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Being in Dondrian made Mizuki wonder why she’d been wasting her life in Pucklechurch.

She had a good enough handle on her own ways of thinking to realize that this was probably a temporary opinion, the kind that she sometimes had when exposed to something new and interesting, but a bit of her mind was still frantically buzzing away, trying to think about what it would take for her to be in this enormous city with all of its riches.

The front door of the Overguard house led right into the city, with only a set of marble steps separating it from the street. There were no cobblestones making up the road, and certainly no dirt paths, and instead, there was something like flat tile, expertly — perhaps magically — placed. Everything was clean, in a way that Mizuki hadn’t expected, but they were in a good part of the city, and maybe there were cleaners, or more magic. Looking back, the house was quite thin, no wider than the foyer area, and Mizuki spent a moment trying to puzzle it together in her mind. The upper hallway was in the city proper, attached to the front door, she was fairly sure, and looking at it, she imagined that the master bedroom was a part of the narrow building, but it was hard to be sure.

The house had been beyond her wildest dreams. The vault had been too. There was a part of her that just wanted to declare to Alfric that sorry, she was going to simply live there from that point on, and she would come do dungeons via the statue swapper when it was necessary, or they would find an entad door that would let her step from her own house in Pucklechurch to Alfric’s house in Dondrian.

She could imagine what he’d say. He’d tell her that the house was built by his parents from their own dungeon runs, and that he would build his own house like it, or something more suited to him, from the next thousand dungeons they did together. Or he’d say something like that. And he would, in some sense, be right. She could imagine the good feelings his parents had when they went through a dungeon and found a new door that would be perfect for their sixth child, or when they found a clock that tracked the tides, or any of the other bits and pieces of magic that were all around. It would feel better to build a house piece by piece, rather than just inheriting it. There would be thrills in the new finds.

There was something so cozy about the house. It wasn’t at all like she imagined rich people lived. Some of the entads had been purchased, but it seemed like most of them had been pulled from the family vault, or taken right from a dungeon and put into use. The way that Alfric’s father had been showing off the carving, Mizuki could see some of the same joy that Alfric had in moving the stupid wardrobe. It seemed like his whole life up to this point might have been filled with moments like that, his mother or father coming home with some new addition to their house. It was a life that Mizuki found herself wishing she was living.

It didn’t take long for Mizuki to find somewhere a little more commercial, and she walked without aim, confident that either she wouldn’t get lost, or if she did, that Alfric would be able to guide her back over the party channel.

If you were in Pucklechurch, then Liberfell or Tarchwood were the places to go for shopping, if you needed something more than the essentials or whatever Basil had in stock. Moving through Dondrian made Mizuki realize, with startling clarity, how much of a backwater she’d been living in. The stores were bigger and more specialized, with more stock and finer goods. The glass in the windows was free of imperfection, which wasn’t always the case in Pucklechurch, and there was care and attention that had been lavished on the signs and displays.

Fine dinnerware, bolts of exotic cloth, racks of weapons, rows of clothing, mannequins in dainty dresses and formal suits, rooms full of furniture in all different styles, henling shops putting forward their best dungeon-made artwork, a storefront filled with flowers of every color, rows of fine soaps with herbs and colors mixed into them, candles and dyes, custom ectads, gleaming shelves full of cookware and earthen crocks … Dondrian had everything.

But what Mizuki had gone out for, and been looking forward to, was the food, which was also present in abundance.

The food was divided into three broad categories — and that Mizuki was thinking that was a sign that Alfric really had infected her thinking.

