(123-07-03) Business Is Business
Business Is Business
Summary: Lord Lars Costayne asks another favour of Esme, who reminds him that business… is business.
Date: 04-09/07/2016
Related: Minor references to Customs and Curiosities.

The girl behind the counter in the brightly-painted red and yellow grocery shop on Oldtown Square directs Lord Lars Costayne to the adjacent butchery, where the immediate object of his search is just wrapping up a half-pound of best beef sausages for an old customer.

The two women are of an age and of a size, one in widow's weeds and the other dressed today to match her shopfront: red and yellow, with a blue headscarf which bears a suspicious resemblance to the fabric of the drapes which may occasionally be glimpsed at the upstairs windows when the white muslin beneath is taken down for washing. The snippets of conversation drifting from their end of the counter, through the butchery with its late afternoon rush and busy apprentices and air fragrant with smoking bacon, suggest they have a long history in this neighbourhood, many acquaintances in common, and a frank approach to such people's shortcomings… “Though I say it who shouldn't,” chuckles Esme, bidding farewell to her crony and turning to her next task.

… Which seems to be dealing with a roving customs master.

Her genial expression doesn't falter as she takes in the sight of him; “Afternoon, your lordship,” she calls, coming round the massive and presently rather thronged butcher’s block to meet him, but as she does so making sure (any shopkeeper would) her other customers are aware that lords drop in personally to buy her goods.

It becomes apparent that she’s been lending a hand on this side of her little Shambles empire long enough for her apron (usually pristine) to become liberally marked with blood. “What can I do for you today, eh?” she asks brightly.

“Esme, my dear,” Lars effuses, although he doesn’t offer his usual two handed approach. Well, you know. Blood. It might mar his cuffs. “Keeping busy, I see. I always feel such a rotten fellow for coming to disturb you. I can wait?” he offers, keen eyes taking in every movement within the small shop and noting it in his memory for later use.

Every time he calls her his dear, Esme imagines knifing him. It's how she keeps on smiling. A quick upwards thrust through the ribs and into the heart. Or something slower, so she'd have time to meet the real man for once as his pretences drained away with his life. It's the little things, you know? The rainy-day plans one will never actually get round to putting into action. Well, probably never.

“Seven be thanked, we are keepin’ busy,” she agrees, her gaze following his around the shop with a certain possessive admiration. “Though never too busy to see to old customers,” she insists, looking back to him with guileless dark eyes which certainly haven't noticed the distance he's keeping. Oh, no. “Or to see that all’s well with the paperwork — it is, I trust, milord…?” His lads’ll make a mistake sooner than she does, which is why she entertains the possibility by means of eyebrows lifted in question.

“Oh, no no. Just a social visit today, I assure you,” Lars breezes easily, attention briefly drawn by a display of smoked sausages, a calculated thought or two, and then a very small gesture towards them with a brow raised, as though to ask about them without ever having to leave the conversation at hand. “Or mostly social. You know how it is with my chaps, always busy busy busy. I really must thank you for your help with that Braavosi mystery, by the way. We did finally reach the bottom of it, in no small way thanks to you. Two of those..?” he suggests, finger delicately indicating the top two sausages.

Mostly social.

Esme senses another favour on the point of being asked.

She gazes, nodding attentively, at Lord Lars, at the sausages, at Lord Lars again; she is then quick to register surprise and to make a dismissive noise. “Oh, it weren't nothin’, milord,” she insists, ducking and shaking her head at such talk of thanks being due. “I just happened to hear somethin’ I thought might be to the point — and it was, then?” She asks just to be sure, then nods. “I'm right glad of that. These two?” And she busies herself wrapping up the very pair of sausages he indicated. He's particular, after all. “Are you on your way home now, milord, or shall I send ‘em round…?”

“Oh, if you’d be so good as to send them round… we’ll have them tonight, I think,” Lars decides, giving a cheerful nod and a trusting smile. “I’m rather looking forward to them already. That’s the thing, though, I can always appreciate your fine produce, because I know exactly where it’s come from, and I know it’ll be good quality.” And if his voice is raised a little to ensure everyone in the shop hears, well, that’s surely a coincidence. “And never a paper out of place. It’s always a pleasure dealing with you, my dear.” Cue stabbing fantasies. “Really, I wish you could give some lessons to some of our less diligent merchants. Had you heard about the Dornish shipments coming in? Barely a scrap of paperwork between them! I know they’re very busy, but really, all they have to do is ask for a little help, and my fellows would be only too pleased to assist!”

