I mean -" Charls thought quickly. "What I mean is that because of my success I was trusted with a fine apprentice. A very fine apprentice! Which would not have happened if I hadn't done the King a service. You see?"
This last was to Young Charls, who, head tilted, gave Charls a dubious look before nudging his horse back into a trot. He was thinking about it, Charls told himself. These days, the only time Young Charls was quiet was when he was too busy formulating a retort to speak.
That evening, as they sat at their table in an inn half a day's ride from Mellos, Young Charls said, "Why did he send me to you?"
Charls glanced around furtively, but no one else was within earshot; Guilliame was outside, conferring with the ostler, and their table was the best in the inn, close enough to feel the warmth of the fire but not so close that they would be obliged to mingle with the other patrons if they didn't desire conversation.
"It's as I told you," Charls said after a moment. "He knew me to be an honest man, and fortunate enough to be able to provide for you."
"He could have sent me back to my family."
Charls took a stalling sip of his wine. "He could have," he said slowly. But Young Charls' family had given him to the late Regent, and Charls had some very dark ideas about what had happened to the boy while in his care - most of which, to his eternal sadness, had been confirmed by Young Charls himself, albeit inadvertently. "I believe, at the time, His Highness didn't think it would be wise. I was given to understand your family was without much wealth."
Young Charls nodded thoughtfully, eyes downcast. He was growing into his face, a deer-eyed little waif no longer. Now, although still gangly with youth, he was tall and strong, a fact in which Charls took great pride. He was indeed becoming a fine young man, rather than simply aspiring to it.
"Do you wish to go back to them?" Charls asked. The offer filled him with grief.
For some time, Young Charls picked at his meat, sipped his watered wine, and pushed his peas around on his plate. Eventually he said, "I like Guilliame."
"I'm pleased to hear it."
"And I wouldn't have had a trade at court."
"Master Charls, I'm not ungrateful," Young Charls hastened to add, earnest. "I just--I only think--why did no one ask me? What I wanted. At the time."
At the time, Charls recalled, Young Charls had wanted only to wring King Laurent's neck with his fine little hands.
"When a child is that young," Charls said, very carefully, "And finds himself in a predicament, it is the duty of his elders to discern the best course of action."
Charls watched Young Charls turn this over in his mind.
"You wanted to protect me," he said. "From - him. And from my parents. Both of you."
"Yes," Charls said. He turned his head away for a moment before continuing, with purposeful joviality, "And it's not a bad life, eh? Meeting interesting people, traveling far and wide?"
"And getting fleeced by His Highness at fourteen sols a bolt," Young Charls added cheekily, taking Charls' cue. "What an honour."
It was a beautiful day.
The market was an endless bustle of profit; everyone in Marlas seemed to be outside today, taking advantage of the first of the weak spring warmth to do a little shopping, which Charls found himself well placed to take advantage of. With Young Charls at his side, they could serve a customer each, with Guilliame complaining cheerfully about his aching hands during the occasional lull.
They had arrived in Delfeur just in time to receive the first orders of cloth for the newly expanded hold, whose imposing stone edifice grew higher and wider every day. It would, Charls had heard, eventually be faced with marble in the style of Akielos and roofed in roundels of tile, but for now it was a grey thing, a construction site for the most part, evoking both ruin and promise. Gazing upon its dark silhouette, set against a backdrop of stars, filled Charls, every evening, with a deep sense of pride: he had played a part in that, and soon would again.
Their months of travel throughout Akielos had been profitable. There, as here, the highborn set the fashions, and Charls had spent his time handing over more cotton than ever before. The newest style was apparent even here in Delfeur: occasionally, amongst the crowd, Charls had the pleasure of noticing a sleeved chiton whose elegant folds reached well below the knee.
Embroidery was in again, too, in the north: the tapestries ordered for the new palace were so plentiful that once again people had decided that they should also be worn, which required a lighter cloth so as not to encumber in the heat of summer; trade in linen was reaching its peak in preparation.
"Three yards, I'd say," said Young Charls beside him. He was giving the young man before him a scrutinizing look, sizing him up both in size and coin. "With that, you'd have enough for a short cloak to match. Four and a half, if you want a long one too - fashionable for all seasons, very prudent."
Charls smiled to himself and turned to his next customer: a young woman, very pale, dressed beautifully in fine dark silk with delicate lace draped over her hair, an elegant twist on a northern style. She was accompanied by an assistant - or perhaps a husband, for her hand, Charls noticed, was resting demurely in the crook of his muscular, brocaded arm.
"Hello, Charls," she said, at which point Charls noticed the cloak: dark silk brocade with a generous hood cut in a classic, enduring style, and lined with soft fur so pale that it seemed to glow in the watery sun, imbuing King Laurent's face with reflected radiance.
Charls, in shock, brought a hand to his pounding heart. He was wearing Charls' gift! The King! Adorning himself with the cloak that Charls had personally commissioned, in tribute to their trust!
"Madame!" Charls said, all aflutter. "How wonderful to see you!"
Young Charls, who had bid his own customer farewell, now turned to look at them curiously.
"I am Charlotte, Charls' cousin," King Laurent told him. "I have been in Vask for many years, with my barbarian lover--" he paused, casting about, until his gaze settled on the last of Charls' winter cloth draped attractively across the table. "Wollen."
King Damianos seemed, suddenly, to be very fascinated by the clouds.
"Pleased to meet you both," Young Charls said.
"Stay here, Wollen, while I catch up with my dear cousin," King Laurent continued. He patted King Damianos' arm and leaned in. "Buy me something nice."
Charls and King Laurent strolled leisurely through the wide market streets in a comfortable silence for some time, stopping occasionally to let a cart past or peruse a stall. Eventually, King Laurent said, "He seems well."
"He is, Your Highness. He's very well. He has a gift for sale, very astute; he makes me proud in every endeavour. Indeed, very proud. In a year, I think, he will be ready to begin purchasing a little stock of his own."
"I will pay for the wagon, of course, and anything else he requires."
As they completed their slow circuit, talk moved to trade. Charls was delighted to tell the King about his success in Akielos, and even more so to inform him that the first orders for the occupied rooms of his emerging palace were beginning to arrive, right on schedule.
"I know many excellent tailors, and many seamstresses," Charls said as, once more, they neared his own stall. "Quite a few of them in Delfeur, although the best are based in Arles. I would be honoured to refer you."
"Thank you. I'll send word soon. Come, Wollen," King Laurent said, tucking his hand once more into the crook of King Damianos' elbow. "We've taken up enough of my cousin's time."
As they departed, Young Charls turned to Charls and said, in a voice of awe, "I sold him six bolts of cotton. Six. From Bazal."
"Well, Charls' cousin did tell him to buy her something nice," Guilliame said.
"Six bolts! What are they planning to do with it all?"
"Make a tent?"
"It would be almost as big as the palace," Young Charls said. "And I marked him up."
"Is that how we're doing it now?" Charls said, amused.
"Well, he could clearly afford it. You saw how they were dressed," Young Charls said, and then, eyes gleaming, he added in a whisper, "Six bolts."
"Count yourself lucky, my boy," Charls said. "Sales like that don't come along often."
Young Charls scoffed. "Sales like that don't come along ever. Master Charls, he gave me a tip. Look at this! The pouch is so full it doesn't even tinkle!"