Fifty steps left.
The sound of the music and five-hundred-seventy-three voices was deafening. All around her, Nike could hear people shouting her name and a cascade of flowers seemed to fall at her feet as she took each careful step forward. Her mouth felt dry, and it seemed hard to breathe despite the fact that they were outdoors and a gentle breeze was blowing.
Watch the step here, she reminded herself, focusing entirely on the thick red carpet that had been laid especially for this ceremony. She gingerly climbed the remembered step, silently thanking Neil for forcing her to practice walking the route in heels. It would be a disaster if she tripped today, and Nike could imagine the awful scolding she was in for if she so much as tottered.
Thirty five more.
She found that it was easier to concentrate if she tried to drown out the noise, but that forced her to focus on her racing heartbeat instead. She instantly felt her hands grow sweaty as a familiar swooping sensation threatened to empty her stomach.
Twenty three steps left.
She felt a moment of pure, unadulterated panic as she ran over the plan in her head. She was supposed to reach the dais, kneel, and recite her piece. Then, she had to wait for all the formalities to end and finally address the crowd.
Just eleven left.
Her heart was pounding in her ears. Livius stood just ahead, waiting for her to take his hand. He looked as regal and handsome as ever, his clothes pressed to perfection, the medals of rank on his chest gleaming like golden stars in the morning light. A simple gold circlet rested on his silky black hair but even without it his royal blood would have been plain to anyone who saw his posture, straight as a rod, and the proud, sharp glint in his blue-gray eyes. He was smiling, but Nike could see how the corner of his mouth was twitching in nervousness as he extended his palm to her. She took it.
Seven steps. His hand is shaking a little.
Five steps. I hope I don't look as nervous as I feel.
Two steps. Oh dear gods I'm going to forget everything! Neil is going to kill me!
One. Focus, you can do this!
As one, the pair reached the dais and knelt at the foot of the presiding priest. Livi had gone out of his way to ensure the ceremony was conducted by a sympathizing member of the Sun Priests, and the result was that the Rani was rather young, with cropped golden hair and a rounded face. She vaguely wondered if he was much older than she, but her thought was cut short as she was ordered to look down.
"Behold! The Sun God incarnated kneels before you, you who are the chosen people of His kingdom!" The voice of the Rani carried far, and the surety of his tone helped to sooth Nike's nerves. Here was a man who believed what he preached, she thought.
"Through his mortal vessel, the Sun God has always ruled our mighty nation and led us to greatness. In his current incarnation, He has worked tirelessly to unite our world under His benevolent rule, and so it has come to pass that today we stand at the very center of the greatest empire our world has ever known. It is His wish that we honor Him and that His chosen people thrive so that the Sun Kingdom may bask in glory, forevermore!" A loud cheer erupted from the crowd, and Nike was sure that the roar could be heard throughout the entirety of Ginitarix. She closed her eyes, not in reverence to the Sun God she hardly knew, but to engrave the people's emotions in the deepest recess of her memory.
"For this purpose, the Sun God has sent us a princess from afar. Though not of his flesh and not of our blood, she was brought to us by His will, so that she may wed our king. She calls the rain to slake our thirst and water our fields, nurturing and protecting us at His bequest. She commands the winds and rains down lightning to strike our foes, defending our great nation from our enemies that would do us harm. Her powers are beyond the abilities of mortals, and surely bestowed upon her by the gods. It is no coincidence that we need water to live, as much as we need the warmth and light of the Sun. It is no coincidence that our king, the Sun God incarnate, would wed this princess on this very day, before his most beloved subjects. Children of the Sun, I beseech you! We have been called upon, and we must now witness this union, the union of the Sun and the Rain!"
The Rani finished his speech, and Nike could hear him breathing heavily with excitement. She hoped that he had successfully convinced anyone in the crowd who still had misgivings about her blood. There were those who considered her ability to call the rain heresy, and more than a few who thought that clouds covering the sun were an ill portent.
"My king, most blessed vessel of the Sun God himself, if you desire the Rain, anoint Princess Nike with your own hands. Once it is done and she recites the vow of royalty, you must place the crown upon her head."
She felt Livi rise from his kneeling position and could picture him accepting the small bowl from the Rani. She knew that it contained oil purified by the light of the sun, mixed with several drops of Livi's own blood. Her heart quickened once again.
