For most weddings throughout the ages, the act of getting hitched went off, well, without a hitch, as it were. Despite this, nearly every bride woke up on the morning of her own wedding with a knot of dread in her stomach, certain that things were destined to go wrong. That the flowers would clash with the attendants' gowns, the best man would lose the ring, the groom would have ice for feet, or that the top tier of the cake would slide to the floor in a carnage of buttercream and porcelain that used to resemble the happy couple.
More rare were fears of an unknown enemy lurking in the shadows, a false name and a paid assailant the only clues, pitiful and, thus far, leading nowhere.
But Natalia held her head up high as she sat before the mirror. The chapel's resting room was serving as a bridal suite for her and the other attendants, but it was a flurry of activity rather than rest as gowns were buttoned, jewelry fastened, and cosmetics applied. She closed her eyes for a moment and let the flurry calm her. Too much else was going on to let unhappy thoughts spoil the day she'd dreamed of for as long as she could remember.
Natalia would put her gown on last; she had already donned her wedding lingerie and white silk stockings, then covered herself with a robe so that Sera could see to her hair and make-up. Her face had been powdered, her lips and cheeks rouged, and her eyes lined to accentuate their green. With yesterday's manicure, her fingernails had been coated with a glossy lacquer so that they shimmered like mother of pearl.
Now Sera was brushing and pinning back the princess's blonde locks. As short as Natalia always insisted on keeping her hair, likewise did Sera always insist that there was enough to pin, and she was right, of course. Sera was a genius with hair, parting, wrapping, and twisting before applying those hidden pins, and Natalia was pleased with the result, particularly the delicate sweeping braid that rolled under in the back. A few loose tendrils curled like ribbon on either side of her face, as romantic and untamable as the bride herself.
While Sera put the finishing touches on her intricate work, Natalia looked past her reflection in the mirror to see the other women in their gowns. Instead of the burgundy she'd originally pictured, she'd fallen in love with a bolt of scarlet fabric in Louise's workroom. The rich, jewel-toned shade complemented both Tear and Anise's brunette coloring and Jozette's paler blonde beauty. The three matching dresses featured a portrait neckline to mimic the bare-shouldered style of Natalia's gown, with a bit of lace masquerading as sleeves. There was a slight pleating at the narrow waist where the skirt then fell softly to the tops of their feet, giving just a peek at their glittering shoes beneath.
On the settee behind them were four boxes of flowers, freshly cut from the royal gardens. A bouquet of velvety red amaryllis was bound with a white ribbon, and three smaller but equally beautiful bouquets of white amaryllis were tied with scarlet ribbons, the fabric cut from the same bolt as the gowns.
Everything looked perfect. Everything would be perfect. Natalia took in a cleansing breath and recalled her grandmother's wisdom. If you end the day married to the one you love, then it was a perfect wedding.
"Ooh, how much longer is it going to be?" Anise whined like a sugar-fueled child waiting for the circus to begin. "I can't take the excitement anymore!" Even dressed elegantly for her adult role in a sober ceremony, she couldn't help bouncing in her diamond heels and swishing her skirt around.
With hair and make-up finished and her platinum tiara carefully secured, Natalia shed her robe and prepared to step into the gown that Sera and Tear were holding for her. "Just wait until it's your turn," she said to her young friend, "and the time flies by so quickly that you wonder if you remembered to get everything done." Had it only been last month that she sailed to Grand Chokmah, vexed at her father and the Council for forcing the marriage issue, desperate to have Guy agree because she felt she had no other choice?
Perhaps she should thank those grumpy old men. Silently. If they began to believe that they knew better than she… well, that would not do.
Anise stood on her toes and raised curved arms above her head like a ballerina. "I love this dress," she said, ignoring Natalia's point entirely. She let out a little shiver of pleasure as the silk crepe skirt continued caressing her skin. "I'm never taking it off. I'm sleeping in it tonight."
"You'll trip over it without the shoes," Tear said. She straightened the skirt of Natalia's gown as Sera began doing up the many pearl buttons.
"I'm sleeping in the shoes, too."
"I didn't expect you to be one to sleep," Jozette added. With their spa morning and luncheon yesterday, she'd learned the other women's tricks for enduring Anise's energy with humor. "I'd think you'd want to stay up all night dancing."
