The woman no longer in red moved through the crowded, dusty streets. She stole furtive glances around her, but was much more calm at this point. Completely obscured by her all-encompassing black attire, her dark eyes the only potentially identifying feature exposed, she felt confident that she was able to blend in. She deliberately adopted a more humble pose, slouching her shoulders and avoiding standing near any men, as was the local custom. She clutched her robes to her and recited a silent prayer that her subterfuge was working, and that she could continue to evade her pursuers. She longed for rest, but knew it was unlikely to come soon.
“Where has he gotten off to? Have you seen-Aha! Jason, there you are, you silly thing, whatever are you doing out here? It can’t possibly be good for your health to stand out here in the cold, and you do know how I worry. Honestly, I don’t know what possesses you to put yourself in such an obviously unpleasant, dangerous situation. What do you get out of this?”
The Contessa stepped briefly onto the balcony, gave an exaggerated shiver, grabbed Jason by the arm in a mock attempt to gain warmth, and not giving him a chance to respond, pulled him back into the interior. On her way, she shot a disapproving scowl at the couple, who looked suitably embarrassed at being caught out by someone who they knew had influence over their respective partners. She jerked her head in the direction of her study, and the couple knew this meant that they would need to meet with her later to work out what sort of favor they would owe her to maintain their secret.
“Now Jason, there’s a fellow you simply must meet here!” Jason rolled his eyes at hearing that for the umpteenth time. She pretended not to notice and went on. “He says he might have a job for you.” She took great satisfaction in seeing Jason perk up and become legitimately interested at that. She knew that her talent for making connections between the many people she knew was of great value, and so while she enjoyed making sort of mocking, unnecessary introductions, enjoying that her guests could not refuse her, she also preferred to give everyone at least one introduction that would actually serve their purposes each time they attended one of her soirees. Not letting go of Jason’s arm, she pulled him along and made mutual introductions between him and a large man in an expensive suit, who was chewing on the end of an unlit cigar. He was looking at a golden pocket watch, as though anxious for something to happen, and while he broke into a grin when he saw the Contessa, he still looked preoccupied.
The woman now in black sat at a table in front of a cafe, smoking a molasses covered tobacco through an elaborate water pipe and sipping at the powerful, sweet coffee common to the region. She was confident that she had evaded her pursuers and was allowing herself a moment to relax. She did not realize how conspicuous a woman sitting by herself in a cafe was in this culture until the bag was pulled over her head. Few people heard her muffled shout, and those who did paid it no mind. It was none of their business, and involving themselves would clearly be a dangerous proposition.
The large man introduced himself as Bjorn Sigmundson. A wealthy industrialist, his grandfather had started the family business as a butcher and green grocer, building up a sizable bit of wealth. His father had used that to open a tinning factory, which grew to be one of the largest such in the world. He had expanded their operations even further, and was looking to expand into preserved fruit and juices. This was why he was interested in Jason: he wished to premier their new line with, in addition to making the seasonal standards available year round, an instance of an exotic fruit never before seen by the lay public on this side of the world. Bjorn wanted Jason to go to the other side of the planet, find the particular fruit that he had in mind, retrieve a cutting and some fertile seeds, and somehow keep the cutting alive all the way back to Europe. The cutting would be grafted onto another tree, which would provide a limited amount of fruit that could be used for the premier-a very expensive first taste, for a few select customers capable of placing important, enormous orders, and the seeds would be planted, so that in a few years they would be producing enough fruit to start making the juice available to the public. Of course, if Jason could bring back an entire tree, that would entail a similarly sized bonus.
“Shall we meet at my office and hash out the details?”
Jason was intrigued. The fruit the man had named, ebriosus stultitia, was not one he was familiar with, which in and of itself was highly unusual, and he was suitably intrigued. Jason was uncertain of what to think about the cannning of fruit. On the one hand, canned fruit were clearly inferior to fresh ones. That much was indisputable. But on the other hand, Jason considered himself a man of the people, and he knew that most people could not hope to travel to, say, the distant Orient to eat a proper, fresh peach. He accepted the man’s offer, at least to discuss it further.
The two shook hands to