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That two years could pass so slowly had not come as a surprise to me. I had known, the instant Mother had told me my wedding would not take place until after my sixteenth birthday, that those next two years would quite likely be the longest of my life.

But now that this fateful day is here? I have to wonder where those two years went. It takes every bit of self-control I have to keep myself calm, to keep from trembling where I stand. Around me, the seamstress and my Mother’s lady’s maid—she says I may have one when I am the mistress of my own home, that there is no need for me to have one in her home where Alexis, her maid, can help if I truly need it—are finishing with the last few adjustments to my gown.

My wedding gown; it is pale green and cream silk, cut close to my figure with wide, luxurious skirts, with lavender and green trimmings on the bodice, sleeves and hems. Two weeks before my birthday, the seamstress appeared in my room and before I knew it, I was up on a stool getting measured. A half-hour later, my Mother appeared and the seamstress started pulling out swatches and ribbons and before the morning was out, Mother had decided exactly what I was to wear for my wedding. I was left standing on the stool.

Nothing about my wedding was decided on by me. Not the menu, not the guests, not my gown. Mother planned everything. I didn’t even bother to try, not that I realized she was in the midst of planning my wedding until Alexis answered my whispered question about what the measurements were for. At first I was entirely distraught about being shut out of the planning of my own wedding, especially the gown. My clothes are one of the few things that Mother allows me some autonomy over, especially as she has realized over the last two years that I have developed a knack for appearing fashionable no matter what I have to work with and even predicting some of the newest fashions. Yet, as much as I would have liked to have had a say in my gown, I cannot am entirely upset about it in this instance, given that the gown Mother and the seamstress came up with is quite possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever worn.

“There,” Alexis says with her faint, provincial lilt, sending a small smile up at me, “you’re all ready, and you look stunning.” I give her a small smile back. I have always liked Alexis. She has always been my ally of sorts, distracting Mother when I was getting a particularly bad tongue-lashing, helping me do my hair in the mornings while telling me all the news that I would never have heard otherwise, sneaking me treats when I was little and Mother had forbidden me sweets for some inane crime. With an eager gesture, she motions for me to turn around. Eager myself, but doing a better job of holding it in, I turn on the stool I’ve been set upon, my hand in Alexis’ for balance as I cannot see my feet or even the stool for the width of my skirts.

She is right; I am stunning. I don’t even have to tell my back to straighten or my chin to lift as I look on at myself in the mirror. I look exquisite and nearly regal. The cream-coloured lace sleeves cling to my arms, enriched beautifully with exquisitely embroidered accents in the same lavender and pale green as the rest of the gown. The ribbon and embroidery-embellished neckline, while not too low (else Mother would likely have a stroke) does bare most of my shoulders and my collarbone. The bodice fits close to my torso, further emphasizing my figure without overtly displaying my newly generous bust. The skirts flare out from my slim waist, made smaller with the corsets I’m still becoming accustomed to, falling in elegant sweeps and folds down to the floor, where I can tell a short train appropriate to my rank and age will follow me as I walk. I’m honestly not even sure what colour my shoes are since the skirts are voluminous enough that I imagine I will have little hope of seeing my feet without a great deal of effort. I have been worried that the shades of pale green and cream would wash out my already pale skin, but as I look at myself, I am pleased that, though gentle colours, they are rich enough that instead of leaching colour from my skin, they enhance the faint blushing in my cheeks and the pinks of my lips. I don’t have a scrap of jewellery on, as tradition dictates it would be inappropriate in a non-royal wedding, especially given that I am a first-time bride. I don’t even have jewels in my ears or a bracelet on my wrist, but I find I don’t mind; the rich trimmings and embroidered details decorating my dress more than make up for it. My hair is left mostly loose, as befits a young bride, to cascade in dark waves and curls down my back while some is wound, woven and braided over my ears and around the crown of my head, where a few white and lavender sprays of tiny flowers are arranged so that I have a floral halo framing my face.

