Chapter Eight: A Bride's Dilemma
Gossip flew like the summer birds over the next few days. The villagers of Gieseborough were both afraid the vampire would return to finish off the sleepy town, and excited to see the legend their grandfathers told them of come true. Mayor Elric and Constable Hughes set up a night watch in case the vampire was sighted again, and many of the men signed up to join. Not wanting to miss the fun, some of the younger lads, Edward Elric included, tried to participate, but were promptly sent home.
For the first time since she arrived at Gieseborough, Riza found that much of the excitement in the village centred on her. Despite there being no eye-witnesses to the event, apart from Anthony Briggs, word quickly spread that the vampire was seen confronting her, and people clamoured to hear her story. Riza's reply was always the same: that the vampire had turned on her simply because she was the only living person in sight, and that he had threatened to kill her, like he had done to so many others long ago. Not many people believed this mundane version of events, but as Riza stuck to her story, the disappointed villagers soon decided to leave her alone.
Within a month, the tension in the village had died down. There had been no further sightings of the mysterious vampire, nor any strange fires springing up, and eventually the villagers turned their attention to the next big event that summer: Anthony and Riza's wedding.
"There, all done!" Rose proclaimed as she stuck the last pin into the white gown Riza was wearing, and stood back to admire the effect.
"You look wonderful, Miss Heinswen!" Winry trilled. Glacier nodded enthusiastically. Blushing slightly at the attention, Riza got up and walked to the full-length mirror in Rose's tailor shop. She gave a little gasp.
The white gown boasted of a low neckline that hinted of a full bosom. The long sleeves made of lace were designed to show Riza's thin shoulders. Winry had helped sew sparkling jewels onto the material so that her arms glittered as she moved them. Giving an experimental twirl, Riza felt the swish of the heavy material that made the train of the gown as it trailed in the dusty ground after her.
"Careful now!" Rose exclaimed, snatching the train up, "or you'll dirty the gown even before your wedding day."
Riza grinned in reply. "I appreciate the effort the three of you have put into this," she told her companions. "I've always wanted to get married in a white dress…" She trailed off as her thoughts and daydreams took over.
"And you will, of course, Miss Heinswen!" Winry, Glacier and Rose exchanged worried looks as Riza's exuberant expression turned into one of sad thoughtfulness. "Is anything wrong? Maybe the dress is too long? Too tight?"
Riza shook her head, smiling slightly. "It's not the dress, Winry," she assured the girl, who immediately gave a sigh of relief. Riza hesitated, then continued, "The dress is everything I wanted, and even more! But… The man I am to marry is not…"
Silence greeted Riza's words. Unable to face the others, Riza looked at the ground, her face burning with shame. Now she had said it, she wished she hadn't. To say such things to people who had known her fiancé all their lives, no, to say such things to anyone, was just not right. But Riza didn't think she could have held it back any longer. Her marriage had been on her mind for the past month, since Roy had set fire to the village square. Riza had tried to imagine a happy marriage with Anthony, but flames always came into the picture, destroying, burning, tearing them apart. And Roy's image was ever present, like an ominous shadow over the marriage.
Winry laughed feebly. "You're just feeling nervous about the big day, right?" She looked at her uncomfortably, as though she herself was unsure of what she was saying. Riza sighed. Since she had gotten herself into this trouble, she might as well stick through it.
"No, Winry," she told the younger girl gently. "It's just…" Riza took a deep breath before ploughing on.
"I had never wanted to marry Anthony Briggs. The arrangement was made by my parents, who owed Tony a favour. I had no say on this. One moment Tony and my parents were discussing some loan that would help get them out of their debt, and the next thing I knew, I was being bundled off to this place…
"I tried to love him. Really, I did. But until two months ago, I had never thought of myself getting married and settling down. I always imagined myself growing old as a spinster, taking a job as a journalist or something, and caring for my old parents till they moved on to the next world. Never did I think I'd end up trapped in an estate as a rich man's wife, spending my days sipping tea and ordering servants around!
"I thought I had steeled myself for that kind of life. These two months, I tried really hard to accept it, and I thought I had succeeded. But I'm not so sure now. There's another man…"
Riza gave an involuntary sob. Rose, overcome with pity, put an arm around her. The three girls looked from one another to Riza, all unsure of what to say. It was not right to encourage her to leave her fiancé for another man, but neither were they willing to doom her to a loveless marriage.
"Riza," Glacier finally said, "I won't tell you to think this through, because I can see you already have. So I'll give you this one advice: follow your heart."
"But how can I do that when my heart is so confused?" Riza burst out. "I mean, you and Winry are so sure of the paths to take, but me, I haven't got a clue!"
"But neither do we!" Winry protested. "That's the way it is with love! I know you've heard the rumours about me and Ed, and sometimes I'd like to think that they're true, and that we're meant for each other. But at other, more practical times, I'm not so sure. I can't see myself marrying someone who exasperates me all the time!"
"That's right," Glacier nodded. "I'm engaged to Maes, but that doesn't mean I don't question myself constantly if I'm marrying the right man. Maes is too dedicated to his career, and I'm not sure I can take that in my husband… But my heart tells me he's the one, and that's why I'm standing by him."
Riza looked up at her companions through watery eyes. Rose gave arm a little squeeze. "Don't worry about it," she advised. "The answer will come soon enough. Just be ready for it when it comes!"
Riza lay in bed that night, thinking about the advice the three village girls had given her. She had expected them to admonish her for such thoughts, not give her encouragement and hope.
Follow my heart, she thought. But what was her heart telling her? To play the dutiful wife, and let it drive her crazy, as she was sure it would; or to be a stubborn rebel, to chase after a love that was forbidden, that might have been nothing more than a shadow.
With a sigh, Riza threw her blankets aside and moved to the bedroom window. Leaning against the window sill, she looked at the cloudless sky.
The adventurer in her already knew the answer, and had known it from the start. Even if he spurned her love, she just had to see Roy again, even if it was for one last time.