Chapter 1: prologue i
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.
Chapter 2: prologue ii
it's really hard to get into this headspace, this headspace being
a) nott, but veth, but 14
b) still firmly entrenched in her "i am a worthless piece of shit" mentality, but also still going to be nott someday, accidental badass
c) move the story along
d) we know NOTHING ABOUT HER FAMILY. so i made shit up.
e) this isn't my usual writing style
f) but hey caleb's in the next chapter
She has a dream where Mom comes and sits on the end of her bed and reminds her to take care of everyone. I'm dying, Vethy. It'll be up to you soon enough. Brisk and matter-of-fact. Her body tiny and burning hot through the blankets.
She wakes up in the dark. From the other side of the curtain, Elias is snoring.
Veth dresses. Braids her hair and pins it up; today she has to do the washing. Feeds the chickens, collects the eggs. Makes breakfast. Eats when the others have gone. Cleans the kitchen, tidies the house. Drags out the big basin and fills it at the pump, opens the doors to air out the house, starts the washing.
First the men's clothes. Dirty and muddy and stained with vegetation. Veth has to empty and refill the basin after the first rinse. The pump sticks a little. Her arms start to burn. Then she washes everyone's underthings and socks. Her other two dresses. Then the sheets. Hangs it all up to dry, her arms pale and wrinkled, her fingers numb.
She rubs her palms against her cheeks.
Sits there in the swept dirt, allows herself a moment to stare into space. Not thinking. Her hands smell greasy, like the soap. She wishes they could buy better soap. The general store sells it, lavender scented, citrusy, that kind of thing. It's not like they couldn't afford it, but it isn't needed. You should only have things you need.
She unrolls her sleeves, buttons them at her wrists. Puts the washtub away, her hem damp.
She starts dinner.
Dad and Elias come home after dark. Den's gone into town to drink. Veth serves them stew, and they eat in silence. There's never much talking in the evenings. After dinner, Veth cleans up. Dad sits out front, where you have a porch if you were richer, if a porch was something you needed. Sometimes she can hear him call out to one of the neighbors as she cleans. Have a brief conversation. He talked more before Mom died, she thinks.
Elias goes into the sitting room and reads. When she's done cleaning, she joins him, picking up her sewing. Digs for a scrap of cloth and tries to embroider a rippled pattern. It comes out crooked. Like a clumsy child. Like someone did it with their feet.
"Where does Den go all the time?"
Elias looks up, surprised. Veth's a little surprised, too. That she asked. "Just to town, I think."
"Does he have a girlfriend?"
"I thought you followed him everywhere."
Or he had when they were younger. Elias is only a year older than Veth, and Den's five years older than he is. You'd think that would have made them the team, them the close ones. Wrong. She only remembers her brothers together. Elias chasing after Den, and Den slowing to let him. Her running, and Den never looking back.
Den's smart. That's his problem. Everyone knows it. He's too smart to be a farmer and he knows it too. He's barely twenty and the town drunk because he hates being a farmer, but he's smart so Dad lets him.
Veth isn't smart. Not even smart enough to be a layabout.
"Why you asking?" Elias asks.
"I dunno." She tries the pattern a second time. Comes up with something like bird tracks, chicken talon lines, see-sawing across the cloth. She crumples it in her hand. Pokes herself with the needle. "Do you ever go into town?"
"For fun, I mean."
"What's so fun about town?"
"You could hang out with your friends."
"Yeah? So why don't you go to town?" Elias says impatiently, sick of the conversation.
"I do." She blinks, surprised by her answer.
"You run errands."
"That's not all I do."
"Oh? What else do you do?" He's smirking now.
Veth feels this — this twisting in her. This thing. This feeling. "I have a friend I talk to. I hang out with." She doesn't want to say him, she doesn't want Elias to know it's a boy. Not thinking about why, she just doesn't.
"Do you?" He doesn't sound mocking anymore. He sounds surprised. That's much worse. "Who?"
"Does it matter?" she feels sullen now. Embarrassed. She doesn't know what she's even saying. She smoothes out the cloth. Looks at the embroidery. Imagines saying: I met a half elf who said I could go to a magic school. That I might be smart enough.
But Veth. You don't even go into town.
Ah. But I do go into town. I have a friend.
Really? But all you do all day is clean the house.
"Why do you think Den goes into town all the time?" she asks.
"Because he doesn't like being a farmer." Elias frowns. Starting to get exasperated. "What's with all the weird questions today, Vethy?"
"Don't call me that, please," she murmurs. She drops it.
The next day: Veth wakes up. She cooks. She cleans. She cooks. Again.
She has a few hours the next afternoon. Normally she'd go to the apothecary, grind herbs, talk with Yeza. He's still going to school, but he works there more and more often — she drops by when she can and he's always there, always seems happy to see her.
Veth sits out front in Dad's chair instead, arms on her knees, staring into space. She doesn't want to go today. She doesn't want to see him. That's never happened before.
What did she used to do? In her free time? When was it that spending time with Yeza was all…
But she keeps thinking of the way he'd called her the smartest person he knew. That she was wasted on a farm. How he and that mage had smiled together. It makes her feel hot and uncomfortable. Clumsy. Like her brain is fumbling. Falling down the attic ladder.
She can't decide if it's true or not. What it means if he meant it. What it means is pity, is him just trying to be nice, and if he looks down on her like that Veth isn't sure she wants to be friends with him anymore. But then — she probably will anyway, won't she? After all, she became friends with him, and the first time they really met, he…
She becomes aware she's touching her mouth. She feels itchy and embarrassed. Goes back inside the house.
