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Pearled Bride

Propriety above all, Leia thought, her gaze on her hands. She slowly curled them and set them in her lap. Propriety above all.

Dressed in white, she was a pearled bride in alabaster. The brocade train flowed across the floor, rumpling in folds about the canopied bed she sat upon. Out the room, music flowed. Raucous voices and sweet violins—they were not hers to take part in. A bride was demure. Tradition demanded that she waited, sequestered away from the final celebration of her marriage. 

Light flickered above as candlelight waved in a ceiling fixture. The cut-glass of its holder twinkled, refracting the illumination. Leia stretched her fingers, looking down, they were the only things she could see clearly beneath the veil. Gauzy curtains hung around a dark window revealing a moonless night. 

Night in her new home, an unfamiliar place. Her toes wiggled, and bare feet slid across carpeted fur, the pelt of some strange animal. Jeweled heels lay in disarray to the side where she’d discarded them. The bed creaked as she leaned back and laid flat. Over her face, the thin muslin veil fluttered to follow. She exhaled, and it lifted slightly. 

This was the Erani way… uncivilized and savage, just like their frozen tundra and cloistered mountains. Yet they ruled Oret. They overrode her kingdom, forced her father’s abdication, and placed her older brother to be crowned a puppet. They held his children as honorary guests in a foreign land, truly nothing more than hostages and Leia, one of the many tokens in the exchanged aftermath of war. 

The life of a princess, she thought, is said to be one of endless privilege. No one speaks of what happens when one’s royal family slips faultily, crushed by outsiders, unable to shield the people whose faith we failed to protect. It is my predicament to be here, a spoil of war. Male ego and strife abound.

“No servants,” she whispered, her pale eyes flicked to the side, appraising the empty room. “No ritual. Just a polygamous, barbaric people in a frigid land.” With a hand, she pulled down the veil, smoothing it across her visage. A floor below, feet stomped in step to music, and hands slapped and clapped in tune. The girl raised her own and struck them together, the clap ringing out in muffled silence. She stared at the ceiling. “No propriety.”

A hard hit, thumped against the wall. Voices rose in crowded laughter. Leia sat up and scrambled to her feet as the doorknob turned. A young man stumbled in with a laugh. His black robes swished about him as cheers rose from behind. Dark eyes fell upon hers, and he teetered to a stop.

“What are you doing?” he slurred. 

Leia dug her hands into the heavy fabric of her dress. “Waiting for you.”

“Ah, like a good wife,” he said and waved a hand at the onlookers outside. “Close it. You’re ruining the night!”

A whistle rose from the gathered men. 

“What a bride,” one murmured. 

“She’s a blossom,” another agreed.

An older man clutched the side of the door with a silver stein, trickling alcohol onto the floorboards. “The night’s long, Juin! Drink! Poppin’ the cherry of a woman is something ripe to be enjoyed.”

The dark haired man glanced sidelong and stepped forth, sinking a hand into his uncle’s tunic, he grabbed him by the collar. “Uncle Icor… don’t be vulgar in front of my wife.” 

“Aye…” Icor tapped the youth’s hand with a glimmer in his eye. Still clutching his mug of rum, he flashed a patronizing smile. “Don’t be sensitive, nephew. Throwing swaggering threats in front of the damsel hardly makes you more than a boy.”

The other thirty men, cramped about the second floor hall and on its stairs, sipped their spirits while watching the show. Juin caught the eye of a burly auburn man, his older brother, who shook his head—it was best not to make a scene. Gaze upturned at the sneering uncle, the youth gritted teeth and shoved him back. 

“Get out.”

Brown foamed liquid splashed in a downward rain as the middle-aged man staggered backward. Knocking into two other men that half-heartedly caught him, Icor belched and unsteadily straightened. Swirling the paltry remains of his spilled drink, he swigged its remains. Ignoring the subtle apprehension of the clan, the man turned the stein upside down and shouted. “How’s that for manly vigor?” Laughing, he bunched a bulky arm and raised it high as he slammed down the emptied cup. “Aye, another toast! To my nephew’s first bride! May he take many others!” 

The quiet broke with a roar, and the male relatives heartily downed their steins of rum. Mimicking Icor, they hurled the mugs onto the second story’s floorboards and linked arms with kicking laughs. On cue with the release of tension, the musicians below blew their pipes and took to bow strings on instruments with illicit raunchy tunes. 

Fists struck the air. “Hee-ho!” 

Shoving about in a drunken stupor, the clustered men began to lumber back down the storied steps, trailing after the lead of Icor, the most prominent among them in the royal tribe. 

“Aye,” the uncle yelled, cupping his hands, “he’ll shimmy her skinny!”

