XVI. I hold the key
We have Vladimir’s to ourselves for a while, which is good, because after only a few minutes, Thyrssa wakes up and goes on the rampage. Audrey offers me clothes: a clean dress, some underwear and socks that fit, a pair of boots. The fact that they were previously worn by someone who died down here doesn’t repel me. Lucette’s clothes did not suffer quite as much as mine, because she was in front of me; still, she accepts a shirt and pants.
So we have a weird sort of celebration for the next hour or so. We can’t quite assume Vladimir’s is our safe sanctuary, but for now, everyone inside it (with the possible exception of our barman) is in on the secret. At least we’re no longer all in on the secret of what color my hair down there is. It’s almost the only hair I have that isn’t singed. Jan cuts off much of the hair on my head, which had been in a ponytail halfway down my back; Fenric then shoos Jan away and trims what’s left into a lovely do with an average length of about two inches.
While he does this, I play with the key in my new dress pocket and tell the story I just told you. The audience, basically, is: Jan and Fenric; Glee and Lali; Lucette and Zelin, putting in their two coppers’ worth when they think they need to; Gregorio, on his sixth or seventh or eighth beer; Audrey and/or Vladimir; and Gurth, Mr. Gurth Fembark, watching me with tired eyes and a funny smile.
“So how long do you think she’ll be upset?” asks Glee.
“Dragons have long memories,” I say, “that’s what Zing-Grey taught us. She says the smart ones have longer memories than the dumb ones but even the totally reptilian ones have long memories.”
“So we have the place to ourselves for a while,” says Lucette. “In that case, what do you think we should do with the key?”
The back door opens at this moment, and in tramp four paladins of various genders and various religious faiths. “Hoo! Haw! Ah yeah!” they all say. The Amazon among them, a redhead in minimal armor, probably an Athena monk or something, says, “A lovely day in the Abyss!” They stomp over to the bar and find that Vladimir’s already set up four huge steins of beer.
“I think,” says Zelin, “that Daisy should keep it. Anyone object?”
No one does. We split into groups: Jen and Fen get Zelin and Glee into a game of hearts, Lucette and Igbo look on, and Lali goes back to putting the moves on Greg. I find I’m sitting at the end of the bar nearest the front door, with Gurth.
“So you’re by yourself now?” I ask.
“Yep,” he says.
“When did this happen?”
“While you were out being heroic and burned to a crisp,” he says.
“I guess I just told her I didn’t want to be her boyfriend anymore.”
“You heard what I said,” he replies with a laugh. “It wasn’t any fun. You knew. You could see. Anyway, it’s not like she’s in mourning dressed in black about it.”
We look down the bar. There’s no one in between us at one end, and her and Greg, laughing and flirting, at the other end. She waves at us and blows one or both of us a kiss. “Well,” I say, “maybe she has black panties on.”
He smirks. “You think she actually wears panties?”
I want to say, do you think I do? But of course he knows I’m wearing underwear: he and everyone else saw me put them on. Instead I ask him how he’s feeling.
“Pretty good, actually,” he says. “I’m kind of liking the idea of being unattached.” We clink beer mugs. He looks around, leans forward and says, “Want to go out with me?”
“Sure. Or whatever the next, um, night is. After we get out.”
I smile sweetly at him. “Sure,” I say. “I can’t wait.”
After a two-day rest, we gird ourselves for the return to the surface. Somehow or other Gregorio is tolerated in our midst. Zelin, Lucette, Jan and I confer out in the hall, and decide not to show him the Shaft (heh heh), but to take the Long Stair instead. It’s probably slightly less safe but it turns out to be fine. We do meet two units of goblins (the first runs away at sight of us; the second unwisely attacks and is unceremoniously hacked to death or laid out snoring) and then a youngish cave dragon (Lucette fires off a cold spell at just the right moment to neutralize its fiery breath, and then Lali and Gurth collaborate in its demise) before we get on the stair on the level above Vlad’s. The Stair itself only provides one moment of interest, when we are dangerously surprised by six adventurers who, though invisible, are nowhere near in our league and almost get themselves slaughtered just by revealing themselves to us rather than have us bump into them on the steps.
