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Mizuki found the fourth act of the opera absolutely stunning. If there had been a direction she’d been thinking it would go, following the third act, it wasn’t the outbreak of war. The whole set was on fire, and it looked like real fire, but she didn’t imagine that they would actually burn down the set, so it was either a clever illusion or an entad or something, and she was momentarily distracted from the opera itself until the fighting started. The whole thing had been so gentle, maybe a bit melodramatic, though it was probably hard not to be when you were singing everything, and then it had taken a fourth act turn into a war story, or if not a war story, then a story told in a time of war. Before Lerial and Marsc came onto the stage again, there was a battle between two sides, with red scarves to represent blood or maybe guts, desperate fighting with swords and magic until eventually one side — unclear which, or why they were even fighting each other — had won, then looted the corpses and carried them off.

Then the singing started up again, with the burning city as the backdrop.

The lesson of the opera, it seemed to her, was that times of peace could be suddenly blown into pieces, and that the fragility of life and our conditions within it meant that it was better to act, to seize the day, to take chances where and when you could.

“Okay,” she said once it was over and they’d given the obligatory standing ovation. “I liked that they got together in the end, but sheesh I didn’t think they were going to go there.”

“The war?” asked Verity. “It was foreshadowed.”

“Was it though?” asked Mizuki.

“Yes,” said Verity. “In the first act? It’s why Lerial goes away in the first place, because of a fear that problems are brewing?”

“I don’t remember that at all,” said Mizuki. “Anyway, I liked it, but the war stuff hit hard.”

“It’s toned down,” said Alfric. “Compared to what war really was, anyway. They simulated the deaths and dragged the corpses off the street right away. In actual wartime — not to churn anyone’s stomach, but it was a lot worse. Soldiers get hungry and steal from civilians. Armies steal from workers. Buildings and fields are burnt as part of denial tactics. Bodies are left on the ground and disease spreads. And when magic comes into the picture, sometimes thousands die at once.”

“One of the roles of Lerial and Marsc, within the canon, is a call to not forget our bloody history,” said Verity. “The stagings of it vary though. I thought a full acted-out battle to music was … well, a bit much. The last time I saw a production, the opening of the act was the grim aftermath of war, which is the actual setting that the leads will be singing in.”

“I don’t know enough history,” said Isra. “It seems unimaginable.”

“The opera post-dates Interim’s last war by nearly fifty years,” said Verity. “From what I understand, the shock of the fourth act was even more pronounced, with blood on the stage and, as Alfric said, simulated corpses. I actually read that there was one production where they wafted the scent of char and death out into the audience.”

“Seems it must have been political, for the time,” said Hannah.

“Yes,” nodded Verity. “Provocative, as quite a bit of good art is.”

“I enjoyed it well enough,” said Alfric. “It’s my second time seeing it, the other was when I was younger. I’m not much of a fan of love stories though.”

“Aw, Alfric has a hard heart,” said Mizuki.

“This particular sort of thing, where the two leads are going back and forth,” he said. “Especially with fully half the opera being yearning for one another, it’s … I don’t know. It’s not my thing.”

“I liked it, except for the parts I didn’t like,” said Mizuki.

“Opera isn’t really about the plot,” said Verity. “Or it’s not supposed to be. It’s about feeling, the emotion.”

“The emotions were good,” said Isra. “Strong.”

“Well if you’d like, we can go backstage,” said Alfric. “Usually the singers will come out into the lobby and shake hands, get their accolades, things like that. But backstage, we could see some of the sets, talk privately when they came back, things like that. It does break the spell a bit.” He shrugged. “Or we could just go out dancing.”

“Dancing,” said Mizuki.

“Ay, dancin’,” said Hannah.

Isra looked at Verity, from whom she seemed to take many cues. “I don’t particularly feel the need to congratulate them on the performance,” said Verity. “And I’ve been backstage, it’s nothing too special.”

“Alright,” said Alfric, nodding. It didn’t seem to matter to him one way or another. “Is everyone going to wear these clothes, or slip into something more comfortable?”

