This is a sequel to Have You Tried Going Around?. You might want to read that first.
When a mysterious lady arrived on horseback from the north, there was quite a stir in the city.
She was accompanied by a young maid, who radiated innocence. In some big cities, the maid might have created some suspicion. People might not have believed such innocence could exist. But in this city, they believed in the innocence of young girls, and so were simply pleased to see it clearly displayed—finally.
She also had five guards. The guards looked quite competent, provided one assumed they were intended to stop pick-pockets and petty thievery. Besides, what more could a lady need? Nobody would assassinate her, since she was, after all, a lady. The duke’s guards who watched the gate were, in fact, comforted by the presence of guards. They indicated normality. They were so obviously suited to their function that one would never assume they were anything else.
What was so mysterious?
All sorts of things. The lady arrived from the north, after all. Only the bravest of merchants and travelers tried the pass through the mountains to the north of the city. It was, in fact, regarded as impossible for carriages or wagons. It seemed odd, at first, that a lady should show up out of the mountains on horseback. She was strangely dressed as well, with very colorful, but clearly well-worn clothing, a face that had probably been beautiful before she’d aged, and more than one bag that probably contained some of the makeup she used to overpaint her face.
There was nothing definite, but people started to expect her to show up in the marketplace and begin telling fortunes. In the city, fortune tellers were generally rather ordinary looking and had a pack of cards, or some simple crystal ball. As long as they didn’t tell any fortunes that annoyed the duke (and nobody wanted to annoy the duke), they were regarded as harmless. It was, in fact, unlikely that people were right about the visitor from the north. Public opinion is so untrustworthy.
But in this case the odds were quite wrong. Madame Peony showed up the very next day in the marketplace with a canopy and curtains. She paid the price of a market stall, which was unheard of for a fortune teller. Normally they occupied whatever space was unoccupied and didn’t cost them rent. Madame Peony broke the mold. This could have been dangerous, but she did it with such grace and style.
Besides, her customers were women. Almost exclusively. It seemed that men were not anxious to spend time in a tent in the marketplace with someone named Madame Peony. It seemed like a way to be accused of unfaithfulness without the benefit of time with, shall we say, a paid companion. Not to mention they’d rather have spent that sort of time with her maid. Here maid, however, was distinctly unavailable. She’d listen, she’d flirt, but she never put out. Contact with her was so, well, innocent.
And time she spent. Lots of it. With the ordinary fortune teller you paid a few coppers, then she (or he) dealt out some cards and provided a vague response. Madam Peony spent time with each person and listened. She was a bit steep at 20 coppers per session, but the sessions! She’d spend as much as an hour with a client, and they always left with a look of satisfaction.
She quickly became a favored stop of the rich and famous. Women, that is. Now if it had been rich and famous men, someone might have gotten suspicious. If the Seneschal, the treasurer, the chief justice, the commander of the guard, the chief jailor, and dozens of other officials in the duke’s castle had all been going to see some woman—from the north, no less—there would have been more than suspicion. There would have been action. A summons from the duke would be likely, and such things were unlikely to go well.
But who cared if the wives of all these men wanted to spend money on what was probably a fraud in any case? It wasn’t that people in the city weren’t superstitious or didn’t believe in magic. It was just that a fortune teller in the marketplace filled a known role, and that role was harmless entertainment. Nobody actually believed that sort of thing.
What the men didn’t know, and wouldn’t have cared about if they had known, was that Madam Peony not only told fortunes; she gave advice. In fact, she gave good advice.
Weeks went by, then months, and Madam Peony became a fixture. Her origins faded and became just a subconscious support for her mysterious and valuable capabilities. Nobody could remember precisely what she’d done. At least nobody who was talking.
And then … Nobody ever really untangled what happened.
The treasurer, who had once recommended that a northern merchant be arrested and his property seized, became quite certain that the Seneschal and the chief justice were plotting against him. Some rumors said he had heard this from his wife who had heard it from somebody, nobody was quite sure who. There was even a rumor that Madam Peony had seen the plot in her crystal ball, but everybody knew Madam Peony was just entertainment for women, and there was actually no evidence she possessed a crystal ball.
Since the treasurer was quite unpopular, and generally believed to line his own pockets at the expense of other officials, it was not considered surprising. What was never rumored, though it was true, was that the wife of the chief justice had informed him that the treasurer was about to extort some more money from him in order to protect him from the duke, who had heard that the chief justice had actually arranged that someone the duke had wanted condemned be acquitted. The rumors became much more complex than this.
In the middle of the night a prisoner was actually located in the bowels of the dungeon and led outside the city. Why this happened was very unclear. But it was rumored that, in exchange for this deed, the wife of the treasurer (or was it the chief of the guard?) had acquired some magical potion that would kill the chief justice and the seneschal when they had lunch together. Well, not kill them during lunch. Rather, it would kill them hours later when nobody would suspect their lunch. But these rumors only circulated among the upper class women, so nobody who mattered cared.
There was no rumor, but the chief guard of the duke’s dungeons was having an affair with the wife of the city guard. There was a rumor, largely among the wives of high officials, that something scandalous would be revealed about the chief guard, probably by the chief justice, but also perhaps by the commander of the guard. The commander of the prison was not unhappy to hear that both were dead. Oh, and some months after the events here related, he married the bereaved widow.
There was never a rumor that the prisoner had escaped. The chief guard was an old hand at this. The dungeon census, faithfully maintained and about as truthful as a romance novel, remained the same, and the extra supplies were sold, increasing the net worth of the chief guard.
The Duke believed in the rule of law. Most particularly, he believed that when he ruled, it was law. In fact, since the duchy was so isolated, he had come largely to believe that what he ruled was reality as well.
The problem, however, was that when one trains one’s staff to fake reality, they can actually become rather good at it.
Madam Peony disappeared from the marketplace. She and the imprisoned merchant traveled north through the mountains. Nobody pursued, because there was nothing to pursue. At least nothing important. The upper class ladies were distressed, but they got over it.
Oh, and Madam Peony replaced her colorful clothes with light armor, a dagger, a short bow, and a rapier with which she was regarded as without a peer. She was a troubleshooter for the merchant guild, and nobody better. As it turned out, she could do quite a bit of harm.
(Copyright © 2018, Henry E. Neufeld. Image Credit: Openclipart.org)