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Five was an annoying number, in Hannah’s opinion. There was very little symmetry to be had from it. Five could have rotational symmetry, but the same could be said of any number, since a circle could be defined by infinitely many points. Five also allowed a flanking approach, with one of the five in the center and two sides of two each, but this didn’t have manifold symmetry, not in the way that four could, not unless you put the fifth point in the center. But that was just pretending that five was actually four, and Hannah didn’t hold with that.

For people, trying to do that was trying to pretend that the fifth person wasn’t there, and if you were looking at symmetries, that wouldn’t do. Five was, no matter how she looked at it, a bad number. Still, five was the most you could have in a party, and five was what they did have, so it was up to Hannah to divine what might be done with what she had. It was, for a cleric of Garos, a form of meditation and prayer that might bring her closer to her god.

The first step was arranging the party in a pentagon, which Hannah did in her mind, though perhaps if she had time later, she would make little symbols for each of them. A pentagon had rotational symmetry, but it also had flanking symmetry when a line was drawn intersecting one of the points. The obvious point to go through was Alfric, for two reasons. The first was that he was the leader of their group, something Hannah didn’t dispute, even if she did think of herself as his deputy. The point around which the flanking should happen needed to be the most important of the points. The second reason was that he was male: both ‘halves’ of the pentagon would then contain half a male and two females, preserving gender symmetry and overall reflection.

This left the question of where each of the girls should go. There were three configurations, and Hannah ran through all of them in her mind, trying to find which one was best. Unfortunately, there were too many methods of division, and they kept giving different answers. Mizuki and Hannah were both clearly more outgoing, while Verity and Isra were less so. Verity and Hannah had more experience with the wider world, and had come from larger cities, in a fashion, while Mizuki and Isra were (approximately) natives of Pucklechurch. There were two who used magic and one who was a cleric, with a fourth who had only a bow, which was no good at all. They couldn’t be easily divided by the darkness of their skin, or their hair, or their different sense of fashion. For the most part, Hannah didn’t know them well enough to make good judgments about their personalities or how they saw the world.

Eventually, because she didn’t want her morning prayer to be a waste, Hannah decided that it should be her and Verity on one side with Mizuki and Isra on the other, but she wasn’t sure about which spots each of them should take, and the whole thing felt like an exercise in frustration, because none of it sang to her sense of symmetry. Garos would look at the arrangement and not be pleased. She would pray again, perhaps picking a different person to be the center, and as she talked to them, she would try to tease out the ways in which they reflected each other. Unfortunately, she had yet to find a firm grasp.

Hannah therefore started the morning feeling a bit out of sorts. It happened from time to time, and while her ability to call on Garos was unaffected, she didn’t feel quite right with the world. The last time it had been when she focused too much on the wrong parts of her own body. While she was perfectly symmetricalized, there were limits to symmetricalization. The lungs could be symmetrical with each other, which required moving the heart to the center, but the heart was an awkward, asymmetric shape, and the guts snaked and twisted back and forth in a person’s belly, with various organs sitting in awkward spots without respect to symmetry. If she put herself in the wrong mindset, all she could focus on was the hideous imperfection. Worse than those failures of bilateral symmetry were the other symmetry failures of the body, the way that the legs and arms seemed to almost mirror each other, the way the hands and feet were clearly made from a similar map but far too different from each other. In the seminary there had been classes on human anatomy, and Hannah had always cringed at seeing all these issues, something that she felt alone in, because no one else seemed to mind. One day in the seminary, while looking through books in the library, she’d found a thick tome that went on about theoretical changes to the body which would bring it to greater levels of symmetry, which she had loved, mostly because it made her feel seen. But of course the first verse of the first section was, “Man is not of Garos alone”, a refrain that each of the six holy books had in common, a plea to unity that hadn’t always been listened to.

As she walked from the Pucklechurch temple to Mizuki’s house, she tried to turn her thoughts away from imperfections, but there were times when that was difficult. On seeing Mizuki’s house though, Hannah’s mind lightened, because it was a house of immense and deliberate symmetry.

