Teague motioned for them to follow him, and once the chocolates had been gone through and Alasdair had thrown the remainder of his fried dough to the mallards to prevent him from eating it,they quitted their perch by the river and went across the bridge, avoiding the markets and walking toward the Lucentian quarter, where the pastiso houses and chocolate cafes were just beginning to open their doors. They turned into one of the side streets, where the shortcut of an alley brought them to a Lucentian beauty parlour, one that boasted high-end products and services for those Lucentians living in Frewyn who wanted to remain there without being made coarse and haggard by the southern frost.
The door to the parlour was opened, a silver bell on the lintel peeled caromed along the length of the main room, and Teague entered, ushering the king and his party in before mounting a small set of stairs and greeting the proprietor, who came forward to meet them.
“Chya, te poia,” said Teague, inclining his head.
The proprietor returned the favour, and with some surprise at seeing His Majesty of Frewyn in his shoppe, he bowed and held out his arms in a welcoming gesture. “Ya poia, Nindano Narema,” he crooned, and with subdued smiles and eyes low, he bowed and continued, “Your Majesty. Commander. Master Butcher. Regent. Friends and visitors,” smiling at the children. “I wish you all good tidings for your holiday.”
“Thank you, and to you, sir.” said Alasdair, coming forward. “But you won’t take a holiday yourself? It is a national holiday, and you have every right to close your business today if you like.”
“Your Majesty,” said the proprietor impressively, aghast, “I’m a merchant, and a Lucentian will never close his business when there is someone willing to buy.”
Alasdair received a look from Teague which implied he should have known better than to suggest a Lucentian would ever close his business when there were sales to be made, and Teague smiled and shook his head, marveling at the Frewyn sensibleness that would try to reign over Lucentian business insensibility.
“Please,” said the proprietor, inviting the party to move further into the shoppe.
He stepped aside and lowered his head as the party passed, and when they were got to the main room, the proprietor opened the front curtains to let in the light, and the Ooos and Aaahs of appreciation echoed along the gallery. It was more of a showroom than it was a shoppe, each shelf displaying only one item, and each section of the gallery devoted to only one type of product. There were creams and oils, ampules and capsules, pots and potions, serums and lotions, each with a different colour and texture, each housed in elaborate jars or bottles, no two products looking exactly the same. It looked more like an apothecary than a beauty parlour, with a mixing and measuring station in one corner and in another a stand with several sterilized tools, all for pasting and heating and emulsifying. The party moved farther along the gallery, inspecting the various accoutrements and creations, marveling at the scale of the place, building seeming larger within than it did without, the floor and walls, fashioned from solid stone, sanded and glazed, shining and immaculate belonging more to a temple than they did a mere merchant’s shoppe. The splendour of the place was in its radiance, the windows calculated to catch enough light to illuminate but not enough to heat the room, the shafts of morning light refracting along the floor, casting a resplendent glow over the exhibition, the most exceptional piece of which was the proprietor himself, who was standing behind the small counter as the pride of his collection, his black mane and blue eyes giving an ethereal aspect to a man whose height and features were so decidedly Lucentian. His age was indiscernible, all the usual signs of maturation silenced by heredity and meticulous care, his bloom of health and rorulent complexion recommending him to the middle of Lucentian life, but his stately air and tailored dress gave him a sagacity that only time and experience could bestow. His sharp features softened under the influence of a permanent half smile, his voice thrummed in a delicate ripple across a becalmed expanse, offering him a timelessness which everyone must feel effect of. He was faultless, impeccable in feature and in fact, his silent steps and studied propriety betraying a well-bred ease of manner that belonged rather to a baronet than it did to a merchant. He glided into the corner and presented the gallery with a stately wave of the hand, his robes undulating in perfect approbation with his graceful gesture, and Alasdair could not but admire him.
“I hope you realize, Teague,” said Alasdair quietly, “how unfair it is that Lucentians can be so striking well into their later years.”
“Not all of us age well,” said Teague, though his satisfied looks were speaking a different conviction. “I’m told King Reneldin always looked twice his age, but that information comes from the person who mounted his head after he cut it off in the middle of the royal plaza.”
“Danaco falls into the category of those who will always be attractive regardless of age.”
“Worldly lords never grow old, Alasdair,” said Boudicca. “They only ripen and hope no one notices, the sea breezes and foreign air only curing what was made perfect long ago.”
“We Frewyns ferment,” Sheamas proclaimed. “Aye, we got a few what look like they were trained up in the potato patch, but we age right well when we want to. Look at Da.”
Jaicobh was perfectly insensible of his son’s praise, but once he realized they were talking about him and how well he had aged, he smiled and held back a sneeze that was trying to escape by pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Looking a hundred years younger than you should look is what happens when you stay out of society for the better part of a century and then have the good fortune to die before decrepitude can set in,” Boudicca observed. “It is also what happens when half of your lineage descends from a line of people who do not age until they reach two-hundred.”
Sheamas nodded. “Aye, that’s fair.”
Hathanta and the children began busying themselves about the mixing station, examining all the mortars and mixes, and determining that the party did not come with any particular interest in any one product, curiosity overcame propriety, and the merchant soon interposed with, “I suppose you did not come to sample the latest imports, but instead came to ask me something.”
“We did, actually,” said Alasdair, rousing himself from inspecting a series of ampoules beside him.
“I am, of course, pleased to see His Majesty and his royal party in my shoppe at anytime,” the merchant continued, and then, with a glance or two at Teague, he added, “but when the king arrives with his Right Hand and his High Commander, I must ask if this visit concerns some delicate information.”
He gave them a conscious look, and Alasdair shifted closer to Teague.
“Is he a spy?” Alasdair asked, in an audible whisper, and without waiting for an answer, he added, “He’s a spy, isn’t he. He’s one of Ladrei’s men. He has agents in all of these shoppes.”
“He’s not an agent that I know about,” said Teague, “but to be fair, sire, all foreign merchants do gather information in a sense, even if they don’t mean to do it for profit. My father would overhear important information by just trading his textiles.”
Here was a glare. “Your father was a spy, Teague.”
“But a successful merchant first.”
“I am not one of the Prince’s agents, Your Majesty,” said the merchant, with a polite bow, “nor am I an operative for the Baracan or the guilds.”
“You did not say you weren’t a spy, however,” was Boudicca’s smiling observation.
The merchant laughed and folded his hands.“How kind of you to notice, Commander. An unconscious oversight, I assure you. I am not, nor have I ever been, a spy for any country, government, or organization. I understand that given the history of Lucentian merchants being sent abroad for intelligence purposes, you would suspect me, but my life is much less interesting than that. I’m a chemist, a herbalist, and an aesthetician, but of course, a suspicious mind would say that these are only distractions from my real profession.”
“A suspicious mind would,” Teague acknowledged.
A conscious smile was exchanged here, and Teague cherished a quiet mirth, leaving Alasdair to wonder whether the merchant was agent at last.