There was little comfort in the fact that I was the only one smart enough to recognize the irony of my being forced to The Choosing. Irony was too subtle a concept for my Uncle whose fat little fist gripped my elbow. He preferred brute force and any reflection of his actions was far beyond his mental capacity. Ordinarily I found great comfort in my self-righteous intellectual superiority. The quiet certainty of knowing I was smarter than them all usually got me through anything. It had certainly gotten me through the last six years of being fostered by my Uncle—that, and my mental calendar, counting off the days until I finally reached my legal majority and could escape his authority.

But not today. Today I felt not superior, but instead small and foolish.

Glancing over my shoulder at Uncle Hawthorne I caught his eye and he sent me a brief jowl jiggling nod. He turned away almost at once as if he could not stand to look at me a moment longer. He rarely met my eyes. From the moment we met my quiet determination disturbed him—at the very least he found it irritating and at the most it sent him into a frothing rage. I was still watching him when his fleshy lips curled into a satisfied grin and he gave a little snort of pleasure, sounding like a well fed pig. It was the happiest I think I’d ever seen him, he was so very pleased with himself. As he should be. He had finally bested me.

He’d won.

That fact crawled under my skin. It itched and burned—a sensation so real that I fought the desire to claw at my own skin. If only I could rake my nails deep, slice into my soul and remove the burning indignity. But I couldn’t so I did nothing, showed nothing. Anyone who looked at me as I walked along would assume that I was not at all bothered by the proceedings—neither happy nor sad. My façade was perfectly ambivalent.

I was well schooled at hiding my thoughts. Outwardly I made sure that I remained serene, appearing calm and above it all. I never lost my composure; I learned early to keep my true feelings locked, hidden deep inside. It had been so long since I had let myself access my vault of stored emotion that sometimes I wondered if there was even anything there—whether I was capable of feeling at all. If perhaps I was naught but numb. As cold a bitch as my relatives had so often accused me of being. It was indeed bittersweet that after so many years of icy indifference to know that today I was at least capable of feeling shame and foolishness.

At my other side—his fingers biting into my arm—was my cousin Bandar. I may have felt foolish, but certainly not foolish enough to look to him for comfort—or remorse. There’d been nothing but hate in his cold grey eyes since I’d denied his claim. Anyway, I didn’t need to look to know where Bandar’s gaze would be. Not with the array of nubile young flesh also on their way to the Summer Choosing. As decreed by Vandarran law, one maiden from every shire was now walking the Chosen Path to the Night Palace.

I was one of them.

I didn’t blame Bandar for staring. I could barely keep my eyes from the other Candidates myself. They seemed to me like a flock of butterflies. Bright flashes of multi hued splendor sprung fresh from cocoons to dance before my eyes. The glistening fabric of their gowns appeared to float over the gray cobblestones as if their feet did not touch but instead somehow hovered, gliding effortlessly.

Not me.

I did not float. The heels of my boots sounded off like cracks of thunder, pounding out in futile protest.

Each crack of my heel asking Why? Why? Why?

It was so ridiculous for me to attend The Choosing. So humiliating. Who would choose me over all that young lush beauty?

Not that I wanted to be Chosen.

The other Candidates—those who no doubt long dreamed of being Chosen— laughed and chattered with their escorts. Their excitement was palpable; it brushed against my skin like the prickle of static electricity. One of the girls, a blond wearing a gown that shimmered like liquid silver was so happy that she started to dance. I watched her leap forward on pointed toes—performing as if she were already on show.

Perhaps we are, I thought and looked up at the Night Palace. The windows that faced the Chosen Path were either dark or shuttered tight. The balconies were empty and shadowed. There was no movement, no light. I felt cold just looking at it. I fought a shudder and looked away.

I’d never been this close to the Palace. Few had, as only The Chosen and those in Blood Service could come within three miles of the Night Palace compound. It was restricted and trespass was punishable by death.

We walked a street lined with rows of identical brownstone houses. Each one indistinguishable from the next. They butted up against each other in a seemingly endless row. Homes, I thought, for The Chosen. Would I end up here too? It was doubtful. Far more likely that I would be housed in the Blood Service Dormitories.

