Home > We Set the Dark on Fire (We Set the Dark on Fire #1)

We Set the Dark on Fire (We Set the Dark on Fire #1)
Tehlor Kay Mejia

Prologue

In the beginning, there were two brother-gods: the God of Salt and the God of Sun.

On the inner island, the Sun God warmed the soil, shone down on the plentiful foliage, and browned the skin of his chosen children. On the outer island, the Salt God kept the water teeming with fish, the waves calm, and the beaches safe. For thousands of years, Medio existed in harmony and prosperity.

But then the Sun God fell in love.

Constancia was the daughter of Medio’s king. She was strong, brave, and her brilliant mind rivaled the god’s own. Each morning he shone brighter and brighter into her window, until one day he walked through in the form of a man, fell to one knee, and asked to be hers forever.

So Constancia became a goddess as well as a queen, and for a time, the divine walked the island in human form. Gods and rulers alike. But into the room that the Sun God shared with his bride, the Moon Goddess shone night after night, and soon she, too, fell in love.

One summer midnight, when the Sun God had walked alone into his moonlit garden, the Moon Goddess descended in the form of a beautiful woman. Her hair was tossed by darkness, her eyes glittered with stars, and her passionate love for the god-king swayed him. Constancia was his equal. His partner and his wife. But in the Moon Goddess he found his opposite, and he was intoxicated by her. For six days and six nights he sat still as a statue in the garden, trying to choose between them as the island waited in darkness.

Meanwhile, the Salt God tasted his brother’s indecision, and seethed. For eternity, the tides of his sea had obeyed none but the Moon Goddess, but each time he glimpsed her face she would turn slowly away from him, shrinking in his eye until she showed him nothing at all.

When the Sun God had finally made his choice, his angry brother ascended from the sea as a man to hear his proclamation.

With Constancia on one arm and the Moon Goddess on the other, the Sun God announced that from that moment onward, the three of them would rule as one. Constancia, his equal, and the goddess, his opposite. The kingdom, he promised, would prosper beyond anything they had ever imagined, and for each of the six days of his isolation, there would be a celebration day to follow.

The Salt God quietly disappeared, but a few days after the Sun God’s revelation, a storm lashed at the island. Houses were destroyed, and the villagers huddled in terror as the beaches and flatlands were destroyed. This was the Salt God’s revenge against a brother who he felt had stolen what belonged to him. After days of rain and punishing waves, he appeared at his brother’s house and issued his ultimatum:

He would wed the Moon Goddess himself, or he would destroy the island his brother loved, and all the people who resided there.

The Sun God met the challenge in his god form, shedding his human skin to battle his brother. The fight raged for a day and a night. Fire and waves. Destruction on top of destruction. But in the end, the Sun God was victorious, and the Salt God was banished from the island forever.

Knowing he was outmatched, the Salt God agreed to exile, but as he left he placed a curse on the outer island he had ruled. Anywhere the waves could reach. The fish turned up bloated and dead on the beaches. The ground was gorged with salt; nothing could grow.

Heartbroken by his brother’s betrayal, the Sun God took to the home he shared with his wives, and for weeks rain fell like his tears onto Medio’s ravaged soil. Soon it became clear that he could no longer remain at the site of all that had befallen him. With a heavy heart, the Sun God relinquished his human form permanently and returned to the celestial body that bore his name.

But before he did, the god-king gathered his people, the ones living inside the island. He called them chosen, and he demanded that as their last act of loyalty they build a wall to contain his brother’s curse and protect the pure. In exchange for this devotion, he would give his chosen children a gift.

From that day forward, for each of the Sun God’s faithful servants, there would be two wives to serve him as the Sun God’s wives did him. At birth, the women of the island would be destined: One touched on her brow by Constancia for her wise and discerning nature, her quick wit and loyalty. The other would be kissed on her brow by the Moon Goddess for her beauty and bravery, for her nurturing warmth and the passion that lurked beneath.

They would be named Primera, for his first wife, and Segunda, for his second.

And so it was. . . .

—Medio School for Girls Handbook, Introduction

1

The key to a Primera’s strength is her restraint and immunity to scandal. She must not only behave like someone with nothing to hide—she must have nothing to hide.

—Medio School for Girls Handbook, 14th edition

DANIELA VARGAS WOKE AT THE first whisper of footsteps coming up the road.

By the time the sound of shattering glass in the courtyard alerted the campus to the presence of intruders, she was dressed and ready. For what? She wasn’t sure. After a childhood of heavy-footed military police in close pursuit, she knew better than to mistake the luxury of her surroundings for safety.

