Alfric, having nothing better to do, came back into the room with Filera early. She was still standing there and looking at the wardrobe with her eyes narrowed. There was no longer any inspection of it, only a sharp gaze. Alfric found himself a chair and calmly waited.
The party was getting along well, and he included himself in that assessment. Hopefully Lola would forget about him, or be convinced not to chase him down, though both of those seemed like they had a rather slim chance. If Lola’s party broke up … well, that would be the opportunity that Alfric had once dreamed about, a chance to put everything back together again and do it how he’d always wanted to do it. He felt a pang of guilt, since it would mean leaving the Pucklechurch party he’d formed. The feelings were more complicated than he would have imagined. It was a combination of Lola’s report on problems with the party and his growing affection for the Pucklechurch team, he thought.
“Sixty-six times a day,” Filera said into the silence.
“An auspicious number,” said Alfric.
“Less than you’d think,” said Filera. “Sixty-six is eleven sets of six. It only has two sixes in the number because of how we choose to count. Better would be seventy-two, which is twice six sets of six. Thirty-six is particularly auspicious, as it’s six sets of six.”
“Okay,” said Alfric. He rubbed his chin. “As a matter of doctrine, or preference?”
“Doctrine,” said Filera. “But as with all matters of doctrine, there are detractors.” She turned her eyes from the wardrobe to Alfric. “Sixty-six times a day should give you some ability to make money with this, though I imagine you’d be better off selling it to someone in a larger city. You’ve probably already surmised that the dial orients itself with north being up and similar relationships for the other settings. The entad uses a somewhat simple unidirectional doorway function, centered on a random ‘safe’ point of land within a hex, avoiding structures out to around ten feet and people out to a hundred feet. If there’s no safe space to create the door, it will attempt one of the surrounding hexes, and if none of those are suitable, it will go further.”
“Meaning?” asked Alfric, frowning.
“I’m in the business of identification and information, not monetization,” said Filera with a shrug. “Is your question about the function, or how to use that function?”
“It could be put on a ship and allow access to land no matter where on the oceans you are,” said Alfric, after a moment of thought. “But I have a hard time imagining that we couldn’t get more from it by just charging people for passage in a large city.”
“So there is some intellect there,” said Filera, giving him an approving nod.
“You need a keen intellect, if you’re going into dungeons,” said Alfric. “It helps with not dying. I’m available to talk now, if you are.”
Filera regarded him. “I suppose I am.” She gestured for him to sit down, and offered tea and snacks, which he declined. He wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted from this, but he was willing to indulge her if it meant that she would spend some time identifying entads for them. It was somewhat rare for an entad to dramatically rise in value when a cleric of Qymmos had a look at it, but there were definitely exceptions to that, including those with command words, or those whose apparent function cloaked a deeper, richer function.
“Clerics of Qymmos are of two minds when it comes to dungeons,” said Filera. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a schism, but it’s emblematic of two very different approaches to our god. For some, the dungeons are an endless source of new things to categorize, a paean to our god. For others, they’re a mockery of that same desire to categorize and systematize.”
“And which camp do you fall in?” asked Alfric.
“The former, naturally,” said Filera. “That’s part of why I wanted to speak with you. Do you go to clerics often?”
“Only for healing, not council,” said Alfric. “In Dondrian, I attended a weekly sermon, usually with my family. We were in rotation, a different church every week save for an expectation on holy days. The same six churches though, and a community of turners with us.” The term, ‘turners’ was somewhat derisive, but appropriate, in Alfric’s opinion. “I suppose it’s different here, when you’re all in a single temple.”
“It is,” said Filera. “There’s a weekly sermon, which rotates through the gods. In my opinion, the community is closer for it, but I imagine there are arguments for doing it the other way. People have their own understanding of the churches and their place within the community. The social aspect has always seemed, to me, irreplaceable.”
“Can I ask … why I’m here?” asked Alfric. “You must have people coming in all the time to hear about their problems. I want to make sure that your part of the deal is satisfied, and maybe I could do better if you’d tell me what you want me here for.” That felt like it was perhaps too direct and to the point, in a way that the people of the region didn’t care for.
