Yarrow ran his fingers along the raised mark upon his neck, as if hoping it would rub away. A ridiculous notion—it was as much a part of him as the nose on his face.
His ma, walking at his side, slipped her hand into his own and squeezed. He could not bring himself to look at her, nor at his siblings, for fear his mask of bravery might crack. Fourteen-year-olds did not cry.
Instead, he trained his eyes ahead of him, towards his destination. He forced his boots to trod onward, further down the cobbled road, into the weak morning light.
Sodden streamers and confetti still littered the road and sidewalk, remnants of the Da Un Marcu celebration three days past. The sight set Yarrow’s pulse thrumming in his ears. He pulled his gaze up, to the houses where curtains stirred in windows, barely concealing the prying eyes of neighbors. With ten brothers and sisters milling about him, all with the same curling brown hair, he comforted himself that he might, at least, be difficult to spot.
As the Lamhart family promenaded further into town, several of Yarrow’s younger brothers found their feet were hitting the ground in unison; they gleefully began to chant, “left…left…left, right, left,” slamming their boots in the semblance of a battle march, sending plumes of dust in the air with each impact. The rest of the children laughed with delight and joined in. Little Anteen, barely three, squealed as he unknowingly stomped the wrong foot on each beat. A small smile crossed Yarrow’s lips, but he could not bring himself to take part in the fun. ‘Marching to battle’ sounded too ominously on the nose just at that moment.
The row of identical brick houses—lines of bay windows, peaked roofs, and immaculate front porches—gave way to the businesses and shops of downtown Glans Heath, all achingly familiar to Yarrow. He regarded each with nostalgic eyes—Stillworth’s Clothier, The Tea Room, Nerra’s Bakery—but none more so than the general shop his own family operated, a workaday yet welcoming property just on the corner of Broad Street and the Main Avenue. He had spent uncountable hours there, restocking merchandise, tending the cash box, minding that his siblings didn’t pull all the goods from their shelves. He wished, just for a moment, to halt and memorize the place. To take in every missing slate from the roof, every chip in the white paint. But time had grown short. He strode past.
Ten-year-old Allon leapt in Yarrow’s path, his hands pressed together in the shape of a gun. “In the name of the Pauper’s King and the people of Trinitas, hand over all your marks.”
Several of the other boys formed and pointed their own imaginary weapons, splitting themselves into constables and highwaymen without discussion. As always, the stand-off instantly yielded to a firefight—the road ringing with the pew-pews of phantom bullets and the shrieks of Yarrow’s younger sisters. Allon jerked dramatically, as if shot in the chest, and threw himself onto the road.
“Boys…” Yarrow’s father said, the rebuke rather unconvincing given his half-stifled smile and twinkling eyes.
Ree came to Yarrow’s side and grasped his other hand. She leaned in close, eyes wide, and in a carrying whisper asked, “You don’t think you’ll really be waylaid by highwaymen, do you?”
“Of course not,” their mother cut in, her voice uncharacteristically shrill. She squeezed Yarrow’s hand tighter. “He’ll be perfectly safe.”
“Besides,” Rendal, Yarrow’s eldest brother, said, “he has nothing worth stealing.”
Yarrow snorted. True enough.
The family made its way to the post station. A small crowd had already assembled, forming a sea of bonnets and top hats. The Mayor and the Constable stood above the gathering; the former had arranged his rough features into something stately and ceremonial, while the latter unabashedly picked his nose.
“Here they are, here they are,” the Mayor announced in a booming voice, quite unnecessarily. The Lamhart family, in all of its shabbiness and magnitude, could hardly go unnoticed. Their relative poverty appeared greater at that moment, as the townspeople had dressed in their finest—the satin dresses greatly outnumbering the cotton, and the vast majority of men sporting the wide-cuffed, caped, and fur-lined overcoats so lately in style. Yarrow’s attention swept quickly past the crowd and gazed down the parkway. In the distance, he caught sight of the cloud of dust that foretold the coming of a carriage. His pulse quickened.
“Come up here, lad,” the Mayor called to Yarrow, gesturing him forward with a motion of his beefy hand. The heads of the crowd wheeled round, eyes latching to his face, accosting him with their curiosity. His cheeks burned and he took a small step in retreat.
When it became evident that he would not move of his own accord, his mother released his hand and gave his back a gentle pat. “Go on, son.”
He shuffled forward, gaze resolutely downcast, until the Mayor pulled him up to the loading plank. This must be a day for hand-holding, Yarrow thought idly, as the Mayor grabbed his fist and raised it in the air.
“Three cheers for Yarrow Lamhart, the first son of Glans Heath ever to be marked!”
