Savannah focused her tired blue eyes on the thick book in her lap, attempting to make her brain follow suit. There were just so many men. Too many. Their faces were melting into one another, just like her drawings on the sidewalk used to do after a long summer’s rain.
Savannah turned the page once more. Male number 22136. He was handsome she supposed, in a more ‘delicate’ way. His smile was devious and his teeth were too white. His eyes glowed a majestic green, with little brown flecks of color scattered throughout.
She glanced down for a brief moment to see his scores; they were all low.
Savannah wondered how the other girls her age were handling this decision. Of course, the palace thought that by sending out these books that they'd be doing a favor to the women of the country. They thought it would make their decision easier. What a joke.
For as long as Savannah could remember this was the way life was. At the tender age of eighteen, every female of the country was required to journey to the Palace of Princes to select her top choices of men, and watch them fight to the death to win her heart. The winning male would be paid for by the prospective female buyer, and would return home not only as the victor, but also as the woman’s husband-to-be.
Savannah shut the book and sighed, willing her shaky nerves to settle. She wished it could be different. But the palace claimed this was their means of population control, and this was what had to be done to rectify the problem.
Really, as bad as she had it, she shouldn’t complain. The men of the country had it much, much worse.
It felt like only minutes had passed before the back door swung open, Savannah’s mother, father, two sisters, and brother-in-law appearing seconds later. All were carrying gifts and chattering wildly. My family sure does know how to make an entrance.
“Sorry we’re late, hunny!” Savannah’s mom shouted to her. “You know how this group can be when we’re all trying to run errands.”
Savannah smiled at her mother. She was a creature of pure love and kindness, not an ounce of meanness in her body. Her mother was short, with long, blonde hair that was always pinned up to accentuate her plump face and rosy cheeks.
“Yea mom I know. No worries,” Savannah smiled, getting up from the couch and strechting her limbs.
Savannah’s youngest sister, Lineya, bounded over to her, wrapping her tan arms around Savannah’s waist.
“Happy birthday, big sis!” Lineya shouted, excitement gushing from her voice.
Savannah returned Lineya’s overwhelming hug, doing her best not to teeter back onto the couch. Lineya was only sixteen and while she would be making her journey to the palace in only two short years, her maturity level still had a long way to go. She acted more like a child, Savannah noted, spending her with sports or ‘make-believe’ games. Lineya was not one to take matters seriously.
“Yes, happy birthday, Savannah.”
Savannah knew without looking that this delicate voice belonged to her older sister, Ithica. Even though she loved Lineya dearly, there was no question that Savannah was closer to Ithica. Ithica was her role model, her confidant, and honestly? Their personalities were one in the same.
Savannah wrenched herself out of Lineya’s embrace and turned to Ithica.
“Thanks you guys,” Savannah responded, a small blush creeping onto her face. Being of the center of attention had never been one of her strong suits.
Savannah gazed down her sister’s body, admiring her outfit - a loosely fit pink skirt and a white ruffled shirt on top. How on earth could her sister be eight months pregnant and still look so gorgeous?! Savannah reached out and rubbed the front of Ithica’s stomach.
“The baby’s getting bigger and bigger each day, huh?” Savannah said, admiration in her eyes.
“Yes,” Ithica cooed. “I can’t believe the baby will be here in only 4 weeks!”
Ithica was only 23 years old, and pregnant with her first child. Savannah and her family couldn’t be happier. She just hoped it was a girl. Because seeing her sister have to go through the heartache of being forced to give up her baby boy… that would be devastating.
Savannah continued to rub Ithica’s stomach, humming a familiar melody her mother had sang to her when she was just a little girl.
“My baby loves your voice,” Ithica said, grinning.
“You think so?”
“Oh, yea. This little baby is quite a kicker. But whenever you sing, it remains still, like its pressing its ear right up against my belly just to hear your beautiful voice,” Ithica said, smiling.
Savannah blushed once more at the abrupt compliment. Before she could reply, Aiiden strolled around the corner, sliding his arm around Ithica’s waist.
“Hiya Savannah. Happy Birthday!” Aiiden said in a jovial voice, tousling her hair.
“Thanks,” Savannah replied, doing what she could to avoid his touch.
It’s not that she didn’t appreciate the affection. Because she did. It was just taking her awhile to get used to Aiiden and his very playful form of ‘brotherly love.’ Aiiden was Ithica’s husband and had been for almost five years. The two were madly in love and she had a feeling they always would be. If it were only that easy for me.
When Ithica had first stepped foot into the Palace of Princes, she spotted Aiiden right away and knew he was ‘the one.’ With reddish-brown hair and golden eyes, his face radiated beauty. He was tall and broad shouldered, muscles bulging from his arms, legs and chest. He was handsome, yes, but very intimidating.