Esme affects appreciation, nodding as she always does, keeping up that respectful and attentive air despite the comings and goings about her. “… Now, how’d I hear about a thing like that?” she chuckles, switching from nodding to a quick, amused, indulgent shaking of her head. Oh, the things he says! To respectable old widows, no less! “Since I'd not be supplied by anyone so careless, I hope,” she stresses, virtuously. “I'm sorry they're puttin’ you to such trouble, though. No wonder you need a nice dinner to make up, eh? … Matter of fact, milord,” she confides in a lower voice, furrowing her brow just gently, “I've some cheese in I reckon you might like, from up Ashford way.”

Both brows raise, eyes lighting up. “Oh, something that’ll go well with the sausages?” he presses, rubbing his fingers together. “You’re awfully good to me, Esme. Would you mind if I had a look? It isn’t that I don’t trust you - you know as well as I do that I have full faith in the quality of your wares, and in your judgement - I just want to be sure it’s something my wife will like.”

“Oh, of course, of course,” agrees Esme, beaming that indulgent, oh so agreeable, downright grandmotherly smile. “I won't be a tick,” this she says reaching behind to untie the strings of her bloodied apron, “and then you can have a good smell.” She nods firmly.

A few steps take her into the butchery’s back room and bring her back again minus the apron, and then she conducts him with all due ceremony into the other back room, the tiny one with all the crates and buckets and mops, holding each of the intervening doors to allow his lordly self to precede her.

In the privacy of this little retreat, she presents him with a fragrant cheesecloth bundle on the usual tray on the usual corner table. She herself leans a hand casually against the closed door. “If you don't mind my sayin’ so, milord,” she says, whether he minds or not, “your lady wife is fortunate to have such a considerate husband. There's many ‘d only be thinkin’ of what they like.”

Lars laughs modestly, lines at the corners of his eyes deepening, and shakes his head. “My dear, I do only what any gentlemanly fellow ought to do for his wife. I support her, and she tells me what she wants. And she can be so very particular, so I do need to make sure I get it right.” One delicate, slender finger peels away the cheesecloth and he leans in to take a long sniff. “From Ashford, you say? Good fellows up there, to a man. Oh yes, this will be lovely, thank you so much for thinking of us! You’re very kind. Ah… there, you see. It says on the cloth. From Ashford. It’s always so much easier when the provenance is stamped on the goods themselves, don’t you find? It certainly makes our lives easier!”

“Well, stands to reason you'd do the gentlemanly thing,” chuckles Esme; “you are a gentleman. Not like some round ‘ere, is all I mean. It's nice to be reminded there are some in the world as do things a bit differently.” She nods, standing guard benevolently over his cheese inspection. “I s’pose so,” she agrees mildly when his talk turns to the stamping of goods. “But there ain't many could be stamped, are there? Not most of what I sell,” she clarifies, “things to eat and what not. O’ course, some things you probably could… Maybe you could teach them Dornish of yours to use a stamp, on whatever they're bringin’ in.” And she laughs, because this is obviously a jest, rather than a question.

“Oh, I wish I could, Esme, I really do wish I could,” Lars insists amiably. “I don’t suppose you happen to have seen any of their crates in passing, have you? Or know what it is they’re bringing in? I can send my chaps round with the right forms, then, and offer our help getting them filled in.”

The little shopkeeper draws in a breath, thought passing visibly across her face before she shakes her blue-scarfed head. “Ooh,” she sighs, and tsk-tsks, “I've not seen anythin’ like that round ‘ere. Not anythin’ out of the ordinary, that might be from Dorne. And I reckon if you don't know what it is neither, you can't tell me what to watch for, can you?” she chuckles ruefully, returning to humour. “It's a fine kind of pickle to be in, milord, I'm sure. You'd help ‘em if only you could; but the more they need the help, the trickier it is for you to offer it.”

Lars spreads his hands helplessly. “And so you see the very crux of my problem. Sometimes I do think some of the merchant fellows are so worried about the office that they don’t realise we’re here to help.”

He carefully folds the end of cheesecloth back over, glancing frankly back to Esme. “I’d certainly appreciate if you do hear anything, so we can straighten out all the paperwork for these hardworking Dornish fellows. And I know you’re a modest type, so I certainly shan’t tell them of your help, if you’d rather not?”

Esme standing straighter now and with her hands clasped before her and her eyes slightly lowered is, indeed, the picture of modesty and mercantile respectability. “I hope I’d never put myself so far forward as that,” she agrees earnestly. “It ain’t my way, no more’n it’s my way to take advantage of your good nature, milord, or of havin’ you for a regular customer as I do, of our doin’ business in a couple o’ different ways. The bits and pieces I bring in from Essos, that’s separate from this,” she nods to the cheese, “and I know that’s how you prefer it too. All these years, I’ve never asked or offered somethin’ for nothin’, have I?” She hasn’t. “Nor will I,” she reassures him, all virtue and stripes. “So we’ve nothin’ to feel wrong about.”

