Chapter 7: Birthday party

VII. Birthday party

 

 

 

1.

 

We head straight for Sleepy’s and grab some dinner, their beef stew with bread and mugs of beer. We have money, but we don’t spend or even really look at the yellow stuff. Then we head over to my place. Mom’s standing in the middle of the shop with her coat on. She takes fifteen seconds to bawl me out and then she’s out the door. We lock up and go upstairs to my room, throw our boots out in the hall and and sit on my floor. Gurth plunks the sack of coins between us.

 

“Wow,” says Janet, looking around. “You got rid of your teddy bears. Is this because of—you lost your—you know?”

 

“What? Oh, ha ha,” I respond. I’m sure I’m redder than usual, which isn’t hard because I’m the whitest person I know.

 

“How long have you guys known each other?” asks Gurth, who’s still standing.

 

“We all went to nursery school together,” says Jan. “You’re lucky we let you join our play group.”

 

“Oh,” he says. He fidgets. “Can I take off my chain mail?” We sort of shrug and snicker. Undaunted, the warrior pulls off his cap, shrugs out of his rather loose shirt of rings and gets down on the floor and folds his legs like he’s in our nursery school class. We all look at each other. “So,” he says, “should we just dump it out or what?”

 

“Let us pray,” says Janet. We all take hands and close our eyes. “Mother Virgin, we thank you for this bounty you have granted us, and we ask your guidance as we divide it up equally, Fenric, amongst us. Amen. And Fen, I’m not letting go your hand till you say Amen.”

 

“Amen,” says Fenric. Gurth and I giggle add our own amens.

 

“Okay, dump away,” says Janet.

 

Gurth pulls the bag toward him: he’s sitting next to me, with Janet on his other side. I untie the twine at the top of the bag, and with some effort, he turns it on its side and then pulls it back. A pleasantly large pile of gold and silver spills out. We take a minute to enjoy the vista, and then we make Fenric roll his sleeves all the way up—“Professional courtesy demands they ask me to do that,” he explains to Gurth—and get down to divvying. Five blissful minutes left we have lined up, in stacks of ten, 182 gold pieces and 140 silvers.

 

“Most of these are Daphnes and Cyanes,” says Fenric, “but we do have a few Saphnes and this stack is all Silontian coins.”

 

“I know I saw one from Rion,” says Janet.

 

“So,” says Gurth, “even divvy, we decided?”

 

“It was a matter of Prayer,” says Janet.

 

“More importantly,” I say, “should we ever see Zelin or Yanos again, we solemnly swear that they don’t get a cut.”

 

“Of course not,” says Fenric with a professional indignation. “They weren’t with us when we found the loot. They got a cut from what that gnoll had.”

 

“And of course,” says Gurth, “if they made it out, they might have found who knows how much treasure and that would rightfully be theirs.” He looks around at us. “Not, um, ours.”

 

“That is a point,” I say.

 

We look at each other. Fenric heaves a sigh. “Sadly, that’s the law of the dungeon,” he says. “So, shall we? At twenty shillings to a gold piece, 140 is seven gold, so that’s 189 gold. 189 divides by 4 into 47 with a remainder of one, so we have 47 each, and one gold left, but that’s twenty silvers, so we should each get 47 and five shillings.” He smiles at me.

 

Everyone watches me while I calculate. “182, that’s 45 each, two left over. 140, that’s 35 each. The two left over gold are forty silver, so that’s ten each, so we each get 45 gold and 45 silver, which is the same as 47 and five.” I smile sweetly at Fenric.

 

“Like I said.” He looks at Janet. “Do the honors?”

 

“Sure,” says our vicar, and she begins lining up stacks of gold and silver in front of us. I jump up and get my little strong box, find the key, open it up and dump out the dead flowers, hair bands, poems I never want to see again, and cheap crystals. The stacks of gold look very nice in there. It fills right up, leaving a dozen gold and fifteen silver I can’t fit. Pocket change. Nice.

 

“Um,” says Gurth, pulling out a small pouch. He’s already filled a bigger one with his share. “I have some herb, if we want to consecrate this.” He laughs his nervous laugh. “Since, ah, Zelin’s not here.”

 

“In her honor, then,” I say.

 

“Oh, nice,” says Janet. “Daisy has some wine. Want some?”

 

“Sure,” I say, “share out my wine. What’s mine is yours, after all.”

 

So we have a smoke and then we toast our future endeavors and down our mugs. We’re pretty happy about things, and Fenric is on his best behavior. I’m very much in a “you guys are my best friends ever” kind of mood.

 

“What’s our next endeavor, anyway?” asks Gurth.

 

“I dunno,” I say. “I’ll tell you, this puts a different look on things. I’m not, ah, Fenric, don’t take this wrong, but I’m not so into the Lapis Circlet now, I hope that’s okay.”

 

“I feel kind of the same,” he says. “I mean, I figured we sell it. But there’s all kinds of rumors about what incredible powers it has and stuff. I mean, I bet at least 90% of them are made up, but you know,” and he runs his hand through the pile of gold he’s slowly putting back in the bag for himself, “this stuff, I fully understand its incredible powers.”

 

We all nod.

 

“So,” I say, “let’s lock this stuff up in my room here, and head down to the Mouse or someplace and see if there’s a band to dance to.”

