I couldn't believe these women were pretending to be okay with this. It actually pissed me off. Why didn't any of them give a hint that they didn't want a fuckboy King for a husband? How could all of them be fine with that?!
I simmered through the addresses of three different tutors—one to teach us how to respond when someone who used to outrank us gave us "deference," one to explain the King's usual schedule and responsibilities and how we would be expected to fit our lives to his, and the third to outline exactly how The Select fit into the Court, who we should curtsey to, and who we should expect to bow to us.
The whole thing just sounded boring and bureaucratic—not to mention Patriarchal.
Yet these women just swallowed it all without complaint or question. Without even an eyebrow raise.
By the time we were told to take our lunch, including a walk in the garden, before the afternoon's "instruction," I was hopping mad.
I was ready to grab Ash by the hand, walk out of this place, elope, and say to hell with David, no matter how nice his shoulders were.
But when everyone began to move and the murmurs rose in the room, Ash made it to my side and hissed in my ear before I could even speak.
"Say nothing here!"
The urgency in his voice, the abject fear in his eyes, kept my mouth shut.
But as I took his arm and we walked out of the room towards the banquet hall where we'd been told to eat, I stomped as if the carpet were covered in bugs.
"I can't believe they just sat there and accepted that!" I hissed. "I mean, sure, maybe some of them would be fine with it, but all of them? You want me to believe eighteen women were all a-okay with that?"
"Zara, I warned you—"
"I thought you meant that he'd want to do that, or would sneakily do it. I didn't think it was State sanctioned prostitution!"
"Zara, no, that isn't—"
"Then why were all of them silent back there? Why didn't anyone so much as raise an eyebrow? You can't tell me they're all excited about the idea of getting married after knowing their husband had an entire STABLE for who knows how long?"
"Yes, they are! I questioned it and they all stared at me like I was crazy!"
"Because they all know they're going to die if they don't win, so it doesn't matter!" Ash hissed.
I stopped dead in the center of the corridor, staring at him. "They're… what?"
"Zara," he whispered so quietly, staring down at me like he was so sad. "I told you… do you block your ears to my words? Do you intentionally forget them? We discussed this last night! They have all accepted their fate… or at least accepted that this is their fate. Each of them knows, if she becomes Queen it doesn't matter what other fields he has plowed… those fields will be dead. And if they don't become Queen… they are the dead field."
"No, they can't be that… fatalistic."
"No, Zara," Ash said, his anger simmering at me for the first time. "You cannot be intentionally blind. I will not allow it. This is real. It is true. You must accept it."
"But… but what about us? What about me! You think I should just accept this and—"
"I think you should fight to be his Queen. You would make an amazing Queen. If you are unsuccessful, I will try to get you out of here safely. I pray I can do that before he chooses you for… his attentions. I am sickened by the very idea!" A shudder rocked through him, but the grim determination never left his eyes. "But I know this: without the intervention of God Himself, the only choices you are guaranteed are to win his favor, or lose your life. It is that simple."
He stared at me, firm, but sad.
I shook my head. "No."
"No, those can't be the only choices!"
"I said the only choices guaranteed! Of course I will try—"
"No, Ash. I'm not letting you get killed for this, either. I'm not going to let any of them get killed!"
His eyes googled. "What… Zara, what are you saying?"
"I'm saying it's time for this bullshit to change. I'm saying if the King likes me and my candor, he's going to get a lot of it."
"Yes, Ash. If those are the only choices, they aren't choices. That's not consent. That's a Neanderthal's excuse for a mating ritual."
Ash's eyes went wide and he gestured for me to stop, but I was in full flight.
"I thought our King was better than that, but if he goes through with this he's no better than any Friday Night Fuckboy. I thought he was a gentleman? A sophisticated man? This ritual is barbaric and if no one else will tell him, I will make sure he hears exactly what he's doing to these poor women—"
"These poor women," the voice was dark, deep, and came from directly behind me so I froze, "have come here to be lavished with wealth, and power, and if that does not appeal to you, Lady Zara, I am more than happy to send you on your way, free from the muttered grunts of this… Neanderthal."
Stomach sinking, but anger still at a boil, I turned.
"Dav—Your Highness!" I murmured, then bobbed a reluctant curtsey.
He raised a single eyebrow. "Lady Zara," he said, exquisitely polite but his tone dry as the desert, and darker than midnight. "You'll have to excuse a Neanderthal's limited education, but if I correctly followed… I believe you have something you wish to discuss with me?"