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“Cynthia, come on, it’s not even that late,” said Verity.

“Rules are rules, as much as I like you,” the tavern owner replied. “And it’s not just a matter of the rules, the kitchen gets shut down at ninth bell, and the boy has already started in on dishes and cleaning up.”

“Who’s the boy?” asked Mizuki, who had tagged along without asking if that was okay. If she had asked, Verity might have said no, and Mizuki wasn’t quite ready to be done. Doing the dungeon had filled her with a nervous energy that hadn’t quite dissipated, and sitting with that energy, alone in her house, with only perhaps her cat Tabbins for company, seemed a bit too lonely.

“Edmund Clarke,” said Verity, not so much as turning to look at Mizuki. “Cynthia, please, I went into a dungeon, I’ve had a long day.”

“There’s bread, meat, and cheese, all cold,” replied Cynthia. “I know you like your meals piping hot, but the kitchen is closed for the night. I can offer you drinks, but that’s about it.”

“I know Edmund a bit,” said Mizuki. “He was the year below me in school.”

Verity turned to her. “And you think you can convince him to open the kitchen back up?”

“We didn’t leave on terribly good terms,” said Mizuki. “I was just making conversation. But if you want some food, you can swing by Marta’s with me and I can cook you up some venison. It’s no trouble really, since I was going to make something for myself.”

The assurance that it was no trouble didn’t seem to be needed, because as soon as food was mentioned, Verity’s eyes had lit up like a lighthouse in a dark fog.

“You know how to cook?” she asked, in an almost predatory way.

“It’s a hobby of mine,” Mizuki replied. “Come on, better to get started early.”

They walked through town together to Marta’s, where Mizuki kept the conversation short, taking her linen-wrapped venison loins. As they walked to her house, Mizuki was trying to think about what she was going to make, going through her mental catalog of recipes and the inventory of vegetables, herbs, and sauces available in the house. A soup would be best, to test her new magical spoon, but she had no stock or broth, and if this was her first time feeding Verity, she needed to make a good impression.

“Here’s me,” said Mizuki as they came down the path to the house. “Shoes off, please.”

She slipped out of her boots, enjoying the feeling of her toes finally being free, then cast off her gloves as well, leaving her much more comfortable. From there, she went into the kitchen, flipped up the lighting discs, and went through to double check that she really did have everything she thought she did. Venison went well with something a bit sweet, a role that Mizuki thought would be played by carrots, and it was hearty, which would be complemented with mashed potatoes that would soak up some of the gravy.

“Alright,” Mizuki said, looking over at her guest. “How hungry are you?”

“Famished,” Verity replied. “Music takes it out of me, especially with so many layers. I should have eaten before we left. I didn’t think we’d be out so long.” It had been the pipes that had taken most of the time.

“I’ll try to make it fast,” said Mizuki as she flipped open the stove. She held a hand over the heating element and waited until it came up to the right temperature, then moved a pan into place. It was possible to do everything with a single pan, but reluctantly, thinking about the extra dish she’d have to wash, she filled a pot with water from the tank and put that on the stove as well. “Do you like mushrooms?”

“I don’t know,” said Verity. “There are lots of kinds, aren’t there?”

“Oh, of course,” replied Mizuki as she melted some butter into the pan, then moved over to start chopping up the carrots. “But if you don’t like mushrooms, then you just say that and I leave them out, and if you’re picky about your mushrooms, we can start a negotiation.” She held up some mushrooms for Verity to see. They were white, with long, thin stems and a cap that wasn’t much thicker around than the stalk. “Lily mushrooms?”

“At this point, I’m hungry enough that I’ll eat anything you serve me with a smile on my face,” said Verity, whose eyes were roaming over the ingredients.

Mizuki nodded and tossed the mushrooms and carrots in, got some diced onions from the chiller and added them, then added herbs mostly by instinct, including garlic, rosemary, and sage. When that was done, she turned her attention to the meat, but not before she gave the pot another skeptical look. The timing, she decided, was going to be off. The carrots, mushrooms, and venison would be done before the potatoes were boiled through, even if she cut them thin. She decided to do her best.

