Today was supposed to be the happiest day of her life, but her expectations definitely exceeded her reality. Wedding a king and becoming queen should make any girl happy but not Aura Treven, she would rather be fed to werewolves than be walking down this aisle. She could hear the hem of her white silk dress rustle against the purple rug beneath her feet, hands trembling as she struggled to maintain a passive expression. Her desire to turn around and flee the temple grew with each passing moment, yet she would not give in. Running now, however, after all her father had done to secure this arrangement, would be foolish and would earn her family the reputation as oath breakers. The very last thing she wanted was bring shame to her family, so she kept walking.
Aura’s intended was King Joth Adavell of Apricitus, the only living son of the late king, and was said to be a kind man with an unrivaled moral code. That is if people ignored the rumors of the existence of a low ranking lady as his mistress with a child on the way. This had been one of the arguments she had given her father against the arranged marriage, but her father had dismissed her claims and said the accusations were merely vile gossip. Even the Apricitus ambassador had assured her that the rumors were false and only circulated because the young king and the lady had been friends since childhood and were always seen in each other’s company. Aura had almost been convinced that this was the truth until she saw Joth and his alleged mistress in a lover’s embrace the evening she had arrived from Thalassius. What she witnessed had made her feel foolish and tricked for ever having trusted her father and the ambassador. She knew they would have said anything to get her to keep the arrangement yet she still fell for their ruse, blindly accepting their words as truth when her instincts said otherwise.
Now here she was, walking headlong into a marriage she did not want to a man who did not want her, feeling as if she were being shackled to a prison wall. She longed for her old life. Longed to be back home in Thalassius with her father and the others who had raised her after her mother died, this new place she was to rule over would not be home to her. Going home was not an option to her, but making this situation tolerable was, all she had to do now was have the desire.
Aura arrived at the altar where Joth and the Exalted Father were standing; her storm grey eyes locked with Joth’s crystal blue and he gave her a small reassuring grin. Though she knew he would probably never love her, he had been nothing but kind and hospitable towards her since they first met a couple of weeks ago. There were always worse men to whom she could be married.
Joth took her hand in his, giving it a quick squeeze before they turned together to face the Exalted Father; Aura’s heart pounding so hard she was sure everyone in the temple could hear. With their hands still locked together they knelt before the Father and looked up at him, as was tradition, and he began speaking.
“In the temple of the One, we have gathered,” said the Exalted Father, his commanding voice ringing out in the temple. “Today we are bringing together not only two families, but two kingdoms in an alliance which will benefit all people. With this auspicious union of the heir of Apricitus to the heir of Thalassius we create here today a stronger union of two human nations, which will bring about, with the One’s blessing, the fruits of such an arrangement. Not only an heir for the now combined throne, but also the reassurance and stability that the people of both kingdoms desire.”
Aura maintained eye contact with the Exalted Father though she could not help but feel even worse about her marriage than before. She had known from the start that this arrangement was more for a stronger alliance between the only human kingdoms in all of Iredais than for her own personal happiness, yet to hear it so blatantly stated just cut at her heart. Without breaking concentration on the ceremony she prayed quickly to Cerise, asking Her for mercy from this sham of a marriage.
“Joth, son of our late King Edwin and Dowager Queen Relinda,” called the Exalted Father, his voice forcibly shaking Aura from her plans of escape. “Do you, as a child of the One, take His child Aura to be your wife? Will you cherish her above all others, treat her as a man ought treat his wife, until the mighty Oen takes you from her side?”
“I swear to keep myself only unto Aura, until I am taken by Oen,” replied Joth though probably not as loudly nor as confidently as he could have. She knew he was lying.
The Exalted Father smiled triumphantly and then turned his attention to Aura; she was unable to repress the shiver that went down her spine when her eyes locked with his lifeless black orbs. She was distracted for a moment, amazed at how pronounced his eyes were against his ceremonial robes. His robes were silver with cornflower blue vines climbing up from the hem, he wore white gloves as was expected, and his grey hair had been pulled back in a tight braid. Everything about his was pale and fragile in appearance, except his eyes, which were dark and intimidating.
