Hope on the Vine – R.E. Dukalsky

Hope on the Vine – R.E. Dukalsky

March 2022

It was early August and hope was withering on the vine.

It had withered every year so far for the last eleven, so Nima was disappointed rather than surprised. Disappointed, frustrated, demoralized. She really thought she’d gotten the balance right this time.

She knelt in front of the raised mound of earth that should have been nourishing the hope vine’s roots, her dirty boots poking out behind her and the sun glinting gently off her greying curls. By this point in the season, the vine should be about three feet tall, with multiple spurs twining eight to ten feet in every direction. Heavy buds the size of the first knuckle of her thumb should be swelling between pairs of reniform leaves gleaming a lustrous dark jade. She should be out here looking eagerly for the first open blossom, a rich yellow stellate flower the size of her hand, shading to the orange of glowing embers in the center. She hadn’t seen one for many years.

Instead, she stared disconsolately at a meager vine supporting a few anemic yellow-green spurs. The remaining leaves, with two notable exceptions, were the same undernourished shade, their ribs showing more starkly every day, while their edges turned brown and flaked away. Only one spur, the one that twisted around the rail of the fence, showed any semblance of health, and Nima was as baffled by its continued vitality as she was by the parent vine suddenly giving up on life. It had seemed to be growing on schedule — perhaps a little undersized but a good color — but instead of progressing to the next stage of growth and putting out buds, it had drooped, retreated, withered. Just like its ten predecessors — those that had even bothered to sprout.

Eleven long years on this struggling piece of earth, trying to tease a hope vine from seed to fruit. So far, this was the closest she had come to success. One fruit was all one could expect from such a young vine, but one was all she needed: proof she could send to her Arbiter that this vine would thrive. Then, at last, she could move on. On to the next impoverished, war-scarred town and the next desiccated, abandoned farm, where the potential for hope or fortitude or patience lay dormant under years of neglect and acres of weeds.

The next, and the next, and the next. One by one until the tired land put the years of war and sorrow behind it for good and all.

But there wouldn’t be a next and a next if she couldn’t bring this vine back to life. Nima doubted she’d live to see the land restored, but leaving here would be its own reward. She dreaded another roasting summer and dreary winter in the small blue house behind her. Another year of being ignored by her neighbors, loathing them in return, and never forgetting no one wanted her here.

Maybe she hadn’t fertilized enough? But no; she’d been side-dressing the vine with the recommended half-cup of the special expensive blend that came from the Wizard’s Herbarium, and she marked each application on her calendar so she knew she hadn’t missed any. Was the mix itself wrong? They said it was guaranteed, but you never knew what that meant with the wizards you got these days. In her time, guarantees had come with blood, not a letter under shiny gilt seal.

If the mix was good, was water the issue? Possible, but hope vines were notoriously flexible in their water needs. In theory, they could take root and grow anywhere, with minimal tending. That was why they, along with fortitude trees and hedges of patience, were among the first recommended plants for war restoration project sites. Even someone who’d never set finger to a garden should be able to grow one — and once a hope vine established itself, every living thing in the area would flourish as well.

Probably she hadn’t figured out the right tending regimen. This was where hope vines could be tricky, according to both her own vague memories and the instructions she received each year with the new seed. Fortitude trees could be watered with either sweat or blood (both of which she had in abundance, particularly in the summer). A hedge of patience would grow well with tears, sighs or, in a pinch, prayers. Hope vines demanded fiddly, intangible things: dreams recounted, promises exchanged, plans laid. But wizards didn’t dream, she had no one to make promises to, and under the circumstances plans were not hers to lay. She’d tried making promises to the old farmhouse, to the wasted land around it, to the rickety fence and the empty road, but she wasn’t sure they counted. If she were honest, the only promise she meant to keep was the one about leaving.

She’d walk out the gate now and never come back if she hadn’t given her word, and not with some fancy seal, but in the old way, with consequences for breaking her oath. She’d promised to stay until she could prove she’d restored local resilience to an acceptable baseline — in plainspeak, until the hope vine was able (or willing?) to reproduce. No one back in the capital knew, or really cared, how long it took or what it asked of the grower. The point was to have wizards scattered across the land, repairing the scars of war where everyone could see them doing it. So here she was until she could cultivate her release.

