Her stepmother had suggested to her father in the past that Emma can be sold to a merchant as a slave to earn money. Working as a slave in a merchant's house was acceptable in return for help, but to be thrown in the den of vampires who thrived on the bloods of the Loreans was something else.
Emma squeezed her eyes shut against a strong rush of tears. With shaky hands she opened the door of the house and entered ready to protest.
Surprised, her parents whipped their heads towards her. "Emma!" her mother snapped, a pale blush forming on her cheeks out of excitement or guilt. "Where have you been? Angus was asking about you in his delirious state."
The surge to protest in Emma crumpled instantly.
Avice came to her, her face full of sadness. Holding her hands, she cried, "Your brother is battling with life and death Emma. The healer said that he is in his last stages and he needs the cure very soon or…"
Emma glanced at her father. He narrowed his eyes, then turned away to walk to the room where Angus was probably sleeping. A gaping hole formed in her heart, seeing how apathetic he had turned towards her in a span of a few months.
"You must be hungry, Emma. Go change your clothes and come back to the kitchen. They are stained with grass," Avice's strained voice reached her ears.
"Yes, mother," she murmured, knowing fully well that Avice put up the show of love and care only when she needed something from Emma.
In the bathroom, emotions swirled in her chest and she resisted the familiar rush of tears. Her eighteenth birthday was just a week later and this was the gift she was getting. Blinking away the burn behind her eyes. She washed her tear-stained cheeks and with heavy steps went to the kitchen.
Avice gestured to her to join her on the table. When Emma sat down, Avice instructed, "Don't go out anywhere tomorrow, okay?"
"Why mother?" Emma asked.
Avice put her spoon down. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Tomorrow you will be going to the royal palace. Someone will come to pick you up. In exchange for you, they will give us the potion that will save your brother."
"But why? I don't want to go," Emma pleaded.
Seeing her protest, Avice snapped. "How dare you resist? This is your only chance to save your brother Emma, and this is how you repay our debt?"
Emma bit her bottom lip to stop it from trembling. Ever since her mother died when she was just two-years-old, her father brought home a new mother. No one could be more callous than Avice. She gave her bare minimum care and punished her for the smallest mistakes. But now that her son was dying, she was asking to pay her debt? "You're trading me, aren't you? To save Angus's life you are sacrificing mine?"
"That's the wrong way to look at it, Emma! You are going to be very fine in the royal palace."
Emma lost her appetite. She retorted, "That's nonsense!"
Avice's face morphed into anger and she slapped her tight. "You've always been so disrespectful and ungrateful! When your mother died, I took care of you and this is how you thank me?"
Emma burst into tears. "They will kill me!"
"Stop being so dramatic!" Avice growled. "And don't think of running away. We will find you."
Holding her cheek, Emma got up. Leaving her food untouched on the plate she ran back to her room. She crashed on the bed gripping her head and curled into a ball. Tears squirmed from her eyes, threatening to drown her. She let them loose. She was torn asunder between terror and duty.
For the entire night Emma couldn't sleep well. Nightmares visited her naturally. Red eyes haunted her in the nightmares and she woke up with a start, stifling a scream, soaked in sweat.
Unable to sleep more, she visited her brother Angus. He was in deep slumber. Emma sat on the edge of his bed and ran her fingers over his feet. He was having a fever.
The day went past in a haze with her mother arranging the house for the visitors. In the evening, her mother made her wear the best gown she had. It was a full sleeve crimson gown. Its round neckline was bordered with embroidered roses. It cinched on her waist and the skirt pooled at her ankles. Her mother insisted that she should let her golden hair open. They cascaded till her hips in waves. There was no other makeup on her.
Her stepmother removed the gold chain she was wearing and made her wear it. "It is your mother's. You may keep it." It was as if she was trying to get rid of the last memories of everything associated with her mother.
Emma heard a rustle of fabric and papers. In the main room her father and a local merchant named Remus, were sitting, finalizing the deal.
It was near midnight, when Emma heard clops of hooves on the cobbled road in front of their house. Emma's heart beat wildly in her ribcage as a healthy dose of fear surged through her. She clenched her dress on the sides. Blood rushed to her head and she felt dizzy.
"Emma!" Her father called her in a sharp voice.
Avice held her hand. "Emma, you have to go. I will ask your father to come to take you out of the palace as soon as possible."
"Really?" Emma asked naively, her eyes rounding at the corners.
"We will try," Avice said dryly.
Emma's heart sank. "You won't come back, will you?" The little flicker of light in her heart snuffed like a candle against a storm. She knew her father would never come back, because her father was the head of the rebellion against vampires. And also because this deal was a secret.
"Emma!" Drogo called her again, halting the conversation. He opened the door of her room and rushed inside. "Come fast!" Emma flinched.
Her mother pushed her. "Go!" Holding the sides of her gown tightly, Emma walked out of her room with her heart thudding inside. And the moment she stepped in the main room, she froze. Her eyes flew wide open when she gazed at the man with red eyes.
He was the same man whom she had seen in the black woods. A woman was kneeling in front of him that night.
Goosebumps lifted on her arms and it had nothing to do with the cold.