Class was finally out. The holidays had begun. Students rushed out of their stifling classrooms like a large river torrent suddenly released from the floodgates of a dam. Grabbing their pencils, erasers, and satchels, everyone made their way out of their various classrooms. The silence of the halls was now dispelled as the noise level rose in excitement. Emalynn, caught in a large stream of students, twisted round in a vain attempt to catch her sister’s attention. Unfortunately, their class had had a test and Katrynn was in her post-test haze (no doubt recounting all of the questions over again in her head and mentally re-checking her answers) and did not hear her older sister’s shout. The short, curly-haired girl caught sight of Chrystyna also passing by in the distance, looking rather vacuous. Of Brittainy, there was no sign.
Throughout the rest of the evening, Emalynn didn’t catch a glimpse any of her teammates. Emalynn ended up at a dorm party held by Toria and the other girls – and eventually, she dug her sister out of a dark corner of the room where Katrynn had attempted to hide from the other girls. Katrynn, as a rule, hated social interaction. Today, the festive atmosphere was fueled with the promise of returning home.
“Let’s find the other two,” Emalynn said. “It’ll be either the library or the tower.”
“I think Chrystyna will be in the library,” Katrynn said, allowing her older sister to drag her down the long stone hall. “I heard her mention it. Something about homework over the holidays.”
Sure enough, Chrystyna was in the library pouring over a book. Emalynn’s eyebrows rose as she noted that Brittainy’s blonde curly mop was hidden by a large upright tome titled Explosives on the Field. For some reason, the usually academically uninterested girl seemed amused by what she was reading. Raising her head and turning her book around, she nudged the edge of the book against Chrystyna’s own text.
“Look at the blast radius! It’s huge!”
“Blast radius?” asked Chrystyna after staring at the page.
“It’s how far the bomb’s explosion reaches.”
“Where everything is destroyed?”
“It’s called…” Brittainy with great labor turned the book around and peered at the close text. “T.N.T.”
“Tee-en-tee? That just sounds like some letters,” Chrystyna frowned.
“It is. A ‘T’, and then an ‘N’, and then a ‘T’.”
“An acronym,” Emalynn said, deciding to enter the conversation before it spiraled out of control as it usually did.
“It’s when the beginning letters of a group of words are used to make a short form.”
“Oh.” Chrystyna looked up at the two Romayans who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. “You two left the party?”
“We did,” Katrynn flopped down at the table. “Finally. It’s a dull time listening to Toria and her friends. I wanted to leave but Emalynn wouldn’t let me.”
“You need to learn how to socialize,” Emalynn said fists on her hips. “Otherwise you’ll fail Social Arts.”
“You are going to fail Social Arts?” Chrystyna blinked in confusion.
“I am not going to fail Social Arts,” Katrynn said. “It’s not that bad.”
“Well, you will fail Social Arts if you don’t practice,” Emalynn said, blue eyes glinting dangerously.
“Celebrating with Toria is boring.” Katrynn rolled her eyes. “I wanted to go out with the others.”
“I’m surprised you aren’t with the group who is planning to try to skate on the West Pond,” Emalynn said, eyeing Brittainy with curiosity. “Normally, you’d be right in the thick of it.”
“Hmmm…” Brittainy shrugged easily. “I just felt like staying inside and keeping Chrystyna company. She’s getting a leg up on her holiday homework.”
Chrystyna looked up from her textbook and notepad and shot Brittainy a curious look before returning her gaze to the page. Brittainy appeared either to not notice or to ignore the older girl’s glance. Emalynn frowned. Something’s going on here. I know it.
“I see,” Emalynn said, voice just a little edgy, emphasizing the two words.
“Homework over the holidays,” Katrynn said with a mixture of awe and horror. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Chrystyna shrugged. “Better than leaving the school.”
“I hope you get it done well,” Brittainy smiled. “If you need help, you can write me a letter.”
“You do realize it costs a fortune to send a letter from Eldalind?” Emalynn had to point out. “And, you wouldn’t really be able to help her. I would think she’d be better off writing me. You know that writing annoys you.”
“I would get the answer for a friend,” Brittainy said with a frown. “I would write.”
“I’ll be fine,” Chrystyna said peaceably. “Don’t worry.”
