Verity was home alone for the third day in a row, and feeling it.
She hadn’t actually received the Full Orchestral Lute in the mail, because as she’d predicted, it was too valuable to transport and far too precious to sit around in a place like Pucklechurch. Instead, she’d received a different entad that created an overlapping space. She had cleared a spot in the living room for the projected sphere, and was able to manipulate the lute only while there. The lute would never leave the overlapped space, but she could hear it and play it, which was enough to practice with it. Thankfully the projection entad didn’t show people, so she didn’t have to talk to her mother, but her mother left plenty of notes now, rather than sending letters.
Verity hated the lute. It was loud enough to fill a concert hall, which meant that it was too loud for their living room, but the only other option was to play outside, and the orchestral lute didn’t sound quite right there either. What she really needed was some time to play the instrument in the environment she was going to perform in, but that would require a trip to Dondrian.
She played to her limits, which were considerable, sometimes in the house, and other times outside, filling the forest with sound. There was an enormous amount of music to relearn, and she knew that it would all have to be perfect. The first set of concerts were sold out, a full theater, but the others were not, and after this weekend, it felt like there would surely be another. The financial viability of these concerts depended upon attendance, and attendance depended upon her performance.
The notes from her mother were showing up every day, usually stressing the importance of a good performance, the virtues of practice, or making plans that couldn’t easily be canceled. Verity had said that she wanted to play the music and then go back home to Pucklechurch, but she would be in Dondrian for two days, and quite a bit of the time when she wasn’t playing would be spent being trotted around like a prize sheep at the fair. Her mother had explained that it was important that their social standing not suffer too much, as the ongoing seizure would require not just material resources, but social and political resources as well. The family business was at stake, and while it was hoped that judges would rule fairly and impartially, judges were imperfect. A pleasant curtsey wasn’t likely to grant lenience for the family, but it could bend a judgment slightly.
There was a part of Verity that was impressed with her mother for having done all this. The Parson family was relatively small, and without a huge amount of influence, but the concert was going to be well-attended, and it was obvious that quite a few strings had been pulled. That the concert was sold out was due to coverage in the papers, along with some advertising, and perhaps the fact that there had been a high profile cancellation that had left those specific dates available. Verity was enormously thankful that she wasn’t in Dondrian, because if the upcoming concerts were the talk of the town, she’d be compelled to talk about them all the time, repeating the same conversations whenever someone stopped by their house. It had happened all the time when she was living in Dondrian — aside from being Chosen of Xuphin, music was the one thing that most people knew about her. Surface-level discussions of music were, at least, preferable to discussion of the philosophy of the infinite.
There was so much temptation to do anything other than play the songs she was supposed to play. Verity had initially been grudgingly writing new songs down in a little book, at the encouragement of Isra, but now it was like a habit, and when her mind came across a turn of phrase or a little tune, it would be written there, then plucked up later during her dedicated song-writing time. With the others gone, it felt like there was nothing but time. She reserved some of that time toward the end of practice to play the lute on her own terms, to stretch it to its magical limits and play with abandon, her own songs, unchained from what other composers had intended for a symphony orchestra.
The start of the song was a blast of trumpets, the kind of thing she’d always wished she could do to wake people up toward the end of a performance, turning the concert hall from silence into full-throated life in an instant. She spun the lyrics as she went, and toward the end, pushed the lute as hard as it would go, until it was giving off an unearthly sustain that no real instrument could, a velocity and energy that bounced through the house and was surely scaring away animals around the house.
She heard the knocking only when she brought the song to a close, and quietly set down the lute, then closed the entad that allowed that small sphere of Dondrian to protrude into Pucklechurch.
Verity had expected that it would be Marsh, or if not him, then perhaps Xy, who still needed to be talked to about the business of relationships.
Instead, it was Cate, the Keeper of Secrets from Plenarch. She had a serene, ethereal smile.
“I hope I’m not interrupting,” she said. “I waited until the song had reached its conclusion.”
“No, I was just finishing,” said Verity. “Can I help you?”
“I was hoping that either Alfric or Isra were in, and that they were ready to entertain an offer on the dragons,” said Cate.