“I’m ready to shock people with this dress,” said Verity, gesturing down to it. It was, in fact, possible to see a bit of tit from the side, as Hannah had pointed out.

~~~~

The place they went to was called The Contrary Dragon, which to Mizuki sounded like a good pub name. It was anything but: it was absolutely enormous, with a long bar against one wall and a number of bartenders in sharp suits there. The wide dance floor had hundreds of twirling partners. Along one side, there were tables for people to sit and drink, and the entire place seemed quite full.

<So many people,> said Isra. She was using the party channel because the place was loud, not just with the band that was playing, but with the movement and conversation of so many people.

<Fewer than went to the opera,> said Verity.

<But they’re not all in rows,> said Isra. <It’s a swarm.>

<Looks fantastic,> Mizuki said. <Alfric, teach Isra some steps, then let’s get going.> She rubbed her hands together and grinned. It had been some time since she’d learned this kind of dancing, and she was going to be rusty, but dancing was fun, and she was looking good.

It didn’t take long for Mizuki to be invited onto the dance floor by a hopeful young man, and she took his hand, hoping that she was doing things right. Thankfully, he kept to the basic steps, and they got swept up in the cloud of dancers, which seemed to follow a counter-clockwise swirl.

They talked, a bit, though it wasn’t the sort of conversation that left an impression in her mind. He was Chelxic, at least going by his complexion, and spoke with a bit of an accent, which was pleasant enough to listen to, but when the song ended and he asked for another dance, she thanked him and then said no, wandering off to go find someone else.

She was overdressed for the venue, but given the outfit, that was almost a given. Almost all of the women wore dresses, but most of them were a bit simpler and more practical. Most of the men were in buttoned-down shirts and slacks, the same thing that Alfric usually wore, though many of them had quite a bit more color than he normally wore. Tonight, he was in black, with very little color to liven it up.

To her satisfaction, she seemed to be attracting a fair number of men, and didn’t need to wait long to find a new one. Her second partner was a tall man with red hair and flushed cheeks, slightly drunk but with good cheer. Her third partner was a muscular man with sleeves that went only just to below his elbows, and he sweated a bit too much, making the point where their hands connected too damp.

The fourth was Alfric.

His grip was firm but yielding and his form was impeccable. He moved through the swarm of dancers with an absolute awareness of what the other couples were doing, sometimes slowing her down and other times pulling her in close to let someone by.

“You’re actually good at this,” she said.

“Practice,” said Alfric.

Mizuki smiled at him as they swept across the floor, and nearly missed a step. “Always practice, isn’t it?”

“Lola liked to dance,” said Alfric.

They were silent for a bit after that, as Mizuki felt like she’d put her foot in her mouth. Lola wasn’t just an arranged marriage that Alfric had never wanted, they’d been friends and partners. Lola hadn’t just taken his party, she’d trashed their relationship as well, and there were times when Mizuki could see that in Alfric.

“Sorry,” said Mizuki.

“It’s fine,” said Alfric. “I got decent at dancing, and it’s nice to use an old skill. Are you ready for a dip?”

“What do I need to do?” she asked, focusing on her steps.

“Engage your core, have some rigidity, I’ll guide you, just hold onto me,” said Alfric.

The dip happened suddenly, and Mizuki went nearly horizontal, supported mostly by Alfric’s hand. She was afraid that he was going to drop her, or that she would slip, but he had her, and pulled her back to her feet as though she weighed nothing at all. He gave her a grin that made her feel like butterflies, and they stood there for a moment, just looking at each other. The music had come to a stop, and it seemed as though he’d timed the dip to perfectly coincide with it.

And then he walked away, with her following after him, as though they hadn’t just had a moment.

Mizuki wasn’t attracted to Alfric any more than she was attracted to any other boy, but … well, that meant that she was attracted to him a little. He was handsome enough, and muscular, and extraordinarily driven, focused, and competent. He was a bit of a brick, that was true, and she couldn’t imagine what kissing him would be like — or rather, of all the times she’d imagined him kissing her, it hadn’t felt quite true, it had felt like she’d drawn a picture in her mind that didn’t match reality.

