(reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2016, ed. Rich Horton)

In the pale rippling sands of a nameless desert, there stands a derelict cathedral, a tribute to the cunning of its ancient architects, or, as others believe, to the cunning of the Illusionist, who has made this cathedral a prison.

For there is one man who lives within its weathered walls. His days are spent in immaculate meditation, staving off hunger unsated and thirst unslaked. His nights are spent in agony, being tortured each sundown by an iron-boned gaoler. His every waking moment is spent plotting vengeance for his slain brother and liberation for his people.

He is the only man the Illusionist fears: the Desert Lord. The Crowned Exile.

The King in the Cathedral.

“Appears you’ve won again.” Fawkes leaned back, running a hand through springy hair, and surveyed the game board where two-thirds of his encampments were emitting miniature wisps of smoke and the remainder thoroughly cut off from supplies. “Well done, Otto.”

The automaton inclined his iron head.

“What was the wager, again? An hour?”

Otto unflexed three clacking fingers. Automatons never did forget, and Otto wasn’t one to rescind a bet even when Fawkes wheedled.

“May it rain and may you rust,” Fawkes said. “Heavily.”

Otto only sat back in his chair, imbuing the gesture with a familiar smugness.

Knowing neither of his wishes were likely, Fawkes stood, tucked a leg up under himself, and hopped on one foot, as agreed, to where they kept their tallies. The cathedral’s stone floor had already regained its usual layer of shifting sand despite Otto sweeping it out that morning, as he was honor-bound to do all week after a particularly grueling duel in minstrel chess.

That hard-won victory was represented in one of several scratches etched onto the left side of the marble altar. The right side, considerably more decorated, was Otto’s.

“I’ll skewer you next match,” Fawkes said, as he often did. “Puffing your ego up first, is all. To make the bang that much louder. The crown will never be yours, Otto.” He picked up the worn chisel to begin gouging out their latest result, but as he set it to stone the altar began to shiver.

Fawkes jumped back. Sand surged around his ankles, rushing up onto the plinth, swirling into a dust devil. Otto had stood up and now made his way over, joints rasping on familiar grit.

“Did you know about this?” Fawkes demanded, as the dancing sand gained a distinctly human silhouette.

Otto gave a creaky shrug.

“I know as much as you do, eh.” Fawkes snorted. “Typical.” He licked at his chapped lips. There hadn’t been a visitor for over a year now. In the beginning the Illusionist himself had often come to gloat, and he’d sent Fawkes a barber once or twice in the early going, but all of that now seemed eons ago.

The curtain of whirling sand began to lift, exposing first an ankle, aristocrat pale save for what looked like a small purple tattoo, then legs wrapped in a soft blue shift, tighter than the style Fawkes remembered. By the time the girl’s wasp-stung lips and overly kohled eyes were revealed, he realized he’d been sent a whore.

“Delightful,” Fawkes breathed through clenched teeth.

The girl was slender, smooth-skinned, beautiful, shaking out her dark hair and seeming surprised when it produced no dust. Fawkes watched her eyes go wide with wonder as they roved the vaulted arches and decaying stone of the cathedral. Then she caught sight of him, and they changed all at once. She slid down from the altar, more gracefully than he would have thought possible, and prostrated herself on the sand.

“My king,” the girl said, in a voice that was rawer than he’d expected, not the breathy trill he’d heard from his brother’s courtesans.

“Please get up,” Fawkes replied.

She did, and as she raised her head a gasp shuddered through her. Fawkes followed her gaze to where Otto stood behind him like a hulking iron shadow.

“Don’t mind him. He’s just moody.”

The girl stared, then gave a choked laugh. “Gods’ blood, you’re brave. I mean. They said you were. But you didn’t look how I expected. And...”

“Why are you here?” Fawkes asked flatly, suddenly self-conscious for his stained overshirt and bristly uneven stubble. Otto still wasn’t the best at shaving.

The girl recomposed. “His Regency sends me as a gift to Your Majesty, in hopes of sating the loneliness of your... your sequestered protection.” Her voice had turned melodic and uninteresting. “Two years is too long for a man to be alone, Your Majesty.” She angled her head and dipped her ink-dark lashes with admirable precision, though her gaze still darted once towards Otto.

“I’m afraid it’s not in the stars.” Fawkes folded his arms. “You’re a child, for one.”

