(123-07-12) What is 'A Date'?
What Is 'A Date'?
Summary: Whatever it is, it isn't this.
Date: 11-13/07/2016
Related: None.

“… Lars! Lars!”

A feminine voice tinged with a foreign accent hails the customs master, its tone caught between urgency and delight, as he goes about his lawful (oh, so very, very lawful) occasions on Lower Hightower Street, heading north from the harbourfront. But if he should turn to look behind him (for that’s where she must be, this woman so keen to greet him) all he’ll see at first is a phalanx of guardsmen. Hired local muscle of the better variety. Dangerous; none too discreet about it.

The oncoming tide of mail and swords parts just long enough to afford a glimpse of a small woman in a plain blue linen dress, waving at him a small book in plain leather covers.

It takes him a moment to identify the voice behind the guards, but it’s the waving of the book that confirms it for him. Lars turns on the spot, cheerful smile on his face, and, ignoring the wall of armour and muscle, gives a short, polite bow, the sort one would usually expect to see at the beginning of a dance. “Mistress Imaldi! How lovely to see you out enjoying the day. And these are your chaps? How marvellous!”

A small pale hand stained with blotches of ink appears upon a mail’d arm; the hand’s owner, standing on her tip-toes, cranes up to murmur something into the lofty ear above it. And then the tide parts to reveal Ida, beaming, a head shorter than her escorts but altogether prettier.

“Yes, they are my…” She sighs, and wrinkles her nose. “Chaps, as you say. Inigo said I must not go out alone anymore, and Jaqero asked nicely,” that roll of her eyes, that miserable emphasis, suggests her opinion of such underhanded tactics, “and here they are.” Sigh. Another thought succeeds that one, and her smile brightens again. “And here you are. I was sure it was you; I am glad I was not mistaken. Last time,” she takes a tiny step nearer to speak confidentially beneath the hubbub of the street — she almost breaks the circle of guards which surrounds her, but the men move an instant after she does, “I was mistaken, and the man was frightened, I think, when he saw all of us hurrying up behind him. He looked — just long enough for me to see he was not you — and then, before I could explain, he began to run…”

This Lars finds hilarious, his laughter ringing out past the armoured guards as though they weren’t there. “Oh, good gracious, the poor fellow! He must have been terribly confused! Was it me, then, that you were looking for?” He gestures to his chest with a flutter of his hand, in case the ‘me’ was unclear. “What can I possibly do for you today, my dear?”

Ida laughs too; but then when he asks her questions she becomes quite serious again and pauses as she is wont to do, to parse his statement and ensure mutual understanding. Her head tilts to that considering angle; a strand of red hair slips loose to echo the line of her jaw. “I was not looking for you,” she explains, “but, two days ago, I thought I saw you — and then, today, I did.” And she rushed after him the second time even after being disappointed the first, though that part at least she permits to remain implicit. “… I only wanted,” she admits, “to say ‘hello’.”

"Well, then, hello," Lars responds, cracking that same smile again, the one that seems to think the whole world is a joke put there for his own amusement. "Are you in a hurry? I was going to find myself a nice spot and have a bite to eat. I have some rather delicious cheese and sausages, if you'd care to join me? I don't have any wine, but I'm sure we could find some."

"Yes, I am in a hurry," explains Ida with a very earnest face; but then she smiles. "… A hurry to go and sit in the Maidenday Gardens." A lift of the book in her hand suggests the pastime she'd had in mind, till a moment ago. "I was taking a book, but perhaps it would be even more pleasant to take sausages and cheese; and is there not a winery here…?" She turns this way and that, tilted forward onto her tip-toes again, trying to look past her guards— aha! A glimpse of its sign! "There!" she declares, pointing proudly.

Lars nods to the book, raising a brow. "And I wouldn't be forcing you away from your book? Then if you'll give me a minute, I'll see if I can find some wine. Do you have a preference?" Because that's sure not to cause a fuss, is it? The customs man wandering cheerfully into the winery, uninvited, looking for specific wines. That won't make them nervous AT ALL.

Ida looks down at the book in her hand, and her lips press together for a moment as though she really is weighing her potential diversions. She looks up to meet Lars's eyes. "I can read it later," she reassures him nobly, "and I like white wine. In the winery — the wine cellar," she giggles, for the place is quite literally underground, "they have a very fine Arbor gold from your year one hundred and nine. Though it will depend," this wistfully, "what kind of cheese it is, if it will taste well… Jake," and she taps that leading guard's arm again, "will you make a way to the wine cellar for us?"

