Tsubame sat in the living room bed her mother had made. A large pile of chicken feathers lay in her lap, all that she could scrounge from what remained of them.
Her mother had tried to take them from her. She’d said they would only make it hurt more.
But she wouldn’t be rid of them.
Bertha, Jane, Grenda, Shana, Marge, Felia, Gina, Chandra, Landra, Fandra, Quinnie, Myra, Byra, Shyra, Jillian, Runa, and the ten others.
Resurfacing memories of last night brought with them rising content from her stomach, but she forced it down. Swallowing burned her throat.
If she’d just told Kotori that Mommy had plans to bring in a caster to help with the hags and Daddy’s rescue, then she wouldn’t have gone so far. And if Tsubame hadn’t bothered going along with it to begin with, Kotori wouldn’t have been strong enough to get all of the supplies.
So it was Tsubame’s fault everything turned out this way. Her sister wouldn’t have been able to cast the spell without her. And Tsubame had every chance to say no. But she didn’t.
Rather than dwell on her thoughts, she leafed through her journal and again read the cover story her mother had dictated to her about the newest resident in their home.
It felt awful to lie, but the look on her mother’s face when she’d told her she didn’t want to was stuck still in her mind.
Those lips pulled back into a scowl, and those eyes pinched with a fear she’d never seen before, but that her mother would never admit to: the look reminded her of Kotori.
“Do you want the chickens’ deaths to be in vain?” her mother had said. “Do you want Kotori to get put in jail in Roengrad, or worse?”
Tsubame didn’t want that, and so she took to reading it over and over again. She couldn’t afford to slip up once, or someone might find out and make all the deaths meaningless, and get Kotori locked up.
She looked over at the sound of footsteps, heart briefly jumping at the thought of Kotori being up and about.
It sank slightly when Natalia peeked into the room, but she tried not to let it show.
Natalia didn’t immediately speak, and instead walked over and cupping Tsubame’s cheeks in her hands.
“As your future liege, I command you to feel better…err, please.” Natalia mustered up a commanding tone that persisted up until the last word, when it turned into a quiet plea.
Tsubame blinked, and she giggled. The pain in her chest abated slightly, before blossoming again as the weight of the last twelve hours crashed down upon her like a wave.
She couldn’t say exactly when the giggles turned to sobs, or when tears began rolling down her cheeks, but she wrapped Natalia up into a big hug.
Natalia hugged her back, grunting in pain from Tsubame’s grip.
Tsubame expected more tears, but maybe she’d run out after waking up this morning. Now there was just an empty pit in her stomach that ached when she looked down into it. Or maybe she’d just cry later.
“Do you want a snack? I can buy you a snack,” Natalia said. “Zidan’s probably out and about, I could buy bread from him.”
“No, no. Please stay. Please.”
They stayed glued together a while. If Tsubame was hugging too hard, Natalia wasn’t saying anything.
Tsubame eventually let her arms fall lifelessly to her sides.
Even after she’d completely dried off, her body still felt slow and almost waterlogged somehow. Like this was all some kind of nightmare, and she might wake up any second. Or so she hoped.
Summoning heroes from different worlds? How could any of it have been real?
“You think I’m silly, don’t you?” Tsubame said slowly, her words like water dripping from a leaky faucet. “We’ll get more chickens from the market. Kotori will wake up, and things will be okay. So I’m just being silly.”
“You’re not silly,” Natalia said. “I’m the one that’s silly!”
Tsubame stared at her in silent confusion.
“I’m the one that thought badly of you before I knew about all of this,” Natalia said.
“Yeah, I thought that you just forgot about playing with me. But I should’ve realized that you’re still broken up about your father, and now all this stuff.” Natalia’s gaze fell to the feathers that’d been jostled from their neat pile by their hug.
“Th-That’s what’s left of them,” Tsubame said.
Her face barely had time to return to its former sullenness before Natalia’s hands found their way to her cheeks again.
“Wh-What do you want to do, Tsubame? Is there anything I can do to help?”
Tsubame lapsed into thought at that. What did she want to do? Rescue her father, wake her sister, and just pretend that last night had just been a dream. But she couldn’t pretend. And there was still no sign of daddy anywhere.
“I don’t know,” Tsubame said.
As she looked down at the feathers, an idea came to mind. Maybe it wasn’t right to call it an idea, but it was better than just sitting in bed.
