Despite knowing what a sham this arranged marriage was, I stood obediently as he bent to lift my hand towards his lips. A small yet romantic gesture meant to lull me. If only a kiss retained half the power it did in fairytales, maybe I could better appreciate the expression. I could feel the gaze of several unwed noble women shooting daggers at me, but I saved face and pretended not to notice. Perhaps if they knew, they wouldn’t feel so envious witnessing the spectacle that he had forced on me.
Although we would make our debut appearance as a couple tonight, I made plans to meet before the event formally began. I remember the warm light of the lanterns overhead, hung decidedly throughout the gilded ornate hall. Swift was my stride as I made my way towards the courtyard, a growing tension entangling my heart the farther I treaded. I had received word earlier that day of our upcoming engagement and requested a private audience with His Grace. When I was inquired of what business I had with my betrothed, I refused to elaborate. While his attendants warned me it was unlikely that the future duke would even consider my appeal without necessary cause, I retained my cool. If this was to work, absolute secrecy would be a must.
I was grateful he granted my request, albeit with little time to prepare. As the end of the hallway neared, the sudden sight of the outdoor entrance gave way to quick breaths. My nerves were attempting to overwhelm me, again. I anxiously patted down my golden gown for wrinkles, still frantic from my rush over here. A slow breath in and out, I forced myself to regain my composure. If I were to negotiate with the young duke, I couldn’t let on just how desperate I was. My heartbeat hastened as I approached the courtyard. Once there, I noticed a tall figure with dark hair standing beside a railing with his back to me. His Grace.
In his hand was a single rose, its stem pinched between his fingertips. Beside him lies a bed of ruby flowers from which he likely plucked. At his feet were several petals, appearing to have been torn off by his own hand. I stood idly in fascination, lingering near the doorway as another floated down below him. I wonder how long he had been waiting here.
I soon recognized my habit of stalling and grew flustered with my coyness, reasserting my will. Whether he had been here for minutes or mere seconds, I would be making my presence known. I courageously made my way towards His Grace, deliberate as the click of my heels became increasingly audible. I watched for his movements, certain a flick of his head would occur upon my intrusion. Strangely, though, I received no such reaction. Either he was truly oblivious, or was already aware.
“Your Grace,” I began as he abruptly turned to face me, moving in my direction. His pearl white suit, embellished with small medals, swung in his stride towards me. To my unease, he created an uncomfortably short distance between us. Peering up at him, I realized that this was the first time I had seen his face so up close before. The soft glow of the night sky imparted a certain light to his deep hazel eyes that pierced my heart. His gaze studying mine, feelings of guilt surfaced in his silent interrogation. I watched helplessly as the gold in his eyes began to appear as honey. Perhaps, it was the way the moonlight illuminated his face that begged me to confess, though, I couldn't be certain if it was rather the remorse I felt for being so audacious. Regardless, being this near to him, I felt my resolve begin to crumble as he held my gaze captive.
“Here, this is for you…” he says softly, brushing the loose strands of my crimson hair past my ear. I feel the warmth of his thumb glide past my temple as he perches the rose alongside my head. “There,” he smirks as though satisfied with his work, caressing my cheek before sliding his hand down my neck. “You requested an audience with me?” he asks, curious.
“Ah, yes,” I stutter, still taken aback by the gesture. Suddenly, I feel very self-conscious in his presence, noticing how his hand was still draped over my collarbone. I carefully lift his hand above me and pull away from him. “As I’m sure you’re aware, we are to be wed in a union set by our families,” I pause, uncertain of his penetrating gaze. “This in itself is not negotiable. However, I am requesting that we postpone our marital obligations.”
“Do you not wish to marry me?” he asks sweetly, the nectar of his words coaxing me to reconsider.
“No, n-no” I say, flustered by his poise, “I misspoke Your Grace, I am merely suggesting it may be within your benefit–” he cuts me off.
“No, My Lady,” he interjects forebodingly, the tone of his voice somber, “you spoke clearly the first time.” “My interest is none of your concern. However, if I may be so blunt with you,” he leans in with a sly whisper, “I must implore you to look after your own wellbeing.” He pulls away from me with wide eyes, seemingly crossed with me. “I will ask you to not elude your purpose. I insist you speak freely with me.”
“Your Grace,” I curtsey, afraid I’ve offended him this early on into our conversation, “It is within my best interest to marry you, lest the future of my household suffers.” As the sole daughter to House Laine, all that I am is nothing more than a means to an end; a simple tool praised for advancing a fortune meant for someone else. “Politically speaking,” I insist, steady as his gaze lingers, “my life alone remains insignificant apart from my marriage to you and my ability to bear sons.” As a woman, nothing was more widely respected than the number of sons she could conceive for her husband. “However,” I hold onto my breath, knowing there is no reconciling this, “I couldn't care less about my status nor my House. I have no family to feel pride for, nor do I wish to succumb to customs that consider me worthless outside of my use to you.” I struggle to keep my composure as my voice starts to falter. “I humbly plead with Your Grace that you postpone our marital duties long enough for me to abandon my place in this,” I assert before shutting my eyelids. “Consider my insolence for the crown treacherous,” I huff, sharply aware of his disapproval, “but be aware that I am merely asking to be excused from the injustice that is this kingdom.”
