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The Lady of O’khasis

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Aphmau, despite only knowing a single Jury member for about the space of a day, had expected him to keep his seemingly cheerful and innocent attitude each time they encountered one another. Obviously, this was not the case, because Aphmau was tied in place on a horse behind him, forbidden to speak lest he throw her off.

 

It wasn’t unbearable — Jeffory’s body was warm despite the cold, and she had dozed off several times, resting her cheek on his back. But now the cold was starting to catch up to her. Jeffory had given her a cloak, but it wasn’t doing much for her. She shivered and wished her arms were free so she could rub her arms. But they were tied together in front of Jeffory, and if she wanted to be freed, she’d have to jump off the horse and bring him down with her, and she wasn’t looking forward to doing that.

 

Jeffory seemed to read her thoughts, because he gently pulled on the reins of the horse to slow her. “Woah, woah,” he said gently, patting the horse’s neck. “We’ll stop here for the evening.” He said stiffly, more to himself than her. “We can warm ourselves up before we reach O’khasis tomorrow.”

 

Aphmau shivered, and it wasn’t from the cold. For a few days now they’d been en route to O’khasis for her to become engaged to High Priest Zane. She felt sick just thinking about it — she had met Zane once, in Phoenix Drop, when he came to marry Donna and Logan, and already despised him. Not only did he hate his older brother, Garroth, Aphmau’s head guard and best friend, but he cursed a baby girl in the village, Alexis, to become a Shadow Knight and left Aphmau’s friend Kiki with a pendant that was supposed to turn into a baby. He had demanded her hand in marriage recently, and Jeffory had captured her in Pikoro Village. Now that deal was finally going to be struck.

 

Jeffory slung her arms over his head and dismounted the horse, reaching up and picking Aphmau up, bridal style, off of it. She would’ve felt like a princess if her wrists weren’t tied together. He set her down on the ground and tied the horse’s reins to a tree. “Stay here,” he ordered. “And if I come back and you’re gone, there’ll be an unfortunate accident on the way back to O’khasis.”

 

Aphmau could easily tell he was bluffing. Jeffory seemed like too nice a man to ever harm her. He was as sweet as a button to her, and hadn’t laid a finger on her since they left. He let her have a majority of the blankets when they camped for the night and, on his more generous days, let her walk alone to nearby streams and brooks to drink. But mostly, he was quiet, obviously thinking hard.

 

Jeffory came back a few minutes later. “There’s a stream nearby,” he told her. He dropped the bundle of sticks and cedar he had been carrying. “I’ll let you go by yourself if you swear you’ll come right back here.”

 

Aphmau managed to laugh. “I have no idea where we are. If I were to run off, I’d probably run off of a cliff.”

 

Jeffory’s cheeks briefly turned red, but he just attempted to glare at her. “Whatever. Just go there and come right back.”

 

Aphmau got up and retraced his steps into the forest, quickly finding the stream he was talking about. Kneeling on the bank, she cupped some water into her hands and drank. After she had her fill, she got back up and went back to the camp.

 

Jeffory already had a fire up and going, and was sorting food out in front of him. Aphmau sat down across from him, but he didn’t seem to notice her. He stuck another piece of cedar into the fire and then looked up at her. They held eye contact for a few moments before he looked away. He looked guilty.

 

Aphmau leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “Jeffory,” she said softly. “I can tell you feel bad.”

 

The brunette kept staring at the ground. “I’m not,” he mumbled. “I’m serving my prince.”

 

“The prince who’s a tyrant,” Aphmau insisted. “You said it yourself. Zane’s rule has brought nothing but misery to the whole region. You know it too.”

 

“That’s treason,” Jeffory said coldly, looking up through the curls that hung into his face. “I could execute you right here and now for that.”

 

“But you won’t,” Aphmau pointed out. “I know you’re a good man, Jeffory. Even though you’re taking me to Zane, there’s a part of you that wants to let me go.”

 

Jeffory’s gloves hands curled into fists in his lap, but he kept staring at his feet, which were making arcs in the dirt.

 

“I need to get back to my village,” Aphmau insisted, hoping she was getting to him. “I have two little boys that need me. You understand that — you have your little girl. Ab-“

 

“Do not invoke her name,” Jeffory suddenly demanded, standing. His glaive was suddenly in his hands; Aphmau didn’t see where it came from. The wicked sharp tip was just inches from Aphmau’s nose. The high flames licked hungrily at the golden blade.

