“Dammit,” Raoul cursed. I could feel our small group tense in unison and I instinctively tensed along with them, straining my ears to hear what caused the alarm. “That’s Juls. Dammit, he can’t see her like this. Cover the girl.”
A school of minnows darted across my gut. Did he mean my intended?
From the far end of the hall, I heard the clattering of footfalls. Guards’ bodies pressed around me, shielding me.
I wanted to laugh. I had to bite it back because if I started, I feared I’d never stop.
You want to hide me? I thought. Do you think I care what I look like? What this prince – young king, whatever – thinks of me?
Peering between my broad-shouldered escorts, I could make out the young king’s party moving perpendicular to ours. They wore colorful, loose pants and tunic-vests. Some donned sashes around their waists, some wore metal breastplates. The brilliance and variety were unlike anything I’d seen at home and I openly gawked.
Move, Zaria, I scolded myself, fisting the folds of my wedding dress. Act, seize control, do something. Don’t let everything be on everyone else’s terms.
I tapped a guard on his shoulder. Even after all I’d been through, the act of willingly touching another male felt strange, bold. As bold as what I was about to do.
The man turned, curious. For the first time, I met his eyes.
“Let me pass,” I commanded. When he refused to budge, I raised my eyebrows, ignoring the minnows in my stomach.
I’m your young queen, I thought. Whatever that means.
I gave him my haughtiest stare and prayed some bravado, however false, worked its way into my gaze.
It did — the soldier stepped aside and I slid forward.
Singen growled, clenching his jaw, but didn’t stop me. Raoul smacked his hand over his eyes, but he didn’t protest either. Interesting. As I broke away from our small party, one of the young king’s guards noticed me and stilled. The rest quickly followed.
Gulping, I lowered the silk from my head.
My knotty hair hung in clumps down my back. Whatever face painting my mother’s maids had colored the night before had long since washed off — or worse, smeared. My wedding dress was filthy and torn, hanging limp from my body. Since I’d removed the aching shoes, I now approached barefoot, feet caked in dirt.
I’d long since lost my crown.
I was pretty sure I reeked of body odor, urine and worse… the mud staining the hem of my gown smelled suspiciously like animal dung of some kind.
Whatever lovely, ethereal bride was supposed to be presented to this young king had vanished, leaving behind a filthy, foul-smelling creature who looked as if she’d rolled around in dirt and crawled through a latrine.
I hope you don’t like what you see, I prayed. And send me away.
My heart pounded so hard against my chest that I imagined the entire hall could hear it. My head screamed with a thousand questions about this strange land and my role in it. None of this felt real; I continued on as if I dreamed it. But I kept my back ramrod straight, shoulders squared, head high. Proud, like a tree. I was built for the sea. There was no greater honor.
I had to make the right impression, despite my haggard appearance.
You only get one chance to set the tone of how you’ll be treated here.
Wherever here is, I thought.
Everyone stared as I walked alone across the hall to approach the young king. I tried not to let my greedy gaze divert to the strangeness surrounding me.
As the guards parted respectfully, I saw him.
About the same age as Kirwyn, but skinnier, less muscular. His skin was light brown, and his eyes were a deeper, richer shade. His brown hair fell straight to just below his ears, though most had been tied back in a loose goat’s tail. I supposed he could be called handsome. He wasn’t old or obese or hideous – at least, not on the outside. The young king stared at me, initially wide-eyed, then suddenly relaxed, as if remembering himself. His gaze swept the length of my soiled gown and back up to my dirt-stained face.
I was surprised he didn’t speak. I supposed he expected me to do so, having approached alone, obviously intent.
What did I want to say? I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
I’m pleased to meet you, now send me back?
No, civil. I had to wear a guise of civility. And command. I had one shot to seize it.
I licked my lips. “Prince… Jullik? I mean… young king?” I was disappointed to find my voice wasn’t as assured as I’d hoped. It came out weak, questioning. I swallowed and tried again.
“I am Zaria, the… chosen braenese.” Your chosen wife?
“We were ambushed on the way here.” Wherever here is.
“One of the men escorting me has been murdered. Tolas. He needs to be…” I faltered. Given a funeral at sea, I wanted to say. But I didn’t even know where I was, let alone what happened in this strange world, after death.
“…Put to rest,” I finished quietly, and not nearly as strongly as I wanted. But at least I had taken control of what I could while the guards cowered at my back.
When the young king didn’t reply I felt my palms sweat, but I lifted my chin again. A long moment of silence passed, during which he studied me curiously and I chewed the inside of my mouth.
Jullik flicked his gaze to someone behind me — for confirmation of what I said, I guessed. He quickly looked back at me.
Had I acted inappropriately?
Well, if I’d already broken some royal protocol I wasn’t even familiar with, I might as well keep going.
“You’re staring,” I remarked, hoping it sounded like a reprimand, even though I shifted my weight nervously. This is preposterous. I’m not marrying you, I thought. I don’t even know you.
Do you even want to marry me?
Everyone was listening, watching us. My guards to my back, his guards to his.
Perhaps it was reprimanding, because Jullik’s eyes widened slightly.
“My apologies,” he said stoically, evenly. “I’m a bit taken aback. I was told to expect someone… more…” he struggled to find the right word, “…reserved.”
“Well, I was told to expect a god,” I shot back.