“Sorry,” they keep saying, the two warriors, two archers, one enchanter and one bard, “sorry, really sorry!”
We grumble at them and pass on. From the top of the Stair, on the third level, we get slightly lost before getting to the very gallery where Hurcus et al. died all those centuries ago last November. Just for old times’ sake, we get attacked by goblins, and this time I and Glee and Lucette and Jan and Igbo and even Gregorio just lay them out with ag and have done with it. In another two minutes, we’re out in the light of a March afternoon, the warm wind blowing snow off the ground into our faces.
We troop back to town and split up. Gurth goes off to guard duty; Lali goes off to Sleepy’s to pick up someone more substantial than Gregorio, who goes off to the Institute with Igbo and Glee and Lucette to sort of check on things; I take Zelin and Jan and Fenric to the Rose for beer and beef stew.
“Well,” says Fenric, “inevitably, what next?”
“I get to learn a second three-word spell,” I say.
“I get to learn a second three-word spell,” says Jan, “and if Father Byron calls me Sister one more time, I’m going to stuff his cross down his throat.”
We look at Zelin. She smiles and says, “I plan on watching you do all those things.”
“What I mean is,” says Fenric, “what are we going after next? And what are we going to use that thing Daisy has in her pocket for?”
“We are taking a long break from going after things,” I say. “We are not going to use that thing for anything until we’re very sure what it does.”
“Oh,” says Zelin, “someday you and I will be running down some dark hallway and someone will be chasing us and we will come to a locked door and you’ll pull that thing out and try it and it will work and we will close it behind us and escape while they pound on the door.”
“Just you and me?”
“Not necessarily,” she says, looking at Fen and Jan.
“Well,” says Jan, “I understand how Daisy feels, but I definitely have more to do in the bowels of Valen. I actually wouldn’t mind a peek in the Great Abyss. I understand it’s not of interest to the rest of you—well, maybe you, Zelin—!”
“I feel I ought to go there once,” says the Elf.
“I don’t,” I say.
“But for me,” Jan continues, “it seems like something I ought to do, you know, as a cleric, as a priest. Maybe I can talk Lali into coming with me. Or Gurth.”
“You can’t have Gurth,” I say.
We finish our stew and our mugs and break for the evening, and later that night, coincidentally, after a very nice quiet date, I have Gurth for the first time. And it’s very nice, really, it’s very nice, but it’s definitely not quiet.
A month passes. I concentrate on my classes. I concentrate on my work. I concentrate on learning all the interesting places to smooch Gurth. We go on dates, we attend concerts and swig beer and dance crazy reels and jigs and squares, we sit naked on the floor of my room and read Tarot cards. He helps me with potions. He has zero magical skill, of course, but he’s very dexterous (oh yes) and very imaginative (check!) and very much willing to listen and learn (double check!).
He also has, and I had not noticed this until now, beautiful greenish-blue eyes, soft skin on his belly, nice strong arms, gentle hands, a cute laugh, and actually very pretty feet. Other assets of his which I had actually seen before do not disappoint: no, not at all. He actually says a lot of similar things about me, so I get a lot of practice blushing. I get a lot of practice being happy, whatever that means, this lovely, rainy, foggy, muddy spring.
I pick up a new spell, then another. I figure I’ll try transfiguration, so I learn sek y tfa. I like being concealed, so I get bok kul ros, the basic, stationary anti-detection spell, as well as par ouag, the two-word invisibility spell. But that sek y tfa leads to a whole new spring hobby. While Gurth and Zelin and Jan are flying kites, Lucette and I are turning into blue jays and learning to fly. Handy hint: it’s not as easy as it looks.
Lucette and I formally agree to be good, close frenemies. We pinky-shake on it. She learns a lot from me, and I probably learn something from her. Well, she’s still way more popular than I am. I wish I could walk into a room and say Hi everybody! Whatcha doing? the way she does. Or maybe I don’t. I don’t know. Anyway, among other things, we send out letters together. We each send a letter to Thomasport on a nice day in April, and on a windy, chilly, rainy day in May, we’re working at the shop together when the post comes in, and there’s a lovely scroll for each of us from Thomasport.
