It was as though she was walking down the corridor naked, accompanied by a bevy of the greatest ladies in the kingdom. Her fine nightgown felt like a cloak of clouds to her smooth shoulders, so thin and so light that she was scared anyone would be able to see right through it. Her hair had been plaited earlier by the Countess of Visconti and the Duchess of Gonchalos, a braid that was too tight for her liking. With her white gown billowing around her body, showing a subtle silhouette of her figure, Catalina was escorted to her wedded bed.
The young noblemen of Frederick’s company were still there when the women stepped into the Crown Prince’s suites. Only the Duke of Bolenurm seemed decent, his hand placed protectively on the shoulder of his ward Prince James. The little Prince was drooping with sleep; he was barely able to stay straight on his feet. The rest of the men lounged around the room, their statures drunken and their breaths stinking with excessive alcohol. They all stood up, or at least attempted to, when Catalina came in. She suddenly felt overexposed in front of these men, and tightened the loose shawl on her shoulder so much that it nearly choked her.
“The Prince is waiting for you in the chamber,” said Henry of Bolenurm with at much tact as possible.
“Thank you,” she nodded to him, and smiled at Jamie who in turn gave her a sleepy grin.
“Goodnight Princess,” chorused the noblemen and women of the room as she pushed the bedchamber door open.
The enormous four-poster bed greeted her as she closed the door behind her, its looming magnificence making her feel even more intimidated and shaken. Frederick was already in it, the white cover pulled up around him. Although he tried to make it seem like it was all the other times they saw each other, Catalina couldn’t help but notice that he had on a night gown like her. Walking around the round table that held their wedding ale and two goblets, she sat down gingerly on her side of the bed.
“I am here, my Lord,” she said, just as her mother had rehearsed her to all these years.
“Please, don’t call me that,” he told her, and she swore that he had moved just a few inches away from her, “Frederick is fine. I don’t like all the formality.”
“As you wish,” she replied, struggling to cut through the awkwardness of the situation, “Would you care for some ale?”
“Uhh... Sure, if you are having it too,” said the young Prince, his face slowly turning the colour of a brilliant sunset.
She stood up and stepped barefooted to the table, taking as long as she could to pour the ale. Handing him a goblet, she sat down again and sipped at her own. It was sweet, on the verge of being sickly sweet. She wanted to spit out the ale, but clenched her throat to keep it back in. Perhaps she was just nervous at the prospect of surviving this night, and the impossible intimacy shared with an almost-stranger.
“So, Catalina,” said the Prince slowly, between small sips of his own, “Or would you preferred being called ‘wife’?”
“Catalina,” said Catalina, almost too quickly.
“Catalina,” he repeated, rolling her name over his tongue like a caramel, “What shall we do?”
“Whatever suits you,” she shrugged, “I am all yours.”
“No, not that, I didn’t mean that,” denied Frederick, scooting back a little into the edge of his side of the bed, “I... I don’t feel that it is right... No, what I mean is, of course it is right, but not without your consent... Oh what am I saying...”
“I get what you mean,” she said sympathetically, “I mean, they all expect us to be ready and be at it don’t they? Bedding ceremony and all. I’ve never felt less comfortable.”
“Nor me,” answered Frederick, “I’ve been dressed and undressed by my man servant for years now, but never by so many people! And now...”
“We can just talk if you want,” Catalina rescued her young husband from having to finish his sentence.
“About what?” said Frederick, “Usually I just pray and go straight to bed. But if it pleases you...”
“No, your wishes are first and foremost,” she told him, sighing internally, “Let us sleep.”
“Yes, let us sleep,” echoed the Prince faintly.
He slid down in between the sheets so that his chin touches the embroidered hemming of the cover. Catalina took the goblet he had balanced on the bed over to the table, and almost dropped it when Frederick spoke suddenly.
“But what about... about what we’re supposed to be doing?” he said worriedly, “There will be talk tomorrow when they come in to check us.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Catalina told him, all the while suppressing her desire to wink at him conspiratorially, “Just leave it to me.”
“Oh, all right,” her husband mumbled awkwardly, “Well, good night Catalina.”
“Good night, my Lord.”
Catalina had wanted to talk to him a little more, to find out about the boy she had married. She wanted to know whether he liked her at all, whether he preferred reading to hunting, whether he liked the ballads as opposed to epics, and whether he was anything like his darling little brother. But she merely lowered her head, and knelt down beside the bed to say her prayers. Frederick had already turned his face away when she stood up again, and so she pulled back the covers to slip into her side of the bed.
The four-poster had seemed enormous before, but it was even bigger when she was swamped in it. Catalina felt as though she was lying on one side of the Corennt Sea and Frederick on the other, a vast expanse of cold and impossible-to-cross water between them. Turning on her side, she stared out at the cool darkness and imagined that she was lying in her own bed at home in Wilderose. As the bells of St Prisca’s heralded the coming of a new day from a mile away, Catalina was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic breathing of her new husband.