The wet season was almost over and winter would be upon Vagrant’s Rest very soon. Zihu loaded a sack of flour and wheat into the wagon, lifting each bag one at a time. The woman in the wagon kept glancing sideways at him, always quickly turning away when he noticed her staring. The man dropped some gold coins into Nevrida’s hand and said a quick word of thanks to Zihu before climbing into the wagon and driving it away.
Such was the same every day for the past four months. Zihu was a common sight in Vagrant’s Rest now, all dressed from head to toe in long cloaks, sleeves, and an oversized hat that hid his face from the eyes of the village. For the first few weeks, people avoided him, afraid that he was a leper or worse. But word got around that he was a foreign traveler upon whom Nevrida had taken pity, giving him room and board in exchange for helping her around Nevrida’s Mercantile. No one was intrinsically kind to Zihu, but no one was cruel either. Zihu spoke little to anyone except Nevrida, and the villagers spoke little to him in turn.
Nevrida lived up to her word, teaching Zihu as best as she could. He learned the letters of the common tongue, what she described as a bastardization of elvish script. She spoke fluent elvish, so Zihu figured she could correctly assess the strangeness of common writing. The letters were hard for him at first, being fluid and more shapeful than the hard-edged runes of draconic. Writing common was absurd. Draconic was written from the right side of the parchment to the left, but common – and elvish, presumably – was written from the left to the right.
Numbers were worse than the letters. Numeration in draconic was simple as each number could be noted by the dots and slashes through it. If the rune had three dots, it was the number three. If it had a slash, it was the number five. None of the numbers in common had anything countable in them, so Zihu had to settle for simply memorizing what the numbers meant with no symbols to provide assistance. Nevrida was sure to teach Zihu his numbers quickly as she would need him to mark the prices of goods in the store. On many occasions, customers were upset when Nevrida told them a price that was very different from what was marked, and Zihu was ashamed to think he was costing her money.
Nevrida, as old as she was, was not always very capable of giving long reading lessons to Zihu. He made sure to study the common alphabet as much as possible as he was very eager to begin reading on his own. The books he had originally stolen were calling to him, especially now that he could decipher a few words in each. The first book was about medicine and herbs that could be used for various things. One such entry was a pain reliever. It was created by grinding flowers from a plant Zihu could not pronounce into a fine powder, then mixing it with another unpronounceable plant’s stem and roots. One day while Nevrida closed the store to go to some religious ceremony down the street, Zihu went out to the woods to find these plants. He found them, ground up the components of the medicine, and applied it to the wound the metal man had given him on the Unwelcoming Peak. The ache of the injury never seemed to go away, but the pain receded somewhat when the medicinal paste was applied to it. Nevrida was impressed with the work and suggested that Zihu made more of the paste to sell in the store. This left Zihu very confused. Money still did not make much sense to him. Why trade goods for coins when we’re just going to trade the coins for more goods? He preferred to offer the medicine for free, much to Nevrida’s chagrin.
The second book was on painting and brush techniques. The process of creating what the book called ‘art’ was as alien as money to Zihu, but the pictures in the book evoked some strange emotion in him. Most of it was confusion, but sometimes it made him happy. Paintings of people were odd. They were always in such strange poses, all looking at the viewer of the painting instead of whatever object they were holding. Once or twice, Zihu caught himself saying out loud, “Ach! Don’t look at me!”, which seemed to make Nevrida laugh if she overheard it. The paintings of flowers, trees, and mountains evoked the feelings of happiness.
After reading through the book a number of times, Zihu finally asked Nevrida for payment for his work in the store. He did not want gold or silver, but painting supplies. Nevrida said he was ‘charming’, whatever that meant, and ordered the supplies from some place to the south. Within a week, the supplies had arrived and Zihu began painting every day after the store had closed. He was dismayed to find his paintings very much lacking in comparison to what he found in the book. Nevrida was no help. She still did not even know he was yuan-ti, though she saw him every day without his coverings, and she could barely see the paintings without pulling them annoyingly close to her face. Nevertheless, he persisted, keeping the paintings of flowers and trees and anything he thought was… what was the word? He couldn’t remember.
