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Othniel stood in front of his dressing mirror and rubbed his chin, feeling the tiny prickles of new beard growth. Should I shave again?
“What does it matter?”
Alone, he collapsed into a chair by the hearth, his thoughts heavy. Why could his wedding day not be like one of the guardsmen’s? The need for royal marriages to be arranged for necessities other than love was a reality that Othniel understood but didn’t appreciate.
He and Ismene had danced together several times during the wedding celebration, but Othniel could sense the wall that guarded his new wife’s heart. Just being near her caused his own to beat erratically, but the cloud of doubt veiling her eyes made it impossible to know if she was affected in the slightest by his presence like he was by hers.
He’d not asked for this any more than she, but at least he was willing. Othniel struggled not to resent the situation even as he mentally admired the simple beauty of his bride.
His father had set about arranging the marriage and given Othniel very little say in the final decision. As it was, he’d received the barest of details about each possible bride.
Some of the young ladies he’d met before, at balls or on their estates, but Lady Ismene had been a mystery. Her father was often at court as an advisor and friend to the king. Ultimately, Ismene was chosen, based not on her own merits but on the strength of her father’s political alliances within the Realms. Part of Othniel rebelled further against the thought of using one’s daughter for political gains, but it had been done for so long, he couldn’t argue with the validity of strengthening the kingdom for the good of all.
A soft knock on the door jostled him out of his contemplation.
He was now a married man, and life would never be the same. And he feared the Lady Ismene was not likely to make any of this easy.
“Thank you, Finn.”
The servant bowed and backed his way out the door. Othniel pulled his collar loose of the cravat and breathed a sigh of resignation. The door leading to the dressing room adjoining Ismene’s suite stood slightly ajar. He walked through it, unable to shake the feeling that he was headed straight into an abyss.
* * *
The maids helped her prepare and then left her. She was alone . . . so alone. Ismene was sure some dark spirit had invaded and now squeezed her heart, constricting it to the point she couldn’t take a deep breath for fear of stopping its beating altogether.
She jumped at the dull thump of a door closing and pulled her lightweight, pristine white robe tighter. Her knuckles almost matched the purity of the material she grasped. No sounds followed that of the distant door.
When she thought she might pass out from holding her breath, a soft pair of knocks sounded on her door. She exhaled in a whoosh, but couldn’t make a reply. Ismene’s eyes didn’t leave the door. Somewhere in her mind she knew there was no great monster on the other side, but the tumultuous emotions of the day finally caught up with her, and she couldn’t listen to reason any more.
A hundred years of anxious waiting passed in the span of a minute. The door opened with a slow, nightmarish creaking, but it was too late for Ismene. Tears wet her cheeks with a patina of shimmering saltiness.
* * *
Othniel waited to hear her invite him in. The tension in his shoulders increased with each passing second. After a time, he decided he must not have heard her. The door was unlocked and he opened it with great care.
What his eyes saw, once the door no longer hindered his sight, caught him off guard. Ismene huddled on the settee at the end of her bed, knees and shimmery white gown pulled tight against her chest. There was no mistaking the turmoil written on her face, sealed in by her tears.
The tension drained out of his shoulders as soon as he understood. He closed the door with as much care as he’d opened it, then walked to Ismene’s small night table. A folded handkerchief lay stark against the dark wood. Othniel picked it up and carried it to the end of the bed where Ismene remained curled up.
* * *
Breathe. Just breathe, she whispered in her mind. When he moved back into her line of sight, she had to repeat the mantra all over again. The words became more urgent when he sat next to her and then placed his fingers under her chin.
The cool touch of his fingertips sent chills running down her spine. Goose bumps rose on the flesh of her arms. She squeezed her eyes closed and tried to will herself away while he gently turned her head to face him.
The feel of silky cloth on her cheek startled her. Eyes opening revealed him there, in front of her, a serious look of concentration wrinkling his otherwise smooth forehead while he worked to remove the sticky tears from her cheeks. She stared first at the slight curve in the bridge of his straight nose, but it led her vision down to his lips, held together in a thin line.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Ismene. I’m not someone you ever need fear.”
Her eyes flashed up to meet his for a brief second, but she didn’t know what to say.
“You are my wife. I am your husband.”
He stopped dabbing at her face and set the handkerchief down on the end of the bed. Othniel reached toward her but hesitated. He sighed and captured her gaze with his own instead.
“I . . . you’re prettier than I let myself imagine.”
He stopped speaking and looked down at the floor, seeming to gather himself.
