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 air outside of the restaurant was blissfully cool and salt-scented. Mari hadn’t even realized how warm it was until she stepped outside. Danica stepped to the left, hesitating until Gavin emerged from the restaurant on Mari’s heels. He’d caught his kilt and petticoats so that he wouldn’t knock the stools over. His grip exposed not just the delicate lace and embroidery on his petticoats but also strong, thick ankles in beautifully knitted cream wool socks.
Mari licked her still tingling lips, tasting beef and peppers, and snapped her gaze right back up towards Gavin’s face. Danica stared a moment longer but she looked away, too, cheeks flushing brighter than the spicy lunch could explain. Fortunately for both of them, Gavin didn’t appear to notice. He shook his kilts out, smoothing his hands over his hips to settle the pleats and then smiled, distant, polite, respectful, to Danica.
“It was ah, pleasant speaking with you, Delbhana Danica,” Gavin said. He quirked an eyebrow just a little bit, smiled just so, and it became much more than a formal phrase.
Danica chuckled and did a little half-bow. “It was pleasant speaking with you as well, Dana Gavin. I do apologize for intruding on your lunch.”
“Intruding,” Mari huffed. “Wasn’t intruding. Especially not with the tip about the fry bread. Love that stuff. Gotta tell my Pa about it so he’ll make it, too.”
Both Danica and Gavin laughed, Gavin a dismayed snicker and Danica a hearty laugh that was just a hair too calculated to be fully honest. Her glance at the people in the area, was quick but enough to make Mari aware of her surroundings in ways that she normally wasn’t.
Across the street was a group of four or five Dana sailors who watched Danica as if expecting that they’d have to charge over and beat her bloody. Several people passing them in carts looked, saw first Gavin’s Dana plaid kilt, then Danica’s formal, overly-embroidered Delbhana coat, and then they looked away as if afraid that they might be pulled into a brawl.
Down the block, at the far end where Dana street crossed with the alley they stood in, several Delbhana women appeared, Lady Etain in the lead.
Mari stiffened, turning to Gavin and holding out the sandwiches. “Would you be so kind as to deliver these to my sisters, Dana Gavin?”
Gavin blinked, looked down the block and then shivered. “I would be delighted to, Affrica Mari. Though they were asleep?”
“Kick them if they won’t wake up,” Mari advised, gesturing to Danica that something was coming from behind her. “Banba’ll complain an’ Caer will curse but for good food they’ll apologize. I’ll be up… shortly.”
Danica laughed, turning away to muffle the laugh with one hand. It was more in an effort to see who was coming, Mari thought, than any real amusement. Her laugh this time was so stiff that it barely counted. Mari put a hand on Gavin’s elbow, gently encouraging him to go. He sighed, patted Mari’s hand, and then nimbly ran between two passing carts to disappear into the door to the Dana warehouse.
“Don’t suppose I can punch her teeth out?” Mari murmured to Danica.
“Too late,” Danica replied softly with that wicked twinkle in her eyes. “Dana Laoise beat you to it a few years ago. She wears false teeth.”
“What are you doing?” Lady Delbhana Etain demanded. “Go after him!”
“Can’t,” Mari said before Danica could do more than stiffen and turn halfway around.
“What?” Lady Etain snapped. “Of course she can!”
“Nope,” Mari said. She held up a hand as Lady Etain stiffened like a cat confronted with a bath. “Rules say Gavin’s not supposed t’even talk to Delbhana Danica. Should have insisted that she leave the restaurant but hey, good food is good food. No reason t’be rude when she came all the way here for a meal.”
“That doesn’t count!” Lady Etain shouted. “It’s not a real marriage alliance!”
Mari stiffened, shoulders going tight as her hands clenched into fists. No surprise, Danica took one look at Mari’s face and backed off. The women behind Lady Etain, hangers-on or whatever they were, backed off too. Lady Etain didn’t seem to notice. As Mari worked her shoulders to try to loosen them she glanced at the Dana sailors. They’d all dropped what they were doing, crossing the street through the flow of carts to cluster behind Mari.
