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“You’re not in a guild, are you?” asked Mizuki as they walked away from the warp point. “I guess I assumed you weren’t, but I don’t actually know.”

“I am not,” said Isra.

“Well, I am,” said Mizuki. “Sorcerers are notoriously territorial, given there’s a limited amount of magic floating around, and limited jobs for us to do, so we tend to guild up in order to make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes. It also helps with finding work, if there’s something that needs more than one of us, or a job the other is passing on, or something like that. It’s a small guild, very local, only about twenty, but I’m in it.”

“I see,” said Isra, but Mizuki wasn’t sure she did.

“Anyway, there are a pair of sisters who are sorcerers out of Liberfell, and we’re in their territory. I sent out a message to the guild, just to let them know I was on my way, and got back an invite for breakfast with them tomorrow,” said Mizuki. “I’d also sent a different message asking about a woods witch, and they said they’d be in touch with her. I didn’t say anything about your situation, since I didn’t know, you know? But if you wanted to come to the breakfast, which’ll be tomorrow morning, maybe you could get some answers, or at least have an introduction made.”

“That would be good,” said Isra. “Thank you.”

“I think there might be a guild for woods witches,” said Mizuki. “And if there is, you could get in that way.”

“I don’t know anything about guilds,” said Isra.

“Yeah, I hear you,” said Mizuki, nodding. “They’re tough, and each one is its own thing.”

Mizuki was taking in Liberfell, which she hadn’t visited in quite some time. The streets of Pucklechurch were mostly packed earth, save for a strip down the main section of town that was cobbled, but in Liberfell, it was proper stonework all the way around, going from storefront to storefront, and only little gaps for patches of grass or shade trees at regular intervals. The number of stores and the height of the buildings was probably the other main thing, along with the small streams of smoke and vapor that came up from various buildings. There was a mage collective in Liberfell, with their own little section of the city, and they had engines running in a number of the shops. The whole place thrummed with aether, and Mizuki could feel the possibilities taking shape in her mind, not that she was actually going to do anything. Mages didn’t like when people messed with their things. There was a valley below Liberfell, which part of the city hugged, but they weren’t close enough to see it.

“So many smells,” said Isra.

Mizuki sniffed the air. Isra was right, there were a lot of smells of the city, from the bakeries, the restaurants, the crafts districts, all layered on top of each other, so that it was hard to pick out any individual one. Did a woods witch have a better nose? Or was that just Isra? Mizuki didn’t know, and when she thought about it, she decided that Isra probably didn’t know either.

“We’ll deal with the eggs first,” said Mizuki. “Which means probably going to the edge of the city, but,” she scanned the shop signs, looking down the street, “We’ll ask in an entad shop.”

She set off, and Isra followed after. Isra was the one with the three eggs, which were set in some bedding in the top of Mizuki’s bag, which Isra was carrying. Her hand stayed near them, making sure that they were safe and wouldn’t break. It was possible, especially with three, that they were valuable, something that in twenty years time might be the next chicken, but it was equally possible that they were worthless, or wouldn’t hatch.

The entad shop was a nice place, filled with all kinds of things, but as Mizuki’s eyes looked across them, she saw that fully a quarter of them weren’t magical at all, either there to make the place look more important than it was, or, more generously, henlings. She’d been in the shop once before, hoping to find something that gave off enough magic that she could get some use out of it, but the kinds of effects that were best for a sorcerer didn’t come cheap. Most entads did their work without making many ripples in the aether.

She chatted with the shopkeeper for a bit, a young man with a winsome smile, who, in the course of talking bastles, revealed that it was his father’s shop, which he and his sister planned to take over some day. Mizuki was a bit envious of someone with a family business, especially one as interesting as entad sales, because all she had was a family house and sorcerer’s blood, which had done its irregular skipping of generations. The boy seemed a bit nervous at the mention of sorcery, which wasn’t an uncommon reaction, but she did her best to put him at ease, and to talk about what entads she might buy, or possibly sell. She told him that they were dungeoneers, which was more or less true, and that seemed to interest him, which in turn led to her showing him the three entads they had with them, Isra’s bow and Mizuki’s staff, though it wasn’t technically hers yet, because the dust hadn’t settled on their second dungeon run. She saved the spoon for last, and he seemed suitably impressed by it.

Eventually Isra reminded Mizuki about the eggs and their quest for a bastlekeeper, and the shopkeeper, Rolaj, was happy enough to give them directions and then draw out a map when Mizuki felt a bit confused. Mizuki promised that they would be by with Alfric when he got into town, and with that, they were on their way.

