Chapter 10: New Year

X. New Year

 

1.

We get back to Insmoor, and for once we’re all six of us sure we want to go back to Valen. We’re sure we want to look for the Key. We’re pretty sure we trust one another. Of course we have no idea what the Key is a Key to.

 

In Insmoor, a couple of days before the New Year, preparations proceed apace for the next of the local winter events: the annual February orc war. I’m from here, so it doesn’t seem strange to me; Zelin says that Aeraf would get besieged every November when she was young, which apparently was a couple of hundred years ago; Lali and Gurth have always had similar lives. Fenric was away and came back, as is the case with Jan, and we get to talking, as we wait to get in the South Gate, about how odd it is.

 

“Like,” says Jan, “they never win. Why do it?”

 

“They overran Varelon four times the last century,” says Gurth. “They overrun Shulbrook every ten years or so.”

 

“So, it’s enough for them to take one walled village fourteen times out of a hundred? They spend how many orc lives every year, for a fourteen percent chance of taking a small town?”

 

“Hey,” I say, “they get into the walls of Insmoor every few years. Was it three years ago? They busted through the East Gate. We had, like, fires all over East Town.”

 

“It’s a slum. They risk it all to set fire to a slum? We rebuilt that part of town. It’s better than it was. It would be hard for it not to be. We should pay them to do that.”

 

“Okay,” says Gurth. “So you tell us. What’s the answer?”

 

All of us but Lali look at Zelin. I think it’s reflex by now; the Amazon will develop the same reflex if she doesn’t die first. “Well,” says Zelin, “how the hell do I know? I suppose it just tells you how cheap orc lives are.”

 

We get through the examination at the gate, and wait while Gurth and Lali get in a bit of shop talk with their fellow city guards. Eventually we get through, and we take ourselves out for beer and a couple of pies at Tony’s. We chat about murdering orcs, we idly debate damage spells, we make jokes about different kinds of weapons. Eventually, while staring at the last two pieces of deep cheese with mushrooms and dallying over the second half of our last glasses of beer, Zelin leans into the middle.

 

“Are we agreed?” she says.

 

“About what?” asks Lali.

 

Zelin smiles at me. I smile at her, then at Lali. I reach into the pocket of my pants. I put my hand in the middle of the table and then pull it back. A small, plain key is on the table.

 

“Whoa,” says Lali, “that’s not—!”

 

“It’s my store key,” I say. “Think of it as a prop. So, are we agreed?”

 

“But what I want to know,” says Gurth, “is what the hell does it do? This—the real one, I mean?”

 

“Honestly,” says Zelin, “I don’t know. Daisy doesn’t know, I doubt Fenric or the Vicar knows. Do you know? Either of you?”

 

“No,” they both say.

 

“But it’s important,” I say. “I mean, you know something about it.”

 

“All I know,” says the Elf, “is that it’s important.”

 

Fenric rolls his eyes and says, “Just for the sake of argument, how do you know this?”

 

“It’s not one thing,” she says. “It’s a lot of little things.” She laughs.

 

“What?” I ask.

 

“You’ll think I’m being funny,” she says.

 

“You had a dream,” I say. “You dreamt about it.”

 

“Yeah. You too.” I nod. Everyone else is looking at us.

 

“You both had a dream about this Key,” says Jan. We both nod. “You’re sure? You don’t even know what it looks like.”

 

“It’s coppery,” I say, “but it’s not copper.”

 

“Yeah,” says Zelin. “And it’s got a round head, but—!”

 

“A square hole in the middle. It’s got diagonal cuts, like jagged teeth.”

 

“But only on one side,” says Zelin. I nod. “And the last one,” she says, “is—!”

 

“Bigger than the others,” I say. She nods. “But it’s sort of a double peak, it’s—!”

 

“Broken, or something,” she says. “Not broken. Just a kind of—yeah. A double peak.”

 

“You had the same dream,” says Jan.

 

“I don’t know. I saw it on a table. It was the night we just slept in the dungeon. It was like a wooden table, and there it was. There was a fire in the room.” She looks at me.