Confusion with a dash of indignation parted her perfect lips. “Do I look like a child?” she asked, deliberately unpining her shift and letting it slide off with an insolent flourish.

“Not anatomically,” Fawkes admitted. “Is he pulling you away again come morning? His Regency.”

The girl looked at a loss. “I’m to stay as long as you wish it,” she said, then: “What you need is privacy in which to whet your appetites. Away from that metal monster. Your Majesty.”

Fawkes rubbed his temple. “What’s your name?”

The girl put her hands on her hips. “Eris, Your Majesty.”

“Eris, you were sent here as a pestilence,” Fawkes said. “The Illusionist knows the particulars of my ‘appetites’ very well. Your presence here is a jest on his part. Nothing more.” He saw recognition in her pretty face and went on. “I’m sorry to disappoint, if it was, in fact, your most ardent desire to satisfy the carnal urges of a criminally unwashed exile.”

Eris’s eyes flicked to Otto once more, like a thrown knife. “Is the automaton enchanted to hear as the Illusionist’s ears? Like they say?” Her voice had changed again, and she was repining the fabric of her shift with dexterous fingers.

Fawkes looked over to his gaoler. “Nothing in my experience suggests that, no.” Despite himself, he felt his curiosity piqued. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m not really here to fuck,” Eris said. “More to help you escape.”

Since she insisted it was best to speak where Otto wouldn’t hear them, Fawkes led the way down eroding stone steps to the cellar, hopping dutifully one-legged away from the automaton’s baleful gaze.

“Cut your foot?” Eris asked.

“Nothing that won’t mend itself in a couple hours,” Fawkes replied, pausing to steady himself against the wall. He felt rather guilty abandoning Otto halfway through a tournament, but this girl had become significantly more interesting than any barber. He found his lamp and set to relighting the others.

“This is where I come when the sun’s high on hot days,” he explained, as the swathes of shadow peeled back to reveal stacks and stacks of ancient books, a small army of various game pieces, and a nest of plump pillows. “Which is most days.”

“Does the automaton only truly come alive at night, then?” Eris asked quietly, tucking her feet under herself as she sat on one of the cushions. “When it... tortures you?” Her eyes traveled over Fawkes’s bare skin, and he had the impression she was searching for scars.

“He plays my violin sometimes, if that’s what you mean.” He paused, seeing her confusion, and decided to elaborate. “He won it from me last week. I thought I could put a rock through that high window in three throws. Otto thought otherwise.”

“Otto.” Eris’s perfect brow had darkened. “You named the automaton Otto.”

“Appellation is not my strong suit,” Fawkes said. “I go blank.”

“You’ve started to go mad in here,” Eris said. She exhaled, nodded to herself, relieved by the conclusion. “Alright. Is there water?”

“We have a well in the back.” Fawkes gestured with his thumb. “Food in the larder, if you’re hungry, though I’m afraid it’s a little lacking in variety.”

“Knew you didn’t eat sand,” Eris muttered. “Alright. Alright. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll get as much food and water as we can carry.” She produced Fawkes’s chisel from behind her back. “Then, when the automaton’s sleeping, we’ll smash out his eyes. Its eyes.”

“Automatons don’t sleep.” Fawkes grabbed at the chisel. “And when did you take this? And why would I want to leave?”

Eris’s fingers went limp and Fawkes yanked the implement away. “To retake the kingdom,” she said in disbelief. “To slay the Illusionist.”

Fawkes dropped down onto the cushion across from her, provoking a small puff of dust. “Who sent you here? Besides the Illusionist, I mean.”

“The Coalition of Loyalists to the Stolen Crown,” Eris recited. “Crownies.”

“And you didn’t like ‘Otto’,” Fawkes said under his breath.

“I was the one who planted the idea,” Eris said. “Because your name day was coming. I spread a rumor with a few of the other girls that someone would be picked to go spend a night with the king. Then it grew, so it was someone to live with the king as his mistress. Once everyone believes something’s to happen, it usually does. The Illusionist got wind of it from one of his chancellors, and that chancellor suggested me, because I’d asked him to, and next thing I was telling the Coalition I’d been chosen to go to the Desert Lord. To the Crowned Exile. To you.”

A moment passed in silence. Fawkes stared down at his dirty nails.

“How disappointing I must seem,” he said at last. “I didn’t know I’d become a folk figure. I would have grown a great beard.”

