THE MATCHING CEREMONY


“Cassia Reyes, the Society is pleased to present you with your Match”

I smile as Xander’s face appears on the portscreen immediately following the recorded message. It’s a good picture of him. As always, his smile looks bright and real, his blue eyes kind. He is handsome. I’d never dared think that he might be my Match, of course, but now that it’s happened I am interested. Intrigued. A little scared about how this might change our friendship, but mostly just happy.

I read up to touch the words Courtship Guidelines on the screen but before I do, Xander’s face darkens and then disappears. The portscreen beeps and the voice says again, “Cassia Reyes, the Society is pleased to present you with your Match.”

My heart stops, and I can’t believe what I see. A face comes back into view on the port in front of me.

It is not Xander.

CHAPTER 1

Now that I’ve found the way to fly, which direction should I go into the night? My wings aren’t white or feathered; they’re green, made of green silk, which shudders in the wind and bends when I move - first in a circle, then in a line, finally in a shape of my own invention. The black behind me doesn’t worry me; neither do the stars ahead.

I smile at myself, at the foolishness of my imagination. People cannot fly, though before the Society, there were myths about those who could. I saw a painting of them once. White wings, blue sky, gold circles above their heads, eyes turned up in surprise as though they couldn’t believe what the artist had painted them doing, couldn’t believe that their feet didn’t touch the ground.

Those stories weren’t true. I know that. But tonight, it’s easy to forget. The air train glides through the starry night so smoothly up and my heart pounds so quickly that it feels as though I could soar into the sky at any moment.

“What are you smiling about?” Xander wonders as I smooth the folds of my green silk dress down neat.

“Everything,” I tell him, and it’s true. I’ve waited so long for this: for my Match Banquet. Where I’ll see, for the first time, the face of the boy who will be my Match. It will be the first time I hear his name.

I can’t wait. As quickly as the air train moves, it still isn’t fast enough. It hushes through the night, its sound a background for the low rain of our parents’ voices, the lightning-quick beats of my heart.

Perhaps Xander can hear my heart pounding, too, because he asks, “Are you nervous?” In the seat next to him, Xander’s older brother begins to tell my mother the story of his Match Banquet. It won’t be long now until Xander and I have our own stories to tell.

“No,” I say. But Xander’s my best friend. He knows me too well.

“You lie,” he teases. “You are nervous.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Not me. I’m ready.” He says it without hesitation, and I believe him.

Xander is the kind of person who is sure about what he wants.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re nervous, Cassia,” he says, gentle now. “Almost ninety-three percent of those attending their Match Banquet exhibit some signs of nervousness.”

“Did you memorize all of the official Matching material?”

“Almost,” Xander says, grinning. He holds his hands out as if to say, What did you expect?

The gesture makes me laugh, and besides, I memorized all of the material, too. It’s easy to do when you read it so many times, when the decision is so important. “So you’re in the minority,” I say. “The seven percent who don’t show any nerves at all.”

“Of course,” he agrees.

“How could you tell *I *was nervous?”

“Because you keep opening and closing that.” Xander points to the golden object in my hands. “I didn’t know you had an artifact.” A few treasures from the past float around among us. Though citizens of the Society are allowed one artifact each, they are hard to come by. Unless you had ancestors who took care to pass things along through the years.

“I didn’t, until a few hours ago,” I tell him. “Grandfather gave it to me for my birthday. It belonged to his mother.”

“What’s it called?” Xander asks.

“A compact,” I say. I like the name very much. Compact means small. I am small. I also like the way it sounds when you say it: com-pact. Saying the word makes a sound like the one the artifact itself makes when it snaps shut.

“What do the initials and numbers mean?”

“I’m not sure.” I run my finger across the letters ACM and the numbers 1940 carved across the golden surface. “But look,” I tell him, popping the compact open to show him the inside: a little mirror, made of real glass, and a small hollow where the original owner once stored powder for her face, according to Grandfather. Now, I use it to hold the three emergency tables that everyone carries - one green, one blue, one red.

“That’s convenient,” Xander says. He stretches out his arms in front of him and I notice that he has an artifact, too - a pair of shiny platinum cuff links. “My father lent me these, but you can’t put anything in them. They’re completely useless.”

“They look nice, though.” My gaze travels up to Xander’s face, to his bright blue eyes and blond hair above his dark suit and white shirt. He’s always been handsome, even when we were little, but I’ve never seen him dressed up like this. Boys don’t have as much leeway in choosing clothes as girls do. One suit looks much like the other. Still, they get to select the color of their shirts and cravats, and the quality of the materials is much finer than the material used for plainclothes. “You look nice.” The girl who finds out that he’s her Match will be thrilled.

