On the day of her betrothal, Princess Abigail stood naked in front of the mirror, staring at herself.
She was taller than her mother, almost as tall as her father. Long blonde hair framed her heart-shaped face and fell down her back. Her skin was perfect, the result of healthy living and a small amount of rejuvenation spells. At fifteen years old, she knew that she could be promised to anyone at any time. It was only surprising that it had taken so long. But even the Imperator – or one of the Barons – would decline a child bride.
The thought was a sobering one. No one, apart from her maid, had seen her naked since she was a child. She’d grown up as an only child, with no one to be her friend and confidante. And she had very definitely not compromised herself with any man. The sole heir of the Dynasty of Gold, the family that ruled the northern state of Irina, had to be above suspicion. She had been chaperoned since she had learned to walk.
But I was lucky, she told herself, firmly. I could have been born in the Empire.
The Barons – the noblemen who controlled the great estates, who defied her father regularly – would not accept a female ruler. They tested her father enough for him to be sure of that. A Queen would be the pawn of the strongest Barons, little more than a figurehead as the Barons divided the Kingdom between them. Whoever Abigail married would become King; everyone knew that. And it meant that her marriage had to be to someone strong enough to keep the Barons in line. And the only person who could do that was the Imperator.
Abigail stared into the mirror, meeting her reflection’s blue eyes. They were wide – and frightened. Marriage had always been her destiny. It had been tradition ever since the Days of Fire that a female aristocrat, even a Princess, would marry someone who would link two powerful families together, or secure a Kingdom. Her mother had admitted, in one of her rare moments of candour, that she’d been terrified before her marriage to Abigail’s father, but then her dowry hadn’t included a whole Kingdom. The person who married Abigail would win Irina. And he would inherit the problem of the over-powerful Barons. It hardly mattered that the marriage treaty allowed for Abigail to rule Irina as regent once her father died. The Imperator could rewrite the treaty at will.
It was her duty, she knew. She had been born to great wealth and a position that was the envy of every other woman in the world. It came with a price; her marriage, the most important event in her life, would be to a man picked by her father, a man who would take her dowry and Abigail herself. Her mother had refused to be drawn on the issue of martial duties, but Abigail had her sources. She knew what was expected of a woman in the marriage bed and the prospect terrified her. Even the most considerate of men couldn’t be expected to respect her wishes. She would just have to endure for the sake of the Kingdom.
None of the Barons were strong enough to challenge her father, at least on their own. As a group, their private armies and great wealth was enough to rip the Kingdom apart, shattering Irina into a mass of competing states. They knew just how finely balanced the Kingdom was between order and chaos – and they knew that they would have one chance to put crowns on their own heads. Her father’s last-ditch gamble – betrothing Abigail to the most powerful man in the world – had caught them by surprise. Irina would become part of the Empire, even though it would retain its independent character. And with the Seven Sisters to the north, the city-states that had broken free of Irina years ago, the Imperator needed Irina. It was the only way he could reach the Seven Sisters and unite the continent under his rule.
Abigail ran her hands down her body, staring at herself. She was slim, although tall, and her trainers hadn’t stinted just because she had been born a woman. It would have surprised anyone to know just how capable she was with sword and knife, or a handful of other tools that many people would be surprised to discover could be used as weapons. And yet…she couldn’t fight her destiny. How could she resist the Imperator when she knew that her homeland might suffer for her transgressions? She wanted to run, she wanted to flee, but there was no escape. Her duty held her in its grip.
“You shouldn’t be standing there, child,” a voice clucked from behind her. “You’ll catch your death of cold.”
Abigail didn’t turn. Martha, her maid, was a law unto herself. She had been a mother herself before entering Abigail’s service; in many ways, she had been Abigail’s real mother, caring for her from before she’d learned to walk on her own two feet. As one of the Children of the Book, everyone knew that she was trustworthy – and harmless. The common people hated and feared the Children. A single misstep and the pogroms would begin again.
“I’ve run your bath,” Martha continued, when Abigail said nothing. “It’s time to make you look pretty.”
She put one gentle hand on Abigail’s arm and pulled her towards the rear of the suite. The Princess followed her, feeling almost as if she were in a daze. It could take hours to dress for formal court appearances – her father, thankfully, excused her from attending most of them openly – but how long would it take to prepare for her betrothal? Martha poked and prodded her gently, and then helped her into the bath. It was hot and smelled sweet, a perfume she hadn’t smelt before. She guessed it had come from the trading ports near the Seven Sisters, ports that traded with countries and continents on the far side of the world and shipped to Irina at great expense. Considering its possible origin kept her mind off other matters, so much so that she was surprised when Martha had finished washing her hair and helped her back out of the bath. At least she was allowed to dry herself. She wasn’t exactly a little girl any longer. Soon, she would become a woman.
