Verity sat in the backyard, surrounded by the wild plants and the struggling ones that had once upon a time been cultivated. There was work to be done, an enormous amount of work, but that would have to wait for later. She was hoping that there was plenty of equipment, like a sun hat, gloves, a trowel, a hand rake, and a water can that would hopefully connect up to a water tank inside the house … but for the moment, what she needed was not to work, but to be alone. The best way she knew of doing that was immersing herself in music. She began idly playing her lute, hoping that a song would find her.
“A merry lass with hair of red / she mends the sick and bakes her bread,” Verity murmured. It was too straightforward though, the kind of direct song that always felt a bit cloying to her. It was always better to approach a subject from the side, in layers of metaphor and simile, not that Verity thought she was any great lyricist.
“The wolf he stood so tall and proud, trying to find a pack / but when he found the other four,” the rhyme failed to come, as it sometimes did. “Their bonds had too much slack,” she tried, but it didn’t sound quite right. If Alfric was the wolf in this metaphor, a strong, noble creature, then he was a wolf who had found a pack that didn’t quite fit him, and he was struggling to turn them into wolves when that was clearly not what they were best suited for. Verity was never going to be a metaphorical wolf.
“The wolf, he knew the secret / of the frightened widow’s heart,” Verity continued. “He stilled his tongue and kept his word / as he watched her make her art.” Again, this wasn’t quite right, the kind of thing that would need to be massaged in a hundred different ways before she’d feel like it was worthwhile to sing for anyone. “For if the wolf spoke freely / he knew the widow would depart.”
She thought about that for a moment. It was clear that Alfric did know, but it wasn’t clear to Verity what she would do if he told the others. She knew how she would feel, angry, depressed, anxious, and betrayed. She could already feel those emotions welling up inside her in anticipation of it happening, even though there was nothing to indicate that it ever actually would. It was a storm that felt largely contained within her gut, as bad as any pre-performance jitters. But as for what she would do, that remained a mystery to her. She could leave Pucklechurch, but it was clear that her nine months of playing in the tavern had been nothing but a reprieve from the clawing grasp of home.
Verity had been an exceptional musician from a young age, in part because her parents had pushed her into it. She’d tried three other instruments before settling on the lute, though she had a particular affection for singing to accompany herself, something that her instructors had reluctantly indulged. She was perhaps twelve years old when she first realized that she was being groomed for something. Her musical instructors began talking to her about parties and guilds, and the ways that bardic magic was used in them to boost the powers of everyone involved.
It was clear to Verity that for her parents, this wasn’t simply about wealth, though a bard of her predicted caliber would make a fair amount of money with the right placement. It also wasn’t simply a matter of public service, though there was some element of that, as though she had some obligation to do the thing she was good at, above and beyond the ability of others to pay her for it. But no, the overriding concern seemed to be that of status, the nebulous quality that her mother had a keen eye for. Some of this was with designs toward finding a good match for her, but some of it was simply to make sure she reflected well on ‘the family’ in terms of whom she was playing with, what she was playing, and what awards or accolades she’d achieved.
All that had been miserable enough, as though it was an attempt to deliberately destroy her love of music, but everything had changed when she was fifteen.
She had been Chosen.
Six was a magical number. It was the number of sides of a hexagon, the number of strings on her lute, and the number of gods. Each of the six gods had a Holy City, and each of them had six sets of six sets of six Chosen. Two hundred and sixteen for each god sometimes seemed like an enormous amount, and other times seemed like barely any at all.
Verity had been waiting on a market street for her mother, who was looking for more decorations for their house, this time with an eye towards coating the Dungeon Room with all kinds of nicely evocative henlings. The store promised ‘Notions from Elsewhere’, and Verity had stepped out, in part to get some air, and in part to have a break from her mother’s verbalizations about what might look good in which location, which the shopkeeper seemed happy to listen to and offer opinions on.
Verity had been humming a tune to herself when she felt her hands suddenly clasped by a man in fine clothes. She pulled back at once, but his eyes were glowing, and she found herself transfixed. Besides, he was much stronger than she was. He pulled her close and spoke in a language that Verity didn’t understand, his warm breath on her face as the words spilled out of him. Then, almost as soon as it began, it was over, and the man had released her. He was blinking, his eyes no longer glowing, and he seemed a bit taken aback that there was a young girl in front of him looking at him with wide eyes. He mumbled an apology, then took off down the street, moving at a jog and occasionally looking back at her before disappearing around a corner.
