It was Wednesday, and that meant it was the night of the weekly Guild meeting. Or at least, that was what the young and youngish men at the expensive inn in Port Finessa were calling it. Never mind that one-quarter of the membership present was of the nobility and thus not technically eligible for membership. And never mind, too, that the nominal head of the Guild was currently at the home of one of the nobility, drinking port and relaxing by the fire as they traded stories of their misspent youth before the mast and behind the till.
It was Wednesday, and these young and youngish men wanted out of the house, and the easiest way to effect this absence without their wives complaining was by claiming that they had a Guild meeting.
The trouble, Rob was beginning to realize, was that they didn’t really have a Guild that could be recognized as such. The great cities in Glasonland had venerable craftsman’s associations that had hundreds, maybe even thousands of members, that played a huge part in regulating the trade of the cities, and even in some cases ran the cities. The “Guild” of Albion had, at last count, five official members. Richard and Freddy Ferreira were still attached in an unofficial capacity — i.e., Freddy still went out with them and when Mark Wesleyan sat out a meeting, it was because he was shooting the breeze with Richard, like tonight — but they were noblemen. The Chausseurs, with their three shopkeepers, would be a great addition, but that would mean they would have to have actual meetings, not just pub nights. And if the Chausseurs got in, that would make it very difficult to keep the wives — Grady’s Toinette, Bart Andavri’s Sorcha, and Lord knew Rob’s own Dannie — out. And while Rob did not have any trouble with allowing women to take their part in determining the future of the merchant class of Albion, allowing the wives in would mean that the men of the Guild would have to come up with a new excuse for pub nights.
However, the more Rob thought about it, the more he thought that the Guild would have to let the wives in if they wanted to get anywhere, and they would just need to give up and find that new excuse for a night out.
He sipped his ale and sighed. The trouble was that Richard’s leaving the Guild had taken the wind right out of their sails. Richard was the one with the vision, the dream. He was the one who had risen up from a ship’s clerk to a Baron in scarcely more than twenty years. In other words, he did in one professional life what some families strove to accomplish over generations. And now that Richard was a Baron, he had other projects to pursue, projects that would solidify his family’s status among the nobility of Albion. He was still working on his trading empire, too. At the end of the day, the man simply lacked the time and energy to be helping out the Guild.
And that left —
“Something wrong?” asked Freddy. Rob started. “Sorry,” Freddy added. “You just looked … a bit pensive there.”
Rob swished his ale and glanced at his brother. Josh would be the one most likely to be offended by what he had to say next to Freddy. Josh had ambition, too, but not ambition like Richard Ferreira’s. Richard had wanted to bring all the rest of the merchants of Albion up to heights he hoped to tread. Josh didn’t give a damn about heights or politics or any of the rest of it. He just wanted to make his nice, tidy fortune and pass it on to his son — or sons, if he ever remarried.
The trouble was that with money came power and the need to participate in politics, and they needed somebody at the helm who could handle power and policy as well as money. That meant …
Rob sighed and turned back to Freddy. “I’ve just been contemplating,” he said, “how screwed we are now that your father has left.”
Freddy’s jaw fell. “Screwed? Screwed how?”
Rob rubbed the back of his neck. “Your father … he was always the one to have the big ideas. The plans. Now that he’s no longer a Guildsman, he isn’t here to make the plans, have the big ideas … and now the Guilds are a bunch of henpecked husbands who like to go out drinking on Wednesday nights.”
“My sister henpecks you?” Freddy asked, astonished.
In answer, Rob turned to him with only a raised eyebrow.
“… Right. Dumb question,” Freddy replied. “But I never thought you minded.”
“I don’t,” Rob replied. How could he mind, when Dannie’s take-charge personality left him free to make his statues and paint his paintings? Dannie was the one who ran the shop and the household, who chaffered with patrons and with maidservants and shopboys alike. Rob wouldn’t be able to be an artist if he didn’t have Dannie. In so many ways she was the best person to …
And there he went again. Thinking things he couldn’t bring himself to say — at least, not in this company.
“So how is Dannie, anyway?” Freddy asked, seeming to sense Rob’s desire to change the subject. “With … everything?”
“Everything” was the pregnancy Dannie had recently announced to their combined families. She was thrilled and hoping desperately for a girl. Rob could join her wholeheartedly in her desire for a girl, because it would be nice to have a complete set of children before going on to upset the balance. He wished he could be as thrilled as she was. It wasn’t the thought of another baby that made him uneasy or worried. It was the shadow of Isabel hanging over them all. He couldn’t lose Dannie, and he could think of no way to ensure that he did not.
Well, he had thought of one way. As soon as Dannie had told him she was expecting, Rob had taken his courage in both of his hands and ridden to Avilion. There he had shown up, unannounced and uninvited, at the home of a nobleman. And while he might have invited himself on the pretext of speaking to Will, he had committed another gaffe by asking to speak to the Princess in private. Then he had practically begged that she attend Dannie’s birth, even though Dannie hadn’t even told anyone other than him that she was pregnant.
The Princess had agreed easily. She’d looked startled to be asked, still more startled to be asked by Rob, but she’d agreed. Rob was pinning his hopes and holding back his fears with that.
