3

Justine stood patient and silent as her handmaid, Dienna, helped her dress. Justine raised her arms as Dienna did up the lacings of her bodice, then fastened a sash around her waist and a thick strap over one shoulder with ornate buckles. Afterwards, Justine sat mechanically in the chair in front of her vanity, staring at herself without really seeing herself. Her father called her beautiful. So did the servants. But all she ever saw were shapes that didn't make sense most of the time. She was tired of looking at herself, tired of being told how she should look, tired of being told to care. The reflection before her was as meaningless as the lush fabrics and jewels she wore.

Dienna began to brush out Justine's hair, but suddenly halted.

"Oh your highness!" the girl said, tentatively touching the swollen lump on Justine's forehead. "That must have been quite a fall! Your poor head!"

Justine quickly shook her head and averted her gaze in the mirror. "It's nothing."

"Don't you worry, your highness. We'll fix that up so no one will even notice. You'll look the proper lady at dinner, yes ma'am! Don't you worry."

Justine suppressed a glare at the simple girl. She couldn't care less if she looked disheveled in Tristane's presence at dinner. But on second thought, she decided it was probably best after all if her mother didn't notice the injury. Questions would be asked; the truth would stir Tristane's wrath, and a lie would only remind her mother of how clumsy and ungraceful she was.

Dienna pinned Justine's bangs to the side to cover the welt, then finished styling the rest of her hair. When it was done, Justine did risk a glance at her reflection. Yes, she did look the perfect princess. Her mother would hopefully be pleased. As long as Justine was careful in her movements and not awkward as her mother so often accused, she might get through the meal in relative silence and peace.

Justine thanked Dienna as she stood and exited the room. She wove her way through the grand hallways of the palace, passing several guards and servants as she walked. They ignored her as she ignored them. She didn't know the names of most of the palace staff. According to her mother, it was not proper for a princess to fraternize with those of a much lower rank, unless it was to give orders, like to Rorek or Dienna. Her mother likely wouldn't even approve of the conversations Justine held with Dienna in her dressing room, if she knew about them. The rest of the staff wouldn't meet her eyes, probably because they were too frightened. Or, she thought, perhaps I'm as unimportant and invisible as I feel.

A guard stood sentry at the door to the dining hall. He was the first who acknowledged her presence, and only did so with a short nod, eyes lowered, and he pushed open the door for her.

She was met immediately by loud echoing voices, caught mid-conversation.

"...Second son? Surely you must be joking!" the Queen cried out from her place at the head of the table. "Tell me you disputed it! That is nothing short of an insult. If it was the older son, she would be queen! Revassors would rule in Rouciel and Portoro. We would rule the skies and the waters!"

Tristane grabbed a heal of bread in his fist and ripped a piece off with his teeth. He slumped in his chair, still chewing while he replied to his mother. "I'm aware of that, mother. And I'm sure the Veracas are, as well. Which is, I assume, precisely why they offered a younger son instead. One that won't inherit the throne."

Justine inched into the room. Rorek had seen her and moved from behind Tristane to pull out her chair for her. Tristane gave her a cursory glance, but made no greeting. Her mother seemed to have not seen her at all.

"Tell me you argued," the queen huffed. "You are King of Rouciel, bless the skies! There must be something you can offer them!"

Tristane shrugged and rolled his eyes. "Who cares? They'll take her, that's all I care about. I would have accepted if they offered their dog." The Queen narrowed her eyes at the comment, but an evil grin spread over Tristane's mouth and he finally turned to acknowledge Justine. "Dear sister, how kind of you to join us. You've arrived just in time. I have splendid news."

The queen turned to flash a bright smile at her daughter. "Justine, darling. Good evening. I was wondering if you were going to join us."

Justine's eyes darted between Tristane and her mother. She knew a polite greeting was expected, but she didn't trust herself to speak. Tristane's smile boasted ruthless victory and she cowered from his next words like they would bruise as well as his fists.

The queen took a sip from her wine, watching Justine out of the corner of her eye. As she put down the glass, she sighed disappointment at her daughter's lack of response. "Well, Justine, darling, as your brother said, we do have news. You are of an ago to marry now..."

"I am not!" Justine said tersely. "I've told you several times I do not wish to marry yet. I'm too young. Tristane is not even married yet! He's older than I and will be crowned king soon."

