4 Coloine (continued)
“I—it’s my pleasure, and your company is an honor I don’t deserve,” I said, and she beamed more widely at me and squeezed my hand so hard parts of it went numb.
“Now we should go, and don’t worry, everything’s been arranged,” she said, so of course I really started to worry. I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve concluded that there’s really no way I could have guessed what she had in mind, since our cultures are so different, but I should definitely have been more on my guard than I was. Especially since everything she said suggested that she was deep in some delusion. If I’d tried harder to work out what that delusion was, things would have gone differently—but, then, I’m alive, and so is Aselfos, so I’m not going to reproach myself too much.
The God-Empress linked her arm with mine and skipped—yes, actually skipped—out of the room, forcing me to skip along with her in those stupid silver heels. It’s a miracle I didn’t fall and take her down with me. When we came to the checkerboard floor, she went from skipping to hopping, always landing on the black marble. “It’s not a moss day, can’t touch the moss!” she said happily, and I stumbled along after her. Even so, I was thinking this was far from the worst thing she could do to me. And that was true, right up until we came to our destination.
The room was almost identical to the throne room, with the black and white patterned floor and the crystal lamps, though the walls were painted dove gray instead of mirrored, and of course there was no throne. Instead, there was a dais of black marble at the far end of the room, surrounded by men wearing chicken helmets and knee-length black tunics all standing with their backs to it.
The God-Empress slowed from her manic hopping to a slow, measured walk with an erratic beat: step-slide, step, step, slide-step, over and over again, and after a few missteps, I was able to follow her. It took several minutes for us to reach the dais this way, which gave me plenty of time to speculate on what would happen when we got there.
When we were within fifteen feet of it, I was able to look more closely at the men and realized that they were wearing full armor under their poorly-fitting black tunics, which were thin linen stretched taut over the metal plates at their shoulders and chests. All of them were focused straight ahead, not on us, which was probably safer for them and for me; I was just as happy not to be noticed by them.
The God-Empress brought me up the three steps to the top of the dais and gently pushed me one way and then the other until I stood exactly where she wanted me, which was to my eyes a random spot left of center. She took my hand again and stood next to me, and we waited. My feet became sore, but I was afraid to shift my weight, because my mad companion was motionless, but poised as if listening for something.
“Don’t worry, he won’t forget,” she whispered, and I was trying to decide whether I should ask her for clarification when a concealed door in the dove-gray walls opened, and more soldiers in black tunics came through single-file and marched toward the dais. Three men dressed in the costumes I’d seen courtiers wear when they attended the God-Empress in her throne room, but entirely in black, walked in the center of the line. I didn’t recognize two of them, but the man in the middle was Perce Aselfos.
He has a handsome face, with a strong nose and deep-set brown eyes, but his appearance was marred by the beginnings of a large bruise on his right cheekbone and a split lower lip. He looked furious. The other two men watched him warily, exactly as if they expected him to bolt, or hit one or both of them.
“Oh, Perce, you look wonderful,” the God-Empress said in a breathless, happy voice. “Come up here and stand next to Sesskia.”
Aselfos glowered, but came up the steps and stood where the God-Empress pointed. The God-Empress took my hand, then Aselfos’s hand, and to my surprise put them together. I clasped his hand automatically. It was dry, and limp in mine. The God-Empress beamed, and took a few steps back. “What a perfect day!” she said. “Don’t you think it’s a perfect day, Sesskia? I’m so pleased for you both.”
I realized what she had in mind, and jerked my hand away, or tried to; Aselfos’s grip became suddenly firm, and he gave me a warning look. “You want us to be married?” I said.
I might have sounded the tiniest bit shrill, because the God-Empress’s eyes narrowed, and she said, “No, Sesskia, you want to be married. I only agreed to witness your marriage vows. You’re not having second thoughts, are you? Because I really am so happy for you, and I would hate for this perfect day to be ruined.”
I glanced at Aselfos again, and he shook his head, almost imperceptibly. My hand was starting to sweat. “I don’t—” I began, then words deserted me.
“Marriage is a sacred act, Sesskia,” the God-Empress said, waggling a perfect finger with a rose-enameled nail in front of my eyes. “You don’t want to spurn God’s blessing, do you?”
“I—” A delaying possibility suggested itself. “I am an otherworlder, Renatha, and I know nothing of your marriage customs. Would you explain them to me? Because I think making those vows without understanding them would be disrespectful to God.”
Aselfos looked at me as if I were as mad as the God-Empress. “Of course, Sesskia, I should have realized!” the God-Empress said. “It’s really very simple. You and your beloved come before God—actually, most people come before a priest, but naturally I’m happy to perform the service for you, because you are God’s choice—and declare your names, so that God knows who stands before Her.
“Then each of you announces your intent to marry, and God asks you to name the man or woman of your choosing. And of course you say each other’s names, because it would be silly to want to marry someone who didn’t want you, yes?
“Then God asks some questions to be sure you understand how serious it is and tells you what the law settles on you as a married couple. And then you promise loyalty and love to each other, though you’re free to say it however you like. And then you’re married! Isn’t that beautiful?”
It would be if Cederic were here, I thought. I was starting to panic. Obviously Aselfos had no interest in marrying me, and this was all some sick fantasy the God-Empress had dreamed up to “reward” one or both of us. I had no idea how binding this ceremony was, if neither of us meant it—and what happened if I swore marriage vows to someone when I was already married to someone else?
to be continued…