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What would you kill for?
After a brutal nuclear war, the United States was left decimated. A small group of survivors eventually banded together, but only after more conflict over which family would govern the new nation. The Westfalls lost. Fifty years later, peace and control are maintained by marrying the daughters of the losing side to the sons of the winning group in a yearly ritual.
This year, it is my turn.
My name is Ivy Westfall, and my mission is simple: to kill the president’s son—my soon-to-be husband—and return the Westfall family to power.
But Bishop Lattimer is either a very skilled actor or he’s not the cruel, heartless boy my family warned me to expect. He might even be the one person in this world who truly understands me. But there is no escape from my fate. I am the only one who can restore the Westfall legacy.
Because Bishop must die. And I must be the one to kill him…
No one wears white wedding dresses anymore. White cloth is too hard to come by, and the expense and trouble of securing enough to make several dozen dresses, or more, is too high. Not even on a day like today, when it is our leader’s son who will be one of the bridegrooms. Not even he is special enough to be allowed to marry a girl dressed in white.
“Stand still,” my sister says from behind me. Her knuckles are icy cold against my spine as she tries to force up the zipper on the back of the pale blue dress. It was made for the wedding day she never had and it doesn’t fit quite right on my taller frame. “There.” She gives the zipper one last yank. “Turn around.”
I turn slowly, smoothing my hands down the soft material. I’m not used to dresses. I don’t like how naked I feel underneath, already longing for pants and a breath not hemmed in by a too-tight bodice. As if reading my thoughts, Callie’s eyes roam downward. “You’re bigger in the bust than I am,” she says with a smirk. “But I doubt he’ll complain.”
“Shut up,” I say, but there’s no force behind my words. I didn’t think I would be this nervous. It’s not as if this day is a surprise. I’ve known my whole life that it was coming, spent every minute of the last two years preparing. But now that it’s here, I can’t stop the tremor in my fingers or the sick fall of my stomach. I don’t know if I can do this, but I also know I have no choice.
Callie reaches up and tucks a stray strand of hair behind my ear. “You’ll be fine,” she says, her voice firm and even. “Right? You know what to do.”
“Yes,” I say, pulling my head back. Her words make me feel stronger; I don’t need to be babied.
She looks at me for a long moment, her mouth a tight line. Is she angry that I’m taking the spot that should have rightfully been hers, or is she glad to give it up, to be rid of the burden of being the daughter who holds so much hope on her shoulders?
“Girls.” My father’s voice floats up the stairs. “It’s time.”
“You go,” I tell Callie. “I’ll be right down.” I need one last minute of quiet, one last chance to look around this room that will never be mine again. Callie leaves the door ajar when she goes, and I can hear my father’s impatient voice from downstairs, Callie murmuring something reassuring to him.
On my bed is a well-worn suitcase, the wheels broken off long ago, forcing me to carry it. I heave it off the mattress, turn in a slow circle, knowing I will never sleep in this narrow bed again, never brush my hair in front of the mirror above my dresser, never listen to the sound of rain tapping against my windowpane as I drift to sleep. I close my eyes against a sudden press of tears and take a deep breath. When I open my eyes, they are dry. I walk out of my room and I don’t look back.
The weddings are performed on the second Saturday in May. Some years there is rain and with it the faint, acrid scent of burning, even after so many years. But today dawned clear, the sky a bright, hectic blue, wispy clouds floating on a mild breeze. It is a beautiful day to become a bride, but all I can concentrate on is the heavy thump of my heart and the line of sweat forming between my shoulder blades as we walk toward City Hall.
My father and Callie flank me, almost as if they are penning me in to keep me from bolting. I don’t bother telling them I’m not going anywhere. My father’s swinging hand brushes mine, and he clasps my fingers in his own. He hasn’t held my hand since I was a little girl, and the gesture shocks me so much that I stumble over my own feet, the pressure of his hand balancing me at the last moment. I’m grateful for his touch, even though touching is not something he does often or easily. He is not an offerer of comfort. When your fate is predetermined, there’s not much benefit in coddling. His job was to make me strong, and I like to think he did it well. But maybe that is just wishful thinking.
“We’re proud of you,” he says. He squeezes my hand once, hard, almost to the point of pain, and lets go. “You can do this.”
