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The pie is pretty good. I love the sausage, even though, as an alchemist, I can’t keep from thinking about what’s in it. I give a piece to Cudge, and he doesn’t refuse. I eat one piece of each, and I’m full, while good ol’ Gurth is sucking down his fifth. The cake’s very nice. The wine’s very good. Zelin’s pipe goes around. We’re all very relaxed. And me: I’m eighteen! The big one eight.

But we never actually answer the question.

The next morning, Mom wakes me up with her usual tact, although she does leave me a cup of tea and she doesn’t spill it on me. I have some porridge and more tea and set about straightening up the mess in the back room.

I hear noise in front, and go out to check, and there’s Lucette, putting on her apron, all ready to work. We smile at each other.

And, it now being eight days before Yule, we have plenty of work. I find out something about Lucette that I didn’t know, or a way in which she’s changed: she works hard. We have a busy run just before noon, and another after, and suddenly we’re out of a bunch of things and the till is full of silver. So she minds the front while I run out and get more ingredients, and then I mind the front while she makes more potion blank and sets up a few crystals, then she minds the front while I make love potion and happy potion. (That’s a real thing, but it only lasts about thirty seconds—fun at parties!)

The last customer leaves. We look at each other. Two days ago, well, about forty hours ago, we were trading spells (ineffectively). How often in the future will I be trying to blow away Lucette Barnswallow? Who knows? But she says, “So are you still thinking of opening your own alchemy shop? Or what?”

“Oh,” I say, wondering which story to give her. (1) Yes, far away from here. (2) No, I would rather eat live worms for breakfast every day. (3) Yes, I plan on Mom dying so I can take over this thriving business. But as I think about it, I realize that I believe both (1) and (2). And now, with a day like this, (3) is looking pretty believable too. But I also want (4), which is: who knows?

And does (2) imply: (2a) And make a life as a sort of hunting guide for people seeking adventure in the Dread Dungeons of Valen?

Anyway, I blather something or other in answer to her question. I ask her the same and she does the same, possibly (but I think not) with the same internal monologue. I don’t remember what either of us says, and it just shows how little it matters what we think we’re going to do. Then it’s busy again and we’re running all over and selling this and selling that, and then we’re running out of things, and repeat.

And now it’s three hours after noon and we’re both exhausted. And the till is full of silver. And some gold.

“So your mom is going to get back and she’s going to look at this money and be so proud of us,” says Lucette. I look sharply at her, but she’s being sarcastic.

“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe we should hide it.”

“Daisy. Ever heard of commission?”

“Like in the army?”

She laughs at me. Then she explains it to me. So there’s something she knows about that I didn’t. And after we decide how to give ourselves commissions—twenty percent of the net after buying ingredients and setting aside money for costs doesn’t seem too much—and after we have another little rush of business, she asks me that question we didn’t answer last night.

“So you sold the Circlet,” she says, as we slump over the counter, dead tired. “Get much?”

“Eighty each,” I say.

“Not much. I heard it was worth thousands.”

“You hear a lot,” I say. “Look, Zelin, my elf acquaintance, she was actually hired by these Dwarves. And anyway, we got some treasure along the way. How did you guys do?”

“We guys?” She snorts. “We guys got ambushed at the bottom of the stairs by goblins. We went in with ten people and came out with four and didn’t even see anything.” We both shake our heads. Shop life might actually be the easy way to make money. After a little, she says, “So what next?”

“What?” Somehow I’m startled by the question.

“I heard,” she says, “there’s like a club on the sixth level under. It’s called Club Six. It’s supposed to be really cool, because only the cool people can get there. And,” she goes on with a short pause for effect, “there’s Vladimir’s. Can you imagine?”

“Fourteen levels down,” I reply: it’s another of Shmoke’s History of Magic tangents. “Do you know anyone who’s actually been there? Other than Professor Shmoke?”

“And,” she says, pausing again. She’s so darn pretty, it’s amazing she has a brain at all. “And, somewhere down there? There’s this Key.”