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
“I am not in love with Dana Gavin!” Mari exclaimed.
Both of her sisters stared at her flatly. Banba barely opened her eyes and yet somehow it felt as though she’d just stabbed Mari in the chest. Caer’s eyes watered as she wiped her nose but her glare was still ferocious. Their breathing sounded off to Mari, as bubbly as the pot of chicken soup boiling away on the hearth.
Mari leaned forward and used the poker to pull the soup a bit further away from the coals. Bits of pale meat roiled slowly in the broth along with shreds of greens and the occasional doughy noodle. Her stomach felt nearly as queasy. Nerves had to be getting to her. The thought of eating any of the soup, of asking for bread or fruit or, really, anything solid sent her gorge up the back of her throat to burn.
“I’m not,” Mari repeated much more softly.
“Mi’ as well be,” Banba muttered.
Her eyes slid shut again, face going gray and clammy as if the brief conversation was more than she had strength for. Mari’s throat closed up on a moan of fear. She’d never seen Banba like this. Practically from the time Banba could walk she’d been moving constantly, talking energetically, tapping toes and gesturing with her long, strong fingers. Caer sucked in a breath that rattled in her chest. Not as bad as Banba but still terrifying for the usually bright and cheerful woman Caer was.
“Why aren’t you two in bed?” Mari demanded.
“Have you tried those beds?” Caer said, glaring towards the room that held their bunks.
“Do,” Caer grumbled, wiping her nose again. “Really, they’re awful. Soft as a pile o’ feathers. Thought I was goin’ t’sink in an’ never be seen again.”
Banba nodded listlessly, her breath coming in little bubbly gasps that drove Mari to her feet. She got Banba sitting more upright, a too-soft blue pillow behind her back. Mari’s heart thumped against her breastbone at how listless Banba was. Her skin was too hot, clammy and searing at the same time. Up close, every breath sounded like she was half-drowning. Worse, she barely even swatted at Mari for the fussing.
“Not good,” Mari muttered.
“I know,” Banba sighed. “Leave me be.”
“Nope,” Mari replied before going to test the bunk Mari had claimed as her own.
It was softer than Caer had said, a fluffy bit of indulgence that’d kill Mari’s back. Blessed Goddesses only knew what it’d do to Caer and Banba when they tried lying down on them. With the way they were breathing they’d probably spend all their time coughing and none of it resting. Mari went back out and laid the back of her hand against Caer’s forehead.
“You’re burning up, too,” Mari complained.
“Y’feel good,” Caer sighed happily.
“A’ri, that’s it,” Mari said. Both Banba and Caer peered at her. “Gonna go get ice water an’ then you’re both coolin’ off. That window’s goin’ open. The mattresses are bein’ replaced. Be damned t’the Morrigan’s Hells if I’ll sit here an’ watch the two o’ you die o’ this!”
“We’re not dying,” Banba complained, weak, quiet, wet and listless.
“Y’sure?” Mari asked.
The bald question finally prompted Banba to open her eyes fully. She sat a little straighter, frowning up at Mari. Caer stood and went to throw open the window. Air flowed in, fresh and clean compared to the steamy stinking air in the room. A little color came back to Caer’s face. As the fresh air swept over Banba her skin dimpled but she nodded thoughtfully.
“Go,” Banba said. “An’ maybe some soap. Liniment’s sticky stuff.”
“See if I can’t get garlic and mustard for a proper plaster,” Mari agreed as she strode towards the door.
The hallway outside was dimmer. Outside, the sun had gone behind clouds. Mari shook her head, frowning as she strode up the hallway towards the family stairs. She wasn’t losing her sisters. Not her sisters, not her crew, no one. They weren’t pampered city folk. As long as they took care of this, hit it quick and hard, they should get better.
She took the stairs two at a time, worries dancing in the back of her mind despite Mari’s efforts to push them away. No one answered when Mari knocked on Dana Laoise’s door but she heard the smidgelets squealing and laughing so Mari opened it and peered inside. The common room was still one of the most inviting and bone-deep comfortable rooms Mari had ever seen.
