The road to the Duchy of Toure-on-Marsh sloped gently downward, twisting along the last curves of solid ground. Behind, there were trees, forests, mountains, a whole world resting on rock-solid foundations… but ahead, the land along the road gave way to treacherous mud and long reed-strewn pools.
Alianora stood at the edge of the path, the chill of standing water lingering on her skin as she stared down the road that would lead back to her family’s kingdom. She wrapped her arms around herself, but it did nothing to ward off the cold.
And then the soft, rich fullness of a wool cloak settled around her shoulders, pressed gently against her by warm hands. She couldn’t help but smile at the comforting touch, still new and yet already so familiar, as she turned to look up into the face of her fiancé.
The no-longer-stone Prince Sacheverell didn’t smile back, frowning down at her with deep concern. “There’s still time to turn back if you wish, my love. We can tell your family of our engagement with a letter, and see them when they arrive at my father’s castle for the wedding.”
But Alianora shook her head. “No, I can’t do that to my parents. It would break my mother’s heart if I didn’t tell her in person. And – well, I do want to visit and introduce you. It’s just…”
“Aunt Ermintrude,” Sacheverell finished grimly.
Alianora sighed. “I thought I wouldn’t mind her so much now, not after Zemenar and Woraug. But just knowing she’s down there, waiting… I feel like I’m ten years old and perfectly able to navigate the woods no matter how much she tried to make me get lost in them!”
“What – those woods?” Sacheverell looked behind them to the forest in the distance, surveying the long road they’d traveled on the way with some alarm. “I think I’m rather glad you found yourself able to navigate. This is no place for a young princess to wander by herself.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Alianora said, the memory bringing a faint smile to her lips. “The paths are pretty easy to find, so I just had to walk back to the castle. It was actually nice to have some time to myself. The castle… well, with so little dry land around here, it’s not very big. There always seemed to be someone underfoot – especially my younger sisters. I have five of them, and I think all of us together were a little too much for Mother and Father to handle.”
“Five sisters?” Sacheverell looked rather taken aback. “I was an only child, so I can’t imagine such a thing. It sounds rather intimidating, to be honest. Fighting dragons is one thing, but talking to young girls…”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Alianora hastened to reassure him. “They’re certain to love you – the whole family will! They’d like anyone who actually wanted to marry me!”
“Hmm.” For some reason, this only made Sacheverell’s frown deepen. “Well, if you’re certain, my dear… shall we go?” He offered her his arm with a gallant bow, and they started down the path.
Walking into the Duchy, Alianora felt so odd returning to the world of tiny pointed cottages and narrow cobbled streets. She’d grown up in this town, and she knew every brightly-colored storefront or flowerbox strewn home… but even so, it all looked unsettlingly different after her time in the dragons’ echoing stone caverns, filled with odd treasures and sparkling jewels. The buildings that had been cozy now looked almost doll-sized, and the knowledge that there was open sky above her head instead of a high vaulted ceiling made her want to hide.
“It’s quite charming here,” Sacheverell murmured to her, smiling at the townsfolk as they passed. “It seems like a delightful town. Perhaps you could show me around after we speak with your family?”
But Alianora didn’t have the words to answer him. She could see the faces turning her way, the frantic whispers and the not-so-hidden looks. People were already moving, and ahead of her, she could see several men in her father’s livery rushing towards the castle ahead of them. She knew what would be coming.
And sure enough, by the time they reached the castle gates, the guard captain was waiting to greet them with an entire honor guard. “Princess Alianora, welcome home!” he cried, his voice booming out through the town square.
Everyone who wasn’t already watching now turned to stare at them openly. Alianora did her best to smile, but she was sure that it came out as more of a grimace. “Thank you. It’s… it’s good to be back.” The words nearly stuck in her throat, but she forced them out anyway.
“The royal family awaits you in the Grand Receiving Hall,” the captain proclaimed, gesturing her towards the door with an elaborate bow. “They are eager to welcome you and your brave champion back.”
Alianora gave the captain a polite nod, since it wasn’t his fault that his news made her want to run and hide. “Then we’ll go there at once.”
As she and Sacheverell walked through the gates, the guards fell into step behind them, turning the simple walk into a grand procession. Alianora gulped, hoping she wouldn’t trip or do anything ridiculous. She didn’t really like the idea of all these people watching her reunite with the family that had sent her to be captured by dragons, like it was some kind of performance for them to enjoy. Maybe this really had been a bad idea. Maybe they should just leave…
Sacheverell’s hand tightened around hers, and when she looked up, his eyes were as warm and kind as when she’d first met him – a warmth that had shown even through the stone encasing him. She wasn’t alone anymore, she’d forgotten that. Even if things went badly with her family, she didn’t have to face them by herself this time. For the first time in her life, someone would be completely on her side.
With another bow, the captain opened the door to the Grand Receiving Hall – which was really the castle’s only receiving hall, doing double-duty as the Ball Room when they hosted formal events. Trumpets blasted from footmen waiting on either side, and the captain announced, “The Princess Alianora and her champion, returning home in triumph!”
