“Are you the one who came through the window a few hours ago?” she asked, standing up. Her voice was gravelly. Her body was bent with age and she used a large polished cane to help herself up from the chair. The skin on her face was greatly wrinkled, though much of her face could not be seen as it was behind a tangled mess of strongly white and gray hair.
Zihu didn’t know what to do, so he immediately prostrated himself before her, again just like the teachings of the Night Serpent had instilled in him. “I… I steal… and I… please… forgive,” he struggled, feeling suddenly as if he could no longer speak common. The words formed in his mind in draconic, as usual, but he was having difficulty translating.
The woman stepped closer, hobbling on the cane. She showed no signs of fear of the yuan-ti before her. “And what, pray tell, did you take from me, young man?”
The words didn’t come to him as they should have, so Zihu crawled backwards a few paces and emptied the bag. The lantern, the rope, the firestarter, the books, and the red and brown food fell onto the floor. The woman peered down at them. She raised her hand to brush her long white hair from her eyes and squinted.
“What, is that all?” he laughed. She turned around and hobbled back to her chair and fell into it. As she collapsed onto it, a cloud of dust escaped from the chair. She coughed a few times. “You stole some apples and potatoes and… I couldn’t see all of it. A lantern and some rope? And some books, too.”
Zihu looked down at the items on the floor. He immediately gathered them up and hastily placed them on a nearby table. “Y-yes,” he stammered. “Please forgive. Please f-forgive.”
She pointed her cane at him and waved it around, though it swung harmlessly in the air. “Well, thief, why’d you come back here, then?” she demanded. “Guards catch you? Where are they, exactly? I don’t hear anyone else in here.”
“Guards? No guards,” he replied. “Only Worthless.”
“Worth-what?” she repeated, clearly not understanding his title. “The guards didn’t catch you, then. So why did you come here, bringing me a bunch of apples and potatoes?”
Zihu wanted to tell her that he was sorry, but couldn’t form the words. He understood common well enough, but speaking it was still very difficult. “Please forgive,” he repeated, still on the floor. He bowed himself down.
The old woman sighed. “You’re not what I expect from a thief, boy,” she said. “Come here. I want to get a good look at you.”
She motioned for him to come over. Zihu stood up and stepped forward slowly, eager to keep his hands down and not appear threatening. The woman didn’t seem to pay attention, but rather just continued waving. When he approached, her hand darted out and grabbed his, pulling him much closer than he wished to be. She ran her hand up his arm and he hissed in pain as her hands met the burn on his skin and scales.
“Sorry about that,” she apologized, her tone suddenly very soft. “Didn’t know you were injured.” Before Zihu could say anything, her hands darted up to his face and began to feel. They went across the deep scar on his left eye, the reminder of his last reprimanding for emotion a few months earlier. They traced the scales on his face and the flattened nose.
“You… blind?” he said.
The old woman shrugged. “Not blind, boy. Getting there, though. I can see well enough in the light. But the fireplace is out, so this will do just fine. What’s wrong with your face?”
“Wrong face,” he frowned, still struggling with the words. “Not-”
“Oh, I apologize for that,” she interrupted, her voice very sullen. “You have a scar, I can feel that. And your skin is rather rough. I didn’t mean… I’m sorry to call attention to that like I did. It’s just that I cannot see well, that’s all.” She lowered her hands and pointed to a nearby stool. “Sit,” she commanded.
Zihu sat on the stool, purposefully dragging it backwards from her slightly when he placed his full weight on it. The woman didn’t appear to notice. She just stared at him for a long while before looking towards the dying light of the fireplace.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No,” he replied.
“I thought not. Where are you living now? You with the caravans that came in yesterday?”
“C… caravans?” That was a new word.
“I suppose not, then,” she said. “Your accent is thick, far too much for someone from greater Caladmein. Are your parents here?”
“Then where do you live?”
Zihu looked towards the window and pointed, hoping the old woman could see. “Forest.”
“Oh, drat,” she hissed. “That will not do! You cannot live in the forest like that, young as you are. How old are you, and what is your name, boy?”
“Old? I do not… know what means. My name… Worthless,” he replied.
“Worthless? That cannot be your name. Surely you have a real name. Tell me.”
“Zihu,” he said. “I am Zihu, but People call me Worthless.”