Nima stroked a finger across one of the limp leaves. “If you stay alive, I leave and you never have to see me again. So save us both some pain and just grow,” she whispered, putting all the force of her will into it. No effect, of course, except a dull burn up her right arm to complement her aching knees.

“What’s wrong with your plant?”

The voice was high-pitched and unfamiliar. Nima looked up to see a girl of about twelve years draped across the fence near the gate ten feet away. Just about where the questing ends of the vine ought to be right now, Nima thought sourly. She’d never seen the girl before, though she had the look of a local: a short, wide body, tawny skin, a blunt nose, and straight, thick black hair cut short above her shoulders. Her eyes were close-set, small, and twinkling with curiosity.

“It isn’t growing,” Nima said shortly. She was sick to death of these suspicious locals. “Did you need something?”

“I’m Yun,” the girl said, completely ignoring the pointed question. “Did you forget to water it?”

“No,” Nima replied, trying to rein in her temper. It wouldn’t improve her relationship with the locals if she started yelling at children. On the other hand, she didn’t care that much about having a relationship with the locals. She turned back to the hope vine, scratching gently in the dirt around the main stalk to see if there was something preying on its roots.

“What about fertilizing? Did you feed it?” Yun asked.

“Yes,” Nima said without looking up.

“Did you put it in the right kind of soil?”

Yes.

“Does it get enough sun?”

Exasperated, Nima gestured at the open sky. Her back twinged, and she looked up with an even more unfriendly expression than she’d intended.

“Hm. Maybe it’s getting too much sun,” Yun mused, unfazed. “Or maybe this isn’t a good place for it to grow.”

Nima clenched her jaw and bent back down. Maybe the irritating child would get bored and wander away. After a few seconds she heard soft footsteps against the dust and dared to hope. But no luck.

“But I don’t know,” Yun said, from much nearer, almost right in front of Nima. “It feels like it wants to grow here.” A brown hand appeared at the corner of Nima’s vision, stroking the leaves of the one remaining spur.

Nima looked up sharply. “Don’t touch it,” she snapped.

Yun whipped her hand away and looked, for the first time, as if she were picking up on Nima’s unwelcoming demeanor. “Why not?”

“Because it’s my vine,” Nima replied, hearing how ridiculous she sounded even as the words came out of her mouth. “What I mean is, it’s fragile and it isn’t polite to touch other people’s crops.”

This was evidently a new concept to Yun. “I help Aunt Lio with her beans all the time and she says—”

But Nima was done with this conversation she hadn’t wanted in the first place. She didn’t want what passed for local agricultural expertise, especially from a child, and needed peace and quiet to think about what to try next. “Then I’m sure she would appreciate your help now,” she interrupted, then stood up and stalked away, pushing through the stiffness in her knees. “Don’t touch my plants,” she called over her shoulder without looking back.

Working on a half-baked theory that her bad mood was somehow hampering the vine’s growth, Nima stayed away from it for the next few days. She kept a sharp eye on the fence, but the girl had vanished back to whatever ramshackle farmhouse she’d come from. Nima saw her traipsing by once on the road, but the girl showed no inclination to stop or pester the vine.

After a week, Nima woke up having slept well, and decided she’d waited enough time to test her theory. If her mood did somehow affect the vine, she’d given it time to recover and should be able to see the effects. She filled her big watering can, sprinkled in the special water-soluble fertilizer and lugged it out to the fence.

The vine looked exactly the same: anemic stalk and spurs, withered yellow leaves slowly crumbling off their ribs… and one perfectly healthy spur climbing slowly around the fence rail along the road. The good spur had even put out another two leaves while the rest of the plant died.

“What…?” Nima stood there, hands hanging down open at her sides. She had learned to grow things; the profusely healthy vegetable garden behind the house attested to that. She glared at the vine, disregarding the theory she’d been testing. “What do you want from me?” There was no reason this should be so hard, no reason this spur should thrive while the parent plant died, no reason the one plant that mattered should wither while the rest of the garden flourished.

