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
25. Finding Home
Mari smiled as Gavin muttered something as he fell asleep on her shoulder. Her legs were going numb already but that wasn’t that much of a problem. As soon as he started snoring Mari shifted so that he rested between her legs instead of on top of her. His hair smelled of plain soap and fragrant oil, maybe one of the wood ones from Idoya. She couldn’t be sure, not that it mattered. What mattered was keeping his arm still while the plaster heated and dried, safely encasing his arm so that it would heal.
“You sure about this?” Laoise asked as she helped the doctor wash the plaster off her hands. “You don’t have to marry him if you’re not serious about it. Seemed pretty clear that you enjoyed the open road too much to settle down.”
“I do,” Mari sighed. “Truly do. But I think he’s worth it. Gonna hate stayin’ in one place all the time, though.”
Laoise snorted. “As if you would. I’ll probably ship you out as soon as I can. It’s always good to have new eyes on trading missions, even if you’re not trained for trade in other countries. You’re still a trader, born and bred. I’m sure you’d be a credit on the sea just as you are on the roads in Aingeal.”
Mari blinked at her, shocked, slowly grinning when she realized that Laoise was serious. “That’d work. Never been on a ship before bu’ I’m sure I can learn. Give me a hammock to sleep in an’ I’ll be fine. Still not fond of Aingeal City, though. Too big an’ complicated. Never have been any good at findin’ my way ’round this city though I suppose I’ll learn it now. This building is even worse, y’know. I’ve seen mazes that’re easier to get ’round than your Clan house.”
“There’s a trick to it,” the doctor said, grinning when Mari perked up and nodded to her to explain. “You can track where you are by how gray the walls are and how they’re finished. The oldest living areas are over the warehouse entrance that faces the port. The newest areas are overhead here. Second floor will have shingles on the walls. Third floor is all plaster but the types of plaster differ depending on which quadrant of the house you’re in. And the stairs are easy to figure out. You’ll find stairs anytime you follow two right turns in a row though they might be tucked into an alcove or ladders instead of proper stairs.”
“Warehouse itself is easy,” Laoise agreed even though her lips were twitching as if she thought that the doctor’s explanation was wildly unnecessary. “Everything’s labeled. Offices and dorm can be a bit confusing but they’re all in one small area. You can’t get too lost in there.”
Mari nodded slowly as she thought about the various places she’d seen. When they’d gone to talk to Jarmon the walls had been gray, dingy and dark from the passage of time. The walls near to the suite she shared with her sister were plastered with a different finish than the ones close to Gavin’s suite. Maybe it wasn’t as impossible to navigate through the Clan house as she’d thought.
Gavin grumbled under his breath, shifting until his forehead rested against Mari’s neck. She grinned, heart slipping a beat from sheer joy. This tiny, fierce man could be her husband, always assuming Ma and Laoise agreed to it. But they would. She knew they would. How could they not?
Holding Gavin made Mari’s heart sing the same way riding a cart down the open road did. She felt like she was topping the long steep rise that led into the valley where her family lived every time he looked at her. The glimpses she’d gotten of his legs, the feel of his body against hers, promised more than her hammock between the carts or her bed back home.
Gavin was home, or he would become home. She could see building a home for him here in this maze of a clan house, plotting out where to cut another set of stairs and what to put into the kitchen, the bedroom, the bath that they would have to figure out together.
“All right,” the doctor said, putting her tools away and standing. “Get him to bed, if you will. I’m off. I have entirely too many influenza patients to deal with for tending to Dana injuries, Laoise. Try to keep them all from fighting for a week or so.”
“Might as well ask me to turn back the tides,” Laoise snorted. “Send me the bill.”
“As always,” the doctor said.
She strode off, leaving Mari with Gavin in her arms and Laoise frowning at her. Unlike the rest of the clan house, this room seemed like one that no one visited. Mari couldn’t hear anything other than a bit of traffic noise outside, light for midafternoon, perhaps. When she breathed in there was a faint scent of sewage behind the stink of the little pot of dried flowers and spices they were using to scent the room. When they did choose where to build their suite, Mari would have to make sure it wasn’t over this area. She wouldn’t want to deal with sewage stink all the time.
“You’re sure?” Laoise asked again.
“Yeah,” Mari chuckled. “I am. He’s… can’t say he’s just what I always imagined for a husband because he’s not. He’s all the things I needed that I never knew about. Be good for him. Good for me. Good for both clans. An’ it’ll twist that Delbhana snob’s tits into a knot an’ I can’t help bu’ think tha’s a good thing.”
Laoise clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from waking Gavin up with her shout of laughter. It worked well enough even though Laoise only managed to muffle her laughter slightly. Gavin mumbled and stirred slightly before falling back asleep.
