fire and ink
I won’t lie. I’m nervous.
Not to be married, of course not. The rest of my life with Vale? I am so lucky I have that to look forward to. It’s the getting married part I’m nervous about.
The people are packed in Wyncomb. It’s practically the whole kingdom of Colmier, and the high nobility of Avolire. I have yet to shake the hands of any of the pompous elites of Esrius and Adalia’s kingdom, and I don’t look forward to more raised eyebrows and stares down the noses. It’ll be interesting, though, to see how many of the women faint from lack of circulation, if they wear the corsets like the one Adalia tried to make me wear. I’ve taken bets with Lunia and Casson. There will be a little over thirty noble ladies from Avolire. Casson predicts that half of them will be on the floor or a couch by the end of the night. Lunia says twenty, and I say twenty-three.
I’m having a wager with myself. How many times Colmierians will try to shake the hands of the Avolirans, and how many times the Avolirans will sniff and pointedly turn away. I think eighty-three times, at least. One for each member of the Avoliran upper class.
The back of the wooden door to the banquet hall is beautifully detailed. Not terribly ornate, but it’s smooth woodwork. I’m glad it’s smooth. I lean against it with my forehead and close my eyes.
My parents have always told me to swallow all nerves. Never turn back when you’re afraid, they said. Then, the fear wins. Don’t ever let it win.
My stomach, however, is churning at me to turn back. It’s telling me that something doesn’t feel right.
I think of Vale’s smile when he saw me in my dress. I think of the way he looks at me with such tenderness in his eyes. He stole a sword for me. He snuggles into my shoulder as he falls asleep, and the breath he lets out when he slips into dreams is warm on the back of my neck. My eyes open, and I feel a smile creeping its way onto my mouth. My stomach stops churning.
I’m alone here in the hallway outside the door. No one is walking with me down the aisle. Traditionally, it would be my father on my arm, but I will go forward on my own. I’m going to walk into the rest of my life the same way I walk into battle.
Trumpets are blaring from inside. It’s almost my cue.
I wrap my arms around myself and take a deep breath before setting my shoulders back and pulling my skirts off the floor. I’m all right.
The doors open inward, and I tilt my chin up, slapping on a smirk as the light catches my eyes.
The banquet hall is bedecked in fabrics and glittering lanterns. Banners of Colmier and Avolire hang from the ceiling. The floor-to-ceiling windows are framed with sheer white curtains which glitter gold and silver. There are benches on either side of the room, curved around the center and making an aisle that stretches all the way to the back wall, where Vale should be walking in. We’ll convene in the center, under a lace canopy supported by large, carved wooden beams, three on either side. It is there that our parents—as the sovereigns of our nations—await us, ready to unify both their children and their kingdoms. The guests’ heads swivel between sides of the room, no doubt wondering about this arrangement. It makes perfect sense to some of the Colmierians, who understand the way my mind works. But many Colmierians, and all of the Avolirans, are bewildered.
Vale and I decided, long ago, that we were not property to be given away to each other. Neither one of us will wait for the other at an altar.
We meet in the middle, and enter this future without being led into it. We chose each other. We even wrote our vows together.
I start forward, keeping my skirts out of the path of my feet. I hear, despite the music, the gasps and whispers of the Avoliran nobles. They gape at me, distorting their painted features into masks of shock and disdain. I only give them a glance, and wink at my people, who have risen to their feet and bow their heads to me.
Among the standing, on my left, are Lunia and Casson. Lunia’s hair falls over her shoulders, brushed back from one side of her forehead. She wears a blue dress that makes her irises look white. It hangs off her shoulders and dips tantalizingly low over her breasts. Casson is dressed in his dark crimson shirt buttoned up to his chin, hiding as many of his pale blotches as he can. His hair is sleek and straight, pulled back in a half-tail. Lunia smiles at me, and waves a little. Cass dips his head slightly, but his jaw is tense.
They stand in the front row of the Colmierians and elves. The Hartwells were undoubtedly unnerved that my parents invited elves to our wedding, but here they are. They wear bright colors, and a few of them wear headscarves and hoods. Some of them glance around, looking at the Avolirans, and whispering among themselves. I’m not sure it was a good idea for my parents to invite the elves to something that could prove to be a test of tolerance for either side. If it were only my decision, I would have invited the elves and not the Avolirans, but it is what it is.