A sharp trill pierced her despair. Yun was tromping down the road in heavy boots several sizes too big for her, swinging two empty beaten metal buckets, whistling like the cloudy morning had been made for her alone. There was something odd about the buckets; they were the wrong shape somehow, too rounded on the bottom, with asymmetric sides. Nima squinted at them and realized they were infantry helmets, inexpertly beaten into a slightly more bucket-like shape by a very amateur blacksmith.

“Did you figure out how to fix your plant?” Yun asked. She must have taken Nima’s attempt to parse the helmets-turned-buckets as an invitation to stop and chat.

“No,” Nima said, trying to think of a task that would take her away from the fence but allow her to keep an eye on the girl.

“It looks better, though,” Yun said, waving one of the buckets at the flourishing spur. At least she wasn’t trying to touch it. She wrinkled her nose. “That part, at least.”

Nima picked up her watering can and began dribbling the water gently around the roots of the vine. Yun didn’t take the hint. She tromped a few steps closer, set the buckets down with a dusty thump, and squatted on her haunches in front of the vine. “I think it’s happier on this side of the fence.”

“Plants don’t feel happy or sad,” Nima said repressively. She saw Yun shrug out of the corner of her eye.

“Aunt Lio says they do.” Aunt Lio was evidently the arbiter of reality. She leaned closer. “What kind of plant is this anyway?”

“A hope vine,” Nima said shortly, then surprised herself by continuing, “at least, it’s supposed to be.”

“I never saw one of those before,” Yun said, scrunching up her nose and peering at the plant with renewed interest.

“They aren’t very common after the war,” Nima found herself explaining.

“Ah,” Yun said sagely, although she wasn’t old enough to remember even the final years of the war and couldn’t possibly understand what lay behind the disappearance of the country’s native resilient vegetation. “What’s it for?”

For giving you and all your ungrateful kin a future worth growing into, Nima thought but did not say. The last thing she wanted was this girl’s irate aunt descending to put the wizard in her place. “If it grows,” she said, biting off each word, “it will reinforce the local ecosystem — that means the soil, the water, other plants, the animals that eat those plants, and people who rely on the plants and animals,” she added, confident that the local school, if one even existed, did not cover the ecology of resilience.

“We have been having some problems,” Yun agreed thoughtfully, just as if she were a grizzled veteran farmer. She leaned even closer to the vine, body rolling at such an angle that Nima feared she would pitch face first into the plant — and the railing.

“Be careful,” she said, more harshly than she had intended.

Yun straightened up, but didn’t look abashed. “I think maybe this part of the plant isn’t bothered by something that’s messing with the rest of it,” she said. “Or maybe it just likes that I talk to it.”

Yun’s comment niggled at the back of Nima’s brain. Maybe there was something affecting the roots or the leaves on the parent vine that hadn’t spread to the healthy spur yet — or maybe the spur had some kind of natural resistance…

“I have to go restake the beans,” Yun was saying in the background, but Nima was no longer paying attention. She didn’t even notice the girl stretching out a stealthy hand to give the new leaves a friendly tap. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Yun kept turning up after that. Sometimes for an hour, sometimes for ten minutes, sometimes carrying her ridiculous repurposed buckets, sometimes hauling a feed sack on a little wagon, frequently with her arms full of hollow reeds as wide as her wrist and as tall as she was. She never seemed to be in a hurry or fear that whoever sent her on these tasks would be impatient at her dawdling. Aunt Lio either ran a slipshod operation or didn’t particularly care what this niece was up to. Yun never mentioned her parents, so maybe she was a war orphan dumped on her only known relative. Maybe Lio had so much help on her farm that one lolly-gagging child made no difference. Or maybe they were just relieved to get a break from her questions.

“Do they have hope vines where you come from?” she asked one time.

“No,” Nima said.

“Then how do you know how to grow one?”

I don’t, Nima thought. “Resilient plants need the same things as any other plants—”

“Where do you come from anyway?” Yun interrupted.

