The Painted Veil: Week 1 (Chapter 1)

1

I stand at the back of the room, picking at the lace on my dress’s cap sleeves. I hate parties. In theory, they should be fun, but not Mother and Father’s parties. When I was younger, I actually liked them. Somewhat. Because of our Position in Society, we could afford to have nice parties, and show off a bit. But Mother doesn’t believe in spending money on anyone else. Why would she splurge on good wine, when nobody knows the difference between expensive and cheap alcohol? So we buy lots of cheap wine, keep it flowing, and by the end of the night, everyone is too drunk to tell any difference.

I lean back against the wall and cross my arms, looking over the crowd. Usually, after the party had kicked into gear, and no one would miss me, I would sneak away to the nursery to play piano. No one would hear. And if I made sure to sneak back down before the party was over, no one ever knew I was gone. Not even Mother and Father. Those days are done now.

My parents still use the parties as a display of wealth and Position, but they have other purposes now. And because those purposes involve me, remaining at the party, smiling and charming, is a requirement. I decide to track down a maid to get a glass of Mother’s wine, when I see him. Or, rather, he sees me as I nearly run into him.

“Hello,” he says.

He is about twenty-one. The age of Choosing for men. That’s how I know why he’s here. I still haven’t been chosen.

Since the plague, Society had managed to rebuild, the world becoming populated again. But since the Society wants to keep it that way, they’ve enforced The Choosing on us. Once every girl turns sixteen, she is eligible to be chosen. Technically, it’s not as easy as a man simply choosing her. He has to ask her. But most girls say yes. The Choosing is a time where people have a chance of actually finding someone they love, having children the normal way. If you are not chosen by the time you’re eighteen, you are assigned a spouse. Personally, I think that you are no better off with a Society-matched spouse than one you pick yourself. Most of the Society matches have test tube babies, which everyone knows is because they don’t really care for each other.

This man is no better looking than most of the acceptable matches Mother and Father have come up with, but then he’s no worse. He has dark blond hair, and eyes that are grey. Personally I couldn’t really care less what he looks like. All my potential matches have been boring, and I don’t think that he will be any different.

I look at him. His posture is straight, but something about the way he carries his shoulders suggests an awkwardness. I try to twist what I know is a scowl into a polite half-smile. “Hello,” I say, noticing how hollow it sounds.

He looks into my eyes with his grey ones. I have to say, I have never seen grey eyes quite the shade of his, silvery, yet almost charcoal like the sky before a rainstorm. “You… you are Katrina, aren’t you?”

I shrug. “Yes, I am. Kitty, if you’d rather. And you are?”

“William Lane. But most…most people call me Will.”

He’s quiet for a while, but he almost looks like he wants to say something. Formality and awkwardness are a natural part of the Choosing process, or so the Guidebook says. But I haven’t met anyone quite so formal and awkward yet. Part of me wants to ask him if he wants something, anything to break the silence, but part of me also sees a chance to sneak off and be by myself. I debate, and then decide to do the polite thing. “Is there something you were going to say?” I ask.

He almost shakes his head, “Kitty”- he sounds like he’s trying out my name- “would you like to dance?”

I consider this. At this moment, what I really want is to run from the whole stupid Choosing thing. I’m bored of Mother’s matches for me, bored of the matches’ lame formality, or obsessive adoration. A Society-issued spouse sounds good right about now. I look up at him, about to say no.

But then I look into his eyes. He may be just about the most boring, awkward match yet, but he doesn’t seem unkind. I can at least humour him for the moment.

“All right.”

Will looks surprised that I said yes. He stares at me for several, long moments, before I clear my throat. “You still want to dance?”

“Oh.” It’s as if I’ve broken a trance. “Of course.” He holds out a hand, waiting for me to take it. I place my hand in his, noticing its texture. It’s soft, but not as soft and perfectly manicured as some of the other matches’ hands. There’s a light roughness to them, and his nails are cut nearly to the quick. I wonder what he does. Most of my matches have perfect hands, as nice as a child’s, only cleaner. Hands that don’t likely do much, profession-wise.

“Um-hmm.”

I jerk my head up in the most unladylike way possible and blush. I’ve been so busy studying his hands that I forgot why I had mine in his.

