Clarke looks through the crack in the window, staring at the snow falling outside. It hasn't stopped in days. She feels weary and hungry, starved for anything other than stale bread and dried meat. She knows it's more than paupers have, more than even large families enjoy in the Wallace kingdom, but it remains prison food.
On first glance, it's a guest room like any other in the king's castle, but Clarke has been locked here for days, and she knows better. This is her punishment, the consequence of a ferocious slap to King Cage's cheek, one that resonated in the ballroom. In front of hundreds, Lady Clarke, sole heir of the Griffin Clan, humiliated her king.
Of course his guards were on her before she could even think to run. The slandering across the kingdom started quickly after that. They said she had a knife. She planned to assassinate him. She tried to lure him into bed and he refused. She went mad with jealousy when she saw him dance with another woman. She was a Griffin and insanity ran in their blood - after all, that's what took her parents to their early grave. To this day, the rumors still swirl.
Clarke feels heavy and broken inside, which she supposes was the point entirely. The king takes pleasure in drawing pain out, and his courtiers always encourage whatever vicious thought crosses his mind. Clarke can picture them so easily: the smug lords walking the castle halls in their polished armors and heavy furs when they've never fought a battle in their lives. They buzz around the king like flies on shit. It isn't a world Clarke has ever enjoyed.
Foolish of her to think she could attend one ball out of courtesy and then leave. She never missed the warmth of home more than she does now. She wonders what will become of her house and the last piece of Griffin land she clung to.
Will it become hers?
Clarke immediately reaches for the Griffin crest that hangs on her necklace, trying to draw strength from it. Somehow, the king settled on a more sordid sentence than a public lashing: a union to the commander of the armies. The very woman who people think of as more animal than human - that is, a disciplined animal trained to kill and die for the crown. The woman who burnt down the Ice Queen's castle and rose from the ashes at only sixteen years old. The woman rumored to have a soul so rotten that her blood has turned the color of coal. No one knows where she's from - and as such many have hypothesized she was summoned from the darkest corners of the realm.
That is the woman Clarke has been engaged to while locked away.
Clarke knows the commander is young, younger than the king at least, but she has fought monsters twice her size and come out without a scratch. If the neighboring kingdoms kneel at Cage's feet, it's because his commander has united the twelve strongest clans under one banner: his. Their armies combined are a sight no enemy wishes to see. And it's no secret that Cage has no interest in strategy, battle plans, or even maps. Clarke suspects he hasn't left the castle since he was born. He certainly looks paler than bone, with dark rings beneath his beady eyes and a scar on his mouth from a childhood illness.
For the commander to fight so fiercely in the name of such a vile and weak soul - Clarke feels sick at the thought of sharing a dinner table with her, let alone a bed. There's no doubt her punishment is a life sentence, one with the purpose to crush her spirit.
It's a brutally cold day when she's told it's time. Two women flanked by a guard lead her away to a bath, where they drench her in cold water and scrub every inch of her body. They're quiet, forceful, and Clarke hates them with every fiber of her being. It's no better when they show her the dress: a white, sleeveless thing that must have collected dust for decades.
They let her hair loose but for two thin braids on each side that they pull back, joining them with a crude pin. Clarke flinches but doesn't dare ask if she's bleeding. Her lips are already bluing from the cold and all she wishes is for the day to be over. Let the king do as he wants, she thinks, let it all be done with.
Clarke is pulled down the stairs, across the entrails of the castle she has grown to despise, and through the doorway that leads to a garden buried in thick snow.
There's no one there.
No one, that is, but the king flanked by his guards, a man in green robes, and the commander herself.
If Clarke held her tears before, it becomes harder then. She thought of this day a long time ago. She thought of the guests she would invite: her cousins, her friends. She thought of the weather: a gorgeous blue sky and the heat of the sun. She thought of the meaning of unions: heart, body, and spirit entwined with her lover's. But today there are no guests, the icy wind bites at her exposed skin, and Clarke wants nothing of hers entwined with the commander.
