Through the eyes of a hundred onlookers, all nobles of various status, I watched the groom with the bile in my gut freezing into a chunk of ice. He looked resplendent in his ivory robe, embroidered with gold filigree, blond hair elegantly styled until it shimmered in the hazy light like golden waves. I ignored the smile he threw my way, which apparently did nothing to dampen his spirits, and instead turned my attention to his bride-to-be.
Cymea Akron, wearing a beautiful dress of deep green, was making her way down the aisle. The cantankerous Lord Thaurn Akron – her grandfather – escorted her, his cane sending small ripples through the water that pooled in the great hall.
I had seen portraits of the man from his youth and knew that he had once been handsome, with a winning smile and a strong, powerful build. Now he was like a gnarled tree, tough and hardened, but hunched and wizened. His dark skin had lost its lustre and now looked very much like withered leather. To my surprise there was a small, pleased smile on even his usually dour face, and he even acknowledged my presence with a small nod.
I returned the gesture – inclining my head ever so slightly. It wouldn’t do to insult him, nor would it be appropriate to give him more than his due. He was, after all, a guest in what would one day be my house. He, more so than my stupidly smiling father, seemed to understand that.
I had only reluctantly accepted the invitation to the wedding, and then only out of a sense of propriety and out of a sense of duty to my station. I had rejected, out of hand, the request of either my brother or Cymea to act as a maid of honour or second. Both had stolen trust from me, and beyond the duties of my noble line I owed neither of them anything. The very asking had been insulting.
But I couldn’t deny that Cymea was beautiful, and my attention did not stray from her for long. Her skin, the colour of the dark, almost bitter chocolates I loved so much as a child contrasted so well with her dress it couldn’t help but draw the eye of everyone in the grand chamber. Even in the faint tint of burning timbers it was obvious she was the most desired woman here.
Nor could I deny that Lucan looked every bit the nobleman, as pure in his appearance as he was in his ignorant heart. I knew that more than a few women in the audience were wishing it were their hand being placed in his. Despite my work to dissuade many such suitors, I had always known it was inevitable that they pine in secret.
Together, bride and groom were more than majestic – language was not sophisticated enough to describe them. Green and ebony, gold and white with the hard blue behind and hissing flames around them.
They were perfect.
It made me nauseous just looking at them.
“Kae, are you alright?” Akemi looked up at me. Still a child, but already perceptive beyond her years. “You look a little sick.” I saw her through Maei as my maid dutifully turned to look at my sister.
“Be quiet.” I hissed. “And clean up your face.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my face.” My little sister said, precociously defiant as always. Seawater, dirty and staining, spilled from her mouth.
“You’re going to embarrass the family, and I don’t think you want to be taken over Farrert’s knee again, do you?” I said again, ignoring the sudden pressure I felt against my chest. It was all part of the same show, all part of the same facade of decency that this wedding represented. “Maei– help Akemi clean up before our father sees her.”
“Milady, I can’t see anything wrong with Lady Akemi’s face.” My maid whispered to me, and I could feel the water leaking from her now, splashing on the shoulders of my violet dress. Bile rose in my throat, and I swallowed hard.
“You too?” I sighed, trying to keep my composure. I couldn’t let House Varr be embarrassed by any lapse of decorum, no matter how I felt about this celebration of treachery. “Both of you, leave. Now. I have no patience for any of your games today.”
“I’m not going to leave!” Akemi hissed back, knowing enough to keep her voice low as the ocean began to pour from her hollow, cavernous eye sockets. “Kae, you can’t just make me leave.” I clenched my jaw to keep from vomiting, and felt a soft whimper escape me as the rhythmic pressure on my chest came again. “She’s my friend too, and he’s my brother. This is important.”
“Calm down, Miss Akemi.” Maei said, her vision going dark as her eyes turned to salt water and ran down to join the ankle-deep brine at my feet. “I’m sure Lady Kaede has a good reason to…” She trailed off, and I felt her hand touch my shoulder in concern. It was a gentle touch, like a bird or the brush of a feather. “Milady, are you alright?”
“Kae? Kae?” Vomit rose in my throat, and I had to fight not to bring a hand up to my mouth to keep it from spilling out. “Kaede?”
Another blow against my chest. Pressure. More pressure.
My hand was at my mouth, unbidden.
I was cold.
“Kaede?” Akemi kept talking, yelling now. She was going to ruin this farce of a wedding with all her screaming. She was going to embarrass all of us. “Kaede, come on!”
My hand felt strange against my mouth. Softer. Shaped wrong. Pushing against me like the lips of an inexperienced kisser. Was I wearing gloves? I couldn’t tell anymore. There were no eyes at the wedding, nothing but seawater and smoke and smouldering embers.
“Kaede!” Another hammer slammed down against my chest, and another.
Eyes were on me now.
My dress was in tatters, torn, wet and bloodied. I was about to scold Maei for ruining my outfit with her leaking when I realised I couldn’t speak.
“Kaede!” Akemi sounded different, her voice a deeper, husky cry.
Salt was in my mouth. Blood or seawater, I couldn’t tell.
I was so cold.
“That’s it… come on, Kaede.” It wasn’t Akemi anymore. “Breathe, dammit, breathe!”
Water vomited out into the firelight, and my I burst into an fit of wet coughing and heaving. Hands turned me to one side, letting the suffocating ocean flow from my burning throat
“I got you. It’s okay now.” A voice told me, and I knew the accent. Not Akemi – warmer, richer, uncultured though trying hard to be. Almost accidentally sensual. “You’re goin’ to be okay.” She brushed the hair out of my face, away from my mouth. “I got you.” The rest of my senses slowly returned, coming out of the warped dream that was already fading from my mind, and I realised I was lying on a set of boards. A piece of the sinking Maiden, the dark sea lapping at its edges, illuminated by the dying fires of the doomed ship.
It was raining, lightly.
“You’re safe now.” I tried to speak, but all that came out was a wet, gurgling cough. “Don’t try to talk, not yet.” The voice was tired, but there was a quiet relief to it. “Just focus on breathing, alright?” I obeyed as best I could, wishing my thoughts made more sense. “I was worried about you there for a minute.” My saviour continued, clearly trying to keep me conscious. Basic training – keep the victim talking. Where had I learned that? “Pure luck that I found you, and I think you’d been face down for a while. I’m going to guess you didn’t come alone, and I’ve been looking around for the others but I haven’t seen anyone yet…” She was rambling, saying everything that came to mind, but she trailed off at the end, worried, maybe even afraid. “I just hope Darrus didn’t get himself hurt.” The name sparked something.
“Coal… Coalpaw.” I managed, and I tried to sit up.
“Easy now. I’m sure he’s fine.” A pale hand planted itself against my collar bone and pushed me gently but firmly back down. “There’s a reason he’s my first mate. If Baen came with…” Her words vanished into darkness as unconsciousness swarmed up to claim me again. “Hey! Stay with me!” My mind swam away from awareness without reluctance, the voice fading out into the gurgling dark. “Dammit Kaede, stay with me!”