This story is a brief prelude to my latest novel, Foreign & Domestic Affairs, now available as a paperback on Amazon. While Foreign & Domestic Affairs centers around the king and queen, the story below takes us back to our Queen Gertrude’s home. To the land of Forsithyas and the country’s most renown healer, Galina Galiova…
Fruits of Their Labor by S. Faxon
The notoriety behind her name did not intimidate Marcus. Yes, she was regarded as an angel on earth for all the good her medicines had done over the years, but he was a businessman, and she was intruding on one of his longest-standing deals.
The Castin family had become partners with him years ago, selling him the fruits of their orchard to be sold exclusively to him. That relationship had helped made him rich, and this woman had somehow managed to obtain the orchard, stealing from him one of his most reliable products. Marcus would not stand for this. He had worked too hard to set up his business for his sons to take over, with the understanding that the Castin Orchard would carry on their partnership for many years to come. So, against the protests of his adult sons, Marcus hired a carriage to take him on the long two-day journey to Forsithya Valley, where that blasted woman called home. If nothing else, this would be his last act that would secure his trade and family legacy for many years to come.
Stepping out of the carriage, Marcus looked squarely at Forsithya Manor for the first time.
It was a beautiful entry. This had been the house of the Prime Minister, Absalom Kemen, before the divorce. The only matter that was well known of that affair, was that the people would have torn Lord Kemen apart had he taken this property from Galina. With times as tumultuous as they had been in those days between the masses and the upper classes, the smartest political move that Absalom ever made was to secede his home to Galina. Allowing Galina to keep this manor, the most centralized point in the country, she was able to expand her hospital wing, to serve the people of Vitenka, no matter their political or social backgrounds. She was a hero to the people, and here was Marcus, a retirement-aged merchant from the north, ready to take her on.
He gulped and ascended the stairs.
It was said that summers never set on Forsithya Valley. As legend told, anything that Galina touched was said to grow or to heal. That note was immediately evident as Marcus’ carriage passed through her valley. From the pines that lined the outer rim of the fields to the roses that grew to the side of the home, every plant here served a purpose; to keep the citizens of Vitenka alive and thriving with Galina’s guidance.
Marcus inhaled deeply. When he reached the door, his browline creased. In the city where the homes were tucked closely together, usually a nosey maid would already be opening the door to a visitor, and yet, here in the country, only the cries of the crickets beckoned any welcome. Straightening his vest and composure, Marcus reached for the rope beside the door that he assumed would call servants forward.
Marcus shrank from humiliation.
The two good pulls he gave to the rope sent a call of bells throughout the grounds. Though the sun was out, it was late. The summer solstice kept the daylight hours deep into the night and Marcus feared that he just awoke the entire valley. He suddenly realized how intrusive this would seem. He had sent a letter ahead so as not to drop in completely unannounced, but he hadn’t heard anything back. ‘Maybe I should have listened to my sons,’ he thought gravely. ‘Surely this woman is merely ignoring my letters.’ Her silence in the last few weeks had been driving him mad. This was the only way to obtain a clear understanding of what was truly happening.
The door opened sharply.
A kind-faced woman of about Marcus’ age, stood on the inside of the entryway.
“May I help you, friend?” the woman carrying an arm full of towels asked.
For a moment, Marcus was taken aback by this lovely woman’s smile and the glint in her green eyes. There was a motherly presence about her and it was welcoming.
Clearing his throat, he said, “My name is Marcus Amorosk. I’ve come to speak with the lady of the house in regards to her recent acquisition.”
“And which acquisition would that be?” the lady asked while maintaining a charming smile.
Marcus almost lost his way in that smile. “T-a-um, the Castin Family Orchard.” The second after he answered, he realized that it was strange for a maid to pose such a question.
The woman’s smile remained, but her charming eyes looked to and fro as she designed her next response. “And what business is this acquisition of yours, may I ask?”
Though he was not a lord, there were expectations of interactions between household staff and guests. Lovely as she was, her questions were a tad too invasive for Marcus’ tastes. “Forgive me if I seem presumptuous, but I believe it is more my business than yours. ” Marcus tried to say it lightly, hoping not to offend. “I’m sorry to be intruding at this late hour, but may I please speak with the lady of your house?”
The woman’s smile widened. “You are speaking with the lady of this house, Marcus Amorosk.” She almost laughed as she said it. “As such, I am well aware of this acquisition, but you see, dear, I am in the middle of my rounds.” She took a moment to look over her visitor. His hazel eyes, strong jaw, and embarrassed expression delighted her. “If you don’t mind talking while I work, you’re welcome to come in, but do try to keep up. There’s much to be done.”
