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The prospect of a day with nothing going on had, at first, seemed like it would be nice and pleasant, a chance to work in the garden, perhaps, or laze about once the ritual practice was finished, but then, in the morning, the rain clouds had begun to hang heavy in the sky. Verity woke up too late to see the party off, but there was a note and a cold breakfast in the chiller for her, thoughtfully left by Mizuki, who seemed to really be going out of her way to be a good host. Verity didn’t normally eat breakfast, but she had a feeling that was going to change if they kept pushing it on her. She had no strong aversion to breakfast, nor affection for the Dondrian way, she just woke late enough that it seemed sensible to wait until lunch.

<Isra, is it going to rain today?> asked Verity as she sipped a cup of hot tea and ate a cold hard-boiled egg.

<I moved the clouds up so they’ll sweep across us,> said Isra. <I wanted to give them good weather for moving the wardrobe. It should be done by fourth bell. The plants need the rain.>

<Okay, thank you,> said Verity. She tapped her foot for a bit and thought about what to do with herself. There was enough time to get to the heart of Pucklechurch, but once there, it would probably start to drizzle, and Verity wasn’t all that sure she wanted to be around people all day. She had half a mind to see whether Isra wanted to do something together, but Isra was used to being alone, and the only thing for them to do was in the garden, which would mean rearranging the weather. Verity didn’t want to impose, and Isra was right, the plants did need it.

She settled in for some music practice instead, though wasn’t feeling particularly creative, and went to old songs instead of new ones, classic pieces that she’d played in concert halls and at the occasional private party. Most of them were wordless, or meant to be accompanied by more vocalization than she would be able to give them. Without her concert lute, the sound seemed small, though the living room of the house had surprisingly good acoustics.

She thought about the next dungeon, and the one after that. The stress and pressure of dungeons was manageable, especially since everyone seemed to be understanding about wanting to relax and take it slow. Mizuki was an ally in that, but even Alfric, for all he was champing at the bit, seemed to take most of his actual pleasure from oddball things like hauling a huge wardrobe up a hill. He hadn’t made it difficult for her. Perhaps he would, in the future, but Verity somewhat doubted it. He was nice. The lies he’d told were small and understandable. She actually somewhat liked him.

The rain started while she was in the middle of playing, and the change in humidity made the strings feel sluggish and slow. She stopped and put her lute away, feeling somewhat frustrated. She’d be playing again at the Fig and Gristle later in the night anyhow. It seemed like Cynthia was going to take a long time in finding a new bard, though that wasn’t terribly surprising. Verity had been playing for not much more than room and board, and someone who took her spot would probably not come from in town, they would come from ads posted far away, presumably with a more favorable arrangement.

There was nothing to do in the house as it rained. There were a number of books, including those brought over by Hannah. It seemed that Hannah had a particular affection for romances involving exclusively men, which wasn’t in the slightest what Verity had an interest in reading, especially as they seemed to be soaked in maleness. Mizuki had two books from the local library, both of which seemed to be overdue and unread, one a dense history of a man named Alcaran, the other a light adventure story. Neither held any particular interest for Verity.

Eventually, and somewhat despite herself, Verity began to snoop. She consoled herself that this wasn’t exactly snooping, given that she lived in the house, and she kept away from the bedrooms, where people might be keeping things that they really did want kept secret. But she snooped all the same, going down into the basement, looking around in the kitchen but making sure not to put anything out of place, taking stock of the wine cellar, and so on. She looked at the places where things had been, holes in the wall where a nail might have once held up a picture. There were no great revelations from this exercise, only a better sense of the history of the building, which seemed to have accumulated quite a bit of age, despite not being all that old.

She did, however, find a quite nice umbrella, and on a whim, or perhaps because she was bored, she decided that she was going to venture out into the rain.

Verity did like the rain, but rain was better from the inside with a hot cup of tea, listening to the raindrops beat a staccato on the roof. There was something nice about the smell though, and even the wetness in the air. It brought a vibrancy to the plants, a color that they didn’t normally have in the sun.