 

“That wasn’t my dream at all,” I say. “There was—a woman. With the key. Hiding it.”

 

The others all look at each other and exchange raised eyebrows. “Okay,” says Lali, “I’m ready to swear.”

 

So we toast and finish our beers, and then we go back to my place and go upstairs, and we share out some wine Jan has, and pass my pipe with Zelin’s stuff in it, and then we swear.

 

Lying in bed that night, I think it through. Maybe the other five are thinking it through too. What exactly were we swearing to find? Strangely enough, this keeps me awake for some time. Finally I drift off. And when I wake up, in the grey of dawn, I dress and sneak out and head down to the library before my mother can make me work another day shift.

 

 

 

2.

 

I spend two hours getting completely frustrated at the magic school library. There are a number of famous keys: the Key of Destinations, the Red Key, the Blue Key, the Azure Key, the Key of Thomas II, the Leonardo Key, the Great Key of Valentia: that sounded promising. The Valentinian Key, often confused with the Great Key of Valentia but, well, how absurd, they are nothing alike! The Ginger Key, the Key of Wealth, the Perpective Key (yes, Perpective), the Famous Key of John, the Ombarine Key, the Samtine Key, the Justine Key. There are a number of keys notable for their material: the Onyx Key, the Tourmaline Key, the Bronze Key, the Manganese Key, the Key of Quartz.

 

But let’s see. Thomas II, Leonardo, Justine, Onyx and Bronze: these are all known to be in the Imperial Daphne Museum in Thomasport. Valentinian is at Karn in South Land, where it theoretically locks and opens the Great Doors of the Scybelphine Cathedral (my source says that these doors are never supposed to be shut and have in fact been taken off their hinges); Quartz is lost, but thought to be buried among the many ruins of Semvov, hundreds of miles from here; Bronze and Red are in Silon, where they reside among the Silontian Empress Christa VI’s crown jewels (Red is actually inlaid with rubies of not insignificant size); Tourmaline, Perpective and Manganese belong to knightly orders based in Thomasport; Ginger and Famous John belong to minor South Land lords; Ombarine is presumably in Ombar, an island kingdom across thousands of miles of ocean east of Carleu; Samtine is known to be in Samti, an island kingdom about eighty miles west of Carleu. Blue Key and Azure Key are islands, off Lafik on the south coast of South Land. I’m sure they’re lovely this time of year. The Key to Wealth and the Key of Destinations are both books: the former tells how to acquire wealth (Rule 1: don’t waste money on a book about how to acquire wealth), while the latter is a centuries-old travel book (it probably has a chapter on Azure Key). The Great Key of Valentia actually was forged for Valentia who built Castle Valentia, and who is why Valen is called Valen, but it was never delivered to her: it was stolen by some clever time warrior and then obtained by the Elves of the Longreen Valley kingdom in South Land, who still prominently display it among their public treasures.

 

I get so exasperated that I quit and go take my shift at the shop. Naturally, I’m thinking about it all day. Naturally, Lucette, who’s subbing for me when I get there, stays to (she thinks) subtly quiz me about our search for the Key. I’m so tired and so distracted that I have no trouble avoiding her questions.

 

“So, did you find anything out?” she asks.

 

“Sure,” I say. “I found out that Gurth has a thing for Amazon warriors.”

 

“Oh, that’s a tough break,” she says, and I have no idea what she means by that. “Well, did you find anything out about, you know? What were you looking for down there?”

 

“We found Club Six,” I say.

 

“That’s interesting,” she says. “I bet it’s a happening place. But did you find anything else out?”

 

“Club Six is overrated,” I say. “The magic beer sucks. It tastes like butthole. The party atmosphere is basically like our high school parties, except with orcs, but you’re not allowed to kill them. And the music, don’t even start me on the music, but we did find one room that was quiet enough—!”

 

“But Daisy,” she says. She sighs.

 

“Lucette,” I say, and sigh back.

 

She spends a minute, I think, trying to decide whether to kill me right then and there. Then she comes up close, leans over the counter between us and says, “All right then. I made one sale, I took my twenty percent, which I can do in my head. I think I’ll take off. Two questions. One, do you want me to cover for you tomorrow?”

