Thanks to anyone who's reading this story, hope I haven't kept you in suspense for too long! I'm switching things up a bit and just giving you Felicity's POV in this chapter, then next chapter will probably be just Claire's, and then it'll be back to normal by chapter 9 :) Feedback is mucho appreciated! Also, just a heads up- this chapter gets a tad... intense, haha. Don't worry, nothing really bad is going to happen to Felicity. Pinky promise. ;)
"Good morning, everyone!"
The voice split through my eardrums, shattering the first peaceful sleep I could remember having in a while. I moaned and tried to roll over to block out the noise, but found that my arms were constrained by something that made a clinking sound when I moved.
I could do nothing but lie there as the voice resounded all around me, speaking as though to a large crowd of people. "I have gathered you all together today so I can tell you some very exciting news. See this lovely young woman beside me?"
My eyelids flew open as the familiarity of the words being spoken crashed down on me.
"Say hello, Felicity," Emperor Ethelberd said encouragingly.
The sound of my soft, trembling voice echoed in my ears. "H-hello."
Light-hearted laughter coated in ice. "Don't be shy, my dear! These are your future people you're speaking to!"
The crowd let out a unified gasp as I listened in agony to the rest of Ethelberd's announcement being replayed on the television screen at the foot of my bed. I saw the terrified realization dawn on my face as the emperor grabbed my hand and raised it high above our heads with exaggerated enthusiasm.
"You heard me correctly, ladies and gentlemen. In exactly one week from now, Felicity here will be your new queen!"
Our audience erupted into the loudest applause I had ever heard in my life as I stood there, frozen in that moment, caught in the tangled folds of understanding and denial. I knew I was supposed to play along, act like I had known this wonderful news from the beginning. I knew that my life and possibly the fate of my village rested on my ability to play along, to appear just as delighted by this announcement as everyone else was.
Instead, I watched myself drop.
The emperor was quick to catch my limp body before it hit the ground, but for one brief second I could see in his eyes that this had taken him by surprise. He immediately composed himself and stood to address his shocked audience as Aiden stepped forward to remove the burden of my failure from his hands.
"Well," Ethelberd said, chuckling darkly, "it seems my fiancé got a little too excited."
The screen faded to blackness.
Your new queen.
When I first heard those words, it felt like the wind had been knocked out of my bones, like the sky above had caved in and buried me in its starry rubble. I couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't do anything but stand and stare and regret my disobedience to my father.
Hearing them for the twenty-seventh time wasn't any less mortifying.
The television in front of me had replayed the scene on the palace balcony over and over again for the past two hours. Seeing as my limbs were chained to the bedposts, I was helpless to do anything but watch it and hope each time it began that Ethelberd's announcement would be different. That maybe I had misheard, maybe I had misunderstood the meaning behind his words.
But every time, the words your new queen made me realize that there was no other interpretation. There was no way to twist the devastating truth.
Ethelberd planned to marry me.
Once reality had sunk its teeth into my skull, it all made perfect sense. The Sechs Empire had been trying to gain control of Kardia long before my father was mayor, and for years Ethelberd himself had tried to bargain with him, offering him more gold than any weaker-minded man could have turned down.
But Godwin knew Ethelberd's wicked ways, and he knew what he was truly after: power. He wanted dominion of the entire continent of Adonea, starting with the small village outside the border. Conquer one, conquer all. So he refused.
Although Ethelberd had all the equipment and manpower necessary for a full-scale invasion, he hesitated to do so. He knew that Kardia had good relations with its neighbors, and that if he so much as laid a finger on our land without my father's permission, the surrounding villages would immediately rally to our defense.
And so he bided his time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.
It came in the form of a rebellious daughter.
Once Ethelberd had me in his clutches, he knew he had my father as well. Godwin's only child, the daughter he cherished above all else, was the one thing he wasn't willing to bargain. All Ethelberd had to do was threaten my life and my father would surrender the town in a heartbeat.
But of course, why not go about it the diplomatic way? If I were Ethelberd's wife, then it would appear that I had made the choice myself. I wasn't a hostage, I was a queen. This wasn't a conquest, oh no.
It was a forced alliance.
You heard me correctly, ladies and gentlemen. In exactly one week from now, Felicity here will be your new queen!
Fifty-two times and counting.
I wasn't sure what Ethelberd's intentions were in making me relive the moment in this way. Surely it was a form of torture, but to what end? To make sure the message seeped into my mind and washed away any thought of escape? Was he trying to break me?
I laughed softly despite myself. Silly man. I'm already broken.
On eve of my fifth birthday, I was out playing in the forest by my house, chasing after wood sprites and picking up pebbles to add to my growing collection. Suddenly my tiny body was racked by a coughing fit so severe it caused the maid next door to come running in alarm. She took me inside to my father, who immediately sent me to bed and called Doctor Edward to come have a look at me.
The doctor couldn't find anything visibly wrong with me, so he assured my father it was merely a passing illness and would eventually go away on its own.
I was bedridden for the next three months.