Occupants of the cookie cutter brownstone houses had spilled out onto the streets to watch our procession. Watching along with The Chosen were many who were in Blood Service. Easily recognizable by their austere black uniforms. Curious, I looked into the crowd of watchers, unwittingly catching the eye of one of The Chosen. I knew he was Chosen, not just because of the cut and color of his fine clothing but because of his stare. Intent, hungry, consuming—it burned. Feeling as though he could reveal my very soul, peel back my shields and spread me open with just his gaze. It made me ache. Want, for what I wasn’t quite sure, but the need settled low and heavy in my stomach. The feeling was disturbing, I wasn’t one to want. I planned, wanting was a useless endeavor. Plan for the least and expect the worst. Wanting led to nothing but disappointment.

Heat throbbed between my legs and I knew that the ache he’d caused had made me wet. Did he know too? His smile seemed to suggest that he did. Shame burned through me, racing across my skin in a heated blush. I had to learn to harness my curious nature, push it deep down. Hide it or for the next five years while in service to the Night Masters I would be sure to find myself in deep trouble.

I hugged myself. Wrapping my arms around my body I rubbed my palms up and down the chilled skin. I was wearing a low cut sleeveless gown. The best the Shire seamstress had to offer. The fabric was gossamer-fine pale pink. I was uncomfortable so exposed, but discomfort with my clothing was the least of my worries. My fingers trailed down my bare arm to circle the band of raised skin around my wrist. I looked down. It was still red from where they’d tied me last night.

They hadn’t needed to do that—I wasn’t running and they knew it too. It was done out of spite, out of the desire to hurt me. Break me, make me cry. Bandar had tightened the straps, pausing between each vicious pull to intently watch my face. Hoping no doubt to see me crack, see me cry out in pain. But I didn’t. I gave him nothing, the same as I had for the last six years.

Because they could not claim nor break me they had made the only threat that could bind me to their will.

“Talia, you will submit to The Choosing or we will take Leia in your stead.”

Leia, my sixteen year old sister. No matter how badly I wanted to escape the stifling boredom of village and my Uncle’s authority they knew I would never sacrifice her. More than just being young, Leia was sickly, too frail to endure the journey let alone whatever The Choosing would bring.

I’d asked him ‘why’, a futile question I realized as soon as the word left my lips. I knew why.

“Your pride,” my Uncle had all but hissed at me, “by remaining unclaimed your arrogance has forced us to this Talia.”

Pride? Arrogance? I’d bitten my cheeks at the words, the iron taste of blood filling my mouth. I wanted to spit the bloody words back at him, but I didn’t. I did what I always did; I pushed down the feeling—smothered it like a spent hearth fire—smiled and turned away.

My refusal to accept any claim had nothing to do with pride and everything to do with self respect. I’d watched the women around me claimed, one by one they submitted to their husband’s will until they were little more than shells of their former self. Used, rearing child after child, merely vessels to carry Vandarran heirs.

The only legal right a Vandarran maiden had was that of choosing her claiming. A claim could not be forced. Because of that law I’d thought myself safe as long as I remained unclaimed. I thought that all I had to do was wait it out until my twenty-fifth birthday and then I could escape. I had no grand dreams, no delusions of my life after I’d reached majority. All I wanted was to head to the Capitol and find work as a servant, hopefully as a governess, but now those meager dreams were gone, just three months shy of my twenty-fifth birthday.

Now I would either become a Chosen novitiate or go into Blood Service to the Night Masters.

The Palace gates came into view, bringing our procession to a stop. We stood suddenly quiet. All awed by the wrought iron shaped into giant black wings, the tips extending high above the six foot stone walls. Four guards dressed in shining black regalia opened the gates. They moved silently, without even a creak.

Bandar’s grip tightened on my arm. “I hope they bleed you dry, frigid bitch,” he hissed, breath hot with the stench of last night’s malt liquor.

“I’d rather choose death than you,” I answered him. He seemed surprised that I spoke rather than given him my usual calm smile. In truth I’d surprised myself and it felt… good. I didn’t pull away or flinch when he raised his hand to me. His hand was up but he had not yet swung when his father pulled him back.