“Well, people are horrible sometimes,” she replied. “And by ‘how old are you’, I mean years. Or maybe your reckoning in seasons, whatever you choose.”
“Seasons!” he said, suddenly understanding. “I see… seventeen winters.”
“Seventeen years old, then,” she mused. “Well, then, Zihu, it’s nice to meet you. You’re a much kinder thief than I could have hoped to run into.”
“What name?” asked Zihu.
“What name? What do you mean?”
“You name. What name?”
“Oh, bother, sorry, I misunderstood that accent of yours,” she laughed. “My name is Nevrida Whitbelt. And yes, that’s a dwarf surname, even though I’m not a dwarf. The Whitbelts are a bit of a mixed family, you see. Lots of different people in that one.”
Nevrida stood up and leaned on the cane. “You can stay here for the night, Zihu,” she said, hobbling back to the room at the end of the parlor. “This one is my room, if you don’t mind keeping out. Behind you is a spare room where my granddaughter usually sleeps when she’s home. She’s not here, so you can stay there if you please. Washroom is just past that. Good night!”
Zihu wanted to protest, but Nevrida was already gone before he could form the sentence.
He stood up and moved to the room Nevrida had indicated. It was a very plain bedroom with white walls and a small bed with a dusty blanket and pillow. One of the locked windows was in this room. Zihu listened for sounds from Nevrida’s room and outside. Hearing nothing, he unlatched the window and snuck outside. He had the thought that he should run away, back into the woods, before Nevrida realized she had invited a yuan-ti to sleep in her home. Then the thought came to his mind. She did not say she forgave him for stealing the food. He still had to atone.
Zihu snuck around the side of the house and found his sword and waterskin, right where he had left them. He snuck back into his window and locked it tight, then moved to the unlocked window in the parlor and locked that one as well. Returning to the bedroom, he found himself utterly confused by what to do. In the cities of the People, he was merely a soldier. He had a mattress and blanket for the floor, and nothing more. Here was a bed, much more than he had ever even seen in his life.
He kicked off his shoes and saw his swollen feet in the moonlight. He removed his clothes and laid down on the bed, accidentally kicking up a cloud of dust as he settled down. The strangeness of the situation began to melt away, replaced by a warm feeling of acceptance, followed quickly by the nervous energy of anxiety. Zihu stared out the window for as long as he could before weariness overtook him and his mind slipped away into the deepest sleep he could remember.
“Wake up, Zihu!” came a loud voice on the other side of the door.
Zihu bolted awake. The commander was calling to him! He had slept without his boots on. She would beat him for sure, maybe even remove one of his toes for his incompetence. But as he blinked away the sleepiness from his eyes, he panicked as he looked around and saw the unfamiliar room.
“Zihu, are you still in there?” came the voice again. But it wasn’t the commander. It was that old woman, Nevrida. And she didn’t sound angry, she sounded… what was the emotion? Concerned?
“Here,” he said. “Worthless is here.”
“Are you decent?” she hollered.
“Are you clothed?”
Clothed? Clothes? Clothes! She was asking if he was wearing clothes. What a strange question. Who cares if you’re wearing clothes? “No,” he called back, pulling his pants on and wondering if he should put on his shirt, too. “Dee-send now.”
Nevrida opened the door. “Good, for a moment I was wondering if you hadn’t run off,” she said, pointedly averting her eyes from Zihu’s body until she could tell he was at least wearing pants. “I’m glad you’re still here, Zihu. A caravan came in moments ago, but they’re short-handed and I cannot lift the grain by myself anymore. Be a dear and help me carry them in.”
“Am dear,” he replied, pulling his shirt over his head, though he didn’t fully understand the term or what she was asking. Something about people with short hands, but what does that even mean?
Nevrida led Zihu into the storeroom. The front door, an entrance to the room, was open and an old dwarf was carrying in wooden crates. “That your helper?” he grumbled.
“Yes,” replied Nevrida. “This is Zihu, he’s come to help me mind the store.”
“Good,” replied the dwarf, setting down the crate. “Come get the grain and corn, Zihu. I cannot lift it myself anymore.”
Zihu took a step forward before stopping himself. His hands went to his face and bare arms. The scales! The nose! What if they see that he is yuan-ti?
