“Suck in, dearest.” Duchess Abigail Griffin commanded, regarding her daughter with a critical eye. The young girl barely managed a glare at her mother before the maid, Harper, was yanking at the laces of her corset again.
With a grunt, Clarke leaned forward, bracing her hands against her vanity. “I already am, Mama. It seems my organs would rather some room in my body.” Her snark was rewarded with a smack to her hand and a sharp look from the Duchess. Abigail’s steel gray eyes would strike fear in the hearts of many but her daughter had grown immune due to the many reprimands she had received in her sixteen years of life.
“You would do well to leash that sharp tongue of yours, Clarke. While you are yet to be of age, you are not too young to form an unbecoming reputation. No man wants a woman who speaks with poisoned lips.” As she spoke, the Duchess wandered around the room, regarding her daughter from each side with pursed lips. “Tighter.”
Gritting her teeth as Harper pulled the laces even tighter, Clarke shot back, “And yet Wells and Bellamy do not seem to mind whether I speak like a lady or like a sailor during a storm. In fact, I would say they find my personality quite charming as it is. They-” She was cut off by her own breathless hiss as Harper tightened her corset a final time before tying the laces. One could hardly expect her to breathe, much less dance, in such a state. If she were to make it through her own ball this evening, it would be quite the miracle. “Heaven’s sake, Mama! Have I missed the newest fashion trend where women’s waists are modelled after twigs.” Harper barely managed to cover up her laugh with a cough, concealing her smile behind a hand and quickly moving to bring Clarke’s gown for the evening.
“And yet another thing that would do you some good is to stop spending time with that dirty stable boy. A man like him is not worth a second glance, let alone a moment of your time. It’s most improper of you to even be in his presence,” Abigail scolded, her features molding into a sneer as they often did when Clarke mentioned her friendship with either Blake sibling. No matter. She would be hard-pressed to start listening to her mother’s ridiculous demands now. Besides, her father never was one to give much weight to silly matters such as impropriety.
“Bellamy may be our stable boy but there is nothing the matter with him. He is more of a gentleman than most Lords, Dukes, and Earls I have come across. He is intelligent and kind and he makes me laugh. All ‘proper’ men can seem to do is bore me halfway to the grave. Besides, there is nothing improper about Bellamy. He’s friends with Harper too, she could tell you.” Her friend shot her a murderous look in the mirror and Clarke bit her lip to keep the laugh bubbling up in her throat from bursting out.
“I do not believe it is my place to give my opinions on the matter, my Lady,” Harper said smoothly, discreetly pinching Clarke’s shoulder as she helped her into her dress.
It was an uncomfortable sunset pink ball gown with a bell-shaped skirt draped over a knee-length chemise and layers of flounced petticoats. Most dresses she had seen other women wear had lower necklines than this one, likely due to the fact that she was yet to be of age and her mother would never allow such a thing before her presentation to society in her first season. Balls were not often attended by women under the age of majority, much less thrown in their name. The only notable exceptions were the so-called “Celebrations of Fate”. Upon the stroke of midnight of their sixteenth birthdays, some men and women would receive a letter containing the name of those they were fated to marry. Their soulmate. It had been this way for centuries, although not even the greatest of thinkers had been able give an explanation as to how this happened. Most charted it up to divine intervention, the word of God that no mortal could dispute. While they were not exactly common, the Letters of Fate were not rare either. About a little less than half of the population would receive them. Regardless, Celebration of Fate balls would be thrown for every lady or lord upon their sixteenth birthday, whether their fate would be sealed in a letter later that night or they became Unfated.
Despite them being in the majority, most regarded the Unfated with pity or disgust, as if there was something wrong with them. A ridiculous notion, Clarke thought. She was of the unique opinion that there was no difference between those who received a letter or those who didn’t besides the knowledge that the universe had, for some inexplicable reason, taken the time to intervene on their behalf. Besides, Wells was an Unfated and there was nothing wrong with him.
Under Abigail’s strict instructions, Harper finished the last touches of Clarke’s hair just as a light knock to her bedroom door sounded. Another maidservant who stood at the edge of the room moved to open the door. As her father stepped into the room, Clarke stood, turning to face him with a bright smile. The Duke was dressed in fine attire, most likely chosen for him by the Duchess herself. Neither father or daughter were particularly interested in frivolous matters such as the proper way to dress, much rather having their noses stuck in a book or elbows deep in their favoured work. That was just one of the many ways Clarke took after her father rather than her mother.
“Papa!” She exclaimed and he smiled warmly at her. “Well, what do you think? Do I look like,” she gasped comedically, “a lady?”
“The most beautiful lady I have ever seen, dearest. I can hardly believe it, my little sunshine, a grown woman. Soon I’ll be having to send you off down the aisle.” Despite his smile, Clarke could see the sorrow in her father’s eyes.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Papa. I’m years off from being grown enough for marriage. Rest assured, you still have plenty of time with me running about the house most improperly.” Grinning at her father’s affectionate laugh, she stepped towards him. He took her arm. “I suppose you’re here as it is time to escort me to the festivities.”
“Oh, don’t look so resigned, little one. It’s a celebration for you,” the Duke assured her as he began to lead her down the stairs towards the ballroom of their castle. “Besides, I took the liberty of inviting some friendly faces just for you. Do not tell your mother.” She giggled, squeezing her father’s arm in gratitude.
Soon, too soon, the grand doors leading to the ballroom appeared before them. Two young men flanked the doors and hastened to open them for the Duke and his daughter. Before they stepped through, her father glanced at her, a question in his eyes. Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, Clarke inclined her chin in a near imperceptible nod. They stepped into the ballroom.
The celebrations were already in full swing. Music swept through the room loudly, meeting the crescendo of chatter and a storm of laughter that echoed off the walls. Not a moment passed before every eye was on her. The music faded into a stifling silence and the dancing ceased. The guests parted to either side of the room, leaving a long path straight down the middle. As her father escorted her to the opposite end of the ballroom, Clarke held her chin high, just as her mother had instructed her to do, and let her gaze glide over the attendees. Most faces were unfamiliar, nameless Lords and Ladies, Counts and Countesses, members of nobility who scarcely had an interesting thought in their head. Upon spotting Wells’ familiar face, Clarke let a small smile ghost her lips. Next to him stood Roan, Marquess of Azgeda, watching her with his signature smirk. When she caught his eye, he sent her a mischievous wink and it was all she could do not to roll her eyes at him.