“We’ll be leaving tomorrow to go home and celebrate the Winter Solstice,” Katrynn said. “What about you two?”
“I’ll be leaving early tomorrow morning on the train,” Chrystyna said. “Brittainy is going around noon.”
“So excited!” Brittainy smiled.
“I can’t wait!” Katrynn said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep a wink tonight!”
The other girls smiled at each other knowing that the minute Katrynn’s head hit the pillow, she’d be out like a light.
“Speaking of going to bed,” Emalynn leaned back to peer down the library’s aisle. “I think Mistress Reena is coming to send us back to the dorms.”
“It’s that time,” Katrynn agreed, turning to look at the clock.
“Time to head in that general direction,” she added.
Grumbling quietly to herself, Chrystyna rose, packed her books and papers, and followed her friends down the aisle and out the door. Glancing back, Chrystyna caught a glimpse of her beloved sanctuary before the great oak doors swung shut.
The following morning, no sooner had Katrynn packed, then Emalynn was banging on her younger sister’s door. Trying the knob, the short, curly-haired girl looked around the corner of the door cautiously, knowing her younger sister’s hoarding habits often resulted in a chaos which deeply disturbed Emalynn’s tidy soul.
“Kat!” She shouted, edging the door a bit further back. “Father’s going to be here any minute!”
“I am ready!” Katrynn yelled back. “My bags are already downstairs! I just…”
Emalynn took in the monstrous sight before her. Her sister’s room looked like some madwoman’s archive. There were stacks of thinly beaten tin, glinting like dull silver paper, and round copper bowls; books and notebooks and folders cascading over the desk by the window; rolls of paper and long wooden dowels piled up against the wall; a variety of clothing strewn about; mysterious looking bottles and boxes and, finally, Katrynn herself, appearing out from behind her bed.
Katrynn’s roommate, Sameena Olstaad, popped out from yet another stack of books, which had been piled like a precarious wall. Sameena, a pale blue-eyed girl with matching pale skin and white-blonde hair, superficially was not at all like Katrynn. Yet, looking at the state of the room, Emalynn had a premonition that the girl was probably more like her sister than she liked.
This is just what Katrynn needs. Another rat-pack hoarder. No doubt, the two of them have been encouraging each other in various projects throughout the semester…
For a few seconds, Emalynn wondered what her sister was working on and then she decided she did not want to know. She really didn’t.
“Oh, Emalynn,” Sameena waved. “We’re just looking for a book that I wanted to lend Kat.”
“A book?” sighed Emalynn. “You can’t find anything in here!”
“That is not true,” Katrynn disagreed quickly, knowing where this talk was going to go. “Everything is in its place. Just not Sameena’s book.”
“It’s called Weapons and Armor: Handiwork at Home,” Sameena supplied helpfully, as though she expected Emalynn to start digging.
“Katrynn,” Emalynn hung back, “you are not going to be making armor over the holidays.”
“Says Mother,” Emalynn shot back. “You know we are going to be busy as soon as we arrive – and you know you won’t want to miss out on anything.”
“I can still study up on it in the evening-”
“Can you just-” The older girl was interrupted, however, by Sameena’s cry of discovery.
“Ah! It was under Crossbows through the Ages. You remember putting it there, Kat?” Sameena handed the small book over to Katrynn who, emerging from under Sameena’s bed, took it and waved it at Emalynn as though the two of them had found some ancient treasure.
“Great,” Emalynn said flatly, “let’s go!” Then she added a bit more graciously, “Thank you, Sameena. We’ll see you in two weeks!”
“Of course,” Sameena smiled back. “Have a happy Winter’s Solstice, you two.”
“Happy Winter’s Solstice!” Katrynn hugged the book closely and scuttled after Emalynn.
Sure enough, downstairs, they found their father standing in the lobby, directing one of the porters as their luggage was loaded into the family carriage. It was a Claudius-class vehicle with four seats – two at the front, overlooking the horses, and two behind. Small, black and nondescript, the carriage did not stand out within the traffic of the Capital, just the way their father liked it. Today, he had erected the removable hood, protecting the girls and himself from the falling snow. Their baggage was slung into the back hatch, located below their seats.
“Father,” Emalynn smiled, giving her father a quick hug. “Happy Winter Solstice.”
“Happy Winter Solstice, Father!” Katrynn followed suit.
