Book5 Prologue 2:1
She had kind of a funny relationship with formality, Portia did. At court back home, Byrne knew he would've had to come up with some more, ah, polite kind of phrasing for a question from[sic] a guest. Even a lowly debtor guest. He'd probably've said something along the lines of, "'Fraid I don't completely follow your meaning."
Thing was, coming from Portia, that would've been a fib. She did completely follow his meaning. He'd already been pleading his case with her for two turns, both in Language and Signals. So actually, it was kind of a nod to formality for her to ask the question at all, done strictly for the benefit of President Westwinghouse, wherever he was up there.
So now Byrne was going to have to make his same argument again, and for the very same reason. For the ruler's ears only. Even though Portia would've already told the President what he'd come here to say. Not a too-flattering version of it, mind. But he'd probably got most of the picture.
Byrne could see himself in the mirrors of Portia's spectacles, gritting his teeth. He bent that nervous-looking mouth into a shape not completely different from a smile.
"Lady Diesel, you're right famous all across the map for your Signamancy, and I'm a novice. I'll be the first to admit you've got me outclassed. All but the, uh..." He gestured around at the what—the thousand bits of for-sale crap adorning this office, with price tags that added up to something less than zero. "Well, the 'class' part."
Portia's stony expression didn't change. Byrne cleared his throat.
"Now, as I say. I have nothing to brag t'you about. I'm no great shakes as a Signamancer. It has not been so very long since I popped. But the very first thing I knew when I did pop was the very first thing every Signamancer should know. The first principle of our discipline?"
He paused, hoping she'd fill it in for him. And for the President. And for the gallery of courtiers (who for some reason were not seated on chairs or benches, but all inside an enormous cabinet). And for the various salesman/soldier/guards, whose very spears were probably on offer for bidding.
Portia gave him no help.
Byrne glanced up to the High Chair on which Westinghouse presumably sat and...presided, he guessed. Such an odd title.
"Know what it looks like," he recited solemnly. "Everything's got an appearance. And don't get me wrong, appearance is not everything. Cover of a book doesn't tell you the whole story. Not saying it does. But it tells you something. Maybe enough to know whether or not you want to pick up that book and start reading, or if you'd rather find another book. Dudnit?
"And mates, what Generica is showing the world," he knitted his brow and shook his head, "it just looks bad. Bad cover, bad story. I'm telling you. That's how people really think. And you don't need to be a Signamancer to see it. B'sides, everybody is one, really. Seems to me that's most of what Signamancy is. How everybody sees things. I know they say that 'beauty's in the eye of the beholder.' That's true enough, far as it goes. But you know..."
He glanced at the lime green walls, festooned with paintings in mismatched frames that had obviously been arranged with a single aesthetic purpose: to sell paintings. And if there was any secondary purpose it was: to sell frames. "Ugly's right obvious to most. Idnit?"
The silence that followed his question felt dangerous, so Byrne quickly swept forward. "Look, there's high art and low art. And...no art. There actually is such a thing as good and bad taste. S'true. But no one person—not even a Signamancer—could ever claim t'be a perfect judge of it. I'm not. But you need me, Lady Diesel. Whether you know it or not. So I have come to you with a humble offer. In exchange for some reasonable leniency around Ünderclock's currently scheduled, ah, repayment terms, I offer you my exclusive services."
"As what?" asked Portia.
"As..." he looked at himself in her eyes, and tightened up that smile-shape, "an image consultant!"
"For what?" Portia didn't let the office fall into awkward silence again. "So we can become as famous and successful as Ünderclock?"
Up until this point, those flannel-suited courtiers in the gigantic cabinet had maintained an impressive, President-emulating silence. Byrne guessed there must have been some unspoken and unanimous vote among them that, yes, a good guffaw was on their agenda, and the time for that item was upon them.
"Lady Diesel, you're spreading Generica's name and image far and wide," Byrne said, when the guffaw was adjourned. "And, all right. You're making good money at it. Not saying you haven't done well for yourself and your side. But just like you need two eyes to judge distance, and two ears to pick out the direction of a noise, I'd say likewise you need two Signamancers to judge taste. The rest of the world is buying your items, putting their name on your walls, sure. But truth be told they're also laughing at you. Generica's name is everywhere, s'true, but as a Sign that means 'cheap rubbish.' Sorry to say it. But I think we could turn it around. Improve your reputation. Make Generica gr—"
"Why don't you give the President a sample," said Portia, "of the kind of consultation you're offering us today, Mr. Notist. What would you suggest we change?"
Byrne swallowed. He looked and gestured around, vaguely. "Well...this place, for starters."
Portia's chest heaved with a deep breath, raising up the patches of half a dozen paying customers. Somehow, like a bird, her head never moved. "What about it?"