My name is Isa Valgoda and I am weaker. Weaker than what you ask? Weaker than who? I'm weaker than a lot of things and a lot of people. Like a pillar holding up a space port or one of the Dragoons fighting in the upper atmosphere.
Why am I weak you may wonder?
I'm weak because I gave in. I am weak because I couldn't look past myself and see that other people needed me. A country needed me.
I am weak because I ran away.
Chapter One: Weaker
"Isa, dearest," I could hear my mother calling as she wandered about the house, no doubt concerned that I wasn't in my room.
I sighed and waited until she had passed and then crawled down from my attic hiding place. I snuck down the hall and made it to the door of my room before I was caught.
"You are in so much trouble," a voice said from behind me and I winced.
"Please don't tell on me," I begged as I turned around.
Lucy looked down at me good naturedly. "Just this once."
It wasn't true. Lucy never told on me. Lucy is my best friend and pseudo nanny/maid/confidant. She's tall and pale and has eyes the color of a stormy sea.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" I exclaimed as I gave her a quick hug and darted into my room to pretend that I had been there the whole time.
I pulled out my tablet and turned on my French tutor. She babbled on and on and I just tuned her out and waited for my mother to come back around.
"Young lady, where have you been?" she asked as she stormed through the door, no doubt Lucy had told her that I was in my room. I started to answer, but she didn't let me. "Never mind. You better start getting ready or you're going to be late."
"Mother please, I don't want to go. They're all just rich snobs."
"Isabella, watch your tongue," my mother gasped. "You will go and you will be pleasant. We need you to help seal the alliance with the Stregas so please, go get cleaned up. Lucy will have your dress ready when you finish."
I sighed, realizing there would be no arguing with her. I started into the bathroom as she left. I stripped down and climbed into the steamer. I didn't like it, but I didn't have time for a bath. The steamer always made me feel like a vegetable. It filled quickly with thick steam that made it difficult to inhale; though the steam itself was oxygen enriched so little inhaling was actually necessary. The steam was followed by a thick foamy spray of soap and shampoo that seemed to stick to every piece of my body. It made me feel dirty rather than clean. I chuckled, making sure not to open my mouth. It made me feel like I was being dipped in sauce. The soap and shampoo were forcefully blown off of my body by gusts of powerful warm air. Steam once again filled the small compartment and the remnants of the soapy foam melted away. The steam was augmented now by a fragrant spray that made me feel oily again, like I'd never been clean in the first place.
I stepped out of the steamer and grabbed a wet towel that Lucy, no doubt, had left out for me. She knows I hate the steamer. I wiped the oily spray off of myself and scrubbed my hair with the wet towel until it felt clean again. I then traded the wet towel out for a new one and dried myself. I wrapped up into it and walked out into my room where Lucy was waiting with a dress that was way to girly for my liking.
Lucy must have noticed the look on my face because she chuckled. "It isn't as bad as the other one she wanted to put you in. It had ruffles."
I gagged and Lucy laughed. She'd been my maid and confidant since I was little; she was only a few years older than me so we had both been raised by my nanny until she was old enough to look after me, herself.
"Thanks Lucy," I said as I walked into the dress and pulled it up over my shoulders and held it so that Lucy could hook the back. I walked over the mirror and turned around to look at myself. The dress wasn't that bad, I guess. It was pale blue with cream colored lace accents, so at least it wasn't pink. The sleeves were a little too big for my taste and the skirt a little too poofy, but it could have been much worse. I had to wear tights too; cream colored like the lace on my dress and little blue slipper-flats. At least they weren't making me wear heels. These people weren't worth wearing heels for.
Looking at the dress and its relative simplicity, I knew I would be one of the more underdressed people there, but my mother knows me well enough to know that she's lucky I'm wearing a dress at all so she let it slide.
"Time for your hair," Lucy said as she guided me toward my vanity where several hair implements (torture devices) waited, already hot.
"I thought this was informal," I whined as I sat down and Lucy got to work on my hair.
"Oh hush, it won't be so bad," she said as she started brushing the tangles out of my hair.
"Not so bad? I have to schmooze all the snobs so that they won't attack us. How is that 'not so bad'?" I asked.
"You're just sour because you know Edward won't be there," she taunted and yanked a little bit on my hair.
"He's the only one who makes these things bearable," I said with a sigh. "No one is better at pissing the others off than he is."
Lucy laughed. "I'll say. We're still receiving letters from the allies from last time he visited."
