About half an hour before Danica was due to arrive I met Irene on the way to the meeting room. We didn’t speak as we were both anxious but for different reasons. Our mother had preceded us to the table and was already seated drinking a cup of her favorite herbal tea. She gave us a smile as we entered and gestured to the pot on the table.
Since our return from the Mistari lands my mother and I had spoken infrequently, though we were still in close enough contact for me to have mentioned some fears and nervousness I had regarding the proposal. Though I often wondered aloud what I was thinking at that moment I was quick to defend Danica when the occasion arose as she was risking the most for the time being.
Ignoring the refreshments and table I began to pace as had become my habit of late. I was on my seventh revolution when the doors opened and Danica was escorted in. I dismissed the guards easily and turned my attention to my future Naga.
“Danica, allow me to introduce Naga Charis Cobriana,” I gestured toward my mother and sensed her nod regally behind me. “And you already know my sister, Irene.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Danica responded in a tone that was both polite and a little remote. To my surprise she met my mother’s eyes squarely and smiled as she spoke. I decided she was trying not to show how nervous she was. Of course my mother was not a Cobriana by blood and I have not hear any avian legends of python eyes carrying any devious powers so it was always possible the Danica merely felt safe and confident enough to meet my mother's gaze.
“My son speaks quite highly of you,” Charis told Danica with a knowing smile. As if she knew something the rest of us didn’t. Or like she was teasing us. Ordinarily at this point Irene or myself would have quipped back. We could waste several minutes making up vicious gossip we pretended the other had told. But this was a serious situation and before anyone could say anything too embarrassing or awkward I steered the conversation toward something a bit more serious.
“How shortly should I expect your guards to storm the palace?” I was not sure if they even knew she was gone yet, though it was common knowledge that the Royal Flight was not in the practice of letting the Tuuli Thea go anywhere unescorted.
“The Royal Flight will be informed of my whereabouts shortly before sunrise, if I have not returned by then.” Danica answered bluntly but with a light and playful tone. Before I had a chance to retort the large double doors were opened without as much as a knock. It was Adelina who entered without first being acknowledged and in a show of dominance, presumably for Danica, she entered with only a deferential nod to my mother and sister.
“Zane, you are needed.” She said in a tone of voice I’d never heard before.
“Am I? I’d like to know what your guard needs me for at the moment.”
“I need to speak to you,” she clarified shooting a quick glare at Danica that I wasn’t supposed to notice. I was becoming tired of this imaginary one-sided power struggle. While I was marrying Danica and as such had to end my relationship with Adelina, she was obviously the one that held my affections and didn’t need to compete with this non-existent threat.
"You can speak as freely in front of Danica as you can in front of me,” I tried to assure her, but somehow my meaning is lost in the words and instead of creating an air of openness or at least diffusing the tension I have increased it exponentially. Luckily my sister is a born diplomat and sent me to the hall with Adelina before the awkward silence could stretch for too long.
In the hall I stood motionless waiting for Adelina to speak her mind.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” she started avoiding my gaze.
“But I do,” I told her sadly. “Well maybe not this specifically, but it was the least lethal of our options.”
“Like she won’t kill you the first night anyway,” Adelina muttered to herself. “There’s an avian tradition of murdering Serpiente in their beds,” she continued louder.
“And if that happens which I doubt then at least I tried. My people deserve that much.”
“Your people? Yeah your people deserve a lot. But what about what I deserve? Huh? What you deserve?” She retorted her voice climbing. “Hell, even what Danica deserves.”
“I admit this was nobody’s first choice. But it’s too late to back out now.”
“Why do you have to be so gods-damned self-sacrificing? Just this once be selfish, be with me!” She pleaded. She raised a hand and for a moment I thought she was going to strike me, but instead she made a frustrated strangling motion in mid-air accompanied by a wordless shriek.
I placed my hands on either of her shoulders and Adelina leaned in to the touch. I wished she wouldn’t, my next words were too cruel even though we both knew they were coming.
“After today, I mean, after this you know we can’t be together anymore.”
She sniffed, when had she started crying? “I don’t have to like it.” She grumbled but eventually agreed. At some point while we were talking, we had moved away from the honey-oak double doors of the smaller audience chamber. When I returned to the room it was to a solemn silence as my mother and sister had briefed Danica in my absence.
