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Singing for the party while they were elsewhere was just about as miserable as Verity had always thought it would be, but worse, it was nerve-wracking. There was a very real possibility that one of them would die while she was merrily singing away in the temple.

By walls of white,
and fields of green,
the soldiers fight,
and armors gleam.
We wish them well,
Pray for the team,
And —

<She’s going to kill me,> Mizuki said.

Verity faltered for a moment and then recovered. The ‘she’ was ambiguous, and could have meant the mother monster or Lola, but following that, there was dead silence that felt like it was going on achingly long, a time in which her mind was starting to swirl that they were all dead. And then Isra was talking about eggs, and Verity let out an internal sigh of relief — internal because she’d kept singing.

The townsfolk seemed to enjoy the song, and Verity treated it like it was any other performance. She shoved down her feelings and focused on the song, both the words she was singing and the magic she was producing. It was a song of bravery, unheard by the rest of her party so they could keep using the channel, the kind of song that she’d always felt was a bit cheesy. This was her first time being in this sort of situation, hunkered down and worried about a situation that she had very little control over. There were siege songs, but she didn’t know any of them, and from what fragments she could remember, they were mostly about starvation and running low on resources, which wasn’t particularly applicable. She tried to make up her own.

The moment of battle had apparently passed, and Verity let the magic unwind, absent any input from someone else. She excused herself for a moment, promising that she’d be back for more.

She had been particularly nervous because of her close call with the creature. In their time in the dungeons, she had never come so close to dying as that, and if Alfric hadn’t been there with quick thinking and fast action, she was certain that she would have died. But no, he saw that she was in danger, swooped in, picked her up, and then executed the warp while holding her, with unflinching speed. It was as though he’d spent a few days in a relatively empty hex practicing the warp, which didn’t seem wholly unlikely.

Verity was grateful, obviously, but she was also a bit shaken. It was made worse by the fact that her best weapon was her song, and that was only an indirect weapon, not something that she could beat off an attacker with. It made her feel powerless, especially when she was using it at a remove.

Once she’d had some water and a moment to cool off, Verity started playing again, casting her magic wide rather than using the weirdly internal form that being bard to a party demanded. It was aimed at the townsfolk rather than party, spreading the magic wide and taking the edge off as much as she could. Her voice was high and clear, and many stopped to listen to her.

She was ten minutes in when Clemency came over with her own lute. The younger bard raised her eyebrows, asking a wordless question that Verity had no capacity to answer aside from a nod of the head.

They played together, with Verity leading and Clemency following, adding a richness to the sound and occasionally some harmony on the chorus. It was sometimes difficult to work with someone if you hadn’t practiced before, and should have been doubly so given that Verity was making up the song as she went, but Clemency had some talent, even if there was a roughness to her sound. Verity did her best to lean into the roughness, to make it feel like a raw, heartfelt song. There was a utility in that sort of thing, and while Verity herself had little experience with it, the theory she’d heard was that it could feel more spontaneous or real.

Their magic merged together, and Verity paid a bit more attention to that than to the lyrics she was spinning. She was blunting anger, anxiety, and general bad thoughts, and to complement that, Clemency was heightening a sense of camaraderie, community, and safety. It was, perhaps, a little bit much for them to be doing without having consulted with anyone, but no one was rushing up to stop them. In a tavern, there was an understanding that a bard would probably play at some point, but in a communal place like this, some might take the temporary altering of their emotions the wrong way.

Still, when they finished, there was a round of applause.

“You played beautifully,” said Clemency. “Sorry I didn’t know the song.”

“Oh,” said Verity. “I was making it up as I went along.”

Clemency’s eyes widened. “‘The timbre of sorrow on the walls as they fell’? That just … came from nowhere? It’s very poetic.”

“Um,” said Verity. “Well, what I try to do is think of words in terms of meter, and make note of particular lines that I like, or relations between things, or ways of phrasing. It wasn’t something that I’d planned to say, but there’s a bit of practice to get to where you can just come out with lyrics that are — well, not embarrassing, at least.” There were very often problems in her lyrics, she was painfully aware of that.

“And that’s what they teach at a conservatory?” asked Clemency. She seemed thrilled just to be sitting next to Verity.