“Can we bury them please?”
Natalia looked at her strangely, but nodded.
“Thanks. If I sit here anymore, I think I’ll get sick again.”
“Does your mother have shovels?”
“I dunno,” Tsubame said. “Maybe we can ask Mrs. Rowena for some? The little ones for gardens?”
“Trowels, I think they’re called,” Natalia said, nodding. “That’ll work. But are you sure there’s nothing left? Feels weird to just bury feathers.”
When Tsubame considered the shed, the memory of that red and veiny blob came to mind.
A shudder racked her from head to toe, and she hugged herself.
“Tsu-Tsubame, I think you should stay here today,” Natalia said, resting her hands on her shoulders. “You’re looking a bit sick.”
“I-I’m okay,” Tsubame said, and shrugged off Natalia’s hands. Her eyes stayed on the scattered feathers. “This is all that’s left.”
She crawled out of bed and got to her feet.
“I’m okay,” she said as Natalia eyed her hesitantly. “My legs aren’t hurt, I can walk.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
Natalia nodded, and Tsubame got dressed. They wound up tying a cloth around the feathers to make a makeshift container for them.
On the way down the second floor corridor, Tsubame lightly knocked on the door to her and Kotori’s bedroom.
“Emma, you awake? We’re leaving, but we’ll be back soon.”
No response came.
“And I’m sorry about what happened.”
No response came.
“I-I love you. No matter what. Even if…” Her voice trailed off, and she tried not to think about last night.
No response came.
Natalia squeezed her shoulder.
“Come on, let’s go.”
Tsubame nodded, and turned away from the door.
Back downstairs, Nia sat in the corner dressed in one of her mother’s spare changes of clothes.
Meanwhile, her mother was speaking to a man in the doorway. Her normally neatly combed hair frizzed out every which way, and a bedraggled air hung over her.
While Tsubame couldn’t see the man’s face, she knew Bronwyd’s wide frame that peeked out from behind her mother’s, and the green cloak he’d never be seen without.
“Thank you again for taking my shift, Bronwyd.”
“Anytime,” he said. “And try to get some rest, you look like you need it. Let me know if you need me or Raila to take Kotori to the healers.”
“I will,” she said. “And Lady Corenlia’s servant gave me some Porculis leaves to help me relax. So I’ll take a nap soon.”
“Porculis?” Bronwyd whistled. “Imported all the way from Byd, I’d bet.”
“Yeah, I owe her quite a lot for that. But she never struck me as the sort to do so much for someone. Always seemed distant.”
There was a moment of silence, and Tsubame couldn’t see Bronwyd’s face.
“What is it, Bronwyd?” her mother said. “If you want to say something, please do.”
When Bronwyd responded, his voice was weighed down with reluctance.
“Rumor has it that she lost her husband in the forest too, years and years ago.”
Another silence reigned, and her mother slouched.
“But we’ll find Tamatoya, I swear,” Bronwyd said quickly. His meaty hands completely covered her mother’s shoulders. “Even if you can’t go, me, Raila, and Nessian will. Might rope Zidan in too, if we can. I’ll send him your way. But Tamatoya knows the forest and trees well, and it’s only been a couple weeks. He’ll be okay.”
“You know that I’m not worried about him getting lost,” she said.
Then her mother turned at the sound of Tsubame and Natalia approaching. The pinched anxiety to her eyes didn’t quite vanish in time, and Tsubame winced at the sight.
“A-Are you okay?”
A moment too late, her mother plastered on a smile.
“I’m doing okay, Tsubame,” she said. “How’re you doing? And where’re you two off to?”
“Just to Mrs. Rowena’s place,” Tsubame said, trying to put her mother’s expression out of her mind. “We’ll be okay, Mommy. If anyone bad comes, I’ll punch them really hard.”
“Hey Tsubame, Natalia,” Bronwyd called past her mother from the doorway. “Hope your sister’s doing better.”
Her mother’s frown didn’t abate, but before anything more could be said, Nia stood up. Her face was troubled and nervous, but her eyes looked back and forth between hers and Natalia’s faces.
At Nia’s movement, her mother turned to Bronwyd.
“I-I think you should go,” she said. The fear in her voice reminded Tsubame of when they’d stumbled upon a bear cub in the forest. Her mother had begun glancing around for its mother as she ferried Tsubame away.
