When I was a child I pictured this day as the most perfect of my life. It seemed so utterly fantastical to me that I, the insignificant adopted daughter of Duke Ellis, should be allowed to marry a prince. I almost imagined myself a character in a fairytale. That was before things really started to sink in around 12 years old. I had long since begun to learn the graces of my future status, how to flawlessly perform my role as a prince's bride, how to be royal, but at 12 I began to see that there were sacrifices involved. Suddenly it all became a little less fantastical, and a little bit more like the weighty duty that it was. Not that I ever minded, I was as excited, if not more so, at 16 as I had been at 6. Today that excitement has simmered down enough to reach the dregs of trepidation beneath, and the steely resolve holding it all together. I've prepared all my life for this, yet somewhere deep down I know that I'm not ready. I'm stepping into a world I've only pretended to understand, and just like becoming the daughter of the Ellis family, whether I want it or not this is the fate given to me. I must remain grateful. Even if, yet again, my life will never be the same.
Yesterday was a flurry of preparations like none I've ever seen, which is saying something given the number of balls I've attended over the years. There's a certain element of nostalgia in the process of packing for somewhere you'll never return from, even for someone as unsentimental as me, and it's been hard to shake the feeling of sadness over what I'm leaving behind. I haven't truly left home since I came to live with the Ellis family at three years old. Visits to friends’ estates, yes, but my brothers were always with me then. I always knew I’d be coming home again.
I step gingerly down from the carriage, pulling together every shred of confidence I possess and still faltering. It's irritating. If I've learned anything over the past seventeen years, I've learned to appear composed at all times. No one wants a whiner. Obvious fear causes others to become uncomfortable. It is my duty to make others feel at ease, to sweep them up in a sense of happy security. To win their confidence and devotion. It's worked well enough at home, at all the galas, the feasts, even other royal weddings. Being liked is something I’m good at. I should feel sure of myself, but it still unnerves me that the only royal I have yet to meet is the one I am about to wed. I thought I would have met him before now, I've met all of his family at some point or another, if only in greeting. Yet year after year, there was never any sign of him. Any attempt at meeting failed. At times I questioned whether he existed, or if I really was living a fantasy in my head.
Why does he hide?
I've already considered the possibility that he's hideous, it's crossed my mind many times over the years, though somehow I've never quite minded the idea. No, it's not that. I could even stand it if he were cruel. I think I could. What truly worries me is that despite acknowledging my status as his betrothed, other people don't talk about him. I'm positive it's because they don't know about him. They know his name, of course, but that's it. And it's not just I who hasn't met him. No one has. Yet no one seems to think this odd - they chalk it up to his poor health, his timid nature, the attempt on his life as a child, and a dozen other stories that never quite connect, and then they change the subject. Often to his elder brothers, who are both very much in the public eye. Maybe he is sickly and paranoid. Maybe he is terribly shy. I just can't help but feel that something is dreadfully wrong.
Today all of the nagging thoughts and fears I've ever squashed down into the furthest part of my mind seem to have sprung free and clogged up in my throat. I've prepared for so long, but what if I've prepared wrong? How can I know how to be the best wife to someone I've never heard the slightest whisper of gossip about? The castle doors swing wide and my thoughts are hushed by the sudden presence of the royal ambassador. His eyes sweep me and my entourage.
"Lady Eileen, we have been expecting you," he bows graciously, "This way, please."
Dressed in a gown the length of the courtyard and primped to the last eyelash, I'm beginning to feel much more confident. Yes, this is right. This is where I'm meant to be. If he's a sickly little coward, it’s better than a stubborn brute. By the time I'm standing before the throne room doors, I'm quite sure of myself again. It's all exactly how I pictured it. The flowers are beautiful, the music is beautiful, I'm beautiful, and-
The doors open, and I see all the people inside lining either side of the carpet right up to the dias. Directly ahead is the groom. My eyes lock on him as begin walking, and my first impression is that he is not hideous. Far from it.
Prince Quin is on the taller side of average height, and even from a distance I can see his rather wild hair is a deep shade of auburn, his build is lean, and his hands are fidgeting where they're clasped behind his back. Even from a distance I can see that he looks bored and uncomfortable. He's not even looking at me.
And neither is anyone else. They're all transfixed by him.
Undaunted, I hold my practiced smile until I reach him, a walk that feels like both a single step and an eternity at the same time. A shock of impossibly blond hair catches my eye for just a moment as I pass the attendants closest to him, and I find that at least one person is staring at me. Piercing, frigid blue eyes glare at me with deep hatred, but there's no time to process it, to wonder who he is or what he might dislike about me. I continue on and stand beside the Prince.
When our hands are placed together at the foot of the dias, he finally notices me. There's nothing particularly striking about his face, except that his gray irises are very pale. There's something soft about him, but not in a physical sense. His expression is impassive, and now that we're so close I can see he's not just bored and uncomfortable, he actually looks ill. Perhaps he's nervous. I give his hand a comforting squeeze and he simply blinks at me.
Perhaps I was too bold. Turning my face towards the priestess, I focus on the ceremony rather than the warm hand now barely gripping mine. I don’t know why but I'm almost relieved when he repeats his part of the vows, even if his voice is so quiet that no one past the first row could possibly have heard him. Well, the priestess heard, and that's really the important part.
The ceremony drags on, and even I am starting to feel bored and restless. By now we're engaged in a silent battle as he makes his hand as difficult to hold onto as possible. I won't let go, though. I won't lose. Onlookers coo their support as they presume it's all a flirtation, and I flash him a triumphant smile. It has no effect whatsoever, which is infuriating, but I rein it in as the priestess pauses significantly in her droning. She's finished with her speech and suddenly the boy with the frost blond hair is beside us, holding out the rings. He hasn't stopped glaring at me.
The banquet goes by in a blur, there are so many people congratulating me, giving me gifts, serving me food. The only thing I manage to keep track of is my cup, which people keep trying to fill with wine as they get drunker and drunker. Prince Quin drinks only a glass of water, which is filled exclusively by the pale haired boy - by now I'm certain he's Quin's personal servant. Unluckily for me. I was hoping we wouldn't have to see much of one another, considering the loathing looks he's been continually tossing my way.
Speaking of servants, I haven't yet seen anyone designated for me. Will I have a personal attendant? Hopefully I'm not expected to share the prince's, or maybe that's why he's angry, having his workload suddenly doubled. No, that can't possibly be it. Giving a married woman a male attendant is unheard of. Isn’t it?
The fifth troupe of performers is filing away from the center of the room when Quin suddenly rises from his seat. A hush falls over the room and even the King, seated beside him, looks up in surprise.
"Thank you all for attending my wedding," he says to the room in a calm voice that contrasts starkly with the raucous celebrating just a moment before, "My bride and I will now retire, but please remain and enjoy the banquet as long as you wish. Good night."
The banquet hall bursts into a round of cheers and applause, some less proper than others as the alcohol continues to flow, and the prince turns to take my hand. Well, that's a step in the right direction. I accept it, and together we sweep gracefully from the room, the knotted feeling in my stomach tightening as I wonder again about the mystery of Prince Quin’s seclusion. After all these years, the uncertainty is enough to make me sick. Now I’m finally face to face with him, finally married, finally so close...
And yet he’s never felt further away.