Chapter 8: Yuletide

Part Two: The Usual War

 

VIII. Yuletide

1.

 

The next morning my mom brings me a cup of tea in bed. And threatens to dump it on me. So I get up and mind the front while she bangs around in back—she’s still the one who makes the best potion of wakefulness, and her potion of memory is better than mine, although it tends to emphasize things you regret. I think that’s just Mom’s personality coming through in her work.

 

About when the Yuletide crowd is showing up, Jan stops in with a pastry from the patisserie down Beaker Street. This thing is so frosted I suspect her order might regard it as a sin.

 

“Well, your eighteenth birthday was kinda ruined,” she points out. “Want us to take you out on the town tonight?”

 

“Oh, let’s just have a little party here,” I say. “I’m a little leery of meeting people.”

 

“Daisy,” says Jan, “I will take care of everything.”

 

She’s just out the door five minutes when Zelin slips in. I look up from a little bookwork and there she is, with no expression. How old is she? Fifty? Five hundred? Not a line on her face.

 

The door opens behind her. She doesn’t flinch. I hear Lucette say, “Oh, I,” and stop. I look around Zelin at Lucette.

 

“Planning on working today?” I ask.

 

“Yeah,” says Lucette, who clearly wishes she could get away with just turning invisible.

 

“She works here?” asks Zelin, her first words to me today.

 

“Yeah, Mom hired her,” I say.

 

“Let her get in some hours,” says Zelin. “I want you to come with me on a little side trip.”

 

“As security?”

 

“Not exactly.”

 

I leave Lucette in charge of the counter. She’s many things but she’s not one to steal from the cash box. Zelin and I go roust Gurth from his bunk in the West Gate tower. This time, he’s not sleeping on duty.

 

“Oh, uh,” he says, as (again) he pulls on his pants in front of us. “That thing.”

 

“Yes,” says Zelin. “That thing.”

 

“Is this about the—?” I ask.

 

“Yup.”

 

And it is. Zelin has borrowed a horse, and Gurth borrows another from the guard stable, and I ride behind Zelin. I’m a country city girl, but I’m a city girl; I’m better off in the back seat. We ride back through town and out the East Gate toward Varelon, but we keep south of Flagon Lake and strike off toward the hills. It’s frickin’ cold, but my boots and socks are warm enough, Zelin’s actually pretty warm, and besides, I’m also an Insmoor girl. It’s a couple of hours’ ride, during which we thoroughly dissect the action from last night.

 

“The guy on the roof,” I say. “That wasn’t—?”

 

“Their Kronah guy?” Zelin replies. “No, no. That was their special wizard guy. He just knows your typical six word spells. His name is Saffaris: I think he’s Silontian.”

 

“So is he going to blast Fenric for throwing a knife at him?”

 

“Not just for that, no. It wouldn’t be professional.”

 

“So what were the Wall wizards going to do with the Circlet?” asks Gurth.

 

“Not sell it, that’s for sure,” says Zelin. “I think they were going to use it to power other stuff. I don’t have any idea how that works, of course.”

 

“And the guy who was a crow?” asks Gurth. “The guy I knocked on the head?”

 

“Good spell, that,” I say.

 

“He’s a necromancer,” says Zelin. “His name is Gillafarthy. I slept with him once. I should have stabbed him in his sleep.”

 

“Evil?”

 

“Just a bastard,” she says. “The world could use less of those. Do you have a new two-word spell?”

 

“I should be able to learn another one by now,” I say. “Thinking which one.”

 

And I go on thinking about it for the last four miles of the journey. Presently we’re winding up a path along the floor of a ravine carved by a stream out of the ridge south of Flagon Lake. The walls on either side of us are a good hundred feet high. We come around a bend and there ahead of us is a waterfall, not a huge one but suddenly loud. Behind it, the cliff has been cut flat and carved into doors and windows and pillars and bas-reliefs and lots of statues. Closer up, I see lines and lines of dwarf runes. I can see many arrow slits and presume there might be many crossbows aimed at my head.