She hadn’t said anything when her mother had come out of the store with a paper bag filled with curiosities. By that time, her hands had stopped shaking, and while the image of the glowing eyes had remained, the encounter was starting to fade.
The second time it happened, Verity had been in one of the conservatory’s practice rooms. A small woman had burst in, interrupting the music, and again said something in that same alien language. This time though, as Verity watched the glowing eyes, she heard a phrase she recognized, or rather, a name: Xuphin, one of the six gods, the God of Infinity. Again, the glowing eyes faded, and the woman seemed confused about where she was and why, but unlike the man, she didn’t seem frightened and afraid. Instead, she was angry, and having nothing else to do with that anger, she directed it toward Verity. The matter escalated up the conservatory, until eventually it was brought to the attention of a cleric, who recognized it for what it was.
This, the Choosing, happened four more times. Two of them had been public, one of them at a conservatory, the other at a temple of Qymmos, and word had spread, to the delight of Verity’s parents. Chosen were rare. Chosen were special. Sometimes, anyway.
The Church of Xuphin sent clerics over to confirm, and it was formally announced that Verity was joining the exclusive ranks of the Chosen. This position, if you could call it that, came with no formal training or duties. It held no powers. Instead, it came with status and the weight of expectation. The Chosen sometimes had divine revelations, or at least unique insights, and sometimes they contributed to the world a Great Work. If you were Chosen, it was because one of the gods had a plan for you, one of a specific nature, or perhaps, they knew something about you, something they liked. Given that Verity was a promising young bard, it was supposed by the clerics that she would contribute a song at some point, either a song of infinity or something of that nature. But sometimes, Chosen became nothing special. Whatever purpose their Choosing had been for passed by, unseen and unknown. The gods never offered clarification.
Verity had read up on the other Chosen of Xuphin, trying to understand what it meant. One of the most important Chosen of Xuphin was an ectad engineer who was responsible for discovering a stabilizing agent that could be used to nearly triple the lifetime of ectads. Another had worked on advancements in land reclamation, expanding territory out into the seas. A third had been the architect on the largest building in Dondrian. That was Xuphin: big, splashy, expansive, always more, driving toward the impossibility of infinity. Yet some of his Chosen seemed to be nothing more than tradesmen or teachers, simple, unchallenging roles. Still, there was an expectation that came with being Chosen, and a prestige.
Whatever doors had been closed to Verity before, they were now opened. She had offers to play with all sorts of people, and for all sorts of people, enough that at sixteen she had her own wealth separate from her parents. She was given special attention at the conservatory from all kinds of people who wanted to have the distinction of having helped her, or at least being able to say that they had.
And through it all, Verity felt that she wasn’t making her best music. She would play and people would preen, but her magic was weaker than most adult bards, and the praise of the bardic masters towards her musical ability seemed tainted by the fact that she was Chosen, destined for greatness in some capacity, if she didn’t end up becoming nothing instead.
She had done some work to set her affairs in order before leaving. She’d talked to the Church of Xuphin, which had tried to convince her to stay, and she’d talked to her parents, who had demanded that she stay, but she was seventeen, the age of majority, and no one had the authority to stop her. She left in the dead of the night, leaving a note behind but not saying where she was going.
Alfric surely knew all of this. It was why he had sought her out. It wasn’t clear what Alfric thought she would do for Xuphin or Infinity, but presumably he thought she would do something. There were infinidungeons, she knew, not places with four or five rooms like the one in Pucklechurch, but the kind that were so deep you would never get to the bottom of them, if they had a bottom at all. There were dungeons in the heart of Dondrian that had fortifications built around them, and which you couldn’t attempt without all manner of mages standing guard outside, and a chrononaut to undo it. Perhaps that was Alfric’s ultimate goal. Well, if it was, Verity would simply refuse. She had been doing perfectly well pretending that she wasn’t Chosen, and it wasn’t like Xuphin or his Church had any particular mandate or expectation for her.
“Strawberry hair / strawberry fair,” Verity tried, strumming her lute. “Strawberry wares, and strawberry prayers.” The lyrics were getting worse as her thoughts drifted away from the music. Sometimes the songs came easily and freely, as it had when leaving that first dungeon, and other times it was like she was stuck in the mud.