Veth's room is half the attic, divided with a curtain from her brothers's half. In this at least she's lucky: with no sisters to share it with, she has twice as much space as Elias and Den. Not that there's much in there. A small window in the eave that lets in dusty light, her bed, a chest, basin and chamberpot, and then her box of treasures. It calms her down right away, always does. She takes them all out carefully, lays them over her quilt. Sorts her buttons, least favorite to most favorite — a big ivory coat button, carved to look like a rose. It's so smooth in her hand, cool to the touch. She wants to stroke it like a pet, but is always mindful, always wary of rubbing the petals away. She allows herself one quick rub before placing it on her quilt, next to the shiny copper button (heavy, still orange gold), followed by the pair of tiny blue ones, each the size of her thumbnail.
It soothes her. The order doesn't change much. Every now and then she'll get a new button, fret over where it belongs — if it's worth adding to the collection — not all buttons are, some are just for mending, for keeping in a pocket to worry while she walks — and then she has them all lain out neatly, and it's soothing, it's calming, these things all belong to her.
Veth has other things in her box. Carefully cut paper, some thick and creamy stationary, some tissue thin and colored with swirls and designs. A few dried flowers — she never seems to get the knack for it right, they always crumble to dust; just now, she gathers some of the fragments in her hand and goes to the window to toss them out — a few soles from shoes. These aren't pretty, but they're nice to touch. Nice to keep in her pocket and rub when she's nervous. Trouble is that it's weird, weirder than the other things. Elias caught her at it once and now she doesn't like to carry them anymore. Doesn't want that humiliation twiice.
Veth sits on her bed and turns one of the soles in her lap. Tugs at it and bends it. The leather is soft and worn, pocked and frayed in the corner. Plenty to touch and play with as she doesn't think about anything. It's so quiet she can hear herself breathing, almost hear her heart. She brings the sole to her nose and smells it. It doesn't smell like feet or anything — just soft leather. Dust. Dried up and dead flowers.
She thinks again: Yeza thinks I'm the smartest person he knows.
This time, with her things around her, it doesn't cause her body to go tight and hot and scared. She just — feels nothing. Looks down at her lap.
She's not smart. She left school because of how not-smart she is. Den's smart, he's got the brains of the family, and Yeza's smart, he's a genius, that's obvious to everyone. She tries to tell herself: I'm a genius. Nothing.
She imagines going to school. Veth hadn't liked it much, that was the thing. She'd just looked out the window, or picked at the grain of her desk. Did she know the answers? Did she do well, or badly? Veth doesn't remember. All she remembers is looking down. Everyone talking around her. But everyone had been kind of relieved when she stopped. Mom had just died, after all, and it was good to have a woman around the house. No one from school ever chased after her, asking her to stay, the way she assumes they must when a smart kid leaves. Maybe Yeza would have, but they weren't really friends then.
He had kissed her already, though.
Veth tries to imagine being smart enough to go to school. Being smart enough to go to magic school. She can't even picture it. She's never met a single wizard or anything. When the sickness got around and Mom died, they sent for some Clerics from Zadash, but…
It's just… weird. No one's told her she's anything before. Even though they're wrong, it's hard not to think about.
The shadows are starting to get darker. Veth packs away her things carefully, and goes downstairs to make dinner.
Den is around at dinner for once. She makes a stew of greens and grits and apple, the last of the bacon.
Den and Father talk through dinner. About the field, how the corn is coming in, the blight spreading and different ways to stop it getting in your crops. They're renting farmland from the Willowby's this year. The soil's no good. Elias chimes in whenever he has a thought, whenever he can tell them how much he agrees; Veth stays quiet. It isn't like she has to. She just doesn't have much to say about farming.
It feels like it's been a while since she's seen her oldest brother. In the mornings, sure, or snoring late at night. But Den is usually quiet and sullen and hungover. Veth poured them all watery ale with dinner, and she notices he hasn't touched his.
This happens sometimes. He won't drink for a bit, and then he does again. He and Dad talk outside while Veth cleans up, washes dishes and then sweeps the downstairs. Dad goes to bed early as always, nods as he passes her to his room, leaving the house door open to catch the evening breeze.
She sees Den sitting on the dirt next to Dad's chair, there in the darkness. Veth goes outside.
"What'cha want, Vethy?"
"Don't call me that, please." She just stands there, holding her broom, for a minute. "Where do you go all the time?"
"What do you care?" Den has a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, unlit. He's chewing on it a little. Veth watches, strangely fascinated by the way the tip bobs and moves.
"I go to town," Den says at last.
"To drink?" She sounded a little accusatory there; he smirks up at her.
"Because I like it. What's with the questions?"
She thinks about it. "Eli says you hate farming."
"I do. I fucking hate farming."
Veth wonders: when was the last time she spoke to her brother? Elias she talks to sometimes. Dad she talks to a lot, but mostly just to run the house, get money, buy food. Den? She remembers him chasing her. Running and hiding behind the hen house, half in tears. He was laughing. Caught and pulled on her braid. That must have been years ago, but she doesn't remember. That's the only thing she remembers of him.
"Because it's stupid. Because every day is exactly the same. Stupid, slow people doing stupid, slow things. You wake up and go to bed and move dirt around. You're poor and you're bored and you spend all your money buying more dirt to plant more turnips to eat later. Then you get married and then you get old and then you die. In this shithole town." It's a lot, but he says it with a cold dispassion, not looking at Veth, looking out at the empty dark street. The other small houses.
"No one likes farming," Veth says, surprised.
"Half the assholes in Felderwin like farming. It's all they talk about. Turnips." He says it like it's a swear of some kind.
"We don't grow turnips."
"I can't tell if you're being smart with me or if you're just that stupid," Den says, his voice flinty.
"I don't think I'm stupid," Veth says stubbornly, not believing it, just trying to win a point. "You're just conceited."
"Maybe," Den says.