“And many returns to you, too,” their father chuckled briefly as he noticed the book which Katrynn still clutched. “Well, let’s not keep your mother waiting! You know how excited she is to see you both – and she is in a tizzy over the roast.”
“Did something go wrong?” asked Katrynn as her father helped her up to her seat. Problems with food always got Katrynn’s full attention.
“Patridge didn’t get the correct size.”
“Again?” Emalynn sighed. “Didn’t she do that last year?”
“Hm,” their father shook his head, “yes, I do recall that. At any rate, we really ought to return home as quickly as possible.”
With that, the girls’ door was shut and latched. Their father climbed up into his seat, clucked gently at the horse and flicked the reins. The Romayans were off.
When the Romayans arrived at their small house, located in the northern section of the Capital, it was fairly evident that their mother was in full festive swing. Three familiar barrels were lined up on the sidewalk in front of their house; the maid, Patridge, was hanging out a window the better to scrub at the small panes of Emalynn’s bedroom; music from their gramophone blasted cheery carols out onto the street, and, through the large parlor windows which fronted the house, they could see their mother arranging the six Winter Solstice decoration boxes for their traditional family decoration party.
No sooner had Katrynn alighted than Madame Romayan was down the front walk, embracing her husband and two daughters, and exclaiming over a narrowly avoided roast beef disaster, the state of the roads, the recent snowfall, and their upcoming decoration spree. Katrynn, just as Emalynn predicted, lit up with excitement, set aside her book, and disappeared after their mother to help prepare lunch while Emalynn and her father drew the horse and carriage into the small carriage house close by their property. After installing Larimore, the mare, in her stable, double-checking her feed, and grooming her quickly, Emalynn and her father were put to work installing the tree their father had chosen.
After lunch, Patridge returned home, and the Romayans settled in for a long cozy afternoon of decorating accompanied by coffee and cookies and delightful snacks. In the evening, the two girls played a few rounds of Ecarte with their parents, using sunflower seeds as chips, and fell asleep reading novels by the fireplace.
The next day was once again spent decorating the tree and the parlor. Two of their aunts (their mother’s side) came round for a visit and a game of bridge ensued which lasted until dinner. After helping her mother wash and dry the dishes, Katrynn sat by the kitchen window, chin propped on her forearms and eyes distant as she watched night fall over the small alleyway which wound its way along the left side of the house. Men and women scurried past, bundled up against the cold, stamping down the white snow beneath their feet. Sickly yellow, the lanterns flickered dimly over the icy cobblestones.
All noise seemed to have been muffled by the snow. Close by, the occasional clip-clop of horses’ hooves could be heard, accompanied by the jingle-jingle of festive bells. A boy passed by, shouting out the headlines of the newspaper he was attempting to sell. When he passed by, silence resumed its hold on the street. Still, if she strained her ears, Katrynn fancied she could hear people singing.
Soon it will be the eve of Winter Solstice, she thought happily. We’ll set out our slippers and receive gifts from Starne’s Fairy Lights. I wonder what I will get this year… It can’t be any more wonderful than what has happened this year already – attending the Academy early, getting to take part in the special assignment for this year, Katrynn smiled to herself. Could this year get any more perfect?
Brittainy, upon arriving at her family mansion in the north-west part of the Capital, discovered her family in the midst of packing. Watching her brothers bustle about, cleaning and packing their guns, corralling the dogs, double-checking the state of their ice skates and snowshoes, Brittainy felt a leap of excitement as she realized that her family was relocating to their second estate in Nichtdoon.
“I told you already, dear,” her mother sighed, letting the maids go to pack the suitcases as her lists prescribed. “After the tea social, remember? Hutchison has already gone down to get the house prepared. Everyone is coming around, after all, so we must be at our best.”
“Everyone? Does that mean our cousins?” Brittainy asked in horror. “Alexandria is coming as well?”
“Of course, dear,” her mother smiled, oblivious to the fact that her daughter was less than pleased at the news. “Isn’t it lovely?” She glanced down at the book in her daughter’s hand. “Oh my, what do you have there? A book? I am so glad to see you taking an interest in reading!”
Brittainy smiled sweetly, “I think this is an interesting book, so the librarian said I could take it out over the winter holidays… but I have to be really careful.”
