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    "Would you be willing to take me there at some point?"
    "It's not the safest country to go into," she looked at the slender youth doubtfully. "And I might not be able to defend you if we run into anything."
    "I am a wizard," he admitted. "Not without my defenses."
    "Can you climb trees?"
    "If something's chasing me."
    "Well...." She wasn't sure. "How's tomorrow?"
    "Tomorrow would be excellent."
    "We'll leave at first light."


    The dawn was bright and sunny. Melantha's father stuck a club in his belt, which was of course noticed by her mother.
    "Where are you going?" she snapped.
    "None of your business, foolish woman."
    "It is my business! Lazy, loathesome old man...." She hit him across the shoulders. "Where are you taking her?" she demanded as Melantha skulked toward the door.
    "We're going out hunting," he lied badly.
    "You're what?! With a stick? That's exactly the kind of foolishness I'd expect from you."
    "Shut up, woman!"
    "You shut up!"
    Her shrill voice followed them down the street. A group of Dog Alley toughs noticed the club as well and sang, "Hail, the brave warrior! Brave warrior!" Melantha imagined a pleasant future in which she'd be able to have them flogged.
    "Do you have a weapon?" her father asked eventually, when they'd left the jeers of the locals behind.
    "Why?"
    "We might need it, going into the woods."
    "I'll be okay." She was fairly sure he didn't know about the knife she'd stolen a while back, worn under her topmost layer of rags.
    They walked east to the wharves and found a boatman who would accept a kopeck to take them to the other bank, fighting a pretty strong breeze. There were a few farms along the river, and then they were in the forest.
    For Melantha, town creature that she was, it was an unnerving experience. Even Dog Alley's tight-packed houses were less claustrophobic than the darkness under the thick trees and undergrowth. Noises came from all around them, from things unseen and unknown. She was careful not to let on that she was a bit scared, and just hoped that they didn't get lost. She certainly wouldn't be able to find her way back on her own.
    Her dad seemed to know where he was going, somewhat to her surprise. They had some berries for lunch.
    "Don't worry, girl; we'll eat better later," he assured her.
    She sniffed a little at the idea that she might be worried, and whistled quietly as they made their way deeper into the woods. Suddenly they broke onto a small glen. Boulders poked up through the grass and brush, and a stream wove through the center, with more berry bushes on the far side. There were a great many mushrooms, wide-brimmed with burgundy caps.
    "Ah, the mushrooms," her father announced in a satisfied voice. "That's how I remember where they are. Get a stick. Help me lift this rock up."
    She did so, with some effort, and they began digging underneath the small boulder's resting place. Hands and sticks do not make efficient digging tools.
    "This is great," she muttered.
    "Dig, it'll be worth it." He seemed nervous, glancing around frequently. "I just hope no one's watching us. Nothing's watching us."
    "Like what?"
    "The woods, there are lots of dangerous things out here. People could have tracked us from the town."
    Melantha sighed and kept digging, wondering why she'd come.
    Thunk, thunk.
    "There it is!"
    They cleared away the dirt to reveal a small chest, and wrenched it out of the hole. The lock was long gone. Her father opened it. There was a suit of leather armor, somewhat mildewed, a short sword, and a small bag. He opened the latter and shook a handful of gold royals onto his hand. Melantha's eyes almost fell out of her head.
    "I was hoping these would be your dowry someday," he sighed. "But, we need 'em." He looked down at the armor and brushed it off a little. On the breast was a faded, stylized chimaera. "You know what this is, lass?"
    "No." She knelt down, intrigued despite herself.
    "This is the ancient charge of our house. You're the best of our kids, and I think you actually have a chance to make something of yourself, even in Dog Alley." He glanced around. "So I want to tell you something. If anything ever happens to me, you get to the body first, and make sure you get this." He reached under his threadbare shirt and pulled out a triangular golden pendant. He pointed the end at Melantha, and she saw that it had a smaller version of the same three-headed design. "This is the chimaera seal. This is the key. If you take this to our old castle, and you fit it where it's supposed to go—I've never seen it—it'll prove that you are who you say you are. This is the last proof we have. I've never showed this to anybody. Well, I showed it to your mom once," he amended, "but she probably thinks it's a figment of my imagination now."
    "Yeah, probably."
    "But I got it from my father, and he got it from his father, and all the way going back. 'Til we had our rightful land."
    They heard someone coming.


    Unbeknownst to her family, Nadya had her own sword, shield and a set of chain mail, gifts from a mysterious ranger friend. She decided that this would be a good time to make use of them, and once she had led Roman a short way from camp she told him to wait while she disappeared for a while, then returned with her armaments.
    "So, how valuable are these mushrooms to you?" she asked, adjusting her swordbelt.
    He had thought they would be getting to a price for her guidance eventually. "Will a silver piece suffice?"
    "Well... what is the net value?'
    "I honestly don't know."
    v"Are you planning to harvest them and sell them?"
    He wasn't sure how much he wanted to tell her about them. "I would like to keep some of them, these mushrooms do have magical properties. Some will be for me, some for my master at school, but I would attempt to sell some of them. How many, I don't know."
    "How about I will pick an amount while we are there, and you will sell them for the same amount you sell your own, and give me the profits?"
    "I couldn't possibly sell them here, I'd have to take them to Specularum."
    She was vaguely aware of the existence of the city, and had no idea if he was telling the truth. "Right. How about two silver pieces? One for the way out, and one for the way back?"
    That seemed fair. They walked over hill and dale throughout the morning; Nadya did seem to know where she was going. They picked up a stream eventually, and followed it into a rocky glen. The ground was thick with mushrooms, particularly along the stream's banks.
    Near the clearing's center were two figures huddling over something on the ground. Roman paused uncertainly, then went forward a ways. Nadya remained in the shadows; she tended to intimidate people, and she wasn't sure yet if that was called for or not.


    Melantha and her father looked up to see a man standing on the edge of the clearing, and another vague figure behind him.

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