“Are you sure you want to do this, daughter?”
Taelah took a moment to suppress a sigh. Normally she got along with her mother just fine, but Rinnah Morn was a semi-retired elder, despite being much younger than most of the active elders, and had acquired a tendency to fuss somewhere along the way. Her carved-wood talismans clacked as she leaned forward and the grimoire at her waist glowed ever so slightly, showing that she was at least touching her Skills as she studied Taelah. Possibly to see if she was under some sort of magical influence.
“Yes, mom,” Taelah said firmly. To be fair, Rinnah had fussed almost as much over Taelah’s previous arranged marriage. “I know it’s not exactly what you planned, or I planned, but I’m confident about Blue.” It was, to be sure, not a match made out of love, but Rinnah and Thom had met from an arranged marriage themselves and had turned out just fine.
She was actually secretly glad that she wouldn’t have to learn how to live with someone, and yet still get most of the benefits of being a wife and a mother. It was just hard for Taelah to imagine herself like her own mother, getting along so comfortably with her father despite them being so far different. She preferred to do her own thing too much to really welcome sharing everything with someone else.
Yet at the same time, she saw the things she never would get from Blue. The casual touch that lit up her mother’s face with a smile, the murmured word that made her laugh. The loving embrace when she was sad or sick, and all the other thousand things of chance and circumstances that happened between two people who were together for life. So she was thankful and guilty and had a lot more in the way of nerves than she’d ever admit to her mother.
Through either shaman intuition or just motherly instincts, Rinnah seemed to sense this and just pulled Taelah into a hug. A crushing one, given that she was a good ten levels higher than Taelah. Her father Thom gave her the barest hint of a nod behind Rinnah’s back, his mouth moving fractionally into his version of a smile. It might not look like much to anyone else, but to her it was as warm as her mother’s arms.
She stayed with them a little longer, sharing a mana-rich tea that was, of course, grown on Blue’s land, in one of the little glacial plots above the normal farmland. It was Rinnah’s own in fact, inasmuch as something created by Blue and negotiated for by Queen Iniri could really belong to a commoner. A state of affairs that explained why Anton’s Village was willing to take Blue’s offer.
It wasn’t that they were disloyal to Queen Iniri, though they actually were, strictly speaking. Rather, Anton’s Village had already been displaced, already lost their homes and crops and then put in the work to get it all back. Yes, Blue had done a lot of work in preparing good land for them, but they had been the ones to till and plant the land, not to mention building most of the buildings. They preferred it that way of course, but they knew a good thing when they saw it and none of the elders were naive enough to believe that Tarnil would be in particularly good shape even after the war was won.
There would be bandits and outlaws, there would be shortages, there would be nobles vying for power. Anton’s Village was small and unimportant and in general they liked it that way, but in a crisis that would probably last years they wouldn’t be getting any special consideration. Nor should they; nor would they ask for it. There would be larger and more productive farming communities that would need that manpower. Anton’s Village would find its own solution as it always had, and so the deal with Blue.
Taelah continued her rounds to the other elders. Shayma had told her Blue wanted to make a new, proper area for the village once they had declared their allegiance, one that was actually outdoors, so they were in the process of sorting out the inevitable wrangling and complaints. Not to mention making sure everyone was informed of what was going on, assuming they’d been living under a rock for the past few weeks. Which was actually possible; a good number of the residents cared mostly for their farms and crops and little about anything else.
She found Glenn overseeing a platehoof herd being switched from one pasture to another. The grumpy ranger was helping Yoren’s kid, who didn’t yet have a class but would probably pick up [Rancher] soon enough. He grunted at her approach without looking around; somehow he’d managed to double his level to twelve in their time here and gotten some improvement in his perception. That was far fewer levels than Taelah had managed, but it was faster than he’d ever managed back at the original village.
“Taelah,” he said by way of greeting, keeping a sharp eye on the platehoofs.
“Hello, Glenn,” she replied. “Did you get the Jaffees settled down?” Even in a village as small as theirs, they’d somehow ended up with two feuding and unrelated families of the same name. Normally it was kept to a dull roar of baseless complaints, but the news that they’d be getting brand new land and more control over it had whipped them into a frenzy. Both of them were claiming and asking things that nobody knew or could grant them, unless they demanded it of Blue directly.
Which probably wouldn’t turn out too well for them.
“Yes,” he said, and offered no further explanation. Glenn worked his jaw, staring out over the herd, and let out a breath. “I really don’t see why you need to sell yourself off,” he said after a moment. “Weirds me right out, I admit.”
