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Verity had been to the museum a number of times, but the time with Isra was by far her favorite.

It was a combination of a few things. The biggest was that they were together, just the two of them. Isra was wild and untamed, which naturally held a strong appeal for Verity, but she’d found that when Isra was part of a group, their druid often faded into the background, waiting and watching, contributing only when it was important to do so. One on one, she spoke much more, especially when given some silence to work with, and some time to develop her thoughts into something she thought was worth sharing.

Still, the addition of Hannah, later in the day, was welcome, in part so that the dynamic had a chance to change. Isra seemed to enjoy having Hannah there, if only because that meant there was someone who shared her befuddlement with Qymmos.

“I’m surprised that they’d include dungeon animals at all,” said Hannah.

They were sitting in a single hallway devoted to dungeon creatures, all taxidermied, like most of the other animals. A slimy creature, rendered permanently wet-looking with polished lacquer, was posed with one tentacle lifted high into the air. It sat there next to its brethren, other similarly slimy creatures with tentacles, and though Verity had read more than enough exhibits for this current trip, she could see from a glance that the exhibit was drawing connections between features of quite different creatures. One of them, it was claimed, had no skeleton at all, only a skull, while a different one was a terrestrial creature with an awkward number of legs and patches of fur. The point was the tentacles, naturally, and the way they were a single coherent idea that would show up many different times in different situations.

“I think the museum has helped me understand Qymmos better,” said Isra. “Or … his clergy. But I do not know where the ideas of the clergy come from, if not their god.”

“There is, in fact, a term for it,” said Hannah. “Theological drift.” There was, Verity had noticed, a slight change in Hannah’s speech whenever she used such terms, or quoted scripture, which she had been doing less these days. She lost a bit of her accent and became more poised. “But it’s not confined to just the churches. There’s an old story, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all,” replied Isra.

“There’s a man who owns a peach orchard,” said Hannah. “He sells these peaches, but to do it, he needs somethin’ to put them in, and decides one day to make his own crates. A few years of doin’ this, and he realizes that the crates he makes are much beloved, and he’s got some problems with gettin’ them back from people. Eventually a lady asks if she can pay him extra to keep the crate, and he says yes, and two years down the line, he realizes that he’s been makin’ and sellin’ so many of these things that what he runs is, in fact, a crate company.”

“Mmm,” said Isra.

“Of course, it’s not usually so apparent, this ‘drift’. The Adventurers’ League is usually given as a prime example, having slid sideways into a quasi-governmental role, but it was a process that took ages, and Alfric would probably know the history better than I do.” Hannah frowned. For a moment it seemed like she might use the party channel. “What it’s really about is institutions steppin’ up to do what needs to be done, hammers being wielded for things that aren’t nails because the other tools are missin’, and the way that these institutions can continue on forever, if you let ‘em.”

Isra nodded. “You think this is how the … disconnect between a god and their clergy happens.”

“Oh, I think it’s part of it,” said Hannah. “There are other pieces, surely. One highly placed cleric with a pet interest can shift the church’s focus, and then the next one can do the same, until the church ends up doin’ somethin’ entirely different. Any institution is made up of people, and they have their own ways of thinkin’ about things.”

“Including the Church of Garos,” said Isra.

“Ay,” said Hannah. “But I’d prefer not to speak of that, today.”

“Oh?” asked Verity. “Usually it’s something you’re keen to talk about.”

Hannah waved a hand. “Not today. I ran into an old friend from seminary, and had my fill of religious talk. Church talk, rather. I’m more interested in seein’ this museum.”

With Hannah along, they went considerably faster, though that wasn’t saying much. Verity did like the sedate pace though, and composed little songs in her head, making it a challenge to get at least a few couplets about every exhibit they stopped at. She didn’t share these bits and pieces out loud, they were too poorly formed for that, but she did think about what Clemency had said about writing some of her work down rather than simply allowing it to be transient, and she considered Hannah’s nascent book on the symmetry of dungeons. It would be nice, once this period of her life was over, if she had something to show for it — something other than a flute that gave her too many fingers and a few other entads, something more than just friendships which couldn’t yet be counted upon to hold steadfast.

A part of her was unspeakably sad at the prospect that some day their party would break up and they would all go their separate ways. That was what happened to dungeoneering parties you made in your youth, unless you all stuck together for a longer duration, or you found something that you could build up a business around. A nice, useful partybound entad wasn’t something to pin her hopes on, and she was well aware that even if they got one, it might amount to no more than a bit of money sent her way every two months. They’d have the party channel, but it might sit dormant most of the time.

