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When they were leaving to go shop, Mizuki debated how much money to take. She had a small crock that she kept some spare rings in, but this was three thousand rings, high denominations that would only be used for larger purchases.

“I don’t like having this much money,” said Mizuki. “I feel like there’s a target on my back.”

“You’re a sorc,” said Hannah. “Seems to me the money is safer with you.”

Mizuki gave an uncomfortable shrug, meant as a ‘yes, but all the same’, and Hannah didn’t press her on it.

They walked together, and Mizuki was happy to have someone to talk to, even if the conversation dipped toward religion a bit too often for her tastes.

“It’s maybe one in ten who feel some attraction to their own gender,” said Hannah. “Half that again who think of it as somethin’ core to them, a fact about themselves rather than just a thing they do. And half that again if it’s only their own gender.”

“Those numbers come from … the census?” asked Mizuki.

Hannah laughed. “No, just some guesses by the Church,” she said. “That sort of thing, the numbers, aren’t available at any level of governance, as the Editors didn’t see fit to include it. But you can see, of course, how there’d be problems bein’ in the minority like that, and part of what the Church of Garos does is to help with that. We’ve got a role in the community more than most of the clerics of other gods, ways that we help a specific sort of person. Especially in a place like this, you grow up havin’ these feelin’s that your parents never had, that your friends likely don’t have, and the Church of Garos is there to help you make sense of them, and on occasion, to play matchmaker, if that’s what’s needed.”

“Huh,” said Mizuki. Religion was really not her particular cup of tea. She went to the temple for a sermon every now and then, but largely paid more attention to the people around her than to the clerics going on about … whatever. The temple was good for getting some community. She’d never known that Garos, or his church, played matchmaker, but then, why should she?

“And there are sermons and the like, when it’s one of the Garos months, or our time in the weekly rotation,” said Hannah. “I’d prefer we focused a bit more on the bits that were more core to Garos, but it’s for the community, to let them know about the struggles of others, to let people know they have a home if it’s needed, and all that. But the church does have a reputation, and it overshadows Garos a bit, again, in my opinion. And it’s interestin’ that men lovin’ men and women lovin’ women isn’t mentioned in the Garam Ashar at all, aside from a few lines that you might interpret that way, if your head was already there. The gods, as a whole, don’t seem like they give a fig about gender. So far as we know, they don’t have gender, though of course you have been ascribin’ it.”

“I’ve never gone to talk to the clerics,” said Mizuki. “So I guess I don’t know.”

“Gender is a human thing,” said Hannah. “Not godly at all. Now, people find their own meanin’ in what the gods say, what comes to us from revelations to the Chosen and the like, and I’d never begrudge them that, but still.”

Mizuki felt like Hannah did begrudge it, at least a little, but was worried that if she said something, Hannah would continue on with what felt, to Mizuki, like Hannah was toeing a line that wasn’t all that important to toe.

“It’s only been boys, for me,” said Mizuki.

“Ay, I appreciate a good man,” said Hannah.

“I meant romantically,” said Mizuki.

“Ay, me too,” said Hannah.

“Huh,” said Mizuki.

“Well, it’s caused problems for me, as you can understand,” said Hannah. “I like a more manly style of dress, and I’m a cleric of Garos, so of course people make their assumptions. And I know I don’t have a build like you or Verity do, slim and delicate, but that limits my options too.”

Mizuki didn’t think that she and Verity had the same build at all, namely because of the difference in height, but it was true that neither of them could be described as stocky.

“And the sorts of girls that go for me aren’t the sort of girls that I go for, more’s the shame,” Hannah continued.

“There’s a sort?” asked Mizuki.

“Oh, ay,” said Hannah. “Soft, gentle girls who want someone strong and burly, those are the sorts I seem to attract. But I like strong and burly myself, even, or especially, in a woman.”

“Sounds complicated,” said Mizuki. “And kind of exhausting.”

“Do you not have a type?” asked Hannah.

“Boys?” asked Mizuki.

“But what sort of boy, is what I’m askin’,” said Hannah. “Tall? Short? Quiet? Gruff?”

“I’ve dated them all,” said Mizuki, shrugging. “Usually I kind of … find something to appreciate? Someone shows me attention, and my mind highlights every good thing about them. I fall in love easily, I guess.”

“And out of love just as fast?” asked Hannah, arching an eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “Mostly it just seems to go wrong.”

They arrived in the proper main street of Pucklechurch, and Mizuki was thankful that there was cause to change the topic.

They went into the blacksmith’s, and were greeted by a giant of man. He had to have been at least six and a half feet tall. His arms were like big hairy hams. He was hairy all over, in fact, red hair that covered his forearms, long hair tied back in a knot, and a surprisingly young face that was hidden behind a short but thick beard. He had eyebrows like two fuzzy caterpillars, and when he saw the two girls, the eyebrows shot up like they had been startled and wanted to escape.

