UNCLE WILLIAM HAD returned over an hour ago, yet he hadn't summoned her.
Sage sat at her desk in the schoolroom, trying not to fidget. Jonathan always fidgeted through her lessons, whether from boredom or resentment that she — a girl only a few years older — was his teacher. She didn't care, but she wouldn't give him a reason to sneer at her. Right now his head was bent over a map of Demora he was labeling. He only put in effort when his siblings had similar work that could be compared to his. Sage had discovered that early on and leveraged it against his contempt.
She clenched her fist to keep from tapping her fingers, while her eyes darted to the window. Servants and laborers hustled about the courtyard, beating dust from rugs and building up the hay stores for the coming winter. Their movements coupled with the steady creak of wagons loaded with grain echoing from the road, creating a rhythm that normally soothed her, but not today. Lord Broadmoor had set out that morning for Garland Hill on errands unknown. When his horse trotted through the manor house gate in the early afternoon, her uncle tossed the reins to the hostler while casting a smug look at the schoolroom window.
That was when she knew the trip had been about her.
He'd been gone long enough to have spent only an hour in town, which was somewhat flattering. Someone had agreed to take her as an apprentice — the herb shop or the candle maker or weaver maybe. She'd sweep floors for the blacksmith if she had to. And she could keep her earnings. Most girls who worked had to support a convent orphanage or family, but the Broadmoors didn't need the money, and Sage more than earned her keep as a tutor.
She glanced to the wide oak table where Aster focused on her own map, eyes narrowed in concentration as her plump fingers awkwardly gripped the coloring stick. Yellow for Crescera, the breadbasket of Demora, where Sage had lived her whole life within a fifty-mile radius. As the five-year-old exchanged her yellow stick for a green one, Sage tried to calculate how much she would need to save before she could consider leaving, but where would she go?
She smiled as her gaze drifted to the map hanging on the opposite wall. Mountains that touched the clouds. Oceans that never ended. Cities that buzzed like beehives.
Uncle William wanted her off his hands as much as Sage wanted to leave.
So why hadn't he called her yet?
She was done waiting. Sage sat forward in her chair and sifted through the papers stacked before her. So much paper, it was a waste, but it was a status symbol with which Uncle William could afford to supply his children. Sage could rarely bring herself to throw any away, even after four years of living here. From a stack of books, she pulled out a dry volume of history she hadn't looked at in over a week. She stood, tucking the book under her arm. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
The three older children glanced up and went back to their work without comment, but Aster's dark-blue eyes followed her every movement. Sage tried to ignore the knot of guilt forming in her stomach. Taking an apprenticeship meant leaving her favorite cousin behind, but Aster didn't need Sage's mothering anymore. Aunt Braelaura loved the girl as if she were her own now.
Sage hurried out of the room, closing the door behind her. At the library she paused to wipe her hands over the hairs that had escaped her coiled braid and willed them to stay flat for the next fifteen minutes. Then she squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. In her eagerness she knocked harder than she intended, and the sharp noise made her cringe.
She pushed the heavy door open and took two steps inside before sinking into a curtsy. "Pardon the disturbance, Uncle, but I needed to return this" — she held up the book, and suddenly her reason seemed inadequate — "and fetch another for, um, lessons."
Uncle William looked up from behind a half-dozen parchments scattered on his desk. A gleaming sword hung from the leather belt looped on the back of his chair. Ridiculous, that. He wore it like he was some protector of the realm; all it really meant was he'd made the two-month round trip to the capital city of Tennegol and sworn fealty before the king's court. She doubted he'd ever encountered anything more threatening than an aggressive beggar, though his expanding girth certainly threatened the belt. Sage ground her teeth and stayed locked in her low position until he acknowledged her. He liked to take his time, as if she needed to be reminded who ruled her life.
"Yes, come in," he said, sounding pleased. His hair was still windblown from his ride, and he'd not changed from his dusty riding jacket, meaning whatever was happening was happening fast. She straightened and tried not to look at him expectantly.
He set the quill down and gestured to her. "Come here, please, Sage."
This was it. She nearly ran across the room. Sage halted at his desk as he folded one of the papers. A glance told her they were personal letters, which struck her as odd. Was he that glad to see her leave that he was telling his friends? And why would he tell everyone else before her? "Yes, Uncle?" "You were sixteen last spring. It's time we settled your future."
Sage clutched her book and contained her response to an enthusiastic nod.
He stroked his blackened mustache and cleared his throat.
"Therefore, I have arranged your evaluation with Darnessa Rodelle —"
"What?" Matchmaking was the only profession she hadn't considered, the only one she absolutely hated. "I don't want to be —"
She broke off, abruptly realizing what he meant. The book tumbled from her hands and landed open on the floor.
"I'm to be matched?"
