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It seemed faintly ridiculous to Hannah that Mizuki should be keeping an eye on her. Perhaps the others hadn’t seen Mizuki’s moments of ‘spontaneity’, but Hannah could still very distinctly recall Mizuki calling over to the boys from Vertex at the noodle shop, and if anyone needed looking after, it was Mizuki. Of course, Mizuki hadn’t framed it as looking out for Hannah, but it very much felt like that was what they were doing, looking out for each other.

Everything she’d seen so far in Dondrian had been eye-wateringly expensive, even taking into account that she was staying with a family that was wealthy beyond measure. The hallway that they walked down was carpeted with a vibrant and pretty design, and she imagined that either they had incredibly good cleaners for it, or entads to deal with the wear and tear, or both. The walls had a long, continuous mural that was a work of art in its own right, and which people were passing by as though it was nothing.

“I liked the opera itself well enough,” said Hannah. “With two women, I’d thought that it might not be my style.”

“No?” asked Mizuki as they walked together. “Why not?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Hannah. “There’s something I like better about the camaraderie of men, compared to women. Maybe a part of me thinks of girls as bein’ catty with one another.”

“Men can be plenty catty,” said Mizuki.

“Well, ay,” said Hannah. “But I’m speakin’ of what’s in books and operas, not real life. The way men are written just appeals more to me, most of the time, especially when they’re lovers.”

“But … they’re still vulnerable in those books, aren’t they?” asked Mizuki. “Like, I’m pretty sure that I read correctly, and they had those tender moments.”

“Aye, but they’re tender against type,” said Hannah. “With women the weakness, the tenderness, seems to be out in front, most of the time.”

“I guess,” said Mizuki.

They had made their way to the lobby, which had a concessions area and a number of people handing out plates and glasses to those with some rings. From the tastefully painted sign, Hannah was extraordinarily grateful that they wouldn’t have to pay for their own food and drink, though the gratefulness didn’t actually extend that far, because she’d have rather gone hungry than pay those prices. That someone else was paying those prices on her behalf was almost an affront.

“Do rich people like lines?” asked Mizuki as they stood in line. “I mean, it seems like if you’re rich, you wouldn’t want to stand in line. You’d pay more for extra staff.”

“My guess is that if you’re really rich, you pop back home for intermission and eat from your chiller, or you bring a spoon that you can have a full meal from, or some such,” said Hannah.

“Ah, so these are lesser creatures,” said Mizuki, looking around. “The poors.”

Hannah laughed. “Well I’m glad you’re enjoyin’ yourself,” she smiled.

“Dondrian has been wonderful so far,” said Mizuki. “Beyond my wildest dreams. It kind of makes me wish I were an Overguard.”

“Eh, ay, hard to become more than an honorary member, isn’t it?” asked Hannah. “Even if you were to marry Alfric.”

Mizuki started coughing. “Um, what?”

“Oh, are you going to pretend that you don’t feel some attraction?” asked Hannah. “Is that what we’re doin’?”

“Yes, it is,” said Mizuki, folding her arms. “I was thinking they could adopt me, not that — I mean, he’s not attracted to me anyway, so it doesn’t bear thinking about.”

The fact that Mizuki was denying it seemed, to Hannah, a clear sign that this was more than just the kind of attraction Mizuki felt to nearly any man around her own age. They took a few steps forward in line, and Hannah considered her approach.

“To my mind, the thing that would complicate things more would be their system of pacts,” said Hannah. “Which is why I said the thing about honorary members. You could marry in, but at best, you’d be raisin’ kids that aren’t your own, or he’d have a second family somewhere, and I know that’s how Xuphin does it, but most people don’t have the stomach for it.”

“Well,” said Mizuki. “I’m not into him, and he’s not into me, so it’s not worth talking about.”

“Alright,” said Hannah. She could tell when to back off. “Just know that I’m here to talk with you, if you want.”

“And you’re not into him?” asked Mizuki.

Hannah laughed. “Why would you ask that?”