 

It’s generally agreed that this is a good idea. It’s a still night, under a cloudy ceiling, as we make our gay way to the Golden Mouse. We’re four adventurers walking arm in arm down Beaker Street: me on one end, then Fenric, then Jan, then Gurth. The world could not be more wonderful if it was a clear summer night.

 

And then I see someone in a doorway up a side street. Someone, and not just anyone. The world is suddenly ten percent less wonderful. I’m suddenly sober. I pull Fenric close and say, “I’ll catch you guys up,” and then I’m just a figure blending into a doorway half a block from that figure in the doorway.

 

 

 

2.

 

The figure is female: that much I could tell to start with. Now that I’m standing still and concentrating and not having to make chat with my partners in whatever, I’m increasingly sure who it is. I’m trying to talk myself into getting closer, because I can’t think what else to do and I’m certainly not ready to give up and go dance with my best friends forever. What if it isn’t—anyone I know? Well, I would have to get closer to know that, wouldn’t I?

 

Just as I’m considering how to close the distance, the figure moves. She too has been looking around and calculating and weighing the risks and the timing. She slips out of her doorway and moves along the alley wall, the back of the textile wholesaler. I cross to her side of the alley and find my way into the doorway where she was standing. She looks around—she still hasn’t seen me—and turns a corner into another alley.

 

I hurry up to the corner. This alley is much narrower: I could almost stand in the middle and touch both sides. So it’s quite dark. She’s already two thirds of the way to the end of it, in deep shadow. Still, as I come around the corner into the shadow myself, I’m sure who it is. Even though it can’t be.

 

“It’s Barbara,” says someone behind me. A hand is on my shoulder, with a firmness approaching that of a constable making an arrest. I turn.

 

“Zelin!” I hiss. “What the—!”

 

She puts her hand over my mouth. Then she puts her hand up flat, palm facing me. With her other hand, she draws me back to the outer alley. Around the corner, my back’s against the wall and she’s facing me at a range of about two inches. We are the exact same height, but of course she has that elvish thing going on. I wouldn’t be surprised if she stabbed me or pushed me against the wall with a kiss.

 

Instead she says, “We need to talk.” I roll my eyes. “Not here,” she adds. I raise my eyebrows. “Okay,” she says, “I suppose that was also rather evident.” She takes her hand off my shoulder and backs away about two inches. “Follow me,” she says.

 

“But what about—?”

 

“Just follow me, all right?” She looks me up and down with a slight smile. She could just say it out loud: Human.

 

We take the alley the other way to the next street, and then we go in the door next to the door for Ferdinandina’s General Emporium, up a steep set of stairs, down a narrow, clean, poorly lit hall, and stop in front of the sixth door on the right. She has the key in her hand, and she lets us into a pretty little garret with a little kitchen, a bed in a loft, and a window and door at the back onto a balcony. A small grey cat sprawls on the bed, and doesn’t even stir as we come in. Zelin shuts the door and slides the dead bolt, then leads me without further explanation to the balcony. It’s like her garret, or her person: uncluttered, yet an easy place to hide in. We settle side by side on a crate that leaves our eyes below the level of the balcony rail. We’re looking right down the narrow alley. Zelin, being Zelin, pulls out her pouch and her pipe and fills up.

 

“Light?” she asks.

 

“Sure.” I pull out my wand, say sko and light her pipe. We pass it twice and then it’s gone.

 

“So when the goblins attacked,” says Zelin, “Yanos and I started shooting them, of course. Then they charged us, and I pulled out my long knife. I fought off a couple, I took an arm off one, maybe it’ll grow back, maybe it won’t. I had a moment to think, and I realized the sound I’d heard was Yanos going through the door. I thought for one second and decided to chase him. But there were lots more goblins, and out of nowhere someone threw a spell at me—it was three words and I don’t know any of them. I still don’t know what the spell was, maybe it was that cease spell they threw at you last time. So there I am, no Yanos, no way back except through a bunch of goblins in the dark and yes, a sorcerer. I decide to go on.

 

“I don’t find Yanos. I actually get kind of lost, which I’m not used to. As he said, there are storerooms and barracks and torture rooms, and I end up in this hall to this door and through it there’s a stairway up and down. There’s a hot wind blowing up from below, not like a dragon breathing, more like Hell itself about two floors away, though I doubt that’s what it was. So I go up. It takes me a couple of levels up, then I use my wits to get to somewhere I recognize, and I’m coming into that first big room from the south way. I’m out.”

 

“Before us, or after us?” I ask.

 

“After, I think. I think you were ahead of me about half a mile. I saw four people. But I kept to myself, I had a lot of thinking to do.”

 

“When did you discover about Barb?”

 

“When I got home and came out here for a smoke. I’m looking down there, and there she is. And there you are, watching her. And I go down and she’s already up the alley, but I wanted to talk to you first anyway.”

 

“Zelin,” I say, “who’s Barb going to see?”

 

“I don’t know,” says the elf, “but I think your guess is the same as my guess.”

 

 

 

3.

 

We sit there for a few minutes. Barb’s obviously somewhere in there, and there’s no sign she’s ever coming out. We chat a little about the weather. Unsurprisingly, it’s not easy to chat with Zelin.

 

I’m about to start apologizing for leaving when Barb appears again coming down the alley. “Did you see where she came from?” I ask.

 

“Oh yeah,” says Zelin. “Second floor window. On the right near the end of the alley.” I squint. I can just make out a window there. It looks inaccessible. I say so. “Not to me,” she says with that little grin.

