On an alternate Earth, where the population is ninety percent female and a man is sold by his sisters to marry all the women in a family, Jerin Whistler is coming of age. His mothers are respected landed gentry, his grandfather a kidnapped prince, and his grandmothers common line soldiers blackballed for treason, trained by thieves, re-enlisted as spies, and knighted for acts of valor. Jerin wants to marry well, and his sisters want a husband bought by his brother’s price.
“Don’t plan on getting anything else done if you start a Wen Spencer novel; they are exceedingly hard to put down!” — Nebula Award Winning Author CATHERINE ASARO
Excerpt from Chapter One
There were few advantages of being a boy in a society dominated by women. One, Jerin Whistler thought, was that you could throttle your older sister, and everyone would shrug, say “she was one of thirty-two girls — a middle sister — and a trouble maker too, and he — he’s a boy,” and that would be the end of it.
Certainly if a sister deserved to be strangled it was Corelle. She idly flipped through a magazine showing the latest in men’s fashions while he tried to stuff a thirty pound goose, comfort a youngest sister with a boo boo knee, and feed their baby brother. Since their mothers and elder sisters left the middle sisters in charge of the farm, Corelle strutted about with her six-guns tied low and the brim of her Stetson pulled down so far it was amazing she could see. Worse, she started to criticize everything he did, with an eye toward his coming of age — and being sold into a marriage of his sisters choosing.
She had complained that he chapped his hands in hot wash water, that trying to read at night would give him a squint, and that he should add scents to his bath water. This morning it was his clothes.
“Men’s fashion magazines are a joke.” Jerin growled, trying to keep the goose from scooting across the table as he shoved sage dressing into its cavity. If he hadn’t spent years diapering his seventeen youngest sisters and three little brothers, the goose might have gotten away from him. The massive, fat-covered goose, however, was nothing compared to a determined Whistler baby. “No one but family ever sees their men folk! How do these editors know what men are wearing?”
“Things are different with nobility.” Corelle countered and held out the magazine. “It’s the whole point to a Season; to be seen! Here. This is the pair I want you to make for yourself.”
Instead of good honest broadcloth trousers, the fashion plate showed kid-glove tight pants with a groin-hugging patch of bright colored fabric. Labeled underneath was “Return of the codpiece: it allows the future wives to see what they are buying.”
He wrestled the goose into their largest roasting pan. “Don’t even think it, Corelle. I won’t wear them.”
“I like seeing you say that to Eldest.”
“Eldest knows better than to waste money on clothes no one will see.” Jerin worked the kitchen pump to wash the goose fat from his hands. Much as he hated to admit it, Corelle’s aim was dead on — he wouldn’t be able to face Eldest and say no. Two could play that game though. “Eldest is going to be pissed that you went to town and got that magazine. She told you to stay at the farm, close to the house.”
“I didn’t go to town, so there.” Corelle, nonetheless, closed the magazine up, realizing it was evidence of some crime.
So where did she get it? Jerin swung the crying little girl holding onto his knees up onto the counter beside the goose. It was Pansy when he thought it was Violet all this time. “Hey, hey, big girls don’t cry. Let me see the boo boo. Corelle, at least feed Kai.”
She eyed the sloppy baby playing in his oatmeal. “Why don’t you call Doric? It’s boy’s work. He should be learning all this from you before you get married — your birthday is only a few months away — and then you’ll be gone.”
Luckily Pansy was already crying too hard to notice that comment.
“Doric is churning butter and can’t stop.” Jerin lied. “If you want to spell him, I’m sure he’d rather be feeding Kai instead.”
Corelle shot him a dirty look but picked up the spoon and redirected some of the oatmeal into Kai’s mouth. “All I’m saying is that the — that certain families are making noises that they want to come courting and see you decked out in something other than a walking robe and hat. Hell, you might as well be stuffed in gunnysack when you’re out in public – at least as far as a woman knowing if you’re worth looking at or not.”
