Chapter 3: The Announcement

Celeste sniffed as she toyed with the foie gras on her china plate with a delicate silver spoon. She wasn't hungry. The untidy knots taking root in her stomach distracted her from the evening meal. They had been distracting her all day.

A shuffling sound in the corner of the room drew her notice and Celeste turned her eyes to her maid, who was fidgeting in the corner.

"Spit it out," Celeste hissed. "You've been dancing around all day."

Her maid took a long slow breath, clearly uncertain whether she should speak. "I was hoping that if you were finished with me, you would allow me to return home early this evening. My sister, you see, I'd like to be there with her to watch the broadcast. She entered the lottery, and our parents weren't able to take the evening off."

Her maid probably didn't intend it, but her words knifed Celeste through the gut. Celeste knew that she would be alone tonight. Her parents hadn't even tried to be home with her. But that was par for the course. She ought to be used to it.

"Do whatever you wish. I hardly need you. But, do try to be realistic. You're sister's a six, like you. She doesn't stand a chance."

"As you say, miss."

"Just clear my plate, and you may go."

She watched as her maid scurried away, feeling a pang of uncertainty. Had she done enough to secure her position? There was no way for her to know. She had tried so hard.

She had considered joining one of her friends at their home for the evening, but a broadcast of this import was something to be shared with ones family, and although most of her friends would welcome her presence, she didn't want anyone to know that her parents couldn't even bother to make time for her tonight of all nights.

In her bedroom, she collapsed onto her queen sized canopied bed, enjoying the feel of the satin comforter.

The large glass window that provided her with a view of the gardens, blurred and then became opaque, and a voice filled the room.

"Will you be watching the capital report broadcast tonight, Celeste?" the automated voice asked.

"Yes, yes of course," she grumbled. And the screen blinked before showing a display of the national emblem, while the sound of Illea's anthem played from a million micro-speakers positioned around her room. This was it.

The emblem disappeared and she could see the royal family on stage. The king, queen and prince were seated on wide-backed thrones, and there were chairs set up for various celebrity reporters.

The king appeared and offered some minor news about the war, followed by a reporter providing mundane updates on the economic and social welfare of Illea.

When they were finished with the formalities, the master of events, Gavril, pranced on stage, in his typical flamboyant peacockish manner.

He took the microphone in his hand and danced a little jig, before prancing up to the king.

"Looking forward to the announcement?" He teased, pushing the microphone into the king's face.

"Very much so, Gavril," the king said, with surprising grace.

"And do you have any inside information about the daughters of Illea?"

"Only a very little."

"And what about our fair prince Maxon," Gavril spun to the prince's side. "Has he seen any of the pictures of the beauties selected to be his future wife?"

"I'll see them when everyone else does," Maxon said.

Gavril turned his attention to Queen Amberly. "Any advice for the girls?"

"Enjoy your last night as an average girl. And be yourself."

Gavril chirped a laugh. "Wise words, my queen. Wise words."

"And now onto the main event. May I present - our daughters of Illea." He opened his arms wide to the wind.

The screen changed to a split screen of the national emblem and an image of Maxon shifting nervously in his seat. Pictures of girls were flashed on half of the screen, replacing the emblem, while Gavril announced their names, their districts and their ranks.

The names were a blur, and Celeste felt a bit of relief as the girls didn't seem so beautiful after all. And so many of them were low ranked.

"Celeste Newsome from Clermont." With his words, a picture of Celeste appeared on the screen, and the bubble in Celeste's gut popped in relief. She had been selected.

Hundreds of faces popped onto the left hand side of the screen, all incoming calls. She was now a celebrity. She let her mouth quirk into a bemused languid grin, and she laughed out loud.