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
Mari spluttered as Banba slapped her wet, liniment coated washcloth into Mari’s face. Water dripped down her chin, soaked into her shirt. Or it would have if Mari hadn’t already been soaked to the skin from forcing Caer to wash. Her sisters might as well be smidgelets, toddlers barely able to walk, for how well they’d taken to this bath.
Wasn’t too surprising. The water was cold as fresh-melted ice though it tasted faintly of sea salt, not the minerals water always held back home. Just as cold as glacier melt even though it’d been pumped up from the Dana’s well through who knew how many miles of pipes in the walls. Mari was just glad she hadn’t had to carry buckets of water up the stairs.
“Gonna stop my heart!” Banba gasped.
“No, it won’t,” Mari said, rolling her eyes only to splutter again as Banba hit her with the washcloth again. “Won’t. Already breathin’ better an’ got more color than you did.”
“You’re still vicious,” Caer said, teeth chattering as she dried her hair and scrubbed at her skin until it went red.
“Worried,” Mari corrected. “The both o’ you sounded half dead.”
They didn’t deny it. Banba coughed, wet and nasty as if she’d sucked in a lungful of wash water. Caer’s cough was drier, at least, but the sneezes that followed smashed through Caer’s body, leaving her doubled over and panting into her towel. The fancy wash room, just a slops bucket and a mirror though there was a drain in the floor near where Mari’d put the wash basin, stank of garlic and mustard.
The plaster that Mari had created sat in a bowl she’d nicked from the hallway. It was blue, of course, and white, painted with tiny ships at sea. The chunky yellow-white paste filling it was strong enough to make Mari’s nose burn but it was exactly what her sisters needed. Getting it on them promised to be as messy as getting the liniment off.
“Y’look better,” Mari commented as she passed Banba a clean washcloth.
“Freezing,” Banba complained. “An’ the plaster stinks. What’d you do? Buy the biggest, nastiest head o’ garlic in the city?”
“Nope,” Mari said, grinning. “Y’got Dana Gavin t’thank for that. He picked it for me, along with the mustard.”
“It’s gonna burn our chests,” Caer grumbled.
“Doubt it,” Mari said. “Won’t leave it on too long, just long enough t’help you turn the corner on this thing.”
They all froze as someone knocked on the door to the suite. Mari stood, gesturing for Caer to help Banba. Really, there was only one person it could be. She squished out to the door, opening it to grin down at Gavin and his pile of towels. He blinked up at her, mouth opening and then shutting abruptly. His nose wrinkled dramatically.
“What is that?” Gavin asked.
“Plaster,” Mari said. “Bring ’em on in. Banba’s just ’bout done wi’ her bath. Caer’s already finished. Both look better for cooling off. The water pump’s a delight. Didn’t expect that in guest rooms.”
“They’re guest rooms,” Gavin countered, voice nasal and pained. “That’s why you have it. Everyone else uses the bath room we put in the warehouse.”
Mari grinned as she took the towels. Sometime after Mari’d left the mess downstairs, Gavin had put his hair up. The messy bun coiled like a sleepy snake on the back of his head, bits of hair looping out and weaving back in as if he couldn’t be bothered to make it all smooth and neat. Tiny silver hoops hung from his earlobes, barely big enough to make it around the nub of flesh.
He went straight for the window, pushing it further open than even Mari had dared. Cool air swept past him, ruffling his austere kilt and sending a chill up Mari’s spine. Or maybe it was the way the sunlight lanced through his shirt, revealing the silhouette of a surprisingly strong torso underneath Gavin’s Dana blue shirt.
Even with her sisters in the wash room, naked as the day they were born, Mari found herself tempted to walk over and cup Gavin’s chin. She’d never met a man that inspired so much respect while at the same time making her want to follow in Paili’s flirtatious ways. Her thoughts must have showed on her face because Gavin went bright red when he turned around.
“Ah, Danica did back off,” Gavin said. “I sort of need to talk to you and your sisters, though.”
