Chapter 1: The Bride without a Blush
I’ve been saving my virginity for a certain special someone since I was thirteen.
‘Thirteen,’ I have heard it said, ‘is too young for a child to even contemplate such things.’
In our city, there is no law that states when a young person may legally have sex. We’re a small island, steeped in tradition-- and there’s a tradition that means being a virgin can mean certain death.
There’s only one thing that weighs on everybody’s minds when it comes to their daughters, and that’s the fact if they’re still a virgin, once every ten years, they may be chosen. To avoid this, the rich go as far as to employ professionals to save their daughters, having passed medicals and psychological analysis, when the ten years are drawing close. The poor have no such security, but just as effective methods. Nobody, the city knows, in their right mind would willingly be chosen. But every ten years, there’s always one plucked out, reluctantly, to be the next.
As I pull on a delicate garter made of lace, I smile to myself. Perhaps I am not in my right mind, but I chose this.
I am not thirteen any more, but five years has changed me beyond even my own estimation. I do not flinch as the garter sits tightly on my thigh, nor do I shrink away as one of the priestesses holds out a stocking for me to step into, all dipped in expensive ivory material.
I sit patiently whilst they lace up my bodice, and it seems to take forever; each pin and ribbon in every one of the hundred fasteners up my back. My breath comes in slow, deep, meditative breaths.
I am getting married, I tell myself.
The priestesses say nothing as they pull long, white gloves to hide my scarred forearms. They have said nothing all day as they bathed and primped each part of my battered body, and it’s nearly sunset.
It’s nearly time for my wedding.
I have never attended any weddings; in my family, we’ve had a lot of funerals. My father’s wedding to my stepmother was non-existent; a drunken signature and a kiss in a shady registry office, somewhere. A signature and kiss that had extended from the time I was ten and this strange woman took to living with us.
For a brief moment, I imagine actually getting visitors before the ceremony. They told us that once it takes place, I will not see my family again. But I want to laugh out loud at the thought of my father or stepmother coming to say goodbye. At sundown, my father will be frequenting the local casino, gambling away our money that my stepmother desperately wants to spend on fancy frocks. When he returns home, crying and weak, she will leave marks on him in her anger.
I am his only ally left in this world, but even the marriage of his own daughter does not have the lure of a roulette table.
The dress they bring to me is not my own choice. Heavily hung with pearls, I shrug it on over my hips and place my arms through the sleeves. The priestesses get to work fastening the next layer of ribbons and catches, and I stare off into the distance again.
An image of brown hair and a young, childish face flash before my eyes. No matter where I go, I am haunted by him, the last memory of what he said to me still casting sound into my ears.
‘Nessie, don’t look so sad. I’ll be back soon.’
Nathaniel never did come back.
What would Nate say if he could see me now? I wonder. I feel curlers being tugged at my hair and pins scratching against my scalp. I barely notice.
It was getting harder and harder to wonder what Nate would say, because I’d left him behind when I was thirteen. The crevasse of five years into adulthood now broke us apart.
Nate never grew up.
I swallow an overly familiar lump in my throat at the loss of my twin brother.
Nate wouldn’t even understand why I’m getting married.
When one of the priestesses suddenly zooms closer towards my face, I finally jump. I hear a scatter of pins from the girl behind me, but she doesn’t curse. None of these women do. They don’t hate, they don’t complain, and they treat me with reverence for God-knows-what reason I don’t ask.
Silently, the woman inches closer again, and to hide my discomfort, I freeze with my eyes clamped shut. She applies something dense and liquid to my face, blending it into every corner from my forehead to my jaw. Next, her witchcraft involves a powdery substance that I feel tickling my cheekbones. Then she attacks my eyes, and I audibly yelp.
‘What are you doing?’ I say, and their only response is to hold me down. For a girl that believes she’s as tough as nails, I feel like I may have discovered a weakness of personal space. My heart thuds, demanding them to release me before I panic.
Strange brushes stroke my eyelids, and the priestesses come at me with odd tools that they hold against my eyelashes. I want to fight them off, but I can’t see them continuing the ceremony if the bride has suddenly emerged as aggressive.
They need someone, I think. You have the power here.
‘Stop,’ I say again, but they pay me no heed. One of the women is stretching my eyelid, and holding a pencil.
′Stop!′ I command, and this time, they all look at me. I push away their contraptions and say, ‘No more. This is enough.’
The eldest priestess pauses, her arms folding back into her dark robes in a subservient posture. She insists, ‘You must look presentable for the ceremony.’