And with that, Verity realized that she had made herself sad just by thinking of some far-off possibility. She resolved to turn her thoughts in other directions, and when they’d gone another two halls and that hadn’t particularly helped, she resolved to instead do something about these thoughts.

“I think we should do more dungeons,” said Verity.

“Oh?” asked Hannah. “And what in this hall of birds inspired that idea?”

“Unrelated thoughts,” said Verity. “I think that I’m going a bit cross-eyed from all these exhibits. I might go back to the house, I don’t want to ruin a good time for the two of you. I do still need to practice today.”

“Why more dungeons?” asked Isra.

“Oh, I was just … if we’re going to do it, we might as well do it properly, and if I’m the one that’s asking for rest, then I don’t think I should be. I’ve never needed so much as a day of rest after a performance.” She left many of her other thoughts unsaid.

“Alfric will be absolutely ecstatic to hear that,” said Hannah. “Positively chuffed to bits.”

“Well, I don’t think it’s just me alone,” said Verity. “And I will still need to take into consideration whether or not I’m pushing myself too hard.”

“Yes, maybe tone it down when you tell him,” said Hannah. “Express it in softer terms that will make him less hopeful.” She grinned.

“Will do,” smiled Verity.

“If you’re going back, I think I will come with you,” said Isra. “We’ve been here for a long time already.”

Verity nodded. She was grateful that she wouldn’t be leaving Isra behind.

“Well I won’t be here on my own, that’s for certain,” said Hannah. “Though would you mind if I got a look at the dragon on our way out? I think it’s in the right direction from where we are.”

“It’s majestic,” said Isra. “I hope to see a live one someday.”

“Ay,” said Hannah. “But not too up close, if you hear what I’m sayin’.”

“Either way,” said Isra with a shrug.

“You did read about how much destruction dragons have historically caused, right?” asked Verity.

“I did,” said Isra. “I can’t explain how I feel about it.”

Verity passed by an exhibit that was behind glass and saw her reflection. She was momentarily startled by the disguise, the blonde hair especially. It was an unpleasant reminder of the close call she’d had the night before, and the way her parents were still in the city, still looking for her and trying to dig their fingers into her life. It was, after all, why they’d sent Alfric, and she had no illusions that his reports back to them would stave them off for long.

There was some sense in going to them and having it out, once and for all, but from experience, it wouldn’t be once and for all. Verity would attempt to get the last word, and the result would be that her mother would get the last word, because there was no way to simply end a conversation with someone on whichever note you chose, except perhaps using the warp and leaving.

“Is it alright with the two of you if we take a detour?” asked Verity.

“Of course,” said Hannah. “Though is there a reason we’d be taking a detour?”

“I’d like to go by my house, just to point it out,” said Verity.

“I think I would like to see it,” said Isra.

“Just from the outside,” said Verity. “It’s going to be quite the long detour, unfortunately.” She came to a stop. “We’ll be taking the warp.”

“You said that was somethin’ of a big deal in the city,” said Hannah. “And that we shouldn’t unless we really needed to.”

“It’s not that it’s a big deal,” said Verity. “There are rules and norms, and I can hopefully go over them quickly. Outsiders describe it as a harrowing experience, but — it’s really not that bad, and if you like new experiences, it’s certainly something.”

“Alfric advised against it,” said Hannah. “He said it was better to just walk, unless you were right at the edge, which we weren’t goin’ to be.”

“All you need to do is to keep moving,” said Verity. “Keep away from others as much as you can, make sure that everything is strapped down, um … probably some others. I can just go by myself, but I’d appreciate the back up.”

“We’re not just goin’ there to look?” asked Hannah, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” said Verity. “It’s been a long time. Maybe I just want to see the house.”

Hannah nodded. “Well, if you need support, then no public transit solution is goin’ to scare me off.”

“Me either,” said Isra.

Verity nodded, feeling warmed by that. She didn’t want to go confront her mother or say anything about having been away, but it was something that would need to be done eventually, if only to stave off further interference in her life in Pucklechurch. They wouldn’t be in Dondrian too much longer.

She gave a brief explanation of protocol, which turned into a more lengthy explanation of what the warp station was like. She decided that she would be the first to go, just so she could demonstrate better. She faced west, got into the proper stance, then cast the warp.

She found herself on the Great Slide at the Central Station, her stance allowing her to fall gracefully so that she was sliding down on her butt. It wasn’t a terribly busy time of day, but there were people ahead of her, and as soon as she had gone some distance, behind her as well. The Great Slide widened as it went, and people naturally drifted off to other parts of it, sometimes by chance and other times by steering themselves. The slope grew more gentle lower down, which helped to slow Verity before the end, and once she was able to, she took a glance behind her and then quickly stood up, moving out of the way so that there was no risk she’d get bowled over. There were clerics on hand along with healing entads, just in case there were injuries, and though Verity had never seen a pile-up, she knew that attendants had been entrusted with a variety of magics to stop the worst and clear the space, largely through short-distance teleportation to a padded area or telekinesis to literally pick someone up and get them out of the way.