“A’ri’,” Mari said. “Give me a minute t’get ’em dressed again. Made ’em both wash in cold water t’lower the fevers.”
“…Ow,” Gavin said hesitant, eyes wide, lips twitching between a rueful smile and a pained grimace. “I think I’ll just go with ow. That water is cold.”
“Mm-hmm,” Mari agreed. “An’ just what they needed. Back in a minute. Sit down a’ready!”
Gavin’s laughter followed Mari back into the wash room. Caer had managed to get Banba up and out of the wash basin. They sat together, panting, on the floor. Both of them dripped water. Caer’s grin was so much like little Erlina’s that Mari dropped the stack of towels on her head. That got Banba snickering, then coughing wet and deep, but she looked much better.
The gray tone was gone, replaced with healthy pink. Better still, Banba’s toes tapped against the blue-tiled floor as she stole a towel and started drying off. Mari carefully poured the water down the floor drain, leaning the basin against the far wall of the wash room so it could dry off. Banba and Caer’s used towels did a good job mopping up the water that hadn’t made it to the drain. Mari spread those over the edge of the sink to dry a bit.
“So?” Caer asked.
“Dana Gavin’s outside,” Mari said. “Lemme get clothes. He wants t’talk to all of us.”
“So the marriage alliance might be a real thing?” Banba asked. She looked and sounded like she’d just found a spider at the bottom of her tea mug.
“Don’ know,” Mari said, “but probably yes. Clothes, talk, then rest for the two o’ you. New mattresses should be better.”
Mari slipped out of the washroom and grabbed clothes for Caer and Banba. Just pants and shirts, some underwear because it wasn’t right to go without when you had a man visiting. It took both Caer and Mari’s help for Banba to get into her clothes. Mari held her up while Caer helped Banba into the clothes. Caer at least managed to get into her own clothes though she didn’t bother buttoning her shirt other than the one button that held across her bust.
Caer managed to walk, barefoot, hair still dripping, to the couch on her own. She sat on the floor, toes extended towards the fire that had mercifully died down a lot during the bathing. Mari had to loop Banba’s arm over her shoulder. Gavin stood and stared as Mari dropped Banba onto the couch, propping her feet up over the squishy arm. Banba blinked at him, grinning sheepishly.
“Sorry,” Banba said. “Tired. Couch is too soft, Mari.”
“Not lettin’ y’lie on the floor,” Mari said as she sat on the floor next to Caer. “Y’can deal wi’ it until Gavin’s said his piece. Then I’m pouring your ass into bed an’ you’re sleeping.”
“You might as well be Dana,” Gavin said so dryly that Mari stared at him. He grinned at them all, hands on his hips. “Furniture was created for a reason, you know.”
“Too soft,” Banba said, waving one hand aimlessly in the air though she grinned upside down at him as she did it. “Floor’s better. Put a nice thick rug on it an’ what more d’you need?”
Gavin laughed. He perched in the too-soft blue arm chair to Mari’s left. It put him only a few inches away, close enough for Mari to smell the soap he’d used and the lingering smell of liniment on him. He tucked his feet up under his kilt like a little boy, ankles crossed and knees poking out over the arms of the chair. His kilt tumbled into his lap, pleats in total disarray that Gavin didn’t appear to care about.
He did have lace on his petticoat, Mari noted with a blush that felt like her face caught fire, but it was just one thin strip of crocheted lace with an embroidered line of tiny pink rosebuds and leaves worked above it. It was a modest level of decoration that somehow enticed Mari more than more extravagant displays of Dana wealth would have.
Gavin saw her looking and blushed nearly as brightly as he tugged his kilt down to hide the edge of his petticoats. Caer grinned, casually doing up another of her buttons as if to apologize for staring, too, and for the expanse of her belly that showed. The move tempted Mari to punch Caer, despite her cold, but Gavin waved a hand at both of them while fussing with the lay of his pleats.
He didn’t sit properly, legs down and knees held a fist’s width apart. The lack of that made utterly inappropriate laughter sing in her heart.