“Oh,” said Verity. “Well … no, they’re off for the moment, and won’t be back until — later, I suppose.” Isra had opinions on Cate, and while Verity had spoken with the woman only briefly before, Verity trusted Isra. If you were home alone and someone came knocking at the door, it might not be the best thing to say that there was no one around, especially when in a house as relatively secluded as Mizuki’s.
“Oh,” said Cate, allowing a frown to grace her face. “And do you know whether they’ve done their duty and spoken to whomever they felt it necessary to speak to?”
“No, I don’t think they have,” said Verity.
Cate frowned. It was hard to measure her age, but she had a timeless air about her. Some of that was from her clothes, which were a bit old fashioned, though not entirely conservative in their styling. They were well-made pieces, with draping white fabric and fine craftsmanship, though a paucity of embellishment. The robe was cinched tight around her thin waist, and it hung almost to the ground, covering her feet.
“Since I’ve come all this way, would it be possible for me to see the dragons?” asked Cate.
“I don’t know,” said Verity. She felt guilty saying no, but if something happened to the dragons, Verity worried that Isra wouldn’t forgive her. Verity was in charge of the dragons since the rest of the party was gone, and had been keeping them inside. The longer Isra was away, the more unruly they became, partly because they couldn’t go flying, and partly because Isra’s influence was fading.
“I’ll pay you,” said Cate, as though just thinking of it. “Fifty rings to feed them some herbs, stroke their scales, and watch them play.”
“Ah,” said Verity. The money was a pittance compared to both the concerts and the sale they’d made in Plenarch, but it was something, a justification for letting Cate in. To have someone pay you for the pleasure of playing with your pet was something difficult to turn down. And Verity was, after all, lonely. “I think that would probably be fine.”
“I came on too strong the first time,” said Cate. “I just hadn’t seen baby dragons before.”
“I understand,” said Verity, though she really didn’t. “Come in, I should at least be a good host. Would you like some tea?”
“Thank you,” said Cate. “I’m not picky, whatever you have on hand.”
Verity led Cate into the house and to the living room, then briefly went into the kitchen and flipped up a burner for the kettle. There was something that felt very domestic about making tea, and it was one of the few things that Verity could make for herself. She thought for a moment as she looked at what they had available, and decided on a proper tea she’d gotten while in Dondrian, something with curled black bits of shredded tea leaves and tiny little dried cloves, along with a miniature blue flower that lent it a slightly floral taste.
When Verity came back into the living room, Cate was surrounded by dragons.
“Oh,” said Verity. “I was practicing, they usually go upstairs for that.”
“They’re so affectionate,” said Cate. She held her hand out, and Lerial pushed her head up into the out-stretched fingers. “Do they not like music?”
“It’s terribly loud,” said Verity. “There’s also not much that I can do about that unless I’m playing outside, which has its own problems. Sorry if you were at the door for long.”
“That’s perfectly fine,” said Cate. “I did manage to catch most of that piece you were playing, and waited until you were finished to knock. I hope that’s alright that I listened in, but I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“It’s perfectly fine,” said Verity, though she felt a flush of embarrassment. The piece was nowhere near done, though it had been coming together in her notebook for days.
“Are you planning to play that at your concert?” asked Cate as she pet Lerial some more. Her attention was focused on the herb dragon, but she asked Verity the question with honest interest.
“No,” said Verity. “Or, I don’t think so. It’s an original, and that’s not what’s on the program.”
“An original?” asked Cate, her voice mild. “Interesting.” She paused for a moment. “You know, I was quite surprised when I heard your name mentioned in casual conversation a few days ago. The concert isn’t quite the talk of the town in Plenarch, but I know a few people who are making the trip.”
“Mostly to show that they can?” asked Verity. “They’re people of means who can go see a concert across the country on a whim?” This was impolite to say, and not a particularly political answer, but it had just slipped out.
“Not how they would put it, I’m sure,” said Cate. “But I suspect that’s part of the allure. I’m going myself, of course.”
“Ah,” said Verity. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult.” She looked at the dragons, which were crowding around Cate, brushing up against her legs. Lerial had taken the lead, and had curled up in Cate’s lap. “They’re taking a liking to you.”
