We Set the Dark on Fire (We Set the Dark on Fire, #1)(8)

Feeling peaceful and full after eating her last school meal—pork swimming in garlicky tomatillo sauce, perfectly spiced red rice that stained your fingers oily red, and a small tower of those incredible tortillas—Dani wove her way through the visiting families and back to the dormitory. It was time to prepare for the most important night of her life.

But before she could make it across the east courtyard, a whispering knot of Segundas sashayed into her path. Dani prayed silently to the god of hurry that she’d escape their notice. Unfortunately, he wasn’t on her side today.

“I think you’ve got some . . . is that oil, on your cheek? I don’t know how they eat where you’re from, but at this altitude we try to use a little decorum.”

The cold, ringing voice could only belong to one person, and Dani steeled herself before stopping to face her.

Carmen Santos towered over the girls simpering beside her, dressed in swirling turquoise silk that set off her golden-brown skin. Her curls were so black they glinted in the late afternoon sun like the dark metal of a loaded pistol.

By comparison, Dani felt weak as a reed in the wind, her black dress hanging from narrow hips and negligible curves. Her child’s cheeks. The close-cropped waves of her unruly hair. The skin that cooled olive where Carmen’s glowed like the setting sun.

Primeras were not vain, Dani reminded herself. Their value came from deeper wells than physical beauty. “I’ll take that under advisement,” she said, anger rattling the bars of her restraint, though her face showed nothing. “Enjoy your afternoon.”

“Guess they don’t teach you to stand up for yourself out there, either,” Carmen said. “Just goes to show, you can take the girl out of the salt, but you can’t take the salt out of the girl.”

The anger was rattling harder now, and Dani stopped, standing perfectly still as she weighed her options and the other girls smirked and giggled among themselves. Maybe it was the finality of it all that made her pause. She’d been tolerating Carmen’s unsubtle digs since they’d met on the shuttle from the capital, five long years ago. It was the first and only time Dani—alone and scared, miles from home—had confided in anyone about her modest upbringing.

Twelve-year-old Carmen had been no less beautiful, but her wide eyes had been friendly then, and Dani had trusted her against her father’s advice. How could a girl with a pretty face and an easy smile ever betray her?

She found out all too quickly, when Carmen settled in with the girls of her own station, and the fragile friendship they’d built up over the miles became collateral damage.

“Hey, Carmen,” Dani said at last, letting just a hint of her true feelings through. Just this once. Carmen turned, hand on hip, and waited. “You might be right about the salt, but I guess growing up in silk and silver doesn’t guarantee class. Thanks for the lesson.”

When Carmen’s eyes flashed, Dani knew she’d hit her mark. “Listen to me, you border brat. You wouldn’t know class if it barreled through that village of yours and flattened your family hovel.”

“Maybe not,” Dani said. “But I know desperation better than most, and you reek of it.”

Carmen gestured once, sharply, and the other jewels fled the crown, leaving the two of them alone. “I’d work on that temper of yours, Primera,” she said, her voice lower now. Almost dangerous. “Not that you’d know, but well-bred men like their women to have a little charm.”

Dani took a deep breath, praying to the god of voice that she could hold hers steady. “That’s one of the perks of having actual value,” she said. “You don’t have to rely on frivolous things like charm.”

Carmen laughed, and Dani carried the mocking sound all the way back to her room, where she used slow, controlled movements to open and close her drawers, putting on her Primera-issued graduation dress with an exaggerated precision that masked her frustration.

There was something about Carmen that got under Dani’s skin. Partially, it was anger at her twelve-year-old self for acting on instinct rather than logic, but that wasn’t all of it. It was the way people treated Carmen, too. Doted on her. Acted like she was so special because she was rich and beautiful and everything came easily.

It had been a hard adjustment, coming here from a house with a dirt floor, but Dani had made it. She’d grown used to the way the other girls acted, like they expected the world on a silver platter and they weren’t planning on being disappointed.

But in Carmen, that entitlement was magnified somehow. She was the face of everything Dani would never have, would never be, and she hated her for it. For the way her world was unfolding like a flower, while Dani was just trying to make way.

“The graduation ceremony will begin in one hour!” came the resident’s voice from the hallway, calling them to order for the last time. “Please finish your preparations and make your way to the oratory.”

Dani did her best to shove thoughts of Carmen into the little box where she kept off-limits things. Fears. Irritations. Longings. Regrets. It was one of the earliest lessons of a Primera’s training—learning to wall off the feelings that could interfere with your restraint. By the time Dani walked out of the dormitory doors, she was smooth and gleaming like lacquered wood.

It was time to be the flawless girl this institution had invested so much in. Time to earn the notas that would keep her parents fed and clothed for years, patch their roof, and buy her father new work boots with solid soles.

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