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Venom
Author: Bex Hogan

For Joe.

My eternal north.

 

 

It’s a beautiful night for a wedding. The moon is radiant, offering its shimmering light as a blessing on the union, and the stars shine bright in celebration. The gentle breeze scatters delicate pink petals from the trees like confetti.

The room I’m in looks down over the gardens of the summer palace, and I rest my head against the cool glass of the window. Not moments ago I was surrounded by people, fussing over me, preparing me, filling the air with laughter and excitement. Now I’m alone. Waiting.

I am dressed for midnight. The only colour on my person is the scarlet thread woven through my corset. Otherwise I’m entirely in black as befits the Viper, though for one day only I’m in an elaborate gown, rather than my fighting garb. I slide the dagger gifted to me by my crew into my boot and immediately feel more myself. A bride I may be, but I have plenty of enemies who would love to use this day to their advantage.

There’s a soft knock on the door. It’s time. A flock of nerves takes flight inside me, fluttering in my chest. With a deep breath, my chin up, I meet my future head on. Two chambermaids greet me with a smile, before placing a heavy velvet cloak on to my shoulders and fastening it with a bejewelled brooch at my throat. The hood is lifted carefully over my hair and I’m escorted from my chamber.

The ceremony is taking place outside, in a courtyard lit by a thousand candles and filled with islanders who have congregated to watch this historic event unfold. A hush descends over the crowd at my arrival, every head turning to watch me make the long walk to where the priestess waits to mark our vows. My heart is beating fast – too fast – though I’m comforted to see members of my crew standing either side of the aisle.

And then there he is. My eyes lock on him like a needle on a compass. Bronn. My eternal north.

His face remains as impassive as ever – he’s had years to practise concealing his feelings – and though I’m still not always able to read him, today I have no doubt what’s going through his mind. Reluctantly I pull my gaze away from him, moving my focus to the man waiting for me just feet ahead.

Torin. He is dressed in the finest cloth, trimmed with velvet and sparkling with fragments of crystal. He has never looked more handsome. He smiles at my approach – a wonderful, genuine smile because Torin can’t give anything less – but even so I glimpse his conflict. I’m not the only one forsaking love in the name of duty today.

In a few steps I’m beside him, trying to block out the rest of the world as I listen to the priestess’s words, making my vows with as much honesty as I can. I promise to honour Torin, swear to defend him with my life, and pledge to remain true to him above all others – until death parts us. This last oath is by far the most difficult to make, but I force the words out. At least both of us know the truth. And as I’m not deceiving Torin in any way, there’s no guilt.

Behind Torin, standing just close enough to be in my peripheral vision, is his new bodyguard, Braydon. I’m not used to him yet; he seems to trust me as little as Sharpe did to begin with. But while I eventually won Sharpe round, I suspect Braydon’s dislike for me might be harder to overcome. I can sense him scowling even as I become his princess.

My eyes dart over to Sharpe, standing off to one side. The loss of his sight meant he had to be reassigned, and though he remains Torin’s aide, his misery these past months has been obvious. He looks as though he wants to be here as much as Bronn does.

Our vows made, Torin and I are instructed to place our wrists together, as we did during our binding ceremony so long ago. But this time, rather than red-hot metal, silk is wrapped round our scarred skin, and we turn to face all those who have assembled to witness such a momentous occasion.

The crowd cheers, and my crew salutes us, before Torin leans over to kiss me gently on my lips. It’s all part of the act, I know, but I can feel the blood rush to my cheeks. His skin is soft where Bronn’s is rough; his touch is ice where Bronn’s is fire.

He is my husband. I am his wife.

When we walk back down the aisle, still bound together with the silk, I manage to avoid looking at Bronn. It takes me a few moments to realise I’m holding my breath, and I exhale. The worst, after all, is over. I force myself to relax, even going as far as to acknowledge the crowds of people who are cheering our departure.

It’s then I see him. The stranger. There’s nothing extraordinary about him but that’s exactly what makes him stand out. He’s dressed a little too normally. He’s blending in a little too much. He stands exactly like a man who doesn’t want to be noticed.

I look away, to avoid rousing his suspicions, but keep him in the corner of my eye – I don’t want to lose sight of a potential threat. Torin must feel me tense, because he looks over, concerned.

‘What’s wrong?’

I give him the brightest smile possible, so that to the crowd I will seem merely like a happy bride talking with her new husband. ‘Behind me, towards the wall. Black hair, tied back. Tall. Do you see him?’

Torin returns my false smile with one of his own and leans towards me, giving the impression of whispering sweet nothings into my ear, while really looking past me to see who I mean.

‘Yes. Who is he?’

‘I was hoping you might know.’

‘Want me to have him removed?’

I shake my head. ‘The last thing we want to do is cause a spectacle.’ But I make a mental note to ask one of my crew to keep an eye on him the first chance I get.

When we reach the end of the aisle, Torin searches my face. ‘We did the right thing, didn’t we?’

I squeeze his arm with my free hand. ‘Of course we did.’ Though I do already wish the night was over. I would rather not have to endure the coming celebrations.

I’ve had no say in this wedding. I didn’t want it here, in the summer palace, deep in the heart of the First Isle. Set atop a mountain peak, the palace is bleak and isolated and a long way from my ship, which makes me feel vulnerable and uneasy. I didn’t want an extravagant feast and dancing when the islanders are still struggling to fill their bellies. But it’s all been arranged by someone else.

The King.

The very thought of the man makes my anger rise. I hate that he still has the crown, but by the time I returned from the West, Torin had already struck a deal with his father. Torin had given him two choices: abdicate or be overthrown. Ever the coward, the King did not relish a fight with his son and the new Viper, and so in order to protect his reputation and legacy, the King agreed to abdicate quietly. But he had one condition: that he remain on the throne until this marriage had taken place, so he could use the excuse of royalty and Viper allying as his reason for stepping down. For the sake of the islands and to avoid further bloodshed Torin agreed, but when I found out the King’s request a worm of suspicion burrowed into my stomach. Trusting the King isn’t something that comes naturally to me, and I feared he’d only agreed to whatever would delay his abdication, giving him time to squirm his way out of his promise. So I’d paid him a visit, not long after I arrived back in the East, to add a little incentive. It was just like old times, climbing through his window in the dead of night, to make him wake to a living nightmare. I told him he would announce his abdication during the wedding feast, and presented him with a document to sign. His word was not enough for me; I wanted it in writing. And if he refused? Well, I had no qualms about threatening the royal neck.

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