Hannah had staked out a table and waved them over, and they came to sit down with her.

“Took ages to get a drink,” said Hannah. “And quite overpriced.” She was speaking loudly to be heard over the music, which had started up again.

“Where are the other two?” asked Mizuki. She was still feeling a bit awkward about Alfric, and deliberately sat on the other side of the table from him, which he took no notice of.

“There,” said Hannah, pointing.

Mizuki looked, and saw Verity and Isra dancing together, mostly in glimpses, because they were in the center of the swirl, where slower dancers tended to go. It was obviously not the most graceful dancing that Mizuki had ever seen, and from the way they were looking at their feet, she suspected that Verity was continuing the job of teaching Isra what she needed to know. It was also clear why Hannah hadn’t used the channel; she didn’t want to interrupt them.

“Four dances for me,” said Mizuki. “I’m not sure how many I have in me, actually.” The shoes she’d been supplied with were very nice, magically custom-fitted to her feet, but her feet were already starting to get sore.

“I don’t think we’ll stay here long,” said Alfric. He took a flask from inside his suit pocket and took a long swig from it, then held it out to Mizuki. She drank, and was mildly disappointed that it was just water.

“Did you do this often?” asked Mizuki. “Before you came to the greatest little town in the world?”

“Every now and then,” said Alfric. “Less, after I was by myself.” He looked out on the spinning crowd. “It brings back some memories.”

“Good ones though, right?” asked Mizuki.

“Bittersweet,” said Alfric with a shrug. “And a few times I came here with my brothers, or stag, but — well, I’m glad that I have friends with me.”

“Save the next dance for me?” asked Hannah. “I haven’t been out there at all, and would like to give it a try.” Alfric nodded.

“Do you know how?” asked Mizuki.

“Oh, ay,” said Hannah. “I learned at seminary, and went out a few times, though I’m none too good. There are traditional dances of Garos, but they’re not terribly popular, and mostly for holy days. Those I’m quite good at.”

“Naturally,” said Mizuki. She wasn’t sure that she’d ever seen a Garos dance, not even during a holy day. Garos wasn’t really a dancing god.

“To tell the truth, I’m already ready to go back,” said Alfric. “Not back to the house, to Pucklechurch.”

“For more dungeons?” asked Mizuki.

“Well, that too,” said Alfric. “But less people around, a smaller setting — I think it suits me better.”

“That’s us,” said Hannah, rising from her seat. The band had brought their song to a close, and Alfric took her offered hand, guiding her out onto the dance floor.

Mizuki watched them go. Hannah looked much different in the dress, in part because it showed off her muscular arms. It was a good look on her, and of them all, it was arguable that she’d had the biggest transformation. But Mizuki saw Isra, who was showing her hair and neck, draped in gold, and decided that no, she was wrong, it was Isra who had changed the most. Verity was dancing with Isra still, in the center, much more of a lesson than a proper dance.

Mizuki sat by herself, not wanting to brave the busy bar to try to get a drink, mostly just watching the dancers twirling by. The fashions of Dondrian were eclectic, but there was a Chelxic style that seemed to be common, dresses that came nearly to the floor while leaving arms bare and necklines low. Verity’s was provocative, and she got some looks, but they were appreciative looks, at least so far as Mizuki could tell.

“Here, I saw you all alone and bought you a drink,” a man said as he sat down next to Miuzki.

He had changed clothes, but after a moment, Mizuki recognized him as the man from before, the one that had bothered her while she was drinking her hot chocolate. His hair was a bit more slicked back than before, some of that from sweat rather than oils, and he had a happy grin on his face.

“Thank you,” said Mizuki, taking the drink from him but not drinking it.

“That was odd, with the owls, wasn’t it?” he asked.

“I guess,” said Mizuki. “You know, it’s a bit presumptuous for you to come sit at my table.” She was mildly annoyed that he was there, but not so much that she wanted to make a scene, not when he was being friendly.

“Oh, I know. But I did bring you a drink.” He used one long finger to push the glass closer to her. “And earlier, with the owls, if I came on strong — well, you have my apology.”