"Lots of people do things that they don't like. If you hated farming that much, you'd refuse to do it and starve to death because you're not working."
"See, Vethy, that's how I know you're stupid. That's a stupid fucking argument. The choice isn't between being miserable and dead."
"Of course it's not, because it's not a choice," she says, leaning hard on her broom. Her voice kind of loud. She becomes aware of it, aware of herself, and clamps her mouth closed.
Den's silent and so is she. The crickets and night bugs are out, flies swarming towards the still-open door. Veth goes and closes it, staying outside. Den glances up at her. Lights his cigarette.
"Does drinking make you happy?" she asks after a few minutes.
"What's with the third degree tonight? I didn't think you knew how to talk."
Den huffs on his cigarette. It smells acrid, like burning shoes. She watches the ember at the end flare and fade.
"It's not like I like cooking and cleaning every day," she ventures finally.
"Yeah, well, you're the girl. Sucks to be you."
"Yeah, well, you're a farmer," she says sharply back. "It's not actually any different. I go to town, too."
"Oh, do you?" her brother says, laughing. Her stomach curdles.
"It's not different."
"Of course it is."
But she's angry now, too angry to ask why.
It'll dig at her later. Why is it different? Is it because she's a girl? Because she's stupid? Because Den's the smart one, the handsome one, and if he can't be happy than neither can anyone else? Certainly not her. The baby. The youngest. The girl. Cook dinner for the farmers. The farmers hate their lives and yours is to take care of them. Marry a farmer. Have farmer babies. Of course it's different.
She's the smartest person I know. But Yeza will inherit an apothecary. Yeza's mother manages the accounts of the town Crownsguard. His father used to help run one of the inns in town. His family has money. And learning. Not a lot, but a lot for Felderwin, enough to get their only son an apprenticeship and someday a shop of his own. It doesn't matter if Veth is smart, because Yeza will still get these things and she'll still be just a farmer. Worse than a farmer. The one who cooks and cleans for them.
I'm just like you! She should have yelled at Den, that day. I don't like it either! I feel stuck all the time, no one likes me and who can blame them, I throw rocks at trees and then I make dinner! We should be on the same side. You shouldn't have chased me and pulled my hair and made me cry. You're my brother.
So why's it different? What makes me different? Is it just that I'm less than you? What did I do? What makes me that way? What do you mean, of course it is? Tell me. Please tell me.
She thinks this the entire journey north to Rexxentrum. Turns it over and over in her mind in the carriage, fizzy and angry, her buttons and paper and leather, a letter from Yeza and coins from Dad, all in a box, all resting on her lap.
She goes to the apothecary the next day. Yeza starts to tell her that he really thinks she should talk to Mr. Tversky, he has all his arguments made for her, and Veth interrupts him. I've made up my mind. I want to go to magic school.
He blinks and grins and grasps her shoulders with both hands.
She talks to Mr. Tversky when he returns. He asks her a lot of questions. Does some stuff with items and his hands. She tells her father, her hands in her apron. I'm going to school up north. It's paid for. Thank you. Goodbye.
Of course it's different.
Chapter 3: chapter one
three months later.
“Here —“ Bren says, using a spell to cover the board with fresh shapes. “Now, as you can see, these are not quite the same as in our last example, take for example here, and in this sign — older variations of the runic pattern, here,” and he picks up the chalk and draws the glyph by hand, “you can see the pre-calamity style, see how the lift bears rightward? It signifies the same, that is, the —“ he moves his hand through the somatic element once more, “—although nowadays of course we notate it like so. Now. Who can tell me what spell this is?”
He turns to survey the class.
Fifteen pupils of the Solytrice Academy sit in the theater around him, all in the starched gray robes of beginner students — no one offers. He feels himself begin to frown; schools the expression. A habit. A useful skill. To keep oneself measured. True — his Master had not intended it for this —
One of the students, a halfling girl, is looking not forward but out the bank of windows.
“Miss Veth,” he says.
The girl starts, her eyes round and guilty.
“Would you care to answer my question?”
She looks past Bren, to the board, her eyes wide and frightened. Her cheeks darkening. Someone snickers. He frowns at a whisper. Perhaps…
She shakes her head no, braids shaking.
Another giggle. Bren pauses. “Mr Toran. Perhaps you?”
A human boy scrapes from his chair to his feet. “Uh - uh, well, the leftward side indicates that it’s a spell of fire… fire something, and um, that’s an abjuration mark, and… no, it’s — erm, evocation? So it must be a fireball spell? And then…”
Bren nods, encouraging the boy to continue. He leaves the girl be. For now.
He and Astrid talk about it sometimes.
The way that she’s often off and busy, the way either of them hardly ever seen Eod anymore, and the way he’s nearly always in the capital. She doesn’t like it. It isn’t as though they’d be working together, even if Bren was given more assignments, but she thinks it a slight. Bren doesn’t know what he thinks. He just lets her go on when she brings it up. Waits it out, rubbing his wrists.
Teaching is new. It’s only his first time, teaching this class. His skills are — specific. He can’t really be spared. But spell annotation is universal enough. He was asked to take over for a week or two. He told Astrid, already planning lessons, thinking of the charts, the figures: remembering not too long in the past, his own first spell book. The first time he’d transcribed a spell from memory, not by copying. Knowing the components would graph perfectly even before he was done. He’d gone to her, pleased by this opportunity.
She’d set her mouth. She was cleaning, going on a mission in the morning. That was her habit: scrubbing everything down. Putting things away. Throwing out clutter, mercilessly parsing Bren’s books. I’ll be here even if you are not, he’d point out. She wouldn’t say a word, just toss more of his clutter. He’d try to keep things as spotless for her return, but inevitably, after a day or two, the mess would creep back in.
