When Cynthia broke the news, Verity was surprised how much it stung. The Fig and Gristle had found itself a new bard, one who was taking up Verity’s old room. It was made all the more awkward by Verity being informed of this when she’d shown up with her lute in hand, ready to sing for the night. There was a part of her that wondered, earlier, whether she would feel good about losing her job, but no, it was mostly just a sort of emptiness. She’d known that she wasn’t going to be at the Fig and Gristle forever, that was part of the reason she’d agreed to go dungeoneering in the first place, but to have that chapter of her life finally closed felt awkward and unwelcome.
Having nothing else to do with her night, Verity brought her lute in anyhow and ordered a plate of food, waiting for the new bard to start up. She did have some loyalty to the place, where she’d lived for what felt like quite a long time. The patrons had gotten used to her, and she to them. There were some who she saw almost every night, and groups who congregated on certain days of the week. She wondered whether they would even notice the difference, or whether it would reflect poorly on her to have a replacement, but it was entirely possible that the new bard was actually good.
When the new bard took the small stage, the first thing Verity noticed was how shockingly young she was. Verity would have been surprised if the girl was older than fifteen. She played a lute too, which made the evaluation all that much easier, and from the outset, as the lute was being tuned in preparation for playing, Verity could tell that the girl was, at the least, not conservatory trained. Once the song actually started, Verity winced. It was acceptable quality, for a place like this, but Verity had instructors who would have beaten her if she’d played that poorly. The girl’s form was poor and strained, her tuning was slightly off, and she was doing a poor job of keeping the rhythm.
The magic was even worse. It was the kind of thing that Verity had been doing since the age of nine, a weak tune that made the food taste better and lightened some emotion, but did both those things without any real power.
The girl had long blonde hair tied back in a braid and a pleasant look to her, and for all that Verity could see every flaw in the music, the new bard seemed to be enjoying herself and the production of the music. The song sounded like an original, though in the eight months or so that Verity had been playing at the Fig and Gristle, she hadn’t been able to memorize the entirety of the local tunes, just the majority. The girl’s voice was nice and mellow, but it was nice in the way that raw clay was nice, something that needed to be worked and trained.
Verity ate her meal and listened, composing a critique in her head that she wasn’t unkind enough to ever actually share. When she was halfway through the meal, Verity’s mind began to wander from the music and the magic around her, and to the more advanced problems of her own. As she saw it, the most major issue she faced in the dungeons was that of stamina, which in her opinion likely descended from the particulars of her training.
When a bard performed in a concert setting, it was usually full tilt, as heavy as possible without regard for being able to continue on past the end of the piece. When a bard was in a dungeon, however, sustain was one of the most important things, because it allowed more time to regroup between encounters and less of a need to rush. Holding the song and not having it drain her when there was no need for the effects, that was something that Verity had never really learned, because there had never been much need. What she needed was to be able to carry the magic down to its lowest level, barely a heartbeat of a tune, and ideally, to do that without needing too much of her focus. Then, when there was an actual fight, she could rouse the song into its full power and give the party what they needed to defeat whatever evil was in front of them. She knew that this was possible, but it was difficult, and learning it was more difficult because she had no one to talk to and learn from.
While she ate her dinner, she spun up a song of her own, going along with the half-ring bard and providing a companion piece. Working with another bard was always difficult, and doing it without them knowing it was harder still, especially with one as unskilled as this one. But reducing her own magic to a minimum was, Verity thought, a bit easier this way, because her magic could float on top of the other magic, barely perceptible to either of them, but still there. She reduced it even further, until it was at the edge of even her own perception, following along with one beat in every four, then one in every eight.
Then Verity tried to go down to one in every sixteen, and she was surprised that she was able to hold it for a few measures, but then it wavered like a candle flame in a light wind, and Verity wasn’t able to recover it. It had been a small bit of muttered magic though, kept going through a tapping of her foot and a bit of humming, and there was very little of the usual feeling of being exhausted.
Verity went again, trying to get the magic down to a bare minimum, though she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to do it without existing music to serve as a guide. This time she was able to hold it at one-in-sixteen for an entire verse before it wobbled and fell apart like a top losing the speed necessary to spin.
It was quite the opposite of what she’d been trained for, and went against some of the musicomagical philosophy she’d been taught since she was young. Her tutors, and later, the conservatory, had emphasized consistency of impact and a kind of boisterous playing that went at magical production with gusto, and they had never taught her how to do what she was now attempting, minimizing the impact of her magic, stringing it along without contributing much, focusing on maintenance.
