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Isra was envious of Mizuki’s cooking. The meals Isra had in Liberfell and at the Fig and Gristle had been quite good, but they had been prepared by someone whose job it was to do such things. A person who had devoted their life to cooking would naturally be a good cook, that was right and fair. But Mizuki hadn’t devoted her life to cooking, it was only something that she’d done casually, and she still seemed to be so good at it, and at a young age. It made Isra feel like she had been missing something from her life, a skill that she had never developed when she’d been perfectly capable of doing so.

Worse, it was a skill that didn’t seem to come naturally to her like so many other things had, because the interplay of flavors largely didn’t involve the living world which she was so in tune with. She could tell whether food was good to eat or not, whether it had toxins, but what it would taste like was much more difficult, and the ways that the taste would change when paired with other tastes, or in the process of cooking, was even more difficult. She’d had her own difficulties when smoking meats or making pickles until finally arriving at something she found satisfactory. Mizuki seemed to know everything there was to know. The envy did nothing to dull the taste of the food. If Mizuki was serious about giving cooking lessons, Isra was going to take them. She’d kept a close eye on the food preparation, but had no real idea how such simple procedures had turned the base ingredients into an actual meal.

“Okay,” said Alfric. “The post mortem won’t take long, I don’t think, it’s just a matter of going over what happened in the dungeon, what went right and what went wrong, and trying to figure out what we can learn from it. Overall, I think we did pretty good, except at the end.”

“Because of the risk?” asked Hannah. “Or the outcome?”

“Both,” said Alfric. “But we’re going to go through room by room in chronological order, give brief thoughts on what we saw and how we responded to it, and what we might do differently next time. Mostly doing this is just a way of running the dungeon a second or third time in our minds, which means that we milk the dungeon for experience much more efficiently.”

What followed was quite a bit of talking. Isra stayed silent for most of it. It was interesting to get different perspectives on what happened, but her own part in the dungeons was relatively straightforward. If there was something to shoot, she shot it, using the slowed time from the bow to get as many shots off as possible, then using it a second time to retreat if necessary. In every fight, her contribution had been roughly the same, with the outcome being different largely because the monsters had their own biologies and defenses.

“So was this because I missed?” asked Mizuki, when they were discussing the giant man who’d been covered in mussels.

Did you miss?” asked Alfric. “You blew the arm off.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t trying to,” said Mizuki. “I was just lobbing the fireball at him and hoping that it would kill him.”

“Is that something to work on for later?” asked Alfric. “Aim? So far as I can recall, you didn’t have a single miss through the whole dungeon, so I don’t have any actual complaints.”

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. She shrugged. “Has it been working?”

“You had the majority of kills,” said Hannah. “But we’ve been facin’ what seems like more than our fair share of the big, slow-movin’ beasties, and those are what you’re best at.” She shrugged.

“We can’t really tell you what to do or how to do it,” said Alfric. “We’re not sorcs. Part of a post mortem is for you to reflect on what you’ve been doing and whether doing things differently would have been better. I have no complaints and no advice.” He hesitated. “Aside from, perhaps, not doing everything all at once?”

“Um,” said Mizuki, who seemed quite confused. “Meaning?”

“You work off aetheric imbalance, right?” asked Alfric. “So in theory, rather than doing a single giant fireball, you could do two smaller ones? Mostly I was thinking about the deer we fought, and how a single large attack is less effective against multiple targets.”

“Hmm,” said Mizuki. She held out a hand and wiggled her fingers, and a series of pings, almost in unison, came up from the glasses of wine and water that were sitting around the table. “Like that?”

“I don’t know what you just did,” said Alfric.

“Applied force to all of the glasses?” asked Mizuki. “You heard the pings, right?”

Alfric gave a helpless shrug. “I did, but … yes, if you can do that in the dungeon with lethal force, it would be great. It was one of the only problems we ran into with the deer fight.”

“We … didn’t fight any deer,” said Mizuki.

