Veth wakes from a dream where —
Well. She wakes, anyway.
The rooster is crowing, half awake, clucking and calling out in the cold outside. She's overslept. Dresses in the dark without looking, braids her hair sitting on the edge of her cot. From the other side of the curtain, Elias is snoring.
Climbs down the ladder and lights the stove. Sets the pot to warm. Just last night's porridge, but she slips on her clogs and goes to the chickens. Sets out the food, opens the coop. Fries eggs back in the kitchen.
Elias and Den and Dad are awake now. Tired and sullen. Veth sets the kettle — she'd forgotten — and pours out coffee for Dad. No one speaks much in the mornings. Not before the sun's up. Not ever.
There's room at the table but Veth busies herself over the stove. Stirs the porridge around, pokes at the fire. "Let's be off," Dad says. The men clatter around, pulling on boots, coats.
"We're almost out of salt…" she says.
Dad swears. Goes to his room and comes back with coin. "Anything else?"
"Thread. And things." She looks at her feet. Dad looks at her dress. He tugs at her braid, the yellow ribbon she'd tied in the dark.
Elias has new boots. Den drinks a silver a week. Veth doesn't say.
"I could buy us some salt pork."
"Fine." He hands her five silver. He and her brothers leave for the fields.
Veth eats her breakfast slowly, alone. Fries herself an egg, uses the last of the salt on her porridge. Stirs in the egg so the yolk turns it gold. It's too salty. It's nice.
Cleans the kitchen, tidies the house. Makes her brother's beds, and then her father's. Opens the second drawer of his dresser and checks on the bag of coin. He always pretends like it's a mystery — hoards the money, hides it, comes out of his room with a few coins at a time, but Veth knows. Doesn't take it. But she knows.
She leaves her own bed unmade. On purpose.
Fills her basket with eggs and walks to Felderwin.
Buys salt and thread at the general store. Goes to the butcher's. He has a couple skinny chickens for sale and she debates it, but the butcher offers a good deal on a slab of bacon and it's been a while since they've had meat. She sells the eggs next, counting out the copper. All in a sort of haze — eyes on the ground, not thinking, not noticing much. Do this and then that. And again tomorrow. She goes to the same shops she always does. They greet her politely. She greets them back. That's all.
She peeks in the alchemist's shop as she passes by. That's all. Just looks. Careful not to slow down, or turn her head too much. There are bundles of dried herbs hanging in the windows — it's hard to see past them. She just looks. That's all.
At the grocer's, she buys a few potatoes and carrots. Picks over stalks of celery. They don't need it, but it might be nice. She could make a soup, with the bacon. A good broth.
She grits her teeth. Turns to the voice, trying to smile, holding a leek in her arms. "Good morning."
It's Teacher. He's Halfling too, but barely taller than she is. Straight-backed, just small. Big shiny forehead. "I haven't seen you in class this year."
"No," she says.
He waits a moment. "Decided you were better off not pursuing education? How old are you now?"
"Fourteen." She turns, makes a show of putting down the leek, looking at another.
"I'm pleased for you," says Teacher.
What is he doing here? Shouldn't he be in school himself? Or is it a weekend, and Veth hadn't noticed? Every day is the same. She hardly does notice. She lets her mind drift. What day of the week is it? Pressing her nails into the soft stalk of a leek. Short as they are, they cut through.
"Not everyone is suited to school. It takes real maturity to recognize when you're not, Miss Veth."
"Thank you," Veth says.
She has to buy this leek now. She's ruined it.
"Are you working?"
"I'm helping my family," she says. "Excuse me, please. I need to get home soon." She looks at her feet. She leaves him. She pays for her vegetables.
On the walk home she seethes. Stews on it, unsure why she's so angry. Unsure why she's writhing and boiling and twisting inside. Stupid. You're so stupid. It had been dad's idea, that she give up on school. But it wasn't like she liked school any. Was at all good at the classes. Just stared out the window mostly, didn't she? Looked at her feet and dreaded Teacher asking a question? Stupid. There's no shame in leaving. Fourteen's old enough. Lots of the farm kids do. It's the town kids who stay, the smart ones, the ones with businesses and apprenticeships to inherit and work. Elias only made it to sixteen. Den's the only smart one in the family, they all know that.
