We Set the Dark on Fire (We Set the Dark on Fire, #1)(9)

It was time, she thought sadly, to put that other future to rest. The one she’d seen bloom in a look between her parents. The one she might have had if she’d stayed at home, where joining yourself to someone was more than just a business arrangement. The upper class had always looked down on the lower for the way they married. Pitied them for the lack of the sun’s blessing until the pity twisted into prejudice. One partner, for better or worse—they thought it uncivilized. A relic of a cursed past. But for most of her life, it had been all Dani knew.

Primera training had reduced the memory down to a quiet whisper in her bones, but tonight it would be silenced for good.

On the way to the oratory, she opened the box for just a moment and let her memories of Polvo flood in. The looming wall that hid the place she had truly been born. The salt-hard ground where nothing much would grow. The laughter of children and the dancing feet of adults not too tired from another day of survival to feel joy. The fires in barrels and the sweet wine she’d sneak sips of with her friends under a million stars. Her home.

Polvo was lost to her. And it was time to grow up.

The oratory blazed once more against the night. Little as she loved the idea of pledging herself to a stranger tonight, Dani thought, at least she could feel good about her reasons for doing so. It would never be happiness, but maybe, like her mama said, it could be enough.

“Primera students to the left, please! Segundas to the right!” Residents prowled the aisles, hushing, herding, restoring order.

Dani found her place on her own, settling in, offering half-hearted nods to the girls surrounding her. The peers she’d never allowed herself to know or befriend. How could she have? When the only time she’d tried . . . Well, the scene with Carmen today had been proof enough of that outcome.

Across the aisle, the Segundas were a riot of color and sound, swapping lip stains and fluffing one another’s hair, tightening the ends of braids, trading woven bracelets for friendship and luck. The difference across the aisle was stark. But that was how it was supposed to be. Emotion clouded your judgment, and logic hampered your ability to feel. The Sun God had been wise, and thousands of years of prosperous Medians were proof of his blessing’s worth.

Even Dani, with her false papers and dusty memories, the little gods that turned on her in key moments to stick out their tongues, couldn’t argue with results.

She closed her eyes against the bustle of energy and noise, and under her breath she recited the pledge she’d be offering to Mateo Garcia. It was tradition, the first impression a husband got of his new Primera, and she wanted it to be flawless.

Around her, a hundred other Primeras prepared in their own ways. A hundred weddings would be taking place here tonight. A hundred hopeful pledges by Constancia’s chosen ones, hiding the trembling of their hands. A hundred promises by daughters of the Moon Goddess, who had never looked more beautiful than they would tonight under the candlelight. A hundred family cloths, woven by mothers, wrapped around the shoulders of the three as they vowed to accept their blessing. To be partners. To be one.

It should have felt like flying, and for some of the girls it probably did. But the part of home Dani thought she’d exhaled outside the oratory was back with a vengeance. She didn’t want to be here, she realized with a dull sense of horror. She wanted to go home.

You will find a way to make a life you love, said her mama’s voice in her heart. No matter how different it is from the one you left.

As they had been meant to do all those years ago when Dani boarded the bus to the capital, her mama’s words kept her in place now, her face impassive as her heart threatened to break into pieces.

“Ladies and gentleman of Medio,” said Headmatron Huerta. “Welcome.”

Her voice had always had a subduing effect on a crowd. Even the Segundas’ feathers settled as all eyes turned toward the front. Dani kept her mama’s words close, repeating them like a mantra when her restlessness threatened to get the best of her.

You will find a way to make a life you love.

“This ceremony is the crowning event of our academic year. The young women before you have worked tirelessly to reach this moment, and we could not be prouder to present them to you tonight.”

As applause filled the room, a buzzing numbness began at the base of Dani’s spine and spread. Despite her calming mantra, the room took on an odd, shimmering quality.

Was this her body, sitting straight-backed and sure in this pew?

“But I don’t need to tell you how outstanding these girls are,” Headmatron Huerta continued. “You’ve seen it for yourself during your interviews with them. When you weighed their accomplishments, their virtues, and chose them to become members of your families.”

More applause. The latch on the forbidden corner of Dani’s mind rattled dangerously. Everything inside it screamed to be let free. Nights with her parents, their simple but hearty food between them, laughter painting the night. Days with her friends, people who had known her since childhood, people who protected her secret and even shared it. People she could trust.

And someday, maybe, a love that arose on its own. A marriage that wasn’t forced. Blessing or not, was she wrong to want that? Her Primera training rebelled against the thoughts, but Dani found for the first time that it wasn’t enough to stop them.

“We have a lot of commitments to make here tonight,” said the headmatron, drawing Dani back to the present. “So let’s get right to it.” She gestured beyond the rear door to a classroom space, where a hundred young husbands waited for the wives their fathers had bought them. “Without further ado . . .” Her voice brimmed with satisfaction as she removed the list from a compartment below the podium. Dani could almost see the gold coins spilling over in her mind’s eye.

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