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Chapter 3

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Imellia Station, Gazda.


The train had rocked and swayed all night. While the world outside slept, I was hurtling faster and faster towards my supposed destiny. I wasn't ready for any of it. I didn't know what lay at the other end of this journey. A palace? A prince? My death? No one had said anything to me or even bothered to scold me for trying to run.

The morning of Sacrit dawned quietly, sinking from night to day with such fluidity that I barely noticed it was happening. Breakfast was the only sign that a new day had started. I hadn't asked to leave the compartment, but the guard stationed outside my door was my ever-present answer.

I was here until they said I wasn't anymore.

After breakfast, I dressed in the simple navy-blue day dress I'd been given. It fit better than Uri's clothes had but it still wasn't exactly my size. Even so, it was the prettiest dress I'd ever seen, much less worn. The stitching along the waistband was elaborate, which was a shame since the dark thread was nearly unnoticeable against the cotton of the dress. This was the sort of craftsmanship that would take weeks for me to do by hand.

According to one of the guards, we were minutes away from the station in Gazda. I was told that when we arrived, I would be escorted to a waiting press conference where I would need to publicly announce myself into the Culling. No one told me what I was meant to do after that announcement.

Would the Culling start then? I didn't know how any of this worked. Was it a free for all? I'd always heard about the arena fights, but maybe that had just been for the last few girls standing—I couldn't remember.

"Are you ready?"

I straightened, only halfway through slipping on my shoes, and found a thin, red-headed boy watching me. He was wearing a grey suit, the fabric heavy and neatly pressed. The shirt underneath was crisp white, the tie a striped pattern of navy blue and silver.

While his clothes were beautiful, all clean lines and sharp angles, his posture was casual, his shoulders slumped, his hands stuffed in his trouser pockets. It was so boyish, so regular, that I was hit with a wave of homesickness. This boy stood the way Kace would, one shoulder a bit higher than the other, chin tilted down, smile askew.

But this boy wasn't my brother.

There was a handgun strapped to his hip and he had the jacket of his suit hitched up so it was clearly visible. I didn't know if the view of the weapon was supposed to act as a threat or an assurance. It might have made me nervous, except that everything about him was unassuming and relaxed, almost to the point of laziness.

I finished with my shoes and stood, straightening my dress before I looked up at him. He raised an eyebrow and nodded in appreciation, as if he didn't notice my cut hair or the way the bodice of the dress hung a bit too loose.

"You look ready enough." He stepped back into the hall outside and tilted his head back, gesturing for me to follow. "Come along then."

I took a step toward him and then paused. "Um, excuse me?"

He had already disappeared from my sight but he backtracked so he was standing in the doorway again. "Yes?"

My mouth was dry, the sour taste of the morning's breakfast still lingered. I forced myself to stand straighter. "Who exactly are you?"

"Ah," his mouth spread into a large, toothy grin. It was oddly charming and still inherently unnerving. "Yes. I almost forgot." He stepped forward to meet me, so close that his shoes bumped against mine. His hand slipped from his pocket and snaked forward. "Hugo Dellacov, at your service."

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