“We’ve narrowed it down to two options,” says my mother, beaming as though she’s prepared some delightful treat for me, “but we wanted you to have the final say.”
“Well, that’s very considerate,” I say before I can stop myself. “I don’t get to choose whether I’m getting married, but at least I get to choose what to wear as I’m led to my death.”
“Don’t be dramatic, Ziggy,” says my mother with a reprimanding frown. “A wedding is not a death sentence. It’s the happiest day of your life. Besides, you’re going to be a princess. It’s every girl’s dream come true.”
I manage to swallow down my angry retort: every girl dreams of meeting her ideal man, falling in love, a romantic proposal, and twirling blissfully into happily ever after. All of this, mind you, over the span of a few months at the very least. Nobody fantasizes about being yanked out of school and told that your parents have arranged your marriage to a man you’ve never met and it’s happening tomorrow and nobody is waiting for you to say yes. This is more like a nightmare.
My mother ushers me into the palace’s magnificent fitting room. A tall, narrow woman in a crimson dress turns around as we enter. My mother sinks into a deep curtsy and I do the same.
“So this is my future daughter-in-law,” the queen says by way of greeting, regarding me as one might regard a piece of furniture in a shop when determining whether it would clash with the drapery. “Well, she’s not hideously ugly. And at least she can manage a passable curtsy.”
“Sigrid is a graduate of Ms. Freyja’s Finishing School for Fine Young Ladies, your highness,” says my mother. That’s a lie. I was supposed to graduate next year.
“Under the circumstances, she’ll have to do,” says the queen. The circumstances being the political crisis involving King Kregory of Korvydia, the temperamental ruler of the kingdom across the sea, who recently proposed a marriage between his daughter and our prince as an act of political power-grabbing disguised as a gesture of friendship. An outright refusal might have sparked anger and an invasion, so our king announced that the prince was already engaged: to the daughter of a high-ranking nobleman, in fact. Which then put him in the difficult position of having to find such a bride and throw together a wedding as quickly as humanly possible, before Kregory (known to be somewhat unstable) did something drastic like kidnapping the prince for ransom until the king agreed to the proposal. And my father just happened to be the highest-ranking noble with a daughter of marriageable age. Lucky me.
The queen gestures impatiently to two wedding dresses displayed on headless mannequins. “Well, what are you waiting for? The ceremony starts in two hours.”
I go behind a silk folding screen and change into Option A. It’s a sleeveless gown that clings tightly to my every curve, leaving nothing to the imagination, until the bottom, where it flares out in a cascade of frills. My mother’s face lights up when she sees me.
“Oh, Ziggy, you’re stunning,” she trills. “It really flatters your figure. Just look at yourself.”
I turn to the mirror. I look like an albino mermaid. An excessively sexy albino mermaid. The V-neck dips lower than any V-neck has a right to. Also, I can barely move my legs.
Option B is the most voluminous ballgown I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I could house an extended family of rodents in that skirt and no one would notice. It also weighs about a hundred pounds. The whole get-up is like something from a fairy-tale, complete with a genuine whale-bone corset which my mother laces up tightly. I’ve been compelled to wear a corset a few times when my parents hosted state balls at their manor, and believe me when I say it’s torture. Imagine trying to make polite conversation while a boa constrictor is wrapped around your torso, crushing the breath out of you, and you’ve got the idea.
But honestly, I think I’ll take the boa constrictor over having the whole audience stare at my undulating hips as I walk down the aisle. And there’s something poetically satisfying about wearing a dress with a built-in prison. It seems… appropriate to the occasion.
“Option B,” I say decisively.
The next few hours are a blur. Someone weaves my hair into an elaborately braided updo, while someone else does my makeup, while someone else runs me through what I’m expected to do at each point of the ceremony. Before I know it, a giant bouquet of flowers is thrust into my hands and I’m walking down the aisle of a cathedral packed with guests from all over the kingdom. It all feels surreal.
Standing at the front beside the priest, decked in full traditional regalia with a sword belted to his waist, is my soon-to-be husband, Prince Odin Ivarsson IV. I know nothing about him except that he breeds and trains swans, which is the most pathetic hobby I’ve ever heard of.
I can feel everyone's eyes on me as I walk to the front and ascend the steps. The prince and I stand facing each other, and I get my first good look at him. It’s disappointing. You would expect a prince to be handsome and muscular, like something chiseled from marble, but Odin is more like something chiseled out of…a wet noodle, perhaps? Thin, mouse-brown hair, narrow face, pasty complexion, eyes a watered-down shade of greenish-grey. To top it all off, he has some sort of weird eye-twitching tic. He can’t seem to stop blinking.
I stare into his eyes, trying to convey my utter contempt for him and for this whole proceeding.
He stares right back, still blinking incessantly. Suddenly I realize there’s a pattern. Four blinks. Two blinks. Pause. Then again: four blinks. Two blinks. Pause.
