She has a dream where Mom comes and sits on the end of her bed and reminds her to take care of everyone. I'm dying, Vethy. It'll be up to you soon enough. Brisk and matter-of-fact. Her body tiny and burning hot through the blankets.
She wakes up in the dark. From the other side of the curtain, Elias is snoring.
Veth dresses. Braids her hair and pins it up; today she has to do the washing. Feeds the chickens, collects the eggs. Makes breakfast. Eats when the others have gone. Cleans the kitchen, tidies the house. Drags out the big basin and fills it at the pump, opens the doors to air out the house, starts the washing.
First the men's clothes. Dirty and muddy and stained with vegetation. Veth has to empty and refill the basin after the first rinse. The pump sticks a little. Her arms start to burn. Then she washes everyone's underthings and socks. Her other two dresses. Then the sheets. Hangs it all up to dry, her arms pale and wrinkled, her fingers numb.
She rubs her palms against her cheeks.
Sits there in the swept dirt, allows herself a moment to stare into space. Not thinking. Her hands smell greasy, like the soap. She wishes they could buy better soap. The general store sells it, lavender scented, citrusy, that kind of thing. It's not like they couldn't afford it, but it isn't needed. You should only have things you need.
She unrolls her sleeves, buttons them at her wrists. Puts the washtub away, her hem damp.
She starts dinner.
Dad and Elias come home after dark. Den's gone into town to drink. Veth serves them stew, and they eat in silence. There's never much talking in the evenings. After dinner, Veth cleans up. Dad sits out front, where you have a porch if you were richer, if a porch was something you needed. Sometimes she can hear him call out to one of the neighbors as she cleans. Have a brief conversation. He talked more before Mom died, she thinks.
Elias goes into the sitting room and reads. When she's done cleaning, she joins him, picking up her sewing. Digs for a scrap of cloth and tries to embroider a rippled pattern. It comes out crooked. Like a clumsy child. Like someone did it with their feet.
"Where does Den go all the time?"
Elias looks up, surprised. Veth's a little surprised, too. That she asked. "Just to town, I think."
"Does he have a girlfriend?"
"I thought you followed him everywhere."
Or he had when they were younger. Elias is only a year older than Veth, and Den's five years older than he is. You'd think that would have made them the team, them the close ones. Wrong. She only remembers her brothers together. Elias chasing after Den, and Den slowing to let him. Her running, and Den never looking back.
Den's smart. That's his problem. Everyone knows it. He's too smart to be a farmer and he knows it too. He's barely twenty and the town drunk because he hates being a farmer, but he's smart so Dad lets him.
Veth isn't smart. Not even smart enough to be a layabout.
"Why you asking?" Elias asks.
"I dunno." She tries the pattern a second time. Comes up with something like bird tracks, chicken talon lines, see-sawing across the cloth. She crumples it in her hand. Pokes herself with the needle. "Do you ever go into town?"
"For fun, I mean."
"What's so fun about town?"
"You could hang out with your friends."
"Yeah? So why don't you go to town?" Elias says impatiently, sick of the conversation.
"I do." She blinks, surprised by her answer.
"You run errands."
"That's not all I do."
"Oh? What else do you do?" He's smirking now.
Veth feels this — this twisting in her. This thing. This feeling. "I have a friend I talk to. I hang out with." She doesn't want to say him, she doesn't want Elias to know it's a boy. Not thinking about why, she just doesn't.
"Do you?" He doesn't sound mocking anymore. He sounds surprised. That's much worse. "Who?"
"Does it matter?" she feels sullen now. Embarrassed. She doesn't know what she's even saying. She smoothes out the cloth. Looks at the embroidery. Imagines saying: I met a half elf who said I could go to a magic school. That I might be smart enough.
But Veth. You don't even go into town.
Ah. But I do go into town. I have a friend.
Really? But all you do all day is clean the house.
"Why do you think Den goes into town all the time?" she asks.
"Because he doesn't like being a farmer." Elias frowns. Starting to get exasperated. "What's with all the weird questions today, Vethy?"
"Don't call me that, please," she murmurs. She drops it.
The next day: Veth wakes up. She cooks. She cleans. She cooks. Again.
She has a few hours the next afternoon. Normally she'd go to the apothecary, grind herbs, talk with Yeza. He's still going to school, but he works there more and more often — she drops by when she can and he's always there, always seems happy to see her.
Veth sits out front in Dad's chair instead, arms on her knees, staring into space. She doesn't want to go today. She doesn't want to see him. That's never happened before.
What did she used to do? In her free time? When was it that spending time with Yeza was all…
But she keeps thinking of the way he'd called her the smartest person he knew. That she was wasted on a farm. How he and that mage had smiled together. It makes her feel hot and uncomfortable. Clumsy. Like her brain is fumbling. Falling down the attic ladder.