 

“Zelin. Do you think—do you think Yanos found the Circlet?”

 

“He seemed very focused on it, don’t you think?”

 

“You’re going to go see?”

 

“Not right now,” she says, “and I’m not going in, I’m just going to see what you see when you look through that window. And, um, not to offend—!”

 

“You prefer to work alone.”

 

“In this,” she says. We stand up. “Not,” she adds, “in things like, finding my way out of the fourth level down in Valen Dungeon. For that, I would have preferred company.”

 

“I’m sorry we didn’t come after you,” I say.

 

“That wouldn’t have worked. You did the right thing.”

 

“So, if you’re going on alone,” I ask, “why did you get me? Why’d you bring me up here?”

 

She puts her hands on both my shoulders and says, “Because I trust you. And I need someone to know what’s going on. Because I’m, you know? Just an archer.” She kisses me on both cheeks, like we’re in the Silontian military and she just gave me a medal. Then she giggles.

 

I let myself out. In ten minutes I’m turning off Beaker Street and onto Bridge Street, and then I’m in the Mouse. Jan, Fen and Gurth are in the middle of a crowd, dancing together to a jig of some sort, beers in their hands. It’s too loud to explain anything, so I just grab a beer and join them.

 

We have a great time. I drink a lot. They carry me home and put me to bed, and I wake up about the fourth hour of morning. Mom’s up and running the shop, but as soon as I poke my head out, she grouses at me for five minutes and then disappears.

 

I manage somehow, but it’s not one of my better days. Mom shows no sign of returning before dark, or indeed after dark, but about the fourth hour of the afternoon, Janet and Fenric stroll in. Fen is as always; Jan is now in a long black robe with a white shirt showing through in front and a little white skull cap on her close-cut hair. I really couldn’t tell if I didn’t know that Janet isn’t a guy named Jan Et. I say so.

 

“Well, thank you,” Jan says, in a kind of deep voice.

 

“So,” says Fenric, leaning against the counter, his face a few inches from mine, “tell us where you went last night between when we were coming down Beaker Street and when you showed up at the Mouse. Half an hour? Hour?”

 

“Between the two,” says Jan.

 

“So? New boyfriend?”

 

“Hardly,” I say. I look around, like I’m telling a dark secret, but there’s no one but us. So I launch into the story. I leave nothing out, but I make no conjectures. They wait till I’m done spilling to comment.

 

“You’re sure it was Barb,” says Jan.

 

“Oh yeah.”

 

“You trust the elf?” asks Fenric.

 

I give it a second’s thought. I nod and say, “Yeah. Sure. Oh yeah.”

 

“Not really sure?” asks Jan.

 

“Really sure,” I say. “Maybe not really really sure. But really sure.”

 

“So who’s Zelin gonna see,” asks Fenric, “when she looks in that window? Was she going to do that last night?”

 

“Are you going to see her tonight?” asks Jan.

 

“If there’s something between you two,” says Fenric, “it’s fine by us.”

 

“Oh, that would be a thing,” I reply. “Fen, did you sleep with Gurth?”

 

“No, but I would.”

 

“Did you sleep with Yanos?”

 

He grins. “Oh, that would be yes. How do you think I got him to join us?”

 

“You slept—!” I turn to Jan. “You knew this?”

 

“I know a lot of things,” she says, smiling. Like, she knows I slept with Yanos.

 

“Why wouldn’t I sleep with him? Scars or no scars. Look at him, could you resist?”

 

I roll my eyes. “So this is your fault.”

 

“What is?” I don’t reply. He looks at Jan, then leans closer over the counter. “Listen, Dais,” he says, “what say you and me go see who’s in that apartment or whatever? Vicar Jan can stay here and mind the shop.”

 

I look at her, then back at him. She shrugs and nods. I say, “What if Mom comes back?”

 

“You’re covered,” says Jan. “It’s not like I’ll steal from the till. Not,” she says, looking at Fenric, “that there’s anything wrong with that as an avocation. It’s just not my calling.”

 

I lean back, gazing at Fenric. “So,” I say at last, “what would be the plan?”

 

“I knew you’d ask,” he says. “And yes, I have one.”

 

 

 

4.

 

Fenric and I, not saying a word, retrace our steps from last night. I pick out the alley off Beaker Street, and we do a circuit: left up the alley, past the narrower alley (Zelin is not on her balcony, nor is she hanging from any ledges under or about that window), out onto Stonemason Street and left, and then left at the Brickman Square and onto Greens Lane, and thus back to Beaker. It all looks like nondescript buildings to me.

 

“There,” says Fenric, as we double back onto Greens Lane. “Grocer, shoemaker. And in between, a door down a few steps.”

 

Down a few steps?” I repeat. “But—?”

 

He makes his voice sound all mystical, and says, looking around with wide eyes, “I can see everything—all is revealed to me!” He looks at me. “I’m a thief. I know these things.”

 

He leads me down the five steps and in the unlocked, plain door. We’re in a small shabby room with a hall going off to the left and another plain door at the back. We go through that, and we’re at the bottom of a long straight flight of wooden stairs. Up those, and we’re in a more confusing labyrinth than the Valen Dungeon, although it has less goblins. At some point we’re in a hall, and Fenric walks me along it, talking to himself about the doors along the right side. “No that one,” he says, “not that one. Maybe? Yes. That one.” He indicates what to me looks like a door to a service closet. “That’s the door.”

