Tyves 22, 1013
“Well, imagine that!” came a voice from the doorway. “A pretty lady in a shop where they sell men’s underthings! If that ain’t a scandal, love, I don’t know what is.”
Blanche chuckled, continuing to make her notes on the clipboard. “Cap’n,” she replied, “in case you did not notice, women wear chausses too.”
She watched from the corner of her eye as he leaned back on his heels, eyebrows arching upward. “Oo-oh? Is that a fact, Madame Chausseur?”
There was a blush creeping up her cheeks — she always blushed when Jessiah addressed her in Gaulish. He said that since her name was a Gaulish one, it was only right that he use that fine language to speak to her. Blanche had never thought of it that way — surely no one in Port Graal, not John or any of the beaus she had had before John, had thought to address her like that.
But what felt best of all was not being called Widow. Being called “widow” was a constant reminder of what she had lost, a verbal marker that set her apart from everyone else. It imposed certain standards of behavior, too. A widow must be stolid, respectable, must do nothing to insult her dear husband’s memory or bring shame to his children. Whereas a simple Madame … a Madame was more free to do what she might liked.
Like lift her skirt up, ever-so-slightly, so Jessiah could see the flash of chausse covering her foot and ankle (and calf, too, even if she wasn’t going to lift her skirt that high). “It is indeed!”
She dropped her skirt as Jessiah threw his head back and laughed uproariously. “Oh-ho! So the lass is a tease now! I see how it is!”
“I am not a tease,” Blanche answered, putting her hornbook on the shelf and hurrying over to him. She threw her arms around him. “I’m just happy to see you.”
“Sweetheart, that’s supposed to be my line after you press real close against me tunic.”
“What? It’s the truth!”
Blanche laughed and buried her face half in Jessiah’s shoulder and half in his hair. He had better hair than she had, and Blanche was never sure whether to suffer that in silence or to tease him about it. He’d take the teasing well, she knew that — he took all her teasing well. But it seemed rather foolish to bring up the hair when he may not have noticed how lackluster her own hair was, even when not compared to his.
Of course … knowing Jessiah, he would gasp and claim that his hair was nothing of the kind. He would bring up some kind of disadvantage to it — say that it snarled and tangled like it was nobody’s business, or say that it used to be something when he was young, but now? Forget about it. And then he would find some kind of compliment for her hair. That was the kind of man he was — glib of tongue, and, Blanche trusted, good of heart.
“So, Blanche, me love,” he asked, pulling away from her to better look into her face, “how is life treating you this fine day?”
The Lord punctuated that statement with a flash of lightning and, in very short order, a crack of thunder.
“… Fine, of course, bein’ a relative term,” Jessiah corrected.
Blanche chuckled. “Well. Very well. And you, sir?”
“Darlin’, you’ve got to stop callin’ me sir, or else all of your knightly customers will be mortally offended.”
She smiled and shook her head, but she didn’t demur. The fact of the matter was that Bianca, after a critical inspection of her and her mother’s work — made all the more critical, Blanche thought, by the fact that Pamela had watched the inspection with more steam pouring out of her ears with every second that passed — had passed Blanche and Pamela’s name along to nearly all of her important clients. Bianca had talked them up well, too, and the result was that the Chaussers were now the exclusive suppliers of chausses and braises to almost every family of note in the kingdom. The exception, oddly enough, was Lady Clarice’s family, but Bianca had said that she wouldn’t wish Bors de Ganis on her worst enemy, let alone her sister and her niece.
“Oh,” Blanche laughed, “I’m sure they’ll survive. But you didn’t answer my question, Cap’n.”
“Ah, well, can’t complain! The old vessel ain’t sprung a leak yet!” Jessiah laughed.
Blanche watched him narrowly. His smile looked a little rough and weather-beaten, which was to say, a little more weather-beaten than normal. Was he still missing his granddaughter? He loved all of his grandchildren, Blanche knew, but his bond to Cherry, the eldest, was especially close. She’d been at Camford four, almost five months now, too.
“How is Cherry doing?” Blanche asked.
As she was expecting, Jessiah’s face lit up in a smile. “Ah, me Cherry! She’s doin’ well, real well! Just got a letter from her yesterday!”
“Oh? And what did it say?”