But what if it wasn’t enough?
Still, he took a long swallow of his ale. “She’s fine,” Rob replied. “Everything’s going smoothly.” And so had everything gone for Isabel until the time of the birth. Lord! Why couldn’t he get her out of his head?
“That’s wonderful!” Freddy answered. “You know — you know she can come see Clarice at any time. Clarice would be thrilled to help.”
Given how Dannie and Clarice had gotten along at Camford, Rob wasn’t so sure about that. However … their main bone of contention had been Freddy himself, and now that Clarice and Freddy were, to use Dannie’s half-joking phrasing, so disgustingly happy together, maybe they could bury the hatchet. And Clarice had a warm heart underneath that ice wall she felt compelled to put up from to time. And she had a university education, a university degree …
“Thank you. I’ll talk to Dannie about it,” Rob replied. Dannie would probably laugh at him, but Rob would find some way or another to insist. It couldn’t hurt. He would keep repeating that to Dannie until she relented. It couldn’t possibly hurt.
“Something wrong?” Freddy asked, eyes narrowed in concern. He put his tankard on the counter.
Rob glanced at Josh and Grady, both still talking animatedly about … whatever it was they were talking about. Shop, probably, or shops. They both had a one-track mind in that respect. And neither of them — Josh because of Isabel, Grady because of losing his baby daughter and his father in such rapid succession — needed to hear this. Rob slipped off his stool. “Want to play some pool?”
Freddy, always a quick study, nodded, and Rob led the way to the upstairs pool and card tables.
“Hey! Where are you two going?” Josh called.
“Playing pool,” Rob replied.
“What, an’ ye didn’t invite us?” Grady asked.
Rob grinned, his first real grin of the night since thinking of Dannie’s pregnancy and all that it entailed. “Oh, I never invite Josh to anything that involves long and pointed sticks.”
He grabbed Freddy and hustled him up the stairs — all the more so since Freddy had been involved in the Great Twig Incident of ’06 (if you counted the date since beginning of Arthur’s reign) and remembering could still leave him in stitches. Letting Josh try to explain that to Grady would give him and Freddy enough time to talk.
“That,” Freddy laughed as Rob set up the table, “was just cruel.”
Rob grabbed a pool cue and carefully lined up his shot. Freddy tapped him on the shoulder and wordlessly held out the blue chalk. Rob sighed and took it. “I don’t want Josh hearing this. Or Grady, for that matter.”
Freddy’s eyebrows went up without giving an answer.
Rob handed the chalk back to Freddy and again lined up his shot. “I’m worried about Dannie.”
“Oh.” Freddy rubbed the back of his neck. “I … see. I can’t blame you.”
Rob nodded. This was why he had told Freddy, not anybody else. Anybody with an ounce less niceness than Freddy would have turned Rob’s own logic against him. The logic was, of course, that there was no link between what had happened to Isabel and what might or might not happen to Dannie. There was no reason to worry about Dannie solely because of Isabel. The two things had nothing to do with each other.
He took his shot and watched the multicolored balls scatter.
The trouble with that statement was, however, that the heart didn’t give a damn about logic. The heart had a logic of its own, and that logic mostly consisted of asking, what if, what if, what if??
“But maybe if you send her to Clarice …?” Freddy asked, hopefully.
“I know. I’m planning on it.”
“Good. Good. She — she ought to know, if anybody does, how things can be made — safer,” Freddy murmured, chewing his lips and watching his feet shuffle back and forth.
Rob tilted his head. Something — something there — he was just as worried as Rob, only in a very different way … “Freddy?”
Freddy looked up.
“Any chance that you and Clarice might have something you want to share with the family?”
“Not — not share. At least, not yet.” But even if Freddy flushed as soon as he was finished with that, the darkest of nights could not have hidden the brilliance of his smile.
Rob nodded as he went to line up his next shot. “Congratulations. And don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody.”
Rob moved the cue back and forth between his fingers, trying to calculate all the angles and possible ways the little white ball could bounce around the table. But more than that, he contemplated something else — the fate of the Guild, once again. He’d come full circle. But was it surprising? Both thoughts coalesced on the same center: Dannie.
And if he talked to Freddy … Freddy was the least-biased listener he was likely to find. True, he was Dannie’s brother, but he was completely uninterested in Guild politics. If he thought Rob’s idea was sensible, then maybe it stood a chance.
“Say, Freddy, I was thinking … you know how I’m worried about the Guild?”
“My memory isn’t that bad,” Freddy chuckled.
Rob took his shot — damn. None of his balls went into a pocket. He nodded to Freddy, who began to line up a shot of his own.
“So what is worrying you about the Guild?” Freddy asked.
Rob sighed. “We’re not … we’re not ambitious enough. Well, Josh has his ambitions, but they’re not in running a Guild. Grady — Grady has reached the height of his ambition, and I think the air up here is still a bit thin for him. He hasn’t caught his breath yet. As for the Andavris …” Rob shuffled from one foot to the other, twirling his cue in his hand. The problem was the Andavris looked like … well, they looked like pirates. Even if Bart Andavri was at all interested in shouldering the problems of the Guild, and Rob wasn’t certain he was, you couldn’t make a man who wore an eyepatch and talked with a Bledavik twang the public face of the Guild, even if he wanted to be. Rob wasn’t at all sure that he did want to be that.