 

“You’re sure?” I hiss at him.

 

“That door connects to that window on the alley,” he whispers. “Yes, I’m sure. Know what to do?”

 

“Distract him,” I say. “Why don’t I just put him to sleep or something? Why do I have to be the damsel in distress?”

 

“I have a plan,” he says, and smiles. Thus hypnotizing me, he turns and saunters back the way we came. Of course I have no idea how to get out on my own.

 

I go up to the door. I’m about to knock, but I stop. I try the door. It’s locked. I pull my wand from my sleeve and touch the door, muttering, “Rok!” It springs open an inch.

 

I push through as quietly as I can. It’s not an apartment as such, more a series of little spaces that were left when rooms and halls were cut out of them. But it’s lived in, and it’s as furnished as it reasonably could be. The first room is maybe six feet by five and contains a dresser and a bookshelf; the next is a narrow hallway with pegs holding coats. The first one is Yanos’s. There’s that ridiculous scarf.

 

I turn into the next room and find Yanos. He’s lying, possibly dead, on a mattress on the floor. His sprawl seems accidental, as if the murderer was carrying him over a shoulder and threw him down there. I’m standing over him, wand out. He suddenly starts, snorts and almost falls back asleep. Then he sees me.

 

“What the hell—!” are his first words.

 

“Yanos,” I say. “I thought you’d be in here somewhere.”

 

“How’d you—?”

 

“I have my ways.” Did I really say that? He grimaces at me as if he’s thinking the same thing.

 

“What do you want? Leave me alone. I need sleep.”

 

“Yanos. What happened after you got separated from us?”

 

“I got chased,” he says. “By goblins. Surprised? I can’t fight off fifty goblins at once.”

 

“Were you with Zelin?”

 

“Uh,” he says, and he sits up. He starts to stand, but I tap him on the head with the wand. “Got a new spell yet?” he asks. “Something more intimidating than the lock spell?”

 

“I believe I do,” I say. “So?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I was with Zelin. We got out together, actually. She needed me to look after her. If you know what I mean. Now let me sleep.” He holds up his arm. His shirt’s torn and I see he’s got some sort of wound. “I need to rest and recover.”

 

“Yanos,” I say, “did you find out where the Circlet was?”

 

“No, Daisy, I did not. I have no idea where it is. It wasn’t where it was supposed to be. We couldn’t really check, of course. We were both wounded, and, you know, fifty goblins.” He sighs. “I don’t even care about it anymore. Screw the Circlet. Who needs that kind of aggravation?”

 

“Yeah.” I glare at him a little more. I look to my right, into the next room. There’s a window on the right wall. I’m not too surprised to see it sliding up very slowly. “Yanos,” I say, “I will let you rest on one condition.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“You have to frickin’ show me the way out of this place,” I say. “Seriously. I am so lost in here. I feel like I tried every stinkin’ door before I found yours, and—!”

 

“How did you find my place?” he asks, getting up. I’m slightly happy, on balance, to see that he’s dressed.

 

“Ouija board,” I say. “Amazing things. But I left it at home. So?”

 

“So,” he says. He looks around, finds his boots and steps into them. “Happy to show you the way out, Daisy. No offense.”

 

“Who you hiding from in here?” I ask. “Us?”

 

“Sure,” he says. “I foresaw some embarrassing conversations, you know. Didn’t you?”

 

I keep what I foresaw to myself. He’s as good as his word: in a few minutes I’m at the top of the stairs down to the door at the bottom of the five steps. “Thanks, babe,” I say in as sultry a voice as I can manage.

 

“Daisy,” he says. There follow a series of very sincere-seeming gestures, frowns, sighs and head-shakes. “I mean,” he says, and goes into his sincerity routine.

 

“Yanos,” I say, gently touching his chest with my wand, “do you think you and I could still work together?”

 

“Definitely,” he says.

 

“Mmm,” I say. I almost kiss him, but no. I turn and flounce down the stairs. I come out onto the street, turn right and walk up Greens Lane to the square. I look around, then start across among the piles of bricks toward Stonemason Street. There at the corner is Zelin, with a tiny smile on her face.

 

 

 

5.

 

Before I can even say hi, Zelin says, “Interesting.” Interesting?? “Come with me.” So I do.

 

She takes me back to that narrow alley. Just inside, partly shielded by a pile of crates and a burn barrel, I see someone whose feet stick out into the alley. It’s Fenric. He’s sleeping.

 

“You have that dispel magic spell, don’t you?” she asks. “It’s a two-word spell.”

 

“No,” I say. “I did get a new two word spell, but I needed something to attack with. Um,” and I get down on my knees in front of the sleeping thief, “we’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.” I start slapping him, alternating with poking.

 

“He’s coming around,” says Zelin after a minute.

 

“You don’t want to stop till he’s all the way awake,” I say. “Besides, this is fun.”

 

“Stop, stop,” says Fenric, finally raising his hands to get in my way.

 

“Okay, good,” says Zelin. “Let’s get this person up to my flat.”

 

So we do. Waking someone from a magical sleep, even a one-word sleep, by slapping them leaves them groggy for a while, but somehow we get the person and his legs to cooperate. Once we’re in her place and we have him between us on a bench, and once Zelin applies her usual first aid of blowing smoke in his face, Fenric comes all the way around.

