Chapter 3: They reel me back in

III. They reel me back in

 

1.

 

I get home and brave my mom’s insults, threats and blather. I can ignore her because I’ve made a decision about my life. I am going to concentrate on making money and it’s all about the shop. All that fantasy about gold and treasure from the Dungeons of Dread: forget about it, I say. Don’t kid yourself. Money is to be found in those cauldrons, not in some dangerous and stupid adventure underground. I think, down deep, I’m giving this new attitude a week at the most, but right now it’s in full force.

 

So I work the evening shift, make ten more jugs of potion blank, then I work the morning shift and the afternoon shift, make ten more jugs and refine fourteen vials of our best-selling cheapo love potion, make a bunch of sales, and then I work the evening shift and make up some more love potion. And the next morning, I get up and have some porridge, because Mom has a vat of oats but hasn’t been bothered to buy bread lately, get to my morning class (Magical Algebra) ten minutes late, do my homework in class, come home, have some porridge and tea, and go back to work.

 

I make some charms for bracelets. I have one I designed myself. It’s based around a blessing for travelers. It’s kind of this bell-shaped thing with a spell written on it, in the Kneghet, one of the old scripts no one uses anymore for, you know, giving directions or anything that would actually be useful for travelers. I make three of these, one in the morning and two in the afternoon, and by dinner time, I’ve sold two of them. You know, to travelers. People who are going somewhere else. Not people like me.

 

I cook up some love charms. I’m really just using the oven to cook down some of the potion, which will start to stink if you don’t sell it in a few days. The aroma gets me a little high, but I keep the store open. I get up late in the morning, Mom’s just going out but she makes some time for me to make sure I get properly nagged and groused at, then I’m free all day to, you know, slave over a cauldron and try and sell people love potions. I manage to remember to go to my Glyphs class at the fifth hour of the afternoon. Homework. Of course.

 

I make some dinner. I whip up a pie from some flour and three eggs and some dried meat. I bake it up in the wood oven where I was cooking up love charms last night. The ingredients are rather different in the two recipes, but I’ll tell you, that was an interesting pie. Mom comes home and she’s thrilled that I’ve sold stuff (she pockets the cash) and that I’ve made dinner. She wolfs down a piece, grabs another for “a friend,” and heads out for the night. I have the night to myself, but after another piece of that pie, myself is feeling pretty good about myself, if you know what I mean. Must clean the oven out after making that charm next time. Or not.

 

I admit I’m a tad slow to get up in the morning this time. I miss Magical Algebra completely. The damn pigeons on the roof earn their keep, though: I whip up an egg thing with my tea. I’m left alone again: the tea merchant comes by midmorning, she finds me in a tea-induced euphoria, and since I’ve just sold four more love charms, I buy a big bag of her best. Mom comes in just after and makes some tea. It’s very nice. Mom grouses about the fact that there’s no new cash in the till; I grouse that as soon as there’s cash, we need to buy some more ingredients. So I can make more charms and potions. So we can have more cash.

 

Constable stops in, I make myself scarce, they wander off somewhere—he’s superstitious, or maybe he’s just sensitive to the smell of the place, whatever, having him not around reduces the amount of time I spend puking. I finish my egg thing for lunch, have some more tea, manage to get some work done in the afternoon in spite of all the time I spend peeing. I put in an appearance in my History of Magic class. Insmoor is four hundred years old next year. Those orc attacks used to be much worse. Really? Then home just in time to miss a sale.

 

I do sell some stuff in the evening, but when Mom stumbles home she’s tired and grouchy and she dozes off in her chair. I put her to bed, then me. She’s up and out in the middle of the morning with whole paragraphs of nagging, whining and grousing that I needn’t go into. Once she’s gone, I make another sale, a necklace I made with some healing stones: rose quartz sells well, jade probably actually works, hematite—oh, who can resist hematite? I talk it up to a middle-aged lady and sell it for four. Whole. Gold. Florins. Amazing. It cost me ten shillings tops to make. Money. I like money. And the best thing about money is that with it you can make more money.

