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It’s the second day of Somber, the first month of autumn. Summer hasn’t given up yet. She fights with all her might, allowing people to enjoy warm evenings and sunny days, but her strength gives, little by little. A few chilly winds have broken the defense and rushed through the city like a howling wild pack, and yellowness is already munching on the greenness of the leaves.

The second day of Somber is our birthday. Back home we celebrated it with a pie. We woke up to the smell of baking pastry coming up from the kitchen. I can’t remember what Mother put inside. Raisins, perhaps? I loved that pie so much, how could I forget?

Mikh has proposed. He invited Nora to a fancy restaurant and made a show of it.

“Let’s celebrate your birthday,” he said, but she knew right away that he was planning to propose. And he did.

Afterward, they eat a cake covered in white frosting with tiny marzipan flowers and caramel pearls on top. They drink wine, and all I can think of, watching them, sitting at the same table, is that I never tasted the cake. Nor wine. I have always thought that our mother’s pie was the best dish in the world, and I can’t even remember its taste.

I don’t want to admit it, but my memory fades. Over and over again I think about the ghost in the graveyard. Is that what I will one day become?

No, I shake my head, of course not! I am nothing like her!

But fear doesn’t let me go. Once it has its claws on your throat, it holds fast, and I know I can’t fight this beast on my own.

“Okay,” I tell Jaro.

He raises his head and regards me over the book he’s been reading.

“Huh?”

“I said okay! I’m in! I want to go back and find that damned vow-keeper and I want to be free of it!”

“Oh,” Jaro says. “Okay, that’s cool.”

That’s it? Eternal Sky as my witness, I love this boy, but he has always been a weirdo!

“I thought you’d be happy.”

“I am.”

“You don’t look happy.”

“Come, I need to show you something.”

He takes me outside to the shed in the back yard. It’s an old crumbling building barely bigger than a doghouse. It’s also full of spiders, so Nora doesn’t go near it.

Inside the shed, cobweb hangs like white curtains. Jaro ducks in and pull out a bag made of dense fabric. He opens it and steps back, so I can look inside. Provisions, rope, a flask… By the Eternal sky!

“I was going to go anyway,” he explains, “alone, if I must. I am glad that you’re with me though.”

 

* * *

 

Jaro’s journal

I can understand a lot of things, but I don’t understand this—how could Mom just get over everything that’s happened to Kara and the rest of their family? How could she move on like that? She doesn’t even want to visit their graves to leave an offering for the Goddess atop their tombs. She visits the cemetery every week to give her thanks to the gods for looking after my dad’s soul, but she doesn’t even think about her own family. It’s like… she just doesn’t care. I think I can understand why Kara’s so angry at her...

 

 

Neither of us is a traveler, but for obvious reasons, it’s much easier for me. I don’t need food, I don’t need water. I don’t need a blanket or a cloak to keep me warm. And I can fly for days in my newly obtained gull form, covering huge distances in a snap of a finger, without ever needing to sleep.

Jaro, however, is not a ghost and he needs all those things—food, water, shelter, rest.

We plan to stick to big roads, where there are always travelers and no risk of getting in trouble with some bandits or wild animals. But a road is still a road, and I’m worried sick.

Books are the worst liars. They paint adventures in the colors of mystery and romance and then gloss over them with an exotic allure. They promise that nothing is impossible if you truly wish it. A lowly country lad who wants to be a knight ventures into the world with nothing but his courage and by the end of the book he gains everything he ever wanted—a king’s crown, a love of a beautiful woman, people’s admiration.

But Jaro and I discover that adventures are neither about courage nor about wishes. They are first and foremost about money.

We have some supplies. Jaro stores them in the shed, where Nora wouldn’t look. He has a rope, some dry bread that won’t go bad on the long road. He has a water skin and even a traveler’s cloak he’s found in one of the old chests in the cellar. He donned it to show me.

“How do I look?”

Better than one would expect from a fifteen-year-old city boy. The cloak accommodates his tall lanky frame quite nicely. It’s dull grey and stitched in a couple of places, and it makes Jar seem somewhat older and more experienced than he actually is.

But there is something theatrical about the way he looks, too. It’s like he is an actor in a play, wearing a costume. A nice costume, but a costume still. And it fills me with a new fear: that some swindler on our path might look at him and see through this flimsy guise. See that Jar is but a boy, who has no experience with the road, who has never been outside the city walls. Easy prey to take advantage of.

