The dawn over Presstown was bright and hot. The sun climbed lazily over the distant Red Mountains, casting gold rays over the plains below where the town sprawled, surrounded by large nearly-square patches of farmland. Outside Dyani Greenapple's bedroom window, row after row of strong apple trees seemed to come alive as the light struck them.
Dyani reached out and stretched to the left, her slim arm pale in the dawn. Growing right outside her window was an apple tree, separate from the vast orchard, planted the very day Dyani had been born, the one and only child of Arrick and Glynnden Greenapple. Youngest of the world famous Greenapples, purveyors of fine cider for 12 generations. But it was a bit early to be thinking of her father's hard cider, and so she only snagged one of the fresh fruits and took a large bite, leaning against the windowsill and idly swatting at a fat bumblebee.
The girl framed by the window was slim and plain, dark of hair and light of skin. She lacked the curves that most girls her age were now putting to use as lovers and new mothers. Her face was fine and expressive, but there were far prettier girls in town. Around her fingertips, eyes, and collarbones was the tint of color that would mark her to a stranger as a Dryad, if her short and small stature wasn't enough. Since she had been cursed with violet eyes, the most common of Dryad coloring, those tints of color where her skin was finest were also violet. Dull, she knew, and she'd much rather have inherited the blue shading of her parents.
But there was nothing for it, and as usual, the world was moving around her despite her petty early-morning musings. The sounds of morning were creeping from the nearby town of Hollowhaven into Greenapple Orchard. The clattering of wooden cartwheels told her that business would begin early today. No doubt human traders; no Dryad would risk interrupting her father's morning tea. Dyani shook her head as the cart came into view at the edge of the road and her father's voice echoed through the cottage.
“By the bleeding, blinding gods, these men are relentless! Every year I tell them, not until midday! Well, I won't see them till noon exactly, and you can tell them so, Glynn! Noon exactly!”
“Calm down, you, I'll handle it.” Dyani's mother had long ago adopted an exasperated tone when she spoke to her husband. “How many children am I raising in this house, I ask you?”
“Oh, aye, you'll handle it, will you?”
“Don't I always?”
Dyani sighed and tossed her apple core out the window. Her father would no sooner leave a customer waiting than he would burn his entire orchard to the ground, and the whole family knew it. She might as well offer her help.
“So tall their heads are up in the damn clouds all day. Only explanation for it,” Avrick Greenapple was muttering to his bacon. Dyani entered the kitchen, tying her shirt closed at her back. Although the day had just begun, the room was already stifling; her mother would not be talked out of hot breakfast for any reason, even scorching summer temperatures. The windows and doors were thrown open to catch a mostly nonexistent breeze.
“Morning, Grumpy,” Dyani said, kissing her father's cheek. “Relentless merchants again?”
“The very same, darling, every year the very same, and every year they come earlier and earlier,” he said amiably. “I've already told your mother I won't see them till this evening. Teach them to disrupt a body's breakfast.”
“Liar,” Dyani said, laughing. “Last year you said the same thing.”
“This time I mean it.” Avrick brushed crumbs from his beard and they landed on his ample stomach. He was the maker of the finest hard cider in all of Raelgard, and a Dryad who believed in sampling his own product liberally, no matter how often his wife had to let the seams out of his clothes.
Glynnden was the opposite of her husband, in possession of the same flawlessly plump figure she'd had on her wedding day, and stubborn as the day was long. Dyani often found herself wishing she'd inherited the former feature rather than the latter.
Her mother seemed to read her mind. “You'll never fill out eating like that, girl,” she chided as Dyani bit into a handful of cold berries. “Don't you want something like your father's got? Bacon and bread ought to give you a curve or two.”
“In all the wrong places, likely,” Dyani said, waving away the plate her mother was trying to set before her. “No, no grease today, no butter, no cream. Anyway, Mother, I'm nineteen. If I haven't got them now, I don't think bacon's going to help.”
“Not a problem in the world that bacon won't help,” came a voice from the open door.
“Lexand!” Dyani said, shooting up from her seat. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough, skinny,” he teased. “Your mum's right, eat up.”