“Very well,” her mother peered closer and frowned. “Explosives on the Field?”
“It is science,” Brittainy said with no small excitement. “All about explosions.”
“Hmmm….” Lady Brython’s elation faded into worry. “Don’t you think that’s a bit… violent, dear?”
“It’s just science, mother,” Brittainy said, blue eyes widening with innocence. “I’ll go get my valise packed.”
With that, the girl escaped from her mother, raced up the curving staircase to her room, and burst in on two maids who were folding away dresses – red velvets, blue and black taffetas, and pink satins. Pulling out her favorite large purple traveling valise, Brittainy began to stow away things she would need for entertainment on her journey there, as well as a few ‘forbidden items’ that she wanted to wear over the holidays. By the time Brittainy’s packing was finished, tea was ready, followed by a lot of family chatter over their holiday plans.
The following morning, the family rose up early, barely woken by the dim light of the winter morning. With a separate baggage cart in tow, the grand four-horse Villecourte coach rumbled up the grand drive to the iron gates. Her father was already reading the morning’s paper, her mother was perusing a social journal, Eric was sleeping on her right, and Johan, seated by the window on the other side of Brittainy, was peering through opera glasses into the distance.
I guess he still likes to pretend to be a pirate, Brittainy smiled to herself. She too was already looking forward to the prospect of playing pirate in the nearby woods with her brother. Winter Solstices are always exciting.
As the carriage rolled past the iron gate, Brittainy noticed the two guards return to the guard house and she suddenly thought of her maids. They had reminded her of Chrystyna and now, looking back at the mansion she called home, for the first time in her life Brittainy wondered what her maids and what the guards were going to do for the winter holidays.
Is the Winter Solstice fun for them as well? Do they have holidays? Brittainy tried to imagine a year without Winter Solstice and gifts and shivered at the prospect.
“Father,” the young girl blurted out.
Her father, twitching his newspaper down, raised an eyebrow of inquiry.
“I was just wondering…” She paused uncertainly. “Are Millie and Perri having a winter holiday as well?”
“We give them a week and a half, I believe,” Lord Brython glanced at his wife. “Am I right?”
“Yes, dear,” his wife agreed. “I believe Millie and Perri return home for the holiday. Most of them do.”
“Even the guards?”
“Well, the guards have shifts,” her father explained, setting his paper aside. “The ones who patrol the grounds on the eve and the holiday itself get double pay.”
“Oh,” Brittainy sat back, relieved. “That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“I should think not,” her mother huffed. “Hutchinson and I had a time of it getting out the holiday cards and the bonus pay packets. And the hams. And the wine bottles.”
“We give them ham and wine?” Johan turned his opera glasses from the window to his mother.
“To help with the holiday meal, dear,” his mother smiled. “It’s customary.”
“Why?” asked the young boy with curiosity. “Why is it customary?”
“Well,” their father smiled then, “they don’t have as much as our family has, so it’s important to help where we can. Charity is a very important tradition around this time of the year.”
“It makes you feel better,” their mother added. “And it’s good luck.”
“Good luck?” Brittainy asked.
“We don’t really hold to the traditional ideas of the Seven Aspects,” her father admitted, “but whether or not you believe in ancient tradition or more modern ideas, it’s no harm to do good whenever you can.”
“I see,” Brittainy nodded.
Brittainy wanted to ask about the Seven Aspects and whether that was connected to the God of Seven Faces which Chrystyna had mentioned once, but she refrained. Too many questions would make her mother suspicious about what was happening at school.
I can ask Father more questions later, she told herself. Charity and the Seven Aspects… I had no idea that they were connected to the Winter Solstice. Well, I guess we do pray to Floda and Starne before we go to bed on the Solstice’s eve – but that’s for the gifts. Mother has that huge picture of the night seascape she always puts up...
Just thinking of the decorating that was ahead of her, Brittainy sighed. She would end up running about with the maids, helping her mother arrange everything ‘to perfection’. Ivy and mistletoe and long fir runners and velvet ribbons and popped corn chains, Brittainy couldn’t help but start listing the decorations her mother usually enjoyed. We’ll have the large fir tree in the parlor and the palm tree in the nursery. There will be the hanging of the oranges, and putting out our stockings ‘for the fairies’... So much to do!
