They lined us up on the stage as though we were prized horses, not human beings. A sticker was attached to our chests, with the numbers ranging from one to seventy-five. All of us the same age, all or us taken at the age of eleven. A man in his finest suit stood at the edge of the stage, a paper in his hands. One small paragraph about each of us. One paragraph that summarized everything that we had gone through for the past ten years.
Like we were a thing and not humans.
We were property of the state now. Taken from our families against our wills to become the wife of the young members of the royal court. Seventy-five girls ripped from their parents arms. Seventy-five girls who would never see their families again. Seventy-five girls taken just so that the royal blood lived on.
I stood with my hands clasped in front of me, just as we had been drilled to do so. The long sleeves of my tight red dress covered the bruises and scars on my arms from the torture of learning how to become a proper lady, from learning how to not embarrass myself in front of the man I would spend the rest of my life with.
Those men wouldn't know how we were treated. We were sworn to secrecy. To tell of the training practices used would be breaking the law and even we were not above the law. There was always someone who would be able to take our place. Someone who was more than willing to take our place.
It was all lies. No one would ever be willing to take our place. None of us were there by choice. We were selected as being the most perfect members of society. Each year when a baby was born, they were put into a system. A system that tracked their growth, both physically and mentally, and when they turned eleven, they were either deemed acceptable or passed over. If they were chosen, guards stormed their homes and took them without explanation. No one knew if they were going to be chosen. No one knew when the guards would come. One moment you were home, safe and happy. The next you were being forced into a carriage and to a facility that you would spend the next ten years at.
I took a deep breath, my eyes scanning the crowd of people before us as I blocked out what the man in the suit was saying about the first girl. There were highly ranked guards, nobles, and senators. There were judges and family members to the king. Cousins and nephews to the king and members of the royal court.
And the prince himself.
He was sitting in the front, a pamphlet on his lap. His dark hair was neatly combed, his green eyes trained on the man in the suit and the first girl. He wore the black coat of the king's court, his shoulders and chest decorated with medals and emblems. Simple black dress pants and black shoes. The image of the perfect son and future king.
His father leaned over and whispered something in his ear. The prince smiled tightly before he looked away from the girl and down at the pamphlet. The girl went to a senator's son. I tore my eyes away from the prince to watch as two guards escorted the girl down the steps and into a backroom. She would be escorted into a carriage and taken directly to the buyer's home. There could be no chances taken. We were all flight risks, despite our training.
I kept my eyes straight ahead as the girls in line before me were sold off. All of the paragraphs were the same. Some girls just excelled more than others did, therefore they had more to give. They were considered to be the better deal and could only be afforded by the higher ranking officials.
"Number twenty-four, please step forward," the man said. All eyes turned to me. I swallowed hard and stepped forward as the man stood next to me. He looked down at his paper and began to read my short resume.
Adelaide Colfield excelled in manners, obedience, and etiquette. She was second in her class, only failing in the area of sewing. She was well-spoken and well-tempered. A girl who would be the perfect wife for any man who desired her. She respected authority and listened well to commands, only failing to do so early in her training. She was one of the few capable of reading and writing fluently.
The perfect prospect.
I forced myself to take calm, even breaths as I stared at the back of the room, at the country's flag. As the bidding began, I forced myself to remain calm, to block out the monetary amounts that were flying around the room. I knew that this was coming. Finishing second meant that you were the second most desirable. A girl who was worth the top dollar amount.
"Number twenty-four, Adelaide Colfield, will go to Piers Delafontaine," the man said. My head snapped in his direction before my eyes went to the prince. I watched as his father shook his hand before they both stood up and walked towards the exit.
I watched their retreating backs as the guards grasped my arms and ushered me down the steps of the stage and into the same back room they had been leading the other girls. The guards pulled me through the empty, dusty room and out a back door to the waiting royal carriage.
I barely had time to register what was happening before the guards climbed in and the carriage rolled forward. I folded my hands in my lap and crossed my ankles, keeping my breathing steady as we moved out of the city. Falling apart was not going to make it any easier.
Even if I did fall apart, the repercussions wouldn't be nearly as bad as when I had gone through my training. There would be no beatings, no torturing from those who were supposed to teach us. Only threats to send me back or to keep me locked away forever.
I would have preferred being locked away.
It was common knowledge that the prince didn't live with the king and queen. He lived in a small castle about ten miles outside of the city, tucked away in the woods. The household was small, with the minimum amount of servants and guards. The prince was rarely seen with the king, making today an even more extraordinary event. It was unsafe to have so many members of the royal family together at one time. The queen was almost never outside of the castle walls with both her son and husband. When she was, each member of the family was heavily guarded by the best guards in the court. The bloodline would be at stake if anything were to happen.
I didn't know what to expect when we arrived at the castle. As the carriage rolled forward, I tried to remember my training. It was important to keep up appearances during my first days there. Pressing the prince early on, before we were officially wed, could bring catastrophic results. What I needed from him was too important to risk failure. Being chosen by him made it easier to follow through with my plan than if I had been selected by another member of the court.