"Oh, I'm doing that, don't worry," Anise replied. "This is my first royal wedding. I'm not missing any of it."
"By the way, Anise, I've finished your book," Natalia said, standing as still as possible while Sera continued moving up the long line of buttons. Once this dress was on, it would have to stay on until she changed for the reception banquet. Louise had designed a similar yet simpler white lace gown for the evening, one that would be more comfortable for sitting and dancing.
"Did you?" Anise said with blithe nonchalance.
"And I've decided to forgive you."
Anise grinned. "It was the pirate chapter, wasn't it?"
"However," Natalia stressed, "know that this does not mean I will condone any future exploitation of my person or my relationship for your financial or entertainment purposes."
"Definitely the pirate chapter. I knew you'd like that."
"That was the best part," Tear mused, then immediately glanced down, sheepish that she'd said such aloud.
Natalia would have narrowed her eyes if she hadn't been worried about ruining the liner. "You knew about this?"
"Not at first," Tear explained. She went to touch her own carefully coiffed hair before pulling her hand back, afraid of disturbing the six-petalled diamond comb holding the twist in place, and forgetting that many pins did the heavy lifting while the comb was purely decorative. "But Luke was bored on the ferry, so Anise gave us a copy. We took turns reading to each other." Now instead of her nervous habit of fiddling with her hair, one corner of Tear's mouth quirked as Luke's often would, that cozy way couples had of picking up each other's mannerisms. "He does a really good impression of you."
Anise's matching comb glinted just like her eyes. "Don't be modest, Tear. Yours isn't shabby, either."
"Though Guy's is the best," Tear replied. Natalia was no longer sure where the joke began and ended.
"Well, naturally, he's known her the longest," Anise conceded with a shrug.
"Next you'll be telling me the colonel is an expert mimic as well." Natalia said. Was she not entitled to a modicum of respect on her wedding day?
"Oh, I forgot about him," Tear said.
"We should have a contest," Anise added.
All right, so perhaps Natalia wanted to laugh at the idea, but once she started, giddiness would take over and she'd lose her tenuous grasp on her composure. Laughter and tears would become indistinguishable. Still, this information would be filed away for later.
The buttons were all snug in their homes, and after helping Natalia raise her skirts so she could step into her shoes, Sera was at last able to attach the long veil to Natalia's tiara. The teasing came to a halt as the maid arranged the lace across the bride's bare shoulders.
"Oh, Natalia," Tear said, bringing a hand to her mouth.
Natalia felt her composure slip, but she held on fast. This would be a busy day; even happy tears would need to wait.
"You are absolutely breathtaking," Jozette told her.
"Divine," Anise sighed, sincere and without a hint of envy.
With these dear ladies surrounding her, supporting her on this important day, Natalia had never felt so grateful. Yet, somewhere deep inside her, she missed her mother something fierce. She would not let it show, would not let it make her smiling lips tremble.
And then there was a knock on the outer door. One of the maids answered, and Natalia heard Luke say, "I'm here to collect the general. Is everyone ready?"
"This way, please, my lord."
The maid showed Luke into the dressing suite, his stride lazy despite his task. His short hair was as neatly combed as Natalia had ever seen, and he was striking in his double-breasted red coat with its platinum buttons and white trim.
Today was determined to dismantle her poise.
He stopped in front of her, his casual air vanishing, and a wave of something washed over her. Something like memory or nostalgia or wistfulness, and at the same time none of those things. Scenes of another life, playing out before her in the space of a heartbeat, images of little red-haired, green-eyed children, their gruff but doting father, the coronation of a stoic and noble king.
Luke's eyes changed, the subtle way they did when he was overwhelmed by feelings or memories that weren't his, and she knew those scenes were not a complete invention. In another time, they created them together; on another plane, they shared them still.
It would have been a lovely life.
Luke blinked, and his eyes were his own once more, clear and bright. "Wow," was all he said.
She smiled at the tremendous compliment and all the layers behind it. "Thank you, Luke."
He gave her an awkward half-smile in return, then jerked a thumb at Anise. "Who's that?"
Anise crossed her arms over her elegant gown and stood taller in her heels. "Ha ha, you are so hilarious, Luke."
