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
3. Trade Deal
Mari kept a pleasant smile on her face as she listened to Gavin’s raspy voice explain a complicated term in the shipping contract they were finalizing. Hopefully Banba and Caer were actually listening to his words because Mari was fairly certain she wouldn’t remember a single word he’d said once he stopped talking. Gavin appeared to be quite aware of her scrutiny. So did his sister Gwen who smirked every so often despite the coughs that wracked her on a regular basis.
He was gorgeous, a regular pocket saint. Granted, the entire Dana Clan was short and stocky but on Gavin it was a thing of wonder. She couldn’t see much of his body but his shoulders were wider than normal for a man and his cheeks were bright with his blush. Or maybe it was a fever. She couldn’t be sure of anything other than that she really should focus on his words instead of his body. As sick as he obviously was, Gavin most certainly wouldn’t be interested in flirting.
“Does that make sense?” Gavin asked. His head tilted to the side enough that his long flame-red braid swung over his shoulder temptingly.
“What do you think, Banba, Caer?” Mari asked because damn it, she really should have been listening harder. She thought that the smell of liniment and chicken broth was going to remind her of Gavin for the rest of her life.
“Makes sense,” Banba said entirely reasonably considering that her heel ground into Mari’s instep painfully. “We will need t’set up a system t’verify that shipments on both ends to ensure that nothing gets stolen or broken in transit.”
“I’m curious why you’re not shipping the product by sea,” Caer observed. “With your fleet, would make more sense.”
“Not to southern ports,” Gavin explained, his voice getting more horse the longer he talked. “Over one third of the year sailing to the southern ports is virtually impossible, even for us. We have freighters, not ice breakers. Overland shipping is mandatory for those destinations.”
He sucked a breath in and held it, eyes squeezed shut for a moment. It exploded out in a wracking cough that drove Mari to her feet as Gwen caught Gavin’s shoulder. Her grip was all that kept him from bashing his forehead into the paperwork in front of him.
“All right,” Mari said as she helped Gavin sit back in his chair. She passed the mug of rich chicken broth to him, making sure that he sipped from it. “Enough talking out of you. Let your sister answer the questions. Or Rory.”
“Can’t,” Rory whispered while waving one hand apologetically. “Lost my voice yesterday.”
“We really should have finished this the next time we were in town,” Mari groaned.
Deverell chuckled and shrugged, leaning into Laoise’s sheltering arm. “The contract needs to be finalized. We’ve talked all the terms out. The last mail we got said that your clan’s happy with it.”
“Oh, we are,” Mari said. She smiled as Gavin weakly pushed her back towards her chair. His fingers felt fever-hot against her wrist. “We only had those few questions, frankly. Mother gave me leave t’sign off if you’re satisfied with the contract, too. My sister Paili would have come but she broke her leg two days before we left home.”
Deverell raised an eyebrow at Mari, the other one climbing towards his hairline when Laoise refused to meet his eyes. He snorted, shaking his head as if their sheer refusal to answer his unspoken question told him everything he needed to know about Paili’s injury.
“Sign the damn thing,” Laoise groaned as she squeezed Deverell’s shoulders. “Sign it and then we’ll sign and it’s done.”
Gavin nodded to Rory who promptly sorted the paperwork into three stacks, one for the Affrica Clan, one for the Dana and one for the crown’s ever-annoying clerks. They took turns signing and initialing each page, Caer carefully checking to make sure that everything matched. That took long enough that Mari’s rear end felt as numb as if she’d been driving a cart across the northern plains for hours.
“Now we just need to deliver this to the local court office’s Record Clerk,” Gavin sighed as he started to stand.
“Y’aren’t doing it yourself,” Mari said so flatly that Gavin collapsed back into his seat to stare at her. “You’re sick! Y’should be in bed.”
“I handle delivering all the paperwork to the Records Clerk,” Gavin replied.
His cheeks got redder and redder as Mari glowered at him. He made a sound that might have been a squeak but could also have been a strangled cough when Mari turned to Laoise. She looked more amused than anything. Deverell’s eyes were a bit too narrow but really, Gavin was obviously too sick to handle it.
“He can barely stand!” Mari huffed. She glared at Caer as she started snickering. “He can’t! S’not funny.”
