She wove in flowers and baby’s breath into the braid in my hair as I let the tears fall on the plush rug.
“It’s like braiding roses. Beautiful if you can make it work, but watch out for the thorns.”
I let out a sound somewhere between a snort and a sniffle that only makes me wish for a handkerchief. “Couldn’t you just cut off the thorns?”
She’s quiet for a moment as she braids, the feeling of her fingers in my hair soothing despite the terror wrapping like vines around my lungs. When she speaks it’s quiet and I can barely hear, but her reply is without any heart. “It’s a metaphor. You don’t remove the thorns from metaphors.”
We have run out of options.
“Just mind your words, do as he says, keep yourself sparse until you know what kind of man he is. That’s what I did with your father. Maybe you’ll find yourself lucky.” We both know from the reports from the guards and nobles we’d bribed that this was unlikely, but she holds out hope. Has to for her own sake. I won’t disavow her of the belief, even when it turns out to be false hope.
He is the worst sort of person, the man I am to marry. Quick-tempered, drunken tirades, a womanizer. A terrible ruler who is likely to run his kingdom into the ground.
But a treaty is a treaty, and my father won’t be moved.
“You’ll write,” she says with finality as she lets the braid drop. “And I will visit, of course.”
“Of course,” I repeat with no vehemence. I stand from the bed and wipe the wrinkles from my dress.
A lamb to slaughter has never looked so beautiful.
He hasn’t revealed his face.
The fact shouldn’t have bothered me, but it does. I had a story I’d run a thousand times in my head, that as they opened the towering doors to the cavernous hall with its cold draft and monstrous tapestries that at the end of that aisle I’d see the face of the man I was to marry, and it would be like a doorway to the life I wanted to live would be locked away forever. A key sliding into a lock and melted away that I could never retrieve.
But even that was forbidden to me. It would be another few hours it seemed, possibly after the wedding itself, when I would see his face, as he wears armor of all things. The tradition isn’t unheard of, but certainly a helmet isn’t necessary.
If the wedding guests are surprised they don’t show it, but then again, who would show surprise at the chosen wedding regalia of a king?
My father walks me down the aisle, me with an unnecessarily long train of blood-red velvet behind me that sweeps up the petals the flower girl has dropped before us. It all seems such a cruel farce that I want to vomit.
When we reached the end, at the moment when he is to give me away, I plead at him with my eyes. He looks back at me with no expression, but pushes away my arm with a strong grip, towards the arms of my suitor. There is no missing his intentions.
The rest of the ceremony passes by at a crawl, each word tiny cuts onto my shivering skin, and I feel a cold sweat along my neck. I want to scream, to choke on my own spit, to run. But I am surrounded by guards that I am sure my father will have no trouble using against me.
“I pronounce you wed. You may kiss your bride, my king.” I can feel the color drain from my lips, but I turn to my husband.
“If it is no offense to the church, I will save that for a more private affair,” my husband says, and I choke back relief, as brief as it will be. Instead, I am lifted by my knees until I am being held in a bridal pose. I squirm and instinctively move my arms to grab at his shoulders, hating myself for the action but wary of falling.
There are chuckles, and then cheering, but then my husband raises his voice to speak over the crowd.
“I thank you all for coming. As it were, my wife does not look well. I fear the excitement has gotten to her. I would bring her outside so she may breathe before the festivities. Please, welcome yourselves to the dining hall, and we will join you soon.”
The terror is like ice in my veins. We are alone, and I’ve never known fear such as this. “Please,” I start, “let me down.”
We are in a side corridor, far from the wedding party. I know not why we have wandered off so far, but It can’t be for any reason I’d be happy to hear. Part of me wants to at least know my torture before I am to feel it.
“It’s me, Cael! I’m breaking you out of here!” My husband—or is it?—lets me down on my feet, and I turn to the stranger. They remove their helmet with difficulty, and I gasp as their face is revealed.
“Mira?!” She is one of the squires, a young woman who I often snuck out to train with as a child, before my father had caught wind of it. We yet spoke though, through coded messages and late-night walks. “If you’re found you’ll be hanged!”
She smiles wide, showing her missing front tooth where one of the knights had knocked it out after she’d scratched his sword polishing it when she was younger. “No one’s going to find out, least not until it’s too late, because we’re making a run for it. I got two horses all ready to go, come on!”
She grabs my arm, and I don’t struggle as we run through corridors, sneaking past guards all the way to the stables where indeed there are two horses saddled and ready to ride.
It’s then that we hear the alarm.
“What’s that?” I ask, sudden suspicion clouding my mind.
Mira scrunches up her nose, baring her teeth and sticking her tongue through where her tooth is missing in amusement. “Probably found the king.”
“What do you mean found the king?”
Mira pushes me up to the saddle and pats my leg. “Well, I had to get to the wedding somehow. I snuck into his quarters and trussed him up like the pig he is. Guess they got impatient and found him.”
I can’t repress the laugher that follows, as Mira mounts her own horse.
When we’re both mounted and ready to go, the alarm of the guard ringing in my ears, I turn to her before chaos falls.
“What if they find us? Where are we going.”
She pats her horse on the neck, and this time there’s no teeth in her smile, only a soft blush and a hint of embarrassment.
“We’re going to Leoria. They won’t mind we’re married there. And you’re royalty. They’ll protect us.”
I raise an eyebrow at her, returning her smile.
“We’re married, are we? We didn’t kiss on it.”
She turns away, her face turning redder by the moment, and I let out a loud, throaty laugh before I kick my horse into a canter, then a gallop, leaving behind the only home I’ve ever known for the only home I’ll ever love.
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