“Don’t you dare make another jest.” Eris had gotten to her feet. “Don’t you dare. We risked our lives setting this up. To free you.” She balled her fists at her sides. “It’s this heat. The heat’s gone to your head.”

“Why would I want to leave?” Fawkes asked. “I have my games, I have my books, and now I have a nubile young mistress eager to satisfy my every twisted desire.”

“He was your brother!” Eris shouted, and Fawkes flinched backward. “Doesn’t every, every drop of blood in you cry vengeance?”

Fawkes wiped a fleck of spit from his cheek, wincing. “Half-brother.”

“Doesn’t half your heart die to think of him stabbed in the back by the man he trusted?” Eris demanded, but Fawkes could hear a quaver in her voice. He fixed his gaze on the skin between her eyes.

“He never had much use for me, nor I him. Listen. A ruler is a ruler. Do you really think things were perfect under my brother? Always at war or at hunt while the nobles stuffed their pockets, with impunity? While the capital crumbled under his feet from corruption? The Illusionist is not a good man, but he brought stability to the kingdom in a way my brother never could.”

“That’s a filthy lie,” Eris snapped. “He—

“Let me finish.” Fawkes’s bloodline must have still carried some authority to her, because she fell silent. “Your parents were loyal to the king, and no doubt wealthy, guessing from your speech and your physiognomy, probably the middling merchant class. They lost everything when the Illusionist seized power. Perhaps they were relegated to the poorhouses. Perhaps your father was imprisoned.”

Eris opened her mouth, but he plowed on.

“So your mother, dreaming of her filched finery, filled your head with fantastical nonsense about a golden age lost and the evil tyrant who ushered it out. Of course, it didn’t stop her from selling you to the brothels he now owned.” He kept his face cold even as Eris’s flush sent a guilty dart through his stomach. “Along the way you fell in with a motley group of radicals, and their tall tales triggered some deeply instilled delusion within you, and you began dreaming their dream of revolution, which it now seems is centered around one great myth. Which would be me. The rightful heir, here in exile, planning a glorious uprising from leagues and leagues away.”

Fawkes affected a performer’s bow. No applause came.

“You’re not much of a guesser,” Eris said, voice shaking and hands clenched, too. “My family has always been dirt poor. We’re loyalists because the king put a dagger through a Northerner’s shoulder the instant before the bastard would have slit my father’s throat. Dragged him all the way back behind lines, too. Because he was a good man, a brave man. A real man.” The disdain on her face was so vivid it ached. “Nothing like you turned out to be.” She spun, stalked toward the stairs.

“You have no idea how little that stings when heard for the ten-thousandth time!” Fawkes shouted after her.

The girl turned. “You’re the jest,” she said. “Not me. I’m going back to the Crownies, and I’m going to tell them you’re dead.”

She put her back to him and marched up the steps, shift swirling around her pale ankles.

Fawkes searched for a stinging retort and found his quiver empty. He’d spent too long with someone who couldn’t fire back.

Fawkes made a half-hearted attempt at a philosopher’s treatise before he packed the book away and emerged from the cellar to watch Eris fill skins from the well.

“Let her at it,” he said to Otto. “She’s incredibly tetchy.”

The automaton looked over at him, head cocked at a slightly skeptical angle.

“I may have been a tad insensitive,” Fawkes admitted. “I forget, sometimes, that not everyone is made of iron.”

Otto nodded impassively, and they agreed on a new game of tarots as Eris tied off the skins and moved on to ransacking the larder. Around icy silences and angry glares, Fawkes managed to extract her travel plans. She intended to leave in the night, when it was coolest, with all the water and food she could carry.

“Ridiculous.” Fawkes directed it toward Otto as he flipped his cards. “Without a lodestone, she’ll be lost before dawn.”

Otto nodded, then tip-toed his fingers jerkily across the board, pantomiming walking in pain.

“And those feet,” Fawkes agreed. “Not a single callus. She’ll burn them to stumps.”

Otto turned his head, to watch Eris now bundling her supplies into a less-than-sturdy sling. Fawkes refused to do the same.

“Not to mention the brigands,” he said, still to Otto. “The marauders. The sandeaters. They’ll eviscerate her forthrightly and leave her bones to the buzzards.”

“I can hear you,” Eris snapped.

“Let her go, then. See if I care.” Fawkes shook his head. “Deluded little girl.”

Eris ignored him; Otto flipped his cards.

