“Now, the thing you need to know about symmetricalization is that it can sometimes feel a bit odd,” said Hannah. “What I’m most concerned about is your skill with a bow, but it’s not a deep concern, because all that stuff is in the brain, and the brain can usually adjust just fine. Ideally we’d have a longer time before the dungeon, but it’s not of grave concern.”

“How many times have you done this before?” asked Isra.

“Well, I do it on myself all the time,” said Hannah. “In the seminary, with other clerics, maybe a dozen times. But with someone like you, fresh and emergent, I’d say maybe twice.”

“It’s safe though?” asked Isra. There was a perpetual wariness to her, but it didn’t seem heightened.

“Well,” said Hannah. “Yes, if you’re askin’ whether or not I think there’s any significant risk to you. But if you’re askin’ whether there are risks, then I think I should say that there are. Beyond just your arm feelin’ a bit funny, there are ways that it can get screwed up. A poor job would leave you paralyzed, for example, and if I were stupid enough to touch your internals, you could die. Now, I’ll only be workin’ in specific areas, your extremities to start with. If anything were to go wrong, I’m not one to panic, and I’m not one to misunderstand the body in the first place.”

It was a long bit of chatter, but the kind of thing that was necessary when you were doing something elective and deliberate. There were many of the same risks even with normal healing, and in Hannah’s opinion, it might have been better if clerics of Garos went over that in detail too, but no one seemed to care.

Isra had stripped down to just her underthings, which in her case was a wrap for her chest and rather thin calico drawers. Perhaps in another week or two they might help to buy her some clothes, but it would pass without comment for the time being. The headscarf had been put off to the side, and Hannah had used a few bobbins to pin Isra’s hair in place, the better to keep it symmetrical and out of the way.

Hannah started with the legs, rather than the arms. While arms had a tendency to be asymmetric due to the dominant hand getting so much more use and wear, the same wasn’t true of legs, which largely had to be used in concert with each other. There were differences between the legs though, and Hannah got to work on them. The position of hair follicles, the networks of blood vessels, the positions of the muscles, the shapes of the bones, so much work to do that it needed to be done by feel more than by conscious effort, which was always a bit scary. Hannah had faith in Garos to guide her, a solid faith, but she liked to be a conscious instrument rather than a conduit.

Isra was laying on the bed in Hannah’s room, in the usual position, back flat, palms down, as symmetrical as possible.

There were choices to make, so far as symmetricalization. Should the left become like the right, or the right like the left, or should they both move toward the average? Some of it was purely aesthetic, but some of it was functional as well, questions of blood flow, muscle tone, muscle shape, skin, pores, hair, things that were invisible or nearly so except to Hannah’s sense of symmetry.

The legs took almost two hours, with the calves being a bit more work than the thighs. They were mostly silent during this time. It went faster the more Hannah got done: her power was at its greatest when she was working on something that was mostly symmetrical, and the more the body became symmetrical, the easier it was to make the rest symmetrical, which was two thirds of the point of symmetricalization in the first place. This was another benefit to starting on the legs first, because symmetrical legs made the process of symmetricalizing arms quite a bit easier.

“Okay,” said Hannah, once the hips and stomach were done, neither of them having been much work. “Time for a bit of a break. Empty your bladder, get a snack, walk around a bit and let me know how it feels.”

Isra got up from the bed and tentatively walked around Hannah’s room, curling her toes and stretching out her legs. She turned to look at Hannah. “It feels the same.”

“Good,” said Hannah. “It should. Full range of motion, if you please, twist all the joints and stretch all the muscles, let me know if you have any complaints. Some of what’s done is by instinct, and instinct can be wrong.”

Isra moved around the room, stretching and lunging, testing her legs. In truth, she’d been fairly symmetrical to start with, so Hannah wasn’t expecting any particular problems. Symmetricalization was more tedious than difficult, unless you were dealing with wild differences across the plane of symmetry.

Once Isra was satisfied with her body, she put on some clothes, including her headscarf, and left the room for a bit. Hannah got up and stretched her own legs, then headed downstairs to get some air before they went on to the second half.