It’s Morse code, which thankfully I learned in finishing school. He’s saying hi.
I blink back: Hi.
His eyebrows shoot up in an expression of surprised delight. He starts blinking again, a new pattern, and I watch him carefully.
Do you actually want to get married?
Now it’s my turn to be surprised. It’s the first time anyone has asked me that, and I’m starting to rethink my first impression of the prince. I consider my answer for a few moments, then tell him the truth. A long blink, a short blink, then three emphatic long blinks. No.
The priest is droning on about the joys of matrimony, which in this case is a joke. Odin is sending me another message.
Me neither. Want to get out of here?
I study him for a minute, trying to determine if he’s serious.
What do you have in mind?
A mischievous smile quirks his lips, and he starts blinking again.
One hell of a diversion.
My heart starts beating wildly, like the wingbeats of a bird about to flee its cage. If this some cruel joke, I will rip his head off as soon as we’re alone.
The priest has just begun the preamble to the vows, when suddenly the doors at the back of the cathedral burst open and a man’s voice shouts, “Everyone on the floor!”
A swarm of men, armed to the teeth and aiming pistols at the crowd, are storming into the cathedral. There are a few screams from the audience, and then everyone is scrambling to take cover beneath the wooden pews.
The man in front, who wears a black mask and walks like he’s in charge, strides up the aisle. “So sorry for the interruption,” he says casually, “but this wedding cannot proceed.”
I glance at Odin. The look of blank terror on his face confirms that this was not the diversion he had planned.
“P-p-pirates!” blubbers the priest, shaking from head to toe.
“Privateers, actually," says the masked man, sweeping off his hat and bowing low. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Finnegan O’Flanders, terror of the East Seas and currently in the employ of Kregory, King of Korvydia. My assignment is to kidnap the prince, and if anyone objects, they may answer to my cutlass.”
A whisper of horror sweeps through the crowd. The pirate begins to stride up the steps. I look around, aghast. The guards outside must have been incapacitated because there’s no sign of them. The entire audience, including the king and queen and my parents, is cowering on the floor. Odin looks paralyzed with shock. Is everyone seriously going to let this happen?
I grab Odin’s sword, yank it out of its scabbard, and place myself between Finnegan and the prince.
“I object,” I say fiercely.
Finnegan stops and surveys my stance.
“Who taught you to wield a blade, princess?”
“I went to finishing school,” I say through gritted teeth. “And I’m not a princess. Yet.”
“They taught you fencing at finishing school?”
“Yes. And I was top of my class.”
Without warning, his cutlass flashes out with two quick strokes, both of which I block easily.
He gives me an approving nod. “Alright then.”
And we’re fighting.
It’s true that I’ve never fought anyone in a wedding dress before, especially not one of this magnitude. I can’t get as close to him as I’d like, and I have to be careful not to step on my dress. But it’s also probably true that Finnegan has never fought an opponent in a wedding dress either, and I soon realize that not being able to see my legs makes it difficult to predict my movements. He’s bigger and stronger and clearly has more experience, but his technique is as sloppy as you’d expect from a pirate, and he also seems to have a hard time taking this fight completely seriously, probably due to the ridiculousness of my outfit. So we’re about evenly matched.
I keep him on the defensive, making him back down the steps, until we’re on the floor in front of the stage. The people in the front pew scramble to get out of our way.
Finnegan lands a low strike that’s too quick for me to deflect, but the blade merely slashes through several layers of my dress, knocking him off balance and leaving me unharmed. I flash him a wicked grin and a flawless curtsy before he recovers himself and we’re exchanging blows again.
“Not bad for a princess,” he acknowledges.
“I told you,” I say, lunging in for a punto reverso, “I’m not a princess. Though I would be by now if you hadn’t so rudely interrupted.” I sound annoyed, but in truth I’m having the time of my life. Fencing has always been my favourite subject.
Then, with an envelopement that would make Ms. Freyja proud, I send his cutlass flying out of his hands and clattering to the floor. Immediately my blade is at his throat. “Yield for the crown’s mercy,” I say imperiously.
Finnegan lifts his hands in surrender. “I admit, you beat me fair and square,” he says. Then his mouth twists upward in a smirk. “But I don't play fair.”
His hand moves so fast I have no time to flinch. A throwing star – I didn’t even see him pull it out – lodges itself in my chest.
A collective gasp goes up from the crowd. My mother screams.
I stumble backward. I can’t breathe. I’m sure I felt one of my ribs crack, and everything hurts.
“It’s generally unwise to assume a pirate is out of tricks,” says Finnegan, his smirk widening into a triumphant grin. He retrieves his sword and advances towards me.
I look down at the weapon stuck into me and peel back the fabric of my dress to see how much blood there is.
But to my surprise, there’s no blood. All I find is a splintered whalebone rib.