“The black things,” said Isra. “With large heads. They had legs like deer.”

“Oh, those,” said Mizuki. “Right, I didn’t think of them as deer at all, more like a big black version of the long-legged skinks. I hated those.”

“Well, we’ll get to them,” said Alfric. “Does anyone have any more on the mussel man encounter?”

“Arrows did nothing,” said Isra. “I was just standing there waiting for someone else to kill it.”

“Some will be like that,” nodded Alfric. “Others will drop from a single well-placed arrow. Part of what we do, when dungeoneering, is to work a flowchart, and part of what we need to do, as a team, is to figure out what the flowchart looks like in practice. Mizuki putting down as much magical firepower as possible right from the start will probably be the default, and Hannah going in for a hex against something that’s already been injured is another good staple. So Isra, your role will be to loose arrows unless that doesn’t work, and if it doesn’t work, then … I don’t know. You did really well up close at the end of the first dungeon, but I don’t expect you to do that, not when you don’t have a good melee weapon or the proper training to use it. Not everyone is going to be good in every scenario, and that’s okay, so long as we have everything covered and plans for these different scenarios. Sometimes, you’re going to be able to kill whatever we find almost instantly.”

“I’ll need symmetricalization,” said Isra. “I don’t have the stamina for longer dungeons.”

“Symmetricalization, training, entad support, and learning when to hold off,” nodded Alfric. “Dungeons require a lot of physical exertion, especially for you and me. We should all be building up stamina as much as we can, and if we’re not doing that by running dungeons, it should be in other ways, like going for a morning run.”

Mizuki laughed. “No, absolutely not, thank you.”

“Well, something then,” said Alfric. “It’s not as important for you, but it would be good if you were able to sprint for two hundred yards without getting too winded. Being able to run away from danger is where physical fitness is going to count the most, for you.”

“Fine, point taken,” said Mizuki. “But if you think for even a moment that I’m getting up at first bell to go running, you’re absolutely insane.”

“We’ll figure out something,” said Alfric. “It’s your heart and lungs I care most about. Running, rowing, things like that?”

“What am I going to row?” asked Mizuki. “We’ve got a pond, I guess, but we’re light on lakes.”

“I lift stones,” said Hannah. “Usually just the one side though.”

“Stones?” asked Mizuki. “Like, rocks?”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “There are lots of forms. What you need most is a nice craggy rock that your hands’ll stick to. I have two, back in my room at the temple, and will need to transfer them over, or find some new ones.”

“You just pick up and then put down rocks?” asked Mizuki.

“Over and over,” said Hannah, nodding. “It’s about as boring as it sounds, but I like to have somethin’ to occupy my body when doin’ prayers. If I do it here, it’ll be outside, where I can drop the stones without too much worry about breaks or dents.”

“I’m not sure that I’m going to do that either,” said Mizuki. “Though I guess I could try.”

“Lifting weights won’t really get you the kind of benefit I would think you’d want,” said Alfric. “You want to work the heart and lungs, rather than gain strength, not that it would hurt to have both.” He waved a hand. “But that’s neither here nor there, because we’re still in the middle of our post mortem, and there’s quite a bit more ground to cover.”

They talked about each fight in some detail. Isra found it particularly interesting to get the perspective of Verity, whose effects could be felt but not seen, and whose own view of each fight involved carefully watching all the others to see what was needed in any given moment. It also gave her an excuse to look at Verity, which she’d found herself doing quite a bit over the past few days.

“I feel bad that we were rushing on my account,” said Verity. “But if you want a song of that strength, it probably is necessary.”

“I trust you to know your own music,” said Alfric. “But I do think that I want to take the next dungeon a little more slowly. I think going from fight to fight is preferable for a number of reasons, but the fights are physically and mentally exhausting, and if they’re difficult or prolonged, there’s a limit to how many of them I can do in a row before getting gassed. The balance there is how warmed up and ready to go I am, and battle rush certainly helps to get through things.” The term, ‘battle rush’, was unfamiliar to Isra, but from context, she thought he might mean the whole body felt electric in a moment of intense combat.