The town applauded and hooted. The praise rang dully in Yarrow’s ears.
The Mayor thrust his chest out. “This is a day of—”
“Look!” several people called, pointing at the approaching carriage. Yarrow watched the nearing conveyance with a growing sense of dread.
“Do you mind if I say my goodbyes now?” Yarrow asked the Mayor.
The gentleman looked disobliged to have his speech so unceremoniously cut short, but said, “Of course, lad, of course.” He offered Yarrow a kind look and a pat on the shoulder. “Make the town proud.”
Yarrow, the marked boy, navigated through the crowd, back to his family. His mother came forward and gave him a fierce hug, her hand running through the dark hair at the base of his neck.
“You be a good boy, now,” she said softly in his ear.
“I will, Ma,” he replied, throat thick.
His mother pressed a handkerchief into his hand—a beautiful thing from her younger days, with her initials embroidered in elegant, curving letters. Yarrow clutched the fine fabric in his fist as he heard the unmistakable sound of hooves beating against the road, devastatingly close.
His father shook his hand. “Don’t be forgetting you’re a man of Glans Heath.”
Yarrow nodded, but could think of nothing to say.
“Keep your chin up and your feet flat.”
His father, too, held out a token for Yarrow—his own pocketknife. Not a fancy thing, but a well-loved, oft-used staple, given to him by his own father long ago. Yarrow took it gravely and tucked it, along with the handkerchief, into the pocket of his trousers.
The hoof beats grew louder as the coach pulled into town, and softer again as the horses slowed and halted. Yarrow had never seen such a fine carriage before—a large and stately barouche led by four towering black horses. As he looked it over, he thought he caught a glimpse of a pale face in the window.
With no time wasted, the driver hopped down from his seat. He had a great sandy mustache and a navy top hat, which he removed with a flourish as he bowed to the assemblage. He then straightened and made a quick scan of the crowd, before planting his attention on Yarrow’s father.
Yarrow’s father bowed in acknowledgment.
The mustached man smiled, hand outstretched. “I am Mr. Paggle, official Chisanta Coachman.”
Mr. Paggle, official Chisanta Coachman, then surveyed the mass of Lamhart children until his gaze settled upon Yarrow—or, more specifically, Yarrow’s neck.
“And this must be my charge,” he said.
Yarrow inclined his head and resisted the urge to pull his collar up over the mark below his left ear—the evidence of his differentness.
“Well then, let us load your belongings and be off,” Mr. Paggle said. He produced a gold pocket watch from his waistcoat and must not have been pleased with the time, as he clicked his tongue and began to move with impatience.
While Mr. Paggle and his father loaded his single trunk of belongings onto the barouche, Yarrow turned to bid his siblings farewell.
Rendal, as the eldest and most distinguished, came forward first and held out his hand. “Best of luck, brother.”
Yarrow didn’t have time to reply. Allon punched him in the side. Yarrow hissed and bent over in pain. “Something to remember me by,” the boy said. He ran away with a delighted, wicked cackle.
Yarrow winced and straightened. He attempted to embrace the rest of his siblings individually, but they crowded around him, forming one great hug—all softly chanting, “Bye, Yarrow,” in disharmony, sounding like a cacophony of cooing doves. He gave each head a brotherly pat and kissed the youngest babe on the brow. Yarrow thought this a rather impersonal way to depart from one’s family, but it would have to do.
Ree, however, he sought out for a proper farewell. She stood slightly apart, tears running down her pale face. Yarrow pulled her to his chest and she began to weep in earnest.
“I won’t…ever…see you…again,” she said between great sobs.
“Nonsense,” Yarrow said, “we’ll meet again some day. And I’ll write to you.”
“Yes.” He pulled away, before his own eyes misted.
With his trunk loaded and his farewells bade, Yarrow knew he should board the carriage. But he stood still upon the landing, feet frozen with reticence.
“Come now, young master, we have a schedule to keep,” Mr. Paggle said.
With a deep intake of Glans Heath air, Yarrow walked across the planks, his boots ringing hollowly on the wood. With one foot upon the first step, he turned to look back. He did not spare a parting glance for the crowd of neighbors, familiar, yet to his mind unimportant. Nor did he gaze one last time upon the town of Glans Heath itself, his childhood home. Rather, he looked at the trails of gleaming wetness upon his mother’s cheeks, the furrow in his father’s brow, the look of pleading in his siblings’ eyes, which seemed to say ‘do not go.’