A sudden and powerful curiosity emboldened Ismene to glance at him while his gaze remained averted. The soft tremble hidden in the deep quality of this voice did much to abate her trepidation.
His head lifted and their gazes met again, the intensity of his holding her captive and sending her heart on a fresh rampage through her chest.
“Goodnight, wife.” The simple address sounded like a foreign language on his tongue.
Ismene’s eyes widened, and she choked back a gasp as he lifted her hands from where she held them wrapped at her knees. Othniel placed a feather light kiss, not on the back, but in the center of each palm.
His tenderness affected her like nothing she’d ever known before, with a tingling down deep in her stomach, fluttering not unpleasantly. She suddenly couldn’t deny that while never wanting this marriage, a small part of her was strangely captivated by the man to whom she’d been joined.
Could she come to love Othniel? There was a promise in his eyes, and at that second, she wanted to believe it with every fiber of her being.
Still as a statue, she watched him leave the room quiet as he came. What did her future hold? Ismene stared at the door and tried to imagine. She sat there for a long while—she had no idea how long—until every vestige of energy seemed drained from her body.
Sloth-like, she crawled into bed with her handkerchief clutched tight but not feeling the need to cry any more. She’d told Helein they should both view this as a new adventure, and it seemed more possible at that second than it had when she’d first said the words.
Morning dawned bright, and unlike the day before, Ismene’s outlook matched the hope it represented in a way she thought lost to her. Today she was Princess Ismene Ovlander, wife of Prince Othniel of Taisce. She had survived the wedding, and Othniel had laid no expectations at her feet.
The way he’d come to her last night and the gentle care he’d shone were a balm to her soul. That paired with his fine good looks were enough to make her think she could easily fall in love with a prince, a fairytale any young woman might dream would come true. Ismene giggled at her childish thoughts and rose from her bed.
Helein arrived within minutes of Ismene rising. She was followed by a chambermaid carrying a tray of unfamiliar delicacies. After she was dressed and Helein worked to tame her wild mane of dark hair, Ismene sampled the light fare. She could tell the lady’s maid was dying to ask about last night, but there would be no tattle from Ismene. It seemed disrespectful after the kindness of her new husband.
“My lady, your family is leaving after breaking the fast.”
“Yes. I know, Helein. Finish my hair now so that I might not miss them.”
She watched the maid’s head bob in the reflection of the mirror and a twinge of sadness pulled at the small bit of contentment she’d found in the night. Her family would be too far away to visit. Their estate was two day’s travel from the castle. It was not insurmountable, but Ismene had no idea what liberties she’d have in her new role.
“Are you going to be all right, Helein? I know you left behind as much as me.”
Helein nodded but stopped braiding long enough to swipe at a tear. “Yes, mistress. I’ll be well enough.” On a quick change of subject, she said, “Did you know I had a beau in the village?”
“No. I had no idea. You never spoke of him.” This news left a pit in her stomach. “Helein, if you had a beau, why did you agree to come with me? You could have said no, and I would never begrudge you.”
The maid finished the braid and pinned it in place before she looked into Ismene’s eyes. “Lady Ismene, I enjoyed the attentions of Glen, but I knew you would be all alone, and I couldn’t let you face it on your own. I’ve served you since I was six, my lady. And, as you said, it is an adventure we are on. I couldn’t miss an adventure.”
The mix of tears and mischief in her eyes touched Ismene’s soul and kindled her own feelings of familial love and kinship with the people back home.
“And besides, Glen had a slew of village girls after him day in and day out. He’ll find someone else to before the next cock’s crow.”
“Oh, Helein. You make me braver than I am. I need your courage.”
“Fiddlesticks. You have more courage than all the fine ladies prancing around that ballroom last night.”
“You were there?”
Helein laughed. “Yes, Lady Ismene. I mean Princess. The servants who are not on duty here are allowed to join the festivities from the balcony. I must admit to peeking over the side and keeping watch over you.”
Ismene smiled at the conspiratorial way Helein admitted to spying on her. “I’m glad of it. From the way the other noblewomen spoke last night, I was afraid that servants were not treated well here.”
“Thus far it has been just what I expected, but I think I shall fit right in.”
“I’m glad of it, Helein. Now, I really must get to the great hall and be with my family before they leave. Thank you,” she said as she stepped into the dressing salon between her room and Othniel’s.
She stopped cold in her tracks at the sight of him standing in his own doorway. Everything about Othniel was strong and attractive, but nothing in her wanted to step closer. Last night was far away, and he was still a stranger.
“Ismene, I was just coming to knock on your door. I thought it best if we go to the great hall together. For appearances . . . . I hope you understand.”
