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As they stepped into the entad shop, Verity was contemplating what she was going to buy, if anything. A musical instrument wasn’t a must for a bard, but it could be helpful in many ways, and it was how she’d been trained, as well as being her preference. The problem was that entads didn’t tend to have the most convenient forms to them, and a dungeon was as likely to produce a baryton or a viol as it was to produce a drum or a lute. In fact, the dungeons would also produce instruments which bore only surface similarities to the kinds of things a luthier would make, bespoke items that seemed as though they had been manufactured by some alternate alien world. The many-finger flute, which she kept strapped to one leg, was useful in that it could make some of those instruments usable when they otherwise wouldn’t be, which Alfric had brought up days ago. She’d appreciated the insight.

The lute was Verity’s preferred instrument, the one she practiced with every day, but like any self-respecting conservatory-trained musician, she was well-versed in musical theory and had practiced to some level of proficiency with many different stringed instruments. Still, if she found a proper entad instrument, there was likely to be a transitional period where she simply wasn’t up to snuff with it, and she loathed the idea of giving up her lute, which she had a long, fond familiarity with.

The entad shop was a small one, by comparison with some of the enormous places available in Dondrian, but it was nice and cozy, in a way that a lot of places in the area seemed to be. In Dondrian, many of the shops seemed to be using their space as a way to seem grand and imposing, but in a place like Liberfell, where land was plentiful and the population was relatively small, there was no need for that, so they went with making it as welcoming as possible. It was an interesting difference, and one of the things that had made Verity happy that she’d chosen to come so far away from the big cities.

Verity found herself mildly impressed that Alfric had been carrying around the fifty pound book for so long. She was, at least, glad that she wasn’t the one who had to do it. She busied herself with looking at entads while Alfric and Hannah talked to the shopkeeper, a boy around their own age.

Each of the entads in the shop had a little card next to it, which described the effects of the entad and its particulars, including how it had done on something called a scratch test, and some details of its provenance and testing. The costs weren’t listed, which was somewhat traditional in these places, since each entad was, by definition, unique.

There was a pencil that would never run out of lead, a matchbox that could make matches out of plain sticks, and a pillow that could change size. Verity stopped at a dictionary that would give the definition of any word you spoke aloud, in any language, with the caveat that it would give made up definitions if the word didn’t exist.

Kworma,” she said.

The definition appeared within the pages of the book. ‘Kworma: noun, Chelxic word for friend or ally, often used as a term for a customer or conversational partner.’

Besidle,” she said. She didn’t think that was a word.

‘Besidle: verb, coming up to a friend who doesn’t know you’re there.’

Verity took some joy from this small thing, but she had no use for it, and surely it would be priced for someone who needed to know a lot of words for their profession. There was a temptation to spend the whole rest of her time playing with the thing, making up words and seeing what it would give her for definitions, but she moved on.

There was a brick that jumped around like a frog (which had been put into a metal cage), a quill that could do sums for you, and a hair clip that could do your hair in various complicated braids. That last was sure to be expensive, as cosmetic entads often were. As Verity moved deeper into the store, she could tell that she was getting to the more useful and valuable things, especially as many of them were larger in size. A full suit of armor sat on a mannequin, and would surely cost many thousands of rings before even considering its magical property, which was apparently the ability to make anyone who struck it see through the eyes of the wearer for a full minute.

Possessed by some impish desire, she tapped the armor on the chest, and when that wasn’t enough, she struck it harder, rapping against the plate.

It was only after she’d done it that she realized that the mannequin didn’t have any eyes to see out of, but that was apparently not a problem, since she saw out of the visor anyhow. She could still feel her body, and hear through her own ears, but it was undoubtedly quite disorienting. She watched herself waving a hand. It wasn’t like looking through a mirror, because a mirror would reverse everything: she was seeing herself as others saw her. Tall, for a woman, poised but somewhat sullen. She smiled for herself, and tried on various faces to see whether they suited her better. There was a sort of smile that she had learned for performing in concert halls, the kind that she could keep in place at the end of a performance when the audience was clapping and giving their adulations. She did the smile for herself, and could immediately tell how false it was, a smile meant to save strain on the muscles and be visible from a distance.

