Chapter 13: Trouble with the Neighbors

XIII. Trouble with the neighbors

 

1.

It’s mid-afternoon when we come out of the dungeon. When we get back to Insmoor, we find ourselves in the middle of maneuvers. We have to wait at the South Gate for an hour while the guards finish pretending to fight off a major assault. When we do get in, Gurth, Lali and Padric are all grabbed by officers and sent off to make up for all the practice they’ve missed.

 

“I’ll see you tonight, okay, Dais?” Padric calls.

 

“No, not tonight, you lout,” shouts his officer, an older Amazon with a mustache. “You’ll be seeing your patrol route tonight.”

 

“I’ll stop by the shop,” he calls.

 

“Okay,” I say back, not loud enough to hear over the Amazon with the mustache, who has more things to say to my, um, whatever Padric is.

 

“I need to report as well,” says Zelin.

 

“Why don’t they grab you and yell at you like the others?” Lucette asks. “Elves get special treatment?”

 

“By which you mean,” says Zelin, “that we are recognized as capable of self-discipline, and therefore may be treated as adults? Yes, we do.”

 

“I have to hit the Priory,” says Jan. “I’m to be assigned as healer on one of the towers. And I think I’m ready for a new spell.”

 

“I have all my new spells,” says Fenric. “I’m going to go steal things till they catch me, and get out of it by volunteering as a scout.”

 

“Is that how that works?” asks Lucette.

 

“That’s how it works. That’s how it worked last winter. I made out like a bandit.”

 

“How come you’re still poor then?”

 

“Because I spent like a bandit. Later, my fine ladies.” He gives us a chivalric sweep of his cape—yes, he wears a cape—and he’s gone.

 

“That leaves us,” I say to Glee and Lucette.

 

“I just have to get confirmed as a Sorceress,” says Glee.

 

“Daisy and I,” says Lucette, “have to get someone to tell us our Mission for Sorceress. What do you think it’ll be?”

 

“It’s all in who you ask,” says Glee. “Trust me.”

 

“In that case,” I say, “let’s go together and see what Shmoke says.”

 

 

 

And so we go to the Institute. We find all the profs we need, coming out of a Big Meeting. They don’t look happy, but Stintsing and Shmoke and Eald, all together, brighten right up when they see us.

 

“Delatour,” says Shmoke.

 

“Barnswallow,” says Stintsing.

 

“And this must be someone,” says Eald, the magic lock specialist. “I assume we can order her around too?”

 

“Oh yes,” says the headmistress, Professor Shuy, coming up. Shuy is rarely seen by the lower-level students, and I’m personally scared out of my wits, but she’s not paying me any mind. “This would be Miss Glee Fredkin. She had a mission given her by the masters at Sigurd Bay. And now, evidently, she has succeeded and we are to confirm her as a sorceress. You did succeed, didn’t you?”

 

“Yes! Yes, I did, Professor,” says Glee. She suddenly has doubts and looks at Lucette.

 

“She definitely did,” says Lucette. “Daisy went in with her, she can assure you.”

 

“I didn’t go all the way in,” I say. “But yeah, Glee definitely did it. She didn’t, like, bring back any gold bars or anything, obviously—!”

 

“That was smart of her,” says Professor Zing-Grey, materializing next to me. I practically jump into Stintsing’s arms. “You’re Glee? The one who had to go visit Odnorek’s place? Headmistress, her professor at S-Bay, that would be Alfred Alfredini, he assigned her supervision to me as the local expert on dragons.”

 

“It’s all yours,” says Shuy, though none of the dozen or so profs around us leaves.

 

“I’m Glee,” says Glee  to Zing-Grey. She holds out her half-melted half-penny. “Did you, um, need proof?”

The profs all have a good laugh at that. “Oh, no, no,” she tells Glee. “You really needn’t have gone to the trouble. You have such an honest face. And you have the word of such excellent students—you’re Delatour, right? And, of course, there’s the fact that Alfredini is an ass.”

“Oh yes, a known ass,” says Shuy.

 

“And borderline incompetent,” says Shmoke. “Take her and make her a sorceress. Now as for you two. Headmistress?”

 

“I think,” says Shuy, “that Professor Shmoke can supervise both of you. I think he has a special task for you, in fact. Professor?”

 

“Yeah,” he says. He savors the moment, then he says, “Lucette’s dad’s head of Count’s Magic Security, right? Well, I’m head of the School’s sorcerers’ team. And I think you can prove yourselves by serving on the team.”

 

“Yes!” I say, pumping my fist a tiny bit. “What?” says Lucette. “But—!”

 

“And, um, surviving,” says Shmoke. “Think you can do that?”

 

 

 

2.

