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After the zoo there was shopping to do, and Mizuki was on her own for a bit, picking up a few things that she didn’t really need, along with a few that she did. Her funds were dwindling by the time she was called back to the Overguard house by party chat. There was some discussion about whether they would stay another day, and she seemed to be the only one who wanted to, so she didn’t voice much objection.

Mizuki didn’t want to leave though. She had been on the verge of asking Alfric whether or not they could stay another day, but when Verity came back home, she was clearly upset, and all dreams of one extra day in the city went up in smoke. The upshot seemed to be that Verity’s family was poor, and that Verity needed to bring in more money, which she was going to do by commuting.

Mizuki had expected Alfric to be bothered by Verity having an unexpected side job, but he was understanding and thoughtful.

“We can work around it,” said Alfric. “I had always planned to. The more dungeons we do, the better, in my opinion, but if we’re on pace to do one a week, then you being gone for a few days won’t matter too much. What I’m more concerned with is you not feeling that you’re stretched too thin or overworked.”

It was sweet of him. Whatever trepidation he was feeling, he was keeping it to himself and focusing more on her and her needs. From what Verity was saying, it was the exact opposite approach that her mother had taken.

Mizuki didn’t have all that much to add to the conversation. Her own relationship with her parents was pretty good: they had left her to her own devices, which was exactly what she had asked for. Perhaps she and Verity had ended up on opposite sides of things. Mizuki wouldn’t have traded places, certainly, but she did sometimes crave someone to look out for her. Not that this was what Verity’s mother was doing. It seemed more like exploitation, in point of fact.

“Well, we enjoyed your company,” said Harmon once they had announced their intention to go. “I miss those early days, when I was just starting out and everything was all fresh and new. In a way, I envy you.”

Envy was, in this case, a two-way street, but Mizuki resisted the urge to say that, mostly because she thought that he — or Alfric — might take it the wrong way. The trip had made her much more aware of money and the benefits that it could bring, and she had a better understanding of why Alfric’s old teammates had felt the way they had.

It felt, to Mizuki, like they were leaving too suddenly, even though this was what they had planned. She had pulled all of her things out of her version of the guest room, double-checking to make sure that she had Herby, and that their pet dragon was safe and sound.

“What we talked about,” said Alfric’s father. “I’ve been thinking about it, and if there’s anything that you can get me, it would help out enormously. Something … incriminating.”

Mizuki hadn’t meant to overhear it, and it had been said quietly, but she’d been gravitating toward Alfric. Alfric only nodded.

They gathered in the foyer. Harmon left, and they sat there, waiting to be whisked away using the statues.

“I’m going to miss this place,” said Mizuki.

“I’m glad you liked it,” said Alfric. “It’s not for everyone. I do wish that my siblings had been around a little bit more, but they’re in and out, and starting their own lives.”

“I liked the museum,” said Isra. “But home is simpler.”

Emperor was standing with them, as though he was expecting to be replaced by a statue at any moment, and Mizuki patted him on the head. “Hey, can your dog come visit?”

“I guess there’s no reason that he couldn’t, except that he doesn’t have his own travel entads,” said Alfric. “Though I’d really rather not have too much interaction with my family, given that I’m trying to do things on my own with some independence. If my mother is stopping by to drop off the family dog once a week, that somewhat undercuts what we’re doing.”

“Aw,” said Mizuki. She bent down to give the dog a hug. “I’ll miss you buddy.”

Emperor panted happily.

“Don’t you have a cat?” asked Alfric.

“Tabbins isn’t cuddly or friendly,” said Mizuki. “Sometimes he’ll sleep on the window seat in my room, but he doesn’t have the same kind of vibe. He doesn’t like me.”

“He does,” said Isra. “Cats just show it differently.”

“He does?” asked Mizuki, blinking.

Verity was the first to be replaced by her wooden statue, and the others followed faster than before, with Mizuki in the middle this time, thankfully. The familiarity of the yard outside the house nearly smacked her, and the sense of alienation and weirdness that had been building up in the city was washed away before she could really even realize that was what was happening.

“Welp, that’s the end of the trip,” said Mizuki. “And we’re not far out from going to bed.”

“Not happy to be back?” asked Alfric.

“No, I am,” said Mizuki. “But I think I’m going to need a day to get back into the swing of things. Oh shoot, I’m going to have to cook.”

“Not until tomorrow,” said Alfric.

