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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Fantasy · #2140380
The first chapter of the epic fantasy Ironwood
The traveler walked alone down the hard-packed dirt road, all his worldly possessions bundled upon his back, his even grace marred by a nearly imperceptible limp. He was solidly built, and of roughly average height. Salt-and-pepper hair lay across his brow, made long and uneven by weeks upon the road, and his strong chin bore a thick and rounded beard. His weathered face held a peaceful smile, as he admired the canopy of trees eclipsing the sky above.

Though he'd never in his life walked this part of Annaria, Brother Francis knew the town had to be close, a few hours away at worst, and the weather was excellent for walking. It had been a long journey on the ancient road from the Empire of Travan, and he was looking forward to seeing the town of Ironwood for the first time. With the permissions of his superiors in the Del monastery, he had undertaken a pilgrimage to view the Shield of St. Thomas, one of the more famous relics of the region. He was unclear when the idea had come to him, but it was a perfect excuse to escape the monastery. The monk loved the road, and the unique charm of every town and village it brought him to. The thought of exploring a new one left him alive with anticipation. He had always been prone to deja-vu, and surely it was the poignancy of the moment that gave him the sense that he was meant to be here, that the path before him had populated some dimly remembered dream.

As he topped a small hill, Francis saw that Ironwood was not hours away, after all. Revealed in the distance was a grassy plain, and just beyond a low but sturdy wall, over-topped by scores of thatched roofs. The gate was opened wide to show its whimsically carved interior, and seemed almost naively welcoming. The heavy oaken frame extending from each wall could surely support a more serious barrier, but unlike the fortresses of Travan, Ironwood didn't see the need. Instead, the portal featured an arbor decked in ivy, and engulfed by all the flowers of spring. The cobblestone path beyond led all the way to the structure at Ironwood's center, which itself was dressed more like a stately mansion or summer cottage than a town's keep. On its parapets, richly dyed banners in Ironwood's brown and green proclaimed its pride as Margon's eastern-most center of trade. Within its walls, shops beckoned, and the freshly painted shutters of its cottages were all thrown wide to the day.

The middle-aged monk furrowed his brow briefly as he tried to recall what he had heard of Ironwood. Supposedly, it shared the mixed blessings of many small towns: a strong sense of honor enforced by the long memories of neighbors. Yet Ironwood's dependence on trade gave it something of a worldly air, and its history was widely known.

Over two centuries ago, a group of farmers, loggers, and artisans had crossed the narrow pass through the Iron Mountains to make a new life. Such expeditions had previously ended mostly in sorrow, but the Ironwood settlement had a secret weapon: the skill and charisma of St. Thomas. In the town's first years, a slow barrage of raids had led to months of siege, culminating in a desperate battle for the region. To the surprise of all, the settlers had won decisively, and afterward established a then-rare accord with the nearby sons of Kharshe. The details of Ironwood's founding and its hard-won peace under St. Thomas were local legend, earning its founder's shield the status of a holy artifact: a symbol of God's protection against the faithless.

Since then, Ironwood had grown steadily. Initially independent, it had been peacefully reabsorbed by Margon over the past few generations, at least in name. In recent years, it had used its location to arrange caravans from Margon in the West to Travan in the East, or south to Chaltan and the Free Cities. By the legend of St. Thomas, and the prowess of its armed guard, Ironwood had established an oasis of peace and prosperity beyond the wall of the Iron Mountains. Well, mostly. Being a member of one of the sprawling villages that surrounded the town was not entirely without risk.

Yet Brother Francis had seen no evidence of conflict on his way to Ironwood, and as he continued to the end of the dirt roadway towards the wooden gates, the inhabitants seemed confident and relaxed. Some of the shopkeepers looked up hopefully at his arrival, and a few of the would-be customers had a quick smile for him as he approached. He, of course, answered with a broad and genuine smile of his own, and a friendly wave to the children. By tradition, Francis would pay his respects to the local Lord and his priest, and offer his services in return for their hospitality. Still, there was no need to hurry the process; he would have some time first to wander. In this moment, he was simply grateful for the day that God had made, for it was surely a beautiful day.

~

Jacob sighed internally. It was going to be another one of those conversations. At nearly nineteen, he had been an adult for years, but somehow his father hadn't noticed.