“Accepted, I suppose,” said Mizuki. She glanced at the drink, but still didn’t pick it up. It was a bad feeling, that was all, and it was rude of her not to accept it, but it took some trust to drink something that someone had brought to you unasked for.

“Well, do you have another dance in you?” he asked. Mizuki had forgotten his name. Bertrand? Bertan? Bertran? Whatever his name, he seemed hopeful.

Mizuki looked out at the dance floor. The song was, by her reckoning, half over, and she had cooled back down from her round of dances. Alfric and Hannah had taken two songs together, and Verity was swaying in the center with Isra. That left Mizuki all alone, and it seemed that she would be so for the foreseeable future.

“Alright, sure,” said Mizuki. She took his hand and they went out onto the floor.

Two things were immediately obvious. The first was that Bertran was very good at dancing, better than Alfric or any of the other men Mizuki had danced with. He moved gracefully and fluidly across the floor, his frame solid and Mizuki naturally following, though they had a few missteps early on when Mizuki was able to reveal her lack of expertise. He slowed somewhat, if only to avoid getting his toes stepped on.

The second thing that was immediately clear was that he liked to talk, and expected their dance to be one of constant conversation. If Mizuki had known that, she would have declined.

“So, I’m an assessor for the city, mostly relating to taxes, it’s more interesting than you’d think.” It was impressive, at least, the way that he was able to put out so many words while doing something that was strenuous — strenuous because he was moving them so quickly around the dance floor, breezing past the other dancers. “I get to go learn about new companies and what they do, their process, their skills, the important people. I find it great fun. What do you do?”

“I’m a dungeoneer,” said Mizuki, which felt like a bit of a lie given that they’d only done three dungeons, but was, in some sense, true.

He laughed. “You?”

Mizuki withdrew from him and made to leave, but he rushed around, grabbing her hand, and tried to force her back into frame.

Mizuki lit the dress up. The way he shrieked and pulled back was incredibly satisfying, as was the actual fear in his eyes. She turned away and walked off, back towards the table, extinguishing the dress as she went. She wasn’t sure whether she’d burned him, or how badly, and regret set in almost at once, but he had grabbed her, and she had only gone for a dance because she hadn’t wanted to be rude, and because there was nothing else going on.

<I’m ready to go,> said Mizuki.

<Saw you light up,> said Hannah. <I’m going to offer first aid, if it’s needed.>

<He had it coming,> said Mizuki.

<I saw,> said Alfric. <I’ll back you up, if it comes to that.>

<Ay, but if I heal him, the evidence, if any, is gone, and we have less worry about consequences,> said Hannah. <They don’t look kindly on givin’ someone a burn, even if there was some inappropriateness goin’ on.>

Mizuki came back to the table, where Alfric was standing with perfect posture, hands folded behind his back.

“Sorry,” she said.

“Night’s almost over anyhow,” said Alfric. “We were going to leave.”

“He grabbed me,” said Mizuki. “I just — didn’t want to be touched.”

“He’s lucky to be getting away with the temporary pain of a burn,” said Alfric. He was watching where the guy was, Bertran or whoever he was. He’d gone off to the side, and was clutching his hand, seething in pain but taking very little notice of where Mizuki was.

Hannah came over and healed him, which … yes, was sensible, Mizuki hadn’t meant to leave a scar or anything, she’d just been angry and fought back against being grabbed. He must have supposed that if he got her back in frame they would have been dancing again, that bullying her around would work, whether that was because she was a woman, or small, or both.

<What a baby,> said Hannah. <Fine though, and I fixed his cuff, which was singed.>

Verity and Isra had come over, and were, like Alfric and Mizuki, watching.

“Isra, is that drink — good?” asked Mizuki, pointing at the drink that Bertran had brought over.

Isra picked it up, gave it a sniff, then sipped it a bit. “Yes?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It doesn’t have, I don’t know, poison in it?” asked Mizuki.

“Alcohol is a poison,” said Isra.

“Or like … spit?” asked Mizuki.

“No,” said Isra.

“He brought that over for you?” asked Alfric.

Mizuki nodded. “I didn’t drink any.”