“So,” said Mizuki while she cut into the loin. “You’re not from around here? You mentioned a conservatory, I think.”

“Like Alfric, I’m from Dondrian,” said Verity. “At first I thought it was odd to meet another Donder so far out from the city, but there are an enormous amount of people there, so I suppose it’s not that unusual.”

“Mmm,” said Mizuki. She wiped her blade and began cutting the potatoes, throwing them in as soon as she had them in thin slices. “And why are you in Pucklechurch? It’s a very out of the way place.”

“It’s a long story,” said Verity. “And I’m hoping that we don’t have too much time until we’re eating?” She was watching the proceedings with interest, though it was the interest of a hungry animal rather than a curious onlooker.

“We’ve got a bit,” said Mizuki. The meal was almost at her favorite part, which was when things were cooking along on their own and being tended to, without all that much interaction on her part.

“Well,” said Verity, seeming dejected that food was going to take a little longer to touch her lips. “Like I said, I was conservatory trained. I was four years old when I first started playing an instrument, and I was something of a prodigy at it, to the delight of my parents. Money wasn’t really a concern to them, so they spent enormous sums on getting me the best tutors, both for my ability to play and my magical talent. When I entered the conservatory I started questioning why I was doing any of it. The training regimes were brutal, the demands to practice were brutal, the competition was fierce, and … I just dropped out, if I’m being honest. I was doing well, as far as the performances went, but everything else, my relationship to the music, my disposition, was going horribly. There was too much weight on my shoulders.” She paused for a moment. “From many quarters.” She paused again. “So I left.”

“To come here,” said Mizuki. She’d taken most of what was in the pan out and placed the rounds of venison there to sear. It was better to cook venison as little as possible to keep it from getting tough. Really, it would have been better to soak them in buttermilk overnight, to get rid of some of the gamey flavor, and she resolved to do that with the remainder of the meat. “So Pucklechurch was picked out of a hat?”

“I’d heard about it in one of my classes,” said Verity. “One of the ones that wasn’t focused entirely on music or bardic arts, that is. The church was built because when the town was founded, ages ago, a ley line used to run through the hex. When the ley line shifted, the church wasn’t needed, but they finished it anyway given how much they’d sunk into the construction. I thought it sounded quite charming, even if the lesson was meant to be about how leylines can occasionally be fickle. There was something about a town that was meant to be something greater that seemed poetic to me. Not the most sensible reason to move to a place, I’ll admit.”

Mizuki emptied the water from the pot of potatoes and set about mashing them while they were still hot, opening the chiller for just a moment so she could add a splash of milk and a lump of butter. Herbs went in too, though not as many of them, because there’d be gravy as well. It was all a balancing act, trying to weigh one thing against the other, and time management wasn’t particularly a strong suit for Mizuki, but she did manage to get the venison out of the pan before everything overcooked, and as soon as the potatoes were mashed, she was starting in on the gravy.

“And you?” asked Verity. “Do you live in this house all by yourself?”

“Ah,” said Mizuki. “Well, that’s not a terribly interesting story, but it’s also not terribly long, so. My grandfather was the one who built this house, nearly fifty years ago. He’d been planning to have a whole community of people from Kiromo, but the point of him coming here and setting up was because of Emperor Haga, who then died early, making the whole thing kind of moot. Emperor Goya is supposed to be a much gentler man, and the community never really ended up happening. Grandpa was always proud of this place though.” She plated the food, and Verity began digging in almost immediately, eating quick bites of everything. It seemed a curious way to eat, at least to Mizuki, hundreds of tiny pieces rather than simple mouthfuls. It probably came down to culture, she expected.

“This is amazing,” said Verity, once she’d eaten half the plate without slowing down. “This is really amazing.”

“I learned from my mom,” said Mizuki. “In Kiromo, cooking is the first and most important of all skills. Mom thought it was vital, but I also took to it, and if you’ve got to eat anyway, better to make sure you’re eating well. Besides, it’s a hobby that saves money, not that we’ll need to worry too much about that now.”

