When Veth is twelve, the words May I? appear just under the inside of her right elbow. The handwriting is narrow and cramped and she spends hours tracing it with her fingers, wondering what it means: May I? May I what? It's vague enough that Veth can't even start to guess, specific enough that she spends hours at it. May I? May I?
Her brothers tease her — of course they do — and even her father joins in, leading every question and conversation: May I ask you to set the table? May I— until Veth starts wearing longer sleeves.
She's the only one in her family with a soul mark, and she thinks about it for hours and hours. May I. She has a soulmate. Someone polite enough to know to use mayinstead of can. That's something, at least.
Of Veth's schoolmates, only two others end up developing soulmarks.
Mirella Avenboard's is Oh, that's a lovely dress in loopy fine cursive she shows off to everyone; she starts dressing up in the months after, as if she's headed to festivals instead of classes, eager to help her soulmate along.
Mirella is a pretty and popular human girl, and everyone in their class is a bit jealous of her. Would be anyway. But now she has a soul mate, too? Not too many of those in Felderwin. In the temples, some of the priests say it's a blessing, a sign the gods are watching, slating you for greatness — even if that greatness is just love and companionship. They all know the stories, historical anecdotes and the subject of countless novels: the lovers torn and brought together by fate. The true companions venturing together to fight gods.
A soulmate isn't always romantic, but Veth kind of hopes hers is. But then again, why would they be? She's seen herself reflected in the pond or in the mirror in her parents room. She doesn't have brains or personality to make up for it. Who is she, really? Just the weird girl. Not good at school, not good at making friends, not good at anything. And she has a soulmate?
When her classmates find out, during the summer, when she's pushed her sleeves up to her elbows, they agree with her. "Veth has a soulmark!" The cry goes up, and for hours people are grabbing her arm, peering at the words, joking and laughing about it. "May I have another soulmate?" Laughter. "May I pretend I don't know you?"
She ends up sitting sullen with her head in her arms on her desk. Teacher docks her points for not answering questions when he calls on her. After class, he suggests maybe it's time she looks into alternatives to further education.
It's a relief a few weeks later when a boy a year above her gets a soulmark that reads, simply, okay. Veth doesn't see it herself, doesn't know him, but the teasing shifts focus and she listens in on the gossip with relief.
"I guess Yeza will just have to avoid asking anyone questions for the rest of his life."
"Isn't he the one who is going to inherit the apothecary?"
"'Don't mind the asshole shopkeeper, he doesn't ask questions or talk because you might be his soulmate.'"
"What if someone said okay to him and they weren't his soulmate? And then they like, get married and have kids and the whole time he thinks he's with his soulmate…"
"Poor guy. I'm glad I don't have one of those things."
Veth does wonder, briefly, since okay does sound like the answer to a question. "May I?" "Okay." But that doesn't make sense, it's a question and an answer but it's nonsensical. Anyway, she vaguely knows Yeza by sight. He's not that good looking and he's part of the group that teases her a lot, she's seen him with his friends.
She wishes she could have a handsome, charming, brilliant soulmate. A prince or something. But then again, if she did, their soulmate would be her, and she's not sure she'd wish that on anyone.
May I. It's probably like, an ogre. An unusually polite ogre who asks before he kills her. Of course you may, Veth will say politely, curtsying, and then he'll strike her down with one blow.
A few years pass and the teasing about soulmarks has faded, no longer new and exciting fodder. But for the three with soulmarks, it never seems far away. Mirella is planning on moving to Zadash in the spring, in hopes of finding her soulmate there: she has spent the past years learning to sew and tailor and embroider. Even if she doesn't meet her soulmate in the city, she'll be a fine dressmaker.
Veth wears long sleeves in hopes people forget about her mark, lies awake sometimes, her forearm thrown up above her eyes, imagining meeting her soulmate and then his disappointment when he finds out it's her. She drafts variations of responses to her question in her head: But of course, or I would be most amenableor maybe Absolutely not, you cretin. Something distinctive and interesting, so her soulmate knows it is her. May I what? She can't really imagine falling in love, someone being in love with her, but the words themselves pick at her. No one's ever asked her permission for anything before.
