“Oh, Ash!” Lyndsay sighed. “Ain’t it lovely?”
“If ye say so, dear.”
Perhaps Lyndsay should have shot a baleful glance at him, but she was in too good of a mood. She settled for an affectionate tap on the arm instead. “Our own stall fer market days! Oh, this is gonna be wonderful!”
She watched Ash’s face, the way his mouth pulled sideways, the way his head tilted a little to one side. But that was Ash all over. There was a reason why he was the King’s gamekeeper: not just because of his ability to talk to the plants and trees and find poachers before they had even left the forest, but because he found it easier to interact with the plants than with Sims. Unfortunately, a shop stall would involve a lot of interacting with other Sims.
But that was all right. Market day was only once a week. And it wasn’t like there was anything wrong with Ash: it was the other Sims, the ones who would yell at him, kick him, tell him he smelled like dirt, and generally stick their high-and-mighty noses in the air when he walked by that were the problem. They would all change their tunes soon enough, when they saw him a respectable stallkeeper like all the rest of them. They would have to.
“They’ll be able to smell the flowers on the other side o’ the market!” Lyndsay grinned. “We’ll be mobbed in no time! Ash, has anyone ever told ye ye’re a genius with the plant life?”
“I think the plants might have mentioned it, once or twice.”
Lyndsay laughed. “Probably! Well, they’re smart plants, they are. They know their master!”
“It’s gonna have ter be ye who makes ’em sell, though,” Ash murmured, worried. “I can’t imagine why anyone would pay good coin when there’s flowers free in every field.”
“Bah, it ain’t jest the flowers. It’s the pots, too. Ye don’t get those fer free, an’ if the flowers die, it’s still a perfectly good pot!”
“Which we have ter pay for.”
“We already paid fer all these pots. An’ when we sell the flowers, we’ll make enough money ter buy new pots! With plenty left over!”
“Still, ye can buy pots anywhere …”
“Not filled with yer flowers!” Lyndsay grinned at him. “Because ye know ye can’t get yer flowers in any common field. Twice as tall an’ twice as bloomin’! They’ll be linin’ up inter the next stall ter get a crack at ’em!”
“Lyndsay …” Ash sighed.
“Don’t bring … me inter this. Ye know it won’t end well.”
“Ash …” Lynsday pleaded. “Ash, ye don’t know that.”
Ash watched her and sighed. He looked so bleak and sad that Lyndsay rested her hand on his cheek. “Hey …” she murmured. “Hey, no sad faces, now. Things are gonna get better. Our star is risin’, can’t ye feel it?”
“It can’t get much worse than what happened ter Thorn. Don’t,” she said as Ash shuddered, thinking — as even she couldn’t help but think — of the many ways it could get worse than what happened to Thorn. Lord, it could have gotten so much worse.
But — here was the rub — it hadn’t gotten worse. After Lady Morgause’s trial — her death — the torch-bearing mob that would have haunted Ash’s nightmares, had he ever slept, could have shown up any day. They could have all been dead. But they weren’t. Months had passed, and nobody seemed offended enough by Lady Morgause’s death to take it out on them. Fortune’s wheel had spun, and now they were on the upward ascent. Lyndsay intended to milk it for all that it was worth.
“If it were gonna get worse, it would have gotten worse. Now … hey!” she whispered, nudging Ash. “Lookie there!”
Ash looked. “Oh …”
“A customer! Now, ye watch me, my leafy boy, an’ see how it’s done!” She winked, and Ash smiled back at her.
Lyndsay fluffed her hair — it couldn’t hurt, even at her age, to make a bit of an effort — and sauntered to where Berach was standing. “Goodman Brogan! Fine weather we’re havin’, don’t ye think?”
“Oh, aye,” Berach replied, jumping a little as Lyndsay materialized right next to him. “Lovely weather. A fine day fer fall.”
“Indeed! An’ we’ve got some lovely late blooms. A bit o’ water an’ they’ll get you through some mighty cold days ter come!”
