As her wedding drew nearer, Marilla couldn’t sit still.
She walked the grounds of the castle, the only place she had ever really been allowed to roam freely. Otherwise she was shut in a carriage, the curtains drawn tight around her to keep the citizens from seeing her and her from seeing the world. ‘Sheltered’, is what General Hayden had called her.
He had sworn allegiance to her betrothed that morning, and the servants were running rampant to get everything ready in time for the wedding that night. Marilla had offered her assistance, but everyone had refused her. “A bride should relax on her wedding day to prepare for her wedding night,” her handmaiden Edna had told her, but she was driving herself mad doing nothing. All she could do was fret about what was to come. She liked Frederick, had met him several times because her father, the Emperor of the Farquam Empire, believed betrothed couples should get to know each other well before committing to marry. A wise man, her father. She did know Frederick, she had come to like Frederick and as she had told her father a week prior, she believed she could come to love Frederick.
As she paced the grounds, she sought seclusion and comfort from her favorite part of the castle: her mother’s garden where rose bushes flourished and a small pond filled with Koi reflected the sunlight onto her skin, always warming her as her mother used to. As she trekked over the stone path however, she heard the distinct sound of grunting. “Hayden,” she whispered in recognition, even before she saw him throwing knives at an erect dummy target.
She wasn’t upset that he was there; in fact, seeing him filled her with relief. She’d thought she wanted to be alone, but Hayden was an exception. He always had been.
As children, the two had often come to the rose garden to play spy or hide-and-seek while Marilla’s mother tended the roses. Lately Marilla had come to fiddle with the Koi and watch Hayden train. Since her mother’s death, Marilla’s father had allowed Hayden to move training equipment into the garden on the condition that he tend the garden himself for Marilla’s pleasure. Hayden had agreed with no hesitation. Marilla knew the garden was as special to him as it was to her.
She didn’t interrupt as he aligned himself to throw another knife. She never had to announce her presence however, for he always knew she was there. He looked at her, his sharp emerald eyes softening. He was built powerfully with wide set shoulders racked with muscle cultivated from years of training. For now he wore his sleeveless overcoat only, so she could see the distinct bulges of his biceps moistened with sweat. The prominent muscles of his legs too could be seen through his black trousers, which he tied back with crisscrossed ribbons to prevent the loose ends of his clothing from getting in the way of his fighting. Typically, he wore a long-sleeved blazer beneath his overcoat that he also bound with crisscrossed ribbons along his forearms, binding any loose fabric to his person so he could move swiftly. For now however, Marilla enjoyed the nakedness of his well-built arms and torso that peeked from beneath his overcoat. She could distinctly see the defined lines of muscled hills and valleys within the opening of his overcoat robe, shamefully shadowed by the fabric.
“Princess,” he greeted, dipping his head ever so slightly so his dark brown hair with the slight highlights on top blocked her view of his face. “You grace me with your presence,” he teased her.
Teasing was General Hayden’s hobby. She didn’t know what he would be like if he weren’t teasing her. “You swore your allegiance this morning?” she asked him, pulling up her skirts to step out onto a steppingstone within the pond.
His expression darkened as he turned to face the target again, stepping back with one leg into the proper position before launching another dagger directly into the target’s gut. “I did.”
She watched him throw, the way his body moved in such union was a mystery to her. Like a dance. He stood a few heads taller than she. They had grown up together, and she remembered having been taller than him for a short time. He was the youngest general to ever be, he only had a few years on Marilla, but he was well known throughout the seven kingdoms as the Bladed Tiger.
Her gaze moved down his rippling biceps, the sweat gathering on his temple and making his skin glisten. She didn’t realize how intensely she was staring until he began to turn towards her. She turned away quickly, heat gathering on her cheeks as she feigned playing in the water, her fingers dipping in just far enough to call to a few Koi lingering below. “And how did he look?” she asked quietly, watching the scales of the magnificent fish change color as light hit them the closer they came to the surface.
“Not as someone about to marry a princess should look in my humble opinion.”
