[Content warning: Domestic Abuse]
I’m going the wrong way.
The thought rattled around in her mind with every jolt and bounce of the covered wagon. She couldn’t bring herself to look out the window of the lushly-appointed space, afraid she would lose all semblance of control over her emotions if she did. She placed a hand over her waist, where a hidden pocket concealed Eryl’s map, wondering how far the wagon carried her from their designated meeting place with each moment that passed.
“Senara, are you feeling well? I told the servants to bring you a light breakfast. Did you insist on something larger?” Her mother’s frown was clear in the flickering light of the lantern.
“No, Mother.” She supposed she should be grateful her mother was mistaking her despair for queasiness, but all at once she couldn’t feel anything other than weary anger at how littler her own mother seemed to understand her. The anger won out for once and she gave in to it, catching her mother’s eyes. “I don’t want to do this, Mother.”
“Do what?” The queen’s sincere confusion only stoked the fire in Senara.
“Go to Astra! Marry Prince Hakon!” Senara kept her voice low, aware that the wagon’s walls were just well-insulated canvas, but she did not hide her disgust at the prospect.
Her mother scoffed. “Don’t be silly, Senara. The arrangements have already been made. Really, if you objected, you should have spoken up before now.”
“I would have, if anyone had bothered to tell me about this before he was in the palace talking about how glad he is I’m not repulsive to look at!”
“Now you’re just being childish. You’re going to marry a Prince Heir of a well-respected principality. You will spend the rest of your days being pampered and raising a family, and in the process you’ll secure a very important alliance for Sunpeak.” She sniffed and brushed at her skirt. “Really, I don’t know how you can expect something better. You’re being quite ungrateful, you know. This was the best way for your father to achieve the alliance.”
“The best way?” Senara stared at her mother in disbelief. “I don’t believe he even tried any other terms. The Astrians didn’t demand this marriage, Father did.”
“That is enough!” Her mother’s voice turned hard, each word bitten out with crisp precision. “You will not speak of your father with such disrespect. His decision is final.”
Senara leaned back against the wall of the wagon, closing her eyes in defeat. “Does he really hate me that much, to be so eager to send me away?”
“Your father does not hate you, but he does expect you to do your duty to Sunpeak as demanded by your station.”
“My duty.” Senara loosed a mirthless laugh. “My station.” She opened her eyes. “By right of birth my duty is to serve as Enyon’s second. My station is at his side, not off in another country.”
The queen’s eyes turned cold. “Your duty is what your father says it is, young lady. I won’t hear any more of this. The arrangements are made.”
“But they’re not final,” Senara leaned forward, “not until the marriage is complete. If Father offered different terms–“
“You will stop this at once!” The queen leaned forward and reached out to squeeze Senara’s arm. She winced in pain as her mother continued. “The time for that has passed. Prince Hakon wants you for his bride, the more the fool he, and so he shall have you. We will not anger our new allies by backing out when our word has been given. Your father will get not one hint of this dissent, am I clear?” She squeezed harder.
Senara looked away. “Yes, your Majesty.”
“Good.” Her mother let go and sat back. “I suggest you get what rest you need to sort this attitude of yours. Prince Hakon has asked for you to dine with him when we stop for the evening.” She turned her eyes back to her needlework and put Senara out of her mind entirely.
Senara sagged against the back of her seat. Given her mother’s lack of sympathy and not at all veiled disdain for her feelings, she couldn’t even begin to imagine going to her father with her pleas to cancel the wedding. It sounded as if he’d never even considered her Enyon’s second at all. That would explain why he didn’t bother having her begin training sooner. Had this always been her fate? Mother had taken the time to make sure Senara could run a palace, but perhaps that had just been what her parents expected would be her role wherever she got sent when they married her off. She couldn’t shake the feeling that if she had been prepared for this destiny, she might have been able to better reconcile herself to it. Maybe she would have even gotten to have some say in her intended husband. But to be blindsided by the arrangement as she had, how had they expected her to react?
Like the meek little public-pleasing princess you’ve always shown them, of course. Why would they expect anything different if you never gave them reason to?
