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The Mage’s Gift
This is a story of Serendib, the origami city where dimensions intersect and where you step between worlds as easily as turning down a new street to hear the stars singing overhead or the clanging steps of automata on patrol or centaur hoofs clattering over concrete. Everyone that comes to Serendib has a story, and sometimes those stories continue well after they’ve come to stay.
Once she’d hopped the glass-edged wall using gloves made of fish-leather from the deepest deeps, it had been easy enough to defeat the bloodsucking ivy and the centipede hounds contained in the first set of barriers. After that, she paused to change gloves to a new set, this time made of technology stolen from ancient Atlantis, made of ebon clay and silver circuitry.
The Dark rarely stooped to thievery nowadays but it was how she had started her professional life, long ago in a city whose name she had deliberately forgotten.
There she had been a child born to both privilege and indifference. At fifteen, she had left the school where her parents had deposited her and sauntered off to make her own living. This took the form of burglarizing her parents’ friends, at least those whose estates and townhouses she’d had occasion to reconnoiter in earlier years.
This was not as novel a revolt as it might have been, for that city accepts its criminals to the point of licensing them. The true revolt manifested in flouting paperwork until she came of age at sixteen.
Nimble, fearless, and adept in unexpected strategy, she did quite well by this. Well enough that she was able to spread the largesse to many of those less comfortable than her victims, and in doing so, became known as “The Dark Angel.”
When, thirteen months later, the infamous guild of assassins that had noted her exploits came to recruit her, they demanded she rename herself (for licensing purposes, since murder was as strictly regulated as theft), which she did by truncating the former name to the alias she had gone by several decades now.
She had kept that knowledge to herself as, over the course of those decades, she’d met any number of unusual characters, including her spouse for two of those decades, Tericatus the alchemist-mage; her sometime-enemy, sometime-friend Chig the Rat God; and quite a few fellow thieves and assassins who often failed to live up to the high standards she held when it came to both of her professions.
Of that group, only Chig knew of her thiefly beginnings. The Dark had kept meaning to tell Tericatus, but he did not come from a city where burglary or murder were government-sanctioned and so held a number of different opinions on such matters. In her secret heart, The Dark found her spouse a trifle sanctimonious at times and preferred not to give him license to pontificate.
She had retired from assassinations – aside from the occasional wager-related killing – some time ago. And now she returned to thievery not so much for entertainment but also because she was impelled by the yearly conundrum of a suitable anniversary present for a man who could, literally, conjure almost anything his heart could imagine.
The next wall was made of fricklebrick, which sounds amusing but involves a number of razor-sharp edges shifting frequently and somewhat randomly in their orientation.
She held her hands near the wall, palms in parallel to let the gloves sense the vibrations of the bricks and adjust themselves to countershift accordingly in a gentle grinding born of magic and machinery.
Casting a glance upward to make sure none of Serendib’s possible moons hung too high in the sky, she thought about Tericatus’ imagination and – not the for the first time – contemplated her luck in a mate who had long ago grown blasé with outer appearances and preferred inner qualities of fierceness and determined loyalty.
She wriggled upwards, features smeared with coalblack to match the midnight shadows around her, a silver box bumping on her hip. This year, she planned to snare something lovely that could not be bought. Her philosophy of presents was that such things were far better assembled when by effort than by coin.
This garden, located on one of the great terraces built along the mountain slope bordering the city to the north, belonged to a recent arrival to Serendib, a merchant/scientist whose name The Dark kept having tremendous difficulty remembering. This spoke of certain magics laid upon the name to avoid notice, and that was intriguing. More intriguing yet were the rumors of the contents of the innermost garden, center of three sets of walls, which held a worthy anniversary gift.
Not quite atop the wall, she used a mirror-tipped steel strand to survey the territory. She frowned. She had expected to deal with golems, their lips lined with acid spitters, armored in Tesla coils, but they lay scattered about. Someone had preceded her.
Her lips firmed in an uncharacteristic surge of temper. She had throttled back anger since, as a young thief, she had first accidentally-on purpose knifed someone as they grappled.
Not a death she regretted more than any other. The young man (he and his twin sister had been her schoolmates) had followed her to blackmail her. His death had been very painless, very swift. She prided herself that every subsequent kill had also fallen in that category.