 

So I go out and buy some more ingredients, and everything’s going like clockwork till Mom happens home about the fourth hour of the afternoon. It’s November, so yeah, that’s closing on sunset. We get in a hissy fight, I pocket the profits and leave her four silver shillings, and I’m out the door. I can’t even remember how many days it’s been since I had a minute off.

 

I head for the Rose. A shilling there buys a mug of stew with plenty of beef, a big slice of hot bread with butter and honey, and a mug of ale they keep refilling. I’m having a nice shop talk with the lady who makes the ale and the old dude who makes the stew—apparently the beef was a friend of his, and we’re honoring his memory. Good friend, I say. We toast.

 

Speaking of friends, who waltzes in just when I’m on my fourth or fifth mug of ale but Fenric and Janet.

 

 

 

2.

 

“You have to come back with us,” says Janet. It’s not the first time. We’re sitting in the Rose; I’m on my fifth or sixth beer, and they each have a small mug of mulled wine, the cheap stuff, the stuff they mull so you can’t tell it’s the cheap stuff. She’s giving me her most intense sincere look, and Fenric, Goddess help him, is trying to look sincere as well. Not so easy for a junior-level thief.

 

“Why do I have to come back with you?” I ask. “I have a job. I’m taking classes. I have, you know, actual money. You know I sold that necklace—?”

 

“You told us,” says Janet. “Look, tell me you’re happy doing what you do. Tell me that’s the life you want.”

 

“Tell me,” says Fenric, “you don’t still yearn for the thrill—!”

 

“Of seeing four guys go down in five seconds? Of barely getting out alive? Oh, if only we’d had a better plan, right? We could have gotten those goblins’ treasure! Gee, what riches those guys must have, huh? Dingy copper pence by the dozen! Real simulated turquoise! Silver-plated necklaces, maybe! As opposed to what we actually got—what did we harvest from our last foray in the Dungeon, anyway? Gosh—could it have been—nothing?

 

They listen through all of this, smirking at each other, unfazed. At that point, I know they’re going to win the argument.

 

Fenric pays for their mugs of wine, with coin that I doubt he earned in the usual sense, and they drag me out and up the Vine Street and around the corner to Sleepy’s. They sit me down at a table in the back, and there I sit looking at Janet while Fenric goes and gets a pitcher of ale. There’s a band playing, a harp and a lute and some drums and some sort of recorder, and the worst of the five or six girl singers they ever have at Sleepy’s. It’s not worth trying to talk over her cat-like wailing, just to find out what Janet thinks Fenric is going to want to do. So we study each other. I have no idea what she sees, but what I see is a handsome enough woman who almost looks like a young man in those priestly robes, the black with a little white that marks the Virgin’s novices. Er, acolytes.

 

“Uh, hey, you two wanna dance at all?”

 

We do the same slow turn and look up into the faces of a couple of likely young lads. I think two weeks ago I would have jumped all over either of them. Last week I would have suggested they join us on a scouting foray in the Catacombs of Valen.

 

“My advice,” I say, “go away. Blow.”

 

“Oh look,” says Janet, “our boyfriend’s coming back!”

 

They look up and see Fenric, who is not what I would call intimidating, but the two guys decide by some combination of mind that it’s not worth getting into. The spokesman of the two mutters something humorous and they clear out.

 

“Who were those guys?” asks Fen. “Wanted to ask you guys to dance?”

 

“Wanted to know if we were planning another foray into the dungeon,” I say, “so of course I advised them to stay far away.”

 

He sets the pitcher down, and the three mugs, and then himself. “That’d be so very amusing,” he says, “if I believed it.”

 

“Seriously. Why should anyone want to go back in that place?”

 

“Ah, see, you want me to tell you why you want to go back.” He smiles at Jan. “See?”

 

“Yeah, I see,” she replies. “Now tell me.”

 

“You’re not convinced?” I ask.

 

“Oh, no, I’m just having so much fun memorizing scriptures.”

 

“For the record,” I say, “how much spell power did you have left after all that?”

 

“After I healed up that guy with the bad foot,” she says, “I saved enough for two heal spells, but I blew it all on putting orcs to sleep. I overdid it, actually. I had headaches for two days.”

 

“Oh, I hate that,” I say. “I thought I’d done the same thing, but apparently I have more energy than I thought.”

