Alfric had been to the Garos Duomo only once before, for his aunt’s wedding. It was a huge, grand building, a cathedral that served as a monument to one specific god, not quite incomparable, but the largest of its kind outside of the holy city of Garag. For regular church service, his parents had found it too crowded and too impersonal, and preferred to go to one of the smaller outlying churches of Garos. Dondrian was not short on alternatives, not when it came to churches, or anything else.
The building was symmetrical, obviously. The aesthetic style was Arcross, emphasizing complexity across the planes of symmetry, and the Garos Duomo had plenty of those to go around. The most prominent of these was the horizontal reflection, accomplished via a floor with a perfect mirror surface. If you looked down, you found yourself looking at your own face, and beyond that, the ceiling of the space, which was high above you. The Garos Duomo could have swallowed the temple at Pucklechurch whole, any of the six domes being able to house the smaller building. The domes were supported by struts that ran between them, but these led to the outer walls, with no pillars coming down, and nothing to get in the way of the expansive emptiness.
“Wow,” said Mizuki once they were inside.
“Ay,” said Hannah. She seemed quite pleased with it, and was looking around with her hands on her hips. There wasn’t a sermon until later, and people were free to come and go. Many of them were, like Alfric, Hannah, and Mizuki, sight-seeing.
“How do they keep this clean?” asked Mizuki, looking at the floor. “Entad?” She was squinting, which she often did when looking for magic.
“I have no idea,” said Alfric.
“It’s the material itself, I think,” said Hannah, crouching down to look at it. She touched it, then licked her fingers and pressed them against the mirrored surface, pulling them away to watch the saliva. “Disappears in about five seconds.”
“And is it safe to walk on?” asked Mizuki. “I mean, it must be, but a perfectly mirrored surface is almost more impressive than whatever they did with the walls.”
Alfric didn’t really think that was true. The walls were absolutely coated in sculpture, much of it the natural white of marble, but with veins of black or pink in places. There were also a few pieces that had more color to them, sculptures that broke with the theme of natural stone. Alfric found it all a bit tacky, just as a matter of personal taste, but he had to admit that during a boring sermon, it gave the congregation something to look at.
They walked around for a bit, making appreciative noises at everything there was to see. The sculptures on the wall weren’t just there to be pretty, they told stories that were either important to the Church of Garos or the god himself. Alfric was particularly drawn to the scenes of battle, with shields set to hold back a charge or spears thrust out to stab at the heart of an enemy. They were the stuff of epics.
Mizuki was less sanguine about them. “Isn’t this all stuff that the modern Church regrets? Crusades and holy wars and things like that?”
“Oh, ay,” said Hannah. “But it’s still a part of our history, isn’t it?”
“Well,” said Mizuki, pointing at a scene of a muscular man, shirtless with a sword, lunging at an enemy who had asymmetrical horns and a twisted, off-center face. “Correct me if I’m wrong, and I might be wrong, but the Church of Garos never really fought monsters, right? I mean, most of what they fought, in the bad old days, was just other people, including other churches. So …”
“So you think it’s all a fable?” asked Hannah. She looked at the sculpture. “I do have to admit that history isn’t a strong suit for me, when it comes to the church. I avoided it, in the seminary. My guess is that this is a sculpture of some specific happenin’, but I’m hard-pressed to place it.”
“I don’t think it’s a fable, necessarily,” said Mizuki. “I just see a lot of war up there, and I know that especially in what’s now Inter, there was a lot of fighting, and the churches weren’t always unified, or working for the people. Or kind.”
“The Realignment was almost a thousand years ago,” said Alfric.
“And took place over a hundred year period,” said Hannah. “This cathedral isn’t more than seven hundred years old, well past when everyone was gettin’ along. Or mostly so.”
“I just see a lot of war up there,” Mizuki repeated with a shrug. “And most of the history of war is us fighting other humans, unless it’s a battle against the dwodo or the feil.”
“Which is also ancient history,” said Hannah.
