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SPONSORED CONTENT FROM TOR TEEN
The girl sits on her cot, silently reviewing the things that make her important.
Long, golden hair. Green eyes. A shape that boys and men will like. She’s only thirteen, but already the treatments have begun to remove the freckles from her cheeks and soften her skin. Her legs are a little skinny, but she’s taking supplements to fix that. By the time auction comes, she’ll be perfect.
That’s what her father calls her. Perfect. The keepers call her spoiled, and smart-mouthed, but they don’t know anything. They’re not the ones who’ve been groomed for the stage since birth. She is. And she’s going to get chosen her first auction. She wishes she could see their smug little faces when she gets a five star rating in every category.
She’s been to the auction before. Her father takes all his girl children so that they may learn what’s expected. He sits apart from them, of course, in the viewing box with the other computer programmers—magnates, though a step below the really big box with the mayor and the other city lawmakers. She sees the way her father looks up at those men when they walk through the crowd to their seats. It’s the same way she looks up to the girls who walk across the stage. Wanting. Ready.
Closing her eyes, she inhales, and tries to conjure the smell of candy, and the musk from the livestock. Voices rise in her ears—a thousand people talking all at once, shouting and jeering as the Watchers bring out the criminals to hang on the wooden stage. The keepers look away at this, saying it’s barbaric and disgusting, an old-fashioned punishment for a progressive age, and so she stares straight at the bodies, feeling a familiar panic shaking inside her. She is not afraid of this. She is not afraid of anything.
She cannot be afraid of anything.
Then the girls are announced, and her mouth tilts up in a smile. They come from the Garden, the preparation facility across town where girls are trained for this day. They’re named after flowers—Rose, and Lily, and Daisy. Things she’s only seen in pictures. Sometimes they wear dresses, sometimes costumes, always in a riot of colors. Their hair is art, their makeup soft or severe but always flawless. When she looks at them, the wanting grows. She’s learned to spot the mistakes they make—mistakes she will not repeat. A too-quick smile will bore the audience. Faces should be lifted, but eyes downcast. Confidence is rewarded with votes, but not showiness. Magnates don’t like a girl to challenge, that’s what her father says, but a girl who’s open and willing to learn. Who can be molded into the perfect wife. A forever wife. Like her birth mother.
Sometimes a girl does everything right. A perfectly timed smile, a gentle look to the side. Her walk is graceful and comfortable. Her body swaying in perfect, curvy lines. In those moments, she is transfixed. She wants to know more and how and everything.
The lights in the room rise slowly, and a moment later she hears the soft pull of the sliding door opening on the other side of the room.
“Awake!” cries a keeper, as if they’ve wasted half the day sleeping. It’s only just after dawn, and the girl’s father will soon be heading for work. All eight of his children, two boys and six girls, will present themselves in the living room before he leaves. This is how it is every day, but she wonders if he knows that today is special. That today, everything will change.
Her stomach suddenly hollows out at the prospect of saying goodbye. She is his favorite, the one he always brings sweets and pats on the head. When she was little, he would let her play quietly on the floor beside him when he brought home work. But now she will be gone, and the thought of him choosing another makes her wish she had more time.
No. She will not let regret spoil this day.
She rises beside her bed while the keeper ushers into the room. At the Garden she will have ten keepers, each attending to her different needs. One to bring food. Another to take it away. Another to trim her nails, and fix her skin, and make her just right. This thought settles her.
She files out into the hallway behind her siblings—last, because despite her excitement, she wants one last look at this room. The bunks are stacked three tall, the blankets left askew for the staff to clean later. The children’s room is in the center of their high-rise apartment, and has no windows, but she knows this far up the view of the city will be blocked by haze anyway.
Still, her steps slow. This is the only home she’s ever known.
Before her, her second brother, Farall, is yawning. He’s only five, but will soon be moved to his own bedroom like her older brother Mehmet. She always wished she could have her own room too, but things will be different soon.
She touches his head, feeling the thin, soft strands that are a paler shade of yellow than her own.
“Are you going to school, Two?” he asks, yawning again.
“Better than school, Five,” she says, deliberately using his birth rank as he does hers. Because he’s a boy he gets his own name, but she has had to wait thirteen years to get hers.
She beams at the thought of a name. Not just a number, a name.
“I’m going to the Garden,” she tells him.
“I want to go,” he complains. He already goes to school though, like all the boy children in the city, where he learns to read and write. By ten, he will already be on a trade path, and with their father’s status, will almost certainly be a magnate someday too.
“You can’t go,” she says. “You’re a boy.”
He groans. “It’s not fair.”
A hard chill spears through her joy. He is right. It’s not fair. If life were fair, she’d have her own bedroom. She’d have a name, and know how to write it. She would be able to wear pants, and go on hunting trips in the mountains, and sit in the box with her father and the other magnates, smoking and drinking, and voting on the girls who walked across the stage. Maybe she’s only thirteen, but she knows what the judges look for.
But that is not the way it is, and she feels foolish for even thinking it. Women hadn’t stood beside men since the Red Years, and everyone knows how that turned out.
This unwanted desire fades as she spends the next minutes in the bathroom with her sisters. She’s the first to be groomed today, and her golden hair is braided in a crown that circles her head. She doesn’t tell the keeper, whose unnaturally smooth and youthful face is now pinched in consternation, how much she loves it. How perfect it is. It’s his job to care for her, and today, his work is about to be put to the test.