But still – she had learned not to give way to impulse.
And it was not as though she had been able to lay claim to this place. Serendib has no organized institutions of thieves. Indeed, it is one of the few forbidden things, and so there was no established way of marking a place as being the target of someone very dangerous to cross.
Sparks from the farthest golem’s body still smoldered, sending up bitter smoke, from the felted leaves, which meant that her predecessor had beaten her by moments. She moved across the space with assurance, still clinging to the shadows, careful of the snarls of razor-edged grass, ornamental and deadly, lining the pathway.
The stones of the inner wall were cemented with soul stuff, and she had never been good with that magic, so she relied on a wholly technological approach, letting a wand of phlogistonic radions spill its lavender light out along the pink-veined surface, soothing it, till she could climb without complaint.
She saw no sign of the intruder as she came into the garden’s inner heart. That was a very good thing, because it was such a pretty place that it stunned her momentarily, a phenomenon that rarely happened to the phlegmatic and sometimes a little cynical woman.
Here in the lambent center, lit by living lanterns, a thousand flowers swelled and bloomed, silky petals dappled and daubed with iridescence, each sending out great invisible clouts of perfume, each different, dizzying with its intensity: cinnamon and carnation, musk and mossrose, vanilla and vetiver.
Mechanical dragonflies and bumblebees, hummingbirds and hovering moths, flitted from one great head-sized blossom to another, posing for seconds in the scented depths as the biomagnetic fields recharged its visitor, letting them continue to dart about on patrol.
Crouched at the wall’s foot, The Dark lost no time setting the contraption she had carried at her belt on the ground and touching an ivory dial on its side. It unfolded spindly legs and began to totter about, looking like a walking cage made of silver wire and light, staggering towards a flowering bush circled by whistling bees.
She ignored it and looked for tracks, searching over the soft earth. As she moved, flying creatures sensed her and veered, but as each neared with tiny laser-lit eyes flashing and razor sharp mandibles and stings at the ready, it swung away, disoriented and warded off by the complicated magnetic field of The Dark’s earrings, fashioned of rare and subtle earth magics by her husband for their last anniversary, who had intended his gift protection rather than pilfering.
The Dark knew how to read subtle signs: a bent leaf, a displaced butterfly, a flower turned to an unnatural alignment. Whoever it was, they were of a certain height, and a certain weight, and wore a robe that flickered out just so…A frown grew on her face, and each time the moonlight licked her mouth, her lips were turned further down.
By the time she found the intruder, standing to watch carp seethe beneath the surface of a tiny pond, she knew enough to say, her tone irritated, “But I was getting a present for you.” And then, “You always have said thievery is a base form of art.”
“Well, that is true enough,” her husband said in a mild tone intended to smooth the rasp from hers. “But you must admit that you are very hard to find presents for.”
“Hrmph,” she said. “Well, enough, let us collect what we haVE come for and return home to exchange gifts a trifle early.”
He inclined his head.
But when they reunited some moments later in the garden’s center, The Dark held her walking cage, twisted and rent asunder by some force, and Tericatus had scraps of similarly shredded mist, smelling of ozone, clinging to a handful of glowing threads. The Dark eyed that device curiously, for it was not a spell that had occurred to her, but she said only, “Someone else is here, and they do not mean us good.”
“Two thieves for the price of one,” a voice fluted, “but I am only interested in the one. Man, you may go now, if you leave swiftly and without interference.”
The figure that stepped from the shadows was hard to see, for the mechanical insects whirled and fluttered around the slim form, not as though to attack, but to protect. It was a face that the Dark had forgotten, but she realized now she had remembered it all her life, for it was that of the young man who had been her first kill.
Then another step forward and she realized – not him, but his sister, who the Dark had known but little, and last remembered seeing at the very uncomfortable funeral.
“Alas,” Tericatus said, and his tone was still mild, but this time steel flowed beneath it. “I do not choose to leave my wife behind.”
“Your wife!” the lady exclaimed. The Dark remembered her curls as dark as her own, but now silver threads outmatched the ebon ones, vanquishing, and age and disapproval thinned the once-plump lips. “Not just a thief, but a killer, and a noted one, fattened on her murders over the years. I see that crime treats you well enough.”
