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
“They’re gone,” Laoise muttered as she looked through the window.
Mari peered over her head, nodding that she didn’t see the little flock of fops anywhere. Didn’t mean much, honestly. They’d probably gone off to cause more trouble somewhere else. Or, more likely, they’d gone back to pester poor Sean to make sure that Mari didn’t get what she wanted.
Danica certainly seemed the sort to assume that she could order anyone around, whether she had any authority over them or not. The street outside was quiet, empty. Well, not empty, really. There were women in heavy firefighter’s coats striding by, both singed and streaked with smoke. A couple of men in the poofy lace-bedecked kilts that city men seemed to prefer were walking by in the other direction, one with a hand in front of his face against the scent of the firefighters. But other than that there didn’t seem to be anyone out there.
“Let’s go,” Laoise said.
She looked so grim that Mari couldn’t help but expect an attack the instant they stepped outside the door. Outside, the wind smelled of rain on the way. Mari could almost taste it, saltier than home where the touch of moisture on her tongue would carry dust or snow, depending on the season. It seemed too quiet, too, especially after the shouts and ringing voices where Gavin had been working.
“How’s he do it?” Mari asked.
“What?” Laoise asked, blinking up at Mari in confusion.
“Gavin,” Mari said. “The noise, so much to do, and so damned sick. My dad’d be flat on his back if he was that sick.”
“It’s Gavin,” Laoise sighed. “I swear the boy takes after me too much. He works all day long and half into the night most of the time. Stubborn as the day is long, especially when it comes to make sure paperwork is finished properly and turned into the government on time. It wasn’t that loud in there. Gets a lot louder when we’re not all sick.”
The thought of even more noise echoing through that huge space prompted a heartfelt wince. Mari never had particularly liked the warehouse back home because it was simultaneously cramped with too much stuff crowding around and echoingly big overhead with its vaulted ceiling. It was only a quarter the size of the Dana’s. Not that it mattered as they hurried to the Market building.
What mattered was that the Royal Guard women standing outside the Market straightened up when they spotted Mari and Laoise striding closer. One of the women, only a hands-width or so taller than Laoise, put her hand on her sword. The hand dropped away again when Laoise glowered at her and clenched her fists.
Both the Guards conspicuously looked away as Mari and Laoise passed. The taller one smoothed her hands over the gaudy embroidery on her tailed coat, tugging at the high collar as if it was suddenly too tight. Mari gave them a hard look as she walked by. Both of them looked like jokes in their fancy uniforms but then the Guards back home complained endlessly about the new requirements that’d been sent out when Delbhana Siobhan got engaged to the prince.
“Too quiet in here,” Mari muttered to Laoise. “Only a half dozen people?”
“Eh, lull,” Laoise grunted. “Happens. Not our problem right now. Upstairs.”
She ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Mari followed. Two older women in heavily cabled jumpers that smelled of fish flinched away from Laoise as she passed them on the stairs. They didn’t seem to notice Mari. A slender young woman carrying a wooden crate full of fine green cabbages stepped back against the wall until Laoise passed.
“Best hang back a little,” the young woman muttered as Mari passed her. “Dana in a temper isn’t anything to tangle with.”
“Thanks,” Mari said as she hurried up the stairs after Laoise.
The third floor was completely empty. No one in the halls. No one in the Records Office other than Sean who sat at his desk and stared at some paperwork on his desk. Mari was pretty sure he didn’t see a word of it. His expression was way too blank. When Laoise went to smack a fist on the counter Mari caught her wrist despite the way Laoise jerked against her grip and glared.
“Hey, you okay, darlin’?” Mari called to Sean.
He started wildly, nearly falling out of his chair. Sean caught the edge of his desk, blinking at Mari. “Oh. You’re back.”
“Mm-hmm,” Mari said. She waved the contract folio at him with a sheepish grin. “Sorry for the flirting. Wanted to push them off on another trail since she seemed so set on Gavin.”
Sean laughed and stood. “Not a problem. I’m ah, sorry for sending you away when you didn’t actually need to have any more signatures.”
