Tia awakened early the next morning, eyes bleary and not rested in the slightest. She slid out of bed, moving slowly so as not to disturb Natlin sleeping beside her, and peeked out the window curtain. The sunlight was weak, and a thick mist hung close to the ground—perfect weather for moorwisps. No one would be heading for the peatlands today, and gods help any runners who’d set out yesterday.
She heard the rustle of blankets from behind her. “So, what’s the verdict?” Natlin asked, blinking away sleep.
Of course Natlin would know their father was leaving the final decision to her. Her older sister made it her business to know all the goings on in their family. It was always Natlin stepping in to patch things over after a squabble, Natlin smoothing over hurt feelings with a knowing smile and a cup of tea in hand.
She loosed a sigh. “I don’t know. Dancing for the Royal Dance Theater would be amazing… but I’d leave tomorrow! And how can I live up to dancers who’ve been training since they were five, and here I am, jumping around a dusty attic…”
Natlin nodded, eyes crinkling with an unvoiced laugh. “Only the finest dance master in all of Hygot wants to sweep you away to the capital. But no, he must be mistaken—clearly you’ve managed to hoodwink him.” She yawned and scooted out of bed.
“It’s not a joke!” Her voice rose with frustration. “Especially if what Master Maaj says is true, then I’d be living there for gods know how long.” She gulped. “How can I just… leave?” She spun around their bedroom, really looking at it for what felt like the first time in years. The quilt on the bed, lovingly stitched by her mother… the mementoes tacked on the walls… Daydreaming about leaving Fenlick was one thing, but now that a chance, a real chance, was right in front of her… She turned back to Natlin. “Besides, Pila needs help with the books. And you’re terrible at making skeet shell jewelry. Who’s going to do that?”
“Please,” her sister said, straightening the bed. “That loaf of a boy Denan’s always lazing around, so we can put him to work. We’ll be fine.” Natlin frowned. “You know, I’d give almost anything to get out of here. I don’t want to get married to some merchant’s son and live on the same street in the same city for the rest of my life. But what can I do? Pack up and leave? All I know is the ink business, and myreskeet don’t live anywhere else in Hygot. Take his offer and run, Tia. And if something goes wrong, there’s a road running right from Haplyr to Fenlick. You can always come back.”
She had to admit it made sense.
Natlin finished smoothing the quilt. “Anyway, let’s eat breakfast. The best decisions are made on a full stomach.” They made their way to the kitchen and rustled up some blackberry jam and day-old biscuits, then sat in silence, chewing and contemplating. Tia could hear her father’s soft snoring from her parents’ room; it had been a late night for everyone. The quiet of the morning was a comfort after all the loud revelations the night before.
Natlin was just standing up to make tea when Tia cleared her throat. “I’m going to Haplyr.”
Her sister set the kettle down and beamed. “I knew you’d make the right decision in the end. Oh Tia, I’m so excited for you! There’s so much to do! We’ll have to let Master Maaj know, and you’ll have to pack, and we’ll have to…” She kept piling on tasks; Natlin had always been one for planning.
Her sister’s mood was contagious, and Tia felt a vision unfurl deep within herself, a dream of a city more colorful than the drab grays and browns of Fenlick, full of people who wore clothes that cost more than a year’s worth of the general store’s earnings and attended glittering parties in palace ballrooms. She would advance through the Royal Dance Theater’s academy into the company and perform at the request of Hygot’s elite. And her family could come visit her during the Queen’s Fair, and she would show them around the city as a newly inaugurated Haplyr resident… Her head spun with possibilities.
She let her parents know as soon as they woke up. Tia’s mother hugged her close after she told them, eyes glistening. “We’re proud of you,” her father said with a smile, though his eyes betrayed some unspoken words. He was adamant on breaking the news himself to Master Maaj. “I have to deliver him the pirinh eggs anyway,” he said, donning his hat as he stepped out the door. “Wouldn’t do to have my daughter trotting around the city with explosives.”
