Fairest, p.8
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       Fairest, p.8
 

         Part #3.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  Sitting up against her feathered pillows, the tray settled across her lap, Levana dropped a berry onto her tongue. It was sour. Channary would have called for the servant to take it back, and the thought crossed her mind, but she buried it. She was not her sister.

  “Not this,” Evret said, without facing her. “I didn’t think you would push it this far. I didn’t think—” He fisted a hand into his hair, cursing again. “I’m so sorry, Princess.”

  She bristled, annoyed, but tried to play it off as a joke. “For leaving before breakfast?” Levana cooed. “I will have another tray sent for, if you’re hungry.”

  “No. My daughter … she’ll have been with the nanny all night. I hadn’t planned on…”

  Levana glared at his muscled back as he pulled his shirt over his head.

  “I will pay for the nanny’s additional time. Stay, Evret.” She smoothed the blankets beside her.

  He sat on the edge of the bed to pull on his shoes, shaking his head. Then, hesitating, he dropped the first shoe back to the floor. His shoulders slumped in defeat. Levana grinned as she sucked the berry juice left on her finger, and was preparing to scoot over, to make room for him against the headboard, when he started to speak, his voice thick with misery.

  “I tried to leave. A week ago.”

  Levana hesitated, pulling her finger out of her mouth. “Leave?”

  “We were packed and everything. I was going to take Winter to one of the lumber sectors, learn a new trade.”

  She squinted at the back of his head. “A new trade doing what? Toppling trees?”

  “Maybe. Or at a lumber mill, or even making wood moldings, I don’t know. I just wanted to be anywhere but here.”

  Aghast, she set the tray aside. “Then why didn’t you? If you’re so desperate to get away—”

  “Her Majesty wouldn’t allow it.”

  She froze.

  “I gave her my resignation, and she laughed. She said she was having far too much fun watching you make a fool of yourself to let me go now. She even threatened to send guards after me and Winter if I dared to leave without her consent.”

  Levana shivered. “I don’t care what she thinks.”

  “I do. She’s my queen. She controls me as much as you do.”

  “I don’t control you.”

  He looked at her, finally, but his expression was bewildered. “What do you think this is?”

  “I’m—! I barely—!” She dug her nails into her palms. “You want me as much as I want you. I see it in your eyes every time you touch me.”

  He laughed, a cruel sound, so different from the warm, kind laughter she remembered. Gesturing at her face, he yelled, “You’re wearing my wife’s face! She was gone for two weeks and I was miserable and then she was back and I … but she’s not back. It’s you. It’s just you, and you don’t think that’s manipulative?”

  Shoving the blankets aside, Levana scrambled into the robe left on her vanity chair. “It’s my face now. This is who I am, and you can’t tell me that what happened last night was a mistake. That you didn’t want it.”

  “I never wanted this.” He massaged his brow. “The court is talking, and the other guards. The rumors about us—”

  “What does that matter?” She choked down a calming breath. “I love you, Evret.”

  “You don’t even know what that word means. I wish I could make you understand that.” He gestured to the empty space between them. “Whatever this fantasy is that you’ve built in your head. None of it is real. You are not my wife and I … I need to go be with my daughter. The only part of her I have left.”

  Levana cinched the belt tight, then stood there, shaking with anger, as she watched him pull on his boots.

  “You will marry me.”

  He paused briefly, before snapping the last buckle at the top of his boots. “Princess. Please. Not again.”

  “Tonight.”

  He stared at the floor for a long time. A painfully long time.

  She didn’t know what she expected to see when he finally lifted his head, but the nothingness surprised her.

  They stared at each other for a painful, hollow moment, until it occurred to Levana that he had not said no.

  She gulped, pressing forward. “I will find an officiant and we will meet in the sun chapel at nightfall.”

  His gaze again fell to the floor.

  “Bring your daughter if you’d like. She should be there, I think. And the nanny to watch her.” She pulled her hair over one shoulder, feeling better about their argument already. How many of his annoying points this would solve.

