Zetta hid behind a cactus at the edge of the town square, waiting for the last few townspeople to finish up work and return home for supper. The shadows in the desert town of Sienna Dunes were growing long as the sun dipped low in the sky. The sand beneath Zetta's feet started to cool, and the breeze suddenly became crisp as the heat of the day drained away.
Zetta bundled up the collar of her blue tunic with one hand and kept her other hand firmly against her leather pack, which held her entire inventory of glass bottles, nether wart, and her prized brewing stand. She was the greatest potioner Sienna Dunes had. Well, she was the only potioner Sienna Dunes had. One day, however, she would be great, but first she needed to practice, and to practice she needed to fill these water bottles without getting caught.
In the middle of the town square stood a sandstone tower with small windows cut all the way to the top, and at the highest point hung a big brass bell to rally the townspeople in case of an emergency. In the bell tower's shadow sat the town's only well. Water was scarce and highly valued in the desert, and taking more than your fair share was frowned upon. If people saw Zetta filling her bottles up too often, they'd get suspicious and start poking around in her business. She couldn't let anyone find out she was experimenting with potions. Not yet. Especially not her father.
Zetta watched carefully as all the shop owners in the square began to pack away their outdoor displays. The grocer put away her fruit stand, carefully storing away the melons and berries and exotic apples for the next day. The owner of the slime shop bundled up his slime balls and shoved his display of slime cubes into a chest.
And on the north side of the square, right near the town hall, the bookshop vendor sighed as he flipped through the last few pages of a book, then placed it back onto a lonely bookcase. Apparently, he used to run a whole library, until the people of Sienna Dunes lost their curiosity about the world and got stuck in their ways. Now the old library was a cactus nursery. Like Sienna Dunes needed any more of those.
Finally, the square was nearly clear. Zetta ran over to the well and stood next to it, trying not to seem suspicious and failing badly. Her hands were shaky, and her eyes were darting all over the place. Carefully, she slipped her hand into her pack, pulled out a glass bottle, and uncorked it. Just as she was leaning over to fill the bottle, Zetta heard footsteps clomping in the sand, getting closer. She straightened up and shoved the bottle back into her pack, then looked to see Mayor Maxine walking right toward her.
"Another beautiful evening in Sienna Dunes," Mayor Maxine announced to no one in particular. She stood tall and dignified, and she smelled of the kind of delicate flowers that would instantly wilt under the desert's harsh sun.
"Very beautiful," Zetta quickly agreed. "I'm just sitting here, enjoying the breeze." And definitely not trying to steal, er, borrow, um . . . take a little water to make potions in a town that doesn't think too highly of potioners.
"And the wall is coming along nicely, if I do say so myself. I appreciate your work in the terracotta mines. It's people like you who keep this town safe." Mayor Maxine looked down at Zetta in the kind of way that said, Why yes, I am the mayor. Thank you for noticing.
Zetta became instantly aware of the orange terracotta dust that covered her brown skin. She felt the grit upon her eyelashes. In her coily black hair. In her socks. She inhaled so much of it during her mining shifts that she wouldn't be surprised if she one day sneezed out an entire terracotta brick.
"The wall is impressive, all right," Zetta said through clenched teeth. In truth, she thought the new wall being constructed around the town was an eyesore. But mining terracotta for the mayor's pet project had earned Zetta enough emeralds to afford a brewing stand, so she couldn't complain too much.
"Keep well, citizen," Mayor Maxine said, and then she was off with a hasty walk that was more like a horse's trot.
Zetta breathed a sigh of relief. She turned around and quickly filled her bottle. She didn't even understand what the big deal was. The well never seemed to run low. Once she'd helped her grandpa fill ten whole buckets and the water level hadn't even gone down an inch.
Zetta startled when she felt a touch on her shoulder, and she nearly fumbled the glass bottle into the well. She caught it at the last moment, then turned to see her father standing there, barrel-chested and fierce with a strange kind of charm. He was the kind of guy who crowds parted for.
