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2.

The figure is female: that much I could tell to start with. Now that I’m standing still and concentrating and not having to make chat with my partners in whatever, I’m increasingly sure who it is. I’m trying to talk myself into getting closer, because I can’t think what else to do and I’m certainly not ready to give up and go dance with my best friends forever. What if it isn’t—anyone I know? Well, I would have to get closer to know that, wouldn’t I?

Just as I’m considering how to close the distance, the figure moves. She too has been looking around and calculating and weighing the risks and the timing. She slips out of her doorway and moves along the alley wall, the back of the textile wholesaler. I cross to her side of the alley and find my way into the doorway where she was standing. She looks around—she still hasn’t seen me—and turns a corner into another alley.

I hurry up to the corner. This alley is much narrower: I could almost stand in the middle and touch both sides. So it’s quite dark. She’s already two thirds of the way to the end of it, in deep shadow. Still, as I come around the corner into the shadow myself, I’m sure who it is. Even though it can’t be.

“It’s Barbara,” says someone behind me. A hand is on my shoulder, with a firmness approaching that of a constable making an arrest. I turn.

“Zelin!” I hiss. “What the—!”

She puts her hand over my mouth. Then she puts her hand up flat, palm facing me. With her other hand, she draws me back to the outer alley. Around the corner, my back’s against the wall and she’s facing me at a range of about two inches. We are the exact same height, but of course she has that elvish thing going on. I wouldn’t be surprised if she stabbed me or pushed me against the wall with a kiss.

Instead she says, “We need to talk.” I roll my eyes. “Not here,” she adds. I raise my eyebrows. “Okay,” she says, “I suppose that was also rather evident.” She takes her hand off my shoulder and backs away about two inches. “Follow me,” she says.

“But what about—?”

“Just follow me, all right?” She looks me up and down with a slight smile. She could just say it out loud: Human.

We take the alley the other way to the next street, and then we go in the door next to the door for Ferdinandina’s General Emporium, up a steep set of stairs, down a narrow, clean, poorly lit hall, and stop in front of the sixth door on the right. She has the key in her hand, and she lets us into a pretty little garret with a little kitchen, a bed in a loft, and a window and door at the back onto a balcony. A small grey cat sprawls on the bed, and doesn’t even stir as we come in. Zelin shuts the door and slides the dead bolt, then leads me without further explanation to the balcony. It’s like her garret, or her person: uncluttered, yet an easy place to hide in. We settle side by side on a crate that leaves our eyes below the level of the balcony rail. We’re looking right down the narrow alley. Zelin, being Zelin, pulls out her pouch and her pipe and fills up.

“Light?” she asks.

“Sure.” I pull out my wand, say sko and light her pipe. We pass it twice and then it’s gone.

“So when the goblins attacked,” says Zelin, “Yanos and I started shooting them, of course. Then they charged us, and I pulled out my long knife. I fought off a couple, I took an arm off one, maybe it’ll grow back, maybe it won’t. I had a moment to think, and I realized the sound I’d heard was Yanos going through the door. I thought for one second and decided to chase him. But there were lots more goblins, and out of nowhere someone threw a spell at me—it was three words and I don’t know any of them. I still don’t know what the spell was, maybe it was that cease spell they threw at you last time. So there I am, no Yanos, no way back except through a bunch of goblins in the dark and yes, a sorcerer. I decide to go on.

“I don’t find Yanos. I actually get kind of lost, which I’m not used to. As he said, there are storerooms and barracks and torture rooms, and I end up in this hall to this door and through it there’s a stairway up and down. There’s a hot wind blowing up from below, not like a dragon breathing, more like Hell itself about two floors away, though I doubt that’s what it was. So I go up. It takes me a couple of levels up, then I use my wits to get to somewhere I recognize, and I’m coming into that first big room from the south way. I’m out.”

“Before us, or after us?” I ask.

“After, I think. I think you were ahead of me about half a mile. I saw four people. But I kept to myself, I had a lot of thinking to do.”

“When did you discover about Barb?”

“When I got home and came out here for a smoke. I’m looking down there, and there she is. And there you are, watching her. And I go down and she’s already up the alley, but I wanted to talk to you first anyway.”

“Zelin,” I say, “who’s Barb going to see?”

“I don’t know,” says the elf, “but I think your guess is the same as my guess.”

 

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