The first were the stores that specialized in things to take home, most noticeably the bakeries, with their row upon row of differently styled breads made with different varieties of grains, but there were other specialty shops too, and a few more typical grocers. Mizuki went by one of these that had a lizzo licking its lips outside of it. The cart that was hitched to him was being unloaded, with crates of leafy greens and oblong melons being taken down and brought in. There were quite a few of the lizzos around, scaly animals of various green hues, used for slowly pulling carts. The city streets seemed to have been built around them. There were also people pulling carts, and in one case, a man on something that had two wheels, one in front and one in back rather than side-by-side, which he moved by kicking his feet against the ground, somehow not toppling down. The things that moved cargo seemed to stay in the center of the road, and Mizuki stuck to the side, with the other pedestrians. She took a moment to pat the lizzo on the head, after having asked the man unloading if that was okay, and then moved along. She’d resolved to do no cooking while in Dondrian, and if she was going to buy any ingredients to take home, she was going to do it later on, right before they left.

There were cafes and salons and all kinds of other places that you could sit down to eat, most of them quite busy even though it wasn’t quite lunchtime, most with chalkboards up that listed off what they were selling. These places had good smells, and Mizuki stood in the doorway of more than one, looking over what was on offer and taking in the aromas. She was a bit surprised how normal many of the things she saw were: apparently in Dondrian they still ate chicken sandwiches, just like at home, and she was mildly disappointed by that.

But the last kind of food was what she’d been most excited for: street food. There were little temporary stalls and carts that unfolded into shops, all of them parked at regular intervals, and sometimes congregating at intersections. Mizuki loved the idea of it, a person who made one dish and only one dish, perhaps with some differences in toppings or other customizations. When Pucklechurch had a faire, there were often stalls set up, and she stuffed herself on those days, taking delight in foods that were made in bulk by someone who dearly loved a recipe and had spent years perfecting it until they knew both the ingredients and the end product inside and out.

She ate long strips of eel that had been threaded onto a stick and cooked over actual wooden embers rather than ectad heaters, basted with a sweet and pungent sauce. She ate tiny balls on skewers, dough with meat in the middle, coated in three different kinds of sauces with flakes of dried fish and seaweed sticking to them. By the time she had her third dish, she was slowing down considerably, but it was a spicy Chelxic dish with a mix of flavors she’d never had before, thin sheets of boiled beef with vegetables diced so fine they were nearly a sauce, all wrapped in a flatbread that made it nearly like a sandwich. Still feeling the spice, she followed that by sitting at a cafe for long enough to drink a ‘hot chocolate’, which was surprisingly filling, and far better than the one she’d made at home from the care package chocolate.

It was while she was drinking what she was realizing was confection that a man sat down across from her.

“Um, hello?” she asked.

“Hi,” he said, smiling at her. He had nice clothes that made Mizuki feel a bit dowdy, finely cut and with bright colors that must have been difficult to keep that way. His hair was long and swept back, his eyes dark, and his skin almost sickly pale. “You’re new in town, aren’t you?”

Mizuki nodded. “Just visiting for a day or two,” she said.

“It’s the way you look around,” he said. “You can always spot someone who hasn’t gotten used to Dondrian. There’s more of everything to see.” He had a too-wide smile. “You’re all alone?”

“Um,” said Mizuki. “For the time being. Just exploring while my friends are elsewhere.”

“I could show you around,” he said. “I’m always looking to share some of the delights of our city.” He pointed at her cup. “We’re becoming known for our chocolate drinks.”

“It’s good,” said Mizuki, cupping the mug. “Though I do wish that I could bring it with me while I walked.”

“Many of us bring our own cups to the cafe,” he smiled. He held out a hand with delicate fingers. “Bertran.”

“Mizuki,” said Mizuki, taking her hand off the mug to shake his hand. His grip was firm, in a way that she didn’t quite like.

She looked at him more closely, and tried using her other vision. The aether was practically thick in Dondrian, the accumulated magic all around them layered over the city like a fog. The dungeons bled off much of it — the city would be unlivable without that, if her understanding was correct — but there was still so much of it that it felt like it should be hard to breathe. As for the man himself, ‘Bertran’, he was devoid of magic, at least so far as she could see, which made her feel a little bit better about him sitting down at her table, unannounced.