My parents look in my direction, and my mother has her hands clasped in front of her breast. She grins, a smile that wrinkles her cheeks. My father has trimmed his beard and stands up tall, dipping his head to me as I meet his eye. Esrius glances at me, and his eyes go wide for a moment before he turns back toward his son’s entrance.
Adalia’s eyes are nearly as large as apples. The last time she saw me, I was preparing to get into the white dress. The moment she left, however, I dropped all pretenses and slipped into the red one. I wear my comfortable shoes. My stomach is not compacted in a cage. My breasts aren’t tethered in place. I can breathe. I walk confidently, straightening my spine as I see Adalia’s jaw twitch. A flush rises from her collarbone to, I would assume, her face, but there’s too much makeup on her skin for me to tell. She did not expect this. Plans are supposed to be followed.
I raise one shoulder at her and toss my hair so it swishes behind me.
And walking toward me, as our parents step back, is Vale.
He wears a simple costume. Black trousers, and black boots edged with gold. A navy dress shirt fits his slim figure well, with a neckline that dips to his collarbone. Gold epaulettes rest on his shoulders, and the tassels shift as he walks. A gold cape is draped over one shoulder, tied at his waist. My handsome husband-to-be walks like a king, with careful, deliberate strides. His blue eyes sparkle in the light flooding into the hall. His light brown hair is less unruly than it normally is. It’s brushed up and back from his forehead, slightly trimmed, but not too short. He smiles at me and winks, a tiny motion that wrinkles his nose slightly. We are close enough to touch, so I reach for his hand and squeeze it.
“Hi,” he whispers.
“Hi.” I grin. “We still have time if you want to give it another go.” I jerk my head to the door.
He laughs. “It’s a little late for that.”
The guests are seated. Our parents, who stand two on either side of the middle pillar, dive into formalities. I’ve never much cared for formalities. Vale is listening intently. His hand is still in mine. But I blink out of the ceremony, looking around. I see Shylar, sitting in the front row, twisting her hands in her lap. She wears a navy and gold gown, like her mother’s, and has a carefully neutral expression on her face.
I can only see the Avolirans from my angle. They’re dressed in their delicate fineries, heavily made up, showing off their teased, stiff hairstyles. The Avolirans sit high in their chairs, muttering to themselves and looking me over. Analyzing me. Judging me.
I don’t care.
I glance back at Lunia and Casson and give them a slight shrug of the shoulder. Lunia smiles at me and exaggerates her breaths, telling me to keep calm. Cass nods, and barely blinks as he meets my eye.
Vale squeezes my hand, and I turn back to our parents.
Esrius is speaking. “And as we join these two in marriage, we join our kingdoms in peace.” He nods to us. “Your vows?” He turns to Vale first, expecting him to begin his monologue.
I glance at Adalia. Oh, she’s going to be livid.
“When we began,” I say, “it was not love.”
Our parents snap their heads to me. The Hartwells are bewildered; Adalia’s jaw has fallen slack, and Esrius’s brow is knit. My parents grin at me.
Vale continues our vows. “She wounded my body,” he says to the guests, with a wink.
“Because he wounded my pride,” I add, and the guests laugh.
He shrugs. “On numerous occasions.”
“Over the years,” I say, “we have learned to tolerate each other.”
“We have learned to listen,” Vale says.
“But,” he says, “we have much more to learn.”
He addresses me directly. “You will learn the joys of domesticity,” he says, and shrugs as he adds, “however few they may be.”
“And you,” I say, “will learn to be free. In mind, and in body.” I resist the urge to glance at his mother.
“I will learn to ignore most of my reservations,” he says.
I nod to him. “And I will learn to adopt some of the ones you ignore.”
“We will learn from each other,” he begins
“Be open and honest with each other,” I say.
Our voices join together. “And, above all, love each other.”
We take each others’ hands, ignoring the kingdoms, ignoring our parents, even though I know my mother is on the verge of tears, and Adalia’s red face is showing through her makeup. We speak with one voice.
“I am not yours,
You are not mine.
From this day forth, we go on as partners.
I will not take another step forward until you have as level footing as I do.
I was not born to lead you through life.
I will take your hand,
But I refuse to pull you along.
My shoulder is yours to lean on.
My back will support you.
When you stumble, I will stumble too.
My dearest love, know I will never abandon you.
My closest friend, we will hold both joy and sorrow together.
When you are in darkness, I cannot see.
When you are ailing, I cannot stand.
We are one soul,
Reunited at last.”