“Not here,” Nima said, picking up her rake and walking away.

“I know this isn’t your farm,” Yun said another time.

Nima was pruning back the dead leaves on the spurs closest to the healthy one, in case the problem was some kind of spore or mildew. Her shears jumped and nearly clipped a healthy leaf. “What is that supposed to mean?” she demanded.

“Everyone knows you aren’t from here, even though you’ve lived here forever,” Yun said with a limber shrug. “When are the people who belong to this farm coming back?”

“They aren’t,” Nima snapped.

“Maybe this would grow better if they did,” Yun said, bumping the vine with grimy knuckles.

“Don’t touch,” Nima said, but she’d long since given up on the idea that Yun would listen.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going away,” Yun said, more to the vine than to Nima. “Hey look, there’s a new grabby bit here!”

“How does a hope vine help the… ecosystem?” Yun asked after she’d been coming by regularly for almost a month.

“Different ways,” Nima said distractedly, her words punctuated by the thonk-crunch of her trowel. She was digging some small trenches to drain excess water away from the hope vine’s mound just in case the roots were becoming waterlogged. “Other things … grow better … near a hope vine. Fewer diseases … more abundant production. Roots … stop erosion and make dead soil fertile again. You can live … off a single fruit … for a long time. Healing tea or tincture from the leaves. And just being around the flowers…” she sat back on her heels and wiped her forehead, “I really can’t explain what that feels like, you have to experience it for yourself.”

“We could really use one of those,” Yun said. “Aunt Lio says the beans need a miracle.”

“Hope vines aren’t miracles, they’re applied magic,” Nima said sternly. “And you shouldn’t expect either to do your work for you.”

“I am doing the work,” Yun said, but without heat. “But there’s a bug that came and it eats the buds before they can bloom.” She reached a finger out toward the vine, then pulled it back again.

“What’s it like?” Yun asked on one unreasonably hot day.

“What’s what like?” Nima replied, only half listening as she teased a tendril gently through a gap in the climbing frame.

“Being a bad wizard.”

Nima froze with the tendril balanced on one finger. “What do you mean by that?” she asked carefully. Sweat trickled between her shoulder blades.

“Everyone knows,” Yun said without noticeable concern. “You’re a bad wizard who made all the bad stuff happen in the war.”

Nima snatched her hand away from the vine so she wouldn’t transmit her feelings through the tender shoots. “That’s a gross exaggeration.”

“Also, I saw your thing,” Yun pointed at Nima’s right arm, where the geas runes constraining Nima’s magic and her free movement crawled with slow abandon. She’d probably spotted it the first time they met, but Nima found herself tugging her sleeve down anyway, angry at her own shame. She hated any reminder that she was permanently separated from her magic, even though she’d accepted the geas binding to avoid lifetime imprisonment.

“Aunt Lio says getting a nice farm to run isn’t a real punishment,” Yun persisted. She reached out and casually flicked the vine. Nima winced, but the vine held firm. In fact, it flexed a tendril toward the sun.

Nima picked up her trowel, hefted it, set it down. She didn’t like the idea of Yun and her aunt discussing her sentence as if were just moderately interesting village gossip. “Your Aunt Lio doesn’t know everything. It’s not a punishment. It’s a collective obligation.”

“Hah!” Nima wasn’t sure whether Yun’s hard, fierce laugh was meant to dismiss the possibility that Aunt Lio could be wrong or the official line that felt flat even to the wizard herself. “Then why do you have that?” Yun jabbed a finger at the geas runes.

“Yes, fine, technically it’s a punishment,” Nima said sharply, “but I cooperated. I agreed to community service. I could have just done my time, but I entered the program voluntarily to try to make amends for what happened. Nobody forced me to wear this.” She shook her right arm at the girl. “Nobody forced me to be here.”

“Then why don’t you leave?” Yun asked in genuine curiosity.

In all the years she’d endured in this place, no one had ever asked Nima what she thought about her situation. It was humiliating to be grateful for a child’s fickle attention, but her life was nothing but humiliations now.