"Jacob, will we finally have your report on a caravan to Tyrnia? I do hope you have actual numbers this time," Lord Sterik drawled. Tall, dark haired, dark eyed, and with lean muscles built on a broad frame, Lord Sterik remained fit and imposing well into his late forties. He exuded capability, but he did not suffer foolishness quietly, even in his younger son. Jacob, on the other hand, had gotten much of his disposition from his mother, and preferred to avoid direct confrontation. Unfortunately, confrontation was coming to him.

"Yes, father. That route would start to the South, the same way as the one to Imbria, but would diverge westward some fifty miles before reaching it. Unfortunately, the factor in Tyrnia is refusing to deal with us directly, preferring to ship our goods through Imbria for various reasons. The local politics are complicated, but Tyrnian sea-guilds would be the worst to deal with, since they have a lock on almost everything going through their ports. You might think the merchants guild there would want a more direct source, but we think they're taking kickbacks from Imbria, and the sailors in both cities would riot if we cut them out of the loop.

Challenging the sea-guilds would be expensive, and might be dangerous for our men. That's on top of how we would have to split our existing caravan to Imbria to make it work. There's simply not enough money in playing the two cities against one another to make it worth the risk. Right now, there are relatively few goods we can carry south at a profit, anyway. We don't have enough contacts in Margon or Tyrnia to broaden that much, especially given southern tariffs: only low volume luxuries can support the necessary markup, and that's a fraction of their total trade. Overall, another southern route just doesn't make sense. None of these things have changed in the past year."

Lord Sterik grunted. "Have they not? I asked for the costs in actual numbers, and the potential profits also, long-term and short. Keep in mind, making new contacts in Margon is part of what you're supposed to be doing."

Jacob fought the urge to roll his eyes or clench his jaws. His father hated such displays. "Any numbers for Tyrnia would be pure guesswork, and I had to make some determination of priority. An outpost in Lost Miraka might make more caravans profitable. Without it, there's just no money to be made in the south. I do have some proposals for more wagons to Travan. Their oceanic shipping capability is worse, and the roads east are better. Outside of us, they have fewer options all around."

Lord Sterik's eyes narrowed and he leaned back. "I asked for numbers for Tyrnia. They are, notably, missing. You did not request more time, or ask for assistance in gathering them. If you did not understand your duties, you should have asked for clarification. Let me clarify them now."

Jacob lowered his eyes and awaited the storm. For a long moment, Lord Sterik Bandar Ironwood eyes raked him over with anger and contempt. Then the lecture came. "You are the second son of the Lord of Ironwood, and of the owner of the Ironwood Mercantile Company. Your first duty is to do what I say, when I say it. Right now, that includes getting the numbers I asked for, when I ask for them. It does not include offering excuses after the fact about why you couldn't be bothered.



Your second duty is to support your brother and future liege, and to complement his activities. You need to enable him, not compete with him. Flight-of-fancy ideas like re-founding Miraka aside, you cannot borrow his tasks simply because you like them better. Your brother is on the caravan to Travan: second-guessing his opportunities there is worse than useless.

Build yourself a solid background in Margon's carrying trade, and extend it! That will benefit our operations everywhere. Our commerce with Travan is an opportunity, but there is more wealth to the south and west than in northern Travan, even if our share of it is small today. Your negligence costs us more than you know.

Third, your duty is to the future of your family. You must commit yourself wholly to the success of your betrothal to Anna Whitesail. The Whitesails will be invaluable to us, politically and financially. Moreover, you are incredibly lucky to have her! She well-reputed, from a good family, and a very pretty young woman. I have heard hints that she does not feel entirely at home here, and I will not have it!

Do you attend your work, your family, and your wife-to-be? No! You spend hours in the fighting yard like a common mercenary, and drinking with friends who are not worthy to be your peers. The only time you show initiative is in flights of fancy, or when you are jealously poking your nose in other people's tasks.

You are my son. You are intelligent enough on the rare occasions you wish to be, but it is long past time that you grow up. And so, God help me, you will do as you are told! Is that clear?"

Jacob kept his eyes lowered. When his father spoke, the words sounded so logical. Yet he was wrong.

Well, not about everything: wooing his fiance was important, even if her family was prickly and arrogant, even if he had never expected to be shackled down to marriage and the service of demanding in-laws so soon. Even if it meant the end of any vestige of freedom.