"Tristane will be married soon."

"That still remains to be seen," Tristane cut in dryly.

Their mother huffed indignantly, whipping her disapproving gaze from her daughter to her son. "You are betrothed. That Urailli princess has been promised to you. You cannot back out now. You will marry her."

"I've promised nothing until I actually see her, mother. If she's ugly, I'll find a new princess to marry. A prettier one that will bear handsome sons. We must preserve our handsome Revassor lineage, yes?"

Their mother's frown cracked despite herself at her son's charming grin. "Anyway," the queen shook her head and turned back towards Justine. "Just as your brother's, we have made arrangements for your betrothal as well."

Justine's mouth fell open, but it took her a moment to find her voice. "What?"

"The Veracas have offered the younger prince for you," Tristane said. "I think he's around your age. Whatever. The important thing is they'll take you, so I'm happy."

Tears welled in Justine's eyes. Tristane's wicked grin widened. "You didn't even ask me?" she cried. "You already made arrangements to sell me to another family--another country? And you didn't even speak to me about it?"

The queen frowned, reach a hand over the table. "Darling, I know how nervous you are about marriage. I thought if we made a good arrangement for you, you would start to get excited. The Veracas are a good family. Portoro is a rich family, the Veracas have had a long reign and have a legacy of wealth."

Justine's anger grew. Her mother knew as much about the Veracas as Justine knew, which was very little besides rumors of their riches and heritage. Tristane boasted these things as well and was proof that a great man, these things did not make.

"I wanted to have the wedding next month," Tristane cut in, eyes winking with mean merriment. "Ship you off to Portoro immediately. But the Veracas say they need more time to plan the wedding. And find a more suitable bride for their older son. They don't want the younger son marrying first, but they say you're just not good enough to be queen to the Veraca heir."

"You can't do this!" Justine suddenly shrieked, slamming a fist on the table. Glasses and silverware rattled and her mother jumped in her chair. "I don't even know this boy and I'm already sworn to marriage? I should have some say in this! I should be able to meet a man before agreeing to marry! What if I don't like him? What if..." She swallowed, her worst fear realized. "What if he doesn't like me?" What if married life is even crueler than this?

"Who would?" Tristane sneered. "That's why we got them to promise before the prince met you."

Justine sobbed and before she knew what she was doing, she grabbed what was closest to her right hand--her full water glass--and flung it across the room. It missed Tristane by a good few feet, but still splattered water in every direction, and glass exploded when it shattered against the far wall.

"Justine Revassor!" the queen gasped. "Control yourself!"

Tristane cocked an eyebrow at the mess. "Did you see that Rorek? I think she assaulted the king. You should take her to the dungeons--"

Justine shot up from her seat, shoving her chair back noisily. "You are not king!" She jabbed her finger towards her brother as she shrieked, as tears streamed down her cheeks. "You are not king yet!" Sobs cut off her words and she stumbled around her chair to bolt out of the room. She collided with the door, startling the guard outside as she spilled into the hallway. Before the door slammed shut again, she could hear Tristane's menacing laughter.

She ran blindly through the hallways, trying not to trip on her long skirt, her vision blurred from her tears. The guards watched her now as she cried and careened through the palace. She only slowed when she reached the stairs up to the turret. She slipped on the third step and fell hard on her hands, straining her injured left wrist. She bit back a cry, steadied herself, and resumed the climb. Another closed door and another guard stood at the top of the winding staircase. Though the man seemed to hesitate at the princess's distressed state, he immediately bowed in greeting and allowed her to enter. Like the other guards, she didn't know the man's name, but he was accustomed to her frequent visits to this particular room and always greeted her kindly, with perhaps a bit of sympathy.

Once inside the room, Justine made for the bed in the center, shadowed by heavy drapes. But she was first incepted by Doctor Moric.

"Princess!" His happy greeting quickly turned into a confused and concerned frown. "Bless the skies, child. Is everything alright?"

Justine sniffed and wiped away tears. "Yes," she replied dismissively. "How is he today?" She pushed passed the man towards the bed.

"As good as can be expected," Moric said. "He has had a good day. Very lucid and not too much pain."

She swallowed, then pulled back the curtains and seated herself at the edge of the bed. Her father's thin body was nearly lost in all the sheets and quilts tucked around him. His eyes, crusty with sleep, slowly opened and focussed on Justine.