“See,” said Mizuki, pointing at her. “You didn’t answer the question. And while I was out exploring the city, you were apparently wrestling with Alfric.”

“So?” asked Hannah.

“So if I were wrestling with Alfric, us getting sweaty and holding each other down, it would definitely mean something,” said Mizuki. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Hannah laughed. “And you don’t think that says more about you than me?”

They got to the counter, and Mizuki was a bit too quick to order, like someone who had been caught in a trap. So far as Hannah was concerned, this was all in good fun, but she was watching closely, because romance was something that made people go a bit crazy, and if Mizuki thought that this was serious, it was better to nip that in the bud.

Mizuki ordered quite a bit, to be sent to the Overguard box, in part because she wouldn’t have had enough hands to carry it all. What was on offer was not, it seemed, a full meal, but rather, relatively small things, snacks or appetizers, typically those that could be eaten without making a mess. It was somewhat amusing to watch done-up people eating carefully so as not to smudge their makeup or get a drop of something on their fancy clothes.

“Honestly, I’m not sure this is going to be able to beat the street food,” said Mizuki. “The way they do things here, if I understand it right, they don’t want to repeat things too often, but all the focus on novelty means that they don’t have the time and experience to get things right.”

“Oh?” asked Hannah. “You figured that out without even tasting the food?”

“Nah, I was talking to Alfric’s dad a bit, before we had our early dinner,” said Mizuki. “Mostly wondering what kind of food there would be. But it makes sense, it’s the same way when I’m trying new things. You learn a lot, the first time you do it, and a little less every time after that, until eventually it’s perfect.”

“One moment,” said Hannah. She’d caught a bit of conversation. “Eavesdrop with me?”

“What’s with you and listening in on people?” asked Mizuki.

“Didn’t you do the same with Alfric and Lola?” asked Hannah, who was making her way over.

“Different,” Mizuki replied.

They made their way over, and the bit of conversation, whose most important word was ‘Verity’, was still ongoing between two women of middle age, one in a dress of blue which had sleeves down to her wrists, the other in an ostentatious dress of gold that clung to her figure.

“Oh, well she was always such a well-behaved girl,” said the woman in gold. “And to be Chosen at a young age must have seemed like such a gift. But she’s almost a year gone, and it’s not clear what the family will do without her. Parson is facing seizure, it’s said, and well-deserved from what I’ve heard, and Edil, she’s never contributed much except to spend.”

“Inherited lifestyle can be such a dangerous thing,” the woman in blue replied. “I’d always counted Edil as one of our own.”

“Well, yes, and she was, she had all the proper learning, but that’s simply not enough in this day and age.” The woman in gold clucked her tongue. “I can’t say that we’re the better for it, but in some cases, it seems as though there’s some justice, not that I should speak my piece until after there’s a verdict on the seizure.”

“No, wouldn’t do to rush to a hasty conclusion,” nodded the woman in blue. She took a drink of amber wine from a fluted glass. “Do you suppose the girl will come back from wherever she’s gone?”

“It’s possible the poor thing has crumbled under the stress,” said the woman in gold. “Sometimes having a gift at a young age can be a burden, the talent outstripping the development of the rest of the self. But it’s also possible that she’ll come roaring back into Dondrian with a skill and charm that we’ve never seen before. You can never count out a Chosen. A god’s will isn’t easily denied.”

“And you believe the rumors?” asked the woman in blue. “That they’ve simply lost track of her?”

The woman in gold smirked. “Oh, well, — can I help you?”

Mizuki and Hannah had been looking at a painting hung on the wall, one of a singer who had been immortalized by the brush, and while Hannah had been keeping her ears open and her eyes forward, Mizuki had been sneaking glances. Now, they’d been caught.

“Sorry,” said Mizuki. “I couldn’t help but overhear.” Mizuki was, for some reason known only to her, putting on a bit of an accent, sounding more like Verity. “You were speaking of Verity Parson? We went to the conservatory with her, did you say she’s missing?”

“If she were missing they would have made more of a to-do about it,” said the woman in gold. “But she’s left Dondrian, yes.” There was a bit of suspicion in her tone and the way she was looking at them, which was only natural, given that they’d been caught listening in.