  She would be his wife—he could no longer say that she wasn’t.

  She would be the mother to his child.

  And the rumors would stop, for no one would dare speak ill of the princess’s husband, the queen’s brother-in-law.

  “Well?” she said, daring him to say no. Already she was feeling for the energy that surrounded him, ready to bend him to her will if he denied her. This was for his own good. This was the only way to solidify their family. Their happiness.

  Releasing the top of his boot, Evret slowly stood. His absent expression had turned sad.

  Sad?

  No, sympathetic. He felt sorry for her.

  She frowned, casting a wall around her heart.

  “You have a chance to find love, Princess. Real love. Don’t throw that away on me. I beg you.”

  She crossed her arms over her chest. “I have already found love. I have shared my bed with him, and tonight, he will be my husband.” She attempted a smile, but her confidence was waning. He had bruised it so many times, and she didn’t want to face rejection now. She didn’t want to force him into this.

  But even as she thought it, she knew that she would, if that was the only way.

  Evret pulled his weapon holster over his head, his knife hanging on one hip, his gun on the other. A guard. Her guard.

  “Well?” Levana demanded.

  “Do I have a choice?”

  She sneered. “Of course you have a choice. It is yes or no.” Levana ignored the twist in her stomach that told her she was lying. He would not say no, and it wouldn’t matter.

  But still, she was surprised at how vulnerable she felt as the seconds ticked past. He wouldn’t say no. Would he? She held her breath and sent—just a subtle tenderness into his thoughts. Just a warm reminder that they were meant to be together, forever.

  He shuddered, and she wondered if he knew she was doing it. She stopped, and watched his shoulders relax.

  “Evret?” She hated the whine in her voice. “Marry me, Evret.”

  He did not meet her eyes again as he crossed to her bedroom door. “As it pleases you, Your Highness.”

  * * *

  The officiant wrapped the gold ribbon around Levana’s wrist, explaining the significance of their union, the magnitude of the occasion as he tied a knot. He then moved to Evret, taking a second ribbon from the dish on the altar and knotting it around Evret’s wrist. Levana watched closely as the shimmering ribbon settled against his dark skin. His arm was so much broader than hers, making her bones seem bird-like in comparison.

  “Knotting the two ribbons together,” said the officiant, taking them into his fingers and tying them once, then twice, “symbolizes the unity of bride and groom into one being and one soul, on this, the twenty-seventh day of April in the 109th year of the third era.”

  Releasing the ribbons, he let the knot dangle between their arms.

  Levana stared at the knot and tried to feel connected. Unified. Like her soul had just merged with Evret’s.

  But she felt only a yawning distance between them. A black hole of silence. He had barely spoken since arriving at the chapel.

  In the second pew, the baby began to mewl. Evret turned and, annoyed at the distraction, Levana followed the look. The nanny was shushing the child, bouncing the girl gently in her lap, and Levana recognized the embroidered blanket that the child had been swaddled in, the pale snowscap
e, the red mittens. Sol’s handiwork. Her teeth ground against each other.

  “You will be exchanging rings?” asked the officiant.

  Levana turned back and realized that neither Evret nor the officiant were still paying the fussy child any attention.

  Evret nodded, though the action was curt. Levana glanced at him from the corner of her eye, surprised. She had not brought a ring.

  Turning, Evret held his palm out toward the only guests other than the nanny and little Winter. That guard friend of his, Garrison Clay, who was there with his wife—a plain girl with strawberry-blonde hair—and their own child. A towheaded toddler boy who had spent the ceremony bobbling down the aisle while his mother hissed for him to come back, gave up, chased after him.

  Although their presence seemed to indicate that Evret was taking this ceremony with some levity, Levana couldn’t help but be annoyed at everything about this family.

  When they had first arrived, Garrison had pulled Evret aside. They’d seemed to be arguing about something, and she was certain he’d been trying to persuade Evret not to go through with it.

