Councilor Athor had been the dead king’s closest friend, and Avery faced him now, in the quiet after the feasting that marked his father’s first night in the drafty, musty family crypt beneath them. To Avery’s credit, as far as Athor was concerned, the lad had held up pretty well for the others, but gave full vent to his own grief in private, having no mother either, now, to comfort him.
To Athor, he still looked more angry than sad, like a wasp with broken wings struggling against a fate now as inexorable and irrevocable as moontides.
“Did you also vote to move up the wedding day, Councilor?”
“I did, my king. You well know that a kingdom left too long without a head becomes all thrashing coils, which wreak a havoc all their own without reason to guide them.”
A silence fell in the sunlit room; the light seemed filtered, more like through the gauze of a death shroud than through glass.
Avery began to struggle for composure again, and Athor put his scarred, massive hand on the young man’s shoulders, steadying him, giving him strength.
“We need not be formal here, Avery, between ourselves. Your father was my dearest friend, even from childhood. The mischief we made was legendary, and he’ll be sorely missed, but he was not my father, and while I can’t replace him, I will counsel you as I believe he would.
“I will never be dishonest with you, nor disloyal to you, so know this before we go on together.
“There will be power plays by nobles currying favor, and those who will vie to take the throne from you outright.
“That being said, I’ve had occasion to meet Dawn’s father, King Garick, and while he is reluctant to pledge her to you, they are both resigned to it. He will keep his pledge to rally to us when the invaders come. He’ll also see to it that she keeps hers as your betrothed.”
Avery gave a weak smile. “I’ve no experience with women’s wiles.”
Athor laughed. “The wiles of women are infinite in scope and mystery, dear boy. There isn’t a man alive who’s fathomed them all.”
He took his hand off Avery’s shoulder as the laughter subsided. “But watch her; there will be patterns and traits that emerge, habits and routines. Your marriage will form its own dynamics, and gain its own momentum.
“You will learn those things in time, and as she will be your queen, try to learn them as quickly as possible. She will be doing the same to you.”
He stepped away to pour them each a cup of wine.
“But never forget, Avery, you are the ruler, and the future of both these lands is now on your shoulders. Guard your mind and think before you speak; your words become the law of the land.”
Avery set his cup down and hugged the old man, who was now the closest thing he had to what he’d lost.
“Thank you, Athor. I will take your sage advice to heart.”
“Then may it prove profitable to you, the kingdom, and your new bride. It’s time for you to meet her.”
Athor nodded, holding the door open as Avery passed him.
The shrouded veil of sunlight spilled into the drafty hall they walked, but a cooling breeze came and wafted over them like a sigh of relief.
Dawn kept staring at herself in the mirror, noting in the background the growing impatience of her new ladies-in-waiting, phony smiles of indulgence frozen on their lips as a veneer over their distrust, if not dislike, of their new queen.
While she had to admit that her hair and makeup were impeccable, no matter how long she stared, this laced loincloth they called a wedding dress got no longer to cover her legs, no closer to her neck to cover her cleavage, and no less see-through.
“From tomboy to tavern tart.”
….that’s exactly what they’ll make of you.
She shook her head, ridding herself of the thought. She didn’t know any tavern tarts, and never met one, but she’d heard the rough talk of soldiers as she wandered the castle. She went places she wasn’t supposed to be, since her nanny was prone to sleeping whenever Dawn pretended to quietly play with her dolls.
She asked her mother about a phrase she’d heard a soldier say, and her mother’s face turned the red of a ripe pomegranate. Instead of answering the question, she forbade Dawn to leave her nanny’s sight, sleeping or not, upon penalty of a good, long hiding.
Dawn could smile at the memory today, but in the moment, she quailed like a broken-winged bird before a hungry cat, and did in fact, for a week or two, play quietly with her dolls while nanny slept.
“Does my lady’s smile mean that she is pleased, and ready to go?”
Dawn, startled out of her reverie, looked one last time at the dress. Nothing had changed.