But for the rest, gnawing on the bones of old successes, rather than allowing Jacob and his brother to attend to the new opportunities they believed in, was foolish. His brother Erik should be dealing with Pearl Bay and its ambitions for the southern routes: he loved the place. Jacob's only recommendation there was his recent betrothal to Anna, and his past forays there had not gone well. Like an errand boy for a back-country noble, he wasn't so much laughed at as ignored. And why wouldn't they ignore him? He had no purchase authority, and the merchants of Pearl Bay had all quickly learned to speak to his brother, instead. Meanwhile, the southern problems were political: numbers weren't going to solve them, and neither could he while he was in Ironwood. But his father wouldn't hear it.

Instead, Jacob spent his time (at least some of it) looking for clues in piles of smelly scrolls. He spent hours trying to decide if there was profit in buying five percent more copper, one more wagonload of treated ironwood, or selling three more boxes of pearls. That might tell him enough to gamble on a new product, but what good were such guesses? You had to speak with people, build relationships, to make real money. Still, he forced himself, as well as he could, to buckle down and do what he was asked: scouring scrolls, figuring weights, and looking for how to optimize the wagonloads a little better. But it was the worst possible way to do business, and his own personal hell.

With a monumental effort, Jacob suppressed a sigh, again, though the Baron would hear it anyway. "Of course, father. I will adjust my priorities. But you do know how difficult it is to accomplish anything when I lack the authority to spend money? Or lately, to travel at all? You're asking me to try to gain concessions in Margon we have not earned, with people I cannot meet, and that I have no leverage but my fiance to gain. I can't build goodwill from my betrothal and cash in on it at the same time. I certainly won't get anything from my future in-laws based only on my earnest work ethic and winning personality. Meanwhile, existing sales records are an untrustworthy way to open new markets. All I can do is look at what people paid well for last year and hope that they will buy more." Assuming he could keep his eyes open and uncrossed long enough.

Lord Ironwood nodded to acknowledge the point. "Proven markets are tedious to calculate, and new markets are risky. Still, the job of a successful merchant is to make the most of what you have. I know you would prefer to have more latitude, but how can I trust you with risky ventures, when you will not complete the tasks you are given? In a few weeks, you can travel to Pearl Bay to visit the Whitesails, if you wish. Until then, your current efforts are woefully inadequate.

Lest you think me unfair, my brother thrived under just those conditions. His analysis of those records opened up the jewelry trade we have with Imbria today."

The Baron paused and smiled sadly. "Sometimes I feel I didn't deserve him, and I suppose God must have agreed. His work - the work you refuse - made him one of the most respected merchants in Ironwood. I still have some hope that's a path you can walk."

Sterik shrugged before adding, "I suppose we will see."

Jacob did sigh this time. Some people believed guilt was the province only of women and priests, but he had been taught better. Still, he managed a wry smile. "I will try. What else can I do?"

Lord Ironwood arched an eyebrow, and might have answered, but there was a knock at the door, and he reluctantly turned to face it. "Yes, Markus?"

An armsman answered from outside, "Someone to see you, sir. A traveling monk."

Sterik leaned back and shot a glance at his son. "You can send him in."

~

Brother Francis nodded gratefully to the armsman who showed him in. While the exterior of the keep was bright and friendly, Lord Ironwood's office was meant to affect its guests in a different way. Its paneled walls were covered with meticulously drafted maps and massive shelves filled with ledgers. Its ornately carved mantels were decked with curios: a jeweled water-clock, a pearl-encrusted music box, a decanter of richly colored blown glass, an etched spyglass with gold inlays, and the likeness of an exotically beautiful shamaness carved of dark Nabizian horn. A shield bearing the Ironwood family crest graced one wall, and a single tapestry, that of a striking woman who looked to be near thirty, decorated the other. It bore the caption, "The Lady Arbela Ironwood". Presumably, it depicted the Baron's former wife.

Beautifully stained ironwood filled the room, including a massive but stylish desk, an elegant yet comfortable padded chair, and a worn but well-polished floor. Lord Sterik clearly cultivated an image of taste and power; Arbela's portrait was the only testament to sentimentality that he saw.

The Lord Ironwood himself was only a little older than Francis, and still showed more black than gray in his hair and neatly trimmed beard. Though he still sat, Francis also figured him for a few inches taller than himself. The lord was sharply dressed, with a fur-trimmed light cloak over an excellently tailored brown flaxen tunic. With the neatly stitched deep green velvet to round out his house's colors, Lord Sterik cut a broad figure in business-like lines. He examined Francis through intense, deep brown eyes as he motioned for the visitor to sit. The monk supposed he ought to be impressed.

