Verity had finished her bath by the time Mizuki and Isra came back from whatever they were doing. The bath had been a proper bath, one with scented soaps that Mizuki apparently didn’t keep stocked at her house. Verity was going to have to spend some time in Liberfell buying a few things. She had gotten used to rather rough living at the Fig and Gristle, which had been necessitated by wanting to stretch her funds as far as they went, but with all the rings from their first dungeon, and a more permanent home with Mizuki, it made sense to stock up on all the little things she’d been missing, like lotions and scents. Perhaps she would buy another dress or two.
When she came out of the shower in her bathrobe, a meal from downstairs was waiting for her, and she didn’t feel the need to stand on ceremony, instead digging in right away. The suite had a nice little seating area, with a table for four off to one side. Mizuki was talking about how their time had gone, as presumably Alfric’s recounting of the trip up the hill carrying the wardrobe hadn’t taken much time to tell.
“Alfric, do you know someone named Lola?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said slowly. He was instantly on guard. “Why?”
“Purple eyes?” asked Mizuki.
“No,” said Alfric. “But I don’t doubt she might have acquired them in one way or another since I last saw her. Mizuki, are you saying that Lola is in the city? In Liberfell?”
“She said — well, she said a lot of things, but one of the main ones was that she was a dungeoneer, and she was going to be based out of Liberfell,” said Mizuki. “We talked for a bit, until I got the sense that maybe I was saying more than I should, and then she just left. But she said, um, that you still have her love.”
Alfric groaned and laid back on the couch, closing his eyes.
“Should I not have talked to her?” asked Mizuki. “Because if I wasn’t supposed to say anything about the party, it’s kind of on you for not giving me a heads up.”
“It’s fine,” said Alfric, still sitting with his head back.
“Is it?” asked Hannah. “Because you don’t have the face of a man who’s fine.”
“There’s a very long story I have to tell, and really don’t want to,” said Alfric, sighing. He sat up. “I’ve known Lola since we were little. Our parents intended us to marry, or not ‘marry’, it’s complicated, but we’re pacted. Technically, we’re still intended to be, but the only reason anyone thinks that is still going to happen is that we haven’t told our parents how much things have deteriorated between us.”
“Okay,” said Mizuki. “So she’s your ex?”
“It goes far, far deeper than that,” said Alfric. He screwed his eyes shut. “I have a confession to make.”
“Another?” asked Verity, who had been eating a pressed sandwich that rivaled the one that Mizuki had made. Like that one, it was hard to eat in a dignified way.
“Lola is a chrononaut,” said Alfric. It seemed like saying the words pained him. “And … I am too.” This he said with actual anguish, as though the words were being extracted from him at great expense by circumstances beyond his control.
There was silence in the room.
“Wait,” said Mizuki. “How many times did — how many times did you try to recruit us?”
“You can go back in time?” asked Isra.
“I can live a given day two times, sometimes three,” said Alfric. “Yes. And to answer the question, Mizuki, anything that I’ve done with this party, I’ve done only once. My family has very strict rules about disclosure, and I’ve followed them to the letter. More than to the letter.”
“We didn’t do the Pucklechurch dungeon twice?” asked Hannah. She wrinkled her nose. “It was only once?”
Alfric let out a sigh. “Yes,” he said. “Everything was only once, Pucklechurch, Traeg’s Knob, any personal time we’ve spent or conversations we’ve had. This is my first time living today. The only way I would have chosen to do it over would be if something horrible happened.”
“Wait,” said Mizuki. “Why didn’t you tell us that? I would have been way more relaxed about the whole thing if I’d known you could just undo it all.”
“How do we know you’re not lying?” asked Verity, setting her food down.
“That,” said Alfric, gesturing at her. “And that,” he said, gesturing at Mizuki. “Those are both very good reasons not to breathe a word of it to anyone.” He shook his head. “Lola.”
“If she hadn’t come along, when would you have told us?” asked Verity.
“I was planning to,” said Alfric. “I just needed to build up trust, to build up the team, to get us working together. Maybe it would have been tonight, if things were going well, or at least after the next dungeon.”
“You understand why it’s hard to trust you,” said Verity. “Why might we think that you’re hiding things? More things, that is?”
