Seryl 19, 1014
“Well, darlin’,” said Jessiah, taking both of Blanche’s hands in his own and swinging them from side to side. “Here we are again!”
“Here we are!” agreed Blanche with a smile.
It was a little odd to be coming back to the Dragon’s Teeth after all this time. The Guild had officially started meeting in Joshua Wesleyan’s bank, but Jessiah hadn’t gone to a Guild meeting in months. Why should he, when Sorcha and Bart had that all well in hand? All right, maybe there was seeing Blanche to consider … but even needling Pamela got old after a while, and Bart and Sorcha both had things to contribute to Guild meetings. Jessiah didn’t.
Besides, if things went well tonight … Jessiah would be seeing much more of Blanche.
“It was kind of you to take me out,” Blanche murmured. She ducked her head, her eyes hooded. But the candles still brought out the gold lights in them. “I needed this.”
Everything all right? Jessiah heard himself wondering, but he didn’t ask. Not yet. For one thing, the host standing behind them, waiting oh-so-patiently for Jessiah to get a move on and ask for a table already, didn’t need to hear that. He didn’t need to hear the answer, either, whether it was, “Oh, of course!” or something more complicated than that.
So Jessiah grinned and kissed Blanche’s nose. She laughed, as she always did when he did that. “Well, darlin’, that’s what I’m here for. I live to serve and all that. Now, let me see about gettin’ us a table, and then we can get down to business.”
Blanche nodded, and Jessiah took that as his cue to address the host. “Well, Master O’Brien — it’s me again. Your least favorite customer. But I’ve got a lady-friend with me, and I’m aimin’ to impress her, so for her sake, could you not put us at your absolute worst table?”
Master O’Brien smiled that sickly smile of folks paid to interact with politely and cheerfully with the public but not paid well enough to be happy about it. “You’re not my least favorite customer, Captain Andavri, I assure you.”
“Liar,” Jessiah said over his shoulder to Blanche, who chuckled and shook her head. “He was here for the Great Grog Incident of ’12.”
Master O’Brien’s smile turned a little more sickly, and Blanche blushed. That incident had been after a Guild meeting, when Jessiah and Bart had … well. It was probably only the fact that they were in the Guild that resulted in their ever being let in again. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to be bringing this up.
Master O’Brien grabbed a couple bills of fare, tucked them under his arm, and extended his arm. “If you will follow me, sir? And madam?”
Jessiah took Blanche’s arm — she wasn’t a two-year-old and didn’t need to be guided, but she enjoyed it, and who was Jessiah to deny a lady pleasure? — and said, “Our table awaits, love!” They then followed Master O’Brien to the indicated table and sat down.
He handed them their bills of fare and disappeared. Blanche cast a glance at hers but soon laid on the table. “You know, it’s almost sad,” she said. “Except for Guild meetings, and of course when you’re kind enough to take me out, I never–”
“And how can I help sir and the lady?” asked a waiter, seemingly materializing out of nowhere.
Blanche jumped — Jessiah reached across and held her hand for a quick moment. “Guess Master O’Brien isn’t the only one who remembers the Great Grog Incident!” Jessiah joked. As if he’d misbehave in front of a lady. … Well, in front of Blanche.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” said the waiter, smiling nervously. He probably knew exactly what the Great Grog Incident was, and he probably knew better than to bring it up with the inciter … perhaps he was terrified of a repeat performance. Jessiah couldn’t blame him.
“Well,” Jessiah said, “I’ve been lookin’ over this here menu of yours, and I notice that you’ve got Gaulish wine by the glass for sale. That still the case?”
Blanche’s eyes went wide, but Jessiah ignored her — this was his treat, and he could worry about how much the wine cost, not her.
“Indeed we have, sir! How much would you like?”
“Two glasses,” Jessiah replied, “for start. We’ll have more if the lady likes it.”
By the way Blanche was going even more pale than she was usually, Jessiah guessed that it would take something just shy of a miracle to get her to admit she liked the wine well enough to want more of it — but no matter. She’d get her one glass, Jessiah would make sure of that.
“Excellent! And what will you and the lady be having to eat?”
