Jacey stared at the stars twinkling against the sky. Thus far, it hadn’t been hard. She had had enough freedom that she did not feel like a captive. Yes, some of the soldiers, particularly Commander Rousin’s, had tried to rough her up but Commander Borut’s men put a stop to it out of respect for their commander. Some of his men had actually been downright civil to her, as best as they could be when they thought neither of them spoke the same language. But all that would change tomorrow when she began to walk towards Targo City.
A gust of wind pulled at her clothes and caused her to shiveringly* pull the blanket tighter around herself. She had tried not to think about it. She had tried not to wonder what it would be like to be sold to a complete stranger, to always be in a bondage where the only hope in a change came from being sold to anther stranger.
It had been bad enough while she worked for Juna’s father. He did not treat her that poorly, did not give her excess amount of work and did not expect her to rise early or work late most of the time. He also made sure that she had adequate, though cheap, clothing and enough food that she could not complain. Though she did the work of his deceased wife, he expected only the household to be seen to and so long as that was done, he found no fault with her.
It was his children that caused her grief. Juna took a horrid enjoyment in demanding, though she claimed it was asking, her to do all sorts of little things, Even things that she should have done herself. When she first came to Ketekey, the three boys enjoyed teasing her about her poor grasp of the language and joined the town boys in their “harmless” (so they told their father) tricks that resulted if not in injury, then at least a need to pay for something. Even after she mastered Ketekey enough so as not to sound like a foreigner, they still found fault with her. She could only endure their torments silently, for their father only saw their behavior as normal for boys and did nothing to hold them back.
She had only to spend seven years in their service. After that, she could leave. Almost unconsciously she had been counting down the months until her departure ever since she finished half of it. Suddenly, that changed. There was no departure from this.
What made her fear worse was the fact that Commander Borut had practically said she would be someone’s mistress. Perhaps she should tell him of her education. Speaking and reading three languages had to count for something. If needed, she could learn another easily enough, for she had learned Targo merely from listening to the traders at her home. Once she learned the language, she had no problem learning to read it. And though she knew no advanced math, she knew enough to keep track of her father’s books accurately. All that might be enough to count for something.
Jacey jumped. Somehow, in her musings, she had not heard Commander Borut approach. He watched her evenly, as if waiting for a response.
Jacey swallowed and turned. Unnoticed when she was alone, she now realized that tears and welled up in her eyes. She hated crying, more than anything, and it would only make matters worse to cry in front of him.
“In truth, I am surprised you lasted this long without crying,” he said softly.
Jacey shook her head and wiped her eyes angrily. “It’s nothing.”
“Very well.” He placed a hand on her shoulder and began walking casually so she could keep up with him. Jacey fell into step and after a moment he let go of her shoulder.
He said nothing for several minutes. “I will tell you upfront that I do agree with what you said earlier. It would be proper for me to return you to your family, as Aldroa has done nothing to displease me and I wish to do nothing to displease them.”
Jacey glanced up quickly, her throat tightening in part because she feared what laid beyond the unspoken but.
“You have proven yourself capable these last several days and as such, the twenty miles you would need to travel on your own you may actually be able to do. If not, it is not that great of a burden.”
Jacey swallowed. “But?” she whispered.
He turned then and his eyes met hers. “But I would like to request that you stay.”
He nodded slightly.
He paused then looked away. “You are from Aldroa?”
The sudden change in conversation caught her off guard. “I–thought you understood that.”
“And you care nothing for Ketekey?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. I did have a few friends there. I–” She twisted her hands. “I miss my home though. I have for the last five years.”
“Then how did you happen to be in Ketekey, being that you are Aldroian?”
Jacey paused again. “My father… he had a bad year. Things happened that cost a lot of money and no matter how hard he and my brothers work, we couldn’t seem to get out of it. I figured as oldest daughter, it was my turn to work next. So I hired myself as a bond servant and they brought me to Ketekey.”
“Your honesty is surprising.”
Jacey glanced at him. “Is that bad?”
“Why does any of that matter however?”
“I first need to know that you are truly from Aldroa.”
“Have I satisfactory convinced you?”
He nodded and paused on the edge of the stream. The moon danced across the surface in little blue-white specks.
“I–would like for you to consider marriage.”
Jacey blinked. “Marriage–of what?”
He paused and then look at her. “YOu and I.”
Jacey stopped walking and just stared at him. “You hardly know me. And I–”
“Captivity tells a lot about a person. Somehow you always kept showing up. By tradition a commander can have his wife with him in the field, so you would be rarely left alone as other officer’s wives are. And I do believe that your presence here may be of benefit to my men.”
Jacey frowned. It felt as if she lived her life on a carriage that just suddenly had been controlled by a spooked horse. Things were happening too quickly and she could do nothing to control it. “And–what about you?”
“I am merely the son of a blacksmith. There is no reason for me to marry higher than that.”
She sank onto a rock and looked at the quarter moon. “But I am–not Targoian.”
