a handmaiden carefully painted the curves and hollows of her eyes with red, the color of blood and wine and all fine things. the brush tickled Bryony’s skin, a dusty powder settling deep in her throat, making it hard to breathe. everything made it hard to breathe--the tight boned waist of the dress they’d squeezed her into, the pins digging deep into her scalp, the unsettling weight of anticipation pulling her stomach into painful contractions...she could barely sit still. the gentle tap of another handmaiden behind her reminded her--stop squirming. but she couldn’t. not with so many hands on her sun hardened skin. Not with so many eyes resting entirely on her.
Birdman hated this part. what was the point, he would scream at the guards and handmaidens pulling her away, the yellowy-whites of his eyes disappearing as the rest of his face turned spongy and red. why make a woman who could do everything a man could look like a woman again? It was just a waste of time.
but deep down, Bry enjoyed it. despite the tickling sensation of the brush and the steely grip of delicate women, she enjoyed looking at herself in the mirror and not knowing the girl who sat before. or maybe she wasn’t a girl anymore. not like this. when she looked like this, she was a woman.
her dark brown hair, the color of stained wood, swept back from her forehead, curling into an intricate spectacle atop her head. her skin now looked like the porcelain she’d only seen in shop windows, a color that did not match the dark brown of her hands. gold accented the red paint they so carefully applied, and her heavily lidded eyes were now lined with kohl, making her seem more wild and alive than she actually was. if only Mam could see me now, she thought as the maiden finished the last touches. even her body was not her own anymore. her broad shoulders and wide hips were hidden, masquerading under a blood red gown that pinched and squeezed and resisted her every moment. compared to her ordinary brown dress or white smock and blue breeches, this dress made a farmhand, a fighter, into a bird of paradise.
a poisonous one.
“there.” the handmaiden stepped back, the brush limp in her freckled hand. “you’re ready.”
Bry forced a smile to her newly painted lips. yes, she was ready--to prance and to parade and to flirt. but was she really ready? for the coming days? to fight? to rally? to die?
no amount of finery could make her feel ready for that.
as Milo stood next to his father, smiling with faked politeness at the dozens of diplomats pouring past them, he suddenly wished he were seven years old again. small enough to hide in dark corners where no one would find him. insignificant enough that no one would bother to look for him. now, at twenty-one, he couldn’t hide, no matter how hard he tried. everyone wanted to have a look at him, the Forgotten Prince of Golgotha.
“where is your mind?” King Eris, his father, nudged him slightly, speaking only through tightly clenched teeth. his smile never faltered--but Milo’s did.
“there is no such thing as just thinking, my son.”
yes, there was. thoughts flowed through his mind like a quiet trickling stream of water, but those thoughts were for him and him alone. he couldn't share them with this stranger of a father. he didn't have enough of the right words for that. besides, Eris would never listen. so instead of answering, he just smiled that pained, practiced grin and straightened his shoulders.
“are you excited for tonight?” the king’s smile soured as he asked, like he had a guess of what was running through his son’s mind right then. “I hear that girl from Snol will be here.”
a chill ran down Milo’s spine. he hadn’t known. of course he hadn’t known.
he hadn’t been to Snol in six years--because he was forbidden to leave the city. he broke that rule as often as he liked, but something deep within him kept him far away from that village in particular, and it wasn't just because of the ire in his father’s eyes every time he brought it up those first few months.
he knew he wasn’t wanted there. not any more.
she would be there. in the same room as him. they might meet eyes. they might exchange pleasant conversation. she might not even recognize him. that might be better for the both of them. ballrooms weren't exactly the best location for hostile negotiations. that was what the arena was for, and he wasn't allowed out there. another grievance he wasn't brave enough to bring before his father. but still...an ache in his heart flared to life, a feeling that had been locked in slumber for fifteen long years. maybe, just maybe, she would be happy to see him. maybe she had missed him like he missed her. like he missed everything about Snol. maybe.
but not likely.
“interesting,” he said instead of pouring out all this. the king watched him carefully, but Milo knew he didn’t care. he never had. he just wanted to know whether this news was something he could twist and manipulate, whether he could use it to his advantage.
Milo wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction.
altogether there were forty-three of them. all solid and firm, like ancient trees lining the arena with skilled grace. and then there was her. Bryony. one of seven women.
she didn’t care that they outnumbered her. she didn’t even care that they were bigger than her, with prouder muscles and broader swords.
she only cared about the woman across the arena in pale dusty pink. if Bry was a flame, this woman was a rose. a cold, dying rose. and if these men were proud of their strength, this woman was prouder. she could crush them with a single clench of her fist, and she knew it.
Bryony’s eyes stayed trained on her, but she never looked her way.
this was why she was here. not to wage wars of men or to win golden coins...although that would be nice.
she was here to bring someone home.
she was here to bring someone home.
“can you see her?” Nox asked for the millionth time, bouncing up and down on her agile toes. her hair sprouted haphazardly from her hair-covering, and the midday sun lit up her eyes like liquid fire. as Hade watched her out of the corner of his eye, he couldn’t help but smile. silly child. “Can you see my sister?” she asked again, trying her hardest to peer over the barred wall. Hade, with his towering six foot frame, looked over the edge with ease--straight into the pit of the arena where his best friend stood, her vibrant dress like a flame against the black sand. she was a vision.
pride warmed his belly. she’d done it. she was here. she was going to win. no one was better prepared for the Scourges than Bryony Haiba. she’d fought her way through life, she would fight her way through this. he knew she could do it.“she’s there,” he told Nox, whose face was wrinkled with frustration. “right where she belongs.”