Taelah bristled, taking a moment to bite back any reply. Glenn was blunt, but it was his way of showing that he cared, and he probably wasn’t the only one with exactly that opinion. In fact she knew he wasn’t, and had to admit to herself that she had some doubts too.
There were good reasons to become Blue’s Companion. Once the village had sworn itself to his service, someone had to serve as the bridge between him and them. That was the argument she’d given to others, but there were more personal and private factors that were the real reasons she’d brought it up. Part of it was that she did need to get married; she knew she wanted children and, gods willing, grandchildren, but she’d never really been able to envision herself with a husband. But the main reason, the one she didn’t want to admit, was that she was a little in love with Blue. Not the person, who she couldn’t talk to and would never really know, but the environment in all its exotic fascination. The dungeon, with all it had to offer.
It was an entirely selfish reason, which was okay, but it wasn’t one that she thought she could explain to the good folk of the village as reason to get married to a piece of land. Or however other people characterized Blue. He was a little too big a presence for her to really get her head around, herself. Shayma was probably the only one who really understood him.
“It’s just a good idea,” Taelah insisted. “Besides, it’s not like Blue really pays attention to us. Shayma has more important things to do than come by every time we want to ask about something, and it’s important that we have good relations with someone who is the land we’re living on.”
“Mmm,” Glenn replied, unconvinced. “Well, I guess you know your own business.” Bland as the words were, they were about as strong a disagreement as she could expect from Glenn. At least, knowing Glenn, those would be the last words he had on the subject.
“Yes,” she said, and that was that. “I’ll check in with the others, then after that you can find me in Meil. I have potions and tinctures to make before the battle.” So far, she was the only one Blue had given permission to use the dungeon ingredients for alchemy. Despite the lack of materials, dungeon materials alone were enough to create mixtures that would regenerate stats and even boost Affinity mana. Normally these things were immensely expensive, for a variety of reasons, but Blue’s flora and, most importantly, fruit meant she could make them with a minimum of effort.
The other elders had nothing more than the usual issues, like negotiations between who had the rights to raise which crops, or who was taking on whose son as an apprentice. It wasn’t just the impending move, but the ordinary business of life. The Queen and Blue might be dealing with world-shaking events, but Anton’s Village was more concerned with celebrating the birthday of a six-year-old girl.
There might be fighting somewhere else but the village wasn’t going to let that stop them from throwing a party for little Suna. Taelah herself had even used her new alchemical access to make a glowing hair ribbon for the girl from a light Affinity flower. The poor child had been afraid of the dark ever since the last fight, when Blue had gone dark and her house had started melting, so Taelah was glad she could come up with something a little magical for her. The only annoying thing was that she couldn’t be more involved in the birthday preparations due to the work she needed to do.
After her rounds she took the teleport to Meil. They were technically connected now through tunnels, and she would have liked to stretch her legs a little more, but the teleport was much faster and they only had so much time before the army arrived. Since the teleports worked more or less when Blue remembered to trigger them, there was usually a little bit of waiting involved. Not more than a few minutes in most cases, but as soon as she stepped onto the pad it activated. It was nice to know Blue was keeping an eye on her.
Taelah was borrowing someone else’s alchemy store, which had more if not better equipment than hers, but brought her own ingredients in a large rucksack. Containers of tayantan juice, flowers of various types, moss, and a stack of small tayantan sticks. The last weren’t part of the usual alchemy set, but the tayantan wood worked for stirring the less volatile mixtures better than a purely neutral steel or glass rod. It probably wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t all belong to Blue, something both [Plant Identification] and [Alchemical Insight] agreed on.
One thing Blue didn’t supply was vials for the resulting output, but that was something the borrowed shop had in abundance so she racked them and began measuring, mixing, pouring, and infusing with [Novice Alchemy]. It might have gone faster if she had someone to play assistant but she took it seriously when Blue said she was the only one allowed to work with his materials. Besides, she was used to doing all the steps herself, as it wasn’t like there were many other alchemists in Anton’s Village. She hummed a tune to herself as she worked, and was so immersed in it that she didn’t even notice someone else arriving.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The voice was thick with scorn, and Taelah sighed before even looking up at the speaker. She knew that tone well enough. The other woman had a particular set about her mouth and eyes that were familiar too, even if it wasn’t one that was often aimed at her. Anymore, at least.
“Pardon?” Taelah asked, affecting a perfectly bright and reasonable tone as if she hadn’t noticed the intruder’s pique. She did her best not to react as four more people shuffled in behind the speaker, all of them bearing little silver pins that marked them as members of the alchemist’s guild, which meant they were all second-tier at least.
