You may have been thinking, dear readers, that Yona was very lucky to have been blessed with the care and guidance of two wisened old Manyas who loved her in spite of her many shortcomings, and you would be right. But even for all their unconditional love and wisdom, Yona had by now outgrown the curriculum the headmasters taught from, and truly only so many life skills could be gained from within the confines of the orphanage. As they’d never had a child they could call their own til Yona, this was an entirely new predicament.
Of course, the answer was to send Yona to a proper elementary school, where she would be taught more than just the rudimentary lessons Pamela and Lonissa had to offer at Hearts and Diamonds—the idea of which had been making Pamela’s blood run cold for some time.
It wasn’t that she was ashamed of Yona. In these past two years of knowing her, she had grown considerably in character—though the odd mischievous streak remained, only to pull the rug out from underneath Pamela when she least expected it. Yona had even celebrated her commencement and earned her hat—a lovely teal cap with yellow pointed trim—though not without a retrial and rather generous support. It was the idea of leaving Yona to the mercy of students and teachers unprepared to deal with her unique imperfections that made the anxious headmaster toss and turn at night. Nevertheless, the time had come to acclimate herself to the idea: she knew this, Lonissa knew this, and the children of the orphanage whom put up with her pacing footsteps every night knew it.
The morning of her first day of school, Yona showed all the brash enthusiasm for the new horizons that lay ahead of her that would make any other parent proud, and instead made Pamela chew her claws to stubs. The night prior, Lonissa packed one of Yona’s favorite lunches in her rucksack, sweet bread stuffed with fish paste, and a hard boiled Qulo egg. The school offered free lunches of its own, but both headmasters thought it a nice bit of assurance in case they weren’t to Yona’s sometimes selective liking.
The school building, looming yet not unwelcoming, shone like seawater round its edges where the sun glowed pale behind it. Yona approached it with a skip in her step, while both headmasters and a row of orphan children trailed behind her in a crooked line.
“Remember, should you need anything at all, you know you can call and Lonissa or I will be there, little one,” Pamela said, settled on one knee and looking at Yona with the kind of proud melancholy only a mother has.
“I know,” Yona said, unaffected. Her cap was just a little too big for her head, but she had plenty of time to grow into it. “And I don’t talk when teachers are talking.”
“Right,” Pamela smiled.
One of the children spoke, “Are you scared?”
She shook her head. “Not really. I’ve seen it on TV.” The others chattered amongst themselves with questions and observations about the strange and unfamiliar building. Some of them envied that Yona would be enrolled in a real school, but their time would come one day.
Before taking their leave, Lonissa was there at Yona’s side—patting a paw to her shoulder, imparting some confidence to the small Manya child that she sensed, though others couldn’t, would be needed. “We’ve gotta get home now, kiddo, ol’ Loni’s feeling tired again. But I just know you’re gonna do great.”
* * *
Despite the imposing size of this place known as School, at least in proportion to the orphanage, Yona’s knack for navigation made locating her classroom a straightforward task. What was not straightforward, however, was the oncoming flurry of new and unusual stimuli that swirled about her: children who ran in the halls, the very behavior she was told not to emulate; the smell of paper and clothes and breath and dust, the sound of shoes squeaking and pencils tapping and voices whispering. At once she was overcome with a sensation resembling vertigo before being snapped out of it, having suddenly been made aware of the fact that she was sitting at a desk, in a classroom, in the presence of other children, and a teacher had been trying to get her attention for who knows how long.
“I didn’t get your name,” came the firm, yet not altogether unfriendly voice. It belonged to a Kelowek of about middle-age—a kind of person with a long snout and spindly, stringy tail.
“Yona,” she answered. She wasn’t sure why it came out sounding timid. Was she feeling nervous after all?
The Kelowek man scribbled something on a piece of paper in the shape of a star before sticking it to the front of Yona’s shirt. He had apparently done this for all her classmates before her.
“Okay, class…I want to thank you for being here. My name is Mr. Kivel, and I’m glad to meet you. It’s the first day of school and I know some of you might be feeling nervous. I want to let you know it’s okay to feel nervous.” Although it was really none of her business, Yona couldn’t help shifting in her seat to try to catch a glimpse of the other students around her. She was in the third row, and couldn’t make out much more than the backs of the other students’ heads and tails. To her surprise, only about half the Manyas were wearing hats. Could Pamela and Lonissa have lied about their importance?
“…and besides learning facts and how to solve problems, you’ll also learn how to become well-adjusted members of society. I may only be your History teacher, but I promise you, dear students, to take it upon myself to raise you into good people. Also, please remember we will not tolerate magic use of any kind during class, okay?”
