They went down from the hotel room and out onto the streets of Liberfell, walking without much direction for a bit.
“Do you like Kiromon cooking?” asked Mizuki.
“I can’t say I’ve had it much,” said Hannah.
“Noodle shop,” said Mizuki, pointing. “I’ve been there before, it’s very good, but very traditional. Or Plenarch traditional, meaning they use local ingredients, but, you know what I mean.”
Hannah wasn’t sure she did. “Well, we can give it a try,” she nodded. “I’ve liked what you’ve made, so far.”
They went into the shop together, and quickly found a table. It was off-hours, and the place was quiet. There were little glass bottles with long necks sitting on the table, one of them clear and the other a dark brown. The menu, such as it was, was written up on a board on one wall, in chalks of three different colors, though there were only six things they seemed to make, most of which were the same noodle soup with some variants. Before too long, a woman came over to them.
“Your order?” she asked, without a trace of pleasantries.
“Spring noodles,” said Mizuki, giving her a smile.
“For me too, ay,” said Hannah.
“Oh, and a bottle of wine to share,” said Mizuki. “And a plate of sobyu.”
The woman nodded, then went into the kitchen, which was visible from their table over a short wall. As Hannah watched, a girl about their age climbed up a small ladder and stood on a long wooden arm of some sort, which slowly lowered as she stood on it. She was gripping a pole bolted to the wall and had clearly done this many times before.
“What’s that?” asked Hannah, pointing.
“Noodles,” said Mizuki. “The dough gets pressed through a little thing with holes in it and drops right down into boiling water. I’ve tried for years to make it on my own, and I have no idea what keeps going wrong. Apparently there are a lot of bad ways to make noodles.”
“How do you make them at home?” asked Hannah. “I don’t recall seein’ such a thing.”
Once the girl had lowered to near the floor, she hopped off and picked up a giant wire mesh net, which she used to do something that was just barely out of Hannah’s sight, but the sound of water splashing around could soon be heard.
“I have the equipment to make it for a small batch,” said Mizuki. “This is just the kind of thing you need for a big kitchen. But yes, part of it is getting the dough through the holes. I’ve always been terrible with dough, and baking in general.”
“Seems like the sort of think I can help with,” said Hannah with a nod. “I love to bake, far more than I enjoy puttin' together a meal, though I can do that too, if you ever need a day off cooking. I can’t say that I’ve much experience with noodles, but I have quite a bit with doughs, and it can’t be that difficult.”
“Please don’t let them hear you say that,” said Mizuki. “These people are masters of their craft.”
Hannah hadn’t meant it like that, only that to get a basic proficiency, for most things, took very little time, and to become a master took quite a bit of dedicated effort and sometimes years of doing only that thing. She’d meant that getting it to the point where they were decent noodles didn’t seem too hard.
It took a surprisingly short time for the noodle dishes to come out. The noodles were thin and brown, twisted up into a ball, with a number of things finely sliced and placed on top, along with an upside down half of a soft-boiled egg. There were more colors than Hannah had expected, especially the broth, which was a purple-pink.
“It’s a beetroot sobyu broth,” said the woman as she laid the noodles down. “Topped with pear, pork slices, cucumber, and egg.” She laid a small pot down next to them. “Mustard, to stir in.” She pointed at the two bottles. “Vinegar halfway through, to change the taste.” She didn’t say which of the two bottles, but she likely meant the clear one. The ‘sobyu’ plate was set down next to them without comment. It had nine small piles of various colors, each something pickled, with a focus on color.
Hannah dug in with the long two-tined fork she’d been given, twisting up noodles and trying to get as much as she could from each bite.
“The sobyu is for both of us,” said Mizuki, gesturing at the plate she’d ordered. “Best in little bites, with some noodles. Different from the kind I make, but still, you know, sobyu.” She filled her wine glass and drank it down, a little faster than Hannah thought appropriate, but then again, it had been a long day.
They ate together, with nothing from the two of them but murmurings about how good everything was. There was something to the sobyu that took a bit of getting used to, but everything in the bowl of noodles was quite fresh, and she enjoyed the contrast with the salty, sour sobyu, which was apparently a catchall term for something pickled. The meal was very light, by Hannah’s standards, the thin strips of pork not leaving much of an impression on her stomach, but the noodles were nice and chewy, and in no time at all, she was drinking from the bowl to get the last of the broth. She finished far before Mizuki, who seemed to be a bit of a slow eater.