 

“See,” says Fenric, “this is why you need to come along. Swords didn’t save us, did they? That archer you found us, she didn’t shoot a whole lot of goblins. You guys put them to sleep, that’s what got us out.”

 

“You’re saying why you need us,” I point out. “You’re not saying why we need to go.”

 

“You love those cauldrons, don’t you,” he says. “Love those fumes.”

 

“Don’t knock it. I make money.”

 

“You know there’s gold down there.”

 

“There’s gold in the purses of lovelorn young gentlemen and old gentlemen and middle-aged ladies. There’s gold in those cauldrons.”

 

“There’s the Lapis Circlet.”

 

“Do not make me laugh, Fenric.”

 

“There’s adventure. There’s a future.”

 

I glare at him. I can’t bring myself to argue. I give Janet a look. “A future,” she says, “not working for your mom.” I wince. She looks at Fenric and says, “We still need warriors, though, don’t we? Where do we get warriors?”

 

“I take it Eleanor isn’t available,” I say.

 

“Eleanor,” he repeats. “Oh, she’s taken up with some other folks. Friends of yours from school, I think?”

 

“Who,” I say.

 

“Chick named Lucette? Blonde?”

 

“Lucette Barnswallow?” I ask.

 

“You know her?”

 

I take a minute. “Goddess,” I say at last. “If you’re lying just to get my goat, I swear I am going to put you six feet under.”

 

“What?” he asks with great innocence. “Hey, I grew up in Insmoor like you did, but after my dad died, Mom and I moved to Travishome, we missed all the stuff that happened to our class the past five years. I don’t know any of these people.”

 

“And Miss Lucette,” says Janet, “she didn’t get to Insmoor till we were teenagers, Fenric doesn’t know her. And the Virgin knows I was never in her set in school.”

 

“Why?” asks Fenric, even more innocently. “Was she one of the popular set?”

 

“Six feet under,” I say. “Maybe deeper. You know what you need to know about Lucette Barnswallow. She thinks she’s going to be a great wizard like her father, who got hired as the Count’s chief of magic security or something. You knew that.”

 

“He’s not lying,” says Janet. “I mean, I don’t know people, but yeah, Eleanor isn’t talking to us, but she’s talking to some other locals. I guess she’s not so grossed out by what happened to us as she is by the fact that it was us she was stuck with.”

 

I stare at her, then back at Fenric. Why exactly would I trust a thief? But he knows that. He knows I can find out if he’s telling the truth. And he knows what I’ll think about Lucette Barnswallow. It doesn’t matter what her dad is. She’s a econd-rate alchemist. Not as fast with a wand as she thinks. Crappy rugby player. Dropped every pass Janet ever threw her way.

 

I get up. “I’m going home and to bed,” I say. “I had enough of this for a night.”

 

“You’ll be back tomorrow,” Fen says.

 

“Don’t bet on it,” I say, giving him a look of loathing. I turn away, then turn back, down my beer, set it on the table, wipe my mouth, turn away again and say, “Day after’s more likely.”

 

 

 

3.

 

So I work like a dog for the next day and the day after, and I slip out once Mom’s back for dinner. I get to Sleepy’s, half expecting Fenric and Janet to have assembled a new team, and instead I find Fenric and Janet sitting having stew and wine with a single, rather scarred, fellow. Across the room, I pick out our old friend Eleanor.

 

“She looks like she’s having a good time,” I say to myself.

 

“You want a good time?” the lout I find myself next to says to me.

 

“Shut up, stupid,” I advise him. He makes as if to reply, in word or action, but I hold up my wand. I saunter over to the table where my friends are entertaining Scar Guy. Letting my eyes sweep back across the room, I confirm that Eleanor is at a table with a bunch of warriors—and Miss Lucette Barnswallow, Conjurer.

 

“Daisy!” says Janet as I pull out a chair. “This is Yanos. He’s a warrior-archer.”

 

“More archer, less warrior,” says Yanos, who has a mild and indefinable accent.

 

“Yanos,” says Fenric, “is an old friend of mine from Travishome. He’s interested in helping us with the Circlet.”

