The Great Ones were far away. He wanted so desperately to be like them. To save people. To protect the world. Or whatever it was that adventurers do. It didn’t matter now. He was dead. The arrow pierced his heart. Or maybe it didn’t. It didn’t matter. The wound would be fatal. No one would help a yuan-ti.
So were his thoughts when Zihu dreamed. It confused him to wake up in the jail cell again. He was lying on his cot with a large bandage across his midsection. A touch from his finger reminded him that the wound was still very painful. The light from the torches was dim now. What time was it?
“How do you feel?” came a soft voice to his side.
Zihu jumped, having not seen Arryn sitting on a stool at his bedside. He immediately tried to sit up, looking for his shirt to hide his nakedness from her.
“No, sit back,” she said, almost soothingly. “You’re still hurt.”
“Hurt,” he repeated. “What? What happened?”
Arryn bit her lip and averted her eyes. “The town is safe now. Thanks to you, we all think.”
“Thanks to me,” he repeated again, still not comprehending.
The memory of the attack was blurred in his mind. But he remembered fighting his former People. He remembered finding the store and defending Arryn and…
“Nevrida!” he cried. The exclamation caused his stomach to burn and he recoiled, hugging his injury. “Where is Nevrida? Is she safe?”
Arryn did not answer immediately. Zihu tried to meet her gaze, but she wasn’t looking him in the eye. Why not? She always had such beautiful, harsh eyes.
She finally said, “She’s dead, Zihu.”
No, it cannot be.
He forced himself to his feet, not regarding the pain in his stomach because the pain in his head and chest became so very suddenly excruciating. He couldn’t catch his breath. His heart raced. His skin cooled and felt clammy. His eyes watered. Why were his eyes watering? What was wrong with his face?
Zihu fell to his knees and sobbed. He didn’t even know he could do that, not ever having known this new emotion before. He sobbed for the very first time in his life, screaming in anguish, begging the nameless god to bring her back. He’d do anything, anything to have her back. He clasped his arms around himself, not for the pain of his wound but for the pain in his soul, the pain of loss. She was gone? Nevrida was gone?
Zihu almost didn’t feel Arryn kneel beside him and wrap her arms around him. He almost didn’t hear her crying, too.
Two days later, one of the magistrates from Vagrant’s Rest visited Zihu. He said many things, but Zihu wasn’t comprehending much. He gave Zihu a charge to leave town. While he had helped defend the people, he was still yuan-ti, and most people had voted to banish him. Zihu asked about Arryn, but the magistrate would not say. She had not returned to see him. Zihu was given a small leather pouch with ten gold coins in it. The money was confusing, he thought. Money couldn’t bring back Nevrida. What good would it do him?
They released him in the morning, but Zihu never left the town. He snuck into the ruins of one of the burned houses and waited in the cold until night finally came. The guards resumed their duties. The townspeople returned to the tavern. Apart from the burned houses, Vagrant’s Rest appeared to be back to normal. But without Nevrida, Vagrant’s Rest seemed so hollow now.
Zihu used the crates, barrels, and blocks of the allies to move between houses again, just as he had done before. It was a painful movement as his injury was still not fully healed. But soon, he found his way back to the building with the blue-lettered sign. And as usual, the latch on the parlor window was not securely shut. The fireplace was just low embers again, typical for the late hour. Arryn was nowhere to be found.
He slipped into the window and shut it behind himself. Arryn’s room was shut. He crept through the room towards the shop, careful to not make a single sound. He dodged the creaky floorboards that he knew, cracked open the door only so far as to not make the hinge cry out, and found himself in the shop. It was as it always was. The shelves were lined with tools, supplies, food, and equipment of all kinds.
But everything seemed in disarray. The labels of the jars were not turned properly for the customers to view, as Nevrida had instructed him. Sacks of grains, flour, corn, and rice were piled haphazardly in the corner instead of displayed neatly. The jars of candy had been left empty. Muddy footprints from customers coming in had not been cleaned up. Zihu felt a flash of anger at Arryn for allowing the store to get this way so quickly after Nevrida died. But this emotion was washed away by guilt almost immediately. Arryn just lost her grandmother, someone she cared for deeply. It was not her fault.
A small squeak from the mouse made Zihu pause and listen. He still heard no sound from Arryn’s room. He turned to the mouse and said, “Please, little one, be quiet.”