“I’ll be havin’ your shrimpy dish …”
“The prawns, sir?” asked the waiter, blinking. And no wonder. Most folks didn’t eat creepy-crawly things that ran along the ocean floor unless they had to, but they were a delicacy in Bledavik, and the cook here knew how to do them in Bledavik style. Jessiah suspected the only reason they were on the menu was that cook, and the fact they were cheap enough here that the powers that be saw sense in having them on the menu.
“And the lady?” asked the waiter, still looking at Jessiah.
“Can order for herself, I’m thinkin’,” Jessiah said, and winked at Blanche.
“I’ll have the salad, please,” said Blanche as the waiter looked at her in some surprise.
“Certainly, madam.” He wrote both of their orders down on his wax tablet with a flourish, then nodded at Jessiah. “I’ll be back with your wine momentarily.”
And as soon as he was gone, Jessiah turned to Blanche. “Salad? I didn’t order the wine so’d you’d skimp on dinner and starve yourself half to death!”
Blanche shook her head. “I like the salad. They used to make up a tray of it for the Guild meetings — don’t you remember? — and even though they had meat, I always filled up on the salad. Besides,” she chuckled, “I have to keep my girlish figure.”
“Ah. Well, I am corrected, madam.” Jessiah mimed bowing. “Heaven knows I’ve learned not to argue when a woman says the word ‘figure’ anywhere in a sentence. Or a paragraph!”
Blanche laughed. “I wouldn’t advertise that, sir! Else every woman you know will be starting every sentence with, ‘Well, I figure,‘ and you will be in big trouble.”
“Any woman who is smart enough to do that would probably best me at an argument anyway,” Jessiah shrugged. “Easier not to try!”
“That’s a–” Blanche started, but was interrupted by the waiter returning with two goblets and an uncorked bottle of wine.
“Your wine, sir!” He set both the goblets down, filled — a generous fill, too, Jessiah was watching — and bowed out of the way.
Blanche stared askance at the goblet, so Jessiah knew it would be on him to get this started. “A toast!” he said, lifting his glass.
Blanche lifted hers as well.
“To your eyes, love — golden as the sun — and your hair, black as the night sky. Night and day in one face, darlin’. It isn’t every woman who can say that.” He raised his glass and sipped. Blanche did too.
“And now it’s my turn,” she said impishly as soon as Jessiah brought the goblet away from his lips. “To your hair — white as a snowcapped mountain — and your smile, warm as the summer sun. Two seasons in one face …” Blanche winked. “It isn’t every man who can say that.”
“Hear, hear!” Jessiah said, and they drank.
Jessiah was planning on making a joke about his hair and where Blanche may have been going with that comment as soon as the drink was done, but Blanche was smacking her lips and looking thoughtful. So Jessiah put his goblet down, cocked his head to the side, and waited.
Blanche looked at the goblet and smiled. “I haven’t had Gaulish wine since my wedding.”
“Ooh?” Jessiah asked, head tilted to one side. Interesting that she would bring that up tonight of all nights …
“Aye …” She looked again at the goblet, brows furrowed.
“Is it as good as you remembered?” asked Jessiah.
“Oh — I barely had any at all. Half a glass, not even,” Blanche shrugged. “My mother didn’t want to let me — or any of us — near it. My … my father-in-law only brought one cask, and she wanted to save it for the important guests.”
Jessiah’s jaw fell. “You’re kiddin’. She managed to get good stuff for your weddin’ — a weddin’ to a man you weren’t particularly interested in marryin’ at the time — and she didn’t even want to let you drink it?”
“Oh, I see why she did it!” Blanche replied. “You see, most of the important guests were men from the Guild. After my father died, they were keeping an eagle eye on our shop. My mother had never officially entered the Guild — it was expensive, and she never wanted to spend the money while Father was alive — and they only gave my mother provisional membership when my father died. They could have revoked it at any time, and then we would have had to sell the shop and … I don’t know what we would have done.” Blanche shook her head. “So, between the Gaulish wine and me marrying John … that was my mother’s way of telling the Guildsmen that we were fine, and they had no reason to take away her right to trade. So they didn’t.”
“Hmm,” Jessiah murmured, which was the easiest way to say something that didn’t involve cursing.
