August 1, 2200

Dear Miss Natalia Elydee,

Congratulations! You have been accepted to the prestigious boarding school, Masonhart Academy for the Gifted and Talented. Only thirty children are chosen every three years, and it is an honor to receive this letter.

Please come to the Masonhart Academy admissions office with the forms enclosed in this package if you decide to attend for the 2200-2201 school year. It is entirely of your choice whether you wish to come or not, but let me remind you that this chance will never come again.

The enrollment deadline is August 21. But before you make your decision, I will warn you: the academy is harsh. Do not come if you are weak-hearted. And remember, if you enroll, you cannot go back. You stay the entire year or you don't come.

We hope to see you at school. First day is September 7. Don't be late.

Aleina Hewitt

Principal, Masonhart Academy

I traced the gold lettering on the paper with my index finger. Masonhart Academy, known throughout the country for its students. Every Masonhart Academy graduate had a talent in which they were the top in, that was for sure. There was an air of mystery surrounding the school: no one except those who had been there really knew what went on in there. But everyone who came out was famous, successful, wonderful.

The envelope fluttered in the wind. Natalia Elydee, it said in flowing gold script. Me.

I'm Natalia (call me Natalie) Elydee, and I'm thirteen years old. I live in the country of Arehale, which used to be called the United States of America. We have a queen, Queen Anne-Marie Grace. We don't have a king, because in this generation, females are considered more powerful, ever since the time of Geneva Masonhart.

Geneva Cavilier Masonhart was born in 1999, more than 200 years ago, when Arehale was still the United States. She was the perfect woman - wise, graceful, deathly beautiful. She had many, many talents, each one more impressive than the next. She became hugely successful and rich beyond anyone's dreams, and she only became more famous when she married Benjamin Masonhart, the "perfect man" of the time. Extremely handsome and not lacking in talent himself, they were the power couple, then and now. Because even though they're both dead, they live on. In history. In legacy. And in the academy that Geneva founded: Masonhart Academy. The academy for the uniquely talented, the academy that every achiever strives for. But you can't get in through a test. The academy chooses thirty talented kids from ages 11 to 17 every three years. If you are chosen, they give you a choice on whether you go or not. Everyone who is chosen always goes. It's been like that, ever since the founding of the school.

I closed the lid of the mailbox, and it snapped shut with a crack. Clutching my acceptance letter, I opened the door to my house and stepped inside. Home. Synonymous with building of depression and forgotten memories.

"Nadia, darling, close the door behind you. Don't let the cold wind in," a dusty, cracked voice floated from the kitchen. I shut the door behind me and locked it, then padded to the kitchen without taking off my shoes.

"Mother, my name's Natalie. Not Nadia," I told the woman standing in front of the sink with a calm, patient voice. "And it's August right now. There isn't a cold wind."

The woman turned to me and smiled. "Oh, of course, Nancy. How could I forget! What a forgetful mother I am." She sighed and turned back to the sink, humming happily as she washed the same plate over and over with a stained handkerchief.

"Mother, I'll wash the breakfast dishes," I said politely, already at the sink and holding a washcloth. "You go rest in the living room. You must be tired after making breakfast."

My mother turned to me and placed the plate and handkerchief in the sink. "Oh yes, I am a bit weary after making breakfast for you, your father and your sister! I never was good at frying bacon and eggs. I'll go rest now. Nephalia, you're such a good girl for offering to wash the dishes." She walked out of the kitchen, humming the same tune as always.

"Wait! Mother!" The words flew out of me before I could stop them. I covered my mouth, ashamed at what I had been thinking.

"Yes, Nina?"

"N-Nothing." I averted my eyes and picked up a plate. "You should rest."

I listened for the sound of my mother's footsteps heading out of the kitchen before I let out a breath that I hadn't realized I had been holding in. "Stupid," I whispered to the sink. "You should be ashamed of yourself, Natalie. You know perfectly well that you can't go to Masonhart Academy, not with Mother like that. Besides, why would they want you? You're entirely ordinary."

I raised my head and peered at my reflection in the mirror that my mother had hung above the sink. My reflection stared back at me. Normal. Ordinary. That's what I was, with my dark brown hair, light skin, and amber eyes. I had no talents at all.

I opened the window in the kitchen and let the sunlight flood in. In the light, my eyes were a molten amber-orange color, and my hair looked like a shimmering chestnut colored wave.

I closed the window and stared at the breakfast dishes in the sink. We hadn't had bacon and eggs this morning. We had oatmeal, and I had made it, like I did every day.

And breakfast had been just me and my mother. My father was dead, and my sister had disappeared three years ago.

Turning on the faucet, I washed the dishes, listening to the sounds of the running water and my mother humming from the living room. My mother. No, I couldn't leave her, not when she was in this condition. I was the one who took care of both of us. My mother certainly wasn't able to take care of herself, much less me AND her.

She was ruined the same day the rest of my family disappeared from me, that day three years ago. I don't remember anything from that day. I think I was there. I'm not sure. But I woke up to consciousness the day after the incident to a shell of a mother, a dead father lying on the floor, and a vanished older sister.

