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Generated: Dec 22, 2020 12:19 PM
Post last updated: Jul 24, 2020 8:26 PM
lì a casa il cuore sentirai
velgarth bell and leareth become very upset
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Belrun is so close to getting this damned flu strain to calm down in this one egg. She copies the change across to a few more eggs' worth, iterates, writes everything down, and Fetches the egg that is getting scary into her pot of simmering water before it makes a break for it. It's getting on toward dark and if she keeps working she's going to have to do it by candlelight, and she doesn't like that - it's already too easy to bump into things when she can see them. She calls it a day and closes up the lab for the night and heads out to walk over to the university cafeteria. It's a nice evening, and it's Flatbread Night, and she's in a generally good mood.

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A building over, Leareth is also stepping outside, pausing by the wall to bid goodnight to another young student – he can check with her tomorrow morning what her final decision is, he understands she needs time to consider his proposal – and he instinctively scans the area for threats. Nothing in particular except, huh, student up ahead with native shields and they're really good ones–

This is the point at which the wall of the building he's standing six inches from explodes violently outward. 

–Leareth gets out half of a shout of warning and flings up a barrier in front of native-shields-girl and bubbles the other student in another shield and then slams hard into the cobbles a fraction of a second before most of the building collapses on him.

The emergency shield-talisman that he's wearing catches most of it, which is why he isn't dead, but it's not really specced against either a violent surprise explosion or most of the weight of two storeys of bricks, and it shatters before all the rubble can finish raining down. 

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A hail of shattered bricks bounces off an invisible wall a foot away from Belrun's head. Then the invisible wall vanishes, but at that point it's just dust and pebbles that patter down on her. 

Rather a lot of the street is currently on fire. 

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whatthefuck oh it's the mage students being idiots okay triage. She's fine for some reason. That guy over there is not fine. People in the building aren't fine but she can't see them well from here and also it's on fire. "HELP," she hollers, "SOMETHING EXPLODED, HELP, HELP, SOMETHING EXPLODED, FIRE, HELP -" She keeps repeating that on autopilot while she starts getting rubble off of people, scrabbling around on hands and knees to grab it and shift it aside, leaning on Fetching for the big stuff. How's this guy's neck doing - okay his neck is fine, so she doesn't have to be excruciatingly careful to get her arms under him and supplement with Fetching, not like he has a cracked vertebra that has to be held totally still. Everyone in the on-fire building is going to have to wait because she can't do anything about the fire, and anyway, they ought to be rushed to the infirmary by people who can in fact run; this one will tolerate a sedate walk. She carries him in and gets him a bed and shoos sluggish infirmary staff towards the site of the emergency.

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The young student from the earlier conversation, who is also mysteriously fine, backs up a few paces and stares around in horror and confusion and then starts looking to see if she can do anything to help with the fire, whatever. 

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What–

Leareth isn't unconscious for very long, maybe five minutes. His head hurts a lot but a quick check confirms he can use mage-sight, at least for half a second before it's too painful, which puts an upper bound on how seriously injured he can be. Lots of other parts also hurt but he can breathe all right, good. His shields are not working anymore. Less good but not much he can do about it yet. He seems to be indoors and on a bed and he can't remember how he got here. Not reassuring but he'll deal with it from here. 

Someone's there? He makes a noise. It doesn't quite qualify as talking. 

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"Hey there, you woke up. Something exploded, some people were being idiots," says the Healer currently squinting at a bruise on his side. "You're gonna be fine, full recovery most likely within a couple days, just sit tight. I might need to get you out of your clothes here, okay, but we keep cold water around for that and we can save 'em -" She looks up for a reaction to the clothes thing, sometimes people prefer to be undressed only under protest.

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"Thas'fine," he mumbles. Coughs, tries to summon a little more alertness. Oh, it's the young woman with the good shields, not that he's about to use any kind of Sight to check right now. She looks sort of familiar but he doesn't think she's someone he's met before. 

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"Here goes," she says, and Fetches them all into the laundry basket rather than jostle him around, he's got some nasty bumps. "I'm Healer Belrun, and I apologize if my bedside manner's rusty but a lot of people were caught in the explosion so I'm just gonna stick by you for now instead of assuming you'd be seen promptly by someone who normally deals with patients. Might even be swamped enough they give me a second one but probably not."

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"Noted. Thank you." Leareth frowns. "...Did you see another student? I was standing near her - is she all right...?" He remembers shielding both of them but not whether he managed to keep said shields up long enough to make a difference to the one standing way closer to the explosion. 

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"Short hair, beaky nose? She looked all right, walking wounded if that - friend of yours?"

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"I was meeting with her." He falls silent, thinking. Convenient, is the next thought he manages. "...What caused the explosion, do you know?" 

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"It was the mage research building, I don't know precisely what they get up to but there's a few who get lazy about their precautions. Can you roll over a quarter turn that way and I'll bandage this up -"

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Leareth does so. Grunts in pain. It's a relief he isn't badly hurt, but 'not badly hurt' can still add up to 'moving is ill-advised for the next while'. At least he didn't have any other urgent priorities tonight. 

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She works steadily, keeping up distracting chatter so he doesn't concentrate on feeling like he has been hit by that ton of bricks that hit him. She has a light accent in her Rethwellani while she talks about how it was Flatbread Night and she might be able to send a trainee for some and does he want chicken or beans, and what was he talking to his friend about, and should anyone be notified about his status and location, and what is his name?

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Leareth keeps his answers mostly short and boring. He doesn't need to trouble a trainee for dinner right now while he assumes they're all busy but beans would be fine once they have a chance - he was meeting with the student about a collaboration, doesn't give details - no need to notify anyone, he was visiting town alone. He is definitely not giving her his real name so he introduces himself as Arvad, somewhat at random but it's a name he goes under with some frequency so he's not going to forget what he told her. 

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It is a little chaotic in the building - most people were hit much worse by the explosion - so after Belrun has stepped out to see if anybody needs her urgently (they don't; she can't join melds) she goes and gets flatbread herself and brings it back, since the trainees are already running around fetching water and bandages and scrubbing bedpans and whatnot and her patient can be let alone long enough for her to get them both something to eat. She presents him with a flatbread full of beans, having eaten hers on the way. "Eat that whole thing, I don't know how often you wind up next to explosions but you're doing practically all the work on putting yourself back together here and that work is fueled with dinner, you'll wake up at midnight ravenous if you don't put away something now." And she resumes knitting together things that must be knitted together and smoothing away stray blood released by bruises.

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"I try not to make a habit of standing near explosions." (This is not actually an answer to the question; Leareth has in fact had things explode at him a lot, including on occasions where he was hurt much worse, or killed – if this was an attempt on him it was a rather halfhearted one.)

He munches through the flatbread, which is a good excuse not to talk much while he re-orients. He's in less pain now but increasingly tired, which is also as expected given how Healing works. 

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"Commendable of you. You didn't get hit as badly as I'd have expected, you were so close to the building," she remarks, brushing his hair away from a scratch on his head.

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"I am an Adept-class mage and I was shielded." 

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"That'll do it." She yawns. "I'll be back in the morning but I'm going to knock off soon, okay? You'll be all right. Night shift is good people, if you need anything, but if I were you I'd sleep for ten candlemarks straight."

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He's yawning as well. "Thank you." Seriously though does he know her from somewhere, she is - very weirdly familiar. Surprisingly interesting even though she's done nothing but make small talk to distract him. "Goodnight."

The infirmary should be pretty safe but he sets some passive wards around his room anyway and then falls asleep. 

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She's back in the morning, with breakfast in case the concept of breakfast was lost in the shuffle; there are so seldom medical emergencies affecting a dozen people on campus that it's not a bad guess. "Morning, Arvad, how're you feeling?"

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Mumblewhat oh right. "Better, thank you." She's...pretty? waitwhat why is that a salient thing to think about, weird. 

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"I got you some eggs," she says.

"Those had better be from the cafeteria," calls a passing other Healer bustling down the hall.

"Yes, Dallar, they're from the cafeteria!" she replies. "Sorry, running joke that I should not feed people eggs, I use them for research stuff."

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"Oh? I have not heard of that in Healing research before." 

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"I mostly don't see patients - I'm not going to accidentally turn you inside out, I know the basics, but I mostly do research on microbes. The microbes need something to live on while I'm looking at them and eggs are really convenient for it because they're meant to stay alive on their own without much maintenance and they come with their own containers. But in spite of the fact that my lab has a very large sign with very large letters saying not to eat the eggs, some people think it is hilarious to imagine me serving someone an egg full of the flu. Which probably wouldn't even be that bad, it's a respiratory illness, you'd have to somehow inhale it, but nevertheless disrecommended."

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"Really! I have never heard of anybody working with it that way before." And he's heard of a lot of things. "Would it still be infectious if the eggs were cooked?" 

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"No, that's what I do when I'm done with an egg, I boil it and everything in it dies. And also these eggs are from the cafeteria. Eat them, you're not going to get less hungry just thinking about them."

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"If you tell me about any interesting discoveries you have made?" He starts eating. 

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"Sure, if you like. So the flu comes in a tremendous number of different sorts, I insisted on naming them for a while but I've fallen back on numbers -" She can chatter about this for quite a while as she's working on his various injuries.

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She's very interesting! He keeps forgetting to eat and having to remind himself. 

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"- so in the ideal case it'd just be a strain that outcompeted all the normal flus and barely gave you the sniffles, but I think probably an intermediate stage will be something administered per-person. But that'd still be a big deal, because we can identify who's likeliest to die of something, and who's likeliest to spread it, and preferentially protect them, even if it's not a very scalable outlay of labor such that everyone can - I'm rather blathering, sorry."

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"No, no – that is one of the cleverest things I have ever heard, I am not sure why it never occurred to me..." 

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"Occurred to you? How interdisciplinary, usually mages just do mage things."

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...Oh, right, that was not a usual thing to say, he - really wasn't being very careful for some reason. "I suppose I am more interdisciplinary than most." 

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"More people should be that way," she opines. "Anyway, the flu changes on its own a lot, and I collect and study all the instances I can and correlate them with how serious they are and how many people caught it. I'm also looking into dysentery recently - I went and visited my father and there was an outbreak of it where he lives and I went and hassled everyone about it and took all the samples home, it's very different from the flu, more alive."

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Wow Leareth wants to say about six different things at once and is torn between 'what do you mean, more alive', 'where does your father live then' and 'I hope you collected those samples very carefully'. He goes with the last one first since it's not a question and then asks what she means by 'more alive'. 

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"Yes, very carefully, that one will get you if you ingest it . Uh, the flu is smaller? It has fewer parts, and it's much less like any tiny part of a person or an animal than a bit of dysentery is. - I think I need to change the gauze on your leg there and this room is out, one moment -" She gets up and heads for the supplies, but slips and hits the side of her head on the doorframe. "Ow ow ow - thank you Dallar -" She accepts Dallar's help back to her feet.

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Leareth is slower than usual, he doesn't react fast enough to catch her with magic, but he finds himself on his feet - ow that was, in fact, ill-advised and not only because he is technically not wearing clothes. "...Belrun, er, are you all right?"

He sits back down on the bed, a bit sheepishly, why is he so startled and alarmed about it she is obviously fine and she must think that he's acting very oddly about it. 

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She steadies herself with her hand on the doorframe. "I'm fine, happens all the time, what were you doing out of bed? I didn't say you could get out of bed yet, you'll hurt yourself! This afternoon maybe if you haven't messed up your leg putting weight on it early you can walk down the hall - are you okay -"

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"I am fine - I am in bed," he points out. He's very dizzy, it turns out that lying flat for twelve hours and then going all the way to standing up in half a second is a bad plan, but he's not going to tell her that– oh no she's got Healing-Sight she can probably tell. He lies down again. 

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"Thank you. I have been working very hard on you and will thank you not to ruin it just because I tripped. I trip a lot and it hasn't killed me yet. I am going to go get gauze. Do not do anything silly while I am doing so." She goes and gets gauze. His clothes are back from the laundry too and after she has rebandaged the offending wound she can help him get into them.

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Great now she is going to talk to him like he's six. Leareth is so mysteriously self-conscious about it too. Also about the getting dressed with her help part, which is just really confusing. 

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"There you go," she says when this office is completed. "Sorry for snapping at you."

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"That is all right. I apologize for doing something silly." Is he...going to blush about it...all right what is happening. 

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"It happens. Not around me, usually, but usually my patients are eggs, and I'd have to really not be paying attention to let one hatch." She pats his now-reasonably-uninjured forearm. "I'll see about that knee and after lunch you can walk a bit."

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...Something very weird is happening – does she have some sort of bizarre Wild Gift that she's using on him – he can't tell if she's a Mindspeaker, if she is she doesn't seem aware of it but it would explain those shields - still wouldn't explain the fact that she is taking up way too much of his attention right now... It made sense when she was talking about groundbreaking research, she's clearly a very exceptional person, but - that doesn't explain his reaction to her tripping, at all.

He tightens his shields a lot. ...All right, whatever it is, is happening a bit less now. 

"All right," he says on automatic. 

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She works on his knee. Lunch is brought by someone whose actual job is bringing lunch. She conducts him down the hall and back.

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Weird thing is still weird but less so as long as he's shielding really, really well. Got to be some sort of Wild Gift. It takes him until lunch to remember that he missed checking in with the mage-student – he should try to find her before he leaves town, probably. 

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"So, I have to teach a class, and keep my office hours, and check on my eggs," she says when she's gotten him back in bed, "but it looks like there's enough slack today that Dallar can look in on you if you need anything, and I can come check in after dinner, okay, Arvad?"

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"All right, thank you," maybe once she's not in the room anymore the Wild Gift or whatever it is will stop affecting him and he can figure out how to shield against it properly before she gets back. Avoiding her would be another option but - he really does want to hear more about her research - seems pretty unlikely he can recruit her or that it would even make sense to do so with his current plans but it's weirdly tempting...

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She pats his arm again on his way out.

 


She isn't back after dinner.

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Leareth has spent the afternoon mostly thinking. 

At first it seems like it's fine now that she's left. Leareth can focus on wrangling someone into sending a message to the mage-school, getting in a conversation with his contact there. She's pretty shaken up about being next to a large explosion, which doesn't incline her to leaving right away even for a very exciting project. Leareth tells her this is very understandable and he can send someone to check in with her in six months or so.

...He's still thinking about Belrun. Including facts about Belrun that aren't at all related to whether it's worth trying to recruit her. Like her hair. Why is he thinking about her hair. It's not like it's shockingly unusual in some way. His mind keeps tugging back to how she skillfully helped him keep his balance on the hallway walk and that's not interesting, she's a Healer, obviously she knows how to do that–

When the hypothesis occurs to him, he is immediately kicking himself that he didn't think of it yesterday. To be fair, the reason he didn't think of it yesterday is because it feels shockingly low probability. He can't confirm or deny it for sure from here, from introspection alone it's going to be difficult to pick apart 'bizarre Wild Gift' from 'the gods are messing with him again and this time their strategy is a lifebond.'

It's been less than a full day – if he skips town right away it probably won't get worse–

but that feels very unfair to her, he should at least warn her or explain or something (definitely this is not just an excuse to see her face again...fine there is probably some element of that too, that doesn't mean it's not also the pragmatic thing to do.) 

When she doesn't come back after dinner, it takes him a shockingly short amount of time to start panicking about it. (Stupid fledgling lifebond, making him feel emotions that he isn't deciding to feel, this is very frustrating.)

–can he feel her at all? On the one hand it's bad news if he can because it means he can no longer solve this by running away - but if he can't it might mean that she's dead because that was the gods' plan, and even though that would sort of be good news in the sense that he's not in horrible pain over it and therefore the gods mistimed it as an attempt to incapacitate him, it would also mean she was dead and that is very unacceptable. 

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It's faint through all the shields but she is not dead!

She is instead very upset!

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Shitshitshit what are they doing to her - this is also completely unacceptable - if the plot was to capture her and torture her or something then Leareth is furious about it, and the fact that this isn't an emotion he's deciding to have or would normally feel about it doesn't matter.

He gets up; he's still feeling a bit shaky but he can walk fine and he can fight if he has to. Should he be calling in backup? Maybe not quite yet, figure out what's going on first and then he'll know what kind of reinforcements he needs to Gate in and won't end up doing it twice. 

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"You feeling better?" asks Dallar from down the hall.

(BELRUN REMAINS VERY UPSET.)

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"Very much. Thank you. I need to - run an errand..." He flees before anyone can try to decide he's not allowed to. 

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Dallar doesn't chase him.

Belrun and all her being very upset arrrrre - that way!

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Then he will head that way! Not quite running because if he's about to end up in a fight he would rather not be out of breath going into it. Fortunately it seems like she's not too far.

Leareth scans the area for nodes, finds several. There are a lot of other mages in the city who will wonder what's going on but that's fine. He won't be sticking around for them to ask questions, he's going to get her out of here and bring her somewhere safe up north where the gods don't have any foothold– It occurs to him that she probably won't be very happy about this, but he can explain after, he can set her up with everything she needs to keep doing her research–

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Belrun is in that library over there.