“I find Pucklechurch a bit tepid, frankly,” said Filera. “The problems that people come to me with are ones that I do take some joy in solving, but I can already tell that I’m not cut out to stay here for the rest of my life. And that’s where you come in, an outsider who I can vicariously live through. You’re never going to be more than an outsider, and my guess is that you’ll be moving on in a few months, so for once, I think that I’ll get something out of talking, rather than giving my time and attention.”
“You’re … lonely,” said Alfric.
“No,” said Filera. “Or I wouldn’t quite put it like that. There’s something that possesses the young, a need to wander and explore, to see the world, and I had my own chance at that, a dozen dungeons, which was more than enough for me. But the life I have now, and the people in it, fall into certain distinct sets, and the friends I’ve made in Pucklechurch, beyond just the congregants, don’t satisfy the itch.”
“Well, I can do my best, I guess,” said Alfric. “Did you want to hear about the dungeon?”
“If you would, please,” she replied.
Alfric essentially just repeated what was in the report. He wasn’t a natural storyteller, and he could feel that it was a bit dry, but had no idea how to correct for that. He wanted it to be descriptive and evocative, but gravitated toward the facts too much.
“Forgive me for stating something we both know, but you’re a chrononaut,” said Filera.
“Yes,” said Alfric. “They know now, but didn’t at the time.”
“You expressed reticence to engage with the bear,” said Filera.
“Having to redo a dungeon when we’d already gotten a fair amount from it didn’t appeal to me,” said Alfric. “Nor did the idea of dying, or my teammates dying.” He had a very clear mental image of Mizuki getting sheared in half with one of those enormous shovel claws, though if it had been able to get Mizuki, it was far more likely that he would have already been dead by that point. “And a little bit I … don’t enjoy fighting the monsters as much as I thought I would.”
“No?” asked Filera, with an arched eyebrow.
“My mother doesn’t like fighting monsters, and she’s, well, possibly the most proficient dungeoneer in the world,” said Alfric. “She’s good at it, but being good at something doesn’t mean you have to like it. My father, on the other hand, seems to find some pleasure or glory in the fights, like it’s a chance to test his mettle, to best one of these creatures. And I’m competent at it, I feel, but the monsters are the thing I like least about dungeoneering. I keep hoping that a switch is going to flip and I’m going to find it exciting in the way my father seems to, but it’s, well … like doing dishes, I suppose. I take pleasure in the job being done, and I guess I don’t mind doing it, but it doesn’t fill me with the same kind of glee that I wish it did. I want something to flip over inside me so I’ll suddenly feel exhilaration from it, but so far … well, it seems like I take after my mother more.”
“And that explains some of your reluctance to engage with the bear,” said Filera.
“A small sliver of it,” said Alfric. “This is all in confidence, right?”
“On my oath as a cleric,” nodded Filera. “There’s no need to share it with anyone else, and I have no idea why someone might want to know.”
And that led Alfric to talking about Lola and the party that had been taken from him, which took some time.
“You think that if she knew we’d been talking, she would try to get information from me?” asked Filera.
“I don’t know,” said Alfric. “The more I talk about it, the more it’s obvious to me that I should probably confront her and clear the air, but everything is so poisoned between us that I’m not sure that’s going to be productive.”
“You’ll have to let me know how that drama resolves itself,” said Filera. “You gave me more than I’d hoped, and I hope talking about things has been a help to you, but I have other duties to attend to. I visit the elder’s home every day, and it’s getting close to the time for me to be off.”
“Thank you for listening,” said Alfric. “And for the identification.” He looked over at the wardrobe and wrinkled his nose. “I’m going to take that with me, I suppose. I’m mostly worried about the floatstones, which I need to return to Liberfell.”
“Are you planning to make some rings from it in town?” asked Filera. “Because you’re welcome to leave it here for the next few days, at least until you find a place to install it.”
“That would be great,” said Alfric. “I’ll take the floatstones off and leave it, let people know they’re free to use it while it’s here. Better to get the word out so that we can start making money off it.”