Edward is my cousin and next in line for the throne of the Landon state in North America. He's fun and loud and really, really good at making people angry. And he's charming, which is probably how he got engaged to the Landon heiress. She always had a weakness for the rebels. And Europeans for that matter. After her father dies, Edward will take over the Landon state and we will have another solid ally in North America. Of course, they'll be our allies as soon as rings are exchanged, but nothing will be set in stone until there is an heir.
I shuddered. Edward is a year younger than me and he's getting married.
In every old book I've ever read girls are younger than guys when they get married. Edward is only twenty and they're expecting him to start a family. And the heiress to the Landon state is only seventeen. That is far too young. At least according to old books. It was normal for girls to get married young a couple thousand years ago, but as of a couple hundred years ago, it was strange for girls to get married until after they'd gone to college. But I suppose since we don't do that either, what's in the way of marriage?
I'm far past the normal age for marriage. I spent most of my teen years dreading having to marry before my eighteenth birthday. And then my birthday came and went and it has three more times and still nothing to worry about. Until Strega decided to marry off his eldest son, Marco, who had been a mercenary for the better part of a decade.
Marco Strega is the most vile human being I have ever met. He is arrogance and elegance incarnate. He's also the most handsome prospect amongst the young men of the ruling classes and he knows it. Marco could have any girl he wants and he knows it. So he has every girl he wants. It is a sort of frowned upon thing to sleep with another member of the ruling class and not marry them, but he seems to have somehow become and exception to this rule. Every girl wants him and every girl's parents want him for their daughter or daughters, if he wants. Some parents even encourage their daughters to sleep with him because they know that if a child is beget from such encounter then they will be safe from the Stregas. Or at least that's what they think.
That's what happened to the Celeste Roux's state. When they found out that she was pregnant with Marco's child, the Stregas annexed the Roux state immediately. He still visits her apparently, though there is no talk of them marrying.
"Isa?" Lucy asked and I looked at her in the mirror. "Just wanted to make sure you were alright. You'll give yourself wrinkles if you keep frowning like that. What's wrong?"
"Marco will be there."
"At least he's handsome."
"He's an insufferable ass."
Lucy laughed. "Officially: you could do worse. Unofficially: I'd hit you."
"Thanks Lucy," I said with a grin.
"Isabella!" my mother hollered up the stairs. "Now, darling!"
"I'll see you tomorrow," I said with a sigh as I dragged myself out of the vanity chair and grabbed the overnight bag, she'd packed for me.
I trudged down the stairs, feeling helpless and overdressed.
"Oh my dear, you look beautiful," my father cooed as he offered me his arm, which I took obediently.
I don't get to see my father often because he's usually handling political affairs (well most of them are political) so when I do get to see him, I don't quite know how to act. I figure that being obedient is the best way to go about his visits. He always manages to show up as soon as he needs me to seal the deal in an alliance though. Something about only having one daughter so countries are more likely to want to ally with us. I don't really keep track.
"Thank you, Father," I said as we walked out to the car that would take us to the train.
I liked the car and the train; they were from an era past. Of course they've updated the tracks and the cars are newer and faster now, but the tracks and the roads remain the same. People from hundreds of years ago used the same rails to make the same trips. And now I was taking them to meet with the rich of our era, the privileged.
The ride to the train was silent except for the hum of the engine and my parents occasionally exchanging small talk. My parents didn't love each other; I had no illusions of that. Theirs was a marriage of convenience and blood, but it was as successful as any I'd seen. They cared for each other though it could not be called love. I would even go so far as to say that they are good friends, but not lovers by any means.
I took my seat in the single car train and stared out the window as the countryside began to pass far too rapidly. The train moved at better than two hundred miles per hour so I barely got a glimpse of the countryside before it was gone. The train ride would only take an hour or so. I only had an hour to gather my self-control before I would be bombarded with insincere niceties from people who didn't like me and with whom I shared the sentiment.
I sighed as my mother began to tell me who I was to talk to and who I was to avoid and how to act and how to sit and how to be graceful and when to meet back with her and my father and all of the other things that I needed to know before she threw me into the lion's den.
Finally we arrived and I was ushered into a small waiting room for ladies so that I could freshen up before being introduced into the room full of young, eligible people. I washed my face and loitered around as long as I could before I walked out of the other door and into a small corridor where an elderly man was waiting with a platter that had a small note and a rose on it.
"Mr. Strega requests that you join him near the East window," the man said as he held the platter out to me.