And just like that time, her mother’s eyes turned a bit pinched when Nia stood up. But she tried to smile in spite of that, her tone turning unusually soft.
And maybe a bit nervous?
“Is everything okay, Nia? Maybe you should sleep some more?” She mimed resting her head on a pillow made from her hands, but Nia shook her head.
“Marz scroon,” she said, gesturing to Tsubame and Natalia.
Nia’s lips pressed tight, and she rolled her eyes. She pointed at Konoe and then toward the ceiling, where Kotori slept. Then she walked behind the two girls and squeezed their shoulders.
Konoe stared at her, and tentatively began making her way to the stairs with brief glances at Nia.
Nia nodded, and brought the two girls closer to her.
“It seems like she wants to go with you,” Konoe said. “While I keep an eye on Kotori. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, but…”
That previous glimmer of nervousness came back as she looked at Nia, and Tsubame followed her mother’s gaze.
Nia didn’t look like a bad person. A bit tired, maybe. Her eyes had bags under them.
Nia shifted beneath their gazes. Breathing in deeply, she reached over and ruffled Tsubame’s hair.
“Tsu-Tsubame,” she said.
Natalia looked over at Tsubame for permission.
“I guess that’s fine?” Tsubame said, nodding to Nia.
Nia smiled with relief.
Her footwear was awful, so she put on Konoe’s summer sandals. When they’d left the house, morning autumn gusts of wind chilled her feet, but she grit her teeth and simply waved away the girls’ looks of concern.
“So what did she end up coming here with?” Natalia said. “Something had to have made it through the ship ride, right?”
“The ship ride?” It took a moment for Tsubame to remember the details of Nia’s cover story. She nodded eagerly. “Ah, right! Yeah, I think the salt water and sea things really messed up her clothes. And all of her other stuff, too.”
“So she’s in a foreign country with nothing?” Natalia frowned.
Tsubame knew that expression. Much like Kotori’s, there would be no changing Natalia’s mind once she’d made it up.
“Yeah,” she said. “Mommy is helping her out as best she can, but without daddy, things are hard.”
“Yeah, Mrs. Hikou said that,” Natalia said.
They glanced back at Nia, who was too busy looking around at the houses and other townsfolk to pay them much mind. But she kept a firm grip on their hands as they walked all the same.
As they walked the street, passersby stared at Nia.
“Haven’t seen her around.”
“You think she’s Dainian or Nillian?”
“Mixed? Nillians have darker eyes, don’t they?”
Rather than seem embarrassed, Nia sighed and uttered words that Tsubame couldn’t understand. But her tone carried a certain weight, maybe resignation.
But she stopped looking around all the same.
For a time, the trio walked without an interruption. But eventually Zidan’s reedy voice trailed up the street toward them.
“Hey Tsubame, Lady Natalia!” he said, walking from an elderly couple’s home after making a delivery. His pack of items was less bulky than usual. “How’re you two doing?”
“Better, I guess?” Tsubame shrugged. Walking around in the open air had helped chase away the sickened feeling from her stomach, at least. Even if her worries were still there, waiting to chew on her ankles the moment she thought she was safe.
“We’re on our way to bury some chickens,” Natalia said. “What’s left of them, anyway.”
“Ah. Best of luck,” he said. “Awful time to lose them.” Then he smiled at Nia. “And who’re you?”
Nia smiled back and waved. Then she pointed to herself.
“Yup, She’s named Nia,” Tsubame said. “From Dainai. She doesn’t really know anyone. Doesn’t speak Meliodan either, so it’s been a little tough.”
“Is that right? I’ve heard stories of refugees fleeing here, but usually they’re from Byd, Ferris, or Aubergiesse,” Zidan said, stroking his chin. “Didn’t think they’d come from across the ocean. But I guess you and yours came from Eternia, so I shouldn’t be surprised.”
He pointed to himself.
“Hello Nia. I am Zidan Balstra,” he said, speaking his words slowly. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Hello Zidan. It’s…nice…to meet…you.”
“That’s the ticket,” he said, his smile broadening.
Nia’s smile broadened.
“It’s nice to meet you,” she repeated, more quickly.
Natalia watched this exchange with a thoughtful furrow to her brow.