Watching the city melt away into the barren white countryside, Brittainy began to plot ways in which to escape the chores awaiting her. Alexandria or no, decorating or no, she hoped her Winter Solstice would be ‘to perfection’.
Stopping only three times - in Marble’s Vale, Quartz Hills; Ridgeton, Delltern-Cairn; and, Collett, Redaire – the express train from the Capital to Eldalind passed mile after mile of farmland interspersed with cozy towns and huddled hamlets. The rich farmland of the south gave way to the hills of central Doran and then the flat plains which stretched across and up to the woods and crags of Eldalind. When the train chugged wearily from the platform in Collett, the train had detached three passenger cars and still remained mostly empty.
No one goes to Eldalind in the winter, Chrystyna reminded herself, as she huddled in her thickest black fleece coat. Being her favorite, it had been patched six times and the sleeves, she knew, were getting a little short for her long arms. However, it had been a gift from her grandparents, so the girl kept it despite the fact that it earned her odd looks from the other students at school – and the other passengers on the train. In fact, Chrystyna did not notice anyone else in the carriage with her as she focused on the blur of black which slowly grew on the horizon.
It was the third day, nearing noon. If all went well, the young girl would be in Heathmoor by midnight. The next morning, her father would pick her up at the Rams Inn. She would be home by lunchtime. Chrystyna was already imagining the conversations she would have with her younger siblings and her parents. She sighed.
It’s not that I hate them, she thought. I just get… tired. Very tired. When I try to rest in my room, it’s always Mum yelling up the stairs about coming down and helping her… and I’ll have to be with Marchien again. Or maybe I can be with little Jo.
With that, Chrystyna drifted into an uneasy nap plagued with dreams of empty wooden shoes and muffled discussions about money behind her parents’ bedroom door at night and cold attic rooms.
The next morning, at the Rams Inn, Christina woke up groggily, feeling even more tired than usual due to her late arrival at the inn the night before. Still, she packed swiftly, knowing her father would no doubt be downstairs, waiting for her. Sure enough, in the main hall of the inn, Martin Fieldman was cheerfully accepting a hearty mug of black sludgy tea with liberal helpings of sugar and cream to help it down. The maids and the men about him, as usual, had been drawn into her father’s friendly sphere. No matter how dire times might be, Chrystyna’s father always seemed to carry about him a simple cheer which enlivened any conversation. He was a tall man with a great black beard and thinning dark hair underneath a green knitted cap.
“Chrystyna,” her father got to his feet and swiftly drew his daughter into a bear-like hug, knowing that deep down his eldest enjoyed it although her face held a faint grimace. “I didna think yeh would be up this early. I was jus’ ’bout to send Delia up to rouse yeh. How’s m’girl?”
“I’m fine, Da,” she sighed, squeezing her father in return. “I guess I’m more excited t’be home now that I’m here.”
“That’s good,” her father grinned, “’cause yer brothers an’ sisters are beside themsel’s wi’ excitemen’.”
“I could only get’em somethin’ small,” Chrystyna said quickly, slipping a little into her hometown’s accent. “I hope they are’na too excited.”
“Well,” her father reminded her, “it is’na every day we get t’send someone to the Capital fer an apprenticeship wi’ the, ah, military.”
“An’ I see yeh brought yer bags down already,” Mr. Fieldman said, noticing the battered plaid suitcase by the door and the large brown sack propped up against it. “I’ll get Pietr to put it in th’cart – but I need to finish this drink while yeh get a quick breakfas’. We paid fer it anyways, so yeh might as well enjoy it.”
After a hearty meal of eggs and toast and bacon and tea, Chrystyna rejoined her father. Together, the two made their way out to the park, pulling up their hoods and putting on their thickest gloves. Wrapping her scarf more tightly around the lower half of her face, Chrystyna sat up on the seat by her father and clutched the seat’s rickety armrest tightly as the cart clattered over the uneven cobblestones that led to the main road.
Three hours and two stops later, the pair arrived at the small village they called home. Grey Crags, which nestled within the shelter of Mount Graeg, held a population of only a thousand. Half an hour away from Grey Crags, the Fieldman house dug itself into a rocky outcropping beside a currently deeply frozen river. The Fieldmans, like many others in their region, based their livelihood on sheep farming, but Martin Fieldman also supplemented their income with an occasional carpentry job. Judging by the piles of wood to the right of the house, it was clear that Chrystyna’s father was in the middle of a project.