He ignored her offense at his joke and focused his attention on Tear. Natalia watched as his eyes changed in a different, softer way, this time looking at Tear the way Guy looked at her. "Hey," he said in a low voice, "don't you know you're not supposed to be prettier than the bride?"
Natalia let her skirts and train rustle as she walked over to Jozette in order to obscure Tear's reply. It was as close to privacy as she could give them in this room. "Thank you for putting up with us," she said to the older woman. "I know how much it means to Guy to have you stand up for him today."
"I'm honored to be included," Jozette replied. "And... this week has been good for me, too. I think I needed to be reminded that..." Her words trailed off, and for a moment she fell captive to her own reverie before continuing in a strong, unwavering voice. "That no matter how many times our world shatters, there will always be someone to help us put it back together again. There is always hope."
"Yes, it's true, isn't it?" Natalia answered. The two women shared so much in common, loss and broken dreams, and they'd both found a way to move forward, to make new dreams. "That's what today is all about. Hope."
Those who had tried to prevent this day had failed. Her people would have hope.
"And so I want to thank you for believing in us," Jozette said, eyes unlike her cousin's in color but with that same unmistakable determination. "Because of you, one day the Cecilles will be remembered more for their triumphs than their disgrace."
"That's due to you and Guy more than me," Natalia corrected her. She reached for Jozette's hand and clasped it tightly. Though surprised, Jozette returned the clasp with great warmth. "I will be proud to call the Cecilles my family."
Jozette nodded. "Thank you." Then she smiled, a rare gesture that brought that sparkle to her eyes again. "Natalia."
After one last squeeze, Natalia released the other woman's hand so that Jozette could retrieve her bouquet. Across the way, Luke and Tear were finishing their own conversation, their heads close together, voices a pleasant murmur. Anise was admiring herself in the mirrors, turning this way and that to inspect every angle, watching the light catch the diamonds of her hair comb, delighting in the back-and-forth sway of her gown like a little girl instead of the sophisticated adult she so desperately wanted everyone to see.
Tear's lips moved with unheard words, but Anise had the ears of a predatory animal who feasted on secrets instead of flesh. "I love you, too, Luke," she cooed. Tear blushed beneath her rouge.
"Oh, yes, I love you, too, Luke," Natalia said.
The scarlet motif was complete as Luke's cheeks matched his coat and his hair. "Yeah, yeah," he said with a careless wave of his hand, "all the ladies love me." Speaking as he walked, his last word and last step brought him in front of Jozette.
She allowed a perfect beat of silence to elapse before saying, "I think you're very nice."
He stared at her a moment, then broke into a broad grin. "High praise from the general. I'll take it." He bowed slightly and offered her his arm. "Let's go make sure Guy hasn't run off. There's a lot of people waiting out there." She shifted her bouquet to the other side to tuck her hand in the crook of his elbow, and Luke cocked an eyebrow at Natalia. "Last chance if you want to make a break for it."
Natalia shook her head. "Tell him I say hello."
He raised two fingers to his temple in acknowledgment and escorted Jozette from the room.
This was it. It was time. The next they talked, she'd be married.
"Are you ready?" Tear said. She and Anise collected their white bouquets from the settee.
Natalia left hers in its box. "Almost." She took the hands of her dear friends in each of hers. "I'm so glad to have you girls with me today," she said, and she blinked hard. "You are my sisters, and I wouldn't want to do this without you. I love you both so much."
Tear's blue eyes misted. "We love you, too," she replied in a thick voice.
Anise sniffled. "Dammit, if you wenches make me ruin my make-up, I swear I will kick your asses. Don't think I can't do it in these shoes."
Guy was doing his best not to pace in the maestro's office where he was told to wait. Too much movement would result in sweat, which would cause wrinkles, Merton said. Screw wrinkles. Guy wanted to get on with things. He was never very good at standing around.
He also wasn't very good at keeping his hands still. It took every bit of concentration to keep his fists clenched at his sides instead of shoving through his hair. Merton had spent a lot of time wetting and combing it and trying to get it to lay flat. Guy didn't want it slicked completely back like Luke's, because then he wouldn't look like himself, but he also couldn't look like he just rolled out of bed. He had to look worthy of marrying the princess.