“Aura, daughter of King Matthius and the late Queen Lattica,” said the Exalted Father, his voice booming up to the rafters. “Do you, as a child of the One, take His child Joth to be your husband? Will you cherish his above all others, obey him as a woman ought obey her husband, until the mighty Oen takes you from his side?”
‘If he can lie about his vows then so can I.’ Aura exhaled the breath she had been holding and without any hesitation she replied, “I swear to keep myself only unto Joth until I am taken by Oen.”
The Exalted Father smiled proudly; apparently he had expected something to go wrong during the ceremony or at least for one or both of them would object. Fortunately for the alliance, nothing of the sort transpired, they both just inwardly wished for a different outcome.
“Rise and accept your troth rings,” said the Exalted Father, motioning to them to stand up. Joth was the first to move though Aura quickly followed his lead, and when they had fully risen the Exalted Father produced two rings from someplace in his robes; immediately Aura recognized one of the rings he was holding. Weeks before she left for Apricitus, she had been advised to design the wedding band she was to give Joth at the end of the ceremony, which she had done. Wanting to impress her new husband, she had requested a red gold band with yellow suns added on, each one with a copy of the royal Adavell crest in each sun. That was back when she thought her marriage might have been more than an alliance.
Aura caught a glimpse of the ring she knew was for her, it was silver and she could make out the color blue though it was not like the blue of Joth’s cape, it looked almost like the sea.
The Exalted Father cleared his throat loudly. “With these rings, we seal your union as man and wife, King and Queen, and as a chance for the human kingdoms to unite under one banner.” He then handed the other’s rings to Aura and Joth, and then motioned for them to face each other once more.
Quickly Joth took her ring and slid it on her finger, as if concerned that the metal was hot and would burn his skin; and she did the same with his ring. Aura looked down at her ring and mused that it would have been more suitable had it actually been a shackle, tying her unwillingly to Joth until one or the other died; it certainly felt as heavy a shackle. She was confident he did not wish to be connected to her anymore than she did to him, but at least for now they would have to learn how to live with each other.
“To the world, I now present their majesties, King Joth and Queen Aura!” exclaimed the Exalted Father and they turned to face those seated in the temple. Everyone stood up and applauded, some even cheered, but Aura would have thought somber looks and tears more appropriate. This was not her wedding this was her funeral.
Their wedding feast took place in the great hall of the immense polished marble palace that was now Aura’s home, or as she preferred to think of it, her glorified prison. Everywhere she looked she saw something else that reminded her that she was no longer home, from the tapestries hanging from the ceiling and walls to the very food she was now picking at. Nothing here felt welcoming, not even the people; she could feel the cold stares of the courtiers on her as she sat beside her newly wedded husband Joth at the head table. She looked down upon them from her spot but felt little power in doing so, if anything she felt even more out of place.
“Are you troubled, dearest?” whispered Joth, his voice causing her to jump a little in surprise. “You’ve hardly eaten anything and you seem distant.”
Aura bit her tongue against a sharp reply to his concerns; so far he had done nothing to deserve such treatment. “I’m fine, just tired,” she said with a faint smile, and to show she was not entirely put out she took a sip from her goblet, though she nearly choked on the wine. She had not ever had the red wine they served here in Apricitus, in her kingdom they served primarily white wine that was paired with the seafood they were constantly eating. This wine was stronger in flavor, slightly bitter but not unpleasant just surprising. ‘Perhaps this is the realm’s one redeeming factor,’ she mused silently as she took another sip.
Joth seemed to be content with her answer now that she was no longer looking somber and went back to speaking with his mother, the Dowager Queen Relinda. Aura had met her a few times since her arrival, and each time she was impressed by the Dowager Queen’s sharp mind and seemingly infinite influence. She knew there had been rumors circulating for years that it was Relinda and not Edwin whom actually ruled over Apricitus, and that she continued to rule through her eldest son. It would certainly appear that the rumors had some credence, given how intently Joth was listening to whatever his mother was saying.
“It gets rather tiresome, does it not?” asked Joth’s sister Princess Brindelle as she cut into her chicken breast. “Watching them speak together as if no one were around.”
Aura glanced over again at Joth and Relinda, and then turned back to Brindelle. “This is my first true meal with them, are you saying this kind of thing happens often?”
