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By:Chloë Tisdale
I want to punch everyone at this party in the face.
The girls for snickering behind my back. And for how they all fit perfectly into their corsets and ball gowns.
The boys for how they ignore me. I’m a freaking St. George. At the very least, that makes me some pretty good breeding stock. They should be more interested.
The old men milling around the party, because they keep looking at me like I’m a cow at an auction. And not even a prize cow or anything. More like one that’s only so-so, but that they’re getting at a huge bargain.
There’s also my older sister, Celeste. This is her party, yet another celebration of how wonderful she is. She slayed the dragon whose head is currently hanging on the side of the paladin barracks overlooking the courtyard. A purple dragon, one of the worst clans. It’s right next to my window, and it smells sickeningly sweet, like decay and death and blood. Flies swarm around it, and I can hear them buzzing while I sleep at night. Celeste is the epitome of what a St. George should be. Magic? Check. She can use the family power like nobody’s business. Good with a sword? I think the scaly severed head staring down at all of us is proof.
Then there’s my father. He’s the one who invited all the old men from out of town. They’re not paladins, not from any of the Families, so I know they’re outsiders. Most of them are his age, and fat, balding, and somehow also way too hairy. He keeps pointing in my direction while talking to them, like they’re discussing how many actual cows I’m worth. Or, more likely, my father is trading me for weapons and armor. It’s a smart move, if I’m being completely impartial. Trade the useless daughter for tools that will help better the whole community. Think of how many dragons could be slain with the haul Vee will bring in. That’s probably what he’s thinking. And it’s not like I don’t turn seventeen in two weeks. My deadline’s almost up.
And that brings me to the person I most want to punch in the face. That would be my best friend, Torrin, who’s spent this whole party by my side—plus five points for loyalty—but whose eyes have been on other girls. Mostly Mina Blackarrow and Ravenna Port, who are both tall and blonde and weigh about twenty pounds less than me, and it shows. But still. Minus ten points for ogling those girls, who, like pretty much everyone here, I’m not on good terms with. Minus twenty points for never looking at me like that. Especially tonight, when I’m probably going to be sold off to the highest bidder.
“Torrin,” I say, “can you do me a favor?”
“What’s that?”
“Will you kindly inform everyone at this party that I intend to punch them in the face?” 
He laughs, the corners of his mouth jumping up into a smile.
“I’m serious.” To show him just how serious, I make a fist.
“Uh-huh. Your thumb goes on the outside, by the way. Don’t hold it under your fingers like that or you’ll break it. If you were actually going to do all the punching you say you are.” He picks up two miniature chocolate cakes from the dessert table and offers me one.
Plus three points for generosity. But he’s still at negative twenty-two by my count.
There’s a moment where we’re quiet, eating our cakes and staring at the festivities. Ravenna Port laughs really loudly at something George Marks just whispered in her ear. She sounds like a horse, but that doesn’t seem to bother him, especially when she takes his hand and leads him to the dance floor as the string quartet eases into a slow, romantic song.
“They’re here for you, you know,” Torrin whispers.
I almost drop the last bite of my cake. A couple dark crumbs spill down the front of my white dress. I swipe at them without thinking and end up smearing frosting across my chest. I shut my eyes and bite my tongue, silently cursing my father. He’s the one who made me wear this stupid white dress tonight. To emphasize how pure and pristine I am to my new suitors, no doubt. Putting the “virgin” in Virginia, that’s me.
“Who?” I ask, my voice shaking. “Who’s here for me?”
“I think you know,” Torrin says. He jerks his head in the direction of a couple of the old men. One has a beard so long it’s tucked into his belt. The other has huge sweat stains around his armpits.
“Yeah, so?” I grind my teeth together, even though Celeste would roll her eyes at me and tell me how bad it is for me. But thinking about that just makes me grind them even harder.
