The Princess Bride
The only thing Liz was truly worried about was the weather, which Max had told her was notoriously changeable in the capital city, especially during the fall. She didn’t know how late it was at the moment, except that she felt sure it was closer to morning than to bedtime, when she heard a short, sharp click on her bedroom window. She had no idea what the noise was, as there wasn’t a storm outside, but as she disregarded the click and began to drift off again, there came another click. She half-rolled in her bed, and stared at the window now, waiting to see if there would be yet another click. Once is an accident, Liz thought, and twice is a coincidence, but a third time…
That’s it. Someone’s making that happen. What an inconsiderate ass! She wondered if she should ring her bell and have one of her chambermaids refer this matter to the nighttime commander of her father’s household guards, but then she decided to handle the matter herself, hoping to end things more quickly so she could get back to chasing sleep.
Liz sat up, pushed her coverings off, and clambered out of bed before peering through the bedroom curtains of her spacious bedroom and into the garden beyond. What she expected to see was someone who’d gotten drunk a day ahead of the big wedding celebrations and had somehow snuck into her family’s private gardens. What she saw was another matter entirely. Instead of finding a random person standing in the garden, she saw a very familiar-looking young man dressed all in black, and who was bouncing a pebble in the palm of his hand as if weighing whether or not he needed to throw another.
Liz threw open the double-paned double door of glass and wood that led out to her third-floor balcony, and stuck her head and shoulders out so she could wave to draw the man’s attention. Once he noticed her, he trotted over to stand beneath her balcony, and she said quietly, “Max! What on Earth are you doing out there?”
“I was restless,” Max admitted, “and…I needed to see you one more time before the sun rises, and everything spins out of our control.”
Liz smiled widely upon hearing Max’s confession. “See me?”
“Yes, see you.”
“Give me a few moments.” As Liz made her way across the room to where a thick, ankle-length blue robe was laid out next to her bed, across the back of a comfy armchair, she smiled again, pleased to know her beloved Max was just as worked up about the wedding as she was. Once she had wrapped the robe around her pale blue nightgown and belted it closed, she padded back across the room and slipped out onto her balcony. Liz grinned, as she said, “You know, Max, a lady does not let just any man see her like this.”
“I know. I am fully aware of the honor you do me,” Max replied, as he drank in the sight of her robe-shrouded form.
Liz leaned forward just a bit and rested her forearms on the balcony’s marble balustrade. “You know Father will be irate if you are caught here.”
“Well then, keep whispering, and he will never hear us.”
“What about the household guards?”
Max gave a conspiratorial glance to the left and the right before looking back at Liz. “Rumor has it the guards will be watching just the front of this mansion for the next few minutes.”
Liz took that as her key to quit asking questions and proceed to say what was on her mind. “So, why did you need to see me, Max? Forget what I look like already?”
“I just wanted to let you know how much I love you one last time, man to woman, before Mother’s carefully scripted wedding plan takes over tomorrow.” Max dropped his remaining pebbles, and rubbed the dirt from his hands as he smiled helplessly at her.
She stared back at him, eagerly awaiting what he had to say. As far as she was concerned, the words ‘I love you’ would never get old, not as long as they were coming from him. But whatever Max had planned to say had fled his mind the moment he took in her earnest smile and the adorably fluffy robe that hid her from view. He just stood there, drinking in the sight of the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life.
“Ninety years,” he said in a ‘how could I be so lucky?’ tone of voice; he had spoken very softly though, as he hadn’t meant to voice that particular thought, but Liz heard him anyway. It took her a moment to realize what that comment alluded to, but once she did, her eager smile grew, becoming something that made Max hot under the collar.
“Ninety years,” she said a bit more loudly, her tone agreeing completely with his. “Pretty amazing, is it not? I am eighteen, you are twenty, and we have another ninety years to be together.”
Max nodded slowly. “Yes, and if the next ninety years are anything like the first year and a half…”
Liz finished his thought, “…we wll be the luckiest couple ever.”
Max was in the process of adding to that, when he heard the guards coming back and hurried to excuse himself before he got caught. “I love you.” He blew her a kiss, which she ‘caught’ with both hands before cradling it against her chest. “I need to go.”
Liz could hear her father’s men coming, too. “I know.” She quickly blew Max a kiss of her own. “I love you, too.”
