Authors: Juliet E. McKenna
The Gambler's Fortune
Juliet E. McKenna
ONCE A THIEF...
The renowned thief Livak employed her great courage and cunning to escape the evil, mindbending sorcery of the Elietimm—with the help of Ryshad, the noble swordsman who stole the beautiful bandit's heart. Now a fortune awaits her and her beloved, if Livak can secure a powerful, ancient, and forgotten magic that the Empire seeks to defend itself from its enemies.
But there are others who covet the secrets of these lost arts....
The Gambler’s Fortune
The Third Tale of Einarinn
Juliet E. McKenna
Songs of the Common People
Being gathered on travels throughout
the Tormalin Empire in the reigns of
Castan the Gracious and Nemith the Wily,
by Maitresse Dyesse Den Parisot
The House of Den Parisot has dwelt in the Nyme Valley since the days of the earliest Emperors. As the wisdom of Tormalin advances to embrace ever wider lands, the men of the House work ceaselessly in the service of their Name and Den Parisot responsibilities now run from farthest east to the very fringes of the Great Forest. The bonds of affection between my husband and myself were so sorely tested when these obligations drew him from home that I resolved to go on the road in his company. While fulfilling my wifely duties on our travels, I made a study of the tales and music we heard and present them here for a wider audience. Music is always a proper occupation for women, from the lullaby that soothes the fractious babe, to the genteel airs we teach our daughters, to the round songs we share in good fellowship. In these songs gleaned from the commonalty of the Empire, I have found beguiling melody, tales to provoke tears and laughter and no little wisdom. Much of value and beauty has been found across the Empire to ornament the great Houses of Tormalin and music is but a less tangible wealth to enrich us.
I present these songs as an entertainment, and too, as evident proof of all that unites the Empire, however many leagues might divide its peoples. While we beseech Drianon’s blessing on our fields of wheat, so the people of the boundless plains commit their mares and foals to her care. I have been welcomed in Ostrin’s name to the leathern tents of cattleherds, just as devoutly as on the threshold of the Imperial palace. Divine authority pays no heed to bounds of time or distance and the same is true of music. A song of woodland birds sung to a babe beneath the leaves of the wildwood will beguile a silk-swathed princeling just as happily. Stirring adventures from northern mountains will warm the blood of youths in the cohorts and teach them much of courage and duty besides.
Harmony delights the ear more than the solitary voice. A threefold cord is not so easily broken as a single strand. Brothers united in common purpose fare better than those divided by rivalry or suspicion. Such truths are acknowledged the length and breadth of the Empire. You will find these and more besides in this collection.
Selerima, Western Ensaimin,
First Day of the Spring Fair, Morning
There’s a certain kind of man whose common sense shrinks almost exactly as fast as his self-conceit swells. Perhaps it’s an inevitable law of nature, one of those things Rationalists will bore on about, given half a chance. Whatever, there are enough of them about, especially at festivals, to let me turn a rune—or in this case, a nutshell—for profit any time I choose.
I leaned forward and smiled confidingly. “You’ve been watching close now, haven’t you, friend? Care to risk another penny on it?”
The stout man’s eyes flickered upward to my face, halting for a breath at the tempting ruffle of my loose-laced shirt. As his gaze left the crumb-strewn tabletop, my fingers moved unseen beneath my other hand to make sure I’d be taking his coin once again.
“I’d say I’ve got it this time,” he chuckled, confidence gleaming in his eyes like the fancy braid on his cuffs. Still smiling, I held his eyes with mine although a whisper of cold air on the nape of my neck stirred the hairs like those of a wary cat. A door behind me was being held open for some reason pressing enough to let the tavern waste its heat on the chilly spring day outside.
The merchant made up his mind and reached for the middle of the three nutshells. I laid a soft hand on his hairy fingers. “Copper to choose, silver to see,” I dimpled, all innocent charm.