While they’d been eating, two boys around their age sat down at a table near them. They seemed oblivious to their surroundings, but Hannah wasn’t oblivious to them, in part because they were wearing adventuring gear. Mizuki and Hannah had both cleaned up and dressed themselves in their usual outfits, which for Mizuki was culottes and a loose blouse, and for Hannah was trousers and a buttoned down shirt. The boys, by contrast, were wearing heavy clothes, and clearly had a few entads between them, along with weapons kept at their sides: a hammer for the taller one with lighter skin, and a dagger for the shorter one with heavier armor. What drew Hannah’s eye the most was the taller one’s sigil on his chest, which was that of Oeyr, God of Emergence, and that was either a feature of entad armor, or more likely, marked him as a cleric.
She’d been listening in on their conversation as she ate.
“Well, it’s been going a bit slowly, that’s all I’m saying,” said the taller one.
“Josen lost an arm,” said the shorter one.
“Yeah, and obviously that’s not ideal,” said the taller one. “And I’m sorry that I couldn’t do much more for him, but it’s not like he had to go through his whole life without an arm, is it? He was out for barely a day.”
“I don’t think it was like that for him,” said the shorter one. Hannah was trying to peg him, and thought that maybe he was something. He had an air of magic about him. She couldn’t see magic like Mizuki, but there was a way that certain people carried themselves. “I think for him, it was probably the worst day of his entire life, and that’s saying something, this far in.”
“He got it back though,” said the cleric. He seemed like a stubborn sort. “And yes, I wish that I’d been able to reconnect it, but —”
“No one blames you for that,” said the other. He took a breath. “But he’s been talking about bowing out.”
The cleric let out a low groan. “Where are we going to find a fifth?”
“A wizard fifth, at that,” said the short one. “Or some other kind of offensive. But I think the better question is what she’s going to do when she finds out.”
“She’s harmless,” said the cleric. This had the feeling of a well-worn conversation between the two.
“She is absolutely not harmless,” said the small one. Hannah had, by this point, pegged them as both belonging to the party of this ‘Lola’ creature, and if she were an alienist, and the tall one was a cleric of Oeyr, and they had a wizard somewhere with an arm missing or reattached, then that really narrowed down what role the shorter boy could fill. Hannah was guessing that he was a bard. “Do you understand that she lies through her teeth about everything and does every day at least twice? She knows us, what makes us tick.”
“She’s really not that violent though,” said the cleric. “I mean, you’ve seen her, she doesn’t sink into it in the dungeons. It’s all the same stuff that he always argued about, rumors, things that sure, maybe happened in undone days, but you have no way of actually knowing. And in my opinion, she just doesn’t have it in her.”
“Other stuff though,” said the probable-bard. “Manipulation? Digging for secrets? Flirtation?”
“That, yes,” admitted the cleric. “And maybe more than flirtation. Those rumors I take more seriously.”
“Would you ever?” asked the bard. “If she came to you?”
“Not something I want to talk about,” said the cleric.
“Because if you would, then there’s a chance she did,” said the bard.
“Oh, that was great!” said Mizuki, pushing forward her bowl, which was empty. She didn’t seem to be aware of the other conversation, which was going on not too far away, loud enough that the eavesdropping hadn’t presented any difficulties. Loud enough that Hannah didn’t feel too bad about violating the expectation of privacy, more to the point. “Were you serious about learning to make noodles? Because we’re not going to be in Liberfell all that long, and it would be best for you to learn what you can from these people, if they’re willing to teach us. We could get a few tips.”
“Those two boys over there,” said Hannah, speaking low, and nodding her head in their direction. “Dungeoneers. Part of Lola’s party.”
Mizuki looked over at them, conspicuously staring, then gave a wave, and at that point, Hannah had no choice but to turn and look at them, putting on a smile and giving them a nod.
“Hey!” Mizuki called, louder than she needed to be. “We’re Alfric’s new party.”
Hannah sighed as Mizuki got up from her seat and went over to them, then she followed after. There was an entire conversation that they really should have had, and Mizuki had elected to be impulsive, which was to be expected from a sorc. She was also on her second glass of wine, which probably didn’t help matters.