Max caught her kiss, held it to his heart, gave her a deep, courtly bow, and disappeared, as if he’d never been there. Liz slipped back into the mansion just as the guards came into view around the corner of the building. It wouldn’t do for them to see her, both because it would make her father wonder what she was doing on her balcony at that time of the morning, and because she didn’t want to cause trouble for the officer who had made this brief meeting possible.
After their brief but exciting meeting, sleep wasn’t soon in coming for either Liz or Max. Compounding that lack of sleep was the fact that both of them were woken up early by ruthless servants who knew the prince and his lady had tightly calculated schedules to keep.
Liz dressed quickly and went downstairs, where she was hosting a breakfast for all of the women who were standing up with her today at the wedding. It was the last chance any of them would get to relax before the wedding was over. The breakfast meeting was also a means to make sure all of the women were up and ready to begin the laborious dressing process.
The list of women officially waiting on Liz today was longer than ever, as not only were her ladies-in-waiting involved, but so were her sisters and Princess Isabel. Maria was the last one downstairs, but that hadn’t been her fault. When Tess had teased her eldest sister about being late, Maria had blushed slightly, but her only explanation had been to grumble something about how it would be Tess’s turn soon enough to learn about being married.
The conversation at the table was excited and light-hearted; Maria was the oldest one present, along with being the only married woman of the group. Some of the girls wanted to talk about how romantic the day was going to be, while the more adventurous girls speculated about what would happen after the wedding. Liz blushed furiously at such talk, until being rescued by Maria, who told everyone to shut up about sex unless they’d actually had some. Of course, she ruined that moment by turning on Liz and telling her all sorts of stories that made her blush as furiously as before.
While Liz was embarrassed by the public nature of Maria’ comments, at least she was now armed with fresh information from someone she trusted implicitly. At least, Liz thought, I know a little bit more of what to expect now once Max and I are alone. When she finally managed to shush Maria into silence, she had her own topic of conversation. Making sure none of the servants were in the room, Liz told her girls about Max’s brief late night visit. She had her attendants sighing at how romantic he was, all except for Maria, who still wasn’t the [/I]biggest[/I] fan of mushy stuff, and Isabel, who couldn’t quite believe her brother was capable of something that sweet.
The funny thing about the so-called breakfast was that no one ate more than a small slice of fresh bread with butter and honey. That was because the women knew they would be wearing the tightest, most constricting corsets of their lives today, and would need every extra ounce of space they could get. As for drinks, no one had more than a single cup of tea or coffee, as none of them could afford a bladder issue once they reached the cathedral.
When the women ended their breakfast and headed upstairs to begin preparations, Liz pulled Maria aside, thanked her for rescuing her from being embarrassed, and then asked her why she’d then taken it upon herself to continue the embarrassment herself.
“Easy,” Maria said casually, “anyone who wants to mess with my little sister has to go through me first.” Then she smirked. “But messing with you is - as your older sister - my job.”
Liz just rolled her eyes as they continued their trip upstairs to get ready. “So, no one is allowed to give me a hard time except for family?”
“Now you have got it.”
As Liz and Maria were walking upstairs, Max and his guys were back in the winter palace, just rolling out of bed. They got extra sleep time solely because it was going to take them much less time to get ready. They had no clothes that required tight wrapping, and thus could well afford to stuff themselves full of sausages, eggs, breakfast pastries, and various fruits from the first of the fall harvest.
The one thing Max had been required to do for the wedding was to choose his escorts - his groom’s men. And since he didn’t have a coterie of attendants following his every move, he’d had a lot more slots to fill on his own. Twelve to be exact, as he’d needed to match Liz’s nine ladies-in-waiting, plus Isabel, Maria, and Tess. Most of his choices had been from the pool of young Alemanian nobles he’d known growing up. But court watchers had been surprised with a few of his picks, as he’d chosen King Alexander of Anglia and Prince Kyle of Krakovia as two of his groom’s men, and had chosen Baron Michael of Roswell as his best man.
When the meal was done, and the dishes were cleared away, the men went outside in the royal gardens for a walk while their meal settled. The gardens were in their last bloom of color before the leaves began to turn and the plants prepared for winter. Most of that walk involved the married men giving the crown prince lots of conflicting - and usually hilarious - advice on how to please his soon-to-be wife in bed. Every time an unmarried man tried to enter the conversation, Max responded with a sharp retort questioning the man’s lack of experience, but he took the ribbing from the married men with relative good grace.
