Home > The Unlovely Bride (Brides of Karadok #2)

The Unlovely Bride (Brides of Karadok #2)
Author: Alice Coldbreath


The Royal Palace at Caer-Lyoness


Lenora’s shoulder twitched. Did they really imagine she could not hear them?

“’Twould be better,” her father’s voice said heavily. “If she’d died, rather than suffer this cruel fate.”

“That face—it’s a mockery of her former self,” her mother sobbed dramatically. “Whatever will become of her?”

“Oh, my poor lady.” Lenora heard someone weep. She guessed it was Hannah, her maidservant. “Her face, her lovely face. It’s quite ruined.”

Unable to bear much more of their caterwauling, Lenora stirred, letting them see she was conscious. After all, she supposed she would have to speak to them at some point.

“She wakens!” her mother screeched and fell against her husband in a swoon.

Trust Mother, thought Lenora sourly, to make it all about her.

“Thirsty,” Lenora murmured. She noticed it was the old crone who had been attending her since she had been afflicted, that came forward now to pour water for her. Her solicitous parents stayed pinned against the door for fear the pox was still catching even though it must be well over two months now since she’d been truly ill.

Thank goodness she was on a bed now. For weeks she had lain on a filthy straw mattress in the crypts below the royal palace, with the other afflicted, waiting for death. But the raging fever, aches, pains, and vomiting had passed. Then the rash had come with a profusion of small red pustules that had covered her face entirely in bumps. In lucid moments, Lenora had felt them beneath her fingertips, marring her skin and making her own face feel like that of a stranger’s.

At the time of course, she had been more worried about the spots that had filled her raw throat, making it difficult even to breathe. Many a time she had woken in the night, choking and gasping for breath. Even her tongue had been swollen with spots. She had forced herself to swallow each mouthful of water down her throat, so sore it had felt like she had blades embedded in it.

The worse part though, to Lenora’s mind was when the pustules had erupted their noxious fluid, all over her face and down her throat. She had retched as her mouth was filled with its taste and her raw face was bathed from the weeping, open sores. She even felt it run into her greasy, crusted hair. Her sweaty, dirty body had squirmed. She hated even to breathe the foul air that surrounded her.

The crypt had been manned with ghoulish-looking attendants, their faces covered with scarves. They nudged you with booted feet to check you were still alive and grudgingly brought you water. Lenora heard them railing and threatening those who piteously wept for aid, so when the time came that she realized she was not actually going to die, she had not begged. She had demanded in a loud, imperious voice.

She had threatened and she had bribed until they had brought her watery soup to drink, so she could grow strong enough to lift herself off the squalid palette she lay on. She had insisted too, on washing water and a clean mattress and a shift once her sores had scabbed over. When she could not get a comb through her matted mess of blonde hair, she had called for shears and cut it herself to her shoulders where once it had hung down so low she could sit upon it. She had cut it blindly, refusing a looking glass. She was not that brave. Not yet.


Finally, she had been permitted to ascend from the fetid cellars to empty quarters in the south wing of the castle. The bare walls and broken furniture had seemed like luxury after the dark, dank crypts and there she had set about her long road to recovery. She slept on a bed, she had clean clothes and she had Berta, an old washerwoman to attend her. It was now getting on three months since she had collapsed. In truth, she was well again and quite free now from all infection.

There was just one area that would never recover naturally and that was her former looks. She had shied away from demanding a looking glass. She could feel the rough, uneven skin along her jaw, the puckered texture across her cheekbones. Even the smallest thing, like closing her eyes, made her realize how tight and crinkled the skin on her eyelids felt. She must truly be hideous now. Her parents’ words now confirmed it like a knife to the heart. But she still wanted to live.

She wanted to live so badly. Hearing her father say that it would have been better for her to have died, filled her with a hot bubbling anger. Of course, he did not know how she had fought even to breathe that musty, diseased air down in the vaults, surrounded by the bones of the dead. How would he? He had not been to visit her even once.

“Where are my cats?” she said aloud. “I want my cats to be brought to me.”

They met her words with a stunned silence. “Your cats?” her father faltered at last.

Lenora nodded. “I am quite well now and would appreciate their company.” When no-one spoke, she turned to Hannah. “You will have them brought to me, forthwith.”

“Aye, milady,” she gasped and bobbed a curtsey, though she could not meet Lenora’s gaze.

“And you will send me a looking glass,” Lenora forced herself to say. Her mother emitted a low moan. “It would be as well for me to know the worst,” she added with quiet dignity.

“My child…” —her father started, but when Lenora looked at him enquiringly, his eyes swiveled away, avoiding hers. “We will send the cats and your personal things,” he said lamely.

“Thank you,” Lenora said briskly. “Berta, will you bring me my mantle? For I mean to rise now and sit a while. I must have a letter from Eden to read, some whereabouts.” Her cousin Eden was the one member of her family that Lenora prized above all others. Eden wrote to her once a month without fail.

Her father cleared his throat and Lenora looked up sharply. “Here it is,” he said, reaching into his doublet. He held it out toward Berta who stepped forward to take it from him. “It was delivered by hand this time,” he added. “Doubtless you have lost track of time daughter, but the Autumn Tournament is upon us.”

“Eden is here?” Lenora burst out. Her cousin was now married to the King’s champion, Roland Vawdrey, and often toured the country with him whilst competing.

“Nay,” her father said, clearing his throat. “Eden has not long discovered she is with child. Sir Roland did not permit her to accompany him to Caer-Lyoness this time, when so many have fallen to prey to the speckled pox.”

Lenora relaxed slightly against her pillows. “No, of course not,” she said quickly. “He is right to be cautious with her health.” She took the note from Berta with hands that slightly shook. So, her cousin knew what had befallen her. Indeed, Eden must have wondered why Lenora had not written to her all this while. Though not as regular in her habits as Eden, Lenora did write, dutifully to her grandmother and fondly to Eden.

Lenora twisted the letter between her fingers. A feeling of strange nameless panic washed over her. She had been living in a sort of dreamlike state while she convalesced, concentrating only on getting better. Thinking about it now and watching her parents awkwardly take their leave of her, shuffling backward through the door, she wondered if she had purposely shied away from all thoughts of what people’s reactions to her would be.

Yes, she thought with detachment as Berta bundled her woolen mantle around her shoulders. She rather thought she had. The older woman held out a scrawny arm to steady her, as Lenora levered herself out of the bed. She still felt washed out and lacking in energy, though not quite as weak as she had been.

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