“They’re not from around here.” He gives me a look. An annoyingly knowing sort of look. Like he has the nerve to be concerned for me. And yeah, okay, best friend and all that, but it’s not helping. “How long has it been since you left the barracks?”
I glare at him. Teeth cracking apart from grinding in three, two, one . . . “That’s what you’re worried about? My father is pretty much having a silent auction for me right now, and that’s what you—”
“How long, Vee? Four years? Five?”
“Four and a half,” I whisper, but not to him. He’s pissing me off too much, so I say it to my feet. My wonderful feet, who have never brought up uncomfortable facts exactly when I didn’t want to hear them.
He takes a deep breath and slips his hand into mine and gives me a reassuring squeeze. For a moment, I don’t feel quite so alone in this. But then I pull my hand away because, the truth is, I am alone. I’m the one with no magic, the one who can’t fight dragons, the one who has to be married off to some foreigner. Torrin’s a Hathaway. He fights almost as good as my sister, and he’s fireproof.
And did he watch his mother get ripped to shreds by a dragon in the marketplace? Did he have to just stand there, helpless, hearing her screams, the crunching of bones, and the ripping of flesh? Does he still wake up in the middle of the night, years later—four and a half, to be exact—and still smell her blood and the stink of her charred skin?
The memory makes a cold, sick feeling ball up in the pit of my stomach. I shudder just thinking about it.
But the last thing I want is Torrin getting misguided and thinking he needs to feel sorry for me, so I push the shuddery feeling away and latch on to my anger. “And what, exactly, is so wrong with staying in the barracks? You know what the barracks has going for it?”
“Vee, wait, I didn’t mean—”“No dragons. Not in dragon form, not in human form—none. Zero. This place is crawling with paladins like you and Celeste who’d kill any of them that so much as thought about stepping foot in here. Out there”—I point a shaking finger in the direction of the entrance to the barracks that leads to the rest of town, and, more importantly, to the marketplace—“you can’t trust anyone out there.”
Anyone could be a dragon. After all, my mother knew her killer, and she never suspected a thing. She married into the St. George family, she wasn’t born a paladin, so she didn’t stand a chance against him when he turned on her. Some people blame my “condition” on my father for marrying an outsider and diluting our bloodline. Celeste inherited everything she was supposed to, all the skills needed to become a hunter, and there was nothing left for me.
“I might not like most of these people,” I go on, gesturing to the other partygoers, “and some of them might even hate my guts, but at least I know who they are. We grew up with them, so even if I can’t trust them to not talk about me behind my back, I can still trust them not to transform into my worst nightmare and go on some murdering rampage. Inside these walls, me and the people I love are safe. Outside . . . anything could happen.”
“I know, okay?” He puts his hands up, palms out, pleading with me. “That’s what I’m trying to say. You can’t marry one of these guys. You’d have to leave. And . . . you can’t.”
I laugh. “Well, you know what you can do to stop them.”
He goes quiet and looks away, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. An uncomfortable silence falls between us. Doesn’t he know that I was joking?
Okay, half joking.
Marrying Torrin would be about a hundred times better than getting sold to some guy three times my age. So what if he’s not in love with me? Normally I’d say that was a big factor I’d look for in a husband—does he love me, yes or no?—but in this case, it’s kind of moot. I mean, this is my life on the line here. Maybe it’s not life or death, but when I think about having to spend the rest of my life with some stranger, someone who won me in an auction because I can produce paladin children for him, it makes me sick to my stomach.
In two weeks, I’ll be married, and one of these old men will be sweating and heaving on top of me. Touching me in places I’d never let them anywhere near if I had a choice.
My eyes are starting to water, so I close them and take a deep breath. I’m not going to think about two weeks from now.
I get ahold of myself—I’m Virginia St. George, and someone might steal the rest of my life from me, but they are not taking what time I have left—but when I look up, I accidentally make eye contact with one of my suitors across the courtyard. I glance away, but too late—he’s already coming over here.