There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. In the decades before my father and grandfather’s heads rolled onto grass not a mile from here, the Valley was home to three villages and two farms that sustained them.
I remember watching chickens dance in the dirt streets in front of horses pulling carts as children only a little older than me chased them. In the early hours of the morning as I lay in bed, I could hear the strange shrieking of hungry pigs waiting for breakfast.
Now, scaled beasts tread those same roads, weaving between stone ruins. The only animals and humans I can see there are left over carcasses from the meals their masters heard down into the Valley to their death.
The dragons drove us out. Their masters forced us to the coast, to a remote fort with little in the way of creature comforts. It was a mercy, I know that. They chose not to kill my grandmother, my mother, and me. They allowed us to live.
But it didn’t and doesn’t feel like one.
They stole from me.
They killed my people.
“Mallory?” I hear the knock at the door and sigh.
“Come in,” I say, without tearing my gaze away from the beasts in the Valley below the castle in which I currently stand.
The door opens and closes just as quickly.
“Oh,” Cicely says breathlessly. I turn to look at her and find her standing in a sky-blue satin dress, her hand fluttering over her heart. “You look wonderful.”
I roll my eyes and move away from the window to check there’s no dust on the back of my dress from where I perched on the windowsill.
“I look like a gift.”
Cicely smiles a little sadly.
“Remember why we’re here,” she says. She then glances shiftily around the room and moves closer. “This isn’t real.”
“It’s a real marriage,” I say loudly, just in case there’s someone hidden in the walls. I don’t even honestly know if that’s possible, but I’m sure as hell not taking any risks. As far as the other people in this castle know, Cicely is a close family friend, brought to witness my wedding because my mother is sick.
She’s actually my aunt, but I don’t want them to know that for the same reason I told my mother she’d attend this wedding over my dead body - because it’s all too likely that my darling husband-to-be’s family will eliminate them.
“It’s just not love,” I add.
Though they do say the line between love and hate is thin. I suppose I’ll find out.
“Regardless, he’s a lucky man.”
I roll my eyes again - I’m going to have to get a grip on that if I’m going to get through the ceremony with my head attached to my body.
I turn to look in the mirror. The dress is, admittedly, very pretty. White, of course (representing something that is most certainly not true), with lace long sleeves and a high neck open at the front down to my cleavage, with small beads peppering the roses in the lace’s pattern.
My hair is up in a tight, neat bun, with diamante barrettes contrasting against my black hair, holding back my flyaways.
“Have you seen him yet?”
Cicely looks sheepish.
“No. I’ve not seen any of the royal family since they greeted us yesterday.”
Don’t call them that, I want to snap, but don’t for the same reason we aren’t speaking freely.
“It doesn’t matter, I suppose.”
“No, I suppose not.”
Cicely looks up at the wall where a clock ticks noisily. I feel like it’s inside my head, making sure I know that every tick is one less second of freedom.
“It’s about time,” she says. “Are you ready?”
I peer at myself in the mirror closely, checking the makeup some handmaidens did for me about two hours ago. They wouldn’t speak to me, no matter how much I tried to engage them in mindless conversation. I don’t know if they were told not to speak to me or if they simply aren’t allowed to talk to the royal family.
Though I’m not the latter. Yet.
I slip my hands down my dress, as if smoothing it. I feel the hilt of a small dagger secured against the inside of my right thigh. It’s scratched me several times already, but it’s a small price to pay for a sense of security.
There’s a knock at the door and it opens without waiting for me to tell them to enter.
“We’re ready for her,” a short woman in a burgundy velvet dress says to Cicely. She glances at me, unsmiling. Why are we going through this charade if no one wants it?
I walk back to the window momentarily. If I stuck my head out of the window and looked left, I could probably see the ceremony preparations. Instead, I see the dragons stomping around between the ruins, so out of place on our lands.
Well, it’s time to put on a show.
I paste on an affable smile, one I hope looks airy and perhaps even a little stupid.
“I’m nervous,” I say, looking at Cicely, pretending not to care about the bitchy-looking woman in the doorway. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long.”
Cicely plays along, just as I knew she would. She loops her arm through mine and squeezes it.
“It’s excitement. You’re about to be a Queen!”
We follow the short woman down through the castle. All the way I fret about my appearance. I know I’ve won her over when we stop outside the doors that will lead me up the aisle in the courtyard outside and she turns to me and says, “You look just as a young woman should before marrying our new King.”
“Don’t, you’ll make me cry,” I say. She smiles a little.
I hear the swell of music, and now I really do feel my nerves take flight. If I’m going to sell this, it’s got to be here and now. And I’ve got to look like this is the best moment of my life, no matter what my future husband looks like. All I know of him is that he’s twenty-five, so two years older than me, and will become the King of this kingdom the moment we’re married.
