Chapter One: Low Grade
Fort Briar Academy is cast in snow, the pinnacles of the high towers like needles of ice. Winds send a flurry of snow over from the mountains to the west, and the sky is stark white, full of clouds and light. It is currently noon, our time for a break, and I’ve taken refuge behind the old oak tree, keen to avoid any thrown snowballs. With my book nestled in front of me, I let myself relax. It’s been a hard year.
At twenty years of age I’m supposed to have either been wed or sent to another facility that deals with trained brides in that age bracket. However, I’ve been allowed to stay at Fort Briar as the lowest grade bride with the highest academic achievements. It amuses the headmistress, so I think she keeps me as a pet of some sort. That, or she wishes to employ me in the future for Fort Briar. I do not mind so far. I will probably be happiest staying here, studying and reading, than to be married to a stranger that has no duty to care for me. There’s a pride to studying here at a prestigious academy, but the fear remains ever present. Marriage is the aim when training, but marriage can also be a horrendous reality. Far too many are brought and then murdered at the hands of the person who brought them, or treated to a lifetime of childbirth, torture or hostility. I would much prefer to stay, or to be wed to someone who will not bother me much.
The tower clock chimes with a rather lighthearted sound, and I close my book, only to stand and find the headmistress stood with a stranger, the two of them peering at me. I bow deeply to show my respect, eyes trained to the ground as I do so, but I can feel my mind whirring with electric thoughts. The headmistress stays in the tower study unless away for business.
“Melina,” she greets, her voice chilled.
I stand straight and finally look up upon being addressed.
“Headmistress Briar Fortitude,” I return, trying to keep composed.
The stranger is tall with white hair, a rarity in brides in training that increases their value, but from the glimpse I had seen of her, she is not from lowly birth. With the headmistresses gesture, I face the stranger, and I’m chilled by the realisation that with the emerald green eyes, height, freckles and perfect teeth, that this individual would be the most valued bride at Fort Briar, but again, she does not look like she’s from lowly birth. She’s dressed in the deepest most vivid blue cloak, a silver and emerald brooch pinned at the neck. Her white hair is long but braided intricately into a loose yet controlled hairstyle, the hair pulled away from her fine and chiselled face.
“Copper, did you say?” The stranger asks the headmistress.
She nods, her hands wrung together in a nervous gesture in front of her.
“The lowest grade hair colour. Her score is minus sixty, due to her facial scar that you can see. It runs from her face, down her chin and down her neck. She isn’t bad tempered, but she is questionable in other ways. Due to the lack of interest, she’s redeemed her physical shortcomings through study. She has three times the academic achievements of even the high grade brides.”
I flinch but compose myself quickly.
“Does the grade not get better with the added achievements?” The stranger asks.
Headmistress Briar Fortitude shakes her head.
“Points are deducted each year they don’t get married off. She’s not had interest in her ten years here.”
The stranger hums, tilting their head as they look at me. My heart thumps in my chest, and I lower my gaze once more. Fort Briar Academy uniform is a simple black dress with long sleeves, plain boots and a short black cloak, so I know very well I cannot help what I’m wearing, and I have never felt flustered when looked upon before, until now. I fight the urge to fidget or cross my arms self consciously.
Looking up, I glance briefly at the headmistress. She looks angry. She had been set on employing me cheap, so for me to be wed ruins her plans.
“Melina,” I answer steadily, “I have no family name, but people refer to me as Melina Lowly.”
They walk forward, elegant yet purposeful. I jolt in surprise when they grip my chin, eyes peering deep into mine. I can feel my ears burn. No one has ever touched my scarred face before, so the gesture unsettles me. Emerald eyes glitter, too close, and I fight to not move out of her grasp.
“There’s a nice look to your eyes,” she comments flippantly, intrigued sounding, “Did it hurt?”
Clenching my jaw, I consider my words.
“I was six,” I tell her quietly, “my stepmother hated me in the house because I wasn’t her child, and when my father died she decided to seek revenge. She tied me up and sliced me over the course of a week. It hurt. Very much.”
Her eyes glimmer, and she turns my face one way and then the other to study me.
“She sent you here?”
“I sent myself here,” I answer.
“For what purpose?”
“To keep having all ten fingers.”
