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There were some ways in which cooking for quite a few people was more work than cooking for one, but an aspect of it that Mizuki hadn’t considered was the work involved in transporting raw ingredients. Not buying them, since that was easy enough, but if she wanted to bring home enough food for the five of them for the next two or three days, the pounds really started to add up, enough so that her large, trusty bag was digging into her shoulder. It was also hard to cook for five because it seemed impossible to make enough that there would be leftovers for the next day, which meant that cooking was something that needed to be done every day. When she’d been alone, if she didn’t feel like cooking, she could just live off the same pot of stew for a few days.

Something was going to have to be done about it, but Mizuki didn’t quite know what. It was making cooking into a larger part of her life, and in the process, making cooking perhaps a little less fun. So far as she knew, none of the others could really cook, so it wasn’t like they could be depended upon to take up some of the slack. Hannah was the exception, and Isra seemed like she wanted to know how to cook, but … well. Mizuki was keenly aware that this was a problem of her own making. She had offered to cook and said that it was no problem. She had dismissed help with elements of the work where help would be appreciated. She had no idea how she was going to say, ‘Oh, actually, some days I just won’t feel like cooking’ or ‘I know that I waved off your suggestions that I take it easy, but actually I shouldn’t have done that’. It seemed awkward and unpleasant to do that.

“Mizuki, so good to see you’re intact,” said Marta, who seemed to be genuinely happy that Mizuki was there for market day. “How was the second dungeon for you?”

“Oh, it was an adventure,” said Mizuki. “We fought a bear the size of a house.”

Marta waved a hand. “You’ve got to be more realistic with your exaggerations, no one is going to believe that.”

“Very much not an exaggeration,” said Mizuki. “We really did.”

“And how would you have beaten such a thing?” asked Marta, giving Mizuki a raised eyebrow.

“By sucking all of the magic out of the room and breaking our bard,” said Mizuki. “And then having Hannah rush in to double the damage and nearly get herself killed.”

“Well, you be careful,” said Marta, frowning. “Dungeons don’t get very dangerous until you’re higher elevation, so if you’re having trouble now, it might be a sign that things aren’t for you.”

“So far it’s seeming like it’s extremely dangerous,” said Mizuki. “How many did you say you did?”

“Twenty-eight,” said Marta. She seemed to feel some pride in that, though she wasn’t quite puffing out her chest. “Of course, I was a wizard back then, filling a bit of your role, I suppose, though in a different way.”

“I’d meant to ask about that,” said Mizuki. “Why give up wizardry?” She’d known Marta for ages, though only as a purveyor of meats and other foodstuffs.

“There’s always work for a wizard, and I was a normal enough wizard for a time, but it’s intensive, mindful work, and never really gets less so,” said Marta. “Eventually I wanted to slow down, but if you slow, you start looking at all the equipment and thinking that it’s a load of money you’re not making the full use of, like sitting on a chair made of gold, so at a certain point I sold off all my mana stones and switched over to dealing in food, which was my husband’s work.”

“I guess it’s not the same for a sorc,” said Mizuki. “We don’t have equipment, or really all that much training or anything. There’s nothing to give up.”

“Some wizards go into a sort of retirement and keep enough stones around for little things,” said Marta. “And I did, for a year or so, until it was clear that I was going to rust away.”

“Do you regret that?” asked Mizuki. “Switching vocations?”

“Oh, not at all,” said Marta. “Firstly, I think it’s better not to live a life of regrets, but secondly, I think that we can view our lives as having different phases to them, when sometimes it’s appropriate to be one thing, and other times it’s appropriate to be another. But I’m not sure that there are so many parallels between us, because being a wizard is, if you’ll forgive me, much more of a steady job.”

“True,” nodded Mizuki. She looked down at the selection of meat. Marta’s husband was the butcher, and he had a skilled hand as well as some entad support, which allowed the meat to come out looking clean and perfect, almost an abstracted version of itself.

“You’ve been cooking for the whole house?” asked Marta.

“I have,” said Mizuki. “And they seem quite appreciative.”

