Jessiah had sailed the eight seas; he’d outrun the navies of Glasonland and Reme, Gaul and Simspain; he’d set foot on every continent (and taken to his heels on most of them). Forty years he’d spent before the mast, man and boy. He thought he had seen it all.
But never, in all of his travels, had he come across anything like this.
A chausseur’s shop — run by three widows!
He was starting to wonder if he’d died on the voyage from Bledavik and gone to Heaven instead of Albion. This couldn’t be real. Oh, sure, a woman could run a shop the same as a man; he wouldn’t doubt that. He made it a policy never to doubt what a woman could do. But three of them, all unattached? With no men to make all of those measurements? It was a dream come true. It was, frankly, worth switching from trews and woolen leg-wrappers to chausses.
He looked up at the big house with two entrances. A young man was slipping into the bigger door. Jessiah had crossed the length of the kingdom to find this shop — hopefully this was the place.
All the same, he took a step back and surveyed the building before he tried to walk in. A big house, snug and well-built of stone on the lower story, timber-framed with plaster on the upper stories. It was obviously new construction — well, almost everything in this kingdom was — but this seemed of even newer date than most of the things Jessiah had seen. It was all a bit rich for three widow women … or maybe not. Popular rumor held that they were somehow related to Richard Ferreira, the richest merchant in the kingdom. Or maybe that’s just what he’s tellin’ folks, Jessiah thought with a chuckle.
Another glance at the gardens confirmed that maybe Jessiah had been on the right track from the beginning. Somebody with an eye for color and decoration had planted them — somebody, perhaps, like Richard Ferreira’s wife, who was the first famed dressmaker in the kingdom — and somebody else had not had much time to maintain them. Weeds and overgrowth plagued the garden like scurvy on a storm-tossed ship. Yes, this had to be the place.
Barely avoiding rubbing his hands and cackling with glee, Jessiah bounded up the steps, pushed open the door, and slipped inside.
Oh, this was the place, all right. But why all the women?
Well, maybe part of it was that women wore chausses too — although both of the young ladies Jessiah could see, the ones who were dressed too finely to be selling things, wore dainty little slippers and no chausses that he could detect. Odd, that, unless they were stocking up for the winter. Or perhaps they were here shopping for their menfolk. Women could be so particular about other women’s hands going all over their menfolk’s legs.
Jessiah felt slightly disappointed, though, when he counted up the probable shop-women and only saw two. He had, after all, been promised three. … Then again, he had heard that of the three, one was an old bat, a regular battle-ax, so maybe he was lucky here. Maybe he’d only gotten the two best of the bunch.
The blonde one — the younger-looking one — finished with her customer, saw him and smiled. She held up one finger, as if to ask for a moment, before going to see to the confused-looking boy who had entered before Jessiah.
He crossed his arms over his chest, raised one eyebrow, and observed. If there was one thing he was good at, it was pretending he was watching one thing while really watching another. How many of his old crew members would have been willing to swear that the ol’ Cap’n was keeping a weather eye on the horizon, only to jump out of their skin when he bellowed at them to watch how they moved those ropes, or steered that wheel, or swabbed that deck? And now, Jessiah was sure, that young widow would be willing to swear that Jessiah was carefully studying the rows of brightly-colored wool stacked behind her, not the widow herself.
Or was she a widow? She was flirting, lightly, carelessly, with the boy she was trying to help. Jessiah wondered if she even realized she was doing it. Perhaps flirting was a bit strong — there certainly weren’t any promises or offers on the table, spoken or unspoken, except for offers of wool cut into chausses at a low, low price, But the way the girl played with her hair, and smiled at the boy, and offered to help … Jessiah would have called this girl a maiden before he called her a widow. Lord, she couldn’t have been that much older than Cherry!
Jessiah glanced across the shop at the girl’s sister … and that was more like it.
There was a widow-woman if Jessiah ever saw one. There was caution in every move she made. She showed her wares and explained them clearly and calmly, as if her very bread depended on every last sale she made. It may well have. Her clothing, too, her bearing — calm and sensible and maybe a bit stolid. This was a woman who had been tossed by a mighty storm. Maybe she’d lost a mast or a sail, too. Still, however, she sailed on.