Each of the three levels was a square, and of all the basic geometric shapes, the square was Hannah’s favorite. There was four point rotational symmetry, and four lines of bisecting symmetry. All of the windows of the house were identical on every side, and the doors were centered in the middle of the square. There weren’t, unfortunately, doors on each of the sides, but on the two sides that didn’t have doors, there were large windows that hung within a frame that was identical to the door frames. The rooms, at least on the first level, almost perfectly divided the main floor into four smaller perfect squares, with the exception of the foyer that surrounded the front door and the symmetrical area that enclosed the back door. There were two sets of stairs going up to the next floor, each on opposite sides of the house, each going a different direction to preserve rotational symmetry, and there were likewise two sets of stairs leading to the basement. There were choices made in the house which were clearly impractical, and to Hannah it was obvious that there had been some religious worship of Garos in its construction. It was something that she would broach with Mizuki at some point, but the fact that Mizuki hadn’t mentioned it to a cleric of Garos seemed to be an indication that Mizuki didn’t know. The general state of the house and the garden behind it, and the fact that it belonged to her grandfather … well, Hannah was anticipating that they wouldn’t have much to discuss.

She came to the house with a loaf of berry bread, this one with cut up bits of strawberries, which had already passed their seasonal peak. The excess harvest was being made into jams and preserves that would supply them through the winter, and some of them would be frozen in large chillers, though Hannah had always felt that frozen berries were a pale imitation of fresh. There were other berries coming into bloom that were good for baking, and there would be sellers sweeping into Pucklechurch through the summer and into the autumn, trying to get the most they could for their harvests, whether foraged or cultivated. They were a bit far south for farkleberries, and with the wrong type of soil, but Hannah had taken a liking to the sour berries, and was going to do her best to find some, especially if she was going to be baking for more than just herself and Lemmel. Baking was just fine with a bit of flour, salt, sugar, yeast, and water, but she always liked it better with fruits and spices.

Hannah had puttered around the temple while baking, and made sure that this time she wouldn’t be waking Mizuki up. To her surprise, as she came to the door of the house, she saw Verity approaching, still looking bleary-eyed and with a sack over her shoulder and her lute case held in one hand.

“Hannah?” she asked.

“I brought bread,” said Hannah. She looked at the sack over Verity’s shoulder. “Are you … movin’ in?”

“Yeah,” said Verity. “I played my set at the Fig and Gristle last night and talked to Cynthia. I have a standing offer to play there, but she thinks she’ll be able to get someone in to replace me relatively soon. She seemed more happy that I was moving on to something else than she was sad to lose me.”

“Well, good,” said Hannah. “Nothin’ to stand in the way of dungeon delvin’, I suppose, ay?”

“I suppose not,” said Verity. She looked like she was ready for a nap. “I still need to go back and pick up a few things from my room, and Cynthia is making me clean up, but I’ll wait until I play my set tonight.”

“Well, consider this a housewarmin’ gift,” said Hannah, raising the bread.

“Thanks,” said Verity. “Could you get the door?”

Hannah followed Verity in, and while Verity went upstairs to put things away, Hannah went to the kitchen, where Mizuki seemed to spend most of her time. The smell of eggs and toast still hung in the air, and Mizuki was eating over the counter, sitting on one of the stools.

“Mmf,” she said around a mouthful of food. “Bread.”

Hannah set the loaf of bread down on the counter. “Bread,” she agreed. “Verity came about the same time I did, said she was movin’ in.”

“Sure is,” nodded Mizuki. “Hopefully we don’t drive each other insane.” She eyed the loaf. “That’s for me, right?”

“To share,” shrugged Hannah. “But I made two, and left one with Lemmel, so if you eat it all, no worries.”

“I doubt I’m going to sit and eat a whole loaf,” said Mizuki. “But, thank you! People don’t usually get me anything.”

“No problem,” said Hannah. “Alfric and Isra should be back today, around noon if they got an early start on things and don’t have trouble along the way. We’ll get our share of the money then, and my guess is start talkin’ about the what and when of the next dungeon, if I have the measure of Alfric.”

Mizuki sighed. “Can’t say I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “But I think I’ve got a better understanding of the magic, given the practice we did yesterday.” She looked at Hannah. “If we’re waiting until noon or so, do you have plans until then?”

