A GAme of Balances

A Fantasy Short Story Written By D.A. D'Amico

A Game of Balances

by D.A. D’Amico

 

D. A. D’Amico exists solely in the nightmares of a giant squid currently traversing the Kuril–Kamchatka Trench under the crushing depths of the Pacific Ocean. As legend has it, the cephalopod inks its bizarre musings on the flanks of passing beaked whales, later to be read by bored dolphins seeking entertainment, and who, in turn, squeak these stories to oblivious marine biologists in exchange for tasty mackerel. Any errors in translation must be laid firmly at the feet of those who actually have feet. It is from these Humboldt beginnings that the author’s stories originate. He’s had nearly one hundred works published in venues such as Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Shock Totem. He’s a winner of L. Ron Hubbard’s prestigious Writers of the Future award, volume XXVII, and collections of his work can be found on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/D-A-DAmico

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Aradu’s hope to enter the forbidden inner city without notice dwindled with the rising of the sun, and with the continuing absence of his apprentice. Pim hadn’t given him time to calculate her absence. She’d broken the rules by hiding, and it not only jeopardized their lives, but also their theft.

He’d broken his own rules by opening his profession to her. It showed an uncharacteristic weakness on his part, but she was his flesh, and he couldn’t abandon his own daughter. On another road, in a different time and place, he’d have found an institution willing to have her, but guilt had clouded his judgement. Pim’s mother had been the only woman to ever have captured Aradu’s heart, and for Sjilla’s sake, he’d prepare Pim for life in the only way he knew how.

“Get back here!” He hissed through clenched teeth at a flash of silvered veil, visible for a fleeting moment between muslin-lined stalls selling spiced meat pies and watered Nethian wine. The sharp, mixed stenches of curry and four-fish sauce burned his nostrils, making his eyes water and bile rise in his throat, but Aradu held firmly to his place in the shifting line of farmers and tradesmen waiting for the Silicon Gate to open.

The immense, ebony-hued doors seemed to consume the shafts of sunlight striking them, casting the cobbled stones and armor-clad Murji soldiers in cold shadow as the sound of a crystal bell pealed from somewhere just beyond the minarets. It signaled the ritual slaughter of the thieves, and Aradu swallowed. Time was running out.

It’d been much easier when he’d known she was safe with Sjilla in the household he’d procured for them deep in the southmost reaches of the enormous island-bridge of Oewduy. But that had been before the disaster, before the archipelago of the Tuplets had collapsed into the killing mists leaving Pim with no mother, no home, and no security. He’d lost track of her for the first time in her life that day. It had frightened him more than he’d been willing to admit, and it may have been his first and only moment of weakness.

“Where are you, girl?” He scanned the crowd. His power of observation was unparalleled, his ability to detect even the subtlest shift in the balance of expectation was finely honed, and yet she still eluded him. He didn’t want to admit it, but she was a natural. If things went much further, he’d lose all hope of diverting her from the path he followed.

Pim had come a long way since her clumsy attempt to pick his pocket the day he’d found her again, an orphan living in the back alleys of Osphire-on-Mott. He’d taken her in, taken her under his wing as an apprentice–all without her knowledge of their true relationship. He’d made a game of teaching her in those first days. It was a mistake he’d tried to correct many times in the years since. He feared her playful nature might be her undoing. She had an assassin’s temper, but a clown’s demeanor. She craved attention. Attention meant death when balance guided their every move.

He’d wanted more than a killer’s life for her, a better life than he’d built for himself, but circumstances had thrown them together and he’d make the best of it until he could complete this last task. If he succeeded here, there’d be enough riches to finally retire. There’d be more than enough to change Pim’s destiny.

“The sentinels have been worse since last year’s skirmishes on the Lesser. They’re watching everyone who enters now.” The man in front of Aradu spoke with an Aaerilian accent, his bright scarlet agbada billowing behind him like an errant kite. The man to his right nodded, exposing a teardrop-shaped pink stone where his right eye should have been, marking him as a devotee of the Interstition.

Aradu shuffled back a few places in line. The growing cult of magic users were best left alone. Magic was like a lightning rod, and he had too much to concern him already.

“Pim!”