“You’d like weaker but longer?” asked Verity.

“Well. When you change the fundamental nature of the song in mid-stream it creates problems too, right?” asked Alfric. “If we could have something more all-purpose that might be better, but I don’t want to make a request that betrays my ignorance as a layman.”

“I can try,” said Verity. “There are also some exercises that I can do over the next few weeks to work on my sustain. They’re incredibly boring, but if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s putting in the time and effort into something I find boring.”

“You’re a very good gardener,” said Isra.

“Just a bit of self deprecation,” Verity smiled. She had a lovely smile, made more lovely by the fact that she used it sparingly.

“The other thing I wanted to talk about, when it came to rushing, was knowing when to call it quits,” said Alfric. “But we can save that for when we talk about the bear.”

“We don’t need to talk about the cyclops or the deer, right?” asked Mizuki. “I mean, Isra killed the cyclops right away, what’s there to talk about? And we already touched on the deer things.”

“I think the cyclops is actually a really good example of when to hold back, actually,” said Alfric. “The basic assumption of a dungeon is that there’s a single monster or group of monsters in a room, but ‘room’ isn’t necessarily the fundamental unit of a dungeon, and sometimes monsters will come in from elsewhere, either as part of their normal behavior, or when they hear fighting. Mostly what sets them off is presence, but not always. So Mizuki, it might make sense to let Isra fire a probing arrow and see how that affects things before you lob a fireball.”

“It’s easier to hit something that’s not moving,” said Mizuki. She had her arms folded across her chest. “Besides, I’m limited by the room, it’s not like there’s a point in saving it. Isra can only shoot a bow a limited number of times per day, especially if we’re tearing through the dungeons as fast as we can.”

“That’s what I was talking about,” said Alfric. “You want to save the aetheric imbalance in a room for when it’s most needed, especially because there’s no way to get it back. It would be saved for tactical retreats or adds — additional monsters.”

“I get it, I guess,” said Mizuki. “Still seems like the kind of caution that could bite us in the butt.”

“Maybe,” said Alfric. “Something to think about, anyway. I’m only relaying conventional wisdom. Adds are one of the most fundamentally difficult aspects of a dungeon, and we haven’t had to deal with that yet.”

“We had those wolves,” said Mizuki.

“That’s different,” said Alfric. “But yes, we did well to contain them before they got out of hand. Isra, you did particularly good work there. I don’t know what kind of limiter they had, if any, but fast action seemed like it was the only way to get out of it. For my own part, I think being more verbal about what was happening might have gotten that fight done sooner.”

There was more discussion, and for Isra, it was a bit too much. She imagined sitting and talking about things like it was a muscle you had to exercise regularly and which you could build up strength in. For her, that conversational muscle was underdeveloped. She had come over to the house and spent some time talking with Verity, then some more time in the kitchen before dinner, and then the dinner itself, and it was all adding up to make her a bit anxious. Perhaps Alfric sensed this, or was feeling the same, because he moved the topic of conversation to something he seemed to really want to talk about.

“We shouldn’t have fought the bear,” said Alfric. “I think doing it got us the majority of the value in the dungeon, but I still think, in retrospect, that it was a risk we shouldn’t have gone for, and the fact that it worked out perhaps sends the wrong message about what the acceptable level of risk is.”

He waited for a moment, and there were some glances around the table.

“I think you may be right,” said Hannah. “And I’m sorry for pushin’ the matter. We were ridin’ high off a series of rooms we’d handled well, and —”

“I think we’d have been fine if I didn’t knock out Verity,” said Mizuki.