She looked up in time to watch him throw another knife, this one sticking directly between where the eyes would be if the target were a real man. “What does that mean?” she asked.
Hayden shrugged, fingering his last throwing knife before lining himself up for another throw. “Nothing, Princess, just me being foolish.”
“Not an uncommon occurrence,” she teased him, offering a sincere smile though he was in low spirits. She liked it most when Hayden annoyed her with his mischievous comments meant to poke fun at her expense. They had become rare since the wedding announcement.
Marilla wondered if he were uncomfortable being friendly towards a betrothed woman. She had often been warned about how improper her feisty playfulness with Hayden and his equally sarcastic teasing with her looked, but she didn’t care. She had suspected he didn’t either. Maybe he was starting to care what others thought of their odd relationship since a husband was now entering her life. She grieved over the change in their relationship, wanting desperately for it to return to what it had been.
He smiled at her, truly appreciative of her efforts to tease some humor into him though still not feeling his usual carefree cheer.
“Well, if it isn’t my two favorite people,” Marilla’s father, the emperor, greeted as he strode into the garden.
“Father!” Marilla shouted with pleasure, rushing to him before throwing her arms around his neck and pulling him tight.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said into her hair before she pulled back.
“She always comes to watch me train. It fills her with delight,” Hayden explained, the mischievous gleam returning to his eyes.
“I come to relax by the rose bushes,” she scoffed. “Luckily their aroma covers the stench of your body odor.”
“So, you come to smell me as well?”
Her face reddened and she considered removing her shoe to throw at him but knew it would do little good. He’d dodge it or catch it and never give it back. “Father punish this servant, he shouldn’t be speaking to me this way!” Marilla demanded with feigned anger.
“The way you bicker, one wouldn’t know you two have been friends since childhood,” the emperor sighed.
“Friends?” Marilla snorted.
“Indeed, the word is wasted on her,” Hayden agreed, and Marilla stuck her tongue out at him.
The summoning bell rang and replaced her fleeting feeling of ease with a firm dread that coiled in her gut. She felt nauseous even as her father quickly spun her into a tight embrace of pure pride. He held her at arm’s length afterwards, his thumbs gently pressing into her shoulders as he smiled kindly down at her. “It is time, my dear,” he whispered. “I have truly been blessed to call you my daughter.”
“I am still yours,” she said hastily.
“Indeed, love, but soon you will belong to another more fiercely than you belong to me.” He pulled her into another tight embrace, and she took the opportunity to glance at General Hayden. He kept his eyes averted, his expression that of stone as Marilla’s father ushered her away towards the bell that called her.
Summoning her to her chambers so she may dress for her big day.
After the handmaidens, Marilla’s father employed for her, had fastened her dress into place, after all the poking and prodding, plucking and painting, she gazed at herself in the crystal mirror beside her bed.
Her dress was that of satin, a beaded bodice tight against her already thin stomach that pushed up her breasts and made them look fuller. Her caramel hair fell about her face in illustrious curls, accentuating her golden-brown eyes and pale complexion now hidden beneath rose-colored lips and face paint.
“You look positively radiant,” gushed Edna.
The dress itself sat heavily on her waist and flowed well past her feet. She gently tried to sweep it out of the way to no avail. “I fear I might trip.”
“Nonsense, you’re one of the most elegant ladies I’ve ever had the pleasure of serving. You will hold steady.” Edna fussed with a few of Marilla’s curls. “You will be glorious.”
There was a knock on her door before her father’s voice floated to her, “Is she ready?”
As I’ll ever be, she thought, swallowing her unease. The marriage had seemed like such a good idea until now… now she just wanted to run, her legs itching to flee. Perhaps that was why the dress was so impossibly long, so she couldn’t run.
Just as useful as leg chains, but much prettier.
Hold steady, she told herself, echoing Edna’s words, you will be glorious.
The walk to the chapel was fuzzy though the wedding itself was a blur. Her husband-to-be Frederick stood at the end of the long walkway. Why must the bride walk to the groom? she wondered as she took careful steps towards him. So all could see her flowing gown bunching like chains around her ankles? She felt people staring, intensifying her uneasiness. She was on display, and she didn’t like it.