“Hannah,” he said, and it was like his breath caught in his lungs for the last part of her name.

“Micah,” said Hannah with a nod. It wasn’t frosty, exactly, but it was missing some of the warmth that Hannah normally exuded. “You know Mizuki?”

“Ay,” he said, glancing at Mizuki only briefly before fixing his gaze on Hannah again. Saying they knew each other was putting it a bit strong, in Mizuki’s opinion, though they did know each other well enough to know each other’s name. Micah was hard to miss, the second tallest person in Pucklechurch beside the cleric of Xuphin. Mizuki had never paid him all that much attention, in part because he hadn’t grown up in Pucklechurch. Like Hannah, he wasn’t local, and the accent placed him as being from Cairbre or around those parts, same as her. His hair was a darker shade of red though.

“We’re lookin’ for armor,” said Hannah. “We’ve got a dungeon party put together and need protection. I’d like a helm and chestpiece for myself, and for Mizuki, a helm as well, maybe more. We’re hopin’ that you have somethin’ that can be fitted to us, because we’ll be goin’ out soon enough.”

“Ay,” he said slowly. “The master is out today, but I can find somethin’ for ye. Can ye give me a moment to go in back? And … I’d need to take measurements.” His accent wasn’t quite the same as Hannah’s, both thicker and with something different to it, and while they probably were both from Cairbre, maybe they were from different parts.

“Measurements are fine,” said Hannah. Again, it wasn't as though she was being chilly with him, but there wasn’t any warmth, not like she usually had, and more than that, some of the boisterousness that Mizuki had come to expect was gone too.

Micah disappeared into the back of the shop, Mizuki got closer to Hannah. “Some history I should know about?”

“He’s sweet on me,” said Hannah.

“And … not your type?” asked Mizuki. She frowned a bit, because he seemed like exactly what Hannah had described as her type, big, burly, and strong enough to rip either of them in half.

“He wants to get married and put some babies in me,” said Hannah, sighing slightly.

“Oh,” said Mizuki. “That’s a gross thing for a guy to say to you.”

Hannah rolled her eyes. “He didn’t say it, not in so many words, but,” she closed her mouth as Micah came back, and Mizuki hoped that he hadn’t heard any of that.

Micah laid two breastplates on the counter, front and back pieces held together by leather straps. One of them was almost certainly a henling, or at least Mizuki hoped that it was, since it had filigree on the front. Dungeon stuff sometimes ended up in local shops, and especially something like armor or weapons, which were basically only used by dungeoneers, it could sit there for ages.

“I’ll need to measure ye,” said Micah, holding up a marked tape measure. “Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry for it,” said Hannah. “It’s your job. Just tell me how to stand.”

Mizuki watched, not saying anything, while this went on. He started at the side, measuring from the top of her hip to her armpit, then around her neck, then her arms, which were quite thick, and finally, with large, timid hands, began to measure around her stomach and her bust.

“Micah,” said Hannah with a sigh. “Touchin’ people is a part of my job too, and if I were timid about it, there’d be problems. Now what I don’t want is ill-fittin’ armor, not when I’ll be fightin’ monsters in it, and travelin’ while wearin’ it.”

“Sorry,” said Micah. He went back to it, blushing but much more firm, and Mizuki kept her comments to herself.

When he was finished, he went over to the breastplates and picked up the one with the filigree. The metal was in pieces, allowing for some movement. “I think I could make this fit on ye, though I’d have to do some work, curve it out a bit. Four days, if ye’re in a rush.”

“We are,” said Hannah with a nod. “I know you do quality work.”

Micah nodded. His eyes were fixed on Hannah’s for a moment, and he finally turned to Mizuki, seeming reluctant. “And a helm for ye?” he asked.

“Yes, please,” said Mizuki. “My head is where I do my thinking. I would like it protected.”

“Try this one,” said Micah, reaching for one he’d brought from the back.

Mizuki slowly lowered it onto her head, and to her surprise, it felt like a perfect fit. A piece of metal came down right where her nose was, protecting it, but it didn’t obstruct her vision too much.

“Will ye be wantin’ full armor too?” he asked.

“Um,” said Mizuki, looking at Hannah. “Not if I can help it. I’m a sorc, so in theory I’ll be at the back. Hannah’s the one that will be rushing up.”

Micah blanched and looked at Hannah, but he kept whatever comments he had on that behind thin lips. “Well, ay,” he said.

“In due time, we’ll get her more,” said Hannah. “But it’s early days, and as she said, she’ll be the last one that’s likely to get hit. Full plate would be a waste of money for her. I can heal nearly anything that doesn’t pierce through, and most things that do.” She frowned a bit. “A plackart, to protect the guts, perhaps?” She gestured to her stomach, showing where it would go.

