New Year’s Chance, Part 2

Part one may be found hereabouts.

*****

Five children moved out, each to a shrine on the emptiest street they could find—Russa, being young for the tricky operation, stayed in the alley. She was too young for most things, just yet, but she was Celsia’s little sister, so they kept her about.

The shrines were dug into the ground, with a little round wall built up around it, a roof over it, and a rope pulley running down into it. They looked like tiny wells, and at the bottom was a bucket that caught the offerings, to be pulled up by Chance’s priests. But the pulleys were made to make such a ruckus, everyone on the whole street would hear the bucket being lifted, and people would glance to see if it were Chance’s priests or nay.

The bucket was made to be too heavy and awkwardly placed to be lifted without the pulley. But the opening was just narrow enough that a child might wedge themselves—“Hail and fire,” Sy muttered, scraping back out. Twelve he was, now, and his round face looked it, but his shoulders said “fourteen,” and refused to go in easily. He might wedge himself in, but he wasn’t going to be able to un-wedge himself with speed or ease.

“Fine,” he muttered, reaching inside to grab the free hanging rope and haul it up, independent of its raucous pulley system. It jerked slightly, and stuck. He grunted, tugging harder—his arms, after all, agreed with his shoulders that they were older than his face—but there was nothing for it. The bucket must have been weighted.

He released the rope and leaned against the shrine as people passed. Perhaps this plan could have used a bit more thought. He was sure the other children would be able to do it, though, being smaller; climb in head first, stand on their heads as they filled a bag with coppers,  and push themselves back out—after leaving a pair of dice matched-sides-up or a Fair Daughter playing card in each, to appease the Old Man. But he couldn’t come back empty-handed, not after this whole plan had been invented on the spot to get his crew to believe Chance was on his side.

“Fine.” He was going to have to do this the even harder way. That was alright. He was near enough to a man to manage it, and near enough to a child to put people off their guard, surely. He sat down on the edge of the street with a sullen look on his face, rolling his dice about among drifting petals, looking the picture of the son who’d been locked out or left behind as some punishment.

Clouds blew in and clustered up to suggest an early twilight. The world grew grey and chill. Sy shivered, willing himself to wait with the patience of the predator. And in time, the prey came. Two priests and three guards, all mounted on horses, the priests wearing parti-colored tunics with their faces painted half black and half white for the day, the guards wearing light leather armor and carrying short spears.

Sy watched them as any unhappy child might, with a dour curiosity, distracted from his mood in spite of himself. There were heavy saddlebags on the priest’s horses. The guards were watching him—not sharply, but as they watched all around.

A precisely overzealous roll sent the dice tumbling to a stop near the horse’s hooves as a priest dismounted. Sy scrambled to pick them up, then stood where he was, watching the priest reel up the bucket with a rackety clacking. A spear butt nudge him in the chest. “Back up there, son,” the guard said, tone matter-of-fact.

“Right.” Sy retreated a single step, then looked at the mounted priest. “Sir—” He stepped forward into the middle of the crowd, the dice showing on his extended palm. “Sir, if you please, can you give these a fair blessing?” He could feel the guards’ attention shifting wholly onto him. His skin tingled at the thought of the spears in their hands, of how easily their points could reach him and pierce skin and flesh. He held his breath. The guards shifted closer, but seemed to be waiting on the priest’s direction.

The mounted priest looked down at him, one half of his face black with a bold white circle on his cheek, the other half, its inverse. “I’m out of fair blessings right now, I’m afraid,” the man said. “For every fair wish given there must be an ill wish.” The words sounded round and smooth in his mouth, like a pebble the sea had rolled over so often, the waves sighed to see it again.

“I could tell you whose dice to curse,” Sy said eagerly, taking a step nearer.

The priest let out a startled laugh. “Not today, I’m afraid. No ill wishes given on Year’s New Day. No fair ones, either; we bring the tally to a balance by Ill Daughter’s Night, and the slates are clean for all of Year’s New Day.”

He sighed, returning the dice to his pocket and palming his hidden dagger as he did. That was as far as sleight of hand was going to take him. The rest would have to be audacious.

Hawkstrike-quick, he took one final forward step and set the knife’s point against the inside of the priest’s leg. There was the restrained jerk as reaction preceded perception by a split second, then everyone, both priests and all three guards, went as still as if he’d slain them all.

“Are you mad, lad?” the priest at blade’s point asked calmly. “Threatening to do murder on Fair Daughter’s Day—and of a priest of Chance, no less?”

“This isn’t a murder, it’s a theft,” Sy said flatly. “Unless you disagree. I’m flexible. The Fair Daughter hasn’t done me any good turns of late, and the Old Lord’s gone and offed my whole family. It wouldn’t cut my heart to do him a similar turn.” He had no such grudge against any such nebulous entity as fortune, but the words would lend weight to his threat, make it look as though he had less to lose.

“I see.” The man’s expression was hard to read under the paint. “Then let it be a theft—and a Fair New Year to me,” he muttered. The guards shifted, hands tight around their spears, clearly furious, but unable to justify an attack that would jeopardize the priest’s life.

“Lead your horse forward at a slow walk—don’t let him outpace me, now.” Sy settled the dagger in between the man’s leg and the saddle, so that any sudden or hasty movements by horse or man would nearly guarantee damage to the great artery. The priest did as he was told, and Sy walked backwards beside him, keeping watch on the guards and the remaining priest behind them.

