“So that’s the cargo from the Gray Haven. Anything else I need to know, Mason?”
Richard Ferreira’s under-manager wrung his hands together. “Er … well, yes. The, um, Beltane docked today as well. From Glasonland.” Before Richard could do more than wonder why Mason was acquainting him with this information that had nothing whatsoever to do with him — he didn’t own the Beltane and only had limited dealings with her Glasonlander owner — Mason added, “And, um, a group of women got off it — with some children — and eldest claimed that she was … your sister-in-law.”
Richard blinked. “Come again?”
Mason squirmed. “She says she’s your sister-in-law. Um … she was quite insistent that she see you — and she said that she promised Master Dobsworth you’d pay the other half of her passage once she arrived here …”
“Well, she certainly gave that promise without my knowledge or consent! Who is this woman, Mason? Did she give her name?”
“You don’t know her?” Mason yelped.
“Know her? You haven’t even told me who she is!”
“But … but I thought … she said she was from Port Graal! Don’t — don’t you still maintain contacts there?”
“Of course I do, but I haven’t been there in years. And I haven’t been …” He stopped. He hailed from Port Graal, as much as he could be said to hail from anywhere. All the same, he had no living relatives there.
But Bianca had, last he knew, two sisters still there.
“What did the woman say her name was?”
“Mistress Chausseur, sir. She wouldn’t give a first name.”
Richard found himself wishing for rotting floorboards to suddenly give away — a bolt of lightning — a stray shot from a crossbow — anything to deliver him from the doom he feared waited down below. “Chausseur?” he squeaked.
“You do know her?”
Wright help me! Richard closed his eyes and rested his head on his hands. “Was she, by any chance, very forceful and insistent, with a … thickish build, brown hair and light brown eyes?”
“The hair’s going a bit gray, sir, but aye.” Well, that would make sense. He couldn’t expect her to look as she had looked twenty years ago.
“And does she by any chance resemble my wife?”
Mason smacked his forehead. “That’s who she was reminding me of!”
Noo! Richard cringed. “Then you’d better send her up. Lord help us all if we keep her waiting.”
“Yes, sir. Shall I send them all up, or just Mistress Chausseur?”
“Allow her to take whomever she chooses up. Trust me, it’ll be less painful for us all that way.”
“Aye, sir!” Mason hurried down the stairs and out of the room, leaving Richard to wonder what sins he had committed lately that demanded so great a penance.
What the hell is Pamela doing here?
He heard feet tramping up the stairs and barely had time to compose himself before the door flew open. “Well, Richard, I must say, that took long enough! I’ve got small children down there, you know! I didn’t need to be kept waiting!”
“Pamela. Hello to you, too. And hello to –” Richard stopped. What was Pamela doing with Bianca of twenty years past?
No, no, that wasn’t Bianca. But Lord, did it look like her! With green eyes and lighter hair, she could be her twin. Or her daughter. Or her — “Blanche?” Richard gasped.
He saw a slow smile spread across her face. “Aye, Uncle Richard.”
“You’ve — you’ve — you’ve grown!” he gasped. Then kicked himself. Of course she’s grown! You last saw her when she was eight years old! What, would you expect that she shrink? Then he glanced at the young boy, who couldn’t have been more than ten. “And this is …?”
“Geoffrey Chausseur, sir,” the boy answered with a smile as slow and hesitant as his mother’s.
“My grandson,” Pamela added, patting the boy’s shoulder, luckily clearing Richard’s confusion before he could do something most foolish, like ask how Pamela’s long-dead husband had managed to come back to her side as a ten-year-old boy. “Now, are you going to sit there staring at us like you’ve never seen your relatives before, or are you going to offer us a seat?”
Amazing how old habits came back. Richard was already seriously tempted to take the former option, just to see whether the sight of Pamela, pre-explosion, would be worth said explosion. “Have a seat,” though, was all he said. “Lad,” he added to Geoffrey, “there should be a stool in the other room.” He nodded to the far door.
“Thank you, sir,” Geoffrey said as he hurried through the door. Meanwhile, Pamela and Blanche sat.
“Very polite boy you have there,” he remarked to Blanche — at least, he hoped Geoffrey was her son — but then, he had to be. Surely Pamela’s other daughters weren’t old enough to have a ten-year-old yet, were they?
“Thank you,” Blanche murmured, showing where Geoffrey’s politeness had come from, if nothing else. Richard opened his mouth to ask another question of her, but Pamela interrupted.
“Richard, we …” Her mouth twisted, bitter and sour as if she had bitten into a lemon.
“Uncle Richard,” Blanche took a deep breath, “we need your help.”