As Francis moved to take a chair, he saw that a young man already sat by the door, facing the Baron. The youth looked much like his host, with the same brown eyes, dark hair, broad shoulders, and a similar height. He also wore the same colors as the man who must be his father, though with more leather, less fur, and no velvet. The son eyed Francis with friendly curiosity, and with the strained restlessness of youth. Francis liked him immediately.

Lord Sterik spoke in a carefully inviting tone, "Welcome to Ironwood Keep! I am Baron Sterik Ironwood, and this is my younger son, Jacob. It has been too long since we have seen a Travanian monk in these parts. Please, accept our hospitality."

Francis smiled broadly and bowed. "Thank you, my Lord, and may God bless you for that. My fellows call me Brother Francis, and I have come on a pilgrimage from the monastery in Del in hopes of viewing the Shield of St. Thomas. After weeks on the road, what a great pleasure it is to see your fine town! Please pay my respects to your gardener: your keep grounds are spectacular, and almost themselves worth the journey. Should you accept my presence, my skills are at your service. If you permit, I will be glad to hold a service in your chapel or perform any work befitting my low station."

Lord Sterik nodded. "Of course, Brother Francis. We are pleased to meet you: the monks of any Lazerrian order are always welcome here. No doubt Father Gerrold will be willing to offer you the chapel's guest room during your visit. I will also pass your complements on to Mark and Moira, our gardeners. Mark has served us well for many years, and his wife has been a happy addition to our staff.

I am afraid we will have to talk later about your travels, as other obligations weigh on me. Until then, I am sure you will want to meet Father Gerrold, and take some refreshment. Jacob, would you escort our guest to the chapel?"

Jacob stood and held out his hand, which Brother Francis heartily shook. "At once, father. Brother Francis, it is a pleasure to meet you. Will you follow me?"

The monk nodded to Jacob, then gave a quick half bow to the Baron, murmuring "My Lord".

In Margon, and the Travanian Empire, where the Lazerrian church had held sway since well before the fall of Miraka, hospitality towards strangers was strongly encouraged. The church taught that each soul was a traveler, stepping from life to life. While a person lived, strength could be found in striving to serve the God that created them. Some people might hold tightly to their lives after death, and remain for some time in the Spirit World. However, most were returned to a new body immediately, chosen according to their quality of spirit. Generosity, accordingly, was not just prudent; it was an important part of spiritual growth. A king who was miserly in this life might find himself a peasant in the next.

Unfortunately, Lazerrian generosity had suffered since barbarian invaders had destroyed half of the known world in the Great Fall. The unmatched horror of the Fall had left its toll on the human spirit, in its refugees and those who had struggled to support them. However, the Church and its call to hospitality remained. Failing to house a man who had given his life to God would be shameful for any shepherd with a cottage, but outright scandalous for a man of means.

Francis, therefore, never worried that Ironwood would not take him in. The tradition behind the traveling priests and monks of the Lazerrian church was a long one, in part because so many were good guests. They blessed the poor, performed menial services, told stories, gave orations at the chapel, and performed sacraments. Very few of them were so foolish as to overstay their welcome, and most orders had detailed rules against imposing on a host. Granted, even good guests were not free to feed, and there were a few bad eggs in every profession, but not many were attracted to what was essentially a life of service. Itinerant monks were respected rather than envied, and that was the key to their success.

None of that meant Brother Francis wasn't grateful to be among people who enjoyed his presence. This young man, by his kind expression, seemed to be one of them. Francis was less sure about the father. "I'm glad to meet you, as well, Lord Jacob. I trust I did not interrupt something important?"

Jacob grinned wryly. "No, your timing was perfect. My father and I had just finished discussing my current duties. It's not good to spend too long rehashing work, and I'm sure your own travels would make far more interesting discussion. How was the road?"

Francis answered politely, "It has been a fine Spring, an excellent time to be on the highway. The sky has been mostly blue, the rains gentle. Nothing to be done about the bugs, of course."

Jacob agreed wholeheartedly. "I'm afraid we're all at their mercy. I must have tried a dozen different salves while out on the road last spring. None of them were satisfactory. The best kept most of the crawlies away, but not all of them, and the smell almost kept me away from myself."

The monk mock-grimaced in sympathy. "My experience with such ointments has been similar. Still, you can get used to them, and that is the worst of the experience. Being alone on the road frees the soul, and sets the mind to wander.

Speaking of roads, Ironwood's main street and front gate are truly lovely. I've seen their like before, but only in private estates. These belong to the whole town. The gate I might expect from an exporter of fine hardwoods, as beautiful as it is. But do two people really maintain the arbors, the gardens, the hedges, and all the rest that grows? If so, they must be as talented as they are busy."

