Monday, December 14, 2015
Yalera the Brave - Epilogue
Baethan sighed in frustration as he tucked a letter in his shirt pocket and lay on the soft grass under a tree. It was unusually warm for an early spring day, and the sun was shining gorgeously. All in all, there shouldn't have been anything for him to be upset about.
“What's wrong?” Ando wondered as he sat on the ground next to Baethan.
“This is the second letter I've received from my father...” Baethan trailed off.
Both men looked over to Yalera as she shrieked. She was holding a baby to her chest as she ran from a handful of mostly grown cubs. The baby was only two months old and belonged to Rohan and Hannah. Hannah had asked Yalera to watch him for a bit while she took a well deserved nap. Rohan was busy preparing for their yearly inspection.
Seeing that there was no reason to be concerned for their charge's safety, they continued their conversation.
“And why does this bother you?” Ando wondered with a curious frown.
Baethan sighed. “Because my father doesn't understand. He wants me to get married now that I'm 25. I'm supposed to work on heirs for when I inherit his title someday.”
Ando knew that Baethan was the son of a Lord, but he didn't know much else because Baethan didn't like to talk about his father. So he decided to ask. “What title does your father hold?”
“He's a Duke,” Baethan answered with a shrug. “And I'm his only child. Thus I had a strange childhood. I was treated much like a little Prince growing up, so when I was first sent to the King's service, I was shocked to be treated like... well... like a regular person, I suppose. I reacted by rebelling and often got in trouble. The King would send me home a lot as punishment...”
Ando waited for him to continue, but when he didn't, Ando sighed. “I was born to servants who worked in the palace kitchen. I was an only child too... And then one day, there was a terrible fire that accidentally killed a lot of people who worked in the kitchen – including both my parents. King Bruno didn't quite know what to do with me since I was the oldest of a handful of children who had been orphaned. The others could be adopted or sent to orphanages, but I was just barely old enough to work and support myself, so he gave me a job as Prince Crispin's companion. Thus, we became inseparable. For the first time in my life, I was treated like someone who mattered!”
Baethan sensed that even though Ando had rushed on to avoid talking about his parents, he had felt anguished over their loss. He put a hand on Ando's shoulder. “My mother died of a nasty illness when I was 15, so I know how you must have felt.”
Ando nodded in acceptance. “Yeah, my parents were amazingly kind considering that they had very stressful jobs. It was hard to lose them so suddenly. Which made me feel all the worse when I felt lucky to be the Prince's companion. I felt like it was somehow my fault they died! I felt like I was a horrible person for being happy with my life for years...”
Baethan nodded because he knew exactly what Ando was talking about. “My father would get mad at me for being such a troublemaker, but he loves me, you know? So he always did what he could to talk the King into taking me back after a while. It was important to my father that I become a good man in loyal service to the King.”
Baethan sighed again and rolled over so that he was laying facing away from Ando. “Even just two years ago, I was still a childish idiot. I always did things to get into trouble because I was bored or something. I don't even know! My father threatened to disown me or maybe murder me on the spot if I got kicked out of the King's Service again. That's why I jumped at the chance to serve under Yemry on the mission to Nandia. I thought I could joke and jest my way to a small commendation from Yemry to get back in the King's good graces... Instead, I was forced to grow up...”
“And now that you have, your father is eager to have you settle down and act like a future Duke is supposed to,” Ando stated knowingly.
“Yeah,” Baethan admitted with a sigh. “He wants me to officially leave the King's service while I'm still respected, get married, and prepare to take over for him someday.”
“What's the problem?” Ando wondered, although he was half sure he already knew what it was.
Baethan snorted derisively. “My father thinks that I've asked to continue on as Yalera's bodyguard because he thinks that I think this is a light and cushy job with no real work. I wrote to him explaining what had happened, but I don't think he believes me. He doesn't understand that I...” He shrugged, not entirely sure how to put it into words.
“You still have nightmares about what happened and you can't bear to be away from Yalera because you want to be able to reassure yourself that she's okay if you wake up in a panic in the middle of the night...” Ando stated, knowing it was true because he did the same thing.
The two of them – as Nandia's Princess Yalera's official bodyguards – had been given permanent cots in Yalera's chamber. Ronin had initially been concerned about this arrangement, but once Yalera showed him her healing wounds and insisted that she didn't feel safe without them, he relented without ever saying another word about it. To this day, nearly a year and a half later, she still woke in the night and called out to them, as they often woke up and called out to her. The moment they were all sure everyone was safe, they could go back to sleep.
Baethan nodded without a word.
Yalera laughed happily as she ran up to them. She sat on the grass between them and pointed at Yuna. “I'm so happy that she decided to chase the cubs around for a bit!” She patted her nephew in the sling as she kissed his forehead. “And who would have thought that you could sleep through all that?!”
