Beekeepers
Pre-game. Spoilers. Basch and his brother, in the summer.

When the summer comes, they steal honey from the farms two steadings over. It's tradition. The crime is too meek to incur guilt; the farmers barely reach all the crannies of their fields, and there is always surplus waiting to be claimed. Landis may not be the most lush of countries, but its people know how to lay in stock against famine. They know how to prepare for the worst.

At ten, Basch is a skilled practitioner of theft. He is the one who climbs the trees first. Below his feet, Noah's face contorts in concentration as he mutters the half-remembered Sleep charm they overheard three summers ago, practiced by a farmer's wife as she prepared to smoke a wasp nest clean. Basch can never get the words right; already, he has a deep suspicion that he is allergic to Green magicks.

The bees tumble like fat berries. One rolls across the back of Basch's hand as he climbs, seeking purchase on the gnarled bark. Fumes from the Sleep spell simmer around him, reeking of ether. His palms scrape against rough wood. Another faint splat hits his scalp, and he braces his weight long enough to untangle the bee and drop it: legs twitching, ensorcelled in insect dreams.

The hive is docile when he arrives. He slings a leg over the widest branch he can find, and sets to work.

The farmers of the steadings each vary in the construction of their beehives. Some of them prefer to use wooden boxes with horizontally-strung wire lattices, making it easy to extract cross-sections of comb and still leave a framework behind for the bees to rebuild. Others ravish their hives completely. The cases of this particular steading are woven from flax and wicker, lashed to the limbs of trees with a thick seam along the side for access to the harvest. Basch has seen the farmhands make their rounds before, using smoke and spell and netted masks to keep from being stung.

Wax makes candles. It seals cracks in the windowsills come winter. Honey provides for food, and some medicinal remedies, and can be traded later when the tinkers come through town. If Basch is careful to take only a little from each hive, he can provide for his family of three without damaging the creatures he harvests from.

"Second jar."

Noah hands up the container wordlessly. The first jar gets nestled against Noah's belly, rigged by leather and wood. Honey smears itself in a sticky curve on Noah's cheek. They'll both be in washup for hours.

After filling the second jar halfway, Basch fumbles with it suddenly, and nearly upends it on his brother.

After Noah stops attempting to press himself bodily into the tree -- the only way to dodge, and a doomed one when they are both suspended high in the air -- he turns a calculating stare upwards. "You're still thinking about what that recruiter said," he accuses, "aren't you."

Irritated with his own carelessness, Basch plucks a slumbering bee out of the waxen comb he is attempting to milk. It would be easier to take the whole hive with them after removing all the insects -- but to do so would be to destroy the creatures' nest entirely, and his mother has warned against this. Even bees must have a place to return to. Else, they will believe that they have forever lost a safe place to make their home. "Aye."

"I thought you wanted to become a potter."

Basch gives up on a particularly difficult piece of comb, wedging it into the jar. It hits the upper layer of honey and begins to sink, drowning in golden light. "After you threatened me with weaving. Have you never thought of service to our country, Noah?" The words sound reasonable, even though Basch is not entirely certain he feels them; at the age of ten, Basch is skilled in the art of stealing from bees, but not in figuring out what he wants. "Traveling places? Defending the land? Seeing -- "

"I want a good life, Basch." Noah's interruption comes cold. He does not hesitate. "I want our mother to be happy and to live long, and I want to be around to take care of that. How will going to war and dying to Archadian hands accomplish any of those goals?"

Basch makes a dismissive sound that he hopes is sincere. He speeds up the pace of his work. If Noah is complaining already -- before they are even halfway through their rounds of the farms -- then he will be insufferable for the rest of the day, finding fault with everything and bringing each issue up to Basch as if the size of a strawberry yield marked the end of the world. It has always been this way. Basch endures, and Noah fusses.

In Basch's hands, the capping knife turns clumsy, prying off a plug of wax and taking half the chamber wall with it.

He frowns.

"Military service brings with it great rewards, Noah." Basch does not want to fight, does not have the energy or interest, but he cannot let the matter go either. Else, Noah will only bother him with it again, possibly while in earshot of their mother. "It values honor, and dedication. If both of us possess these qualities in full -- if both of us are stalwart and strong, able to invest ourselves completely in our work, able to give ourselves to Landis, then how -- "

"Stop it." Noah's voice is a sharp lash. "You'll kill them."

Frozen, Basch looks down at the hive. One of his hands is bracing the capping knife and jar together, safe in his lap. The other is deep inside the combs, having torn through the waxen hexagons, twisting and ravaging the internal structure of the hive until it has begun to ooze thick clots of honey onto the branch.

He pulls out the offending hand, but the damage has already been done: the hive sags underneath its shell, and Basch thinks he might see a shape that looks like the queen, mixed in with liquid debris. Chunks of comb stick to his skin. The delicate wings of the queen are plastered to her body, smothered beneath a thick coat of honey. He does not know if she is still alive.

"I did not mean to be careless," he whispers.

On the branch, a few stray insects stir their wings in sleep.

"Well." Noah looks away, unhooking one of his feet as he prepares to descend. "Perhaps the bees can forgive us one day."