A Delicate Betrayal releases in just two days!! And I know some of you are anxiously awaiting to get your hands on it, so I figured I'd share the first chapter. Enjoy!
Marrying a king was not the joyous event that Aenwyn had imagined it would be.
Where she came from weddings involved music, laughter, food, and enough mead to keep the Skogar folk singing, dancing, and warming each other’s furs well into first-hours of the following day.
Weddings in Caelora seemed to take a different approach.
It seemed she would die of boredom by the time she reached her betrothed at the end of the aisle, the entire court gathered around her. She had been instructed to step in time with the melody, but that was proving difficult since the song gave her no sense of invigoration or joy. It was utterly lifeless by comparison to the bone-chilling drumming of her people. It lacked the impassioned harmonizing she was used to, the wailing choruses that could bring one to tears or raise a roaring army to battle.
With a pained smile, she passed the troubadours where they had gathered at the edge of the throne room with their pipes, flutes, and strings, doing her best to appear grateful for the dull and repetitive tune, when in reality it made her want to rip right out of the breezy, silken gown she had been forced to wear.
That would really get the people talking. As if they weren’t doing enough of that already. Everywhere she looked in the gilded, gleaming throne room, people were whispering to each other at her expense.
"She doesn’t deserve to be queen.”
“The savage witch should burn!"
"She’ll destroy the kingdom from the inside out."
Aenwyn heard them all. She felt their ire like a hot iron poker pressed against the freckled flesh of her face.
“Careful now,” cautioned the grizzled man walking arm-in-arm beside her. His heavy elbow nudged the tender place between her ribs. “Or that frown will cause a war.”
Aenwyn's chest tightened. War was the exact opposite of what she wanted. It was the whole reason she’d gotten herself into this arranged marriage mess.
She glanced to the man keeping her steady. Baug the Bear he was called, the fearsome leader of the distrusting, isolated Skogar people. But to her, he was more than that. There was a gentleness in his heart that he kept hidden, but she had witnessed it from the very first day they met, nearly three years ago now. The day he rescued her from the deserted island where she had lost everyone she’d ever known.
Baug the Bear had given her a choice: stay with the dead and decayed or join him as her daughter.
He’d been her savior then as he was her savior now.
Through his presence, she found the strength she needed to keep walking with her head held high—until her envious gaze noticed the famed bear pelt and battle axes he’d been allowed to wear. Meanwhile, she hadn’t even been granted the courtesy of donning something more suitable like one of her own furs or even the elk skull crown that would’ve been expected for the daughter of a Skogar chieftain to wear on the day of her wedding.
The Caelorans didn’t respect her people. Her culture. And they definitely didn’t respect her. In time, she hoped to earn that respect.
When her father noticed her eyes lingering on him too long, he gave her arm a comforting squeeze. “If you’ve changed your mind, it’s not too late to—”
“No,” Aenwyn said, fixing her attention forward. This was what she wanted, what she needed to do for her people. She plastered on a thin smile and beheld the crowd of judgmental lords and ladies who’d gathered around the pine runner. “This marriage is what Skogar needs.”
“Skogar needs nothing,” he growled, somehow holding onto the pleasant look he’d donned since their arrival in Caelora. “We have survived this long without an alliance. We don’t need one now.”
Aenwyn barely refrained from rolling her eyes, and only because of their rapt audience. This was not the first time she and her father had broached this conversation, and she wasn’t about to delve into it again. Especially not here, now, on today of all days. It was not only risky but increasingly futile.
For the life of her, she would never understand how he could be so sure that Skogar was safe without a Caeloran alliance any longer. Not after what she’d done to their previous king and queen…
“I have to do this,” she whispered, and he nodded. He understood, even if he didn’t agree.
Her noble smile didn’t falter again as they made their way across the rest of the throne room, though it never seemed to quite have the effect she wanted it to have. Of the hundreds of lords and ladies gathered to witness this momentous day in history, every single one they’d passed possessed the judgmental gaze of someone who had never seen a member of the Skogar before. They watched the two of them the way a mother fox stood between her young and a circling wolf, ready to defend what they loved to the death.
Aenwyn was used to judgment.
When Baug the Bear had taken her into his own home, and for the better part of a year the Skogar people were weary of her, hesitant to accept her as one of their own. In the end, she had earned their loyalty. Their trust. Their love.
She could do it again. Be an outsider for a time until she’d proven herself.
She had to.
