The coach driver, a stout man with large hands, helped Alicia up and into the small carriage. She barely paid him any mind; her thoughts were too occupied with other concerns. As Miss Hartwright gave him his instructions, Alicia arranged her skirt and began planning. This, she knew with complete certainty, was her best opportunity, and she would be a fool not to take it now.
Miss Hartwright entered the carriage a moment later, and in short order they were travelling through the streets of Ludestre. The streets were paved with cobblestones, but unlike the Western district, their upkeep was infrequent at best, and as such the whole of the coach rattled and shook as they travelled. Perhaps it would have been better if they had taken one of her father’s coaches, which she suspected had some small circuits for suspension, but that would have given away the whole game. Instead, they had left the house on the guise of a walk, and then hired a horse-drawn cab to take them to Mister Finnegan’s office.
The address that she had gotten for the bookstore seemed to be to the southeast from the office, so at least they were heading back in more or less the right direction. Still, she didn’t know when she would next be able to arrange such an outing, and so she figured that it was worth it to make the excursion, even if it would increase the risk of suspicion.
“If I may, my lady, why do you want to see the bookstore?” Miss Hartwright asked.
Alicia felt a flash of irritation at her thoughts being interrupted, but she forced it away. She was aware that Miss Hartwright was taking some substantial risks at the moment, and it wouldn’t do to alienate one of her only true allies. “Do you remember when you were teaching me about the Childhood Education Act of 613?”
“Of course,” the governess replied, seemingly nonplussed by the sudden non sequitur. “Passed twenty-nine years ago, it’s a provision that instantiated some level of mandatory education for children between the ages of 5 and 10, unless exempted by an employer.”
Alicia nodded. “I also remember you telling me that it had been designed to be implemented gradually, in order to allow for the construction of new schools and the hiring of new instructors. In any case, by the year 623, many children of the peasantry would be in school at least long enough to learn their letters.”
“Indeed, my lady.” Miss Hartwright’s brow furrowed, and Alicia could see that she was beginning to see the connection.
“In that case, the literacy rate amongst the general populace will have suddenly increased quite dramatically. However, by my understanding, access to books is still restricted largely to those of some small means; as, to a lesser extent, is access to newspapers.”
“I would agree with all of that,” Miss Hartwright said, slowly nodding. “Then, my lady, you believe there is profit to be made in selling such
“The demand for print will drastically outstrip supply, and here we have a person who is capable of meeting such a demand with cheaper books of lower quality. Surely this is not an opportunity to be missed.”
Miss Hartwright was quiet for a moment. “I am not sure if this mercantile mindset quite befits one of your station, nor your particular position.”
Alicia gave her a confident smile, but inside she was panicking slightly. Of course, Miss Hartwright was not one to be purely swayed by monetary matters; and besides, the governess seemed to be under the impression that Alicia might be a saint reborn, and Alicia was in no rush to dissuade her of that notion. Not when her life might be on the line.
Instead, she said, “Mis Hartwright, you misunderstand me. My purpose is not just to turn a profit. Rather, it’s quite clear to me that cheap books will be sold. Given that inevitability, I believe it would be best that someone with knowledge of conduct and propriety have some say in what books are printed.”
“You believe that person ought to be you, my lady?” The governess arched one eyebrow.
“To think otherwise would be to cast doubt on your instruction, would it not?” It was a risky gambit, but Miss Hartwright would be hard pressed to refute her claim.
The other woman gave her a wry smile. “You give me too much credit, I’m afraid. I cannot fault your logic, my lady, and I would be happy to assist you in this matter.”
“Then I will ask you to carry out the transactions in my name. Or rather, in the name of the Akari corporation. Offer him twenty five sterling to start and ask for an overly high share; when he refuses, increase the bid to fifty but increase the share ask by only one and a half. From there, you ought to be able to find a good rate.”
“You’ve given this quite a bit of thought, my lady.” It was hard to tell if that was praise or condemnation.
Alicia nodded, her face set in an expression of grim determination. “For all our sakes, this needs to succeed.”
Lady Alicia didn’t elaborate further, and Mary didn’t ask. It was clear enough that this was part of the young lady’s holy affairs, and Mary had no intention of pressing her charge for more information. That would be a quick way to erode the trust between them, and Lady Alicia had few enough allies that she could trust to begin with.
Still, it was something of a shock to hear her lady speak with such authority on these matters. First to strike a deal with Finnegan, at once creating a corporation behind which she could hide her affairs as well as ensuring that Finnegan himself would keep her secrets and work to maximize profits. Mary had always known she herself had some talent for finance, although as an unmarried woman of modest means she’d had precious few opportunities to demonstrate it. A month ago she would have been surprised if Lady Alicia even knew what stocks were, much less be able to discuss the comparable benefits of purchasing stocks versus a direct investment. Now, the lady was directing her to try and seize some control over a fledgling business.
In truth, it had alarmed her somewhat; she knew better than most that a mercantile mind can be dangerous, if unchecked by morals. Knowing that this was also part of some divine plan, an act of charity toward the recently-educated masses, set her heart at greater ease.
The carriage came to a stop, a few blocks away from the address of the store. It would not do for the daughter of Duke Senius to be seen in this part of the city, so they were both travelling incognito. Miss Hartwright would act the part of a woman of the landed gentry, and Lady Alicia would play the role of her daughter. Of course, the governess had objected to the impropriety of such a circumstance, but she had eventually conceded it as a necessary disguise. That said, it would look suspicious if people of their standing arrived in a personal cab.