A minute was a long time, and Verity stayed where she was, waiting for it to wear off. It was a bit too much for her, seeing herself. She had a tendency to focus on the negatives, but that was largely because an honest appreciation of how she looked wasn’t necessary for playing her role. Fixing what flaws and issues she could see was, so she’d learned a critical eye from a young age.

By the time the effect lifted and Verity had her own sight back, she had decided that something needed to be done about her look. She had moved halfway across the world, but kept the same appearance, with the exception, sometimes, of less makeup. There was still something so severe about it, the neatly composed concert musician. Side by side, she thought that someone could mistake her for being the same sort of person as Alfric. Stolid. Was that the word? She went over to the dictionary, and confirmed that it was. She appeared stolid, and didn’t particularly like that.

The very back of the store had a variety of weapons, which she had little interest in, but beside them, there were a handful of musical instruments, five of them hanging from the wall. There was no lute among them, but there were two different drums, an overly long stringed instrument that was probably played standing up, a mouth harp, and a very complicated wind instrument that was covered in valves and pipes. She read their descriptions, though she had no interest in buying any of them. Drums were decidedly not her area of interest, and both the stringed instrument and the tube with its valves seemed like they’d be nightmares to take into a dungeon. The mouth harp was more interesting, but it would mean giving up singing, and lyricism was one of Verity’s favorite aspects of music, though she didn’t consider herself to be terribly good at it.

“Have you found anythin’?” asked Hannah.

“No, I think not,” said Verity with a sigh. She gestured at an area close to the instruments. “So many weapons they have here.”

“Well, sure,” said Hannah. “The only people who buy them are dungeoneers, and a dungeoneer doesn’t need to hold onto a sword once his career is done. Beyond that, you don’t tend to need more than one weapon per person. So they sit and rot on the shelves, waitin’ for someone to pick them up. Prices are usually not too bad. And, I s’pose, they don’t actually rot or rust or what have you, so stock can stick around like a bad smell.”

“And instruments get snatched up,” said Verity, frowning at the five that were there. “Because every tavern of any note has a bard in it.”

“Well, ay,” said Hannah. “But not every entad instrument has any actual use to a bard.” She pointed at the placard next to tall stringed instruments. “No tavern bard is going to need to send out spectral blades, ay?”

“There have been times it would have been nice,” murmured Verity.

“Actual problems?” asked Hannah, raising an eyebrow.

“Not really, no,” Verity replied. “Just people getting drunk and demanding songs I didn’t know or didn’t want to sing. When you’re working at a tavern, you’re there for them, the customers, but some of them take it a bit too far.”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “We both work in service to others, by our natures. Better, in the dungeons, or worse, do you think?”

“Better,” said Verity. “I consider you my friends.” It felt slightly embarrassing to say that out loud so soon, though they’d been spending quite a bit of their days together, and it had gotten quite intensive quite quickly. Hannah gave a smile, and the embarrassment faded. “So far, no one has made demands of me. Even Alfric has been understanding. He thinks I know my job better than he ever possibly could, and is content to let me do what I think is best. I have to admit that it wasn’t what I’d expected of him, especially after our first meeting.”

“He’s given me no notes either,” said Hannah.

“You know, I never thought about how similar our professions were,” said Verity. “I would suppose we have similar stories.”

“Ay?” asked Hannah, who seemed doubtful.

“Are there ever people who come in for healing and think they know more than you?” asked Verity.

“Oh,” said Hannah. She let out a little laugh. “Oh, ay, well, it comes with the territory. I won’t call them idiots, but there’s some roleplay we do at the seminary, and you get to hear all kinds of stories to prepare you for what you might run into. I understand it, I do, it’s their body, which they’ve known their whole life, but some of that confidence people have is quite misplaced.”

“Well, people have their own ideas about bardic magic,” said Verity. “And usually they’re arguing with me while I’m trying to play a song and can’t respond to them. So the choice is to stop and have it out with them, or attempt to communicate without words, or speak to them within the lyrics, or — there’s no good way to do it.”