Then one day she's walking along the part of the river that butts up against the edge of town, not doing anything much, just looking for interesting rocks or items on the banks. She rounds a corner and sees Jad and his gang and some of her other former classmates, sitting together in a group. Immediately Veth turns to walk away, but not before they see her.
Clessa calls out to her, "come and join us! Veth!", and she's already laughing, and Veth knows it will end badly, but every single time she hopes: maybe not this time though. Maybe this time they'll really want to be friends. So she sits down at the edge of the group.
They're talking about kissing and gossip and not soulmates, just the social circles of small town teenagers, and Veth sits sullen, not enjoying it, wanting to leave, until her sulking annoys Clessa and Jad and the others and they start teasing her. "But not you, right? You've never dated anyone or kissed anyone or anything, you're too weird, you're always just by yourself."
"I dunno," she says sullenly, because what else can she say? You're right, I'm a loser, I know it and you do too! She hopes that no one brings up soulmates. It's been almost four years, maybe they've forgotten. She tugs at her sleeve.
"What's your soulmate going to think?" Jad says, watching her fuss with her elbow with a smirk. "No experience at all?"
"Who cares," Veth mutters.
"Tansy, you kiss her," Clessa says, "you've never been kissed —"
"Oh, no, I don't want to, you do it —"
It goes on, circling voices and words, and Veth just looks at the ground, feeling huge and obvious and frozen, like they're all standing over her as they laugh and cackle. She just sits where she is, arms over her raised knees, and waits it out.
"You do it!" someone says laughing.
"No, look, she's embarrassed now."
"Veth, we're only teasing. It's just a joke."
"You take everything so personally."
"I'll do it if you guys all lay off." A boy comes and crouches before her, and Veth's face burns. She peers up at him, and his expression isn't teasing or pitying but — he winces a little. Rolls his eyes. Somehow says these idiots without saying a word. Yeza, that's his name, she remembers. "So shut up already." He turns back to her, his expression sympathetic. "May I?"
Bren doesn't have a soulmate.
This is a strength, Master Ikithon tells him and Astrid and Eodwulf. It is fine for normal people to be concerned with such things, because they are weak, and the minds of the weak are concerned with frivolities such as love and destiny.
But they know that destiny can be forged, that they are not victims of the universe's whims but the masters of all. Master Ikithon would not take anyone with a soulmate into his advanced programs, he tells them, and they all swell with pride to hear this new way they are special.
When he falls in love with Astrid, he knows it is not because of the universe nudging him but because he, Bren, controls his own heart and emotions, because she is lovely and clever and bold and strong, but when she fails to return his feelings… first politely and then bluntly and then laughing about it with Eod…
He doesn't understand that. Master Ikithon never said they weren't allowed to fall in love, just not have soulmarks. Which Bren doesn't have. And yet… he lies awake and looks at his arm in bed, bare, a few pale freckles, and imagines how nice it would be if he was in love with Astrid and she was in love with him, too.
Their first words — it doesn't take him more than a moment to recall them. They were all from Blumenthal together, the same age, and Bren knew them both long before they joined the Academy together. "What are you reading?", that had been the first words Astrid had spoken to him. It had been a history of Rexxingtrum and he with some effort remembers the passage —
With great success Griffenfeld reorganized the deplorable state of the finances, drastically — and here was where Astrid had spoken to him, and he had replied with the title, read the rest of the sentence — reducing the two dominant items of expenditure, the court and the military. And then Bren had closed the book and they had talked.
He's struck by a wild idea: to find her and ask her if she remembers the book, because he remembers the book — of course, Bren would anyway remember the book — but especially because it had been what he was reading when he met her, one of his dearest friends. If Astrid were his soulmate, he'd have what are you reading on his arm in her elegant scrawl, and that would be wonderful too — some people have generic exchanges, everyone's heard horror stories of those with "hello" or "excuse me" scrawled into their flesh. But if Astrid were Bren's soulmate, not only…
He's being a fool, he reminds himself.
