Alfric knocked on Mizuki’s door just after sunrise, having woken up to twilight filtering in through the curtains of his tavern room. She answered quite a while after he’d knocked, wearing a robe and looking disheveled, with her hair out of place. She was squinting and frowning as she looked at him, trying to keep the light from fully entering her eyes.
“You,” she said.
“Alfric,” he supplied.
“Have you had breakfast?” she asked.
“I don’t eat breakfast,” said Alfric. “Lunch is my first meal of the day. It’s the custom, where I’m from.”
“Well, you can wait outside while I make breakfast, or you can come in and sit there awkwardly while I eat,” she said. “Your choice.”
“Sorry if I woke you,” said Alfric. Looking at her, there was really no need for the ‘if’.
Mizuki waved away his apology and staggered into her house, clutching her robe close to her and leaving the door open by way of invitation. She was barefoot, and Alfric hesitated slightly by the doorway, looking at the different shoes there, before deciding to take his boots off. He didn’t know the custom in Pucklechurch, nor did he know whether Mizuki would actually follow that custom, being as she was half-Kiromon. He set his sword in a holder by the door as well, then trod into the house, following the sounds of someone banging around in the kitchen.
The house was too large for one person, that much was obvious from the outside, but it was fully furnished, and almost everything was slightly dusty. The fireplace was filled with ash, and the fabric of the couches was faded. There were places on the walls where pictures had once hung, their removal leaving nails in place and bare spots beneath them. It gave the impression of having been effectively abandoned ages ago, but Mizuki clearly lived there. Alfric wondered, briefly, whether she was a squatter, but dismissed the notion. Squatters weren’t common in small towns like this, he didn’t think, and besides, there was something strongly Kiromon about the architecture, though he still thought it strange even by those standards.
The kitchen was something different, and where the rest of the house was in need of cleaning, the kitchen was immaculate. It had a four-plate stove in the center, along with a dual oven against one wall, all heavy cast iron. The tiled blue and white walls were obscured by hanging copper pots and pans, with a selection of knives against one wall, all polished until they gleamed. There were two porcelain sinks, side by side, each connected to a glass tank of clean water that hung on the ceiling, and was likely fed into the house system. There were hanging braids of garlic and dried bunches of herbs, and when Alfric peeked into the open chiller, he saw a small selection of fresh ingredients. Mizuki had already grabbed a slab of pork, and was pulling a few other things out, including glass bottles with dark liquids in them, a block of cheese, and a clump of thin mushrooms. He took a seat on a stool next to the island counter that the stove was set into.
Mizuki cut off a thick slice of the pork belly with an enormous and quite sharp knife, then looked at Alfric. “Last chance to get in on this.”
“Alright,” he replied. “Sure.”
Mizuki gave him a satisfied smile, then cut off another slice of pork belly and put the rest back into the chiller. She opened up one of the heaters on the stove, setting the cooling element to one side and letting the warming element heat up, with a heavy cast-iron pan placed on top of it.
“So, where is it?” she asked.
“What?” asked Alfric.
“You said skipping breakfast was custom where you’re from,” replied Mizuki as she watched the pan. “Where is that?” She deemed the pan hot enough, and slipped the pork belly onto it, where it sizzled. Once that was completed, she moved over a basket of eggs, then began mixing together a few of the brown liquids into a small bowl.
“The city of Dondrian,” said Alfric. “It’s a hundred hexes away, which is quite far even by leycraft or portal.” He’d spent a fair amount to travel it, first taking a leycraft, then going through a conveniently timed portal, which had still left a lot of walking.
“I know where it is,” said Mizuki, rolling her eyes. “That’s a long way though, to come to a place like Pucklechurch.”
“Not so far as Kiromo,” Alfric replied. “I’m sure that’s a story.”
“Oh, certainly,” said Mizuki. “But we’ve known each other for half a day.” She used her huge knife to quickly chop some garlic, pulled some dried herbs from where they were hanging, and put all of that in the bowl. So far as Alfric was concerned, cooking was a variety of magic, strange and arcane, with its own inscrutable laws. “So what brings you our way?” she asked as she went about cooking in her bathrobe, flipping the pork and seeming to revel in the sizzling sound.