“You just mind yourself, Lex Trueale,” she groused.
At just over five feet, Lexand Trueale was unusually tall for a Dryad, but even at his awkward height, Dyani thought him handsome. The fact that he had to slouch a bit in most doorways was actually quite charming.
He crossed to her and kissed her hand, grinning impishly under his bright green eyes as she scowled at him. “And how is your breakfast today, Lady Songstress?”
Dyani found she was blushing in spite of herself, and she gestured at the table. “Light, as you can see.”
“Too light,” Glynnden broke in. “Lexand, do tell her you want a nice, plump wife one day.”
“Mother, I beg you,” Dyani said, glaring. She turned to Lexand, offering him a cup of cool tea. “I'm singing today, actually, now that you mention it.”
Lexand accepted his tea and nodded, apparently content to let Glynnden's comment slide. He reached for Dyani's discarded plate. “What's the occasion?”
“Karyna Key's new one. A little girl,” Dyani answered.
As Songstress, Dyani was one of several women throughout Hollowhaven and the surrounding Dryad lands that acted as high priestesses and led important ceremonies, such as birth celebrations, death memorials, harvest festivals, marriages, and such. The traditional songs for each occasion were handed down from Songstress to Songstress, and new women were only chosen as the older ones retired. Dyani's recent appointment as Songstress had been an immense honor, as she was quite young for the job. But her voice was ages old, according to her teacher, the same woman who'd handpicked her for the job.
“The second most important quality is talent, yes, but first is reverence,” the old woman Anacara had told Dyani that day three months ago. “When you sing the old songs, little one, people will hear the gods. You mustn't care for the glory. You must only want to celebrate the music of our people.”
All through her training, Dyani had remembered this, but today was her first real trial, the first celebration she'd be leading with her voice. After three months of training, Anacara had deemed her ready. But as she watched Lexand pick at her dry toast and fruit, she had to admit, she was nervous. But she wouldn't show it, not even to her family. Every Dryad in Raelgard would acknowledge her as a priestess now, an equal with the Senate members and the Grey Council. She was determined to act the part.
Her father swallowed a huge bite of breakfast and leaned forward in his chair, his blue eyes sparking with mischief. “And what brings you to my table so early today, Lexand Trueale?”
Lexand shrugged and shook straw-colored hair off his face. “I work here, don't I? I thought with the first harvest in last week, you'd need help with the traders.”
Avrick stroked his beard. “Did you now? Of course, you know, boy, that I don't see traders until nightfall this year. Sundown, perhaps, if I'm feeling generous. I believe I mentioned it to you yesterday.”
Lexand grinned as Dyani rolled her eyes. “I heard that, sir, but I thought it likely for some reason that you might change your mind, if you don't mind me saying.”
“Not this year, boy, not this year. When have you known me for a pushover in all the time you've worked in my trees?”
Lexand laughed, and easily dodged that question. “Actually, truth to tell, I guess I thought I'd see if Dyani wanted to take a walk. Since she won't be needed till nightfall and all.”
Avrick laughed loudly, as well. “Now that's more what I wanted to hear. By all means, take her!”
Dyani cleared her throat. “I am still here, you know.”
“Not for long,” Lexand said. He tugged her out the door just as the approaching cart reached the cottage. It rattled to a stop before them, a plain, graying box on warping wheels. Three massive, sweating horse were hitched to the front, and Dyani stretched up to stroke their noses.
Two human men swung down to the ground, young, but looking nearly as run down as their transportation. They towered over Dyani and Lexand, but bowed respectfully.
“Young Lady Greenapple,” the taller of the two said. Dyani recognized him immediately; he'd been coming to trade in Greenapple crops since before Dyani'd been born. “Your father's at home, is he not?”
“Welcome, Scarboro. He is,” Dyani said, amused with the looks they were giving Lexand and the skittish way their eyes crawled over her. Humans, even those who came to trade in Presstown every season, never seemed to get used to the way Dryads looked, just as she was continually surprised by how tall humans were. She knew, as well, that their two species would never see eye to eye about what was properly decent attire, and that her simple clothes were making the men supremely uncomfortable.