Four rough-looking Murji soldiers bullied their way through the spectators, clearing a path for a frail-looking boy in a flowing white puri. The boy’s clouded eyes scanned the crowd, seeing nothing but sensing everything.

“A sentinel….” The one-eyed man whispered as he slid an ornate silver nail from a pouch at his side, lifting his left sleeve to expose a sickly-looking, lemon-colored tattoo of a splayed hand, its long fingers puckered with round, purplish scars.

As Aradu watched, the man dug the nail deep into his flesh. A stench like burning hair blew across the crowd, acrid and dense. Aradu backed further away. The sentinel and his entourage stopped. The pale boy barely moved, but it was enough. Soldiers pounced, slashing their way through the mob until the one-eyed man had been cut down and hacked to pieces, in broad daylight, in the marketplace for all to see. Then the sentinel turned to glance directly at Aradu.

Aradu tensed, but kept his expression impassive. He’d worn the coarse woolen gshett in his guise as a chaperone, but now the loose teal trousers seemed awkward. Without Pim, his balance didn’t mesh.

“Come back now, and I’ll forget you’re cheating,” he whispered under his breath. She was still playing, still risking their lives with frivolity. This would be her last game, he swore, one way or another.

“Silly man, where have you been?”

Pim appeared from nowhere, slithering near. A predatory smile filled the delicacy of her dark features. She placed a small hand in his as she lowered her eyes, disguising a mischievous twinkle. Her skin felt rough, weathered like an old woman’s, as the scent of jasmine and lemongrass caressed his nostrils.

The sentinel blinked his clouded eyes and turned away. It was the first sign of humanity he’d seen in the boy, and Aradu licked his parched lips as the creature and his deadly guardians continued on their way. They’d escaped the sentinel’s baleful stare, but only barely.

Aradu wrapped his trembling hands around the straps of the burlap sack at his feet and shook his head. Pim’s actions were too impudent. There were rules, even for assassins. Even for his own daughter.

“A moment longer, and….” His voice traveled by a trick of the larynx only to her ears.

“But I didn’t.” Pim’s soft laughter seemed to come from behind him. She learned quickly, but only those things she enjoyed. She would need to control herself. It was a lesson he’d tried repeatedly to convey, and with the same recurring lack of success.

“Don’t smile. Eyes down, and no talking until they pass.” Aradu held her close as the soldiers mauled their packs, inspecting each innocent-looking garment and prop, before they were finally allowed beyond the first obstacle.

#

He scolded her in one of the floating alleys off the main bazaar, the odors of nutmeg and guano churning like fog across ornately-tiled wooden platforms. Thick hemp ropes creaked like weary bones as foreigners in violet, teal, and peach agbadas threaded their way among vendors hawking powders from shallow copper urns. The very air tasted alive

“Stealth is a matter of perception. The mind sees what it expects to see, nothing more.”

They strode slowly across swaying gardens. Riotous profusions of wisteria, corkscrew vines, and roses vied for handholds as they climbed the elaborately knotted rope bridges into the heart of Oshienne, the Fluted city. Aradu scanned the sky. The bluish-white point of the sun had been cut in two, half cup they called it here in the capital, half way to darkness. The procession would start soon, and he’d have to be ready when it did.

“If you witnessed me strolling along the road in a pointed wicker hat and woven straw shoes, what would you assume?” He asked.

“Farmer–lentils, or rice.” She spoke from between mouthfuls of plump Eturian dates, stolen as they passed one of the rattan baskets left as offerings to fallen warriors.

“But what if my blouse were made of silk and not burlap?” Aradu feigned interest in the Great Tablets of Law, monolithic slabs of black marble dedicated to the twin gods, Mercy and Vengeance. With a practiced motion, he scooped the dates from her grasp before she could react, and then tossed them back into the diej basket.

“I’d wonder where a farmer had come by such a garment.” She frowned, looking for something else to steal.

“Exactly. You’d wonder. You’d think. As soon as you begin to examine the scene, the balance shifts. Your perception no longer fits, so you must find a new one.”

“The farmer again becomes the thief,” she said. “And the thief dies.”

“That’s why each scene must be set with exquisite detail.” He could not stress it enough, although she seemed to go out of her way to ignore his lessons.