 

Each sorcery team has a necromancer as a leader. Necromancer sounds mean, and I used to think it meant a really bad wizard, but it’s just what we call someone whose top spell is four words long. Well, survive the war and I’m a sorceress (three words), and the next thing I set my highly ambitious sights on is necromancer.

 

As it turns out, the School only has the one sorcery team. And as it turns out, our necromancer is a dude named Egmont of Louderhill. He’s a member of the Middle Way House, and he’s a sort of grad student at the School; he’s a teaching assistant in Magic Defense, which I get to take in Spring Semester. I’ll probably have him. He seems nice, though he flirts awkwardly with Lucette.

 

For the rest of us—four sorcerers and sorceresses, including Glee, and me and Lucette and Gregorio, who has the same mission for Sorcerer as we do—Egmont’s instructions are to practice, practice, practice. He’s not what I call a natural leader—he’s terrible at handling questions, he’s always thinking he’s being second guessed when all we’re doing is asking him to clarify, and he has no concept of how we should practice.

 

Meanwhile the orc armies mass in the hills and begin moving down to camp in the eastern and southern reaches of the County. Count Dagobert orders the best five companies of the Guards down the road toward Valen to raid the vanguard of the orcs. And we get to go along.

 

I’d like to talk about the strategic situation and how the tactical plans of each side play out, but I have no idea. It’s freaking cold, that much is clear, and no matter how many coats and socks you have on, there’s always some part of your body that’s frozen. In my case, it’s my nose, my left ear and my right little toe. It could have been worse. Lucette is apparently going through hell: she’s not a horse person, and yeah, we have to ride to keep up.

 

We don’t see any actual combat ourselves this time. The infantry does, off there in the darkness. They have a few casualties, they kill some orcs, but it’s all very dark and mysterious and then we’re riding back, in no hurry, to Insmoor. There are eight of us on the team, and the same eight of us come back who went out.

 

Gregorio wants to hit the bars with us, but neither I nor Lucette has any interest.

 

The next day I find out that Lali, Padric and Gurth had all been on the raid, and all saw some action, although “saw” is probably too strong. None of them is wounded, though Padric managed to sprain his ankle. They swing by the shop to fill me in on all the stuff they don’t know, about what happened last night and what’s going to happen.

 

“We should do another double date,” says Padric. This seems like a great idea to Lali and, I guess, Gurth. I can’t see a way to get out of it.

 

So there we are at the Mouse, having some pub grub and getting up the courage to dance, and over the music, somehow, Gurth and Lali manage to argue. It’s not a fair contest: she’s a lot better at it than him, even defending a weak tactical position: she feels that she’s “more faithful to him than she’s ever been to anyone else,” which to him sounds like not very faithful at all, and I and Padric (apparently) tend to agree with him. But Gurth being Gurth, and Gurth still wanting Lali to be more than his current lover, I suppose, Gurth can’t bring himself to fight very hard for his superior position.

 

So I’m sitting there watching him be miserable, and this doesn’t make me any more romantic, and then stupid Gregorio decides to try and pick me up, and this leads to a disturbing little scene with Padric, who wants to beat Greggy up but is also suspicious and thrown off balance by the Lali Gurth Situation. It’s so complicated.

 

So I drag Padric to the door and announce that I Want To Go Home. He takes me home. And there, at the shop, oddly, Fenric and Jan and Zelin are waiting at the counter for me with a bottle of wine. Padric declines their invitation in (to my place) and kisses me good night (awkwardly). He almost says he loves me. I basically say, “Bye.”

 

I shut the door and lock it. They take me up to my room and shut that door and lock it. They sit me down on the floor. Zelin looks me in the eye and asks, “Daisy, what did you see? What did you see in Thyrssa’s cave?”

 

 

 

3.

 

So I tell them. Fenric isn’t impressed. Jan is skeptical. Zelin doesn’t say a thing.

 

“I just don’t see why it has to be the Key,” says Jan. She’s looking more and more like a He, in black robe with just a little white at the neck and wrists, and sounding like it too. He has been working on his deep voice. “It could be all kinds of keys. Didn’t you make a big list of different keys? Or it could be just the key to a treasure chest.”

 

“It could be,” I say, “but it isn’t.”

 

“But how do you know?” asks Fenric. “You only just got a glimpse.”

 

But I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to check my memory and make sure. I was sure when I saw it and every time I think about it I’m surer. And how can I explain that? Say, I’m just sure? So I just smile.

 

Sometimes I like being an adult.

 

Other times, not so much, and the next week provides me with more opportunities to explore that side of being this side of my eighteenth birthday.

