Endskel 10, 1014
“Are you sure we should have left the kids by themselves?” Bart asked, not for the first time, as Sorcha’s cue shot out and sent the soldiers scattering in all directions.
“Bart. Jack’s sixteen. Plenty of boys are fathers already by that age.” She circled the pool table like a lioness around the prowl, sizing up every inch of the felt green surface for tasty prey. As for Bart, he merely watched the progress of her hips, emphasized by the ever-swaying, ever-shifting dance of skirts. After twenty years of marriage, his wife still had it — in spades.
However, he realized he had to stay something. So he pointed out, “Well, not Jack.”
“Not if he knows what’s good for him,” Sorcha agreed. “He knows the rules.”
Bart nodded. “The rules,” of course, were “no babies until you’re damn well ready to pay for them yourself.” Or until you can drag the other parent of the baby to the wedding arch by the ear, he thought, remembering his own wedding day with a fond sigh.
“However, the point still stands,” Sorcha went on, lining up another shot. Bart shuffled sidelong to get a better view of his wife’s hindquarters as she leaned over the table. “I think we can trust Jack to keep an eye on Banana and Benji and not burn the house down. And even if he does, we’re only three doors down. We’ll smell the smoke.”
“You know, Sorcha, did anybody ever tell you that you have a unique way of reassuring people?”
“The beatings will continue until morale improves,” Sorcha replied. Bart laughed. Lord, if anybody around only knew where that old joke came from …
“Besides,” Sorcha continued, “we told Gino we’d meet him here.”
Ah, Gino. That skinny little runaway, now no longer quite so little, hopefully not as skinny. That defiant kid — now no longer a kid. That poor kid torn between two worlds, bound by blood to both, rejected by both — now married to a duke’s daughter. The wanderer who never understood the meaning of “home” …
… Now walking into the inn …
“Hey, Sorcha, look who’s here!” called Bart. He lifted one hand and waved to Gino, who was still hanging by the door. Hesitant as always. One wrong look, one side-eye too threatening, and he’d bolt. “Hey — Gino! Over here!”
Gino looked over — and Bart saw his grin. But that wasn’t unique to Gino. How many people wouldn’t grin like that, seeing a familiar face in a foreign port?
Sorcha dropped her cue. “Gino!” She hurried to him, all swishing skirts and outstretched arms. “Come here!” And, brooking no argument, she pulled him in for an embrace.
Bart slowly followed in her wake. She’d always had a strange soft spot for Gino. She’d already been captain of their ship when they found Gino hiding in the hold. A captain — or at least a young, female captain of a ship full of pirates — had to be certain things. She had to be bold. She had to be tough. She had to show every last member of her crew (starting with her husband) that she couldn’t be swayed, or moved, or in any way set off her proper course with an appeal to her emotions. She had to be everything a male captain was, only better.
So when one of their sailors dragged the skinny boy up from the hold, Sorcha laid into him. She flayed him, verbally, up one side and down the other. She threatened to throw him to the sharks if he didn’t tell her exactly where he came from, so she could take him back.
Gino had looked onto the wild blue ocean. That day, there had even been some saw-shaped fins ominously peeking out of the waves. Then he looked back at Sorcha and, figuratively, spit in Fate’s eye. “Go ahead,” he had said. “I’d rather be shark food than go back.”
He’d meant it.
There were times when a man realized that he wasn’t necessary to the proceedings. Back then had been one of those times. So was now. As Sorcha exclaimed over Gino and asked how he was and teased him about how marriage was evidently agreeing with him, Bart walked over to the hostess’s station and saw about getting them a table.
The table was easy to get, so Bart sat himself down at it and waited for Sorcha and Gino to notice that he’d left and come after him.
As he waited, he watched the two of them, hands folded underneath his chin, his one good eye squinting at them. Sorcha didn’t look at all different than she had the day they’d found Gino. Oh, that scar on her cheek hadn’t been there that day, and there might have been some new crow’s feet and an extra gray hair or five. But beyond that? The expression was identical.
Bart could still remember how quickly Sorcha’s face had changed when Gino had dared her to feed him to the sharks. First there had been fury. Then, when she realized he was serious, astonishment. Finally concern, finally kindness, as she told him to get himself something to eat, and started training him as a cabin boy that very day.