“He was right,” Mari exclaimed. She passed the folio over to Sean and only then let Laoise’s arm go. “That herd of fops was a right problem. Laoise here wanted to know their names but hey, I don’t know who they were. Little Dana Andros told me who the lead fop with the glued down hair was but the rest I got no clue.”
Sean clapped one hand over his mouth, turning around to make smothered honking noises that Mari had to assume was laughter. Certainly looked like laughter even if Sean sort of sounded like someone strangling poultry. Laoise stared at him, lips pressed together so hard that they’d disappeared, before smacking the back of her hand against Mari’s ribs.
The blow was strong enough to stagger Mari but not so bad as to feel like a real attack. Felt more like Laoise didn’t know her own strength. Mari grinned and shrugged at her, wagging her eyebrows when Sean turned back around. He broke into whooping laughs that echoed in the Records Office.
“Oh goodness, herd of fops,” Sean finally wheeze when he stopped laughing. “So perfect!”
“Never seen that much gold embroidery on a woman’s jacket before,” Mari complained mostly to see if she could make Laoise laugh too. “And Danica’s hair, what was wrong with her hair? Looked like she’d dumped a pot of paste on her head and then sculpted the mess.”
Laoise shouted a laugh, thumping the counter with one hand. Dust rattled in the gouged out crevices. Sean put his head down on the counter and wheezed a few more laughs. By the time they managed to stop laughing Mari felt a good foot taller than normal from sheer pride.
“Stop it,” Sean complained half-heartedly. “I need to finish stamping this thing.”
“Agreed,” Laoise said as she wiped her eyes. “I would like to know who she had with her.”
“The normal hangers on,” Sean sighed. “Lavena, Maille, and Ryann.”
“Ryann,” Laoise murmured as she circled one finger slowly in the air in front of her face.
“She’s Delbhana, from the poor branch that moved to town to suck up to their cousins,” Sean said.
He didn’t look at either of them as he smoothly and efficiently stamped something close to a thousand places on the contract, made tiny initials by each and then lit a wax stick. The wax flame smelled of improbable melon, the green sort with thick rinds and pale green flesh that never would grow in her father’s garden. Six different spots got wax seals stamped onto them, one with a beautiful little ribbon that looked more like something to wear than anything official to Mari.
“Ah, that lot,” Laoise grunted. She leaned on the counter, watching Sean’s actions too. “Should have stayed back in the country.”
“They were starving,” Sean commented so mildly that it felt like a reproach. Laoise didn’t react to it.
“The whole damn Clan would starve if they weren’t so political,” Laoise grumbled low enough under her breath that Mari barely heard her a foot away.
“True,” Sean replied just as quietly. He pulled out a little slip of paper and wrote them two receipts. “I’m not actually supposed to do this, you know. Delbhana Danica came back and outright ordered me not to accept the contract. The only reason I am is because you came personally, Dana Laoise. You outrank her.”
“So does she,” Laoise said with a jerk of her thumb in Mari’s direction. “Second daughter of the Clan head. Danica’s so far down the lineage she might as well not claim the name.”
“Really?” Sean asked.
For the first time he met Mari’s eyes. There was something strange in them, like hope or maybe fear. It didn’t show anywhere but his eyes. The rest of his face was impressively blank, as if the answer mattered as little to him as whether or not people ate raw eggs in Mairsile. The casual flirting flashed in Mari’s mind. She shrugged, shuffled her feet a bit and nodded, not wanting to encourage Sean to think there might be more possible.
“Yeah,” Mari admitted. “Not like I care much. Rather be out with the carts, carrying things around Aingeal. Paperwork’s not my favorite thing in the world to do. Shoulda been my older sister but she broke her leg scrambling out her lover’s window when his wife came home unexpectedly.”
“Very few people enjoy paperwork as much as I do,” Sean said with an amused snort. “I find this sort of thing comforting.”
He turned back to Laoise, standing a little taller, smiling a little more confidently. “If Delbhana Danica comes back I’ll inform her of Mari’s status. Really, any issues she has should have been brought straight to you, anyway.”