“Alfric’s new party?” asked the cleric. “Sorry, you mean Alfric, Alfric Overguard, is here, in Liberfell?”
“Mizuki Yono,” said Mizuki, placing a hand on her chest. “Team sorc. This is Hannah … Carthaigh, cleric of Garos.” She stumbled over the last name, but got it eventually.
The cleric turned to the bard. “Why is Alfric in Liberfell?”
“The better question is why are we in Liberfell,” replied the bard. “But we’re being rude.” He turned to Mizuki. “Grig Tinsmith, bard, Mardin Longshore, cleric of Oeyr. Vertex.” The last word hung there like it was supposed to hold some meaning.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Mizuki. “Now, what horrible secrets is Alfric hiding, if any?”
“Mizuki,” said Hannah.
“What?” she asked.
“I don’t think this is the way to go about whatever you think you’re goin’ about,” said Hannah.
“If he’s got horrible secrets, we want to know, don’t we?” asked Mizuki.
“Ay,” said Hannah. “But I’d be worried about rumors and bad feelin’s.”
“Well I’m not going to take anything they say without a grain of salt,” said Mizuki. “But Alfric didn’t say not to talk to them, and they’re here, to be talked to, so what am I, involuntarily bound to silence?” She was a bit worked up, it seemed, and Hannah backed off.
“I don’t think he had any horrible secrets,” said Grig. “He was just a stick in the mud with a bit too much of his parents’ doting.” He shrugged. “And maybe a little bit full of himself, though I guess we never saw him in action to see if he could back it up. I think he could have, personally.”
“He can,” said Hannah.
Grig nodded. “But horrible secrets … well, there were rumors, as you say, but it was the same kind of thing you always hear about chrononauts. The ‘world without consequence’ stuff.”
“Which I never bought into,” said Mardin.
“But you still broke a party you’d formed with him?” asked Mizuki.
Mardin shifted. “Well, Lola — how much do you know?”
“Most things,” said Mizuki, which to Hannah did not feel at all true. “Lola came along and wanted to sink things for him by taking away what he’d built up. But what’s not clear is why you’d agree.”
“It was his self-reliance thing,” said Grig. He crossed his arms and looked mildly defensive. “The Overguards, in the adventuring world, are pretty famous. There’s a trophy in the League called the Overguard Trophy. There’s a maneuver called the Overguard maneuver. There’s a place where the Junior League does training called Overguard Hall. It’s … kind of a lot. A lot to live up to, but Alfric always seemed like he had absolutely zero problems with that. The problem for us is that we were getting pretty much nothing out of it. His family has a huge communal vault, and he was allowed to pull two low-tier items from it. They could have outfitted everyone in the party five times over.”
“Ten times,” said Mardin.
“Ah, so it was about money,” said Mizuki. She looked satisfied with that explanation.
“Not money,” said Mardin, shaking his head. He seemed less defensive, even though what Mizuki had said felt like a base accusation of greed to Hannah. “It was about entads, which were going to have a pretty significant impact on our ability to actually do the dungeons. Alfric, basically from the start, years ago when we all met in the Junior League, was talking about how it was important to find storage and transport and kit up as quickly as possible. But there was a whole vault full of it!”
“It might have been one thing if his parents hadn’t allowed it,” said Grig. “But he’d always get sanctimonious about it and lecture us on the virtue of self-reliance and the adventure of cobbling things together, making do, stuff like that. I don’t know if he ever asked them or not, but to us it was always the same thing, like he was telling us we should be happy about starting from virtually nothing.”
“It’s what he likes,” said Hannah. She folded her arms and frowned. “You should have seen him goin’ on about a heavy piece of kit we got. He was happy as a clam about luggin’ the thing around.”
“Right,” said Grig. “But just for myself, my parents weren’t poor, exactly, but between the Junior League and my tutoring, and my sisters, they struggled a bit. They were never on the dole or anything, but … Alfric’s family had this gift, this amazing gift that allows them to fit into all kinds of useful roles, all of which have a pretty high pay, plus the Interrium gives them some kind of pay just for existing, and benefits if they have kids. And that’s on top of being able to live each day a few times, which gives them more time to gain skills and knowledge, and their ability to try things and fail horribly without consequence.”
