It was Mizuki who thought to invite Isra to the Fig and Gristle, for which she was grateful. There was a part of Isra that felt she should be living in the same house with them, especially because it was so much better of a house than the one in the woods she’d inherited from her father, but there was also a comfortability to that old house, and the memories it contained.
Isra had never been to the Fig and Gristle before. It was a handsome place, if slightly sagging, with a warmth that came from the lights on inside. She could hear Verity’s music even before she stepped inside, but once she’d crossed the threshold, a lightness washed over her, as though someone had removed a burden from her shoulders. She looked around and found Alfric, Mizuki, and Hannah easily enough. They had a place for her, and by the looks of things, had yet to order. As soon as Mizuki saw her, a slender arm shot up and frantically waved her over.
“You made it,” said Mizuki as Isra sat down. “You didn’t say whether you would.”
“I wasn’t sure,” said Isra.
“I can pay for your meal,” said Mizuki. “If that’s it.”
“It’s not,” said Isra.
“She’s actually very good,” said Hannah, leaning over toward Isra. Hannah’s eyes were on Verity, who was strumming away with her lute, playing a song whose lyrics were barely audible. Something about a goose and a gander. “She's weaving quite a few effects.”
“It might be part of why she gets so tired,” said Alfric. “Every time she plays, it feels like she’s pushing herself to her limit.”
“Nah,” said Mizuki. “I think if you actually pushed her to her limit, people wouldn’t be able to move. They’d just sit there, enraptured. I get why you crossed the continent for her.”
“It’s beautiful music,” said Isra. Her eyes were on Verity, and the way she cradled her lute, intently playing it, eyes partly closed. Sometimes Verity would smile as she sang the lyrics, usually at a softer, sweeter part, and there was something intensely beautiful about her then, as though being a conduit for the song had cast a spell on her.
“Alright,” said an older woman, who came up to their table. “You’ve four now, are you ready to order? Two options for meat, four for sides, and two for dessert, which I’ll ask about later on. It was up on the board, but I can repeat it now for you, if you’d like.”
“Herbed chicken thighs, sweet potatoes, and the other one, something about vegetables?” asked Hannah.
“Sure,” nodded the woman. She looked expectantly at Isra, who hadn’t seen the menu.
“The same for me,” Isra said.
“I’ll have the fish,” said Mizuki. “And the veggies, with the cheese bread.”
“Cheese bread is good,” the woman said, nodding. “And you?”
“Chicken,” said Alfric. “And two servings of vegetables, please. I’ll take a poached pear after all that. And to drink, a round of ale, on me.”
“I’ll get our second round then,” said Mizuki.
“You just feel like spendin’ money, ay?” asked Hannah.
“I’m a very generous person by nature,” shrugged Mizuki. “But we’re rich, right? So why not enjoy it? Give me the chance, and I’ll spend money on people.” She looked at the three of them. “That’s not rude, right?”
“In Dondrian, it would be greeted with suspicion,” said Alfric. “It’s not rude, but it would ease everyone’s feelings if you said that you wanted to be paid back at some point. So if I offered to buy a round, then you offered to buy a round, you’re not being rude, and because you followed suit, I’m not being rude.”
This sounded like insanity to Isra, but it was the familiar insanity of social situations. She wondered whether Alfric had laid it bare for her, and decided that he probably hadn’t. He simply wasn’t that deft. There was something nice about being with people from different cultures, with differences in expectations. She wasn’t the only one on uneven ground.
“So we have to do four rounds of ale?” asked Hannah. “Three is my limit, especially if we’re going for a long walk tomorrow.”
Isra had never had ale before, but didn’t want to say this out loud, because it would once more mark her as different from the others. Knowing that she was a druid had helped to put some of her life into context, but it was only a part of it. She had been raised by a man from Tarbin, one who kept to himself out in the woods. Her customs were different, and Alfric, who should have been an ally, seemed to be so much a member of his big city that his ancestry seemed irrelevant.