Ando chuckled and smiled. “I've heard that infants love constant motion like that because it reminds them of being in the womb.”
Yalera pulled the baby out of the sling and held him up. “Perhaps, but I feel a tiny bit cheated that he's been sleeping the entire time I've been holding him!” She kissed his face at least a dozen times and giggled when he made unhappy sounds and faces in his sleep. “I love you so much you adorably precious baby boy!”
Baethan – still an incorrigible joker when the situation probably called for seriousness – sat up and poked her cheek. “You look so cute holding a baby! You should probably go to the King and tell him to marry you off again soon so that you can have one of your own.”
Yalera laughed again. “No thank you! I told him that I will not get married again!” She stroked the collar around her neck. “And so long as I am considered a Princess, he can't really argue with me. I mean he could but I wouldn't listen to him. He knows this, so he told me that I have won the right to choose my own husband someday.”
“He said that?!” Baethan asked incredulously.
“Yep,” Yalera confirmed with a tight smile.
“Then why not marry me?” Baethan blurted out before he even had a second to think about it.
Yalera stopped everything like she was frozen for a moment before chuckling nervously. “Oh Baethan... it's not fair to ask me that...”
“Why not?” He wondered a bit petulantly.
Yalera said nothing as she took the time to tuck the sleeping baby back into the sling. Once he was secure, she grabbed Baethan's hand in hers, and then Ando's in the other. Ando was looking down to hide the fact that he was so sure that Yalera would accept Baethan's proposal, and he couldn't help but feel hurt by the prospect.
“Because – Baethan – I could never possibly choose between the two of you...” she finally answered him with all sincerity. “I've been so happy that neither of you have asked me to choose before this. I told myself that neither of you wanted me like that so that I wouldn't have to think about it, but I've long known from the subtle jokes that both of you make that... Well... That you both would like to marry me someday...”
She sighed, dropped their hands, and then turned and crawled just a little away so that they wouldn't be able to see her face. “I have thought about it. I've thought about it a lot. I've tried to decide who I'd choose if I had to, but I just can't! One day I'll decide that I'll just accept the first to ask, and then the next day I'll decide that I'll refuse no matter who asks. Now that it has come to it...” She shrugged helplessly and focused on her hands – which were busy picking at the grass.
Ando had definitely perked up during her explanation. He leaned over and grabbed her hand and squeezed it lightly. “Wait, you mean to say that you have considered marrying me?”
“Yeah,” Yalera admitted in a near whisper. “But as I said, I can't choose, so... I'd rather just not get married at all.”
“Hey,” Baethan murmured softly, tugging on her other hand. “Look at me a minute.” When she complied by turning back around, he gave her a tiny but hopeful smile. “Listen, my father wants me to get married, but I've resisted because I don't want to marry anyone other than you. Will you please consider marrying me? I mean consider the matter much more seriously now that I've asked.”
Yalera groaned softly. “But what about Ando?”
Baethan and Ando looked at each other. Neither was quite sure how to feel because they both loved her, but they also liked and respected each other enough to not bicker and fight over her. Baethan knew that Ando would accept it if Yalera chose him, and Ando knew that Baethan would accept it if Yalera chose him. They had long assumed that whichever one of them wasn't chosen would serve as the best man for the one that was chosen.
All three of them were silent for a long moment, and then Baethan shrugged. “If you marry me, Ando will still be your bodyguard. He can come with us and – ” He stopped talking when Yalera held up a hand.
“Actually, he won't,” Yalera stated.
“What? But I thought... You said that Ando would be your bodyguard for the rest of your life!” Baethan protested in alarm.
“That's because the condition was that he would be my bodyguard so long as I was considered a Nandian Princess. If I get married again, I will no longer be a Princess, and so he would have to return home,” Yalera explained. “I really didn't foresee getting married again, so I said that he would be my guard for the rest of my life.”
Baethan looked down in disappointment. “Oh... I see... So you choose him...”
Ando couldn't help but look extremely happy by this prospect. Yalera studied both of their faces for a few seconds. Clear emotions radiated from both of them, confirming her suspicion that if she chose either of them, the other would be devastated.
“No... As I said, I cannot chose between you...” Yalera reiterated softly.
“So... now what?” Baethan asked. “I can only stay here for so much longer. If – Gods forbid – my father were to die, I'd have no choice but to return home.”
Yalera sighed and shrugged. “I have no idea. I suppose we will just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Baethan smiled sadly at Ando, then looked away from both of them. “Actually, not that I am trying to be mean or make you feel guilty, but as I said, if you don't choose me, you are choosing Ando because I will eventually have to leave and he will be able to stay with you. Thus if you don't want to marry me, you may as well marry him.”
Yalera dropped Ando's hand to take Baethan's hand in both of hers. “But I don't want that either. I want things to stay exactly the same! I don't think I could live without both of you by my side!”