Pushing the door open with her toe, Galina welcomed Marcus to follow her, not waiting to verify if he would. Galina took off at a fast walk down the hall.
Confused by what all-so-quickly surpassed, Marcus hopped after her. “Um, as I was saying,” Marcus’ words were shortened by his quick breaths. The haste the woman of this woman was extraordinary. “For years, the Castin Family Orchard supplied my business with ciders, wine, apples, naturally, and a variety of other products.”
The pair made it to the double doors that separated the infirmary wing from the rest of the household. Though Galina looked prepared to open the doors with a well-practiced bend of her elbow, Marcus jumped ahead to spare her the task. “Thank you,” she quickly said, bending under the arm that he extended to keep the pathway open.
The infirmary was a long hall with twenty beds. To the great relief of Galina, most were unoccupied but for a few beds on the far end of the hall. Curtains were drawn around those beds so to provide her patients a sense of peace and privacy.
A few oil lamps burned scattered about the room, giving the hall a soft, comfortable glow.
Galina walked to a cabinet and pointed to it to Marcus. Without direction, he opened the door of it for her. Using her mostly unoccupied hand, Galina grabbed a few pairs of sheets and placed them into Marcus’ arms. As she did this, he continued, “When I learned that the Castins were no longer making the decisions of the orchard, that the decisions of the products were pending…”
“I imagine you were surprised,” Galina interrupted, closing the cabinet’s door.
“Well, yes,” Marcus responded, following her with his new load.
“Is that then the justification for the letter that one of your associates sent?” Galina asked, her tone suddenly sharp.
Marcus stopped following and his brow furled. “What do you mean?”
Stopping her progression, Galina turned to face Marcus. She spoke in a whisper, hoping not to disturb her patients resting on the opposite side of the hall. “I received a letter right before the one announcing your intent to visit arrived, from Tusya Amorosk, suggesting that if I do not abide by the previous agreement, that your business would interrupt my orders from partner distributors, such as my suppliers of these linens.” Galina tapped her fingers on the towels in her arms. “That’s not terribly neighborly, is it?” The expression Marcus made convinced her well enough that he had not hitherto been aware of this letter. “It was from one of your sons, no? The letter? I imagine he didn’t discuss it with you first.”
“On my honor, my lady, I did not know about the letter,” his words were genuine and his tone remorseful. “I would never have allowed my son to send that if I had known. I assure you that no such threat would be seen through.”
Galina shrugged and then turned to resume her duties. With a flick of her brow, she encouraged him to follow.
An attendant emerged from the other side of the wing and approached, taking the sheets from him and the towels from Galina. In a hushed tone so not to disturb the patients, the attendant briefed Galina on the status of the room. Marcus was excluded from the briefing which he perfectly understood. What he was struggling with was the audacity of his son to go around his back to threaten a potential business partner. Had he learned nothing in all the years of apprenticing at his side? ‘No,’ Marcus rationalized. His son was a practical man. ‘This is different.’ This was a political matter and went back to the days when his son was a young fool, actively demonstrating against Galina’s daughter’s involvement in their country’s government. Shaking his head, Marcus couldn’t believe how clouded his son’s judgment remained to be, even though Galina’s daughter had quite possibly saved their nation from many years of darkness and instability.
“Marcus,” Galina beckoned in a whisper.
The attendant was walking away to dress a bed that had opened up this afternoon.
Galina motioned him to follow once again.
They walked in silence to the second to the farthest drawn curtains that enclosed a patient’s bed. Galina held up her hand flat to Marcus, indicting him not to follow. She stepped into the curtains and disappeared.
Before Marcus could begin to craft a heart-filled apology for his son’s stupidity, he heard hushed words pass between Galina and her patient. The sounds intrigued him. Try as he could to make out what they were saying, the words were too soft and sounded garbled. Almost like a different language. Marcus leaned in to try to hear better.
The curtains parted and a wee infant was outstretched to him.
“Here,” Galina said to Marcus as if he was the father meeting his son for the first time. She delicately placed the baby in Marcus’ unexpecting arms. “His name is Pavel. In case he gets fussy, he likes to be rocked while you walk about.” Galina disappeared back behind the curtain as quickly as she had appeared, sans infant.
Marcus held the little one close to his chest, not quite sure what just surpassed.
The babe began to coo and to fidget. As instructed, Marcus walked him up and down the small hall, rocking him gently. The button nosed baby opened and closed his eyes contentedly as he did so.
Though he had spent much of his life making deals and setting trade investments, Marcus was no stranger to babies. His eldest son blessed him with a second grandchild earlier this year. He tried to involve himself in their lives, but he had the distinct impression from his sons that they found his visits to be more of a burden than a help. Though his sons thought him feeble, he was still more than capable and sound in body and mind. It troubled him to think that his sons wanted so little to do with him, but here in this moment, this little one needed him now.