Lars gives her a faintly respectful smile and a nod. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, my dear Esme. Business is business, and should be kept quite clean. It keeps the books straight, and saves any sort of muddle, doesn’t it? If you, or any of your friends or customers, do find anything, I’d be terribly grateful to know. Would you be able to ask around?”

“I’m right glad to hear you say that,” declares Esme, smiling. “Business is business, milord, and you and me, we’re on a business footing, always have been. We ain’t, if you’ll forgive me sayin’ it in so many words, we ain’t friends, milord, because that’s not the way of it with people like you,” a gesture of one workworn hand toward whatever is today’s most expensive and elegant aspect of Lord Lars’s attire, “and people like me.” Her hand curves in again, vaguely indicating her own small and unfashionable figure. “But we don’t need to be friends, do we? I pay, on time, what duty Lord Hightower reckons is fit for the bits and pieces I bring in for my regulars — and you pay me fair and square for what you have from my shop — and you’ll never see anythin’ in my shop, or hear of my havin’ sold, anythin’ you don’t have declared right and proper to your office — because you know,” she points out, just by the by, “I ain’t so foolish or as forgetful as some, and I always consider my good name in this city.” A prim nod.

“I’ve never asked you a favour, Lord Lars, on account of I see that I don’t need to,” she explains, summing it up. “So when I hear you proposin’, and not for the first time, that I should do a job of work for you, and work which might get me talked of in the wrong way, but I don’t hear you proposin’ I should receive anythin’ in return for my time and my effort and my expertise, for bein’ able to talk to them as mayn’t be keen to talk to you— well, milord, I can’t help but feel I must’ve got somethin’ confused somewhere.” And as she speaks her tone grows wondering, and she favours him with an amiable but somewhat bemused smile which invites the powerful Costayne lord to elucidate these matters for the humble little shopkeeper.

“Oh, good gracious,” Lars responds, suddenly wholly contrite and wringing his hands before him. “I hadn't even considered the time I'm asking you to take from your already busy day. I can only apologise!” He takes a moment, eyeing the cheese as though that will give inspiration. “Of course you ought to have something for your time, and your very kind assistance, and I'm awfully sorry I hadn't even thought about it. Well… what can I offer you to make up for it?” He taps his lip, still thinking (with the aid of the cheese, naturally). “I do think cash would be terribly vulgar, don't you? I don't want you to think of it as a transaction, but a fostering of good relations, so money is the wrong message entirely. Invitations, perhaps? Would it be useful to you to… let's say, to have friends among the officials of the city? I would be only too pleased to sing the praises of your goods and your fine bookkeeping.”

Esme’s eyebrows lift at Lord Lars’s swift dismissal of the possibility of coin; “We’re quite vulgar people round these parts,” she remarks wryly, “and business is business, to be sure.” But then he raises a wholly suitable alternative, which she greets with a judicious nod of her brightly-scarfed head. “Oh, aye, I’m always glad to have that kind o’ customer,” she agrees, “reliable people who work hard for the city’s good and pay their bills on time. And if you were tellin’ ‘em no more than the truth, why, there’d be no harm in it neither. But, see, they’ve probably got their own arrangements already for meat and groceries and so on, and why should they change all those arrangements just on your say-so, milord?” she inquires.

“But when I tell them of your exemplary bookkeeping, my dear, I'm sure they'll agree with me. It's just so much more convenient to know that your accounts will always be square than to have to worry about keeping one's own books, where it's so easy to make mistakes and then my chaps… well, they're so diligent, aren't they?” Lars insists, beaming at her.

Esme tilts her head and returns a squint for his smile. “… Don’t quite follow what you’re on about, milord,” she confesses then, leaving a silence for him to fill, whilst her dark eyes gaze up at him in respectful inquiry from the midst of a thousand and one wrinkles.

“Well, surely it would just be easier for them to buy their goods from you than to have to deal with the tangle of paperwork from shipping in their own things?” Lars explains earnestly. “And my chaps are awfully good at finding discrepancies in those silly forms, why, even some established merchants, not your good self, of course, but some do have their forgetful moments, and it’s just more sensible and politic all round to buy from you, don’t you think?”