She can't decide if it's true or not. What it means if he meant it. What it means is pity, is him just trying to be nice, and if he looks down on her like that Veth isn't sure she wants to be friends with him anymore. But then — she probably will anyway, won't she? After all, she became friends with him, and the first time they really met, he…
She becomes aware she's touching her mouth. She feels itchy and embarrassed. Goes back inside the house.
Veth's room is half the attic, divided with a curtain from her brothers's half. In this at least she's lucky: with no sisters to share it with, she has twice as much space as Elias and Den. Not that there's much in there. A small window in the eave that lets in dusty light, her bed, a chest, basin and chamberpot, and then her box of treasures. It calms her down right away, always does. She takes them all out carefully, lays them over her quilt. Sorts her buttons, least favorite to most favorite — a big ivory coat button, carved to look like a rose. It's so smooth in her hand, cool to the touch. She wants to stroke it like a pet, but is always mindful, always wary of rubbing the petals away. She allows herself one quick rub before placing it on her quilt, next to the shiny copper button (heavy, still orange gold), followed by the pair of tiny blue ones, each the size of her thumbnail.
It soothes her. The order doesn't change much. Every now and then she'll get a new button, fret over where it belongs — if it's worth adding to the collection — not all buttons are, some are just for mending, for keeping in a pocket to worry while she walks — and then she has them all lain out neatly, and it's soothing, it's calming, these things all belong to her.
Veth has other things in her box. Carefully cut paper, some thick and creamy stationary, some tissue thin and colored with swirls and designs. A few dried flowers — she never seems to get the knack for it right, they always crumble to dust; just now, she gathers some of the fragments in her hand and goes to the window to toss them out — a few soles from shoes. These aren't pretty, but they're nice to touch. Nice to keep in her pocket and rub when she's nervous. Trouble is that it's weird, weirder than the other things. Elias caught her at it once and now she doesn't like to carry them anymore. Doesn't want that humiliation twiice.
Veth sits on her bed and turns one of the soles in her lap. Tugs at it and bends it. The leather is soft and worn, pocked and frayed in the corner. Plenty to touch and play with as she doesn't think about anything. It's so quiet she can hear herself breathing, almost hear her heart. She brings the sole to her nose and smells it. It doesn't smell like feet or anything — just soft leather. Dust. Dried up and dead flowers.
She thinks again: Yeza thinks I'm the smartest person he knows.
This time, with her things around her, it doesn't cause her body to go tight and hot and scared. She just — feels nothing. Looks down at her lap.
She's not smart. She left school because of how not-smart she is. Den's smart, he's got the brains of the family, and Yeza's smart, he's a genius, that's obvious to everyone. She tries to tell herself: I'm a genius. Nothing.
She imagines going to school. Veth hadn't liked it much, that was the thing. She'd just looked out the window, or picked at the grain of her desk. Did she know the answers? Did she do well, or badly? Veth doesn't remember. All she remembers is looking down. Everyone talking around her. But everyone had been kind of relieved when she stopped. Mom had just died, after all, and it was good to have a woman around the house. No one from school ever chased after her, asking her to stay, the way she assumes they must when a smart kid leaves. Maybe Yeza would have, but they weren't really friends then.
He had kissed her already, though.
Veth tries to imagine being smart enough to go to school. Being smart enough to go to magic school. She can't even picture it. She's never met a single wizard or anything. When the sickness got around and Mom died, they sent for some Clerics from Zadash, but…
It's just… weird. No one's told her she's anything before. Even though they're wrong, it's hard not to think about.
The shadows are starting to get darker. Veth packs away her things carefully, and goes downstairs to make dinner.
Den is around at dinner for once. She makes a stew of greens and grits and apple, the last of the bacon.
Den and Father talk through dinner. About the field, how the corn is coming in, the blight spreading and different ways to stop it getting in your crops. They're renting farmland from the Willowby's this year. The soil's no good. Elias chimes in whenever he has a thought, whenever he can tell them how much he agrees; Veth stays quiet. It isn't like she has to. She just doesn't have much to say about farming.
It feels like it's been a while since she's seen her oldest brother. In the mornings, sure, or snoring late at night. But Den is usually quiet and sullen and hungover. Veth poured them all watery ale with dinner, and she notices he hasn't touched his.
This happens sometimes. He won't drink for a bit, and then he does again. He and Dad talk outside while Veth cleans up, washes dishes and then sweeps the downstairs. Dad goes to bed early as always, nods as he passes her to his room, leaving the house door open to catch the evening breeze.
She sees Den sitting on the dirt next to Dad's chair, there in the darkness. Veth goes outside.
