We Set the Dark on Fire (We Set the Dark on Fire, #1)(3)

“And please,” said Ami as Dani adjusted her dress at the shoulders, the familiar motion calming her, “bring your identification papers.”

Dani’s eyes begged to widen, her fingers to tremble, her heart to hammer at her ribs. She refused them all, her face carved from stone as she’d been trained to hold it. No emotion. No weakness.

She kept her posture as carefully restrained as her face, approaching her desk, drawing out a battered folder that had crossed an entire nation with her. Its contents had cost her parents every cent they’d earned by the time she was four years old.

They had gotten her through thirteen years, these papers. She could only pray to the gods of fate and chance that they would get her through one more night.

In the hallway, the police took the lead, expressionless. The courtyard was deserted, but the officers drew their guns as they searched for intruders, shoulders tense. Ami held her hands in front of her face, as if the protesters were malicious, toxic. As if they had something she could catch.

Dani knew better. They were just broken.

The oratory doors were open, light spilling out into the darkness. Dani’s deities didn’t live in this room. Not anymore. Not the goddesses in the stars, nor the winking gods in the trunks of the trees. Here, the Sun God held court, bare-chested, muscled, and proud. Even his wives were missing from the largest paintings. He was mostly ornamental now, this fierce god-king at the center of so many of Medio’s myths. The powerful used him as proof that they were chosen, but the only things people worshipped on the inner island were money and power.

Even still, the oratory looked hopeful inside—hundreds of tiny candle flames, standing against the night. In this corner of the world, if nowhere else, light was winning.

Dani was ushered inside by Ami, who left her to sit on a bench unnoticed. As police and maestras tried to create order among hundreds of scared, exhausted girls, she clutched her papers in her hands, refusing to allow her palms to perspire.

The Primera students sat mostly still, self-control as much a part of them at this point as their names. The fifth-years would be overseeing households by the end of the week, staffing enormous houses, managing social calendars. Supporting the husbands they’d spent a lifetime training to earn.

Across the room, the Segundas were utterly beside themselves. In various states of undress, they held hands and leaned against one another, expressing their fear and exhaustion unreservedly to anyone who would listen. Near the front of the oratory, one was actually sobbing.

Dani couldn’t even remember the last time she’d let herself cry alone.

She could roll her eyes all she liked at the preening, fluttering Segundas, but things were the way they were supposed to be. The way they had always been. Opposites, coming together to make a perfect whole. And when Dani finally stood up and took her vows, she would be part of it at last, just like her parents had wanted.

Two more days, she told herself.

There were one hundred and ninety-six girls in this year’s graduating class, and ninety-eight young men from prominent families waiting for them when they completed their studies.

Within these walls, they trained perfect wives. Primera and Segunda. The tried and true way to run a fully functioning home at the caliber required by the country’s elite. Inner-islanders had flourished this way for thousands of years, long after faith had stopped driving the equation. No one was about to change the method now.

Looking around the ostentatious oratory, artistic renditions of Medio’s origin story depicted across its walls, Dani tried to remember the last time she’d even heard the gods mentioned. They were everywhere at home, but what need did the inner-islanders have for gods? Faith, it so often seemed, was for the lacking.

Her musings had almost returned her heart to its normal rate when two maestras began to whisper, sunk low into a pew behind her. Dani listened closely. She’d been trained to be aware, resourceful, to find knowledge where she needed it, and to use it.

“Do you think it was one of ours?” asked one nervous voice.

“I hope not, but we’ll know soon enough either way,” said the second.

“What do you mean?”

“They had them bring their identification papers. I heard there’s a new method for verification. If there are any forgeries in the school, they’ll find out tonight.”

The conversation continued, but the blood pounding in Dani’s ears drowned out whatever came next. The battered envelope crinkled beneath her grasping fingers. At her hairline, sweat began to bead.

If they really had a new verification system . . .

Dani stood as surreptitiously as she could, inching toward the wall. With those few whispered words, everything had changed. If she could just lean against this wall a moment, maybe she could make her way toward the door without anyone seeing.

But what then? asked a practical voice in her head.

Down the hill into the capital? Blend in until she could make it back to her parents? But going back would only make them targets as well. The Medio School for Girls could hardly fail to notice the disappearance of their star student two days before graduation.

And even if they did, they’d certainly miss the small fortune the Garcia family was planning to pay for her. The school would keep most of the money, of course, but the wealthiest families paid the most generous sums, and Dani’s portion was meant for her parents. To buy them a small piece of the life they had earned for her when they fled the only home they’d ever known. When they left behind family and friends and every ounce of certainty. They’d lived in fear of discovery for years so Dani could have a chance to shine, but daughters in prison weren’t worth a cent, and dead ones were even worse.

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