“But I'm afraid,” she continued, “you'll need a nice bribe to get in before noon; he fancies himself a very tough client today.”
Scarboro shared a glance with his partner. “I think the news from the Red Mountains ought to be bribe enough.”
“It had better be,” the shorter of them muttered. “We haven't time to linger here this year.”
The two men headed inside the cottage as Dyani and Lexand headed for the orchard.
“I wonder what that meant,” Dyani mused. “Father's not usually one for gossip.”
“And human traders aren't usually apt to go running out of town as soon as business is done,” Lexand agreed. “What's got them in such a rush?”
He glanced at her bare stomach, at the wide strip of blue fabric that was tied across her chest. “Of course, they could be running home to share stories of scandalous Dryad women. Did you see the way they looked at you?”
Dyani dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “They didn't know where to look. It's the same every year. They're so uptight; humans, I ask you...”
They walked together, hand in hand, and Dyani caught Lexand taking another good look at her. She smiled, remembering all the kisses he'd stolen from her here among the trees, when he'd thought no one was looking.
She knew that Lex's parents were also nudging him toward marriage, although she strongly suspected his mother would have chosen a different girl if she'd been given the chance. Still, it would only make sense that their families wished to be joined; the Trueales made beers and a fine liquor called anisette. Together with the Greenapples fruit and hard cider, they would lead Raelgard in quality.
Lex had been working for Avrick Greenapple since he was ten years old, which had given them both plenty of time to become quite enamored. When she'd turned sixteen, he'd begun to stay later and later at the cottage after the day's work was done, and that was when their walks in the orchard had begun. Soon after, he'd mentioned marriage, but Dyani had balked. Although she was the proper age for it, she'd felt too strongly about training her voice. The rumors had just begun circulating that one of the Songstresses would be retiring, and Dyani had wanted that position so badly she'd had to tell Lexand, “Not now. Not yet.”
And so he'd waited for her, mentioning it often in passing that he would someday make her his own. But she hadn't been able to help noticing that lately, he'd gone quiet about it. In fact, he hadn't mentioned it once in months. Three months, to be exact; ever since she'd been named Songstress.
What had changed in her that had made him lose interest? Or maybe he'd simply finally taken notice of one of the many other girls vying for his affections? Dyani and Lex were an attractive couple, everyone said. With her dark brown hair and violet eyes, she was a nice contrast to Lex's blond and green. She looked at their hands, at the tints of purple around her fingertips and way they looked against his green-tinted ones. Attractive, indeed, but had he found someone who matched him even better than she?
He caught her looking. “What's on your mind, then?”
She glanced up at him. “Just thinking, I suppose. About my mother, what she's always carrying on about. You and I.”
“Ah,” he said, smiling. “I imagine she'll always have that caught in her craw, until it's over and done with.”
Always? she wondered. She tried to cover the fear that had been rising in her for months. “Well, you know, I've tried to tell her that things have changed.”
“Have they?” he asked casually, stopping to flick a beetle out of one of the apple trees. It was hung heavy with golden-green fruit and the branch jostled at his touch.
Gods, he was infuriating when he was like this. She hated his casual tone, the way he always waited for her to blunder on and say something stupid before he went about setting her straight.
“I've told her- Well, I've told her that a lot of men wouldn't want to be married to a Songstress, it's such a busy life, and-” She stopped her rush of words with a great force of will, and managed to look him in the eyes. He looked positively glib, and a stab of annoyance worked through her nerves. “If that's the case, Lex, really, all you have to do is say so.”
But please don't, she thought.
“Dyani,” he said, and his handsome face was smiling again. “Have I told you that you look beautiful today?”
“What has that got to do with anything?” she asked softly.
“Absolutely nothing,” he answered. And although she didn't know what to make of that, she couldn't help but marvel at the way he looked at her, at how the fine skin around his brows and ears was hued the palest green, like painted glass. Her own skin was violet there, her parents' blue, but she'd always thought green the handsomest.
He kissed her, pinning her against a tree trunk, and then her chin did tremble, and her lips, her arms, her legs, her whole skin, and she let the fear melt away, away, away.