Finally, she reached the end of the room and turned back to face the entrance. Another beat of silence passed and then, like clockwork, everyone resumed their celebration. The music rose up once more and people flocked into groups to chatter on the latest gossip or business opportunity. And yet she could feel gazes still fixed upon her and she swallowed heavily. Thankfully, Clarke spotted Roan and Wells weaving through the crowd towards her. The Duke saw them as well.
Leaning down, he whispered to her, “I must go make my rounds now. Please, at least try and enjoy yourself, Sunshine. For me.” At her nod, he made his way into the crowd, immediately being swallowed by the noblemen that swarmed around him. Scoffing, Clarke shook her head.
“Rather like a pack of rabid dogs aren’t they, cousin?” Roan mused, suddenly appearing at her side.
“It’s ridiculous,” she agreed, still observing the gaggle of noblemen with a frown.
“Complaining already, you two?” Wells teased. “Tell me, is excessive frowning a family trait?” Rolling her eyes, Clarke elbowed him lightly.
“Bold words, Princling, from someone whose father's job description is to frown,” Roan retorted and Wells narrowed his eyes at her cousin. Their barbed conversations were typical, something that amused Clarke to no end. They would get along so well if they only stopped teasing each other at every opportunity. Then again, she thought upon noticing the faint red tinge to Roan’s ears as Wells responded, they might be getting along very well just how they were. As far as she knew, her cousin was Unfated too. She smirked knowingly at the pair.
“What?” They demanded in unison, immediately avoiding each other’s eyes as they blushed. Clarke tried and failed to suppress her smile.
“Oh, nothing. I am just curious as to how such oblivious stubbornness can befall two such intelligent people.” Both scowled at her and she laughed. “Oh, come on. Don’t scowl, Your Highness. Who should want a Prince who cannot smile charmingly?”
“And who should want such a rude young lady?” Roan interjected, knocking her shoulder with his. “Although I am remiss to insult you during your own Celebration of Fate. How about a dance to make it up to you, your Ladyship?” He held out his hand to her.
“Hm, it is the least you could do,” she agreed, slipping her gloved hand into his and allowing him to lead her to the dance floor as the first notes of a new song echoed through the ballroom.
During the dance, Clarke managed to step on Roan’s toes twice, which she thought was an improvement from the five times the previous dance they had shared. Her cousin, however, did not seem to share such a positive outlook, grumbling in pain as the dance drew to a close.
“You knew what you were getting yourself into,” she stated as they made their way to an empty corner. It seemed Wells had disappeared during their dance. A quick glance around the room reassured her that the Prince was nowhere in sight. Peculiar. “Now, where did Wells run off to?” Roan did not answer, which was an answer in itself. “Roan, what do you know?”
Smirking, her cousin held his hands up in surrender, “Nothing, nothing. He must have snuck into the gardens for some fresh air.” She narrowed her eyes at him but he did not give in. “Why don’t we follow suit? Not as if anything interesting shall happen in here with these buffoons.” Suspicions still high, Clarke shrugged. He raised a fair point.
With a quick glance around to ensure no one was watching, the two slipped through the enormous glass doors out into the gardens. There were few lights lit and it would have been easy to get lost in the vast place had she not known it like the back of her hand. It was easy for her to navigate through the tall, perfectly manicured hedges and trees. Ever since they were young, Wells, Roan, and Clarke would slip from all those tedious events to meet at the secluded old fountain at the very heart of the Griffin castle gardens. Not many ventured so far into the grounds so the fountain had been left unpreserved, with no more water coming from it and the statue at the center of a winged woman holding a torch above her head had been overrun by ivy. Clarke had shown the boys the breathtaking spot after she and the Blakes had discovered it when she was twelve and her mother had just discovered their previous rendezvous place.
By the time the fountain came into view, Clarke’s feet were aching from trudging on for so long in such intolerably painful shoes. Thankfully, the pleasant surprise she was met with banished all thoughts of discomfort to the back of her mind. Alongside Wells stood Bellamy and Octavia, whom she had not been able to sneak away to see in so long. Already, it was a difficult feat to find the time between her lessons and their busy schedules to go see them but with the preparations for her Celebration of Fate it had been near impossible. With Bellamy tending to the grounds and Octavia becoming Lady Tondici’s ward, they did not cross paths unless the meeting was planned. It had been months since she’d last seen either Blake.
Without wasting another moment, Clarke hurried towards them, a delighted smile splitting her face ear to ear. Bellamy barely noticed her approach before she had launched herself into his arms, throwing her arms around his neck. Without delay, his strong arms were curling around her waist, hoisting her feet from the ground unexpectedly. A delighted yelp broke from her lips but quickly dissolved into giggles.
“Missed you too, Princess,” Bellamy whispered in her ear before setting her down gently. For a second, her hands remained braced against his broad shoulders and his fingers ghosted around her waist. At Octavia’s smirk and Wells’ disapproving look, the pair blushed and stepped away from each other.
To move past the awkwardness, Clarke swiftly pulled the younger Blake into a decidedly shorter and less dramatic embrace.
“Not that I am not overjoyed at seeing you but what are you doing here? I was under the impression that Lady Tondici would be quite unforgiving with your tutoring. It is quite peculiar to imagine her Ladyship allowed you a break from your duties to steal into a Duke’s ball.”
In response, the younger girl allowed her eyes to drift to the Prince and explained, “Indeed, she was quite adamant that I should not shirk my tutelage for anything other than familial visits but you can imagine it was quite difficult to say no with the shock of having the Crown Prince at your doorstep.”
