Victory's Secret: Debut Episode!!

Rachael Tamayo
Cynthia Austin

Nine years before . . .

At the age of twelve, my mother sat me down at the kitchen table with a forced smile. The worn and scuffed wood that had seen all of our family’s dinners now bore witness to another momentous occasion. An envelope in one hand, and a cup of warm tea in the other.
“Victory, it’s time we talked.”
The talk. The talk my friends and I whispered about at school. The one we all knew was inevitable. The talk of mating and betrothal. The Brotherhood. The council. I picked up a cookie and put a large portion of it into my mouth, chasing it with milky tea. I sat wide-eyed and listened intently as my mother told me the ins and outs of womanhood. The responsibilities of a wife, the importance of becoming a mother. All of what would become my womanly and wifely duties one day. My life’s purpose. Afterward, she opened the envelope and carefully unfolded the contents, sliding the document across the table to me.
Emblazoned with the logo of The Brotherhood, thirteen white stars surrounding four clasped hands. The official document read:
In the year of The Brotherhood 2078, Victory Atherton shall be mated on the week of her twenty-first birthday, age designated by her mother, Beverly Atherton, and Father, Gerald Atherton. The aforementioned shall be paired as the law requires, with two husbands of the Council of The Brotherhood’s choosing.
Within the first two years of marriage, a child shall be born, and said father shall be named sole husband of Victory Atherton, her other husband to be removed from the home.
In the event that Victory Atherton does not appear on her wedding day or does not produce a child within the designated window of time, she shall be subject to the fullest extent of the law available, up to and including death.
The members of the council and the Director of Population Affairs reserves the right to make changes to this document at any time with written notice.
I looked up at my mother, who held a strange distance in her eyes despite the smile on her lips. I slid the contract back across the table. My monthly cycle had started for the first time only weeks before, but now the clock was ticking. I was twelve, a child, but I knew that much. I was to be a woman. And in just nine years, I would be married to two strangers.