 

Aphmau’s eyes slowly traveled up the blade to look at Jeffory’s face. From what she had noticed, he was a big crybaby, as he had teared up in the tavern when he spoke about his daughter and down in the well. That side of him was showing now; his kelly eyes were glossy and gleaming from tears hovering on his long eyelashes.

 

“Oh, Irene, don’t cry,” Aphmau exclaimed, standing abruptly. The glaive brushed against her nose, and she felt her skin tear as the blade dragged against flesh.

 

Wincing, Aphmau reached up to touch her nose. Her fingers came away covered in blood. Jeffory’s glaive fell to the ground and he was across the fire in a single bound, seizing his cape as he effortlessly tore away a strip of cloth.

 

“I-I’m so sorry,” He stammered, pressing the emerald cloth to her nose. “I should’ve never pulled my weapon on a lady. I’m sorry, this is my fault.”

 

“Jeffory, it’s fine,” Aphmau chastised him, smiling over the green cloth that was now stuck to her nose by the blood. Their faces were very close. “It’s just a scratch; it’ll heal.”

 

Jeffory blinked. His olive eyes were still sparkly. He rubbed his hand gruffly against his cheek. “I don’t think you’ve been cut by a Jury weapon before,” he pointed out, reaching forward and applying pressure to the scratch. “They’re especially sharp. And the scar will last for longer. It might be there for the wedding.”

 

Aphmau smirked, meeting his gaze. “That’s just something Zane will have to deal with.”

 

Jeffory looked uncertain for a moment, as if he was still trying to figure out what she meant, but then he smiled too, even laughing a little. That was the Jeffory Aphmau had briefly known in the Pikoro tavern — the one that laughed easily and was able to share anything with her. For a moment, that bond of trust they had felt at that tavern returned. But as soon as Aphmau reached back up to take off the cloth, that sense of formality returned to Jeffory, as his shoulders tended again — Aphmau found herself wondering if he was sore all the time from being so rigid —  and he reached forward to help her gently peel it off. The bleeding had stopped, and the only thing that remained was a dull ache on the bridge of her nose.

 

“Again, I’m so sorry about that,” Jeffory repeated, stepping back around the fire. Evening had truly fallen, and Aphmau was grateful for the fire. With the nighttime came a chill, and she wrapped her cloak around her the best she could.

 

“Oh—gosh, here,” Jeffory said, leaning forward and taking her hands. With a few nimble movements of his fingers, the rope fell away into the fire.

 

“Oh, wow, thanks,” Aphmau replied, gently rubbing her wrists before looking up at Jeffory.

 

He managed a smile. “A nice lady such as yourself shouldn’t need those.”

 

A while later, they collected their blankets from the horse’s saddlebags and were getting ready for bed. Aphmau had gone back to the stream to get a drink, and noticed the sides of the stream were beginning to freeze. Hurrying back to the camp, she nearly tripped over Jeffory’s already sleeping body. They had put out the fire, for fear they might attract bandits. Aphmau felt her way around Jeffory and crawled into her own blankets. The ground was cold and wet from dew, but the embers of the fire still gave her a little bit of warmth. She yawned, and glanced up at the moon, seemingly content. All of that warmth flooded out of her when she kept staring at the satellite, and she felt the cold night become even colder.

 

Garroth was looking at that same moon. So was Laurance, Dante, Levin, Malachi...she hoped Zoey was remembering their bedtimes. She felt tears tickle the edges of her eyes, and she rolled over so that in the off chance Jeffory awoke, he wouldn’t see her bawling.

 

She wanted to go home. Home to her warm house, home to people who wouldn’t tie her up or refuse her the luxury of speaking. She had to remind herself that Jeffory was a member of the Jury of Nine — Zane’s guards. He was on the bad guy’s side. He could change on a dime. He couldn’t be trusted.

 

Aphmau’s heart ached when she thought of Phoenix Drop.

Chapter Text

Aphmau had vivid dreams that night. Of Garroth, Laurance, Dante, and everyone else at the village. In all her dreams, Phoenix Drop was burning. The playground outside was melting from the heat, and the wheat fields were a sea of flames. Fire licked from every window. In each dream, Zane stood beside her as they watched the town burn. But Aphmau was holding the match.

 

Aphmau jolted awake from the last of these horrid dreams, where she had watched Dante being burned alive inside the guard station. His terrifying screams still filled her ears as she rubbed her eyes and tried to catch her breath.

 

“Good morning,” Jeffory said pleasantly from where he was saddling the horse. “Did you sleep well?”

 

“Um—“ Aphmau was hesitant to share her dreams. She and Jeffory might be friends, but he was still a Juror. She remembered the conversation she had with herself last night. “Yes. I slept fine.”