Uncle William nodded, obviously pleased. "Yes, Mistress Rodelle is focusing on the Concordium next summer, but I explained we fully expect it to take years to find someone willing to marry you."
Even in the fog of denial, the insult hit her like a physical blow, stealing her breath.
He waved an ink-stained hand at the letters before him. "I'm already writing to young men of my acquaintance, inviting them for visits. With any luck, some will admire you enough to inquire with Mistress Rodelle. It's her decision, but there's no harm in helping her along."
She fumbled for words. The region's high matchmaker took only noble candidates, or rich ones, or extraordinary ones. Sage was none of those. "But why would she accept me?"
"Because you are under my care." Uncle William folded his hands on the desk with a smile. "So we're able to make something good come of your situation after all."
Spirit above, he expected her to be grateful. Grateful to be married off to a man she would barely know. Grateful her self-matched parents were not alive to object.
"Mistress Rodelle has a far enough reach she can find someone with no objections to your ... previous upbringing."
Sage's head snapped up. What, exactly, was wrong with her life before? It was certainly happier.
"It's quite an honor," he continued, "especially considering how busy she is now, but I convinced her your scholarly qualities elevate you above your birth."
Her birth. He said it like it was shameful to be born a commoner. Like he hadn't married a commoner himself. Like it was wrong to have parents who chose each other.
Like he hadn't made a public mockery of his own marriage vows.
She sneered down at him. "Yes, it will be an honor to have a husband as faithful as you."
His posture went rigid. The patronizing expression twisted away, leaving behind something much uglier. She was glad — it gave her the strength to fight back. His voice shook with barely contained fury. "You dare ..."
"Or is faithfulness only expected of a nobleman's wife?" she said. Oh, his rage was good. It fed hers like wind on a wildfire.
"I will not be lectured by a child —"
"No, you prefer to lecture others with your example." She jabbed a finger at the folded letters between them. "I'm sure your friends know where to come for lessons."
That brought him to his feet, bellowing, "You will remember your place, Sage Fowler!"
"I know my place!" she shouted back. "It is impossible to forget in this house!" Months of holding back drove her forward. He'd dangled the possibility of letting her leave, allowing her a life outside his guardianship, only to drop her straight into an arranged marriage. She balled her fists and leaned toward him over the desk. He'd never struck her, not once in the years she'd challenged him, but she'd also never pushed him so far, so fast.
When Uncle William finally spoke, it was through clenched teeth. "You dishonor me, Niece. You dishonor the duty you owe me. Your parents would be ashamed."
She doubted that. Not when they had endured so much to make their own choice. Sage dug her fingernails into her palms. "I. Will. Not. Go."
His voice was cold to counter her heat. "You will. And you will make a good impression." He eased back down with that regal, condescending air she hated and picked up the quill. Only his white knuckles belied his calm exterior. He flicked his other hand in casual dismissal. "You may go. Your aunt will see to the preparations."
He always did that. Always brushed her aside. Sage wanted to make him pay attention, wanted to leap across the desk, swinging at him with closed fists like he was a sandbag out in the barn. But that behavior Father would have been ashamed of.
Without curtsying, Sage turned away and stomped out the door. As soon as she reached the passage, she began running, shoving through a throng of people carrying trunks and baskets, not caring who they were or why they'd suddenly appeared in the manor house.
The only question in her mind was how far away she could get by sunset.
SAGE SLAMMED THE bedroom door with a satisfying bang and walked across to the tall wardrobe in the corner. She flung the cabinet open and dug around for the satchel in the back. Her fingers found the rough canvas in the dark, recognizing it instantly despite not having used it in years, and she pulled it out and inspected it. The straps were still strong; no mice had chewed any holes she could find.
It still smelled like him. Like the tallow and pine pitch salve Father made for cuts and scrapes. He used it both on her and the birds he trained. She squeezed her eyes shut. Father would've stopped this. No, he never would have let it start. But Father was dead.
Father was dead, trapping her in her fate he'd always promised to shield her from.
The door opened, startling her, but it was only Aunt Braelaura, come to smooth things over as she always did. Well, it wouldn't work this time. Sage stuffed clothes into the bag, starting with the breeches she wore on rambles in the woods. "I'm leaving," she snapped over her shoulder.
"So I gathered," her aunt replied. "I told William you wouldn't take it well."
Sage turned on her. "You knew? Why didn't you say anything?"
Braelaura's eyes crinkled a little in amusement. "Honestly, I didn't think he'd succeed. I saw no reason to upset you over something so unlikely."
Even her aunt didn't think she was marriage material. Sage didn't want to be matched, but it was still insulting. She went back to her packing.
"Where will you go?"
"Do you expect it to go better than last time?"
Of course she'd bring that up. Sage furiously jammed extra socks into the bag. The nights were getting cold; she'd need them. "That was years ago. I can take care of myself now."