She thought herself plain, too; Jessiah could see that in the way she had her hair carelessly piled in that messy bun atop her hair, the way she hadn’t even tried to enhance her features with cosmetics. He thought he could make out freckles from here, too. Jessiah had nothing against freckles — he liked them quite a bit, actually — what he disliked was women who saw a few freckles on their face and gave up on the whole project thereby. Most women would be so pretty if they only let themselves see their own beauty instead of following whatever the fashion of the moment dictated.
She finished with her current customer, saw him and flashed him … well, Jessiah wouldn’t call it a “come hither” look, even if that was essentially what it was asking him to do. Just not, precisely, in quite that way.
He came over. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked. Her voice was soft and pleasing, quiet too.
“I hope so, miss — I’m afraid I need some help with this, and, well …” He shrugged, letting her fill in what she would.
She smiled and colored a bit at the “miss” — poor thing, it had probably been years and years since anybody had thought to call her that. She had the hips of a woman who had borne her share of children, so it had probably been a while since she had been a miss. Well, no matter that. Misses weren’t nearly as much fun as women who had sailed around the isles a couple of times, who had been there, done that, seen some things.
As for what she thought … well, it was probably that Jessiah was a widower, and that his wife used to take care of all of this for him. No use letting the girl know he had never been married, what with Bart and the kiddies and all. These southerners could be so stolid, so boring. They’d look down on Bart for being a bastard, something Jessiah never quite understood. If buying the cow before you got the milk was so important, fine, stigmatize the Sims who got the milk for free. But don’t do that to the kids — what control did they have over the circumstances into which they were born?
None, but that was neither here nor there. The young lady was tilting her head to one side. “Well, sir, what are you looking for? We’ve got lots of colors and styles …”
Her eyes, Jessiah was realizing, were unique among all those of his acquaintance: a brown so light that they were almost golden. He didn’t even have to wait for the light to hit them the right way, they just were that way. Impressive — very impressive. She had a treasure in those eyes, if only she’d see it and show it.
“Styles,” Jessiah repeated. “Well, I’m afraid, m’lass, that you’re goin’ to have to help me. See, I’ve always been a trews man myself — never went much in for chausses and tunics.”
“Never?” she asked, blinking in surprise.
“I’m from up north, originally, y’see,” he went on conversationally. “Now, I’m sure you make your chausses as warm as you can, but at the end of the day it’s only a thin layer of wool between you and the worst of what the Lord Wright wants to throw at you. Not my idea of a fun time, savvy?”
“Oh!” she chuckled. “Well, come along then. We’ll have a look at what we have, and I’ll tell you all about the different styles we’ve got.”
“That’d be lovely,” Jessiah agreed as the young lady led the way. Her hips had a cute little shimmy to them — probably completely unconscious, the shimmy of a woman so used to having a baby on one hip or the other that she made up for the weight even when it wasn’t there. Jessiah smiled to himself.
The young woman was about to point out a bit of striped cloth to him, but Jessiah interrupted her. “‘Course, I was also a sailin’ man. A captain, you see.”
“A — a captain?” she asked, one eyebrow going up, clearly wondering what this had to do with anything.
“Aye! Sailed all eight seas, I have! And I’m afraid it’s confirmed my tendency for trews.”
“It … has?”
Jessiah grinned, knowing just how it pulled his scars into an even more rakish expression. “You much acquainted with sailor, miss?”
“Not … really …”
“Know much about them?”
“A little …”
“A little’s fine. Just imagine how they’d react to seein’ their captain scramblin’ up to the crow’s nest in a tunic and chausses — maybe some breeks holdin’ them up. Now, my lass, just put yourself at the bottom at the bottom of that mast and look up …”
He watched the young lady put herself there, watched her eyes narrow — almost laughed to see the blush that suddenly bloomed onto her face. “Oh!” she laughed, at first heartily, then guiltily.
