There was no door to the family vault. Instead, you were just whisked there by someone who was keyed in, in this case, Alfric. Mizuki wanted to go first, so Verity waited.
She had overheard bits and pieces of Alfric’s conversation with Mizuki regarding what ‘rich’ meant. While Verity’s family was rich, they were at a lower tier than the Overguards, and it was entirely true that their culture was quite a bit different. Verity’s parents were a part of the Society, a relatively close-knit group if you discounted the backstabbing and gossip. While there were occasional new members, either through marriage or more rarely, the merits of personal enterprise, it was largely a matter of bloodlines, those families that could hold on to their wealth from generation to generation, as difficult as that was with the laws as they were.
A house like Alfric’s would be beyond the dreams of most people, especially given how much magic was built into it. Having bits of the house in different areas of the region allowed for fast travel by all the members of the household, beyond just the aesthetic functions. Dining being provided entirely by entad … well, it depended upon the quality of the food, but from the things that Alfric had said about his family, Verity had very little doubt that it was in excess of anything she’d had before, putting trained chefs to shame. Yet they didn’t act particularly rich.
Verity knew the politics of the situation mostly because of her parents, especially her father, who was always fretting over the position of the family. Taxation and seizure were the twin specters that seemed to haunt him, and he spoke of them frequently. They were, to put it in her father’s language, being bled at multiple different levels, thrashing around like a wounded animal trying to stave off the tax collectors, and at the same time, their business interests were at threat from the workers, who could legally seize a company in a forced buy-out at what her father considered to be rates akin to robbery. Her father hadn’t actually suffered from a company going into seizure, but he spoke about it often, and when it was a part of the Society news, it felt to Verity like it was all anyone spoke about.
There were certain things that were not taxed and which could be passed down to children without penalty. Homes were one of them, as were clothes and food. There were, if Verity understood her father right, all kinds of arguments about what counted as being within those realms, and he expressed some annoyance that their second home in Merilay was taxed at a much higher rate than their primary home. Taxes were largely on the businesses, but also on the accounts, much to his displeasure.
The Overguards, by contrast, had an embarrassment of riches, and seemed not to think too much about it, at least if Alfric and his father were anything to go by. There had been some element of showing off in the wood carvings, but that hadn’t been about wealth, at least not so far as Verity could see. Instead, it was simply enthusiasm for something a bit dorky.
If her parents ever met Alfric’s parents, she was certain that they would hate each other. In fact, it was entirely possible that her parents had met his parents, though if they had, she hadn’t heard anything about it. She did let their conversations roll over her though, especially with regard to other families. And they had hired Alfric to come find and report on her, which she suspected had quite a bit to do with his family’s name or position.
Alfric saved her for last, bringing in the family dog before her at Mizuki’s insistence. It gave time for the anticipation to build.
The vault was huge and well-organized, large enough to put the biggest entad emporium to shame. There were five levels, with a hollow in the center and a little lift going between them, and lots of bright light. Despite how large the vault was, it still seemed that space was at a premium, and things were packed tight, with racks of weapons nearly overlapping each other. There was enough in the vault to have outfitted an entire army, and surely enough destructive power to have leveled a small city, if not one as large as Dondrian.
“This is for the whole extended family,” said Alfric, as though that explained the absurd amount of entads. “Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, everyone under a pretty wide umbrella. Most of it is bound, either to a person or a party, and the things that are bound are sectioned off by who they’re bound to, but we’re not really here to sightsee, we’re here for disguises.”
They were all looking at the riches with wide eyes. It was hard not to.
They passed a set of long-handled weapons, all of which had labels attached to them, and they were organized by their types, so many of them that there were separate sections for spears, bidents, tridents, polearms, poleaxes, on and on, types that Verity didn’t know and had perhaps been invented by the dungeons.
“A lot of these are worthless,” said Alfric as they walked. His dog, Emperor, walked beside him, and Alfric absent-mindedly patted his head as they walked. “It’s less impressive than it looks.”
“It looks extremely impressive,” said Mizuki.