 

Jeffory looked over his shoulder to smile at her. “Good. As soon as I get the horse watered—“

 

He was cut off as a stone flew through the air from the bushes and hit him right in the side of the head.

 

Aphmau gasped as the stone fell to the ground and Jeffory whispered “ow”, reaching up to rub his head. Turning around, he unsheathed his glaive. “Who’s there?” He demanded.

 

The bushes were silent, before a man wrapped in leather and furs burst out and attacked Jeffory. Aphmau shrieked as the man however Jeffory over, hacking at him with a knife. Jeffory expertly caught ever blow with his glaive and managed to heave the man off of him. But two more masked bandits took his place.

 

“Aphmau, run!” Jeffory shouted at her as he fended off the two bandits. “Take the horse! Get out of here!”

 

Aphmau scrambled to her feet and tried to run for the horse, but a pair of sturdy arms wrapped around her waist and yanked her back. She screamed as she was wrestled to the ground by another bandit.

 

“Ooh, pretty lady,” He seethed, foul-smelling breath puffing into Aphmau’s face. “My friends and I will have fun with you!”

 

Screaming, Aphmau attempted to kick the bandit off of her and silently cursed Jeffory for taking away her sword. She found if she kept moving it was difficult for the bandit to get a good grip on her, but she was slowly tiring out. She glanced over at Jeffory to see a bandit sink his dagger into a chink in his armor in his leg, and he went down on one knee, still fending off another bandit. The bandit with the dagger seized his head by his hair and yanked his head back, exposing his freckled neck.

 

“No!” Aphmau wailed, fighting ever harder against the bandit that had her pinned. The bandit pressed the dagger to Jeffory’s neck, drawing blood — until an arrow came out of nowhere and struck the bandit in his neck, centimeters away from Jeffory’s own head. The difference was so minute that Aphmau couldn’t tell if the arrow had been aimed for Jeffory or the bandit.

 

The bandit fell over, dead, and the other bandit looked around in confusion. Another arrow whizzed into the clearing and sank into the bandit’s arm, causing him to let go of Jeffory. The Juror fell to the ground, pressing a gloved hand to the wound in his neck and panting hard.

 

The man over Aphmau released her and tried to make a break for the trees. However, a brilliant white stallion galloped out of the trees, a helmeted knight astride it. They had a bow and arrow in their hands, and pulled back on the string and let the arrow fly at the bandit. The arrow sailed over Aphmau’s head and sank into the bandit’s back.

 

The knight stopped their horse and dismounted, running over to Jeffory. Kneeling next to him, they yanked off their helmet. Fluffy, powder blue hair fell into pale blue eyes framed by dark lashes. Aphmau realized that the woman had the same uniform as Jeffory, except she wore a blue skirt instead of a banner at her waist and the jewels embedded in her armor were blue diamonds instead of emeralds.

 

“Six Warriors, you’re stupid,” the woman scolded as she ripped a piece of her skirt to press to his neck. It seemed to be Jury etiquette to never bring bandages.

 

“I was just trying to protect her,” Jeffory coughed, some blood dribbling from his mouth. The woman wiped it away and glanced at Aphmau. Her eyes widened, and she looked back at Jeffory. “She’s the Lady Princess?” She whispered.

 

“Not yet,” Jeffory said, staggering to his feet. “What are you doing so far from O’khasis?”

 

The woman laughed. “Far from O’khasis? No. The gates are less than five miles from here, stupid.” She ruffled Jeffory’s hair, and Aphmau got the feeling the two were close.

 

“Aphmau, you’re okay, right?” Jeffory asked, coming over to help her to her feet. “That man didn’t touch you, right?”

 

“No, I’m fine,” Aphmau replied, brushing dirt off of her dress. When she saw the woman staring at her, she dropped into an immediate curtsy. “My lady.”

 

The woman snorted. “No need for such formalities, Lady Aphmau. I’ve been told a lot about you. My name is Lady Katelyn the Fire Fist, of the Jury of Nine.”

 

Aphmau ducked into an ever deeper curtsy. “M-My lady!”

 

Katelyn laughed. “I can see why Zane wanted her as Lady Princess.”

 

Aphmau flinched and Jeffory’s smile disappeared. He whispered something into Katelyn’s ear, and she didn’t bring it up again.

 

“Come on,” she said. “Zane is expecting you.”

 

Katelyn mounted her horse and Jeffory and Aphmau got on theirs. Katelyn steered them back into the path and, within a matter of minutes, Aphmau could see the soaring walls of O’khasis.

