Learning the Game
by Michael Haynes
The man sitting at my left, Parl, groaned a curse while the stool to my right cooled. I’d be cursing, too, if my luck had been as bad as his. The stack of five-khorr coins he’d started with had shrunk to half its size in the short while we’d been sitting together.
I glanced over my shoulder. No one was walking our way through the bar—one of dozens like it in the frontier towns of the Jandar nations.
“That your whole bankroll?”
He shot me the “stupid girl” look I knew far too well. “Of course not.”
I nodded and pulled out a handful of twenty-khorr coins. As Parl’s eyes widened, I took another quick look around the room before leaning in toward him. “Here’s what we do. If I’m playing heads, I’ll cover the coin with both hands. Tails, with just one.” I mimed covering a coin with only my left hand. “Got it?”
His tongue slid out and ran over his lips. A vein pulsed in his neck. He shifted in his seat and started to reach for his stack of coins but before he bolted, I reached out and gently touched his arm.
“It won’t take long to win back what you’ve lost,” I said, pushing a glamor on him—just a little one—to encourage him to go along with my suggestion.
Two heartbeats later, he gave me a very slight nod. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement and sat back up. “Remember,” I muttered, “we don’t want to win every time!”
The third player at our table, Irina, sat down seconds later. She eyed the coins I was holding. “Thinking about raising the stakes, kid?”
My head pounded from the effort of even the minor glamor I’d worked, but I didn’t want to let her see that anything was wrong and I forced a smile onto my face. “Only if you can afford to lose that much.”
Irina laughed. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself in for.” She glanced Parl’s way. “You up for playing twenties?”
“Sure,” he said with a quaver in his voice. Nicely played, I thought, though it was probably a genuine case of nerves rather than an attempt to hide our ruse.
We played for a while. The stack of coins in the center of the table grew larger as did the piles of stones in front of Parl and myself, showing all our wins. Irina’s pile was pathetic by comparison.
I knew that we were pushing our luck; no good thing can last forever. I fiddled with the coin in my hand, turned it up tails and covered it with my right hand.
“Show what you got,” Parl said, a bit too enthusiastically.
He revealed tails. I revealed tails and poor Irina showed heads. Parl chuckled and reached to add a pebble to each of his and my stacks.
He never got to the pebbles. Irina’s hand shot across my body and grabbed his wrist. She looked from Parl to me.
“You two are damned cheaters.” The statement washed all the color from Parl’s face. Meanwhile, I was already scooting off my stool.
“Not so fast, girl,” Irina said. With her other hand she pulled out a small knife and pointed it at my ribs.
I spread my hands out as discretely as I could. Attracting attention wouldn’t help matters.
“Look, screw the money,” I said, pointedly not staring at the sharp blade inches from my flesh. “As far as I’m concerned, you can take every khorr on the table.”
“What’s your buddy have to say about that?”
Irina must have squeezed tighter because Parl let out a little yelp. She brought the knife up just above the table, where he could see it.
I held my breath as Parl’s eyes flicked from the coins to the knife and up to Irina’s eyes. Whatever he saw there must have convinced him there wasn’t any good way out.
“Fine,” he said.
Irina let go of his arm and he yanked it back. She waved a hand dismissively at both of us and started scooping coins into a pouch. I stood and took several steps before realizing Parl was still standing by the table. This time it was me who was grabbing his hand and pulling him away.
A couple bars later, after letting Parl buy me a few drinks and cry on my shoulder about our losses and before he was drunk enough to suggest that we should find a quiet room together, I ditched him. A just-large-enough bathroom window provided the perfect escape hatch.
On the street I broke into a jog, looking to burn off the alcohol on my way back to the inn where Irina would be waiting up for me.
We breakfasted early and started riding as soon as the sun came up. There are hundreds of villages and towns in the Jandar nations. The largest is maybe a tenth the size of Liansir, the capital city of my homeland. You could lose yourself in Liansir, sliding from district to district without notice. Unless, of course, you were the empress’s daughter. That made losing yourself for even a single moment very difficult.
Here in Jandar, though, being a con artist meant not staying in any one place too long and lots of riding. I didn’t mind it in the slightest; I’d always wanted to travel and my purse felt satisfyingly heavy today with my apprentice share, one-fourth, of last night’s take. Everything would have been perfect but Irina had woken up with a scowl on her face and not even my best tricks had made it go away.
