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
Gavin’s shout of outrage was loud enough that Mari nearly fell out of the window seat. All sound in the kitchen stopped but none of the kids poked their heads out the door to see what had happened. Laoise waved one hand at Gavin soothingly only to have it smacked away. She backed off a step as if startled that Gavin would ever raise his hand to anyone.
“How dare she?” Gavin snarled. “How dare that trumped up little fashion disaster imply that I led her on? She’s barely even spoken to me and we’ve never so much as touched fingertips!”
“It’s not necessarily aimed at you,” Laoise said reasonably, too reasonably.
“Oh no, you know perfectly well that it is aimed at me, Mother,” Gavin replied. He glared out the window, hands shaking in his lap. Even with them clenched, Mari could see how he vibrated with outrage. “They’re doing this because Danica decided that she owns me and Mari has no right to speak to me. I’m not going to stand for it. Do you hear me? I will not allow that little… No. This will not stand.”
“Can they even enforce it?” Mari asked Laoise.
Both Laoise and Gavin looked at her as if she was a simple-minded child. Mari sighed, shaking her head. It was a valid question. Maybe it would be something they could enforce here, in the capital, among the rich and powerful, but it sounded like that should apply to everyone across the entire country.
“I know that they can here,” Mari explained. “But what about the countryside? Can they enforce it there? The poor? What ’bout marriages bein’ arranged with people outside of the country? How could they enforce the provisions there?”
“All good questions,” Laoise said, “and all irrelevant right now. It still impacts Gavin.”
“Only if he has no preexisting offer on the table,” Deverell observed as he came out of the kitchen, little Andros in his arms, Erlina and Treva clinging to his kilt. “The contract with the Affrica clan has been discussed as a marriage contract from the very beginning. That counts as an offer. Gavin is the only boy the correct age. From the very first time it was brought up, it was assumed that it would be Gavin if we chose to do a marriage contract.”
Deverell turned and gazed at Mari. His expression was serious, so stern that Mari found herself snapping to her feet and brushing her hands down her thighs. The thick smell of chicken soup curdled on the back of her tongue, so powerful that she almost gagged. Mari swallowed hard as she fought the urge to stammer and apologize like a little girl caught breaking a window during a game.
Ma had mentioned it as a possibility but it had been so casual that Mari hadn’t put any thought into it. She didn’t see how it could work. Even if they said that there was the possibility of a marriage added to the contract, the contract had already been turned in. Anyone could check it with the proper fees. And Delbhana Danica certainly would have the money to be able to check that the contract didn’t include a marriage condition in it.
“But it’s too late,” Mari protested. “The contract’s already there, on file.”
“So?” Deverell said with a casual shrug of one shoulder. “The decision was made to handle the relationship separately from the business deal. Happens all the time.”
“You can’t just shove him off on me that way,” Mari huffed. She couldn’t help but be a little mad. Gavin’s parents were doing much the same thing that Danica was, just assuming that they could order him around and that he’d accept it. “It’s his life an’ he gets the final say in what he does. Don’ be actin’ like tha’ little fop!”
She knew her drawl had gotten the best of her when Deverell and Laoise just peered at her, blinking repeatedly. Little Andros cocked his head, tugging at Deverell’s shirt while whispering ‘what?’ Mari sighed and scrubbed a hand over her face, tugging at the hair at her temple. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, holding both hands out to Gavin’s parents.
“Sorry, angry,” Mari apologized. She carefully spoke slowly and clearly so that her drawl wouldn’t make her incomprehensible again. “I don’t approve o’ any plan that expects Gavin to simply accept someone else’s dictates. Shoving him at me with no choice on his part is as bad as what Danica’s doing.”
Gavin snorted. “Seriously, that’s the least of my worries. And I’m not sure that it would work anyway, Father. Mari deliberately flirted with Sean at the Records Office to throw Danica off. We’d have to say that Mari, Banba and Caer all came here to meet me in the hopes of a marriage alliance. Not just a contract marriage but a true alliance between our families.”
“Ma would love that,” Mari said, turning to stare down into Gavin’s eyes. She grinned as he started and stared up at her. “That’s part o’ why she wanted my older sister to come. In hopes that she could open up negotiations for a proper alliance. Told me not to bother. Tend to be a bit too… blunt for that.”
