The last thing Mari expected when she and her sisters arrived in Aingeal City with a load of trade goods was to land squarely in the middle of a marriage alliance. But that was the only way to save her clan and the Dana clan from the Delbhana plot that threatened not just them, but the entire world.
Mixing fantasy with romance, author Meyari McFarland expertly crafts a sweet romance that defies categories and instantly charms.
By Meyari McFarland
2. Spring Cold
Gavin sneezed so hard his head bumped against the wall of his bunk. Aching ribs protested the sharp movement. His back ached from too much time in bed while his arms and legs felt like anchors from the exhaustion. At least Aravel was at sea with Anwyn. They’d escaped it for now. Raelin, too, though she was on a different ship.
The boy’s room was quiet because of that, with just Gavin, Cadfael and Andros. Cadfael’s lace-bedecked bunk was perfectly made despite his continuing coughs, lace curtains drawn back to show the gorgeously embroidered quilt. Aravel’s bunk over it was as messy as always. There was no way to neaten that bunk, not with the profusion of knitted blankets that Aravel adored so much. The last time Gavin had dragged himself out to the toilet down the hall from their apartment he’d noted approvingly that Andros had kept his bunk regulation-neat once he beat the cold going around. His collection of soft dolls was neatly arranged on his shelves and the thick curtain Gavin had made him out of worn kilt fabric was pulled back by the foot of his bed, just as it should be.
He sucked in air through his mouth only to wheeze as his throat protested the chilly air. Gavin shivered, sweat beading up along his ribs despite the chill of the boy’s bedroom. He sniffled and then grabbed a fresh handkerchief from the stack of freshly hemmed ones he’d been working on for his sisters. Hemming was about all he’d been able to do for the last three days. Most of the time he’d slept or at least tried to through the shivers and fever-heat.
They’d gone through so many handkerchiefs with this latest round of winter colds that there weren’t enough in the Clan house. Gavin chuckled only to cough, one arm wrapped around his aching sides. Well, there were enough dainty little lace handkerchiefs with gorgeous embroidery. Cadfael had seen to that what with his recent fascination with embroidering the palm-sized things but there weren’t enough practical ones that handled the mess of being ill.
His head throbbed as he blew his nose on the latest one he’d coopted for his own use. As big as it was, over a foot square, it still didn’t seem large enough to keep up with the way his nose ran. Gavin shook his head as he pushed back his heavy cable-knitted wool blankets and the sweat-soaked flannel sheet underneath. Lying in bed wasn’t going to get him ready for this meeting. He had to get up and change clothes.
“Are you going to survive?” Andros asked from the doorway.
“Hmm?” Gavin blinked at him.
At eight, Andros was the youngest boy in the family, the latest in a line of strong-willed, red-headed boys that acted more like girls. You wouldn’t know that he was only eight from the way he fussed over everyone else if they got sick or hurt. He came over to pat cool-seeming hands against Gavin’s forehead just like Father always did when anyone was ill. Gavin smiled and petted Andros’ curly mop of hair. No one had braided it yet this morning, so it tumbled lose around his shoulders.
“I’ll be fine,” Gavin said. He made a face at how his voice croaked. “Well, I’ll survive, anyway. It’s important that one of us boys be there and with Aravel off on that trip with Annie I’m the only choice.”
“But you’re sick,” Andros protested. “You’re sicker than we were when we got it, Gavin. You should stay in bed, not go out. You’re sicker than Caddie was when he got it and he was really, really sick!”
“I can’t let cousin Rory be the only one there,” Gavin said with a shrug that dismissed Andros’ worries. “And Caddie would offend everyone. You know how snappish he is right now. What else can I do? The only one left is Great-Uncle Jarmon and he’s even sicker than I am besides being older than dirt. We can’t make him get out of bed.”
