Tia’s eyes snapped open at the first glow of dawn through the curtain. Her head should have been buzzing from a night spent tossing and turning, but the impending journey was a tonic for weariness.
She heard a rustle beside her and turned to see Natlin greet the morning with a stretch and silent yawn. Her sister gave her a small smile, and they slipped out of bed, going about their morning routine without speaking. It felt like there was nothing that needed saying. Today was the day, and that was all there was to it.
Tia finished wrangling her brown curls up in a bun and donned the simple green frock and traveling cloak she’d laid out yesterday. Everything else was packed. She turned to Natlin, who was wearing an ordinary brown work dress. It was like looking in a strange mirror. To Tia’s eyes, the mirror’s reflection showed a proper Fenlick girl. And on her side of the mirror? An impostor, playing dress-up in traveler’s clothing.
Well, it didn’t matter now. As Natlin had said, she could always come home again.
The welcome smell of frying eggs and toast greeted them in the kitchen. Their mother had further outdone herself with sticky buns and a veritable mountain of cherries, Tia’s favorite. “You must have been up for hours,” Tia said.
Her mother handed her a plate of eggs. “Can’t let you leave home on an empty stomach.” Her father joined them, and the whole family settled in for a breakfast feast.
Tia was trying (and failing) to finish off the cherry pile when a knock on the door sent a wave of dismay washing over her. Was it time already? Her father opened the door to the now familiar sight of Master Maaj, resplendent this morning in a sapphire blue vest and crisp white shirt. Wasn’t it a bit early for such flashy dress? Or perhaps this was the Haplyr custom. She was on the cusp of a different world.
“We were just finishing breakfast, Willy,” her father said, beckoning Master Maaj inside. “Won’t you join us?”
“Of course! I could never turn down any of Marget’s baking. Sticky buns, is it?” Tia kept her eyes on her plate as he helped himself.
A shoe bumped her ankle, and she shot a glance at Natlin, who nodded her head pointedly at Master Maaj and raised an eyebrow. Say something. And Natlin was right; she couldn’t spend the whole journey to Haplyr shying away from this man—her benefactor.
“Is the carriage nearly prepared, sir?” The words came out in a gruff spurt. She’d hardly said anything all morning.
His eyes twinkled. “Ah, I feared we’d go the whole trip without conversing. Yes, the carriage is all prepared. We only need to load on your bags, and we can depart.”
“How long will it take to get there?”
“You’re anxious to see your new home, of course. The journey isn’t overly long—though I’m accustomed to making it on horseback, which is quicker. We’ll arrive well before Chyor inhales.” The autumn god Chyor was said to make his home in the far north. He ushered in the cold weather each year when he took a great breath and blew cold northern air down across Hygot. It was still the height of summer—three or four weeks yet before Chyor began to inhale.
She nodded. “It’s been a long time since I left Fenlick. I hope we get there swiftly.”
“And safely,” her mother added.
“We’ll toast to that,” her father said, and the five of them raised their cups over the kitchen table and drank a sip to a smooth journey.
After they’d finished off every last cherry, Master Maaj had the carriage brought around to the front of the general store. The alleyway connecting the merchant apartments behind the shop to Yarren Street was far too narrow for a horse-drawn carriage.
Though the people of Fenlick were accustomed to all manner of traders and passersby, Tia was still the spectacle of the day. The carriage was not of the gold filigree and pearl inlay variety that carried princesses from fete to fete in fairy stories, but it was obviously well-built. The horses were also very fine-looking, their coats shiny and dark eyes gentle; as soon as the carriage pulled up Natlin was by their side, fawning and cooing. Tia could feel eyes up and down the street watching them. Here was Tomma Inkman’s daughter, running off to the capital to become a dancer of all things. She’d have all the gossips of Yarren Street waggling their tongues for weeks.
It took only a minute to stow her bags. Master Maaj hustled off under the pretense of buying some snacks for the long journey ahead, leaving Tia’s family the space to say their goodbyes.
The four of them stood awkwardly in a circle beside the carriage.
“I won’t disappoint you,” she found herself saying. Her tongue was thick and heavy in her mouth.
“Of course you won’t,” her father said. Her mother said nothing, but hugged her close and rubbed her back, just like how she always did whenever Tia was sick. It was a familiar movement, a comforting movement, something she had to remember. Who knew how long it would be until she saw them again?
Her mother released her from the hug, and then Tia found herself face-to-face with Natlin. Here was her confidante, her older sister, her best friend. How was she to leave her?
Natlin’s eyes were shining. “See the world,” she whispered. “Then write and tell me all about it—every last thing. Promise?”
“Good.” They held each other’s gaze for a few moments, and then Natlin focused on something behind Tia. “All right, here he comes. Lucky you, looks like he’s bought enough sugar prunes to last the whole trip.” She wrinkled her nose, and Tia could not suppress her laughter.
Master Maaj strolled up to the carriage. His arms were laden with packages, including a heavy-looking bag with sides suspiciously stained dark with purple oil. She heaved an internal sigh. No matter what Master Maaj said, it would definitely be a long journey.
“We’d best get on our way,” he said. She stepped up into the carriage as Master Maaj reassured her parents that he would send letters detailing their progress throughout the journey.
Yarren Street residents weren’t even bothering to hide their curiosity at the Inkman family affair anymore. Some huddled in the shade of shop awnings, whispering and pointing, and others openly gawked from second floor balconies. Master Maaj closed the carriage door, and it took all of Tia’s restraint not to press herself against the window. She wanted to drink in all of Yarren Street, but found herself only able to focus on small details. The chipping general store sign. Natlin’s brown hair, glinting copper in the sun. Her mother’s fingers twisting the side of her dress into knots, knuckles white against her tanned skin. Her father’s lips pressed into a straight line, eyes shaded from view by his cap. Beside her on the carriage seat, Master Maaj stared intently out the opposite window at the apothecary across the street. It wasn’t proper to intrude on the family parting.
The coachman flicked his whip, and the carriage jerked into motion. Hooves clattered on cobblestones, and now Tia did press her hands to the window, craning her neck to keep her family in view. When she could no longer see them, she twisted in her seat to steal a few more glimpses through the small rear window. Their image blurred with the jostling of the carriage, and the moisture in her eyes wouldn’t go away no matter how much she blinked.
And then the driver steered the horses around a corner, and they were gone.