“I’ll get back to my deliveries, but it was nice to meet you both,” Zidan said. “Give your sister and mum my regards, Tsubame. And yours too, Natalia.”
Tsubame’s smile strained, imagining Kotori alone and asleep in her bedroom. Mommy would be there with her, but that wasn’t the same.
She was stronger than Kotori, and could’ve wrestled her away. But she didn’t.
Mommy said they should love and be kind to each other, that they should support each other. They were sisters, and that when they were older, they would only have each other to rely on.
But if Tsubame had known what would happen to the chickens and begged Kotori to stop, would Kotori have listened?
Was the fact that she was even asking this question showing doubt in her faith in Kotori?
Her hand being squeezed pulled her from her reverie, and she found Nia looking at her with eyes fraught with concern.
“Tsubame,” she said, her voice gentle, yet firm.
“Come on, let’s find some trowels,” Natalia said.
Tsubame nodded to them both, and turned back to Zidan.
“We’ll be going now Zidan, but we’ll see you later! I’ll let you know when she’s okay.”
Zidan waved farewell, and left them to continue their walk to the Rowena residence.
Maybe her worry showed on her face, since Natalia turned to look at her.
“Hey, you okay?” she said, and Tsubame looked up from her thoughts.
“Oh. Yeah. Just…worried about big sis, that’s all.”
“Mmm…” Natalia fidgeted her hands while she walked.
“...it’s my fault she’s like that, y’know?” Tsubame murmured.
“No it isn’t,” Natalia said quickly, and Tsubame looked at her with surprise.
“B-But you weren’t there,” Tsubame protested. “You weren’t there when she…” But she couldn’t finish that. A quick glance at Nia kept her quiet.
Natalia pouted, and squeezed Tsubame’s hand.
“I have an idea. When we get back to town, everything will be okay.”
“I…yeah,” Tsubame said, nodding. “Thanks Natalia.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Maybe Natalia wasn’t convinced. Tsubame wasn’t even convinced by her own words, but her friend was too caught up in whatever scheme she’d been hatching to notice. Kinda like Kotori, not that Natalia would admit that. And wouldn’t like it if Tsubame said that out loud to her. So she didn’t. Better to say nothing at all than something mean, after all.
And so the two didn’t talk much after that, and Nia didn’t say anything. She kept her staring to a minimum, and kept a firm grasp on Tsubame and Natalie.
While they cut through the market, Tsubame kept her head down lest someone ask her about yesterday’s purchases. Mrs. Rowena probably would, but she’d tackle that when it came to it.
Their trek to the Rowena home took them quite far, past the outskirts of town and toward distant fields where farmers grew their crops and set their livestock to graze.
“Why do they have to live so far away?” Natalia eventually whined between pants. “We should’ve asked someone else back in town. Zidan, maybe.”
Tsubame powered through it in spite of Natalia’s whining. She wasn’t sure what drove her. This wouldn’t bring Bertha, Grenda, or any of the rest back to her. But putting one foot in front of the other was easier than thinking. As though she was letting the road lead her in a stupor.
Nia didn’t whine, but her breath did come out a bit heavy after a while. So maybe she wasn’t the most athletic or fit. Another glance at her found that she was lean and had little fat, but also little muscle or scarring.
But her patience had its limits, it seemed, since about halfway there, she had them stop.
“What is it, Nia?” Tsubame said.
Rather than the pure annoyance she might’ve expected, Tsubame found a softness and experience in the woman’s eyes.
Nia walked around the two girls and crouched down, presenting her back to Natalia.
“I think she wants you to get on her back,” Tsubame said.
“I know what she means,” Natalia said between pants. “But a complete stranger carrying me on their back? I don’t know what grandmother, mother, or father would say about that. Or Mrs. Bartleby.”
“Then we won’t tell them?” Tsubame said. “And it’s not like Nia can tell them either.”
“I-I guess…embarrassing though.”
“Ithikei,” Nia said.
“Okay, okay,” Natalia said, and clambered on.
Nia stood up, and slowly got to her feet. When she’d reaffirmed her grip on Natalia, the trio headed off again.
Her footsteps were awkward at first, weighed down by the person she carried, but after a few steps, she settled into a comfortable pace. Maybe she was used to carrying people?
Natalia settled her head into the crook of the woman’s neck, and breathed in deeply.
