Yep, like many others, I ran out of time for a fresh story, so I pulled out an old manuscript I started three years ago. I'd only gotten three or four chapters into it and then...forgot about it. After sprucing up this chapter, I realized I still kind of like the story. And I hope you do too.
The smooth diamonds my mother placed around my neck felt like shards of ice on my skin. I repressed a shudder, knowing she wouldn’t be pleased at my reaction to the vise she’d just clasped shut. My satin-gloved fingers gripped the back of the chair instead, the feel of the solid wood beneath them the only anchor I had to keep myself from reaching up and yanking off my royal collar.
My mother was still standing behind me, her eyes appraising my appearance in the mirror with no more warmth than when she inspected her liveried footman. I realized I was holding my breath, hoping that the multitude of jewels adorning my neck, wrists and encrusted in my tiara would be enough. Surely the queen herself had never worn so much wealth on her person at one time.
“Your father and I will be observing your performance.” She placed a hand on my shoulder and pushed me into the chair. I averted my eyes so she would not see me flinch at the contact. “Your entrance is in a half-hour. Do not move until then.”
I didn’t bother responding. She’d already left the room.
I lifted my eyes and stared at my dress, at its endless yards of snow white silk. Satin ribbon had been laced and gathered in strategic places, concealing every part of me that offended my mother. Except my face. She could do nothing more than send Renee, her lady’s maid, to arrange my hair, and instruct her to hide as much of my sallow cheeks and dull eyes as possible. In the end I was pleased with how much I didn’t look like myself.
I fingered the soft material on my skirt--it seemed to billow out and drag the floor, but my mother had the seamstress hem it just far enough to ensure that I wouldn’t trip. How many dresses had I torn with my careless feet? I was sure to flop onto the dance floor like a speared fish.
My mother never walked at all, or so she told me. She floated above the floor, a flawless portrait of an English lady, her kid slippers skimming the ground.
Taking long breaths, I calmed my mind as I’d done a thousand times before when faced with a threat by my mother. But tonight was the night she had prepared me for my entire life and I couldn’t quite seem to enter that place in my mind that kept me safe from her icy voice and her painful whip. The recently doctored lash wounds on my back began to sting anew. They’d been well placed, low enough that my gown hid them well.
I glanced at the clock. She would be here in five minutes to take me to meet my fiancé, a man I’d never met. As with everything with my mother, it was about power. My thoughts, my desires, my dreams had never been a consideration. But then again, I didn’t think I’d ever been young enough to have any of those.
“Come, Abigail. It’s time.” Taller than I by an inch or two, my mother seemed to fill the room with her presence. Her deep blue satin gown matched the color of her eyes perfectly, drawing attention to her flawless ivory skin, long black eyelashes and white-blond hair.
The sound of a merry orchestra and spirited voices reached me as I followed my mother’s gliding figure down the hallway. When we approached the end of the cold stone corridor, I saw my papa waiting, a rare smile on his face that reminded me of a time I’d nearly forgotten. A time when my mother used to hold him as though she were the sail and he the mast of a ship headed out of a storm. Did he know how far we’d turned around, the three of us? How heavy our cargo?
He extended his hand and took my right one in both of his. Giving me a smile that made his brown eyes lighten, he leaned over and whispered, “Are you ready, little Acorn? You look stunning.”
But the memory of our former life and even my papa’s spark of happiness failed to warm me. “Of course, papa.”
“Abigail,” my mother hissed into my ear. “Straighten up.” She pinched my arm hard and I snapped upwards, throwing my shoulders back and raising my chin just enough to provide a satisfactory profile.
With my gaze held high, I couldn’t miss the haughty dais that rose in the distance, visible even through the crowd. A solitary figure presided on a center throne while another milled close by.
Any minute now, I would be taken to meet him. The man who now owned me. The reason I’d been hidden away and polished until nothing original remained.
Two tall, well-built soldiers appeared in front of us, stern looks on their nearly identical faces. Both wore their hair unfashionably short-cropped, their uniforms neat and pressed in spite of the crush.
“Miss Winter?” one asked in a clipped tone.
My mother took my elbow, pinching me again. I relaxed my facial muscles into a smile and nodded.