“I wanted to put together a party,” said Alfric. “I suppose you’ve already figured out that I’d like for it to be more than a one-time affair.” Again, there was a bit of a lie there, something not said that should have been.
“So long as you understand that’s not what I agreed to,” said Mizuki. She stuck a finger in her sauce and tasted it, then made a face and began adding more things. “But why here? Why not closer to your great and mighty city?”
“What do you know about how the dungeons are made?” asked Alfric.
“Almost nothing,” Mizuki replied. “How many eggs for you? I’m having three.”
“Three is fine,” said Alfric, watching her take the eggs from the basket. “The dungeon portals are old magic, one of the anchoring techniques that keep rogue magic from building up.”
“Well I knew that, I am a sorc,” said Mizuki. She pronounced it ‘sork’. With a spatula, she carefully moved the pork to the side, then began cracking the eggs right into the pan, one by one. The shells went into a wooden bucket that had some kind of lining. “Mushrooms?” she asked. “Bread, cheese?”
“Sure,” he replied as he watched her add butter and button mushrooms to the crowded pan. “So, if left unchecked, magic builds up, and when magic builds up, bad things happen. The dungeon portals drain off that magic to keep it below a baseline within a hex, but part of the exchange is that the dungeons take on the flavoring of whatever magic they’re draining.” She hopefully knew all this. “In an enormous city like Dondrian, there’s heavy magic in use, some of it harvested from other hexes, some from all the magic users, some from the wide variety of magic items, some from the leylines, all swirling around with cast-offs and residue. All that gets eaten up by the dungeon portals, which makes them exceptionally dangerous. The portals out here have a lot less magic to work with, which makes them safer. It’s a better place to start out, in relatively unsettled lands.”
“Hrm,” said Mizuki. She had taken two plates down from a cabinet and loaded them up with the pork, eggs, bread, mushrooms, and cheese. “This is a dipping sauce,” she said, pouring half of the sauce she’d made into a second bowl. A fork and knife came clattering down next to his plate. “Dig in.” Before she sat down, she remarried the warming element to the cooling one, carefully matching them to each other so that they would be inert.
Alfric wasted no time in eating, and though he was skeptical of the sauce at first, it turned out to be salty and herbaceous, going well with the fatty pork. It was an unconventional arrangement of foods, by Dondrian standards, and it was the first breakfast that Alfric could remember eating in a very long while, but it was good food, far better than he had expected, and more than he had any right to. He found himself consumed with the eating, which went on in silence. When they were finished, at roughly the same time, Mizuki filled up one of the sinks with water and began doing the dishes.
“I’m not sure your explanation makes sense,” said Mizuki.
“Oh?” asked Alfric. “And … can I help with the dishes?”
“You’d just get in the way,” said Mizuki, her hands covered in suds. “I mean, it makes sense that a dungeon out here would be safer than a dungeon in or near the city, but what doesn’t make sense is why you’d come out alone. You were just hoping to find four people to rip up from their jobs and go adventuring with you?”
“No,” said Alfric. “You would all keep your jobs, whatever they might be. It was my understanding that you were in the business of odd jobs anyway?”
“Well me I understand,” said Mizuki. “But you’re asking a healing cleric to first take a day off from the temple, then several days if things go your way. And I know for a fact that Verity plays at the Fig and Gristle almost every day. Seems like it would have been easier to gather up a bunch of people in the city, then have you all move out to Pucklechurch together.”
“Might have been,” nodded Alfric. He didn’t want to say too much, and hoped that she wouldn’t take his silence the wrong way.
“Sorry if I’m pushing things,” said Mizuki. “It’s a bad habit.”
“No,” said Alfric. “They’re good questions, I just don’t have good answers.” Not at this stage, at least. Maybe later, once they all knew each other, once the party was together, after their second or third dungeon.