 

But we dismount before a little footbridge across the stream that comes from the waterfall pool, and the double doors in the cliff wall behind the waterfall open, and out come five Dwarves in ceremonial armor. They approach, and Zelin comes forward and has a parley with them. Then she waves us up to join her.

 

“Daisy Delatour,” she says, “and this is Gurth Fembark, they were among those who helped me retrieve this.” She digs in her jacket pocket and out comes the Circlet.

 

The Dwarves take the Circlet as though not sure it’s actually there. Then four of them ooh and aah over it, while the fifth, the leader, says to Zelin, “You had an advance of three hundred in gold. You are owed four hundred more. You do not make greater demand of us? You keep your word?”

 

“I keep my word.”

 

“Then one is tempted to give you a bonus payment,” the dwarf says, “but,” and he laughs, “that would violate your honor. Blor, give me the bag of gold.”

 

One of the other Dwarves returns to the big door, goes in and comes out with a hefty sack. He gives it to the leader, who gives it to Zelin. “You will divide this among—?”

 

“Yes,” said Zelin. “Four hundred? We have five who earned a share, so that’s eighty each.” She looks at me. “I’m afraid you don’t have a claim on the advance.”

 

“Oh, no, that’s fine,” I say. “You were doing this for these guys the whole time?”

 

“Well, it’s not as if I was doing anything more important,” says Zelin. “Daisy, Gurth, these are the Dwarves of Hengelth Hold.” Gurth goes to shake hands, but the Dwarves are bowing, so that’s what he does. I curtsey. I pull it off nicely.

 

There are more niceties, but it’s clear that the Elf and the Dwarves are already tired of socializing. With very polite parting words, we remount and head back to town.

 

“Okay,” I say once we’re back on the track along Flagon Lake, the wind in our faces. “So much for the Lapis Circlet.”

 

“And now,” says Zelin, “we just have to figure out what we’re going to do next.”

 

 

 

2.

 

That’s also the subject of conversation at my little birthday party.

 

Mom’s out, it’s the fourth hour of the evening and I’m just about to lock the door when Zelin shows up with a couple of bottles of wine. Almost on her heels is Gurth.

 

“Here’s my present,” he says, holding out a small box.

 

“No, wait for the others,” says Zelin.

 

One minute later, Jan and Fenric come in. She’s carrying a round box which turns out to be full of cake. He’s carrying a couple of boxes which turn out to be full of hot cheesy pie: one with mushrooms and onions, one with sausage, mushrooms and onions.

 

“Anyone else coming?” I ask. “Lucette? Yanos?”

 

They laugh. “Maybe Gillafarthy?” Gurth suggests.

 

“Let’s lock up, actually,” says Zelin. “I don’t think anyone we want with us tonight isn’t here already.”

 

So I lock up and we adjourn up the stairs. “Oh, hello,” Jan says as she enters my room first. “You have a cat?” Being Janet, she’s already holding, hugging and petting the cat, who is smallish, grey tabby, and purring very loudly.

 

“That’s Cudgel,” I say. “I woke up this morning and he was in bed with me. Mom won’t let me keep a cat—well, she hasn’t, but she’s stuck with this one.”

 

“How’d he get in?” she asks.

 

“I had my window open just a crack. He must have scrambled up onto the roof and somehow not slipped on the ice and fallen off, and then he had to squeeze through about an inch of space. And here he is.”

 

Jan gives Cudgel a kiss and puts him down on the bed, and he returns to the spot just below the pillow, already warmed up. “Do you often wake up with males you don’t know?” asks Fenric.

 

“Just this one,” I say. “You?”

 

“Oh, on occasion.”

 

We laugh, and settle on the floor or on the bed (me and Jan). Cheesy pie is shared out, mugs are found and wine is poured, and Zelin (of course) passes around her pipe. Gurth says, “Can I give her my present now?”