  The intrusion had not endeared the guard to Levana.

  But now, he stepped forward without hesitation and pulled a hand from his pocket. In his palm rested two wedding bands, each carved of black regolith polished to a fine gleam. They were as simple as Levana had ever seen, and had never dreamed she would wear. A wedding band made for a guard’s wife, not royalty.

  Her heart snagged, her eyes misting.

  It was perfect.

  Garrison did not look at her as he put the rings into Evret’s hand and returned to the pew beside his family.

  “Please take hands and face each other for the exchange.”

  They turned, almost robotically. Levana inspected Evret’s face, and his handsomeness warmed some of the chill from her bones. She tried to express, silently, how much she loved her ring. That it was everything she wanted. That he was everything she wanted.

  His dark gaze settled on her.

  She smiled, a little shy.

  His inhale was sharp and he opened his mouth to speak. Hesitated. Shut it again.

  Then he slid the ring onto her finger and repeated after the officiant. “With this ring, I take you, Princess Levana Blackburn of Luna, to be my wife. From this day forward, you will be my sun at dawn and my stars at night, and I vow to love and cherish you for all our days.”

  Her insides trembled, giddiness burbling through her. The smile came easier now as she stared down at the band on her finger and the slip of gold ribbon binding them together.

  It had not seemed real that morning, that whole day, waiting to see if he would even come. And now it was happening. This was her wedding day. She was marrying Evret Hayle.

  She didn’t know if her body could contain the joy throbbing inside it as she took the second wedding band from Evret and went to slide it onto his finger.

  She paused.

  Another band was already there, nearly identical, and so dark it almost vanished into his skin.

  She looked up. Evret’s jaw was set.

  “I will not take it off,” he whispered, before she could gather her thoughts, “but I will wear both.”

  She looked at the ring again. Considered, for half a moment, forcing him to take off his old wedding band anyway. But no—this was what he wanted. She would not take it from him.

  “Of course,” she whispered back, pushing the band onto his finger until she heard the quiet click of the two pieces of carved rock colliding.

  “With this ring, I take you, Sir Evret Hayle of Luna, to be my husband. From this day forward, you will be my sun at dawn and my stars at night, and I vow to love and cherish you for all our days.”

  As the officiant confirmed the ceremony, baby Winter began to cry in earnest. Looking back, Levana saw that the toddler boy was hanging off the nanny’s arms, trying to peer into the baby’s swaddle.

  Evret wrapped his hands around Levana’s, regaining her attention. The kiss was a surprise. She hadn’t heard the officiant order it. But it was a gentle kiss, perhaps the most gentle he’d ever given her, and it warmed her to her toes.

  With that, the officiant untied the knotted ribbons, and Evret was hers.

  * * *

  “Tell me it isn’t true!” Channary yelled, stomping into Levana’s dressing quarters the next day. Wearing little more than shredded ribbons that barely covered what a woman should have covered, Channary looked like an effervescent spirit beneath the glow of the chandeliers. A risqué effervescent spirit.

  Levana dared not move as her seamstress whipped her needle and thread over the seam at Levana’s waist, taking it in. She had made a comment about how Levana must not be eating well, how she needed to plump up a little to keep a good figure, like her older sister, and Levana forced her to hold her tongue after that. The seamstress flushed with embarrassment and returned silently to her work. It had since been a very long two hours.

  She glanced at her fuming sister.

  “Tell you what isn’t true?”

  “You idiot. Did you marry him?”

  “Yes. As I told you I would.”

  Channary made a furious noise in the back of her throat. “Then you will have it annulled, and quickly, before the whole city finds out.”

  “I will not.”

  “Then I will have him executed.”

  Levana snarled. “No, you won’t. Why do you even care? I love him. I chose him. It’s done.”

