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5.

We spend a relaxing evening playing gin rummy (the three warriors and Eleanor) and Parcheesi (me, Fenric, Jan and Zelin). We play three rounds of Parcheesi, and I win two of them: other people might be cleverer than me, or better in all sorts of ways, but dealing with my mom has given me the skill set needed for this.

“I like you,” Zelin says after I hold her down while escaping for the win in the third game. “You’re ruthless and sneaky and yet somehow no one ever seems to get mad at you.”

“Speak for yourself,” says Jan, who still has three of her pawns stuck at home.

“Don’t play her at chess,” says Fenric.

“Oh,” says Zelin, giving me her teeny tiny smile, “I think I will.”

“I won again?!” we hear Eleanor say from behind me. I don’t know what skill set gin rummy requires, but apparently she has that.

Eventually people start to nod off. Jan’s healing skills have got all our wounded back to health, but she used up pretty much all her daily energy, so she lays out her bedroll, puts her head on her backpack and goes straight to sleep. The warriors are all worn out, especially Unwin, whose headache is gone to wherever Jan’s poultice sent it. Presently, I’m the only one awake, rolling around restlessly, thinking.

What I’m thinking is, which of these guys is going to die?

Unwin, the new guy, who seems to attract arrows, and whose head seems to be a clonk magnet? He’s the nicest person in the world. Gurth? I can’t even think what it would be like to see him dead. It’s all too easy to imagine it happening; what’s hard is to imagine how I would cope with it. Even Lali, who rubs me the wrong way, just a very little bit but a very little is just as annoying as a lot—no. I want her alive and annoying, oh yeah, I want her alive, with that charge-right-in way she has. Or how about Eleanor? Or even Zelin? She could take an orc arrow just as easily as the rest of us. We’ve been pretty lucky about the placement of those orc arrows so far this trip. Unlike all my previous adventures down here. Oh yeah. Maybe this is the lucky one. Or not.

Or maybe this is the one where we open a door and there’s a dragon and it reaches over the first two rows and chomps up Jan or Fen from the third row.

And it’s all because I want to find some stupid key, some stupid circlet. It’s true that the Lapis Circlet mattered to the Dwarves, and maybe to the Hill Priestesses’ ghosts, but it was just a thing to me. Or I like bags of gold; sure, my job pays well, but there’s no way I would make a hundred plus gold florins in a month. Or maybe it’s a nobler purpose: maybe I seek for adventure. Or, to put it another way, maybe I’m turned on by taking groups of people into places where some of them are going to get killed.

I go round and round with those thoughts and finally just get up and look around. Six sleepers. No Zelin. And I have to pee.

So I step out in the hall and there she is, the little Elf, leaning against the wall holding her pipe. “Good timing,” she says. “Could we have a light?”

I light her pipe. We pass it a couple of times. I go a little ways down and have a good leak, and then I go back and we smoke a little more and chat in low voices. We’re at the bottom of the stairs to that wide hall (or long room) on the fourth level. “Did you come this way?” I ask.

“I’m fairly sure I didn’t,” she says. “I would’ve remembered that stair and that room. It’s the type of thing that sticks in my mind.”

We smoke, and after a minute I say, “Zelin. Do you worry about getting killed down here?”

As often with her, she thinks about that long enough that I think she’s not going to answer. Then she blows out smoke and says, “No. I worry about other people getting killed.”

“Whew,” I say. “That’s exactly what I worry about.”

“Like you,” she says. “You’re our only magic person. You could get killed a lot of ways, and a lot of people would be trying to take you out in a battle.”

I’m a little shocked. I didn’t ever look at it that way. I’m a little shocked, too, that Zelin even cares: she always has this feel of being, you know, an Elf among mere mortals. Well, she’s really thinking of herself here, right? Wouldn’t want to lose the only magic user. Several other thoughts go through my mind.

“I didn’t realize,” I say, “that I had a target on my forehead.”

“Yes, and you have to carry the wand with the light on it. It’s a natural target.”

“But they also like to shoot at the archers, Zelin.”

“Oh, I know. Because I like to shoot at their archers.”

“So let’s not let each other get killed,” I say.

“Good plan.”

We look at each other. “Jeez,” I say. Sigh. “Why the heck do we do this?”

The Elf, I swear, she looks up the stairs, then down the hall the other way, then looks me in the eyes. It’s dark out here, but in a little wand light, I can see her eyes. We have the same shade of blue eyes. She looks at me as if she’s just noticed something weird about me. After about a minute, she says, in a voice I can barely hear, “This key.”

It takes me a bit to think to answer, “That’s why?”

She sort of shakes her head and sort of sighs. Then she hits me again with that look. Another long moment, and she says, the way she says things: “It’s, um, it might be kind of important.” She looks away. “That’s all,” she says to the stairs. “Another bowl?”

 

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