 

“Of course,” I say. He hands me the little box and I open it: what can a city guard afford? It turns out that what he can afford is a pretty little flask, steel with turquoise inlay in the shape of a flower. “Oooh. Someone knows my birthstone.” I show it to Cudgel, who is not interested.

 

“Yeah,” he says, “lucky for you you weren’t born in July. I couldn’t manage a ruby. It’s, um, got a little magic too, you put ordinary stuff in there and it tastes like expensive stuff. Um, wine, brandy, whisky, whatever.”

 

“Did you try it?”

 

“No, of course not, you should.”

 

“But not with this wine,” says Zelin. “This is the good stuff.” She gets out her own little box: maybe eight inches long, four wide, three deep, nice dark wood. I hold it and admire the wood. “Open it!” she says, with more enthusiasm than I’m used to from her.

 

It’s a dagger in a leather sheath. It’s very simple: leather wrap handle, short steel guard, no inlay or decoration. It is a work of art and it looks very sharp. I don’t know what to say, and that’s what I say. She smiles at the knife and shrugs.

 

“Dwarves made it,” she says.

 

“I thought Elves and Dwarves didn’t like each other,” says Gurth.

 

“I try to reach out.”

 

“Thanks,” I say, still a bit in awe.

 

“Here,” says Fenric. “I didn’t steal it.”

 

I open the wrapped package, which is a large rectangle. Inside is a leather-bound book. On the inside first page, in Fenric’s own calligraphy—he really is good—it says, “Daisy’s Spell Book.” Under that, he’s written, “Daisy Delatour, Conjurer.” Conjurer is crossed out and “Enchantress” is written under it.

 

“Mine next,” says Jan. “Mine last, I guess, unless your mom gives you something.”

 

“She already did,” I say. “An extra long lunch hour yesterday, spent making potion blank. Oh, and she doesn’t know it, but she got me a cat.” I pet Cudgel, and scratch him around the neck, which he thinks is the best thing ever to happen to him: he rolls on his side and uncurls, gazing at me in a loving squint. Then I take her box, which is long and thin. A wand? No, a necklace, of sturdy-looking gold links, with a not insignificant turquoise stone. Cudgel’s eyes open and focus on the necklace, which I keep out of his reach. “Oh, someone else knows my birth stone,” I say.

 

“It doesn’t have magic,” she says. “But it’s all set up to. I figured, why buy a magic item for someone who’s an alchemist anyway?”

 

“What are you going to put in it?” asks Fenric. “Charm of seduction?”

 

“Like I want that,” I say, raising an eyebrow. I giggle, and we all laugh. Jan helps me put it on. I spread the book in my lap, hold the flask in my left hand and the dagger in my right. “Look at me,” I say. “”Eighteen years old and I’m all set.”

 

Jan raises her mug and we toast. Fen says, “To Daisy! Our youngest. Right?”

 

“I’m twenty,” says Gurth. We look at Zelin.

 

“Oh, I’m older than that,” she says. We all drink. She says, “So—?”

 

“So,” says Fenric.

 

“So,” I say, “now we’ve got the Circlet back to its proper owners—!”

 

“Thanks for that, by the way,” says the thief. “I like the gold. It’s perfect. But how is it theirs? Was the Hill Priestess a dwarf?”

 

“No,” says Zelin. “They made it for the Priestesses of the Hills. But the Priestesses were killed off by Valentina, and the Dwarves hired me to get it back. And with your help, I did.” She pets Cudgel, who’s just within her reach. He gets up, stretches, and gets in her lap. Elves.

 

We toast again: Jan has refilled our mugs. “So,” Zelin says.

 

“So,” says Fenric. “What’s next?”

 

 

 

3.

 

The pie is pretty good. I love the sausage, even though, as an alchemist, I can’t keep from thinking about what’s in it. I give a piece to Cudge, and he doesn’t refuse. I eat one piece of each, and I’m full, while good ol’ Gurth is sucking down his fifth. The cake’s very nice. The wine’s very good. Zelin’s pipe goes around. We’re all very relaxed. And me: I’m eighteen! The big one eight.

