When Rei was returned home, she was greeted by a great mess. Maids were darting back and forth in the halls, muttering to themselves in a hushed urgency. And there was not a guard in sight as Rei climbed the stairwell to her mother’s chambers. She saw the door was ajar, with candle light dancing on the stone floor. Rei felt as a puppy would with its tail between its legs. She kept her head low, fiddling with the laces on her dress as she entered the room.
The Queen’s chamber was a small tower room, decorated with childhood remnants of her daughters. There was a large ebony bed, with a fur rug splayed out over it. And a matching ebony desk, where papers were scattered amongst goblets and gold coins.
Her mother was cussing, which was very unlike her. Reina was an aged woman, almost twice as old as her husband. Practitioners had said it was remarkable she’d birthed not one but three children in spite of her age. Her hair was a willowy white, left undone to fall evenly upon her shoulders. Her head was christened with a golden circlet, a mere trinket compared to her husband's crown. At the sound of the door creaking, Reina halted her pacing and glared at her eldest daughter. Rei kept her head low, she needn’t look up to know her mother’s brown eyed gaze was staring steadily at her.
“Oh, my lovely eldest has decided to join us.” She said sarcastically.
Rei began to apologise, “I’m sorry mother, things didn’t go quite as expected.”
“I have to agree.” Her mother interrupted, “Your sister has been sold off like a pig at a market.”
Rei looked up, her heart shuddering in her chest. There, beyond where her mother stood, Nyssa sat perched on the bed, her pale face withdrawn and marked with dried tears. Nyssa had dark unruly hair, with big blue eyes and full, plump lips. She had not yet come into her own, there was still a childlike presence about her, and the curves of her body were only minute.
“Quiet,” Reina shushed. “Your father made the deal this morning while you were out; he paid off one of the maids. I’m afraid you’ll be next.”
“Who? Who did he sell you to?” Rei addressed her sister, but Nyssa’s eyes were glassy and cold, she appeared to be lost in her mind.
“The papers were drawn up and signed, stamped with the crest of Peredur” Reina said.
Rei began to shake her head, “No, no. Not Geraint. He would never.”
Geraint had been a loyal friend to them all. Since the earliest day she could remember, Rei had always known Geraint as the man guarding nearby, watching carefully over her and her sisters, serving her mother as dutifully as he served the King. Evenings had been spent in that very room, her mother doting over the infant Eirian, while Nyssa argued with young Felyx. All while Rei sat beside her armoured friend, reading to him.
“I doubt he has any say in it,” her mother said sadly. “Jalin has been on his case for years for grandchildren. I imagine it will be quite a shock to him also.”
“Surely father can negotiate further – to give Nyss a say at least.”
“Your father cares little for Nyssa’s happiness, Rei.” Her mother sighed heavily, the lines in her brow sinking deeper. “There’s something else.”
Rei clutched at her throat, holding her breath. Who had her father fated her to be with?
“Eirian’s missing!” Nyssa’s glassy eyes came alive with fresh tears as she called out across the room, her throaty cry causing both her mother and sister to jump. “We think she’s snuck off and joined the caravan headed to Iridia.”
Rei exhaled. Iridia was a small settlement beyond the mountains, through a trek of swampland. It had no monarch of its own, and instead relied on deliveries from Marlowe to survive. Not only were resources shared with the villages, but peasants were traded to work in the mines there, Marlowe’s primary source of jewels and gold.
“Your father’s sent his best men after them, I’m certain she will be returned safely.” Their mother said in a convincing tone. “Now, I may have lost all control over the life of one daughter, I will not lose my others the same way.” Reina clasped her hands in front of her, a look of pleading on her face. “I’ve sent word to my friend Milena, requesting a temporary visit to her household.”
“Milena Leolin?” Rei asked, curious. The Leolin’s were one of the only families left who still supported the practice of lawful marriage. “I’m not sure I understand.”
Her mother cleared her throat a little, “Milena has two sons of suitable age for you.”
“Would you rather be the prize of one of your father’s tournaments? Sold off to some brute because he knows how to swing a sword?”
“I know how to swing a sword,” Rei muttered.
She was not lying. Though Rei had always been the quiet type, she’d never envisioned herself surrendering to a mundane life. Geraint had taught her combat from the day she could walk, and she’d always pictured an adventurous love story in her future, not an arrangement out of necessity.
“Think of the alternative,” Reina said slowly.
Rei looked to her sister. Nyssa had not moved from her position, and appeared to be elsewhere mentally. She was staring off into the vastness, her bottom lip quivering ever so slightly. Rei felt as if her heart had jumped up to her throat and then dropped down into her stomach. But as she stared at her younger sister, she felt the beating grow slower and slower as she became calm.