Again and again my frantic father called on Edward to come see me, certain there must have been something that he missed the first time around. Again and again he assured us there was nothing that could be done for me, that I would simply have to wait to heal on my own.
I waited for thirteen years.
Of course, I wasn't bedridden the entire time. I eventually gained enough strength in my limbs to stand, walk, and eventually run again. However, I was easily exhausted and prone to fainting spells, and I often fell asleep before the sun even had time to set.
As a child, this didn't affect me too much. I didn't get along with the other children my age that well and preferred to keep to myself. As I got older, however, I longed to work and earn my keep. I began searching for jobs, but it seemed no one was willing to hire a girl who couldn't stay on her feet for more than a couple hours before needing to rest. It seemed as though I would forever be under my father's care.
Eventually an old friend of the family named Neumann took pity on me and allowed me to help him out in his shop for a few hours each day. At first I was satisfied with the work I did and the meager wages I received. However, as I watched the people around me live normal, healthy lives, I couldn't help but feel that I was missing out on something.
Besides the never-ending tension with the Sechs, my chronic weakness was part of the reason my father never allowed me outside the village borders- he was afraid that if I fell and hurt myself, I wouldn't have enough strength to get back home. For years I obeyed him without question. Of course he was only trying to protect me. Of course he had my best interests at heart.
Of course I would remain in Kardia for the rest of my existence.
It was in the months preceding my eighteenth birthday that I began to experience an irrepressible feeling of restlessness. Some of the village girls were already speaking of marriage and travel and alcohol, and there was I, nearly an adult and still heeding my father's commands like a child. By defying him, I was defying my illness as well. You have no control over me. I can do whatever I want and you have no say in it.
And so I freed myself from my shackles at home... and strolled right into Ethelberd's trap.
The thing that I still couldn't figure out was how Ethelberd had known about my illness and how Aiden and Lynette had somehow known that I would be in the forest that day. It had taken eighteen years for me to work up the courage to step outside the boundaries set by my father; it couldn't have been pure coincidence that they were there the same day as I… could it? No, they had to have had an inside source. A spy.
A spy in Kardia. The thought made me shiver.
But who was it?
"You heard me correctly, ladies and gentlemen. In exactly one week from now, Felicity here will be your new queen!"
Applause. Deceit. Betrayal.
It was roughly six hours later when Ethelberd's triumphant announcement rang in my ears for the last time.
This time, when the screen faded to black, it was replaced by an image that made me jolt upwards in shock.
"Daddy?" I croaked. My throat was parched with thirst. I struggled against the chains binding my wrists to the bedposts, finally managing to get myself into a sitting position so I could better see the television and make sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me.
Sure enough, there he was. I could tell by the bookshelves in the background that he was in his study, the map of Adonea partly concealed by his thick yellow-gray hair. I nearly burst into tears at the very sight of him. His face was pale as sheepskin and skinnier than I remembered it, and there were smoke-colored patches beneath his eyes that spoke of sleepless nights. I had known that my disappearance would devastate him, but I hadn't imagined the physical effects it would have.
When he opened his mouth to speak and instead began sobbing, I swore I felt my heart tear in two.
"Felicity. Oh, my darling Felicity. My baby girl. I'm so sorry," he choked through his tears. The anguish in his voice was unbearable.
"Daddy, I'm okay Daddy. I'm right here. It's okay," I tried to assure him as tears streamed down my own face. I pulled harder against my restraints, desperate to be close to him. "Everything's going to be fine."
He sighed mournfully and looked at me through glassy eyes. "I've let you down. I spent my whole life trying to protect you, and I've failed. I'm so sorry."
I shook my head vehemently. I would not let him believe this was his fault. "No! Don't blame yourself! It was me, Daddy, it was me. I left. I shouldn't have. I'm the one who's sorry. I should have listened to you. I'm a terrible daughter."
"No, Felicity," my father said softly, reaching out his hand as though trying to caress my cheek. I pulled on the chains until I could feel them cutting into my wrists, yet I couldn't bring myself any closer to my father. I screamed in frustration.
"Shhh. It's alright, my darling, it's alright." It was now my father's turn to comfort me as I sobbed aloud, past the point of trying to stay strong for him. I couldn't even stay strong for myself.
"Listen to me," he said, and now his tone was serious, commanding almost. I looked up, hiccuping, and his eyes bore into mine with such intensity that I nearly shrank back in fear.
"I know this isn't what either of us want, but we haven't got a choice. I can't lose you and your mother, too." His voice broke, and he took a deep, shuddering breath before he continued. "Felicity, I order you to marry Ethelberd. It's the only way he'll spare Kardia, and more importantly, your life."
I nodded as I stifled back a sob. Disobeying my father had gotten me into this mess, and I was determined never to do it again.
Suddenly the screen went dark and the bedroom swung open. I screamed and scrambled backwards into the mass of pillows behind me as Emperor Ethelberd's face contorted with sick laughter.
"Do you feel better about our marriage now that you have Daddy's permission?" he said tauntingly from the doorway, and I knew that somehow he had been listening in on our conversation.