“It’s easy to preach self-reliance when you’ve got an easy life,” said Mardin. “I mean, he was always aware of how much easier things were for him, it wasn’t like he was actually preaching. Most of the time, anyway. But we were still getting the raw end of the deal, it felt like. We weren’t going into it for the glory, we were going because we could make a lot of money if we did enough dungeons, or even relatively few of them. It was money that we could use to pay for a better house for our parents, or money to take vacations.”
“We’ve been at it for pretty much a year,” said Grig. “We’ve got fifty-four dungeons under our belts. Not to sound like I’m bragging, but we’ve already got enough to retire.”
“Not enough to retire,” said Mardin, rolling his eyes. “But we do have enough in the way of bound entads that if we keep the party together, we can set up shop in Dondrian and start a business that will let us coast forward.”
“And you got there because of what Lola could provide,” nodded Hannah.
“We might have gotten there with Alfric,” Grig said. “It would have taken longer, but the end point would be the same. And,” he looked at Mardin. “Alfric wasn’t like Lola, he wouldn’t have come here on a whim. A whim which, clearly, wasn’t a whim, because it was all in service of getting to Alfric.”
“Maybe,” said Mardin. “Not the kind of thing we should be saying without at least talking to her first.”
“She actually came and spoke with me,” said Mizuki. “I met her. She seemed like she was definitely here for him.”
“Not that you know for certain,” said Hannah with a sigh. “Grig, Mardin, it was nice to meet you, but we worry your noodles are gonna get cold.”
Mizuki turned to her. “I don’t think that I know enough,” she said. “About who Alfric really is, and whether we’re under threat from Lola. She was intense. Maybe I didn’t get that across as much as I should have.”
“She’s harmless,” said Mardin.
“Yeah, that’s a point of disagreement,” said Grig. “But if it’s the version of the day she’s going to keep, then yeah, she hasn’t ever done anything that would rise to the level of an actual crime.”
“See, that’s the kind of phrasing that really doesn’t help me,” said Mizuki. “Alfric was the same.” She pulled a chair from one of the other tables and sat down to join them without asking. “I need to know specifically what she did.”
When they didn’t seem to mind, or at least didn’t push her away, Hannah reluctantly grabbed a different chair and joined. Mizuki seemed intent on pushing things, and her friendliness was being turned into a bit of a weapon. Hannah wondered whether she even knew she was doing it.
“Well,” said Grig. He seemed, at last, to be thinking about how much to share.
“No one knows,” said Mardin. “It’s all rumors.”
The woman who was serving came over with their noodle bowls, and Hannah asked whether she could have a second. There was a brief pause as there was some rearrangement, with another table being brought over and seats being swapped. Hannah and Mizuki ended up sitting cross-wise from each other, which felt a bit unusual once they were there, but didn’t warrant correcting.
“Okay,” said Grig. “I’ll hold off on my noodles until Hannah gets hers, and then I can tell you about the rumors.”
“Appreciated,” nodded Hannah. “I’d rather get them more in-depth from Alfric, but if Mizuki is going to insist,” she shrugged.
“There were rumors about both of them,” said Grig as Mardin slurped his noodles. “But early on, it was mostly about her, saying … well, saying that she’d been off doing some social exploration in those undone days. The chronos have a reputation for being a bit fast, since they can live each day twice or more, and some of the rumors around Lola were about as bad as they came. Some of it was violence, some of it was relationships, and she got treated like — well, like an adult, by a lot of people, starting early on. That made it a bit hard for people to hang out with her.”
“Happened before our teens,” said Mardin between bites of noodles.
“Well, right,” said Grig. “Maybe when she was eleven or twelve. We didn’t know her then, and didn’t really know her until she was in the Junior League, and then only by reputation. I think she went to a nice school early on, then switched over to mostly having tutors.”
“And the rumors,” said Mizuki. “They were … that she’d killed people?”
Grig nodded. “In the undone days, yeah,” he said. He shrugged. “Like with a lot of rumors, it’s hard to know where they came from, and given they were undone days, it seems like Lola would have been the only one to know. Or maybe she levied threats against someone, telling them what she’d done to them, but those could easily have been lies. Hard to say. The other side of it was a bunch of rumors about her being with all kinds of guys, which — it’s even harder to know where those rumors came from, but I have an easier time believing it.”
