The lady was dressed in a fine yellow taffeta frock with lace trim. She fell in a somewhat amusing manner against the red-bricked road. Her large bustle cushioned the landing initially but then forced her torso to slide back from the force of the fall.
With great embarrassment, she rolled back to her feet. Deliberately pushing the horse’s head out of the way, she stamped by indignantly.
“Out of my way, ruffian!” she said, not looking at Linvin. “You would think a proper lady could walk these streets without being accosted by such vile vermin. Well, go beg for work elsewhere!”
Linvin laughed at the frumpy old woman. “Could I not even rake your yard for a slice of your cherry-berry pie?”
The woman stopped immediately. She turned her head and squinted as she looked at Linvin. “No,” she told herself, “This can’t be. Not…little Linvin Grithinshield, coming home at last?”
Linvin smiled widely. “I’m not so little anymore, Mrs. Harnbottom.”
“Well, just so you’re not too big to come down here and give an old woman a hug.”
Linvin dismounted and hugged the plump matriarch. “I have been called many things over the years, but I must say this is the first time I have ever received the title of ‘ruffian.’
Mrs. Harnbottom stroked his cheek and looked ashamed. “Dear sweet Linvin, I did not recognize you in these rags … and armor, no less.”
“Well, my road has been a long one and my appearance may indeed show it.”
“You were probably the wiser for not appearing of status these days. What with bandits on the roads and crime on every street, it’s hardly safe for a woman of status to travel anymore.”
“I do not recall Fraylic being so dangerous in my youth,” Linvin recalled.
Mrs. Harnbottom pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped invisible tears from her eyes. “That was a long time ago. The city has more than doubled its size since you left. With the end of the war years ago, all the major trade routes began to travel through here. That’s the reason for all of the crime. With so much wealth passing through these streets, many unscrupulous characters want a piece of it. Robbers, swindlers, murderers…” She stopped in mid-sentence after realizing what she had said.
“Are you speaking of my father’s disappearance?” Linvin asked directly.
Mrs. Harnbottom hesitated and used the rare occasion to choose her words wisely. “No one knows what really happened to your father, but if you asked me, he was killed by one of those trading cartels. They never could compete with Dirk Grithinshield and the Grithinshield Trading Company. With him out of the picture, it gives hope to rivals who otherwise could not compete.”
“I don’t mind telling you, your father could trade for goods from all over the world like no one before. No other trading house could match him. Dirk was a charming man; shrewd, but fair. He was an amazing businessman. It was simply impossible not to like the man. Well, perhaps I was wrong on that point.”
Her voice was at once panicked and embarrassed. “Pay me no mind, Linvin. I have misspoken. No one knows of the course of his demise. Your family’s fortune could have drawn many to do Dirk harm.
“Well, I would not say that my family has a fortune,” Linvin said in confusion.
Mrs. Harnbottom was taken aback. “Either you are being falsely modest or you really have no clue of your family’s wealth.”
Linvin looked puzzled and remarked, “Mother had said in her letters that business in the store was going well.”
“Store?” repeated Mrs. Harnbottom, “Grithinshield Trading Company has stores throughout the city, even different cities throughout the country have stores. The company has no rival. I’d wager their worth to be more than the entire treasury of Sartan.”
“I had no idea my father’s enterprises had been so lucrative,” Linvin said with bewilderment.
It quickly became obvious to Mrs. Harnbottom, as was often the case, that she had revealed more than she should have about business not of her concern. As was also her fashion, she shrugged it off and patted Linvin on the shoulder.
“Listen to an old woman carrying on so when you just want to get home. Well, I’ll keep you no longer. Give my regards to your mother and uncle.” With that, she waddled through the gate of her nearby manor.
Linvin stood motionless in an effort to absorb what he had heard. Perhaps, in an effort to deal with the vivid images the conversation had created, he told himself that they were the unfounded ramblings of an old woman whose only true contribution to society was her cherry-berry pie.