“A bit,” said Verity. “But most of the music theory is in favor of playing better music, rather than writing or composition. At least as far as my own education went, there was almost no one teaching me about composition.”

“You’re very good at it,” said Clemency. “Do you write the songs down?”

Verity laughed. “No, they’re not worth doing that.”

“Well, I think they’re great,” said Clemency.

“I appreciate you saying so,” nodded Verity. There was something very nice about being fawned over by a younger bard. Verity was no stranger to praise, but when it came from people her parents were paying, or from the sorts of people who used concerts as an excuse for manipulative socialization, it hit much differently. “Things are going well at the Fig and Gristle?”

“Oh, very good for my first gig,” said Clemency. “But I’m already wondering where I’ll be in a year or two. The only way that I would stay in town is if I found a partner, and … well, they all seem to know each other.”

“There are a number of people who would be more than happy to give you a list of eligible singles,” said Verity.

Clemency laughed. “Well, I’ll think about that, but … I don’t know. The idea of finding a husband with a good trade who I could build a stable life with is appealing.”

At the mention of ‘husband’ Verity’s heart sank a bit, not that she’d been entertaining any notions of Clemency being … well, anything, but until that point there had been a hint of possibility, and it had just been firmly snuffed out. This was far from the first time it had happened, but it still hit Verity in a similar way to the first time, a possibility undone.

“I could introduce you to the smith’s apprentice, if you’d like,” said Verity. “I know he’s been looking. He’s not local either, though I do think he means to be here for some time.” She pointed out Micah, who was speaking with some older women.

“That is a very big man,” said Clemency.

“Well, maybe you’d want to wait anyhow,” said Verity. “Get settled, understand the town a bit more.”

“Probably,” said Clemency. She glanced over at Micah. “I didn’t say no to that introduction.”

“I should probably warn you that if he’s interested, he might do a Cairbre thing where he proposes to you?” said Verity, more of a question than a statement. She could definitely see the appeal of having things sorted away and being able to skip all of the dating and courting and all that other stuff.

“That,” said Clemency, nodding. “Would be odd. And I would need to think about it.” She smiled at Verity. “You know, you really are very nice.”

“Hmm,” said Verity. “You know, I wouldn’t say that. I was raised to be courteous and polite, but not kind. Thank you, though. Anything I can do for you, just let me know.”

Clemency grinned.

“But for now, I need to go find my party,” said Verity. “From the chatter I’ve heard, it seems like things are wrapping up, and the temple will be clearing out soon.”

They said their goodbyes, and then Verity was up and away, carrying her lute with her.

<Where is everyone right now?> asked Verity.

<About to head in,> said Alfric. <I’ve heard there’s going to be food?>

<Ay, there’s a big kitchen in the temple,> said Hannah. <Someone will be workin’ on it now, I should think.>

It wasn’t long before Verity could smell pork, as apparently someone had slaughtered a few hogs to make sure that people would have something to eat. Perhaps it had been done with the belief that the whole day would be undone anyway, but she supposed it was also possible that this was how things were in a place like Pucklechurch, where people took what they had and gave it to the community in times of need. Or perhaps there would just be payment afterward from a community fund, which seemed equally likely. Aside from the large quantity of pork, there were roasted root vegetables and quite a bit of fruit, all laid out so that people could come and get what they wanted. The local baker had brought in what felt like an enormous quantity of bread, and it was eaten fast.

Not long after people started to eat, the remainder of the volunteers came in.

“It’s done!” called Partridge. “Reduced to zero, and I don’t believe we’ve had any escapes to other hexes.”

There was a round of applause, and then a few words of thanks from various people, which involved a bit too much self-congratulation for Verity’s tastes. The hexmaster, Bo, had been absent for much of the crisis, but was in the temple saying empty nothings about how much he cared about the town and loved the people within it. Perhaps that was true, but it stunk of political grandstanding to Verity, a man taking a moment to speak when he had a captive audience. Verity’s opinion was, perhaps, city cynicism.

“This food is great,” said Mizuki. “The Pedder family will take any opportunity to roast a whole pig. They must have started right after they got the news, because it takes something like four hours.”

“That long?” asked Isra.