With the blonde’s attention now fixed on him, Wells shrugged unceremoniously and jerked his chin in Bellamy’s direction, who had begun to stare at the dust-strewn ground with intense focus. “I merely assisted in getting Lady Octavia to the estate but this was all Mr. Blake’s plan.”
Even when she turned to him, Bellamy’s gaze remained fixed downwards. “Bellamy?”
At the sound of her voice, he glanced up, his dark eyes locking with hers, a bashful smile softly curling his lips. “You were so looking forward to receiving your Letter of Fate and I thought it was only fair for you to truly celebrate the occasion in a manner you’d enjoy. And you were so kind to organize a gathering for my Celebration of Fate last summer. This was the least I could think to do.”
In that moment, Clarke desired nothing more than to embrace him tightly and - a desire stemming from the deepest, most secretive corners of her heart - press her lips to his as if she could convey her gratitude and affection through her kiss. And yet she could do nothing but remain where she stood, instead hoping the wide smile that stretched across her face could divulge the emotions warming her chest.
“Thank you, Bell.” She spoke softly, seemingly unable to raise her voice above a whisper lest she betray all the improper desires barely concealed below the surface. He shrugged off her gratitude but, even in the dim lighting, she spotted the pale blush dusting his warm brown skin.
“Yes, yes, it was a very kind gesture indeed but let us not waste more breath on such boring matters. This was meant to be a celebration, was it not?” Roan interjected, raising a brow at her in judgement.
“Of course,” Bellamy stammered out, moving to pull a bottle out from behind the fountain. It was of the same sort she had managed to procure for his sixteenth birthday the previous year. A laugh bubbled out from her throat, echoing loudly in the stillness of the night.
“Now this could be a celebration,” Roan agreed, reaching for the bottle and tilting his head back as he drew a long swig before passing it to Wells.
Settling down in a circle, they began passing around the drink, laughing and talking about all they could think of. To her right sat Bellamy, fraying white shirt exposed after he had taken his coat off to lay it on the ground for her to sit on. She had protested, claiming she clearly had no qualms with sitting directly on the ground as she’d done countless times before. Convincingly, Bellamy had argued that her mother would certainly notice if Clarke returned with a dirtied dress.
“Besides,” he had whispered once she’d settled down onto the coat, quiet enough so that only she could hear over Roan’s uproarious laughter in response to an anecdote Octavia had made, “it would be a true travesty to ruin a garment you look so exquisite in.” It had been a wonder her cheeks hadn’t caught fire with how warm her face had felt.
Hours passed, filled with joy and laughter that had her sides protesting with pain but she paid that no heed. This pure, intoxicating joy- what she would give to live in these moments forever. Unfortunately, reality came knocking much sooner than she could bear.
Glancing down at his pocket watch, a small frown appeared on Roan’s face. Before he spoke, Clarke knew what he was about to say and she squared her shoulders with a resigned sigh. Her cousin shot her an apologetic look but she waved him off.
“Midnight will be upon us soon. Your mother will be expecting me to escort you back to your chambers before then,” he sighed, pushing to his feet and holding out a hand to help her up.
Before she left, Clarke turned to Bellamy and Octavia, waving farewell to her friends with a smile. The siblings waved back, a sad glint in Bellamy’s eyes as he mouthed ‘good luck’ to her. Confused, she furrowed her brows but did not dare voice her question. There was something about the mournful look that she could not bring herself to address.
With Wells and Roan flanking her, the trio made their way back through the garden.
“Clarke, wait!” Came Bellamy’s faint call, so quiet and distant she could not be sure she had imagined it and the sharp murmuring that followed.
She froze, turning to look back but when nothing followed she shrugged and resumed the walk back to the estate. It must have been her imagination.
The air in her room was heavy with anticipation. While Clarke remained seated on her bed, fiddling anxiously with her fingers, the Duchess paced impatiently across the room. Meanwhile Roan and Jake were leaning against the far wall, muttering quietly in that irritating way noblemen often did. For all his complaints about the behaviour of the nobility, Roan could certainly act like them. No matter how much he resisted, he fit in with them.
Finally, the clock struck midnight and, as if on cue, her windows were thrown open by a particularly strong gust of wind. A creamy white letter was carried in on the warm breeze, floating around the room in an elegant path straight towards her. The sharp gasp that left her lips once her letter had landed in her lap cut through the heavy silence that had blanketed the bedroom. With her letter in hand, the world melted around her. She could not care less that her family huddled stiflingly around her, leaning over her shoulder in a desperate attempt to catch a glimpse of the name etched onto the paper that she pulled from the unmarked envelope.
The small paper was folded neatly, not a crease that blemished its cream-coloured surface. This was a momentous occasion, one that would fill any young man or woman with pure, unbridled joy. And yet, Clarke hesitated. No matter what was written in her letter, she would not be fortunate enough to see the name her heart yearned to see. In the darkest hours of the night, she would lie awake and imagine the name that would appear in her letter. Always, it was Bellamy’s. No matter that this was impossible - he had glumly told her last year that he was Unfated - she had always allowed herself an ember of hope. Now, the final ember was about to be extinguished.
Drawing in a deep breath and holding it, Clarke flicked the paper open to reveal the letters inked inside. The world started to spin, with her heart hammering like an erratic drum against her ribs.
“The stable boy?!” The Duchess screeched, her pale face already a furious shade of crimson. “That- There must be some mistake.”
Her mother’s disgusted exclamations broke Clarke from the shock that had overwhelmed her. No, no this was impossible. So beautifully, wonderfully impossible. Not daring to believe her eyes, she read his name, each letter spelled out in glimmering golden ink, over and over again until the words “Bellamy Blake” were etched into her mind. An airy laugh of wonder burst from her lips.
“Bellamy Blake,” she mouthed, unaware of the chaos that had erupted around her.
Until, that was, a tight hand clamped itself around her wrist, wrenching her to her feet. It was an effort to keep from stumbling forward with the force of her mother’s hand. Clarke turned shocked eyes to her family, who each stared back at her with grim expressions.