 

Normally the orcs in their tens of thousands arrive outside the walls of Insmoor at the end of January and make the first attack in the first few days of February. But this must be an unusual year. The raid on the horde was, oh, the fourteenth of January? There’s another raid a week later, by which time they’re already setting up their south camp. We get in a bit of a tussle spell-wise, and I have to say, Go School! One of the city teams, one of Reginald Barnswallow’s prize squads, tries to invade a headquarters tent and gets in over their heads. So the faculty use their long jump spells to drop us in, and we find three of the city boys dead, one more turned to stone and the other five under serious fire. We drop in, Egmont drops a wax figure spell on an enemy necromancer, Glee rings the bell on her first use of the Hold spell, and Lucette and I lay about with ice and fire. The place is a shambles in about ten seconds; the flames from my fire don’t do the wax-figured necromancer any good.

 

And then, as if that weren’t enough to swell my ego (and Lucette’s), the following happens: bad guys toss Cease and Hold spells at us both, and Gregorio, and Greggy fails his resistance. Lucette yells kno eur! And so do I. It’s the reverse spell, which I just learned.

 

You have to resist the spell they threw at you, and your reverse spell doesn’t make that any easier, but if you do resist, and we both do, then the spell some dude threw at you goes back at the dude who threw it, and now it’s his job to resist. And he doesn’t: neither of them does, the chick who threw Hold on Lucette or the dude who threw Cease on me.

 

And just as we’re fully aware of how awesome we are, Egmont yells out, “Grab someone’s hand, grab that statue—!”

 

I don’t have time to process this, but I grab the arm of the stone figure in front of me and Lucette, and she grabs the arm of one of our dead friends, and in a moment we’re yanked as by a stout rope back to the Insmoor Magical Institute cafeteria.

 

Lucette and I are high fiving like nuts. I’m sure we look quite ridiculous. It’s a bonding experience. Anyway, the dead person is another good guy necromancer, and he ought to be thankful because the Aphrodite high priestess of Insmoor, Arethusela or something, is there to raise him from the dead, and he can be doubly thankful because, you know, Aphrodite? I mean, it could have been the Virgin and then where would he be? And the Stone Figure I managed to bring back with me when the professors pulled us back: that’s some guy called Fidrik of Glen Falls, who should be familiar to me because he was the enchanter in that group that included, let’s see, Gurth and Zelin, that we met on the way to my first trip to Valen.

 

Lucette and I take Fidrik off to Sleepy’s and get him good and drunk, and he tells us all about how badly planned the raid was. Talking about other people’s mistakes is always a good time, and we are pretty well into our fourth pitcher and sprawling all over the table laughing, when what do you know, Gurth and Zelin and Padric all show up.

 

The raid, it seems, which occurred south of town, was followed quickly by an orc attack on the totally unprepared East Gate. A band of ogres managed to take the left tower of the gate, and were only dislodged with hard work and heavy casualties. Something happened to Lali, apparently: not fatal, but not terribly happy. I’m so frickin’ drunk I don’t pay enough attention. Padric and Gurth both seem really upset. I gather that Gurth and Lali were arguing and then she got badly wounded and, oh god, he must be really pissed off at me. I feel pretty bad, actually.

 

And Padric? Well, there I am with Lucette, having a high time with some other sorcerer guy, and I don’t even spot Padric at first. Okay, I feel bad. I straighten myself out, give him a big wet kiss and head for the toilet area.

 

On my way back—what is it with the toilet area? I’m accosted by a surprisingly familiar scarred face.

 

“Daisy. Daisy. I have to talk to you.”

 

“Oh god. It’s you.” Oh god is a thing I seem to have recently picked up, just in time to express my adult feeling about things. And oh god. It’s Yanos.

 

So he gets all in my face about how we need to go somewhere and talk, can we meet somewhere, he really needs to get with me about something important that he can’t discuss here (or in the shop or in the Rose or the Mouse or the back alley or in his apartment where he doesn’t live anymore). And my increasingly sober mind is thinking through all the things he might want to talk about. I have a list of those things. It has one item on it, and if you put the letters M, O, N in front of it, you have the name of a furry animal that climbs trees.

 

And I don’t want to talk about that. Not with Yanos.

 

So I’m just trying to politely (really?) get out of this conversation and go back inside when Padric comes out the door to go to the latrine himself, and there I am, in heated conversation with Yanos, who has a hold of my shoulder and is really trying to convince me of something he can’t talk about here or anywhere else I know of.

 

Padric takes one second to think about it and then grabs Yanos by the upper arm. He swings Yanos to face him, then lands the base of his palm on Yanos’s right jaw. Yanos goes flying, Padric goes over and picks him up, and it presumably continues from there.