“Oh, sure,” said Mizuki. “And it can take even longer if you get a great big pig, or you stuff it with things, and if you want the best result, they’ll cook for eight hours, or more. Outside usually, sometimes in a trench. There’s a real art to it.”

“It’s so juicy,” said Alfric. “I don’t understand that.”

“Liquids are a big part of it,” said Mizuki. “Some actual juice goes into it, and the fats need to render, and … some other things. I helped them with a Dark Winter’s feast once, but didn’t quite learn enough to replicate it, not that I’ve ever had cause to prepare a whole hog.”

“So,” said Verity. “Are we doing the second dungeon? Because if we don’t do it today, we’d have to do it tomorrow, and we were going to the opera tomorrow, which … I think we could still do, but the timing seems suspect.”

“The second dungeon is off,” said Alfric. “We’ve put time and effort into helping with the dungeon escape, and even if we haven’t spent all that much in the way of material resources, I still think that it wouldn’t make sense to follow through with our original plan.”

“Och, never thought I’d see you arguin’ against a dungeon,” said Hannah.

“It’s a conservative decision,” said Alfric. “But I suppose if the four of you really want to, we could leave now and probably be back before dark, depending on what was in it and how slow we took it.”

“Better to be safe,” said Mizuki. “Besides, this means that next time can be the double dungeon, right? I mean, we’re in Dondrian for three days, that’s like extra relaxing.”

“No,” said Aflric. “With all the things you have planned, you’re going to need time for recovery.”

“We don’t have that much planned,” said Mizuki. “Just some shopping, the opera, the museum, dinner at a few places, meeting your family, and I guess when I say it like that, maybe it does sound like a lot.”

“Second question. What are we going to do about Lola?” asked Verity.

“Short of a confession from her, or some proof that she was the one that released the beast, there’s nothing to be done,” said Alfric. “There are some post-cognitive entads that could be employed to catch whoever was responsible, but my family doesn’t have any to loan, not with the right time frame, and the authorities wouldn’t be called in for something like this where the outcome was mostly inconvenience. It seems a little doubtful that the day will be reset, but there’s always a chance, I suppose.”

“Post-cognitive?” asked Mizuki.

“Knowledge after the fact,” said Hannah. “Bein’ able to look at a scene and see what happened there days, weeks, or even months ago.”

“Off the top of my head, my mom has a piece of glass that allows you to see whatever was going on exactly three hours before,” said Alfric. “Even that was pretty rare, and you’d need to know where the release happened.”

“Huh,” said Mizuki. “You know, Isra and I were talking about what it would take to kill a person, and I realized I had no idea how you’d go about catching a murderer.”

“Um,” said Verity. She looked at Isra. “Why were you thinking about killing a person?”

“Please don’t kill Lola,” said Alfric.

“You keep saying that,” said Mizuki, frowning. “But it seems like it should work, right? Screw up her plans and stuff? And it’s not like it’s forever, she just has to do the day again and stay out of my way.”

“But why were you talking about murder?” asked Verity.

“Oh,” said Mizuki. She looked at Isra. “Just … private stuff.”

“Mizuki used an expression I hadn’t heard before,” said Isra. “One about drowning a government official.”

“What?” asked Verity.

“Hard to murder someone and get away with it,” said Hannah. “First off, the chrononauts, but second, murder is the sort of thing that gets Inter involved, and when they come ‘round, they’re usin’ all kinds of entads, tryin’ to see into the past and pull thoughts from heads and … well, all that stuff.”

“Right, which is why you have to make it look like an accident,” said Mizuki. “Or like they’ve just gone missing, or ran off, or whatever.”

“I’d like to put a stop to this kind of talk,” said Alfric.

“Well, good luck with that,” smiled Mizuki, but on seeing his expression, her smile fell. “Fine, fine, I was only thinking that it’s not something that you hear all that much about.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” said Alfric. “I know death might seem like a distant thing to you, but … well, it’s not to me.”

“Because you’ve died so many times?” asked Mizuki.

Alfric nodded.

“It seems to me as though we need to do something about Lola,” said Verity. “Especially if she engineered today’s trouble.”

“I’ll handle her,” said Alfric. “I told her to contact me by mail, which takes our chrononaut abilities out of it, so … I don’t know, hopefully she’ll come to understand that I’m serious about that.”

“You talked to her today,” said Mizuki.

