A betrothal. Not a marriage.
With intent to cancel.
They had arrived at the train station and Ember let go of the Prince’s arm to look around. She found the station deserted except for a few mechanics working on the green and gold bulk of the locomotive.
Ember assessed the mechanics but they were all engrossed in their work.
“So, how does this betrothal keep me in your country?” she asked.
The Prince had stayed nearby and still had his eyes on her.
“It extends my citizenship over you, temporarily. You’ll have protection from deportation without criminal cause, which means you would have to commit an unsettled crime for my father to throw you out. Also, you would have the right to apply for official citizenship consideration.”
“My father can block any standard application with minimal cause, but if you’re betrothed to me then only the Council will have final say. That means an open discussion which actually looks at the founding precepts of Salshira.”
Ember looked at the town and wondered what those precepts might be.
“I don’t think your councillors will want a garagran here much more than your father.”
The Prince looked at the town too, then back to her.
“There are those who remember who we are. I believe there are others who can be reminded. We tend to forget that the rest of the world exists outside the mountains. That we’re called to love them.”
“‘Called to love them,’” Ember repeated to herself and approached the great green cylinder where the fires burned and drove the water which made the giant steel machine go. She ran a hand over the curved metal, catching on the bolt-heads and tracing a swirling brass decoration that depicted a herd of galloping horses, then eyed the thick steel drive bars connecting the sharp steel wheels to each other and to the machinery inside.
The Prince had described the whole thing to her the day before.
One of the mechanics glanced at her and she stared back until he looked away.
“Your people are very strange, Prince Tavarin. All of you.” She paused as she noticed an absence. “Where is your sister?”
“Trin left last night to make sure all the paperwork you’ll need is already in order. If you decide to go with this then you’ll just have to sign a standard betrothal contract with me and she’ll get all the notifications put in before sundown. You’ll have a legal right to be here well before I’m required to put you out.”
Once again Ember felt fear and confusion tumbling around inside her driven by childhood teachings and any number of painful life lessons, all pushing for paranoia.
“No one will fight for you but your own claws. Everyone else is just an ally of convenience.”
What did he get from this? What was there to gain in having her stay?
“The perception of righteousness is a useful cloak…”
Was he trying to take his father’s place by appearing more righteous? Was this a power play?
No. That would need someone sympathetic. Not someone like her. Wouldn’t it?
Perhaps he would want her physical power. Help in battle, or eliminating someone.
Although why a man who commanded things like Tixerie squads, Shunschildren, hot-air balloons and steam locomotives would risk angering all the power that backed him to get her help, she couldn’t see. It seemed more likely to weaken him.
Once again Ember wished she was as crafty as her sister had been. Or as good at understanding others as her brother. Her mother had been a master of divining motives.
She studied the Prince, once again finding him a mystery as he watched her patiently and waited for her answer. What did he see?
Suddenly she remembered how he had looked at her earlier. At her scales when she was laughing. Like he was fascinated. Why?
Oh. Shifting. Colors. That was another thing she had always envied in her mother and siblings. Self control. They were so much better at hiding their emotions.
Hers always made it to her scales when she got distracted.
Was that it?
Was she a project for him? Something curious and fascinating?
Was he really that curious? That he’d go against his father, his right-hand armsman, his country, to study her?
The man who had explained the steam locomotive to her with such enthusiasm might have that kind of mind.
Or perhaps he was just hoping to end up with a Garagran as a wife.
She met his gaze and approached with slow steps, watching him as first one eyebrow went up in question, then both when she was an arm-length away and not stopping. She brushed past him and he stumbled back a step.
No. He was not trying to impress or court. He might be a curious fool, but he wasn’t a total fool.
Unless he was a total fool in a completely different way.
For one brief moment the possibility that he really, truly, was completely honest whispered through her mind and made her tremble with some unknown terror that dwarfed any of those that came before.
Then Ember dismissed it.
“How long can this betrothal be for?” she asked over her shoulder.
There was a definite hesitation before he responded. She had put him off balance.
“One year is the standard duration for adults. Longer contracts are usually for minors, with fulfilment at their majority. Adult couples can get a dispensation, but that would be unwise here.”
One year then. At the moment it was still better than any other option she could see.
“Subjugate the world, or it will subjugate you.”
Time to act.
Ember turned back to him.
“Very well, Prince Tavarin. I agree to the betrothal.”