“Well, the bound stuff eventually builds up, a ton of it, and unless you’re going dynamic, most of it has to just stay in storage. A lot of it is terrible, and the stuff that’s not terrible is out-classed.” He shook his head.
“Dynamic?” asked Mizuki.
“Changing your equipment as the circumstances demand,” said Alfric. “Usually through the use of fast storage. If you need a polearm, you use a polearm, if you need a sword, you use a sword. You take into account the monster’s magic when you do it. It’s a lot of mental overhead and cross-training, usually. My mom selects her armor and weapons from a set of more than a hundred, but she has entad assistance for picking what’s appropriate.”
“I’m starting to feel overwhelmed,” said Mizuki. Her eyes hadn’t stopped moving.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Alfric. “I’m just trying to give some context. The best stuff we have usually gets rented out or used on our person, so most of this is second-rate.”
“It still seems impressive,” said Isra. “It’s larger than the entad shops I’ve been in.”
“It’s larger than the entad shops I’ve been in,” said Verity.
“Well, it’s not a shop,” said Alfric. “There’s no worry about inventory or whether or not something will sell, it’s just … our stuff.” He came up short. “Here, something in this row.”
They had come to a row that consisted mostly of clothing, with shawls, shirts, hats, skirts, pants, all hung up on various hooks or hangers, each with a little card attached that said what it did. There were quite a lot of colors, but the categorization seemed a little haphazard until Verity realized that unlike the weapons they were organized by what they did rather than what they were. A label marked thirty or so items as being ‘disguise’, with a much larger selection next to it, not all cloth, which was ‘cosmetics’.
“And you can just come in here at any time and take what you want?” asked Mizuki.
“Well,” said Alfric. “We’re encouraged not to, and there’s a book that tracks who takes what. If you’ve won it yourself in a dungeon run, that’s a bit of a different story, but … well, most of us do go a little crazy with the entads at some point, wanting to try things out, and sometimes one of them will go around the house as a toy. Overall though, yes, I can take what I want.”
Verity was reading through the cards one by one. Each entad was unique, but if you had enough of them, organized properly, there was a bit of overlap and places where that uniqueness was harder to see.
“We have time enough for you to try things out, if you’re interested,” said Alfric. “How much of a disguise you’re going for is up to you, though I’d think it would be enough to just change the face.” He pulled a scarf from a peg. “This one lets you rearrange your face like clay, but you have to be a little careful with it, because if you bump something by accident, you can end up looking a little wonky. My mom sneezed with this one on and ended up having a very awkward conversation with the banker she’d been talking to.”
“Doesn’t this create some problems for disclosure?” asked Mizuki. Alfric raised an eyebrow. “Just asking.”
“Yes, it does,” said Alfric. “There are rules for ethical disguises. Don’t talk to people you know, don’t talk about yourself, don’t listen in on conversations people wouldn’t want you to be privy to, and so on.”
Mizuki rolled her eyes, then looked around. “Ooo, a hat!”
“It’s face-obscuring,” said Alfric as Mizuki slipped the wide-brimmed hat on. Her face blurred, which produced a faint humming noise. “When you want people to know that you’re going incognito.”
“Lame,” said Mizuki, pulling it off and putting it back on a peg.
“Do you know what each of these do?” asked Hannah.
“No,” said Alfric. “But I went through a period when I wanted to be a spy.”
“A spy?” asked Mizuki.
“Chrononauts are suited for it,” said Alfric. “And it seemed interesting. Ethically fraught, but interesting.”
“Is there much call for spies?” asked Hannah. “I’d have thought those days were pretty much over.”
“So long as one group of people is trying to get one over on another group of people, there will be spies,” said Alfric. “I’d have been working for Interim, probably in Tarbin or North Tarbin. But I was quite young, and feeling a little rebellious, not wanting to do what my mom and dad did. It passed pretty quickly, especially once I learned how boring spying really is.”
Verity looked over at Isra, who had slipped on a ring and gone green, literally: her skin was the deep green of plants just after rainfall.