“So how about it?” he asked. “Can I show you around?”

“Er,” said Mizuki. The polite thing to do was to say yes, but she had been enjoying being on her own in the big city. “No thank you, I think I’ll just drift down the streets on my own.”

“Oh, come now,” he said, still smiling. “It’s not the kind of offer you’ll get every day. If you come with me, I can show you the Bridge to Nowhere, the museum, all kinds of things.”

“No, that’s, um,” said Mizuki. “I just … really was enjoying being alone.” It felt horribly rude. She was terrible about saying no to people.

“We could be alone together,” he smiled. “First time in the big city, it’s the time for adventure, isn’t it?”

An owl landed on the table and twisted its head around to stare at the man.

“Shoo!” he said, moving as though to hit it. The owl stayed where it was, and it became clear that he didn’t particularly want to touch it. “Go on, get away.” He looked at Mizuki. “Day owls,” he said, shaking his head. “If you finish up, we can get out of here.”

A second owl came to join the first, and this one also looked at Bertran. They were small birds, about twice the height of the mug Mizuki was drinking from, and quite like normal owls, except in their behavior. From what Mizuki knew, they were specially bred for the city, but considered pests in some respects.

More owls began to land on the table, all of them carefully avoiding Mizuki’s drink, and Bertran got up from his seat. The owls were all staring at him, half a dozen of them in total, and he gave Mizuki one last look before leaving without another word.

“Thank you, owls,” said Mizuki. She slid what was left of her hot chocolate forward. “Here, you can have some of this, if you’d like.”

“It would make them sick,” said Isra, who came to sit down at the table. “I hope I wasn’t overstepping.”

“No, not at all,” said Mizuki. “I didn’t like his vibe. Too old for me, too … forward.”

“You don’t like forward?” asked Isra. She looked out of place in the city, and they were getting some looks, though that might have been because of the half-dozen owls milling about on their table.

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki with a shrug. “Besides, things are going well with Rolaj, or well enough, and I don’t need a second relationship carried out over letters. How has your time been? How’d you find me?”

“I used the owls for scouting,” said Isra.

“Of course you did,” said Mizuki. “Sent them out and told them to find a Kiromo girl?”

“Looked through their eyes,” said Isra. “They’re surprisingly intelligent though.”

“They’re trash birds,” said Mizuki. She hadn’t realized that seeing through the eyes of animals was within the realm of druidic powers. “They pick up trash, I guess. Someone found them in a dungeon and thought they were really well-suited to being basically a service animal?”

“They poop in bins on rooftops,” said Isra.

“Hmm,” said Mizuki. She looked down at her hot chocolate. “Did you want the rest of this?”

Isra nodded and drank it down in a single swallow.

“So what were you up to?” asked Mizuki.

“I went to see the ocean,” said Isra. “The waves were larger than I expected. The water tasted quite salty.”

“You’re, um, not supposed to drink it,” said Mizuki.

“I didn’t,” said Isra. She shifted in her seat. “Just a taste.”

“And how’s the nature in the city?” asked Mizuki. “Not all that much of it around.” There were trees, some of them nicely grown, and flower boxes, but most of the ‘nature’ seemed confined to parks.

“I find the owls interesting,” said Isra, gesturing at the collection of owls, who were still on the table. “They’ve been tricked into being the perfect bird for the city. They only poop in a specific place where their waste can be taken away, they eat garbage they find if it’s edible, or collect it if it’s not, and if they were to go beyond the city, they would perish. I sometimes look at farm animals, like sheep, which could not survive in the wild, and wonder at them. The … I don’t know the word.”

“Crippling?” asked Mizuki.

“No,” said Isra. “The beautiful way in which they fit together with people.”

“Symbiosis?” asked Mizuki.

“Maybe,” said Isra, biting her lip.

“But you didn’t like the plants when we had that breakfast,” said Mizuki. She cocked her head. “But I guess you thought that those plants were being crippled, or mistreated, or something?”

