Someone had scattered the stars that night. Stood on the cold stone balcony, a wintery chill nipped at her cheeks, painting them scarlet. Her eyes burned with the threat of fresh tears as a low growl came from the doorway. Not here, Aeris told herself. She glanced around, anticipating the fateful sound before it came.
Each pound echoed off the curved walls, bouncing across the room before slipping away into the night. Aeris let out a heavy sigh as the door swung open. People flooded into the room. First, two guards, dressed in full armour – freshly polished – with the hilts of their swords gleaming in the candlelight. Second, the Cardinal, promptly followed by the Emissary.
“My Lady,” the Cardinal offered out his arm to escort her. “They’re ready for you now.”
Aeris took her first step back into the room. Today would be the last that she had it all to herself. Tonight, she would have to share her bed, her warmth, her comfort, but with whom? She searched for the ocean blue eyes waiting by the door; she had never minded sharing her space with the wolf-dog. At least he knew to sleep on the floor.
The Cardinal sighed heavily as rippling grey fur began to follow them from her bedchamber. “Surely the beast should remain here.”
“No,” Aeris let go off the man’s arm in outrage. “Faolan will help me choose.”
There was a moment where she was certain he would argue with her, try to persuade her to leave the wolf-dog behind, but it passed quickly, as all moments do. Faolan took his place at her side, brushing against her thigh as they walked. His claws clattered against the stone. His presence made it less daunting; she tremble in her step had gone and she held her head high. That is, until they reached the main hall.
“Now, my Lady, I must insist that you consider them thoroughly. You are aware that it would be most beneficial for you to accept them all. It’s what the Verzyan people expect,” he said, his voice thick with concern. “You must choose, my Lady. It is your duty.”
Her Emissary busied herself with smoothing down the gold material that clung to Aeris’ body. She despised the way it gave her shape to her slender build, falling in waves around her tiny ankles. Soft hands found her hair, gently manoeuvring it into a bun atop her head, held in place with a small tiara – the only piece of her mother that she chose to keep. Her Emissary looked her over once, twice, before leaning close to her ear. “Happy eighteenth birthday.”
A weak smile found its way onto her lips before she could stop it. Lucia was more than just a royal Emissary, more than another seat on her Council. If Aeris didn’t know better, she would even consider her a friend. However, tonight was about more than friends. It was about power. Her decision would affect every territory of Verzya, the realm she now ruled, in ways she couldn’t even begin to imagine. The pressure seeped in like a poison.
“All be upstanding for the arrival of Aeris Springthorne, Lady of Slazen, and Matriarch of Verzya.”
The Cardinal began his brisk walk ahead of her, arms raised high with crimson robes that trailed behind him. Aeris focused on not stepping on them. Faolan remained close, keeping a watchful eye on those that had gathered to greet their Matriarch. Most were noble ladies. She recognised some from the other territories: Cristael, Fallomir, Rute, and Estaroch. All powerful, regal women in elegant gowns and shoes that could be used as weapons. Four of the guests, however, were men. Those were her choices. They had already been handpicked by the Council based on health, wealth, and trade opportunities, undoubtedly narrowed down from a group of fifteen. One for each of the Verzyan territories.
Aeris knew that she was supposed to pick all four. Her mother had instantly accepted the three men presented to her in the Eighteen Years ceremony, and her mother’s mother had done the same. It was tradition to have more than one consort. As she had been told as a little girl, the more to warm your bedsheets.
“Ladies, please be seated as the Matriarch selects her consorts.”
The four men moved forwards, kneeling in front of the throne with their heads bowed. Aeris studied them carefully for as long as she dared, each broad shouldered and strong. She knew now why the previous women of power chose them all – nothing about any of them caught her interest. There was little to choose between. It was strange to imagine her mother, young and pure, battling this very decision so many years before.
“Name yourselves,” she ordered in the most confident tone she could muster.
One of the men dared to look up. The worry in his eyes told her he had not been prepared for this. “Jasper of Rute, my Lady.”
The second and third, from Fallomir and Cristael, were less timid, leaving only the suitor from Estaroch. He raised his head slowly, the first of the men to make deliberate eye contact. He held her gaze as he spoke. “Zephyrs, of Estaroch. It is an honour, my Lady.” He glanced away, holding his breath tight within his chest. Silence fell again.
“Have you made your decision, my Lady?” the Cardinal whispered.
She thought about her mother; how she had chosen all of her suitors, how three men shared her bedchamber. But she was not like her mother.
Aeris got to her feet and took a final look at the kneeling men. Nothing she saw did anything to change her mind. There was no going back. She reached out with a trembling hand, letting soft, truffle-brown hair tangle between her fingers. “I choose you, and only you, Zephyrs of Estaroch.”
Applause broke out all around the room. She glanced to Faolan with nervous eyes to find that he was already watching her. His soft gaze told her that she already had his approval; she nodded her head to him before turning away. Less approving was the Cardinal, whose flushed cheeks were now a ghostly white, and his forced claps had no rhythm. “You should not have done that.”