“Is this a disguise?” asked Isra.
“Um,” said Alfric, quickly reading the card. “Change eye color, skin color, hair color, hair length, hair texture,” he said. “Not a great disguise, but it will do in a pinch.” He looked up. “Oh, that’s actually cosmetics, that makes more sense.”
“Mmm,” said Isra, putting it back. Her skin returned to its normal dark color.
“Hey, I’m a boy,” said Mizuki, who’d put on a cloak and grown a beard. Her hand briefly went between her legs. “Aw, what a rip.”
“I’m guessing Verity won’t want that one,” said Alfric.
Mizuki was reading the card. “This is one way only? Gives a beard and flattens breasts? Lame.”
“Most of these are pretty lame,” said Alfric. “I did try to warn you.”
Verity slipped on a hair clip and turned to look at Isra. “How’s this one?”
“You look like Verity’s sister,” said Isra.
“I wouldn’t recognize you, but there’s a resemblance, ay,” said Hannah.
“It’s weird,” said Mizuki, peering at Verity’s changed face. “I like it.”
“It’s probably the least weird of them,” said Alfric. “Though I think there are a few more since the last time I was through here. If you want a better disguise you could also be a little bit shorter. Off the top of my head, would you rather be proportionally smaller or have a chunk taken out of your legs?”
Mizuki laughed, though Verity didn’t think that it had been a joke. Alfric was giving her an earnest look.
“Proportionally smaller, please,” said Verity.
“Of Kesbin, I’d expect?” asked Hannah. “Seems a thing they’d like to have.”
“Oh, we’ve given lots of things away,” said Alfric as he moved down the hall of entads. “I have to imagine that the more pronounced effects are the ones that have found their way into the hands of commerce or the clergy.” He took a bangle down from a peg and handed it to Verity. “This should let you be as short as Mizuki.”
“You can be small pals with me!” said Mizuki.
“And here,” said Alfric, taking a wand from the wall. “Can we change your hair color too? I’m a bit worried that you’ll be found out, and I know you’re not ready for a return to the Society.”
“Sure,” said Verity.
“Lasts twenty-four hours, will need to be reapplied,” said Alfrc before tapping her on the head with the wand. He placed the wand back in its holder, where it sat next to hair of various colors and styles, which were apparently samples that the wand used. “Um, there should be a mirror around here somewhere.”
“Kyrie broke it,” said a voice. The man was obviously built from the same mold as Alfric, and sauntered toward them with a smile. His nose was slightly wider and his eyebrows a bit thicker, but the biggest difference between them was his silky demeanor. He was wearing flashier clothes too, with gold embroidery and red trim. “Good to have you back, little brother.”
“She broke it and didn’t replace it?” asked Alfric.
“She keeps saying she’s going to,” said the brother. “This is the new party we’ve been hearing so much about?”
“I really haven’t been putting much in the reports,” said Alfric. “Everyone, this is Mo, the eldest.”
“The eldest Mo, or eldest brother?” asked Mizuki, who was looking him up and down.
“Both,” said Mo. “There are two more Mos I know, both younger, and no mo’.” He gave her a very cheesy smile and she rolled her eyes.
“Ugh, he’s terrible,” said Mizuki. “I love him.”
“What are you here for, Mo?” asked Alfric.
“Can’t I stop by to see my little brother?” he asked. “But seriously, I’m here for some cosmetics, the girl I’m seeing likes blue eyes and I thought I’d surprise her.” He grabbed the ring that Isra had tried on and held it up. “You’re not using this one, right?”
“Go right ahead,” said Alfric.
“Good to meet you all,” said Mo. He turned and left just as suddenly as he’d come.
“So the way you are isn’t how the rest of the family is?” asked Mizuki. “I can’t help but be a bit disappointed.”
“We probably won’t be seeing much of them, aside from my mom, who is intent on dressing the four of you up like dolls,” said Alfric.
“Not you?” asked Hannah.
