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Chapter 2

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A train heading towards Gazda.

I awoke in a darkened train compartment. For a moment, I didn't know where I was. The memories from the station were shadowy things, difficult to grasp and make sense of.

Ambrose. The videra. The rag pressed to my nose and mouth. The tang of chemicals.

"I'll find a way to save you." That's what my brother had been yelling.

We had been so close.

My jacket was gone, the fake bandage that had been covering my mark gone with it. My skin stuck to the leather seats with sweat as I sat up and tried to acclimate myself to my surroundings. The small compartment was lit with two gas lamps, the shades crafted from Pallae glass, the cobalt blue tint more vivid than the pictures in the books had made them seem. The thin flames danced against the golden sconces and made the gray wallpaper seem to move, as if the vines printed there were alive and growing.

There was a second leather bench across from me and, above it, the sigil of the royal family—the engraved silhouette of a falcon, wings outstretched, eyes ablaze, it's talons digging into the stomach of a very dead rabbit. Underneath the emblem, written in swirling Erydi was the creed: the hunters, never the prey.

It was supposed to signify our nation's strong military, but all I could think of was the countless goddess-touched girls who had been made prey by our government. How many girls had lived half-lives, sequestered away so they might have a chance at freedom? How many parents had tried and failed to save their daughters?

My mama was one of countless mothers throughout my nation's history who had tried to beat the odds. Moving to the outlying wilderness of Varos, saying that I was a boy on my birth certificate, separating herself from her family, her friends—and all for nothing.

I might still die.

I'd never been allowed to leave the safety of my family's homestead. I'd never seen beyond that far tree line. The oppressive protection and the aching loneliness, it had all been done for this. It was supposed to save me. Not this. I wasn't supposed to end up here, bound for the Culling.

I'd thought our one-room cabin was a cage. Good goddess, I'd been so wrong.

A low creak came from beyond the train compartment and I tensed. The door was crafted of dark wood, with frosted glass panels, making it nearly impossible to see anything outside.

I let my ability stretch, unfurl itself from my gut and reach forward. Invisible hands stoked the flames of the gas lamps, easing them higher, brightening the room. Now the wallpaper appeared blue, not gray.

For a second, my ability lingered against the flames of the lamps, as if the power were considering what to do, giving me time to consider too. I could break them, burn the flames too high, release the gas—kill myself and possibly everyone on this train.

No.

As afraid of the Culling as I was, I couldn't bear the thought of ending my own life. I wanted to live too badly. That was why we'd tried to run, not to escape the Culling, but to escape the price of it. The people at the station were right, I could be the next queen. I was marked, one of ten girls chosen by the goddess to participate in the Culling and fight for the Erydian throne.

But if I lost, if my ability wasn't as strong as another girl's, then I would die. And while I had no desire to wear a crown, I wanted to live. I'd done so little living and far too much hiding.

I pulled those invisible hands away from the lamps, and coiled that power back within myself, pressed it tight to the cage of my ribs. I wasn't skilled at wielding my ability, only skilled at burying it. I hated having to constantly leash it, but the idea of having to use it against someone else—use it like a weapon—scared me more.

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