Today, I am to meet my mate. Not my husband to be. Not fiancé. But mate. That word clanged through me. It should have hit something, anything in me. But there was just a profound hollowness as that word ricocheted through my head. I knew our history as well as any other Puritan. Knew that our sole purpose was breeding. That to be matched and mated was supposed to be one of the most significant moment of our lives, second to a successful birth of course. I had the genetics, the name, the status, so the person matched to me would have to be exquisite. I should be ecstatic, overcome with emotion like all of my other friends who had been matched before me. But all I can feel is emptiness, and if I allow myself to dwell too long, panic. This monumental milestone is barreling out of control towards me, and I’m stuck watching as it crashes into and shreds me apart. My life can’t be over at 16. I haven’t even lived yet.
Standing in front of a full-length mirror, gold filigree framing me as two pleb women in rough spun brown dresses and white aprons carefully drape my body in a deep green silk so fine it slides across my skin like water. The green silk accented my olive skin so that it seemed to have a golden glow to it. Which was probably the whole reason why it was chosen for me. A sleeve of burnished orange chiffon that glimmered like firelight poured down my left arm, and hung from each shoulder to be wrapped around my ribcage and gathered beneath my breasts with a solid gold pin of two wheat stalks crossed before falling down the middle of my body.
The women were careful to leave my right arm bare, the glyphs of my station and bloodline tattooed there, starting at the curve of my shoulder, branching downward. Once we were bound together, another would join them. Once I bore children, even more would join them. I crossed my arms and ran a hand over the glyphs, gold bracelets tinkling at the motion. I was so excited when I bled for the first time and received my first glyphs representing my family name and newly confirmed status as a fertile female. But now they just make me feel like branded cattle.
It wasn’t always this way for me. I was once like every other youth eager to fulfill her sacred duty. It was in learning how little choice I had in my own life that those duties began to feel more and more like a noose tightening around my throat. I slid my hand up my shoulder to my neck, fingering the gold and citrine choker wrapped around it. A teardrop shaped diamond hung in the hollow of my throat; an ornate collar. Matching diamonds dripped from my ears.
The women stepped back once they were done buttoning and pinning me into the dress, watching as I turned this way and that to exam myself. Satisfied, I turned to the large vanity next to the mirror. Sitting upon the padded stool, I began lining my gray eyes in kohl as they began twisting and pinning my auburn curls up. The pins had pearls at their ends, so that my hair looked like drops of moonlight had landed in my hair. Red lips to complete the costume chosen for this mating dance. Once finished, the women stepped back, eyes on the floor, hands clasped before them.
A single knock on the door told me it was time. I closed my eyes and breathed deep before standing, stopping at the mirror to look myself over once more.
“Elia?” Honey brown eyes lifted to meet mine in the mirror.
“Yes, mistress?” her voice was sweet, like bells. She was a few inches shorter than I, slightly older, and the younger of the two pleb women. Her dark, mahogany hair was pulled back into a single braid down her back. It was a bit severe for her heart shaped face.
“How do I look?” I asked. A small smile tugged at one side of her full lips. She reached up to rub the small half inch charm of the Matron she wore around her neck as she cocked her head to the side.
“Exquisite as always, mistress.” Her eyes sparkled.
“Thank you, Elia.” She lowered her eyes and hand once more. Laura, the older woman, was frowning over at her young companion. Where Elia was exuberant youth, soft curves, and laughing brown eyes, Laura was tall and narrow, gray starting to take over her blonde hair. Her green eyes sharp, missing little. There was a harshness to her. Even on the rare occasion when she smiled, the severity never left her face.
Another knock sounded at the door reminding me it was time to leave. Not that I was really leaving, the meeting was to take place within the manor. I turned towards the door, my dress swishing around my legs, bracelets tinkling at my wrist. At the sound of my footsteps, the door swung open, revealing two pleb men serving as guards. I stepped through, leaving my maids behind. Just as the door was closing, I heard Laura start in on Elia about propriety and her place in this household. Laura had been my nurse and then my maid since before I could remember. Elia had joined her as my maid shortly after my father died, two years ago. Laura certainly could give a tongue lashing, but beneath Elia’s smiles and softness, she was teeth and claws. I knew she’d give as good as she got from Laura. And that made me smile on this death march.