Present Day

I wince as my mom accidentally jerks my hair too hard while placing the veil on my head.
“Mom, this dress is too tight,” I mumble, trying to shift as she turns me to face her. I look up into her sweet, sad face as she sighs.
I recall my first complaints yesterday at my wedding to William, the first of the two husbands chosen for me by The Brotherhood. I marry the second in only moments, sight unseen. Such is the will of The Council.
“It was tight yesterday too, what do you expect?”
“I don’t know. God . . . ” I breathe in and out slowly. Sick nerves twist my stomach. Decorum, not to mention the law, dictates my betrothal to this stranger. We have no contact before the altar, where we swear to abide by the laws of God and men. Twelve men, to be exact. They’ve determined what my duty is as a woman.
Mom pulls me into a quick hug and then leans back to study my face. “Are you alright, Victory?”
“Yes, just nerves I guess.” My voice trembles.
“Tell me . . .”
My beautiful mother pushes the topic softly. I know she wants more for me, she’s told me as much when I was a child. Her parents were among the last to choose for themselves. My grandparents, may they rest in peace, the last standing generation with rights to marry as they saw fit.
 I sigh, glancing at the clock. It’s almost time. “I’ll be fine.”
 She nods, turning me. “Liam is a kind man, I’m told. He will be a good husband.” 
Tears choke me, but I swallow them back. It won’t do to have the little make-up I’m allowed to wear today ruined.
“He’s waiting. Everyone is waiting. You look lovely, my dear.” 
A tight smile stretches my lips and I swallow. To refuse means death. To demand one love with one man of my choosing is just not conceivable. There is no choice.
Only those that can reproduce shall remain.
I step into the chapel. There aren’t many guests here. Just my family. My groom looms tall before me, coming closer with every step I take. Same as yesterday, but William had family in attendance. Liam doesn’t seem to have anyone. I narrow my eyes. Why?
With every step I take, both relief and dread wash over me in a twisted mingle of nauseating emotions. He’s not old. Thank goodness. Some young women are paired with husbands far past their age. I’ve heard tales of sixteen-year-old brides married to sixty-year-old men. At least I can thank The Brotherhood for pairing me with men seemingly close to my age.
I swallow again, trying not to stare, as I struggle not to step on my long skirt. Holding onto my father’s elbow, I examine my new husband. He’s tall, several inches more me, and even under his dark suit, I notice his body thick with muscle. I can’t quite make out the color of his eyes from where I walk, but they are on me. They’re cold. Hard. His hands are clenched in front of him, feet shoulder-width apart, as he watches me approach. He offers no smile, just a stare.
 Liam. He’s young. Maybe even as young as I am. Another wave of relief sweeps over me. He’s also handsome. I hold my breath as I meet him at the end of the aisle. He turns and offers me his hand for the first time. I can’t breathe. What will it feel like when we touch? My father releases me and I reach out, my hand trembling visibly.
Liam is gentle. His touch is soft and calloused. This surprises me. Looking up, I see his eyes for the first time. The color of a blue-gray sky just before a storm. They reflect nothing, but I can’t look away. I’m drawn into his storm. A slight twitch of his lips brings a flush to my cheeks, and I intake a sharp breath when he winks at me before turning to the officiant.
The ceremony takes ages. I’ve sat through these things a couple of times but never paid much attention. Now, with nowhere to look but up at the handsome stranger who seems as detached as I am, I’m forced to take in the officiant’s speech with mock awe. I suppose his words are meant to be inspiring. Some crap about The Brotherhood bringing us together just like fate. How they generously provide us with a family home, and it’s our responsibility to bring forth children. How I was selected as this man’s bride and other half-truths that echo yesterday’s wedding. Blah, blah, blah. It’s always the same. And only a half-truth.
 The officiant conveniently leaves out the fact The Brotherhood takes any property acquired prior to betrothal. I don’t own anything now. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nothing more than what one dozen old men have told me I’m allowed to call mine.
He also refrains from revealing that the “blessed Brotherhood” are to blame for the war all those years ago, decimating the population and leaving more men than women, forcing us into this unnaturally forced mating ritual. That it was their fault that the chemical warfare used by the government had an adverse effect on women and their uteruses. I’ve always wondered about the details of what exactly happened, but we aren’t allowed to know more.
 I pull my thoughts back, away from things I’m not supposed to even know, and look back at Liam. I swallow when he reaches for my left hand, and gently slides the stackable wedding band onto my finger, on top of the first. His fingers linger and I’m acutely aware of the fact that my stomach is now warm. Everything sounds strangely far away. The officiant’s words are gone. My eyes dart down to my hand. Liam’s still holding it, and a strange tingle is tickling my skin, the heat now traveling slowly up from my stomach to my cheeks. I’m certain that I’m blushing. I glance up and find him watching me closely. His heavy gaze makes my stomach do a strange flip and I’m very aware of my body being so close to his. How tall he is, how broad and strong. How he caresses my hand absently when he’s asked if he’ll take me as his wife.
He’s supposed to kiss me now. My breath catches in my throat as I turn my body to face his. My tongue pokes out and wets my lips. My gaze flicks to his mouth. His lips are full, he’s got a goatee and mustache framing what looks like a perfect bow. He lets go of my hand and I suck in a breath sharply when he takes my face in his grasp. Such an unexpected move for a man who doesn’t know his bride. He holds my face, his fingers teasing the hair framing my face, and watch as he bends toward me, lips barely parted, eyes half-closed.
  At the last minute I close my eyes, and his mouth finds mine and I spin. He tastes of citrus and vanilla and smells of tobacco and cologne. My eyes flutter open and I see his strange storm eyes watching me as he pulls his mouth away. I have the sudden urge to say his name, to feel the weight of it on my tongue as I press it out of my mouth, but I don’t. I couldn’t possibly.
Instead, I offer a smile and I turn away, my family rising to their feet as he leads me down the aisle and out of the church.
A few months ago, I got my betrothal letter. That bright yellow envelope in the mail that everyone recognizes, and dreads. Summoned to appear before the High Council of The Brotherhood.
My mate had been chosen. 
I stood in the street holding that envelope for a long time. I wasn’t expecting it. My parents passed when I was eighteen years old. Things are different for men, the urgency to mentally prepare for marriage isn’t there, and with my little sister’s death just before my parents died, I never knew at what age I was to marry. My parents never saw fit to tell me. Every year since my eighteenth birthday I’ve gone to the mailbox in anticipation, wondering if this was my year.
Turns out, twenty-five was the one.
I had tossed the letter onto the table and let it sit for three days before I opening it, dreading the name inside. It didn’t matter whose name was on it. It wouldn’t be anyone I wanted; I had been so certain. And I could refuse, just once, but risk getting mated with God knows who in return.
Then, I had opened it.
And my heart had stuttered.
They had honored their vow.
It was the least the council could have done for me. I am too valuable. The desire to keep me sated is strong. I know I can be replaced, relieved of my duties at any given time, but at this  particular juncture, it would have be more trouble than it is worth.
I had sat on a hard, wooden chair I carved with my own two hands and stared at the name.
Victory Atherton.
I picked up the beer I’d opened just to get me through the moment, and I sucked down half its contents before reading it again. And again, just to be sure. I let out a laugh. All this time I’d dreaded being forced to marry a bride pre-chosen, one I didn’t want. One I’d never want.
I drained the beer and looked at the summoning date I needed to appear to approve or decline the choice.
Despite my station within the ranks, I still had to submit to their ridiculous customs. To allow me the opportunity of requesting my bride was a special favor from the Director, one he didn’t have to honor. But he had. I’m lucky they had been generous. I’d become used to the other benefits offered to me for the service I provided to the officials, but still, Victory Atherton . . . it had been quite the offer.
One, I would not refuse.