Sorcha never said what caused her change of heart. But Bart could guess. They’d left Jack behind in Bledavik as soon as he had been weaned, and Bart knew that Sorcha had been missing him and Cherry with an intensity unusual even for her. He thought she might have been thinking of her own baby boy when she looked at Gino. She might have been wondering, Where is this kid’s mother, that he’d rather be tossed overboard than go back where he came from? And he could guess, too, her next thought: If this was my kid … I’d want to know somebody was taking care of him.
So they took care of Gino. They gave him a home, a family, a trade. And if Gino preferred smuggling to outright piracy, well, that was a perfectly respectable choice. It would be a funny old world if everyone was alike.
Oh — and those saw-shaped fins? Their owners turned out to be dolphins.
“Nice one,” Sorcha said as she and Gino finally came to the table. “Abandoning us to our hungry fate.”
“Hey, I just got the table,” Bart answered. “It’s not like I even ordered.” He picked up the bill of fare and started to peruse it. “I haven’t even seen what’s on offer.”
“As long as it’s not hardtack and beer, I’ll be happy,” Gino chuckled.
“You’d think the duke’s daughter’s husband would get better rations than that,” Bart replied.
“Well …” Gino shifted like his chair was sticking splinters here and there into his bum. “I would have. But … what with Leona being … well …”
“Pregnant?” asked Sorcha. Gino’s ears turned red. “Don’t be shy. Besides, we turned out to welcome her home. I’m sorry, there’s no disguising that kind of belly.”
“I guess not,” Gino admitted. But he wore a faint smile, and in that smile, a fainter hint of pride. “But — I gave those rations to Leona. The closer we got to Port Finessa, the more she needed them.”
“She let you do that?” asked Bart. He’d heard tales of the duke’s daughter.
“Well … she didn’t want to … but there was only so long she could stare at them before she broke down and ate them.”
“Hear hear,” Sorcha chuckled. “And on that note — waiter!” She waved one over. “Three ales, if you please!” While they were at it, they ordered the rest of the food, too. The waiter went scurrying and came back with the ales. As soon as they were passed out, Sorcha lifted her mug high. “To Gino — to marriage and fatherhood, may it suit you as well as the sea!”
“Hear, hear!” Bart raised his mug. It had been too long since he’d participated in a traditional Bledavik toast to a change.
Gino lifted his mug much more slowly. He managed a smile. But when he drank, it was much more deeply than Sorcha or Bart had.
As soon as he put his tankard down, Sorcha said, “You know there’s no take-backsies, aye?”
“You’re married. You’ve got a baby on the way. There’s no going back from that.” Sorcha’s palms fell flat on the table, and she leveled a glare at Gino that had sent braver men running for the hills. “No running away, either. Not if you’re going to be the man I know you are.”
“I know,” Gino replied. Bart blinked. When was the last time Gino had been this reasonable?
… Had he ever been this reasonable?
“You and Bart were right. I can’t run from my problems. Not anymore.”
Bart’s jaw fell. They were right? The one time he’d trotted out that cliche to Gino, Gino had turned to him with a seventeen-year-old’s jaded cynicism, and snorted, “Yeah, right. Running away worked pretty well for me the last time.”
And the worst of it was that the little devil had had a point. Running away was a damned good option when your problem was a mad father intent on turning you into a monk to be the Savior to the Heathens, whether or not you had any interest in such a fate. Gino had gotten himself well out of that loony’s reach, and hey, presto! Problem solved.
Except, of course, that it hadn’t been. Sorcha had been the one to point that out. Running away only took the boy out of the loony’s reach. It didn’t take the loony’s voice, the loony’s mind, out of the boy. And that was the real problem.
Gino had his mouth open to speak, but the waiter coming back with the food kept him quiet. And a good thing, too — the waiter was giving Gino a funny look, like he recognized him. It was probably only a matter of time before he realized that this dark-skinned man was the duke’s daughter’s new husband.
As soon as the waiter was gone, Gino asked, “But a man’s allowed to be apprehensive, aye?”
“Hell yes!” Bart answered. “And don’t you say a word, Sorcha. There’s few things scarier than looking at your wife’s growing stomach and realizing … well. Everything.”
He didn’t need to lecture Gino on the apprehensions of impending fatherhood. The way Gino was swallowing air and staring at his untouched food implied that he knew them all too well.