“I have opera-ready clothes,” said Alfric. “I think my mom will do right by you, but … well, she’s happy that I have a party that’s doing regular dungeons, and she wants to show her appreciation in a way that isn’t awkward or overstepping. I think we have everything we need here, unless anyone else was serious about their own disguise?”
“Before we go, can I change the dog’s fur color?” asked Mizuki.
“Only if you want my mom to yell at you,” said Alfric. “Purple is his favorite, by the way.”
“Fine,” Mizuki grumped.
“So what’s happenin’ for the rest of the day?” asked Hannah.
“You’re free to do whatever you’d like,” said Alfric with a shrug. “We’ve got no formal plans that I know of. Tomorrow is the museum and the cathedral, tonight is the opera, that’s it as far as I’m concerned.”
“I’m going to find some street food,” said Mizuki. “I’ve got two hundred rings budgeted for food.”
“That’s absurd,” said Hannah.
“I think I’ll practice my lute,” said Verity.
“Seriously?” asked Mizuki.
“There’s an old joke,” said Verity. “If I take a day off, I can tell. If I take two days off, the people I play with can tell. After a week, the audience can tell. And after a month, even the critics start to notice.” This didn’t get much in the way of laughs, maybe because they weren’t musicians and had never worried about critical reception. Possibly it was her delivery. “Anyway, I do need to practice, and the nature center seems like it would be the place to do that.” She glanced at Isra.
“I think I’ll see the ocean,” said Isra. “And speak with a few of the city creatures.”
The phrase ‘city creatures’ raised a few eyebrows, and Verity imagined her having in-depth conversations with the day owls that plagued Dondrian.
Alfric took them out of the vault and for a time, they went their separate ways, though not before they’d each picked a color for their guest room and gotten what luggage they had squared away.
When Harmon had said that the green door led out to nature, Verity hadn’t known quite what to expect, but it turned out to be a number of rooms set in any idyllic hillside section of Dondrian with walls tastefully concealed by artful landscaping. This amount of land inside the city proper seemed like it would be quite expensive, and it seemed a bit out of character for the family, given how conspicuous it was. The view was excellent though, one of the best that Verity had seen, and she was well-acquainted with the tall hill she was on, which jutted up from the central hex and had all the best houses on it. It was in the area that her mother had always lusted after.
There was a small greenhouse, one with plenty of signs and, it seemed, was filled almost exclusively with unique dungeon plants. She assumed, given Alfric’s own caution and what she knew of the laws, that they were all sterile. Despite having said that she was going to practice, and having her lute case in hand, she spent quite a bit of time there, marveling at a few of the plants they had on display, especially those with large flowers or that were fruiting. The smell was earthy and damp. Either someone was taking care of the plants, or more likely, there was entad and ectad support in place to handle things without creating a long list of daily chores.
Aside from the greenhouse, there was an enclosed pool, though somewhat unusually, it had lily pads, mosses, fish, frogs, and other bits of life in it, all arranged with such beauty that it was definitely deliberate (though the frogs moved of their own accord, and were unartfully piled up on each other in one corner).
Verity decided to practice outside, and had to pick between a bench overlooking the city and the ocean beyond it, or a lone chair by the fire pit. She picked the chair, as it looked comfortable, and when she sat in it, another identical chair appeared beside it. She was guessing that it would provide seating for as many as wanted it, which explained why the chair was all by itself.
Being back in Dondrian was making her anxious, but being with friends and in a disguise did quite a bit to assuage her concerns.
Verity settled on songs from Lerial and Marsc, though she was only a single player, and to do them justice required a somewhat sizable string orchestra. It was an opera in the classic style, with sharp distinctions between voiced parts and instrumental sections, never overlapping the two, and typically had a smaller orchestra of string instruments only, though Verity had attended a production that had used the full force of an orchestra using a new composition, which she hadn’t particularly thought was an improvement.
Having been reduced down to Mizuki’s size made the playing more difficult, not because it changed her understanding of the instrument — that had been magically preserved — but because her fingers had to extend further to play the chords. A number of instructors had complimented her on her long, elegant fingers, and she wondered if they’d have said the same if she was smaller.