“So,” Banba said, “what’s the news?”
“Delbhana Danica apparently actually likes me,” Gavin said. He grinned at the way they stared at him, Mari stunned, Caer and Banba unimpressed. “Hey, for the Dana that is news, very big news. Hasn’t happened since my Great-Uncle Jarmon’s days. She’s gone off to consider my counter-offer but she appears to concede that the Affrica Clan has prior claim on me currently.
“I told her that you’re not interested in men, Banba,” Gavin continued with an apologetic little smile that transformed into a huge grin when Banba thrust her fist into the air and cheered wetly. “It is kind of obvious.”
“So true,” Banba said.
“I have four or five female cousins who are delighted to hear it, by the way, so if something doesn’t work out between Mari, Caer and I then you’ll be carrying the marriage alliance,” Gavin said. He chuckled at Banba’s blooming grin and then laughed when Mari smacked Banba’s thigh for her ridiculously wide grin. “She… actually apologized for not pushing her suit earlier, Mari. Apparently she assumed that I was so busy working that there wasn’t any competition.”
While Banba’s grin spread from a tiredly amused one into a decidedly inappropriate smirk, Mari clamped her jaw shut so that she wouldn’t curse. The sheer gumption that woman had to assume that Gavin was her personal property, that he was so uninteresting as to never have any suitors, made her teeth ache for grinding and her hands clench into fists. Caer shook her head, smacking Mari’s shoulder with the back of one hand while rolling her eyes.
Mari glared at Caer, digging her fingers into the plush blue carpet so that she’d stop thinking of smashing a fist into Danica’s ridiculous face. Deep breaths burned her nostrils with the smell of mustard and garlic. A bright flare of pain sent the taste of blood over Mari’s tongue.
Gavin caught Mari’s chin in one small hand, tapping her bottom lip. “That’s enough of that.”
“Uh,” Mari started to say and then couldn’t find any more words. Gavin’s expression was gentle, amused as he caught her bottom lip between his forefinger and thumb.
“No biting,” Gavin declared.
Caer snickered. Banba hooted a laugh and then rolled onto her side to cough as if wet globs of flesh were ripping free from her lungs. Gavin let her lip go, abandoning his chair to firmly whack Banba’s back over and over. It seemed to help. When Banba finally stopped coughing a minute or so later her breathing was easier, less wet and congested.
“Hate this cold,” Banba whispered.
Her eyes drooped shut, one hand dangling off the side of the couch. Between that and her feet, still looped over the plush arm, her body was twisted in ways that made Mari’s spine ache. Mari stood, gently pushing Gavin aside. Banba didn’t even swat at Mari as Mari scooped her up, hefting her limp body.
“Bed f’you,” Mari said. “An’ sleep. Lots o’ sleep.”
Caer stayed in the sitting room with Gavin while Mari put Banba in the bunk she’d chosen. Fortunately for them both, Banba had taken the bottom one. Mari wasn’t sure what either of them would have done if it had been the top. The firmer mattress helped Banba’s breathing even more than the coughing fit had, evening it out and deepening it until she almost sounded normal.
She muttered something low and content as Mari tucked her in, making sure that, for now, Banba’s arms and legs were safely covered by blankets. The plaster would have to wait. It’d only get stronger for sitting a bit. When Mari brushed her fingers over Banba’s forehead, moving stray strands of hair out of her eyes, her skin felt cooler, less sweaty.
Mari stood, staring at the bedroom door and the conversation that waited outside. There had to be some way to save Gavin. Maybe he didn’t really need rescuing but Mari couldn’t bear the thought of a man like him, bright, hardworking, so intelligent, stuck with a fop like Danica. It wasn’t right. The Tripartate Goddesses themselves would be outraged by the sheer thought of it.
But saving Gavin looked like it would require damning Mari to a lifetime spent trapped in Aingeal City with its looming walls, close-packed buildings and never-ending sea of humanity.
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