He is much too important to be a fool.
A few days later, as if he knew, Master Ikithon takes Bren aside and reminds him of the perils of weakness, of the perils of love — "I have plans, great plans, for you and your companions," Master Ikithon says sternly, not unkindly.
"Yes, of course, I have those same plans."
"Then I'm certain you will take this reminder to heart. I do not ask you to put aside your feelings. Love for the Emperor and your Empire are powerful things. Love for your companions is noble. But love for love's sake is the drug of the weak and foolish and the distracted, and I will not suffer distracted students."
"It's just — it's just a silly crush," Bren mumbles, embarrassed.
"It was," Master Ikithon corrects, and Bren's for a moment blindly panicked that Ikithon is accusing him of being weak and foolish and distracted. "You have put an end to this, I trust."
Ah: he was correcting Bren's tense, not his feelings. "Of course."
"Good." Master Ikithon is silent, but does not dismiss Bren, and so Bren stays where he is, unmoving. "I would never demand you not to care for your friends and your family," Master Ikithon says, and Bren watches his fingers move lazily about, "so long as you remember what is truly important."
"Of course," says Bren, relieved. "Thank you, Master Ikithon."
When Veth wakes up, she's wrong. Feels it right off, in the first few seconds, gasping for air with the memory of water: her body moves differently, her breath feels different, the bare branches above her look strange, the air around her smells so strong, ripe and pungent, and when she hears a sound behind her she can feel something move, something on her body, not her ears, ears don't move, and then her hand is mottled and clumsy and fingers — she's missing a finger —
Claws on her feet —
And then she's gasping and crying and doesn't recognize her voice in her ears, which are moving, swiveling and twisting and honing in on every sound, and she bites and scrapes at her lips and tongue with odd sharp teeth —
It isn't until later, but not much later, that she sees her right arm is bare, and she hasn't — she can't process, can't even think, can't even acknowledge it, she can't even move or walk without stumbling and tripping over herself, her legs are wrong, her body is wrong, everything —
She tries all sorts of things in the first weeks, not caring that it makes the goblins cackle and laugh at her. Tries covering her skin with mud and dirt, to hide the green. Tries covering it with clothes and scraps of cloth. Anything to be able to look at herself without flinching and crying out, the inside of her mouth raw with cuts. She walks around with her nose in the air, so none of her body is accidentally in her line of vision. She rubs ash, her eyes squeezed shut, into her skin.
When a day arrives that she functions an entire morning without glimpsing herself and breaking, Veth moves on to mourning her life, to mourning her death. She isdead, that's obvious, even through she moves and breathes and eats the scraps of raw meat the goblins toss to her. She died in the river. She mourns for Yeza and especially for Luke. The goblins had broken camp and went far away after killing her, to avoid retaliation by crownsguard, and Veth knows she couldn't go back even if they were closer. Look at her. Look at this thing she's become. She'd terrify Luke. Yeza would summon the guards on sight.
Veth is dead. This second life is some sort of cruel fluke.
She keeps her arms covered, hidden away, unwilling to look at the bare skin even once she can take in the greenness without screaming. There's only so much she can bear. She's not Veth, she reminds herself. Veth had a soulmate, Veth had a home and a son and people who loved her. The writing was on Veth, not on you. You're something else. You're not her.
The goblins make fun of her, the same way everyone always has. They call her Notta Goblin. They shorten it to Nott.
She can work with that. She's not Veth, Veth is dead, so Nott is fine. Nott. What a perfect name, really. Perfect for whatever she is now. Perfect for whatever it is she's always been.
Nott has writing on her left arm, thin spidery letters curling across her skin. It is months before she sees them. Weeks more before she gets the courage to read what they say.