She’d stopped cleaning. “So now they’re making you a teacher?” She said it as though it was beggar or leper or worse.
Bren had been rather excited about it, actually. “So?”
She doesn’t react to his wounded look. “Maybe you ought to take your own disgrace more seriously, Brenden.”
He hadn’t risen to the bait. He’d read, ignoring her stubbornly, until after she’d gone to bed. Rubbing his wrist with his free hand.
His stomach churning. His throat heavy, his mouth tight.
And she’d left the next morning, anyway.
Bren can’t remember the last time he had a mission.
(That’s a lie. Of course he can.)
Teaching had been Master Tversky’s idea. He’d approached Bren after getting it cleared with his own master; it had all been arranged, and Bren was happy to accept the opportunity. Later that week, he’d had his appointment with Master Ikithon.
They’d talked; they’d studied. The usual mix of lessons and spells. It was draining work, naturally. It left him drained; exhausted and emotionally somehow peeled — bare and stripped away. He’d gone home and Astrid had been unusually comforting — in the way she only was after his lessons. Petting him and letting him stare at the wall.
Her own lessons are much less frequent. Another mark of Bren’s shame, he knows. She’d passed some secret final test. This failure, at least, she never mocks him for.
After class, Bren lingers at the front of the theatre, and he’s not surprised that the Halfling girl lingers in her seat as well, pretending to be busy so her classmates can leave ahead of her. Once the last is out the door, she jumps to her feet.
“Miss Veth,” he says then, flipping idly through his own notebook, to avoid looking at her. He keeps his voice quiet — so if she really wants to pretend she didn’t hear, he can pretend he never said it — but her footsteps stop.
He looks at the girl.
She’s short, even for a Halfling. Dark eyes and hair. Wary, uneasy expression. Deep-set eyes. He can’t tell if she’s wary, or just always looks that way. Or if it’s the same thing. Now that she’s stopped, Bren isn’t sure what he wanted to say.
“Ah — learning to transcribe spells is very important,” he says after a beat too long. “So please do not daydream in class again. Thank —“
“How come?” she interrupts.
“Well, so that you pay attention…”
“No, why is it important to transcribe spells? Clerics can just cast them, I’ve seen it.”
“You are not a cleric,” Bren reminds her. Her eyes go wide and her expression falls. “Ah — if your ambition is to worship, I mean, this is not the school for that, however, there are many temples here in Rexxentrum…”
She shakes her head no.
Bren sits in his chair. With her standing, they’re about the same height. “You cannot cast a spell without understanding it. Knowing the components of your transcription leads to better understanding of your spell.”
“Not for cantrips,” the girl says stubbornly. “You can just cast those.”
“Yes, but for more powerful magic…”
“But you were writing cantrips before. You don’t have to do that for those.” She takes a deep breath. “So… I stopped paying attention. I apologize.”
He frowns at her. “How long have you been here at the Academy?”
She looks confused. Shakes her head again. “A few months. But they haven’t actually taught us magic yet. It’s all…” She looks up and behind him, at the firebolt cantrip he’d mapped out.
It was a trick question. He’d planned it in advance. You don’t write spells that easy, there’s no need. So he’d written it elaborately, knowing they’d never have seen it diagrammed before. They’d see the evocation symbols and the fire elements and imagine firestorms and explosions, not noticing the components only adding up to ten, the lack of expansion and additional notation. It was a complex but empty formula. No one maps cantrips.
He almost smiles. “It was the same for me. I had taught myself this spell,” he says, gesturing at the board, “and I thought I would be showing it off at every turn. But it’s much more important to firmly build your foundation; it will make spells that much easier once you have.”
She nods, that incredulous look still on her face. “Are you a new teacher?”
“I’m just here for a week. Teacher Musco will return then.”
“You’re a student?”
“I’ve graduated.” Bren doesn’t often speak to students. He does technically still live on the campus, but his world is entirely different: one of evasion and silence and long hours of nothing.
“It’s just that you look really young.”
“I’m twenty-three. You should talk.” Bren smiles, but the girl just gives him a doubtful look: if you say so, her furrowed eyebrows suggest.
He had meant to ask her if the other students are unkind to her, he now remembers. Remembering the giggles. The not-quite-sympathetic air in the room. He wouldn’t have called on her if he’d realized.
But then, had he realized she knew the answer her classmates did not, he may have called on her all the same.
For the next day’s lecture, Bren has the students map and compare a basic ice and a basic fire spell, using his lecture to note the similarities in the overall transcription, and the variation between not only the elemental signs, but the somatic and verbal elements. How because of the nature of fire itself, it wishes to rise, and thus you must adjust your casting to accommodate it — and yet were you to attempt it with an ice spell, it would fail. Why? Can anyone tell me? No, no. It is not because of the elemental pattern, but because of the —
He hopes, strangely, that Veth will venture an opinion, but she remains silent the entire class. At least she doesn’t look out the window this time.
On his final day of lecturing, Bren transcribes a highly advanced spell on the board: an illusion that powerfully affects the target’s mind, convincing them not only that the spell is real, but causing them real pain and true distress. It is far beyond the level of these teenagers, which is of course the point: he is here to teach them to associate spells with their written components, and illusionary spells tend to be some of the most complex to graph out, given the amount of will and creativity that the caster must contribute to the casting.
He explains as much, then sets the students to copying and labelling the parts. It’s an easy lesson for him, actually. He reads a book most of the class, every now an then answering a question from a confused pupil forgetting the relationship between formula and component.
As each student finishes, they hand Bren their work and he reviews it with them, offering corrections and trying to praise where he can. The work isn’t bad; the mistakes are predictable, and he’d intentionally set a challenge. It’s just difficult for him. To think of nice things to say. You wrote that very neatly, he says quite a few times.