The infant distracted him to the point that he almost forgot his entire reason for being here.
“Marcus,” Galina’s voice softly called again from the standing curtains where she emerged.
There was something about how she said his name. It was familiar. As he crossed the room to return the child, he thought on how her call almost reminded him of the tender beckonings of his late wife.
“Here we are,” Galina gently took Pavel and gave him back to his mother. When Galina returned to Marcus, she informed in a whisper, “The boy’s mother is a young immigrant from Ruishland.”
‘That would explain why the language sounded foreign,’ Marcus thought. ‘They were speaking a different one.’
“She’s away from her home and family, so she’s feeling a tad nervous about it all. Thought it best to give the dear a moment to rest while I talked to her. She does love her son so, but,” with a shrug, Galina finished the thought that Marcus did not entirely understand. He decided it best not to ask.
“How’d you know I would do it?” Marcus inquired instead as they began to walk to the next set of curtains. “How’d you know I would hold the boy and not walk away?”
With a glowing smile, Galina shortened the distance between them. Touching her fingers to his cheeks, she answered, “Because you have a kind face.”
The warmth from a moment ago returned. It had been a lifetime since he had experienced a flirtatious interaction. ‘Is that what is happening?‘ Marcus thought, worriedly. ‘Or is she just trying to distract me?‘
The night continued, carrying Marcus and Galina to the last four patients. Marcus helped Galina in ways he certainly did not expect. From giving counsel to a young man who had broken his arm transporting goods, to helping Galina administer medicine to a woman experiencing debilitating headaches.
“Is this what you do every night?” Marcus asked as the pair of them settled down in Galina’s apothecary.
This red-velvet lined room was Galina’s retreat, her study, her stores. This was where she tinkered with chemicals to see what reactions would occur. Galina was a master of that, seeing how far she could push the line to see how fate would respond.
“Not every night,” she answered after pouring Marcus a glass of caramel-colored spirits, “But more often than not, I do have the joy of entertaining unexpected company, such as yourself.” Galina took a moment to study her guest again before saying, “You’ve come an awful long way to convince me to maintain a business relationship over apples. Is there no other reason why you came?”
This woman was highly perceptive. Leaning back in his high back chair, Marcus explained, “The short answer – my pride. My sons have been trying to oust me for some time and when this problem arose, I thought that I’d show them how it’s done and turn one of our most frustrating circumstances into something good.”
“By most frustrating circumstances,” Galina laughed, “am I correct in assuming that you mean me?”
Feeling ashamed, Marcus nodded with a simple ‘yes.’
“Well, I can’t blame you, but after tonight, I’d expect you’ve gained a bit more of an understanding as to why my responses have been delayed.” Looking him straight in the eye, she raised her glass and took a sip. “Of course I’ll continue your deal, Marcus Amorosk. Not merely for my benefit, but for the Castins. They traded the rights of their orchard to me when I was able to stop a nasty fungus from destroying their entire crop. However, their business and their business ways will all remain the same.”
Marcus felt like such a fool. He took a big swig from his glass. “Maybe my boys are right. Maybe I ought to just step down and give them the full reigns.”
“And what would your wife say to all of this?” Galina softly inquired.
Distracted by the spirits already tingling in his fingertips, Marcus quickly said, “Well, she would probably ask why I haven’t backed out and left the damn business to my boys already, that is, if she were still with me, that’s what she would have said. My wife passed a few years ago.”
Galina’s interest increased.
“I don’t know what to do, really,” Marcus confessed, feeling completely at ease with his company and not merely because of the spirits.
Peering over her glass, Galina took a measured sip, never removing her eyes from him. Returning her beverage to the desk, she found a suggestion worth saying. “You could stay.”
“Here?” Marcus hastily responded. “Are you serious?”
Galina’s radiant smile beamed. “Yes. I could use an extra set of hands to help me out around here and you’ve already proven yourself more than capable.”
“You probably won’t care much for the pay I’ll offer, but it will include room and board,” Galina inhaled deeply then added, “And, pending future negotiations, I’d be interested in pursuing a deeper partnership between the pair of us.”
Now Marcus was sure that she wasn’t merely flirting with him to dissuade him. His cheeks flared red. “What would my sons think? More importantly, what would your daughter think?”
“My daughter?” Galina almost laughed. “My Gertrude’s thoughts and time are occupied with far more important affairs than mine.”
The man from the north who had come to Forsithya Valley to ensure the legacy of his business raised his glass to his most exciting prospect yet.
To see where Marcus and Galina’s story takes them, be sure to pick up your copy of Foreign & Domestic Affairs!