“That’s the point, Corelle.” Jerin got the mud and crusted blood off of Pansy’s knee and discovered a nasty cut. He washed it well with hot water and soap, put three small stitches in to hold the flesh together, and then knowing his little sisters, bandaged it heavily to keep the dirt out. He ordered firmly, “Now don’t take it off,” and unlatched the lower half of the back door to scoot Pansy outside.
In the protected play yard between the house and the barns, the other sixteen youngest sisters were playing reconnaissance. Whoever was playing Wellsbury was shouting “Great Hera’s Teat, you Whistlers call this an intelligence report?” According to their grandmothers, this was the phrase uttered most often by the famous general. Accurate, it might be — but still too foul to be repeated in front of the three through ten years olds.
Jerin shouted, “Watch your mouth, Wellsbury!” and went back to the goose. At least the goose had nothing annoying to say.
The same, unfortunately, could not be said of Corelle. “You need some nice clothes so we can show you off and make a good match. People are saying you’re not as fetching as rumored and need a once over to be satisfied.”
As if anyone cared what he looked like, as long as he was fertile. Jerin made a rude noise, salting and peppering the goose’ skin. “Who said that?”
Then it all clicked together. The criticism, the magazine, the clothes, and a certain family annoyed that the Whistlers were landed Gentry — despite their common line soldiers’ roots — making them a step above their neighbors. “You’re talking about the Brindles!”
“Am not!” She snapped, and then frowned, realizing that she had tipped her hand. “Besides, they have a right to see what they’re getting before the papers are signed. None of them ever laid eyes on you outside of a fair or a barn raising — which is hardly seeing you at all.”
“You better not be thinking of bringing them here while Eldest is gone. She’ll have your hide tacked to the barn! She doesn’t want them past the east boundary fence unless the whole family is here.”
“Nay neighborly of ‘er.” Corelle retorted with such an up country drawl that it could have been straight out of a Brindle mouth.
“Not neighborly of her.” Jerin heaved the goose up into the oven and slammed shut the oven door. “You sound like a river rat, half-drunk on moonshine.”
“What does it matter, how we talk?” Corelle deemed herself finished with Kai being that his bowl was empty. She drifted away from the high chair, leaving the mess for Jerin to clean up. “The Brindles think we’re putting on airs, paying so much attention to speaking correct Queens’ diction. All we’re doing is annoying our neighbors.”
Jerin worked the kitchen pump again to wet a towel to wash up Kai. “Who cares if we annoy the Brindles? None of our other neighbors cares. And you know why, even if the Brindles don’t. Our grandmothers paid with their lives to buy us a better lot in life — for their sake, we don’t give up an inch of what they won us.”
Corelle silently parroted the end of his speech, a rehash of what they been told all their lives, with a great show of rolling her eyes. “No one is going to marry you for your dic’tion. They’re going to marry you for your dic–”
He twirled the damp towel into a rattail and snapped it like a whip, catching her on exposed skin of wrist.
She yelped, more out of surprise than pain. Anger flashed across her face, and she started toward him, hands closing into fists.
He backed away from her, heart pounding, twirling up the towel again. When they were little, only Corelle would risk Eldest’s wrath to hit him, and now their older sisters were far from home. There was the sudden, tiny, fearful knowledge that Corelle was wearing her pistols. “Don’t make me get the spoon!”
She checked and they glared at one another across the cocked and ready towel.
“You be civil, Corelle.” He finally managed. “You have no need or place to talk low to me. Eldest will decide what I wear, whom I see, and whom I marry, so there’s no call for you to be fussing at me over it.”
Corelle pursed her lips together as if to keep in bitter words, her blue eyes cold as winter sky.
In the high chair behind Corelle, Kai started indignant squawks at being ignored.
“Take care of the baby.” Corelle snapped to give herself the last words of the fight, and stalked out of the kitchen.
Jerin had just put Kai down to sleep when he heard the first rifle shot. He froze beside the cradle, listening to the sharp crack echoing up the hollow.
