tagNonConsent/ReluctanceAt His Majesty's Pleasure Ch. 05

At His Majesty's Pleasure Ch. 05


It was well known that the God that King Alexander prayed to was Feros, God of Death, War, and Vengeance, and it was the Temple of Feros that they were to be married. It was not the most ideal place for a wedding, for its high stone walls and spartan architecture conveyed a sense of the stark and the grim; it was obvious that the temple was usually reserved for conducting sacrifices before war, or observing the passing of royal personages into the underworld - and she had been told that no exception would have been made except for the King himself, who refused to be married under any other God. Some minor attempts had been made to lighten the atmosphere, in the form of blue-and-silver banners festooned across the walls, but there was no shaking the somber ambiance. This was not helped by the hollow vastness of the temple, made plainer by its emptiness: only a lone priest, a handful of knights, and three nobles (one of whom was Ethan) made up the audience.

The train of her dress dragged impractically on the ground. Though lovely a site it must have made, it was uncomfortable, walking in it even more so.

The King stood waiting for her. There were hundreds of lit candles behind him, laying on the floor and jutting from the walls, so that he looked more silhouette than man - though one larger than usual, given that a dark, fur-lined cloak draped over his shoulders, and a heavy gold-wrought crown stretched his stature. As she entered, he looked straight at her, and scarcely did his gaze deviate.

What were all those candles for? Wouldn't it be hilarious if they caught fire? What happened to "small ceremony"? While present company was refreshingly sparse, the dressmakers and jewelers had fussed about her as though they were preparing for Wedding of the Century - all in one day. Alais thought she could empathize, but the way they fretted and (futilely) attempted to conceal their jitters and apprehension - it made them seem like headless chickens who also happened to be mute.

She almost laughed at that one, and the more she made light of it in her mind, the more easily she stomached the entire affair. The more easily she could ignore the way her veil impeded her vision, also uncomfortably, near to the point where it would have made her veer off course. The top of her head was set with a beautiful diadem of silver branches and flowers; all she could think was how it felt slightly off balance, and it was far too late to shift it. Ethan's advice still lingered in her mind too, and she tried to think on their discussion as a source of distraction.

"We are gathered here today, a most favorable day in the reign of our King Alexander..."

The robed nightbrother spoke of alliances and duty, love and honor, occasionally making some heavy-handed comparisons between war and marriage. When he seemed to have gone on long enough, and without losing any steam, the King cleared his throat, and the man quickly wrapped up his speech, bowing away with some final wisdoms.

A servant brought forth both their rings, laid upon a pillow, bending low at the waist. The King took the ring meant for her, a gleaming chunk of lapis lazuli and white diamonds, set in a silver band, and slid it onto her finger, his fingers lingering to adjust it so that it settled snugly all the way down.

Then it was her turn. She would have all but forgotten what she was supposed to do, were it not for the shrill voice of the harried instructors harping at her from the inside of her head. There were, in fact, so many things inside her head that she had also forgotten to recoil, as she was wont to do when the King was this close in contact.

Her hand reached for the pillow, mechanically, but between lifting it and putting it on his finger, it (somehow) escaped her grasp. Her other hand darted forward to catch it - which it did, before the slippery thing bounced off of that one as as well, as gravity made easy work of the rest.

There seemed to be a collective holding of breath, as the ring bounced merrily off her fingers and skittered with a clink clink clink across the ground - and managed to lodge itself, squarely, into an ill-fated crack. Eyes flashed from the fallen jewelry to the King, as if anticipating some kind of terrible rage would come from this hitch in the ritual. But, judging from his expression, he seemed disposed to find this more funny than irritating, for once. Waving away the premature advance of several servants and one overeager knight, he actually proceeded to kneel down himself to retrieve it.

It was not as though she had done it on purpose, after all. There was a distinct difference between fancying throwing the ring upon the ground and the drop actually happening. As much as she would have liked to have felt vindicated by this (righteous) act of fate, there was naught but a dull dread thrumming in her chest. She even shifted awkwardly in a half-hearted measure to retrieve the ring at first, only to be beaten by the King's efforts. So she stood over it all, waiting with her hands over one another and still uncomfortably awkward, suddenly glad for the veil shrouding her discomfited expressions.