Is it just me, or is this guy really strange? Yona couldn’t help thinking. Despite his talk about being nervous, he had terribly awkward mannerisms himself, and didn’t seem to have prepared his speech whatsoever. There was something both bizarre and familiar about him nagging in the back of Yona’s mind, swaying back and forth, or actually, was it…
“Stop doing that!” she exclaimed, turning to face the perpetrator seated behind her. An East Manya boy—the second Yona had seen, after little Kimmy from the orphanage—was absentmindedly swatting at the yellow ball that her prized blue cap was tipped with, batting it around like it was a plaything for his amusement.
“What seems to be the matter, Yona?” Mr. Kivel asked.
“He’s taking swipes at my hat!” she said. Truthfully, she felt embarrassed to make such a commotion of something she knew was insignificant, but it upset her to be disrespected in this way on the first day of school.
The boy—whose name tag read Rory—awoke with a start, his big blue eyes blown wide with confusion. Indeed, he had already managed to fall asleep during introductions, and hadn’t even been cognizant of his swiping.
“Rory, please refrain from bothering your classmates,” Mr. Kivel said rather meekly. “And please don’t fall asleep within the first fifteen minutes of class.” This prompted laughter.
“Shoot—I’m real sorry,” the embarrassed Manya boy blubbered, face reddening. “My ma always told me I had a bad habit of swipin’ in my sleep ever since I was a baby. She…”
“Your mother, I believe, is the prestigious ambassador of East Majonia along with your father, correct?” Mr. Kivel inquired, much to Rory’s further shame. He nodded, as Mr. Kivel was indeed right: Rory’s mother and father were a luxurious couple living on the other side of the country in a desert oasis, and appeared in films and advertisements promoting East Majonia to the rest of the world. Of course, this only provoked more mocking laughter and gossip amongst the class.
“Quiet, please, class. Erm, let’s all do our best to get along, shall we? How about we open our textbooks to…”
Yona sneaked one more furtive glance behind her to look at Rory, already locked in deep slumber once more. With his shaggy orange mane and tacky clothes in spite of his apparently wealthy upbringing, there was clearly more to him than met the eye. Still—No one disrespects Yona like that and gets away with it.
* * *
Students were permitted to eat anywhere they pleased, as long as they did not exit the premises. Yona delighted in having this kind of freedom after her discovery that truly any classroom becomes stuffy once you’ve been in it long enough—and today was a crisp, lovely day with sunlight peeking between the leaves on the trees and a balmy breeze that pleasantly reminded her she was in a seaside town. She had staked out a well-shaded spot beneath a tree bearing mivams—a kind of savory-sweet fruit native to West Majonia—and cheerfully removed her lunchbox from her backpack. Sweet bread stuffed with fish paste and a hard boiled Qulo egg. It was exactly as she requested of Lonissa, and the food was sumptuously arranged in the box.
As she was taking her first bite, however, she became aware of another student taking a seat beside her, rather spoiling the refreshing solitude. And not just any student, but the lazy, hat-batting boy from earlier!
“Hey! What’re you doing here?” Yona fussed, clamping the lid back on her lunch box in case his laziness included a gluttonous side.
“Whoa, you don’t need to get all defensive,” he cautioned, waving his paws around in some way that supposedly signified he was not a threat. “I didn’t mean badly earlier this morning, honest. You gotta believe me.”
Yona did not grimace, but maintained a wary stare. “Okay…listen here, I’m the only and best prankster around. I don’t take kindly to anyone making a fool of me, accident or not. Got it?” Listen to me, she thought—she never would have gotten away with talking like this at Hearts and Diamonds. She rather liked being Assertive Yona. “Why were you sleeping at the start of class, anyway?”
“Promise not to tell?” Rory said softly, itching the back of his head in some anxious fashion that indicated he wasn’t simply yanking her chain.
“My ma and pa—er, my mother and father—they sent their assistant to fly me over to West Majonia only earlier this morning.” Yona couldn’t believe what she was hearing! “This morning? How’s it even possible to go from East Majonia to West that fast? And why didn’t they take you themselves?” She was rather taken aback by her own earnest interest. Rory gave an unhelpful shrug.
“I dunno. They’re always busy doing something or other. T’be honest, I kinda wish they’d’ve taken me themselves.” There was a pathetic melancholy to Rory’s voice that betrayed his ridiculous appearance, whiskers all askew, clothes looking as though he’d made them himself (perhaps he had?), that Yona couldn’t help taking unexpected pity on him. She had so many questions to ask, but only one really boiled to the surface of her mind: “Where’s your lunch?”