"Not entirely," Jacob replied, pleased. "It's a family affair, and we even have some volunteers. Mike and Moira do most of the work, but Mike's father still contributes, and even his young ones are starting to learn the trade. They are a gifted family, though, and we have an excellent set of masons too."

Jacob gestured to the neatly mortared walkway for emphasis before continuing, "The chapel, as you can see, is just ahead on the right."

Francis followed Jacob's eyes past a row of hedges artfully sculpted to imitate fanciful creatures. He paused briefly to admire a plant he did he did not recognize, arranged to form a majestic unicorn's head, with two small blue fruits taking the part of its eyes.

Jacob paused to comment. "Sometimes I take for granted how talented Moira really is. Oh, and I forgot to mention my brother's wife, Liliana, does some of the gardening within the keep. She doesn't get her hands quite as dirty outside, but she has a pretty inspired vision of what an up-and-coming town ought to look like. My father, my brother, and her wife all pretty much think in the long term."

Francis cocked his head. "How about you, any long-term plans?"

Jacob grimaced. "My father was kind enough to make some for me, yes. There's a lovely young woman to whom I have been betrothed, and that I am trying to get to know.

My brother, Erik, is next in line to be Baron Ironwood and head of the Ironwood Mercantile Company, but my father has laid out a place for me, as well. I expect I'll hold a post in Pearl Bay within a couple years, as a liaison with the Whitesails. In the meantime, I've been acting as something between clerk, guard, and page.

There's an entire progression laid out, if all goes well, that may include setting up my own office some years down the line in Maragon. Along the way, I'm to add to the family's heirs, and provide some insurance in case something were to happen to my brother. Nothing terribly exciting, I'm afraid."

Francis eyes twinkled with sympathetic excitement. "Oh, I don't mean to pry. I only thought a man of your age and position would have adventures on the mind: traveling to exotic places, enjoying a great romance, or making your fortune in the grand cities of the West. There is immense opportunity out there for a man with a good head on his shoulders. And if you go with God as you embrace it, you might do immense good along the way.

How fantastic it is to be young! As merchants, you and your young wife will no doubt visit Travan, Maragon, the Free Cities, and more. There is absolutely nothing like having the whole world and its possibilities at your feet."

Jacob had heard many times in his life just how lucky he was: in his father's too-patient voice, in the carefully restrained jealousy of the caravan guards who had been required to show respect to an unproven teen. It made it difficult to know where he stood: only weeks past he had overhead a guardsman convince his friend to purposely lose against Jacob in the practice yard. Though he flattered himself that he had some skill, whenever Jacob won a sparring match, he still had to wonder if he had earned the privilege.

Some in town thought the nobleman had the world handed to him, despite the unlikelihood of his ever running Ironwood. Jacob, on the other hand, also knew everything he had came from his father: none of it was truly his, and he took no pride it. He had no way at all to measure his own worth, especially when his father was so quick to point out how far he fell short. The things he took the most joy in, like history and his swordsmanship, had no real value to his father. Mercenaries could be hired, but capable and loyal merchants were harder to find.

Jacob's authority, too, was a mixed blessing: at least the poor had freedom. It wasn't uncommon that he was poring over his hated scrolls long after his comrades in the guard had gone home to relax, or out to carouse. He doubted too that they had to hear about it from their fathers when they did. All in all, he wasn't sure that his parentage didn't come with more responsibilities than it was worth.

However, when this monk spoke, Jacob wanted to believe otherwise. He could almost take pleasure in his future. Francis's good wishes were genuine: neither jealous nor patronizing, only irrepressibly optimistic.

Jacob could not but grin in return. "Your enthusiasm is contagious, Brother. I am surprised that you haven't brought your own great fortune."

Brother Francis laughed briefly, but the melodious sound was warming. "Oh, but I have! You wouldn't know what riches can fit even in my small pack. I travel in humble clothing, but soon I'll have Ironwood and all Margon in my clutches."

"You and what army?" Jacob teased.

"God and Love, of course" Francis answered serenely.

"Come meet your fellow conspirator, then," Jacob replied.

They had arrived at the open chapel door, and so Jacob led the monk in, introducing him in light tones to the elder chaplain inside. "Brother Francis, this is Father Gerrold. Father Gerrold, I bid you meet His Great Majesty, one Brother Francis, who aims to defeat us all with his love."