“I’d thought you liked bein’ a tavern bard,” said Hannah, putting a bit of question in her voice.

“I did,” said Verity. “But mostly when it’s going smoothly, when I’m allowed to do whatever I want and read the room in the way I choose. I like the freedom and choice, and yes, I like to help people with their woes, or at least to help them enjoy their meals.” She sighed. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do with myself when Cynthia replaces me at the Fig and Gristle.”

“You’ll be with us,” said Hannah, shrugging. “Grow food in the garden, practice your music, find a nice boy in the village … seems like we’ve got the tools now to do the five dungeons left around Pucklechurch without all that much hassle. So far as travel time goes, that means Pucklechurch can be our base for quite a bit longer, enough that we can do two hexes out without needin’ to camp.”

Verity nodded. Her eyebrow had gone up at the ‘nice boy’ comment, but it seemed incidental, and not worth correcting. She’d have expected a cleric of Garos to use the neutral ‘partner’, and a small part of her wondered if she was a bit too unobvious about her inclinations. “And this is how I become a dungeoneer, slowly, without even realizing it.”

“Ay,” said Hannah, smiling. “But it’s not a bad life.”

“You’ll back me up, if I tell Alfric I need time to rest?” asked Verity.

“Of course,” nodded Hannah. “Though I don’t expect you’ll need backup, he’s a good lad. Now I need to go tend to him, and make sure he isn’t fumbling the sales.”

Verity nodded. It was good to talk to Hannah. It was good to have all of them, even Alfric, though he sometimes rubbed her the wrong way.

Thus far, Verity had spent next to no money from the first dungeon, let alone what they’d get from the second, even if it seemed like the payout would be lower. As she walked along, she entertained the notion of actually purchasing one of these things, even if there was no direct need for it, or even if it was just for fun. She thought it was the kind of thing that Alfric would hate, but perhaps she was being a bit too harsh on him.

The person that Alfric reminded her most of was her mother, and a few people that her mother surrounded herself with. It wasn’t enough to grow plants in the greenroom, they needed to be displayed for guests and entered into competitions. Verity entered into the Dondrian Gardening Society, not against her will, exactly, but after a bout of coercion and a discussion with her mother about the importance of being seen and making connections. Of course, the Gardening Society was really only tangentially about gardening, and Verity had grown to hate it. There had been a particular day when she’d come to one of their luncheons with a pot full of succulents and received exactly two comments on it (both compliments, thankfully) followed by several hours of discussion about the latest fashions, the newest places to eat, the events of the last week’s society ball, the theme of the upcoming party, on and on until it felt like her ears would bleed. It wasn’t enough to like plants, you needed to like plants with a purpose, and in fact, forget the plants, devote yourself instead to the purpose with the plants only as set dressing.

In fact, the things that Verity had taken an interest in seemed to fall into two distinct categories. The first were things that would look good for the family, which were lauded and praised, given trainers and tutors, and made into something proper and perfect. The second were things that wouldn’t look good for the family. Those, Verity was simply not allowed to do. If she ever pressed the issue, there would be a talk, and she would eventually back down. Martial arts had been a particular weakness of hers, and while she was at the conservatory, she had snuck out to see bare-knuckle brawls on three occasions until she’d been caught by the conservatory’s housing director. It hadn’t been the violence she’d been so attracted to, nor the men (as the director had opined), but the idea of throwing yourself into something, pitting yourself against danger using nothing but your will and training.

When Verity’s mother had found out, they’d had a talk about it, and the suggestion had come up that perhaps if this were Verity’s new area of interest, she might enjoy being a part of the Greater Dondrian Fencing Club, or at least attend a few of their exhibitions. Verity hadn’t thought that sounded all that nice, but she’d gone to one with her mother all the same, partly by way of apology. Fencing was perfectly alright, but not so different from any other sport, where the rules seemed like they got in the way of things. The injuries sustained in fencing were tiny things, barely even worthy of a healer, and they stopped for them every time. With a cleric of Garos and a cleric of Xuphin on hand, it seemed like they should have been able to go much further, but no, it was tightly constrained. While she was certain that it had its own rich history and depth of technique, as most sports did, she couldn’t help but be bored.

