Silphium’s shop always smelled divine, filled as it was with herbs hanging from the ceiling. They were in various states of drying, and left the air with a delicate, green scent that Mitya couldn’t help but breathe in deeply as she opened the door. The bell above it jingled, quiet but still noticeable in the near silence of the wooden shop, and Silphium appeared from behind a colorful blue curtain over the back doorway.
Smile breaking over her face, Silphium held her arms out for a generous hug. “Mitya, it’s been too long,” she said.
“It has,” Mitya agreed. When she leaned down to return the dwarf’s gesture of affection, Silphium’s white-blonde beard crackled against her chest.
They separated with an ease borne of years of knowing one another. “Any news?” Silphium asked, though the sympathy in her orange eyes said she knew the answer.
“No,” Mitya confirmed anyway.
“Best come into the back for some tea, then. I have a lot to tell you about.”
Mitya was happy to do so, and looked around with interest at the framed anatomy sketches on the walls. A few were new, but many she recognized from when she’d first helped Silphium move into the place. Most featured women in varying stages of pregnancy, or infants belonging to any of the races.
The back room was cleaner, ironically, with most things tucked away in the floor to ceiling drawers. A kettle already sat on the range, steaming lightly, a step away from whistling. Or, as Mitya always thought of it, screaming. Silphium picked it up in her delicate hands, carried it over to the low table, and set it down on a circle of knitted yarn. “Could you get the cups?” She asked. “Cupboard D-3.”
Quickly, a pair of cups of Tian Xia make were put in place, and Mitya was enjoying a green tea with hints of honey. It warmed her fingertips, which seemed perpetually cold despite long sleeves and temperate weather outdoors. Silphium settled across from her, the two of them sipping in silence for a moment.
Eventually Mitya said, “So, what did you want to say?”
“Well,” Silphium took a deep breath in through her nose; a telltale sign that she had a lot to say. “I delivered a set of tiefling triplets last week. The mother - and father, supposedly - were perfectly human, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such protective fire as I did in her eyes when I handed them over. Bright red, demonic children, all of them, and yet she was the threatening one. Her side carries the abyssal blood, I’d bet money on it.”
“Interesting. Did the horns cause any trouble?”
“Oh some, some. But piercings have nearly no long term effects when compared to the slits many ‘ doctors’ use, especially if you’re watching out for them.”
Polite sips, a slow unwinding of tension in her shoulders. Mitya might have to bribe Silphium into another massage again soon.
“How has dancing been?”
“Much the same. Venues are few and far between, these days. I find myself dancing in the streets more and more often, but it does pay better than you might expect.”
“Does it? Does that mean I needn’t call on you for complicated cases, then?”
“Oh, you know how I feel about childbirth,” Mitya’s eyes glittered as she spoke. “There is no higher honor than being allowed to witness it.”
Silphium’s jaw clenched. “Unless the mother risks death.”
Inclining her head, Mitya acknowledged the truth of that.
“I had another of the Drake’s girls in here, last month,” Silphium segued with extraordinary, false casualness. “He still has that bad habit of denying them tea, even after all this time. I always find it hard to charge those girls.”
“Worst thing I ever did for your business,” Mitya nodded. “You’ve told me.”
“She wondered why she hadn’t seen you, lately. You make quite the spectacle.”
“I suppose I do.” Looking down, Mitya took in her dress. White feathers and white fabric by the yard, pooled in a beautiful waterfall down her legs. Hugging her arms, her throat.
“Why are you still avoiding them, Mitya?”
At once Mitya’s eyes snapped to Silphium’s, blue and wide and alarmed in a way they very rarely were. Silphium had reached out, releasing the teacup in favor of holding onto Mitya’s hand. Warm on warm on warm. Mitya fought the urge to clench her hand on her cup, but even so the tea iced over, green filigree in spirals of frost. It was beautiful, like everything Mitya created was beautiful.
Like Larkspur had been beautiful.
Mitya’s first memory was of pain.
She awoke in a wood, just outside a rather small town in Varisia. She was gasping, clutching at her sternum, where between her heaving breasts there lay a large, raw wound. It was a starburst, jagged-edged and deep enough to glisten with throbbing muscle in the gaps between her fingers. Her nails dug in, spastic and panicked, shredding the inflamed edges further.
Maybe hours passed before she was found. Maybe it was only minutes. Mitya had no frame of reference, no corner of her mind sane enough to watch the sky, or the growing shadows of the trees. All she could focus on was the pain, and the raven sitting beside her. Not helping, nor hurting, just watching. Ghostly blue, a color which even then struck her as wrong.