“I like to think I would take good care of them, if you could see your way toward selling them to me,” said Cate. She smiled down at Lerial, then looked up at Verity. “That’s the kettle.”
Verity heard it only belatedly, as the whistle of the kettle rose in volume. All three of the dragons raised their heads to look toward the kitchen, and Verity resolved to make a bowl of tea for them as well. It had been a surprise that the dragons liked tea, but on reflection, it had made sense, since their diet consisted largely of copious amounts of herbs. Isra had a special tea blend made for them, one she thought they’d find healthy, and the three dragons would often sit around a bowl of tea together, waiting until it was at the right temperature before drinking.
A few minutes later Verity had brought the dragons their bowl, then brought a cup for Cate and another cup for herself. The dragons, distracted by their bowl of tea, circled around it, occasionally bumping against it to check whether it had cooled down enough.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Cate. “Why do you live in Pucklechurch?”
Verity considered that. It was a question that she knew she would be getting a lot of when she was in Dondrian. The real answer was that she’d picked Pucklechurch on impulse while fleeing the stress of being a professional musician with too many social engagements and the death grip her mother had over her life, but the diplomatic answer, the one she planned to give to her mother’s people, was more nuanced.
“I spent quite a bit of my time in the conservatory system in Dondrian,” said Verity. “I worked with a number of exceptional artists and teachers, honing my craft. But at a certain point, I felt I needed some time to myself, to find something unique to my own personal practice. If you know about the concert, then you probably know that I’m a Chosen of Xuphin. I was hoping to find something on my own, to learn and grow in a way that would help exercise muscles that the conservatory was ill-suited for.”
Cate leaned back and looked at the dragons, who were now noisily slurping tea. “You’re going to need to practice your delivery of that.”
“Ah,” said Verity. She hung her head. “Right.”
“It’s three days away,” said Cate. “I’m surprised that you’re not in Dondrian already.”
“I wanted to stay here as much as I could,” said Verity. “To be with my friends, who are now gone. I wasn’t getting as much preparation with them here, I’m the one who said that I should stay, but … you don’t want to hear about this.”
“I do,” said Cate. She raised an eyebrow toward Verity. “I’m a Keeper of Secrets for many reasons, and one of those reasons is that I like to listen. So please, do go on.”
Verity pursed her lips. “Isra, our druid, we’re … she’s my girlfriend. It’s been … I don’t know. I feel like I can’t possibly keep feeling this way about her, because if married couples felt like that, then they wouldn’t act so casually around each other. Just having her in the same room sets my heart to beating faster. But it’s making it hard to focus on anything else, and I keep having this sense like I’m putting off something that I should be doing, that it’s all going to come crashing down on my head.”
“All what?” asked Cate.
“I don’t know,” said Verity with a shrug. “Nothing to do with Isra, that’s all very solid, but with the concerts, with my mother — the truth is, I ran away.” It felt like a relief to have the truth out. She was going to have to lie about it in Dondrian, or at least speak her way around the truth. “I told my parents that I was leaving, but didn’t tell them where I was going, and it took them some time to find me again. And now it’s like I never left. I’m ensnared again.” She shook her head. “Sorry, you really don’t want to hear this, it’s all terribly pedestrian.”
“It does sound like a familiar song, yes,” said Cate. “Perhaps, if you’d permit me, and while I’m here, you’d like to hear my version of the refrain?”
Verity blinked. “Yes, please.”
“I was young, once, and am now older than I look,” said Cate. Her eyes were on the dragons, who were reaching the end of their bowl of tea. “I had duties and responsibilities, and I wanted nothing to do with them. I had my own overbearing mother, who wanted to control me, to raise me in her image, so I could one day take her place. We were a wealthy family, if a small one, with a palatial estate, and it was in some sense an enormous amount to give up, but in another sense, it was … someone else’s life, I suppose. So I ran, without giving her the courtesy of a warning, and I stole from her as I fled, unapologetic. It had been building for quite some time, as I’m sure it was with you, but it happened all at once, with quite a bit of planning on my part, and then that was that. I was out in the world.”
“And … she found you?” asked Verity.