Bren, who is sometimes Magnus or Richard or Julian or Franz or Oren, has been running for almost three years, long enough that he's grown permanently weary and gotten used to hunger, long enough that when he thinks of himself by name it is no longer mein Name ist but I'm; no longer Bren or Brendan but a buzzing sort of silence. His toes, too, are always cold in his boots, and one of the soles has worn away to leave a coin sized hole in the center.
He tries not to steal when he can avoid it, not from compassion but so as not to be noticed or caught. He can transfigure copper into silver for an hour, but he needs copper to do the trick in the first place. He sleeps in fields and in the open, avoids trees and places others might look to find travelers.
Martin, he'd called himself in the last place he'd spoken to another person. Martin's skin itches with filth, his hair is matted and brown, and so before visiting his next town Martin knows he must bathe if he is to speak to anyone without guards being summoned.
He goes out of his way a few miles and finds a creek. He takes the time to cast alarm in a wide circle around him, splashing through the water to include the opposite shore, and then carefully removes his books, carelessly kicks off his boots — he might have to find a way to steal a new pair, later — and climbs into the water fully clothed.
He has no soap, so he makes do with sand, stripping off his clothing and rinsing and scrubbing at his shirt and trousers and socks and underwear, the latter two beyond real salvation. Then he sets it all out flat to dry (well away from his books), and unwraps his bandages so he can scrub himself.
It has been some time since he has bathed, some time since his arms have been bared to the sun, his skin is pale and pallid and he looks automatically, obsessively, at the pale scars. They're not so obvious, right? He can't decide. They stand out like beacons. But objectively?
And then, on his left arm:
The handwriting is incongruously tidy, neat slanted print, etched into his skin. He gapes at it. Rubs it. Wets it and rubs more, then scratches at the letters until they and the skin redden. They do not alter or fade.
He searches the rest of his body in a panic, hunting for more words or marks or scars, running through every conversation he has ever had, as Martin or as Franz or as Auguste or as Bren, especially as Bren, searching for any meeting that opened with those few words, and he comes up blank, which only serves to fill him with more panic. He has a soulmate. That poor bastard. He — he has somehow, somehow gained, now, after everything — the universe thrusts this? Upon him? He rubs and rubs at the words until the skin is raw, he is shivering, shuddering naked in this cold stream: he has a soulmate. Him!
And the words themselves — hilariously, cruelly ironic, a punishment in themselves — it must be a jest, some joke made at his expense he does not yet understand, said sarcastically —
He laughs, bitter and sick and afraid.
Somewhere he has a friend, a partner, a lover, gods forbid, someone bound to him, and he doesn't even have a name or a decent pair of shoes — immediately, even worse thoughts cascade around him: this is a weakness. This is a distraction. How can he do what he needs if he is bound to someone else? How can he be expected to care about someone else, care like that, he hardly remembers — he's certainly not proven himself well in matters of — what would Master Ikithon say?
The thought wells up on him in a panic: Master Ikithon! Almost at once: no, no, he is not your master, he manipulated you. But if he knew… Ikithon could use them to get to him. Ikithon might kill them.
Maybe that wouldn't be the worst outcome. He feels guilty as he wades back to shore, his arm bleeding slightly, his bath forgotten. He sits on the bank naked, lost in thought, for a long time. Maybe that is what he ought to hope for. That he never meets them. That they'll die or go far away before he ever has the chance.
They throw Nott into the cell and she huddles there, whimpering and crying, until she's unable to cry any longer. She just sits in her corner, trembling after that. All this. All this for what? Finally got up the stupid fucking bravery to leave the clan, and get arrested in practically the first town you go to after that? For stealing wine?
Nott had been half drunk when she'd been caught, when she'd been dragged into the stockade and kicked around and hit a bit and then dropped into the cell. Lawmaster wants a word with her first thing in the morning about her clan, but Nott has no clan, and has already been promised her assistance will only be the difference between a quick painless death and a slow one.
Maybe it's for the best, but she's scared. She's scared and she's afraid and her whole body hurts and now she's rapidly sobering too, sobering and thinking stupid thoughts that go with being sober, and —
She sits like that for who knows how long, whimpering to herself. There are approaching footsteps and Nott wriggles herself even more into the corner. A lantern flares and the light finds her. She ducks her head behind her knees.
