The wedding was a magnificent affair. Especially for one in such short notice. Rich, heavy banners, with tails rippling in the wind, swung from the rafters of buildings surrounding the courtyard. Stonemasons had erected a pedestal, made entirely of polished marble, in the very middle of the square. An overhanging arch of thick green vines, intertwined together with flower buds, covered the pedestal in a leafy canopy.
Apparently, it was a rather small event. At least, that was what I was told. But so many people showed up and the yard was packed so full that everyone had to remain standing during the ceremony.
But I didn’t care about that. All that mattered was that my grandparents were to stand as witnesses when I pledged my troth to Nakai.
When we first showed up, many smiles grew watery as every person turned his head to watch the bride and groom, dressed in vivid hues of red and gold – the symbols of love and fortune – began to walk down the bare, sandy aisle of the yard towards the raised pedestal.
I had never been present at a wedding before. If I had not been the bride, I would have enjoyed watching it with my own eyes. However, as the actual bride, I wasn’t able to see much of anything. My vision was blurred and fuzzy with the red-silk veil draped over my head, and my beaded headdress jingled with each step, making my heart pounded ever harder as we neared closer. The palms of my hands grew moist.
Finally, we were stepping up onto the stone platform to stand before the Emperor. Just before we began the ritual bow to the heavens, I risked a glance at Nakai. Through my veil he looked calm – poised even. Just as I turned back with an unsteady breath, Nakai reached out and took my hand. But when he grabbed my other hand and turned to face me, I realized that it was not an act of reassurance, but required as part of the ceremony. Nonetheless, I felt relief when I realized that Nakai was not as at ease as he looked.
His pulse was racing.
We bowed and then pronounced our vows, promising to the other to be faithful and true, renouncing all others till death. I could barely raise my voice above a whisper when it was my turn to speak. But Nakai, though solemn and quiet, could be heard distinctly. When he promised to protect me, he gave my hands a squeeze, as if to prove to me that he truly meant that with all his heart.
After we sipped from the same glass of wine, the Emperor came forward and laid his hands over our still clasped owns.
“Love and cherish one another,” He whispered softly, looking at me with eyes full of tears. Then the Emperor turned and faced the crowd. Raising his voice loudly for all to hear, His Majesty declared, “Rejoice – for her highness, the Princess Forsythia and her husband, Nakai! May they live long and their union be bountiful.”
The crowd burst into rapturous applause as we walked back down the steps. Immediately we were torn apart – he by the Prince Iyagi – and I by my weeping grandparents.
“Never have I been so happy,” Grandmother sobbed as she dabbed her eyes, “My beautiful girl – married! I never thought I’d live to see the day!”
“I can’t hardly believe either, my dear,” Grandpa said as he patted his wife on the back, “To think, that our little rascal should find a man. Indescribable is the word!”
“Oh hush,” Grandma cried as she thwacked him, “That’s not what I meant!”
“I still stand by what I said,” Grandpa declared to me with a wink, “However, I wish I’d been around. I would have advised you to aim a bit higher. That young prince from Yosae seems like a decent fellow. Not that there’s anything wrong with your young man, mind you.”
“How did you two meet?” Grandma asked eagerly, “Was it love at first sight? Oh, I’ve missed you so much! Tell me everything, dear.”
“How about we get something to eat first,” I chuckled back before leading my grandparents towards my quarters, our arms linked together.
Many courtiers and courtesans bowed as we passed, crying out well-wishes. Some older couples approached me and offered tips of wisdom for a successful marriage. Grandfather’s shoulders often heaved in silent laughter at some of the ridiculous notions that were helpfully proposed. But Grandmother always kept her composure and aided me in the flow of conversation.
At last we reached my compartments. I introduced Usan and Nalda to my grandparents, who shook hands heartily. Then we all sat down to eat a nice quiet meal. Away from the excitement of the crowds, I could almost imagine that my grandparents were here simply for a visit and that it was not my wedding day.
After our bellies were full, Grandma again prodded me for more information about Nakai. Unsure of where to begin, I decided to tell them of how Nakai rescued me from the cliff in the forest, omitting the part of how I was hearing voices.
