Wisteria wasn’t sure if her wedding day was the happiest day of her life – the day Nikola asked her to marry him gave it stiff competition – but she was undeniably happy. There were a few flaws in the perfection of the day, most of them falling under the header of “mother” and “mother-in-law-to-be”. The two women seemed determined to make even the most minor of issues sound like a major disaster. Last minute uncertainties in Queen Felicia’s schedule threw both women into fits, even though Prince Edgar was attending and had already confirmed his willingness to officiate if his mother didn’t arrive in time. Then the queen had arrived this morning and sent notice that she would perform the service, rendering the whole issue moot. The place cards, which had been delivered weeks ago, had a pattern of gold leaves on them which did not match the pattern of gold vines-and-leaves on the borders of the tablecloths, an issue Wisteria had not noticed even after her mother had pointed to the two in horror three days ago. New place cards were to be printed and delivered but had not yet arrived and Mrs. Vasilver was in a panic over it. “Everything has to be perfect!”
Lady Striker, meanwhile, had uncovered some problem or other with the soup course of the wedding feast and was flying hither and yon in an effort to make various hapless servants and caterers rectify it to her satisfaction.
Fortunately, neither woman expected Wisteria to address these matters. A few weeks ago, Wisteria had taken to responding to every statement on the lines of “There’s a problem with the wedding plans!” with “Has Lord Nikola changed his mind about marrying?” When the answer came back as “No” she would respond, “Then it’s not important.” This had not stopped anyone from telling her what they thought was wrong, but it had stopped them from expecting that she would care.
The marriage was taking place at the Alastasia Temple, in the duchy of Viant. The location was chosen not for convenience – it was close to neither Gracehaven nor Anverlee County nor Fireholt – but for prestige. The summer court was held in Viant. By long tradition, the members of the upper nobility – royalty, dukes, margraves, and counts – and their designated heirs had the right to an officiant from among the royal family and the right to be married at Alastasia Temple. An Alastasia Temple wedding was, Mrs. Warwick assured her, every little girl’s dream. Even Mrs. Warwick and her sister had not been wed here, as they were not heir to their father’s title, and their husbands were gentleborn but not titled.
In one sense, it was unfair that the direct recipients of this very great honor were so indifferent to it. In another, Wisteria reflected that the whole of the wedding was for the benefit of their two families, who appreciated the honor enough to make up for a score of uninterested wedding couples.
Wisteria’s wedding dress was even more elaborate than her gown for the Ascension ball. Unlike Ascension fashions, the style was classic and varied little, though hers employed modern materials. The underdress was spotless white lace over layers of silk opulence, with a full skirt that flared from the waist to swish about her ankles. The overdress was golden flaxvelvet with insets of matching lace, the whole trimmed in gold beads and set with indigo sapphires. The colors were symbolic: white for purity, gold for prosperity, and indigo because her intended was a peer. The overdress included a matching attached cape, secured along the shoulders and down the sleeves of the dress and extending behind her for several yards. There were two little girls, children of servants, trained for the role of following her about to hold the cape off the ground, until it was detached for the party afterwards. It would only trail during the ceremony itself. Wisteria wore her mother’s wedding jewelry for the ceremony: a necklace dripping with diamonds and gold ear cuffs and bracelets to match. As servants swarmed about Wisteria, arranging her various garments, she wondered if she ought to have put her foot down about some of these extravagances.
The Alastasia Temple dated back to the third century: the work of dozens of Blessed for stone and plants, as well as myriad other craftsmen, after the sacking of Viant destroyed the original temple. The original, by all accounts, had been a far more modest affair. Successive generations of kings and queens had added their own touches to the temple to make it ever-grander and more imposing. Like all temples, it was a round building with a speaker’s circle at the center. Unlike most temples, the speaker’s circle was lowered and the seats surrounding it rose in tiers of polished hardwood, inlaid with elaborate knotwork, and it included dedicated seating for a small orchestra. The domed roof alternated gleaming alabaster and panels of stained glass. The temple was enormous, so large that Nikola’s four-hundred-something invited guests filled only the lowest tiers. The ceremony itself, as was traditional for a marriage involving a peer, was open to the public. Thousands of commoners were in the higher tiers to watch the spectacle: there were just a hundred and three titles of a rank of count or above, so marriages involving them were rare. Hundreds of the spectators were greatcats; Justin had never seen so many greatcats gathered under one roof. Viant was a full day’s journey from Fireholt even for a greatcat; Justin had to wonder how many of them had made the long trip to see their lord wed.