The ales came, and not long after them, the food, served on heavy ceramic plates. Isra picked at hers with a fork for a moment before taking a bite, and she was surprised to find how good it was. She was familiar with all of the ingredients in principle, as all of it was local, but she had never had cause to eat chicken before, and the combination of them was, to her unsophisticated tongue, masterful. She had no idea how it could have been accomplished. Isra didn’t do much in the way of cooking, other than preserving, which she’d done less of since getting the chiller. How did someone turn chicken, salt, butter, and herbs into something like this? It seemed impossible.
“I think she saw us eating,” said Mizuki, whose mouth was half full. “She turned up the effect.”
“The effect?” asked Isra.
“Making things taste better,” said Alfric. “It’s one of the things bards are used for, sensory enhancement or dampening. There’s a bit of an emotional effect in what she’s doing too, making everyone feel a bit happier, more at ease.”
“I don’t feel at ease,” said Isra.
“Works with what you have,” said Hannah. “But she’s probably goin’ the other way with it, not deadenin’ the stress, but enhancin’ the,” she waved her hand. “The other one. A sense of —” she stopped and took another bite of her lemon whitefish. “Even without the effect, this would be good.” Whatever word she’d been searching for, it seemed as though it was going to be left unfound.
Isra ate some more, and there was a general silence. “There are bards at every tavern?” she asked, once she’d finished with the chicken. She liked to eat her meals taking each item in turn, and as she looked, she saw that the same was true for Alfric, but not for Mizuki or Hannah, who were alternating their bites between each of the things on their plates.
“Almost every tavern,” said Alfric. “It’s part of the point of a tavern. Verity is something special, obviously, but I’d wager you can find at least one halfring bard in every hex this size.” He took another bite of his vegetables, a slice of potato, and Isra watched the way he held his fork. He pointed it down, like an extension of a grabbing motion, and the method he used reminded Isra of a raccoon’s fastidiousness. That of course brought to mind the comparison of dungeon monsters to three racoons, which had been ridiculous.
“But not many druids,” said Isra.
“No,” said Alfric. “Not many.”
“Easy enough to make them,” said Hannah. “But it's hard to get volunteers, ay. The number of women who want to go through childbirth alone, and raise a child for three years, is precious slim. And of course a druid can be a bit of a troublesome child, if you don’t mind me sayin’.”
“Troublesome how?” asked Isra.
“Oh, with notions of plants and animals, that’s all I mean,” said Hannah. “There are a few stories I’ve heard, about children who took in rats as friends, or who wouldn’t eat their dinner because it had once been an animal. That’s all.”
“What’s wrong with being a friend to a rat?” asked Isra.
“They’re vermin,” said Alfric. “They eat our food and spread disease. I don’t mean to say it so harshly, but I know there are things that you’re only learning now, and I think it’s best to help you learn them. Take no shame in it.” Isra liked hearing that, and she did like the way Alfric spoke. He was direct and to the point in a way that other people only rarely were, and he had both an understanding of the unwritten rules, as well as a willingness to put them into language.
“But if a rat were your friend, you could ask it not to do those things,” said Isra. “I understand the point, but surely they could see the boy’s view when they talked to him?”
“To be honest,” said Hannah. “I’m not so sure such a boy ever existed. Might just be a funny story.”
It hadn’t even crossed Isra’s mind that someone would find humor in such a story. A boy who had made friends with a rat, a boy who couldn’t understand why that wasn’t allowed, a boy who was right in what he did, ridiculed? Perhaps she was misunderstanding the story, or perhaps there was more to it that would make the humor clear, but Isra found herself not wishing to hear more.
Instead, her eyes returned to Verity, who had ended one song and immediately started the next. There was a way she blended the songs together, so they seemed to be part of the same overall structure, and Isra had no clue how this had been accomplished. She knew a few traditional Tarbin songs that her father had taught her, but most of her time was spent listening to the birds, if she had a need for music. And while it was true that there was beauty in the birdsong and the clarity of their notes, there was no possible way that they could compare to what Verity was producing, all by herself, in this small tavern.