After nearly two hours, with a half-eaten dessert that was now room temperature in front of her, Verity had spun up and then petered out nearly a dozen songs, in what was probably a record for her. She was feeling the strain of it, and she didn’t feel anything she’d been able to do would be at all useful in the dungeons, but she felt like she’d made some good progress, and if she could get better, then in a month, perhaps they would be able to stay on the same song while taking ten minutes for healing and rest before moving on to the next room.
For all Verity’s criticisms, the half-ring bard managed to go quite a while, keeping up the minor effects for a longer set than Verity normally did, though obviously it used less power when the effect was so weak. It was clearly a strain on her though, and Verity hoped that the girl wasn’t on the verge of injuring herself. It was her first night at the Fig and Gristle, and clearly she was trying to make a good impression, but it wasn’t as though Cynthia was spoiled for choice, and even a middling bard like this would probably be staying for at least a few weeks.
To Verity’s surprise, when the bard had finished her set, she came over to where Verity was sitting and slipped into the chair without asking.
“You’re Verity, right?” the girl asked. She was flushed and sweaty, a clear sign that she’d gone too far with her playing, but she had a wide smile on her face. She held out a hand, and Verity took it. “Clemency.”
“Is that your name, or are you asking?” asked Verity.
“Both, I suppose,” replied Clemency. “I thought it was funny that we had similar names, when I heard about you.” They were both virtue names, though the name ‘Verity’ was among the more traditional virtue names, tracing back a further lineage than a name like ‘Clemency’.
“The lute gave me away?” asked Verity, nodding to the case that was sitting on the table, up away from foot traffic.
“You were doing some bardic work, weren’t you?” asked Clemency, quirking an eyebrow. She seemed exhausted but happy. “I thought that was a bit unusual.”
“Sorry,” said Verity. “I was trying something. I hope I didn’t interrupt you. I was trying to bring the magic as low as I could go without stalling out.”
“You got down to one in thirty two very briefly there,” said Clemency. “I was quite impressed.”
“You have a good ear,” said Verity. “Or a good head for magic.”
“I’m not very good yet,” said Clemency, looking sheepish. “But I didn’t start until two years ago. I can do it better in my head than with my hands. I think I drifted out of tune for a bit, sorry.”
She had started out of tune, but Verity elected not to say that. It was the curse of any professional that they heard and saw flaws that others didn’t. “You’re doing well,” said Verity. “I’m glad that my leaving won’t mean that the Fig and Gristle is without music.”
“Cynthia said that you’d decided to become a dungeoneer,” said Clemency.
“It’s more like an opportunity came to my door,” said Verity. “Which I suppose is now your door. It’s a bit of pressure, but nothing like playing a concert hall.”
“You’ve played a concert hall?” asked Clemency, eyes wide.
“In Dondrian, yes,” said Verity. “The Ellusifé twice and the Pallonia once.” It occurred to her after she’d said it that this could be seen as bragging, and following that thought, it occurred to her that this was saying a bit too much. “It was less of a big deal than it maybe sounds like, these were spotlight events rather than purely on merit.” But the clarification didn’t seem to have the intended effect, because Clemency was still staring at her with wide eyes.
“But then why are you —” she choked back the question and looked at her hands.
“Here,” Verity finished for her. She mulled over the question, trying to find a good way to say it, one that would hopefully communicate everything there was to say on the matter. “For a bard in Dondrian, there’s a lot of pressure, at least if people think as highly of you as they did of me. When everyone is congratulating you on a performance you know you made a hundred mistakes on, when you get invitations to play at important places and they expect you to glad hand for three hours after an hour long performance …” Verity trailed off. She could see that she wasn’t getting through to the girl, and these sorts of problems weren’t ones that she could relate to. “I don’t mean to whine. We were a family of some means.”
“No, not at all,” said Clemency. “We all have our problems.” She smiled. “I hope someday those are the sorts of problems I have. I’ll consider it a mark of good luck that I’m taking a position you vacated.”
Verity gave her a small smile. “I hope that you get everything you wish for. And thank you, for stopping by. There’s a good chance that I’ll see you around Pucklechurch. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help make it a good transition. Cynthia was kind to me, and I have some affection for the place.”
“We could sing together some night?” asked Clemency. “I don’t know if you’ve ever done that, aside from whatever you were trying, but I’ve always wanted to. I doubt Cynthia would pay for it, but I would take a loss, if it meant —”
“We’ll figure something out,” said Verity, before the other bard could go any further. She had to suppress the urge to give the girl half a string of rings right then and there.