“Still, that means that I’ll have to go out and do some shopping,” frowned Mizuki. She had bought quite a few ingredients in Dondrian, but not the right ones for a complete meal. “Well, it’ll wait until tomorrow.”

“I can help,” said Isra. “Maybe make a meal on my own?”

“We’ll do it together,” said Mizuki. “You’ve been a big help.”

Isra nodded, but it was hesitant. “I’d like to do more than chopping things.”

“Okay,” nodded Mizuki. “I’ll think about what would be good for your first real meal.”

They put their things in their rooms, and Mizuki spent a moment on her bed, staring at the ceiling. Eventually, she got up and went downstairs, where everyone was talking.

“Hannah has a date,” Verity explained.

“A date?” asked Mizuki. “With who?”

“Marsh,” said Alfric, who had a pronounced frown.

“The fire guy?” asked Mizuki.

“Ay,” sighed Hannah. “It’s not a big deal.”

“I really don’t think he’s right for you,” said Alfric. “And I hope you remember that I do know him.”

“We’re not gettin’ married or somethin’ stupid like that,” said Hannah. “It’s a lark. I meant no offense to you, I know there’s bad blood, and I’m well aware that he might run off with another girl if she offers him riches.”

Alfric held up a hand. “Just registering that I think it’s a bad idea, for the record,” he said.

“Well I’ll give you leave to feel smug when it ends badly,” said Hannah. She grinned, clearly trying to make sure there were no hard feelings.

“I care about you,” said Alfric, remaining serious. “I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“I’m more liable to hurt him than he is to hurt me,” said Hannah. “He’s one of those tough boys with a soft center. Once you crack them, it’s just a gooey mess.”

“I’ll leave it to your judgment,” said Alfric.

“As you’ve no other choice, yes,” said Hannah. “I’ll be fine, and I know better than to tell him anythin’ that we don’t want gettin’ back to Lola, which is near everythin’.”

“What does that leave to talk about?” asked Isra.

“Well, I’m not sure that talkin’ is his strong suit,” replied Hannah with a laugh. “But the sun will be fadin’ soon, and I’d best be off to not keep him waitin’.” She hesitated. “If I were to bring him home, would that be an issue?” She was looking at Alfric when she said it.

“Not for me,” said Mizuki. “Though moving fast, in my experience, usually isn’t good for keeping things going in the future.”

Alfric shrugged.

“Well, I’ve no investment in Marsh as yet, just a bit of fun,” said Hannah. “But I should be goin’. Tomorrow we make plans for the next dungeon?” she asked. “Moil Meadows?”

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” Alfric nodded. “Take some time to decompress. Have a good time with Marsh. Sorry if I was overbearing.”

“I know you mean well,” said Hannah. “And I do think it comes from a place of carin’ about me, which I appreciate.” It felt as though she was going to say more, a ‘but’, but she left it at that, and everyone said their goodbyes.

Mizuki got out the dragon and fed it again, this time with some herbs from the garden, which was really starting to come along. If she was going to be chewing up herbs, she’d have preferred something a bit sweet, but Isra had taken a look and said that some kind of onion would be better, which left Mizuki chewing up a mouthful of chives, an eye-watering experience.

Herby was showing a bit more life and a personality, playing with his wad of chewed up herbs a bit before eating it, and, for the first time, looking up at Mizuki with wide eyes. He licked his lips, then extended his tongue up and licked his eyes. It would have been creepy, if he wasn’t so cute. His wings, which Isra said were vestigial, had begun to spread out, and he gave them a flap every now and then. Once he was done eating, his brief moment of activity was over, and he curled up into a ball. At first Mizuki was quite happy to see him sleeping, but then she began to grow bored, and she looked for something else to do.

Verity and Isra were out in the garden, looking it over and doing some maintenance on it, not that they’d had a long enough absence that there was much to do. Mizuki didn’t want to interrupt them, so she went to go find Alfric, hoping that he was up to something interesting. He wasn’t in the kitchen or dining room, and she checked down in the cellar first, then went up to his room on the third floor. She paused at it for a moment, trying to hear whether he was in, then tentatively knocked on the door.

“Come in,” said Alfric, and Mizuki went into the room, for the first time since he’d taken it.