“Because what the wizards did was wrong,” Nima said, striving for patience. Not native to this farm and not native to her either. “We had the right — we had good intentions. But we did things that had consequences far beyond what we intended, beyond what we could have imagined when we started.”

“What were you trying to do?” Yun asked. “Aunt Lio says all you wizards just wanted to keep your power and when the war happened you decided to burn the country down instead of sharing even one good thing with regular people.”

There had been a time where Nima would have drowned in their own sweat anyone who dared speak so harshly, so honestly. “How fortunate that a bean farmer knows the absolute truth!” she snapped, then reined herself in. “Look, the war was complicated and you’re too young to understand most of what happened.”

Yun crossed her arms, stubborn. “Aunt Lio says the wizards hoarded all the best food and medicine and magic in their towers,” she persisted. “She says the headwomen of all the villages went to the towers and asked for the wizards to share, but the wizards said they had nothing valuable to trade. So the villages stopped sending tithes to the towers and then the wizards came out of their towers and ruined everything. And Tonji says the wizards never loved anything but themselves and that’s why they could do what they did to the land and the rivers and everything.”

Nima had no idea who Tonji was and she didn’t like their assessment of the war. “That’s not an accurate picture,” she said stiffly, although it was, if boiled down to its essence and told through the eyes of the victors. “There was… more to it.” In the back of her mind she heard, was always hearing, the soul-shattering crack of her tower’s foundations.

“Like what?” Yun asked pugnaciously.

Nima thought of her tower, its dimensions aligned precisely with the planes and angles of her interior self. Like a phantom limb, she could feel vast power seeping from the land into her tower’s stones, and from its stones into her. Power that extended the reach of her hand as far as thought could take it, that honed her vision, peering keen-edged with magic into any secret she desired. When her tower stood, she was the secret composer of the song beneath everything… and then they had pulled her tower down and she was nothing. Keeper of a withered garden in a mutilated land. Bitterness welled up in her.

“I couldn’t possibly explain it to you in a way you could comprehend,” she said, aiming for austere, but coming no higher than cruel.

Yun gave her a very straight look then shrugged deliberately. “Well, it’s not like you know the first thing about growing beans,” she replied.

It toppled Nima like she was a tower herself. Yun hadn’t spoken in pettiness, but rather with the world-weary familiarity of someone who often had to defend her own worth. Maybe she’d heard her aunt use the line and seen the seed of truth it held. Yun didn’t know what it was like to wield power that could make and unmake the world. Nima didn’t know how to grow beans. Once, the difference between them would have been too vast to comprehend. Now, it meant that between the two of them, Nima was merely the less capable subsistence farmer.

Nima was used to wrapping prickly defensiveness around herself like armor, but she suddenly couldn’t reach it. They just sat there looking at each other, black eyes to brown. “I never had any reason to grow beans before,” Nima said, conceding.

The silence stretched for several more minutes while Nima pretended to rearrange the dirt at the base of the vine’s main stalk. “Wizards cared for the land a long time,” she continued at last. “People couldn’t see what we did. For generations we kept the soil fertile, managed the weather, sustained the forests…we didn’t intend to destroy so much, not when the rebellion started and not after. We were just desperate to make the war stop.”

Yun tilted her head skeptically. “If you wanted the war to stop, you could have just given the headwomen what they asked for. You didn’t have to do all that bad stuff,” she said.

Nima had used a lot of noble sentences and fine words to get her through the dark nights of doubt, but none of them volunteered to stand up against that unflinching logic. “You’re right,” she said, after a long minute. “But we did do it. I. I did it. All I can do now is try to repair what I can.”

Yun glanced away as if the subject had never really been that interesting in the first place. “So why is this vine so important?”

Nima scrubbed her hands over her face. “This land, one of the things it has — had —” she paused. Started again. “A long time ago, wizards found a way to cultivate resilience. Yes, wizards,” she snarled at the skeptical look on Yun’s face. “They taught seeds to grow hope, patience, and fortitude. They infused rivers with trust and stocked lakes with solidarity. They showed the land how to produce the things that would sustain it, no matter what came.” She pressed her lips together and bit down hard on the sour feeling twisting her belly. “But the hope vines and trees of fortitude and all the rest of it didn’t survive the war.”

