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“You know,” said Hannah as Alfric attached the floatstones to the wardrobe, “It’s quite likely that in another dungeon or two, we’ll have somethin’ that makes this wardrobe useless.”

“You’re saying this is probably pointless?” asked Alfric. He grunted slightly as he strapped the floatstones down. They were using chains, with cloth padding so as not to scratch the wood.

“I’m sayin’ that I’m preparin’ myself for all this work bein’ for nothin’,” said Hannah.

“It wouldn’t be for nothin’,” said Alfric. He glanced at her to see how she’d taken the tease about her accent, and she grinned at him. He’d done a terrible job. “We’ll still have the entad back in Pucklechurch, and if we don’t need it, we can sell it. Besides, I don’t want to have, in the back of my mind, some worry about whether someone is going to steal this.” Thankfully, they had not. Alfric had seemed unreasonably worried about it, especially after knowing Lola was in the area, but it was sitting right where he’d left it, without a scratch, still totally functional.

“No one is going to steal it,” said Mizuki. She rolled her eyes. “Besides, if someone stole it, there would be like, eight possible options. It would be easy to track down.”

“If someone has a storage entad, they could just hide it away,” said Alfric. “In fact, that’s the most likely way that it would get stolen.”

“So there’s also a chance that the next dungeon we do, we’d get one of those for ourselves, and make this whole wardrobe moving thing pointless?” asked Mizuki.

“Well,” said Alfric. “Yes. But traditionally speaking, I would expect a third storage entad to come with some restrictions, and the wardrobe is large and unwieldy, likely to hit several different limits on weight, size, or something else.”

He stepped back to look at his work. The floatstones seemed to be secure. He tugged at the chains, making sure that they would hold. Hannah did too, just to double check his work, which he seemed to approve of.

“The big problem with floatstones is that there’s no way to stop them from floating,” he said. “These two provide two hundred pounds of lift, which means that if you want them to not go floating off, you need them to have two hundred pounds of ballast, preferably more.”

“Which is just about the only use for the loadstones, ay,” said Hannah.

Alfric took the two of them, each smaller than a dinner plate but fifty pounds a piece, and put them into the book, which he’d had Mizuki bring when she teleported to them using the knife. Loadstones were practically worthless, but he needed to bring them back to Besc, and that meant carrying around the book, which meant fifty pounds of extra weight. Alfric was eager for another storage entad, and there had been quite a bit of discussion about limitations and methods the night before, all leading up to this. Mizuki had come in later, leaving Hannah and Alfric to walk together, which had passed mostly with idle conversation. Perhaps Hannah should have taken the opportunity to talk about a few sensitive matters with him, but it didn’t seem like he would have taken it in the spirit it was intended.

“So if you screwed this up, the wardrobe would go floating into the sky?” asked Mizuki.

“And we’d never see it again,” said Alfric. “Unless you could fly after it, I guess.”

“It’s not, unfortunately, something I can do on demand,” said Mizuki.

“You can fly, Mizuki?” asked Hannah.

“Yeah, I’ll show you tomorrow,” said Mizuki. “Or later today, if we get back in time, which we should.”

“I’ve always wanted to fly,” said Hannah, nodding. “It’s a bit useless in most dungeons, but if there’s somethin’ for fun that I’d want, it would be some way to soar through the air.”

There was an older tract on Garos that Hannah had once read, which posited that people walked along the ground by the will of Garos, since the ground defined a symmetry between the ground and the sky. It was the sort of spurious writing that seemed to have filled the library in the seminary, with many pages devoted to all the ways in which this metaphor worked and did not work, and where the dichotomy between ground and sky might be explained by other gods. Hannah had no problem at all with thinking of the ground and sky as being counterparts to one another, it was the kind of exercise that she liked, but the writer hadn’t seemed to have been of the opinion that he was having a flight of fancy, he was much more making grand statements about the gods and how they had made the world. It wasn’t even settled whether or not the gods had made the world, and though Hannah was of the opinion they had, it rankled when she saw someone simply take it as fact without adding a whole host of caveats.

A more interesting symmetry, in her opinion, was between the sea and sky, where you could transpose birds to fish and vice versa, and that was the kind of thing that seemed ripe for a good prayer session. Hannah had never particularly wanted to swim in the ocean though, not like she wanted to fly through the sky.

She refrained from saying any of this out loud. The laity tended to accept religious talk and the quotation of scripture, but there were limits, and Alfric was likely to be spotty on the finer points of theology, to say nothing of Mizuki.

“Okay,” said Alfric. “Seems like with the book as additional ballast, this whole assembly will only be about twenty pounds. I think we’re ready to go.” These were approximate guesses, and based on their disagreement about the wardrobe’s actual weight, Hannah mentally revised his estimate upward.