Alfric took his time removing the floatstones and was grateful that he was able to do it indoors, where they might crack a ceiling tile, but wouldn’t go shooting off into the sky. It took quite a bit of work to marry them with the loadstones that had been stuffed in the book, but once it was all done, the wardrobe was standing there in the temple room looking almost like it belonged there.
On his way back home, or ‘home’, as it were, he began composition of a guild message, one asking for advice on whether actively wanting to fight monsters was a necessary part of it. He knew his mother’s opinion on the matter, but there were members of the family whose thoughts he’d never heard. He didn’t think that it would be likely that he’d ever send the message, but it was still good to compose it, because it helped to get his thoughts in order.
There were aspects of fighting monsters he liked. He enjoyed figuring them out, taking all the rules he’d learned and putting them into practice, assessing the situation and what it called for … but the actual insertion of a sword into flesh left him feeling nothing in particular. He liked to win, certainly, but the actual fighting, not as much.
When he got to the house, Mizuki was in the middle of cooking, and the other three were in the kitchen with her, talking about plans for the garden. Alfric was mildly surprised to see Isra there, especially because he hadn’t heard anything over the party chat. Had she come to the house to see Verity, or had she just figured that they had returned?
“It’ll take the three of us,” said Verity. “Mizuki to tell us the names and what they’re used for, if she knows, Isra to figure out what’s local, and myself to actually execute the plan.”
“Sorry,” said Alfric. “I know I’m coming in late to this, but is there a reason that Isra couldn’t just do it all?”
“I like gardening,” said Verity. “And gardening is work, even if you’re a druid. Isra will help, and I’m sure it will be a far better garden for it, but I’ll be the one putting in the work.”
“It’s mostly going to be focused on Kiromon things,” said Mizuki. “I don’t actually care that much for traditional Kiromon cooking, but it’s nice to be able to draw from the same set of ingredients that my parents used to. Oh, and Hannah and I are embarking on a journey of noodle-making. Hopefully we can make something edible.”
“I do like a low bar for success,” said Alfric.
“But we should talk about the next dungeon,” said Hannah. “Isn’t that right?”
That hadn’t been what Alfric had intended to say at all, but it was a segue that seemed like it was worth taking. “We have options for the third dungeon. I read a fair number of the dungeon reports, and we’re going to aim for something that has a good chance of being easy for once. We need to rest though, and we need to start doing informal drills.”
“Drills,” said Verity, making a face.
“I said informal,” said Alfric. “But the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t want us to be going in with undue risk, and looking back at the last dungeon, it really seems like we did. We hit high variance, but —”
“Question,” said Mizuki, who was cutting up a fish. “Is variance a real thing, or is it just something that you say to make people more likely to go into dungeons?”
“It’s a real thing,” said Hannah. “I’m not sure the second dungeon was all that high variance though, aside from the bear at the end.”
“I put in a report to my guild,” said Alfric. “They agreed it was high variance, and proposed some possible explanations, though there was nothing remotely like consensus, and variance doesn’t really need an explanation.”
“Next time you write a report, tell your mom I said hi,” said Mizuki.
“We try to keep things professional,” said Alfric. “Though we do follow a heading system to separate out messages that are more … frivolous.”
“Fancy,” said Mizuki.
“Not really,” said Hannah. “Most larger guilds have such a thing.”
“I joined the druid’s guild,” said Isra. “This morning.”
“Oh really?” asked Verity. “You should have said, I’ve been going on about the garden and you had actual news to share. Though I suppose you haven’t heard anything from them yet.”
“There was a welcome message,” said Isra. “I think I need some help writing a reply.”
“You just think it,” said Alfric. “It’s pretty easy, I’ll help you with it later, if you’re going to be sticking around.”
“Isra is the beneficiary of always planning for an extra person,” said Mizuki as she continued cleaning the fish.
“I didn’t mean to intrude,” said Isra.
“You didn’t,” said Mizuki. “You can treat this like your house, and the spare bed in Verity’s room like it was your bed. But you should have used the party channel to let me know that you were going to be eating with us, and then I could have gotten a bit more food so we don’t need to stretch.”
