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Knowing that Lola was around in Liberfell put a bit of fear into Alfric.

Being the only chrononaut made things simple. It was only him, and it was always the first time the day had been done. With a second chrononaut, he was put in the position of everyone else, which he had never found himself enjoying. Was this the first time through? Was it going to be wiped away like chalk washed from a slate, living on only in the mind of someone else? Or was he going to be blindsided by something that had happened in an undone day? He trusted the people in his family to tell him if they had some kind of interaction with him, since they did that on a regular basis, but with Lola, there was the opposite of trust. She was almost solely responsible for everything bad that had happened to him. She was every bad thing they said about chrononauts.

They were still, in some technical sense, pacted. Alfric had gone to his parents and explained things, then gone to her parents and explained things, and this was taken to be a temporary spat between the two of them, as much as he’d said that he wanted nothing to do with her. He was never going to marry her, or have children with her. To have children, his children, be raised by her seemed unconscionable.

In quiet moments, when he was feeling the pain of her departure, he wished that she would somehow die. He didn’t wish violence on her, and of course had no intention of taking offensive action against her, but if she could just … not exist anymore. He felt guilty for these thoughts, but that didn’t stop them from coming.

Chrononauts interacted with each other on a system of priority, and Lola had come into her power first, by quite a few years, despite them being the same age. This meant that she got to live the day “first” in some technical sense, but it also meant that he could respond to whatever it was she ended up doing. Overall, he wasn’t certain which position he would prefer to be in, because there were advantages of either. That was the way it was though, and Alfric knew there was no choice but to live out the day and not think too much about what might be happening with the flow of time.

“The hotel lobby has pastries,” said Hannah. “That’s a good enough breakfast for me, if it suits the two of you.”

“I don’t think I’ll have breakfast,” said Alfric.

“Me neither,” said Verity. She had gotten up late, as predicted, but not as late as she normally did. “My stomach still isn’t quite used to it, even with almost a week of having Mizuki cook for me.”

“Well, I can eat as we walk then,” said Hannah. “We’ve things to sell today, and a trip to the local League office.”

“We need to get the wardrobe back to Pucklechurch,” said Alfric. A thought occurred to him. “Better to get it back sooner than later.”

“You’re still worried about it getting stolen, are you?” asked Hannah.

“I’m worried that Lola knows about it,” said Alfric. “And if she knows about it, then yes, there’s a possibility that she’ll steal it from us.”

“I don’t really understand why she hates you so much,” said Verity.

“I don’t either,” said Alfric. “We were pacted, and we were friends beyond that, but … I don’t know why she’s intent on interfering. If she is. I don’t know why she’s here.” Certainly if the previous day was viewed from the perspective of ‘everything that happened was what Lola wanted to have happened’ it didn’t seem all that bad. She had stirred the pot, but not to within the limits of her ability. She hadn’t planted rumors, and apparently hadn’t even told Mizuki that they were chrononauts.

“I mean no offense,” said Hannah. “But how do you know she was responsible for it all? Your other failures.” She said it very gently.

“I was wondering that myself,” said Verity. She was less gentle.

Alfric felt a sourness in his gut. “It’s a fair question,” said Alfric. “She admitted to taking the party, and doing it to manipulate me. I think she must have tried other methods before doing something so extreme, and it obviously took some planning on her part. Relationships between chrononauts are complicated though, because you end up knowing someone through undone days, and most of what passed between the two of us probably happened in days I never experienced.” He could feel himself hesitating when it came to the core question. “She did take the party though, and that was first for leverage, which failed, and then for spite. As for everything else, the rumors seem like they have her as the obvious source, unless people suddenly decided to make things up about me at the same time she left with the group. Actual sabotage … I don’t know. For too much of it, she was on the other side of Inter. Not that she couldn’t have used travel entads, and her family has good ones, but … I don’t know. It seems implausible, to do it and not get caught by anyone.” It was entirely possible that some of the failures were his own, beyond the problems that Lola had created.

“The rumors might have started because you had a group collapse on you,” said Hannah. “Just playin’ the imp, since I don’t know, of course. There were rumors about her, after that, weren’t there?”

