BRASS mirrors told no lies. Her snow-white hair was plaited, a crown of flowers placed upon her head. A golden shawl embroidered with navy blue thread rested upon her gently sloping shoulders. A matching black-and-gold gown handcrafted by the finest weavers in Chariv completed the ensemble. Half her face was painted white, as was the custom. Everyone would tell her she was beautiful, and she was. Mirrors always told the truth, yet in her heart she felt ugly as a pig-herder’s wife.
She had jewels. She had money. The ritual blade was buried safely in the folds of her wedding gown. Very shortly she’d have her very own husband, and then it was off to Tizan, Ålsia as soon as the reception ended. There was no need for her to fight in the war. She was doing her duty in other ways—ways she was more capable of surviving. She was no fighter. Besides, was marrying someone she’d never met not also brave?
Still, something felt as if it were missing. She couldn’t quite put an image behind the thought. Nevertheless, she let the maidservant standing at attention near the door lead her into the temple’s main hall. The side she entered from was painted deep shades of night-blue. Silver ornaments and mirrors dotted the walls and ceiling. The other half was yellow as the sun with golden baubles to match. Six rows of benches rested on either side of the temple. All of her betrothed’s family sat in the night-half, while hers took up the sunny side. She left the maidservant at the door and walked alone to the centre aisle, where her mother and father waited. They each took one of her arms and led her to the altar head.
Her heart thumped. The husband they chose for her, a whiteblooded man named Bancak, seemed kind, if a bit bland. He was Ålsian nobility, apparently, and wanted to be a scholar. That was all she knew. They had only ever spoken once through an opaque screen. Her stomach lurched as they came to a stop in front of the altar. She kept her gaze firmly on the altar, not daring to look anywhere else. What if he was mean, or ugly?
A priest and priestess—the man in gold, the woman in blue—stood behind the altar. Two pots of face paint sat atop it: one white, one black. Her parents withdrew to the light side of the altar as Bancak’s parents led him down the aisle. Her heart beat in her throat when she saw him. He was as attractive as she could have hoped. Locks of hair black as pitch stopped just short of his upturned ears, and his sea-blue skin was flawless. His nose left a bit to be desired, but that wasn’t the end of the world…
“Let us begin.” The priestess raised her hands to the ceiling. “Who is the Sun, giver of life?”
As they knelt, she and Bancak replied in unison,”Sila, whose white light we kneel under as we commit our souls to His brilliance.” She glanced at him. He kept looking ahead.
The priest raised his hands. “Who is the Moon, giver of death?”
“Yusri, whose stars we ask to bless this union.” Their voices melded into one.
The priestess took the pot of white face-paint and handed it down to her as the priest gave Bancak the black. Her knees ached against the rough stone floor. She looked to him for some sign of suffering in solidarity, but saw none. The sound the ceramic pot of facepaint made on the tile floor between his knees rang in her ears like the shwing of a sword drawn from its sheath.
“How long have your souls searched for one another?” asked the priestess.
“From when we were born, forged in His brilliant light.”
That was her cue. She drew the brush from its pot and dabbed it against the unpainted half of his face until it was thoroughly coated in white. He winked, or she thought he did. She hurriedly stuffed the brush back in the paint.
The priest spoke next. “And where will they wait until night drives them apart?”
“To the Moon, to rest until we may be united again.”
Bancak placed his brush against her face. The paint was cold and thick. A little shiver raised gooseflesh on her arms. He took great care with his brushwork, making sure to keep the paint off her hair, lips, and nostrils.
The priest and priestess said at once, “You have united your hearts in the Sun’s white light; your union is forged in the brilliance of His gaze. Bring your bodies together in Moonlight and your union is sealed amongst Her stars. Together, let the glorious Mysteries bring harmony to your minds and souls.”
She swallowed. Now for the bloody part. Less bloody than a battlefield. That was her sole comforting thought. She slid the ritual blade from her pocket and placed it in his hands.
“Who will follow this woman’s soul on her journey to Mother Moon?” the priest asked.
“I will,” Bancak said. He gave her a reassuring look.