“Oh, shoot…the assistant forgot to pack it.” He somehow frowned with his entire body upon realizing this, his tail dragging on the grass. “Ma and Pa were always tellin’ me the cafeteria food isn’t good enough, so I have to have my meals made special.”
“Well, I think that’s silly.” By now, Yona had eaten most of her lunch, and she had been voraciously hungry, otherwise she’d have gladly shared a bite. Her eyes scanned the area—The mivams! But they hadn’t ripened enough to eat, which she deduced from their unappetizing sepia color.
“You ever tried a mivam?” she asked suddenly.
“No, what’re they?”
If anything could have made it more obvious Rory had never spent a day in his life in West Majonia til today, it was this simple admission. Yona pointed a finger to the largest mivam growing in the branches, the one most likely to fill a lunchless stomach—and gradually levitated it downward.
Rory could have jumped out of his fur, not unlike how Pamela had the first time she witnessed Yona using this very same magic. “You’re one of them magic users?” he marveled.
“Shh! Keep your voice down. I don’t think we’re supposed to use magic when we’re at school. Or maybe it’s just in class.” Yona wasn’t sure, but regardless, she wasn’t looking to get in trouble on her first day—with her teachers or with Pamela and Lonissa. “Mivams are the best fruit ever. They’ve got a layer that’s juicy and sweet, then when you bite into it, it’s rich and smoky. Like steak!”
Rory peered at the fruit somewhat incredulously, wondering if such an unassuming, ugly little lump could really taste like all that. “But it’s not ripe yet, is it?”
“You’ve got a good eye, it isn’t yet.” She sighed, though not resignedly. “But I think we could make it ripe.”
“How? We don’t have long til class starts.” Yona stuck her tongue out to the side in deep thought. She overwhelmingly felt that something could be done about this, but how? She’d certainly never tried ripening a fruit with magic before.
“Okay, picture this. I’m holding the mivam in my paw now, right?” Rory nodded attentively, certainly more alert than he had been in History class. “Now, I want you to shut your eyes and picture this: the sun in the sky sinking lower. And lower. The sky goes yellow then pink then violet. And all the clouds are moving by in that time until the sky becomes pitch black and full of stars. Okay?” Rory squeezed his eyes as tightly shut as they could go, perhaps taking this more seriously than necessary. Had Yona been pulling the wool over his eyes, this truly would have been another humiliation for the ever-growing pile.
“Now, I want you to think about the sun being born in the sky again, and the clouds whizzing by it as it rises then sinks beneath the hills once more. And again. And again…”
Yona’s own words seemed to be leaving her mouth faster and faster with the visual she had created, and in her paw there lay a vibrant purple-pink mivam, its mouthwatering fragrance alerting Rory’s eyes open to the reality that lay before him: Yona really could do magic!
He clapped his paws with frantic enthusiasm. Though a part of him was still unsure if Yona had truly just made time pass for this one little fruit or if she’d simply swapped it for a ripe one in her backpack, the details did not concern him. “Bravo! Bravo!” he cheered.
Yona blushed. “Oh, just eat the silly thing already!” she laughed, hoping they hadn’t attracted the attention of any roaming teachers looking to punish budding magicians. “You can thank me later. They really do fill your belly up!”
Before taking his first bite, however, Rory simply extended a paw in the hopes of a handshake. Yona took it with some confusion. “I’m Rory,” he said, clearing his throat. His whiskers twitched and Yona couldn’t suppress a laugh at this. She hadn’t known many Manyas in the orphanage with whiskers, let alone such unruly whiskers, and seeing the way they accentuated her new friend’s gawky appearance made them a great amusement to her. “And I’m Yona,” she finally said. “Good to really meet you.”
“Likewise!” Rory said, laughter under his breath. “Oh man. If I’d known you were into magic stuff sooner, I woulda shown you these.” He reached into a pocket of the strange poncho-like garment he wore and produced five glossy (if slightly bent) trading cards of celebrity magic users. Yona’s eyes could have popped from their sockets.
“You collect magician cards too?” she beamed, her widening eyes poring over every detail of the unfamiliar cards. “I’ve got the Crimson and Clover and Duskell cards, but not the other three.” She reached into the side pocket of her backpack and produced seven cards of her own, pristine yet well-loved. Rory applauded once more.
“This is awesome! Y’know, my parents never really cared for magic stuff, so I kinda keep it to myself,” he said sheepishly.
“Mine neither. Do you do any magic of your own?”
“Are you kidding?” Rory chuckled shyly. “I don’t think there’s any magic to be found in my family. Not one ounce!” he said, pounding a fist to his chest to make the statement all the more declarative. “But I don’t really mind. I think it’s just cool to watch them on TV…and to have one in my own class!”