Fists clenched, Juin stared after the senior in shaken anger. “I’ve—I’ve… a joke for him…” he slurred and starting forward, ran into a large arm. His older brother lingered behind and, with a mild smile, pushed him back.

“Naw, it’s high time and the bedroom for you, lil’brother.” 

Juin squinted at him and retreated a step, catching himself on the entry table. “What you want, Ariont?”

“It’s your wedded night, brother,” Arrant reminded. “With a wife in your bed and alcohol swirling in the belly, your celebration’s nigh.” The large man nodded to the waiting Leia near the bed. “Get it done right.”

Juin grabbed the door handle and slammed it closed. “It ain’t none of your business what I got going on in here,” he said through the keyhole. His fingers fumbled and turned the lock with a click. “I don’t need no one’s pointers…”

His brother’s low chuckle emitted through the wood and was followed by his slow retreat of heavy footsteps. Muffled, the downstairs noise drifted as the party wandered outside the low manor. Sighing with a groggy look, Juin pushed back shaggy hair. Shorn at shoulder length, its lack of adornment was unusual in contrast to the long braided styles of his kin, their bright and interwoven knotted threads a stolid reflection of Erani warriors. He ran a hand down his roughly shaven face. 

Swaying from the door, Juin turned and looked at Leia. Silence stretched between them, and he coughed. 

“Don’t mind my family, they can be like that,” he said. 

Leia nodded. “I see… it—it must be nice.”

The restrained reserve returned as the man shifted, his eyes falling on the bed behind her. Striding by her, he put a hand on the hewed wood of its canopied frame. Fingers slipped into his boots as he balanced to remove them. 

“You don’t have to be so stiff, songbird,” the youth said over a shoulder. “I won’t eat you.”

Leia stared at the bed. “How…” she swallowed, “how does this work?”

Juin paused. “The way it always does.”

The girl was silent.

“Has no one told you?”

She shook her head softly.

“Ah… is that why you’re still standing there?” Tugging a sleeve, Juin slipped off his long overcoat and sat back on the bed. “It’s cute that you’re ignorant. Refreshing or some such—”

“You’re drunk.”

“I can hold my liquor,” he said and scratched his jaw. “You’ve no excuse to run.” He bunched fabric and ducked his head over an embroidered tunic. Balling it up, he tossed it on the floor. The crumpled item revealed the lined definition of his muscular frame under the candlelight. Leia averted her eyes.

Leaning back, Juin patted the bed. “Come on, sit.”

Clasping her arms, the girl didn’t move, resembling a statue. 

“Did you not hear me?”

Leia opened her mouth and then closed it. Finally, she spoke. “I did.”

Juin sighed and scooting out, reached for her, jerking her in by the arm. Eyes wide, the bride staggered sideways, bare feet tangling in her dress train, she cried out as he caught her in an arm. Body to body, privy to his hardness through her clothes, she stared at him and straightened abruptly, yanking to pull away—stopped by his encircled grip on her waist.

“Unhand me,” she murmured and turned her face, a slight tremble forming on her lips. 

“A good wife follows her husband,” Juin whispered and pursed his lips as he laid a gentle kiss on her cheek. “Do you think I would ever harm you?” 

He slid a hand over her back and slowly began to fumble with the buttoned lace on the gown. Dark pine eyes watched her as he attempted to make out his wife’s expression beneath the veil. The fingers of his other hand, arm wrapped about her, moved to slip between her nails, smoothly pressing the rough callouses against her skin. 

Her voice was a whisper. “What are you—”

“You want to run, don’t you?” he asked. 

Caught off guard by his words, Leia flattened her mouth into a line. “And… if I do?”

Legs perpendicular to his on his lap, she shifted uncomfortably. Gaze over his shoulder, through the veil’s fabric, the girl made a point to stare at the wall.

Taking in her answer, Juin undid one last button and dropped his arms, opening conciliatory hands. “Then go on, run,” he said. “I won’t force you, but…” his gaze narrowed, “if you walk out of this room, you’ll be a concubine.”

With a jolt, Leia snapped her head to him, then slowly craned her neck away, gaze locked on the filmy image of the walnut door beyond her veil. Pushing off him, she rose and tepidly moved her feet over the shifted train of her dress. Straightening to the full reality of her petite height with fingers clasped, her words were a shallow whisper. 

“I’ve already said the vows.”

“A marriage must be consummated for the vows to matter,” Juin said clearly. “Without virgin blood, it is void, as if the union never happened.” 

“If I walk out, will this alliance be dissolved?”

“That’s not for me to say,” he answered honestly. “My father, the king, would make that decision.”


“But…” he lifted a hand to silence her. “A husband can determine the position of a wife at any time. Whether promotion or demotion.”