She ignored him. This was her choice, her decision, and he had no right to reprimand her for it. Music filled her ears, leading on to the next part of the ceremony. The heat of his disapproving stare continued to burn into her spine as she made her way into the centre of the hall, initiating the first dance. This tradition had to be maintained. Glancing back over her shoulder, she could see the man had stood – taller than she had expected – and followed her across the floor. His face was softer, less rugged than the others. Younger.
“My Lady,” he muttered. “Thank you.”
She remembered his words from before. “It is an honour.”
Realisation flickered in his peppermint eyes. The slightest trace of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, replaced by a look of concentration as he took her hand. It was warm, almost inviting, and much larger than her own. Together, they glided around the floor with grace and newfound confidence, paying no attention to the crowd of onlookers that each waited to join them in the dance. His grip on her waist was gentle as he lifted her. Well-rehearsed. It marked the end of their formal routine, the signal that their space could now be shared.
Her feet had barely touched the ground when the Lady of Rute twirled past with one of the guards, her lean legs moving with the increased tempo of the music. A look of uncertainty settled on her Consort’s face. Aeris took a step away from him but kept her fingers between his, guiding him away from the central frenzy of waltzing bodies. “Is this better?”
“Yes, thank you,” he responded, looking down at the floor.
“We could walk,” she suggested. “I’d like to know more about you.”
He nodded, his attention still on the gap between his shoes. He didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. The words wouldn’t come. The urge to look at her – really look at her – was too strong for him to resist any longer, and his eyes searched for hers. He was told that she was beautiful, that she radiated power like the midday sun. He’d said that it wasn’t possible. He’d been wrong. The Matriarch, the royal Lady of Slazen, had chosen him. Only him. Her defiance had shaken him to the core.
“Lady Aeris?” Lucia had appeared from nowhere, bowing her head respectfully to the pair in greeting. “If you no longer wish to dance, I can escort you back to your bedchamber.”
Aeris glanced between Lucia and Zephyrs, desperate for one of them to make the decision for her. The man who had previously stared so deeply into her eyes was now looking straight ahead with an unreadable expression.
She sighed, defeated. “Of course. Someone will have to bring Faolan.”
“I’ll have the guards fetch him for you.”
There was nothing else to do but follow her Emissary back through the cold corridors of the castle, back to her bedchamber, her private space. Or so it used to be. They walked together in complete silence. The tension between them was unsettling, nauseous even, like a weight pressing down on her delicate shoulders. Gratitude washed through her as Faolan joined them, nudging the back of her calf with his damp nose. Finally, they arrived.
“Is there anything more you need?” Lucia asked, dismissing the guards with a wave of her hand.
Aeris thought for a moment. “No. Thank you, Lucia.”
“You’re welcome, my Lady.” She bowed again. “I’ll leave you both in peace now.”
The door closed with a creak. Faolan had already taken his place on the tattered blanket that served as his bed. Aeris took a breath and pulled her hair free of its restraints, letting it spread across her back in golden waves. She looked older with her hair down, more attractive. Her fingers fumbled with the tiara. Shaking hands lowered the glittering heirloom onto its usual place on the bedside table; she slept better knowing that it was always close.
Zephyrs cleared his throat. He was standing much closer than she’d anticipated and she flinched, the panic rising in her chest as she faced away from him. She heard his low chuckle and then the step he took towards her. Neither of them said a word. He swept her hair back over one shoulder, exposing her pale skin. He found her waist once again with long fingers that held her securely; the heat of his palms easily penetrated her dress. She felt him lower his lips to her neck. A kiss? A bite?
“We don’t have to do this,” he whispered.
“Of course we have to! It’s how the ceremony ends,” Aeris mumbled. “It’s duty.”
She hadn’t truly felt the comfort he gave until it was gone. The whine of the bed revealed his location and she turned, shocked by how broken he looked. His eyes seemed dull now and his hair, less soft. She sat down beside him and searched for the words to say. There were none.
“How do you want to do this then?” he demanded.
“I don’t,” Aeris admitted.
He took her hand and dragged his lips over her knuckles. “No one will know if we don’t. Well, your wolf-dog will know, but he won’t tell the Cardinal.”
She smiled her first genuine smile of the evening, and he smiled back. It suited him. Her fingers wandered through his hair and down to the back of his neck. They came to rest on his shoulders, less bulky beneath the wrap-over fur coat, before they fell against the sheets. Tradition had been forgotten once more as they lay together on the royal bed.
“Why are you doing this?” Aeris said after hours of silence.
Aeris rolled over to face him. “You know what should have happened tonight.”
“I didn’t want it to, not for duty,” he spat. “This isn’t a marriage. You shouldn’t feel forced to act like it is.”
She contemplated this for a moment. It was true that the Matriarch took Consorts in the place of a husband, thus being unable to marry, but the role of the man was the same. He was to serve her. Even if that meant breaking tradition, Aeris thought.
“Thank you,” was all she could think to say.
Zephyrs didn’t reply. He merely smiled.