A dome of golden angels circled over Emmaline’s head. Roses interrupted the bright sunlight and glittered in pinks, oranges, reds, and whites. The heaviness of the gold furniture, the velvet curtains, the mountains of flowers, and the whishing bodies made her head heavy.
A sharp prick to her nape silenced her mind for a moment. “Hold still, Emmaline,” her mother hissed.
She bit her cheek and endured the thorns of white roses her mother threaded under the lace veil. Her three younger sisters sewed more emerald ribbons onto the sapphire skirt, all silent, all wearing beautiful gowns of their own. Her mother dropped the veil over her face and lifted her chin.
“Keep your eyes on the high priest. Walk slowly but not too slowly. Do what the priest tells you,” her mother rushed and yanked Emmaline off the stool onto the marble floor. As they walked over the palace rugs and stone floors, her mother hurried more orders – say nothing, chin up, eyes low. Her sisters followed the train of the sapphire gown, but they were silent.
The foreign palace was nothing like the narrow fortress she’d grown up in. The Saryllian palace was filled with roses and mirrors. Every beam of light reflected in the marble floors and the endless mirrors. Tapestries of beast gods and heroic battles covered every wall and column. The hearths were warm, and the windows were framed with ebony etched with flowers and vines. Even as she hurried behind her mother, their footsteps echoed along the glistening floors.
Her mother paused in a crimson room before two heavy white doors. The floor was soft and plush, and the bright walls reached high into the dome where warriors fought for eternity in their murals. Emmaline searched her mother’s face for a hint of what waited beyond the doors. Her sisters stepped back and lowered their heads as the pages slowly threw open the doors.
The long crimson runner continued into the great hall beyond the heavy doors. It divided two masses of lords and ladies in the finest, brightest gowns and coats that Emmaline had ever seen. Some were kings she knew from her father’s courts. Others were high priests of the temples in silver and gold robes. She could barely see the pair at the end of the room standing against a wall of white flowers and a grand statue of a falcon goddess.
A trumpet sounded, and a thin boy in golden robes yelled, “Princess Emmaline Hester Frust of Tarvin!”
The lords and ladies were silent, and gentle notes from a harp began though Emmaline could not see it. The crystals of the chandeliers scattered the colored sunlight from the stained glass above the hall. White rose petals dusted the runner like snow as Emmaline walked forward. Her mother molded into the crowd and nodded to her, but her steel eyes were cold and offered no hints.
She walked in time with the swaying song from the harp. Every gaze was upon her. Emmaline tried to focus on the pair before her as they became more visible. The Queen of Rosland, a thin grey lady, gasped and whispered, but she could not look at her. A judge of the Fespian Court bowed slightly. The others were probably Saryllian, for they were tall, and they all had hair as golden as their honeys and straw. They whispered in their strange language with its rolling consonants and nasal vowels. With every step, she felt sicker. Her heavy skirt weighed her steps even as the weight of the stares made her legs numb. She focused on the scarred eyes of the falcon goddess and hurried her steps.
The man directly before her, standing beneath the beak of the falcon, was a priest. He wore ink-black robes and a tall cap gilded in gold. He stood before a mahogany altar beside the other figure. His face was tight and sober, and his eyes grey with age. As she neared the pair, the harp became louder until it was a cacophony of gentle notes.
The second man in burgundy velvet and tall polished boots turned to face her, and she paused. He was more decorated and beautiful than any other noble in the hall. His deep blue eyes were cool, and his clean gentle face was far more sober than any of the other sanguine smiles she’d seen. His peach lips were flanked by laugh lines, and his suit hinted that he didn’t quite fit within its stitches. He could not be much older than her cousin – perhaps seventeen winters – but the shadows in his cheeks aged him.
As she neared the dais at the goddess’ feet, the man offered his arm. She wove her hand through the velvet and held his wrist, feeling the strength in his forearm. He smelled of rosy shaving oils and leather polish. Emmaline only came to his chest, but she walked taller and surer. Even if her only comfort was the strange man, she felt the world become lighter.
The man stopped before the priest and closed his hand over Emmaline’s. She smiled to him, but he was looking straight ahead at the altar. The invisible wall shattered, and all the crowd closed in around the dais, silent and staring so hard that Emmaline itched all over. The priest began to speak the confusing language to the pair and to the vast sea of satin and velvet. The harp was silent. The silence was deafening.
“My lady,” the priest said with the trill accent.
Emmaline stared into his dark eyes. What had he said? What was she supposed to say? She didn’t understand a single word he’d said. She felt her knees knock together.
“Say ‘I do,’” the man whispered. His accent rolled gentler and was as soft as his velvet sleeve. His eyes were softer as he looked upon her.
Emmaline said the words, and the priest continued in the language. He addressed the man with heavy words, and the man nodded. The priest turned and lifted a silver goblet from the altar. He handed it to the man with a smile and more words. The man sipped quickly and pushed it into Emmaline’s hand. She sipped, too, but the drink was sour. She could barely hold it in her throat. When she swallowed, the priest set the goblet on the altar and lifted his hands, and the entire hall erupted with applause. The man closed his hand tighter around Emmaline’s hand.