"She has arrived!" The king exclaims with a laugh.
At once, the commander turns around. She wears the coat, armor, and shoulder guard she likely always wears. Her hair is in braids much more complex than Clarke's, and her eyes are unmoving as she observes her from afar.
"Come!" The king orders, as if a favorite game of his has just started.
Clarke trudges through the snow, only realizing after a few steps that the women who accompanied her have left, and the guard is now posted at the door. She feels her heart crumble to pieces the closer she gets. Next to the commander is a block of white rock with a knife resting on top, used for the blood-tie. Clarke half-wishes they would kill her with it instead.
"Kneel before your king," the robed man commands.
Clarke bites into her bottom lip and nearly draws blood when she finally sinks to her knees in the snow. She can feel everyone's stare on her - their imperious glance down as they stand tall in their warm boots and clothes. Of course the robed man does not order the commander to do the same - she does not kneel, not even before the king. It's a testament to the power her title holds.
It seems the king takes pleasure in watching her a long time, because even the commander starts to shift in place. Clarke tries to salvage what little dignity she has left by pressing her teeth together to keep them from chattering.
When she glances sideways, she notices the commander has removed her fur-lined coat. The king seems displeased, enjoying the sight of Clarke shivering.
"You would cover such a lovely dress?" He asks the commander.
Clarke feels the commander's hands on her shoulders as she drapes the coat over her frame. Her numb fingers reach out for the fur on instinct, pulling it close like a blanket around her. She briefly considers throwing it off, but her limbs are too frozen.
"She's no use to me if she's ill tonight," the commander replies.
The king smirks. "Of course, yes."
Clarke doesn't have the strength to flinch. Maybe it's the commander who'll suddenly fall ill and leave her be. It would serve her right.
"Lady Clarke," the king says, "You should consider yourself lucky. I had other plans in mind for you, but my commander took a liking to your wild streak."
Clarke looks up, eyes widening a fraction. Was it not the king's idea then…? He stops in front of Clarke and lifts his gloved hand to her chin.
"And after a decade of loyal service," he whispers with a cruel smile, "I could not refuse her the pleasure of breaking you."
Finally, he turns to the robed man. "Get on with it, then. It's a beautiful day for a wedding!"
The officiant bows his head and picks up the knife from the marble stone. He motions for Clarke to approach.
"Stand in front of your chosen."
Clarke wants to spit in his face. She hasn't chosen a thing. She gets up and stands in front of the commander regardless, avoiding her stony gaze.
"Present your palms."
The commander presents hers, but Clarke stalls. She knows what comes next and what it represents - her fate being sealed; interlaced with a heartless stranger's.
"Do as he tells you," the king snaps at her.
Clarke finally extends her trembling palm, fighting back tears. The robed man grips her wrist and gives no warning before he presses the sharp point across her palm. Clarke bites the insides of her cheeks to suffocate her cries. She won't give them the satisfaction of hearing them. The man then does the same to the commander's palm. She remains stoic, as if he only pinched the skin.
Morbidly curious, Clarke dares look at the blood that oozes from the commander's cut. It's as red as hers.
The man pulls at her wrist and forces her palm atop the commander's. Her hand is unusually warm - or perhaps everything just seems warmer now that Clarke feels like a block of ice. The blood from their cuts meddles together and drips down on the marble stone.
"The blood is a reminder of your mortality," the robed man recites. "You vow to protect each other."
"I do," the commander agrees.
The lump in Clarke's throat grows. "I do."
The robed man pulls out a pendant from his pocket. A golden crest hangs from it.
"As the higher power in this union, the commander's crest prevails." He turns to Clarke. "You vow to renounce Clan Griffin."
Clarke feels her heart split in half. Her icy tears prickle at her eyes. "I do."