Nevrida must have noticed this. “Come on, Zihu, no one cares that your skin is a little worse for wear. I don’t think you’re diseased by any means.”
“No,” he stammered. “No show face. No show… skin.”
Nevrida scoffed. “Oh fine. Over there, use that cloak and grab a pair of gloves. Be quick about it, Voziac is an impatient dwarf. He’s my supplier, but he’s terribly rude about it.”
Zihu was mistaken about the storehouse. It was not a storehouse at all, but rather a mercantile as Nevrida described it. That word didn’t make much sense to Zihu but he learned it was a store in which people could purchase food or goods from Nevrida in exchange for copper, silver, and gold coins. Many people came into the store throughout the day, and Zihu did his best to hide from them until Nevrida asked him to help carry things out of the store to the patrons’ wagons. It was only halfway through the day when Zihu realized he did not have his sword on his belt.
“Zihu, come,” called Nevrida at midday. “We should eat some lunch.”
Nevrida locked the front door of the store and led Zihu into the parlor. He was told to get the fire going while she prepared something in the kitchen. A few moments later, Nevrida came out with a tray of… something. Zihu wasn’t sure what it was, but it had a pleasant aroma. When she sat down in her chair, Zihu could see the food. There were some dried pieces of meat, some bread, a strange white substance he could not identify, and some of those brown things from last night.
Nevrida noticed the sneer on his face when he looked at the brown foods. “Do you not like potatoes?”
“Potatoes,” he repeated, memorizing the word. “No, potatoes… bad… graprov.”
“Graprov? I don’t know that word,” she mused. “How did you cook them?”
Zihu blinked. “Cook potatoes?” he asked, then immediately felt foolish. Of course! The potatoes were so bitter because they should be cooked before eating.
“Yes, you cook potatoes,” laughed Nevrida. “You’ve never eaten a potato before? What do you eat where you’re from?”
“Bread sometimes. Meat all times,” he replied.
“Meat, then,” she noted. “I’ll make us some mutton for supper. In the meantime, how about the dried meat here? It’s rabbit, I believe.”
They ate in silence, probably but not for the same reason. Zihu was still waiting for her to realize he was yuan-ti and throw him out. He supposed she was studying him, sizing him up. So they ate without a word.
“I was serious, you know,” she said, after the meal was done.
“Serious,” he repeated. That word he knew.
“Yes, I mean, what I said to Voziac earlier. About hiring you. I mean it when I say you have been a great help to me today, Zihu.”
“Worthless,” he corrected her, pointing to his chest. “Title.”
“It’s a bad title,” she replied. “I’ll call you Zihu and I won’t hear another word about it. But I appreciate you coming to my aid today. If you like, thief Zihu, you can live here with me and help me in the store. I can pay you a fair wage. We make money well enough here, what with the travelers going to and from greater Caladmein.”
“No money,” replied Zihu. Coins were strange to the People, though they collected them from those they terrorized in the name of the Night Serpent. “No need.”
“You don’t want money? What a refreshing view on life for a thief,” she smiled. “A place to live is a comfort enough for some people, I suppose. What is it that you want that I can give, apart from money?”
Zihu thought about it for a moment. He pointed to the books he placed on the table, the books that he had stolen last night. “Books.”
“Books?” she repeated. “You want books? Well, I don’t see why not.”
“Read,” he said, resolutely, hoping that would not be lost in translation.
She paused and looked at him. “Do you mean you want books to have, or books to read?”
“Read,” he repeated.
“Can you read, Zihu?”
“I read darastrixren.”
“Dara… sick,” she tried before throwing her hands up in the air, clearly not able to pronounce the word. “You can read whatever language that is. But can you read common, like what we’re speaking right now?”
Zihu shook his head, though a small smile escaped his lips. Almost there…
“Do you want me to teach you how to read common?”
Zihu nodded emphatically. The People were taught to speak common, exclusively to intimidate and torture their victims before a sacrifice. They were never taught to read or write it. What was the point? Draconic was more than enough as it was the language of the Night Serpent.
Nevrida sighed. “Very well,” she said. “I’m not much of a teacher, old and near-blind as I am. I’ll do my best. You strange boy, how do you get on in this world being illiterate?”
He didn’t respond to the question. She had already asked him to not call himself Worthless anymore.