"Father," she whispered. His eyes blinked and his mouth tugged into a pathetic smile. Justine's tears returned. "Oh father, did you know anything about this? Mother and Tristane have sold me to the Veracas!"

Her father's smile twitched into a frown. He opened his mouth, and sputtered on a coughing fit before he found his voice. "My little Teeny... Teeny tiny..." He coughed again. "Why is my Teeny so sad?"

Justine's sobs took hold and she collapsed onto the mattress. She crawled up beside her father, resting her head carefully against his bony shoulder, smearing tears on his nest of sheets. "You have to stop this!" she begged. "Oh father, you have to do something! Tristane has traded me to the Veracas in Portoro. I'm promised to marry the younger prince. I do not want to get married! I'm too young! I'm afraid! Father, I don't even know this boy. What if he's mean to me? What if he hates me as much as Tristane does? I can't live with that! I would..." She sat up and pointed across the room. "I would rather throw myself out the turret window than be married to a man as cruel as Tristane!"

Her father's labored breath rumbled beneath her. "Teeny..."

"Princess!" Doctor Moric's shocked outcry sounded in her ear as his hands grasped her shoulders. "You should not say such things! And to burden your father so! He is very frail!"

Justine shoved the doctor. "Leave me! I'm speaking to my father, not you!"

"But, Princess!"

Justine turned and narrowed her eyes. "Yes, I am princess and I command you to leave!" The doctor blinked furiously, his mouth working as if to protest more, but then he turned and swept out of the room. Justine turned back to her sickly father.

"You have to help me," she said softly. She hunted through fabric to find his hand and wove her fingers with his spindly ones. "You are the king. You can stop this marriage. You, not Tristane." She sniffed and her voice pitch into deeper desperation. "Or, if the betrothal can't be dissolved, I need to meet him first. Maybe I could go live with the Veracas for a year? A few months? Get to know the boy before we are to marry. Give both of us the chance to back out if we don't like each other. Something, anything! Father, please! I need your help. Please."

She frowned down at her father for what seemed like a long time. At first, he blinked and stared up at her and she wondered if he had truly heard her at all. Then he started to cough again and she waited through it, squeezing his fragile hand.

"Teeny...your mother says it is a good match..."

Justine gaped at her father. "What?"

"Your mother...was concerned...and I just wanted...my little Teeny...to be cared for after I'm gone..."

"You knew about this? You let this happen?"

Her father began to cough again and Justine gritted her teeth, growing angrier every second, angry at his pathetic state, angry at his weakness. "You are 16...still young...but old enough to marry...your mother thinks it is best...a husband will take care of you..."

"How could you?!" she sobbed. "How could you--"

Strong, metal-plated arms suddenly enveloped her and lifted her off the bed. She cried out and struggled against them, but the grip held tight, though gentle in it's force. "Let go of me!"

"Princess, come," Rorek's voice sounded in her ear. "Upsetting the king is not good for his health. And you are understandably distressed. Let us give the king some peace."

"He's my father!" Justine screamed in reply, though she, herself, wasn't sure what she meant by it. Perhaps she was arguing that she didn't want to leave her father. Or perhaps it was to portray her outrage at his betrayal.

"Please, Princess. Your father is very ill. This will do you no good. Let him rest."

Justine's body went limp in Rorek's arms as she cried. He shifted her weight to pick her up and carried her out of the room. She was only vaguely aware as the room swept by, as the guard at the door gawked at her alongside Doctor Moric, as she floated down the winding stairs. Rorek carried her to her bedroom and set her down on her bed. Dienna hovered in the corner, wanting to serve her mistress, but unsure how. Justine ignored her handmaid's presence and hugged her knees tightly to her chest, squeezing her eyes shut.

Rorek pulled Dienna outside the room to whisper to her. Rorek's voice was soft and rumbling, Dienna's responses nervous and chittering. But Justine couldn't hear their words and also didn't care. Dienna came back into a room a few minutes later with a glass of warmed milk, which she set by Justine's bed. Justine saw but didn't touch it. Dienna offered to help Justine undress, but Justine lay listlessly, averting her gaze. Eventually, Dienna put out the lights and exited the room. As she shut the door, Justine welcomed the enveloping darkness. She closed her eyes, her lashes tacky with tears, and drifted off into a restless sleep.