It was still dark the next morning when Reyan felt Avalina stir. Reyan opened her eyes and sat up to find Avalina fully dressed and smoothing down the front of her heavy work dress. “I must have overslept,” Avalina said in a frantic whisper, more to herself than Reyan.
“Overslept for what?”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.” The ribbon had come out of the girl’s hair in the night and the ends of her braid were coming undone and fanning out. She pulled another ribbon from the drawer by the bed and held it in her mouth. She rapidly and deftly unbraided, combed out and rebraided her hair. She took the ribbon out of her mouth and began wrapping it around the end of her braid and said, “I have to go to work at the stables with dad. Usually, he wakes me up. He didn’t, so now I’m late. If you get up, we can have some breakfast before I go.”
Reyan could not remember anyone ever waking her up before she rose on her own. People were of the opinion that the more time Reyan spent unconscious the better, and so tended to let her keep her own schedule.
As she finished the bow on her hair ribbon, Avalina jerked her head for Reyan to follow her.
The girls were instinctively quiet as they made their way through the still dark house. The wooden floors in the hallway were cold and made Reyan’s bare feet involuntarily arch. The low wavering light of their lantern cast and retrieved shadows of picture frames and doorknobs and trim work as they made their way to the kitchen.
The kitchen was warm, and well-lit. There was a lantern in the center of the table already blazing at full wick, and the stove was stoked. Avalina lifted the lid off the bread box and it made a metallic pop as it deformed. The girl held still for a moment, winced, and listened. Reyan’s heart pounded and she held her breath, though she had no idea why.
Avalina slowly, carefully, and quietly lifted a half-consumed loaf of bread from the box and placed it on a bread cutter: a wooden V with a crescent moon-shaped blade on one end. A wooden knob passed through the steel of the blade, and Avalina used this to slice off four thick pieces of bread. These she placed on a rack in the oven to warm and toast.
She was carefully bringing down two plates when her mother entered the kitchen. In a normal volume—which sounded like shouting compared with the thin careful sounds the girls had been making—she said, “Good morning.” Avalina, who had her back turned when her mother came in, jumped, and almost dropped the plates. “You needn’t be so dramatic Avi,” her mother said wearily. “Have a seat. Eggs?”
Avalina came over and sat at the table with Reyan. “Well?” her mother wanted to know. Reyan wasn’t sure if the woman was talking to her or Avalina, and so didn’t know whether or how to answer. Avalina tried, “You want eggs?”
“Sure,” Reyan whispered to her friend. But Avalina’s eyes tossed Reyan’s attention back toward her mother. Reyan saw the woman standing with a hand on one hip and a spatula in the other. She was looking directly at Reyan and appeared to be expecting an answer. “Yes,” Reyan tried. The only part of the woman that moved was her left eyebrow, and all she did was lift it a little higher than its already elevated height.
“Yes, ma’am,” Avalina stage-whispered to Reyan.
“I’m sorry. Yes, ma’am, I would like eggs.”
Avalina’s mother sniffed and smirked. She lifted a black pan from a wall hook and set it on the stove top. While she waited for the pan to heat, she retrieved the slices of bread from the oven. She cut each piece of bread in half and split them exactly evenly between two plates. She wordlessly dropped off the bread on the table, and then came back with a crock of butter, and another of blackberry jam. She brought a pitcher of milk, and two mugs. Soon the eggs were frying and filling the air with a savory note that drove hunger deep into Reyan’s stomach. She tried to fill the empty space with buttered bread and jam, and sips of milk.
“At the stables.”
“I’m sorry I slept in. He didn’t wake me.”
“He decided to see to the horses himself this morning.” Several expressions came to Avalina’s face all at once; guilt, and fear, and confusion among them. Her mother took note, but revealed no expressions of her own. She returned to tending the eggs. “Don’t worry Avi, he wanted to do it.” Now it seemed that confusion alone remained on Avalina’s face. “It’s not every day we have a guest, and he didn’t want to wake you two. But he does expect you as soon as you’re up.”