It has begun to dawn — Esme even allows it to seem as though it’s dawning, her vague curiosity turning to slow comprehension, her head nodding. “Aye, I see what you mean,” she concedes, “though to tell the truth, that’s always been just a sideline for me. The odd bit o’ this and that for them as buy from me in any case and don’t know where else they’d get such things. Never really thought of expandin’,” and she gazes past him for a moment, her plain and unremarkable features twisted into a particularly thoughtful expression. “I’ve got so much on my plate already, y’see, and only so many hours in the day, and my son to think of… and all that paperwork, which certainly does take time, don’t it?” Her eyes return to his face. “I’m not sure it’s in my line, to be honest with you. Not when I consider that nothin’ at all seems to get done round here unless I’m the one doin’ it, and I’m not gettin’ any younger… Though there’s always security in knowin’ there’s a buyer for what I bring in. Sometimes I take a little bit of a risk and try to predict what people might want, and it don’t always work out, I don’t mind tellin’ you,” she chuckles. “Sometimes I get it wrong, or sometimes I get it far too right — and someone else in the city has the same idea at the same time and brings in the same goods and then there’s a glut on the market and nobody profits.” Really, she’s just thinking out loud.

“Perhaps if we were to just leave it that I am, naturally, at your complete disposal should you find yourself in need of anything?” Lars suggests brightly. “You know your business far better than I, and so would know where I could be of assistance, as a mark of gratitude for your help. It’s really very kind of you to offer all the assistance you do, and incredibly helpful to me. I wouldn’t like to think that I’m putting you out, however.”

“Ah, well. Now you’re talkin’ of favours again, milord,” Esme reminds him regretfully, giving a slight shake of her head, “and I thought you’n I had just got through decidin’ we know better’n to trade in anything so woolly. Business is business, ain’t it? And I run my business honestly, and so I don’t need favours from the master of customs and excise.” But she says it gently. “You wouldn’t be here talkin’ to me if I were that sort, would you? If I were someone always needin’ relief from this or an extension on that, or havin’ to explain what I really meant when I was a bit vague in fillin’ out one of your forms… If you’ve any friends you might like to refer to me as customers, well, that’d be right kind of you,” she declares, “but I’d hope you’d do it because my goods are fine and my prices are fair, not because you owe me somethin’ and you’ve no better way of payin’ than by havin’ other men do it for you. Business,” she repeats, “is business. Whispers, they’re goods like any other, to my way of thinkin’. Coin or kind, Lord Lars; I’ll take coin or kind. And I’m sure you think me very vulgar for sayin’ it so plain, but at my age I reckon I’ve not got time enough left to keep beatin’ round the bush all day,” she concludes apologetically, “when I’ve got a business to run — and maybe questions to be askin’, too.”

Lars takes some time to consider this, nodding thoughtfully. “I suppose I rather thought that you wouldn’t want to feel mercenary,” he admits. “But it must be difficult to run a business without a steady income. I hadn’t really considered it. Well, how about if I were to send you a monthly gift, and then if finding information takes more time than your gift allows, you could let me know? What sort of purse would be reasonable? I admit I have no idea of the sort of overheads you face.”

By Lann, he's got it. Esme rewards him with a warm, reassuring, grandmotherly smile. "Times bein' what they are, de— milord," she admits, "that would be most welcome. The security of it. Yes," she gives him a judicious nod, "I'm right glad we've been able to come to an agreement in both our interests. Shall we say…" She names a not insubstantial sum. "And when you have… questions, like the one you brought me today, or t'other time with that Braavosi fellow goin' to Dorne, you just send 'em round to me by a hand you trust, along with an order for some little thing from the shop to make it look like the other kind of errand. Quiet, see? So nobody else'll notice what's goin' on. I'll get word to you with what I know — I've my ways of doin' that, never you fear. And if in a month's time you don't reckon as it's been worth it," she explains, "you'll come to me and we'll talk it over again, eh?"

"Oh, I'm quite certain your help would be worth that small allowance," Lars agrees, absently tugging at his cuffs. One has to wonder if that's a 'small allowance', precisely how high he would have gone. "Really, you're a mine of information, which makes our lives so much easier, and anything we can do to help lighten the burden of running your little business here… well, it's the least we can do, isn't it? Any time you have any unusual things in that might interest me, do send a chap round to let me know."

Esme is indeed wondering, and considering the merits of at least two different schemes to part him from a greater percentage of his funding, even as she promises, "I'll be sure to do that, milord. And…" A hesitation, which the lowering of her eyes gives him to understand is prompted by pure unvarnished modesty. "If you don't mind my sayin' so… I've worked for a livin' all my life, milord, and I don't reckon there's any shame in sellin' my skill for a fair price." And she spells it out for him. "It don't make me feel… mercenary, like you said. On the contrary. What people pay for, that's what they value. Bein' paid well, that makes me feel valued well. Always has done. I reckon you'd find most smallfolk feel the same, point of fact."

Lars raises a brow, then simply nods in acceptance. "Well, how extraordinary. I suppose we learn new things every day, don't we, my dear?"

The image which drifts lazily along behind Esme's eyes is… modified from the usual, what with the new understanding she enjoys with this well-inlaid lordling. "And I hope we always shall, milord," she agrees sincerely.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License