Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The next week passed in a blur.
Once it became public knowledge that Jerica had returned to Atraya, Nykeria quickly folded on their position. Derik demanded they withdraw their troops and pay an obscene amount of money, but returned Josef to them unscathed when Femola complied.
Levin decided that since all the noblemen were already at the Palace from having come to sit on the War Council, Jerica’s wedding would come at the week’s end. She’d insisted that she wouldn’t get married until Rek did as well, so that it couldn’t be pushed off for perpetuity. So, a double wedding.
And now it was time.
Jerica stood in front of her dresser, both hands pressed against it to hold her bodyweight up, head bowed. Her chest was so tight, grief stabbing through her. She swallowed hard, screwing her eyes even more tightly closed. Her entire body trembled.
I can’t do this. Tears pricked her eyes. She wiped them away cautiously, careful not to smear her eyeliner. This was going to be her hardest battle yet. And there wasn’t anyone at all who could save her from it. She was marching into a fight, intending to lose it. And it hurt.
She looked at herself in the mirror. Her makeup was as perfect as it always was when she galivanted as King’s Assassin. Her eyelids were painted red and framed by dark eyeliner, making her green eyes sharper and more noticeable. Her lips were black. Usually, it made her displeasure more poignant, the disgust apparent on her mouth.
Instead of the hard, withdrawn demeanor she usually held, now her features were screwed up with distress. None of the confidence was there anymore. None at all. Her eyes were misty and vulnerable, brows drawn together in anguish. She let her head hang again, yet another sign of her defeat.
You have to do this. There wasn’t another option. Rek and Nykim’s secret was already out in the open at this point. And it was her fault. And if she tried to back out of this marriage, then neither of them would be safe. For the rest of their entire lives. And she couldn’t live with that on her conscience.
Her throat constricted.
Stop it, she thought savagely, angry at her own mind. At her own body. She couldn’t even rely on herself to be a source of stability anymore. She felt so betrayed by it. Or, maybe she was betraying her body instead. She shuddered as she thought of Stanton’s hands on her, tonight… and every other night for—
She shook the thought away.
It made her stomach churn. And sent a stab of panic through her chest, imagining the hell that was waiting for her. No armor. No defense. She could hurt him – but not without directly harming Rek. And she wouldn’t do that. No matter what. And that was going to make the encounter even more painful – knowing that she was capable of stopping Stanton, and yet not being able to do so.
It’s just a body.
She kept trying to drill that into her own mind. Her body had already endured far, far more than anything Stanton would be able to do to her. The injections – the scar from Biryn – the abuse from the Nykerians. All of them hurt far worse than Stanton was even capable of doing to her, even if he was stupid enough to try.
So what if she had to have sex with the slimiest man in the entire realm?
She didn’t even care.
Jerica buried her face in her hands, trying to believe that one as well. She’d spent the entirety of the day pacing and thinking for any possible way that this could be avoided. And the past hour resigned to the fact that she was about to get married, but thinking about how to make it less… utterly terrible.
This was just a power move for Stanton.
Proximity to power is power. That was what Biryn always said to her. Biryn didn’t have to be a nobleman. He was Levin’s closest advisor, which gave him nearly unlimited access to the entirety of Levin’s resources. The second most powerful man in the country, simply because of his proximity to Levin.
And she was powerful. And of royal blood.
Marrying her would get Stanton’s foot in the castle. Get him a bit closer to Levin, even though Levin hated Jerica. Still, she was valuable to him. Which meant that Stanton would get to piggyback off that benefit. She didn’t even want to know what he had planned.
With any luck, it wouldn’t involve her at all.
She had no doubt he was going to demand sex, at least at first. But surely, he didn’t plan on actually playing house together… Surely. She swallowed hard. He was just using her. She was used to that – Biryn had been using her literally since she was born. She just hoped he’d settle for clinging to her royalty and leave her out of it.
There was a rap at the door.
Jerica straightened, squaring her shoulders and setting her jaw as she turned towards the door. She sucked in a deep breath. “Enter.”
She let the breath out, relaxing slightly. “You should be with Rek.”
“I was,” he answered gently, closing the door behind him then striding towards her. “And now I’m with you.”
She took another deep breath.
“What’s this?” He gestured at her.
She glanced down. Her commissioned wedding dress was tossed in a heap on her bed. Instead, she wore a form-fitting black dress. It had a halter top, revealing her angular shoulders and muscular arms. It hugged her body down to her mid-thigh. Scandalous.
“I’m not wearing it,” Jerica said firmly, nodding towards the dress.
“Well… it is a wedding dress… and it is your wedding…”
“Black seems more appropriate, no?” Jerica crossed her arms, looking at him as he stopped in front of her. “Grieving the loss of my independence.”
He sighed, looking at her sadly. “Oh… Jer…”
“It’s fine.” She shrugged. “I don’t even care about the wedding.” Her wrist tingled. “But I’m not going to be his storybook bride. And I want to make sure that’s clear.”
“So, you’re making a statement,” Derik concluded, eyes flicking across her body before landing on her face again. She kept her expression carefully impassive. He raised an eyebrow. “And the assassin makeup was necessary?”
Derik rubbed his face. “I hate this.”
“It’s just a dress,” Jerica scoffed.