“And,” Gino murmured, “Leona … she …” He shook his head. “She–she just doesn’t stop! The baby’s going to be here in less than three months! But she keeps going and going — her mother had to wrangle the Queen into giving us rooms in–in one of the royal housing complexes in the capital, one they usually use to house diplomats, so at least this way, when she’s going to Port Finessa, she’s only got an hour each way!”
“Don’t try to hold her back,” said Sorcha. Bart stared at her. So did Gino. “No–I’m serious. Gino, she’s probably just as scared as you are. It’s … different for a mother. She’s worried about everything you’re worried about, plus … well, men don’t lose their freedom when they become fathers. Women sometimes do.”
“But I wouldn’t –”
“You wouldn’t have to.” Sorcha shrugged. “A nursing infant does that for you.”
“… Oh,” Gino murmured. “Right.” He twirled his spaghetti round and round his fork, only to watch the noodles slide one by one back to the plate.
“But you can help,” Bart said. “Make sure she’s eating, for one. That shouldn’t be hard … but figure out what she’s wanting, and make sure there’s always lots of that in the house. Or the rooms, or … whatever. And when she starts looking tired, don’t try to make her rest — but make it really easy for her to get some of that rest, and when she asks you why you didn’t wake her up to do such-and-such, tell her that she looked so beautiful sleeping that you couldn’t bear to wake her. Oh — and make sure you have a handkerchief handy when you say that.”
“A — handkerchief?” Gino asked. “Why?”
“She might start to cry.” He jerked his thumb to Sorcha. “She always did. At least, she did when she was pregnant.”
Sorcha raised an eyebrow at him. “Must you spill all of our family secrets?”
“Only in the pursuit of a good cause.”
Sorcha sighed and rolled her eyes. But Bart could see her smiling. She turned back to Gino. “And try not to worry so much. If your lady has a speck of sense, she’ll start slowing down when her body tells her it’s time to start slowing down. And if she doesn’t …” Sorcha smirked. “Why, then, Gino, you’re in luck compared to Bart. You’ve got her mother in shouting distance. I’ve heard a lot about the Duchess, and something tells me she’d be able to handle her daughter when nobody else would. Plus it’ll get you in her good graces, I’ll bet.”
For some reason that made Gino spear his meatballs with undue ferocity. “Heh.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Bart.
“It’s … it’s not the Duchess I’m worried about,” Gino muttered. “I think she likes me. Or she’s willing to like me for Leona’s sake. It’s … it’s her brother I’m worried about.”
“Brother Galahad?” Sorcha gasped.
“What? Oh, not him! He’s …”
“Galahad,” Sorcha and Bart filled in unison.
“Um … sure,” replied Gino. “It’s — it’s her other brother. Sir William.” Gino sawed through a meatball with the side of his fork and kept sawing, even when everybody in the inn could hear the wood scraping against the metal. He gulped. “He’s … he’s fighting with Leona about her dowry …”
Sorcha gasped. Bart’s jaw fell. “That doesn’t sound like him,” Sorcha replied, glancing at Bart for confirmation — as if Bart would have a better reading of what “everybody said” than she did.
“He doesn’t want to give it over until … until I sign something …” Gino ran a hand through his hair. “Something that says I can’t touch it. I think. Or maybe it’s that I can’t touch it unless Leona gives me permission.”
“What about Sir Lancelot?” asked Sorcha. “Shouldn’t he be the one with the final say?”
Gino shook his head. “So–so far, he seems to be agreeing with Sir William. I think. I think he was more convinced by Sir William.”
“But … but what Sir William is suggesting is only fair, I guess?” Bart hazarded. “I mean … it certainly wouldn’t be right for you to be able to take all that money and run, if that’s what you wanted to do. And while we know you wouldn’t … well, Sir William and Sir Lancelot wouldn’t know that. Not for sure.”
“It’s not exactly pleasant when your brother-in-law and father-in-law clearly expect you to do just that,” Gino muttered. “But that’s not the worst of it. I’d — I’d sign it, if that’s what it came down to. But Leona … Leona is furious.”
“She’s angry that her father and brother want to make sure she retains control over her own dowry?” Sorcha asked.