When they turned to the mass, she did not see her family or the familiar faces of her father’s court. She did not understand anything. The man lowered his hand to her wrist and led her away from the mass of nobles. She held his sleeve tighter than was polite and followed him through more marble corridors and runners. The sun was lower in the sky as the first streaks of orange took the sky.
He led her to a grand dining hall. The tables were arranged in a large rectangle around a lowered platform where a concert had begun. White cloths with embroidered flowers decorated the tables. Ribbons hung from the columns, and grand centerpieces of ivy and roses stood like mountains on the cloths. Two tall chairs stood beneath a crimson banner with ribbons and thick cushions. The man pulled out one of the chairs and nodded, so Emmaline sat down. Her knees still knocked, but the tablecloths hid them.
As the guests filled the tables, Emmaline sought her family. She saw her youngest sister, Denise, take a seat at the far end of her table. Her other sisters wove through two young nobles and a priest as they found seats at the end of her table. Neither waved to her. Emmaline’s mother took a seat near a grand blonde woman with a train gown. She remembered that the tall blonde woman was the Queen of Saryl and their hostess, Lady Reia. A pair in matching lavender garb sat beside Emmaline instead, talking amorously in the strange language with their backs to her as they talked.
The man opened his napkin and seemed to be looking for someone as well. He paused his search and looked at her for a moment, seeming more intrigued than angry then. Emmaline blushed. She suddenly preferred being invisible.
“You have lovely hair,” he said and wrapped one of her garnet locks around his fingers.
“Thank-you, my lord,” she said. “Your hair is lovely as well.”
He lowered the lock and turned instead to the gathering crowd. Servants in clean almond-colored garb lined the tables with steaming plates in hand. Others covered the tables with wide platters of cheeses, fruits, and soups. The man set a flat-bottomed ruby fruit on his plate and used the pearly knife to core out its black heart. When he saw Emmaline watching, he slowly removed each fruit and named them: shepherd’s nose, star tear, witchberry. The sheppherd’s nose was her favorite, for its hairy skin yielded delicious emerald pearls within that burst between her teeth. It was sweeter than any fruit she’d known. The witchberry was so purple it stained her fingers. The man indicated the soup concoctions and the garnishes. He explained that in Saryl, everything was sweetened and presented beautifully, for it was art.
As she cored the berries for herself, she opened her finger with the blade. The man wrapped it with his napkin. The calluses in his hand shocked her. He seemed so gentle, and yet his hands were rough and caught on her sleeve. The man did not seem to notice. Rather, he had begun to frown again, and the darkness took his sapphire eyes again.
“Please excuse me,” he whispered.
He wrapped her hand around her own wound and stood. The air became colder in his absence. The couple beside her dote on one another, stroking each other’s hands, speaking in the fast language. The entire dinner party was loud and rouged with their wines. Emmaline could not understand anyone, and she had already eaten her fill in foods and drinks. She excused herself to no one in particular and followed the man’s shadow.
The man walked heavily to a darker corridor beyond the dining hall. He stood near a column by an alcove. Someone else stood there. Emmaline peaked from behind the column and saw that it was the queen. While everyone was standing, she became shier, for they were much taller and louder than she was. Then she saw that her mother stood in their company as well. No one noticed her beyond the corner.
“You will address your guests in their language, Damond,” the blonde queen demanded.
“Very well,” he bit out. “I’ll not bed your ten year old, Lady Hester.”
“Lord Damond!” her mother hissed.
“You had your wedding,” he continued, undaunted by the icicles in both queens’ expressions. “You had your wedding, my vows, your big party. The kingdoms will rest well. That should be enough.”
“You will take the princess to your bed, Damond, and you will bed her before the wedding party. If you do not, I will see to it that you have no kingdom. Am I understood?” The blonde queen crossed her arms, but the man did not respond. She grabbed his damask shirt and spoke in their fast, angry tongue.
He said nothing but furrowed his eyebrows. The queen released him, and he turned on his heels toward the hallway. Both women straightened their shoulders, but their hatred was tangible in the warm hallway. Emmaline was frozen against the column. How could he walk after such an angry confrontation? How did he stand such words?
When Damond turned, his eyes met Emmaline’s. “Princess,” he whispered. She frowned. He sighed and set his hand on her veiled head, poking both of them with the thorns in the roses. “Come. The dessert should be delicious.”
Emmaline followed him back to the loud dining hall. The dessert was a fruit cake with sweet meringues deep in its crusts. She ate witchberries until she was nearly sick, and she drank a drop of wine to ease the tension in her stomach. Damond was angry. She avoided looking into the brooding shadows of his face for fear it would make the knots in her stomach sink her through the chair.
“Hot tea, my lord? My lady?” a crystal voice half-sang. It was the second time in the entire day that a Saryllian spoke to her in her language.