“I never lied,” said Alfric. “Just … lies of omission.” He seemed to really believe this, and to see it as a defense. Verity found herself enormously frustrated with that line of thinking.
“That’s the magic you know,” said Mizuki. “You’re a chrononaut.”
“Yes,” said Alfric. “But —” he turned to Verity. “If people know that you can do the day over, they’ll worry that you’ve done the day over, and there’s no proof you can offer them. Some people get it into their head that you’re just … I don’t know, an evil person, or someone who’s casually playing with their life.”
“Wait,” said Mizuki. “This Lola person too?”
“Yes,” sighed Alfric. “And if you’re wondering whether she’s had a conversation with you before, whether this is her second time through the day, then the answer is probably yes.”
“Seems a good power for a dungeoneer to have,” said Hannah. “But you’re the one who gets to decide whether to use it, ay?”
“I would use it if anything happened to any of you,” said Alfric. “And then you’d have no memory that anything bad had even happened, and I would have to disclose whatever did happen that required the power to be used.”
“Or you would just lie,” said Verity. It felt bad to say it, once the words were out, but the possibility needed to be put out there by someone, and she seemed like the only one to do it. Her emotions were getting the best of her.
“I wouldn’t,” said Alfric. “And if I had told you right from the start that I had this power, you would have had the same thought, that perhaps I was lying, or you would think that you were safe, and didn’t need to worry, and — it’s a gift of my bloodline, it is, but the way people deal with it is … why I wanted to wait to tell you. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry, but you don’t disagree with the general approach you took,” said Verity, gripping her fork. She had mostly forgiven him for agreeing to spy on her for her parents, but it was still there in the background of their relationship. If she hadn’t hit her limits, she might have started in on a tune to keep her frustration and suspicion down.
“What can I do to make it up to you?” asked Alfric.
“I think I need to take a break from all this for a moment, it’s been a long day,” said Verity, standing from her chair. “No one use the party chat for a bit, please, I’ll be in my room.” She took her plate with her, because she wasn’t done eating, and retreated to her room, closing the door behind her.
There was a temptation to eavesdrop on the conversation in the other room, but Verity resisted. She had been a proficient eavesdropper in her childhood, but it was mostly by way of listening in when people thought she was absorbed in something, rather than putting an ear where it wasn’t wanted.
Instead, she thought about Alfric, and what was to be done about him. Did she like him? Well … probably the least of all of them. He was everything that she didn’t like about Dondrian, pushing too much, focused too much, wanting too much from everyone else. He had been giving them all time to adjust to what he wanted from them, but he was doing it in a way that made it clear that was what he was doing. Verity could see what someone might like in Alfric, without particularly liking it herself. Did she want to keep going down this path of dungeoneering with him? Well, the answer was both yes and no. She liked almost every aspect of it aside from the dungeons. To be a part of a team, to train together, to live together, to travel and see new things, to have interesting magic, and sing songs for people who were quickly becoming friends? Well, it was nice. The monsters were much less nice, but her role in the dungeons was in some ways a pleasing challenge, a test of her skills as a bard.
She wondered how much more Alfric was keeping from them, but her guess was that it wasn’t all that much. The name Overguard did ring a bell, but only vaguely. Dungeoneers weren’t usually high society, even if they had quite a bit of money. If they were a family of chrononauts, that explained some of their success.
Verity had her own secrets, of course, and she wondered whether she’d be better viewing Alfric’s status as a chrononaut as something similar to her own Choosing as Xuphin’s own. She hadn’t told anyone, and it didn’t matter to her, it was only a pressure that came along on top of everything else. If people knew, they might treat her differently, and it wasn’t as though they had a right to know, not when it wasn’t impacting them in the slightest. And if Alfric was telling the truth, then there was the same lack of impact, save for there being a large safety net beneath them. No repeated days, no conversations she didn’t remember, no second or third attempts at dungeons. He’d intended to tell them, but was holding off, because the mere knowledge would cause problems. It wasn’t so different, and Verity had no plans to tell any of them that she was Chosen. Through that lens, she could understand Alfric a bit better, and she felt a bit of shame at how she’d handled things.
Verity ate her sandwich while hunched over on her bed, trying not to get crumbs on the linens. It was a nice bedroom with a far larger bed than she needed, and she wondered who was paying the cost of it.