 

I don’t actually know, because by then I’m through Sleepy’s from back to front and headed up Beaker Street. In five minutes I’m running a bath, in ten minutes I’m soaking, and in ten more minutes, Zelin has let herself in and we’re having the conversation I actually needed to have, with me in the suds, and her (fully clothed, dried blood droplets on her shirt) in the chair by the tub, and her best pipe in my hand.

 

 

 

4.

 

“So,” the Elf says when we’re properly relaxed, “you assume Yanos wants in on the Key thing.”

 

“Yes,” I say, “I assume that. Of course I had assumed that Yanos had fallen in a hole somewhere, and that assumption didn’t pan out. So.” I swish a little. “Where exactly did you meet Yanos, anyway?”

 

“First time,” she says, “in Silon, you knew he was from Silon, right?” I didn’t, and my face says so. But it explains the tiny accent. “Yeah. He was in the navy for one cruise. Ship came in, he got kicked off, I ran into him in a bar, I was just running away from home—!”

 

“How old were you when you ran away from home?”

 

“Oh, basically what I am now. It was last spring.”

 

“Oh. How old was he?”

 

“I guess maybe 25? You know. Humans.” She chortles, goddess bless her.

 

“Was that when you slept with him?”

 

“That was the one night I slept with him,” says Zelin. “I slept with a lot of guys that spring. Some women too. I don’t really have a preference one way or the other.”

 

“And the next time you saw him?”

 

“Was down here. About May I got sick of Silon, of Silontis in general. Aeraf is right on the border of the Silontian Empire, and the Silontians have picked up a certain flavor, and that’s what I was getting away from. They speak of Carleu with—well, they speak of Carleu with what I would call a disdain bordering on respect, so I thought I’d head for Carleu, and where in Carleu? I ran into people who had been through Insmoor, who mentioned Valen Dungeon, so that seemed like a good bet. College town, some history, no Elven Realms too close by. And of course they all said, look up Daisy Delatour when you get there, she’s an up and coming conjurer.”

 

“Ha ha. So was he all about the Lapis Circlet back in Silon?”

 

“Actually not. Actually, he was all about the Coin of Arista. It was supposed to be this coin that this powerful witch from Zondia put a bunch of her power into.”

 

“Zondia?”

 

“It’s a suburb of Silon. Anyway, it was obviously extremely precious, and he could find buyers who would pay tens of thousands in gold for it, and he had all these hints and ideas about where it was, it was supposed to be in the mountains south of Silontis, not especially far from Aeraf in fact. I think he slept with me because he thought I might mutter secrets in my sleep. But of course, as you may be aware, we of the Fair Folk do not need sleep but rather walk in dream while awake under the stars—did you know that?”

 

“And did you actually know anything about this Coin of Arista?”

 

“Only that it sits in the treasury of the Countess of Aeraf to this day, and has sat there for at a minimum of six hundred years, which is longer than I’ve been alive. She’s my great aunt, by the way, the Countess is.”

 

“Did you tell him?”

 

“Nope.”

 

I swish a little. I ask, “So do you think he’s interested in the Key?”

 

“It would be like him. Are you sure what you saw was The Key?”

 

“I’m very sure, Zelin. I am very sure. Don’t ask me why, I just am.”

 

“No, no,” the Elf replies, cleaning out her pipe before she refills it. “If you’re very sure, then I am very sure. You are, after all, the famous Daisy.”

 

“So what should we do about it?”

 

“Well, when the war is over in a month or so—what do you want to do about it? Leave it in the care of Her Ladyship Thyrssa the Black?”

 

“Um, no,” I say. “I mean, other than Odnorek, I’ve never heard of a famous dragon who didn’t ultimately meet a famous warrior and get the worst of it. Or archer. And if Yanos doesn’t get lucky at some point, someone else will. And this Key.”

 

“Yeah,” says Zelin.

 

“Do you know what it does? At all?”

 

“I know it’s the sort of thing that Kronah and Time Warriors want to get a hold of. I don’t know why. It’s not powerful like a Wand of Wonder or something, but it’s important somehow. It’s important.”

 

“Yeah.” I laugh slightly and swirl the water some. I sort of shrug. “Maybe it’s wrong to say this, but you know? I guess I don’t trust anyone with something like this, other than me.”

 

 

 

5.

 

That the whole orc war started early is a major topic of conversation around Insmoor in late January. People are actually a little worried: not all the shipments of food and ammunition from the rest of Carleu have arrived yet, and this is starting to look like an actual siege, especially in the manors of Varelon and Flagon Lake. By the end of the month, despite raids and skirmishes, the orcs have encamped on the flats south of Insmoor and the high ground overlooking the East Gate. They have a bash at that about an hour before dawn on 29 January, but they’re not especially serious about it. The following forenoon, the idea becomes clear: they’re setting up a small but fortified camp on the road north from Insmoor to Angbor.