“That seemed to take a long time,” said Isra as they left.

“Did it?” asked Mizuki. “It’s not like we’re in any rush.”

“All we needed were directions,” said Isra.

“I’d say Alfric had rubbed off on you, if I didn’t think you were just like this,” said Mizuki with a sigh. “What do you get from being direct and to the point? Besides, it was nice to meet Rolaj. Don’t you like meeting people?”

“He looked at me too much,” said Isra.

“Did he?” asked Mizuki. “Maybe he was interested.”

“Interested?” asked Isra.

“You know,” said Mizuki. She looked at Isra. “Okay, maybe you don’t know. Interested in courting. I don’t know how that’s done in Tarbin, or what your father taught you. I’d thought Rolaj might be interested in a date.”

“Or interested in the headscarf,” said Isra. “Or my darker skin.”

“Are people usually interested in that kind of thing?” asked Mizuki. “I suppose people ask me about Kiromo, not that I have all that much to tell.” She shrugged. “I think he was either trying to be polite and include you, or he was just more interested in the mystery. If you’re quiet, people will want to know what it is you’re hiding. In your case, it’s that you’re a woods witch, plus probably some other things.”

“Other things?” asked Isra.

“Well, I’ve got no idea why your parents would come all this way from Tarbin just to settle outside of Pucklechurch and not really talk to anyone,” said Mizuki. “For my grandfather, he wanted to establish a community away from the Kiromon Emperor, and Pucklechurch had some kind of spiritual significance. So I figure there’s probably some kind of story about your parents, even if you might not know it.”

“Maybe,” said Isra.

“Oh,” said Mizuki. “There’s a hotel, we should get rooms before we go wandering off to the bastlekeeper.”

This, too, took some time, but there was nothing in the party chat from Alfric and the others, and Mizuki imagined that they were still lugging that stupid wardrobe up a hill. She didn’t envy them, especially Verity, who seemed like she would rather have been done with songs for a bit. Mizuki settled on a large suite for the five of them, and though there were only four beds, one of them was a large bed for two, which seemed acceptable. The price made her eyes pop a bit, but divided five ways it wasn’t actually that bad, so long as they only stayed a day.

“Okay,” said Mizuki as they stepped out of the hotel, having dropped off most of their things in their room. “To the bastlekeeper.”

“Do you need to talk to everyone so much?” asked Isra.

“Huh?” asked Mizuki. “The clerk? I was only being polite.”

“He didn’t need an explanation of why we were in Liberfell,” said Isra.

“So what should I have said then?” asked Mizuki. “That I needed a room for five people?”

“Yes,” said Isra.

“But don’t you see how that’s rude?” asked Mizuki.

Isra frowned. “Do you speak this much with everyone?”

“I don’t know, I like being friendly, and polite,” said Mizuki. “It’s just chatter.”

“I would like to be the one to speak with the bastlekeeper,” said Isra.

“Sure, fine,” said Mizuki. “Just … don’t be rude. Not that I think you would be.”

The directions took them across the city, to the outskirts. Liberfell was on a bit of a hill, and at certain spots Mizuki wished they could stop and take in a nice view of the valley, but Isra seemed to be the wrong walking partner for that. The river that ran through the valley was thick and slow, and most of the streams in the Pucklechurch hex fed into it. She’d heard that if you had a good enough raft and were willing to put in the work of navigation, then after a big rain you could go all the way from Pucklechurch to Liberfell, floating along. Mizuki had nearly done that with some friends, but there had been a bit of drama between them after she’d kissed one of the brothers, and the rafting plans had ended up falling through.

Mizuki kept these thoughts to herself, worried that she would annoy Isra. She wondered whether Isra had ever kissed someone, but kept that question to herself, because it seemed too intimate a thing to ask someone who was basically a stranger, and more of a stranger than anyone else in the party. It was the kind of thing you talked about with a friend, not a workmate.

Eventually, if they kept doing dungeons, they might come to understand each other.

The bastlekeeper had a large building, but only the front of it was open to the public. There were numerous animals in cages or glass tanks, with handwritten signs giving descriptions of what was inside. Some of them weren’t proper bastles; Mizuki saw what looked like a perfectly ordinary bunny, and a common stilt-legged skink, which she’d caught a few of in her childhood just while walking in the woods. Still, some of them were unknown, birds with iridescent feathers and mice that walked on the ceiling of their tank, and it was certainly interesting. True to her word, Mizuki allowed Isra to take the lead in talking to the bastlekeeper, an elderly man with wild grey hair.

