Nicoletta stretched her hand out in front of her to allow Mary to slip a ring onto her finger then tilted her hand from side to side, admiring the way the diamond sparkled.
“Nervous, Milady?” Mary asked.
“Nervous? Never. I’m dying of excitement,” Nicoletta answered without looking at Mary, unable to tear her gaze away from her own reflection in the mirror. She ran her fingers down the silky front of her gown, smoothing out the nonexistent wrinkles. “I have been waiting for this day my whole life, Mary, there’s no way I could be nervous.”
“Of course, I misspoke, Princess. Now, where did I leave that nettlesome veil?”
“In the drawing room, on the chaise.”
“Oh! You’re right, I’ll fetch it now.” Mary waddled out unnoticed by Nicoletta as she continued to admire her reflection. She lifted her heavy skirts and poked her foot out, turning it from side to side, allowing the row upon row of small crystals to catch the light.
Married, she thought, Today, I’ll be married at last. A grin split her face as she twirled atop her pedestal.
“Compose yourself, Milady!” Mary called as she stepped back into the room, “You’ll wrinkle your gown.”
“What do you think he’s like?”
“Well, what do you think he’ll be like?”
“I think he’ll be handsome and charming and rich. I bet he is the richest man in all of Lota. Once I’m married I want to own a dozen gowns all as magnificent as this one.” Nicoletta twirled again causing Mary to cluck her tongue.
“Rich or not you’ll still have to marry him. As your father commands it. If I were you, Milady, I would get your head out of the clouds lest your impossible standards leave you less than satisfied.”
“Mary! How could you say something like that? He has to be rich. I am a princess, I deserve only the best.” Mary rolled her eyes as she placed her fists atop her hips.
“There is more to a man than his money. Gold does not make a man kind.”
“Well Father would not promise me to an unkind man now, would he?”
Mary sighed and gathered both of Nicoletta’s hands in her own. “My child, ever since you were a wee thing you have adored your father, but it has been a long time since those days when he would play with you in the garden.”
“What is your point with all of this Mary?”
“I just don’t want you to be hurt if you come to realize that your father is not all the man that he used to be.”
“I don’t like what you are insinuating. My father is a good man.”
“I am not saying that he isn’t. I just want you to be careful.”
Nicoletta’s back stiffened. “Who are you to tell me what to do? You are just a maid.”
“Yes, I know that is all I am.” Mary’s eyes softened. “Nevertheless, I have been with you for many years now. I would like to think that I know you by now. I have raised you like my own and I love you, Milady.”
Nicoletta held out her arms and Mary went into her embrace, holding her lightly so as not to wrinkle the gown.
“I love you too. I did not mean to snap.”
“I know. You mean so much to me, Milady. I just hope that your dreams do not cloud your reality.” Mary stepped away from Nicoletta and fanned her misty eyes. “Now come down here so that I may put your veil on your head.”
Nicoletta stood in front of the large wooden doors that led into the chapel. A booming organ played. Mary straightened the slender tiara atop Nicoletta’s head.
“If I didn’t know better, Milady, I would say you look nervous.” Mary raised an eyebrow as Nicoleta pressed both her hands against her stomach.
“Perhaps you were just the slightest bit right in your assessment. My dress is so heavy and my shoes are so delicate. I’ll trip for sure.”
“You have always walked with such grace. No one will even notice if you stumble.”
“There will be so many eyes on me.”
“You look radiant, your beauty will blind everyone from any missteps.” Nicoletta turned to Mary and clutched her hands.
“Thank you Mary. This is why you’ve always been my favorite maid.”
“Oh! Don’t go getting emotional on me. It’s time! Hurry! Stand up straight and smile!” Mary flipped Nicoletta’s veil over her face, letting the fabric flutter into place shrouding Nicoletta’s features just as the doors began to creak open and the music began to swell.
Nicoletta glided down the aisle in a trance. Whispers zinged around the pews as the guests marveled at Nicoletta’s opulent gown and accessories.
When Nicoletta reached the end of the aisle she climbed the few steps to her waiting fiance and raised her hand to place it in his, her bracelets clinking lightly as she moved her arm.
A hot clammy hand clamped down upon hers. His skin was wrinkled and had liver spots, looking ancient against Nicoletta’s smooth skin. His grip was tight, unielding. Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic, he’s only nervous just like you. Right?
Even from behind the veil, Nicoletta noticed his short stature accentuated by a round belly. His breaths wheezed in and puffed out, sending with them an overwhelming stench of rot.
To Nicoletta, the ceremony dragged on and on. She couldn’t stop thinking about the vise grip her fiance had on her wrist. She tried to subtly twist her wrist to make him loosen his hold but all he did was hold on tighter. Her hand began to sweat and her fingers slowly went numb and tingly.
“Now you may kiss the bride.” Nicoletta almost didn’t hear the priest’s words. Kiss? I have to kiss this? Wait, I want this, right? Confusion swirled within her. Why, why am I suddenly so full of dread?
Her fiance released his grip only to latch onto the veil. When he flicked it behind Nicoletta’s head she got her first full glance of him. She fought to contain her gasp.
He had greasy hair, what was left of it, slicked away from his forehead. His skin was pockmarked and ruddy.