 

But we never actually answer the question.

 

The next morning, Mom wakes me up with her usual tact, although she does leave me a cup of tea and she doesn’t spill it on me. I have some porridge and more tea and set about straightening up the mess in the back room.

 

I hear noise in front, and go out to check, and there’s Lucette, putting on her apron, all ready to work. We smile at each other.

 

And, it now being eight days before Yule, we have plenty of work. I find out something about Lucette that I didn’t know, or a way in which she’s changed: she works hard. We have a busy run just before noon, and another after, and suddenly we’re out of a bunch of things and the till is full of silver. So she minds the front while I run out and get more ingredients, and then I mind the front while she makes more potion blank and sets up a few crystals, then she minds the front while I make love potion and happy potion. (That’s a real thing, but it only lasts about thirty seconds—fun at parties!)

 

The last customer leaves. We look at each other. Two days ago, well, about forty hours ago, we were trading spells (ineffectively). How often in the future will I be trying to blow away Lucette Barnswallow? Who knows? But she says, “So are you still thinking of opening your own alchemy shop? Or what?”

 

“Oh,” I say, wondering which story to give her. (1) Yes, far away from here. (2) No, I would rather eat live worms for breakfast every day. (3) Yes, I plan on Mom dying so I can take over this thriving business. But as I think about it, I realize that I believe both (1) and (2). And now, with a day like this, (3) is looking pretty believable too. But I also want (4), which is: who knows?

 

And does (2) imply: (2a) And make a life as a sort of hunting guide for people seeking adventure in the Dread Dungeons of Valen?

 

Anyway, I blather something or other in answer to her question. I ask her the same and she does the same, possibly (but I think not) with the same internal monologue. I don’t remember what either of us says, and it just shows how little it matters what we think we’re going to do. Then it’s busy again and we’re running all over and selling this and selling that, and then we’re running out of things, and repeat.

 

And now it’s three hours after noon and we’re both exhausted. And the till is full of silver. And some gold.

 

“So your mom is going to get back and she’s going to look at this money and be so proud of us,” says Lucette. I look sharply at her, but she’s being sarcastic.

 

“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe we should hide it.”

 

“Daisy. Ever heard of commission?”

 

“Like in the army?”

 

She laughs at me. Then she explains it to me. So there’s something she knows about that I didn’t. And after we decide how to give ourselves commissions—twenty percent of the net after buying ingredients and setting aside money for costs doesn’t seem too much—and after we have another little rush of business, she asks me that question we didn’t answer last night.

 

“So you sold the Circlet,” she says, as we slump over the counter, dead tired. “Get much?”

 

“Eighty each,” I say.

 

“Not much. I heard it was worth thousands.”

 

“You hear a lot,” I say. “Look, Zelin, my elf acquaintance, she was actually hired by these Dwarves. And anyway, we got some treasure along the way. How did you guys do?”

 

“We guys?” She snorts. “We guys got ambushed at the bottom of the stairs by goblins. We went in with ten people and came out with four and didn’t even see anything.” We both shake our heads. Shop life might actually be the easy way to make money. After a little, she says, “So what next?”

 

“What?” Somehow I’m startled by the question.

 

“I heard,” she says, “there’s like a club on the sixth level under. It’s called Club Six. It’s supposed to be really cool, because only the cool people can get there. And,” she goes on with a short pause for effect, “there’s Vladimir’s. Can you imagine?”

 

“Fourteen levels down,” I reply: it’s another of Shmoke’s History of Magic tangents. “Do you know anyone who’s actually been there? Other than Professor Shmoke?”

 

“And,” she says, pausing again. She’s so darn pretty, it’s amazing she has a brain at all. “And, somewhere down there? There’s this Key.”

 

 

 

4.