“It’s my name day, apparently,” Fawkes remarked. “What do you make of that?”

He lost the game a few moments later and hopped his way back down to the cellar in a sulk while Otto went to tally his win.

Fawkes didn’t hear the shriek of the desert wind anymore, no more than he heard his heartbeat or his lungs, so the scratching of feet up above the cellar was enough to rouse him from an admittedly tenuous sleep. He stared into the thicket of shadows above his head, charting her progress to the cathedral doors, imagining her slipping through the arched entrance, trudging over the crest of the nearest dune, out of sight and out of mind.

He might be able to forget she’d ever existed—Otto certainly wouldn’t bring her up in conversation. It wasn’t as if Fawkes remembered the name of that barber, either.

But the barber hadn’t wandered off into the desert to die.

“Damn it all,” Fawkes ordered the ceiling, wrapping woven blankets around himself like a cloak as he staggered to his feet and up the stairs. The air had turned bitingly cold, and starlight spotted the sandy floor of the cathedral, leaking from its various cracks and holes. Fawkes scarved his face against the blowing grit as he hurried toward the doors. Otto looked up at his passing but made no remark.

By the time Fawkes was outside, Eris was wading her way up the first dune, hunched against the wind. “Hey!” he bellowed. “Hey! Hey!” The call was stripped away the instant it left his lips. He hesitated one moment longer, then dashed after her. Starlight also seeped into the pale sand, making it gleam like teeth, and it stuck to his skin when sweat began to bead. He hadn’t run in years.

He caught her on the crest, lungs ragged and aching. She spun away at his touch, producing a knife Fawkes thought he’d hidden better, then stopped when she recognized the red hair and hooded eyes.

“What?” she demanded.

“Wait,” Fawkes moaned, doubling over. “Just wait...” He took a deep breath that was half sand, choked, and spat mucus. “Until morning,” he finished. “Wait until morning. I have an idea. Maybe Otto could go with you.”

“Why would I want that big hunk of metal following me?” Eris asked, but she’d tucked the knife back into her makeshift sash.

“He knows the way,” Fawkes said. “He knows the way, he knows the desert, and nobody will give you trouble if you have an automaton at your back.”

Eris snorted. “You really do trust him.”

“He always keeps his word. And makes me keep mine. So, yes. I do.”

Eris looked out across the swooping dunes, and Fawkes could see the distance shrinking her. The desert was vast, an ocean of bone; the sky was vaster, an inky cavern pierced only by foreign constellations. He could tell she felt infinitesimally small, as he often did.

“The stars are different here,” she said. “Didn’t realize it before.”

“Everything is different here.”

“Why would he give his word?” Eris asked.

Fawkes straightened up, still breathing hard. “He has a gambling problem. I’ll explain. Inside.”

Eris took one more look across the desert, then nodded her dark head. They made their way back down the slope of the dune, wind bowling at their backs, and Fawkes saw Otto framed in the entry of the cathedral, tall and skeletal and very still. For a moment he looked more threatening than concerned, but it was always hard to tell with Otto. Jealous, perhaps.

“I’m back,” Fawkes said, once in earshot. “Don’t be such a clucking hen.”

The automaton turned and walked away as soon as they entered. Fawkes knew reproach when he saw it. He led Eris back down into the cellar and set about adding more fuel to the brazier. Her hands were tinged blue, so he let her sit closest.

“You can still tell them I’m dead,” he informed her, stoking the flames.

“I was still planning to,” Eris said flatly, pulling her feet under herself. Fawkes saw the flash of purple ink again and remembered.

“I didn’t recognize that tattoo on your ankle at first,” he said. “The eyeball. From the alchemical cultists. ‘The Hanged God watches every step.’ I didn’t take you for a devotee.”

Eris frowned.

“Having blue blood, even half, is the same way,” Fawkes said. “Always watched. Always judged. Every little thing magnified. Always compared to your betters.” He looked across the brazier at Eris. “There are no eyeballs out here.”

“You’re hiding.” Eris’s nostrils flared. “You’d be here even if the Illusionist hadn’t sent you.”

“My brother’s supporters didn’t want me then, and they don’t need me now. I’d be useless in any sort of rebellion. A figurehead at best.” Fawkes found he was using his wheedling voice. “Don’t you understand why I won’t go back to that?”

“Symbols have power,” Eris argued. “Not just the magical kind.”