I make a mental note to never again make disparaging remarks about corsets.
“The same could be said,” I wheeze, my breath returning, “of princesses.” I yank out the throwing star and fling it back at him, though it’s a clumsy throw and he dodges it easily (alas, Ms. Freyja didn’t teach us throwing stars). Then I lunge at him and we resume.
The smile is gone from his face now, and there is deadly intent in each stroke of his blade. We’re both breathing heavily. It's all I can do to block his attacks, and with all my attention focused on not being cut to pieces, I fail to notice my foot landing on the hem of my dress until it’s too late and I’m sprawling backwards onto the floor. I manage to deflect two of Finnegan’s blows, but the third knocks my sword out of my hand. Before I can retrieve it, Finnegan’s boot pins my arm to the floor. He presses the point of his sword against my throat and leans over me.
“You fight like a princess,” he sneers.
“Your breath stinks,” I say, annoyed that that's the best comeback I can think of.
Finnegan raises his sword high in the air. My mother screams again.
Then, high above us, the windows of the cathedral begin to shatter.
Startled, Finnegan looks around, and I take advantage of his momentary distraction to deliver a vicious kick to his groin which sends him recoiling with a howl of pain. I’m pretty sure I also flash the entire audience in the process, but thankfully their attention is diverted: hundreds and hundreds of – I stare for a good five seconds before my mind confirms that I’m truly seeing what I’m seeing – yes, hundreds of swans are flocking through the shattered windows of the cathedral. Very quickly the ceiling is concealed behind a churning mass of white wings, trumpeting fills the air, and pandemonium ensues.
Then, still more astonishing, a formation of fifteen or twenty swans comes soaring in through the open doors of the cathedral, wearing harnesses which are attached to the sides of a small rowboat. They gently set the boat down and land at the front of the sanctuary.
Everyone in the room, myself included, is screaming and ducking for cover. Everyone, that is, except Odin Ivarsson IV, who calmly walks over and steps into the boat. He looks at me and holds out his hand.
“Like my diversion?” he says.
I stare at him, gape-mouthed, then get to my feet and take his hand. He gallantly kisses my hand, then helps me into the boat as if we’re about to embark on a romantic outing on the lake.
“I can’t decide if you’re a perfect gentleman or an absolute madman,” I tell him.
“One can be both at once, wouldn’t you say?” he replies with a grin.
Gunshots ring out, and out of the corner of my eye I see the pirates kneeling between the pews, shooting wildly at the birds above them. A few swans plummet to the ground, but many others swoop down at the pirates, vast wings outstretched to attack. The swans attached to the boat beat their wings for take-off, and I grip the gunnels tightly as the boat lurches into the air.
But it’s much heavier than before, and the swans struggle to gain altitude.
Then a throwing star embeds itself in the hull of the boat, inches from my hand. To my horror, I see Finnegan O’Flanders advancing towards us with murder in his eyes and a plop of bird poop dripping from his hat, brandishing a sword in one hand and pistol in the other. A swan dives at him, but he raises the gun and shoots the bird out of the air without even looking.
“Odin!” I shout.
“We’re too heavy!” he replies. Our eyes meet, and I suddenly realize he’s about to do something heroic and dumb, like jump out of the boat.
“Wait!” I pull the throwing star out of the wood, reach up behind me, and slice through the laces that tie up my corset. I rip the blasted thing open and breathe the sweet air of freedom. Then I extricate myself from the dress as quickly as possible and heave the whole thing onto Finnegan’s head just before he reaches us. As he’s flailing around, trying to find his way out of the fabric, the boat, now adequately lightened, lifts into the air and toward the doors. Before I know it, the cacophony of trumpeting swans and screaming wedding-goers has faded away, and we’re soaring over the city.
Odin is staring at me. I suddenly become conscious of the fact that I’m alone with a boy and dressed in nothing but a chemise that barely covers my knees, which is not a situation I’ve ever found myself in before. I glare at him.
“What are you looking at?”
“You just... wow." He shakes his head. "That was the most impressive thing I've ever seen.”
“You were pretty impressive yourself," I say, which is an understatement. "Besides, you saved me from a forced marriage, so saving your life was the least I could do.”
“You know, that’s what I love about swans,” says Odin. “They’re the epitome of elegance and grace, but unexpectedly ferocious when someone they love is threatened.”
“Appearances can be deceiving,” I agree, then narrow my eyes. “Hold on. Are you implying that I love you?”
“Are you denying it?”
“I literally just met you.”
“That’s not an answer.”
I turn away to hide my smile and change the subject. “Where are we going?”
“Home,” says Odin. “The swans’ home, I mean. A lake deep in the woods. We can lie low there for a while until this all blows over.”
I watch the city below us give way to forest and don’t say what I’m thinking: hiding from the authorities, in the woods, with a prince who literally crashed his own wedding with an army of trained swans…well, that actually doesn't sound too bad.