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In Insmoor, my home town, it’s still unremarkable when a young woman of less height that she would like pushes a full-grown, rather hairy and battle-scarred man ahead of her through the Golden Mouse with her wand in his back. We are followed, of course, but only by Jan.

We turn onto Bridge Street and up the block is Sleepy’s. Gurth and Zelin are actually standing outside with Fenric, smoking. They see us down the block and watch us approach without reaction.

“Let’s get a table, shall we?” Fenric remarks.

“Should be easy,” says Gurth. “Sleepy’s is sleepier than usual.” He and Fenric go in, and Gurth holds the door. I prod Yanos inside. Gurth asks me, “Anyone know who Sleepy is or was?”

“Was, I think,” says Janet, who is behind me with Zelin. “This place has been here for about five thousand million years.”

“I’ll get a couple of bottles of wine,” says Zelin. “Six glasses? Yes.”

I put my wand away. We take a nearby round table, and the five of us sit down: me, Janet, Fenric, Yanos across from me, Gurth next to him. “So,” I say. “Nice night at the Mouse?”

“Coming back from the bathroom was not the usual,” says Yanos.

“So tell us. Were you recruiting, or being recruited?”

Zelin put two bottles of wine on the table, and then six short sturdy glasses, produced from her various pockets. “What have I missed?” she asks.

“He was at the Golden Mouse,” Janet explains, “with Daisy’s magical rival Lucette, and our former associate Eleanor.”

“And some guys who looked like warriors,” I add.

“All right,” says Zelin, pouring glasses and passing them around, “that sounds like recruiting. And how would he recruit them? They were recruiting him. For his knowledge.” She fixes Yanos with a look. “True?”

“True,” he says, smiling at his glass.

“Now he expects us to bid for him,” she adds. She looks at me. “But we don’t want to do that.”

“No,” I say. “Because he’s got a prior commitment to us.” I say it, and that little voice inside me says, why do you have a commitment to us? Are you now stuck with going back in? It’s dismal. It’s dark and dangerous and shadowy and feels like going to work. And then I think, there we are in that room where Jorg is pretty well decomposed by now, but outside there in the hall where Zelin and Gurth and I had a smoke, down that hall to—where? Where? What lies beyond?

What wondrous caverns? What guarded treasures? What strange beasts and strange glyphs and strange designs and strange inhabitants? And always a hall into darkness, always a stair down further into the Earth.

“She’s right,” Jan is saying. “You’re going with us, not with Lucette Barnswallow. And we’re not changing the deal. You’re doing this because you have a moral obligation, and if that’s not enough, you know we know most of what you know and if we get a head start on you, we’re likely to be on the fourth level of below before you are, and that could be very messy. And we’re doing this because we like you. We do like him, right?”

“Oh, we love him,” says Fenric. “Only one thing. The situation has changed, Yanos. Before, you could pretend you were more experienced and all. You’re not that much more experienced anymore. We’re all equals.” Yanos looks up at him and snorts. Fenric says, “We need a couple more warriors. I’m on map. Daisy is in front with Gurth and another warrior, she can fall back if we meet things that shoot, she’s allergic to arrows. Middle is Jan and you. Back is me and Zelin and the other warrior.”

“You wouldn’t want me in back,” says Yanos, “I might try to escape.”

“We need an archer in the middle,” says Zelin, “but there is also that.”

“And we split the take even up,” says Yanos. “What about the Circlet? We split that even up? Chop it into eighths?”

“We sell it,” says Fenric. “Believe it or not, I know people who pay for items of unknown provenance. You didn’t want it for some other reason, did you?”

“Why would I want it for some other reason?”

We all look at each other. No one has the heart to puncture Yanos’s bluff, if it’s a bluff. Finally I take a drink and say, “So about these other warriors.”

“I know a couple people,” says Gurth.

I think of what I want to say to that. I’m nearly eighteen, so I take another drink of wine—dang, this is good wine, we must always let Zelin choose—and I say it anyway. “Do you mind if they get killed and have their corpses stuffed in closets?”

“No, actually,” says Gurth. “Just so you don’t do that to me.”

I hold his eyes for a bit. “Warriors,” says Fenric. “You’re a little different, aren’t you?”

“We know we’re expendable. Not like, say, thieves.”

“Or enchantresses,” says Yanos, smirking at me.

“All right, all right,” says Zelin. “Enough, what do you say, garbage talk. Trash talk, I mean. Let us swear.”

“Your call,” I say.

She raises her glass. “We drink to our pledge. We shall go into the darkness and return with the Lapis Circlet, or not return at all. We will not betray this cause.” We clink glasses and drink. She holds up her half-empty glass—I notice Gurth and Janet both finished theirs already—and adds, “And we will then sell it and split the proceeds.”

“Pledged,” says Jan.

“And when do we set out on this sacredly consecrated mission?” asks Yanos.

“I dunno,” says Jan. She looks at me. “When’s your next day off?”