Vale grins, and leans forward to rest his forehead on mine. I close my eyes and grip his hands tightly. I hear nothing except his breathing. I’ve blocked out the ceremony. We wrote the vows together, breaking with tradition, but I feel my eyes burning. The words mean so much more when spoken aloud.
There’s a thundering in the banquet hall. It takes me a moment to register the applause. I break away from Vale and turn to the sound. The Colmierians and elves have risen to their feet, clapping enthusiastically. Myllis, standing next to Janna near the front, has a handkerchief in her palm and she dabs at her eyes. She’s been watching after me since I could toddle. If I must guess, at the reception, she and my mother will take alternating swigs from the same jug of ale.
I look at the Avolirans, who are still seated. Some of them tap their fingers on their palms; to my surprise, Shylar is one of them. She stares at Vale with wide eyes and a tiny smile, dipping her head to him. My face softens as I look at her. She doesn’t take her eyes off her big brother. Vale always says that I’m ruthless and unfair when it comes to teasing Shylar. I’ve never seen it until now. She has a heart, perhaps. I see it in her welling eyes. Still cold, but a heart. At least it’s not coated in enough ice to skate on, like her mother’s.
Vale is staring around like I am, and his face is flushed. His mouth quirks into a smile and he ducks his head at the applause.
My father coughs, and we turn back to our parents. “With that,” my parents say in unison, “you may exchange your rings.”
Vale reaches into his pocket, and I slip my hand into mine, for a pair of simple bands. The one I give him is silver. The one he slips onto my finger is gold.
The churning in my stomach is back. In a few more phrases, we’ll be married. To be honest, I never thought this would happen. My hand trembles.
“After those vows, I see no need to ask whether you promise to support and protect each other,” my father rumbles.
“But protocol must be followed,” Adalia says, and I hold back the impulse to roll my eyes. Or punch her in the face. “Teressa?” she says to my mother.
“Averill Skye and Valberion Teague.” Vale’s hand twitches in mine at his full name, and I tickle his palm with my pinkie. “Will you help each other?” my mother asks. “In fortune and in misery?”
“I will,” I say.
“I will,” Vale says.
“Will you trust each other?” my father asks. “In all things?”
“I will,” we say.
“Will you keep each other in check?” Adalia asks. “If the need should arise?”
I set my jaw as I answer with Vale. “I will.”
“And will you keep the needs of your kingdoms in high priority?” Esrius asks. “Despite familial feuds?”
“With these vows,” the kings and queens say together, “we declare you wed.” They bow their heads to us, a gesture which signals us to complete the ceremony with a kiss.
We turn to each other, and I smile. “It’s not too late to back out,” I say. “You haven’t kissed me yet.”
“But I’m about to,” he says, and dips his head toward mine.
“I figured,” I chuckle. I close my eyes and tilt my chin up.
The kiss never comes.
A wind whistles past my nose, and a hollow thud reaches my ears. Vale takes a sharp breath in, and his hands are wrenched from mine as he jerks backward. I open my eyes again. Silence has fallen over the guests, and the reason why is trembling in front of my face.
A pickaxe has been hurled between us, and is now impaled in the middle pillar of the canopy.
Vale is shaking, and his chest convulses with terrified breaths. Our parents have taken steps back. My father has his hand on his sword, and my mother is glaring at the axe. Adalia is standing—cowering, really—behind her husband, whispering into his ear, probably something about elves. Esrius has a hand on his own saber, and he strokes his long gray beard out of nerves.
I take a breath through my nose and turn to the Colmierian side of the hall, from where, no doubt, the pickaxe was thrown. “I understand weddings can be dreadfully boring,” I say, stepping out from the center. “But I think the time for objections is long past.”
Lunia has gotten to her feet. She’s seconds away from drawing the dagger from her boot. Casson is staring around the crowd, eyes tracing the faces, trying to determine who threw the pickaxe. He draws his sword from his sheath, and I promptly move to take it from him.
He blinks his dark green eyes at me, lip curled. I shake my head. “Please go get my sword,” I whisper.
“What?” Cass cocks his head. “You–”
“Vale gave me a sword. It’s under my bed,” I say. “You’re the fastest of us. Please? My daggers won’t be much help here if it turns into a battle.” The daggers, strapped to my thighs, will do nothing against someone who can so accurately throw something like a pickaxe.
Cass grits his teeth, but nods, relinquishing his grip on the blade. He walks, ever the dignified soldier, out the door, and before it closes, I see him break into a sprint.