Luck was on her side when, against all odds, it was a kindly dwarven woman who found her. Her naked body was quickly bundled into a blanket, her wound dressed and treated. She fell asleep with the taste of a mild broth in her mouth, and the sight of a halo of golden hair falling down around her, veiling her from the world. “Rest,” said the woman, a voice rough from decades of pain. “Rest now, little one.”
As would become commonplace in the years that would follow, Mitya had a dream that she would not remember.
“Batya,” she said. In the dream she was small, her red hair tumbling in curls far longer than it now was, all the way to her heels. “Can you dance for me again?”
Her batya was younger than he should be, Mitya knew even then. But she didn’t question it because she loved him, and the strength he used to lift her onto his shoulders even though he was barely larger than she was. She loved his blond hair and how she could spike it up when he bathed her. And she loved his dancing.
“Why don’t you dance with me?” He asked, smile crinkling his dark eyes.
Frowning, Mitya looked down at her feet, encased in rabbit-fur slippers. “But I am not as good as you are.”
“That’s why you need to practice,” he reminded her. “I made you, and so you are capable of beautiful dancing. I know it.”
“Of course, you are right, Batya.”
Unfortunately she couldn’t dance with her feet on his, small as they both were. He took her hand in his, rested his other on her tiny, round waist. And then they spun.
Dancing was fire, and dancing was ice. Dancing sent Mitya’s hair in a fan outwards of vivid crimson, the color of blood, of rubies, of corpse lotus flowers. Batya’s feet were so light it was almost like Mitya was flying; there was no possible way she could trip or stumble so long as he kept ahold of her. He hop-skipped backwards, clearing large distances and landing so lightly on his feet that he didn’t disturb a single twig. Behind him he trailed Mitya like a paper kite, brightly colored and giggling with delight.
Some days it was not so much fun, but that night, that dream, Mitya only remembered the one shining moment.
Always, however, it was magical.
“Hush,” said an unfamiliar voice. “You gave us quite a fright, little one.”
When she woke up, Mitya was surprised to find that the person calling her little was an elderly dwarf woman. Silver streaked her blonde locks like precious metals braided together, and her orange eyes were surrounded by thickly-packed lines that gave her a perpetual, tired look. Her clothing was in good repair, but not particularly luxurious.
What was most striking, however, was that she was missing her left arm at the shoulder.
“Where am I?” Mitya croaked, then coughed when it irritated her sore throat.
One gentle hand cradled her cheek. “Here, drink this.” A thin, blown glass straw was placed against her lips, and Mitya sucked down crisp, clean water greedily. “There’s a good girl, you just about screamed your throat inside out. I know the feeling, dear.”
After a couple of sips, Mitya’s stomach was churning, so she forced herself to take a break. “Where am I?” She repeated, much more understandable this time.
“Ashwood,” the woman said. “It’s a small town in Varisia. Do you know what Varisia is?”
“Yes,” said Mitya, though she frowned. She couldn’t remember why she knew what Varisia was.
“My name is Hawthorn Stendahl. I’m a healer here. What’s your name?”
And now, Mitya felt doubt creep in. “Mitya. I’m Mitya.” But was she? Hawthorn had two names, and Mitya only the one. No family to call her own, except, except… The doubt laid roots in her mind, fissures of darkness through which she could see nothing at all. It grew, even when she met Hawthorn’s daughter, Silphium, who was young enough that her beard was barely stubble on her cheeks.
Even when Hawthorn said, “You poor thing. Who could have left you out there, like that?”
“I do not think it was a bad thing,” Mitya replied.
Hawthorn stared at her, speechless. Silphium sniffed and then rubbed her nose. “What the hell does that mean?” She asked.
“The pain was very great, but it will heal, won’t it?”
“Of course,” Hawthorn answered.
“Then there is nothing so terrible about it.”
Conviction became one of the cornerstones which kept Mitya anchored when the tatters of her mind threatened to shred under the weight of all those roots. When her raven landed on her shoulder, for instance, and Silphium shuddered at it trying to preen her hair. “It’s creepy,” she said. “Normal ravens don’t just stare like that. They play and yell and hop.”
Magic came so naturally to Mitya, and yet she had no idea where that magic came from. She had a familiar, but it did not often speak to her, and when it did it didn’t seem interested in making sure she understood. Just spat disjointed phrases and expected petting which it wouldn’t lean into, simply sit statue-still under. She must have made some kind of contract, or agreement, and the fact that she couldn’t recall, well. Of course it was unpleasant.
But that magic could be used to make beautiful things, and so she grew to wield it more and more comfortably. She stroked her starburst scar, and thought about survival, and pain, and pretty things. And for years that was enough.
Larkspur had a habit of ruining everything.