He shrugged and went on as Freddy crossed to his side of the table. “It was your father who gained us all the ground we gained with the King and against the nobles. And now your father can’t help us any more. So we need to figure out something, and fast.”
“And you don’t know who you can get to help lead the Guild?” Freddy asked. “Maybe what you need is to … well, give your brother a swift kick in the rear. He might take on the leadership role if nobody else will. Maybe what he wants isn’t the most important thing here.”
Rob sighed. “The trouble is, I’ve already got somebody who would be just about perfect for the job in mind.”
“Oh?” Freddy looked up. “Who?”
“Somebody who isn’t a Guild member.”
“What would it take to get him into the Guild?” Freddy asked.
“See, there’s the problem.” Rob sighed. “It’s not a ‘him.’ It’s … Dannie.”
Freddy’s jaw dropped. “Dannie?”
“She’s got the connections we all developed at Camford. Josh, Grady, Bart Andavri — they don’t have that. Josh only knew Sir Mordred, and he barely knew Sir Mordred. Dannie got to know both the Princes, Will, Lamorak, Sir Milo, even. And she’s related by blood to you, and so related by marriage to the de Ganises.”
“But the de Ganises would pitch a fit at the thought of a woman running the Guild.”
“What do they care? They don’t even like the Guild. As far as they’re concerned, we commoners should all go back to toiling in the fields, where we belong.”
Freddy only snorted, which, considering that he was still in the newlywed phase, was saying something. Apparently the bloom went of the rose that was the de Ganis family a lot faster than it went off Clarice herself. At least, Rob hoped this was the case for Clarice’s sake. “They would still pitch a fit.” He carefully eyed the ball down the cue. “Look, Rob, I agree with you that Dannie would have the grit to take on the full Council if she had to, but you’ve got all the connections she has. Maybe you ought to consider –”
“Hell no. Running the Guild is like herding cats and you know it. And Dannie … Dannie likes cats.”
“And herding them,” Freddy agreed with a sigh. “Aye, she’d be up to that challenge. Would the other members take her seriously, though?”
“Dannie’s been bossing Josh and me around since we were all in napkins.”
“But Grady Brogan? The Andavris?”
Rob spun his cue once again. “She would be up to that, too. But …” Rob shook his head. “If we let Dannie in, even though we need her — or I think we do — we’d have to let all the other women in. Your cousins the Chausseurs, Grady Brogan’s wife, Bart Andavri’s wife, my mother …”
“Do you think that’s such a problem?” Freddy asked.
“The other men might not like it. I mean — look at our Guild meetings!”
“Aye, but just because the women were allowed to join doesn’t mean that they would. You know — women could have been allowed in from the very first. If my mother had wanted in, you know my father would have browbeaten your father until she was let in. She was just never interested.”
“And why should she be? Again, look at what we do at our meetings!” Rob sighed as Freddy moved to the other side of the table to line up another shot.
“It was easier when it was just your father and mine,” Freddy agreed. “They could meet at my father’s warehouse or your father’s stables in the middle of the working day, get done whatever had to get done, and still have their ‘Guild meetings’ for the evening.”
“But,” Rob replied while the balls scattered again, “it won’t work like that anymore.”
Rob finally had another turn, so he eyed the white ball and tried to calculate the best way to gain back some ground.
In the meantime, Freddy seemed to be pondering all that Rob had said. “You know,” Freddy finally remarked, “I think you have two real choices.”
“And what would those be?”
“You can keep the Guild a cover for your men’s night out … or you all can admit that the times have changed, you need a real Guild now, let the women in, and come up with a new cover for a men’s night out.”
“Or just be honest.” Rob took his shot — and missed! This was not his night. “Dannie has her Young Mother’s Club. She’d understand.”
“So what you’re saying,” Rob sighed, “is that perhaps I ought to have a chat. With my father, and my brother.”
“A chat with me? Why, I’m right here, Rob!”
And there indeed was Josh at the head of the stairs, Grady following in his wake. “What do you need, little brother?”
Rob shook his head. “It can wait.” They would all have to be sober and in full possession of their faculties for this one. Rob would also be far more successful, he suspected, if he tackled his father and brother at once, instead of one at a time. It would also help if Dannie knew she was being nominated as a leader of the Guild.
Maybe, now that he thought of it, it would be better off to wait until the baby was born, and everything was settled — or not. There was no use making so many advanced plans if —
Rob shook his head. Stop being an idiot, Rob. Just stop!
“Anyway, what are you two lumps up here for?” Rob asked, and Freddy snickered.
Josh nodded to the card tables. “A game, my friends. Care to join?”
“Sure,” Rob replied. The four men sat down at one of the tables.
And as Josh did the dealing, Rob knew he was right to wait. This was a topic much better broached in private, with everybody sober. And it was also much better to wait in general.
Wait and see how Dannie would do.