Jacob's eyes twinkled at the horrified look on Father Gerrold's face. He quickly bowed and moved to escape, even as Francis's musical laughter echoed throughout the stone courtyard before the Ironwood family chapel.

~

Even before the echoes the monk's laughter faded, Jacob's thoughts were mired again in questions of about his future. What did Francis's bright enthusiasm mean for a man whose fate was to spend the next ten years trying to impress his in-laws-to-be into lending him their trust? What if all they wanted was a share of Travan's exotic fabrics and spices, and had no place for him? After all, his father was willing to trade him off for access to a half-dozen sailing cogs and the western market for hardwood. Maybe they would find him useful in Pearl Bay, but if spending day and night calculating profits and inventories for his in-laws wasn't slavery, it sounded equally rewarding. Yet who moaned about the horrific fate of making a fortune behind a desk? He swallowed his discomfort.

Jacob's upcoming marriage weighed on him more heavily. His mother had long been dead, and most of what he knew of marriage was from caravan guards. To hear them speak, his entire future misery (or happiness, theoretically, but guards loved to complain) was at the mercy of a woman he didn't even know. Would she love him? Would she make a laughingstock of him, a backwoods "nobleman" with no place in Margon? Or would she, caught in the prison of their marriage, heap her own misery upon him? A man should know how to handle such things, but he was woefully unprepared. She was only sixteen, and he not much older. In less than two years, they would likely be raising children together, and he barely knew her. He wasn't ready.

None of it mattered, in the end. He was a marionette on his father's strings: they dictated how he would spend every waking moment, and who he would sleep with at night. He would get no sympathy for it: marrying a rich and beautiful woman ought to be an enviable role! It made his fears hard to explain: why should he need freedom to feel hope? Yet he did. There was a voice in the back of his mind, impossible to silence, that whispered despair. Without some little control over his own life, would he lose his own identity, his own soul? His weakness threatened this life, and the next.

But no, that was maudlin. Arranged marriages had become common in Margon, at least among the well-to-do. Jacob had not heard of any great backlash against the policy, and he had known since childhood that he would not choose his own bride. How else was a great family to protect its wealth and prospects from the whims of teenagers? It was simply how things where.

Yet, the Lazerrian church had never legitimized the practice, either. The church actually forbade forcing a man and woman from marrying against their consent, considering betrothals a non-binding period of courtship. It did, however, allow contracts to be made that were contingent upon a marriage occurring, and didn't go out of its way to keep families from nudging their members into saying, "I do". In this case, both Sterik and Baldin Whitesail had invested in the building of two new ships, in anticipation of their coming business partnership. In theory, Jacob's betrothal allowed some flexibility to determine whether the match was suitable. In reality, unsuitability would have to involve insanity or murder.

While Jacob had never expected to choose his wife, he never expected to be blindsided by the arrangement. As it happened, he had met his bride-to-be only recently, at a ball in Pearl Bay. His father had introduced the merchant Whitesail there as a potential business associate, and then asked for some time alone with the man. While they spoke, Jacob had struck up a conversation with Anna, Whitesail's daughter. To his surprise, he found her to be clever, lovely, and a graceful dancer. She, in turn, had enjoyed the attention, and the company of the tall, dark-haired young nobleman. Jacob had gladly spent the evening by her side. Little did he know that her father and his had been negotiating a broad-reaching partnership for months, and their apparent mutual interest had seemed like a perfect opportunity to seal the deal.

Baldin Whitesail was one of the more successful up-and-coming fleet merchants in Pearl Bay without a title of nobility. Marriage ties to Ironwood's nobility was a perfect stamp of legitimacy for an ambitious family like his, and between his fleet and Ironwood's caravans, he could nearly monopolize a new trade between Balina and Travan. Meanwhile, Lord Ironwood was practically salivating over preferential access to Whitesail's fleet, and a difficult to penetrate western market. Margon, like Miraka before it, was a land where trade relationship were valued even above land, and every deal was highly politicized. An ally in Pearl Bay would open many doors for Ironwood. The Ironwood and Whitesail Companies were a match made in Heaven, and the two teenagers made perfect hostages to their marriage.

Anna Whitesail had arrived in Ironwood two weeks ago with her mother, that the couple might begin their "courtship". While as beautiful as ever in the light of day, she was no longer a care-free dancer under the influence of three cups of wine. An evening together was one thing, a life-long commitment quite another. She was as anxious as Jacob about their coming marriage, but she expressed her insecurity in more material terms, and seemed to focus on all the amenities a small town like Ironwood lacked. In fairness, she was two years younger than Jacob, and as new to this business as he was. Neither quite knew what to make of the other, but their duties were clear.

