Turn Me Back!

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The Chapel at Zair

Kayla offers me recompense for the knives ‘lost in the call of duty’. We’re still miles from any town or market so the money doesn’t help me right now, but at least I’ll be able to refit myself when I get back to Druinberg. Besides the compensation, she also promises me the bravery bonus that was mentioned during the briefing. Just goes to show: Don’t scoff at a reward until you’re sure you won’t accidentally get dragged (on goat-back) into earning it.

All’s quiet for the rest of our journey. After several more days of forest, we reach the foothills of the Bandus Mountains and make camp. Zair is only a short distance further, but the chapel is built on an outcrop of rock at the end of several miles of unforgivingly steep and rocky path. Long ago it became a tradition for royal wedding parties to camp at the edge of the forest and journey the last stretch to the chapel on foot. Numerous details related to that final trek have gone from accidental to customary and then hardened into ritual over the years. For example, the very first time a royal couple got married in that chapel, one of the guests lost a shoe along the way. Now it’s required for one poor sod to only wear one shoe and be forced to limp up the mountain. Even weirder is that male guests actually vie with each other to be the one to do it. There are loads of other stupid things like carrying flowers and chewing mint leaves. Oh, and we’re also supposed to be accompanied by goats.

Speaking of which, Billy has been noticeably absent since he ate the assassin party’s wardrobe (AND RUINED MY KNIVES). I treasure the hope that it’s because he’s choked to death on a button and is lying dead somewhere. Being eaten by maggots. While crows peck out his eyes. And entrails.

But it seems other people in our expedition are concerned over his disappearance. Not least because tradition stipulates a specific number of goats. To my mind, this is a triflingly banal detail. I mean, who’s even going to know if we’re short one goat?

“You’d be surprised,” Kayla tells me. “That tiny chapel only holds a few guests, so wedding parties have to bring scribes to document everything for the common people who don’t get the chance to see it for themselves.”

Writing down everything that happens at a royal wedding? Thank god that’s not my job. “And they’ll make a big deal out of the missing goat?”

Kayla frowns. “Absolutely. Some fanatics even go around saying that a royal couple isn’t truly married if the traditions surrounding the trek to Zair aren’t followed to the letter. From a legal perspective, that’s rubbish, but my predecessor warned me it leads to rioting and unrest if people suspect their monarchs are living in sin.”

Come to think of it, I have a vague memory of one of Waldani’s puppet shows where the king and queen were found out to have married illegally. I can’t remember what the result was exactly, but I have a strong feeling that it involved a crocodile and lots of sausages.

“Willa!” The princess is calling me, waving madly from the entrance of her tent. “Oh, Willa! Come and see! I have a surprise for you.”

Kayla lets out an amused snort. I punch her in the arm before trotting off to see what the princess wants. Maybe she’s found the goat. That would be cool. I can wait until after the ceremony to murder it.

Inside the princess’s tent, the princess and her ladies are hovering excitedly over a mound of white fabric and lace. “Willa, look!” One of them holds up the mound, revealing it to be a dress.

I stare at the thing they’re holding, confused. “Isn’t that Princess Isla’s wedding dress?”

“No!” They caper and giggle, clapping their hands. “It’s YOUR wedding dress!”

“WHAT!?”

“Oh Willa! I’m so happy,” laughs the princess. “We weren’t sure if it would be ready in time, but here it is: an exact copy of my gown! You’ll be accompanying me up the mountain as my flower girl. And when we get there, you’ll be standing next to me in the chapel. Isn’t it exciting?”

“But…” I say, dazedly. “I’m not even related to you.”

She kneels next to me. “After everything you’ve done for me, Willa. I can’t help but consider you family. Anyway, that’s immaterial. My husband-to-be will have his little cousin Cecilia accompanying him. It is only fair that I should have a flower girl too.”

This is like a terrible nightmare. I knew I’d be going up the mountain. Kayla wanted me there in case anything happens. After all, we never did find the last member of the assassination plot. But I always assumed I’d be trotting along in happy obscurity among the other guests. Not as a bloody flower girl in the princess’s bloody entourage! “And if I refuse?”

The princess’s eyes go wide. “Please say you’ll do it, Willa. I want you to be there. Plus,” she looks uncomfortable, “the goat is still missing…”

I scowl at her. “Do you mean to tell me I’m to go down in history books as a replacement for a goat?

She scoffs. “It’s a silly tradition, anyway. We’re starting a new one. The prince and princess get to choose flower girls, and you’re mine.”

There’s nothing I can say. If I refuse point blank to do it, she might get angry and ban me from the wedding party and then I’ll lose the money for the protection job and any chances to help people along the way. But in order to go with them… I lift my eyes to the fluffy, satin confection of a dress.

I shift my gaze back to the princess. “I’ll guess I’ll do it,” I sigh.

“Wonderful!” She claps her hands in delight.

“But only if the seamstress can sew me a couple of extra pockets into the dress.”

She looks surprised. “What for?”

“Um… Dolls?”

