Her eyes were wide with apprehension. Thank Jichia she had her back to the world, which, surely, knew of her mistake. They must be glaring at her, red-faced with rage. Thank Jichia she couldn't see them. Their angry voices rumbled in her ears, like the relentless roar of the sea at the Palas Harbour. "Whore!" they accused. Thank Jichia she'd cried all her guilt out already. There was nothing left in her lungs but despair. But her heart beat thick and fast – much too thick and fast – she was sure they could all hear. He was right behind her, fourth from the left. Thank Jichia she couldn't see him. But she felt his every movement; every blink of his eyes, every clink of his sword.
Then again, it didn't matter a jot today whether he sobbed or stood silent. This was it, the moment her entire life had lead up to. And they were both powerless to stop it. Finally, she was being married off, splendidly and ceremoniously, with not a grain of rice or a drop of gold less than expected. The air was filled with perfume and the palace rippled with people. The whole country was on holiday today. She dared not look up at her husband. If she did, he'd catch the awful guilt in her eyes. He stood beside her with his broad shoulders pulled back, a mark of his military training. He looked sideways at her often, almost as though he were reassuring himself that yes, indeed, this pale, beautiful creature was his companion for life. He had never done her any wrong. And she took him in deceit. Jichia would surely strike her down one day.
Her body still thrilled with Allen's touch, and her legs ached. She remembered every detail of last night, every single sensation. The way he looked at her as she came galloping in to the Schezar villa, face streaming with tears, the utter despair in his face, knowing she was never to be his, and the way he kissed her – as if his heart would break. They sat on the bed, and cried together for what seemed like eternity. Finally, he found the courage to kiss away her tears, unbutton her blouse and take her small, firm breasts in his hands. They made love in a confused whirlwind of desperation, with the urgency of a thirst being slaked. And here she was, getting married to the Duke of Freid, making vows she didn't mean. Of course she'd taken care to spread his coat on the bed to absorb the bloodstain. But still, she was afraid that someone would come screaming through the procession, triumphantly waving a bed sheet as proof of her crime. But more than four hours of ceremonies, and not a whisper. The fear began to sharpen- maybe they were waiting for the most sensational moment.
How many times had she been told, that family and honour came before all else, even happiness? She had always been of a wilful turn of mind, though. But she was gentle. Oh yes, very demure. She listened with wide blue eyes, and no one dreamed that Marlene – Princess Marlene Erisha Aston, would ever do such a thing. They didn't know of the mongrel puppies she'd sneaked into her bedchamber every time the kitchen dog gave a litter, of how she would trip Eries to stop her from getting to Father first when he returned from abroad with gifts, the books of illicit passion she had stolen from her chambermaid's quarters, the time she had blindfolded the marquis' son and made him kiss her, getting drunk on sailor's ale in her room, with a bottle sneaked from the guards...she had lost count of the number of times she'd found a way to get her way.
No one ever said no to her. (They hadn't ever learned how to refuse that angelic face, with its wavy golden hair, which curled ever so slightly, or those trembling, red lips. Marlene knew very well, all she had to do was lower her head, and look up someone innocently; parting her lips a little, fidgeting just enough to suggest earnestness).
Had she pulled this one off, too? Could no one really tell? Now eight hours into the ceremony, and not a whisper. She hardly felt the rush she usually did after wrongdoing. She was numb. It didn't feel exciting, it felt suffocating. For the first time in her life, Marlene was overwhelmed by a sense of *wrong*. The priest gave a final wave of his starburst staff and blessed the royal couple. The crown of emerald and silver, the one her mother had once worn, was lowered onto her head. It was heavy, and made all the pins in her hair hurt worse than ever.
Marlene stood there, swaying slightly. The duke grasped her firmly about the shoulders, leant down to kiss her. But Marlene was too distracted to do anything but curiously study his brown hand on her gown. "Marlene", he whispered hoarsely, his voice cracking after having stayed silent for eight hours. She looked up, suddenly aware of his proximity, and panicked at the thought of his lips on hers. She twisted slightly in his grasp, and puzzled, he let go and lifted her veil instead. That one second seemed like hours, the veil of her secrecy being torn away, her life now her husband's – and he would find nothing there under the veil: no bride, but an empty pillar of air. Because she was absent from this marriage ceremony, she had retreated deep within her own mind like a delicate sea-crab, the outside was a shell. The Marlene-shell was kissed. His moustache was softer than she had expected, and his breath was warm. Normal human breath. Her own lips felt as clammy as earthworms.