“Five is a fair number to cook for,” said Marta. “You make sure you’re getting your worth from them, on that front and the other.”

“The other?” asked Mizuki.

“Dungeoneering,” said Marta. “Now, I’ve no idea how good you are in a dungeon, but we’re a bit alike, wizards and sorcerers, and my guess is that you do most of the killing. It’s a good position to negotiate from, if they know your worth.”

“Oh,” said Mizuki. “Oh, I would never do that, we’re, well, friends now. Mostly.”

“I like you quite a bit, more than my other customers, but don’t let them know it,” said Marta. “You’re always pleasant and cheerful, but you can’t negotiate to save your life.”

“Which is why I’m such a good customer?” asked Mizuki with a smile.

“Which is why you need to make sure no one is taking advantage of you,” said Marta. “I’m very serious about this. I know your family went back to Kiromo, and you don’t really have anyone, but just because someone is a friend, or just because you want to be nice, doesn’t mean that you should let them put too much on your shoulders.”

Mizuki had known Marta for a long time, and Marta was among a group of women who had made sure that when her parents left, Mizuki was more or less taken care of while she was alone in that big house. For the most part, it was in little ways, like occasionally bringing her food, or offering to help her out, or sometimes sending a son or grandson to do some chores, occasionally as a pretense for courting. These women had, perhaps, disagreed with the decision to leave her all by herself, or were just fulfilling their community obligation, but it had been nice to have someone looking out for her, even though the support and check-ins petered off over the years as it became clear that Mizuki could handle herself.

It was still somewhat shocking to get such a forceful heart-to-heart with Marta. It wasn’t unwarranted, necessarily, but Mizuki hadn’t been expecting it. It was all true, that she was agreeable, and sometimes felt like she was missing out because of it, especially when it came to the odd jobs end of things, and the phrase ‘oh you can just pay me what you feel is fair’ had passed her lips a few too many times. Alfric was the one holding the purse strings though, and he was too upstanding to give her anything less than she was owed, but she was cooking for the whole house, and perhaps offering a bit too much and waving away too many reasonable objections.

“I’ll think about it,” said Mizuki. “Thank you.”

“I’m sorry to get so serious on such a lovely day, and of course I know it’s not my place,” said Marta. “We had all assumed that you’d be married by now, but if that’s not in the cards for you, and no reason it has to be, then you won’t have a partner to lean on and shore up your weaknesses, I’m sorry to say.”

“I’ve got the party now,” said Mizuki. “But yes, I’ll make sure that I’m getting what I deserve. Not that there have been any problems. Alfric has been great, and he’s the one who’s in charge of all the money.”

“Good,” nodded Marta. “Now then, what can I get you in terms of meat?”

“You know, with Isra being such a good hunter, I should probably just see if she can bring some meat in,” said Mizuki. She said it very apologetically.

“She came by trying to sell dungeon meat,” said Marta. “And saying that she was a woods witch, which I suppose must be true, because it would be too outlandish to say otherwise. We couldn’t buy what she was selling though, not when there’s so much risk it will turn out to be poisonous or inedible. And of course if you plan to go with that, I wouldn’t fault you for it. Dungeon meat can be good eating.”

“I think it will be some time before I want to start experimenting with new meats,” said Mizuki. “Especially because by the time I had a good understanding of bear meat, the last of it in the whole world would be gone.” She looked at the selection. “Chickens, perhaps? I was thinking slow-roasted, with vegetables, something that’s not too much work, that can sit in the oven for an hour or two and be poked and prodded a bit.”

“That sounds lovely,” said Marta. “Oh, and I should let you know that Basil got in a selection of Kiromon spices, but would probably let you have first crack at them if you went over there today. Seaweed, their roots, things like that.”

“Why’d she do that?” asked Mizuki, wrinkling her nose. “Not that much demand for it, with most of the Kiromon families gone.”

“Either she had a good deal on it, or she thought that people might be nostalgic,” said Marta. “You know, when your grandfather came here with the other families, we regarded them as a bit strange, but I grew up with your mother and father, off by a few years, and there were lots of us who played with them and went to their house for food. You remember your parents would sometimes make food for the community? There are a fair few of us who miss that.”

