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I wondered if any of the others girls were sad today. I imagined that everyone except for me was celebrating. And I at least needed to look like I was too, because everyone would be watching.

I braced myself for all that was coming, and I made myself be brave. As for everything I was leaving behind, I decided I’d do just that: leave him behind. The palace would be my sanctuary. I’d never think or say his name again. He wasn’t allowed to come with me there—my own rule for this little adventure.

No more.

Good-bye, Aspen.

About half an hour later, two girls in white shirts and black pants just like mine walked through the doors with their own aides hauling their bags. They were both smiling, confirming my thought that I was the only one of the Selected who might be depressed today.

It was time to follow through on my promise. I put on a smile and stood to shake their hands.

“Hi,” I said brightly. “I’m America.”

“I know!” said the girl on the right. She was a blonde with brown eyes. I recognized her immediately as Marlee Tames of Kent. A Four. She didn’t bother with my extended hand; she moved in for an immediate hug.

“Oh!” I exhaled. I hadn’t expected that. Though Marlee was one of the girls whose faces seemed genuine and friendly, Mom had been telling me for the last week to look at these girls as enemies, and her offensive thinking had leaked into my own. So here I was expecting at the very best a cordial welcome from the girls who were prepared to fight me to the death for someone I didn’t want. Instead I was embraced.

“I’m Marlee and this is Ashley.” Yes, Ashley Brouillette of Allens, Three. She had blond hair, too, but much lighter than Marlee’s. And her eyes were very blue, which looked delicate in her peaceful face. She seemed fragile next to Marlee.

They were both from the North; I guessed that was why they came together. Ashley gave a neat little wave and smiled, but that was it. I wasn’t sure if she was shy or if she was already trying to figure us out. Maybe it was that she was a Three by birth and knew to behave better.

“I love your hair!” Marlee gushed. “I wish I’d been born with red hair. It makes you look so alive. I hear that people with red hair have bad tempers. Is that true?”

Despite my rotten day, Marlee’s manner was so vivacious that my smile grew wider. “I don’t think so. I mean, I can have a bad temper at times, but my sister is a redhead, and she’s as sweet as can be.”

With that we settled into an easy conversation about what got us mad and what always fixed our moods. Marlee liked movies, and so did I, though I rarely got to see them. We talked about actors who were unbearably attractive, which seemed strange since we were off to be Maxon’s pack of girlfriends. Ashley giggled every once in a while but never more than that. If she was asked a direct question, she’d give a brief answer and go back to her guarded smile.

Marlee and I got along easily, and it gave me hope that maybe I’d come out of this with a friend to show for it. Though we talked for probably half an hour, the time flew by. We wouldn’t have stopped talking except for the distinct sound of high heels clicking across the floor. Our heads all turned in unison, and I heard Marlee’s mouth open with a pop.

There, walking toward us, was a brunette with sunglasses on. She had a daisy in her hair, but it had been dyed red to match her lipstick. Her hips swayed as she walked, and each fall of her three-inch heels accentuated her confident stride. Unlike Marlee and Ashley, she didn’t smile.

But it wasn’t because she was unhappy. No, she was focused. Her entrance was meant to inspire intimidation. And it worked on ladylike Ashley, who I heard breathe an “Oh, no” as the new girl walked closer.

This person, who I recognized as Celeste Newsome of Clermont, Two, didn’t bother me. She assumed we were fighting for the same thing. But you can’t be pushed if it’s something you don’t want.

Celeste finally reached us, and Marlee squeaked out a hello, trying to be friendly even in the midst of intimidation. Celeste merely looked her over and sighed.

“When do we leave?” she asked.

“We don’t know,” I answered without a hint of fear. “You’ve been holding up the show.”

She didn’t like that at all, and I got a once-over from her. She wasn’t impressed.

“Sorry, quite a few people wanted to see me off. I couldn’t help it.” She smiled wide, as if it was obvious she was meant to be worshipped.

And I was about to surround myself with girls like this. Great.

As if on cue, a man appeared through the door to our left.

“I hear all four of our Selected girls are here?”

“We sure are,” Celeste replied sweetly. The man sort of melted a little, you could see it in his eyes. Ah. So this was her game.

The captain paused a moment and then snapped to. “Well. Ladies, if you’ll just follow me, we’ll get you on the plane and off to your new home.”

The flight, which was really only terrifying during the takeoff and landing, lasted a few short hours. We were offered movies and food, but all I wanted to do was look out the window. I watched the country from above, amazed at just how big it all was.

Celeste chose to sleep through the flight, which was a small mercy. Ashley had a foldout desk set up and was already writing letters about her adventure. That was smart of her to pack paper. I bet May would love to hear about this part of the journey, even though it didn’t include the prince.

“She’s so elegant,” Marlee whispered to me, tilting her head toward Ashley. We were sitting across from each other in plush seats in the very front of the small plane. “From the moment we met, she’s been nothing but proper. She’s going to be tough competition,” she said with a sigh.

“You can’t think about it that way,” I answered. “Yes, you’re trying to make it to the end, but not by beating someone else. You’ve just got to be you. Who knows? Maybe Maxon would prefer someone more relaxed.”

Marlee thought that over. “I guess that’s a good point. It’s hard to not like her. She’s awfully kind. And so beautiful.” I nodded in agreement. Marlee’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Celeste, on the other hand…”

I widened my eyes and shook my head. “I know. It’s only been an hour, and I’m already looking forward to her going home.”

Marlee covered her mouth to hide a laugh. “I don’t want to talk badly about anyone, but she’s so aggressive. And Maxon’s not even around yet. I’m a little nervous about her.”

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