Fifth Chapter: Banishment

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The order to leave the school came as abruptly as the summons. Iris's hair had grown long, past her shoulders. The three mice had grown fat and sleek, longer than her hand and lazier by the day. The sun had been sharper than usual that summer, and it was a chilly autumn.

The morning they left was dank and blustery. All the girls but Iris wore leggings under their dresses, but now as they left the suffocating influence of the Kaerent school, some hitched the blue uniforms up into tunics. A few laughed at being able to finally dress as an adult. Most were silent. The wind was cruel to her dew-soaked ankles as Iris trudged to the wagon, a heel of bread weighing down one pocket and two lavender candles rolling in the other. It was too early for her to feel anything but sick from the dregs of curtailed sleep.

Sellie, sitting across from Iris in one of the crowded rickety wagons, offered a shy smile that Iris reflexively returned. The girl, older now but still slight, was in reverent awe of Iris, who had no idea how to respond. The casual camaraderie she had gained in the last year still ruffled her. She was accustomed to wary glances and whispers, not smiles and nods and kind conversations. Always knowing the mice would be company enough, she had never imagined what it would be like to have friends her own age.

And she was still too scared to find out, so she looked away after her smile and watched the old mill and manor house hide behind rows of trees and a final hill. Skantos had given her a package wrapped in oilskin that now sat snugly in her bag, under her old cloak and a book she had won as a math prize that she only kept because the mice loved nibbling the soft pages. He had been subdued ever since the banishment in the infirmary, and Iris wondered at times if he regretted coming to Erinlin or being a part of this cruel endeavor.

It was a day's travel to Ramos, if they were lucky. Excited chatter, though somewhat muted by the early morning, buzzed in each wagon. More than a few girls were crying, faces glinting in the sun. Iris could, if she tilted her head and opened her senses, feel their spirits bubbling at the surface. Some spoke of home and their families that had grown and fought and laughed without them. One fretted about her needlework skills and laughed nervously when she predicted her mother wouldn't let her embroider cloaks when she got home. In the next wagon over, two girls were singing a Full Harvest song while the wagon driver whistled along. Amalind and Terry were having a mock fight about whose sweet potato pies were better.

Iris felt detached from it all. She didn't have a family to wonder about, nor a friend to promise to visit. Already people were reminiscing about their school days, laughing fondly about classes and teachers they had hated at the time, but Iris had no such rose-tinted recollections. She was, in a wagon of girls she had lived with for the past three years, alone.

A faint squeak from inside her bag offered an indignant rebuke and teased a smile to her face. Not alone, then. Never alone.

***

The city was bleaker than she remembered it. The gaily painted houses were sparser, it seemed, and more ragged, worn wood showing through the paint like stains. Perhaps it was that the sky was overcast, but from cloth and from wood and from glass the color seemed drained away. Trash was trapped between the cobblestones and from the alleyways gleamed the hungry eyes of strays. 

When Iris had first visited Ramos, the people had been cheerful, chatting to their companions and nodding to passersby. There had been the merry susurrus of conversation, whistling, and horseshoes on cobbles clopping in the air.

Now the people seemed fearful, clutching cloaks around them though it wasn't too cold, huddling together with silent companions as they scuttered across the streets. Perhaps they could sense what Iris felt deep in her bones: the bitter presence and restless thrumming of uneasy spirits.

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