“Well, that’s another thing,” said Alfric. “We need to be able to handle the unexpected. Being a dungeoneer is about the unexpected, because you’re always seeing things that haven’t been seen before, and put into situations which, at best, share some common features to things other people have seen. In this case, the unexpected thing was an accident of magic, but in the future, it might be something else, an entad misfire, a monster, a dungeon feature, or something like that. There’s a saying in the dungeoneering world, that every dungeon is your first dungeon.”

“What kind of sense does that make?” asked Hannah.

“It’s a warning against complacency and overconfidence,” said Alfric. “By the time you’ve done twenty dungeons, or a hundred, you might have lost that edge you had in the first dungeon. You might let your guard down. But dungeons, almost by definition, can surprise you. The bear, if that’s what we’re calling it, really should have been killed by Mizuki’s overpowering strike, but the truth is that anything could have happened, and a large creature is usually more dangerous, just by virtue of his size. The bear could have split in two, or been powered up by the assault, or shrank down, or … anything, really.”

“How close to death do you reckon we came?” asked Hannah.

“I think we were within spitting distance of one of us dying,” said Alfric. “Better communication, better response to the unexpected, better follow-through on plans … all would have helped. I don’t want to belabor the mechanics of the fight, it’s more about the feel, the flowchart, the shape of our approach. Better to not have done the fight though, even if it did get us the best entad of the dungeon and some trees that will hopefully pay out.”

“And the eggs,” said Isra. Their lone egg had, somehow, become her responsibility, which she was quite pleased about. No longer would she simply be the archer of the group, she would be the archer and keeper of the egg. It was nice to have two jobs.

“Those too,” nodded Alfric. “Mostly long-term things. I’m not hopeful about the eggs, because there are many things that can hatch which don’t serve any useful function at all, but in theory, we could still sell them to a zoo or a collector. At any rate, that’s all that I had for the post mortem, and now it’s time for you all to add whatever you’d like.”

“I need to get better about rushin’ in to apply a hex,” said Hannah. “And better about coordination with you for it, but that’s about it. Might be helpful for people to call out injuries, though Alfric aside, we didn’t have much injury to speak of.”

“I’ll have you do symmetricalization to me,” said Isra. This was something that she’d been mulling over since they’d finished the dungeon.

“It would be good,” said Hannah. “But I’ll speak with you about what all it involves, so you know what you’re in for, and we can restrict it to the arms and chest, if you’re mostly about the draw.”

“And the healing,” said Isra.

“Naturally,” said Hannah. She seemed somewhat reticent, and Isra had no idea why that might be.

“I have nothing more to add,” said Mizuki. “I was going to read a book.”

“I don’t think I have anything more to add either,” said Verity. “I need to practice and think about what less intensive songs would look like. I might send off a letter to someone I know asking for advice, though there’s a good chance it would get back to my parents, and, well. I worry that if they found out I was a dungeoneer, even if only a temporary one, they might take action.”

“We still need to write a letter to them,” said Alfric. “I can do it, but if you want input, which I think you do, you need to stop putting it off.”

“Fine, fine,” said Verity. “You are obviously and annoyingly right.” She gave him a limp smile.

“It looks like we’re done here then,” said Alfric. “Thank you all for participating, I hope it was painless and productive. We’ll probably do this after every dungeon.”

“There was one more thing,” said Isra.

“Yes?” asked Alfric. He seemed genuinely surprised that she had something to add, probably because she preferred to remain silent for most of it, watching the others.

“I just wanted to say … there’s a wrongness to the dungeons,” said Isra. “The animals and plants can’t be felt as much. Nothing listens to me very well. I’m sorry that I missed as much as I did, and I will try to do better.”

“It’s fine,” said Alfric. “You were recruited for this team because I’d heard good things about your ability as a hunter. There’s something we call ‘dungeon madness’, which just means that about ninety-nine out of a hundred animals will attack you. We don’t know why it happens or how to stop it, and I really don’t expect you to be the one to crack it, because while druids are rare, and druids who go into dungeons are even more rare, they’re not so rare that someone else hasn’t already tried whatever you might think of. Just in case you were thinking about beating your head on the problem.”