Her lips twitch.
“I think that is a good reason indeed.”
She stands behind me after circling like a wolf. Her hands rest on my shoulders, firm, and I keep still as she steps in close.
“A good height,” she tells headmistress Briar Fortitude, “I’ll take her.”
I freeze, shocked. I thought she had just been curious about how the eldest and most educated trained bride was also the most ugly.
“A discounted price then. Forty-five gold coins, and I’ll even offer you a basket of food for the long journey back.”
Peering at the headmistress, I realise that whatever happened with me, it would benefit her, employed or sold.
“What were you reading?” The stranger whispers from behind me, lips at my ear.
I shift, coming back to reality, and I look down at the book in my hands.
“The Adventures of Kingdoms, a collection,” I inform her, keeping it close to my chest.
She hums from behind me, and I see the headmistress look at me unapprovingly.
“Be thankful to Princess Sirwenn of Tyqenna. You’re about to live a life in a castle,” she reprimands me.
Struck dumb, I freeze. Why would a princess marry a low grade bride?
“Oh no,” Sirwenn says, a smile in her voice, “Not a castle. I live in the quiet of an old abandoned Fort in the mountains, Fort Morvendale. As the youngest Princess I have no use other than to keep out of trouble and attend gatherings now and then.”
She turns me around, and counts out the coins in front of me before tossing the bag to the headmistress above my head. I had not expected the action to upset me as much as it did. Biting my lip I keep my head bowed, and when the orders to gather my things are announced, I pray quietly to myself. I’m not fond of the church due to historic reasons and differing opinions, but I pray. I pray for the marriage to be peaceful, and to live a simple life where the Princess can ignore me. I’ll stay out the way and hide in the library. I’ll read in the garden.
My movements are slow as I go through the motions. Unlike with marriages for love, a brought bride is married upon being paid for, and official papers are signed upon departure. As I watch the papers getting signed, I close my eyes, praying once more, before being led to a carriage. Now I am no longer protected by Fort Briar Academy.
The icy winds strike my face as my boots crunch in the snow. Princess Sirwenn opens the carriage door, and then turns to me with a bemused expression. A flash of silvery white fur appears as the winds gently toss her blue cloak about, and I look at her closely for a moment. She seems pleased at the eye contact.
“It’s cold,” she announces, reaching inside the carriage, “There’s a blanket here for you. Sleep on the journey if you wish, or read.”
Grateful for the extra warmth I step inside the carriage finally, listening to the horses snort and jostle. The black carriage creaks something wicked, the inside decorated with dark blue fabrics for the curtains and pillowed seats. I sit, aware of how the Princess settles opposite me.
“The journey is only two hours away, but the road is rough. If you hear fighting outside it’s my women fighting off wolves or bears. There’s mountain lions, but they’re much rarer.”
She looks at me as if expecting a reaction, and then sighs heavily when she notes how I stare down at my book blankly. I can’t read on a bumpy road, and it’s a concern. How else am I going to try and disappear?
“I don’t bite, Melina. You can relax.”
My eyes dart about the carriage. I don’t even know what to say. My day was blissfully quiet until they showed up. I haven’t even finished my studies today. It’s just over.
“Sirwenn,” she corrects, giving a determined nod.
“Sirwenn,” I continue, blanching, “Forgive me. I’m very shocked. I was sure I would never wed.”
Sirwenn glances outside, her chiselled face fine-boned and somewhat eerie with how it glows.
“I will never beat you, if that is what you’re scared of,” she tells me matter-of-factly, “I don’t find bruised and scared women attractive.”
“And yet you find me, a low grade, attractive?”
I blanch further at my words, going slightly dizzy as the blood drains out my face. She startles me with an abrupt laugh.
“I find you interesting and the least likely to annoy me. I like my peace and my own company. A bride is something I had to acquire to be able to live in Fort Morvendale, and away from the castle.”
My ears prick up at this bit of information, and we look at each other for a long moment, regarding each other.
“To live outside you had to be wed?” I enquire.
Her mouth tilts into a smile, and I watch closely, mesmerised by the silent enjoyment playing upon her lips.
“Yes. Otherwise people would speculate about the reason I wanted to leave.”
I lean forward.
“What was the reason?”
