SERINA TESSARO STOOD on the steps of the fountain in Lanos’s central piazza flanked by nine other girls her age, all in their finest gowns. Her brilliant smile never dimmed, even as the thick, coal-hazed twilight tried to choke her.
Signor Pietro gave each girl his narrow-eyed appraisal. He had known all of them from birth, watching and gauging and critiquing their potential. His salt-and-pepper mustache twitched as he pursed his lips.
The dark hulk of the mountains loomed over the soot-stained city, blocking all but a few final rays of daylight. Serina’s family stood in shadow at the edge of the crowd. Only Nomi’s flushed cheeks caught the light. Serina could see plainly, even from this distance, the fury in her sister’s eyes. Their brother, Renzo, kept a hand on Nomi’s arm, as if to hold her back. Serina couldn’t read his expression, but she was sure it didn’t echo their parents’ open anticipation.
Signor Pietro turned away from the girls on the steps of the fountain to address the people gathered in the piazza. As Serina waited for his decree, her heart clamored in her throat, but she hid her excitement beneath a veneer of serenity. Her mother had taught her the importance of masks.
“This year the Heir will choose his first Graces. Each province is allowed to send one girl to vie for this honor. As magistrate for Lanos, it falls to me to choose which of our daughters will travel to Bellaqua.” Maybe he paused. Maybe he drew out the suspense. But time didn’t slow the way Serina expected it to. He just kept saying words in his even, methodical voice, and the words were, “I have chosen Serina Tessaro.”
The crowd applauded. Mama Tessaro’s eyes lit with hope. Nomi’s face fell.
Numb, Serina stepped forward and curtsied deeply. She couldn’t believe it. She was going to Bellaqua. She was getting out of grimy, stifling Lanos.
Serina had imagined it so many times. Riding the train for the first time, down through the lush countryside of Viridia. Seeing the Superior’s city, with its canals and vast marble palazzo. Meeting the Heir. He would be handsome, like a prince in a fairy tale.
And if he chose her, she’d live in a beautiful palace for all her days. She’d never have to work in a textile factory like her mother did, or become a servant like her cousin. Nor would she be forced into a marriage with whichever man could pay the most for her hand. She would go to glittering balls and want for nothing. Her family would want for nothing, and even Nomi would live a better life, for all her resistance. As Serina’s handmaiden, Nomi would get to leave Lanos too.
Signor Pietro shook her father’s hand as Serina descended the stairs. The crowd slowly dispersed. The other girls didn’t speak to her as they rejoined their families. By the time Serina reached hers, Mama Tessaro was quivering with excitement. She’d once been as tall as Serina, but decades of hunching over her sewing machine at the textile factory had twisted her back.
“My flower, I am so proud of you.” She hugged Serina tightly. “You have brought our family great honor.”
Nomi made a noise in her throat.
Serina shot her a quelling look. If Signor Pietro heard Nomi speak out against the Heir or the Superior in any way, he’d have her flogged. He’d already threatened to do so during one of Serina’s physical examinations last month, when Nomi had muttered, “This is ridiculous,” under her breath as she watched the signor inspect Serina in her shift.
“Thank you, Signor,” Papa said, bowing.
The magistrate strode off to his carriage, his short scarlet cape fluttering in the sallow glare of lamplight.
“Let’s go,” Papa said. “We’ve only two days to prepare for your journey.” He led the way to a street in the opposite direction of the signor. They only lived a few blocks away from the central piazza.
Serina drew in a breath of dingy Lanos air and turned to follow. Papa hadn’t even looked at her. She tried to gauge his mood from his stiff shoulders. Was he proud of her, like Mama was?
She couldn’t tell. She never could with him.
Renzo bumped her arm. “You look beautiful,” he said. “The Heir would be a fool not to choose you.” She shot him a grateful smile. Renzo understood how much this meant to her. To all of them.
With his tall, sturdy form, it was easy to forget he was younger than Serina by almost two years. He and Nomi were twins but didn’t look much alike, except for their amber-brown eyes, several shades lighter than Serina’s.
Nomi lagged behind her siblings, scuffing her feet like a sulking child. Serina dropped back so she could walk with her sister.
“This is good news,” Serina murmured, too quiet for their parents to hear. The streets they walked were empty now; everyone else had already returned to their homes after the big announcement. Flickers of lamplight threw splotches of yellow against the rough stone walls of the houses they passed. The dirty cobbles were uneven underfoot, but Serina never faltered. Her copper-colored gown whispered against the stone.
“I don’t want to talk right now,” Nomi growled, obviously not as worried about keeping her voice down.
Serina wanted to throttle her. “How can you not be pleased? I truly don’t understand. We get to leave this ugly city. We might get to live in the palace. Being my handmaiden will be easier than taking care of the whole family the way you do now, and we won’t have to worry about having enough food. Mama will be able to stop working.…”
Nomi walked faster, as if trying to physically escape Serina’s words. “That’s the difference between you and me,” she said, her hands clenched at her sides. A dusky pink flush bloomed across her face. “I don’t think this city is ugly. And I don’t believe in fairy tales. I don’t want—”
“Everything you do want is beyond our reach,” Serina snapped, tired of Nomi’s anger. “You will never be able to choose your own job or your own husband, or… or anything else. It just doesn’t work that way.” It wasn’t Serina’s fault that Viridia gave women so few choices. Serina had learned long ago that fighting didn’t change anything, so she made the best of what she had.
And what she had was the chance to become one of the most revered women in the whole country. If the Heir chose her, she could become the mother of a future Superior.
“Nothing should be beyond our reach. That’s my whole point,” Nomi said.
They were still swept up in the tide of their argument when they reached the creaking door of the family’s small apartment. Renzo held it open for them, his sardonic look making it clear he’d heard them. “Nomi, Papa wants you to start dinner.”
Nomi stormed into the small living room without answering. Serina followed, pulling her skirts close so they wouldn’t catch on the doorframe. Serina saw her sister’s gaze linger on Renzo’s schoolbooks, still open on the rough-hewn dining table. She nudged Nomi’s arm in warning. When she didn’t move, Serina cleared her throat.
Nomi looked up at her sister, but it took a split second for her eyes to focus. Then she shook her head, as if to clear it, and hurried to the sink.
Serina glanced over at their parents, but they were speaking quietly by the little potbellied stove. They hadn’t noticed the exchange. There was a lot they didn’t notice.
Serina and Nomi were like any other daughters in the cold, industrial town of Lanos.
But Serina had her beauty.
And Nomi had her secret.
Serina prayed she was enough to catch the eye of the Heir, for her sake as well as her sister’s. But as Renzo closed the door, the hollow thud echoed into Serina’s bones. She shivered, suddenly filled with fears she couldn’t name.