  “So love him. Bed him if you like, but we do not marry guards.” Channary gestured toward the wall—beyond it, the white city of Artemisia. “Do you know how many of the families I have promised your hand to, and Father before that? There are strategies in place. We need their support. We want them to feel invested in us as rulers, and for that we need to make alliances. That’s how it works, Levana. That is your only role as a part of this family, and I will not have you ruining it.”

  “It’s too late. I won’t change it, and even if you did kill him, I would never marry to please you. I would rather die.”

  “That, too, can be arranged, baby sister.”

  The seamstress spooled out some more thread, kneeling by Levana’s ankles. The woman wisely kept her eyes diverted and pretended not to be listening.

  “Then you would have nothing to bargain with, so why bother?” Lifting her head, Levana forced a smile. “Besides, I have brought you a replacement princess to be wed off to whoever it pleases you. You’ll just have to wait another sixteen years.”

  “Another princess?” Channary guffawed. “You mean that child? The baby of a guard and a seamstress? You think any one of the families will want her?”

  “Of course. She is my child now, which means she is a princess, as sure as if I gave birth to her myself. By the time she’s old enough, no one will even remember she had another mother, or that Evret had another wife.”

  “I suppose that’s been your ingenious plan all along.”

  Staring at the wall, Levana said nothing.

  “Have you even thought what you’re going to do with the little brat?”

  “What do you mean, what I’m going to do with her?”

  “You don’t actually intend to … raise her, I hope.”

  Dragging her gaze away from the wall, Levana peered down her nose toward her sister. “She will be raised as royalty. As we were.”

  “With nannies and tutors, ignored by her parents?”

  “With everything she could possibly want. Every luxury, every toy. Besides.” She lifted her hands to the side as the seamstress reached the seam beneath her underarm. “Evret loves her very much, as do I.”

  It was a lie, and she knew it was a lie. But she also felt that someday it could be true. The girl was her daughter now, after all, and she was a part of Evret, so how could Levana not love her?

  Mostly, though, she said it just to watch the annoyance slip over her sister’s face.

  The seamstress finished the seam and Levana lowered
her hands again, letting her fingers trail over the fine embroidery of the bodice. She felt peculiarly happy today, after spending her second night in a row curled against Evret’s body. She was a wife, now. Though her dress did not bare half as much skin as her sister’s, she felt much more the woman. She had what her sister did not have. A family. Someone to love her.

  “I hope,” Levana continued, more to herself now, “that little Princess Winter will soon have a brother or sister too.”

  Channary wheeled toward her. “You’re already pregnant?”

  “Not yet, no. But I don’t see why it would take long.”

  She had been thinking about it a great deal, actually, often returning to the glamour of Solstice’s pregnant belly when she was alone, running her fingers over the taut flesh. She had not really considered wanting a child until she had watched Evret holding his baby girl, seen the softness in his gaze. That was something she could give him too. Something that she could share with Solstice … no, Levana’s child would be better than Solstice’s, because hers would have royal blood.

  Frowning, Channary crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “That will be one good thing to come out of this, then. When you have a child that is actually your own, then we’ll discuss who best to marry them off to.”

  “How I do look forward to those conversations, sister.”

  “In the meantime,” said Channary, “I am at least doing my duty to further our bloodline without tainting it with disgraceful marriages.”

  “What does that mean?”

  Channary flipped her hair off her shoulder. “Little Princess Winter,” she said mockingly, “will soon have a baby cousin.”

  Levana’s jaw fell. Shoving the seamstress away, she gathered up her full skirt and stepped down from the pedestal. “You?” She glanced at Channary’s belly, but it was as flat as ever. “For how long?”

  “I’m not sure. I’ll be seeing Dr. Eliot this afternoon.” Glaring, she turned and headed back for the dressing room’s doorway. “I hope it’s a boy. I am so sick of stupid princesses.”

  “Wait—Channary!” She started to chase after her, a thousand questions in her head, but stopped when her sister wheeled back to face her, face drawn in agitation. “Whose is it? The Constable’s?”

 
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