#

Pim glanced furtively across the nearly empty plaza, the same shrewd expression playing over her smooth chocolate features as when he’d first found her again. “Admit it. I’m good, and I’m getting even better.”

“I chose you because I may have seen a sliver of potential.” Aradu removed the stilts and codpiece marking him as a minor city official, and rearranged his trousers into a flowing gown. “But you throw it away on pranks.”

“You couldn’t find me in the crowd.” She giggled, drawing a glance from a trio of wide men with frighteningly long stilts. Their monstrous codpieces hung like the barnacled rudders of ships from below their tapered slacks. Their intense glares brought a frown to Aradu’s lips.

“I managed to elude you, and it made you mad.” She smiled.

He didn’t admit it, but she’d vanished so aptly he’d suspected magic. If she possessed even an inkling of the art, he’d have punished her for using it. Magic led to madness. Always. It could never be trusted.

“A challenge, perhaps?” She laughed, and this time her voice carried only to his ears. “A contest.”

“To what end?”

“An equal share of the prize.”

He snorted. She’d become more arrogant as her proficiency increased. In time, it would have to be dealt with. “A journeyman’s share at best. We are not equals.”

She frowned, but the look in Aradu’s eyes kept her silent. She’d learned some things very well.

Aradu had taken her as his apprentice, a ruse to keep her close. She knew nothing of her birth. She knew nothing of him. If she had, he feared she would leave him, or worse, she’d become just like him. It was bad enough he’d taught her the secrets of balance and the assassin’s knack of hiding in plain sight. It had made her even more unpredictable.

#

Aradu wove a red satin ribbon into the braid hanging over his left eye, in imitation of the low ranking Cxercian monks who plied their petty gods by the docks of Ardis Jumd. “With enough subliminal cues, I could turn a dagger into a bouquet of wildflowers.”

“Or an assassin into a ghost.” Pim laughed.

He straightened the hem on her emerald-colored veil, brushing a stray lock of black hair from her eyes. The veil had been a gift, marking her as protected and no longer a toy for those who prey on the weak. She could be great given time, but it was a game of balances, and her lack of focus troubled him. She was still so young. She had much to learn in the ways of a complex and hostile world. She thought skill with a blade or the finesse of her body would be enough, but there were forces she couldn’t comprehend. He still saw much of her mother’s hope and innocence in her, although she’d become so much more than he’d expected in the months since they’d met. Her bearing had softened. She’d grown elegant and demure, at least to outward observers. He could have taken her to any of the royal palaces as har’hish, and sold her as a third wife, if not better. It’d be a comfortable life. On another road, if things had been different and her mother still lived, Pim could have had a life of soft contentment. It would’ve been better than his plans for her.

“We’re nearly to our objective.” Aradu stood three paces behind and to the left as befit the escort of a vestal. “You’re sure you’re ready?”

She chuckled between bites of Eturian dates, stolen again from the dead. “I bested you in the bazaar, don’t forget.”

“How could I? You keep reminding me,” he said. “But you almost brought us to the attention of a sentinel.”

An Amaru officer marched past, the twin-headed serpent on his thick platinum breastplate glistening as if freshly oiled. The man stood eight feet tall, a mountain of muscled flesh and shining weaponry. A lecherous leer spread across his grotesquely painted features, and he winked, making an incredibly rude gesture with the ruined fingers of his left hand.

Pim’s smile faded. “How dare he!”

The Amaru laughed, heading for the long, arched causeway leading to the imperial barracks. He glanced back once with the gaze of a lion sizing up a meal.

“Why…?”

Pim yanked a crescent-shaped bracelet of beaten silver from her right arm. Its facets caught the sun, fracturing the light into hundreds of brilliant jumping spots as she looked at her reflection and gasped.

“The virgin becomes the whore….” Aradu chuckled. Pim spat, violently trying to rub the ruby shine from her swollen lips before they could be seen by another.

“You!”

“I slipped Nethian cherries into your pilfered snacks. They’re tasty, but their juices have an unfortunate side effect, making them prized at the orgies of the Grotesque God for their unique properties.” He clicked his tongue in disappointment. “You never noticed the switch?”

She growled, her delicate features hardening. “No.”

