“You’ve been keeping track of where we’re going, right?” asked Mizuki. It was becoming clear that if she was going to continue along with this profession, she was going to need better shoes. There was simply too much hiking involved.
“No, I haven’t,” said Isra, not glancing back. “Why would I?”
“Uh, so we don’t get lost?” asked Mizuki. It felt like they were deep into the woods, though the area they were in was technically a park, one with marked trails.
“I think that ‘lost’ is something other people get,” said Isra. She had a soft and quiet nature that quite appealed to Mizuki, along with a confidence that was reassuring.
“Well, so long as you’re by my side,” said Mizuki. “We’ll probably want to get going back fairly soon, I need to go see that boy about a date.”
“Mmm,” said Isra.
“I don’t suppose,” said Mizuki. “That you’ve dated?”
“No,” said Isra.
“They do it differently in Tarbin?” asked Mizuki.
“They do,” said Isra. “There are matchmakers.”
“Down in Cairbre they basically do a series of ‘engagements’,” said Mizuki. “Or one engagement, if you’re lucky. It’s much less of a big deal to break an engagement off. I was actually with a guy who wanted to do it that way, but I laughed it off, since it seemed so ridiculous. We ended up doing some normal dates, and it didn’t work out, which seemed like basically the same thing as a failed engagement, I guess, if you squint.”
“Matchmakers seem like they make more sense,” said Isra.
“They do, I guess,” shrugged Mizuki. “But I grew up in Pucklechurch, where there wouldn’t have been much of a point to it. There were seventeen kids in my year, and I knew them all through comp.”
“Comp?” asked Isra.
Mizuki looked at her, or rather, the back of her head. “Compulsory schooling?” she asked.
“Ah,” said Isra. “I knew about that. I hadn’t heard it called that.”
“And your father … opted you out?” asked Mizuki. You could do that, technically. Mizuki had begged her mom for it for a brief few days when she’d had a big fight with another girl at school, and been denied.
“I guess,” said Isra. “We didn’t talk about it.”
“Anyway,” said Mizuki. “In Kiromo, relationships are religious, and it’s kind of like having a matchmaker, but the matchmakers are clerics. And I still wonder how it’s done in small towns like Pucklechurch, where you know every single possible partner by the time you reach puberty. And most people are paired off early, so.” It had almost happened for Mizuki, but then she’d had a falling out with her possible-husband, and after that, it had mostly been a series of brief courtships that never went anywhere, even the ones that had briefly seemed intense and promising. At twenty-two, it was getting harder and harder to find someone her own age who was unpartnered, and she had this sinking feeling that she was going to eventually settle with someone older, a widower, perhaps. So she knew how it was done in Pucklechurch, yes, but she didn’t know how it was done for her, specifically.
“You think that Rolaj might suit you,” said Isra.
“Oh,” said Mizuki. “Well, I don’t know, he seemed nice. I’m a big believer in giving people a chance. He is young, but I’ve spent the last few years just doing basically odd jobs with no real stability, so maybe that balances out a bit.”
“Odd jobs?” asked Isra.
“You know, if someone needs some sorcerous might,” said Mizuki. She sighed. “Not that it comes up often, but I can clear a tree from a road faster than just about anyone. Of course, some of my time is spent tracking down magic and trying to make something useful out of it, but there are precious few things that allow me to make real money. The will-o-wisps were always the best for it, but kind of a pain.”
“How do you make money with a will-o-wisp?” asked Isra.
“Oh, they have a rare all-destroying thing,” said Mizuki. “Normally, it’s like … there’s some kind of magic that eats up wood, and that allows me to do creation of wood, kind of? But for the will-o-wisp, for whatever reason, it’s anything you want. I pick gold every time, since it doesn’t matter if it’s misshapen and it’s easy to test and sell. So yeah, before this dungeon thing, I was going out during the time for will-o-wisps, just a bit after dinner, trying to get close enough to them that I could use some of what they did to the aether.” She shrugged. “Not hard work.”
“People don’t farm them,” said Isra, almost like a question.
“People have tried, but you can’t,” said Mizuki. “They’re easy to kill, too, so every time someone tries to capture one, they end up with a dead will-o-wisp. Or at least, that’s what I’ve heard from the other sorcs. They’re a much-loved creature by sorcs everywhere, but they’re also one of the reasons that we tend to stay away from each other. Them, or things like them. It’s kind of a lonely profession, in that way.”
“They’re not a creature,” said Isra. “They’re something else.”