 

“Don’t tell me,” I say, “let me guess. Barb.”

 

“What? Yeah,” he says. “She’s alive and kicking.”

 

“Where were you?” asks Zelin.

 

“I was under the window. Sort of trying to figure the best way up. She said her spell, I turned and saw her, and I fell asleep right there. You must’ve moved me a little before you woke me up.”

 

“Yes,” says Zelin, “I dragged you to a hiding spot.”

 

“You’re stronger than you look, elf maid.”

 

“You’re lighter than you look, gay human.”

 

“And you resisted better than you think,” I say, “because you actually did turn and see her, and you actually did remember.” He sort of smiles, shyly (him?), as if flattered. “So what do you remember?”

 

“Heard the word, saw her face, fell asleep.”

 

Zelin and I look at each other across Fenric. “All right,” Zelin says, “what do we know and what do we surmise?”

 

“I surmise,” says Fenric, “that it’s harder than heck to get you stoned. Can we make some tea? My mouth’s on the dry side.”

 

Zelin gets that little smile of hers. “It’s too early for wine?”

 

“Way too early,” I say. “You have fire in the stove?”

 

“All winter long,” she says, getting up. We leave Fen to rest a bit more, and I put water in the kettle and get it heating on the wood stove while she fills her tea ball with some complicated sort of tea. It has orange peels in it, among other things. The cat comes down from the loft and requests something, and Zelin finds a piece of dried meat to toss her. In a few minutes, we’re sitting on the biggest space of floor she has, under the bed in the loft, sipping hot tea and passing another of her many pipes. “So,” she says, holding it in, “what do we know?”

 

“Barb and Yanos both came back out of Valen,” I say, “and they’re up to something.”

 

“That last part is surmise,” says Fenric. He looks at the bowl. “This is very nice stuff, even for you, Z,” he judges.

 

“Don’t just look at it, smoke it,” she says. “All right, we know they look like they’re up to something. He’s hiding out. You talked to him, right?”

 

I take my hit, pass it back to Zelin, and nod. I hold up my finger for a moment, then say, “He told me the following. One: he got chased by goblins. I kind of believe that. Two: he was with you, Zelin, and you both got wounded, so he had to take care of you. I know that’s a lie, because while he showed me his wound, it didn’t look like an arrow, it looked like a sword stab, and you didn’t get wounded at all. Did you?”

 

“Indeed not,” says Zelin, giving her cat a space in her lap.

 

“Three, he said he doesn’t know where the Lapis Circlet is, and four, he doesn’t care about it anymore. I don’t believe Four, and so the trend seems to go against believing Three either.”

 

“In other words,” says Fenric, “you think he has the Circlet.”

 

“And Barb’s in with him on it.”

 

“Yes,” says Zelin, “this is what I feared as well. Yanos was always about the Circlet, and I never did know why; it’s not supposed to have any great powers, not ones that one could use easily. I’m sorry. Didn’t we know that?”

 

“He told us,” I say, “that it belonged to the Priestess of the Hill People or something.”

 

“That’s what they say.”

 

“Well, did it?”

 

She sort of shrugs and smiles her tiny smile. “I wouldn’t believe most of what people say about it.”

 

“Then why do we even want it?” Fenric asks.

 

“Oh,” I say, “this from you, who wanted to go down and grab the Lapis Circlet from Day One. What were you going to do with it? Even if there ever was a Priestess of the Hills to give it back to? Seduce her with it?”

 

“I was going to sell it,” he says, like mine was the stupidest question ever, which it possibly was.

 

“Well, you can still do that.”

 

“Sure,” says Fenric, “if that bastard Yanos hasn’t sold it yet.”

 

“Did he say anything else to you?” asks Zelin. “It seems as if your part in this cooperative effort was a trifle more productive than Master Fenric’s.”

 

“Miss Daisy is generally a trifle more productive than Master Fenric,” says Fenric.

 

“Yes, now you mention it. He said he was hiding out from us, meaning like you and me and Fen and Jan and Gurth, because there might be some unpleasant and embarrassing conversations. So assuming that’s a lie, he must be hiding from someone else. And I asked him if he thought we could still work together, and he said, basically, sure, baby, and naturally I know that’s a lie. Because I would be trying out my new spell on him way too soon.”

 

“What’s your new spell?” asks Zelin.

 

“I got the fire damage spell. I mean, keep it simple, right? Maybe next I should get the dispel spell. I will make sure to consult.” They smile. We all sip our tea. I work up the courage to say, “Do you think you can actually see someone’s soul if you’ve made love with them?”

 

“I don’t necessarily believe in such a thing as a soul,” says Zelin, “and I doubt our thief does. But yes, I think you can see into someone in that situation, and afterward, you understand them a little bit better, for better or worse.”

 

We sip some more. “Can I have a show of hands,” I ask, “as to whether one did or did not sleep with Yanos?”

 

They look at each other. All three of us have our hands up.

 

 

 

6.

 

We don’t know very much: just that Barb and Yanos, like Zelin, came safe out of Valen, all separately, and that Barb has been meeting with Yanos in his hiding place. And that Yanos is still a liar who sleeps with pretty much anyone. What we don’t know but believe: Yanos brought the Lapis Circlet out of the dungeon, and is peddling it to the highest bidder.

 

And I can’t help notice that Zelin is nervous about that. And Zelin is never nervous.

