fantasy

We’re Mostly Mad Here

I was standing at the stove with my friends lounging around me as I poured pasta into boiling water, laughing at an exchange between Will, Sy, and Gilbert, when a sudden worry flashed through my mind.

How am I going to feed so many people with just one box of mac-‘n’-cheese? I frowned.

Then sanity resurfaced, and my face went red as I realized it was just me and my best writer friend Danielle standing in the kitchen. The hilarious Will, Sy, and Gilbert were our characters and muses.

I revealed my lapse in mental acuity, and they laughed at me—three imaginary, one present on the common plane of reality, and all four mocking my madness.

That's right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

That’s right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

But this madness—while entirely laughable—stems from a very important part of my writing process: taking my characters seriously.

Now, you don’t have to slip that far down the rabbit hole to be a good writer. But whether or not you consider your cast to be real, you must consider them valid.

Even if you think your characters to be players in your plot, not friends hanging out in your kitchen, their truths (not just their mutable facts) must be given due consideration. Avid readers can smell a cardboard cutout character an aisle away. Even side characters are better for having an underbelly. Even if it’s never shown in the story you’re telling, it will influence the visible surface, lending depth and truth.

Writing Grace the Mace, I considered the forces that had formed each character, and the impact each one would have on the others–in shaping, motivating, and provoking.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the title character herself. Dalvin Grace is shaped by two opposing forces—her mother, and the rest of the world. She resembles both her caring mother and her cruel environment. She resents both her “weak” mother and the buffeting world of the Great Graves mountain nations. Her feelings are spurred by—you guessed it, both her mother, and the world around them.

Had I treated Grace as simply a cog in my plot, I might have decided that she would defend her mother—another cog, a porcelain figure in maternal damsel-ish distress, serving the plot much as love interests commonly serve. That would have left me with an action-adventure novel that read much like an old, two-dimensional video game. However elaborately I plotted the “levels,” the main character would move through them, and collect the prize—mother’s safety—at the end.

But Weylah, the mother, is a valid person in her own right. Sweet, feminine, naive, and near-magically buoyant—those facts I knew from the first brush. I delved beyond the ultimate image of maternity, looking for personhood behind those soft, amber eyes. I asked a lot of questions. What were her fears? Regrets? Strengths? Worst memories? Doubts? Faiths? Worldview?

I can’t say a bell rings in my head at the precise moment a character goes from being an idea to being a person. But usually, the change is near the moment I understand their deepest, greatest why. Writing is an art, not a science, and the artistic process is never entirely predictable, but if they haven’t made that transition from pile of facts to true person, I know I’m not finished. If the people aren’t true, neither is their story.

If I didn’t understand Weylah, I wouldn’t understand the unique tensions between the flowerseller and her mercenary daughter, and how the push-and-pull of that relational tide shapes Dalvin’s very existence, for better and for worse—and for the plot.

Some authors are of the opinion that characters only serve the plot. But characters known in their own right will serve a plot far better than dress-up dolls sewn for the part ever could.

People are the heart of any story, and if you don’t write it with pumping blood, the best you’ll ever get is the interesting corpse of an idea.

You hardly need to go so far as to mistakenly make dinner for five, but a character that inhabits a writer’s head is, of course, that much more likely to stick in the head of a reader.

I think of fiction as a happily catching madness.

*****

If you’d like a disgruntled, paranoid mercenary rattling around in your head,

Check out Grace the Mace, available on Kindle in paperback.

 

 

 

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Less Than True, Greater Than A Lie: Writing what your characters think vs. what they do

Have you ever created a scale of values for your characters?

Grace the Mace would say hers looked something like this:

Strangers < Friends < Comfort < Pride < Ambitions < Survival < Mum

The truth, interestingly enough, looks a little more like this:

Comfort < Strangers < Pride < Survival <Friends < Ambitions < Mum

The differences between a character’s self-perception and their true values is often as telling as the scale itself.

That said, it can be tricky to portray a difference between perceived values and actual values within your writing, especially in first person or third person close. The narration must strike a balance between being true to the truth, and being true to the character’s perception of the truth.

The best way I’ve found to stick to both sides of the story at once is to set the opposites right next to one another—as I did with Dalvin’s coin and discourtesy in this passage, and again later with one of my favorite lines in the book:

Dalvin scowled, dug in her purse for a silver dragon, and flung it at the girl. “Get a pair of shoes, and stop being such a worthless friend.”