“I know,” I tell him, my eyes straight ahead. The limestone facade of City Hall is less than a block away now. There are several other girls climbing the steps with their parents. They must be nervous, anxious to find out if they will end today as someone’s wife or if they will go home and slide between their own sheets again. My anxiety is different. I know where I will be sleeping tonight, and it won’t be in my own bed.
As we reach the sidewalk in front of City Hall, people begin to turn, grinning at my father, reaching out to shake his hand, clap him on the back. A few women give me reassuring smiles as they tell me how pretty I look.
“Smile,” Callie whispers near my ear. “Stop scowling at everyone.”
“If it’s so easy, why don’t you try it?” I hiss back, but I do as she says and plaster a smile onto my face.
“I would have, remember?” she says. “But I didn’t get the chance. Now you need to do it for me.”
So she is jealous after all, angry at having her birthright stolen. I expect her eyes to be cold, but when I turn my head, she is looking at me with a softness I have rarely seen. She is the female version of our father, with his chocolate eyes and dark chestnut hair. I always longed to look like the two of them, instead of being the odd one out with my not-quite-blond, not-quite-brown hair and gray eyes, both gifts from my long-dead mother. But as little as we resemble each other, looking at Callie has always been like staring at a fiercer, more disciplined version of myself. Looking at her reminds me of who I am expected to become.
We follow the long line of brides into City Hall. All around me are girls in pale dresses, some with hands clutching small bouquets, others, like mine, empty. We are ushered into the main rotunda where a stage has been set up at one end. There is a dark curtain across the back, and I know that, even now, the boys are gathering behind it, lining up before they are revealed to find out who they are destined to marry.
The potential brides sit in the first few rows of chairs, the families of both brides and grooms seated behind them. President Lattimer and his wife, however, are seated on the stage, as they are every year. Even with a son behind the curtain, their status does not change. My father gives my hand a final squeeze before moving away. Callie brushes a quick, dry kiss against my cheek. “Good luck,” she says. If my mother were still alive, maybe she would hug me, give me final words of advice that I could actually use instead of a worn-out platitude.
I slide into an empty seat in the front row, avoiding eye contact with President Lattimer and the girls on either side of me. I keep my gaze straight ahead, focusing on a slight tear in the stage’s dark curtain until the girl next to me presses something into my hand. “Here,” she says. “Take one and pass it on.”
I do as she says, sliding the stack of programs to the girl on my left. It is the same program they give out every year. Only the color of the paper and the names inside change. It hardly seems worth the effort; I’m sure we all have it memorized by now. This year the program is a washed out pink, the words Wedding Ceremony across the front in curly, slightly smudged script. The first two pages are a history of our “nation.” Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to refer to a town of fewer than ten thousand people as a nation, but no one’s ever asked for my opinion.
The history includes talk of the war that ended the world, the floods and droughts that followed, the diseases that almost finished us off. But we, of course, rose from the ashes, ragged, war-weary survivors who managed to find one another across a vast, barren landscape and carved out a spot to begin anew. Blah, blah, blah. Our rebirth, though, was not without conflict and more deaths as two sides fought to determine how our tiny nation would go forward. The winning side, the side led by President Lattimer’s father, prevailed. But the loser, my grandfather Samuel Westfall, and his followers were welcomed into the fold, promised forgiveness, and granted absolution for their sins.
I have to resist the urge to make gagging noises as I read.
And that is why we have the wedding day. Those who came from the losing side offer up their sixteen-year-old daughters to the sons of the winners. There is a second wedding day in November, when the sons of the losing side marry the daughters of the winning side. But that wedding day is more somber, the nation’s most prized daughters forced to marry subpar boys under a bleak winter sky.
The theory behind the practice of the arranged marriages is twofold. There is a practical purpose: people don’t live as long as they used to, before the war. And having healthy offspring is a much dicier proposition than in the past. It’s important that we procreate, the earlier the better. The second is even more pragmatic. President Lattimer’s father was smart enough to know that peace only lasts when the unhappy side still has something left to lose. By marrying our daughters to his side, he ensured we would think twice about rising up. It’s one thing to slay your enemy; it’s another thing entirely when that enemy wears your daughter’s face, when the man you cut down is your own grandson. The strategy has worked thus far; we have remained at peace for two generations.
