“So,” said Alfric’s mother. “Which of these girls are you romantically interested in?”
“Mom,” said Alfric, rolling his eyes.
“Well it’s been a month, you’re a teenager, it would be natural,” she said. They were in the Royal Room, a place with lots of henlings on the walls, with pictures of kings, and crowns hanging from pegs, the trappings of royalty, from a time when there still was royalty. The others were in their guest rooms, getting ready for dinner. The Royal Room was mostly a place for sitting and talking, one of those rooms that Alfric thought of as being mostly superfluous. If he had to cut the house down in size, this would be one of the first rooms to go.
“It would be unprofessional,” said Alfric.
“Well how dare I think an eighteen-year-old would be unprofessional,” she replied, rolling her eyes right back. “I know you and Lola are on the outs, and you’ve been with four girls who I cannot imagine would share your opinions on professionalism, so all I’m asking is who the most likely candidate is, if you’re not already firmly partnered with one of them.”
“Which I’m not,” Alfric replied.
“You seemed to be getting along swimmingly with Hannah,” said Ria. “You were wrestling when I found you.”
“We were sparring, mom,” said Alfric.
She smiled at him. “Well, if you had to answer that you were interested in one of them —”
“Which I don’t,” said Alfric.
“Fine, fine,” she sighed. “And you and Lola are still having some trouble? You’re still upset with her?”
“Firmly,” said Alfric.
“It would make things a bit complicated if you didn’t make up,” she frowned.
“You go between asking me if I have a crush on a party member and asking me whether I’ve made up with the girl I’m supposed to have children with?” asked Alfric.
“I’m trying to be understanding of the complexity of life,” she replied. “You’re pacted, you don’t necessarily need to be married. So long as you have children, which you won’t even have to have sex to do,” Alfric cringed, “the conditions are fulfilled and you’ve done your obligation, so long as the children are raised properly. If there’s some other girl who’s to be your wife, that’s not ideal, but it’s workable.”
“I really didn’t come here to talk about my love life,” said Alfric.
“Am I mothering too much?” she asked.
“A bit,” he nodded.
She sighed. “Well, I’ll back off then, but if you need help brokering a peace with Lola —”
“I’ll be fine,” said Alfric. He wasn’t entirely sure that was true, but having his mother come in to ‘deal with’ the problem of Lola seemed like it wasn’t likely to solve anything, especially given the sort of help that his mother seemed likely to offer.
“We’ll have an early dinner, then get ready for the opera,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about how to dress them, and I have some wonderful ideas.”
“Were the opera tickets your idea or dad’s?” asked Alfric.
“Sometimes there’s such a thing as serendipity,” she replied with a smile. “It was all your father’s idea, but now I have four girls to dress.”
They all met in the dining room, which was one of the most magical places in the entirety of the house, and that was saying something. The room was at the top of a large tower, with windows on every side, giving a view in all directions of the city of Dondrian. It was a very large room, made larger by the table in the center, which warped space around it in accordance with the twisting of a recessed dial on the side. It was tuned for nine: his parents, his party, his brother Beryl, and his sister Faith.
Isra was seated to Alfric’s left, and Mizuki to his right. Isra was subdued and perhaps feeling a bit out of place, though it was hard to tell why. Mizuki was absolutely ecstatic.
“Alright!” called Alfric's mother, standing near her spot. “Welcome, Alfric’s party, I’m sorry if I haven’t gotten a chance to meet you yet. Since we have the honor of having a cleric with us, I thought that I would give her a chance to say a few words, if that’s alright with you, Hannah.”
“Oh,” said Hannah, seeming surprised. They had never done prayers during meals at Mizuki’s house. “Ay. Garos bless this food, though its provenance is the chaos of the dungeons. May our bodies take this sustenance and add to the symmetry of this world, and may we, in our work, bring order to the disordered.”
“Thank you,” said Alfric’s mother. “Now, sitting before you are seventy-eight entads.” She slapped a hand on the table and the entads all appeared there, a motley collection of plates, cups, glasses, mugs, bowls, platters, forks, knives, spoons, and a few things that only a dungeon would ever have made for eating with. “As is tradition, it is your job as guests to figure out how to get a meal out of them. Let’s eat!”