The warp point at Central Station was still a madhouse, one which only worked, to the extent it did, because everyone knew the rules and followed them as best they were able. Dondrian was, by most measures, the largest city in the world, and the traffic through the warp point of its most prominent hex was immense. The Great Slide got people out of the way in a hurry, but during rush hour even that wasn’t enough, and you’d sometimes have to try the warp three or four times before it would go through, only to find yourself in a throng of people, trying your best to avoid bumping too much as you slid down.

There had been some proposals to replace the Slide with a sheer vertical drop, though apparently there were some considerations with the warp that would have made it difficult, given that the warp attempted to place people somewhere relatively safe. It sounded terrifying to Verity, and even more prone to injury than the Slide was, but Dondrian continued to grow with every passing year, and the Slide had limits on how many people could use it at once, limits which the city butted up against more and more as time went on.

She waited off to the side of the Great Slide, feeling a bit anxious. Isra appeared and came down easily, as naturally as if she’d been doing it her entire life, though she had an open-mouthed smile and a face lit up with glee, which wasn’t the usual commuter expression. Hannah didn’t get the stance quite right though, and ended up slipping around, going backward down the Slide, which was embarrassing but not cause for that much alarm. When she got off, she was blushing furiously.

“Bit of a ride, that,” said Hannah once she’d gathered herself. “Not what I was expectin’ at all.”

“I enjoyed it,” said Isra. She was still smiling. “Are there rules against doing it again?”

“It’s frowned upon,” said Verity. “But no, no rules.”

“Just one more time,” said Isra. She assumed the stance and cast the warp again, and Verity watched as Isra happily slid down again.

“She’s somethin’,” said Hannah. She clucked her tongue at the slide. “I think I might call for a pick up, rather than doin’ that again.”

“Understandable,” nodded Verity. “We’re here in order to access a door that will get us to Lakeside, where my parents live.” She was able to stop herself from saying ‘my home’ in time.

“Too much magic in the city,” Hannah grumped. “And I like magic, but it’s thick here, as Mizuki says, so much it almost feels like it might be choking us. To live here it feels like you’ve got to memorize a hundred custom solutions and rituals just to get through the day.”

“I like it,” said Isra once she’d rejoined them. “Though I wouldn’t want to live here.”

“This way,” said Verity.

Central Station was relatively empty, which allowed a better view of it than was normally possible. The Great Slide was obviously the primary feature of the place, but around it was a large hall, one with plentiful windows toward the top of it, letting in light. Arranged around the Slide were doors leading out to the city, but set between them were other doors and stations, these ones magical in nature. As Alfric’s mother had said, magical doors that led elsewhere were relatively common, but often quite limited in nature, either requiring something onerous, working only a certain number of times per day, or in certain conditions, or all of the above.

Central Station integrated everything that was deemed good enough, those things that could be used without anyone interacting with the entads too much, without high costs, and without suddenly running out. They had attempted to make everything look unified, but there was really no possible way, even with entad alteration and masking. One of the passageways was, clearly, an oversized cauldron tipped on its side, and that was the one that Verity was headed for. It was a short queue, and she was thankful that the connection was one-way, since waiting for a two-way connection often felt like it took more than twice as long. The neighborhood of Lakeside was at the edge of the main hex of Dondrian, which meant that most people would warp to Central Station rather than trying to go through the cauldron.

After a short while, they were through, into the area of the city known as Lakeside, called that because it was built around a lake along the southeastern border of the hex. It had once been a worse part of the city, but with conservation efforts, the lake had been transformed into a place of greenery, with a park district along one part of it, and houses along the northern shore. Verity’s family didn’t have actual lakeside property, much to her mother’s chagrin, but the family house, passed down through her side of the family, was across the way from those that did.

“No streets?” Hannah asked as they walked. “Seems odd.”

They were talking as they walked in the neighborhood, still another two blocks from Verity’s home, and Hannah was right, there were no proper streets, just greenery and walking paths. Many of the houses were walled off, either with hedges or proper walls, but there were a few that boldly showed their walls to their surroundings. It seemed too lacking in privacy to Verity.

“It’s a residential area,” said Verity. “There’s no need to have proper roads. No carts go down this path, no lizzos, and the rare bird doesn’t need a proper street. Anything big and heavy would get moved in via entad services.”