It is hot in the rotunda, even with the doors open and the cool limestone walls. A small bead of sweat slides down the back of my neck and I wipe it away, pushing my hair up again as I do. Callie did her best to twist it into submission, but my hair is thick and unruly and I don’t think it cooperated as she would have liked. The girl to my right gives me a smile. “It looks good,” she says. “Pretty.”
“Thank you,” I say. She has a crown of sad yellow roses in her red hair, the petals already withering in the heat.
“It’s my second year,” the girl whispers. “My last chance.”
If you aren’t matched with anyone your sixteenth year, you are put back into the pool for the next year. This also happens on years when there aren’t enough girls to match with all the available boys, or visa versa, to give everyone the best chance of finding a match. If after two tries you aren’t matched, then you are free to marry someone of your own choice who has similarly never been chosen. Or, if you’re a woman, you can apply for a job as a nurse or teacher. Men, married and unmarried alike, work. Once women are married, they are expected to stay home and have babies, so traditional “female” jobs are filled with the ranks of the unmatched.
“Good luck,” I tell the girl, although personally I don’t think not finding a match would be such a terrible fate. But I know it will not be mine. My name has been in an envelope ever since Callie’s was removed. There is no suspense for me. The other girls here today have the benefit of personality tests and endless interviews so that there is at least the possibility of compatibility with their new husbands. With me, all that matters is my last name.
“Thanks,” the girl says. “I know who you are. My dad’s pointed your dad out to me before.”
I don’t respond. I turn my eyes back to the stage, where the curtain is beginning to rustle. I take a deep breath in through my nose, let it out slowly through my mouth.
A man approaches the podium at the side of the stage. He looks nervous, glancing from the audience to President Lattimer and back again. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he calls. His voice breaks on the last syllable and there is a smattering of laughter from the room. He clears his throat and tries again. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are here today to celebrate the marriages of the eligible young men from Eastglen and the lovely ladies from Westside. Their unions represent the best our small nation has to offer and symbolize the peace we have fought for and achieved together.” It’s not always this same man, but it’s always this same speech, so sad and ridiculous I am torn between laughter and tears.
The redheaded girl next to me clasps her hands together so tightly her knuckles turn white, her toe tapping a nervous rhythm against the floor. The man at the podium gestures to someone offstage who I cannot see, and slowly the curtain begins to move to one side. It screeches on the metal pole, a long, high shriek that sets my teeth on edge. The first boys to be revealed fidget nervously, taking their hands in and out of their pockets, rocking on their heels. A small, dark-haired boy who looks more twelve than sixteen is suffering from a fit of giggles, tucking his chin into his chest while his shoulders heave. I am glad, at least, that he won’t be mine.
They’ve put the one who will be mine right in the middle, so much taller than the other boys that they seem to flow out from him like water from a rock. He doesn’t even look like a boy compared to them, which makes sense given his age. At eighteen, he’s two years older than everyone else, but it’s more than just his years. I’m not convinced he’s ever been boyish. There is a gravity about him that none of the others possess. He does not fidget. I cannot imagine him giggling. His gaze is fixed—cool, impassive, and faintly amused—on some spot in the distance. He does not so much as glance at me.
He should have stood here two years ago. He was meant for Callie all along. But the day before the ceremony, we were notified that he was not attending, would not marry until he turned eighteen, and that it would be me standing next to him on that day, not my sister. Such whims are indulged, I suppose, when you’re the president’s son. As a consolation prize, Callie was given the option of having her name removed as a potential bride in the marriage ceremony. An option she took and one I wish were mine.
“Oh my God,” the redhead breathes, glancing at me. “You are so lucky!”
I know she means well and I try to smile at her, but my lips don’t want to cooperate. The man at the podium turns things over to the president’s wife, Mrs. Erin Lattimer. She is auburn-haired and full-figured in the way that makes men’s eyes follow her wherever she goes. But her voice is tart, cold even. It reminds me of the first bite of a sour green apple.