Behind me, I hear the sound of the door opening, and without taking my eyes from my reflection the mirror before me, I know that it is Mother come to inspect me before my debut. There is no mistaking the purposeful clacking of her heels across the polished floor of the wardrobe.

It takes a bit of effort to keep my spine from habitually bending meekly under her scrutiny, but I am so pleased with my appearance that it grants me some strength to stand up to her inevitable criticisms. Boldly, bolstered as I am by knowing I look perfect, I turn my face to hers, letting my dark eyes meet her sharp ones without a trace of the timidity she usually expects from me. In the last year I have finally grown taller, and I am almost as tall as Mother, now. Standing on the stool as I am, I tower over her, feeling like a queen looking down on her subjects. Stranger still, I see little trace of disapproval in her expression as she surveys my appearance much as I had a mere moment before. It is almost enough to make me grin triumphantly. I hold it in, though. No need to break the mood with her scolding.

Once, when I was still small, I thought my Mother must have been the greatest lady in all the land, save the Queen, and even that was debatable. As I grew older, it was a harsh—yet strangely satisfying—lesson to learn that she was barely notable among the other noble-born ladies of the land, no matter that she behaved like she was greater than all of them. She deserved to be elevated above them all, so far as she was concerned, and so that was how she presented herself to the world.

Standing here on my stool, looking down at my Mother as she looks up at me with the closest thing to approval I have ever seen, it hits me. She may not have be the great lady she believes herself to be, but I could be.

Then the moment is over. Nearly shaking her head to dispel what ever she had been thinking, Mother clucks, gesturing sharply at Alexis before taking a few steps back from me, giving me room to descend from the stool. In a blink, Alexis is at my side, taking my hand to steady me as I step cautiously from my perch, the seamstress bustling around my hem to ensure I don’t step on it.

As soon as my feet touch the floor, Mother begins on the flurry of instruction she no doubt had planned before she even set out to come to the wardrobe to check on my progress. As soon as she starts talking, Alexis and the seamstress throw the gossamer sheer veil, trimmed with the same embroidery as my gown, over my head. With that action and my Mother’s persistent admonishments that everything must go perfectly, the apprehension that had been growing in my belly as today drew closer returns with a vengeance.

Out in the hall, I can hear another, heavier set of footsteps approaching. It must be nearly time, I think, as I recognize the tread belonging to my Stepfather. I withhold a sigh of disappointment at that thought. With my Papa long dead, and my little brother nearly too young to attend the wedding, it has fallen to Captain Steffan to give me away. Mother had briefly debated sending me down the aisle on my own, given that I am technically a Baroness in my own right and have no appropriately aged male relatives. But then Captain Steffan had pointed out that, as Mother is technically my guardian and she is his wife, he is my guardian as well, and thus the most appropriate one to give me away. I may be young and naïve as Mother puts it, but even I can see through this; Mother may have avoided doing so, but Lady Meyer taught me to observe those around me carefully and to think critically and even politically while under her care. It’s a declaration of power to him. He is stating that I am under his control. Not for the first time, as he explained to Mother that he’d give me away, I am reminded that, if he could, my title would be his. My money would also be his were he to have his way, no doubt, even though it’s only a small fortune.

Without even a courteous knock, he lets himself in. If it was hard to keep from flinching under Mother’s gaze, it is nearly impossible not to under his. There has always been something about Captain Steffan that bothered me, especially how he looks at me. At first, it was as though I was an inconvenience. Then, once he realized that, even married to my Mother, he had no control or access to my title or my inheritance, he began looking at me as though I was a thief. Now, in these last two years he has looked at me in those same ways, as a thief and an annoyance, but there’s something else too. Something that I cannot place, that I do not want to understand. It makes me feel small and soiled. As usual, my skin crawls as he enters the wardrobe and without even meaning to, the unconcerned mask I have taught myself to wear slips over my features, hiding my distress from him and Mother both. I turn back to the mirror, determined to keep my composure. I catch a glimpse of myself again.

