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"We must sell Lara, husband. There is simply no other choice if you are to have your chance," Susanna, wife of John Swiftsword, said quietly. She was uncomfortable with this matter, but sometimes her husband would not face simple facts. And the simple fact was that John had a beautiful daughter for whom he could no longer provide. But that same daughter could provide for them all, given the opportunity.
"I cannot," her husband replied, but his voice was filled with the desperation that came from knowing she was right. Lara was all he had left of his brief union with the faerie woman, Ilona. The faerie had loved him for a brief time, given him their daughter whom she had named Larashining one, in her tongueand then disappeared from his life as easily as she had entered into it that midsummer's night so long ago. He had not married until two years ago, and while he loved his Susanna, the memory of Ilona would remain with him forever.
"Listen to me, husband." Susanna's voice penetrated his thoughts. "Have you considered what is to become of Lara? We are poor people. There is no dowry for her. How can there be, given your situation? Many fear her faerie beauty and her faerie blood. Who will wed a dowerless girl like that? And if she is not married, what will happen to her? All your life you have wanted but one thingto become a member of the Order of Crusader Knights. You have served as a mercenary soldier since you were fifteen, and your reputation as a great swordsman is known throughout the land. But you know as well as I do that your poverty prevents you from attaining your greatest desire. The tournament for entry into the ranks of the Order of Crusader Knights is to be held in just a few months, husband. It will not be held again for another three years." Could he not see, or understand? Why did she have to be the one to point out these things? She very much liked her stepdaughter, but John needed to advance, and she wanted a better life for their son. There was but one way to achieve their goals.
"But to sell my daughter into slavery," John Swift-sword protested weakly.
Susanna sighed. "I know, husband, how much you love this child, but she is all we have that is of any value. She is so beautiful that it almost hurts the eyes to look upon her. I have grown to love her, too. Still, think of what little we have, and consider the son I gave you but six months ago. What will happen to Mikhail? The hovel we live in is yours only by virtue of your service to the Guild of Mercenaries. Your sword gives us food and small necessities, but nothing else. What clothing we possess is ours, but when your sword is no longer useful, where will we go? How many of your kind have deliberately allowed themselves to be killed in battle rather than face a homeless old age? And how many of their women roam as beggars without sons to provide for them?"
"But if Lara is sold into slavery what will happen to her?" John Swiftsword asked his wife. His gray eyes were troubled, and he ran a nervous hand through his brown hair.
"She will most likely be bought and trained to be a Pleasure Woman for one of the great Pleasure Houses here in the City," Susanna said. "It will be a good life for her, and in all likelihood some magnate will eventually purchase her from the Pleasure House to be his own personal Pleasure Woman. She will enjoy a life of luxury, husband, which is a far better future than we can offer her." Susanna put a comforting hand on her husband's sinewy arm. He was a good man, but like many men he needed to be led in the right direction. Such was a wife's duty.
"How can you be certain that she will be so fortunate in her fate?" he demanded.
"I have already gone to Gaius Prospero, husband," Susanna answered honestly.
"You went to the Master of the Merchants of the Midlands, and he saw you?" John Swiftsword was astounded by her admission.
"The Master of the Merchants holds an open audience once each month for any who would come to proffer him something of value. I took Lara with me several days ago that he might see what we had to offer him. Gaius Prospero is who he is because he is a clever man, and always eager for profit. He has told me what he will pay for Lara. It is a more than generous sum. With it I can purchase the finest materials to make your application garments. With it you can order up the best suit of armor, new weapons, and the best warhorse bred, for whom I will sew the most beautiful caparisons that you may be proud of yourself, your talent with the sword and your perfect appearance. I have already alerted the armorer and the swordsmith. They are eager to service you, husband, because they know that if you enter this tournament you will win your place among the Crusader Knights, thus burnishing their own reputations. Gaius Prospero was particularly pleased when I told him why we were selling Lara. Your skill as a great swordsman precedes you, husband." She spoke strongly. He must be convinced that this was the right thing for all.
"Think, husband!" She interrupted him. "When you gain your rightful place we will be given a house in the Garden District where all the Crusader Knights and their families reside. Oh, it will be small at first, I know, for until you have made your mark among the knights in battle you will not merit a large home, but one day we shall have one, I know. And even the lowest of the Crusader Knights is given a servant. I will have someone to help me. Our son, Mikhail, will be raised as a knight's son with an automatic place within their ranks should he merit it, but if he is not the warrior his father is, he will receive an education that will keep him in the upper strata of our society. Selling Lara to Gaius Prospero will benefit us all. She will live a life of luxury, and we will climb into the ranks of the elite. You will have your dream. Our son will have more opportunities than even we can imagine. There is no honor or advancement in poverty, husband. There is only the certainty of death." Her eyes suddenly filled with tears.
John Swiftsword nodded. Susanna was absolutely right in this matter. This was an opportunity that would not come again for him. His daughter was exquisitely beautiful even as her faerie mother had been. But he could not provide Lara the kind of life to which she was entitled. And of late, the Mercenary Guild had not been as active as they had always been. Those needing their services were seeking men-at-arms not allied with his guild to whom they might pay a lower wage. It mattered not that these outsiders had no real training, or skills. They were cheaper to employ, which meant more profit, and if they died, they died. It was no great loss. Most of the assignments that did come into his guild these days were going to those men willing to share a percentage of their wage with the guild sergeants.
