(See Exile #1 for Disclaimer and Rating)
The Trader Bride
On the other side of the chaapa'ai, the sun was just setting. This was the square of a fair-sized city. A wide ramp led up to the ring, with steps cut into the sides. There were wooden barrels overspilling with a sweet-scented pink trumpet flower at the foot of the ramp.
They made their way to a rail station. Samarra was reminded again of her new status as Robert booked a compartment for them, instead of seats in the hot and cramped passenger cars. It was a bit like a trader's cart on the train... a tiny room with seats that folded into beds, a table that folded down from the wall beneath the window, even a small enclosed sink and toilet.
After they'd unburdened themselves of their packs, and Samarra had explored the confines of the compartment and settled down, she asked, "How far do we have to travel yet, before we reach your land?"
"Overnight. It's six hours on the train, then a couple of hours' ride from the village."
She expected as much. She watched as he settled in for the ride, making himself comfortable, then ventured, "Conversation passes the time on lengthy trips. You know all there is to know of me. What of your past, my lord Robert?"
He looked at her, and she wondered if she had been too bold, but it seemed he was just measuring his life and finding a place to start. "I was a soldier. Retired from my duty, and I used my pension to buy a land grant and a few slaves. We're a working farm, just beginning to produce for trade."
"The cotton, coffee, sugar and beef," she nodded.
He nodded back. "I'm hoping to expand into cattle. We don't have the right climate for the others... some things we'll always have to trade for or do without."
"Such necessity provides my people with a living," Samarra noted. "What do you send for trade?"
"Wool. We raise sheep. Woven cloth and dyed yarn. Surplus of our harvest. Not much else, yet." He paused. "You have the experience, you could look around, maybe suggest some fresh sources of income."
Ah. She leaned back, satisfied. It seemed in wanting a wife, he wanted a true helpmate, and that explained her rescue from the auction block. A hedge lord, not high born, just starting out and afraid of losing what he'd gained. He wanted her for her skills as a trader, not just her fair face, or that an owned wife might be more easily cowed than a noblewoman who could always flee back to her family stronghold.
He spoke of a large tract of the land that hadn't yet been cleared, and that he meant to keep some of it wooded. He spoke of the house and grounds. She smiled slightly, noticing that she had asked him about himself and he spoke instead of his land. He made it sound a pretty place, practical gardens and wildflower meadows, forest glens, a shady stream full of fat fish... the life of a gentleman farmer must be a peaceful haven for a former soldier. She wondered what battles he'd seen. She could easily picture him in boiled leather and scale armor. Not in the parade costume of embossed breastplate and crested helmet. Something in the way he carried himself hinted at a life spent on the front lines.
She dozed a bit, lulled by the motion of their travel, and by the exhausted terror of the past few days. She'd been unable to sleep as a slave, for fear the slavers would come to make use of the women... luckily, they had more of a head for business. Rather than perverse malice, they chose not to damage their merchandise.
She had lain awake fearing for the others. Jaq was too proud to be a slave, surely he would be beaten or killed the first time he spoke out. Enslavement would be a dreadful insult to Teelik's immense dignity. And sweet, gentle Daneel, with his scholar's curiosity and scribe's hands...
Even if her fevered imagination had given her respite, there were the other slaves, someone always sobbing or in hysterics.
Here, it was warm and quiet, and she knew she was safe. Her husband had already made inquiries for her brothers and their friend, and she had hope to persuade him to do more. Worn out and worn down by her past trials, she slept, and mercifully did not dream.
She became aware of voices, and the smell of food. That woke her; the delicate tidbits at the bathhouse had been served quite a while ago, and had been too light to truly satisfy hunger. She blinked and sat up straight, lazily, as Robert folded the table down from it's place beneath the window, and began to set out the boxed meal he'd just bought from the food vendor's trolley.