For unfortunately, no matter how much he tugged and pulled at the thing, it remained thoroughly buried in the floor.

"Perhaps a drop of oil..." someone offered enterprisingly, but thought better of voicing it loudly enough to hear.

Alexander righted himself, with a sigh. "It's no matter," he said, leaving the ring where it was. "Proceed," he directed the priest, curtly.

The whole affair would have been incredibly funny, if not for her part in it.

"With these rings - ring," amended the nightbrother, "you are joined as one, as are your Houses, until such day that you no longer draw breath and are returned to humble earth. May Feros see great favor upon your union."

As the priest stepped back, the King shifted forward accordingly, one hand reaching to draw away her veil.

The act, formulaic as it was, caused nerves, anxiety, and petrifying intimidation to crash over her, like a wave. Though flimsy and thin and translucent the veil was, her subconscious had made it out to be a symbolic barrier of sorts. It did shield her in the sense that no one had seen the subtle faces she made throughout the ordeal up until that moment.

She flinched backwards, imperceptibly to those not quite near enough, but just enough, and she froze still.

It was clear that the King noticed her cringe backward, slight as it was, for they were far too close now for ignorance to be even slightly believable. His reaction came in the form of a smirk, his eyebrows raising lightly as if in amusement - though, to his (limited) credit, it did not rise to the harsher flavor of derision.

None of that stopped his progress, naturally. His eyes studied her, upon lifting the veil, with his odd brand of admiration. He looked as if he was about to claim his prize.

She remained frozen now as he stepped forward once more, easily closing the distance between them. They had not had such contact since their dinner kerfuffle and subsequent bandaging, but his touch was surprisingly gentle this time, as he tucked his fingers beneath her chin.

Alais would have been in denial if she thought herself repellent to his charms. There might have been a bit of resistance from sheer terror and stubbornness, but at this proximity, in this context, where she couldn't even turn away without fear of provoking the fury of the centuries, there was no helping the erratic one time flutter of her pulse, mocking for what it meant. He'd gagged her the last time he touched her like this; it was one of the first thoughts which came to surface. She stood stone still, waiting for the worst.

Then he tilted her up, leaning to brush his lips, feather-light, over hers. Was that it? The kiss was almost suspiciously chaste, which was not helped by the glint of mischief in his eyes, as he pulled away.

"Long live the Queen," he said quietly, completing the ceremony, and these words were taken up by the priest and then the small congregation gathered with them.

She recollected the events of the morning, now so distant as though they occurred years ago. Hadn't they "turned over a new leaf" (even if it was just the motions of it)? Why was she still being reluctant? Because... because it wasn't fair. And yet, she felt ridiculous with the knowledge that there were others who would not have lamented so much at being made his Queen.

But because they did (apparently) turn over a new leaf, she upheld her part as the obedient bride. If she could not stomach faking her smiles or affection, then she maintained her rather believable neutral visage. When the time came to walk - more accurately, to be herded toward the back down the aisle and outside - she held his hand without flinching, for once, though futilely struggled for as much air between their fingers as possible.

The King handed her into the carriage, following after, and the horseman snapped his reigns once they were settled. The interior was plush and comfortable, and quite large, but somehow, as the King spread his legs out across from her, it also seemed too small at the same time.

Now seated within, she rediscovered her (recent) habit of shifting as much to the side as she could, to where her arm was pressed against the door. Her head leaned against the window. It really was a chore maneuvering about in all these graceful sheer frills and fabric and trails and gemstones. At first, she looked forward to the prospect of being rid of them, and then another horrifying thought dawned.

"What happens now?" she heard herself asking, in a quiet voice. If she had to be led about by the arm, did it strike none of these people to ever give her an itinerary?

"Our wedding night," he replied blithely, with something of a twist to his lips.