Brindelle nodded without taking her attention away from her meal. “They do this at almost every meal, discussing various topics concerning the Kingdom and what more they can do to make it the greatest in Iredais. Eventually you learn to just ignore them and eat while they carry on about nonsense.”
“Do you not care about the state of Apricitus, Brindelle?” asked Aura in a hushed voice. She was surprised to hear the young princess so flippant about a topic she should probably care more about. “This is your home and until you are married, should be your primary concern.”
Brindelle flashed her a false smile that did not reach her limpid green eyes. “Aura dear, such things are beyond me as they are my sisters, we have known that Joth would be King since we were in swaddling clothes. He was the one taught to care about matters of the state, while we were taught how to dance and what tasks are necessary for a noble wife. I imagine you were taught similarly to us.”
Aura said nothing in response and turned back to her meal, Brindelle’s words bouncing around her mind like a child that refused to sit still. Brindelle was right to a certain extent, she had been taught what to do as a wife to a noble lord but she had also been educated on how to effectively run a kingdom. She was the only child that survived to adulthood out of her mother’s three children, the third one effectively killing her in childbirth and as a result she was treated as if she were a male heir. From a considerably young age, she was brought to her father’s council meetings where she sat quietly and listened to all that was said then she and her father would discuss what topics were brought forth. Eventually she had been allowed to preside over some council meetings herself, though not those that would decide the fate of her homeland. When she was told she was to marry a king, she assumed she would be allowed to assist him in ruling though now she was not so sure.
“Look there,” said Brindelle suddenly, poking Aura discreetly in the ribs as she motioned with her knife to a petite woman sitting closely to the head table. “That woman there, with the black hair is Mistress Selne Dunn, daughter of Sir Zael Dunn and my brother’s mistress.”
“I know,” said Aura softly. “I saw them together the night I arrived.”
Brindelle turned to her and frowned. “How brazen of them to be together in your presence, I imagine the little harlot thought her position as Joth’s pet was in danger with your arrival.”
“I take it that you don’t like her,” said Aura as she continued to observe her new husband’s mistress. She seemed timid and reserved, hardly the brazen harlot Brindelle was describing, if anything she looked rather out of place being at court.
“That’s a nice way of putting it,” said Brindelle bitterly before she took a healthy swig from her goblet. “She used to be a minor servant in my sister Din’s household and would play with us sometimes, I’m not exactly sure when she seduced Joth but it was after she was removed from Din’s employ and put in the seamstress’s. Actually I believe she was part of the group that created your wedding dress.”
Aura glanced down at the white gown she was wearing and was mildly surprised to hear that Joth’s mistress had actually helped create it, she had thought someone in her position might try to sabotage its creation. “So her family’s new blood then? Recently given some land and a title?”
Brindelle nodded as she helped herself to another helping of caramelized onions. “Yes, by Joth actually right before his daughter was born. I suppose he did not want his bastard to live in poverty, so he elevated her father to a knight and gave him a holding someplace to the east, though they rarely go there. Dunn is always here with his shrew of a wife and whore daughter, causing some kind of stir in one fashion or another.”
Hearing that Joth had a child already was news to Aura, the rumors circulating the court back home had only been that he had a mistress that was possibly pregnant with his first child. It would seem those rumors were outdated.
“Is Joth’s daughter here?” asked Aura, craning her neck to get a better look at the crowd.
“Yes, but she’s hardly noteworthy,” sighed Brindelle. “My so called niece is sitting beside her mother, if you can see her, she’s barely four and my brother dotes on her constantly. Mother, my sisters and I have nothing to do with her or Selne, and if you’re half as smart as they say you are, you’ll avoid them as well.”
She did not understand why Brindelle harbored such hostility and bitterness towards Selne and her daughter but Aura knew better than to ask, that was a conversation for a different time and place. Right now she was far more concerned with figuring out a polite way to retire to her chambers so she could finally come to terms with her situation. That was until the great mahogany doors opened and a hooded figure swaggered into the great hall, silence followed the creature as it headed directly towards the head table. Aura was startled and a bit apprehensive, thinking that it was some kind of enchanter whom had come to curse them all or perhaps kill them but when she looked to Joth he was smiling.