Now this was food. Her stomach growled, and she reached for one of the covered bowls. Stew or thick soup, with plenty of beef and vegetables, steaming hot. A small loaf of soft-crusted bread to sop the broth. She set into her portion with gusto, glad to see her new husband do the same. She'd worried for a moment. What she knew of noblewomen and their manners at table said they ate daintily. Perhaps if you did nothing more than sit about decoratively, you had no appetite. Samarra was hungry.
After their meal, they passed the time with more talk. Samarra spoke of the cities and villages their caravan had passed through on the endless wandering from world to world, and some of the wonders they had seen. Buildings of glass and steel that rose fifteen stories or more without toppling over. Oceans and deserts.
Robert had passed through some interesting places. She listened as he described a city in the mountains, and a great cavern where soldiers made their camp. There was a flicker of something unreadable in his eyes when she said she'd never heard of that place, and that it was surely a wonder... if not unpleasantly damp.
He spoke about their future home again, telling her that he kept dogs and asking if she minded them. She didn't, they'd never kept pets but there were always a few guard-dogs at a caravan camp.
For the first time she wondered what had happened to the dogs and horses the night they had been taken.
The food server came through again to collect the empty dishes. Samarra found herself yawning as she passed her bowl over. Robert yawned too, and looked a little surprised at himself.
"It's been a long day," he said. "Longer for you. Ready to turn in?"
"Yes, please." They set to work, drawing the windowshade, folding the table up, folding the seats down into bunks. Samarra stepped into the small washroom and used the toilet, then washed her hands and face at the sink, before he took his turn, dimming the light as he passed.
She waited, staring up into the darkness, for Robert to come to her and claim their wedded-night. She wasn't sure, reflecting on it, why he hadn't taken advantage of the luxurious room at the bathhouse.
Or why she was lying here listening for a footstep and instead hearing a faint snore. Not a deep, annoying snore. Just the sound of a man, breathing. Asleep. That boded well for married life. But why hadn't he... She remembered a romantic story they had found in one of the scrolls Daneel collected, when they were younger. A people who didn't hold a marriage as made until the husband had carried his bride over the threshold of the house they were to reside in as man and wife. The tale was of a young bride kidnapped from the wedding party by a scorned suitor.
Maybe that was it, and he was waiting until they reached his own home. Maybe he just didn't care to risk his back on these narrow and not overstuffed bunks and was waiting for his own bed.
The warmth of the sunlight on her cheek woke her. For a moment she was disoriented, then sat up, blinking sleepily.
Robert was sitting up, peeling a fruit with a thick rind, like an orange, only this was a color closer to turquoise. The fruit revealed was yet a paler shade of blue.
"Good morning," he greeted her pleasantly, breaking the segmented fruit in half and offering it to her. She took it, and sat up.
"Morning." It had a sweet, crisp taste. Something like pear, but with a citrus tang to it. And juice spilled down her chin. She wiped at it with the back of her hand, self consciously, and watched Robert as he pulled a segment of the fruit from what he had in his hand, very like an orange. Instead of biting into it like an apple, as she had. She copied him, and found it a much neater way of eating.
"We're almost to town. We'll stop at the Inn and wash up, grab breakfast before we head out to the farm," he informed her.
True to his word, the train pulled up to a small depot-station not long after she had finished her share of the fruit. New Ohio, the sign for the station read in Common Tongue script. Samarra wondered briefly where Old Ohio was.
A one-street town, the type traders despaired of, for the trading cart always drew a crowd of bored people who never had the coin to buy. A second look told her this was a prosperous place, one-street but new buildings going up. There was clear glass in the windows, and fresh paint. The boarded sidewalks and the street were clean.
Robert helped her down onto the platform. It seemed they were the only passengers getting off here, although down the platform cargo was being unloaded. A lanky redheaded man was overseeing them load goods into a powered wagon, and then started up the platform with a glad cry.
"Ho, Robert, did you get the power cells for the tractor, then?" The man noticed Samarra with a surprised look, and tacked on an uncertain, "Hello."
"I found the power cells, Daric. And I found myself a wife. Samarra, this is my foreman, Daric. Don't mind his manners, he was raised in a barn."