Once Ithica decided that Aiiden was the one she wanted, she then had carefully selected another boy, a boy that had low scores across the board, to put Aiiden up against for the fight. Aiiden, who scored an 8/10 for fighting, killed the innocent boy with ease, slitting his throat with a knife and never looking back …
After the fight, Ithica and Aiiden left the Palace of Princes and spent a month long honey-moon together before returning home and introducing him to the family. Savannah sometimes wondered if her sister ever felt guilty that an innocent boy died because of her. She never had the courage to ask though.
“Ok everybody - dinner is ready!” Savannah’s mother shouted from the kitchen.
“Ugh, finallllyy!” Lineya whined. “My stomach has been growling all day.”
Savannah inched her way towards the kitchen at a glacial pace, dreading the entire dinner. When she reached her destination, however, she gasped. Were her eyes playing tricks on her? How did I not notice these decorations earlier?
The walls of the kitchen were lined with silky, pink ribbons, all twirling and intertwining with one another in a delicate way. Big, shiny balloons floated to the ceiling, each a different shape and color. Handfuls of little strawberry-scented candles scattered the counters, illuminating the kitchen in an ethereal glow.
Dish after dish of food lined the table, each in a fancy, silver serving tray. Smells of her favorite foods began to waft to her nose. Savannah looked up at her family and saw they were all staring at her, smiling.
“Uhm, gosh you guys…you didn’t have to do all this for me,” Savannah said clearing her throat.
Savannah’s mother came around the table and placed a kiss on her forehead.
“It’s our pleasure, sweetie. Now, let’s get this dinner party started, birthday girl!”
As everyone finished their dinners, the conversation began to taper off as well, a peaceful silence consuming the living room.
Unfortunately, the peace didn’t last long.
Savannah’s mother rose from her seat, walking to the kitchen, and returning to the living room with a handful of gifts.
“These are for you, 'Vannah. Now, they aren’t much but I think you will get good use out of them!”
Savannah could feel the blood rushing into her cheeks. Oh, no. It can’t be time to open presents yet. Being the center of attention was bad enough. But opening presents too? It was just a bit too much for Savannah to handle.
Everyone she loved was sitting with her in this living room and when she opened their gifts, she knew they would be expecting a great reaction out of her. Savannah had never been too enthusiastic. It’s not that she wasn’t grateful; she just never had been good at expressing how she felt.
Savannah groaned inwardly as she grabbed the first gift. “Who’s this from?”
“That one is from your mother and I,” Savannah’s dad said, his gruff voice echoing throughout the room. Savannah’s blush deepened. Her father - Harvey - was a man of very few words, but she respected him more than anyone else.
Harvey was a tall man, with thin dark hair that was cropped short around his head. His eyes were gray and his face was rugged. Stress lines creased his forehead and his body was worn. No matter his appearance, Savannah’s father was wise beyond his years and had always tried to give Savannah whatever she wanted.
Savannah opened the small package and in it she found a miniature gray purse. She pulled out its contents – money, a train ticket and a folded piece of paper. The money she knew was for her trip to the Palace of Princes. What is this folded paper all about?
“It’s a map,” her father replied to her unasked question. “I made it when I was growing up in the Palace of Princes. It’s a layout of the whole palace. It shows you the fighting arena, the dining hall, the boys’ rooms, everything. I thought you could look it over before you left tomorrow so you didn’t feel so nervous going in there.”
Savannah looked at her father and felt her throat constrict with tears. “Thank you. That’ll be so helpful, dad.”
“Now ‘Vannah,” her mother began, “we gave you just enough money to make your…purchase, and then make it home safely by train. Money is tight right now so try to be frugal, ok?”
Savannah nodded and moved on to her next gift. This one was wrapped in a haphazard way, its paper torn and crumpled, half of its contents sticking out of its packaging to be seen by the naked eye. Savannah restrained a smile that was fighting to form across her lips.
“Is this one from you, Eya?” Savannah asked as she looked at her younger sister.
Lineya beamed up at her sister and fidgeted in her chair. “You betchya! And I wrapped it myself too!”
“It looks great, Eya.”
Savannah unwrapped the gift and held up a picture frame. It had come from Lineya’s room, she recognized, and was dusty. It was bright purple with white stripes across it and in its center contained a picture of Savannah and Lineya from when they were younger.
They were both laughing in the picture and as Savannah filtered through her memories to remember when this was taken, her heart began to ache. I wish we could have stayed this young and happy.
“Ok, well I didn’t buy the frame, but everyone else was giving you something to take with you on your trip so I had to too,” Lineya said smiling, obviously pleased with her gift.
“Thanks Eya. It’s great, really.”
Savannah picked up her last gift, which was no bigger than the palm of her hand. It wasn’t wrapped, but was simply tied up in a draw string bag. She looked around the room.
“Who’s this one from?”
“It’s from your sister and I,” Aiiden said. “I hope you like them. I made them myself at work one weekend. It took me two days straight to make them just how Ithica wanted.”
Aiiden was a designer and a welder. His specialty? Wedding rings. Savannah’s heart pounded in her chest as she loosened the ties of the bag. She held out her other hand and turned it over.
