We Set the Dark on Fire (We Set the Dark on Fire, #1)(6)

“Think about the crimes your precious government condones, not just the ones they punish. Then you can talk to me about who the real criminals are. If we’re not all free, none of us are free. You remember that.”

There was fire in his eyes when he spoke, a song in his throat, nearly turning his words hypnotic. There was a small part of Dani that wanted to buy into his logic. But Primeras thought with their heads, not their hearts. This was what these “revolutionaries” did. They made everything emotional. They leaned on pretty words until violence sounded like freedom. Until the extreme seemed justified.

“Save it,” she finally said, though her voice was rougher than she liked. “I just need to get out of here. I’m doing what I have to do to survive. I’m not signing up to set things on fire.”

“Whatever you say.” Sota smirked, already turning toward the door. “But you’re already seeing things differently. Your face might hide your feelings, but you can’t hide who you are. Not forever.”

Dani opened her mouth to protest, but he didn’t give her a chance.

“I marked you as interviewed on the student manifest,” he said. “You’re safe for tonight. Present these to the officer at tomorrow’s checkpoint and you won’t have any trouble.”

The door opened, and the sounds of Dani’s world came pouring back in as he disappeared into the crowd.

No one seemed to notice her walking out of the supply closet, and Dani drew the persona that had gotten her through five years in this place around her like a shawl. She was calm, collected, in control. Her restraint was her strength.

Students weren’t permitted to leave until everyone had been questioned, and Dani sat alone at the end of a pew toward the back until they were dismissed, just as the moon had begun its slow descent in the sky.

Back in her room, she should have fallen into bed and slept like the dead, but instead she sat awake, gazing at her new papers in the dim light from a candle.

They were beautiful. A job like this would run someone thousands of notas in the back-alley places frequented by desperate outer islanders with everything to lose. And that’s if they could find someone good enough to make them without a waiting list a year long.

Dani’s parents had saved every penny until she was four years old to get identification for the three of them. The riots had been getting worse, modern-day politics reinforcing Medio’s mythology until they formed an impenetrable hatred between the island’s two sides.

She barely remembered the crossing. Her mama wrapping her in a long, woven cloth on her back even though she was much too old to be carried. Her father hushing them when the beams of the guards’ lights passed too close. And then the climb. The darkness. The way her mama’s feet slipped against the stone and her breath whistled through her teeth.

That was all.

They had left everything behind. A family, a history, and a home Dani barely remembered. She’d seen the ghosts of that life in her parents’ faces sometimes, passing like shadows, and felt guilty because they’d given it all up for her.

Dani sniffed as she traced the clean lines of her name on the paper. The town they’d settled in when she was a child had been filled in as her birthplace. Polvo. She’d loved that little town. It was the first home she really remembered. She’d loved the kids, and the noise, and her run-down schoolhouse. Loved the trips with her mama into the small city nearby, where street vendors sold roasted corn on sticks and frozen fruit with chili powder in paper cups.

But when her parents had come up with the idea to enter her into Primera selection the year she turned twelve, what could Dani really say? They wanted the best for her, they’d said. Wanted her to rise so high that the place she was born could never be a danger to her again. In the face of all that, what did it matter that Dani had loved Polvo? Loved her best friend, Marisol, and the boys across the street who always had a scraggly puppy or two in tow. Loved the idea of growing up to make the little place they called home better, instead of fleeing forever and leaving it to gather dust.

In Polvo, no one had been confused about who their loyalty was to. Parents worked long hours in desperate conditions; they made sure you had enough to eat even when it meant going without; they scraped and scrounged every day to give you something more than they were allowed, and duty was all they asked for in return.

And what were Dani’s little loves compared to that? A belly mostly full of food when others went hungry or worse. Shelter, and both of her parents alive, and the chance to be considered for the highest honor a young woman in Medio could dream of.

What could she possibly give them besides her best?

It didn’t matter that Dani had dreamed of a little house and a couple of chickens and the chance to learn her mama’s recipes. Of taking care of her parents as they got older. It didn’t matter that she’d wanted Polvo, and the life she had been born for. Because in Medio, safety required power, and to get power you had to move closer to the sun.

She had done well, she thought, looking around the lavishly appointed room, its white stone, the hand-painted tiles lining the walls. Her closet full of modest dresses, each worth more than her father made in a week back home. The Medio School for Girls had provided it all, confident that Dani would more than make up for it when her new family paid her marriage fee.

Maybe the girls she went to school with didn’t know what it meant to feel that fierce loyalty to their families. That duty. But she did, and to turn her back on it would mean to let go of the last little piece of Polvo she’d been allowed to keep.

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