For the lower part of Hightower Street is thronged with pedestrians and riders and carts at this hour, and her male mountains do have their uses. The one addressed as 'Jake' moves smartly forward — the whole gang of them enfold Lars as well as Ida, sweeping him along whether he likes it or not — and then they're off to the winery at the Braavosi woman's own hasty pace, give or take the occasional pause whilst Jake plays 'chicken' with carters.

Engulfed within this protective shield of fine young fellows, Lars is suddenly forced to keep up, stepping smartly to avoid a stray cat which spits and screeches at him on the way over the road to the winery. "It's a semi-soft from further inland," he's happy to explain, never one to balk at cheese related discussion. "I know a wonderful lady who puts a wheel aside to show me any time something comes in we might like - really, she's an excellent saleswoman. You ought to send your fellows to see her for their produce needs… ah, good morning!" he greets the ashen faced owner of the winery. Because the only thing worse than the tax man coming in to see them unannounced is the taxman flanked by a dozen thugs coming in to see them unannounced. "Would you mind awfully if we had a little look in your cellars?"

It's remarkable how cheap a bottle of the '09 can be, under the right circumstances. Remarkable also how keen vintners can be to lend daintily-carved wooden cups to any fine, upstanding local citizens who promise to return them on their way home — a suitable drinking vessel does improve the flavour, doesn't it? No responsible winemaker could permit his pride and joy to be swigged straight out of the bottle. Perish the thought. And once you've got a bottle of wine, a pair of cups, a bundle of sausages and cheese, and an epic retelling in verse of how half a dozen armies came to smash themselves into oblivion against the Bloody Gate during the Age of Heroes, well, you need a basket, don't you. A pretty little one with a silk ribbon woven through its wickerwork just below the rim. Jake details one of the lads to carry it.

And so up the street and across the Honeywine, with Ida's hand entrusted tentatively to the crook of Lars's arm, and Jake and his crack team on the alert against anyone who might hope to jostle her. She doesn't even look about her as they go along; her eyes are turned always to Lars's face as she chatters away about the poem and the history of those days, quoting liberally. The lads might be leading her anywhere at all and she wouldn't notice. If she's always like this it's no wonder her compatriots insist upon minders.

The Maidenday Gardens are unspeakably fragrant in this long, long summer. Ida in her modest long-sleeved gown is soon glowing with the perspiration of so much hurried walking beneath the Oldtown sun, but she's reluctant to sit down till she's inspected every bloom (or so it seems), recollected its condition when last she was here, and reported to Lars upon its progress. They might be old friends, the way she speaks of them. At last she chooses a quiet corner and plops herself down on the grass in the shadow of a pavilion, twitching her skirts to cover a silk-stockinged ankle, wondering aloud where she can possibly have put her handkerchief. She had one when she came out… didn't she?

Naturally, Lars produces a finely embroidered, delicate handkerchief as soon as she mentions it, adding his own opinions of the flowers in kind. He has opinions, mostly good ones, but opinions nonetheless. He averts his eyes as she sits, passes a coin to Jake in exchange for the basket, 'good chap', and sets down the two wooden cups on the edge of a small stone wall bordering a bed of flowers beside the pavilion. "I really don't visit these gardens often enough, you know. To have such a treasure trove of botanical beauty on one's own doorstep, and to walk past it daily… well, I'm clearly a fool. My dear?" And the first cup, brimming with wine, is offered over.

The first time Lars met Ida, she was sitting on the floor. She seems just as comfortable, and just as sure of herself, cross-legged upon this expanse of manicured grass; she accepts the cup and raises it to him in thanks quite as though they were in a banqueting hall and not a garden. “Thank you,” she exclaims happily, and drinks… “Oh, I like that very much.” Her expression really is as sunny as the day itself. “How lucky I am that we met when we did… and that you were not so busy as you usually are. Is everything well with your work?”

“Oh, no more or less busy than usual,” Lars insists, rather less flexibly taking a perch beside the wall and leaning back against it, legs casually out in front of him. “It’s all about tides, really, at this time of year. End of year is a little different, of course, but you’d know about that. With the bank, I mean. Have you worked there long?”

“… Always,” declares Ida, still with that cheerful, sunny smile. “I began to go in to the bank each day when I was a little girl in my father’s arms,” and she holds up her empty hand no more than two feet above the grass, to measure the height she was in those days. “Though I did not all at once have my own office,” she laughs, “and my own staff of clerks—!”

“Born to it,” Lars admires, shaking his head and letting out a small laugh. “No wonder you’re so horrified that I don’t know what I’m doing. By contrast, I rather fell into my work by accident, you see.” He lifts his cup of wine, examining it in the light, then takes a long, comfortable swig.