We spent the next hour or so acquainting Danica with the maze like halls of the palace and the guard chosen to protect her. For her part she seemed genuinely curious about the branching twisting halls. She was as gracious with meeting the Guard as one could expect and even tried committing names and some small details to memory. I just hoped Danica was able to play her part well enough for the large audience awaiting us because I couldn’t compensate for the both of us.
I stepped on stage and was greeted by whistles and cheers, it still surprised me sometimes how much my people cared about me. It was probably proportional to the amount I cared about them. They were willing to die for my family; I was willing to live the rest of my life in loneliness for them. Not that I said so. No, I gave a pretty speech about love and romance and acceptance. I said some things about hope and daring, beauty and wonder. I painted a picture of two love-struck royals no longer willing to be separated by our peoples’ mutual hatred.
I always was a good story teller. But something in my words struck a chord within me. I was reminded of the first time I had watched Danica sleep and let the feeling color my voice.
I avoided explicitly naming names until Danica’s cue when she stepped out on stage and watched the audience’s reaction. For the benefit of those who did not recognize the woman standing before them and for the binding contract the words would seal, I announced to the assembled, “Allow me to introduce my Naga, Danica Shardae.” I did not miss Adelina slip out the back, nor was I truly surprised.
The carefully planted Palace guards knelt, arranged out of uniform in such a way as to influence the crowd’s acceptance of Danica and interfere if the gathering were to become a mob. As each guard knelt so did the civilians nearest them until only a handful of people were left standing in dissention. They were quickly soothed by some pretty words, light sarcasm, and a touching display.
To my surprise, Danica did not hesitate to wrap an arm around my waist, nor did she flinch at my simulated kiss. Throughout the evening as we circulated through the crowd, Danica kept a hand on my arm or was otherwise in constant skin-to-skin contact with me. I was not sure if it was for the benefit of the Serpiente who would be disgusted by anything less than a love-match or her own nervousness and wanting to reassure herself that she was near someone who would protect her . . . or at least hesitate to kill her. Her constant warmth and rapid heartbeat was welcome at my side as I found her nearness soothed most of my own tension. I did not contemplate why this was and instead focused on ensuring that my usually demonstrative people did not overwhelm my new Naga with their eagerness to be near royalty. A few times I had to warn off a young man who was being overly familiar (by avian standards) with Danica, but for the most part the introduction went well.
It was the dinner when things got difficult. Technically it was far too late for any kind of formal meal. But one could not expect so many people to be gathered for so long without refreshment, or for such an event to be without a banquet. As Danica quietly picked through the vegetable dishes and the rest of us enjoyed the meat courses (no fowl of course. I had already resigned myself to a life without poultry from this day forward. And I would avoid having it served at meals where Danica was present. Perhaps it should be removed from Palace kitchens) when a question about Danica’s guard was raised. This led to a short disagreement about the appropriateness of an Avian queen being guarded by the avians she had known since childhood who had been raised to guard her. The ridiculousness was not lost on me, though I noticed Danica tense at the raised voices even as she feigned polite indifference to the outcome.
Finally it was late enough to disappear into our rooms. Danica apparently agreed with me, she leaned against my side as I led her to the part of the palace that was for sleeping. At some point she began to mumble indistinctly about how good I smelled. She had apparently used wine to cover her nerves and while she was not noticeably drunk, I doubted she would recall much of the evening in detail after the food had been served. She seemed to wake up a bit to take in the room and was considerably shocked to find that her childhood friend had been working with the Serpiente for some time.
It was appallingly easy to convince her to allow me into her bed in her exhausted, shocked, and somewhat tipsy state. My true motives were just as pure as my stated ones, I wasn’t used to sleeping alone, the walk to my own room suddenly seemed very long, and my presence should be enough to thwart any would-be assassins.
After the fourth longest day of my life, I closed my eyes and sank blissfully into a dream. It was not as vivid as the dreams I was used to having, but was rather filled with sensations and emotions, mostly pleasant with no accompanying image. I felt peace and contentment and a little bit of pride radiate from somewhere to the left of me and moved closer until I was completely enveloped in positivity.