Frederick seemed to glow under the attentions of the crowd, however. He was more bedazzled than even she with his embroidered jacket and chains of jewels around his neck. He was a handsome fellow with long blond hair which he kept pulled back in a loose fashion, and gray-blue eyes not nearly as magnificent as Hayden’s green, but handsome, nonetheless. She stood facing him, receiving a peck on the cheek from her father before the ceremony commenced.
She stared through the veil into her soon to be husband’s gray-blue eyes but felt chills at the coldness of his gaze. Though he smiled at her, it never touched his eyes.
After the two had both repeated the words given to them numbly and without emotion, he gently swept back her veil and leaned forward to kiss her. She had fantasized about what kissing would be like, she expected heat like all the other silly maidens spoke of. A roaring heat that felt as if it might devour her if she weren’t too careful, but what she received was cold indifference. His lips connected with hers, and she felt cold.
When he parted from her, and cheers erupted throughout the room, she snuck a glance past his shoulder toward General Hayden who stood in the shadows as if guarding the ceremony. He wasn’t looking at her and instead was focused forward, his gaze distant and expression impassive, and she wanted to run to him.
Her husband turned her to face the crowd and her view of Hayden was blocked. She looked over the sea of happy faces, far happier than she felt. I’ll come to love him, she told herself.
At least his hand was warm in hers as they walked side by side through the aisle of guests, accepting congratulations. They went into the dining hall where a feast awaited them, but the food had no taste to Marilla. She held no appetite as she nibbled on a few choice bites of pheasant. She wondered if General Hayden had caught her dinner tonight. He had in the past, so she ate to make sure his efforts didn’t go to waste.
She sipped her plum wine, sitting silently beside Frederick as he too picked at his meal. She felt the need to make conversation. They were joined together now for all eternity after all. “Has your day been… pleasant?” she offered.
He turned to her slightly and smiled passively, “I have just married the woman I deeply desire above all else, of course I have had a pleasant day.”
His response brought redness to her cheeks. “I just feared the day had been busy for you. They sent me away and wouldn’t let me help with the preparations, but I have no idea what they’ve had you doing.”
“I also was sent away to prepare myself for what was to come.”
The wedding night, she almost whimpered. “They told me the same.” She looked down at her napkin, fiddling with it between her fingers.
“Won’t be long now,” Frederick said gently, nodding towards the door where a group was already leaving. “We’ll be able to turn in soon.”
“Are you tired?” she asked.
“I enjoy parties, but they become exhausting after a while.”
She grunted her agreement, but he didn’t seem as exhausted as she felt. Perhaps he was just better at hiding it, but as she slouched forward in her chair he sat tall and alert, greeting guests who came to their table to offer more congratulations.
She could barely muster the energy to raise her head.
“Why don’t you go on upstairs,” Frederick whispered to her finally, his breath tickling her ear.
“And leave you here?” she whispered back, wondering how proper leaving her groom at her own wedding was.
“I will join you as soon as everything is in place here,” he promised, nodding to her waiting handmaidens to escort her upstairs.
Marilla rose graciously and nodded to many of her guests as she passed them with her handmaidens trailing behind her. Her room was dark, so her handmaidens scurried about until it was bathed in candlelight.
They helped her undress, tugging at her wedding gown until it loosened around her. Though her room was warm, goosebumps rose along her flesh as the satin dress slipped from her shoulders and pooled at her feet. Edna waved her out of it and scooped it up from the floor with great care, hanging it by the bed and fussing over the material so it didn’t wrinkle.
Marilla glimpsed her naked form in the mirror before two other handmaids slipped a fine, see-through soft lacy gown over her head. Long hair cascaded down her slim back, covering her shoulders though not shielding her round breasts with perfectly peaked pink nipples. The line of her stomach bulged slightly after the meal but flowed smoothly to the flare of her hips and rounding of her rump. Edna had always said her backside was a bit too full though Marilla had never seen the point in doing anything about it. It had always been concealed by dresses that emphasized other areas until tonight.
