I closed my eyes and waited for the Sorting. Arrow, the Sorting Monitor, cleared her throat and read my designation aloud to the circle.
“Quality Time,” she bellowed. There was a gasp from the crowd and a scream—which I would later learn came from me.
“Again,” I whispered hoarsely, watching Darius already turning from me as he joined the Words of Affirmation.
“What did you say, Child?” growled the Monitor. Sortings were final.
“Sort me again,” I pleaded, my knees stinging with the sharp gravel of the Village Square as I kneeled to beg for another designation.
She scowled at me. “Join your group for The Feast.”
I stood obediently, brushing dust from my frock. It was much too cold for a frock today, but girls were required to wear dresses to The Sorting. This was the same frock I had worn to attend the last six years of Sortings, but Mama was deft enough with her thread that I never seemed to outgrow it.
I blinked in the winter sun and spotted the raised flag that bore the crest of Quality Time. Under the flag huddled members of my new life. Somewhere in the huddle stood a stranger that I would one day call, “husband.”
The Schism of The Languages had split couples, families, and whole villages apart. Some were lucky enough to be placed in the same designations. I watched Surf and Rowan—a lovesick couple known for their shameless public displays of affection—gratefully clutch each other inside the circle of Physical Touch. I was silently thankful that I did not get a Physical Touch designation. At least I wouldn’t have to endure The Feast with someone stroking my back or squeezing my hand.
I thought Darius and I would follow the same fate. Both of us took immense joy from performing Acts of Service to each other. He had been placed in Words of Affirmation, however, and he raised his fist triumphantly when Arrow read his designation. When I stepped forward to receive my own Sorting, I tried to meet his gaze in the crowd, but his dark head was low, and I realized that maybe he had been secretly wishing for different designations all along.
Schoolchildren watching the Ceremony from roofs and balconies threw paper hearts that fluttered down to The Sorted. A red heart labeled, “Be Mine?” caught on my slipper and I wanted to retch. Did I not mention? The Sorting always falls on Valentine’s Day.
The tattoo needle buzzed on my neck as Wren held the inky needle above my spine and started to carve a clock—the inky crest of Quality Time—into my back. New Sorts were required to wear tattoos of their factions. I had no control over my love language, but I could control where the crest would sit on my body. I chose my spine, because I had already turned my back on it.
My bones buzzed with the needle and I was reminded of the hours my mother would spend at her sewing machine. When we were children, the Gifts designation had the highest sorting and her dresses rose in popularity. She worked long hours to meet the demands of the Gifts, stitching colorful dresses to be sold in the village shops.
“You saved me,” I gasped, spitting up water from the riverbed. He grinned weakly, his fist still gripping my dress after pulling me out of the rapids by its hem.
I leaned back in the dirt and felt the last few minutes rush back to me. After my wedding dress fitting, I had tried to cross the riverbank, trying to cross back to my old life. The current was stronger than I expected. I remembered the crushing swirl of the rapids…watching the sky dim as I sank deeper under the water. Suddenly, a tanned hand shot through the murk, hoisting me to safety. I rolled over to stare at my savior. His bare chest was toned and lean. His lips were dewy from the water. I leaned over to wipe a stray leech from his cheek and felt my heart race with the contact. What was happening to me? Why did I crave this stranger’s body? Did I now belong to the Physical Touch designation? Did I even know myself at all?
“I’m Bryn,” he said, as my fingers plucked the leech from his angled cheekbone.
“I am…,” I tried to say my name but trailed off. “I’m getting married.”
“Being sorted into Quality Time was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he sputtered. “Because it brought me to you!”
The sun streamed in through the bunkers, and I groaned at the brightness. I could feel my brain pulsing behind my eyes. My stomach churned. I was, naturally, hungover on my wedding day. I stumbled out of bed, vowing to never drink Milkthistle again.
I crouched low in the grass, trying to dodge the glow of the moonlight so I wouldn’t be seen, but the pearly glow seemed to follow me through the field as I made my escape to our Oak.
I reached the Oak’s thick trunk a stroke after midnight and I hunched in its roots. I was partly waiting for him and partly waiting for the Guardians, who would soon follow my scent here. Above me, I saw a raven’s feather pressed into the Oak with tree sap. I smiled, touching the feather. Of course. This was our sign. He would be here.