“Don’t think you get t’decide that, Delbhana,” Mari said soft and quiet. “Not the head of Dana, not the head of Affrica. We decide to ally, t’marry our Clans together, that’s none o’ your business. Unless, o’ course, you got more ‘regulations’ you’re goin’ t’put in that make it so no Clan can conduct their business wi’out your express say-so. If so, I suspect that there’ll be some objections t’that at Court, even among your friends.”
Lady Etain opened her mouth to shout something but Danica put a hand on her arm.
“Not here,” Danica said in an acid snarl that promised knives in the back as soon as she got Lady Etain alone.
“He will join the Delbhana,” Lady Etain hissed at Danica. “You’ll do as you’re told, do you understand me?”
“May I remind you that I am not a whore?” Danica said with enough rage that even Lady Etain’s fury broke into surprise and then awareness of their surroundings. “Do I care for Dana Gavin? Yes. Will I force him into a marriage he does not desire? No, I will not. Do not presume that you determine my sex life, Aunt Etain. You do not and you never will. The choice is Dana Gavin’s and Affrica Mari is quite correct. Do not blame me, Gavin or her for your ‘regulations’ coming back on you.”
Mari rocked up on the balls of her feet as Lady Etain stiffened. She looked like she was about to start throwing punches even though more Dana sailors and warehouse workers came running from either end of the block. The woman obviously had a worse temper than even Mari did and that was appalling.
“Behind you,” Mari mock-coughed, nodding to Danica.
“Oh for…” Danica shook her head, glaring at Lady Etain again. “Once again, not here. Unless you do want to be beaten to death and dumped in the bay. I don’t think cousin Siobhan’s ready for being both the heir to the throne and head of the Delbhana but I suppose someone else, perhaps someone sane, could be chosen.”
“You dare?” Lady Etain gasped.
One of her friends grabbed her elbow, trying to get Lady Etain to realize just how outnumbered they were. She jerked free, taking a step towards Danica who only curled one lip. Mari shook her head, held both hands up in an appeal to the Tripartate Goddesses for some sort of sanity and then picked Lady Etain up by the back of her coat.
“Y’might want t’pay attention,” Mari said as she held Lady Etain aloft, forcing her to realize that they were now ten deep in a mass of angry Dana clan members and employees.
“Exactly,” Mari said, setting Lady Etain down and brushing her coat back into place over her shoulders. “Don’ go ruining a perfectly cordial lunch, Lady Etain. Danica made more inroads with honey than you’ll ever get wi’ vinegar.”
“What in the world is that supposed to mean?” Lady Etain demanded while Danica stared at her.
“Simple,” Mari said, her smile going wry and probably a little sad. “Gavin likes Danica’s wit. It showed. Liked the respect that Danica gave him. Don’t think it’s enough for him to leave the Dana as he’s very firm about that but he wasn’t conflicted before we ate lunch together. Now he is. Don’t blame him, honestly. Good for business or not, I don’t have much t’offer besides rough edges and a good work ethic. Danica at least is familiar with life in Aingeal City, with the politics and whatnot y’all deal with every day.”
“That’s… no,” Danica said, waving a hand at Mari as if she thought that Mari was giving her far too much credit.
Lady Etain, on the other hand, straightened up and looked triumphant. Really, the woman couldn’t seem to help but be obnoxious. The Dana around them growled and muttered, more than a few glaring at Mari as if she shouldn’t have spoken even though it had been obvious that Gavin was having second thoughts.
Mari flapped a hand at them, snorting when she saw a couple Affrica workers at the back of the crowd, noses red as they wobbled on unstable legs. A quick scan showed that more than a third of the Dana were in similar condition but there were still enough people there to beat Lady Etain into the ground if she didn’t get manage to behave properly.