And here there was a problem, because if they really were students who’d been in Verity’s class, as Mizuki had put it in her off-the-cuff lie, then they should surely know more than these two women about Verity being one of the Chosen, which would certainly be a surprise, and only raise further questions. But they couldn’t ask whether Verity was really a Chosen, or a Chosen of which god, without revealing that they were not, in fact, who they’d said they were.

Mizuki’s clever solution to this was to simply ask anyway and damn the consequences — which, to be fair, were expected to be quite mild.

“So Verity is a Chosen?” asked Mizuki. “Of which god?”

Both the women seemed taken aback.

“Of Xuphin,” said the woman in blue. “How could you not — it was well-known!”

“Alright, see ya later,” said Mizuki. She walked away as though this was the most natural interaction in the world, and Hannah followed after her.

They walked together in silence for a bit, down one of the corridors.

“Pretty crazy that we ended up in a love triangle, huh?” asked Mizuki.

“What?” asked Hannah.

“You, me, and Alfric, I mean,” said Mizuki. “It’s just not how I thought things would turn out.”

“I know you’re makin’ a joke,” said Hannah. “But I don’t think we can ignore what we heard.”

“Seems like if Verity wanted to tell us, she’d have told us,” said Mizuki. “And this is why you don’t eavesdrop on people, because sometimes you hear things you weren’t meant to hear.”

“So we should pretend that we heard nothin’?” asked Hannah. “Seems to me that neither of us are all that good at puttin’ on a show. And what would Alfric say?”

“He’d say that we should disclose it,” said Mizuki with a sigh. “But … Do you think he knew?”

Hannah couldn’t help but laugh. “He’s Alfric, do you think that he went across the continent to chase her down without knowin’ every detail there was to know about her? He knew she was Chosen, probably consulted with some clerics on the specifics, talked to her parents certainly, all kinds of things.”

“I guess,” said Mizuki. They’d arrived at the door of the private box, after going up what felt like quite a few too many stairs. “But can we wait to talk to her about it until after the opera?”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “Wouldn’t want to ruin a perfectly fine evening.”

When they came in, the food and drink were already waiting for them, having beaten them to the box.

“I think this might be a bit too much food,” frowned Alfric.

“It’s to share,” said Mizuki. “How have things been in here?”

“Good,” said Isra, which Hannah noted as an unusual volunteering of information from her. “They’re moving the sets around.” The stage was mostly dark, but not so dark that movement couldn’t be discerned.

“So this is to share?” asked Verity, pointing down at the plate of food.

“Of course,” nodded Mizuki. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m super hungry. Might just be the music that’s doing it. Is that a thing bards can do?”

“Thirst and hunger?” asked Verity with a raised eyebrow. “Yes, we can. It’s frowned upon though, and can be difficult to do without people noticing. And beyond that, it’s just amplification, so once someone eats or drinks, it falls off. I wouldn’t be able to make someone hungry if they weren’t already hungry.”

“They wouldn’t do that here,” said Alfric.

“I was just curious,” said Mizuki. She picked up a tiny little pie with slices of thin ham curled inside to look like petals of a flower, and herbs in the center that looked like a stamen. She ate it in two bites, and Hannah thought that it would have been entirely possible to do it in one. For the same price, it would have been possible to buy half a sandwich in Pucklechurch. “Mmmm.”

There was a collection of different sheep cheeses, cubes of cured meat on small skewers, different skewers with what looked like a collection of oblong vegetables and slices of pickle. A small pile of sandwiches were available, all of them with their crust removed, filled with nothing more than creamy sauces and leafy greens. Isra seemed particularly interested in a different tiny pie that seemed to be filled with little black beads.

“Fish eggs?” she asked. She seemed pleasantly surprised.

“Yes,” nodded Alfric.

Isra happily ate the tiny pie, and Hannah kept well clear.

“Does anyone want to discuss the opera?” asked Verity.

“Is there that much to talk about?” asked Mizuki.