“What does she say?” asked Hannah.
“Nothing,” said Grig. “She rolls her eyes and moves on. We don’t … really talk though.”
“Fifty dungeons and you don’t talk?” asked Hannah. Her order of noodles came, and she began to dig in.
“We talk business,” said Grig. “We don’t talk about how she felt about the rumors, and whether they might be true. She um, doesn’t really have compunctions about lying, and we’ve caught her doing that before. Not in that she was trying to screw us over, just … stuff that she’s said that wasn’t actually what happened. Her response was with all the undoing, she has a bit of trouble remembering what actually happened, but, eh. It’s a weak response.” He paused. “And she knows that’s what I’d say about her, but if you could refrain from just repeating it outright. We are going to want some information in exchange for this, you know that, right?”
“Fifty dungeons in a year?” asked Mizuki, ignoring the question. “That seems low, compared to what Alfric wanted.”
“It is,” said Grig. “We’ve had some setbacks. Lola is kind of in charge of the whole thing, which makes sense, given how much more information she has, and how she’s basically been bankrolling us, or was at the start, but … well, when Lola says that we tried a dungeon and failed at it, so we need to take a day off, it’s hard to know whether or not she’s telling the truth or just wants to spend the day doing other stuff. We can’t contradict her, and if we don’t have a reset in our pocket, we don’t want to risk actual death, so we’re kind of at her mercy.” He paused. “Again, she knows all that, and with her, I’m sure she’d have gotten that from me in one of the undone days, but —”
“He’s painting a bad picture of it,” said Mardin. “There are limits to what Oeyr can provide and reasons not to hit a bunch of dungeons in a single day, even though we do have a small team of porters and agents.”
Grig, at least, had the classic manner of a man who had all kinds of issues that were piling up and a deep need to spill them out to someone. It was something that Hannah had seen at the temple quite a few times, and her guess was that the issues he was raising were ones that he went over in his head on a near daily basis. Mardin was more reserved.
“Porters?” asked Mizuki.
“People they pay to handle things for them,” said Hannah. “We’re sellin’ entads and ectads on our own, but at a certain point, you pay people to do that for you, a counterparty. You get someone who specializes in bastles, in the entad markets, and at the higher levels, you have your own ectad refinery. The biggest dungoneerin’ teams have twenty or thirty people in their employ.”
“More than that, depending on how much they want to keep in-house,” said Mardin. He seemed to be taking over talking as Grig ate. “And unfortunately for us, all that is under Lola’s control, and she’s … well, got her own things going on, as evidenced by us being in Liberfell as a way to be close to Alfric.”
“And him?” asked Mizuki. “What are the rumors about him?”
“The same, mostly,” said Mardin. “Though a lot of those rumors we got straight from Lola, and the ones we didn’t might have originated from her after their falling out. I knew through the guilds that he was having a lot of problems finding a party, and some of that might have been from her poisoning people against him. I didn’t really take it that seriously, because it’s what happens when people have a bad breakup, but if we’re here because of him, that means that it’s suddenly party business.”
“Which isn’t great,” said Grig. “There’s a good chance we’ll be seeing more of you, and not just because dungeoneers working in the same area often cross paths.”
“Not that we’re not looking forward to it,” said Mardin, giving Hannah a smile. Hannah had dated a cleric of Oeyr, for a few short weeks, and while she’d been a lovely partner right up until the end, it wasn’t something that Hannah had any interest in repeating. There were too many philosophical differences.
“In the sense that you seem like fine people,” said Grig. “But in the sense that there’s probably some coming clash between Alfric and Lola, no, it’s been nice meeting you, but we don’t actually want to see you again.”
“Shame,” said Mizuki. “I’ve never met a dungeoneer before.”
“Absolute nonsense,” sighed Hannah. “You’ve met loads.”
“Retired dungeoneers,” said Mizuki. “They’re a different breed.”
“All the same,” said Hannah.
“And not career dungoneers,” said Mizuki. “Not people who do it day in and day out for two or three decades.”
“Take an axe to my neck if I’m still doing this in a decade,” said Grig.
“It’s not that bad,” said Mizuki. She frowned at him. “Is it?”