Justin had come with his sister Meg and her husband, Henry Walker, who had received invitations of their own. While Justin’s invitation allowed him to bring a guest, no one assumed a bachelor such as he was would travel with a female companion. Which was as well, since he was in no mood to entertain some near-stranger of an acquaintance. Meg and his brother-in-law were much more suitable for the occasion: Henry Walker was a bluff, self-absorbed man without the wit to notice whether his companions were lively or not, and it was not in Meg’s nature to rely on anyone else to entertain her. Justin had to exert himself enough to be civil and show a semblance of good humor instead of sinking completely into brooding, but if his conversation lacked its usual polish no one remarked on it.
Justin feared Meg truly was jealous of Miss Vasilver; Meg had had nothing good to say of the match since its announcement five months ago. Justin had discouraged his sister from speaking ill of Miss Vasilver or Nikola’s prospects and Meg was making an effort to hide her resentment, but he did not think her happy about the proceedings.
As they watched the wedding begin, music swelling from the orchestra, Justin was not sure how he felt about it himself. Part of him was consumed by jealousy, of Nikola for marrying the one woman Justin had ever wanted, of Wisteria for taking from him the one man he’d ever loved.
Another part was happy – not thought-he-ought-to-be-happy, but genuinely pleased – that the two were marrying. They were both good people, the most intelligent, principled, generous people he knew. They were perfect for one another. Justin did not want to keep them apart.
But he regretted extremely that their union must inevitably separate him from them.
The east and west doors at the top of the temple opened, and all necks craned to one side or the other to watch the procession begin. Servants pulled levers at the top of either side, which opened dozens of cages that lined the stairwell, each full of white and gold swallowtail butterflies. The butterflies swarmed out to fill the air like confetti. Next came the siblings of the bride from the west, and the siblings of the groom from the east, each with spouse and children over the age of eight, if applicable. Each member of these groups carried basketfuls of wedding favors, cleverly folded paper creations designed to sail through the air, each carrying a mark-note – most singles, but a random few of larger denominations – in its interior. The favors were strewn liberally into the crowd in the higher tiers. The children and some of the men hurled them with particular vigor, ensuring that members of the crowd in the middle stood as good a chance at snatching one from the air as those near the edge. The greatcats, who would have had a tremendous advantage at the game in speed and reach, politely refrained from playing, though some of the youngest greatkittens could not resist batting ones down.
By the time they reached the lower tiers, the baskets had been emptied and the bride and bridegroom had made their appearance. Wisteria was mounted sidesaddle on a pure white greatcat in gold harness. The train of her cape flowed out over the greatcat’s flanks and fell to trail down the steps behind her as the greatcat bore her in slow, measured steps to the speaker’s circle. On the opposite side of the temple, Nikola descended, riding on Anthser. That greatcat’s fur remained its usual black, rather than bleached to the traditional white. His cape and harness were in Fireholt orange, however, making him match Fireholt’s colors of black and orange; perhaps that nod to Nikola’s holding was substituted here. Nikola’s own attire was a masculine version of Wisteria’s: white satin breeches with gold buckles, white silk hose, white shoes with gold buckles, white shirt with gold lace cuffs and jabot, brocade jacket of gold lace over white. He wore more expensive jewelry than Justin had ever seen on him: hair clasp studded with sapphire chips, rings over his gloves, a lapel brooch inset with indigo sapphires large enough to flash even at this distance, and the gold chain and obsidian pendant of a mind healer crossing his chest.