 

“Welcome to your prison, Lady Aphmau,” Jeffory said darkly.

 

As they rode through the streets of the city, people seemed to recognize Jeffory and Katelyn as Jury members, because they quickly ducked their heads and hurried away. Some more curious people stared at Aphmau, whispering. She supposed they thought she was some sort of special guest or maybe even a prisoner. Both would describe her situation.

 

Finally they got to the more prestigious quarter of O’khasis, where the noble families lived. They passed the magnificent Hall of Angels, which Aphmau had only read about — a magnificent hall that was supposed to be a direct replica of the fabled Irene Dimension. It was where the High Priests held sermons about Lady Irene weekly. She had read that the only times the doors were closed, a High Priest was present inside — and to her dismay, the doors were wide open.

 

A few blocks down stood to Ro’meave palace, which she had also read about. It was a sprawling palace that took up four whole city blocks and was built on a natural cliff, overlooking the sea. The tallest tower — the Spire of Esmund — was the tallest point in the city. Each tower had blue shingles and the Ro’meave family crest — a black cross on a white field — flying on the top. The outer gates of the palace swung open as they neared, and shut behind them when they entered.

 

A few stableboys came and took their horses, and Jeffory and Katelyn led Aphmau up the steps.

 

“Zane’s expecting you,” Katelyn said as they walked into the main hall. Twin spiraling staircases were on each side of the room. Katelyn led them towards a the left one.

 

At the top of the staircase was a set of huge double doors. Aphmau’s heart began to pound, and she reached for Jeffory’s hand for comfort. But he only shook it away without saying anything, his eyes trained on the door. The guards and either side opened it, and Katelyn and Jeffory ushered her in.

 

The throne room was long, with windows on one side showing off the view of a sprawling garden. Pillars were at regular intervals, with fancy lanterns hanging in between them. A raised dais at the end of the hall held a magnificent golden throne. Seven intimidating, unmoving soldiers stood around it, hands on their weapons or behind their backs.

 

Aphmau hesitantly started the walk down the long red carpet towards the throne. Zane stood out like a sore thumb among all the whites and royal blues of the room — he wore his priest robes and mask, but now his hair was pulled back into a small ponytail at the base of his skull. He held his cheek in his hand, looking bored. His single visible eye took in Aphmau’s every step.

 

Finally she stopped at the foot of the dais, refusing to make eye contact with the other soldiers, which Aphmau assumed were other Jurors. Though the closest one was bulky enough to still peek into Aphmau’s peripheral vision — a tall, muscular man with stark blonde hair, blazing blue eyes, and so many scars on his face Aphmau couldn’t tell if he was frowning or smiling.

 

Zane stood up from his throne and approached her. Aphmau saw that his gaze was glittering with glee. “Lady Aphmau,” He said smoothly, sweeping into a bow as he took her hand and pressed it to his mask. “It’s an honor to have you in our humble city.”

 

Aphmau gently tugged her hand away. “The honor is all yours,” she growled.

 

Zane straightened up. “You must be wondering why you’re here,” he said. “Or perhaps you already know.”

 

“Of course I know,” Aphmau spat. “You stole me from my guards, dragged me through the whole region and you expect me to marry you just like that? What kind of person does that?”

 

Zane didn’t answer immediately. Instead he reached forward and seized her face in one hand, pulling her close. She winced as she had to go up a step so she wouldn’t trip.

 

The high priest ran a gloved finger over the scar in her nose; Aphmau had forgotten it was even there.

 

“How did this get here?” He growled. “It looks recent.”

 

“That was me, your highness,” Jeffory said quickly before Aphmau could defend him. He strode forward so he was standing right next to Aphmau. “It was an accident. It was my fault.”

 

Zane’s eye blazed and he shot out a hand, striking Jeffory on the cheek. Jeffory stumbled down a step and Katelyn caught him, steadying him. Jeffory held his cheek and looked back up at Zane, his eyes watering.

 

“You scar my bride days before her wedding?” Zane snarled. “She’ll be scarred for the ceremony.”

 

“I’m not marrying you!” Aphmau exclaimed. She balled her hands into fists. “You don’t control my actions.”

 

Zane’s eye burned. “I didn’t ask you for your opinion!” He seethed. “You are marrying me in three day’s time, and you will not complain, not whine, and not cry about it!”

 

“No!” Aphmau exclaimed, swinging her hand around to try and hit him. But the large blonde Juror that she had seen earlier caught her arm and pulled her away from Zane.