Stupid. Stupid. Why does she get so mad?
She fills her basket with rocks, nestles them alongside her groceries. Not special rocks or anything. Just anything palm sized she finds along the road. It's the main road that runs from Felderwin to the tillage to the Crossroads and further, the river to one side, fields and fields to the other. Used by locals mostly, farmers going to and from town, Crownsguard every now and then. There's goblins across the river, everyone knows that. They usually come around harvest time, there's usually some kind of raid or skirmish — the boys in school always half hoping they'd catch one in the fields, kill one trying to steal a pig or something.
It all seems far-off, usually. Like something that would happen only somewhere else. You know they're there — in the trees across the river — but everyone swims, everyone feels fine, no one worries about it most of the year. The goblins know it too. There's not much in Felderwin worth stealing.
She veers off the road at the red oak, down the footpath made by countless kids over countless years. There's a bend in the river here — a round dome of a peninsula that floods in the spring, is sand the rest of the year. There are lots of swimming holes, but this is the one Veth's always gone to. She puts her basket down in the grass and gathers her rocks together. Throws them one after another after another, until her arm burns, her wrist feels limp and achey, at the elm tree she carved an X in long ago.
Each thock is a sharp angry moment of satisfaction. She's worn the X away with repeated blows. Sometimes she imagines a face. Dad. Her brothers. Teacher. Sometimes it's just the throwing, the violence, the sick pleasure in hitting the trunk again and again and again. The splintering of bark. The sound. She imagines breaking bones. Breaking faces. Feeling sharp and angry and strong. She throws and throws until she's out of rocks. Until she feels awake and clear and her heart is pounding.
Veth picks up her basket and walks the rest of the way home.
"So do you have, um, anger issues?"
"No." Veth takes the herbs Yeza gives her, pours them into the mortar. Works carefully, stopping often to sift or add a bit more, carefully grinding them into a fragrant powder. She likes this work. It's easy, but somehow soothing. The pestle feels good in her hand. She likes the smells, she likes sitting across from him at the table in the back and talking.
She likes talking.
"Because, I don't know, it seems kind of violent. I'm saying this in a totally non-judgmental way, it just seems like maybe you have some frustration issues — maybe in the way your life is going?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well — you know, how do you feel? On the inside. Or whatever. Are you happy?"
"Complex inner lives are for other people," she says. He looks put out. She tries not to smile.
"See, um, I don't think someone without an inner life would think something like that in the first place."
"I didn't say I don't have one, I just think it's a stupid question."
"I don't. Are you happy with your life?"
"That's what I mean. It's stupid. Are you?" Veth asks, meaning: who sits around thinking of things like that? Even the question makes her tired, pinches at her, like the times she's woken up in the dark and stepped down onto nothing, missed the rung of the ladder. The way her whole body seems to fall, even though it's only an inch or two, her foot dangling, kicking out, finding the step. You think about stupid shit, vague shit, and you just fall. Who does that? Who would even bother?
Here is the answer: happiness doesn't matter. Honestly. It doesn't feed anyone. It doesn't do anything. Is Dad happy? Are her brothers? Who cares! She can't imagine asking. It's personal. Too intimate. Like asking if they masturbate. Ew. Gross.
It's the kind of question Yeza asks, though. Thinks about, apparently. She wonders. They're friends, but she doesn't get him at all.
"Yes, mostly," he says right away. "Don't roll your eyes at that."
"If you can just answer right off, it's not like you put any thought into it, it's not like you mean it. You're just trying to prove a point." She pours out the powder carefully into the big bowl, takes some more herbs and begins grinding.
"You don't have to think about things you know. What's your name?"
"Veth, but that's totally not the same thing."
"It is, I think. I'm happy with my life."