Each floor of the house was smaller than the one below it, but the single room on the upper floor was still one of the largest rooms in the house. It had been designed as a self-contained living space, with its own small bathroom, a place for aging parents or perhaps an independent child, though it had never ended up being used for either. Mizuki’s father had always argued that it would have been better to have such a place on the first floor, the better to not have stairs to navigate, but her grandfather must have had something in mind when he was making the house. At the time, her grandfather must have planned to reach the end of his life there. It had ended up being a good place to retreat to and play, along with being a sometimes guest room.

Alfric had made the place his own, putting the boxes stored there to one side, festooning the desk with neatly arranged papers, and laying out a mat in the center of the room. His armor, sword, bident, shield, and boots were all neatly arranged to one side, and his clothes were stacked in a small pile, since the room had no dresser in it. Alfric was sitting at the desk, looking at a map of the region, but he stopped once she came in.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“You organized,” said Mizuki, looking around the room.

Alfric nodded. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” said Mizuki. “This is your room. If you needed to, you could move those boxes down into the cellar. I’d help.”

“Not necessary,” said Alfric after a glance at them. “I’m actually thinking of moving into the garden stone as much as possible. There’s enough space there for a small house without making it unsuitable for everything else we might want to do with it. It would take some work though.” He hesitated. “Did you need something?”

“Just checking in,” said Mizuki.

“Bored already?” asked Alfric.

“Restless, more like,” said Mizuki. “Sorry if I’m interrupting.”

“It’s fine,” said Alfric. “I wasn’t doing anything important, just preparing for the conversation tomorrow, which I actually think will be two days from now for me.”

“You’re throwing a day away?” asked Mizuki.

“Probably going off to get a few things done,” said Alfric. “I’ll leave a note. Don’t do anything rash, just in case I end up keeping the day.”

“Oh,” said Mizuki. “Would it be possible for me to come with you?”

“You wouldn’t remember any of it,” said Alfric. He stated this matter-of-factly, not like it was an argument, so Mizuki pressed.

“That’s fine by me,” said Mizuki. “There will, temporarily, exist a Mizuki who would be with you, and I would rather have that than have there be a Mizuki who is sitting at home by herself, worried about where you are and what you’re doing.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Alfric. “But then you’d want me to report on everything done in the undone day, right? And I wouldn’t want you to feel like I had gotten something out of you, or like our friendship was too one-sided somehow.”

“Hmm,” said Mizuki. “Well, I guess I should think about it too.”

The room had four windows, one on each wall, and she went to one of them to look out on the garden. Isra and Verity were there together, pulling weeds and trimming parts of the plants that were, presumably, undesirable. The garden was really coming along, looking more managed and more green.

“I want to do more dungeons,” said Mizuki.

“Oh?” asked Alfric with deliberate nonchalance.

“Yes,” said Mizuki, turning to him. “With one a week, we’re doing just enough to tread water, right? We can pay for food and supplies, and go on to the next one, or sell some ectad things or whatever, but … we’re not going anywhere with it. Right?”

“There’s quite a bit of variance,” said Alfric. “So far we’ve gotten a bow for Isra, a bident for me, and armor for Hannah, if I’m only counting the real winners. The wardrobe, the book, and the stone too, for secondaries. If it keeps being this good, which it might, then in a year we’d all have proper adventuring gear.”

“Okay, can I lay it out?” asked Mizuki. He nodded. “What I want is a house like your house.”

“I don’t have a house,” said Alfric. “My parents have a house. But I take your meaning. And you think that by doing a dungeon every week, you’ll never end up with a house like that?”

“Would I?” asked Mizuki.

“No,” said Alfric. “In another twenty-five or thirty years, when we’re their age, we’d have done a thousand dungeons or so, and that wouldn’t get you that kind of wealth unless you were quite lucky. We’re a string of bad dungeons away from having to supplement our income, at least until the money from the growthstones starts coming in. I’m doubtful that the herb dragon will pay off either, but I suppose I don’t know. And the more dungeons we do, the worse the travel will be, and that will start to cut into profitability too.”

“So, I want to, you know,” said Mizuki. “Actually do it, I guess. I want to actually be a dungeoneer instead of just doing it as a weekend thing.”

Alfric regarded her for a moment. “That’s unexpected,” he said. “I thought you were happy with your life here.”

“I am,” said Mizuki. “Or … was.”

“Not anymore?” asked Alfric.

“I don’t know,” said Mizuki. “The dungeons are one of my only paths to — I don’t even know. A house with a dozen doors to different parts of the world, a kitchen where every tool is an entad. That’s what I want.”

