Chapter 1: The Wedding Night
[This is an excerpt]
“Ah, man, this is so boring.”
Raena dropped to her back in the enormous bed, staring at the baldachin that hung over her head. Thin layers of semi-transparent white fabric embraced the bed from all sides, supposedly to give the loving couple some privacy. Or maybe it was just to create an atmosphere for their first night together, since it really didn’t do much in terms of hiding anything.
There were exactly seven oil lamps hanging from the walls, as well as twenty-seven candles scattered over the floor and hard furniture. Nineteen of them had burned out already.
It had been four hours since they led her there for her wedding night. She was instructed to wait for her husband in her ceremonial gown since, according to tradition, he was supposed to be the first person to take her wedding veil off and see her face.
So far, he hadn’t shown up, not that she expected him to.
A knock came from the door and Raena sat up with a sigh. She grabbed the veil lying next to her on the bed and threw it over her head, not even caring that it was tilted to the side. They checked on her every half an hour to make sure she wasn’t asleep, then excused themselves and left her alone again. And they always said the same thing.
“Your Highness, please be patient. His Highness will be coming soon.”
“Yes,” she replied as the palace maid turned to leave. “Send my maid in.”
The girl froze for a moment, glancing up and then bowing down immediately, as if afraid she’d be punished for doing so.
“Yes, Your Highness.” She murmured, disappearing through the door.
Raena pulled the veil off again, tossing it on the bed. She slid to the floor, almost tripping on the skirts of her dress. The ceremonial attire included a thin, but long white underdress, covered by a richly embroidered, gem-encrusted gown that seemed to weigh a ton. Being the Prime Minister’s only daughter and all, they had gone way overboard in showing her family’s wealth and status.
Raena raised her hands, pulling the hairpins out of her hair and throwing them on the vanity table in front of her. Her long, golden locks fell over her shoulders and for a moment she stared at her still unfamiliar reflection in the mirror, reminding herself that she was no longer Lydia Myles, a university dropout and an overworked waitress at her mother’s restaurant. She was Lady Raena Magrath now, a noblewoman by birth and a princess by marriage, but most important of all - she was a fictional character in the worst romance book ever.
She had woken up in this place a month ago after being stabbed on her way home. She had just finished a long shift that ended in the early hours of the morning, so she had been drowsy and distracted. The blade had come out of nowhere; she didn’t even have time to scream before it sank into her body.
Waking up here, alive and without a hole in her chest, she had thought that maybe it was all a dream, and she was asleep, or maybe even in a coma back home. Her last memories of the attack were so vivid that everything else felt like a mirage in comparison.
Days passed, then weeks, but she still didn’t wake up back in the real world. So she accepted that she was stuck in this place - maybe forever - and idling her days wasn’t going to get her anywhere.
What was more shocking than the fact that she was no longer in her world was that this new world was somehow familiar. At first, the names sounded strange, and the places she had never been to before looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. That was until she learned her own name and her own fate - to become the second wife of the third prince of the Etrobia Empire: Kassian. Then it clicked.
The book. The stupid book that lay abandoned on her nightstand with coffee stains on the cover. The places, the names, the people. Everything was like in that book.
The door opened with a quiet creak, and a set of steps strode in.
Raena turned to look at the maid, only to find her standing right behind her. Raena jumped with a surprised yelp, pressing her hand to her chest to calm her racing heart. Kara’s dark hair was gathered into a thick braid that brushed past her shoulder; her bright eyes stared at her with what Raena could only describe as a calculating expression.
“Don’t you have to bow or something?” Raena chuckled.
“Why? There is no one else here,” Kara replied in her quiet voice. “Don’t worry, I will be perfectly respectful and obedient in front of other people. I would not taint my mistress’s reputation. After all, you’re officially a princess now. If I were found to show any disrespect, I would be beaten to death.”