Grace constantly outs herself by what she’s willing—and unwilling—to give up. While neither her words nor the narration will admit to it, she proves her scale of values again and again by what she sacrifices.

Of course, the same can be done with a character who thinks themselves benevolent or benign, and proves, without a hitch in the narrative’s self-assurance, to do entirely cruel or thoughtless things. One need look no further than The Children of the Light in The Wheel of Time, The Shepherdess in The Legend of Eli Monpress, or Eli Ever from Vicious to find characters of that stripe.

These sorts of internal discrepancies are not just allowable in fiction, they’re to be expected! Cognitive dissonance is a very real part of the human makeup, and a character with impeccable self-perception is an incredible rarity—and I’m not just talking about the female lead who thinks herself plain or ugly when everyone else considers her gorgeous. Don’t take your characters’ word on who they are and what they value. See what they sacrifice when push comes to shove—and let the reader see the truth for themselves.

What do your character’s value scales look like? Do they know themselves as well as they think they do? Leave a comment!

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Bonus scale:

The values of Weylah, the Mum in question, would go something like this:

Comfort < Pretty Things < Plants < Animals < Strangers = Friends = Lovers = Family

Her self-perception… doesn’t exist. She’s like the opposite of a narcissist. When she reflects, it’s never on herself except in terms of how she could better serve her values–i.e., people.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Grace the Mace now available for sale on Kindle and in paperback.

 

Grace the Mace

Grace has always been there for her mother, ever since she was old enough to bite the legs of those thugs and leeches that called themselves lovers. Ever since she was old enough to understand the world in a way her mother never would.

Now, she comes home every winter with blood money from a year of running with a band of sellswords. No more scrounging in midden heaps and cutting purses for a low court lord to survive the lean months.

But this year, home is as dangerous as the battlefield. Tensions are running through the street courts of her old slums, while a new and daunting lover has confounded her safeguards and gotten at her mum–and now they’re all tangled in a vicious turf war.

Is one lone mercenary enough to protect her own? Can she trust anyone else to do the job?

*****

Grace the Mace – Excerpt I

Onnie winced as an apple fell from the gather of her apron, striking root. She stooped, inspecting the small gash and bruise on the pink skin. It had been perfect for market; now it would be tossed in with the cider apples. No great loss, but she hated to see a pretty thing marred. She reached to gather it up again, then froze as a harsh, foreign laugh sounded across the orchard.

Spinning on her heels, she searched for the sound’s source. There— a pair of men, walking through the trees as though they owned them, their rollicking voices nearing with every step. With great hilts bristling at shoulder and hip, with leather and mail gleaming, they could only be mercenaries. They weren’t in any regular army—fearful enough—and they couldn’t be bandits, bold as brass as they strolled, picking the apples off the trees.

Onnie pressed the apron hem to her nose, shrinking against the trunk. Only thing worse than bandits were mercenaries, everyone knew. Only difference between them was that one kept hidden, and the other had your lord’s coin and protection. Was the trunk hiding her? How she wished it were bigger. Were the men coming closer? Maker save her, they were. She muted a whimper.

“No, it gets better. See, what does he do then,” one was saying, “but try to loose a warning bolt, right by the messenger’s head. But it turns out he fancies himself a better bowman than he is, because—hold, what’s this?”

They stopped. Onnie, who’d been edging towards the trunk’s other side as they walked by, tried to spring to her feet to bolt, but her foot tangled in her apron, sending her sprawling at the men’s feet along with two-dozen apples. Likely ruined now, she thought dimly, watching one roll between a large pair of boots.

She pushed up to her knees, staring with mute terror at the pair looming over her. One had an eye patch, and a terribly scarred face. The other had a bristling brown beard, and both had wicked grins.

“Aww, it’s a little apple blossom, all alone,” drawled the bearded one, stepping closer still. “Where’s your minder, girly? Surely you aren’t old enough to be out in the woods on your own.”

Onnie’s lips quivered as she fought to find her voice. “It’s our orchard. You’re shouldn’t be here.” It came out in a whisper.

The mercenaries laughed. “Well, we weren’t doing any ill, were we? Only taking a little walk. Sure, we might be taking a few bites as we go, but where’s the harm? Now, now. No need to shriek. We’re only having a chat.”

No use in shrieking, there was the truth of it. If she screamed now, her mother and brothers might come out, but her brothers were children, whatever they said to the contrary, and children armed with pitchforks would be quickly cut down by these monsters. She’d have to try to run again.