The door screams open. "Watch out for your roommate," a guard says with a dark chuckle. "Although tomorrow you'll have a single, you lucky motherfucker." She hears someone being hit, a soft oof of air escaping lungs, a few footsteps and the cell door screams shut. Probably they're hoping the wild monstrous goblin kills and eats this new guy, but she's so scared, she just hopes he doesn't see her. That's all she wants. Just don't see me, don't notice me —
She peeks through the shadows as the man — it is a man, a human or maybe half-elf — hesitates, just stands there for a moment, and then moves to sit against the wall opposite her. Good. But she doesn't relax. Doesn't move. After a few minutes, she peeks over at him again.
He is sitting in nearly the same pose as she: knees drawn up, head in his hands, shoulders bent in and low. She can smell his fear and a sweet sickliness with her goblin nose, see how thin his forearms and wrists are: he is weak, he is alone and vulnerable. It's too dim to see colors, but she has an impression of light-ish hair and pale skin. She cannot see his face, it is bent into the space between his chest and his knees, she can see his ankles exposed and just as thin as his arms. He is wounded. He is an easy kill, her goblin mind thinks. Her other mind, Veth's mind, whispers something else to her. Almost too softly to be heard.
He clears his throat and her stomach falls; he saw her creepy glowing goblin eyes watching him. She's so stupid. She forgot.
"Don't be afraid."
Her heart stops.
The goblin — he is nearly certain it is a goblin — shivers in the corner. He cannot see it clearly in the dim light, but he can see it shaking, trembling with fear. It is to be executed in the morning, if the guard is to be believed, and all he thinks about that is: that may be of use.
The guards do not know he has magic, but the cell is iron and stone and he has not slept well in some time; he cannot escape here on his own. Were he to wait, he might be released of given the opportunity to work off his sentence — but he was seen and noticed, noticed asking about magic, and he wishes to flee this town as quickly as possible.
Maybe this goblin, surely just as desperate, can help him. "Don't be afraid," he says to it, hoping he sounds gentle — it has been a long time since he has needed to be charming. The goblin's body goes tense, her pupils dilated with fear. He waits, but it says nothing, so he continues: "There is no need to be, I mean you no harm, I think we may be able to help one another, in fact. What is your name, friend?"
The goblin shakes its head — had it not, he would have begun to doubt its ability to understand Common. Beggars cannot be choosers, he reminds himself. He leans across the cell towards it. "Can you fit through the bars? Can you open locks? Are you a petty thief? I do not judge you if you are, I, I am also often a thief, however, locks are —"
It nods yes. "Goed, good…" he says slowly, doubting very much the creature's intelligence and abilities.
He uses Frumpkin to fetch them a few lengths of wire, and the little goblin silently picks the lock. It takes a few attempts, and he watches the whole while: the small, spindly body covered in grayish cloth and bandages not unlike his own, ears wrapped close to its head. Long dark hair that makes him think it may be a female goblin, but he cannot be certain.
On her third try, she opens the cell door, sliding it open just a few inches and stopping it before it can begin to shriek for the whole jail to hear. She gives him a look back and slides silently through. He moves to the bars, unsure if he is to wait or follow — but the door is open, if a siren, and there is nothing left to keep him from his escape. The goblin certainly did not hesitate.
He starts a small fire out of the straw in the corner of the cell and loses himself for a moment, watching the flames grow and curl… something reaches for his hand, touches his fingers and palm, and he darts back, towards the fire, already preparing a spell…
It's the goblin, carrying half a dozen weapons under her arm, reaching out for him for his attention. "Ah — you —" he stammers, letting his spell fizzle away.
"Keep close to me," she whispers, looking at the floor, and then quickly up at him with her yellow cat's eyes. She looks down again. He only saw because he was staring, frozen, unmoving, unbreathing — she opens the jail door the rest of the way and then pushes a dagger and a shortsword at him. Both clatter to the stone floor. She has a crossbow left in her arms. "The guards are still out here. Let's go," she says, tugging at the edge of his coat.