As though by some spell, that instant seemed to hang suspended. As if the world had ceased to turn, and time stood still, just to give Yarrow the opportunity to preserve that moment with perfect clarity in his memory. A strange fancy popped into his mind—perhaps if he remained completely motionless, so would everything else. Then they could all stay just as they were, forever. But the thought rang of cowardice; he shoved it aside. He needed to keep his chin up and his feet flat, after all. So, with the greatest effort he had ever exerted in all his young life, Yarrow tore his eyes away from the scene. Facing forward, he took three great steps and ascended into the carriage.
Without any regard for the interior of the barouche, he darted straight for the window. Yarrow waved, and Glans Heath waved back. The horses sprang into motion with a piercing whinny and pulled away from the platform. A few of his siblings ran forward as if to follow him on foot, but in moments the carriage had ridden well beyond the station, leaving their small forms trailing behind.
He continued to wave several long moments after his family had receded from sight.
Yarrow sat, paralyzed. He didn’t register the luxurious red velvet interior of the carriage or the sweeping grasslands out the window. He barely noticed the girl sitting cross-legged on the bench opposite him.
But after some time—whether twenty minutes or two hours, he could not have said—the numbness faded. It was rapidly replaced with, first, a sense of being utterly dislodged in the world, and shortly after that, a deep wretchedness that started at the tip of his head and ran down his spine, pooling in his boots.
And then he became more aware of his companion—aware she would be an unwanted audience to the tears struggling to free themselves from the confines of his eyelashes. He would not cry, especially not in front of this girl. Not she who, despite being carried away from her home, just as he had been, sat with such composure. He schooled his face, aware of her eyes on him. But the flame of his own misery tickled at the back of his throat, burned in his eyes, compressed his lungs. He forced his hands into his pockets. A mistake; for there his knuckles brushed his mother’s handkerchief and his father’s pocket knife. In a moment, renegade tears spilled forth. A sob began to rip from his chest, and only half stifling it, he produced a pathetic whine, like a kicked dog.
“You can cry if you want,” the girl said, “it won’t bother me.”
She spoke softly, as if addressing a skittish animal. It rankled. Why didn’t she have the good grace to ignore him and let him suffer in peace?
“I’m fine,” Yarrow said, managing a modicum of bravado.
“As you like,” she replied. Her voice had a slight accent to his ears, melodic and rough. She returned to her previous engagement—gazing out the window—and ignored him again.
Yarrow produced a handkerchief, his own rough one, and scrubbed away the evidence of his breakdown, leaving him red-faced but tranquil. The power of mortification, for the moment, kept his distress at bay.
He had not been aware of the quiet that hung between his companion and himself prior to her speaking, but now that the silence had been shattered, it felt awkward. He realized how remiss he had been in not making an introduction. She must have thought him abominably rude.
Yarrow fidgeted and stared. What a strange specimen she was. Most of the villagers in Glans Heath had brown hair, a few were fair-headed, but none looked like her. This girl had hair like copper; she had the front portion tied in a navy blue bow at the back of her head, and the rest hung loose around her shoulders. She wore a faded blue dress.
She turned to meet his stare, fixing him with green, almond-shaped eyes. In doing so, her hair shifted, revealing a sliver of the mark on her neck—the same as the one that branded him.
“What’s your name?” he finally asked.
She smiled and his palms began to sweat.
“Bray Marron,” she said and, crossing the divide between them, came forward with her hand outstretched—an odd thing for a girl to do. He took it in his own and shook.
“Very nice to make your acquaintance, Yarrow Lamhart,” she said, both the turn of her mouth and her tone chiding. “Do you mind?” she asked, pointing at the mark on his neck. “I haven’t gotten a good look at mine.”
Yarrow leaned his head away obligingly to offer his mark for her inspection. She knelt on the seat beside him and leaned in close. He felt one cool fingertip touch his neck, her breath warm upon his cheek. He hoped she didn’t notice the way the hairs on his arms stood upright at her touch.
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” she asked, and parted her own hair for his inspection. He murmured agreement and turned to face her.
Stark against the pale white of her neck, the symbol looked red as brick—the symbol of the Chisanta, five concentric circles halved by a single vertical line. Yarrow wanted to reach out and touch it, as she had done. He hesitated too long, however, and she let her hair fall back into place.
“I mean, how does it work?” she continued, remaining close to him. So close that, should he have felt so inclined, he could have counted the freckles on her nose.
“How does what work?”
“The marking…the selection…all of it. Where does it come from? Why were we chosen,” she pointed between the two of them, “and not some other boy and girl, somewhere else?”
“Well…it’s magic, isn’t it?” Yarrow said.
She waved a hand dismissively. “That’s a weak answer.”
Something about this girl, whose curiosity seemed to outweigh her fear, made Yarrow feel at ease for the first time in three long days, since his life had been turned upside down.