"I will need to speak with Lara," he said. His eyes mirrored his anguish.
Susanna looked up into her husband's face. "Yes," she agreed. Reaching up she touched his rough cheek with her fingertips. "I would wish it otherwise, husband," she said. "If Lara were plain of face and meek of spirit we might have put her as a maidservant into the house of a magnate's family. She would have earned her keep, and even been able to put a bit aside for a dowry portion. But she is beautiful, and high-spirited."
"Like her mother," he half whispered. "Ilona was glorious to look upon, and fiery of temperament. I can understand why she left me. But at least when she did, she left Lara so I should never forget the faerie who once loved me." He sighed sadly.
Susanna felt a stab of jealousy, but she hid it from him, saying instead, "Your faerie woman was a fool, John Swiftsword, for you are as good a man as ever was born!"
He looked down at her, and marveled that after all those lonely years he had found Susanna of the Lea. He had been heartbroken when Ilona had departed despite his pleas. He was a man with an infant daughter, and an old mother. It was his mother who had taken charge of his child, finding a wet nurse, and raising Lara while he was off in service to whoever was willing to pay for his skillful sword and his temporary loyalty. And then his mother had died when Lara was ten years of age. To his great surprise, his daughter took over the household chores. Whenever he returned home she would be waiting for him with a hot meal, lively chatter and a clean bed for him. He was grateful that his mother had trained his daughter so well, but he found himself growing lonely for the companionship of a good woman. Pleasure Women he had aplenty, but John Swiftsword wanted more now. At Lara's suggestion he went to the matchmaker.
Susanna of the Lea was the daughter of a farmer from the Midlands. She was the youngest of eight daughters and a son. Her family was delighted to find a husband for her who was willing to accept her miniscule dower portion, consisting of the clothing on her back, her shoes, a second skirt and bodice, a woolen cloak, a feather bed, two down pillows and a single silver coin of a small denomination. And she was willing to leave the country for the City.
"You'll not find a better wife," the matchmaker had told him. "She is pretty enough, but most important, sweet-natured. She is not fearful of that faerie child of yours, either. She will be a good mother to your daughter."
"If she is such a good catch then why is she still unwed?" he asked the matchmaker.
The matchmaker sighed. "It's the dowry, John Swiftsword. She's the last of her parents' children, and there is practically nothing left for her. Usually these girls remain at home to care for their elderly parents, but her mother died last year, and the old farmer, her father, took himself another wife, a widow. The girl is not needed any longer, and the new wife wants her gone. She has an ugly daughter who will be the one to stay home and look after the farmer and his new wife. Only when I told the farmer there was no way I could get a decent husband for her without silver was the coin offered, and grudgingly at that. The new wife is not happy about it, but the girl's brother spoke up for her, and as he is the one who will inherit the farm one day, his voice carried weight."
John Swiftsword nodded. He understood what it was like not to be wanted. He had been born on a Midland farm himself, but being one of his parents' younger children, he was encouraged almost from birth to find his own way. He had been fortunate in that his eldest brother's wife was the daughter of a mercenary, who had come to live with them in his old age. It was the old soldier who had taught John how to use a sword, and encouraged him to join the mercenaries that he might have a life of his own.
"I'll take Susanna of the Lea for my wife," he had told the matchmaker, and it had been done. He had gone to her father's farm, found that the matchmaker had not lied, and they had been united on the next Marrying Day, along with twenty-two other couples, by the Squire who ruled the Midlands region. The Squire performed this service one day each month.
And Susanna had come back to the City with him immediately afterwards, spending their wedding night in their hovel. She had shrieked satisfactorily when he broke through her maidenhead, so he knew with certainty that any children he got on her would be his. She was a good bedmate, and he quickly realized he had found a treasure of a wife in her. His hovel was kept clean. His daughter was cared for and his meals were excellent. When he got a child on her he knew his life was a good one. Good except for the fact he could not think of a way to make his dream of joining the Order of the Crusader Knights come true.
When he had first come to the City and joined the Mercenaries, he quickly learned that mercenaries were not a particularly respected group. They were needed, yes, but not well-regarded. Mercenaries were the cannon fodder used by the Crusader Knights in the wars they had once conducted. Nowadays mercenaries were hired to protect the caravans that traversed the four kingdoms. They were the men-at-arms used when one traveled the streets at night or carried valuables. They had no stature at all. The district in which they lived was a poor one, and their hovels were not their own. They were at the mercy of their guild, and the only escapes available to them were death, or entry into the Order of the Crusader Knights. Having earned the appellation Swiftsword for his skill with a blade, John wanted more than anything to be a Crusader Knight.
Entry into this high order was not an easy task. Every three years the Crusader Knights held a great tourney in the City to replenish their ranks, due more to old age and death than battle these days. But the Crusader Knights would not take just any man. Men who applied to enter the tourney had to appear before the entrance board properly garbed in fine garments. If they gained a place in the tourney they had to arrive that first day well-equipped with a warhorse, a good suit of armor and an array of fine weapons. Any man not appearing as required was immediately disqualified, and sent away.