She heard Livi stand over her, and she lifted her head to face him. His hands dipped into the bowl, and Nike closed her eyes again as his fingertips streaked across her forehead, her cheeks, and her lips.
"With my hands I bless you. I give you my divinity, my blood, and I mark you as my only equal. I offer my protection, my love as a mortal, and in exchange I wish you to love my people. With this promise I ask you, Nike Remercier, fourth princess of the Rain Duchy, to become my wife."
Nike opened her eyes. Livius had returned the bowl to the Rani, and was now holding a thin silver circlet in his hands. Livi had explained how traditionally, the Sun Queen wore a golden crown to match the king's, but that for Nike's case, it seemed more prudent to associate her with the rain as much as possible. Her ability was too conspicuous to ignore, so Livi's hope was that by accenting her uniqueness as a foil to the Sun, she could be thought of as a balancing agent. By presenting her as a half to a greater whole, she would increase the kingdom's sense of stability and worldliness. At least, that was the plan.
Taking a deep breath to stabilize herself, Nike began to recite from memory.
"By your hands I am blessed. I humbly take upon my flesh and my soul the sacred blood that flows in your veins. I offer in return the boundless love of one blessed by the gods, and pledge my heart to this kingdom. I promise you, Livius Orvitas Ifriquiya, that I will become your wife."
"My king, you may crown your queen."
The circlet fit perfectly atop Nike's coiffed brown hair, and when her eyes opened once more, she was a princess no longer.
Her relief at having performed her part without any major mishaps was so great that she scarcely noticed when the Rani officially proclaimed her Queen. Livius offered her his hand and pulled her up, but before she could turn to face the crowd, his lips met hers. For a second she panicked and thought that she had forgotten this part of the ceremony, but then she remembered that the rites didn't actually involve a kiss between the bride and groom.
Livi, you little-
Before she could respond at all, he pulled away, and Nike specifically saw him lick the bloodied oil from his lips before he flashed her one of his roguish grins. The crowd burst into frenzied screams, and Nike was painfully aware that her face was flushing.
How many stolen kisses does that make by now?
She would have loved to berate him, but she still had work to do.
Steeling herself, she turned to face the sea of people, now awaiting her word. Last stretch, let's finish this.
"Children of the Sun God! I came to this kingdom three years ago to marry your king. I have seen your strength, your passion, and your bravery with my own eyes. I have grown to love this bright, warm country as I have come to love you. Just as you are the pride of my king, so too are you mine. I am honored and humbled to be chosen for you, by you. With Livius the First at my side, I promise you that the rain shall always fall favorably upon the chosen people of the Sun God!"
A thunderous applause broke out, and Nike caught Livi's eye. He smiled, nodding slightly to show his approval. He stepped forward.
"My children! I present to you, at long last, my beloved wife, Queen Nike of the Sun Kingdom!"
"Long live the Sun King, Livius the First! Long live the Sun Queen, Nike of the Rain!"
"Long live the Queen of the Rain! Long live the Sun Kingdom!"
It was done. Livius offered his hand once more and they began the procession back down the dais. She knew they still looked mismatched, her head a few good inches taller than his, and she knew better than to think that all who opposed the marriage had simply disappeared. She knew that although she remained popular among the masses, she and Livi were constantly in danger of assassination. She knew that Livi's plan, her place as the Sun's balancing opposite, was tenuous at best and lip service at its worst. But though she knew all this, she couldn't help her heart from soaring as she heard all the well wishers shout her name. She couldn't help feeling Livi's hand squeeze hers, couldn't help noticing how gentle his expression had become as he laughed and waved at his people.
Our people, she thought. My people.
If there really is a Sun God, please, give me the strength to lead them.
The wind buffeted her white dress, the gold thread catching the light. She suddenly felt weightless.
She thought she could hear voices in the air, threading together and summoning the breeze to lift her spirits. Her family had been unable to attend, but as another gentle breath of air blew across her face, she was sure they were sending her their blessings across the sea.
She looked over the crowd, toward the eastern skyline. If she hadn't, Livi would have died.
Her body reacted in a split second, her arms wrapping protectively over his slight frame as she lunged at him. They hit the ground just as a gunshot rang out over Ginitarix.