“We have three eggs,” said Isra, opening up Mizuki’s bag and showing them to the bastlekeeper. “We’d like to incubate and raise them ourselves.”

“Ay?” asked the old man, bringing some glasses up from around his neck so he could take a closer look. “How long out of the dungeon, or are these bred?”

“No more than a few hours since they were taken,” said Isra.

“Ay, well,” said the old man, nodding. “You’re dungeoneers then?” He had a bit of Hannah’s accent, though different in the particulars.

“We are,” said Isra, nodding. “They’ll require heat and good airflow. They’re still living.”

The old man frowned. “Well, before we get to all that, I’m Perrin Carthaigh, only licensed bastlekeeper for three hexes out, and the best for six out.” He held out a hand, and Isra reluctantly shook it. “You’re looking to incubate them on your own, ay? And how do you know what they’ll need, if they’re not bred?”

“I’m a woods witch,” said Isra.

“Oh, ay?” Perrin asked. “And you know Dom then?”

“No,” said Isra. “She’s the local woods witch?”

“Ay, or close enough to local,” nodded Perrin. “She comes by from time to time, just to help. She knows better than any cleric how to care for these creatures, even a cleric of Qymmos.”

“The incubator,” said Isra. “We need the heat of a summer’s day and a gentle wind.”

“All business, you young ones,” said Perrin, shaking his head. “Well, the problem with an incubator is you’d need me to sign off, and I don’t know what kind of animal will come from those eggs, if it’s an animal at all, which it very well might not be.”

“It’s the domain of the hex beastmaster, right?” asked Mizuki. “So we could go talk to them?”

Perrin pointed to himself. “I’ve been the beastmaster for nigh forty years.”

“Ah,” said Mizuki.

“So you won’t sell us an incubator?” asked Isra.

“Well, I didn’t say that,” he replied. “If it were just a single egg, I might think that’s fine, but three means that there’s a risk you have a breeding pair of whatever this is, and that runs its own risks. There are horror stories I could regale you with, ay, though I don’t get the sense you want me to, cases of a thing being born that lays a clutch of a hundred eggs in the woods.”

Isra nodded. “You offer services. You would raise them for us.” There was such prickliness to Isra that Mizuki felt herself cringing at the exchange and wanting to step in to smooth things over, but she’d promised to let Isra take the lead. It was a promise she was quickly regretting.

“Ay,” he nodded.

“And if we say no, you have the authority to take the eggs from us by force,” said Isra, folding her arms. It wasn’t quite an accusation, if only by technicality, and Mizuki winced.

Perrin laughed. “By force?” he asked. “Might have escaped your attention, young one, but I’m going on seventy, and while I’m fit for my age, my age isn’t a fit one. You think I’d chase you out of the hex for wanting to keep an egg? That might be how they do it in Tarbin, but in Inter, it takes more than that to get in the bad graces of the authorities. Do you know why I’m the beastmaster, ay?”

“No,” said Isra, arms still folded.

“Because I care,” he replied. “And because I have the skills. I’ve gone out into the woods and the valleys more times than I can count hunting down things that dungeoneers have accidentally let loose. Now, you’re new to the game, that’s clear enough, and you’ve got some problems with authority, that’s clear enough too, but you and I, we work together, not against each other. Clear?”

Isra relaxed a little. “Clear,” she said.

“You raise beasts for people,” said Mizuki. “You’d sell us an incubator, then raise two for us, with a fee or something, with us raising the third?” She was just saying something, anything to let the rudeness fade away into the distance.

“Ah,” said Perrin, nodding. “You people always do have a head for business.” She wondered whether he meant ‘people from Kiromo’, but if he did, he was wrong, because she had a horrible head for business. “A fine offer, and one I might have made myself, given the chance.” He raised an eyebrow in Isra’s direction. “No hard feelings, ay?”

“I meant no offense,” she said.

“It’s suspect, my position and profession,” he nodded. “A conflict of interest. Many have pointed it out, over the years, and I’ve had arguments against me having both — the business and the role. But I’ve kept Liberfell safe, and for most, that’s argument enough.” He cleared his throat. “Now, in terms of payment. Is it the two of you, or a party?”