Fawkes ran a hand through his hair. “I’m no king, Eris. I’m just a silly man playing silly games and waiting for sundown.”

There was a long silence, in which Eris tucked her hands under her armpits and rocked backward. Forward. She stared at the brazier, and then, finally: “Didn’t you love your brother at all, then?”

“Half-brother,” Fawkes corrected by rote. “And I did. Or I thought I did.” He paused. “He took me to a brothel once, on my name day. Brought a dozen different whores in. I wanted to please him, so I picked one.” Fawkes swallowed. “Couldn’t do it.” He rubbed at his face, staring at nothing for a moment before he spoke again. “He made me try another, and another, and in the end he brought a boy in and sat there watching while I fucked him. Laughing. Like it was a jest.” Fawkes managed half a laugh himself. “That’s the man who was king. And the man you think should be king, there with him. Do you really think either of them any better than the Illusionist?”

Eris shook her head. “You don’t know what he’s done. Maybe the king was no saint, but kings aren’t meant to be. The Illusionist is a fiend from hell.” She exposed the purple eye tattooed against her anklebone. “I didn’t choose this. It’s the alchemists’ guild mark. They own the brothels now. They own half the capital, now. The Illusionist gives them leave to dig up graveyards. Take children off the streets. You remember the cultists, don’t you?”

“Exaggerations,” Fawkes said. “Scapegoating. And even if it were true, there’s nothing I could do. You simply refuse to realize that.”

“But you’re a royal,” Eris protested. “That counts for something. You’re educated.” She scrambled upright, running her hand along the spines of his library. “Look at all these damned books... strategy... tactics of war-at-sea... infiltration...” She paused. “Gods’ blood. You have been thinking about it, haven’t you?”

“Of course not,” Fawkes protested. “It’s only for the games. That’s all.”

Eris looked at him for a long moment, eyes burning. “Fine,” she said at last. “Only for the games. Is that how you plan to get Otto’s word, then?”

“More or less,” Fawkes said, breathing easier once more. “If I win, he’ll escort you back to the capital. If I lose, he gets something he wants very much.”

“Which is?”

“Go to sleep,” Fawkes said. “So I can get ready.”

Dawn arrived far too quickly, finding Fawkes weary-eyed and buried in books. He’d slept intermittently, and would’ve gladly taken another few hours, but he felt that now, with all manner of obscure rules and maneuvers thrumming fresh through his head, was the time. He roused Eris with a shake of her shoulder.

“Time for the game,” he said. “You can watch, if you’d like. Sort of boring to the uninitiated.”

“I’m going to watch.”

Fawkes climbed the cellar stairs, finding Otto sweeping the floors with his broom of bundled twigs. The automaton looked up at him, then behind him, to see Eris unknotting her dark mess of hair. He returned to his sweeping with a resigned air.

“Best of mornings to you, Otto. My creaky companion. My iron... intimate.”

Otto ignored him.

“I know we’d agreed to let the girl wander off and die in the desert, but what you witnessed last night was a crisis of conscience,” Fawkes said. “Fortunately, it also presented me with an idea.”

Otto didn’t deviate in the slightest from his rhythmic scrape of twigs on stone.

“For an outrageous wager.”

The automaton’s head swiveled.

“If I win, you escort Eris as quickly and safely to the capital as possible, then return here to resume your duties as gaoler,” Fawkes said. “If you win... the crown is yours.”

Otto stopped sweeping altogether, and Eris grabbed Fawkes’s elbow from behind, fingers pinching painfully tight.

“What do you mean?” she demanded. “What crown? What do you mean it’s his if he wins?”

“I mean exactly as I said.” Fawkes went to the back of the cathedral, where an old wooden box was waiting. He blew thick dust off the top and opened it. He ignored Eris’s incredulous look as he removed a wreath of lovingly twisted scrap metal and brought it to the altar. “The wearer of this crown is the Everlasting Master of Games and undisputed Eternal Ruler of the Cathedral,” he explained, setting it on the stone surface. “It goes to the first inhabitant of the cathedral to reach a thousand victories. Until now, that is.”

“Unbelievable,” Eris murmured.

“Respect the crown,” Fawkes snapped, and Otto nodded in solemn accordance. He turned to his gaoler. “Well, what do you say, Otto? We’ll be playing a war game.”

The automaton’s shoulders shook with what might have been silent mirth.

“He always wins these,” Fawkes explained in undertone.

