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
The Court Office was a small thing. Instead of a big room full of clerks, maybe with benches for people to sit on while they waited their turns like back home, it was room no more than ten by twenty feet. The front half was open with a tile floor that looked like it’d seen better days. Mari’s boot heels rang on the grubby-gray tiles as she strode in.
Halfway across the room was a long wooden counter that divided the room in half. It stood just high enough for a woman to lean on while signing off on whatever receipt she’d been given. Looked to Mari as though at least a few bored women had taken to carving their initials into the surface while they waited. There was even a little sign off to the left by the wall that said ‘Please do not carve the counter.’
It was hard to see the other half of the room. A group of women, all dressed in richly embroidered foppish coats that came down nearly to their knees stood at the counter in front of her. They stank of expensive perfume, so much of it that Mari could barely detect the smell of ink and paper, slow-melting wax and candle flames. The girl who’d climbed the stairs by Mari’s side took one look at the women and gestured for Mari to go first.
“Trouble?” Mari muttered with a jerk of her chin at the fops.
“Delbhana,” the girl whispered. “Go ahead. I can wait.”
“Thanks,” Mari sighed sadly enough that the girl grinned at her for a second before going back to watching the fops backs warily.
Delbhana. Mari grunted quietly. Yeah, they looked like Delbhana. One of the women, a shorter one with carefully combed blond hair that looked as though it’d been glued into place, had a dangling ruby earring in one ear. That one’s coat was silk velvet, of all the impractical things, covered with so much gold embroidery that the thing must weigh at least a stone. Her boots were shined so brightly that Mari could see reflections of the embroidery on the inside of her coat hem. Had to have spent easily a year’s worth of Mari’s wages just on that one outfit.
“See that you deal with it properly next time,” the Delbhana fop sneered at the Records Clerk.
“Of course, my Lady,” the clerk replied so flatly that Mari could see the ‘fuck you’ even if the Delbhana flop obviously couldn’t. “Next please.”
The flock of Delbhana fops moved off to the side, talking too loud about ‘stupid boys’ and ‘above themselves’. Mari stepped forward, dropping the folio on the counter so that she could rummage through her pockets for Gavin’s instructions. Sean, the Records Clerk’s tag said, sighed as if he wished he had a cup of tea, a nice pastry and maybe the Delbhana fop’s head on a platter.
“Just a mo’,” Mari said, automatically dropping into Western Aingeal drawl out of sheer annoyance at the Delbhana fops snooty attitudes about common folks. As if they did anything but spend the money other people worked hard to create. “Got instructions here. Right. ‘M deliverin’ a contract ‘tween the Affrica and Dana Clans f’Dana Gavin. He’s too sick t’do it himself.”
“Ah, excuse me?” Sean asked, blinking as he stared up at her.
“Sorry,” Mari said with her best gregarious smile. Sean blushed and ducked his head for a second. “I’m delivering a contract between the Affrica and Dana Clans for Dana Gavin. He’s too sick at the moment to do it himself.”
“Oh no, he caught the cold finally?” Sean asked as he took the folio and opened it.
“Afraid so,” Mari sighed. “Surprised t’man could even sit up given how sick he was. Whole damn city seems affected.”
The Delbhana went quiet behind Mari. It was more than enough to make the hair stand up on her arms but she didn’t turn to look. Instead she smoothed out her list of instructions, looking at Sean with a smile that had probably shifted from gregarious to stiff, forced.
“We’re gonna need a pair of receipts,” Mari said. “Gavin specified that it was t’be ‘full’ receipts, whatever that means.”
“That means this will take a bit,” Sean sighed.
His eyes flicked past Mari to the Delbhana fops. Whatever he saw made his face go pale but that was the only way he showed his fear. The girl who’d followed Mari into the office moved left, then left again, finally pressing up against the wall as if she wanted to become a smudge on the wainscoting. She didn’t have half as much control as Sean did. Fear was open on her face.
“Do you know which seals he wanted?” Sean asked, eyes firmly locked on the folio in front of him.