She’d hardly gathered her legs under her when the bearded one stepped forward again, his boot coming down on her tunic’s hem. For the first time Onnie could think of, she actually wished her tunic would rip, but the contrary thing stayed whole, pinning her to the earth. The apple-sweet air now reeked of sour sweat, and worse.

Let me be. She mouthed the words, but her breath had knotted in her chest so she didn’t think she could even squeak. If there was any point in squeaking, or in saying anything to the brutes.

“Help the poor girl up, Creyl,” the man with the eye patch chuckled, stooping down to wrap a massive, callused hand around her upper arm. It clamped tight as a shackle, yanking her to her feet. The tunic did rip, then, as her arm bruised. Ruined. She stared up into the one-eyed leer, feeling faint. She wished she would faint, hoped she might.

A third figure appeared in the trees, lanky and lean and leading a mule. Oh, two were more than enough to champion for Hell. What had she done to fall so foul of Chance and the Maker?

“What’re you louses doing?”

Onnie blinked, focusing on the newcomer. A woman’s voice? A young woman. Of a height with an average man, she wore a round shield on her back, and some menacing looking ball-and-chain weapon hung at her hip. Her blond hair was short and tousled, her face pale and her eyes bright blue and—flat. Onnie dropped her gaze. She’d hoped for a rescuer, but mercs were as mercs did. This one being a woman, really more of a girl, didn’t change that.

“Just talking with this little delight,” the bearded man said, taking Onnie’s other arm. “Not much for conversation, though, she isn’t. Maybe she’s more the physically expressive sort.”

The newcomer snorted a laugh. “Oh, lay off, you luckless sons of famine. Nor’Hiymar is quick to close its borders to troublemakers. Are you looking to throw muck on the band’s name?”

“She’ll be no trouble.” The bearded man’s grip tightened. “Will you?”

“No, she won’t.” The girl hooked her thumbs in her iron-studded belt. “Because she’ll have no reason to be. Because you’re laying off.”

Onnie looked up from under her bangs, hope rising like a fresh breeze.

“Don’t be a buzzkill,” the bearded man began, but, “Aww, Gracie, we’re only teasing her,” the one-eyed man spoke over him.

“Yeah, good fun,” said the blonde mercenary. “Now the joke’s over. Hey, girl. Look at me.” She passed the mule’s lead to one of the men, and bent to snap her fingers in front of Onnie’s face. “Don’t go glaze-eyed now. We can buy apples here, yeah? Where should we go to buy them? Let go, y’louts. We’ve got a job to do, don’t go forgetting.”

Grumbling, the men’s hands drew away from Onnie. The girl collapsed, tears pricking her eyes.

“Tch.” The blond kicked at Onnie’s knee. “Scared her useless. Come on, fawn-face. We’re here looking for food. We can go on looting your trees, or you can tell us who to give coin to. We’re getting fresh food for two-hundred suppers; there’s coin in that for your little orchard, better than you’ll get at market. Speak up.”

Onnie reached out, clutching at the woman’s boot for support. It pulled back out of reach. “Well. You’ve scared her simple. Can you point, addle-pate? We’re only going to buy. We’ll not hurt anyone.” A sigh. “I swear we’ll not.”

“House isn’t far,” Onnie said softly, pointing. Her gaze on the ground, she swiped her tears on her apron. Her hands were shaking. “My Mum will be there. And my brothers,” she said, trying to make that sound like a warning. “They’ll help you.”

“You heard her. Let’s go.” The three started off, but Onnie caught the blonde’s tunic as she passed.

The mercenary girl yanked the hem free, but paused, scowling down. “What?” she asked in a low voice. “What else d’you want from me?”

“Thank you,” Onnie whispered. “I don’t know what would have happened if—what’s your name?”

The girl’s jaw tightened, her eyes a biting blue, but she answered. “Dalvin. Better known, Grace the Mace. But don’t think you can call on me by it.”

“Thank you, Dalvin. Lord Chance be kind to you. If there’s anything I can do—”

“There clearly isn’t.” Dalvin’s lips pulled into a sneer, and she turned away after the men.

Upset, afraid, and above all, relieved, Onnie buried her face into her apron and wept.

*****

After talking about other people and their works for as long as I have, I’m not sure how to say this, but…

It’s mine! That’s the work of Tirzah Duncan, my own self. That’s the opening of my novella.

Further excerpts to follow!

Cover reveal to follow!

Now Available!