Maybe it was just thunder, he rationalized, because he didn’t want it to be gunfire. He replayed the sound in his mind. No, the sound definitely came from a rifle.
Who would be shooting in their woods? Damn her, had Corelle gone out hunting? Eldest told all four of the middle sisters to keep at the house, to forgo even fence mending while their mothers and elder sisters were gone.
Another shot rang out from the creek bottom, then a third, close after the second. The back door banged opened. His younger siblings spilled into the house like a covey of quail, the littlest sister running in first, the older ones doing a slower rear guard, scanning over their shoulders for lost siblings or strangers.
Blush, normally second oldest of the youngest sisters, took station on the door, tapping shoulders to keep count. “Drill teams! Prepare for attack! Shutter the windows, bar the doors, and get down the rifles. Fifteen! Sixteen!” Blush snapped and tagged Jerin. “Three.” Then pointed to the cradle. “Four?”
“Four boys.” Jerin said automatically, although stunned. Sixteen? There should be seventeen youngest, and the four middle sisters.
Blush dropped the bars on the upper and lower halves of the back door. First downstairs, then upstairs, the shutters banged shut and their bars rattled into place. Little girls moved through the shutter slats of sunlight, working in teams of mixed ages to load two rifles and guard every window.
“What’s going on?” Jerin asked. “Who’s shooting? Where are Corelle and the others? And which one of you is missing?”
Blush gave a look of disgust that only a twelve-year old could manage. “Corelle, Summer, Eva, and Kira went over to the Brindles’, courting Balin Brindle. Heria said she thought she heard riders in the woods. She took her rifle and went down to the woods.”
“Heria!” His fourteen year old sister had more courage than sense to go out alone. “Holy mothers above!”
“Eldest is going to skin Corelle alive.” One of the youngest whispered – in the dim light, they all sounded the same.
There was a ripple of agreement.
“Watch the windows!” Blush barked. “Jerin, get the boys into the keeping room.”
Since Kai was asleep, Jerin moved the cradle rather than picking the baby up. Liam complained about his blocks, left outside in the sudden retreat. Doric speculated that it was only Corelle in the woods, doing a bit of hunting while coming home from courting. Jerin would have liked to believe that — only Corelle knew perfectly well there was no need for fresh meat with the elder half the family gone and a thirty-pound goose in the oven. Most of the youngest ate like birds yet.
“What do we do?” A youngest asked Blush after several minutes of silence.
Blush clutched one of the family’s carbine rifles. “We stay guard until Corelle comes back.”
A thunderous pounding at the backdoor stopped them cold.
Blush scurried to Jerin’s side, the soldier training that had been carrying her vanished, leaving only a frightened twelve-year-old. “Jerin?”
Jerin swallowed his fear, and whispered, “Identify the enemy and establish numbers.”
Blush nodded rapidly, her eyes wide and rounded with fear. Still, she managed to shout, “Identify yourself!”
The pounding stopped. “Let me in! Let me in! Let me in!”
A sigh of relief went through the room.
“It’s Heria!” Doric whispered.
“Everyone, get to posts.” Blush struggled to return to their training. “What’s the password, Heria?”
“I don’t remember!” Heria wailed beyond the door. “Lemme in!”
Blush looked at him, unsure what to do.
“Use the spyhole.” Jerin gave Blush a slight push toward the kitchen door. “Make sure she’s alone, then let her in, but only open the bottom half.”
Blush had to fetch a stool to reach the spyhole. She covered the delay by calling out, “You know we can’t let you in without a password, Heria!”
There came a minute of cursing that would have made their father blush and their grandmothers proud. Finally, Heria remembered the week’s password. “Teacup! It’s teacup!”
“Well, the whole county knows it now!” Blush complained. “She’s alone! Let her in.”
Heria pushed her rifle and ammunition pouch in first, then scrambled in on hands and knees. Once inside, she remained crouched on the flagstones, panting, as the door was bolted shut again. The red stain of blood on her shirt made Jerin forget to stay out of the way. He dropped down beside her.