“I did,” said Alfric. “And yes, if she was behind the escape —”

“She was,” said Mizuki.

“Then yes, I was in some sense rewarding bad behavior,” he continued. “And if she undoes the day, then she can just do it again, if she wants to be near me and have me talk to her in clipped sentences and with a great deal of anger on my part. I don’t think that’s what she does want, but maybe.”

The rest of their lunch passed by easily enough, and they were visited by first Kell and then Micah, who Alfric had said were, at one point, alternates. Kell had a thing for Mizuki, that was obvious enough, but for all that Mizuki talked about boys and seemed to find potential in whichever ones were around, she didn’t seem very interested in Kell. In fact, she seemed more keen on Micah, who in turn wouldn’t take his eyes off Hannah, and Verity immediately began to second guess her offer to introduce Clemency.

When they were finished eating, they split off, and Verity was left with the question of how to fill the rest of the day. She needed to practice, though she’d played for quite a bit already, and there were a few preparations to make before the trip to Dondrian, even if they were going to be staying with Alfric’s family, a fact which had only recently been confirmed.

Verity was worried about her parents. Not that she was intending to see them, but if she did, they would want to talk, and … well, she wasn’t certain how that talk would go. She couldn’t handle the pressure that had been piled on her, and there was no justification for that, nor any explanation of what she was doing with her life. She had been a half-ring bard in a small tavern in the middle of nowhere, and now she was apparently a dungeon bard, and there was no path, no clear ending, no nothing.

Verity had always carried a bit of sadness with her, and there was no particular reason to be sad on this occasion, but she was anyhow.

“Are you okay?” asked Hannah as they walked.

“Fine,” said Verity. She paused. “Actually, not all that fine, if you’re available to talk later. In a professional capacity?”

“Of course,” nodded Hannah.

They got back to the house and went through with unpacking and getting back into their normal clothes, though Verity still had less in the way of armor than the rest, something that she was reconsidering following her close encounter with the monster. Once that was out of the way, Verity went to Hannah’s room — which had once been Mizuki’s room — and sat down on the bed. There was a small desk in there, and Verity glanced at it briefly, surprised to see that it was covered in papers.

“I’m writin’ a book,” said Hannah. “Though I don’t know if that’s what it will become, it seems wise to be a bit optimistic and do what plannin’ I can.”

“A book?” asked Verity.

“Ay,” said Hannah. “A book about symmetry as it applies to dungeons. There are a fair few of them in the large library at the seminary, but they’re theory only. I’m makin’ some notes on the dungeons we’ve done, the monsters in them, the layout, things like that. It’s a case study, of sorts, the kind of thing that would have maybe a dozen copies made and then sit on the shelves of shops, waitin’ for just the right customer.”

“And this is why you’ve been doing the dungeons?” asked Verity.

“No, no,” said Hannah, dismissing the thought with a wave of the hand. “I’ve been doin’ it for the experience, and only a bit of it is religious. Dungeons are somethin’ you do when you’re young, when you have a need to see the world and get in scraps and all that.”

She sat there quietly, giving Verity a pleasant smile, waiting.

“That was … a bit what I wanted to talk about,” said Verity. “I don’t know where my life is going. I don’t know what I want to do.”

“Ay?” asked Hannah. “Well, I can’t tell you that, as you’ve probably guessed. And it’s a hard thing to deal with, a lack of ambition like that. You can’t just pick a mountain to climb and be done with it … but if you don’t set out to climb a mountain, you’ll stay in the valleys.”

“I was meant for great things,” said Verity. It was, almost, an invitation for Hannah to ask, and Verity thought that she’d have answered. Xuphin had chosen her. People had spoken in tongues. “And I left.”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “It’s your return to Dondrian that’s puttin’ these thoughts in your head, is it?”

“I don’t know,” said Verity. “Maybe. Alfric is … challenging, in a lot of ways. Not in a bad way, but seeing him, his focus, his dedication, makes me feel inadequate.”

“He’s less focused than you’d think,” said Hannah. “From what I can tell, he’s less purposeful than he was a year ago.”

“I can hardly imagine that,” said Verity.

“Well, either way, Alfric isn’t a standard I would hold anyone up to,” said Hannah. “Nor would I advise anyone to try too hard to be like him.”

