Cass turned to the plate in front of her and was surprised at how filled it was. Two hunks of bread sat shoved to one side, making room for a small mound of berries and what looked like a long sliced apple, three fat sausages, and a dozen cubes of yellow cheese. She poked at the berries and watched them topple over, wondering if what looked like blackberries were really blackberries. The bread and sausages were warm and the cheese was ice cold.
A little nervous, she popped a piece of the crusty bread in her mouth and almost groaned at how warm and buttery it was. If all bread here was like this, she was going to find a bakery she could live in.
Behind her, she heard the boy chuckle. Startled, she whipped her head around, another piece of bread halfway to her mouth. The boy was leaning against the table behind her, his cloth rapidly wiping the top.
“I told you my mother makes the best food around here,” Eller said, his eyes flashing with pride.
“If she cooks like this, why doesn’t she work at the palace?”
“She did, years ago, before I was born. When I was a baby, my dad died and she decided she didn’t want to raise me at the palace, wanted to give me the freedom of running around the city. The palace is safe, but they encourage everyone to stay on the palace grounds. She said Regent Talone was sad to see her go, but gifted her this inn. Every week, though, someone from the palace comes to pick up some bread because no one else can get it as buttery as she can. As a matter of fact, someone is supposed to come by today.”
Cass started and her eyes widened as Eller went back to his work. Would they be looking for her, too? Her heart began to pound as she quickly dug into her breakfast. She didn’t know if her absence from the palace had been noticed yet and whether the entire staff knew what she looked like, but she couldn’t take that chance. She had to be out of there before anyone came.
Swallowing the last bite of bread with great regret, she gathered up her bag and stood. Eller was on the other side of the room, so she offered him a wave before walking out of the inn as nonchalantly as she could. But, as soon as the door swung shut and the morning noises of the city greeted her, she fell back against the wall and looked up and down the street with nervous eyes.
No one was wandering down the street just yet, so Cass hastily pulled out her cloak and drew it on. Though her hair was in a tight braid, she hadn’t yet seen anyone else with ginger hair, so she pulled the hood over her head and turned down the street, away from the main thoroughfare.
Away from the busy, bustling avenue, her steps echoed against the cobblestones of increasingly narrower and quieter streets. Eventually, she made a few turns, hoping she was arcing towards the gates of the city. With the buildings growing closer together, she couldn’t see in which direction the palace loomed.
Her heart began to hammer as the din level increased. She was heading back to the main thoroughfare and could already hear carts and wagons bumping along the street. A few annoyed voices called out to those who got in their way. Eller’s mother had called Baiater City welcoming? She wasn’t sure if that boded well for her journey towards Raven Cliff and Time.
Cass fought to slow her pace and even out her breathing in an attempt to calm her heartbeat as she turned onto the main thoroughfare. Sure enough, the palace was now at the other end of the city and the gates loomed a short distance away. Crafted from shimmering stone, it was three pillars on which graceful arches rose into the sky. Etched into the arches were intricate garlands boasting an array of flowers. Two heavy wooden doors were fitted between the pillars. They stood open this morning, with one letting people stream out while the other allowed people to enter.
Keeping an eye out for wheeled traffic, she edged her way along the side of the buildings until she reached a pedestrian group slowly making their way out of the city. A tired guard waved them on, barely bothering to look at who was coming and going. Cass kept her eyes forward and head angled down as she passed. She shuffled along with the group onto the wide, dirt road beyond the city until the open space helped ease the bottleneck.
Around her, the group broke up into smaller groups and lone travelers, each walking at varying paces. They kept to one side of the road, giving space for the traffic heading into the city. Cass kept her head covered, but wished she could feel the cool morning air on her face. The road beneath her feet was solid and warm, welcoming every step and giving her the strength to keep moving forward.
As she walked along the dusty road that cut across open plains, she wished she had thought to find a horse or a carriage. She would have even taken a wagon. As the sun rose, the air warmed and was almost stifling under her cloak, but fear prevented her from removing it. Instead, she plodded on behind a group of three travelers who were talking about a tiny village just up ahead. From what she gathered, that was home for them.
Sighing to herself, she readjusted the bag slung over one shoulder. A passing wagon barreled down the road, kicking up dirt as it passed. Cass quickly raised her cloak to shield her face, but the dust still got in her face and she coughed.
“Watch it!” one of the men in the group ahead of her yelled, turning and shaking a fist at the wagon driver who didn’t bother to look back.
“If you ask me,” one of his companions, a young woman with curled golden hair spilling down her back, said crossly, “those drivers are getting ruder ever day.”
“They’re worse in the city,” the third, a short man with curly dark hair brushing his shoulders, said on a sigh. “I was almost run down by one and he acted like it was my fault he almost killed me.”
The woman folded her arms. “There are rumors that the real queen is coming back soon. Maybe she can address the rude traffic in the city.”