“Such large houses,” said Isra, who was looking at nearly everything that passed.

“Yes,” nodded Verity. “Usually enough for the family, some extended family, and live-in help. But it’s not like anyone here is as rich as the Overguards are. Before going to their house, I hadn’t really had any context. My father runs a large business, but he still has to think about money, at least for the larger things. The Overguards don’t, and why should they, when they can go into a dungeon and pull out things that sell for millions of rings?”

“Do I detect jealousy?” asked Hannah.

“Aren’t you a bit jealous?” asked Verity.

“I’m not sure,” said Hannah. “I s’pose the idea of bein’ so rich that everythin’ is always exactly how you want it must be nice. Bein’ able to help people too. But money hasn’t really been that much of a limit in my life, and I’m with Kesbin on the idea of not havin’ everythin’ hinge on what you do or don’t have.”

“Is that what the clerics of Kesbin say?” asked Isra.

“We’re goin’ to have to have you sit through a few sermons to separate the practice from what’s in the holy books,” said Hannah with a laugh. “Otherwise I think we’ll have to go through them all, and aside from Garos, I don’t know that I can properly untangle the gaps between what’s written and what we take for granted in the culture. I never paid much attention to Kesbin.”

“Which is just as he’d like it,” said Verity. It was an old, well-worn joke, the kind that people always chuckled at. “This is it.”

It was five stories in all, built in the same style as the other houses beside it, with not terribly much room to spare. The place was practically covered in windows, many of them protruding, as the style preferred quite a few angles, with bay windows sticking out, dormers on the roofs, and a few areas were rooms jutted out above the floor below. Where there weren’t windows, it was dark blue slats with dark grey trim, imposing in its own way. There were two turrets, tall and round, which technically made up the sixth floor, and there were three balconies, though only the middle one got much use. They were just far enough away that their house only fell in the shadow of another house at sunup or sundown, but the yard was small. It was covered in ‘natural’ flowers, which was the style that most of the houses in the neighborhood went with.

“Smaller than I’d thought,” said Hannah, looking at the building.

“Is it?” asked Verity.

“Well, you’re rich, aren’t you?” asked Hannah. “And it’s a big house, don’t get me wrong, but I thought it would be, er,” she held out her hands, “wider.”

“It’s on three city lots,” said Verity. “Is it the fact that the house is next to so many others?”

“It does make it seem a bit less rich, I s’pose,” said Hannah.

“Well I’ve always said that we weren’t that rich,” said Verity. “We’re Society, but we’re not the cream of the crop. You can imagine us as being at a middle level where we still need to keep up appearances and jockey for position. My father does work, because if he didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to afford this house.”

They stood awkwardly outside the house, with Verity looking up at it.

“Well, we’ll give you all the time you need,” said Hannah. “But if you wanted to see your parents, it might be best to check whether they’re home.”

“I don’t want to see them,” said Verity. “But I don’t know how long they’re going to put up with Alfric sending word back to them, and I know the next step is probably sending someone else, or coming to Pucklechurch on their own. If we didn’t have the party, I might think about picking up and moving somewhere else, but if they found me once, they can find me again.”

“Might be good to clear the air,” said Hannah. “It’s been nine months or so since you left, right?”

“A bit longer,” said Verity. “But yes. I don’t feel that I owe them anything, not when they were so insistent on not listening to me.” She stared at the house. “I think I’m starting to work myself around to the idea that I could talk them into — letters, maybe? Some unobtrusive way of communicating. But then if they learned that I was a dungeoneer, I’m sure they’d go into shock.”

“Dungeoneering is respectable work,” said Isra.

“Yes,” said Verity. “But it’s not Society. Too high a risk of serious injury or death, I think, though I don’t know that I’ve ever spoken with someone about why it’s not done. Going into the dungeons is just something for poor people, I guess.”

“Ouch,” said Hannah.

“I meant that in a self-deprecating way,” said Verity. “It’s the idiocy of Society, rather than some actual judgement of people who can’t get their income any other way.”

“Well, it doesn’t apply to me,” said Hannah. “Since I could live my life just fine without the dungeons. But there are people who feel like the dungeons are their only shot for the finer things, and they’re often the ones that suffer the worst from the dungeons, since they’ve got no money to pay for good equipment, good trainin’, things of that sort. It’s reality for quite a few people. You remember those people we briefly met before we did Hie Point? That’s what it’s like for a lot of them, a decent enough reward for a day’s work, but you get banged up and leave grumpy. They do that because if they don’t, they’ll never have,” she gestured to the house. “All this. Most likely, they never get that anyway.”

