In this installment of my new fantasy romance, Ash Fall, by K. Lynn Bay, Asha discovers exactly what she’s in for with her in-laws-to-be. Click here to read the book’s description and the Prologue.
“Princess Asha,” Paen said. “Your new home.” He swept a gesture across the valley to the enormous manor house standing on a slight rise beyond the river.
“Ooh!” Miranna breathed and gripped her arm. “How beautiful!”
Asha’s stomach felt like someone had made her drink mud. Shouldn’t it feel the opposite? As Ama had said, the mansion was beautiful, a high front of golden stone, graceful wings spreading on either side embracing a pond with a fountain and a park of small trees. Red and gold pennants twisted lazily in the breeze. A barge, its sail furled to its mast, glided along water glinting in the afternoon sun.
“It is lovely,” Elan said and laid her hand on Asha’s shoulder. “An auspicious beginning.”
Asha didn’t believe in omens. Her gut had always been far more accurate. This time, she had to ignore it.
She would rather have ridden in with dignity. She had to content herself with the view between the parted green and yellow draperies. Mira and Kiriei and Larenn exclaimed and chattered, owning all the excitement that ought to have been Asha’s. Elan, watching Asha, had the sense to be calmer, only pointing out a curious donkey with its head over a fence, a rambling rose in full bloom, a picturesquely twisted oak. These observations had the desired effect of taking Asha’s mind off their destination.
At last they clattered into the court. The high front of the house blotted out most of the sky, the wings enclosed them, the towers speared the clouds.
Oh, Mother, Asha thought, give me strength.
A great number of people filled the courtyard—grooms and footmen and guards, drivers and drovers and carters. There was the flurry of getting down from the carriage, gloved hands holding her bare ones. She passed between servants bowing and murmuring like reeds before a storm, then up granite steps to great carved doors that gaped open to swallow them all.
“Their Highnesses, the Conns, await you, Princess,” Paen said beside her.
His voice echoed away through a great entry hall, the painted dragons and Valkyries on its ceiling high enough overhead to be in the clouds in truth.
Elan frowned. “My lady is weary and travel-worn after so many days on the road. Mightn’t she rest and wash?”
“Oh, yes, indeed,” Miranna piped up. “We’re hardly fit to be seen.”
For her own part, Asha wanted the meeting over and done with. If the Conns wanted their first glimpse of her to be rumpled and begrimed, still dressed in her boots and divided riding skirt, that was their choice.
“Their Highnesses’ eagerness is not to be denied,” Paen said in a tone somewhere between apologetic and reproachful.
“Then surely,” Asha said, “we mustn’t disappoint them.”
Paen bowed and smiled.
If the abrupt summons was meant to put her in her place, it had exactly the opposite effect. By presenting herself so promptly, tired and uncomfortable, the situation allowed Asha to be gracious and generous.
She raised her head and swept ahead of the rest. Tall double doors, gilded and silvered and painted with lilies, swung open before her.
Six people, three women and three men—or rather, two men and a boy—waited in the room. All turned as she entered. One of the women looked close to Asha’s age. A daughter? The other two might’ve been sisters. One of the men straightened in his chair and turned to face her. The boy’s jaw dropped and his gaze traveled up and down, then up again to linger in the vicinity of her chest.
Her face heated and she fought the impulse to bow to hide it. “I am Asha Thiel,” she said, excruciatingly aware of six pairs of eyes on her, of Paen stuttering behind her. It suddenly occurred to her that he had been meant to make the introduction. Oh, well.
“Well,” the seated man breathed, his eyes moving over her exactly the way the boy’s had. “Well, well, well.” His thin smile parted to show gleaming teeth.
Was this, then, to be her husband? No, he was too old. They’d said Gire Conn was a young man.
One of the women rose to her feet. She was very large, very tall, with silvering auburn hair done in a complicated weave. “Come forward, young woman,” she said.
Asha did. The woman held her in a pale, narrow gaze.
“I am Tyr, Bel Conn’s lady.” She introduced the other ladies—her daughter, Pelar, sister Isal.
The seated man—Bel—bowed his head with a strange twist and smiled his gleaming smile.
Asha looked at the other man in the room, a tall, flabby, sour-looking man. It can’t be him, she promised herself. He’s still too old.
The Lady Tyr turned a hand toward the boy. “This is our son, Prince Gire. Your betrothed.”
Asha took a startled breath. But he’s only a boy! She barely kept herself from saying it, bowing her head to hide her dismay. “My lord,” she murmured.
He was scarcely old enough to grow whiskers—a thin crop straggled across his upper lip and chin. Red spots speckled his cheeks and forehead and nose.
He leered at her, his eyes still fixed on her chest. “Princess Asha. Welcome.”
Welcome! Oh, Mother.
“Thiel has sent our son a fine wife.” Lady Tyr’s tone didn’t match her words. “I can see you’ll please my son well.”
“Yes, very well,” Bel said, rolling a button on his vest between his fingers.
Asha suppressed a powerful urge to step back.
“You must be weary after your long journey,” Lady Tyr said. “Paen will show you to your rooms. Rest.”
“Mother,” Gire said. “Perhaps I might show the princess her new home tonight, after she’s eaten and rested.” He turned to Asha. “Would you like that, Princess? Would you like to see all the rooms of our house? Would you like to see the rooms you and I will share?”
Asha swallowed and called up a smile. “Yes, my lord. I thank you.”