The pleading, kind look in his eyes convinced her his intentions were good. She nodded.
“Of course, Your Highness.”
“Othniel,” he said, and stepped forward while extending his hand out to her.
“I’m sorry. It will take some getting used to I’m afraid. Othniel,” she said and blushed.
His nearness did something to her she’d never yet experienced, and it flustered her, twisting her thoughts and feelings into a jumble, tying her tongue in knots. She laid her hand in his, and he placed it within the crook of his elbow.
“I hope it will get easier with time, Ismene.” He looked down at her with a lopsided, self-abasing smile and added, “I practiced your name for a month straight. I think the servants were beginning to think I’d lost my mind.”
She couldn’t think of a single thing to say in response. He’d just admitted to his own nerves, and all she could think was the color of his eyes reminded her of a fresh spring day.
He cleared his throat, and they walked in silence. Eventually, Othniel began to tell her where they were in the castle and whose rooms were in which area. He spoke of salons, stables, housing for the castle knights, the mews, the kitchens and so forth. The morning meal was always served in the great hall, but his mother had long ago requested his father have the old library be converted to a dining room.
It was when he mentioned that bit that Ismene finally made a sound; she scoffed without thinking through the impression it would give. After all, it was Othniel’s deceased mother whom she unintentionally derided with her wordless comment. Ismene quickly looked up at Othniel out of the corner of her eye and hoped she hadn’t offended him. Why it mattered, she couldn’t say, but she was not one who usually took to insulting others. How would he know that if it became his first impression of her? Her head was going light with the thoughts rushing about.
“Are you unwell?”
“What?” she asked and was relieved he didn’t seem upset. Maybe he hadn’t even heard her.
“I . . .” she searched her mind for the right words but found none. She shrugged and spoke the only thought she could muster, “My natural state.”
“I’m glad. I mean, uh, I’m glad you’re not unwell,” he said, shaking his head.
Ismene hid her smile at his stuttering.
Othniel gestured to the door in front of them. “We’ve arrived.”
They stopped and looked at each other. Ismene had no idea what the mysterious expression on his face meant and had a difficult time placing anything but her true feelings on her own. If she were a book, she thought she’d be a beginner’s grammar book, easily read by the experienced mind.
“I think I should warn you that you don’t need to make any comments on—” He cleared his throat, and Ismene thought she saw the shadow of a blush creep up his neck. “On last eve.”
Oh, she thought. He’s embarrassed we did not . . . . Ismene could feel the heat of a blush on her own cheeks, but she nodded and said nothing. Talking to him seemed impossible for her, as though her tongue had been ripped from its rightful place and replaced with a wooden beam, unable to string two coherent words together.
After that they walked into the room where everyone at the various long tables stopped whatever activity they were doing in order to stare. It was like the wedding ceremony all over again, but this time she was already on the arm of her husband. My husband. How strange.
The gentle tug of Othniel’s arm recentered Ismene’s mind on the present—and the staring. The prince seemed to instinctually know that Ismene sought out her parents, because before she realized where they were going he had angled them toward her mother and father who stood with all the rest of the onlookers to bow to the prince. Ismene glanced over to see him take it all in stride, as if this sort of treatment happened every day. Her heart stopped on that thought; it probably did happen every day.
A coldness trickled through her veins, but all she could do was stare at her father’s face. He looked on at them with that maddening pride, but there was a touch of something else. Dare she entertain the thought that it might be regret? How she wished she could take back the last day, to rewind time and undo this madness.
But he said nothing of it as her mother stepped between and brought her into a tight embrace then held Ismene at arm’s length. “Congratulations, Issa,” she whispered.
The heartfelt words, the use of her nickname, the knowledge that she didn’t know when she’d see her mother again, all worked to drive heavy sorrow through Ismene on a day that should be happy. If she’d made the choice herself, she thought she could have been happy, but duty and obedience did not allow her that luxury and neither did the lingering feeling of injustice.
She tilted her head toward her mother, no words able to pass the lump forming in her throat. Gritting her teeth, she faced her father and dared look into the well of his eyes. Seeing truth there, deep regret hidden behind his smile, gave her a surprising dose of courage and a seldom seen stubborn streak that when woken often brought with it her doom. But she couldn’t help it. The fear was debilitating enough already, and she refused to feel pity for her father’s remorse. He forced this upon her and should suffer the import of his decision.
“My dear,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically quiet and near to breaking Ismene’s resolve, “it is with joy and sorrow that we meet this day. You are no longer mine to care for and pride in . . . but the prince will be a worthy replacement.”