“Well,” said Hannah. “Ay. I was thinkin’ that if you didn’t mind, I might take a look at the house a bit, and see if there’s mendin’ to do.”

“Mending?” asked Mizuki as she took the last bite of eggs on her plate.

“There’s a lot a cleric of Garos can do,” said Hannah as she took her plate to the sink for a quick wash. “Healin’ is what we’re most known for, but we can do more than just that. I fixed up Alfric’s shield as best I could, and I was goin’ to take a look around and see if there’s anythin’ I can do, as a favor of one friend to another. The house uses square beams all over the place, but the grain might make it a bit difficult. If I can see repairs that aren’t too hard, I’ll make ‘em.”

“Ah,” said Mizuki, as she gave the plate a quick wash.

“Unless you take offense,” said Hannah.

“No,” said Mizuki. She turned to look back at Hannah. “I mean … you’re saying that there are some problems with the house, and I know there are, things that I never knew how to do, or repairs I couldn’t afford, and like with the garden, it’s stupid to get offended about, but a part of me hates that people look at this place and instantly know how out of my depth I am.”

“Sure,” said Hannah. “Well, if it helps, when I’m done they’ll think about nothin’ but how nice it looks, though I can’t say that I’ll clean off your roof.”

“Do you need to clean roofs?” asked Mizuki, raising an eyebrow as she wiped her hands dry.

“You have some small trees threatenin’ to grow through the tiles,” said Hannah, as gentle as she could be.

“But I kind of like the moss up there,” said Mizuki.

“There’s somethin’ nice about the look, true,” said Hannah. She rubbed the back of her neck. She hadn’t quite realized how out of her depth Mizuki was. She desperately hoped that the septic was getting some regular attention. “But … you know a house can rot, right?”

“From moss?” asked Mizuki. “I thought that was from leaks.”

“The moss and dirt and leaves and things mean that it doesn’t dry as well,” said Hannah. “Anyway, as I said, I was going to check the beams, the stones, the skeleton of the place, and see if I could do anythin’ for you. It’s somethin’ we do as clerics of Garos, though of course I won’t charge.”

“Two gifts,” said Mizuki. “Seems a bit generous to me, and I don’t know how I could pay you back.”

“One is payback for breakfast yesterday,” said Hannah. “And as for the other … Lemmel will let me use the room at the temple for as long as I please, but I was thinkin’, if you had the space, and if you and Verity are both goin’ to be here, well …” she hesitated. “If it wouldn’t be an imposition.”

Mizuki considered this. “And you’d do baking?”

“And home repairs, where I can,” said Hannah. “And other things, surely, like healin’, ay.”

“Then yes, of course, you’re welcome to stay,” said Mizuki. “I actually have space for all five of us, just barely, though two of us will have to share a room.”

“You’ve come around to dungeons then?” asked Hannah. “Goin’ through and clearin’ all the ones in the area?”

“Yes, probably,” said Mizuki, shifting slightly. “It would be fun to have a full house again. Alfric would probably be interested, if just to save a few rings, but I don’t know about Isra. She’s got a place in the woods somewhere, presumably.”

“Well, we won’t press her on it, and hopefully when she comes back with Alfric she won’t have been driven off forever,” said Hannah. “I’m going to go look at the bones of the house while Verity unpacks.”

Hannah wandered out of the house again, looking for any damage. Mending was, as she’d said, a specialty of clerics of Garos, and she had more than a bit of knowledge about structures and what could go wrong with them. Sometimes houses were built with the clerics of Garos in mind, but that was a rarity, because having a perfectly symmetrical house meant that in some respects, you had to give up a bit of practicality, more was the pity. For a large enough house, no cleric but one of the Ashar would have the reach necessary to make repairs, and Mizuki’s house would likely stretch the limits of Hannah’s ability if it was necessary to make the front symmetrical with the back.

Wood was actually harder to work with than most people naively thought. Trees usually had some nice rotational symmetry in the trunk, with the exception of the limbs coming off them, but when the trees got taken to the sawmills, or when they were cut by hand, it was very rare that any of that symmetry would be preserved, leaving wood grain that was asymmetrical. Worse, when wood warped or split, there was even less to work with, and nails got put in seemingly at random, and there were all kinds of other issues.

