The meeting proper began with the standard tedious recitation of the previous meeting’s minutes. A glance at the agenda revealed the usual suspects: confirm the next year’s elected officers in their roles, approve an extension to the charter, discuss the AIC’s position on legislation pending in the next session, and a presentation on the valuation of companies. The last might be interesting, dependent on how much it was directed at the lowest common denominator. Justin would not fault the presenter if he did aim low: for an association of business people, there was a shocking degree of ignorance among them.
Justin let his mind drift as the meeting ran its course, remembering a summer two years ago when he’d induced Nikola to spend two weeks at a house party in Comfrey Viscountcy. Then the house party had wrapped but he’d persuaded Nikola to stay another week ‘for the hunting’. Then one week became two, and then four, and finally six and a half before Nikola refused to extend his stay again and returned to Fireholt. The whole viscountcy had buzzed with speculation that Lord Nikola had been drawn to stay so long by the charms of one or another of the pretty young local misses. Everyone was disappointed when he left, Justin not the least. Presumably it was possible to be exposed too much to Nikola – that was certainly the case with every other individual Justin had ever known – but he’d never reached that point. He rather wanted to try again.
At various junctures, the agenda touched on matters of particular interest to him and Justin would focus on the subject at hand. Some were pending regulations – one on stock market manipulation, another on the standards for imports, and a third on confidentiality in banking – all of which Justin opposed on the principle that government knew even less about what it was doing than industry did. And I should know, I’ve a seat in Assembly. Nothing he heard today persuaded him to change his opinion, and he made a few remarks into the record to argue for the association’s opposition.
When the time came for the presentation, Mr. Byron Vasilver took the floor accompanied by two assistants. Byron was a lanky but attractive man of about Justin’s age, which sad to say was the reason Justin recognized him at once. One assistant, a woman, opened a leather binder on the podium while the male assistant erected a flip chart behind her. Vasilver conferred quietly with the woman for a few moments, then he addressed the association: “Good afternoon, gentlemen, ladies, greatcats. Allow me to introduce my sister, Miss Vasilver. She will conduct this presentation.” With that, Vasilver returned to his seat beside his father. A low murmur ran through the assembly: puzzled, speculative, irritated. The Association had no rules regarding who might address them, but this was the first time Justin could recall when anyone but a human man had done so.
Miss Vasilver waited a moment for the muttering to subside; when it did not, she squared her binder noisily against the podium. “Members of the AIC.” Her voice was surprisingly loud, particularly for a woman: not a shout, but projected like a herald or a ship’s officer, to reach the highest tiers of the chamber. “Several of you have made inquiries as to the methods behind Vasilver Trading Company’s extraordinary successes in the realm of acquisitions and partnerships. I will explain as much of those methods as is feasible in the time allotted.”
Without additional preamble or waiting for the audience to hush, she launched into her topic, her voice cutting over the whispers. Justin attended, not least out of curiosity for this woman with whom Nikola had arranged an unbetrothal. She gave a high-level overview of bookkeeping – not the mechanics of ledgers, but more an ‘everything a chief executive needs to understand in order to judge the financial health of a company’. She covered the basics with concise accuracy, defining jargon as used – “accounts receivable: funds due but not yet paid to the company for goods sold or services rendered” – and did not linger on it. Instead, Miss Vasilver moved to the heart of her subject: interpreting the figures in a meaningful fashion. The importance of not just the total amount in an accounts receivable, but how long the amounts had been uncollected, and likewise whether the business was slow or prompt in paying their own creditors. The significance of inventory turnover: a product one can sell once every six months for twice its cost generates less net revenue than one of the same value sold every day for five percent over cost. Comparison within that industry: account payment times in the ship-building industry were nothing like those among greengrocers. All of it was covered in strong, crisp, detached tones, her assistant turning the prepared illustrations on the flipchart to reinforce her points.
Justin was impressed, not only by the content but by Miss Vasilver herself. She was surprisingly attractive for a woman: tall, straight-backed, with a boyish figure and dark hair worn up to lend additional strength to her severe features. Many of those in the chamber were hostile to being lectured on high finance by a woman, but Miss Vasilver spared no thought for the whispering, staring, or inattentive behavior. She ploughed through her material with cool professionalism, indifferent to the rudeness. It annoyed Justin more than it appeared to aggravate her, but then again, she wasn’t trying to listen.
About halfway through her presentation, the restlessness reached a pitch and one man, Mr. Edgewick, rose to his feet and glowered at the section where the two Vasilver men sat. “All right, this is all very amusing, Mr. Vasilver, but don’t you think you’ve carried the joke far enough?” Mr. Edgewick demanded, not waiting for the chairman to recognize him. Miss Vasilver stopped rather than speaking over Edgewick. She gave him a cool, unperturbed look, as if waiting for him to make a point.
