Wee is not taking the news well.
"I can see that," Third says when he finds her in the garden, crouched behind a cluster of shrubs and plucking forlornly at her phin.
Her father had told her right before her weekly music lesson, and Wee hadn't stopped to think about putting the instrument down before fleeing the hall. She's not surprised that Third found her; the gardens had been their domain growing up. She and Third and Ton, chasing each other through manicured rows of flowers, playing hide-and-seek around statues and trees, before Ton and Third were expected to practice swordsmanship and Wee was expected to learn the ways of a good wife.
But that's the problem, isn't it? "I do not wish to be wed," Wee says.
"He seems nice," Third says, squatting down beside her. Wee wonders who sent him. Her father, no doubt.
"It's not a matter of kindness," Wee says.
"You're nearly 20," Third points out. "It's about time you were wed."
Wee elbows him, but Third doesn't budge. "And you're two years past that, but no one is concerned about your lack of marriage."
"You are daughter to the heir apparent, and I could only inherit the throne through a series of unlikely accidents. You may see the difference."
"I get it, I get it." Wee says, rising to her feet. She'd been crouched for so long that her knees ache when she straightens up. There will no doubt be unsightly wrinkles in the front of her skirt. "You know, my father led me to believe I was unmarriable."
"The necessity of power means that even a foul-mouthed tomboy such as yourself can get a husband," Third says, then takes off running before Wee can hit him again.
Once Wee agrees—as though it was truly a choice—things happen rather quickly. Correspondence is sent to the Sukhothai Kingdom and three weeks later, Wee's father announces at dinner that the royal family will be traveling to Lopburi within the next month to confirm the engagement.
Wee reaches across the table for the letter. The script is similar enough to their own for Wee to understand it, but at the same time, not quite right, like reading through a smudged lens. She skims past the usual inter-royal flattery and talk of logistics, until her eyes catch on a line.
"All of the king's children will be in attendance? And their families?"
"Of course," her father says. "After all, you are not marrying some commoner."
When she was younger, Wee had spent a summer in Sukhothai, towed along for some wedding or conference or something that wasn't important enough for her to remember. What she does remember: Fond, the daughter of the king's third son and the same age as Wee. They'd bonded immediately, both the only daughters in families of sons, and spent their days racing through palace halls and along the beaches, climbing hills and feeding the langurs bits of food smuggled out from the kitchens. Wee remembers Fond's laugh, loud and delighted, the way the sun turned her cheeks lotus flower red, and the loose strands of her hair whipping in the breeze as she kicked up sea water.
She hasn't seen Fond since then, but the thought of having a friend around sweetens the bitter taste the marriage has left in her mouth.
On the day that the king and his entourage arrive, Wee is sent a team of maids to help her dress. The silk they wrap her in is a rich shade of crimson with golden thread woven through the fabric. She's given heavy gold earrings and bracelets, an intricately designed gold belt around her middle. She feels not unlike a bag of coins, jangling faintly with each step.
She joins the rest of the family at the gate, sliding in next to Third and Ton rather than beside his father, as if to say, "I'm doing this, but not happily." The king looks down the line to her, but her father leans forward, catching his gaze instead. She cannot see her father's expression, though the king's stern face suggests reprimand. Wee straightens her shoulders and averts her eyes.
It is possible that she could stand to be more mature about this whole thing.
The Sukhothai delegation arrives not long after. Wee feels her heart begin to beat heavily against her ribcage as she watches the royal family being escorted from their caravans.
Wee notices Fond first. She's dressed in a plain cloth around her chest and an intricate gold neck piece. Her hair has been pulled into a high bun with a cuff around it. She's shorter than Wee remembers, but their summer together was ages ago, before the growth spurt that had Wee briefly standing eye to eye with Ton.
She forces her gaze away from the delicate string of gold around Fond's ankle to her future spouse.
Mond is handsome, Wee will give him that. She doesn't remember much about him in Sukhothai all those years ago, maybe some youthful plump to his cheeks and a body in that awkward stage between boy and man. Now, he wears a silk sash draped over his shoulders, his stomach bare and muscled in a way that suggests hours spent training under the sun. He looks all the part of a future prince.
Wee remembers her manners after a moment. She gives a deep wai and Mond follows suit. His face is more gentle when he smiles.
There are formal greetings, introductions and re-introductions. Wee can feel every visitor's eyes on her, assessing her while trying not to appear as though they're assessing her. Finally, she's standing in front of Fond and her father.
They each let their fathers speak first, but Fond is looking at Wee. She's smiling wide enough for the soft pink of her gums to peek out beneath her lips, a smile that makes Wee feel like she's lost her balance, like she's falling, something going weightless in her stomach.
She smiles back, dazed.
