Sophie tucked her arm through her maid’s as they followed Papa and the others through the streets toward the marketplace. They were bundled in long wool cloaks, for the air had a crisp bite to it this morning.
The faint scent of roasting chestnuts drifted from an alleyway. She slowed her pace, savoring it. Perhaps they could stop and buy some. She swung her head around to call for Papa, but the men strode quickly ahead, hastening to the market square.
Sophie frowned. As usual, Papa and his notary were immersed in talk, their heads canted together. A manservant trotted behind them, his arms burdened with empty baskets waiting to be filled with goods.
A small boy tugging at a goat’s lead blocked their way. The goat’s flanks were loaded with baskets piled high with apples. The boy’s father, leading a mule burdened with its own load of fruit, called to him repeatedly. But the goat planted its hooves on the cobblestones and balked.
“Poor thing,” Sophie said finally. She darted forward, gave the goat a slap on the rump, and it moved.
The boy cast her a grateful glance. “Thank you, mademoiselle,” he said, leading the animal after his father.
“You’d think he would have given me an apple for his trouble,” Sophie said tartly when she returned to Christine’s side.
“Your mother would not have liked you doing that,” her maid retorted. “You’re entirely too bold for a girl.”
Sophie shrugged. “Maman isn’t here, and you’re just a maid—so who cares what you think?”
“Just a maid who was your wet nurse, young lady,” Christine admonished her.
“Papa likes me as I am,” Sophie asserted. “He says my boldness will serve me well one day.”
They crossed the marketplace to the pastel stalls. The walls of Papa’s stall were draped in velvet, the interior fitted with polished wooden display tables. Venetian glass oil lamps illuminated the rows of perfectly round cakes of vibrant blue pastel dye, laid out on lengths of silk.
Papa halted in front of his display. Well-dressed shoppers converged upon the stall as if it exuded the odor of freshly baked cream tarts. He studied the activity before him for a moment, then turned to his notary. Sophie drew up close enough to hear their conversation.
“Let us discuss with the other city aldermen the placement of my stall,” Papa was saying. “I believe if it were a bit closer to the main street entering the square, more people would encounter it without a search. I want it to be the easiest to discover in the entire marketplace.”
Sophie smiled. Her father was never satisfied, always fiddling with details, experimenting. But it seemed to work. His pastel business was growing. His attempts to recruit more wealthy men to the region had started bearing fruit. Last night at supper, they hosted three merchants who were all planning to move to Toulouse and build elaborate homes.
After supper, Papa had come to her and said one of the men inquired about her eligibility for marriage.
“What do you think, ma chérie?” he’d asked teasingly.
She’d made a face. “He was so old, Papa!”
“No older than your sisters’ husbands.”
“But you would miss me so if I were to wed. What would you do without me to make you laugh?”
“True enough,” he’d rejoined, eyes twinkling. “I’d be bereft without my favorite daughter. Though you’re getting old yourself. Nearly sixteen and unwed. It’s practically scandalous.”
She’d regarded him a moment, the smile fading from her face. “You’ll let me choose my husband, won’t you, Papa?”
“We shall see, Sophie, my pet.”
She’d leaned close and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Papa.”
Sophie learned long ago that if she sweetened her demands with honeyed words and loving gestures, Papa was far more likely to acquiesce to her desires.
A well-dressed man hurried to her father’s side, omitting the usual pleasantries and launching into a breathless monologue. Papa’s expression tightened into a scowl as the man’s words tumbled out.
“Another shipment of Cypriot fabrics lost to those blasted écorcheurs,” he said bitterly.
“Your partners will have to be told, and quickly,” the notary said in a low voice.
Papa let out an exasperated groan. “I convinced them to go in on it with me, to a man. If I want to keep them as partners, I suppose I’ll have to reimburse them myself.”
Sophie’s skin tingled. Tales of the renegade groups of bandits roaming France were rife around the supper table, had always been. King Charles had begun stamping them out, that’s what Papa said, but there were so many it would take ages to eradicate them for good. Until then, the entire kingdom was at their mercy. She edged forward again, absorbing every word.
Papa glanced at her. His troubled expression relaxed a little.
“Chérie, you are just the balm I need to take the sting out of this sordid news. Let’s take a turn around the marketplace together and see what goods are on display today.” He proffered an arm.
“Don’t worry,” she said, smiling up at him with tenderness. “One day the king will have an army, and the écorcheurs will be gone forever. Your fabrics will arrive intact from the sea, and your partners will be happy.”
He chuckled and patted her hand as they began to stroll, Christine a few paces behind. “Nothing escapes your ears, does it? Too bad you were born a girl. I’d have dearly loved such interest in the world of commerce from your brother. I had to push him a little too hard in the proper direction. He’d much rather have been a Knight of St. John, if he’d the proper pedigree.”
“Well, we can be grateful he didn’t,” she replied. “Then he’d be off on a ship to the East, and who knows if we would ever see him again. Mother would never allow it, anyway. He’s the apple of her eye.”
Papa glanced down at her. “True enough. It breaks her heart to have him living most of the year in Flanders as it is.” His eyes narrowed. “Have you plucked your brows away again? Leave your beauty as God intended. Do not try to keep up with ridiculous fashions.”
She tossed her head. “It’s hardly ridiculous, Papa! All the noble-born women do it.”
“You are not one of them,” he pointed out. “Plucking your eyebrows won’t change that. Nothing will.”
Sophie shot him a challenging stare. “I must contradict you, Papa. That alderman’s daughter who married the son of a seigneur a few years ago? She’s a noblewoman.”
“I thought the fellow she married was the second son, not the heir,” Papa objected. “How could he get the title?”
“The first son died soon after the father did. It was the sweating sickness that got him, or so they say. The second son became the heir, and his common-born wife is now a fine lady.”
Papa searched her face in suspicion. “How do you know such things?”
“Church,” she said airily, turning away to look at a passing merchant and his wife, whose cloak was thrown open to reveal a gown of luminous sapphire blue. “All the news comes after church; you know that, Papa.”
He snorted. “Your worldliness is truly astounding, my dear.”
But as usual, his tone was indulgent. She smiled to herself. Papa’s mood had gone from dark to light in the space of a few moments, thanks to her.
“Shall I throw open my cloak a bit, too?” She nodded in the direction of the merchant and his wife. “I wore my new blue gown today.”
Papa’s eyes lit up. “The silk brocade?”
Sophie smiled, loosening the ties of her cloak so her square-cut bodice and flowing skirts caught the light. “I think my gown is prettier than that woman’s, Papa,” she told him. “The color is exquisite. Your dye-house workers are more skilled than theirs, aren’t they?”
He nodded, his mouth curving in a satisfied smile, and led her toward his market stall.
Her mind went again to the idea of him marrying her off to a dull merchant twice her age, as he had done with her two elder sisters. She set her lips into a firm line and tightened her grip on his arm. Papa would not do that to her.
No, if she were to marry one day, it would be to a man of her own choosing. With a little luck, it would even be a love match.
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