“No, but you are.” Caer laughed and blocked Mari’s half-hearted punch to her shoulder. “Truly, one of us could take it. You’re all sick and we’re perfectly healthy.”
“I’m eldest and my name’s on it,” Mari declared in the face of Rory, Gavin and Deverell’s immediate protesting looks. “I’ll do it. S’not that far away, is it? Just up in the market building, right?”
Gavin put one hand over his chest, sighing shakily. He looked first at Rory who grimaced as if he didn’t see any way to stop her and then at Deverell who just shook his head in obvious dismay. Laoise’s eyes had narrowed but her lips twitched as if she was fighting off belly laughs so Mari didn’t fuss over it.
“You’ll regret this,” Gavin said. “You’ll probably have to run back and forth several times before they accept it. There’s a reason we always have one person do this.”
“Well,” Mari said, pulling out her little notepad and pencil that she used for tracking shipments, “give me all the details of what t’expect and I’ll handle it. Don’t mind running back and forth if I have to. Better me than you. Truly about to fall over.”
She didn’t think she could be blamed for the little grin that crept over her face as Gavin ducked his head to hide his blush. Really, any woman would be charmed by that. Mari managed to get her face under control again before Gavin looked up but it was a challenge to keep it that way. He had the most appealing shy smile, despite his red nose, watery eyes and faint wheezing.
It took Gavin a quarter hour to detail all the things she needed to be careful of when delivering the paperwork to the Records Clerk. She ended up taking notes on a spare sheet of paper that Rory provided. Her notebook was too small for everything she needed to know. Even though Mari wrote small, with her neatest printing, she filled the front of the page and covered half the back.
“Really this particular?” Mari asked once Gavin finally stopped talking, coughing, wheezing and talking some more.
“Always,” Rory whispered. “We’re Dana. Everyone knows the trouble we have with the Crown. Even the Records Clerk.”
Gavin nodded his agreement. “That’s why he’s so careful. Sean doesn’t want to get in trouble.”
“Then let’s make sure that these are perfect before I go,” Mari said with enough determination that Laoise laughed.
Her laugh turned into another of those wracking coughs that looked so uncomfortable. Apparently she wasn’t quite as recovered as she’d seemed. Between Mari, Caer, Gavin and Rory they fixed everything that could possibly be done. Mari made notes on her notes of things to mention when she got to the court office. Gavin supplied a very nice pale yellow cow-hide folio for the paperwork. Only once all of it was safely tucked inside the folio did she smile warmly at Gavin before turning to Laoise.
“Off for the first round,” Mari said. “D’you mind if my sisters stay here while I deal with the office?”
“You’re welcome to spend the night if you’re willing to risk catching the cold,” Laoise said.
“It’s everywhere,” Banba said, casually waving off Laoise’s concerns. “We’re probably already catching it. Caer had a scratchy throat this morning and I feel off. A bit… not wobbly but as though the world’s slightly off kilter. I’d say that the load was tied down wrong but I’m not in a cart.”
“You’re catching it,” Deverell sighed. “By this evening you probably won’t be able to stand.”
He stood, waving for Banba and Caer to follow him. Mari helped Gavin stand, delight in him shifting to the rear as she realized that he was shaking so hard that his legs barely supported him. Gwen took his other arm. She glared up at Mari in exactly the same way Mari always did when people flirted with her little brother.
“Go on,” Gavin said, his voice rasping. “I’ll be downstairs in my office waiting for you to come back.”
“Go to bed,” Mari huffed at him. “Blessed Tahira, Ragna and Chin, you’re barely on your feet, man.”
Gavin shook his head no. His expression was so stubborn that Mari sighed. To her surprise, Gwen and Laoise sighed as well as if they didn’t think they’d be able to talk him out of staying up. Rory patted Mari’s shoulder, smiling wryly when she frowned at him.
“He won’t budge,” Rory whispered. “I’ll go get you more broth, Gavin. Try not to fall down on your way there.”
Mari made a point of escorting Gavin to his office, not only because she was worried about him but also because she needed to know where it was when she, apparently inevitably, came back for further instructions. It was as tiny as a closet, just a desk built into the wall, shelves covered with records books though there was an appropriately comfortable chair that Gavin collapsed into.