Verity kept looking at the entads in the shop, hoping that one of them would spark her interest. There were a few articles of clothing, carefully hung on mannequins, of which the shop seemed to have a few. Most of the clothes seemed a little redundant, like a shirt that would go rigid as steel if you tried to pierce it, or a sweater that would keep you warm in a snowstorm. They did what clothes and armor already did, but a little bit better or easier. There was a pair of pants that would kill any bug that got within ten feet of it, which seemed a bit excessive. Only a third of the entads could resize themselves in any way, and they were carefully marked. Thinking back on what Hannah had said, it seemed likely that resizing was a more common property, but that it was easier for resizing items to find a home and go into active use.

“Those pants are amazing,” said Alfric as he came over. He looked at the tag on them and frowned. “Not resizing though.”

“They’re probably too small for you,” said Verity. “They look like a better fit for someone Mizuki’s size. Or smaller. A child’s pants.”

“It might be possible to alter them,” said Alfric. He looked them over. “Bah. It’s tricky, with entads.”

“I know,” said Verity, nodding.

“Are we talkin’ entad alteration?” asked Hannah. As she came over. “Because I know a thing or two.”

“We were talking about how we all know a thing or two,” said Verity. She gestured. “Alfric wants the pants.”

“Seems rough, from a size perspective,” said Hannah, rubbing her chin. She looked at the tag. “Because you just got done goin’ up against a horde of insects?”

“Partly,” said Alfric. “They’re notoriously tough to deal with. But for alteration … maybe I could ask Mizuki to wear them, and if we ran into bugs, she could just move forward to handle them.”

“Even for her,” said Hannah. “I’d think you’d have to split the seams on the sides, then hope that the magic held.”

Alfric checked the tag again. “It doesn’t say what counts as wearing them,” he said.

“They need to be on your legs,” said the shopkeeper, who Verity had heard introduce himself as Rolaj. “I’ve had a few people come take a look at them, but it’ll either take someone quite short, or a cleric of Kesbin, or an actual child. My father has told me not to let them go unless it’s for quite a sum though. We’ve actually used them for labor a few times, with my sister wearing them. Cleaning out infestations, mostly.”

“I suppose that’s a better use than dungeoneering,” said Alfric, nodding. “You could practically make a living on it, going town to town.”

“Dungeoneers go from town to town,” said Rolaj. “It could be work you did on the side, while recovering from the toll of the dungeons.” He looked hopeful. The sale had been completed, and Verity guessed that with what they’d sold, there were some rings in their pockets. “Imagine this, you go into the town, ready to head for the nearest dungeon, but before you do, you put up a notice in the town, or put in word at the local taverns, that you’re available for pest control. It’s an easy way to make a few hundred rings, I would guess.”

“We’d have to talk to Mizuki about it,” said Hannah.

“Mizuki?” asked Rolaj. “Oh, are the three of you … her party?”

“You met her?” asked Alfric.

“Yesterday,” said Rolaj. “We talked for a bit. Is she … I hesitate to ask this, because it feels a bit unprofessional, but is she partnered?”

“Partnered?” asked Alfric.

“No, she’s not,” said Hannah. “Though I don’t know that she’s open to a relationship.”

“I think she probably is,” said Verity.

“And is she … interested in men?” asked Rolaj. His hopefulness was almost painful.

“I don’t think we know,” said Alfric.

“Definitely men,” said Hannah.

“Men,” nodded Verity.

“Oh,” said Rolaj. “I just — the woman she was with, I’d thought — there seemed to be something there.”

Hannah laughed. “Between those two?”

“Sorry,” said Rolaj. “I didn’t mean to embarrass myself, I just misread.”

“Ay, but how?” asked Hannah. “Granted, I’m a cleric of Garos, but it seems a hard thing to mistake, that's all.”

“A mistake, nothing more,” said Alfric.