She brushed away that depressing thought. It wasn’t as if she’d been given any leeway to push the boundaries set out for her. From the day she’d been born in defiance of their expectations, they’d set to work ensuring that she wouldn’t disobey them again. Senara wanted to please her parents, or at least avoid their disapproval, so she’d gone along, assuming everything would work out for the best.
Look where that got me.
If only Hakon had remained apprehensive about the match, she could go to him and convince him of a different option. She knew he’d jump at the chance to bring alchemy to Astra. Once he’d mentioned it to her, she’d noticed several occasions where his awe of the practice shone through. He wanted access to alchemy, she knew he did. Maybe he wants it more than he wants to marry me? She had four days to find out. Her hand rested once more on the hidden map. Something told her once they reached the river, she’d be out of chances to escape.
By dinner, Senara was a nervous wreck. She’d spent the day rehearsing in her head what she’d say to Hakon, how she’d convince him to call off the wedding. If he was the one to do it, Father wouldn’t object for fear of offending the Astrians and losing the treaty. She still had to figure out a way to leave the caravan undetected, but first she had to make sure she wasn’t about to start a war by running away.
“Senara, darling, you look peaked. Do you not travel well?” Hakon said by way of greeting when she joined him in his wagon for dinner. He’d had a small marble table brought in and placed between the benches built into the sides. Senara was amazed the wagon could support its weight, especially loaded down as it was with a lavish meal far richer than she expected on the road. He frowned at her in concern, but something told Senara it wasn’t for her well-being. “I do hope you won’t be sick the whole way home. It won’t do for you to arrive in Astra looking weak and weathered.”
Was this her opening? “Forgive me, your Highness, I am just nervous.”
“Nervous? Whatever for?”
Whatever for? You mean aside from being taken from my home and sent off to a strange land to marry a man I’ve only just met? She pushed down her irritation at his confusion and tried to sound reasonable. “Leaving Sunpeak is a big change, your Highness. I am still unsure of what to expect in Astra.” She paused to gage his reaction. His brow furrowed, but he didn’t seem annoyed. “I can’t help but wonder if I am the right fit for Princess Consort.”
“You’re my choice for Princess Consort,” he snorted, dismissing her concern and reaching for his fork. “That is qualification enough.”
“But I’m not your choice,” Senara pressed. “My father chose for you, to secure the treaty.”
Hakon paused, his eyes narrowed. “What are you saying, Senara?”
“I just wonder if we aren’t rushing into this. We scarcely know one another, and there are other ways to secure the treaty. Wouldn’t you rather choose who to marry on your own terms?”
“Just so that I am clear,” he set down his fork with deliberate care and the ice in his voice made Senara shiver, “are you saying that you don’t want to marry me?”
Oh, no. This isn’t going well. Still, she was in it now. “I’m saying,” she tried, weighing her words, “I don’t want to marry anyone right now. Not if there’s another option.”
“Well. That is unfortunate.” His face and voice remained mild but his eyes darkened. Senara shivered again. “Although I suppose I should be thankful you’ve showed this disobedient streak now so that I can properly subdue it.”
“What?” Before Senara could work through his words, Hakon reached across the table and seized her by the throat.
He stood, sidestepping the table, filling the close space of the wagon, and pulled her against him, holding her up high enough that she had to stand on the tips of her toes. “Let me be clear with you. You are not mine yet but you will be soon. What you want is irrelevant because you have been promised to me. There is no other option. Do you understand?” He loosened his grip enough for her to manage a panicked nod, then lowered his hand. Senara watched him with wide eyes, unable to move. Hakon smirked and took in her fear with satisfaction.
“Once we are wed, I’ll be able to properly teach you your place. But until then,” he swung a fist into her stomach with enough force to knock the breath from her body. She couldn’t even cry out in pain as she collapsed to the floor of the wagon. Hakon stood over her for a long moment, then retook his seat. “I’m glad we understand one another.” Senara managed to look up and found him eating his dinner with implacable calm. Her eyes darted to the door, but Hakon said, “I wouldn’t, if I were you. Your situation can get worse, my dear. Now, come back to the table and eat your dinner. We can’t have you getting scrawny and not fitting into your wedding gown.”
The last thing Senara wanted was food. Her stomach ached where he’d struck her and she wasn’t certain she’d be able to keep anything down. But Hakon glanced at her with narrowed eyes and said, with annoyance, “Eat.”