Isra had thought so in the dungeon as well, and when Verity had woven speech into the lyrics of her song, Isra had felt a giddy joy that she hadn’t let cross her face, because no one else seemed to be feeling it. And then after they’d cleared the dungeon, Isra had listened in pure amazement to the song Verity wove on the way home, and that one, she was fairly sure, had no magic to accompany it, but felt just as lifting and sweet.
They were close enough that Isra could see Verity’s forearms tense up at particular points as she played her lute, and watch as Verity’s slender fingers played across the strings of the lute’s neck.
“She’s using the flute,” said Isra.
“It’s actually called a lute,” said Alfric, sounding apologetic.
“No,” said Isra, rolling her eyes. “The flute we pulled from the dungeon.” She gestured to Verity. “She’s got extra fingers on each hand.”
“Huh,” said Alfric. “That was fast.”
“Nah,” said Mizuki. “We were testing it the other night, the extra fingers come with something else, a kind of,” she tapped her head, “Thing.”
“Enhancement?” asked Alfirc.
“Ay, but anythin’ could be an enhancement, couldn’t it?” asked Hannah. “Not a very useful term.”
“It changes how you think,” said Mizuki. “For me, it was like I’d been handling a knife using extra fingers my entire life. For her, all the training translates. It’s actually a pretty good piece of kit.”
“I wonder if anyone else has noticed,” said Alfric, looking around.
“I don’t think they’d make a thing of it. Entads are more common here, in some ways,” said Hannah. “Not uncommon for people to have one or two. Different in a big city like Dondrian, right?”
“In some sense,” said Alfric, furrowing his brow. “The general rule is that entads flow toward the population centers, but … my guess is that you’d point out that dungeoneering is easier out in rural areas like this, so people run dungeons as a rite of passage, and any that aren’t immediately sold off end up in private hands, especially those that are bound and can’t move.”
“Ay,” answered Hannah, taking a drink of her ale. “Small stuff, mostly, but there’s quite a bit of it around, and every now and then, someone lucks out.”
“Like Isra,” said Alfric, nodding. “That bow,” he sighed.
“It’s a very nice bow,” Isra agreed. She looked at Verity, who was still softly playing away, her eyes half-closed, gentle words on her lips to accompany the strumming of her lute. “I’m surprised she doesn’t have a magical instrument.”
“She did, in Dondrian,” said Alfric. “But like most of its kind, it was borrowed from one of the larger guilds at great expense, rather than owned by her outright. If she’d taken it with her to Pucklechurch, she would have been tracked down to retrieve it. From what her parents said, it allowed for an entire orchestral score to be produced from a single instrument.” He shrugged. “Perhaps she wouldn’t want me talking about it. She didn’t seem to have liked her life in the city.”
“She seems happy without all that,” said Isra. She looked down at her food, which was only half-eaten. She’d been eating slower than the others, and hadn’t yet touched her ale. She took a tentative sip of it, and wrinkled her nose. It was fermented grain, mildly poisonous, but in a way that people seemed to enjoy. Grimacing and trying to get used to it, she drank more, then went back to the food to get the taste from her mouth.
“I don’t know that ‘happy’ is the right word for Verity,” said Hannah. “Not yet, anyhow. Some people take some time to find themselves, especially if they’ve been told their whole life that they were somethin’ they weren’t.”
“Ah, I do love that clerical wisdom,” said Mizuki, grinning. She’d drained her ale, and had been trying to get the attention of the woman who ran the tavern so she could have another. Her cheeks were slightly flushed. The glasses of ale were quite tall.
“Oh, shove off,” laughed Hannah. “I spent years of my life becomin’ wise, you’d best believe I’m going to share that wisdom any time I can.”
“Entads,” said Mizuki, returning to the previous topic. “I’m hoping for something great. Something to serve as some fuel for the casting. They usually don’t disturb much.” She waved her hand, gesturing, presumably, at the aether.