For some reason this knowledge filled me with rage. Had I not been tied down, I probably would have lunged for his throat. How dare he. How dare he steal me away from my home and family. How dare he use me in his plan for world conquest like a queen in a chess game. How dare he cause my father such worry and heartbreak over my condition.
My father. It suddenly occurred to me that Daddy didn't own a camera or television or any other means of contacting me the way he just had. Did that mean...
I gasped as understanding came over my mind like a disease, and Ethelberd smiled as though already anticipating the questions forming on my lips.
"How did... but he couldn't have... where... what... is he hurt?" If one of the emperor's men had so much as grazed my father's body with his fingertips, I swore that once I became queen I would do everything in my power to have him beheaded.
If that punishment even still existed.
There was a tense moment of silence before Ethelberd slowly shook his head, and I felt myself breathe a sigh of relief. Suddenly remembering Wesley's warning and my father's command, I made a mental note to alter my demeanor in the emperor's presence. The fate of Kardia could possibly depend on it.
"Your Majesty," I said carefully, sitting up so I could meet his gaze, "if it's alright with you, I'd like to know what your men were doing in my father's home?"
Ethelberd waited a long moment before speaking, and at first I was afraid that he was angry with me for asking. "I sent Aiden and a few of my other soldiers there to do some... negotiating, if you will."
Negotiating. As in, give me your village or I kill your daughter. Who, by the way, is about to become my wife. No wonder Daddy had looked so stricken on the television.
I suddenly realized that Emperor Ethelberd was approaching my bed with a strange look in his eyes, kind of like the one Emmett gave any female that walked into his bar after he had had one too many drinks himself. I let out an involuntary whimper and shrunk further into the pillows.
But before he could come any closer, a tall figure appeared in the doorway behind him and cleared its throat. "Excuse me, Your Majesty."
I could have sworn I heard Ethelberd growl as he turned around. "Yes, Marlin?"
"I sincerely apologize for the interruption sir, but we've just brought the new captive in from Mineral Town. I thought you might like to have a look at her."
I heard a faint whistle as the emperor breathed out through his nostrils. "Tell Camus I'll be a few minutes."
Camus? "Yes, sir," the man said, and he glanced at me in a way I could only interpret as sympathetic before quickly closing the door.
Camus. I knew a Camus. He was Doctor Edward's son, the one who ran the farm shop to the south of my father's mansion and occasionally did construction work for the other villagers. We never really spoke as he had always seemed the silent, moody type, and the only information I knew about him was that he and his father were not on good terms. Neumann told me the other day that Camus had recently left Kardia on some kind of business trip without even saying goodbye to him.
What a coincidence that a soldier with the same name just returned to the Sechs from a... "business" trip of his own.
I hardly had time to dwell on this thought, however, as I noticed that Ethelberd was even closer to the bed than he had been before. My heart began to pound as it suddenly occurred to me to wonder why I had been chained here in the first place.
Two years ago, Lady Ann was almost raped by a man staying in her inn. The stranger had cornered her in his bedroom when she went in to check on him and threatened to hurt her daughter Tori, who was bound in the corner of the room, if she didn't comply with his demands. Thankfully, she had only just begun taking her clothes off when Zavier and Lukas smashed through the door of the room and tried to tackle him. The man managed to escape and wasn't caught until he was found hiding in the forest two days later.
During those two days, my father locked every single door and window in our house and insisted on sleeping next to my bed at night. He told me afterwards that, besides my life of course, my innocence was the most important thing I had to protect.
"Don't ever sleep with a man you don't love, Felicity," he had told me. "To share that secret with someone who doesn't respect it will be the biggest regret of your life."
And now Emperor Ethelberd was hovering over the bed, eying my body like a hawk about to devour its prey. I knew there was no way I'd be able to physically stop him, but there had to be a vein of compassion somewhere in his cruel body. My life was already gone; the least I could do was try to preserve my innocence.
"Please, Your Majesty," I whispered, my eyes filling with tears. My voice seemed to startle him from his thoughts, and he whipped his head around to gaze at my face.
"Please, Ethelberd... don't do this now. It's tradition that Kardians wait until after the marriage ceremony. I… it's important to me," I choked. A tear rolled down my left cheek for emphasis.
Ethelberd stared at me for a long time, his mouth twitching and his fingers flexing at his sides. The ray of hope within me grew dimmer and dimmer as time went on. I could feel the heat of lust and frustration emanating from his body, pressing down on my chest like fiery coals, and all I could do was pray to the Goddess that he would find enough mercy in his heart to spare my innocence this one time.
After what felt like hours, Ethelberd heaved an impatient sigh and reluctantly backed away from my bed and towards the door.
"Fine, fine. If you feel that strongly about it, then so be it. Besides," he said, winking as he opened the door to leave, "I only have to wait a week and then you're mine for eternity."
I waited, trembling, until he closed the door behind him, then leaned over the side of the bed and retched until there was nothing left inside of me but relief.
Yet for some reason, I still felt ill.