“Or battles against dungeon escapes, or native threats,” said Alfric. He looked at the asymmetrical face, twisted in anguish at the sword swinging his way. “Is there someone we could ask?”
“You want to know about that one in particular?” asked Hannah. “Or in general, the meanin’ of it all?”
Alfric looked at the walls, which rose quite high and were covered with various scenes that all ran together. “If there’s meaning in all of this, then we might be here all day.”
“Well,” said Hannah, “Like I said, I’m better on praxis than I am on history, but I do know a few of these, so I can tell you of them, if not about any given one you point to.” She scanned the section of the wall they were standing in front of, then pointed. “There, those five, they’re from the Golden Generation of Garos, back when worship was more regional than it is today. Some fine mathematics came from them. Zerthusa in particular you’ve probably heard of?”
“Nope,” said Mizuki.
“She had a theorem,” said Alfric. “Um … something having to do with … calculus?”
“She invented calculus,” said Hannah.
“Er,” said Alfric. He didn’t really know how to deal with this sort of disagreement. “I thought that was a different cleric? Someone from the church of Xuphin?”
“Independently discovered in more than one place at around the same time,” said Hannah with a wave of her hand. “Mathematics underpins quite a bit of godly pursuits, and I imagine there are a fair number of mathematician-clerics up there.” She squinted at the wall. “There, that one I recognize, Lestria, wrote perhaps a fourth of the mathematical prayers we still use today.”
“You do math as a form of prayer?” asked Mizuki.
“I don’t, personally, but for some, there’s a purity to the symmetries of mathematics that helps to bring them closer to god.” She shrugged. “For myself, I’m more about the physical and social worlds. It brings a greater connection when I have something tangible.” She was still looking at the wall. “And there, I … think.” She was pointing at a statue of a woman with long, flowing hair, the fabric of her wrap caught in motion, breasts bare. “Pollinia, one of the saints.”
“And what did she do that was saintly?” asked Mizuki.
“She was a noted midwife,” said Hannah. “Used to be that a fair few babies died in childbirth, or the mothers, in part because there are limits to what a cleric can do. Pollinia introduced some diagnostic methods and helped reduce the death rate by a good margin. The real saintly aspect was savin’ an infant king from death, but — well, there are all kinds of stories, and it’s hard to say if it’s really Garos reachin’ down through a person or not. I can’t help but notice that it’s often someone bein’ honored for their other work, then the extraordinary aspects come later as a way of justifyin’ it. It’s nice to dedicate a healthy birth to her, but hard to say one way or another, meanin’ no disrespect. Supposedly the saintly miracle was a near complete reconstruction of the child’s left side.”
“Why the skepticism?” asked Alfric.
“I know how tough that is,” said Hannah. “And it was never repeated, supposedly couldn’t be repeated, not by anyone, not without the intervention of Garos. It’s suspect, that’s all, and I’m not the sort of cleric to take every word of the Church as bein’ the full and complete truth of the matter. As Mizuki said, there’s some dark and bloody history.”
“I hope you didn’t take that as criticism,” said Mizuki. “I don’t have any complaints about the church.”
“Ay,” said Hannah. She turned to look at Alfric. “Speakin’ of godly interference in the world, I s’pose now that the three of us are all in one place, we might speak about Verity’s status as Chosen of Xuphin?”
Alfric kept his face blank.
“We overheard a conversation last night,” said Mizuki. “Or Hannah did, then we talked to some people, and, well, we assumed you knew, and kept it from us because you thought that it was her place to say, and she kept it from us because — I don’t know why.”
“Didn’t want to be treated different, I imagine,” said Hannah. “Or doesn’t want to engage with the idea of being chosen by god, which I can’t quite wrap my head around.”
Alfric sighed. “It would have been better if she’d told you herself. I had imagined she would before our trip to Dondrian, but maybe she was hoping to get away with it. So, yes, Verity is Chosen of Xuphin. I knew before I tracked her down to Pucklechurch.”
“And that’s why you wanted her so badly for the party?” asked Mizuki.