“Oh, aye …”
“What type do Goodwife Brogan prefer? Now, if ye axe me, she seems like a daisy lover. But ye’re her husband …”
“Oh! Oh, I didn’t come ter buy none. I — I can’t be affordin’ that. Joyce an’ me … well, ye’re on good terms with her ma, ain’t ye? So ye know …”
“Lord, Goodman Brogan, everyone who’s seen yer lovely wife walkin’ down the lane knows! She’s glowin’, sir, glowin’ an’ healthy, an’ I wish the best o’ luck an’ joy ter ye both.” Berach’s smile, which had been tiny and polite before, grew and grew as Lyndsay spoke. Oh, she was good at this. The patter she’d developed as a girl, getting customers to see her father’s “glories from all over the world,” hadn’t left her yet. “But I have ter say … now, mind, this is jest me as a woman runnin’ my mouth off, but lookin’ at her …”
Berach’s eyes went wide, as she knew they would. “Ye-es?”
“Well, sir, ye’re a man, an’ men don’t understand these things. But we women, much as we love our babies, carryin’ them can be a trial! Sore backs, swollen feet, yer knees get all twisted up in the middle o’ the night an’ ye’re limpin’ all the next day … an’ the work goes on, ye know. Don’t matter how many pounds o’ baby ye’re carryin’ in front o’ ye. Ye know?”
“So it’s at this time that a lovely wife could use a treat, ye think?”
“In fact,” Lyndsay said, deftly turning him around, “I think a snapdragon would be a perfect gift fer a mother-ter-be.”
Ash choked; the snapdragon was the most expensive item they had in the stall. Lyndsay winked at him with the eye that wasn’t nearest to Berach. It wouldn’t do to go scaring off the customer, now.
“A … snapdragon?” Berach asked, staring blankly at the flowers.
“The big ones on the right.”
Berach blinked. “Lord. When ye said big ones …”
“But they’re grown special!” Lyndsay replied, even if she was careful not to say who did the growing. Ash, after all, did tend to have a point when it came to how other people treated him. Later, when everyone was plenty used to seeing him around and buying flowers from him, she would talk up the Plantsim bit. But it wouldn’t do to hit customers over the head with it on their first market day. “They’ll last fer months an’ months — years, even! — with jest a big o’ water every now an’ then.”
“Really?” Berach gasped.
“Aye! An’ let me tell ye …” Lyndsay whispered and leaned closer to him. “There’s somethin’ right special about the snapdragons. Let me tell ye, I’ve got a big pot o’ ’em by me bed, an’ Lord, do they make a difference! It’s somethin’ about the smell, I think.”
“… Somethin’ about the smell?” Berach asked, thoughtful.
Lyndsay knew that gleam in a man’s eye, and what was more, she remembered some things that Marigold had left fall about Berach. And of course she knew where his little Leah had come from; everybody did.
The worst of it, though, wasn’t that she could tell him to get his mind out of the gutter without revealing that her mind had gone down there with him. The worst of it was that hadn’t been what Lyndsay was meaning at all, and now she was seeing what a better sales pitch that would have been. It was a pity, because she couldn’t go about lying to customers on the very first day. Later, when her wares — Ash’s wares — had developed a reputation for excellence, she could indulge in a little white fib or two to help matters along. Not yet, though.
So she had to correct him. “I always wake so refreshed an’ comfortable in the mornin’s, an’ I swear it’s because o’ the snapdragons,” Lyndsay replied. “Even when I’ve got a little one on the way meself, or I’m nursin’. Ye’ll get ter know that joy soon enough. Er, well, ye won’t, but yer lovely wife will …”
“A flower makes ye feel better an’ happier in the mornin’s?” asked Berach, one eyebrow going up.
Good Lord. A minute ago he was more than willing to believe it could be an aphrodisiac. Men! “It’s a right special plant, it is. Don’t ask me how it works — but … a wise man once told me that all plants got special properties like that, or somethin’ special about that. It’s jest a matter o’ coaxin’ the goodness out.”
Lyndsay winked toward Ash, and Ash smiled. He was, after all, a very wise man in his way.
Berach stroked his chin. “It ain’t … magic, is it?”
“Oh, no! Nothin’ like that!” Well, maybe she was indulging in her white fibs a little early — but Ash always said it wasn’t magic. It was just a matter of knowing what the plant needed and providing it. Lyndsay was never sure how much she believed him, but she was damned if she had a better explanation. “Why, Goodman Brogan,” she added, hands on hips and doing her worst impression of a scolding housewife, “if I could do me some magic, ye think I’d be sellin’ flowers in a little stall on market day? Lord, no! I’d have meself a nice tidy shop somewhere, be makin’ a mint with me herbs an’ mixtures!”
“There is that,” Berach admitted. “How much?”