Paen was by her elbow. Asha bowed her head and made her escape.
Elan and Miranna waited with the others of her small retinue. Elan searched her face, but Asha avoided her eye. It was all she could do to keep from bursting out, Oh, Elan, this is bad. This is very bad. The sudden, vivid realization blazed over her that her ladies, too, were trapped here.
Elan must’ve seen something in her face. She took Asha’s arm as Paen led them up stairs and along passageways, up more stairs. He spoke and gestured, Asha smiled and nodded. Another door opened on a sumptuous chamber, silks and cushions, draperies and weavings. Mira cooed and exclaimed. Asha still smiled and nodded.
“Jem will show your ladies to the servant’s chambers,” Paen said. “Lady Tyr’s personal attendant will join you here.”
Asha jerked her attention to the present. “What? No. My ladies have always had chambers adjoining mine.”
Paen gave his half-apologetic, half-scolding smile. “I will speak to my Lord and Lady, Princess. But Lady Tyr’s attendant must see you in private.”
Stop calling me Princess! Asha wanted to shout. “Very well. But we will discuss tonight’s arrangements for my ladies.” She couldn’t afford to lose an inch of ground.
“As you wish, Princess,” Paen said and bowed his way out, sweeping Elan and Mira and the others with him.
Asha locked arm on arm and paced the room. Ama and Papi could’ve known nothing of this place—these people. They never would’ve sent her here if they had. Certainly Shen wouldn’t have stood for it. If the Conns thought for a moment—
The latch clicked and the door hushed open. Asha turned quickly. A slab-cheeked woman with a red forehead stepped into the room. Like everyone else in this cursed place, her gaze swept Asha from head to toe and back again, then she made a little bow.
“Princess Asha. I am Shar, Lady Tyr’s personal attendant. Please remove your garments.”
Asha stared at the woman. “I—I beg your pardon?”
“Remove your garments, if you please. I’m to examine you.”
Asha drew herself up. “Examine me! For what?”
The woman gave a small smile. “To ensure you’re fit to wed Prince Gire.”
Asha stammered wordlessly, heat blazing into her face. “Thiel will not tolerate this insult to me,” she finally said, low and furious.
Shar took a step nearer, making placating gestures. “Princess, I assure you. No insult is intended. Any lady wedding the Conns has had such an examination. You must understand the family is concerned for your honor, as well as theirs. I’m a midwife as well as Lady Tyr’s attendant. I promise you have nothing I haven’t seen before.”
Asha stood rigid and shaking with humiliation. Was this so common here, then? She’d never heard of such a thing before, and Ama had never hidden such matters from her. On the contrary, she’d been frank about what to expect in marriage and from men.
She calculated the results should she refuse. Loss of the alliance they badly needed. Embarrassment for her family. And Elan and Mira perhaps put in a precarious position where she, Asha, was their only protection.
She pushed out a shaking breath, turned her back and started undoing the buttons of her blouse.
Thankfully, Shar allowed her to keep her shift on.
“Very good, my lady,” she soothed and approached. “Be at ease. I promise you no hurt…”
Deft, strong fingers entered her and probed. Asha gritted her teeth, stared at the wall behind the silk-draped bed and tried to keep the rest of her body from clenching. A moment more and the fingers withdrew. A sound of splashing water came, Shar washing her hands.
Asha pulled down the hem of her shift and turned.
Lord Bel stood in the center of the room, his head cocked and smiling.
Asha choked back a scream. She wanted to wrap herself in the bed hangings, throw a footstool at him, disappear into the floor. But utter, disbelieving horror held her frozen.
“Will she do, Shar?” he said.
Asha flashed the woman a look, but Shar bowed and said, “Yes, my lord.”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “I think she will.”
Shar bowed once more and left the room, shutting the door behind her.
“Yes, my dear, you’ll do very well indeed,” Bel said again.
Standing straight and rigid in her shift, the air running cold fingers beneath it, Asha trembled with rage and horror. “I’ll be sure to tell my father you said so,” she said, her voice shaking, too. “And my brothers. They’ll be interested to hear, as well.”
Bel chuckled. “I’m certain you’ll tell him how wondrously happy we make you here. We’ll make you so happy you’ll cry aloud.”
“Your lady queen will be pleased to hear it,” Asha said. “I can’t wait to tell her.”
“My queen, yes,” Bel said. “Such a queen she is, bringing cuckoos into my house. How fine a thing it will be to see a young heir running up and down these halls one day soon.” He wet his lips, his eyes gleaming. “One day very soon. How proud I will be!”
Asha took a step back, unable to stop herself this time. “But my lord, I’m not yet wed into your house. So many things can change between now and then.”
He gave his little twist-headed bow. “The time will fly faster than you think. Now put on your gown, my dear, before you catch cold. Young Gire awaits the honor of showing you around.”
He bowed once more and left her.
She hurried to the door, and discovered, unsurprised, that there was no way to fasten it from within. No matter. She dragged a chair and the footstool she’d contemplated throwing and wedged them in front of it, trying to calm her shaking.
She shuddered and nausea twisted her gut. She rushed for the basin on the washstand, but nothing came up.
She hung over it, panting. No. She had to keep her wits. They were only three days ride from Thiel. Maybe double that, if they had to travel on foot. Longer than that cross-country. She would gather Elan and Mira and her two ladies and they’d make their plan. But first she had to get through this day.