 

“I think I’ll be okay,” I say. “Tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve? We close early anyway.”

 

“All right. So two. You ready?”

 

“Um, yeah.”

 

Lucette leans even closer. “I want to go with you next time,” she says.

 

 

 

Suitably stunned, I breeze through a quiet afternoon at the shop. Mom comes in eventually, and I go make potion blank and a few love charms, because before New Year’s those bad boys are selling big time. I’m thinking, thinking, thinking: it’s a surprise if I get all my ingredients right.

 

I go back to the school. I stop by Shmoke’s office and spend half an hour chatting in order to get the information that he too remembers long ago hearing about a Key. He lets one thing slip about it, which he doesn’t think is important but which sends me back to the library. I spend an hour in an entirely different section this time, then head over with a list of six books to the Count’s Library, where I find a little book and sign it out, and then, under cold stars and through a wind from off the northern ice cap, I walk over to Zelin’s place. I pick up a bottle of wine and some bread and cheese on the way over.

 

I knock, wait, knock again, wait, knock again. Presently I hear her lock and her chain lock being pulled. The door opens. There she is, in a sort of Elven bathrobe.

 

“Daisy,” she says, “come on in, it’s not like I was in bed.”

 

“With someone?” I ask, coming into her apartment. I smell her herb, and also some sort of incense. “Because I know you Elves don’t need to sleep but walk in waking dream under the stars, et cetera.”

 

“No,” she says, “not with someone.”

 

“Because,” I say, turning and handing her the bag with the wine, bread and cheese, “I found something out.”

 

 

 

3.

 

“Zelin,” I say. I sigh and smile. She smiles at me.

 

“Daisy,” she says. “Named after a flower.” She giggles, which is weird every time she does it. She leans forward and kisses me. On the lips. I giggle. She gives me a serious look and says, “You understand. This is for a reason.”

 

“Reason?”

 

“Yes.” She sits up. The sheet slides off her. I sit up facing her. “Daisy. You are going to tell me something I did not know. About something I have every reason to think is very important. I need to know, and you need to know, that we can trust each other.”

 

“Oh,” I say, disappointed and thrilled. And then, in a moment, I know just what she means. For the second time in a month, I feel like I’ve just grown up five years in a moment. “I get it.”

 

“So,” she says. She leans forward and kisses me again, lingering. She pulls back and smiles. “That one was just to make sure.” She laughs. I’m not sure she’s joking. It hardly matters. “So,” she says again, “tell me.”

 

“Okay, I—!”

 

“But give me a light first.”

 

So we do that, because for Zelin, any two actions have a smoke in between. And I’m getting all kinds of weird vibes and they’re just washing off me like a warm breeze, because Zelin is Zelin and I already know that shallow little feelings like lust and desire and jealousy and anger and, you know, warm fuzzies? They don’t really mean much with her.

 

Let’s see. At this point, I have made love with two people, one male and one female. I wasn’t in love with Yanos, and while I guess he was pretty good, maybe very good, I wasn’t all that impressed. Zelin is so different from anyone else that it seems pointless to draw any conclusion about what sex is like. It’s an interesting fact that my second lover ever is equipped for sexual purposes in much the way I myself am, but this is neither a problem for me nor a huge turn-on. It’s more of a minor inconvenience overcome in getting something good, like having to sit behind some lady with a weird tall hat while watching a really good play. And: I know why Yanos seduced me. Yanos wanted to manipulate me. Yanos also wanted to up his count of seduced virgins, which must mean something to him but doesn’t mean anything to me. So how does it make me feel that Zelin, apparently, seduced me as a truth check?

 

Well, I’m not actually sure. But: mmm. Mmmm mmmm. It was, objectively, really good. The warm fuzzies are floating all around me, making me feel wonderful.

 

“Can I have the pipe back?” she asks. I laugh and hand it to her. She smiles, finishes it off and empties it. “You okay?”

 

“I’m good,” I say.

 

“You wanted to tell me something.”