I took the rose and note and smiled at him with a nod and he led me through another door and into a large room with two walls of windows. There were clumps of couches and chairs around low tables around the room. Rich rugs covered the wood floor and people milled around in "casual" clothes, chatting amiably amongst themselves, flirting and schmoozing. I wandered in and around them saying hello and trying to buy time until I would have to go sit with Marco.
Finally after several minutes I had wound my way over to Marco, who was sitting on a seat that was too large to be called a chair and too small to be called a couch. It was large and soft and inviting and covered in rich, green velvet. There were two girls sitting on a sofa across from him chattering away while Marco smiled at them.
His eyes fell on me and his smile widened. The girls looked over the back of the sofa and scowled at me.
"Isabella, you're looking lovely," he said as he stood and strode over to me.
"Thank you, Mr. Strega, you're looking well also," I said with a small curtsey.
He continued to smile at me, though he addressed the girls on the sofa. "Ladies, if you would excuse us."
The girls huffed and stood, linked arms and walked away, whispering between themselves.
"Would you like to sit?" Marco asked as he gestured toward the green velvet seat.
"I suppose," I said as I walked over and positioned myself on it. At first I had considered trying to take up as much of the seat as possible so that he couldn't sit next to me, but I thought he may try it anyway so I settled for sitting as far to one side as possible.
He sat down next to me, close but not quite touching. "How have you been? It's been a long time."
"Fine, thank you, and yourself?"
"I've been doing well. My father is running me ragged though. I expect your parents are doing the same," he said as he looked down at me and leaned a little closer.
"Yes, I suppose you're right," I said as I leaned against the arm of the seat.
"They really want this alliance to work, don't they? I expect they're trying to smooth it over as we speak," Marco said as he leaned even closer.
"Yes, I'm sure they are," I said as I pressed closer to the arm of the chair, the wood knob on the end was starting to dig into my spine.
"It's a shame we can't do something to help them," he said as he leaned back a little and I managed to pull myself farther away from the arm of the chair.
"I agree. I hate seeing them so stressed," I said as I placed my hands in my lap and looked down at them.
"Maybe we can," he said as he placed his hand over mine.
I looked up into his unsettling green eyes with alarm, because I knew what he meant. I struggled for something to say. Something that would keep him from saying what I thought he would say. I gently removed my hand from his. "I don't know. This is really a matter best left up to them. I mean, we're not politicians so it's probably best we don't get involved."
"Of course we wouldn't try to interfere with the designing of the treaty. That would be disastrous, don't you think?" he asked and I sighed in relief.
"Yes, I don't think it would go over well. I mean, what right do we have to interfere with politics? I'm sure it'll work out just fine with us."
He looked thoughtful for a moment and I turned away, trying to keep from grinning at my success. As charming as he seemed now, I knew what he was and I didn't want any part of it. He is vile and arrogant and altogether too attractive for the good of the world. I felt the seat shift and I turned to look at him. It was a mistake.
"Isabella?" he said, facing me in earnest now.
"Yes?" I asked, embarrassed at how my voice was small and shaky.
"We can't get involved with the politics, of course," he said and looked at me expectantly. I nodded. "But what if we could make it easier? Force them to make a decision and make sure it's peaceful."
I didn't miss the subtle threat in his words. If this treaty didn't get through peacefully, if my parents didn't agree to the alliance, Strega would invade. I nodded.
"Well, what do you say? For the good of our parents?" he asked, leaning in and placing a restraining hand on my arm as I drew away. "Would you marry me?"
I froze in place as the words left his mouth. No. I wanted to shout at him. No. He would not threaten my country, my parents. No. He would not get away with it. No.
"I have to think," I said as I stood abruptly and turned toward the door where the valet was standing. God, even he looked sympathetic. "I need to reach my parents immediately. It's urgent."
"Yes, miss," he said as he led me into the hallway where there was a small phone. He dialed it and held it to his ear. There was no answer. "I'm sorry, miss, but if they're in a meeting it will be quite difficult to reach them."
"Well then, I'd like to be taken to my quarters, if that's alright," I said.
"Of course, come with me," he said as he walked down the hallway and led me through a doorway where another valet was waiting. "Lars will take you to your room."
"Thank you," I said with a nod as I turned to follow Lars down a wide hallway lined with doors, each with a name carved in script on them.
When we reached mine, Lars handed me a key and bid me good night. I opened my door and saw that my bag had been placed on the table across from my bed. I walked forward and flopped onto the bed face first.
