By the time we reach Ruby Red, we’re all exhausted, including Bertram—and that’s saying something. Feet cramped, chilled to the bone, hardly able to walk. There was this time I took a Greyhound bus from Oakleigh to Chicago for a one-day trip. I was on the bus for nine hours that day, and even though we made a few stops on the way, I was squirming in my seat and looking at my watch every second. This is even worse. The carriage, despite being padded with cushions, is a lot less steady and the country roads certainly are bumpier compared to the modern world’s smooth, cement-paved highways.
We stagger into the first inn we find. This time Mr. Davenport doesn’t bother to mask our identities.
“We wish to marry.” He pulls Poppy to him. “Can you tell us the nearest place we can hold the ceremony?”
The innkeeper doesn’t even blink. “The ground you’re standing on.” He has a thick accent that is distinct from the one they speak in the capital. Fortunately he speaks slowly enough that I can make out what he’s saying.
“Here?” Poppy says doubtfully, looking around. It’s a small room; there isn’t even space for an altar.
“We keep a special room for the purpose,” the innkeeper says in a manner-of-fact tone. “If you want the ceremony performed, you’ll need three things ready.” He ticks off with his fingers. “Ring, witness, service fee. And you’ll need to file a marriage license after the ceremony is performed, or it still isn’t legal.”
“Everything is ready.” Mr. Davenport produces the rings. The silver appears genuine enough, the patterns simple yet elegant. I’m glad he has the good taste not to get something gaudy. “And these two are our witnesses.”
The innkeeper casts a brief glance over us. “Both of you from the capital?”
“From the palace.” Bertram puffs up with pride.
“Yes,” I say. After all, the law only states that the witnesses cannot be from Ruby Red.
“All right.” The innkeeper claps his hands. “Aoife! We’ve a marriage to perform!”
A plump middle-aged woman comes bustling out and plants her hands on her hips. “Who’s the bride?” she asks. I point at Poppy.
“You got a dress for the ceremony, dearie?” she says in a business-like tone that matches her husband’s.
“Y…yes. In my trunk.”
“Good. Come with me, we have to get you ready. You look like you’ve traveled non-stop. I’ll draw a hot bath for both of you.”
“And us too,” I quickly say.
It happens pretty efficiently. The innkeeper, Dougal, and his wife Aoife, along with a few hired assistants, draw up the baths and feed us some bread and soup. Once we’re ready, Aoife leads us to this room downstairs—a much larger room with a fireplace and armchairs.
“Sit down,” she tells me and Bertram. She hands me a basket filled with worn silken flowers. “Toss them on the couple after it’s performed. Now I must attend to the bride.”
Mr. Davenport enters with Dougal. The groom has changed into a black velvet suit, a bit wrinkled in places, but still formal enough for the occasion. He also looks a bit nervous as he straightens his coat. A rare expression for a man who was unfazed by Bertram.
Dougal has something that looks like yellow silk poking from his pocket. He leads Mr. Davenport to the middle of the room, in front of the fireplace. Dougal faces us, but tells Mr. Davenport to stand sideways.
I straighten in my chair. I’ve been to a wedding before, but that was in a church with lots of people attending. This one, although performed in a much smaller place, doesn’t seem less proper. Even if it’s supposed to be eloping.
Presently the door creaks open. Aoife comes in first, beaming. Poppy follows with her eyes on the floor, but when she reaches Mr. Davenport, she raises her head and gives him a smile.
She’s beautiful. She’s wearing her buttercup yellow dress, the same one she wore on presentation day. She doesn’t have any ornaments apart from a pearl necklace, nor is her hair styled elaborately, but she’s just lovely, with a touch of maidenly shyness in her expression, her cheeks as pink as the roses she’s carrying. I’ve no idea how Aoife produced the roses in the short span of time, but then, she is the expert in runaway weddings.
Mr. Davenport’s eyes go wide for a second, then his gaze softens. I guess he hasn’t had a chance to behold Poppy in her presentation dress before. A muscle moves in his throat; he takes Poppy’s hand and holds it firmly.
Dougal coughs. “Well then, we can now begin. Friends, we are gathered here today to witness the holy joining of one Mr. Jonathan Davenport and one Miss Poppy Montgomery…” he goes on and on, in a speech that actually sounds quite similar to the one I heard at my aunt’s wedding.
“And now, if no objections are raised, you are now wedded—”
The door bursts open and several men stream inside. It’s just like a movie, when the antagonist interrupts the ceremony before the couple says “I do.”
Poppy turns and her face goes bleached white.
“Ungrateful girl!” growls a man dressed in a dark green coat. “Poppy, you disgrace yourself! Come home with me right away or I’ll have you forcibly removed.”
Dougal raises a quizzical eyebrow. “You are the bride’s father?”
“Sir Montgomery to you, you uncultured rustic,” Montgomery snarls. Dougal bristles, but before he can say anything, Mr. Davenport steps forward, with the expression of one ready to combat darkness.
“Excuse me sir, but you are on the grounds of Ruby Red. The law here clearly states that you cannot abduct a person by bodily force without her consent, even if she is a blood relation.”
Montgomery looks ready to kill. “Abduction! You dare speak to me of abduction, you arrogant pup? You seduced my daughter and convinced her to run away!”
“It is mutual attraction between us.” Mr. Davenport tightens his grip on Poppy’s arm, and this seems to give her strength.
“Papa, Jonathan is the best man I’ve ever known—after you, of course. I love him. I want to marry him.”
I give her a thumbs-up. As I’m sitting quite near, Montgomery notices me.
“And who’re you? You look like a respectable lady. Are you aware that you’re engaging in an event that will bring shame on your family?”
