Amoret strained her eyes in the dim light while finishing up her mending for the day. The chore wouldn’t have taken so long if she had proper lighting. But her dull bedroom only had a small window that hardly let in any light during the day. The right amount of candles would have made up for that, but Amoret decided to make due with the few small ones she had than to bother getting more from the manor’s strict head maid.
The fire she lit hours ago slowly dwindled to the last embers. She would have to rekindle it before going to bed. The early fall days were warm but the nights left a chill. Like mending, cleaning, and preparing her own meals, Amoret had to look after the fireplace in her room. Far from the main rooms of the manor, her room felt the worst of winter.
Not only cold, but lonely. Few visitors came to this part of the manor. There wasn’t much else in this wing besides dusty storage rooms and an old kitchen. The maids occasionally came to tend to her, likely to appease the head maid. Surely there were some that were assigned to her, even if they got away with neglecting their duties. She was the daughter of the lord of the manor, after all. Albeit a bastard one.
In her old life while her mother was alive, the two lived in their cozy cottage outside a nearby village. Her mother had cared for her in their humble abode while she was alive. Her mother Jada was a traveling apothecary who upon treating the young lord Rhineton, became pregnant with Amoret. The lord, besotted with the free-spirited healer, provided them with the small residence they called home. Her mother taught her “Ami” how to make medicines from the herbs and plants she grew in their garden. Ami remembered those days with fondness.
Plucking away at the torn stocking, an equally unpleasant memory came to her.
Sixteen year old Amoret hadn’t seen her father in years. Was she ten or eleven on his last visit? Long enough that his features were distorted and foggy in her mind. But she didn’t want to waste energy remembering her father’s face when the only face that ever loved her was gone from this world. …when the only face she wanted to commit to memory was her dead mother’s.
She certainly didn’t want the only face in front of her in the carriage to be her father’s secretary. So, eyes exhausted of tears and heart heavy with grief, Ami stared out the carriage window, leaving behind the only life she’d known for one she didn’t care to have.
Miles and miles of fields and forest rolled by, and Ami fixated on an endless fence go on and on when the carriage turned into an open gate, tall and imposing. Through the gate, a great, towering manor rose into her view. Ami was startled at the sight of her father’s estate.
The entirety of the estate must have been larger than the village she grew up in. It took them several minutes to ride up the drive, past a sprawling lawn, fountain, and pond.
Ami couldn’t take in all of the manor through the window. She counted three stories, four or more in the towers and turrets on the corners. Steep steps led to two gilded doors flanked by stained-glass windows. The manor was more gothic palace than country estate. Flying buttresses swooped over supporting columns. Elegant, grandeur, the building was a testament to the glory of the Empire that built it. A historic wonder.
Ami was almost awed enough to forget who lived here. Almost.
My father lived in a place like this all this time?
Suddenly, the glorious home looked hollow, sharp, intimidating, empty.
Ami watched the manor pass by warily, and watched as the carriage passed the end of it, coming to a stop on the other side away from the main entrance. Ami knew where she was. No gilded doors opened for her. No, a side entrance would do for someone of her station.
The bespeckled man, dusty blonde hair swept away from his lined face, helped her out of the carriage, and brought her past curious staff going about their business, twisting through corridors that went from plain to more ornate in style, until Ami couldn’t imagine how much just one mirror or painting must cost, until he brought her to a door.
After a knock and an announcement of her arrival, Ami was ushered into an office, rich in dark decor, with a wall of windows overlooking the drive she’d just come up.
The light blinded her against the figure in the office momentarily. But when he spoke, she knew the voice.
“I’d nearly forgotten you were arriving today.”
Her father couldn’t be bothered to leave his office to greet his daughter on the day she came to live with him.
What a contrast from her childhood. Of course life was different now. Her father, once generous and amicable, grew cold and distant as his relationship with his mistress entered a stinging winter. Since Amoret moved to the manor after her mother’s death, she hadn’t been treated with any warmth. Though neglected, she was left to do as she pleased. So she spent her days finishing her chores or cultivating herbs and flowers outdoors.
