We Set the Dark on Fire (We Set the Dark on Fire, #1)(10)

Some girls were worth more than others, some families willing to pay more for the best. But the real winner here was the Medio School for Girls, who sent a dowry to each girl’s family and took a cut for themselves.

All this white stone and intricate tile-work didn’t come cheap, after all.

“Will Juan Felipe Tejada Alvarez please come forward?”

The door behind the headmatron opened, and a boy strode forward with an abundance of confidence. The atmosphere among the graduates became electric just as Dani’s nerves threatened to corrode her iron restraint. This was it.

Juan stood to the left of the podium, scanning the crowd eagerly. Traditionally the placements were kept a secret, to bring some drama into the night’s events, but Dani knew there were few girls in these rows—on the Primera side, at least—without a very good idea where they would end up.

They weren’t the most resourceful, intelligent young women in the country for nothing.

“The Alvarez family has chosen . . . ,” said the headmatron, pausing for effect. “Primera Maria Luna Vega Sanchez!”

Dani clapped, relieved to feel sensation returning to her limbs. Maria stood, beaming and waving to her parents behind her before walking up the aisle toward her new husband, who had turned suddenly shy.

“. . . And Segunda Sofia Rios Gomez!”

Predictably, several tearful Segundas clutched at the hem of Sofia’s dress as she passed, shouting congratulations at her in high-pitched voices that made Dani’s head ache.

One of them was probably Carmen.

Not that Dani was thinking about her.

Maria and her new husband had been staring at each other, slightly awestruck, but when Sofia took the stage beside them, the dynamic changed. They seemed to settle into their roles in a way that transformed them into adults before the audience’s eyes.

“Primera, please recite your pledge.”

The room was silent as Maria promised to be Juan Alvarez’s support. His perspective. His friend, and his partner in all things. His smile was stiff but seemed genuine, and he nodded solemnly when she’d finished, sealing the pledge with a handshake, as custom dictated.

Sofia went next, her voice low and confident as she promised to be the song his life had been missing, and to care for him until the end of their days.

“And now, the cloth,” Headmatron Huerta said as Juan turned to Sofia, unfolding a cloth in the Alvarez family colors of brown, red, and gold. He wrapped it around his own shoulders before extending it, bringing Primera and Segunda under its symbolic cover. For a moment they stood nearly forehead to forehead to forehead before they stepped apart.

When Dani thought Juan could look no more boyish and afraid, he spoke clearly of his commitment to provide for them, to protect them, to be steadfast and loyal until his dying day.

Next, the headmatron produced their marriage agreement, which they signed in turns before taking a bow and disappearing through a third door, leading out to the courtyard. Tonight, the husbands would return home alone. Tomorrow morning, their new wives would join them.

After the novelty of the first commitment, Dani let the names and slightly varied pledges slide through her mind without making much of an impression. Inside, she was still a nation at war with itself. On one side, the life she’d dreamed of and the uncertainty of the life before her. On the other, her family’s hope and everything they’d left behind.

A lesser Primera would have shown it, would have trembled or gasped for breath or stood without meaning to. But Dani was not a lesser Primera. Her mask was all she had left.

Wearing it well, she waited for the name that would end the war, and after an hour or more, she heard it at last. Falling as destined by the alphabet—which was such an arbitrary way to choose to change someone’s life completely, wasn’t it?

“Would Alberto Mateo Luis Gonzalez Garcia please step forward?”

Dani’s spine went straight as a sapling, and the tingling feeling returned as the room erupted in whispers. The Garcias were far and away the wealthiest, most decorated family present tonight. Every girl in Dani’s class had coveted this placement. But only two girls in this room would walk away with the boy now stepping up to the podium, looking more like a man than any who had come before him.

He was handsome. Wide-shouldered and narrow-waisted, he stepped up looking self-assured, not bored or nervous. Like he was comfortable in front of a crowd.

The headmatron waited for the hissing to die down, and Dani thought of the elder Se?or Garcia, Mateo’s father. He was the chief military strategist to the president, and there were not-so-secret rumors that he was grooming his son for the presidency.

Mateo was everything her parents had wanted for her. Wealthy. Respected. With him, she would be above reproach. Polvo’s salt-song lamented in her blood; a counterweight, a mourning cry.

“The Garcia family has chosen . . .”

Dani breathed in, making sure not to stand before it was official.

“Primera Daniela Noa Vargas.”

Her legs held steady. Her papa’s stories and the teasing laughter of her childhood friends and the vague memory of a night spent held against her mama’s body, following a flashlight beam into a new world. Was this where it had all been taking her?

Outside, the school’s top Primera took her place demurely beside the year’s most promising bachelor. Inside, Dani was a storm without an eye. She looked up at him, trying to get a read on the boy aside from his pedigree. She, of all people, knew that where you were from and where you were going weren’t always enough to tell a person’s whole story.

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