Cathay is a Chaos Mage and doesn’t care who knows it. Fear and envy are fine emotions to set someone spinning into a roil, and Cathay can sip from that cup as easily as any other, wandering through a crowd and watching people edge away.
She dresses sometimes in blue and other times in green or silver or any other color except black. Today her sleeves are sewn with opals and moonstones and within their glimmer here and there on the left sleeve, glitters another precious stone, set in no particular order, random as the stars. Her skirt and bodice are aluminum fish-scales, armored though she expects no fight. Her only weapon is her own considerable wit.
Cathay stumbled into Serendib through a one-time doorway, like so many others. She was walking in a tulgey wood one moment. Then her foot came down and she was in a city. It made her laugh with delight, the unpredictability of it all.
She soon learned that she had come to the best possible place for a Chaos mage, the city of Serendib, made up of odd pockets and uncomfortable niches from other dimensions, a collision of cultures and technologies and economies like no other anywhere.
When she arrived in the city, she had three seeds, a dusting of lint, and a peppermint candy in her pocket. She found an empty lot, precisely between a street where water magic ruled, in constant collision with the road made of fire and iron, so daily fierce sheets of steam arose, driving the delicate indoors and hissing furiously so it sounded as though a swarm of serpents was battling.
She popped the mint in her mouth despite its linty covering and dug a hole with her little finger, and then one with her thumb, and a third by staring at the dirt until it moved. Into each she dropped a seed, and covered it up, and sat down to wait, sucking on the candy and listening to the steam’s whispers.
It was not long till the first inquisitive sprout poked through the dirt, followed by a second, delicate frills of tender green uncurling like butterfly’s tongues.
Cathay waited for the third, but it was, by all appearances, still sulking underground. She shrugged; two were enough for now.
The vines that sprouted grew up and around and alongside each other, looping and re-looping till finally a house stood there, of middling size, and with many doors and few windows.
And there she lived. It was as good a place as any other, with pigeons and pixies murmuring in the roof gutters, with the steam-nourished ferns and fungi of the yard outside, with the city sky that roiled with auroras some days and zeppelins flitting among clouds on others and drift of snow or feathers on still others and—rare and precious—sometimes shone with an Easter egg pastel in blue or pink or green.
Today the air in this neighborhood is crisp with cold brine, although the actual sea the wind has blown over is parsecs away, in dimensions far from this one. Cathay comes through the fishmarket and admires the coiled heaps of octopi, whorled like a fruit-bat’s ear and the shimmering piles of sardines, the squat tubs of flaky lumps of pickled herring, and the vast thirty-foot shark that hangs suspended head-down from a vast gibbet.
As she passes, the shark twitches and snaps the left hand off the fishmonger measuring it, but that is all the Chaos that she sows this morning, for she is in a good mood, and her destination is the Gilded Cock, a gaming house where they play with a fresh pack of paper cards each hand and gamble chips of latticed disks of mother-of-pearl, light as dried fish-scales.
There the air smolders with the steam from fish-tea, and the game-players in the backroom are stoned and slack-eyed on sour smoke.
Though the neighborhood is from a city in another world, as often happens in Serendib, the clientele are a mix drawn from all over the city’s many corners. Back in that city, the neighborhood will have acquired a reputation as an odd one, an eerie one, where anything can happen. Sometimes boarded up, or guarded, or isolated with fences made of fire or glittering flakes of nannites or demonic bile.
Among the crowd, Cathay sees a smooth shoulder, a fall of rainbow hair, eyes of earth and amber. Mariposa.
“You love to gamble, they say.” Mariposa leans on a windowsill. Cathay mirrors her position in another window for a second, then breaks the symmetry, shifting forward to cross one foot over the other.
Mariposa’s lips purse, her eyes squint. They hold a line of green in certain lights and moods, and right now that green thread shimmers, seems to wiggle like a seeking root.
“Come and prove it.”
“The object is to secure the jewel held in magnetic suspension in the center. Whoever gets it and returns to their starting platform is the victor. For the loser, there are two ways to opt to pay the penalty: through an electrical stimulation directly of the nerves or to be flogged with thorn branches, then healed through regrowth on the cellular level, which leaves no scars,” the assistant explains. “If the gem falls out of the arena, both lose.”
Cathay studies the silver cage, thirty feet across, that hangs over a pit of fire. Highbacked arena stands surround it. Faces press forward, shouting, booing, cheering the two lizard people wrestling in the cage, shaking it back and forth.
This is a high-tech quarter. It shows in the decor’s brushed duralite and plasteel lanterns. In the trays that the slim-hipped servers carry back and forth: long crystal rods, and flasks filled with layers of colored liquid, and hallucinogenic pyramids colored grape and tangerine and lemon.
“Such healing has been known to take its toll on the body,” Mariposa says from the sidelines where she watches.
Cathay glances at her. “You would prefer I take the penalty in lashes?”
“I would prefer you win.”
“Very well,” Cathay says.
No one can be graceful clambering into a hanging cage and onto a tiny platform, but Cathay consoles herself that the figure opposite her does it even more awkwardly. She studies it with bodily and psychic sight. A construct, earth-magic mixed with a touch of circuitry, strong but predictable.