I have seen my share of travelers who passed our town sometimes. My father called them scum. Not all of them were, but some were, indeed, trouble. They had calculating cruelty in their gaze. Never come near them folk, grown-ups used to warn us, kids. And we knew better of course than to disobey…

But on the road, those people are everywhere. And sometimes they wear perfect guises even weathered travelers can’t see through. What of Jaro? Would he be able to know them?

These thoughts distress me.

But Jaro just waves my fears away with a laugh.

“It’s going to be fine. Thieves only look for those folk who have something valuable. We don’t have anything. Nothing to steal from us.”

Perhaps he is right, I don’t know.

But if we don’t have anything, how in the world are we going to get to My Little Wanderer?

“We’ll figure something out,” Jaro says, and I allow his confidence to convince me.

* * *

We plan to hit the road on the twelfth day of Somber. We don’t want to wait too long, because autumn is getting stronger with each day, and soon it will be all over us, with its chills and rains and winds. We want to make good use of these last warm days and be through with our task before the winter starts to creep in.

Talk about optimism.

Nora’s wedding is scheduled for the beginning of the next month. The first day of Mudder.

“You’ll miss it,” I tell Jaro.

“That's fine,” he shrugs. “We can’t wait that long if we want to go through with our plan. Besides, with the wedding preparations, it’s easier for me to sneak away. After that… it might get problematic.”

Nora wants to rent the house out when she moves in with Mikh. Who knows what life is going to be like after that. If we want to get away, now it's our best chance.

So we take it.

* * *

The morning of the twelfth day is gloomy. Clouds are low and dirty, heavy with upcoming rain. The air is very still and the usual morning sounds—hoofs and cartwheels thumping against the cobblestones, yells of the vendors, voices of the people on the street blended into a uniform murmur—seem subsided, less harsh, less intrusive. As if the city is holding its breath in some sort of grim anticipation.

Nora’s mood is sunny though. She doesn’t notice the clouds. She sings, dressing up. She ordered a few new dresses from some posh city tailor, and they make her look very nice. There are three of them: the first one is colored like dark honey, the second one is milky-white with a thin silver thread along the hem. And the last one—my personal favorite—is green with fine golden embroidery on the bodice. Just like the one I had, the one Nora wanted so much. I promised to give her the dress when I sent her to the cave. I never fulfilled my promise.

“Which one should I wear?” Nora asks, arranging the dresses on her bed.

I startle. A wild absurd thought rushes through my mind—that she is addressing me. And for a second it’s like I get a glimpse into some alternative reality, where I am alive and all grown up and we are getting ready for some occasion, her turning toward me and asking: “Which one, do you think?”

But she is talking to her maid of course.

“I don’t know, madam,” chirrups the girl. “They’re all so pretty.”

“The green one,” I whisper. “It really suits you.”

“Maybe the yellow one?” offers the maid.

Nora looks at the green dress, picks it up, but then drops in back on the bed.

“Yellow it is.”

I leave the room, pausing just to give her one more look. Am I going to see my sister again?

“Goodbye, Nora,” I whisper.

Really, there’s not much else to say.

* * *

Nora has a fitting at twelve, then a lunch with her friend. It means we have about three hours of time to execute our plan.

It sounds cooler than it actually is. A plan! We have no plan! We are two idiots who have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.

And we’re this close to changing our minds. Well, I am anyway. Jaro keeps his doubts to himself.

“Jar?” Nora calls out, before stepping outside. “I’m leaving.”

“Mom, wait.”

Jaro comes up to her and hugs her.

“Hey, and what have I done to deserve that?” she laughs.

“Nothing. I just thought I want to give you a hug. You look nice.”

“Okay,” she laughs. “See you later, alright?”

“Yes. You’ll see me very, very soon, I promise.”

She gives him a funny look, and then, at last, she leaves.

“Are you crazy?” I inquire. “What was that about? You want her to get suspicious and get home early?”

“She won’t. She’ll forget everything about it in a couple of minutes.”

“You feel bad about it, don’t you?”

He shrugs.

“A little. But we have to do this, so it doesn’t matter.”

He starts to put everything he gathered into a bag – food, water, flint. He’s been raiding the cellar, rummaging through the chests and boxes and whatnot. One thing about old houses – they collect all sorts of crap. He found some old things and managed to sell them to a rag picker. He also found some old books and sold them, too, getting a decent price. He knows books. He knows what is worth what. There is some use in all his passion for books apparently.

He throws on his cloak, picks up the bag and the staff, and looks at me.

“Well, it’s as good as it gets, I suppose,’ he says. ‘We’ll have to make do with what we have. Let’s go.”

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Asa Artair

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