There was some understandable hesitation from Alfric’s party, but his family grabbed for the good things right away. There was plenty to go around, that was by design: fully fifty of the things on offer could get you food of some kind, and twenty or so could give you one of the best meals of your life.
“There’s a mercy rule,” Alfric said to Isra, lowering his voice so his parents wouldn’t hear. “It’s meant to be fun, but if you don’t get any food, or have some frustration, they’ll push something your way.”
“Thank you,” she said. She reached for a few things from among the gathered entads and began experimenting.
“This is awesome,” said Mizuki, who had a bowl and a spoon in front of her. Alfric didn’t recognize the spoon until he realized that it was, in fact, her spoon, what she’d taken to calling the Anyspoon. She apparently carried it with her everywhere.
Alfric took from the pile last. There were a few duds in there, like a plate that would keep your food the perfect temperature, or a fork whose tines you could wiggle by thinking hard enough, and he wanted the others to get their pick, just to limit the chance that they would get something comparatively useless.
His parents were watching with some amusement and interest. This was something they loved to spring on guests, and if not for the mercy rule, Alfric might have found it a bit mean-spirited. He had never seen anyone upset by the tradition, nor heard about it, but he always worried, just a bit. Still, it was a novel experience for most people, and his parents argued that springing it on people made it all the better. He could have warned the party, but had chosen not to. Looking at them, he thought that was probably the right decision.
Hannah had gotten her plate to work right away, one that could make you a meal when you spoke aloud to it, and she was in the midst of eating something that looked distinctly like a Cairbre dish with mashed potatoes, ground meat, gravy, and roasted root vegetables. She was, unfortunately, using a spoon with a similar power to eat it all, and a fork whose self-levitation she probably wasn’t going to figure out. There was a separate cup of non-entad utensils, but they hadn’t been quite clear about that, so Hannah had taken from the entad stock.
“Does this only do water?” asked Mizuki, looking down at the bowl, which she’d filled with water. She looked over at Alfric. “Works by thinking, but I haven’t been able to get it to do soup.”
“No cheating!” called Beryl.
“Ah,” said Mizuki, who’d gotten the contents of the bowl to change. “Just certain kinds of soup?”
“Can I give it to you?” asked Alfric’s father.
“Sure!” said Mizuki.
“It’s homogeneous liquids,” said Alfric’s father. “So if you’d like a soup with no chunks or irregularities in it, it’s wonderful, but if you want something more substantial, you might want to pick something else.”
“Oh, that’s neat,” said Mizuki. She looked down at the bowl, whose contents were a deep red color. “It can do wine!”
Alfric’s mother laughed. “I like this one.”
Mizuki slid the bowl forward and picked out a white plate with some blue glaze. She poked at it a bit, spoke to it, narrowed her eyebrows in concentration, then looked at Alfric. “You don’t need to wait for me.”
“I want to make sure you get fed,” said Alfric.
“Aw, caring about my stomach for a change, how thoughtful,” said Mizuki. She stared at the plate in front of her for a moment, then used her spoon to reach down and pick up some imagined food. Once she’d lifted the spoon high enough, the food materialized. “That worked?”
“People don’t usually get that one,” said Alfric’s mother, who was half-done with her meal. “I believe we didn’t figure it out on our own.”
“Amazing,” said Mizuki, taking another spoonful. She was testing the plate’s limits, Alfric could tell, and he watched her out of the corner of his eye as he dug in to his own food, which was provided by a plate that could only make bland, nutritious food, one of the relative duds in the collection. His fork changed the taste though, heightening anything in proportion to how bland it was. This was a combination that he always took if he could get it before one of his siblings.
Alfric looked over at Isra, who had been eating from a plate that seemed to be giving her just a bit of trouble. She had food, but it didn’t seem that she’d grasped the trick to it.
“Do you want help?” asked Alfric.
“Wonderful meal,” said Hannah. “Do you do this every time?”
“Every time there are guests who we think would be receptive,” said Alfric’s father. “Usually people enjoy it. Of course, you’ll be with us for a few meals, and if you’ve been watching carefully, you’ll know what everything is, so we can dispense with the games.”
“There are so many we haven’t seen though,” said Mizuki, looking at the pile of things. “I’m not one of those lame people who wouldn’t go for an adventure. Though I will have a bowl of wine.”
