Talasyn’s giggling lady-in-waiting had detached the silk train before leaving the newlyweds alone in the schooner’s private compartment. Even without twelve feet of material dragging behind it, though, the skirt was still a massive, ballooning tent of a thing that made it necessary for Talasyn to occupy three seats in the small cabin. Alaric sat across from her, too tall and broad for the cramped space, his long legs all tangled up in the diamond-studded layers of fine silk streaming off her dress.
He couldn’t help but look at her in such close quarters. Even though he tried to restrain himself, his gaze kept flickering back to her face as she looked out the window while the schooner glided over the rooftops of Eskaya. She shone in the gathering twilight, the tips of her lashes spiked with fragments of tiny diamonds that glittered against her smooth, dewy complexion. As beautiful as she was, Alaric missed the freckles that he knew for a fact were underneath those paints and powders, naturally dusted across the bridge of her nose and the tops of her cheeks.
His eyes drifted to her lips. He shouldn’t have returned her kiss, but it had been instinct to chase after her mouth, to hold her tight against him. It had felt . . . as though everything else had been blocked out for that brief moment in time and he was free-falling and Talasyn was the only thing anchoring him.
Compared to their kiss in the amphitheater, the one at the altar had been relatively chaste. There was no good reason for it to have affected him so much. For it to be affecting him still.
Alaric looked somewhere else, desperate for a distraction. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of dropping his gaze from Talasyn’s lips, past her chin, past the column of her throat, all the way down to the swell of her breasts, enticingly molded by the white-and-gold bodice.
May the gods help me. Alaric resisted the urge to put his head in his hands in a fit of despair. I’m attracted to my wife.
“What are you doing?” Talasyn suddenly asked.
She’d caught him. She’d caught him ogling her chest.
He averted his gaze to the cityscape beyond the window. “What do you mean?” he asked, his tone as bored as he could make it.
“I know I look silly in this getup, but it couldn’t be helped. Just be glad that I talked the dressmaker out of a twenty-foot train.”
Alaric turned back to Talasyn, surprised at the extent to which she’d misinterpreted his actions. Her posture was one of stiff, injured pride, but she was nervously toying with the embroidered star pattern on her gossamer veil. You don’t look silly, he wanted to tell her.
“Stop doing that,” he said instead, reaching out to grab her wrist before she could inflict any serious damage on the beadwork. She shifted her hand in his loose grip and somehow her palm scraped along his and their fingers intertwined on her lap, amidst the diamonds and the shining thread, amidst all those elegant, swirling constellations. It was as natural as reflex, as hungry as second nature. It was a moment that carried as much fluid gravity as the time he felt eyes on him and looked up to find her.
Let go, Alaric’s common sense screamed at him.
But he didn’t. His fingertips traced the edges of the bony curvature of Talasyn’s knuckles. His thumb moved in a haphazard circle, skimming the mound of her palm. Her hand was not an aristocrat’s hand—there were calluses on fingers that were thin yet strong. It was all fascinating to him, the texture of her skin, the ridges of uncharted territory. All the while he was staring into her eyes, mesmerized by how, in this light, on this near-night, splinters of gold flecked her dark irises.
The schooner tilted into an upward trajectory, signaling their approach on the Roof of Heaven. It was only then that the spell broke and Alaric released Talasyn’s hand. He regretted doing so and, all at once, was relieved to have mustered the will to do so.
Entering the grand ballroom on Alaric’s arm, Talasyn saw that it had been transformed into a wonderland of sunset colors, as if the sky that had graced her wedding had been used to gild the reception venue. A dozen enormous bronze chandeliers hung from the ceiling, bearing Nenavar’s and Kesath’s banners and thousands of candles. The round tables were bedecked in purple cloth, burgundy napkins, ruby-encrusted vermeil flatware, and floral arrangements of cream and dusky pink. On the dais at the end of the ballroom was another table decorated in much the same manner, rectangular in shape and set for two and perfectly positioned so that everyone would have a good view of it.
All the better to be gawked at, Talasyn thought sourly, but the truth was that the guests didn’t even wait until she and Alaric were seated to do that. All music and conversation ceased and people stood up and every gaze swiveled to them as soon as they appeared in the doorway.
A little old man draped in the royal livery sidled over to Talasyn’s side. She didn’t notice him until he announced her and Alaric’s entrance—in a booming voice that bounced off the rafters and nearly made her jump.
“Her Grace Alunsina Ivralis, Lachis’ka of the Nenavar Dominion, and her consort, His Majesty Alaric Ossinast of the Night Empire! Long may they reign!”
The last part struck Talasyn as odd. She didn’t reign over anything. She wasn’t the Zahiya-lachis yet—
No, she realized, a chill shooting down her spine, but I am the Night Empress.
Or she would be very soon. After her coronation at the Citadel.