“She smells weird.” Natalia’s nose wrinkled.
Had that red stuff not completely come out after two baths? Just how foul was it?
Tsubame tried to free her hand from Nia’s grasp so she could take a few steps away, but Nia clung on steadfastly with a disapproving look. Even though Tsubame could’ve broken away with ease with a bit more effort, the sternness in Nia’s gaze discouraged her.
“M-Maybe it’s just the smell of the ship she came here on?” Tsubame said, praying that Natalia bought that idea. At the very least, it didn’t seem like she’d ever gone on long sea voyages before.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” she said, and didn’t say anything more about it.
Tsubame could barely conceal a sigh of relief.
The road grew more brambly, and twin wheel impressions in the dirt from farmers’ carts over countless days led them to several farms, stretches of fenced off land, and unfenced land where livestock, mainly goats and horses, grazed.
As they wandered through those pastures, Nia’s eyes misted over. The softness to her expression reminded Tsubame of when her mother would talk about her younger years and stories of her father, long before Tsubame and Kotori had been born.
Then Nia began to lightly sing a tune. Her offkey and slightly shrill voice left Tsubame and Natalia wincing. But Tsubame motioned for her friend to not interrupt after another look at Nia’s expression.
The words were lost on her, but most of the syllables Nia sang were short. An occasional “ohm”, “hah”, “ah”, and a couple others were held out for longer. The strung together syllables seemed too complicated to be something that’d been made up on the spot.
Rarely, she would frown and briefly stop singing, as though she was trying to remember a part. Some pauses were longer than others, but she always continued where she’d left off, until the song was done.
It didn’t take long for the fenced off fields of the Rowena farm to come into view, as did their large barn and farmhouse.
“Hey Borst.” Tsubame waved to one of the grazing horses. It let out a small neigh in response. Its tail warded away flies.
“Borst,” Nia said, nodding. And then gestured toward another of the other, smaller horses with the tip of her shoe, given her hands were supporting Natalia. “Borst?”
Tsubame’s head tilted to the side, but after a moment, she giggled in spite of herself.
“Nono,” she said, shaking her head.
Tsubame pointed to herself.
Then she pointed to Natalia, and Nia.
“Natalia, Nia,” she added, before finally pointing to Borst and the other horse. “Borst. Hurist.”
Then she spread her arm wide, to encompass all of the four horses in the field.
“Hor…ses,” Tsubame said slowly. “They’re called hor…ses. Horses.”
After a moment, Nia blushed at her mistake. She nodded furiously.
“Hors,” she said. Tsubame didn’t even have to correct her before she grumbled at her mistake, face reddening even further, and spluttered out, “H-Horses!”
“That’s it,” Tsubame said, grinning.
“Horses,” Nia called again, and was met with a bray from the roan-coated Hurist.
“Yeah, we’ve got horses,” came a young man’s voice from the fenced off grove of vegetables.
They turned from the horses to find a muscular Bert picking bean pods. A man of eighteen years, he stood one and a half times Tsubame’s height, with bulky arms to match. Flecks of brown hair trailed down his limbs and cheeks.
“Hey tiny warrior,” he said with a grin at Tsubame. “If you need something from her, mum went to see the apothecary about something or other. She ought to be back in a couple hours. But you need something in the meantime?”
Then he noticed Natalia and Nia and bowed with a hand over his chest.
“And it’s an honor to meet you.”
Natalia puffed out her chest. Were she anymore smug, canary feathers might’ve graced her lips.
“Your appreciation has been duly noted.”
He approached them, striding past Tsubame, and winked at Nia.
“Can’t say I’ve seen you around before,” he remarked. “And I’d remember if I did.”
Nia glanced around uncertainly before mustering up a polite smile.
Tsubame glanced back and forth between the two of them.
“Uhh, she can’t understand you, Bert.”
Bert blinked, and whirled back to look at Tsubame.
“That was the best line I’ve come up with in weeks!”
“And its poor quality speaks for itself,” Natalia huffed from atop her perch on Nia’s shoulders. “I think you should find a better use of your time. Perhaps start with learning better manners.”
“Yes yes, ‘my lady’,” Bert said, rolling his eyes.
“We’ll call that a rough start,” Natalia said.
“Anyway, why’re you here again?” Bert said, looking at Tsubame.