“Travel is the big one,” said Alfric. “With it, we won’t have to make a production of going to the dungeons, or at least less of one. There are lots of different possibilities as far as travel entads go —”
“And you’ve got them separated into categories and tiers,” said Mizuki. “Yes, yes.”
“You’re not interested?” asked Alfric. “Because I was just going to share because I find it interesting.”
“Ay, go ahead,” said Hannah. “The little one is just a bit flushed with the ale.”
“The little one?” asked Mizuki. She looked at the others, then down at herself. “Am I the little one? I am,” she nodded. “But I’m also the old one. Respect your elders, Hannah.”
“Two years does not make you my elder,” said Hannah.
“There are three categories,” said Alfric, plowing on in a way that Isra found somewhat admirable.
“None of this matters though, right?” asked Mizuki. “Because it’s just a roll of the dice what we find.”
“Are you drunk off a single glass of ale?” asked Hannah.
“Nah,” said Mizuki. “I’m loose, and leaning into the looseness.”
“What’s the first category?” asked Isra.
“Conveyance,” said Alfric, happy to have a listener. “My boots are an example. They help move you along faster than you could otherwise go, or with less effort. The flying rug is a prototypical example, but technically mounts also belong in that category. The second category are point transfer, which includes both portals and teleportation, along with some others that are close enough. Those are usually the best, though entads often come with limits or restrictions. There’s a rod which allows whoever holds it to teleport anywhere they can think of as often as they please, and if we found something like that, well, we’d be rich beyond our wildest dreams. And then the third category is point travel, those things that let you go to a specific place, or type of place. My mother has a statue that she can teleport to from anywhere in the world, but another example would be something that lets you hop from one fountain to another. The distinction between the second and third is the restriction on where you can go with it.” He seemed satisfied with having gotten that out, and Isra was pleased that she had prompted him.
“And leylines,” said Hannah. “That would make four.”
“Leylines are for leycraft and cartiers,” said Alfric. “It’s pretty rare for an entad to interact with them. And the natural portals are the fifth, if we’re counting extras, but then we should also include ships and things.”
“But entads can interact with leylines, ay?” asked Hannah.
“It would be a combination of the first and third categories,” said Alfric, seeming to think about it. “And if we got something like that, something that could simulate a leycraft … it would change our entire approach, I think. The map would look different for us.”
“There’s a cartier who’s based out of Pucklechurch,” said Hannah. “Though I think that’s because she’s got a family here. There’s actually an interestin’ history of leylines in Pucklechurch.”
“There is?” asked Alfric.
“Ay,” said Hannah. “You didn’t know? I was sayin’ for Isra’s benefit. You never wondered why the great big church was here?”
“I did,” said Alfric. “It has to do with a leyline? But there’s no leyline that runs through here, not for a dozen hexes. I know, because I had to plot a route.”
“Ay, there not being a leyline is somewhat the point,” said Hannah. “Some five hundred years ago, there was a nice thick leyline goin’ right through the mid-point of the hex, and this was durin’ expansion and all that. So they saw this place, and they thought to themselves that it would be a good place for a city, so they put some money toward it, includin’ a great big church, though it’s a pittance compared to the temples of Dondrian, I’m sure.”
“But then what happened?” asked Alfric.
“The church was almost done, the roads finished, a few people moved in, and then the leyline shifted,” said Hannah. “And all those plans went right down the drain.”
“Ouch,” said Alfric, wincing.
“Well, it was a big deal, because there was so much money in developin’ the line for use,” said Hannah. “And there was some hope that it would shift back, but alas, as rare as a leyline shift is, it’s even more rare for it to go back to how it was.” She clucked her tongue. “But we’ve a nice big church here, and though there’s some grumbling about maintenance, it’s what the town’s known for. There was a terminal too, hundreds of years back, but they took that down and recovered what they could.”
“I never knew that,” said Mizuki.