Eris rolled her eyes. “Of course he does. He’s an automaton. Can’t you play him at dice or something?”

But Otto was already extending his iron hand. Fawkes put his inside and they shook, cool metal against sweaty flesh. The automaton retrieved the game board, then deftly assembled it on their customary table. Both players sat down in silence.

Fawkes dispatched his first scout, and the game was on.

For the first hour, Eris was a sort of bird fluttering vaguely in the background, saying vaguely annoying things like automatons can’t make mistakes and look at your Eastern border, he’s slaying you. But after a while she fell silent and stopped moving, absorbed by the intricacies of the game, and Fawkes had to admit it did have a sort of hypnotic quality to it. He felt almost in a trance himself.

Raiding parties traded blows, emissaries were hanged, and he was playing fast and fluid as he never had before. Every minor decision felt like a key’s tumblers clicking into the grooves of a lock, and the hourglass at the center of the table seemed irrelevant, sometimes rushing downward in a deluge, other times crawling so slowly Fawkes could see each grain of sand tumble down into its fellows.

“Well-taken,” he murmured, as Otto brought his outpost down.

His opponent acknowledged the compliment with a slight inclination of the chin, glass eyeballs click-clacking in their sockets, still raking intently across the game board. Otto knew that things were dangerously close, closer than they had been for a long time. Fawkes felt it, too, like standing on the edge of a razor.

He sent a lance of cavalry along Otto’s border, a feint to draw attention from a slow-moving supply convoy. He blinked sweat out of his stinging eyes as Otto appeared to take the bait, moving to redirect his army, but then...

The automaton’s hand stopped. Hovered. Fawkes could have sworn his metal mouth had widened into a grin. Otto split off a token reinforcement for the border and angled the rest of his forces south, instead. The convoy marched right into them.

“God’s blood, why didn’t you bring a bigger escort?” Eris whispered.

Fawkes wiped the sweat from his forehead, picked at the salt crusting the corner of his lip. “Surplus of optimism, I suppose,” he said faintly. His stomach flip-flopped as Otto methodically stripped the convoy of its supplies. His fist clenched under the table. For a tense moment it looked as though the messenger might escape notice, but Otto ferreted him out from the last cart.

Eris groaned, and Fawkes had to bite his cheek to keep from making a noise of his own. He sent a negotiator, but he knew it was too late for that. Otto was taking the messenger into the heart of his capital for an interrogation in the royal dungeons. Fawkes’s hand came unclenched.

The automaton gestured for him to give up the intelligence.

Fawkes shook his head. “None,” he said. “Messenger knows nothing.”

Otto gestured again, impatiently.

Fawkes inhaled. “Messenger knows nothing,” he repeated. “Except that my doctor fed him a black vial. Sub-chapter 820, under Medicine. Read it yourself.” He offered a dog-eared book of rules. Otto snatched it away, flipping to the page with blinding speed. Next he snatched up the tiny figurine of the messenger and peered at it in the morning light.

Miniscule black dots were growing over its exposed limbs.

“It’s a pestilence,” Fawkes said. “Your capital city is already a pit of disease. Within a month, it will have spread across the entire kingdom. In a year, the entire continent.”

Otto flattened his hands across the game board, shaking his head.

“Total attrition,” Fawkes agreed. “But your kingdom goes first.”

Otto froze.

“Gods damn,” Eris breathed into the silence. “Gods damn. You’re ruthless.”

Fawkes slumped back in his chair, sweat sticking his shirt to his shoulder blades. His cheeks ballooned around a long exhalation. Otto stared down at the table, still disbelieving, until finally, slowly, he stood up and walked over to the stone altar. He crouched down for a moment, then plucked the crude crown from its resting place.

“It’s within the rules,” Fawkes began to protest, then stopped as he realized Otto was not donning it. Instead, the automaton creaked back to the game table with the crown clutched between two iron fingers. He motioned with his head. Fawkes gave a pained look. “That wasn’t the wager, Otto. You don’t have to...”

“Go on,” Eris said, with no trace of irony on her face. “Your Majesty. Respect the crown.”

Fawkes slithered down from his seat and stood in the sand. Otto’s joints rasped together as he leaned over, placing the crown delicately atop matted hair. Fawkes couldn’t help but grin. Eris’s mouth, on the contrary, was a solemn line. Fawkes watched incredulously as she knelt down at his feet, and the hulking automaton beside her followed suit. He felt the smile drop off his face.