Emmaline looked over the servant. Her hair was covered in a yellow cap, but her brilliant emerald eyes glistened like stained glass. She was curvy, even sultry, with wide hips tucked neatly to hold a platter, and narrow wrists. Her rouged lips were pulled in a deceptive half-smile as she gazed at Damond.
Damond’s smile could swallow kingdoms. He tilted his head and gazed into the servant woman’s eyes as he said, “Please.” The woman hummed a sweet note and turned to Emmaline. Her smile was still warm, but her eyes looked her over from head to toe. Emmaline nodded and smiled back. When the woman left, Damond still smiled and watched her sashay around the tables.
She knew that look. It was the look her cousins gave some of their servants when they’d had too many goblets of wine. Her father sometimes had that look when he was not so busy and when her mother was not so cold. Emmaline looked again at the servant woman with the rolling hips and long neck. She wanted to be that beautiful when she was a woman.
Servants began lighting the candles in the chandeliers and within the piles of flowers and used napkins. The beautiful servant brought hot tea and smiled to Damond before disappearing into the lengthening shadows.
Finally smiling, Damond began to introduce the many party guests – prime ministers, barons, powerful merchants, priests of the great temples, kings and queens. Emmaline could not possibly remember all of them, but she remembered Reia, the Queen of Saryl, and the King, Carle, who was much like Damond.
Emmaline had begun to understand that Damond was the second-born prince of Saryl. His older brother, Garrett, was the Crown Prince. Damond was only a year apart from him, being seventeen with his own estate in the eastern mountains. She could not remember the names of his other five brothers and sisters even as he repeated them through his stories. Unlike Emmaline’s mother, the Saryllian royal family dined together frequently, and the siblings saw each other for their frequent outings. Emmaline saw her sisters once a moon.
As the night drew on, the party grew louder. Damond became quieter until he stopped speaking altogether. He set his glass on the table and took Emmaline’s hand. “Come,” he said. “We should get this over.”
She ached to know what he meant. The amorous couple lifted their glasses and whistled at him, drawing a tense look of disgust from Damond’s shadowed face. He led her through a courtyard filled with lazy lavender and weeping wisteria, past a tiered fountain and dewy grass. On the other side was an ivory tower laden with long vines that reached all the way to the spires. A guard opened the door to the tower, and he led her up the winding tower stairs.
At the second door, Damond stopped. He pushed it open, revealing a suite filled with more white and red roses. A plump burgundy bed rested on a dais in the center with mountains of frilly pillows all across its surface. A small table and chairs stood among two massive bookcases. A rack with bows and a sword was hidden among trinkets in an alcove above a table of lilies. A screen with a river scene painted across it blocked her view of the corner, but a blue robe was draped over its top, and the golden legs of a bathtub peaked out from its edge. Tapestries and mirrors covered the walls.
Damond rounded the dais and moved the roses from one of the tables. He thumbed the golden frame of the mirror above until it clicked. “We have not much time,” he said lowly. He lit one of the lavender candles from the tower light and pressed it into her hand. “On the other side of this hallway is a room. It is much like this one, but it is a secret. Stay there until the morning.”
The beautiful servant woman appeared in the doorway. “My lord,” she hummed, “and the lady. Your father is gathering the party as we speak.”
Damond paled even in the shadow of the room. “Princess, go to the room at the end of this hallway. No one will harm you there.”
She nodded and turned to the mirror. The glass eased from its frame and slowly revealed a narrow passage. Emmaline stepped into the hallway and turned. Behind her, the servant girl had removed her bandana and revealed hair as red and curly as her own. She covered her lips for fear she would gasp. The servant poked roses from the urns into her hair, and Damond smiled. Emmaline closed the mirror door behind her and walked quickly through the cold, dark passage.
The passage dropped into a flight of stairs that descended into a circular room. It was quaint with two wide windows with window seats and a bookshelf separating them. A wide bed with velvet curtains rested at the center against the interior of the wall, lit by moonlight at its foot. A trunk rested against the lower posters. Emmaline set the candle on the small dining table and sighed.
She pulled the roses, pins, and jewels off piece by piece and set them on the vanity. The servant woman had worn the roses like jewels. Damond clearly loved her. She wondered what drinking the sour wine meant, or who the gods of this castle were, and what the people had been talking about. Did every language have its own stories? Were there monsters in the Saryllian language that did not exist in others? She slipped from the dress and skirts and veils until she wore only the long chemise. It was cool. A breeze blew across her gooseflesh. The moon was high and bright in its fullness. She sighed and cast herself into the soft bed.
Laughter and cheering echoed into the room. She covered her head and pulled the pillow tight over her ears. Emmaline could not stand that language a moment longer. Once the noise faded, only the crickets in the distant woods remained, familiar and quiet as they had always been. When dreams of home finally came, she heard only the slow, quiet words of her own language spoken by her nursemaid and sisters.