“True, I suppose,” said Verity. She frowned. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Well, of course you didn’t,” said Hannah. “And I take no offense, except in the general sense, the sort of offense you take on another person’s behalf, which I think you’ll agree is a lesser sort of offense.”

“How long are we going to stand out here?” asked Isra.

“I do agree we’ve been awkwardly standin’ outside this gate for quite a bit,” said Hannah.

“I’m thinking,” said Verity.

“Think away,” nodded Hannah.

Given nine months away from home, Verity should have had a monologue prepared. She should have been practicing the speech to her parents and running through their expected objections. It was something she’d done with her mother a few times, usually for important occasions. For Verity’s admittance into the conservatory, they had spent what felt like two weeks going through everything that the board there might say, and what Verity’s responses should be. It had been exhausting. When the time came, the practice paid off, and Verity had ready answers to all of their questions. Practice worked, and practicing what you were going to say, and what others were going to say, and the flow of the conversation, was typically worth the effort, at least for the important things.

Verity had not put in the practice for talking with her mother and father. She had done her best to forget them, because that was easier than thinking about them. Even when she’d known that she was going to Dondrian, she hadn’t seriously put in the work of preparing. She’d been ignoring the idea of her parents.

<There, at the window,> said Isra.

<This isn’t related to us, right?> asked Mizuki.

<We’re at Verity’s place,> said Hannah. <There’s a woman at the window lookin’ at us.>

It was Verity’s mother. She was staring down at the three of them, but Verity in particular.

<What do we do?> asked Isra.

<Good luck!> said Mizuki.

Verity’s mother disappeared from view.

“She’s going to come down,” said Verity. “And ask us to leave. It’s what she would do if three strangers were standing outside looking at the house.”

“Well, do you want us to scram?” asked Hannah. “You’re still in your disguise, we could leave without much fuss, I’d think.”

“No, it’s fine,” said Verity. “We can stay. I’ll … talk to her.”

Verity’s mother came out the front door. She was in a maroon dress, one of her favorites, and holding her face high. She walked with perfect posture, her steps even and measured. The family resemblance was undeniable, not that Verity had even thought to deny it, and her mother had the same slender tallness as Verity, with the same delicate features. Her hair was pulled back and had been done up in thick braids by one of the maids, as usual.

She stood on the opposite side of the gate for a moment, and they looked at each other. It was the moment for Verity to leave, to say that they were just looking, but she was frozen there by her mother’s gaze.

“I suppose you shouldn’t just stand out there,” Verity’s mother said, ending the breathless moment. “Come on in, and bring your friends.”

“It’s — it’s me,” said Verity.

“I know that dear,” said Verity’s mother. “If you’re going to go through all the trouble of looking different, I don’t know why you’d wear a dress that I bought for you.”

Verity looked down at what she’d been wearing and saw that it was true. She was wearing a blue dress with small white flowers on it. Her mother had always said that blue was a good color, and it was what Verity wore most often. She hadn’t even considered it when she’d dressed that morning. She’d taken only some of her clothes with her when she’d left Dondrian, paring her wardrobe down to what would fit in a trunk, and hadn’t bought anything new to wear in Pucklechurch. It was a small feeling, to be wearing clothes that her mother had bought for her, made worse by the fact that Verity hadn’t given it all that much consideration beforehand.

Verity followed her mother after a moment of hesitation. Running away now, after she’d been found out, would be humiliating and solve nothing, not unless she was willing to abandon the party and form a new life somewhere else. The possibility of that went through her head for a moment, but was dismissed as a flight of fancy brought on by nerves.

The house was exactly as Verity had remembered it, all polished dark oak and serious paintings of romantic scenes and long-past ancestors. Everything in the house reeked of age, from the carpets that had been woven a hundred years ago to the vases that the flowers and plants sat within. Even the plants themselves had the weight of tradition to them, each of them being a specific breed of some importance, cycled in and out of the green room of the house as the seasons and health of the plants demanded. The contrast to Alfric’s house was stark, and even Mizuki’s home had a lived-in feeling to it. Verity, in her family home, felt more like a visitor, or perhaps a steward whose role was to take care of all these things that had been handed down, and to hand them down in turn.

“Your friends can sit in the Henling Room,” said Verity’s mother once they were in the foyer. “We’ll take the Blue Room.”

Verity felt a twisting in her guts. She wanted Hannah and Isra to be with her, to help her through this, but it was a private affair, something that would be uncouth for her to have friends sitting there for.

“We’ll be with her, if that’s all the same to you,” said Hannah.