All in all, he seemed to be pulling that off. His hair was about as tamed as it was willing to be, and Merton had shaved him so closely that he probably wouldn't need another shave for a week. A single hair could be split down the middle with the crease in his trousers, and his white double-breasted coat fit like a glove—if a glove were meant to fit like a coat—with two lines of perfect platinum buttons and trimmed with rich scarlet, an inverse of Luke's coat. Though he'd sent his measurements from Grand Chokmah, Natalia had wanted the tailoring to be just right and supervised his fitting earlier this week—which was unfair, he thought, as he didn't get to sit in on her fittings. She also insisted on doing the detail work herself, dedicating her impressive embroidery skills to the coat's cuffs and collar, and her talent showed in each intricate stitch of platinum thread.
His hands unclenched, and he ran his fingers over the looping design at his wrist, representing eternity. Tracing the pattern had a calming effect, but it was sure to pass before long. Maybe he could ruffle his hair just a little, not enough for anyone to notice, but it was just so damn neat that it was starting to itch.
"Hey, your bride says hi," Luke said, and Guy dropped his hands like a child caught sneaking sweets before dinner. With Luke was Jozette in her red dress, her hair twisted in a low knot and secured with a diamond comb shaped like a flower.
"I can't believe everyone's seen her but me," Guy said. They'd not been allowed to see each other since last night, even taking separate breakfasts in their own rooms this morning. It had been surprisingly lonely. "How does she look?"
"Not bad," Luke replied with a shrug. "You know, for Natalia."
"I think you'll be pleased," Jozette added.
"If she's half as beautiful as you, I'll be the luckiest one in the room," Guy said, and his cousin looked equal parts embarrassed and flattered. But her beauty was more than the hair and gown and expensive jewelry. He saw what Natalia had been seeing, that Jozette glowed, that she seemed truly happy for the first time since Aslan died. It was about time; Aslan had wanted her to find happiness again. "By the way, Natalia said I'm supposed to ask you something about chocolate?"
"Later, Gailardia," she said in a mock-stern voice reminiscent of his sister. "Let's get you married first."
"Putting me off, huh? That means it must be good." His tone changed from teasing to sincere. "Thanks for being here, Jo."
"I wouldn't miss it," she replied. "After all, who would have thought that that spoiled little crybaby I once met—"
"Hey, you're the one who ate all my candy, remember?" he protested, and Luke snickered.
"—would one day grow up to be a prince?" Her mocking tone now changed, too, to something warmer. "Your family would be so proud."
He hoped so. After the loss and tragedy, that he had served those who had been their enemies, then found a way to forgive and mend, standing up for the truth and what was right, working together to prevent such a thing ever happening to anyone else... he wanted them to look down on this day and be proud.
He cleared the lump in his throat. "But seriously, Jo, what is it with you and candy?"
Her glare had absolutely no fire behind it, and he laughed.
The cantor came in and cast a disapproving look at the gaiety in the office. Right, this was a serious day. No laughing allowed. "My lords, my lady, when you're ready?"
Whether they were ready didn't seem to matter, as the organ was already playing, but Guy nodded. Luke clapped him on the back, and Jozette gave his hair a quick tousle.
"There, that's better," she said.
"You're my favorite cousin," he replied.
They followed the cantor into the main chapel where Maestro Pernoud was waiting. Flowers... flowers were everywhere, red and white in large silver vases to match Natalia's chosen colors; Pere would probably know what they were all called. The Kimlascan flag was draped on one side, and the Malkuth flag on the other, coexisting in international harmony. At intervals along the sides of the room, guards and soldiers were posted.
And then there was the sea of people filling the chapel. It was an overwhelming sight, and Guy felt the weight of what they were doing, what his life would be with so many people watching and depending on them.
He tried to break the crowd down into familiar faces for comfort. In the second row sat the emperor—who winked at him, which was disconcerting rather than comforting—with Jade, Nephry, and her husband. Behind them were Pere and his aunt Jacqueline, Jozette's mother. Scattered about in further rows were Anise's parents and Florian, Ginji and Noelle and Aston from Sheridan, Tear's grandfather Teodoro, various nobles and mayors and other officials, members of the Royal Council and the Imperial Court.