“As you all know,” she says, “I will read the name of a boy, who will step forward. I will then open the envelope and read the name of the girl who will be his wife.” She looks down at us. “Please come onto the stage when your name is called. If, at the end, your name is not called, it simply means the committee determined you weren’t a good match for any of the boys this year.” She gives us a brisk smile. “There’s no shame in that,” she says, “of course.” But it is shameful not to be chosen; everyone knows that. No one ever says it out loud, but it’s always the girl’s fault if she’s not matched to anyone. Always something in her that was found lacking, never the other way around.
The first name called is Luke Allen. He’s blond, with a spray of freckles across his nose like brown sugar. His eyes widen briefly as Mrs. Lattimer tears open the envelope with his name written across the front and pulls out the creamy card stock. “Emily Thorne,” she calls. There is rustling behind me, excited murmurings, and I turn my head. A petite, toffee-haired girl slides past the knees of the girls seated in her row. She stumbles a bit on her way up the stairs to the stage, and Luke hurries forward to take her hand. Some of the girls behind me sigh as if this is the grandest romantic gesture they’ve ever seen, and I will my eyes to stay still in their sockets. Luke and Emily stand awkwardly, giving each other sidelong glances, until they are shooed to the edge of the stage so the next couple can be announced.
It takes what feels like hours to get through the thick stack of envelopes. And even then there are plenty of girls left sitting, including the one next to me. Tears slide down her cheeks as Mrs. Lattimer holds up the final envelope. I want to tell her to be glad, to be happy that she can go back home tonight and figure out what she wants to do with her life beyond being a bride. But I know my words will be cold comfort. Because all anyone will ever remember about this girl is that she came home unmarried, that at the end of the day she was unchosen.
Mrs. Lattimer looks over her shoulder at her husband, and the president stands and approaches the podium. He is a tall man; it’s easy to see where his son gets his height. His dark hair is sprinkled with premature gray at the temples, his cleft chin strong. His pale blue eyes scan the crowd, lingering on me. A shudder works its way up my spine, but I hold his gaze.
“Today is a special day,” he says. “Even more special than usual. Years ago, after the war, there was disagreement about how we should rebuild. Eventually, the two sides managed to come to an accord.”
I find it interesting that he turns a battle into a disagreement, a forced hand into an accord. He has always been masterful at twisting words to fit the stories he tells us.
“As you all know, it was my father, Alexander Lattimer, who led the group that ultimately took control. And it was Samuel Westfall who opposed him but who, with time, came to agree with my father’s vision for the future.”
That is a lie. My grandfather never agreed with the Lattimers’ vision for Westfall. He wanted a democracy, for people to have a vote and a say in their own lives. He spent years keeping an ever-growing band of survivors alive and moving until they found this place to settle. Then he had it all ripped away from him by Alexander Lattimer, who wanted a dynasty for himself and his descendants.
I don’t dare turn my head to find my father or Callie in the crowd. They are skilled, after all these years, at hiding their emotions, but I will be able to read the rage in their eyes, and I cannot let it show in mine.
“And today, for the first time, we have a marriage between a Lattimer and a Westfall,” President Lattimer says with a smile. It looks genuine to me, and maybe it is. But I also know what this marriage means to him. It’s another way to cement his power, which is what he is really happy about. After my father, there will be no more Westfalls. It’s not enough for President Lattimer that the Westfall line has run out—he has to turn my children into Lattimers, too.
“Up until now, neither one of our families has been very good at producing girls,” President Lattimer continues. There is a rumble of laughter from the crowd, but I can’t bring myself to join in, even though I know I should. When the chuckles die down, President Lattimer holds up the envelope for everyone to see. “The president’s son and the founder’s daughter,” he calls.
My father was not the founder, of course. It was his father who founded this town and was then usurped by Alexander Lattimer and his followers. But it was established early on that the original founder’s descendant would take on the title of founder, the same way Alexander Lattimer’s descendant is called president. It’s a meaningless title. The founder has no say in how the nation is run. He’s only a ceremonial figurehead, trotted out to prove how peaceful we are. How well our system of government works. The title of founder is like giving a beautifully wrapped present with nothing inside. They hope we’ll be so distracted by the shiny outside, we won’t notice the box is empty.
“Bishop Lattimer,” the president calls out in a clear, ringing voice. The sound of the envelope, the paper tearing, seems as loud as a scream to my ears. I can feel hundreds of eyes on me and I hold my head high. President Lattimer draws the paper out with a flourish and smiles in my direction. He mouths my name, Ivy Westfall, but I can’t hear him over the ringing in my ears and the pounding of my heart.