“Hard to do, without a breastplate,” said Micah. “And expensive, to have both.”

“I’ll see how the next dungeon goes,” said Mizuki. “I’m not convinced that I want to be pouring money into armor that I’d just be selling right back to you, no offense.”

Micah shook his head. “Most go into the dungeons with less, ay.” He looked at Hannah. “Some of them don’t come back though.”

“Don’t fret about me,” said Hannah. “Monsters in the dungeons we’re goin’ to, at least of our elevation, are no more dangerous than fightin’ three raccoons.”

Mizuki bit her lip at that, but said nothing. The obvious history between the two of them was making her a bit uncomfortable.

With the measurements taken and everything arranged, they handed their funds over to Micah, who made notes in a ledger and a promise to Hannah that her breastplate would be ready in four days time. Mizuki put the newly purchased helm into her bag, where it just barely fit. It had cost a shocking amount of money, though Mizuki hadn’t been under any delusion that armor was cheap.

“Seems like he still holds a candle for you,” said Mizuki once they were out of the shop.

“Ay,” said Hannah with a sigh. “I try not to be so nice to him, to lead him on and such, but it’s hard with such a man, who sees every kindness as a spark of attraction.”

“But you are attracted?” asked Mizuki. “At least a bit?”

“Ay,” said Hannah, shrugging. “But I’m only twenty, and to have children so soon, I’d feel like I hadn’t lived my life to my fullest.”

“And … you’re sure that’s what he wanted?” asked Mizuki.

“Oh, ay,” said Hannah. She shook her head. “But I’d rather not speak on it more, if that’s fine with you.”

This was the first time Mizuki could recall that Hannah had asked to drop a topic, and she didn’t know what to make of that. Clearly she wasn’t getting the full story. Mizuki felt bad for Micah, and inevitably, she got to thinking about what it might be like to date him. It was hard to help herself, but she did try.

Pucklechurch didn’t have all that much in the way of shops, but they went to what there was, and it felt to Mizuki like they were spending rings with abandon. Mizuki bought some pants and had them tailored, then a thick shirt with long sleeves that would help against superficial injuries and environmental concerns. Hannah gave some advice, and seemed to be a font of knowledge about dungeons. Almost everything that Hannah said about dungeons made them sound more dangerous rather than less, but Hannah was quick with assurances that this was all about planning for bad variance.

At the general store, they stopped to speak with Bethany for a bit. It was her father’s store, but Bethany had been running it for almost four years, and in Mizuki’s opinion, that was mostly because Bethany loved gossip.

“Your party is the talk of the town,” said Bethany with a smile. She had a mousy look and a bubbly personality, and within the last year she’d started dressing in shirts that left her shoulders bare, which Mizuki took as a sign that she was looking for someone to partner with.

“In a good way or a bad way?” asked Mizuki, wrinkling her nose. Bethany had been in the year below, and they knew each other fairly well, especially from their combined classes. They had never been close in school, but had slowly grown closer, in part because neither of them had settled down with a partner or children.

“Good,” said Bethany. “That Alfric — he’s made an impression.”

“Big city energy,” nodded Mizuki.

“Not so often you see so many mages in a party,” said Bethany. “No offense,” she said to Hannah.

“None taken,” said Hannah. “It’s a matter of luck, though a sorc would be worth a lot less without aether manipulation. The real luck, from my point of view, is not in the findin’ of people, but findin’ them without needin’ to break up a party. My guess, knowin’ Alfric a bit now, is that if we’d said no, or we’d already done all the dungeons around the area, he’d have gone to his alternates, and if they hadn’t worked out, he’d have gone down a list until he’d found someone that would agree to it. Easy enough to follow a man like that into the dungeon. If things had been different, he might well have come in here, askin’ you whether you’d ever been in a dungeon before, and if you hadn’t, whether you’d like to fill out the team.”

“I actually have been in the local dungeon,” said Bethany. She smiled. “And I resolved that one dungeon was all I ever needed to go into.”

“Who’d you go with?” asked Mizuki, frowning. “And when?” She had imagined that if Bethany had gone in the dungeon, it would have been hard to avoid news of it.

“Two years ago,” said Bethany. “With the Pedder boys and Neil. It was after you’d stopped hanging around with them.”

That did explain it. Things had gone wrong, and Mizuki had made herself scarce for a bit, especially around Bethany, whenever possible. Mizuki had been the token girl of their group, until it became clear that all three of the Pedder boys had feelings of one kind or another for her, and it became an absolute mess. She accepted at least some of the blame for it.

“And how’d you make out?” asked Hannah.

“Horribly,” Bethany laughed. “We cleared it, but we were pretty bloodied up, or at least the boys were. We stumbled our way back to Pucklechurch.” She reached up and touched her earrings, which were jet black in the center with silver swirls around the outside. “I got thirty rings and these, along with a scar on my leg.”