“I live in a garden, abandoned so long, I sit on the ground, and I sing my sad song, but with time, the garden, shall rise up anew, and at least, in my sadness, I’ll have a nice view.” Verity sighed and set the lute back into its case.
“Alright garden,” she said to the plants. “It’s time to start getting you into shape.”
With some time to take it all in, the garden wasn’t quite as bad as Verity had thought the first time she’d seen it. There were almost certain to have been casualties of neglect, but they had likely died early on, and what was left were cultivated plants that had been hardy enough to survive, and a number of weeds that had put deep roots into the rich, loamy soil.
Different areas of the garden had clearly been kept for different purposes. Close to the house, there was a large, wide pot in a place of prominence, where purple-headed chives were fighting with a thick, dark mint. If there had been other herbs, they had been consumed in the war between those two remaining plants.
Further from the house, but still in a part of the garden where stone tiles dominated, there were a number of raised beds that Verity imagined had been for flowers, or perhaps decoration of some other kind, though it was hard to tell what was weed and what wasn’t. There were benches on the stone tile, and an area with what appeared to be a fire pit, though there was no wood anywhere nearby. Most likely, Verity would have to find a guide to local plants and pull everything that could be positively identified as a weed, but given what Mizuki had said about the history of the house, it seemed likely that some of these plants originated in Kiromo, and she didn’t want to pull anything that couldn’t be replaced.
Beyond the patio area of the garden, where most of the (presumably) decorative elements were, there was a fairly large patch of ground that had clearly once been a fruit and vegetable garden. The most obvious survivors were tomatoes and possibly some potatoes, along with onions that looked like they had gone feral, and aside from those, a strawberry patch that surely had killed some other plants in the course of its expansion, with runners going outside the stone edging. It was a quite large plot, large enough that Verity thought it likely someone had put on a major bottling effort to put things up for the winter. It was interesting, in a way, to look at a garden like this, one which sat untouched for perhaps five years. To know what to do with the space, Verity had to determine what someone else had planned. It would take some careful work to see what could be salvaged and what needed to be tossed out.
Finally, beyond the garden plot, there were plants around the house, though these seemed in better condition, if in need of pruning and care. There were also a number of trees, some of them clearly foreign, or at least nothing like Verity had seen during her long trip to Pucklechurch, or even in Dondrian.
Gardening was different in Dondrian, and not just because of the warmer climate. Verity’s home was deep in the city, rather than being a country estate, and they had to make do with a greenroom that jutted out from the third floor. Verity had loved the greenroom, especially in winter, when the sun came in through the glass ceiling and walls to heat the place up, and it took on a bit of swampiness without the normal airflow from outside. It was one of the only places you could get properly humid in the winter, and the smell of leaves and soil on top of that was all the better.
This kind of garden, in the backyard of Mizuki’s large house, was altogether different. The plants weren’t in neat little pots like back in the greenroom. There were weeds everywhere, which Verity had only occasionally had to deal with in her greenroom, usually from a batch of soil that hadn’t been properly cleaned. The plants here were subject to the winds and the rains, their water not carefully administered by a small, weak waterstone. There was, perhaps, something to like in the wildness on display, but there were so many complications that came with the true outdoors that Verity couldn’t say that it was what she would have chosen.
As with most things, a huge and daunting project could be made a lot simpler by taking it in pieces. Verity focused on the large pot next to the house that held the herbs, which was the smallest element of the rambling, overgrown garden, and the most like what she had known back in Dondrian. She was searching around to see if there was, perhaps, a survivor of the war between the chives and mint that could be nursed back to health, when Mizuki came back from town.
“How’s it going?” she asked.
“Poorly,” said Verity, giving her most cheerful smile. It felt false. “I don’t know what half these plants even are, since some are surely local to Pucklechurch, and some were presumably brought from Kiromo. I have no idea which is which, and I somewhat doubt that you do either.” She pointed at the big pot. “The mint and chives have taken over, and I’ll need to trim them back, but I’m not sure what you would want to go in their place.”
“Huh,” said Mizuki. “You know, I kind of forgot that this was here.”
“You don’t use herbs in your cooking?” asked Verity.