She wanted to melt into the very wall of the carriage. That wasn't what she meant.

But he was pleasant enough to expand. "The official plan was to go Erinia, but we will actually be making our way to Ibarith. The hunting lodge there is more remote and scenic." He didn't bother explaining his duplicity, but she understood his preference for it. With few(er) people knowing their real destination, it was safer, and they would have to be less guarded.

In direct contrast to her, the King lazed back, relaxed against his seat, irritatingly comfortable for a man who had just had his wedding - even if it was not yet the formal thing. "We will spend a few nights there, before we return," he continued. She thought his choice of the word nights instead of days perhaps an unintentional indication of just how he intended to spend his time. "The official wedding reception will follow when we return to the capital."

"I see." So he was secreting her away to enjoy for himself. That was not comforting. "What is Ibarith like?"

"The woods yield good game. There is a lake as well, and a mountain trail." He glanced curiously over to her. "Are you fond of riding, princess?" He paused, as the now defunct title slipped out, and smiled, amending, "Alais."

The familiarity of her name on his tongue felt like one more trespass. She swallowed thickly. In turn, the title of 'princess' would have crossed her as completely ordinary had he not gone to correct himself, and now she caught herself mourning its passing.

"Not more or less than any other," was her only reply. She did not even think to reciprocate and call him Alexander.

"Well, perhaps the view will lend it more interest, then." He turned his attention from her to the window. "What did you and Ethan speak of, by the way?" His tone was light rather than interrogative, though it spoke to something that he assumed they had talked.

Her momentary silence betrayed her uncertainty. The honest and frank answer would have been 'You', naturally, but just how much would the Duke have wished for her to disclose? For all she knew, perhaps he'd already shared everything with his friend, and it didn't matter what she said. So why ask? To toy with her, again. Silence would have been marginally preferable to this and her overthinking.

After ruminating over nothing, she ended up deciding upon, "...How to handle members of your court," as the fair and reasonable response, her tone quiet and thoughtful. So what if she paused for a second too long? This, too, was a topic worthy of some deliberation.

"Hmm," he said lightly. "Conspiring already, I see."

His relatively pleasant demeanor gave her reason for thought. If they were, supposedly, operating on slightly better terms, it was not as much of a struggle to ask him, with the inklings of genuine curiosity: "When did you find the time to arrange everything?"

They arrived yesterday, and the responses from her grandfather could not have been read and processed before that evening. Did he have a scaffold prepared in the event of refusal? It didn't seem an outlandish possibility, though disheartening.

He allowed a slight laugh. "I suppose it was arrogant of me," he said, though he didn't seem put off by this self-assessment, "but I had a falcon sent once we reached the River Fort. They've had a few days." Even a few days was still nearly supernatural, though, given the level of effort had been put into their arrangements, and he explained, "I incentivized them to work fast."

He left it, dubiously, there.

Alais had reached the point where she could spare a few quick words with him without experiencing too much discomfort. Dramatically less so were her (non)capabilities of prolonged exchanges, or sharing a carriage with him (and only him) for odd hours at a time.

To avoid further conversation, she attempted to feign sleep with her head tilted toward the window, her arms used as pillows. And through her efforts with feigning sleep, she incidentally tricked herself into actually falling asleep. It had been a long day.

It was dark by the time they arrived at the hunting lodge, and little could be seen in the obscuring darkness; judging by the time it took to traverse from the entrance to the lodge itself, however, the grounds must have been expansive indeed. Expansive and isolated, in any case - the quiet whisper of rustling leaves could be favorably called peaceful and unfavorably called desolate. Trees dotted the landscape, nothing but gigantic silhouettes at this hour.

Finally, the carriage rolled to a stop, and when they emerged, it was in the confines of a large courtyard. The silence was here finally broken - by the excited yapping of dogs, for several dark lumbering shapes loped toward the King as soon as he set foot (despite half-hearted attempts to restrain them, on part of the harassed-looking kennelmaster). His Majesty didn't seem to mind, however, for he grinned at once, almost boyishly, as he was surrounded, kneeling to scratch behind the ears of the nearest one. There seemed to be a theme of some sort: like his horse, his hunting dogs were monstrously huge, a few of them as large as their master. She might even have been disposed to find them quite sweet, in this context, were it not for the menace of their size and canines.

