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Flanders, The Low CountriesSpring 1337
Shadows hid the stranger's face, but over the pounding of her heart, Katrine heard the threat in his voice, as casual as a shrug.
'You decide,' he said. 'I can get you the wool you need, but if you let the opportunity pass ' the slight lift of his shoulders blocked the morning sun streaming into her weaving room ' there are many other willing buyers.'
'Every weaver in Ghent is willing.' Katrine fought the tremble in her tongue.
It was no secret. Deprived of the wool that was its lifeblood, this city of clothmakers was starving. So when a stranger had claimed he could find fleece for her looms, she had recklessly agreed to listen. He didn't need her, but she needed his wool. Desperately.
Arms crossed, the smuggler leaned against the wall, filling the space as if he owned it. 'Decide, mistress. Deal with me or go hungry.'
Backed against the loom, she felt the wooden upright press against her spine like a martyr's stake. She stroked the taut warp threads for comfort. They quivered beneath her fingers. Looking up, she tried to read his eyes, but the sun cast him in darkness. She must not yield too easily, or she'd not be able to bargain at all.
'Your voice does not carry the accent of Ghent.' She knew nothing about the man. Not even his name. 'Where is your home?'
A shaft of sunlight picked up a reddish strand in his chestnut hair. He did not speak at first, and she wondered whether he had heard her. 'I was born in Brabant,' he said, finally.
His answer seemed safe enough. The neighbouring duchy was one of half-a-dozen fiefdoms clustered near the channel between England and France. She should atleast discover what goods he offered.
Fingers hidden in the folds of her skirt, she pinched the fabric, taking comfort in the even weave. 'My mark appears on only the finest cloth. I buy with care. Is this wool of yours English or Spanish?'
'Good.' Clasping her fingers in front of her, she paced as if considering her choices. Best not to ask how he would come by it. The English king had embargoed all shipments to Flanders for the last nine months. 'Where were the sheep raised? I prefer Cistercian-raised flocks from Tintern Abbey, though I will accept Yorkshire fleece.'
'Accept?'Amusement coloured his voice. 'You will accept whatever I bring you. You have no choice.'
Sweet Saint Catherine, what shall I do?
She had bargained with the larger cloth houses for any fleece they would spare. She had scrambled for the poor stuff grown on the backs of Flemish sheep. She had even directed her weavers to make a looser weave, hoping that the fullers, cleaning and beating the cloth to finish it, could thicken the final product.
She had no tricks left.
She had begged her unsympathetic uncle for help, but she feared, unless she trusted this mysterious stranger, there would be no business remaining ifno, whenher father returned.
At least the stranger's hands, large, with long, strong fingers, looked reliable, even familiar.
'How much can you get?' she asked. 'Maybe one sack.A weaver will use that in a week,' Katrine scoffed, to cover her disappointment.
He did not move from his comfortable slouch. 'One sack is one sack more than you have at the moment.'
She squeezed prayerful fingers. 'What is your price? If I agree.'
'Twenty-five gold livres per sack. In advance.Fifteen.' With good negotiation, the pouch of gold her father had left might pay for three sacks. 'On delivery.' She gritted her teeth behind a stone-saint smile.
Her smile shattered. 'You said twenty-five before.'
'I'll say thirty tomorrow, if I please. Don't try to bargain with me, mistress. You have nothing to bargain with.'
The sunlight shifted and revealed his eyes for the first time, the dusky blue of indigo dyed over grey wool. One eye hovered on the edge of a wink.
'Or maybe,' he said, softly, 'you do.'
Something more than fear burned her cheeks and chilled her fingers. Something that had to do with him.
Stifling her body's betrayal, she folded her arms, mimicking his stance. 'I bargain only with gold. I want the wool, but I have another source.' She trusted her uncle little more than she trusted this stranger, but she would not give him the power of that knowledge. The man already had the advantage. 'If your offer is better, I will take three sacks and pay twenty eachten in advance, the rest on delivery. If you want more ' she hesitated ' if you want more money than that, find one of your other willing buyers.'