"What'cha want, Vethy?"
"Don't call me that, please." She just stands there, holding her broom, for a minute. "Where do you go all the time?"
"What do you care?" Den has a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, unlit. He's chewing on it a little. Veth watches, strangely fascinated by the way the tip bobs and moves.
"I go to town," Den says at last.
"To drink?" She sounded a little accusatory there; he smirks up at her.
"Because I like it. What's with the questions?"
She thinks about it. "Eli says you hate farming."
"I do. I fucking hate farming."
Veth wonders: when was the last time she spoke to her brother? Elias she talks to sometimes. Dad she talks to a lot, but mostly just to run the house, get money, buy food. Den? She remembers him chasing her. Running and hiding behind the hen house, half in tears. He was laughing. Caught and pulled on her braid. That must have been years ago, but she doesn't remember. That's the only thing she remembers of him.
"Because it's stupid. Because every day is exactly the same. Stupid, slow people doing stupid, slow things. You wake up and go to bed and move dirt around. You're poor and you're bored and you spend all your money buying more dirt to plant more turnips to eat later. Then you get married and then you get old and then you die. In this shithole town." It's a lot, but he says it with a cold dispassion, not looking at Veth, looking out at the empty dark street. The other small houses.
"No one likes farming," Veth says, surprised.
"Half the assholes in Felderwin like farming. It's all they talk about. Turnips." He says it like it's a swear of some kind.
"We don't grow turnips."
"I can't tell if you're being smart with me or if you're just that stupid," Den says, his voice flinty.
"I don't think I'm stupid," Veth says stubbornly, not believing it, just trying to win a point. "You're just conceited."
"Maybe," Den says.
"Lots of people do things that they don't like. If you hated farming that much, you'd refuse to do it and starve to death because you're not working."
"See, Vethy, that's how I know you're stupid. That's a stupid fucking argument. The choice isn't between being miserable and dead."
"Of course it's not, because it's not a choice," she says, leaning hard on her broom. Her voice kind of loud. She becomes aware of it, aware of herself, and clamps her mouth closed.
Den's silent and so is she. The crickets and night bugs are out, flies swarming towards the still-open door. Veth goes and closes it, staying outside. Den glances up at her. Lights his cigarette.
"Does drinking make you happy?" she asks after a few minutes.
"What's with the third degree tonight? I didn't think you knew how to talk."
Den huffs on his cigarette. It smells acrid, like burning shoes. She watches the ember at the end flare and fade.
"It's not like I like cooking and cleaning every day," she ventures finally.
"Yeah, well, you're the girl. Sucks to be you."
"Yeah, well, you're a farmer," she says sharply back. "It's not actually any different. I go to town, too."
"Oh, do you?" her brother says, laughing. Her stomach curdles.
"It's not different."
"Of course it is."
But she's angry now, too angry to ask why.
It'll dig at her later. Why is it different? Is it because she's a girl? Because she's stupid? Because Den's the smart one, the handsome one, and if he can't be happy than neither can anyone else? Certainly not her. The baby. The youngest. The girl. Cook dinner for the farmers. The farmers hate their lives and yours is to take care of them. Marry a farmer. Have farmer babies. Of course it's different.
She's the smartest person I know. But Yeza will inherit an apothecary. Yeza's mother manages the accounts of the town Crownsguard. His father used to help run one of the inns in town. His family has money. And learning. Not a lot, but a lot for Felderwin, enough to get their only son an apprenticeship and someday a shop of his own. It doesn't matter if Veth is smart, because Yeza will still get these things and she'll still be just a farmer. Worse than a farmer. The one who cooks and cleans for them.
I'm just like you! She should have yelled at Den, that day. I don't like it either! I feel stuck all the time, no one likes me and who can blame them, I throw rocks at trees and then I make dinner! We should be on the same side. You shouldn't have chased me and pulled my hair and made me cry. You're my brother.
So why's it different? What makes me different? Is it just that I'm less than you? What did I do? What makes me that way? What do you mean, of course it is? Tell me. Please tell me.
She thinks this the entire journey north to Rexxentrum. Turns it over and over in her mind in the carriage, fizzy and angry, her buttons and paper and leather, a letter from Yeza and coins from Dad, all in a box, all resting on her lap.
She goes to the apothecary the next day. Yeza starts to tell her that he really thinks she should talk to Mr. Tversky, he has all his arguments made for her, and Veth interrupts him. I've made up my mind. I want to go to magic school.
He blinks and grins and grasps her shoulders with both hands.
She talks to Mr. Tversky when he returns. He asks her a lot of questions. Does some stuff with items and his hands. She tells her father, her hands in her apron. I'm going to school up north. It's paid for. Thank you. Goodbye.
Of course it's different.