She is alone and unharmed and sobbing into her arms in a carrel full of books titled things like Lifebonds and The Deepest Love and Magical Bonds Compared.

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Oh. 

...This makes a lot of sense, because she's smart. 

Leareth tosses up shields around that corner of the library and skims the surface thoughts of anyone who isn't shielding to check that, no, it doesn't seem like any of them are here with the intention of assassinating her. Then he approaches. 

"Belrun? It appears we have both had the same realization." 

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"Mrrrrg," she says into her elbow unhappily.

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"It appears you are not any more pleased about it than I am." Whyyy does he want to hug her about it, as a general rule Leareth does not hug people. 

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"This guy," she lifts her head enough to talk and taps Magical Bonds Compared, "thinks it's too late, but it wouldn't have been if I hadn't stayed up so late last night that I didn't write in my journal before going to bed and had noticed then and immediately fled the city, so, sorry, I'm an idiot."

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"I also suspect it is too late, judging by the fact that I was able to find you here. I apologize for not realizing last night or sooner today – I noticed something odd but I thought you had some kind of Wild Gift with mind-effects and that shielding would correct it. I placed - very low priors - on this being the explanation, but in hindsight I think that was incorrect. What caused you to notice?"

He is bizarrely curious about what she's thinking - no, fine, it isn't confusing at all, it's just, lifebond. 

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"Nobody came to my office hours so I had a minute where I wasn't busy to think literally at all? It's not subtle once I'm not in 'don't lean into the unprofessional opinion on the patient while on the job' mode."

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"I think you were quicker on the uptake than I was. I am impressed." Is that because it's objectively impressive or because he's apparently lifebonded to her and likely to find anything she does impressive? No, actually, this does look like an unusual level of self-awareness. 

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She faceplants on the desk again. "Thanks," she says, muffled.

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Leareth glances around, puts up a sound-barrier around them so that librarian over there won't listen in on this next part. "This is extremely inconvenient and not what either of us wanted to happen but we need to decide what to do based on the fact that it did happen. I am very sorry about this but I have reason to think this could mean you are in danger. This is unfair to you, it would be as a plot against me, but – I do not think I can ensure your safety in this city and therefore I think you need to leave." 

(He definitely could just yoink her through a Gate right this second before doing the explanations part, that would be best for safety margin, except, no he cannot actually do that, because his brain is screaming at him that it would be disrespectful and she would be justifiably even more upset and furious and - apparently that's enough of a reason to stop him.)  

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"Couldn't we just not tell anybody? I haven't told anybody, have you been shouting from rooftops - why are you in this city if people plotting against you are around and you can't ensure a person's safety here -"

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That's a very reasonable reaction, really. "I am not talking about people. I have not told anyone, obviously, and as far as I know there is nobody plotting against me specifically in this city," although if he's right about the scheme here, there could be all sorts of threats he's unaware of. "There are - other forces - that have certain opinions about my activities, and I am sure They would think a lifebond was a very clever trick to stop me, and...I would rather not explain everything here in a public location." 

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Great, she's lifebonded to a guy with paranoid delusions. "Where would you rather talk? I have a dorm room but the soundproofing isn't great."

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"Can I Gate you to a place outside the city where nobody knows to look for you?" She's probably going to say no. Very understandably. 

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"I realize it would be very stupid of you to murder me but that leaves lots of options so I would sooner you did not do that, no."

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"Fair enough. We can go to your dorm room." And he'll put lots of shields around it and be ready to drop her through a Gate the instant anything so much as twitches in her direction. 

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She leads him to her dorm room. It is small and tidy and has a lot of notebooks in it. "Don't open those," she tells him, gesturing at the shelf of them.

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"All right, I will leave them alone." He's tempted to bring up the fact that he also likes to keep extensive records of his life and his thoughts about it, but - it doesn't really seem like the top priority here is bonding over things they have in common. 

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She sits on her bed, leaving him the desk chair. "So some... non-people... are after you, and you think merely not announcing... this... will not help."

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Shields shields shields so many shields. He's trying to put the information that needs conveying in a sensible order that minimizes the chance she straight-up won't believe him – she'll probably straight-up not believe him anyway, though, it's just that weird. 

"How old are you?" is the question that comes out first. 

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"Twenty-two, why?"

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"I am aware that this will sound very implausible and you are probably not going to believe me. However. I am immortal and about two thousand years old. The gods of Velgarth do not like me very much because I keep trying to change things. They have gotten fairly creative in the past in terms of their plots to stop my work or slow me down, but this is a new one. Gods are, however, perfectly capable of setting up a lifebond and then arranging that a convenient accident happen such that we meet and are both too distracted to catch on before it is too late. They are also perfectly capable of arranging some additional convenient accidents if they so wish. Though I am not certain that their goal would have been to kill you, rather than simply distracting me." 

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"Has, uh, has anyone ever suggested you see a Mindhealer - I guess thinking the gods are out to get you wouldn't make that less scary -"

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Sigh. That is such a reasonable, smart response. Unfortunately Belrun is wrong about what's going on here but he can't blame her at all. 

"There is a Mindhealer back home who I trust," he says, "but I am not going to ask you to go through a Gate on my say-so right now, that would be highly unreasonable on my part."

(He could just scoop her through a Gate anyway? That would be safest? Except she would be so mad about it and therefore he is utterly incapable of reasoning objectively about it.)

"If there is someone you trust and could swear to secrecy, I suppose I could speak to them and we could get confirmation one way or another," he says, very neutrally. 

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"No, it was suggested I see a Mindhealer about whatever it is that makes me panic and fall out of Healing-melds but unfortunately the thing that makes me panic and fall out of Healing-melds is not wanting people in my head. So I don't have one on tap." Her knuckles are very white around her quilt.

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"I apologize that this situation is so stressful and bizarre." Leareth feels really terrible about it, which is uncharacteristic of him and is clearly because lifebonds are the worst thing and he and Belrun are currently, to some extent, mind-controlling at each other. No wonder she's so upset about it.

Leareth can shield very hard and calm down to the extent he can manage and see if that helps Belrun have any idea of what problem-solving can be done here. 

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"Immortal, huh? That one's... less common than paranoia."

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"I confess I have never had reason to research which delusions are more common than others."

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"My mother said if I was going to be terrified of Mindhealers I should at least read a few books they wrote. Didn't really help with the Healing-meld problem though."

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"Mmm." Why is he so self-conscious, this isn't helping at all.

"I did set up a few contingencies to prove my immortality if I ever wished to do so," he thinks to say eventually. "Though perhaps it would be better to first ask if you have ideas of what would change your mind on the matter of whether I am delusional." 

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"Uh, let's see. If you can prove you're immortal that'll make the gods being mad at you way more plausible and it also seems easier to prove. If I were immortal and two thousand years old I'd have... lots of notes and stuff in caches all over the place, immortal friends, backdoors into various institutions improbably unrelated to one another, I'd speak a lot of old languages, I'd be able to claim credit for various historical events but that one's harder to demonstrate to a third party as more than a gift for storytelling..."

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"Hmm. I do not have very many immortal friends – you might say that the gods closed the loophole I used after they realized I was using it, and - most of the people who would be willing to use it are not people I would wish to have it, anyway."

Is the part where he should specify that he is, by standard moral standards, definitely not a good person? Prooobably but what he should do and what he is doing seem to be different things right now. Stupid lifebonds.

"I am acquainted with Taver, the current Groveborn Companion in Valdemar," he offers. "We met about seven hundred years ago, he ought to remember our conversation. That, however, is not near here. I do, however, have a cache of notes and supplies very close to this city." Rethwellan has a lot of them. "Also, if there is a Temple to Astera nearby, I have a backdoor with them which I mostly use to courier messages in code." 

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"I don't know whether there's one nearby but there probably is. I guess I could... bring you to meet my dad and stop in Haven... how far off is the cache?"

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"A day's ride from here. Valdemar is a much longer journey unless you are willing to Gate." Also it's...questionably a good idea for him to show up in Haven in person. At least Vanyel is the only person who knows what he looks like; he can do his best to avoid that. "Are you from there originally, or did your father move from here?" 

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"I am from Valdemar originally, my parents are divorced, and when I was nine I finally convinced my mother to move so the nightmare horses couldn't get me. Probably wasn't necessary, they usually leave Healers be and it transpires I am one, but we're settled here now."

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"The nightmare horses? That is a nickname I have not heard before." Leareth smiles despite himself. "I think we have several things in common. I would also flee the country immediately if I thought there was any chance at all that a Companion might want me." He has not especially worried about the second part in the past. 

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"They are horses. They gave me nightmares. My mother dawdled for a very long time and said 'why do you even think a Companion would want you' and I said 'anyone would want me, I'm great'. And I have evaded them and now this is happening to me but at least I have never specifically had nightmares about immortal mages, I guess!"

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Leareth cannot help briefly grinning and then tries to stop because that's not very respectful of her obvious distress (which he is very aware of and now he's upset about it too) and also why

"I am really sorry about this!" he says. "I have noticed that you are great, but trust me, if I had any say in it my response to it would not be lifebonding to you!" 

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"Yeah. Sorry. I know it's not your fault."

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"Well. What do you want to do now? It does not make sense to head for the notes cache tonight and, whether or not we are lifebonded, I suspect you perhaps do not want me sleeping in your dorm room." (Leareth also doesn't want to sleep in her dorm room! That seems so awkward!) 

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"It's not really furnished for that, among other things. Ugh. I need to - think. How do I find you now that you're not occupying a Healer's bed, I'd rather not stumble around trying to navigate by mind-control-compass if I can avoid it."

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"Of course. Hmm." Leareth thinks and then gives the a name of an inn that isn't too far from here. "I will go stay there tonight and then we can figure out the next step from here." 

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"Okay. I'm going to just cancel everything I had on tomorrow and I will come find you when I'm a little more straightened out, I guess. I am going to warn my mother that I have gotten lifebonded and the other party would to the conventional observer seem kind of off and she should be concerned if she doesn't hear from me, so kindly don't arrange to concern her."

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"I really have no desire to concern your mother!" He doesn't at all! That would be so distressing– waitwhat, oh, right, lifebond making him feel feelings, great. 

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"Gah isn't there any way to turn this thing off, how are we supposed to have a normal conversation if saying anything sets off stupid little cascades -"

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"I am not sure." Leareth shields even harder. It...doesn't do that much more. "...We could sit in different rooms and pass each other notes under the door? I am not sure how much that would help though." 

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"I think not very much. Actually it might be worse because we wouldn't be able to tell by exact timing what parts of the notes the other party was reacting to and so we'd be radiating confusion and anxiety on top of everything else probably." She sighs. "What's your project that has the gods so riled up about you, entertaining the premise here -"

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He almost tells her

–Wow lifebonds are very mind-altering, it's one thing for it to make him conclude that she's interesting and smart and shiny and another for him to feel like he can trust her with all of his plans! 

"I generally do not share that information the day after meeting someone," he says, "-I seem to want to tell you anyway but I suspect this is because lifebonds are terrible." 

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"Okay, uh, I guess far be it from me to deny somebody their privacy but your assumption here is that this has happened specifically so that someone can, what, stab me and cripple you by proxy, and this is obviously extremely objectionable under any circumstances but if you actually think it's going to happen I'd like to register that I'd find it slightly less objectionable if I knew why the fuck in advance. Doesn't have to be today."

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"That is very understandable and also I would prefer not to make that decision when I am experiencing mind-altering effects from being in the same room as you," Leareth says. "I am going to go get some sleep, and think about it, and hopefully I can make a decision by tomorrow." 

Pause. 

"...For general background, what is your opinion on people with a great deal of hubris?" 

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"That seems like a very general question. It's like asking what my opinion of stubbornness is! It depends what it's about!"

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"Would you consider, oh, eradicating all of the diseases in the world to be a project worth taking on, or does that seem like the sort of plan only an insane person would think humans can carry out?" 

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"I mean, it sounds like it would take a while considering how frustrating the flu alone is, but if I were immortal it'd go on the list?"

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"Would you choose to be immortal if you could?" 

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"Yes? Is this a trick question, is it actually horrible somehow -"

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"No! You would just be surprised at the number of people who think it that only very bad people want to be immortal because death is part of the natural order, and that therefore being immortal has to be secretly terrible in some way. ...I mean, most of the ways of becoming immortal that I know of do involve some kind of cost. Which I am more willing to pay than most people." 

What if she thinks he's terrible why does he care if she thinks he's terrible, probably most people do and he is normally fine about this, lifebonds are so dumb

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"I would like in the abstract to be immortal but please check with me about the some kind of cost before getting me any of the ways of becoming immortal that you know of for my birthday."

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"I will keep that in mind; most of them would require your cooperation to set up in any case." 

Leareth heads out. He puts about six layers of passive wards in expanding circles around Belrun's dorm room; they shouldn't bother anyone and if any gods do have plots literally scheduled for tonight then it ought to give him enough time to Gate in before anyone can reach her.

With slightly less ambient distraction, he tries to write out the pros and cons of telling her everything about his plans. She has a good point about it being kind of unfair and objectionable not to, on the other hand, he would probably think that anyway because he is unavoidably biased here. Lifebonds

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She sits up in a controlled simmer of despairing fury for another two candlemarks and then goes to sleep!

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Nothing tries to kill her or blow up her dorm building overnight! 

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Good.

In the morning she cancels everything. No class, no office hours, would anyone like five points of extra credit to make sure none of her eggs are trying to start a plague today thanks. She gets her next door neighbor to bring breakfast. She has a great many emotions all over a great many sheets of paper. She shows up at "Arvad's" inn.

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He feels her coming and heads out front to meet her. This is possibly the one, single, convenient thing so far. 

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"Good morning." She seems to be trying not to look directly at him.

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Avoiding looking at her doesn't make her presence much less distracting but it maybe helps at all. "So. Do you wish to go look at my supplies and notes cache near town, or see if there are any coded messages I can decode for you at the Temple of Astera?" 

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"Temple's closer, I asked and there's one six blocks that way." She points.

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They can head over to the temple!

"...Oh, right, I remembered. I gave you a false name before, in the infirmary, and it seems only polite to rectify that now, though Arvad is in fact a name I have gone by. The name I currently go by is Leareth, though." 

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"Oh. Well, it's more aesthetic, at any rate."

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"Thank you." Why does he care if she likes his name this is not important. 

They get to the temple. Leareth goes in and asks to see their library, and gives the librarian a passphrase, which gets him a more senior priest a few minutes later, to whom he gives several additional code phrases, and this earns him a very surprised look but also some correspondence, they've got a couple non-urgent letters that were waiting to be picked up by someone locally. Convenient, he'll get his mail faster too.

They are in code. "Where would be a good place to sit down and decipher these properly?" 

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"We passed a park? I don't know what your privacy standards are here."

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"I can do privacy with magic." He's mostly counting on the fact that nobody in the city knows who he is and that if something happens he can Gate them out in about five seconds. 

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"You didn't seem to think so yesterday in the library." But she sets off parkward.

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"It is much easier if people are not going to end up sitting five feet away. Also I hope this will be quick and I can show you the result in writing." Also he's feeling slightly less paranoid now that it's been overnight and there hasn't been a murder attempt on either of them. He surveys the park - if it's mostly empty that's fine, if it's very crowded he would rather find somewhere different. 

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There is a nice empty bench to be had. She leaves six inches between them when she sits on it.

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Leareth makes sure there's no one within ten feet, and puts up several different variants of privacy spell, which is probably overkill but whatever. He decodes one of the letters, writes it out in Rethwellani. It's short and not sensitive, good, he knows it's about the number of graduates of various mage-schools in Rethwellan this year, but to Belrun it won't be at all obvious what it's about, except that it clearly is a real letter that's about something. 

He shows her. 

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She attempts to figure out how the code works so it's clear he's not just making something up on the spot.

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Leareth considers explaining just enough that she can do the first few words herself, and then decides to sit back and see if she can get it on her own. She's clearly very smart and he will be impressed if she can. 

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She can do this with sufficient margin notes.

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All right, wow, that is very impressive and kind of terrifying, it's not one of the really secure codes because this is a very mundane message but still, she could probably get that too if you gave her weeks and the resources for it - and that's not even her field, she's a Healer who studies diseases by growing them in eggs, and, and–

Leareth is fairly sure that this is not just the lifebond talking and all of that is objectively impressive, especially in someone who is only in her early twenties, but he's not completely sure. Also all the shields in the world aren't going to stop him leaking some amount of 'wow!' through the lifebond to her. 

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"Wait, were you having me do this part because you thought it'd be cool if I could extrapolate your cipher? I thought it was so I could be sure you were actually decoding letters held by the Temple of Astera and not just doing extemporaneous composition."

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"I mean, I assumed you had a reason for wanting to do it other than showing off, and that is a sensible one, but that does not mean it is not additionally impressive." 