He’s not entirely surprised when Veth is the last student left. Class draws to an end, and she’s still scribbling, pausing every now and then to tug fretfully at her braid.
Finally, Bren gets up from his seat and ascends the theater. “Have you nearly finished, Miss Veth? Oh,” he adds involuntarily, when he catches sight of her paper.
It’s black and smudged with pencil, thick lines and crossouts and partially erased portions. At a glance, it looks okay, but —
The girl looks up, sees him looking, and crumples up the whole page. “This is stupid!”
Bren had reached out to try and stop her and been too slow. “Ah —“
“Shut up!” she snaps, her voice wet with frustration.
She tosses the balled paper with some force. It bounces across the room, down the theatre. Bren watches its descent helplessly; this isn’t the sort of teaching he knows how to do. The girl gathers up her things and seems prepared to storm off —
“Miss Veth!” Bren says forcefully, demanding himself back to attention.
He nearly feels badly, for his tone of voice. It’s — well. He wants to think of himself as someone kind to children. “I’m afraid you can’t leave before we review your —“
“Well, I failed, okay? I couldn’t get it to look right and I screwed up, okay?”
He doesn’t know why she’s yelling at him, why she’s so angry. It sets his heart racing anxiously, which he reminds himself is foolish: he is an adult and she is a child. He is Master Ikithon’s own, and she—
He goes down to get her paper, and he’s surprised to hear her following. He smoothes it out on one of the empty rows.
The graph is a jumble, and her handwriting atrocious. She wrote pressing down on the paper so hard that fixing her mistakes was nearly impossible; in broad strokes she had the idea of the spell, but the details are illegible and smudged. He pictures the lead on her palms and fingers. The pencil nearly ripping the paper. The wet anger in her voice.
Bren doesn’t know at all what to say. He becomes aware that she’s watching him warily, her jaw clenched, tiny fists tight. Also: class is over. She must have another class she is now late for. Or somewhere she’s supposed to be.
Bren’s just here for a week. He doesn’t know what to do.
Or: he does know what to do. He tells her that she needs to improve her handwriting, that she has the fundamentals correct but should work to better her grasp on the details. He thanks her and sends her on her way. That is what he did before and that is what he ought to do now.
But he’s surprised. The way she’d been that first day. This, now. It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit what he’d thought. It doesn’t matter, but it bothers him. It doesn’t matter, because after today he’s done teaching. But it matters, because…
Because what? Bren doesn’t like unknowns. He never has.
“Here,” he says finally. He goes to his desk and takes a new sheathe of paper. “Let’s try again.”
She looks furious, silently so.
“Just because something is difficult does not mean you should surrender to it,” he says. “Magic is often frustrating in that way.”
“I don’t care,” she says.
The upset in hot waves on her.
He waits. She glares stubbornly away.
He remembers coming to this school. Her age. Skinny and proud and a bit arrogant, truth be told. His pride still unearned. There had been other students just as clever as him. Perhaps just as talented. And he hadn’t liked that at all. Bren had expected to be the star, the bright light. He had been frustrated. His pride wounded. He had wanted to be special, even before Master Ikithon made him so.
“Here,” he says. He sketches out the basic form of the spell. Traces fine circles at the critical junctions and connections. His handwriting thin and perfect. “We always start at the center. What is the main component of this spell?”
He hands her the pencil. He notices how she holds it: like a cudgel in her fist. She sees him looking and drops it onto the paper. He picks it back up.
“It’s an illusion,” she says sullenly.
He writes what she tells him.
A gear wends silently into place.
It begins to tick and turn.
Chapter 4: chapter two
There are many libraries in the Solystrice Academy. Ones for students and ones for professors. A library for tomes related to magic, a library for history and sciences. Reading rooms and lecture halls and places where you may examine spellbooks, perhaps transcribe into your own.
Bren loves the Academy. Since the first day he’d arrived, nearly a decade ago.
He meets Veth in one of the smaller reading rooms — not off limits to a student such as her, but also not typically visited by students. Or anyone. It’s a small, wood paneled room at the back of the Schuller building, with a single large window letting in dusty light.
Bren arrives first. Lays out the paper and his spellbook, gets the ink prepared. Arranges everything tidily, sets up her station and his. Admires the results. The girl isn’t here yet, but the room is quiet. Stuffy. Smells like dust and wood and leather and paper.
His quarters smell like soap and lye. Astrid came back last night, after nearly a month away. She’d taken one look — the clutter, the papers on the table, the open book on the bed — and started cleaning. He’d tried to help, guiltily. She’d snapped at him, her fingers digging into his arm. He’d given up. Watched awkward and humiliated as she scrubbed.
Bren rubs his arm. Rolls up his sleeve. The little half moon marks of her nails, the whiteish older scars. There’s one particularly large one, and he traces it absently.
When she’d finished cleaning, she’d sat heavily at their little table. He’d made her coffee. She’d sat with her fingers to her forehead.
How was it? Astrid, my dear, are you alright?
I’m very tired, Brenden. I don’t have the energy for your bullshit right now.
My bullshit? …I’m sorry, but I’m just asking you how you are. Maybe if…
Maybe if what?
He didn’t answer. She’d sighed. It’s just hard. It’s very stressful, you know.
But you don’t know, that’s the thing. You just sit around reading all day. Not that that’s something to be proud of.
I’m not proud of it.
It’s frustrating. Eod and I had a close call, and you should have been there with us. Not teaching, pretending to be a teacher, pretending to live this cute fucking life instead of doing your duty. He asked me, what’s wrong with Bren? And what could I tell him?
You saw Eod?
Yes, of course I did. Are you even listening to me?