“I suppose,” said Alfric. “Uglier than the normal rumors about her.”

“Four men and a woman,” said Hannah, clucking her tongue. “I can practically taste the rumors.”

“I’ve never really understood that,” said Verity. “They get that women and men can sleep with each other in any combination, don’t they?”

“Well, ay,” said Hannah. “And let me tell you, at the seminary, where symmetrical sexuality was more of a given, people would jump on any two women spendin’ time together as cause for gossip. Alfric, do you think she would?”

“Would what?” asked Alfric.

“Have a relationship with any of them,” said Hannah. “Just out of curiosity.”

“This is the ectad shop I was told about,” said Alfric. He was still lugging around the book, which had the stone in it, which in turn had the two tall trees they’d managed to get into it. He was going to be happy when he could go without carrying around fifty pounds of book. His legs needed a rest. “And no, I don’t think she would, but when she left, she made it clear that I didn’t know her as well as I had thought.”

The ectad shop was on the edge of town, as ectad places often were, since they needed somewhere to house their equipment. Wilch, over in Tarchwood, hadn’t had the full setup, but this place seemed to have it all. There were big vats for distilling down materials and grinders for reducing stone to dust, or furnaces for melting metals. Ectad materials came in a variety of different forms, which then had to be refined in various ways, all of which had to be done differently depending on what the end result would be, especially because they usually started ‘expressing’ partway through the process. A half-completed waterstone would start leaking water, which would create all kinds of problems if the ectad engineer wasn’t prepared for it.

“Wait,” said Alfric as a man walked over to them. “Wilch?”

“Nah,” he said. “Wilch is my brother.” He shook his head. “Not even twins, and we get mistaken for each other all the time.” He held out a hand to Alfric. “You must be the up-and-comer. I got a guild message about you. Name’s Besc.”

Alfric shook hands. Besc had the same build as Wilch did, barrel-chested and a bit of fat on what were probably powerful arms. They were both mostly bald, with wild hair and a thick beard, and a wide nose that marked them as having Chelxic ancestry. “Pleasure to meet you,” said Alfric. He looked around the yard. “We have two trees, but they might be a pain to get out, and any assistance you could give would be great.”

“And these trees,” said Besc, nodding. “They’d be the ones lodged up your butt?”

Verity burst out laughing, and Besc smiled at her, chuckling to himself. “Only a joke, only a joke,” he said. “Wilch told me about you, and I take the shots I see.”

“The trees are inside an extradimensional entad,” said Alfric, not quite sure how to deal with this sort of man. “You access it through a stone.”

“And how large are the trees, kworma?” asked Besc. It was a Chelxic word of affection, one of only a few that Alfric knew, and meant something like ‘friend’, though was used more casually.

Alfric held his arms out. “Three feet wide, about.”

Besc whistled. “A good haul then.”

“Hopefully,” said Alfric. It was quite a lot of wood, overshadowed by the bear but probably the most valuable thing in that dungeon. “They’re of the growth variety. You handle that here?”

Besc nodded. “Wilch probably told you we have a better setup here. This one is the family business, the one in Tarchwood was taken over by Wilch about ten years back. It’ll take time and effort, and growth is harder to process than the others, but I can handle it.”

“Getting it out of the stone is the first thing,” said Alfric. “It felt like a miracle that we were able to get them in, and I’ve been worried about whether or not we’d be able to extract them.”

He took his pack off and extracted the book, quickly flipping to the page that had the stone and then pulling it out. The stone itself was also heavy, but with the book, it wasn’t so bad. He set the stone down on the ground, thankful that it took a tiny mental push to activate, and looked at it for a moment. It was pale, with lots of vesicles. He touched it, and felt himself transported to the garden, though he knew that he was still present in the normal world. The two trees were exactly where he’d left them, immense and probably impossible to move without cutting them up, which was a problem, given that you had to stay touching the stone in order to stay ‘in’ the garden. The trees were huge, a valuable find that they wouldn’t have been capable of removing without the stone, and it had only just barely been done, with this further complication.