With her food finished, she laid back in bed. She was tired down to her bones, not just from the long hikes, but from the magic she’d used. Bardic stamina was something built up over time, and Verity already had more capacity to go the distance than most people ever had, but with whatever Mizuki had done, and with the sheer length of the dungeon, she was about as drained as she’d ever been. It was clouding her thoughts. She should have refused to give them a song for moving the wardrobe and simply gone with Isra and Mizuki, but she’d wanted to do her part for the team. Beyond that, she was socially drained, as there’d been too much talking and time with people, with not too much of a break. She laid down, trying to ignore the dim murmurs from beyond the door. Whatever Alfric’s problems were, she would learn about them later, when her mind was in a better place for it.
She napped, very briefly, going in and out of sleep. She dreamed, a nightmare where she was the one carrying the wardrobe up a steep hill, being encouraged on by her mother.
Two hours later, the murmuring beyond the bedroom door had long finished, and there was a brief, soft knock.
“Come in,” said Verity with a sigh. She hadn’t been fully asleep, and didn’t feel even slightly rested.
To her surprise, it was Isra, dressed in a fresh set of clothes and looking slightly damp from a bath of her own. “There are only four beds,” she said. “Mizuki had wanted this one for herself to share with one of us.”
“Ah,” said Verity. “I can move.” She had already moved her things in earlier, before Mizuki had returned.
“Mizuki said that it was fine,” said Isra. “But it would mean that you need to share.”
“With you?” asked Verity.
“That’s fine by me,” said Verity, sighing. “How did it go out there?”
“We heard more about Alfric’s life,” said Isra. She moved over to the bed, and Verity scooted over. She was still dressed in the hotel’s bathrobe. “He blames Lola for much of his misfortunes.”
“I’m sure he does,” said Verity. “Sorry,” she said. “That wasn’t very kind of me. Maybe she’s truly awful. He’s a good man in very many ways, but very Dondrian.”
Isra shrugged. “He should have told us he could swim through time, but I understand why he didn’t.”
“Do you think he would have said, if he’d had to redo a day?” asked Verity.
“I don’t think he’s lying,” said Isra. “But I’m not the best judge of character.”
“If only he were a wolf, right?” asked Verity, smiling.
“It would simplify things,” nodded Isra, returning the smile. There was often something shy about her smiles, like she was embarrassed to show her teeth.
“I guess I wasn’t thinking about whether he had lied,” said Verity. “More about … well, if he would lie, if it came to that. If we went into a dungeon and one of us died, and he had to redo it, do you think he would say, or just try it again without telling us?”
“I think he would tell us,” said Isra.
“I suppose I do too,” said Verity, nodding. “Probably in a blunt way.”
“Mmm,” said Isra. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to talk to you. I was going to sleep.”
“I don’t mind the company, if it’s you,” said Verity. “But don’t let me keep you from sleep.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep,” said Isra. “My arm is sore, but there are too many thoughts. The day was long.”
“I think being a dungeoneer probably means that you end up with a collection of very long days,” said Verity. She paused, wondering whether to offer. “I can sing you to sleep, if you’d like.”
“You can?” asked Isra.
Verity nodded. “Lullabies,” she said. “They were never a speciality of mine, but you work with the sleepiness a person has and amplify it. It has its uses.”
“I find your singing beautiful,” said Isra. “I would take any chance to hear it.”
Verity found herself blushing. It was too high of a compliment. “Would you mind if we talked, just for a bit, first? To get me settled.”
“Of course,” said Isra with a yawn. She hesitated. “Do you mind if I undress?”
Verity shook her head. She was planning to change out of the bathrobe and into her underthings, as she’d already taken everything she needed out of the book.
Still, it was somewhat of a surprise when Isra removed her headscarf. They’d slept in the same room at Mizuki’s the night before, but Isra had left it on. Here though, she revealed curly brown hair that had been pinned back in several places. It was a bit odd, never seeing a person’s hair, and it was strange how weird it felt to finally see it after so long of having it hidden. It wasn’t clear to Verity why it was done, only that it was Tarbin custom.