 

I’m not going to say that Lucette and I are becoming fast friends. I’m still thinking about the spell I need to have to shut her down. I have this image in my head where we’re both really old, like thirty-five or forty, and we’re both like Very Special Totally Awesome Wizards, and we’re facing off one last time on the Bridge over the Great Pit or something, and what is that spell I send her way that makes her teeter, curse me one last time (to no effect), and fall? I’m going to need to know that spell. But we work together pretty well, and we make lots of money, without actually telling Mom we’re now on commission.

 

Also without coming anywhere near the hundred-plus gold coins I’ve earned from the Dreadful Catacombs of Valen. It’s finally paying off a little.

 

So as we labor through one of those endless days (which also somehow fly by) between my birthday and Yule, I find myself thinking about that little list Lucette reeled off. A couple of nights before Yulemas itself, I’m sitting at Sleepy’s with Jan and Fen, and also Zelin. It’s not sleepy: there’s a little band playing jigs and reels, and a dozen drunks of various genders dancing.

 

“Club Six,” I say. “Mean anything to you?”

 

“Heard of it,” says Fenric. “Supposedly some guys cleared out an orc hold six floors down and decided to make it into a party apartment. Well, it gave people a reason to want to get that far down, so it became popular.”

 

“I’ve never been,” says Zelin. “Want to go?”

 

“Sure,” says Jan.

 

“Okay,” I say. “Vladimir’s? Shmoke talks about that.”

 

“They’re time warriors,” says Zelin.

 

“Time warriors?”

 

“What the heck’s a time warrior?” asks Jan.

 

“You don’t know what a time warrior is?”

 

“No, I do not,” says our vicar. “Thus the question.”

 

“Well,” I say, looking to Zelin, “it’s a sort of magical—you tell her.”

 

“The Time Warriors,” says Zelin, “are wizards and the like, I know there are some clerics and druids, and they have some special powers. They’re hard to kill, and it’s already hard to kill someone that big anyway, but it’s said to be impossible to kill a Time Warrior. As I understand it, they’re sort of Knights Errant but they time travel.”

 

“And they always get caught up in paradoxes, that’s what I heard,” says Fenric. “Time travel is like, weird and dangerous. You could kill your own grandpa.”

 

“Would you die if you did that?” Jan asks.

 

“I don’t know. Not gonna try it.”

 

“Well,” I say, and I find myself gazing off at the wall above the bar, where someone long ago mounted the head of something that was not exactly but a lot like an alligator-tortoise-bear-earthworm hybrid. I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about me, a lot older—maybe forty—but looking young as anything, waving a fancy wand, wearing—what do Time Warriors wear? Blue jeans and a work shirt? No, I’d get myself a little black dress. And—I shake it off. “Well,” I say, “then there’s this famous Key. Anything on that?”

 

We all sort of glance at Zelin, who shrugs. “How famous is this key?” she says.

 

“Listen,” says Fenric, leaning forward. We all lean forward to join him. “I think you may be talking about the Dreaded Key.” Zelin gives a little elfin snort. “No, they call it that,” he says.

 

“Who calls it that? Who calls what that?”

 

“I had a friend,” he says. “His name was Shagan. He ventured to the depths of Valen, and he also had braved Scarp and the catacombs of the cities. He spoke of this thing, this one Key, the Dreaded Key. He said a dragon had it in his pile of gold.”

 

“This friend of yours,” Zelin says, “he’s no longer with us?”

 

“No, he’s a dead friend. What did you say? A reliable dead friend.”

 

“Oh,” says Zelin, somewhat satisfied. “Like Shermak. Go on.”

 

“Well,” says Fenric, “there’s not much more I know. Shagan wanted to look for this thing. We, um, we had a fling last year, we woke up one morning, you know the scene, blissfully wake next to someone, get some tea going, dress very casual, warm kitchen, toast, talk about the future. Well,” he says, turning on a dime, “his future was going to be to find this Key.”

 

“What’s it do?” I ask. It seems like the obvious question.