She used to garden at her mother’s side. The monotonous labor was cathartic. When she arrived at the manor and was soon after banished to the loneliest tower of the furthest wing, she found an overgrown garden in a far corner of the estate that had been abandoned over the years. There were other gardens and greenhouses being cared for, so no one minded her as she took over this part of the grounds for her own.
And it came to pass that no one minded her at all in any way. Where at first she’d been given her meals routinely, Ami began preparing her own food to her own taste from the garden’s produce. Slowly the maids withdrew their help, and Ami was left to handle the chores by herself.
She’d even taken to organizing the wing on her own, exploring the storage rooms, finding use in the abandoned items and pouring over the books no one was looking for. Books about husbandry, cultivating crops, old apothecary directories, the power of water and wind in weaving and grinding.
These tomes of knowledge were valuable to her but they weren’t the only things of worth she found. Dated but expensive jewelry. Old work uniforms tossed aside. Ladies dresses that were out of style, but could be tailored to fit Ami. Treasures that had no worth but to Ami.
As it was now, Amoret wanted for nothing. She put no burden on the manor or her father, neither did she contribute anything. Ami often wondered what was even the point of being brought here, when she rarely was summoned in front of her father or saw the rest of the family.
That evening, Ami found out how she would be used.
Just as Ami made ready for bed, there was an unexpected knock on her door. Startled, Ami called out, “Yes?”
“The lord wishes to speak to Miss Amoret in his study.” The messenger didn’t bother entering the room. Ami frowned. What on earth could Father want with me? She opened her door to the dark corridor. It was one of the maids who did tasks once in a while in this wing of the manor. A shadow of displeasure was etched on her face as she silently led Ami by lamp down the chill stairs.
Mr. Martins, her father’s secretary, was waiting to escort her once they exited the empty tower. He eyed her with the same arrogance he did years ago when he started paying visits to her mother's cottage in place of her father. Seeing him again brought a wave of emotion rooted in rejection. Martins only came for her for her father’s business. Ami went through the possible reasons her father summoned her. Is someone in the family sick? Will I be invited to a family dinner?
Ami could count on one hand the interactions she’d had with her father’s family since she moved to the manor a few years ago. When she first arrived, her father brought her before his wife and their daughters and simply explained, “This is Amoret. She will be living here from now on.”
The lady stiffly nodded and ignored her husband’s bastard child from that day forward. Amoret knew to stay out of her way. Her younger half-sisters took an interest in her for a while, but that soon faded. Years before her mother died, her father had already lost interest in his first child, and had only brought his sixteen year old daughter in out of a sense of duty. That was four years ago. Ami doubted sometimes whether the family even remembered she was there.
After winding through halls as cold as her companion’s demeanor that grew warmer and more obviously lived in as they neared the family’s quarters, Amoret arrived at her father’s office with the secretary. Ami shivered remembering the first time she entered this room. Martins announced her and left the two of them alone.
Her father looked up from his mahogany desk. He looked older than she remembered, but his graying hair only enhanced his good looks. Even this late at night, he sat upright in a crisp uniform hard at work, ever the military man. Ami couldn’t help but remember her father from her childhood. A smiling man with brunette curls who brought gifts and sweets for Ami and swept her mother into kisses. Once he married and had a legitimate child, those visits happened less and less, until years went by before her mother left this world altogether.
Ami always found it hard to forgive the man who never went to her mother’s side before she passed on.
How many months had gone by since she’d seen her father’s face? Now her father barely had a moment to spare her. He gestured to the chair across from him. “Sit down, Amoret.” And that was how he greeted her after so long.
Once she resigned herself to the chair, he looked her over. Ami wondered what he thought of her threadbare dress and old shoes.
“You are well?” He asked.
She stiffly replied, “Yes, Father. You are not? I can’t imagine you’d ask for me otherwise.”
Lord Rhineton furrowed his eyebrows, but used to his daughter’s tongue he got to the point.