There was a noticeable difference in the two sides of the chapel. The first row on the bride's side contained Natalia's family. After escorting her down the aisle, her father would join her grandmother and Luke's parents. But the first row on the groom's side was empty.
This had also been Natalia's idea. "I believe we would dishonor your parents and sister if we were to allow anyone else to sit in their row," she'd said.
He'd expressed skepticism. "Our wedding is enough of a political statement as it is," he'd said. "Do we want to bring up exactly why my family isn't here?"
"If we were an ordinary couple getting married, it would be perfectly appropriate to remember them in this way," she'd answered.
Seeing it now, he knew she was right. He closed his eyes and felt their presence, their memory.
The organist transitioned to a light melody as Tear and Anise came down the aisle together in their matching gowns. Another unintentional political statement, Guy realized. The crown princess of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear had chosen a woman from Hod and one from Daath as her maids of honor, while the count from Malkuth had two Kimlascan attendants. They were an international group, forming a family beyond blood or borders.
Anise was doing her best to take her role seriously, but she beamed at those she recognized, waggling her fingers in little waves at Florian and her parents and, more flirtatiously, at Emperor Peony. Beside her, Tear was both lovely and uncomfortable at having so many eyes on her, so she kept her gaze focused on Luke.
When Guy glanced at Luke, Luke was likewise focused on Tear, with something like wonder coming over his face. Maybe it wouldn't be so long for the two of them after all.
The two girls took their places and turned to face the back of the chapel, and the assembled guests rose as the organist's fanciful playing gave way to the opening notes of "As Morning Comes Natalia", the anthem written for the princess's coming of age ceremony.
The king was regal in his red robes and crown, but Guy barely registered his presence. Everything and everyone else faded. All he saw was Natalia, clutching a bouquet of red amaryllis and draped in white lace, a halation surrounding her like the sun. As morning came Natalia into her people's lives; their princess was the bright light that brought them hope and joy and the promise of a new day.
So came she into his life. Pictures flipped through his mind like a kineograph, a little girl with hands on her hips ordering him to fetch her a book or a cup of tea and mocking him for his fear of touching her, the young woman apologizing for the wrongs she and her family had done to him and grieving with him over the losses of their friends, talking with him against the blurred colors of a sunset and laughing with him, standing close to him, being with him.
And he'd gone from a boy hating everything she stood for to a man standing for it with her. Standing here, waiting for her.
She was so beautiful he couldn't breathe.
Her smile was as radiant as the rest of her as her father escorted her to the front of the chapel. Guy found himself grinning stupidly, then bit the inside of his cheek to appear properly solemn so that the king would not whip around and march his daughter right back out again.
The grin could not be stopped and kept twitching his lips, but the king brought Natalia to him all the same. Natalia embraced her father lightly and nodded at something he whispered to her. The king paused, looked at his daughter, and nodded back, holding her hand, before turning to Guy.
Guy quickly wiped the grin from his face once more.
He bowed. "Your Majesty."
The king acknowledged this with a subtle tilt of his head, paused again, and placed his daughter's hand in Guy's. After another nod at the maestro, the king then took his place beside Natalia's grandmother. She and Lady Susanne were dabbing at their eyes with pretty handkerchiefs.
Natalia's hand was warm, and Guy could feel it trembling with a mix of emotions. The same powerful cocktail was swirling within him, and he squeezed her hand as he leaned close. Her shoulders were bare above her lace sleeves and bodice, and he fought an urge to sink his teeth into her luminous skin, choosing to speak softly into her ear instead. "Hey."
She giggled, her eyes shining. "Hi."
The last chords of the anthem faded, and the maestro gestured for the guests to be seated. "In the names of Lorelei and Yulia," Pernoud began, "and with the blessing of His Majesty King Ingobert the Sixth, I welcome you all." The timbre in his voice reflected the eons of history, the many who had served the Order from the beginning, as if everything had the purpose of leading to this moment. "Any wedding is a glorious occasion and cause for celebration as two people dedicate their lives to each other," he continued, "but today we are honored to witness not only a union of two people and two families, but of two nations."
It really did sound daunting, didn't it? But with the strong woman beside him, he was up to any task.
"Before you stand Natalia, crown princess of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, and Gailardia, Count Gardios of Malkuth, who have chosen to commit themselves to the world as well as to each other. Their belief in peace has brought us here today, and through them we shall see change. Prosperity will no longer be an intangible dream but a way of life for all."