Baethan pulled his hand free from hers and shook his head. “It doesn't work that way...”
Yalera sat on the ground facing them for a moment before turning her attention to the still sleeping baby in the sling at her chest. Ando picked at the grass with an expression of deep thought while Baethan looked around at the cubs playing so he didn't have to look at her.
“I don't think I'd like it if you married me by default...” Ando whispered, half afraid to say it out loud because he couldn't bear the thought of Yalera making her choice after all.
Rohan ran over to them, calling out as he did so. “Hey! I've got everything ready!” He took a few seconds to arrive, but when he did, he bent over to kiss Yalera on the cheek and take his baby from her. As he did so, he noticed the heaviness in the air.
“Is something wrong?” He asked curiously.
All three of them shook their heads.
Yalera? Rohan asked with a concerned frown.
Nothing is wrong so much as they want me to make an impossible decision, Yalera informed him.
Oh... one of them finally gathered up the courage to ask you to marry him... Rohan figured, taking another look at their faces.
Yalera nodded. Rohan responded by pulling her to her feet. “Cheer up! It's finally that time of year when we get to go around inspecting the land!”
Baethan groaned. This was not one of his favorite chores. His father had long since assigned it to an overseer, so he couldn't understand why Yalera loved it so much, but last spring – after a long and hard to cope with winter that they'd all felt strangely trapped because of – he had watched Yalera bounce and hum to herself the entire time they'd traveled her land. Thus he knew for certain that this really was one of her favorite things to do.
“I'm just going to go give my son back to Hannah so that we can leave,” Rohan informed them.
“Poor Hannah,” Yalera remarked. “She's going to be stuck here while we have all the fun.”
“Actually, she's learning all the things that dad does. I imagine that this is a good thing since someone will eventually have to know how to do what he does while we're out gallivanting!” Rohan explained with a laugh.
“That's true,” Yalera agreed with a soft smile. She watched Rohan walk away in silence until a thought occurred to her. Do you think I should choose one of them?
Rohan stopped and looked at her over his shoulder. Had you asked me that a long time ago, I would have told you to pick anyone but Baethan, but now... Well... Just as you know how I feel about my wife, I know how you feel about them. I honestly don't think you could choose between them. He shrugged and resumed his walk.
Yalera sighed, got up, and walked over to her cat so that she could be with someone who didn't confuse her for a while.
After spring turned to summer and their workload calmed down for a little bit, Yalera and her family were summoned to the palace to visit with King Eric. They arrived and spent a few days with Rolanna, Yemry, and their children. Rolanna had a little Prince running around giggling almost non-stop while Yemry had a baby girl who could crawl but couldn't walk yet.
Yalera was treated with clear respect by everyone at court. The Lords and Ladies all deferred to her as a Princess who had ensured peace, even so, she could hear them whispering behind her back. Everyone wanted to know if she had really been tortured by a Nandian Lord. It grated on her nerves enough that she was tempted to strip down and show off her scars just to shut them all up.
King Eric held a private picnic out in his garden one day and invited her to attend. The majority of his court was sent off to play games on the palace lawn, so he knew that only someone determined to spy on him would dare listen in to their conversation.
Yalera arrived for the picnic with a smile, only to be surprised to find a Lord she didn't recognize sitting with the King. She cast them a puzzled frown as she curtseyed to the King. He gestured an invitation to sit, which she did as her bodyguards took up attentive yet restful positions near her.
“Yalera, my dear,” King Eric greeted her with a reassuring smile. “I've summoned you to the palace to discuss a fairly serious subject.”
“You have?” Yalera asked in dismay, afraid that he was going to pressure her to get married after all, despite his promise.
“The Duke of Eastshire has a grievance he'd like you to redress,” King Eric explained.
The Duke nodded to her respectfully. “Princess...” He then looked up at Baethan. “Son.”
“Father,” Baethan greeted. His face was smooth and polite, but inside, he was in turmoil.
Yalera smiled up at Baethan. “This is your father?!” She turned her grin on the Duke. “It's a pleasure to meet you!”
The Duke returned her smile a bit solemnly as he studied her, and then returned his attention to his son. In his opinion, it was entirely unusual for his son to be so serious. He had never known Baethan to be less than a chatterbox and a practical joker. Not that he would admit it out loud, but part of him was deeply worried about his son.
“A pleasure to meet you as well,” the Duke murmured.
Yalera looked to the King and then back at the Duke. “So... what is this grievance you want my help with?”
“I want my son back,” the Duke stated bluntly. “I miss him and want him to come home, settle down, and prepare to walk in my footsteps someday. I've demanded that King Eric release him from your service, but he has ignored me so far!”
“That's not true,” King Eric protested with a pleasant smile. “I've written to Baethan to ask if he'd like to be released from service.”
“You have?!” Yalera asked in surprise. “Baethan, why didn't you tell me that?”