They set off out of the room they’d been in, with Alfric and Hannah maneuvering the wardrobe. It only weighed thirty pounds or so, but it was bulky, and beyond that, it still had mass to it, meaning that it was slow to get moving and then once moving, slow to stop. The trip back was going to be a long six miles, though Hannah was fairly confident that they would get into the swing of things.

“Better for me to be in the front,” said Alfric once they were out. “That way if it runs someone over, it’ll be me, and hopefully you can heal me up.”

“Always willin’ to take a hit, that’s what I like about you,” said Hannah.

“I can think of lots of things I’d rather be liked for,” said Alfric.

“No, she’s right,” said Mizuki. “It’s very fetching, how you offer to get stabbed for people.”

“You know what, I’ll take it,” said Alfric, grinning at her. “And if you ever need someone to get stabbed, I guess I’m your guy.”

“Have you been stabbed before?” asked Hannah.

“Oh, many many times,” said Alfric. “My father gave me a lot of training with clerics on hand to heal me. It was pretty enviable, I feel. Besides, I’m a chrononaut, so there are experiences possible for me that aren’t possible for someone else. I’ve been stabbed, burnt, decapitated, strangled, you name it.”

“Well that’s horrible,” said Mizuki.

“I wasn’t pushed into it,” said Alfric. “My parents offered, and I said yes.” He shrugged. “In their opinion, it was better to know what trauma felt like in a safe, controlled environment before having to experience it in a dungeon, and I agreed. Still do, actually. If the first time I ever got burnt was while my life was on the line, I’d be far less likely to handle it well.”

“Yeah, I would just … not do that,” said Mizuki. “But also, isn’t your life never on the line?”

Alfric sighed. “It is, and it isn’t,” said Alfric. “I really, really need to drill into your head that resets are not ‘free’ and that these things still happen, for me. People think about chrononauts as though … well, as though you’re at a dinner party and make a joke that lands poorly, so you get to try it over. That’s not how it is at all though. You have to go back, wake up, do everything else you did that day, run errands, have conversations, do chores, and then finally, twelve hours later, you get back to the dinner party, and you have to explain that it’s your second time through, or if you don’t, you have to hope that you’re a good enough liar that you can sit through the same set of stories with only minor variations and remember not to mention anything you shouldn’t have knowledge of.”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “Bein’ a chrononaut sounds like more trouble than it’s worth.” Her voice was dripping with sarcasm.

“Well,” said Alfric. “It’s just … not what people think. That’s all I was trying to say.”

“I get it,” said Mizuki. “But Hannah’s got a point, that complaining about having a really really great power is a bit, um.”

“Myopic?” asked Alfric.

“On what planet is that the word I was searching for?” asked Mizuki. “I have no idea what that even means.”

“It means your eyes don’t work right,” said Hannah. “Nearsighted.”

“Yeah,” said Mizuki, frowning. “I guess that fits.”

“Because I’m not looking at the bigger picture,” said Alfric. “And I do understand that. Sorry. I’ll try to complain less.”

“Well I don’t know I want that,” said Hannah with a sigh. Most of this conversation was conducted toward the back of his head as they went down the road. “It’s somethin’ important to you, and obviously there are some pent up feelin’s about it, ay? So we want you to share, I’d think, but also to realize that it is a gift you’ve got.”

“It’s mostly a safety net,” said Alfric. “When I think about the benefits, it’s in the context of not needing to worry about worst case scenarios, or sometimes, being able to take more days off. I think about ninety percent of my problems would go away if people had the right perspective on it.”

“Same with sorcs,” said Mizuki. “If people could understand that most of the bad stuff we do was just chasing something in the aether, we’d be a lot better off.”

“You did come into the temple explodin’ things,” said Hannah.

“I created explosions,” said Mizuki. “That’s very different from exploding things.”

“And why did you do this?” asked Alfric.

“There were energies there,” said Mizuki, shrugging. “I thought that I might be able to make a construct.”

“Like a wizard?” asked Alfric, who didn’t seem to be all that educated in terms of magic, or at least, preferred to let other people be their own domain experts he could lean on.

“Kind of?” asked Mizuki. “The aether is complicated, but yeah, there are ways for a sorc to do more long-term kinds of things, in the right circumstances, stuff that would last a month or so.”

“But instead, an explosion,” said Hannah.

“Well, right,” said Mizuki. “I hadn’t encountered that particular, um, disturbance before. So it makes sense that I wouldn’t get it right the first time.”

“I recall two explosions,” said Hannah.

“You know what I mean though,” said Mizuki. “What I should have done was to talk to a cleric, get permission, whatever, but then what if they’d said no?”

“That someone would deny you permission isn’t a good reason to not ask for permission,” said Alfric.

“Well, either way, it didn’t work out,” said Mizuki. She shrugged.