There were still those who did not like the words "change" or "choose", but those naysayers were a minority, growing smaller by the day. When Guy faced his bride to look into her eyes, he knew they would succeed. This path was theirs, one they would carve, one that would benefit everyone.
And so no Score would be read during their ceremony. His parents had a marriage Score, as had her parents the king and queen, and Badaq and Sylvia. But for Guy and Natalia, there was no prophesy of the life they would lead, the children they would have, not even the certainty that such was written anywhere. The unknown stretched before them, and they would face it together.
Personally, he couldn't wait.
They were to take each other's hands at the maestro's instruction, and Natalia passed her flowers to Tear. "Your Highness, if you will repeat after me," Pernoud said, and she nodded. "I, Natalia..."
The words came as easily as her name, and her hazel eyes were stunningly green as they looked into his. "I, Natalia," she repeated, her voice ringing like a bell through the chapel, "hereby pledge myself to you, Gailardia. I give you my love, my friendship, my respect, and my fidelity." Her hands clasped his between them as if to transmit the vows directly from her body, her soul, to his. "I give you my good days and bad days, my laughter and tears, my dreams and my fears. I give you my hands to hold, my shoulders to share your burdens, and my heart to make your home."
And now the words traveled back to her through the connection no one could ever break. "I, Gailardia," he repeated after the maestro, "hereby pledge myself to you, Natalia. I give you my love, my friendship, my respect, and my fidelity." He could hear his own voice echoing in the vast room, but as far as he was concerned, only the two of them existed. "I give you my good days and bad days, my laughter and tears, my dreams and my fears." He again remembered his parents, their marriage also one of political purpose, and how, in the end, they had lived the true meaning of these words. "I give you my hands to hold, my shoulders to share your burdens, and my heart to make your home."
Even without a Score reading, the ceremony continued with the traditional wedding prayer and story of Yulia, something Guy had heard before and would have recognized if he weren't completely lost in the woman before him. All the weeks of planning and waiting had been for a ceremony that was already half over. He wanted to take in the way she looked right now, memorize everything, the light in her eyes, the warmth of her hands in his, the glinting of her tiara and the delicacy of the romantic lace veil that draped behind her, the ethereal white gown designed just for this day that would soon be removed, never to be worn again.
If he hadn't been allowed to attend her dress fittings, maybe he could be there when she took it off.
"Some call them symbols," the maestro was saying, and Guy snapped his attention back to the present. "To others, they are talismans. With the exchange of rings, these vows become visible and undeniable."
At this cue, Natalia turned to Tear, and Guy turned to Luke. Luke pressed Natalia's ring into Guy's hand, a flicker of relief on his face that he didn't mess up his one important role.
"And, Your Highness, if you will once again repeat after me," the maestro said.
They had chosen a pair of simple platinum bands, unadorned except for the engraving Guy had secretly requested for hers. Natalia slid the ring onto his third finger as she repeated the words like a spell. "Endless as my love and eternal as my vow, may this ring be ever with you."
Guy placed the matching ring on Natalia's left hand, its inscribed promise safe against her skin, and repeated the same words when prompted. "Endless as my love and eternal as my vow, may this ring be ever with you."
Her fingers curled around his, and he wanted to pull her to him. One more second and he could, one more second and she would be his to hold whenever he wanted.
"These vows made today are sacred and cannot be broken," the maestro said in conclusion. "With the blessing of the Reformed Order of Lorelei and the authority of the kingdom of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, forevermore shall you be husband and wife."
That was good enough for him. His hands went to her waist, feeling for the shape of her beneath the silk, and he touched his lips to hers. She kissed him back, laying her hands on either side of his face, and he realized he was wrong—he didn't want to pull her to him; he wanted to pull her inside him. Somehow the gentlemanly part of him remained in control and kept the kiss sweet and chaste for their audience, and beyond the demands of his body for more, he heard the maestro pronounce, "Their Royal Highnesses, Princess Natalia and Prince Gailardia."
There was applause and cheering and Luke's shrill whistle, and Guy pressed his forehead to Natalia's. "What have you gotten me into?" he whispered.
His wife laughed and kissed him again.