I take a final deep breath, trying to draw courage into my lungs like air. Trying to stomp down the anger that buzzes through my veins like poison. I stand, my legs steadier than I thought they would be. My heels click on the tile floor as I make my way to the stairs. Behind me, the crowd claps and shouts, a few irreverent whistles punctuating the chaos. As I start up the stairs, President Lattimer reaches down and takes my elbow.
“Ivy,” he says. “We’re glad you’re joining our family.” His eyes are warm. I feel betrayed by them. They should be icy and indifferent, to match the rest of him.
“Thank you,” I say, with a steady voice that doesn’t sound like my own. “I’m glad, too.”
Once I’m onstage, the other couples move even closer to the edge so that I can make my way to the center, where Bishop Lattimer waits for me. I hold his unwavering gaze. He is even taller than I thought, but I am tall, too, and for once my height is a blessing. I would not want this boy to dwarf me. I feel powerless enough already.
He has dark hair, like his father. Although up close, I can see lighter streaks in among the coffee brown strands, as if he’s spent a lot of time outdoors, under the sun. That makes sense given the rumors I’ve heard about him over the years: that he prefers to be outdoors rather than in, that his father has to force him to attend council meetings, and that he’s more often found rafting on the river than inside City Hall.
His eyes are a cool, clear green, and they study me with an intensity that makes my stomach cramp. His gaze is neither hostile nor welcoming but appraising, like I am a problem he is figuring out how to solve. He doesn’t come toward me, but when I get close enough to hold out a hand, as I’ve been coached to do, he takes it in his. His fingers are warm and strong when they close over mine. He squeezes my hand briefly, which startles the breath in my throat. Was he trying to be kind? Reassure me? I don’t know, because when I glance at him, his eyes are on the minister waiting in the wings.
“Let’s begin,” President Lattimer says. Everyone on the stage shifts into position, standing across from their intended spouse, Bishop and me in the center where everyone in the audience can watch. Bishop takes my other hand in his, our hands joined across the small space between us.
I want to shout out that this is wrong. That I don’t know this boy across from me. Have never had a single conversation with him in my entire life. He doesn’t know that my favorite color is purple or that I still miss the mother I don’t remember or that I am terrified. I shoot a panicked glance out to the audience but see only smiling faces reflected back at me. Somehow, that makes it even worse, the way everyone goes along with this charade. How no one ever cries out or tries to stop their child from marrying a stranger.
Our compliance is the strongest weapon President Lattimer has in his arsenal.
And, in the end, I’m just as bad as the rest of them. I open my mouth when everyone else does, repeat the words I can’t even hear over dozens of louder voices around me. I tell myself that none of it matters. I have to get through this part, and so I do. I slide the plain gold band that was my father’s onto Bishop’s finger and he does the same with mine. The ring feels foreign against my skin, tight and confining even though the sizing is correct.
When the minister pronounces us man and wife, Bishop doesn’t try to kiss me, not even on the cheek, and I am thankful. I don’t think I could have stood it if he had. It would be like someone on the street grabbing me and planting his mouth on mine. An assault, not affection. But all around us, couples hug and cheer and most of them have no trouble kissing as if they’ve known each other for much longer than an hour. Will these girls be so happy in a few months when their bellies are heavy with babies and they realize they are stuck forever sleeping next to a boy they barely know?
For them this ceremony is about keeping the peace, about honoring a tradition that has worked to stabilize a society for more than two generations. But unlike them, I know how fragile that peace is, how it hangs by only a few slender threads that are even now being snipped. I am different from all these other girls surrounding me because marrying Bishop Lattimer has not fulfilled my destiny. My mission is not to make him happy and bear his children and be his wife.
My mission is to kill him.
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Amy Engel was born in Kansas and after a childhood spent bouncing among countries (Iran, Taiwan) and states (Kansas; California; Missouri; Washington, D.C.), she settled in Kansas City, Missouri, where she lives with her husband and two children. Before devoting herself full-time to motherhood and writing, she worked as a criminal defense attorney, which is not quite as exciting as it looks on television. When she has a free moment, she can usually be found reading, running, or shoe shopping.