“I was talking to the replacement bard, Clemency, today,” said Verity. “And it seemed like she would be fine finding a husband and then just … being a bard at the Fig and Gristle.”

“And you reacted to that with horror?” asked Hannah, smiling. “Or at least, with a feelin’ that this wasn’t the life you wanted for yourself, even if you could find a good partner. And you also have no notions of goin’ back to Dondrian, where you’d be ensnared by the socialites and penned into obligations of their own design.”

“Right,” nodded Verity. She was very clear on that.

“And you’d go mad if you had to sit around with not a thing to do,” said Hannah. “I’ve seen that clearly enough.”

“What do you mean?” asked Verity, furrowing her brow.

“We’ve been together for quite a bit now,” said Hannah. “You like to be on the move, not content to sit and chat unless the circumstances are just right. Too much empty time and you’ll go find your lute to practice, just to have somethin’ worthwhile happenin’.”

“Hmm,” said Verity. “I guess so. Do other people … not?”

“Other people are better at takin’ a moment to relax, yes,” said Hannah. “Don’t you watch Mizuki sometimes?”

“She has a way of sinking into the couch,” said Verity. “Or just relaxing in general.” Verity frowned. “I had thought that over the course of my time at the Fig and Gristle I’d gotten fairly good at taking it slow.”

“Well, perhaps better than you were,” said Hannah. “I’m only sayin’ what I’ve observed, and I can’t see in your head.”

“Frankly, I feel like I’ve been doing nothing for nearly nine months now,” said Verity. “I was asked whether I write down my songs or work on composition or anything like that and …” she looked at the book on Hannah’s table. “I should be doing that. I might start.”

“And the garden too, where it seems you’ve been spending quite a bit of time,” said Hannah.

“Well, now is the season for it,” said Verity. “Or past the season for it, actually, which means that I’ve been playing catch-up. And I did hear that there was a gardening club in Pucklechurch, where I’d like to have something to show for my time, even if they sit there and talk about social matters.”

Hannah nodded. “But you feel that’s not enough? A nice garden, nice songs, a girl on your arm?”

“Xy is hardly on my arm,” said Verity. “We haven’t even had a first date, or a first … liaison, if we’re not to be partnered.”

“Well, either way, whomever you end up with,” said Hannah, waving a hand. It was curious phrasing, and for a moment, Verity wondered whether Hannah was making a pass at her, but that seemed rather out of character. “What I’m askin’, not that I think you could answer now, not that I think you should answer without a bit more thought on it, but … why would that not be enough? A quaint little house, a nice, proper garden, songs for the townsfolk, someone you love, why would that not be enough?”

Verity thought about that for a moment. “I guess I don’t have an answer, but it’s something that I should think about.”

Hannah nodded. “There are certain people who feel that they need to do something with their lives, and it might be that you’re one of them, or your parents tried to convince you that you were, but if it feels like there’s nothin’ to do …” She paused. “I don’t imagine you’d like hearin’ it, but I do think Alfric might have some insight for you.”

“He might?” asked Verity.

Hannah nodded. “It’s one of his central struggles, though I don’t imagine he’d put it like that. We’ve got a tamed world, in his view, with nothin’ of adventure or struggle, nothin’ that a single person can really accomplish on their own. That’s the attraction of dungeons for him, at least in part, a way for him to prove himself, to have a meaningful challenge.”

“And … you think that I’m like that?” asked Verity.

“Ay,” nodded Hannah. “But not the same, really, just … you’re in this world where you’re tryin’ to find out what you could do that would mean somethin’ to you, and it seems that Alfric went through that struggle himself, though I don’t imagine his answer will be the same as yours.”

“I suppose I could talk to him,” said Verity. “I don’t know that the others have struggled with that, with purpose.”

“I would imagine not,” said Hannah. “For Mizuki, it’s belonging, it’s people. For Isra … well, you’d know better than I would.”

“I suppose,” said Verity. “She’s become a fast friend, though what goes on in her head, I’m sure I only know half of.”

Hannah nodded. “I hope that’s helped. You let me know, if you’ve more thoughts. But I do think it best we head downstairs to make sure that the others aren’t getting into trouble.”

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Alexander Wales

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