No sooner had the cart rattled its way into the side yard next to the barn than the side door burst open and a flood of children streamed out. Nate, Ethan, and Suzy were heading the herd, followed by Danny, holding a dishcloth and plate, and Marchien, who was holding Lil’ Jo on her hip. Chrystyna, hopping off the cart, knew that, thanks to her overexcited siblings, her father wouldn’t have to worry about her luggage since the back of the cart had been let down, the canvas cover had been thrown back and her bags were now being dragged off the back. Danny handed Suzy his towel and plate and both he and Nate staggered off with the largest suitcase. Suzy and Ethan squabbled over who would carry the sack, and Suzy won, giving Ethan the towel and plate.
By the time everyone was inside, Mum Fieldman was yelling for lunchtime.
“Where’s Danny – Danny – oh!” She stopped at the sight of her son, coming down the stairs. “Yeh should be dryin’ th’plates! We need’em fer lunch!”
“I was jus’ puttin’ Chrystyna’s suitcase in ’er room,” protested Danny.
“Naaatttteee!!!” The rosy, round-faced woman screamed up the stairs. “Leave Chrystyna’s stuff alone!”
“Hey!” Chrystyna bounded up the stairs. “Don’t touch m’things!”
“Isn’t Chrys havin’ lunch wi’ us?” asked Marchien with a pout.
“Yes, yes, she is,” her mother replied, whipping around. “Put Jo in her chair. Yeh take yer seat too!”
Somehow, the family managed to arrange themselves around the long square table with Mother at one end and Father at the other. Danny, Nate, and Ethan sat on one side, while Chrystyna, Marchien, and Suzy sat on the other. The rough table, covered by a blue and white checkered cotton cloth, was now burdened with three bowls of greens and veggies. Chrystyna noted that, as usual, her father was the one who meted out the portions of beef and potatoes.
Lunch, a noisy and cheerful affair, consisted of various children (and the adults) talking over each other in an attempt to tell their stories. Chrystyna, as was her wont, hunkered down, ate her food, nodded in response to people’s comments, and kept her answers to questions purposefully vague.
After dinner, Chrystyna and Danny stood about the sink, drying the dishes Marchien washed. The three elder children discussed the Winter Solstice celebrations which their parents had planned.
“Mum is in a tizzy,” Marchien sighed. She glanced around the room before conspiratorially adding: “Da managed a few things fer the younger ones, but I do’na think we’re gettin’ anythin’ this year fer Solstice.”
“I got a little somethin’for us all,” Chrystyna replied quietly. “It is’na much but…” She trailed off and shrugged. “We’ve gotten through on less before.”
“Yeah,” Danny added, “this year we have beef. Master Janke was able to go out to Heathmoor an’ get a coupla cows fer the town. All thanks to yeh. If th’recruiter hadna found yeh, things’d be much harder.”
“How is it in th’Capital?” asked Marchien curiously. “Is it true that all th’ladies step out so grand on a Skroll’s Da? And there be those flyin’ balloons all in th’sky?”
“The zeppelins?” Chrystyna asked. “I saw a couple.”
“Do they make a great rumblin’ noise when they pass over yeh?” asked Danny curiously.
“Like a thunderstorm,” Chrystyna lied.
“Yeh sound a bit diff’rent now. I guess it’s all that learnin’ fer yeh ‘prenticeship. Yeh learnin’ lots?” Marchien handed the last pot to Danny and began to wipe down the rough stone counter by the sink, a big bucket on top an iron stand.
“Lots,” Chrystyna said.
“What kinds’o’things?” Danny asked.
“Lots of things,” Chrystyna smiled vaguely. “His’try and Science and running about and book learnin’ yeh - you wouldna imagine.”
“It’s alright,” Chrystyna shrugged.
Later that night, most of the children were put in bed, and Chrystyna found herself alone with her mother in her parent’s bedroom. Her father was drifting off to sleep on his side of the great wooden bed, but her mother was still awake enough to finally talk privately with her eldest.
“I heard from yer father that yer marks aren’t much to write home about,” her mother said with a frown. “Are yeh doin’ yer studies as yeh need to?”