“How many have you done?” asked Mardin. It was the first time they’d asked for more than surface information.
“We finished our second today,” said Mizuki. She rolled her eyes. “But it wasn’t bad, it was frantic and punishing, but not bad.”
“So you’re a very fresh party,” said Grig. He seemed like he was opening the way for them to say more, but Mizuki’s attention was still on Mardin, and Hannah wasn’t going to say much.
“And you think that’s how you’ll feel fifty-four dungeons in?” asked Mardin. “After you’ve been beaten and bruised more times than you can count, after you’ve seen horrible things happen to your friends, after you’ve been through the selden dungeons, where you have horrible monsters and almost nothing in the way of loot?”
“A chrononaut should help with that, ay?” asked Hannah.
Grig and Mardin looked at each other. “It’s been a point of discussion,” said Grig.
“She’s said she doesn’t like undoing things just because the payout is bad,” said Mardin. “Which I understand.”
“And it’s better than normal dungeoneers get,” nodded Grig. “But it’s still the kind of thing that makes you think that maybe you can just settle for a modest existence in the city with what you’ve got.”
“Look,” said Mardin. “Alfric is a good guy, even if he’s a bit tightly wound. You don’t need to worry about him. We wish him well, even. There’s no bad blood on our end. He’ll probably be with you for long enough that he can get his elevation up and have a bunch of dungeon runs under his belt, then get into one of the more serious dungeoneering parties that needs a fifth, or fall back on his family, or … something. But if it’s just a few dungeons he’s got you together for, he’ll probably be a stand up guy.”
“You think he’d just leave us?” Mizuki frowned.
“Nah,” said Grig. “Alfric will sit you down and go over things in detail, giving you a firm timeline and trying to make it a smooth process. He’s a stickler like that. Which, like we said, means any claims about him having done and then undone some unsavory things kind of ring hollow.”
“I trust him,” said Mizuki, nodding. “I just wanted to know.”
Grig shrugged. “Now you know.”
And it was apparent that this was the other reason they had been so forthcoming: guilt.
“We’re going to have to talk with the others,” said Mardin. “We’re going to have to have a group meeting without Lola to talk about the fact that we went quite some distance over to Liberfell on short notice in order to be around Alfric.”
“Seems likely,” said Grig, sighing. He looked at Mizuki. “We have some solidarity through this, if the Alfric-and-Lola situation comes to a head? We’ll look out for each other, as the uninvolved?”
“Of course,” nodded Mizuki. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you both.”
There were murmurs of assent, and Mizuki and Hannah paid and then left. Hannah was surprised that they hadn’t been pressed further on what they knew of what Alfric had been up to, but she was grateful that she hadn’t had to stonewall them, and worse, to make Mizuki do the same. Guilt, again, seemed like it might have saved them from having to be evasive or lie. ‘That guy we suddenly abandoned for a better payout with someone we don’t really like, how’s he been doing?’ It would have taken some brass ones to ask, but in their position, Hannah would have done it.
“Do you ever feel like you’re really, really on someone’s side?” asked Mizuki. “And you don’t know why, exactly, and you’re trying to work it out?”
“Can’t say I’m too familiar,” said Hannah.
“Well, that’s where I am,” said Mizuki. “I’m feeling like I want to defend him against the world. It … probably doesn’t make that much sense. I wanted to sit with them to get more from them, so I could be sure that he wasn’t, I don’t know.”
“The whole point is that you can’t know,” said Hannah.
“Yeah,” said Mizuki. “But I know. I feel it in my bones.”
“You care about him,” said Hannah, nodding. She could feel herself slipping into her clerical mindset, the one used for helping people with their problems. “Not that you shouldn’t, or not that I think there’s a real risk of you gettin’ hurt, but you’re seein’ him as a victim.”
“I am,” nodded Mizuki. “He is.”
“Ay,” said Hannah. “I didn’t say otherwise.”
They were silent as they walked to their hotel, perhaps because both of them were thinking, or perhaps because Mizuki had worked herself into a bit of a state. When they went into the hotel room, Mizuki went looking for Alfric, but as it turned out, he was already asleep, even though the sun was still not quite set. For her own part, Hannah was eager for rest, but she worried about Mizuki, and whether their sorcerer would still feel the same iron loyalty in the morning.