“No, not that.” He waved his hand dismissively, then gestured vaguely. “This. All of this. The fact that you had to sacrifice yourself for Rek’s sake. That I wasn’t able to protect you from this godsdamned wedding. I hate it. And I hate it for you.”
“I don’t care,” she lied, shrugging again, hoping a nonchalant demeanor would sell the performance. Her wrist zapped her again, but she was careful not to react. Derik’s appearance had snapped her out of her own thoughts. She was back to her withdrawn, unflappable self. “It’s not like it’s the first loveless, political marriage there’s been, and it won’t be the last. I can handle Stanton Fillmore.”
Derik put his hand on her cheek gently. She met his gaze for a long moment, noting that he seemed as upset as she felt. “I know you can. You can handle anything thrown your way. But you shouldn’t have to.”
Jerica swallowed hard then nodded. “Agreed… but I do.”
Disgust filled her mouth as she thought about what she’d said. I do. The words that were going to be the end of her life. At least, the end of life as she knew it. The fatal blow to her and Akeno. The locking of the manacles around her wrists.
“This…” He sighed, shaking his head. “It’s bullshit.”
“It is,” she agreed.
“I tried talking Levin out of it.”
That didn’t particularly surprise her. Nor was she surprised that it hadn’t worked. “Levin has wanted me to marry the slimy bastard for years. This was his opportunity.”
“Yeah…” Derik’s gaze drifted over her shoulder, focused on nothing at all, expression contemplative. He sighed deeply. “Yeah, it was.”
“It’ll be okay,” Jerica said, forcing more confidence into her voice than she felt. Her wrist tingled gently, like it wasn’t quite sure if she was lying or not. She didn’t know either.
Derik’s gaze flicked back to her face. Jerica stepped forward, walking into his arms wordlessly. He looked like he needed a hug. And she definitely needed one. She stood with her head pressed against his chest for a long minute, listening to his heartbeat. She hoped that he wasn’t able to feel the way her heart raced.
“It’s time,” Derik murmured at last.
Jerica nodded and stepped away from him, a bitter taste flooding into her mouth. She turned back towards her dresser and grabbed her black veil. It was made out of starched lace that held its form and only covered half of her face, but drove home the message that this was more like a funeral than a wedding.
“Ready?” he asked.
As ready as she’d ever be. “Yeah.”
“C’mon, then,” Derik said gently, leading the way to the door.
They walked down the hall in silence, footsteps quiet but still seeming to echo in Jerica’s head. Her chest was so tight it was making it hard to draw a breath – but she forced herself to breathe regularly anyway, so that Derik wouldn’t notice and get concerned.
It felt like he was leading her to her execution.
They stood in the corridor just outside the doors to the sanctuary. Her mouth had gone dry. Dread settled heavy on her shoulders. Derik took her hand in his and gave her a reassuring squeeze. She returned it. Then she tried to think of what was going to come next.
Usually, in royal weddings, the groom stood at the front of the chapel with his father next to him, closer to the wall to the left. Then the bride’s father would walk her down the aisle to her new husband, then take his place to her right, closer to the far wall – creating mirror images of the spouses with their fathers standing behind them.
In double-weddings, each of the grooms would be waiting on opposite sides of the middle aisle, their own fathers behind him, closer to the wall. Then the brides’ fathers would walk each of them down the aisle, place their hand in their fiancé’s, then step to the side and take their place next to the groom’s father by the wall. The priest stood in the center.
She didn’t know how it was going to work with two grooms. Would both of them be waiting at the front of the chapel? Would Nykim’s father walk him down the aisle? That seemed a bit silly to think about. But she’d never seen a wedding like this before. And she’d thrown a fit and refused to attend the rehearsal the night before, so she didn’t know.
A pang of sadness ran through her at the thought of walking herself down the aisle. It didn’t really matter. She did most things herself. She didn’t need anyone to walk beside her. She’d learned how to have a presence. To command attention on her own.
But it stung that she didn’t have her father here to walk her down the aisle. It was random moments like this that tended to cut the deepest. The realization that her father wasn’t going to walk her down the aisle, and she didn’t have a mama waiting on the front pew to watch with misty eyes and a proud smile.
Just her. Marching herself towards misery.
The music started inside the sanctuary.
The flower girls that had been lounging around on the opposite side of the corridor walked towards the main doors that they were standing next to. There was a door on the side of the sanctuary where Derik would be able to slip in next to the wall to stand by Rek.
She took a deep breath, then turned towards Derik. This was it. Her time to take responsibility for herself. “You should be with Rek.”
“We’ll both be with him soon,” Derik answered gently.
She furrowed her brow.
“You can’t honestly think I’m going to let you face this alone,” he scoffed, looking down at her. “I might not be your father, but you’re still my kiddo.”
Jerica’s throat constricted.
He was going to—? She took a shaky breath. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Jer-Jer,” Derik murmured. He turned towards the table nearby where a large bouquet of roses was sitting. He picked it up and held it out to her. “I believe this is for you…”
She snorted but took the flowers. Since, apparently, they were going to pretend like this was an actual wedding and not just a ritual of pawning her off to the highest bidder. Stop it. This is an actual wedding. Just not yours. She took a deep, deep breath and then slowly let it out and turned towards Derik.
“Jerica Ainsley,” Derik said, turning to face her fully. “You are the prettiest, most incredible girl I have ever met. Will you allow me to escort you down the aisle?”