Ida looks proud of having made him laugh, and with no more than the truth. “But what kind of accident?” she asks eagerly. “I think yours is a job many men would labour and scheme and fight to achieve; and for you it was… an accident?” Perhaps that will horrify her too, when she’s had a moment more to think it over.

“I have the advantage,” Lars decides, absently plucking a blade of grass and tucking it between his thumb and fist, “of a good family name, and very little by way of scandal. The men who would fight and scheme to run my office are… less than ideal to run it, I think. The master of coin doesn’t want an ambitious, greedy or devious chap here, does he? No, no, a nice quiet life, and I can provide that for him,” he explains, pausing to blow into his fist and give out a shrill, rasping whistle. “My family owe him, he’s got an amenable fellow here who won’t rock the boat, and I have a pleasant life. We all win. There was a time they’d decided I was going to be a man of the gods, but thank goodness there was this alternative, eh?”

Of course Ida sees the point; more quietly, she adds, “I think some must resent your good fortune, and that must not be comfortable for you. I might have… done something else, instead of what I do; but I did not wish to have others resenting me, or fighting me.”

“I suspect there would be more resentment if I interfered more often with the work,” Lars confesses frankly. “My chaps are awfully good, though, and I think they appreciate that I don’t try to tell them how to do their jobs. As for noble fellows? Well, there aren’t many who want to look at numbers all day, rather than ride and shoot and cover themselves in glory, you know how it is. And those who do want to play with finance, well, they have loftier goals than the figurehead of the tax collectors.” There may be a slight tension as he suggests the idea of riding and shooting, but it’s a flicker, no more, before he’s back to cheerful, relaxed Lars again.

Drinking her wine and glancing about the garden, Ida is oblivious to that flicker of— something else, and in any case she doesn’t understand that looking at numbers all day might not be somebody’s first choice for an entertaining and fulfilling life. “Well, those people don’t know what they are missing, do they?” she asks him happily. “… But I think, in our bank, those superiors who are most respected and least resented — however they came to where they are — they are the ones who are cleverest at their work, whose right to hold their positions is rooted in their own abilities. Clerks must have something to aspire to, must they not? And a hope that through their endeavours they shall gain greater influence and higher salaries… I’m afraid, Lars,” she apologises, “if you worked for us I would dismiss you from your position. I do not think we could afford a man who… does not interfere with the work of his juniors, because he does not know how to interfere even when it is necessary. But I am sure things are different here,” she points out, “and the arrangement you have works well for you… You did find, very quickly,” and she’s smiling again, “a ship which declared to you no cargo, for no reason you could see.”

“I do think your organisation is somewhat different from ours,” Lars agrees, finally reaching into the basket to see if he can achieve cheese. He does. And a knife, which he uses to slice off a good sized chunk and offer over on the tip. “With the Iron Bank, everyone is there to manage the finances. With the excise, the clerks manage the finance, and I manage the political fallout. Would you like some of the sausage to go with that? I imagine they’ll be divine together.”

“Please,” says Ida eagerly, thumb and forefinger plucking the cheese from the end of the knife and ferrying it to her lips… She essays a delicate nibble. Her eyes widen in delight. “Mmh!” she declares, laughing, following it with a sip of wine. “I think you would still be even better at your own job if you understood the work of your clerks,” she teases, “but for them to need you for one task, as you need them for another… it is not so bad, is it? It is different for us, very different… Certain things we must all understand. And as a shareholder,” which fact she tosses into the conversation as though it meant nothing, “I do hope we are not paying a salary to any man who does not thoroughly understand the requirements of such work… I like to see good men and women promoted from amongst our clerks, rather than brought in from outside.”

By now she has been provided with sausage to add to her cheese; she juggles them awkwardly in the same hand, and her wine in the other, nibbling this, sipping that.

“Mik,” Lars suggests, “is a very able clerk. One of the best, I’d say. He runs the place, if I’m honest with you. But,” and another piece of cheese is waved on his knife as he punctuates his point, “he’s a small fellow. He can’t go toe to toe with a Hightower, or a Martell, or a Tully. I’m a Costayne. I can. That’s really the crux of it. Of course, I am slowly learning more about the work - I’m exposed to it daily, you know - but it’s not why I’m there. I’m there because the noble houses can’t turn me away from their door if we have uncomfortable questions to ask.”