 

“Let me go!” Aphmau wailed, kicking and trying to fight off the Juror. But it was like trying to hit a stone wall — he was firm and solid and didn’t even try to calm her down.

 

“Sir Janus, take Lady Aphmau to her room,” Zane said smoothly. “She’ll remain there until the ceremony.”

 

“You’re disgusting!” Aphmau yelled at him as Janus dragged her away. “Now I see why Garroth left! You’re wicked!”

 

Zane’s face contorted, but Janus yanked her out of the hall and slammed the door before she could hear the priest’s response.

Chapter Text

The next two days were agony for Aphmau. She had been thrown into a tower room and locked inside, getting her meals when the door was opened a crack and a plate was slid inside. The room itself wasn’t that bad; the poster bed was comfy and the bathroom was pristine. Aphmau felt like an important prisoner.

 

It was the evening of the second day — the evening before the wedding — when the door opened and someone actually walked inside. Aphmau had been sitting at the desk, aimlessly drawing squiggly line after squiggly line, but stood up immediately, clutching her quill tightly.

 

The young woman standing in front of the door paused. She was very pretty — she had moon-pale skin and impossibly thick eyelashes that made her blue eyes look like that of a doll. Her black hair was curled in ringlets and her lips were the perfect shade of dahlia. She wore a lacy blue dress with a hooded cloak over the top, decorated with moons, stars, and characters of the major arcana. She held a heap of white fabric in her arms.

 

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the woman said slowly. Her voice was silky and high, and when she moved over to the bed, her movements were long and graceful. Aphmau thought she looked like a porcelain doll.

 

“W-What do you want?” Aphmau said, setting the quill down. She recognized the woman from the main hall. She had been one of the Jurors who were standing at the dais. Though Aphmau had expected her to remain in her armor, like Jeffory did.

 

“It’s time for you to pick out your wedding dress,” the woman said, laying each dress out on the bed. There were three in all, and they were all gorgeous. Aphmau was surprised Zane would waste such beautiful — and probably expensive — dresses on her. He should’ve found a bride that would appreciate them.

 

Aphmau walked over, running her fingers over the first dress. It was made of silk, and must’ve been from some exotic region, because Aphmau had never seen the jewels embedded in the neckline and corset. But it looked too tight for Aphmau’s liking, so she moved on to the next one.

 

This one was huge and poofy, and swamped the whole bed. Pearls choked the neckline and sleeves, and it made Aphmau feel heavy just looking at it.

 

The last one was beautiful. It was poofy, but not obnoxious. The waist was small and the sweetheart neckline showed an honest amount of bust, but the tulle on the sleeves and skirt almost made up for it. It wasn’t as heavily adorned with pearls as the other ones.

 

“This one.” Aphmau whispered, rubbing the tulle between her fingers. The woman shifted. “Alright then. Shall we see if it fits?”

 

”S-Sure,” Aphmau said. She reached behind her to loosen her corset.

 

“Oh, let me,” the woman said silkily, walking over and working on the corset until it fell away from the thin white dress Aphmau wore. “We’ll try it on without the corset for now.”

 

Aphmau kept quiet as the woman slid the dress over her head, and she turned around to look in the floor length mirror she had near her bed. The dress fit perfectly and looked great. Aphmau touched the tulle lightly again, feeling lightheaded. The reality that she was getting married was beginning to set in.

 

“You seem nervous,” the woman murmured. “I can assure you Prince Zane will do everything in his power to make you feel at home here.”

 

“But this isn’t my home,” Aphmau said bitterly. “Phoenix Drop is my home.”

 

“And Phoenix Drop will burn if you don’t marry Zane,” the woman replied swiftly. Aphmau fleetingly remembered those dreams she had while in the forest, of Phoenix Drop burning.

 

“But why does he want me?” Aphmau asked in a small voice, looking over at the woman. She blinked and held Aphmau’s gaze, gathering up the other wedding dresses.

 

“You are very powerful, Lady Aphmau,” she said in a strange voice that suddenly didn’t sound like her normal one. This one was cold, and throaty. “Stronger than you know.”

 

The woman blinked and then her voice was back to normal. “I’ll take that dress, now. We don’t want it to get wrinkled.”

 

Aphmau shook off the menace that radiated from the woman as she slid off the dress. The woman took it without a word and swiftly left, closing the door behind her.

 

Aphmau sighed and sat down on her bed, her head in her hands. All she knew about tomorrow was that handmaidens would wake her up and help her get ready. Then Janus would come and escort her to the Hall of Angels, where the ceremony would take place. After that...Aphmau had no idea.

