“You’re mine!” The familiar voice called out, and I jumped in shock.
I turned in the field, searching for the owner of the voice but I couldn’t find him. I felt a hot breath on my neck, causing me to shiver before turning my head, still finding nobody standing there.
“Where are you?!” I cried, desperation on my voice.
“I’m here, Angel.” The voice responded loudly.
I gasped at the nickname, shivering at the tingles it gave me before swinging around. I started wringing my hands as I scanned the horizon, and that’s when I saw the figure of a man standing nearby, his back turned away. I started running towards him, following the pull within.
“Wait!” I shouted as he moved to walk away.
I got close and gently grabbed his shoulder. He slowly turned and I met his eyes. I went to finally look at the face of my mystery man, and my eyes started roaming-“Celeste!”
I frowned as I opened my eyes, the memory of the piercing blue eyes still fresh on my mind. For the past two nights, this mystery man has plagued my dreams, calling out to me.
“Celeste wake up!” Mother cries, panic in her voice.
I shoot out of bed, worry filling me as I stumbled to the door. “Mother?”
“Get dressed! Quickly!” She called, forcing me to check the clock.
It was almost noon, the soldiers would be coming to inspect soon. I threw open my closet, grabbing my dark blue skinny jeans and my long sleeve grey shirt. I pulled my hair down and wrapped the scarf around my neck. I took a deep breath as I looked in the mirror.
“Okay, look young and inconspicuous. Oh god.” I whispered, brushing my red hair out of my face.
“Oh, baby.” Mother whimpered, standing in the doorway.
“I’m scared.” I admitted, running into her hug.
“It’ll be okay baby, I promise, maybe they won’t even find us.” Just as the words left her mouth a loud pounding knock sounded on the door downstairs.
“HIDE!” Mother cried out, shoving me towards the closet.
“No! No!” I said, gently pushing her away. “If they find out you’re hiding me they’ll beat you!”
Tears welled up in her eyes as the knocks got even louder. “I’m scared to lose you.”
I looked her in her eyes, crying softly. “Oh Ma, no matter what happens, you will never lose me.”
I hugged her and took a deep, pained breath. Moving downstairs, I cursed quietly as I opened the front door, staring at the two huge guards standing before me. I gulped and took a step back.
“Celeste Summers?” One asked, his voice gave me goosebumps (and not the good kind).
I nodded shakily. “That’s me.”
“We have information that you have turned eighteen and are now eligible for inspection.” The other guard said, leaving no room for denial.
“Come.” They said, grabbing my arm.
“I can walk on my own,” I muttered.
They simply rolled their eyes and continued dragging me away. I glanced back at my terrified mother who was hurrying after us. The guards pulled me through the market to the center of the square. The onlookers looked at me with pity and fear. I gasped as we stopped next to the other girls and I saw one of them had a bruised face.
“This.” One of the guards called out as he pointed to the girl. “Is what happens when you try to resist us.”
The girls whimpered and I looked down, biting down on my lip to stop from shouting in her defense. We waited for a few more guards to bring two more girls up. Then a royal guard walked out and nodded at the other guards to begin the inspection. I froze up as a guard started pulling at my sleeves and then at the bottom of my pant legs. My heart started racing loudly as he moved my hair and pulled my scarf away. I squeezed my eyes shut as he tensed up and called out that he found it. I heard my mother crying in the crowd as the royal guard took my arm and the arm of another girl who had a mark on her wrist. I mouthed that I loved her as the guard pulled us through the gates, away from everything I’d ever known.
“Stop struggling.” The guard growled at the other girl, who was sobbing. “This is an honor.”
“What even is this?!” She cried.
He stayed silent as he continued pulling us through the castle into what looked to be the throne room. I gasped as I took in the size of the rooms and the beauty of it. I’d always admired the castle from the outside, but inside it was even better. I heard the clack of heels and looked up to see a gorgeous, goddess-like lady in a deep red gown entering the room. My mouth fell open and I dropped into a curtsey as I recognized her as the Queen. The other girl didn’t understand at first, still staring at the Queen until a guard shouted at her. The Queen chuckled and asked us to rise, a soft smile on her face. She slowly walked over to us.
“May I see your marks?” She asked calmly.
The girl next to me shakily held out her arm for the Queen to inspect. The Queen’s facial expression didn’t change as she moved over to me. I turned my head and pulled my hair away to reveal my neck. I could’ve sworn I heard her breath hitch slightly as she glanced at my neck, but when she faced me again her face remained neutral.
“Thank you, girls.” She said calmly, motioning for another royal guard to come towards us. “Please follow Henri, he’ll take you to where you’ll be staying for the moment.”