“The will-o-wisps?” asked Mizuki. “Sure, I didn’t mean to say they were one particular kind of thing, I was just kind of talking freely. You know, I sometimes consider myself an adherent of Qymmos, but other times I just wonder what the point of it is. Categories and things. I dunno.” They passed a leafy plant, and Isra stopped to caress it before moving on. It seemed like Isra feeling free to do weird things in front of Mizuki was a good sign.
“I don’t like Qymmos,” said Isra.
“Yeah?” asked Mizuki. That didn’t seem like all that much of a surprise. Qymmos, God of Sets, was one of those gods that people tended to feel strongly about. By contrast, Oeyr was one that people took a fair amount of time to actually grasp, and that shielded her from both love and scorn.
“The thoughts laid out in the Qymr Mos are muddled in a way that the others are not,” said Isra. “Qymmos feels like a god out of step. The infinity of Xuphin or the symmetry of Garos exist in our world, in part, and they want us to see the beauty of those things.” She shook her head. “That’s not true for Qymmos.”
This … wasn’t the sort of answer that Mizuki had expected. Religion was a bit of a weak point for her, and she didn’t know how to respond. “Huh,” she said, for lack of anything better.
“I haven’t spoken with the clerics much,” said Isra. “I have only gone to worship a few times.”
“Oh, I almost never go,” said Mizuki. “I did, when I was little, with my family.” And on holy days, and when it was an Oeyr sermon, and a few other times, like if someone suggested she should. Temple days were social events. The more Mizuki thought about it, the more she thought that ‘almost never go’ was maybe a lie. “So most of what you know comes from, what, your father?”
“I’ve read the holy books,” said Isra. She hesitated for a moment as they walked, perhaps waiting for Mizuki to add something. “Is that unusual?”
“Not really,” said Mizuki. “You’re supposed to. But there’s also a kind of, um, guidedness to it? Like, in the month we were reading the Qymr Mos, we had a cleric come into class for an hour or two to explain things, and a lot of us didn’t end up reading the actual book.”
“A month for a thin book?” asked Isra.
“Oh,” said Mizuki. “No, sorry, I forgot you didn’t go through it. Usually the teacher breaks things up into sections, so the ‘month’ was really more like one or two hours a day.”
“And you did this with the other children your age,” said Isra.
“Yeah,” said Mizuki. “Everyone born between the start and end of the year, which usually ends up being around twenty kids, but sometimes there are big years.” She tapped her lips for a moment. “I don’t know how it’s done in Tarbin, or in Dondrian, or even in Kiromo, but in Greater Plenarch a teacher sticks with their students from basically the year they’re born until we’re out of comp.”
“Like another parent,” said Isra.
“Kind of,” said Mizuki. She shrugged. “We had a good one, Miss Liko. She left right around the same time my parents did. I kind of miss her.”
“It sounds nice,” said Isra.
“It was,” said Mizuki. “I mean, I’d never want to go back to school of any kind, but I enjoyed comp. So you were just out in the woods that whole time?”
“I was,” said Isra. “Hiding.”
“I might talk to the hexmaster about it, if that’s okay,” said Mizuki. “You’re eighteen, so there’s nothing to worry about, no risk that, I don’t know, anyone would try to adopt you. But I do want to find out how much they knew about you, and how you, um, slipped through the cracks, no offence.”
“I hid,” Isra repeated, shrugging. “I could usually tell they were coming from a mile off.”
“Yeah, but they could still have put in more effort,” said Mizuki. A young girl living all alone wasn’t the sort of thing that was supposed to happen, druid or not. “When I think of you being out there, all on your own, or I guess with animals, it makes my heart break.”
“You’re very sentimental,” said Isra, after a moment had passed.
“Well, we’re a party now,” said Mizuki. “We look out for each other. Your pain is my pain.”
Isra didn’t seem to quite take that in the spirit it was intended, and Mizuki shut up for a bit, taking in the woods. It seemed a bit odd to be going on a walk after they’d done a pretty grueling six miles the day before, but Mizuki liked being out in nature, and she had her walking stick, which helped with balance. Every now and again, she would use it in a fancy way, vaulting herself over a rut or branch with ease.
The woods were nice and pleasant, and while Mizuki knew the names of very few trees, she spotted what she thought were twin oaks, growing in pairs, and a number of birches, clearly identifiable from their papery skin, which she’d loved when she was younger. In certain places, the undergrowth seemed to vanish save for small grasses, as the canopy blocked out light, and they were treated to moss-covered logs and stones. It gave the same sort of feeling that walking into the large temple in Pucklechurch sometimes did, both in the silence and the grand, open space. She was glad that she’d asked to come along.
“Do druids date?” asked Isra. Mizuki was mildly surprised, because Isra didn’t seem to enjoy starting conversations.
