Zihu was certain that either he was rude, or Arryn was. Two months had passed since she arrived in Nevrida’s Mercantile, but the two of them could not ‘get along’ as Nevrida put it. It seemed that no matter what he did, Zihu’s actions were always seen as very rude or impractical. In the past, Zihu was content to help carry heavy items to the wagons of the store’s patrons without a word. Arryn had demanded that he thank each of them while carrying the bags of rice or grains, and even offer to go to their homesteads to unload their wagons. This was, of course, not acceptable to the patrons of the store, and Zihu was very happy to inform Arryn that no one wanted his help. Zihu preferred to paint in the parlor at night, but Arryn wished for him to paint in his room as she wanted to have conversations about the store without Zihu listening as he was not a member of the family.
Zihu felt that she was never going to trust him. Sometimes in the evenings, Nevrida would send Zihu to the tavern down the street and bring home some spirits. For so long, Nevrida had trusted Zihu to fetch the spirits without question. But now that Arryn was here, Zihu felt he was not trusted with anything. Arryn insisted on accompanying him and would not let him exchange the money himself. In the past, some of the patrons of the store would give Zihu a piece of copper as thanks for loading their wagons. Zihu still could not understand the purpose of money, so he would simply put it in the box with the rest of Nevrida’s money instead of keeping it for himself. Arryn slapped him on the hand when she saw him fiddling with the lock she placed on the box.
This had gone on for a while now, and Zihu was beginning to feel anger towards her when he saw her. Occasionally that strange mouse would appear in his room again, looking for droppings of food or warmth from his lantern. He would vent his frustrations to the mouse.
“She dislikes me so, and I do not know why,” he said. “I have done nothing to her, or her grandmother. Nevrida has been so kind to me, but Arryn seems to truly hate me. She certainly does not trust me. I suppose I understand that part, though. I certainly don’t trust me. But I’ve been very good for months now. I accidentally left my sword in Arryn’s room, but I don’t think she’s even noticed it. And do you know what, little mouse? I don’t want my sword back. I thought I would go off and be an adventurer too, just like the Great Ones.
“But… I cannot leave Vagrant’s Rest now. Nevrida seems so frail lately. Arryn is here, and that is good for Nevrida. And while Arryn does not trust me, I do not trust her to take care of her grandmother.”
The mouse squeaked and made for the door.
“I’m sorry, little mouse,” he called out. “Did I upset you? I did not mean to. I am just frustrated.”
“I really must insist you take off the hat and gloves,” demanded Arryn. The three of them sat around the table in the parlor for dinner. Snow was falling silently outside. Nevrida was curled in a blanket, sipping broth and tea. Arryn helped her reach the sugar for her tea while Zihu said quietly to himself, still wearing the gloves and cloak. He had wrapped a scarf around his faces so only his eyes and mouse poked out. He left his long black hair to hang down over his face as much as possible.
“Leave him be, Arryn,” croaked Nevrida. “He’s shy. He’s covering scars.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” she replied. “I’ve been living with this stranger for two months now, and I still feel like you and I know nothing about him. Come, Zihu, take off those clothes.”
“I cannot,” said Zihu, very uncomfortable with the situation.
“Why not?” she asked. Her tone, Zihu noticed, was strangely different when she said it. He looked up at her and saw her face. The expression of contempt she normally wore when she looked at him was gone. It was calm, soothing. She twirled one of the feathers from her cloak in her hand, toying with it between her fingers. Something in Zihu’s mind told him that this reminded him of something from long ago. It reminded him of something about his People.
He couldn’t help but answer her. “Because I am so ugly.”
“What makes you ugly? Will you tell me?”
Zihu gulped. “My skin. It is rough. I think the word is… unpleasant. Ugly. I am scared. Wounds from long ago.”
“Won’t you show me?”
“I do not want to.”
“Is it because you’re hiding something from us?”
“You’ll feel better if you just say it, Zihu. What aren’t you telling us? You can be honest with us.”
She stopped twirling the feather. Zihu’s mind cleared when she did. She must have absentmindedly stopped because the moment she did, the spell wore off.
“Why would you do this to me?” cried Zihu.
“Do what?” she asked. Her voice was harsh again, but with a hint of feigned innocence.
“That spell. You cast a spell on me. To make me talk.”
“Oh,” murmured Nevrida. “Arryn, that was most unkind. You should not cast spells on people like that. Zihu is my friend, after all.”
Arryn laughed, rubbing the feather again and recasting the spell. “Grandmother, please! He just admitted he was hiding something from us. Don’t you want to know what he won’t tell you?”
“Not beautiful,” grumbled Zihu. The spell was affecting him again, persuading him into speaking his mind.
“Pardon?” replied Arryn.
“Yes, what was that, boy?” asked Nevrida.
“Arryn is very unkind to me, and I don’t deserve it,” he said, giving in and letting the spell force his honesty. “I gave up a bad life. I repent. I want forgiveness. She is so unkind. She is beautiful, but only on the outside.”
Nevrida leaned forward. “Beautiful?”
“On the outside,” replied Zihu.
Arryn scowled. “And what exactly did you have to repent of?”
Fight it. Resist the spell.
“Unwelcoming…” he started, but his head was clearing up suddenly and he shut his mouth. He looked over and saw Nevrida’s hand clasped around Arryn’s, restraining her from casting the spell with the feather.
“Enough, Arryn,” said Nevrida. “You see, this is why you’ll never get married. A boy likes you and what do you do? You start casting spells on him! Let him be.”
“He’s hiding something, Grandmother,” she replied. “Can’t you see it?”