“Oh, I do, of course,” said Mizuki. “But mostly I buy them. I guess it just didn’t occur to me that they’d kept growing.”
“But you must walk by them almost every day, right?” asked Verity, feeling a bit helpless.
“I don’t go out the back that much,” shrugged Mizuki. “My mom used to bake a braided chive bread in the spring. I should go ask Hannah if she could make something like that.”
“Well, what do you use then?” asked Verity. “I’m willing to spend a few rings replacing things that have died, though late spring is probably a worse time for it than early spring.” She was used to buying seeds with her mother from one of the heritage shops, then sprouting them herself. This late into the spring, that wouldn’t do, and she would have to buy the actual plants, which would come with its own risks, given how much the roots would be moved around.
“Um, garlic?” asked Mizuki. “Or ginger.”
“Those are both roots,” said Verity, wondering if this was a thing she needed to explain.
“Yes, but you could plant them, right?” asked Mizuki.
“Garlic you plant at the start of winter, a week or two after the first killing frost,” said Verity. “Ginger … I’m less sure about. But it would take some time to grow, and it’s not an herb like chives or mint are.”
“Well, you figure out an herb, I’ll figure out how to use it,” said Mizuki. “An herb’s job is to bring a fresh, light, green flavor to a dish, so … anything that can do that. Sorrel, flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, sage? Any of those would be good. I guess there are also a bunch of things native to Kiromo, but,” she rubbed the back of her neck. “First, me saying their names probably wouldn’t help you, because you’d have no idea what geshi is, and second, you’d have no way to actually get any of them if they’re not right here in this garden. This used to be one of four Kiromo families, but they all moved back with grandpa, and I doubt that their gardens, if they had any, survived.”
“We could still probably get seeds somehow,” said Verity. “I wouldn’t trust them to do nicely with these two killers, but if we had seeds, we could get something growing in a pot indoors, then transplant it next year.” She faltered as she said that though, because next year was quite far away, and there was no guarantee that their party was going to survive into next week, let alone through the winter. The thought made Verity anxious and a bit sad.
“I could send a letter to my parents,” said Mizuki. “It takes a long time for the post to go that distance, if it makes it there at all, but they might be able to send seeds that way.”
“I think that would be nice,” said Verity. “Is there anything else that you’d like?”
Mizuki frowned, then reached out and plucked a piece of mint and put it in her mouth, chewing it and thinking. “There was a sauce that my mom made using these,” said Mizuki. “Some kind of sweet thing that I’d have to go to some trouble to recreate, and I’m not even sure this is the right mint. Sogri? Sogi? Something like that.”
“And for the rest of it?” asked Verity. “If you know the names of any of the trees, or what plants were supposed to be here, I think it would be helpful.”
“Come,” said Mizuki, holding out an arm, which Verity took. “Let me take you on a tour of this horrible jungle of a backyard.”
The tour took quite some time, and Verity was introduced to so many Kiromon words for plants that she felt she’d be lucky if she remembered one in ten. For someone who didn’t know much about the garden or gardening, she seemed to have quite a bit of knowledge about what grew there, and she had been letting the place grow wild, harvesting less and less with every passing year until eventually she just didn’t go there anymore. It filled Verity with something that wasn’t quite sadness. Loneliness, maybe. It felt like there was a song in there somewhere.
“I know there’s lots of work to do,” said Mizuki. “And I don’t blame you if you don’t want to do it. I’m willing to budget some rings for either tools and things, or seeds, or whatever else you need, but if you don’t want to do it, just say so. This was your idea.”
“It will be a good project,” said Verity, looking at the overgrown garden. The worst of the dead plants had been removed, and it was a bit easier to see the shape of things, especially with the tour having been concluded. What Verity really needed to make was a garden map, which she’d have to do with Mizuki’s help, in part to know what was what.
There was something poetical about it, Verity decided. It was a glorious garden, fallen from grace, and she was going to rehabilitate it. Perhaps it would be something grand and ornate, especially if she had Isra’s help, but perhaps it would simply be a garden. The parallels to her own life were, perhaps, a stretch, but she felt there was a song there, one that deserved a little bit more time than one simply made up on the spot. A garden of Kiromon delights, left to slowly deteriorate, but with new life breathed into it … Verity smiled, and thought about the lyrics, her two great passions melding in her mind.