Two, tiny silver rings fell into her clammy, open palm. Admittedly, they were both exquisite. She studied them for a brief moment, to be polite. Just the thought of them made her stomach tighten with queasiness.
“Oh, thanks you guys. Aiiden, you outdid yourself. The amount of detail and design you put into these rings is amazing.”
Aiiden nodded his head and winked at her. Ithica, however, was frowning. Her sister always had a way of sensing what Savannah was feeling, which meant she knew that these rings were the last thing Savannah was wanting.
Savannah drifted in and out of a restless sleep. Her body was tense from a recent nightmare, and her eyes fluttered open with defeat. Should I get up? Or just try to keep sleeping?
A soft knock at her bedroom door startled Savannah out of her mental debate. She lifted her head, squinting blindly to her door.
“Hey ‘Vannah,” Ithica whispered as she opened the door. “I’m sorry if I woke you. Do you mind if I come in and talk to you for a moment?”
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
Savannah relaxed a degree and scooted to the edge of her bed, giving her sister room to sit. Ithica climbed into bed and snuggled in close.
“Savannah, I know how you’re feeling right now and I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better.” Ithica reached for her sister’s hand and held it gently.
“It’s OK, Ithica. I’ll be fine.”
Ithica offered up a feeble smile. “Savannah, I told you all that when I went to the Palace of Princes, I quickly found Aiiden – the boy of my dreams. I then chose another boy, at random, and put them in the fighting ring together. ‘It wasn’t even really a fight,’ I had told all of you. I said that Aiiden killed the boy without a second thought and from there we went -”
“-on a month long honey-moon, falling in love with each other and having the time of your lives,” Savannah finished for her. “I know. You’ve told me this story a hundred times.”
Ithica stiffened and Savannah craned her neck back to see her sister’s expression. Her eyes were a ghostly blue, her expression pained. Her breathing became short and staggered and Savannah could see her sister’s struggle to keep control over her emotions.
“That’s not what really happened, Savannah.”
Ithica forced out a heavy sigh and continued.
“You know, I was just like you, Savannah. I was so scared to go to the Palace of Princes. By the time I got there, I was just a bundle of nerves. The final two guys I ended up selecting were Aiiden and a man named Roverado. Then I was asked to decide the type of fighting arena I would like them to be placed.
‘Shall it be in the water or on land? Bows and arrows or knives and stones?,’ they asked me. They said it like it was nothing. Like they didn’t care that an innocent boy was about to be killed. I couldn’t go through with it, Savannah, I just couldn’t.
So, I took them both. I paid the extra fee and was given my rights to a one month trial with them. And during that month, I took those two boys everywhere and tested them in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. But after only three weeks Savannah, I fell in love. It was a type of love that I had never felt before in my entire life. My heart raced every time he touched me and my stomach twisted every time he left my side. I realized I had made my decision.
I sat the boys down for dinner and expressed my feelings. I told them I had made my choice and that we would be heading back to the Palace of Princes immediately to make my… ‘return.’
Don’t get me wrong, I felt awful about leaving one behind while moving forward with the other. But this was my future on the line and I knew it had to be done. After only a few days, we made it back to the Palace of Princes. I remember how awful I felt returning a boy, as if he were a bad loaf of bread.
Anyway, as I was crossing the last street before reaching the palace entrance, I accidently dropped my purse in the middle of the road. I turned to go back for it, but Aiiden grabbed my hand and told me how dangerous the street was.
‘I’ll get it for you, darling’ Aiiden had said. But Roverado was already making his way to the middle of the road where my purse had landed.
I don’t know what went wrong after that; it all happened so fast. One second the road was clear and the next….cars were whizzing toward us. Aiiden and I shouted for Roverado to get out of the road and come back to us. He had no clue how fast the cars were approaching him. Roverado beamed up at me, waving my purse in the air. He winked in my direction and started to jog back to our side of the road. But right as he stepped onto the curb, he lost his balance and fell backward. Not a second later, and he was hit. The car was just going so fast...
Roverado was dead before he even reached the ground; the only boy I had ever truly loved had just been taken from my life forever.”
Ithica’s voice cracked as she spoke her last words and tears streamed down her face.
“Don’t get me wrong, Savannah, I love Aiiden very much and he has been very good to me. He has allowed me to keep our secret hidden for five years now without breathing a word of it to any of you. Even through my sorrow, he has showered me with kindness and affection, always trying to find a way into my heart. And for that, I owe him a lifetime of gratitude and loyalty. But I can never feel for him what I felt for Roverado. He was my soul mate and no matter what Aiiden does, Roverado can never be replaced.”
“BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.”
Savannah’s eyelids cracked open, taking in the blinking red time that was flashing before her eyes. 8:04 AM. Savannah’s stomach seemed to hollow out as the reality of the morning came crashing down. Today was her birthday. Today she was officially eighteen years old….which also meant today was the day she would begin her journey to the Palace of Princes.