“I need help with mine,” said Isra, who was poking at her food with a pronounced frown. “I summoned the food, but I was only able to eat a bite.”
Alfric looked down at her plate. There was a small pile of thin white noodles, small slices of thin red meat, and some cooked greens that had been topped with some kind of seed. She was poking at the meat using a fork that could duplicate food, but the tines were treating the meat as though it was made of solid stone.
“Mom?” asked Alfric. “I don’t think I know that one.”
“It’s a trick plate,” said Alfric’s mother. “A recent acquisition. It’ll create a complete meal, but you have to eat in proportion, one bite of meat, then one of noodles, then one of vegetables. It’s a shame we didn’t get it earlier, it would have been perfect for picky eaters.”
Isra moved her fork over to the noodles, which she lifted with ease.
“Sorry,” said Alfric, voice low.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I should have tried that. It’s good food.”
They ate in relative silence, and Alfric enjoyed his meal. It tasted different after so much time away, better and richer for his mouth having gotten used to other foods. He’d been using the same plate and fork combination for nearly two years, and there was something unexpectedly nostalgic about it. When he was older, when he’d proved himself, perhaps he would ask for the combination, if that wasn’t too ostentatious of a gift. Most of the entads at the table had limits that reduced how valuable they were, with all the best food making entads having been sold off, rented out, or donated.
“What’s the best entad you’ve ever pulled from a dungeon?” asked Mizuki. She had apparently finished, though with her plate, it was hard to tell.
“Let me think on that one,” said Alfric’s father.
“It’s a very complicated question,” said Alfric’s mother. “The one that’s worth the most, the one that brought me the most personal joy, the one that I thought was most interesting?”
“Personal joy, I guess,” said Mizuki.
“Ring of Flight,” said Alfric’s father. “Not the fastest way to travel when you have portals and teleportation and all those things, but I got it early on, and even when it was past its prime I kept it. I still use it sometimes.”
“Mo broke his leg using it,” said Beryl. “We were banned from using it after that.”
“Only for a year,” said Alfric.
“I think I have my answer,” said Alfric’s mom. “I pulled a fork that could change into anything.” She gave Mizuki a grin.
“Har har,” said Mizuki.
“Only joking,” she said. “Though, here.” She pointed at the center of the table with two fingers and flicked them up, lifting a fork with telekinetic force then sending it drifting over to Mizuki, who grabbed it and looked at it.
“What is this?” asked Mizuki, turning it over. She changed the fork’s shape, then its appearance, warping it, changing the number of tines, and then adding embellishments. “You do have the Anyfork?”
“No,” said Alfric’s mom. “It copies the entadic abilities of whatever other silverware you’re holding.”
Mizuki’s eyes went to the Anyspoon, which was still in her other hand. “Huh,” she said. She looked back at the fork. “Isn’t that kind of … useless?”
“Wrong word to say around dad,” said Alfric.
“We don’t call entads useless,” said Alfric’s father. “Every entad, no matter how bad, has some kind of use.”
“Dad’s always said that in another life, he’d have worked at an entad shop,” said Faith.
“Oh I’d probably hate it,” he said with a shrug. “I enjoy the entads, but I wouldn’t want to deal with the paperwork or the customers.”
“So what’s the answer?” asked Mizuki. Her eyes were on Alfric’s mother. “What’s the best you’ve ever gotten?”
His mother seemed like she was debating whether to show or not, but eventually she raised her hand high above her and summoned the sword.
It was like a hole in the world, the long curved blade visible only by what was missing. It did something to the eyes, the blackness reaching into the mind, erasing any sensation of light, even for things that were in front of it. You could ‘see’ the sword through the walls of a building by the way it sucked at your perception of it. She didn’t summon it indoors often, not after the neighbors had complained. Where her fingers were holding it, it was like they’d disappeared, or like the pitch black sword was somehow in front of them.
“Whoa,” said Mizuki.
“The cosmetics are impressive,” said his mother. “But this has been my primary weapon for a decade for other reasons.” She let go of it, and it disappeared. “Has Alfric talked your ear off about entad effect independence?”
“No,” said Mizuki. “At least, I don’t remember him doing that.”
“Alfric, if you would?” asked his mother.