“Knows I’ll punch her face in,” Laoise grumbled. “Laying a claim to my son that way!”
“Ought to let Gavin punch her,” Mari said as she took the receipts and now-empty folio from Sean. “I think he might actually enjoy doing it. Not like she’s tall enough that he’d have to stand on a footstool, either.”
Sean swallowed down another laugh, clapping one hand over his mouth so that the honks didn’t escape. Laoise grinned and nodded at that with so much pride that Mari abruptly wondered if Gavin actually would punch a woman in the face. She kind of thought that he would. It looked to her like Laoise believed he would, anyway.
Mari tucked the receipts inside the folio, slowly winding the leather ties so that it’d stay shut. She wasn’t sure exactly how she felt about the thought of Gavin punching people who were inappropriate. On one hand, Mari had always believed that men should protect themselves. They had the right to tell someone rude to get lost just as a woman did. But she couldn’t help but think that maybe it’d be better if he had someone who’d help, back him up. Her little brother was only thirteen but he already brought Mari stories of girls who wouldn’t listen when he said no or expressed an opinion about things.
“We’ll leave you be,” Laoise said to Sean. “Thanks for the names.”
“It’s… big,” Sean said with a cautious look at the door. No one was there when Mari looked. Apparently that reassured him enough to meet Laoise’s eyes. “This is just a tiny corner of what’s going on, Dana Laoise. You know I hear things here. They’re… quite convinced that they have your clan at last.”
“Anwyn,” Laoise murmured. She nodded. Her smile was the nastiest, most terrifying thing Mari had ever seen. “We know. And they don’t have the grapples in yet, Sean. My cousins and I are on it. They won’t bring the Dana down anytime soon.”
The sheer relief in Sean’s eyes surprised Mari. He nodded and smiled, just a little one that curled his lips as he ducked his head. But the relief showed in the way his shoulders relaxed, his hands went still and loose on the wax seals in front of him. Mari breathed slow and careful, nodding to him before following Laoise out the door.
There still wasn’t anyone outside but Mari could hear people downstairs arguing about cabbages and rice. She caught Laoise’s shoulder before they could head down the stairs. Laoise frowned, stilling when she saw the expression on Mari’s face. It had to be as disturbed as Mari’s stomach felt. Mari didn’t often get flocks in the tummy but right now it felt like a whole coven of starlings had settled into her stomach.
“How big is this?” Mari asked quietly. “Not the deal. The plot. The impact. How much of a problem is the feud with the Delbhana?”
Laoise sighed and looked down the stairs, her face going so sad that the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth looked like crevices. “We’re fighting for the future of Aingeal, Mari. The Delbhana believe they’re better than everyone else. That they have the right to rule not just here but the rest of the world. We Dana know better than to try to rule anyone. We think that people should be free to live their lives as long as no one gets hurt. That… offends the Delbhana.”
“And the Delbhana are royal now,” Mari whispered. “They’ve got the throne. Most of the House of Ladies vote with them. The laws that’ve changed…”
“Aren’t random,” Laoise agreed. “It’s strategic. I don’t think the Delbhana individually are evil. They’re conceited. They’re drunk on their own power. And they take offense easily. Anything that offends them is ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’ so they make laws to make it illegal. The Dana is the only clan that has the money and power to block them though I’ve got a lot of friends among the lower clans that support us. Quietly. When it won’t get them in danger.”
Mari nodded, releasing Laoise’s shoulder. It made sense. Made sense of a lot of things that she’d seen over the last few years. The more power the Delbhana had gathered, the more restrictions had been put on her Clan, on everyone. New laws, new taxes, new regulations that everyone had to follow for fear of being fined. It all made sense when looked at through the lens of the Delbhana deciding they had the right to rule the world.
The part that sent Mari down the stairs with her heart beating faster was that Gavin was at the heart of it. Sure, Laoise’s daughter Anwyn was the wedge the Delbhana were using to try to break the Dana open but Gavin was the one at the heart of the Dana, the one tying them all together.
If Gavin was lost, so were the Dana and then so was everyone else in Aingeal and possibly the world.
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