“We mustn’t allow this news to spread,” the Duchess was saying, pulling Clarke with her as she marched to the other side of her daughter’s bedroom. “If the news is kept well hidden between just those who were present, it shan’t be difficult to present you as Unfated. We shall procure a proper husband for you, many respectable young men are also Unfated. You mustn’t worry, dearest, this will all be sorted-”
“Unfated?” Clarke demanded, her wits finally returning to her as she yanked her arm from her mother’s vice-like grip. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“Darling, you couldn't possibly be content with that- that boy. It must have been some mistake but it will be taken care of.” Abigail’s voice was steel, as cold and unyielding as the look in her eyes.
“No, that is not how- Bellamy is my Fated. You cannot go against the higher powers, it’s never been done.”
“By God, child, don’t be so naïve.” Her mother exclaimed, throwing her hands up in a burst of anger and frustration that had Clarke flinching away. “Changing fates has been done for centuries. Marriage is not simply for love for people like us; it is a business arrangement. I was not Unfated, Clarke. I changed my fate and so shall you. You will not be permitted to throw your life away for some stable boy because the universe has perverse inclinations about love.” Abigail stoked the flames in the fireplace. “Now, throw it in.”
“No.” Horrified, Clarke stumbled back- right into Roan’s chest. He gripped her arms tightly, his hold preventing her from slipping away. Betrayed, she whipped her head around to stare at him with wide, hurt eyes. Despite the apology etched clear in his eyes, her cousin held firm. In a final desperate plea for help, Clarke turned to look at her father. “Papa, please. I- I love him. You mustn’t allow her to do this.” But by the tortured look in her father’s eyes, she knew she had lost the battle.
A tear slipped down the Duke’s cheek. “I… I am so sorry, Sunshine. Do as your mother tells you.” Flinching at her scream, Jake opened the door, slipping from the room. Before he disappeared, he addressed her once more, not even daring to spare his distraught daughter a glance, “This is for your own good.” The thud of the door being slammed shut behind him vibrated through her bones.
“I will not,” she snarled, turning back to glare at her mother, “burn my letter. Only the owner of the letter can destroy it.” Unfortunately, her confidence was short-lived.
Pressing her lips into a thin line, the Duchess nodded at her nephew and stepped aside to reveal a clear path to the fire. Her heart stuttered, the fear dousing her like a bucket of icy water. Roan began to drag her forward by her right wrist, hand carefully clamped around her own so she could not drop the letter and so he could keep her arm held forcibly out to the fire.
“No, Roan,” she pleaded, pulling at his hand and flailing around in a desperate attempt to stop their approach to the fireplace. “Roan, please. Please, don’t. Stop. Roan, stop. ” But her tearful pleas and terrified sobs did not deter her cousin. He merely screwed his face in pain and thrust her right hand into the fire. An agonized scream pierced the night as the parchment caught fire, the bright orange flames reaching up to lick at her skin.
“Let it go, Clarke. You needn’t burn yourself. Just let go,” he begged, voice brimming with sorrow.
Stubbornly, she shook her head, trembling with cries, “No, no, no. Please, just let me go. Roan, please.” And yet again, he merely turned his head away as the paper crumbled into ash and her skin bubbled and blistered with burns.
Finally, when there remained nothing of her letter, he let go. Clarke fell back, crumpling to the floor with her injured hand clutched tightly to her chest. What a pathetic sight she must have been, her whole body quivering with gut-wrenching sobs as her mother and cousin looked on.
“I’ll call for a medic.” Her mother’s voice was calm, clinical, even as she looked over her devastated child. “We will claim you were so distraught at not receiving a letter, you threw your hand into the flames. It will be a humiliation, yes, but one that can be overcome. Unlike the true events that transpired tonight.” With a final disapproving scowl down at her daughter, the Duchess left the room.
It felt as if hours had passed before her sobs quietened to quaking, shallow breaths but it could not have been more than mere minutes.
“I am truly sorry, Clarke,” Roan whispered, his face turned away from her. No, he did not get to feel ashamed, to be upset. “You cannot imagine-”
“Get out,” she whispered, her voice hoarse but sharp.
“ Just leave me be! ” Her scream echoed between them and the two stared at each other, chests heaving with shallow breaths.
Finally, Roan dropped his head in a defeated nod and turned to leave. With his back still to her, he spoke once more, “I am sorry for hurting you but it was the only choice. I will not regret the decision I made. And you may not believe me now but you will thank me for it some day.”
Enraged, she got to her feet. “I will never thank you for betraying me tonight. However much time may pass, my hatred for you will burn bright.” His shoulders hunched at her words yet she did not feel the satisfaction she expected at having caused him pain.
“Bellamy did not want you, Clarke. He never would have. He lied to you, told you he was Unfated when you were his Fated. Bellamy does not love you,” Roan snarled harshly and Clarke flinched, “and he never will. You should be thankful I saved you the rejection.” With that, he slammed the door shut behind him.
Alone, Clarke sunk to the floor, her chest aching with an agony she never thought she would feel. The one thing worse than having your fate destroyed, she thought as a chasm cracked open within her, was being so abhorrent to your Fated they would rather you never knew.
2 years and 3 months later
Clarke glanced up from her canvas to find a somber looking Harper staring down at her with nervous eyes. The maidservants hands were fisted at the front of her apron as she fiddled with the fabric anxiously.
“Harper, please, I must have told you a thousand times to call me Clarke,” the blonde laughed, carefully placing the paintbrush in her hand into the clay jar filled with water to her left. When the younger girl didn’t smile as she usually did, Clarke’s stomach knotted with worry. “Is something wrong?”
“It’s your father.” She swallowed and Clarke curled her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “He requested for you to be brought to his chambers. His- his condition does not seem to be improving.” Clenching her jaw, Clarke nodded and stood from the stool she sat on when painting. Carefully, she slipped her paint-splattered apron from around her neck and hung it on the hook.
The walk from the room she had claimed for her artwork to the master bedroom was long and it was impossible to keep her mind from wandering as the long hallways stretched along in front of her. Many perplexing emotions arose whenever she was around her family, her father in particular. Something had broken for the Griffins the night of her sixteenth birthday. After realizing that Roan had spoken true, it hadn’t been long before she forgave them but there remained a chasm between her and the others. One that could not be bridged. She was no longer furious, but nothing was the same. Then, almost a year after that night, the Duke had fallen ill with a mysterious disease that was slowly seeping away his strength. Everything had shifted again.
