Ayda’s heart sank when she flew up to her house and saw the glow of firemoss lanterns still shining through the windows. She supposed it was too much to hope that they would have gone to bed — it wasn’t that late. Dread curling in her stomach, she landed on the porch and eased open the door.
Her parents and Nova were all sitting around the table, apparently finishing a late dinner. Silence fell when she walked in. Ayda decided not to prolong it. She pulled her knapsack off and set it beside the fireplace. “Sorry I got back so late,” she said, nonchalant. “The nearer patches were picked clean, and I had to fly way north to find more. It took me longer than I thought it would.” A partial truth.
Nova was looking skeptically at Ayda, but her parents either bought it or didn’t feel like pressing the point, because all Father said was “Well, there’s still food left. Sit down and have some.”
Ayda sat across from her mother, who was short and curly-haired and the sort of person whose wrinkles came primarily from smiling too much. On her right was her father, who was long-limbed and had a lean, alert face. Ayda took a single berry from the center — enough for a small meal. “Any progress on getting a new wagon?”
Mom shook her head, but then her eyes brightened. “But we were speaking with Master Bivale earlier, and we have some wonderful news.”
“He’s made us a very good offer,” Father agreed, but Ayda had the feeling he was watching her carefully for a reaction. To her right, Nova was watching her too, with an expression Ayda couldn’t read.
“What?” Ayda said impatiently, a small seed of hope blossoming. Maybe Bivale had found her a way to enter that carving contest at Crescent Moon to win an apprenticeship. Crescent Moon — a renowned hub of instruction and experimentation, both in magic and mundane crafts. It was located just outside of Moonwater, the center of trade in Arvania and the home of the main portals to the other Kingdoms. And it was famous for its sculptors.
“Well, you’re always so frustrated about how behind you are,” Mom said. “This is the perfect thing. Master Bivale is offering to let you board with him while we’re gone, and he’ll personally tutor you over the summer. Think of how much you’ll improve! And you’ll get to know the other apprentices more.”
Her mother was smiling at her as if she expected Ayda to jump for joy. Ayda felt the heat rise on her cheeks. She couldn’t do this. She had been waiting for months — she wasn’t going to spend her summer cooped up in a shop sawing wood.
“Mom, I appreciate it, I really do,” she said. “But I can’t stay here all summer. I’d go crazy. I have to get out of here.”
Her father looked at her sternly. “Ayda, think this through before you turn it down. You know how Master Bivale is — you know what this offer means. You could be a full apprentice by next year, a junior craftsmen in a few more.”
Ayda shook her head violently. “No, I mean it, I can’t. I won’t stay here all summer. I want to travel.”
“Ayda, really, I know you like traveling, but you’ve come with us every year before. We thought you’d be happy for the change. Don’t you like woodworking enough?” Mom said, pleading.
“Not like he does it!” Ayda burst out. “All we do is make tools and planks and furniture. You know I want to sculpt. Nothing he makes is beautiful.”
“But they work. And he sells them, and he makes a living,” Father retorted. “More than a living — he’s rich.”
“You have to pick a trade, Ayda,” her mother said. “If you’re not an apprentice by sixteen…”
“I know that, Mom,” Ayda said, needled. She had picked a trade — sculpting. There was just no one to apprentice to here, and her parents couldn’t afford the apprenticeship fee, even if she did persuade the sculptors at Crescent Moon to accept her. That’s why she had to win the contest. “That’s why I need to enter the contest.”
“No,” Father said, “that’s why you will stay here for the summer with Master Bivale.”
“We’ve told you already, dear, we just can’t manage the trip to Crescent Moon right now — “
“What Mom means to say,” said Nova, “is that it’s practically guaranteed you aren’t going to win, and so it’s not worth the time and the cost. It’s a four-day round trip. We’d leave even later.”
“You don’t know that,” said Ayda hotly, glaring at her sister. “And there’s no reason we can’t stop there when we go to Moonwater.” Moonwater was the capital of Arvania, where its permanent portals were located that would allow them to pass to the other Kingdoms. Crescent Moon was a short flight across the river from there.
“But when does the contest close?” Nova said knowingly.
“This is the last week,” Ayda admitted, deflating. “And we’re not ready to leave.”
There was silence at the table for a minute. Then Ayda’s mother spoke. Her curly brown hair bounced, cheery as usual, but her tone told a different story.
“Ayda, we’re sorry you’re unhappy about this. We’d hoped you would be excited for a bit of a change. But this isn’t open to discussion. You are going to stay with Master Bivale for the summer. We need this opportunity.”
Ayda looked from her mother’s face to her father’s to Nova’s. “Tell them I have to come,” she begged in a whisper of Nova. “Please.”
Nova avoided her gaze and didn’t answer.
Stuck here, in this backwater city for another year until they left again? With nothing to do but saw wood and make chairs? She wouldn’t get to see Vjorin’s caverns, or climb the Bryks Mountains again. She would miss seeing Ashmount, the old, grandfatherly Shade who always bought a ridiculous amount of herbs from her parents. Ever since she was too young to remember, he had told her three new stories each time they visited. He was the best storyteller she knew, and this year she wouldn’t get to hear his stories. All this flashed through her mind in a second.
She couldn’t do it. This couldn’t be happening — her parents weren’t cruel like this — and yet they were more serious than Ayda had ever seen them before. She could argue until dawn, but she knew they wouldn’t change their minds. Something nagged at her, something her mother had said, but it was swallowed up as Ayda’s life for the next year was restructured before her eyes.
Ayda had no appetite anymore. She pushed her chair back from the table. “I’m not hungry,” she said, and fled before anyone could call her back.