“Are you hurt?” He tried to get her up so he could see where she bled. “Did someone shoot you?”
Heria shook her head, squeezing his shoulder comfortingly, and gasped. “Not my blood.” She swallowed hard. “They – they didn’t have guns, only clubs and sabers. There’s a soldier – in the creek!”
“Did you shoot her?” Jealous admiration tinted Blush’s question.
Heria shook her head. “No. Riders chased her down out of the woods by the bend. They knocked her off her horse, into the creek. I thought they were going to kill her, and we’d get blamed, so I shot at them. The first shot just startled them.” Which meant she probably missed, and they hadn’t realized how lucky they had been. “They didn’t start to run until the second shot. I winged one of them.”
This got a murmur of admiration from the others.
Jerin hushed them. His youngest sisters might not see the danger remaining with the riders gone. “But they didn’t kill the soldier?”
“She’s got a big bruise on her forehead and she’s out cold in the creek.”
“In it?” Jerin cried. “Oh, Heria, you didn’t leave her to drown, did you?”
His sisters gave him a disgusted look.
“No, of course not.” Heria said, which earned her a few dark looks from her sisters. “I got her sat up, put some rocks behind her, then laid her back down. It was the best I could do because I couldn’t move her otherwise. She’s Corelle’s size and all dead weight.” Which meant the soldier was nearly as tall as Jerin. “I didn’t know what else to do. She’s out of the water, and I’ve got her pinned so if she only half-wakes, she’s not going to roll in and drown.”
“Good!” Jerin said, relieved that the entire younger half of the family was all accounted for, sound and secured. Now if only the older half was here, armed and ready!
“What about the riders?” Blush pressed Heria for information. “How many were there? Did they look like a raiding party? Are they coming back?”
“I saw five women. They didn’t look like sisters, didn’t act like sisters. They looked like river trash. Dirty. Ragged. Poor. I winged the biggest.”
As she spoke, Jerin glanced about the kitchen at the girls clustered around him. Most barely came to his chest and only Heria weighed more than a hundred pounds. Only three or four of the older girls combined could get the soldier out of the creek and to the house. But that would leave only the ten year olds at the house. While in theory, any girl over eight could fire a rifle, he couldn’t hope for them to repel an attack.
“I’m going down to the creek and getting the soldier.” He announced, standing up.
“What?” All his little sisters shouted.
“If she’s alive, we can’t let her die on Whistler land,” he said.
“Damn right we can!” Blush snapped.
“We can’t!” Heria shouted over the roar of agreement. “Jerin’s right. It’s the law. We have to lend aid to travelers in distress.”
“Who would know?” Leia, the next to oldest argued. “We just say that we never found her until after she died.”
“Her attackers would know.” Jerin pointed out. “They probably know that the soldier is alive, and that at least one of us knows it, because a Whistler shot at them.”
“Who would they tell?” Blush asked. “It would be stupid for them to tell anyone. They’ll be admitting to beating the soldier up.”
“Better than being blamed for murder.” Heria snapped. “What do you think they’ll say if the Queens Justice catches them? ‘Yes, we killed her,’ or ‘oh, no, she was still alive when we got chased off?’”
Silence fell as his sisters recognized the truth of Heria’s argument.
“The quicker we go,” Jerin finally broke the silence. “The quicker we get back.”
“No!” Blush cried. “We just won’t send for Queens Justice. We can bury her in the woods. No one need know.”
“Won’t wash.” Heria stood up. “There’s her horse, to start with. Do we kill it and bury it too?”
“We could drive it off.” Blush said.
“I’m eldest here.” Heria said. “Jerin and I are going down to the creek. You stand ready.”
They didn’t like it, but they had been raised as soldiers and the line of command was clear. Heria was eldest; she was to be obeyed.
“Come on,” he said to Heria, “show me where the soldier is.”