“We just wanted to see if you had a trowel? Have to bury some chickens. Or what’s left
of them,” Tsubame said, shuddering at the memory.
“Hey, you all right?” Bert said, paying Nia barely another glance at the first sign of Tsubame’s discomfort.
“Yeah, I’m just…do you have a trowel? I really need one.”
“Yeah, we’ve got a couple. Mind coming into the house?” He bade that they follow, and made for the red and white building.
“Sure!” Tsubame followed after the farmhand, and Nia set Natalia down.
“I think my legs are still sore,” Natalia said.
Nia frowned at her obvious lie, and followed Tsubame without another word.
Natalia pouted, but moved forward without further protest.
The inside of the Rowena farmhouse was rather cramped: most of the interior was filled with tools for farming like hoes, rakes, and the like, or shelves bearing bottles of muddy-colored tinctures Mrs. Rowena would swear by all the gods that they worked, but Tsubame’s mother told her to always decline.
And yet Nia eyed them with an interested look, but she wisely didn’t try the contents.
“Where’s Ernie?” Tsubame said, edging past a few hoes leaned up against a wall.
“Practicing swordplay somewhere,” Bert said, shrugging. “Mum tried to talk him out of it, saying that he won’t get drafted, but he’s scared witless. But don’t tell him that.”
“So who’s your friend?” Bert said, arriving at a small assortment of tools in the corner of one of the rooms. “Haven’t seen anyone like her before.”
“From Dainai,” Tsubame said, hoping he didn’t pry. It was a good thing Ernie wasn’t the one they’d met.
“Dainai? Came pretty far inland then,” Bert said. “But from mum’s old stories about the ports, she’d have been eaten alive. Good thing she didn’t stick around.”
“Yeah,” Tsubame said, nodding.
He handed them two trowels.
“Thank you!” Tsubame said, handing one to Natalia and keeping the other for herself.
“So what happened to the chickens?” Bert said. “I figure your mum had some weird magic thing on the coop to keep wolves or badgers out.”
“Some magic stuff,” Tsubame said, hoping he didn’t pry.
“Sounds like that sister of yours bit off more than she could chew,” Bert remarked. “Can’t say I’m surprised. How’s she doing, by the way?”
“Not great,” Tsubame said. “I think that thing she wanted to try rattled her really badly.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Bert said, squeezing her shoulder with a dirt-crusted hand. “When mum gets back, I’ll tell her that and bring over whatever she ends up whipping up for your sister.”
“Thank you so much, Bert,” Tsubame said, beaming at him.
He grinned back.
“Anytime,” he said. As the trio made to leave, he waved to Nia, and smiled in lieu of saying words that she wouldn’t get anyway.
She smiled back uncertainly, but shepherded the two girls away.
As they walked, Natalia turned back to Nia.
“I have a deal for you, Nia Kumar,” she said.
Nia tilted her head at the mention of her name.
“What kind of deal?” Tsubame said.
“I’ve got a tutor back at my home,” she said. “And since she doesn’t know our language, I’ll just have him teach her. And in exchange, she can tell me about Dainai once she knows it.”
Her hands folded over her chest at the end of her declaration, her mouth drawn into a confident smirk.
Tsubame blinked, not expecting this to have been stirring in her friend’s head.
“B-But why?” she said, scrambling to think of a way to maintain the lie her mother had made. The suffering Kotori would go through if the truth was discovered ran through her head. “There isn’t much in Dainai to really talk about, is there?”
“I don’t know,” Natalia said. “Why do you think I’m asking her?”
She pointed at Nia, whose brow furrowed as she struggled to make sense of this. Her eyes glanced back and forth between Tsubame’s troubled and nervous expression and Natalia’s firm look.
“Look, let’s just bury the chickens, and talk about this later, okay?” Tsubame urged. If they did it close to home, then maybe her mother could come in and keep this all from exploding in her face. She was having Bronwyd cover for her at work, so she would be there.
Maybe Natalia thought the anxiety in her voice was sadness for the chickens, as her eyes softened.
“Sorry,” she said. “Yeah, we can talk about it after.”
Eventually, Natalia had to carry Nia again, and did so without an initial stumble this time. But her expression was firmer than the walk to the Rowena farm had been. Her mouth was set into a firm line from which no songs came this time. Her eyes trained on the horizon ahead of her.