The next morning is still a distant promise when I’m woken and bundled into the horrible dress. See, this just proves my point: If the wedding is at dawn, the wedding party has to start their journey a few hours before dawn, and that means they have to get dressed in the dark. Surely it’s only a matter of time before some vain princess decides that the dawn start is an unnecessary tradition.

I sure wish Princess Isla hadn’t already used up her ‘let’s-change-tradition’ quota. I can’t stop yawning as I stumble up the rocky path after her. It’s still mostly dark, but there’s enough light for me to make out that both our white dresses have become grubby from the dusty path. Mine has a dribble of mint juice down the front and there’s a horrible smell that suggests I must have dragged the hem through goat dung. Stupid traditions! If I were a princess, I’d decree I was getting married at home, or else not at all. Come to think of it, if I were a princess, I’d probably abdicate and run off with a band of mercenaries. This royal stuff seems like more trouble than it’s worth.

The eastern sky is getting lighter as we reach Zair. The last stretch of path twists and winds so much that it’s a complete surprise when we round the last corner and realise we’ve arrived. We’re standing at the edge of the broad space dedicated to the ancient mountain god Zair. A wide plateau stretches before us. The small yet elegant chapel stands on the other side, occupying a narrow sliver of ground between the edge of the plateau and the sheer drop down the mountain. It’s hard to say whether the great Zair would have approved of this building dedicated to modern deities, but since he was ignored out of existence long ago, he doesn’t get a say in the matter.

Generations of Hellavan royals have made similar pilgrimages to this spot in order to marry whichever of the neighbouring kingdoms’ offspring was the appropriate age. When I proceed further onto the plateau, it becomes clear why so many pampered princes and princesses have been willing to soldier through the long journey from Druinberg and make the arduous trek up the mountainside. The soaring view over the surrounding hills and valleys is so majestic that the prospect of ruling the world suddenly seems not so crazy a dream. If you’ve been groomed to assume the role of ruling a kingdom since birth, the feeling must be many times magnified.

I expected the chapel door to lead off the plateau, but instead, the building is positioned with the door facing the mountainside. And when I say “facing”, I mean the door of the chapel is flush with the bare rock face. The architects apparently weren’t fazed by the inconvenient fact that no-one could enter their chapel and simply hewed a narrow passageway into the rocky surface to allow entrance. The passageway is curved so you end up entering the chapel from the direction of the mountain — almost as if you were emerging from the rock itself.

The cramped entrance is a potential bottleneck, so it’s lucky that the prince’s party left even earlier than we did. He and his entourage are supposed to be already waiting inside the chapel.

Isla and her ladies fuss over her hair and do last-minute primping while the princess’s guests disappear in single file into the sinister opening in the cliff face. A few minutes later, we hear the chapel organ begin belching out the jaunty folk tune that traditionally accompanies weddings. A basket of flower petals is shoved into my hand and several pairs of hands propel me towards the hole in the rock. “Smile!” someone tells me. “Walk slowly down the aisle, scattering the petals, then wait next to the prince.”

There aren’t any torches or illumination in the rocky passage. “Didn’t anyone think to drill windows in this thing,” I mutter, stumbling over the uneven floor. I’m fairly certain I’ve scattered petals here too. They’ll probably stick to the goat dung on the hem of the princess’s dress and look very pretty.

I arrive at the chapel door and take in the view. Rows and rows of heads, craning in the dim light to observe the chapel entrance. My arrival causes a stir and the sense of excitement in the room heightens.

Then the first rays of dawn hit the window above the altar, and suddenly the reason for the chapel’s weird orientation is clear. Back-lit by the rising sun, the huge, multi-coloured, kaleidoscopic swirl of stained glass is the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen. It’s so amazing I feel a brief pang of regret for not choosing to spend my life studying to be a glass painter or something. How wonderful it would be to be able to say you had brought something so glorious into the world. A person like that wouldn’t have managed to get herself cursed and turn her life into such a mess, that’s for sure.

“Willa!” someone hisses behind me. I realise I’m standing in the doorway like a ninny, holding up the princess’s grand entrance. I scurry forward down the aisle, making a half-arsed attempt to throw petals but mostly looking around to scope out the building’s layout. The chapel is impressive, but I hate to think what would happen if we were to run into trouble here. The narrow entrance is a gigantic invitation for anyone who wanted to trap us in here… But I’m sure Kayla was aware of it ahead of time and has enough back-up measures in place.

At the end of the aisle, I shove the basket under a pew and walk past the smiling prince, choosing to stand in a spot against the wall where I have a good view of the entire room. I’m sure nothing will go wrong, but… you never know.

The service goes smoothly. This is the first wedding I’ve attended, and I have to say that, until now, I’d never understood the idea of people crying. What’s there to cry about? But at the end, as the couple throw themselves into each other’s arms and share a fierce kiss while we sing the Kingdom’s anthem, even I find myself wiping away a tear or two. It’s hard to admit, but something about witnessing their joy in this place of such rare beauty makes it seem worth trekking all this way with stupid animals and ridiculous clothes and getting up so early in the-

The chapel door flies open with a bang. “Everyone against the walls!” commands a voice from the rocky passageway. “Stay calm and you won’t be hurt.”

Oh bollocks. Here we go.

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