This was a disaster. I expected something like this, but I was hoping that my parents would get the alliance settled before he asked so I would be able to say no. It had happened too fast. Too soon.
I sat up and thought about it. Maybe I could talk him out of it. Maybe he would see reason. He seemed like a pretty reasonable guy. Surely he would understand that I don't want to marry an arrogant, spoiled playboy. He has to, right?
I couldn't go back into the drawing room, not after the scene I just made. It'd be horribly embarrassing, but if tomorrow I chock it up to not feeling well, they'll forgive me, but then I'll have to tell my parents. Maybe he's in his room. I think he got up when I did. So maybe he went back to his room and is, at this very moment, contemplating how stupid his decision was.
Yes. That's what I tell myself as I stand and straighten my hair and skirt and head for the door. That's what had to have happened.
I wandered down the broad hallway until I found his name and I knocked three times, politely. After a few moments there was no answer so I knocked three more times, this time not so politely. Another few moments pass and there was no answer and I began to lose hope. Then I heard the lock turn and I couldn't help the grin that spread across my face. He was here.
The door opened and a young man looked out. He was fairly unremarkable looking. Not handsome like Marco, but not ugly either. He had medium brown hair and murky green eyes, like moss that's been tread on too much. He was dressed in a button down, with the first few button left carelessly undone tucked into khakis. I could see thick corded muscle through the thin linen shirt and I knew what he was.
"I'm sorry, but Marco won't be back for a while. Usually I'm supposed to let you in, but he told me he wasn't expecting anyone tonight," the mercenary said and his voice was rough, but polite.
"I'm not here for that," I said as I turned and pressed my back against the wall outside the door, sighing in defeat. "I was hoping he came back to the room after he asked me to marry him."
"Oh, so you're Isabella," the mercenary said as he took a half step into the hall and leaned against the doorframe.
He laughed, "So I take it your answer is 'no'."
"I wish it could be. I was hoping I could catch him before my parents get back or someone tells them. I was hoping I could get him to retract his offer," I said as I looked over at him.
"You've got something against him?" he asked, shifting.
"I- He-," I stuttered, I didn't want to offend this new person. "He just isn't exactly what I pictured for when I got married."
He chuckled. "You don't have to candy coat it. He knows you don't like him and therefore so do I."
"Oh," I replied. "So then why did he ask me to marry him?"
"Because it's convenient and because you're beautiful,"
I would have blushed at the compliment, but I was too busy being offended. "What do you mean 'convenient'?"
"Well, I'm sure I don't have to tell you the situation your state is in so you have little option but to agree," he said.
I scoffed. "Who are you anyway?"
He bowed deeply, "Marco's personal bodyguard and soon yours it would seem."
"Wonderful," I muttered sourly, because I knew he was right, "At least you seem reasonable."
"Well, thank you. I pride myself on being a reasonable man."
Giving up on talking to Marco, I decided making friends with his bodyguard was a good idea. "What's your name?"
He looked taken aback at the question. Surely he had a name. I mean, shouldn't he?
"Robert," he replied.
"You have a last name, don't you?" I asked.
"Not really. Most common people don't have them. Only the Royal families have them. We mostly go by where we're from. For example I guess I would be Robert of Sarn, but I've fought for Strega so much that I suppose I should be called Robert of Strega."
"I like Robert of Sarn better," I replied.
He smiled down at me. "Most people do."
I sighed. "I don't want to turn out like Celeste Roux."
"So don't," he said. "Celeste is a sweet girl, but not the smartest I've ever met."
I pitied her so much, having to deal with Marco so often. "Poor girl, she must be miserable."
"Quite the contrary, she couldn't be happier."
I balked at him.
"Remember, she isn't very smart."
I laughed then, a full and freeing and deep laugh that nearly brought me to my knees.
"I didn't think it was that funny," Robert said with a chuckle.
I recovered after a few more moments. "Today just hasn't been a good day, but for some reason that just killed me."
A valet walked down the hallway and it didn't escape me or Robert that he looked at us strangely. We both watched as the man disappeared down another hallway and then we lost it.
"Do you want to come in?" Robert asked as his laugh subsided into chuckles and he stepped out of the doorway and gestured in.
"Sure," I said as I walked into Marco's room.
It was larger than mine. It had two king sized beds, a large comfortable looking couch, a cozy looking chair, a desk with a computer console on it, and a door against one wall must have led to the bathroom.
"Sit, please," he said as he gestured toward the little sitting area.