Nicoletta’s eyes darted about his figure frantically, searching for something, any redeeming quality he might have. But where she hoped to find a kind gaze, all she saw was hunger. He knew that she was his, a possession. Nicoletta jerked her head to her father’s eyes, begging for help.
The king’s expression was hard. He would not help her. He knew who this man was and still he sold his daughter to him.
Nicoletta turned her eyes back to her fiance just as he took a step towards her. She stumbled back, desperate to escape his grasp.
“No.” She mumbled.
“No? No! How dare you deny me?” He lunged for Nicoletta’s arm but she jumped back again. I can’t. I won’t.
Nicoletta took one second to look at the large wooden doors before lurching in their direction. She staggered down the aisle, each step seeming to take an eternity. Her left foot wobbled, the delicate heel threatening to take her down, her legs drowning in yards of heavy silk.
Her hands touched the oak doors. She tasted freedom.
Nicoletta didn’t know how long she ran but when she couldn’t run any longer, she found herself collapsed in a large open field full of golden wheat. Her shoes were gone, her hair was loose, falling haphazardly across her back and shoulders. Her once pristinely white dress was torn and muddy.
Nicoletta’s breath sucked in, stabbing at her lungs, and whooshed out, keeping time with the throbbing of her calves. She only had the energy to sit and stare at the sun as it slowly kissed the mountains.
Nicoletta gasped and turned. A young man stood a little behind her, bending down slightly.
“Miss, are you alright?”
“I don’t...I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Nicoletta stared down at her hands. She noticed small cuts on her fingers and a leaf caught in a piece of lace.
A hand appeared in her vision.
“Let me help you.”
Nicoletta moved to place her hand in his, but she cringed back at the dirt caked under his nails. She turned her gaze to his face. His eyes, they were so kind, crinkled slightly at the edges and warm. She placed her hand in his. Hers soft and pale from years locked away in a palace; his rough and tan from years laboring in the sun.
“I’m...Nicole.” She winced when a sharp twig dug into the sole of her foot as Henry pulled her up from the ground.
“You’re a long way from the palace, Nicole.”
“How did you—?”
“That dress, the only place it could have come from is the palace. Folks out here don’t have such fine garments.”
“Well, it’s not very fine anymore.” Nicoletta said under her breath.
“Oh, I’m sure anything would look fine so long as you were wearing it, miss.” Nicoletta’s cheeks flushed. She peeked at Henry’s face from beneath lowered lashes. He’s quite handsome, I guess, even with the dirt. “Come, Nicole, let’s get you inside where you can wash up and rest those poor feet.” Henry began to lead her to a small abode, tucked against a line of trees.
Nicoletta paused. As kind as Henry was, she didn’t know him. Nicoletta, unused to forming her own opinions about people, was unsure of what to think of him.
“You would take me in, just like that? I’m sure you have so many questions about what I am doing here,” Nicoletta said, knowing full well that she had many questions of her own.
“I have questions, yes. But those can wait. Right now it seems as though you could really use some kindness.”
“Kindness or not, I don’t know you, sir.” Nicoletta straightened her shoulders hoping to appear a little more intimidating.
“I mean you no harm, madam.”
Nicoletta only narrowed her eyebrows.
“Or perhaps you would like to take your chances with them?” Henry tilted his head towards the tree line from which Nicoletta had emerged.
“Can’t you hear that? In the distance?” Nicoletta shook her head. “Listen harder. The clanking, the snorting. Palace horses perhaps.”
Nicoletta’s eyes widened.
“I’m not looking to hurt you. Please let me help you.”
“But you just threatened me!”
“It was not a threat, milady! Honest! I was only warning you. You did not seem too eager to go back, I only wish to help you evade them.”
Nicoletta thought for a moment. Seemingly kind and helpful Henry or palace guards and evil husbands. It did not seem like such a hard choice to Nicoletta. Yes, kindness is worth more than a hundred fine gowns.
“Henry! Henry, come quick!” Nicoletta wiped her wet hands on her apron and moved to the window. A fire crackled in the hearth filling the small house with it’s warmth.
“What is it, dear? What’s wrong?” Henry came racing into the room and paused when he was right behind Nicoletta.
“It’s the first snow.” Nicoletta placed her hand upon the glass window, the cold surface chilling her fingertips. “In the palace, I only ever saw snow from inside. I was never allowed out.”
“It amazes me at how excited you get over the most mundane of things.” Henry placed his hand around her waist and pressed a kiss to her temple.
“Snow is not mundane. It’s wonderful, mystical, beautiful. I am your wife, how dare you tease me so!” Henry’s hearty laugh rang out.
“Me? Tease you? Well I never!”
“Come, I want to build a snowman.” Nicoletta rushed to the front door where she began lacing up her boots.
“A snowman? My love, it is cold outside and you’ll get dirty.”
“Who cares about a little dirt?”
“I remember a time when you cared about a little dirt.” Henry chuckled as he cupped Nicoletta’s cheek, rubbing away a small dirty streak. Nicoletta paused in her task of lacing her boots to glance up at Henry and gave him a soft smile. Then she stood up and placed her hands on her hips.
“Henry, I may be your wife but I am still a princess. I command you to put on your boots and enjoy the snow with me.”
“For you, your highness? Anything.”