“Watch what you’re saying, sir.” Bertram stands up. He flips up his coat to reveal the royal heraldry stitched on his shirt. “I am in the service of His Royal Highness Edward, crown prince of Athelia. This girl is the prince’s future bride, and so you’re speaking to Athelia’s future queen.”
Sir Montgomery’s jaw falls. So does mine.
“Do you take me for a fool? This plain-looking, law-defying woman…the prince wants to marry HER?”
I really should deny Bertram’s claim, especially after I’ve refused Edward, but for Poppy’s sake, instead I toss my head and try to look regal, like Bianca.
Bertram grins. “I’m willing to swear an oath if you’d like, sir.” He draws his sword, and the rubies on the hilt glitter in the light of the fire. Montgomery stares at the sword, then back at Bertram’s shirt. His brow furrows; one of his men whispers to him and nods.
“Excuse me,” Mr. Davenport says. “But is it not proof enough that since the prince has sent his personal guard to accompany us, this marriage has the prince’s sanction? Or are you implying that you defy the royal family?”
Wait…I thought the prince didn’t have any real power anymore? But seeing Sir Montgomery hesitate, apparently Edward still has enough influence.
“Well?” Dougal says impatiently. “Do you still object to this marriage?”
Montgomery stares at Mr. Davenport for a long moment, then looks at his daughter.
“You must return home,” he finally says.
“Papa!” Poppy looks frantic. “But I—”
“In a week,” Montgomery continues, his tone gruff. “We must have a proper wedding at our house. Your mother will never forgive you if she isn’t present when you are married.”
“Oh!” Poppy launches herself on her father and hugs him. “Thank you, Papa, thank you!”
“Enough yowling,” Montgomery says, though he pats her gently. “Davenport? Promise me that no matter what happens, you’ll stand by her, be faithful to her, and cherish her. Or I’ll hunt you down with the largest rifle I possess, and mind you, I have the reputation of being the best shooter in my county.”
Mr. Davenport doesn’t even flinch. “You have my word.”
“Make sure you both return to the county within a week.”
Poppy tugs on her father’s sleeve. “Papa, aren’t you going to stay? At least for a drink?”
Montgomery shakes his head. “Got to head back and start the preparations. God knows how much fuss your mother will insist on making.”
The door shuts behind him. I let out a sigh of relief. Poppy’s dad isn’t as evil as I imagined, thankfully.
“Well,” Dougal says briskly, as though angry fathers turning up is a perfectly normal disruption. “This ribbon signifies you are now wedded and bonded.” He extracts the yellow silk from his pocket and ties it around their wrists. “Do not take it off until next morning. There, you may now kiss your bride.”
Mr. Davenport smiles, leans down, and pecks her lips. To my surprise, Poppy throws her arms round his neck and pulls him down for a deeper kiss. Bertram whistles.
Aoife claps her hands. “Excellent! Now the ceremony is done, what say you to a bite of wedding supper?”
Poppy is rosy and smiling the next morning. I guess her first time went well. She had gone scarlet when Aoife pulled her aside and told her “this marriage ain’t legal until it’s consummated.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Davenport.” I give her a wink. “How are you feeling? All sunshine and roses?”
She blushes. “Starving, in fact. Ooh, is that raisin bread? I could eat a whole loaf.”
We’re gathered in the same room where the ceremony was held last night. Mr. Davenport has gone to file for a marriage license. Bertram sits in a corner, wolfing down porridge like he hasn’t had a proper meal for days (which isn’t far from the truth). The inn only had two rooms available when we arrived, so Bertram had to rough it in the stables. I debated about letting him sleep in the same room with me, but considering the old-fashioned ways here, I decided against it. Fortunately the guard doesn’t mind sleeping in the stables; he merely remarks that he’ll be glad to be getting back.
“More coffee?” Aoife asks me, the strong aroma wafting through the air. “Is the porridge to your taste, Your Highness?”
“Oh please,” I groan. “Just ‘lady’ will be fine. I’m no princess.”
“But you soon will be,” Aoife says, looking like she just won the lottery. “I can’t wait till I’ll be able to boast to the neighbors I had the queen sleep upstairs! I’ll get you more grub; you still have a long journey back.”
And she bustles off, humming a tune.
Bertram scrapes his bowl clean and burps. “I’ll go see to the carriage, Lady Kat.” He rises from his corner. “Got to get you back to His Highness quick.” And he vanishes outdoors, whistling.
Poppy shoots me a questioning look. “Doesn’t he know that you don’t plan on marrying the prince?”
“I don’t think Edward would like others to know that,” I say lightly, but my insides clench.
Poppy sighs. “I understand you miss your family, but I do feel sorry for His Highness. And I’ll miss you, Kat. You’re the best friend I’ve made since I came to the capital.”
I don’t know how to reply to that, but I squeeze her hand. “Will you be able to make it for the ball?”
“The one the prince is throwing?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Poppy grins. “I’ll see you at the ball then, if not earlier.”
We hire separate carriages, for her county lies southwest of Ruby Red, while the return route to the capital is southeast.
The journey back is less stressful, but without Poppy to talk to, it’s lonelier. As Mr. Davenport and Poppy use the original carriage we took, Bertram simply hires another one and takes the reins himself.
“We’ll go faster without the extra weight,” he tells me.
I sit alone inside, consumed by thoughts. I touch the lily, which nestles in a scented bag in my reticule. It seems warmer and brighter, like it’s getting more alive when it’s nearing its place of origin.
Will I really find the fairies? Will they agree to help me get Elle to the ball? What is Edward doing now?
I blink tears from my eyes and bunch my fists in my skirt. You’ve told him the truth, Kat. Now focus on the mission, you’re nearly there.