 

I put my head down and work and study and hit the lab. We are very busy in the shop, with Yule coming. Mom actually works her full hours. She tries to hire Janet to man (hah! I’m hilarious) the counter. Apparently the Order of the Virgin would not look kindly on her taking a regular gig in an alchemy shop.

 

But guess who shows up to ask about working here. I come back from getting some supplies, and there’s Mom teaching Lucette Barnswallow how to handle the till. And, of course, two days before my damn eighteenth birthday, I get to train her on making potion blanks.

 

“She’s not very smart, is she?” Mom asks, as she whisks me into the back room, leaving Lucette out front. “She’s trying to make a sale out there. I just don’t know if she can manage. But she’s an alchemy student, right?”

 

“Um, yes, sort of,” I reassure her (sort of).

 

“Well,” says Mom, “I’ll go out and make that sale, and you can get her started making potion blanks.”

 

I stand there among the cauldrons being proud, annoyed, embarrassed, concerned, superior and conflicted, and before I have that all sorted out, Lucette joins me. “So?” she says. “Your mom seems cool.”

 

“Yeah,” I say. “Okay. You know what a potion blank is.” She gives me a blank look. I know no one can be as stupid as she looks. I know she’s not stupid. Not down deep. “You know what a potion blank is? You took Alch 2, right? You did. From Stintsing.”

 

“Yeah, of course.”

 

“Okay, then,” I say. “It’s exactly like you learned, except that it’s totally different and you should forget everything you learned. Got it? Say yes, Lucette.”

 

“What? Wait.”

 

“Okay,” I say. “Rule one, wash the cauldron thoroughly as soon as you’re done with it. See? Eight cauldrons, two have stuff in them stewing, that leaves how many?”

 

“Uh, six.”

 

“Okay. You take this one, I have that one. Now. I keep everything you need right here on the shelves, except the bases, the oil’s in the vat there, just tap it and try not to spill, the milk is over here, we use a lot of goats’ milk.”

 

“Goats’ milk?? I thought—!”

 

“You learned all this dragon blood, unicorn milk, newt egg stuff. Goats’ milk for potion blank. One day old.”

 

“What do you do if it gets past one day old?”

 

“We drink it,” I say, not needing to add stupid.

 

We get into the work and she’s not terrible, although I would never, even after years of training her, leave her to do this on her own. Hey, it’s Yule time. We sell a lot of potions.

 

“Daisy,” she says during our second hour: by now we’re mixing up a potion of good will, always a big seller this season. “Do you want to be an alchemist, like, years from now?”

 

“Do I want to run my own shop?”

 

We look at each other. She grins. “You don’t really, do you?”

 

“Oh, of course I do,” I say. “But you, you’re more of a spell battler, right?”

 

“I think so,” she says, seriously. She’s very pretty. She looks at me and almost says something, something she decides to keep secret. Oh, yes, Lucette, keep your secrets.

 

The next evening, Lucette is out front arranging some toys in the front window. Mom makes them, these funny-looking little sort of eggs with legs and farmer hats, and I squirt in a little potion of animation, and when you blow on them they walk around and bump into things. I can tell Lucette thinks they’re cute. She wants to know how to make them herself. Well, that would be better than—!

 

And just when she’s not looking at the door, a figure slips in out of the snowy twilight. The fact that he doesn’t swagger almost makes me miss that it’s Yanos.

 

He spots Lucette and goes pale. He actually slips behind a shelf. I watch amused, but then he looks at me and I realize I have to go talk to the bum. So I walk over to him and give him my Look.

 

He leans close, but I’m sure it’s not for a smooch. “Daisy,” he whispers.

 

“What.”

 

“We have a problem,” he says, looking around.

 

“You have a problem.”

 

He looks in Lucette’s direction. Oh yes. The daughter of the chief of Count’s Magical Security. Then he turns his eyes, which he thinks have eagle intensity just because he’s an archer by trade, on me. “We have a problem,” he says.

 

“With her?

 

“No. Well, I mean—well, we have a problem,” he says, oddly flustered. “With Barbara.”

 

“Get out of the shop,” I say.

 

“What?”

 

“Get out of the shop. Without that young lady seeing you. Meet me in half an hour at the Rose.” I finish him off with one more glare, and then I turn back toward the counter. “Oh, Lucette,” I say.

 

 

 

Forty minutes later, I walk into the Rose through the back door from another of Insmoor’s many lovely alleys. Zelin and Fenric are with me; by some weird chance, Janet has spotted Yanos and joined him at a table way in the back. We join them; Jan goes to the bar and gets a large bottle of red wine and five mugs.

 

“So Yanos,” says Zelin. “Odd how I never saw you after those goblins charged us. Where did you go, anyway? I heard you said I was with you the whole time. And you said I was wounded. I wonder how you got that idea—is there someone else who looks like me?”

 

“You could tell he was lying,” says Fenric. “His lips were moving.”

 

“Now look,” says Yanos.

 

“All right,” I say. “That’s fine. Now let’s give him a chance to tell us what’s bothering him.” Zelin and Fenric both turn patient smiles on Yanos. Janet crosses herself and says a little prayer—I find out later it’s her new spell of lie detection. “It’s about Barb,” I say. “Shall we guess what it is?”

 

“She’s gone missing,” says Fenric.

 

“She’s carrying his baby,” says Janet.

 

“She stole the Circlet from him,” says Zelin.

 

“You knew,” Yanos accuses her.