The elder Mr. Vasilver squared his shoulders and placed a hand on his son’s arm to forestall him. “I am sure I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“This farce. What do you mean, having your little girl lecture us?”
“Is there a problem, sir?” Miss Vasilver asked from the podium. Edgewick ignored her, still looking to her father for a response.
“I think,” Justin drawled in tones that carried the length of the chamber, not bothering to stand much less wait for recognition, since the chairman had already abandoned his duty to keep order, “you’re going too fast for him, miss. Or perhaps your language is too sophisticated.” Edgewick turned, red with anger. For a moment, Justin thought the man might demand satisfaction, but Edgewick checked his response on identifying the viscount.
“Oh. I apologize for the complexity of my topic, gentlemen,” Miss Vasilver said. “I am sorry I have done an inadequate job of explaining it.”
“Not at all, miss. Some of us would have a difficult time parsing words of one syllable.” Justin locked gazes with Edgewick, daring him to issue a challenge.
Edgewick sputtered. “I’ll not stand for this kind of insult!”
“Then kindly sit down, Mr. Edgewick, and let the gentlewoman continue,” Justin told him.
“This is an outrage,” Edgewick said instead, turning to the assembly. “Does the chairman mean to let the dignity of this body be offended by some slip of a woman speaking to us as if we were a gaggle of schoolchildren?”
The chairman looked as if he would rather be anywhere else. “We were, er, unaware of whom Vasilver Trading would choose as presenter when we issued the invitation. Perhaps they could…” He trailed off with a hopeful glance to the Vasilvers.
The elder Mr. Vasilver glanced down at his hands, then to his son. “I suppose we—”
Byron Vasilver stood before he could finish, hands fisted against the table before them, and overrode his father with, “Vasilver Trading offered our best analyst for this occasion. If that’s insufficient to the association’s needs, can’t imagine any substitute would improve matters.”
“Oh, honestly,” Mr. Lavert said, a tier away from Justin. “Let the girl finish already. Of all the ridiculous things to fuss over.” Beside him, Lavert’s wife fumed but didn’t speak.
“Seconded,” Justin added, although Lavert hadn’t made an actual motion and the entire interruption was out of order. Justin hoped the incoming chairman would have more spine than the current one.
“You may think the dignity of this association is ‘ridiculous’—” Edgewick started.
“Finally, you’ve got something right,” Justin muttered under his breath.
“—but I, sir, do not. Motion to adjourn before this travesty carries on any further.”
“Seconded,” came from the elderly Mr. Ponglot, a bald and stooped man of over a hundred, who’d been one of the mutterers earlier.
The AIC chairman gave Edgewick’s motion the respect it didn’t deserve, putting it to immediate vote and evoking a disgusted noise from Lavert. Justin was no less irked: regardless of how one felt about a speaker or a topic, common courtesy dictated that one bear it stoically, not pitch a childish public fit. Vasilver Trading’s selection may have been unorthodox but Edgewick’s behavior was beyond boorish. Justin’s “Nay” vote rang across the chamber. Under his glower, the motion to adjourn failed, narrowly.
Infuriated, Edgewick all but stamped his foot at this. “You may wish to tolerate this insult, but I will not,” he pronounced, and stomped from the chamber. A number of others of the ‘yea’ voters followed suit, with varying degrees of dignity and petulance. Justin leaned back in his seat and rolled his eyes skywards. Saints save us all.
When the chairman finally asked Miss Vasilver to resume – not even apologizing for the interruption, the coward – she did so with astonishing composure. She continued where she’d been cut off, in the same untroubled and precise manner as she’d begun. Justin tried to imagine being in her position and could only see himself unleashing a tide of well-earned verbal abuse on the assembly – granted, perhaps not earned by the remaining members, but nonetheless – and storming out himself. Thank the Savior I am not a woman. When she finished, the ensuing applause was more heartfelt than usual.
After the customary thanks to Miss Vasilver for her time, the chairman made the routine request for any further motions before they adjourned for the season. Justin thought, Saints, what a sordid display. We ought to apologize to Miss Vasilver, if not to her entire company. He imagined how Nikola would react if he’d borne witness to this sorry occasion, and smiled briefly. There was a limit to how much he wanted to antagonize the business community, however, and everyone already knew how he felt based on his earlier outburst. Calling for a motion to have the AIC issue a formal apology would only alienate a number of influential men over a trivial point of honor. He let the moment pass and the meeting adjourned to the relief of all.
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