Unlike the too-fancy rooms Mari and her sisters had been given, the common room was worn. While the wood floors gleamed, clean and polished, they were scuffed so badly that no waxing would ever hide the damage they’d gotten. The walls, simple whitewash, had girls’ drawings and boy’s embroidery samples. She grinned at the old beaten cushions on the window seat. It might not be soft but it looked like the place everyone gathered.
“Free!” little Erlina squealed as she ran, naked and dripping, from the kitchen out into the common room.
“None o’ that, smidgelet,” Mari laughed.
She caught Erlina around the waist and carried the squirming, laughing little girl back to the kitchen door. Treva was in a wash basin on the floor while little Andros sat cocooned in a towel bigger than he was on a stool that let his legs dangle. The steamy heat here made Mari’s stomach object again though not as strongly. Honest soap and laughter made the heat and humidity much more bearable.
“Thank you,” Laoise said as she took Erlina and set her on her hip, never mind the water dripping off the girl. “You need something?”
“Wash basin, big one,” Mari said, “cold water, maybe a bit ice an’ some soap. Worried about my sisters. Oh, if you have any garlic and mustard, some old rags, that’d be wonderful, too.”
“Ask Gavin,” Deverell said. “The boy’s bunk room is just to the left of the window seat. He and Caddie should be resting now.”
Mari started to say thank you but little Treva smashed her fists into the water and screamed with laughter. The water sprayed over Deverell and soaked Laoise’s pants leg nearly as badly as her shirt had been. Rather than stay and get drafted into smidgelet bathing time, Mari quickly slipped out of the kitchen, letting the door shut behind her just in case Treva made a run for it the same way Erlina had.
She tapped on the door to the boy’s room, starting when Gavin called ‘come’ immediately. The room behind the door was so different from what she’d expected that Mari stood and stared instead of speaking, despite Gavin and Cadfael’s growing blushes.
Bunks. The boys slept on bunks just like the ones in Mari and her sister’s guest rooms. They had bookshelves built into the walls and curtains that gave them some level of privacy, but the bunks themselves were individual little worlds that each boy had customized just for them. Mari could tell that the bunk covered by lace curtains and embroidered blankets had to be Cadfael’s.
The one with a dozen very well dressed dolls had to be Andros’. Someone, maybe Andros, maybe not, had painted flowers and rainbows, stars and childish trees over the walls and ceiling of the bunk. The one over Cadfael’s frippery was filled with knitted blankets, knitted shawls and a knitted lace curtain that showed an incredible level of skill. Even Gavin’s bunk was clearly his, full of log books, simple plain blankets and a curtain in Dana plaid that looked like it’d been reclaimed from an outgrown quilt.
The room smelled of liniment, just like everywhere else in the Dana Clanhouse, but she could smell soap and both boys had damp hair. Cadfael’s was long enough to brush his hips but Gavin’s was surprisingly short, only a hand’s width longer than Mari’s. As Cadfael slowly combed his long hair out, Gavin pushed his hair back as Mari stared at him, the curls wrapping around his fingers like fiery tentacles.
“Ah, sorry,” Mari said once she shook her surprise off. “Need a bit of help.”
“Oh,” Gavin said. He nodded and stood, one hand carefully on the ladder up to Andros’ bunk for a couple of seconds. “What did you need?”
“Wash basin, big, ice, water, mustard and garlic, old rags, and a few towels,” Mari said, ticking the items off on her fingers. “Oh, yeah. There any other mattresses? Ours are… soft.”
Gavin made a squeaking laugh that turned into a cough. His eyes smiled at Mari despite the deep whoops. He got the cough under control quickly, with little gasping. Cadfael grinned as well though he didn’t stir from his spot on his fluffy bunk.