 

“I don’t know. There must be a lock somewhere that it fits. Can you imagine?”

 

“The Dreaded Lock? The Dread Lock? Ha ha.”

 

“That’s amusing,” says Janet, “but is it actually true?”

 

“What I wonder,” says Zelin, “is, what would be behind the door that this key of yours unlocks?”

 

“Supposing it’s an actual thing,” I say. “Well, it’s something to do while gathering further bags of gold, I guess. But one would need a team. I mean, the four of us—?”

 

“I think we can count on Gurth,” says Zelin. “Right? He must be around somewhere.”

 

“I’d be shocked if he ever said no,” says Fenric, “I mean, other than to my attempts at seduction.”

 

“Okay,” I say. “Be that as it may, we have what, a cleric, a mighty enchantress, an archer, a thief, a warrior—?”

 

“Hey guys,” says Gurth from behind me. We look up. He’s drunk, and has his arm around a red-blond Amazon half a head taller than him. She has her arm around him too. She’s not wearing much, and what she’s wearing looks like it was on an animal within the past month. “This is Lali,” he says. “Just got to town.”

 

“Yeah,” she says, “just got to town, lookin’ for fun, heard you guys go in dungeons!”

 

“Um, we do, yeah,” I say, over a sudden and inexplicable jealousy mixed with about fourteen other strong emotions.

 

“Keep me in mind!” Lali says, and then she and Gurth whirl away into the jig.

 

“Okay,” says Fenric. “So that makes two warriors, an archer, a cleric, a thief and a magical practitioner. Wouldn’t we feel happier with another warrior, or maybe another, um, no offense here, another magic user? Um, Daisy, is there any possibility—about Lucette—?”

 

“Oh jeez. Don’t even go there,” I reply.

 

“Two mages,” says Janet. “I mean, Barb was pretty useless, but it does give you a little extra confidence, especially since ag has basically won all our really hard fights.”

 

“Not the umberhulk,” says Fenric. “That was archery that won that one.” He looks up, over my left shoulder. I look there too.

 

“Uh, hi,” says Eleanor. “Can I join you guys?”

 

 

 

5.

 

And so it comes to pass that Eleanor rejoins our cabal. I’m happy to see her, and I think, for various reasons, everyone else feels the same way. We know she shoots well enough; she can honestly say she has experience in the Dungeon; having an archer is like having a magic user with only one spell (but it’s a Death spell); I find it comforting to keep the gender balance in check. I should feel that way about Gurth’s Amazon date, and I sort of do. I can’t help notice that they’re dancing in a rather provocative way just now.

 

Whoa, was that me? Am I turning into somebody’s maiden aunt? Well, I say to myself, Gurth and his friend, or whatever, can do what they want, just so they’re ready to fight goblins when the time comes.

 

I find myself imagining those two in the front line. When Goblins attack. And they’re flirting and kissy-facing. And there’s Lali, or whoever she is, gawking while Gurth goes down. Now he’s getting stabbed repeatedly. Oh, seven or eight arrows too. Blood everywhere. And she’s just standing there gawking! Do something, you stupid Amazon! This is all your fault. I am so mad at her.

 

I shake it off. Fenric is leaning toward me. “Okay,” he whispers, “I’m gay and all, and you’re not, but you have to admit, that’s a nice-looking woman.”

 

“Sure,” I say absently.

 

He pulls back and gives me a straight on look. I smile at him and shrug. “Anyway,” he says, still watching me, “I really think we could use Lucette. Or someone.” I frown. “Daisy,” he says, “team. Right? You can’t argue we couldn’t use someone else. You work with her. At least ask her.”

 

“Okay. I’ll ask.”

 

“Promise?”

 

“I’ll ask! I promise!”

 

 

 

The next forenoon, Lucette and I are counting the take. It’s the second-to-last shopping day before Yulemas, and we’ve just hit that spot in the morning when the shop is empty for about two minutes.