“I was,” said Isra. She had been cautioned about opening herself up too much, but she was still exploring what it meant to be a druid, and it seemed that some experimentation was in order.

“Wait,” said Mizuki. “Chickens don’t attack people.”

“Dungeon madness is first generation only,” said Alfric. “It doesn’t affect eggs, or the extremely young if it’s not an egg. In dog equivalents, you’d need to be pulling out a two-day-old puppy. Everything else though, you’re looking at taking care of something that will be trying its best to kill you. It’s still sometimes worth it to take the adults though, if you can extract a breeding pair. There are setups where you can take care of the animals without interacting with them. I don’t think we’ll do that, but with Isra, it’s a bit tempting.” He turned to look at Isra. “We can talk about it more later, if you’d like, but I don’t want to bore anyone, and this has gone on long enough already. Too much talking.”

“Later,” nodded Isra. Again, she had a comfortable feeling. It was nice that Alfric understood her. “I do also need some help with the guild things, if you can.”

“Of course,” said Alfric. “I’d forgotten all about that. You’re connected with experts, so perhaps they can help you.”

The dinner over, and the post mortem finished, they all went their separate ways, though Isra found herself staying around the house, not quite wanting to leave and return to her empty house. She went through the garden beds in the back and looked at the work Verity had done, peering deeply at the plants to divine their secrets and make guesses about what a person might have planted them for.

Halfway through, Verity came out to practice, and played a song, one laced with magic that undid hidden knots of anxiety, and by the time it was finished, it seemed too dark for a walk through the woods. The bed at Mizuki’s house in the shared room with Verity was becoming, it seemed, familiar.

Before she went to bed though, Isra pulled Hannah aside. “Can we talk for a bit?”

“Of course,” nodded Hannah. “Did you need help with the guild?”

“Yes,” nodded Isra, though that wasn’t the primary thing she’d wanted. Alfric had already offered.

They went to Hannah’s room together, where there was a little desk, and Hannah pulled the chair out for Isra, taking the bed for herself.

“Now, the thing about guilds is that it’s mostly a matter of how you think into it,” said Hannah. “Think to open up the forum, try that now.”

Isra did. She’d done it once before, when she’d had a dim awareness that it was there, in the morning, but she’d done little else with it. “Done,” she said.

“Now, you should see a few messages there,” said Hannah. “A message comes with a header, which is what it’s about, a name, which is who sent it, a date, which is when it became a part of the guild logs, and then the message itself.”

“There’s only one message,” said Isra, frowning. It appeared in her mind’s eye, and had all the features that Hannah had talked about. It was listed as being from Dom.

“Oh,” said Hannah. “Well, it’s possible they do a regular purge, that’s not too uncommon. Anyone who posts a message can delete it, and if everyone agrees, the log can be kept somewhat clean. There’s no real need to do it, but some do. And you could open it?”

“Yes,” said Isra. All this took was another thought. “The message is short.” It, too, appeared in her mind’s eye.

“Well, the only real things left to know are how to make a message, and how to reply to someone,” said Hannah. “You just sort of … talk into it, if that makes sense, but it’s not like the party channel, where it uses your voice, there’s transcription to words, and if you think at it, you can alter it down to the letter, though few people do that. In some guilds you’ll see people make pictures out of letters, but it’s a bit frowned upon.”

“Okay,” said Isra. The phrase ‘pictures out of letters’ didn’t make sense to her, but it didn’t seem like something she’d do by mistake.

“Why don’t you try to reply to the welcome message?” asked Hannah. “And just tell me what you said, so I can make sure it’s good.”

“I don’t know what to say,” said Isra.

“Oh, something simple,” said Hannah. “Just, ‘Thank you for inviting me to the guild, it’s my first time, so let me know if you have any rules that need to be followed.’”

