I frowned as I wrapped that stupid scarf around my neck. Every day for 18 years I'd worn a scarf around my neck or had to have something covering myself. I never had a break, not even to go to a stupid dance. "It's too dangerous," As my mother would say, but she never explained why.
"Celeste, hurry up!" Mother called, annoyance obvious in her tone.
"Hold on!" I replied, pulling on my coat.
I glared at my reflection in the cracked mirror before moving downstairs and following her to the street. I took my mother's arm and helped her walk towards the market. She'd always been frail, but ever since father died she didn't have enough strength to even walk on her own. An old woman grinned at us as we stepped into the market, revealing her lost teeth.
"Good afternoon!" I said, tipping my head briefly in greeting.
Mother continued to pull me along, pointing out the things we needed to buy for supper. It seemed like any other day, children running about, people haggling prices, guards making sure everyone stayed civil. I didn't notice anything was wrong until my mother, the small frail woman who could barely walk, shoved me behind a vendor's cart, urging me to kneel down.
I barely had a second to comprehend what was happening as the first scream arose. From my hiding spot, I saw two palace guards dragging a girl through the market. He threw her to the ground just as four more palace guards with two more girls arrived. I'd never seen anything like this happen before.
"ATTENTION!" The head guard yelled, his chilling voice bringing everyone to a halt. "ALL GIRLS AGED EIGHTEEN WILL BE REMOVED FROM THEIR HOMES FOR INSPECTION. THIS WILL BE REPEATED EVERY DAY. DO NOT RESIST OR YOU WILL BE IMPRISONED."
The back of my neck began to tingle as more girls were brought into the square, many crying. One girl tried to run off and was backhanded instantly, knocking her out cold. My mother looked over at me, worry in her eyes. I was still seventeen years of age, but not for long. One more day and I would be subjected to this... inspection.
I shivered as I watched the guards move the clothing covering the girls' wrists, ankles, and finally the back of their necks. One guard called out that he found something, and the others threw the girls back to the crowd. They gathered around her for a moment before carrying her away. She screamed out for help but nobody moved. What is happening?
People began murmuring worriedly as we watched the girls run back to their families. The minute the guards left my mother returned to me. She urgently pulled on me to get back to our house, and she bolted the door as soon as we entered. She shook and grabbed onto the wall, it looked like her knees wanted to buckle. I moved forward to grab her but she shooed me away and stumbled into the living room.
"Oh god." She whispered, fear in her words.
"Mother, what is happening? What are those guards looking for? Why did they take her?" I asked, watching her pace back and forth.
She started to wave me off again but I grabbed her arm and turned her to face me.
"Ma you have to tell me. You can't protect me from everything." I pleaded, staring into her watery eyes.
She trembled for a moment before nodding her head. She pointed to the curtains, motioning for me to close them as we sat on the old couch.
"Celeste, you were born with a birthmark on your neck." She began, motioning to what my scarf hid. "But it is much more than a simple birthmark. It shows that you are matched."
"What is matched?" I asked, searching my brain for a definition of the term but coming up empty.
"It means that the goddesses who gave us the chance of fertility have selected you as special, and have designated you a possible match to a man whom you be with."
"Like a soulmate?" I questioned, confused as to how this was a bad thing.
"No!" She hissed, her eyes darting around the room. "The mark doesn't demand that your matched man will love you, it just demands that should you be accepted by him, you can reproduce healthily, perfectly."
"Oh." I frowned. "I still don't get how this is a bad thing."
"If your matched rejects you, you become infertile, useless. A matched man may have several women available to him, but a matched woman only has the one man. Without his acceptance, she has no use. She must die so that another may be born with a mark." Mother whispered, tears brimming her eyes.
"Oh, mother." I whimpered, fear tearing at my heart. "I don't want to die."
"...If your match does not truly and wholly accept you as his one true match, you will die during childbirth." She continued, sobbing loudly.
I froze, fear and anger tearing at my heart. "Why does everything have to be up to the man?! Is my life worth so little?"
Mother pulled me into her arms, rubbing my back as she rocked me back and forth. "I'm so sorry."
"H-How do you know so much about this?" I whispered, my head pushed against her bosom.
Mother stilled briefly underneath me, causing me to pull back. "I-I, my sister, she was doomed to this fate, and she was not fully accepted." She said quickly, her jaw ticking slightly.
Her jaw always ticks when she lies.
"Did she die during childbirth?" I asked, deciding not to push my luck.
"And her child?" I questioned, my heart clenching.
Mother wouldn't meet my eye as she responded, "Dead."
"Oh." I breathed, grief for them filling my heart. "Why is all of this happening now?"
"Because the Prince has come of age. At 18 the mark truly reveals itself. Every few men in the Royal family is marked, it's a sign of their purity." Mother frowned. "He must find his matched, or matched, and determine to marry them or take them as... concubines to provide him, heirs."
"That is horrible." I murmured, feeling my neck heating up.
"Go to your room and lock your door. I do not know what the future holds for you, but you must be prepared. Hold your knife with you at all times." Mother demanded as she stood up, no longer appearing like the frail woman she is.
"As you wish," I whispered, kissing her forehead and returning to my room.
After hesitating slightly, I locked my door and began removing my clothes. Slowly unwinding my scarf, I pulled my hair back and looked at the mirror, catching a glimpse of the darkening mark. It was similar to a tattoo, an intricate design similar to a moon. I couldn't help the urge to touch it and yelped as sparks erupted upon contact. My neck began to throb and I felt hot, falling onto my bed. It was like I could see stars as my world tipped, sending me to the world of dreams. Haunting ice-cold blue eyes greeted me, and a rough masculine voice called out, sending shivers of pleasure all over my body.