“Tristan!” boomed Joth then he jumped up from his seat and met the hooded man before he could make it up the first few steps to the table. They embraced as if they were brothers, laughing all the while, and in the process Tristan’s hood was knocked from his head revealing his face.
Tristan was stunningly handsome to say the least; he had dark wavy hair that went down past his shoulders, was broader in the chest than Joth and had the strangest eyes that were almost orange in appearance. He entranced Aura almost immediately, never having seen someone like him before in her life; she could not break her gaze from him.
“You’ve been away for quite sometime, my friend,” said Joth fondly as he escorted Tristan up to the table. “I’m glad you were able to make it for tonight at least, even if you missed the ceremony.”
“Ah, but I didn’t miss it, you just didn’t see me,” replied Tristan, his voice like caramel over gravel. “I have to say, Joth, capes do not suit you at all.”
Joth laughed loudly, its melodic sound ringing off the rafters above. “Well it certainly wasn’t my first choice but Mother and Brindelle insisted, citing tradition and all that. I can hardly argue with them when they begin on that kind of path.”
“Completely understandable, my friend,” replied Tristan before he came to a stop in front of Aura and bowed deeply. “I am honored to formally meet you at last, your Majesty. I am Spymaster Tristan Scintilla and I humbly beg your Majesty’s pardon for interrupting your glorious wedding feast.”
Aura had to fight against smiling, though she was sure some of it slipped past her lips. “No apology is needed, Spymaster Tristan, I can see that your presence has brought my husband great joy. Would you care to dine with us?”
“After the journey I’ve finished, nothing would be more welcome than a hot meal and pleasant company,” replied Tristan, flashing her a charming grin.
“Then allow me to provide both,” said Brindelle sweetly as she rose from her seat. “I’m sure I can have some food brought to your usual chambers and I would be more than pleased to join you.”
Aura was appalled at Brindelle’s offer, especially when she was in front of her family and the entire court but no one seemed to be paying her any attention, not even her mother was reprimanding her behavior. Tristan did not seem displeased with the offer either.
“A generous offer, your Highness,” replied Tristan with a suggestive wink and Brindelle’s cheeks turned a bright pink. “I suppose I shall see you tomorrow during Council then, Joth.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” laughed Joth and then he stepped aside so Brindelle could take Tristan’s arm. Together the pair left the hall, when the doors closed behind them whispering immediately broke out and Joth merely shook his head as he resumed his seat. “I swear, Brindelle’s going to propose to him sooner or later.”
“Have she and Spymaster Tristan been courting long?” asked Aura casually as she picked at the cheese balls on her plate. She could not understand how these people ate such heavy foods on a daily basis it seemed very unwise.
Joth shook his head, as he looked at her amused. “Oh no, they aren’t courting at all, they just fancy each other though I’m sure Brin will bring up the topic of marriage to him soon enough. She always gets what she wants, and poor Tristan isn’t an exception.”
“Perhaps you should write up their marriage contract soon, Joth,” said Relinda from beside her son. “If things are getting as serious as we believe, it might be time to formally announce their engagement.”
“But they aren’t even informally engaged yet, Mother,” sighed Joth and Aura could tell this was a topic they discussed often and could apparently not come to a suitable agreement. “Besides, Brin’s young and has plenty of time before she has to even think of getting married, let her enjoy herself.”
Relinda sniffed haughtily. “Joth, just because we waited until you were older before finding you a suitable wife does not mean we should do the same for Brin. She’s already found herself a fine man to marry, and I believe the sooner they are married the better.”
“If I may,” chimed in Aura, much to the surprise of her mother-in-law. “It sounds more like Spymaster Tristan is the reluctant one and Joth is merely speaking of Brindelle in order to throw suspicion off his friend. If that’s the case then perhaps Brindelle is better off marrying someone who is willing to marry her.”
Relinda looked thunderstruck and Joth seemed unsure of how to react to his new wife speaking so plainly, though she noted that he did not seem displeased with her.
“How dare you!” exclaimed Relinda, clearly outraged. “Neither of us was speaking to you therefore you had no right to interject your opinions, besides you know nothing of Brindelle and Spymaster Tristan’s relationship. You are merely interpreting Joth’s words incorrectly.”