While Max was getting his unsolicited and completely useless marital advice from his guys, Liz’s skin had just finished being scrubbed to a state of glowing, pink perfection; then she had been sheathed in layer after layer of shifts and underskirts. Now, two older chambermaids were working together to cinch her already slender torso into an even more narrow corset. Most corsets used whalebone stays to give the garment its needed rigidity, and there were more of them on this corset than Liz had ever had before, as the royal dressmakers had been ordered to make her wedding dress extra narrow in the waist, to create the illusion of a more curvaceous figure.
Liz wasn’t the driving force behind the extra-narrow bodice on her wedding dress, as she knew Max loved her just the way she was, but she had given in to her soon-to-be mother-in-law a long time ago on most issues regarding the wedding, as it wasn’t just a private wedding, but also a major state occasion. And in any case, Liz did privately admit that it would be nice to have the appearance of rounder hips and a slightly larger chest, even if for only one day.
Other servants worked on her hair, brushing it out until it gleamed in the morning light that streamed into the room. The hair was then pulled up and back in a pommel, before the rest was loosely curled and allowed to fall down her back in a chocolate cascade.
All in all, Liz’s maids took more than three hours getting her ready. The last things put on were her wedding gown, the lace mantilla that covered her head, and her velvet slippers. She had seen the dress several times as the royal dressmakers had put her through fitting after fitting after fitting, but for this occasion, nothing short of perfection was acceptable, to either the dressmakers, the queen, or Liz herself, so she had willingly gone through the lengthy process. And now, everyone else was going to get to see the result.
But not until Liz got the first look in her full-length mirror.
“Oh…my…God.” She had seen the dress in pieces as it was fitted to her, but never on her as a complete whole. “I have never worn white before.” Liz said mostly to herself.
“Of course you haven’t, Lady Elizabeth,” her most senior chambermaid replied briskly. “No one is allowed to wear white unless they’re in the royal family or are joining it.”
Liz knew that already, but she wasn’t really listening to her maid at the moment. Her focus was on the woman she saw in the mirror, and on the man she was about to marry. “I have never been this beautiful before.” Then she smiled radiantly. “I cannot wait for Max to see me like this.”
By the time she cautiously made her way down the wide stairway to the mansion’s large foyer - with two maids following behind to handle the train - all of the rest of the women were ready and waiting.
As Liz came into view, a collective ‘ooh and ahh’ arose from below. Her dress was a glorious confection of lace and silk - all in royal white - and the style suited her perfectly. The wide, square neckline showed a bit of cleavage in front and smooth shoulder blades in back, while the puffy, gathered short sleeves with their lace trim seemingly broadened her shoulders and added to the artificial shoulder-to-waist taper caused by the super-tight corset she had on under the bodice of that dress. And that bodice, which was oh so tight to squeeze in Liz’s tummy and push up her breasts to give her some cleavage, was thickly covered with the most intricate Adriatic lace.
The dress was completed with the outer skirt, which was a curtain of pleats, and its attendant train, both made of pure, gleaming silk. The outer skirt and the train were heavily pearl encrusted, with thread-of-silver embroidery around the edges of the train in a pattern that echoed the Adriatic lace on the bodice.
The twelve young women crowded in around Liz as much as they could without actually touching her gown, and the next several minutes were spent in excited chatter as everyone offered her their heartfelt congratulations on her gown. The last one to speak before the women headed outside to begin climbing into their carriages for the ride to the cathedral was Maria. She couldn’t hug her sister for worry of ruining her look, but that didn’t matter. “Liz, you look great. Poor Max will not know what hit him.”
While the women were entering their carriages for the procession to the cathedral, Max and his escort were already well underway. He was dressed in his most formal uniform. The jacket was white, double-breasted with gold buttons and a high, stiff black collar which was thickly covered with thread-of-gold embroidery. On top of the jacket were golden shoulder boards which ran from his neck to the tops of his shoulders, where they were capped off with golden epaulets. A loop of thick, white cord ran around his left shoulder to signify his membership on the army’s General Staff, and a golden belt cinched the coat at his natural waist. Last but not least was a heavy chain of gem-encrusted solid gold medallions which hung from one shoulder, down across the middle of his chest, up to the other shoulder, down to the middle of his back, and back up to the first shoulder to complete a loop. The chain was part of his regalia as the crown prince and was only worn on the most formal of occasions.