When they’d said their goodbyes, and Verity had a short chat with Cynthia, who seemed apologetic, Verity was left to walk home, carrying an unplayed lute.
She had known, when she’d sought out the job at the Fig and Gristle, that she wasn’t going to be there forever. To settle down and be a tavern bard at eighteen … there was something she found a bit sad about that, though she could see how it would be possible. It had happened to better people than her, she was sure. There was a song, she recalled, about a man who sat down to rest for a moment and then realized a decade later that he had once been moving, but was so covered with moss and leaves that he couldn’t get up. It was her favorite kind of song, a jaunty tune about a depressing subject. When Alfric had come calling, Verity had already been starting to wonder whether she was going to end up at the Fig and Gristle forever. In fact, there was a chance that if the right girl had come along to woo her, she would have put down proper roots.
And it was possible that the same thing might happen with dungeoneering, if she wasn’t careful. Her excuse for not wanting to do more than just the six around Pucklechurch had been that she didn’t want to do all that walking, but with the travel entads, and with the other members of the party becoming friends, she could easily see them still doing this same thing fifty or a hundred dungeons down the way. Thousands … well, that she couldn’t imagine.
“We’re talkin’ next dungeons,” said Hannah once Verity had come in. “How was playin’?”
“There’s a new bard,” said Verity. “So playing didn’t really happen.”
“That’s a shame,” said Hannah. “I know you liked going there. If you’d like, the next time we’re all in Tarchwood or Liberfell, we can find a place where you can play for an audience.”
“I think it was the comfort and familiarity of the place,” said Verity. “Is Isra in?”
“No,” said Alfric. “And it’s getting late enough that I’m not sure it would be worth the trip for her. You’re welcome to try the channel though.” He was sitting with a glass of wine cupped in one hand. An open bottle was sitting on the table between him and Mizuki, half-drained. Mizuki’s face was slightly flushed. The house still smelled of the dinner she’d cooked, something buttery with chicken, and Verity almost asked whether there were leftovers, even though she’d already eaten.
“I think I’ll leave her be,” said Verity. “Though I suppose if she came, she could just take the spare bed.”
“It’s not really a spare bed,” said Mizuki. “It’s her bed, she just doesn’t use it most nights.”
“What’s the consensus on the next dungeon?” asked Verity.
“Nothing,” said Mizuki. “We’ve just been talking in circles.” She took a sip of her wine. “Speculating, which I’ve been informed by both of them is a stupid thing to do, and which hasn’t seemed to stop either.” She gestured at the bottle. “There’s wine, if you’d like to join us in our wild speculations that will come to no conclusion.”
Verity almost said no, but she changed her mind at the last minute and instead set her lute case down to take a seat.
<Isra, we’re drinking wine and making wild guesses about future dungeons,> said Verity. <I would appreciate you coming over, if you’re not busy hunting or something. If you spend the night, we might convince Hannah to bake some bread in the morning.>
<I’ll be over,> said Isra.
<Excellent,> replied Verity. <Looking forward to it.>
“Bread?” asked Hannah. “I can, of course, unless you’d like to make a show of convincin’ me.”
“Oh, I would adore that,” said Verity. “Make us beg you. You’ll all still be up once Isra gets here, right?”
“I’m late to bed most nights,” said Mizuki. “Especially after some good wine. It’s just about chilly enough to make a fire, I think. I’d thought we were done with cold spring nights. I’ll have to complain to Isra when she shows up.”
“I’ll go get some wood,” said Alfric. “Is there a wood pile in the back?”
“Um,” said Mizuki. “I kind of just grab logs from the forest. In the winter there’s a fully powered heating element.”
“Then I’ll go find some logs in the woods, I guess,” said Alfric. He rubbed his hands together and took off without another word.
“Always quick to pitch in,” said Hannah, shaking her head slightly. “I don’t think I could be moved for anything right now.”
“Too much food for everyone,” said Mizuki. “And then wine on top of that. But I suppose lighting the fire will fall to me.”
“You have a firestarter though, don’t you?” asked Hannah. “I could have sworn I’d seen one around.”
“Hush,” said Mizuki. “I don’t get many chances to use my mystical powers for good.”
“Or for evil, right?” asked Verity.
Mizuki bit her lip. “Oh, just a tiny bit of evil, now and then. You know, they say that evil is the spice of life.”
