A field of sunflowers
Heart hammering as she spies him through the crowd, Ammarie has a decision to make tonight, one that might change the course of her life and kingdom.
Her footsteps were the only noise in the gilded corridor, the tiny sounds of her heels echoed and amplified until it became the tread of a fateful army thundering in her ears. As the grand doors swung open, she swallowed the acrid bile that rose in her throat and flashed a smile at the assembled guests. Suppressing the urge to burst into a run, to leap and jump and fly only to inevitably fall in tangles of silk and taffeta, Ammarie descended.
Her shoes, studded with seed pearls and amber, flashed coy glimpses from beneath the heady confection, while on her brow gold and citrine winked and sparkled. The gown was as brilliant as the heart of a daisy, as bright and gleaming as the summer sun. Folds and ruffles cascaded in buttery waves down to the ground, the sleeves sleek and shapely as a daffodil’s trumpet. Her shoes, studded with seed pearls and amber, flashed coy glimpses from beneath the heady confection, while on her brow gold and citrine winked and sparkled. She was the picture of perfection as she made her entrance to the party, her marvellous dress outshone only by the brilliance of her smile.
Head held high, her eyes flitted around the room, searching for him. A brief glimpse sent her heart thudding in her chest, beating against her ribs like a beast against the bars of its cage and she stumbled slightly on the final step. But the crowd swarmed forwards, all sharp shatter-glass smiles and empty flittering compliment, and she lost sight of him.
Her gloved hands were lifted, held to mouths, passed along like a sacrifice in a ritual. Her daffodil dress, as bright and gleaming as the summer sun, was complimented and admired as avarice glittered in the golden reflections in their eyes.
Ammarie flicked a loose strand of chestnut hair from her brow as she made her way through the party’s flowing tides. A smile here, a laugh there, some small jest or gentle touch and the crowd parted as easily as silk curtains. Above her, the great chandeliers sparkled and gleamed with the light of a billion candles. Warm, cozy light sharpened and split until it stabbed like knives and razored through the air. Her heart pounded madly, although her fluttering lace fan hid the flush on her cheeks and her shallow breathing could be explained away by the corset constricting her innards. Definitely the whalebone, carved out of some great dead leviathan, and not her heart trying to squeeze its way from her chest at all. As though she, of all people, would be nervous about this event.
Of course not. It was laughable, really.
No-one else felt their stomach clench and roil when they saw him; why should she be any different?
She kept an eye on him as she navigated the tides of the crowd with expert ease; a steady-ruddered ship buffeted by tumult. The storm of her thundering heart battered against her chest and trumpeted in her ears; every flash of pearly teeth in an easy smile sent lightning skittering across her heart. It was childish, unbefitting of her station, and like a storm would surely pass. Oh lord, please let it pass soon.
Her friends twittered like birds as she passed them, but of course the topic on their lips was like acid on her ears, and so she wove her way into the thick of the throng, where revelry drowned out the talk. She grabbed a flute of pale amber champagne and watched the bubbles pop and fizzle. They all whizzed in the same direction, heedless of their fate, hurrying to the embrace of... of what? What did the future hold for them, once they opened themselves to the sky and mingled with the air? Were they still as before, or did they become lost in the sameness of their surrounds? An insignificant face in a sea of faces?
Her breath hitched, caught in her throat like a steel blade, and she put the glass down without touching a sip of it. A little fresh air was just the thing. Yes. And then... she would be calm, still as a lake. She would look towards the future with bright eyes. She would... she could talk to him? Surely... she could manage that.
The air on the veranda was chill after the sweltering, moist press of bodies and breath that filled the grand hall. Above her hung the harvest moon, bloated and yellow like a wheel of cheese, like a pregnant belly fit to burst. She averted her eyes and slipped into the shadows.
As she leant again the trunk of an oak, feeling its roughness catch and pull at the yellow silk of her gloves, she heard others in the garden. Laughter, talking, voices muffled and quieted by the delicious prospect of lascivious intents. Illicit meetings, clandestine touches. Salacious whispers hidden by the thin veil of the night. How boorish and disgusting it seemed, and she struggled to block out the intrusive sounds. But of course, even if she succeeded, what would be expected of her, oh so soon? She would need to swoon and flutter and smile coquettishly and ignore the serpent writhing deep in her guts.
A dutiful, beautiful wife.
A queen to her king.
A bird in a golden cage.
She saw him step out onto the marble of the veranda, looking out over the garden where she lurked. She in shadow, he a shadow outlined by the golden light that spilled from the hall. Her heart leaped and thundered, so loud it seemed certain he would hear it. His head turned, as if he was searching for her, scenting for his prey, a golden hart hidden amongst the greenery, but after a long, lingering moment, he turned away and stepped back into the light.
Her blood pounded to the rhythm of the word as certainty settled on her shoulders like a mantle. Thick, heavy, but not as heavy as the golden chains that bound her here.
Ammarie hesitated on the edge of the light, gown whispering as it swished around her legs. The mere thought of remaining in the beautiful gilded cage of the palace, the gleaming lights, made her stomach heave. The thought of being touched, stared at and paraded at his side for all the world to see… Her skin prickled with horror. She knew her duty, knew what was right, and Ammarie could only hope her parents would forgive her, one day, for betraying them like this. Maybe they would never know – if she let the shadows swallow her up, what would they say about her?
Because if she stayed in the light, wore a perfect smile and perfect clothes and a perfect role, she felt as though she would turn to glass. Nothing more than a porcelain doll. And eventually, her smile would crack and shatter and everyone would see the horrid mess of her craven heart. Because that was all fragile things did – break.
And if it was inevitable, unavoidable, that she would end in a thousand shameful pieces… then why not tonight? What was the point of delaying?
Tears spotted the ground as she walked, away from the lights of her betrothal night and into the welcoming arms of the darkness.
Anonymity. A tarnished patina smeared over the gold.