The walk took her into Pucklechurch, and from there it was a question of where to go next. It wasn’t a market day, the taverns held no appeal given that Verity still technically worked at one, and there was nothing she wanted to shop for, though she had brought her rings. That left the temple, for a bit of prayer, never her favorite thing, or trying to get out of the rain by finding some kind of activity to take part in. On rainy days in Pucklechurch, people did some extra baking, the quilting circle gathered, and the woodworking space got crowded with amateurs using the communal equipment. Verity idly wondered whether there was some kind of gardening group in Pucklechurch, but if there were, it seemed unlikely that they were meeting on a rainy day. Besides, while it was exciting to be back in a garden again, she was worried that the Pucklechurch Gardening Society, or whatever it might be called, would have all the same problems as the group she’d belonged to in Dondrian.

Verity was saved from having to make a choice when she saw the town cartier, who she ostensibly had some business with.

Xy Longstride wasn’t, in a technical sense, the ‘town’ cartier, but she did service Pucklechurch, bringing in mail and goods from elsewhere, along with larger packages on occasion. She was a sprightly girl, not too much older than Verity, and yes, Verity did have some interest. Xy had a kind of rough and tumble way about her, and they hadn’t interacted all that much, aside from a few pleasantries at the Fig and Gristle. The timings had been a little bit suspect in the past few weeks, made mostly in the evenings, when Verity was working. Xy had even stopped by for dinner a few times and listened to Verity play, but if the attraction was mutual, Xy had never acted on it.

Verity didn’t really understand girls. She’d had one brief flirtation at the conservatory that went nowhere, and felt like it might have been imagined, save for the memory of a kiss being burned into her brain. The Church of Garos quoted one in ten women being interested in women, but that left nine in ten of them decidedly not, and it sometimes felt, to Verity, like finding a needle in a haystack. There were exceptions, of course, obvious signals like wearing a pin of Garos, but the number of girls who wore such a pin seemed to be far less than one in ten.

Xy wasn’t wearing such a pin, but there were other signals, like a particular haircut that seemed to be universally worn by that kind of woman, and an outfit that was slightly boyish, overalls that stopped just below the knees. She was the kind of girl with a grin almost permanently plastered on her face, eager and ready for anything. Xy was the sort of girl who was like catnip to Verity, in the sense that around such a girl, Verity got nervous and started doing things that didn’t make a lot of sense.

“Hi!” said Verity as she came over to Xy. The cartier was standing out in the rain eyeing a package.

“Hi Verity,” said Xy. The rain didn’t seem to be touching her: it was some kind of entad, Verity was pretty sure, but it was hard to see what was happening to the water as it fell. “I heard you joined a party to go raid dungeons?”

“Oh, right!” said Verity. Her voice felt like it was an octave too high. “Yes, a week ago. It’s really been pretty great.” There were too many superlatives, but it was the kind of problem that became apparent only once the words were out of her mouth, impossible to correct in the moment.

“I fought some monsters,” said Xy, nodding. She looked at Verity, taking her eyes off the package for the first time. “Ten dungeons, which is kind of a lot. It’s how I got this thing.” She pointed to a flask that hung on her hip. Verity had never seen it before. “Keeps me dry, but needs to be emptied every ten minutes or so when it’s raining, which is a pain when I’m on the move.”

“Yeah,” said Verity. She was nodding too much. “Exactly.”

“So you’re done at the Fig and Gristle?” asked Xy, who seemed to have abandoned whatever she’d been in the process of. “Aww. I’ll miss your music.”

“Well, I won’t be done done,” said Verity. “But I’m going to get replaced, and no one is clamoring for an encore. So.”

“Are you sure they’re not clamoring?” asked Xy. She smiled at Verity and cupped a hand to her ear. “I, for one, hear it. People like your music. I like your music.”

“Thanks!” chirped Verity. “But we might actually see some of each other, since there’s some dungeon work.”

“A counterparty?” asked Xy. “Awesome. Yeah, I’m in, totally. You have some way of contacting me?”

“Um,” said Verity, who was very quickly realizing that she was a bit out of her depth, having only half-listened to Alfric, or only half been instructed, she didn’t know which. “I don’t think we have anything yet. We’re going like once a week, so when you’re in Pucklechurch, I guess we can leave you a note at the mailbox?”

“Nah, we’ll figure something better out,” said Xy. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of a counterparty. Do you want me for transporting you, or the stuff?”

“Um, both?” said Verity. “Sorry, someone else should have done this, I’m not really a part of the management end.”

“It’s cool,” shrugged Xy. “We know each other, kind of. Tell you what, give me a week or so to get things in order, then I should be able to divert for you. I do charge, but I’ll take my payment in cut-rate entads if that’s alright with you, the stuff that’s barely more than a henling.”