The man, Daric, gave her another surprised look, then burst into a grin. "Milady Samarra, I'm glad to meet you and bid you welcome to New Ohio."
Samarra managed a demure reply, amused. The man seemed genuinely happy that his lord had found a wife... but he was also dimming from exuberance to apprehension. The fact that Robert allowed a foreman to address him as an equal did not go unnoticed.
With a faint smile, Robert answered his unasked question. "Samarra and I will be breakfasting at the Inn here in town. Drive the truck back ahead of us, we'll be a couple of hours."
The man's face relaxed into a good-natured grin. "Ah, good. Else I'd ask to ride the backbeyond for a few weeks, did you drop a new bride on Merran with no warning." He bustled off.
Robert started to lead her away, but at her inquisitive look, he explained, "Merran's my housekeeper. Daric's wife. She'll want to be sure everything's just so before you see the place. Not that the house is a wreck, usually, but you know. Women."
Samarra laughed. "I've never had a house to be house proud, but there was one girl of another cart in our caravan... I'd set out our richest goods in a hurry if I saw her coming by. You think she invented silk," she remembered with loathing.
Robert smiled. "We'll have to host a feast, but I'll try to hold that off until you're settled."
"Yes, please. I'm still afraid this is just a dream I'm having, in that cell. None of it seems real."
He looked at her, quickly, but then pushed open the door to the Inn. A thin woman in gray with a white ruffled apron was greeted as Freni, she led Samarra to a bathroom with the same pleased appraisal Daric had given her.
There was no need for another bath yet. Samarra merely washed herself and changed into the clothes Freni brought from the packs left by the door. Robert had said something about horses, she wasn't surprised that Freni returned with her new riding costume, a blue jacket and split skirt.
She came out to the dining room when she was done, and Freni led her to a laden table. There were sausages, and hen's eggs cooked whipped with milk. Fresh warm bread with butter and honey and berry jam. A plain stoneware teapot and mugs.
Samarra hesitated, then served herself and began eating before the food got cold. Knife and fork stopped halfway through a sausage as her husband entered the room.
Greetings were called to him from the other occupied tables. He stopped at one or two for a quick word with the men, but hurried on to join her. He'd troubled himself to shave again, and wore breeches of a dun-gold, with high black boots, paired with a cream cotton shirt and short jacket of deep forest green. As he leaned in to sit beside her on the bench, she breathed in a whiff of a musky-male scent.
Something deeper than her heart fluttered in pure feminine approval. My husband.
"Can you ride, or should I rent a carriage?" he asked, picking up a thick slice of bread and slathering it with jam.
"I can ride. If it's a gentle horse," she admitted.
After breakfast, the man at the livery stable fitted her out with a sweet and gentle bay gelding, and Robert took a dapple-gray mare. They set out at a gentle trot. It was a fine, fair day, and the road was wide and well-kept.
Caidos was a pretty place, at least in this settlement of New Ohio. Flat land, a few softly rolling hillocks that did a little to break up the low plains. It was spring, here. The trees were fuzzed over with leafy green buds, and the grassy sward lining the road was a riot of violets in white and purple. Not fat out of town, the road turned north, crossed the river she'd glimpsed through the trees on an arched stone bridge, and continued on.
Robert was content to ride beside her in companionable silence. Samarra let her mount canter at his own pace as she lost herself in thought. Robert called the couple in his service, Daric and Merran, his foreman and housekeeper. He didn't seem pretentious enough to have a 'foreman' in charge of no workers. It would take at least four men to maintain the land he'd described to her. So, four field slaves, Daric and Robert, with Merran to cook for them. What she'd seen of Robert told her he was no high lord lazing about while crops failed; he would muck into chores as they needed to be done. As she would be expected to, as well.
No feather bed of a life she'd married into, well, she wasn't afraid of hard work. It would be different from life on a trading caravan, that was true.
