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Sindire awoke when the curtains were drawn, allowing the morning light into her room. Her neck ached from laying in an awkward angle the entire night, one of the risks of falling asleep while reading. Her book was pressed into her bosom, still opened, though not on the page she last recalled. She most likely had continued turning pages long after her mind had stopped retaining their words. Despite this, she marked the page with a tassel of hay and laid it on her still warm pillow.

“Good morning, Milady,” her maid bowed, still at the window. She straightened her spine and opened the wardrobe drawers. “You’ve a big day ahead of you.”

Sindire smiled because she couldn’t agree more. She was already sitting up on the edge of her mattress, smoothing her long hair in a failed attempt to keep it from frizzing.

Her maid rattled on. “First you’ve breakfast with yer mother and her husband, and then you’re to study with yer tutor for three hours.”

Reading for three whole hours? The idea sounded wonderful, and it helped chase the leftover sleep from her mind, replacing it with excitement. It also nearly made up for her first order of business, that is, breakfast with her stepfather.

It wasn’t that she disliked the man - on the contrary, he was kind, easy on the eyes, and he always set aside a book for her to read from his private collection - but she found one on one interactions a cause of anxiety. Sindire preferred to read dialogue rather than make her own. Heaven forbid she’d be forced to interact with her family.

“I’ve powdered yer green dress if you’d like to wear that. I think it makes yer eyes rather pretty,” her maid chattered, fluttering about her room with the gown in her arms. At Sindire’s nod of consent, she spread it across her sheets and readied her undergarments.

After slipping off her nightgown, her maid pulled over her barrel of water, where she washed her face and neck. Soon a pair of weathered hands were pulling the gown over her ears and onto her hips, where the laces were finally tightened.

The dress had once fit her like a glove, but in the recent years, ever since she had been fifteen, it had grown tighter and shorter. No longer did her curves match the shape of the bodice, and her bosom threatened to spill at the slightest move. Not that her breasts were large, but the neckline plummeted so low that she almost felt naked.

Her mother told her that it was a sign of womanhood.

“Alright, now I can plait yer hair,” her maid announced, waddling to her back. She worked quickly and expertly, but Sindire’s neck was still stiff from her unfortunate sleeping position, and she had a difficult time keeping her head still. She kept nodding off, and her maid was forced to yank her head back upright, or else risk a hairdo that would not lay flat. Soon, fortunately, a single flaxen braid hung down her back.

Sindire, despite her best efforts and the news concerning her tutelage, was still groggy was sleep. She yawned into her hand as she descended the stairway, her maid at her heels, holding her dress up just past her slippers so she would not trip over the hem.

She arrived at the dining room to find it completely empty, save three plates set, two at each of the far ends, and one in the middle.

“Yer mother and stepfather will be here in a moment,” her maid informed her, leading her to the middle seat and plopping her into the chair. Sindire yawned in response.

Her maid stood and backed away, her hands folded, and twiddled her thumbs. It took Sindire several long, painful moments of dumbness for her to realize why she was waiting.

“You are dismissed,” she said, nearly stumbling over her words. Her maid bowed lowly, and then waddled off. Sindire distantly wondered how difficult it must be to walk when you were old and had swollen ankles. Her maid did not make it look easy.

Before long, she heard two voices carried upon the air. Her mother and stepfather entered through the large doors, arm in arm, appearing regal in every sense of the word. Her mother’s hair was tightly wrapped around her skull, and her red gown accentuated her curves in an envy-inciting way. Her parents did not live in the Palace with their children, for her stepfather was the Lord of a land and needed to attend to such. Sindire and her brother had been granted with their own private rooms, studies, servants, and dining hall so that they could live comfortably and remain in one place while they studied under their tutors.

Her mother was a beauty amongst beauties, with her ruby lips, fair hair, and light skin. It was, after all, the reason her husband had chosen her as his bride. They had been married before they really knew each other, but her rose-like beauty was far known.