“It’s not,” said Verity’s mother. “This is a private family affair. As I’m sure you know, if you’ve accompanied her here, Verity has been gone for quite some time, and there are matters that need to be discussed now that she’s returned to Dondrian.”

“I haven’t,” said Verity. “I’m just … visiting.”

“Private affairs should not be attended to with onlookers,” said Verity’s mother.

“They’re members of my party,” said Verity. “Mother, this is Hannah Carthaigh, cleric of Garos, and Isra Jamin.” It was proper to introduce clerics as such, if their god was known. “This is my mother, Edil Parson.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure,” said Verity’s mother with a perfunctory curtsey.

“Members of a party shouldn’t be excluded, so long as it’s not a recent party,” said Verity. This was basic etiquette, though a bit outdated. The party bond was historically stronger than it tended to be in modern times, but etiquette was slow to change. “They’ve been my party members for the last month.” This was stretching the truth somewhat by rounding up.

“It is an expectation that even long-standing party members will remove themselves,” said Verity’s mother. Her eyes were cold.

“Verity?” asked Hannah. “It’s your call, but I would rather be here for the conversation, if you’ve no problem with it.”

Verity paused. “I think if I’m going to handle this, I’ll handle it on my own. But thank you for looking out for me.”

“I don’t know what you expect from me,” said Verity’s mother. “But I only have Verity’s best interests at heart.”

“Ay,” nodded Hannah. “But speakin’ as a cleric, I know that it can be difficult when there are disagreements on what those interests are.” She looked to where Verity’s mother had gestured. “We’ll wait there. You two take your time.”

Isra seemed more hesitant to go, and before she left, squeezed Verity’s hand. “You’ll do well.”

“Thank you,” said Verity. “I’ll … try not to be too long.”

The Blue Room was exactly the same as it had been when Verity had left, with the exception of the plants, which had been changed out. A blue lily sat in a large pot where there had once been a blueberry bush, and the zinnias that had been hanging by the south window were gone, replaced with a spider plant of some kind, unfamiliar to Verity. The rest of the room was the same though, a relatively small sitting area with two couches and a low table between them, along with a fireplace which was almost never lit. Many of the decorations on the walls had a nautical theme, with pictures of sailing ships and the odd bit of ephemera from boats like a coil of rope and a weathered masthead from a ship that had once been in the family.

Verity couldn’t help but be nervous. It would have been better for them to meet at a restaurant, or somewhere public, a place that her mother didn’t control. The Blue Room in particular was the one that her mother liked to use for intimate conversation. They sat on opposite sides of the room, and for a moment, neither said anything.

“I can have Hazel get you some tea,” said Verity’s mother. “I take it from your lack of luggage that you don’t intend to stay, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer some hospitality while you’re here.”

“Nothing for me, thank you,” said Verity.

“You didn’t plan this reunion,” said Verity’s mother. She had her legs crossed and her hands folded on top of her knee. “How long will you be in Dondrian?”

“Another day, at the most,” replied Verity. “We might leave tonight.”

“And then you’re back to Pucklechurch, I suppose?” her mother asked.

“Yes,” nodded Verity. It was a bit of a power play on her mother’s part, mentioning the town that Verity was staying in. “I’ve been doing well there.”

“Your place is here, in this house,” said her mother. “If you truly don’t think that suits you, we could find an apartment for you, something not too far from the conservatory, if you’d like to extend your studies there, or near Publican Row. You’ve been gone for a good long while now, and that’s only increased the demand for your music. There’s nothing that people love more than a minor scandal.”

“I’m not coming back,” said Verity.

“Since you’ve left, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to what happened,” her mother said. “I was torn on whether we should have given you a longer leash or a shorter one, indulged you more or less. In the end, I suppose I don’t know, but if we raised you right, then you should understand your obligation. Do you?”

“I want to live my life on my own terms,” said Verity.

“Then you don’t understand,” her mother replied with a grim sigh. “You have an obligation to this family, to this house, to your father’s name. A sabbatical can be explained away easily enough, and your return to society will be welcomed, I feel. But if you are intent on living a low life in the middle of nowhere, then you should know that it comes at great cost to your father and me.”

“I know,” Verity nodded. “The scandal of having someone who doesn’t want to use their talent must be unbearable.”

Her mother pursed her lips. “Unfortunate as it is, and as gauche as we both might find it, I’m speaking in monetary terms. We paid for your education at the conservatory —”

“An investment that’s made you your money back a few times over,” said Verity. She flushed. “I did pay attention to the accounting.”

Her mother pursed her lips. She folded her hands in her lap and looked at them for a moment before returning her gaze to Verity. “Your father’s company is facing seizure.”