“But you prepare more than we need,” said Alfric. “So it’s not actually a burden.”
“You’re going to lecture me about contingency planning?” asked Mizuki, momentarily stopping her knife work. “And I never said it was a burden, just that I like to plan out food, and it’s easier to do that when I don’t have to walk back to the shops right before dinner. Think about it like this, if we’ve got someone claiming the extra plate, what are we going to do if we have a random visitor?”
“How likely is that?” asked Alfric. “Do you get random visitors often? The kind that you’d feel obligated to have a meal ready for?”
“Well,” said Mizuki. “No.”
“Um,” said Verity. “I talked to the town cartier, Xy, today. Alfric, you’ll need to arrange things with her, but she’s shown some interest in being the first member of our counterparty.”
“Oh,” said Alfric. “That’s great news. But when you say town cartier, you mean she serves a wide region?”
“She does,” said Verity. “We would want to give her as much advance notice as possible, and I suppose I’m not entirely clear on what her duties would be, so the whole conversation was light on specifics.”
“Friendly though?” asked Hannah, keeping her voice casual.
“That’s something that I’d actually like to talk with you privately about,” said Verity. “It’s not really something I have all that much experience with. The, uh, mores and things, if there are some specifics.”
“Wait,” said Mizuki. “Are you going to be dating this girl?”
“Well,” said Verity. “That’s part of what I wanted to speak with Hannah about, because it seems like the arrangement she was interested in was being something less than partners.”
“Well you can talk to us too,” said Mizuki. “I know all about partners.”
“And you’re good at relationships?” asked Verity.
“Oh,” said Mizuki, deflating somewhat. “Well. Quantity has to count for something, right? Otherwise what was I doing with all those boys?”
“Ay,” said Hannah, raising an eyebrow. “What were you doin’ with all those boys?”
“Perfect chastity, no doubt,” said Verity.
“Well,” said Mizuki, blushing. “Chastity is only a virtue for Kesbin. But the point is, I have plenty of advice to offer. And if a boy came to me saying that he wanted ‘something less than partners’, that would raise some alarm bells, unless I was also looking for something less than partners, but I don’t think that usually turns out well.”
“With due respect,” said Hannah. “I did go to the seminary and spend quite a bit of my time learnin’ best practices for relationships of all kinds, but especially those between two women, platonic or otherwise. It’s among the duties I’m expected to perform as a cleric, givin’ advice. But that said, I do agree that I raise an eye at ‘less than partners’, unless that’s what you’d like. You don’t seem the type though.”
“I don’t?” asked Verity. “For all you know I’ve been with dozens of women.”
“Have you?” asked Hannah, voice quite innocent.
“No,” said Verity. “But I’m not sure what ‘type’ I seem like.”
“A sheltered life of parental pressure aside, and that’s just me readin’ between the lines, you seem like the type to go for the first girl to show strong interest in you,” said Hannah. “And from there, a relationship that moves quickly, because you like things to be sorted away. Then you’d get all the problems that come from that, the quickness, mostly things comin’ to a head some years down the road as you realize that you never built a solid foundation. But I’d be happy to hear your take on what you like and who you are, if that was all a load of feathers.”
“I like to think I’d be more circumspect in my partners than that,” said Verity. “But you’re probably right in the broad strokes. It’s a prophecy that I, well, … think there’s some merit to.”
Hannah shrugged. “A lot of bein’ a cleric, the community aspects of it, anyhow, is about puttin’ people into broad categories as quick as possible, then goin’ through as you talk to them and seein’ all the ways they don’t fit, or where your assumptions are wrong, and they will be wrong, because people aren’t made for categories.”
“Is that what clerics do?” asked Mizuki, who was washing her hands. The fish was all laid out and seasoned, ready for the oven. “I guess I never really go in.”
“You should,” said Hannah. “You’d find some use in it, I think. Most people do. Though some more than others, I s’pose.”
“I’ll speak with Xy,” said Alfric. “She’s local, which is good, and she’s probably not going to be looking for full-time employment, which we couldn’t pay her for, and which we don’t have enough work to justify. Thanks for making the first contact.”