“There has been such marriages before. Rare, but they do occur. The greatest barrier in preventing Targoians from marrying, say, Aldroians is size.” He paused and knelt next to her. “I know it is sudden and–complicated to you. But I can promise you safety, as best as it will be in a war camp, and that I will provide for you and you will be treated as a wife with respect, both as a Targoian and as an Aldroian.”
She looked at him. With himself on the ground and herself on the rock, they were nearly equal in height. Jacey found herself remember how she kept telling people that Targoians were just tall men. Indeed, he looked merely like a man. His hair reached down to his shoulders in long straw strands and absently blew in the wind. The normal brown tunic of the Targoian solders fit him well and the red sash of rank graced his chest. His arms, bare to allow for ease of movement, was silent reminders to the hidden strength.
Yet, she truly did not know the man before her and even if she knew the stories, those she knew were five years old and those she heard in Ketekey were filled with fear, not admiration. She could be committing herself to anything by agreeing to marry him. It was one thing to say she would be safe; it would be quite enough for it to actually happen.
If she went back though, what would she have to go back to? She truly did not know the situation of her family now. Neither of them had been able to write since the beginning of the war. Last she had heard, her town had been wiped out in a mudslide. Even if she made it to Aldroa, she did not know where she would find her family.
She glanced at the sky again and sighed. He had let her think, without even looking at her the whole time. And something had to be said for how his men treated her compared to Commander Rousin’s.
She swallowed and shook her head. “This is insane.”
“We’ve had less than three conversations and you are asking me to marry you.”
“People sometimes get married on less. Indeed, some even get married when their principles clash with another’s.”
Jacey nodded. She had seen that before. No proper Aldroian woman was single after the age of twenty. If she returned home, her father would try to do everything he could to marry her to someone respectable, if anyone thought of her as respectable then.
Jacey took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay.”
He looked at her in near disbelief. “You–agree?” His surprise brought out the Targoian accent that up to now she had not heard.
“Either way, what I chose offers unknowns. I don’t know how my family will respond to my arrival. I don’t know how you will respond to my arrival. I do not know where I will go either way. But you are promising safety at least and respect. I don’t know why you are asking this, seeing how you could probably marry any Targoian girl you wished, but I do agree.”
He rose and offered her a hand. “Come then. It is a very simple matter to do by Targoian standards. Simpler than the Aldroian custom I believe.”
She blushed at the mention of it and looked to the ground. Silently, he led her towards his tent in the camp’s center. He held open the flap so that she could enter and followed her.
The inside of his tent looked very much like an ordinary man’s. Near the front was a small firepit, for both light and heat A low table, merely consisting of board placed across two other boards, rested in the middle of the tent. Cushions sat scattered throughout as places to sit. A trunk stood in the far left corner with a satchel of clothing on top of it. Lining the far wall laid his bed. which looked to be more several blankets thrown together with a pillow on the top.
He pulled from a box under the table two pieces of paper and laid them out, along with a bottle of ink. Jacey knelt by the table and tried to skim the documents quickly in the poor light.
“It is written in Targoian, I fear, as that is the only legal language,” he said, sitting next to her.
She glanced at him.
“We–merely sign a paper for it to become legal. Though, certainly we need your name first.”
She had noticed that at the bottom of the page, since only his name rested there.
She took the pen and dipped it in the ink. “You need it here?” She pointed at the opposite side of the page.
He nodded. Silently, she wrote out her name Jacey Lea Meiner-Jija or as any Aldroian would read it, Jacey Lea, daughter of Meiner. This commitment would change it to Jacey Lea, Heddywn-sosa, otherwise known as wife of Heddwyn.
“You write very well.”
Jacey smiled faintly. “I kept my father’s books and it made sense to write neatly.
Commander Borut nodded and rose. “I will be just a moment.”
Jacey nodded as she set the quill aside. Once he left, she read the paper more carefully. It sounded more like a contract than a marriage agreement, but it did protect her in case of abuse. At the very end, near where they signed their names, the date appeared off by about a week but Jacey doubted that matter any and knew it would be wiser not to mention it if she wished to keep her knowledge of Targo to herself.
Commander Borut entered just as she set the paper down, this time with the man who had pulled her first from the cage.
“He,” the commander said, motioning to the other, “is to serve merely as a witness. Major Pauldor.”
The major looked doubtfully from Jacey to the commander but shrugged. “I suppose stranger things have happened, sir,” he said in Targoian. He motioned for her to rise, then changed to heavily accented Aldroian. “Speak your name.”
Jacey swallowed the lump in her throat. “Jacey Lea Meiner-Jija.”
“You swear that you are of sound mind when you accepted his proposal and was not forced, threatened or coerced?”
Jacey glanced at the commander. “Yes.”
“You are not a spy for the Ketekey, Aldroian or any other government?”
The commander cleared his throat.
“N-no,” she said. Whatever would put that idea into their head?