“Because there was no reason to. I will not leave your service so long as you still need me,” Baethan stated as if this was a fact – such as the sky is blue – that could not be changed.
Yalera smiled at him a bit sadly. Her eyes watered ever so slightly. “That's sweet, but if you have a duty to your father...” She paused, not quite sure how to finish her sentence.
Baethan would not look at any of them as he shrugged. “That does not matter.”
King Eric was not stupid. He knew that there was something not being said. He was also fairly certain that he knew what it was.
“Yalera, my dear...” King Eric began delicately. “Why not consider marrying Baethan and becoming the future Duchess of Eastshire?”
Yalera fingered her wedding collar as she thought about how to answer this question. Taking a deep breath, she looked over at Baethan – who was still avoiding her gaze (which his father also noticed) – and then over at Ando. Exhaling slowly, Yalera smiled at the King.
“You promised me that I would be able to chose my next husband some day, and I have finally decided... I will not get married unless I can marry both Baethan and Ando. I will not choose between them!”
“That's preposterous!” The Duke roared in protest.
Yalera shrugged helplessly. “Well, now you all know why I haven't chosen a suitable husband already.”
King Eric sighed sympathetically. “I am sure that you are simply confused because of what happened to you. Perhaps if you sent them both away for a few days, you could think a bit more clearly.”
“No,” Yalera stated softly but firmly. “I cannot bear to be without either of them.” She turned to look at Baethan once more. “Baethan... if you decide to go back home as your duty requires, I will go with you. You don't need to be stuck serving me for the rest of your life. So please try to make a decision that you feel would be best for you.”
Baethan looked at Yalera, startled by her statement. Then he looked at Ando. “What do you think?”
Ando shrugged. “I go where my Princess goes, so if she goes with you, then so do I.”
The Duke realized that his mouth was gaping open in astonishment and closed it. “Now see here! Surely you all must realize that I can't allow a young unmarried woman to live with us!”
“Pardon me, Your Grace,” Yalera said with a soft smile and a respectful nod of her head. “But I am not unmarried. I am a widow.”
“That doesn't make a difference!” The Duke insisted. “I need my son to get married and have heirs. I am fairly certain that he couldn't do that if you dangled yourself under his nose all the time!”
Yalera took a few deep breaths to remain calm when all she wanted to do was tell the Duke to mind his own business. After a moment, she smiled at him. “Did you know that there are bonds that run deeper than those of marriage?”
“What do you mean by that?” The Duke asked in confusion.
Yalera looked down at her hands so that she didn't have to figure out what expression to wear. “Try to imagine it like this; the Gods themselves took a part of my soul, a part of Baethan's soul, and a part of Ando's soul, and then they tied them all together. You cannot sever this bond any more than we could if we tried.”
The Duke tilted his head as he stared at her in confusion. “That's... That's not likely...”
Yalera twisted her lips side to side as she thought this over. Ever since she had first been tempted to show off her scars to get people to shut up and leave her alone, she had redesigned some of her dresses to leave her back open. Then she covered the open back with an elaborately embroidered light jacket because the very idea of a backless dress would cause such a scandal that she might be ostracized for the rest of her life. Even so, she wore the dresses and jacket because she wanted to.
Gathering up her voluminously fluffy skirts, she turned until she was sitting on the picnic blanket facing away from both the King and the Duke. Then she removed her jacket and set it aside, sweeping her long and curly hair over one shoulder. She knew without looking that both were speechless with astonishment.
“You see?” She asked sweetly. “The Gods have bound the three of us together and I have the scars to prove it. I cannot live without either of them.” She looked up at Baethan. “So it doesn't matter if you decide to settle down and get married and provide heirs. I will not leave your side.”
Both of her bodyguards knelt in front of her and enveloped her in a hug. Baethan looked up at his father as he picked up her jacket and draped it over her shoulders. His expression was dead serious, something his father had never seen before.
“This right here is why I refuse to leave Yalera's service. I cannot live without her!”
“Neither can I,” Ando admitted, brushing a stray strand of hair out of her face. He looked over at Baethan. “And when push comes to shove, there's no one I'd rather have at my back than you.”
“Exactly!” Baethan agreed as he helped Yalera put her arms through her jacket. “I know I can trust you to walk through the underworld and back with me!”
Yalera took hold of a hand from each of them. She pressed a kiss to each hand and then smiled up at them. They returned her smiles; to them, no one else existed.
King Eric and Baethan's father exchanged helpless looks. Neither was sure what to think. King Eric shrugged.
“Perhaps now you can see that my hands are tied,” King Eric stated. “Even if I ordered Baethan to go home, I don't think it would do any good.”
“Yes...” the Duke agreed reluctantly, and then sighed. “Which means that I have to prepare for the possibility that my line will die out after my son passes on.”