“We live in a world where it’s very hard to hide,” said Cate with a slight smile. “If you want to hide from the world, truly hide, you need powerful magic or to keep moving, and even then, there’s a chance that won’t be enough. She had put what she considered to be an enormous amount of effort into training and educating me, preparing me for my role, and she expended what resources she had to track me down, which was more than enough.”
“I came back willingly,” said Verity. “Their lives would crumble without me. My father would lose his business and my mother would be ejected from high society.”
“I came back kicking and screaming,” said Cate with a grin. “And it was a month before I so much as spoke with my mother. I threatened to burn down our house, as a matter of fact.”
“That, ah,” said Verity. “Seems extreme.”
“Do you feel it though?” asked Cate. “The urge to throw everything in her face?”
“Yes,” said Verity. “I do.”
“I didn’t end up burning the house down, by the way,” said Cate with a smile.
“That’s good,” said Verity with a nod. “And did it work out, in the end?”
“I wish that I could say that it had,” said Cate. “In my opinion, there are only a few ways the story can possibly end. The first, and most common, is that you come to some kind of arrangement, one where you always feel your parents are being a little overbearing, and they always feel that you’re a little ungrateful, or whatever else the issues between you are. You sit in a constant process of negotiation that leaves neither terribly happy, but mutual obligations fulfilled. Less commonly, sometimes people see the light. It’s what you see in stories, where the person who is engaged in wrongdoing sees the error of their ways. And the last, what I did, was simply to cut all contact. To this day my mother, if she’s still alive, doesn’t know where I am.”
“That’s — not what I would prefer,” said Verity.
“But it was the state of affairs for some time, was it not?” replied Cate. “You left without telling her where you were going, and you spent time with no contact between you. Did you not like it that way?”
“I enjoyed it very much,” said Verity. “But what you said about my mother discovering that she was wrong all along, for her to change and become someone she’s not … it sounds so appealing.”
“It’s unlikely to happen,” said Cate. “You’re doing this series of concerts for their financial security?” Verity nodded. “Tell me, what happens when the concerts are over and done with? Do you think that your mother will loosen her grip?”
“My obligation to her will be done,” said Verity. She kept her face firm. “With what she’s set up, it will be quite a significant fund. If they can’t make their lives work with that, then they can go starve.” This was quite the thing to say to someone that Verity barely knew, and she regretted it immediately, because it was the sort of thing that could float through society and follow her around. But Cate seemed trustworthy, and she was Keeper of Secrets.
“And what does your father do?” asked Cate.
“He’s in business,” said Verity. “Nothing all that important or interesting. Right now, he’s defending the company from seizure, but I believe before that he was working on some sort of ectad business, novel applications or something like that.” Her father had never said, and Verity had never asked, but it had been going on since before she left, and so far as she knew, her father had never seen a single ring of profit from any of it. “I’m still not entirely clear on what you do.”
“This and that,” Cate said, brushing the question away. “I deal with problems, especially those of a particularly unique sort, those that require a broad understanding of multiple fields of study or different kinds of magic, and often those realms of knowledge where someone will need to either comb through some very old books, or perhaps consult with experts from all over the nation.”
“I don’t think that clarifies much,” said Verity. She looked down at the bowl of tea, which was nearly empty. The dragons drank fairly slowly, taking their time to lap things up, like cats in that respect. “Are the herb dragons part of it?”
“Part of it?” asked Cate.
“There’s been some speculation on your interest in them,” said Verity. “I was wondering if perhaps you could tell us whether your interest was personal or professional.”
“Purely personal,” said Cate. “If I could have spent provincial money on them, I might not have balked so much at the outrageous asking price. And if it were vital to the health of the province in one way or another, I likely would have said so, unless I was seeking a good price.”
Verity shifted. “It’s just that your level of interest, the amount of time that you’ve devoted to coming here, it’s … unusual.”
“Ah,” said Cate. She seemed completely unperturbed by that. “I’ve found, in life, that money solves fewer problems than you would think, and what’s needed, even for problems that seem like they should be matters of money, what’s really needed is personal attention.”
“And this is a situation like that?” asked Verity, frowning a bit.
