"I wish you happiness with Rosewood."
I would not cry. I would not cheapen my feelings by giving in to them. If a heart must break, let it be my own. If our hands touched, there would be too much. Too much, too confusing, too difficult...oh!
I would do no such thing.
I would not lay a finger on you.
Even as I turned and walked away, these words resounded within my mind. His scornful gaze and words and tone, designed to hold all at bay.
Unlike Asada, whom I love. Asada was kind as he was not, was thoughtful and capable and always by my side, holding my hand...
Holding on, in spite of the pain it must cause him to feel the tumble of my emotions. His kindness was almost cruel, for I had fallen before I had known it, without ever knowing that he already belonged to another. Would it have been kinder for him to never have taken my hand, to have stayed away so that this would never have happened?
And then my fiance. The word felt odd on my lips, and I rolled it around on my tongue, following the shimmering lights back to the ballroom. Where the world awaited, where the man I did not love let me go to the one I did.
I could have claimed Asada for my own, if Lord Kiri had not been lying - and from Asada's reaction earlier, indeed he had told me the truth. I needed to marry one carrying the blood of Vita, that was the divine message from the oracle. There was no chance of defying it, it was the rule we lived by. And I, as the Princess of Alpha, knew that better than anyone else.
Did not Father say that he had loved another before my mother? Brought together by prophecy, he had learned to love Mother. Am I no less his daughter then?
There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. Lord Kiri had let me go earlier, and his eyes had been kinder and sadder than I had ever seen them. He was not a bad person, as Rosewood had said. Perhaps I could learn to love him, in time.
I emerged into a wash of sound and colour, the vibrant thrum of the ballroom cascading over my senses. The gentle light of the jellyfish danced over and around us, and I found the solitary form of my husband-to-be with ease. As always, he stood alone and aloof, touching no one, face an impassive mask as he gazed upon the crowd through lidded eyes. Like a wolf scouting the herd, ready to pounce at any time. He frightened me, least of all with his ability to read minds.
And yet, he had promised never to touch me without permission. And he had let me go to Asada, after telling me the truth. That was more than anyone had ever done for me, even my own parents.
I could be happy with him. I would try. To love was to wish them upon the path that would bring them happiness, and so I had let Asada go to Rosewood. Asada would always be my first love, and Lord Kiri knows and accepts it. That is an understanding for the better of which I could not hope.
As if sensing my presence, Lord Kiri uncoils like a waiting panther, turning to me with a neutral expression. I watch him check himself for a second, his eyes flicking to my side as if surprised that I had returned alone. The crowd parts before him as he closes the distance between us, his face locked into an impassive mask. Yet, up close, I could see that his eyes flickered with uncertainty.
"My lady, are you alone?"
I look up at him - gods, he was tall - and for the first time, really looked at him, in the way he had taunted me with the first time I accused him of reading my mind. Behind the soldier's calm, he seemed tired and drawn, yet his pride would never let him show weakness. His eyes were locked on mine, a fierceness in them that had frightened me all the time, until I looked past it to the quiet kindness resting behind.
A spark of something approaching recognition strikes me. The deep reds and black of his dress uniform seemed to come alive in memory, of a different red that had covered him once, and I looked at him again, a long buried memory surfacing. His lifeblood on my hands, him begging for death and I...I had, I had forgotten it entirely.
This stoic soldier was completely vulnerable before me, and I had never seen it.
Letting out a breath, I raised a hand and held it out before me, in the way I had been taught. A sudden shock lit the dark eyes before me, and a flicker of something that might have been hope ruthlessly suppressed. Now who was the open book here?
His voice was reverent as he went down on one knee, taking my proffered hand with nary a tremble, as his head bent in the ritual greeting, his breath tickling the back of my hand. I felt him inhale sharply, still frozen over my hand.
I closed my eyes and let all my sadness, my hopes and fears go, weeping in a way only he could feel, through our joined hands. And through all that, my determination, and my decision.
I did not miss the tremble this time, a tightening of his hands over mine.
I opened my eyes, meeting his upturned gaze. His gaze was steady and strong, and for the first time, I saw the devotion that had been there all this time.
And I smiled.