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"Okay. Sorry. Generally kind of touchy."

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"About people thinking that you are impressive? Or something more broad than that?" He should try to avoid upsetting her. This isn't something Leareth is normally optimizing for, and he may or may not be any good at it, but his emotions have decided to care way too much about whether she is upset. 

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"About mind-control-based emotions and behaviors flying around in any direction."

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"Fair enough. I am not exactly pleased about the fact that I keep having emotions I did not decide to have. ...Is that related to why you cannot do Healing-melds?" 

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"Healing-melds and horse nightmares and not being willing to see a Mindhealer and yesterday being the worst day of my life, yep, all one package labeled in large letters 'stay out of my head'. I suppose it could be worse, you could be one of those people who thinks it's terribly romantic."

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"I am not inclined to care which things are romantic or not, and even if I did I would not find lifebonds romantic." 

...Also they are going to have an enormous fight about this, possibly quite shortly in the future, and he really isn't looking forward to it, even though it adds zero new information to his model of the world that many people - probably most people - think a lot of what he's willing to do is terrible. 

Maybe the gods' entire plan, instead of killing her, was to lifebond him to someone who cares a lot about ethics so that he'll drop using any methods that involve mind control or whatever else turns out to upset her, and then he won't have enough layers of precautions for a plot against the gods and it won't work and if gods were the sorts of beings that could laugh about things they would probably be laughing at him right now. 

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She finishes decoding the letter. "Okay. I think the letter is good enough I'll take a Gate to the cache, save some riding. I'm not good at it."

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"Fair enough. That is fine with me." 

Leareth will head off in the direction of the nearest place where a Gate won't be extremely obvious and suspicious. It's going to be a little obvious, but Rethwellan, unlike Valdemar, is full of mages and is not specced with a system to detect non-state-sanctioned magic use. 

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Follow follow. "I've never been through a Gate before."

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"It can be a little disorienting - careful not to trip–" He starts to offer her his hand and then worries this is patronizing or something and now he is almost blushing again and why. 

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She considers for a moment, sighs, and takes his arm in a businesslike manner and squeezes his hand in a less businesslike manner and then blushes furiously.

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The gods have to be laughing at him right now – also he is having such weird feelings about the age difference here, not that there's really any way for it not to be weird when you're two thousand. 

They step through the Gate. He's opened it directly into the building where everything is kept because why not.

The walls are plain stone. There are sturdy shelves of wood treated with preservation spells, and boxes on the shelves, and the boxes are full of books and notes. There are a LOT of notes in this room. 

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"Wow. Should I not look at them -"

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"I think most of these are in ancient Kaled'a'in or the language of the Eastern Empire, if you read either of those I will be very surprised." 

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"No, just the two." She picks up a book at random.

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It is full of neat, dense handwriting, interrupted with line breaks and what are presumably dates. Without being able to actually read it, it looks more like a high-level summary than her own notebooks do. 

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She flips through it, scans pages, puts the book back gently, picks up another. When she's looked through that one too, she sits down on the floor of the room. "Wow," she says. "Two thousand years old, gods are mad at you, and this is the first time they try this strategy, really? I mean in theory you could have just cottoned on earlier before but you were surprised -"

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"I am very confused! I did worry about it for centuries and eventually assumed they were not able to do it - I have not noticed failed attempts, though I suppose they could have failed because I never met the intended people." 

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"Books were ambiguous on how compatible people have to be."

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"Hmm. From the very limited information I have about you so far, it seems we are rather compatible in some ways – the tendency to keep copious documentation of our lives being one – and rather incompatible in others. Which I am beginning to suspect could be the point. I do not make a habit of caring what others think of my choices, but if a lifebond - forces me to care - then perhaps they wish to change who I am so that I stop doing the things they dislike. I am not exactly pleased about this." 

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"Is there something I should know about here," she says. In mid-sentence she gives up trying not to look directly at him and turns around to face the opposite wall instead.

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His records room is very well-shielded and it's not as good as being up in the far north but it's probably safe for a longer conversation. Leareth gets down a crate to sit on, offers Belrun one as well. 

"I became immortal because I grew up in a kingdom with a large number of problems," he says. "I wished to fix them – to eventually build a world where nobody was suffering for stupid reasons such as hunger or disease or war. I have been very ruthless in doing so, especially once I realized that the gods were the cause of all the implausible accidents disrupting my plans. I am willing to do many things that are unethical in the process. I suppose we could go through the list and you can scream at me about it." 

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She sits on the crate facing away from him. "I... guess there are worse reasons... is screaming at you going to help somehow or is it just so bad you expect me to scream involuntarily."

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"I expect you to be upset and angry?" Why does he caaaare so much this is miserable and it's a kind of misery he has no practice dealing with at all. "Shouting is not going to help at all with anything but it seems very possible it would happen anyway." 

Sigh. 

"In the long run I am very against death. However, in the shorter run, I am willing to use plans that involve killing people and I generally do not feel bad about this, if I judge it to be the correct strategic move. I suppose I could give you examples of times where this has come up in my history." 

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"Well, you're immortal, that's new and different, do you think you can fix it later or -"

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"Reincarnation is already something that happens in the world, and some of the gods have ways of doing it that include memories of the past life. My method does, though - not all of them, which is why I keep such thorough records. I think I can eventually fix it." 

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"Well, congratulations on the relatively defensible in expectation murder, I guess."

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"I have also been quite willing to use blood-magic when it seemed strategically justified, even though nearly everywhere in the world this is much more taboo than murder. I do not think it is actually worse than murder, in the contexts where I used it – there are some considerations such as damage to the local magic flows, but this can be mitigated. I legalized blood-magic as a source of mage-power in the first empire I founded after my...initial death and return. Everybody was doing it anyway and there was no other reliable source of energy to, for example, fix the weather so that crops could be harvested successfully – I ran the numbers on this, anticipated deaths from starvation versus the blood-magic, and it seemed a clear win. Also it meant that I could select the - victims - to be convicted criminals, rather than mostly farmers' young children."

Leareth feels strongly like he is making lots of excuses in hopes to avoid being yelled at, which is not a motivation he endorses, but it's happening anyway. This isn't even the part he expects her to react worst to. He really should have opened with that, gotten it over, but - aauuugh. Stupid lifebond. 

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She doesn't yell, just rests her chin in her hands, still looking away. "Okay," she murmurs.

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She is taking this surprisingly calmly but that...does not actually make Leareth any less terrifying about the emotional backwash he's sure is about to hit him when he tells her the next thing. 

He grits his teeth. Get it over with. "The way I think does not generally involve treating any specific thing as sacred. There are some things I recognize are quite bad and am willing to do anyway when I judge it is strategically justified. These things include using Thoughtsensing to read people's minds when I am worried about a threat in my surroundings - I did this in the library although not to you because you have shockingly good shields," feels important he specify that right away, and then say all the rest fast before the screaming can start, "and I am also willing to use compulsions or order other people to use them and this was also something I legalized in the empire I mentioned and now you can scream at me if you want." 

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She doesn't scream or even turn. She does shiver a little. He can tell without looking that she's miserable anyway, of course.

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This is agonizing, Leareth's entire hindbrain is screaming that Belrun is the most important thing and hurting her is the worst thing he can possibly do and it needs to be fixed right now - and he is fully aware that this has to be exactly what the gods want - and trying not to be as furious about this as he would naturally be because the last thing this conversation needs is more emotions sloshing around. 

"–also my method of immortality involves reincarnating into the bodies of my descendants who are appropriately mage-gifted and this kills them or rather evicts their soul to get reincarnated somewhere else, I tried half a dozen magical methods for immortality and this was the only one that survived the Cataclysm and worked and I also tried the version that didn't involve evicting the body's original inhabitant and sharing instead but it was changing who I was and I decided that was riskier than killing a small number of additional people."

He says all of that very fast in a flat monotone and then turns around to face the wall because aaaaa. 

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This still doesn't get her to yell.

She holds very still, pinched-off emotional backwash rippling all over the place for a minute and then stilling like she's concentrating on something, and then it dips into a low murmur of grief and she starts crying very softly, wrapping her arms around herself.

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Oh no this is awful - he doesn't understand why she's crying but it is clearly his fault and this is terrible and he is suddenly feeling overwhelming guilt and shame, neither of which are emotions he has chosen to feel in the last several decades because they generally aren't helpful, but this means he has no idea how to usefully redirect away from them. 

"I am...sorry...?" Apologizing for the entirety of who he is as a person is so pointless. Leareth wants to personally storm out and murder the god who decided this lifebond was a clever idea because - they can mess with him, they do that all the time, he is completely used to being murdered horribly, he's even pretty desensitized to the inevitable collateral damage - but they made a mistake when they went after Belrun. 

He wants to offer her a hug, which is both bafflingly outside what is normal for him and also won't help at all. 

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Actually, "You could hug me. If you want. I'm not sure I'm interpreting right."

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All right wow this whole feelings-communication thing is bizarre and creepy and also very slightly useful. "I...seem to want to? Will it actually help at all? My model of how humans work is that generally when people are very upset at someone for hurting them, they do not in that moment want a hug from that person?" 

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"You haven't actually done anything to me," she points out.

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Leareth drags his crate next to hers and opens his arms. (Has he hugged literally anybody while in this body? He doesn't think so.) 

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She's still kind of hugging herself but she scoots over and leans against him, head on his shoulder.

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Oh no now he's having some completely different emotion and he has no idea what it is except that it's very very loud and giving him an overwhelming urge to scoop her up and take her somewhere safe. Leareth does not do this. He does very carefully put his arm around her and let it rest there. 

"...What are you sad about?" She is definitely sad as the dominant emotion, rather than furious or terrified, and Leareth is confused by this. 

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"Um. It's complicated. ...the reasoning is complicated the actual thing isn't complicated. Uh. I can't have children. ...as of a minute ago."

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Leareth is not stupid. He traces back the last couple of things he told her and the emotional reactions he felt. Compulsions, right, he knew that was going to be upsetting...and the details of his immortality...and, oh no, she's a Healer, she was scared, she thought he was going to–

"You thought I was going to mind-control you into having my children and then possess them?" he says, horrified. "I am so sorry - actually I would not do that at all - you are very smart and so it would be a huge waste to mind-control you at all much less in order to have children, also I think at least half a million people are my original body's descendants at this point so it is not as though I need to do that. But I can see why you thought I would, I said everything in such a terrible order, and I can also see why you would very reasonably not believe my reassurance now. I am so incredibly sorry."

Also he even more wants to personally slaughter the gods about it. 

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"I didn't think you were going to possess them. That's obviously a replaceable function even if it needed to be the current body. But you probably need me alive, and I don't know much about what other condition you might need me in or how you might need me to get there. You might have wanted to arrange for me to possess them."

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"...I had actually not gotten as far as thinking through the part where you will die of old age if nothing else at some point and this will cause - damage," Leareth admits. "This whole lifebond emotions thing is making me much stupider, right now, I am not used to it enough to think through it."

He tries to imagine it. "...It feels as though I would be very sad if I were mind-controlling you, because I would know that this was not what you wanted, and being lifebonded seems to mean that I intrinsically care a great deal about what you want?" Pause. "Anyway, you actually think immortality is good, and also you are very clever, and hopefully by the time it would come up, we can figure something out that does not involve descendants and ideally does not involve anybody dying at all." 

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"Okay." She shifts a little in the hug, sighs. "I can tell that it's - steering you now? But it's new, and when it's not new I don't know how much you'd endorse letting it tell you what to do, right - and I'm extrapolating how it works for you from my end but I definitely already feel horrified about mind control if I imagine it happening to total strangers so that makes it hard to figure whether the lifebond is actually making you care much about it as applies to me rather than a total stranger. And you said - not to me because I have ridiculously good shields? And you mentioned you have a Mindhealer -"

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"All of that is very fair. I...definitely would have read your thoughts that first time in the library, if you did not have such shields, because I am a very paranoid person - I would argue it is a very appropriate level of paranoia given the extent to which the gods are actually after me. And, I am in fact not sure what I will end up endorsing, here, mostly I am very irritated with the gods about this scheme. I...suppose if you were actively going to sabotage my plans, I would stash you somewhere rather than let you do so, and would try to ignore how much it bothered me that you were sad? However, my preference would be to actually talk to you and figure out if we can come to some better agreement that is not letting the gods win this round." 

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"Yeah. So, from a position of not knowing the scope of your plans opposition to which might get me stashed or whatever... To be clear I didn't specifically want kids. I wanted the option but -" Shrug.

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"It was an understandable and not unreasonable reaction on your part and also I am very, very sorry." Leareth sighs. "...I think that I ought to tell you about my current plans, but - I am definitely being steered by the lifebond into feeling that I trust you, which makes it hard to consider objectively. However, I think my endorsed action here would still be to attempt good-faith communication first? Though possibly I should try to ask for a second opinion from somebody I work with about it." 

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"Even in situations where I can wreck stuff you might want later?" she asks tiredly.

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"I think that from where we are right now, it would be difficult for you to wreck anything that I will badly need later," Leareth says, with equal weariness. "...Also I notice that I have been doing a great deal of talking about what want and how this affects my life and goals. I think I ought to give you a turn?" 

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"You know what I do with myself, I told you all about it. In principle it can go on unchanged except now I hang out with you, apart from the threat of assassination or whatever, which might easily mean it cannot go on unchanged."

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Lifebond or no, it is probably too early in their relationship to offer her as much funding as she wants for a lab up north where the gods have less power to make anything troublesome happen. 

"I have some thinking to do," he admits. "However, I think that no matter what I conclude, it will be more pleasant for us - and accomplish less of what the gods wish to accomplish - if we can approach this as non-adversarially as possible. Inconveniently, I have made tradeoffs in the past such that it is understandably difficult for you to trust me. Is...there anything I might do to help on that front? I am willing to consider options even if they are quite costly, because this seems important – though I am absolutely not willing to give up on trying to fix all of the problems in the world, and using the methods required to do so when the gods are against change." 

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"Trust you to do what?" she shrugs. "I don't even know what your plan is, so I have no idea if I can offer any upside potential to telling me about it besides being less cranky at you, let alone what tradeoffs I should or should not trust you to make about it, and I don't want to use mind control to solve my problems - I haven't yet decided where the line is between that and merely declining to adjust my emotional reactions to things as they naturally are for your comfort but I'm pretty sure grouching about being in the dark is the one and not the other. But probably I'm not useful because you were in town to talk to whoever that other person was, not me, and you are two thousand years old so if you needed a Healer/Fetcher infectious disease research specialist I assume you would already have one - my potential relevance here is somewhere between 'an inconvenient vulnerability maintained in a less inconvenient state with hugs' and 'eventually achieving the lofty position of one of those pumpkins with eyes painted on it people talk to when they're stuck on a theoretical problem' so perhaps it will never make sense to tell me what's going on, and I will hover indefinitely at being pretty sure you won't actually literally murder me. I am pretty sure of that."

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"All of that is so extremely fair, and yet, ouch." Leareth is sure she can tell about the ouch part so he might as well not try to hide it. "Although, do not sell yourself short – I am two thousand years old and I never thought of the angle you are taking, and I was Healing-Gifted in some of those lives though it was rarely my main focus. More importantly, I have often had Healing researchers working for me and none of them thought of it either." 

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"I think I'm great. I do not know to what extent you think I'm great in a way not mediated by the lifebond and I especially don't know if I'm great in a way that has any relevance to your plan. If your plan involved my specialty I think you would have said so by now. I can do other things, but if, I don't know, you have everything all set up and just need to feed some behemoth of a spell a few thousand people a year without getting interrupted, say, I'm not going to be uniquely helpful and I can see why you would rather hold off on informing me lest I decide to rescue them and throw off your schedule."

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Of course she is correct about her level of awesomeness probably not helping. "Your specialty is not that relevant to my current plan," he admits. "I think the gods would have been hesitant to offer me someone who was." Sigh. "I would suggest we attempt a research project to see if lifebonds can be undone, but that is not your specialty either, and the person who I would usually point at it has a - cultural superstition about lifebonds and is going to shout at me if I suggest that as a solution. Also she is a Mindhealer so you would probably prefer not that." 

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"I mean, I think I could manage to relax if the thing the Mindhealer is doing is removing preexisting mind control. Her cultural superstition objects to removing them even when literally nobody wants them around? - okay, literally nobody endorses having them around, for the sake of completeness I should probably acknowledge that it does seem like it might be. Uncomfortable."

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"I confess I have never asked her for details. My understanding is that the Haighlei Empire's belief is that lifebonds are sacred and that anybody who interferes with them will be cursed by the gods forever and so will all of their descendants. I am not sure if this is true; it seems very extreme to me." 

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"She objects to being cursed by the gods forever and she works for you? What does she think you do, sell apricot jam?"

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Leareth chuckles, he can't help it. "I am not sure! Though - she objects to gods in general, she left her homeland because the gods there are an extreme level of stifling toward all change even compared to the ones east of the Pelagirs. She may just have absorbed the belief about lifebonds and never especially questioned it." 