“Is that a hint?” asked Mizuki. “That I should bring something in for temple day?” She smiled. “I don’t think I’ve ever cooked for that many people.”

“Well, think about it,” said Marta. “Ingredients would be supplied for you from the community fund, and we’d get you some helpers. There are some younger kids who have yet to learn how to cook, and it’s good for them to see someone work. Or just bring something to potluck next time we have it. If money is an issue —”

“It’s not,” said Mizuki. “The dungeons have done us well.” Though it was clear that the rings weren’t going to last as long as she’d thought they would, and that dungeons in general weren’t going to be quite so lucrative as that first one.

Once the chickens had been bought, wrapped, and put into her satchel, Mizuki decided that she would go see Basil to see what kind of spices were available.

Basil was a plump woman who was always moving around like she had something of great importance to get to, and Mizuki wasn’t sure that she’d ever seen the woman rest once. Basil was unmarried, and at her age, unlikely to ever be married, which Mizuki had heard through the grapevine was entirely by choice, rather than a lack of options when she was younger, or anything like that. Basil’s hair was greying, and she had slowed a bit since Mizuki was a child, but she was still in constant motion, hurrying around to get one thing or another done.

Her shop wasn’t really a ‘shop’, it was more of a loading and unloading place, a central point for larger shipments from elsewhere, including things the farmers needed. Basil had catalogs and contacts in the wider world, and if you needed something beyond what Pucklechurch could provide, there was a good chance that she could get it for you, though it might take some time. She had a personal entad she used to make trips into Plenarch once a week, and there was quite a bit she brought back from there, some of it by request with a few rings for her trouble, and other things that she stocked in her shop on a more speculative basis.

When Mizuki entered, Basil was talking with a tall boy, Kell, the local wizard, who Mizuki had steered clear of ever since he’d come into town. As pleasant as Marta had been about it, wizards and sorcerers did not mix, and the bad blood between their two tribes ran deep. A sorcerer could destroy magical constructs that a wizard had spent weeks or even months on, and there had been times, in the bad old days, when sorcerers were employed as wizard hunters, and consequently, times when a wizard would kill a sorcerer on sight. None of that was true now, but it was still the kind of history that sat there in the past, informing the present.

Strangely, he seemed to be talking about the same spices that Mizuki was there for.

“You have a good selection, and some authentic sauces,” he said. “Most of the stuff we get in Pucklechurch comes from Liberfell, and most of that is made from local ingredients that were on hand, including a lot of lake substitutes.”

“Enjoy your time in Kiromo, did you?” asked Basil.

“In most respects,” replied Kell, nodding. “It was only two months. It’s a lot different from Inter, but more the same than different, I think. Less welcoming, in a lot of ways. More formal.”

“Well, I never was one for travel, especially through a portal,” said Basil. “I’ve done it only twice, both times when I had no better option. There’s something creepy about it, passing through those tunnels.”

“Well, it’s the only good way to get to Kiromo,” Kell shrugged. “I didn’t mind it too much, but it might look different to someone who doesn’t have a mage’s eyes.”

Mizuki was looking at Kell while trying not to stare, which was hard to do. She could see the magic around him, in his implements, though less than she might have expected. He was holding a staff, and for that matter, so was she, but his staff had magical embellishments that a normal person wouldn’t even be able to see, all of them hovering like a cloud around the staff head. It was hard to see what kind of magic it was, but wizards typically went with pure force, shaped in different ways, along with something they called a reservoir, where raw materials resided that they filled from their mana stones. Mizuki didn’t know all that much about wizards, except that being so close to him, in the same room, meant that if it somehow, improbably, did come to blows between the two of them, it was already too late for him, because she’d have the magic apart before he could even get started with using it.

It would never come to that, of course, and Mizuki had never used her magic against another person, not on purpose, but her mind still went there sometimes when there was a bit of a threat.

Not that Kell was a threat. He seemed nice enough. He had the bookish look that wizards often went for, and while he wasn’t wearing full robes, his shirt was loose and long, with sleeves that had a bit of a drape to them, not quite a wizard’s ‘uniform’, but near enough, and nicely tailored.