With my heart palpitating, I expect him to lash out at me, to call such a request blasphemous, or to reprimand my gall. I dare not open my eyes, fearful of his reaction, but a matter of seconds pass and I receive no such response from him. I reluctantly pry open my eyes, only to reveal that though his lips have parted, no words pass. The only trace of a reaction is in his narrowed eyes, appearing duller than when I first approached him, and seemingly dejected. “Well?” I beg, defensive of his reply, “Is His Grace so appalled I have left him speechless?” Cruelly, he remains composed in his silence. I search his face for answers, though I can’t decide if it’s an expression of contempt or pity that he wears. But I surmise this wasn’t a conversation he thought he’d have with his betrothed.
Desperate, my fixed gaze lingers, reluctant to accept his apathy. I furrow my brows at him with pursed lips, daring to wait out this stalemate. However, at the peak of my fury, I feel my eyes begin to swell. Years of pent up frustration, now threatening to boil over. I turn to excuse myself, growing suffocated by the tightness in my heart. Tears I had been holding onto began pooling around my eyes. I regrettably wipe them away past my cheek, furious at my own fragility. As I struggled to collect myself, the warmth of a hand latched onto my wrist. My eyes dart towards the unwelcome touch, quickly realizing it’s His Grace. I meet those same shades of hazel, and evident in his expression is conviction, devoid of any uncertainty I may have succeeded in impressing on him.
“Lady Avalor, while I sympathize with your cause, I cannot in good faith honor your request.”
“In good faith?” My eyes brows furrow in detest, “Are you so concerned for my safety?” His grip remains firm as I motion for him to let go.
“Your rhetoric is misplaced, My Lady” he says gently, placing a hand on my shoulder to my disgust, “You have neglected to mend fatal holes in your logic, and I fear their impact.” My pride is enraged by his condescension, and I jerk away from his touch, angrily fixing my gaze at him.
“Is it so obvious that I am helpless?” I assert, shooting daggers at him. “No, I dare not trouble you any further with my woes, Your Grace,” I retort bitterly. His eyes narrow in frustration, seemingly on the cusp of losing his patience.
“You cannot flee as easily as you may hope, Lady Avalor,” he presses, the restraint in his voice now apparent. I flinch upon hearing my name pass his lips so casually.
“Your Grace,” I assert, “I shall make haste to leave, lest I inconvenience you.”
“Maintaining faith in impudence will not further your ambitions,” his nostrils flared, likely tired of my insolence. “You cannot simply flee,” he demands.
“Yes, I will!” I stress, struggling to wrestle my wrist out of his grasp. I motion to jerk my arm away, but soon notice his stance unshaken by my attempts. I gaze up at him, his towering physique looming over mine. I shudder, realizing how easily I’ve been overpowered. Frantically, I glance at my surroundings, and catch the faint glow of party lights. “Let me GO!” I shriek, loudly enough in hopes some passerby might hear me. As if triggered by this, he quickly reaches his other hand over my head, ushering me towards him. My knees hit his lap as he pulls me towards his chest. I try pushing myself away from his embrace before he shushes me.
“Do you want to get caught?” His tone is terse, now forcefully whispering at me. I narrow my eyes at him in contempt and purse my lips.
“Yes, I hope you get caught!” I shout, wanting to yell so loudly his eardrums burst. However, he’s no longer looking at me, his eyes following some matter past the courtyard. Seemingly unaware of my cunning, I take my chance. I vehemently jerk my knee towards his abdomen and lurch out of his clutches, clashing with the hedges in front of me. The sound of his wince in pain assures me as I tread forward. I struggle to push through the thick brush when I hear him giving chase. Frantic, dirt accumulates between my nails as I crawl, and scratches form all along my arms and face. My poor heart palpitates, fearful of the man behind me. To my horror, several layers of my dress all latch onto branches, holding me back. I desperately yank my dress to tear the fabric, anxious as I feel his hand grip onto my ankle.
I push my heel towards him, certain of my aim. Behind me, the sound of a groan responds to my swift kick. I repeat the motion, optimistic I might just free myself. However, no longer do I feel my foot colliding with him. I make the horrifying assumption he must be dodging any further blows, sending me in a panic. I jerk my gaze back only to slam into the dirt as he drags me back towards him.