“Or at least, you ought to help us. You could have hardly gotten to where you are today without our help,” Pamela sniffed. “And you certainly have been stingy about sharing the wealth since you got here, you know.”
Lord, give me strength. It was only through sheer force of will that Richard kept his eyes from rolling heavenward. Really, it had been twenty years since he and Pamela had seen each other. On their first meeting, did she have to bring up the financial assistance Maude had given to him, by virtue of accompanying him to Albion (and bringing her share of the revenue raised from selling Alfred Parkinson’s tailor shop)? And must Pamela act as if not having whatever share of that revenue which would have eventually made its way to her, after Maude’s death, was such a sacrifice? How could you sacrifice what you might never come to own in the first place?
Geoffrey came in with the stool, placed it on the floor by his mother, and sat — all this was scarcely a sound, and without even dragging the stool against the wood just to watch his elders wince. What kind of boy was this?
“Er, of course I’ll be happy to help you,” he started. “I’ll get Mason right onto having the rest of your passage paid — and your passage back, too, if you need help with that –”
“Back? Richard, we can’t go back! We’ve been driven from our house and home!”
“What?” Richard gasped.
“And I hope,” Pamela continued, “that you’ll be kinder to us than my other beast of a brother-in-law was!”
Blanche winced and Geoffrey looked at his shoes, while Richard sputtered, “Antonio?” He certainly never would have called Sophia’s husband a beast —
“No, not Antonio. He’s useless, but not a beast. Henry — Geoffrey’s brother –”
“My grandfather Henry, not my brother Henry,” Geoffrey interrupted.
“Yes, that’s right, your grandfather, and your other grandfather’s brother,” Pamela added, thus sealing Richard’s confusion.
“Mother,” Blanche laid a hand on Pamela’s shoulder, “why don’t we begin at the beginning?”
“He ought to know this. He’s family,” Pamela retorted.
“We haven’t exactly been writing frequently,” Blanche pointed out, then leaned forward. “Uncle Richard, when my father died, my uncle Henry, to help us out — because we didn’t have any men around –”
“Aye, the Parkinson curse of all daughters lived on another generation,” Pamela sighed, “not that Bianca suffered from it.”
Oh, Wright, here we go again.
Blanche actually narrowed her eyes at her mother, then did the most sensible thing she could — ignore her — and turned back to Richard. “When my father died, my uncle Henry sent his son John to live with us. Mother took over the rest of his apprenticeship and training, so he could become a fully-fledged chausseur. And when John’s apprenticeship ended, he and I married, and he took over the business.”
Pamela sniffed, and Richard knit his brows. No mention of how Blanche and John fell in love after such close proximity — and for that matter, how did John gain ownership of the shop after marrying Blanche? With no son of the elder Geoffrey Chausseur to inherit the shop, under Glasonlander law it should have been inherited equally among all the daughters and his widow. The Lord Wright knew he knew that from the wrangling he’d had to do with Pamela over the old Ferreira tailor shop. And Pamela ought to know that as well.
But whatever the story was — she wasn’t saying. Perhaps it was because John’s son (presumably) was sitting right there.
… Wait, then where is John?
“John and I were very happy together for a while,” Blanche continued, “but, six months ago … he died.”
“Oh, Blanche, I’m so sorry to hear that — and you too, Geoffrey.”
“Thank you, sir,” Geoffrey murmured to his lap.
Richard barely had a moment to pity the boy before Pamela exploded, “And then that good-for-nothing brother-in-law of mine tried to take the children away from Blanche! He didn’t even wait for poor John’s body to get cold!”
Blanche swallowed. “My — my father-in-law –”
“Henry? Your uncle?” Richard asked.
She nodded. “Aye. He … John didn’t leave a will. Of course the shop would go to Geoffrey, but my father-in-law wanted to make sure it was being run correctly, and to safeguard his grandson’s legacy. He wanted financial control of the shop.”
“As if we’d let him have it! The –” Pamela bit her lip. “My Geoffrey started that shop! He and I built it up from scratch, and once he died, aye, Henry’s John helped keep it going, but he was a green boy! He just stood behind the counter so the customers didn’t think we could be cheated!”
“Ah,” was all Richard was able to murmur.
“And that Henry thought he could just — just take over! Well, Blanche and I said no to that! We told him we would fight him every step of the way!”
“That was our mistake,” Blanche murmured.
“He threatened,” Pamela announced, taking a deep breath, “to sue for not just financial control of Geoffrey’s inheritance, but for — for custody of Geoffrey, Henry and Pippa.”