 

“You’re going back into Valen Dungeon?” asks Lucette.

 

“That’s the idea. Want to come with us?”

 

“No,” she says.

 

“Okay,” I say, and recount the coppers I just counted. “There’s twelve,” I note to myself, “twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight: four shillings.” I put them in the penny niche.

 

Lucette decides to leave the counting to me. She glides around to the front, and starts, with surprising competence, noting what needs to be filled up and what we still have plenty of, and generally resettling the display items. She’s very good at this sort of thing. “What are you guys looking for?” she asks, without looking up. “Or is this just for scouts?”

 

“We are looking,” I say, and I take a moment to judge what she would be most interested in, and then a moment to decide if I want her interested or not, “for Club Six. Want to come?”

 

“Nope,” she says. After a few seconds, still not looking up, she says, “Is this you and your friends from last time? The thief, the very masculine priest girl?”

 

“The Elf, the warrior, a couple of others,” I reply. “Eleanor’s coming.”

 

“Oh, is she?” she asks, still not bothering to make eye contact. Because, you know, she doesn’t really care very much and she wants to make sure I understand that. Because, you know, I’m the one asking her to come along: she’s not asking me if she can come, that would be different. “She has a hankering to see Club Six? Or,” Lucette adds, still studiously not looking up, “is she interested in the Key?”

 

“I think she just got hooked on adventure,” I say.

 

“In spite of how bad you guys were the first time she went with you.”

 

“Almost as bad as you guys were the first time she went with you,” I say.

 

“And you’ve never been to this Club Six.”

 

“Obviously.”

 

“Because you’ve never been below the fourth level down, right?”

 

“As opposed to you,” I say, “because you’ve never been below the first level down.”

 

“Anyway,” she says, and now she looks up at me and gives her cute smile, the one that really is kind of beautiful but isn’t nearly as beautiful as she thinks it is, “I don’t think I’m interested.”

 

“That’s great,” I say.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Think nothing of it. It’s fine.”

 

She walks over, subtle person that she is, faces me across the counter and says, now that I’m not meeting her eyes, “I know you wanted another magical person.”

 

I look up at her. “Actually,” I say, “”being totally honest with you, Lucette, I did not want to ask you. One of the others thought it was worth a try. We had this enchantress, Barb, you must have noticed her around Sleepy’s, well, she was pretty useless. And later? Turns out she was trying to sell the Lapis Circlet to the Wall wizards. You were there, you must have noticed. When you were getting in the way of us preventing her from selling it to the Wall wizards. So: all in all, I’d rather have another warrior, myself.” I put the last two stacks of shillings in their spot and put the extra coin tray back in the bottom drawer. We didn’t need an extra coin drawer till I started getting serious about the shop. And I have to admit, I’m good at this. And I have to admit, brain or no brain, Lucette’s contributed to our current glut of money. I give her my cutest smile, which is, no doubt, more sarcastic than pretty, and say, “I think your talents are much more suited to this kind of work than to going in the dungeons.”

 

She gives me a kind of snarky cat meow. We smile cutely at each other. Then we both burst out laughing. It’s kind of ridiculous, but I still picture myself on that bridge of stone over the Horrible Void, wielding my Wand of Power against the Dreaded Wizard Lucette, with Time Warrior rings on our hands.

 

 

 

6.

 

Yule finally arrives. I’m one of those whose birthday is in the run-up to the big holiday, and if you are too, you know that the whole thing is kind of a cheat. Oh, to have a birthday in, say, July: but no. Still, my friends are the best, and my mom actually comes through a little. She buys me a very nice, very durable little backpack, which, it turns out, can hold about ten times its apparent volume without adding weight. Nice! This, and two recipe books (one for cookies, one for potions) and we’re almost on good terms again. I got her a nice new mini-cauldron and some candles and perfume, the kind she’d carefully and repeatedly hinted she liked. Fenric and Janet go in on a Compleat Lore of Magickal Spelles, which is a modern reprint of a 500-year-old tome. It’s indeed compleat as all get-out, has cute woodcut pictures, and sports some very interesting spelling. Zelin drops by on Yule Eve to give me her present: a little wood pipe made by little wood-elves.