I toss my hair and twirl the sword in an arc. “I’ll ask once,” I say, turning to my people. “Who decided it would be a wise idea to disrupt this wedding? Don’t be shy.” I point at people with the tip of the sword. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Apologies, Princess.” A figure stands up toward the rear of the crowd. His voice booms over the hall, and he wears a hood that plunges his face into shadow, but not enough that I can’t see the headscarf he wears across his mouth. No one is moving. No one has moved to tackle him to the ground. I look at the guests, and some of them are trying to edge away, but failing, like something unseen is keeping them in place. Lunia’s shoulders are twitching, and her knees shake. She’s trying to move forward. She glances at me and opens her mouth, but nothing comes out.
My stomach rumbles.
I turn back to the cloaked man, trying and failing to make out features. “You missed,” I say.
The man chuckles, a rumbling, quaking sound, and shakes his head. “My axe landed exactly where I aimed it,” he says.
I smile. “I am confused, sir.” I take a step up the aisle between benches, one step closer to him. Not quite close enough to reach with a swing of the sword. But maybe a thrown dagger… “If I were to intrude on a wedding and throw a weapon, I would want to hit someone with it.”
“Not if you need that someone alive,” the man says.
“What brings you here?” I ask, taking another step. I can see his outline better now. He is tall, towering over my head, with strong shoulders and arms crossed over his broad, muscled chest. “If not murder?”
“I need something.”
I don’t recognize his form. I don’t know what problem he would have with me. He can’t be a former lover; I would have remembered him. “If I have done something to you,” I say, bowing. “I apologize. Unless, of course, you were deserving. In which case, I do not apologize, and would appreciate you not barging in and causing an uproar like a child.”
He tilts his head back and laughs, wrapping an arm around his stomach. “Princess,” he says, “You’ve done nothing. I only said I need something.”
“Royal blood. The blood of a virgin.”
I pause in place. “The blood,” I repeat, “of a virgin.”
I can’t help it. I drop Cass’s sword. Laughter rips from my lungs, and I bend at the waist. The laughter is so forceful it hurts. Tears spark my eyes, and I can’t breathe. “Ha!” I take a shuddering breath and stand up straight. “You’ve come to the wrong place then,” I gasp. “Don’t you know who you’re dealing with?” I spread my arms to my sides, presenting myself. “The Royal Whore, at your service.” I smile, a wide one, that stretches my skin into an uncomfortable mask. But this is the funniest thing I’ve heard in my life.
But the smile drops off my face when the man tilts his head up, so slightly I nearly miss it.
He’s not looking at me.
I turn around, a motion that takes what feels like a century. Adalia and Esrius are gone. Their soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder with my parents, who are frozen in place as well. No one seems to be able to move except me.
Vale, who stands rooted to the floor anyway. His arms tremble at his sides, and though his chin is high, his face is a deep crimson.
For once, I can’t find anything to say.
“…Bear?” I manage.
He snaps his head to me and his jaw shakes. He looks away. The redness trails down his neck. “I told you I wanted it to be special,” he mutters.
I raise a hand to my lips and move toward him. “Look at me,” I say, taking his chin in my hand. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” I smile at him and caress his cheek. “It doesn’t matter. Not to me. I love you no matter what.” He still won’t turn his eyes to me. “My love,” I continue. “You could have told me. I would have stopped trying. There’s no shame in wanting to wait.”
He looks at me and opens his mouth, but he freezes in place, gritting his teeth. “Averill,” he says, “I can’t move.” His eyes go wide, and I whirl to my side.
The hooded man is suddenly next to me, like all he had to do was take a step and cross the room. “As touching as this is,” he says, “I need him.”
Stupidly, I’ve dropped the sword. No matter. I reach into my pockets and pull out my daggers through the tears in the fabric I’ve made just for them. “You’ll need to fight me first.”
“You would go armed to your own wedding?” Vale hisses, still frozen to the floor.
“Would you rather I hadn’t?” I ask. What is taking Casson so long with that sword?
The man reaches for my shoulder. “Stay out of this, Princess,” he says, but I spin my arm, nicking his hand with one of my daggers.
“Take one step closer to him,” I say, “and this goes through your heart.”
“You assume I have a heart left,” he snorts, and blocks my next strike with his forearm. “You are as good as they say,” he comments.
“In bed or in battle?” I ask, feinting and aiming for his stomach.
He dodges and grabs my wrist. “From what I can tell, battle, although based on your retorts, you have a talented tongue as well.”