Once in place it stares stolidly ahead. Its eyes roll, granite balls in rough-hewn sockets, its fingers like a blacksmith’s implements.
The crowd murmurs and hoots and chatters and calls out a thousand things.
The first chime sounds. On the third they are free to move.
The golem is dead still. Cathay inhales and sees a constellation of moves shimmering in the aftermath of the second chime.
As the third note enters the air, she’s already in motion, riding the edge of the rules in a way she’s always been prone to, seeing the corruscating possibilities around her, flexing like origami.
The golem moves forward and rather than match its pattern, she goes sideways.
The cage shifts, tilting in unison with the crowd’s scream.
The stony feet grind on the metal surface, sliding, sparks sizzling in its wake. It hits the bars with a crash and the silver lengths go helplessly awry, spilling it out.
At the last moment, its hand closes like a shark’s jaws on the edge of the floor, clamps irrevocably closed.
The wild swing goes lurches further.
Cathay doesn’t care. She hasn’t even paused to look to see what’s happened, but has seized the gem. The jerk sends her in the opposite direction from her starting perch, though. She executes a few wild stork steps before falling on her ass, though with fist still firmly clenched around the gem.
Patterns sparkle spin dance in the air. They used to dizzy her to the point of blindness but now she knows them, knows how to dance in the spaces between them, tweak them to her own unpredictable desires.
The golem’s other hand comes up, latches onto the floor itself, fingers digging into the metal, which groans as it gives way.
Cathay could gawp like the rest of the crowd. She’s tempted to in fact, because something that dense shouldn’t be able to move that fast but on the other hand it is moving that fast. So she goes hand over hand along the bars, since the cage is nearly entirely on its edge.
Seeing what she is doing, the golem also moves sideways, setting things further atilt, making the bars judder and shudder in Cathay’s hands. She tries to move faster, going in a long arc that almost goes awry at an unexpected thud when the golem’s fist goes entirely through the metal of the floor.
It reaches for her ankle and the crowd’s screams go up in volume as though they’d been next door all this time and the door had just opened, yelling for blood...
...and Cathay’s foot twists to land on top of the golem’s head and then leap forward for the perch impossibly far away, body somersaulting, twisting as her hand shoots out and slams the gem down into its holder.
Breathing hard, heart like a trapped bird in her throat, Cathay bares her teeth at Mariposa in a grin.
The bus is striped aluminum and has three segments, like a silver snake. Its seats are plushed in blue and white with a pattern of ducks. The wires overhead clash and sing and shoot out sparks that surround the bus as it lumbers into motion.
Cathay says, “Where are we bound?”
“This is the #72 bus. Where do you think we are bound?”
There is only one stop of note on that route.
“We go to play rigoletto at the Gates of Dawn.”
“Having had me risk pain, you now wish me to gamble with permanent exile?”
“Would you miss the city if such a fate came to you?” Mariposa asks. “Knowing you would no longer walk its streets, even after you died?”
Cathay shrugs. “There is Chaos everywhere. To be attached to a certain place is to display a certain predictability that I am, by nature, not disposed toward.”
“Yet you have lingered here for over a decade now.”
As they disembark the bus, Cathay searches for that green thread of interest in Mariposa’s eyes, but the sky overhead is unobliging in its pink and amber clouds, marshmallow fluffy, a light almost cloying in its sweetness.
The glass-marbled plaza before the gates murmurs with spans of pigeons in the early light, pecking at the handfuls of grain scattered by families waiting to say goodbye to loved ones.
Serendib is an exacting mistress. It has many exiles, forced out by politics, or illness, or curse, or any range of things including random chance.
“It is as good a place as any other,” she says, her voice as low as the pigeons’ chatter.
The rigoletto players gather in a crowd by themselves, within reach of the gates.
They dress richly, flaunt their wealth, so everyone will know they come here for the gamble, not what they stand to win, but the truth is, immense fortunes have been made this way. They wear great hats of velvet dyed in jewel-tones with feathers to match; only two hatmakers in Serendib make these hats, and both dress their children in first-water jewels from their profits. The lace hems of their sleeves drag in the dust.
They murmur among themselves as Cathay, virtually naked by their standards, steps up. But it is not unheard of for someone to come to play the game without the preamble of assembling the requisite wardrobe.
As long as they can prove they have an estate to gamble. For the loser of the game must depart through those tall gates, pearly as legended others, and never return to the city.
Cathay walks up and down the line, hands clasped lightly behind her back, as though inspecting a rank of troops. She glances back at Mariposa. There are a few feckless youths among the crowd, who look easy to defeat. But that’s not a victory worth evoking the green glimmer in Mariposa’s eyes, Cathay suspects.
But there is no point in picking out the fiercest to fall against.
She is a Chaos mage, after all. So she closes her eyes, spins like a dervish, and stops, finger outpointed. She opens her eyes, hoping she has managed to point at the crowd and not some foolish thing like a pigeon or statue.