Jessiah drew himself up, every inch the beaming grandfather. “She’s showin’ up all the young men at that hoity-toity university, the good Lord bless her! She’s got a better accent in Old Simlish than some of the Remans do, accordin’ to her professors. And as for the Glasonlanders, pfaugh! There’s one young man, she says, she keeps showin’ up — all her friends told her not to, but she does anyway, because that’s the o’ girl she is!”
“How interesting,” Blanche replied, “that she would have a better accent! I thought Bledavik never used Old Simlish?”
“We-ell,” Jessiah stroked his beard, “it depends on what you mean by ‘used’ …”
Blanche turned her head to one side, listening.
“Well, you grew up in a port, me lass — tell me you’ve wandered around the docks?”
“Remember what is sounded like? The people talkin’, mind. Not the gulls and the wares bein’ loaded and unloaded and all that.”
“Do I!” The cacophony of languages would never leave her. Glasonlander Simlish was just one thread in that vast tapestry. Even now, she could call to mind the fluid syllables of Reman Simlish, or the guttural grunts of Simberian Simlish, or the strange cadences of Smoorish Simlish. Port Finessa had some of that cacophony, but not as much as Port Graal. Perhaps someday it would.
“Bledavik’s like that. Only … eh, more so,” Jessiah answered, scratching his head. “You see … in Glasonland, or here, the natives can growl and say, ‘Speak Glasonlander! Don’t you know where you are?’ But Bledavik is a home for those who haven’t got any other home, so the wise thing to do is to try to speak everyone’s language as best you can, or else know enough that you’re bound to find a language in common with whoever you’re speaking with. Cherry, she grew up in that, and she’s got a knack for languages, besides. It doesn’t surprise me that she’s showin’ up the little brother of Francis of Lothario.”
“Francis of Lothario!” Blanche gasped.
Jessiah’s face fell. “Oh, hell — I shouldn’t have mentioned that. You …” His voice dropped, too. “You’ve still got family in Port Graal, haven’t you?”
Blanche sighed. “At least Lothario opened up the port, so we could get news.”
Not that it was good news. She had lost a niece and two nephews to that siege. Alice, her sister, had been pregnant at the start of it, but she had delivered a stillborn child far too early for the babe to have any hope. So that was another niece or nephew lost. But now that the port was open and supplies could get in … perhaps that would be the last of the senseless deaths.
Besides, at least Alice was still alive. At least Maude, the second Chausseur sister, was still alive. At least their husbands still lived. And Blanche’s children, and little Ned, whom she had helped raise from babyhood? They were well out of the mess that Glasonland had become. Things could have been so, so much worse.
“Forget I mentioned anything,” Jessiah said, caressing her cheek with one thumb. “Didn’t mean to bring the bastard to mind.”
“Don’t. It’s not your fault …” She hesitated. “And if your granddaughter is giving that bas–that bastard’s brother a hard time, then I say, so much the better.”
“I wouldn’t,” Jessiah shrugged, “but if it makes you feel better, then I say, you go on and say that, sweetheart.”
Blanche tilted her head to one side — why wouldn’t he say that? But she never got the chance to ask, for a reedy, cracking voice from behind her called, “Um … ma’am?”
Blanche smiled apologetically at Jessiah and hurried to where the owner of the voice was standing. “Yes?”
The young man — boy, really — tried to smile at her, then he pointed vaguely at the hanging cloth. “I’m, er, lookin’ fer some good material fer …” His voice lowered, and he ducked closer to her. “Braises,” he whispered.
Blanche cast a critical look at the boy’s clothing — patched, worn, stained and torn. But that did not necessarily mean that he could not afford material for braises. Braises were rather small (not that she ever said so in front of young men). Even if a family could afford new cloth for nothing else, some would move heaven and earth to get brand-new cloth for their braises. And why not? If you had to conserve every last farthing, what would you rather spend it on — the clothing on the very outside, that was to everyone else’s benefit, or the layer of clothing nearest to the most sensitive and delicate parts of your own skin?
“Certainly,” Blanche answered. “Here, let me show you what we have …”
She went through several of the cloth options available to the young man, and when he had picked the length that he wanted and could afford, Blanche hurried him over to the cash box to ring him up.
That was when the trouble entered the room.
It was Pamela, coming out of their crafting room. She needed to come out and talk to the customers from time to time when her hands started to ache. Without Cressida to take a third of the workload off their hands, the two of them were struggling to meet demand and keep the shop open and running. Pamela was already making quiet noises about whether Geoff really needed to continue his education, but Blanche was so far pretending that the hints were floating right over her head.