With rough hands, the officiant takes off the necklace she has carried since her parents passed. He drops it on the bloody marble stone and replaces it with the commander's crest around her neck. The precious metal feels heavier and Clarke can't imagine ever getting used to it.
"Fate will bless or curse your union. You vow to remain by each other's side through hardship and time. You vow loyalty and respect."
"I do," the commander intones.
"Now kiss your bride," the king orders impatiently.
As the robed man steps aside, the commander cups the back of Clarke's neck and pulls her into a cold kiss. It's cold because there's nothing to this kiss but an order; because Clarke knows there's no heart beneath the commander's armor. The stiff hand pressed against her neck has killed so many and loved so few that Clarke fears one day it might execute her, too.
Feeling a sudden burst of fresh anger, she jerks her head away.
The king's smile turns sours. He steps toward Clarke, hand gripping the hilt of his sword. "There she goes again, that savage little—"
"I don't mind," the commander interrupts, angling her body toward his. "I've told you before: nothing savage is untamable."
The king stares hard at Clarke, a look of contempt in his eyes. She can see how much he wants to hurt her - she's the first who's ever refused him anything - but it's nothing compared to the hatred she feels for him. Finally, he loosens his grip on his sword.
"You're right," he tells the commander with a derisive smile. "After all, you would know best."
Clarke sees the barest hint of a twitch in the commander's jaw before she nods in agreement. He suddenly claps his gloved hands together, startling Clarke.
"It's done, then!" He exclaims. "My esteemed commander has finally found herself a bitch to call hers."
Suddenly Clarke is glad for the ice cold; glad that it freezes her tears before they even dare fall.
While the king and the commander convene, Clarke is put into a carriage and led to the first army settlement, past the castle grounds and into the frozen pine forest. When she steps out, two handmaidens are already waiting for her. One glance at the commander's coat draped over Clarke's shoulders compels them both to bow their heads.
Clarke forgets she isn't a Griffin anymore. It strikes her she doesn't even know what she is. She's never heard anyone refer to the commander by name and her crest has no initial.
The handmaidens lead her past tents and the warriors that sit around campfires. Some look at her curiously; others snicker as she walks up the hill that leads to the commander's tent. It's smaller than Clarke expected, with furs hanging from the cloth for added warmth. Two guards carrying spears are posted at the entrance. They step aside without a word.
The inside of the tent is the essence of practicality: a large table covered in maps, a single locked chest, a curtain in the corner that barely hides a bed of furs, and another table with wine, water, and plates of food. Candle lanterns hang from the beams, warming the tent and casting shadows on the walls.
A handmaiden takes the coat off of Clarke's shoulders and drapes it on the back of a chair while the other takes the pin out of her hair, letting the braids fall free. They stop when the commander suddenly walks in. She folds her hands in front of her. The handmaidens leave without a word, pulling closed the thick flap at the entrance of the tent.
Clarke feels her heart beat wildly, fearful of what's to come. She feels exposed in her flimsy dress; unprepared for the nightmare ahead. The commander suddenly unsheathes her sword, making Clarke jolt.
Then, the commander kneels.
Clarke feels her breath hitch in her throat.
"There's nothing I could say that would be good enough an apology," the commander starts, swallowing slowly. "You have been ripped away from your home, kept locked in a room for days, and forced to marry a woman you have every right to call a monster. But perhaps what I share with you tonight can provide you some hope."
There's startling vulnerability in her eyes, but Clarke still holds her breath in shock.
"I was a child when Clan Wallace burnt my village and left me for dead. When King Dante passed, I trained to join his son's guard and climb the ranks, knowing the day would come when I would avenge my family. But a king who dies at the hands of an assassin becomes a martyr."
The commander's next words are laced with venom. "Cage will not die a beloved man. When my sword pierces through his heart, no one will mourn him. When he gasps for breath, he'll do so knowing his grave will be the bottom of a swamp. It won't be an assassin who murders him, but the commander of his armies, one who has proven her loyalty to the kingdom time and time again, one who would kill her king only if she found him to have gone mad."