“Please, get up, the both of you.”

“That altar,” Eris said, getting to her feet. “All those marks on the left side. You said those are yours? Your victories?” Her eyes were hot and full of sparks. “So you really have beaten him before. Even at this game?”

“Occasionally,” Fawkes admitted. “Every eighth or ninth.”

“But nobody beats an automaton.” Eris shook her head. “Your Majesty, nobody even comes close. Not ever.”

Fawkes shrugged. “I’ve had a lot of time to practice. But it’s only a game.”

“A war game.”

“A game,” Fawkes stressed, but he felt something bubbling within his chest.

Whatever Eris had planned to say next was interrupted as Otto put his hand on her slim shoulder and revolved her towards the cellar. He mimed in the air. Eris shot Fawkes a strange look he couldn’t pin down, then darted away to get her provisions.

All at once, the flushed exhilaration of victory vanished. “You’re leaving right away?” Fawkes demanded.

Otto nodded.

“How long of a journey?” Fawkes’s voice was faint. “A week?”

Otto shook his head.

“A month? Two months?”

Another shake, this time accompanied by raised fingers.

“Six months?” Fawkes rubbed at his temple. “Six months. Damn.” He tried to picture it in tally marks. “Otto...” He paused, a terrible suspicion seeping through him. “Did you give me the crown because you don’t think you’ll come back?”

Otto was still for a heartbeat. Two heartbeats. Then slowly, slowly, he nodded. One hand flashed a gesture that Fawkes knew referred to only one specific person.

“If you go to the capital, the Illusionist will find you.”

A nod. Fawkes felt sick to the pit of himself.

“Then you can’t go,” he snapped. “Forget the wager. Forget the wager, forget the game. It never happened.”

Otto pointed towards the altar, and Fawkes saw what he’d done while retrieving the crown. The tally mark had already been carved into the stone by the metal tip of the automaton’s finger, crossing four others in a jagged dash. Fawkes looked up at Otto, mind buzzing with protests, angles, arguments. None came to his lips.

“Then I’m coming with you,” he realized.

“You are?”

Fawkes turned and saw Eris at the top of the steps, stretching a water skin, her eyes dark and wide. He looked to the decimated game board. He thought of his thousand books of wars and battles and rebellions. He took a deep breath.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve decided I like being a folk figure. Address me as the Desert Lord.”

Eris’s nose wrinkled.

“Or Fawkes,” he suggested, adjusting his twisted crown.

He spent the day pillaging his library for the pages he thought would be most useful in regards to desert travel, finding schematics for Eris to fashion flat sandals from a leather cushion and for Otto to carve slitted sand goggles from old wood. They filled all the skins they could and bundled most of their supplies onto a sling across Otto’s broad shoulders. The sand had never seemed to affect him—Illusionist’s cunning, Fawkes suspected—but they wrapped his joints in fabric just to be safe.

When Fawkes emerged with his final selection of books to carry, he found Eris cross-legged on the floor, Otto razoring the long dark locks from her head.

“I’d scrape off the tattoo, but I can’t chance an infection,” she said.

“You trust him with that big knife on your scalp?” Fawkes asked.

Eris shrugged. “You do. Want next?”

Fawkes slipped the crown from his head in answer. Eris grinned and patted the place in the sand beside her.

Hours later, as dusk finally began to drop and everyone was prepped and attired, the undercurrent of excitement reaching a crescendo, Fawkes gave his first and last order as Eternal Ruler of the Cathedral. “Smash the altar,” he said. “We don’t want him sending anyone after us from this end.”

Otto didn’t hesitate, setting to it with his bare hands. The stone fractured and splintered, sending flakes of shale in all directions, then finally, under a terrific two-fisted blow, it groaned and split down the center with an echoing crack.

“No more games,” Eris said, with a grimness Fawkes was beginning to find almost endearing. But as she refastened the scarf around her shaved head, he leaned in close to Otto.

“Back to zero each,” he whispered.

Then the three of them marched through the ancient arch of the cathedral, out into pale and rippling sands.

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Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Canada, USA, and Spain, and is now based in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of the novel Annex and the collection Tomorrow Factory, which contains some of the best of his 150+ published stories. His work has been translated into Polish, Czech, French, Italian, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Find free fiction and support his work via patreon.com/richlarson.
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