Chapter One: Nedra

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six months ago

I opened my eyes at the exact same moment my sister did. A grin spread across her face, followed by a flash of sadness.

"It's going to be okay," I told her, sitting up in bed.

Ernesta flopped over in her own bed, staring up at the ceiling.

"I'm happy for you, Nedra." I raised an eyebrow. "I am," she insisted. "It's just going to be strange here without you."

I swung my legs over the side of my bed, my knee brushing the edge of my trunk, packed with almost all my clothing and the mementos I couldn't leave behind. I took off my nightshirt and threw it at Nessie—it was one of hers, after all—then slipped into the tunic and leggings I'd set aside to wear today.

"Ugh, how can you move so fast?" Ernesta groaned. She melted out of bed and let her head thunk on the doorframe as she rooted around in our wardrobe, now much emptier without my clothes taking up space. She withdrew a dark blouse and an olive skirt, a combination that would make me look drab. Ernesta never looked anything less than glowing, even with her hair mussed from sleep and her eyes half-closed.

I glanced down at my own clothes. We were twins, and yet somehow we never looked the same.

I left Nessie to finish getting ready and followed the scent of bacon into the kitchen, where my mother stood over the stove.

"Nedra!" Mama exclaimed, sidling around the table and hugging me with the arm that still held a spatula. "Are you excited?"

Through the window, I could see Papa loading up the cart he used to sell books, but which today would carry me away.

"I think so?" I said. My stomach churned, but even though Mama slid a plate of fried eggs, a biscuit, and three strips of bacon over to me, I realized that it wasn't hunger that ached me.

Mama made Nessie's plate—no biscuit and extra bacon—and placed it beside black coffee already poured and cooling. She squeezed my shoulder, her hand slipping around my neck to readjust my necklace. "You'll be fine," she whispered. I couldn't help but doubt her.

Doubt myself.

Ernesta came in, stealing a piece of my bacon before turning to Mama and chatting excitedly about plans to meet Kava, the shoemaker's apprentice.

As Nessie rattled on, I watched our father through the window. Papa stood outside, checking the straps on the mule and inspecting the cart, going over the same old routine but with a scowl on his face, his eyes blazing.

He didn't want me to go.

Mama noticed my gaze and wrapped an arm around me. "It's going to be okay," she said.

"Of course it is." Nessie rolled her eyes. "They obviously want you."

"They didn't last year," I said, staring at my fork. Yūgen Academy rarely accepted students who weren't funneled through the private schools and the alchemical tutors hired by the elite. Last year, I'd applied to join the program and was soundly denied.

"Well, they're paying you this year," Nessie said. "Quit pretending to be humble."

I wasn't pretending. The scholarship that would take care of my room, board, and tuition at Yūgen this year was astounding, even more so since such scholarships were rarely awarded. But somehow the pride of it—of having my dreams not only come true, but also be financed—was buried under the fear and worry of leaving behind the only home I'd ever known . . . especially if Papa didn't want me to go.

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