“I don’t think that’s what they say,” smiled Hannah.
“What are we talking about?” asked Alfric, who had come back in with armfuls of wood.
“What’s the spice of life?” asked Hannah.
Alfric set the logs beside the fireplace, then stood up with a thoughtful expression. “Verity?” he asked.
There was a chorus of groans from around the room, and Mizuki threw a pillow at Alfric, which he caught with expected deftness, as though he’d been trained for it.
“Sorry I wasn’t able to get proper logs,” said Alfric. “I did my best.” Verity looked, and saw that it was an awkward collection of wood, none of it properly split or chopped. This was something she hadn’t really thought about before, but for a wood fireplace, the kind that was only really for nostalgia or entertainment unless you were quite poor, you needed a fair amount of preparation. The fireplace was fairly wide, but not everything Alfric had brought in would fit.
“Are you going to apologize for that pun?” asked Mizuki.
“I stand by it,” said Alfric. He began stacking logs into the fireplace, or at least the ones that would fit. “Are you going to help me light this fire?”
“Sure,” said Mizuki, getting up from her chair and going over to the fireplace. “This is actually a bit more tricky than it seems though. Most things don’t want to start on fire, and if it’s at all wet, which stuff from the woods probably is, then the water needs to be cooked out before it will be properly on fire. I don’t want to use up the ambient imbalance in the room just to turn the outside of a log into cinders and then not have a flame.”
“Or I could just use a firestarter, if this is going to be a whole production,” said Alfric.
“No, it’s fine, I just need to concentrate,” said Mizuki.
“How much of that bottle has she had?” asked Verity.
“Not too much,” said Hannah as Mizuki crouched down by the fireplace. “We’ve been pacing ourselves. Not the sort of state where I’d be doing delicate work, but it might be different for sorcs.”
“It is,” said Mizuki, who was holding out a hand toward the logs. “We actually get slightly better after a glass of wine. There’s a lot of instinct involved. Wine lubricates the mind.”
“I wonder whether that’s actually true,” said Verity.
Flame came out of Mizuki’s hand in a gout and lit up the logs, sticking to them for a moment before the fire became more natural. Mizuki stepped back and smiled at the fire, then took another sip from her wine glass. She seemed quite pleased with herself. “Behold,” she said, holding her arms wide. She just barely kept from splashing wine from her glass.
“Not to undercut your impressive and important display of power,” said Alfric. “But I definitely could have done that too.”
“Firestarters are cheating,” said Mizuki.
“They’re not,” said Alfric. “But even if they were, I have flint and steel, and could do it that way.”
“You carry flint and steel with you?” asked Hannah.
“In the book,” said Alfric. “It was cheap, and there’s plenty of room for small things like that. I actually have a whole kit for making fires, including some char cloth. Wilderness survival sometimes ends up being important for dungeoneers, either within the dungeon or outside of it. I won’t say it’s common, but knowing how to start a fire might save someone’s life, or allow us to get at some loot we would otherwise lose.”
“Seems a bad idea,” said Hannah, “To light a fire in a dungeon?”
“Depends on the circumstances,” said Alfric, shrugging. “Obviously you don’t do it if you’re going to smoke yourself out.” He’d gone back to sit on the couch with Mizuki, and stretched slightly. “We still need to do dungeon school, ideally before the next dungeon.”
“You know what we need?” asked Mizuki. She turned to Alfric. “Do you mind if I have my legs on you?”
“What?” asked Alfric.
“So I can stretch out,” said Mizuki.
“Sure,” said Alfric. “Fine.”
Mizuki stretched out, resting her bare feet on Alfric’s lap and taking up basically the whole of the couch. “Nice.”
“You were sayin’ we needed somethin’?” asked Hannah. “Unless it was just to stretch out.”
“Oh,” said Mizuki. “What we need is a name. All the cool adventuring groups have one.”
“Is it just me, or is ‘adventuring’ a weird euphemism?” asked Verity.
“It’s an old word for an old profession,” said Alfric. “Mostly it points at the element of luck. I think it’s appropriate.”
“Maybe,” said Verity. “But if I included it in a song, I would feel awkward about it, like I was using a turn of phrase for the sake of it.”
“I do prefer ‘dungeoneering’”, said Alfric. “It sounds more professional.”
“So for our name,” said Mizuki. “Do we want something professional? Is that a requirement?”
“If you have a weird name, you have to be good enough to make up for that,” said Alfric. “There are some stupid names where you think, ‘oh, that’s just some people who don’t take things seriously’, and there are other stupid names where you think, ‘oh, they take this so seriously that they picked a stupid name because it wasn’t going to matter either way’.”
