38. Presentation

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When the day dawned that I was to be presented, Mana woke me early. She had heated water in the trough again and I was able to wash my long hair in the time before the rest of the tribe rose. Then I was ushered back into her house where I sat in front of her and allowed her to to twist and shape the wet strands into a thick, heavy plait. Beside her, my mute ward helped thread little white flowers in it. Just as it had been on my birthday over two months ago.

As there were no dresses more fitting than my desert gown, that is what we chose for my presentation. While I was dressing, Little Rabbit often ran her fingertips over the fabric, admiring the brilliancy of the green. To my great relief, she did not seem disappointed when I told her that she would have a dress very much like it once we reached Valhoal.

At last, my father knocked on the doorway to the house and escorted me out into the village. Everyone was gathered together, each looking on us with unwavering gazes. My stomach knotted as my father raised his voice and proclaimed, "I introduce you to my daughter, the woman Tallie."

Ryin let loose with a loud cheer that caused me to grin. Then others joined in with cheers and laughter of their own. The celebration was officially underway.

Many times I had been warned not to linger too near my father or brother. Men would approach them easier if I was not near. Which did not prove to be difficult as I was asked to join the women in singing many of the courting songs. Then I danced often with Little Rabbit and the other unmarried women. More than once, I caught a glimpse of Mana accepting praise of me in my mother's stead. Had I not already had a celebration at home, it might have stung more.

What surprised me more than anything, however, was when I turned to see Reor approach my father. They talked for a few seconds before Reor moved on. Then Cardan appeared beside him and I hoped he at least would have information to pass onto me later. According to my mother, it was a father's prerogative to share who all spoke for a woman. Chances were, my father would not give me names, and would instead tell me whether or not he thought them worthy.

When the sun began to sink, the celebration ended. Finally. After watching two others approach my father, I was eager to question him or Ryin. Right as we were heading back to Mana's for dinner, Cardan caught Little Rabbit up in his arms and asked for some time with her. As she had spent all day in my company without running straight to him, I allowed it.

As soon as we were within the house, I turned to my father and asked, "How many?"

"Seven."

"I only saw three!"

Ryin chuckled. "The point of the celebration is to keep you from seeing them all. It saves men face if they are rejected and the woman knows nothing of it."

"You sound like Mother," I muttered.

At that, my father's head tilted to the side. "How many approached your mother?"

I opened my mouth to answer and found that I could not say. "I do not know. I did not ask. Once Cardan arrived, suitors hardly seemed to matter."

"Then how did you know your mother rejected them all?" Mana questioned.

"Because she told me that she was going to," I said with a smirk. "She thinks I should have time to know the world and myself before I bind myself in marriage."

"Then why agree to this?"

"Because I never thought I would be spoken for. I thought Ryin and Cardan would have scared off everyone else by now," I replied with a grin for my brother.

His smile was half-hearted and his chuckle was forced. "We gave it our best shot, but even your ward seems as if she would be welcome in some families. It is your own fault. People now see the kind of mother you will be."

"That does not mean there are any willing to leave the Forest."

Father cleared his voice and said, "There is one."

My mouth fell open. "Who?"

Slowly, my father's eyes raised to mine. I knew well that determined expression he wore. I saw it in my own reflection every time I was forced to say something I wished was not true. As he prepared himself, I held my breath.

In a strangely formal voice, he said, "Cardan, Rider of Kiethe, has asked for your hand in marriage. How do you answer?"

A thousand thoughts crashed through my mind like waves against the cliff. Slowly, I released the breath I was holding, rose to my feet, and stared serenely at my father as I announced, "I am going to kill him."

Then I turned on my heel and marched out of the house.

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