It was the kind of thing that had attracted Alfric to dungeoneering, the same as the uncomfortably large wardrobe. He couldn’t quite explain what the appeal was.

“You can touch it,” Alfric said to Besc. “See what we’re dealing with.”

Besc moved forward and tentatively touched the stone, then kept his grip there for a moment. He stayed right where he was, but it was clear that he was looking around at things that the rest of them couldn’t see. He moved his hand from the stone, then stopped to look down at it.

“Well,” he said. “Any secrets to this stone, or is this what we’re working with?”

“You can bring in organic things,” said Hannah. “And take organic things out. Entads work, if they’re completely organic, and ectads work too. Not glass, not metal, not stones unless they’re unworked. You’ve got to keep your hand on the stone though, or you’ll end up out of the garden.”

Besc whistled to himself. “Thorny,” he said. “Chengu. But with what’s there, I see profit in it for both of us.” He let out a sigh.

“We’ll try getting the trees out the easy way first,” said Alfric. He looked around the area. “We should be able to put a tree along this road, if I can get it out. If I can’t, then I think we move on to raising it up high enough. The way we got the trees in was by momentarily ‘catching’ them as they fell.”

“Seems dangerous, kworma,” said Besc, rubbing his hairy chin.

That wasn’t the half of it, since Alfric had been working with Mizuki, and she was using whatever was available in the aether, namely, immense amounts of tightly focused fire. He’d been lucky that she hadn’t killed him in the process.

Alfric picked up the stone and repositioned it so that if the first tree came out, it would be laying across the road, then went into the garden, made sure that it was lined up, and reached over to touch the tree. He tried to set his mind on it, to will it into his grip and bring it out.

This didn’t work, but Alfric hadn’t been optimistic enough to think it would.

“Alright,” he said. “The easy way didn’t work.” He turned to Besc. “Do you have floatstones I can use?”

Besc grimaced. “I do, but what happens to them when they’re in that space? Besides, it’s a delicate operation, using them, and usually I’d have chains, but I don’t think that would be possible.”

“Ropes then?” asked Alfric. “They’re made of hemp or flax, and should be fine to go through.”

“How much buoyancy would you need to lift one end of those?” asked Besc. “We’re probably talking in the hundreds of pounds, and that runs some real risks, especially with just rope to hold things down, and a hand on the stone at all times.”

“A foot should work too,” said Hannah. “That would leave two hands free.”

“Ah, well,” said Besc. “Still a lot of problems to be solved there.” He stepped forward and placed his hand on the stone again, then put out a hand toward where the tree was in that other space. “My guess is fourteen thousand pounds, all told. That’s a rasan of raw material, but it’ll take quite some time to process. I can do, say, a thousand pounds a week, if that. And with two? That’s half a year of work.”

“He’s already trying to talk down the price,” said Hannah. “I can respect that, ay.”

“I can’t pay for it all,” said Besc, shaking his head. “Not at anywhere near a proper rate. Just being upfront, kworma. I can do the processing and pay you once I have the money coming in, but nearly thirty thousand pounds? Not sure who would handle this kind of thing, if not me. Wilch doesn’t have the equipment for it. That means you’d be going, oh, up to two hundred miles away, maybe more.”

“Probably all the way to Plenarch,” said Alfric, sighing. “Which we’d almost certainly need a portal for, and that will be down to timing, along with what’s probably a long hike.”

“We’re not in a rush, are we?” asked Hannah.

“No, we’re not,” said Verity. “So long as we can come collect in six months time, it seems like it would be fine.”

“I suppose,” said Alfric. “But we can’t do anything until the trees are out.” If they could get the trees out in the first place.

“Just making sure that we’re on the same page,” said Besc. “It would be a shame to do all this and then come to a disagreement, and so long as you know the terms, once the labor is done. There’s the matter of terms,” he said. “The wood will take time to process, and the product — well, it would be better if I had a buyer for it before I started putting it into molds. Growthstone is good for a lot of things, but it’s best for dungeon plants. For something like this, not that a half-year job is usual, I’d take seventy percent.”