“It’s about time,” she says. “As soon as I open the door, start walking up the aisle to the music.”
She produces a bouquet of white roses from a table behind her and hands them to me.
“All our Queens have white roses,” she says.
“Then I’m honored.”
I share a smile with Cicely - in our culture, white roses are used at funerals, and signify death.
“Here we go,” she says, and then the door opens and I’m momentarily blinded by the sun.
I walk forward, seeing the walkway lined with white roses. When my eyes adjust, I quickly glue my eyes to the front of the courtyard, where a garland of–I assume–white roses hang over where my future husband stands.
I try not to look at him, though he’s staring at me, and I also try not to look at what I can only assume are literally hundreds of guests on either side of the aisle, all seated in wooden church pews. As I move, I hear the seats tap the uneven flagstones as those seated follow my methodical progress.
The music is just loud enough to drown out the whispers.
I don’t care what they think, but I don’t want to hear what they have to say.
If there was ever any doubt that the current ailing King arranged this marriage to try and protect himself from an uprising, the number of guests annihilate it.
He wants everyone to know that he’s doing his part to bring this country back to unity.
Well, that’s good news. That means he’ll want to keep me alive.
I’m half way. I steel myself, check my stupid smile is still in place, and look at my husband-to-be for the first time.
He’s… Well, I can’t decide if he’s exactly what I expected, or nothing like I expected.
He’s tall, at least half a foot taller than me, maybe more. He’s not fat, which after I met his father last night, I strongly hoped to find. We weren’t sure if he trained as a soldier - my home is three-hundred miles from here, and we don’t exactly have a team of spies in this castle - but I’m assuming from his straight spine and square shoulders, that he has.
That’s going to make things a little more difficult.
His hair is light brown, and a little messy as a gentle breeze blows it around. His eyes are a piercing blue, where mine are dark brown. He has a dimple in his left cheek, where he’s half-smiling at me.
To everyone else here, it looks like he’s pleased to set his eyes on me for the first time.
Great. He knows how to play his part as well as I do.
The music fades as I walk up two wooden stairs onto the stage. I stare up at him for a moment. He quirks an eyebrow - the gesture is meant as a challenge and I slip, glaring at him for just a moment before my smile cements back into place.
I turn my head to smile at the priest.
“Are we ready to begin?” The priest asks.
He launches into his spiel, using phrases such as “entwining two hearts and two cultures,” which I can’t believe anyone in the courtyard can buy. If anyone here has read a history book, they’d know that the current King, sitting on a throne behind me with his wife, beheaded my father and grandfather.
There will be no entwining. No melding.
My dearest husband-to-be has the audacity to reach out and pull my right hand away from my bouquet.
He holds it between us.
His hand is dry and warm.
Mine is dry and cold.
His moment comes before mine, he looks into my eyes and says, “I do.”
“And do you, Mallory Amber Foxwood, take Blaine Damion Wyatt, the new King of the Golden Isles, to be your lawfully wedded husband and King, and to serve the Golden Isles and your husband come sun, rain, and snow?”
I’d forgotten they’d renamed my country.
I feel like I have to pull the words up from the depths, but they sound perfectly natural when I utter them.
Two children appear at our sides, one holding a cushion with a golden crown covered in rubies and diamonds, and another, the one beside me, holds a smaller crown made of silver, decorated with aquamarines and diamonds.
The priest steps between them and takes the silver crown in his hands first.
“Then, by the power invested in me by the King, the Country, and our ancestral Spirits, I join you in matrimony, as the new monarchs of the Golden Isles. I present to you, our new Queen.”
He gently places the silver crown on my head. The crowd claps politely.
The priest takes the gold crown next and, with my new husband dipping so he can reach, places it in his messy hair.
“I present to you, our new King.”
The crowd erupts in cheers and applause.
My new husband looks out at them, and then back at me.
I don’t cower under his gaze.
When the noise dies down, the priest raises his voice one last time.
“Please join me in celebrating the joining of our new King and Queen.”
Again, the crowd cheers. I turn once to cast a smile across them all. When I turn back, my new husband, a man I’ve never so much as spoken to, is staring at me.
He smiles back.
I can’t wait to see his blood splattered across the floor.
He turns away from me and pulls me after him, just a little roughly.
I thought this may be a one-sided marriage. It looks as though I’m not the only one ready to spill blood.
“Make this look good,” he says, waving at the crowd.
Go to Hell, I think.
“Your hair’s all caught up in your crown,” I say instead.
I see his smile slip, for just a moment.
Ezra, the ex-soldier I spent the last six months with training, said it would be easy to snuff the life out of my pompous husband’s eyes.
He was wrong. It won’t be. This man is a soldier, and his guard is already up.
Unfortunately for the new King, he’s got no idea who he’s dealing with.
This isn’t a marriage; this is war.