“Right,” said Verity, slowing for the first time since getting her food. “The money.”

“You don’t like money?” asked Mizuki.

“I do,” said Verity. “Who doesn’t? But I grew up with money, and — out here, I’ve been discovering a love of music again. I play at the tavern and try new things, get messy, make up songs for the fun of it, and now … Alfric is a reminder of what I don’t like about Dondrian.” She looked down at her plate, seeming a bit glum, then began moving more food into her mouth in that same strange way, tiny pieces one after the other.

“Big city energy,” said Mizuki, nodding. She was eating much slower than Verity, though that wasn’t saying much. “But in this case, it did help us get things done. He was right, it was a half day’s work, not all that much difficulty, and we got rich from it.”

“Not really that rich,” said Verity.

“Ten thousand rings for the books alone,” said Mizuki. “Perhaps you have a warped sense of what being rich is, but ten thousand rings is a lot. Not life-changing, but a lot.”

“I think it’s going to end up less than that,” said Verity. “The books would fetch a better price in Dondrian, where there are more buyers for that kind of thing. It’s likely that they’ll get sent to Dondrian anyhow, which means that a few people will be taking their cut along the way.”

“Well, even if it was less,” said Mizuki. “This meal was, altogether, maybe … ten for the both of us? That means, uh, some math, which I’ve never been too good at. But surely the sum takes care of my food for a year, maybe more. And that’s for a half day’s work! I don’t think you or I were ever in much danger, to be honest.”

“Yes,” said Verity. “I suppose. It was scary, but I didn’t get so much as a scratch.” She pushed her plate forward, which had been completely cleared down to the smallest bit of diced onion. Mizuki was pleased to note that included the mushrooms. “There was almost something familiar to it, as though it were just another high pressure performance.”

“So you might do a second one with us?” asked Mizuki. She tried to keep her tone casual.

“I might,” said Verity. “I’ll see how I feel in the morning, whether I have shaky nerves.” She sat in quiet contemplation for a moment. “I ate too much.”

“My fault,” said Mizuki. “I made too much.” She looked down at the plate. “I think this will probably be my breakfast tomorrow morning.” She looked at Verity. “Alfric said that in Dondrian they don’t eat breakfast?”

Verity nodded. “Technically we break our fast for lunch. Before then, it’s usually some kind of hot drink, though of late there’s been a surge in hot drinks which are basically soup, which, at the time I left, was causing a bit of a hubbub.” She sighed. “I do miss it, sometimes, but I also enjoy the simple life that I’ve built here. Playing at the Fig and Gristle, hiking out into the woods to practice, enjoying the peace and solitude, reading through whatever I can get from the library … it’s a very pleasant life, and I don’t know that I want it interrupted.”

“Well, you can go back to the quiet life, can’t you?” asked Mizuki. “Alfric will want to go through dungeons as quickly as we can, he seems like the sort, but if we did, say, one every two weeks, that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”

“I suppose not,” said Verity. She smiled a bit. “I’m going to need to practice some of the group things. There are special elements only available to parties.”

“I think we all have some work and training to do,” said Mizuki, nodding. “There’s something in the interference pattern between you and Hannah that I know I can do something more with.”

“For bards, there’s a progression technique,” said Verity. “Where you can keep someone getting stronger and stronger with every minute that you can hold the song. But of course it gets harder and harder to keep going.” She grinned and leaned back slightly. “I could make you stronger than Alfric, even.” She looked a bit sheepish. “Assuming that I can actually manage to pull it off, that is.”

“Our party composition is quite good,” said Mizuki, though this was an informed guess on her part. “I’m surprised and impressed that Alfric was able to put it together, though I imagine some of it was just luck.” She got up from her seat and took her plate with her, sliding it into the chiller, then grabbed Verity’s plate and started on doing dishes. “Would you be a pal and go down into the wine cellar? It’s that door to the left. Something fruity.” She pointed using her shoulder.