She sighed again with the futility of resisting what had to be. “Yes, I’m ready.” To run screaming from this place.
But she didn’t.
Chapter 4: Wedding Day
The chapel was bedecked in banners of white for purity, gold for prosperity, and green for fertility, as it was explained to Dawn.
Avery’s eyes widened when he saw her.
Ignoring the drafts, she found herself smiling; he was quite strapping, and handsome.
The guests however, paid him no attention; all eyes were on her, and she felt the weight of the stares, made worse by what she imagined they were thinking. She squeezed her father’s arm with her own, and pressed closer.
Garick patted her arm, reassuring her. “Steady, Dawn. He’s your husband, and a king. He’ll not see you come to harm. I won’t either.”
She patted his hand in return, and tried to relax, grateful he was here. If father felt Avery couldn’t protect me, I wouldn’t be here, wearing this slip of a dress…
She gently bit the inside of her cheek. Stop it, Dawn.
With a nod from Athor, Avery extended his hand, and Garick released Dawn’s arm, stepping back to take his place opposite the councilor.
As she stepped up to join Avery, Garick felt the councilor’s eyes on him as the priest began the ceremony, binding the royal couple’s hands with ribbons of white, gold, and green. He leaned over and whispered to Garick, “The Council will watch over her, your majesty. She will come to no harm. You have my word.”
Garick gave a small, grateful smile and a slight nod, wanting to believe it.
Sparing a look to the bride and groom, their hands clasped, he was pleased to see Dawn was smitten enough, and the new king was mostly succeeding in his visible effort not to ogle her. Garick was somewhere between amused and seething, knowing he’d have to take the Councilor at his word.
Then he noticed the women in Dawn’s retinue staring imaginary daggers into her back.
They wanted him for themselves. He realized his mistake. His daughter was meat on a stick in this place. For a moment, he thought of stopping the ceremony, but to stop it publicly, then do it privately would make him seem weak and desperate, and embarrass their ally and Councilor Athor, so he didn’t.
“You may kiss the bride.”
Garick saw the boy hesitate. He’s a virgin, too.
The kiss was awkward but tender, and brief.
Amid all the ensuing clamor of cheers and music, Dawn looked at her father and smiled as the priest released the bindings.
He smiled back as she descended the steps to embrace him, and they cried in each other’s arms.
“I’ll be fine,” she whispered.
They laughed through their tears, and Garick released her, going to shake Avery’s hand.
“Welcome, King Garick.” He looked at Dawn, then back at Garick. “And thank you.”
Garick worked to keep his jaw loose. “May your marriage, and kingdom, grow and prosper, King Avery.”
The music for the first dance began to play, and the guests gathered to wait for the royal couple. The ladies in waiting had taken her to change. When she returned in an elegant dark blue gown and pearls, Avery extended his hand, and Dawn took it. They took the floor to more applause and cheering.
Athor came to Garick’s side, as he watched the couple spinning gracefully around.
“Thank you, Councilor Athor.”
Athor chuckled. “Don’t thank me, Garick. This is women’s work. My own wife handled all the details. This was a land without a queen for quite some time. But of course, you already knew that. We’ll speak of what happens next in a day or two, and let the festivities run their course. Agreed?”
“She’s a lovely girl.”
“That would be the doing of my wife.”
“My condolences for your loss.”
Athor gave a small nod, then left Garick and began to speak with the nobles, laying the groundwork for the meeting to follow.
Garick had his own work to do in that regard. Alliances meant a loss of independence, and trust was the linchpin that held it together. In times of war, if the pin was pulled, one always suffered more than the other, the other profiting from the betrayal.
“Father, are you alright?” Dawn was coming over to him, concern in her eyes. He hadn’t realized the music stopped.
His dark rumination fled. “Yes. Yes, Dawn. I’m fine.”
She made a quick face, not quite believing him. “Dance with me?”
For the rest of the evening, he put aside king’s politics, and with Athor’s help, got to know something of the people and land who would now be guarding the life of his child.