The Spark – Snippet 25
CHAPTER 9: A Damsel in Distress
“My sister Eloise is very beautiful,” Frances said. “She took after our mother. Eloise isn’t stupid, but I sometimes think that she doesn’t have good sense. She hasn’t needed good sense, of course, because she’s beautiful.”
She stopped and frowned at the way she’ put that. I’m sure Beune isn’t the only place a pretty girl could get just as deep in trouble as an ugly one and get there a lot quicker. She flicked a hand angrily and said, “Eloise had father and then me to look after her. And we’re quite wealthy. The wealthiest family on Holheim, I believe.”
She scowled at the mug in her hand, then set it down with a clack against the table. “Is there wine on this benighted place?” she said. “I’ll pay for it!”
Guntram looked at me. I said, “I guess the boat’s converter’s the only place on Beune that you could get wine. Do you want to go back aboard, ma’am?”
“The wine on the boat is terrible!” Frances said. “It tastes of turpentine. I mean it: turpentine!”
“I dare say Pal and I can adjust the menu choices on the converter,” Guntram said. “If you like, we’ll do that now.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Frances said. She was flashing from high-and-mighty to right to the edge of giving up, if I was reading her voice right. “Everything’s gone wrong since I got on this wretched boat. Since the envoys came from Marielles. That’s when the trouble really started.”
I walked over and dipped more ale into her elmwood cup from the barrel and put it down beside her. I thought she might fling it at me, but she just took a sip like she hadn’t even noticed me move.
“There were two of them, courtiers,” Frances said. “Prince Potentate Philip of Marielles was looking for a wife. They’d come to Holheim because they’d heard that Lady Eloise was a beauty.”
She sniffed. “I’d have sent them away with a flea in their ear, I can promise you that,” she said. “But the news got to Eloise–one of the servants talked, I’m sure, and they’ll regret it if I ever learn who it was. Eloise was always flighty, you know, always reading romances. I think she half believed that she really was a king’s daughter and only being fostered here.”
“Could that be true?” I asked.
Frances glared at me. “In dim light, she and mother could’ve passed for twins!” she snapped. In a milder voice she went on, “Mother was always full of nonsense too, though she was a sweet lady. She died a year ago, not long before father. He loved her very much.”
Frances shrugged. “The courtiers took Eloise’s image in a mirror and went back to Marielles,” she said. “I gathered Philip had sent out several groups of people. They went by Road.
“Did they all have mirrors?” Guntram asked, leaning forward slightly.
“I suppose so,” Frances said with another dismissive flick. “I couldn’t say, could I? Do you imagine I was interested in such things?”
“I gather not,” said Guntram, nodding politely. “Please go on.”
I gave him a kind-of grin. It’s hard for folks like us who’re interested in all sorts of things to understand that a lot of people aren’t, even though they tell us so every time we start chattering about the most wonderful thing that we just learned.
“Well, I hoped that was the last we’d hear of Marielles and this Prince Philip,”
Frances said. “But it wasn’t, in three months a whole delegation came to work out the details of the marriage with father.”
She paused and took a deep breath, flaring her nostrils. “The prince demanded a huge settlement,” she said. “Nearly half the family’s worth. I don’t know if father would have agreed, even with Eloise weeping every time he tried to bargain the envoys down a little, but then mother died. Father couldn’t refuse Eloise after that. He didn’t have the heart for it. He met their terms and they went back to Marielles.”
“What did you do during the negotiations?” Guntram said. He held his mug, but I hadn’t seen him drink since I came into the shed.
“I did nothing!” Frances said. She was angry again, but maybe not angry at Guntram. “It was none of my business. If you mean the settlement, it’s family money and Eloise is family. If she wanted to spend it to buy a prince, well, she was no more of a romantic fool than she’d always been.”
I hadn’t sat down. I’d thought about sitting crosswise on the floor, but it was just as easy to stand and listen while the lady talked.
“Anyway, the envoys went off,” Frances said. “And after another month a boat came for Eloise. Father had made it clear that Eloise couldn’t be expected to walk to Marielles.”
I’d never heard of Marielles or Holheim either one. I figured they were bigger places than anything around Beune. For the first time ever I wondered where the boats that landed on Beune when I was young had come from.
“The boat came and it was very well decorated, but the boatman claimed that it would only carry two people besides himself,” Frances said. “I thought he was lying since there were eight cabins, but I gather he may not have been. At any rate, Baga is telling me the same lies if it is a lie.”
“If that boat was in as bad shape as Baga’s,” I said, “it was probably the truth.”
I walked over to the ale cask. There were only the two cups. There were others in the house, but there hadn’t been a need for more out here, so I drank from the ladle. Just enough to wet my dry lips and mouth.
“The boatman’s name was Camm,” Frances said. “I didn’t like him or trust him.”
I must have smiled because she looked sharply at me. I expected another blast, but instead she returned a slight smile and said, “All right, I suppose I don’t like or trust many people. I’ve had to handle the family estate since father died. Really since mother died, because he lost all interest. And–”
She swallowed and screwed her eyes up tight for a moment, though she didn’t wipe them with the back of her hand as I thought she might.
“Well, that doesn’t matter,” Frances said toward her mug. “Father had died before the boat arrived, so I had a free hand to deal with the situation as I saw fit. Camm wanted me to send the credit transfers along with Eloise. No fear that!”
She flicked her hand again, getting back to the old her. “There was a boat based on Holheim though it could only carry one passenger. I made sure that the compartments of Camm’s boat could be locked from the inside, then sent Eloise off with Camm and a bodyguard. I was going to carry the credits in the other boat, Baga’s boat, but he claimed to have gotten sick. It was three weeks before I could leave.”
“You trusted the bodyguard?” I said.
“The bodyguard was a eunuch,” Frances said. “I had him examined before I appointed him. He was really there because I was afraid Eloise would open her compartment even though I made her promise not to until she reached Marielles.”
“This appears to be a reasonable plan,” Guntram said. “I gather something went wrong?”
“Eloise wasn’t on Marielles when I got there!” Frances said. “She hadn’t arrived, Philip claimed. Well, I’m not sure Philip has brains enough to lie, but his mistress Hellea, Lady Hellea, she calls herself, certainly does. And can you believe it? She suggested that I should transfer the credits to Philip because he stood ready to marry my sister–which was his part of the bargain!”
Her hands were squeezing the mug hard, I think to keep them from trembling. “I demanded they bring my sister to me at once,” Frances said, “but Philip and his toadies kept claiming she hadn’t arrived on Marielles. I realized that I wasn’t going to accomplish anything on Marielles, so I set out for Dun Add to demand that the Leader, Jon, send a Champion to force Philip to produce Eloise. And then the boat broke down!”
I looked at Guntram. There hadn’t been any tricky dealings in Baga’s boat landing here, and I could sure imagine the boat with Camm having similar problems.
I don’t know what Guntram was thinking. What he said aloud was, “Well, Lady Frances, the first thing to do is to put your boat back in running order. Pal and I will get to work on that immediately.”
He rose and I followed him out of the shed.
I felt easier going back into the boat along with Guntram than I had when I’d entered it alone. Once the boat had started talking to me I got more comfortable, but it was still more complicated–a hundred times more complicated–than the weapon Guntram and I had fixed when he first arrived. Nothing else I’d worked on came near to the weapon for being hard.
What we did to begin with was look for where we were going to do the repairs. In trances Guntram and I didn’t see each other like if we were talking over the kitchen table, but we knew each other was there. He’d sketch breaks in the structure to show me the way he wanted to take care of them. After he started guiding me through the repairs in sections, the job didn’t make me tighten up inside.