There was some occasional discussion over the party channel, in part because it was simply necessary for coordination, but also because they wanted to keep each other informed. Mizuki was giving reports on street food, and Verity was somewhat worried that by the time the opera started, Mizuki would be sick. Isra was largely silent, but was apparently seeing the ocean for the first time and speaking with whatever animals she could find, which sounded innocent and lovely to Verity, enough so that she considered that she should have invited herself along, especially after all the work to get her disguise in order. Hannah and Alfric were, it seemed, taking a more in-depth look at another part of the house, particularly some of the training equipment, which Hannah had some interest in.
Verity had made it through three songs when someone new came to join her. She was dark-skinned, and there was a bit of a family resemblance, but it wasn’t immediately clear to Verity whether this was a younger sister who looked older than she was, or the fabled mother, who was showing no age. Her hair was poofy but pulled back, her eyes brown and somewhat hard, which was the only thing that suggested age. The seriousness was what reminded Verity most of Alfric.
“You must be Verity,” said the woman when Verity was finished, and there was something gentle in the way she said it that made Verity certain this was the mother. She was wearing a simple blue dress and walking around barefoot, with not an entad in sight.
“I am,” said Verity. “You’re Ria?”
She nodded. “Do you mind if I have a seat?”
“Not at all,” said Verity.
Ria sat down in the spare chair, and a new spare chair popped into existence. “I’m glad I caught you alone.” She smoothed out her dress. “I’m afraid I’ve spoken with your parents.”
Verity stiffened. “I was really hoping that I could keep them out of my business.”
“I haven’t said anything to them, and I don’t intend to,” said Ria. “You’re a guest and have a right to your privacy, and beyond that, from what I know of your situation, I think they’re in the wrong. Children should have a right to self-determination, to find themselves and pursue their own lives, whether those are lucrative or not, whether they’re prestigious or base. Not that I would consider dungeoneering ‘base’, but there are people who hold that opinion.”
“What do my parents know?” asked Verity.
“Only what you told them when you left,” said Ria. “But they know that it was my son they sent after you, and — reading between the lines a bit — they were hoping that there might be a connection between our families, through business if no other way. They don’t know you’re in a party together, and they certainly don’t know you’re doing dungeons.”
“That was what they talked to you about?” asked Verity. She returned her lute to its case. She didn’t feel like playing anymore, and had done enough that her fingers would still play well.
“We had a polite discussion,” said Ria with a nod. “The family likes to pretend that we’re disconnected from people like them, but it’s not entirely true. In part they were here to speak of possibilities, but I wanted to know about you, to the extent they could tell me anything.”
“They never listened to me, so they wouldn’t know,” said Verity. “I wouldn’t have left if they had just,” she clenched her fist. “I don’t know. Listened, or took me seriously.” It was indecorous to say, the kind of thing that would be a major faux pas if said in front of another member of Society, no matter how sympathetic they seemed.
“Your mother refers to what you’ve been doing as a sabbatical,” said Ria. “A temporary blip in your presence within the Dondrian music scene.”
“That does sound like her,” said Verity. She regarded the older woman. “Are you suggesting something by that?”
“No,” said Ria with a shrug. “I do want Alfric to have a good, loyal party, and I worry that your parents threaten that, but I’m not in much of a position to help, nor do I think it would be wanted.” She rose from her seat, and the chairs collapsed back into one. “I thought you should know I talked to them, and I’ve passed on to you what I thought was good to pass on.”
“Thank you,” said Verity. “Sorry if I was impolite.”
Ria nodded. “I know how it can be, with parents.”
“You do?” asked Verity. “You’re part of a dungeoneering family. And … not to seem fawning, but Alfric says that you’re the best dungeoneer.”
“My father was a difficult man,” replied Ria. “He wanted a gentler life for his children, and didn’t approve of my enthusiasm for the dungeons, nor the way I went about it. His outlook on the dungeons wasn’t particularly healthy. To him, they were a burden, a curse to be borne, the price for success and a truly secure future for his children. I never felt that way about them, but he couldn’t help but imagine his own vision of the dungeons must apply to everyone else.”