Princess Sirwenn chuckles, amused. I watch a long line of white hair fall over her shoulder, the silk like strands draping elegantly. Her colouring is mesmerising. A woman of her standard ought to be happy with castle life, with endless suitors, banquets and balls to attend. With her beauty she could indulge in life and riches. So why is it she wishes to escape it?
“I am the youngest of twelve,” she tells me, “As the youngest and most unlikely to become the next in line, I was forgotten and mistreated. My other siblings were treated to gallant courtesies and gifts, but I was treated coldly. Due to this I had no respect in the castle, and last year I had had enough. A maid openly chastised me to my face, and I slapped her. It started off the…rebellious phase. I did what I liked for once, and when they made it clear that I was not welcome to do that I demanded to live far away.”
Her words are flippant and told as if it were long ago. I am unfamiliar with the Tyqenna monarchy, but I do not remember seeing a Princess Sirwenn on any record.
“How old are you?” I ask, searching for any visible telltale signs.
She smiles, and then straightens, adjusting her skirts and giving me a bright-eyed look.
“I am eighteen,” she answers, “Only two years younger than you are.”
My mouth threatens to drop open in shock, but I collect myself. She’s so young. I’m not surprised of her youth, but by her wise disposition. I cannot imagine growing up with her frustration, but I admire her choice.
“My, does my young age tease your fantasies Melina?” Sirwenn laughs, distracting me from my thoughts.
“I do not have fantasies,” I huff, opening up my book hurriedly, “I crave only to read.”
A finger taps the top of the book, drawing my eye. Sirwenn flutters her eyelashes at me.
“You may not, but I have a few things in mind,” she tells me smoothly, “Including hand holding, garden walks, afternoon tea and dancing.”
It has been covered that a few buyers are lonely and just crave company, but often they seem to be much older. Not eighteen.
“As my wife, you will show me affection,” she tells me in an almost stern tone.
Nodding, I wonder what her idea of affection is. According to my library books, there are over three hundred different types of affection. Human behaviour is a strange thing, and romance, affection or love has never appealed to me in my entire twenty years of life. What’s more is that I struggle with faking emotion, and it takes a lot of mental energy to do. That particular study drove me insane, but as I did then, I will do now. Taking her hand somewhat brazenly, I attempt a shy smile as it’s the easiest way for me to fake considering my nervous disposition.
“If it pleases your majesty,” I say quietly, fluttering my eyelashes as she had done so before, “Then I shall do what pleases you.”
Her gaze turns thoughtful.
“Their acting studies are no laughing matter,” she tells me deftly, “But I do not want acting. I want you to give me real affection. I’m not unlikeable, but I know it will take time. Just do your best.”
She squeezes my hands, smiling somewhat sweetly. I am still stunned by her words, mulling them over in my mind as I gaze at our joined hands. I’ve never been trained for this. To be asked to give affection that isn’t fake or acting. I’m so puzzled. Sirwenn senses my dilemma, and gives a gentle tug on my hands.
“Sit on my lap,” She demands quietly.
I comply, adjusting my skirts before sitting. I try and balance my weight as to not squish her, but she pulls me close, lifting my legs so my feet rest on the cushioned seat and so that my back sits in the curve of her arm. She’s warm and smells nice, her perfume a faint musk of wild woods.
“I need to feed you when we arrive,” she declares, “You are very slender and light.”
She feels my arms through my sleeves, brows furrowed, making remarks on the controlled diets of Bride Academy’s, and I let her. I suppose I’m lucky she seems kind so far, and even luckier that my diet will broaden to more than bland soup and stale bread.
“And,” she continues, “Your new wardrobe arrived yesterday. It took me a while to decide on what would suit you, but your personal maid Daphalliane helped me tremendously. She was brought from Fort Briar Academy by my Head Maid Flovansa. Lovely couple. Daphalliane actually recommended you to me.”
I know the name. She was my friend before she went for seventy coins, and was a kind, gentle and dreamy soul. She spent her time designing dresses and extravagant gowns, her fingers always scabbed over from sewing. Her creations were sold to tailors as a marketing tool for Fort Briar Academy, and she became famous. I wondered how she was doing after she left, and I’m relieved I get to see her. I was nervous when she had left because she’s shy and stutters. A bad partner could react badly to a speech impediment.