When they returned to town, rather than go to bury the chickens, Natalia led Tsubame and Nia down the road and past the Hikou home.
“Wh-Where are we going?” Tsubame said.
“The apothecary,” Natalia said. “I said I had an idea, didn’t I?”
“Wait, the tutor thing wasn’t that?”
“I can have more than one,” Natalia said, pouting.
Tsubame had never been one to visit the apothecary. Potions and salves weren’t her specialty, and she’d nod off whenever Kotori or her father would try to tell her more about them. But the apothecary couldn’t cast magic, as far as Tsubame knew.
“Y-You sure she’ll be able to do anything?” Tsubame said, recalling the details of that night.
The flash of lightning, the crack of thunder, and that red thing that pulsed like a heart.
Nia saw Tsubame shudder, and took the girl’s hand.
“We won’t know unless we try.”
Natalia led them deeper into town, and the whispers about Nia’s unusual skin tone returned with a vengeance.
They cut through the markets to reach the apothecary. As they made her way through the stalls, Tsubame noticed a pair of priests wearing strange masks that covered the lower halves of their faces. Smiling mouths had been drawn on these masks.
Natalia frowned at them.
“I understand that times are difficult,” one of these masked priests said to Mr. Reed. They swept a hand over his wares–or rather, his wife’s wares. “But the emperor’s forces require your food. You will be reimbursed eventually.”
“Those robes, is that silk? ‘Cause they’re looking pretty fancy to me,” said Mr. Reed, his frame towering over the priests’. His large dog that’d been leashed nearby, Jeffrey, seemed to sense his owner’s disgruntlement, and barked at the priests. “Guess times aren’t that tough after all, huh?”
“We can’t feed an army with our robes,” the second of these priests said. “Everyone must do their part if we’re to work through this conflict.”
“You sent some of our sons off to fight your fight,” Mr. Reed said. “We’ve done our part.”
“Our fight, sir.”
“I don’t see you guys sending your sons.”
“We don’t have any sons, sir. Blissra asks that his devotees remain celibate.”
“Awfully convenient for you, huh? I’ll bet that he doesn’t like his followers fighting, too.”
Jeffrey barked again, and the two priests glanced down at the hound. One of them retreated a half-step, while the other stood their ground.
Nearby townsfolk glanced at Mr. Reed and Jeffrey warily, whispering warnings and attempts at diffusing the situation.
The priest that stood their ground gestured to the violet sash around their arm.
“We represent one of the Hell Divers,” the priest said.
Another ripple ran through nearby townsfolk.
“A Hell Diver?”
“All the way from Giormund? What do they want with us?”
Mr. Reed’s frown deepened as his nose wrinkled. Nevertheless, he reached down to calm Jeffrey down with some pets.
“Please take this into consideration as you make decisions,” the priest said.
Natalia walked past them, brushing the robe of the priest that had retreated back from Jeffrey.
“Pardon me,” she said.
The priests started at the sight of the young noblewoman.
“Ah, of course, my lady. I hope you have a good evening.”
A chorus of similar well wishes came from the townsfolk.
The apothecary was south of the markets, a smaller building painted green and blue. The attention to detail was obsessive, the many shades of the colors used gave the impression that the apothecary was a small hill covered in grass and bluebell flowers. Why Foucine stayed in this small town when she could have a far better livelihood as a famous painter in Giormund, Tsubame didn’t know.
Natalia knocked on the door.
It didn’t take long for a woman’s voice to answer the door.
Natalia cleared her throat, and put on the best noble tone she could muster.
“This is Natalia Corenlia,” Natalia called. “May I come in?”
“Oh, of course! I hope that tincture the other day helped your grandmother.” Footfalls sounded from the other side of the door, and Natalia took a step back just in time for Foucine wrenched it open.
The apothecary looked to be in her early twenties, with a figure like that of Tsubame’s mother. Her hair had been pulled into a dark red bun, with streaks of blue running through it, giving the impression that a flower grew from the back of her head. She wore an apron, stained with dark green and brown, over her forest green skirt and blouse.
“Any news about Tamatoya?” Foucine said, before either Natalia or Tsubame could even open their mouths. Tsubame stepped back at the sheer intensity of the apothecary’s gaze.
Tsubame hung her head at the mention of her father.