“Mmm,” said Isra. “I don’t know. It was just a feeling.” She was silent for a moment. “I think there is beauty in these trash birds because they are in their element, encouraged to do what they are already inclined to do. When plants or animals are being twisted toward some purpose that doesn’t suit them, when someone has no knowledge of what they’re doing with a plant or animal, that’s when I frown.”

“You frown kind of a lot,” said Mizuki. “It’s a nice frown, but I’ve definitely noticed it.”

Isra frowned. “I should frown less?”

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “No. I’m just not sure that I’ve really seen you happy.”

Isra forced a smile, and Mizuki looked at it.

“Okay, yeah,” said Mizuki.

“I think I frown so much because I frown when I’m thinking,” said Isra. “When I was picking up my shells from the beach, I was smiling.”

“Shells?” asked Mizuki.

Isra nodded and then smiled for real. She brought her bag up onto the table, causing the owls to finally scatter from where they’d been milling about. The bag clacked and rattled, and it turned out that this was because Isra had nearly filled it with a wide variety of shells.

“Wow,” said Mizuki.

“I don’t know the names of any of these,” said Isra, holding up a white shell with spikes on the outside and a pink interior. “Isn’t this pretty?”

“It is,” said Mizuki. “I didn’t realize that the beaches here had so many shells. Or that there were beaches.”

“There are,” nodded Isra. “One stretch near the docks, open to the public, I checked. There weren’t signs saying not to take shells, so I waded in and took as many as I could carry.”

Mizuki looked under the table and found that Isra’s pant legs were, in fact, wet, though her boots were dry, and must have been removed before the wading expedition.

“You know, maybe I’ll hang out with you tomorrow,” said Mizuki. “I was going to go with Hannah to see that cathedral, but I think I’d enjoy seeing the museum through your eyes. What are you going to do with all these shells?”

“Sort them, study them, and put them in a special place,” said Isra. “I took some sand and driftwood as well.”

“You know, we’ve never been to your house,” said Mizuki. “I kind of want to see it.”

“Oh,” said Isra. The enthusiasm for driftwood faded from her face. “Maybe someday.”

“Or not,” said Mizuki, as quick as could be. “No big deal. I was just thinking that being a druid and having a full knowledge of the hex, you probably have a good collection, that’s all.”

“After being in your house, and now Alfric’s,” said Isra. She searched for words. “I don’t think I have a good home.”

“Ah,” said Mizuki. “Well … maybe, maybe not, it’s really more about whether you like it, and — if you wanted, we would be happy to help you, either to make it better, or to move out everything that means something to you, or … something.”

“Thank you,” said Isra. “I’m sorry that you keep doing so much for me.”

“Do I?” asked Mizuki.

“The matter with Angun,” said Isra.

“Oh,” said Mizuki. “Right. Well, we’ll nail him to a tree soon enough, I think. The wheels of justice are turning, if slowly.”

“Nailing him to a tree is … another colorful expression?” asked Isra.

“Yes,” nodded Mizuki. “Not a cultural practice, just … how I hope it feels, when we get him.” Mizuki was faintly surprised to realize that there were two people she wanted to feel like she’d nailed to a tree, the other being Lola. Two was perilously close to needing a list, and she really didn’t think of herself as that sort of person.

They left together, and Mizuki was happy to have a guide through the city. Isra seemed to know where she was going, her sense of direction unerring, and despite Mizuki having eaten quite a lot of street food, they shared a lunch together at one of the restaurants, with Mizuki taking a smaller portion of buttery crab and Isra ordering crispy duck. They had some discussion about how things were done in restaurants, which Isra seemed receptive to: she liked to know the rules, which she often found opaque.

Afterward, they walked through the city. Isra wasn’t normally one for small talk, but it seemed as though she had the same love of the novelty of the city as Mizuki did. They went into a few stores, and though they hadn’t planned to, they ended up buying a few things, which Mizuki put into her bag, since Isra’s was full of shells.