I don't know how or why or what happened to my father or sister. But my mother, she lost herself. She lost all her memories, and she forgets everything so easily now, even my name. Her mind was crippled. She lost her identity, she lost her warmth, her happiness, her spirit, her love. She acts strangely and lives in the past. The woman who lives in my house and I have to take care of, she's not my mother. Not my real mother.

The kids at school whisper about me, saying things like, Look. You see that girl, that girl with the dark brown hair, so dark it almost looks black? She's the daughter of that insane woman, the woman who can't even remember what season it is or even her daughter's name. And that girl, she's the daughter of that man who died the day her mom went mad. And she's the sister of the girl who disappeared, do you remember her? Isadora Elydee...

My mother was beautiful, like my sister. Both of them had long blond hair like spun gold and beautiful eyes, soft green with golden flecks in it. And they loved to sing the most beautiful songs, singing for me, for Father, for us.

But Mother, her beauty has faded now that the life in her is gone. Dull, stringy yellow locks and blank green eyes. The look in her eyes scares me: empty, gone, eradicated.

Suddenly, I remembered: my sister. She was singing her favorite song the day she vanished, a sad but beautiful melody about leaving loved ones. The fact was so ironic, so flat and blank and made me want to cry.

It was final: I couldn't leave home for Masonhart Academy and leave my mother in this state. I washed the last plate and shut off the faucet. The doorbell rang, and I ran to it.

The first thing I saw when I opened the door was the girl, who looked like she was about four years older than me. Tall and willowy, she was glamorously beautiful with orange-gold hair that reached her waist, light brown doe-like eyes, and a movie-star smile. "You're Natalia Elydee, right?" she asked, extending a slender hand. "I'm Tatiana Montela, from Masonhart Academy. I'm from the batch of students chosen three years ago."

"Uhhh..." My mind went blank in the face of the girl's prettiness and confidence. Finally, I extended my hand and shook Tatiana's hand, fighting the urge to kneel and bow to her. "I-I'm Natalia. You can call me Natalie-"

"Natalia." Tatiana smiled, her teeth pearls in the sunlight. "That's a beautiful name."

My wish for her to call me Natalie immediately evaporated. "Thank you...m-ma'm," I whispered.

Tatiana threw her head back and laughed like a thousand tinkling silver bells. I felt a sudden happiness rise inside of me, hearing her laugh. "Oh, Natalia. You don't have to call me ma'm. You can call me Tatiana."

I bobbed my head frantically. "Okay...Tatiana."

Tatiana's lips quirked upward for a second before she spun around and I realized that there were about ten people behind her, males and females ranging from about seventeen to twenty-seven years old. "Natalia, these are people who can help your mother with her...condition. And they're very good caretakers, so your mother will be in very good hands when you go and fulfill your future."

"What future?" I asked stupidly, confusion filling my features. "What are you talking about?"

"Natalia, you're so cute." Tatiana smiled like she knew something I didn't. "You were accepted to Masonhart Academy. You have to go, of course."

"N-No I can't," I managed to say, looking at my feet with my shoes still on, tracking dirt paths. I must've left dirt trails all over the house. I have to clean that up later. "Besides, how do you know about my mother?"

"I heard as I came into the neighborhood. Poor you, having to live with a mentally crippled mother!" She looked at me with a face of pity, and my heart sunk. I had seen that expression before, on relatives and friends and teachers. Poor Natalie, how does she deal with everything that's gone wrong in her life? I heard that she does all the cooking, cleaning, and washing in her house. Taking on so much responsibility so young...

"Believe me, Natalia. These people here are extremely capable. Think about it, Natalia, what you could do! What you could achieve! You've worked so hard these past years for your mother. You need to start thinking about YOU. Do you know your talent?"

Tatiana's words spun around in my mind and lodged themselves in the deep recesses of my brain. "My talent," I whispered, more to myself than her. "I have a talent?"

The older girl beamed. "Of course! You were accepted to Masonhart Academy. Of course you have a talent!"

"A talent..." I fingered the edge of my shirt. "What type of talents are there at the academy? What exactly is a talent?"

"Oh, there are all sorts of talents at the academy. You'll see," Tatiana sang. "Now, how are you going to get yourself to the academy on the first day? Oh, never mind, I'll pick you up! After all, I'm going back to the academy too. It'll be my fourth and last year at Masonhart, can you believe it? I'm so excited, I wonder which talents have developed and which haven't, hmmm..."

I listened to her speed-chatter, my mind spinning in circles. I kept on hearing the same thought: Go to Masonhart Academy. You should go, find out what your talent is. If you even have one.

"So sorry, Natalia!" Tatiana suddenly gasped. "Here I am, babbling on and on when you haven't even decided if you're going or not! Are you going to attend? You should, of course, but that's just my opinion, it's really your choice, and don't worry, your mother will be fine-"

"Yeah." My mutter was barely intelligible. And more for myself than anyone else, I whispered the words that were destined to change my life:

"I'll go. I'll attend Masonhart Academy."