“Probably just wanted to get you drunk,” said Hannah, who had made her way across the dance floor. “Not a serious burn, nothin’ that he couldn’t have winced his way through for a day or two with some bandages.”

“We should go,” said Alfric.

“Am I going to be in trouble?” asked Mizuki.

“No,” said Alfric. “Absolutely not. But I can reset the day if you’d like.”

“I don’t want the day to reset,” said Isra. “It was a good day. A repeat might be worse.”

“Well I don’t want a reset either,” said Mizuki. “Just that one part of it.”

“Alright, let’s get moving,” said Alfric. “We’ll walk back, it’s not far, and if anyone wants a midnight snack, they can have it.”

They’d gone half a block when Bertran came rushing out of the dance hall. Alfric put himself in the way, the same as he did in the dungeons when there was a threat.

“You can’t just do that, burn a person,” said Bertran, speaking past Alfric toward Mizuki.

“Don’t make this a thing,” said Alfric. “You were being a jerk, she left, you tried to grab her, you got burned, and you were healed five seconds later.”

“Don’t impugn my honor,” said Bertran. He was giving Alfric a death glare.

“Or what?” asked Alfric. “Are you one of those small men who thinks you can get your way through violence, or the threat of it?”

“He ran away because of a handful of owls,” said Isra.

“I was only showing my interest,” said Bertran. He had a sour look. “Any more aspersions, and I’ll be forced to seek satisfaction.”

“Again, of what sort?” asked Alfric. He hesitated. “A duel?”

Mizuki had heard of such things, mostly as the sport of young men, but she hadn’t expected that was what he might have meant. By Bertran’s cruel grin, it was clear this was what he had in mind.

“You have a cleric,” said Bertran, nodding to Hannah. “To the blood, so that I might have my satisfaction for your rudeness and assault.”

Alfric sighed. “It doesn’t appear that you’re armed, so we’d be using fists?”

“Swords,” nodded Bertran. “Or a weapon of your choice.”

“Entads?” asked Alfric.

Bertran nodded again.

“I would fight in her stead, if she would have me,” said Alfric. “And if that would be acceptable to you.”

<Demolish him,> said Mizuki.

Bertran smiled. “Naturally.” He held a hand out to his side, and a long, thin rapier appeared there. It was an entad, obviously, which meant that it might do anything. That alone was scary. “I should warn you that I’m a duelist of the top rank. I’ll give you a moment to find your own sword.”

<Question,> said Alfric, looking to Mizuki. <Would you rather I beat him barehanded or with full entad support?>

<Full entad support,> said Mizuki. She wondered whether Alfric could win barehanded against a skilled duelist, but he seemed confident in his own abilities. Then again, she didn’t know what he meant by ‘full entad support’, given that he wasn’t wearing anything obvious, and couldn’t really have been hiding the bident.

“Hold my jacket, please,” said Alfric, taking it off for a second. His hands went into his pocket, and when he pulled them out, there were several rings on his fingers. “Alright, I’m ready to begin, ten paces?”

“Very well,” said Bertran. He seemed quite confident, and went into a fencing stance with one hand out to his side.

A small crowd had gathered to see, and Mizuki had the impression that this sort of thing wasn’t entirely uncommon. She wondered whether it was legal, or illegal, or the kind of illegal thing that no one cared too much about. It certainly happened in Pucklechurch that sometimes two men — or more rarely, a man and woman — would settle their differences through fisticuffs, often paying a visit to one of the clerics afterward. It was frowned upon, but also generally accepted, so long as both parties wanted to have a go, and so long as they didn’t destroy anything in the process of having their scrap. This … seemed a bit more serious, if only because of the weapons involved.

“Are you going to arm yourself?” asked Bertran, cocking his head to the side.

Alfric gave a brief nod, and exploded into magic. When the wisps of blue smoke cleared, he was coated in a black armor with thin lines of gold, holding a sword that was six feet long with a gentle curve, gleaming in the streetlights. He’d grown by an extra two feet, towering over everyone around them.

Bertran’s eyes were wide, his stance instantly weakened. “We didn’t agree to —”

