Second Chapter, Second Part: Travel

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When the sun rose on Iris's last day in town, she did not cry. She packed her bag with her extra dress, as many candles as she could fit, and three chittering mice. The Kaerents, in off-beat Erillen, had told them not to bring much, as proper clothing and approved possessions would be provided for them at their school, but Iris knew each girl had their secret treasures stashed away on them: promise ribbons, carved walnut shells, metal thimbles and sheep bone needles. For Iris, it was the carving knife given to her by Mother Hall that she kept close, tucked into an inner pocket by her thigh.

Iris would have thought it cruel, the way the Kaerents herded the girls quickly into wagons and away from their parents, but she was grateful for the clean break. If she had been left to linger by Mother Hall, she would have brought back up her accusations and been unable to keep down her hard-swallowed resolve. Given room to spread, the pain and sense of betrayal seeded in her would have bloomed like an infection. Then perhaps their curt parting was suitably surgical.

Iris wondered how many of the boys would try to run away before wagons came for them in a few weeks. Somehow their fate, not yet realized, seemed worse; she grieved more for Roland and his dwindling freedom than she did for the girl sobbing next to her.

What, then, is there to say? For the next few weeks, Iris was in the strange space between purposes and defining environs. No longer her town's Candlemaiden, not yet a student in a Kaerent school, she ate when she was given food and slept when it was time to sleep. The rest of the girls talked to each other and devised games with acorns and sticks, but Iris kept herself at a distance, as she always had. It helped that her new mice friends were always willing to play with her, and that she was able to send an impression of herself after them as they ran through the fields. Iris always referred to this skill of hers as "stepping out," but Mother Hall had called it projection and cautioned her to be careful with it. Well, Iris was careful. She never stayed out of her body so long that her limbs were afterwards too stiff to flex about.

It never occurred to her that her periods of rigid posture and glazed eyes unnerved the other girls. And so each day unfurled, much like the day before, and Iris watched it all with a measure of objectivity. Little of note happened as they crossed the countryside, except for one incident, four days before they reached the capital city of Ramos, involving Sellie and a river spirit.

Iris knew most of the girls in the wagon passing well. They had, after all, grown up in the same town. Names for the most part escaped her, but she had a general impression of each one's character. Which is why the Kaerents' treatment towards Sellie confused her. Sellie was a sweet girl, a bit quiet, who had always offered Iris and Hall reeds and seaweed and other water plants that she liked to gather. Many candles and wards called for such things, and when Sellie's younger brother had died of an autumn fever two years past, Iris had been grateful to be able to repay Sellie's fine offerings by letting the two talk to each other one last time.

Sellie was sweet, but the Kaerents treated her with distrust and hints of revulsion. When they handed out evening rations, they were brusque with her, taking extra care not to accidentally touch her. They tended not to look at her face when they addressed her but were fine staring when her back was turned. Truthfully, Iris wouldn't have noticed any of this had one of her mice not mentioned it in passing, bumping his nose against hers and sending her the message in tumbling images.

But once pointed out, it was hard to ignore, and Iris couldn't help but wonder what the poor girl had done to provoke the Kaerents' ire. It was also a bit strange to Iris to see someone else treated as other, as an outsider, when she herself had grown so accustomed to the role.

The answer came to Iris accidentally, after a disastrous stop at a river.

The river was a bit rough and not a stop Iris would normally choose, but at the time a wash for the girls had been overdue and even the Kaerents had that reedy-thin feel of exhaustion to them. Nobody protested when they stopped the wagons for the day and gestured for the girls to go bathe downstream. Iris had learned from her mice that the Kaerents would be eating the good cheese and cured meat while the girls were gone, and she had asked her three spirit friends to snag a bite for her if they could manage it without being seen.

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