He chose that moment to turn and look at her.

“Mizuki!” he said.

“Um,” she said. “Kell?”

“It’s good to see you, I keep meaning to talk to you at the temple, but most weeks you’re not there, or you slip out as soon as the sermon is done.” He was beaming at her.

“Talk to me about … what?” she asked.

“Just, to uh, reconnect?” he asked.

“Reconnect?” asked Mizuki. “You just moved here two months ago, right?”

“Oh,” he said, looking slightly put off. “You don’t remember me?”

“I,” said Mizuki. “Uh.” She felt like she should have been listening to rumors a bit more, because she was certain that if she had met him, then the rumor mill would have had something to say about him. Mizuki wasn’t normally forgetful, not when it came to gossip, but it seemed like she’d missed something vital.

“Lay off her, Kell,” said Basil, stepping forward. “She was three years above you, and you have to remember that when you’re younger, you don’t care all that much about the littles, not with that big a gap. To not remember is expected, and if you didn’t, it’s because you filled your head too much with ideas. ‘Reunion’.”

“Sorry,” said Mizuki. “I have zero memory.” She was looking at his face, trying to connect it to something that might have been buried deep in her subconscious.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, I guess you stuck out a lot more than I did.” He looked down at his staff. “You don’t remember me going off to wizarding school at ten?”

“Wait,” said Mizuki. “Did we used to call you … Elk?”

Kell gave a sheepish grin. “Yes. I go by Kellan now, which is my actual name, though it’s Kell for short.”

“Oh,” said Mizuki. “You’re the same person.” That slotted quite a few things into place, and made sense of some of the gossip about Kell, and how everyone seemed to have known him as soon as he came into town.

“The one and only,” he replied, grinning at her.

“I’m really very sorry, but I still don’t really remember you,” said Mizuki. “I mean, I have a vague recollection of everyone down through at least five years below me, but … were we friends?” She was racking her brain trying to think about it.

“We live on the outskirts, technically outside the town,” said Kell. “My mom and I came in for temple sermons, and I came in for school, but I never really hung out, not with the older kids, not when I was ten.”

“But I left an impression?” asked Mizuki.

“You were awe-inspiring,” said Kell, shrugging. “You used to use your magic on the playground, do you remember that?”

“Sure,” said Mizuki. “I got in trouble a few times. I don’t really use magic in public anymore.” She thought about that. “Much.”

“Well, I went off and got magic powers of my own,” said Kell, holding up his staff. He grinned at her.

“You’re not worried I’m going to break things?” asked Mizuki, looking at the magic that was held in place around the head of the staff.

“Are you going to break things?” asked Kell.

“No,” said Mizuki.

“Then no,” he said. “Actually, I was thinking that maybe we could partner up from time to time. I read up on sorcerers at the wizard academy. There are some interesting things that we can do together.”

“There are?” asked Mizuki. “We — sorcs — don’t really have training, and no one said anything about wizards to me, except that I should do my best to stay away from them.”

“Oh,” said Kell. Again, he seemed a little disheartened. “Do you take the wizard and sorcerer feud seriously?”

“No,” said Mizuki. “I mean, I guess not. It’s old stuff.”

“It’s not that old,” said Kell. “It’s the kind of history that sits there in the past, informing the present.”

Mizuki frowned a bit. “Is that from something?”

“It’s from the Zotl Bixium,” said Kell. “There was a sermon a few weeks ago.”

“Huh,” said Mizuki. “It’s weird how those things get into your head without you even realizing.”

“Bixzotl is a favorite of wizards,” said Kell, nodding. “Mostly because we do the same things over and over.”

“God of Repetition,” said Mizuki. She looked over at the large crates of spices. “You’re here for the same reason I am?”

“I suppose so,” said Kell. “Bethany thought that I might want first crack at things.”

“Do you cook?” asked Mizuki, raising an eyebrow.

“I can follow a recipe,” replied Kell. “Can you cook?”

“It’s basically the only thing I’m competent at,” said Mizuki, smiling a bit. “You’ve actually been to Kiromo?”