“He saved your life!? Now I wouldn’t care if he was a beggar boy – that man is as good as a King to me!” Grandpa shouted, banging his fist against the table.
“Glad he meets your approval,” Grandma responded dryly before turning back to me, “Goodness child – what were you doing out in the woods by yourself?”
I raised my brows at Grandfather and then told them about General Dal. Grandfather immediately clapped his hands gleefully in delight, but Grandmother shook her head and sighed.
“Princess or no princess – you haven’t changed, dear,” She tsked at me.
“That’s a good thing,” Grandfather said, clapping me heartily on the shoulder, “She’s no stuck-up, but enjoys getting her hands dirty.”
“I’m not sure that the General will continue to teach me though,” I murmured, “I kind of kept it a secret – my being a princess.”
“I was a guard under that man, and take my word for it …” Grandfather paused to lean over the table across from me, “He doesn’t care about rank. I was present when he told off some neighboring allies, all of them of royalty. Don’t worry child, he will take you on if you prove to be a diligent pupil.” Grandfather patted my hand encouragingly.
At that moment Nalda appeared. “Excuse me, Your Highness,” she apologized with a curtsy, “But I’ve been instructed to take you to the bridal chamber.”
Sadly, I kissed both my grandparents good-bye, hugged them tightly with all my might for several moments. Nalda had to pull me away eventually since I did not want to let them go.
As I left the room, I heard Grandfather call out, “Good luck!” before receiving a sharp jab in the side from Grandma.
Once outside, I wiped away my tears and asked Nalda, “Where’s Nakai?”
“Celebrating with Prince Iyagi,” she replied, “I only hope that he succeeds in prying himself away.”
I smiled at the image of a bunch of singing, slightly tipsy men surrounding an embarrassed guard/groom.
Nalda led me back through the now empty courtyard. We passed several buildings and the Palace Hall. Yet, the maid continued marching on till we walked through an arched doorway in a wall that led into a part of the palace I had never ventured through before.
A grand house, surrounded by a pond of lilies, met my eyes. Its railings were painted bright red with a golden roof rising to mingle with the clouds floating lazily in the sky. An inviting stone path, lined with pink peonies, wound its way to a little wooden bridge raised over a sparkling brook and ended at the front porch dais of the house. Shutters of dark ebony lined open windows with curtains of white silk that blew out in the wind.
“What’s this?” I breathed.
“Your wedding present from the Emperor,” Nalda giggled, “He wanted it to be a surprise. You’ll be living here now.”
“For how long?”
“All your life … or till you tire of it and want a bigger one.”
I laughed with a choke. “Bigger? This one feels immense.”
“Then fill it up.”
“Children,” Nalda stated with a smirk, “I guarantee it won’t feel big then. Speaking of which …” She turned on her heel and started walking down the path. “You need to get to the bridal chamber.”
I followed slowly, my feet dragging across the pebble stones of the path. As we walked over the bridge, I noticed a couple of guards posted at two sections of the house.
“Why are they here?” I asked Nalda.
“Who?” She looked to see where I pointed and then smiled. “Oh – they are here to make sure no one disturbs you.”
Or to make sure that the bride doesn’t escape. I bit my lip nervously.
We stepped up onto the dais and walked through the open doorway into a marvelous entrance hall. Its floors were made of sleek, polished floorboards and at every corner stood a little table with a vase full of flowers that filled the room with a beautiful aroma.
Marching straight through, Nalda paused only when in front of another open door that led to the right. Stepping to the side with a cheeky grin, she waited for me to go through. Suspicious, I hesitated and peered in the room first.
There, standing in the middle of the chamber and taking up most of the floorspace, was a great big bed. A colorful spread of red with embroidery of gold covered the entire mattress. Rose petals covered all the pillows and warm, soft candlelight bounced a romantic glow off the walls.
My eyes grew wide and I pulled my head back sharply. “I’m not tired.”
“Get in there,” Nalda said and gave me a hard shove, pushing me into the room, “Do your duty as a woman.”
