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Dar sold them horses, for an amount of gold that didn’t seem exorbitant to Lilah. She was not used to the gold piece economy, which in her Padva lay four or five generations in the past, but she felt pretty good about her intuition that Dar did not feel like he’d gotten the better of them. In any case, thirty minutes after arriving in ancient Olvar, Lilah and her comrades were in the saddle and on the way out of whatever that village was called.

Lilah, city girl, gritted her teeth and hung on, and the other two led her a merry chase for two hours in the sunny countryside. Rob was actually quite the horseman, and Annelise was no slouch. The countryside was mostly flat—for more than half the way they followed a river valley. Mountains rose in the misty distance; every five or ten kilometers a castle guarded the Great Road. They were not stopped at any gates, nor were the delayed much passing through the walled villages.

The sun was setting when they came to the low stone out-walls of Oloren. They found an inn just inside the much more serious walls of the Old City. The inn, with a sign depicting a cute dozing dragon, exuded comfort. It seemed to be run by hobbits.

“I trow your worships will wish to attend the Common Room this night,” said the merry little lady in a peasant dress who showed them their suite. “It looks to be really keen. There’s folk from all compass points, and some that ain’t even properly folk, if you see.”

“Okay, sure, we’ll go,” said Lilah. The little lady bowed and went out, and they looked around. “Nice digs,” she said. “I doubt we’ll be here tomorrow night.”

“Where will we be?” asked Annelise.

“Decades into the future,” said Lilah. “I hope. Okay. One bed, but it’s big. Annelise, you and me get the bed. Rob, you get the ottoman.”

“Where’s the ottoman?” asked Rob.

Guf thuk tev jin,” said Annelise, flicking her wand. She gave the tip a back twirl and then swinging left. A brownish ottoman appeared out of nowhere. “What do you think?”

“I can sleep on that,” said Rob. “You and Mr. Marius both know that spell?”

“I just picked it up,” said Annelise. “It’s my first try. Hence the color.”

“He’s only sleeping on it,” said Lilah. “Let’s hit the common room.”

The Common Room was a busy place tonight. There was no organized entertainment but plenty unorganized: dwarves singing as they got drunk, a fellow with the head of a hound singing in his own way, three groups of drunk humans in three different parts of the big room singing and playing more than three different songs, a couple of men shouting at each other, a couple of bears waving mugs and growling out a tune, a big man and a woman just as big slugging it out between tables. Alcohol was involved.

“We going to get any intel here?” asked Rob.

“I’m not,” said Lilah. “Annelise isn’t. Rob, you’re going to go absorb some general info about the system here, who the king is, what’s up with the Institute or whatever, that sort of thing. Can you do that?”

“I’m sure I can,” said Rob. “Just pull me out if anyone decides to hit me.”

He sauntered off and plopped down on a bench half the room away, among a group of human and dwarvish warriors. Lilah and Annelise managed to snag a jug of wine and settled in to observe. This didn’t last long. After a minute, a teenage blond girl plunked onto the bench opposite them.

“You wizards?” the girl asked.

“Who’s asking?” Lilah replied.

“I’m Elien,” the girl said. “I go to the Institute.”

“First year?”

“Just started two weeks ago,” said Elien.

“Yeah, we’re wizards,” said Lilah. “What tipped you off?”

“You dress,” and the girl giggled. “You dress like you don’t care what people think.” Lilah and Annelise both raised their eyebrows. They were both dressed in dark shirts and dark pants, Annelise’s a little more formal, Lilah’s a little more comfortable. Elien was wearing a long dress of pale cloth, with a belt cinched up high and a sort of miniature version of the conical hat, in dark blue, on her golden hair. “You see, I need people to know I have spells. Otherwise I get hassled. You dress like you don’t need anyone to know what you are.”

“Exactly,” said Lilah. “Smart girl.”

“Smarter than most around here,” said Elien, which, Lilah reflected, was hardly boasting. “Those boys I was with, they all think you’re some sort of jungle girl because your skin is dark.”

“Do they.”

“Like jungle girls just happen into Olaren and buy mugs of the local crap wine. No, but wizards happen through and might not want to look like wizards.”

“Elien, huh? Yeah, we’re big ol’ wizards. Tell you what. We’ll buy another bottle of wine, and tomorrow you can take us to school with you.”