“I’m half Kiromon, like you,” he said. “Again, it’s kind of funny that we grew up three years apart and you have virtually no memory of me. I’d be offended, if I offended easily. I came over to your house a few times, when our parents were doing things together.”

Mizuki shrugged. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” said Kell. “So long as you don’t call me Elk.” He hesitated for a moment. “Well, it was good to see you, even if it’s basically the first time for you. I should get going.”

“You’re not going to buy anything?” asked Basil, who had been standing off to one side for most of the conversation, pretending as though it wasn’t taking place in her shop and she wasn’t eavesdropping, which she almost certainly was.

“Oh,” said Kell. “Well, yes, a bottle of enyo, nienyo, tekon, then four ounces each of um, tene, eri, and nibyu. Please.”

The transaction was completed somewhat awkwardly, and Mizuki couldn’t help but notice that Kell had a lot of rings on his string. That wasn’t all that unexpected, since wizardry was a skilled trade, and once they’d paid for their mana stones, they started bringing in quite a bit of money. They didn’t have the raw destructive potential of a sorcerer, but they had quite a bit more utility and fine control.

Once Kell was gone, Basil turned to Mizuki. “He seems smitten with you,” she said.

“Does he?” asked Mizuki.

“It’s a good match, if you ask me, historical enmity aside,” said Basil.

“I’ve actually got a date with a guy over in Liberfell,” said Mizuki.

“Tough to make it work over that distance,” said Basil. “It’s a shame Kell never seemed to have made much of an impression on you. He seems sweet.”

“He does,” nodded Mizuki. “I don’t know.” He did seem sweet, like the kind of boy her mother would have picked for her. Maybe that was the thinking, back when they’d been young.

“Not to your liking?” asked Basil. “You know, when you partied with Alfric, we thought maybe that would finally be your match. But I take it there’s no movement on that front?”

“There’s no front,” said Mizuki. “He’s not interested in me, and I’m — well.”

“Interested in every boy?” asked Basil.

“I like boys,” shrugged Mizuki. “It’s hard not to look at one and see all the good qualities. I see Alfric’s good qualities. There are things that would be good about partnering with him. Um, don’t let him know I said that.”

“But is the same not true for Kell?” asked Basil, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “It’s really hard to say. I don’t remember him. There was a little boy we called Elk, and I can picture him in my mind, but he didn’t leave much of an impression, and … I don’t know. Are you trying to set me up?”

“Historically, we’ve had little luck with that,” said Basil. “We just want you to be happy.”

“I’m happy where I am,” said Mizuki. “The party has been good for me, and I like having people in the house.”

“It’s temporary though, isn’t it?” asked Basil. “That’s what you said, last we spoke.”

“It’s temporary,” said Mizuki. “But there’s a part of me that wishes it weren’t. If we somehow manage to get through the next two rings of dungeons, we’ll be traveling further afield, and … well, eventually we’ll have to leave Pucklechurch.”

“I don’t think that would be so bad, if you were with people you like,” said Basil. “I know after your fallout with the Pedder boys you retreated for a bit. And there are others who you’ve had your disagreeable moments with.”

“True,” said Mizuki, frowning. Some of this she’d relayed directly to Basil, and other bits of it had surely been collected as gossip. “You’d miss me though, right?”

“Oh, many people would miss you, but no one goes dungeoneering forever.” Basil shifted. “And perhaps some of the problems of the past would be forgotten in that time?”

“The boy troubles,” said Mizuki.

Basil nodded. “I’m sorry you’ve had problems. Too many things not working out. Never a game I was too interested in playing, but for those that play it, I know it can hurt.” She stepped back and looked at the Kiromon goods. “Was there anything you wanted?”

“Oh, all of it,” said Mizuki. “It’s all dry goods and shelf-stable sauces, and I need to stock up on the staples anyway. It’ll take some work to get accustomed to things that are actually made in Kiromo though. Can I ask why you got these? Marta said something about wanting to sell to people for nostalgia.”