“I’ve got no idea,” said Mizuki. “I don’t see why they wouldn’t. But you’ll be able to ask your guild in another day or so. And even if they say they don’t, which I don’t know why they would,” Mizuki shrugged. “Being a druid,” sadly, she let the idea of using ‘woods witch’ die, “is kind of like being a sorc, I think, where people have all these ideas about what you’re like and what you do, and none of it changes that you’re just a person with your own stuff going on. You don’t need to be the way that other people think you should be.”
“That’s a lesson found in books,” said Isra. “No one seems to believe it though.”
“Well,” said Mizuki. “Yeah, you can run into problems if you’re too different, or different in the wrong ways, I guess. And people will make their own judgments about you, which is probably fine if you’re a fairy princess, but not so much if you’re depending on the kindness of strangers, or having a job, or getting customers, or whatever.” Mizuki tapped her lips. “But I don’t think any of that applies to dating, if you’re a druid, because it’s not like the other druids are offering you anything, and if they have a problem with you finding a boyfriend, I’ll be first in line to help you drown them.”
Isra faltered. “Drown them?”
“Um,” said Mizuki. “It’s a Kiromon saying. I think there’s something like it in Inter. It’s just an expression.” She wracked her brain trying to think about where it came from. Something from the Abohan Dynasty? A buried memory slowly resurfaced. “Drowning kingdom officials was, um, a traditional punishment.”
“Why did the kingdom do that?” asked Isra. There was a bit of alarm in her voice.
“Well, the kingdom didn’t do that,” said Mizuki. “It was the village folk. The kingdom had officials who lived in every village as part of taxes and other stuff, administration, I guess, and they were mostly jerks, I think, but sometimes one of them would cross a line, and the villagers would get together to drown them in a local pond. They did it with drowning because then people could say that it was an accident, and the kingdom kind of looked the other way, because if you were enough of a jerk to be held down by a dozen villagers, you probably deserved it. Grim, I know, but those are the kinds of stories my grandfather was full of.”
“You would help drown someone for me,” said Isra.
“Yeah,” said Mizuki. “I guess. Depends on what he had done. I don’t know you well enough to know what your standards for drowning someone are.”
“When I was thirteen years old my father died,” said Isra. “I was left all alone. One of my father’s friends, a man named Angun, came to our house bringing food and condolences. He tried to poison my drink, something to make me sleep, but I could tell that something had gone wrong when my back was turned. When I refused to drink, he subdued me and stole everything of value from the house.”
“Wow,” said Mizuki. Again, she felt a tightness in her chest, like her heart was being squeezed. Isra already seemed like someone who perhaps didn’t need to be defended, but who Mizuki would gladly defend anyhow. Imagining little doe-eyed innocent Isra being assaulted and taken advantage of like that, well, Mizuki felt a great deal of pain and anger, and she took a moment to wipe away a tear that had been forming.
They walked in silence for a bit, and though Mizuki had thoroughly lost her bearings, she felt like they were going back the way they’d come. It felt good to walk, especially if they were going to be able to take a shortcut back to Pucklechurch when the end of the day rolled around.
“I guess finding him will be the first step,” said Mizuki. “And then getting away with it will be the hard part. I don’t know what kind of entads the Greater Plenarch province has for doing detective work, but we’d want to figure that out. If we made it look like an accident, they wouldn’t do a full investigation, but we’d really want to know what we were going up against.”
“I don’t think that’s what I want,” said Isra. She was hesitant. “When you talked about drowning someone, my mind went to him. I want what was stolen returned to me. I want justice.”
“Oh, good, I was getting worried, I have no idea how to kill a person,” said Mizuki. She shook her head. “I mean, I know how to kill a person, in theory. Magic is supposed to be pretty good at it. But I’d have been way out of my depth.” She took in a breath, and was feeling better about it. If Isra had immediately started talking about logistics, well, Mizuki would probably have gone along with it, but it might have ended up as one of those things she went along with because it seemed like a good idea, then turned out to be a very bad idea. Still, screw that guy. “Did you ever report the crime?”
“I was thirteen,” said Isra. “They would have taken me from my home.”
“Probably,” said Mizuki. “I can’t imagine what I would have done in your situation. I was just asking because now that you’re old enough, they can’t do that, so you could report the crime and maybe get a bit of help from the province, depending on what was taken.”
“It was five years ago,” said Isra. “He could be halfway across the world. Or not even in Inter.”