Max’s pants were much more subdued, being white with a black-edged golden stripe down the outside seam on each leg. The pants disappeared just below the knee, where they disappeared into the mirror-like shine of his glossy black riding boots.
And while Liz would be riding in a gilded carriage, Max was riding on the back of a pure white stallion, with his best man, groom’s men, and a heavy escort of knights from the royal household guard right behind him as his horse clattered his way over the cobblestones that led from the main palace gate to the cathedral square.
No one tried to talk during the few miles they had to cover, as the streets were lined at least twenty deep with loudly cheering city folk who were eager for a glimpse of their prince and his entourage as they passed by. And to keep those people from getting too close, a cordon comprised of tens of thousands of halberd-wielding soldiers lined the edges of the processional route. The soldiers here came from both the King’s Legion - which Phillip had spent much of the summer rebuilding - and from Max’s own Borussian army.
Max and his men were already dismounting just in front of the main steps leading up to the cathedral by the time Liz and her lengthy train were carefully loaded into the last of thirteen carriages, and her procession got underway. The men lined up on the steps, with Max on the top, Michael on the next step down, and so on, as they awaited the arrival of the bridal procession.
The crowd noise from the throngs around the cathedral square settled to a dull roar once the prince and his escort took their places on the steps, but they could tell when Liz’s procession drew close because of the steadily growing wave of noise from the direction of her father’s mansion. That route was also lined with soldiers of the King’s Legion, and each of the thirteen carriages was escorted by knights from the girls’ respective families, and riding right beside each carriage was either the girls’ fathers, or eldest brothers, all in their finest uniforms.
As the growing wave of noise reached a crescendo, the first carriage seemingly popped out of its street and into the square, and headed directly for a specially positioned mounting block. Only one carriage at a time entered the square, and as that carriage stopped with its door positioned exactly next to the mounting block, the male relative chosen for escort duty dismounted from his horse and helped the lady out of her carriage and down the steps of the mounting block.
Once the lady was on solid ground, two royal servants rushed in to make sure her skirt was hanging just so, and then the lady was escorted across the square to the foot of the cathedral steps, where her escort handed her off to a groom’s man who offered her his arm and then walked with her up the steps and into the cathedral itself. When the first lady disappeared inside the cathedral, the next one in line was just stepping down out of her carriage for her walk. This process repeated itself over and over, with each woman receiving her share of shouts and nods of approval from the huge crowd.
Finally, the tenth carriage arrived, and Tess stepped out. Golden-haired, and with a golden dress to match, she felt like she was floating on a cloud as she walked with Jeffrey across the square. “I still cannot believe this is really happening, Daddy,” Tess said as they walked across the expansive square. “Liz is going to be an actual princess.”
“And our next queen,” Jeffrey replied. “I pinch myself every few days to make sure I am not dreaming.” Then he looked down at his youngest and wondered how long it would be until her turn came.
When they finally reached the cathedral steps, Prince Kyle was waiting. Jeffrey handed Tess over to the prince and hurried back to the mounting block, because Maria was next after Princess Isabel. Kyle offered Tess his arm, along with giving her a warm smile.
“Ready?” Kyle asked.
Tess matched his smile with one just as sunny. “For this? Oh yes. Let us get in there and see what it looks like when a Lady Parker marries a prince.”
Kyle shook his head, then shot back, as they headed up the steps, “Maybe that knowledge will come in handy someday.”
Isabel was next, coming to a stop in a gleaming royal carriage. She wasn’t escorted by Phillip, as he was already inside the cathedral in the royal box, and obviously Max was otherwise occupied, so she was being escorted across the square by a second cousin, who wasn’t quite used to the excitement of the capital. He much preferred the solitude of his family’s tobacco fields, but the queen had asked, and no one said no to the throne.
“Come on, Jesse, just get me across the square and your torture will be over,” Isabel said. She knew exactly how much her cousin liked this, but they had needed someone, and he cut a dashing figure in his uniform, so he had been ‘requisitioned’ by the queen.
When Jesse handed off Isabel to King Alexander and made his escape from the public eye, Alex used his head to gesture to the huge, boisterous crowd and all of the preparations that had gone into this day. “Getting any ideas, Isabel?”
Isabel took one more look around, and replied, “Tons of them.”