Hannah was very aware that this wasn’t an apology, not that one was really called for. Hannah hadn’t been the senior member of the temple then, and now wasn’t technically a member at all. Or perhaps she only technically was. But the fact that an apology wasn’t strictly called for didn’t mean that the lack of apology went unnoticed. From Hannah’s perspective, Mizuki had gotten carried away chasing after something shiny in the air, and somehow either didn’t reflect on how this painted sorcerers, or couldn’t connect the dots.

Before the conversation could go further, a young boy of around ten came riding up on a bird.

“You shouldn’t steal,” said the boy.

He was bare chested and scrawny in the way that young boys often were, and barefoot on top of that, wearing only pants. He was sitting on a small saddle, holding reins that went up to the bird’s head. The bird itself — well, Hannah knew very little about birds, only that she was likely too heavy to ride one, but it had blue plumage and a longness in both its neck and legs. Birds needed to be enlarged by clerics of Xuphin to be rideable by anyone but a child. Enlarged above a certain size, they’d just die. There was metal on the clawed feet and the beak, partly to protect the creature, and partly to keep it doing what it was supposed to be doing, which was carrying the rider.

“We’re not stealing,” said Alfric, who wasn’t sparing much attention toward the boy.

For his part, the boy seemed to be expertly riding the bird, and had brought it to a slow walk alongside the wardrobe. “You are too stealing,” he said. “The wardrobe belongs to Alfric.”

“I am Alfric,” said Alfric. “This is my wardrobe.”

The boy looked at him. “Prove it?” he asked, clearly trying the question out.

“How would he do that?” asked Hannah.

“I don’t know,” said the boy. “But anyone who read the note could say they were Alfric.”

“And who are you?” asked Alfric.

“I’m Bib,” said the boy. “My dad is the hexmaster of the Knob.”

“Yeah?” asked Alfric. “And can you prove it?”

“Your name is Bib?” asked Mizuki. “That’s not a name.”

“People call me Bib,” said Bib. “It’s not my name.”

“Well, either way, you can’t prove it,” said Alfric.

“I could get my dad,” said Bib, frowning.

“You could get someone to vouch for you, sure,” said Alfric. “But I have people to vouch for me.”

“I have never seen this guy before,” said Mizuki. “I actually just started following him because he was carrying the wardrobe. It seemed really suspicious.” She had a mad grin on her face.

“He asked me for help movin’ it,” said Hannah. “But now it does seem a little suspect. Alfric, if that is your name, is this a theft?”

“I’ll give you a cut of the proceeds if you stop asking questions,” said Alfric.

“Was I not already gettin’ a cut of the proceeds?” asked Hannah. “Well then, good citizen am I, doin’ work for a stranger for free.”

“You’re making fun,” said the boy. He was frowning at them. “I really don’t know if you’re stealing it.”

“We’re not stealing it,” said Alfric. “We pulled it from the Traeg’s Knob dungeon and just needed to store it at the common house for a day.”

“It’s the Hill House,” said the boy. “Where are you taking the wardrobe?”

“To Pucklechurch,” said Alfric. “Where we live.”

“And you’ll charge people to use it?” asked Bib. “That could make you a lot of money.”

“We’ll see what the limits are,” said Alfric. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it had some kind of limit on how many people can go through in a day, or a weight limit, or something else like that. And if it doesn’t have that kind of a limit, we’ll probably sell it to a big city, where it can get more use, or set up a business or something.”

“A business?” asked Mizuki. “For this thing?”

“Sure,” said Alfric. “Place it in Plenarch and charge ten rings for someone to use it.”

“Plenarch is a terrible choice, ay?” asked Hannah. “It’s on the coast, water in three of the six directions.”

“Well, maybe somewhere else then,” said Alfric. “I guess we’d also want to make sure it can’t end up dumping you in someone’s home.”

“Ten rings sounds like absolutely gouging people,” said Mizuki.

“You wouldn’t pay ten rings to skip six miles of walking?” asked Alfric.

“We wanted it in Traeg’s Knob,” said the boy, cutting in on a conversation that had moved its focus away from him.

“Who is ‘we’?” asked Alfric.

“My mom and dad,” said Bib. “They wanted it to stay in the Hill House.”

“Well, that’s not happening,” said Alfric. “Sorry. I said on the note that I was keeping it there only for a bit.”

“But you did pull it from our dungeon,” Bib ventured. “So we should have some say.”

“That’s not the law,” said Alfric.

“Well it should be,” said Bib, who seemed to have quite a bit of conviction about this in spite of being a shirtless boy riding a large bird.

“No,” said Alfric. “Because then you’d have someone whose job it was to camp out by the dungeon entrance, and to check to see what people came out with, and to make sure they weren’t ‘stealing’ from the dungeon. Those people, those dungeon guards, they’d be going up against five people who were well-armed with lots of magic and expertise in how to kill things. And on top of that, those five people are going to be gone from the area in short order, so it would be hard to catch them. Tell me, would you want to be sitting around a dungeon entrance, in charge of stopping powerful people from taking things out of it?”

