Sancia arrived bearing a large bag of cookies, a rather smaller box of chocolates from the only shop of its kind in Tevanne, and the sense that she had absolutely no idea what she was doing.
"For me? You shouldn't have," said Orso. "Really."
"Where's Berenice?" Sancia knew that she was early. She hadn't seemed able to stop herself: she'd kept thinking of scenarios in which she'd be delayed and made Berenice wait and maybe think better of the whole thing. "Nothing's happened, has it?"
"Many things have happened, and without any doubt many things will continue to happen while the two of you frolic and fool around," said Orso. "Sit. You're making me feel edgy."
Sancia sat. The smell from the cookies hit her nose. Once, such luxuries would have been unthinkable - not just because of the cost, but also because the moment Sancia would have touched a cookie, she'd have remembered being made: being the dough, getting kneaded and then baked. She'd have felt the baker's hands on her, and the heat of the fire. If the sugar used had come from a plantation, she would have known that, would have felt the memory of the cane being harvested.
Nowadays, a cookie was just a cookie, although Sancia had checked the provenance of the sugar. It was the one condition she'd set on joining Foundryside Limited: no trade in goods from plantations. No compromises.
"Berenice is trying to decide what to wear," said Orso. "I expect it will be a process of some length, so you might as well eat something. Feel free to make some tea, too."
Sancia considered pointing out that she hadn't come here to serve Orso tea. On the other hand, it wasn't as if she had anything else to do right now, and at least it would keep her busy for a while.
<Oh, fill me so that I may warm you up until you can grow no hotter without being turned into steam.! I long to feel you inside of me! Without you, there is only the cold emptiness,> said the tea-kettle.
Sancia dutifully poured cool, clean water into the thing, then closed the lid. It took mere minutes for the water to boil, the tea-kettle whistling cheerfully, all of its earlier desires forgotten.
<All done! All done! come and get it while it's hot!>
Orso grunted something that might have been a 'thanks' as Sancia placed a steaming mug on the table.
Sancia's stomach pointed out that there were a lot of cookies in the bag, and that she might as well have one (or two) while waiting. After all, she also had the box of chocolates. That had cost nearly five times as much as the cookies, having been imported by a fledgling trade company that claimed to practice what they called 'fair trade'.
Orso had predicted they'd either go under inside of a year or else be forced to adjust their high moral standards when it came to trading partners.
Meanwhile, he'd been happy to have them sign a supply contract with Foundryside Limited.
Inasfar as Orso is ever happy about anything. Sancia might have assumed Estelle's death still bothered him, but given what she'd seen of him before that event, she doubted that was the cause.
"Oh, no, I couldn't possibly take one of those. You're clearly starving."
Sancia rolled her eyes. "Would you like a cookie?"
"Why not? It won't quite make up for the fact that you're stealing my fab, mind," said Orso, taking two and then another one after a moment's consideration. "I need her. I don't have time for you and her to play out this big romance. In case you missed it, we're fighting for our survival here."
"You want me to help, I'll help," offered Sancia. "I'm sure Berenice would say the same, if you asked her."
"No, no. Seeing the two of you make cow's eyes at one another would only make me nauseous."
Then why are you complaining? Stupid question: Orso simply liked complaining. And cookies, by the looks of it. Sancia filed that information away, in case she'd ever need it.
"Are we really in that much trouble?" asked Sancia.
For a moment, Orso might have looked a little guilty. "Less trouble than last month. More than next month, if we're lucky. Who knows?"
Sancia didn't, she knew that much. She saw no reason to say so out loud, though.
"Anyway," said Orso, "look, you're not going to be of any use to me here. Why don't you go up, see if you can help Berenice make up her mind? She doesn't have that many clothes."
Orso had lied to her, Sancia decided the moment she stepped into Berenice's room. Berenice had lots and lots of clothes, and very few of them seemed to remain in her closet.
"It's very kind of you to want to help me out, sir, but - " Berenice turned around.
Sancia realized she shouldn't have just knocked. "Hi," she said.
"You're early," said Berenice. Her cheeks flushed.
You're naked, thought Sancia, but thankfully she managed not to say so out loud. Berenice wasn't completely naked, anyway, even if she did show a lot of skin.
"I was worried I'd be late," she said instead, though after making tea, she suspected that she wasn't all that early anymore. "Orso thought I might help you pick an outfit."
"Would you?" Berenice sounded relieved. "You look great, by the way."
Sancia didn't think anyone had ever told her she looked great before. It felt nice. Of course, it wouldn't have felt nearly as nice coming from anyone who wasn't Berenice.
"Thank you." Sancia felt like she was blushing herself, but she was too happy to mind. "So do you."
"You mean, half-naked?" Berenice's flush deepened, though she smiled at the same time.
"I meant, being you," said Sancia. "Some clothes aren't going to make all that much of a difference."
Berenice groaned. "Did you have to go and say that? Now I feel like I have to prove you wrong by picking something absolutely stunning that will knock you right off your feet."
You don't need clothes to do that, Sancia thought.
"I swear, I'm usually very quick and decisive. Even Orso says so. It's just that this is our first date and I want to impress you and I want everything to be perfect."
Sancia grinned. "As long as we're together and nobody tries to kill us, that's close enough to perfection for me."
"Oh, well, as long as they don't succeed, I might even be all right with a few assassins," said Berenice. "After all, it won't be anything we haven't handled before, right?"
"Right." Sancia's grin widened. "So just pick something with a lot of secret pockets."
"Oh. Like that narrows it down any." Berenice snorted, but Sancia noticed she was looking at a specific dress. Sancia activated her sixth sense just enough to catch a glimpse of all the little items hidden in that dress, to surprise anyone who mistook Berenice for nothing more than a pretty young woman in a pretty, expensive-looking dress.
"How about that dress?" said Sancia said, her tone as casual as she could make it.
"Yes. I suppose that's as good as anything," said Berenice.
Orso put on a show of being utterly absorbed in his work as they came downstairs.
"You will contact me if anything happens and you need my help, won't you, sir?"
"Of course I won't," said Orso. "And deal with you moping around for having had your precious first date interrupted for the next three months or so? Are you nuts? Anything happens, I'll either deal with it by myself, or die trying. Or contact Gio and Claudia and their friends, I suppose."
"Ah. Very good, sir."
Orso hesitated. "If the two of you run into any trouble - "
"We'll handle it, sir. Have no worries," said Berenice.
"Do try to leave most of the city standing, will you? We're trying to convince these people that while we're too dangerous to cross, we're actually quite nice and civilized so long as people are nice and civilized back. It's a delicate balance."
"No promises, sir," said Berenice, her voice a touch regretful. "If anyone tries to harm Sancia, I'm afraid there's really no telling what terrible, awful things might befall them."
"We'll do our best, though," added Sancia. "I promise."