Chest rising with the deep breath she drew, Clarke knocked quietly against the grand mahogany doors that led into her father’s bedroom. When no voice rose to greet her, she eased the door open slowly, peeking her head through the opening.
“I apologize, dearest,” the Duke rasped, struggling to sit up against the headboard. “I must not have heard you knock.” Without hesitation, Clarke rushed to her father’s side, aiding his efforts to sit up. No matter how many times she had seen the Duke since he’d fallen ill, the sight of her beloved father in such a frail state had her pressing her lips tightly together to keep from weeping.
“No matter,” she said, voice airy in her effort to keep it light. “You wished to speak with me?”
The feeble smile that had begun to take form on his lips vanished into grim solemnity and her heart lurched. Patting the space next to him, he spoke, “Sit, Sunshine.” Once she’d done so, he took her hands in his shaking ones. “The doctors visited this morning again,” he paused, seemingly searching for words and Clarke’s breath was trapped behind her frowning lips, “they believe- it is their prediction that it is unlikely I am to make it through the night.”
The trapped air whooshed past her lips in a sharp hiss. “No.” She recoiled from the bed. “No, they must be mistaken. You can’t- They must- No. We shall find better doctors, better medicine. There must be something-” Her words tumbled out in desperate gasps.
“Clarke,” her father’s voice was gentle. She broke. Collapsing down onto her knees on the soft mattress, she curled her hands into fists.
“ No. ” The tears flowed unbidden down her face. “They must be mistaken. They must be .”
“Sunshine,” Jake whispered, raising a hand to wipe the tears from his daughter’s face. “Even without the doctors’ confirmation, I would have known.” A sob escaped her.
“You-” She took a wavering breath in a desperate attempt to calm herself enough to speak. “You are in pain?” At his small nod and sad eyes, Clarke lowered her eyes and brought her hands to cover her mouth and nose. After inhaling and exhaling shakily for a few minutes she steeled herself and raised her face to look at him. A forced smile was on her face but she could not muster the strength to keep the tears at bay.
“Alright.” She nodded. “We’ll- we’ll be alright. I will marry Wells and ensure Mama is well taken care of. Our home will be well cared for. We will be safe. And I- I will try to find contentment. For you. You needn’t worry. You mustn’t have any regrets. You should be at peace.”
“Oh, Clarke,” her father breathed, pulling her into his side as he had often done when she was a child. Screwing her eyes shut, Clarke curled against him, pressing her face into his side. Surely, he would feel the tears still leaking from her eyes. “All my life, I have tried to live a life without regrets, to die a man with nothing to look back on and wish I had done differently. For sixteen years, I succeeded.” He began to run his hands soothingly down her back. “I haven’t a worry that your mother will not be well taken care of, that our home will be left in disrepair, that you will not be safe. My one regret- the biggest mistake I made, was allowing your mother to destroy your letter that night.” Clarke gasped, sitting up abruptly.
“No, Papa. I forgave you for that so long ago. You-” she swallowed, “You were right. It was for the best.” Her father merely shook his head and brought her right hand to his face, staring at the scarred skin with sorrowful eyes. Even after years of treatment with the best medicines, salves, creams, and whatever else money could buy, her right hand had remained an ugly physical manifestation of the pain she’d felt that night. Before he’d fallen ill, it hadn’t been a rare occurrence that she’d caught her father staring at the scars with regret lining his face.
“I have spent the better part of a year bedridden with nothing but my thoughts for company. A man can reflect upon much when he has nothing to occupy his mind.” He ran his thumb over the uneven skin of her burn scars. “I have thought of everything I could possibly think of when it comes to this,” he squeezed her hand, “and there is no other conclusion to come to. I was wrong. No single thing in the world is more important than love, than joy. And I fear I may have stolen both from you.” Tears pooled in his blue eyes, the mirror image to hers.
“You mustn’t think that. You stole nothing from me. I love Wells. In time, I will be happy. I promise you that. Do not make me your only regret,” she whispered.
“But you are not in love with him, are you?” She desperately wanted to reassure her father that she was or that, at least, she could learn to love Wells but Clarke could not lie to him.
“I tried,” she confessed desperately. “I tried so hard to love Wells as a wife should love her husband but I- I’m sorry.”
“You know,” the Duke mused, running his hand over his daughter’s hair, “I read once that what a father should want above all for his daughter is for her to find someone to love her above all else. Fated or not, someone who would look at her as if she were the sun, the moon, and all the stars. As if she were a fresh spring and they were dying of thirst. For all that other nonsense in the world - money, status, land - that could all disappear in the blink of an eye. But love - true love - that is what makes us all fight for someone no matter what. All that Wells has to protect you, keep you safe and happy, that could all vanish. But the love your Bellamy had for you, the love you had for him, that would ensure you would fight to rebuild what can be lost at every turn for the other, to keep the other safe, to make them happy . How could I have taken that away from you?”
“You did not,” Clarke insisted, a bolt of pain shooting through her heart. “Even without the obstacles Mama spoke of, there was nothing for me and Bellamy. He never loved me. Not in the right way, anyway. The idea of being my Fated seemed so abhorrent to him he lied to me for over a year. Even on the night of my sixteenth birthday he could not tell me. Bellamy never wanted me. He wouldn’t have given me the happiness you believe he could have.” The ache in her voice was impossible to conceal.
“Sunshine, that boy looked at you like you were air and he’d yet to take his first breath. There is not a doubt in my mind that he was as madly in love as you were, if not more.”
Clarke clenched her jaw. “Perhaps you should become a poet, Papa. What with all these analogies about love.” But there was no humour in her tone. The Duke cracked a smile.
“Perhaps in another life,” he mused. Then, “Look at the nightstand at your side. Is there a letter on there?” She glanced over and indeed found a white envelope sitting on top of the nightstand. Carefully, she picked it up. “Do not open it just yet.”