“You could move to a big city,” said Alfric. “There’s usually demand for sorcerers, and opportunities for them to ply their trade, either getting rid of dangerous buildups that the dungeons can’t quite bleed off, or converting aether into something useful.”

“I guess,” said Mizuki. “But … dungeons are worth more, right?”

“Much more,” said Alfric. “Especially with me.”

“I don’t understand why you’re trying to talk me out of it,” said Mizuki. “You want to do more dungeons, right?”

“I do,” said Alfric. “But I don’t want you to come back from the city and push hard for more dungeons and then burn out, or feel like there’s too much pressure, or to just hate it, I guess. What Verity’s going through, basically.”

“That’s nice of you,” said Mizuki, giving him a weak smile. “But I really do want to feel like there’s some forward momentum for once.”

“I think it will hinge on Verity,” said Alfric. “Maybe if we can be more profitable than her playing in Dondrian, or more respectable … I don’t know. But I also don’t want to push her, not right now.”

“Because she might break?” asked Mizuki.

Alfric frowned. “Not how I would put it. It’s much more about making sure that she’s taken care of than using her as a tool. She’s a person. I care about her. We’re friends, though maybe not as much as we might be.”

“I didn’t mean that she was a tool,” said Mizuki. She slumped slightly. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine, just the wording that threw me off,” said Alfric. He stepped forward and looked out the window to the back, where they could look out at Verity and Isra. He lingered only a moment though, and moved back to where he’d been. “I can talk to her and try to work something out. I wish that she hadn’t committed to doing performances in Dondrian, and I don’t know how she’s going to get there on a regular basis, but I can understand a duty to family. I just hope that it’s not too taxing on her.”

“Me too,” said Mizuki. She looked around the room. It felt like their conversation was over, but she didn’t want to leave.

“Have you been reading that book I loaned you?” asked Alfric.

“Almost done,” Mizuki replied. “It’s been interesting. Not necessarily eye-opening, but there’s a lot of language that I think helps me. Ways of looking at the craft.”

“Such as?” asked Alfric.

“Hmm,” said Mizuki. She felt like she was being put on the spot, and momentarily froze up as her mind failed to gain traction.

“Just curious,” said Alfric.

“There’s a chapter on combinations that I found interesting,” said Mizuki. “A way of dividing the function of aetheric moods into different buckets. I’m having a little bit of trouble putting it into practice, not that I’ve had much of a chance, but one of the things that he suggests is to use one mood for energy output, which I think usually means damage, and the other for utility, which is aiming and focusing and stuff.”

“And … you weren’t doing that already?” asked Alfric. “Again, just curious, not trying to —”

“No, no, I know,” said Mizuki. “And no, I didn’t do that before, I mostly just winged it. I’m still having trouble understanding the theory, but he describes it like a house that’s made of stone and wood, where each should be used for a separate thing, and if they’re both put together, then each is doing work it shouldn’t be doing. I’m not sure it really holds, and he’s light on examples.”

“Hmm,” said Alfric. “Well, I guess practice makes perfect.”

“There isn’t much ability to practice though,” said Mizuki. “I can’t just sit in one place making a hundred fireballs in a row. Which is frustrating, because I would like to get better.”

“Is this something that you want help with, or that you’d like to figure out on your own?” asked Alfric.

“Help,” said Mizuki, nodding. “Please. Why would I want to struggle alone?”

Alfric shrugged. “Some people like to figure things out on their own,” he replied.

“Ah, like carrying a wardrobe around, or getting the team a fast trip back to Pucklechurch,” said Mizuki.

“Not that I wouldn’t want to figure it out with friends,” said Alfric. “But I would want to have a hand in figuring it out, rather than just being handed a solution right off the bat.”

“And do you have a solution?” asked Mizuki.

“A short-term one,” said Alfric. “You work with built up aetheric imbalance. It wouldn’t take all that much work for you to level everything down to unusability. But we’ll be going to a lot of other hexes, and if you went, say, an hour early, you could flatten down the area around the dungeons we’ll be going to as a way of warming up and getting more experience in. Plus there’s a decent chance that whatever is around the dungeon will match what’s in the dungeon. The earlier you went, the more practice you could get in, hopefully without tiring yourself out for the dungeon.”