“Hmm…maybe we could have a quick wedding in the palace chapel once we return to Anglia. Or maybe we could do the job here.”
Isabel smiled to the crowd and retorted, “I do not know who you will be marrying then, because it will not be me.”
Alex chuckled and walked up the steps with Isabel just as Maria was being helped out of her carriage by her father. Once she was safely on the smooth stonework of the square, Jeffrey said, “So, how are you and Michael holding up with all of this hoopla?”
“We are doing surprisingly well,” Maria said. “Michael’s been treating this visit to the capital as one big lark.”
Max and Michael were watching Maria and Jeffrey approach, and listening to the growing roar from the crowds along the street as the last, and grandest, carriage rolled closer to the cathedral. Just as Maria and Jeffrey reached the steps for the handoff, the crowd surrounding the square exploded. Max looked up and saw the immense gilded carriage roll into the square.
Jeffrey kissed his daughter on the cheek and handed her off to her husband before turning to hurry back for Liz. Michael offered his arm to Maria, and then took a look at Jeffrey walking quickly across the square, before turning himself and Maria toward an obviously eager Max.
“You don’t really mean to make that old man go all the way out there again to do something you plainly want to do yourself,” Michael asked, “do you?”
Max rubbed his face with one hand, and spoke to Michael without allowing his eyes to wander from Liz’s carriage. “Well, Mother would…”
“Your mother’s inside the cathedral, well behind you. Your bride is right there in front of you.” When Max hesitated, Michael said, “Go get her.”
Max took off at a quick trot, and caught Jeffrey before he made it halfway across the square. Tapping the older man on the shoulder, Max said, “If you do not mind, Jeffrey, I would like to take this one.”
Jeffrey’s first reaction was to insist on walking his girl this one last time before she was no longer his, but then he realized she hadn’t truly been his for quite some time. He turned to Max, clapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Go on. She has been yours for quite a while. It is time to make the obvious official.” Max grinned and started to turn away, but Jeffrey stopped him. His eyes were a bit watery now, and Max noticed the change immediately. “Please take care of my girl.”
Looking as serious as Jeffrey was, Max replied, “I will.”
Impulsively, Jeffrey threw himself forward and gave his soon-to-be son-in-law a fierce hug, before breaking away and walking back to the cathedral. Max watched the man go for just a moment, before turning to the carriage that had just come to a stop next to the mounting block. He ran the rest of the way to be standing there when the footman opened the door and Liz came into view.
As Liz rose from her seat and ducked out the door of the carriage, the two maids who’d managed to squeeze their way inside the carriage, along with Liz and her dress, dealt with her train. And when Liz came into view, the crowd roar reached new heights of insanity, but that didn’t matter to Liz, because there waiting for her was not her father. Instead, wearing a white royal uniform, was Max.
Liz was surprised to see him, but Max was utterly blown away as Liz took his hand and gingerly made her way down the steps to the surface of the cathedral square, with her train and the two maids coming behind her. He saw shimmering silk, intricate lace, finely detailed thread-of-silver embroidery, and pearls studding her train like stars in the sky.
But none of that matched the woman who was wearing it all. She had a lace mantilla covering her head and hair, but while the mantilla hid her head, her dress accentuated each and every curve she had, making him aware of her body like never before. His mouth was suddenly bone dry, and not from nerves; this reaction was caused by nothing but pure desire.
“White truly suits you, Liz,” Max breathed.
“What are you doing here?” Liz asked, as she looked around furtively for any sign of her father.
“I am sorry, Liz. I have been going crazy inside all morning, and I could not wait another second to see you.”
“Really? You just had to see me?” Liz thought she was going to melt.
“And now that I see you…” he gulped and tried to gather his composure. “You are so beautiful…staggeringly gorgeous really. I cannot believe you are mine.”
“You think so?” Liz asked, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. Inside her mind, though, she was turning cartwheels.
“Oh yes. I am going to remember the way you looked when you stepped out of that carriage for the rest of my life.”
Liz’s smile rivaled the sun at that moment. If no one else made a single positive comment today about how she looked, the hours of preparation would still have all been worth it. “And you…standing here looking like every little girl’s dream of what a prince should be…I am so lucky.”
Max offered Liz his left arm, and she gladly looped her right one through it. “Come on, Liz, let us get inside before Mother gets worried and sends a search party.”
“Wherever you go, Max, I will follow.”