Headshot_Ireland

 

Cover Reveal: The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale

 

Welcome to Avalon, a Renaissance Faire where heroes of legend never die. Where the Robin Hood walking the streets is truly the noble outlaw himself. Where the knightly and wizardly players of King Arthur’s court are in fact who they profess to be. Where the sense of enchantment in the air is not mere feeling, but the Fey magic of a paradise hidden in plain sight.

Enter Allyn-a-Dale. The grief of his father’s death still fresh and the doom of his own world looming, swirling realities leave the young minstrel marooned in an immortal Sherwood Forest, where he is recruited as a member of Robin Hood’s infamous outlaw band. But Allyn’s new life may reach its end before it’s scarcely begun. Their existence under threat, the Merry Men are called upon to embark on a journey to the dangerous world Outside – ours – on a quest which must be achieved without delay, or eternity in Avalon will not amount to very long at all.

Cover and Spine, Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale

            Excerpt

Allyn would have known Will Scarlet for a relation of Robin Hood’s even had he not been introduced as his cousin. Though clean-shaven, younger, and framed by thick locks of gold tinged with the color of his name, Will’s face was patently similar to Robin’s, with the same blue eyes that sparkled cheerily at Allyn when the two were presented to each other.

“And where’d you pick this fellow up, then, Robin?” he asked blithely.

“In my tent,” replied Robin, “with Marion.”

Will’s brows leapt toward his crimson cap’s pointed brim. “Wish I were Allyn!”

“Will…”

“Joking, joking,” Will waved aside Marion’s halfhearted rebuke. He coughed. “…Mostly. So, Allyn-a-Dale — looking to join the Merry Men, are you?”

“I don’t really know,” Allyn said doubtfully. “What are the Merry Men?”

To Allyn’s heart-thudding dismay, Will answered, “We’re an infamous band of outlaws.”

“Not really,” Marion hastened to jump in.

“Not anymore,” Little John amended.

“It’s complicated,” said Robin. “But we’re really not at liberty to tell you much more about it until we’ve spoken to Merlin.”

“That would be King Arthur’s chief counselor and illustrious wizard,” Will said in answer to Allyn’s questioning expression. “He literally runs the show around here, so—”

“No,” said Little John, his gaze a grim weight on Will Scarlet.

“Oh, would you chillax, you pedant?” Will huffed, facial muscles ticking with minor irritation. “I know you think the Outsiders have been using the word with nary a care to its meaning, of late, but I know what ‘literally’ means, and in this case, I literally meant ‘literally’!”

The marginal lowering of Little John’s brow silently warned what he would literally do to Will if he said that word but once more.

“And they’re off,” said Robin, shaking his head. “Don’t worry, Allyn, they only bicker like this when they’re both breathing.”

Allyn’s lips twitched toward the beginnings of a smile, but froze halfway, his mind only just now becoming fully conscious of what he’d heard. “Robin,” he said, fighting a sudden swell of anxiety. “Did Will just say we’re off to see a wizard?”

The Author’s Thoughts on the Cover

 The Outlaws of Avalon trilogy is my baby, so I knew its faces had to blow me away. For Book One’s cover, there were a couple elements I for sure wanted to highlight: 1, the forest (because SHERWOOD), and 2, the lute (because Allyn-a-Dale). The rest, I mostly left up to my designers – photographer Lars van de Goor, and his son Milan.

A couple drafts later, this was the gorgeous result. The elegant swirls! The delightful rosette on the spine! Of all the darling touches – a ROBIN perched over “Ballad”s second A! And, of course, the must-have lute sitting sedately amongst the trees.

The minstrel blue, the greenwood green, the magical splash of sunlight… This cover doesn’t just say “The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale”: It sings it.

About the Author

Danielle E. Shipley is the author of the Wilderhark Tales novellas, the novel Inspired, and several other expressions of wishful thinking.

She has spent most of her life in the Chicago area and increasing amounts of time in Germany.

She hopes to ultimately retire to a private immortal forest. But first, there are stories to make.

Author Photo, Danielle E. Shipley, jpeg

 

Marginalized

The margins spill over with
intricate loops of doodle-cipher,
every flower and leaf a silent scream,
every cross-hatch-darkened corner
hiding secrets
of the soul.

It’s a garden

–no

a jungle

into which
the girl tried to escape
every day.

And now
she has.

With a breath of a wish
and a brush of a curse
she fell flattened and inked
into a world of her own making.

If they flip through the pages,
if they look in the right places,
they’ll find her

climbing the vines to a floating island
a blue sketched demon-dog
snapping
at
her
heels,

a graphite bazooka
slung over her shoulder.