“I don’t know who you are but I don’t appreciate you barging in on guild territory!” The woman scowled, putting her hands on stout hips and somehow managing to look down at Taelah even if she was several inches shorter.
“Oh, then let me introduce myself,” Taelah said, still courteous. Not that she felt particularly well-disposed toward any of the alchemists, but she wouldn’t get anywhere by returning the attitude. “My name is Taelah Marn, elder— ”
“Elder!” The woman scoffed.
“Elder of Anton’s Village,” she continued, ignoring the interruption. “Who might you be?”
“Imiss Ren,” she said, puffing out her already ample chest. “Alchemist’s Guild, Recipe Archivist and member in good standing. Which you are not.”
“No,” Taelah admitted. “But I have been given permission to use this store.”
“Gary’s store,” Imiss said sharply, gesturing to an unhappy-looking man hovering at her shoulder, an older gentlemen with a narrow face and bony knuckles. “Which is not your store. You’re not even a full alchemist! What do you have, [Novice Alchemy]?”
“Thank you for lending your store,” Taelah said to Gary, ignoring the aspersions cast on her Skill. “I didn’t have nearly the room at home to make these potions.” He inclined his head fractionally, but Imiss bulled her way forward.
“Yes, those potions!” Imiss took several steps toward the counter Taelah was working at and this time she moved, not far but enough to put herself between the alchemist and the ingredients Blue had vouchsafed her. Imiss scowled but didn’t try to shove past her, at least. “It’s the duty of the Alchemist’s Guild to test and record any recipe before…” The woman sputtered with indignation as she spotted all the filled vials. “Before handing them out like candy!”
Taelah lifted her brows, regarding Imiss and her more or less silent backers. She recognized the tactic and in fact had used it herself, though not with the basis of ignorance Imiss seemed to be operating from. The only thing that worried Taelah, and it was a distant worry, was why they were bothering her when it was Queen Iniri herself who had requested it. Though maybe they didn’t really know that. Even though Taelah was personally acquainted with Blue, she was not familiar with the Queen, and the offer and information had come through channels. One person told another person to tell another person to carry a message, and by the time it got to someone like Imiss the original provenance had long since vanished.
“That does seem like a good idea under most circumstances,” Taelah agreed, still maintaining an air of affability and agreeableness. “But these ingredients are supplied directly by Blue, and are not to be released to anyone else.”
“The Duke was right,” one of the others, not Gary, muttered under his breath. Imriss nodded in a self-satisfied manner.
“Blue has no authority here,” she declared boldly. Taelah had to wonder if that was a good idea, considering they were literally inside Blue, in a city he’d moved not much earlier. Though apparently he didn’t pay all that much attention to most people so it wasn’t likely he noticed the challenge. Or cared. “This city is on Duke Sarthi’s land and he gave us the charter to ensure the equitable and just sharing of knowledge. He warned us that Blue would try and undermine him!”
Anton’s Village was actually part of the Sarthi duchy, at least for the moment, so Taelah wasn’t unfamiliar with the name. It wasn’t like she’d ever met the man herself, though he had visited some of the larger communities in the area. Of her own knowledge she had no complaints; their taxes weren’t onerous and for the most part they had been protected from the occasional wandering monster or rogue Classer. Unfortunately, at this moment he wasn’t doing anyone any favors.
“By the authority of the Alchemist’s Guild, I demand you explain this,” Imiss said triumphantly, and Taelah had to exercise some control over her expression, though she wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh in other woman’s face or scowl at her.
“I have been making lifesaving potions and ointments for the Classers,” Taelah said, raising her eyebrows at the woman. “They’re going up against an army of several thousand monsters, so they’ll need every item I can make. So if you would let me return to my work…”
“It’d go faster if we did it,” Imiss harumphed, though Gary, at least, looked uncomfortable.
“I don’t deny your Skills,” Taelah said, trying to sound as reasonable as she could, “but I don’t have the authority to share this. They aren’t my ingredients and I was told that I couldn’t let anyone else handle them. I hope you’re not planning on taking them from me.” That was the first thing that stumped Imiss, making the Guild woman hesitate.
“I certainly couldn’t stop you, but I would hope the Alchemy Guild doesn’t think it’s necessary to press such claims in the middle of a crisis.” Taelah pushed on, now that she had the momentum. “After all, I have first and second and even third-tiers waiting on these, and the more time we spend arguing the less time time I have to make what they need.”