“Now, I’ll admit to have done some silly things to keep up my men’s morale on long legs of the trip,” Jessiah replied, “but I’ll have to admit, I always thought that giving my men the opportunity to make jokes about seein’ up my skirts always struck me as bein’ bad enough for authority that any benefit to morale … well, it wasn’t worth it.”
“No, I can see why!” she laughed. “Oh, my! But your men don’t sound particularly mature.”
“Mature? Mature? Lass, any man who’s told you that sailors have a jot more maturity than a twelve-year-old boy was lyin’ through his teeth!”
She laughed. “Don’t say that!” she gasped. “My son’s going to turn twelve next year!”
“Your son?” Jessiah gasped. “No! Impossible! Stepson, surely!”
“I assure you, it’s my son.” Her smile grew a little wan — maybe remembering the man who gave him to her.
Jessiah, however, stepped back and gave her a critical once-over. “How old were you when you had the lad? Twelve?”
“What? No!” she gasped and giggled.
“Hmm … thirteen?”
“No …” But she was blushing, pleasantly blushing. As for Jessiah, well, he would bet one of his secret treasure stashes — one whose location he actually remembered! — that though she hadn’t been thirteen when she had her son, she couldn’t have been more than five or six years older. This wasn’t a woman who had hit thirty yet, much less passed it.
“Hmph!” Jessiah snorted and winked. “Well, whoever the man was who helped you with the boy, he was a cradle-robber — that’s all I’m sayin’!”
The blush faded to white and her hand dropped to her side. Jessiah watched her fingers move to her ring finger, only to drop away. She looked to her feet.
Apparently that had been the wrong thing to say. “Miss?”
“Widow,” the young lady murmured.
“It’s not miss. It’s widow.” She looked up and shrugged.
“Aw — my condolences, ma’am. How … long …?”
“Over a year,” she whispered. “I know, it’s silly to still be so …”
“Now, now,” Jessiah interrupted, “silly is as silly does. Big, gaping holes in a Sim’s heart don’t get filled in a day — or a year, as the case may be.”
But how gaping was that hole? She wasn’t still wearing her ring … but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Glasonlander women — and Albionese, too, Jessiah would reckon — often took off the ring soon after the husband’s passing. Some handed it on to their eldest son if he was unmarried, or their next son or their eldest grandson if all the sons were married. Some just kept in a jewelry box, or wore it on a chain around their neck. Others had to sell it to pay for food, or clothes, or a roof over their heads. He hoped this pretty widow wasn’t one of the latter.
“Well, you would know, wouldn’t you?” the widow laughed sadly. Then her face clouded, “Oh, I’m sorry — I don’t mean to presume …”
“Miss–widow–good Lord, this is awkward. What’s your name? We might as well get properly introduced.”
“Blanche — Blanche Chausseur,” she replied.
“Jessiah Andavri.” He stuck his hand out. She glanced at it half-surprised, then slowly shook it. She probably wasn’t used to a man shaking hands with her as if she were an equal. “But my friends call me Cap’n.”
“Cap’n. Trust me, it’s a very important distinction.”
“I’m sorry?” she laughed.
Jessiah pretended to sigh. “What’s a captain, my dear?”
“I — well, I suppose it’s a man who … leads a certain amount of other men …”
“Exactly. Exactly! Lord, Blanche — do you mind if I call you Blanche?”
“I …” She colored again, but there was a smile in all of that color. “I suppose not …”
“Excellent, Blanche! Now, hear me out. There’s a Captain of Horse, a Captain of the Guard in every town from here to Smina, captains by the dozen in every army — captains in every navy, on every ship! But a cap’n — you know how many of those there are?”
She shook her head.
“Not many — you know why?”
“Because those other captains? Those are titles lords and other fancy men give out. You can tell by the ‘t,’ my dear. But cap’n — that’s a title only the sailors can give. It’s no mere signification, Blanche, it’s a badge of honor!”
“Ah!” She smiled. “Is that why you only let your friends call you that?”