There was movement all throughout the ballroom. The lords and ladies of Nenavar were sinking into bows and curtsies and the Kesathese officers were saluting. The music started up again as the imperial couple walked into the ballroom, crossing the dance floor to reach Urduja and Elagbi’s table. Talasyn was about to execute a curtsy of her own to the Dragon Queen, out of habit, but Elagbi caught her eye, stopping her with a slight shake of his head. The Night Empress was outranked only by her husband.
“Emperor Alaric,” Urduja drawled. “Welcome to the family.”
“Thank you, Harlikaan.” Alaric’s tone was courteous but the muscles of his arm tensed in Talasyn’s grasp, through the silk of his sleeve. “The honor is mine.”
Elagbi stuck out his hand, which Alaric—after some hesitation—shook with his free one. “Take care of my daughter,” said the Dominion prince, fixing the younger man with a level stare.
“I will,” Alaric replied in a voice that was slightly strained at the edges.
Elagbi turned to Talasyn and kissed her on the forehead. It was such a tender gesture that a lump formed in her throat, but it was over much too soon and then she had to face Urduja, who merely offered her a brisk nod.
“It was a beautiful wedding, Empress.” Whatever Urduja might have thought of the power shift, her painted features were an imperturbable mask, concealing her thoughts entirely.
Elagbi let out a soft chuckle. Three pairs of eyes turned to him, quizzical. “I was merely thinking,” he explained, “that this is a most unexpected outcome.” He placed an affectionate hand on Talasyn’s arm. “When I revealed that you were my daughter at the Belian garrison—had anyone told me back then that you’d one day marry the man you were taken prisoner with, I’d have thought them quite mad!”
Talasyn cringed. Leave it to her carefree father to make things even more awkward. Urduja looked thunderous, clearly unimpressed by her son’s attempt at small talk. And Alaric—
Alaric frowned, as though something had just occurred to him and it wasn’t adding up.
But he would have had scarce opportunity to dig deeper if he’d wanted to. Now that the exchange of greetings was over and done with, there remained one more custom standing between the wedding party and dinner. Alaric escorted Talasyn onto the middle of the dance floor as the string orchestra launched into a slower melody and the lights were dimmed.
“They have taught you how to waltz, yes?” he murmured in her ear.
“A fine time to ask!” she snapped.
The line of his mouth relaxed. “Just checking.”
Facing each other in the center of the ballroom, beneath the twinkling lights of a bronze chandelier as big as a skerry, they assumed the closed position—his right hand on the small of her back, her left hand curled on the jut of his shoulder, their other hands clasped together at chest height. They fell into motions that Talasyn had started learning months ago. She’d needed dance lessons because balls were part and parcel of court life, but she would never in a million years have been prepared for her first official dance being the literal first dance at her own wedding.
It did not go as smoothly as she’d hoped.
“Talasyn.” Alaric sounded annoyed. “You’re supposed to let me lead.”
“What are you talking about?” she demanded. “I’m the one who leads.”
“No—” He broke off. Understanding dawned on his face. “Very well. Apparently, they do things differently here in the Nenavar Dominion.”
As their dance progressed, she could tell that he was making a concentrated effort to adapt. However, old forms were hard to break. “You’re still not letting me lead,” she said through gritted teeth. It was less a dance and more a tug-of-war.
Alaric scowled but obediently readjusted his stance, forcing himself to turn pliable in her hands. That was the moment when everything changed.
The music washed over them, airy strains of an arched harp, lightly skipping lutes, a silvery floor zither, the bowed swansong of spiked fiddles. Their audience faded away as they fell into the graceful, sweeping melody. He held her as close to him as her wide skirts would permit, his eyes charcoal-dark in the candlelight. Her dress caught the radiance of the chandeliers and the illusion was such that its swirling panels of gold were reflected on his face.
After their duels, after going through all those forms of breath and magic, they knew the rhythm of each other’s body too well to pretend otherwise. They swayed and they glided and she led him into a twirl, feeling the heat of his tall, strong frame even after she spun away, entranced by it every time she came back to him. They moved together like water and moonlight.
Alaric felt like a menagerie animal as he sat at the head table with Talasyn while the Nenavarene court scrutinized them. He picked at each dish brought out by a never-ending parade of smartly dressed attendants and took sparing sips from each vintage that was poured to complement the various courses.
Beside him, Talasyn was faring no better, unenthusiastically prodding at her spiced lamb with a bejeweled fork. There was a rustle of silk as she tried to cross her legs and failed, thanks no doubt to the voluminous inner layers of her skirt. She huffed, irritated, and resorted to taking out her frustrations on the lamb on her plate, hacking at it with a viciousness ill-suited to their elegant surroundings.
“That thing’s dead enough, surely,” Alaric drawled.
Talasyn’s eyes remained glued to her plate. She’d been avoiding his gaze ever since the end of their dance, and he could hardly blame her. Something had passed between them, some smoldering charge. But with the entire court looking on, there was no space to examine it further.