“It’s one reason,” said Alfric. “That she’s a bardic prodigy was the other big reason. Things haven’t turned out quite how I’d thought they would, but I have few complaints.”
“Yeah, but what’s she going to do?” asked Mizuki. “If you ask me, she doesn’t really seem like the Xuphin type, you know?”
“And what’s the Xuphin type?” asked Hannah.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “Big? Like, not physically big, though that too, but someone who takes up a lot of, um, emotional space? Or mental space, I guess.”
“Well, I’d agree with you there,” said Hannah. “She’s more of Kesbin, if anything.”
“Really?” asked Mizuki.
“With the focus on austerity and restraint … I can see it,” said Alfric. “But she doesn’t enjoy that, it’s just how she was raised.”
“Ah,” nodded Hannah. “True, true, she behaves in a way that comports with Kesbin, but does not possess Kesbin-nature.”
Mizuki pursed her lips. “Maybe, and this is just a thought, but maybe the gods aren’t human enough that we can slot people into easy categories using their philosophies.”
“Nonsense!” Hannah laughed. “What would Qymmos say, if he heard you talkin’ that way?”
They didn’t spend too much longer at the sculptures, except to go to the end of the wall and confirm that yes, the same sculpture was mirrored along one of the planes of symmetry. According to Hannah, the whole place thrummed with symmetry, much of it not immediately obvious, and there were symmetries within symmetries.
Overall, Alfric somewhat wished that he’d gone with Verity and Isra instead, as the Museum of Qymmos had quite a bit more to see — it was, after all, a museum, built for that purpose. He enjoyed spending time with both Hannah and Mizuki, but the religious significance was of interest to Hannah more than to him, and even then, she was missing a bit of the history, given that she wasn’t a historical scholar. He almost suggested that they try to find or hire a guide, but felt better about wandering on his own, even if he was missing quite a bit of the context and purpose behind the art.
For lunch, they went their separate ways, with Alfric returning home, Mizuki seeking out more street foods, and Hannah going to one of the places near the cathedral that served holy meals, similar to those she’d had at the seminary.
Alfric had thought that he’d be eating alone, but his father was in the dining room, having soup.
“Taking a break from the girls?” his father asked.
“Not really,” said Alfric. “We just all have different priorities for how to spend our time.”
“And you wanted to spend time with your old man,” he father said with a grin.
“Har,” said Alfric. The entad dishes were stacked up in the center, and Alfric picked out a two-tined fork that created raw seafood on its tips. It had been a favorite of his when he was younger. To accompany it, he took a small bowl. The bowl could make very small amounts of food, no more than a single bite, but couldn’t do the same food twice within a month. It was excellent for getting a variety of dipping sauces for the seafood, and the combination was one that he particularly enjoyed.
“So,” his father said, once Alfric had taken the first few bites. “While we have you here, I wanted to talk to you about Lola.”
Alfric set his fork down, the shrimp only half-eaten.
“Go ahead,” said Alfric. He tried to be respectful and avoided rolling his eyes or sighing.
“You’re in a rough patch,” said his father. “You tried to solve it on your own, and I think that’s admirable, but from what we can tell from afar, the rough patch is still ongoing, with no signs of ending.”
“She stole my team,” said Alfric.
“You can’t steal a team,” his father replied. “You don’t own a team. At most, you can have a contractual arrangement with them, but if they broke a contract, then — it can be her fault, but it’s really about the team. And you didn’t have any kind of contract, or any buy-in like partybound entads.”
“We had an implied contract though,” said Alfric. “And there was buy-in, labor done in service of future earnings that they took.”
“I understand why it upset you,” his father said. “And I’m not saying that she didn’t do anything ‘wrong’. But when you say that she stole your team from you, you imply that you owned the team, and it’s important — regardless of what we’re talking about with Lola — that you know that’s not true. Lola gave them a better offer. That’s what happened. She shouldn’t have done it, and it’s obviously upsetting, but you have to look at it in the context of — please don’t roll your eyes at me.”
“Sorry,” said Alfric.