The carriage turned down a dirt road lined with trees. The castle loomed in the distance, the stone walls covered with ivy. I peered up at it, wondering what it must have been like to have known that one day you would call the immense structure home. To be able to know for sure what your future would hold.
The carriage paused at the entrance to the castle, the guards speaking to the driver before they opened the gates. We rolled past the stone walls and into the front courtyard of the castle. As the carriage made its way around the circular drive, my eyes took in the neatly trimmed trees and shrubs. The flowers planted in the gardens looked as though they had been created from hand. Not a single leaf was out of place.
The carriage rolled to a stop in front of the stairs. I waited as the driver opened the door and then followed the first guard out of the carriage. I climbed down the steps, holding onto the hem of my dress, before I looked up at the castle.
It was half the overall size of the main castle in the city. It was still five stories with balconies jutting off from various rooms. Curtains fluttered through the open windows as the May sun beat down on us. I took a deep breath before I allowed the guards to lead me into the castle.
I gave the doorman a small smile as we passed him. He stood in salute until we passed and then closed the door with a small thud. In the hallway stood three women, all dressed in the servant uniform of grey dresses, their hair pulled back into neat buns. They stood with their hands clasped in front of them, warm smiles on their faces.
"Welcome, miss," the middle woman said. She reminded me of my grandmother, her hair greyed and her face worn. There was still a look of mischief in her eyes, though. "My name is Miriam. I am the head of the servants here in the household. These two young ladies will be your personal servants." I nodded at the blonde girl on Miriam's left and the brunette on her right. They couldn't have been more than three or four years older than myself. "To my left is Eleanor, my right is Lila. However, do not hesitate to ask any servant for assistance if need be."
"Thank you," I told her. "I appreciate your kindness."
Miriam nodded slightly. "Eleanor will take you to your room and held you get changed for dinner. You will remain there until it is time to dine. The prince will be joining us tonight."
"The rest will be welcomed," I told her as I stepped away from the guards and towards the blonde girl.
I followed Eleanor down the hall, past the rows of portraits of the royal family, both past and present. We climbed the stone staircase at the end of the hall, turning and going up to the third floor. Eleanor led me down the hall and past closed doors to a room at the end of the hall. She opened the door and stepped aside to allow me to enter.
I stood in the entrance of the room, my eyes taking in the four-post canopy bed made up with light purple blankets with a chest sitting at the foot. A desk sat next to the doors that led to a balcony and between the door that led to the lavatory. A wardrobe was against the wall opposite of the bed. On the left side of the bed by the wall, was a small table with two chairs, a vase of daffodils placed atop it. On either side of the bed were two small tables, one holding a small notebook and pen while the other held a single candle.
I walked into the center of the room and turned, allowing Eleanor to unzip my dress and help me remove it. I remained silent as she pulled out a pale yellow dress with capped sleeves and helped me into it. I kept my hands by my side as she tightened up the back.
When I turned around, she was holding out a necklace with a single diamond in it. I sighed softly before I turned back around and allowed her to put the necklace on. She placed a pair of white heels on the floor next to the bed before she straightened up and looked at me.
"Is there anything else you will be needing before you dine?" she asked softly.
I shook my head. "That will be all."
"I shall return to fetch you once the meal has been prepared," she replied before she turned and left the room, closing the door softly behind her.
I let out the breath I had been holding before I turned towards the trunk. I knelt down in front of it and opened it, looking into the empty space. I didn't know what I had been expecting. A hidden exit, perhaps. Maybe some books.
I closed the trunk and stood up, straightening out my skirts as I walked over to the doors, opening them and stepping out onto the balcony. There was a single chair sitting in the corner. I put my hands on the railing, looking out over the woods and the back garden. In the hedge maze, various gardeners worked to trim the hedges, keeping them just as neat as the rest of the grounds.
It still hadn't sunk in that this was to be my life. A life of privilege, one that few had the pleasure of experiencing. So many people in the country were poor. There were children starving, missing meals because their family couldn't afford even a sack of potatoes. Yet, the royals lived with more than enough. They didn't know what it was like to starve, to wear rags. They didn't know what it was like to shiver from the cold and fall ill from the heat.
Those things were as foreign to them as having three daily meals were to the average family.
While I was in my training, I had decided that I would find a way to put an end to that. No longer would girls, and boys, be ripped away from their families to help keep the royal bloodline alive. No longer would people live in fear of the king and those who enforced his cruel laws. No longer would children die of starvation.
The country had the means to help those people. The king just refused to share. It was immoral to take children from their homes without being given permission. Even providing the families with food and money would be better than stealing their children and never being able to see them again. At least some good would come from it.
I sighed and closed my eyes, letting the warm sun hit my face. A princess would only have so much pull. It would have to be the prince who would convince the king of the changes that needed to be made. It was not going to be easy. Rumor had it that the prince was just a younger version of his father. People were capable of change. Of that I was certain.