Of course, the miracles that Hannah had available to her were strong, and nothing was impossible, but it was the kind of work that she couldn’t do too much of in a day. Symmetricalizing the house would be the work of months, maybe even a whole year, if she was using her power for almost nothing else. Spot fixes were more doable, but she would have to prioritize heavily, at least when it came to wood.

The foundation of the house was stone, but it had been made with overlapping stone bricks, and would be difficult to symmetricalize too, if not quite as difficult as the wood. Thankfully there was nothing there that needed repair, just perhaps a reapplication of mortar. A single one of the stones had a hairline crack, but it didn’t go through the strongest point of bilateral symmetry, and so was the work of simply laying hands on it and doing a basic reflection. The stones had been cut with precision, and while they weren’t cubes, which would have been ideal, they were regular in ways that were both helpful and pleasing to Hannah.

In a storage shed in the backyard, Hannah found a stack of tiles that seemed like they had come from the same batch that had been used on the roof. Half of the tiles had suffered some kind of damage and cracked down the center, nearly forty of them damaged in the same way, but the others were in good shape, and that meant that there was work Hannah could do. She laid the good tiles out in a pattern on the flat ground, using three concentric rings of eight tiles, with the exception of a single space in the inner ring, where she placed a cracked one. With so many symmetries there, it was simple to make the repair, and she went through the stack, repeating the process and turning the bad tiles into good with a fair bit of time but very little effort. Just looking at the roof, she could see some damage that had never been fixed, and Hannah thought it likely that she was going to be repeating this process at some point in the summer when she got to the work of cleaning off the roof and making necessary repairs. Hopefully there hadn’t been any water damage from where broken tiles didn’t provide protection. Ideally, someone else would clean off the roof, but she had the feeling that it was going to fall to her or simply not get done.

Hannah was in the middle of this work when Alfric and Isra came walking down the road, ahead of schedule. Hannah stood up, dusted off, and was just in time to meet them inside, where Mizuki had already gotten started on making a ‘quick’ lunch, which involved a bubbling pot of something brown.

“We’re back,” Alfric smiled, once the five of them were assembled in the kitchen. “Still four days away from the channel, or we’d have announced we were coming.”

“And we’re rich, right?” asked Mizuki.

“I guess we need to get the bad news out of the way first. We earned less than I’d hoped.” Alfric had a sheepish smile. “There’s a chance we could have gotten more by going further afield, possibly to Liberfell, but that was five hexes away in the opposite direction, which is a considerable hike, and probably would have meant three or four days travel in total, depending on the conditions. I also didn’t know if I had that mandate, and we can talk about that later. Still, we managed to sell everything, and I think we got a good price. I made contact with three stores there and have standing offers for materials, if we decide to go forward with dungeons in the future.” He didn’t look directly at Verity or Mizuki as he said that.

“Alright,” said Mizuki. “But we have a payout?”

Alfric nodded and set a bag on the counter, which clinked with the weight of metal. “Fifteen thousand,” he said. “That’s between the books, the ectad materials, and the entads. Three thousand a piece. Isra’s already got her cut.”

“I don’t want to sound like an ungrateful jerk, but only three thousand?” asked Mizuki. “I thought you said it was going to be like … ten each?”

“Overestimation on my part,” said Alfric. He winced. “My first mistake was saying anything at all. I should have said they were valuable without saying how valuable. I might have been more on the mark with how Dondrian prices things, but I’m not sure.”

“Ay. Better to be surprised and delighted with three than disappointed with ten,” nodded Hannah. It did sting, though she wasn’t particularly depending on the money. “Still, three thousand will last us for a good long while, I’d expect.”

“Probably a full year, if I did nothing else,” Mizuki nodded. “Though now that I have the money, I’m probably going to spend it on something lavish.” She looked around the kitchen. “More stuff for here, maybe an order of ingredients from one of the bigger cities, something like that.”

“You’re going to buy food?” asked Alfric. “Just … food?”

“Not just food,” shrugged Mizuki. “But yes, food. Food is great. We need it for living.”

“That’s true,” said Hannah. “Myself, I was going to have some armor commissioned. It would do to have some adventurin’ gear for the lot of us. The blacksmith likes me.”

