“Do you think he’s very handsome?” Mercy Atkinson brought the photograph as close to her face as possible without touching the fragile image to her delicate nose.
She was momentarily distracted by a bar of sunlight falling over her yellow-gold curls and turning the photograph translucent between her fingertips.
Thomas McCord’s suit was finely cut, his house sturdily built, if distressingly set amongst a lot of nothing. The land around the house was little more than barren earth, but his colony was known for its quenching rainfalls and long summers. Mercy was certain she could coax flowers from the soil after a fashion. Were her roses not the finest example in their district? She could almost smell the perfume of rain-soaked virgin earth.
“The word you’re searching for, sweet sister, is petrichor.” Mercy’s sister Verity looked up from her sewing. “And I’m sure he’s quite pig-faced, but it doesn’t matter, does it? Father’s signed the contract, you’ve cut your hair, and I’ve put needle to thread for your trousseau.” Verity’s harelip curled in mocking victory. “The thing is done.”
“You needn’t lord your impending freedom over me.” Mercy spoke softly, the better to diffuse her sister’s vitriol, the better to slip a barb into the soft flesh between her sister’s scales. “Father will marry you off, too, in due course, but you’ll only have to sew your shroud. Ours is the only district that allows deformations to live.”
Verity’s deft stitching faltered. It was the only outward sign that Mercy had wounded her. Her voice dripped poison. “Will you ask your pig-faced husband for permission to attend my Stoning?” She turned the embroidery hoop in her hands and plunged the needle into the design. “Will you steal the honor of the first stone from my new lawful spouse?”
A hot spot of pity flared in Mercy’s chest. Verity rarely left their rooms. She never saw people. It was one thing for this border town in a half-lost colony to tolerate the presence of a woman born outside the parameters of the Aesthetic Statutes, but no one wanted to actually look at one. Verity would be married off to someone outside the district, and that man would then be responsible for her state-mandated murder.
Mercy’s pity turned to ash in her heart. Their father was a coward. He should have wrung Verity’s scrawny neck when the beautiful black-haired, violet eyed child was born — born perfect save for the wretched flesh above her rosy lips.
Mercy set the photograph of Mr. McCord’s home on the window seat. “I’ll send flowers.” She stood, touching her fingers to her own flawless mouth and blowing a kiss in Verity’s direction. The scent of dust and rain followed in her wake.
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