They bring me satins and silks, embroidered dresses and lace that’s too fine to touch, too fine to wear. We’ve put a high price on my offer of marriage, but they can pay it, these men from the south. They come with golden cloth, with silver woven into scarlet, and I watch them as they parade their wares for me to see. My uncles insist that today is a celebration, a ceremony to honor me as I choose a husband. I know better. There is no ceremony, no honor in this farce. The wares my suitors have brought are bribes, not gifts.
This is an auction, and I am the chattel being sold.
One of the men, a pale-faced Beyran from the west, takes my hand, running my fingers along the length of damask silk he’s brought. I shudder at the cold clutch of his fingers and pull my hand away, looking instead at the tamed leopard another has brought. Their eager, hungry eyes follow my every move, and I wonder privately what would happen if I allowed myself to scream the way I want to. I don’t want this. Our kingdom is desolate, our people dying. We need wealth, a savior, and these men have the means to offer it to us. But surely, surely we have something better to sell.
Something other than my body, my soul. My life. I’m a prize to be won, still young enough to be beautiful, just old enough to be desirable. They all want me as their wife. Every one of them.
I want to be sick. I want their feverish, devouring glances off of my face, and I want my palace to myself again.
I paused, running my fingers over an ivory stool, and someone pushes a length of cloth into my hands. Muslin. Muslin? It’s poor fabric, poorer than anything I’ve worn since I was a child, sneaking from my rooms to run in the streets with children who longed for freedom as much as I did.
Muslin. I would give anything to wear muslin again, to run the streets and forget my duty and my birthright.
I’ve never wanted either.
The cloth—and the memories it brings to the surface—has made me stupid. A touch on my elbow brings me back to myself, and the man who gave it to me says softly, “It’s not much of a bid, your highness, but I thought it would catch your attention, at least. What do you think?”
I stare at him, too horrified to say anything, too ashamed to push him away and run. He takes my arm, guiding me away from the crowds, smiling disarmingly at my handlers. They’re none too happy about their prize being removed from the buyers looking her over, but the silver tattoos on his hands and shoulders buy him a moment. Wealth, especially now, means everything. He pulls me out onto the terrace, into the cool wind that smells of rain and dust from the plains, and smiles at me. “Enjoying your auction? I must say, you have some tempting offers.”
I color. Only he would have to courage—the audacity—to call the ‘ceremony’ inside what it really is. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve seen him, fifteen years since we ran the streets together. A wealthy robber’s brat and a starving prince’s daughter. The beggar with the blue blood, he used to call me. I loved him then, for his bold tongue and his cheeky smile, but he’d disappeared, leaving me to my hell, and I’d never really forgiven him for it. “All of them more tempting than a bolt of muslin,” I tell him archly, hearing years of bitterness behind the words.
He feigns a hurt look. “You don’t like my gift?”
“Not particularly.” He would believe me, I think, if my face wasn’t so red. “I don’t like having my time wasted.”
“Ah.” He glances at the curtained doorway, a frown furrowing his dark brow. “Then you are not going to particularly appreciate what’s about to happen next.”
As if in response to his words, an explosion rocks the terrace, and the curtains between me and my potential suitors catch fire. Women begin to scream from the courtyard below, and I hear the frantic shouting of men who know they are about to lose all the wealth they’ve brought so very far. Will jerks me away from the door, pulling to the far side of the terrace, and utters a piercing whistle. When it’s answered from the ground he looks at me. “That’s my part done. Shall we leave it at robbery, or would you like me to add kidnapping to my list of crimes?”
I freeze, a thousand thoughts racing through my head in a single heartbeat, and hear myself say firmly, even before I’ve really made up my mind, “Kidnapping. Definitely.”
He grins, suddenly looking less like a robber and more like the boy I knew. “Perfect. After you, your highness.”