I fight a shudder and sweep my leg around, hooking the man’s ankle. He topples, and reaches out a hand to steady himself. He leaps back up immediately and whistles through his teeth.
I aim for his throat, but someone strikes my elbow. I look to my side. Among the frozen guests, people are moving. Only elves, though not all of them. Their faces are shaded by headscarves and hoods, and one of them is right at my side. “It’s not personal, Princess,” a muffled voice says, twisting my arm behind my back. I hiss, but tighten my grip on my daggers.
“Averill!” Vale cries, straining against whatever bonds keep him still.
I take a deep breath and slam my heel down on my assailant’s instep. The elf—I assume they’re an elf—yelps, and stumbles back when I elbow them in the nose. I charge forward, dodging this man’s forces, until I’m at his back. He’s bent over a kind of book, and I whistle in where I assume his ear is.
He flinches and turns to me, and I see his eyes above his face scarf. They’re narrowed and dark, I can’t quite tell what color.
“You know my names,” I say, grabbing him by the collar of his cloak. I poke his sharp cheekbone with the point of a dagger. “What am I to write on your grave?”
His eyes crinkle. He’s smiling at me. “Rostion,” he says. “But your grave will come first.” He closes his eyes, and there’s an ember burning in my throat. At first, I cough it away, but it comes back stronger, igniting into a fire that sends me to my knees. I drop my daggers and clutch my neck, coughing and gagging. However much I cough, no ash speckles the ground.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t see.
Oh, gods, not like this.
“Stop!” I barely hear Vale over the crackling in my ears. “Stop, let her go!”
My teeth are chattering and I pick my head up, the motion sparking pain over my skin. The world is made up of different colored blurs. The one I think is Vale is still trapped in his spot, but he’s squirming, toward me. “Don’t,” he says. His eyes are wide.
Rostion turns to him. “What leverage do you have?” he asks, flipping a page in his tome.
“You’re killing her!” he says, and it feels like it’s true. I want to vomit. The pain has spread to my chest. My lungs are shriveling. “If you are at all a decent person–“
“A decent person?” Rostion looks up. “I’m not a person, not according to your kingdom.”
An elf. He’s an elf.
I glance up, where the pickaxe is still impaled in the wooden pillar. While he’s looking through his book, I grit my teeth against the fire and slide over the ground. I’m close. I’m so close.
“There it is,” Rostion says, and mutters a few words under his breath.
With those words, the fire disappears, and I can breathe again. I cough and sit up to the sound of screams. The air was so empty before.
The guests have scattered. They’re fleeing for the doors, trampling each other in an attempt to escape. The Avoliran soldiers, led by a dark man who can only be the captain of the guard, are charging at Rostion. My father is among them. They’re met by the elves who stood with Rostion, who are armed with pickaxes and iron-tipped lances.
“Averill!” Someone grips my hand—Lunia. Her eyes are wide and she hauls me to my feet. “Are you alright?” When I nod, she tugs me forward. “Come on, then,” she says, jerking her head to Vale.
I freeze for an instant. Vale is looking at his hands, which glow with some sort of strange white energy. All of him is glowing, now that I look.
“Vale,” I breathe, and rush toward him. “Vale!”
He looks up and takes a step toward me, and, upon the discovery that he can walk, he runs toward me, pulling me into his arms.
“Are you hurt?” His voice is rushed and breathy. “Tell me you’re not hurt.”
“I’m fine,” I say, and grip his hand. I reach up to run my other hand through his hair, but my fingers pass right through. I yelp and leap back.
“It’s time to go.” Rostion is glowing with the same light. He puts a hand on Vale’s shoulder and pulls him away from me. He and his forces are all glowing, and growing transparent.
I keep Vale’s hand in mine. “You’re not going anywhere,” I say, taking an instant to glare at Rostion. I dig my nails into the back of Vale’s hand to keep him tethered.
“Averill…” Vale’s eyes are wide, and I can see the banners through his face. He’s disappearing.
“This isn’t over,” I say, without taking my eyes off him. “Wherever he takes you, you bet your ass I’ll be there.”
Vale is shaking. My poor boy is terrified. I barely feel his hand, and it’s glowing brighter. I hold it tighter. My eyes burn.
“I promise, I’m coming for you,” I say, and my fingers curl into an empty fist where his hand should be. “I’m going to come and get you, Bear.”
He nods, though I can see a tear slip down his face. “I know.”
And the world explodes into a ball of bright white light.