“What’s eating at you?” I finally asked once we were alone on the road out of town.
She didn’t answer at first and I knew better than to ask a second time, so I bided my time.
“I’m tired of busting my ass for a couple hundred khorr.”
“Hey, it’s enough to get by for a week on, right? Not so bad for a few hours’ work.”
Irina snorted. “Easy for you to say. I’ve been grifting for years and I’m tired of all these little scores and ‘enough to get by.’ I’m ready to settle down for a while without constantly looking over my shoulder.”
I nodded. I didn’t have an answer for her problem, but could understand not wanting to always be on your guard.
“I suppose it still seems like a pile of money to you,” Irina said. “But there’s way bigger fish out there. We just need to figure out how to land one and fry it good.”
I shifted in my saddle wondering, not for the first time, if I was taking a big chance with Irina. I had learned a lot about the art of the con from her in just these past few months, we worked well together, and every moment we spent together made me feel wonderfully alive. But hearing her talk like this gave me an uneasy feeling that if she got wind of my past I could easily turn into a big bag of money in her eyes. And I wasn’t going back to live in my mother’s palace on anyone’s account.
We stopped next in Kanta City. Irina and I went through the city, sometimes together, sometimes apart, looking for possible marks. Typically, we’d make our move within a day or two of arriving but we had just woken up from our fourth night of sleep in Kanta when I finally felt the need to give Irina a little push.
I set my hand gently on her arm. I hadn’t told her about my ability to persuade people with a glamor, but I wouldn’t have tried that on her anyway. I didn’t do that to people I cared about. “I think the marketplace is our best bet. Run a switcheroo with that cataracted antiques dealer I told you about and—”
“You mean the one with an ex-Jandar Guardsman helping out with his stall?”
I thought back and tried to remember who had been there with the dealer when I’d passed through. I couldn’t recall anyone else being there and told her so.
“But you didn’t check in the back room, did you?” she asked.
“Are you saying you did?”
She shook her head. “No, but I noticed the Guardsman staff leaning in one corner of the dealer’s workspace.”
“Maybe he took it in trade.”
“With blood still drying on it?”
“Besides,” Irina said. “That job would barely leave us coming out ahead after the expenses we’ve incurred being here the past few days.”
I considered pointing out that barely coming out ahead was better than being, as we currently were, behind. A glance at Irina’s face convinced me to hold my tongue. So we spent yet another day prowling around the city, looking for a big score that I wasn’t sure I’d even recognize if I saw.
That evening we were in a bar several streets from our lodgings. Irina had downed quite a few glasses of the local ale, enough that I wasn’t even trying to match her.
A man took the stool next to her and signaled for the bartender. “Sleece, no ice. Eighth Dynasty,” he told her when she arrived.
The bartender hesitated but when the man put a hundred-khorr coin on the bar, she snatched it up and went for his drink.
When his drink arrived he picked it up and took a slow sip. He turned toward Irina and opened his mouth. Before he could say a word, she reached for my hand and wound her fingers through mine.
“Not interested, fella,” she slurred.
I could feel his eyes on me and tried to keep my cheeks from turning bright red. He took another small drink from his glass and set it gently on the bar.
“That’s funny,” he said in a voice that barely reached my ears. “I would have sworn you’d like to hear about an opportunity to make a quick fifteen thousand khorr. Each.”
Irina’s fingers tightened. The man started to stand, leaving a good eighty khorr of sleece sitting on the bar.
“Wait,” she said. He stood silently at her side. She let go of my hand and turned to face him. A moment passed as they looked each other over. As much as his gaze had made me embarrassed before, now I was annoyed at being ignored.
Irina’s arm shot out and she snatched up his abandoned glass. She downed the sleece in one swallow. He smiled.
“Tell me what you’ve got,” she said.
What he allegedly had was, unfortunately, quite different from what he actually had. What he actually had was me.
That was how Irina and I ended up in a dingy cell in the basement of a cruddy home on the outskirts of Kanta, waiting for the man’s messengers to find out just how much the great empress from Liansir would pay for the return of her prodigal daughter.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” I said. Irina didn’t reply; she’d given up on telling me it was hopeless after the tenth time I’d made this statement. The fact that she was probably right didn’t do anything to keep me from wanting desperately to find an escape.