“Well…” Imiss temporized. Since that didn’t seem to be quite enough to push her into actually making a decision, Taelah continued on.
“I’m sure as actual Classers you have more important, higher level things to deal with. There’s no point in standing around here asking me for something I can’t give you, since it just takes you away from your own work.”
“I was all out of reagents anyway,” Gary said in a tone that was more suggestion than statement. “I don’t really need to use my store for anything right now.” Apparently that was the wrong thing to say because Imiss scowled and shot Gary a nasty glare before turning the glare on Taelah.
“Stop trying to distract us from the important point here.” She snapped. “Which is that you’re going against Guild procedures and Guild authority. Worse, you’re undermining the Duke’s authority by doing so.”
“But Blue— ”
“The Duke is the one that decides who can do what, not Blue.”
“Whether or not you respect Blue’s authority,” Taelah began, lifting her hand to touch the brooch pinned to her clothing, “it’s not just by his bidding I’m here. These are all for the upcoming battle, for all the Classers dealing with the army that’s going to be where Meil used to be.” She hoped Imiss would take the hint about who else Taelah was dealing with. Obviously they didn’t care about the importance of the product.
“Which is why it falls under the Alchemist Guild’s duties!” Imiss was, if anything, smug.
“I see.” What she saw was that Imiss was not about to take the hint that maybe she was very far out of her depth. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t try and disobey a duke or impugn the Guild,” Taelah began, pausing just long enough to see the flash of triumph in Imiss’ eyes. “However, Queen Iniri herself tasked me with making these, as part of the alliance with Blue. Considering that nobody else is supposed to handle these ingredients, I will have to pack them up and bring them with me to the Fortress.” She paused to let Imiss gather enough thought to start a protest and then interrupted her. “You can come with me and explain to the Queen why I’m there and I don’t have much done, instead of here working. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
Imiss went from smug to sour, a dark cast over her face as she glowered at Taelah. Even then she might have pushed onward, or even tried to physically push past her, if it weren’t for one of her other companions, not Gary this time, tapping her on the shoulder. She whipped around to stare at him and something unspoken passed between them, because Imiss looked less and less happy until she finally turned back to glare at Taelah.
“Fine, we’ll leave you to your work now, but I will expect those ingredients and recipes later!” She glared at Taelah, waiting for her to agree, and when she didn’t finally spun around and pushed back through her little group, stalking out of the store.
Once they were gone, Taelah rolled her eyes and went back to work. She was glad that she wouldn’t be in Meil much longer. Even if she could deal with pushy know-it-alls like Imiss, she didn’t enjoy it. Hopefully that would be the last time she had to deal with them.
She toiled a while longer, using up all her materials and filling all the vials that had been prepared for her. For good or ill, it wasn’t worth it to make an infinite number of the potions and ointments. Not only did they degrade over time, but there was only so much foreign mana that people could take before it started to create complications. More for higher tiers, less for lower tiers, but either way there was a strict limit to how many would be useful. Which was fine with her; she liked alchemy but she didn’t want to spend all her days and nights at it.
Once she handed off the crates of product to one of Queen Iniri’s guards, she made her way back home so she could attend Suna’s party. Having a celebration right then felt like maybe flaunting it in the face of everyone else preparing for war, but Anton’s Village wasn’t gong to be involved in the fighting regardless.
Shayma had brought her a new dress, partly from her and partly from Blue, which was an unexpected delight and one that touched her more than the brooch Blue had made. Jewelry was pretty but a good solid dress was something that she could really use. It wasn’t, like she’d been half-afraid of, some fragile confection but rather a tough, adventurer-style dress in blue and with a little black trim, but without any frills or fripperies. Nice, quality, but not ostentatious. She especially liked how unexpected it was, and that she had it in time for a celebration, something that had become a rarity in the past few years.
The actual party was a cheerful affair, filled with pastries and small children running around, gaily colored lanterns brought out from people’s closets, and of course the hand-made presents from each of the families in Anton’s Village. Despite everything they were actually better off than they had been, thanks to Blue, and everyone could afford to take the time off to indulge in music and dancing and all the good things that made a life worth living.
By the time the celebration was over and sleepy children had been hauled off to bed, Taelah was in a rather good mood, humming to herself as she helped clean up from the party. She felt almost optimistic, something that been missing for a rather long time. Anton’s Village was stubborn, but they weren’t stupid and they’d known how bad things were getting. Even now there was an army bearing down on them, but here with Blue she could believe that—