The King looked up to the sky in thought. After a few moments, he bit his lip. Yalera had turned around so that she could lightly recline against both Ando and Baethan. She saw the King's look and tilted her head curiously.
“What?” She wondered.
“I wonder...” the King murmured softly. He continued to think in silence for a moment. Then he shrugged again. “Why not?!”
“Why not what?” Yalera asked in confusion.
“Why not let you marry both of them?” King Eric clarified. “I'm the King, aren't I? I could declare the circumstances unique and the will of the Gods.”
“You mean that?!” Yalera gasped happily.
“Yes,” King Eric confirmed. “But only if they agree. I can't imagine two men actually agreeing to share a wife.”
Baethan and Ando looked at each other in surprise. Slowly, both smiled. Baethan sent a confident and slightly cocky grin to the King.
“I can't think of a more perfect solution!” Baethan announced, feeling happier than he had in a long time.
“Me either,” Ando added with a smile.
The Duke looked like he was going to have a heart attack for a moment. He clutched his heart and tried to decide which of the many protests he had to voice first. Then he took a good look at the expression on his son's face and sighed in defeat.
“Fine... Just please try your best to ensure that your heir is actually your heir,” he murmured, looking away to hide a blush that he'd had to say such a thing out loud.
King Eric chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. “I think that perhaps we should keep this quiet. I'll simply draw up and sign a marriage document for the three of you, and that will be that.”
Yalera nodded in acceptance, unable to believe that her deepest wish was about to come true. Baethan shrugged, but Ando frowned.
“That seems unfair,” he murmured as he cupped Yalera's face in his hand. “You deserve to have a beautiful wedding like any other bride.”
“I've already had one, remember?” Yalera pointed out. “I don't mind so long as I get to be with you both for the rest of my life.”
Baethan shook his head. “Actually, Ando's right. You deserve a simple ceremony at the very least.”
The Duke didn't say anything, but secretly, he wanted to see his son get married, so he agreed. King Eric tilted his head side to side as he thought this over. Finally he nodded.
“Alright, how about this? We'll have a banquet tonight – which I was going to have anyways – and afterwards, I'll stand up and perform the ceremony for you in front of everyone,” King Eric suggested.
Yalera looked at first Baethan and then Ando. They each nodded slightly to encourage her. She grinned, feeling like the luckiest girl in the world. “Thank you... Uncle!” Yalera reinforced her gratitude by kissing him on the cheek, and then throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him tight.
King Eric chuckled as he returned her hug. Then he let her go and shrugged. “I suppose that it's only right. After everything that's happened, you deserve happiness.”
For the rest of their picnic, they discussed logistics.
Why are you so happy? Rohan asked suspiciously during the banquet when he could feel his twin nearly bursting with excitement.
Yalera simply shrugged and shook her head.
Yalera... Rohan thought in concern.
You'll see... Yalera answered enigmatically.
Rohan pursed his lips as he studied her closely. He was trying to read her mind, but she wasn't letting him at the moment. Did you do something forbidden with one of your guards?
Yalera giggled and sent him a half embarrassed, half amused look. No!
Not realizing that a silent conversation was underway, Lady Yalena smoothed out Yalera's sleeve. “I'm so happy that you've finally decided to wear this dress. I think it makes you look very much like a regal and beautiful Princess.”
Yalera smiled at her mother and stroked a hand along her own shoulder and arm. The dress was a gorgeous creamy silk accented with subtle golden colored threads. It matched her collar, proving her mother right. She really did look like a Princess! Yalera giggled.
“It doesn't matter what I look like if I really am a Princess!”
Lady Yalena chuckled. “I suppose that's true, but I'm glad you're finally paying attention to your appearance again.”
Rolanna groaned and pushed her plate away. “This part of carrying a child is definitely not fun!”
Yalera reached out and squeezed her hand. “Maybe you'll have a little girl this time.”
Rolanna looked over at her husband, who grinned at her. “We hope so too!”
King Eric looked around and noticed that most of his courtiers had finished eating and were growing restless. He stood up to gain their attention. Everyone paused what they were doing and looked over at him curiously.
Yemry – as a soldier and Knight in the King's service – looked around to make sure that nothing was wrong. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. None of the guards were on alert; not even Ando and Baethan – who stood at attention (with other guards) along a wall directly behind where Yalera was sitting.
Yemry sat at the head table with the King and the rest of his family, so he saw the King smirk mysteriously at his sister. His wife Marlena noticed this too and put a questioning hand on Yemry's shoulder. Yemry nudged his brother.
“What's going on, Rohan?” Yemry whispered in his ear.
“I don't know,” Rohan whispered in return. “I am pretty sure Yalera knows, but she won't tell me.” Hannah took hold of one of his hands simply because she thought he was upset about something.
Now that the King was sure he had everyone's undivided attention, he cleared his throat. “Friends, I have wonderful news to share! … ” He paused for dramatic effect. “My dear Yalera is getting married!”