Mary stepped out first, handing the driver two shill for the ride, and another two in exchange for a promise to stay there until such time as the two of them returned. Lady Alicia—no, for now she ought to think of her as Alice—emerged a moment later, shielding her eyes against the sudden brightness of the midday sun. Mary recognized the area as the district of Cruxlington; a small borough in southern Ludestre, it was recognizable by the abundance of relatively modern buildings, after the old district had burned down some thirty years past. It was nicer than the mess of factories and shipyards down by the river docks, but still distinctly lower class. The street fronts were all different shops, with the areas above housing the proprietors and their families. It wasn’t out of the question to see a member of the landed gentry shopping here, but no true noble would ever visit the place. She had been here several times in the past, back when she was attending the Academy. It was also, she realized, the perfect market for the kind of books that Lady Alicia had described.
A few people in the street watched them disembark, but quickly returned to their business. Mary led the way, which felt unnatural given their positions, but Lady Alicia seemed content to follow behind, acting for all the world like a nervous daughter staying close to her mother’s skirts. Once they’d walked to the right block, though, it still took a few minutes to actually find the bookstore itself. Eventually, she was able to locate it, a door recessed between a squat butcher’s shop and a cobbler’s store with some eye-catching boots on display. In contrast, the bookstore seemed to almost fade into the background, and it was only by chance that she saw the small sign above the door with a stylized book and the name Fairweather Printing written in faded paint.
A small bell chimed above the door as she pushed it open. The interior was about as she had expected from seeing the exterior; small, somewhat cramped and oddly shaped, and lit by the dim light of a cheap magnolic lamp that had been placed in the corner, which flickered in irregular intervals. She frowned; even if she had called it cheap, that was only with regard to magnolic devices. Keeping a lamp like that running would be no small expense to a store like this, and it was a shame that the effect was inhibited by shoddy craftsmanship. Still, it was enough illumination to see that nearly every square inch of wallspace had been converted to shelves, which were filled to the brim with books of all sizes and states. Some were in considerable states of disrepair, while others looked as if they had been just printed the day before. In fact, the only commonality of all the books was that none of them were of a condition that any noble would ever consider displaying on their shelf, whether that was due to age or just cheap printing to begin with. Even the one table and counter were largely covered in books.
A middle-aged man came out from the back of the establishment to greet them, reedlike and bespectacled, lines of gray in his unkempt hair and wearing a faded suit with patches on the elbows. “Ah, a good morrow to you, madam. And you as well, young miss. My name is Richard Lusian, the owner of this humble establishment. Are you perhaps looking for any book in particular, or just intending to browse?” He spoke quite quickly, and punctuated his words with a short bow.
Mary dipped her head in response. “It is a pleasure to meet you, sir. I am Mrs. Finnegan, and this is my daughter, Alice. I was wondering if you had any copies of Fernweth’s Paldridge Travels, by any chance?” It was a staple of Estellian literature, so she had little doubt he would have it. In fact, it was one of the few books that she actually owned herself, a beautiful edition with an embossed leather binding and skilled illustrations for each poem. It had been a gift from a professor at the academy. Of course, she wasn’t planning to buy another copy here, but it would be a useful reference.
“Of course we do, madam,” The proprietor replied, and began bustling around the store, pulling several books off the shelves seemingly at random. Once he had gathered a stack of five books in his arms, he brought them back and set them down on the counter.
Three of them were older, clearly bought second-hand with one even bearing the unmistakable curvature of damage from water, and so she ignored those. The other two seemed to be of the same edition, bound with the same cardstock cover as the one which Finnegan’s assistant had been reading. She picked it up and quickly flipped through the pages, and at the same time, Lady Alicia—rather, Alice—lifted the other edition and inspected it as well.
As she had suspected, the quality was miserable. The lines were not fully centered, and there were a few pages where she could see that had less ink than the rest. The paper itself was rough and thin, and at points she saw bits of ink bleed through. Still, the poems themselves were correct, near as she could tell; she had most of them memorized at this point, and could see no obvious mistakes there.
“How much for this one, sir?” She asked the shopkeep.
“Two shill,” he said, wringing his hands. He carried with him the nervousness of a small flighty bird.
She looked back at the book. Clearly it was cheaply made; that was almost a tenth of the cost of a proper edition. It would fall apart in five years time, even with good care. It was poorly made, with a clear emphasis on speed and cost over any kind of beauty or design. And yet despite all of that, she knew that when she had been a young girl, she would have been completely overjoyed to own it.
“I must apologize, sir,” Mary said at last, taking on a much more refined accent than she had been using before. “In truth, I had no intention of purchasing this book. Rather, there are some matters of business that I would like to discuss with you.”
His expression froze for a moment, before recovering into a polite smile. “Business, you say? I would be happy to discuss such matters, perhaps over a cup of tea?”
“That would be lovely, Mr. Lusian.” She gave him a polite smile back.
He turned around, calling out to someone in the back of the building. “Lizzy, my dear, would you kindly come and converse with our customer?” He turned back to Mary. “My niece, Elizabeth. She is of an age with your daughter, and I imagine the two of them can keep each other entertained for the course of our discussion.
Mary exchanged glances with her own charge, who gave her a subtle nod. Reassured, Mary followed the man into the back of the building, leaving the young lady behind at the front of the shop. She steeled herself; it had been some time since she had played a role other than governess, but she refused to fail now.