Everyone, even the little kids started laughing at that. Mari grinned, pretty sure that no one in the Dana Clan would every think that there was such a thing as ‘too blunt’. Ma certainly did. She’d said that Mari was a blunt instrument a million times, more than half when Mari had gotten in a fight over something that everyone else considered to be a minor matter.
She shook her head. An alliance between the Affrica and the Dana would open up all sorts of possibilities but it would also put the Affrica square in the Delbhana’s sights. Mari could almost feel her shoulder blades itching as if someone was aiming arrows at her spine. If they were going to do it, Mari absolutely had to have Banba and Caer’s approval of it first. They’d need to back Mari up on that front.
“We’d be more than happy to have an alliance,” Laoise said. “I suggested it at first and we decided to hold off for a year or so, after the trade had stabilized between our clans. Doing it now works just as well, though.”
“I need t’talk to my sisters,” Mari said. “And I still won’t if Gavin’s not comfortable with the thought of it. An’ it doesn’t have t’be me. Could be Banba or Caer, too. Wouldn’t actually recommend Paili. She’s not too serious about commitment and fidelity, y’see.”
“Go talk to them,” Gavin said. “Whoever it is would have to agree to join the Dana, Mari. I absolutely will not leave the Clan.”
“Uh-huh,” Mari said, nodding at him. “Got that a couple o’ times already. Don’ stand up. You’re still sick.”
She dodged away from Gavin’s half-hearted swat, laughing as the little kids crowed at the two of them. The hallway outside of Laoise’s apartment was colder, gloomier. Only a couple of old oil lamps hung on the wall, both turned so low that they barely gave any light at all. The rich scent of burning nut oil mixed with the ever-present stink of liniment that filled the Dana clan house.
Mari stood for a moment, one hand still on the cold door knob. Leave the Clan. Was this really her problem to fix? She’d never done anything but work for Affrica. Her earliest memories were learning to tie knots with Ma, listening to Ma explain that this knot held fast no matter how bad the load shifted while that one was best for tying down covers.
If she joined the Dana Mari might never see the mountains again. She’d be stuck on this flat plain in this sprawling city full of politics and petty rivalries. No more wind howling as it blasted through the canyons back home. No thunderstorms springing up out of nowhere when the summer heat billowed up the hillsides. Mari’s breath caught as she remembered the ice cold water of Aghna Lake, the water so clear that you could see the fish twenty feet below as you dove off the cliff.
“Suppose I could visit,” Mari murmured as she shivered. Her skin puckered as if the Aghna Lake’s glacier-fed waters dripped off her naked body. “It’s an alliance, not an exile. Be good for both Clans. Be good for Gavin, too. Not like Ma hasn’t wanted me to settle down for a while now.”
And if Mari was honest with herself the thought of marrying Gavin wasn’t exactly horrible. He was little, yes, but fierce and strong and smart. He cared about his Clan and his job. She had no idea if he could cook or clean but Mari was a dab hand at that after years of traveling with the carts. It might work.
“Still no guarantee it’ll shut that glue-haired fop and her clan up, though,” Mari growled as she strode down the hallway and then down the main stairs towards the rooms she and her sisters had been given.
At least she’d figured out this route through the maze of the Dana Clanhouse. Down the back set of stairs that were wide enough for four women carrying heavy loads to walk side by side, take a left at the second floor with the big blue and white Chinwenduese vase that was half as tall as Mari was. It had to cost at least as much as Mari’s yearly wages with the Clan. Unless it was a fake from Ntombi. Then it’d cost four- or five-years-worth because of the expensive pigments Ntombi artists used. Sometime she was going to stop and peek inside to see if she could see the marks her grandmother had said should be there.
The hallway here was much brighter. A big window stood at the far end of the hallway, pouring bright spring sunshine onto the blue and gold rug that ran the length of the hallway. That had to have been made in Aingeal City. Gold Dana symbols ran down the center of it like giant punctuation marks exclaiming how important the Dana were.
Mari heard Caer sneeze before she opened the door to their rooms. She eased the door open, peering around it in hopes of her sisters not noticing her immediately. It was an old game that they’d played since small childhood. No matter how careful she was Mari hadn’t won a round since she was eleven.
The room was grand, big and bright with windows that looked down the street towards the masts in the port. Most of the sails were Dana blue on this side of the port. So were the curtains that hung from ceiling to floor, bright against the whitewashed walls. The ridiculously thick carpet that covered the scuffed wood floor was shades of Dana blue mixed with bits of red and gold. Mari eased the door open a little further, getting a glimpse of the enormous fireplace and one of her sister’s boots, Caer’s by the lack of heel and broad foot.