“Zuki and I were talkin’ about how femininity is portrayed,” said Hannah.

“I guess,” said Mizuki. “Tell me, does the opera change at all if you make Lerial into a man?”

“Traditionally it would be Marsc as a man, or at least more masculine,” said Verity.

“Really?” asked Mizuki. “I mean, we haven’t finished it, but Lerial is the one pursuing Marsc, right?”

“At the end of the second act she’s returning home, yes,” said Verity. “And you think that’s a manly thing to do?”

“It’s, I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “In my experience, I’ve almost always been the one that’s pursued. That’s normal, right?”

“You flirt, don’t you?” asked Hannah. “Flirtation is a form of pursuit.”

“Is it?” asked Mizuki. “Seems to me like it’s an invitation, if that? Which is different.”

“I don’t know that I’ve ever flirted with someone,” said Alfric. He looked at Hannah. “Is it different, between two women?”

“Oh, ay,” said Hannah. “As Mizuki says, there’s a bit of a dynamic, and it can happen, at times, that two women will flirt back and forth endlessly, neither of them makin’ the first move. It’s a bit of relationship paralysis. Happens between men and women too, but there, at least, there’s some convention to fall back on.”

“Are we going to see that in this opera?” asked Isra. “They haven’t confessed their love for each other yet.”

“That would be telling,” said Verity. “We still have half an opera left to go.”

“Set change looks interesting,” said Mizuki, peering out into the theater. She’d eaten quite a bit from the plates that had been set out, and was on another glass of wine.

“It’s another transforming one,” said Verity. “That’s one of the things that the opera is known for. The act one to act two transition, where they’re split into two different areas, and the transition from act three to act four, where it goes from a house where they’re coming together to — well.”

“Right, you don’t want to spoil it,” said Mizuki. “Which I do appreciate. Though with all the songs and lyrics and emotional manipulation, I’m not finding it to be the easiest thing to follow. I also don’t feel like I need to be surprised?”

“We can dissect it after it’s done,” said Alfric. “We’re still planning on a night around the town? There are places we can go to get some dancing in, or some drinks.”

“I have to be honest, I’m a bit tipsy already,” said Mizuki. She held up her glass and closed one eye. “I’ll finish this one, then sober up a bit in time to get smashingly drunk. What kind of dancing do they do? Line dancing?”

Alfric laughed, until he realized that she was serious. “Um, can you waltz?”

“It’s four steps,” said Mizuki. “Who doesn’t know how to waltz?” She glanced at Isra. “You can learn it in like … five minutes, it’s easy, especially if you have a good lead.”

“I can teach you,” said Alfric. “It’s really not hard. The basic five dances will get you through a good number of songs, you just need your partner to know that you’re a beginner so they don’t try to spin you.”

They talked for a bit after that, chatter, mostly, about what would come the next day and what they’d do that night. Verity didn’t bring up her mother again, but did glance down toward the seats as they began to fill.

Once the opera started, Hannah did her best to concentrate, but as the opening song of the third act started, she knew that it was useless. There were too many other things to think about, and the opera had no hope of gripping her.

Verity being one of the Chosen of Xuphin was hard to believe. If it was true, and it seemed as though it had to be true, then Verity had been keeping it from all of them for quite some time. That stung, and more than Hannah might have expected. The Chosen were special, picked by the gods for some ineffable purpose. If you were Chosen, that instantly became the most important thing about you. To not have said anything about it, especially after she’d chastised Alfric for his own brief deception, just didn’t sit right with Hannah.

Hannah had met two of the Chosen of Garos, though hadn’t spent any significant time with either. One was an architect, advanced in age and kept at the seminary mostly for the purpose of being trotted out to give a talk every now and again. She had designed a number of notable buildings, all in a beautifully symmetrical style, not just following in the footsteps of prior builders but forging her own path with reflections upon reflections, designs that mirrored at many levels, which helped the people who lived and worked in those buildings to have lives of symmetry.