Her skin felt cold as Martha dressed her, piece by piece. Everything she wore was white and would remain so until her wedding day. The undergarments alone had cost thousands of crowns, produced from silk shipped down from the Seven Sisters; the dress had cost upwards of a million crowns. It was a chilling reminder that there were more ways to gain wealth than through owning land and grinding the peasants into the dirt, a reminder that the Seven Sisters were free – and in freeing themselves, they had doomed her family. One way or another, the Kingdom would never be independent again. The Imperator’s heirs – heirs born of Abigail’s body – would rule the world. She looked at herself in the mirror and shivered, hardly recognising her face. She looked almost like a china doll, surrounded by a glowing halo of blonde hair.
Martha turned her around one final time and nodded in satisfaction. “You’ll do,” she said. “I think the Imperator will take one look at you and fall in love.”
Abigail scowled. She didn’t want to go, she didn’t want to marry…but she knew that there was no choice. Her Kingdom would fall without the marriage as the Barons scrabbled for scraps like cats fighting over raw fish. And if what it took to save her people from civil war was a Princess giving herself to a figure many regarded as touched by Malice Himself, it was a sacrifice that she would have to make.
“But you’ll need this,” Martha added. She reached into the pocket of her robe and produced a single glittering crystal, dangling from the end of a golden chain. Abigail took it – and felt a tingle as the magic buried within her reacted to the magic infused into the crystal. A moment’s study revealed that the crystal was actually a tiny jar, with a clear liquid hidden inside the solid exterior. “You may discover that marriage isn’t so bad – I did, when I married my Rupert. A good man is a hard thing to hold.”
She giggled at her own joke – Abigail pretended not to understand – and then grew serious. “But you may discover that it is a nightmare,” she said. “Men don’t understand us very well, particularly powerful men who are used to getting their way. If you can bear it no longer, drink the liquid and go to Null in peace.”
Abigail stared at the crystal. A simple illusion spell concealed its true nature from all, but its wearer – and the witch who had created the spell. Abigail had never had much formal training in magic, but she did know that the spell was subtle, subtle enough to pass unnoticed by even a Master Sorcerer. All it really did was conceal its presence and the true nature of the simple crystal pendant.
“Thank you,” she said. It was suddenly very hard to speak. Martha would be coming with her, of course – she’d been Abigail’s maid for so long that Abigail couldn’t bear the thought of life without her comforting and steady presence – but they would never be alone again, not while they dwelled in the Golden City. No one, even one of the Barons, would dare to spy on Abigail’s personal chambers. The Golden City operated by different rules. “I…”
“Don’t speak of it,” Martha said, flatly. Abigail understood. It was not to be mentioned, ever. “It’s nearly time for the formal presentation.”
The Grand Ballroom was massive, easily large enough to hold nearly a thousand people. It was teeming with grand lords and ladies, each wearing their finery as if they were intent on outshining their rivals at court. The great Barons could be seen within the multitude, keeping a careful distance from each other as they consulted with the armies of sycophants surrounding them. Their ladies moved from person to person, cutting each other dead whenever they happened to encounter a social equal. Abigail had once heard her father remark that if his nobles spent as much time developing their military skills as their social skills the Kingdom would rule the world. But he couldn’t risk a policy of expansion. It would create new threats to his throne.
Abigail stood in the chamber above the ballroom and peered down through the stained-glass ceiling that gave the impression that the guests were under a starry sky. A competent sorcerer back in her grandfather’s day had imbued the glass with a spell that allowed observers to look down without being observed, something that had always amused her as a child, back when she’d been ordered to study the court and learn its ways. As the Princess, she had been the target of more plots and schemes than she cared to count, from ruffians intent on taking her to be their bride to Barons who wanted to push their children into her orbit. There were days when one didn’t dare cough in High Society without fearing that someone would take it as a sign to start something violent.
One figure stood at the end of the room, waiting patiently for his time to step forwards and greet the King. He was wearing black armour that concealed his true face and features from the crowd, a gesture that Abigail suspected was intended to be an unsubtle reminder of his master’s power. The black-clad Knights served as the Imperator’s messengers, bound to him by powerful oaths and subtle spells that rendered them incapable of being anything, but loyal. He wore a sword at his belt – another unsubtle reminder – and a handful of guards were keeping an eye on him from a safe distance. But then, no one really expected the Imperator’s Voice to start a fight. He was in the Castle for a different reason.
Abigail shivered. He had come to take her to her husband.
