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  She clasps my forearms, smiling at me through watery eyes.

  I'm leaving. Those two words echo persistently within my mind, such foreign and untouched terms when spoken past my lips. I've never left this village, let alone this Province. I'm leaving for the exact reasons my parents assigned me, but I can still see the regret swimming in my mother's eyes.

  The moment I turned eighteen, the burden fell heavily upon my shoulders. My fingers had slowly peeled away the paper that concealed my present. A jade stone necklace, a tightly carved pattern in the shape of an eye. It was a silent reminder of the role I need to play, that no one ever expressly demands, but it's so painfully expected that the necklace now sits upon my chest, and I'm about to board a carriage to my new life.

  "You're making me proud, Akara," she says, reaching up to tuck a stray curl behind my ear. It's the smallest movements that remind me how little I look like my mother. I got my father's foregin looks over her traditional Jade Province appearance. Dark hair, dark eyes.

  I watch a single tear fall from her eyes, a thin, transparent strip.

  "I'll be back in a few months," I assure her, wiping the tear away with my thumb. A few months. I can handle a few months, right?

  The Jade Province is an especially devout place. Here, we believe in our Guardian's, or as they are referred to, our Tani. Tani can be Guardian's or predators, depending on your belief. Here, in the Village of Celeste, we believe in a particularly powerful Tani. One none of us has ever seen...but we know it exists. We feel its presence.

  "Can a mother not be sad that her only daughter is finally grown up?" she breathes, smiling delicately. Her fingers touch the necklace. "And to fulfil exactly what you were born to do."

  I'm leaving to preach about our Tani, to bring awareness to the pray needed to satisfy the Beast. I'll be working at an inn in the Crystal Province, being a maid. It will sustain me long enough before I can return. Hopefully in that time, these nerves will diminish. I know nothing about the Crystal Province other than it's drenched in snow and surrounded by mountains.

  And the people there...aren't like me.

  "I should go. I want to get to the inn by nightfall," I say through a loosened breath, motioning to the awaiting carriage behind me, the horses pawing impatiently at the ground. Mother casts a glance over my shoulder, and for a moment, it looks as though she might tell me to stay. But like everything here, our duty to our Tani comes before anything else.

  "I'll send a letter for when your father returns so we can all be together," she promises, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. My eyes squeeze shut, my desperation to keep my tears to myself leaving my eyes burning and my throat closing.

  My father has been gone for months. The war calls, where my province and many others fight for a cause I lost a lot of knowledge of many years ago. When something exists for that long, it loses all its meaning. Even if my father still goes to fight, to protect our province and to fulfil his duty.

  The carriage sways as I slip inside, the door shuddering closed behind me. I'm leaving my life here, my friends, my family, to cross the provincial border into another, where the weather will be cold, and I will know no one. But I am ready.

  I'm ready for a new life.

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