“Take care, young apprentice. Don’t jeopardize yourself if the reward is merely a morsel.” He’d taken a risk by upsetting her balance, but fear was a valuable teaching tool. Then he pointed at the retreating Amaru. “If that monster speaks of you, our plan is ruined. Fix this.”

#

The Amaru never noticed Pim until she struck. It happened in an instant, Pim pouncing, scurrying up the soldier’s ornate armor like a ciesus monkey, skimming the razor sharp khukuri against his wide throat, severing his carotid artery and piercing his larynx. He collapsed without a sound, falling in a splash of blood.

She danced away, and Aradu lost track of her for a moment before she whispered in his right ear. “Flawless?”

“Acceptable.” He smiled. Amaru were unparalleled warriors, trained from birth and without peer. He’d seen a squad of men attempt what Pim had just accomplished, and fail. She had become great.

Had he gone too far? His plan had been to teach her just enough, prepare her for the harsh realities of life on the islands, but she’d learned too well. Pim had become a killer at his bidding, casual and more lethal than any he’d known. Yes, she’d become great, but he’d never wished the life of an assassin on his own daughter. It was no longer a game. He’d misjudged, and she’d evolved past his ability to save her.

“Pim, I….” He started to confess, to begin the speech that would reveal himself, but the look in her eyes stopped him. It was as if Sjilla glanced back at him, young and happy, her life just beginning. The words caught in his throat. He couldn’t do it.

She held his hand as they strode calmly across Diluvium tiles the wine-dark color of a stormy sea and into the first of the Golden Spires.

#

“I wanted to thank you.” Pim placed her small hand atop his open palm, the way a daughter would when addressing her father, the way she would have had she known the truth. “In case something goes wrong…”

“Shhh….” Aradu studied her eyes, but saw only trust. She’d come so far in the time he’d known her. She stood on the edge of womanhood, and at the edge of greatness. He lowered his face to hers. She smelled sweet, like puel moss and honey. “I’ve thought of everything. Nothing’s been left to chance.”

“I trust you, Ishi.” She used the false name he’d told her when they’d first met, the only name he’d ever used in her presence. Balance sometimes required sacrifice, and he’d spent a lifetime in pursuit of his craft.

“No more games, right?”

“Just the prize,” she agreed.

They’d come as far as the Holy Maze without drawing attention. Aradu, dressed as a nobleman in tight black breeches and double vests of gilded Cheen silk, smiled and bowed as they passed huddled groups of banker-priests. Each chamber held two or three such gatherings, dark men bent and haggling to fund their gods.

“This is an affront! Call the guard…!”

Aradu froze at the soft voice. He turned, putting Pim behind him. A wizened form, cloaked in the flowing black drape of mourning, stood beside a knot of three younger men, a skeletal finger leveled in Aradu’s direction.

“My wife… my daughters. They’re all dead because of your kind. You, you….” The man sagged. One of the others caught him, lowering him to the floor, and then he turned with his companions toward Aradu.

At first Aradu suspected he’d been identified, but he was a professional. He never left loose ends. These men did not know him. They could not know him. Some aspect of his balance had changed.

“Does a pirate dare enter the holy citadel?”

He glanced at his belt. A sash of braided silk in rich scarlet and sapphire colors had been tucked into one of the wide loops. On the docks of Ardis Jumd, at the edge of the lesser sea, it would’ve been seen as an act of bravado to wear the badge of a casual murderer and thief. Here, within the temples, it was a banner that drew much more than unwanted attention.

He turned to Pim. “You did this?”

“The gentleman becomes the rogue.” Pim batted her eyelashes, her gaze unblemished and innocent.

He’d been weak to believe her. His anger left him speechless as the three men bore down on him, circling, blades drawn. He yanked the jewel from a large ring on his right hand, and unwound the thin cord within. It hissed as it bit the air around him.

“Meet me at the appointed place. Go!” He pushed Pim at the far exit, wading into the approaching men like a farmer scything wheat. Her game was costing him time.

#

“No more contest! It’s time to work, understand?” He’d already scolded her more than once since he’d been forced to risk his life in the Holy Maze.