He smiled. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
The carriage slowed and they both turned to the window. The sun shone high and bright in the afternoon sky. There didn’t seem to be any reason to stop; they saw no village, and the landscape was the same ceaseless flatland. The door opened and their driver called them out with a single tempting word: “Lunch.”
Mr. Paggle laid out a spread of bread, cheese, and fruit. “There’s a clump of bushes out that way,” he pointed over his shoulder, “should you have any business to take care of. It’s the best we’re like to find in these parts. We’ll set out again in thirty minutes.”
“How far away is it?” Yarrow asked.
“The Chisanta Temple? A good three days. We’ve got two more charges to collect, though that won’t be until tomorrow. We’ll be staying in Gallan tonight, and I’d like to be there before full dark, mind. So be ready to go in thirty minutes.”
And with that, Mr. Paggle left to care for the horses.
“I’m going to stretch my legs,” Bray said, taking some bread and cheese, wrapping it carefully in a linen napkin, and tucking the bundle into her pocket. “I’ve been sitting all day.”
Yarrow wasn’t sure if she said this as an invitation or not. He stood, feeling awkward, and watched her as she began to walk off into the field. She looked over her shoulder, giving him a ‘well, aren’t you coming?’ look. He hastened to follow.
The two of them set out into the sea of knee length grass. Gnats buzzed in Yarrow’s face and the wind cooled his cheeks.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Mountsend.” She pointed toward the east. “About seven hours from your town. What was it called again?”
“Right, Glans Heath. It looked nice. Much nicer than where I’m from. We’re just north of the Verdant Peaks, so it’s a mining town. Were all of those little boys and girls your family?”
Yarrow nodded. “Yes. My brothers and sisters.”
“What, all of them?” Bray asked, and laughed. “I thought maybe some were cousins. There must be a dozen of you.”
“Just shy of a dozen, actually.”
Bray’s eyebrows shot up. She looked at him as if waiting for an explanation as to why anyone would have so many children.
“My mother says that a baby is the best gift a woman can receive, and my father is very generous.” His face flushed in embarrassment at having said this private joke aloud.
A strong gust cast ripples in the grass. Yarrow wondered if this was what a sea looked like. Probably wetter, he decided.
“I envy you,” Bray said.
Yarrow looked down at her. Her rust-colored hair swirled around her face in the wind. Her eyes were distant.
“Don’t you have siblings?” he asked.
“No, nor parents either.”
Yarrow didn’t know how to respond. A moment of silence rested uneasily between them.
But when she turned to face him again, her eyes were gleaming with mirth. “Race you to the tree,” she challenged.
There could be no question which tree she meant. In the wide ocean of grass there stood just one off in the distance, its thin, gnarled trunk bowed with age. She didn’t wait for his response, but hiked up her skirts and darted away. He had no choice, of course, but to follow.
Yarrow ran full out, driving his legs as fast as they would carry him, and passed her. The greenery whipped about his hips and knees and the wind whistled in his ears. He heard her laughter and felt himself beaming. He hadn’t raced in years. With the breeze hitting his face, blowing back his hair, and his heart pumping rhythmically in his chest, he felt free and wild and young.
After several minutes he neared the tree, his arms pumping at his sides. He turned to look over his shoulder to judge his lead and was surprised to find Bray was not far behind him, her face pink and her dress hitched indelicately above the knee. Then, abruptly, foot hit rock, and Yarrow tumbled into a graceless summersault. He landed in a tangled heap and heard rather than saw Bray run past him and call out triumphantly.
Yarrow, with skinned knees and a rueful smile, joined her under the shade of the tree. The two of them collapsed onto a thick root, flushed, sweaty, and panting.
Bray reached up and plucked a small fruit from a branch—a crabapple. She bit into it and sucked the bitter juices.
“What are you doing?” Yarrow batted the fruit from her hand. “Don’t you know those are poisonous?”
“Are they?” She shrugged. “They’ve never killed me before. Anyway, aren’t you going to congratulate me on my victory?”
“You cheated,” Yarrow said.
“How so?” she asked, taking mock offense.
“Magic, I strongly suspect. Some Chisanta trick.” He arranged his features into an accusation, though of course he suspected no such thing.
“Then you should have done a Chisanta trick right back.” She shoved his shoulder playfully. “We are the same, after all.”
And though they had been speaking in jest, Yarrow felt suddenly serious. She was Chisanta, as was he. Which meant leaving behind everything: his family, his home, his work at the shop. But, he reflected, with no small amount of pleasure, this new life could not be a bad one. Not if it included Bray Marron.