Isra put down that, more or less, and repeated it back exactly to Hannah. The message seemed to hang there in her mind, even when she wasn’t paying attention to it, and as soon as she returned her attention to it, there it was, in full, each letter capable of being moved.

“Now, to send, it’s just a bit of a push, more focused intent than anything else you’ve been doing,” said Hannah. “You don’t need a header for a reply, though some people put that in, and your name and the date, those are just a natural part of it.”

“It knows my name,” said Isra, who could see it in her mind’s eye..

“Same as the census does,” nodded Hannah. “Have you sent it?”

Isra pushed with her mind, and the message slotted itself into place.

“Now, you should know that no one will be able to see it until tomorrow,” said Hannah. “It happens sometime in the middle of the night. If there’s another reply to that same message, they’ll be in the order they were put in, and the same goes for any new message.”

“You’re talking about mechanics,” said Isra. “But I don’t know what I should be doing with it.”

“Oh, ay,” said Hannah. “But most of that will depend on the guild. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to just watch how things go. See what they say and how they say it, and follow their lead, whether they go short and terse or write long essays back and forth.”

“There might be hidden rules,” said Isra.

“Well, almost certainly,” said Hannah. “And ways of doin’ things that are unique to them, or just the way things have always been done. Maddening, probably.” She shrugged. “Watch the headers, some guilds use abbreviations, and watch how messages end, sometimes people use that to say who they expect to hear from. Remember that anyone can see and respond, and that you can’t see messages from others that are in queue. It’s quite annoyin’ to get three identical responses to someone on the same topic.”

“And that’s all there is to being in a guild?” asked Isra. “Talking?”

“Oh, no,” said Hannah. “There are guild halls, though they’re not terribly common, and there are bits of magic that work with the guild, includin’ bards. But I don’t imagine any of that applies, and I get the sense you’re done talkin’ about this for now.” She gave Isra an expectant look.

Isra shifted. “There was a reason that I wanted your help instead of Alfric’s.”

“Oh, ay?” asked Hannah. “And why would that be?”

“I … don’t really understand why Verity is going to be with Xy,” said Isra. “Or how.”

“Ah,” said Hannah. “So it’s my expertise as a cleric of Garos, is that it?”

Isra nodded.

“And were your questions more of the mechanical variety, or of the hidden codes and language?” asked Hannah.

“I don’t know,” said Isra. “I understand animals better than humans.” She looked down at her hands. She had become so familiar with embarrassment over the years that it was difficult to remember that she wasn’t supposed to be embarrassed around these people. They had, so far, been very understanding. “I don’t even know when humans have their mating season, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it.” She looked up. “If I had … I would know, wouldn’t I?”

Hannah at first seemed amused by this for some unknown reason, and then concerned, also for an unknown reason. “Isra … humans don’t have a mating season.”

Isra frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean they don’t — there’s no season for fallin’ in love, for us to desire another in a romantic way, for wantin’ sex,” said Hannah. The last bit was said with a frankness that Isra appreciated. It was a topic that people seemed to like to dance around, and in books, quite a bit of it seemed to be skipped over, with only the implication left behind. Isra hadn’t even realized that the implication was there, the first few times she’d read a romance.

“But then when a woman goes into heat is … random?” asked Isra.

“We don’t do that,” said Hannah. “At least, not to my knowledge, and I think I would know.”

“Oh,” said Isra. She sat with her hands in her lap, thinking about that. It seemed so wrong and confusing, that humans were uniquely missing a vital, fundamental part of their lives. They had rules of their own that they probably followed, but also these rules were the ones that people didn’t talk about very much. Looking at the animals, Isra had just thought, well, that it was the same in humans, and that she just hadn’t gone into heat yet. She had thought that romance would make a bit more sense then.

“Do you want help, findin’ a partner?” asked Hannah. “Or … someone to decode for you, if I understand your problem with that kind of thing?”