Pim lowered her gaze. Her nude form, greased in crushed pearl, dark hair powdered by ice lichen, resembled a porcelain statue as she waited in shadow beside Aradu. He’d assumed the semblance of penitent, a martyr to the god, Baelous, Whom the Eye Protects, with bare pate, and torso drenched in sacrificial blood. It had taken much to get this far, but his skill and cunning had gotten them to the edge of the vast treasure complex. Purified, Pim would join the line of young women who’d be taken to the Virgin’s Temple. Aradu would shuffle past the elite guard and into the last courtyard, within sight of the Forbidden Gardens. Slow death awaited a false move at this point, but he’d prepared a diversion.

He would have struggled longer with the morality of his choice, but the life of an assassin had hardened him to loss. He’d been weak. He’d let himself get distracted in his pursuit to protect her. She’d put them both in harm’s way for the sake of a game, but the time for that had ended. Pim would be his final tool.

“It’s time.” She shimmied close, her voice a tickle against his ear. “I’ll try and remember everything you taught me.”

“Don’t smile. Eyes down, and no talking.” His fingers brushed her skin. Unseen, he placed a single strand of orange silk against her neck. It was too small for the conscious mind to register, but among the purity of Pim’s lacquered body it would be like handing her a bloody dagger. He’d altered her balance. With luck, things would go as he planned.

“Away. Go, play your part.” He tensed as she sauntered out among the women, blending in so neatly he had trouble keeping track of her.

#

The penitent gathered. Aradu assumed his role among them, marching past rows of elite Murji and Amaru soldiers toward the gaping maw of the Great Inner Seal. He kept his head bent, observing the procession from its reflection in the polished tile at his feet. The soldiers stood like scattered boulders throughout the courtyard, giant brutes towering over even the tallest penitent. Aradu studied their faces, impassive masks, grotesque beneath the severity of ritual scarring.

Something in the nearest soldier’s gaze alerted him, a slight curl to the man’s thin lips that made him look as if he’d smelled something sour. It spoke of interest, and being detected now would bring sure death. Aradu held his breath.

“Hold them.” The soldier’s voice rumbled like a distant earthquake. Aradu felt it in his feet, rather than his ears. The shuffling mass halted. Aradu dared not look up. Instead, he watched his reflection in the polished floor, wondering how his balance had shifted and praying it would shift no further.

He saw it as the guards closed in, a ghostly patch on his left ear where Pim had brushed his flesh. He cursed under his breath. She’d tricked him, and now his life hung in the balance.

He bit his lip. Hot blood filled his mouth, dribbling out to mingle with his sacrificial coverings. He dabbed his ear, and made his own prayers it would go unnoticed.

A commotion erupted in the women’s line. The soldier nearest Aradu spun, moving away. They must have detected the silk thread. They must have discovered Pim.

Shrieking cries echoed across the wide square, and a mumbling confusion cascaded along the penitent line. His heart stopped as he heard a high-pitched shriek, a meaty chop, and then silence.

Aradu’s brain, trained to deal with rapidly mutable fortune, snapped into motion. He put Pim from his mind as he glided slowly back along the cool tiles. The soldiers surged toward the commotion, and Aradu slithered beneath the Great Inner Seal. He pulled himself by calloused fingertips cautiously past the gaping pit waiting behind, and climbed into the fabled Forbidden Garden.

With tingling fingers and the rush of adrenaline jumping under his skin, Aradu paused. He exhaled slowly. Around him, shadows circled the impenetrable walls. A smile played briefly across his lips, and he continued his careful stride past flowering beds in shades of sapphire, amethyst, and ruby, and into the first of many treasure rooms.

A breeze brushed his cheek as he marched through ranked statues of angry gods and long dead kings, a tender kiss of air alerting him he was not alone. Aradu didn’t turn. “Are we done playing?”

“At first, I thought you’d betrayed me.” Pim’s voice was soft in his ear, her breath a light jasmine-scented gust, her body radiating as much heat as a brazier as she sauntered near. “But when I found the thread and placed in on another, I knew.”

“I told you I thought you could be great. I meant it.” He ran his fingers through the clotted mess of his forehead. He’d decided it was no longer up to him to protect her. Pim could more than handle herself. She’d be free to choose whatever life amused her, and Gods help those who got in her way. “But you still only get a journeyman’s share.”

Her musical laugh echoed from immense gold sculptures as she ran past him. “Okay, let’s call it a draw.”

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