Servants swarmed them too, if with slightly less fervor, and a few curtsied to her in particular and indicated she follow. An industrious maid in particular quickly moved to pick up the trail end of her long, long skirts before all the rare and expensive silk could be trampled by paw, and Alais did not require further prompting to follow them into the lodge with only a tired glance back. The impromptu nap had done her no favors.

As they undressed all the overly complex layers and trinkets from her body and hair (and sitting, unfortunately, was not an option for the bulk of it; neither was falling asleep while standing), with idle standing came the realization that she felt no differently at all, now that she was married. A ceremony had occurred, but it was just... a ceremony, under a God she felt no sentiment toward. It was an event that could, hypothetically, be more than easily done away with. But not the one that came after.

She felt cold, suddenly, but that was well attributed to the fact that they'd finally unraveled her all the way down to a shift. Before tonight, she'd never known it was possible to feel so free and so trapped. The wedding, she could abide by floating through in a half daze. But not this. This was too much, too soon.

Miraculously resisting the impulse to break down (or feign a heart attack) in front of the servants, she allowed herself to be coaxed through the door.

The King was in the room beyond, alone and facing the crackling fireplace, his shadow long and narrow across the wood floor. He'd been unburdened of most of his clothes as well, and presently, only wore a grey-white undertunic, which hung loosely over his body, and dark breeches. His hair looked tousled, like he'd dragged his fingers through it more than once.

He turned at the creaking of the door, seeing her emerge. Unabashed, his gaze traced her figure - over the simple shift and the skin that it exposed. There was nothing hesitant or apologetic about the gleam of desire in his eyes.

That didn't mean he couldn't perceive her anxiety, in turn. "You look like you're about to face execution," he said, sounding faintly amused. He faced her fully, and approached, his footsteps resounding across the otherwise silent room.

The servants had all slipped out, like quiet shadows, so that they were utterly alone in the room.

"What are you so afraid of?" It was an unfair question - it might have even been rhetorical, since he sounded so teasing. He was before her, tall and dark against the backdrop of the fire. Slowly, he let his knuckles brush over her cheek, quite softly. "You may yet enjoy this."

For all her success in blotting this night out of mind, it was the brush of his hand which broke her. The panic that gripped her in a vise squeezed and began all but choking the life out of her as Alais sought for the words which refused to come out. What could she even say now, that would be of any use?

Close to tears, she shook her head back and forth and began to stammer a little. "It's not - I didn't -"

It wasn't even sex that was the problem - well, all of the problem. Nan once said that, at least in the world they presumed to reside in, it was every highborn lady's duty to bear her husband offspring, and this just happened to be part of it. Girls years younger and less fortunate had pushed through it without (too much) trouble, and neither did she think herself naively ignorant to the practice, generally speaking. She did not believe, that in ordinary circumstances, she would have been seized by such a panic, to where breathing in natural patterns had become an insurmountable feat. No, that was mostly because of her husband.

Because of him.

Her eyes were fixed anywhere that his face couldn't be seen - in this case, his tunic happened to be the least awkward spot to hold her wavering gaze.

It occurred to her that she was trembling under the loose shift, and her arms wrapped around herself defensively. "It's just - I've only just arrived." She struggled to latch onto some excuse, any excuse, that might let her escape for a few minutes more. "I haven't had time to...pray."

The King's gaze remained steadily focused on her, taking in her distress. His offending hand had not retracted, instead shifting now, to ghost over her hair, running his fingers possessively through the dark curls.

"Pray?" he said, close enough that his breath fell upon her skin. He looked, in contrast to her fear, amused; a smile flickered somewhere at his lips, the expression difficult to read. "You'll have plenty of time to do so later."

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