We silently followed Henri, who had a surprisingly warm smile. He dropped us off at a large oak door, knocking twice. An older lady in a maid’s outfit opened the door, quickly ushering us inside. I held in a gasp as I took in the view. It was a gorgeous sitting room with a huge television and a small bar area. I tentatively sat on one of the couches, shocked at how soft it felt. I looked up as seven other girls walked. I recognized a few from the previous inspections and I figured the others came from the other towns. Hesitance and worry were the emotions on every girls’ face as they all sat down and began introducing themselves.
“I’ve been here for two days and I still don’t know why.” One girl named Bella said.
“I’ve heard whispers that we’re supposed to meet the prince... but I don’t know why.” Another girl, Katy, whispered as she looked down at her hands.
I frowned. None of them know what their marks mean? Granted, I did just find out two days ago, but you’d think the people here would tell them. I decided to keep quiet as the girls continued chatting, creating a calming atmosphere. I even started laughing at one of the girls, allowing myself a moment of relaxation. It didn’t last long. The door again was thrown open as several maids ran in, each holding a couple of bags.
“Ladies!” The older woman from before called out, drawing our attention to her. “You need to get ready. The maids will help you.”
“Why?” Maya questioned, saying what all of us were thinking.
The older woman smiled sadly. “It’s time to meet the prince.”
A maid took each of us to another room, telling us to bathe before handing us one of the bags from before. I frowned as I quickly showered. When I exited, I gently opened the bag and gasped at the gown inside. What? This can’t be for me! I barely had a second to take in the beauty of the dress before the door opened and my designated maid pulled me out of the towel and into the dress. I should’ve been embarrassed but I was too shocked to do anything. She continued to help me get ready until I was standing in the mirror, unable to comprehend that the woman I was looking at was me.
I had my hair pulled back in some sort of braid updo to reveal my neck, and I was dressed in a tight, floor-length dark green dress. It had a high leg slit on the right leg, a deep v-neck, and a very, very low back. I looked like a princess. The revelation made me frown and I forced myself to look away. Here I was getting dolled up while my mother was freaking out, not knowing if I was okay. A royal guard came to get me and escorted me down to the throne room once more, where I joined the rest of the girls, all of whom looked terrified but beautiful. I stood next to Katy and waited nervously for the Prince to arrive.
He didn’t leave us waiting long, and soon the grand doors opened to reveal a tall, handsome man entering with a smirk on his face. I heard several appreciative gasps from the other girls, and I almost let one out when our eyes met. They were piercing blue eyes that seemed to see right through me, just like my mystery man. I shook off the silly notion, why would I be dreaming about the Prince when I’d never met him before. A sliver of recognition seemed to enter the Prince’s eyes, but it was gone just as quickly as he turned his gaze away from me. Once again, the room went silent.
“Step forward, speak your name and reveal your mark.” A royal guard announced, gesturing to the girls on the far left of me.
Bella hesitantly stepped forward, revealing her wrist as she spoke. “Bella Anders, your highness.”
The Prince didn’t react and the guard told her to step back before continuing down the line. This continued to occur as they went through the girls until it was up to me. I stepped forward and met the Prince’s eyes.
“Celeste Summers, your highness.” Turning my head, I briefly revealed my mark before facing him again.
The Prince’s eyes seemed to widen as a surprised smirk filled his lips and he nodded for me to move back. He scanned over us for a few minutes before stepping forward. He reached his hand out and touched Brianna’s shoulder. “You.”
The second the words left his mouth a maid quickly ran up pulling her to the side. He continued down the line and stopped again, this time touching Samantha. “You.”
Again, another maid pulled her off to the side and he continued to move. Each step that led him closer to me sent my heartbeat racing. I froze as he came to a stop in front of me. He reached out, and this time he touched my face. A jolt of electricity coursed through me and I felt my knees weaken. What the hell?! Get it together! He seemed just as shocked as I was, but didn’t remove his hand.
I heard a small laugh escape him as he nodded. “And you. Yes, you’re perfect.”
A maid grabbed my arm, moving me to stand with the two other selected girls. We watched as the Prince dismissed the others, promising they could keep their dresses before leaving them to be dragged away by numerous guards. He walked over to us, his face a blank slate.
“You belong to me.” He stated, and I shivered under his gaze. “Your maids will take you to your new quarters.”
He waved his hand, dismissing us, but caught my wrist as I moved to leave. He stared at me with curiosity.
“Your highness?” I asked cautiously.
“You, Celeste,” He purred, “Can call me Ryder.”
“O-okay Ryder.” I stumbled over my words.
He nodded and stepped back, his face once again falling unreadable. My maid came up to me and began escorting me away, but even as I walked down the hallway I felt the heat of his gaze burning into my back. What the fuck have I just gotten myself into?
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