That got a giggle out of Andros, finally. Caddie certainly wasn’t available to help Gavin, having lost his voice, so Andros would have to do. The effort it took to stand told Gavin more clearly than Andros’ worried expression that he really shouldn’t be doing this. It still needed to be done. He shuffled to their little dressing table, grateful that someone, probably Mother, had brought in a fresh pitcher of water. Gavin wasn’t strong enough to fill it right now and Andros wasn’t big enough to reach the pump in the kitchen.
Washing the sweat off set Gavin’s teeth chattering. His fever had to break sometime soon. Everyone else’s had by the third day. It wouldn’t be long. Hopefully.
Gavin let Andros dress him in his warmest flannel pantalets, petticoat and undershirt. Gavin deliberately chose his simplest, most modest kilt and jacket, the ones he could put on and off by himself even though the silhouette of the kilt was dreadfully slim and unfashionable. It made him look sixteen like Cadfael instead of nineteen.
The jacket buttoned in the front and covered his hips so that the gaps at the sides of his kilt didn’t show. There weren’t any laces on the kilt either. Buttons weren’t proper at their level of society but they were much easier. Gavin would trade ease for propriety any day but today it was all the more valuable.
“Shawl?” Andros asked as he tugged Gavin to sit down again. “What about your hair? It’s all sweaty, Gavin.”
“I should brush it,” Gavin said only to snap his mouth shut as he tried to fight off a coughing fit.
He failed a few seconds later. Andros whimpered as Gavin doubled over coughing. He said something to someone, probably Father, that Gavin couldn’t hear over the coughing fit. By the time it was over Gwen was there to help Gavin sit up. She held his shoulders as Andros scurried behind Gavin with a brush.
“You’re really going to insist on going to the meeting,” Gwen said. Her voice was nearly as rough as Gavin’s though she’d beat the fever two days ago.
Gavin nodded, shrugging but failing to dislodge her hands.
“Idiot,” Gwen sighed. “All right, since you insist. It’s not like most of the city hasn’t caught this one.”
“Really?” Gavin whispered.
Gwen nodded, solemn and concerned. It had to be bad if Gwen had noticed. Her normal response to getting sick was to refuse to admit the illness existed until she literally couldn’t get out of bed. She expected the same behavior out of everyone else even when that someone was Cadfael who demanded pampering and special treatment whenever he got so much as a sniffle.
At least she didn’t scold Gavin for being out of bed. Gavin sat still as Andros carefully bushed his hair out and then braided even though Andros muttered about ‘wet’, ‘ew’ and ‘sweaty’ several times. Once he was done, Andros rubbed his hands on his kilt before going to get a scarf for Gavin.
“Here, wear this,” Andros declared as he thrust the pale blue scarf at Gavin. “I think it’s your only hope of looking decent.”
“Thanks,” Gavin whispered as dryly as he could when his chest felt like lead weights were crushing him and his throat had another set of tickles demanding that he cough.
“He’s not wrong,” Gwen said with a grin that made Gavin glare at her. “You really should stay in bed.”
“We can’t send just Rory,” Gavin said as he tied the scarf on. He really should put his braid into a bun but that was too much work. “It would be rude.”
Both Gwen and Andros nodded at that. The entire clan had been flattened by this cold. It was as though a gale had blown through the house and taken down every single member of their extended family. There just weren’t enough boys Gavin’s age who could fill in if he was sick. Rory was a more distant cousin. Caddie was too young (and grouchy, honestly) and Aravel was gone. Gavin was it.
“Do we really need so many boys?” Gwen asked as she wrapped Gavin’s warmest wool shawl, the one knitted out of the thickest wool available, around his shoulders.
“Do you want to handle the paperwork?” Gavin retorted even though his teeth chattered. Stupid fever!
“Good point,” Gwen said in that falsely bright tone that said she hadn’t thought about that. “Let’s go. Lean on me. I’ll make sure you don’t run into walls.”