“No,” said the boy. “I guess not.”

“He’s talkin’ spit,” said Hannah. “The real reason it’s not done is because if it were, dungeoneers simply wouldn’t come, and if they did, they wouldn’t have nearly the incentive to pick the dungeon clean. We wouldn’t have lugged this thing out of the dungeon if we had thought the locals would try to steal it from us.”

“The real reason,” said Mizuki. “Is that all the dungeons are under an ancient curse. If you try to accost people coming out of a dungeon, you’ll die in the next seven days.” She wiggled her fingers in his direction.

“You made that up,” said Bib.

“Maybe, maybe not,” said Mizuki.

“It’s very hard to say,” said Alfric. “Mizuki is a font of unconventional wisdom.”

“Well I think we should keep the wardrobe,” said Bib. He seemed stubborn, which Hannah liked in a child.

“Well, you’re free to think that,” said Alfric. “If you need to, go tell your father that we’re taking it, and I can quote the relevant laws to him, along with a brief history of why things are structured the way there are. There’s a real depth of governmental policy and extraction philosophy to go over.”

“Um,” said the boy. “I don’t think so.” He squeezed his legs on the side of the bird a bit, making it trot further down the path. “It was nice to meet you.”

“Have a good rest of your life,” said Alfric as they watched the boy go off into the distance.

“Think he’ll be back with his pa?” asked Hannah.

“No,” said Mizuki. “Alfric has successfully weaponized being boring.”

“It’s actually not that boring,” said Alfric. “There are a lot of stories from both sides, especially stuff before the League more or less had control, or in places where the laws were different. I just said it in a boring way.”

“It seems boring,” said Mizuki.

“You think armed conflict between professional dungeoneers and townspeople sounds boring?” asked Alfric. “The history is quite long. A lot of warp conflicts too, since any kind of taxation or extortion at the point of exit from the dungeon could just be avoided by warping out. But I won’t bore you with any of it.”

“You said a lot of things,” said Mizuki. “And I am interested in learning more, but I’m worried the answers are boring.”

“Warp conflict just means any kind of fight that takes place at a warp point,” said Hannah. “No need to use that kind of language for it.”

“But that’s what it’s called,” said Alfric.

“So you use the warp and end up surrounded by people with swords?” asked Mizuki. “Sounds horrible.”

“Doesn’t happen much these days,” said Alfric.

“He says, with a wistful sigh,” said Hannah.

“Well, you know me well enough to know what that’s about,” said Alfric.

“See, I think I’m fortunate,” said Mizuki. “All the things I really want to do are things that no one is going to stop me from doing, like making noodles with Hannah, or having a cup of tea.”

“The thing I really want to do, going into dungeons, just has the hitch of needing like-minded people,” said Alfric. “Aside from that, people are eager for me to do it. Most of the barriers have been stripped away, nothing like in the past.”

They walked for a bit. The weather was quite nice, which they had already said their thanks to Isra for. There seemed to be an unusual amount of butterflies about, but that might have been because of the area they were traveling through. A few of them, small blue ones, seemed to be attracted to the wardrobe, and they landed on it from time to time, just enough that it was noticeable.

“Do you think we’re going to see more of that child?” asked Hannah. “Or his father?”

“I don’t know,” said Alfric. “But I know the law and I’m ready for a shakedown.”

“Does that happen?” asked Mizuki.

“Not often,” said Alfric. “There are a lot of things that surround the business we’re in though, things like counterparties and dungeon assistants and stuff of that nature. Shakedowns happen every once in a while, and you just tell them to piss off or suffer the wrath of the higher ups.” ‘Piss off’ sounded like unusually strong language coming from Alfric. “Hexmaster is probably the highest position in the hex, but if he gets the attention of the provincial chief, it’s possible the whole hex would face sanction.”

“I kind of feel like comp schooling let me down,” said Mizuki. “We never learned about any of this.”

“It’s nothin’ you would learn,” said Hannah. “No sense in teachin’ children about the way the world really works, and especially not the things which only help if you’re goin’ into a lot of dungeons.”

“Well, still,” said Mizuki. “I feel like I’m playing catch up.”

“There’s really not all that much you need to know,” said Alfric. “Honestly, of things I know, ten percent is useful, another ten percent is useful if a single person in the party knows it, and the other eighty percent is trivia. A lot of the useful things to know can just be taken as they come. And I really don’t want to bore you.”

“Alfric just needs to learn to punch up the borin’ stuff,” said Hannah. “I’m sure there are all kinds of great stories he’s got to tell. Alfric, you’ve gotta tell them as stories, it makes it less painful to get a lesson.”

“Is it a lesson for you?” asked Alfric. “I’d thought you knew a lot about the dungeon life.”