Martha tugged at her sleeve as the trumpets sounded and her father made his way into the Grand Ballroom, with her mother on his right arm. King Rudolph VIII was a tall broad-shouldered man, who walked with a slight limp. He wore his finest robes and the Royal Crown, which glittered under the magical lights that hung from the ceiling. Queen Katrina looked pale and wan. Her sickness had prevented her from having a second child and everyone knew it. The real mystery was why the King hadn’t put her aside and married again, or simply taken up with a succession of royal mistresses. Abigail knew the answer, almost despite herself. They loved each other.
She could still hear the herald announcing her father as she entered the antechamber. It was designed to allow someone to peer through a hidden keyhole and look into the ballroom, but it would damage her dress if she pressed against the wall. Reluctantly, she waited until she heard the warning knock and then pulled herself upright, into a regal pose. Her father had drilled her in it until she was perfect, warning her that a single mistake would be taken as a sign of weakness and the vultures would start circling. The doors opened wide and Abigail walked through, into the ballroom. She kept her face expressionless, but allowed herself an inner smile at the reactions. The crowd knew that no one would be allowed to outshine the Princess, not on this day of all days.
Abigail reached her father’s throne and went down on one knee. It was difficult in the dress, but she’d practiced time and time again until she could do it without hesitation. Behind her, the court followed her gesture, bowing in respect to their monarch. Abigail kept her eyes on the ground as her father stood up, accepting the respect as if he actually believed that it was real, and then returned to his throne. The silent signal sent the court back to their feet, while Abigail stood up beside her father and turned to face the gathered notables. Her heart almost missed a beat as she looked into the visor of the Imperator’s Voice. She couldn’t escape the feeling that inhuman eyes were looking back at her.
“On this day,” her father said, “my daughter comes of age.”
A low murmur ran through the crowd. Technically, Abigail had come of age when she’d started her womanly cycles, but she wouldn’t formally become a woman until she was married and no longer living with her father. They all knew that her marriage meant a shift in the balance of power; after all, surely the Imperator wouldn’t hesitate to help out his father-in-law. Barons who had defied the King, certain that he couldn’t punish them for their lack of respect, would wonder about the Imperator’s massive armies. They had quashed all resistance with brutal efficiency as they marched north, towards Irina – and the Seven Sisters. And in their wake came the priests of Vasilios, the Holy Tyrant, the Lord of Order. Those who resisted their teachings died.
“Today she will be betrothed to the Imperator himself, the Emperor of the Aquilian Ecclesia,” her father continued. “She will live in the Golden City until I slip away into the arms of Null, whereupon she will return as the Imperator’s regent in this Kingdom. Her patrimony will remain hers under the terms of the wedding contract. I ask you all to pray for the success of the marriage.”
Abigail kept her face impassive, but she was laughing inside. No one would pray with any great feeling, except perhaps for her parents and the Imperator’s Voice. The Barons would fear her – and her husband – greatly. It almost made the risks and terrors of marriage seem worthwhile. If she had to be a bargaining counter in her father’s endless games of power, at least it would bring a reward for her service.
At the King’s command, the Imperator’s Voice stepped forward. Up close, there was still no way of peering into his eyes, yet she could feel him studying her. The urge to take a step backwards was almost overpowering, but somehow she held her ground. He spoke to her father in a voice that was little above a whisper, yet could be heard by everyone in the massive chamber. Abigail had been promised an escort to the Golden City. The Imperator had sent a small army, spearheaded by seven sorcerers. It was another unsubtle reminder of his power. An army that size could smash any one of the Barons.
“I pledge her safety with my life,” the Imperator’s Voice said. “It is time for us to depart.”
Abigail was surprised – she’d expected more time, somehow – but her father offered no objections. She was almost in a daze as she was escorted out of the ballroom and into the courtyard. A massive carriage was waiting for her, curtained off to prevent anyone from looking inside. She turned to look back at her father and saw tears in her eyes. Perhaps, if she’d had a brother, her father would have been happy using her as a pawn. But instead, it was clear that he feared for the future. He might be sending Abigail to her death, or worse. She thought of the pendant and shivered. At least she would have a way to walk into Null’s arms – and even that entity, the most feared of all the Gods, would be a relief if her husband was the monster rumour painted him to be.
The Imperator’s Voice wasted no time. She hugged her father, was kissed by her mother, and then she was helped into the carriage. Seconds later, it was out of the castle and on the long road to the south. Two weeks of travelling, she’d been told, and then she would meet her husband. And then…
It was hard to hold back the tears, but she managed it – somehow. She knew her duty. She would do her duty. And may the Gods, she vowed silently, have mercy on anyone who got in her way.