“I’ll talk to Alfric,” said Verity. “He’s our party leader, he’s super great.” She felt the conversation skip a beat. “Our sorcerer, Mizuki, got a spoon that can turn into almost any spoon you can think of.”

“Yes!” said Xy. “That’s absolutely the kind of thing I would love to have. Of course, half the fun is just playing around with them, so I guess I’ll talk to your guy and see if I can do a bit of that too.”

“Oh, Alfric isn’t,” said Verity. “He’s not really my guy. Just a party leader.” This felt, in immediate retrospect, like an inane and stupid thing to say. “But yeah, you should talk to him, we’re all living in a big house down the lane, though he and most of the others are moving a big wardrobe over from Traeg’s Knob.”

“Cool,” said Xy, nodding. “Well leave me a note at the mailbox for next time I’m in town, and I’ll figure out where to go from there, shouldn’t be long before I’m back, and I’m definitely interested in being a counterparty, especially if the pay is good.” She looked down at the package at her feet. “I’ve got to get this done, nice talking to you, as always.”

“Yeah, you too!” said Verity. For a moment she stood there awkwardly, but having nothing better to do, she moved off down the street like she, too, had business to attend to.

Verity was not good at flirting. She also wasn’t good at sending out the right kind of signals, or picking them up from other people. In theory, this was something that she should talk to Hannah about, because Hannah, by her position as a cleric of Garos, should know all about it, but Verity felt some embarrassment on that score. She wondered whether things had gone as poorly with Xy as it felt like they’d gone. The catnip effect had felt particularly strong. Verity couldn’t help but remember her cat drooling heavily next to a sprig of catnip it had torn apart.

It was also possible that Verity had a faulty reading on Xy, and that Xy simply wasn’t interested in women in that way. The same thing had happened with Mizuki. That first night, when they’d come back from the dungeon, Verity had thought there were signals, or flirtation, or something like it. Mizuki had offered to make food, then offered to top off her wine, then offered her a room, and when Verity had laid down on the bed … well, she had thought that Mizuki was going to come over and at least lay down with her, and from there it wouldn’t have been long until they were kissing. Verity had mentally prepared herself for it. She was ready. Eager, even. But the moment had passed, and Mizuki seemed unaware that it had even been a moment, which meant that maybe it had all just been in Verity’s head.

The same had happened with Isra, when they’d shared a bed together. It had felt like perhaps there was something there, some signals getting exchanged, but Isra hadn’t made a move, and Verity hadn’t wanted to make a move in case it was just another misreading, and also because she was a coward when it came to love. So the moment, if it had been a moment, had passed. Verity was left to wonder whether she’d been imagining things. She had been rather sleepy.

Verity had sat in the pews with her family and listened to enough sermons from clerics of Garos to know the common wisdom: just ask. Of course, asking might indicate to the other person that you were interested in them, and that could be awkward, but it was better than dying alone. The clerics never said that, but it seemed to be the gist of things. And obviously there was a lesson there for everyone, because the same problems plagued everyone, all mankind. That was a common refrain of the sermons of Garos.

“Parents think that they know the inner lives of their children,” the cleric had said on one of those days. “When they are young, this might be true, because their inner lives are simple, if no less rich. But when they grow older, parents have a tendency to think they know everything their child is going through. They think they know the thoughts that go through the heads of their children. And sometimes, I’m afraid to say, our understanding of our children turns out to be wrong. The assumptions we’ve made about what they’ve been thinking about, and what they’ve been up to, and how they feel, is not what we’d wished or hoped, and sometimes, our thoughts do not align, whether we feel anything about that misalignment or not. It can hurt, to have this idea of someone close to you, and to find out that it was an illusion you’d built up in your mind. We must, nevertheless, soldier on. If you find yourself faced with someone who is not as you’d expected them to be, you must readjust your perception of them, reorient, and not allow it to affect you overmuch.”

Verity’s mother had been there, at that sermon, and seemed to take the lesson as it applied to the fellowship of Garos.

“We have the Brumal Ball coming up, and I’d like for you to look your best,” said Verity’s mother as she fussed over a dress-in-the-making. The tailor was one of those obsequious cowards who showed deference to every little request, and it felt like the little bows had been moved three times. “There are a number of eligible bachelors there, and it’s none too early to be thinking about courting.”

“I’m not interested in the bachelors,” said Verity.