Mizuki was almost finished with the dishes by the time Verity came back up. “Did you have trouble?” She asked.

“There were just so many,” said Verity. “I’m not very good at making choices.”

“Peach wine,” said Mizuki, taking the bottle and looking at the label. “Do you drink? Or is that not a thing people do in Dondrian? Otherwise, this bottle is for me. Sorry, I should have brought it up for dinner.”

“I drink,” nodded Verity. She watched as Mizuki filled up a glass. “You’re being very hospitable to someone you’ve just met.”

“We’re party members,” shrugged Mizuki. “It’s been two years since I’ve been in a party with someone, and I think being in a new one is cause for celebration.” She realized this wasn’t quite what she’d said before. She hadn’t mentioned a brief party she’d done with the Pedder boys, before that whole thing had ended in disaster. Perhaps she should have, but it was the kind of thing that seemed like it would break the flow of conversation.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Verity after she’d taken a sip. “I’m being a terrible conversationalist. I completely dropped the thread from earlier. You were explaining about the house, and your grandfather. How’d you end up … alone?” She had hesitated on the word, like she was trying to think of some better way to say it.

“My mother was born here, fully Kiromon, but not actually a part of Kiromo, if that makes sense,” said Mizuki. “My father was actually a quarter Kiromon himself, though the other way around, someone from the area who visited Kiromo and brought back a baby and a wife, that baby being my other grandfather. There are a fair number of them — us — in the area. Anyway, my Kiromon grandfather eventually moved back to Kiromo and encouraged my mom and dad to do the same, because the situation there had changed, and Pucklechurch was, well, a small town in more or less the middle of nowhere. I was seventeen when they were making plans to move, and … we couldn’t take the house with us, obviously, and most of the stuff was going to be sold off, because there are limits to what you can fit on a leycraft, and I barely spoke Kiro, and had a lot of friends.” She shrugged. “I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like if I had gone with them.”

“So you own this whole house?” asked Verity, raising an eyebrow.

“No, it’s still my grandfather’s, but I’m free to stay in it as long as I like,” said Mizuki. “But if I move out, I’m going to have to sell it, and that money goes to my grandfather, which is just the kind of sneaky thing he does to put pressure on the family. I’m tied to the house, sort of. There’d be much worse things to be tied to though. Oh, and also a bunch of the land around it, that’s his too, which technically makes it mine, in a sense.”

Verity took a long drink from her glass of wine. For a moment, Mizuki was worried that she would drink wine as fast as she ate dinner, but the bard stopped short, smacking her lips. “This is amazing, how do you have such good wine?”

“My grandfather ran a winery in Liberfell,” Mizuki replied. “He was always experimenting with new things. He called himself a radical in both winemaking and politics.” Mizuki smiled, then took a sip of her own. It was much less fruity than she’d expected. “Did you want to spend the night?”

“Oh,” said Verity, pausing. “I wouldn’t want to impose.” She looked past the windows, where it was now fully dark.

“It wouldn’t make a huge difference to me one way or another,” said Mizuki. “And the Fig and Gristle is halfway across town. There are lots of bedrooms in this place, and the guest room is already done up. I take overflow from the taverns sometimes, though that usually only happens when there’s something important going on.”

“And that doesn’t frighten you?” asked Verity. “Letting some stranger into your home?”

“I can blast people with fireballs, remember?” asked Mizuki, grinning. “If someone tried to lay a hand on me, or on my valuables, not that I have valuables, they would lose that hand. Besides, the last time, having a stranger in my home was rather the point.”

Verity raised an eyebrow.

“Tall, handsome, muscular,” said Mizuki with a fond sigh. “Sadly, my flirtation wasn’t up to snuff. He was a priest, but it’s not like the Order of Qymmos have a vow of celibacy.”

Verity blushed. “Well,” she said.

“Speaking of, what are your thoughts on Alfric?” asked Mizuki. She took a drink from her glass of wine and gave Verity her best innocent look.