“My brother and little sister,” Geoffrey filled in.
Richard stared. “He threatened to take your children away?”
Blanche swallowed, but her eyes remained dry.
He turned to Pamela. “Are you on the run from him?”
“Of course not! Once he threatened that — well — once we talked to the lawyer from the Guild –”
“The Chausseurs’ Guild?” Richard interrupted.
“Of course! What other Guild would we go to?” Pamela snapped.
Richard sighed and rested his head in his hands. “Never mind. What did the lawyer say?”
“He said Henry was almost certain to win,” Blanche quavered.
“And Henry’s powerful in the Guild, isn’t he?”
Silence. Then, hesitantly, “Yes …” Blanche answered.
“Then –” Then that lawyer was probably told to say Henry would win. Oh, Wright. The Glasonlander courts were not kind to women, not when they tried to gain control of estates that — in their eyes — they had little lawful say over. If Henry had pressed for financial guardianship of Geoffrey, he almost certainly would have won. But physical custody, and not just of Geoffrey, but of his brother and sister? That he probably would not have won. If there was one thing the courts believed women were good at, it was childrearing, and they would have to have evidence of grave mistreatment before they removed a child from the home of its parents. Even a single mother could count on keeping her children as long as there was no father in the picture.
But there was no point in telling them this now. “So what did you do?” he asked.
“Whatever I had to,” Blanche replied. “Anything to — to –”
“To keep your children.”
Richard sighed. “So how much did he take you for?”
“What?” Pamela squawked.
“How much did your beast of a brother-in-law de–” No, no, he wouldn’t say that. He’d have a shrieking Pamela on his hands if he actually used the word fraud. “What did it take to get him to stop his threats?”
“Control over the estate,” Blanche admitted. “And …”
“What did he do?” Richard asked.
“He decided it would be more in Geoffrey’s interest if he sold the shop, used the money to support me and the younger children, and he would apprentice Geoffrey out to one of his old apprentices,” Blanche replied. She tilted her chin up. “I couldn’t stop him from selling the shop. But he wasn’t going to squander half of it to apprentice Geoffrey! I learned the trade from my cradle! So once Henry gave me the money from the sale, we left!”
“We told Henry that we were going to the market,” Pamela added. “We were staying with him at the time. But Cressida was staying with Alice for the time being, and Alice was glad to get Cressida out from underfoot, so Alice was happy enough to take all the trunks of things we told Henry we’d sold, arrange for passage on a ship, and get Cressida, Ned and the trunks onto the ship so we could meet them in the harbor.”
Richard blinked. “Cre-ssi-da?”
“My youngest daughter! Have you completely stopped thinking about us after you left?” Pamela snapped.
“Not at all,” he answered, then, “who’s Ned?”
“Her son. My nephew,” Blanche replied.
“And why did she go with you?”
“Her husband,” Pamela spat, “instead of behaving like a sensible man and waiting to get all of his ducks in a row before he decided to get married –”
“Mother, you can’t blame them both for being young and –”
“Of course I can blame him!” Pamela snapped. “Cressida, no, I can’t blame her — she was putty in his hands. But he should have known better! You don’t get married right before you go on a campaign to free Simspain from the Smoors! Especially not if one of King Vortigern’s bastards is leading the army! You go on the campaign, you win your spoils, and if you’re still alive at the end of it and have won enough to support a wife, then you get married!”
“If Edward had done that, Cressida wouldn’t even have Ned to remember him by,” Blanche protested.
“Aye, but she’d still have a future! Prospects! Who’s going to want a nineteen-year-old widow with no dower, no dowry at this point, and a one-year-old to boot? She wanted her romance, and she got her romance, but look what it’s cost her!”
To tell Pamela that it was better to have loved and lost — even if it meant one could not make a more lucrative marriage later on — was better than never having loved at all would just be wasting his breath. So Richard did not waste it. He did, however, manage to look heavenward and beg the Lord Wright for more strength to get him through his conversation.
“So,” Richard coughed, before Blanche could choose to engage with Pamela — if she chose to engage with Pamela — and who knew whether she was bright enough, or simply had lived long enough, to know that it was futile? “What, exactly, were you two planning on doing once you got here?”
He was rewarded by seeing Pamela’s stricken look. “We were hoping you could help us …”
All too soon, though, it changed back to shrewishness. “After all, you ought to! You’re a sharp one. If you were still in Glasonland, you could have kept Henry off our backs. Antonio, he was worthless. If it isn’t some vile concoction he can mix in a cup and tell you to drink it for your own good, he’s without a clue. And Hugo and David –”
“Maude and Alice’s husbands,” Blanche put it, and Richard nodded, remembering that Maude and Alice were the names of Pamela’s middle daughters.