Jacob looked up to find that his feet had found their way to the door of the suite where Anna and her mother stayed, and that his hand had raised itself to knock. There was nothing to do but let it continue its work, and wait. A prim voice answered, "A moment, please. Who is calling?"

Jacob cleared his throat softly. When he could trust his voice, or at least knew that it would be worse to wait longer, he spoke. "It is Jacob, My Lady Whitesail. I have come to call on your daughter Anna, if she is available."

"Why yes, Jacob," she answered. "Of course you may. Anna, will you greet our guest?"

After a couple moments the lock drew back, and the door opened. Standing before him was a stunning young woman in a light blue dress of fine linen, with delicate white lace flowing in waves about it. He drew his eyes up from her lithe figure and its gentle curves, noticing that she wore a lovely hat in colors and lace to match the dress. Somehow they perfectly offset her rich auburn hair, which was artfully lifted and arranged by small pins. She was a head shorter than he, and he might have thought her delicate except for the smoldering brown eyes and her bold expression. Those eyes drew him in, along with her perfect ruby lips. Jacob abruptly found his throat dry. He reflexively cleared his mind to prevent any other form of reaction. The maiden, of course, saw right through him, and grinned impishly.

"Jacob, it's so good to see you", she chimed, offering her hand. "I'm glad to see I'm not alone."

For the past two days he had been too busy to call on her in the day, working on his research and practicing in the yard. From his father's words, Jacob thought she might be unhappy with him. Why had Jacob been worried? He recovered most of his composure. "I was hoping you would be available for a brief walk around the back courtyard gardens," he replied sheepishly.

One of the benefits of being betrothed was that he was permitted to spend short periods with Anna completely unchaperoned, something otherwise unthinkable around a young lady of her status. Anna seemed to enjoy the freedom even more than he did.

Anna looked back over her shoulder. "Mother, do you mind?"

"No, of course. You should certainly get some air, but we have dinner with the Baron soon. Jacob, will you escort Anna back then?"

"I will. Until then, My Lady."

Anna presented her arm, and they walked out into the hallway together. Her scent was intoxicating, and her arm warm against his. "So, how did your talk with your father go?" she asked.

"I'm sorry?" Jacob asked, startled.

"Well, I just saw you leaving his office from my window, and you looked fit to chew rocks. Was he rough on you?"

Jacob shrugged awkwardly. "Father wants things done how he wants them done. There was a briefing I was supposed to do today. I did most of the background work, but it was going to be almost word-for-word the same as last year's report, so I just copied from that one and took out the numbers. I should have known better. Worse, it turned out that a side project I'd been cooking up conflicted with what my brother is already doing. So no, Father wasn't happy. I'm supposed to be working a lot more on studying Pearl Bay, Tyrnia, and Imbria, and a lot less on really anything else."

"Oh, that's fantastic!" Anna exclaimed, jerking her arm from his to talk with her hands. "Oh, I don't mean your dad being cross. I mean you getting to work more at Pearl Bay. There's scarcely anything to see here except the men in the training yard, and less to do. Speaking of which, when do you go play next with your swords? You're rather clever with them, and I like watching you win."

Nonplussed, Jacob replied, "I practice most early mornings and evenings, though I may have to give up the latter so as not to neglect you. Swordplay is another of those things father thinks I spend too much time at."

Thankfully, Anna didn't seem to notice his irritation. "You must, with those strong arms of yours. I'm no judge, but you seem fairly good at whacking people. At first I thought you chose poor training partners to impress me, but you're so very quick compared to most of them. Why doesn't your father see any value in it? I thought being good at fighting was part of what made Ironwood able to operate safely among the barbarians. Seems like a useful thing to be good at, to me. But I won't press. If you're supposed to be in Pearl Bay, why don't we go?"

Jacob frowned. "I can't go to Pearl Bay just yet. I'm where I need to be, for the moment, though we will have to head there in a few weeks. Right now, I'm just supposed to read about it."

"No, you're supposed to be there getting rich so you can maintain me like the vision of loveliness that I am," Anna replied mockingly. "Or at least bringing roses when you arrive at my door. I haven't seen you in days almost, and I'm here on your account."

