1433730548_1df471bd29_o“I don’t know about the shroud,” Princess Audra said, glaring at her reflection in the glass. She reached up and fussed with the stiff, white embroidery. A bony hand slapped her on the wrist, as quick and sharp as a whip.
“It is a veil,” the matron corrected.”And it is traditional.” She had a habit of stressing that last word. Tradition. Everything had a tradition, everyone needed to follow the traditions, always remember the traditions. Tradition, tradition, tradition. The invaders had so bloody many of them, and she had been forced to learn them all, ending with the wedding, the most horrifying Tradition of all. “You only need to cover your face until the end of the ceremony.” The princess wanted to weep, but she refrained. She couldn’t cry in front of the matron. She had made it quite clear the consequences of that behavior soon after the invasion.
But it was a shroud, no matter what she called it. It was her death, the death of her people. When the strange invaders came with their machines and their armies, they hadn’t stood a chance against them. And it had been made quite clear that their continued existence was a sufferance. Their enslavement was a mercy. Their tortures an ‘education.’
And yet, what greater horrors would the monsters inflict if they didn’t conform to their rules. If they didn’t allow themselves to be ‘civilized.’ If she didn’t lay back and let their general take her, like an apple from a tree.
‘It is time, let’s get you out there, and remember your manners. He isn’t wedding you for your beauty.” The matron yanked her roughly to her feet and adjusted the veil around her. The skeletal old woman showed surprising strength when she wanted to. Grabbing her so that the fabric of the strange gown wouldn’t tear, hitting her so that the marks wouldn’t show, that was the matron’s way. Audra pulled herself together, and reminded herself that this was for her people, that this was all she could do, for now.
An honor guard waited outside the door. Their horns were gilded, and their claws tipped in jewels for the occasion. She couldn’t bear to look at them as they marched in formation around her. She clutched the roses Matron shoved into her hands tightly, ignoring the little thorns she had neglected to remove. She tried to remember the vows, all the things they expected her to say, all the surrenders they would demand of her. She looked at the rich carpet, imported from the invader’s country, rich and red as blood, and so different from good grass under her feet.
After the ceremony, there would be a feast, and she would be forced to smile and wave as the general’s troops came and congratulated him, made little gifts of their fealty. And the air would be thick with the smells of liquor and blood. She wouldn’t be allow to gag. And after that, would be the wedding night.
She considered the possibility of killing him then, while his guard was down, after he took what he wanted. It was possible he would do nothing to her. He had seemed as disgusted with her shape as she was with him, after all. But the tradition must be maintained, and he would probably take her, just for the form of it, even though there would be no one there to watch. She prayed there would be no one there to watch.
She could smother him to death. She could press all her weight against him with one of his soft pillows and crush the air from him. She could claim it was an accident. They might believe her. But there would be others. Cutting off the head wouldn’t kill the serpent. She needed to be patient. She would to play their games, their politics. And she knew something would be irrevocably lost, but it was the only way to preserve what she could. When fighting monsters, one must think like a monster. Her father had refused. He had clung to his honor like a branch in a torrent, and they swept him away. She couldn’t make the same mistake.
They reached the doors of the chapel. They opened, and strange music, a chorus of bellowing iron beasts rose around her. She marched forward, staring straight ahead at her monstrous bridegroom. He waited next to their priest, his gleaming armor polished, his jeweled dress sword at his side. He stood tall, but he stared at her with impatience, his face all hard angles and bristling mustache.
She took slow steps, as though she could wait out destiny. But she reached him, and he pulled the veil back from her face. It caught briefly on her horns, as gilded as her guards’. He wrenched it free and looked up at her. It was strange, she thought, that this man, this human, stood a foot shorter than her, weighed a hundred pounds less. But he and those like him conquered them so utterly. She would learn his secrets, and she would turn them against those that had taken her kingdom. She would make herself a monster, if that’s what it took.

Cover image by Lori Greig

Advertisements