The Selection (The Selection 1) - Page 18


“Don’t be,” I assured her. “Girls like that? They’ll take themselves out of the competition.”

Marlee sighed. “I hope so. Sometimes I wish…”

“What?”

“Well, sometimes I wish that the Twos had an idea about what it felt like to be treated the way they treat us.”

I nodded. I’d never really thought of myself being on the same level as a Four, but I guess we were in a similar place. If you weren’t a Two or Three, it was just varying shades of bad.

“Thanks for talking to me,” she said. “I was worried that everyone would just be out for themselves, but you and Ashley have been really nice. Maybe this will be fun.” Her voice lifted with hope.

I wasn’t so sure, but I smiled back. I had no reason to shun Marlee or be rude to Ashley. The other girls might not be so laid-back.

When we landed, the air was silent as we walked the distance from the plane to the terminal with guards at our side. But once the doors were opened, we were met with ear-shattering screams.

The terminal was full of people jumping and cheering. A path had been cleared for us with a golden carpet lined with coordinating rope barriers. At regular intervals along this channel were guards, looking around anxiously and poised to strike at the first hint of danger. Surely there were more important things they should be doing?

Luckily, Celeste was in front, and she started waving. I knew immediately that that was the right response, not the cowering I had been considering. And since the cameras were there to catch our every move, I was doubly glad I hadn’t been leading the pack.

The crowd was wild with joy. These would be the people we lived the closest to, and they were all looking forward to catching the first glimpses of the girls coming to town. One of us would be their queen someday.

I turned my head a dozen times in a matter of seconds as people called my name from all over the packed terminal. There were signs with my name on them, too. I was amazed. Already there were people here—people not in my caste or from my province—who hoped it would be me. I felt a little roll of guilt in my stomach that I would let them all down.

I dropped my head for a moment and saw a little girl pressed up against the railing. She couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. In her hands was a sign that said RED-HEADS RULE! with a little crown painted in the corner and tiny stars everywhere. I knew I was the only redhead in the competition, and I noticed that her hair and mine were very nearly the same shade.

The girl wanted an autograph. Beside her, someone wanted a photograph, and beside him someone wanted to shake my hand. So I went practically down the entire line, turning around once or twice to talk to people on the other side of the carpet, too.

I was the last one to leave, making the other girls wait at least twenty minutes for me. Quite honestly, I probably wouldn’t have left as soon as I did except the next plane of Selected girls was coming in, and it seemed rude to overlap their time.

Getting into the car, I saw Celeste roll her eyes, but I didn’t care. I was still sort of in awe of how I’d adjusted so quickly to something that had frightened me only moments before. I had made it through my good-byes, meeting the first girls, my flight, and interacting with our mob of fans. All without doing anything embarrassing.

I thought about the cameras following me in the terminal and pictured my family watching my entrance on TV. I hoped they’d be proud.

CHAPTER 9

EVEN AFTER THE SUBSTANTIAL GREETING party at the airport, the roads leading up to the palace were lined with masses of people calling out their well-wishes. The sad thing was that we weren’t allowed to roll down the windows to acknowledge them. The guard in the front said to think of ourselves as extensions of the royal family. Many adored us, but there were people out there who wouldn’t be above hurting us to hurt the prince. Or the monarchy itself.

I was stuck next to Celeste in the car—a special one that had two rows of seats facing each other in the back and darkened windows—with Ashley and Marlee sitting together in front of us. Marlee beamed as she stared out the windows, and it was obvious why. Her name was on several of the signs. It would be impossible to count how many admirers she had.

Ashley’s name was sprinkled in there, too, almost as much as Celeste’s, and far more than mine. Ashley, ever the lady, took not being a runaway favorite in stride. Celeste, I could see, was irritated.

“What do you think she did?” Celeste whispered in my ear, as Marlee and Ashley spoke to each other of home.

“What do you mean?” I whispered back.

“To be so popular. You think she bribed someone?” Her cold eyes focused in on Marlee as if she was weighing her worth in her head.

“She’s a Four,” I said doubtfully. “She wouldn’t have the means to bribe someone.”

Celeste sucked her teeth. “Please. A girl has more than one way she can pay for what she wants,” she said, and pulled away to look out the window.

It took me a moment to understand what she was suggesting, and it didn’t sit well with me. Not because it was obvious that someone as innocent as Marlee would never think about sleeping with someone to get ahead—or even consider breaking a law—but because it was becoming clear that life at the palace might be more vicious than I had imagined.

I didn’t have a very good view coming up to the palace, but I noticed the walls. They were a pale yellow stucco and very, very high. Guards were placed on top at either side of the wide gate that swung open as we approached. Inside we were greeted with a long gravel drive that circled a fountain and led to the front doors, where officials waited to welcome us.

With barely more than a hello, two women took me by the arms and ushered me inside.

“So sorry to rush, miss, but your group is running late,” one said.

“Oh, I’m afraid that’s my fault. I got a little too chatty at the airport.”

“Talking to the crowds?” the other asked in surprise.

They exchanged a look I didn’t understand before they started calling out locations as we passed.

The dining room was to the right, they told me, and the Great Room was to the left. I caught a glimpse of sprawling gardens out the glass doors and wished I could stop. Before I could even process where we were going, they pulled me into a huge room full of bustling people.

A swarm parted, and I saw rows of mirrors with people working on girls’ hair and painting their nails. Clothes hung on racks, and people were shouting things like “I found the dye!” and “That makes her look pudgy.”


Tags: Kiera Cass The Selection Science Fiction
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