The third book was the most perplexing of them all, and many times Zihu wondered why he bothered to read it at all. Nevrida said it was a book of poems, words stylized in song format (sometimes), occasionally set to music (but not all the time), and phrases with special, metaphorical meanings (that often were not understood by Zihu). Nevrida, when she learned he was reading it, often asked Zihu to read a poem from the book before she would go to sleep for the night. Her favorite poem was written by some elf many hundreds of years ago:
Here I sit, with a page of imaginary people.
Here I dream, thinking of those that I shall never meet.
Here I imagine, rooms full of fake things.
Here I say, never happier than this.
With a roll of the dice, a battle begins.
“I do not understand it,” admitted Zihu after the first time he read it to Nevrida.
“You’re not meant to understand it. Not all the way. Imagine how boring life would be if we understood poetry? But how do you feel about it?” she replied.
He thought about it. “I like the line, ‘never happier than this’.”
She nodded. “Yes, that’s a good one. A good emotion to feel, thief boy. Happiness is…” But she drifted to sleep before she could finish the thought.
The days came and went, and Zihu lived peacefully with Nevrida in her store until the four months had passed. The mountains to the east and west were now capped with snow. Harvests of potatoes, carrots, onions, and more would stop coming in. Nevrida said the winters were not particularly harsh in Vagrant’s Rest, and they had more than enough food stored to eat for themselves and to sell to their neighbors, but she warned Zihu to nevertheless be cautious with the food. Zihu had seldom been able to eat the vegetables or fruits she offered him. He preferred meat, but that wasn’t always an option for them.
At midday, Zihu joined Nevrida for lunch and tea, discussing the day so far and the incoming orders and supplies from greater Caladmein. Zihu only half listened to her, though, finding himself staring out the window towards the mountains. His mind wandered to the People, wherever they were. How wretched they must be right now. During the winters, they would stuff themselves into the caverns of their cities, freezing and shivering, waiting for the world to warm again before they began the new year of sacrifices and rituals.
“What are you looking at all the time?” asked Nevrida one day.
“Sorry, I… I did not mean to… not listen,” he said. Even after four months, his common tongue was still not very fluent.
“You do this every day, Zihu,” she said. “I may be almost blind, but I can see you’re always looking out the windows. Wanting to go back to your old home, or wanting to go back to living in the woods?” When Zihu hesitated to respond, she continued, “Oh, ho! Struck a nerve, did I? I didn’t realize I was right. You really do want to get back out into the wild, don’t you?”
Zihu nodded in spite of himself. At night, he still dreamed of joining the adventurers, of saving people, of rescuing those that needed rescue. Repenting of being a yuan-ti.
“I had a feeling,” said Nevrida. “I guess I can’t keep you cooped up here forever. I do enjoy having you around, but I understand if you need to get back to your real family.”
“No, it’s not that,” replied Zihu. “Not family. Just… looking for someone.”
“Well,” she sighed. “It’s none of my business who you’re looking for unless you want to share it. Though I suggest you stay in Vagrant’s Rest at least until winter passes. But I have something I want to discuss with you right now, though, if you don’t mind me changing the subject so abruptly. My granddaughter is coming into town tomorrow evening. Her name is Arynn and she will be wanting her room back. She’s going to help around the store for a few months until I’m feeling better.”
Many questions went through Zihu’s head all at once, and they came out as a jumbled mess of his lack of fluency with the language. “Daughter? Arrow? Back room? You feel better?”
“Granddaughter,” corrected Nevrida. “Not my daughter, my son’s daughter. Her name is Arryn, not arrow. She will be wanting to stay in her room, which is the room you’re in. You’ll have to sleep in the attic until she leaves. Which she will be doing once I feel better. You’ve been so engrossed in your poems and painting that you really haven’t noticed I’m quite ill, Zihu. Look at my eyes! Do you see how red they are? And my nose shouldn’t be this wet. It’s really awful, I mean.”
“Medicine,” suggested Zihu.
Nevrida smiled. “If you can manage it, I’m happy to try it. But until you can make me some potion, you’ll have to spend your time moving your belongings to the attic. I already washed some blankets for you. Take a broom with you so you can sweep out the spiders or bugs. Gods know what is up there. I can’t climb the ladder to clean it out for you.”