The rest of the day passed in a flurry. There were travel bags to be dusted off and stuffed with all of Tia’s worldly possessions. (Which admittedly did not amount to much.) Natlin insisted that Tia take her best dress, saying she’d have more need of it in a fancy city like Haplyr. Midway through the day, a steady stream of business associates and family friends began to find their way to the Inkmans’ doorstep. The news of Tia’s imminent departure had evidently spread fast. After the third instance of “Oh, just stopping by to say hello” Tia shot a suspicious look at her sister.
“Did you tell Hob?” she hissed, making sure their mother wasn’t within earshot. The boy wasn’t known for being able to keep secrets close, save for his illicit romance with Natlin.
Her sister giggled and flashed her a look of mock outrage. “Me? Never.”
Her father came home soon after, looking more heartened than when he’d set out earlier that morning. “Everything’s arranged. Master Maaj came on horseback, but he’s generously hired a carriage.” Tia breathed an inward sigh of relief; she’d never ridden a horse before and had been dreading a wild first ride across Hygot’s countryside. “Once you arrive, you’ll be living in a dormitory at the dance academy, in the Firefly Hollow district. It’s not far from the palace.” He looked at his daughter, his expression grave, and took her hands in his. “Tia, the last time you were in Haplyr you were very young. I know it holds a fond spot in your memory, and Firefly Hollow is one of the nicer districts, but it’s a large city nonetheless. You must take precautions to stay safe. Keep close to the academy, and don’t wander at night. Please.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“Good. And make sure to write us sometimes,” he said, a smile lighting his face again.
“Of course, Da.” He brought her in close for a hug.
After dinner (skeet tail stew again), Tia sat on the bed, looking around her now unfamiliar room. It was quite empty with only Natlin’s things in the room. Her clothes, shoes, writing kit, and trinkets had all been packed away, and she’d laid out her clothes for the next day, as well as a new pocketknife and sheath her mother had pressed into her hand earlier. “Just in case,” her mother had breathed. “Keep it hidden in your pocket, and don’t you dare get into a situation where you need to draw it.” Tia had taken the knife with a gulp. She was making her share of promises, and she only hoped she could remember to keep them.
Natlin strolled into the room and let out a low whistle. “So much space! This is the real reason I told you to go to Haplyr,” she said with a wink. “I’ll have the bed all to myself! And you won’t scare me creeping through the window anymore. I really will miss you, though,” she added, casting Tia a rueful look.
“Well, with the room to yourself at least it’ll be easier for you to sneak Hob—”
Natlin’s hazel eyes narrowed to a death glare, and she pointed at the door, slightly ajar. “Hush. Your secret’s out, but I still have mine.”
They got into bed, and Natlin extinguished the lamp. The quiet of the dark room was broken only by her sister’s soft, even breaths and the occasional swoosh of the breeze blowing outside. Meanwhile, Tia’s head was a swirl of thoughts, all competing for attention. Tonight would be her last night in Fenlick for some time. There would be no more dancing in porthole windows or eating skeet tail stew. A new and scary world yawned open before her, ready to swallow her up with the approach of the next day. Her sister was right beside her in the bed, but it was like she was already on the road to Haplyr, the distance between them growing further by the second. She pushed her head deeper into the pillow.
It took her a minute to notice the changed silence of the room. Natlin’s even breaths had deepened, and she suddenly felt the press of her sister’s hand on her own. “It’s not far away,” her sister whispered. “Just a few weeks’ journey. I know I said all that stuff about how you should run from Fenlick, but I understand. I’d be scared too. We’ll write, and I’ll visit you somehow.”
“Good.” A beat of silence. “Da looked sad today.”
“Of course he’s sad, but he’s proud, too.” Natlin squeezed her hand again. “Now get some rest. You’ll be hard-pressed for it when you get going, if I remember that old, bumpy road right.” Tia managed a laugh. Natlin always knew just the right thing to say. Her stomach was still fluttery, but now it was the same sort of feeling she got when a handsome boy stopped by the store. She was going on an adventure. An adventure! Inland, far away from the bog and unknowable Corim, to see the rest of the kingdom. And there she would become Hygot’s finest dancer since Osanne had saved the realm, a thousand years before.