However, all of that was nothing compared to what Pamela would say when she–
She saw him.
Her eyes narrowed, her hands found her hips, and Pamela shot Blanche a death glare. What’s HE doing here? asked that glare with every blink. Blanche did her best to ignore it, concentrating on the order of the young man in front of her.
So Pamela took matters into her own hands.
“And just what,” she snapped, marching up to Jessiah, hands still on her hips, “do you think you’re doing here?”
Before Blanche could move in and intervene, another customer darted into her path with a question that Blanche could only regard as stupid.
“Why, lookin’ through your fine wares, of course — Widow Chausseur,” Jessiah answered. He always called Blanche’s mother Widow. And was Blanche’s imagination running away with her, or was there always just a hint of scorn and eye-rolling in that very title?
“My wares, eh?” Pamela tilted her chin up. “I wasn’t aware that my daughter was one of my wares.”
“Mother!” Blanche gasped — but the customer in front of her made a face, so Blanche hurried to attend to her needs, lest she complain. To Pamela.
“Oh, she isn’t,” Jessiah answered with that infernal, adorable grin. “But if I come here to have some fine conversation with her … well, I don’t see how that’s anyone’s business but hers and mine.”
The customer finally had the answer to her question, so Blanche was able to send her on her way … and hear exactly what Pamela’s reply to Jessiah was.
“Ha! Look, Cap-TAIN Andavri,” she snarled, “I don’t know how you do things in your pirate port, but I assure you, things here are –”
“MOTHER!” Blanche yelped, not caring that every person in the store was going to turn and stare at them.
So did Pamela, although the look she turned to Blanche was not so much stare as glare. Be quiet, Mother is having a very important conversation, said the glare — a glare Blanche knew well, since it had probably been in her life since her very cradle.
But she was no longer a defenseless child who could only wail at the injustice of a world protected even from her infant flailing by swaddling bands and sturdy cribs. She was a woman grown — past thirty! — with three children of her own. If that didn’t make her an adult, what the hell would?
“Mother,” Blanche snarled, “we need to talk. Now.”
“Blanche,” Pamela replied with another glare. “Hold your tongue. I –”
“That was not a request!” Blanche snapped. Before Pamela could even properly reel, hearing her own favorite phrase tossed back at her, Blanche grabbed her by the elbow and marched her back into the house proper.
It was a good thing that Pamela shut the door behind them, because Blanche would have never thought to do so.
“Blanche!” Pamela scolded. “That was — I have never seen you so rude! How dare–”
“How dare you!” Blanche shouted, wheeling on her mother. “What the hell was that, Mother?”
Pamela sighed and rolled her eyes. “Blanche –”
“No! No condescending explanations! How dare you, Mother! How dare you harass the Cap’n like that!”
“Your Captain –”
“Cap’n! Cap’n! He prefers Cap’n!”
Pamela put her hands on her hips and surveyed Blanche down her nose. “Now, Blanche,” she clicked her tongue, “do you hear how immature you sound?”
Blanche took a deep breath. Several of them. It was easy, so easy, to become again an angry adolescent, furious with her mother for forcing her to marry her cousin — a cousin whom she had insisted, on more than one occasion, that she didn’t even like! That had been unfair to John, and Blanche had felt her guilt over that and had gotten over it. But the more she thought, the more fair her treatment of her mother had been. Even Pamela was right about Blanche and John, she had no right.
No. No, she hadn’t even been right about Blanche and John. She only cared about the bloody shop. And they lost it anyway!
So Blanche fired back as best she could. “Do you hear what a fool you sound?” she snapped back.
“A fool! Blanche!”
“Yes, Mother. A fool.” Blanche strove to keep her voice even, unruffled. It was so much easier, now that she was no longer sixteen. It was easier, too, to know what to say, since she now knew exactly what irritated her so much when it came from one’s own child. “You are acting as if it somehow slipped your memory that I’m a grown woman, a widow, with three children of my own.”
“In other words, you think I’m treating you like a girl? A child?” Pamela snapped.
Blanche let her raised eyebrows answer that.
“Well, Blanche,” Pamela sighed, “if you would stop acting like a spoiled, selfish girl, I would stop treating you like one.”
“I’m spoiled? I’m selfish?” Blanche snarled back.