Arryn arrived at nightfall the next day, just as Nevrida had predicted. A wagon appeared just as the sun was setting, and out stepped a young woman that Zihu figured was no more than twenty winters. Nevrida had gone to the front door to let her in. Zihu stayed in the parlor, nervous to be living with someone new. Nevrida had accepted Zihu’s desire to cover himself constantly, but now he would have to convince someone else that the hat, cloak, and gloves must always be on his body or else his yuan-ti ancestry would be exposed. Zihu was finishing sweeping the dust from the attic room when he heard Nevrida call him back downstairs to meet Arynn.
“Nice… meet… y-you,” he stammered.
She was… the word escaped him. He couldn’t figure it out. The word in draconic was vorel and that was the only word he could use to describe Arynn. Her dark skin was so smooth. She was magnificently tall, matching his own height. Her dark black hair was braided intricately. Even the way she stood was captivating somehow. But what did vorel mean in common?
“What’s wrong with you?” she said, her voice icy cold.
Zihu shrank back a bit. What did she mean by that?
“It is as I told you, darling,” interjected Nevrida. “Zihu has a skin condition and a rather nasty scar on his arm and eye. He covers them, almost all of the time, except at night when we read poetry. Don’t draw attention to it, he’s incredibly shy about it.”
Arryn sighed. “Very well. How do you do, Mr. Zihu. I’m Arryn Whitbelt. You read poetry?”
Zihu just nodded, unable to speak. Why couldn’t he speak? How stupid he must look!
“What is your favorite poem? Or your favorite poet?”
“Uh…” he stuttered.
“I don’t know any poet named ‘Uh’,” she said, cutting him off. Arryn turned and headed towards Zihu’s old room, now her room. “I apologize, Grandmother, but the journey from Everdusk has left me very tired. Would you kindly let me rest for the night? We can catch up in the morning.”
“Of course, my sweet,” replied Nevrida. “If you need anything, please call for Zihu and he’ll bring it to you. Isn’t that right, Zihu?”
Zihu could only nod again, staring at Arryn as she walked away.
“Is he dumb?” asked Arryn, turning around as she came to the door of the bedroom. “Did you hire a-”
“Not dumb,” cried Zihu. “I am confused.”
“Confused?” asked Nevrida.
“Confused about what, exactly?’ asked Arryn.
“Emotion. You,” replied Zihu.
“About me?” Her face turned red.
Oh, no! Zihu felt shame immediately. He must have offended her! Or perhaps she was unwell, like Nevrida. “Your face is red! Are you well? I make medic-”
Arryn made some kind of angry noise and entered the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. From the other side, Zihu heard her say, “How very rude!”
Zihu blinked and turned to Nevrida. “I am rude?”
“No, boy, you’re not rude,” she groaned. “You’re awkward, but I don’t think that was quite rude. That said, you should brush up on your manners. She comes from a very mannerly house in Everdusk. They’re a bit more formal than we are.”
Zihu immediately hated the attic. It was his first night up here, and everything was already uncomfortable. He had long gotten used to the comfortable mattress and pillow in Arryn’s room. The attic room did not have a good mattress. It was drafty, too, and Zihu knew better than to light a fire up here without a proper hearth. The lantern provided a little bit of heat, but he would need to find another blanket before winter came. He contemplated building a hearth in the morning, but decided that might be unwise. He still found it unfathomable that these people lived in houses made of wood instead of large stone-carved structures. They could so easily burn, and that thought scared Zihu more than ever, now that he was much further up. There was no window for him to escape now.
He read his poetry book again, stopping on a passage about a fey maiden from some faraway island. It described in detail her features, including her golden skin, green eyes, and the flowers in her hair.
“Beautiful,” he said out loud as the translation of vorel finally came to him. “The word is… beautiful.”
From the corner of his eye, Zihu noticed a small mouse sitting next to the ladder door of the attic.
“Little one, where did you come from, I wonder?” he said, slipping into draconic. “Don’t you know that snakes are dangerous? You should not be here. Be safe, creature, and go.”
The mouse cocked its head to the side, then darted through a crack leading downstairs. Zihu smiled, wondering if the little mouse would scare Arryn.