“You don’t approve of me being with her?” asked Verity.
“I don’t think you want to hear my personal or professional feelings,” said Alfric. “I stayed quiet for a reason.” He glanced at Isra. She’d stayed quiet too, and he wondered whether that was because she had nothing to contribute, or whether he had an ally in her.
“Well, I think I do want to hear it,” said Verity. “‘Want’ is probably a strong word. I’d like to hear your objections, in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if your opinions were offered without me asking for them.”
“I want you to be happy,” said Alfric. “I think a strong relationship with a member of a counterparty isn’t a bad thing, and isn’t likely to interfere with the business of dungeoneering in the same way that a relationship with a member of the party is. The counterparty isn’t engaged in potentially life-or-death situations with us, where tensions might run high and where depending on each other can be crucial. And one of the necessities, when it comes to a party, is all the partybound things, a pressure that’s not there for the counterparty. But at this stage, unless I’m mistaken, Xy is the only local cartier. Out in an area like this, she’s probably paid by the province, or by Interim itself. Most other cartiers move to the cities for better pay, or ply trade routes and ley lines. So if we lose Xy, there’s probably no replacing her until or unless we have the money to get someone for that exact purpose, which we’re quite far from being able to do.”
“Understood,” said Verity. She frowned. “But she’s — we’re not anything yet.”
“I know,” said Alfric. “And I think that you’re within your rights to have a messy relationship with someone we’re in some kind of business with. Keeping a coherent party is what’s most important. And perhaps a fling would be good for you, if part of why you left Dondrian is because of the expectations of your parents.”
“My parents expected flings,” said Verity. “Socially appropriate flings that would help me make a splash, but all the same. When I was still figuring things out, she had given me some very frank advice on that. Etiquette and protocol.” She made a face. “I don’t know if I would find it more palatable if she’d been talking about women instead of men, but I doubt it.”
“Well I’m here for you, if you have questions,” said Hannah. “Or you could speak with Lemmel, if you’d prefer someone who’s not a friend.”
“Better a woman than a man though, right?” asked Alfric.
“Perils of a small town,” said Hannah, shrugging. “Not everywhere can be Dondrian, where you have thousands of clerics.”
“Well, like I said, it’s nothing yet,” said Verity. “And nothing much to fuss over.” She did seem a bit pleased about the fussing though, happy that she could share some of her joy. Or perhaps she was just happy about the prospect of having found someone that reciprocated her interest.
“Part of the reason to have friends is to fuss over romantic choices,” said Mizuki. “But if you’d like some privacy, let us know.” She turned to Isra. “I don’t suppose you’ve had a partner?”
“No,” said Isra, who had mostly been silent through all this.
To Alfric, this felt like an implied question about Isra’s sexuality, but he couldn’t quite tell whether her answer was a rejection of the question or a misunderstanding of what was being asked of her. She seemed a bit put out by the conversation, though that could well have been Alfric’s imagination.
“Dinner is going to be ready pretty soon,” said Mizuki, who was moving vegetables around in a pan on the stove. “Fish doesn’t take long to cook. We’re doing Kiromon flavors, if that’s alright with everyone, including a bit of lakeweed.”
“There aren’t lakes in Kiromo though,” said Hannah.
“Well, no, it’s adapted,” said Mizuki. “And there are lakes, but they’re mostly on the inland section, what used to be Mien. Nothing like the Proten Lakes though. The flavor of lakeweed is different, but it’s close enough. Grandpa used to import bales of dried seaweed, which he sold to some of the other immigrants. It was a side business, I think. Now we mostly make do with what we get from the Proten, and a few farms there.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever had seaweed,” said Alfric. “What does it taste like?”
“A little fishy, which is why it goes well with fish,” said Mizuki. “It’s got a very green and, um, watery taste? Hannah made some bread to go with the meal, and it’s got some lakeweed in it too, so hopefully the flavor agrees with everyone. It’s not so much a ‘safe’ meal.”
“Safe, in this context meaning something you’ve made before?” asked Verity.