“I thought I saw jealousy,” said Rolaj. “That’s it.”

“Ah,” said Hannah. “Now that, I s’pose, I can see.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “And should we send her your way, our Mizuki?”

Rolaj was already blushing, but the blush deepened at that. “I’d appreciate it, yes, if you think she’d be receptive.”

“We’re in Pucklechurch,” said Alfric. “I don’t imagine we’ll be through Liberfell all that often.”

“I’m not expecting much,” said Rolaj. “I was just … thinking about her, since she came through yesterday.”

“Well, for my own part I’ll put in a good word,” said Hannah, nodding. “You seem like a good enough sort.”

“I’ll let you shop,” he said, backing away. “Let me know if you have any questions, and I apologize for any awkwardness on my part.” He bowed slightly, and returned to his position behind the counter, which, in Verity’s opinion, made the whole thing even more awkward.

“I haven’t seen anything interesting,” said Verity. “Or rather, I’ve seen a great many things that are interesting, but they’re either priced too high or of no practical use.”

“We have enough rings that you could get something fun,” said Alfric. “There’d be no harm in that. I saw you talking to that dictionary.”

“Well, yes,” said Verity, looking over at it. “But unless I want to start singing nonsense songs, I don’t imagine that I would get more than a few hours of entertainment out of it. Not what you’d pick, I’m sure.”

“Well, no,” said Alfric. “I see two spears, and if you don’t mind me, I’m going to go look at what they do.” He ambled over to the back wall with all the weapons. He had a grin on his face, which Verity thought was somewhat unusual for him. He looked like a better, more compelling person when he was smiling.

“Well, better to talk to Mizuki now,” said Hannah. “Just in case we were wrong and she’s not so interested. But then it falls to us to let the poor shopkeep down.”

“Go ahead then,” said Verity.

“I was hopin’ you’d volunteer,” said Hannah. She sighed when Verity didn’t budge. <Mizuki, it seems like the shopkeeper Rolaj at the Chixli Emporium is a bit sweet on you, and would like to see more of you, if you’ve got any interest.>

There was silence for a little bit, long enough that Hannah wondered whether Mizuki had gotten the message.

<Neat!> the reply finally came. <He’s cute, right?>

<He said you met him,> said Verity.

<I did,> said Mizuki. <I was asking whether you found him cute.>

<Not particularly my type,> said Hannah. <But he’s got a sweetness to him.>

<Not my type either,> said Verity. He has more than the preferable number of penises.

<He seems young for you,> said Alfric.

<Ask him his age,> said Mizuki.

“Are we really doing this?” asked Verity.

“How old are you?” Hannah asked across the store.

“Eighteen,” he replied back.

<Eighteen,> said Hannah.

There was a bit of silence. <Is that too young?> asked Mizuki.

<Four years seems like a large gap,> said Alfric.

<That would be like you dating Isra,> said Verity.

<I’m an adult,> said Isra. She spoke differently over party chat, as though she was attempting to be loud and clear. It was subtle, but definitely there. One of them would have to take her aside and explain that wasn’t necessary, and Verity imagined that it would probably be her.

<Well, I’m gonna go for it,> said Mizuki. <And if it turns out he’s too immature, that won’t be the first time I’ve had that problem, age being an issue or not.>

<Good luck,> said Hannah. She moved over to where Alfric was standing and looking at the spears, and Verity did too.

“This one,” said Alfric, pointing at a thin red one with a gilded tip. “Capable of extending to eight times its length, and per the scratch tests, extremely difficult to destroy. It also exerts force when extending, which means if I could get it under a monster and wedged against the floor, I could use the power of the entad to drive it through the flesh or armor.” He moved his finger down, to point at something that looked less like a spear and more like an enlarged toothpick, pointed on both ends and made of wood. “Or this one, which penetrates the opposite side of whatever it touches and can teleport the wielder.”

“Is this a test?” asked Verity.

“No,” said Alfric. He raised an eyebrow. “Just looking for opinions.”