Leia’s voice was tight. “Do you expect me to dance for you?” 

Juin shrugged and leaned back on his hands, his drunken fog fading. “I expect you to meet out your duties as your position demands.”

Leia looked sidelong at a flickering flame. Closing a hand about the candlestick, she swung it off a nightstand and puffed out the fire. Juin watched, amused. Tilting the sharp tip of the decorative iron toward her palm in the dim light of a high chandelier, the girl released a breath and slashed. Dropping the candlestick with a shuddered gasp, she paced to the top of the bed and let the trickling blood dot/fall to the pillows.

“There’s your blood.”

Juin took her wrist and pulled it to him, the lingered smile gone, replaced by suspicion. “You’re not as ignorant as you claimed, songbird.” He put hand over her knuckles, forcing her to form a fist into the wound. “But it doesn’t work like this. Do you want to know why?” 

The princess didn’t answer as a bead of sweat rolled down her brow.

“If I drag you out like this and show my relatives this hand, you will be killed,” he continued, voice low. “And what then do you think will happen to your nieces and nephews, your captured brother’s children? They too are here as hostages.” He tapped her nose, all mirth gone from his eyes. “Now, you only have two options. I’m sure you know what those are.”

She trembled. “No.” 

Placing a hand on her head, Juin pulled her close, his breath grazing her ear as he kissed her neck. “I’ll be gentle.”

Leia’s body went stiff. “My father died because of you.”

The young man paused, and his gaze looked away. “It was war.”

“Mama—my mother committed suicide rather than be a prisoner—”

Juin pressed a finger to her lips. “I am not evil, Leia. Nor am I your enemy. Do not peg their deaths on me.” His other hand slowly dragged the veil from her hair, letting its translucence flutter to the floor. “You can only save those who want to live. I won’t make excuses for your kingdom’s fall or my part in it. I fought and contributed to your demise as honor demands.” 

Leia looked away.

Juin’s head tilted. “Do you hate me?” 

“Yes… I do.” 

“No, you don’t.” He brought her knuckles to his lips. “You want to.” She tried to jerk her hand back, but he held, gripping tight with light strength. “I am your husband… and whether you believe it or not, I’m also your only salvation.”

She stared at him and grimaced from the pain in her hand. His fingers loosened on hers in release, and shoving palms into his chest, the girl reeled back in surprise, not expecting to be freed. Clumping ivory cloth in her hands, she hiked the side of the pearled dress and dashed across the floor. Crossing the room to the door, she put a finger on the handle as the young man’s shadow moved behind her. His hand fell atop her arm and slid to meet hers on the brass metal.  

“You know it, don’t you?” he said, leaning over. “I’m the only one you can depend on.” Leia swallowed, feeling his breath on her neck. Turning the handle, she pulled. Juin frowned and stiffing out an arm, slammed it closed. “Leia, dear thing, don’t be stupid.” He pushed her against the door and grasped her chin, tilting it up with thick fingers. “You’ve already chosen me. You proved that the moment you disobeyed your brother’s will and sent a letter to our empire. You chose this… chose me. You can’t reject it now.” He pressed his lips to her brow. “I won’t allow it.”

She bit her lip in the search for words. “I… don’t want this. I am afraid.”

“When will you stop lying to yourself?” He put a hand around her waist and lifted. 

“No! Put—put me down! Juin!”

He turned, carrying her from door to canopy. Holding her, he leaned forward to push her body onto the bed. 

“Wait!” Leia shoved up a hand, putting it against Juin’s face. A troubled expression crossed him as he slipped fingers into hers and forced the arm slowly down.

“You are my wife.”

Leia gasped as his mouth neared, lips searching for hers. Her head turned and blinking rapidly, she wriggled beneath him. “Juin, you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. You can only save those who want to live. Those were your words.”

He pulled back. “What of it?”

“Let me go.”

His hand tightened on hers. “You don’t know what you want.”

She could smell the alcohol on his breath. “Yes, I do.”

“I won’t let you go,” Juin said, nuzzling her ear. “I won’t let you break our vows. You have chosen me, Leia. Why not follow through on your commitment… or is everything you say, just empty words?”

She bit her lip. “I—I am…”

“I’ll be gentle.” He kissed her softly. “I care for—”

“I don’t want to betray my family.”

“Leia…” He cradled her head. “I’m your family now. Depend on me. I don’t care if you keep loyalty to your people.” He kissed her cheek. “But your heart must be mine.” 

“You cannot demand that.”

“I can try.”

“You can beg.”

He looked down at her dangerously. “Beg?” Music continued to play outside, and garbled voices converse below. “You have to earn that.”

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