Bren looks up. Without realizing, he’d put his fingers to his forehead, staring down at the table, just as Astrid had last night. He sees Veth standing before him, her head tilted slightly to the side. He hadn’t heard her come up at all.
He’s embarrassed, as though caught doing something intimate. He sits straight, lowering his hands. “There you are. You’re late.”
“I’m exactly on time.”
“It’s 2:04,” he says, but gently.
She narrows her eyes at him. “I think you’re making that up.”
He nearly smiles.
He’d pulled over a halfling-adjusted chair the first time they’d met here, and she climbs into it primly. Today, instead of her usual two plaits, she’s pinned her hair up, still braided, exposing her neck and cheeks. All for a strand falling right between her eyes.
“Have you lost weight?” Bren asks abruptly.
“Are you calling me fat?”
“Ah — no.” Shit. It’s just that she’s — well, a bit plump. But her face looks thinner than last week. Her eyes, always small, are ringed with darker shadows. “You don’t look quite well.”
She brushes the strand of hair out of her face. It immediately falls back. “It’s just puberty.” Her expression angry and unconvincing.
“I’m sorry for mentioning it.” He clears his throat. “Now. Where did we leave off before?”
“It isn’t bullshit. Yes. Ja. Okay, so.” He pulls out the relevant papers, a little flustered. Remembers perfectly once reminded, of course. Veth scoots a little closer to look at his notes. “Now. To notate an upward movement we do this, of course, but for certain fire spells we want—“
Veth can’t write.
She’s not illiterate. She can read perfectly well. But she’s never had cause to write, had always avoided it, had never needed it. After his week of teaching, struck by some strange sympathy, Bren had offered to tutor her. Just once or twice. Just in spell notation. He’d been surprised when she’d said yes.
That had been a month ago.
They meet here, the least used public library in the Academy. Veth shows no interest in spell notation, but listens carefully. Remembers what she’s taught. Won’t do homework or practice on her own, but makes progress even so.
When alone in his quarters, when Astrid is bustling and cleaning and snapping, Bren finds himself drifting. Planning lessons. Imagining teaching his student proper spells.
“We’re finally learning actual magic,” Veth says after a while. They’re taking a break, she’d started to grow sullen, and she’s twirling the pen around like a wand. “It’s stupid though. It’s just a light spell.”
“Light spells are very useful.” But he’s smiling.
“I didn’t come here to learn useful spells,” she complains, resting her chin in her hands.
“Didn’t you? Then why did you come here? You’re from the south, aren’t you?”
“That’s quite far. I’ve never been further south than Zadash.”
“We stopped there for a day. On the way up, I mean. I’d never seen a city before.” He wonders if she’s joking, but her expression is still blank, inscrutable. Rexxintrum is much larger than Zadash, although the Academy is fairly well sequestered in it, and students rarely leave.
“You must miss it.”
She’s silent. For a pretty long time. “Do you think you could…”
She flushes, her face darkening. “I — I want to write a letter home. But when I’ve tried it’s been super embarrassing, because… It wouldn’t have to be long or anything! It’s not gonna be anything weird, just, hi, how are you, I’m doing okay, how’s the shop…”
“I’d help you gladly.” He smiles, but she looks doubtful. Wary of the offer.
“Right now?” Bren asks.
She shakes her head, embarrassed. “I guess.”
He writes and she dictates. “Is he your brother?” Bren asks when they’re done.
“Noooooo…” Veth says, so slowly, frowning, embarrassed, that he does truly smile. Asks no further questions. “Thanks.” He hands her the letter. She tucks it into a pocket.
They spend the rest of the hour reviewing somatic elements.
They arrange to meet again at the same time next week.
Bren arrives early as always. Arranges the table the way he likes, waits for Veth to arrive.
Astrid was still at home. This happens sometimes. She’ll have mission after mission, and then abruptly a few weeks, even a month, with no tasks at all. She likes to keep busy. It doesn’t suit her. Their quarters are spotless. During the day, she leaves. Goes on long walks. Plays the piano in the salon for hours.
She’d asked him this morning, already restless, if he wanted to go to the city with her. He’d explained he had a student he was tutoring and couldn’t. Her lips had thinned. She hadn’t argued.
At 2:04, Veth still isn’t in.
She’s often a few minutes late, but it isn’t in her to forget. Bren sits alone in the library, twisting a pen around in his hands. Unsure of what to do.
At half past, he packs up to leave. Irritated, he tells himself, but mostly concerned. Not worried, exactly. But. The day wasn’t supposed to go like this. And he doesn’t like the change.
He takes a wide loop home, nearing the areas of the Academy where students live and go to classes. Looking for dark skin and messy braids.
Instead, he sees Master Ikithon. Walking leisurely across the stone path with Headmaster Grys. Bren is momentarily startled, a stab of anxiety in his gut — but even if he hasn’t been noticed, it would be utterly, absolutely incorrect for him not to greet his master now. And so he straightens his posture, runs a hand over his hair, and changes course.
He approaches the men head on. Bows his head. “Master Ikithon. Headmaster. Good afternoon.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Ermendrud,” Headmaster Grys says.
“Brenden.” Master Ikithon nods.
“I was passing and wished to greet you. I hope you’re well.”
“Quite well, thank you,” says Master Ikithon.
Bren raises his head, keeping his eyes politely downcast.
“In fact, we were just discussing you,” says Grys. “Or rather, the student body at large. Trent informs me that he wishes to obtain a few new students.”
What an honor for them, Bren wants to say. But his head goes briefly fuzzy. Blurred. He nods, smiling politely.
“I’ve been told teaching suits you,” Ikithon says with a thin smile.
Bren feels his smile curdle in uncertainty. “Yes,” he says after a second too long. “I enjoy it immensely. As a way to make myself useful in my spare hours, of course.”