“And what if I were to tell you Aura is correct, Mother?” asked Joth stoically. “I must admit I was protecting Tristan’s true feelings regarding Brin because I know how you and she both harbor a hope for a marriage between them. I must, however, inform you that while Tristan enjoys her company he has no intention of marrying Brin whatsoever.”
Relinda was simply fuming by the time Joth had finished his piece and she stood from her seat, as did her ladies-in-waiting and she stormed out of the hall without another word to either of them. Aura could not help but feel a little guilty over causing her mother-in-law to leave the feast in such a state; she had been only trying to assist.
“You shouldn’t feel badly about this,” said Joth with a shrug as if reading her mind. “Honestly it was going to come up sooner or later, and I’m glad I was able to bring it up at last, so thank you for your assistance. You’ll soon learn that my mother is an incredibly stubborn woman with plans for all of her children and does not like it when those plans are upset in any way.”
“Is that why she and your sisters don’t acknowledge your daughter?” asked Aura plainly as she scanned the room once again for the little girl.
Joth shifted uncomfortably beside her, obviously unsure of how to respond to such a statement. “Well, Mother certainly wasn’t pleased when I told her Selne was with child,” he started slowly as if testing out the words before completely committing to them. “Understandably she would have rather Rishi were my legitimate daughter but at the same time she forbid me from marrying Selne due to her lower station.” He then abruptly shut his mouth as if fearing he had said too much on the subject. It was quite apparent that he was allowed to have a mistress and a bastard but was not really allowed to acknowledge either of them to anyone else, especially his new wife.
“How long have you and Selne known each other?” asked Aura, trying to keep him talking. While she was not pleased that her husband already had a daughter and a mistress, she could hardly change the situation and wanted as much information as she could gather.
“Since we were children really,” he replied and seemed to relax a little when he did not hear any scathing remarks or bitter tones from her. “She’s always been so different from every other woman and I guess . . .”
“That’s why you fell in love with her,” finished Aura with just a hint of sorrow. The lilt in his voice as he spoke briefly about Selne was enough to convince her that she would not occupy even a tiny space in his heart.
Joth looked over at her and smiled sadly. “I guess neither of us is getting what we really want; I’d like to be married to Selne and you’d probably like to be married to a man who’d treat you like the queen you are. No pun intended, dearest.”
Aura smiled at him genuinely, while this was not the situation she had envisioned for herself when she was younger, she was glad she was not wallowing in it alone. Joth was just as upset at being denied something he longed for and now that she knew he did not expect her to be happy, she did not hate him as much. They were very much in the same boat as it were and would have to navigate whatever this was together; at least it was a step forward.
Sometime around midnight the feast ended, with many of the courtiers retiring to their respective chambers, though they were more stumbling than walking by this time. Relinda did not return after her abrupt and dramatic departure, nor did Brindelle or Tristan ever make a reappearance. Joth and Aura were escorted up to their shared chamber by his steward, a young man by the name of Holden, with Joth’s two youngest sisters Din and Olympia in tow along with Aura’s ladies-in-waiting from Thalassius, Jenitia and Merril. Before they left the great hall, Aura caught a glimpse of Selne carrying a little girl with strawberry blonde hair; she knew immediately that was Joth’s daughter Rishi, they had the exact hair color.
“She’s beautiful,” whispered Aura to Joth as they headed down a long corridor.
Joth did not need any explanation as to whom Aura was referring, instead of answering he just nodded and winked at her, acknowledging her observation with pride. Silence resumed as they were led up a few flights of stairs and through a thick oak door into a spacious room; as Aura looked around she saw her things had already been brought in, as well as a few of Joth’s or so she assumed since she did not recognize them. The room was much larger than the one she had been staying in, with several large windows looking out onto the kingdom below and much grander furniture. The most imposing piece was a large canopy bed that sat on a rounded platform on one end of the room; it was made of a honey colored wood, with a repeating pattern carved delicately into the grain. The bed itself looked inviting with numerous pillows of different colored silk coverings and a luxurious comforter of what Aura could only guess was goose down, along with thick yellow curtains on the canopy.