“How’s it going?” asked Mizuki, stepping outside into the backyard with her.

“Fine,” said Hannah. “So far, anyway. We’ve the chest and arms left to do.”

“For you, is this some kind of … religious thing?” asked Mizuki.

“Is the application of godly powers to someone in accordance with my god a religious thing?” asked Hannah. “Is that your question?”

“I mean,” said Mizuki. “Is it … deeper than that? Healing is religious, but it’s also not, right? It’s practical. I don’t know, I’m doing the question wrong.”

“My mind is on Garos while I do it,” said Hannah. “Symmetricalization is a form of meditation. It brings not just the subject, but the cleric closer to Garos. The same is true for any awareness of symmetry, and correction of asymmetry. The body, in my opinion, isn’t the best subject, because there are elements that you can’t correct lest you kill a person, but the body is central to the person, so in that respect, it’s good.”

“Am I mostly symmetrical?” asked Mizuki. She held out an arm, and Hannah laid her fingers on the small girl’s forearm.

“Mostly,” said Hannah. “There are things I could change. A birthmark on your scalp I could remove or mirror, a few scars that I would take away, things I would even up. Your bottom teeth are a bit uneven.”

Mizuki pulled back and put her hand to her mouth, feeling her teeth. “Yeah, they are. You could fix that?”

“I don’t want you to think of it as somethin’ to be fixed,” said Hannah, frowning. “Bodies have their unique aspects to them, whether they’re symmetrical or not, and it’s down to us to accept them as they are. If you set down the path of changin’ things just because they’re not quite what you’d want, well, I think that’s dangerous, because there’ll always be somethin’ new. Now, if it’s about godliness, that’s another story, but don’t chase changes to your body in the hopes that it’ll fix somethin’ in your life. Better to learn to accept it, to live with it.”

“I’m not sure that’s me,” said Mizuki. She withdrew her fingers from where they’d been touching her bottom teeth. “I mean, I don’t think that I would have a problem with that.”

“Well, just pointin’ it out,” said Hannah. “And there are things that people change and are happier for, it’s not just destined to be a problem.” She sighed. “You know what, I think I was just lettin’ my lessons from the seminary come out when they didn’t need to.”

“Oh, sure,” said Mizuki, smiling. “I get that. I appreciated it, I think. And I was the one who asked, I guess.” She seemed happy to let the subject drop. She probably didn’t like to think of her life as something that needed changes, though it seemed apparent to Hannah that Mizuki had been quite lonely before their arrival.

“Well, I should get back at it,” said Hannah. “I’ve still got the arms and head left to do, and those are bound to be a bit more fiddly.”

“Good luck,” said Mizuki.

When Hannah went back upstairs, Isra was back out of her clothes and laying on the bed in Hannah’s room, but Verity was with her. Hannah made her presence known, but waited while they finished talking.

“So far it’s just boring,” said Isra. “It does give me time to think though.”

“Think about what?” asked Verity. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking down at Isra. Isra’s state of partial undress wasn’t something Hannah found titillating, but she wondered whether the same was true for Verity. They shared a room, on occasion, and Hannah wondered about what sort of looks passed between them. Watching them together, Hannah had little doubt that Isra’s feelings would be reciprocated, but it wasn’t her place to push either of them.

“Tarbin,” said Isra. “My father. The man who stole from me.” She shrugged. “This party. Whether I should move in. Seeing the wider world. Being different.”

“Lots of thoughts then,” said Verity.

“Yes,” said Isra, nodding. “An unusual amount?” She was looking up at Verity with doe eyes.

“For two hours, no, maybe not,” said Verity. “But you do have rather a lot to think about.” She turned to look at Hannah. “Would you mind if I sang for a bit while you worked? Or would that be distracting?”

“So long as your magic doesn’t get in the way of mine,” said Hannah.

“I wasn’t planning to use any magic,” said Verity. “Just something pretty to help while away the time. A performance for two.”

“Three,” said Isra.

“I suppose,” said Verity, smiling.