 

A commotion from outside startled her. It sounded like a large animal was rustling every bush underneath her tower. Standing, she walked over to her window, unlocked it, and peeked out.

 

The tower overlooked a small courtyard, with only a small fountain and a bench within the shrubbery. But now a new feature had been added — a man stood in the middle, his head tipped back and staring straight at Aphmau.

 

He was far away, and it was dark, but she could make out dark brown hair and a green scarf. When she opened the window, he froze, and then scampered away into the bushes.

 

Aphmau sat back on her haunches, puzzled. Who was that man? Why was he poking around in the courtyard, after dark? And most importantly, why did it look like he was waiting for her?

 

Aphmau decided to take this puzzle to bed. She extinguished all the candles in the room except for one, and climbed into her bed, which was soft despite her condition. Although she had been tired before, she couldn’t find sleep, no matter how hard she tried. Eventually she gave up and began pacing around her room, feeling her chest begin to tighten and tunnel vision close in. The reality was hitting. She would never see Levin or Malachi again. Or Garroth, or Laurance, or Dante or Nicole or Lucinda or Kawaii~Chan or Zoey. She sank to her knees. She would be stuck with the man that terrorized her nightmares for the rest of her life.

 

She had been trying to fight away the fear for the last few days. She attempted to keep it at bay, by thinking about Phoenix Drop. Levin and Malachi would be sound asleep, dreaming about cookies and sweets and toys. They were happy, and so Aphmau was happy. But now the thought came to her that they were sad — of course they would be sad. Their mother was across the region, without any friends or family, completely alone and afraid.

 

Aphmau let the fear tumble in.

 

Chapter Text

Sure to Zane’s word, Aphmau was awoken hastily the next day after having a terrible night’s sleep. She had barely slept at all, and probably looked a mess. But the handmaidens sat her down at her vanity and somehow made her look like a goddess. Her skin was smooth, her lips were plump instead of dry and cracked, and her hair didn’t have a single knot and was swept up into a bun at the back of her head. It wasn’t long until the handmaidens tugged on her wedding dress, and then brought out a box.

 

“What’s this?” Aphmau asked tentatively. She was hesitant to take gifts from Zane’s allies.

 

“Your something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue,” one of the handmaidens said, opening the box. Inside was a horribly dated bracelet that must’ve been from years ago, a shiny pair of earrings, a small tiara, and a blue garter for her thigh.

 

“Oh,” Aphmau said softly. She met the handmaidens put them on her.

 

“Do you know what the borrowed thing is?” She asked a handmaiden after a while.

 

“The tiara was Lady Queen Zianna’s when she married King Garte,” the girl explained. “She told Zane she wanted you to have it.”

 

The handmaidens left after Aphmau was ready, and Aphmau wished the door would never open again. But of course it did, and Janus was there. He barely fit through the doorway.

 

“My lady,” he rumbled. “It’s time.”

 

Aphmau slowly got up from where she sat and followed him meekly through the halls, refusing to take his elbow. They got out to the front gates, where a carriage awaited them. Janus helped Aphmau into the carriage and then mounted his own horse.

 

So much for escorting, Aphmau thought bitterly as the doors closed.

 

The carriage took them around the back of the Hall of Angels, to the bride’s room. Aphmau waited for another half hour before someone else came to fetch her.

 

She was relieved to see a familiar, friendly face. Jeffory’s eyes widened as Aphmau stood and brushed the wrinkles out of her dress.

 

“You look fantastic, my lady,” he said, smiling a little bit. Aphmau smiled back.

 

“I’m to give you away, since I’m the only person you really know here,” Jeffory explained as they walked. “And I convinced Zane to let Abby be your flower girl.”

 

Aphmau gasped in delight and smiled. Finally, she would get to see Jeffory’s daughter.

 

“Your bridesmaids are several noble ladies at court,” Jeffory explained. “Katelyn volunteered to be your maid of honor.”

 

Aphmau breathed a sigh of relief. She admired Katelyn — having the Juror by her side would be nice.

 

“Other than that, you’re on your own,” Jeffory finished. “After I give you away I have to go sit with the rest of the Jury at the base of the altar.”

 

Aphmau nodded. She was beginning to shake. They stood in the foyer, just waiting for their queue.

 

Jeffory cupped his hands around Aphmau’s face. “Stand tall,” he commanded. “Chin up. Shoulders back. Never let them see you weak.”

 

Aphmau blinked away tears as she stared up into his kelly green eyes. “W-What?”