“I want the herb dragons,” said Cate. “If I show up often enough, eventually someone will keep me in mind, and I’ll be offered a fair price for the dragons, which I’ll gladly pay. Or perhaps I’ll find some other way to get them, if payment isn’t an option.”
“Meaning?” asked Verity. There was something about the phrasing that made her nervous, and she was suddenly keenly aware that she was home alone. She could shout into the party channel, and Alfric would use the dagger to return to Pucklechurch in a mere instant, and made a plan to do that as soon as there was any actual cause for alarm.
“Money isn’t all that moves people,” said Cate. “In fact, I would say that money is often the thing that moves people the least, once they’re no longer at risk of sleeping in the rain or starving to death. You left Dondrian to come here, where you’d make far, far less money, isn’t that right?”
“Oh,” said Verity, relaxing. “I suppose I see what you’re driving at.”
“Well then,” smiled Cate. “When it comes to these marvelous little dragons of yours, there are things that you would give them up for, but money alone is probably not the motivator. It would be a matter of knowing your party though, which is my other incentive to stop by here and pester you all so often. Do you have an understanding of what moves you?”
“I do,” nodded Verity.
“And would you like to share?” asked Cate.
“I’ve already said, I think,” said Verity. She gave a demure smile. “A peaceful resolution with my mother, as simple and sad as that might be.” And a quiet life in a small town, though that was something that she already had, and was nothing anyone could give her.
“Sad, perhaps, but not simple,” said Cate. She tapped her lip. “Do you suppose that you would ever try your plan again? To put yourself beyond their reach?”
“I don’t know how I would,” said Verity.
“There are ways and means available to me that other people don’t have access to,” said Cate. “If you wanted my help to be hidden, I would lend it.”
“If I’d been given the offer a year ago, I might have taken it,” said Verity. “Now though … I have a nice house here, a partner, and a profession, of sorts.”
“Too much to leave behind,” said Cate with a nod. “I know that well.” She stretched out and then stood up, smiling down at the dragons. “Thank you. I quite enjoyed talking. I take an interest in people from time to time, but you’ve been a delight.”
Verity blushed. “You flatter me.”
“And thank you for the tea as well, and the time with the dragons,” said Cate. She looked down at them. The tea had a calming effect on them, which Isra said was because it gave them warm bellies, and they had clumped up together next to the bowl. Verity was going to have to let them out with a collar on, always a difficult thing when there were three of them, but the herb dragons weren’t yet housebroken. “How much did we agree on?”
“Fifty rings,” said Verity. “Though I feel guilty charging you.”
“Nonsense,” said Cate. She reached into her robes and drew forth a string with rings on it, and set them on the end table without counting them. “I may come again soon, if that’s alright with you. When Isra is back, I’d welcome the chance to see the dragons in flight.”
“I’ll speak with her about it,” said Verity. “And I do think you’d give them a good home, for what that’s worth.”
“Is that part of your consideration?” asked Cate.
Verity nodded. “We’ve talked about it. But I think we would be reluctant to sell the dragons to someone who was only looking to use them for … well, for domestic uses.”
“I see,” said Cate. “Well, then I’ll be sure to give this a fair bit of my attention, and hopefully no one finds it too annoying. And I do look forward to your concert, as much as you might be dreading it. The piece I heard through the door was particularly good, I thought. You should think about playing it.”
“Thank you,” said Verity, though she felt embarrassed by it, and that song was going nowhere near the Ellusifé.
Once Cate was gone, Verity was left to her own devices again. She went scrounging into the chiller, looking for something good. Mizuki had made some food for Verity, but that was all gone, and the chiller wasn’t kept fully stocked. Still, there was enough to make a small plate of cold food, with pickled eggs, smoked cheese, and the last remains of a garlic summer sausage. It was almost reaching the point where she’d have to go into the market and restock everything herself, given how long the trip to Plenarch seemed to be going. Verity wouldn’t have minded doing that, but she knew very little about what was in the kitchen, and had virtually no ability to cook for herself. It seemed like what would happen was that she would buy a bunch of things, paying too much, which would then lock Mizuki into cooking with them, or possibly having things go to rot.