“Yes, them. They’re both just starting out. They didn’t know enough and didn’t have the resources to go toe-to-toe with Henry. So we were on our own. But if you hadn’t left …”
It was only through the greatest forbearance that Richard kept from rolling his eyes. Because of that, he had to point out, “Aye, and if I’d stayed there, for all you know I might have been away on a voyage while Henry was hounding you, and been of no use to you when you were in trouble — and no use to you afterward. So. If I were you, I should be happy that things are as they are, and not worse.”
Pamela narrowed her eyes, but it was Blanche who spoke. “Uncle Richard, I — I know this is all a bit sudden and such — but, truly, we’ve nowhere else to go. Uncle Antonio can’t afford to support us all. Maude and Alice have their own concerns. Even if — even if all you can do for us is to help pay our passage, and show us places where we can work to earn our bread, that will be more help than we had yesterday.”
“Just pay the passage? Blanche! We’ve barely anything else saved! We’d be lucky to find a room this size over a tavern!”
“And we would manage, somehow,” Blanche replied, her eyes glittering and her chin stuck out.
Richard blinked. For a moment — for a moment, that was Bianca, Bianca all over. She used to deal with customers who wouldn’t pay up with that look. They would laugh at her when she threatened to call the constable on them, state that their word — as nobility or gentry over a mere commoner, as men over a woman — would beat hers every time. And she would stick her chin out at them, and her eyes would glitter. We’ll see, she would say. For she knew what they refused to see — she didn’t have to win her case in the constable’s ear. She didn’t have to win it in court. No, all she had to do was convince the constable that she had a debtor that needed to be tracked down, get him to at least attempt to perform the arrest in a public, highly visible place, and the resulting embarrassment to the debtor would ensure that she was paid promptly.
But even if he had not seen Bianca in her at that moment, he could have no more refused her than he could have refused his body’s need for food. Hell, refusing food would have been easier. Food did not have an advocate, i.e., the original Maude, who would make his life a living hell until her granddaughters and great-grandchildren were out of that damp, cramped flat over the tavern.
“We shouldn’t have to!” Pamela fired back before Richard could say anything else. She sprang to her feet. “Richard! Come with me! See if you can refuse when you see who you’ll be condemning to a life of poverty and misery!”
“Pamela, I –”
Richard rolled his eyes, but, “After you,” he said politely to Blanche and Geoffrey, following them out of the office and Pamela down the stairs.
Once he reached the bottom floor of the warehouse, he knew it would have taken a harder-hearted man than he to refuse this family in their plight.
“Mum!” called the young, mop-haired boy, while the toddler he was amusing smiled a toothy smile up at Blanche and cried, “Mama!”
“Hello, Henry, Pippa,” Blanche kissed both her children’s foreheads. Henry at least had the decency to wait until her back was turned before wiping his forehead.
“Cressida! Cressida, leave that boy alone for a moment. Richard,” Pamela said sweetly, or as close as she ever got to sweetly, “this is my daughter Cressida.”
“Hello,” she murmured, reaching out to shake Richard’s hand.
She must have looked more like her father than anyone — not that Richard particularly remembered what he looked like — at least, he couldn’t see much of Bianca in her. Except, he realized with a start, for her eyes. They were the exact color of Bianca’s. And her hair, or rather, he had been told that Maude had blonde hair in her youth (however many eons ago that was). Perhaps that was where she got it.
“And would this be Ned?” Richard asked, reaching down to pat the boy’s head. His eyes were enormous as they drunk him in. Cressida, however, was grinning.
“Aye, that’s my Ned!” She swooped down and pressed the child to her, kissing first one chubby cheek and then the next. It would have taken a man with a heart of stone not to smile at that.
“So … Uncle Richard?” Blanche asked, popping up behind him. Richard turned around.
“Anything,” she murmured, “anything you could do for us — anything at all …”
Richard smiled. “Blanche, how long have you been in Port Finessa?”
Blanche blinked. “Only a few hours.”
“Then you haven’t had a chance to see the Dragon’s Teeth, have you?”
“What?” she gasped.
“Sorry — it’s just the name of a tavern and inn. A very nice inn. Clean and well-kept. And plenty of room for all of you. And I believe …” He smiled. “I believe there is a rather large property nearby. More than big enough for three women, four children, and a chausseur’s shop, don’t you think?”
“Oh, Uncle Richard, we could never afford that …”
“My dear,” Richard replied, “the nice thing about having wealthy relatives is that you don’t have to worry about that.”