She placed one egg each on two small plates and brought them over to the table. She served Reyan first, using the new plate to push the bread plate aside.
The egg was steaming and beautiful. In the center of the white stood the yolk, tall, unbroken and orange as a setting sun, and the fringes were crisp and brown as fallen leaves.
Avalina immediately began slicing through her egg, mixing the yolk and the whites on her plate, alternately forking up the mess directly into her mouth, or stacking it upon pieces of bread and eating them together.
The idea of disrupting the egg’s perfection filled Reyan with something like revulsion.
“Something wrong with your egg,” the mother asked.
“No, ma’am. It’s just…”
“You did say you wanted an egg…”
“I did. I do…but it’s lovely.” Avalina stopped chewing, a recent mouthful still bulging out her cheek. Her eyes darted between Reyan and her mother. The woman’s face soured and she approached the table, her hand out, ready to pick up Reyan’s plate. In a panic, Reyan quickly forked the entire egg into her mouth. Beside her, Avalina’s mouth slacked open. Her mother stopped where she stood halfway between the stove and the table.
The room was silent. The egg was too hot in her mouth and she wanted to spit it out, but she knew she couldn’t. Saliva began rushing in and filling up whatever empty spaces were left in her mouth. As Reyan began to chew, the first thing she felt was the yolk tense and then relax as it popped and spilled out. There was a moment when a molar found the crackling bits around the edge of the whites but that was quickly dampened by the yolk, and all that remained was the bounce and give of the whites. This quickly came apart as well, and blended in with the other flavors and textures to become an undifferentiated sludge. She wanted to gag, but would not let herself do it. She would not embarrass herself in front of Avalina. She would not offend her mother who had been so kind to her, and was already beginning to show signs of not liking her. She began forcing little gulps of egg slurry down the back of her throat. As soon as a bit was down, she forced a bit more. Soon, the pressure on her cheeks lessened, then her tongue could move freely, and finally she could open her mouth and breathe again. She kept her eyes down on her empty plate. “Thank you, ma’am. It tasted very good.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Avalina stifle a laugh. She looked down at her plate and coughed.
“So,” her mother began, “You’re from Orloton.” The woman obviously knew, so Reyan did not bother to confirm. Soon she continued, “And you’re traveling to Seal Tooth with the professors?” This sounded more like an actual question, but the woman seemed to know at least as much as Reyan did, so again she did not offer an answer. Adults did not appreciate being told useless things they already knew.
“Did your parents give you to the professors,” Avalina asked.
Her mother’s mouth fell open and her eyes grew wide. “Avalina Justyn Stableman!”
“No,” Reyan said, “Leader Lyssa gave me to the professors.” Ms. Stableman sighed in relief. “My parents gave me to the leader.”
The woman looked horrified anew. “Were your parents unwell?”
“It can be hard to know that from looking at a person.”
“That is true.” She dragged out the last word as if she had more to say on the matter, but chose not to.
“Lyssa said she was having trouble dealing with the death of Leader Rolf, her new duties as leader, and a ward all at the same time.”
“I heard about Leader Rolf. What a shame. He was always generous, easy, and fair. He did a lot to spread the name of that little town. He was a good man”
“Well then,” Avalina’s mother said with a forced cheerfulness, “Avi, it’s time to get going to the stables. I’m sure your dad has his hands full. Bring me your plates, and I’ll clean up.”
The dawn had grayed the sky outside and enough of the cool light made its way into the house that they no longer needed their lantern. Avalina blew it out, and placed it near the front door where she’d picked it up the night before.
They headed back into the bedroom and Reyan took off her night clothes and put on yesterday’s canvass pants and woolen tunic. Avalina looked her up and down disapprovingly and tsked. “Let’s get you fixed up.”
“You’ll be late.”