“Because of you,” Yun interrupted. “You wizards, I mean. Right?”

“It wasn’t just—” But it was. They had stretched out their hands and stripped the land of everything their forebears had grafted into it. She was out here trying to make amends for her role in that enormous crime, so what was the point of spinning a sweeter-sounding version of the truth to this child who wasn’t buying it anyway? “Yes. Wizards weren’t responsible for all the bad things that happened in the war, but they — we — did destroy the resiliency ecosystem. We did that.”

“Why?” Yun asked.

A simple, deadly question. Nima had answers she’d given herself, answers she’d given her colleagues who doubted their course of action, answers she’d given the court that sentenced her.

Only we have the knowledge and experience to guide this country to its better future. Our better future requires peace and peace requires order, and order can only come when the villages bow to our authority.

These rebel armies are destroying the land — perhaps if they see harsh consequences they will surrender before we have to kill them all.

Some of the Wizard’s Consortium chose to cross that final line and the rest of us let ourselves get pulled across.

So many answers. But none of them sufficient, in the end, to justify stripping the land of everything that held it together and helped it thrive. Not when you boiled it down to a young girl and an old wizard crouched on opposite sides of a fence in a dusty nowhere trying to understand why nothing good could grow.

“Because we forgot that wizards first built towers to serve and protect the land,” she said at last. She suddenly became aware of how stiff and heavy her legs had become. “We thought of the land as something under our rule, not under our care. So when the rebels — when the war came, it was easy to use the land as a weapon.”

Nima remembered standing atop her tower filled with grim righteousness as she stretched out her hands and drained the Ko River into the bedrock. She remembered the sense of urgency that filled her heart when she walked in the fortitude groves, blighting the ancient trees to strip the rebels of their will to fight. She remembered having those feelings, but she couldn’t reproduce them. Now, all she could feel was shame and despair at the enormity of what they had done. How could she ever have thought that growing one stupid hope vine would mean anything in the face of their atrocities? Even if she lived to be the oldest wizard in history and grew a new vine or tree every year, it would be a pitiful drop in the desert their crimes had created.

“And now wizards must undo what wizards did,” Yun chanted the first line of the decree that doomed all surviving wizards to a lifetime of penal restitution — out here in the backlands, it was probably the only part of the decree she’d ever heard. She bopped one of the withered leaves unceremoniously. “You’re not very good at it, huh?”

Nima lurched forward to cup the leaf, jerked herself back, then stared at it as it seemed to stretch out luxuriously. Was a deeper green flushing outward from the central rib, or were her eyes lying to her? “This work is much harder than I expected,” she admitted.

Yun nodded sagely. “I bet it’s hard to make this place hopeful when you aren’t.” Then her head shot up as if hearing a voice calling her. “Whoops, gotta go,” she said. She hopped to her feet, scooped up her buckets, and took off at a steady trot down the road.

Nima watched her go, rolling her last words around and around. It’s hard to make this place hopeful when you aren’t. That could be the problem. Perhaps the hope vine couldn’t grow if its tender had no hope of her own to share.

But then — Nima leaned over the leaf Yun had bopped, without touching it herself. It was noticeably greener and drooped less. And then — she peered down where Yun had been flicking her careless fingers, and there was one, no two! new tendrils peeking out. Nima thought about all the times she’d scolded Yun for touching the vine. Was it a coincidence that the healthy spur was the one closest to the road, the easiest one for Yun to reach? Was the vine nourishing itself off her innate hope for the future, a future Yun expected to be part of in exactly the way Nima didn’t?

Nima brooded on it all night.

Yun came back the next day, and the next, chattering about the problem with Aunt Lio’s bean crop. Nima made noncommittal noises or gave answers she forgot even as they came out of her mouth. The beans weren’t her problem. She was watching Yun and the vine, trying to learn the secret of how she made it grow.