“And … in a way, I’m glad she did. She didn’t let John have any of the wine, either. So he managed to sneak us both a glass …” Blanche smiled. “That was when I knew that things would be all right. That John would take care of me. And that I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life under my mother’s thumb, and then under the thumb of the man she picked out for me to … to …”
Blanche looked away. But Jessiah would guess where this was going. Pamela was a strong woman, and even though Jessiah wouldn’t say this to Blanche, he would bet his best boat that the cause of death for her poor father was “henpecking.” But hers wasn’t a strength like Sorcha’s, which bolstered itself by strengthening those around her. Pamela had to be strong by making others weak. And if her daughter was going to be staying in her household, she wanted that daughter to be meek and mild, under first her thumb and then the thumb of the husband she picked out for that daughter.
“Well,” Jessiah said, “that sure as heck didn’t happen. You’re stronger than that, love. Stronger than your mother, too, I’d say.”
Blanche smiled–and then their pleasant interlude came to an abrupt end with the arrival of the waiter. But at least he came with food.
So Jessiah started on his prawns, and Blanche started on her salad, and any talking perforce had to stop. After all, even after all his time aboard ship, Jessiah’s table manners were good enough that he knew that much was rude.
… Unfortunately, his talent for table manners tended to end there, at least when Bledavik prawns were involved.
He remembered himself after a few minutes and straightened up with a laugh. “Sorry, love. You weren’t hit, were you?”
“No,” Blanche said, smiling and shaking her head. Then she frowned, thoughtful. “… Cap’n?”
“Are those shrimp really that good?”
As an answer, Jessiah pushed his plate forward. “Would you like a taste?”
She took off a small, delicate piece and popped it into her mouth. Jessiah watched her eyes widen as the spices hit her. “Oh–oh my!”
“Too hot? D’you need water?”
She shook her head, swallowed, and quickly took a sip of her wine. “It was good,” she said almost apologetically. “I just — wasn’t expecting that much spice.”
“Well, it’s mighty cold in Bledavik, so we get our warmth any way we can,” replied Jessiah. “I’ve personally found many a time that burnin’ my mouth out is a quick way to make my extremities feel a mite less cold.”
“Oh, your extremities, sir?” asked Blanche.
“Well … most of ’em.” Jessiah winked. “Some would only get warm if a pretty lady …”
“All right, that’s enough!” Blanche laughed.
“I was only goin’ to say blew on ’em!” gasped Jessiah. He held out his hand. “I get the coldest fingers in the world — but a pretty lady blows her sweet breath on them, and, well, they’re warmer than a blacksmith’s forge.”
“Oh, yes, that was what you meant,” Blanche countered, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
“Hey now.” Jessiah pointed his fork at her. “I only said what I was goin’ to say, mind. What I meant is an entirely different story.”
“And you say such things to a respectable widow-woman.” Blanche clucked her tongue and shook her head. “I would say my mother warned me about men like you …”
“Ha! She’d have to know men like me existed in order to do that, love!”
Blanche grinned. “Precisely.”
“Men like me don’t even make up her wildest nightmares.”
“And she had some rather wild ones when Cressida was courting,” Blanche mused. “It’s funny …”
Jessiah tilted his head to one side and waited.
“Well–Alice and Maude were both …” Blanche stroked her chin. “Conventional. Like Mother. They wanted a nice young man with good prospects to settle down with and raise a family. But Cressida was always determined to have her own way, and she was pretty, and she thought that was an excellent excuse to get the man she wanted, and not any of the older, richer men Mother would have set her up with … and now, of course, she’s married to a banker, a man high in the Guild … everything Mother would have wanted for her.”
“Except he’s not so old, and … well, Joshua Wesleyan is a bit uptight in my book, sometimes, but I see the way he looks at your sister, and he treats her like a queen, so what does my opinion matter?”
“He’s actually very funny if you get him in private. It’s … well, a lot of it is rather dark humor, but it’s there. Cressida says his late wife used to call him a payaso –“
“Clown,” Jessiah chuckled.
“What? That’s what that means?” Blanche asked.
“Your sister didn’t tell you that?”