Ah — but — but this — she can't — goblins can't read or write. Surely. Not Common.
Yes. That must be — he stumbles out after her, feeling nauseous and not at all relieved, setting the prison ablaze behind them.
Caleb, he tells her. That's my name.
Nott, she tells him. That's mine.
They agree to travel together, after the first night where Caleb only pretends to sleep and waits for Nott to leave, wondering and pondering her first words, the words on his arm, again and again. A coincidence, he decides. It must be. To start with, soul marks that appear in writing are a function of the literate. He has heard tales of those whose words are in picture or symbolic form, but nearly all cases in the Empire are written in Common or less often another dialect.
There are cross-racial soul marks, but he has never heard of any involving a goblin.
Most convincing of all, the goblin — Nott — hadn't acted as though she had just met her soulmate. Most likely, it was just an odd coincidence.
Caleb still isn't really convinced he has one, really. Perhaps it is a goblin. Perhaps it is some kind of twisted joke.
Still. He convinces himself it is a coincidence and pretends to sleep and waits for the goblin to creep off in the night or attempt to murder him. Neither happens. He dozes off despite himself, and Nott is still there in the morning.
He doesn't know why. It frightens him, a bit.
Nott realizes right away, as soon as he says the words on her arm, the stupid, terrible words that she hates and has spent hours trying to scrape and burn and wash off her skin: hates for replacing Yeza's words, hates for the mockery, the cruel implication: Nott the coward, Veth the weak. Don't be afraid.
It's even worse that Caleb says it nicely. It's even worse that the moment he'd said it she wanted to cry, all over again. It's worse because she was afraid, is afraid, and wanted so badly for someone to tell her it was alright.
She'd wanted to say all kinds of things when she'd heard him speak: how dare you, fuck you, shut up, had kept her mouth shut only barely, had left the jail cell and never wanted to come back, not for him, not for a new soulmate when she had, hasa perfect one already — she tells herself she almost did leave him there, but isn't certain that's true.
He was just as frightened as she was. Is. Is.
And she saw the way he'd looked at her, pale and disgusted, when she had spoken to him. Not embarrassed and thrilled like she and Yeza had been that day by the river: Caleb was horrified. Disgusted. And for good reason. Look at her. Look at what she is.
He doesn't deserve a shitty soulmate like her. She has a soulmate already.
One day he goes into town alone to buy them supplies with actual coin. She waits a mile down the road, piling stones, sorting them, reorganizing her pack, killing time. He comes upon her when she's messing around in the sand on the edge of the road: A B E E H N O R T T T V she'd written, all the letters of her name in order, and had been using one claw to make words of it. NOTT, that was an easy one. HAVE TROB, sort of an ungrammatical have troubles, sure. THE BRAVE, even worse.
"What are you doing?" Caleb asks sharply, coming up behind her.
"I dunno," she says. He looks at her scribbles, her names and anagrams, with a dark look on his face.
"I didn't know you could read and write…" Caleb says slowly.
"Oh. Um, yeah, someone taught me." She doesn't like or know his expression. "Did you get food? Did you get yourself new socks? Did you get any books?" she asks, wiping the jumble of letters with her palm.
"…Ja, ja, I did…" his gaze falls on THE BRAVE, and he attempts a half-hearted smile. "Nott 'the Brave' is your full name, then?"
"Ha, ha," she says.
"It suits you."
"Did you get any meat?" Nott asks, kicking the rest of the writing away, back into the dirt, invisible, gone. "How about bacon? Do we have bacon?"
So she can read. And write. And is far more clever than any goblin Caleb has ever met, far more clever than most anyone he has ever met. So she is funny and kind and brave and prone to kicking him in her sleep.
She is not his soulmate. Thank gods. He would not wish that on his friend most of all.
