Viveka doesn’t recall having put up any beetroot, but there it is in the pantry. She snatches it from the shelf and turns back to the old woman. “It appears that we do. Good fortune for you.”
The woman cracks a twisted, sardonic grin, exposing half-rotted teeth and a pitted tongue. “Thought you might.”
“Is there anything else we’ll need?”
“If you’ve got a bit of smetana, that would be lovely.”
“I don’t think I’m familiar with that, grandmother.”
“It’s a kind of preserved cream. Fermented. Sour.”
Viveka shakes her head. “Cream is hard to come by here.”
The old woman waves her hand dismissively. “No matter, it’s not a necessity. It’ll be fine without it. You’ll want to add your bones to the stock pot now. We’ve got to boil them awhile.” Viveka does as she’s bid: adding a pinch here and a dash there, slicing the onions just so, carefully shredding the cabbage. Sometimes she hums or sings snatches of dimly remembered songs, sometimes she plies the old woman with questions.
“Ceseer told me you’ll be leaving soon, grandmother.”
The old woman nods. “I am. I’ve received a message from my son, and I’m off to see him.”
“Oh, that sounds exciting,” Viveka titters. “Has it been long?”
“Some time, yes.”
“Are you excited?”
“I’d say more curious.”
Viveka tilts her head. “Curious?”
“Hmph. Well, last I’d heard the peasants had poisoned him, stabbed and shot him, and then drowned him in an icy cold river.” She grins again.
She shrugs. “No doubt he’d earned it.”
“Are you going to nurse him back to health, then? He must be in quite a state after all that.”
The old woman smiles again, and it is a winter smile: bitter cold. “I suspect I’m to finish the peasants’ job.” Viveka, uncertain how to respond, returns her attention to the pot. For a time, the only sound in the room is the burbling water on the stove. It rapidly grows uncomfortable.
“What… what is your son’s name, grandmother?” She hopes to steer the conversation to more pleasant shores.