Those who were close enough to the altar to see the glint of tears on Marlene's cheeks sighed with sympathy. New brides always cried at such moments, naturally, naturally. It was one of those expected wedding moments. She was a lily, trembling at the thought of being plucked, caressed, and carried to a man's bed. The crown cooed in sympathy. Naturally, the poor thing was full of the nervousness that came with innocence.
She was led off down the altar, towards her father and other relatives. They were beaming with pride and satisfaction. King Aston allowed himself a rare moment of tenderness when he embraced his daughter and kissed her on both cheeks, murmuring, "Be happy, my sweet", in her ear. Marlene reminded him so much of his late wife today. He nearly cried, checking himself with difficulty. Marlene and the Duke proceeded down the line of elders, receiving each of their blessings, sometimes a kiss, or an embrace, with a sprig of lavender consecrated with incense from Jichia's shrine. After the last aunt had been paid obeisance to, they turned to go back up the line, and walk down the aisle to the harbour through the crowds, who would now see her for the last time as Princess Marlene. After the wedding was consummated and she was crowned the Duchess of Freid, she would no longer be theirs. Marlene, still nauseated, looked up through her lashes at the long walk that awaited her. Doing that once was hard enough, doing it again felt positively frightening. She would have to pass by the assembled might of the Knight Caeli, proudly lined up, holding up their swords to make a crisscrossed roof over the heads of the newlyweds. Allen was fifth from the end, on her right, so close her long train would brush against his boots.
There was nothing to do now. She took a deep breath, steeling herself as best as she could. 'Oh Jichia, please help me now. Only for this little while. I am sorry, I am sorry. Only give me enough strength to walk now, exact your punishment later, when I have walked away. Away from his eyes. Away from my father and my sisters' eyes. Please. I must be strong for them. I can't afford to faint and give it all away." One step for each word of her prayer. Allen was three yards away. Now two. She was approaching him as she might approach an open door. He was her threshold; she would step over him, beyond him. She had to. Oh how could I?
Here he was. He stood like a dam, his back erect, holding back the deluge of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. He looked straight ahead. Having promised to himself that he wouldn't look away when she passed him by, he would force himself to watch as she left, possibly for the last time ever. She glided forward unstoppably, propelled by her husband's firm hand on the small of her back.
Allen suddenly wanted to leap out of line, swinging his sword in a shining arc, lopping off the Duke's head, forcing back the hysterical crowd, gathering his darling in his arms and fighting his way to the harbour. There, they would take the royal barge that had been decked out for husband and wife's stately progress, only now he would have to kill the Duke's retainers, while Marlene would frantically push the barge off the bank, and they would make a desperate bid for escape. The knights Caeli, his friends and mentors, would leap that distance and hijack the barge, but he would fight them off, every last one of them. Amidst blood and death their marriage would be completed. Wasn't he the greatest swordsman in Gaea?
But the momentary madness passed when Marlene walked by, without a heartbeat of hesitation. She was hard ice. If she had even looked at him, he would have been unmanned. But now his anguish vanished, leaving a hollow resignation inside. She didn't care. She was looking ahead, to the future. All of yesterday was a lie. It was as if the only guttering candle lighting his dark mind went out with a hiss of pain.
The gangplank, then the deck of the barge, then the two ornate chairs that faced out over the prow of the boat – Marlene registered nothing but a sense of relief. They were rowed out of the city's intricate maze of canals, passing under thirty-two bridges, each crowded with people cheering, waving and jostling for a view of her. A sudden view of the harbour, completely deserted, empty of the great trade ships for a day. The sun, beginning to sink towards the horizon. Marlene sat stiffly in her gilded chair, barely blinking. A leviship was waiting for them on a smaller island harbour. Before she knew it, they were off, on their way to castles in the air.