They were all huddled together, hidden in a room that overlooked the courtyard. Every maiden was present to watch and mourn as their sister-mates were paired off with men.
But no one was peering through the shuttered windows. Every girl sat away in sullen silence, even the ones who envied those outside. They formed a temporary hive mind. And for just a moment in time, Ophelia felt truly connected to the world around her. And the situation they were all in. The tension, excitement, and the great unknown left each one of them wrecked.
Today was not a happy day. Today was one of great loss.
Silver spears of light flooded through the cracks and it made their gathering appear somber. They sat outside the rays. The light was bright enough to burn the eyes. Unlit, unused candles sat around, forgotten. The shadows were thick in the corners but there was no sign of him. She hadn’t felt his presence since this morning.
Ophelia sat at the back and watched her sisters. Romana, one of the girls, was fidgeting. Trealé was silently crying. Sasha paced back and forth in silence, her movements scattering motes of dust throughout the air. Most of the girls appeared closed off and solemn while they waited; she looked over at Allie.
Her friend was closest to the windows. She was the only one brave enough to look out and report upon the proceedings. Allie would peer out and quickly look away, her face continuously fluttering between emotions; pinched with worry or reserved and shut off.
No one spoke.
Ophelia felt guilty because she couldn’t keep her mind on the events at hand. The gloom was a thick haze around her and for once she was excited by the dreary atmosphere. At one time it scared her, but as her shadow came from the darkness, it now excited her. She wanted to ball up in a dark corner and pretend he was that dark corner.
Ophelia had been rolling Seraph’s name over her tongue all afternoon. She had hummed it in her mind like a lullaby. It brought a warm blush to her skin.
Where is he? Her eyes scanned the shadows for the hundredth time. He had vanished like a dream.
Allie paced back to the crack and looked out. The maidens held their breath but after a moment, her shoulders sagged and she moved away. The mood settled back into dormant anticipation.
“What’s happening out there?” A girl asked, the young one who had only been within the ward a short time. Too young to even be here. Kids don’t belong in a breeder’s prison. Ophelia rubbed her pelvis in disgust, a prickling pain bloomed at the thought.
“The crones are sprinkling petals over the walkways. One is moving to each corner of the garden with a stick of incense.” Allie answered.
“Why? Is it a ritual of some kind before the ceremony?”
“Perhaps. I can’t smell the incense from up here. Could be dragon’s blood for love and luck, lavender for virtue, maybe marigold for fertility.”
“How can you not know? Does this not happen often?” The child-maiden demanded and looked out the window herself.
“Not for two years… and not with so many girls.” Romana answered sullenly. “There’s not many of us. Only two were paired off the last time.” Romana went to the younger girl and pulled her back into the room. Ophelia’s curiosity was piqued by the conversation.
“Why so few?” She asked.
No one answered her for a heartbreaking minute.
“I heard the warring has grown worse and we can not be kept safe. There are shortages in food and in wombs,” Romana’s voice darkened. “Shortages in everything. The Warlord and his soldiers have been fighting rival tribes of men for dominion.”
“Shortages in everything…” Allie whispered.