“Well, I know you’re only fifteen, but you’re a woman now, and it can take some time for a match to be found, so better to start early. You’ll not get married until perhaps twenty, that gives you five years to find someone, and if you comport yourself well, we can ensure it’s a good match.” She was playing with the fabric, trying to figure out where the darts would go to best emphasize the bust. Verity was, through this process, little more than a mannequin.

“I’m not interested in being with a man at all,” said Verity. Her heart was in her throat. What was she worried about? A bad reaction, perhaps. Her mother had plans for her, and in the past, anything that interfered with those plans was cause for both alarm and recriminations.

“Oh,” her mother had said. “Well, bachelorette then.” There was a brief pause. “A smaller pool to draw from, but let me see, the Elthfield girl would be a good match, or the Kyllip girl. Verity, you should have told me sooner, I’ll have to put out feelers and make some new lists.”

And while Verity was occasionally chided for not having told her mother sooner, that was as much as was ever said about it. The plan required some reorientation, but nothing had substantially changed. Her father hadn’t even spoken to her about it, not that she’d necessarily wanted him to.

It was just everything else her parents had a problem with. The idea that Verity could say “oh, I’m not that interested in playing so much music” was inconceivable, and reckoned to be a mistake, or an act of rebelliousness. Doing something else with her life, like seeing the world, or playing in a tavern, or even something acceptably traditional like being a gardener, was simply dismissed out of hand. She had tried, at one point, arguing doctrine with them, letting the cleric’s words come out of her mouth, but her parents had not listened, and there seemed to be no way to make them listen.

She was going to have to have Alfric send them a letter soon. They’d sat down to do it, but there were relatively few places in the house that were private, and none of them had a desk to write at. The bigger issue was that Verity didn’t know quite what to say, and didn’t feel fully comfortable sharing as much as she probably needed to share with Alfric. That, writing the letter, was something she should have been doing on a rainy day when there was nothing pressing, but it was also something she wanted to put off for as long as possible. If she sent a letter to her parents, or had Alfric send one with information about her, there was a decent chance that they would try to follow up, or worse, come to Pucklechurch. She wasn’t about to put that past her mother, and the thought made her nauseous.

She took a moment to clear her mind as she went about her aimless walk through Pucklechurch. The rain had let up a bit, becoming just a gentle drizzle, and looked like it would move more toward being a mist.

Verity turned her mind to the third dungeon. Dungeoneering was a bit like being a professional musician, in a sense, particularly in terms of both training and always looking forward to the next gig. ‘Playing’ in a group as well, when she thought about it, though that metaphor was a bit strained. The goal for Verity was to execute better, and that seemed to involve the magical side of musicality, which she had only reached the bottom rungs of.

Progressive melodies were the next obvious step, but easier, and perhaps more pressing, were party melodies. The magic of a party made everyone just a bit the same, melding their essence in chiefly magical ways, and if you knew the right techniques, you could draw on that enforced sameness. Bardic magic worked with what was there, but what was there, for a party, meant the entire party. Properly constructed, a party melody could multiply Alfric’s strength not just by his own strength, but by the strength of the entire party. Admittedly, he was the strongest of them by a wide margin, but their combined strength had to be at least double. The same went for almost everything else, though the uniqueness of their individual talents did them little favor.

And beyond that, there were more complicated party melodies, those that took the confusion of personhood to a greater extreme. Some entads worked only for a specific person, but in a party situation, it was possible to blur that line a bit. And because the party link persisted no matter the distance between members, it was also possible to sing a song that would affect someone on the other side of the world. The same was true for guilds, but to a much lesser extent, and it was unheard of for a bard to be able to perform a proper guild melody before the age of thirty. A bard could heighten that confusion, though it was a matter of degree, and there were some obvious problems with attempting to maintain complex melodies, since at a certain point, trade-offs had to be considered.

So far, there seemed to not be all that much use for that kind of melding. Isra’s bow could probably be confused into working for someone else, but there was no reason to do that. Alfric’s dagger could, perhaps, take the entire team, but they already had a workaround for it. There was probably something on the horizon though, some entad that they would find in the next five dungeons, or the next ten, or however many they ended up doing.

Verity was slowly starting to come around to the idea that this might simply be what she did with a fair chunk of her life. Aside from the very end, the second dungeon had gone swimmingly. There was quite a bit to like about bardic music in a dungeon, as opposed to in an auditorium. In the dungeon, she was given free reign, and if anyone had been second-guessing her, they had wisely kept their comments to themselves. There was room to experiment with the magic, to try new things that might not entirely work.