Senara pushed herself up and went to the table.
The meal seemed interminable. She couldn’t wait to get away from him and go back to her own wagon. Chance of war be damned, she wasn’t going to let herself become Hakon’s punching bag. She’d leave tonight no matter the consequences. But he must have suspected something of her intentions, because when he finished eating, Hakon called in his guards to remove the remaining food and the table. As soon as it was gone, he turned to her with a hard face. “You no doubt think you can use our earlier discussion to plead your case to your father. While I think you underestimate his drive to secure this alliance, I won’t risk you ruining my plans.”
“You can’t stop me from speaking to my parents,” she told him, wishing she sounded surer of her statement. Not yet, at any rate.
“Can’t I?” That smug self-satisfied smirk was back, and she cringed at how well it paired with the ice in his eyes. “It seems to me you’ve had a bad reaction to something that was served at dinner. Since I invited you here, it’s only fair that I let you recover in comfort in my wagon.” He moved like lightning, grabbing her wrist and twisting her arm behind her back before she could react to his movement. As he yanked a silken drape tie from the wall, he leaned close and hissed in her ear. “Right now, Senara, I am only mildly displeased. This can go much worse for you. So much worse.” He wrenched her arm, drawing a whimper of pain. “You will not cry out, or I will make the rest of your days miserable. Believe me when I tell you that I intend to see you live for a long, long time yet. Do you believe me, Senara?”
She believed him. She managed a shaky nod and his smirk softened into a pleased smile as he tied the cord around her wrists, securing them behind her back. He dragged her back to her bench and pushed her down, securing the other end of the cord to one of the bench’s legs so that she had to kneel on the floor. Hakon wasn’t satisfied with this humiliation and tore down another drape tie. “Put your legs out.” She hesitated and he slapped her across the face, whipping her head around. She choked back a sob and scrambled to free her legs. “Good girl,” Hakon crooned, leaning over to tie her ankles together and fasten them to the leg of the opposite bench. “There. That will keep you from causing any trouble, I think.” He looked at her for a few moments, seeming lost in thought, then pulled a scarf from a drawer tucked under one of the benches, out of her reach. He knelt beside her and ran a hand up her arm, offering what she thought was supposed to be a reassuring smile. “Now, as you’ve pointed out, we don’t know each other very well yet, and you’ve shown me tonight that I can’t yet trust you to follow orders,” he spoke for all the world like he was trying to calm a skittish horse–or a recalcitrant child–and ran his hand up and down her arm in a soothing gesture. “I’m going to gag you, now, but if you behave yourself, you might earn the right to have it removed later, all right?” He waited for her shaky nod before tying the scarf around her mouth, muffling the sobs that she was no longer trying to hide. Hakon patted her on the shoulder and stood, looking down at her. “Don’t worry, darling, this isn’t forever. You can stay in here and think about your proper place until we reach the river, and then we’ll see about letting you out on your own again. Let’s consider this our getting acquainted phase, shall we? Once you understand and accept your duty to me, I doubt these measures will be necessary. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should go let your parents know you’ve fallen ill and don’t wish to be disturbed until you’re feeling better. As your soon-to-be husband, it is only right, after all, that I be the one to care for you, don’t you think? Good night, Senara.”
With that, he stepped out into the night, leaving her tied up on the floor, crying softly through the gag.
She had no idea what he told her family, but whatever it was, they believed him. No one came to check on her. She saw only Hakon. He brought her meals–broth and bread and weak tea as if she really was sick–and after a whole day of her not making any noise, he gave her a cushion to sit on. She found herself wishing she could roll over and use it to smother herself. Death would be preferable to the fate that she now knew awaited her in Astra. The temperatures dropped as they traveled, but Hakon didn’t bring her a blanket. The cold, combined with her strained position and being unable to shift, made her leg ache terribly. Senara didn’t think it had hurt that much even when she’d broken it. Everyone surely would believe she’d been ill when she was allowed to finally reemerge on the ship.
She spent two days tied up like that, falling into a deeper and deeper pit of despair and accepting that she would never be free of her situation.
Then the voice spoke inside of her head.