Bride by Midnight
Seven years and eleven months later...
The stone wall was slimy and cold and unpleasant, but still Lyssa kept her hand pressed against it. She cherished the feel of the stone because it was solid. It was real. Complete darkness surrounded her, and complete silence took on a sound of its own—the horrifying sound of nothing and no one.
Her heart pounded, her mouth went dry. “Hello?” she whispered. “Is anyone there?” Someone, anyone. Please, dear God, let me not be alone.
Though she could still feel the cold stone floor beneath her feet, she began to sink rapidly, as if the dark room—walls and floor and all—was dropping out from beneath her. Her stomach flipped, she could not find purchase anywhere, and then the floor and the cold wall were gone, and she fell into a pit of nothingness that had no end. She fell and fell, and she screamed....
Lyssa’s head popped off the pillow. She was breathing too hard, and beads of perspiration covered her face. Her nightgown was damp with sweat and her palms were sticky. She clutched the sheet beneath her, hanging on for dear life as if she were still falling. The door to her small bedchamber opened, and her stepmother, the still-pretty Sinmora Tempest, stuck her head inside.
“Another bad dream, dear?” Though her voice was light, concern was clear in Sinmora’s eyes.
“Yes,” Lyssa answered.
“What was it about this time? Do you remember?”
Lyssa sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She rotated her ankles, turned her head and lifted her shoulders, one and then the other. “No. I don’t recall.” She hated to lie to her stepmother, but to tell everything would end in frustration for them both. Sinmora Tempest was a woman with her feet planted firmly on the ground. Lyssa had learned long ago that Sinmora had no real patience for concerns about bad dreams or a witch’s prophecy. Burned bread. A ripped hem. Too much rain, or not enough. To her stepmother those worries were solid and real, while nightmares were just dreams. A witch’s prophecies were allowed even less weight, even when it could be argued that they had, so far, been true. “I’ll be in to help you in just a few minutes.”
The early morning sun shone softly, breaking through the curtains that hung over an eastern-facing window, washing the small room with a yellowish, warm light. It was not dark here. A dream was just a dream....
She forced her thoughts forward. There was much to do in the next few hours, and she began to check off the chores ahead of her. Such a mental list would often drive the memory of the nightmare that plagued her so deep she could barely remember the details.
Sinmora smiled. “There is no need for you to work in the kitchen with me today. After all, it’s your wedding day.”
Lyssa refrained from adding “Again” in a voice that would surely betray her disappointment.
Sinmora did not mention the old prophecy; she ignored that worry, as always. “You can help your father today, if you’d like. He’ll be making a delivery to the palace this afternoon.”
Lyssa leaped off the bed and headed for her wardrobe, trying her best to leave the nightmare behind. She didn’t have to work on her wedding day, but she liked the palace. It was sprawling and magnificent, and filled with laughter and the high voices of children. She’d heard tales of a time when the palace had been a frightening place, a pile of stones infused with dark magic, a place where people often simply disappeared. But no more. The emperor and empress and their children had turned the palace into a sunny, loving place.
Perhaps a trip there would wipe the nightmare—and the memories—from her mind.
She couldn’t help but remember the words Vellance had spoken to her almost eight years earlier. At that time Lyssa had been certain she would be a wife long before the age of twenty-three. But on her first wedding day, not much more than two years after that meeting, Atman Rybar had run off with another woman; his father’s insanely beautiful housemaid. Lyssa’s heart had been broken, for she had convinced herself that she loved the handsome Atman, and her feelings had been horribly hurt. It was embarrassing to be left for another woman. And a housemaid, at that! Her pride had been wounded; her young heart had been broken.
At the very least, Atman should have made his decision before she had made her way to the chapel in her best dress. Being left at the altar had been humiliating; afterward she hadn’t left the house for weeks.
Of course, she’d been young, and her heart had mended soon enough. Within a year she’d set another wedding date, this time with the duller and less handsome yet infinitely more stable Tanni Onund, a suitable and unexciting fellow who had managed to get himself trampled by a runaway horse on his way to the chapel.
The third potential groom, the barely adequate Neron Lew, had caught a fever a few days before their wedding date and had died while dragging himself to the chapel, where Lyssa had been waiting anxiously even though marriage would change her name to the entirely unacceptable Lyssa Lew. After losing three grooms, in one manner or another, even her sunny nature couldn’t stand the steady barrage of calamity. The nightmares had started. She’d tried to remain optimistic, but she too often felt anxious. Desperate.
After Neron’s death, she had not been particularly sought after. In truth, she had not been sought after at all. Even those she had initially dismissed as unsuitable prospective husbands avoided her. She knew there were those who called her Bad Luck Lyssa, or Terrible Tempest. Some men actually looked the other way in fear when she caught their eye, as if her very glance might strike them dead.
And all the while she remembered that dreadful witch’s words. She refused to give much credence to the talk of magic and darkness and light, because if she did she might lose all hope. If she possessed magic, if there was an unnatural power within her, wouldn’t she be aware of it? The one word that she could never shake from her too-vivid memory of that day was alone.
She would have liked to think that the man she was to marry today was braver than most, but the truth of the matter was, he was simply as desperate to marry as she was. Kyran Verrel was handsome enough, not particularly smart nor particularly dull. He was average, ordinary. Just what she wanted from life. He came from a poor family who worked a farm not far from Arthes, and he wished for the easier life of a merchant. Marrying a merchant’s only child must have seemed like a dream come true to him, even though there were times when Lyssa was almost certain he didn’t like her very much. He would learn to like her. She was almost certain he didn’t dislike her, but now and then she noted an awkwardness between them, an uneasy feeling she could not identify.
But never mind that. She could be very pleasant, when pleasantness was required. She would be a good wife, and Kyran would be glad to claim her as his bride. And she would be married before her twenty-third birthday.
They weren’t going to bother with the chapel this time around. The priest who’d attempted to preside over her previous three weddings, the thin and often sour Father Kiril, was coming to the house this afternoon. In front of a very small gathering of family and perhaps a friend or two, Lyssa would become a wife. And just in time.
Tomorrow was her twenty-third birthday.