“I don’t know,” said Isra. “I don’t understand what Verity wants with Xy.”

“Well, again, I have to ask, do you mean mechanically or emotionally?” asked Hannah. “Because it seems to me, if the talk around the kitchen had you confused, that there’s not meant to be much of emotions involved, and that can be a bit fraught, if you ask me.”

“And … mechanically?” asked Isra. “Because ... they wouldn’t mount each other.”

Hannah then explained, in some detail, what might happen between the two of them. This included some lessons in anatomy that clarified a few things for Isra.

“There are some books with illustrations, back in the temple,” said Hannah. “I can show them to you. And obviously the mechanics are different for a man and a woman, at least some of the time, and I could show you then too. Best to be forthright about it, especially with you, I think.”

“I see,” said Isra. She’d felt increasingly bad as the discussion had gone on, and was left, by the end of it, feeling rather glum.

“Are you okay?” asked Hannah.

“Fine,” said Isra.

“You know, I am a cleric,” said Hannah. “And I’ve been trained to talk to people about their problems, to give them advice, to help them figure things out. Beyond that, anythin’ you say will be in confidence, not shared with anyone else. It’s a bit delicate, given that we’re in a party together, but better to talk, in my opinion, even if the thoughts are half formed.”

“It makes me feel sick,” said Isra. “Imagining them together.”

“Ah,” said Hannah. “Well, that’s somethin’ that you’ll have to deal with, and I can help you with that — sick in what way? Sick like lookin’ at moldy food? Revulsion?”

“I don’t know,” said Isra. “No. Sad.”

“Mmm,” said Hannah. “Well.” She cleared her throat and there was silence in the air. “And do you ever think about bein’ with other people? Men or women? Bein’ kissed or touched?” The question was very gentle, reminding Isra of the way that people sometimes approached forest animals they were worried about scaring off.

Isra felt like objecting, because she’d had those thoughts, but it wasn’t like she’d actually been in heat. But apparently that wasn’t something that happened to women, and men presumably didn’t have any rutting behavior, so it was possible that the thoughts which had entered her mind were just the normal levels of desire that people had, and acting on them was natural, if the kind of thing that people just didn’t talk about.

“I think I might be done for now,” said Isra, standing from the chair. “It’s … thank you for the help, with the guild things, and the other, but — I need time to think, on my own.”

“Of course,” nodded Hannah. “And once your thoughts are in order, I’d be happy to talk with you again, especially over what you feel and how to handle it. You should know that for people your age, it’s not always so clear how to grapple with these things. This is universal, more or less, figurin’ out how things are for you.”

“Thank you,” Isra said again. She was feeling warm toward Hannah, grateful in a very tactile way, like she’d been rescued from drowning. It felt good, to be told that she was perfectly normal, especially after she’d been corrected on what felt like a fairly major misunderstanding about human mating.

Isra brushed her teeth with the miswak twig, used the bathroom, and went to bed. Verity was already there, in a nightgown but not yet asleep.

“How did talking about guild things go?” asked Verity. She had a small bottle of something beside her, and was rubbing something white onto her skin. “Lotion,” she explained. “Helps to keep the skin nice, would you like to try some?”

“Sure,” said Isra. She came over and sat next to Verity, and rolled up her sleeves so she could apply some lotion to her arms.

Verity talked for a bit about lotion, and the regimes that she’d used back in Dondrian, different soaps and ointments that were meant to keep the skin perfect. Isra listened, but she also kept her eyes on Verity. Everything that Hannah had said echoed back and forth through Isra’s mind, like a wave of thunder.

Eventually, Isra went back over to her own bed, and they shuttered the lights.

It took Isra some time to fall asleep though. She kept running things through in her mind’s eye, trying to test how she felt about them, as Hannah had asked her. She imagined nuzzling Verity, or kissing her, or their bodies entwined beneath the sheets. It caused her to be possessed of a restless energy, and made sleep come slowly.

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Alexander Wales

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