 

“Weakness is the last thing O’khasis needs,” Jeffory murmured. “You need to appear strong. If you want to get back at Zane, you need the people on your side. This is your first impression. You already look like a goddess — now you just have to act like one.”

 

Aphmau nodded shakily, and the organ began. There was a creak of pews as the assembly stood. Aphmau clutched her bouquet of anemones and black-eyed-Susan’s tight and Jeffory’s arm even tighter. She could feel him trembling, too, through his armor.

 

The doors opened and they walked.

 

There were so many more people that Aphmau had anticipated. Most were nobles, but near the back were common folk, straight from the streets. These were the people she needed to impress. Taking Jeffory’s advice, she held her chin high and rolled her shoulders back.

 

The aisle was scattered with rose petals, and Aphmau attempted to step on as many as she could. The altar soon came into view. Zane stood in full prince regalia, complete with a tiara that almost matched Aphmau’s snug in his hair. A wrinkly old priest stood next to him. Zane still hadn’t removed his mask.

 

Jeffory stopped abruptly at the altar, forcing Aphmau to stop too. He turned towards her as Zane came down the steps. Jeffory lightly kissed her hand, before giving her one last unreadable gaze before drifting off to stand with the rest of the Jury.

 

Aphmau took Zane’s elbow and they walked up the steps of the altar together. Katelyn stood nearby, still in her Jury armor. The only thing that was different was that she had managed to pull her hair into a bun similar to Aphmau’s. Aphmau handed Katelyn the bouquet, and the blue-haired Juror gave her a subtle nod of encouragement.

 

“Marriage,” the old priest began. “Marriage is was brings us together today.   That blessed arrangement, that dream within a dream, and love, true love, will follow you forever and ever.”

 

Aphmau cringed inside. She could even sense Zane tense beside her.

 

The priest nodded to Zane, and he turned towards her.

 

“I, the High Priest of O’khasis, first in line to the throne of O’khasis, protector of the realm, Prince Zane Ro’meave take thee, Lady Aphmau of Phoenix Drop, to be my wedded wife.” His blue eye glittered with smugness. “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, and to cherish, until death do us part.”

 

Aphmau tried to ignore how his eye glittered even more when he said “richer.”

 

The whole hall was silent. Aphmau realized that it was her turn to speak. She drew in a long breath.

 

“I, Lady Aphmau of the village of Phoenix Drop, take thee, Prince Zane Ro’meave, to be my wedded husband.”

 

Aphmau continued with the vows, and enjoyed when Zane got angry when she didn’t address him in his full title. But that happy moment was swept away when the priest spoke again.

 

“Then, with the power of Irene invested in me, I pronounce you-“

 

“STOP!”

 

Aphmau whipped around, her earrings leaving red marks on her cheeks. Four cloaked figures stood at the end of the main aisle. With a flourish, the cloaks were ripped off.

 

Aphmau’s jaw dropped.

 

Garroth stood, in all his blonde and blue glory. His sword was no longer dull and grubby, but a magnificent gleaming diamond one. Laurance stood beside him, but now he was in his demon-like Shadow Knight form, his veins turned to lava and his eyes a ruby red. He was twitching uncontrollably. Dante was there too, this time with armor and red katanas. And, to Aphmau’s surprise, the masked man from the garden last night, complete with his scarf and daggers she had seen at his hip.

 

Garroth pointed his sword down the aisle at Zane. “Release her,” he roared, “and we’ll let you live.”

 

A gasp floated through the crowd. Zane’s grip on Aphmau’s arm became like iron.

 

“Oh, well look at this,” Zane taunted. “My big brother Garroth has come back from the dead for my wedding day.”

 

An even larger gasp went through the crowd. Out of the corner of her eye, Aphmau saw Jeffory bolt upright, like someone had just shocked him.

 

Garroth glanced around, obviously uncertain now. With Zane’s addition to the conversation, everyone in the hall was against Garroth.

 

“I said let her go,” Garroth continued, “and we’ll let you live.”

 

Zane let out a cold laugh, but his grip on Aphmau’s arm tightened, and she winced. She could hear Laurance’s heavy, beast-like panting and growling from the other side of the hall.

 

“You and what army, big brother?” Zane taunted. “You can never have her. No matter how much you love her. We’re already married. Good luck trying to find-“

 

He was cut off as Laurance roared in anger, hurling his sword at Zane. Zane ducked a millisecond too early, and the sword embedded itself in the wall behind him.

 

The hall erupted into chaos. People were trying to leave from every door, making finding Garroth, Laurance, Dante, and the masked man impossible. But suddenly they were at the foot of the altar, ready to kill.