“There’s a strong Kiromon influence in this town, thanks in part to your grandfather. Most of us grew up around a few Kiromon foods, at the least,” said Basil. “But the bigger part is that Kiromo is putting more of a focus on exporting now, and I don’t mind admitting to you that the prices are good. They say that with the current Emperor, there’s a chance that Kiromo will be absorbed into Inter within a generation.”

“Huh,” said Mizuki. “But that won’t make traveling there any easier.”

“Have you thought about taking a trip?” asked Basil. “I suppose you’re busy with your party now, but once that’s concluded? It’s been some time since you’ve seen your parents. Your sisters?”

“Maybe,” said Mizuki. “But if I went, I know there would be pressure to stay, and with the portals, it would be at least a month there. Someday, maybe. You know, if I didn’t know better, I would think that you were trying to get rid of me.”

“I want you to be happy, and I’m not sure what happiness will look like for you, if you stay in Pucklechurch.” Basil placed her hands on her hips. “You don’t seem to have the need to leave, not like some of them get, but to see the wider world, even if you end up back here … you’re treading water, and I’m afraid that you’ll end up drowned if you keep at it. That’s just my opinion, and I know you haven’t asked for it.”

“No, it’s welcome,” said Mizuki with a sigh. “I know where I am in life, and I know it’s not quite where I want to be. Thank you.” Her eyes went to the goods. “Okay, let me buy this, but I’ll be back later once I’ve taken stock. It looks like we’ll be eating Kiromon for a bit, and I’m going to have to remember how that goes.”

By the time the transaction was concluded, Mizuki’s satchel was about as full as it could get, and it weighed quite a bit. She trudged back to her house, mulling things over, but once she was there, she had people to talk to, and the uncharacteristically gloomy thoughts had left her.

“So,” said Hannah. “I know you’ve gotten the ingredients by now, but I was thinkin’ that I could cook tonight.”

“Really?” asked Mizuki. “Do you cook?”

“Ay, and I’ve said as much,” said Hannah. “But you didn’t seem to take it seriously, and I confess I’m better with baking, and if I’m bein’ honest, the kind of things I like to cook are the ones that seem most like it’s just another bake. Meat pies, egg bakes, a terrine from time to time. And you’re properly good at it, while I’m just good enough that no one complains.”

“Oh,” said Mizuki. “Well … yes, I would like that very much, just for tonight.”

“I’m happy to take a load off for you,” nodded Hannah.

“Can I ask — did you talk to someone in town?” asked Mizuki.

“About my takin’ a turn to cook?” asked Hannah.

“Yeah,” said Mizuki.

“Well,” said Hannah. “Ay. It seems a lot of people in town know your business.”

“I’ve definitely been getting that feeling today,” said Mizuki. “More than usual, anyway.” It seemed as though there had been a bit of a friendly conspiracy going on. She didn’t mind that people had been talking about her life, but she did wish that they’d had a few less criticisms, or possibly that she’d given them less to criticize. “Did you come from a small town, originally?”

“Oh, ay, smaller than Pucklechurch even,” said Hannah. “A scant hundred people, and I was related to most of them. And then I was in the seminary, and there were so many people from all over the world, with a big city beyond the seminary’s walls. But having seen both ends, I have to say that I like a smaller place like Pucklechurch. Large enough that you don’t know absolutely everyone, small enough that you mostly see the same faces. And small enough that people will make some well-meanin’ interventions.”

“Well,” said Mizuki. “I like it. But I wouldn’t mind seeing what a proper city is like, if Liberfell doesn’t qualify.”

“If we can stick together, we’ll probably have our chance,” said Hannah. “Now, let me know what you have for ingredients, and I can try to make a Mizuki meal.”

It turned out okay. If Mizuki had been invited over to a friend’s house and been served the chicken and vegetables that Hannah made, well, Mizuki wouldn’t have complained. The seasoning wasn’t quite what Mizuki would have done, and the chicken was a bit overcooked while the vegetables were a bit undercooked.

Still, it tasted all the better because Mizuki hadn’t been the one to make it, and she felt grateful that people both inside the house and outside of it were watching out for her.

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Alexander Wales

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