“We will leave you now,” Edna said, cupping Marilla’s face between her cold and wrinkled palms. “I am so proud of you, my princess.”
Marilla could offer only a tiny smile in response as Edna ushered the other girls from her chambers and suddenly Marilla was all alone. Turning, she looked at herself in the mirror again. Thinly concealed by the gown she could easily make out every angle and curve of her body, realizing with a shudder that soon Frederick would too.
She paced the room, watching the candles dance as she passed and the backdraft of her movement made them flicker. She waited and waited, at first thankful for the solitude, but then the suspense began making her shaky. She peeked out the window where the moon was high in the sky. The candles were burnt almost to the wick. Where was Frederick? Should she be going to find him?
She heard the click of her door and spun, racing to her bed just in time for Frederick to come inside and turn to her. She’d managed to slide beneath the covers, suddenly horribly self-conscious.
“Wife,” he greeted her, smiling slightly as if the word amused him.
“Husband,” she whispered in a hushed tone, watching as he took off his embroidered jacket with care and hung it beside her dress, unbuttoning his suave undershirt so she may see what lay beneath. Lean, smooth skin lacking the underlying bulges that Hayden had to indicate muscle, greeted her. He was also less hairy than Hayden who had a decent amount of thick ebony chest hair that Marilla had found very attractive. Frederick had only a patch of blond in the center of his chest.
He unbuttoned his pants next, sliding them down with his underthings soon following and then he stood nude before her. This was Marilla’s first time seeing a naked man and she was surprisingly underwhelmed, though she did tilt her head at the thick piece of wilted skin drooping between his legs.
While she watched, Frederick reached down and gripped that flab, working his hand over it, and Marilla’s eyes widened as it grew before her. She swallowed, shrinking back as he touched himself until the flab became a rod with glistening liquid on the tip. He took a step towards her, his expression serious.
She pressed her back against the pillows behind her, feeling the need to grip the blankets around herself in some shield of protection when a knock at the door interrupted his steps. He turned slightly at the two gentle taps that sounded and released a long, breathy sigh through his nostrils before he turned away from her fully. He pulled a robe over himself, tightening the belt around his waist to secure it. “They were faster than anticipated. That’ll have to do,” he said deeply, more to himself than her. “I’ll return here shortly.”
He moved towards the door and Marilla watched him in confusion, relieved confusion. When the door clicked behind him she released the long breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. She took a few more deep breaths, trying to ease the tension that stiffened her whole body. She wasn’t complaining, but she couldn’t help wondering what could be more important than their wedding night, more important than consummating their marriage.
With shaky fingers she tied her own robe around her see-through nightgown, feeling the need to cover herself as she went to the window and peered out over the courtyard. Even in the dark of night Marilla could make out her husband, his white robe catching the moonlight as he walked hastily towards her father’s quarters. What business could he possibly have with her father on this night?
Tugging the belt that secured the robe around her waist, she headed for the door. Even if it wasn’t proper to leave her room looking the way she did, lacking her overcoat and underthings, she had to know what was going on. She wavered at the door, hesitating at the darkness that awaited her before walking down the pitch-black corridor towards her father’s chambers.
She noticed the absence of guards, but thought the party had just been a bit too much for them and they were sleeping off their drink. Most of them had become intoxicated on plum wine before she had retired to her room so she wasn’t terribly concerned with the silent, dark corridors. She was actually thankful for the lack of people so no one saw her bare feet or her thinly robed body that typically was layered with several skirts. She felt naked, so she was fine with being the only one awake walking through the castle.
“Lower your weapons immediately!”
Marilla froze at her father’s voice that echoed from his room as she approached from the shadows of the adjoining hallway. She took a step back, deeper into the shadows though she could see several silhouettes through the cloth material hanging from the door’s arch. The shadow silhouette of her father facing silhouettes of her new husband and of the guards. All had swords drawn; she could see the black shadows of them extending from the silhouetted hands.
“Lower your weapons. That is a command from your emperor!” her father commanded, his voice strong and furious yet edged with uncertainty and fear.