“Really?” asked Hannah. “I suppose if you grew up here, maybe you’d never question it.”
“Kind of makes sense though,” said Mizuki. “Why they’d build such a thing in the middle of nowhere. Because it wasn’t the middle of nowhere.” She turned to Alfric. “Do you think this has something to do with the big ol’ stone in my backyard? Like it was there for a reason?”
“It could be,” shrugged Alfric. “But you said that it was information gathering, and I don’t know what that has to do with a leyline. Besides, that stone is older than the church by probably a thousand years, if not more.”
“What stone?” asked Hannah.
“There’s a stone in the backyard,” said Mizuki. “I’ll show it to you tomorrow.”
“We’re leaving tomorrow morning,” said Alfric.
“Dessert?” asked the woman who ran the Fig and Gristle.
“Poached pear for me,” said Alfric.
“Same,” said Isra.
“The pie’s a crumble?” asked Hannah. The woman nodded. “Then that, I suppose.”
“Ooh, a crumble for me too,” said Mizuki. “And ales for everyone, but double for me, two glasses right next to each other.” She pointed out a spot on the table where the two glasses should sit.
“Not sure I want a drunk sorc in my tavern,” the woman frowned.
“Three isn’t enough to get me drunk,” said Mizuki.
The woman nodded, collected their plates, and left.
“We’re walking at least twelve miles tomorrow,” frowned Alfric. “Even a mild hangover is going to be torture.” He looked to Hannah. “Can you do anything about that?”
Hannah laughed. “Not in our domain, I’m afraid. You’d need Kesbin, and we’ve got no cleric of Kesbin, as I believe I said when I was makin’ introductions.”
“I will be completely fine,” said Mizuki. “Besides, we’re celebrating, right? I felt like we didn’t have a proper celebration after the first dungeon.”
“So we’d celebrate before and after?” asked Hannah.
“Seems reasonable to me,” shrugged Mizuki.
Isra was feeling what she probably thought were the effects of the ale, a kind of warmth and, yes, looseness that pervaded her body. Everything felt more fluid somehow, as though she had better control of her body, or was more living in the moment. It was a nice feeling, and she had a better understanding of why people imbibed this poison. Her eyes kept going back to Verity, and this music that they were all here to enjoy, though the others seemed content to talk over it.
The desserts arrived not too much longer after that, and there was a general silence as they ate. Between the chicken and the pear, it was more than Isra normally ate in one sitting, but it was too good for her to stop, especially with the music backing it. There were complex flavors to the poached pear, spices and herbs, honey and butter, and Isra wondered whether she could learn to make such a thing if she put her mind to it.
“Could you teach me how to cook?” Isra asked Mizuki. The question came out without her willing it, and in hindsight, that seemed to be the work of the glass and a half of ale.
“Oh,” said Mizuki. “Um, of course! But I don’t have any idea how to teach someone to cook, I just kind of … do it, I guess.”
“So it’s not teachable?” asked Isra, thinking that perhaps it was like sorcery, where you had to be born into it, at least a little bit. This didn’t seem likely, but you never knew.
“No, it is,” said Mizuki. “But — we’ll try, I just don’t know how I’m going to start. I don’t remember how my parents taught me. And my whole life, I’ve never taught anyone anything, so.”
“So I will learn to cook, and you will learn to teach,” said Isra, nodding.
“Yes!” laughed Mizuki. “Great. And we’ll burn things along the way.”
“We will?” asked Isra.
“Oh, sure,” smiled Mizuki. “You can’t learn to do anything without breaking things along the way.”
“A very common outlook, for a sorcerer,” said Hannah. She set her spoon down, having eaten the last bit of her pie. “This was a good idea, and I’m glad we got to hear Verity play without the threat of monsters.”
“She’s said that after a set she’s usually done with people,” said Alfric. “So I’d be cautious about pushing her to engage too much when she’s done, which probably won’t be for another quarter bell or so.”