We open them up. They’re the same except for the name.
That evening, I’m on my nth date with Gurth. We’re at Tony’s having the deep dish with mushrooms.
“I’m glad we had this discussion,” I say.
“I’m glad you got me to share my feelings,” he says, and we chortle.
“I’m glad you wisely chose to agree to everything I said,” I say. We clink beer glasses.
The door to the restaurant creaks open and a young man comes in, dressed in dirty, earthy, comfy clothes. He pulls off his formless hat and puts his hand on our third chair. It’s Gregorio.
“Can I?” he asks.
“Oh, sure,” we both say. He sits. He smiles at Gurth, then turns to me.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” he tells me. “I decided magic wasn’t the way I wanted to go. It turns out I got accepted by Old Watley, the druid up on Greenish-Brown Hill. If I make it through the summer, he says I could train up for Master Gardener. We’re going to walk across North Land and back.”
“Cool,” says Gurth.
“Yeah. It is. So anyway, Daisy, I just wanted to thank you for beating the crap out of me a couple times, you and Lucette, and setting me on the right path.”
“Not a problem,” I say.
“And hey. The path you’re on? I think that’s the right one for you too.” He gets up, puts his hat back on and says, “Okay. That’s all I wanted to say. See ya! Oh, hi,” he says to Lucette, who’s just come in.
She drops into the chair he was in. “Hey Daisy,” she says. “So? Didn’t mean to interrupt your hot date, but just got curious what you were talking about.”
“He’s coming with us,” I say. “Gurth and I are going to find a place together. Maybe all three of us? Just so you know I’m not sharing him.”
“Seriously?” She looks from him to me and back. “That’s great. I mean, we could use a little hunkiness around the place, wherever we move to. Just to improve the look of the place. I promise I won’t touch. So, what are you going to do in Thomasport, big guy?”
“Oh, I thought about studying languages at U of T,” says Gurth. “While you guys are learning spells and potions.”
“Alloys, for me,” says Lucette. “I decided I dig precious metals. There’s tons of cool stuff you can do. And I do mean tons.”
“Cool stuff,” I say. “You know what you can make with metals and magic.”
“Oh yeah. Rings. Chains. Swords. Locks. What’s that other thing?” She gets up, smiles prettily and says, “Well, I’ll let you kids go back to your date. Ta ta!”
She’s out the door, we have a chance for a smooch over the table, and in come Jan and Fenric. “Hey,” says Jan, “we saw you and—!”
“Did you get—?” asks Fenric.
I pull out my letter. “Accepted. School of Alchemy. If I can hack it, I might be a Master in five years.”
“You can totally hack it,” says Gurth.
“I hope you’ll have time to come back to Insmoor and get into mischief with us,” says Jan. “We’re not going anywhere.”
“Gurth going with you?” asks Fen.
“Of course,” he says. We smooch again.
“Very well,” says Jan in a fatherly way, “we trust you know what you’re doing. Come, Fen.”
They head out with a backward smile and wave, and more smiles and cute waves from out the window. It’s just getting dark. Something about that—something about the twilight, the time, the sky, the shadows.
And out of that twilight, one more figure condenses. The door opens and in a second, Zelin is in that third chair. She just sits there and smiles at us.
“Elf,” I say.
“Human,” she says. She smiles at Gurth and says, “Human male.”
“So what is your plan?” asks Gurth.
“Since I know what yours is,” she says, “I can tell you mine. I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided to head—!”
“Back to Aeraf?” I ask.
“You wish. No, the big city calls to this Elf maiden of the mountains. I believe I shall undertake the study of antiquities. Despite my youth—I’m only 514, you know—I’ve been accepted into the Department of Antiquities at the University of Thomasport.”
“Antiquities,” I say. “We can work with that.”
“I’d think you could.”
We all smile at each other. After a moment, I say, “Zelin. Something’s been bothering me.”
