Prince Cedric’s castle was several days’ travel from their home, with only a few scrawny inns along the way. Kelen Hills guarded the border of Alcanster, close to the quarrelsome land of Lotorinum with its merchants and thieves. The castle stood even closer to Calithwain, a land of untold magics and dangers. People said that monsters traveled from Calithwain at times, climbing north through the rugged mountains to enter Kelen Hills. A dangerous place to live, without doubt. As they rode, the villages grew sparser and sparser. The prince’s family had wanted him as far out of sight as possible, while still allowing him to live as befitted royalty. Annabelle would’ve liked to question her father about the prince’s home, but she held her tongue. Soon she would be free of his influence at least.
The trio finally arrived at the prince’s castle. Its tall, stone gates gaped like an enormous mouth before magnificent towers and old-fashioned arches. The castle had originally been built as a stronghold, in Kelen’s uprising against Lotorinum. In peacetime, the kings had transformed it into a hunting lodge, adding decoration until it appeared sleek and graceful. Rumor had it that the prince had chosen this place for its strength as much as its solitude. Some said he hid behind its walls plotting an insurrection against the kingdom.
Instead of helping them to dismount, a groom gestured for them to turn left and keep riding. Annabelle didn’t know whether to be relieved or confused at not entering the castle where she would be forced to live for the rest of her life.
Within only a few minutes, they reached a round pond that reflected the first touches of bronze-purple sunset like a fairy’s mirror. Beyond it, Annabelle could see a small crowd milling about. As Annabelle drew closer, she could see that the area had been organized as a chapel to the White Lady. This was only to be expected, since She presided over all ceremonial occasions, with the exception of death. The benches were all in neat rows, and, yes, just coming into view was the archway for Her priestess. Studying the furnishings of the little clearing gave Annabelle a distraction from watching the people. There couldn’t have been more than twenty or thirty of them wandering about the wooden benches and chatting, but they reminded Annabelle how accustomed she was to the solitude of her forest home. They all wore rich costumes of satin and velvet, with long sleeves and high collars to emphasize that the world stood on the cusp of winter.
Annabelle realized that she was shivering now that the horses had slowed to a dignified walk. It was truly ridiculous of her to wear her mother’s spring wedding dress, rather than having it altered or a new one made, she thought irrelevantly. Most of the trees around them had lost their leaves; the muddy reds and yellows lay on the ground, trampled under the horses’ hooves as they moved closer to the wedding scene. Ice would coat that pond soon, if it didn’t already.
Despite the leafless trees, someone had gone to a great deal of effort to make the clearing appear festive. Ribbons and bells hung from the trees, while garlands of flowers that must have cost several fortunes were everywhere. The Lady’s priestess stood at the head of a group of servants, dressed in silver and gray. Beside her was the prince.
No one else could possibly answer to the descriptions whispered about by kitchen fires and in horror-filled nursery tales. Annabelle would have known him even without the groom’s traditional pale gray suit and the hopeful look on his face as he watched her. The sprawling, dark birthmark leapt to her eyes as it covered his forehead and cheek like a grasping hand or squashed spider. “Evil’s touch could be seen on the prince’s face, where the Shadow Wolf bit him and drained all the goodness out,” Annabelle heard one of her old nurses whispering by the fire. A cold wind crept through her body and she shuddered.
He stood surprisingly tall for a man with a large hump on his shoulder, certainly taller than she was. The prince leaned towards his good side, making him appear twisted and unbalanced. However, he moved forwards smoothly without a limp or odd gait. Massively built, he had thick, muscular arms and legs like barrels.
Annabelle’s father dismounted, yanking her from her observation as he cut her hands loose from the reins. He pulled her off the saddle, and dragged her over to where the prince and his guests were standing. He bowed magnificently. “My lord, I have brought you my daughter as promised.”
The prince gave him a black scowl that should have melted him where he stood. Her father, of course, merely became more ingratiating, bowing again until his head nearly brushed the ground, then yanking on Annabelle’s arm, forcing her stubborn knees to curtsy.
The prince looked deep into Annabelle’s eyes, studying her through her thin, gray veil. His forehead jutted out sharply, shadowing the startlingly bright blue eyes as if they shone from a cave. The prince’s face was not beastly under his thick, dark hair, but rather wistful and almost intellectual, despite his birthmark. This shocking contrast between face and body increased his peculiarity, rather than softening it. It seemed as if his piercing gaze could brush her soul as his pupils locked with hers. He suddenly tore his eyes away, in a manner that was so quick it was almost shy.
However, his first words were for her father. “You gave your word that she would come of her own free will.”
“And so she has,” her father said hotly, his honor challenged. “She may have needed a bit of…persuasion, but you’ll find she’ll be a good wife to you, after she’s accustomed to staying here.”
“Does this accustoming involve giving her a second black eye?”
Her father shifted. “I may chastise her as I see fit. So may you when she becomes yours.”
The disfigured prince turned back to Annabelle. “My lady, what is your name?”
“Annabelle.” She kept her face impassive despite the fact that he had addressed her as a lady of rank, while she was no more than a merchant’s daughter.
“Mine is Cedric. I would not marry you against your will.”
