I have never stood so still in my life. A handmaiden kneels at my feet, tugging the hem of my wedding gown straight. Another jabs an iron pin into my hair, capturing it in braided coils on my head. I stand with my hands clamped, but they still tremble. My mother circles, unusually affectionate today. Tears keep welling in her eyes. She smiles at me, a sort of wistful, affectionate smile, like I’ve suddenly become the most precious person in the world to her. Which I know isn’t true. She’s always been partial to my brother.
“Margaret,” Mother whispers. “You look so much like a woman.”
The handmaidens scurry away to stand near the wall, and Mother puts both hands on my shoulders, turning me to the mirror I’ve been avoiding. I’m not used to seeing an entire reflection of myself. Perhaps it’s only that sight that sets my heart pounding so hard. But she speaks the truth.
The marriage braid keeps my red hair from its usual curling cascades—my prominent beauty because the rest of my face is still fat and girlish. I have brown eyes, but you can’t appreciate their intricacy until you stand close. My overdress is crocheted with pearls holding each intersection of the lace, pulling at my waist, making me look as though I have more curves than I do. I never dreamed I would be the first of my friends to marry. Certainly not to—
My throat pumps. For the second time, I choke down my breakfast. Around me, the handmaidens stiffen. One drapes the bedding around the front of my dress, another rushes for a bucket. It will not be needed. I draw in a breath. I will not cry. I will not vomit. I am not getting married today. Father will stop this. I know him. He is the head of the king’s military. He always has a plan.
I straighten, sucking in such a deep breath that it pushes against the beaded belt that squeezes my hips. If Father is going along with the prince’s commands, so must I. Prince Galephy cannot know or suspect that I will not be his bride tonight. Will father kill him and become a national hero? Will his soldiers swarm the castle and carry me away? Whatever happens, I must be calm and alert. I can’t run away again.
I can’t allow him to hurt anyone else.
“It is time, Lady Margaret.”
I don’t know who speaks, nor do I care. All I want is a hug from my mother, rations for a few days’ journey, and an extremely fast horse. I receive the hug. My mother clings to me. Her shoulders shake three times, but my face is smashed too tightly against her chest for me to see if she indeed cries.
“Just do as he says tonight,” she whispers. “He’ll tell you what to do. Relax if you can.”
I blink. I was only instructed as to what to do for the ceremony today. Does she mean at the banquet? The dance? But that is after the ceremony. Even after the prince’s coronation. I would be a queen.
I pull away, speaking quickly because the guards are at the door waiting to escort me to the assembly room. “What? What happens tonight?”
“He’ll tell you,” she whispers, then takes my hand to lead me to the guards. “Do whatever he says.”
My head feels like someone hit it, knocking the room askew before warmth fills me. Of course. Hope soars up like a falcon freed from its hood. Father does have a plan.
I squeeze her hand to let her know I understand. She squeezes it back. For perhaps the first time in my life, our thoughts have aligned.
The castle is beautiful. It is a pity it is to be inherited tonight by such a monstrous man. What fun Setta and I could have here if she does manage to find Prince Terrant and they do marry. If Prince Galephy died, Terrant would inherit the throne and Setta would be queen. How she’s going to laugh when she hears this story; how Prince Galephy demanded to have me for his bride and how my father foiled him on the day he should have assumed the throne. Because he cannot become king until he has a bride.
I survey the walls, lit by two lines of candles like tiny soldiers on watch, highlighting carvings overlaid with a sheet of gold that distort my reflection as I pass. The floors feel familiar—chalky stone—just as we have at home. As we approach the assembly room, I refocus most of my attention on the toes of the white boots that peep from beneath my hem as I walk. I am far too clumsy for a dress like this. Mother says that all girls are when they are fifteen, and I’ll grow out of it, but sometimes I wonder.
Six guards are posted in front of the closed doors of the assembly room. They stand with stiff shoulders and grim lines etched into every crevice of their faces. Two keep their eyes on the walls ahead but the rest shift their attention toward me, their gazes sweeping up and down my frame, then landing in various places, none of which are on my face. Their frowns pull deeper, but it only makes my chin rise. I know I am still a child, but I cannot abide being treated as one. To prove it, I raise my hand and give a regal nod and the two men in front open the door. For a moment, I almost wish I was to be their queen. They’d quickly learn not to look at me like they thought I was not fit for this role.
