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Chapter 1

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ORDER TO REPORT

Citizens of Erydia:

Upon receiving this letter, all girls who carry a mark or who exhibit any unnatural power are to report to their nearest temple for verification. After being assessed by videras, goddess-chosen girls will be transported to Gazda for training, assessment, and culling. The ten heirs are to report to their local temple no later than noon on Sacrit. Willful failure to report before the hour and date listed in this notice may result in forcible retrieval. The official culling of the ten heirs will begin on Sanctus Halletta and will end when nine sacrifices have been made. May the goddess be honored and may she bless our next queen.

Queen Viera Kevlar Warwick


***

Chapter One

Demarti Station, Varos.

The day before Sacrit.

We'd been halfway through the last checkpoint when the first announcement was posted. I didn't see the papers, but the news was on the lips of every panicked traveler we passed. There had been an assassination attempt at the palace. It had happened during the prince's eighteenth birthday celebration. Apparently, he was fine. The gunman was dead. There was no news on who the shooter was or where he'd come from.

Still, Erydia was rattled.

Some blamed it on the radicals, the rebel group known only as the Culled. Others blamed it on the rising tension with our neighboring country, Vayelle. As I stood in line to board the train heading into the Suri Gap, I didn't much care who had tried to shoot him. I just wished they'd have been successful.

Ambrose sidled closer to me in line, careful to keep his voice down as he said, "Up ahead, to the right." I followed his gaze, but the crowd was constantly moving and I saw nothing out of the ordinary.

There were too many possible dangers. With the Culling announcement only recently posted, there were watchful eyes everywhere. The Crown paid handsomely for information on goddess-touched girls, even when a Culling wasn't in session. Now that the prince had come of age, there would be hundreds of people looking for runaways. The smallest glimpse of the mark on my hand would have me sent straight to the palace.

I scanned the crowd ahead of us, searching for what my brother was talking about. Bodies pressed together, all of us stumbling, stepping on heels and tripping on travel bags. I wanted to ask him what I was supposed to be seeing, but I couldn't speak. I was supposed to be mute. It was all part of the ruse.

"In order for this to work, you need to do two things," my brother had said as he'd made this plan. "You have to look like a boy and act mute. If you can do that, we won't be questioned."

As it turns out, pretending to be mute was more difficult than pretending to be a boy. Being a boy meant a few cosmetic changes. I'd wrapped my breasts, changed my clothes, and when it hadn't felt like quite enough, I'd cut my hair.

My mother had cried when she'd seen what I'd done to myself. Although those tears hardly seemed to really matter, she'd been crying nonstop since my military draft letter had arrived over a week ago. First the draft letter and then the letter announcing the beginning of the Culling. They'd come one after the other, one on Monday and the next on Wednesday, as if the goddess had a sense of humor.

Mama had wept and I—I had just wanted to burn something. When that hadn't been an option, I'd cut my hair. Drastic, sure, but it had felt like the thing to do.

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