“Don’t damage the goods. She’s the Night Master’s problem now.”

Bandar slowly lowered his hand. Finally releasing his grip on my arm. With a hollow laugh he said, “They’ll see you for what you are Talia. A useless dried up old bitch. They’ll suck you dead if they can stand your bitter taste. My only regret is that I will not see it.”

I met his eyes and finally, letting the years of hate seep into my voice I said, “And with my dying breath I’ll tell them you deliberately sent your worst. That your offering to the Night Masters was made not in reverence but in anger and spite. They’ll come for you then Bandar. My only regret is that I will not see you beg for your worthless life.”

He blanched, stepping back with wide frightened eyes. He had not expected a response to his cruel words. My usual response was silence. I came to them already schooled in restraint from the harsh life of serving my own brutal father. I didn’t speak out. I didn’t curse. I kept my tongue, locking my resentment behind a curtain of cool indifference. Over the years my quiet disdain became more than a shield; it became a weapon against their arrogance. They both hated my refusal to yield. I did what they said, cold smile locked in place, but they knew in their hearts that I never really submitted to their will. Because of the years of passive resistance Bandar had never known the whip of my tongue and I would not let him leave now without a final taste of my hatred.

I said in a calm, measured tone, “You were never man enough Bandar. You know that don’t you? That was why you could not claim me. You had not the strength nor the skill to own me. You think me frigid? You think me dried up? You fool. I am no virgin. I took whomever I wanted. I just never wanted you.”

“Quiet bitch,” my Uncle said from clenched teeth, “Shut your filthy mouth.”

Around us Candidates cried their bittersweet farewells, clasping their escorts as if they did not wish them to leave. Me, I grinned. Even fearing what I faced ahead could not dampen the joy of knowing I would never again answer to Bandar or my Uncle.

I watched them leave. Bandar looked back at me one last time before mounting the steps to the carriage. I met his eyes and smiled again. A true smile from a free heart. I closed my eyes and savored the short lived feeling of liberty. An instant of freedom I knew was fleeting, but for that brief moment was mine alone.

I was the last to walk through. For one brief charged minute, I considered running. Adrenalin shot through me, singing through my veins as my body prepared to take flight. But I didn’t. I didn’t run. Where would I go? What would I do even if I could outrun the guards? I would be an outlaw. No money, no hope. No choices left. I looked up at the forbidding façade of the night Palace and gave in. I submitted to the inevitable, and with head down I walked through the gates and on to The Choosing.

Inside the winged gates we were ushered through huge black lacquered doors into a hall. A Great Hall. Vast and empty, it held only a wooden table, two chairs and a large bronze gong in the back corner of the room. The walls were lined with flocked black velvet wallpaper. I longed to run my hands across the raised wing design but instead I clasped my hands together, gripping tight until my nails bit into the skin. Light filtered in through floor to ceiling windows. It shimmered through what I first thought to be sheer bronze curtains but on a second look realized were thousands of hanging strands of fine metal. I kept focused on the details to shield myself from thinking. From wondering.

The sound of nervous chatter echoed in the cavernous room—whispered gossipy threads of what to expect weaved in through my focused shield. I dismissed them, shut them down turning away from the nearest Candidate who tried to draw me into her supposition. No one knew what to expect. It was futile to suppose. There were countless rumors of course. Drunken stories told by firelight, but no one actually knew. No one other than those who had undergone The Choosing and they were blood bound to silence.

I looked around, this time focusing on the other Candidates. The more I looked the more sure I became that I would not be Chosen. I was certainly not the most attractive Candidate and I was most definitely the oldest. Surely they would take one of the young beauties. I would end up in Blood Service, in apprenticeship to a trade. In the seamstress rooms or perhaps weaving.

My wondering ceased upon the abrupt sound of wood hitting stone. I looked up to see the double doors behind the great wooden table open, the doors flung wide. One male and one female Chosen entered through the space. A third person, a woman bound in fine black ribbons followed. She was almost naked, strips of shiny black wrapped around her breasts, wrists and torso. Her lower body from the waist down was completely bare—even of hair. Shocked, I looked away and a heated blush crept up my chest and neck.