“Yes, Mum,” Chrystina sighed. “I am. It’s just… difficult?”
“Difficult?” Her mother nudged her husband awake. “What do yeh mean, ‘difficult’?”
“I have much to catch up on,” Chrystyna replied carefully. “Lots of book learnin’.”
“Yeh do’na have to worry so much,” her father squeezed his wife’s hand. “Our Chrystyna will be fine. Give ’er time.”
“What if they send her back?”
“They willna send her back.”
Not yet, Chrystyna thought. Soon though, I may be back in Grey Crags. A disgrace…
“Yeh do’na know that,” her mother was saying testily. “I canna understan’ the papers rightly, but th’marks seem low. Is everythin’ really goin’ to be fine this way? Yeh know how I felt about this whole deal, Martin. Mebbe she shouldna gone.”
“I think Chrystyna will be fine,” Martin replied calmly. “Stop yeh fussin’ and let the girl prove herself. I’m proud of yeh at any rate,” Chrystyna’s father smiled at his daughter in encouragement. “Yeh have done more than we expected. Isna that right, Mum? Yeh thought she’d be back within the week.”
“Yeh know where she could end up-“
“She isna yer mum.”
“I’ll be fine, mum,” Chrystyna tried to reassure her mother.
“Things will turn out for the best. I know it.”
“Hmmm…” Her mother sat back, sighed, rubbed her eyes, and then gave her daughter a small sigh. “We never planned this for yeh – but this is th’way it turned out. Who would’ve thought a Fieldman would be recruited for a Guild like yers! It’s an honour, I know, but I know there be risks as well.”
“I’ll do my best not to get in trouble,” Chrystyna promised her mother.
“Well,” her mother sighed, “get yeh to bed. Yer Da needs his rest. Tomorrow’s a busy day – goin’ to Church and puttin’ out the shoes and makin’ the dinner and all.”
“Goodnigh’ Mum, Da,” the girl said, giving each of her parents a kiss and departing to her bed.
Slipping between the two thin quilts, Chrystyna sighed. Little Jo, her new roommate, kicked restlessly before stilling, her light breathing evening out as the little girl fell into a deeper sleep. For half an hour, the older girl stared out the frosted window of her bedroom at the sharp pinpricks of stars which were scattered across the night sky.
If Grandma Betty is right, she thought, somewhere up there, Flodna, Starne, Luna, and Wodne are preparing a Solstice Feast. Tomorrow night, they will come down and give good children gifts. But… maybe this year, they won’t be able to leave something for everyone. Chrystyna sighed. Everyone thinks that my adventure in the Capital must be so dangerous. It must be a matter of courage, but really, in some ways, life there is so much more simple.
With that, Chrystyna closed her eyes and dreamed of the library at the Academy. She woke up just as Mistress Reena came round to her table to announce the library closing time. For a moment, she blinked in confusion as she took in the bared rafters of her room, the cloths and towels and clothing which hung from the roof. Far below, she could hear the sounds of her mum preparing breakfast – clanging and rattling pots and calling everyone’s names at intervals. Doors opened and shut. Voices rose and fell in argument and discussion. Someone was pounding at her door, and Chrystyna turned blearily to watch Jo push her stubby legs off the edge of the bed until the two-year-old disappeared altogether. Then Jo popped up at Chrystyna’s side of the bed and laughed, blue eyes twinkling and her light brown curls clinging to her red checks.
“Huppy Winna Solstiiice Ebe, Chrissy!” she shouted.Happy Winter Solstice’s Eve, Chrystyna thought with a smile.
 Carriages with Doran come in all shapes and sizes. For public fare, hansom cabs are most often used for two to four people as well as the horse-drawn trams. Private vehicles, ranging from the plainest carts to the fanciest carriages, can be seen in Doran’s Capital as well. Most middle class families settle for the Claudius-class carriage or the Lowville hansom.
 Starne, one of the Seven Faces of God, is the deity of starlight, who represents power over time and memory. Omniscient and wise, Starne is one of the two main Aspects represented in the southern regions of Doran during Winter Solstice. It is said that alongside the omnipresent Floda the two Aspects send Starne’s fairy lights (small messengers) to every corner of the world, bearing gifts for good children. However, more often than not, many of Starne’s gifts are in fact delivered by one’s father and mother.