"I'm sure you can." So calm. So reasonable. "What do you intend to do for food?"
In response, Sage picked up the sling draped over a stack of books, wrapped it up dramatically, and stuffed it in the pocket of her skirt. Ugh. She'd have to change before she left.
Braelaura raised her eyebrows. "Squirrels. Delicious." She paused. "Available all winter."
"I'll find work."
"And if you don't?"
"Then I'll travel until I do."
She must have sounded serious enough, because her aunt's tone shifted. "It's dangerous out there for a girl on her own."
Sage snorted to hide her growing unease. She'd wandered the countryside for years with her father, and she knew very well what dangers — human and animal — she could face.
"At least I won't be forced to marry someone I don't even know."
"You say that as if matchmakers don't know what they're doing."
"Mistress Rodelle certainly made the best match for you," Sage said sarcastically.
"Yes, she did," Braelaura said, unruffled.
Sage gaped at her. "You can't be serious." Everyone knew what Aster was. Her name — that of a plant — declared illegitimacy to the world. It wasn't the girl's fault where she came from, but Sage couldn't fathom why Braelaura forgave her husband.
"Marriage is not simple or easy," Braelaura said. "Even your parents knew that in the short time they had."
Perhaps not, but their love had been simple; getting married should've been easy. It shouldn't have meant being disowned by her mother's parents and shunned by half the village. But to them it had been worth it to be together.
"What exactly are you afraid of?" Braelaura asked.
"I'm not afraid of anything," Sage snapped.
"Do you really think William will give you to someone who will treat you poorly?"
No, she didn't, but Sage turned back to her packing to avoid answering. Uncle William had ridden day and night to fetch her as soon as he heard about Father's death. Then, when she ran away a few months later, he tracked her for days until he found her at the bottom of a ravine, too broken and frozen to climb out. He'd never said a word in rebuke, just lifted her up and carried her home.
A voice inside whispered that this matching was an honor, a gift. It declared she was part of the family, not just a poor relative he was forced to support. It was the best he had to offer.
It would be so much easier if she could hate him.
Sage felt her aunt's hand on her shoulder, and she stiffened. "He must have put down quite a sum to get her to take me."
"I'll not deny it." Braelaura's smile leaked into her tone. "But Mistress Rodelle wouldn't have agreed if she didn't see some potential." She brushed a dozen stray hairs away from Sage's face. "Do you think you're not ready? It's not as difficult as you think."
"The interview or being someone's wife?" Sage refused to relax.
"Both," Braelaura said. "The interview is a matter of presenting yourself. As for being a wife —"
"Father told me how babies are made." Sage flushed.
Braelaura continued as though Sage hadn't interrupted. "I've been teaching you how to run a household for years, if you haven't noticed. You did just fine last spring when I was ill. William was very pleased." Her hand lowered to rub Sage's back. "You could have a comfortable home and some little ones. Would that be so bad?"
Sage felt herself leaning into the soothing pressure. A home of her own. Away from this place. Though to be honest, it wasn't this place she hated so much as the memories.
"Mistress Rodelle will find a husband who needs someone like you," Braelaura said. "She's the best at what she does."
"Uncle William said it could take years."
"So it may," her aunt agreed. "All the more reason not to let emotions drive your actions now."
Sage set the bag down in the wardrobe, feeling defeated.
Braelaura stood on her tiptoes to kiss Sage's cheek. "I'll be there for you, every step, in place of your mother."
Since her aunt rarely mentioned Sage's mother, Sage wanted to ask questions before the subject changed, but twelve-year-old Hannah burst into the room, blond curls bouncing. Sage scowled. "Don't you ever knock?"
Hannah ignored her. "Is it true, Mother? Is Sage going to the matchmaker? The high matchmaker?"
Aunt Braelaura hooked an arm around Sage's waist as though to keep her from running away. "Yes, she is."
Sage continued glaring at her cousin. "Do you actually have anything important to say?"
Hannah gestured behind her. "The dressmaker's here."
A cold sweat broke out over Sage. Already?
Hannah turned wide blue eyes to Sage. "Will she pick you for the Concordium, do you think?"
"Ha!" came thirteen-year-old Jonathan's barking laugh from the passageway behind Hannah. He was carrying a trunk. "I'd like to see that."
Sage felt sick. When was the interview? She'd interrupted Uncle William before he'd said. Braelaura began guiding her to the door, where Hannah bounced on the balls of her feet. "She's setting up in the schoolroom."
"When am I going?" Sage managed to ask.
"Tomorrow, love," said Braelaura. "In the afternoon."
"Tomorrow? But how can I possibly have a new dress made by then?"
"Mistress Tailor will adjust something she has on hand. She'll go over with us in the morning."