When the medal was given out, Katherine wasn't in the hall yet, but she heard the rumors from one of the maids, who had been told by a waiter.
She was already a nervous wreck, now even her hands started to sweat. With trembling lips, she murmured: "This can't be right. Nathaniel isn't a prince, why would they say that? I even heard there was bad blood between him and the royal family."
"Sometimes the truth is different from what we think.", an older maid sighed. "Maybe both is true, or one is nothing more than a rumor. However, they said the King announced it, so it should have some value. Who knows why he kept it a secret? Maybe he was just too shy to tell you. Anyway, none of us knew before."
Katherine couldn't imagine a shy Earl of Hymirhall. She felt the stone in her stomach getting heavier when she thought about his stern and cold face. Was this really Nathaniel they were talking about? The one who played chess with her and hugged her like she was his only anchor in a sea of loneliness? The one who sat by her bedside with shadows under his eyes, and at other times teased her with a clever smirk?
She lived by his side for several months, how come she didn't notice anything? The palace servants also didn't treat him differently. It had to be a wild rumor. He would have told her if he was a prince. Or wouldn't he?
But now, she noticed a few other things. Why else would he be protective of the fourth Prince the way Lady Orchid told her, and why would the Princess invite her to tea to talk about him? Why was he so important to the King that he wanted to meet her personally? If it was just for a powerful mage, this was too much.
It felt like there was a wall between her and him, so thin that she didn't notice before. It was keeping each of them in their own world, with only the illusion of knowing the other. He never talked about his family, his plans or troubles willingly. Why did she think she knew all about this ice-cold demon when the most they had was a dance and a kiss?
Only a single kiss, but she thought that it meant something. That she meant something more to him than a helpful hand. Maybe she was wrong.
Suddenly, she remembered how the King said he would 'allow her to marry one of his sons', and how he laughed when she chose Nathaniel over them. He gave in way too happily. Hadn't it been obvious then?
But she didn't think of it.
While standing at the door to the hall where the festivity was held, her legs were numb with fear. She was afraid she would stumble along the way to the pedestal and fall like a fool. She was afraid Nathaniel would say 'no' to her in front of everyone, and she was afraid someone would be murdered on her own wedding. She might be accused of murder.
With a deep breath that smelled of sweetness like the bridal bouquet in her arms, she tried to think optimistically. Nathaniel also had secrets, he couldn't be too angry that she didn't talk to him before, could he? And she wasn't the one who wanted to marry today, it was an order from the King.
However, would he know this? Would he care? She was sure she would not, if she was in his place.
Before she was ready, music suddenly started to play from inside the hall, and the double doors slowly swung open. For a few seconds, she only stood there, overwhelmed.
There were so many people that their faces and voices merged to an indistinct mass, swarming into her mind and making her dizzy. She only searched for one face but couldn't find it between all of them. She didn't remember walking, but suddenly, she was in the middle of the hall, and looked up.
Finally, the pedestal was visible. There he was. Nathaniel's gaze was as dark as his suit and colder than his white hair. She couldn't meet it for long. Under her veil, her eyes blurred, and she hastily averted them. He didn't want her. She could see it in this short exchange. She could understand if he was angry, but his gaze showed more than just anger. It was burning with hate and disgust.
Her heart fell apart into bloody, hurting smithereens. A shiver rolled down her spine, and she felt as cold as the statue in the temple. Made of ice. How could she not die inside? She loved this stubborn, cold and lonely Earl more than she ever allowed herself to acknowledge. Yes, she loved him. She never wanted to be vulnerable again, but she couldn't help falling for him. And now, he was turning her down without a word.
She really did stumble. Her numb legs wouldn't carry her anymore, and she stumbled over her own feet, fell down on the floor.
Despite her knees hitting the stone tiles hard, she didn't feel anything. She stared down at the bridal bouquet on the marble floor. Red roses on black stone. They looked like splattered blood. They looked like her heart that shattered.
But she had survived it once.
Katherine gritted her teeth, as frustration and anger rose in her. How could she let herself be destroyed by a man again? She had it once, and she wouldn't let it happen twice. She still had her pride. She wouldn't turn into a begging and wailing mess. Not now, not ever.
Deliberately, she strengthened her anger and let it flood the coldness away. She snatched up her bouquet and straightened her back. She would not crumble here like a pitiful flower girl. She never was one of those fragile girls, and never would be. She despised herself for being so weak.
Now there was fire in her veins and she would take it to burn this unfeeling Earl till his ice was molten and steaming. Pridefully, almost arrogantly, she pulled back her shoulders and strode down the hall. Her steps were fast and confident. There was nothing in her eyes but this annoying Earl, who was now frowning. Maybe he was annoyed that she couldn't even walk straight, but she didn't care anymore.
If he was willing or not, this man would be her husband today.
To Nathaniel's left was a priest in a blue robe and an altar, to his right this hateful king. She saw them out of the corners of her eyes but ignored them. Her focus point was this irritable man in the middle, that looked way too handsome in an angry mood. When she reached in front of Nathaniel, she glared up into these red eyes and hissed: "If you dare say 'no' to me, I swear I will hate you for the rest of my life."
He furrowed his brows. "You have no idea what you are talking about. I can't be your husband. It's impossible."
Her already shattered heart took another blow, but she stood through it with a straight back. Was it really so horrible to be married to her? "Then I hope it's possible to live without your head", she viciously threw back, too quiet to be heard by the crowd that was listening to another speech of the King. Despite all her afford, her voice wavered a bit.
"Katherine." Of course, he noticed the slip-up. His eyes suddenly clouded with confusion and worry, and he reached for her arm, but she jerked it away. Instead, he curled his hand into a fist. His voice was harsh, strained with an unknown tension. "You don't understand. I'm not normal. I can't be in that sort of relationship."
"Oh, is it because you are a prince? You can't marry a woman of the enemy country now? But look, your king allowed it! Or is it because of my status? I tell you, I might not be a princess but my status is not low either! I- "
"Katherine!", his authoritarian voice silenced her easily. It went over his head how she could be so worked up about this matter. "You know it got nothing to do with that. I would marry you in a second, if I could. But I can't ruin your life."
She knew nothing about that, and to hear it now, while he was rejecting her, only hurt more. Tears welled up in her eyes, even when she fought so hard to keep them dry. "I don't care. I want you. Do you know that the King asked me if I would still want you even if I could never touch you? And I said yes. Damn me, but I said yes! I never want anyone else, even if you will never love me back!"
A sob escaped her tight throat. Suddenly, there were strong arms around her, pulling her against a hard chest.
"Then damn us both", she heard his taunt voice, and it tingled in all her nerves. "For I will take all I can."