“She says that what Sir William has drawn up is … is too much. She says that it means Sir William doesn’t trust her — trust her not to pick someone who won’t betray her like that.” Gino sighed. “And then Sir William tells her that if this was Sir Elyan, she’d be demanding this kind of agreement, and she fires back, ‘I know! Because he would have taken it all and spent it bailing out his father! Gino wouldn’t! Gino’s not an idiot!'”
He shook his head. “And I … I don’t even know what to say …”
“Say you want your own lawyer,” Sorcha suggested.
Bart choked on his burger. “A what?”
“Oh come on, Bart, surely you’ve heard the word before.”
“But … a lawyer?” Bart’s jaw fell. “Why are you sending Gino over to one of them? I mean, some might say we weren’t the best examples … but for the love of heaven, when a pirate shoves a ship’s oar up your bum, at least you know it’s happening and why! You don’t find out later, when you go to the pot, and–”
“All right, that’s enough, we’re eating!” Sorcha interrupted. She rolled her eyes at Gino. “Ignore him. He breaks out in hives whenever someone uses whereas and hitherto in the same sentence. You should get a lawyer, Gino. Somebody who’ll explain to you exactly what Sir William wants you to sign –”
“He did say he’d explain it to me …” Gino murmured.
“Doesn’t matter. You want someone who’s working for you. So you get your own lawyer, figure out what Sir William wants — and then you use that lawyer to negotiate. Figure out something fair. If you think it’s fair that she retain main control of her dowry, that’s fine — but at least try to wrangle some concessions for yourself. What Sir William is asking you to do is practically unheard of, so you’d best make sure you push back a little, and show him you’re not to be trifled with.”
“Unheard of?” Bart gasped. “If I’d tried to helm your ship on the grounds that I was married to you and the ship was now mine, you’d’ve thrown me overboard!”
“We were pirates then. That makes it different.” Sorcha turned back to Gino. “But I’m serious, Gino. Get your own lawyer. You know you’re willing to be reasonable, but what you need to show is that you’re not willing to be walked all over.”
“Maybe,” Gino murmured. “I don’t know. I keep thinking — it’s her money. Why shouldn’t she control it?”
“Because you’re married,” Sorcha replied. “There’s no ‘her money’ and ‘my money’ after you’re married. It’s all our money. Maybe you each get some — pin-money to spend for yourselves, without your spouse having to know each little thing, because fighting over each little expense is the quickest road to marital hell I know. But at the end of the day, you’re a unit now, and both of you ought to have a say in all financial decisions.”
Gino twirled some more noodles on his fork. But at least these ones made it to his mouth while he thought it over. “Plenty — plenty of southlanders wouldn’t say that, though. They’d say that the husband the right to do it all, without the wife’s knowledge or consent …”
It always made Bart chuckle to hear Gino refer to the continental Wrightians as “southlanders.” Still, that was neither here nor there. “Maybe. But you’re not a southlander. And Lady Leona strikes me as being … far from your typical southlander. Besides, let’s face it, most of the men saying that are monks — or else they’re noblemen who can afford to keep their wife away from the money, because they’ve got a small army of clerks and bookkeepers to do all the money tracking for them.” Bart shrugged. “I doubt your average couple can get away with that.”
Finally Gino smiled. “I don’t think Leona and I are exactly average.”
“And it’s a good thing you’re not, because then you’d be quite the disappointment to us, Gino. Now.” Sorcha pushed her plate away from her, and it only took her a quick glance to confirm that Bart and Gino were both done. She stood up. “We still haven’t heard from you just how Lady Leona managed to bag you, Gino. And I think a game of Crazy Pineapple would be the best accompaniment to that story, don’t you?”
It was hard to argue with that kind of logic. So they made their way over the card table. One look at the two pirates and their friend managed to chase away the group already playing at the table. Bart might have wondered how that happened, but at the end of the day … well …. he just wasn’t that stupid.
Still, when they sat, Gino had another gum for the works. “Hold on a moment.”
“Hold on? Why?”
“Before I tell my story …” He smirked. “I heard through the grapevine that your old Cap’n, Bart, managed to get himself bagged.”
“Ah! That!” Bart chuckled.
“Well?” Gino asked. “That has to be a much more interesting story than my mere courtship.”
“The kid has a point,” Sorcha said.
“Duly noted,” Bart agreed. “Well,” he said as he laid out his chips and started to shuffle, “once upon a time in a not-so-far-away land …
“There was an old Cap’n, and there young-enough widows who ran an underwear shop …”