“Not just the city,” the first man, who was tall and slender and had a great love of using his arms and hands when he spoke, “but everywhere! Our small town might not have many people, but those with carts suddenly become rude as soon as they get it.”
Cass didn’t mean to interrupt them, but she couldn’t hold her hacking cough back any more. She flushed when they all paused and turned to look behind him. She knew she shouldn’t have walked so closely, shouldn’t have been listening to them, but their pace was only slightly slower than hers.
“Sorry,” she muttered, lowering her face.
The woman smiled and held out a hand beckoning for her to join them. Hesitantly, Cass picked up her pace to fall in with them.
“What do you think?” the woman asked. “Are the drivers are rotten or not?”
Cass thought back to the wagon in the city that had nearly flattened her. Her eyes flashed and she grimaced, crossing her arms.
“I absolutely agree. Doesn’t anyone teach manners anymore?”
The woman smiled and turned to her companions. “I like her.”
“You don’t even know her,” the short man said in a loud whisper.
The woman sniffed and raised her jaw. “I don’t care. I can smell a good person from a mile away. This young woman won’t harm us. Besides, she thinks manners should be taught again.”
“They are taught,” the short man said on a sigh. “They just choose to think they’re better than everyone else just because they have coins enough to purchase something with wheels.”
“That doesn’t mean they should forget,” the woman said. She turned back to Cass and smiled. “Where are you headed?”
“To Raven Cliff,” Cass said.
The woman smiled. “Oh, that’s a lovely island. It’s way up north, so it’s colder than here, but very green. I haven’t seen her, but I hear the lady of the island came from another world. I’ve been dying to meet her, but haven’t had a chance to travel up there.” She grinned and produced a string of charms from under her traveling cloak. “I sell magical charms. This one protects travelers such as you and I. Unfortunately, they don’t ward off rude people.” A thoughtful look passed over her face. “Though I think I should.”
“Are you all merchants?” Cass asked.
The two men shook their heads as the tall man answered, “We’re childhood friends and her dad asked us to travel with her since it was the first time she traveled to the city.”
“Usually, I stick to the small villages and towns between Baiater City and Anderithen,” the woman said, “but I’ve always wanted to see the city.” She held out a hand to Cass. “I’m Marianora and these are my friends Lloyd and Serydis.”
Cass hesitated a moment before giving her middle name, “Iris.”
The woman smiled as Cass shook her hand, then she handed over the traveling charm.
“Since you’re on a long journey, you could use this,” Marianora said pleasantly. “Please accept it as a gift. And let’s hope you don’t get run down by a cart of wagon before you get there.”
Cass smiled as she slid the charm into a pocket in her cloak. “If you’re interested in traveling to Raven Cliff, why don’t you come with me?”
Marianora sighed and glanced away. “I had a hard enough time convincing my father to let me to go the city. I don’t think he would take my going all the way to Raven Cliff very well.”
Cass frowned, wondering what kind of power parents had here. “But you’re a grown woman.”
“That may be true, but we children of the small villages come from protective families and my father is no exception. If I want to have a place to continue to return to, I must obey his rules.”
“That doesn’t sound fair.”
“Fair or not, that’s how we do things here. Where are you from?”
Taken aback, Cass thought fast, her mind whirling back to the map. She knew nothing of this world, so picked an island at random and prayed she wasn’t making a mistake or possibly giving her true world of origin away. If they knew the Star Queen was coming from Earth, they might hustle her back to the city.
“Cermainon,” she said, picking an island far to the south.
Marianora frowned. “I haven’t been there, but I’ve heard their customs are a little…unusual.”
Cass breathed a silent sigh of relief and changed the subject. “Do you think I could purchase a horse in your village?”
The three of them burst out laughing, leaving Cass to look at them curiously.
“Oh, Cermainon must really be different!” Lloyd, the short man, burst out, wiping tears from his eyes. “A horse?”
Still chuckling, Serydis said, “We don’t have horses here. We have dhakyrs.”
Cass’s eyebrows rose. “Dhakyrs?”
“They’re tall, noble beasts who can mindspeak,”Marianora said, still smiling. “They have tall necks, regal heads with intelligent eyes that look into your soul, six legs, and the softest fur in the world.”
Cass cocked her head to the side. “They sound a little like horses, expect horses have four legs.”
Marianora exchanged looks with her friends. “I think I’d like to see Cermainon one day, too.”
Lloyd sighed. “You want to see every island.”
Marianora shrugged. “What can I say? I have a restless spirit.”
“Well,” Cass said, “if you do convince your father to let you travel to Raven Cliff, I’d love a companion. Though I would like to leave as soon as possible. It is quite a long journey.”
Marianora smiled and linked arms with Cass. “I would love to travel with you, too. What a great opportunity to learn about Cermainon!”
Inwardly, Cass groaned. Perhaps traveling with the other woman wouldn’t be a good idea. She knew nothing about Cermainon.