He stepped away from the table and held his hand out to Yalera, who also stood up and smiled as she placed her hand in his.
“What?!” Lady Yalena burst out in a whisper of astonishment. She noticed her daughter's bodyguards step closer, and decided that they would actively deal with whatever man dared to assume he could marry the girl who had suffered so much and deserved to live happily – even if it meant not getting married ever again. More than anything, Yalena hated the thought of her daughter being forced to marry someone she didn't want to after everything that had happened with her first marriage.
“Now that everyone knows why were here, let's get to it!” King Eric stated cheerfully. “Yalera... I hereby honor the Gods in their infinite wisdom. As you quite fervently explained to me, the Gods have inextricably bound you to both Baethan and Ando, and so I hereby make it legal in the eyes of our Kingdom. If you vow to honor the both of them as your husbands until death do you part, please sign this marriage contract.”
Yalera signed the contract without the slightest hesitation. She then sent a happy grin to each of her new husbands. King Eric addressed Baethan next.
“Baethan, as the Heir to the Duke of Eastshire, do you agree with the Gods and vow to honor Yalera as your wife with Ando as your co-husband? If so, please sign the marriage contract.” The King held the contract out for Baethan, who also signed it without the slightest hesitation.
“Lastly, Ando, if you also agree with the Gods to honor Yalera as your wife and Baethan as your co-husband, please sign...”
Ando signed the contract, and then smiled at the King because Eric looked almost giddy, like a kid in a candy maker's shop. In truth, he was so entertained by the gasps and thoroughly scandalized whispered comments that he was tempted to encourage more unusual marriages just to see what his courtiers would do.
Now the King set the contract aside so that he could sign it so that it was valid. He pressed his seal to it with a smile. Even though only a moment passed, Yalera felt like it was forever before he handed the contract to her – with a warm kiss on her cheek.
“Now that the legalities are over,” King Eric addressed his gobsmacked audience. “We have two different customs to honor here. In Nandia, the groom gives his wife a collar...” He fell silent as Ando pulled the leash Prince Crispin had once given to Yalera out of his pocket. He quickly opened the hook and clasped it to the collar around her neck.
King Eric resumed his explanation. “And here in Rubidium, the groom gives his wife a ring...” Baethan pulled a gorgeous ring – that had once belonged to his grandmother and was a part of his family's heritage – out of his pocket and slipped it on Yalera's finger.
Baethan's father stepped forward and handed her the ring off his finger that he had worn since his wedding day – even after Baethan's mother had died. She smiled at him in thanks before taking hold of Baethan's hand and slipping it on his finger.
With a happy sigh, King Eric finished the very simple ceremony that they had all agreed on. “And now you may kiss the bride.”
Baethan leaned forward first, since they still held hands from exchanging rings, and kissed Yalera very briefly. He didn't think he'd be able to restrain himself from sweeping her off her feet and carrying her away if he kissed her any more than a little smooch. Ando took hold of her other hand and gave her a smooch next.
Yalera squeezed both of their hands and smiled at them each happily.
“I pray that your marriage is happy and fruitful,” King Eric murmured, still feeling like a naughty child that had just gotten away with being troublesome. Now that everyone had come to a sort of acceptance that he was seriously marrying a woman to two men, they all gaped incredulously.
Still holding a hand from each of her husbands, Yalera stepped slightly forward. “Now that my obligation to Nandia has been fulfilled, I was free to marry again, however, the Gods themselves bound me to both of these two men. King Eric graciously allowed me to follow my heart and marry them. Thus I am no longer a Princess, but I will remain an Ambassador to Nandia if I am ever needed.” She nodded slightly with clear respect to the audience. “Now if you'll excuse us...”
She had been given permission to use the King's private exit in advance so that she could escape before anyone thought to roar in protest or outrage. She led her two husbands through the exit, giggling softly as she did so. They also gave into the urge to chuckle. None of them would ever forget the look on everyone's faces for as long as they lived.
King Eric calmly walked over to Lady Yalena and her husband. “I've prepared my private sitting room so that our family can have a small celebration. Yalera is on her way there now. If you'd like to join her, please do. I'll be there as soon as I can,” he murmured quietly to them.
The Lady nodded, her shock slowly wearing off. She and her husband stood up to follow their daughter, as did the rest of their children and their spouses. Rolanna was the picture of proper decorum as her husband escorted her out of the room, but once alone in the hall, she took off running. She burst into the sitting room with an excited squeal.
“You got married!” She cried out as she threw her arms around her sister. “I'm so happy for you!” Despite her utter shock at the situation, it was true. She wanted nothing more than for Yalera to be happy.
Yalera returned the tight hug with a relieved and happy sigh. “Thanks Ro...”
Rohan pulled her into his arms next. I really didn't think the King would ever agree to something like this!