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"Perhaps she could be convinced to question it." But she shivers anyway.

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"I am also noticing that it feels uncomfortable to consider meddling with the lifebond. Really quite frustrating, that." Leareth's emotions are screaming at him that there is a person right here who he trusts and that never happens and what is he thinking, considering undoing that. He has to keep reminding himself that no, actually, that is a mind-control feeling and not endorsed.

"I suppose we could ask for a research project on a reversible method of doing this – something that would roll the lifebond back to how it was before we met, for example – and then we could become re-lifebonded if, for some reason, we still consented to it from a non-mind-controlled state." 

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"I guess? That sounds like it yields nearly all the discomfort and if we wind up exercising the reversal option also nearly all the mind control and only gets us, like, a while to think about it without interference. And unless the research project would occur overnight we'd be trying out the lifebond removal after getting slightly more accustomed to it than we currently are. It's hard to think around it but it doesn't seem so impossible that it's worth buying a little clarity at that price."

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"That makes sense. It could be that sufficiently thorough external shields between us would get most of the benefit of thinking without interference, without the cost of new research into it." 

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"Maybe. Uh, I have been told before that I have strong shields but it seems like it must be one of those automatic things because I don't know how I'm doing it, so I don't know how to make them any stronger..."

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"I was thinking more the level of shielding that is standard on a mage's Work Room," Leareth says. "Personal shields are clearly not sufficient here." 

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"That seems worth a try. But it might also just do the thing that happens to lifebonded people who are really far apart."

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"I suppose I could briefly Gate home - it is very far - and then come back? Though I think it is supposed to be very uncomfortable to be lifebonded and far apart, and also I would be concerned about your safety in the interim." 

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"I'm in your secret note stash. Last night you left me alone in my dorm room and nothing happened. Or are you thinking you'd be gone for weeks?"

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"I put up quite a lot of wards around your dorm room and would have been there very fast if anything had happened. If you would be willing to stay here for a couple of candlemarks, that seems reasonably safe." He has permanent alarms around it, he'll find out if there's an attack on it, and also it's pretty remote. 

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"I guess I might wish I'd packed lunch? Have you considered that if anyone notices heavy duty magic centered on my room they might find that conspicuous."

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"I think I am fairly good at magic that is not conspicuous, actually. It was not intended to stop an attack, more just to warn me since I was nearby anyway. I took them down afterward." He tries to think of a way to get her lunch that doesn't involve multiple redundant Gates. "...I can bring you back some food? It would not be in that long. Possibly I will decide it is very uncomfortable and come back sooner, unless you would prefer I stick it out for a pre-agreed time." 

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"If it's uncomfortable enough you want to come back sooner then do, I don't have a way to signal you so that's the best information handy about how tolerable it is. A couple candlemarks otherwise lunch to follow sounds good."

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"All right." Leareth gets up. Might as well do it immediately and avoid making her wait longer than necessary for a meal. "...Do you want some unused paper to write on? I am not sure if you brought any of your notebooks."

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"I always have a notebook on me. When not caught by surprise at home." She pulls one out.

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"How prepared of you." Leareth raises a Gate. It is somewhat difficult because it's over a thousand miles, but it won't be up for long. He steps across. 

–ouch. 

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"hng"

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Leareth is not very happy about this either. It is - tolerable, though, for a little while.

"Sorry, I will see you soon," he says, and takes down the Gate. 

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Belrun takes a few deep breaths. She squirms, trying to find a comfortable position, but this is obviously futile from the first and after a couple of squirms she has convinced herself of this. She stacks up two crates in front of her by way of a desk and she writes.

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Leareth makes some notes of his own. It's not clearly less distracting, being a thousand miles apart, but at least it's distracting in a different way, and one that doesn't make faces or have different emotions at him depending on what exactly he's writing.

He gives up after a candlemark and some, and goes to collect some lunch for both of them before Gating back. 

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She does not pause to discuss the ramifications of hugging him before she does it.

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Oh no hugs are very good and he's very happy and relieved to see her and this is strange.

...Also he's less tired than he expected to be, huh – oh. "Belrun, are you feeling tired? I have a suspicion that I accidentally grabbed some energy from you for the Gate." 

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"Uh, I think I'm okay? I haven't been using my Gifts very much, maybe it'd be more noticeable if I were already drained."

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"Fair enough. Anyway, I brought us some food." He starts unpacking the basket of it on top of a crate. "We can eat and then discuss what we concluded separately?" 

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"Yeah." Food food food. She's left her notebook open to what turns out to be weird gibberish mixes of two alphabets, lots of arrows, a division problem, and a large repetitive doodle dominating the lower right corner.

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Leareth respectfully does not look. She's seemed defensive about her personal notes in the past and it's very understandable, he's protective of his too even if they're usually not readable by other people. 

He eats. "So?" he says finally. 

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She picks up her notes, scans them. "Well, it was uncomfortable, but you know that. Uh, prototype procedures are likely to have side-effects and I think it would be hard to find test subjects who wanted rid of their lifebonds to refine it and the side effects might be that bad or worse. The research project might not turn out and I think it being pending would make it harder to get settled in some sort of workable relationship in the interim. That assumes, which we have not established, that the default non-research-project outcome is in fact having something that might reasonably be called 'a relationship' instead of courtesy notices regarding our geographical plans and you assigning me a discreet bodyguard or something. Which I would consider your prerogative because you didn't ask for this any more than I did and have complex secret plans in motion, but it does seem like it sacrifices the silver lining, that being, uh, really nice hugs and so on, probably hugs don't stack up very well against complex secret plans."

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Leareth nods. "I came to roughly the same conclusions as you did about researching ways to undo lifebonds, which I think puts it mostly off the table unless Nayoki knows something she thinks is very obvious that I have never heard of. I noted that being a thousand miles away from you is not very feasible for getting any kind of intellectual work done and this would be...awkward...if you wished to stay here. I..." why is he starting to blush again this is stupid, "considered how much I value the silver lining parts, such as nice hugs. I am not sure but I suppose I would value that at all." 

He frowns. "...I thought about compatibility and I asked some of my colleagues who would know more. I think that, obviously, you are far more compatible than any randomly selected person would be. Most people are not compatible at all. I think I might have wished to speak further just based on your research alone - not because it is related directly to what I need right now, necessarily, but because it indicates creativity and scope of vision which is rare. My sense is that surface incompatibilities are very possible. The disagreement we have about mindreading and such is not surface-level but I am curious if having an in-depth conversation would enable us to better understand each other's views. I am not very motivated to try to understand most people's views because in the past when I tried they were generally stupid, but I have - perhaps rather biased - motivation to listen to you more than to most people." 

Leareth lifts his hand, lets it fall. "I am not sure where I am going with that, except...I think the fact that we are lifebonded is at least some evidence, to each of us, about what the other is like. ...Also I feel very awkward about the difference in age and experience and power generally, I am sorry about that." 

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"How dare you have been born two thousand years ago, serious lapse of judgment," she says. "You're very attached to your current location? I have - students, colleagues - I guess if you can Gate that far it's not like I couldn't see my parents - what was it your colleagues said, did they just confirm your impression of compatibility based on you describing me?"

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"I asked about lifebonds in the abstract first and received some anecdotes that conveyed that impression. Oh - also that people sometimes seem to change a great deal. However, I am not very happy about involuntary change and I imagine neither are you, and I expect we are both more stubborn than average, so I am less sure how that would go." 

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"You imagine, huh. Um -

I'm not sure how feasible it is to attempt to formulate a relationship based on a valuation attached to that relationship of 'at all, I guess'. I haven't had any, and presumably you had your half a million descendants with somebody, so perhaps you're about to tell me that actually it works great, but that is my suspicion."

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"...I did most of the descendant-having in the first five hundred years and coasted on that," Leareth admits. "Also I tended to - make arrangements with women who were excited to have children, especially children who might be Gifted, and provide for their livelihood. I have probably ever had an actual relationship but I...mostly did not have a desire to, in the last thousand years or so? So, this is very awkward and strange for me and, while I am prepared for nearly all contingencies, I do not feel well-prepared for it." 

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"Prob- oh, right, you mentioned it's a - lossy process -"

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"Yes. I keep notes, obviously, but I have limited time to reread them, and relationship advice from my past self is not something I would have prioritized." He shakes his head. "Empirically, the amount I value romantic relationships when I am not lifebonded to someone is 'zero', and this mostly has not troubled me at all; however, I...am beginning to suspect that it will trouble me if the extent to which we interact is merely courtesy notices regarding our geographical plans. This is very weird for me." 

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"Okay, so - what do you see this looking like instead of courtesy geographical updates, I'd always imagined eventually somebody would come along and decide I was the greatest thing since the invention of cheese on potatoes and we'd have some fairly conventional courtship situation and get married and go from there but you are clearly very complicated so what am I working with here."

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"I - um - is cheese on potatoes your go-to best thing to exist? I hope it is not a major incompatibility for you that I am not very fond of potatoes." 

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"It's an expression, I have not carefully sieved a list of all the things in the world to choose the best one. My mom says the cheese on potatoes thing."

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"It must be a Rethwellani idiom, I am not versed enough in the language to know all of those– Why do I want to meet your mother. Is that a normal relationship thing? Is the way lifebonds work that they just make a person want to do all of the normal relationship things?" 

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"It is a normal relationship thing and I do not know if lifebonds do that specifically or if they just make you interested in one another's lives and so do normal relationships."

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"Is your mother an important part of your life? I have said that there have been many people whose lives I was interested in but generally their mothers did not come up as part of the conversation." 

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"I lived with her till I went to university and have dinner with her once a week. My father I see much less often given the travel time but I'd do it more if I could casually Gate hundreds of miles; we do write."

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"Would she disapprove greatly of me if she knew all the context - it is probably not a good idea to tell her," he adds quickly. Why does he care if she would disapprove this is so frustrating. 

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"Uh. I would describe her as 'open minded' but that means 'she has friends of the sort who'd be stoned by the crowd if they described their romantic weekend in a public place' and not 'she will roll with the murder thing'."

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"You know, fair enough, that would be rather an unreasonable amount of open-mindedness to ask for." 

Relationship things...

"If it were up to me I would want to have conversation about what I am working on and what you are working on and, oh, history and magic and mathematics and languages and architecture and..." Probably Belrun is less well versed in a lot of those fields and so maybe that's unfair. "Possibly while hugging, it is confusingly nice. But I would - wish to do some things you found romantic just for that reason, I think?" 

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"When you say hugging is confusingly nice how much should be reading into that. Like... hugs are supposed to be nice. People like them, they are popular."

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"I am not most people and I generally have not felt I had the luxury of the kind of close friendships that involve hugging, much less romantic relationships. I did not feel that I missed it too much until now. I am aware that there are - things other than hugs–" Ohhhhh. "I think I am - not normally set up as a person to be very drawn to...physical intimacy," why is he blushing he is not a teenager he is very much the opposite of that. "Apparently being lifebonded changes that? This is very confusing." 

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"Oh dear. Okay. I guess we will figure that out as we go like most people do and that can be the one thing that is not very strongly influenced by you being two thousand years old, except insofar as it absolutely is because that must be an adjustment and a half."

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"Do most people go around having these - kinds of feelings - more regularly? How do they think or get any work done?" 

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"This is noticeably more than usual!"

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"Well, then, I am sorry about that too." 

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"It's not intrinsically unpleasant but I was going to be kind of put out if you weren't on the same page."

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"...I suppose it is not intrinsically unpleasant. Just distracting. And - I generally dislike having emotions that I did not decide to feel. This does not happen very often! I...will get used to it, I suppose."

Maybe it'll be less distracting if they do the, well, physical intimacy things. On the other hand that might make it worse. Also it seems like it would get in the way of finishing this conversation, which is important, and...aaaaugh now he is blushing ferociously

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Belrun starts giggling. "Not right here this very minute, at any rate!"

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Oh no she is adorable when she giggles. Focus focus focus. 

"...Did you have other items on the list of things that you find romantic?" 

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Giggle. "Uh, I don't think I'm wildly unconventional about it. The one that seems like it might be hard is - okay, so before this mess happened I was imagining what I described before you got distracted by how wrong you are about potatoes? Somebody thinks I'm great and I think he's great and we squash our lives together into a big tangly joint thing where - not that we never think about anything besides each other but we're definitely involved in all the major stuff. If I had wound up with a... I don't know, a mathematician, I'm not saying I would have taken a bunch of math classes to keep up, because specialization is valuable, but I'd have a general idea what was going on and know when to ask him for help with my mortality statistics and contagion patterns, or whatever. And I don't think strictly speaking the lifebond prevents you from satisfactorily thinking I'm great, so far it seems to be doing more prompting-to-notice than wildly changing what your type is. ...or would be if you had one. But fighting it at every turn instead of finding some terms of psychological ceasefire seems like it's going to manifest as shoving me, a person and not a lifebond, in a corner when I'm in the way of your," handwave, "stuff. And I think that - superfluosity - would make it hard to have fun on date night or whatever even if you did show up every time."

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"Right. That...makes sense, honestly. I think that the lifebond wants me to desire that we squash our lives together into a tangly joint thing? Unfortunately I am..." How is he even supposed to phrase it. "Very bad at trusting people?" 

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"It's - interesting that you're framing it as a skill."

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"What would you call it? ...Perhaps habit would be a better framing. I am very much in the habit of being cautious and paranoid and concealing my plans. That is...something my life experiences have pushed toward." 

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"I think I'd have said 'inclination'? And the lifebond supplies that in spades, leaving only deciding whether it's talking nonsense or not."

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"Is it doing that for you as well? I keep having the feeling that you are deeply and utterly trustworthy even though we have known each other for a day and I have nowhere near enough actual information about you for it to be justified." 

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"Yeah, it's doing it for me too, I'm running most of my decisionmaking by imagining people similar to ourselves but not ourselves and generating advice for my counterpart."

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"Very reasonable." Sigh. "Something that one of my colleagues pointed out is that there is much less risk to telling you about my past work, since that is hardly a secret from the gods and even if you did go and tell, oh, the government of Rethwellan about it, it is unclear what exactly they would do about actions I took a thousand years ago. And...it will be easier to explain my current plan with that background." 

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"I'm all ears."

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Leareth sits back and tells her a bit about the early history of the Eastern Empire. He did plenty of not-very-nice things but there were, in his opinion, some extenuating circumstances there. Also he kept getting murdered. It took him a while after that to decide the culprit was gods and not just that an inexplicable number of human secret organizations and cults hated him.

(He'll get to his part in the Mage Wars. That's...harder to talk about.) 

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Over the course of this explanation she winds up leaning on him again.

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That is very distracting! It's also nice though so he doesn't actually want to tell her not to. 

Leareth gets to the point in the history where he decided to start using lots of compulsions basically as oaths of office in hopes it would lead to fewer assassination attempts on him and his key people. (It did and it meant he was able to hold the fledgling Empire stable for forty years and get through a number of infrastructure projects that raised the average quality of life drastically.) He still braces himself for her reaction. 

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"If they sign up for it as part of the job description, I guess. How does that work though, I don't really know how gods issue instructions to assassins?"

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"I am not sure how they did it then because I did not catch on for a long time. They generally cannot speak directly to mortals, though there are exceptions, but they have various spirit representatives, sometimes embodied magical representatives – the Companions are not quite this but they were created directly by at least one god, the details are unclear. The Suncats in Karse are another example. Also there is Foresight, prophetic visions, that sort of thing. And - the gods are able to see possible paths into the future directly, much more extensively than human Foreseers. This means that They can nudge very indirect paths into motion without it being clear to anybody from a human angle how it was done." 

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"But if the indirect path terminates on someone electing to assassinate you - which it must, for the compulsions to help - they still need some way to convince or coerce the assassin, don't they? Which should be clear to the assassin if no one else."

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"I was not able to question any of them during that time period. I have occasionally had the opportunity to do so since, and the reasons they believed they were doing it have varied from 'straightforward power grab' to 'they thought I was literally a demon in disguise'." 

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"Huh. Uh, that makes me slightly more reluctant to move away from here - it seems like people who know me and know I've been around for a while and that I am not a demon might be a useful safety buffer and it's not trivial to replace."

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"Fair enough. I can arrange to stay here for some time before it would really present a problem." 

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"I'm not saying I can't pack up and haul elsewhere, it's just I'd want to be really clear on what conditions for myself and my research I'd be looking at if I move, uh, wherever you just went."

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"That is entirely reasonable. I will note that any god-related schemes are unlikely to reach where I just went; I deliberately selected my base of operations such that it is not an area under the control of any of the main powerful gods, and they are not able to move fast when it comes to expanding territory." 

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"They're territorial?"

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"I am sure it is more complicated than that from Their perspective, but it seems to be a reasonable approximation of what actions they can and cannot feasibly take." 

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"Couldn't they grab someone willing to run errands for them in a place they control, and give them... directions?"