My heels clicked loudly on the pale champagne colored marble, echoing off the dark, wood paneled walls that were covered in art with the shuffling of the guards behind me. The lavish possessions my parents had surrounded us with were nothing more than posturing. There was little that they loved more than to show how much money they had by spending it. Down the hall, down the stairs, and down to the first floor. The walk both felt like it took a lifetime, and passed far too quickly. One moment I was in my room, dressing to be offered as an offering of flesh. The next I was standing in front of the closed door to the sitting room, listening to the muffled whispers on the other side of the door. But I could tell you how many heartbeats and breaths I had taken on the way there. Straightening my shoulders, holding my head high with a confidence that I didn’t really feel, I motioned for the guards to open the doors.
On the other side of the room, my prospective mate stood face to face with a pleb maid. He was dressed in a deep blue finely tailored suit that hugged his muscular frame perfectly. It was really common for the men in our society to be thin, or soft around the middle. He was neither. He was tall, with thickly muscled arms and a broad back that lead to a toned rear and strong legs. His clothes were obviously chosen to showcase how fit he was. I was intrigued, to say the least. But also repulsed that he believed that’s all it would take to confirm the match. I’m not that shallow.
As the door opened, the first thing I saw was him reaching towards her face, as if to stroke her cheek. His back was mostly facing the door, but they were angled to where I could see her face. Her eyes shot to mine with something like fear in them. He did indeed stroke her cheek, as he slid his hand into her hair, grabbing a handful and yanking her head back. Hurt erased the fear that was in her eyes a moment before. The action was so at odds with our surroundings. This room was supposed to be warm and comforting with its deep plush, cream carpets, over stuffed earth toned couches fringed in gold, and an ornate fireplace wide enough to lay down inside of. Despite the weather having yet to turn cold, a small fire crackled in the grate. Woven tapestries depicting the seasons hung on the walls.
“You forget your place, plebian slut.” He snarled in her face before shoving her away. “Out of my sight.”
My hands clasped before me, I watched as she rushed past me into the hall, dark braid trailing behind her. For a moment, her eyes met mine. There was an intelligence there, hiding beneath the mask of servitude. It shone out of her green eyes, nonetheless, making her seem much older than she was. Freckles sprinkled across her straight, pale nose and round, rosy cheeks, tempering the ancient feeling of her heavy gaze. An old soul in a young body as my father used to say.
Once she was gone, the door clicked shut behind me. I watched as the stranger on the other side of the room combed his hair back with his fingers, then straightening his jacket. His hair was a dirty blonde that was longer on top, shaved along the sides and part of the back. Turning to face me, an arrogant smile played at his lips, the bottom slightly fuller than the top. Laughter danced in his blue eyes as he prowled closer. His movements matched his features. The high cheekbones, slightly upturned eyes gave him an ever so slight feline effect. A startled laugh stumbled out of me.
“Darian Hawthorn. Of course, it’s you.” I knew him. We had gone to school together. He was just as cruel now as he was when we were younger.
“Whatever could you mean by that, my lady.” His smiled widened, exposing white, straight teeth. He bowed ever so slightly as he took my hand, brushing a gentle kiss to my knuckles.
“You don’t remember me?” I asked, pulling my hand back.
“Should I?” He straightened, then circled around me. I could feel his eyes roving over my body as he made his way around me.
“We attended classes together.” I clasped my hands in front of me to keep them from trembling.
“I don’t remember that.” He stepped back in front of me, hooded eyes drifting down my body before landing on the gold pin beneath my breasts. “You look like autumn. Like Demeter when Persephone left for the winter.”
“As she is supposed to embody fertility, I’m sure that was my mother’s whole purpose behind my attire.” I sidestepped him, going to sit on one of the two plush couches facing each other.
“You didn’t choose it?” he sat across from me on the opposite couch. A low, table between us, with flowers and vines carved up the legs and edges. A tea service sat on a silver platter in the middle of the table. He leaned forward to pour us tea.
