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Early Spring, 1635
Natalie pulled on her boots and grabbed her backpack off the bed. The weather had been mostly wet and grey as spring slowly replaced winter, so she hoped the puddle-filled streets would be enough of an excuse to be wearing boots instead of her normal sneakers. If Mom even notices.
She shoved her textbooks a little further under the edge of her bed with her foot, then stepped out into the hall. "Hey, Mom. I'm headed for school. I'll see you this afternoon." She headed for the door, trying not to look like she was in a rush. Trying not to look guilty.
"Wait a minute, Natalie." Mom poked her head out of the kitchen. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
Natalie paused, fidgeting. "Uh . . ."
"Lunch," Mom said with a smile. She came down the hallway with the lunchbox.
"Oh. Right." Natalie took it from her with a nod. "Thanks, Mom."
"You're in a hurry this morning." Mom paused, looking at her more closely. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah. Fine. Just . . . there might be a pop quiz this morning." It wasn't a lie. There might be a pop quiz, but even if there was Natalie didn't plan to be there.
Mom nodded. "All right. I'm sure you'll do fine." She gave Natalie a quick hug. "Go on, then. And be careful. There's still ice in some places."
"Right, Mom." Natalie waved as she hurried down the steps toward the street. "See you this afternoon."
She waited until she reached the street corner before she stopped to unzip her backpack and stuff the lunchbox inside. There was already other food in the bag where her school books would normally be. She zipped it back up, glanced over her shoulder to make sure Mom wasn't still watching her from the house, then turned left at the corner and headed for the edge of Grantville instead of continuing up the street toward the school.
There were some other folks out, but none of them paid any attention as Natalie hurried past. Not even the other kids headed to school seemed to notice she was headed in the wrong direction. She wasn't even sure they noticed her at all. One advantage to having no friends. No one really cared where she was going.
She tucked her thumbs through the straps on her backpack, pulling it more snugly against her back so it wouldn't jostle as she walked, and hurried on.
By the time she reached the edge of town and the big tree by the crossroad, she was breathing hard—cheeks and nose prickling from walking in the chilly morning.
"Red? Henrietta?" Natalie paused, wondering if the other girl had already left without her. "Henrietta?" she called again.
"It's about time you showed up." Henrietta stepped out from behind the tree. She was wearing a plain gray cloak, her red hair hidden under a white cap with frayed ribbons that tied loosely under her chin. A sack containing what looked to be her Monster Society costume rested in the grass beside the tree.
Natalie blinked, barely recognizing her without the trademark crimson cloak she wore when they were campaigning. "Hey. Didn't see you there."
"I was just about to give up on you." Henrietta crossed her arms over her chest.
"Yeah. Sorry. Mom wanted to chat right before I left." Natalie shook her head. "Thanks for waiting. I'm not sure I know where . . . Konrad lives."
Henrietta nodded. "We should probably get started. It's a bit of a walk and you said you have to get back by the afternoon."
"Yeah. By the time school gets out. Otherwise my mom'll start to worry." Natalie fell into step beside her longer-legged friend.
"You sure it's okay for you to . . . skip? I thought that school was important to you." Henrietta looked at her, part frown and part curious.
"Yes. But I've been doing all the extra credit for the past week so it's not like I'm falling behind or anything."
Belated, Natalie remembered that Henrietta didn't go to school—not even the old-fashioned school in the down-timer village. "They send home work each day. A kind of review of what we've studied so we can practice at home. There are always a few extra questions that we don't have to do unless we did bad on a test or missed a day or something."
"Oh." Henrietta nodded.
They walked a little further, squeezing over to the muddy verge of the road as a man with a cart passed them going the opposite direction.
Natalie stuffed her hands in her coat pockets. "Are you okay?"
"What?" Henrietta looked at her with a frown.
"You just look worried. It is okay that we're going to visit . . . Konrad?"
"Yeah." She made a face. "You say his name funny."