 

“Zelin,” I say. “There are thousands of famous Keys. Thousands! And unlike rings or amulets, each key is its own thing, designed to do just one job. But the Key. What could be The Key?”

 

“So?”

 

“So,” I say, reaching naked out of the bed and taking the little book out of my coat pocket hanging just below the bed loft, “I realized I was thinking about this wrong.” Me, naked and doing research. I’m such an adult. I sit on the bed and hold up the book. “I was coming at it like it’s a magic item, like some wizard had it and it got stolen by some warlord, and some dragon ended up with it until some hero slew it and took the Key, and lost it in a swamp when somebody shot him from behind a tree. But that’s not how keys work. And then I also thought, how could a Key be so important? Unless the Lock were important, but it’s just a Lock. Right?”

 

“Um, maybe it’s a Guardian’s Key?”

 

“Guardians’ Keys are like Time Warriors’ rings. You can kill the Guardian, though it’s really hard, and you might be able to take the Key, but you can’t use it, it breaks if the Guardian is killed. And Guardians just don’t lose their keys, not without getting killed shortly after. See, I thought of that.”

 

“I’m glad. Daisy! What did you figure out?”

 

“In the Histories,” I tell her. “It’s not a magic thing. It’s a history thing. Well, it’s sort of both and sort of neither. And you know, I’m an enchantress, I’m eighteen frickin’ years old, I’m from Podunkville, Carleu. I don’t actually know anything. But I know what kind of a thing this key is. I think I do, anyway.”

 

“And??”

 

“And,” I say, “I found some references in the Thomas the Archer Appendices, and some Codex parchments they have copies of at the Count’s Library. People writing about what they saw around the Wall of Time, the beginning of history. This: this is a memoir, actually, of a wizard named Alphonsa, who became a Time Warrior, and part of her mission for Time Warrior was to look into, um, certain passages around the Wall of Time.” I look at the book. “Interesting reading. She lived back when Valentia was around. She was part of the group that took her down, actually. Hmm. Interesting sex life.”

 

“So this key unlocks a gate through the Wall of Time?”

 

“No,” I say. “No, it’s not that, but it’s something at least as weird as that.”

 

“And you don’t know what?”

 

“No.” I give her a look. “Disappointed?”

 

She lies back down, on her side, facing me. “No,” she says. “Fascinated. Because we are going to have to figure this out. You, eighteen-year-old enchantress human, and me, five-hundred-year-old bored elf archer.”

 

“Jeez. You’d think this is more the province of Great Wizards and Time Warriors.”

 

“Who would you rather found this thing?” she said, laughing, naked and unashamed. “You and me, or some Great Wizard?”

 

I look at her for another minute. I’m still trying to fathom her, which seems pointless. “So,” I say in a voice that I hope doesn’t sound too vulnerable, “this was all about trusting me?”

 

“Well, each other,” she says, laying a hand on the bed between us, palm down. “And right now? I feel like I trust you as much as I trust anyone in North Land.”

 

 

 

4.

 

The next evening, New Year’s Eve, I gather Fenric off the streets and bring him up to Zelin’s flat to make him aware of the current thinking about the Key. We do not feel any need to take his clothes off, or ours. We do sit him down on her floor and smoke him up.

 

“I have three questions,” is the first thing out of Fenric’s mouth, along with a wisp of smoke.

 

“Okay,” says Zelin, smiling. I can tell she’s starting to get the hang of him, just like I’m getting the hang of her.

 

“One,” he says, “how did this Key come to be in Valen? Two: how did we come to know that it was in Valen? And three, you know Yanos is still around town, right?”

 

“Oh jeez,” I say. “Seriously?”

 

“I knew he was still around,” says Zelin. “I’d kind of hoped he’d slipped away in the night. He’s a seller, of course. That’s why he wanted the Circlet. He likes to have three or four buyers available, then he’ll go get the thing, or so he hopes, and then he can get them to bid it up a bit. And now we can talk about the second question.”

 

“Well,” I say, “Lucette brought it up. And by the way, she wants to go with us next time.”