Alfric grimaced. It was on the high side. Knowing the people out here, there was probably nothing like auditing services, though it wasn’t clear how much money they’d get from the sale in the end, and whether the services of an auditor would be even remotely worth it. Besc did own all the equipment, and had the knowledge to run it, the assistants to help with labor, and would be doing most of the labor himself.

“Sixty-five, for a first-timer,” said Besc. He had, perhaps, mistaken Alfric’s waffling on the deal for an attempt at bartering. Alfric didn’t particularly like bartering or haggling, but it seemed painfully common in the region.

“Sixty,” said Hannah. “With this kind of volume, the work is easier, and you’re makin’ more off it, ay.”

“My equipment, my labor, and if you want to go elsewhere, you’ve got a few days of work ahead of you,” he said. “Sorry, but that’s how it is.”

“Fine by us,” said Hannah. “We didn’t have much else planned.” She moved to the stone and began to pick it up, as though she was actually going to put it back in the book, after all that.

Besc sighed. “Sixty then, you cheeky kids.” He held out a hand, and Alfric shook it. Besc chuckled. “Sorry for pressin’ it, but I had to try, eh kworma?” He looked to Hannah. “Would you really have gone to Plenarch?”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “Best not to bluff, because then someone might call you on it.” She gave him a wide smile.

“You be careful of these Cairbre women,” Besc said to Alfric. “They can be fierce.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Alfric.

Besc looked at his workshop. “Before we try the floatstones, we’ll lever it up. I don’t think I have the floats for that much weight anyhow.” He looked back at Alfric. “You’re a big strong dungeoneer, can you swing a hammer?”

“I can,” said Alfric, frowning. “But why?”

“To get a wedge under,” said Besc. “With a long length of wood, and a wooden hammer, we can try elevating it up, and from there we might be able to do a rope, and from there if we can do it in a secure way, the floatstones, though that’s its own problem, since the mountings I have for the ballast are metal. Might be worth it still to make wooden ones, but we’ll see.” He rubbed his face, looking down at the pocked stone. “I don’t know of anyone with a storage entad that could be used for the transfer. The best I know is two thousand pounds, my friend Geoff, but it’s half metal, so probably wouldn’t make it through. Might be a better way to go about it though. Or we could get a cleric involved …”

“I’m a cleric of Garos,” said Hannah.

“Well, not too much help there,” said Besc. “I was thinking Oeyr, to fracture it into pieces, though that would create some problems … can you move the stone?”

“Move it?” asked Alfric.

“Move it in the garden,” said Besc, looking down at the stone. “Pick it up and put it somewhere else.”

Alfric swore. “I never even thought of that. In my defense, we’ve only had it for a day, but — it’s worth a shot.”

He touched the stone, entered the garden, then used both hands to pick the stone up, which did, in fact, seem to work. It meant that he would be able to arduously maneuver around by hefting the stone, and better, possibly just strap it to his back, though the fact that he was still moving in the normal world, completely blind to what was around him, was a fairly significant drawback to the whole thing.

It took a few hours, and Alfric half expected Verity and Hannah to slip away, but they stayed through it, which he appreciated. A cleric of Kesbin was summoned, and once it was explained to her, it all went a little bit easier. Division into parts was a part of Kesbin’s domain, and with enough time and preparation, it was possible for the cleric to make precise cuts along centerlines. This naturally required some pay, which turned out to be somewhat significant, given that it wasn’t the sort of thing that a cleric could do without limit. With Hannah helping though, each ‘cut’ only needed to be halfway through before Hannah could make it symmetrical.

It was nearly noon when they got the first piece of tree out, but once that was done, the rest of it seemed to go faster, in part because the smaller sections of the two trees were easier to work with. Pieces came out, one by one, and once they did, Besc went at them with a huge axe, chopping them into more manageable sizes, which were then carried off by his assistants.