After makeup, she’s given a meal pill, which fills her stomach just enough that she isn’t starving, and makes her way to stand in line to greet her father. Beside her, Mehmet is typing something into his handheld tablet, and while they wait, she looks over at the scratchy marks she is forbidden from knowing.
“It says good riddance,” he tells her, and she shoves him in the shoulder.
He smirks, and she is torn, because that smirk has always made her giggle, and she might not see it again for a long time. Maybe not ever.
“Stop it!” Their keeper scurries their direction, his long caftan flowing behind him. “You’ll mess up your hair, Two.”
She rolls her eyes, but her hand rises to the braid anyway. It makes her look like a movie star.
“I want a pretty braid,” says Six, the much shorter sister to her other side. But she has stiff, brown hair that never lays flat, even with the treatments. Normally, Two would tell her to keep wishing, because that’s never going to happen, but not today.
“One day you’ll have one,” she says. And then they’re quiet, because their father and his forever wife have arrived.
The tall, wiry man in blue silk pajamas makes his way toward the living room, scratching his triangular beard. Their birth mother follows, smiling pleasantly, looking at nothing in particular. Two has memorized every detail of that smile, has practiced it a thousand times in the mirror. Girls who get chosen only have one shot of impressing their bidder. If they fail to impress, can’t be bred, or produce only girls, they’ll be cast aside. Made to be breeders, or worse, sent to the Black Lanes as companions. But once, her father told them the reason he kept their mother was because of her smile, and if that’s what it takes, Two will smile until her cheeks go numb.
Her father starts with the youngest and nods to each of them as he passes, but when Two catches his eye, he pauses.
“Good morning,” he says, and pats her on the head. There is a small smile, and she feels her siblings’ envy thicken around her.
And then he sits down at the table, opens his tablet, and begins to read.
She watches him, her anxiety growing, and when the keeper dismisses them, and tells her it’s time to go, she feels a drop of panic slide down her spine.
“Father,” she says.
He lifts his chin. Her mother looks up as well, her smooth, golden hair hanging in soft ringlets to her shoulders. Her morning robe without even a single wrinkle. She is a piece of art—beautiful, and made to be admired, and Two wonders, not for the first time, if this is what it looks like when you have everything you always wanted.
“Come. Don’t bother him,” says the keeper.
“I’m leaving today,” she says, and he groans and rolls his eyes.
Her father looks confused. Slowly, recognition dawns on him.
“To the Garden,” he says. “That’s right. Good luck, my dear.”
And that’s it.
She’s not sure what she expected, but as she turns, it feels like she’s walking through water. Nothing can come with her, she hasn’t even packed a bag. All she has are her dress and the two long, beaded earrings that hang to her shoulders—signs that she is unpromised.
She rounds the corner, and in sight of the door, her sisters and Farall hug her. Six is crying, tears sticking to her long blonde lashes, and the other sisters are giving her advice to sway her hips, and stand tall, and not to snort when she laughs. Memhet squeezes her shoulder and then looks back to his tablet, but his cheeks are red and she wonders if there’s something he wants to say but can’t.
There are a hundred things she wants to say, but can’t.
Just as she nears the door, she hears a voice she hardly recognizes. It’s her father’s forever wife. She meets Two’s gaze, and it’s so unnerving, Two falls back a step. The shape and color of their eyes is exactly the same. They don’t have a lot of contact, but Two still cannot believe she’s never noticed this before.
The woman hesitates, then embraces her stiffly. Two keeps her arms down, unsure if she should embrace back. Her insides are shaking and her heart is pounding and nothing about this moment feels like it should.
“Don’t feel,” her birth mother whispers, and it sounds like a warning.
And then that pleasant smile is back, and she turns and walks away.
Two is led out of the apartment into the hallway, and then into the elevator that carries them fifty floors down to the carriage. From inside, she stares back at the tall green glass building, still hearing her birth mother’s voice. Don’t feel. She doesn’t understand what it means.
Her last view of home is the keeper, turning back to go into the building.
The city pulls by too quickly, green glass and factories, black smoke and gray skies, and then she’s there, at the black building with the artificial lawn that she’s only heard the keepers talk about. The iron gates swing back and the carriage is brought around a circle, and then she’s led through the doors into a waiting area, where she’s given a black dress, so tight it shows every bump of her skin, and is told to wait for the Governess.
She does wait. She waits and waits and waits, soaking in the cold from the tile floor, and the black glass walls, and the changing pictures hanging from them, of beautiful girls with smiles that aren’t reflected in their eyes. She tells herself she will soon be one of them, but it doesn’t feel like it did in her dreams.
A woman appears through a sliding door, wearing a dress that looks more like an active water fountain, with splashes of blue silk and beads of silver that look like raindrops sliding down the tight bodice. Her hair is a mountain of curls, cascading over her shoulders, and her makeup is so dark she looks like a monster.
Two’s eyes widen.
There is a keeper behind the Governess, all in black, who says, “This is the Governess. Stand up straight.”
“Ugh,” groans the Governess. “The hair’s going to have to go. Yellow is such a drab color. Chop it and make it red. Fire red. Immediately.”
Two is horrified. She snaps her mouth shut. I am not afraid.
This is everything she’s ever wanted.
“What name’s next on rotation?” the Governess asks.
The keeper scans down a list on his tablet, then raises his beady eyes. He looks so much like her keeper at home—the resemblance is uncanny. But he is different. He doesn’t know her, and she does not know him. It’s only the hormone treatments which have made them all look the same.
“Daphne,” he says.
“Well,” says the Governess flatly. “Welcome to the Garden, Daphne.”
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