“Um,” said Mizuki. “I’ve made it before, but haven’t gotten feedback from anyone, and it’s not one of my staples. There are some recipes, like my stew, that I have down to a fine art, and each batch turns out more or less the same, depending only on the ingredients or what spin I’m putting on it. But there are other things where I don’t have a good feel for the cooking time, or the proportions, and it comes out different. This is one of those.”
“It’s a high variance meal,” said Alfric. He grinned at her.
“Well,” said Mizuki. “Yes. But if you’re about to compare dungeoneering to cooking, no thank you.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Alfric. “If you see some parallels, that’s on you.”
“Oh no,” said Mizuki, pressing a hand against her forehead. “He’s in my mind, making me think thoughts.” She made a pained face. “Variance minimization. Entad allocation. Attack tier pattern vectors.”
“See?” said Alfric. “I knew you were listening.”
“Did any of that mean anything?” asked Mizuki.
“Uh,” said Alfric. “Well, there’s not a lot that you can do to minimize variance, the focus is more on ensuring that you’re prepared for variance and you minimize the impact it has on your dungeon runs. That means bringing along plenty of equipment like axes, ropes, pitons, sacks, ladders, or whatever else.”
“We didn’t bring a ladder, did we?” asked Hannah.
“No, but we will for the third dungeon,” said Alfric. “It can fit in the stone, which can fit in the book, so it wouldn’t add all that much weight, and serves as a form of insurance. I’m still hoping that we get a better storage entad, but the book and the stone together get us about ninety percent there. In terms of how the second dungeon went, I think we did fairly well on the entads, but they’re support entads that help with logistics, rather than directly helping us to do the dungeons.” Alfric hated to bring it up, but they really did need to do a post mortem, especially now that they had some space to breathe and time to independently think about things. It would have been better to do it the night of, or the night after that, but things had come up, and he’d been feeling off kilter. There was a bit of silence as he tried to weigh his words.
“Oh, the post mortem,” said Mizuki, unprompted. “You’d mentioned it, and I think we can do it tonight. After dinner works for me? I’m fairly sure that none of you have plans.”
“Works for me,” said Verity.
“Me too,” said Hannah.
“Mmm,” said Isra, in a way that seemed like assent.
“Verity?” asked Alfric. “You’re not playing at the Fig and Gristle tonight? We can work around that.”
Verity very briefly looked at Mizuki, who gave a minute shake of her head. “No,” she said. “I’m taking a night off from that, and would have wanted to arrange it ahead of time anyhow.”
“What’s going on?” asked Alfric. He looked between them. Something was going on.
“Mizuki felt bad,” said Isra. “She was thinking of something to cheer you up, and settled on either a post mortem or dungeon school. Or both.”
“I don’t know that I need cheering up,” said Alfric.
“From the Lola thing?” asked Mizuki.
“Ah,” said Alfric. “Yeah. Well, I really appreciate it. I’m not sure what dungeon school would be though.”
“You know,” said Mizuki. “Like, you just tell us all the things we need to know about what dungeons are like, or something.”
“The problem is that there’s a lot,” said Alfric. “But I’ll do my best to distill it down and we can have something like a class on dungeons, if that’s what you want.”
“I want to be better at this dungeons thing,” said Mizuki. “And I thought it would make you happy to have a post mortem without feeling like it was a matter of pulling teeth to sit us all down for it, or like you were the one pushing things forward. I figured that sometimes it must feel like you’re carrying the team forward, which seems like it would get exhausting. It would have been better if we could have just left it at that though, without you knowing that we’d set things up ahead of time.”
“Well, either way,” said Alfric. “I really do appreciate the gesture, and the willingness. There’s a lot that people find boring, and yes, post mortems and training tend to be a part of that. But that can wait until after we’ve had dinner, and there are other things to talk about.”
“Like Verity’s cartier?” asked Mizuki.
“I’m hoping that the subject has been exhausted,” said Verity.
“Or cooking,” said Alfric. “Or the garden, or other things.”
“Sounds great,” said Mizuki. “Fish is done, vegetables are too, and we’ve got bread with butter, so I think we’re ready to eat.”