 

“Oh, are we still trying to find that?” I ask, sitting down.

 

“We are,” says Yanos. “Circlet of Lapis. It is a very important little trinket. You take this mug we got for you, I fill it up with this bottle I bought for my friends. Your name is Daisy?”

 

“Yeah, I’m Daisy, nice to meet you.” Let me just add that at this point I’m feeling a weird mix of emotions. I instantly distrust this man, and find him hirsute and unattractive. I also have an urge to take his clothes off. I’m a freaking virgin, I’m not absolutely sure what I would do with him once his clothes are off, but there it is. And under those two reactions are a bunch more I don’t even want to start unpacking.

 

“You are in the School of Magic?” I take a sip and nod, trying to concentrate on what he’s actually saying. “Perhaps you learned of Landarcus. He was the last to rule from Valen Castle. After him, Valen Castle is no more, but Valen Dungeons, the Dungeon of Dread as they say, is open for business. And you know who opened it for business?”

 

I shrug. “The Old Order?”

 

“Yes, sure,” he says, clearly a little disappointed. “Now the Lapis Circlet. The Circlet was a healing item first, it was the crown of the chief priestess of the people of the hills, but long after they were gone and Insmoor Town was built here, Landarcus gained control of the Circlet. He put, shall we say, further enchantments on it, the priestess of the hill people wouldn’t recognize it now.”

 

“What enchantments?”

 

“No one knows exactly,” says Fenric. “There are many different theories.”

 

“Kinda cool, right?” says Janet.

 

“So the Old Order,” says Yanos, “maybe they help bring down Landarcus, no one knows. But they help bring down the Castle. It’s known they gain control of the Circlet, along with many other very interesting objects. Of course now it’s fifty, maybe a hundred years since anyone has heard boo from the Old Order. Maybe they are gone. Maybe they are haunting the place, they are ghosts or liches. But the Circlet is still there.”

 

“And you think we can get it.”

 

“I have some ideas.”

 

“Just us four? You’re crazy.”

 

“No, no,” he says, “not just us four. I can bring more, but you, you are a conjurer?”

 

“Yeah,” I say. “Hope I can be right there for you with my big bad sleep spell.”

 

He laughs. It’s a strangely soothing sound, even though it’s at my expense. After ten or fifteen seconds of that, he waves a hand and says, “We go, we explore. We get in a scrape, you use your big bad sleep spell, you use your see invisible or whatever, your any other spell you have already. You come back, you’re ready for your enchanting test. You can be an enchantress.”

 

“Then we go back with my mighty big bad two word spells and we take the Circlet from a bunch of liches or something? And we do it before those guys over there can?”

 

He gives the other side of the room a derisive glance. “Ah,” he says, “we do it and those guys over there don’t even know what happened.” He smiles so wide I can’t help smile myself. Then he kind of spoils it by adding, “Trust me.”

 

 

 

4.

 

The big plan takes shape over the next week and a half.

 

Meanwhile I work a lot. I make most of my classes and do all of my homework. That project in Glyphs does not go undone. I’m whipping up potion blank by the gallon. I start to wonder about my motivations: why am I all of a sudden so interested in my work? It must be more interesting to me than preparing to go back into—and every time I think that far, I want to throw up.

 

So I’m wheedling and cajoling and lying and manipulating Mom to get time off to meet with Fen and Jan and Yanos, all to plan something that I frankly want to put off till I can get out of doing it by plea of old age.

 

I start actually noticing Lucette Barnswallow at school. She’s in my History of Magic class, but of course no one talks to anyone else in there: Professor Shmoke is too busy telling us how it was around Insmoor when he was young and stupid. I make myself get back to work on my dormant alchemy project, and there she is, cleaning up, probably picking her stray blond bangs out of her witch glass. She smiles at me, but not like she likes me. I smile at her the same way.

 

An hour and a half of frustration later—oh, who am I kidding? I love it. It’s so much better than planning another Scouting Foray. Anyway, an hour and a half later I’m putting my stuff away and cleaning up, and Professor Stintsing passes through. She slows down, backs up and says something like, “Nice job there. Cleaning up. Nice.”

