The House of the Stone

BOOK: The House of the Stone
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Contents
One

I
AM
R
AVEN
S
TIRLING.
T
HEY CANNOT OWN ME.

“Lot 191,” the Regimental calls. “Lot 191.”

The heavyset girl who came in after me walks unsteadily toward the door. I don't blame her awkward gait—it looks like she's wearing a chandelier on her head. Violet is squeezing my hand so hard, her fingernails are going to leave marks.

I'm next, but I won't let her see how scared I am. She's scared enough for the both of us.

The door opens again.

“I'll never forget you,” I say. Her eyes look purplish black and I wonder whether it's the lighting or just fear that makes them seem so dark. “I will
never
forget you, Violet.”

“Lot 192. Lot 192.”

I turn and jut my chin out, marching across the room and away from my best friend before she has a chance to say anything. I don't want her wasting one second worrying about me. I can't face the fact that I might not see her again.

I don't even glance at the Regimental who came to collect me from that awful prep room. I walk straight past him, fully prepared to storm out onto a stage, except that the door closes and I'm engulfed in darkness.

Panic seizes my throat, but I swallow it down before it has a chance to take over. There's a faint hum, and a series of lights switch on, framing the sides of a long hallway. Their greenish glow shoots straight up, so I can't see the end of the corridor. The Regimental is a black outline in front of me.

“Where are we going?” I ask, without any hope of an answer. I asked him the same thing when he took me from the prep room. I wonder whether that's part of their training—ignore the surrogates.

He walks forward and I have no choice but to follow. I keep my shoulders rigid and my chin lifted, and repeat out loud what I've been saying to myself ever since I got my lot number two nights ago.

“I am Raven Stirling,” I say quietly. “They cannot own me.”

The hallway seems to go on forever, but I just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. I am grateful for how hard Violet squeezed my hand, because I can still feel the tiny half-moons of her fingernails marking my skin.

“I am Raven Stirling,” I say again. “They cannot own
me.”

The Regimental stops so abruptly, I nearly walk into him. His frame is tense, and I get the impression he's waiting for something. There's nothing but darkness ahead of us.

“What?” I say aggressively, because it's easier to be angry than frightened.

For a full twelve seconds, he says nothing. Then he turns to face me.

“I thank you, Lot 192, for your service to the royalty. Your place is marked. You must go on alone.” He bows to me, as if I deserved some sort of medal for being sold to a complete stranger, and then moves to stand behind me. Presumably so I can't run.

A rounded, golden door, covered in all the stupid royal crests, begins to glow in front of me. My hands tremble, but I
won't
show weakness.

I take a deep breath and push the door, which swings open as if it'd been waiting for my touch. Bright lights blind me for a second, and I blink until my eyes adjust.

“And next up, ladies, we have Lot 192. Lot 192, please take your mark.”

The scene fits together in my brain quickly, like puzzle pieces falling into place. The auctioneer, a pale man in a tuxedo, stands off to my left. Rings of seats spiral upward, where women in outlandishly expensive dresses sit sipping equally expensive drinks. There is a silver X in the center of the stage.

The tuxedoed man opens his mouth, probably to instruct me to stand on the mark. But before he gets a chance, I stride
across the stage, shooting him a glare. I'm not an idiot. And I'm not a number. I am Raven Stirling.

I make sure to look at each woman, preferably in the eye, as I stand there in this ridiculous dress with ridiculous makeup on my face and a stupid hairstyle. I won't let them make me feel any less like me.

There's one woman, so fat I'm surprised she can fit into the tight black satin dress she's wearing, who smiles ever so slightly as I meet her eyes.

That one smile is enough to send a cold shiver down my spine.

All right
, I think.
Anyone but her
.

“Lot 192,” the auctioneer begins, and I see that he has lit a thin white candle and placed it on his podium. The flame glows bright blue. “Age seventeen, height five feet eleven inches, weight one hundred and thirty-one pounds. Five years of training with scores of 9.5 on the first Augury, 9.8 on the second, and 9.6 on the third. Skilled in mathematics, with outstanding scores on all diagnostic tests since the beginning of her time at the holding facility. The bidding will start at two hundred thousand diamantes. Do I hear two hundred thousand?”

If I was drinking anything at the moment, I'd spit it out. Two hundred thousand diamantes? That could probably buy Southgate. What is wrong with these people? Don't they know there are children starving in the Marsh? I think about my visit home yesterday—my father wasting away, both my sisters and their husbands and their children all squeezed in under one roof. Crow, my brother, so thin, his face permanently darkened with soot from the Smoke. And
my mother, treating me like the Electress herself. Which only made everything worse.

“Two hundred thousand to the Lady of the Pine.” The auctioneer's voice brings me back to the present, as a middle-aged woman in the third row raises a copper fern. “Do I hear two hundred fifty?”

