Sisters in Arms

“I had an interesting conversation today,” Sir Bors de Ganis remarked to his wife as he pondered his next move.

 “Oh?” Claire murmured. “With the king?”

“No–actually haven’t seen him in over a week–was talking with Richard Ferreira, actually. You remember him?”

“Of course I do. Such a pleasant man. And always such lovely things in his shops. Why, the other day–” But here Claire stopped, for if she commented upon the lovely this-or-that she had seen, but not bought, in any one of Richard Ferreira’s stores, then that would bring to her husband’s mind things he would rather forget.

Bors merely grunted. “Pleasant, maybe–but damned impertinent, definitely.”

“Impertinent? To you? He would dare?”

“Well–it may be he didn’t see it that way.” He shifted rather uncomfortably in his seat, shooting his wife a glance through his lashes. Claire, luckily, seemed not to notice his discomfort, focusing on the board instead.

Bors cleared his throat and finally made his move. “He has a son, you know.”

“Richard Ferreira? I thought he had two?”

“Hmm–that’s as it may be. He only talked about the one, though. Older boy. Name’s Frederick.” Shooting his wife another anxious look, he added, “Boy’s of an age with Clarice, you know.”

Claire, who had just picked up her bishop, dropped it at the mention of their second daughter. “Our Clarice?”

“Er–yes, as it so happens.” No anxious questions came from Claire, though by the troubled look in her sea-blue eyes she could guess where this was going. Bors cleared his throat again. “That’s what the fellow was so impertinent about. Suggested–well–just came right out and said that he wanted to negotiate for her hand. For his son.”

“And you turned him down?” It was neither a statement nor a question–more like a plea.

Bors looked away. “Well … no. I told him I’d think about it.”

“Think about it?”

“Don’t take that tone with me, Claire. You know as well as I do that there aren’t very many options out there for Clarice,” Bors growled. “With Galahad looking to join the monastery … and those damned unsightly freckles of hers …”

“If you think Clarice is so plain,” Claire replied — her tone as near as it could get to angry — “why not send her to the convent and try your chances with Angelique?”

“Because I pledged Angelique to the convent when she was born, because Angelique’s been prepared for it since she could toddle, and because if I sent Clarice instead the nuns would get the impression that one daughter was the same as the other to me.” Claire seemed not to react at all to Bors’s miniature tirade, except for a slight flaring of her nostrils. “No,” Bors continued, not even looking at his wife’s face, “no, Angelique is going to the convent, and Clarice will be married, and that’s the end of it.”

“But to a merchant? You would marry her to a merchant?”

“Did I ask for your opinion?” Bors snapped. “I’ll do what I think is best for this family! And what’s best for this family is that she’s wed, and the sooner the better.” Bors swallowed — a stranger would have said uneasily. “Besides–it’s not as if she’ll be standing behind a counter making change for the rest of her days — the Ferreiras are quite well off.”

“But fortunes that depend on trade …” Claire murmured. “So unstable … one ship that fails to come in, or a run of bad weather, or even just someone else able to deliver the same product more cheaply … why, the Ferreiras could be destitute tomorrow.”

“Well, obviously I’ll not marry her off to them if I don’t think they’ll be able to support her!” Bors snapped, though by his slightly guilty expression he clearly had not thought of this angle of attack. “Besides–I can’t imagine that they’re struggling–as a point of fact …” Bors flushed and looked away.

“Yes?”

“Ferreira offered a loan,” Bors admitted. “Interest free. A token of good will. It’s small, but it should be enough to pay for Angelique to get into the convent.” He stared at the chessboard, as if he was deeply pondering his next move, but in truth it was to avoid his wife’s eyes. “And,” he added, “I told Ferreira I’d talk to the king about getting him a barony — for his, er, contributions to the economy.”

Claire sighed, knowing well when she was defeated. “I see. Shall I talk to Clarice about it? Try to prepare her?”

“No, indeed,” Bors replied. “First of all the whole deal could still go up in smoke. And secondly …”

“Secondly?”

“Secondly, I shan’t tell her a thing until the betrothal papers are ready to sign,” Bors announced. “The less time she knows about this, the less time she has to take it into her head to try to oppose me. If there’s anything I’ve learned from raising her sisters, it’s that ignorant daughters are a father’s bliss.”

Unfortunately perhaps for Bors, the object of his and Claire’s conversation was standing at the doorway, her form partially hidden by the flowing curtains.

***

Clarice ran up the stairs, flew through the hall to her room, slammed the door and threw herself on the bed with a scream muffled only by the pillows.

Why does he always do this? she thought. Why does he always insist on making me feel like a sack of potatoes to be sold to the highest bidder — not only that, but a sack of rotten potatoes to be dumped on some poor sap before he realizes what he’s bought!

She screamed into the pillow again. If only she had the courage to scream to his face! But no one in the household would dare to do that. Bors’s wrath when his will was only slightly crossed was frightening enough; no one wanted to find out what would happen if someone dared to defy him openly.

Look at how angry he had been when he found out that Crown Prince Thomas wanted Lynn’s hand! Most men would be ecstatic that their daughter had a chance at becoming the next queen — but Bors had only fumed that Lynn was supposed to marry William du Lac, so what was she doing currying favor with some other young man?