Hannah came over and made contact with Isra. It was slow, delicate work that took quite a bit of concentration, but the times she’d done this before, it had been in much noisier conditions, and she hadn’t found the silence to be all that helpful. The song was light and mellow, a nice spring song about buds and beginnings, and once Hannah had properly started, the music faded into the background of her mind, pleasant but out of focus.

The arms were more difficult than the legs, but not as much as Hannah had feared, in part because while Isra certainly used her right arm more than her left, she wasn’t engaged in heavy labor with it, and certainly wasn’t using her bow to such an extent that she’d begun to warp her body. Hannah had heard stories of archers who had visible deformation from years of military service, but Isra was a hunter, and one who was good enough that she was able to take out most prey with a single shot. She practiced with a bow quite often, but the difference between her arms was probably more down to other things. The bow just happened to be what she was most useful for in a dungeon, aside from, debatably, her druidic powers.

When Hannah was finished, both arms were as identical as they could be, the blood vessels following the same paths, the muscles equally strong on both sides.

“Your breasts are a slightly different size and shape,” said Hannah. “It’s not terribly unusual, but I’d wondered if you had a strong preference.”

“Does it matter for healing?” asked Isra. “Does it need to be done?”

“It does if you get stabbed in the chest,” said Hannah. “Either way I’d be able to heal you, it’s just a matter of how fast and efficient it is. If you’d prefer me to leave them alone, I could do that too.”

“Copy the left,” said Isra, placing her hand there.

Hannah hesitated, then nodded. In some sense, it was easy to think of the body as something divorced from the mind, but bodies were also tied up in self-identity. It was a topic of some discussion at the seminary, the kind of long, rousing conversations about the big things in life that Hannah dearly missed and hadn’t been able to replicate elsewhere, even within the guild. Isra seemed not to care all that much, and she was the one who had requested this change if it would make healing and endurance in the dungeon easier, but there was a small part of Hannah that wished they’d had a longer conversation on the matter, three or four hours of back and forth. That seemed a bit optimistic for Isra though.

The work continued apace, backed by music, which hadn’t faltered during the conversation. Hannah asked a few questions and got a bit of confirmation from time to time, mostly to make sure that no mistakes had been made, that there was still sensation everywhere, that Isra was in no pain.

“The only thing left is the face,” said Hannah. “But that, I can leave. You have piercings that would make it difficult anyhow.”

“I won’t be symmetrical though,” said Isra, with a slight frown.

“Full symmetricalization is impossible,” said Hannah. “Or it’s possible, if you kill a person. The guts are the biggest stickin’ point, and I won’t touch them. Besides, your face is already fairly symmetrical. The biggest thing I’d change would be the piercings, either adding extra or removin’ them, but I don’t think I’ll overstep, and the asymmetry seems to be a choice.”

“It is,” said Isra. “I think it looks better that way.”

“Well, ay,” said Hannah. “I’d agree.”

“You would?” asked Isra.

“I like symmetry,” said Hannah. “But to like somethin’ — to love somethin’ — doesn’t mean that you feel that there’s no beauty in anythin’ else. I don’t see a woman with her hair swept to one side and think that she’s ugly for it. So, I can work the face or leave it how it is, my suspicion is that the difference won’t be noticeable to anyone but — well, someone who’s got some intimate knowledge of your face, and my guess is you’re the only one.”

“Do what you’d like,” said Isra.

Hannah found that a bit frustrating, and ended up making almost no changes. What was important, so far as healing went, was the bigger stuff, or the cosmetic features that everyone had all over their body, like the positioning of hair, pores, freckles, and things like that.

“Done,” said Hannah, once she’d finished with a final check. “You’ll want to use your bow some. If it feels a bit awkward, that will go away with time, but we may want to cancel the dungeon, if you think you need to train up. You should be stronger with the left now, and I’ll be able to give you a refresher, if the right arm gets tired.”

Isra got up from the bed and stretched out as Verity brought her song to a close. There weren’t the same lunges as before, just movement of the arms, articulation of the fingers, and miming the motion of drawing with a bow.

“It doesn’t feel different,” said Isra, frowning a bit. “Which means you did a good job?”

