I am standing high up at the top of a tower, surrounded by other towers, the wind whistling wetly through the arches on the southern side, clouds glowering but the sun sending shafts of light onto silvery rivers that join in the distance. I have come to see Hugo, otherwise known as Lord Mariusz of Hattan. This, I suspect, is Hattan. It certainly isn’t anywhere in the realms. A person scurries past, does a double-take and returns to stand in front of me. I explain I have an appointment with Lord Mariusz and he asks me to follow him.
We enter one of the turrets at one corner of the tower and spiral down one level. I am shown into a richly furnished apartment, heavily brocaded curtains keeping the winds out and, despite the June date, a fire glowing in the centre of the room, surrounded by some sort of invisible barrier. Any smoke funnels upwards and disappears, still enclosed. Lord Mariusz rises from a Japanese-style daybed and welcomes me.
“Urr, well, hi,” he says, confidently but with a slight air of bashfulness as if he’s been dying to meet me but doesn’t want to show it. I feel equally abashed, since he is, well, has a reputation as something of a ladies’ man. He asks after my journey and offers refreshment. Wozna Cola bottles and cans are displayed prominently in glass cases and on shelves but I ask for something warming. While we are waiting for it, he sets the scene for his involvement in the Princelings world.
He has very black, beady eyes
He inherited the cola business, kept his team together in fights with various other factions in the city, negotiated where appropriate, came out on top. Has to keep working to stay there, since there are always others who think they are good enough to topple him. So far, they haven’t. He sounds like he can spin a good story, but is giving me the shortened version of what he considers the boring bits, interested in getting to my main questions.
Tell me how you came to be doing business in the realms, I prompt him. He eyes me carefully. He has very black, beady eyes.
“Well, I could do that,” he says languidly, “but that would spoil another good story, one that is all ready to be launched to the adoring public when the pesky kids have finished with their tale.”
Pesky kids? “The Princelings!” he snorts. He’s not on the best terms with them, I suggest.
“Oh, they are nice kids, very amiable,” he says, relaxing as our drinks arrive, “but they spoiled a good business I’d built up.”
I protest that he only needs to wait a few weeks for the trade to resume.
” A few weeks? Well they’d better keep their side of the bargain.” He sounds morose. I wonder whether the weather is getting to him, and ask what training he needed to inherit the family business.
“I learnt it all from my grandpa and then my dad,” he said, making an effort to be civil again. “Of course, one thing I learnt early on was from some of my dad’s men – how to look after myself, how to get people on my side, that sort of thing. How to do deals and persuade people it was a deal they couldn’t refuse.”
“There’s no real competition – not like over here”
I ask if there was any particularly memorable event he can recall to illustrate that. He chuckles.
“Yeah, I think so. Your readers will maybe want to hear about one I did with old Willow. We were over in Philly, in a place called Rut-got. People there had decided it wasn’t right for god-fearing people to partake of the evil drink, so they’d put in a big order for Wozna, it being a wholesome, herbal sort of brew. Now the local guys, they didn’t care too much for us, being out of town and on their turf. Willow had been doing a stint in an old warehouse that dealt with these guys and he was pretty sure there was some switching going on. He tipped me off, and I went in and negotiated a deal with the big man of the stuff that was being switched. He went off to the other coast leaving his business to me, and I moved our brands into his boxes. Then when his other cronies came in they switched them again, so what they ended up doing was sending my drinks in to the Rut-got bars and speakeasies, and pouring their own stuff down the sewers!”
He laughed at the memory.
“Oh it doesn’t sound much now, but in those days it was something… you should have seen them when they realized. Come to think of it, I don’t think they were seen again. I think their own boss decided they’d be better off wearing some nice concrete boots.”
He rubs his side and finds a more comfortable position on his sofa. I sip my drink and wonder whether the next question is appropriate in this situation but decide to ask anyway and see what comes out of it. So who are his most important contacts in the realms?
“Same as ever if you’re doing business. The customers. The influencers and the buyers. So the Lords of the castles who are the decision makers but in many cases it’ll be the stewards who actually place the order and get their Lord to approve it. But in my business you need to talk to the bar owners too. Get them to want to do business with you. In the realms we play it straight down the line, have to, no muscle there. It’s simpler in many ways. And anyway, there’s no real competition – not like over here.”
“Carry garlic with you at all times”
What is the most exciting thing he’s done, I ask. He grins.
“Exciting or terrifying?” he asks. I just smile and look expectant. “I tell you,” he continues, “the most exciting things happened to me when I first went down that time tunnel. I didn’t know what was happening, I was like a fresh-faced kid. I was acting so smart and all the time it was seat of the pants stuff, you know? I’d never been mixed up in any of that sort of stuff before, not even when we were working over in Salem. No ma’am.”
I ask him whether we should do just a little teaser for his book, the Traveler in Black and White.
“Oh, you’ve given it a good title, then,” he says, “I like that. Well, how about we just say that if you ever find yourself on a long-distance coach with a woman in black called Raven, get out real quick, unless it’s on a deserted moor with nowhere to hide!” and he laughs. “And carry garlic with you at all times,” he adds.
What was your most embarrassing moment? He thinks about it, starts to say something and changes his mind. “I tell you what,” he finally decides, “just say that on both the occasions I’ve been most embarrassed it’s been because I’ve acted on the wrong information, made it fit the facts as I knew them, not as they really were. You tell the kids that. Always, always make sure of your facts. Don’t try to believe things are just what you want them to be. Things don’t just fall into place like that. Not unless someone else is pulling the strings and showing you what they want you to see.”
It’s valuable advice. I’d love to know what happened, but I’m not going to get closer. So I move on: what would he most like to change and why.
“You know, I don’t think I’d change anything except what happened to Willow. I really regret that.” I do too, but that is a tale for another time. He is the person Mariusz would most like to say sorry to as well. “Although I did at the time, kinda,” he adds. Would he like the time tunnel back? It’s only been closed a few weeks. “No, I do miss it, but it was kinda trouble as well. None of the guys we sent down to work there were too well afterwards. I’m not feeling so good myself, but I am getting on a bit now.” He looks in his prime. Then again, he’s been at the top for decades now. That’s a long time in this business.
“I’ve never really stopped thinking about her”
Who would he most like to be with in a life or death situation?
“I’ve got some good guys on my side. I’ve had many good guys on my side. Willow was the best. I’d have him by my side in any situation. A couple of guys on the other side as well. And a dame. I’ve never really stopped thinking about her, although it’s years since I’ve seen her,” he sighs and rubs his side again. He seems a little preoccupied, thinking about the past but not ready to spill the beans yet. I wonder whether the book he’s ready to launch is making him hold back. I feel like reminding him that good marketing involves sampling the goods. But maybe these hints are enough to whet the appetite.
If you weren’t you, I ask, who would you like to be? He gets up and pours himself some liquid from a decanter on the side table. “I’ve been thinking this over,” he says, “and it seems to be the most important question of all. It’s maybe the key to any person, who would he like to be. I thought about when I was happiest, and apart from the exciting and the terrifying parts, I really enjoyed being Hugo, the sales guy. Known by everyone, received well by everyone, having fun with the ladies, picking up useful information on the way, with no worries about Castles and staff and deals other than the next order. It’s a simple life but a happy one, if only you didn’t have to do the time twice over when you came back. I’d settle for just being Hugo.”
The Traveler in Black and White will be published in the autumn.