“What?” Caer snapped at Mari.
“Oh, jus’ get in here,” Banba agreed. “You’re too big for sneaking, Mari. Y’catch the cold yet?”
The rooms were hot, sticky hot like summer traveling across the marshes west of Aingeal City. Both Caer and Banba had curled up, wrapped in thick blankets, next to the fire. They had mugs of the same soup that everyone else in the clan house was consuming, Banba’s held right under her chin, Caer’s sitting on the floor next to her. A pot of it sat on the edge of the fireplace, bubbling merrily as it filled the room with humidity. Mari almost couldn’t smell the soup over the liniment they’d slathered on their chests. She rubbed her nose as she shut the door behind her.
“Nope, no’ a sign o’ it,” Mari said. “Y’stink t’high heaven, both o’ you.”
Caer glared and hissed. “Hate you.”
“Most o’ the crew’s sick,” Banba sighed. Her head dropped back against the overstuffed chair she’d flopped in. “You’ll get it.”
“Probably,” Mari agreed. “Usually late on these. Got a problem though, big one.”
Caer frowned at her while Banba waved one hand for Mari to start talking without opening her eyes. Mari hesitated, her stomach clenching hard enough that she nearly threw up. Acid burned the back of her throat. She swallowed and stared at the beautiful oil paintings on the wall, the richly upholstered chairs and soft red velvet couch that Caer’d rejected in favor of sitting on the floor.
“Don’t know that I could live here,” Mari observed, heart beating too fast. “Too fancy.”
“Don’t need to,” Banba said. She finally opened her eyes, frowning at Mari. “What? You got ‘end of the trail’ face on.”
“Delbhana’s tryin’ t’make it so Dana Gavin’s forced to marry one o’ their girls,” Mari explained slowly. “New regulations an’ everything. If a man’s courted he can’t ‘entertain’ any other women, can’t even talk to ’em for business purposes. It’ll kill the deal. Well, not the deal, so much. We already turned that in. Bu’ he won’t be able t’work with anyone. They’re gonna steal ‘im ri’ outta Dana, force ‘im to raise his kids Delbhana.”
“Morrigan’s hand to their throats!” Caer swore. “Why?”
“An’ why’s it our problem?” Banba asked.
Mari groaned. She sat on the too-soft sofa, staring at the fire so that she didn’t have to meet her sisters’ eyes. Caer was as dedicated to traveling as Mari was. Banba had a sweetheart back home that Mari knew was serious. She’d seen the two together, holding hands and smiling at each other like they were the twin moons orbiting each other. Ma’d probably accept Banba’s girl no problem but not if there was a marriage in the offing.
“Ma mention forming a true alliance wi’ the Dana?” Mari asked.
“Oh,” Caer breathed. She coughed and then sneezed three times fast, so hard that the sofa rocked with the impacts of her back. Her gasp for air at the end rattled in her chest painfully. “Hate this!”
“Ma mentioned it several times,” Banba said. Her eyes were shut again when Mari looked over at her. “Told her I’d sooner chop my feet off. Well, ‘less it was a girl. That’d be okay.”
Caer turned and looked up at Mari. Her eyes were a bit watery, nose already getting red from the sneezes and wiping. She patted Mari’s knee with the back of the hand that held her big green handkerchief.
“You the candidate?” Caer asked.
“That’s the line so far,” Mari said. “Tell the Delbhana that we been working quiet on a marriage alliance, that we three came specific to meet Dana Gavin. We say that, their offer’s invalid accordin’ to their own rules. Delbhana Danica has to back off, can’t even talk to Gavin. Should give everyone time t’fight it, t’figure out what t’do.”
Banba opened her eyes, raising one eyebrow. Caer shook her head, waving the wet handkerchief in Mari’s direction as if to brush everything Mari had just said away. She glared at them both. It was a logical plan, something that’d do everyone good. Even if nothing came of it, it would give Gavin the time he needed to turn Danica down without hurting his clan.
“Don’t be stupid, Mari,” Banba sighed as she let her head flop back again. The soup tilted dangerously but she caught it, setting it on the floor next to her chair.
“Not bein’ stupid!” Mari exclaimed. “It’s a good plan.”
“Except for the part where you’re already in love with him,” Caer said, chuckling and then coughing her way into another series of sneezes.
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