“Fair enough, girlie. I’ve got you this time.” He tossed a copper onto the table and snatched boldly at his chosen shell. As he gaped at the bare wood beneath, I managed a look of wide-eyed startlement to match his own surprise. Several onlookers laughed, but I never do that, not since my early days on the road. A disgruntled cowherd once backhanded me across the face, losing his sense of humor along with his meager hoard of pennies.
“Saedrin’s stones, I could have sworn I had it that time!” The merchant rubbed a fat hand over sweaty jowls and reached again. As I spread a warning hand over the shells, I heard the scrape of nailed boots coming down on flagstones with a measured tread.
“Silver to see, you know the game,” I braced myself in my chair, unnoticed but ready to rise.
Frustration never lets them not know. The merchant tossed an ill-tempered and tarnished penny at me, which I swept briskly into my pocket. As he picked up one shell then the other to reveal the errant kernel, I let the eager bystanders close in to the table.
“But how, by all that’s holy—” the luckless mark looked up, exasperated, but the townsfolk in their holiday best had me effectively concealed from view. I edged away. A tug at the laces drew my shirt to a more respectable neatness and I paused for a moment in the shadow of the stairwell to reverse my jerkin unseen. Unhurried, I pulled the far door closed behind me as I shrugged into dun homespun, pulling the gaudy scarf from my head and stuffing it in a breeches pocket. There was no mistaking the bellow of a Watch sergeant behind me, asking who had been running the game. Various gullible fairgoers whose coin jingled in my purse would doubtless be eager enough to give him a description. A woman unremarkable of height or build, they’d say, but with a bright red jerkin and a headscarf patterned in yellow and crimson imperfectly concealing her straight black locks. With that scent to follow, the Watch were welcome to try and find me to demand a cut of the coin. Using my fingers, I combed through the soft auburn waves of my hair and plucked out a few errant wisps of dyed horsehair. I let these fall inconspicuously onto a brazier burning incense in the doorway of a little shrine to Halcarion. The smoke could carry my thanks to the Moon Maiden, for keeping my luck bright for another day.
Five chimes rang from the nearby Wool Audit Hall and a hurrying peddler bumped into my back as I halted. I scowled at him, suspicious hands checking purse and belt-pouch, but a second glance showed he was no pickpocket.
“Your pardon, fair festival,” he muttered, trying unsuccessfully to keep to the flagway; the gutters were already choked with dung and garbage. The holiday was barely started but the city’s population was doubling or trebling for the Equinox fair. Still, by the end of five days’ celebrations there would be drunks and paupers enough buying their way out the Watch’s lock-up by clearing the streets.
Tall wooden houses loomed over the cobbled street, three and four stories high; each stepped a little farther out. The newly limewashed plaster of the walls shone bright against the dark oak beams in the spring sunshine. Shutters swung open above my head as some busy housewife hung featherbeds out to air. Dust billowed from open doorways as floors were swept clean for the festivities. Memories ten years or more past teased me. I could almost have been back in Vanam, Selerima’s nearest rival among the great trading cities dotted among the patchwork of fiefdoms that make up Ensaimin. But I had taken myself off from my so-called home and fallen by Halcarion’s grace into the far more rewarding, if more risky, life of chance and gaming. I was no harried housemaid, roused before dawn to scrub and fettle. Looking down at my well-kept hands, remembering them red with toil and a winter’s chilblains, I rebuked myself and slipped off the gaudy ring I’d been wearing as I separated the local clods from their coin. Some Watchman more alert than most might just be looking for such a bauble.