“Yeah,” Mari said. “Gavin specified that we need the Crown, Market, 506 and 910 seals, in red wax.” She blinked at Sean, deliberately looking confused. “Different wax colors matter?”
Sean grinned, lightning quick, and nodded. “That they do. What’d he do, give you an itemized list of what to do?”
“Yup.” Mari chuckled.
Mari felt more than heard the Delbhana fop approaching. She turned just in time to keep the dandy woman from snatching Mari’s instructions out of her hands. The sheer rage in the other woman’s eyes surprised Mari. Sure, the Delbhana and Dana were rivals but that was no reason her twisted snarl or ferocious glare.
“Give me that!” the Delbhana fop snapped.
“Nothin’ doin’,” Mari drawled at her. “Them’re my instructions. Y’got no need t’take ’em.”
“Dana Gavin is mine,” the Delbhana fop snarled at Mari. She was a good four inches shorter than Mari and a lot more slim. She looked more Caer’s size than Mari’s. “You will not speak to him again, do you hear me?”
Mari stared at her, slowly cocking her head to the right. The Delbhana fop’s expression went dark and then her lips pursed as she snorted. She drew herself up and stabbed a finger into Mari’s chest, poking square on Mari’s nipple like that was going to carry her point across.
“Dana Gavin will be my husband,” the Delbhana fop said much more slowly, so slowly she had to think Mari was an idiot. “I will not allow you to speak to him again.”
“Didn’t say he was engaged,” Mari said, catching the fop’s wrist to push her finger away. “In fact, was told that he’s available f’marriage. Dana Laoise specifically said that there weren’t any suitors for his hand. Y’proposed yet? He said yes?”
“That’s irrelevant,” the Delbhana fop said as she tried to poke Mari again despite Mari’s grip on her wrist. “I have decided that he will be mine and so he will.”
The temptation to tighten her grip until the Delbhana fop’s wrist broke under her fingers was almost too much to resist. There wasn’t much that put a fire under Mari’s backside more than women assuming that they had the right to override anything a man said. If anyone tried to treat her little brother than way Mari knew that she’d be working with her sisters to find an inconspicuous place to dump a body along the trails back home.
She let go of the woman’s wrist instead, standing a little taller as she nodded slowly, too slowly at her. Mari let her eyes sweep over the Delbhana’s friends, sisters, cousins, whatever they were. Not a one of them could hold their own in a battle, unless they fought dirty. Mari was pretty sure their version of ‘dirty’ was knives in the back and unjust use of power, not broken kneecaps and fractured skulls.
The other women shivered, one licking her lips and opening her mouth only to shut it when Mari narrowed her eyes at the girl. She turned back to the Delbhana fop, catching the woman’s chin in a grip that made her gasp and clutch Mari’s wrist.
“A woman ever said anything like that ’bout my brother an’ there’d be blood t’clean up,” Mari said slow and distinct. “Suspect you’re not used t’being told no, Delbhana, but I’ll thank you t’hold your tongue when you speak t’me. I don’t take with those that say men’re t’be used an’ ordered ’bout.”
“Let go!” the Delbhana said, her voice pained and furious though her eyes were full of fear.
“Mind. Your. Tongue,” Mari repeated. “Don’t speak of any man, Dana or not, that way ’round me.”
She squeezed until the Delbhana’s eyes went wide and she clawed at Mari’s coat. The Delbhana said something garbled but Mari could feel her trying to nod so she let go. One way or the other, Mari was pretty sure this was going to be ugly. Best she could hope for was to have the Delbhana fop focused on Mari and not on Sean or the little girl who whimpered quietly against the far wall.
“You will pay for that,” the Delbhana fop snarled at Mari.
“Girl, I don’t give a damn who you marry,” Mari said. “Y’just don’t act like he’s a toy t’be picked up an’ played with ’round me. I got a little brother. I’d kill any woman what did it t’him.”
The Delbhana fop looked away, her lip curled with a sneer that Mari knew in her bones meant trouble. More trouble. The Tripartate Goddesses all knew that Mari’d already stepped in it.
She didn’t really care. No one deserved to be treated that way.