Verity decided to go ahead and get changed too, which was accomplished fairly quickly. There was something vaguely anxiety-inducing about getting naked with someone else in the room, but it was only Isra, who had given no sign of that sort of interest, and Verity’s chemise was quickly on. There was a small part of Verity that wondered whether Isra staying with her was motivated, but Verity had misread signals before, and the reason they were sharing a room at all was because of Mizuki, who had definitely not had that on her mind. By the time Verity was finished, Isra had gotten under the covers. It was early for sleep, but Verity had the feeling that once her head was against the pillow, it wouldn’t take long for her to be out.
“What did you want to talk about?” asked Isra, once they were laying side by side beneath the covers. It was hard not to read it as intimate. Verity wasn’t sure that she’d shared a bed with anyone since she was little.
“I don’t know,” said Verity. “How is being a druid?”
Isra chewed the inside of her cheek for a moment. “There’s so much other people don’t know.”
“I imagine so,” said Verity. They were lying in bed together, side by side, looking into each other’s eyes. Verity found herself looking for rhymes for ‘brown’ (drown, crown, gown), then thinking of more poetical synonyms (mahogany, umber, chestnut). There was a particular shade, russet, made from madder and woad, and Verity was on the verge of a good lyric when Isra turned away. Verity turned away as well, slightly embarrassed. She’d been staring without saying anything.
“I spoke with the beastmaster, who was also the bastlekeeper,” said Isra, speaking up to the ceiling. “I looked at his animals. He had a lifetime of experience and as much power as a hex can grant. He had entads to tell him things. Still he was fumbling and blind.”
“Did he manage though?” asked Verity. “Mizuki said he had a large shop.”
“He managed to make money,” said Isra. “But many of his bastles died along the way, for as much as he tried to help them. Where they live, what they eat, the things they want to do … he was ignorant.”
“You felt bad for the animals,” said Verity. With her head against the pillow, she was feeling sleepy.
“I felt bad for the man,” said Isra.
“Felt bad that you were better?” asked Verity.
“No,” said Isra, glancing over for a moment. It was a bit of an awkward conversation, with the both of them staring at the ceiling, and both clearly fairly tired. “To devote yourself and have nothing come of it is sad.”
“He’s probably raised hundreds of bastles,” said Verity. “Thousands, even. He’s helped people with new pets and farmers with new animals. I don’t think it’s right to judge ourselves against perfection, and I certainly don’t think it’s right to judge others against perfection.” That was how Verity had been judged for what seemed to be most of her life. “Did he seem happy?”
“He did,” said Isra. “He responded to a slight with kindness.”
“A slight?” asked Verity, glancing over. “From you or Mizuki?”
“From me,” said Isra. “An unkind assumption. Unintended. Still, he was warm to me.”
Verity wondered whether Isra had issued an apology, and decided that she probably hadn’t. “Mmm,” she said, for lack of anything better to add.
“What’s it like to be a bard?” asked Isra, some time later.
Verity had already started to drift off to sleep, and her eyes fluttered open, the promised lullaby forgotten. She turned to the side, and found that Isra was turned too. They looked at each other for a moment. Isra had her piercings out, and up close, the small holes in her skin were clearly visible. Again, Verity found herself constructing lyrics, and it took her a moment to remember what the question had been.
“There’s a song to a person,” she said. “There are notes that resonate with them. Perhaps it’s less like a sound, and more like … acoustics, knowing how the notes sound in a particular room, then trying your best to weave them together.” She made a little tune to demonstrate the point, something to pull on the sweetness of Isra, but with her overworked mind and sleepiness, it didn’t last more than a few bars. Still, she could see the change in Isra’s face, a smile on her lips that reached up to her eyes, like they were sharing a joke together. There was nothing shy about it.
“Can you do that again?” asked Isra, almost as soon as the song petered off.
“Tired,” said Verity. Really, she shouldn’t have pushed it, but it was always tempting when things felt that they could readily flow. Even the song she’d sung up the hill, a simple song of strength, had been pushing it. A song for Isra, tugging on and enhancing her sweetness, was beyond even that, and risked her losing her ‘voice’ for a few days, which had happened twice before.
“I wish I could feel like that all the time,” said Isra.
“You can,” murmured Verity. The world kept slipping away as her thoughts descended into dreams. The last thing she was fully conscious of was feeling the heat of Isra’s body through the blankets.