I was young, yes. I was the daughter of a monster, yes. I was a foolish female who’d handed her heart to the wrong person, yes. But for as long as I drew breath, I was a queen.
We’d all do well to remember that.
I made it to the kitchens before I finally registered what the distant noise was.
Screaming and shouting—loud, pain-wracked bellows.
I picked up my skirts and raced down the stairs, my heels clipping as I flew around each turn until I leaped into the entrance to the dungeon and found the gate wide open.
Azela was there, talking in hushed murmurs with another guard outside Raiden’s cell. A glance around showed more guards lingering, at least eight of them, who were all wearing differing looks of dismay and curiosity.
I stormed inside, and Azela turned to me. “They called me down as soon as I left the throne room, but I’m not sure what’s wrong with him.”
With my breath lodging in my throat, I inched closer to Raiden. “Leave us.”
“But my queen…”
“I said leave us.”
They did, yet I could feel Azela’s reluctance heavy in the air. Air Raiden was struggling to breathe as he gasped and sputtered, muttering words that made little to no sense.
I knelt close to the bars as he groaned and paced back and forth, tearing at his hair.
“What is wrong?”
He said nothing. It was as if he couldn’t even hear me. Wherever he’d journeyed in his mind, it wasn’t here.
He tugged and pulled, and I sent a flare of magic around him, removing his hands from his hair and pressing them down at his sides.
That only served to enrage him further. “They’re liars who never lied, but they did. They did.”
Over and over, he said the same words.
“All of them,” he spat. He continued pacing, then bellowed. “All of them lied to me!”
I wasn’t sure what to do. What to say. Or what to even feel as I watched him curse and mutter to himself.
When he fell into another loud rage, tendons in his neck bulging as he screamed at the ceiling, I took a seat on the ground and began to talk.
19 summers old
My black dress had a train that draped the length of the hall behind me as we neared the entrance to the gardens.
Eight handmaidens held it above the damp, leaf-strewn ground as we traversed the courtyard and entered the gardens that ebbed for acres beyond, all the way to the foothills of the mountains.
My corset, bedecked with circling glittering silver twigs that spiraled into the air over each breast, constricted with every future setting step I took.
I never thought I’d be happy, or that genuine warmth and excitement would be coursing through me at this moment. All my life, I’d known my marriage would be arranged, and I’d duly prepared myself for it. I’d prepared my heart to remain indifferent and reminded myself it was all just a business dealing. A way to ensure our lineage stayed true, and our reign continued.
I could never have prepared for him.
Gold and silver wrapped seats were laid out upon the long stretch of glowing green grass. It was clear of snow, but tiny icicles still glimmered upon the blades beneath the dawn dark sky.
He was wearing gold.
Golden breast plates, gold trousers, and a gold wreath of dried leaves and berries upon his head. His golden coat hung around his thighs, the sun and its flames engraved in the leather and suede. But as he took my hand in his, it was his touch, a warm promise, that took my breath away.
In the weeks leading up to that moment, we’d been inseparable. I was giddy at the mere thought of his name, and too far gone to feel embarrassed or angered over it. He was mine, and I was his.
And this was happening.
My eyes were pulled to the left in time to see Zad leaving the thick crowd. I blinked, wondering what in the darkness he was doing, and then he was gone.
“You rob me of breath.”
Looking back at Raiden, I flinched as something wet trickled down my cheek.
Raiden’s brow creased, and then, much to the priestess’s displeasure, he stepped forward and cupped my face to catch it with his thumb. “I am honored that you would shed any emotion for me,” he whispered so low, I almost didn’t hear him. Likely to ensure our attending guests and my father, who was standing behind me, didn’t hear. “But I don’t like seeing it.”
I took his hand, and then nodded at the priestess to begin.
His eyes were locked on mine as she spoke in the old language, then made us repeat after her.
“I vow thee,” I said, voice unwavering. “Eternally my love.”
Raiden grinned, and when it was his turn, he said loud enough for everyone, even those who were scattered throughout the farthest depths of the gardens, to hear, “I vow thee eternally my love.”