Verity froze as she turned over the words. “Is it certain?”

“Only the outcome is in doubt,” said Verity’s mother. “A hold has been placed on the company, and while work is continuing, an assessment is incoming. It’s possible that we’ll dodge a full seizure, but your father hasn’t been putting in the floor time that his father did, and his contributions to the company seem unlikely to be recognized. The best we can hope for, at this juncture, is a partial seizure, where your father would be kept on as an employee.”

“How did he let that happen?” asked Verity. She was aghast. It was going to be the talk of the town, if it wasn’t already.

“He focused his efforts elsewhere,” replied Verity’s mother. “He was attempting to create a new company, one focused on an ectad design for which he had secured a national patent. In the process of gathering funds for this new venture, he drew a larger salary for himself than was perhaps wise. I’m telling you this now, in confidence, because you’re sure to hear it elsewhere if you care to.”

“You need money,” said Verity, eyes widening.

Her mother nodded. “For the time being, money can’t be drawn from the company, not that we would, but barristers need to be paid for the seizure defense, and we need to be in a position to deal with the inevitability of a full seizure. There will be an influx of money no matter the outcome, but we’ll no longer be able to cover our expenses.”

“So you need me,” said Verity. “It’s not about saving face, it’s about being able to keep yourself in comfort.”

“It’s about the legacy of this family,” said Verity’s mother. Her lips were thin. “Your place is here, in Dondrian. Your career, which you were trained for from a very young age, is to perform music on the stage for an audience. Your father and I need you to do this for us, lest we be relegated to an apartment somewhere in the city while he works on his ectad business.”

Verity felt sick to her stomach. “I can’t,” she said. “I reached my limit here in Dondrian, and if I came back, it would only be a matter of time before I reached my limit again. Some people can handle the stress and the pressure, and — I’m not one of them.” She was avoiding her mother’s eyes. “I’m in a good place now. I feel happy about where my life has gone. I’m living a comfortable life. I can’t just throw it away to — to rescue you.”

“Why?” her mother asked. “Do you believe we didn’t sacrifice for you? That we didn’t spend time and effort on your upbringing? Why does the very concept of family not inspire something in you? Where is your loyalty?”

“Where was your loyalty to me?” asked Verity. “When I said to you that I couldn’t handle the demands that were being placed on me, when I said I would break if I had to do another year —”

“Don’t act like I never attended to your demands,” said Verity’s mother. “I canceled performances, I changed out tutors, I did my best to keep you in comfort while making sure that you were actually doing what you were meant to do.” She threw up her hands. “And now we’ve come to this, you saying that you have no intention of doing professional performance ever again, that you’d rather be a half-ring tavern bard.”

“I want my own life!” shouted Verity. “I want to not be constantly performing for someone, whether that’s with my lute or with endless parades of people I don’t care about who have to be thanked and told how much I appreciate them listening. I don’t want that kind of thing. Do you know, I’m actually pretty good with stressful situations? But if it’s going to be every single day, with a new gig hanging over my head, or some grand performance that will determine the course of my career … I can’t!”

“Lower your voice when there are guests in the house,” said her mother after a moment. “And your new life, working at a tavern, you like it because no one cares too much? They expect less than you can offer? You want to keep doing it because it’s easy?”

“If I thought you were asking that question seriously, I would answer it,” said Verity.

“I am asking,” her mother replied. “This isn’t a rhetorical trick.”

“To tell you the truth … I’m not working at a tavern anymore.” Verity tried to control her breathing, because if she didn’t, she was sure she would unintentionally start holding her breath. “I’ve been doing dungeons.”

Her mother had a pronounced frown. “That’s what you’ve been doing with a conservatory education? Verity, I understand the rebelliousness of youth, but there ought to be limits. You don’t need to do dungeons. Even if you came to Dondrian for private engagements once a month, you’d be making more than you could ever make running dungeons.”

“That’s not true,” said Verity. “If I did many dungeons, and at a high level, my wealth could easily eclipse the family fortune.”

“It wouldn’t be a hard thing to do, in the state we’re in,” her mother replied. “How much have you made to date?”

“It’s a rude thing to ask,” said Verity.

“It’s a necessary piece of information when speaking of your future,” said her mother.

Verity didn’t want to answer. Even including all of the future money they were expecting from the ectad materials and a few unsold entads, it was unlikely to be more than ten thousand rings, and she suspected that was being generous. Her mother would rightly point out that ten thousand rings was what Verity had been paid for a day-long performance at a wedding the summer before. Unlike the money coming to the party, performance money didn’t need to be split five ways.