The parents walked, arms linked, behind their offspring. As the first of the siblings approached the speaker’s circle, they filed into the seats of the lowest tier. When the greatcats reached the bottom step, they too stopped. Their riders dismounted, turned to their respective parents, took their hands, kissed cheeks ceremoniously, and then turned to the speaker’s circle. Each crossed alone to meet the other at the center, capes drifting in their wake. A pace apart, they stopped. Nikola bowed low to her and fell gracefully to one knee as she dropped into a deep curtsey. The orchestra fell silent.
Queen Felicia, seated in her throne at the edge of the speaker’s circle, rose. The vast temple was still other than the fluttering of butterfly wings. “Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, heir of Anverlee, by the grace of the Savior Blessed as healer of minds. Miss Wisteria Vasilver. You are come today in the presence of the Savior, your liege, your families, your friends, and your people to unite your lives and your families in sacred matrimony. Lord Rukert Striker, Count of Anverlee; Lady Voleta Rukert Striker, Countess of Anverlee: do you give your consent to this marriage?”
“We do.” The two spoke together from the east edge of the circle, Lady Striker’s voice wavery as she dabbed at her eyes.
“Mr. Ethan Vasilver, Mrs. Madeleine Ethan Vasilver: do you give your consent to this marriage?”
“We do,” Wisteria’s parents echoed. This portion was traditional rather than legal: parental consent was required where inheritance and parental property were concerned, but marriage itself only required a titled officiant (or one’s designated gentleborn representative) and the consent of the two people marrying.
“Lord Nikola. Miss Vasilver. You have the blessing of the Savior, the permission of your liege, the support of your families, and the goodwill of your nation in entering this union. In the years to come, you will find yourself relying on all of these things. Depend on the Savior most of all, my dears; he’s the most reliable of the lot of us,” Queen Felicia said to them, as smiles broke out across the crowd. “But you are in this circle alone because the ultimate success of your marriage rests upon you. The Savior and all of us wish for a more perfect Paradise for you, but it lies in your hands to build it. Conflicts in daily life are inevitable: it falls to you to resolve them with compassion, patience, and trust. You will know hardships, sickness, and suffering in your life together: it falls to you to share these burdens, to do what you may without resentment, to accept what is given to you with grace. It falls to you, Lord Nikola, to lead your wife wisely, to ensure the prosperity and honor of your holdings. It falls to you, Miss Vasilver, to obey your husband in all things, to nurture your household and your family with love and honor.
“Lord Nikola. Please rise,” the queen continued. Nikola stood, opening the velvet box in his hands as she continued, “Will you pledge yourself to Miss Vasilver?”
“With all my heart.” Nikola smiled, radiant, unreserved, as he turned to his bride. He took the gold, diamond-studded tiara of the Countess of Anverlee from the velvet box. It was customary for a groom to shower his bride with jewels at the wedding, as a show of his ability to provide for his new family. For a count’s heir, this was a traditional choice, even though as part of the county entailment it would not fall to Wisteria’s hands until the current Count of Anverlee passed on. Nikola placed it on her brow just the same. “My lady, I pledge my life to you, to honor and guide you, to cherish and protect you, to be true to you always, through all our days together.” He held out his hands to her.
Queen Felicia turned to Wisteria. “Miss Vasilver. Please rise. Will you pledge yourself to Lord Nikola?”
Wisteria took his hands and rose. “With all my heart.” Her expression was grave and calm even now, but her voice projected to the top of the temple as she continued, “My lord, I pledge my life to you, to honor and obey you, to nurture our family, to be true to you always, through all our days together.”
The queen lay her own hands over their joined ones. “And so let you be as one, and let nothing sunder you apart.” The orchestra swelled again as Queen Felicia stepped back and Nikola took Wisteria in his arms to kiss her. The crowd in the upper tiers cheered, greatcats roaring their approval, while the more dignified guests confined themselves to applause.
Justin joined in the applause, blinking hard and biting the inside of his cheek to avoid weeping openly.
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