“Are we sticking around?” asked Mizuki, looking at her one empty mug and one full one. “Because if we’re not, I’m going to have to down this one in a hurry.”
“Best not to get sick before a day of travel,” said Alfric, who had nonetheless finished his.
“I was thinkin’ that we’d wait for her to be done and accompany her home,” said Hannah.
Alfric nodded. “Then a game, to pass the time?”
“You play games?” asked Mizuki, giving him a suspicious look. “Seems inefficient.”
“I play games very efficiently,” said Alfric, giving her a smile. He rapped his knuckles against the table. “Seems flat enough, which means we can set up for ring-knock.”
“Never played,” said Mizuki. “It’s with rings?”
Alfric nodded. “We won’t play for keeps though. You set up rings, on their end, then take turns rolling toward the other person’s rings, trying to knock them down.”
“Not sure the table is flat enough for that,” said Hannah, wiggling the edge.
“Well, we’ll try,” said Alfric. “Not for keeps.”
Once the plates were once again cleared away, and their bills were settled, they set up the game according to Alfric’s instructions. He seemed to be the only one to have played it before, but it was simple enough. When someone was going, everyone set their hands on the table so that they could stop the rolling ring from going off the table. It was fun enough, Isra supposed, but mostly because of the exclamations of the others, rather than the actual game itself. She found herself smiling at Alfric’s groan of defeat as she sent one of her rings careening into two of his.
After a few rounds of this, the music stopped, and Isra felt the warmth and openness slowly fade from her. Her eyes went to Verity, who had rolled her sleeves back down. She had a calm, impassive face as she packed up the lute, but there was a hint of a satisfied smile there.
“Ready to go?” asked Verity once she’d come over. “I asked Cynthia to pack me up my dinner, so you don’t have to wait.”
“Ay, the music was lovely,” said Hannah.
“Thank you,” said Verity with a modest bow. “I felt nervous, having the four of you there.”
“I’m glad we came,” said Alfric. “It was a good time.”
“Well, we should get going,” said Verity. “I get hungry after a set. Normally I had Cynthia leave my food up in my room, but we still have to walk across town.”
“Let’s go then,” nodded Alfric, standing up.
They left once Verity had taken a small covered dish from the kitchen. Again, Isra found herself watching the bard, but this time there wasn’t the excuse of watching a performer at work.
“Can I carry that for you?” Isra asked as they walked.
“Oh, thank you,” said Verity, handing it over. “You enjoyed the music?”
“Very much,” nodded Isra. “I do wish I could have heard it without the other noise.”
“Tavern music is meant to fade into the background,” said Verity. “And at certain moments, it’s meant to catch your attention and let you get lost in it. It’s meant to fill in gaps in conversation. I can’t say that I’m all that good at it.”
“You were spectacular,” said Isra. “Beautiful.”
“Well,” said Verity, blushing. “Thank you. But I just play what I want to play without thinking too much about what I’m doing or why. It’s a very relaxed way of doing it, and probably not what’s best suited to a busy tavern, but Cynthia has never told me to do anything different, and if I don't have any pressure on me,” she shrugged. “I would rather play something that’s beautiful to me.”
“You’d make the songbirds jealous,” said Isra.
Verity smiled. The other three were walking slightly ahead, engaged in their own conversation. “I suppose you’re going back to your home soon? It’s getting late. I have a lantern you can borrow, if you need.”
“I can make my way in the dark,” said Isra. “It’s one of those things I had thought everyone could do.” She was silent for a moment, feeling the warm dish in her hands. “If there’s a bed, I may ask Mizuki if I could stay the night. I already packed my bag and left it there.”
“There’s a bed,” said Verity. “You’d be in the room with me, where Mizuki’s sisters used to sleep.”
“If that’s not a problem,” said Isra, feeling flushed. The ale hadn’t quite left her, it seemed.
“I have to warn you,” said Verity. “I do have a tendency to sing in my sleep.”
Isra smiled. She was quite looking forward to it.