I paced around the tiny room. The slit of a window in the stone wall was good only for letting in a shaft of moonlight. The only other exit was the heavy door with only a small barred window to provide a view.
I stood on my tiptoes to look through the bars. A guard sat outside, rolling dice sleepily.
I turned to Irina. “Hit me.”
“Hit me! Start beating me up.”
She looked me over. “Not that the thought isn’t appealing, but why should I do that?”
I bit my lip. It was time to let go of my last secret. I told her about the lone guard and my plan to use a glamor on him to win our freedom. “But I can only do it if he’s in the room,” I said.
She nodded and then slugged me in the stomach. I wasn’t expecting her to hit me yet and my cry of pain was genuine.
“Help me!” I yelled as Irina’s booted foot slammed into my side. Her enthusiasm for this plan was a touch alarming and I hoped she remembered it involved both of us escaping.
She had swung her foot back for another kick when I heard the sound of keys and the door slammed open.
The guard dragged his master’s prize away from the attack. He pushed Irina up against the wall.
“What do you think you’re gonna accomplish with that, miss?” he asked her. I struggled to my knees and then to my feet. Irina’s face was purpling as the guard leaned hard against her throat.
Two long steps and I had a hand on his shoulder. He turned, loosening his grasp but not releasing Irina. I put everything I had into a glamor, keeping a tight grip on the guard.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” I choked out. “But you need to sit down now and rest.”
His eyes glazed over and my own vision narrowed to a tiny circle. For a moment I thought it wouldn’t be enough and that we were done for. But then he lowered himself to the floor and closed his eyes.
My legs gave way and I was just barely aware of Irina scooping me up and carrying me out the door.
I came to in bright sunlight, lying on the lumpiest mattress I’d ever felt. My lips and mouth were utterly dry and my first attempt at sitting up convinced me that doing so was a particularly poor idea. I settled for moaning.
“I wasn’t sure you’d make it,” Irina said as she knelt by my bed.
“Better than going back…”
She reached out and moved a sweat-soaked lock of hair away from my eyes. Even through my pain, it sent a chill through me. Irina wasn’t the type to say “I love you” but this gesture said it as clearly as any words could have.
Her fingers lingered by my temple. “This is better than living in a royal household?”
Here I would live or die based on my own choices, my own desires. There I was nothing more than part of a show for the people. I could be feted or married, imprisoned or killed, based solely on what the empire needed. But I had trouble explaining all that at my best, so I didn’t even try then. I just nodded. Whatever was in my eyes must have been answer enough for Irina because she didn’t press the issue.
She got me to drink several sips of water and I fell back into a dreamless sleep.
It was a week before I felt somewhat like myself again. To my surprise, Irina didn’t once mention how much the lodgings and idle time were costing us. After the first few days, during which I slept nearly around the clock, I had time to think and plan.
“You still want that big score?” I asked her one morning.
She shrugged. “I suppose.”
I touched her shoulder and she flinched away. I wondered if she would ever trust my touch again.
“Irina, I’m still me.”
Our eyes met but hers were wary.
“You have a plan?” she asked after a brief silence.
I did and told it to her.
“That’s a lousy plan,” she said.
“Do you have something better?”
She shook her head. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
The next evening, hands tied, stuffed in a canvas bag, and bouncing in the back of a cart along a Jandar back road, I decided that this was indeed a lousy plan. A fine time to figure that out.
The cart came to a sudden stop and I heard voices.
“Remind me never to get on your bad side,” said the man we’d met in the bar back in Kanta City. “If this is how you treat your friend—”
“Business partner,” she said. “Ex-business partner, to be specific. I can’t work with someone I can’t trust and she’s worth a lot more to me in your hands than running loose blabbing about how I operate.”
He laughed. “So how are we doing this?”
“You’ve got a bag for me and I’ve got one for you.” My stomach lurched as Irina yanked my bag from the cart and set it down, none too gently, on the ground.
“Right. And I’m to just trust that your friend… Sorry, ex-business partner… is in that bag and not an animal or some poor drunkard?”
“Am I to trust that your bag contains the money you promised? Of course not. We’ll both inspect the goods.”
There was a brief silence. “Fine. But you open the bag.”
Irina chuckled. “Scared of a girl?”
“Scared of a witch, more like.” A different voice. Unless I was mistaken, it was the guard I’d glamored.