<Sorry to intrude, but is there an estimate on when you’ll be home?> asked Verity.
<We’re preparing now,> said Alfric. <It shouldn’t be more than a half hour.>
<Oh,> said Verity. <You could have said.>
<We know it’s your practice time,> said Alfric. <And that it’s hard to play when someone is talking into your ear.>
<Thank you,> said Verity. <I do appreciate it.>
<I’m eager to see you,> said Isra.
Verity smiled, though the party chat couldn’t see it. <Come home safe.>
The next half hour was spent cleaning, though Verity hadn’t been particularly messy while the others were gone. Dishes were cleaned, clothes were tossed into a hamper, and books were put back on their shelves, or stacked up to be returned to the local library. Verity wasn’t very good at cleaning or picking up, but she thought she’d done a passable job, and then there was still some time left, which she spent twiddling her thumbs, anxious for the others to return.
She didn’t see Alfric land, but she did see him in the backyard, pulling out the stone, and then she saw the rush of people coming out from the stone, all in conversation, their words breaking the silence that had hovered over the house the last few days. It was surprising how much she missed them all, though no particular surprise how much she’d missed Isra.
When Isra came out of the stone, Verity almost didn’t recognize her. It wasn’t just that all her clothes had been replaced, that her headscarf was gone, and her face was different somehow, which Verity eventually realized must be from makeup. There was also something different about the way that Isra was carrying herself, a certain awkward buoyancy rather than her fluid stoicism, and Verity didn’t know what to make of it.
Isra wrapped her in a hug right away, and Verity hugged her back. For a moment they were gripping each other so hard that it felt like they were trying to squeeze the life out of each other. Verity let herself melt, to just feel the skin contact, and when they finally stopped hugging, there was a long kiss.
“I missed you,” said Isra, softly butting her forehead against Verity’s as though they were billy goats.
“I missed you too,” said Verity. “I wish we’d spoken more on party chat.”
“I didn’t want to bother everyone else,” said Isra.
“For what it’s worth, I’m glad you didn’t have smoochy talk over party chat,” said Mizuki.
“What’s smoochy talk?” asked Isra, a bit of her sharpness still there.
“It’s like kissing in public, but with words,” said Mizuki.
“Yes, and none of that, please and thank you,” said Hannah. “But if you’d wanted to talk to each other about your days, you could have done that more, so long as you keep in mind that it’s quite public.”
Isra went to grab a pile of bags and slung them over one shoulder, then took Verity’s hand and brought her upstairs.
“I wanted to show you what I got,” said Isra as she began looking through the bags that she’d set on her bed.
“You look different,” said Verity.
“Yes,” said Isra, glancing back and smiling. She paused for a moment and did a slow turn around. “Do you like it?”
Verity did not like it. It was like someone had taken Isra and sanded down all the things that made her unique, like Isra had gone into a salon and had them style her hair and put makeup on her. In fact, this seemed very likely to be exactly what had happened. Overall it wasn’t a bad job at all, but Isra had looked remarkable and unique, and whatever had been done to her had made her look not all that different from any other girl. The dress in particular was quite pedestrian, the sort of style that married practicality with a flourish of color and sweeping lines, dead common almost anywhere in Inter.
“It’s good,” said Verity, the words coming out almost on their own. She’d seen Isra’s face begin to fall, and couldn’t handle that. “You went to a salon?”
Isra nodded. She held out her hand. “They lacquered my nails.”
Verity got up from where she’d been sitting and took Isra’s proffered hand, examining it. It was well-done, and on closer inspection, Isra had more makeup than Verity normally did. One of the bags had a wide variety of small bottles and cases, so much that it could have been enough for two women.
Verity wanted to say ‘I hope you didn’t do this on my account’, but worried that it would come out sounding either mean or conceited. She had liked the old Isra perfectly well, thank you very much, and wasn’t entirely sure what she felt about this new Isra. But it seemed likely that this wasn’t about Verity at all, that this was instead about Isra, and Verity swallowed her personal preferences. It would have taken an enormous bout of hypocrisy to tell another person to dress a certain way just for the sake of others.
“You look lovely,” said Verity, which was the truth. “Show me everything.”