“Well, ay,” said Hannah. “But I was never in the Junior League, and my parents aren’t both dungoneers, so I imagine there are things you picked up that I didn’t.” There was a reason that she’d nominated herself as his lieutenant rather than attempting to take the reins from him. Alfric knew dungeoneering backward and forward, which was likely to be because his parents had imparted their fair share of knowledge, but also because he had a fiery passion for it.

“So you were saying about dungeon assistants?” asked Mizuki. “How is that different from this counterparty thing we’re going to have?”

“For the more popular dungeons, people set up shop outside them,” said Alfric. “But it needs to be a quite popular dungeon, because each dungeon is only done once in a person’s life, so it’s not all that common. And what you do if you’re setting up shop outside a dungeon … well, it depends.” He seemed to think about what Hannah had said. “My mom used to tell a story about coming out of a dungeon, half-dead, only to find a boy probably not much older than Bib who tried to get her to pay an exorbitant amount of money for healing. She was sitting there, bleeding, trying to negotiate with him, while explaining that most of her best stuff was bound to her and couldn’t be given away.” Hannah’s mind wandered to the missing bits of that story, like why his mother wouldn’t have just warped. There were answers, but they were the kind of answers that he’d decided the story didn’t need, or perhaps they were a sign of embellishment.

“That sounds kind of horrible,” said Mizuki. “Like, I feel like you thought it was a funny story, but it’s really not.”

“My mom found it funny,” said Alfric, shrugging. “It was a day she undid, because half of the party had died. She actually went and tracked down the kid, hired him on. She liked his initiative, even if it was callous.”

“Your mom sounds tough as nails,” said Mizuki.

“Oh, you have no idea,” said Alfric. “She holds a couple of family records.”

“For?” asked Mizuki.

“Most dungeons run, longest dungeon run, biggest haul from a single dungeon, most entads from a single dungeon, most dungeons in a day,” said Alfric.

“Isn’t she only in her forties?” asked Hannah.

“Late forties. There was a time she was running really hard,” said Alfric. “She had created a party composition specifically for not taking breaks, and then just kind of … kept going, I guess. They ended up with good entads for it. According to her, and I don’t know how true this is, there was a year when her party accounted for nearly ten percent of all new entads in Dondrian.”

“That sounds suspect,” said Hannah. “Not that I’d call your ma a liar.” Though there’d been something that he’d said earlier, about his original ambition being to do dungeons at a level not seen in decades, and it occurred to Hannah that perhaps he was talking about his own mother.

“Yeah, better that you don’t do that,” said Alfric. “I did ask her about it, but all she had to say was that she was told that number by an entad dealer, and maybe they would know, but,” he shrugged. “It wasn’t a boast she made often, but she did have a habit of boasting, at least when other dungeoneers were trying to puff out their chests. Mostly to put them in their place, I guess.”

“Think we’ll meet her some day?” asked Mizuki. “Because she seems neat.”

“I’d like to make a name for myself before I go back home,” said Alfric. “At least, say … twenty dungeons?”

“So half a year, at current rates?” asked Hannah. “I can’t see us goin’ too much faster than that, which I know isn’t what you want.”

“All that stuff with Lola aside, I’m going to dungeons and actually enjoying myself,” said Alfric. “And no one stole the wardrobe.” He shrugged. “Faster would be better, yes, but with two dungeons done, and a third on the way … I’m actually doing it now, which I’m grateful for.”

“You had a tough time of it before us,” said Hannah.

“My standard of living was high,” said Alfric. “I’m not going to complain about it more than I already have.”

“You have feelin’s though,” said Hannah. “Doesn’t do to let them go unexamined.” There was almost nothing about that in the Book of Garam Ashar, but plenty that Hannah had been taught at the seminary. People often thought their problems were small, and left them to fester, and that was true of their bodies as much as their minds.

The boy on the bird came back just about then.

“How about it?” asked Alfric. “Are we under arrest?”

“My dad isn’t the hexguard,” said Bib. “He would send someone else, if he wanted to.”

“Well, unless you’ve got a posse coming, I suppose we’re in the clear,” said Alfric.

“I have to apologize,” said Bib.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Alfric. He probably would have waved a hand, if he hadn’t been keeping the wardrobe steady.

“I have to apologize,” said Bib. “Dad said that if I didn’t I would get in trouble. So I’m sorry for saying that you stole it and that you should keep it here, and my dad told me that I should ask if I could make it up to you, because you’re not supposed to berate strangers, he said. And you’re not supposed to repeat conversations at the dinner table to them.”

“So you owe us a favor, is that it?” asked Alfric.

“I guess,” said Bib.

“Well, I’ll think about it,” said Alfric. “But we have nothing for you right now. That bird makes you fast, and I think we can use that, if your father is okay with you going a bit far from home.”

“I go where I want to,” said Bib, holding his chin high.

“Well then, remember me, because I’ll be calling on you,” said Alfric.

“Okay,” said the boy. He turned his bird around and sent it off down the trail again, this time without saying goodbye.