“You’re an adult now, a full adult, and we need to give each other the respect that we’d give other adults,” his father said.
“Sorry,” Alfric said again. He looked down at his fork. “I had a good team that I’d spent time preparing, and she essentially paid them not to go into dungeons with me.” There was some level of emotional and social work that she’d put into it as well, but it was more difficult to quantify. “That alone would have been enough for me to want to break the pact, but it was the reason she did it, which was essentially to blackmail me in order for me to do things that you and mom taught me were bad things to do.”
His father frowned. “And we still believe those things. Disclosure is a fundamental principle, and you can’t properly practice disclosure if you’re doing things that you wouldn’t want to disclose. That Lola apparently hasn’t been practicing disclosure is alarming, and we’ve spoken to her parents about it.”
Alfric sighed. “But you want me to patch things up and have children with her.”
Sometimes, and on this occasion, his father had cold, calculating eyes, as he measured what to say. He was a good father, but he was also a strategist by nature, and Alfric could imagine those same eyes turned on the dungeon monsters.
“Our family has practiced the pact for hundreds of years,” his father said. “It’s less of a matter of survival now, but it’s still important, and anything that erodes the institution is ultimately a threat to our power, which is a power used in service of the entire world.”
“I know that,” said Alfric.
“Your mother and I aren’t perfect,” his father continued. “We were considerably less perfect when we were younger, and together, we grew and overcame many of our deficiencies. I don’t doubt that Lola has her own deficiencies to overcome, and from what I know of her, what I’ve been able to find out, she has quite a bit more to overcome than you do — you know that I think you’ve grown into a fine young man and a credit to both this family and our kind.”
“I — thank you,” said Alfric.
“You’ve been apart for a year now,” his father said. “I think it’s time that you at least sit down and have a conversation with each other.”
“I told her that I would talk to her by letter,” said Alfric. “And then she staged a dungeon escape.”
“Staged?” his father asked. He was momentarily nonplussed. “What do you mean? Who did you hear this from?”
“Firsthand,” said Alfric. “There was a dungeon escape in Pucklechurch, not so bad that the Knives or the Pyros had to be called in, just bad enough that working together, our two parties could take it out. If it wasn’t her, then it was a massive coincidence.”
“She was in the region, with you?” his father asked, seeming more alarmed by that than the dungeon escape.
“Yes,” said Alfric. “She moved her party to be stationed out of Liberfell for the time being, two hexes away, and she did this not long after I arrived there.” There were plenty of options for how she’d found out, but the most likely one was that his parents had let it slip to Lola.
His father swore. “We told her to give you your space, that you might come around once you were through your rough patch and established as a dungeoneer.”
“Not listening to people is kind of her thing,” said Alfric.
“But a dungeon escape, you think that it was her?” his father asked. “I don’t think that one made it into my daily briefing.” He frowned. “I’ll need to read up on it.”
“If you read a report, you’d be reading my report,” said Alfric. “It was released in the early morning, dungeon mad as confirmed by a druid, meaning that it definitely did come directly from a dungeon, rather than being a secondary escape. If it hadn’t been contained, it would have been a nightmare scenario, a single large mother that laid hundreds of eggs, fast metabolism of readily available material — there are questions I have about how she would have found something like that, how she’d have captured it and saved it for later — but there’s very little doubt in my mind that it was her.”
“I see,” said his father. He steepled his fingers and was no longer focused on Alfric, lost in thought.
“It was in the Pucklechurch hex, single digit miles from the house we’re using,” said Alfric. “In the woods, away from where anyone lives.”
“It’s a very serious accusation,” his father eventually replied, returning his attention to Alfric. “This came after you had tried to have her do contact through asynchronous channels?”
“When was this?” his father asked.
“Two days ago,” said Alfric.
“I don’t think we have anything that can look backward in time that far, not that we haven’t farmed out,” his father said.
“I checked the vault yesterday,” said Alfric. “I didn’t think we had anything, but I wanted to double check.”
“I’ll confer with your mother,” said his father.