"Dad! I—" Zetta's tongue suddenly felt too large in her mouth. She needed an excuse. Something quick, so he wouldn't ask too many questions about the water bottle.
The town's blacksmith had her store set up right across from the well. In the storefront window behind a "No Enchantments" sign, dozens of weapons and tools were displayed, made from both stone and iron. Zetta knew for a fact there were diamond tools, too, but those were kept locked up safe in the back.
"I was just about to check on the price of an iron pickaxe," Zetta blurted out. "I've been thinking of ways I can be more efficient in the mines!"
The stern look on her father's face crept into a thin smile. His eyes sparkled. "Finally getting serious about the job, eh?"
Zetta almost felt bad about how proud her father suddenly seemed of her. She was the daughter of the mining foreman, so everyone expected her to love mining and be as good at it as her father was. But mining was the last thing on Zetta's mind right now. It was pretty much always the last thing on her mind.
Zetta cleared her throat. "Um, gotta go before the shop closes. See you at supper!" Then Zetta ducked inside the blacksmith's and pretended to browse the iron pickaxes she couldn't afford. She watched through the window as her father milled about the town square, always moving, but never in a hurry.
No way would she be able to fill her bottles at the well with him out there. She could try her grandparents' farm. That came with its own risks, but Zetta didn't have much of a choice now. She waited until her father got caught up in a conversation with the mayor, then darted out of the shop and sprinted toward the south end of town.
The farm was a little oasis in what was otherwise sand and grit in the desert town of Sienna Dunes. Sugarcane stood stiff in the breeze, while the green tops of carrots swayed gently. Chickens clucked as they paced around their coop, eager for their next meal of seeds. A scarecrow made of some old fence posts, a hay bale, and a jack-o'-lantern stood guard over Papa Night's personal potato patch, which was noticeably larger than the potato patch that fed the rest of the town.
And not twenty feet away, Zetta's cousin Ashton swiped his stone hoe feverishly at the waist-high wheat shafts that had somehow managed to grow in the desert heat. He had to be nearly done with his chores by now, Zetta thought. She was running out of daylight, and she needed water. Plus now that she was here, maybe she could gather a few more ingredients for her potions.
Zetta had faith in herself that she wouldn't mess up this time. Her eyebrows had nearly grown all the way back from the disastrous explosion she'd caused during her first attempt at brewing. And now, she was pretty decent at brewing awkward potions, though the only thing they were good for was stinking up her bedroom for an entire day.
Finally, Ashton gathered up all the fallen wheat into his inventory, replanted the bare spots with seeds, then turned and headed off toward the chicken coop. Zetta breathed a sigh of relief, then kept crouched as she snuck toward the little wheat field that kept the desert town supplied with crusty bread loaves, and sometimes cakes and cookies. The familiar sand beneath her feet turned to brown soil, mushy and cool despite the beating it took from the sun.
Zetta tiptoed through the wheat until she reached the minuscule stream that served as irrigation. As Zetta knelt down next to the water, guilt started to worry her, so she reminded herself that she wouldn't take much. Just enough to fill the three bottles she needed to practice her potion of swiftness. She hoped she'd have more luck with a simpler recipe.
The potion of invisibility she'd made last night hadn't looked quite right and she'd been too nervous to test it out. Maybe the nether wart had gone bad. The stuff smelled somewhere between rotting mushrooms and a sweaty armpit, even when picked fresh, so it was hard to tell. Same for the fermented spider eyes, which Zetta kept in a chest all by themselves, since they were so awful to look at and always seemed to stare back at her.
The sugarcane Zetta needed for the swiftness potion was clear across the farm, and Ashton was right in her way, chasing a couple chickens that had escaped from the coop. It didn't take him long to lure them in with a handful of seeds, though. Ashton had a way with animals. Every pig, sheep, and chicken loved that kid. And he was especially loved by Ginger, the town's only cow. Unfortunately for Zetta, that was because Ashton was keen on giving each animal lots of love, and now he was sitting cross-legged, petting each chicken in turn and humming a little song to them.
A song that seemed to go on for an eternity.
Copyright © 2021 by Nicky Drayden. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.