Raena smiled. Telling Kara her secret - or at least part of it - had been a huge gamble, but it had paid off. No matter how much she knew about this world and its future, she needed someone to help and guide her if she were to survive and succeed in her plan - a plan that was going to allow her to exit the main storyline and live a happy, pleasant life as a rich single lady. Away from the drama, the fighting, and the death that would soon happen.
“I won’t let that happen,” Raena assured her, raising her hands. Without a word of direction, Kara began unbinding the laces on the back. Raena felt the pressure around her chest decrease as the dress fell around her ankles, leaving her in her undergarments. She stepped outside of the circle of cloth and Kara quickly gathered it, setting it carefully on the bed.
“Your position may give you power outside, but within this household, you hold very little of it,” Kara reminded her, returning to her side and fumbling with her hair. A few more pins disappeared inside the maid’s pockets and Raena ran her hand through the thick locks, wondering if she had ever had such nice hair in the real world. “So let’s make sure we both survive.”
“Don’t worry, my plan will work.” Raena smiled. It had to work, it must. After all, she had an unfair advantage over everyone here. She just had to be smart about it. “Why is there no food here?”
“The bride should not eat or drink anything throughout the wedding day and night, so she is clean and empty to receive the seed of her husband. This way, the chances of conception are much higher.” Kara explained as she fussed over the dress, making sure there was no damage or wrinkles on it.
“What a bunch of nonsense,” Raena murmured.
“People like traditions. It gives them a sense of stability and assurance. Not everybody likes change.”
“But how does that even make sense? Do people realize how hard it is to sit still for hours at a time? Not to mention that getting dehydrated is a real thing. And to top it all off, if we are to have sex, we’d need energy. If I don’t eat or drink all day, how am I supposed to have any strength to do it? Or am I supposed to just lie on my back like a dead fish, spread my legs open, and wait for him to ’fill me with his seed’?”
Kara froze, closing her eyes.
“Really, I never know what will come out of your mouth,” she mumbled. “Please be mindful of what you say.”
“Yes, yes. I’m shutting up.” Raena sighed. Kara touched her arms, and Raena lifted them, waiting patiently as the maid helped her put on a simpler dress. Pale blue satin caressed her skin as the maid adjusted the open sleeves and moved behind her to take care of the buttons that ran up to her neck. “Where are we supposed to stay after tonight?”
“The third prince has given you the North Palace. The other servants should be arriving there tomorrow.” Kara replied as she finished with the buttons. Raena felt ten pounds lighter, and the length of the dress just reached her ankles, without the extra layers of fluff, so she could even walk properly.
“Tomorrow? We are going there now.”
“What?” Kara exclaimed, stepping in front of her so she could look her in the eyes. “You’re supposed to stay here until morning, even if your husband doesn’t come. What if he comes and he finds you gone? We’ll both get in trouble.”
“He won’t come, so I have no intention of waiting,” Raena said confidently.
“How can you be so sure?”
“The stars told me.” Raena grinned.
She had decided not to tell Kara the part where their world was an exact replica of a book she had picked up in a second-hand bookshop. Moreover, that same stupid book had turned out to be an epic bore where the main characters were one-dimensional while the plot ran away from the author halfway through the book. The author seemed more interested in describing every single detail of the world, including its history, political struggles and parties, and even social customs and events, instead of focusing on the love story or even the inevitable war she was hinting at from page one. But now all those little details, like the fact that the third prince didn’t visit his second wife’s chambers even once during their marriage, were finally worth knowing. Raena just wished she had forced herself to read until the end of the book, considering her current situation.
“The stars, huh?” Kara asked, pulling her back from her reverie.
“You’ll soon find out the stars have a lot to say.” Raena smiled. “Let’s go.”
“I still think we should stay here. If you leave now, all kinds of rumors may start.”
“Well, then,” Raena said as they reached the door. “Good thing everybody still thinks that the Prime Minister’s daughter is just a beautiful girl with the brain capacity of a pumpkin. I can totally play this role. Prepare yourself to be amazed!”
“After what I’ve seen so far, I am sure you’ll exceed my expectations,” Kara said with a stone face, turning the handle. “Mistress.”