“You’d run into a problem, which is that the exact time and location isn’t known,” said Alfric. “Trying to find out if she actually did it would amount to a major magical investigation.”
“Yes,” his father nodded. “Not outside of the family’s power to do, but it would cause problems.”
“You believe me?” asked Alfric.
“You don’t lie,” said his father. “So if you’re wrong, it’s because you’re mistaken, and I haven’t known you to make many mistakes either, with only a few exceptions we don’t need to delve into.” He cleared his throat. “There are … differences of opinion on undone days, and especially when we’re young, there’s some leniency to what happens there. Disclosure is a fundamental rule, a rule that has to apply to all chrononauts, but it not being followed perfectly is … expected. However, if Lola is letting her bad behavior bleed out into the real world, that’s cause for real concern.”
“All I want is for her to leave me alone,” said Alfric. “All I want — what I’ve wanted since she bribed my party away from me is for the pact to be dead and gone.”
His father leaned forward and rubbed his forehead. “Yes, alright.”
“Alright?” asked Alfric.
“Not ‘alright, that’s fine’,” said his father. “But alright, I’ll start looking into it. It would be better to have something watertight and unambiguous, rather than supposition and rumor.”
“I do think something needs to be done about her,” said Alfric. “We depend on our reputation. We depend on the goodwill of others.”
“I am well aware,” his father replied.
“You can understand how I find it frustrating to be told that disclosure is a fundamental principle, then see nothing happen to others when they violate it?” asked Alfric.
“I can,” his father nodded. “I’ve spoken with her parents, I can do it again.”
“Seems like it didn’t help the first time,” said Alfric.
“No, it didn’t,” sighed his father. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had to take any disciplinary action against one of our own, and even if she was responsible for a dungeon escape, that wouldn’t rise to the level of needing familial intervention, only governmental intervention. But I’ll look into it, and I’ll look into you getting a formal release from your pact.”
“You could have done that the first time I asked,” said Alfric. “Back when she dashed my dreams into the ground.”
His father was tight-lipped. “We try to do right by you. The problem is that it’s not always clear what doing right by you entails. And we do have the family to consider.”
“If the pact was lifted, would I have another one?” asked Alfric.
“I don’t know,” his father replied. “Ideally we’d find someone else for you, but most of your cohort are already married. I’ll speak with your mother about it, and with some of the other families. It has the potential to cause a rift, which is something that we desperately want to avoid. Our power and security as chrononauts comes in large part from the fact that we don’t undercut each other, that we work in concert rather than at odds.”
Alfric had the feeling that they were both telling each other things that they already knew as a way of making their points, and he didn’t particularly like it. All he needed was his father’s support, really. It would have been so nice to hear ‘I’ll take care of it, Alfric’.
<I’m done with lunch,> said Mizuki. <Anyone up for the zoo? Cathedral had less to see than I’d thought it would.>
<I’m going back to the cathedral, actually,> said Hannah.
<We’ll still be at the museum,> said Verity. <I think we’ll be here all day, unless Isra gets bored. So far I’m having a wonderful time.>
<I’ll join you at the zoo,> said Alfric. <I think I’m ready to leave Dondrian, incidentally, but I can go back a day early if the rest of you want to stay.>
<Things not going well?> asked Mizuki.
<Just some old frustrations,> said Alfric. <Don’t worry about it, I don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s mood.>
“I take it you’re off?” asked Alfric’s father. Alfric had held up a hand, giving the signal for party chatter, when Mizuki had cut in. His father had waited patiently. “You’ve hardly eaten anything.”
“I’ve lost my appetite,” said Alfric.
“It will be easier to get a separation if you get her dead to rights,” said Alfric’s father. “If she’s harassing you, build up evidence, get something incontrovertible.”
“Because we can only act after the fact?” asked Alfric. “Seems counterintuitive, for chrononauts.”
His father gave him a thin smile. “I want to help you. I just need something more than things that might be a bit too coincidental.”
Alfric nodded. He’d known that was true, but it was still a bit of a disappointment.