She wondered how large the house was, and if Robert let the slaves sleep in the common room in the winter. Most smallholdings her cart had stopped at had a common room, a sleeping alcove, and a kitchen at the back. A crowd, with eight people. Seven strangers. At least with the weather fine, the slaves likely slept in the shed with the animals. Though she didn't know if Daric and Merran had children.
Children. She hadn't thought of children. She'd have to see the accounts and start budgeting to build onto the farmhouse first off. If Robert gave her a babe, she wasn't having the cradle in the common room, where any one of them with a grippe would cough filthy air on the baby, and track in manure from the field. She'd sold too many shrine-candles to women who should be buying swaddling cloth to see it happen to any child of her own.
She shook off such dark thoughts as Robert turned off the main road. For the last little while they'd been riding along a waist-high stone wall with the added protection of a bramble of rosebushes planted along it. Practical and pretty, Samarra noted with approval, and it must be a sight later in the year with all those masses of buds in full bloom.
There was a wooden gate in the wall, swung open, and a graveled road leading in. It was down this track Robert turned his horse, and Samarra followed.
The lane ran straight for a bit, bordered on each side by big grassy lawns. At the edge of each patch of grass was a hedge, with trees beyond.
"Orchards," Robert pointed out. "Apple, peach."
The lane split around a raised oval herb garden, with brick paths and complicated knots of plantings. They both rode the track to the left. Samarra gripped the horn of her saddle to steady herself as they approached the 'farmhouse.'
A two-storied Roman villa rose before her, a long stretch of house larger than the Trader's GuildHall on Petru. Cooked-pumpkin colored plaster walls rose to the terra-cotta roof, and white columns lined a portico. A pair of great carved black walnut doors, flanked by smaller doors leading to other parts of the house. Huge stone urns lined the portico, spilling over with more of the pink trumpet flowers Samarra had seen at the chaapa'ai. A plump brunette had been seated on one of the benches in the shady depths, doing needlework. She set her work-bag aside and rose to call a cheerful greeting.
"Here we are," Robert said, sounding satisfied as he dismounted. "Home sweet home."
Robert came over to help her dismount. She was glad of his strong arms supporting her as she gazed up at the house, feeling faint.
Suddenly conscious of Merran watching, and not wanting to look like a slack-jawed scatterbrain, or a grasping wench counting the coin in her husband's purse, Samarra managed to close her mouth and compose herself.
"Samarra, this is Merran. Keeper of the house, the new lady of the house. I'll see to the horses, give her the five coppers tour while I'm away," Robert said, gathering up the reins of her borrowed bay with his own.
Merran, brown eyes bright and inquisitive, bobbed a curtsey, and bowed her head, sending her long brown braid swinging. "Milady."
"Samarra," she corrected. "I'm not of noble birth, and not fussy enough to take on my husband's title, if he chooses not to use such."
"Samarra, then." The housekeeper blew out a breath in relief. Samarra had to smile herself.
With the oddly casual way Robert chose to live, it would have been a burden to bring home a proper lady. Samarra began to understand her strange and sudden marriage a bit more, picturing Robert in his fine but unadorned clothes, allowing his servants to call him by name, off at the stable currying horses, wed to some gently bred lady in a silk and lace court dress, insisting on being called her ladyship and not knowing anything about... anything. It would have been an ill-made match indeed.
"I'm Merran. What would you like to see first, the house or the grounds?"
"The house, I suppose."
Merran nodded, and turned to push open the great carved door, which had stood ajar.
"This is the dining hall. It's used on feast days."
Samarra's eyes went wide at the sight. Flagstoned floor, and fireplace you could roast a goat in. Painted plaster walls, a mural of maple trees crowned with autumn's glory. And the scrubbed oak table that could seat thirty hungry men.
Merran was leading her through the room through a door to a small neat kitchen, and then to an 'L' corridor and stairs.
"Stairs to the loft. Not much above but storage. This is the pantry, my rooms, the corner rooms here are both storerooms, and through here is the laundry and boiler."
Samarra's head was still swimming as Merran led her through the kitchen again, into a small room with a round table. "This is the living room, we're behind the dining hall here. This is where Robert usually takes his meals. Through this door and out onto the back portico."