Unlike the rest of the house, Gavin’s office smelled of spiced tea instead of liniment. His chair was the overstuffed variety that someone, perhaps him, had embroidered with elaborate flowers and vines. He panted once he sat down, head flopped back against the back of his chair.
“Y’really should go back to bed,” Mari complained. He opened his eyes to glare at her so ferociously that she would have thought he felt just fine if not for the red nose, sweaty forehead and raspy breath. “Y’should. I know, I know. It’s your job but you’re sick and y’should be sleeping.”
“He won’t,” Gwen said, leaning against the doorframe. “Been hemming handkerchiefs for everyone instead of sleeping since we somehow don’t have enough right now.”
“Too many sick people,” Mari said reasonably.
She grinned at Gavin when he waved one hand as if to say ‘well, there you go, that’s it right there’. Her response made him duck his head again. When he looked up with was with the pursed ‘fighting a cough’ look but his eyes smiled as he pointed towards the front door of the Clan house. Mari tossed a salute at him, nodded to Gwen and then frowned as she tried to figure out how to get from his office to the front door.
“This way,” Gwen said, grinning. “It’s pretty simple.”
“F’you,” Mari replied. “This place is a maze.”
“True,” Gwen agreed, leading Mari to the right up the hallway and then taking the first left of the five turns and two staircases available. Four yards later they were at the gold-bedecked formal entrance. “But Gavin’s office is really easy to find. Want an escort?”
“I’ll be fine,” Mari said, shaking her head no. “No matter how persnickety this clerk is, can’t be as bad as my grandfather. The man defines ‘everything must be in its place’.”
“So does Sean,” Gwen laughed only to break into coughs that doubled her over.
She waved off Mari’s automatically offered hand, gesturing for Mari to go get it over with while still coughing. Mari shook her head but went. The whole family seemed to be as stubborn as Mother had implied before Mari set out on this trip. She’d thought the crew members she’d worked with before were stubborn but the actual family members were worse. Her mother’s warning to expect to be stonewalled if the Dana didn’t want to do something rang in her ears.
“At least they’re not push-overs,” Mari muttered as she slipped outside and stared up at the clouds overhead. No rain yet but it wouldn’t be long. “Can’t stand dealing with people who refuse to stand up for themselves.”
There were more and more of that sort every day. Mari had firm opinions about why Aingeal had changed from a bright, vibrant growing country into one that hid inside its borders and punished everyone who expressed opinions on anything. She knew better to say them out loud.
Aingeal City was the home of the Delbhana. Ever since the Delbhana had taken the throne things had shifted. Mari growled as she strode through the midmorning crowds of mouse-like men shopping for trinkets and women running errands for their employers. Grandfather’s stories of what life had been like when he was a boy were so different from her life now that it grated.
No one should have to hide what they could do. There shouldn’t be schools that taught children to be nothing more than cogs in the mill of life. Caer was still mouthing the things she’d been taught about ‘rights’ and ‘propriety’ and ‘rule of law’ even though she’d admitted outright on the trip that she’d never believed a word of what her teachers had forced on her.
“Guess the Dana don’t go to public schools,” Mari muttered as she approached the market building’s street-wide center corridor. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be that stubborn and opinionated.”
Mari hadn’t either, having been kicked out of school for brawling a few too many times. She’d never felt the lack of the book-learning. Reading, writing, math were all things she did well enough to get by, though her math got better every time she had to do inventory of a shipment. What she loved more than anything was traveling with their carts, seeing Aingeal and meeting people. Who needed books for that?
She studied the directory plaque that said where to find which offices, nodding that the Court Office was on the third floor above a greengrocer and a yarn shop. Mari tapped the yarn shop’s name. If this went well maybe she’d stop there and get her father some yarn. He did love knitting.
“Get back to work, girl,” Mari muttered to herself. She grinned wryly when a young girl carrying a similar folio stared up at her. “Sorry. Wool-gathering.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girl laughed. “I’d best do the same.”
They both headed for the stairs to the upper levels of the market, Mari patting her pocket for the instructions Gavin had given her. It should be enough. The contract was as perfect as it could be. What could anyone object to?
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