“A full party,” said Isra. “Based out of Pucklechurch for the time being.”

For the time being? The notion set Mizuki on edge, just a bit, because it was her home, but she supposed that she would reluctantly agree that yes, ‘for the time being’ was correct. She had no idea what she would do once the time came to make a decision on whether to keep pursuing this crazy career.

“And you have a way to carry something back there?” he asked.

“We do,” said Isra. “So long as it’s no more than a foot and a half to the side. We’re also looking for a good way to take plants and animals out of future dungeons.”

“As the beastmaster, I like to hear that,” he nodded. “Taking out eggs like this,” he gestured at the eggs, sitting in the bag, “Is questionable, but you’ve done well with them, if you haven’t left one out in the wild somewhere. So, as I’m hearing you, I’d raise two of these, hand over some manner of containment, and sell you an incubator. And when I say all that, I’m hoping that you have the rings to pay upfront, but if you’re new to the game, I doubt you do.”

“We do, actually,” said Mizuki. “We made out well on our first dungeon.”

“But we’ll be looking for a good deal,” said Isra. She gave Mizuki a frown, and Mizuki shut her mouth tight.

“Well, it’s about risk,” said Perrin, rubbing his stubble-covered chin. “Risk for me, or risk for you. If I take the two eggs, and try to hatch them, I can take a gamble, or let you take the gamble. I’m in the mood to gamble, if it gets a disgruntled woods witch on my side. Let’s say I’d do the care and feeding part, in exchange for the first clutch of eggs from a breeding pair?”

“If it is a breeding pair,” said Mizuki.

“It is,” said Isra.

“It is,” agreed Perrin, tapping the side of his head.

“Wait, do you know what kind of thing it is?” asked Mizuki. “From being beastmaster?”

“Nothing like that, but I do get sex, if it’s there,” he said. “And I’ve already seen these three listed, which are the same kind of creature, if you didn’t already know that.”

“We did,” said Isra, with a casual air.

“But it remains to see what they’re like, and whether they’ll grow,” he said. “So what I’ll propose is I take the male and the female, and you take the spare female, and we’ll call the first part of their life square, the labor and such paid for by that first clutch of eggs, if we get one. And that just leaves the incubator you want and the containment, which will depend on the particulars.”

“Let me see what you have,” said Isra. She turned to Mizuki. “I’d like to do this without you.”

“O-kay,” said Mizuki, frowning. She turned to Perrin. “She’s new to people, don’t mind the offense.”

“I’ve been dealing with dungeoneers my whole life,” he said. “They’re usually a brash bunch, especially if they’re in the creature game, and they come into our community not having the slightest clue about who we are or how we do things. You can trust me to have a thick hide.” He gave Isra a quite unexpected fond look.

They went into the back area, leaving Mizuki alone. She was trying not to feel offended, and somewhat failing. It was probably true that she shouldn’t have said that they had a lot of money to spare, but that was the kind of thing that just came out. It was friendly to say, wasn’t it? And if the old man saw something to like in Isra, then Mizuki decided that it was her job to keep her mouth closed and let the two of them get along. Maybe he was used to dealing with creatures that snipped and snapped.

She was waiting in the room with more of the common things when a girl came in through the door. She was obviously the adventuring sort, wearing a form-fitting breastplate and greaves, and with some kind of weapon at her hip, like a spear the length of her forearm. Aside from the metal, she wore black, including black leather boots that showed a fair bit of wear and dirt from the road. Her hair was short, cut to just below her chin, and the tips of it were purple. Mizuki’s eyes were looking at her face when she spoke.

“Perrin’s in the back, is he?” the girl asked.

“Eyes,” said Mizuki, because the girl had brilliant purple eyes, brighter than eyes should be, almost like they were reflecting light that wasn’t there. She wore makeup, far more than seemed sensible for an adventurer, with a dark shade of lipstick and some smoky eyeshadow.

“The name’s Lola, actually,” she said, holding out a hand.

“Mizuki,” said Mizuki, taking her hand. “Sorry, I’ve never met someone with purple eyes before.”

“That you know of,” said Lola with an impish smile.

“I … suppose,” said Mizuki, wondering whether there was a possibility that she’d met someone with purple eyes and simply not known about it. It seemed unlikely. She looked the other girl up and down. “You’re a dungeoneer?”

The other girl gave an energetic nod. “We’re only recently to Liberfell though, planning to station out of here for a month or so, maybe more, and hit up everything in a three-hex radius. You?”