It was a grand enough announcement for entrance to a ball, not a simple return to see her family. And to Alianora’s horror, that was exactly how everyone seemed to be treating it. Her father sat on his throne, wearing his fur-lined robes of state even though he had to be roasting in this weather. And at his side, her mother wore her most impressive gown, purple velvet pooling around her. The only hint that either of them hadn’t been waiting patiently for hours was the faint hint of color in her mother’s usually pale cheeks, and the slight sheen of sweat below the formal crown on her father’s head.
To the left of the thrones, Alianora saw her sisters, arrayed in shades of pink and yellow, standing in birth order. The oldest had to be nearly fourteen now, and she’d grown a full two inches since Alianora had seen her last. And the youngest, just barely six, wore what had to be her very first formal crown slightly askew over her curly blonde pigtails.
Even having rushed to prepare, every one of the younger princesses looked neat and tidy, bright and lovely as a row of flowers blooming in the garden. Alianora couldn’t help but feel all too conscious of the grime of the road coating her shoes and the sweat drying in her curls. She’d thought her dress was pretty enough when she’d put it on that morning, but time with Cimorene had taught her the value of practical clothing – the dress had been meant for travel, not a formal presentation at court. Her family’s quiet stares left her feeling very small and dirty.
And it only got worse when she looked to the right of her parents. There at her mother’s side, Aunt Ermintrude stood, her angular body swathed in her favorite elaborate red gown. She glowered down her sharp nose at Alianora, just as though she expected the younger girl to find some creative new way to humiliate the entire family and make herself a laughingstock again.
Alianora had to clutch at Sacheverell’s arm as they approached, every step feeling like her feet were weighted down with lead. She shouldn’t have come back, that was what they were all thinking. They hadn’t wanted her back, that was why they’d thrown her to a dragon, and she shouldn’t ever have tried to return.
“Welcome home, Alianora,” her father said, in what she recognized as his Speaking Royally voice. “We are pleased to see that you have been freed from your dire captivity. All the kingdom mourned while you were lost. Tell us, who is the champion that we may thank for rescuing you?”
“Oh – right. Rescuing me.” Alianora bit her lip, trying to remember the knack of speaking formally. Talking to sensible people like Cimorene and Morwen, she’d never needed it, and Woraug had hardly ever wanted to talk with her at all. “Um, Father, Mother, may I present my champion, the Prince Sacheverell of the Kingdom Ryndelston. He rescued me from the dragon Woraug, and… well…” She blushed under their eager stares.
Sacheverell took up the thread as smoothly as if they’d planned it. “Your Majesties, we have come to request your blessing for our marriage.”
The second youngest princess clapped her hands, beaming out at the couple in delight. It was almost enough to ease Alianora’s nerves, and she started to smile back – until her sister caught sight of Aunt Ermintrude’s disapproving glare. She immediately dropped her hands back to her sides, schooling her face into a demure smile again.
Satisfied with the appearance of propriety, Aunt Ermintrude turned her glower back on Alianora. For a moment, she had the urge to fall back into the same posture as the younger girls – but Sacheverell’s warm hand on hers dissuaded her. She felt as though she’d never be able to stand upright if she let go of him.
Her parents didn’t seem to have noticed the exchange. An expression of benevolence was crossing her father’s face, but it didn’t quite hide the intense surprise in his eyes. Alianora tried not to notice that – or the way her mother sighed in quiet but intense relief.
“Of course we are delighted to grant our blessing for your wedding to our beloved eldest daughter,” her father said. “We shall make the proclamations at once, announcing you as our new son. Half the kingdom shall be yours immediately, and you shall have a suite of rooms here in our castle from which to rule it.”
Alianora stared at her father in shock. She’d known it was the traditional reward for rescuing a princess, but the Duchy was so tiny that it had never occurred to her that her father would consider splitting it in half. And… rooms here, in her old home? She’d thought they would spend a day or two here at most, but the way father was speaking… it was like he expected them to stay.
“Er – excuse me?” Sacheverell blinked. “Uh – I assure you, that isn’t at all necessary. I’m my father’s heir already, you see, and it would be terribly difficult to rule two kingdoms that are so far apart. Unless –“ He frowned and looked down at Alianora. “Darling, did you want to stay and rule part of the kingdom here? If you want to inherit part of your homeland, I’ll find a way to make it work.”
Looking up into his eyes, Alianora could see that he meant it. Even if it meant a great deal of difficulty and inconvenience for him, Sacheverell would do it all without complaint if that was what she wanted. But… did she want it?
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, young man, you can’t possibly mean to ask her.”
Aunt Ermintrude’s voice sliced through Alianora’s thoughts, sending them scattering like birds scattering at a loud burst of sound.
“Of course I do,” Sacheverell said, puzzled. “It affects her as much as me, since she’d have to rule it, too. Besides, she knows this kingdom better than me. I trust Alianora’s judgement.”