Blanche shook her head. “His wife never told him what it meant.”
“Ah! Then perhaps I won’t tell him. Wouldn’t want to spoil whatever illusion he’s built up in his head about that.” Jessiah winked.
“Indeed,” replied Blanche, smiling. “But still … it’s odd. Just odd how things worked out. Cressida is the one my mother always worried most about, and she was determined to have her way or no way — and now, by my mother’s lights, she’s made the best marriage of us all.”
“Hmm,” Jessiah remarked. But — but that was it, wasn’t it? Blanche had opened the door wide for him. He had nothing to do but walk through it.
And so, gathering his courage, he took the box he had carried with him this night out of his pocket and laid it on the table. “And who knows, Blanche — you, the daughter she thought she got locked down early … well, life’s got a funny way of turnin’ us on our heads, don’t you think?”
“I don’t …” Blanche started.
Jessiah put the box on the table. She gasped. “Oh, Cap’n — is that — is that …?”
“Well, darlin’, if you were wonderin’ if I had an ulterior motive with that Gaulish wine … now you know,” Jessiah nodded. Then he laughed — a short, hesitant seal-bark of one, but a laugh all the same. “You’ll have to excuse me if I screw this up, love. I’ve never proposed to a woman before.”
He realized as soon as the words were out of his mouth that they were a mistake — damn it, he’d never wanted it to get out that he’d never married Bart’s mother. But Blanche … Blanche would understand. Or if she couldn’t quite understand, she’d keep it under her hat. She had a big, warm, beautiful heart, and she’d never want to cause anyone hurt or embarrassment.
“The truth of it is … well, you’re a wonderful woman, Blanche. That isn’t nearly enough to say, but it’s the short version. You’ve got a big and compassionate heart, determination enough to take the worst of circumstances and turn them into the best of ’em, and … Lord, Blanche, how do I explain? You’ve got a sharper mind and a more thoughtful way of lookin’ about you than some philosophers I could mention. Lots of women, unfortunately, have been in places like yours — but I don’t think many of ’em took the wisdom you did out of it. I’m in awe of that, Blanche, I really am. And …”
He pushed the box a little closer to her. “The truth of the matter is I’m a selfish old codger. You deserve a younger man, one who can better keep up with you and your kiddies — one who can give you everything you want and everything you need besides. You definitely deserve a better lookin’ one than this old sea-dog, though if you don’t mind me sayin’, I don’t think you’ll ever find one with better hair.”
Blanche laughed, and with that laugh escaped a few tears. “Hey now!” Jessiah waggled his finger at her. “None of that! This is supposed to be a happy occasion!”
“But I am happy,” Blanche protested. “And you–you–I can’t explain it, but–but you make me happy! And my children love you, and–and my mother will learn to deal with it!”
Jessiah laughed. “And see, that’s what made me think, ‘I’m a selfish old codger, all right, but I think I can make that wonderful woman happy — and that’s somethin’ that not a lot of men would be able to do.’ So — what do you say, Blanche? I know I’ll only look worse as the years go on, and unfortunately I can’t even make any promises about my hair — but even if I’m a selfish old codger, I’m a selfish old codger who gets his greatest joy out of seein’ you happy, so you can bet I’ll bend over backwards to make it so.”
“… That ain’t an answer, love.”
“Yes! Yes, of course! Yes!”
Jessiah grinned, even though he knew it wasn’t near enough to express how the happiness bubbled inside him like the finest Gaulish wine. So he turned it into a joke. “Now, why don’t you have a look inside that box, ’cause I know you’re curious …”
Blanche smiled at him and wiped a tear from her eye and opened the box.
Jessiah gulped. “If you’re not likin’ it, I’ve got a deal with the goldsmith, and we can take it back and find somethin’ you like more–“
“Jessiah!” Jessiah blinked — when was the last time she had used his first name? But it was magical to hear her say it, now. “Don’t be silly. It’s perfect!”
She took the ring out of the box, slipped it onto her finger, and admired the way the light played on the small stone set in the middle.
“It’s perfect just the way it is,” Blanche repeated. Then she looked up, smiled, and said to Jessiah three words that were even more magical than his first name:
“Just like you.”