They gathered a little bit of an audience as time went on, mostly friends of Besc who wanted to see what was going on, but also a few people who seemed to have nothing better to do than to stop and chat. Partway through, perhaps because she’d been in conversation with some of the people who were watching, Verity started to sing, though she didn’t lace the song with any magic. She seemed happy enough to sing, and Alfric was pleased that she seemed to be in high spirits. Verity hadn’t liked her life at the conservatory, but she did like music, and seemed like the sort of person that would have pursued it even if there was no magic involved.

As a show of friendship, Besc bought lunch for everyone who’d had a hand in the effort, including Alfric’s party. Alfric had suspected that it would be Chelxican food, but was mildly surprised that it was instead from a Kiromon place. They were ginger-pork sandwiches, made with a milk bread and some kind of crunchy breading on the pork, and Alfric wondered whether this was something that Mizuki knew how to make.

“Not so many people from Chelxic here,” said Besc. “Liberfell has at least a thousand from Kiromo, though most of the old timers went back home, and the people left are the ones who were raised here. The change of Emperors was a big thing.”

“There are a lot of Chelxican people in Dondrian,” said Alfric. “I miss the food.”

“A true kworma,” laughed Besc. “Our father, gone to the Spirit Gates now, came out here because the city offered him good pay. I can’t say it’s wrong, but there’s a lot we miss. I’ve got three little boys who aren’t going to taste yucra or tuntre unless we make a long trip, and even then, it won’t be from Chelxic.” He wiped his mouth. “Do you ever think about going back to Tarbin?”

“My family has been in Interim for five hundred years,” said Alfric. He shrugged. “I don’t even really know what it’s like there. We’ve been Inter for more than a dozen generations, Inter for longer than most of the Interim has been Inter.”

“Ah, well, your roots don’t go away,” said Besc.

Alfric wasn’t so sure about that, but it was hard to know. His family was unique in more ways than one, and he didn’t really have much to compare them to. Perhaps Besc was right, and he would be able to find something in common with people from Tarbin, but he somewhat doubted it. Of course, Tarbin was a conglomerate nation, stuck together from many component peoples and provinces, and his own family traced their history back to North Tarbin, but he knew relatively little about it.

“Well, that took longer than expected,” said Hannah. “And no sign of little Lola.”

“No, thankfully,” said Alfric. His thoughts went to undoing the day, and the unhappy prospect of doing all that work over again, though if he had to, he thought that he’d probably be able to do everything a lot faster and without so much thinking the problem over. “We still need to visit the League office. I don’t really want to spend the night in Liberfell again, but it’s seeming more and more likely that at least one of us will have to stay behind to finish up with lingering business.”

“You have your dagger, don’t you?” asked Verity.

“I do,” said Alfric. “It’s back in Pucklechurch, at the temple, so I can return to it, but I’m not going to leave the four of you behind. I can take one person with me, maybe, but part of the reason we’re here is to see if there’s a solution for taking all four of you.” He’d tested it with Mizuki two days before, and the two of them had gone with her standing on his feet, but he hadn’t had the armor then, and it was close to the weight limit.

“Do you think Mizuki’s idea would work?” asked Verity.

“Which was that?” asked Alfric.

“Going into the garden naked, carried in,” said Verity.

“You wouldn’t need to do that, if it were possible,” said Hannah. “All you’d need is to take off your metals, I’d think. But like I said, we’d want to test with an animal first, just to make sure you can breathe the air there.”

“Tie it up with some twine,” said Alfric, nodding. “Since we wouldn’t be able to put a cage in there. Okay, we’ll add that to the agenda.”

“I thought you should know,” said Hannah. “That we — me and Mizuki — ran into a few of your old teammates over noodles. Grig and Mardin. We talked a bit. Mizuki blabbed, but less than she might have.”

“And they talked?” asked Alfric. He felt a weary resignation, more than direct apprehension.

“They seemed guilty about it,” said Hannah. “And had nice things to say about you, more or less. Seems like there’s some trouble within their party, much of which is down to Lola.” She shrugged. “I think Mizuki just wanted some assurance that we weren’t in bed with a viper, and so far as I could tell, she did feel assured.”

“Good,” said Alfric. “That’s what’s important.”