Standing up made the room spin badly enough that Gavin didn’t bother protesting Gwen’s words. He needed the help. Badly. Andros walked behind them, muttering about ‘sick’ and ‘bed’ but not attempting to drag Gavin back to his bunk. Cadfael was in the kitchen perched on a stool as he slowly stirred the stockpot.
He pointed to a mug sitting on the table. Andros ran over and then carefully carried it back to Gavin. It was warm and heavy, full of broth, Gavin thought. Gavin’s nose was plugged enough that he couldn’t smell the broth. When he sipped it tasted more like ash than chicken but the warmth felt good in his belly.
“Thank you,” Gavin mouthed to Cadfael.
Cadfael nodded and flapped a hand at Gavin to go on. His lips were pursed so he was apparently fighting off coughing fits, too. The trip down the stairs to the conference room off the formal entrance felt as though it took decades. Gavin had to stop and pant for breath three times. He had two coughing fits. Gwen supported him all the way even when she wheezed.
They were the last ones there. Mother and Father both were sitting at the table. Cousin Rory was there too, nursing his own mug of broth. Several of his aunts sat at the table but they weren’t what caught Gavin’s admittedly blurry eyes.
As soon as they walked in a tall black-haired woman jumped to her feet. Her coat was rough Dana cloth embroidered with simple roses at the cuffs and hem. The collar had been replaced by a patch of black velvet at some point. She stared right at Gavin, color coming up on her cheeks as if she thought he was a sight to behold. Or perhaps Andros had done a better job getting Gavin decent than he’d thought. He certainly didn’t expect that sort of attention right now.
“Blessed Goddesses! Come sit down ri’ now. You look horrible!”
“Thank you,” Gavin sighed, his half-hearted hopes disappearing. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“Nonsense,” the woman said as she and Gwen both escorted Gavin to the closest open seat. It was directly opposite the woman’s spot. “Surprised tha’ your Clan didn’t postpone t’meeting. We’ll be back in t’city in six months or so.”
Gwen collapsed into the chair next to Gavin, smiling wryly enough that Gavin was certain everyone could tell that he found the woman attractive. She didn’t really show that she knew, though. All she did was make sure that Gavin was settled comfortably before moving back around the table. Her friends, sisters? He couldn’t tell though they smiled at her much the way Gwen did at Gavin. They were probably sisters giving her fondly amused looks like that.
“Better to get this done,” Mother said. Her voice had lost the raspy quality from the cold though her nose was still red and chapped. “Gavin’s among the last to catch this. Most of us are better off.”
“Not looking forward t’catching it,” the woman sighed. She snapped her fingers and smiled apologetically at Gavin and Gwen. “Sorry, we already did introductions. I’m Affrica Mari, second daughter of the Affrica Clan. These’re my younger sisters, Banba and Caer. You must be Gavin and Gwen.”
“Yes,” Gavin said. Well, whispered was closer. His throat hurt enough that he didn’t dare speak normally.
“Stop talking, you,” Gwen said as she poked him in the shoulder.
“Quit poking your brother,” Father scolded Gwen, tugging the shoulder of her jacket until she sat up properly.
Mari perked up at the word ‘brother’ though she didn’t comment. Her eyes swept Gavin’s body, what little she could see of it under the jacket and heavy shawl. Gavin resisted the urge to fuss with his braid, instead sipping his broth and hoping that Mari would take his blush as the fever or maybe the steam of the broth heating his cheeks.
He nodded at the stacks of paperwork in front of Mari and Father. “Why don’t we get started? The sooner we’re done the less likely it is you’ll catch the cold.”
“I doubt that,” Mari laughed ruefully enough that Gavin raised an eyebrow at her. “Most the city and half t’countryside has it. It’s swept across Aingeal. You’re all handling it better than most we seen but then y’are Dana.”
“Iron constitutions,” Mother said with an amused snort. “That’s us. Gavin’s right. Let’s get to work so that he can get back to bed sooner rather than later.”
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