She pulls out a necklace hidden beneath her armor. At the end of the chain is a vial that contains a golden liquid with specks of bright red. Clarke has heard of this poison but seeing it gleam before her is another thing entirely.
Firebreath: the venom of a snake so small yet so deadly that the sight of it makes even the bravest warriors cower in fear. A drop of it is said to turn any man completely mad - or so the legend goes. Clarke can't imagine holding such a thing, let alone having it pressed against her chest.
"The decision to overthrow the king must be unanimous amongst his advisors, and only firebreath could make it so." The commander tucks the vial away. "I can't erase the cruelty this union is based upon, or the things I have done to play my part, but I will do everything in my power to offer you a good life - one where the king cannot force you into anything else. From this time forward until the day I die, I am yours to command."
Clarke can only stare in astonishment. The commander of the armies has just confessed to plotting the king's murder, and now she looks up at Clarke with her lips tightly pressed together and a slight tremble in the hand that still holds her sword.
There are so many different things Clarke knows she should feel: anger, hatred, disgust. She knows it would be wiser to suspect this is some twisted plan from the king himself. Perhaps the walls of the tent will fall down to reveal he and the army have been listening, waiting for her to agree to a made-up scheme.
But Clarke suspects the commander has knelt for this very reason. It would be the only way to prove the honesty of her words. Yet, Clarke has creeping doubt. She hasn't survived this far to die now.
"You've served him a decade," Clarke hears herself say. "Fought for him. Killed for him."
"Yes," the commander replies, as if she expected Clarke to accuse her of this very thing. "It had to be done - to bring the clans together."
Clarke's eyebrows crease.
"Each leader has implicit trust in me, and would follow my orders over his," the commander adds, simply. "But it took time. Incentives. Promises."
"To what end?"
"When the king dies," Lexa murmurs, "This kingdom and all its clans will see peace. I wanted to ensure that."
"You would... rule?"
"I don't know - perhaps my captain will. Lincoln. He grew up near the grasslands, like you."
Clarke's lips part, at a loss for words. She feels dizzy and overwhelmed. "I—I don't know what—"
The commander looks away. "If I've burdened you with this secret, I apologize. I thought I should end this lie to spare you more pain."
"But it isn't a lie," Clarke says, looking over at her cut palm. Perhaps it's a lie for the king, but their paths have still been tied together.
"We would have to... pretend, outside of these walls," the commander concedes. "But once the king is gone you will be free to go wherever you wish. No one will stop you."
Clarke considers the words carefully. She could go back to her land, her house. She could still live the life she wanted. But that isn't hope Clarke is ready to entertain yet.
"The union - it was your idea all along," Clarke recalls. "Why go through the trouble for a stranger?"
"Because I saw you at the ball. You seemed to loathe being there just as much as I did. Because I saw the way he dug his nails in your waist when he danced with you, and I recognized the fire in your eyes when the guards dragged you away. Because I heard what he planned to do," the commander murmurs, "and I couldn't stomach it."
Clarke doesn't want to know. For her own sake, she won't ask what violent plans the king had in mind.
"What is your name?" She asks instead.
The commander looks up with shining hope in her eyes. "Lexa."
It's simple, short - pleasant.
"And... your clan?"
Clarke tries to roll the sound off her tongue. Lexa of Clan Woods. Clarke likes it much better than commander. She stops when she notices Lexa pull out a pendant from her pocket. It's the Griffin crest, newly polished.
"The officiant is a rather forgetful man," Lexa says with a brief smile.
Clarke nearly cries out in relief from seeing it again. The necklace is a piece of her, and leaving it behind felt like the final step to losing herself.
"I have asked for warm clothes to be brought for you in the morning," Lexa explains. "Your crest will be well hidden."
Clarke doesn't know what lies ahead, but she can see the woman before her is honest. As such, Clarke does the only thing she feels to be right:
She offers her hand.