 

“Pronounce us,” Zane hissed at the priest.

 

“U-Uh—maybe somewhere safer, your grace-“ the priest tried.

 

“Pronounce us!” Zane roared.

 

“I-I now pronounce you man and wife,” the priest hiccuped. Zane grabbed Aphmau’s waist, yanked down his mask and pressed his lips to hers for a moment before pulling away and setting his mask back in place.

 

An animal-like sound came from Laurance as he descended on Zane. Zane unsheathed a sword he had underneath his cloak and met Laurance’s blade evenly. Zane heaved Laurance away from himself, and darted away, towards a door behind the altar.

 

“Ein!” He shouted. The werewolf whipped around from where he was helping Ivan fend off Dante. The raven-haired young man was one of the more sympathetic Jurors towards Aphmau, and he had delivered a few of her meals to her tower. He was nice, from what she had seen.

 

“Take Aphmau back to her room!” Zane shouted, before darting into the door and disappearing.

 

Ein’s eyes fell on Aphmau, and she felt sick. She turned and hightailed it down the stairs, running as fast as she could in her dress. “Garroth!” She wailed. She didn’t care if the people thought she wasn’t queenly — she was scared out of her wits.

 

Garroth heard her cry and whipped around, crystal eyes wide. He was just a few pews down, and when he tried to run to her, Janus barreled into him and they rolled together on the ground, kicking and hacking at each other with swords.

 

Janus raised his arm to strike at Garroth, but Garroth rolled away at the last moment, causing Janus’s sword to sink into the marble floor. The only thing between Garroth and Aphmau was Lillian, who saw Garroth over her shoulder and slowly turned, drawing her silver scythe with adagietto. Aphmau’s heart leaped into her throat as Lillian and Garroth locked blades, the weapons trembling with friction. But eventually Lillian shoved Garroth away, but he was back onto her in a second, quickly twisting her scythe out of her hands. Lillian stumbled back, startled that she was overpowered so easily. Garroth let out a cry as he raised his sword — but halted immediately as Jeffory flung himself between them, arms wide.

 

Jeffory and Garroth stared at each other got an agonizingly long time. Aphmau watched in wonder as Garroth’s shoulders seemed to loose their tension, slowly falling back into a restful position. He lowered his sword.

 

It seemed like Garroth might surrender before Ivan barreled in and struck Jeffory on the side of the head with the butt of his sword. Jeffory immediately collapsed, unconscious.

 

“What the hell?!” Lillian shouted. “Ivan!”

 

“I thought he was the other guy!” Ivan yelled back, pointing angrily at the masked man who was expertly fighting Katelyn.

 

Lillian groaned and rolled her eyes, sticking out her hand. Her scythe was summoned back and she and Garroth resumed fighting.

 

Since there was no way Garroth was going to help her at this point, Aphmau kept looking for other ways of escape. Ein kept getting closer, but was always stopped by either Dante or Laurance. Aphmau backed up to the corner of the altar, searching for a free spot she could dart out of.

 

She watched as Dante expertly shoved Ein off of himself and he bounded up the steps, using his small frame as an advantage to duck between Laurance and Ivy. He made it to the altar and bolted towards Aphmau. Aphmau’s pulse sped up twice as much as she ran towards him.

 

They were mere feet away when Dante shrieked and fell. Stumbling to his knees, Aphmau saw a bloody gash striped across his back. Ivan stood behind him, grinning at the sight of Dante in pain.

 

The masked man from before shoved Ivan to the ground and hauled Dante to his feet, casting Aphmau a regretful look as he dragged Dante away from the battle. Aphmau’s heart sank as she realized it was only Laurance and Garroth standing now.

 

Aphmau saw Laurance fiercely fighting Katelyn. As she watched, she saw Laurance shove her down the steps of the altar, causing her to stumble and fall, landing on her back. She attempted to lunge back upright, but Laurance brandished his sword and stabbed it down. Katelyn tried to dodge it but it sank into her ribcage, and she screamed, clutching the wound as Laurance retracted the sword.

 

Aphmau wanted to throw up. That’s not the Laurance I know.

 

But at Katelyn’s cry, Lillian and Ivy descended on Laurance, hacking at him with their scythes and not giving him any quarter. The two Jurors combined matched Laurance a little too well.

 

Aphmau shrieked as arms wrapped around her waist and she was picked up. She kicked and screamed against Ein, but he kept a firm grip on her, carrying her out of the hall. Aphmau got a glimpse of Garroth’s defeated and fearful face before the door slammed and she was back to being a prisoner of O’khasis — and a married one at that.