A storm had blown in, the raindrops pattered against the glass like an imp tapping its fingertips. The sky was black and heavy, and it was moving over the fields. Farmers were scurrying this way and that, trying to gather in the flocks before the worst hit.
Sir Maurice gazed morosely out over the village.
They didn't have much, not anymore. His fiefdom still fell under the sceptre of King George, but was of little enough importance that Sir Maurice could barely provide for the people in his domain.
The envoy from Galmar had just departed, and Sir Maurice was considering the options that had been presented.
They weren't to his liking, but when his borders needed protection, and his people were suffering after a famine, and their King was too busy tangled up in politics and war with Midas...
He turned with a tired smile. "Belle."
His daughter, unfortunately, had not been present during the discussions. While he was tangling with politics, she had been down in the village, helping then with the milling, after a fever laid low a number of the farmhands. It wasn't a elegant task, not for a lady, but she had been adamant about making herself useful. Just like her mother always had.
"They've gone already?" She hurried across the floor to him. "What did they say? Will they help?"
he guided her over to the table and waited until she sat, then set himself down beside her. "They agree that an alliance could be beneficial," he said carefully. "They use a lot of our grain and vegetables, so they're very keen to keep the trade lines open."
"Well, that's good," she said, smiling. "They have the arms we lack."
"Belle, there's a price," he said.
Her face fell. "Is it too high?" she asked.
He looked down at his hands, anywhere but her. "I think it might be," he said quietly.
One of her small hands covered his. "What is it, papa? Maybe we can figure a way out?"
He looked up at her, so bright, so eager, his perfect heir despite her diminuitive size and frailer gender. "It's you." He saw her eyebrows twitch, creasing into a frown. "The Duke of Galmar's son is in need of a noble wife. He heard..." Sir Maurice released a breath. "He heard you were the prettiest in the land, and now, he wants to claim you."
He hoped for a protest, a laugh, indignation. Anything but the thoughtful little sound she made.
"Belle, we don't need to form this allegiance," he said quickly.
She looked at him with those bright, knowing eyes. "Yes," she said, "we do. We both know that if we don't have some kind of defences in place by the turn of summer, the bandits on the South Eddings will be invading again. We would lose any supplies we had to spare, and there would be famine."
He lowered his head, knowing she was right. She knew the affairs of their lands as well as he did.
She lifted his face between her hands, her fingers soft and smelling of flour. “Papa, you know I would do anything for our village,” she said. “How bad could marriage be?”
“Will it help?” she asked. “If I marry him, will it help?”
He nodded sadly. “It would,” he said. He lifted his hand to squeeze hers. “But I don’t want you to be unhappy.”
“If our lands fell,” she said simply, “I would be unhappy. If I am to marry someone out of necessity, at least it will be keeping our lands intact. That would make me happy enough.”
“You don’t know him,” her father said.
“No,” she agreed, “but I know that if I don’t agree, then we’ll be in ruin by the time the leaves fall in winter.” She dropped her hands to squeeze his. “Papa, we need all the help we can get.” She tried to smile, so brave, just like her mother. “He may even be a good man.”
“You should at least meet him.”
She shook her head at once. “If I did, I might be too afraid to agree,” she said. “Send word and tell them I accept.” He opened his mouth to protest. “Papa, if they don’t want money or extra supplies, I’m a price we can afford.” She squeezed his hands again. “But tell him I want at least two years, to ensure I am fully mature to be a good wife.” Her eyes twinkled. “We might be able to find someone better by then.”
He couldn’t help smiling at her optimism. “Better than a Duke’s heir?”
She laughed, throwing her arms around his neck. “I have high aspirations, papa,” she said. “Who knows? I may even end up with the most powerful man in the world if I bide my time.”
He hugged her, grateful for the hundredth time that he was blessed with so bright and determined a child. “We can but hope.”