It was only in her room, laying on her bed and staring dully at the ceiling, that she remembered Madeline, alone in the woods and still hungry. Mechanically, Ayda slid off her bed and, shunning the door, unlocked the window and flew out. Fresh air would clear her head, and if her parents looked in on her, well, they could survive worrying about her for half an hour.
She slipped around the house to the larder in the back, filling her knapsack with nuts and other dense foods, as much as she could carry, and a few minutes later she was flying over the city wall for the second time that evening.
When she reached the overhang, she squinted into the shadows and realized that Madeline was already asleep, curled into a tight ball on the mossy ground. So Ayda emptied her knapsack on a rock a few feet away, hoping Madeline would see it in the morning. At least she had been able to fall asleep.
What am I going to do about you? she thought, watching Madeline’s silhouette rise and fall as she breathed. Ayda had no idea how to send Madeline back to her world. She knew nothing about making portals, andneither did most Little Folk, which ruled out anyone at Nikka. If anyone could help her, it would be the people at Crescent Moon. But how was she supposed to get Madeline there?
The simplest thing to do would be to tell the authorities, and let them handle Madeline. But then there would be investigations and interrogations, and if word got out that Ayda had found a lost human, both her family and Madeline would be the subject of gossip for years.
Ayda didn’t know how long she lingered there, but at the end of it she didn’t have any answers, and the pit in the bottom of her stomach was just as deep. The only thing she could do was wait, and hope she could figure out why her parents were so adamant about her staying, and how to talk them out of it.
The shutters were closed when Ayda returned, and a firemoss lamp must have been uncovered, because light spilled from the cracks despite Ayda being sure she had left her room dark. Who was in there? She frowned and pulled on the shutters. They were locked.
Rolling her eyes, she knocked on them. A moment later, they swung open and Nova appeared. “Finally,” she said.
“What are you doing?” Ayda demanded, folding her arms across her chest. “Get out of my room.”
Nova’s gaze lingered on Ayda’s empty knapsack, still hanging in front of her, but Ayda wasn’t about to offer an explanation. She darted through the window, pushing past her sister, and landed on her bed, dropping the knapsack to the floor. Nova still hadn’t moved.
Fine. “Any particular reason you decided to wait up?”
“I need to explain something to you.”
Nova’s tone of voice made Ayda turn around and actually look at her sister. Nova’s cropped hair was disheveled, and she was wringing her hands as if worried, something Ayda had never seen her do. Nova was always calm, in control, but not now.
“What is it?” said Ayda, torn between concern and lingering annoyance that Nova had sided with her parents.
“I know why Mom and Dad are making you stay here,” Nova said. “They won’t even discuss it with you, but they need you to stay.”
“But why?” Ayda asked, struggling to stop herself from shouting. “They’ve never had a problem with it before! I help them! Why can’t they just accept that I don’t want to be a carpenter?”
“Because they can’t afford it!” It was one of the few times Ayda had ever heard Nova raise her voice.
Ayda was stunned into silence as the implications wormed their way through her stomach. “What do you mean?” she asked quietly.
“The reason, the real reason, they’ve been delaying leaving for so long is because they aren’t even sure we’ll be able to go,” said Nova. “We have more stock than we normally sell, and we don’t have enough gold to cover usual expenses. Haven’t you noticed we haven’t made any bulk sales in months?”
No, Ayda hadn’t.
“And then on top of all of that, we have to buy a new wagon,” Nova said. “You of all people should know those aren’t cheap.”
“So why didn’t they tell me?”
“They don’t want you to worry,” Nova said. “Plus,” she added, “you left the table without giving them much chance to explain.
“But you see now why you have to stay with Master Bivale? A whole six months of free board and three meals a day for you? One fewer person to pay travel taxes for?I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the difference between going and staying this year. And we need to go. A few good commissions will get us back on our feet.”
“I get it,” said Ayda, defeated. What was she supposed to say to that? “You’re still going, of course.”
Nova spread her hands helplessly. “I have to learn somehow. I’ll be officially part of the business next year.”
“Lucky you,” said Ayda. She stood up and opened the door for Nova. “Thanks for the explanation.”
Nova left, and Ayda refrained from slamming the door behind her in despair. Gone was any hope of changing her parents’ minds; whatever she did, she couldn’t make money appear out of thin air.
Ayda sat down on her bed, kicking at her knapsack. Her fate was set — there really was nothing to do about it. She took the carving from its hiding place under her bed and began to shave away some finer details. Earlier, she had never wanted to finish the thing, let alone give it to her parents, but thanks to Nova all her anger was stripped away. It really wasn’t her parents fault she couldn’t go. Everything made complete and logical sense.
And that was the most infuriating part about it all. The only thing left was Madeline — Ayda supposed she would have to tell her parents about the girl after all, and beg them to take her with them and drop her off discreetly at Crescent Moon.
But at the thought of Madeline, a strange euphoria began to creep through Ayda, and when she realized why, she sprang off the bed into the air, wings fluttering madly.
It was simple, really. All she had to look forward to was a long year of carpentry. Madeline needed to go to Crescent Moon to get help from the magical experts there. Ayda needed to go so she could enter the contest. And Ayda knew the road to Moonwater like she knew the sound of her wings in flight. What was stopping her from leaving for a few days to take Madeline there?
I could just run away. It’s only for a few days, and if I don’t I won’t see anywhere but Nikka for the next year. And really, how would they punish me? They’ll be mad for a while, but then they’ll be leaving me behind anyway. And they know I can handle myself on the road. They won’t worry.
The very thought of getting out of Nikka, of spending hours flying through the forest and sleeping on a lofty branch under the stars, even for only two nights, thrilled Ayda to her core. And she knew in that moment she had already made her decision. The only thing left to do was act.