“I already bought arrows,” said Isra.

“We’re thinking of putting money right back into going into dungeons?” asked Verity. “Doesn’t that seem a bit backward?”

“Not all the money,” said Mizuki. “But a bit of it, yeah. You said that you don’t even own pants.”

“Fine,” said Verity. “I’ll spend some money on pants.”

“If you’re not interested in further dungeons, we’ll use one of the alternates,” said Hannah. “There are two that Alfric had marked as being suitable.” Alfric didn’t seem to like that tactic, or to see it as a tactic, because he had a frown.

“I’m interested,” said Verity. “But I don’t want what Alfric wants, which is to hit two dungeons a day for the rest of our lives.”

“That’s not quite what I want,” said Alfric. “Besides, with six miles of walking to go between hexes and the amount of labor involved, and time to rest, we’d be quite lucky to be able to sustain one a day. Maybe with mounts or some other form of transport, but —”

“One every few days,” said Hannah. “For the first six, one day on, two days off, to give us time to recover from what I can’t heal, to not feel like our lives are on the line.”

“But that would mean we’d do the next one tomorrow?” Verity asked. She had her arms folded. “Six miles seems a lot to walk, and it’s not six miles, it’s twelve if we want to go there and back.”

“Not tomorrow, no,” said Alfric. “We had more of a hike than I was expecting with a fair amount on our backs. It was twelve miles each day, carrying more than fifty pounds of weight, with elevation changes. I’m aching. If I have to go another six miles, then go down into a dungeon tomorrow … well, I won’t say that I couldn’t, but I’d prefer at least a day of rest, and possibly some time to train or at least give you all a better picture of what it’s going to look like going forward. And if we’re waiting that long, better to wait until we have whatever gear we’re going to get and the party channel.”

“I don’t want to be the roadblock,” said Verity. “So I’ll do another few, but if it’s travel all the time, and there’s considerable danger later on … maybe you should start speaking to the alternates you had in mind.”

“I bought a dagger in Tarchwood,” said Alfric. “With my own money. It can teleport one of us to it, which means we can cut out six miles of travel for someone, and if it’s a condition of you coming with, then I’d be fine using it like that. We can also probably augment it to take all of us, which cuts travel time in half.”

“Hmm,” said Verity. “It seems generous to use it for me.”

“Yes,” said Alfric. “But I think you’re well worth it.” He shifted in place for a moment, keeping his eyes on her. “Verity, can I speak with you privately?”

Verity’s eyes were on him, boring holes into him. Something had changed between them, and Hannah wished that she knew what. “You knew me by reputation.”

“Yes,” he said. He looked to the doorway leading out of the kitchen. Verity wasn’t moving though. After a moment of hesitation, Alfric continued. “Your parents were worried about you. They were making some discreet inquiries as to whether they could get someone to first find you, and second, go check up on you.”

“My parents sent you here,” said Verity. She had her arms folded, but her stern posture gave way to confusion. “But surely not to have me go into a dungeon.”

“No,” said Alfric. “No, decidedly not. I had never really had any intention of spying on you for them, but I knew enough about you to know that you were quite skilled, and … I had been trying to put together parties. I watched them fail in one way or another.”

That, for Hannah, helped a few things fall into place about Alfric. Why the rush? Well, perhaps because he’d seen parties fail before, either through scheduling or personal issues, or collapsing when it came time to actually fight monsters. Hannah wondered just how many failed parties he’d had. Now that they’d been through one, and proven that they could do it, Alfric was willing to slow down and invest some time.

“And if I had said no?” asked Verity.

“I would have tried a few other approaches with you. If it had still been a firm no, I would have confirmed for them that it was really you,” said Alfric. “Then I’d have done my best to scrape together a party without you, using the funds that they’d given me.”

Verity nodded. “And if you know all that, you know … certain other salient information about me.”

Alfric nodded slowly.

“Which is?” asked Mizuki.

“I haven’t said it out loud because I assumed that Verity would prefer it to be private,” said Alfric.