“Um,” said Verity. She was clearly already feeling the warmth of the wine. “As a, ah, romantic partner?”

Mizuki nodded, still hiding behind her glass of wine.

“He’s got a handsome way about him,” said Verity. She seemed hesitant. “A kind of … toughness, I suppose, a solidity. But he seems like the sort of man who goes about everything with a rigid plan, and I can’t see myself working with someone like that. Certainly not romantically, but perhaps not in any other way either.”

“Like dating someone who thinks of kissing as eighteen steps,” laughed Mizuki. “I can see that.”

“Nothing against him,” said Verity.

“No, of course not,” said Mizuki. “He’s just … a brick. The world needs bricks. Bricks are great. We use them to build houses. But a brick is never going to court anyone, and you don’t dream of kissing a brick.” Mizuki had considered it, with Alfric, until it became clear that he only wanted her for her fireballs. Their shared breakfast had convinced her that romance and flirtation were the furthest things from his mind, which was no great shame.

“Again, no offense to him,” said Verity.

“No,” said Mizuki. “Unless he takes offense to being called a brick.”

Verity giggled. “And I might do another dungeon. We’ll see. If he knew me, he’d have tried to tempt me with magic items. If I could get a lute that was like the bow Isra got today, well, there’s a lot I would brave to make that happen. An entad, something that was mine rather than on loan, or bought by my parents, something that didn’t have a weight of obligation.” She took a second long swallow of wine, draining the glass, and Mizuki filled it up again, though only halfway. They were large glasses, and she wasn’t sure Verity realized that. “You?”

“What kind of magic would I want?” asked Mizuki. She thought for a moment. “Well, I already got the spoon, so I think I’m good to go.” She had used it to stir the gravy, then again to eat her meal, playing with it.

Verity laughed, but it was a bit forced, and the two of them were silent for a bit. When the conversation returned, it was missing some of the life it’d had before. Mizuki felt bad. She had joked instead of giving an honest answer.

“Well,” said Verity, after she’d finished her second glass of wine. “Do you want to show me to my room?”

“Of course,” said Mizuki. She stuck the bottle in the chiller, then quickly rinsed the glass before showing Verity the way. “After I’d been by myself for a year, I switched to using my parents’ bed, which means that you’ll have my old room.”

There was something crushingly vulnerable about letting Verity into the room. Verity didn’t pass comment on the paintings on the wall, all Mizuki’s work, only flopped onto the bed and let out a deep sigh of satisfaction.

“The bathroom is just down the hall,” said Mizuki. “If you need to take a shower, there are towels there too, and I can loan you clothes, if you’d like, but I doubt I have much that would fit you.” Verity was quite tall, and Mizuki was … short wasn’t the word she preferred, but small sounded too childish. “Don’t worry about using up the water, the tanks were meant for a pretty large household.”

“A shower sounds like a lot of work,” said Verity, staring at the ceiling. “I ate too much and drank too much.”

“It was only two glasses,” said Mizuki. She was standing in the doorway, looking over Verity, who wasn’t moving from her spread out position on the bed.

“I have a bad head for drinks,” said Verity. She sat up, propping herself up with her elbows. “Thank you for all this. You really didn’t have to.”

“Oh, I know,” said Mizuki. “But a spinster likes some company every once in a while.”

She almost, almost made a bigger offer, to say that Verity could move in, but Verity flopped back down, and Mizuki came to her senses.

Mizuki went to her own room, which had belonged to her parents until four years ago. She no longer felt self-conscious about sleeping there, but it was a large room, and felt somewhat cold with just her in it. She made kissing noises, which sometimes got Tabbins to come, but she wasn’t even sure her fat oaf of a cat was in the house.

“The truth,” Mizuki said to herself as she undressed for the night, “The truth is that magic can’t get me the things that I want, and dungeons can’t either. Being alone was fun, but at some point, it stopped being fun. I want a family again.” She said the words at barely more than a whisper, so that Verity wouldn’t be able to hear from next door, but saying it out loud made her feel better, like she was at least being honest with herself.

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Alexander Wales

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