“Entads have effects,” said Alfric. “There are some common ones, like resizing, or durability, and then there are more unique ones, usually a ‘main’ function, though you definitely do get things that are just very durable or just resize. Anyway, sometimes you can divide the ‘main’ function into parts, like Isra’s plate, which both summons food and locks down food unless you’re eating equally from your different dishes. Those effects are technically not dependent on each other, or I’m guessing they’re not: you could have an entad with one effect or the other and they’d still be functional. Sometimes you get divergent effects, where a wand, say, creates a rock out of thin air but also cuts off all fingers in a fifty yard radius.”
“Wow, that is way too specific to not be a real effect,” said Mizuki.
“Happened to me,” said Beryl. “And it was after my very first dungeon, too. We were playing around with what we’d taken out and then all our fingers were on the ground. Thankfully we weren’t in the middle of town, and our cleric was able to reattach them without too much trouble.”
“Oeyr?” asked Hannah.
“Anyway,” said Alfric. “There are dependent extras, which require the first one, and independent extras, which don’t require anything extra. It’s mostly important because one of the ways of marking an entad’s approximate power is how many independent effects it has. More is better, though if they’re all awful, the whole entad is still awful.”
“And how many independent effects does the sword have?” asked Mizuki.
“Seven,” said Alfric’s mother. She smiled. “It’s not a world record, but it is a family record.”
“And what are they?” asked Mizuki. “If you don’t mind?”
“Perhaps later,” said Alfric’s mother. “I fear we’ll need all the time we can get to prepare for the opera.”
“I think I can remember all of them,” Alfric said to Mizuki.
She nodded. “Time to go get pretty, I guess.”
The sword had the obvious visual effect, which was largely cosmetic. It could disappear into nowhere and be recalled by the person who sent it away. It slowly drained a negligible amount of blood from its designated user, and paid that blood back, with interest, if they were injured. It voided matter that the blade touched. When pointed at a creature, it would point at their most vulnerable spots in turn. So long as the blade was moving toward a designated enemy, the person holding it was sped up by a factor of ten, multiplying perception and force. So long as two or more designated enemies had close to similar physiology, any damage to one would also apply to the others.
It was very possible that it was one of the ten best swords in the entire world. Certainly the final ability, which applied to humans and had an enormous range, meant that if it were ever used in a war scenario, his mother could kill hundreds with a single stroke, perhaps more. Alfric had seen historical pictures of battlefields with thousands of men lined up with magical support and specialist units, and from what he knew of the sword, they could have all been wiped out at once if she could see enough of them. That was all before considering that when she went into the dungeons, his mother had much, much more than just the sword.
Alfric thought about war sometimes. When he was younger, he had longed for it, imagined it in vivid detail, thought about the entads in the family vault and how they could be used against armies. The armies, in his mind, were faceless baddies, some random, unknown army of vile people. The more he grew up, the more he realized how stupid that was. There were relatively few countries in the world, and who would Interim be going against? The people of Kiromo? Tarbin? His father had opined that it was far more likely, if there were ever to be a war, that it would be of Interim against one of the component provinces, and that was quite unlikely unless something radical changed. The biggest threat to peace was the Editors making some change with unforeseen consequences.
He’d turned to the dungeons, naturally, where there was very little question of the moral worth of what he was fighting against. It wasn’t like it had been in his dreams, and the moments of awesome power still seemed somewhat far off, but he was confident that he was on the right trajectory now, and they had gone three dungeons — and one dungeon escape — without needing a reset.
Alfric got dressed in his room, where he still had most of his clothes, having taken little with him to Pucklechurch. He had three outfits to choose from, and picked the one of black silk, buttoned down the front with a jacket that had maroon trim. It had been a present from his father on the occasion of his sixteenth birthday, and had been worn primarily for temple days, weddings, funerary rites, and the occasional opera. He felt uncomfortable in the clothes, but he could at least move in them, though if he tried to fight, he would surely end up ripping something.
He looked at himself in the mirror, evaluating. The suit needed to be tailored again: he’d put on too much muscle since the last time he’d worn it, and it wasn’t flattering in the way that clothes were supposed to be. If he’d worn this kind of thing into Pucklechurch, they probably would have gotten the wrong impression of him, thinking that he was a wealthy socialite.
He sighed and checked himself over before leaving to go see what his mother had decided upon.