“Fair,” said Mizuki. She put the last of the dishes on a drying rack and wiped her hands on a towel that hung on the handle of the oven door. She briefly looked down at her robe and cinched it tighter with a sheepish look. “Well, I should probably change into something more acceptable before we leave. It shouldn’t take long. Make yourself at home, but don’t snoop.”
Alfric waited patiently in the kitchen, looking around, but trying to do it in a way that didn’t constitute snooping. There was a large dining room through one door, but it looked as disused as the rest of the house. The obvious question was why Mizuki was living in such a large house alone, but Alfric hadn’t asked, because it seemed like the kind of question that might have a difficult and painful story attached to it. The house was far too big for one person, and Mizuki obviously hadn’t kept up with either repairs or cleaning. The kitchen was the only place that Alfric had seen which had obvious love and attention applied to it.
Mizuki came back into the kitchen not long after she’d left, wearing a similar outfit to the day before, a wrap on top that left her arms bare, and pants that ended at her calves and had such wide legs that they were practically a skirt, this time a dark blue. In addition, she had a small belt that provided an anchor for a dagger in a sheath, which she hadn’t had the day before. She had also spent some time fixing her hair, and she’d applied lipstick, making her look much more put together than she’d seemed while making breakfast, or the night before. Her bag was her final addition.
“I thought it would help me look serious,” she said, gesturing to the dagger. “Like an adventurer.”
“Your job won’t be to stab things,” said Alfric, frowning.
“Durr,” said Mizuki, sticking out her tongue. “But it looks cool, right?”
“I guess,” said Alfric.
“Verity will think it looks cool, I bet,” said Mizuki.
“Well, let’s hope so,” said Alfric.
The Fig and Gristle didn’t open until noon, but the proprietor, a sturdy woman with a streak of gray hair, answered the door when they knocked and brought them up to Verity’s room when they explained that they had arranged to meet with her.
“You’re not planning to take her away from me, are you?” asked the woman, Cynthia.
“We were hoping to go into a dungeon with her,” said Alfric, who had always considered honesty to be the best policy.
“Well, you protect her,” said Cynthia with a nod. “I always thought she wouldn’t be here long. I’m paying her a pittance, compared to what she can do.” She came to the door and knocked on it twice, hard. “Verity! Visitors!” She turned to Alfric and Mizuki. “You might have to knock again,” she said. “Verity doesn’t like the mornings, but I’m not going to sit here all day waiting for her to get up.” She turned and went down the stairs, leaving Alfric and Mizuki standing there.
After a full minute had passed and Alfric was contemplating knocking again, there were sounds from the other side of the door, including a fair amount of banging noises. This continued on for some time, until finally Verity opened her door and poked her head out. Alfric was surprised by how similar she looked to Mizuki, with her hair messy, a frown on her face, and a squint. Unlike Mizuki, she had gotten into a dress instead of a robe, one that had a pattern of white flowers on top of lavender fabric. It was slightly wrinkled.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Just past second bell,” said Alfric.
“Oh,” she said, looking between the two of them. Her bleary eyes finally rested on Mizuki. “I don’t usually get up until at least fourth bell.” She stared at Mizuki. “There are two of you now?”
“Three makes a party,” said Mizuki, quite cheerfully. She held out her hand. “Mizuki.”
“Verity,” said Verity, slipping a limp hand through the door for just long enough to do a perfunctory shake. “Hang on.” She closed the door for a moment, and there were more sounds from inside her room. Alfric had only gotten a narrow glimpse into her room, but it was a complete mess, with clothes everywhere, books in haphazard piles, and remnants of old meals. It was, frankly, a frightening amount of detritus to be packed into a relatively small room.
“Okay,” said Verity when she returned, slipping out of the door without letting them see any more of the inside. “Let’s go downstairs and talk.”
The tavern was empty, save for the proprietor, who was cleaning out glasses and tidying up the place. The chairs were all upside down on top of their tables, and Verity quickly flipped a few of them, giving them a place to sit.