Hannah felt the pull of curiosity, and immediately her mind went to work thinking of all the possible options that it could be. A disgrace of some kind seemed the most likely, but there were many options for the specific variety. A child out of wedlock, a failed engagement, a social embarrassment, a crime of passion … none of them fit. None immediately made sense of Verity, but Hannah was aware that she didn’t know Verity all that well.

“I think I need a moment to myself,” she said. “I’ll be upstairs.”

She left the kitchen, moving with the same grace as before, not teary-eyed, but certainly not looking like she was pleased.

“She’s only second elevation though,” said Mizuki. “She can’t be that good, right?”

“You’re the one that said elevation was bunk,” said Alfric. “And yes, there are reasons to believe that Verity is far more proficient than being a bard of second elevation would imply.”

“Seems crazy to come out all this way when the answer might have been no,” said Hannah.

“There was payment either way,” said Alfric. “And a place like this is the ideal starting location. I still need to send a message to her parents, but I’m hoping to get her input on that, once she’s had some time to process. If she’d have said no, I’d have sent them a message anyway, and taken the money for it, not that I would have been proud about it.”

“Cold,” said Mizuki with a whistle.

“A parent has a right to know,” said Hannah. “I hadn’t realized she’d run off like that.”

“She deserves her privacy,” said Isra. She was leaning up against the chiller with her arms folded.

“About the other issue,” said Alfric. “The one that I haven’t spoken about. I’d prefer if the three of you didn’t snoop or pry. She’ll tell you when she’s ready, if she’s ever ready, and if this doesn’t make her want nothing to do with me.”

“You know, she just moved in today,” said Mizuki. “You could have waited.”

“Waiting this long was already a violation of disclosure,” said Alfric. “I couldn’t wait until we’d done another dungeon run. It wouldn’t be ethical. Arguably, it wasn’t ethical to wait as long as I did. Besides, her parents will make other arrangements if I never report back to them through a guild messenger like we’d planned. It’s better for Verity to know now, so she can do something about that. I’m open to some deception though.”

“You know this raises all kinds of questions,” said Hannah. “Like why she ran away from home, and what her parents are like, and all those kinds of things.”

“She came to Pucklechurch to get away,” said Alfric. “My guess is that people not knowing much more than that she came from Dondrian was part of the point. I probably should have spoken with her separately, insisted on it, but I wanted my own deception to be out in the open, and if she wanted to leave because of it, I didn’t want it to be on her to explain things.”

He looked somewhat deflated. Hannah could imagine him rehearsing what he’d said and preparing to tell her. She wondered if it had gone better or worse than he’d expected, but her prior experience with telling people things you didn’t want to was that he probably just felt a bit hollow and unsure. She’d have to ask him, later, perhaps much later.

“I’ll go up to her,” said Hannah.

“No,” said Mizuki, who was looking out of sorts. “She said she wants to be alone, leave her alone.”

“I’m a cleric,” said Hannah. “Part of that is talkin’ to people about their problems. When people say they want to be alone, sometimes that means they think other people won’t understand. Even if she doesn’t want to share, we can talk around it. Talkin’ is what I’m trained for, it’s what I spent some years in seminary learnin’.”

“I guess,” said Mizuki, but she seemed doubtful.

Hannah left the others to go upstairs, and briefly overheard something about druids, but then she was out of earshot, and up on the second level. She didn’t actually know where Verity’s room was, but the layout was as pleasing to her as on the ground floor, with two staircases up and rooms of equal size, one being the blue-tiled bathroom with a huge claw-foot tub, the other three being bedrooms. Hannah found it by process of elimination, as two of the bedrooms were open, one of them with a large four poster bed that must have been Mizuki’s, the other with stripped-bare bunk beds that must have belonged to her sisters.

Hannah tapped lightly on the final door.

“Come in,” replied Verity’s soft voice.

“Hullo,” said Hannah as she entered. She closed the door behind her and sat on the bed next to Verity. Already, Verity’s things had been strewn about the room, with a pile of poetry books slumped on one shelf and clothes in a loose pile on the floor. “How’re you doin’?”

“Fine,” said Verity. “Fine, I just … if my parents hired him, even if he’s not going to do the work, that means they’ll hire someone else when he doesn’t report, or if he reports and says he’s not going to do it, and I was doing fine, I had a room and a job, it wasn’t like I was dead in a ditch somewhere.”