“You think you’ll be able to collect on that?” asked Hannah.

“No,” said Alfric. “But it doesn’t hurt to have a favor from a nosy little kid.”

“You like kids?” asked Mizuki, eyes brightening somewhat.

“I like them well enough,” said Alfric. “I was a mentor in the Junior League for a bit, when I was floundering.”

“I had thoughts of being a teacher,” said Mizuki. “But I wasn’t all that good in school, and to be a teacher you need to go off training for three years.”

“Three years isn’t so much,” said Hannah. “Not when you’re talkin’ about takin’ care of the little ones.”

“How long is seminary?” asked Mizuki.

“Five,” said Hannah. “Though you can do the final year as part of a placement, if you so desire. Most of it is just tryin’ to get the right mindset for Garos, which was never much of an issue for me.” She turned to Alfric. “Seems strange to me that you like children.”

“Why’s that?” asked Alfric.

“They’re just … not very serious creatures, it seems to me,” said Hannah.

“Depends on the kid,” said Alfric. “Some of them are very serious, and maybe that’s what I like: being the only person that sees that seriousness, and being the only one who will indulge it. In the Junior League, as a mentor, I was always on the lookout for them, the serious ones, when I wasn’t trying to keep my brothers in line.”

“Brothers?” asked Mizuki. “I thought you were an only child?”

“Why would you think that?” asked Alfric.

“You never talk about them,” said Hannah. “And you have that kind of energy, I s’pose.”

“I’m not sure I know what that means,” said Alfric. “Mizuki, can you come scratch the back of my head, or would that be weird?”

“It would be weird, but I’d do it,” said Mizuki. She walked past the wardrobe and reached up to scratch Alfric’s head.

“Lower,” he said, and then sighed with relief. “Honestly, I probably could have just carried this thing with one hand for a bit, but the more work we put into it, the more I worry that we’re going to drop it and make all that labor be for nothing. Thank you.”

“No problem,” said Mizuki. She stayed at the front with him, walking side by side. “So wait, how many siblings do you have?”

“Five,” said Alfric.

“There are five of you?” asked Mizuki.

“It would be six, if there are siblings,” said Hannah.

“That’s even worse,” said Mizuki. “How did your mother have six children while also doing near-constant dungeons?”

“Entad solutions, I would guess,” said Hannah.

“Yes,” nodded Alfric. “My mom always said that if she’d had to go through a pregnancy herself, she probably wouldn’t have had children. So we were all technically decanted, not born.”

“Things of that nature are usually reserved for the Church,” said Hannah, frowning a bit. Couples not being able to have ‘natural’ children was one of the serious issues, and while there were occasional entads that helped to deal with it, they were in perpetually short supply. The idea that someone had used one for convenience was, well … it seemed a bit selfish and contrary to the common good.

“My mom personally pulled six of those entads from the dungeons, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Alfric. “All were donated to the Church of Garos.”

“Ah,” said Hannah. “That does make it a bit better.”

“‘Decanted’,” said Mizuki. “What, like pulled out of a bottle?”

“Yep,” said Alfric.

“Weird,” said Mizuki.

“Yep,” said Alfric. “Anyway, about five years ago, mom started slowing down. She went through a month-long dungeon and came out with several tons of loot and a different perspective. She’s been much more, uh, motherly since then. With mixed results.”

“Well now I really want to meet her,” said Mizuki. “She sounds like a blast.”

“Honestly, and I know this sounds like boasting, it’s very possible she’s one of the most accomplished dungeoneers in human history,” said Alfric. “But records are pretty poor, and a lot of the very best have had the incentive to puff up their accomplishments. It’s very, very unlikely that anyone really did complete fifty thousand dungeons, but I guess you never know.”

“Fifty thousand does seem unlikely,” said Hannah.

“Stepping foot in fifty thousand seems doable with the right travel entads,” said Alfric. “Actually clearing them of monsters and taking everything of value … much less so.”

“Why would you want to just step foot in a dungeon and then walk away?” asked Mizuki.

“Bragging rights,” said Alfric. “Or, maybe to catalog, if you could do that safely through entads or mana constructs or something.”

“I guess,” said Mizuki.

“I tried to work out the math a while ago,” said Alfric. “And it left me skeptical. It’s more than two dungeons a day for fifty years or something like that. Possible, but you’d need pretty much inhuman endurance if you were doing a full clear.”

“You were lookin’ it up because of your own ambitions?” asked Hannah.

“I want to be a great dungoneer, like my parents,” said Alfric. “But after how things have gone the last year, I’ve resigned myself to not setting any records.”

“Ah, the disillusioned and world-weary eighteen-year-old,” said Mizuki.

“Things lined up for us now,” said Alfric. “And it’s a slower pace than I had planned, starting out. But the team is good, and that’s worth quite a bit to me. Dungeoneering isn’t something you can do solo, not if you want to make any actual progress.”