Or perhaps they suspect Father’s plan. The last time a man tried to assassinate Prince Galephy, he was forced to watch soldiers murder his entire family before Prince Galephy allowed him to die. I swallow and tighten my arm within mother’s cradle, wishing she’d have let me in on our secret. It must be an assassination if we are to live—and Father will not fail. He’s never failed in anything he has set out to do. But with the stakes so high, why didn’t they tell me my part? I suppose my role is just to go along with this until whatever is to happen, happens. I allow my mother and the four handmaidens to pass the six guards. I follow but stop in the doorways of the assembly room. Father told me to be careful never to call it “the chapel.”
I’ve never seen so many eyes in my life. The benches separate rows of lords and ladies and their jealous daughters, for Galephy can be quite charming when it suits him. He looks charming now, standing just below the beautiful windows where the Creator God spreads his arms like he wants to hug me. The windows are made of broken glass that colors the sunlight. But the prince stands between us, barring me from the God who allowed himself to be outlawed. The prince’s beard is full. I don’t care for beards myself, but I know having a thick one is important for men. He wears a blue tunic—heavily embroidered with silver thread—and a dark velvet robe. The king’s colors bring out his eyes, a vibrant blue shade seen from the back of the room.
I shudder. He smiles.
Father steps to my side, but he cannot hug me because both hands hold the shoulders of our family’s cloak. I’ve always hated our colors, a pattern of green, crimson, and orange that indicate the joining of three prominent families. A streak of royal blue would do nothing to improve the look of our clothing. The cloak wraps me in warmth like Father is hugging me as he secures the wool over my shoulders.
He cannot speak, but he smiles at me. One day we will joke about the day I almost married a king, but instead altered the royal line. For only Galephy bars Terrant from the throne.
Why did Father not tell me of his plan when we could speak freely? I cock my head at him. He holds out his arm. I wish mine wasn’t trembling, but it is. He feels it as soon as I slide my arm in his. He glances toward me, then moves his free hand to cover mine. I draw warmth from his forearm, biceps, and ribs as he tucks my arm close. My mother kisses me and staggers to the front bench where there is a gap because my brother at home can hardly lift himself from his bed. Has father already secreted him to a safe place in case the plan fails and Galephy sends soldiers to our estate? Should I marry him? Should I spare my family from the danger they are risking by rescuing me?
I cast a questioning glance toward my father. He sends me a slight nod. He’s always said it was a man’s honor to fight injustice. I feel Prince Galephy’s eyes on me, but I keep my eyes on Father’s face. He cannot speak now with so many eyes watching us, but I mustn’t miss it when he tells me what to do. A clear voice soars through the room, the traditional union song suddenly sounding eerie instead of solemn. My father swallows his words and steps forward. I match his steps, suddenly realizing the flaw in Mother’s plan. He cannot tell me what to do. I glance again toward his face, but he’s hidden his thoughts from me. I feel his breath straining his ribs against my arm, deep rises and falls that seem faster than usual. He’s readying himself for action.
Prince Galephy’s gaze is too strong to ignore. He’s like a creature from one of Setta’s stories. Once he manages to capture my glance, I can’t tear my eyes from his. He doesn’t even blink, doesn’t even bother looking at my dress, what curves it manages to offer. He just watches my face. One side of his mouth curves upward.
My body suddenly swings back like a bell. Father tightens his grip, halting my reel before I end up tripping myself. I swallow the scream. I cannot raise suspicion. This isn’t real. I force my foot forward and it lands shaking. How does Father expect me to run when I cannot breathe?
I resist the panic, searching his hip for a hidden dagger. He knows how to strangle a man, to snap his neck if needed. Surely, no one would stop him. It’s no secret that almost everyone wishes this man was dead.
Galephy fills the space in front of me, blocking the God behind him. I turn to face Father so he can unfasten the cloak.
I move only my lips. “Father?”
Father’s hands tremble as he fumbles with the broach. My family cloak falls until Galephy catches it.
“Father?” I whisper.
Father leans forward. His lips press against my forehead. Something wets my cheek. A tear, but it’s not mine.
Galephy sheds the cloak from my shoulders. Cold air hits my back, seeping between the pearls. The cloak passes my face into my father’s hands. Father drapes the material over his arms. He doesn’t look at me.
“Father,” I whisper.
Father turns away.
The royal cloak descends over my shoulders, cold and heavy.
Prince Galephy circles to my front, eyeing me as his cold fingers brush my throat. The collar squeezes my neck as he fastens the royal broach. His cloak. His promise of protection. His family name. His wife.
I sneak a glance toward my parents sitting at the head of the assembly, but Father slumps. His eyes stay on the floor. Only my mother watches. Her eyes swim with tears, but she nods toward me.
Just do as the man says.