Yalera giggled. Neither did I!
They kissed each other on the cheek before Yemry cleared his throat to subtly demand attention. “I... I... have no opinion on this...” He murmured, his face clearly showing that he was still in shock. “Congratulations, I guess...” He kissed Yalera on the cheek, and then clasped his best friend's hand. A real smile settled on his face. “I really mean that. Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Baethan murmured with a relieved smile. Yemry completely respected Ando too, so he clasped hands with him next.
Marlena and Hannah took turns hugging the newlyweds and congratulating them. Rolanna's husband – Yalera's cousin – hugged her before shaking hands with the grooms. Eventually, only Yalera's parents were left. Lady Yalena looked like she was struggling to cope with this bizarre idea, but Ronin simply smiled. He held open his arms for Yalera, who responded by crying just a tiny bit and hugging him.
“I hope you're not disappointed in me, daddy...” she whispered.
“No,” he assured her, squeezing her tight. “I don't really want to think about it too closely, but I'm not disappointed.”
“Good!” Yalera cried out in relief.
Lady Yalena sighed. “I suppose that I'm not disappointed either... Shocked yes, but not disappointed. Come here!” She pulled Yalera into a hug and then kissed her cheek. “So long as you're happy...”
“I am, mama,” Yalera assured her.
“Now what?” Rohan asked with a curious frown.
Yalera smiled at him. “Well, after a few more days here in the palace, Baethan's going home, and so Ando and I will be going with him,” she explained.
Rohan nodded sadly. “I understand.”
“But don't worry,” Baethan assured his new brother in law. “We'll visit as often as we can. I am almost certain that Yalera wouldn't have it any other way!”
“Of course!” Yalera stated.
King Eric arrived just then holding two bottles of fine wine. His wife looked like she was biting her tongue, but remained polite. She looked to her husband with a slight shake of her head, but he ignored her.
“Who wants to celebrate?!” King Eric asked jovially.
Yalera looked around Eastshire with sparkling eyes. “Your home is so beautiful, Baethan!”
Baethan's father sat across from her in the carriage and snorted softly in pride. Baethan chuckled and kissed her hand. “I think you might like it here. The winter is not so heavy as it is in Northinshire.”
“That could be nice,” Ando remarked with a smile. He stroked the golden leash around his neck lightly, still unable to believe his incredibly good luck. “I've never lived anywhere in which winter wasn't long and heavy.”
The carriage rolled to a stop in front of the Duke's citadel – a rollback from when Rubidium had been at war with their neighbor to the east. It was a well fortified castle that had been remodeled over the years to increase their comfort. For example, the duke's wife had asked for a lovely greenhouse so she could enjoy the sun even during the coldest days of winter. Provided that the sun deigned to shine, that is.
The entire household staff was on hand to welcome their master home. They were all excited to see Baethan for the first time in a few years. More than one had a hard time believing that their incorrigible young master hadn't been sent home from the King's service like he usually was.
Ando got out of the carriage first and helped Yalera out. The moment her feet were on the ground, she turned to look at the large covered wagon that had transported her cats. They'd been given plenty of food to eat during the journey, and so spent most of it sleeping with full bellies. Yuna was old enough now that she relished the ride, but her cubs were still young and restless. So, they burst out of the wagon the moment it stopped moving.
Yalera laughed. “It looks like I'm not the only one feeling cooped up from the long ride!”
The trip had actually taken a few days from the palace, thus they were feeling far more cooped up than just the few hours they'd been in the wagon that day. She whistled enticingly, tapped her thigh with a hand, and then took off running around the lawn as the mostly fully grown cubs chased her. They were roughly the same size as the wild male smilodon – their father – had been, even though both were female.
Rune – who was at home with Rohan – had given birth to two males, so Yalera had hope for the future of their species. She laughed happily as she ran, running a hand along Yuna's back before grabbing a handful of hair and mounting her. Yuna playfully raced her daughters for a few minutes before returning to Baethan and Ando's side.
“Feeling better?” Baethan asked with a chuckle, kissing her hand. Ando pulled her off Yuna and kept an arm around her back.
“Just a little!” Yalera stated with a grin. She leaned over and kissed Baethan. The cubs purred as they rubbed their heads against Yalera, Baethan, and Ando. Both men loved having pet smilodons of their own, more or less. They knew that the cubs thought of Yalera as an honorary mom or aunt, but the cats were surprisingly affectionate toward the men too.
The Duke shook his head even as he hid a smile. His strange daughter in law was like a ray of sunshine. An annoying one, perhaps, but a wonderful one all the same. He gestured an invitation to enter his home.
The long double lines of servants waiting to greet them stared at the smilodons in astonishment. Yalera stifled a giggle, always finding it funny when someone new met her cats. The Duke awkwardly explained the situation as succinctly as he could.