But as Aenwyn strode down the aisle, the lightweight wedding gown making her feel exposed and fragile without the heavy pelts of fur she was accustomed to, she somehow knew this endeavor would be far more challenging than winning the hearts of the Skogar. Perhaps it was the air, taut with tension, or perhaps it was her inclination for the sight, but something told her that she wouldn’t be able to impress the people of Caelora with her useful abilities like setting bear traps, skinning deer, and navigating the lands by starlight.
No, she feared that Baug had been right. The people here—especially the ladies, whom Baug told her would be the people she would interact with the most after her wedding day—were far more interested in gossip, fashion, and religion. Topics she knew nothing about and cared even less for.
Fortunately, she wasn’t marrying all of Caelora.
Aenwyn only truly needed to make one person fall in love with her. And he just so happened to be the most powerful man in not only the Caelora Kingdom, but all of Grimtol.
As Aenwyn took the final step and Baug gave her arm to the regal King Everard, she beheld her betrothed for the first time. It was true what they said about him.
King Everard had a striking beauty that reminded her of freshly forged, gleaming steel. He was all sharp angles and fierce edges. The way he looked down upon her, his cold, grey eyes piercing straight through her, she could feel the power radiating off of him. Feel his possessiveness. His dominance.
Before today, she had found comfort in knowing that many people who found themselves in arranged marriages grew into the relationship, how some of them even eventually found love. But as King Everard's cold hands clutched her arm and hoisted her up the steps, Aenwyn understood that she would find neither. This marriage would be just as glacial as his eyes, as his touch. And she had willingly walked herself into it.
Oblivious to the tears forming in her eyes, King Everard shoved a ring onto her middle finger. It wasn’t the ring. They hadn’t even spoken their vows yet. So the gesture took her by surprise.
Aenwyn glanced over her shoulder, back to her father, before returning her confused gaze to the black band topped with a sky-blue stone. It was the same shade as the dragon that haunted her dreams. The dragon that she’d hatched from an egg on her sixteenth birthday with a mere touch of her hand. The same dragon that had killed King Everard’s parents.
“What’s this?” Aenwyn stammered, daring to look up at the king. She’d be damned if she would be in a loveless marriage and cower to her husband’s authority. “I wasn’t aware it was your custom to exchange gifts the day of the wedding.”
King Everard shifted his attention to the priest, but he answered his soon-to-be wife. “It isn’t. But I am aware of your…condition. The visions that plague you.”
The way he said condition, like it was a disease to be feared and contained, rather than the blessing she’d been raised to see it as. Baug had warned her about this too. As the Skogar had once coexisted with the Sky-Blessed demigods in the northern regions of Grimtol, their people were not afraid of magic, but rather embraced it. That sentiment was not shared in other regions of the realm, however. Especially not in Caelora.
Still, she hadn’t expected this. She hadn’t even known the king would know about her power of sight.
“This will suppress the magic that’s been ailing you,” King Everard said dismissively.
He gestured for the priest to begin the ceremony, but Aenwyn interrupted again.
“I appreciate the sentiment, but I assure you, it’s no ailment,” she said, beginning to twist the ring free. “The visions can be quite useful. I imagined they could be of use to you, even. In time, should you so choose—”
Fingers that felt like talons clamped around her hands.
“Don’t,” he said in warning, a hush befalling the room behind them. “The ring will remain on your finger for as long as we are wed. Do you understand?”
Aenwyn’s confusion was quick to burn with ire.
She wasn’t some helpless, senseless girl for him to dictate. She was the daughter of a chieftain. She was a seeress and sorceress, a woman who had slain a wild boar with her bare hands by the young age of fourteen and could very likely bury an axe into this king’s skull should she ever need to.
But her father’s words echoed in her mind. “Careful now, or that frown will cause a war.”
Aenwyn did not convince her father to strike a marital alliance with Caelora just for her to ruin it the day of the wedding. She came to repent, to right the wrongs she'd made.
Gritting her teeth, Aenwyn twisted the ring back into place. When she smiled at her betrothed, she could’ve sworn that something inside her was already beginning to wither and die. “Of course, my love.”
King Everard waved her off. “There’s no need for false pretenses.” Then turning to the priest, he ordered, “Please, let us get this over with so that the rest of the Skogar filth may leave my halls.”
It made her fingers bite into her palms to hear him speak of her people so caustically. But it was also precisely why she was here today.
For Skogar, Aenwyn reminded herself as the rest of the dismal day unfolded. She would do this for Skogar.