“Ah, no, nothing yet,” Natalia said.
Foucine’s shoulders slumped, and the zest in her eyes briefly waned.
“Err, well, come in then!” Foucine said, recovering with a wane smile, and patted Tsubame’s shoulder. “Want me to make you something? Something to help you sleep, maybe? The gods know I’ve needed it.” As she spoke, Foucine moved aside to let them inside.
“Not sleepy, but…it’s my sister,” Tsubame said.
Even as she talked, she wasn’t sure how much she could say before word got out about what Kotori had done. If only her mother were here.
“I suppose she’s not taking her father’s…absence well,” Foucine said. “I’ll make whatever I can to help the poor dear.”
She shepherded the three inside, and looked at Nia in confusion.
“I don’t think I’ve seen your face before.”
“She’s new around here,” Natalia said, waving the words aside. “That’s not important right now.”
“Yes yes, of course. Kotori is our priority.”
The apothecary’s ground floor consisted of rows of shelves laden with tinctures, salves, and potions, with scrawled on labels for each indicating what type each shelf bore. The countless colors and bottles combined to carry a certain air of whimsy throughout the shop.
A few young men were busy perusing the stalls, but their eyes seemed to linger on the Foucine more than anything else. When Natalia, Tsubame, and Nia entered, they paid the latter a brief glance before seeming to ignore her.
“So what’s wrong with your sister, Tsubame?” Foucine said. “Be as specific as you can.”
“Sh-She’s fallen into a deep sleep,” Tsubame said. “And she isn’t waking up. Her eyes are squeezed tight, but she can’t seem to hear us when we talk to her.”
“Poor thing. Did she hit her head at all?” Foucine said, glancing at each of the shelves with every word Tsubame said. “She might’ve suffered a concussion. Or maybe she hadn’t gotten much sleep, and her body finally forced her to rest? Lack of sleep can addle someone’s mind quite a bit.”
“Err, I’m not sure. She was doing stuff with vegetables, fruits, and fish?” And chickens, but she couldn’t say that with Natalia here. Then Natalie would ask questions. And she couldn’t lie to Natalie. Friends wouldn’t lie to each other.
“So she might’ve gotten sick from handling them, especially if they’re unwashed,” Foucine said, nodding. “I’d like to examine her myself, if that would be okay?”
“I-I don’t think my mommy would like that,” Tsubame said. “She wouldn’t want to get other people sick. Just in case.”
“I would take care not to put everyone at risk, but fair enough. I would never go against a mother’s wishes where her child is concerned,” Foucine said, and began wandering down one of the rows. “But if she isn’t waking up, then a variance of a smellingsalt might be useful. From what you’re saying, it doesn’t seem like she’s unconscious, but it can’t hurt to try.”
She plucked a small yellow bottle from a shelf and held it out to Tsubame.
“Here you go,” she said. “And if this doesn’t work, let me know and I’ll try to come up with something different. But I would appreciate being able to see her, if this doesn’t. No sense giving you more things if none of them will work.”
“I’ll talk with mommy. But thank you Foucine.”
Tsubame rummaged through her pockets, only to find she’d brought no coin. But Natalia came to the rescue, and plonked down a small bag of coin onto the table.
“Here you are,” Natalia said, putting on a breathy noble voice.
But Foucine waved it off.
“O-Oh,” Natalia said, looking a bit put out. “Are you sure?”
Tsubame smiled at the show of charity, and hung her head in appreciation.
“You’re welcome,” Foucine said, and fondled Tsubame’s hair. “It’s the least I can do, considering it’s my fault Tamatoya…” Her voice trailed off, and she hung her head.
“It-It wasn’t,” Tsubame said, looking up to frown at her. “You couldn’t have known he’d have gone to the forest after coming here. Mommy and Kotori don’t blame you either!”
“But if I’d kept him here, he wouldn’t have gone at all,” she said. “Look, just take it, okay? Please? And tell your mother and sister that I’ll make time for them if they ever want to talk. And that goes for you too, of course.”
“Thank you Foucine,” Natalia said, and pocketed the smellingsalt.
“You’re welcome. Let me know if Kotori gets better or worse. Do you know how to apply it?”
“Err, Mommy probably does.”
“Then best of luck.”
And so the three of them left the apothecary with the smellingsalt in hand.