'It does not matter what you say. It is your husband who will decide.'
Her hand flew to the wimple hiding her red hair. The married woman's headdress was one of the little lies of her life, so much a part of her she had forgotten it would signal a husband who ruled her every action. 'I have been given authority in this matter.'
In her father's absence, the drapers' guild had allowed her to conduct his affairs, but she was reaching the limits of their regulations. And their patience.
She waited for him to turn away, as had so many who refused to deal with a woman. Yet when the smuggler spoke, respect tinged his words. 'You bargain like a man, mistress. I suspect you run your business well.'
'I do.' She willed her tongue to silence, waiting for his answer. Outside, the sign painted with the trademark of the four-petalled Daisy creaked in the breeze.
He barely moved his chin to nod. 'We are agreed.'
Her sigh of relief slipped out without disguise. 'Agreed if my other source does not better your offer.' Now, she had an option if her uncle failed her. 'You will have my answer by the end of the day.'
'See that I do.' The respect, if she had heard it, had fled his voice. 'I will not wait on your whim when there are others eager to buy.'
'If I tell you yes, when will I see my wool?'
He shrugged. 'I will stay here while I make arrangements.Here?'She had been mad to deal with a stranger. Already he was changing the bargain.
'Unless you want our business on the Council's agenda. Any hosteller will be glad to collect their coin for reporting my every move.'
She could not argue. England and France were near war. The town was swarming with suspicion. An innkeeper would notice a tall, blue-eyed man speaking accented Flemish. 'I am paying you twenty livres for the wool. What will you pay me for the lodging?'
No shadow of surprise crossed the deep blue moat of his eyes. 'Are you re-opening negotiations?'
'You were the one who did that.' Her tart words made her feel in control again. 'If you stay, your room will cost you five pence a week and I'll provide no board. Take a pallet on the third floor,'she said, vaguely uneasy at the thought of him sleeping under her roof.
He frowned. 'With the apprentices?'
'They left months ago.'No need to lie. He'd learn that soon enough.
'No apprentices? How do you operate a draper business?' He spoke as though he already knew her answer.
She sighed. 'Without wool, there has been little business.' Instead of being stacked with red, green and blue woollen cloth bearing the Mark of the Daisy, Katrine's shelves were bare.
Leaning over, he lifted his sack and slung it across his shoulder without effort. Strong arms, then, and a light load. 'So, what will you make with this wool of yours?'
Anything would sell these days, but deep blue would fetch a good price. Indigo dyed over grey wool
He watched her with a half-smile. The thread of her thoughts unravelled. His glance seemed to expose her secrets while sharing none of his own.
'Indigo-dyed worsted,'she said crisply. 'The market hasn't seen its like since before Christmas and it should fetch at least fifty florins. If, that is, you bring me wool worth weaving.'
'Whatever I bring, you'll pay for.'
She bridled. 'Of course. I'm an honest woman.'
'So you say.' Walking past her towards the stairs, he paused beside the loom. His fingers stumbled as he plucked the threads, the first awkward gesture he had made. 'This is important to you, isn't it?' he said, not looking up.
I leave it in your hands, daughter. Guard it well.'
'It is my life.'
He scrutinised her wordlessly, as if gauging what kind of a life it was. She forced herself to remain still, hoping he saw a trustworthy guild wife. He must not suspect who she really was.
The midday bell tolled, breaking the stillness.
'I must go.' Her uncle would be home soon for the main meal. If he had spoken to the Count about her wool, she might be able to send this smuggler on his way. 'I'll be back before the mid-afternoon bell. Be here when I return.'
He raised his eyebrows and laughed. 'Do you order your weavers about so, mistress?'
'When they need it.'She gave him a final assessing glance as she opened the door, reluctant to leave him there alone. 'How do I know I can trust you?'