“Were they just worried, or was it somethin’ more?” asked Hannah. “When someone runs away, it can be hard on the parents.”

“I didn’t run away,” said Verity, but there was no confidence in the statement. “I talked to them and explained that I was an adult capable of making my own decisions and finding my own way in the world. They disagreed and shut down any further discussion, like I was going to change my mind if they just refused to entertain the idea.” She shook her head. “I’m not even that upset with Alfric, though maybe I should be. I’m more upset that I wasn’t trusted to be my own person. I’m upset with them.

“Ah, I hear ya,” said Hannah. “My own parents didn’t fancy havin’ a cleric for a daughter.”

“They didn’t?” asked Verity. She hadn’t been looking at Hannah as they talked, but at this she turned, frowning.

Hannah nodded. “They tried to talk me out of it. My da thought that I was goin’ for the wrong reasons, and my ma just didn’t like the idea of me not gettin’ to see them so much, which I suppose she had a point about, but it wasn’t goin’ to stop me.”

“What are the wrong reasons to become a cleric?” asked Verity.

“Oh,” said Hannah, waving her hand. “My da had some ideas about why I had such a strong interest in Garos, mostly havin’ to do with him thinkin’ I was interested in women, given a certain reputation of the church, not that it’s not warranted. He said to me that I didn’t have to go, that we could find me a woman at home if that was what I wanted.”

“And … it wasn’t?” asked Verity. She had one eyebrow slightly arched.

Hannah laughed. “Oh, no, not at all. Da wasn’t wrong, there was a lot of that goin’ on in the seminary, and I did end up havin’ a few girlfriends. It’s a bit … well, I wouldn’t say encouraged, but —” She shook her head. “It’s not important right now. The point I was tryin’ to make was that parents can be a bit difficult, and if you didn’t want to be a bard, or not a bard like they wanted you to be, that’s somethin’ for them to deal with on their own, with no spyin’ on you. I don’t blame Alfric for seekin’ you out, if he thinks you’re the best bard he could get, but I wouldn’t blame you either if you decide you don’t want to deal with him. Now, to my mind he gets some credit for fessin’ up when he did, but that’s me, not you.”

“I suppose,” said Verity. “You know, all I really wanted to do was to make music.”

“And were you not allowed to, in the conservatory?” asked Hannah. “Or the life you were to have beyond there?”

“There was too much focus on the magic,” said Verity. “And if it wasn’t the magic, then it was dealing with other people, scheduling time with a group, arranging gigs, learning new music that needed to be played … there was so much pressure, so much demand, so much that wasn’t even remotely about the music itself.”

“And goin’ into dungeons doesn’t really help that, does it?” asked Hannah. “Alfric doesn’t want you because you can improvise a nice melody, or because he appreciates what you do with lyrics, it’s ‘cause he wants to be forty-six percent stronger or some such.”

“Yes,” said Verity. “Yes, exactly, and I understand it, the value that I have, but it feels like that’s the only thing that anyone cares about. It’s maddening.”

“Is it better at the tavern?” asked Hannah.

Verity paused. “People feel the effects, and that’s why I was hired, but I do get complimented on my songs. People notice, I think. They appreciate more than just having flavorful food. And I am good at the effects, better than most, I just … I didn’t want to be that lute player who gets hired into a guild so she can sit in a room somewhere and play away with no one hearing her.”

Hannah nodded. “Well, if you stick with us, know that you’re here for more than that. Everyone’s got a role in the party, and that role is important, but it’s not the sum of what it means to be a party member. For my own part, the song you sang on the way back from the dungeon was what made me think we could really be a party in the long term. That I wanted to, with you specific people, above and beyond any interest in dungeons.”

Verity blushed and nodded. “Thank you.”

“Now,” said Hannah, placing her hands on her knees. “I’m goin’ to give you a bit of time to yourself, to collect your thoughts and such, but Mizuki has some lunch bubblin’ away, and I doubt you’d want to miss it. There’s some strawberry bread to go with it, fresh baked this mornin’.”

As Hannah left, Verity was going for her lute, ready to sing a song to herself.

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Alexander Wales

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