The girl didn’t appear to be doing anything special. She didn’t even seem to be paying attention to the vine most of the time, although she always crouched by it when she stopped, even though it meant she had to perch in the ditch on the side of the road. She would bump or stroke or tap the leaves or tendrils to emphasize a point or sometimes as if it were agreeing with her, but she might have done the same thing with her buckets or the wagon. She certainly didn’t treat the vine with the care or deference that Nima herself did. Nima couldn’t see any one thing that set Yun’s interactions with the hope vine above her own — except, of course, that the vine grew where Yun touched it and withered everywhere she did not.

And ‘grow’ was a bit of an understatement. On Nima’s side of the fence, the other spurs had desiccated into dry, spindly stalks, their leaves long since crumbled into the dirt. On Yun’s side, seven feet of rich jade green sprouted leaves the size of Nima’s palm, twisted tendrils around every surface of the climbing frame and the fence rails, and were sending out new spurs in two places. There was even one tiny green nub that, given time, would become a bud.

Nima never, ever touched the healthy spur. She even stood on the dead side of the plant to water and dress it, hoping not to poison it with indirect contact. She didn’t encourage Yun to touch it either, superstitiously worried that the vine would pick up on her desperation and stop responding to Yun’s presence. She just held herself in nervous stasis, waiting for the bloom.

Maybe it was the empty rattling of the sledge that drew Nima’s attention, or maybe it was how Yun’s feet dragged in the dusty road as she approached. Whatever it was, Nima looked up one day to see a new expression on Yun’s face: despair.

The girl squatted in her usual place on the other side of the fence, her hands flopped over her knees and her black hair sticking to her sweaty temples. She didn’t touch the vine.

“What’s wrong with you?” Nima said, more harshly than she’d intended. But then, she’d never been a gentle person.

“The bean crop failed,” Yun said, looking burdened in a way Nima had never seen her. “Aunt Lio says there’s no way to save it now, even though we built reed irrigation all the way from the river and I pick off all the bugs I can find.”

“I guess you’ll have to eat something other than beans this winter,” Nima said, trying to remember if beans had some sort of local cultural significance. “Variety is good for you.”

Yun looked at her like Nima had just suggested they try to eat the sun. “We don’t eat beans, we sell them,” she said. Then, in a cadence that sounded like something she’d heard from someone else many times, “No beans, no money. No money, no winter stores, no shoes, no seeds for spring.”

“Oh,” Nima said. Of course Yun’s entire livelihood hung on those stupid beans. “That’s…bad.”

Yun sighed heavily and gave the swollen bud close to her face the gentlest of caresses. Nima sucked in her breath, but Yun didn’t notice and the vine didn’t show any immediate negative effects. “Do you know any way to fix the beans?” she asked suddenly, looking a little nervous for the first time Nima could remember. “I mean…I know you said we shouldn’t expect magic to fix our problems, but you also said wizards used to take care of the land…”

“Not with this,” Nima said, jerking her right arm in a sharp motion so the geas runes caught the light.

“Oh, right,” Yun said, subsiding back despondently. She sighed again. “We sure could use one of these hope vines right now.” Nima suddenly recognized the line as something she’d heard Yun saying a lot lately.

That night, Nima found herself thinking of Yun’s beans instead of the hope vine. There wasn’t any reason to be thinking about either one — all she could do for the vine was what she’d done, and Yun was someone else’s problem — but she kept coming back to it like a piece of food stuck between her molars. It wasn’t just the girl’s despair; Nima hadn’t spent a century as a powerful wizard with a tower of her own because she was susceptible to sad peasant children. But what if the bean crop’s failure forced Yun and her family to leave the farm? What if they starved? What would happen to the hope vine if Yun suddenly stopped coming by, telling her cheerful stories and helping pass the long weary days with impertinent questions?

And more than that — Yun’s intervention, however unintentional, had resuscitated Nima’s own hope of escaping this pastoral prison. Which, in a way, put her in Yun’s debt.

And that was the nub of the problem, Nima realized as she dried her dinner dishes. She felt indebted to Yun, who had helped her while enduring Nima’s constant unwelcoming attitude. And there was a way to repay her. But it would cost Nima the one thing she valued: the opportunity to leave.