“What is in there?”
“My last attempt at dying without regrets.” Her father smiled a grim smile.
Shocked, she stared at him with wide eyes, “What?”
“It took a while and many favours were called in. I even enlisted the help of your lovely, er, companion, the Lady Alexandria Woods.” The Duke cleared his throat awkwardly and Clarke blushed.
After she had been declared Unfated, she’d made the Lady’s acquaintance at Lexa’s engagement ball. The two had struck up a friendship and had grown closer upon finding out that they’d both had a so-called ‘Change of Fate’. Upon her sixteenth birthday, Lexa had received her letter which informed her that her maidservant and secret lover, Costia, was her Fated. Her uncle, Viscount Titus Woods, had been furious and ordered his niece to destroy her letter.
“Of course,” Lexa had said, somewhat arrogantly, “I did not need to be told. I was not foolish enough to shirk my duties for something as silly as love.”
Shocked, Clarke had asked, “Is that truly what you believe?”
“Love is weakness, Lady Griffin,” the older girl had told her seriously. “It is a danger to forget that.” To wash down that demoralizing statement, the two had downed a bottle of the Duke’s liquor and ended up tumbling unclothed into Clarke’s bed.
For a few months, they had kept seeing each other, knowing full well that this arrangement was nothing more than physical. Neither had hopes of turning it into anything more, what with Lexa engaged to be married and with Clarke promised to Wells. Unfortunately, plans often go awry and Clarke had broken it off when she’d realized that the warmth in her chest whenever the brunette smiled at her meant she had let her emotions get the better of her. Lexa had been understanding and, although they saw each other less frequently, they still spoke as friends. Over the course of their relationship Clarke had learned of Lexa’s many connections, both in the world of the aristocracy and the working class. If her father was looking for something, it made sense Lexa would be able to find it.
“With her help, my search came to an end,” the Duke continued, his ambiguity frustrating. “It was difficult but I found what had become of Mr. Blake after your mother, er, relieved him of his duties.” Clarke’s jaw fell open. “We paid him well, in his time with us. With some help from a family friend - Mr. Charles Pike, if I recall correctly - Mr. Blake got licensed as a teacher and began, ironically, teaching at the school you attended as a young girl. I must say, I am impressed. He has made quite the life for himself.”
The world spun around her. Bellamy had become a teacher. When they were young, in the quiet hours of the night, when they could whisper the darkest desires they had to one another, he had confessed once that, if he could, he would love to teach. Seems he had achieved that impossibility. Despite everything, Clarke couldn't help the pride that surged up within her. She was happy for him.
“This letter,” her father’s voice broke her from her thoughts, “contains his address.”
“What?” Clarke gaped. “Why?”
The Duke smiled sadly. “I thought the only way to fix my mistake is to return your stolen choice. Of course, it is not the same but now, if it is what you wish, you can have your second chance at true love. There is a signed confession within the envelope that details the events that transpired the night of your sixteenth birthday. If you release that to the public, no one will question the truth or your marriage to Bellamy Blake. You will get the life you decide you want.”
“Do not object that it will tarnish my legacy. I could not give a damn what anyone thinks of me once I am gone, as long as my daughter’s memory of her father is that he loved her more than anything. Your memory of me, Clarke, that is all that means anything in the world.” Fresh tears spilled down her cheeks once more and she swiped at them haphazardly but could not find the words to express herself. The Duke noticed and smiled placatingly. “Whether or not you choose to seek him out, that is entirely within your control. All I needed to know to be at peace was that you had your choice back. That was my only regret.”
A watery laugh burst from her lips and she carefully hugged her father.
“Now,” Jake said, when she finally pulled away, noticing how weary he looked. Dread pooled in her stomach again. “How about a book?”
At the funeral, Wells held her as she cried.
Clarke wandered through the grounds. Since her father’s passing, she had found herself in the gardens more often than not. Aimlessly walking through the hedges, bushes, and trees. After two months, the ache had barely just dulled. Everything in the castle reminded her of her father and it was too much for her. Being inside made her feel like she was haunted. These gardens held so many joyful memories but even those seemed bleak. The stables had always been her place of comfort but she had not been in the two years since her sixteenth birthday.
Now, she found herself walking the familiar path. Her father’s words from that last day echoed through her mind. She had yet to make a decision on what to do with the envelope kept hidden beneath the loose tile under the carpet in her bedroom. With all that had happened, she hadn’t had a moment to spare a thought for what she would do. Now, she was heading to the one place that would force her to.
The stable door creaked noisily as she forced it open, the hinges stiff with rust. Of course, her mother would have hired a replacement stable boy but it seemed no one would be as good at this job as Bellamy. No matter what, he had always poured his entire self into whatever he did, whether it was caring for the horses or studying from the schoolbooks Clarke had managed to smuggle for him. Her nostalgic smile was tinged with sadness.
Everywhere she looked as she treaded carefully through the stables was stained with a memory. Memories of joy, sadness, and everything in between. The horses watched her as she went, cocking their heads then shaking them with a snort. Clarke smiled. At the end of the stables was what she had been, unconsciously, looking for. In the last pen stood a tall mare, whose coat was a rich brown. On her forehead was a patch of white fur in the shape of a small star. Upon spotting Clarke, the mare snuffled loudly and stomped a hoof against the pen door.
“Hello, Asteria,” she whispered, running a soothing hand down the horse’s nose. Asteria snorted, shaking her head. “I know, it has been a while. It was rude of me not to visit.” The horse nudged her hand, as if to agree.
The mare had grown since Clarke had last seen her. That was only natural, of course, considering Asteria had been barely two when Clarke had stopped coming to the stables or having time to go on horse rides. She still remembered the day Asteria was born, the foal of one of their older mares, Juniper. Bellamy had snuck her in to see the young horse. With how small and frail she’d been, it wasn’t expected she would survive a week, much less grow so tall and strong. But Bellamy had had hope, caring for the weak foal so gently and lovingly until it was clear she would make it.
