There were seventeen tiles between Lar's foot and the door.

Seventeen. There were seventeen tiles between Lar’s foot and the door. Seventeen gilded leaves on the panel behind Imin’s head. Even his heart seemed to be measuring its beats in groups of seventeen. Lar was counting.

Imin suddenly slid down in his chair and lolled his tongue out of the side of his mouth. “I think someone forgot to tell Lar to exhale,” he slurred.

'I think someone forgot to tell Lar to exhale.'

Lar shot him a sour look, but he did not sit up. If he sat up, there would be more than seventeen tiles between his foot and the door.

In fact, Lar had scarcely touched the pipe, though he doubted the others had even noticed. His elves could put on the trappings of culture, but they were too crude for its practice; they had not yet conceived of the etiquette of taking turns.

Thus they had all the gaudy disadvantages of decadence and none of its refinements. He had loved them better in the depths of caves, when they had smoked rolled-​up waterlily leaves before their sooty, smoldering fires.

“I think Lar wishes he were anywhere else,” Imin chuckled. “As long as it’s not with primitive creatures like us.”

“You’re wrong,” Lar snapped. “I would much rather sit around with dogs than you.”

'I would much rather sit around with dogs than you.'

“I don’t know whether to be insulted that he doesn’t love us,” Imin purred, “or flattered that he thinks us less primitive than dogs. I always thought he didn’t.”

“I only meant you, my friend,” Lar smiled. “I’d swap you for a dog but keep the other two.”

“That’s what you get for keeping your nose out of his crotch,” Llen said to Imin.

'That's what you get for keeping your nose out of his crotch.'

They all laughed with teeth bared, like canines.

Imin took another pull on the pipe and sat back. “I have never known how to keep you happy, Lar,” he breathed. Lar saw his teeth, still smiling, behind a pale cloud of smoke.

“If you want to keep me happy,” Lar muttered, “why don’t you go look for Llosh and Surr? Either you’ll find them, which will please me, or get lost yourself, which will please me more.”

His elves had discovered a new range of tunnels that day. They had all been as giddy as children at supper, for there had been many ancient treasures to gloat over—and fight over.

They had all been as giddy as children at supper.

Lar alone was not happy at the discovery, though he admitted its usefulness. Every new tunnel only increased his sorrow. There were rooms upon rooms upon rooms, and so many had apparently been sleeping chambers that he could suppose there had once been many hundreds of elves living beneath the hills.

Now there were scarcely more than a hundred beneath the earth with him, and there were less than four hundred all told if one counted the ladies and little girls that still lived in the forest. They were still far more numerous than the khírrón, but their race was dying far more quickly.

And there remained, Lar knew, precisely seventeen elves of fighting age. At the start of the last moon he had had twenty-​two, but five of them had been found out a few days before and cruelly executed.

There remained seventeen--an inauspicious number.

There remained seventeen—an inauspicious number. Outside of this room there were thirteen, which was worse. And if, through some accident, Llosh and Surr never returned, there would remain fifteen.

Fifteen… fifteen… where could he find fifteen of something to count?

Fortunately, he did not have to. Even while he was counting the dots on the door across the room, it swung open, and Llosh came staggering in, carrying a boy’s body.

Lar howled, “Surr!” and leapt up even before he had noticed that the boy’s hair was too dark to be Surr’s.

Surr himself followed Llosh in, babbling, “We found him! We found him! He was in the tunnel!”

'He was in the tunnel!'

Lar blinked his eyes rapidly, but it seemed the haze was in his mind and not in the room. Sitting in a chair was one thing, but to his wobbly legs, there suddenly seemed to be many more than seventeen tiles between him and the door. Perhaps he had touched the pipe a few more times than he had thought.

“Found who?” Imin cried, interrupting Surr’s incomprehensible explanation.

'Found who?'

“Vin! The man-​elf Vin!”

“Stinking mother!” Imin shoved back his chair and stood before he had remembered that his legs were still less solid than Lar’s. “Now you’ve done it! Shit!”

Imin grabbed the edge of the table in time to keep himself upright. Ilal began to giggle like a girl, and Llen was making up for his usual gravity with an inscrutable smile.

“Couldn’t you pick a worse time?” Lar growled.

'Couldn't you pick a worse time?'

“He’s half-​dead, Lar,” Llosh said.

Surr added, “He’s starved.”

Lar planted his feet far enough apart to give him some stability and glowered at the two of them. He had to take control of this situation, quickly, and the only way he know how to do it in his present condition was aggressively.

“So put him down!”

'So put him down!'

“But, Lar…” Llosh protested meekly.

“Put him down!” he roared. Lar was beginning to have the feeling that all of the blood in his body was rushing up into his head, leaving his feet empty and numb.

He watched with an intense fascination as Llosh lay the boy on the floor. And then he recalled it was not merely an interesting scene: he would have to get rid of these elves, and hurry.

“Now, you—”

He turned until he found someone against whom he could direct a direction.

He turned until he found someone against whom he could direct a direction.

“Ilal! You go to the kitchens and get some—some soup, or something. And, Llen, you go tell Rrana to get a cell ready for him.”

By now he had turned all the way around back to Surr and Llosh.

“You go home, pip, and find out if your brothers have seen anything. And stay there! And—”

He realized suddenly he did not need to send them out singly.

“Llosh, you go with him!”

That left… Imin. The little elf was smiling at him with half of his mouth—the half belonging to the scarred side of his face.

The little elf was smiling at him with half of his mouth.

“And I can be damned,” Imin said. “Just leave you alone with him a bit, eh, Lar? How long do you need?”

Lar felt the blood pounding in his face. Could Imin be a demon too? Could Imin see into his head?

“Give yourself a few minutes to undress him,” Imin chuckled.

Lar snarled like a wolf. That was all! But he still had to get rid of him.

“You go see if Hel’s still where we left her!”

“What?” Imin cried. “Hel?”

“Just do it! All of you!” he panted. “What are you waiting for? Get out of here!”

'Just do it!  All of you!'

They all hesitated, looking at one another in confusion.

“Go!” Lar roared. “If you’re not out of here by the time I count to seventeen—!”

“Seventeen?” Llen muttered.

But they left.

Lar counted to seventeen in his throbbing head and then turned to the boy.

Lar counted to seventeen in his throbbing head and then turned to the boy.