But: they meet other strangers, perhaps even stranger than Caleb and Nott, and he smiles to see her skitter closer to the blue one, leave him behind and rush back excited over solving a case. He sees her make friends and grow stronger, and he's as happy as though it were him — as though he were watching a younger sister blossom before his eyes.
But: He comes back from unconsciousness, not once, not twice, and each time with Nott at his side, her face blotchy and puffy with tears. "Don't do that," she scolds him. "Don't keep dying." Do you have a health potion? I'll get you a health potion. Have you eaten today? Nott becomes a scold and rather than finding it exasperating or a burden, he almost enjoys it. He does enjoy it. There's something comforting about knowing you exist in someone else's thoughts.
Something dangerous, too.
But: she's not — even if by coincidence she said the right words, even if she canread and write — she isn't his soulmate. And that makes her safer, because that makes her lesser. He is fond of her. She is his dear friend. No more. No more than that.
He sees her in the mouth of a manticore, bloody and limp, and for the first time in a very, very long time all he thinks, all he desires, is to burn, to burn, to destroy, to reduce to ashes and dust.
He once wished that his soulmate should die or not exist rather than ever meet them. Rather than ever expose himself, when he's in so much danger already, when he can't afford any lapse in strength.
He remembers coming upon her writing in the dirt.
He recognized her handwriting.
Soul marks are an infrequent conversation among the Mighty Nein. Fjord and Caduceus claim not to have marks, and no one is certain if Molly had or not. They once spend a careful, cautious afternoon wondering about it: if he had, and if when he had died the first time it had stayed, and when he died again…
Nott stays out of that discussion. Entirely.
Jester talks about how her mother used to keep a ribbon wrapped around her forearm, as a way to entice clients — "They all knew Mama wasn't really their soulmate, really, but they could also pretend a little, you know?" Jester gestures to her own forearm, the green ribbon tied there. She likes to tease that she's soulmates with one of them, but whooo?, but none of them are sure if she even has writing to hide.
Beau shows off her bare arm with a little too much pride to be believable. Yasha ignores questions. Caleb is teased about his wrapped arms and avoids giving an answer.
No one asks Nott. Not ever.
Which is good, because she doesn't want to have to lie, doesn't know what the truth is. They're out at sea drinking on the deck one hot night, talking about soulmates, and Nott's mood is like, fifty-fifty: nice to drink, nice to be with her friends. Too bad it's on the ocean. Too bad for the topic.
"I heard, I mean, I read in a book, that when you touch your soulmate's mark it's like, you feel electricity? You fall in love in a second," Jester is saying, sprawled out on her back on the deck.
"If you're soulmates, aren't you already in love?" Beau asks.
"There are non-romantic soulmates," Caduceus says. "It's a mark of connection. Of a blessing by the gods."
"I wonder if Avantika's eye thing was her soulmark?" Jester asks after a thoughtful pause.
"That is a fucking creepy and horrifying thought," says Fjord.
"You have any eyes under there we don't know about?" Beau asks.
They cackle at him.
Nott stays out of it all and drinks and thinks about Yeza, mostly. It's starting to fade a little bit. What did they do? What did they talk about? What was her life really like? May I, he'd said to her. It wasn't even that great of an opening line. But…
She scratches at the wood along the grain and feels Caleb looking at her. She glances up and he looks over towards Caduceus. "You seem, ehm, you're well informed about these soul marks?" he asks.
"Mm." Caduceus is quiet for a moment. "No, not really. It's just working in a graveyard. You meet a lot of grieving folk, and some of them have soul marks."
"And they're not all — all romantic in nature?" Caleb asks, although they're all listening with interest.
"A lot of them are," Caduceus says. "But not all of them. They're a little unusual to begin with."
"They're like a blessing," Jester pipes up.
"Like what, a blessing from the Traveller?" Beau asks.
"Well, yeah!" Jester pats her ribbon significantly. "It means you've been picked to be part of a really special and cool team. Maybe a romantic team where you feel electricity when you kiss, maybe a super cool heist team…"
"I'm glad I don't have one, though," Beau says. "Too much pressure."