“Aye,” her father said. “If a prince isn’t good enough, you may come back home with me.” Behind her back, where the prince couldn’t see, her father twisted her arm, painfully at first then bursting into agony as Annabelle remained silent. She tried to think through the pain, but it blinded her in its intensity. Her father would be furious with her for proving him a liar, and whatever he did would surely be violent. Her father would never let her go home. Annabelle knew she had no choice at all. As the agony shot up her arm to her shoulder, she let out a yes that practically shrieked.
“You will agree to marry me?” the prince asked. Annabelle thought she saw a trace of sympathy in his eyes.
“Yes,” Annabelle said more calmly as her arm was released. “I will marry you.”
The ceremony was quick and relatively painless. The priestess said some words, and then Cedric said, “I take thee, in the sight of the Lady and her followers.” The prince slipped a ring of silver and opal onto her finger. Annabelle swallowed hard at the feel of cold metal binding her hand. By accepting the ring, she accepted him. The Lady’s own stone, white with flecks of fire, was only used for wedding rings in Alcanster. When the priestess gave him permission, the prince lowered his head and kissed her. It was Annabelle’s first kiss, and totally unlike anything she had expected. Despite his frightful appearance, the man’s touch was gentle, almost pleasurable if she could forget that it sealed the bond between them. Over the next few minutes, Annabelle found her fingers drifting shyly to her lips, as if only half believing what had happened.
With the kiss, the ceremony was over and some of the spectators dispersed. Annabelle said a cold goodbye to her father, who echoed her. Then he murmured a few words to the prince that caused him to bristle and walk away. Annabelle watched her father ride off, half of her relieved beyond words to have left him and half of her longing to run behind him, begging to return to her only home.
Out of the corner of her eye, Annabelle saw the prince approaching, the dark birthmark covering his face like a storm cloud. The prince came up to Annabelle and kissed her hand, as she had seen the rich courtiers do on occasion. “My wife.” His voice was calm and pleasant, but Annabelle could hear a tightness of suppressed emotions. She wondered what they were, since his mask-like control divulged nothing to her. Was he pleased? Disappointed?
“Your highness,” she responded, hoping that her whisper was loud enough to be understood.
“Cedric, please. Er, may I show you around the castle?”
“Of course.” The servants were completely gone now. Even the priestess had abandoned her. A short, silent walk brought them to their destination.
From the prince’s side, Annabelle gazed up at the soaring, white stone of her new home. Three immense stories with costly glass windows down the center and archway-fronted balconies along the sides. The windows were in pairs, like sets of sneering eyes, judging her and narrowing in on the old-fashioned summer gown, eying her scuffed, white slippers as she slipped on the gravel-studded ground. Annabelle stared back at them, willing the castle to give up its secrets. As Annabelle approached, the building rounded into fat towers, with delicate spires peeping out from up above, and an even more ornate tower in the center with oval windows set in its statuesque dome.
The topmost tower faded away as Annabelle advanced towards the thick wooden doors ahead. She took a deep, steadying breath and mounted the three stone steps as footmen opened the doors before her.
The prince’s home was certainly a castle. The receiving room where they first entered made quite an impression, with walls of crimson satin that must have cost several fortunes. Annabelle could have fit half of her house’s first floor into that one chamber. Matching curtains drifted from ceiling to floor, shadowing the glass windows.
Annabelle peered through the windowpane at the forest beyond. Ripples in the glass made the trees writhe and churn like distorted monsters from a half remembered nightmare. She turned quickly away, bumping against a stiff, wooden chair with red satin padding. The pink-flecked marble of the nearby fireplace ascended to the ceiling in ornate splendor. A gold-framed portrait of the royal family dominated the wall before her, but the other satin walls were noticeably bare. Annabelle would’ve liked to examine the portrait more closely but she decided to wait until one of its subjects wasn’t in the room. She turned, and found that the prince stood framed in the doorway, watching her as she explored.
“I hope you’ll be happy here,” he said quietly.
Annabelle nodded. “Shall we go, now?”
He took her arm and led her through the grand double doors. Every room bespoke elegance and wealth that Annabelle had hardly dreamed of. She and the prince wandered through countless rooms, admiring paintings and figurines, intricate filigree work and imposing statues. Rich velvets and tapestries covered the walls, while soft, fluffy rugs cushioned most of the floor space. He might be in exile, but it was certainly a comfortable exile that his family had chosen for him. All of the furnishings were ornate but most were quite tasteful. The odd garish bookend or engraving appeared so out of place in the general style that Annabelle concluded they were well meant but ill chosen gifts.
The tour didn’t include the separate stables, kitchens, and servant quarters, or even the gardens in the castle center, but there was still a great deal to explore. Downstairs were the ballroom, audience room, dining room, the prince’s private study, and even a little parlor for Annabelle to read or entertain in. She lost track of the numerous receiving chambers, waiting chambers, and antechambers that scattered themselves around rooms with more familiar functions. And that was only the first floor, with two more and probably an attic and cellar as well. The prince led her up a tall, circular staircase and showed her a plethora of other rooms, all impeccably and lavishly furnished. Finally, they arrived at a door with elaborate, diamond-shaped panels. Lacy wall hangings dangled on either side.
