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I wake up in a pitiable haze, and roll over into the warm stinky shade of a man. We cuddle and doze off. I don’t completely fall back asleep, because of my headache and the horror that is my mouth’s interior. I almost slip back into slumber, when a loud noise wakes me: it’s my bedfellow, the archer Padric, farting.

Okay. I don’t remember anything much. I’m disgusted, and I feel a little disgusting. I drag myself out of his bedroll on the floor, and find that we’re in the guard barracks. Apparently he has his own personal closet. I get into last night’s clothes and manage to sneak out, and I make it to the shop without incident. I mumble excuses to my mom, who clearly must know what happened, I go upstairs, go into the bathroom and lock the door. Yes. Alchemists have hot running water. I pee an epic pee, and then I dump myself into the hottest bath I’ve ever taken, and an hour later I’m still there when there’s a knock on the bathroom door.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” I say, “I’m about to get out.”

“We could come in, instead,” says Zelin. I hear Jan and Fenric giggling.

“No, no,” I say. “I’m coming out.”

And minutes later, the four of us are in my bedroom. I have a towel on my head, and I’m wearing my comfiest towel as a dress. “Nice bath?” asks Jan, while Zelin (of course) fills her pipe.

“Nice night out?” asks Fenric.

“It was okay,” I say, assuming it probably was. Well, I don’t remember the night nearly as clearly as the somewhat disgusting morning after, but the only other time I slept with a guy, the night part was actually pretty nice, a lot better than the morning part, in point of fact. But I don’t want to talk about that, of course.

“Here,” says Zelin, handing me the pipe, which she’s lit off the candle.

There’s a knock at the door. “Is it your mom?” Jan asks in a low voice.

“No, it’s me,” Lucette’s voice says. “The shop’s dead, so I locked up, ‘cos I heard you guys talking.”

“Ahh, come in,” says Fenric, climbing up off the floor and unlocking the door, which he had locked, and locking it again behind the lovely Lucette.

“Lucette,” states Zelin.

“Here,” says Jan, handing Lucette the pipe.

“Oh cool,” she says. She takes her toke and plunks herself down on my bed, where Cudgel takes advantage of her petting services. She passes the pipe to Fenric, puts Cudge in her lap, and asks, “So what have we decided?”

“Well,” I say, “is everyone here okay with Lucette going along next time?”

“Is anyone okay with it?” asks Fenric.

“Well,” I say, “I guess I am.”

“Lucette,” says the Elf, “I will agree to this if you can honestly answer two questions.”

She looks around at the rest of us, as if we might support her if she chose to be affronted at this, but we wouldn’t so she isn’t. “Okay.”

“Lucette, do you know anything about the mysterious Key that we don’t know? Here, this might help.” Zelin stuffs a bit more of her herb into the pipe, relights it and passes it to Lucette.

This gives Lucette the chance to really consider, which she does. She passes the pipe and, not breathing out just yet, shakes her head emphatically no.

“Okay,” says Zelin. “What about this: does your father know of the Key, to your knowledge?”

Lucette seems about to lie, but then she sort of shrugs and says, “Yeah. I’m pretty sure. Look,” and she interrupts with a cough, “look, it’s not something I usually do, ask what my dad is really interested in. I mean, um, know what I mean?”

“Not a clue,” says Jan. “My dad was a stonemason.”

“My mom’s into stuff I don’t want to know anything about,” I say, “but it’s not like it’s dangerous.”

“I didn’t say it was dangerous. I just—!”

“Pretty much said it was dangerous,” says Zelin. “It’s fine. I know the feeling, actually.”

“Really?” I say. Meanwhile Fenric is asking Lucette, “What about Yanos? Where do you think he got his info?”

“I don’t think he has any info as such,” she says. “I just think he’s heard someone might buy something like that. I don’t know that there’s, you know, a lot of potential customers.”

“I concur,” says Zelin. “Whatever this is, it’s a, what do you call it, a niche market.”

We all sit there considering this, while the smoke rolls about the room. Lucette asks, “So am I in, or what?”

“Yeah,” I say, when everyone looks at me, “I think you’re in. Okay, we like eight? Me, Zelin, Fen, Jan, Lucette, Lali, Gurth and—?”

“Eleanor, ha ha,” says Fenric.

“Unwin,” says Jan.

“Oh, what the heck,” I say. “How about Padric?”

“Padric?” Jan repeats.

“You know. Archer. You saved his foot?”

We chat for a little longer. It’s generally thought, within my room, that we have about one more chance to look underground before the orc wars start in earnest. Presently we adjourn. We unlock, and a minute later two ladies come in and corner Lucette on the subject of love charms: it seems they’re in the market for something that wards them off. I step outside into a warmish January day.

There stands Padric, all clean and well-dressed. He’s holding a rose.