“Got a whole philosophy, have you?” asked Hannah.
“‘The Vertex’ was a good name,” said Alfric. “But sadly, it’s taken now.”
“Do you really, honestly believe that it was a good name?” asked Hannah. “Because it calls into question your judgment.”
“It was good,” said Alfric, shaking his head. “Strong, simple, easy to remember. But not too in your face.” He turned to Verity. “You’re a bard, do you have any good suggestions?”
“Not at the moment,” said Verity. “I don’t have a good sense of what people choose in terms of party names. If they’re names like ‘Vertex’ the pool seems to be quite limited.”
“An adjective and a noun is quite common,” said Alfric. “Or a pun, or a place name.”
“Something Puckle?” asked Mizuki. “Puck means … fairy or demon or something like that.”
“I would worry about the rhymes,” said Alfric. Verity let out a little laugh.
“We could do something from scripture,” said Hannah. “‘The Hands of Man’ or ‘Reflective Children’.”
“Those are both terrible,” said Mizuki. “You’d make everyone think that we have hands like a man’s hands.”
“Or that we’re children,” said Verity, wrinkling her nose. “But I feel like at the rate we’re going, we’re going to have to settle on something that none of us like.”
“The Settlers?” asked Isra.
Verity turned to her as soon as she spoke. “Isra! You came!” She must have slipped in without making a noise, and was still in her outdoor clothing with thick layers, boots yet to be removed.
“I said I would,” said Isra. She gave Verity a hesitant smile. “Sorry, I should have knocked.”
“Nonsense!” declared Mizuki. “You’re welcome in my house any time, the bed upstairs is yours whenever that’s convenient for you, just let me know ahead of time if you’re going to be eating with us.”
“Is there a place to sit?” asked Isra. The living room had two armchairs and a couch, but the seating, normally enough for five, offered less accommodation because Mizuki was stretched across the couch.
“I can move,” said Mizuki, though she seemed annoyed that she was compelled to offer.
“You can sit with me,” Verity said to Isra. “This chair is a bit oversized.”
“It’s a tenyon,” said Mizuki. “It’s meant for two, if they’re close friends or,” but she didn’t finish the thought, instead taking a sip of wine.
Despite that, Isra moved over and sat in the chair with Verity. It was tight, but not uncomfortably so, and Verity felt pleased to be pressed up against someone. Isra was somewhat chilly, having just come in from the mild cold, but she was also nice and soft.
“I like Settlers,” said Alfric. “But it needs something.”
“What are we meant to be settling?” asked Mizuki. “The dungeons?”
“It just has a nice adventuresome quality to it,” shrugged Alfric. “I can’t explain it.”
“All the best lyrics are like that,” said Verity. “They have an unexpected fittingness.”
“Wait,” said Mizuki. “Because we’re not the perfect party, and you settled for us?”
“Well that makes me like the name a bit less,” said Alfric, frowning.
“I like it,” said Hannah. “But I’d rather not decide on anything at the moment, not when half of us are in our cups.”
“Which half?” asked Mizuki. “Do you mean me? Because I’m just warm and comfy. This fire is great.”
The fire was nice, and it warmed the room, but some of the warmth was coming from the wine as well, and Verity felt her cheeks getting a bit flushed. Isra was nice and warm as well. Verity hoped that their closeness wasn’t too intimate or unwelcome. Beneath that worry, there was curiosity about whether affection would be returned. Her mind practically raced at those thoughts, which she blamed on the wine.
“Did we decide on the next dungeon?” asked Isra, whose thoughts were apparently not on pushing their two beds together.
“Would you like some wine?” asked Mizuki. “Or actually, something to eat?”
“I would, thank you,” said Isra. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Not at all,” said Mizuki, though she certainly made a production of getting up from the couch. It was like in the final act of a play, when the hero looks like he’s been bested by the villain and must slowly rise in one last act of superhuman will and effort.
Once she had gone off to the kitchen, Alfric got up and tended to the fire, adding more logs.
“Not that one,” said Isra, and Alfric stopped with a log in hand. “It’ll smell.”
“Smell?” asked Alfric.
“It releases a smoke that stinks,” said Isra. “Borgswood.”
Alfric set the log off to the side and kept feeding the fire, glancing back at Isra every now and then. He prodded the fire with a poker a bit, moving things around, and there was something quite nostalgic about it for Verity. She remembered her father doing the same.