 

Another big push on the east gate comes on the first of February. Trolls break through the town wall north of the gate, and the fighting is pretty awful. Trolls are big and tough and stupidly clever, and they’re also more resistant to spells than orcs or ogres are. Reginald Barnswallow’s teams are there to try and contain the magic attacks that coordinate with the incursion, but then, about midway from midnight to dawn, they wake us up and send us out.

 

It’s frickin’ cold, except where they’ve set fire to the slum. It’s bloody confusing, and also bloody. I actually get a glimpse of Padric and Zelin and a dozen other archers chasing after some orcs and then halting and firing volley after volley at charging trolls: it’s touch and go there, but the archery is intense enough to keep it from going over to hand to hand fighting. I see one archer get crushed by a rock. Not Padric, and not Zelin.

 

Lucette and I turn from that sight and immediately find ourselves under attack by sorcerers. No doubt they’re Ipre’s version of the School Team. Well, this round goes to Ipre. I wake up later in the School cafeteria.

 

“Hey,” says Jan. He’s sitting on my bed, looking especially manly: he’s rolled up the long sleeves of his black robe and under than the white sleeves of his under-robe, and there’s blood on the white sleeves and on his arms. “You had a nice nap.”

 

“Yes,” I say, trying to sweep the cobwebs out of my head. They’re very sticky. “Quite restful.”

 

“It was the three-word sleep,” says Lucette, sitting on the other side. “You got lucky. I got turned to stone. That was a rough one. I mean, Stintsing dispelled me, but I still feel kind of, I don’t know,” and she clears her throat, “gravelly.”

 

“Did we lose anyone?”

 

“Not that I know of,” she says. “Couple of the city sorcerers got whacked with the death spell. Eww. Right? Gregorio got hit with a five-word hold, they had to go back and get him, Egmont’s super mad at him because he was messing around, showing off. I mean, he’s just an enchanter, I think he wanted to take out a wizard or something and maybe they’d let that count as his mission. Instead, we got back and I guess they noticed he was still there, Egmont went back with Shmoke and found him standing there, he got Held so hard he couldn’t move. He’s lucky he could move his lungs to breathe.”

 

We shake our heads.

 

“Hey Daisy,” says another familiar voice. I turn. It’s Zelin. Padric’s with her.

 

“You know who I didn’t see,” says Padric. “With us archers, I mean.”

 

My face turns sour. “I will kill you if you say his name.”

 

“Daisy,” he says, sitting on the bed. Lucette gets up, squeezes my hand and goes off to flirt with someone. Jan raises his eyebrows, gets up and goes off to see about healing someone. Zelin fills a bowl. After a moment, Padric says, “You’re okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” I say. “You?”

 

“We escaped harm,” says Zelin. “More than one can say for one’s enemies. Light?”

 

 

 

And that’s the rhythm of life in Insmoor for the next several weeks. They attack the East Gate every two or three days, and the South Gate about as often. The North Gates (there are two of these) are closed off; they try a sneak attack there on 15 February and are repulsed with difficulty. The Southwest Gate gets three good whacks over the course of the month; on the eighteenth they actually have a go at the West Gate, the one toward the rest of Carleu. And several times they just attack the walls; twice more they break through in the northeast or the southeast and set fires.

 

Varelon is besieged all month, as are both Flagon Lake Hold and Marno in the hills. They’re all well enough prepared. Angbor is ravaged—many is the rich farmer skulking behind Lady Julia Shmoke’s walls who will have to spend good money to rebuild the ancestral mansion come spring. It’s good for the building industry.

 

With almost every attack, there is a magical raid. I get ceased repeatedly and held once; a Stone spell washes off me, somehow, and, because I saved enough energy for kno eur, the jerk who threw it at me gets stoned himself. We lose one sorceress—her name was Jen something—to an orc arrow followed by a blast of the fire spell. The sadness. The stink.

 

After every battle and every raid, there’s the after party. For the next couple of parties, I’m okay and Pad’s okay and we hang together and go home together and get sweaty together and I wake up with Cudgel dozing atop my farting boyfriend. The next after that, after a particularly nasty fight on the East Gate, Padric is pretty badly hurt and I’m in no mood. But neither is Zelin, so we go back to her place and do the best we can. She doesn’t fart. I’m absolutely serious about this: she does not fart. However, her cat does.

 

At the next one, Gregorio is feeling pretty good (he didn’t get ceased, for once) and he gets drunk and makes a serious pass at me; Padric beats him up, despite Greggy’s attempts to put him to sleep. I take Pad back to my pad: I’m so proud of him.