Well, to be fair, he had only fumed at first. Then someone — probably Evaine, his mother — had informed him that most fathers would be jumping for joy at this news, and to pull himself together before he insulted the king.

If only Grand-mére was still alive! She’d keep Father from–

A gentle rap came from the door. “Clarice? Is something wrong?”

“Go away!” Clarice shouted.

“Oh, don’t be an idiot, Clarie …” The door opened, and her older sister Gwendolyn (better known as Lynn) stood at the threshold. “What happened?”

Clarice sighed. “Father.”

“Well, obviously, I mean to ask, what did he do this time?”

“He wants to marry me off.”

Lynn frowned. “Hasn’t he always wanted that?”

“It gets worse.”

“Oh dear.” Lynn shut the door and brought a chair over from the chess set in the corner. “How worse?”

“Well, first of all, he’s a merchant,” Clarice replied, “though perhaps not for long, Father’s trying to push a deal through with the king so his–the merchant’s–”

“Does the merchant have a name?”

“Frederick,” Clarice answered, “Frederick Ferreira, anyway, Father is trying to make a deal so that his father will become a baron sometime before the wedding, probably to stop Mother from complaining …” Looking at her sister, another idea came to mind. “And probably to stop the king from complaining, too.”

“Why would the king … oh.” Lynn blushed. Even though it wouldn’t be official for another year or so, not until Lynn and Prince Thomas both came of age, Lynn’s marriage was regarded as a done deal in the de Ganis household, with some justice. After all, Bors certainly wasn’t backing out, and the king didn’t plan to back out unless Prince Thomas wanted him to back out, and for the king to back out was apparently the last thing Prince Thomas wanted.

Clarice nodded. “You have to admit, it wouldn’t look good for the future queen’s sister-in-law to be measuring all the ladies for their wedding dresses.”

“Perhaps not,” Lynn admitted. “But surely, Clarice, that can’t be all that’s upsetting you.”

“Well, no,” she admitted. “The second thing is that Father didn’t intend to tell me until, his words, ‘the betrothal papers are ready to sign.'”

Lynn gasped. “He wouldn’t!”

“He did! Or he would, if I hadn’t overheard. And it gets worse! Do you want to know why he wasn’t planning to tell me?”

“No,” Lynn murmured, “but I probably should know.”

“Because — and again I quote — ‘an ignorant daughter is a father’s bliss,’ as he’s learned from you and Angelique!” Clarice flopped back on the pillows and hurled mental epithets at the canopy. “Can you believe that man?”

“That … that’s truly hurtful.” Lynn looked away. “It’s not like … it’s not like Angelique and I …”

Speak for yourself, I’m not so sure about Angelique, Clarice thought, but knew better than to mention to her sister. Angelique had certainly put up far more of a fuss regarding Bors’s plan to have her take vows, and soon, than Lynn ever had towards the idea of marrying their second-cousin William. Truth to tell, Bors hadn’t even found out about Lynn’s feelings for Prince Thomas until the king tried to sound him out about a betrothal.

But Angelique … Angelique was different. Vain, demanding and spiteful, she clearly resented being, as she put it, “sold to the lowest bidder.” And, ever since her curves had begun to develop, she’d started to chase every boy who came across her path. Bors blamed it all on (in his view) typical female stubbornness, swearing she’d be as docile and timid as the meekest nun if she’d known from the start that she was meant for marriage. Clarice doubted that, but all the same part of her couldn’t blame her parents for trying to get Angelique into the convent as soon as possible — better now than later, when she may well be unfit for it.

“I don’t see,” Lynn continued, drawing Clarice out of her reverie with a start, “why Father insists on being so hard on us. It’s not like we are the way we are just to spite him …”

“Do you mean girls, or do you mean you being in love with Prince Thomas and Angelique in love with every boy that crosses her path?”

“The latter, but … I suppose it could well be both.”

The girls sat in silence for a long moment, considering this. “Well,” Clarice finally said, a trifle heatedly, “it’s not like we askedto be born girls, one after another, before Father finally got Elyan.”

“No,” Lynn admitted, “but all the same, one can’t help but understand … it must have been a disappointment.”

“It still wasn’t our fault.”

“No, that it wasn’t.”

“And another thing,” Clarice added, “it’s not like we single or even triple-handedly caused his money problems. They started before even you became old enough for him to think of marrying you off!”

“Also true.”

“And I don’t see,” Clarice continued, growing even more heated, “why we three have to be perpetually punished for things that weren’t even our fault, that we couldn’t help even if we wanted to, while Elyan, who has yet to do a thing to help this family — which you have to admit, you’ve done, Lynn! — gets treated like a hero and the saviour of the de Ganises, simply for being born a boy!”

“I don’t see why either,” Lynn said softly, “but you must admit, that’s just the way the world works.”

“Then the world is out-of-order and needs to be fixed!” Clarice shouted — and then heard how foolish she sounded. By Lynn’s expression, she heard it too … and no sooner had the two sisters’ eyes met than both broke out into peals of laughter.

“Oh, Lynn,” Clarice said as soon as she was able to catch her breath, “what am I going to do when you go to university? You’ll at least have people to talk to there, while I’ll be all alone …”

“Write me lots of letters,” Lynn said simply. “And pray that Father is able to find a husband for you. Because whoever he is, at least he’ll get you out of here …”

Clarice nodded. “And anyplace is better than here.”

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