"Actually…" Fjord looks around, and coughs. "None of us have them, do we?"
"I do," Jester says, raising her hand up. "Oh! Hey! What if I gave us all like, tattoos? Soul mark tattoos? For the Mighty Nein? It could say THE MIGHTY NEIN in really big letters, or…"
"I'm okay with that," says Beau eagerly. Fjord shrugs as if to say why not, and Yasha doesn't look opposed.
"No thanks," Nott says, speaking up for the first time in a while.
"Notttt! It's like a team thing, it will be so fun," Jester says.
"Why not?" Beau asks, and Nott can feel Caleb's eyes on her again.
"I don't know. It's against my religion?"
The others go right on planning their matching someday fake soulmarks, and Nott thinks: gods, I hope this isn't serious. But what can she say? Soulmarks appear on the arm, and both of her arms — they've been taken already. Except one vanished because she died, and the other…
She knows it's Caleb. Knows it. From the start, from her gut, from the second he looked terrified when she spoke to him, horrified and like he might throw up. Like he wanted to throw up. Like he'd rather have any bond with anyone but her.
And she has a soulmate. She has one.
And he's pretended they're not soulmates ever since, and — that's fine. That is cool. That is perfectly understandable because Nott is a gross ugly goblin and Caleb is everything she's not and deserves a much better and cooler soulmate. And if he wants to pretend he doesn't have her, she understands. Still.
Even after almost a year.
Even after —
She'll keep him safe. She'll keep him happy. Maybe someday he can find someone that he loves, really loves. He likes her, she knows. She's not stupid. (She's lucky.) But it's not the same and she respects that. Someday she wants to go home, too. He'll find someone he'd like to be soulmates with, maybe get something better on his arm. She'll go home and be with Yeza and Luke.
She won't forget Caleb, because he is her best friend and she loves him. She'll keep him alive. Keep him safe. Until he finds his real soulmate. Someone he doesn't feel ashamed about and pretends he doesn't know.
It doesn't even bother her, honestly. Not really. It makes perfect sense. Who wants a goblin soulmate?
He thinks she simply must not have been aware. She was frightened when they met, she thought she was facing her execution, and she simply had not —
Or perhaps because she is a goblin —
Caleb doesn't know. Caleb doesn't understand, but Nott —
She is better off, anyhow, with her friends of the Mighty Nein, and without the danger he will inevitably put her through. Even just their friendship is a risk.
Still. He wonders.
For a year they are friends, for a year they remain side by side, for a year they travel and sleep in the same bed. Even if she were not his soulmate (and Caleb still isn't entirely sure, tells himself he is not entirely sure, traces over the words, keep close to me, under his bandages, under his fingertips, like some form of prophecy: he must not, it is dangerous for him, for his heart, for his life, it is worse for her and hers and hers) —
He doesn't ask.
He is afraid of the answer, because it is one he already knows.
And so Caleb thinks about it and the words and the meaning, twists it and romanticizes it and feels himself doing so, scolds himself: do not give it so much weight, she was speaking of an immediate threat, not a promise — Keep close to me. And he does. She protects him and he is a coward; he tries to make her promises and offer himself to her. He keeps close. He stays at her side. He allows himself to need her company and comfort and stupid jokes.
He asks her if she wants to visit home — and Caleb knows the danger that can have, the weight and fear home can have, but when she hesitates he senses nerves and not dread and tries to encourage her. She has a friend in Felderwin. Seeing him will make her happy. He tries to encourage her to go.
He remembers the first words he said to her, of course, even if he doesn't know if they are written on goblin skin: Don't be afraid. Another prophecy.
They come to Felderwin.
Nott changes herself from a goblin to a gnome to a halfling.
Nott pounds on the door with the others still racing to catch up.
"Edith, Edith, it's me," she says, the halfling woman's arm bare, unwrapped, two short words dark and exposed just below her right elbow, unwrapped as Nott's own arms never have been, "Where is my son?"