Even with my face paled from anxiety and discomfort, I am still beautiful. No, it’s more than that, I notice with a start. With my face set into a cool, indifferent mask, I look untouchable. The rosy flush that was on my cheeks before my Mother and Stepfather chased it from me lent me a youthful prettiness. Without it, I look almost unearthly, striking and majestic. I look older than a sixteen year-old girl; I look like a young woman beyond the care of petty things. I look like a titled noblewoman. And I am, I realize. I am the Baroness Tabitha Morend, soon to be Baroness Tabitha Morend-Amherst and one day at least a Viscountess. I shall soon out-rank my Mother—arguably I already do—and will certainly outrank her husband. From this day on, they will have no power over me. The corner of my lip quirks up slightly. It is a secret, powerful smile and one that I haven’t seen on my face before. It’s an expression I like. I shall have to practice later to perfect it until I can wear it at will.

Turning, ignoring the fluttering in my stomach as I realize I am about to be led to church, I hold out my hand, waiting for my Stepfather to take it. My Mother’s lips purse disapprovingly. Strictly speaking, I should have waited for him to offer his own hand, but I am fresh on the heels of my epiphany. I find I don’t care. His nose wrinkling a little in an expression I feel he has emulated from my Mother, he takes my hand and leads me out and on to the chapel behind my Mother and Alexis.

Because Captain Steffan’s own property is barely worth noting, we live on my Mother’s childhood Estate, her own inheritance from her father. It is still modest, and apparently smaller than my future home, but it still has a respectable Manor and its own chapel on the grounds. Respectable enough that Alexis says Viscount Amherst was easily willing to concede to Mother’s demands that the Wedding take place here, in her own home. It was something Alexis said Mother wasn’t entirely pleased about. We both think she had been spoiling for a disagreement where she could exercise a measure of her skills at manipulation and bend Viscount Amherst to her will. I wonder now if my future father-in-law saw through her power play and trumped it with his own in agreeing so graciously.

As I walk with Captain Steffan through the familiar halls toward the Chapel, the confidence my epiphany engendered in me slowly fades as my apprehension returns. It is a battle to keep my shoulders from tensing in anxiety and my back straight as though I have not a care in the world.

The Great Hall is decorated festively with flowers, ribbons, intricately looped bows, hundreds of crystal enhanced candles and brightly coloured draping fabric. It is already prepared and laid out for the grand dinner that is to follow the ceremony itself, a few servants bustling about seeing to last minute adjustments. Additionally, the walkway from the front door of the Manor to the door of the Chapel is lined with garlands to guide the wedding guests back onto the Manor for the reception and Dinner afterward. I do my best to notice, only to fail miserably. I cannot quite bring myself to care just yet. As each step takes me closer to the Chapel, I try holding tighter to my knowledge that I am but a few vows away from being free of my Mother.

But as the double doors loom ahead of me, festooned with flowers and ribbon bows, my nervousness drowns even that comforting thought away. With one last stern glance at me and an admonishing reminder to not disgrace myself, Mother turns on her heel and enters the chapel. I barely hear her. I am putting my last bit of focus into fighting back my nerves and keeping the soft, pleased smile I have schooled myself to present just for this occasion on my face.

The wedding itself is a blur. I am collected as I walk down the aisle, staying that way by concentrating on keeping my steps slow and measured. I barely realize that I have reached the altar, and nearly jump out of my skin when Josef Amherst takes my hand from my Stepfather’s. It is only thanks to my Mother’s deeply ingrained lessons that keep me still and poised at his side, my slim hand almost lost in his larger gloved one. I am suddenly glad that he is wearing his pair of handsome blue gloves; it would be humiliating for him to know just how nervous I am from the way my hands have gone damp and clammy. I am so caught up in keeping myself from trembling and thinking on how thankful I am for his gloves that I have barely noticed the ceremony beginning around me.