“This way,” Gavin whispered, rough and amused and everything beautiful in the world as he grinned and led Mari out of the apartment and down the hallway towards the stairs.
His legs wobbled enough that Mari hooked a hand under his elbow. Gavin started. He stared at her hand, face going redder and redder until the blush made his ears go red and his forehead was as bright as his cheeks. Mari carefully took her hand away and offered her elbow instead.
Gavin swallowed another laugh into a sneeze-cough. He bowed as if they were at Court, sweeping his appealingly simple kilt to each sides, before taking Mari’s elbow. To her relief, Gavin put real weight on her arm, letting her support him as they went down the stairs all the way to the ground floor.
Down here the overwhelming smell of liniment and soup faded away. Mari took a deep breath and sighed happily. She could smell paper, rain on the wind outside and the sort of spices that Pa bought only twice a year because they cost so much.
“Wonder if we could get a discount on spices,” Mari observed as Gavin led her to what looked like an office from the nicely finished door with its ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ sign. When he opened the door it was a store room instead, full of racks and bales and bundles of who knew what.
“Probably,” Gavin said. “Depends on which spices. Some we sell on consignment. The price is set for them. Others we buy outright and sell at whatever profit the market will bear.”
“Hm,” Mari grunted as Gavin tried to pull a wooden wash basin as big as he was off the shelf. She grabbed it instead, setting it on the floor. “Have to ask Banba which ones Pa likes the most.”
“It’s always cheaper in town,” Gavin said, nodding as he found clean rags, a bar of soap that smelled of oats and a bottle of mustard so yellow it looked like sulfur canned by the Morrigan herself. “You’d still have to get it back to them but with the contract it should be easier now. There will be regular trips.”
He pointed to three rolled up mattresses that looked appropriately thin on the top shelf of one of the racks. Mari pulled them down, smiling at their firmness. As she did that Gavin grabbed a basket on a lower shelf and carefully sorted through it, eventually pulling out a head of garlic that was easily as big as Mari’s fist.
“Enough?” Gavin asked.
“Plenty!” Mari said, taking it and sniffing. She sneezed and passed it back, wheezing happily. “Perfect. Jus’ what we need. No offense bu’ liniment’s not really what they need. Nice strong plaster’ll do more good. Make ’em eat a few cloves, too. That always helps.”
Gavin stared at her, horror warring with amusement on his face. “Ow?”
“It helps,” Mari said confidently as she loaded the was basis with as much as it would hold and then tucked the remaining mattress under her arm. “What ’bout water?”
“There’s a pump in the wash room in your suite,” Gavin said. He frowned and then looked up at Mari with concern. “You do have the blue room at the end of the hallway on the second floor, right?”
“Mm-hmm,” Mari said. “Fancy place. Woulda preferred something simpler.”
“The crew bunks are all full, last I heard,” Gavin said apologetically enough that Mari felt better about their being assigned there. “Ship just came in and we’ve got two not quite ready to go out again. Sorry.”
He opened the door for Mari, carefully holding onto her belt once she had the wash basin on her shoulder. The little bit of weight he put on her was nothing compared to what she was carrying. They walked more slowly now, Mari giving Gavin’s legs time they seemed to need.
The hallways were busier now, short Dana women with blue clothes and flaming red hair smirking at Gavin as they passed. Other women, generally taller with sun-browned skin that had that air of raw edges that came from working hard, smiled knowingly at Mari. They got to the base of the stairs and Gavin sighed as he stared up them. She thought about carrying him and then carrying the supplies but Gavin probably would consider that beyond improper even if his legs clearly needed the help.
“Step away from Dana Gavin this instant!”
Mari started so badly that she nearly dropped the wash basis and everything in it on Gavin’s head. She turned at the same time as Gavin. Delbhana Danica stood glaring at them with a taller fancy woman with short blond hair by her side as well as her three friends at her back. Gavin groaned, putting his hands on his hips.
“What are you doing here?” Gavin snapped at Danica. “Have you no common sense at all?”
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