 

“What?” says Fenric. “No. No way.”

 

“Fenric,” says Zelin, “didn’t you think we should have another enchantress with us?”

 

“Okay. I cop to that. I’ve reformed. I’m better now. I changed my mind.”

 

“No, but,” I say, looking Zelin in the eye, “Lucette knows because someone told her. If she wants to go with us, you can’t really think she thinks she’s going to pull a Yanos and sneak away with the Key all by herself, especially since, unlike Yanos, she doesn’t seem to have any idea where the Key is. But she knows something, and we could so use that.”

 

“And you trust Lucette?”

 

“Not even a little. But still. Think about it. How does she know about the Key? Well, either she’s in contact with Yanos, or with some other nefarious person, and I doubt that, or she has inside info from someone we wouldn’t consider nefarious.”

 

“Like her dad,” says Fenric.

 

“But it’s still inside info.”

 

“So back to Question One. This thing is important, right? I mean, you don’t know why it’s important or what it does that’s important but it’s supposed to be important.”

 

“It’s important,” says Zelin. “Take that as given. Daisy and I have both had dreams about it. And I heard stuff before, that’s—!” She looks at me.

 

“That’s why you’re here?” I ask. “In Insmoor?”

 

“Not exactly,” she says. “But sort of.”

 

“Okay,” says Fenric, “so why is this important key here? How’d it get stuck down in Valen?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Someone hid it there,” I say. They look at me. “I dreamed it. Okay? That was in my dream.”

 

“Who? Did you see who?” asks Fenric.

 

“A woman. She had, um, dark hair. I don’t know anything else.”

 

“Dark hair,” says Zelin. “That could be a lot of women. Did she have, say, a crown, a coronet maybe? Like Christa the Dark?”

 

“No, no, it wasn’t anyone like that.”

 

“Lady of Sinafror?” Fen whispers.

 

“No,” I scoff. “No, she seemed kind of—nondescript. She had her hair tied back, she wasn’t wearing interesting clothes, I don’t really remember anything but the hair. She, um, she didn’t see me. In the dream.”

 

“Well,” says Zelin, “that’s good, I guess.”

 

 

 

5.

 

We talk a little more, and then we leave Zelin’s place in the care of her cat. So many things have happened to me that I’m sort of surprised to still be living in my boring old home town where nothing ever happens. Which gets attacked by hordes every winter. Where there’s a ruined castle with dungeons underneath that hide dragons and important magical items. In any case, the three of us come down the stairs and out onto the street next to Ferdinandina’s General Emporium. It’s fully dark and fully cold, but there are lights up along nearby Beaker Street and the other way up this little street, whatever it is, Ins Avenue is lit up, its blocks closed off. Ins is a broad way that doesn’t work well as a means of transportation but is great for street parties.

 

“I forgot. It’s New Year’s Eve,” I say.

 

“How could you forget?” asks Fenric, rubbing his hands together.

 

“You’re going to party hearty?”

 

“Heck with that,” he says. “This is my work day. Hey, I’ll tell you if I find out anything. Or if I can pick a key from anyone’s pocket. See you, Elf Girl.”

 

“Good luck,” says Zelin as Fenric slinks off gleefully into the shadows. “Now you,” she says, “should go have a good time. I think I’ll go do a round of the walls. Look at the stars, see if they tell me anything.”

 

“What’s it like being an Elf Girl?” I ask.

 

She laughs. “I’m not the one to ask,” she says. “I’m told I’m atypical.”

 

 

 

We part, and I wander home through the developing festivities. I kind of expect Jan to be there, but instead, it’s Lucette, standing at the counter eating mushroom stew. The shop is locked up. She’s reading in Mom’s herbarium.

 

“Plants are freakin’ interesting,” she says. “So, want to party a little?”