He moved to the jars on the shelves and began to reposition them. The labels had to face out so people could read them. He adjusted the price sign next to each row, straightening it and wiping away the dust that had collected on it. The sacks in the corner were heavy, but he could move them without too much effort. Some cloth sacks were scattered nearby. They were meant for customers to buy the amount of grains they needed, so he folded them neatly and placed them on a nearby table. The produce was easy enough to organize, too. As he placed the food in the appropriate bins, he held up a potato. The last thing Nevrida said to him was about potatoes. What a strange thing to think about.
He looked around and regretted not being able to do more. Sweeping or mopping the floor would be too loud and would likely wake up Arryn. He couldn’t do anything about the candy jars either. Nevrida had said candy shipments from greater Caladmein were stopped for the snows in the canyons.
“The coins,” he whispered to the mouse, now sitting in the corner of the room. It had been watching him work.
He moved towards the coin box under the front counter. It was locked, as was normal. Nevrida kept a spare key under the stool. He reached for it but it was gone. Arryn must have moved it. No matter. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the leader pouch of coins and placed it on the counter next to the coin box.
The mouse squeaked loudly.
“Hush!” he whispered. “You will wake Arryn.”
But the mouse didn’t stop. It squeaked again, moving forward closer and closer to Zihu. Zihu stepped back, his mouth agape. Something was wrong with the mouse. But before he could say anything or question it, the mouse’s form began to shift. It grew larger and larger. It’s ears folded back. The fur disappeared, dissolving into a white and blue dress. The legs elongated into the arms and legs of a woman. The shape of Arryn appeared before Zihu.
“What are you doing, Zihu?” she asked when the transformation was complete.
“You are… mouse?”
“I was, but not anymore,” she replied. “I’m asking you, what are you doing?”
Zihu looked down at his feet. “Cleaning,” he replied. “Putting money in the coin box.”
That was a weird question to ask. It should have been obvious. “So you can hire someone. Replace me.”
Arryn’s voice was soft again, just like two days ago in his jail cell when he learned Nevrida had died. “Why would you do this for me? Do this for us?”
“You saved my life, Zihu. You saved this store,” she replied, her hands clutched at her side. “And so many others in town. Many of us are alive because of you. You’re yuan-ti, and yet-”
“I cared about her,” he admitted, surprising himself to say it.
“Yuan-ti don’t feel emotions,” she retorted.
“I do. She was my friend. She saved me from… from a horrible fate. I am not like the yuan-ti. I feel so much more than they do. She was important to me. She was… I don’t know the word.”
“Love,” she whispered. “You loved my grandmother. Didn’t you?”
“I think so,” he said. “I read about love in the poetry book, but for so long I could not understand it.”
Neither of them said anything for a moment that lasted for eternity.
“And,” he continued, “I think I love you, too.”
“You love me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. But I don’t want to find out.”
She was confused. “Why not?”
He swallowed. “Because I don’t want to lose you, too.”
“And how would you lose me?”
“Nevrida died, and now I know I loved her,” he said. “Must you die, too, for me to know if I love you? I do not want that to happen.”
Zihu had been intently staring at his feet and didn’t notice that Arryn was right next to him now. She reached out her hands and grabbed his.
“You’ll figure it out, Zihu,” she said, smiling.
Then she did something amazing. She pulled up his hands to her face and pressed her lips to his knuckles. A kiss, something mentioned in the poems. Zihu felt his heart stop for a second, a warmth spreading through his chest.
“I’m sorry I was so unkind to you these past months,” she said. “And I’m sorry I spied on you as a mouse. That was wrong. I didn’t think I could trust a yuan-ti.”
He was confused. “Did you know what I was?”
She laughed, an alluring sound. “Of course I knew. I watched you in your room when you took off the silly gloves and hats. And I speak draconic, Zihu. Did you never notice when you would mutter something under your breath, I could understand you? That’s not the point though. I mean to say, thank you for being so good to us. You’re not what I expected, and I’m glad for it.”
She broke away from his hands and walked towards the parlor. “You can sleep in my room, and I’ll sleep in Grandmother’s. That can be your room again. We can get your things from the attic in the morning.”
Zihu was confused again. “I cannot stay here, Arryn,” he said. “They have banished me. I should already be gone.”
She smiled. “I will see to that in the morning. Vagrant’s Rest is your home, and Nevrida’s Mercantile is your house. Get some rest. You’re still injured, but you have work in the morning.”