But a line could be drawn along her finger, exiting the tip, and lodge solidly in a man’s chest. He is a sea captain, and dragon tattoos course along his brawny arms, circle the bald scalp revealed when he doffs his vermillion hat in acknowledgement.
They step to the side.
They match coins to see who will go first. Cathay wins. She knows that is not necessarily an advantage.
Her opponent is water magic, changeable and fickle. He may well have artifacts of power garnered during voyages. Those who sail or fly or wander with Serendib as home port range shores farther than her ken, even out to the great Darks where the gods dwell.
She sees no jewelry about him other than the gold hoop, a bit of wire really, twisted through his left ear. She would think it nothing but the left side is the heart side, and all enchantments are laid on that side of the body.
The predictable move would be fire, but she is a Chaos Mage. Therefore she laughs and uses fire after all. Being predictable is a choice like any other and one most people think a Chaos Mage will not engage in. Her curse has wings of fire, its beak steeped in anger and envy.
She has out-subtled herself. He is ready with a swarm of water-winged fish that swoop through the air like a murmuration of swallows, tearing her creature apart before they wheel and dive down towards her.
Her left sleeve sweeps up over her head. Gems glitter and spark, a shark of scintillations that eats the fish like the dark eating light, an eclipse of movement beautiful because it is deadly as well as graceful.
Less traditional than his fish would imply, he buffets her with waves of force pulled from the tides.
She slips aside again and again like a matador eluding a vast, cloudy bull.
When he pauses, straining to see her in the watery mist, she appears behind him and strings a necklace of scorpion green curses around his neck while plucking the earring from his ear.
He falls to the ground, choking. Cathay pockets the loop and walks back to Mariposa.
“There,” she says, voice light as a pigeon’s feather. “Safe to dwell in my little house in Serendib for yet another day.”
Mariposa’s smile is crooked and full of some untold joke. Her face comes close to Cathay’s. They search each other’s eyes.
Mariposa’s lids droop. She leans forward—and Cathay pulls away as though by counterweight, snatching her breath as though startled by the involuntary action of the move.
Mariposa’s lips purse.
“Games of chance,” she says. “Risking pain, risking home and fortune.”
“And what is left beyond that?” Cathay says. Her voice is half-challenging.
“For the person who would risk everything?” Mariposa says.
They both know what she means.
The pit is in the very center of Serendib. There are thousands of legends about it. It is covered with a simple open pavilion carved of sandstone, beige but of a remarkable fine grain. It has never weathered. There are no markings.
In the center of the pavilion a squat, eight-armed creature sits beside the pit, which is some ten feet across.
For a fee, this creature will lower a basket holding the payee into the pit for a certain depth, and then let it hang there for a quarter of an hour, and then draw it back up.
Three small creatures play flutes in the corner of the pavilion, and do so in shifts, so there is always a thin music in the air.
No one knows what happens during that quarter of an hour. Nine out of ten so lowered return dead. Some have peaceful faces or even smiles. Others have a froth of fear on their mouths, or have clawed their own eyes out, or tore their veins open on the basket’s rim. Some are transformed, into robots or statues or pillars of salt.
A few vanish from the basket.
A few, though, a handful, return better than unscathed, touched with golden luck or new and unknown powers or enlightened beyond all comprehension.
Cathay stands peering over the edge.
“It seems very deep indeed,” she observes, her tone mild.
“Is the gamble too large?” Mariposa asks.
Cathay shrugs, counting coins to the creature. This is all part of the universe’s randomness. If she’s lucky, Cathay can ride it like a dragon. Come out with the ability to talk to animals or angels. Shoot flames from her fingertips.
If she’s not...
Well, that will be a different matter.
The basket goes down. The creatures pipe. Mariposa sits cross-legged on the ground and the green in her eyes threatens to overcome the rest. Her fingers wind around each other, anxious.
The sky flickers cobalt and amber and lightning. After a little while it rains. The rain stops and a rainbow appears before sparkling clouds obscure it. (All normal for Serendib weather. The city is where many sayings about weather began.)
Eight arms haul the basket up, scraping against the sandstone.
Cathay sits in the basket. Tears streak her face but she seems otherwise unscathed.
She leaps from the basket with a touch of impatience and strides over to Mariposa. “Well?”
“You have gambled and won,” Mariposa says, rising.
She slides a hand along the front of Cathay’s armored vest, careful not to cut herself on the metal scales.
“Three times,” Cathay says, looking down into her face.
“Then you have gambled and won something from me,” Mariposa says after a long moment. She tilts her mouth upward to make the prize clear.
Cathay stands, looking down, eyes neutral and wary and wistful. Mariposa’s fingers flex on the metal scales.
Cathay shakes her head.
“You have won,” she says regretfully, and releases her. “There is a risk that frightens me too far, and it lies in your eyes.”
Cathay walks away, out of the pavilion, and the piping, and the eight-armed creature who has been observing all this interchange.
Mariposa stands looking after her and the thwarted green of her eyes is that of a seed left long underground and only recently come to the sun.
To seek its fortune.
To seek the one who planted it so long ago.
Return to Issue #194 - Science-Fantasy Month 3