Ismene tried to smile, but her lips wouldn’t move. A quick nod would have to suffice. Her father lifted her hand in his and kissed the back of it then squeezed her fingers. She met his gaze again and the anger she’d silently harbored toward him evaporated.
“Papa, no one could ever replace you in my heart.”
That one syllable carried with it the full import of her father’s love as she watched him struggle to keep his emotions in check. Until that second, she’d almost forgotten the large audience they had. All Ismene wanted to do was throw herself at her father and hug him tight as she’d done as a child. Life was not fair. This was not fair, and she hated it to the marrow of her soul.
“Have courage. Show this curious lot what brave and strong people we Tenbows are,” he whispered.
Her nostrils burned with unshed tears, but she knew exactly what he implied. She had to hold it in or risk the censure of the people. No doubt, word would spread like wildfire that Prince Othniel had been wed to a sniveling child if she did not bury her suffocating sorrow at the depths of her heart.
With one last deep breath and several blinks, she bit her tongue and focused on the pain to distract her from the truth of her circumstances. She hugged Ketra and Blayn together and stood as tall as she could when her father nodded to Othniel who led her to a seat next to him at the head table where she was forced to look out upon the gathering. Most faces reflected curiosity and boredom, but Ismene couldn’t miss the whispers and giggles passed between one set of young noblewomen sitting almost exactly in front of her about half way down the table. For some reason, she knew they were tittering about her, but she had no idea why, at least not until the one glanced at the prince with something akin to ownership, then glared at her for the span of several heartbeats before turning back to her friend. Ismene recognized her from the ball.
That glimpse brought her a staggering awareness of her future in the span of seconds it took for Othniel to pull out her chair and push it in. As she lowered to her seat so did her heart sink. It took all of her strength to keep from looking at her parents. She only hoped she’d kept the fear from showing. How would she ever survive this life alone?
* * *
They stood on the steps of the keep and watched the retreating forms of her family as they left High Castle. Her parents weren’t the only ones leaving. Their heads were mingled in a rather large procession of wedding attendees who were also making their exit, but Ismene’s eyes focused on only her family. They took her heart with them.
It was dismal to watch them go after suffering through the morning meal. She felt intensely alone, especially after noticing that beautiful blond girl whose eyes shot daggers at Ismene but rained down adoration on Prince Othniel. She had no idea if he returned the other girl’s obvious affections. He’d barely given her the time of day, but what did that really mean? It was unpleasant to consider and also helped to build extra walls around Ismene’s heart. She might have to be married to this prince, but she didn’t have to like it . . . or him.
Her father would never allow such flirtatious behavior from any of them, and her mother had always discouraged it amongst the maids in the house. Cook ruled with a heavy hand all the servants in the kitchens. After coming of age, Ismene and Ketra had rarely spent time around young male guests except the rare occasions they were in attendance at suppers, the extremely rare ball, or village weddings where the young men knew to steer clear.
She was just now realizing how very sheltered she had been. But there had been safety in that which she would not have here, and a shiver passed over her.
“Are you chilled, Ismene?” Othniel asked.
His voice held concern, but Ismene could do little else to answer him than shake her head and press her arms against her stomach, gripping her elbows for added support. She kept her eyes on the fading image of her parents as they meandered around the corner. Her father never looked back, but at the last second her mother’s face flashed a teary smile, then disappeared. It took everything inside Ismene to not cry on the steps of Taisce Castle.
“Can I escort you to your room, Ismene? You look pale-er, and I’m sure this must have all been exhausting.”
“Thank you, Pri—Othniel. I would like to be alone.” She shifted to look at him and noticed the girl from breakfast stood nearby, catching Ismene’s attention with her long dark lashes and soft blond hair. She frowned. “Thank you for offering, but I can find my own way.”
“It would please me to escort you—”
“No,” she said, cutting him off before he could say anything else kind and break her resolve to not cry in front of the remaining courtiers. Ismene shook her head and softened her voice. “No, but my thanks are yours. I only need to be alone.”
“Of course,” he said and reached for her hand, gently prying her fingers from her elbow.
He bent and kissed her knuckles, her heart skipping a defiant beat as she took a sharp breath before pulling free from his light grasp. Ismene allowed herself a brief glance into his still-near face, the genuine look of care and concern almost breaking the dam around her emotions. Ismene swallowed and backed away two steps and bumped into a stranger before turning and slipping between people to reenter the keep. If she were honest with herself, she might admit it was to escape her new husband more than anything.