The next day, and pages later,
they might see her
riding a living
feather
into a forest
of
perfect
spheres.

They might, but they don’t.
They never look at her world.
They never did.

She told them where she was going;
in between neat rows of
facts and numbers,
she told them.

In black and grey and blue
she told them
In rarer reds and greens
and in bright highlighter s
creams
of yellow,
she told them.
Her nightmares and dreams,
she told them.

She told and told
and
told them of
her two-dimensional haven,
but no one knew her language
and no one saw her screams.

No one read the margins.

They look for her
in the facts
but they’ll never find her
there.

She’s lost to them

forever

in the wild,

willful

margins

Missing People

People go missing all the time. Everyone assumes it’s kidnappers, or murderers, or any number of awful things. And some of it’s bound to be, sure, ‘cause there are kidnappers and murderers running amok. But so much of it’s because people trip and fall through fairy-gates, or spin around too many times on a certain sidewalk crack, and slip sideways into another world. Some of them closed their eyes and pressed on the backs of their eyelids too long, and faded into another dimension. None of them come back.

Alfonse, my twin, he’s been missing for two years. We’re thirteen now, unless time moves differently in his new world or dimension or fairy circle, in which case he might be eleven still, or two-hundred and forty-seven, or eighteen, or who knows what all. But I’m thirteen, and too old to be harboring fantasies of fairy-gates, my parents tell me. We have to move on, they say, and accept that Alfonse might never come back—that we’ll never stop looking and hoping, but we must move on.

I know he’s not coming back. They never do. Not the ones who fall out of the world. And I miss him, ‘course I do. But every time I peek around a corner and see Mum curled into a ball on the floor, her teeth clenched around a pillow to mute her screams as tears ran down her cheeks, I shake my head.

“Mummy,” I whisper time and again, wrapping my arms around her. “Shhh. He’s fine. I know we all miss him, but he’s fine. I know he is. My twin-sense knows he is.”

We’ve never had twin-sense, but there are some things I do just know, and it was the only thing I could say to calm them down at first. I tried to explain about the fairy-gates and other worlds, but that only got them worried about me, so then I just told them it was twin-sense and left it at that. But as the months wore on, as we passed the one year mark, the comfort seemed to wear thin.

Alicia, they said, you need to let go. They’re the ones who aren’t letting go. They keep hoping he’ll come back. I know he won’t. I’m sure of it. They’re in a living limbo, where every week that goes by leaves their hope dwindle to half, then half again, then half again, always dying but never wholly dead.

I don’t bother hoping he’ll come back. I hope he found a good world. I hope he’s still alive, wherever he is. Maybe he was a hero of prophecy. Maybe he fell in love with a tree-spirt, raised a grove of children, and named one of them after his twin back in his home world. Maybe apprenticed to a time-wizard, stealing seconds from his own life to weave spells. Or maybe he’s just a peasant struggling to get by, or a circus freak in a land that’s never seen a human. Not everyone who falls into another world does great things, after all.

He could even be dead. Other worlds have murders, too, and accidents and illness. He could be any number of things. I prefer to think he fell into a world with all of his favorite things—sword-fights, sci-fi, libraries, water parks, cheesy pasta, stop-motion animation, and girls with freckles and glasses—and I’d like to suppose he became a hero and a king in that world. Of course I’d like that. Sometimes I make up stories about it. But I know they’re just that: stories.

I don’t sugar-coat it. I’m honest with myself; it’s just as likely bad as good, and other planes of reality are chock full of their own brand of things dangerous or dull.

All I can do is wish him luck, when no one’s listening, and pretend for my councilor and parents that I share their ever-halving hope, that I believe it was kidnappers or murderers, that I’ve let go except not really, just as they have. Talk as though I’ve let go my “defense mechanism,” my “delusion” of doorways in the ether, when I’m surer than anyone that he’s never coming back.

Though I still hope I might see him again.

Just in case, I press my fingers against my closed eyelids, and watch the colors for a glimpse of open gates. Just in case, I spin ‘till I’m dizzy on sidewalk cracks, and feel for where the world’s walls are thinnest. It’s always worth a try. Because of course I want to see him again, and besides, he might need my help.

It might seem like wishful thinking, supposing I’d slip into precisely the same dimension as Alfonse, but I’m almost sure I would. Maybe we’ve never had twin-sense, but we do share our DNA, and that would pull me in the right direction. I know it would.

There are some things I just know.

The End

For other short stories, visit my website.

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.