“Of course. I had planned on informing you during our next lesson, but I may as well do so now. Olyver has informed me the school is in need of a second teacher of transfiguration magic. I have offered you.”
“I — I am deeply honored,” Bren says, lowering his head again. Flushing. His heart racing.
“While there, you will look for students who might possess the talents for ourschool,” Ikithon continues. “There may not be any. I would rather have no recruits than… failed attempts. But nevertheless, you will seek them out.”
Bren nods. His voice caught in his throat.
“We’ll meet tomorrow to arrange your schedule and requirements,” Grys says. He claps Bren on the shoulder. “Congratulations, professor.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” he says, the second time more firmly. His head spinning and dizzy. Not at the words. Or the offer. Or the confused twisting in his mind and stomach: to teach and to serve and to find others as fortunate as him and Astrid and Eod, suitable to serve…
The pause. The little pause. Not the words Ikithon had said. The moment he hadn’t said a thing.
“I will of course do my utmost to serve and to teach,” he continues, his face impassive, his posture correct.
He hadn’t failed all his lessons.
“I’ll leave you to your discussion. Thank you.”
He bows slightly. He moves on. He walks and turns a corner. Ducks behind a gardening shed and sits down in the dirt, in the narrow space between wall and hedge. Failed attempts. Failed attempts. Failed attempts.
I’m sorry for not writing you before. It’s been super busy and I didn’t know what to say. Rexxingtrum is huge, but they don’t let us leave the school because we’re just students. I don’t know any magic yet.
How are things back home? Is Madame doing okay? How is the shop? Are you doing okay?
I have the flowers you gave me. Thank you.
PS: My friend Bren wrote this down for me, which is why the handwriting is way better than mine.
Bren had copied it down just as Veth had said, but when she’d dictated: this guy who has been teaching me, Mr. Brenden, he hadn’t seen the harm in editing it slightly. Since it concerned him, and all.
Chapter 5: chapter three
He knows this shed, actually. Knows the space behind it, the narrow gap, hardly enough to walk without brushing brick or leafy shrub. The packed dirt, the smell of it.
They’d come here together.
Bren had found it first, raw and worn after some lesson or another, needing a place to hide, to be away, to be quiet and unseen. Then Eod, following, walking sideways into the gap, his back sliding against the wall. Astrid, tracing her fingers in the dirt. It was quiet here, and yet the voices of others were not far. The flash of legs walking past on the path on the other side of the hedge. Laughter and voices, bright and indistinct. He would come here. He would find the others. It was their spot. The dirt, the dampness, the ripe sharp leaves.
He hides his mouth and his nose in his hands.
It had been the Ziemer family. It had been the mother, really. Known for her association with other traitors, for taking part in the Plot of Silence four years ago — she had been the one to kill the guard, she and the traitor Pernella, who had given Dell Ziemer’s name in interrogation.
Dell was to be captured. To be killed. Her husband taken for interrogation after. Their children had not been mentioned.
Bren would not have chosen to kill the children, of course. That went without saying. He was a servant of the Empire, but not a monster.
The family had fled to Zadash. He had been the one to receive Dell’s name, he had been the one to retrieve the information from her companion. This was what he was skilled at. Interrogation. They all had their skills, their particular strengths. And if Bren was to be honest: he preferred interrogation. The lack of travel, you know. It was comfortable. He liked being able to wash and go home at the end of the day. It was not so glamorous, but. You can’t travel with a library, either.
But he had followed his lead to Zadash.
No one had mentioned the children.
It had been the only time he’d ever raised his voice to Master Ikithon.
Afterwards, of course.
I have done all you have asked of me. I’ve done it willingly! Happily! And I have succeeded in every task and challenge. I am the most skilled of your students in magic, you know this as well, you cannot —
What can I not?
He had realized how far he had overstepped.
I apologize. I speak too freely —
I only ask — I beg you, this will not happen again. I know (
̴̣̤̖̝̱͝ ̶̹̏–̴̖͛̄̉͐͐̿̎̅̇–̶̳͖͇̊̇̚–̸̡̖̪̟̫͈̔̈́̍̚ ̴̥̱͚̠̻̫̉͐͊ ̴̞̬̙̝̜̈́̿̑̕͘͠–̶̥̻̦̘̓̿̈́̀̕͝͝–̶͙̱͔͓̫̍̇̎̿́̂–̶̖̻͓̞͍̇͑͘̕͜ ̵̧̩̺̖̜̺̰͌̎̽̚͘ ̷̛̳̔̉͑–̸͙̥͊̇͛́̋͐̽͆–̶̺̲̝̪͗̋̐̌͗̑̀͗–̷͉̱̺͔̒͗͗̈́̑ ̷͙̖͙̘̼͑͒̅̈́́͆̍͒̚ ̸̮̪̭̐–̴̩̺̳̍̈́–̴̳̮̗̞̘͚͖͖̀͗̂–̷̧̳̹̙͍̬̻̜̈́ͅ
) I only wish to serve the Emperor.
Bren pushes his hands up his sleeves, rubbing at his scars until his mind calms, until his mind empties, until he can stand on stiff legs and a sore back and look about, see that night is falling, and slouch back to his quarters.
Astrid is eating stew and reading one of his books. She looks up, spoon in mouth. Her expression softens, and a knot in his stomach eases. “There you are. What happened?”
The words don’t come. He sits opposite her. She is in soft clothing, her hair spiked and damp from a bath. The stew is white and thick. She is wearing socks. Her sleeves are pushed up to the elbows, and he looks for the faint lines of scars.
The words don’t come.
“Ah, I didn’t tell you,” she says at last. “I have a new job. To the east.” Her spoon makes a small clinking sound against the bowl. “Tomorrow.” The rooms are spotless and scrubbed. She has cooked, she is clean and content and happy.