Alaric’s knee started bouncing under the table—a mannerism that he rarely indulged in, but he was bored and uncomfortable and this night couldn’t end soon enough. He didn’t realize that he was jostling Talasyn’s leg until he felt a light slap on his knee and he glanced down to see her hand still poised above it, her wedding band sparkling on her ring finger.
“Did you just spank me?” he asked, incredulous.
“Either stay still or sit further away,” she told her plate.
Alaric was not, by nature, a petty man. He was also keenly aware that he was six years older than his bride and it would behoove him to act in a manner befitting not only an emperor but also the mature one in this fraught new relationship. However, one glance at Talasyn’s ferocious little scowl, her profile scrunched up in annoyance, was all that it took for him to spread his legs wider, encroaching into her space.
She turned to him with a glare, clutching her fork as if she was about to stab him with it. He gave her his frostiest smirk, all trace of discomfort forgotten. Now this felt like home.
But something that Elagbi had said earlier was weighing on his mind. Deciding that now was as good a time as any to bring it up, he leaned in closer to his new bride—even if it did bring him into worrying proximity to her pointy fork.
“Earlier, Prince Elagbi reminded me that you learned the truth of your origins when we were taken prisoner at the Belian range. You were aware that you were his daughter all throughout the last month of the Hurricane Wars. That’s the reason you fled to Nenavar. You knew you’d be welcome here. But why go back to the Continent at all?” Alaric’s tone grew softer in his puzzlement as, in stark contrast, tension rippled through Talasyn, pulling every muscle tight.
She glared at him. “The Amirante said that she needed me to concentrate on the war, and I agreed.”
“You told me that you’d been lonely all your life,” Alaric said with a frown, “waiting to be reunited with your family. And then you were, but you left, and you returned to a war that was already as good as lost by that point. I understand that you must have felt beholden to debrief Ideth Vela, but you didn’t even think to ask her if you could sail back to Nenavar?”
“I had a duty,” she replied, sounding confused as to what his point was. “Of course I had to see it through until the end.”
Before he could argue, Niamha Langsoune approached the head table, all sophisticated grace and pleasant smile and copper robes. “Your Grace, Your Majesty,” she said in a low voice, “it’s time to make your exit.”
Unseen by anyone else, Talasyn’s fingers suddenly dug into Alaric’s thigh beneath the table. They were to leave the Grand Ballroom and retire to her chambers for their wedding night. Granted, it had already been agreed that they wouldn’t actually do anything, but still . . .
As if on cue, Urduja rose to her feet, effectively putting a stop to all conversation. “Honored guests,” she said, holding a glass of wine in her hand, “I thank you for celebrating this historic night with us. Through this union, we have engendered a new age of peace and prosperity for the Nenavar Dominion and the Night Empire. Please join me in a toast to the newlyweds as they embark on the next chapter of their lives together.”
Talasyn thought that she was holding up pretty well, all things considered. She had managed to leave the feast with poise, had even offered Alaric a stiff but polite nod before they were escorted to their respective suites for a change of clothes. Away from the hubbub, finally out of sight of prying eyes, with her hair down and her torturous shoes and false lashes removed at long last, she was feeling more optimistic about getting through the rest of the evening with no added stress. But all that changed when Jie marched out of the dressing room, bearing Talasyn’s change of clothes.
“I am not wearing that.”
“But, Lachis’ka, it’s tradition—” Jie started to plead, but Talasyn cut her off.
“Look at that thing!” She gestured in dismay at the—well, it was hardly even a dress. It was hardly even a scarf, by her standards. True, it had long sleeves and it trailed past her ankles, but that didn’t matter when it was made of material so sheer that she could see through it, with only stylized appliqués strategically positioned to cover her . . . her bits. “Who in their right mind would . . .” She faltered, at a complete and utter loss for words.
“It’s lingerie, Your Grace,” Jie hastened to explain.
“I don’t care what it’s called,” Talasyn savagely declared. “I’m not putting it on.”
Jie appeared disconcerted. Talasyn raised an eyebrow, daring the girl to argue with her.
The standoff was interrupted by the sound of chimes. Alaric had arrived outside her solar.
“Lachis’ka, the Night Emperor is here,” Jie implored. “There’s no more time.”
Talasyn should have put up more of a fight. But Jie wouldn’t understand, because, as far as she was concerned, what would follow was a legitimate consummation. Talasyn didn’t need gossip contradicting that spreading through the court.
“Fine,” she sighed, her shoulders sagging in defeat.
Jie worked quickly to extricate Talasyn from the wedding dress, arrange her hair into a simple braid, and spritz perfume on her pulse points. The chimes sounded again just as the flimsy excuse for a nightdress was being slipped over Talasyn’s head.
Jie winked. “Someone’s impatient.”
Talasyn groaned inwardly. Give me strength.
At last, Jie curtseyed and stole out of the room, dimming the lamps as she went. Talasyn was left alone in a kneeling position in the middle of the canopy bed, absolutely mortified but trying not to let on, her heart pounding as she waited to receive her husband.