"Well, I'm happy for you, in that case," she says. But she likes the arguing. It's that same sharp feeling as when she throws rocks at the tree. The same kind of thing. Aha! I'm awake! She doesn't stare at her feet at all by the river. In the backroom of the shop.
The bell over the front door rings. Yeza puts down his mortar and pestle and wipes his palms on his apron. "Just a moment, please!" he calls. He gives her a look. Veth puts down her things and follows him out: Madame doesn't technically know she does this. Doesn't know she spends her free afternoons grinding herbs, mixing formulas, doesn't know Yeza passes his lessons on to Veth when she visits. Madame doesn't know she has a farmer pretending to be an apprentice. Doesn't mind Veth visiting, so long as it doesn't distract Yeza, which was really the start of it all: aha, they'd thought. You can't distract me if you're helping around the shop.
Madame is one hundred and twenty. Her arthritis — by now, it's basically Yeza in charge of everything, anyway.
There's a tall man in the shop. Tall as in human — no, half elf, Veth thinks, noticing the ears. He's browsing the high shelves, which to him are eye level. Veth lingers in the doorway. Yeza hurries behind the counter. "Sorry for the wait."
"No hurry, my boy," says the half elf. There aren't many in Felderwin, and Veth eyes his clothes as she casts her eyes down to the floor. He's wearing robes. Red and deep purple, with black stitching and some subtle embroidery. Sort of a twisting design around the sleeves, like ripples or vines. She wonders if she could imitate it, next time she makes herself a dress.
Yeza and the half elf discuss his business. He is a traveller from the north, just arrived. In search of magical items or trinkets.
"We don't have much of that around here," Yeza says. "I think we have a couple of potions of clear-mindedness. But we're mostly a farming town."
"Oh, that's quite alright. I have no need truly — I search as a favor for a colleague of mine."
"You mean like souvenirs? We have some ales that are fairly well-known around here, and some of the shops import from Trostenwald and Humperduke in terms of goods, I assume you've passed through Zadash already."
"And you have unique potions here," Veth says.
Yeza's startled, looks over at her. But she's thinking: what are you doing? Chasing away this guy? Make him a potion if he's looking for something special. Look at those robes. He probably has coin.
"Oh, do you?" the half elf asks. He sounds amused. Veth looks at his ankles. Then up. He's smiling.
"Sure. Yeza's a brilliant alchemist. He could create you any kind of potion you wanted to give to your friend."
"I mean — I could certainly try, um."
"A potion of bravery. Or healing. Or invisibility."
Yeza is making wild gestures behind the counter: shaking his head, waving his hand: I don't know how to do that, he's saying, but Veth ignores him. "Anything you want."
"You could brew a potion of invisibility?" the half elf asks, clearly piqued; Veth feels a rush of pleasure, imagining the acclaim Yeza will have, the way he'll prove himself, Madame will be proud, she'll tell everyone — just like that, he won't just be an apprentice but a real alchemist, the pride of Felderwin —
"I - I, um, I could check," Yeza says, his voice high and tight.
Veth frowns at him.
"Just out of curiosity, what does such a potion require?" The half-elf asks, his gaze darting from Veth to Yeza.
"Um. Well. It takes a while, actually. I think. The distillation process is very complex."
"Of course, of course."
Yeza looks over at Veth, his eyes wide and panicked.
"Acacia," she says. "You have to distill and purify acacia sap as the base, right?"
His eyes widen. "Right! Okay, yes — I've definitely read about it, but, um, I admit I've never made it. But I definitely can give it a shot if you'd like, sir."
"Acacia?" The half elf looks at her.
She looks back at the floor.
"Yes — it's a type of tree, the sap has a lot of interesting properties, um, alchemically speaking, that is. The thorns as well, but you can crystalize the sap into —"
"Gum arabic, yes; I use it myself in spells." The half elf pauses. "Do you two run this shop? Only you both seem rather young."
"Oh — no, I'm just the apprentice, my name is Yeza Brenatto, I'm sorry, I can go fetch Madame Wilta, she's just upstairs here."
"No, no, that's quite alright. And you?"
"…Veth," she says.
"Um, basically." "No."