Major Pauldor glanced at Commander Borut. “As witness, I would have half the blame if she was, in spite of the impossibilities.”
“You think I have not already confirmed that?”
“Two witnesses on the stand, as is the law.”
Commander Borut did not look pleased but nodded.
Major Pauldor turned to Commander Borut. “Please, state your name.”
“Heddwyn Dejan Borut, commander in the Targoian army of the twenty-second squad.”
“You swear that you are of sound mind when you offered your proposal and were not forced, threatened or coerced?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then very well. I agree to your marriage.”
Commander Borut knelt again and picked up the pen. Casually, he signed both top and bottom document. When he slide them across the table to her, she could only make out the C, O and M of commander, the H and W in Heddwyn, and then the D in Dejan and the B in Borut. With another swallow, almost feeling as if she was dreaming, she dipped the pen in the ink and signed next to him her name. He took the pen from her again and wrote beneath it–in legible writing this time–Jacey Lea Borut. Then he closed the ink bottle and looked at the major.
“Thank you, Major. That is all.”
Major Pauldor nodded slightly and ducked out.
Jacey sat back into the nest of pillows and watched him as he waited for the ink to dry before folding the paper. The light flickered off of his face, drawing out the angles and creases in his face.
“It is customary for the bride’s family to be given one copy of the document and the groom to take the other.” He looked at her. “Seeing as you have no family, I would assume it still stays with us.”
Jacey paused and shrugged. “Whatever you think is best.”
He nodded and sealed the other document. “The other will be sent to my house in Targo City for safe keeping.”
Jacey nodded again, feel awkward and not sure how to respond or even act. Much of her could not believe that with that simple signature she had signed her life into his hands. He put the envelope in a pouch and threw it on top of the trunk. Then, he laid on his bed, watching her through half-closed eyes.
“Jacey is a pretty name.”
She glanced at him, surprised.
“Obviously foreign, but pretty.”
“Is… foreign bad?”
He looked at her more evenly. It suddenly occurred to her that she had yet to see him even smile. “People need only look at you to see your a foreigner.”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
He pushed himself up and looked at her thoughtfully. “I think not too much. Ketekey and Aldroian is such different languages and cultures that I suspect it should be obvious which is which. If it gets bad, we could always call you Katja.” He pronounced the name just as it would sound in Targoian, dropping all pretense that he spoke Aldroian perfectly.
Jacey smiled faintly. “It sounds pretty.”
“It was my sister’s.”
Jacey paused. “Was?”
He looked away and shook his head. “Now is not the time for a history lesson. Just know my sense of duty was directed more at my family than my country when I became a soldier ten years ago.”
Jacey nodded and began to brush back one of her loose strands. Out of mere habit, she began to untie braid her hair to rebraid it. After the first day, she hadn’t even bothered to try to untangle the knots, just pulling it back in a braid and hoping the knots stayed out of her hair as best as they could. Silently, he leaned over and handed her a comb. Jacey touched it almost cautiously.
“I don’t use it nearly as much as would suit the giver, but you can.”
Jacey took it and began to comb out her hair, working her way slowly from the bottom to the top and enjoying the feeling of her hair coming out smooth instead of fizzy and dry like it had been since the attack. For a few minutes he sat next to her in silence, watching somewhere between her and the fire. Then, he sat up and took the comb from her hand mid-stroke.
Jacey looked at him. “You know how to comb hair?”
“Four sister and myself, with myself being the oldest. I know.”
When she did not object outright, he began, Surprisingly, he was right when he said he knew how. Jacey closed her eyes and slowly relaxed against the gentle rhythm of his strokes. Her long hair fell around her shoulder and swish softly across her back.
He stopped but she did not move. After three days of working hard, of not letting herself relax, of sleeping on the rough ground and feeling slightly sore, the tent seemed to be a warm, safe place. Even as the wind blew outside through the trees, she did not need to leave.
The commander brushed back her hair from her shoulder and then quietly suddenly kissed her neck. Jacey turned sharply and looked at him. He said nothing, meeting her eyes evenly. When she did not move back right away, he cautiously, almost as if to make sure she understood what he intended, brushed back the hair from her face and slipped a hand around her neck. Just as gently, he drew her close and for one split second, her mind panicked as she realized he was going to kiss her her. Then he did, softly, like she was made of glass. Her chest tightened as emotions raged through her body. Her mind kept screaming a million protest for committing to this marriage.
He pulled back and looked at her. “Are–you okay?”
She swallowed and nodded, though she felt a shudder run through her body.
“We do not need to do anything.”
Jacey paused but shook her head. “Tradition, Aldroian tradition, is that we aren’t married until we do, even if it is just once.”
He nodded slightly. “And you still follow the Aldroian tradition?”
“It’s too much a part of me not to.”
“I am not hurting you?”
“You will tell me if I do?”
Jacey nodded. He hesitantly brushed a finger along her cheek again before pulling her close.
And as such that night, Jacey Lea Heddwyn-Sosa came to be.