She was only as safe as she was vigilant.

The shouting grew louder. There had been rumors of riots at the border for months, in the capital for weeks, but Dani hadn’t thought they’d make it as far as the Medio School for Girls’ gated sanctuary. The campus was private and insulated: white stone, lush greenery. A place where the country’s brightest and most promising young women could train to become the wives Medio’s future husbands deserved.

Dani had been here five years. Enough time to rise to the top of her class, to secure placement as Primera to the capital’s most promising young politico. Graduation was only two days away, and then she would begin the life her parents had sacrificed family, home, and more to give her.

Assuming what was happening outside didn’t get her arrested or killed first.

Another bottle shattered, closer this time, the smell of gasoline drifting in through the open window. Dani closed her eyes and muttered a half-forgotten prayer to the god in the air, to the goddess in the flames. Keep calm, she beseeched them.

No one around her would understand. Her parents’ gods weren’t in fashion this far inland—only the bearded visage of the Sun God, who ruled masculine ambitions and financial prosperity.

For a brief, unexpected moment, Dani wished her mama were here. It didn’t take long to dismiss it as ridiculous. She was seventeen, a woman grown, two days from being a wife herself. Primeras didn’t need comforting.

“Wake up!” came a voice from the courtyard. Drunk on booze or rebellion. Dangerous. “Can’t you see this is all a lie? Can’t you see people are dying? Can’t you see?”

For the first time in her life, Dani awaited the arrival of the military police with something other than terror. She wanted them to come. To disperse the protest so she could go back to doing what they all did best—pretending Medio was prospering and peaceful. Pretending there was nothing but infertile ground and ocean beyond the looming border wall that kept their island nation divided in half.

Once they left, Dani could get back to pretending, too. That she belonged. That she wanted to be here as much as her parents wanted her to be.

Footsteps passed too close outside the window, and Dani ducked below the sill, leaning against the wall, listening to the pleading sounds of a home she didn’t remember fleeing. Up and down the hall, the other fifth-year girls were likely still sleeping. Secure in the knowledge that they had no secrets to discover. Dani envied them.

The rioters didn’t attempt to come inside. They screamed the names of family members they had lost in grief-soaked voices, chanting, pleading for the people hiding inside to wake up before it was too late.

Dani almost missed the snoring presence of her roommate, Jasmín, who had graduated the year before. With an odd number of Primera students, Dani was given the option of a single room for her final year, and with all she had at stake, she had leapt at the chance. But at least with Jasmín here, Dani would have had someone to pretend for. Some reason to quell the fear that curled in her stomach. She banished the thought. Jasmín was miles away now, in a mansion inside Medio’s most exclusive gated community.

She had succeeded. And Dani would, too. She just had to get through tonight.

By the time the police arrived—all authoritative boots and helmeted heads and rifle barrels—the school was locked down. The protesters had scattered in a hundred directions, the shouts increasing in volume as the officers gave chase through the tangle of trees.

Though she was glad for the peace, Dani couldn’t bring herself to thank the goddess of law for the presence of the officers tonight. Most of the protesters had escaped, from the sounds of it, but a few were being captured and restrained, and Dani shivered at the thought of where they were headed.

The cells in Medio’s only prison were all dank and hopeless, but the ones reserved for rebels and sympathizers were rumored to be windowless as well. Dark as the sap dripping down the citrus trees, day and night.

People who went into them rarely came out.

A rapping on the door interrupted the quiet, and Dani found relief in the way she dropped her prayers, her fear of discovery, everything that was out of place in this room. By the time she answered the door, she was who they expected her to be. Not a hair, or a thought, out of place.

“Everyone okay in here?” asked the resident, flanked on both sides by police. Her voice shook, and Dani wondered what she had to be afraid of.

“It’s just me,” Dani said. “And I’m fine.”

The resident—Ami, Dani remembered—only nodded. Of course Dani was fine. She was a Primera, after all, and Primeras didn’t let their emotions take control. Not even when everything they held dear was at stake.

Especially not then.

“We need all students to report to the oratory,” Ami said. “We’re here to escort you.” She was afraid but sure, Dani thought. The picture of a young woman who had never had anything to lose. Who had never entertained the thought that something truly bad might happen.

“Is everything alright?” Dani asked in a careful voice.

“Someone disabled the gate alarm from inside,” she said. “The officers need to speak with all students and staff.”

Dani nodded, not trusting her voice. She had done nothing wrong, she told herself. Unlike the people being arrested outside.

She repeated it in her head to keep calm: I’m not a criminal. I’m not like them.

“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.

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