Now he was talking! Lyndsay named her price, Berach blanched, and she had a quite enjoyable few minutes letting herself be worked down to the most Berach seemed willing to pay. Through it all, she could see Ash watching her, jaw slightly fallen. Oh, he didn’t know what a talented woman he had married, did he? It was with a surge of triumph that Lyndsay “gave in” to Berach’s price and turned to her husband. “Ash, take care o’ Goodman Berach from here, please?”
Lyndsay, after all, had seen another customer following his nose to their stall.
The rest of the morning passed in a blur of selling, selling, selling. Twice she and Ash had to rush to their wagon to replenish their stock. Lyndsay couldn’t stop smiling. If every market day went like this, they’d have plenty to get Bran, Thorn and any other boys they might have into good trades, be able to save for hefty dowries for Ginny and Betony and any more girls they might have. They’d be on the up and up! Why, she’d see her sons as guildsmen and merchants and her daughters as mistresses and shopwives before she died, she just knew it!
And was what even better was that even Ash, her hesitant Ash, was smiling too. He wasn’t much with writing or words, was her Ash, but he had a good head for numbers. He was doubtless counting up the copper coins in her head as she was. He was seeing how their investment was paying off already.
Naturally, it couldn’t last.
Reality returned in the early afternoon, shortly after she had taken a break for lunch and Ash had lain in the back of the wagon, letting the sun’s rays soak and warm him. At first, though, Lyndsay didn’t know it was reality. She just thought it was another customer. “Good day, sir! An’ how can I be helpin’ ye?”
The guard’s uniform should have tipped her off. Stupid of her not to notice that, really. Guards didn’t go shopping during market day, at least not in full uniform. But Lyndsay fooled herself into believing that maybe he just wanted an apple to munch on his rounds, or a nice vase of daisies for his wife.
The guard was having none of her patter. “What’s ‘e doin’ ‘ere?” he asked gruffly, nodding at Ash.
“Him, sir? He’s me husband.”
The guard looked between Ash and Lyndsay and snorted. “Disgustin’.”
Lyndsay flinched, then drew herself up. A straight spine, she’d learned, was the only way to face the world that insisted you were wrong when you were just trying to get by, the same as everybody else. “Excuse me, sir?”
“He’s got to go.”
“The barkie! He can’t stay here! He’s upsettin’ the folks!”
“What — what folks?” Lyndsay asked, stupidly.
“The folks,” the guard growled. “Don’t make me be sayin’ this twice, now. Ye get that dirt-eater out o’ here, an’ quick now.”
“I … we came together,” Lyndsay muttered, fingering her battered brass wedding ring. “I need his help ter be runnin’ …”
“Do I look like I care?” the guard barked. “I’m tellin’ ye, he’s upsettin’ folks! Get him out o’ here!”
“Nobody’s seemed upset, though –”
The guard’s nose wrinkled. “Lady, are ye blind? This section o’ the market’s half-deserted because o’ ye. It ain’t fair to the other stallkeepers.”
“Look, I said this once, I ain’t gonna say it again. Get him gone. Ye hear?”
“Woman! What part of I don’t care don’t ye understand!”
“But we’ve had plenty o’ customers!”
The guard snorted. “This is yer first time sellin’, ain’t it?”
“Er … yes …”
“Then clearly ye don’t what plenty o’ customers is, do ye?”
“I — I think I –”
“Look, lady, I’m doin’ ye a favor. Me, I’ll jest tell ye, nice-like, ter get ‘im out o’ here. Some Sims? They don’t bother tellin’ ye. They’ll jest beat yer barkie till the sap runs out o’ him. Got it?”
“I …” Lyndsay gulped. “Can’t he stay until the end o’ the day? We’ll both be gone by sunset.”
The guard looked at Ash, then around the market. “Whatever, lady. Yer funeral. Or his, rather. I ain’t wadin’ through a mob ter save a barkie.”
“Thank’ee, sir,” Lyndsay replied, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach as the guard started to walk away.
Lyndsay rubbed her temples. And things had been going so well, too! She’d thought nobody minded Ash being there. Why did they mind, anyway? He wasn’t doing any harm. He was helping customers, counting coins, lugging pots from the wagon, just the same as any other shopkeeper. He hadn’t even spoken to anybody who hadn’t come to their stall of their own accord.