Mari was pretty sure that they were going to come to blows soon. She was also pretty sure that she could take all the women down before the Guard could arrive. A battle with the Delbhana was as dumb as it came but it didn’t look like the Delbhana fop would back down. And Mari surely wouldn’t. She’d damn herself to the Morrigan’s Hells before she’d let Gavin be blindsided by this little dandy.
“Excuse me,” Sean said in one of those carefully polite and controlled voices that men used when they really wanted to slap the women around them silly. “I’m afraid that you’re missing several initials and one signature. I marked those spots. Please have them completed before bringing the contract back.”
“We missed somethin’?” Mari groaned hopefully dramatically enough that it’d be convincing for the Delbhana fop. “Damn, I thought we got everythin’. All right, sugar. Thank you. Probably be right back again unless he’s collapsed somewhere sleepin’ his cold off the way he should.”
The contract was already wrapped up in the folio. Mari took it, tucked it under her arm and then carefully casually folded the instruction sheet into messy quarters before tucking it in her pocket. She nodded to the girl, smiled engagingly at Sean who predictably blushed and ducked his head, and then glared while nodding at the Delbhana fop.
“Good day, Delbhana,” Mari growled.
“We’re not done!” the Delbhana fop snarled at Mari.
“We never got started,” Mari said with a snort that made her back up a step. “You’re presumin’ a connection that isn’t there, Delbhana. This is business, not romance. What you’re doing with Dana Gavin is a completely different thing from what I’m doing. I’m closing a deal. No place for romance in business, that’s what I always say. Romance is romance. Do what you will. Just don’t speak of a man like a toy while I’m around.”
She nodded again at Sean who, surprisingly given the tension in the room, giggled and blushed as he fussed with the stamps and paperwork on the other side of the counter. Mari grinned and waved a messy salute at him. The complete confusion on the Delbhana fop’s face was more than worth it. When she got back Mari would have to explain to Sean that she’d just been trying to put the Delbhana off the track. He probably got it but it was always best to clear things like that up right away.
Mari strode straight at the Delbhana fop’s friends. They stared for a moment but scrambled out of her way when it became clear that Mari would go over them if they didn’t move. She wasn’t at all surprised that the Delbhana and her friends followed Mari down the stairs. It was a bit of a surprise that they followed Mari all the way back to the gaudy formal entrance to the Dana Clanhouse.
None of them said anything but everyone coming the other direction took one look at Mari’s grim expression, glanced past her at her pursuing Delbhana pack of fops and then got out of the way. One little old man with more lace on his kilts and jacket than Mari’d ever seen in one place before looked like he might collapse from a heart attack.
When Mari ran up the stairs and entered the Dana Clanhouse the Delbhana fops stood on the sidewalk, glaring. A little boy in Dana blue kilts and an elaborately knitted jumper that Mari’s father would have loved jumped up from the bench where he’d been perched.
“Are you Affrica Mari?” the boy asked.
“That I am,” Mari said, grinning at him. His nose was red so he’d obviously had the cold but it looked to her like he was over it. “You waitin’ for me?”
“Mm-hmm,” he said, nodding. “I’m Andros. I’m supposed to take you to Gavin. One of our ships came in so he had to go supervise.”
“Do me a favor, Dana Andros,” Mari said. “Peek out the window and tell me who that glue-haired Delbhana fop is.”
Andros peeked out the window, his curly mop of flame-red hair shifting over his shoulders. He’d be a beauty when he grew up but right now he was tiny and one of the cutest little boys Mari’d seen in ages. He started giggling as soon as he spotted the Delbhana fop. When he turned back, hands over his mouth, Andros’ eyes were wide as saucers.
“So?” Mari asked.
“Glue-haired!” Andros laughed. He flapped a hand at Mari when she snorted and grinned. “That’s Delbhana Danica. She’s pretty low in the Delbhana family but she thinks she’s important. Why?”
“Well, if you will be so kind as to escort me to Dana Gavin,” Mari said, offering her hand to him, “you’ll hear why.”
“Okay!” Andros said, skipping in place with delight written all over his little face. “I never hear anything. Let’s go!”
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