Samarra looked out over fields and outbuildings before Merran ushered her back into the house through another door.
"Mad, isn't it? But it's built to be a fortress against raiders. Not that we've had any of those troubles, here, but Robert was a soldier and still thinks soldierly thoughts. You can bar the doors and close off parts of the house from each other, see?" They were in a narrow corridor that ran the length of the house, and a door to the right.
The door led to a great cavern of a room, rising to the full height of the building. "This is the Great Hall." They crossed this massive flagstone floor and through another set of doors to another corridor. "The lord's quarters, your home."
There was a bathroom here, with a tiled bath in blue and cream. A small sitting room, made into an office and library. The corner room here had been made into a solarium. The bedroom was at the back.
Samarra laughed nervously. "I'll need a string to find my way around this great house." She looked around the solarium helplessly, at the bent twig furniture and the bright cushions and rag rugs. "You keep the house... you can't possibly clean it by yourself." Every surface shone, scrubbed, or polished to gleaming.
"Ai, no!" Merran laughed. "You know what men are, Robert doesn't mind a bit of dust. I've got Frieda and Anyi to help me to do the daily, and once a moon I haul a few of the men along and we have a right sorting out."
"Oh... good." Samarra sighed.
"I'd best get back to the kitchen, there's a pot on the stove. Have a rest if you like, I've laid your things out in the boudoir, or you could come along."
Feeling a bit overwhelmed, Samarra agreed faintly, "I think I'll rest."
With an understanding grin, Merran left her. Samarra sat for a little while in one of the bent twig chairs, looking out front windows at the herb garden. Then she got to her feet and traced the path to the bedroom.
The walls were paneled wood here, and the floors were stone. There was a fireplace. Rag rugs in dark colors that matched the patchwork quilt on the large carved sleigh bed. A dresser with a looking glass. Small carved wooden boxes on top, a tray with a hair brush and comb, and a blue clay bowl that held a button and three copper coins. There was a sliding door, open, to a bride's boudoir. Samarra went in.
A smaller copy of her husband's bed, with a quilt in brighter colors. Softer rugs... woven carpets of intricate pattern... underfoot. The dresser held a brush and comb, perfume bottle, and matching small vases filled with purple and white violets and white bell-lilies, great bunches perfuming the air with their sweet fragrance.
She opened a drawer of the dresser, found her new clothes. Touched the laurel-enameled ring on her finger in awe.
It was too much. Everything was too much. Samarra sat down on the bed, and realized that it was a featherbed atop a springed mattress, and she burst into tears. She had been a trader's spinster daughter, then a slave, now the next thing to a queen. It made her head swim. It made her heart swim. It was too much.
"Sam?" She looked up at his worried call. Robert stood at the doorway, just outside, looking at her with grave concern. "What is it?"
She wiped desperately at her eyes. "This... you... I thought you were poor!"
He grinned and glanced around. "We could move into the sheep barn. Would that help?"
Bless the man for coaxing a smile. "It's just... you know what that man was, who bid against you when I was on the slave block. I expected to live the rest of my life in the lowest ring of Hell. You bought me, gave me my honor back by marrying me, giving me the protection of your name... more status and standing than I have ever known..."
She looked down at the wedding ring again, and up at the waiting man. "You cannot know what this means."
The corner of his mouth turned up. "Sam... Samarra. The one thing I learned as a soldier is that you can't save everyone, but you do what you can. I wish I could have bought all of the slaves from your caravan and freed them. Found your brothers and partner, and given you your life back. I can't. All I can do is look for Jaq, and Daneel, and Teelik... and offer you a new life here until I find them. That's the least I can do."
She shook her head. The man was so blind in his kindness and largesse that he couldn't see the scope of it. She rose, and kissed him delicately on the cheek.
He reddened. "Come on, I want to show you the farm before lunch."
Continue on to Exile #3: The Man Without a Planet...
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Page last updated 8/15/03.