“They’ve sworn allegiance to a new ruler,” Frederick said coldly, and Marilla flinched. They had sworn allegiance to him as her husband, so after the wedding he held the allegiance of every guard… including General Hayden.
The two guards behind Frederick rushed the emperor and Marilla watched helplessly from the shadows as sword clashed against sword and grunts echoed. She crouched, trembling as she watched, shock settling in her gut as she lost track of the shadows and one was speared through the chest. He fell into the door, parting the cloth sheet that dangled from the arch for air circulation, and collapsed onto the ground feet from her.
Her father lay motionless, blood pooling around him. Marilla planted a clammy palm over her mouth right before she screamed, snuffing the noise.
She stared blankly at her father’s still body, the red of his blood staining his satin clothing, crimson smeared against his temple, all she could see of his face which she was thankful for. At least she didn’t have to gaze into his lifeless eyes. “Now, find my darling wife and have her executed, I will not share the throne with any man or woman. Your allegiance must be with me.”
A complete uprising, she thought, her fingers trembling, a rebellion against my father… a revolt against me?
“She should still be waiting for me in her bedchamber,” Frederick informed the guards as they ran towards her room though she had shrunk far enough into the shadows to no longer see her father’s body, shielding her from sight as well.
“Did you consummate the marriage, sir?” Barnaby asked, her father’s advisor looking down at the body of the emperor with scorn.
“How could I have if you gave me minutes before knocking on the door, alerting me that everything was in position and I needed to move now? Perhaps you can consummate in minutes, but I have great difficulty doing so,” he scoffed. “Pity too. Princess Marilla is a very fine woman.”
“Fine or not, let’s hope those men don’t find out. Your marriage to her is what makes you the emperor. If it can be easily annulled, their loyalties can be easily swayed.”
“The dead can’t speak,” Frederick said confidently.
“No, but General Hayden can.”
Marilla’s heart skipped at the mention of his name. Was he a part of this? She couldn’t make her mind believe it.
Frederick grumbled, “If at all possible, I don’t want to kill the Bladed Tiger. Though I have not seen him in battle myself, from what I’ve heard he could be very useful.”
“The men are holding him back, though I do not think it will be long before he breaks free. How he discovered this plot I do not know, but we need to be quick in annihilating the girl, or your future as emperor will become just a dream again.” Their voices were fading as they walked back toward her room where Marilla was sure they assumed she was already dead, killed on her wedding night.
Her father was dead, General Hayden who clearly had not betrayed her was being detained and her own guards were after her. She needed to run; she needed to get free of this castle or risk dying like her father.
She slipped from the shadows, her eyes drawn again to her father’s motionless body. She’d never forgive herself if she didn’t make sure he was truly dead. She wasn’t sure what she would do if he were alive, however. She certainly couldn’t carry him, but she needed to be sure all the same. Slowly, she lowered a hand to his neck and though the blood that stuck to her fingers was cold, she still checked his stiff skin for a pulse.
He was officially dead.
She cupped her clean hand again over her mouth, fighting back a wail of pain. Tears sprang from her lids and rushed down her face, panic and nausea churning her stomach. Run, now! The last remaining sane part of her brain commanded her, but as she turned away from her father’s body, the guards from before came around the corner.
“There she is!” one shouted, spotting her before she dug her toes into the floor and sprinted in the opposite direction. “Don’t let her leave!” she heard him shout before thundering footsteps echoed after hers.
Her heartbeat deafened her as she practically flew over the floor, her feet hardly touching the wood even as she burst out of the castle and rushed towards the entrance of the wall surrounding it. The night was warm. The chirp of crickets and cicadas sounded over her heartbeat as they rejoiced in the pleasant weather.
“Stop her!” called the guards behind her. “Stop the princess!”
Two guards stood on opposite sides of the gap in the wall that served as the main entrance to the castle grounds. One stepped out, preparing to block her path as she ran for him. “Stand aside!” she screamed, trying vainly to sound more commanding than panicked. As she drew closer however, the guard reached out and caught her arm, practically wrenching it from the socket as the force of her momentum and his body weight collided.