“Dyin’ would be the bigger thing,” said Hannah. “Though I s’pose for you, it’s not as much a concern.”

“No,” said Alfric. “Not so much.”

Given that they were only technically carrying twenty pounds of weight, they were able to keep up a decent enough pace, and they took turns with the wardrobe after Mizuki realized that perhaps she shouldn’t just be with them for the company. It was under her watch that Alfric was almost crushed by the wardrobe, but they managed to right it without any injuries.

When they arrived in Pucklechurch, the ground was wet from a recent rain, and Hannah enjoyed the smell, which reminded her of home, where the rains seemed to be more common than Pucklechurch. Of course, the weather of Pucklechurch had quietly been manipulated by Isra for likely Hannah’s entire time there, so perhaps it wasn’t something about the region, but about Isra’s particular preferences for rain and sun.

“Now the question is whether we take it to the temple first,” said Alfric. “I think we do, since it’s on our way. That way we can have Filera take a look at it before we move it home, if we do move it home.”

“You’re keen on startin’ a business?” asked Hannah.

“I doubt that we’d make much, if the wardrobe works in volume,” said Alfric. “But if it does work in volume, there’s no sense in having it sitting where people have trouble using it.”

“We could have it there for the public good,” said Mizuki.

“We could, I guess,” said Alfric. “Would that pay off?”

“What do you mean?” asked Mizuki. “Like, you’re asking how or whether we would eventually make some money by, uh, having people bake us pies or something? Donations, like support comp and the temple?”

“The temple is largely funded through provincial tax,” said Hannah.

“Well, you know what I mean,” said Mizuki. “But … no, I don’t think we’d get back what we put in, if we just made the wardrobe free to anyone. That’s not the point, the point is just to help people out.”

“Right,” said Alfric. “Well, we’ll have the cleric take a look at it, and maybe any debate will be moot. I’m a strong believer in charity, but I’m not sure we’re in a position for it now.” Hannah looked back, and he seemed lost in thought. “Let’s say it’s a hundred rings a day, that would be twenty a piece, which isn’t all that much, but over time … and there would be expenses, I suppose, a lockbox, and not everyone would pay if we didn’t have someone watching the thing, which we couldn’t unless we gave a cut to a storekeeper.”

But they came to the temple, and managed to get the wardrobe through the door, steering it until eventually they were outside the Qymmos’ area.

“Hannah, do you want to make yourself scarce?” asked Alfric.

“Why would I want to do that?” asked Hannah.

“Prior religious disagreements?” asked Alfric.

“I’ll stay, if it’s all the same, I had nothing else to do today aside from doin’ my first proper bake in Mizuki’s house,” said Hannah. She wasn’t sure she appreciated the offer from Alfric, but on reflection, decided that it came from a good place, and that was what mattered.

“Filera,” said Alfric as they came in.

“Alfric, Hannah,” said Filera, nodding to them. She had her usual cool demeanor, and set down her book as soon they’d entered her area. She was always reading, and seemed to have a good mind for it, which was little surprise for a cleric of Qymmos. There was something very restrained about her, a feeling like she was holding herself back and always in control.

“Are you busy?” asked Alfric. “We have an entad we’d like you to look at. A few, actually, but the others aren’t with us right now.”

“I suppose I did say that I would do it for free,” said Filera with a sigh as they put the wardrobe down. She stepped closer to look it over, circling around it, though for a cleric of Qymmos, that wasn’t strictly necessary. “It’s a travel entad, but I gather you already know that, or you wouldn’t have taken so much trouble to get it here. It’s from Traeg’s Knob?”

“Yes,” said Alfric. “We acquired it two days ago, but took until today to get it here.”

“Mmm,” said Filera. She was still staring at the wardrobe, doing some miracles in her mind, finding the categories that the wardrobe belonged to, pinning it in place.

“What’s she doing,” whispered Mizuki, who’d moved close to Hannah.

“I’m no cleric of Qymmos,” Hannah whispered. “But she likely knows the so-called language of the entads, and is goin’ through it word by word to see what applies. They use somethin’ called a binary, a choice between two, splittin’ things down where they can.”

“That’s reductive,” said Filera. “And it’s a useless approach to entad identification, unless there’s a keyword that needs to be found.”

“Well then what are you doin’?” asked Hannah.

“I’m finding the sets,” said Filera. “Entads don’t fall into the natural sets, and their so-called language is the best way of finding their function, but right now I’m interrogating the function of the location mechanism. The wardrobe leads to a place in a different hex when selected using the dial, oriented as upward being north, but where in that other hex is in question, and there are standard mechanisms with variants. I’m trying to find out which one, and with what variants.”

“We’re most interested in how often it can be used, and in what conditions,” said Alfric.