“Since no one else expected her to live,” he had explained after that first week, “I was given permission to name her. I call her Asteria. After the greek goddess of falling stars.” He’d gestured to the white mark adorning the foal’s forehead. “Look, she was marked by a fallen star.”
Smiling, Clarke traced the star on Asteria’s head with gentle fingers. Then, her fingers wandered down to the letters haphazardly carved into the wooden gate of the pen. A-S-T-E-R-I-A. Upon learning her name, her younger self had insisted on marking this pen with the new foal’s name. She glanced down and was shocked to find that more words had appeared underneath the mare’s name. Wracking her brain, Clarke was unable to recall ever adding anything to the pen, whether she was here with Bellamy or Octavia.
I ' M S O R R Y P R I N C E S S
A gasp fell from her lips as she ran her left index finger along the grooves. He must have done it the night of her sixteenth birthday since she had it on good authority that the Duchess had forced him off the premises before the sun had fully risen. A wave of emotions washed over her and she pressed her lips together, unable to rip her gaze from the words. It was only when Asteria nudged Clarke’s shoulder with her head that the blonde turned away. Her father’s words echoed through her head. As one of his final acts he had given her a choice. She would not belittle that act of kindness with her inability to decide.
For the third time in two minutes, Clarke compared the address scrawled on her father’s letter to the address of the apartment she stood in front of. The door was tall, painted a pale blue, and the knob was a faded brass. Another minute passed in which Clarke worked up the courage to finally raise her hand and knock. As she waited for the door to be opened, she rocked back and forth anxiously on the balls of her feet, trapping her lower lip between her teeth.
Finally, the knob began to twist as the door opened a sliver, revealing a familiar dark head of curls that had her unconsciously holding her breath. “What- Clarke ?” Bellamy’s beautiful dark eyes were as wide as saucers as he gaped at her. However she had allowed herself to envision seeing him again in the darkest moments of the night, nothing she could have thought up compared to the real thing.
None of the words she had imagined saying to him came to her. Instead, what fell from her lips was, “I must speak with you.”
Bellamy was still staring at her, mouth opening and closing like a fish on land, but he stepped aside to let her in. The apartment was lovely. Small but not stifling. Well decorated and well cared for. It felt comfortable, like a real home. Another lie she told herself then was that she felt no twinge in her heart at never having been a part of the first real home Bellamy had ever had. Of not truly being a part of his life.
“Excuse my rudeness, but what are you doing here, Lady Griffin?” Clarke flinched, surprisingly hurt at hearing her title from his voice.
She laughed humorlessly, a mockery of herself. “Of course, I should have known you would be dismayed at my presence.”
The carefully indifferent mask Bellamy had constructed crumbled back into an expression of shock. “What? No, of course not. I did not- It was not my intention to imply that your presence is unwelcome, your Ladyship.”
It was impossible to keep the frustrated groan at bay. “Would you stop? I understand you did not wish to have me as your Fated but you needn’t act as if we are strangers. Unless everything was a lie, I believe we were friends once. Good friends. Please, for my sake, do not act otherwise.” Pressing his lips together, Bellamy wrenched his gaze away from her, fixing his stare on the ground instead.
“It was not I who paraded around as Unfated, Clarke,” he whispered, voice harsh and pained, showing any emotion for the first time since she had arrived. “Do not speak of who was ashamed of their Fated when it was you who lied to the world about it. When it was you who went two years without a single word to me.”
“ You lied to me about it! ” Both seemed to be equally as shocked by her outburst but once Clarke opened the box she’d kept all her emotions on the matter, everything came tumbling out. “You knew for a year. A whole year, Bellamy. And you lied to my face for the entire time. How abhorrent you must have found me! Found the idea of being with me to lie for so long. To still lie when you knew I would find out in a matter of mere hours. What was I supposed to think? Other than that you did not want me. Forgive me for not wishing to speak with you and hear the rejection in person. The realization caused quite enough sorrow.” Unbidden, tears stung at her eyes and she turned her gaze up to the ceiling in an effort to keep them from spilling down her heated cheeks.
“Clarke…” He whispered, disbelief etched in the lines of his face. When he reached for her, she stepped away, wrapping her arms protectively around herself. He swallowed but made no more attempts to touch her. “That was not my intention when I made that decision. Believe me, my motivations to lie to you could not be more different than what you have perceived them to be.” Finally, Clarke regained control over the tears burning her eyes and levelled a disbelieving glare at him.
“So why did you?” She demanded, chest heaving with shallow, angry breaths. “What madness could have possibly overcome you to make such a decision?”
Hesitating, Bellamy’s mouth parted and shut thrice before he turned, giving her his back as he headed to a white door on the far side of the room. “How about I put the kettle on and we discuss this over some tea. This is not the most pleasant of stories.”
“No.” Clarke’s voice was firm, unyielding. Bellamy turned to look at her, wide-eyed once again. “I wish to hear what you have to say now. Unpleasant stories seem to be all my life is comprised of.”
After another moment’s hesitation, Bellamy gave in, inclining his chin in a slight nod and gesturing for her to take a seat on the sofa. When she remained still, he simply sighed and launched into his explanation.
“It is impossible to put into words the euphoria I felt upon seeing your name in that letter. I had never allowed myself to admit it, but the only name I ever wished to see was yours. Octavia told me that my excessive smiling was insufferable.” He huffed a laugh. Over the years, Clarke had realized Octavia must have known, it was the reason she had made no effort to contact Bellamy’s sister either. This confirmed her suspicions. “Alas, it was all too easy to realize the many ways this...arrangement...would never work. We may have played pretend for years, Clarke, but that was all it was. Pretend. An act. No matter what, our worlds could not be more alien to the other’s. You live in a world of princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, ballgowns and tiaras. My world is drowned in blood, sweat, and tears. My world is soot and yours is gold. There’s a wall that climbs into the clouds that divides them. That divides us .”
“None of that mattered to me!” She screamed. “All of that- that nonsense. It is all white noise. What is white noise but a whisper when compared to love?”