My stomach shrivels as the fat woman with the cruel smile raises a silver block on the end of a thin rod.

“Two hundred and fifty thousand to the Countess of the Stone, do I hear three hundred thousand?”

The bidding continues. I stop listening to the numbers, only focusing on who is doing the actual bidding.

The fat woman, the Countess of the Stone, is fighting hard for me. There is a lazy confidence about the way she flicks that rod in the air and it makes my skin itch.

I allow my vision to soften, to blur these women together in a haze of colors, and try to pretend I'm somewhere else. I think about Violet. I bet she'd be fine on this stage if she could have her cello with her. I remember the first time I saw her. She was such a small thing with wild black hair and big purple eyes, and Amber Lockring called her a freak, so I twisted Amber's arm behind her hard until she took it back. I don't know if I ever told Violet about that. She was so scared, like all the other new arrivals, and I didn't want her to feel even more different. We all felt different at first. Southgate may as well have been an entirely new universe compared with the rest of the Marsh. I saw her and knew I wanted to protect her. I knew we would be friends.

But I can't protect Violet from this. I can't even protect myself. “Sold!” the auctioneer cries and I'm yanked back to
the present. “Sold for three million five hundred thousand diamantes. To the Countess of the Stone.”

No. I almost can't believe it. Of all the royals in this room, why did it have to be
her
?

But the last thing I see as the X I am standing on sinks below the stage is the Countess's eyes, alight with a sick pleasure.

“I am Raven Stirling,” I say, but I may as well be talking to the wind. No one hears. No one cares.

The platform I'm standing on travels down deep below the stage. I look up and see a circle of light where my X used to be. Then another platform eclipses it until the darkness around me is complete. But not before I hear the auctioneer announce, “And next up, ladies, we have Lot 193. Lot 193, please take your mark.”

I wonder who Lot 193 is. Maybe that blond girl with the hair that looked like she'd stuck her finger in an electrical socket.

I stop moving. I'm in an empty room with bare concrete walls, circular like the stage above it. Doors are scattered around, all closed, all leading to who knows what or where. I'm clenching my jaw so tightly my head is starting to hurt.

Suddenly, a woman in a gray dress is standing in front of me. “Lot 192?” Her eyes dart between me and a clipboard clutched in her hands.

I nod.

“Countess of the Stone,” she says. “This way.”

I follow her through one of the doors and down a hallway lit with flickering torches. We enter a small, domed room made of octagonal stones. The only furniture is a
simple table and chair. A fire burns in a grate to my left. A lumpy thing on the table covered in black cloth holds my attention.

“Sit,” the woman says.

“I'll stand.” I hate the tremble in my voice. Reality is clawing its way to the surface and I push it down. This is just a room. With a table and a fire. Nothing to be afraid of.

The woman frowns.

“Very well,” she says. She unwraps the cloth to reveal a blue vial and a syringe. “The royalty says that no surrogate is allowed to see her way into or out of the Auction House. I promise this won't hurt you.”

“Right,” I say, making sure I'm heavy on the sarcasm. I'll take even the illusion of control at this point, because I can't stop staring at that syringe.

The woman does not seem particularly surprised or offended. Instead she just looks at me, like a parent waiting for a toddler to stop throwing a tantrum. I clench my jaw tighter and my head throbs.

When she's satisfied that I'm not going to speak again, she continues.

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way, it's up to you—I know they don't give you a choice on your way in. The easy way is, you let me put you to sleep. The hard way is, I press a button and four Regimentals come through that door and hold you down, and then I put you to sleep anyway. Do you understand?”

I understand.

I am sold.

Sold
. I can't ignore it anymore. I am someone's property.
And for all my mantras and all my false bravado, I am just one of two hundred. I don't have any control over what happens to my life or my body after this moment; and I am so scared and I don't want to be scared, I want to be mad.

This woman can take her easy way and shove it.

“I'll take the hard way,” I say.

Then I wind up and hit her hard in the face.

It feels so good, my hand connecting with her jaw, even as it sends a shooting pain through my knuckles. She falls back against the table and lunges forward, and at first I think she's going to hit me, but she pushes me aside and presses something by the door.

I don't know where those Regimentals were hiding—I didn't see any trace of a door on my way here—but they burst into the room like they were waiting outside the whole time. I recognize the man who took me from prep.

One grabs my neck as I kick out, my foot connecting with a knee. But the Regimental may as well be made of stone for all the good it does. They wrestle me to the floor, holding my legs and arms down, my cheek pressing against the cold cement ground.

“Get off me!” I shriek.

“Keep her still,” the woman says, and she sounds almost bored. I fleetingly wonder whether she gets punched in the face often, before I feel a needle sink into my arm. And then the world goes black.

BOOK: The House of the Stone
12.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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