Alfric let out a beastial roar and ran forward, bringing the sword down in a two-handed overhead swing. Bertran brought his sword up to block, probably on instinct rather than because he thought it was a good idea. Alfric’s six-foot blade knocked it to the side and continued downward, and if it had continued, it seemed as though it would have sliced straight through him. Instead, Alfric came to a dead stop, and Bertran stumbled back, dropping his sword and clutching his face. Alfric swung again, this time with a slice from the side, one that came perilously close to cutting through people in the crowd, but again he stopped at just the moment before it made contact. His third attack was straight forward, a lunging thrust, and this time the tip made contact. Bertran stumbled back, falling to the ground.

Alfric held the pose for a moment, sword extended into the air where Bertran’s face had been, but Alfric gradually relaxed, standing up at his new, exaggerated height.

“I think we’re done here,” he said. <Hannah, healing would be appropriate now.>

<Go, I’ll catch up,> sighed Hannah.

Alfric turned away and the four of them started walking. Hannah, true to her word, caught up with them not too long after.

<Loaner entads,> said Alfric, by way of explanation. He was still in his enlarged and armored form, with his sword resting on his shoulder. <I had told my mom that I was a bit worried about protection.>

<So you saw that coming?> asked Mizuki.

<Not at all,> said Alfric. <I was worried about Lola, not that I told mom.>

<It was appreciated,> said Mizuki. <The fear in his eyes was something to behold.>

<Not quite legal though,> said Verity.

<No, not quite,> said Alfric. <But it wasn’t much of a duel, and the city guards turn a blind eye to it, so long as no one was permanently hurt.>

<Just a single drop of blood from a cut on the cheek,> said Hannah. <Though the psychological damage will be, I imagine, quite permanent.>

<I doubt he’ll learn anything from it,> said Alfric. <That’s really not the way to get someone to change.>

<Satisfying though,> said Isra.

<Very satisfying,> said Mizuki.

<It’s the sort of thing that my parents complain about,> said Verity. <Casual violence among the youth, too much magic making people not take things seriously.>

<I wouldn’t have done the ‘duel’ if I had thought there was danger,> said Alfric.

<You hear stories though,> said Verity. <People doing duels without a cleric on hand —>

<Which they had,> said Hannah.

<I don’t think you appreciate how good these loaners are,> said Alfric. He was still eight feet tall and coated in armor. It hugged him like a second skin, with no trace of the suit beneath it. Mizuki could see muscle definition, if she looked closely, and it seemed to move with him. A very quick glance — it was nearly at her eyeline — and she could see that the armor thankfully had a tasteful codpiece.

<There was a boy who died three years ago,> said Verity. <You remember that, don’t you Alfric?>

<I remember the chronos getting flack for it,> said Alfric. <The circumstances were unique though.>

<And don’t need to be relitigated,> said Verity. <I’m not against watching men going through a no holds barred fight, I just also acknowledge that it’s a rather stupid thing to do outside a dancing club over a very minor dispute.>

<Alfric wasn’t the one to suggest it,> said Mizuki.

<I knew it might be a possibility though,> said Alfric. He shrugged. <I did my best not to bait him.>

As they walked and talked, Alfric began to slowly shrink back down, losing an inch every few steps until he was back down to size. Once he was, he dismissed the armor and sword, taking his jacket back from Mizuki, who had been wearing it around her shoulders.

By the time they reached the main entrance to his house, Mizuki was feeling the chill of the night air. She was also quite tired after a long day that had begun with the wood carving, which seemed like it was ages ago. If anyone else had proposed that they stay up a bit and drink some rum beside a fire, she probably would have gone along with it, but they had another long day ahead of them the next day too, and all went their separate ways — or not separate, as the case might be, because they were all in the ‘same’ guest room.

Mizuki had picked a shade of green, and got it wrong on the first try, because there were two different greens and she’d gotten confused. But then she was in the green room, where she had a bag with all her things, and was alone.