 

“I did not. It stands to reason. You had it, and she visited you, and now you don’t have it. When did this happen, and when did you find out?”

 

“It happened today—well,” he says, “actually it might have been—oh gods.” He puts his head in his hands. We give each other skeptical looks, but then he starts shaking. He’s weeping. We’re still skeptical. He parts his hands and looks at Zelin. “We were going to sell it,” he says. “She was the go-between. Now she’s going to sell it.”

 

“To whom?” asks the elf.

 

“To the Wall,” he says.

 

“What?” asks Janet.

 

But I know what the Wall is. “When,” I ask. “When is this sale taking place?”

 

“It could have already happened,” he says very quietly. He looks at Zelin.

 

“You had better hope not,” she says calmly, “or I am going to see a large quantity of your life’s blood steaming on the cold ground. Was this your idea?”

 

“It was not. I was against it. Sell it to the scholars in Thomasport, or Sigurd Bay, I said. They would pay well. But the Wall would pay better, she said. It has no real powers, I said. She said, it has a magical charge, a strong magical charge, stronger than anything she’s held, all that. She said the Wall will outbid anyone for that.”

 

Zelin looks at me, as if I know anything. She says, “We can’t let it happen.”

 

“Zelin. I’m an enchantress. I know two word spells,” I say, holding up two fingers so she gets it.Do you understand that?”

 

“I am just stating facts. Your facts don’t change the facts. We have to stop this sale.”

 

“I would underline that,” says Yanos.

 

“All right,” says Fenric. “Assuming it hasn’t happened, because if it has, forget all this. I will undertake to find and shadow Barb. You don’t know where she’s staying?” Yanos shakes his head. “Janet,” he says, “are you available to help?”

 

“Of course, Fen.”

 

“That’s good,” says Zelin, “because Barb knows my face better than yours, and because I need to keep an eye on my old friend Yanos. And you,” she says to me, “just be ready. Because, like it or not, you’re our biggest witch.”

 

“Okay,” I say, momentarily imagining that I could trust Lucette to help out.

 

“Fine,” says Zelin. “Let’s get a pie. You like mushrooms?”

 

 

 

7.

 

The next day is my eighteenth birthday. It’s a day I shall always remember, but it takes a while to get off the ground. My mom’s idea of giving me a birthday bash is to let me oversleep by one hour and then have two hours for lunch. A working lunch. It’s okay. Lucette’s manning the counter.

 

The afternoon crawls by. I move among the cauldrons, dread running through my veins with the blood. And yet I don’t actually know what the dread is about. The Circlet is just a thing to me, albeit a thing worth a lot of gold. Even there I am at a loss: is a lot the same as a hundred gold pieces? That would seem like a lot. Or ten thousand? Or a million?

 

The Wall. That’s in a different category. There are all kinds of magical orders. Some are dead evil, like the Dark Well, whose boss lives in a little pad called Sinafror; some are even worse, like the Burning Field and its even yet still worse offshoots, people who would consider setting fire to a homeless drunk a type of sacrament. Some are neutral-ish, like the Middle Way (of course) but also like the House of Mist or the Ice. The Valley Magic and the Ocean Deep Council are supposedly evil, but everyone thinks of them as neutral. Then there’s White Stone and Star House and Sun Cross, all so Good that regular sorcerers and necromancers are scared of them.

 

And then there’s the Wall. It’s had its ups and downs—famously, one of their time warriors got killed and interdicted right here in Insmoor early in the reign of Daphne I. But everything about the Wall takes place behind this, well, wall of silence. Their headquarters is deep in the Earth in the dungeons of the Scarp, which lie beneath a long-destroyed tower in the mountains east of Insmoor, and of course no one we would know has gotten far enough in Scarp to know any more than that.

 

And their leader is Kronah. His name is never spoken aloud, except by Professor Shmoke, who’s had drinks with him: Fiethan. I’ll write it. I’m not saying it. Let’s see: I’m scared of sorcerers. They have three-word spells. Necromancers have four, Wizards five, and then you get into some really big spells after that. You can be a Time Warrior, or a Time Technician, or a Guardian. Any of those people should scare me, an exponentially increasing level of fright. But a member of the Kronah Council, one of the only eleven people who can be members of the Kronah Council?

 

If they want the Lapis Circlet, my first inclination is to let them have it. If they want the Lapis Circlet, they’re the last people I want to have it.

 

I’m hearing the bells tolling for the third hour of the evening, and I look up and see Janet, in her (his) long black robe and hood, staring in at me from the shop window. I grab my coat and tell Lucette that I have to run a quick errand. My thinking here is that Lucette will have to stay because I left, and Mom’s in back brewing, so she has to cover the front.

 

“What is it?” I ask Jan when we’re a block away. It’s freaking cold and there’s not a star in the sky.

 

“Barb sighting,” says Jan.

 

“Where?”

 

“West gate,” says Fenric, joining us out of the black darkness. “Zelin’s there with Yanos. The three of us followed Barb there and sent me back to get you. It’s going down tonight.”

 

I get to experience the late night stroll through the city in Fenric’s style: staying along the walls of buildings, the shadows of trees, slipping into doorways. It doesn’t seem to matter: no one’s out. Main Street looks like you could lie down in the middle of it and take a nap. The Moon, hidden behind thick clouds, manages to spread a grey pallor across everything. It’s still, but the cold itself is making my face hurt and my toes have given up: they can’t even, they just can’t.