“I am hoping that I raised you well enough that you can understand my exasperation with you,” said Verity’s mother. “Even if you seem intent on abandoning this family.”

“I never wanted to abandon you,” said Verity. “I didn’t even really want to leave. I only wanted to have some room to breathe.”

“But you don’t intend to come back,” said Verity’s mother. “You intend to leave this family to ruin.”

Verity kept her mouth shut. She wanted to say that she would figure something out. She did, in fact, want to be a good daughter and take care of her parents. But the things her mother cared about weren’t the things that Verity cared about, and ‘ruin’ was relative. The second home would be sold, and this house, too, could be sold, the vast closets of her mother’s auctioned off, the pieces of ‘priceless’ family furniture sold. It would be a humiliation, the talk of Society for months, one of their own brought low. Her family would be a cautionary tale.

“I’m sorry,” said Verity. “Maybe I can … I don’t know. Make a commute. Play a performance … once a week,” she should have said once a month, “if I don’t have to pretend to be nice to people who are only interested in rubbing shoulders.” It felt like an enormous concession, and of course there was the problem that commuting to Dondrian would be its own problem that couldn’t be solved without quite a bit of travel time or enormous expense. She hadn’t been able to help herself though, not in the moment. She had to say something.

“You’re saying that if I arranged something for you, you would do it?” her mother asked. “That I should begin speaking with concert managers and arranging for performances?”

Verity nodded, but she felt slightly sick. “I am going back to Pucklechurch though.” She stood up suddenly, though her legs felt weak. “You can mail me there, and … there’s no need for us to be estranged, so long as you accept that I’m living my life as I wish to live it.”

“If you’re intent on going, then I won’t stop you,” her mother replied. She stood as well. Maybe she was content with this small victory. “It was good to see you. I’m sorry that it couldn’t be a warmer reception, but I had no idea you were coming. I’ll have a letter in the mail soon, priority.”

Verity felt relief that it was over, and anxiety that she’d agreed to something she didn’t particularly feel like doing. The dungeons were a different kind of stress from the performances, and one she was much more keen on, perhaps because of the company. Coming back to Dondrian once a week, if that was even possible, meant being slowly and surely smothered by her mother again and pressured to do more. She was going to have to take practice more seriously, not just working on the skill of playing, but playing particular pieces she would be expected to know by heart. She would need to think about what she was going to wear, what she was going to do for makeup, she’d need to collect sheet music from her room — she would need to tell the others.

The goodbye lasted a bit too long, especially because there were things for Verity to grab from her room, and she spoke with one of the maids who was very surprised to see her, especially given the disguise. When she came back down, her mother was in conversation with Hannah and Isra, a conversation which stopped almost immediately when Verity came down the stairs. Then another round of goodbyes was required, and a promise that Verity would respond promptly when a letter arrived at her house.

“How did that go?” asked Hannah once they were out of the house and walking, somewhat aimlessly, down the path. They’d have been better off doing the warp, but Verity was still feeling out of sorts, visibly so.

“Awful,” said Verity. “I thought that I was holding my own, and then I felt guilty, like I was a bad person for wanting my own life, for not helping them.”

“Helping them?” asked Isra. “Why do they need help?”

“It’s complicated,” said Verity. “The family position isn’t secure. My father will be fighting a battle against the workers at his company, and most of his funds are tied up in some other venture.”

“They need you to provide for them?” asked Hannah.

“To help them, yes,” said Verity.

There was a bit of silence at that, and Verity was left with her own sullen thoughts.

“Do you want to help them then?” asked Hannah. “Or is it more of an obligation?”

“You’re still a part of the party, right?” asked Isra.

“I am,” nodded Verity. “And it shouldn’t interfere with the dungeons. I’ll just … come here every now and again, play a performance, then come back. I guess.” Even saying that, she felt ill.

“Mmm,” said Hannah. “I’ve a confession to make, one that I was hopin’ could wait a bit, but disclosure and all that. Mizuki and I overheard some people talkin’ at the opera last night. We had heard your family was in some trouble, though I’d chalked it up to gossip, and there was another bit which — we wanted to let you tell us on your own terms, but they had said you were a Chosen of Xuphin.”

“Oh,” said Verity. Her already low mood became lower. It was too much to process. At least they hadn’t said anything about it until now, which meant that they weren’t going to abandon her, but they knew now, and that was bad.

“I think both topics are ones that can wait, if you’d prefer, which it seems you do,” said Hannah. “Just know that we’re here for you, to talk or to offer support. If bein’ a Chosen is a difficult thing for you, we’ll do our best not to speak of it.”

“Thank you,” said Verity, but it didn’t stop her from feeling wretched.

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Alexander Wales

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