“Precisement, as the Gaulish would say.”
“Then, Cap’n, I am honored to be among that number.” She tried to ham it up, her hand over her heart, her eyelashes batting — but no amount of mere batting could hide the sparkle in those eyes.
He was almost — almost — completely drawn in by the sparkle in those eyes. But another pair of eyes attracted his attention, albeit not in the same way. Jessiah always made it a policy to have a closer look at eyes that were looking at him speculatively or thoughtfully.
Yes, the other widow-woman, if she was a widow-woman, was looking at him. Now that Jessiah had spent so long studying Blanche’s face, he could see a family resemblance there. Not, perhaps, a particularly strong one, but a resemblance all the same. He felt himself wincing — if Hell had no fury like a woman scorned, then Heaven itself had no righteous wrath like a sister or other relation scorned —
But the woman’s eyes were lighting up! She was amused! Jessiah felt himself start to grin. Well, lass, let’s see how amused I can make both of you! “Blanche, my dear — since we’re such good friends — do you mind if I were to ask you a somewhat … personal question?”
“A personal question?” she asked, blinking.
“It’s a simple one. Yes or no.”
“Good! Blanche, has anybody told you what pretty eyes you have? You could buy all your wool with glances, I’m sure — I’ve never seen gold have so pure.” And if you had any idea how much gold I’ve seen …
Blanche gasped. Her eyes, so golden and pretty, drank in the light like a sailor draining the last of the grog. She blushed.
“Er …” She fanned herself slightly. “Er, thank — thank you. I …”
She was getting uncomfortable — and not, perhaps, a good uncomfortable, either. Just … uncomfortable. Best to give the girl a break. “I believe you were about to walk a poor, ignorant old man through the buying of his first pair of chausses?”
Blanche shot him a relieved, albeit happy, smile. “Yes. Yes, I believe I was. Come this way, won’t you?”
“Blanche, my good friend,” Jessiah said some time later, when he’d been safely measured for his new blue chausses, “you warm an old man’s heart. Thank you, my dear, for all of your help.”
“Oh, it was nothing, Cap–Cap’n.” The old nickname still didn’t quite trip off her tongue, but she was trying. Her smile as she tried was cute enough that Jessiah almost hoped she never did quite get the hang of saying Cap’n instead of “captain.” “I do hope you’ll come again soon.”
“I’ll have to, if I ever want to get my chausses!”
She laughed, even though it wasn’t that funny — a full-throated, hearty laugh that nonetheless sounded a bit rusty from disuse. Poor thing, who had been making her laugh since her husband passed?
“But I must be thanking you, all the same, my dear, I really must.” He reached for her hand.
Her sister, Jessiah knew, was still watching. She’d not said a word as she flirted ever more outrageously with Blanche, but he hadn’t been able to monitor her expression as well as he might have. He was too busy watching Blanche’s. Who knew how she would take this?
As for Blanche … well, now, her face and her hand alike both seemed to be expecting another shake. He could feel her hand twitching slightly as she tried to twist it into what she thought would be a good, firm grip.
She was thus, he could tell, quite surprised when he brought her pretty, long-fingered hand to his lips for a kiss.
“Oh!” she gasped, coloring when Jessiah brought his eyes up to her.
“I’ll be seeing you soon, Blanche?”
“Very — very soon, Cap’n!”
He smirked and winked. “Au revoir, mon amie, as the Gaulish say. Means ‘until we meet again, my friend.'”
“When were you in Gaul?” Blanche wondered aloud.
“I’ll tell you, next time we see each other.” He winked, bowed, and passed out of the shop.
But not too far. He was still nice and close when the sister came up to Blanche. “Blanche! Oh, you lucky girl!”
“I — what?”
“Don’t play dumb! He was flirting with you!”
“What? No, that’s silly. I’m almost thirty, Cressida! And he … he might be old enough to be our father!”
“Pfft! Who cares? He was flirting! And as Granny says — you may be old, but you’re not dead!”
Jessiah chuckled. His work here was done …
… at least until he came to pick up his chausses.