They’d even been careful.They could have brought produce from their garden — it was, after all, the best in the kingdom, with the possible exception of Marigold’s garden — but that would have gotten people angry. They’d be claiming unfair competition. But flowers? Nobody sold flowers in the peasant’s market. They were, as Ash pointed out, free in every meadow. So they weren’t competing with anybody …
Lyndsay glanced at her husband. Her heart beat sideways. Look at him, talking to Ailís Porter and trying to give tips on how to grow oranges like theirs even as he urged Ailís to buy one for herself and see how good it was. Pretending he hadn’t heard that guard calling him “barkie.” Pretending that everything was fine and that he hadn’t just been kicked out of the public market.
Lyndsay felt her breath start to come faster and the tears to prickle at the corner of her eyes.
And that damn guard was whistling as he meandered away!
Now the hot tears dried, replaced by something far hotter. She shouldn’t indulge it — she should know better — she should just be quiet and try to sell as much of their stock as possible, so they wouldn’t have to cart it home with the remains of the pride.
Ash, she knew, would say that she had done the right thing to give in. Ash would point out that the willow bent and survived a hundred storms, while the oak stood tall and came crashing to he man. Ash would tell her that she didn’t need his help, anyway, and arrange for one of his sisters or maybe his little brother to help her on market days. And so he would retreat back to his woods and his gardens, to the plants who treated him better than, it seemed, any Sim would.
Ash deserved a hell of a lot better than that.
“Hey!” she yelled to the guard. “Get back here!”
The guard jumped, turned around, and gestured to himself, as if to ask, Who, me?
“Who said ye had ter kick us out?” she yelled.
The guard’s eyebrow went up. “Lady …”
“Well?” Lyndsay snapped. “Tell me! Who said it?”
“There’ve been complains …”
“Who made ’em?”
“Do it matter?”
“Aye! Aye, it does! Because I think ye just made it up!”
“What? Lady, have ye lost yer head?”
“No! I think ye’re jest a — a bastard!” The insult seemed pitiful, weak — and to say nothing of the insult to poor Thorn, categorizing him with this sorry excuse for a Sim — but it was the best she could come up with on such short notice. “I think ye were bored an’ decided to go pick on the poor Plantsim! That’s what I think!”
She could see Ash, frozen, and Ailís watching the proceedings with a mouth that would have been a perfect trap for flies if her hand wasn’t covering the hole. Well, it was too late to back down now. Even if they lost this sale — even if they lost every sale — there was something to be said for the oak tree, wasn’t there? It might fall, but at least it stood for something beforehand.
“Lady,” the guard replied, snorting and shaking his head, “ye’ve got a lot o’ nerve, sayin’ that. Ye know I could have ye thrown in gaol, don’t ye?”
“Fer how long? He!” She pointed at her husband. “He’s the King’s own gamekeeper! An’ what are ye? Some half-witless guardsman who goes after poor Plantsims at the market because he’s too dumb ter go after real criminals! Lord! There have ter be pickpockets an’ thieves crawlin’ all over the market! Why don’t ye go bother them an’ leave us law-abidin’ Sims alone?”
“Right. He’s the King’s gamekeeper. Did I mention I’m the Emperor of Reme?” The guard rolled his eyes.
“Then, yer high-an’-mightiness, I got a flea ter put in yer ear about the way you treat Sims like my husband!”
The guard jumped. “Lady!”
“I got a name!”
“Fine, Goodwife Barkie –”
“An’ he’s got a name! An’ it ain’t barkie! Ye won’t be callin’ him that in my hearin’!”
“Look, lady,” the guard snarled, “I’ve about had enough o’ this. If ye don’t want me runnin’ ye out o’ here …”
“Go ahead an’ try,” she dared. “We’ll go right ter the King if ye do.”
“Liar,” he snorted.
“Wanna bet? Is it worth it? Axe yerself — ye’re probably right, but is it really worth it if ye’re wrong?”
The guard seemed to falter. “The King ain’t gonna side with no bar–no Plantsim over an’ honest Sim.”
“He sided with a Plantsim’s son over his own sister,” Lyndsay whispered. That made the guard stand to attention.
“Aye,” Lyndsay continued. “Aye, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Now, ye listen here, ironhide,” she snarled, “me husband an’ me, we’ll keep runnin’ our stall like nothin’ happened, aye? An’ we’ll be here next market day. An’ the market day after that. An’ the market day after that. An’ if anyone complains to ye, ye jest send ’em ter me.
“An’ if they’re lucky,” Lyndsay whispered, “I’ll only send ’em away with a flea in their ear.”