A more distant tower struck its own brazen version of noon with a handful of rising notes. I gathered my wits; the diverse opportunities of the fair were distracting me. This was no time to be yearning for a high-stakes game of runes or raven. The game I was setting the board for promised to set me up for life, if I made the play successfully. I just needed the final pair of pieces. Walking briskly past the tuppenny liquor houses where I’d spent that morning turning a pretty profit, I took a narrow alley to the off-hand and came out onto the broad, sunlit sweep of the high road. There it was, the lofty tower of the guilds’ Conclave Hall, decked out with flags and pennants to proclaim Selerima’s wealth and power to all and sundry flocking to the fair from ten days’ travel in any direction. All the adornments couldn’t disguise the ramparts, the watchtowers and the high narrow embrasures for the crossbow men, though. It might be a handful of generations since Selerima last had to fight for its rights but the city fathers still make sure young men do their militia drills in the exercise halls maintained by each guild. I wondered about trying my luck in a few of them. No, no one would be shooting bales of old hay full of arrows with all the fun of the fair to be had.
If the Conclave Tower was to my sword-hand, I needed to go uphill. I wove through excited crowds with practiced ease to the luxuriously appointed, stone-built inn where I was currently sleeping. Sleeping very well too, on soft goose feathers and crisp linen, a meek lass hurrying to light my fire and bring hot water for my washstand first thing every morning. High spirits put a spring in my step as I sauntered toward the gentlefolk’s parlor.
“Livak, at last! I was wondering where you had got to.” My current traveling companion hurried down the stairs. The dour expression on his thin face did nothing to dampen my sunny mood. “You could have left a note or message,” complained Usara mildly, raising a hand to summon wine. We seated ourselves at an expensively polished table.
“It’s only just past noon.” I nodded to the boy, who filled my goblet and earned himself a copper to ensure a discreet withdrawal. “The streets are busy, hadn’t you noticed? Sorry, you’re not used to big cities or festival crowds, are you?” I blinked mock contrition over the rim of the elegant crystal.
Usara answered me with a half-smile. “Have you managed to find these friends of yours?”
“Not just yet.” I shook my head, unconcerned. “I’ve left messages at the likely taverns, the more adventurous brothels. They’re bound to arrive sometime today or tomorrow.”
Usara frowned. “This is all very vague and uncertain. How can you be sure they’re even coming to Selerima?”
“I know because Charoleia told me they were coming here. They wouldn’t lie to her and she has no reason to lie to me; we’re friends and that means we trust each other.” I took a sip of excellent Tormalin wine. Selerima might have shaken off the honor of being the Old Empire’s most westerly city long since but merchants have always maintained links with the East and for more than the convenience of a common language. This vintage had been carried clear across the civilized world to delight discerning patrons at this elegant hostelry. The flagons had probably traveled nearly as many leagues as me.
Usara ran a hand over his thinning sandy hair. “That’s all very well, but what if something unexpected has occurred? You’ve no way of knowing, so I think it’s best if I—”
“No,” I leaned forward in my chair and cut off his words with an emphatic sweep of one hand. “I’m the big dog with the brass collar here. This is my game and I say how we play it. You’re only here as a favor to your master by the grace of mine.”
Usara’s lips thinned with irritation as a faint wash of color rose on his high cheekbones. I thought it wise to give a little carefully judged ground. “We’ll give Sorgrad and Sorgren until tomorrow evening to contact us. If we’ve had no word by then, we’ll think again.”
The annoyance faded reluctantly from Usara’s pale complexion. “What now?”
“We eat,” I gestured to the maidservant waiting patiently by the hatch to the serving room. I could see a wonderful range of delicacies brought up from the kitchens being suitably plated up and garnished and our table was soon spread with an elegant array of creamware dishes. I savored the enticing aromas, always gratified to be eating the sort of food I’d grown up seeing carried up the back stairs by footmen and the house steward. The girl brought fine white bread, the first, sweet, grass-fed mutton, seethed pigeon breast with its broth thickened with egg and herbs, a grand salad of spinach and cresses, decorated with nuts, raisins, pickled buds and crystalized flowers, lightly sauced with verjuice and green oil. Usara seemed rather less impressed than me, but he probably ate like this every noon, not just on high days and holidays like we lesser folk.