Suddenly the weight of his ring is on my finger. A flutter of panic lights in my chest. I’m married already? I barely remember saying the words. Did I say them right? Did I stumble over them like Mother scolded me not to?

I hazard a quick glance at my Mother. She looks begrudgingly pleased. I hold in a sigh of relief. If I had made a mistake her thin lips would be pursed tight, her cheeks flushed and, if she were really angry or upset, her face would be nearly white and stony as an ancient bust, and her eyes would be as steely and sharp as her best needles.

She isn’t smiling, but she looks satisfied. I must have done an acceptable job.

Beside me, the priest delivers the final benediction and announces that I am now My Lady Baroness Tabitha Morend-Amherst. My hand still in his, my new husband turns me and begins leading my back down the aisle, heading for the Great Hall where we will begin the feast my Mother has no doubt planned down to the last detail.

Though my nerves have yet to settle, I find that, as Josef leads me back into Warin Manor, my head feels clearer than it did on my way down to the chapel. His hand is firm under mine, and his steps are confident but measured, accounting for my shorter stride and heavy skirts. He does not look at me, though, I realize as I glance at him. All the way back up the aisle, he looks to the guests, nodding and smiling, giving a word of thanks every now and then. Even when we step outside and the household servants and tenants from the Estate cheer and toss flower petals over our heads for luck he doesn’t even glance over to look at me.

By the time we make it to the front doors, thrown open wide for us to walk in side-by-side, I am much calmer than I was before the ceremony. The cheering and friendly well-wishes have brought a real smile back to my face and colour to my cheeks again, no matter my initial resolve to keep my reactions firmly in check to satisfy Mother’s demand for dignity. The regular people of the Estate are all far more excited than I am. Men and women alike comment on how lovely I am and how lucky my new husband is to have found such a beautiful bride.

He still hasn’t looked at me.

A shot of anxiety ripples through me again. Have I done something to displease him already? Could it be that he does not find me so beautiful as everyone says? As I know I am? I have heard that the perception of beauty is subjective, but I always thought that there was some beauty that couldn’t help but be universally acknowledged.

Even if there is something wrong with me in his eyes, surely he should still have reason to look at me, to meet my gaze. After all, we are married now.

As we walk up to the high table placed on a dais at the far end of the Great Hall, I can hear our guests beginning to file in behind us, gathering inside the door between the arms of the tables set around the perimeter of the room, for us, the newlyweds, to take our seats and signal our celebration to begin. The Hall echoes with cheerful chatter as Josef leads me up onto the dais and around the table to our seats.

As I had recalled when I was first told that Josef Amherst was to be my husband, one of the things I had noticed about him the first time I met him was that his manners were impeccable. Now, as he guides me to my seat in the centre of the high table, I am reminded of that fact. He pulls my chair out the precise distance from the table necessary to accommodate my gown, but not so far that I will have to shuffle forward with it to reach the table, no matter that there are footmen nearby to do such things for us, and gives me his steady hand to help me balance as I navigate my skirts into place.

It is then that he meets my eyes, as I am sliding in between the table and my chair. His eyes, though bright with the high spirits prompted by the cheering common-folk, are resigned. There is no doubting what that means. He is about as enthusiastic about marrying me as I am him…and that is almost not at all. Once again, I have to take conscious charge of my features to prevent my face from falling, though I don’t entirely succeed. A flicker of apology ghosts over his face. My heart sinks. While I was not anticipating being excited about this arrangement, I was hoping that I could learn to be, and that a measure of enthusiasm from my new husband would help me with that endeavour. With my realization about out-ranking my mother and the cheerful calls still wafting into the Hall from outside, I had begun thinking that maybe I could be happy about this marriage, even a little. I just needed my new husband to be a little keen as well. Only now I know he is not. The anxiety in my belly reasserts itself again.

He takes his place next to me, taking my hand and raising it in welcome with his and invites our guests to join us for dinner in a crisp, clear voice.

Then, together, we sit down for our first meal as husband and wife.

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