 

This being Insmoor, even Main Street has its bends and curves. We slip around a bend in the wall that must be about a hundred and sixty degree angle, and there’s the West Gate, a couple hundred feet away. We can see that the gate itself is closed. There’s no one on it or around it.

 

The gate structure is long tested by our annual orc wars. It’s three stories tall, rising above the wall itself, which is twenty feet tall and sixteen thick. When open, this gate is our busiest, since it faces back down the road to the rest of the Kingdom of Carleu, so it has a single wide door, then a double door, double high, then another single. They’re all secure. There’s no one going in or out or waiting to go in or out.

 

We hustle along a series of house fronts and then sprint across the Wall Street to the lee of the wall.

 

“Guard down,” says Fenric. We can see a body sprawled in the shadow of the gate. I’m mentally comparing its shape to those of Zelin or Yanos, but Fen is already hustling over.

 

Just inside the gate is a small plaza. A little market operates there most days, but it’s bare and empty now. A statue of the legendary Queen Daphne I stands in the middle of it, dressed inappropriately for the current weather.

 

Just on either side of the smaller doors, are two doors into the gate tower itself. Fenric is in one of the doors already. I’m down by the body, slapping it. “Wake up, Gurth, you dope,” I’m yelling in a whisper, while I warm up my hands by slapping him. Yes. It’s Gurth. He should be here for this.

 

“Daisy!” Janet hisses.

 

“I’ll be behind you,” I say.

 

“Daisy,” says Gurth, groggy, “what the hell?”

 

“Come on, you’re on guard duty. Guard me.”

 

Inside the door is a small room and a spiral staircase. We hurry up the stairs. We’re trying to be quiet—Gurth’s awake enough now to at least try, boots and all. But there’s a small echo behind us. Indeed. What the hell.

 

The stairs wind around tightly clockwise. The second floor has a food storage, a small barrack and an outside gallery for letting attackers know how we feel about them. The barrack is occupied by another guard felled by sleep. The sleep spell has saved the lives of many a guard and warrior.

 

We come out into the top floor room, which occupies that whole floor of the tower. In the middle are racks of weapons and healing supplies and some beds. On the outside of that is an open space with perhaps twenty arrow slits. In the middle are two open spiral stairs to the tower top. One more guard is on the floor by the nearer stair up. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs.

 

Most of the way up the stair, Zelin and Yanos crouch. The hatch at the top is shut. They look back at us. Then Yanos pushes up the hatch and peeks out. He mutters something to the elf, and creeps up onto the roof. The rest of us advance. Fenric and Janet head for the other stair up. I join Zelin on the stairs: she’s at the top, peeking out. I mouth: Is anyone there? She nods emphatically, then holds up one finger.

 

“Barb,” I hear Yanos say. “What are you intending to do?”

 

Ag, dear,” she says. Her most effective spell. We hear him hit the stone floor.

 

“Crows,” Zelin whispers. I don’t know why at first. I look around. I have a funny feeling.

 

Xu,” I say. Reveal. Just picked that one up. And it reveals: one Lucette Barnswallow, in a dense cloud of coat with a wand sticking out.

 

Trt asht!” she cries. “Trt sko!” I reply. Her cold spell hits my fire spell. Perhaps a few dust mites are inconvenienced.

 

“Lucette, what the hell are you doing?” I ask, while we watch our opposite streams of damage fizzle together between us.

 

“You’re selling the Circlet, aren’t you?” she answers. “I want a piece of that. I deserve—!”

 

Nyk eur goth,” comes a man’s voice. “Nyk eur goth!

 

Lucette and I glare at each other, our spell power draining away. A man, who had flown in the downstairs door as a crow, is covering us with his wand. “Nothing from you,” he says. “I have worse than that.”

 

I’m remembering every feature of this man. He’s on my list, as is Lucette Barnswallow.

 

There’s a clunk. He says, “God damn it!” and bends over. Behind him, Gurth brings down the butt of his sword once more onto the man’s head. Janet runs over and throws her own religiously-based sleep spell on him. He sprawls to the floor and takes no more part in the action.

 

I creep to the top and look out. The Moon has broken free: there’s a breeze and the clouds are starting to fracture.

 

Barb is standing about twenty feet from where Zelin, hiding in plain sight as only an elf can, crouches on the top step of the spiral stair. I’m all in her space, just the top of my head out.

 

Another bird is circling. It descends and lands, and turns from crow to man. This one’s features I can’t memorize. Barb starts toward him.

 

“Do you have it?” the man asks.

 

“Of course, Orlago,” she says, producing something from her pocket and holding it high above her head. The Moon strikes it and it gleams. For just a moment Barb could be the Priestess of the Hills, except that no.

 

“Bring it here, child,” he actually says, “and accept your reward.”

 

She smiles like the dawn. Then she stumbles. There was a short sound, and now she sprawls on the roof, a green-feathered arrow in her back. The Circlet skitters across the roof.

 

There’s another short sound. Orlago looks down: a dagger protrudes from his belly. He gives Fenric a dirty look, but with another swish, a green arrow sprouts next to it. “Not a smart move,” he croaks out, but he manages to bring his hands together—and twist a ring and disappear.

 

Zelin dashes to the Circlet, sticks it in her pocket and returns. “I would suggest,” she says, “that we evacuate the scene forthwith.” And we do.

 

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