The assembled nobles, their tabards a blaze of colour, parted like the sea, leaving a clear path to the altar. To the accompaniment of lutes and drums, the kingdom's newest princess walked up the aisle. At her side was the man she'd thought of as her brother, until the truth had come out.
As the music reached its climax, Princess Samantha came to a dignified halt alongside her betrothed: James, heir of the Clan McCrimmon. He caught her eye, and they exchanged brief, apprehensive smiles.
The music fell silent, and the Loremaster stood forth before the assembled nobles, resplendent in his fur-trimmed robes.
"Hear ye," he began. "Whereas it was thought that by the malice of the usurper Sagor the line of Victoria, queen of old, had failed: Be it known that a true heiress of that line lives and stands before us!"
He went on, at length, recounting the tale of how the last princess of the doomed house had been smuggled out of the palace as a baby, and placed in the care of an innkeeper in the city, Beorthar by name. Of how she had grown to womanhood knowing only the life of a serving wench, until the day she was swept up in James' triumphant quest against the Face-Stealers of Gabia. As he went on to explain how Samantha's true descent had been verified, and the prophecy that she would bear James a child who would drive evil from the land for a thousand years, the assembled lords cast discreet glances at the young bride. She appeared calm, untroubled by her sudden elevation from tavern to palace. Quiet nods were exchanged among the elders: Only one of royal descent could be so self-possessed in this situation. Blood would tell.
His voice now becoming hoarse, the Loremaster brought his speech to a suitably dignified conclusion and retired. The High Priest, wearing even more elaborate robes, now took his place.
"Let the bride and groom now pledge their troth by drinking from the enchanted waters of Deota Fountain," he said, holding up a chalice. "Thus will their union be sealed forever." Lowering his voice, he addressed the couple. "Drink, and then keep your eyes on each other's faces until the gongs sound."
He held out the cup to Samantha, then Jamie. The two drank, then turned to face each other. All stood in silence, until the low note of a gong echoed through the hall.
James and Samantha turned back to face the High Priest — and Samantha burst out laughing. Hastily, she clapped her hands over her mouth, but that merely resulted in even less dignified giggles and snorting noises. After a few seconds, she abandoned the attempt, and her peals of laughter once more rang through the hall.
"Sorry," she managed, her shoulders heaving. "I'm sorry."
Her eyes met James's. It seemed that he, too, was struggling to hold back laughter, and the sight of her merry face was too much to bear. His lips twitching furiously, he closed his eyes.
Among the watchers, old men turned to masters of heraldry, the unspoken question clear in their eyes. Was this the behaviour of a true princess? Was the young woman nothing but a tavern wench after all? Had she been drinking? Or worse, was she a changeling, a trick of the Lords of Shadow? The masters of heraldry looked back in bafflement, their expressions suggesting that perhaps the proofs of this girl's descent were not as solid as they had previously been thought.
Before the vague sense of uneasiness had time to crystallise, Samantha had managed to get herself under control, and had set her gaze firmly on the stained-glass window at the far end of the hall, with its elaborate image of the World Tree. Beside her, James was likewise staring into the middle distance. The High Priest cleared his throat, and the ceremony resumed.
The assembled lords relaxed. A moment of nerves, no more. Perfectly understandable in a girl so recently elevated to her proper station in life.
Through the rest of the formal ceremony and the feast that followed, James and Samantha had just about managed to keep their countenances, though their expressions had at times suggested a degree of inner emotional turmoil. Those who had spoken to them found their conversation abstracted; they would talk with, as it were, only half a mind, their eyes invariably fixed either on some distant point, or firmly on their interlocutor's face.
After the banquet, followed by a procession of lords, and surrounded by jugglers, minstrels, jesters and acrobats, the happy couple made their way to their new bedchamber. Presently, Mollie the maid emerged, and assured those waiting outside that all was going as well as could be expected.
Within the room, alone with her new husband for the first time, Samantha threw herself on the bed and let out the howl of laughter that had been building up within her for the past few hours. James collapsed onto a nearby settle, his laughter mingling with hers.
"You realise they're probably listening outside?" he asked, once he could speak again. "Maybe you just deafened them."
"Serves them right if they are." Samantha rolled onto her back and ran her hands over her embroidered nightgown. "Dunno why I'm bothering with this thing. You've already seen everything there is to see, haven't you? I know I have."
Samantha raised herself on her elbows. "Hey. You're my husband now, so come over here and get husbanding. That's what they're all waiting for, isn't it?" She watched him approach, devouring him with her eyes. "And so've I. Ever since I drank that potion."
"Och, that potion." James shook his head. "I'll tell you one thing. That was no love potion. More like True Seeing, I'm thinking."
"Yeah, I'd worked that out for myself." She began to laugh once more. "You know what my brother said this morning? He said 'If you get nervous, just imagine everyone's got their kit off.' I didn't have to imagine, anything, did I? And neither did you. That High Priest in his long drawers... Jamie, how'm I ever gonna take all those kings and lords seriously ever again?"
"Worry about that tomorrow," James said, taking her hand. "Tonight's about us."
"Yeah, but—" Samantha began. That was as far as she got, though, before her new husband kissed her, and one thing led quite naturally to several others.
"Sam?" Jamie asked, some time in the small hours of the night. "What were you going to say before?"
"Dunno." Samantha tried to think back through the crowded events of the day. "Was it about that prophecy we'd have a baby? 'Cos if it is, and if it's a girl, I was thinking Heather'd be a nice name."
Jamie pulled her closer. "Aye, it's a nice name. But no, I meant when we were talking about yon potion. D'ye suppose somewhere there's some poor knight out on a quest with what he thinks is a potion of True Seeing?"
"And when he drinks it... oh dear." Samantha laughed a most unprincessish laugh. "Oh. Yeah. By the way, you did a good job when Mollie was in the room. If I'd caught you looking at her then you wouldn't be having any kids with anyone, prophecy or no prophecy."
"Sam, you ken I'd never do that."
"What, never look, or never get caught?" She chuckled, nibbled his ear, then drew back slightly and looked him up and down. Even in the utter darkness of the bedchamber, she could make out every detail of his body.
"Jamie," she asked. "How long before that potion wears off?" An even more alarming possibility leapt into her mind. "Or does it wear off at all?"