The sun rose over the mountains to shine down on the village of Mahlsberg in the duchy of Praaven.
It was beautiful. If only it could feel like home.
Emmaline Weaver woke from another nightmare and sat on the edge of her cot to catch her breath. The cot was miserably uncomfortable, but she knew it was all her Aunt Ruby and Uncle Gerbald could offer.
The nightmares had become so familiar they were almost routine. She could feel the water swallowing her up, closing over her head. She heard her parents and her little brother shouting her name. They were all gone now, swept away in a late spring flood while trying to cross the river Vayruga. It had been a journey to spend the summer with her Weaver-side family and hopefully to find her a marriage prospect. It had all gone wrong.
Today was Sunday. Aunt Ruby helped her dress her best for services. Mahlsberg chapel was so large and grand she would have believed it was a cathedral. Uncle Gerbald assured her that there was one just like it in every village from here to the City of Praaven.
This interior was even more intimidating.
“The Vicar is always late,” Aunt Ruby confided. “There’s plenty of time to introduce you to everyone. We’ll start with Helga Hayter. She’s the undisputed matriarch of Mahlsberg. If she likes you, everyone will like you.”
Unspoken was, So it will be easier to find you a husband.
Helga Hayter looked her over. “So you’re Gelbert Weaver’s poor penniless orphan niece?”
Emmaline gulped and offered her best curtsy. “Yes ma’am. Emmaline Weaver.”
Helga smiled benignly. “You have lovely manners. You’ll fit in here just fine.”
A wave of greetings and introductions followed. The names flew in one ear and out the other.
There were plenty of young men, but would any of them want a girl whose dowry had washed down the river?
“Don’t look so forlorn, my dear,” Aunt Ruby told her. “You’re incredibly charming. The town loves you. We will find you someplace to go. In fact, I know a young man who is on the search who told me himself that he’s not particular about dowry. I’ll introduce you if he bothers to show up for services.”
Then she heard the door open and grinned over Emmaline’s shoulder. “Well! Speak of the Devil and he shall appear! You’re good and late, John Burrows.”
“Not as late as the vicar, apparently,” John said.
“Now, now, we know he has a busy schedule,” Ruby said. “Have you met my lovely and talented niece?”
“You know I haven’t,” John said. He stepped closer, and Emmaline could feel his gaze sizing her up. She trembled inside. Was he a good person? How could she know? Did he have kind eyes? “Tell me about yourself,” he said.
Emmaline opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She was petrified. The silence stretched until Mr. Burrows scowled at her. “Is that the best you can do? Stand there and wait for me to fall under your spell? You may have overestimated your charms, my lady.”
“You know what the poor girl has been through, Mr. Burrows,” Aunt Ruby interjected smoothly. “She’s overwhelmed, and she needs a bit of kindness.”
“I’m so sorry,” Burrows said. “I’ve had a long day, and it’s still morning. I humbly beg your pardon, my lady. I was out of line.”
“See?” Ruby said. “He apologizes so sweetly. He may be a bit short of temper, but John Burrows is good people.”
Emmaline tried to hold in her trembling. He did look like he meant it.
“I think I hear the Vicar,” Aunt Ruby said. “If your Uncle takes any longer to get here, he’ll have to explain himself to the Watcher.” She took Emmaline by the arm. “Come with me, dear child. I’ll show you our pew.”
John’s throwing red flags immediately