 

But then they attack the South Gate. We get called out; Padric gets wounded again, pretty badly, a through and through sword wound in the side that somehow doesn’t nick his stomach. Meanwhile I get the first four words of the five-word Death spell thrown at me. It’s stopped by a Zelin arrow in the neck of the wizard, who is actually that witch in the black bikini we saw at Vladimir’s. At the after party, Gurth and Lali are particularly angry at each other for some reason. I get super drunk and nearly end up going off with some warrior from Travishome—as if. Instead, Zelin and Jan and Fenric drag me home to my bathtub.

 

Oh, yes. And the next evening, that warrior from Travishome, who is actually a slob and a jerk, and who used to come all the way to Insmoor for our rugby matches just to yell rude things at our cheerleaders, gets picked off by orc arrows while peeing off the South Gate Tower.

 

Yeah. It’s the orc war. Interesting stuff like that happens all the time.

 

 

 

6.

 

It’s 22 February of the Carleu year 943. Gurth and Lali have each caught the other one flirting with someone else, and they’re barely speaking, though they’re still sleeping together and making plenty of noise doing it. Yes, I chose my words properly. Padric and I have some shadows too. Mostly, it’s me, and no, I don’t want to say “It’s not you, Padric, it’s me.” But it is me because I’m the one thinking, jeez, I almost got the death spell thrown at me, I should go to bed with the first guy I meet at the after party.

 

Or, I’m in no mood for romance, so I go back to Zelin’s place and we make love. Now that’s an interesting sentence I just wrote. Romance, make love, have sex. You can get any one of those or any two of those without the third one. With the Elf, it’s the second and the third but not the first. It seems a lot like her attitude toward the stuff she puts in her pipe: it doesn’t affect her performance, I’d be hard pressed to say how it even affects her personality—I mean, in some ways, she’s about as not a stoner as a person could possibly be. But it’s not that her stuff isn’t good or that it doesn’t have an effect on her; quite the opposite.

 

“Zelin,” I say this morning as we lie in her loft bed, wearing not a stitch and petting the cat between us, “why do you—what does this mean to you? I mean—!”

 

“I enjoy it, don’t you?” she replies. “I mean, on balance, isn’t it better than not doing this? I’m not in any danger of falling in love or anything. I mean, are you? It’s okay if you are, we’d just have to work around it.”

 

“No, no,” I say, “it’s fine. It’s, um. You’re just,” and I pause because it all sounds ridiculous. I go on in my deep serious voice. “You’re not like other girls.”

 

“You’re not either, actually,” she says. She pets the cat a few times, then leans over the cat and kisses me. “I’m not ruling out the possibility that I might find someone ten, twenty, a hundred years from now and settle down and have, oh, one baby maybe. But for now.”

 

“Right. Same here.”

 

“But not with Padric?”

 

I give this the requisite ten seconds and say, “No. Not with Padric.”

 

“Do you guys argue? I don’t see you arguing. Do you keep it private? It would be so entertaining if you argued in public like Lali and Gurth.”

 

“I’ll remember that,” I say. “By my troth, Lali, do you have to sleep with all the other guards in my unit? I don’t get any respect around the barracks.”

 

“Oh, Gurth,” says Zelin, “honestly, I’m as faithful to you as I’ve ever been to any man or woman. Do you know, I actually heard her say that?”

 

“Oh, I’ve heard her say that any number of times,” I reply. “But Lali! Can’t you see how much I care for you?”

 

“Oh, goddess. I care for you too, Gurth. I actually do.”

 

“You sure find a funny way to show it.”

 

“If you respected me, you’d respect the traditions of my people. One of which is basically plonking anything that moves.”

 

“Plonking?” I repeat. “Yeah, a little restraint, it’s all I ask for. I mean, the blacksmith’s apprentice and the horse? Seems a bit much.”

 

“Well, if you don’t like it, you can certainly go elsewhere. That little blond waif, for instance, or that Elvish slut.”

 

“That little blond waif?” I reply. “Are you suggesting that I plonk Daisy Delatour?”

 

“Oh, who would do that?” asks Zelin. “She’s so waif-like. It’d be like doing it with a paper cut-out.”

 

It’s all pretty amusing, or it seems so at the time, and we go on for a while before we accept that we both have places to go. I head for the shop, which is quiet, and catch up on Potions of Healing: government contract, you know. Lucette shows up to help, as best she can. Mom is out, no doubt helping Constable tend the wounded or comfort widows or something. Anyway, no one interrupts. It’s daytime, and daytime is when nothing happens in the orc war.