“I think I notice a difference,” said Verity, whose eyes were moving over Isra in what Hannah didn’t think was a particularly clinical way. “But I might just be fooling myself.”

“Go get your bow and arrows,” said Hannah. “Let’s test it out.”

Isra got dressed once again, putting the headscarf back in place and her other clothes around her. This was all done in view of Verity, which struck Hannah as being somewhat improper, save for the fact that they shared a room together. There had been something about the way that they’d been sitting together that had seemed somewhat flirtatious, but it was hard to tell whether this was because of Verity, or Isra, or both. Hannah had misjudged Verity, but didn’t know whether Verity would be interested in Isra. It felt a bit improper, that relationship, though they were the same age. Verity had more experience with the world, even if Isra presented a quite hard exterior. She was still rooting for them, but she’d also want to be on hand to give them advice.

Once they were outside, Isra went to full draw, then frowned a bit and relaxed.

“Problem?” asked Hannah.

“I’m trying to figure out what to shoot,” said Isra. “Everything feels normal.”

“Well, you look good,” said Mizuki, who had naturally come out to watch.

“Different?” asked Isra, raising an eyebrow.

“Maybe,” shrugged Mizuki. “But good, I would say.”

“There shouldn’t be much difference,” said Hannah. “You’re probably foolin’ yourself, if you think you can see somethin’, not that I’d want to deprive Isra of compliments.”

Hannah went back inside, when it was clear that there was going to be some additional chatter, and found Alfric in the kitchen, where he was eating from the chiller.

“Hungry?” asked Hannah. “We’ve got dinner in not all that long.”

“I’ve been hungry,” said Alfric. “One of the things my parents said to me was that as much as training felt like it was going overboard, it wouldn’t compare to how it felt to actually be doing things. I think I’m still figuring out how to eat the right amount.”

“Well, you’re a growin’ boy,” said Hannah with a smile. “Just think how hungry you’d be if we were at your original pace? Two a day, was it?”

“In my defense, I was young and stupid,” said Alfric. “And no, not quite two a day.” He looked in the chiller, as if willing more food into it.

“Well, I was plannin’ to bake some egg buns for tomorrow, so we don’t have to think about food too much or depend on rations when we’re in there,” said Hannah. “Care to help, or failin’ that, get out of the way?”

“Sure, I’ll help,” said Alfric. “I’m always happy to put in the effort.”

“Ay, I’ve noticed that,” said Hannah. “It’s commendable.”

“I don’t know what an egg bun is, and I’ve never done any baking in my life,” said Alfric. “Hopefully that’s not a problem.”

“And you don’t know the kitchen either,” said Hannah, clucking her tongue. “Well, to start with, an egg bun is a bun with a hard-boiled egg cooked into it, and in this case, it’ll be cheese as well. The tricky thing about it is makin’ sure that the egg doesn’t overcook, and I’ve only done a few bakes in this kitchen, usually simple stuff, so this all might be for a result that’s short of perfection.”

“So the first step is to boil some eggs?” asked Alfric.

“No, the first step is to make the dough,” said Hannah. “That needs to sit for a bit, and only then will we do the eggs, because then we spend less time idly waitin’ for the dough.”

“The dough is on the critical path,” said Alfric with a nod.

Alfric was, as Hannah had predicted, pretty useless, but it was good to have him in the kitchen with her. Normally, she’d have given him some instructions, like getting him to pull out ingredients that she needed or something like that, but he didn’t know the kitchen in the slightest, and asking him to pull out a baking sheet would have required pointing out the drawer they were in, with more clarifications. It was easier to do it herself.

“Well, I could learn now and then my help will be worth more later,” said Alfric, once this was explained to him. “I should only need to be taught once, right?”

“I s’pose,” said Hannah. “And it would be good for you to learn where things are. What I’m doin’ now, a bake, is a bit different from what Mizuki is doin’, and there’s not much help you could ever be, not unless I could set you off makin’ a custard or mousse or some such.”

“I could learn to do those things,” said Alfric, shrugging. “If this is going to be our schedule, almost a week between dungeons, then I’m going to need to do something with my time, and selling things isn’t going to take up more than a day or two. I’ll need a hobby.”