 

Well, let’s see. It’s New Year’s Eve. Partying is what you do. And with Lucette? Well, more surprising things could happen to me. More surprising things have happened to me. I went into the Valen catacombs, ostensibly to find the Lapis Circlet, which I didn’t really care about. I saw a number of people die; I personally burned some goblins to a crisp. Lovely aroma. I have peed in the dungeon. I never thought I’d do that. The Circlet didn’t matter to me, but it mattered to some people, which landed me in a real live spell battle. With some guys who had been crows. And Lucette. But it turned out that the weird thing was this key, which I had a dream about. Now the Goddesses are mucking about in my subconscious, leaving me little hints there. Never thought that would happen. But it did.

 

What else? I was a virgin until last month. Yesterday evening I did the dirty with a girl. Well, we did several things, all of which could be considered very dirty, but the girl in question is some fraction of a millennium old, and the very dirties seemed sort of innocent. Oh, I’d been told this as well, somewhere along the line: if you kissed someone, you might fall in love with them and they’d be your love forever. And this was supposed to be the best thing. Well, I’d done a lot more than kiss Yanos, and I was never in love with him, but I don’t want to talk about that even now. I don’t mind talking about Zelin, and I like her a lot, and I know what she means about trusting someone after you do the dirties with them, at least a certain sort of dirties, but what I am with her is not in love. Is it? No. Just checked. I’m pretty sure it isn’t.

 

So now Lucette, who for a long time wouldn’t give me the time of day, wants to party with me. Heck, she flat told me she wasn’t interested in the Key, but now she is. So, that’s kind of surprising. And it makes me think, and that makes me ask questions.

 

We are standing with glasses of white wine on the margin of the Count’s Plaza watching a sort of folky swing band. We’ve turned down several dance requests. Before another gorgeous young man can come ask Lucette (one actually asked me, I’ll have you know), I say, “Luce, how did you hear about this Key in the first place?”

 

“Hmm,” she says. She backs up, and I, wondering, back up with her, into the lee of a building. “Lil gok,” she says: the scenery-people spell, a cheap way of hiding in plain sight. Still, she looks around.

 

“Let me guess,” I say. “You had a dream.”

 

“No. No, I had a, um, talkative lover. Lover,” she repeats. “I just love that word. Lover.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Well,” she says, “Yanos, if you really want to know.”

 

“Yanos??”

 

“You slept with him, didn’t you?” I neither confirm nor deny, which apparently confirms. “So, so did I,” she says. “He’s, like, pumping me for info, about you guys and what you’re all up to. He’s all, don’t let them know I’m around, they think I’ve left town and so on. It was back before Yule, it wasn’t that long after that little par-tay we had on the West Tower.”

 

“And he just opens up about this Key thing?”

 

“Oh no. He tries to be clever about it. Finally, after we did the thing, and before we did the thing a second time, which we totally did but it frankly wasn’t that great—did you think?”

 

“Oh, Lucette, I have so much less to compare it to than you.”

 

“Meow. So finally he actually asks if I’ve heard about a key. So of course I don’t even have to act innocent, because I haven’t. He’s really concerned that you guys, Zelin and your other little friends, will find this thing, which he doesn’t understand anyway because he’s got about as much magical power as that rock over there. But he’s trying to make a deal, you know, as always, and he probably has someone talking to him. I mean, don’t you think?”

 

“Oh, I do,” I say. “Did I mention that I see Yanos right this moment?”

 

“Where? Oh phew. Thank Goddess I picked scenery-people for my new spell. Hey. He’s talking to—isn’t that—?”

 

“It’s Gregorio,” I say.

 

She takes a good look. I wonder what we look like from outside, but standing here by a wall near a bush, I’m not sure they’d notice us fifty yards away without the spell. But there’s no doubt. That’s Gregorio, the Would-Be Lothario, and that’s Yanos.

 

So we split up for the night. Shop will be closed tomorrow, but I’ll see her the next day. We air kiss just like we’re actually friends. I head the opposite direction from anyone I’ve slept with or air kissed lately.

 

And what can I say? I’m eighteen. It’s quite the party. I run into that guy Padric, the guy whose foot Jan saved just before we went into Valen the first time, back when Hurcus and Harmon were still breathing. We talk, he buys me a few beers, I buy him a few, and I don’t bother messing up my own bed this night.

 

 

 

6.

 

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.