“In all things,” the Dark said, “I have always acted within the boundaries of the law.” She glanced at Tericatus.
“That does not matter,” the sister, whose name The Dark still could not quite recall – Elissa? Alyssa? Elison? Whoever she was, she thrust her clenched fist out, tight knuckles upward, and let her fingers fly open as she slapped downward a few inches, releasing an alarming number of gnarly black tentacles that plunged for seconds then writhed upward with a swordblade’s swiftness, flashing up at the pair.
By mutual accord, they separated, stepping simultaneously in opposite directions. The Dark vanished into the shadows beneath a tree’s outgrasping branches while Tericatus thumbed three vials open with practiced swiftness, vapors from the first two combining to solidify around him while the third released a thimbleful of glittering motes that swarmed to halo his head.
But the tentacles moved unerringly only for The Dark, altering course and somehow picking up speed in the process, perhaps assisted by the mother of pearl moths, their wings edged with perilously sharp flakes of crystal, orbiting her head in paths that curved in to slash at her cheek, then shoulder.
Tericatus stepped forward, striking the tentacles with a lacy golden blade that shimmered with sunlight, but they ignored him.
“They only judge those who are truly guilty!” The noblewoman laughed, the sound high-pitched, relief achieved after decades.
Tericatus said, “My wife is not guilty. She tells the world she stepped down from her path for love of me, but I know it was because things weighed on her too heavily. She has worked to atone, and anyhow who are you to judge her and pronounce her fate?”
He moved between the Dark and the tentacles as he spoke, and they fell away from him as the sparkling motes danced over them, becoming more and more sparks in the process.
“I have been told of her misdeeds, over the years,” the woman said, and glittering beetles danced in time with her words, fever-quick. “She learned nothing from killing my brother, has gone on to kill again and again. I have spoken to her comrades, her companions of the blade.”
“Perhaps you had a particular informant,” The Dark said, coldness counterbalancing the fire. “Perhaps they were narrow of face and dark of hair.”
“That could describe many,” the noblewoman said.
“Much like myself, they dressed in blacks and greys, with the occasional touch of silver.”
The noblewoman shrugged. “That is a style, like any other.”
“And possibly from time to time, when you glimpsed them from the corner of your eye, they appeared to have… whiskers.”
The woman wavered. “That,” she said, “is both idiosyncratic and true.”
“Chig,” The Dark said without intonation, but her husband muttered it under his breath in a very different tone.
“You are a pawn,” Tericatus said and glanced at his wife, “in a game that has been playing for a very long time, and which I thought was over.”
“If so,” The Dark returned, “and I am neither confirming nor denying such things, I would have anticipated such a contingency but would, as welcome your sage advice on the subject of my imprisonment.”
“Given my knowledge of magic, I would suspect that the things holding you might be dispelled by truths.”
“Or magic of one variety or another,” The Dark suggested, feeling the tentacles tighten around her.
But as he sighed and readied two new vials, she said, “My dear, the truth of it is that I began my working life as a thief, and I have never told you that because I thought you would think the less of me.”
Tentacles withered and fell. The woman gaped, and somewhere from the deepest shadows came a murmured curse, the slither of a great tail and a plomph of displaced air that might signify a rat god vanishing.
“I personally would count that truth a gift, but perhaps you might remove one of the flowers and several of its attendant insects for our garden, as I had intended, as a token for our trouble. Take your present, my dear, and go ahead,” The Dark said. “I’ll be along in a little while.” She eyed the woman.
When she caught up with Tericatus at the outermost wall, he said, “An assassin who had repented might stay their hand from killing someone who they thought might pose a future danger sometime.”
“That is true,” The Dark said, cleaning some substance from a silver stiletto. “And it is also true that even such a one might think it best to avoid future trouble if it might affect others that one cared for.”
“That is indeed another truth,” Tericatus said and reflected, not for the first time, on the value of growing blasé with outer appearance and preferring inner qualities of fierceness and determined loyalty in a mate.
Let me know what you thought! Shall I keep writing Serendib pieces, go back to Tabat, or venture elsewhere?