He slices off a piece of sausage for himself, making appreciative noises of his own and nodding in agreement with her earlier ‘Mmh’ comment. He chews. He tops up his wine, he enjoys the sunshine for a while longer. “Are you familiar with all the various duties and calculations here, then, Mistress Imaldi?” he queries with idle interest. “Perhaps I might ask you to explain some of the more complex transactions. Perhaps I will, as you insist, learn the work better, ha!” This is suggested with a broad smile and a little laugh of triumph.

Ida tilts her head quizzically. “In Braavos there are big men and there are small men,” she points out, pausing now and again between one phrase and the next to eat a tiny, hasty bite of cheese or sausage or cheese and sausage, “and big women and small women, too. But these things are decided only in part by birth. A man like your Mik, if he is as able as you say he might by now be a much bigger man in Braavos than he could ever be here… We do not have nobles; we do have keyholders,” she adds, careful to be fair, “but there are keyholders and keyholders, and to inherit a key means in itself very little. To put it to use…” And with a now-empty hand she pantomimes the turning of a key in a lock. “That is very different. May I have another piece of cheese? I am sure I could explain anything you did not understand.” Which she phrases not as a boast, or a hope, but a simple and unaffected statement of certainty.

“Seven hells, don’t tell Mik, whatever you do,” Lars jokes, “or we’ll lose him to the Free Cities, and then where will we be?” Another hefty chunk of cheese is sliced away and offered over on knifetip. “I’d like to learn, I think. But it’s not my place to interfere, if I can make that quite clear. And only if you have the time to spend - I know this is supposed to be your holiday time, so if you’d rather spend it with your literature and admiring the plants, don’t let me stand in your way.”

Was there ever a chance that Ida could resist the offer of a lazy afternoon’s paperwork with this man and his eyelashes? Her expression blossoms again, into another broad and joyous and uncomplicated smile. “But I would like that very much, Lars. To help you, and to understand your work better. I think, it would be easier for you to learn these things from someone outside, perhaps…? Rather than to ask your clerks to instruct you…?” she guesses. “Please understand. I came to Oldtown not because I am tired of that kind of work and I wish to avoid it, but because I would like to understand better the ebb and the flow of the markets in this place… In such different work, there is my holiday.” He may recall her rather spicy drawing. “I like books and flowers and playing cyvasse, but… but numbers, I love best of all.”

“Numbers… and cheese and good sausage, and a cup of wine, though,” Lars suggests, lifting his wine briefly towards her. “And good company. Then we have a date! You must meet my wife! Perhaps you might like to join us for dinner one evening this week, and then we might study afterwards?”

“A date? What date?” asks Ida, in her innocent ignorance of the Common Tongue’s idioms. She, too, seems in that moment ready and willing to learn.

“A… well, a meeting, then, I suppose it’s hardly a date if it’s with my wife there,” Lars clarifies, willing to concede that perhaps that was the wrong term. Because that must be why Ida is objecting. He gives her a little smile. “A meeting, and dinner.”

“… Yes,” agrees Ida, patiently but pedantically, “but on what date? Do you mean… you ought not to agree upon a date without asking your wife?” There’s something here she doesn’t understand; and by heaven, she’s going to worry away at it until she does.

“A…” Lars trails off, taking a moment to spear another piece of sausage as he collects his thoughts. “I’m sorry. I forget this isn’t your first language. A date - a… meeting between a chap and a woman. I don’t think my wife would approve of my going on a date even if she knew. Dinner, though, at home, that’s a different matter.”

The Braavosi woman turns a shade of pink which absolutely doesn’t go with her very red hair, and after looking straight into Lars’s eyes for a startled moment develops a profound interest in her borrowed cup and the wine within it. “Of course it is a different matter,” she agrees. “But nobody could suppose…” She looks up, eyes narrowed. “Could they?”

“My dear, I assure you it’s merely a turn of phrase,” Lars reassures her, with a slightly embarrassed smile. “I was being flippant. I really don’t genuinely think anyone will think anything at all of three people having supper, other than perhaps to envy you. Our cook is really very good.”

That wasn’t quite what Ida meant, as her distracted glance about the gardens (ornamented at present with her guards, who don’t at all resemble gnomes) might suggest. “Then… then I accept your invitation,” she decides, with an air of bravery and a face slowly cooled by the breeze, “and I look forward to meeting your very good cook.”

Lars laughs and lazily offers over another slice of sausage, a brow raised. “You sound terrified by the entire concept,” he notes. “More wine?”

“But I am not terrified,” declares Ida. Her blue-green eyes dart this way and that, over guards and flowering shrubs; she leans nearer to confide, “I am looking forward to it very much. I will have more wine, please. Isn’t it a shame we didn’t think to bring enough for everyone…?”

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