Her stepfather was tall and broad-shouldered with a squarish jaw, as well as graying hair, the only true indication of his age other than the river of wrinkles on his forehead. He was not too different from her father, she admitted, just a tad more reserved, and not quite as tan or weathered.

“Hello, Sindire,” he acknowledged her.

“Hello, Daughter,” her mother greeted through a tight smile.

“Welcome Mother, welcome Lord Eder.”

The two split and took a seat at either end of the table. Sindire’s maid immediately reentered the room with three covered trays. Starting at Lord Eder, she unveiled each plate until all three had their meals.

It was stew and pork, with bread on the side. Sindire bowed her head for the morning prayer and eagerly attacked her stew. If she ate, she wouldn’t be expected to speak for quite some time yet.

Just as she’d hoped, the trio shared their meal in silence. It wasn’t until Sindire had taken her last bite of the pork did her mother clear her throat.

Feeling the sensation of failure, Sindire swallowed the remainder of her meal. She had hoped she would finish and flee with no words shared between them, but it was not to be.

“Daughter, as you know,” her mother began, strangely hesitant. It was unlike her. “Seventeen is quite old.”

Sindire did not feel old. She did not waddle because of swollen ankles, nor was her hair graying, and nor were there wrinkles on her forehead.

“Old?” she echoed, wincing when it came off as offended.

“Old to be unwed,” her mother elaborated. Dread pierced her heart, making each breath heavy and difficult. This was not the first time this topic had been addressed, but she had hoped the last time had already come and gone. She supposed she was too naive if she truly believed that. After all, she hadn’t followed through on any of her promises to show interest towards her stepfather’s men, and subsequently, she had not been courted even once.

That had been the deal between her and her mother; Sindire would show interest in at least one man whether she thought it would work out in the end or not, and then her mother wouldn't feel the need to choose for her.

Sindire had not pursued even one man, although she'd had her pick, and thus her promise was broken. It was the conversation she had wished to avoid.

“I have received word from Lord Fentin and his wife,” her mother continued, “and it seems that their son Dan is interested in courting you.”

Sindire’s mouth went dry, and her heart beat rapidly in her chest. It was not because of her the previous reasons, not because she didn't want her mother to pick her husband for her.

It was because Sir Dan was so very, very handsome.

She had seen him, once, when she was fourteen. It was at a Lord Eder’s sister’s birthday celebration, a dinner party. She had not spoken to him, not once, and had instead hidden behind anything readily available. Her mother had scolded her for being too clingy, for she had often been that item, what with her large and flamboyant gown.

Sindire had spent the entire party peeking at him from her hiding spots, her face red and her heart fluttering. Dan was tall and strong, with a narrow waist and bright blue eyes. He was Lord Fentin’s pride and joy.

To Sindire, he was like a prince out of a fairytale. And he was almost the same age as her, only four years older. It could have been much further, had she chosen one of Lord Eder’s men.

“Daughter,” her mother said. “I already told them you were honored, and that you would host them here at the palace.”

Sindire swallowed.

Suddenly, her mother’s tone changed from stern to sympathetic, and her eyes softened. “I realize that I have been forceful about finding a husband," she all but whispered, "however, I will not force you to marry him if you do not love him.”

“Mother,” Sindire breathed. It was the first time in quite a while that such an emotion had leaked into the older woman’s voice. “I would be honored to meet him,” she said.

She could imagine Dan’s bright blue eyes meeting hers, smiling at her wit, whether it was worthy of it or not. She could imagine his hand touching her arm, could almost feel it if she closed her eyes. He would be there, at her home, soon. Lord Fentin's land was several weeks away on horseback, and it would take time before they would arrive.

“That’s good news,” Lord Eder spoke up. “I am glad you agreed because I invited them to come two months ago. They should arrive by dinnertime today.”

Sindire blinked, her heart frozen, ice leaking into her veins.

Apparently, he’d be there a lot sooner than she could have hoped.

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