“So to answer the question,” said Hannah. “We’ve decided nothin’ at all about the next dungeon. Myself, I’m partial to movin’ eastward and possibly doin’ two back-to-back, with a longer rest after that.”
“There’s really no point, when we have the dagger to bring us back,” said Alfric. “We have five dungeons left a hex away, and all of those can be hit with a few miles of walking. Wardrobe to the hex, warp to the center, walk to the dungeon, dagger back home.”
“Depends on what we have,” said Hannah. “There are things too large for the book and not natural enough for the stone.”
“Seems like that’s an argument for only doing one,” said Alfric.
“Well, the other argument is that we’re already goin’ a hex away, and setting out with all our things, and it’s better to work two days with a week and a half of rest and trainin’ than to try to split it. Goin’ forward, seems like we’d be better off with a few intense days separated by longer rest periods, right? Double dungeons, if you ask me.”
“With the option to bail out,” said Alfric. “But it’s really not going to depend on me, I think it will depend on the others.”
“I like the dungeons,” said Mizuki, who came back in with a giant tray of meats, cheeses, bread, and fruit, as well as another bottle of wine in the other hand. “I hope this is enough.”
“It’s enough for six people,” said Alfric.
“Well I didn’t know,” said Mizuki. She pointed to two small pots that were on the tray. “Mustard and sobyu.” She sat down and began making herself a small sandwich, which wasn’t actually all that small.
“Do you actually like dungeons?” asked Alfric.
“Oh, they’re terrifying,” said Mizuki. “But I’ve been feeling like the days that we spend sitting around are kind of … wasted. It feels weird to be a dungeoneer that doesn’t do dungeons. Besides, we talk about them all the time. And we want to catch up with Vertex, right?”
“Do we?” asked Verity.
“Hopefully we’re not going to see them again,” said Alfric. “If we could go the whole rest of our lives without learning another thing about what Vertex has been up to, I would be fine with that.”
“Well, still,” said Mizuki. “I like doing the dungeons, though not the actual fighting, if that makes sense.”
“It does,” said Alfric. “But the fighting is the main thing. If it were just going into dungeons that had no monsters in them and clearing them out, we’d be a glorified moving company.”
“What’s a moving company?” asked Isra.
“People who come in and take all your things,” said Verity. “Then go put them in a new house or office or wherever. It’s a very Dondrian thing, I don’t think that exists in Pucklechurch.”
“You’d just get your friends to do it,” said Mizuki. “Unless it was a long move, in which case, I don’t know. My parents were going to sell pretty much everything in the house until I decided to stay. You’d need a lot of entad support to get everything out of this house and over to Kiromo, and they didn’t want to bother, especially not when the place they were moving to was furnished. Unsentimental people, my parents.”
“But you got it instead?” asked Hannah.
“Most of it,” said Mizuki, nodding. “But they always expected me to fold after a year and come to Kiromo, and to sell all the stuff when I did.”
“The point being,” said Alfric. “The dungeons.”
“How much wine have you had,” said Mizuki. “You’re having trouble stringing things together.”
“No, there was a point,” said Alfric. He smiled at her. “Whether we do two in a row or not. I don’t drink much.”
“Well, I’m cutting you off,” said Mizuki, taking the glass from him and downing the rest of its contents in a single swallow. “Eat some food, there’s apparently enough for six.”
Alfric nodded and began making a little sandwich of his own, piling up the cured meats.
“I could do two dungeons, back to back,” said Verity. “But separated by a day, and with an option not to do any. With Xy working with us, we can just have her run the dagger over to the next hex, right? No extra walking?” Perhaps it was the wine — she had already drained a glass — but the idea of a big project like that sounded nice. “I don’t want to end up sleeping in the woods.”
“Is that a problem?” asked Isra. She got up from where she was sitting with Verity, using Verity’s knee for support. For a moment, Verity felt like asking her to come back, but she was only grabbing food from the tray, as well as a glass of her own, and returned to her cozy spot beside Verity not long after.
“We’d need some supplies,” said Alfric. “Tents and bedrolls. Ideally we’d find something in the next few dungeons that would help us. Mobile housing isn’t hugely uncommon, but finding one would be a bit of good luck.”
“We could find a house in the dungeons?” asked Mizuki.
“Well, technically, yes,” said Alfric. “But mobile housing means,” he twisted his hand in the air, trying to find the words. “Anything that lets you have shelter, basically. Things you can shrink down and go inside, a tent that’s bigger once you’re in it, a space like the stone, which actually, when I think about, might be workable with some preparation.”