“It is everything, Clarke!” She did not know when they had gotten so close to each other, nor who had first leaned into the other’s space. They were nose to nose, chests heaving with heavy breaths. “Whispers fester in the cracks of doubt in love. They grow and grow and grow, leaving behind the ashes of love, lost in the flames of pain and resentment. There was never a chance for us, Clarke. And perhaps this makes me a coward, but I would rather never have acted on my feelings than have you grow to resent me, resent the only life I could have given you.”
“How fortunate for you, then, that it was I who believed myself to be resented by my Fated.” Bellamy flinched at the icy statement.
“Clarke…” He reached for her hand but she wrenched it away once more. At his sides, his hands curled into fists. “No matter how much I want to, I could never be your Fated. I could never give you the life you are accustomed to, the life you deserve. I could never be what you deserve, Princess.”
“Is your opinion of me truly that low? Do you truly believe me that shallow?” Her voice had risen to a hurt yell once more. “I could not care less about these luxuries you believe to be vital for my survival. I could not care less if us being Fated means that I have to work every day for the rest of my life. I could not care less if you think you are less than what I deserve. That is not for you to decide. Only I have the power to decide what I deserve. Don’t you dare take that choice away from me, Bellamy.” Their heavy breaths mingled, her gloved finger carving a firm indent in the front of his jacket. A clash of brown and blue held, neither willing to be the first to look away.
In the end, it was Bellamy who broke, exhaling heavily in defeat and stepping back. If she did not know better, she would have sworn he’d stolen a glance down at her lips before he’d given in.
“You’re right,” he whispered, “I overstepped. That was my mistake. But the impossibility of our situations still stands, Clarke. No matter how deep my love for you goes, we’re doomed to break. I wish it were different but…” His eyes were pooled with tears. The droplets fell to the ground as he looked down to conceal his face from her stare. “I heard about your father and I am so sorry for your loss. I know how much you loved him. But you have to think of him, Clarke. Think of what your father would want for you. It would never have been me.”
Pressing her lips together, Clarke stared at him, assiduously keeping any emotion from painting her features. “Do you love me?”
“That is not of consequence when-”
“Bellamy. Do you love me?”
A moment of silence passed, in which the air felt heavy, blanketed by the tension created by anticipation. The muscles in Bellamy’s jaw worked furiously and Clarke did not dare breathe.
“Yes.” Her gasp whooshed from her loudly but it was drowned out by the erratic drumm of her heart. “Despite my best efforts, despite the torment it causes, despite the years that have passed, my love for you seems to be a flame that refuses to be extinguished.” He cupped her cheek in his hand and she leaned into his touch, eyes fluttering shut. “Eons could pass but it would not matter. The only face that would come to mind when I think of love would be yours.” Pressing a kiss to her forehead, he pulled his hand away and she opened her eyes, staring at him quizzically. “Which is why this is such a torment.” A tear slipped down his cheek.
Without a word, Clarke shoved her father’s letter into Bellamy’s chest. Shocked, he stared down at the paper for a second before he took it from her hand.
“What…?” He trailed off as his eyes began to trail over the words scrawled onto the parchment, her father’s handwriting and signature unmistakeable. He read the letter once, twice, three times. After his third read he looked up at her, eyes wide with disbelief. “Clarke, what is this?”
“What my father wanted,” she replied, regarding his every move with care. “Before he died, my father gave me the power to make my own choice, to make the right choice.” She stepped forward, eyes scanning over his face. “I choose you, Bell. I love you, most ardently,” he smiled the ghost of a smile at the quote from the novel they’d often read together as children, “and I choose to have a life with you.” Then, she stepped away. “But that is my choice. I have said all I wanted to say. There are no more secrets to my emotions. Whatever your choice is, I will respect it.” At his silence, Clarke let her eyes fall, attempting to keep the disappointment from crushing her chest. “I understand if you require some time. I will leave you be now. And I- I deeply regret any torment I might have caused you today.” With her final words echoing in the space between them, Clarke turned and headed to the door.
“ Clarke .”
She had barely turned back before his lips descended on hers, capturing them in a passionate kiss that had sparks exploding behind her eyes. Kissing Bellamy was like taking the first breath after being submerged underwater.
When they finally pulled back, he pressed his forehead to hers, hands cupping her face. “I choose you.” He pressed another quick kiss to her lips. “I love you.” This time, it was Clarke who surged forward to draw him into another heated kiss. Bellamy broke it off again but her pout hardly had time to form before his lips were attached to her neck. He pressed kisses down her throat and Clarke gasped, threading her fingers through his soft curls. His mouth travelled down across her right collarbone, to her shoulder, and further. When he reached her glove, he didn’t hesitate to pull it off.
“Wait-” but it was too late, her scarred right hand was left exposed to him. Bellamy gasped, taking her hand in his, his touch heartbreakingly gentle. There was anger darkening his eyes as he ran his thumb over the uneven skin.
“What happened?” A guttural growl lacing his voice, the protective anger spilling over the surface. “Who did this to you?” His eyes were fixed intensely on her hand, refusing to rise and meet hers.
“When-” she cleared her throat, heart pounding at the memory, “when I was forced to burn my Letter of Fate I, uh, I would not let go. Could not let go. The flames burned my hand.” His grip on her hand tightened. Clarke winced, but not from pain. “They are hideous, I know, but nothing the doctors did could help with the scarring.”
To her shock, Bellamy raised her hand to his lips, peppering kisses over every inch of the scarred skin he could find. “Nothing about you is hideous, Clarke. Every last part of you is gorgeous. You are breathtaking, Princess.” It was impossible for her not to lean forward and kiss him. Warmth spread through her chest as her heart melted. “But I am so sorry this happened to you. That you had to go through such a thing alone.” When he met her gaze, his eyes burned dark with determination. “Whatever comes next - whatever pain, whatever obstacles, whatever else life decides to throw at us - I shall be right by your side. For the rest of our lives and when we are among the stars, I will be with you, that I promise you.”
Clarke smiled widely, sure she would burst with joy. “Together.”
Bellamy cradled Clarke’s face in his hands.