“These are your chambers,” the prince said. They proceeded inside. Annabelle nodded to the three maids who snapped to attention upon her entrance. “And these are Berida, Suzette, and Elena. They will be your attendants.” Unlike the menacing housemaids that her father hired to keep her in her room and out of trouble, these women had pleasant smiles and their eyes lit up with simple friendliness upon seeing their new mistress. Annabelle remembered how one snarling cook had spent weeks telling her gruesome bedtime stories of forest monsters to keep her indoors. These women looked as if they had never heard nasty rumors before. Berida was plump, with curling brown hair and a mouth that couldn't keep from grinning. Suzette was rather tall and thin, with dark hair in a plain little knot, and gentle brown eyes. Elena was certainly no older than Annabelle, with a daintily embroidered apron pulled tight to emphasize her thin waist and a pair of thick, blond braids that bobbed up and down when she moved her head.
The prince continued the tour through Annabelle’s chambers, showing her a setting fit for a queen. The rooms were enormous, with a sitting room, bathroom, bedroom, dressing room, and a wardrobe that was almost a room in itself, as well as antechambers for the maids. The sitting room furniture was upholstered in pink plush, with lots of low, soft chairs for Annabelle and the maids or female friends to snuggle into. Cheerfully embroidered pillows and baskets of knitting displayed the maids’ attempts to brighten the room. A bright little fire was the perfect touch to welcome her inside.
The bathroom was mostly cream marble, full of shelves jumbled with exquisite little bottles of perfumes and cosmetics that tossed exotic scents around the room. The full-length mirror was the finest glass Annabelle had seen, without a single ripple or tint to her image. She thought her eyes would leap out of her head at the enormous wardrobe, cradling the richest, most expensive gowns that she could’ve envisioned. Only a few hung there now; the prince would expect her to have dresses made now that she’d arrived and could be measured properly. At least Annabelle knew that much from her brief time in court. She ran shy fingers over the finery before her. Ruby colored velvet, delicate lavender gauze fine enough to draw through a finger ring, winking jewels set into sleeves and necklines. Every accessory, from gloves to hairnets and stockings was there in a variety of colors and styles, and all of the very finest materials. And boxes upon boxes of glittering jewels, far more precious than anything her mother had ever owned. The wardrobe took up a third of the space in her dressing room, towering up to the patterned hardwood ceiling.
Quaint pastoral paintings hung here and there in the pale blue embroidered dressing room along with several more costly mirrors. Shaded lamps made the room cozier while little chairs were scattered here and there through the chamber. A tub carved from polished wood drew up to a little fireplace of rosy marble with a grate of cheerful colored glass.
From there, Cedric led Annabelle into the bedroom. The astounding red and gold ceiling was clearly worthy of a room in the royal palace. All the wall hangings here were of the forest and of gardens, with a vague theme of roses that imprinted itself onto cabinet handles and carved table legs. Pretty candlesticks and knick-knacks also scattered themselves about the room, making it a bit more welcoming. Even the furniture was of some reddish wood, with little tables, a few soft chairs printed with a rose pattern, and, to Annabelle’s delight, a little bookshelf within easy reach of the bed. The bed itself was enormous, with curtains of rose-colored silk and a matching down comforter. Despite its lovely colors and rich materials, Annabelle felt herself shiver a bit when she looked at it.
The prince’s eyes darted to her face now and then, as if to ascertain whether she was pleased. He appeared quite familiar with the rooms; he had probably planned them out once he'd made the bargain with her father. He behaved a bit uncomfortably in them now, hesitating and stumbling over his words. Now that they were in the bedroom, he hesitated to even meet her eyes. “If anything in your rooms is not to your liking, tell the servants and it will be changed immediately.” He wandered over to a small door in the bedroom wall. It was almost an afterthought, so unassuming it seemed next to the grand scenic paintings and embroidered floral wall hangings. Carved directly from the wall and unembellished, it was close to invisible. “And this leads to my rooms.”
Annabelle buried her hands in her skirts to hide their fierce trembling. She had known what marriage meant before she agreed to live with this monstrosity. He might be well mannered, but Annabelle hadn’t forgotten that he’d been exiled. Not trusting herself to speak, all she could manage was a mute nod. He smiled at her and gave her hand a simple pat, probably believing that she was shy. “Well,” he said. “You must be tired from your journey. I will leave you to rest, and see you later at our wedding supper tonight.” His hand brushed her cheek and Annabelle froze, scarcely daring to move as he examined her face. “See that her eye is tended,” he said to Annabelle’s new attendants.
Then he was gone, and Annabelle’s maids surrounded her. They giggled and fussed, and insisted on showing her the rooms what must have been twenty times over. They noticed her dizziness from exhaustion, and fed her delicate little pastries and a glass of wine. As she nibbled, they carried in kettles of hot water, and prepared a bath for her beside the little fire. Annabelle soaked in the hot, soapy water, and let her bruised muscles relax after the tiring days on horseback, while the maids dashed about her with cool poultices for her eye and sweet scented bath oils.