Yona turned colors then—figuratively and literally, as her mane and tail shifted to a sunny hue similar to Rory’s, and her a fur sandy yellow, not a color typically seen on non-Eastern Manyas. Rory bit into his mivam only to have it slip past his paws, tumbling onto the grass absentmindedly for some other creature to discover.
“No way! You can change color?” he gasped, wondering what other things there were to discover about his classmate. Now Yona was the one nervously laughing.
“Yeah, that happens sometimes. I don’t know why!” The school bell had begun to chime, a cold and hollow sound on the breeze, jolting them both back to reality.
“Well, let’s hope I change back or I guess I’ll have some explaining to do, huh?”
* * *
The day’s remaining classes passed by breezily enough—of course, the teachers weren’t going to saddle their students with any lofty amount of schoolwork on the first day. Yona, however, struggled to keep her eyes open during Language and Science, finding herself in a predicament embarrassingly not unlike Rory’s. Why was she so drowsy? She felt horribly exhausted, in a way that transcended regular urges for rest, instead melting her bones and making any and all movement punishing. No, she hadn’t needed to sleep this badly since she cheated during her trial and commencement. As she bided her time beneath a tree outside the school waiting for Pamela or Lonissa to come pick her up, and the moons in the sky flitted between blurry leaves out the corner of her vision, Yona could no longer stay in the waking world and drifted to somewhere far away.
As soon as she had come to, she was in a barren field somewhere that did not resemble Majonia. Daylight had returned, but its glow was not warming. Eltrya felt dead all around her. Over her shoulder was a rustic old tavern with its doors open wide, where the visage of a green-maned Manya woman, downing sizable gulps of some unknown tonic, put her oddly at ease as she faced her and said: “Fair child, where hast thou wandered off from?”
Yona had not typically enjoyed her dealings with unfamiliar adults in the past, but felt somehow that this time would be different. “I don’t know. I just woke up over in that field.”
“Ahh. A layer traveler, art thou?” The woman inquired. Her voice, in its peculiar accent, had the elegance of birdsong tempered with the pluckiness of a bandit. She wore an eccentric striped cap in the shape of a sailboat that had been tipped upside-down and a white, jagged cape. There was something immediately comforting about her presence, as if Yona might share with her every secret she had without a second thought.
“I don’t know what a layer traveler is,” Yona said plainly. The woman stepped down from the stool in which she was seated to speak to Yona on one knee: “Layer travel, my dear, is a truly mysterious thing. I sensed thou weren’t from this period as soon as I saw thine garments, not to mention thine speech.” And indeed, no one in the vicinity could be seen wearing clothes with the vibrant blue hues that Yona’s school dress was made from. “Yea, that dye is not one I hast seen in this era.”
Yona fidgeted uncomfortably, not from the Manya woman but from the uncouth onlookers seated around her whom seemed less than friendly, and more than a bit curious about this layer traveler Yona allegedly was.
“But what is it? Like time travel?”
“Yea, such is one way of describing it,” the strange woman said, taking another swig of her drink. “It happens when thou art sleeping, and none know of how to control it. All time periods existing concurrently, stacked upon each other as layers. Layers ‘o a cake, I always say!”
“That Ceris and her sweet tooth,” one of the men sitting further down the bar had bellowed. “Ye’d forget she was fightin’ a war day in and day out.”
Yona tugged at her ears anxiously. “There’s a war?” she asked. War was something that happened in Zone 1, on Earth—not here on her home planet, if she even was on her home planet right now. Ceris, as she was known, simply patted the child on the head in assurance.
“Thou hast yet to read that part of the history books, I understand,” she said with relaxed warmth despite the gravity of the situation. Indeed, the sun flashed upon a blade that had been propped beside Ceris’s knee, somehow not catching Yona’s eye until that moment and giving her a jolt. “Worry not for now. Pray tell, small child, what didst thou say thine name was?”
Should she give her name away to a stranger, let alone a stranger whom was fighting a war? Yona remained unclear of whether she was dreaming or not, but following dream logic, it didn’t seem terribly consequential either way, and so the name left her lips: “Yona.”
“Yona. It hath a lovely sort of mystery about it, doest it not?” Ceris asked over her shoulder, as if seeking validation on Yona’s behalf. Her companions made sounds of agreement. “Understood, Yona. My name is Ceris, if thou were remiss to hear it. Thou shalt awaken soon enough, but I have a feeling we two shall cross paths again…one way or another.”
But before Yona could ask what this meant, or why it was that she had layer traveled to the distant war-torn past, Pamela was stood there above her, smiling calmly, asking: “How was your first day of school?”