They were going down another of the endless streets, looking in on what seemed to mostly be garments and accessories — a whole store devoted just to buttons — when they saw something flying overhead.

“Airship!” called Mizuki, pointing up. There were some looks from around her, but it was Isra that Mizuki cared about, and she was looking up with wide eyes.

“What is that?” Isra asked.

“Airship,” said Mizuki. They had both stopped to watch it. It was as high in the sky as a cloud, a wooden ship drifting along with large propellers that were sedately spinning. Some of them had sails, Mizuki knew, but this one was different, having nothing they could see in the way of a mast or rigging or anything like that. The bottom of it was painted with bright colors and pretty patterns, seemingly for the sole purpose of entertaining those who cared to look up.

“Wow,” said Isra. “It’s even better up close.”

“Up close?” asked Mizuki.

“Through the eyes of the owls,” said Isra. Mizuki looked, and she could see a flock of owls circling the airship.

“How hard do you think it would be to get an airship ride?” asked Mizuki.

“What are they used for?” asked Isra. “Cargo?”

“Um,” said Mizuki. “There are some floating islands way out east — west, maybe, from where we are?” Geography was not her strong suit. “But aside from that, I think they’re mostly just for cruising around. With entad transport, cartiers, lizzos, whatever else, there wouldn’t be any need for a flying ship. And they’re prone to crashing if they run into bad weather.”

“Why don’t they just have a druid with them?” asked Isra.

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “Druids are rare, I guess, or expensive in the cities, or … something.”

“Hmm,” said Isra. “They don’t control the weather here?”

“I guess I don’t know that either,” said Mizuki. “With a few druids working together, you’d be able to just schedule the weather, right?”

“You would only need one,” said Isra.

“I mean, it does seem like a nice day,” said Mizuki. “Can you … tell?”

Isra frowned. “I suppose it is being managed by someone. A city druid. I’ll try not to interfere.”

“Hey, if you ever wanted, you could move here and probably make some money,” said Mizuki.

“I’m enjoying the trip,” said Isra. “But I wouldn’t want to be around so many people. There are parks, but they’re thin strips of nature between mountains of stone and brick. I feel a bit out of tune.”

“Speaking of, I think we should go meet up with the others,” said Mizuki. “We’re going to have dinner with the Overguards before the big opera, and before the opera we’re going to get properly dressed. Are you looking forward to that?”

“I might go without the headscarf,” said Isra.

“Yeah?” asked Mizuki. “You wouldn’t feel … naked?” Isra had said something to that effect earlier.

“We’d have a private box,” said Isra. “And … I don’t want to stand out. I want to look pretty.”

“I’m pretty sure you’d look pretty with your headscarf on,” said Mizuki. “You look pretty right now, even without makeup and a fancy dress, or whatever.”

“Mmm,” said Isra. “Thank you.” She pursed her lips. “I want to seem like I belong at the opera.”

“Oh, for sure,” nodded Mizuki. “Me too. But we’ll be in the private box, so … you know, it should be fine.”

They had gone another few blocks when Isra brought up a question that must have been on her mind.

“That man,” said Isra. “You were uncomfortable. Why were you so polite to him? You didn’t know him. You likely won’t see him again.”

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “I guess I just didn’t know how to handle it, didn’t want to seem rude, thought that if I was just polite about things, then … eventually a bunch of owls would come down and stare at him until he left.”

Isra laughed, and Mizuki smiled, but the question didn’t sit easily with her. She thought about it more as they walked in silence, but came to no firm conclusion, except that perhaps she was less suited to the city than she’d thought.

They made their way through the city, back to the Overguard house, and it was easy to shake off the bad thoughts. She was looking forward to the dinner, and having a fancy dress, and beyond that, maybe, the opera.

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Alexander Wales

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