The other had been a cartier, who had developed a stride technique that allowed him to flow through the leylines at twice the speed of nearly anyone else. That one, sadly, had not been terribly transferable, too difficult to teach to others, too specific to him, but he had nonetheless come before the fledgling clerics to talk about it, in part so they could meet someone that had been touched by their god. He was an important man in his field, among the fastest of the cartiers, which meant that he got the biggest and most important shipments.

What might Verity become? Hannah’s mind turned over the possibilities. The Chosen came in different magnitudes, some of them titans of art or industry, others working in a particular niche or on some particular project. Verity was apparently a prodigy with the lute though, and a highly skilled bard for being so young. Would she advance the state of the art there, or create some great work? It seemed quite likely.

Hannah had a bit of schooling in the ways of Xuphin, as she did in all the gods. When people thought of Xuphin, they thought of all things large and tall, of excess and gluttony, but the actual doctrine and the holy words in the Xu Phinnas went far beyond that. Humans could be made larger, and this was good, but they couldn’t be made infinitely large, so large that they blotted out the sun, so their head went past the moons. In the seminary, when they spoke of what each god might have wanted as the end state of the world, it was thought that Xuphin would want a world without end, one teeming with life and variety, a world that would dwarf humans, one where they would be rendered insignificant. It was a bit frightening, more so than the perfect world for Kesbin, mere nonexistence.

And what might a Chosen of Xuphin do? Was she dangerous to be around? Were they to be her springboard into greatness? The more Hannah thought about it, the more upset she was at not being told, as much as she tried to make herself understand that there wasn’t anything compelling Verity to disclose that information. Nothing except the fact that it might affect them in some way, and that they were all supposed to be friends.

Hannah tried to reflect herself into Verity’s place, to get some perspective on the matter. It really didn’t help that the opera seemed to be moving in an unpleasant direction. Lerial had returned home and Marsc, despite clearly being in love, felt some duty to her husband and some reluctance to reunite. It felt like there was some real anxiety being produced by the bards, a thick tension that wasn’t coming from Hannah alone.

If Hannah had been Chosen, even if it was by a god that wasn’t Garos, she’d have been thrilled beyond words. It wasn’t the promise of doing something grand and important, it was the idea that there was some true purpose to her life, that she fit in with the world in some way above and beyond normal people. Being Chosen was like one of the gods coming down and saying “this is what you were meant to do, and you will be great at it”. Of course, you still had to pick your specialty, and there were a few rare Chosen who didn’t go on to do anything obvious of note, but — Hannah found herself getting sidetracked with her own feelings. She was doing a poor job of trying to think about what Verity felt.

Verity had said she’d left Dondrian because of the expectation placed on her by her parents, and it was clear now that what she hadn’t said was that she’d also left Dondrian because of the expectation placed on her by Xuphin, not to mention his clerics and followers. So when Hannah thought of what Verity had been feeling, it was pressure to perform, and not just to perform, but to perform better than anyone had before, bigger, louder, better, to innovate and iterate and … Hannah thought she’d have done well with it, but she could see how it might be difficult for someone who was constantly questioning whether they were good enough.

It was difficult for Hannah to relate. When she’d come to the seminary, she’d seen so many people who were unserious about their faith, their god, and while there were plenty of arguments with the more intellectually inclined set, Hannah had never felt much in the way of pressure or strain.

It was clear that Verity felt quite a bit of strain and pressure, and that a lot had been asked of her from a very young age. She had been famous, at least a little bit, enough that they were still gossiping about quite a bit after the fact.

Hannah couldn’t quite square it, couldn’t quite grasp what Verity was feeling, not on a gut level. They would have to have it out, Hannah was sure of that, but she suspected that if challenged, Verity might simply fold.

There were still things to do though, if you didn’t quite grasp what someone else was going through and couldn’t quite feel any empathy for their position. You could trust their accounting of things and give them the space to do as they would. It was what Hannah resolved to do, though she’d ask her questions all the same. Verity needed support, not to be questioned.

Though Hannah did think that Verity needed to have a talk with her mother, even if it was to tell the woman to bugger off.

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Alexander Wales

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