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But Zelin is still reading when I wake up, maybe an hour and a half later, fresh from a strange dream in which I’m in a dark cellar, watching people playing a game with dice. Whatever. It’s not a dream that tells me what to do next. I wake up knowing what to do next on my own, because, as you know, I am frickin’ brilliant.

“To the bar,” I say to Zelin. “Is Gregorio still around?”

“He’s playing a card game,” says the Elf. “He and several other magical types. I believe they’re trying to use spells on one another.”

“Oh yes,” I say. “Mages’ poker. All non-damage spells are legal. They throw charms, they try to change each other’s cards, they’re using telepathy, block telepathy, frickin’ invisible roving eyes and stuff. It’s real macho. The game of geniuses, that is. It always ends up in a fight.”

“Interesting,” says Zelin. “So this got you out of bed? You want to go join them?”

“Oh, no,” I say. “I just want to help them, um, express themselves to the fullest. You coming?”

“Of course. Do you need me to do anything?”

“Sure. Order a glass of absinthe with a sprinkle of clove. Don’t drink it.”

To Zelin’s credit, she doesn’t say, “What?” Instead, a minute later, once I’ve ordered a gin and goat milk, we sit together at yet another little round table. The card game is in the next room, a small room filled by a large table with nine men and a woman around it, all looking like they’re smarter than anyone else in the County of Insmoor. Gregorio is making a smart remark to Stacy. A sorcerer a few years older than me, on the other side of Stace the Grace, chortles.

I take a drink of the goat milk cocktail I have, then get the glass back up to full by adding from the absinthe. I look at her, and she says nothing. I go into my pack and pull out a couple of vials. One has spider legs, which have these tiny hairs on them that give off this particular fluid that has a surprising number of uses. The other, larger vial is full of cat pee. Cudgel likes to pee on the stone slab in the alley out back, and not bury it: I suspect it’s territorial or something. Males, you know. Anyway, that too has its uses and I’m not shy about gathering it.

We won’t even get into how useful menstruation can be. Suffice it to say, you don’t want to go rummaging through my pack if you’re not me or someone a lot like me.

I scatter a few spider legs into the goat milk. I look at the bar.

“What next?” Zelin asks in a whisper.

“There,” I say. She turns to look: a waitress, who appears to be some sort of spirit servant or possibly some kind of undead, is gathering a tray of drinks. “See, part of this game, I’ve seen them do this in town, over in the back room at the Mouse, they order weird varieties of drinks and pass them around.”

“So you have a weird drink to add to the mix.”

“Kinda.” I wait a few more moments, then pour the cat pee into the drink. “Put this on the tray,” I tell Zelin.

Again to her credit, she doesn’t ask any questions. The waitress has already taken up the tray with its ten weird drinks, so Zelin glides over and puts my concoction in the middle of the tray. The waitress doesn’t say a thing. Zelin comes back. I’m already up. In just a few moments, my cocktail will begin to fume, in that cramped little room, and those clever card players will stop trying to throw spells on one another and take a nice nap, from which they will wake in twelve hours or so with nasty hangovers.

Magical geniuses. Never bet against a good alchemist.

“Let’s get everyone going,” I say. “We just bought ourselves some time.”