Verity didn’t have her lute with her, but she began to make her way back to the house, and sang herself a song as she did. It would have been easier with so-called standard lyrics, but she couldn’t resist the urge to make up her own.

“She runs to the leylines, and tacks to the wind, she screams through the forests, and I wish we were twinned,” Verity sang. “I’d strip off her clothes, and look at her bare, we’d tongue each other, and not have a care.” It was too lewd, and it felt like ‘tongue’ was both awkward and had too few syllables. Verity did like a good cheat, but ‘tuh-ung’ felt awful to say. ‘Finger’ had the right number of syllables, but it was so lewd that even just thinking it in her own mind left Verity blushing, let alone saying it out loud. She knew a fair number of bawdy songs, but there seemed to be relatively few of them about women, and she’d never actually performed one for an audience.

“Butterfly feeling, your touch is so healing,” Verity sang. But that felt too much like it might be about a cleric, and while Verity probably would have accepted a proposition from Hannah, they weren’t exactly on the same wavelength, or at least it didn’t feel like it. Of course, Verity had absolutely no idea what she was doing when it came to romance. She didn’t know how to give off signals, or to read signals. “My love I conceal, can’t wait to reveal.”

The bardic melody depended, in part, on holding the song in your head, and spinning up new lyrics definitely made things much harder. Still, it felt like she was getting to a party melody, though a simple one, increasing her own strength as though she were as strong as the five of them put together.

“Pinkish-red lips, gentle curved hips, tied-back blonde hair, are you aware, of the nervousness running, through my spine and my veins? Do you think of my heart, and what it contains?” It was all rubbish, but it was a nice kind of rubbish at least, free and honest, found in the moment.

“Who is that song about?” asked a familiar voice from behind her.

“Eep,” said Verity, turning around. Xy was standing there in what remained of the rain, which was disappearing before it could touch her. “No one.”

“No one, but blonde?” asked Xy, grinning. Her blonde hair was tied back. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on you, but I thought I would check out the house before I left, so I knew where it was.”

“You heard all that?” asked Verity. She felt mortified, and was incredibly glad that the ‘finger’ line hadn’t been said out loud.

“Most of it, I think,” said Xy. “I was hoping you’d hear me, but the rain covers up a lot of sound. Sorry, I didn’t mean to listen in, if it was … private.” She bit her lip, which did a bad job of hiding her smile.

“No, um,” said Verity. “I was … I thought you weren’t interested. In me.”

“Yeah?” asked Xy.

“And I guess I’m still not sure,” said Verity. She was fidgeting with her umbrella. She felt a bit useless.

Xy laughed. It was a high, pretty laugh. “Do you like to be teased?”

“Um,” said Verity. “Teased?”

“Some people don’t,” said Xy. She was still giving her winning smile. “I wouldn’t want to tease you, if it was just making you uncomfortable.”

“I don’t think I do like being teased,” said Verity.

“Then I won’t tease,” said Xy. “Yes, I’m interested, depending on what you’re interested in. I don’t come into Pucklechurch that often, usually every few days, and my schedule is a bit tight, but we could go on a date, and see how we get on together. Longer than that … it would be your first time?”

“Yes,” said Verity. “More or less.” She was, thankfully, able to stop herself from launching into a story about the conservatory. “Sorry if it’s … obvious.”

“There are probably some things for you to learn,” said Xy, nodding. “And I am more than happy to teach you.” She took a step forward, and Verity felt herself sway. “I’m sorry I don’t have the time now. But now that I know you’re interested, and you know I’m interested, the next time I come to Pucklechurch, we’ll have a good time together.”

Verity nodded. “I’m looking forward to it,” she managed.

Xy grinned, then took off the other way, moving with a cartier’s speed. Verity had no idea where the nearest leyline was, but cartiers were always moving toward one or the other of them, and Xy ran fast, sixty-miles-an-hour, out of view in a heartbeat.

Verity was left wondering whether this was what swooning was like. She was blushing, that certainly couldn’t be helped, and the cool of the rain felt good against her hot skin. That Xy didn’t seem to be too interested in anything long term, that she had put in qualifiers, all that did nothing to reduce Verity’s warm feelings.

When she got back to the house, she laid in one of the chairs, smiling and soaking in it.

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Alexander Wales

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