 

“Thanks, Professor,” I say, glancing where Miss Barnswallow was working. I can see the smudges she swirled around instead of actually clearing.

 

“You’re Barnswallow, right?”

 

“Ah, ha, no, Professor, I’m Daisy Delatour.”

 

“Delatour. Sorry! You were in Alch I last term. You earned one of my As.”

 

“Yes! Yes I was.” I almost say it was my favorite class, which it was. Ironically, it sounds more like flattery to me when it’s true. I think this and several hundred other things very fast.

 

“And you’re not at your enchantress test yet?”

 

“Um,” I say.

 

“Daisy? Yes. Daisy, this is your second term here, right? Are you thinking of pursuing alchemy?”

 

“Um, ah,” I say, “no offense, but I was thinking of straight magic, at least at the enchantress, sorceress level. I might branch out later.” Like, after I’ve finally gotten the heck away from Mom’s shop.

 

“No offense taken. What were you thinking of for your ordeal? It’s just Grade Two. You don’t need to do much. But you need to do something.”

 

“What sort of thing?” I ask, grave suspicions rising.

 

“Usually it would be an exploration or a—well, since alchemy isn’t your cup of tea—!”

 

“Oh, well, actually I think of—!” Alchemy. Cauldrons loom before me. Lines and lines of them, hundreds, thousands, and I’m aging years in a second as I stagger down the line of them. Suddenly I can’t bring myself to finish the sentence.

 

“I can see you are,” says Professor Stintsing. “Or you could just bring us back a souvenir from the Catacombs.” I gulp. Now instead of stumbling down an endless line of steaming pots, I’m kneeling to present the Professors of the Institute the Lapis Circlet.

 

“Like what?” I gasp out.

 

“It’s just Grade Two,” she says again. “Bring us a goblin arrow.”

 

“A goblin arrow?”

 

“Or one of their knives. Best not if it’s actually stuck in you, of course, but you wouldn’t be the first to do it that way. You know, this will work in November, but don’t wait for January or February, or those things will be as common in Insmoor as half-pennies.”

 

“You’re actually telling me I should go muck about in the dungeons.”

 

“Daisy,” she says, “you don’t think I’m old enough, do you, that Valen Castle would still have been there when I was your age?”

 

“You’re an Insmoor girl??”

 

“I came to Insmoor when I was a little younger than you,” says Stintsing. “You grew up here?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Then you know about February.”

 

“Yeah, actually,” I say. Yeah. I don’t mention that my dad was killed in the February orc wars, a month before I was born. It’s not something you talk about. It’s not something you don’t think about. I find a spot on the table and scrub at it real hard. I’m suddenly tired of this conversation, this day, this whole year.

 

“Well, I just want to make sure you have it in mind,” Stintsing finishes. “Since I know people are going to be talking you into adventures in the Dungeon. And do you know how I know that?”

 

“How do you know that?” I ask, even though I know what she’s going to say.

 

“Because you’re a conjurer and you’re going to be an enchantress soon. And people think they need at least an enchantress on a trip into the dungeon.” That’s what I knew she was going to say. She smiles, turns and strides out, humming, the tune and her long silver curls drifting behind her.

 

When night falls and the wind blows right off Flagon Lake and up the river and right down the River Road, I pull myself out of the chill and into Sleepy’s. There they are, Fenric and Janet and their new buddy Yanos and that elf archer chick we met way back when, guzzling a carafe of red wine and arguing about the paper in front of them. I don’t know how Yanos maintains a three-day stubble, but I have to say he maintains it well.

 

I plunk myself down on the bench next to Jan and say, “Okay, what’s the status of the plan?”

 

 

 

5.

 

“Daisy,” says Fenric, “this is Zelin, you may remember—?”

 

“Hi, Zelin,” I say. “Archer?”

 

“Indeed,” she says, rising to shake my hand. I rise too. I’m glad to see I’m now merely tied for shortest member of the group.

 

“So we’re up to two archers, a cleric, a magician and a thief. I gather some warriors are coming?”

 

“I may have that covered already,” says Yanos.

 

“My friend Gurth will be there,” says Zelin. “He knows some of the way, as much as I do, and he is not stupid like so many humans. Who are warriors.”