“So,” she said, steepling her fingers and trying to look more awake than she was. “You want to go into a dungeon.”
“All you would have to do is sing and play,” said Alfric. “If you felt like you were in any danger whatsoever, you could run back to the entrance and leave without me. I’ll be the point man, the one facing down anything dangerous, and I’ll try to keep myself between you and whatever we find in the dungeon. In exchange for maybe two hours of work, only an hour of which will actually be in the dungeon, you’ll get a fifth share of whatever we find.”
“Do we have a healer?” asked Verity. “I’d feel better with one.”
“We’ll be picking her up later today,” said Alfric. “It might be better to have everything else squared away and agreed on before we approach her though.”
“And what kind of songs would you like, if you’ve given it thought?” asked Verity.
“Strength and speed,” said Alfric. “I’ll be up front, sword in hand, and with your proficiency, you should be able to give me a boost of some thirty to forty percent. Enhanced vision and hearing would be great, if you can add that in, and endurance would be a bonus as well, but with a healer on board that’s less of a concern.”
“Just one dungeon?” asked Verity, after a long pause. Alfric was getting the feeling that this was perhaps too much information at once for her.
“He wants more,” said Mizuki. “He’s got plans for the one in this hex, and the six surrounding, and no doubt more beyond that.”
“Just one to start,” said Alfric, casting a glance at Mizuki. “I wouldn’t want to commit until we know we can work together as a team, and I know that a single day is much more manageable in terms of scheduling than seven days or more. We need to allow for the possibility that someone won’t be a good fit, or that something unexpected crops up, so yes, just one.”
“With the option for more?” asked Verity, tapping her fingers on the table. There was something rhythmic on how she did it, like she was tapping out a tune.
“Possibly,” said Alfric. “And for a bard, it’s good training, good exposure to party dynamics and custom songs. I know that you can make decent money with taverns and outdoor performances, but party or guild level performance is where the real money is for a bard, even if it’s outside the traditional adventuring structures.”
Verity glanced at Mizuki.
“I think he’s just like this,” said Mizuki. She looked at Alfric. “How long have you been in Pucklechurch?”
“I arrived early last morning,” Alfric replied.
“So, based on what I know about this guy,” said Mizuki, seeming quite pleased with herself. “He comes in yesterday, early in the morning, makes a beeline for the censusmaster and gets a list of people, then spends the rest of the day asking around to see what he can find out about us, our reputations, our skills, things like that, and then, having not been in town for more than twelve hours, he visits first you, then me, trying to pull together a party in record time.”
“Sorry,” said Alfric. He didn’t know quite what he was apologizing for. “I just think that there’s a good opportunity here. It’s an easy win for everyone involved. And if we do work well as a team, or even if we need to swap a member out, then the surrounding dungeons could be profitable too. And yes, ideally, we would do the dungeon today.”
“Hmm,” said Verity. She sat back in her chair for a moment, looking at Mizuki, who was smiling, and Alfric, who was trying to give the pitch the gravitas it deserved. “Okay,” she finally said. “I can do this once. Don’t expect a second time unless it goes swimmingly. I’ll have to see if Cynthia is alright with me ducking out.”
“Good, then we can make the party now,” said Mizuki. She turned to Alfric. “It’s better to have one made early, right?”
“It is,” said Alfric, but he paused, listening. “That’s third bell though, which means the market just opened, which means that we have very little time to waste in meeting up with our fourth member. I don’t know where she lives, so her daily trip to the market might be the only time to find her.”
“Ooo,” said Mizuki. “Exciting. We get to hunt for a member. The huntress becomes the hunted!”
“I still need to wake up, or sleep some more,” said Verity. “I’ll be around if you need me. Let me know when you’re planning to go to the dungeon.”
“I was hoping for sixth bell or sooner,” said Alfric.
Mizuki laughed. “Big city energy,” she said, grinning. “It’s a change of pace, that’s for sure.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Verity.
“Do,” said Alfric. He stood up and gave her a bow. “It was a pleasure to meet you again. I hope we have something more firm in the near future.”