“We’d have to leave our metal outside,” said Hannah. “And I’m not so sure I’d want to be in there for a whole night.”
“True,” said Alfric. “But it might be a problem we can solve with some kind of entad chain. We’re actually less far than I’d thought in terms of reaching, um,” he waved his hand. “You know, when it’s all coming together?”
“Apotheosis?” asked Mizuki.
Alfric blinked at her. “Criticality?”
“We’re close to bein’ proper dungeoneers, is what he’s saying,” said Hannah. “Where our problems all have solutions, and we’re off to the races.”
“I budgeted ten dungeons,” said Alfric. “In the original plan.” He leaned a little bit closer to Mizuki. “I think we could end up doing it in five.”
“You really don’t drink much,” asked Mizuki. “Or were you just not paying much attention?”
“Both,” Alfric replied. He leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes. “Do you mind if I stay here tonight?”
“You live here,” said Mizuki.
“It was a joke,” said Alfric. “I can be very funny.” He let out a sigh. “Sometimes.”
“Come on,” said Mizuki. “Let’s get you upstairs.”
“Chronos aren’t supposed to get impaired,” said Alfric as he got to his feet. “We have a responsibility. A hangover comes back if you have to redo the day.” He looked at Mizuki. “Is that just very strong wine?”
“It is,” nodded Mizuki. She got up from the couch and put Alfric’s arm around her, though if she was trying to offer him some support, Verity wasn’t sure what good she thought she was doing. He wasn’t even that drunk, a bit sluggish but not swaying. They went off together, and Alfric was leaning on her a bit more than seemed entirely necessary.
“So, how long until they’re a couple, do you s’pose?” asked Hannah. She was looking at the doorway they’d gone through, and had waited until they were out of earshot.
“You think they’ll partner?” asked Isra. “Alfric said we shouldn’t do that.”
“Oh, I imagine if she waits for him to make a move, it’ll be quite some time,” said Hannah, nodding. “It’s not a good idea, for a number of reasons, but sometimes if the attraction is there, people can’t help themselves.”
“What are the reasons?” asked Isra.
“We already went over that some time ago, ay?” asked Hannah, raising an eyebrow. Her eyes briefly went to Verity.
“But between them you mean it’s especially bad,” said Isra.
“Well,” said Hannah. “Ay.” Verity looked at the empty couch. Isra hadn’t moved, which meant that they were in the larger armchair, the tenyon, together on one side of the fire, and Hannah was in the other with the empty space between them. It felt a bit uncomfortable to be so far away, but Verity didn’t want to move. Hannah drained the last of her wine. “There are a lot of things necessary for a good relationship, and I wouldn’t say that there needs to be some commonality, but if there’s not mutual interests or personalities that align, you need people who are good at dealin’ with each other’s peculiarities. And I think Alfric has his own way of doin’ that, which I’m not sure works in the long term, and Mizuki … I’m less sure about. So they might have a nice roll in the hay, but after that, seems like there might be issues.”
“Roll in the hay?” asked Isra.
“Sex,” said Verity. “But I think that’s probably more than enough speculation about them.”
“Is that a matter of doctrine?” asked Verity. “Thinking that people should be similar?”
“The church is wide,” said Hannah, obviously quoting something. “But it is a part of how the Church of Garos approaches things. Now a cleric of Bixzotl, she might say that it’s best for two people to be copies of each other, liking all the same things, being the same in every way, but … well, that’s not quite the same as symmetry, ay? People call them the twin gods sometimes, Garos and Bixzotl, but … ah, I’m goin’ on, sorry.”
“I don’t mind,” said Isra.
Verity didn’t particularly mind either, and it was definitely preferable to talking about a potential romance between Alfric and Mizuki.
“Well,” said Hannah. “It’s true that there’s usually some symmetry in a copy, especially a copy of somethin’ that’s had the imperfections — the asymmetries — removed from it. But symmetry isn’t just about repetition, it’s about patterns, the ways that you get that little moment of ‘ah ha’ when you see that this one thing, if twisted and lined up just so, maps onto the other thing. It’s very different, actually. There’s no appreciation of opposites from Bixzotl.”
“Mmm,” said Isra. “There is a beauty in the negation of a thing.” This also seemed like a quote.