He motions his head to the dance floor. “Ready?”

“Sure.”

Although, deep down, I wonder if I am ready; ready to spend another evening with one of Mother’s matches, ready to spend more time questioning whether this person was the one that I would end up choosing, or rather, having to choose.

But, deep down, I also know that I’ll have to be. Sooner or later, I won’t be looking at someone, wondering if they’ll be the one I’ll be stuck with for life. They will be the one I’ll be stuck with for life. And that will be my forever.

It’s that thought alone that fills my head as I dance with Will Lane.

*******

I’m picking at breakfast the next morning when Mother asks me.

“Kitty, that looked like quite the nice young man you were dancing with last night.”

I roll my eyes. If lying about who she’s invited as a potential match for me is her new tactic, it’s the worst one yet. I won’t give her that satisfaction.

“I suppose he was fine. And who was he, Mother?”

“How would I know?”

I look up at her. She sounds and looks genuinely surprised, like she really doesn’t know who he is. Nice try.

“Oh, come on Mother, you must know. He’s William Lane. You invited him, after all.”

Mother’s cheeks gather colour. “I certainly did not. I have no…”

“I invited him.” My father’s voice is quiet, but it cuts Mother’s words.

“Father, you invited him?”

“Well,” Mother huffs, “you could have at least told me. And where did you find him?”

“He’s a young doctor I work with, just graduated from his Training.” As Father speaks, I can feel myself groan. Is this how he sees me, stuck as a doctor’s wife?

“Kitty, he’s a good pick.”

My head snaps toward Father. “I never said he wasn’t.”

“But you’re thinking it.”

“Yes, well, I have five months left until I’m eighteen. Lots of time to decide.”

“But Kitty, you aren’t deciding. You don’t like any of your mother’s picks for you. They’re too dull, too obsessive, not handsome enough.”

“I’ve never mentioned that any of them aren’t handsome.”

“But you think that.”

I keep my mouth shut and let that drop, since I know that there’s some truth to his statement. But I still want to argue. “The whole idea that a woman should marry a man because he’s a ‘good match,’ and not because she actually loves him is old-fashioned. It’s stupid, Father.”

“But it’s the law. Like it or not Kitty, it is the law. He’ll be able to take care of you. You’ll keep a good Position in Society.”

“Why should I care about any of that?” I cry out in protest.

Mother is quiet. Unusually quiet. “Kitty, children cost money to raise, and grown girls even more so. The parties we’ve held to help you find a suitable match have been wasted so far. The sooner you’re married, the sooner you’ll have someone to take care of you. How long do you expect your father to support someone who obviously has no desire to be chosen?”

I gape at her. How can she say this? Of course I eventually have to be chosen, or have the Society choose for me. But that having me live with her for another five months is too much of a burden? I look to my father, hoping to see any sign of compassion. There is none. He looks at me pointedly, and even though he doesn’t voice it, I can hear him telling me that he agrees with my mother.

I bite my tongue until I taste blood, forcing back the tears that sting the back of my eyes. “If that’s how you feel – fine. I’m going for a walk.” I get up, and no one stops me.

I leave the breakfast room and head through the foyer to the door. I had never truly felt at home in our large home, and now I feel even less so. In just a few months, like it or not, I will be living somewhere else.

As I open the door I see him. Him, being Will Lane. He still stands with the same gawkiness as the night before.

“Oh,… hi,” I say.

“Kitty, hello. I…uh…” He stops mid-sentence and looks down at the floor. I’m not sure if he forgot what he was going to say, or he changed his mind. We stand for a few seconds without speaking. Then I know I need to break the silence.

“What?” I ask.

“Huh?”

“Sorry, but I thought you were going to say something.”

“Oh!” his cheeks colour slightly. “Yes, I was…was wondering if you’d like to go for a walk?”

Truthfully, with him I do not, although I was going for one myself. Then I hear shuffling not far behind me. Mother. I sigh. “Might as well. I was on my way out.”

“Oh…good.” Will stands aside so I can walk out before shutting the door for me. I will give him credit for being polite. Still, you can’t exactly build a life on politeness.

“So, where to?” He asks as we step off the porch.

Good question.

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