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"You would think so. I suspect that They can but that it drastically reduces the chance of success, such that the somewhat absurd number of precautions I tend to take is sufficient." 

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"Huh.

So, there's sort of a weird - tension between trust and compatibility here, in the sense that - imagine you'd gotten lifebonded to someone who heard that you were immortal and the gods were mad at you and it didn't seem like that was very interesting to them? Like, we don't have to posit they're mad at you or horrified, just that it doesn't seem like it's independently something they'd care about, shoving around the arc of history on a divine scale. That person you could probably trust a lot, because they'd care about you, and your projects for the sake of you, and wouldn't get ideas about - what was my random guess earlier - rescuing a bunch of people slated to be fuel for a giant spell. You'd have - an accessory, more or less, if you wanted one, and if you didn't I guess you'd - leave your work at work and go see them while taking breaks? I have seen evidence that you eat and assume you sleep, maybe that'd be it, I don't know how much of a workaholic you are.

I am not that person. I have been handed a lever to shove around the arc of history on a divine scale and the only thing stopping me from immediately seizing it with both hands and - and also Fetching and my teeth - is the fact that the lever is made entirely of mind control, and just because I don't like that doesn't mean I couldn't shift around if I think you're doing something indefensible. Which I assume means that we will have livelier conversations over supper but does put something of a damper on you wanting to tell me what the other end of the lever hooks up to."

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Oh no she’s so perfect. Leareth keeps having to remind himself that this perception is also mind control. At least to some extent. It seems like she is objectively speaking still pretty great.

...He is finding it very hard to say words because Belrun talking about wanting to seize the lever with her teeth and shove around the arc of history on a divine scale is giving him so many feelings. 

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Apparently those feelings are going to make her smile!

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Aww, it's very good when she smiles and it makes him feel all warm and– focus. "That is...fair." He resists saying that he doesn't want to be lifebonded to a boring person he wants to be lifebonded to her because she's wonderful; he doesn't know that it would be true if not for lifebond-mind-control although he would probably want to recruit her either way. 

"It does seem that if we can ever come to an agreement on what direction we wish to shove the arc of history on a divine level, it could be fulfilling for both of us?" 

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"Sounds like loads of fun assuming you can cut down on the thoughtsensing and compulsions and whatnot."

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"I will if you can convince me that they are worse than the anticipated level of sabotage and murder attempts that will get through if I stop using those precautions." He frowns. "...I am probably willing to shift it somewhat on the margin without too much more convincing, just as a test. I am used to being maximally paranoid and perhaps that is more cautious than I need to be, actually. Also it would not be too horrifically costly if it turns out I am wrong and all of those layers of precaution were necessary, and that might be more convincing to you?" 

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"I'd need to look at your logistics to know what specific changes I'd make. I don't mind having it as a job requirement as long as whoever you're offering the job can also go 'to hell with this, I'm opening a pet store' - compulsions or consent to random Thoughtsensing spot checks or whatever. It does kind of sound like this is a habit you got into when you ran an entire nation and I'm assuming what you've got now has less porous surfaces and fewer moving parts, though, the habit might just be out of date."

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"That does seem possible. I think the compulsions I would be most uncomfortable dispensing with entirely are all voluntary job requirements. There are...some other cases, which you are going to be much less happy about because they are in fact quite terrible." That fact hasn't bothered him until now. 

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"And those are?"

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Better to get it over with. "Starting about thirty years ago, I had various plots to kidnap Valdemaran children with mage-gift and instead train them as mages north of the mountains. Many of them were under compulsions although most are not at this point and I ceased doing this a decade ago anyway." 

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Belrun's reaction to this is about like finding half a worm in her apple. "Well. Probably the nightmare horses would have gotten them anyway but that doesn't exactly put you in very good company."

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"That is fair. I have done a great many things that do not put me in good company." 

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"Most aren't at this point? What's different about the ones which are?"

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"Well, there are certain highly sensitive positions which, if opted into, require voluntary compulsions. There are some who sought intermediate-level positions, which did not require compulsions but where indiscretion could cause issues, and then - were indiscreet. And had the option of leaving said position or a compulsion. I do not think there are any permanent compulsions in use that are not at least this level of voluntary; it is a bad idea to have people working for you who have no interest in doing so, because there are always ways to sabotage a project that work around the letter of a compulsion." 

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"Guess that makes sense."

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"Does it still bother you, though?" 

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"I don't like it but if they just like their jobs more than they dislike their compulsions then it's more on the level of really not caring for cashews, you know?"

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Leareth bites back a chuckle at the phrasing. "My sense is that a surprising number of people do not mind it very much at all, or even prefer it? It simplifies things. Perhaps makes it easier for some people to trust themselves. ...I have used them on myself before." 

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"Help yourself to all the cashews you want, I guess. When does that come up?"

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"I have occasionally used very short-term compulsions to make sure I would meet deadlines?" 

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"Okay. If that's... how you want to do things, it's your brain. That's really the underlying principle, it's your brain. I will however not be entertained to discover that you're using it for any interpersonal relationship purpose."

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"It is very difficult to use compulsions in a way that is both useful and not noticeable to the person it is used on," Leareth assures her. "Also, long-term compulsions that a person is not - accepting of having - are bad for the ability to think, in my opinion, and you are highly intelligent and wish to grab the levers of history," damn it now he's having the same weird strong emotion again, which is probably called 'sexual attraction', why does having a conversation do that.

"...Anyway, it would be a waste to make you any less capable of doing your research. Also it would upset you and that would upset me, but I thought the first assurance might be more meaningful, since it is meaningful even on ruthless strategic grounds."

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"I'm not saying don't put any on me, I think you probably have enough listening comprehension to have picked up on that, I mean don't use them on yourself for purposes relating to me, if I'm expecting you to show up for something don't meet that deadline in the aforementioned way."

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"I did think the former thing was rather obvious. I...feel as though I am supposed to understand the latter objection but am not sure I do?" 

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"I can tolerate people doing unpleasant things in their personal lives but I don't want it to impinge on mine."

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"Is it still intrinsically unpleasant even if it is the same amount of happening all inside my head that my ordinary thoughts are?" 

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"I wouldn't necessarily find out but there are lots of things I wouldn't necessarily find out about that I don't want as inputs to my life in any context where all I'm consulting is 'do I like it or not'. Arc of history on a divine scale, I can suck it up if it makes sense. Attempts at conducting a romance no."

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"Fair enough. It does seem silly to try to romance you in ways you find very unromantic." 

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"I think so too. Uh, are we doing that or are we in a weird holding pattern till you ask your Mindhealer if it's secretly easy and harmless and we just have very uncommon preferences?"

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"...Oh, sorry, I did ask her. She looked at me like I had three heads and said she'd never heard of such a thing." 

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"Is it just me or does it sound extremely weird to describe my two thousand year old god-defying lifebonded as 'my boyfriend', because I just imagined trying to explain this to my mother and it sounded very weird."

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"It is not just you. That feels very weird. Are there better words?" 

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"I guess 'lifebonded' works. Mind, I'm not planning to tell her the part where you're two thousand etcetera, it just seems like 'boyfriend' is not a you word."

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"I suppose that works fine." Leareth sighs. "So, what is our plan from here? I suppose I should bring you back to town at some point before your mother assumes I have kidnapped you after all." 

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"Yes, probably. You have another Gate in you and neither of us is going to be fainting afterwards?"

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"It is not very far. Another thousand-mile Gate would be challenging, but this ought to be fine. I might want a nap afterward." 

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"Okay. Suppose you Gate us back to your inn, you take a nap, I visit my mother, and then since if we're doing this we may as well go about it properly we go to a nice restaurant for dinner, unless you have reason to believe any of this will lead to us being murdered."

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"I am not sure but I would not currently assign it a massive risk, although - this is probably overkill but honestly I would feel more comfortable if you had some form of magical shielding and a way to call me in an emergency. There should be some materials here as well as records, if you are willing to do that even just for my peace of mind." Leareth is feeling VERY PROTECTIVE of Belrun but he will, in fact, sometimes need to sleep or let her go have her own life. 

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"I don't mind. I know there's such a thing as a shield-talisman but I don't think I've heard of an - emergency contact talisman?"

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"I can give you one to call an alarm and let me find you. It would not be trivial to give you one to speak with me since you are not a mage - unless you are a Mindspeaker, are you? You did not mention it but you do have shockingly good shields even for a Healer."  

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"I think it's just Healing and Fetching but I guess it's possible I have something else helping there which has never done anything else for me?"

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"Did you ever have your Gifts formally tested, the way a mage would do it, or did you simply notice what seemed to be happening?" 

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"Just noticed. So I could be missing one that was being unnoticeable. Do you know how to check me?"

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"I do, if you are willing to have me check. Sometimes children who develop Mindspeech early form instinctive shields without ever realizing they have the Gift. You have such a strong dislike of anything interfering with your mind, that would make sense." 

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"Is there some reason I wouldn't want you to check? Does it hurt? Will you accidentally discern my favorite color?"

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"It technically involves looking in your head and it will feel odd. Probably less odd than," he waves a hand vaguely, "everything about being lifebonded, and I am not going to see anything except your Gifts, but still."

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"Go ahead then."

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Leareth looks. It feels like a weird sort of tickling deep inside Belrun's head. 

"Definitely looks like you've got Mindspeech and Thoughtsensing as well," he says. 

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"That itched," she says, squirming. "Well, I'm glad those haven't been troubling me - can you imagine if my Thoughtsensing had started acting up, I'd have been mortified, I'd have insisted on standing in the exact center of the nearest field of carrots until I could make it stop -"

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"Sorry. ...Do you want to train at least the projective Mindspeech part of it? It is very useful - to have conversations without being overheard or in parallel to spoken ones, or to communicate at a distance." 

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"Uh. Maybe. Does this involve not shielding constantly, by any chance."

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"I think that most protocols between Mindspeakers involve opening your shields exactly enough to project a single stream of verbal thoughts. Some Mindspeakers have a greater tendency than others to leak some thoughts accidentally, but I imagine you would have excellent control there. It does, technically, involve shielding slightly less." 

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"It's probably useful enough I should do it anyway."

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"Would it be more or less uncomfortable for you to practice with me, rather than an instructor we might find?" 

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"I can probably just sign up for a university tutor and get along all right? I don't know how many demands you have on your time. You would be more comfortable to practice with than a total stranger."

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"I am not incredibly busy on a day to day basis and also I...want to see you and do things with you. I would enjoy doing almost any kind of Gift-work with you, I think, if it were something you also enjoyed." Why is he blushing, what is the point of that supposed to be. 

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"Then you can teach me. ...why aren't you busy? Do you not like being busy, I do."

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"I prefer not being too busy to think. I do end up using all of my time, but I minimize the number of mandatory scheduled commitments unless they are very important. Also, at least in this stage, I ought to have slightly more room to delegate than I have been taking." 

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"I suppose it's useful to have the slack even if this isn't what you were planning on using it for."

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"I had planned it that way mostly because I have been expecting the gods to throw various schemes in my direction because they notice I am planning something major, even if they are not sure what. They have in fact gotten surprisingly creative over the last few decades, but - this is a new one."

He smiles despite himself. "Honestly, I am hopeful it could be a much more enjoyable redirection of my time than previous ones, even if it is not at all what I was planning. Perhaps the gods are hoping simply to distract me with - nice things - since distracting me with wars and such was not very effective." 

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"You don't think they're, uh, setting up a longer-term means of incapacitating you?"

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"It does seem like the default theory, there. I need to think more about - what the sensible precautions are to take." Sigh. "...I am also considering whether they wish to sabotage my plans by, for example, making me intrinsically unwilling to use mind-control magic, and then sneaking in something through that vulnerability. Or perhaps they intend to do both in sequence? It is very frustrating to try to predict what gods are up to." 

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"I gotta say, from a perspective of being very protective of my mental sovereignty, it's disturbing to consider that I could have been... designed specifically to elicit that trait."

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"Yes." Leareth ducks his head. "I am sorry." 

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"It's not your fault, and anyway I do like how I am."

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"I also like how you are! Even if we have different feelings about metaphorical cashews." 

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Giggle.

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Leareth hugs her without thinking. "...You are so distractingly adorable when you giggle like that." 

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"Thank you. That would be an amusing godly plot, wouldn't it, 'ha-ha let's glue him to a person with a cute laugh and he'll never get anything done' -" She leans right into the hug very cozily.

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Perhaps he will just have to accept not getting anything done for the next five minutes, at least. 

"...All right, we ought to go find you a shield-talisman and an emergency contact method, and then I can Gate us back to town," he says finally. 

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She nuzzles his shoulder but then stands up and stretches. "Okay."

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Leareth digs up the inventory list for this particular cache, and finds a crate of artifacts, and gets Belrun a shield-talisman necklace and a bracelet that she can use to call for help by sliding two beads together (the bracelet is set up so this won't happen accidentally), without having to actually do magic to it. The only message she can communicate is 'come here right now', but it'll do until she has some Mindspeech training. 

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She tucks the necklace under her shirt and decides it's probably okay if the bracelet is visible, and takes his arm so she can follow him through the Gate without tripping.

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For simplicity, Leareth Gates them to his room at the inn, he’s already paid up for tonight and it’s less conspicuous than appearing in an alleyway, although the mage-students in town must be wondering what’s up with all the Gates. 

He hugs Belrun again. “Good luck. Be careful, please.” He is going to be so angry with himself if it turns out he was wrong about the appropriate level of paranoia against god-prompted assassins here.

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"I'll keep an eye out. Uh, have some distinctly awake emotion at me when you're done with your nap or else I'll just swing by when it seems like dinnertime." She squeezes his hand and lets herself out into the hall and goes to her mother's house.

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Leareth takes a nap. Well, tries. It takes a bit to fall asleep because he keeps daydreaming about Belrun being there next to him. 

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And she is NOT. Instead she is INCREASINGLY FAR AWAY! Also she trips at one point.

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Leareth was almost asleep and now he is NOT. He is instead up and halfway to the door before he catches himself with a forceful reminder that Belrun has survived twenty-two years of tripping sometimes (he can guess that is what happened) and is still alive, she doesn’t seem distressed now and hasn’t called him and probably there is not a god-scheme to remove a paving stone or something so she trips and breaks her neck. He makes another attempt at sleep.

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She is apologetic at him when he startles.

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He is apologetic back, and if she makes it the next few minutes without tripping and startling him again, he will manage to fall asleep. Resulting in some sleepy affection squeezed down the lifebond to her.

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Awwww.

She has a nice surprise visit with her mother and waits for him to wake up.

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Leareth wakes up a couple of hours later and semi-involuntarily sends off a loud pulse of ‘awake and MISSING YOU’ down the lifebond. 

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Awwwww well she can come to him or he can come find her if he wants to try that?

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He will head out in her direction! It involves a bit of guesswork but he can definitely tell if he’s getting closer or further.

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She meets him in the street and hugs him.

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Hug!

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"Rana wants to meet you."

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“That is your mother? I - all right.” Why is he so nervous, this is unhelpful. “Is there anything I ought to be cautious of?”

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"Not especially, she's pretty friendly and easygoing."

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"All right. I suppose I am willing, then. ...I have not specifically tried to make a good impression on somebody's mother in, well, probably centuries and possibly longer. You can inform me through the lifebond if I am about to make a major false step and I will shut up." 

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"I will keep half an ear on it but she's really not very difficult to get along with." She leads him to the house.

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Wherein a woman who looks very much like her is watering her houseplants. "Hello there! Belrun said she wasn't sure what name you'd want to go by with me -"

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"Leareth." He nods to her. "Very pleased to meet you. You must be Rana?" 

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"That's me! Have a seat - Belrun says you're a mage? I'm a teacher, little kids so high -" She gestures. "This one cheated me of teaching her to read, I turned around one day and she could already do it, so I make it up with other people's."

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Leareth can't remember the last time he interacted with a small child in a way more substantive than 'smiling at them across the street'. (Literally can't remember, it was probably before he was in this body and wasn't worth re-memorizing from his summarized records.) He still smiles, mostly at the mental image of Belrun at that age. "How rude of her. I had already noticed she is very clever. What is your favourite part about teaching?" 

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"Kids that small have no filter - I don't mean they say rude things, though they do that too, but they say inventive things, I never get tired of it. Other day I was talking about sunrise and there was a little boy who thought that sunrise was not very important because most of the time the sun isn't going up but is rather going left. I did not quite manage to explain that the sun doesn't have a left."

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"How sweet!" And now Leareth is mostly out of anything to add on the topic of small children, and gives Belrun a hopeful glance. 

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"Is that the same kid who thought that acorns were tree eggs and later clarified that the baby trees walked on their roots till they found a good spot?"

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"No, no, different kid. So I know there's all kinds of mage-work, what kind do you usually do?"

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Well, the true and complete answer to that is definitely not parentally acceptable. "I work with mage-artifacts," he says. "Shields and various other types of spells." He can say some more things about common types of artifact if Rana seems interested. 