I sat down on the large couch and curled my feet up under me and leaned on the arm closest to the chair where Robert sat.
"So you're marrying my boss," he said bluntly.
"That's a conversation starter," I muttered and he chuckled.
"Well, that's the only thing we have in common so far," Robert said with a shrug.
"That's fair," I said and we lapsed back into silence.
"Are you the only child of Valgoda?" he asked. It seemed like the question bothered him to ask.
"No brothers? Not even another sister? Maybe a cousin?"
"My cousin, Edward," I replied, confused by his intensity.
"So if you are married off, he becomes the heir, right?"
"No, he is engaged to the Landon heiress who has no other living heirs so he is taking over as their heir."
"Just like what Marco is doing with you,"
"What?" I asked a little breathless.
"He becomes heir. That's why he has to marry you. Strega will have Valgoda either way," Robert explained, "Either by force or by peace."
"This is the lesser of two evils," I said, under my breath, "People will die if I say no."
Robert nodded and shot me a sympathetic smile.
"How did you figure that out?"
"I know Marco very well. I've worked with him for six years and for him for two. I think I'm his closest friend," Robert replied thoughtfully.
Just then the lock on the door turned and Robert stood stiffly.
"Robert," Marco's voice echoed in the large room.
"Yes, sir," Robert said.
"I did it,"
"I know, sir,"
"What do you mean 'you know'?" Marco asked as he rounded the corner and saw me sitting on the couch. "Ah, hello, Isabella."
"Hello, I came by hoping that I could talk to you about earlier. I apologize for rushing out, I was just a little unprepared," I said as I shifted so that I was sitting in a little more lady-like manner.
"I understand. It must have been quite a shock after all, being twenty already," he said with what was clearly supposed to be a sympathetic smile.
"That isn't exactly why I was so startled," I said under my breath, "I came by to talk to you about the proposal actually."
"Really, do you have an answer for me?"
"In a manner of speaking. I was hoping I could get you to retract it," I replied and held my breath, waiting for his answer.
He looked angry. He looked like he was reining it in. It looked like Robert was my only ally in the room.
"Robert, could you give us a moment?"
And now he was being sent away. He looked at me and reluctantly headed for the door. It opened and closed and suddenly the room felt claustrophobic. Marco was far too close and I had far too few defenses.
"Why would you want me to retract my proposal?" he asked as he walked over and leaned on the arm of the chair that Robert had just recently been occupying.
I sat up a little taller. "I just don't think we should interfere with the politics."
"Don't beat around the bush," Marco sneered, all of his previous charm gone, "Give me a real reason."
"I don't love you," I said, the words tumbling out of my mouth, "And I don't think I ever could."
He laughed and chills ran down my spine, "Love's got nothing to do with it. This is politics. If you don't agree to this, the treaty won't go through and if the treaty doesn't go through, your country will be overrun by my family's army."
I stared at him, open-mouthed. How could he just be so frank about it? Who can even think that way? Marco Strega, the ex-mercenary, apparently. I just blinked at him, entirely unsure of how to respond. I was saved from a hapless response by Mr. Strega's ego.
He pushed himself off the edge of the chair and sat down next to me on the couch, uncomfortably close. He had a smirk smeared across his face that made my stomach swim. He laid a hand on my knee and I tried my best to look as affronted as I felt. Just before I was about to speak, he beat me to it.
"Ms. Valgoda, the way I see it, you have no choice in the matter."
I felt the truth to his words as they left his mouth. My silence must have pleased him because his smirk spread into a full blown grin.
"So tell me, do I have your answer?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"Of course you have a choice," he said with fake sympathy, "You can choose for me to take power peacefully or by force and for you and your whole family be killed in the process."
I thought about it for a moment. He was right. My country was not made up of warriors like Strega was. We were peaceful. We were almost entirely defenseless. My country would have to spend all of its money on mercenaries to even hope to stand a chance against Strega and even then it would just prolong the inevitable. I let out the breath I had been holding. He was right. I didn't have a choice.
"You have your answer, Mr. Strega," I said as I tried to stand but he caught my arm.
"And it is?"
"You know what it is,"
"I want to hear you say it," he said as he pulled me back down to the couch and smiled at me.
"I will marry you," I said and it was nearly a whisper.
"Excellent," he said with a grin, "Shall we tell our families over dinner, tonight? I believe this deserves a formal announcement tomorrow as well. Everyone will be so surprised."
I hope you enjoyed the newly re-edited story. Please review!