The Chosen man clapped his hands. The sound inhuman, like a crack of thunder it echoed off the walls, so loud it hurt. I brought my hands up to protect my ears. I was not alone. Other Candidates too held their ears, some cried, whimpering in pain. The mood in the room had changed, instead of palpable excitement now there was fear. We had huddled together. Unconsciously forming a tight circle that had shifted back, away from the Chosen and closer to the doors through which we had entered.

“Move to the markings that match your shire,” he said. His voice was compelling—almost physical—it brushed against my skin like sharp nails down my back, half pleasure half pain. The throb I had felt when I had seen the Chosen in the street returned to settle deep between my legs into a damp heat.

The Chosen man clapped again, not so loud this time and to my shock the floor began to glow. Multi colored lights appeared beneath us, a map of Vandarra. Each shire glowing a different color. Around me the Candidates started to move from the protective circle to the markings of their shire. I followed, finding mine. Grateful that it was in the middle near the back, making me but a small hidden tree in the forest of Candidates.

I wasn’t sure what to expect once we were all placed upon the map but it certainly wasn’t the ominous silence that followed, laying like a thick blanket on a Summer’s day. Suffocating me as I waited, waited for what was to come. Through a gap in the map of bodies I spied the Chosen male. I watched him take a seat on one of the high backed wooden chairs. The ribbon bound woman settled at his feet between his sprawled legs. He ran his fingers through her hair, tugging at the strands, making fists in her long bangs. I didn’t know why but the manipulation of his hands unfurled a lick of heat in me. A sudden strong desire that I had never before known.

The Chosen Woman did not sit. She stalked the room, not speaking, just pausing every now and then near a Candidate. The waiting made the throb worse. I squeezed my thighs together as if I could somehow stem the wet flow of heat. The Chosen woman wore pants—the first woman I had ever seen do so—sleek black tights that hugged the length of her legs. They cut low on her hips leaving an inch sliver of pale skin showing between the waistband and her corseted top. I concentrated on that pale line, keeping my eyes low hoping to somehow melt into the background thinking that if I did she would pass me by unnoticed.

Finally she spoke, where the Chosen man’s voice had hinted at seductive pain the woman’s spoke it clearly. It cut like a razor, sharp but not shrill. She spoke not to us but to The Chosen man.

“I love the sweet smell of fear in the morning. Don’t you my brother?”

He laughed, a deep throbbing chuckle that made the thin bronze strands in the window thrum.

“I can taste it.” She stopped and opened her mouth, swirling her tongue out as if tasting the air. “Not just fear brother, but more. So much more. Can you taste it too?”

I titled my head so I could see him clearly. He closed his eyes, breathed in deeply and nodded, “Yes sister. It smells good.”

She then began to weave through the Candidates, trailing her fingers across us as she did. She moved quickly, building speed until it seemed she was just a black blur moving above the glowing colors. When she reached me she trailed a sharp nail along the exposed skin of my collar bone. I held my breath, waiting for her to move on, but she didn’t. Instead she circled me, prowling around me like a cat. Her finger trailing down my body in circles, from my collarbone to my pelvis.

I did not flinch. I did not move.

“This one,” she said and I could not believe my ears.

This one what? What did she mean?

The Chosen man gave a lazy wave of his hand and the Candidates in front of me parted. Shifting aside like a sea of grass waving in the wind.

He looked at me. I felt his stare come in a wave of heat. It washed across me and I had to lock my knees to stop from falling.

“This one,” the Chosen woman said again, “this one… is interesting.”

I did not look at her; I kept my eyes on him. His hand pulled at the short hair of the woman between his legs. He dragged her up onto her knees. She writhed into him purring as if urging him to tug harder. He did, pulling roughly at her head until he positioned her mouth at his crotch. As he watched me he pumped the woman’s head at his groin, rubbing the obvious bulge against her face. He pulled at her head, jerking her as if she were an inanimate object. Not a real woman—a puppet for his pleasure. I tried to look away. Tried to be disgusted by the show of pain and dominance as I knew I should, but I couldn’t, and the feeling that coursed through my body was not disgust.