“What would that be?”
“About the—about the way—about the way things are.”
“Here it comes,” says Zelin, and Gurth nods and smiles.
“No, really. Let’s make a list. Dragons? That much gold? A pile ten feet high and twenty feet wide, that’s getting toward a million gold pieces. A million. Thyrssa had a lot of piles like that, and she may be old but she’s just a black dragon. Think of the green dragons, the gold dragons, the browns, the platinums! Just how much money is piled up down there? How could that much money be piled up in dragon hoards in that one hole? How much gold is there? Okay, let’s talk about their tum tums, as Jan called them. 2800°? Seriously? What could make your guts do that? What could make your guts stand that? Melting iron? Okay, so how is it that Valentia and Landarcus actually dug this place—all the way down to what, the Great Abyss? Why would a wizard even want that? Demons and balrogs and undead, and oh, yeah, dragons: those are just the things wizards aren’t equipped to handle. So you’re Landarcus. You have the Kingdom of Carleu by the shorthairs. You have all the orc hordes you could ask for. So what do you have them do? Conquer Thomasport? No. You have them dig their way to the Abyss. Okay, so now let’s talk about the Abyss. It’s what, a mile down? No, not even that. Half a mile? And it extends all the way under the surface? Like, I heard you can get to it from the South Land or from Silontis. Well, how does that work? Why don’t we hear about whole land areas collapsing into Hell and stuff? And orcs? Every year, tens of thousands of them throw their lives away attacking this town and they never get anything out of it. Where do they all come from? Why do they do it?”
“I don’t know,” says Zelin, “any of that, but I think if we follow you around we might find out, right, Gurth?”
“That’s exactly what I think,” says Gurth.
“And then there’s us,” I say. “I know we lost people. But we made it. Think what we did, we found the Circlet and returned it, we made it to Vladimir’s, we made it there again, we found the Key. We stole the Key from Thyrssa the Black. And we made it out. I stole it and I made it out. How amazing is that? Little me?”
“Little me,” says Zelin. “I don’t know about any of those other things. But how amazing is it we made it out? We had you. We had us.” She smiles at Gurth, then me. “I don’t think that’s amazing at all. Do you?”
“No, I suppose not,” I say. “But the thing is, all these amazing things? Piles of gold, metal-melting tum tums, vast abysses, shiny rings and gems and magic swords, millions and millions of orcs. The weirdest thing of all is this.” I reach into my cleavage, such as it is, and pull out the key, on that nice little titanium chain Gurth got me for it. I hold it in my open palm: a large, brown, somewhat tarnished real object cool against my skin. “It’s so ordinary. It’s just a key.”
We look at it for a minute, on my right palm. “The thing is,” I say in a low voice, “you’d expect it to have a wicked magic charge. I mean, the Lapis Circlet did, I could feel it. But this doesn’t. It’s like it’s not magic at all.” I close my hand on it. “It’s not magic. At all.”
“It’s not?” says Gurth. “But—!” But he stops and smiles at me.
“That’s it,” I say. “That’s why someone—you know someone was looking for it, Reg Barnswallow or someone, maybe the Wall guys, maybe lots of people. But they couldn’t find it. They couldn’t see where it was. You had a dream about it, Elf Girl, you saw exactly where it was because someone somehow wanted you, and me and Gurth and, you know, Glee and stuff, to know where it was. But these big wizards and time warriors couldn’t find it because it has no magical charge.” I open my hand to glimpse it again, then close my fist. “It’s just a key.”
“I don’t know,” says Zelin, getting up. “The weirdest thing is the most ordinary. What does that mean?” She gets up. “I guess,” she says, “that makes it just like you, Daisy Delatour.” She smiles, turns and disappears out into the night.
“But what does it mean,” I say, my left hand taking Gurth’s right hand across the table. With my other hand I pull the Key out again and hold it between us in my palm.
“If anyone is going to find out what anything means,” says Gurth, “it’s going to be you.”
“Why, thank you,” I say. “I have to agree.” I open my right hand and gaze at the Key while outside the rainy twilight deepens into night.