Mari carefully repositioned her arms, holding him around his back and under his knees, so that she could stand up. He tucked his arm closer to his chest in his sleep, keeping it safe instinctively.
“Really do want this,” Mari murmured. “Him, tha’ is. Not so sure about stayin’ in one place f’the rest o’ my life but I think I can deal wi’ it.”
They left the stuffy little sitting room, Laoise shutting the window before following Mari out into the gaudy entryway. It looked even more obnoxious now that Mari was more familiar with the Dana. The sheer amount of gilding on every hard surface confused her eyes, making it hard to even look at the grand oil paintings of ships at sea, elaborate hand-woven rugs and murals painted on the ceiling.
It was about as opposite to the Dana themselves as it was possible for a place to be. Mari snorted as she looked up the huge staircase to the second floor with its mirror as big as Mari was. That might be the point. This entire area was a concession to the political games that the Dana clan had to play, their nod to the Delbhana’s overblown proprieties, rather than something that they actually wanted to do.
“What?” Laoise asked when she joined Mari.
“Ugly,” Mari said, nodding to the décor.
“Got that right,” Laoise chuckled. “I’ll lead you upstairs.”
Before they could take a step one of Laoise’s sisters, Mari presumed given the strong resemblance, ran up. “The Little Bird just came round the point with the Royal Sword on her stern!”
“Damn it,” Laoise groaned.
“Go,” Mari said with a chuckle. “I’ll get him back t’bed. Third floor, yes?”
“Yes,” Laoise sighed. “Third floor. When you get to the top of the stairs go left, then right. Then go straight past two stairwells and we’re the fifth door on the right.”
Laoise and her sister strode off, leaving Mari to slowly climb the stairs with Gavin nestled in her arms. This part of the Clan house was quiet. That was nice. Too fancy by far but still very nice that way.
After the second floor landing the amount of gilding on the railings and walls decreased dramatically. By the time she climbed to the third floor it was all gone. In its place were smooth plastered walls that gleamed white. Mari could just see the swirling marks of the plasterer’s trowel under the fresh white paint. She nodded once, setting that as ‘new’ in her mind as she set off to follow Laoise’s instructions.
The right turn led down a broad hallway that looked to extend the full length of the Clan house. It was wide enough that Mari could have walked with all her sisters side by side through it. Three Dana women ran by, two with red noses and handkerchiefs, one with a heavy shawl wrapped around her neck as if she was feverish. They all glanced at Mari and frowned at Gavin but none of them slowed down to ask what had happened.
When Mari took the right turn Laoise had indicated three little boys ran by, young enough that they were still wearing short kilts instead of the ankle-length adult kilts they’d wear later on. They gasped and stopped, running back to peer up at Gavin. Mari chuckled and knelt so that they could make sure Gavin was okay. All of them had Dana red hair so he had to be an uncle or cousin or something.
“What happened?” the oldest boy asked.
“Gavin punched Lady Etain in the face,” Mari said, grinning proudly when they all gasped. “Broke her nose, knocked her down an’ was getting’ ready to stomp on her head. Broke his wrist at the same time.”
“Wow,” the oldest boy breathed. “Gavin did that?”
“Mm-hmm,” Mari said. “Am I on the ri’ path to his suite?”
“Oh yeah,” the oldest boy agreed. “Keep going this way. They’re the fifth door on the right.”
“We gotta tell everyone!” the littlest boy squealed as Mari stood back up.
They ran off, leaving Mari to chuckle as she counted doorways and watched the plaster change the farther she went up the hall. She could see where oil lamps had darkened the plaster, where people had bumped into the wall in the past, leaving scuffs that apparently no one felt needed to be fixed. It was like when she’d been a little girl, traveling with Ma for the first time and learning the landmarks that showed the way home.
She smiled when she passed the first and then second stairwells. One was a narrow little ladder so steep that she’d have had to go down it backwards. The second was wide, spacious even, and Mari realized that this was the stairwell she’d come up with Gavin and Laoise in the past. The front door to Gavin’s suite was scuffed, the paint worn around the doorknob, from years of use.
Opening the door turned out to be a bigger challenge than Mari expected. She couldn’t grip the door handle without dropping Gavin who sighed and muttered something sleepy against her neck. After a second Mari mentally shrugged and kicked the bottom of the door several times. She grinned when little Andros opened the door and stared up at her with his mouth dropped open so wide that she could see his missing tooth.
“Gonna let us in?” Mari asked.
“What happened?” Andros gasped.
“Your brother has a temper,” Mari explained.