“Wandering through the woods alone doesn’t really have much appeal,” said Mizuki. “Which, I know, I said I want to get better, but —”

“I could come with you,” said Alfric. “If you needed company?”

“But what would you be doing?” asked Mizuki.

“Talking to you?” asked Alfric. “Trying to help you with your craft, if I could? I could read some books and try to figure it out, though without being able to see and feel the things that you can, I’m not sure that it would be too beneficial. I don’t think I could ever become qualified enough to teach you anything, not even if I spent some time in undone days trying to read up on sorcery. But I could be there with you, if that’s what you need.”

“You’re very nice,” said Mizuki, biting her lip. “I don’t want to be a burden.”

Alfric furrowed his brow. “Meaning … you don’t want to be a burden to the team and therefore want your sorcery to get better, or you don’t want to be a burden because you feel like I wouldn’t get anything out of going in the woods with you?”

“I don’t know,” Mizuki shrugged. She was feeling flustered and uncomfortable, her stomach tight. “I’m going to go do some reading, and I think I have a letter from Rolaj to read. Thank you for listening to — I don’t know. To me.”

“Of course,” Alfric nodded. “I’ll think about taking you with me on the undone version of tomorrow, but the next time you see me will, from your perspective, be after that, on the version of the day I want to keep. Probably.”

Mizuki nodded, then left his room, going back down to her own room. She grabbed the book, which she’d brought along to Dondrian and not read at all, and cracked it open to where her bookmark was.

She tried to read, she really did, but it was boring, and her mind wandered. She could see the aether, something that she’d been able to do since she was little, and she wondered what it might have been like if she’d been like Isra, ignorant of the limitations of other people. She wondered whether there ever was a time when she’d thought that other people could see what she saw, but if that had ever happened, she had no memory of it. In this imagination of a life gone differently, maybe someone would have chided her for talking about the aether, and she would fall under the mistaken impression that it was impolite to do that, and getting slapped on the hand once might have made her think that spells were uncouth, or taboo, or something like that.

But Mizuki didn’t think she would have responded that way. Her hand had been slapped away from various things more than once, and she’d just gone ahead and done those things anyway, more often than not.

She turned back to the book, and had read less than a paragraph. Her eyes had skimmed over it, as though tracking from left to right was all they were supposed to do.

She tried again, mustering up some of that sense of seriousness.

In our final estimation of the machinations of sorcerers, we must contemplate their limits as a conduit for the conduction of the aether. When pressed, most will say that their ability is limitless and the aether alone is the controlling limit of their power, though as I have said before, I believe that finesse is in most cases a larger contribution. Still, it is often the case that sorcerers know little about their own power, in part because of a current lack of opportunities for education. There is some evidence that a sorcerer, when faced with enormous disruptions in the aether, might become catastrophically incapable of controlling the sheer volume of aetheric difference they’re able to take in. Given modern circumstances, the necessary conditions might no longer manifest naturally, but I have some suspicion that long, long ago, before the dungeons, such build ups happened with some regularity. Sources are, as ever when dealing with that time period, both scarce and unreliable.

This hypothesized ‘explosion’ of magic gives some clue as to the inner workings of a sorcerer, or at least suggests a direction of inquiry. By having two sorcerers standing side by side, one watching the other, they were able to observe the disturbance in the aether, and it seemed to them, after as much testing as they were able to do, that the disturbance truly is pulled ‘into’ the sorcerer before being expelled. This is contrary to the reported feeling of sorcerers, which is typically that of manipulation ‘outside’ their own bodies.

These thoughts have been left for last in part because they are unimportant to understanding the everyday working of the sorcerer, but also because there is so little to be said on the matter, not without better tools than have currently been developed.

Mizuki didn’t particularly like the author. He was a sorcerer, but spoke of sorcerers in the third person, which was explained in an opening note but still somewhat rankled.

The chapter as a whole was about higher level thoughts on sorcerers, which was one of the reasons that it was a slog to get through. She could see how someone might find it interesting if sorcerer’s ‘drew in’ magic rather than using it outside themselves, but she didn’t care. It wasn’t the kind of thing that was going to make her better as a sorcerer.

Really, what she needed to do was to practice.

A part of her wanted to get up and go out into the woods so she could find some magic to play with, but she was tired, and if Alfric was going to bring her with on an undone day, she wanted to get her sleep, especially since he seemed to rise so frightfully early in the morning.

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Alexander Wales

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