“They said,” said Hannah, “Well, that at least some of the split was over money, or at least equipment. I just wanted to let you know that for me, at least, that’s nothin’ I care too much about.”

“No?” asked Alfric. “Can I ask why not?”

“Your perspective, if I understand it, is that you need self-determination,” said Hannah. “You need to know that your life isn’t just down to the circumstances of your birth, that your success is from the sweat of your brow. I can respect that, and it’s a common enough sentiment, enough so that we’re taught about it at the seminary.”

“It’s partly that,” said Alfric, nodding. He looked over at Verity.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever felt the same,” said Verity. “I wanted my successes to be my own, I suffered under the pressure and from wondering whether I was being praised for my actual talent or — circumstances beyond my control.” She still hadn’t told the others that she was a Chosen of Xuphin, and Alfric hoped that she would, in her own time. “But I would never take pride in using worse tools.”

“That’s the other part,” said Alfric. “Going into a dungeon kitted out with world class entads, it would mean … well, being a tourist, basically. It wouldn’t be the same thing. I’ve tried to explain this before, and I don’t think that I’ve gotten any better at it, but to me, it would suck everything marvelous and wonderful about dungeoneering from the experience. And I know, I say that as someone who can,” he lowered his voice, “turn back time, and who comes from a very rich family, and was given every single advantage, but slicing through a dungeon with autonomous blades and foot-thick armor, incinerating anything that came within a hundred feet of us, then picking up entads that we’d have no use for, which would get sold off … I don’t know.”

“I understand the feeling,” said Hannah, nodding. “There’s no fun in winning a game that you’ve cheated at, at least in my experience.”

“I don’t want to say that going into the dungeons is a game,” said Alfric. “It’s not, I know it’s not.”

Hannah put a hand on his knee. “I’m not here to attack you. You’ve got your ideology, and while I don’t know that I quite agree, I don’t think it’s bad, and I hope you know that I’m not going to ask you to leverage,” she waved her hand, “Whatever advantages you have. And I doubt that Verity feels differently.”

“I left a lucrative career,” said Verity. “And a family of means.” She had been mostly silent. “Different reasons though.” She shrugged. “I don’t think you see it as a game. I think for you, it’s … something else. A pretty song you don’t want stripped of its melody.”

The metaphor didn’t track for Alfric, but there was a feeling to it that he could see the sense in.

“We’re here for you,” said Hannah. Her voice was soft and warm. “History won’t repeat itself, not with us. I can’t speak for the others, but for myself, you’re a good partner and a worthy leader.”

Alfric nodded, and hoped that it was true.

Besc came over as Alfric was finishing his sandwich. “Thanks for the help. We’ll stop in periodically to see how you’re progressing.”

“Don’t expect much for another week or two,” said Besc. “Should I hold one for you? Dungeoneers tend to like having a spare growthstone.”

“Unless you have a buyer,” said Alfric, shrugging. “We haven’t found any seeds or plants yet, so it’s not urgent.” With Isra, they could do some plant identification, and perhaps that would allow some level of comparative advantage. Most plants and animals pulled from the dungeons were worthless though, and it was a numbers game in terms of finding something that was good enough for propagation or cultivation.

<We’re finally done at the ectad seller,> said Hannah. <What are the two of you up to?>

<Done with breakfast, done with lunch,> said Mizuki. <Isra wanted to go for a hike around some of the local woods and parks, and I decided to go with her. We’re looking for rocks and plants.>

<I collect them,> said Isra.

<Seems good enough,> said Hannah. <We have more business, and we’re hoping to finish up by nightfall so we can take the dagger back to Pucklechurch. We were going to do your idea and hide away inside the garden.>

<Seems scary,> said Mizuki. <What if we get stuck?>

<We’ll do testin’ first,> said Hannah.

<Well, we’re continuing on with our hike,> said Mizuki. <Let me know when you’re ready to go and we’ll meet at the warp point.>

Alfric was glad to hear from them, and to know that they were okay. Business was continuing along as normal, and there had been no signs of Lola or the others, for which he was grateful. He still couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all going to go south.

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Alexander Wales

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