“I’m intending a full analysis,” said Filera. She had a way of keeping her tone mild while saying something that seemed to be a rebuke. “It will take some time though, perhaps an hour, if you want my certification. If you’ll be talking, I’d prefer it’s just outside.”

“Well, I think I’m going home,” said Mizuki. “I’ll go see what Verity has been up to, then maybe start on dinner. Any requests? Easier to fulfill them now, while we’re not far from the shops.”

“Something light,” said Alfric. “Fish?”

“A good fish stew would do,” said Hannah.

“I have no idea how to make that, and it sounds disgusting,” said Mizuki. “But I can do fish and potatoes, and some kind of green thing. You always need a green thing.”

“Not always,” said Hannah.

“Well, when you cook, you can leave the greens out,” Mizuki shrugged. “I know Cairbre food is mostly whites and browns. Anyway, I’ll see you both later, it was fun.”

“She’s very likeable,” said Alfric, once Mizuki was out of earshot.

“She’s agreeable,” said Hannah. “Never makes much of a fuss, and I get the sense that would be true even if it were important that a fuss be made. She’ll tell people what they want to hear, and go along with ideas someone else suggests.”

“And you don’t like that?” asked Alfric.

“I like Mizuki,” said Hannah. “But I’m the opposite.”

“Disagreeable?” asked Alfric.

“I like to tussle with people,” said Hannah. “I like to challenge and be challenged. Mizuki is like pushin’ over a pile of wet paper. I like her, but my instinct is to push and prod, and I have to keep in mind that can’t really be done with her, lest she dissolve at my touch.”

“She’s different from what you’re used to,” said Alfric. “I can understand that.”

“No, I’ve met people like her before,” said Hannah. “At the seminary, I always held them in contempt, but that was because we were there for the glory of Garos, the ideas were the point of it, and some of them just crumbled when questioned or pressed. The seminary was a bit two-faced about it though.”

“And not in a good, symmetrical way?” asked Alfric.

“Har,” said Hannah. The more she thought about it, the more it was a little funny. “No, on the one hand they want, need, people who are passionate about Garos, who understand his fundamental nature, who eagerly seek to interrogate what he means, but on the other hand, there’s doctrine and keepin’ people in line.”

“Two hands and two faces,” Alfric nodded. He was grinning, and not seeming to take the conversation too seriously, which was a bit of a disappointment. Hannah liked his seriousness. He had a real ability and willingness to tussle, so long as it was a matter he cared about, which was to say, so long as it was about dungeons.

“It’s the same with the dungeons, isn’t it?” asked Hannah. “When you were in the Junior League, there were people who would wave off discussions of the dungeons? People who would accept what they were told, rather than speakin’ up and tryin’ to get to the bottom of things?”

“Yes,” said Alfric. He contemplated that and judged his words. “Absolutely. I don’t think I have that same desire to press that you have, but when told not to do something, or that we must always do something, the ‘why’ was important to me. Other people seemed to just accept it.”

“Because the ‘why’ might save your life someday,” said Hannah, nodding in agreement. “Or there might be an edge case, or some underlyin’ theory or somethin’. But some people just want instructions they can follow, rather than to think for themselves. And in our case, with sweet little Mizuki, she seems content not to think too much. That’s all.”

“And you find her agreeableness disagreeable,” said Alfric.

“Not much, no,” said Hannah. “But I have to remind myself who she is, or she’ll annoy me.”

“So far, I haven’t been bothered by it,” said Alfric. “She’s a surprisingly proficient sorcerer, for someone who doesn’t seem like she’s taken her education all that far, though part of that is that we’ve got a nice collection of casters. You let me know if there’s anything that I can do to grease the wheels between the two of you.”

“Och,” said Hannah. “I like her, but you have to understand me, that when you say anythin’, almost anythin’ at all, I’ll like to say ‘but’ and then hammer it out with you. So if you’d said that you didn’t care for Mizuki, I’d feel myself inclined to mount a defense, but when you said she was likeable, I went straight for the things I wasn’t so fond of. And that’s one of the things that people don’t like about me, which I think is fair. I tilt toward the contrary. I always have.”

“Good to know,” nodded Alfric.

“I think I will head out,” said Hannah. “If you think you’ll be fine movin’ the wardrobe on your own? I’m in a bit of a mood, and need some prayer, perhaps in the direction of Mizuki.”

“Of course,” said Alfric. “I’ll either bring the wardrobe by myself, or leave it here and we can get it tomorrow. It’s possible that I might be able to get it a temporary home in town, so we can start banking rings off it, but I guess we’ll see.”

“Thanks,” said Hannah. “For all you do. And for listening to me reflexively complain about someone who didn’t deserve it.”

Alfric nodded. “Go, clear your head, I’ll deal with Filera.”

Hannah thought about stopping in to speak with Lemmel, but she did need to clear her head, and instead, elected to go find a bench to sit on for a bit and pray.

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Alexander Wales

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