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"I noticed the new bracelet, I knew she hadn't gotten that for herself."

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"I got myself a necklace once."

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"You were twelve and it wasn't decorative, it was for carrying a pen."

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Leareth smiles fondly at Belrun. "Has she always liked writing so much, then? It is rather impressive." 

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"It picked up to its current level of enthusiasm when she was, oh, six? Though she has learned to write faster since then so I'm sure the volume's up."

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What an incredible mental picture. Leareth feels a wash of affection and almost reaches out to take Belrun's hand, before realizing that he didn't clarify if this was appropriate in front of her mother. 

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She will hold hands with him in front of her mother; her fingertips reach his before he can abort the gesture.

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"Awwwwwwww... sorry, I know it's been rough for the two of you, but -"

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"Well, you know, there's no point in making up our minds to be depressed about it forever."

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Leareth has no idea what Belrun told her mother about them and the 'rough time' they've been having, so he just nods and gives her his best neutral smile. 

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Rana keeps them a few minutes longer - she wants to know if Leareth has brothers and sisters, and that he shouldn't take Belrun to watch Bards because she doesn't like them, and to recommend that they go to dinner at a specific fish restaurant she likes - and then she shoos them out the door to go get their meal.

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Leareth tells her no on brothers and sisters, which is the most true answer at this point. He hopes she won't ask about his parents because he would have to make something up; he drafts a few sentences in his head just in case. He'll keep the part about Bards in mind (he bets he can guess why), and he appreciates the restaurant recommendation. 

"Thank you for raising such a wonderful daughter," he tells her as they stand up to go. And then blushes ferociously. Why does this keep happening to him. 

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"You be good to her!"

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"So that's Rana," says Belrun. "I was pretty vague - it's not that uncommon to give a false name at Healers', I told her, uh, you're older than me but not by an amount that makes me worried I'll outlive you..."

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Leareth chuckles. "What a clever way to put it. I like her. Is it actually common at Healers' to give a false name or did you make that up?"

Are they going to hold hands on the way to the restaurant? 

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They are going to do that! "It happens when people are worried about being found, such as by whoever injured them - or if they don't want to be followed by people interested in taking it up with the attacker, sometimes - also people on inadvisable drugs. I mostly don't see it myself, I'm a pinch-hitter if that, but one hears secondhand."

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He's walking down the street holding hands with his lifebonded. This is so surreal. "Huh. What sorts of inadvisable drug use do people end up at Healers' for?" 

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"Alcohol. Too much of it, or combined with literally anything. It's literally poison and it tastes bad and yet! Dreamerie plus having tried to light a fire or what have you. Painkillers - had a bad argonel case once and I took a half-night supervising to keep the patient breathing."

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"That sounds tedious – I hope that is not a tactless thing to say. Do you dislike alcohol because it has effects on your mind?" 

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"Good guess, yes. Though it does also taste bad. I acknowledge its value in making there be less life in one's drinking water, of course, dysentery is also bad, but..."

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"It is! Maybe you can research some better method of avoiding it. Did you grow up somewhere that had problematic drinking water?" 

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"I was born in a town barely large enough to have its own little Guard unit and it's iffy there but I don't remember living there, Rana moved me to Haven when I was a baby and it's all right there. But I don't want to come off like I'm judging people with questionable wells for mixing wine in, it serves a purpose and they're going to deal with some kind of health consequence any which way."

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"I see. What had her move to Haven?" 

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"She just really prefers living in large cities. Married Chalan - that's my dad - before she was aware enough of this to notice that they were not things she could do at the same time."

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"That sounds somewhat awkward. Are they otherwise still on good terms?" 

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"They get along fine. He's just extremely attached to his town and she was bored to tears."

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"How did they meet?" 

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"She was born there too. Everybody there knows each other. I went there to visit and nobody in town had seen me in more than a decade and they all still knew who I was."

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"That must be quite something." 

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"How noncommittal of you. Yes, it's something, I mostly agree with Rana but I can see Chalan's perspective."

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"I do not have any memories of growing up in a small town where everyone knew me, and so I genuinely have no idea what the experience would be like. I suspect I would mostly dislike it but there might be some good parts that I am currently missing for lack of having experienced it." 

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She goes a little pensive at the not having memories part. Squeezes his hand.


"That's the restaurant over there." She points.

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Leareth heads in that direction. He pulls out a chair for her. 

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That's adorable.

The restaurant mostly has fish, pulled out of the river and served with various combinations of garlic, herbs, butter, and lemons, but they also have bread and various fishy soups.

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Leareth will try a fishy soup, then. 

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Belrun decides against a garlicky trout in favor of a lemony trout and also hooks her ankle around his under the table.

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This is giving Leareth feelings. Mostly very confusing feelings about how he wants to touch more parts of her. He asks what her childhood in Haven was like instead. "Other than the nightmare horses," he specifies. 

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"Honestly even setting aside the nightmare horses there was a lot I didn't like about it. Bards everywhere, a lot of people my age couldn't read, the winters were frigid and our house was drafty and for some reason there were not a normal number of contractors around and they were hard to hire so we couldn't get it fixed, and there's this hideously loud bell that goes off whenever a Herald dies, which you'd think would encourage them to find some way to get them killed less often and did not. It wasn't tortuous but I didn't exactly miss it but for the threat of getting Chosen."

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"Huh, does Haven have a shortage of contractors?" I should tell Vanyel, is the thing he's thinking, but - that is a very high context conversation and not one to have in a public restaurant. 

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"I don't know if it's actually a problem to do with how many of them there are, I wasn't mostly the one trying to hire them. It's possible they merely have a byzantine permitting process, or something, and Rana wasn't sufficiently on top of things to manage it - she's a scatterbrain sometimes."

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"I suppose that is less of a difficulty when one teaches small children, since they are probably even more scatterbrained." Leareth is trying to listen but keeps getting distracted by the fact that Belrun's face is pretty. Probably he'll get used to it at some point? Right? 

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She thinks this is funny. She thinks he is also very nice to look at but has more practice thinking people are nice to look at.

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They can eat the rest of their dinner and talk about various random things and then - Leareth isn't actually sure what the plan is next. 

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The plan is she takes his hand again, and they go out into the street where it's getting on sunset, and she puts her arms around his neck and stands up on tiptoes and kisses him.

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...So many feelings SO MANY FEELINGS and one of them is that Leareth wants to pick her up and twirl her around for some reason so he does. So this is why people like kissing so much. He had honestly never bothered to wonder about it that hard. 

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She wasn't expecting that but it's fun! She expects that she is not an especially good kisser but someone who discovered what it was like to have a crush on somebody yesterday cannot reasonably be disappointed so she is attempting not to dwell on it.

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Leareth is definitely not disappointed! At all! He's probably also a bad kisser but honestly even if both of them are bad kissers he's not sure this is making the experience worse for either of them. It seems kind of maximally good. 

...Is standing around kissing outside a restaurant a done thing? Leareth realizes he's paid very little attention to whether this gets people frowned at. 

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They should probably tone it down a little.

"Uh," she says, pausing to catch her breath, "my dorm has the single bed but the guest room at Rana's I used to live in has a double - she'll tease but she won't mind -"

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"If you are sure?" Leareth is also a bit out of breath but in a weirdly good way. "I mean. Yes. I would like that." He hopes Belrun is aware that he has no idea what he's doing, but if they made it work for kissing they can probably make it work for, well, everything else. 

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"I don't have a very specific agenda but I don't want to let go of you and don't expect that to change in the next twelve candlemarks."

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"I also do not feel any urge to let go of you." What is the least letting-go-of-each-other they can manage and still walk? 

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With some effort they can walk down the street with her arm twined around his and her head on his shoulder!

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Which is kind of impractical but practicality is, for once, not Leareth's top concern. 

(He makes a halfhearted attempt to think about whether he should pass a message or something, but he just spoke to some of his people up north earlier today, they're not going to be expecting him back tonight, it'll be fine - he'll just have to un-distract himself long enough to do some discreet wards because he's pretty sure that while he is kissing Belrun he would miss any other magic happening nearby up to and including a Gate on the door to her room.) 

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Rana gives them a knowing look but nothing more when Belrun tugs Leareth into the guest room, which still has a bookshelf in it but otherwise no longer looks much like Belrun lives there. And then she renders him unable to notice adjacent Gates.

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Fortunately there are no suspicious Gates with assassins, because he stays distracted for a while. 

Eventually Leareth finds himself snuggling her and very sleepy and halfheartedly trying to check the wards one last time...

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Belrun has no such tasks she needs to be doing and just wraps herself around him cozily and falls asleep.

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And some time later they will both find themselves in a howling snowstorm, facing a pass carved through a very large mountain, Belrun standing a ways back from Leareth with a group of other silent dream figures and wearing lots of magic jewelry and sturdy winter clothing that keeps her cozy.

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Leareth does not seem at all surprised. "Herald Vanyel," he says. 

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A silver-haired figure clad in travel-worn Herald's Whites steps out at the mouth of the pass. "Leareth." He starts walking forward.

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Huh. Lucid dream. She's too far back to hear the conversation and doesn't know its contents via Dream Subtext either. Weird setting for a lucid dream and she can't turn it into a nice beach even by concentrating but at least she's not as cold as it looks like she should be. Oh well.

She starts scaling the nearest cliff-face, propping herself up where it's slippery or sheer with Fetching that's just slightly too weak to hoist herself outright off the ground. The dream is allowing her Fetching to work normally, and at normal strength - though it's far too dangerous a hobby to entertain while fully awake - it does suffice to let her to, from a sufficient height, glide in a pleasing fashion.

Swoop!

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Vanyel has made it about ten paces out from the mouth of the pass. "Leareth, I needed to talk to you about– what in all hells is that?" 

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...swoop? Okay she comes in for a landing next to Leareth to see what's going on in the Dream Plot. "...hello?"

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Leareth is giving her the stunned look that someone might if they had just gotten up to start a lecture to their students at the university and a complete wedding party had just fallen through the ceiling. 

"...Um," he says, which is the first time he has ever audibly said 'um' in front of her. He goes through about six things he could say and lands on the one that's shortest. "You must know of Herald Vanyel?" 

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"I... don't think we've met and I don't have dream subtext on it either, no."

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The man in white jogs up to them. He's actually quite young-looking, maybe in his mid-thirties, but with the look of someone whose twenties were very gruelling. "Leareth, if you were going to bring up the songs, don't, just, do not. I will throw a snowball at you. Who is this and what is she doing, um, flying over my head in the dream?"

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"This is Belrun," Leareth says, and then gets stuck on saying the 'lifebonded' part, mostly because it's just occurred to him that Vanyel is pretty likely to find that upsetting. 

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"I feel like flying is a very obvious thing to do in a dream. I refrain awake, you lose more Fetchers that way. ...is this some kind of magic dream? Leareth, do you have contagious magic dreams - anyway. Songs? I avoid Bards and am accordingly not up on current events."

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"Vanyel here – from Valdemar, obviously – heroically won their war with Karse a couple of years ago," Leareth says. He seems to be trying not to have facial expressions. 

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"I think it wasn't just me," Vanyel says dryly. 

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"It was approximately just you." 

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"Uh. Congratulations. ...if I'm in the way of your magic dream, or this is not a magic dream and you're just not very expository dream characters, can't quite tell which yet, I'm perfectly content to glide around for the duration," she adds.

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"Oh, it's a magic dream," Vanyel says. "Leareth, what is she doing here?" 

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Leareth glances at Belrun, lowers his voice. "What are you doing here? I did not think that - the situation - meant you would just turn up in all of my dreams. Unless it is only this one specifically." 

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"I didn't do it on purpose! I do not normally have magic dreams."

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"It must be related to the - other thing, then." Leareth glances at Vanyel. "I think we were about to have an important conversation, but–"

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"I mean, I'm very curious," Vanyel says. "Also it's not like this is a huge secret anymore, that's kind of the whole point. If you know who she is and she isn't just some random person, I guess she can hang out while we talk. It just might be boring. Or gross. Or generally un-fun." 

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"I'm not a random person, he knows who I am," confirms Belrun slowly. "And I can abandon a conversation I'm not getting anything out of but I'm not squeamish, so, uh, converse away, I guess. ...it's nice to meet you?"

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"Short version is I did blood-magic at an important battle because I was dumb and was going to die otherwise and I kept it secret from almost everyone but then there was a different scandal and someone leaked it and I just went under trial with the Heralds' Court about it and they ended up deciding it was fine but I don't know if they were right," Vanyel says all in one breath. 

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Belrun Fetches over a heap of snow to sit on. Opens her mouth to say something, pauses, glances at Leareth, subsides.

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Leareth makes himself a seat as well and puts a heat-spell up between them. "Well, do you think that what you did was reasonable and justified?"

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"...Yes," Vanyel says, with some obvious reluctance. "I mean, everything I did leading up to having to do that was stupid, but - given that I was in that position, I can't see that not doing it would've been better?" 

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"What were your considerations?" Leareth says. He glances at Belrun. (He's weirdly tempted to offer to drape some of his cloak around her, but Vanyel is going to give him such a weird look if he does that.) 

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"They were enemy soldiers and they were trying to kill me and I would have killed them anyway except I was out of magic. Due to being an idiot. I - don't see that it's really worse to have killed them for power?" 

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"Ignore me if I'm just retreading context you both already have but is there even a treaty in place between Valdemar and Karse forbidding wartime blood-magic?"

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"I would assume not given that the Karsite side was using it copiously," Leareth says dryly. 

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Vanyel nods. "It's against Valdemar's Laws, and - the rules that apply to Heralds around acceptable use of Gifts, I mean. It's obviously not against Karsite law although Queen Karis might be trying to change that." 

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"So the issue has absolutely nothing to do with the effect on the victim, and instead people are worried about - moral injury? Public relations? Isn't your Companion supposed to handle both of those for you, I thought that was what they were for."

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"I think the concern is about - precedent, basically? Yfandes didn't repudiate me over it, obviously – she was mad but she also got it, she was there with me. But, the thing my aunt said is that it means something real that Heralds aren't supposed to do that kind of thing. Aren't supposed to even be capable of it, because our Companions would repudiate us if we were bad people. So everyone's really confused about what that means. Also the King is furious with me for not telling him two years ago when it originally happened, which is on me, I - thought nobody knew and what was the point, but I should've guessed there was a good chance it'd come out eventually in some giant scandal." 

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"But Yfandes didn't make you tell him either, or tell all the other Companions herself?"

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"No. I mean, my aunt knew because she was there, I talked it out with her, but - I guess Yfandes didn't want to deal with the fallout of telling the Groveborn either, even though she admits now that it probably would've been wiser."

He shakes his head. "I guess the thing is that Companions aren't morally perfect, they don't always know the right answer and when they do they can't always bring themselves to do it, if it's scary. But - Valdemar is sort of built on this assumption that they are perfect, and so...everyone's really confused and upset when something like this happens." 

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"Wow. Okay."

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"...I think the point everyone's coming to agree on now is that there shouldn't have been such a hard line against it in the first place, because - well, Yfandes doesn't think it was monstrous, neither does Rolan. Or, no, that's not it exactly - they agree it was pretty monstrous but so is fireballing a thousand Karsite soldiers from fifty miles away and nobody blinked an eye when I did that during the war, and this...wasn't less justified. And no one's ever thought that having a Companion means Heralds can't kill enemy soldiers." 

Shrug. "No one's talking about making it legal. I don't think anyone, including me, wants Valdemar to become like Karse was during the war, even though – gods, I can understand why they did it? They were desperate because they were up against me, and in the battle of Sunhame they sent out a bunch of recently drafted priests and priestesses - kids, really - with mage-gift and probably a day worth of training in throwing blood-magic around. Wasn't enough to hold us off but I get why they tried and I don't see what other options they had at that point. Anyway. That's kind of a ramble. I don't know." 

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"Sounds bad all around, I'm sorry that happened to you."

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"Er, thank you, I guess?" 

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"I am still confused what you think the Court did wrong," Leareth says. "It sounds as though they realized some previous thinking had been unreasonable, and shifted it." 

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Helpless shrug. "I'm worried they - did it for the wrong reasons? It'd be one thing if I thought people actually understood why I made the choice I made, how I was thinking about it. But I'm kind of worried they just...thought they had to come to a verdict that let them keep me around as a Herald. For political reasons, because I'm a war hero and they need me. I don't want it to have been decided that way because they - think I'm special and different." 

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"So if some other Herald had done this what would they have done instead - kidnapped their Companion and exiled the Herald to the Pelagirs or something? I don't think there's actually a system for de-Whitesing a Herald whose Companion is right there endorsing them."

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"I mean, no, that has literally never come up before." 

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"So they could have just had their hands tied by having no system to deal with this whatsoever, and I guess they could have pulled out more creativity if you weren't the sort of person who could pretty much singlehandedly win them a war, but actually there is not some clear protocol of justice you have evaded for corrupt reasons, it's just a mess?"