I turned back with a pout and arms crossed stubbornly, which only made the maid laugh.
“Remember,” Nalda warned, as she began to close the door, “You are not to take off your veil.”
“It’s the husband’s office.” She shrugged. “An old tradition.”
And with those final words, Nalda waltzed away, leaving me all alone. As soon as I could no longer hear her padded feet, and with one safeguarded peek around the door, I tore off my veil. That’s when I noticed a table, laden with food, sitting along a wall of the room. Heaps of delicacies, piled high on platters of silver, were laid out in precise lines across the table.
Rubbing my hands in delight, I eagerly reached out to grab a roll, when someone’s step sounded from the porch. Fearing that it was Nalda come back, I hastened to put my veil back over my head. But the person paused just outside the door. The floorboards shifted heavily underneath their feet. Not Nalda.
“Kkachi?” It was Nakai.
I yelped and leaped away from the table, quickly hiding the roll behind my back. “Here,” I squeaked.
“May I come in?” He asked, his voice strangely muffled through the door.
I began to nod, then realized that he couldn’t see me. “Yes,” I said.
The door creaked open and Nakai poked his head through. “Still wearing the bridal veil?” He asked before stepping forward to finger its edge.
“I was told not to take it off.”
“How come I don’t believe you didn’t.”
“Do you?” I asked smugly.
“Then you would be right.” I crossed my arms. “Now, do you wish to follow tradition and release me from this hideous veil, or shall I?”
“Your voice is very quiet. Do you have enough air under there?”
“You can take it off to find out.”
“Its rather nice – hearing you speak so softly. I rather like it.”
I raised my hand to grab the fringe.
“Fine, fine,” Nakai said with a chuckle and lifted the front piece of the veil away from my face. Our eyes met. “Hello wife,” He whispered softly.
“About time,” I grumbled back before grabbing the material out of the guard’s hands and threw it across the room.
Nakai cocked his head and smirked.
“Nothing. I’m just glad to see that you’ve kept your fiery temper after such an imprisonment,” He replied cheerfully.
“And what do you know about my temper?” I demanded, “We barely know one other.”
Nakai’s face fell. “That’s not true.”
“It is true,” I insisted, “We’ve only met a few weeks ago and only recently became friends.” I flopped down on the bed and laid my head in my hands. “Now I don’t know what to think.”
I felt Nakai pry one of my hands away from my face. Taking it in his own, he looked directly into my eyes. “We are,” he said solemnly and in an earnest voice, “We are friends and I don’t want anything to change that. Though this situation is a bit … uncomfortable, no one shall know about our personal lives.”
“So … nothing changes?” I asked.
“Not a thing,” he replied, shaking his head, “There’s a separate bedchamber at the end of the house. I shall take it.”
“But, won’t that appear strange?” I asked, trying not to seem relieved.
“Royal couples do it all the time,” Nakai explained, “Makes things less awkward when the husband takes in a concubine.”
I frowned. “Are you going to have one?”
Nakai smirked. “What? Jealous already, wife?”
He chuckled before falling quiet. “About what you said – how we …” He gestured between the two of us. “That we don’t know each other very well … you truly don’t remember a thing, do you?”
“I remember things clearly from back when I was seven birth moons.” My brows furrowed in concentration. “But no matter how hard I try – I can’t remember anything before then.”
“I guessed as much when you didn’t recognize me.”
“At first I thought it was because we had grown so much over the years,” Nakai continued, “But then – how was it that I recognized you the very moment I laid eyes on you? So, I asked you questions, hoping you would remember. That’s when you told me that you could not recollect your time spent here, in this palace, as a child.”
“Wait.” I held up my hands for him to stop. “We knew each other as children?”
Nakai nodded. “We were best friends.”
“But,” I rubbed my forehead, confused, “How is that possible? You were in Yosae the entire time till you met Prince Iyagi.”
“Um … about that.” The guard cast his gaze uneasily at the floor.
“I’m not actually the Prince’s guard.”
“What?! Then who are you?”
“I am Prince Iyagi.”