One corner of his mouth curved into a parody of a smile. 'You don't.'
Saint Catherine, save me from my foolishness. I know nothing about him, yet he called me by name when he entered the shop.
'At least tell me what you are called.'
'Like the fox?' Everyone knew the tales of the irreverent trickster Renard the Fox. Their recitation was an evening's entertainment.
This time, he definitely winked. 'Exactly.'
As she closed the door, the words of the familiar tale echoed in her head. 'Renard knows many tricks and ruses. He cheats at any time he chooses.'
High Gate Street was quieter than usual as families gathered behind closed doors for the midday meal. Many avoided the streets these days. Without wool, there was no work. Journeymen, even proud master weavers, lurked on corners, begging, or threatening, for bread or coin.
She lifted the cloth swaddling her hair to let a breeze tickle the top of her head. Then, hair-hidden again, eyes down, she walked with controlled, deferential steps towards home.
You bargain like a man.
Even a stranger could see her failings.
She did not act as a woman should. Now that her father was gone, her uncle told her that often enough. Woman was born weak and sinful. Only by obedience and submission could she attain perfectionleaving home only to go to church, keeping her distance from all men except her kin
Katrine sighed, suddenly aware that her steps had lengthened to a stride and she had looked the silversmith directly in the eye and said good day.
Starting again with a measured tread, she looked at the ground to avoid meeting any other man's eye.
It was the world outside her shop that confined her. Within the walls of the weaving room, she was free. But now, a man had invaded her sanctuary and created doubt in the only place she had ever felt certain.
Yet she prayed he would still be there when she returned.
Twenty gold livres, Renard thought, as he watched Katrine walk towards Fish Market Square. He should have forced her to thirty.
Her first steps were small and mincing, but before he lost sight of her, she was striding down the street so confidently that he wondered whether she really did have another source for the wool.
He kneaded the tight muscles between his neck and shoulders and shrugged off his chagrin at the bargain he had struck. What did he care about the price of wool he would never deliver? He could have bested her, had he chosen.
He was the expert negotiator. Always in control, he could hear the nearly indiscernible hesitation in his opponent's voice that meant he had pushed his rival to the edge, found his weakness, identified what heor shemost feared to lose. With the power of that knowledge, Renard could complete any bargain on his own terms.
It was a talent the King had used freely over the years. And she was no challenge at all. A wisp of a thing, breasts and hips, if any, disguised by a shapeless shroud of wool. Not the kind of woman to tempt a man.
If he were a man to be tempted.
Startled to find himself gazing down a street now empty of her, Renard turned from the window to climb the stairs, noting the creak in the third step so he could avoid it later. The house was as quiet as he had anticipated after watching it for three days. In fact, it seemed as if no one lived here at all.
He peered into a sleeping room at the top of the first flight, dusty with disuse, wondering idly where she slept. He would not be here long enough for that to matter.
On the third floor, he ducked as his shoulders threatened to brush the steeply sloping ceiling and dropped his small sack under the eaves. It held little. A fresh tunic. A cloak. A scrap of red silk and a well-worn piece of wool safely hidden at the bottom.
Cistercian wool. What the devil was the difference?
Taking care not be seen, he peered out of the small window overlooking the back garden and gauged the distance to the cherry tree. It was a slender escape route, but it was hidden from public view. He picked up his sack, grabbed a branch of the tree, and eased himself to the ground.
Be here, she had ordered, as if he would wait on a weaving woman's convenience.
She cared too much, almost burned with it. Soft brown eyes glowing with need, body rigid with fear he would refuse, she acted as if a few sacks of wool were the difference between life and death.
Such feelings led to dangerous mistakes. He should have had the advantage. He should have been able to get fifty livres.
Instead, he had let her win with a fabrication about another source. Well, he got what he wanted. Let her think she would be seeing wool at twenty livres a sack.
By the time she returned, he would be gone, leaving one little Flemish draper waiting a very long time for her wool.