 

It’s a weird thing for me and my mom, Yule is, because Mom didn’t grow up here and her family is never mentioned around the house, and my dad’s been gone since before I was born. And Mom and I don’t get along very well, obviously. I always wonder whether, if we weren’t related, if she were just my boss, we might actually get along better. But she doesn’t treat Lucette any better than me; rather, she complains to me about Lucette and I doubt she complains to Lucette about me. Hmm. I wonder. But in any case, there we are, in the kitchen off the side of the shop, exchanging presents, drinking wine and eating chocolate.

 

That night, there’s a dance downtown. It’s snowing, of course, but that makes it all the more romantic. For, um, Fenric and this warrior-archer dude named Unwin; they make rather a spectacle of themselves in the town square before retiring to Fenric’s pad to engage in gay guy stuff. And, um, Gurth and that Amazon, Lali or whatever: they do a few dances and then disappear to her pad, or possibly into some alley somewhere. I guess I could get some myself, i.e. from a couple of different dudes who didn’t look like great marital prospects, but honestly, I’m not even close to drunk enough to go in for that. I wouldn’t even want to take a bath after either of these guys. So I settle for late night drinks with Jan at the Rose, and having ground beef sandwiches and piles of fried potatoes. What that does to me digestively we needn’t get into, but it’s not anywhere near as bad as what’s going to happen to hundreds of very drunk people in alleys as the party winds down.

 

Janet walks me home in the snow. It’s peaceful. I’m exactly drunk enough to feel the moment and think how great it is to be young enough to catch snowflakes on your tongue. We’re strolling down Beaker Street, in our own thoughts. A quartet of wine-soaked gents reel past us singing, and when they’re a block behind us, Janet says, “I’ve decided.”

 

“You what?” I ask, shaking myself and wondering what’s coming next.

 

“I’ve decided. I’m Jan.”

 

“Of course you are.”

 

“And I’m a he,” um, he says. “I hope that’s okay.”

 

I giggle. “Sure,” I say. “Just don’t put the moves on me.”

 

“I am going to be a Priest of the Virgin,” Jan says. “I put the moves on no one, man or woman.”

 

“I’m glad,” I say. I laugh. “I don’t mean it that way,” I add, then think again. “I mean, I’m glad you know who you are, and I think you’re a great guy, and obviously I don’t think our friendship’s going to change.”

 

“But I still want to go in the dungeon,” Jan says.

 

“I do too.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah,” I say, wondering. Yes, I check, it’s true, I do want to go in again. “I don’t know what it is about the place,” I say, “but I can’t wait to go back. Do you think it’s cold in there now that it’s cold out here?”

 

“Some places down there are hot, remember? Like there’s a furnace or something.”

 

“Forges of the Dwarves?” I suggest.

 

“Maybe forges of the orcs,” Jan replies. We stroll up to the shop. “I’ll stop by,” he says. “I’m free this week. I guess you are too.”

 

“Shop’s going to be open,” I say, “but Mom’s not letting Lucette go till next week, so I’m free.”

 

“She didn’t want to go, did she?”

 

“No, thank the Virgin,” I reply. “Anyway, thanks for walking me safely home.” I go to kiss, uh, him, on the cheeks at least, and instead end up with a big friendly warm hug.

 

“We’ve been through a lot already,” Jan says.

 

We separate, and I look up at him. “It’s just a fraction of what we’re going to go through,” I reply. “Good night, Faddah.”

 

I give him one more quick smile and go inside. I’m the only person there. I lock up, go upstairs, wash up, undress and throw myself in bed, and Cudgel creeps in and curls up with me, and we wake up in the morning spooning, me and my guy. I could easily have woken up with worse.

 

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