Aura was in such awe of the luxury of the wedding bed it took a moment for its implications to dawn on her: she and Joth were expected to sleep there, together as man and wife and to conceive a legitimate heir. She could feel the color drain away from her face, she had completely forgotten about her wedding night, and now here it was. Numbly she allowed herself to be led away to behind a dressing screen where Janitia and Merril removed her wedding gown, taking great care not to let it drag on the floor and put her in a simple white nightgown. The nightgown was simple yet flattering, probably to help fill Joth with a desire for her. The very thought made Aura want to be sick.
When she was finished being prepared for bed, she was brought out from behind the screen and saw Joth was already standing at the foot of the bed in his nightclothes as well. He looked as terrified as she felt though he hid it well; the only indication that he was apprehensive was the way his eyes kept darting away from her. ‘At least he’s faithful to Selne,’ she thought coldly as she stood before him.
“You’re all dismissed for the evening,” he said, indicating the servants and his sisters as well.
“Mother said we were to stay here until you and Aura had consummated your marriage,” said Din haughtily, her head held high as if daring him to contradict an order from their mother.
Joth exhaled slowly then turned to face his sister, his face tense as he spoke. “I know what Mother said, Din, but I’d rather not have my younger sisters witness what is meant to be between a man and his wife. If she wanted to make sure our marriage was consummated then she should be her herself instead of sulking in her own chambers.”
Din flinched slightly at her brother’s words, obviously she was not as stubborn as her mother, and she bowed her head. “I’m sorry, Joth, I should have left this to Mother and Brin. I just wanted to help out.”
Joth’s expression soften and he shook his head, clearly used to dealing with his sisters’ varying personalities. “I know, Din, perhaps you should be secure in the knowledge that you at least made sure Aura and I made it to the same room instead of running off someplace else.” Din smiled at him and he continued. “Now, I believe I said everyone should leave now, it is late and we are all tired from the day’s events. I bid you all a good night.”
The servants and princesses bowed to their King and Queen before departing from the room, whether they noticed the stock-still way their monarchs stood or were simply being polite and ignoring the fact was unknown. When the doors closed at last, both Joth and Aura fell to the floor, their knees having given out from being still for so long. They said nothing right away, and instead just sat on the floor and looked anywhere but at each other until Aura worked up the nerve.
“In a little while, you should dress and go find Selne,” she said quietly, still looking at her knees, which were pulled up against her chest. “I’m sure no one’s going to expect you to stay here all night anyway.” She was miserable and trying to hide it but she must have been doing a poor job because Joth’s response was not what she had expected.
“Aura,” he said, picking at a spot on the rug, as he was unable to look her in the eyes. “You should know I didn’t want this for you, or anyone for that matter. I knew that any woman I married would be upset and feel ignored because of my relationship with Selne; I apologize for making you feel this way but I’m not going to stop seeing Selne. I love her, Aura, and I’m not going to abandon her for someone I don’t know or love.”
Aura could feel hot tears burning in her eyes but she refused to let them fall, she had not cried since her mother and siblings died, and she was not about to do it again especially not in front of someone she did not know. ‘He’ll never see me cry,’ she vowed bitterly and the thought dried her tears enough that she felt brave enough to look at him. “So be it,” she said with a cool tone. “This marriage was never about love anyway, it was a business contract nothing more. I hardly expected you to want me here since, as you say, you didn’t want this for me to begin with.”
Joth nodded, still refusing to look at her. “I wish things were different, I wish we didn’t have to be married and miserable, I’d have much rather met you under altered circumstances. In all honesty I’d much rather be your ally than your husband.”
She knew they would have to be together for the remainder of their lives, and sitting here wallowing in their own sorrow was only going to make them suffer more. Being allies or even friends would be preferable to this torture, and honestly Aura liked the idea of being his friend more than being his wife. That was when she noticed the chessboard.
“Joth, do you play chess?” she asked as she rose from the floor, able to scrounge up some dignity. She turned and looked down at him, slightly pleased to see him staring up at her like a child unsure of what he should be doing. “Since we aren’t going to have an actual wedding night, I’d much rather pass the time before bed doing something more enjoyable than sitting on the floor ignoring you.” She then extended her hand to him in a gesture of good will.
Joth looked from her hand and back up to her face, then he gave her a smile that lit up his eyes before taking her hand. “Just to warn you, I haven’t lost a game yet.”
Aura smiled back as she helped him up. “That’s a coincidence, neither have I.”