‘I am presentable,’ I snap, ’I am me. That is present enough, I should think. No more sorcery, or I will make this ceremony hard for everybody.′
Should I have bitten my tongue? For ten whole seconds, not one of us speaks a word. There’s a stand off, with me poised in my seat as though I’m ready to run. Maybe they’ll find another girl. Maybe they have a back up, and now my personality of a diva is starting to show, they’ll decide that I’m not what they wanted. But I can’t let that happen, so I school my features into a look of soft defiance.
‘Very well,’ says the eldest priestess.
Glumly, they step back. I stand with my shoulders as relaxed as I can manage, and step into the delicate white heels laid before my chair. They fit my feet perfectly; tailor-made shoes that probably cost more than the street I live upon.
Lived upon, I remind myself. Past tense.
‘I wish for some time alone,’ I add, as the three women crowd around me. I do not need their help to walk, nor look at my reflection. They look confused, but thankfully they lead out in silence, bowing as they leave.
I let out a deep sigh. I’ve never been waited on before, and it’s more tiring than I’d thought. Of all the nights I’d slept one eye open, all the buildings I’d climbed and leaped and fallen from, it’s this I find hardest of all. Preparing hadn’t been as hard as seeing my plan through.
The dress weighs me down as I step across the room. The skirts are numerous and layered, ironically fanning into a mermaid’s tail of white behind me. As I step before the full length mirror, I take a moment to see the kind of bride that I am.
The bride kind, I think with a grin. But as I stare into the reflection, I try to remember not the bride, but the girl. The girl born to a gambling father and abandoned by her mother. The girl who’d had only one person she could truly trust, one twin who had been her other half, one soul within two bodies. And that half had been ripped from her, and nothing had ever repaired the gap.
The girl that had sworn revenge, blindly at first, then calculated. The girl that had been honed into a weapon, thriving on the violence of the slums and the fights that had nearly cost her own life.
That girl is the same as the one that looks back at me.
With all of the disguises and trickery, it’s hard to tell. My face is painted so that it is flawless, the magic creating sharp cheekbones where my face should be soft, and an angled jaw as opposed to a square one. My nose is thin and pointed, and my lips pursed with a deep red. Across my eyes, they have highlighted the orbits with flickering shades of silver and pea green, like light drifting across the sea floor. They match the deep blue of my eyes.
My hair is another matter entirely; it is no longer bedraggled and limp, but a mesmerising brown fluffed and twirled into fishtail plaits, tapering into an elegant bun. Stray curls hang around my face and neck. All around my hair, there’s pearls and ivory lace weaving seamlessly into the design.
I stroke my neck almost disbelievingly; somehow, it looks so much longer than I’d ever noticed. The dress they have chosen hides my muscular shoulders, as if it is not fitting for a bride to show strength. It plunges into a low V-shaped neck, with ivory netting bridging the material. The material twists into the waist, and then into layers of heavy skirt.
Heavy, lethal skirt. It’s deliberately crafted, to ensure that the wearer drowns within its weight.
I look nothing like I usually do, and I’m sincerely glad. I’m to be paraded before the citizens of my country, and I don’t want them to know the real, unaltered, me. Like this, I look like the image of a happy, flawless bride; better that than the ruined beast that my fraying spirit feels.
The door swings open, and a grey-haired priestess sweeps into the room. I gaze at her as she steps with purpose across the room towards me, and I keep looking at her even when she lowers her eyes to meet mine.
She nods once.
‘Are you ready?’
‘As ready as I’ll ever be.’
Her wrinkled face shows no pity.
‘You are a brave woman. You do not believe in the Gods, do you?’
Before me, a black suited figure comes towards me, and the world around turns to ice.
‘Not in the way that you do,’ I reply with a tight smile.
‘Maybe that’s for the best,’ is all that she replies, and for a moment, I consider that I’m not the only one with disguised emotions. But then the moment is gone, and with it, my only connection to the woman that has sanctioned my doom.
The procession is a short one; out from the temple, I ride in an open carriage down to the sea. As soon as we leave the black gates, the wind rips into my beautifully crafted hair. I peer out at the opportunity to see the kingdom of Minoa, my home, in a way that is different to what I have seen before. Instead of dirty crowds and pressed buildings, I see an aerial view of the town that grows across this small island. The temple is the highest point in the island, and a close second is the castle in the distance, a palace that functions as both fortress and ruling offices.