 

Janet asks, “How much of the way do you know?”

 

“I have been in Valen Dungeon twice,” the elf answers. I have to say I don’t instantly trust her, but on the other hand, well, elf, right? “Once I think we met some of you, we had found ourselves ambushed on the third level in, and that is as far as I have been.”

 

“I have been further,” says Yanos. I’m sure he’s not lying, but in what way is he not lying? He goes on the same vein: “I and two others managed to sneak down as far as the stairway to the fifth level down, and near there is where I have reason to believe the Old Order held sway at one time. They are not there now, I promise you that.”

 

“Who is there now?” I ask.

 

“The usual,” he says. “It’s not without risks, or it would be without rewards.”

 

“Risks? You mean goblins?” He smiles and sort of shrugs. “But not only goblins,” I say. “Not only monsters, you know, the odd alligator-bear-wormy thing. What about having another magic person? I’m really great with the sleeps, you know. Maybe you want more than that?”

 

“If it’s mostly just goblins,” says Fenric, “no prob.”

 

“It’s not going to be mostly goblins,” says Zelin.

 

“I want an enchanter, at least,” I say. “I don’t care if it reduces my share of the gold. I’ll give half mine to pay extra to the enchanter.”

 

“We do have a thief, remember,” says Fenric. “And a cleric.”

 

“Oh, sure,” says Janet, “I have plenty of energy for sleeps as well as minor wounds. Not like we’d need more than that, right? Not like an acolyte wouldn’t be enough, with my one-word spells. Are we sure we don’t want an enchanter and a priest?”

 

“I’m pretty sure Yanos can get an enchantress,” says the elf maid, in a tone that I can’t quite place, somewhere between disdain and reassurance. She fixes me with a look and spreads her hands on the table. “And I have some small healing skills.”

 

“Well, come to that,” I say, trying to work out even ten percent of Zelin’s gestures and looks. “I can be the enchantress, but not this first trip. Professor Stintsing says this can be my ordeal for Grade Two, and then I can cash in and get us a two word spell. But we need a scouting mission first.”

 

Zelin and Yanos look at each other. Every time they do that, I wonder if they’re totally in collusion, or if they totally distrust each other. “All right,” says Yanos, “we can do something with that. We will see about getting together a preliminary party. Say, in three days? It’s the eve of Feastday.”

 

“Do you think Mummy will give you the day off?” asks Fenric.

 

“I can get it off,” I say, “as long as I know I’m getting it off. After we come back from whatever this is—jeez. Gonna be an Enchantress! What should I do for my first? Not Continual Light.”

 

“A damage spell,” says Fenric. “Obviously.”

 

“I’m thinking Lock might be useful,” I say, “but it rather depends on whether we have another enchantress with us, like Zelin here says. And how much of a hurry Yanos is in.”

 

Everyone looks at Yanos. He smiles and shrugs, again, whatever that means. Goddess, I want to hug and or strangle him when he does that. And then he says, “I am in no hurry. I simply believe we can do this on our second effort, if not our first.”

 

“Geez,” I say, “glad you’re not in a hurry. Hate to see what that would be like.”

 

Fenric says nervously, “So Daisy, are you in or are you not in?”

 

“Oh,” I say, standing up, “I’m definitely in. I just hope everyone else is as in as I am.”

 

 

 

6.

 

The next day I work extra hard at the shop. It’s Market Day, so Mom’s out front pretty much all day, and every hour on the hour I replant the seed, in Mom’s head, of my getting Feastday Eve off.

 

I work extra hard into the evening, wolf down some bread and cheese and hit the cauldrons again. Mom closes shop and is gone without even a farewell: it’s either the romantic thoughts she has for Constable Robert, or the romantic thoughts she has for her intoxicants. I’m not at all put out about her behavior. I give her fifteen minutes in case she forgot something, and then I make sure the fires are all out and the ingredients put away, and close up myself.

 

Mother does not frequent Sleepy’s. Mother perhaps in her youth ventured into the Catacombs of Valen, but then again perhaps she did not. I chuckle as I think of it. The laugh dies in my throat. Why am I doing this? What’s my motivation here? Glory? Gold? I honestly have no clue. But that strange urgent feeling I have in my fingers and toes, that warmth in my torso: I know what it is. It’s the feeling of motivation. I just don’t know why it’s there.