“Dungeons already are your hobby,” said Hannah. “And you don’t need to change on our account.”

“I’m not even sure you can change a hobby,” said Alfric. He rubbed his head. “Not that dungeons are a hobby, they’re a career, but I take your meaning.”

“Well, now the dough is done, we’re on to eggs, and you can help with those,” said Hannah. “I do wish we had a clock, which was how I always used to do it back home.”

“They’re quite expensive,” said Alfric. “I’m a little surprised you had one.”

“Oh,” said Hannah. “Not a proper mechanical clock, a water clock, one that ran from the tank. It was a finicky thing though, and you couldn’t use water while it was going or it would throw things off. Four cups of water, that was what it took to make a perfect egg.”

“Well, we could do that here,” said Alfric. “If we have the tap open just a bit, we should have water coming out at a steady rate, right?”

“But we don’t have a reference,” said Hannah. “I s’pose we have the time to do some tests with the eggs, if you’ll eat them. I don’t like to waste food.”

“Or we could ask Mizuki,” said Alfric. “She’s got to know how long it takes to boil an egg, right?”

“Maybe,” said Hannah, but she felt a bit doubtful.

Mizuki was in the living room, reading. “Um,” she said in response to the question. “Usually I just do it by feel.”

“What does that mean, by feel?” asked Hannah.

“I don’t know,” shrugged Mizuki. “I just know how long it takes. But I also don’t usually boil eggs.”

This was approximately the outcome that Hannah had expected, and she and Alfric were left to do some experimentation of their own in the kitchen.

“I s’pose you had plenty of clocks in your house?” asked Hannah. “Having grown up rich?”

“No,” said Alfric. “Clocks don’t really have a point unless everyone else also has a clock, and timing things down to the second or minute isn’t all that useful, except for baking, and even then, not very much, since you’re going by sight, smell, and other things. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. You might think that because we’re chrononauts, we have a lot of interest in timekeeping, but it’s rarely as useful as you might think it would be.”

“Last I heard, there was some effort to make a timepiece with ectads,” said Hannah.

“Yes,” nodded Alfric. “It’s not really an effort though, they’ve made them, it’s just a matter of cost, and whether it would be cheaper than just making a mechanical one, or a calibrated hour glass, or something like that.”

“Hmm,” said Hannah. “Well, the system of bells works well enough for me, havin’ someone ring out the right time, but it might be helpful, when I bake, to know that I could step away for longer. It’s as Mizuki said though, quite a bit of it is about the feel rather than measuring things out. Of course, you can’t do that with ingredients.”

“Say, can you not use your clerical powers?” asked Alfric. “Touch the stove and sense the eggs?”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “I could. But it would be too many steps removed, unless I wanted to burn my fingers, which as it happens, I don’t, even if I could heal them back. And the changes that heat makes to a thing are a bit hard to sense, at that.”

They pulled the eggs out of the boiling water at various intervals, cracking them open one by one until they were at the right level of doneness. Alfric made himself useful by eating the ones that weren’t quite ready, seeming unconcerned by the raw egg, which Hannah had always felt was a bit of a snotty texture. Once the eggs were out and put in a pot of cold water on the chilling plate to stop them cooking, the two of them worked together on taking the shells off, which was a place where a second set of hands was rather helpful.

Later on, after another break for the dough to rise, they worked together, folding the egg into the dough along with some cheese. Hannah hadn’t made the egg buns in quite some time, and the cheeses available in Pucklechurch weren’t quite what she’d become used to in the seminary, but she’d made do and bought something that had a good smell to it.

“We really should establish a fund,” said Hannah. “A common pot for dungeon equipment, rations, meals at home, that sort of thing.”

“How would we make sure that no one took too much and everyone put in enough?” asked Alfric. “Paying in would be through a tax on dungeon earnings?”

Hannah let out a sigh. “There are times I think you get it, and other times I think you have so, so far to go,” said Hannah. “We’re friends, so we’ll just play it by ear. If you set things up like you wanted to do the dungeon loot the first time around, then people will get it in their head that this is all transactional, and that will sour them on it.”