“Aren’t you a bit young for this sort of business?” the priest asked in a conversational tone as they went. “You’re what, twelve? You might have died.”

“And you might, yet,” Sy pointed out. “Just keep us walking.”

Far down the street, he instructed the man to round a corner. “Dismount—slowly,” he ordered his sometime prisoner. The man did as he said, and Sy swiftly mounted up in the man’s place. “You’re a wise fellow all ‘round,” he told the priest as he took the reins. “Consider it this way; you’ve probably got rid of most of your ill fortune for the year in one go.” He kicked the horse into a lope and didn’t look back.

Several galloping twists and turns down the road, he pulled the horse to a stop, loaded the heavy saddlebags over his own shoulders, and stood on the creature’s back to clamber to the roof. There was no use trying to keep the horse. No good place to hide it, no good way to fence it. He’d make do with the bulging leather packs weighing him down as he ran.

Gasping, he leapt from roof to crate to alley cobbles. Russa sat in a corner, singing a soft and piping song to her newest toy.

“Where’re the others?” Sy asked. She only shook her head and kept singing. He frowned. Their jobs ought to have been quicker; by rights he should have been the last back. He shrugged off the saddlebags, letting them thump against the nearest crate. “Have you seen anyone?” he asked again. Again, Russa shook her head.

“Muckabouts,” Sy muttered, rubbing his shoulders. Probably they were spending or hiding part of their gain before they had to split it with the group. He should have done the same, but his blood had been in all too much of a rush to think of it.

Celsia rounded the corner, then, her eyes rimmed with red and bruises on her bare arms. “Syawn! I fear’t they got you too!”

Brow furrowed, Sy held out his arms and she ran into them, seeming glad, as usual, to be held by someone bigger than her who wasn’t an enemy. “What’s the matter? Where are the others?” And where, where were their hauls?

She took a deep breath and gave him the report, as straightforward and steady as he could ask for. “Caught.”

“How do you know? What happened to you?”

“A’most caught me too—well, they did, ‘ceptin I bit ‘im and run. I snuck to the cages to see if they were in there, and aye, they were. Ah! Why’d we do it, Syawn? Why’d you make us do it, temp fate on Year’s First Day? Chance saw, Chance saw and he—”

“Chance saw me as well as the rest o’ youse,” Sy said, voice hard. “I didn’t fail.” He reached over and picked up the saddlebags in one hand, though it strained his arm something terrible. “Iffn they did, they did, and they made their own luck with it. You got caught, but you got away, so I reckon you’re at a balance. The others do their labor, get their thief-mark, and go free.”

“Not Repato. He’s got two marks already, and he’s eight today!”

“Then he’s not very good, is he?”

Celsia gasped her outrage.

“Look—you’ve got no thief-mark, and I’ve got no thief-mark, and we’ve been pinchin’ since we were talking, aye? That means we’re better. And—listen to me.” He grabbed her wrist, pulling her hand away from her face. “Old Man Chance doesn’t care if you’re a priest or an urchin, he cares if you’re any good at it or not. And we’re good, you ‘n me. We’re good, right?”

She sniffled.

“Look here. You take your life, and you weight it to your own odds. Old Man Chance will never be fair, so never you mind rules and rights and luck, you get good, and you don’t stop getting better until he’s unfair in your favor. Look.”

His muscles sighed as he set the bag back down to undo the buckles. “Look here.” He pushed the bag over to spill its bounty at their feet with a heavy rattling, bouncing, jangling clatter. Celsia stared down, her mouth agape. Syawn stared down with her, his mouth drifting open as well.

Dice. It was all dice. Dice of every common size and color, collected from Chance’s shrines on Fair Daughter’s Day, as people brought their own or bought them for the purpose, begging for good luck, or simply admitting that their fortune was out of their hands.

“Dice. I don’t believe it,” Sy breathed. Then, stronger, “I don’t believe it!”

Celsia looked up at him, startled.

He crouched down, staring out at the cubes of carved wood, painted wood, bone, metal, and stone. Mostly wood. Of course, mostly wood. He laughed.

“We’ll sell ‘em.”

“What?”

“People bought ‘em once, Celsia, they’ll buy ‘em again, mark me. We’ll sell ‘em by the shrines. I don’t care, I don’t believe it.”

“What don’t you believe?” she asked, crouching down to trail her finger through the multicolored mockery of wealth. “That you grabbed the wrong bag?”

“That my fortune’s out of my hands. This was a fair day. This was a victory.”

She stared at him as though he were mad.

“I won—I went, I lived, and I came away with more than I had before. Look!” His eyes caught a gleam, and his fingers darted to the sparkle. “Some fop had a fancy New Year’s wish.” He held up a golden die, heavy and true. “Well, Lord Chance bless ‘im for it.” He snapped his fingers with a smirk.

“Why don’t you keep that one, then?” Celsia sniffed. “For luck. Seein’ it’s the only good thing to come of today.”

He shook his head. “The luck comes of selling it for gain, Cels. No one can keep luck in their pocket, or beg it from a shrine. You fops and fools can roll your die, snap your fingers, take your chances,” he murmured, rolling the small gilded token around his hand. “I don’t care. I’ll make my own.”

The end.

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