Hours later, when the Sukhothai delegation's belongings have been carried to the guest quarters and the highest ranking among the two kingdoms have gathered behind the closed door of the king's study, Wee kindly requests the opportunity to take Fond on a tour of the palace.
"It's good to see you again," Fond says as they walk, her bare feet striking softly against the floor. "You've gotten tall."
"And you haven't grown," Wee says, to which Fond makes an affronted noise.
"Not by choice," she whines.
They start in the music room, one of Wee's favorite places in the whole inner court. "Do you play anything?" Fond asks, trailing a hand along the carved trim of the wall. The sun streaming in through the window paints a strip of light across her face. Wee isn't sure why she can't look away from Fond.
"The phin," Wee says. "And I sing, though I'm not as good as my cousins. You?"
"I sing too," Fond says. She glances back at Wee. "You should play for me sometime while I'm here."
Next, the library, then the temple, then the grand hall, before spilling out onto the grounds. It will be evening soon, and their families will come looking for them for dinner, but Wee has to show Fond all of her favorite spots. Their conversation comes easy, like they're proper old friends.
"So, what's your cousin like?" Wee asks as they stroll along a row of trees, carefully manicured so that their leaves look like clouds above their heads.
"Which one?" Fond asks, coy.
Wee gives her a look, eyebrows raised.
"He's nice," Fond says. "Everyone likes him. Not because he tries to please everyone, just because he's charming. He laughs a lot."
"Hmm," Wee says.
"He's my grandmother's favorite. I'm surprised she's not keeping him for herself, to be honest." Fond must notice Wee's frown, because she asks, "Is that objectionable?"
"No. He sounds like a suitable match for anyone," Wee says. She's stopped at the end of the path, where it splits off into two directions, curving around an elaborate fountain. The mother earth statue looks down at them, a steady stream of water flowing from her long hair. "Promise not to tell?"
Wee lets out a sigh. "I just don't know about this whole marriage thing. I know it's not something I get to choose, but I'd always imagined I would marry for love. That was naive of me, I guess."
"It's not," Fond says. "Well, it is naive, but it's not unreasonable. But love can come with time. Mond will be a good partner to you."
Wee supposes that's all she can ask for.
On a whim, she bends down, plucking a yellow blossom from a cluster of flowers in front of the fountain. "For you," Wee says, gesturing to Fond. After their careless running, loose strands have fallen from her bun, curling around her face in the afternoon humidity. Fond tips her head forward, and Wee's fingers brush the delicate shell of Fond's ear as she tucks the flower into place.
"A flower for a flower," Fond says, tucking her hand under her chin and fluttering her lashes.
"Don't be vain," Wee teases.
Fond turns her head from side to side, showing off. "I can't help it."
Thankfully, the next time Wee meets Mond, he's wearing a shirt. Not that she'd exactly minded the impressive cut of his muscles, but she can't imagine sitting here in the library, flanked by her mother and father as well as the king and queen, across from Mond's own family members, while having to avert her eyes from his nipples. She'd actually let out a sigh of relief when he'd entered the room in a collared tunic, for which her mother had looked at her peculiarly but no one else appeared to have noticed.
They face each other, a lacquered table topped with a spread of tea and fruits between them. They are to get to know each other, as her father had explained. It's just about as inauthentic a way to get to know someone as Wee could imagine.
Mond clears his throat. "Your father tells me you excel at traditional dancing," he says.
"I have a very skilled teacher," Wee responds. She searches her mind for any of the information Fond had given her. "I've heard that you play the phin as well? I would love to hear you play sometime."
"I'm sure we can arrange that," Wee's father cuts in eagerly. "Our Wee is also a talented musician."
"Beauty and talent," Mond says, in a tone that lands somewhere between purposefully exaggerated and genuine, though Wee doesn't understand how it manages both. She reaches for a cup of tea to hide her blush.
"She takes after her mother," Wee's father says.
Mond also reaches for a cup of tea, bringing it up to his mouth with a practiced poise. Before he takes a sip, he says, in that same charismatic tone, "Yes, I can see that."
If Wee had eyes in the back of her head, she's sure she'd find her parents smiling approvingly.
"What'd you think?" Fond asks. She's flitting around Wee's room, peeking into jewelry boxes and wardrobes, admiring the intricate weaving on some of Wee's more formal attire. Her hair has been done up in plaits today, Wee notices. "I told you he was a catch."
Wee is lying on her bed with her head dangling off the edge, letting specks of dizziness fill her vision. "He is rather nice," she says, a response which is both true and boring. She sees Fond's upside down face frowning and adds, "And rather charming."
Also true. It wasn't just her parents who were charmed by Mond's effortless charisma. He'd made Wee laugh at least once, and he seemed genuinely interested in hearing about Wee's dance lessons. Still, there was something unsettled in Wee's stomach. She'd lay in bed for hours last night, trying to imagine her future with Mond, imagining herself at his side the way her mother is to her father, and kept coming up blank. It was like looking at herself in portrait—it was her face she imagined, yes, but it wasn't really her.