“I suppose,” said Alfric. He seemed doubtful.

“I’ll have a think on it though,” said Hannah. “I’m a bit worried about how Mizuki does with money, no offense to her, especially if it’s quite a bit of money. My guess is that given the funds, she’d cook us ever more expensive meals with better ingredients, but I don’t know for certain.”

“Well, I agree it would be good for us to not depend on her generosity, and for us to have some way to funnel money toward her without her thinking about it like some gift she’s obligated to reject,” said Alfric. “In the meantime, I’m going to do what dishes I can, and occasionally bring home food for her to cook with.”

“Do you need or want help?” asked Hannah as he began to run the water. “I’m a bit surprised that you’ve done dishes before.”

“I have experience doing a lot of jobs,” said Alfric. “Self-sufficiency is one of the things that my family puts a lot of focus on, and that means learning simple tasks, even if we have the money to pay people to do them, or entads that do the work for us. My parents would have hated the idea of me being helpless in the face of menial labor.”

Hannah dried the dishes one by one when Alfric was done washing them, a useless little make work job when there was a drying rack that would have done it for her, but it did give her hands something to do while she waited on the egg buns to finish.

She finished them with an egg wash, and Alfric watched. “Why do you do that?” he asked.

“Mostly to make them look more fancy,” said Hannah. “There are a few things you can do, with bread especially, to make it seem like you put in more time and effort than you did. Designs on the top are one way, as are puttin’ some kind of garnish, but there’s nothin’ that beats an egg wash for time spent.” She’d done a bit of fancy scoring on the buns before they’d gone in as well, though that had some practical purpose in allowing the bun to hold a good shape.

“Wow,” said Alfric once they’d come out. They were a perfect golden brown with the glossy egg wash having done more than its share of the work. “These are great.”

“Don’t say that,” Hannah scoffed. “They look great, but we don’t make somethin’ like this to look at it. They’re not great unless they taste great. We’ve a dozen of them, that’s enough that everyone can have two, plus two extras. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll symmetricalize them.”

Alfric faltered. “Is that … necessary?”

“No, of course not,” said Hannah. “But it fulfills a need in me, and you can think of it as prayer, if you’d like.”

Alfric nodded, though it was clear he didn’t really understand. In Mizuki’s ‘juice’ metaphor, there were certain things that were draining and others that were filling, and this was one that Hannah had always felt was filling, in spite of its use of the power. There was something nice about it. Baking was the stuff of asymmetry: it was always so difficult to get things perfectly the same, uniform and neat. A bit of prayer made it so much better.

“I suppose I don’t really understand your interest in the dungeons,” said Alfric as he watched her. The dozen buns had been set out in a nice little pattern, which twelve was a good number for, and Hannah wasn’t just making each bun symmetrical on its own, she was making them symmetrical to each other, but doing it in such a way that they weren’t just clones. “It’s something that we’ve only briefly touched on before. You find the nature of the gods in them?”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “Dungeons expose some rawness of the world. They were, we presume, crafted by the Editors in some respect, with some presumed flaws, but they come from and reflect the world. The creatures, the plants, the rooms, I think they tell us more about ourselves than we might otherwise know. And ay, it’s the gods, of course. Even if things are asymmetrical, which is the excuse clerics of Garos typically give for not wantin’ to go in. For me, it’s the rawness. It’s meditation and prayer.” She shrugged. “I don’t know how better to talk about it. And, naturally, I won’t say no to the magic and the money. It’s nice to have somethin’ you like doin’ that can pay your way through life.”

“And if you didn’t have the dungeons, you’d have been a cleric,” said Alfric. He looked down at the buns. “Or a baker, I suppose.”

Hannah nodded. “I don’t expect I’ll do dungeons forever, but if there’s a moment in my life to be wild and adventuresome, I think this is it. But dungeons are where my heart is, at least for the moment.”

“Mine too,” nodded Alfric. “And I’m glad I found you.”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “You’re a credit. And let’s hope that tomorrow goes well, for both our sakes.”


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Alexander Wales


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