“What else is the word for it?” Pamela challenged. “You’re — you’re panting around that man like a bitch in heat! My Lord, Blanche! I raised you better than that!”
And I’m sure Granny raised you better than this!
“You can’t just think of yourself at a — a time like this!” Pamela lectured. “You have responsibilities to think of! You have your children! This shop! Me! You can’t just please yourself, Blanche! I don’t know whatever gave you that idea –”
Blanche blinked. Several times. This … substitute “sisters” for “children,” and this was the exact lecture Pamela had given to her when she was insisting that she marry John.
“A young lady marries for her family!” Pamela continued. “To help us all become more stable and secure! Especially you, Blanche, a mother! How dare you even think to carry on with this man for — for no other purpose than your own amusement? How dare you, Blanche?”
Blanche took a deep breath.
“However, since you refuse to see sense, to take up your responsibilities, to, dare I say, grow up –”
“I could say the same to you, Mother!” Blanche exploded.
Pamela jumped back. “What?”
“My children love the Cap’n! Cressida likes him! I like him! The only person I see who doesn’t care for him is you! How dare you be so selfish!”
“Think of this shop!” Pamela retorted. “We need — we need –”
“I did think of the shop once, Mother — remember that? Remember how well that ended? Or do I need to remind you?”
“You got a loving husband out of that!” Pamela snorted, arms crossed over her chest. “Three wonderful children! Memories to cherish for a lifetime!”
“Oh, I’m aware of that, Mother. It’s because of those memories and my children that I didn’t just leave you on the dock of Port Graal and say to hell with you and your schemes for my life!”
Pamela gasped. “Blanche!”
“And now you will listen to me, Mother! For once in your life, you will hear me! I will not have any more of your schemes, your plans, you stupid ideas for my life! The last time you meddled, it ended in absolutely disaster! Maybe you couldn’t have seen that coming — fine! Maybe nobody could have seen that coming — fine! But do you know what I see coming?” Blanche challenged. “Do you?”
“I see me buying out your half of the shop and sending you to live with Cressida if you don’t butt the hell out of my life!” Blanche shouted.
Pamela recoiled. “Blanche!”
“I mean it, Mother,” Blanche replied. “I’m not sixteen any more. I don’t … I do not need you. I am more than capable of taking care of myself, my children without you. I’ve built this shop up as much as, if not more than, you have. I can raise the money to buy you out. And once I’ve bought you out, you will be out, do you understand? I won’t want you near me or my children until you learn to respect me like an adult!”
Pamela licked her lips, suddenly dry. “You — you wouldn’t,” she gasped.
“Watch me,” was Blanche’s only reply. “Uncle Henry will never see his grandchildren again, thanks to the way he treated me. Don’t you become the next person to make that mistake. Now, if you’ll excuse me — I have customers to be seeing to.”
She left Pamela standing behind her with her jaw hanging loose as she strode into the shop again.
She found Jessiah … exactly how she might have expected to find him, talking to another customer, gesticulating wildly, no doubt in the middle of some story that Blanche could never be sure whether to believe or not. But when he saw her, his arms dropped to his sides and his eyes never left Blanche’s face.
Blanche closed the door and leaned her head against it.
Jessiah edged closer to her. “Are you all right?”
Blanche passed a hand over her eyes. She could feel a headache beginning right behind one eyeball — her left. It would soon build into a throb. “I have customers to see to …”
“Need help?” he asked. Blanche blinked and stared at him. “What? You think I don’t know my way around a shop?”
“Silly me,” Blanche forced herself to chuckle. “I should know by now that you’re a man of many talents, Cap’n.”
“And you haven’t even seen the best of ’em yet,” Jessiah laughed, his fingers stroking her under the chin. Then his face turned serious again. “Would you rather I took myself elsewhere for the afternoon?”
“What? Oh, Cap’n, I don’t want to chase you away …”
“Chase me? Don’t be silly. You won’t be chasin’. I can just tell …” He smiled ruefully. “Sometimes a woman needs her space.”
Blanche sighed, but she nodded.
“And it’s a poor man who won’t give it to her.” He leaned in and kissed her gently on the lips.
Then, when he pulled away, he winked at her. “Don’t you worry about anythin’, Blanche. You’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. And when you want me … well, you know where to find me.”
“And you know where to find me,” Blanche answered.
“Indeed,” Jessiah replied. “Indeed. How lucky am I — I found the best of all buried treasures, and I don’t even need a map to get it.”