“Then why dungeons?” asked Verity. “Surely as a chrononaut he could have done something else?”
“Ah, well,” said Ria with a sigh. “It’s a long story, and you didn’t come here to hear about old family drama.”
“I’d still like to hear, if you don’t mind,” said Verity. “I’ve been getting a bit envious of your house and your family. It might make me feel better to know that I’m not alone in having familial disagreements. If you’re willing to share, that is.”
“The dungeons are the best way to make money,” said Ria. “The right entads can set you up for life, and entads are largely sheltered from taxation and seizure, though there are some exceptions. My father felt insecure about his future, largely because of the way my grandparents reinforced the lessons of self-reliance.” She paused. “When he reached the age of majority, he was thrust out into the world to sink or swim by himself. He hadn’t been given as much education as perhaps he needed, not taught how to care for himself as much as he should have been, and he had a few rough years before getting into the family business.”
“Alfric never mentioned it,” said Verity.
“He wouldn’t have,” said Ria. “Alfric loves the dungeons in the same way that my husband and I love them. We chose them, rather than being forced into them. If I can speak freely about your parents, I believe where they might have gone wrong was in not allowing you a choice. But you do like music?”
“I do,” said Verity. “Though I think I liked it rather less when I thought that my life would be soaked in music, defined by it.”
Ria nodded. “Alfric may have told you that I stepped back from the dungeons a bit?”
“Yes,” said Verity. “He mentioned that you had focused more attention on your children, at a certain point.”
“With mixed results,” said Ria. She hesitated. “Did he add that? ‘With mixed results’?”
“Something like that, yes,” Verity admitted.
Ria laughed, and Verity felt a bit of relief. “I went through a particularly long dungeon,” said Ria. “The rewards were good, but I looked at it all and realized that it had lost its luster, that my legacy as a dungeoneer was secure. I had children that I wanted to do right by, and the dungeons were, in some sense, selfish. Worse, they were selfish and not even something I was taking as much joy in.”
“And the ‘mixed results’?” asked Verity.
“It was a change, for the children, seeing so much more of me,” said Ria. “Especially at the beginning, I didn’t properly understand how much they’d been enjoying their space and their chances for adventure. They’d been taught self-reliance and all of a sudden, here was their mother attempting to do things for them, getting involved in their business, offering advice … well. It was a bit much. I’d like to think that I’m doing better now, but it’s hard to say.” It was shockingly candid, for an adult to be saying such things to Verity. It felt nice though.
“Thank you for speaking with me,” Verity nodded.
“From what I understand, you’ve been alone for quite some time now,” she said. “If you need some support, you can depend on the family.”
“Even with everything you say about self-reliance?” asked Verity. “Or that I’ve heard Alfric say, rather?”
“We also believe in helping people who can’t help themselves,” said Ria. “Catch a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime … but you need to make sure that the man is fed while he’s being taught, because otherwise he might just die, and not everyone can learn to fish. It really does depend on the man.”
“Mmm,” said Verity. She wondered about this woman’s politics, and where she would stand on various issues. She wondered whether the Overguards were political in any way that her parents would recognize the use of the term.
“Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time, thank you for indulging my unasked-for conversation.” She smiled. “And Alfric has said that you’re fine with me finding clothes for you? I see you’re already disguised.”
“Yes,” said Verity. “We went to visit the vault. It was quite something.”
“Much of it is useless wealth,” shrugged Ria. “Too much of it is mine and mine alone, I’m afraid. Well, I’ll see you later in the day, before you’re off to the opera.”
She set off, back into the house, and left Verity alone in the garden. It was an unusual conversation to be having with an adult, and felt deeper than any she’d have with her own mother. The candor was impressive, as was the self-reflection, things that she felt her own mother was genuinely incapable of. Even though their conversation had been brief, Verity felt like they had connected, and it was a bit startling to know that such things could happen.
She took a last look out on the city and decided to go find out what her friends were up to.