He pulled her around to face the two guards behind her who huffed and puffed pathetically. Didn’t General Hayden force these men to run twenty laps each morning? Yet they couldn’t catch the princess who hadn’t gone for a run a day in her life. If she weren’t so terrified, she might have laughed at those thoughts.
“You’re giving us a lot more trouble than anticipated,” one of the guards huffed, unsheathing his sword. “We expected General Hayden to be a problem, but you?”
The other guards laughed as he reached forward and brushed a stray strand of hair stuck against her sweaty forehead. “A shame to slit that pretty throat of yours, but orders are orders.” Lifting his sword, he positioned it beneath her chin and though she shook and gasped, she couldn’t resist the hands that bound her solidly in place.
She closed her eyes, accepting her fate, when the clang of metal stopped the inevitable. The hands that held her pulled her back strongly, and she felt something cold and sharp press dangerously close to her jugular, making her eyes fly open to see Hayden standing over the fallen guard who had been ready to slay her with his sword.
He stood tall and powerful, and she felt the guard at her back shudder against her in fear. “I’d thank you to remove that knife from my lady’s throat, or I will be forced to sever your hand.” Hayden’s tone was polite though his eyes were shining ferociously, Marilla felt the blade pressed to her skin quiver against her.
She understood for she had been on the wrong end of his glare once or twice and knew how intimidating it was. She recalled having squirmed in a similar fashion.
“Sorry I’m late, Princess Marilla. I apologize for my delay.”
“Your tardiness will be tolerated as long as I survive this night,” she said, her vocal cords vibrating the blade against her skin. She hoped her voice sounded strong and queenly, but she doubted it. It was probably more a squeak than authoritative, but General Hayden seemed amused by her effort.
“Slain,” she confirmed, her voice breaking into a gasp of pain.
“Fret not, my wife, soon you’ll join him.” At Frederick’s voice, sheer terror rushed down her spine, liquefying her knees. “You swore your allegiance to me, is your word worth so little, Bladed Tiger?” Frederick challenged.
Hayden snorted. “I am a man of my word and I gave it to Princess Marilla long before you came to the castle to present yourself to her as a painted peacock.”
“Painted peacock?” Frederick sputtered, appalled by the jibe.
Hayden gripped a sword in each hand, raising them with bloodlust in his fiercely savage eyes. Faster than lightning itself he rushed forward, the blade of one of his swords connecting with the two guards who intercepted him. Blood sprayed, but Marilla couldn’t look away even as the guards fell dead at his feet. She watched as twelve more ran from the castle walls, gasping in fear because she doubted even General Hayden could defeat all of them at once.
He took down two more guards, his blades thrusting through one while the other he dropped with a slam of the hilt against his skull before sprinting straight for Marilla and her captor. He knew he wouldn’t get himself and her out alive unless they left now. They needed to run or be killed and regardless of how much he wanted to murder Frederick, Princess Marilla’s safety needed to come first.
Marilla hardly noticed when the knife pressed to her throat bit into her skin then slackened as Hayden slammed the man behind her away. Grabbing her around the waist, he lifted her into his arms then sprinted from the charging guards, making their escape.
Frederick watched as General Hayden disappeared into the wilderness surrounding the castle. The acres upon acres of forest used for hunting, then acres upon acres of farmland used to grow most of the food for the kingdom, namely the castle itself.
General Hayden fought like a tiger, a most deadly predator, confirming his right to the name Bladed Tiger. Frederick had now witnessed that himself and oh, how he regretted not having earned his loyalty. He would be a formidable enemy indeed.
He was a natural with the brute power of a tiger. His courage and strength were that of legend. Not a single citizen of the seven kingdoms hadn’t heard of the Bladed Tiger, and Frederick wanted him as his general. “Search the woods,” he ordered. “You can kill my wife, but I want General Hayden brought back to me alive.”
The guards scurried off towards the forest with none of the stealth or skill their general had just displayed when he kidnapped Marilla. Yes, Frederick definitely needed Marilla dead and definitely needed General Hayden for his army.