“Come with us please.” The nearest soldier bowed and offered me his arm.
I glanced over at my mother. She waved me on. Placing my hand lightly on his arm, I shuffled beside him while his companion parted the crowds in front of us. In spite of my situation, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of comfort at the soldiers’ confident, precise maneuvers, protecting me from the throng.
After a few moments, the orchestra ceased playing and the room began to quiet. Faces turned toward us, numberless and unsmiling, and I wanted to flinch and hide. I’d never seen so many people in the sum of my life, much less in one room.
My throat began to close up. Only the soldier’s unwavering pace kept my head just above water, reminding me to swim.
My mother pressed her hand into my back, pushing me into a glide, her rose-scented perfume descending upon me in a warning. The last of the crowd parted and I caught my first glimpse of my fiancé. I nearly stumbled, my mother catching me just in time. The prince stood tall and proud at the queen’s side, his hand resting on the back of her throne. He wore a navy blue uniform, decorated with medals I’d learned he’d earned on his own merit in the battle field, along with insignias appropriate to his rank. But it was his face that caught and held my attention, it was so ordinary. Eyes brown as mud, hair like a sandy beach and a nose unfashionably large.The room had gone completely silent now, awaiting the queen’s reaction to me, the newcomer. All the years my mother spent training me could vanish with a wave of her hand.
I followed my mother into a deep curtsy, ignoring the whalebones in my corset digging into my hips. I kept my chin down, my eyes on the marble floor, though it swirled below me and threatened to swallow me whole.
“Miss Winter, you may rise,” the queen’s voice carried just a hint of surprise.
I straightened up as gracefully as possible, though I dared not meet her gaze. What about me alarmed her Majesty? If my appearance caused a queen reputed for her composure to reveal any kind of emotion, than I must surely be tossed back into the sea, too small and unworthy a fish for the royal pond. I ached to flee, my chest rising and falling painfully within the confines of my tight corset.
“Miss Winter,” the queen said as she patted her son’s hand, “my son, his Royal Highness Prince Bryant Kenton Westbrook.”
I dropped a curtsy, surprising myself at the steadiness in my legs.
“You certainly do that very well,” his Royal Highness said with raised eyebrows. His mother unsuccessfully hid a smile behind a gloved hand.
I stiffened even further. The courtiers behind me tittered.
“Oh don’t tease her Bryant. Show her that you do possess polished manners and ask her to dance,” she said.
His Royal Highness descended from the dais, snapped at the orchestra and extended his hand in a slight bow. “May I have the honor, Miss Winter?”
Clearly I had been mistaken in my ideas of boring, repressed royalty. They were more like cruel cats, teasing their prey. I placed my gloved hand in his and nodded my ascent. His fingers tightened on mine as he led me to the center of the now cleared dance floor. I hoped that my sweaty palms hadn’t soaked through the silk. His Royal Highness placed his other hand firmly on my waist and pulled me into a waltz, holding me at a very proper distance. Charm him, my mother’s voice warned inside my head. Compliment him. Lie, but do it well.
As the prince picked up the beat and led me forward, the still open sores on my back sent pain shivering through me.
“Cold, little Winter girl?” he asked.
I lifted the corners of my mouth and dropped the whip behind me. Lie. Charm him. “Not in your arms, your Highness.”
He laughed and it sounded hard and dark, as though he the sound came easily and often from him. “Don’t do that, Winter girl.”
“Pardon?” My smile withered.
“I hardly expect you to even be civil with me. You had no more choice in this than I.” His gaze remained somewhere over my right shoulder, as though the conversation meant as little to him as what stockings he wore.
CHARM HIM. I could hear her voice scream in that low, quiet manner of hers. “That’s very true. But I had hoped we could at least … be friends.”
He glanced briefly at me. “Allies cannot afford to be friends, Miss Winter.”
The fire in my back burned hotter. “Not even when they share the same quarters?” I asked softly.
His hand tightened in mine. “Not even when their marriage prevents a war.”
All copyrights retained by the author and all that.
Tiffany rants about YA fiction on her blog, Scribble by Moonlight, while finishing her third manuscript--a Steampunk superhero novel. Her first book, Elemental, is available on Amazon and wherever ebooks are sold.