“From the Keserbin,” said Hannah with a nod. “Exactly. And what I was sayin’ before was that if you come across your negation, or your partial negation, you have to be careful, because you might be natural enemies, but if you’re natural friends, then there are things that you’ll need to navigate, surely, and for that you need wisdom and maturity, and —”
“What are we talking about?” asked Mizuki as she came back down.
“Theology,” said Hannah. “Negation as a mode of symmetry, opposites and such.” It was a decent cover, and Verity hoped that Mizuki hadn’t heard too much, since the conclusion, which Verity happened to agree with, was that perhaps the pair of Mizuki and Alfric might be lacking in wisdom and maturity. If that were true, the lack of wisdom and maturity seemed like it mostly came from one side of that pairing.
“Oh,” said Mizuki. “Not really my thing.” She flopped back down on the couch, spreading herself out. She had her eyes closed, and seemed like she was ready for sleep.
“It's temple day tomorrow, are you going?” asked Verity. “I think I will. I usually do. It’s an Oeyr sermon.”
“I hope it’s not plates again,” said Hannah with a deep sigh.
“Plates?” asked Isra.
“Do you ever do temple day?” asked Verity.
“No,” said Isra. “But I have read the books.” She seemed slightly defensive.
“There’s a sermon that clerics of Oeyr like to give,” said Hannah. “I’ve heard it probably five times now. It’s the parable of the broken plate.” She sighed. “I remember sittin’ through it at eleven, thinkin’ to myself, ‘oh, so that’s Emergence’, and every time after that I wanted to just go to sleep.”
“Every clerical order has their stock sermons,” said Verity. “I think they’re necessary.”
“True,” said Hannah. “Because there’ll always be someone who hasn’t heard it, or who needs a reminder. I s’pose I shouldn’t mind it as much as I do. For Garos, it’s usually the sermons on sexuality, which need to happen, but probably get old. Even I think they get old, and they were a help to me, growin’ up.”
“Me too,” said Verity. “But I don’t find them old. They’re … affirming.”
“Well, I’m going, if everyone else is,” said Mizuki. “Though I have trouble paying attention. Last time we had the plate sermon, he didn’t actually break a plate, which I thought was a shame.”
“I don’t understand half of what you’re saying,” said Isra. “I don’t think I can blame it on the wine.”
“Plates,” said Mizuki. “You break a plate, it breaks into pieces, and they look random, but the sermon is about how it’s not, it’s because there are underlying rules to, um, stress propagation and um, other things. There are rules, and those rules are mostly invisible to us until push comes to shove. Nothing is really random, the lines of fracture are all, um, deterministic, just hidden until the shattering comes.”
“Does Lin use those words?” asked Hannah. “Seems a bit much for a sermon to lay people.”
“Lin gets carried away,” said Mizuki. “I’m surprised you haven’t noticed.”
“I’ll listen closely,” said Hannah. “But I think it’s time for me to get to bed, if I’m to be ready for that in the morning, and if I want us to have some freshly baked bread when we get back.”
“Me too,” sighed Verity. She put a hand down on Isra’s thigh to push herself up, but found herself letting her hand rest there for a moment, just a bit too long to be strictly the touch of a friend. Then she did get up, because there was no signal back, and if Isra wasn’t interested, she didn’t want to make things awkward, not when they shared the same room.
Mizuki put out the fire with a pitcher of water from the kitchen then put away what was left of the food and wine, protesting to Hannah that she didn’t need help. They took their turns in the bathroom, brushing teeth and getting ready for bed, then retired to their rooms.
Verity was still feeling warm from the wine, and like she wanted some affection. If their beds had been larger, she might have suggested that she and Isra share one, like they’d done in Liberfell, but the beds were small enough that if they were in the same one together, they’d need to be practically on top of each other. Verity wouldn’t have minded that in the slightest, not when she was feeling the effects of the wine, but she hadn’t had quite so much wine that she felt bold enough to suggest it, or more, to just make a move. There was a possible pretense of just being friendly, but … well, it was paper thin. And Verity felt some duty to Isra, a need to help her with an understanding of the world and people in it. Exploring each other’s bodies seemed counter to that, almost exploitative, though they were approximately the same age, and Verity wasn’t exactly a seasoned professional.
Still, she stayed up, lamenting the separate beds and having private fantasies, until Isra had gone to sleep.
It had been easy to forget the Fig and Gristle when she was with the others. The dungeons … well, she could take or leave them, but it gave the party a focus, a purpose, around which they could organize. It was nice. For the night being the end of an era, her usual haunt as a bard no longer her own, she was feeling good and at peace.