Aunt Ermintrude looked as appalled as though he’d just claimed to dislike sword fighting. “Trust her? You mean Alianora? You can’t have spent much time with her yet, then. She’s pretty enough, and we’ve certainly given her all the education she’ll need to make you a proper queen, but you can’t let her try to make decisions.”
Aunt Ermintrude swept out to the front of the dais and stared down at them, crossing her arms. “Every decision that girl has ever made has gone wrong, and she’s had no one to blame for it but herself. Even the simplest tasks get muddled when she gets involved. No, young man, take my advice and accept your proper reward without argument. You’ll be glad you did. We’ll set it all up, and you can move in right after the wedding.”
Alianora stared up at her aunt, towering above her in a red inferno of a dress, and she’d never felt smaller or more insignificant than at that moment. She could see it now, the chains of the Duchy fastening around her and dragging her back into a world where she was never good enough. Nothing she could say would be able to stop it, not with her aunt against her.
She wished, not for the first time, that she could be more like Cimorene. Her friend would never have let Aunt Ermintrude walk all over her like this. Cimorene would just raise her stubborn chin, say something terribly clever, and find a way out of this tangled mess that would make everything end happily for them all. Cimorene wouldn’t be afraid to speak just because her aunt was staring at her. Cimorene was never afraid of anything… and when she’d been around, Alianora had felt like maybe she could be that way, too.
But now, with Aunt Ermintrude frowning at her, she couldn’t remember how she’d done it.
“I’ll be sure to arrange it all so that it’s absolutely correct,” Aunt Ermintrude went on, giving her parents a thin smile. “She can be married right here in this hall, and of course she’ll have to wear our mother’s wedding dress. If we get it done during the harvest festival, we can use the decorations everyone will already be making, so we won’t have to delay. Get them settled in here as soon as possible, that will be best.”
Alianora wanted to scream, but her throat seemed frozen shut. Her life had seemed full of so many wonderful possibilities when she’d left the dragons… but now, every one of them seemed to be closing off, leaving her even more trapped than she’d been as Woraug’s prisoner.
And then Sacheverell’s hand tightened around her own, an anchor of warmth amongst the bitter cold of fear. Alianora drew in a deep, shuddering breath, as though breathing in new life after hours submerged in water, and looked up into her beloved’s eyes. She saw warmth there, and kindness, and more love than she’d ever thought possible – love for her.
He would speak up if she wanted him to, she knew it. He would tell her aunt no and stop all of this. He would defend her if she asked it. But… he wasn’t doing it yet. He was giving her the choice. A choice that no one in her family had ever offered her. He trusted her to know her own mind, and to do what she thought was best. He believed that she was capable of doing this.
Alianora had never loved Sacheverell more than she had in that moment. She trusted him to defend her if she asked… but she didn’t want to ask him.
She turned back towards the dais and took a step forward. “No.”
Aunt Ermintrude paused mid-speech, blinking down at Alianora, as shocked as if one of the castle cats had interrupted her. “What are you talking about, young lady?”
“I said no,” Alianora repeated, the word sending a delicious thrill through her whole body. “Sacheverell and I have already decided that we’re going to be married from his father’s kingdom. And then, once we’re married, that’s where we’re going to live.”
Aunt Ermintrude’s thin mouth grew even thinner. “Don’t be ridiculous. You have no idea what you’re talking about, as usual.”
“I’m talking about my life,” Alianora said steadily. It wasn’t as sharp or clever as Cimorene would have been… but maybe she could be as stubborn, at least a little bit. “Father can keep the whole kingdom, and give it to one of my sisters. We’re not going to stay here.”
“Refusing a reward for rescuing a princess is not done,” Aunt Ermintrude said, as though she were laying down a trump card. When she’d said such things in the past, it had always been enough to carry her point.
Alianora took a deep breath, entwining her fingers with Sacheverell’s, and thought about the moment when she’d stood with her prince and her friend to fight dragons and wizards. This was different… it was so much harder… but even so, she’d had practice being brave.
“I don’t care.” Alianora’s voice rang out to fill all the corners of the room, loud and bold in a way she’d never known she could sound. “It’s not up to you. It’s my decision – and I’ve made it.”
Aunt Ermintrude crossed her arms and scowled down at Alianora. “I don’t think I like this new attitude you’ve developed, young lady.”
Alianora looked at her aunt – really looked at her for the first time, past the elaborate red dress and the scowling expression. When all was said and done… this was just one old woman, stubborn and rigid, but only one voice among many. She could talk all she liked… but Alianora didn’t have to listen.
“That’s too bad,” Sacheverell said politely, squeezing her hand. “I find I like her attitude quite a lot.”
Alianora beamed up at him, the wide grin that her aunt had always discouraged. It felt so bright and lovely on her face, lighting her up from the inside out. “Then I think we’ll be very happy together – forever after.”