“Everyone, my son has finally gotten married. This is his wife – your new Lady – Yalera... and her other husband, Ando...”
Baethan laughed at the weird look on his father's face. The household staff cast each other curious glances, wondering if they had heard that right. One man – the Duke's head of security, strode forward and clasped hands with Baethan.
“Welcome home, young Lord,” he greeted warmly. “After you've had a chance to freshen up, would you like to spar with me? I'm anxious to see if you've improved any since I last saw you.”
Baethan looked to first Ando, and then Yalera. Both grinned at him, making Baethan chuckle. With a grin of his own, he nodded.
“I'll meet you in the training yard in ten minutes, and you'd better bring every man you have that's willing to get his rump kicked!” Baethan boasted.
The Duke smiled, also curious to see how his son had improved in the last few years. The ten minutes were spent getting something to drink and a light snack. Yalera didn't even bother to change since her traveling attire was a pretty yet functional dress over a maneuverable pair of pants. The skirt was designed with splits to allow for easy movement, and her long hair dangled down her back in a braid.
In the training yard, the Duke got comfortable in a raised pavilion so that he could watch the match. The training yard was a large dirt area in which men could fight – either on their own to settle an argument, or as part of a group for training. All of the men who worked as soldiers and guards were excited to see or participate in the match, and now crowded around the large dirt arena eagerly.
Baethan held Yalera's hand as he entered the arena. Men chuckled and cheered as they assumed that she would be kissing her husband for good luck. Meanwhile, Ando grabbed staves for all three of them – and a practice sword for him and Baethan. Ando passed out the weapons without a word.
Baethan pointed at the head of security. “There are three of us, so I suggested that you select no less than nine men to attack us!”
“But my Lord!” The man protested. “You're gentle Lady wife might get injured if she doesn't sit in safety by your father's side!”
Baethan kissed Yalera quite thoroughly before grinning at her. “What do you say? Would you like to go sit with my father, or fight by my side?”
“By your side is where I belong, so of course I will fight next to you!” Yalera exclaimed with a grin.
Baethan returned his attention to the head of security and half shrugged as if saying: you see? “As I said, you'd best send at least nine men out!”
The man did not look like he could believe what he was hearing. He turned to his men and struggled to figure out what to do. Eventually, he picked out the requested nine men.
Meanwhile, Yalera gave Ando a cheeky kiss to balance out the one that Baethan had given her. She then cast both of her husbands a knowing grin. “Good luck!”
They both chuckled in genuine amusement. “And you!”
The nine men were given the order to attack, and so they did. Yalera knew that they were planning to avoid her, so she made the first move by sweeping a man's feet out from under him and ramming her staff into another's stomach. Baethan roared with laughter.
“Hey! Save some for me and Ando!”
Yalera giggled. “Not a chance! I think they're going to need to send out more men!”
“Looks like it,” Ando agreed with a tiny knowing smile.
“Come and get us!” Baethan shouted in challenge.
The men had no choice. If they wanted to stand a chance, they had to practically mob the trio. Yalera whooped in glee, thoroughly enjoying the battle now that death was not on the line and she had energy to spare. She and her husbands – before they had gotten married – had sparred often until they knew exactly how to work as a team. The three of them were nearly invincible when they wanted to be.
About a half an hour later, when all the challengers were too exhausted to fight anymore and Baethan's team was declared the winner, Yalera cheered and clapped in joy. She threw her arms around her husbands and hugged them in congratulations.
In her opinion, she could not be luckier. Both of her husbands knew her and did not try to change or control her. Even she was stunned by how her life had turned out!
“I love you so much!” She gushed, kissing first Baethan and then Ando. These words were like music to the two men's souls. They didn't reply out loud, but they returned her kisses in a way that let her know they loved her too.
Holding her hand – as was Ando – Baethan stepped slightly toward his men. “Now you know everything you need to know about my wife. She is not just your Lady and the future Duchess, she is also a capable and strong woman who can kick your butts if you do anything inappropriate. I'd keep that in mind if I were you,” Baethan warned with a genial smile.
“And if you see her pointing an arrow at you, run!” Ando advised with a laugh.
Baethan chuckled as he nodded in agreement. He looked at Yalera merrily for a moment before winking. Pulling on her hand lightly, he raised it so he could kiss it.
“So, my Lady wife, how would you like a tour of our bedroom?” Baethan asked, fairly certain that the servants would have had time to unpack their luggage by now.
“Yes please!” Yalera agreed eagerly.
“Come on!” Baethan invited with a grin, still holding Yalera's hand as he rushed off. Yalera naturally tugged on Ando's hand so that the three of them were soon jogging lightly. Yalera giggled happily the entire way.
The men in the sparring yard watched them go in astonishment. All were wondering just exactly what might happen between the three of them. Yalera swore she could almost feel their thoughts. She paused to smirk at them, thinking: Wouldn't you like to know!