Cadfael came out of the kitchen, wrapped in a huge embroidered shawl that looked like it was worth nearly as much as Mari’s monthly wage back home. Deverell followed him, gasping and hurrying over when he saw Gavin. The suite still stank of liniment and soup but it wasn’t as bad as it had been. Someone had opened windows, letting fresh air in.
“What did he do?” Deverell asked. “Who broke his arm?”
“He did.” Mari laughed as all three of them stared at her. “Truly. Did a lovely job o’ breakin’ Lady Etain’s face. Broke her nose, gave her a concussion, chased her ri’ out o’ the house. Danica dragged her away wi’ a hankie over her mouth to shut her up. Broke his wrist at the same time, apparently as bad as Anwyn broke her ankle.”
“Oh Goddess, get him to bed,” Deverell groaned. “Tea or opiates?”
“Tea,” Mari said as Cadfael ran to the boy’s bedroom. “Knocked him ri’ out. Good stuff there. My Pa’d probably like t’trade for some if it’s possible.”
“Should be,” Deverell said. “We don’t trade it very wide because it has to be dosed correctly but we can discuss it.”
“Let me get his slippers,” Andros said.
He giggled when Mari knelt right in the middle of the room so that Andros could reach. Mari certainly didn’t expect to be allowed to stay while they stripped Gavin and put him to bed but Gavin didn’t seem to want to let go. He grumbled at Andros tugging at his slippers, kicking aimlessly. When Deverell came to ease him out of Mari’s arms Gavin’s elbow came up and out, jarring him back to awareness.
“Easy,” Mari said. “Got you back home. Just tryin’ t’put you back t’bed for a while.”
“Don’t want to,” Gavin complained as he squirmed closer to Mari, deliberately tucking his head under her chin. “Comfy here.”
“Mmm, y’are comfy, an’ cute,” Mari agreed while trying not to laugh out loud at the scandalized expressions on Deverell, Cadfael and Andros’ faces. “Bu’ I gotta go tell my sisters ’bout your adventures. An’ that we’re gettin’ married. Your ma suggested I might go to sea. Kinda like to wander out on the dock and see what there is t’see.”
Gavin blinked at her, head lolling to the side to settle on her shoulder as she talked. He nodded and sighed, starting to snore again by the time she finished. Getting him settled on his bunk took all four of them. Cadfael made sure that Gavin’s arm was supported properly on a folded up blanket taken from Aravel’s abandoned bunk.
Once Gavin was settled, a tiny smile on his lips in his sleep, Mari brushed a persistent curl out of his eyes before standing. He looked smaller tucked into bed than he seemed when he was up and moving around, impossibly small and delicate which was ridiculous.
Mari knew how strong Gavin was. He’d shown her every sort of strength possible, from conducting the negotiations while too sick to sit up straight, to dealing with everything his family, the Delbhana and the world could throw at him, and his sheer physical strength when he pulled Mari down for a stolen kiss.
She rubbed her thumb over the side of her neck, feeling the faint bloom of pain that went along with love bites. Laughter bubbled under her breastbone. Gavin was a strong anchor line supporting the rest of the bridge that was his clan. As they went forward with the marriage negotiations, Mari would have to make sure to match him. Wouldn’t do for Mari not to carry her weight though she wasn’t sure she could keep up with him.
Andros tugged at Mari’s sleeve while Cadfael slipped back out to the kitchen he seemed so fond of. Deverell rested his hand on Mari’s elbow, looking up at her with concern. She patted Andros’ head, smiled at Deverell.
“I’m fine,” Mari murmured. “Just… happy. Never thought I’d be happy for the thought o’ staying in this city.”
Her voice made Gavin stir. He blinked, frowned and then stared up at Mari with a frown. She grinned and shrugged. Gavin snorted, shaking his head at Mari.
“If you’re going to go check on your sisters, go,” Gavin mumbled as he rubbed his cheek against the pillow with a frown that made Mari think he found it a poor substitute for her shoulder. “If not, I want hugs.”
Mari laughed as she turned to Deverell. He snorted and shook his head, nodding that he was fine with it if Mari wanted to cuddle Gavin for a while. Andros giggled and ran to get another pillow for Mari to use, making the question more or less moot.
“I suppose I could sit for a bit,” Mari said as she carefully sat on the edge of the bed.
“Good,” Gavin sighed, his frown turning into a contented smile as he tugged at her until she was arranged so that he could cuddle up next to her side, his head resting on Mari’s shoulder and his broken arm carefully arranged across her belly.
“Go back to sleep, Gavin,” Mari chuckled. “I’ll be ri’ here when you wake up.”
Find This Book:
I love writing. I love sharing my writing. I hope that you love reading what I share. If you enjoyed the story but can’t afford to buy the book please consider leaving a donation. It will help me keep writing and sharing my stories with you for a long time to come. Thank you!