Fond moves from Wee's line of sight. A moment later, she feels the bed dip beside her. "Still unsure?" Fond asks.
Wee rolls over onto her side. Fond is also on her side, facing Wee. One of her braids hangs down in front of her chest and without forethought, Wee reaches out, brushing it back over Fond's shoulder. Her skin is warm against Wee's knuckles.
"That tickles," Fond says with a small shiver, laughing.
"Sorry," Wee says, tugging her hand back. She suddenly feels a bit exposed. "Not unsure, exactly. Maybe you're right that it will come with time."
"You can do anything you set your mind to," Fond says. "Even love."
Halfway through the hottest day of the summer yet, Wee turns to Fond and suggests, "Let's go for a swim."
She leads Fond to the edge of the palace property, where the palm trees part to reveal a hidden beach. Once they're sure that no one else is around, they each strip off their clothes, running bare into the sea.
The water is warm, like tepid bathwater against Wee's skin, but it's refreshing enough in the heat. As soon as the water is stomach deep, Wee sucks in a breath and dives beneath an oncoming wave. She plunges forward, letting the water rush over her.
Fond's back is to her when Wee emerges, wet hair matted to her cheeks. Fond's skin is no longer the sunkissed tan of a childhood spent outdoors, but pale and unmarked. At once, Wee is struck with the thought that, if they were here under the night sky instead, her skin might even reflect the moonlight.
Then Fond turns, and Wee quickly busies herself shoving her damp hair out of her face.
The truth of it is: when Wee closes her eyes in bed that night, she sees a future, startlingly clear, with Fond by her side. The thought makes her stomach drop, like a stone sinking in water.
She cannot have this—to even desire it is absurd—yet the phantom heat of Fond's skin feels more right than any image she could conjure of Mond.
Leaving the sleeping quarters after bedtime is technically forbidden. Practically speaking, however, the covert passages in and out of the palace have been passed down from one rebellious relative to another, and Wee knows that her maids would never bust her, not so long as appropriate favors are exchanged.
Fond doesn't seem to fear being caught either. She stretches her arms out as they walk along the garden path, twirling in the night breeze, the loose hem of her nightgown flowing with her.
There's a full moon out tonight, full and bright enough to light the way for them. The full moon is supposed to be propitious, but Wee feels a little on edge, directionless energy thrumming through her body. Her recent realization unsettled her, making her skin prick with discomfort every time she looked in Fond's direction. But they'd set up this nighttime excursion before then, and when Fond had caught her arm after dinner—asking, with her eyebrows wiggling, "Are we still on for tonight?" —Wee didn't have a good reason to say no.
"Here we are," Wee says, pushing away the palm fronds to make room for Fond on the trail down to the beach.
When Wee was younger, Ton convinced her that mysterious sea monsters swam closer to the shore at night, camouflaged by the dark. She'd spent hours watching the water that night, a safe distance from the tide, waiting for any sign of a monster, any flash of fin or tentacle above the surface. There was nothing, of course, but Wee is still afraid to do anything more than get her feet wet when the sun goes down.
She didn't take Fond here for the swimming, but for the view. Tonight, there are no clouds to disperse the moonlight, just a clear reflection of the moon on dark blue water. The sea stretches out endless in front of them. Wee imagines that if she were to get in a boat right now, she could sail to the edge of the world.
The wind kicks up at once, rustling the palm trees behind them. Wee turns to Fond, and it feels like the energy has clawed its way up into her throat, fighting for release. "Let's run away together," she says.
Fond tilts her head to one side. She's still smiling, but there's a quirk to her eyebrow that says she's not sure what to make of Wee. "Are you dreading marriage that badly?"
Wee would like to kiss Fond, right here and now. It couldn't be bad fortune, not under the full moon.
And Fond continues, "It can't all be bad." Her voice picks up a dreamy note. "We'll be family, so we'll get to see each other more often, and you can tell me all about what it's like to be wed until my parents find me a husband of my own."
Wee knows little of love. What she's read in books, or seen in plays, yes, but not the real thing. Still, when she meets Fond's eye, her expression clear in the moonlight, Wee is sure. Fond does not love her the same as she does. She feels her own smile falter, and she has a fleeting thought that maybe it would be best to walk straight into the ocean, to let a sea monster take her.
But she was raised stronger than that. She turns her face to the sky, swallowing down the urge to cry.
Then Wee looks back at Fond. "Hey, I'll race you to the dock," she says, then takes off before Fond's even had time to process the challenge.
"Cheater!" Fond calls out behind her.
"Strategist," Wee shouts over her shoulder.
Just as her bare feet have been calloused from the rocky garden paths and tree bark, her heart too can heal itself tougher.