“I’m already late.” Avalina undid Reyan’s braid, quickly combed it out—there were far fewer knots this time—and quickly divided and braided her hair. “There you are.”
“What about my things?”
Avalina glanced at them casually, and shrugged. “Leave them there.”
As the two girls were headed out the door, the mother’s voice stopped them. “Wait.” They turned and faced her. The woman pursed her lips and shook her head while looking at Reyan. “Where are you going?”
“To the stables, mom,” Avalina explained.
Her mother looked at her as though surprised Avalina was still there. “As well you should. Run along girl. You’re already late. But you,” she turned back to Reyan, “are not going out from my house like that. Come.”
Reyan looked at Avalina who reached over, gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, then turned and left through the front door.
Once Avalina was gone, her mother sighed. “Follow me.” She took her to a closet off the main hallway. Inside the closet was a cedar trunk. She lifted the lid and inside there was a pile of girl’s clothes.
“There. These are all things that Avi has either outgrown or swore she would never wear again. The most recent things are on the top. They should fit you. Find something and toss that mess into the clothes bin in Avi’s room,” she indicated Reyan’s tunic and pants with a dismissive flick of her wrist.
Reyan grabbed the dress from the very top of the pile, and Avalina’s mother huffed and grabbed two more. “These too. Figure out what you like best.”
She carried the clothes to Avalina’s room and closed the door. Each item was made from the same material and though all the colors were different, they were all of a similar intensity. She couldn’t think of any reason to prefer any one over the other, so she put on the first dress she’d picked up. She lay the others on the bed as nicely as she could. They looked like two girls who’d had been laying on the bed talking when they had suddenly disappeared leaving only their shells behind.
Avalina’s mother was standing on the other side of the bedroom door with her arms crossed when Reyan emerged. The woman grabbed her by the shoulders and held her still while she examined her. “That’ll have to do. Go find your professors. We’ll see you tonight for dinner I suppose?”
Reyan did not go directly to the professors’ caravan. Instead, she decided to stop in at the stables to watch the morning light play off the beautiful horses while Avalina worked.
It was peaceful in the stables. The smell reminded her of her room back in Orloton. She could hear the horses moving and breathing and the stable hands shuffling about doing their work. No one was talking. The wooden walls, the piles of straw and hay, and the thick bodies of the horses soaked up the sounds almost as soon as they were made.
She walked down the wide aisle way checking each stall for Avalina. She found Benj first. He was coming out of the wash stall with a bucket of water, he wasn’t looking up and almost walked into her. He stopped short, looked at her and said, “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my stables?”
Reyan was already angry at Benj because of what Avalina had said the night before. She found she was a little scared of him. Though his muscles were like tools custom made for his role in the stables, she sensed they could easily be used for violence. She looked down at the ground and didn’t answer him.
He inspected her closely. Then it dawned on him. “Hey, you’re the out of town girl. The one traveling with the professors.” His tone became light and friendly. “Sorry, didn’t recognize you. Everything good? The professors need anything?”
Reyan kept her eyes to the ground and shook her head.
Avalina came out of a stall with a sack of oats over her shoulder. When she saw Reyan, she smiled. “Rey!”
“Good morning Avi,” she mumbled.
Benj looked from Reyan to Avalina and his look soured. “Okay, enough hanging around. The professors’ horses are near starving since you were late this morning. Let’s get them taken care of.”
Avalina looked from Reyan to Benj and back. She grunted and went back to work. Benj did not. Once Avalina was out of ear shot, Benj said, “Sorry about that. Tell the professors that their horses are well tended if you would. Is there anything else I can do for you? Any more lamp oil?” She thought there was a snarl to the last question, but when she looked up, Benj was smiling sweetly.
She shook her head.
“Good. It would be best if you stayed out of here and let us work. Horses can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.” His words sounded concerned but felt threatening. He turned away with his bucket of water and disappeared into a nearby stall.