Jacob began to remember his earlier nervousness, as they turned towards the arbor that led to the Keep's private garden. The guilt trips hadn't taken long to arrive, after all. "I'm very happy you're here, but it's on my father's account, I think. See, I brought you to a garden. You have not just one rose: they are all around you."

Anna's eyes flared, "You think I'm here for your father? He's rather old for my taste." She paused and gestured around the garden. "Roses everywhere, but none for me. You're off to a roaring start, mi'lord. Am I so undeserving of courtship?" It might not be the most polite thing to say, but if he took her for granted now, what would he do when once they were wed, and he practically owned her? He had to respect her now.

Jacob responded gamely, "And how shall I compliment you? You have pronounced yourself the vision of loveliness. Must I elevate you to the status of a Goddess to praise you?"

He reached out to a nearby bush, and neatly pinched off a stem containing three small red roses. How long had Moira spent tending just that one plant, keeping it healthy and unmarred? "But roses you shall have," he added, "though they are ruined beside your beauty."

Anna shrugged. "I see. Am I Goddess or a ruiner of roses? That might have been a passable start, if you had opened with that instead of stumbled into it. My sister's suitors would not have been too embarrassed after that."

Jacob swallowed, hard. This was going poorly. His task was to woo Anna, for both their sakes, and he was failing. But how could he ever have a real conversation, when she constantly looked for excuses to be offended? Clearly, sincerity was not the best place to start.

"My lady, you are lovelier than the doves that descend from the trees to dote on you, and your voice sweeter. If I am awkward, it is because your beauty has unmanned me: I feel so unworthy of it. I feared to present you with flowers because you shame them with your own matchless grace."

Anna smiled lightly despite yourself. "Jacob, what naked flattery." She paused, and examined the roses in her hand, spinning the stem slowly between her fingertips. "Keep going."

Jacob did not roll his eyes. He smiled charmingly, and continued. "It is my shame to bid you leave house and home to visit this country estate where you are forced to dwell in close quarters, without fine company or exotic gifts. If I could, I would escort you to the best shops in the city of Maragon itself. You would have your pick of gems and silks, to be ported behind you in carts of their own, so that you would not have to choose among your favorites. You could display them in the evening, to the envy of all, in grand balls hosted at your whim. There you would reign, drinking fine wines matched not only to your palate, but colored to bring out the light in your eyes through the crystal goblet held in your hand."

Anna looked down her lashes at him. "Am I a trophy to be bought? Once I bear your children, what will I wear then? When I look out my window, I see hemp, not silk." Anna almost bit her tongue at her carelessness. As soon as he opened his mouth, she found herself speaking her fears with all the petulance she most disliked in herself. But she needed to let them out, and be reassured.

Jacob paused for a moment, unsure of how to go on. But then he latched on to his memory of Brother Francis's enthusiasm. He wasn't sure he believed it, but he thought he knew what Anna needed to hear, and somehow the words came. "Do not think marriage will be your end, but a grand beginning. Exotic wines, parties, your choice of fashion in house and dress, enjoyed with the spice of the admiration of your peers: these things will not be yours every day, but they will be yours. Perhaps you will not find least among your treasures my own adoring eyes? These will be the spice of our marriage, even when our children are grown. Whether you prefer your day arranged by servants or your own hand, you will never be denied. And I, of course, will be yours. Unless you wish it, you need never be alone. If none of this is a match for what you deserve, forgive a poor country boy like myself for being unable to offer more. But it was never our destiny to live long in Ironwood."

Well, that was ridiculously over the top, and yet also very sweet, and cleverly said. At least he was trying, and so it was time to meet him halfway. Anna gave a sultry laugh and patted his cheek. "Oh, Jacob, you can be sweet. Please forgive my fears. It is only that I am surprised to find a worthy man like you here. But I can't wait until we can go back to Pearl Bay and civilization. There is so much I want to show you! In the meantime, will you escort me to dinner, my Lord?"

Jacob took her arm again, and they walked slowly back towards the grand dining hall. He supposed that counted as a battle won. To keep her happy, all he needed was bribes and flattery. But the first time he forgot some fashionable custom or did not provide the correct fancy dress, would he return to being the backwoods pretender? Anna spent every other sentence reminding him how much she longed to leave, how much Pearl Bay had that Ironwood lacked. Ironwood was his very name - how could she hate it and not hate him? Would that change? How could he possibly live his entire life with her if it did not?

The rest of the story can be found free on Inkitt at:
https://www.inkitt.com/stories/fantasy/88335
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