“I don’t get to choose anything.” I could hear how flat my voice was as the hollowness rose up inside me again, threatening to swallow me. The teapot slipped ever so slightly at my words, spilling a drop down the side of a cup. I handed him a napkin.
“Normally, our meeting would have been a formal affair, a party. I figured you chose to have it in a much more casual setting.” He splashed milk and dropped sugar into both cups before handing one to me.
“I don’t get to choose,” I repeated, taking the offered cup pointedly. “My mother was afraid I’d make a scene and embarrass her if we did this in the typical public fashion.”
“Why would you do that?” he smirked at me over the rim of his cup.
I studied the carpet that was so thick it threatened to engulf my feet. If only it would come alive and swallow the rest of me. I think it would be nice to lay down in the soft thickness, to have it grow over me like vines and pull me under the earth to find rest and solitude. But Darian cleared his throat, reminding me that wasn’t going to happen.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked, meeting his gaze. “I don’t get to choose. And I certainly didn’t choose this.”
He held my gaze, the blue of his eyes darkening ever so slightly. I couldn’t guess at what he was thinking. Perhaps the thought of being rejected stung him and he was grasping for a reply. Maybe he was just as angry as I was at the prospect of being tied to a stranger for the rest of his life. Whatever the case, I stared right back at him, wearing the emptiness I felt on my face. If this was a game he was playing, I had no qualms about staring him down. The awkwardness barely registered. But it didn’t take long before he broke eye contact first, gently setting his tea cup down, then leaned his elbows on his knees. He pressed his interlaced fingers to his lips, sighing deeply as if in silent prayer. I sat still, staring at him, tea cup forgotten in my cradled hands.
“Astra, none of us get to choose.” His eyes were closed as he spoke. “We have a duty. We fulfill it. The only thing we get to choose is how we react to it.” Each word almost biting as he ground them out.
“So, you do remember me.” I took a sip of my tea, grimacing, then setting it on the table. “Moments ago, you yanked a pleb’s hair before shoving her out the door. I really don’t care about the circumstances. I doubt it warranted such. But I can say that you didn’t choose your reaction to that very well. Still the same bully you always were in secondary.” I stood to leave, smoothing my dress, then clasping my hands in front of me. “I came. I met. I fulfilled my requirements. You’ll tell your mother. And when mine inquires, I shall tell her we aren’t matched well, not that it will matter. She’ll decide on her own. Good evening, Darian.”
I turned on my heel, headed for the door, headed for escape. I could hear him stand behind me, his footsteps chasing mine. I was nearly to the door when grabbed my arm, whirling me around to face him. I retreated a step, only to back into the door. He took the step I had receded, bracing his arms on either side of me. Blue fire burned in his eyes as he stared into mine. My heart thundered in my ears.
“You’re right. I do remember you.” He sniffed up my neck into my hair, my cheeks burned. “And you’re still the self-righteous, spoiled bitch you always were.”
He threw my words back into my face. I frowned at him, at the arrogant smile tugging at the corner of his wide mouth. I may not get to choose my life. But there was no way I’d allow this upstart to treat me so cavalierly.
“How dare you-”
I had started to shove against him. He cut me off by pressing his lips to mine. The kiss wasn’t tender so much as it was an act of defiance. Anger, hot and explosive, roared up inside me. Simultaneously, my limbs went loose as my fingers grasped his lapels to keep from sliding down against the door. For a split second I had forgotten what I was so angry about, until he nipped my bottom lip. I shoved against him with all my strength. He stepped back, laughter dancing in his eyes. I pulled back and threw my weight into the slap I cracked across his face.
“Guards!” the single word echoed through the room. His cheek was already turning red when the guards opened the door a mere second later. “I reject you. Completely and infinitely. I would rather bear the children of a Sullied than carry on your genes.” I stormed from the room, my heels cracking like thunder on the marble.
“You didn’t choose to react well, Astra!” he shouted after me, laughter still ringing in his voice, chasing me up the stairs.