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Twenty-eight years earlier…

The fox jumped down from the low stone wall behind the compound, peering around to make sure nobody saw him. The grounds were kept neat and tidy to impress visitors, with short green grass and only a few shrubs, so he darted quickly across the lawn and hid behind a rain barrel that stood near a door. He paused to sniff the air as the smell of something cooking wafted from the kitchen.

The door suddenly swung open with a crash, bouncing off the side of the barrel. A young girl came out with a wooden bucket and tentatively dipped it in the water. The fox crouched down, avoiding her sight.

“Milly! What have I told you about the door?” The voice came from inside the building.

The girl yelled back, “Sorry, Sister Kana!”

“Hurry up with that water!”

“There are dead bugs in it!”

An older woman joined the girl. “You’re just washing the mud room, girl. It’s not like you have to drink it. Give me that.” The woman took the bucket and plunged it into the water to fill it, then handed it back to the girl. “Now, go help Celia with the cleaning before the Prince’s party gets here. The older girls are too busy getting ready. Don’t run and get water all over the place!”

The fox followed the two into the building, making it inside before the door swung closed on his bushy red tail. No other people were around, so he began exploring, following his nose and ears. He avoided the front of the building, where most of the noise was coming from, and paused regretfully at the entrance to the kitchen before continuing on his way.

As he reached a new wing of the building, he was almost taken by surprise when two older girls turned the corner.

“I don’t know why we have to get ready. Everybody knows the Prince is going to pick Moira.”

“Not necessarily,” the second girl replied. “Maybe he doesn’t like blondes.”

The first girl, a blonde, glowered back at her at they entered another room and shut the door behind them.

The fox continued down the new corridor until he reached a room at the far end. Nudging the door open, he sneaked in. There was another girl inside, facing away from the door while she stared at herself in a mirror. She wore a nightgown, and was counting out the strokes as she brushed her blonde hair.

The fox crept over to a small writing desk that stood against one wall. The chair had been pushed over to the side, and held a clean white dress in a neatly folded pile on the seat. He leaned his body against the legs of the chair to push it up against the side of the desk, stopping every so often to make sure the girl hadn’t heard him. When he had it where he wanted it, he leapt up onto the chair and then to the desk, which held a half-finished letter, a quill pen, and a bottle of ink that hadn’t been stoppered.

Sniffing the ink, he nudged the bottle with his nose until it reached the side of the desk and fell off. It landed on the dress with a quiet whuff, the black ink pouring out. The fox jumped down from the desk and hid under the bed just as a woman entered the room.

“Moira! What did you do to your presentation dress?”

“What? Sister Bela—” The girl turned to her dress, shrieking when she saw the puddle of ink. “No. No! I can clean it!” She grabbed the dress to scrub at the stain with the nightgown she wore, knocking the bottle of ink to the floor in the process.

“You’re just making it worse,” the woman said. “Why didn’t you leave it hanging up?”

Moira started crying as she gave up trying to clean it. “What do I do now?”

“I’ll help you start a new one tonight, but for now, you should stay here. I need to gather the other girls for the Presentation. The Prince’s carriage has arrived.”

“Please, Bela! Please let me go!”

“How? We’re beginning the ceremony now. Even if we managed to find a spare presentation dress lying around somewhere, there wouldn’t be time to clean it and alter it to fit you.”

“I can wear a different dress!” the girl said desperately. “A regular one!”

The fox tensed as the woman appeared to waver.

Finally, Bela sighed and said, “No, Moira. I’m sorry. We held you back from other Presentations just so you could be here today, and now you’ll miss this one due to your own carelessness. We have standards to maintain, and I can’t break the rules for you.”

The girl collapsed onto her bed, unable to form a reply.

“Please stay in your room until the ceremony’s over,” Bela said. “Don’t disrupt things for the other girls.”

As the woman left the room, the fox followed her.

#

What have you done, Fox? You’re not allowed to interfere!

Fox had been expecting to hear that voice in his head, though maybe not this soon.

I am not one of you, Lady. I don’t play your games.

It is not a game, and your tricks have gone too far this time! Everything I’ve been working for is lost. You’ve ruined it!

Have I, Lady? Did you really want the life for her that she would have faced with the Prince?

Her role is necessary. There was a pause. Was necessary. What will we do now?

Sometimes you must lose the battle to win the war.

What? What does that mean? Fox, speak to me! Tell me what you mean!

But Fox had stopped listening. That wonderful smell from the kitchen had drifted past again, and he decided to go see what it was.

#

Five days later, a carriage came to a halt in front of the compound.

Lord Ansel, Baron of House Tarwen, turned to his wife. “Are you certain you wish to do this?” He and Isabel had only been married for six months, and seeking out a concubine this early seemed like a bad omen. While concubines provided more than just companionship, their training in languages and etiquette was more in demand among the nobles and rich merchants in the city. Country lords had less need for those skills.

“Yes, love,” Isabel said. “You are gone much of the day, and Lady Tammerly is only interested in discussing the current crop of potatoes. My only friends on your estate are Magda and Cook, and they’re not prone to discussing art or literature.”

Ansel nodded. The Tarwen lands were in a remote valley deep in the Black Crow Mountains, on the eastern edge of the kingdom. He’d first met Isabel in the capital, Telfort, back when he’d been sent to the city during the winters to represent the family. He’d been forced to stop wooing her three years earlier when his father had passed away. Ansel had returned home to take over, but he’d hoped to return to ask for her hand. When he hadn’t had a chance to make the long trip in the next two years, he’d sent letters to both Isabel and her father. To his relief, he’d discovered that Isabel hadn’t yet married, and they were willing to listen to his suit. While he’d mentioned to Isabel how remote his family’s lands were back when they’d first met, he knew that experiencing it for herself had come as a shock. She’d held up well, though, and he was willing to do this if she wanted it.

He helped his wife from the carriage and turned to face the woman who’d come out of the main building to greet them.

“Good afternoon, my lord. I am Sister Bela. Welcome to the Highfell chapter house of the Three Orders. How may I help you?” Highfell was the westernmost location of the Three Orders, and was the only chapter house that fell within the kingdom’s borders. The Orders were more common on the eastern half of the continent. While the kingdom had its own organizations for training concubines, the Three Orders had a better reputation. Plus, Highfell was the nearest option to Ansel’s own lands.

He introduced himself and his wife, then explained their situation. He didn’t think the remoteness of his lands would be a problem, since Highfell was similarly remote, but he mentioned it anyway. He finished with, “And so, we would like someone to keep Isabel company.”

Sister Bela smiled. “We’re happy to do a full Presentation ceremony if you’d like, but if you don’t mind me saying so, I think I know just the girl.”

 

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