Nevrida nodded and turned to Zihu. “Of course, child, of course I can see it. I’ve known he was hiding something the moment I felt his face. But it doesn’t matter. He’s a good boy. Please, let him be.”
Zihu felt hot in the face, a mix of emotions. He was so angry with Arryn. How dare she cast a spell on him like this? He felt so frustrated that she couldn’t trust him. Was he not trustworthy after all this time, taking care of Nevrida? He felt a sense of fear and anxiety just to be around Arryn, and now that was compounded by his desire to simultaneously tell her she’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen, and the most hateful thing at the same time. Zihu stood up abruptly and stormed out into the shop and towards the door. He heard Nevrida call out to him, but he ignored her and stepped out into the snow.
The snow was falling lightly, but nothing was sticking to the ground just yet. That was perfect, thought Zihu. He did not want Arryn following him. No doubt she wanted to cast some other spell on him and make him confess to every atrocity he had ever done. But Zihu didn’t want to live with those memories any longer. He could return to Nevrida’s house after they had gone to sleep for the night. Until then, he could stay outside and stay out of sight.
He wandered between the houses, listening at the windows of the people, wondering what minor inconveniences were bothering them. He walked past the bakery, the smell of bread still lingering from today’s earlier sales. He thought about moving up the streets towards the tavern. He still had a few coppers in his pocket from the gratuity given to him by the elf woman earlier in the day. Nevrida would enjoy a glass of wine, but only if Zihu could figure out how to transport it back to her without spilling it all over the ground. Maybe he could ask for a bigger cup and just walk back more slowly. But then, would Arryn be cross with him if he didn’t bring her back a cup of wine, too? He only had six coppers with him. That could buy two small glasses of some very cheap wine, and Arryn was likely to complain about it. Zihu thought about just buying a drink for himself, but the desire to share it with Nevrida was too strong.
While he contemplated this, he heard a scuffle behind him. The three bandits in the alley apparently did not notice him, sneaky as yuan-ti are. He could see them very clearly in the dark, and watched them carefully pull out some small copper instruments and begin picking the lock of a quiet house.
“You should not be here,” he said, keeping his voice calm. Perhaps he was much closer to the bandits than he thought, or perhaps they were just scared. The three of them jumped, startled, and turned on him.
One drew a knife and rushed at him silently. Zihu sidestepped the attack and gave the bandit a shove, pushing him into a nearby hay bale. The other two drew knives as well and began pressing forward. None of the three spoke.
“It is wrong to break into peoples’ houses,” said Zihu. “I am not guard, so I cannot arrest. But you should go. Be gone from here!”
The three attacked him all at once. The bandit behind Zihu went first, but Zihu delivered a swift kick behind him, knocking the bandit to the ground. The two in front swung their knives at the same time. Zihu could block the first, but not the second. The dagger stung into him, though it was not deep. Zihu retaliated and landed a punch into the bandit’s face, likely breaking his nose. The other tried to strike again, but Zihu caught his arm and kicked him in the chest.
“What’s going on here?” came a deep voice from around the corner.
Zihu recognized it immediately. It was the guard whose family came every weekend to purchase fruits. What was his name? It wasn’t important right now. But the guard would see the bandits and arrest them. Things would be set right again. But only just then did Zihu suddenly realize he had stormed out of Nevrida’s Mercantile without his hat. In the scuffle, his scarf had come off, exposing his yuan-ti face. The three injured bandits probably hadn’t seen him, but the guard would. The torchlight was already around the corner.
He delivered one final kick to the bandit with the broken nose and darted away, hiding around the corner behind a stack of crates. He overheard the guard approach. The guard must have seen the lockpicks on the ground, and Zihu heard him and some others capture the bandits and march them away towards the jailhouse.
“Hello, little mouse,” said Zihu cheerfully as he climbed the ladder to his attic room. The mouse was wandering the room aimlessly, probably looking for scraps. “I had a very pleasant night. I hope you had the same.”
In his room, Zihu removed his recovered scarf and gloves. He flexed his cold fingers and quickly lit the lantern. It filled the room with a soft glow and a faint warmth. Zihu kicked off his boots and laid down on the bed. “Yes, a pleasant night. How about you, small one? What have you been up to? I’ve told you time and time again, I do not eat in this room. You will never find food here.”
He sat up and watched the mouse for a few minutes. It scurried without hurry across the floorboards and up the desk Zihu had brought up last week. On the desk were his latest paintings, the oils still drying from yesterday.
“Do you like it?” asked Zihu. “I do not. It is not…” He paused and chuckled. “How strange. I do not know the word in draconic. In common, I mean to say it is not ‘expressive’ of how I feel. I do not know emotions well enough to express them in paint. At least, that is what I have read is necessary for art. And I, being what I am, am not good at emotions.
“You see that one on the far end? That is Arryn. Or, at least it is supposed to be. She’s very beautiful, but the body is all wrong. I don’t know how to do that yet. I feel emotionless when I look at the painting. But I am not emotionless when I look at her, I assure you. I have read that the emotion I feel is desire. But look at the painting, little mouse. Do you see how wrong it is? It is not desire I see when I look at that painting. It is fear and anger. She…”
He paused again and sighed, laying back down on his bed. He reached for the lantern and twisted the dial, shutting it off. “It is as I said, little mouse. I don’t know why she loathes me so. I have done nothing to her. But that is fine. Because, as I said, I had a very pleasant night. I think I have found a purpose while I am trapped in Vagrant’s Rest until spring.”
The mouse squeaked loudly, enough to startle Zihu. He sat up quickly and looked down. The mouse had disappeared back down through the attic door. “Poor creature. Maybe you saw a spider. Or a snake. Well, another snake. Apart from me, I should say.”