She and Yeza look at one another at the same time. Veth looks away. "I'm just — just a farmer."
"Not an alchemist?"
"Yes, she's very good." "No. I just — I just grind herbs."
Yeza smiles at her when she glares at him.
"If I may… Miss Veth. If I wished to detect if a potion here in this shop was poison, what item might I use?"
She stares at him. "You're making fun of me," she says at last.
"No," he says.
She looks over at Yeza. He looks — she can't read it. Half a smile, yes, but not why he is. Why he nods at her when she does.
"Yew," she says.
"I see. Why?"
"I don't know." She feels sullen. Picked on. They're both having a joke at her expense, and she doesn't know why. Is suddenly conscious of herself, the same dress she wore yesterday, her dusty boots, her left braid thicker than the left. Not like it's new, not like Yeza anyway isn't used to it — her looking like a mess — but they're watching and in some way judging her, she knows that. Stupid Veth. Give her a quiz. Show her how little she knows.
The half elf turns to Yeza. Asks him a question about antidotes. Veth looks at the floor, counting her breaths. Relieved and somehow angrier, that she's no longer being tested. That somehow she failed. I don't know, I don't know anything. I'm not in school, I'm just a farmer. I'm not even a farmer. I just take care of the house. You can't expect me to know these things.
Isn't it embarrassing, really, that she's here at all? As if she's never seen herself, noticed herself in this shop. Gods. She comes here on her days off. To crush herbs and talk to the apprentice. How pathetic. She's suddenly aware, suddenly acutely grateful — that Yeza is kind enough, patient enough to indulge her — and intensely embarrassed. She's out of place. She never noticed before.
"I have a confession," the half elf says after a few minutes talking with Yeza, who is now smiling, pleased, proud: he passed his test. That was the whole idea, of course. Veth remembers. But she feels sick about it now. "When I say I search for magical things for a colleague of mine, I mean more that I search for those with the potential for magic. My vocation takes me throughout the Empire, and so I'm able to keep an eye out, as it were. Are either of you two familiar with the Soltryce Academy?"
The shop and street outside seem very, very quiet.
"It's a magic school up in the capital," Yeza says.
"That's right. They keep openings each year for those with magical potential and without the means to attend under their own power. Based on my initial impression, either of you might seek to apply for such a position."
"I couldn't," Yeza says, smiling. She doesn't look, she can just hear it in his voice. He's blushing, too: he's prone to it. She's sure he is.
"No, you expect to inherit this shop, do you not?"
"Well — um, yes. In a few years. I couldn't, um, Madame has spend a lot of time on me, and I couldn't just leave her, she's pretty old, actually." A silent second or two go by. "But it's really Veth you're thinking of, right?"
"Perhaps. If you're interested."
Now they're talking to her. She closes her eyes. The shop smells like a thousand different things. Spicy and sharp and sweet and sour. Bitter and dusty. She comes here. She has no friends, she has nothing else. She works and runs errands and cooks and cleans, and she comes here, to her one friend, and works for him, too.
It's a joke. It's a sick joke. She dropped out of school last year.
"Veth?" Yeza asks cautiously.
"I don't know magic," she says. She's a little surprised by her own voice. How firm it sounds.
"However, you seem very bright."
"She is. She's probably the smartest person I know," Yeza says, his voice fast and urgent. "She's wasted on her dad's farm."
She opens her eyes, startled. Looks up and over at him. He's never said anything like that before — her heart races, he's looking up at the half elf —
Her mouth twists. Somehow, she almost feels about to cry.
"Don't be stupid." Her voice now tight.
"I'll be leaving Felderwin tomorrow and returning in a week's time, before heading back north. I'm staying at the inn down the road here. Please send word if you'd like to discuss this further," the half elf says. "My name is Dolan Tversky."
He buys a potion of clear mindedness. He and Yeza chat like friends. Veth stares steady at the floor, her hands pressed flat to her stomach, until she hears the door chime as the half elf leaves.
"This is amazing!" Yeza says. Starts to say. She doesn't look at him. She turns and leaves the shop through the back door.