The bag’s mouth was wrenched open and the night sky hung above me. Irina pulled the bag down long enough for him to see my face and my bound hands and then tied it back up. As soon as she had done this, I started working my hands free from their bonds. We’d practiced this. Irina could tie them so I looked secure at a glance but could work myself loose.
“Now you show me the khorr,” she said.
A jangle of metal and then Irina was saying, “Looks like we’re all set.” I could hear that edge she got in her voice when she was especially excited. It looked like the plan was working out well for her. Now I just had to hope it would work for me.
Again my sack was launched into the air. I didn’t hear anyone climbing in the man’s cart with me and started to feel good about things. Then I heard the rasp of a latch. Seconds later, with a jolt, my new vehicle was in motion.
Once I had my hands free, getting the knife out of my pocket and cutting the bag open was easy. But unlike the open-air cart Irina had rented to transport her “prisoner” this one was enclosed. I felt my way through the darkness to the cart’s door. It didn’t budge and there was no handle on my side.
My heart raced. There were at least two men in the front. My knife and I would be little match for them even with the element of surprise. I decided that if I was still confined when the cart stopped, I’d have to make use of the knife to ensure that all that my mother could reclaim was a corpse.
I found the crack where the cart’s door met the wall and slid the knife through it, working the blade up inch by inch until it met resistance from the latch. Pushing up I felt a bit of give in the latch and a jolt of hope ran through me. But the knife’s progress stopped and the door held fast.
The cart hit a bump, throwing me backward. I stifled a cry and scrambled back to the door. I jammed the knife blade up through the crack hard and it felt as if the latch almost gave way. There was another bump. I held my ground through this one, but noticed that the cart’s motion was definitely slowing. A bad sign, to be sure.
I offered up a prayer to my favorite goddess and placed the knife into the crevice one more time. With all my strength, I forced it up against the latch. The cart hit another bump as metal met metal and the door flew open. My knife also flew, out into the dark night.
Without any hesitation I jumped out the door and into a roll. Rough ground abused my body, reminding me that I was still not completely healed from my last encounter with these kidnappers. But I took only several seconds to collect myself and my breath before I stood up and ran, not knowing where I was going except away from the still-rattling cart.
Moments later, I heard a cry of rage from far behind me. It only made me run faster.
I thanked the old farmer when he dropped me off in the dusty outskirts of the village of Magol. It had been a relief to be riding in the front of a cart after last night.
Every inch of my body hurt as I walked into town and found its lone inn. I had nothing but the shredded clothes on my back and as I walked up toward the front desk, I knew there was a very real chance that not just my body but my soul would be pained in a moment.
“I’m supposed to meet someone here,” I told the desk clerk. His disapproving gaze told me just how bedraggled I must look. I gave him the name Irina said she would register under.
“Room 17,” he said after a moment. I only realized I had been holding my breath when I let it out. “Up the stairs, to the left.”
I remembered to thank him over my shoulder as I hurried for the staircase. Then I was upstairs and facing her door. I knocked twice, waited, knocked three times.
Irina opened the door and I fell into her arms.
“Do you forgive me for not telling you?”
She didn’t say anything for a few seconds, but then I felt her nod and realized that she was crying.
“There’s nothing to forgive,” she finally said. “If you’d told me when I met you…” Irina drew in a shuddering breath. “But overnight, all I could think was that I’d give back every coin to know you were safe. Every last one.”
I put all my strength into our embrace. She may not have said those exact words, but I knew that Irina had learned how to say “I love you” in her very own way.
About the Author
Michael Haynes lives in Central Ohio where he helps keep IT systems running for a large corporation during the day and puts his characters through the wringer by night. An ardent short story reader and writer, Michael’s fiction has appeared in venues such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Nature. (For Michael’s complete bibliography, go to his Publications page.) He is a member of the Codex Writer’s Group.
About the Narrator
M.K. Hobson is a writer of historical fantasy fiction, and records stories for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Zero Books. She’s also the cohost of a Web series for Zero Books titled “We Live in a Society.”
Her work has appeared in many publications such as Realms of Fantasy, The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Interzone and Sybil’s Garage. Her debut novel The Native Star was published to critical acclaim in September 2010 by Ballantine Spectra.
She can be heard frequently on PodCastle, both as guest host and narrator, and has long been a beloved part of the Escape Artists family. Follow her online or on Twitter.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.