“Entad earrings,” said Mizuki. They had a very faint trace of magic about them, a minor disruption to the aether. “What do they do?”

“They let me hear better,” said Bethany, shrugging. “Only a little bit. It’s like … well, like I’ve got ears all over my head, I guess. I can pick up soft noises a bit better, and don’t need to be turned towards people. Not worth risking my life over.”

“I could remove the scar for you, if you’d like,” said Hannah. “I’d imagine it was left there through Oeyr’s rapid healin’?”

“Oh, the scar is — well,” said Bethany. “I was going to have it removed, but I liked the look of it, and no one can say it wasn’t hard won.”

Mizuki might have said that it wasn’t hard won, but she really had no idea. Her own three thousand rings and awesome spoon hadn’t felt hard won. It had been scary, but she hadn’t really done all that much. Alfric had taken the brunt of the punishment and done virtually all of the planning and getting the party together, on top of dealing with selling everything. She felt like she owed him, and wondered whether she should have offered him some of her share, but no one else had done that either, so maybe it was a stupid idea.

“How many are you going to do?” asked Bethany. “Alfric made it seem like this was a serious venture, not just a few local dungeons.”

“I think we’ll end up doin’ quite a few,” said Hannah. “At the rate we’re plannin’ to go, a year of dungeons would be fifty, all told, and if luck is on our side, or I s’pose even if it’s not, we’d get a great many entads from it. There’s lots you can do, if you’ve got fifty good entads to your name.”

“Unless they’re like this?” asked Bethany, gesturing to her earrings.

“Well, ay,” said Hannah. “But if you do enough dungeons, eventually you strike some valuable ore, ay? And by the numbers, we’d be likely to run into somethin’ that we could live off of, whether that’s somethin’ productive or somethin’ we could use for labor.”

“Alfric wants to do thousands, I’m sure,” said Mizuki. “Big city energy. But hearing about how things went for you … I’m starting to think that he’s pretty competent.”

“Well, our little adventure wasn’t all bad,” said Bethany. “I did get the earrings. And the Pedder boys went off to do another two dungeons, but lost the will to do more, even though they were sure they’d get rich off it. Klaus nearly died, and then their mother put her foot down.”

“Nearly died?” asked Mizuki. Klaus was the youngest of the three. “Was he okay?”

“You should talk to them,” said Bethany. “It’s been some time. But yes, he was fine, nothing that a cleric couldn’t heal, but it was a near thing, mostly in terms of getting to the cleric. Now, they’d gone in with only four, and it was the Liberfell dungeon, which they shouldn’t have been able to go into in the first place. They were trying to get a better payout, I think. It was definitely something a lot of people were talking about. I’m surprised you didn’t hear.”

“Well, I don’t have magical earrings, not yet,” said Mizuki. She laughed, but it felt weak. The falling out with the Pedder boys had hit her hard, and learning that they’d risked their lives without her … well, it was certainly in keeping with their nature, but there was a familiar sour feeling.

“We’ll be careful,” said Hannah. “Alfric is about as good of a dungeoneer as you can get for someone just startin’ out, and he comes from a long line of them, it seems. Most people who go into dungeons pass a simple test from the League, then go off like they know a thing or two, and it’s no wonder that they come out injured. We went in, and came out with not a scratch on us, and I don’t just attribute that to luck. It was a hard dungeon, come to that.”

“I got a neat spoon out of it,” said Mizuki. “It can change shape to almost anything that’s still a spoon.”

Bethany laughed at that, and Mizuki pulled the spoon out of her bag to show it off.

They bought quite a bit, including some frozen chicken and a fair number of vegetables for dinner, then said their goodbyes to Bethany. It was even more rings gone, enough that there could be a meal for four, plus more food for the days ahead, and Mizuki reminded herself that she was flush with money, and that this wasn’t a thing to worry about.

“Sorry if I was boastin’ in there,” said Hannah. “I didn’t mean to, but I’ve some pride in our party, and Alfric in particular. People do die in dungeons.”

“You said it was safe,” said Mizuki.

“Oh, ay,” said Hannah. “Mostly people die in the bigger dungeons, in places with more magic floatin’ around. Some of it’s variance, worse than what we’ve seen so far. That you can’t blame someone for. But more than it should be, it’s people who have no business bein’ in the place they’re in. The Pedder boys are friends of yours, or were, I gather, but a dungeon needs a bit of respect. People forget that.”

She sounded almost angry about it, and Mizuki had no idea why that might be, except that perhaps it was a cleric thing, or the fact that Hannah seemed to take strong stances on most things. Some people just had Opinions. For her own part, Mizuki didn’t feel like she had respected the dungeons nearly enough, not for that first one.

If she was going to be a dungeoneer, she wasn’t going to make that same mistake twice.

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Alexander Wales

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