“Yes,” Mari insisted to Danica. “Gavin already told me tha’ he would marry you t’end the feud but only if y’joined the Dana, not t’other way around. He’s more than willing t’make you his wife. Key point, I think, is it has t’end the feud, not just move it t’another phase. Y’take his offer seriously, treat him with respect, it’s possible. Otherwise I suspect he’ll choose me or my sister Caer. Or nobody. Dana Laoise did make i’ clear she’d let him go unmarried his entire life if that’s what he decided he wanted.”
The outrage for that came not just from Danica and Lady Etain but also from the Dana surrounding them. Vanessa and Una, Mari’s girls still wobbling in the back of the crowd, squawked loudly enough that the Dana closest to them noticed just how unstable they were. That was good, at least, even if it did nothing for Mari’s situation.
There had to be something that would get Lady Etain to march her damn fool butt right back out of Dana territory without someone getting knifed. Especially Danica. Odd as it was, Mari rather liked the shorter woman. Her formality turned out more as a defense than the stupid stubbornness that seemed to be Lady Etain’s defining characteristic. Getting Danica out of here without getting beaten was important to Mari.
“I’m honestly not sure that anything would end the feud at this point,” Danica said, shaking her head in dismay. “She’d really allow him to go unmarried?”
“Made a point o’ cornering me and stabbing a finger in my chest about it,” Mari confirmed. “Claims she doesn’t have favorites among her kids but I think Gavin might be a little more special in her heart than the others. Y’know, just a smidge.”
Danica snorted a laugh. “No, I can’t imagine that. A mother who prefers her first born, highly intelligent, very responsible son over the brawling sisters that make her life a return to the Morrigan’s Hell on a daily basis? Say it isn’t so!”
Mari grinned at her. Danica grinned back. They both started laughing despite the perplexed look Lady Etain gave them and the, overall mild, grumbles that came from the Dana surrounding them. When Mari offered a fist Danica stared for a moment before bumping it cautiously.
“Still think y’do have a chance,” Mari said, shrugging. “Got no clue which way Gavin’s goin’ t’jump. Frankly, there’s no rush on our side. Ma made it clear we were t’meet him, see if anything came o’ it, but she’s content t’wait a couple o’ years before we do anything formal. Weren’t those regulations in place then there’d be little problem with you, politely y’know, talkin’ to him.”
“Yes, it is a pity about the regulations,” Danica said with her eyes squarely locked on Lady Etain’s rising flush of rage. “Unfortunately, it can’t be helped. I did check the records office before lunch, you see. The offer of a marriage alliance between Dana and Affrica clans has been on file for two and a half years, signed by both heads of the Clan and Dana Gavin is listed as the presumed focus of the marriage.”
Lady Etain choked on something that was probably a vicious stream of cursing. She glared at Mari as if she wanted to ram her sword straight through Mari’s chest. The Dana around them growled loudly, moving closer to Mari, crowding Danica and Lady Etain’s still silent friends.
Lady Etain whirled and waved at her friends to get out of the way. They moved. The Dana didn’t. Lady Etain had to shove her way through the crowd, cursing under her breath the entire way. Danica shook her head, hands on her hips as she watched Lady Etain go. She nodded to Mari and then, much more easily as the Dana got out of her way, followed Lady Etain. The followers-on went after Danica. Only once all of them were safely around the corner did Mari sigh.
“A’ri, break it up, all o’ you,” Mari said. “Get back t’work, the lot o’ you. Vanessa, Una, spicy food fit t’cure the common cold. So damn good! Y’ought to try it. Pretty cheap too, I think.”
She herded Vanessa and Una into Scully’s restaurant, waved the Dana off when they asked questions about Gavin and generally bossed everyone into getting back to work. Once the alley was clear enough for traffic to pass again Mari headed back across the street to duck through the little door that led into the Dana’s warehouse.
Once she got back upstairs, always providing she could find her way through the maze of little offices, bunk rooms and storage rooms linked by hallways that really didn’t look any different to Mari, she’d have to tell Gavin and Laoise what had happened. Lady Etain’s determination to get Gavin didn’t strike Mari as a good thing, no matter how much Danica seemed to love Gavin.
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