“Ay, well,” said Hannah. “Seems the second one might put you into more difficult situations, away from your healer, which isn’t a good place to be.”

“True,” nodded Alfric. “The best case scenario for it is a monster with armor on the front but not the back. I’m not sure that either is necessarily that good, though if I had to go with one, it would probably be the first. There the primary benefit is being able to lengthen or shorten the spear at will, which can be valuable in combat. Normally you choke up on the spear if you need to get closer to the opponent.” He held his hands out in front of him, which was apparently meant to demonstrate.

“Is there a reason you don’t approve of Mizuki dating?” asked Verity. She’d been rolling the conversation over in her mind, and the question had come to her unbidden. She’d only said it out loud because it was Alfric, and he seemed to prefer directness.

“Not really,” said Alfric. He looked somewhat uncomfortable. “My mind goes to certain scenarios where we lose her as a team member, or where it interferes with our ability to run dungeons. I’d be happy for her, I enjoy her company and I want the best for her, but … as far as replacements go, sorcerers are rare, and wizards come with their own problems. Finding a wizard who wants to do a dungeon is a bit of a tall ask.”

“So it’s about her utility?” asked Verity. “And I suppose the same goes for me?”

“Teams fall apart,” said Alfric. “Parties disband. The last year has given me a lot of experience with that. I’m trying to be realistic and to plan for the worst case scenarios.”

“Once burned, twice shy,” said Hannah, nodding. “I can understand where he feels it, and how he worries. Most likely, Mizuki will go on a date or two with Rolaj and have a brief liaison, but there’s a chance she’ll find somethin’ more in him, and then declare she’s out of the party, which would be a problem for us all, considerin’ we’re livin’ in her house. Not to say that we don’t want her to be happy, ‘cause of course we do, but if you’re Alfric, you’re lookin’ ahead to see the stick through the spokes. If it’s all well and good, there’s nothin’ that needs doin’. It’s not about utility, per se, I don’t think, it’s wantin’ to make sure that if somethin’ bad happens, he’s prepared for it.”

“It’s also a little about utility,” said Alfric. He frowned. “And a bit selfish, I’ll admit to that. Do you think it warrants an apology?”

“No,” said Verity. She paused. “I’d wondered whether, perhaps, it was a bit of jealousy on your part.”

“Jealousy?” asked Alfric. He looked over at the counter. “I don’t have any interest in Rolaj.” He grinned, making it clear that this was a joke.

Verity waited for Hannah to press the issue, but for whatever reason, the cleric didn’t, and while Verity had some interest in the subject of why that was a joke, she’d been taught that it was best to let such subjects pass if those involved brushed them aside.

“Do you think you’ll get the spear?” asked Hannah. “I s’pose you trained with all kinds of weapons.”

“Hammers, blades, and spears,” said Alfric. “Though not equally with all three. Quite a bit of my training was in the fundamentals, meaning how to adapt to unique circumstances and how to train with new equipment. It’s entirely possible that we’ll go into the next dungeon and pick up a trident that’s as good as Isra’s bow, and I’ll end up using that for the rest of my adventuring career.”

“And that’s the sort of thing you like,” said Hannah. “It’s like carryin’ a wardrobe up a hill.”

“In a sense,” said Alfric. “Dungeons and entads both offer unique challenges.” He hesitated, perhaps hearing how that sounded: too polished and soulless. “I really like knowing that there’s not some rule somewhere telling me how to do things. I like feeling like I’m on a frontier, out in the wild.”

“Seems a bit misplaced to me,” said Hannah. “Bemoanin’ the settlement of the world when you’re only eighteen. But I think I’ve come to understand you better than I did yesterday.”

The bell attached to the door jingled as someone entered, and it was only after she saw Alfric freeze in place that Verity turned to look. She’d expected the enigmatic Lola, but it was someone else, a tall man wearing blue robes that had stars at the bottom. The staff he carried, as well as the bangles, marked him as a wizard. At first Verity thought he was old, but the more she looked at him, the more she thought that he was just prematurely balding.

“Josen,” said Alfric. He had a scowl on his face.

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Alexander Wales

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