“You’ve heard of the conflict against the heathens on our borders?” Ami, wary, affirmed she did. The Empire was at war against the southern kingdom of Makan, a war her father, an imperial general, commanded.
He continued, “It is my duty to supply the troops and command them on the southwestern front. Everyone must do their part in this family to support the Imperial Army. Including you.” Ami felt her heart sink.
Her father went on. “Next week you will have your coming of age ceremony as the daughter of Lord Rhineton. You will be legitimized as a member of this family. By the end of the month you will be married to Captain Tom Everick who shall lead the troops on the battlefield.”
Ami trembled in frustration. After neglecting her for years before and after living in his own home he decides to sell her off under his name for military gain. She steadied her gaze on her father. “And if I refuse?”
Lord Rhineton frowned. Although her tongue was sharp, his daughter had never disobeyed him before. “I assure you that you have no choice in the matter, daughter. Once you have officially entered society as my child, you will be engaged and soon married to Captain Everick. This is what it means to be a child of this house. It is your duty by blood.”
Ami wondered if he saw the irony of calling her a child of this house when she’d never been recognized as his own flesh and blood while she lived under his roof. “What about Giselle? She’s already the legitimate child of the manor.” But Ami suspected she already knew the answer.
“Your sister is too young to marry,” he evaded the truth.
“She had her coming of age ceremony this spring.” Ami shot back. That was the last time Ami had seen the Lord’s family. Her lovely younger sister by two years being lavished with adoration by her friends and the young men of society. Ami made a short appearance, although she didn’t think she was noticed by her family or anyone else for that matter. She watched her father smile proudly down at his legitimate daughter as he presented her of age for the first time in society. Ami hadn’t stayed much longer after that.
Her father glared in irritation. “You are the eldest daughter. It’s only right that you be married before your sister.”
Ami wasn’t satisfied. “Why do I have to be married to that man? Who is he?”
Her father sighed. “Captain Everick is a talented man who led his troops in the Belland skirmish last year. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a noble title, so he is unqualified to be an officer unless he has a connection to a noble house.”
Ami fumed. The Empire’s military rank was based on nobility. Commoners couldn’t rise in rank unless they were adopted or married into a noble house. So he doesn’t want to marry Giselle off to a commoner, no matter how decorated he may become.
Something didn’t sit right. “If he isn’t a nobleman, how did he lead troops against Belland?” Belland was once an independent territory in the northwest. After years of petty conflict, it was finally annexed by the Empire last year.
Her father paused before answering. “He fought for Belland before its surrender.”
Ah. So not only is he a commoner, he’s a foreigner. A war prisoner at that. No wonder her father didn’t want his heir to marry him.
Ami coldly glared at the man who finally revealed his intentions for bringing her into his home. To be a tool to the Rhineton name.
“I have no intention of marrying a man I’ve never met.”
“Don’t be stubborn, Amoret! You won’t even have to tolerate him for long. As soon as he is joined to our family in marriage, he will be sent out to the frontlines. Then you can live as you like again.”
Ami supposed that was meant to be a tempting offer. And although she could barely stomach her father’s intentions, she realized that her marriage circumstances could be much worse. Sold off to a man twice her age, for example, or to a foreign country. At least this way she could remain at her father’s manor after the wedding-though that was hardly appealing in its own right.
Ami sat in silence, but knew her father expected an answer now. Not so much an answer, but her assent. After all, what choice did she have besides refusing him and risking his wrath? As unpleasant as it was, she had gotten quite used to her life in her lonely tower. At least it was some sort of home.
She made up her mind. “Fine. Do as you will, Father.” He nodded, satisfied.
“I’ll finish the arrangements. Make preparations for your coming of age ceremony and the wedding. I will send someone with the details later.”
Numb, Ami nodded curtly. “Then, if nothing else, Father…” she said as she rose to leave.
“You are dismissed.” Ami was about to open the door when he added, “You will fulfill your marriage duty on your wedding night so there is no room to question the validity of your marriage. Remember that.”
Not ignorant to his meaning, Ami felt a chill run down her spine as she left her father’s office.