She opened the door, bowing down as Raena exited the room first. The guards outside turned to look at her in surprise. The three maids in the corridor stared for a moment until the oldest of them moved to block Raena’s path. Raena stopped, giving her a huge smile.
“Your Highness, please return to the bridal chamber. You must wait for His Highness,” the maid said with a strained voice, keeping her eyes on the floor.
“But it’s so boring!” Raena groaned. “And I want food! I’m soooo hungry! And cookies!”
“Her Highness mustn’t eat food on her wedding day,” the maid continued, still looking at the floor. She held her hands in front of her and Raena could see her squeezing them together in a mix of helplessness and frustration. “Why don’t you…”
“But I want to eat now!” Raena shouted, stomping her foot. “And I am not staying in that room, I don’t like it! It’s dark, and it’s boring!” The maid lifted her head, glancing at her cautiously. Raena caught her gaze, and the maid froze. “Do you know who I am? I am the daughter of the Prime Minister and the wife of the third prince! If you keep pestering me, I will tell my father and my husband! And then they will scold you really bad and not give you any dessert!”
The maid’s eyes widened in confusion until the realization slowly took over. Seeing the opportunity, Kara stepped forward, bowing down.
“Please excuse my Mistress, Head Maid,” she said in a timid, apologetic voice. “It’s past her bedtime, and she is quite tired. His Highness seems to be busy with important matters, so please allow us to retire to the North Palace.”
“I want warm milk!” Raena interrupted, turning towards Kara, who just stared at her with an expression that almost made Raena break character and laugh.
“Yes, Mistress,” Kara finally replied, bowing before turning back to the Head Maid. “Please, excuse us. This way, Mistress.”
Kara moved past the older woman and Raena followed, half-expecting the maid to stop them again. She didn’t, and their steps echoed through the corridor as they walked away. They didn’t talk until they were out of the main palace and into the garden that stretched behind the building in all directions. The full moon was up in the sky, generously sharing its light so they could walk without tripping or worrying about their surroundings.
The garden was much grander than the Prime Minister’s, overflowing with ponds, trees, and all kinds of flowers whose fragrance filled the air even late at night.
“My, my, I married well.” Raena chuckled.
“Yes, the prince is very well off ever since the end of the war. And the Emperor bestowed on him many gifts and lands for his contribution to the victory,” Kara said quietly, looking around. “But since you’re the second wife, you’ll only get a fixed monthly allowance. The first wife takes care of the harem and the household expenses.”
“Meaning she controls the money,” Raena said, and Kara nodded. “No matter. We’ll manage somehow until our business takes up. I’ll figure out a way to get more money from my sister-wife, too.”
“You’re quite optimistic about the situation. Didn’t you say the world you came from favors monogamy?” She asked.
“Well, yeah.” Raena shrugged. “But this is fun, and it’s not like I plan to stay married for long. Once the prince divorces me, we’ll focus on the business. Who knows, I may even get married again if I find some guy with a nice face and a fun personality.”
“Fun personality?” Kara grimaced. “Is this what you look for in a husband? How is that going to help you in life?”
“If I am going to get married, why choose someone with an ugly mug that would bore me to death?” Raena shrugged. “Besides, once our business is up and running, we’ll have enough money to sustain ourselves, so we won’t be getting married to be taken care of. So a fun personality is a must.”
“I don’t know where this confidence is coming from.” Kara shook her head. “You can’t predict the future, can you?”
“Ha, that would have been sweet.” Raena laughed, raising her hands behind her neck. “I just know a thing or two about running a business, so we’ll be fine. And I can read the stars.”
Raena smiled. Finally, the years she spent working in her mother’s restaurant would be of some use. Considering the food she had tasted so far in this world, there was no way her venture was going to fail. It was just a matter of making the right first impression and getting people through the door. And she already had a plan for that.
“Oh, my.” A male voice suddenly said and both of them froze in their spots. “What do we have here?”