This is the life Astrid wishes to have.
He sits, his mouth heavy, his throat full.
“It’s about time,” she says, flipping the page. “I was getting restless.”
She speaks Zemnian softly. She’s always had more of a town accent than Bren, her g’s softer and r’s lilting, soft and familiar and comfortable. Musty wood and grain and chickens.
She talks and fills in his silence. About her day. About this book. About the stew. How hard it was to find fish, a good fish. Does he remember the river? Did he ever fish in it when he was young? She never had. But the fish back home were more fresh than in the city, she’s sure. So sure of it.
I wonder if we should go back to visit, she says. It just seems sad, I suppose. To return to a place after you’ve already grown up and left it behind.
Astrid is always happiest when she’s about to leave.
It’s not at all like Bren. He admires it in her. The sparkle in her eye as she talks about river fish.
He meets with the headmaster the next day. They plan his schedule and review his requirements. They discuss his class, his plans. He is no expert in transmutation, but it is a low level class, and he is given a few relevant scrolls to copy: a generosity, really. Bren is really here to teach technique. More spell transcription, how to understand the principles and limits of transformation, that sort of thing.
He is pleasant and engaged. Unlike the day before, Bren feels cool and calm. Quiet. Still.
It rains a bit in the afternoon, and he avoids the outdoors. He’s never liked that scent, that smell: wet grass. Dew. It makes him sick and uncomfortable. He avoids it when he can.
He’d met with Master Ikithon in the morning. They’d discussed plans as well. What Bren should look for. Not just magical talent, but a certain force of personality; a certain sharpness of spirit. Other assignments as well: to be his master’s ears in the school. To listen and report. Obviously, everyone knows Bren is Ikithon’s man. But even false rumors can be telling. Knowledge is still knowledge. On this, and all else, they have always been in agreement.
Astrid has already left by the time he returns to their rooms. She left him a note: barely two lines, although not unkind. When she should be back, instructions to take care of himself while she’s away.
They’d fucked the night before. It happens less and less often. They’re both too needy, too full of pent up feeling. She demands and he has nothing left to give: she gives and he does not want. It hadn’t always been like this. It really hadn’t. He’d — she was, she is —
He eats leftover stew and reads his book where she’d left off. His mind drifts. He’d liked her accent, her refined townie way of speaking. The ease with which she took to Common, even as he and Eod stuttered and struggled over the consonant sounds. Her accent is still the best of theirs.
She was smart and quick and fond of music. Dancing and playing alike. Quick to laugh and tease and joke, quick to anger but quick to forgive. She had been bright. She had stood out from them all.
When he thinks about these things, he remembers to love her.
There’s never any contact during her missions away, of course. But he abruptly finds himself wishing for a letter. Something to read. It’s silly, of course. He’d hardly said goodbye this morning.
She may not be the only one happiest leaving.
Bren thinks about notes, and love, and letters.
It’s only then that he remembers Veth.
“A halfling girl. Rather small, somewhat plump. Dark skin and dark hair.”
“Veth, you say?” Magister Dumren pushes his spectacles up onto his forehead. “What’s her surname?”
“I don’t know that she has one.”
After three days with no sign of the girl, Bren gives into the temptation to find her. In all likeliness, she’d simply forgotten or found their lessons unimportant. It fills him with an odd sort of anxiety, a prickly anger. He’d gone through the effort to tutor her — and for not a word —
And there’s something else. Something much sillier. The way she’d flushed over the letter he’d written for her when she’d asked who it was for. The indulgent way he’d edited it for himself. Inserted himself into the girl’s story. And then she just… goes away.
“Ah, yes. Veth Halfling. No surname, as you said. She’s in the west dormitory, room 9.” Dumren closes his ledger and drops his spectacles back down. “If I may, why are you seeking her out?”
“I have been tutoring her in certain matters…” Bren trails off as the magister’s eyes flicker to his sleeves. He keeps his expression careful. Bland. Rumors get around, of course.
“It’s just that there’s a note here. She’s a — scholarship girl.”
“As was I, once.”
“Of course.” The magister smiles. Bren, ever trained, smiles back.
When Bren lived in the Academy proper, he was in a different dormitory, in a different part of the school. But they all look somewhat the same: long halls, small rooms. The younger students share. Older students have private quarters that are very slightly larger.
He finds room number nine and knocks. A human girl opens the door. “I’m looking for Veth?”
She snickers, looks bewildered. “She’s not here.”
“Then where might I find her?”
“Not here. They moved her out of here ages ago.”
“I’m looking for her.”
“Did she leave the school?” This is the voice of another girl. The first steps aside, revealing a gnomish girl on one of the cots. “Finally.”
“I take it you know her,” Bren says cooly, smiling.
“They made us roommates because we’re both, you know, small,” the gnomish girl says.
“You have sooooo much in common,” the human teases.
“Fuck that. I’m not some ugly little country bumpkin with boxes full of junk. She should never have been here.”
“I heard she’s one of the school’s pity cases,” the first girl says, leaning heavily on the doorknob. She addresses Bren. Looking over his formal robes, his uniform marking him as a graduated wizard. “Is that true? She’s here for inclusivity as a mascot?”
“You know, I found a box of shoe soles under her bed once,” the gnome chimes in.
“Have you seen her?” Bren asks.
“She sucks at magic, too.”
“I’m looking for her,” he says.
His fingers itch. The girls giggle, not paying him any mind.
“She got moved into the closet upstairs like a month ago,” the gnome girl says at last. She says more, too, but Bren has turned away. His fingers burning. Not listening. Burn, he thinks. Burn it all. Let it tear away to ash.
Ah, but: Dell Ziemer had had two daughters, too.