The temple is also, arguably, the prettiest sight of Minoa. It is the oldest structure on the island, based on foundations that have been around for hundreds of years, and said to have been there much longer than anybody really knew. The gods and goddesses the Minoans worship are the same as they have been for hundreds of years; a mixture of urban legend and tales passed down from generation to generation of powerful heavens filled with gods of war, disaster, love-- if it needs a god, it exists. There are fools like me that scorn the good luck charms, the wishing notes for fortune, the candles for love and desire. Fools like me that should know better. More than anyone, I have proof that these gods aren’t simple, idealistic figures. They’re not icons.
And they watch upon our tiny kingdom, on this tiny island, with its cramped spaces and small fishing industry that gives the capital a distinctly fishy smell no matter where you stand, and a harvest that hasn’t come to plenty in hundreds of years. Supposedly, the Goddess of the Ocean smiles upon us.
Whoever the Gods of Spring and Harvest are, they have forgotten us-- something I would dearly love to do myself. Minoa hasn’t been a plentiful city in hundreds of years, and the struggle shows. Most of us are poor and hungry, unable to grow our own crops and reliant on the business that the boats bring.
Glancing from left to right, I am mesmerised by the crowds that have amassed. Had this many come to see the last Bride? It’s been ten years since the last ceremony, and at that time I stood among the crowd.
I see myself there, now, out by the cathedral, droned by the wedding bells ringing. I was eight back then, and watching in horror at the bride being taken away from everything she loved. Like most brides, she hadn’t asked for this sacrifice. She hadn’t wanted it, any of it. She was only seventeen, and her family cried for not risking the disease and danger of a backstreet deal to claim their daughter’s virginity, when they couldn’t afford a medically approved one.
The last bride had been wailing. Instead, I make sure to stand a little straighter as I watch the crowd. The carriage clatters all the way around the kingdom - a kind of leaving procession, if you wish - and I spot faces I know. Among the wealthier districts, green lawns and coffee houses have ladies and gentlemen sitting, watching with their monocles. Servants, to my surprise, bow with respect as my carriage passes. Several wave in a salute of goodbye.
They’re thanking me for my prompt volunteering. Thanks to my sacrifice, many girls weren’t subjected to the tortures of bedding to outsmart an old, idiotic rule to avoid the selection process.
The selection process; an old, dull gemstone necklace placed over a virgin girl’s neck will light up. Previous years have told tales of a hunt across the town for virgins. Most of the time, the girls weren’t taken. Heaven knows how, but the Head Priestess-- that ancient, weathered being that had spoken to me earlier-- is there at all of the selections, and she picks out the girls to take to the temple. The finalists in this deadly game.
My eagerness to be chosen was unexpected, but it would have meant nothing if the Head Priestess hadn’t deemed me appropriate.
But she had. Somehow. And here, I sit, in a carriage on the last day of my life, my wedding and my funeral.
Soon, we pass the ornately carved cobblestones and enter the dirty, muddy tracks of the poorer side of town. I see my classmates, standing by our makeshift school, and to my astonishment, they raise their hands in goodbye.
Nobody had ever liked me at school before. Now, I swear there’s a row of them shedding a few solitary tears.
The carriage does not falter, but continues through the lanes that I have grown up in, by the brothels that I know my father has visited. We pass by where my real mother now lives, and I see her pale face at the front of the crowd. Her eyes are wide and frantic, as if she’s suddenly realised that it’s her daughter being sent away, never to return.
I smirk, and I see her stop pushing to get to me. A woman steps out behind her, with a young child, and my face drops into an angry glare.
Don’t you dare get scared when I choose to leave and not see you again, but not care when it’s your choice.
You left us for that woman.
Your two tiny twins.
And you never came back.
I am glad when the carriage cruises on, fading them into the distance.
The weather is turning stormier, and I enjoy it. The sky hisses with rain against a red sun, and I delight in the coolness hitting my painted, false face. I breathe in the air as we continue through the kingdom, and I falter only when I hear my voice being screamed.
I want to cry. I know that voice.
And I wish I didn’t.
‘Father?’ I whisper, my eyes wide as I see a dishevelled man vaulting past the guards, fighting them back.
’Nerissa, don’t do this, don’t go- you can’t bring him back!′
My knuckles turn white as I clench the sides of the carriage. I want to vomit. I can’t listen to this, not if I want to keep my resolve.
I turn away from him.
'Honey, look, I know how you feel, alright? I miss him too, and I miss him every damn day but I can’t lose you too!′
My throat is dry as I cry to swallow. I blame the wetness on my eyes from the rain.
I hear him screaming my name all the way through the rest of the parade, even though I left him behind in my heart five years ago.