On the other hand, if she didn’t pay this debt, Nima would be proving Aunt Lio and Tonji right: that wizards would rather let the land and everyone who depended on it suffer than share even one good thing. And even more than she hated being in debt, more than she hated being here, Nima found she hated the idea that Lio and her ilk could be right about her after all. If they were, then Yun would keep believing they were right about the war, would keep thinking wizards were bad people who embraced destruction to feed their own selfishness.

“Damn and damn!” she swore, looking down to discover she’d worried her washing cloth into threads.

She couldn’t repair the land. She couldn’t undo the systemic destruction they’d wrought, not even in a wizard’s lifetime.

She could save one bean farm. She could persuade one girl — maybe one family — that wizards could help as well as harm. Not just for show, or to win release, but because she wanted Yun to welcome a future with wizards in it as enthusiastically as she welcomed everything else. It would cost at least a year of her life; there was no guarantee that this hope vine would fruit two years in a row. But after eleven years of loneliness and failure, was one more really such a sacrifice?

“Yes it is,” Nima snarled to the empty room, to herself. “But wizards must undo what wizards did.” Then she picked up her lamp and stomped out of the house.

Hope vines thrived on promises, after all.

Nima waited with characteristic impatience for Yun to arrive the next morning, but the girl didn’t appear until mid-afternoon, trudging along in her too-big boots and carrying her mangled helmet buckets. She flashed Nima a wan smile as she crouched down by the vine, petting it as if seeking comfort from the silky leaves.

“How are the beans?” Nima asked awkwardly after a minute. She hadn’t thought about this part, not once she’d made her decision. And, she realized, she’d never started one of their conversations before today. It was always Yun, interrupting her work with a question or observation.

“Still bad,” Yun said. “Aunt Lio says we’ll be lucky to get a quarter of the crop.”

“Well, look,” Nima said, her eyes fixed on the hope vine while her hands fiddled anxiously in the dirt. “This thing is about to flower. If it fruits, I could — you could have it. You could plant it near your beans. I’m sure it would grow for you.”

Yun looked up, her eyes shining in a way Nima had never seen. It was like all the dust had washed right out of her world. “You mean it? We could have a hope vine of our own?”

“It won’t make your bean plants come back,” Nima warned. “Probably.”

“But it means they’ll grow good next year!” Yun said with an enormous grin. “That’s right, isn’t it? Everything grows better where a hope vine grows?”

“That’s the theory,” Nima agreed. She felt surprisingly guilty giving the girl hope when she wasn’t sure the vine was capable of producing a fruit this late in the season. But then, hope was all she had to offer, from beginning to end.

“But… wait.” Yun crinkled up her face around her nose. “Don’t you have to send that fruit to your Arbiter? So they send you on to your next place?”

“There will be another fruit, in another year,” Nima said with forced calm, giving the vine an affectionate little stroke with the back of her hand. And to her utter astonishment, a tiny bright green tendril unfurled from beneath her knuckles.

The vine bloomed four days later, opening like a star and drawing the eye from anywhere in the garden. Nima found herself staring at it for uncounted time, just tracing its silky depths with her eyes. She could see, if she looked closely in the way wizards were trained to do, runes tracing and retracing themselves deep within the flower’s genetic structure. But mostly she just stood beside the vine, falling into its radiance.

Two days after the bloom, Nima came out early to gaze at the flower. It was a habit she’d fallen into immediately, getting in close to the luminous petals, tracing the dew that beaded gently on their surface, filling her lungs with the flower’s scent before facing the tasks of the day. It made the whole day seem more bearable; no, it made tomorrow seem so promising it was worth today’s labor.

At the cottage door she gasped in horror; even from that distance she could see the blossom was withered, almost completely gone after only two days. What would she tell Yun? How had she killed the flower so quickly even when everything seemed to be going well?

But when she drew close, crouching down and parting the leaves with trembling hands, she saw the flower had died a purely natural death. Hope blossomed fleetingly, it seemed, or perhaps her decision had hurried it along. There, glowing greeny-golden as a brand-new promise, a small orb poked up from the heart of the crumpled petals.

The vine’s first fruit.

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