Trust. That’s what relationships were built on. She wasn’t trapped by this. Her parents had chosen a good man, and she knew she could trust their judgement. They never beat her, never condescended, never treated her as anything less than their daughter. Perhaps they weren’t the upper crust of Upperbirths, and perhaps she should have been fighting in the Yellow Queen’s war because of it. Once he cut her hand, she would no longer be nezhdoya. She didn’t need a queen to free her. She wasn’t chained. Besides, only she could help herself.
Slowly, she extended her palm, looking only at it. He took the knife and gently, gently pressed it against her skin, dragging it all the way down to her the base of her middle finger. She sucked air through her teeth at the sting. Drops of black blood beaded from the wound and landed on her thigh. He handed her the knife, blade pointed at himself.
“And who will follow this man’s soul on his path from Father Sun?” asked the priestess.
Her breath caught in her throat. This was her duty. She had been born for this very thing. Chosen for it. Marrying now meant her family didn’t have to send her off to war. They weren’t important enough for their nezhdoya to be safe from conscription. The Yellow Queen needed bodies. She was young and healthy. Better to bear children than a blade. She glanced up at the priest. Her feet begged her to stand up and run.
She cut his hand the same way, only his blood was white. They clasped their palms together and let the blood mix into grey.
The priest and priestess spoke together again. “Rise now with the Sun and Moon as your witness, and together be woman and man.”
They stood to jovial cheers and applause from their guests. She and Bancak walked down the aisle together in the autumn sun.
There. The hard part was over. Now it was just her and him, man and wife, until the Moon reclaimed their souls. Still, a part of her called for something that wasn’t there. She slipped away from the greetings and congratulations to take a moment and think. There wasn’t much more that she could ask for, at any rate. He was a powerful Ålsian nobleman. It was her duty to her family and nation, and at the very least she would never want for anything material again.
She looked across the temple courtyard to see her husband talking and laughing with some Ålsian women who appeared to be his younger sisters, or maybe his aunts. Curious, she made her way to them.
“Sister,” one of the women said, nodding. “I am Ozbekar.”
“I am Judit,” said the second.
“Florkos,” the next woman said with a grin.
The fourth barely looked at her, but said “Emezyal.”
“Naqlora,” the last said with a smile.
The bride took her husband’s arm. “So many sisters. Did they all grow up with you?”
The women burst into laughter. Bancak chuckled, but said nothing.
“She’s like you, Florkos, so innocent,” Ozbekar giggled. “We’re Bancak’s other wives.”
Her cheeks flushed as the world crumbled beneath her feet. Her grip on Bancak’s arm loosened. She stared at Ozbekar, praying it was a joke. “W-wives?”
“Oh, Ozbekar, you’ve scared her to death.” Judit took her hands. “Don’t worry, young one. I know it must all seem so strange to a Candrish girl, but it’s not so bad. We aren’t catty about it. Ozbekar was his first wife, and you won’t be the last. Some men in Tizan have as many as ten!”
“Ten?” she asked, barely loud enough to be heard.
Judit said, “We’ll have many celebrations at home—tournaments, a wives’ day, a week of feasts and drinking. You’ll get used to this, I promise.”
“Gods know I had to,” Naqlora said.
“Naqlora is Məzhaq,” Ozbekar clarified. “They only take one spouse, like you Candrish women. She’s a special case.”
All she could think was to run. How could Bancak ever love her when there were five other women that came before? A tear slid down her cheek. She cast her eyes upon Bancak, who looked more amused than apologetic. This wasn’t funny. It was the exact and total opposite of funny. Ten wives? Nine more for when he got bored? How could her parents betray her like this? No one ever mentioned to her that the whitebloods took more than one wife. Never, not once. She excused herself and hurried off toward the temple doors. There was a sword atop her father’s fireplace. She could take it. She could go to war if it meant this marriage would be annulled. Her heart skipped a beat.
No. She couldn’t. All her belongings were being brought aboard Bancak’s ship at that very moment. With the setting sun she’d be aboard that ship, sailing away from anything she’d ever known.
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