It was deathly quiet. The room had a single window, but it was pretty obviously an entad window, one that was duplicated across all the guest rooms. Inspecting it closely, Mizuki found two small dials on the side, and when she turned them, the view beyond changed. One seemed to control the conditions, while the other was location, but both of them were quite random, and turning the dial one way and then the other didn’t bring it back to what it had been. The views differed from each other, but none of them were quite normal, sometimes showing plants and animals that Mizuki didn’t think were a part of the real world, other times with weather that certainly wasn’t real, like black shards falling from the sky and shattering against the ground, or giant globs of a viscous yellow liquid splattering on a beach.

Eventually, after spending what was probably too much time on it, Mizuki settled on a view from the top of a mountain looking out over a pleasant valley filled with slow-moving furry lumps. The ‘weather’ was gently drifting motes of blue light which twisted in the wind and made a tiny flash when they landed.

Mizuki got undressed and washed her face in the small bathroom. There was a tank of water attached near the ceiling, which made sense given that the room was dimensionally contained. The dress, shoes, and jewels were set to one side, very carefully, to be returned to Alfric’s mother the next day. She wanted to make sure that everything was in order.

Mizuki lay in the green bed with its green sheets, her head on a green pillow, staring up at the green ceiling.

She pulled out Herby and fed her some chewed up herbs, but she was still a young herb dragon yet, and frightfully boring. The herb dragon fell back asleep while in the middle of eating, and Mizuki sighed. It was clear this wasn’t the companion she’d been so keenly wanting.

She liked it in the Overguard house, but it gave her a sense of yearning. She wanted this to be her life, maybe not in the city, but somewhere, a life with all kinds of magic in it, comfortable and cozy, filled with rituals and secrets that were known only to her and her loved ones.

The problem was, there was no way to obtain that kind of life.

Hannah had joked about Mizuki ensnaring Alfric and marrying into the family, but obviously even if Mizuki had been that kind of person — she wasn’t — it wouldn’t work, because she’d always be a half-member, and if she wasn’t pulling her own weight, she wasn’t sure that she could live with herself.

But of course, there was a way to get the life that the Overguards had, and Alfric had been pushing for it since basically day one: they needed to do dungeons. They needed to do a lot of dungeons. The entads would trickle in, most of them useless but a few that were great, and others that had their own intriguing natures to them, quirks and flaws that only the party would know. In a few years, they could have a little stockpile of such things, along with rooms filled with henlings, a table that would set itself, a knife that grudgingly helped out with cutting potatoes, and Mizuki would have everything she found herself keening for.

All it would take was going into the dungeons, again and again, not exactly risking life and limb, given that there was Alfric, but dealing with some stomach churning things and being frightened out of her mind.

She found herself resolving to do it, to actually put in the work in a way that she hadn’t quite been doing. She needed to stop treating dungeoneering as a temporary lark, and start dealing with it like Alfric did. She needed to be competent. And with Alfric’s help and guidance, she thought that was probably achievable.

Still, she was lonely.

After what felt like too long staring at the ceiling, she cracked the door open.

“Emperor?” she whispered. There was dead silence. “Emperor, did you want to sleep in my bed tonight?”

The sound of nails on hardwood was immediate and quite loud, and it was only a handful of seconds before the Overguards’ enormous dog was using his nose to push open the door and saunter into Mizuki’s room. She shut the door behind him and by the time she turned back to the bed, he was curled up at the foot of it. Mizuki smiled at him and climbed back into bed.

“You’ll tell me if you need to be let out boy, won’t you?” she asked as she petted him. He took up quite a bit of room, but this was exactly what she’d been hoping for.

Emperor barked once, fairly softly, and Mizuki dug her fingers into his fur.

“You’re such a good boy,” said Mizuki. “Thank you for keeping me company.”

The dog barked again and laid his head on the blanket with his eyes closed. She spent some more time petting him, until he seemed to be asleep, or close enough to it, and when she went to join him, she found she fell into a dream with hardly any trouble.

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Alexander Wales

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