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"The entire thing is definitely a giant mess. I - think they sort of ended up deciding I did it partly because I...wasn't emotionally stable at the time and therefore it's less my fault? And, I mean, it's not false that I was kind of a mess, just, actually, deciding to do blood-magic had nothing to do with that. So I'm kind of unreasonably mad about that part." 

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"Seems like being not only exonerated but also seen and understood is a pretty high standard to have for your governing authorities but I suppose all the Heralds are friends and that'd muddy it."

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Sigh. "I said I know I'm being unreasonable about that part. I'm mostly angry that they interrogated me under Truth Spell about that. It felt very unfair. Which I know is also unreasonable. It's just been kind of a terrible week." 

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"Yeah, it sounds bad. I assume you have people who are not total strangers inexplicably sharing your dreams to hug you but maybe they're all Heralds and it's awkward? Do you want a hug?"

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"Huh?" Vanyel blinks at her for a moment and then turns to look at Leareth. 

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Leareth raises his eyebrows a little. "She does not bite." 

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"Then, um, sure, I will take a hug from the flying dream stranger." 

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"How would you know if I bite," she says to Leareth, but she hugs Vanyel and doesn't bite him at all.

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It's a very good hug! Vanyel is still extremely confused but now he can be confused and getting hugged at the same time, which is an improvement. 

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"I at least feel it would be bafflingly out of character for you to bite Vanyel unprovoked right now," Leareth says, sounding amused. "You do things for reasons and I cannot thing of a sensible reason for that action." 

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"Yes, yes," she says fondly.

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When he's done being hugged, Vanyel looks back and forth between the two of them. He is so very, very bemused about it, but... "Are you two, er, together?"

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Leareth's expression immediately goes very blank. It's not that he definitely doesn't want to tell Vanyel or doesn't trust him with it, it's just - he completely failed to think about it in advance or prepare any kind of script, because he was busy...being distracted...

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Well if he's not going to give her any cues here she's going to go "uh" kind of stupidly!

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Vanyel looks back and forth between the two of them some more. 

"...You are," he says, almost smugly. "I can't believe it. Leareth, you have a sweetheart?"

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"Um," Leareth says again, with no expression in his face or voice at all. "...Yes, actually, I do." Apparently. "Why is that so surprising?" 

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"You've got to be kidding me. It's shocking. I didn't know you were capable of, um, having attachments to people, and–" oh gods now he is imagining Leareth in bed with Belrun and wow he should not have pictured that because now his face is on its way to crimson. 

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"This is a really difficult conversation to participate in without more knowledge of applicable infosec policy," remarks Belrun after considering and discarding other statements such as "well, it is out of character and took an act of god to change it" and "it's recent" and "it's not like you had lots of them over the last two thousand years, right".

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"I think," Leareth says, wearily, "that - excuse me, Vanyel - that we should not have any further conversation on that particular topic at this time. If you would prefer not to speak any more about your recent experience, I suppose we could exchange songs again."

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Vanyel gives him a narrow-eyed look. "Sure, I guess it's none of my business anyway aside from the part where she's in the dream." 

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Ooh does Leareth sing she wants to hear him sing. She sits on her snowheap and shuts up.

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Leareth does sing! He's not exactly Bard material but his voice is perfectly serviceable and he can hold a tune reasonably well. The song he sings is in another language, he introduces it as a lullaby from the Eastern Empire. 

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Vanyel is a very good singer. And looks delighted the entire time during his own song, which is in Valdemaran and seems to be a romantic ballad about star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of Valdemar's war with Karse. 

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"I really don't listen to enough music," she remarks between songs. "Industry is infested with Bards."

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"Um. Is this an awkward time to mention that I'm technically Bardic-Gifted? ...I mean, barely." Vanyel holds his thumb and forefinger up, millimetres apart. "Also it doesn't work in the dream anyway, I can do pretend magic here but not mind-affecting things. Also I don't use it really ever. Why don't you like Bards?" 

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"Don't like mind control in any form. Also just artistically if my native opinion of some song is that the lyrics are insipid and the tune repetitive someone trying to sell me on it should use technical skill and not just shove me in the brain about it."

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Glance at Leareth. "You two must have the most fascinating dinnertime conversations." 

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Carefully neutral expression. 

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"It's been interesting."

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"How about I take another turn with a song." 

Leareth does so, then Vanyel sings a very silly bawdy song that he can barely keep a straight face through, and then the dream-sky starts dissolving. 

"Until we meet again," Leareth says–

–and Belrun will wake up back in bed with him. 

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"Mmmrf. That wasn't very restful." She squints out the window to guess the time.

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It's still dark out. 

"I am sorry," Leareth says, also sounding groggy. "I would have warned you but I did not expect - that to happen." 

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She snuggles up. "Brief me in the morning 'm tired."

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"Mmm-hmm." Leareth wraps his arms around her and falls asleep again.

They both sleep pretty late and wake up with sunlight creeping through the curtains. 

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Yawn. "Good morning what was that all about."

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"Mmm...?" Leareth opens his eyes, sleepily hugs her, sits up. "Probably unsurprisingly, it is a rather long story. I am sorry to drag you into it unexpectedly like that. I have been having that dream for...thirteen years, now? So there is a great deal of context. Roughly, it appears that Vanyel is the gods' Chosen One to fight me, but both of us take some issue with this and have been trying to figure out if there is a better way to resolve it. He does not trust me at all, which is honestly very reasonable on his part, so that has provided difficulty." 

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"I have many reactions to that but for some reason my first one was 'you are only allowed to send me to Valdemar as a hostage if I know what's going on'."

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That earns her a very startled look. "How would that– oh, as a way to earn more of his trust?" 

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"I mean, it'd probably work. But it would be very unpleasant and I don't really want to so I would need to know why."

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"I was not at all considering asking you to do that!" The idea makes him feel very scared, which is a strange thing to experience because Leareth isn't scared very often. "I do owe you the full story, though, in any case. Breakfast first?" 

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"Rana'll be at work already, I'll get something." She smooches the top of his head and gets a change of clothes out of the drawer reserved for her in the dresser. "There's probably a better way to handle your situation but I don't know so I'm wildly guessing. You're so jumpy about me - do you normally do that deadpan with Vanyel literally all the time, he must be so bewildered -"

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"...Yes? Or, well, that is - just the way that I am, normally, I am not used to it requiring effort as it did this time." 

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"Pfft." Now she is wearing clothes and can go make oat porridge.

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Leareth puts on his clothes from yesterday (he really ought to go buy more sets of clothing if he's going to be in town much longer, he packed lightly.) "Am I really jumpy about you?" he says, following her to the kitchen. 

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"I think so? You freak out when I trip, you get spooked when I idly suggest traveling to Valdemar as a gesture of good faith even though I'm right here and have no travel plans..."

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"I suppose that would qualify. Is everybody not like that in relationships? I do not want anything bad to happen to you!" 

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"I mean, most people aren't lifebonded and don't have immediate feedback on every misstep taken when they're not even around, but also it's kind of an overreaction. I've been assuming it'll calm down. Obviously you don't fall over as often as I do but I think the way I became alarmed when you unwisely got out of bed too early was comparatively restrained."

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"...Perhaps. I have been murdered kind of a lot and it is possible I am - more jumpy than most people and more likely to assume danger - as a result." 

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"It's also possible I'm calmer because I figure if you get murdered I will putter along for a month or so and then you'll pop up?"

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"Fair enough. I will try very hard not to get murdered because it would be inconvenient and also make you sad." 

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"And kill a dude."

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"...Also that, yes. I already try very hard not to get murdered and that is a reason, but now I have an additional reason of it making you sad, although - I am really not sure where I would put any more paranoia about not being murdered, short of never leaving a safe bunker up north, so perhaps I cannot." 

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"I should probably tell the dean I will not be available to teach microbio again next term today. I should possibly tell him I need to cancel the rest of the term."

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"Perhaps you can tell him that you had something come up that may necessitate dropping the rest of the term, to give him more warning, and then we can discuss it in more depth before making a final decision?" 

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"Yeah, okay." Sigh. "After breakfast I need to check my eggs and then prep for today's class, I can wing it occasionally but I used up my winging it last time. You can audit the class if you want, nobody ever checks whether people are signed up to do that or not."

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"I would like that." He's surprisingly eager to see what Belrun is like when she's teaching. "And I can tell you the rest of my history with Vanyel now, unless you would prefer I try to cover some of it over breakfast." 

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"If you can finish clarifying before the porridge is done don't let me stop you."

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There's kind of a lot of clarifying. Leareth starts at the beginning, with, well, the fact that his original plan involved invading Valdemar, and that about fourteen years ago he began having a dream-vision - mysteriously, he doesn't even have Foresight - about a Herald meeting him to kill him. 

He initially put a bounty on Vanyel's head. Not intending to kill him, he just wanted to have any idea what was going on. 

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"...did you try sending him a letter first or jump straight to kidnap attempts?"

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"I tried sending a messenger to give him a message, I thought he would be in Haven, but apparently he was not in town at the time and nobody my spies at the time could actually obtain rumours from knew where he was." 

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"I guess that would complicate things. I take it you did not successfully kidnap him."

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"...No, I did not. I think he went to the Pelagirs, which are rather impassable even to bounty hunters. In any case, about a year later it very unexpectedly became a lucid dream and we started out with some very awkward conversations. He would have been seventeen at the time." 

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"And now you give him advice and trade songs?"

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"It took some time and another accidental murder attempt to reach that point. ...To clarify, I set up a number of contingency plots to assassinate him if I decided I wished to, and then apparently the instructions to shut down one of them did not successfully get passed along – but since the assassin in question was his family's priest and he never goes home, this went unknown to both of us for over a decade. It was quite embarrassing. He was understandably miffed about it although he is shockingly difficult to kill." 

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"That does sound... embarrassing's one word for it, I guess. So since it's a Foresight dream can you alter its contents by making different plans? - also if I'm there how did you not know who I am."

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"The dream setting has never changed despite both of our plans being very different as a direct result of its existence, so, I guess that no. And, I had wondered who you were! The dream was originally quite vague – I know that you are here, that I have given you kind of an absurd number of artifacts to keep you safe and also comfortable, and I know that you are important for some reason, but not your name, let alone the rest. I had been assuming you were a person I would end up recruiting much later." 

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"Well, I was very comfortable, but there goes my plan to leave myself notes. I wonder what would be in the notebook that must be included - there has to be one, I always have one -"

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"A very intriguing question!" 

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"I guess I'll check when - or I suppose if - it happens again. How often -?"

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"Every two to four weeks on average, in the past. More likely to happen when I have just learned something new, or he has. I suppose you count." 

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"Huh. Is this whole deal god-mediated, or... what?"

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Dark look. "Most likely. Vanyel and I are both very confused about what the gods are hoping to accomplish with it, though, given that the two of us speaking does not seem to actually help with the goal of causing him to murder me." 

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"One could ask the same question about, uh, us. Do they definitely all hate you? I mean, Astera doesn't seem to mind you using her hierarchy for mail service."

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"Some seem much closer to neutral. Astera is a minor deity relative to most of the others and does not appear inclined to interfere with that system." 

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"How do you tell which gods are doing a thing if they don't kinda sign their name? I don't think anyone's sure who handles Companions unless the Companions do and aren't telling, for instance."

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"Some have signature methods - for example, Vkandis is occasionally fond of striking people with lightning bolts to make a point. The Star-Eyed has Her spirit warriors, Vkandis has Suncats. Also if something is clearly within one territory - Karse, or the Pelagirs - that is a hint. And of course if the gods scheme by sending visions to priests and such, generally They do so to members of a religious order that worships Them. Often, however, it is not clear which god is responsible for something." 

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"Why are you classifying Astera as 'more neutral'? You're using her religious hierarchy to pass your mail, that has to be incredibly open to sabotage on her part, and she hasn't touched it! Someone who had no opinion on you at all might still object to the co-opting of their stuff."

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"...I suppose that is a fair point. Though as far as I can tell Astera does not interface directly with that priesthood in any way and has not for centuries. Perhaps She does not consider it to be among Her possessions, if that is even how gods think of things." 

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"I guess. I'm really curious what-all you've got on the gods and what they're up to."

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"I have theories and quite a lot of notes, but," he looks down at his empty porridge bowl, "are you going to be late for classes?" 

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"The one I'm teaching is in the afternoon and I don't feel nearly as bad about skipping the ones I'm taking, though I guess all else being equal it would be nice to show up and that would involve leaving now, yes."

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"Would you like me to sneak in to those with you as well?" 

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"Up to you, if you're interested in a lecture on the circulatory system and a survey course on economics."

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“I am if it is where you are - only if you do not mind, of course...”

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"I guess it's a little weird looking but I'm not going to - stay, am I, so -"

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“If you think it would stand out a great deal, I could find somewhere to wait nearby...” Being highly conspicuous also seems bad although maybe Leareth is just being unreasonably paranoid. It’s very irritating how all the lifebond emotions make it hard to tell if his paranoia is reasonable or not. 

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"I mean, if anyone's paying attention they'll notice you're following me around, right, and that might actually be weirder if you're not also sitting in on the classes."

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"Fair enough." At least that will also give him the advantage that if anyone does come after her then he'll be right there. 

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So she walks him to her room to pick up her school stuff and they attend a lecture on the circulatory system and she takes a lot of notes and asks a question about capillaries and then they attend her economics seminar and it's about currency exchange and she takes a lot of notes on that too and then it's lunchtime and they can go to the cafeteria. No one tries to assassinate her the whole time. Someone does ask her who Leareth is in econ and she tells them "he's my lifebonded" and they say "that's new" and she says "yes it is" but that's the end of it.

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It's a weirdly enjoyable morning even though none of the material is that novel to him. (Though it's kind of novel, especially the circulatory system, he hasn't put a lot of effort in this lifetime into learning about that field.) 

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After lunch she goes to her lab to check on her eggs (they have numbers painted on them) and do class prep work and teach microbiology! It's about things-like-flus and how they wreck tiny creature-parts (better names pending) from the inside.

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That part is incredibly fascinating! It's Leareth's turn to take a lot of notes. 

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Awwww she likes that. Warm fuzzy feelings.

And then she's free for the day unless she wants to do more things to eggs, which is always an option. "Except I should stop by the Dean's office, let him know..."

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"Would you like me to come with you for that, or hang back? Also, I would not at all mind seeing more of your work in the lab. I am quite curious." 

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"You may as well come along since I have to explain you anyway." She heads toward the admin building.

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Leareth follows. He keeps finding himself smiling for no reason other than the fact that he's with Belrun.

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She has a five minute wait to see the dean. "Hello sir."

"Sujana! If you need more funding you need to go through the -"

She shakes her head. "Uh, I actually came to tell you I might be leaving soon. I got, um, lifebonded, only he doesn't live in town -"

"I can tell them to up the funding -"

"It's -"

"And we can get you joint accommodations and -"

"Sir -"

"- a grader for your class and he can move here so -"

"I'm going to see about finishing out the term," she says, a bit loudly, "but it might be that urgent business calls him away and I'll need to go too, I'm afraid he's not as portable as I am research and all in the long run. It's nothing to do with the university, I've been very happy here."

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Leareth feels kind of bad for the poor man now, who clearly wants to hang onto Belrun so badly and rightly so because she is great. It's not like they really have the option of her sticking around long-term, though. 

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"What's the urgent business?" the Dean asks Leareth directly, frowning.

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"I run an organization based a long way from here that does various magic-related work. I was intending to visit the city only briefly for related business, but, well, then Belrun and I met. It ought to be all right to leave things for a time but there may be work-related emergencies." 

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"We've got a good magic department here," coaxes the dean.

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"I will keep it in mind." That is not technically a lie even if he's unlikely to end up deciding differently based on it. 

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The dean accepts Belrun's suggestion about who could try to muddle through the rest of her lesson plan for the term, and tells her that he'd really appreciate it if she can stay out to the break, and shakes her warmly by the hand, and they are released from the meeting.

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"It seems as though that went reasonably well?" 

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"I think so. I don't love skipping out on them, they've been good to me, but."

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“But sometimes circumstances change in ways that are neither your fault nor theirs.” He squeezes her hand.

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"Yeah." Squeeze. "I don't actually think I should travel with the eggs unless you want to hold a Gate directly to wherever you plan to put me while I carefully Fetch them through one at a time, since, you know, they contain infectious diseases, so maybe I should try to wrap up the current phase of research and get it down to a small number that's practical to do such a thing with."

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"That would seem wise, yes. Hopefully there will not be any emergencies and we will have the ability to do that – and, yes, I could definitely hold a Gate directly to your new lab, once one exists. I ought to at some point take down the setup you will need for it." 

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"The one I have now is pretty good, though I guess it could stand to have more space. You get regular egg delivery up there? I go through a lot of them, one egg doesn't last more than a few weeks and I keep moving the microbes to new ones."

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"I could arrange for there to be chickens kept? I mean, presumably not in the lab itself, but conveniently nearby." 

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"That would do, sure."

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"Should we go to your lab now and I can take some notes on the setup while you show me your work?" 