“Nice?” Xander says, lifting his eyebrows. “That’s all?”

“Xander,” his mother says next to him, amusement mingled with reproach in her voice.

You look beautiful,” Xander tells me, and I flush a little even though I’ve known Xander all my life. I feel beautiful, in this dress: ice green, floating, full-skirted. The unaccustomed smoothness of silk against my skin makes me feel lithe and graceful.

Next to me, my mother and father each draw a breath as City Hall comes into view, lit up white and blue and sparkling with the special occasion lights that indicate a celebration is taking place. I can’t see the marble stairs in the front of the Hall yet, but I know that they will be polished and shining. All my life I have waited to walk up those clean marble steps and through the doors of the Hall, a building I have seen from a distance but never entered.

I want to open the compact and check in the mirror to make sure I look my best. But I don’t want to seem vain, so I sneak a glance at my face in its surface instead.

The rounded lid of the compact distorts my features a little, but it’s still me. My green eyes. My coppery-brown hair, which looks more golden in the compact than it does in real life. My straight small nose. My chin with a trace of a dimple like my grandfather’s. All the outward characteristics that make me Cassia Maria Reyes, seventeen years old exactly.

I turn the compact over in my hands, looking at how perfectly the two sides fit together. My Match is already coming together just as neatly, beginning with the fact that I am here tonight. Since my birthday falls on the fifteenth, the day the Banquet is held each month, I’d always hoped that I might be Matched on my actual birthday - but I knew it might not happen. You can be called up for your Banquet anytime during the year after you turn seventeen. When the notification came across the port two weeks ago that I would, indeed, be Matched on the day of my birthday, I could almost hear the clean snap of the pieces fitting into place, exactly as I’ve dreamed for so long.

Because although I haven’t even had to wait a full day for my Match, in some ways I have waited all my life.

“Cassia,” my mother says, smiling at me. I blink and look up, startled. My parents stand up, ready to disembark. Xander stands, too, and straightens his sleeves. I hear him take a deep breath, and I smile to myself. Maybe he is a little nervous after all.

“Here we go,” he says to me. His smile is so kind and good; I’m glad we were called up the same month. We’ve shared so much of childhood, it seems we should share the end of it, too.

I smile back at him and give him the best greeting we have in the Society.

“I wish you optimal results,” I tell Xander.

“You too, Cassia,” he says.

“As we step off the air train and walk toward City Hall, my parents each link an arm through mine. I am surrounded, as I always have been, by their love.

It is only the three of us tonight. My brother, Bran, can’t come to the Match Banquet because he is under seventeen, too young to attend. The first one you attend is always your own. I, however, will be able to attend Bram’s banquet because I am the older sibling. I smile to myself, wondering what Bram’s Match will be like. In seven year I will find out.

But tonight is my night.

It is easy to identify those of us being Matched; not only are we younger than all of the others, but we also float along in beautiful dresses and tailored suits while our parents and older siblings walk around in plainclothes, a background against which we bloom. The City Officials smile proudly at us, and my heart swells as we enter the Rotunda.

In addition to Xander, who waves good-bye to me as he crosses the room to his seating area, I see another girl I know named Lea. She picked the bright red dress. It is a good choice for her, because she is beautiful enough that standing out works in her favor. She looks worried, however, and she keeps twisting her artifact, a jeweled red bracelet. I am a little surprised to see Lea there. I would have picked her for a Single.

“Look at this china,” my father says as we find our place at the Banquet tables. “It reminds me of the Wedgwood pieces we found last year…”

My mother looks at me and rolls her eyes in amusement. Even at the Match Banquet, my father can’t stop himself from noticing these things. My father spends months working in old neighborhoods that are being restored and turned into new Boroughs for public use. He sifts through the relics of a society that is not as far in the past as it seems. Right now, for example, he is working on a particularly interesting Restoration project: an old library. He sorts out the things the Society has marked as valuable from the things that are not.

But then I have to laugh because my mother can’t help but comment on the flowers, since they fall in her area of expertise as an Arboretum worker.

“Oh Cassia! Look at at the centerpieces. Lilies.” She squeezes my hand.

“Please be seated,” an Official tells us from the podium. “Dinner is about to be served.”

It’s almost comical how quickly we all take our seats. Because we might admire the china and the flowers, and we might be here for our Matches, but we also can’t wait to taste the food.

“They say this dinner is always wasted on the Matchees,” a jovial-looking man sitting across from us says, smiling around our table. “So excited they can’t eat a bite.” And it’s true; one of the girls sitting farther down the table, wearing a pink dress, stares at her plate, touching nothing.