“Phalli is doing well?” I ask, looking up at Sirwenn.
Our faces are close, and she’s blindingly beautiful. I wonder briefly how she views my scarred face. Looking away, I fist my hands in my dress, overcome by nerves. There’s no telling if she will tire of my face and resort to hurting me or saying hurtful things. I expect as much.
“Daphalliane is well indeed. Flovansa adores her. Buys her silks for dress making whenever she can. Her stutter is gone.”
I turn to her again, and then flushes as she places her hand against my scarred cheek, her fingers gently tracing the lines the knife had left behind.
“I watched for a month until I finally found you. You hide very well.”
My cheeks flush further against my will, and as I open my mouth to speak, her thumb caresses my bottom lip before slipping inside my mouth. Her emerald eyes darken, glimmering like deep forests in shadow. I’m startled by the realisation that she may indeed find me, a low grade, attractive. The idea baffles me, but my thundering heart drowns out my thoughts.
“You have a very pretty mouth,” she comments quietly, “It looks stunning when you smile. Your teeth are crooked, but they’re cute. I admit that I don’t just find you interesting. When I saw you up close today I wanted to do this.”
My mind blanks, focused on how her thumb moves to my tongue. She demands that I suck, and I comply silently, unsure what is happening. I observe her flushed cheeks and lustful gaze with confusion. She watches me keenly, her chest rising rapidly as her gaze fixes on my lips. I pull back, and a whine escapes her.
“You enjoy that?” I ask tentatively.
She smiles, though she looks flustered.
“I wasn’t meant to do that,” she gasps, hiding her face behind her hands, “I got away from myself a moment. Sorry. Give me a minute to…compose. I need to behave.”
I think, viewing her keenly.
“Did your rebellious stage include sexual scandals?”
Sirwenn sighs heavily, peeping through her fingers.
“Unfortunately, yes,” she breathes, “But I don’t want to go back to that. I want something real.”
“You can’t buy love.”
She looks hurt.
“I know that!” She protests, and then places a hand over my heart, “But you find me attractive at least?”
She’s like a child demanding attention, I think direly, perplexed, but why is it I find her bluntness so endearing? I place my hand over hers, knowing my heart is pounding.
“A woman as beautiful as you should already know she’s attractive,” I say earnestly, “You are way above most high grades, and would be way above a full score.”
She looks cross.
“I don’t want to hear about grades,” she huffs angrily, “Perhaps I moved too quickly and hoped too much. Sit back on your side.”
Stunned, I move back. I thought my honesty would do well in my favour, but instead it appears to have upset her.
She slams a fist on the carriage wall, making me jump.
“Sirwenn,” I correct myself, shivering, “I am sorry I offended you.”
Her shoulders sag, and she looks overcome with exhaustion. She rubs her hand, blowing on the knuckles where they bleed. She’s completely silent.
She doesn’t speak a word for the rest of the journey to Morvendale Fort. I feign sleep, not wanting to anger her once more. My heart thumps the entire time, nervous and jittering about how I might have angered her to the point of ruining my chances of a quiet life. When the carriage stops it sways a moment, and I’m baffled when I feel a hand on mine. I jump, horror stricken and paranoid she means to hurt me. She looks hurt when she sees me, and removes her hand immediately.
“My apologies for startling you,” she says hurriedly, rushing to open the carriage door, “and for punching the carriage wall earlier.”
She disappears into the twilight, her cloak billowing, and her guards look after her in confusion, seemingly awestruck by her beauty. A guard peers at me, noting my paled complexion and my position of bracing.
“Be easy,” she smiles kindly, “The Princess is not patient, but she is not bad.”
I do not reply, but gather my things and make my way out. I wish I had a chance to look at my new surroundings, but I just wanted to hide somewhere warm and rest. The guard from before leads me inside, and I follow silently, eyes down. Winds ruffle my hair and dress, sending shivers through me, and when I finally step over the threshold I’m…still cold. I frown, looking up and around at the gloomy and undecorated entrance hall. A few torches light up the room, but it’s old, crumbling and battered from years of abandonment.
“How long has her majesty lived here?” I ask.
The guard looks uneasy.
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