 

Except that, about the second hour of afternoon, the Word of Alarm goes out and Egmont’s team is called back to the Institute. I figure we’re going to do some training, or maybe they’re going to brief us on tonight’s action, perhaps a raid somewhere out there in the orc camps or the Headquarters of Evil. but I am so wrong about that. The action is now, and it’s no training, and it’s right here in the School.

 

 

 

7.

 

I’m sure real wizards just twist their long jump rings and appear straight there. In fact, I know that’s true. I, however, am an enchantress, as is Lucette. We’re stuck with running all the way to the Insmoor Magical Institute. It’s warmer than it’s been, so the snow falling is actually freezing rain, and we splash through half an inch of it on the sidewalks while another inch comes down from the sky, not even counting the stuff sliding off the roofs on us. We are both well-dressed for the weather: she’s got a short plaid skirt and a tight red sweater with a thigh-length coat over it and no hat, and I have a knee-length peasant dress, in off-white, with a cardigan-ish thing and a woolen cap but no coat. We’re soaked within a block. We have our wands in our hands.

 

“This weather,” shouts Lucette, “it’s gotta be their doing.”

 

“I’m gonna learn that spell,” I shout back. “Give them a dose of their own.”

 

“Your first? The three word weather spell?”

 

“No! Maybe third! I have a whole list, Lucette!”

 

“So do I,” she shouts as we splash across North Bridge Street and the biggest puddle in the central district. “Cease! Mind stab!”

 

“Hold, stone sleep, Arnulf’s Fart,” I shout back.

 

“Oh, good one. Shadow scout! Feelings is a three worder!”

 

“Lots of choices,” I say. We pull up in front of the big gate. Things look normal. It’s the picture of what a school closed for vacation (or orc wars) looks like. But somehow in some sense I didn’t have till this year, I can see the glow around the library wing. Lucette can too.

 

“Library,” she says.

 

I say, “I think someone’s making an unauthorized withdrawal.”

 

“I bet you hate that when Padric does it,” she says. Before I can think what to say to that, we’re running across Roedark Street and through the muddy side garden. We get to the side door of the library and dither. It flies open and four black-clad half-ogres emerge with gigantic black crossbows.

 

Ag,” we both shout, waving our wands. They all go down sleeping in the sleet. “”On the other hand,” I say, “the classics still have their place.”

 

We charge in through the door, which we’ve never seen open before. A group of people is standing in the middle of the big central room: they seem to be defending the reference desk. For a tenth of a second I think it’s just them. There are brand-new stone and wax statues decorating the reading room, including one girl I know who looks like she was just sitting there studying for her alchemy test when they showed up.

 

Immediately we get hit with hold spells. We raise our wands. We’re holding hands: my wand’s in my left hand, hers is in her right. No plan. We shout kno eur together: the reverse spell. And we discover something odd.

 

We have no trouble resisting. It’s the hands: I mean my right hand holding her left. I feel a tingle there.

 

We just used about a quarter of our total spell energy for the day. And two of those wizards at the reference desk are held.

 

More happens, and it happens so fast I don’t get it all. I get a cease spell and fail, but when my spell power drains away there’s more spell power, with a lemon-vanilla flavor that can only be of Barnswallow origin. So I toss another kno eur, this time to reverse a stone figure spell, and guess what? There’s a statue at the reference desk.

 

And just then, with a psychic crash, four more figures appear: it’s Shmoke and the Headmistress, and two wizards I’ve never seen. They’re cussing each other out as they throw very fast, very long spells. Shmoke: I’ve never seen him in actual action, and it’s news to me. Anything they throw at him looks stupid. He does something to one of them, a guy with a little goatee who looks like he wants to look evil, and the goatee guy is thrown off in some random direction. The other, a venomous-looking brunette, uses about a ten-word cease on Shuy, who tries her own kno eur—I used the same spell as the Headmistress!—and fails. Shmoke throws a big spell at his last surviving foe, and things look bad for her.

 

She throws a quick spell, maybe six words, and everything slows down. I can see Shmoke’s spell coming at her at about a foot per second.

 

She waves her wand around and she and about half her held, Sleeped and stone-figured pals disappear. Shmoke heaves a sigh of disgust.

 

Several more faculty show up, or come un-held: Stintsing, Eald, Zing-Grey, old Givmore. They go about the room dispelling and de-stoning, while the librarian, Helgelin, and her assistants sigh and begin straightening things up. Egmont and Glee and Gregorio, all among the held and stoned, barely have time to stretch and dust off before they’re put to work.

 

“You two,” says Shmoke. “Nice job.”

 

“Uh, us?” says Lucette. We look at each other. Then we giggle and high five.

 

“Now shut that door and pitch in, will you? There’s plenty to clean up.”