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"Sure."

Her lab has a lot of eggs, painted with numbers, on lazy susans so she can rotate them to within range of Healing-Sight easily from wherever she puts her chair; a fire at the end of the room where she puts a pot of water on the boil for dispatching any eggs she's done with and sterilizing the racks on which the eggs sit; and a lot of notebooks, shelved under the counters where the lazy susans rest. She has a new delivery of eggs today on the steps to the building with her name on it and picks that up on the way in and paints numbers and invisibly Fetches tiny things from egg to egg to duplicate strains, painting new numbers and recording their contents in the notebooks as she goes. She doesn't touch the eggs with her hands once she's got them labeled and emplaced in lazy susans at all.

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It's an impressively well-thought-out layout and Leareth does take some notes, but it's not the thing that jumps out to him most. "You have very good fine control with Fetching," he says, feeling a burst of pride. (It is objectively pretty impressive but the pride about it is probably a lifebond emotion. Not that he really minds at this point.) "Most Fetchers who are as strong as you do not also practice the delicate side nearly so much – particularly not if their primary work is Healing!" 

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"Most Fetchers kind of don't think about how the Gift works, for some reason? I actually have the same complaint about Healers but I think it's more understandable when the thing they're doing instead is dealing with bleeding people right in front of them, that's definitely very distracting. The typical Fetcher has no such good excuse."

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And that's it he is now completely drawn in and paying her full attention. "Fascinating - say more? I actually am not at all an expert on Fetching, at least not in this body and brain, so I am not even sure what the conventional wisdom is on training it." 

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"It's got an Othersense, for one thing, it's subtle but it exists - I named it 'touchsight' and wrote a paper on it, I've got my copy in my room. Also it's possible to Fetch parts of things, although a very solid one will take a lot of force to take apart."

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"Really!" Belrun is shockingly creative as well as clever, and Leareth is very impressed, and - now he wants to kiss her about it, which isn't where he's used to the feeling of being impressed ending up, but it's not unpleasant. "I would be delighted to read your paper. Vanyel has Fetching, also, so if you do end up in our magic dream again, he might be curious as well." 

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"I do really need to know what he already knows and what he's allowed to know, I would not actually have guessed that 'guy you're trying to deescalate from prophesied war with' was someone you wanted to teach exotic Fetching technique."

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"...I suppose I do need to consider whether he needs to know and not just whether he would be very satisfyingly impressed with you." Leareth sighs slightly. "I worry that wishing everybody else to also know how excellent you are is going to distort my thinking on this. That being said, I do often share magical lore with Vanyel. I advised him on some of the work that went into building the new Web in Valdemar; after all, I am trying to be on friendly terms with him." 

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"And not just that - does he know you're immortal, can he know we're lifebonded and you didn't just pick me up somewhere, does he know about the whole thing where the gods are pretty down on you..."

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"He knows about the immortality and the gods and a number of other facts about my past life although not all. I would have to go through a list with you. I - need to think about the lifebond. Probably it is fine. I hesitated in the dream because he lost a lifebonded partner in the past and is understandably very traumatized about it." 

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"I didn't think people survived that."

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"Neither did anyone until Vanyel, I think. It has been almost fourteen years. He manages it surprisingly well but it is a sore point." 

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"I don't know how to mention it gently enough. There might not be a gentle enough."

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"Perhaps not. However, it is - more difficult to explain why we are together otherwise, and he must be very suspicious that you were pulled into the dream at all, which I now suspect is due to the lifebond resulting in my being 'inside' at least one layer of your shields – do not worry! I cannot read your mind at all! Also it would be disrespectful to your preferences so I would not if I could, but in fact I cannot anyway." 

He looks down. "...I should tell you that one of my plots was involved in the death of his partner. It was closer to an incidental consequence than something I sent orders for someone to do - an unsavoury person who had been a sort of bounty hunter for Valdemaran mages decided to accept coin from a Valdemaran family to help with their feud against another family, and this resulted in some messy deaths. I think Vanyel is not angry at this point; his circumstances are very clearly part of a god's plan, and so likely the gods would have found a different plan if my bounty hunter had not been available. It is, however, still something where I bear significant causal responsibility." 

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"He knows about that and he sings you songs. That's astonishingly forgiving."

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"Yes. He did not speak to me for a long time - a year at least - but, I think eventually he concluded that he had already known of my activities of this sort, and that if it had not troubled him enough then that he refused to engage, it ought not be any different simply because my victims had included somebody important to him in particular." A slight, fond smile. "Vanyel is like that. He tries to be consistent. Also, in general, he is very forgiving." 

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"...pity I don't know how to bring up how admirably reflective it is without being upsetting."

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"Yes. Perhaps at some point I will think of a way to tell him that is - a minimal amount upsetting, at least. In the meantime we can go over the other facts that he knows." Leareth pauses. "...He does not know my actual current plan. Yet. I...have been working toward telling him, but it seems likely I will tell you first." 

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"That would be nice."

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"You have a right to know, I think. I had been waiting to - cover some more of the background for it, and for a good uninterrupted stretch of time to discuss it." 

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"How long an uninterrupted stretch?" she asks, spinning her last lazy susan to check out egg 6-64-18.

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"Probably it would not need an entire day, but several candlemarks at least." 

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"I only have econ and not microbio or the healing lecture tomorrow, if it's too many candlemarks to fit in after dinner."

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"Probably. We can cover some more of the background with the gods after dinner, maybe." 

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"Sure. ...am I just effectively moving out of my dorm..."

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"I suppose that might be the simplest thing to do here, since I do not actually find the idea of sleeping apart very appealing." 

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"Me either. More of a walk to school but not intractable, I did it my first year here. It'll be annoying to move the books."

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"I can help although I suppose a Gate is probably overkill." 

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"Probably. I can most likely borrow a cart from somewhere."

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Nod. "Do we want to start on that tonight or later? I am imagining it might take multiple trips." 

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"Yeah, might as well." She makes a last note on the eggs and piles up firewood on the fire so the eggs won't take a chill overnight and takes his hand to head out. "Dinner first."

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Leareth squeezes her hand. "Dinner sounds wonderful." 

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Dinner is beef stew and bread and then they can go borrow crates and a cart from Facilities and pack up about half of the books in Belrun's room.

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Belrun's room seems reasonably private, so if it's all right with her, Leareth can put up a sound-barrier with magic just in case and then explain some background about gods while helping her load the cart. 

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Sounds good to her.

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Leareth can start with the Star-Eyed Goddess and describe her ancient pact with both the Shin'a'in and Tayledras peoples, formerly the Kaled'a'in before the Cataclysm happened. He's not sure what Her territory was before the Cataclysm, but afterward She ended up adopting some of the worst-hit regions, and has been leading efforts to get them repaired ever since. She's a bit subtler than Vkandis in the way She works, but seems even more determined to hang onto Her people and bind their descendants in perpetuity. He suspects She teams up with Vkandis a fair amount, and has reduced but non-negligible influence within Valdemar even though he's pretty sure Valdemar is primarily under a different and much more hands-off god. 

The Star-Eyed does not like Leareth at all and, taking into account Her spirit-warrior avatars that can directly give mortals orders, and the fact that She can send premonitions to any of the peoples bound in a pact with her, She is pretty able to prevent him from operating at all in Her territories. 

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"What can we assume about what any given god knows - like, does this mean I can't go there either?"

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"It would be helpful if we knew which one was responsible for the lifebond! I would suspect the Valdemaran local god but I know very little of Them. I am not sure if the gods would have shared information on the lifebond, or to what extent They can target you personally. That being said, probably you do not want to visit the Pelagirs or the Dhorisha plains anyway. The locals are quite hostile to any outsiders. Vanyel is somewhat of an exception, as he and his aunt have friends among the Tayledras." 

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"In Valdemar I think Kernos and Astera are popular, but you don't seem to think they necessarily interact directly with their churches, so maybe that's unrelated?"

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"I think that Kernos perhaps interacts with the monks of His order at all - though not often and the last documented instance was centuries ago - but has a fairly small actual territory mostly confined to the northwest of Valdemar . I am not even sure which interventions to attribute to Astera, but I have a theory that Her original territory is further south or southeast than Valdemar and the temple order simply spread much further. They have some profitable business with scribes making and selling copies of rare books." 

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"Huh. What limits their spread if not each other?"

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"I suspect something comparable to total 'size' or strength - They exist across all the planes and have relatively little influence on this one, so it becomes inefficient to try to control a very large area. Though sometimes a given god's territory is not contiguous – Iftel and Karse are both under Vkandis, for example, despite being on opposite sides of Valdemar and Hardorn. Do you know much of Iftel?" 

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"Uh... Queen Elspeth married a guy from it?"

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“The country is on surprisingly good terms with Valdemar given that they do not even allow Heralds in through their impassable barrier. I am not sure how that worked with Elspeth’s state marriage.”

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"I guess she didn't visit him at his place? Uh, they export wine. They speak Ifteli, which I think is related to Karsite." She grabs one of the notebooks they're packing, finds something toward the back, finds another notebook, flips to a page in the middle. "...okay, that's actually all I have on it, and I have a note here that it was hard to recall last time I needed any of this information."

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Leareth nods, unsurprised. "I find that everyone not of Iftel has difficulty recalling facts about it, and no one has much idea what goes on inside. I suspect there is some kind of mind-affecting magic causing this but I have no idea of how it works." 

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"Why would anyone do that though?"

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"Well, the obvious theory is that Vkandis has some kind of operation in Iftel that He does not wish outsiders to learn of. I have tried very hard to set up spies there and never succeeded, it is very frustrating." 

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"That's so - that's really big! Are there other things like that -"

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"I think Iftel's shield-wall and whatever magic causes the diffuse anti-curiosity effect is the largest and longest-duration single intervention I am aware of. Another major one is the Heartstones that the Tayledras have; do you know anything of that magic?" 

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Headshake.

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"Do you know much about ordinary magical nodes and ley-lines? I am not sure if that discussed among people who are not mages and cannot actually see or make use of them." 

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"I know the school is near a couple."

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"Yes, I noticed. In any case. Nodes are a natural collection point for mage-energy, but they can only be drawn on by Adept mages - you cannot tie a permanent spell directly to one, which is a major limit on how large and powerful permanent set-spells can be. A Heartstone is different; it sits at a hub of ley-lines, like a node, but provides a sort of 'surface' where many other kinds of spell can be linked in. It has, not quite a mind of its own, but some minimal intelligence; a Heartstone is almost alive. This is not something that can be done with ordinary magic. The Tayledras rely on Heartstones greatly in order to survive in the Pelagirs, and the way the Star-Eyed Goddess granted them this ability was by allowing them to copy a small fragment of Herself every time a Heartstone is created." 

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"What does it mean for something to be a fragment of the Star-Eyed?" She starts loading boxes onto the cart.

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Leareth helps her. "I actually know little about Heartstones because the Star-Eyed does not like me and so I have never seen one. They have memory of a sort and can answer questions, although I think they do not understand questions so much as draw up a list of everything they 'remember' associated with the concepts in the question. They can sort of communicate with other Heartstones. I believe that they also give the Star-Eyed direct access, so She can cause things to happen in Vales with much greater ease and finesse than gods can usually manage in the material plane." 

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"I feel like I'm somehow even more confused than I used to be about what gods are able to do. I mean, because before I wasn't thinking about it too hard since as far as I knew they mostly left people alone apart from the nightmare horses and I was clear of those. But still."

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"They leave most people alone. I am not most people. You...are also not most people, but I think They would have left you alone if not for me, unless you were to get up to something much more drastic than giving eggs the flu–" He stops. 

"...It would be a good time to mention that the gods seem to particularly dislike change and innovation, at least ever since the Mage Wars. I think They might be leery even of something that just allows more people to live healthy lives, simply because it would allow populations to grow and free up more total person-hours towards work that builds the future. I do not think They would see your current work as a threat, yet, but it is possible They will eventually become alarmed, if you succeed at some point at curing a disease and are working on more. Or...before, perhaps, since They perceive many possible futures as well as the present moment." Shrug. "Moot point, perhaps, since I assume at least one of Them is aware of your existence thanks to the lifebond alone." 

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"They dislike change and innovation even that's just about curing diseases? That's not... I mean, I could come up with applications of my work for warfare but curing diseases is not one of those applications."

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"One would think! So far the innovations I have been involved with that I am confident They intervened against include the development of a magic-run printing press, interest-bearing banks, and democracy." 

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"That's... a very weird list of things for gods to be against. Like - is this collective action, or does it just happen that if you run a large empire, it will contain a lot of god territories, and if you then try to turn the empire into a democracy, one of them will be allergic and the others aren't going to intervene to save you?"

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"I think this might sometimes be the mechanism, but..." Leareth sighs. "My current best theory is that the gods disprefer turns of events that - make the future more chaotic, harder to predict. Possibly some of this is for good reasons, since rapid societal change can occasionally lead to catastrophe. I think it is also partly because Foresight is something akin to Their main sensory modality? And indirect nudges, which work only if their Foresight is not too blurry, are the most efficient way they have of steering the future towards paths They prefer. Which are certainly not maximally bad. They prefer humans and other sentient species to be around and living in stable conditions, it seems. The Haighlei set of gods to the far west take change-aversion to a truly remarkable extreme, resulting in an almost completely static civilization. Conversely, the gods in - some other periods of history and locations, where innovation flourished - must have been unusually permissive." 

(The time and place of Urtho's Tower is a good example, and...presumably the gods who were nearest to the Cataclysm are not, in fact, around anymore.) 

Leareth shakes his head. "But...I think that at least some gods will intervene upstream, on social technologies that seem likely to increase the overall rate of future innovation. The printing press is obvious. A well-run banking system can better fund various merchant ventures and industries. And democracy - might lead to freer scholarship and flow of ideas? There are a few democracies on this continent that have lasted for centuries, and in practice they seem to be the ones with relatively little academic freedom." 

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"I think I'm getting mixed up by how you're presenting this, as a mix of - evidence you've collected, your conclusions and speculations from that evidence, and things I can observe in the modern day which fit or don't fit your model in various ways, and propose that we figure out some less messy structure to get me up to speed."

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"Fair enough. That will go much easier if and when I have all of my notes on it available. They are mostly up north." 

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"That's reasonable. In the short term it seems like all I need to know is not to wander anywhere obviously god-y, watch out for extremely religious people, temple of Astera in particular is fine?"

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"It ought to be though I suppose I am not certain. I think covering all the context right away is not a requirement for your short-term safety in this city in particular, though I will still feel more comfortable if I am nearby." Smile. "Possibly that has as much to do with the fact that I enjoy your company." 

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"That's the mind control talking, I'm very tiresome." She takes his hand as they tug the cart out of the dormitory.

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Probably they can navigate a heavy-laden cart safely while holding hands, especially with magic and Fetching. "Fortunately I suppose we will never know if I am tiresome, since the mind control would not let you notice either." 

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"Are all your employees very intimidated and wouldn't tell you?"

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"I hope not all of them are too intimidated - honestly, I hope that Vanyel at least is not too intimidated - but I might not know about that either. I think Nayoki has told me at least five times that I was irritating her, though, so perhaps I am not doomed on this front." 

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"He thought it was so funny that you had a 'sweetheart'. Which might not mean specifically that he's intimidated, I guess."

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"One might think if he were sufficiently intimidated he would not want to make a comment like that at all." 

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"I think I lend you the opposite of consequence."

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Chuckle. "Perhaps that will prove helpful!" 

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"It might! Which, uh, prompts the question of why exactly this happened to us in the first place, I'm going to want to give all your theology evidence a kinda thorough going-over."

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"Very sensible of you. You may well see things I have missed because - already having an interpretation can colour observations and make it difficult to notice other possible interpretations." 

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"Yeah, I'm sort of concerned you've gotten wedged into a particular frame. I'll double-check you when you've got your notes."

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"All right. It seems likely I ought to Gate back and retrieve them sooner then." 

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"Ow," she says preemptively. "Well, needs must."

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"Sorry. I will be much quicker this time! Or I suppose you could come too for the duration, it ought take less than an hour." 

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"...yeah, I think I'll come."

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"Maybe you will help me to be less intimidating to my employees! I suspect I will earn a great many odd looks." 

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"I bet. 'Ah, our boss who never makes facial expressions has brought home a girl two orders of magnitude younger than him and I think I saw him smile!'"

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"I am fairly sure I make facial expressions! When you are not around, even." 

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"The only time I've seen you when you did not know me to be around was when you were staring at Vanyel like a dour painting."

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"You will have to find an example of a dour painting to show me so that I can see what you mean." 

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"I'll let you know if I run into one."

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They reach Belrun's mother's house again and Leareth helps her unpack the cart while planning the order of notes-retrieval at his biggest library up north. 

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Rana is home by this hour; Belrun confirms it's okay for them to live in the guest room till the end of term "because, uh" and Rana agrees that this is fine.

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Leareth politely asks Rana how her day at work was. 

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