Prologue

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They sentenced us to burn.

Ahead of me, Des cried. Ahead of her, Beatrice stumbled at the top stair. Her knee thumped as it hit the platform. Two guards came down on her, dragging her back to her feet.

Beadie, as we called her, was the tallest and strongest and because of that, she would outlast all of us. The thought made me gasp, but I caught the cry in my throat before any noise escaped. I would not let them see my tears. I'd choke on every single one first.

I was the last to shuffle up the stairs to the platform. With each step, I wiggled my wrists against the leather restraints, my skin already raw. There were four upright planks, one for each of us, two guards for each of us. Eight guards total. For the four of us. Four little girls. The Administration was being so careful. But why? Wasn't this just like any other Culling? There had already been two since the beginning of the year over in Montague Hills. Culling was not extraordinary.

But culling four at once was.

Culling four young girls. For murder.

That was, indeed, extraordinary. They had to be careful.

Anxiety jolted through my body. I looked into the crowd as two guards pushed me backwards and belted my waist tightly to the plank. Below the platform was darkness, but I could see shadows moving and heard throats clearing. They whispered. Our Merchant Academy classmates - our friends - were there to witness our deaths and remain haunted for the rest of their lives. But they would learn the lesson.

I looked up to the balcony. On the many days when there was no Culling, the auditorium acted as a theatre-in-the-round. At the Christmas Gala, only a few months before, I'd had the indignity of playing The Sheep-herder in 'The Birth of Christ'. Like all the other girls, I secretly wanted the role of Mary even though I acted flippant when I received my staff and ugly sack Sheep-herder costume. The audience laughed at me as I galumphed across the stage. At least I didn't have to play a sheep.

Ophelia played Mary and wore a beautiful gown of light blue. We weren't ever allowed to wear blue clothing at the Merchant Academy. Nor purple nor green nor pink. Our skirts were brown, our shrugs burnt orange. Everything other article of clothing issued to us was black. But Ophelia got to wear light blue in 'The Birth of Christ' and she was radiant.

Looking back, that play seemed like it was the beginning of it all. But really, it was the end.

Ophelia was dead now.

Lady Mac had watched 'The Birth of Christ' from the balcony that hovered above the Round. She sat there now, her ghostly white skin a spotlight in the dimness. She stared down, her pale eyes meeting mine. Neither of us blinked. She pushed her fingers together, her long, stiletto nails clicking one by one. Then ultimately, she glanced skyward.

Every shadow below the platform looked up, compelled. I felt the three girls beside me, look up. Gears behind us began to grind and squeak as the roof slowly peeled back, revealing the dusky night sky above. Cool air rushed across my face, but I did not look up like all the rest. I kept staring at the balcony. There was a man sitting next to Lady Mac. I'd only seen him in person twice. Almost a year ago, during first term and then at the Gala, only months before. He travelled a long way to be there - but why? Why would a man of such stature care so much about four little girl murderers? Were we that extraordinary?

My mind raced as the guards exited the platform to take their spots around us, buckets and bails of water nearby. There was a shuttering sound below our feet as platform slats clicked open, revealing a stacked store of kindling and wood. The store would burn first, and then so would we. Gasps and whispers in the shadows were quickly scuttled into silence. The other girls were learning the lesson.

The one consistent sound was Des. Sunny and sweet Des moaned, as her chocolate brown eyes dropped tears onto her cheeks. Next to her was Viola. V defiantly stood straight backed, her body loose against the restraints as if none of this bothered her at all. Her stubborn chin pointed up, her eyes slit with anger. They'd cut the long black curls she'd taken months to grow and hacked it into a sloppy chop - a boy's cut. They put her in pants while the rest of us wore our standard issue shifts. They'd given her the smallest shirt possible as if to highlight her flat chest. As if execution by fire wasn't punishment enough.

There was not enough rage in the world to make up for what they have done to V. And yet she refused to cry or cower. She told me when the flames reached her feet, she'd curse them all to hell by name. I wished for that much courage.

At the furthest plank away from me was Beadie. Her skinny arms drooped to her side, her long neck strained forward with the weight of her heavy head. When I looked at Beadie, she angled her face towards me ever so slightly. She did not turn to meet my gaze directly, but it was enough for me to know - she was ready.

A guard on either side of the platform stepped forward, a blackened torch gripped in each hand. They ceremoniously looked to the balcony for the nod that will give them permission to burn four teenage girls alive. A nod that will teach all the other girls at the Academy the lesson.

But then something unexpected happened. Lady Mac - the headmistress of Merchant Academy, the lord and light over female development in Denmark County, the be all and end all of thousands of young girls' lives from the ages fourteen to eighteen - did not nod. Instead, Lady Mac demurred. To him. She tipped her nose in his direction and he did the nodding. He was there to make the call.

I strained to look at Beadie and this time, she met my gaze immediately. She saw his nod, too. And that meant she was right. So Beadie did what she always does when she's proven right - she grinned at me. That lopsided, confident shit-eating grin of hers. It was infuriating.

The first guard alighted his torch, and the orange flames flicked angrily. The second guard did the same. Then they pointed their torches under the platform - in a matter of moments the kindling would ignite. The four of us braced ourselves. I finally looked up to the open roof. I exhaled, slowly and deeply, knowing my next inhalation would be full of smoke. I stared up, and saw the darkening night sky broken by the briefest of blinking lights. When it blinked a second time, the light was closer.

Something sizzled and snapped beneath the platform. A sour burnt stench came across my nose, a promise of agony with it. I focused on the traveling light above me, blinking faster, growing closer.

I knew why the King had shown his face at the Culling. His presence ensured that the execution of four little girl murderers was done right. Because the Administration was worried something would go wrong. They were scared. They should be. Something would go wrong.

My friends and I would not burn here. Not today.

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