“Sure,” shrugged Mizuki. “But going to the authorities couldn’t hurt. There are some fabulous tracking entads out there, if there was something in particular you wanted to get back. And if it’s justice you want,” she shrugged. “Sorry if this isn’t anything you wanted to hear, it’s just what I’d do, in your shoes.” Mizuki wanted justice too.
“There were entads,” said Isra. “Five of them. There were also a number of rings stolen.”
“Good entads?” asked Mizuki.
“Some,” shrugged Isra. “A feeding spoon. A bottled garden. A dagger that went through the air like a whisper.”
Mizuki felt questions coming, and swallowed all but one of them. “A bottled garden?” she asked.
“It was small,” said Isra. She stopped her hiking and turned back to Mizuki and showed with her hands, something no larger than a cabbage. “A seed dropped into it would shrink down and grow quickly, usually within a day. A miniature. We had a small tin of seeds that we’d saved. It gave us oranges in the winter.”
Mizuki nodded, though she had more questions about the bottled garden. It sounded neat. Were they eating miniature fruits? Could you pull a whole tree from it? How were they getting the fruits out? She had lots to ask, because it seemed like an interesting thing to have, with lots of complications. Talking excitedly about something that Isra had lost, especially something with sentimental attachment, seemed like it would be a big and obvious misstep though, and for once, Mizuki was able to shut her mouth in time.
“Is it okay if I talk to Rolaj about it, or not?” asked Mizuki.
“About the entads?” asked Isra. “No.”
“No, it’s okay, or no, it’s not okay?” asked Mizuki.
“It’s okay,” said Isra.
“I don’t mean to butt in with your business,” said Mizuki. “I just thought … maybe it would be worth a shot. And if you’d like, I can go deal with reporting the crime.”
Isra was silent. “Why?”
“Um, I’m hoping that it would help get this,” she waved, trying to find the word, “resolved?” asked Mizuki.
“Why are you doing it for me?” asked Isra.
Mizuki shrugged. “I’ve been alone for a bit. I have lots of friends in town, and had a series of boyfriends, but I know what it’s like to not really have someone to depend on, not that the community hasn’t been good for me.” She’d been looked after and checked in on when her parents left, but it wasn’t really the same. “Hannah came in and said the house looked neglected, which I guess is true, and Verity came in and said that my garden was terrible, which was definitely true. But here I’ve got a chance to do something for someone, even if it’s just stuff like dealing with the hexmaster for you, or talking to a bunch of entad people about what’s gone through their stores in the last five years. Those seem like things that you might not want to do, or that you’d find annoying, and I won’t say that they’re exactly things that I’m good at, but I don’t think I would find them annoying. And if I did find them annoying, I’m willing to be annoyed for your sake.”
They walked together for a bit. Mizuki worried that she was overstepping. That series of boyfriends had taught her that she had a tendency to come on strong, or form attachments quickly, and sometimes, that screwed things up, or the initial affection flared up so bright that it burnt itself out. She was really, really hoping that she wasn’t doing that with Isra, but if she squinted, it seemed like it might be a part of the same pattern.
“I was wrong about the world,” said Isra.
“Yeah?” asked Mizuki.
“Yes,” said Isra.
In a normal conversation, this was where Isra would elaborate, so Mizuki gave her some time. It was pretty clear that Isra wasn’t all that used to talking to people, and maybe didn’t understand certain aspects of it, like following up on a profound, sweeping statement, especially if it was particularly vague.
“And in what way were you wrong about the world?” asked Mizuki, unable to wait as long as it seemed to be taking.
“It’s less complicated than I’d thought,” said Isra. “There’s more good in it.” She glanced back at Mizuki. They were coming back to Liberfell proper, with the sounds of the city around them. “Knowing that I’m a druid, that I experience the world in a different way … it’s brought everything into focus. The people of Pucklechurch were just blind and deaf, ignorant of the world. They weren’t liars. They thought I was strange, not because I was an outsider, but because I had abilities and senses. I was strange.”
“I would think that would be kind of nice,” said Mizuki. “Being able to make sense of a whole bunch of confusing things?”
Isra nodded. “You’re very nice,” she said.
“Oh,” said Mizuki. “Well, thanks.”
“I wish that I had met you before last week,” said Isra. Mizuki was listening closely, and she wondered whether she’d only imagined hearing Isra’s voice catch.
Mizuki diverted to lighter fare for the rest of their walk, and kept the conversation afloat on her own, but Mizuki had quite liked their talk, and it seemed that Isra had too. Mizuki found herself making a list in her head of all the things she needed to do, and the ones involving Isra went to the top of it. Alfric would be so proud of her.
And if they did find the man who hurt Isra, well, Mizuki wasn’t planning to actually drown him, but she was going to keep her options open.