“Uh,” said Mizuki. “I’m a dungeoneer too.”

“Well I knew that, silly,” said Lola, rolling her eyes. “The only other option was that you were here to buy some spotted toads, but you definitely don’t seem like the type. I was just wondering how long you were planning to be in the area.”

“Just a day in Liberfell,” said Mizuki. “We’re … out of Pucklechurch, I guess.”

Lola nodded. “I haven’t been, but I’ve heard it’s such a sweet little town. Any tips for when we do the dungeon?”

“We had, um, bad variance,” said Mizuki. She had known a fair number of people who had been in dungeons in some capacity or the other, but ‘dungeoneer’ as a title seemed to imply something else entirely, not just doing a small handful of close dungeons with some friends, which occasionally happened in Pucklechurch, but someone who was going to devote their life to it for as long as they could. “Good loot.”

“Ooo, what did you get?” asked Lola. “Something good?”

“My f-friend Isra,” said Mizuki. “She got a bow that slows down time. We got a book too, for storage, and it can tell you some about items.”

“Entad identification?” asked Lola, raising an eyebrow.

“No, it doesn’t seem to be,” said Mizuki.

“Well, there are other solutions,” said Lola, nodding. “Tell me about your team, who’ve you got? You’re … some kind of mage, I’m guessing. Hopefully your friend can use a bow?”

Mizuki was feeling … well, not dizzy, exactly, but off balance. There were too many pointed questions coming in too fast, and the girl, Lola, had an intensity that matched her brilliantly purple eyes.

“I’m a sorc,” said Mizuki. “Isra is a ranger. Alfric is a … I don’t know what you’d call him, a fighter?” She wasn’t sure whether she should be saying any of this. Surely there was no harm in it, right? Someone knowing their party composition, or which dungeons they’d hit, that didn’t matter, the dungeons were different for everyone, and if a dungeoneering team went in to do a dungeon right after you, it didn’t change all that much. There wasn’t any point to being coy.

“Alfric,” said Lola, tapping her lips. “Interesting name. Last name?”

“Overguard,” said Mizuki.

“Of the Dondrian Overguards?” asked Lola, stopping and looking at Mizuki with wide eyes. There was something like playacting in how she said it, a theatricality that lowered her opinion of the girl.

“Um,” said Mizuki. “Yes?”

“They’re a very big deal,” she said, nodding. “A dungeoneering family, one of the best.”

“I knew his parents were dungeoneers,” said Mizuki.

“But you’re local, right?” asked Lola. “I mean, I know a bunch of Kiromon settled here.”

“Uh, I guess,” said Mizuki. “There’s a Kiromo neighborhood in Liberfell. I’m from Pucklechurch.”

“But that’s weird, isn’t it?” asked Lola. “That he would come out all this way to recruit people?”

<Through we go,> said Hannah over party chat. <How are you finding the city of Liberfell?>

“One sec,” said Mizuki, “Party chat I need to answer.” She turned to the side.

<Very interesting,> Mizuki replied. <And a bit intimidating.>

<We’ll be there soon enough,> said Alfric. <Can you warp so we can meet up? Or give us a location?>

<We’re in the middle of business,> said Mizuki. <We’ve got rooms at the Dragon’s Arm Hotel. I told them to expect you if we were out.>

<Thank you,> said Alfric. <We should meet soon though. We’re leaving the wardrobe in Traeg’s Knob and hoping that no one does anything with it. The rest of today can be for selling what we have. I’m hoping that I can find a floatstone so we have less trouble bringing it back to Pucklechurch. Talk to you later.>

Mizuki turned back to Lola, who was giving her an expectant look. “Problems?”

“No,” said Mizuki. “I don’t think so.” She looked to the door that Isra had gone through, wondering what had taken so long, then back to the strange girl with too many questions. “Sorry if you’re waiting on Perrin, my friend will be done in a bit.”

“Oh, not at all,” said Lola, waving a hand. “I was just going to check in on some bastles we left with him, I’ll come back another time.” She turned to the door, then back to look at Mizuki. “It was nice to meet you Mizuki. Hopefully our teams run into each other. Tell Alfric he still has my love.”

“Wait,” said Mizuki. “You know him?”

“I’m sure he’ll fill you in,” said Lola, giving Mizuki a wink as she backed out the door. “See you!”

Mizuki stared after her. Alfric was going to have some questions coming his way, that was for certain.

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Alexander Wales

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