 

 

 

And that was the last gasp of the orc war, it turns out. All that’s left to take care of is a few raids on the retreating enemy. Padric takes yet more wounds; I see Unwin at Sleepy’s with Eleanor and while she still looks fine, he’s got bandages on his bandages. Zelin gets called out on the next two nights as some sort of secret unit she’s in chases the foe back where it came from, but of course she doesn’t get wounded, no, not she.

 

As for Lucette and me, we’re buried in clean-up work all over the Institute and the town. And we’re up for our sorcery tests.

 

 

 

8.

 

Sorcery test. The first day of March, the first hour after dawn. They actually make us take tests: sit down, short answer and essay tests. The worst are the true-false and explains:

 

  1. vas nyk ekt as used against a five-word Cease spell will improve the user’s resistance but not enough for a sorcerer or sorceress to fully overcome the disadvantage faced against a practitioner capable of a five-word spell.

 

  1. A sorceress successfully holds an archer opponent. She is then subjected to the spell neur goth, which she fails to resist. The archer becomes unheld, but only for the duration of the neur goth.

 

  1. An enchanter throws a poj conjury of an ogre with an extra head, and at the same moment, a sorceress throws za nyk za on the enchanter, who fails to resist. The second spell lasts a full thirty seconds, and in that time the enchanter, forced to repeatedly throw poj, simply adds extra heads to the already-conjured ogre.

 

  1. Any attack made out of an invisibility spell renders the attacker visible.

 

Let’s see: I have no idea offhand if Cancel Cease is better than or worse than a two-grade advantage. But a “practitioner capable of a five-word spell” would be a wizard, and presumably would have other advantages besides being (literally) hard to resist. For instance, wizards often tame familiars, and sorcerers almost never can do that, and familiars can throw spells too, if they’re so inclined. Shmoke says he has friends with cat familiars who may or may not feel like bothering, depending on the situation; still, it’s an advantage. So I think True on that one. I’m going to guess that B is false—the temporary Cease doesn’t cancel out hold spells the way the three-word, regular Cease spell does—but I’m basically flipping a coin there. C sounds so wacky I really start to think it’s true, but I’m too wise to do that. I vote False and say that instead the enchanter conjures up a bunch of ogres, all with one extra head. D? It has to be a trick. Any?? What if you’re invisible but also hiding behind something? So: three falses? Knowing Shmoke, they could all be false, or all true in some tricky way.

 

Done with A through D. Only sixteen more of those.

 

In the afternoon, which is cold and sunny, we have Orals. You can imagine what that’s like. It’s me and Lucette and Gregorio and two others, this dark-skinned girl named Igbo from the Narrow Land who’s very good and very quiet—she could have problems but Shmoke likes her—and this guy named Ralph from South Thomasport who’s kind of a doofus. I know what will happen with him: they’ll give him heck and make him absolutely sure he’s failed and then post a Pass before he quite gets around to pitching himself off the cathedral tower.

 

Lucette goes first. She comes out with a frozen smile on her face and goes off to throw herself on a bed somewhere. She still lives with Daddy and Mummy, but I imagine she avoids old Reginald till she’s sure she’s passed. Gregorio is after me, and I’m after Igbo, and Ralph is last. I am a wreck, of course; I don’t even want to talk about that hour while Igbo is in there getting all the answers right and making them all very proud. She comes out all smiles, and they call me in.

 

I proceed to babble for one hour. Time plays no particular tricks on me: that would be piling on, because I’m playing all sorts of tricks on myself. Shmoke has me over five different barrels at once, while Stintsing is cross examining me seven different ways. By the time I’m allowed out, I’m not sure of anything: my name, whether down is up, the meaning of the word “the.” I’m not sure I could reliably spell the word “the.”

 

And I go out into the garden and Padric is there to make me feel better, but I don’t cooperate, and we argue because there’s actually a lot of issues between us we never resolved such as why the hell we’re even together or what the hell he thinks I’m going to do with the rest of my life. So we have one of those arguments you have when you’re not actually mad about some specific thing, you’ve just been waiting for the opportunity to settle some things and instead you mess everything up. It finally comes to this: So you want me to take that commission even though it would mean I’d go to Edscastle, and you won’t come with me? Yes, I think you should take that commission and no, I’m not going to Edscastle, there’s nothing for me to do there. Well, if you were serious about this like I am, you’d find something to do there. Well, if you were serious, you wouldn’t take the commission. So you don’t want me to take the commission? No. No, Padric. I do want you to take the commission.

 

“You’re saying you want us to not be together.”

 

“I am saying that I want us to not be together, yes.”

 

“You think we should break up,” he says.

 

“I think we just did,” I say.

 

He gets up, jerkily, like he’s not sure exactly which leg to move first, and it takes him a second or two to get straightened out, but then he walks away without looking back.

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