 

I get in the door. It’s pretty crowded tonight. I push through several knots of ne’er-do-wells and wannabes, get to the bar and slap down my coin purse. The barmaid reacts instantly to the sound.

 

“Paying customer?” she asks, smiling.

 

I dump out four silver shillings. “Pitcher of ale,” I say.

 

“It’s a shilling a pitcher.”

 

“I’m paying my tab.”

 

“I think you owed two,” she says.

 

“Now I’m ahead.”

 

She grins and gets a nice big jug, which she fills up with their freshest of beers. “Mug too, or you drinkin’ from the pitcher?”

 

“Mug please,” I say. I take pitcher and mug and start away into the room. I stop to survey the tables and the loose crowd on the dance floor. I feel a hand on my tush, and, without spilling the jug, I whack someone on the head with my mug. It’s wood and it makes a nice resonating bonk. Over there, across the room: there’s Fenric and Janet, and I see Zelin and Yanos and several other people. Yes, that’s definitely Fenric. I don’t bother to turn and see who it was I clobbered.

 

“Daisy,” says Fenric when I reach the table. “You remember Gurth? He was with Zelin’s group, we met them coming back from Valen that first time.”

 

“Oh yeah,” I say, putting the pitcher on the table, “you had some bad cuts on your arm.”

 

“I’m good as new,” says Gurth, who’s solidly built but only one head taller than me. He grins as he shows me his arm: two fully healed but still very visible slashes in parallel.

 

“And this is Jorg,” says Yanos, indicating a very large, very young warrior. “And our extra special guest enchanter is Barb, right, Barbie? Up from Hardvine.”

 

Jorg just grins and nods: not sure if he speaks the language. “Hey,” says Barb, grabbing my hand in a clasp. She’s a head and a neck taller than me, she’s quite attractive, her tunic is cut to advertise a couple of her best features, and she seems to naturally cuddle against Yanos. “I hear you’re up for enchanter soon yourself,” she says, from his shadow, which isn’t easy since she’s an inch taller than him.

 

“So that,” says Yanos, “makes us two warriors, two archers, two mages, a cleric and a thief. Does that meet your expectations, Daisy?” He smiles at me, then around at everyone else, then back at me, which I think is supposed to herd me into being agreeable. I can tell he doesn’t think I’ve been very agreeable up to now. The irony is that I was already feeling strangely agreeable when I came over.

 

“It sounds fine,” I say. “I just need to know what the plan is.”

 

“By all means, Yan,” says Barb, smiling sweetly, “tell us all the grand plan.”

 

“This time?” asks Yanos. He waves me over to the end of the table. There I see heavy papers spread out: Fenric’s very rudimentary map, and another which Zelin is adding to. “We don’t go the way that leads us into an ambush.”

 

“That’s good,” I say. “How’s that work?”

 

“Here,” says Zelin, “down this west hall and to the right, and there, this door, down the steps, then down the wide hall and right again, and there’s this door Shermak mentioned, and behind there we should find stairs to the third level down.”

 

“And here,” says Yanos, “we have a room with just one door, and we can use that as a base camp. It must have been a guard room at one time; now it can be our home away from home, and we can scout from there. Does this meet with your approval?” Again that smile.

 

“Sure,” I say. “Can’t wait.” I look up at Janet, then Fenric, who smiles eagerly. I let my gaze drift on across the tavern. “Say, isn’t that—?”

 

Janet comes over to stand beside me. “Our old friend Eleanor,” she says.

 

“And your pal Lucette,” says Fenric.

 

“Gee,” I say, noting that they too seem to be poring over parchments, with a half dozen burly friends. “I wonder what they could be discussing.”

 

Yanos looks our way from across the table. “You see? That’s what the hurry is,” he says in a voice that drops as he goes on. “It’s going to become quite crowded in this dungeon of ours.”

 

I hmm to myself. I’m thinking: it must be the place to be, or maybe it’s just a really stupid place to be.