The Smart Thing, The Good Thing, and the Thing I Did
The smart thing to do would have been to lose, but I was never very good at doing the smart thing.
I was tired of Cebu and I wanted to get back to Shencheng. Since my airship had been stolenlost, I needed airfare. And since I tended to drink my savings lately on the bad days, I needed to win it all at once so I could buy my passage and go. I'd spent my evening so far at a single mahjong table, slowly chasing off most of my opponents, letting new ones join and chasing them off too. The last person standing was a man called Malaam who managed teams of dockworkers.
I've never known why the odds will fall in my favor if I ask them to, but I know they do. Usually I don't push hard enough that anyone notices more than a run of good luck here or there, and I have enough of a reputation for bad luck that the opposite goes unremarked. But I'd let this go much too far.
I just wanted to be done. Perhaps in more than one sense of the words.
The murderous look on my opponent's face told me that maybe laying down three chow in a row, neatly counting from one to nine, was a bit much.
"That seems unlikely," he said carefully. I noticed he'd switched from Mandarin to his native Cebuano at some point, emphasizing that this was his playing field. He had backup here; I didn't. I should be intimidated.
I'd had a little too much to drink, unfortunately, and I've never had the good sense to know when to stop.
"You dealt them, my friend. Are you accusing yourself of cheating?"
"I would hardly use such a word," he insisted, "but perhaps there is an issue with the tiles. Let us declare this hand void and begin again."
I should have taken the invitation, lost, and then joined another table. But I was annoyed and my original goals had narrowed to a pinpoint option. I had to win. I had to do it here, now, all in one streak, or I might as well give up entirely.
It wasn't as if I deserved to get out, after all.
When he laid down the tiles, he watched like a hawk as I pulled mine. I plucked each one in a neat row on my turn, one after another, and set down first one and then another chow exactly as they'd gone down in the previous game.
"Keep picking," he told me, and I picked up the next three tiles and laid them immediately down in order. Seven, eight, nine.
"Sorcery," he whispered, looking at the tiles and then up at me with anger in his eyes. "Do you take me for a fool, Rose?"
"Do you see any elements on display, Maalam? Any charms or... or stones?" I tried to make myself focus through the alcoholic haze. "Perhaps Lady Fortune simply favors me."
He scoffed at that. "She must, if you're still breathing after the things you've done."
I doubted he could know how that cut through me, so I fell back on my bravado. "If you have a problem with me, say it."
At first I thought he would follow through on his accusation, but then he took a step back and relaxed. "I've heard you're trying to leave the island, Rose. If your Lady Fortune is so good to you, I can make that happen."
That sounded like a reckless and terrible idea. No doubt if Gerrund were sitting next to me, he'd be gesturing at me to stop talking.
But he wasn't there, so I leaned in to hear what Maalam had to say.
Malaam had not been kidding when he said Lady Fortune would need to smile on me. He'd straightened my sleeves and escorted me to another gambling house, this one quite a bit nicer than the surroundings where we'd met. The table was easy to find based on his description. Simply buying in took half of my winnings, and the professional running the table was already giving me a dark look.
Distantly, I knew how incredibly stupid this was. This hall didn't smell like sweat, but perfume on top of desperation doesn't hide much. I know the smell of desperation well.
I made eye contact with the young man to my left, and then with the young woman to my right. The young man smirked at me and whispered something to the older woman on his far side. They both laughed.
The young man was the target Malaam had given me. He wanted the boy in his debt, or his bosses' debt, or... something. I hadn't paid as much attention as I probably should have.
The tiles came down. I won. There was a round of good-natured laughing about beginner's luck and I smiled too hard as the tiles came down again. I used my luck to set up some easy plays for the young man, making him confident. As he won the second round, he looked down his nose at me.
"This is a game of intellect, not luck." He wore his superiority like a too-large coat stolen from his father's closet. "Perhaps you'd do better if you had more education."
"Oh, I find luck does well enough by me." I let my words stretch closer to the accent I'd picked up on the streets of Delhi rather than the diasporic clip he wore proudly and goaded him. "You want a contest? Show me how intellect plays."
I bet far too much money on the next round, joking and laughing with both women at the table. The young woman beside me was glaring over her smoked lenses. The mark had clearly already angered her; her laugh was cutting, and her insults were a wonderful distraction.
"I'm best known as Jack Rose," I told her. "It's a pleasure."
"Hsu Be Ling," she replied, "but I'm called Bing. And it's... certainly an occasion, isn't it?" She gestured with her fan and knocked down my tiles, showing the final pairs needed to win.
The dealer had to calm the mark down, and he immediately reached into his pockets to throw down another bet. That was a good sign - no credit with the gambling hall, and spending money he probably hadn't intended.
There's an art to looking casual and I was sober enough now to be exercising it, continuing to play about as I counted the marks on the other tiles and kept track of what each player must have. Once again, I let him get close to winning and then pulled the game away from him.
Now it was quiet and I showed teeth and the tiles came down again. It had grown so silent that I could almost hear Malaam's choked anger at my recklessness. I could smell sweet rice wine on the breath of the young man next to me, see powder on the fingers of the young woman on my right.
The tiles were replaced with another set, and then someone pulled out dice, and somehow it was no longer all of us against each other. It was everyone against me. The dealer was taking bets and offering odds, recognizing a good opportunity.
I won and I won, waiting every minute for my luck to run out. It had to run out eventually, didn't it? In the corner of my eye I saw increasingly desperate hand motions from the sorcerers employed to keep magic out of the hall. There were angry whispers.
"That isn't even possible," the mark spat out as I threw another perfect dice roll. "Those dice are loaded!"
I shrugged at that. "You would know, I guess."
Somebody giggled. It moved through the crowd guiltily, as the joke repeated too many times for the dealer's comfort. The mark sputtered and the dealer had some harsh words for him. I slipped as much of the winnings as I could into my pockets without a fuss as the crowd paid attention to them, but the enforcers were getting a little too close for comfort.
"Calm down, it was just a joke," I said, putting myself between the dealer and the mark. "I'm sure he didn't actually carry loaded dice in here."
"Of-of course not," he choked out.
"Fellow like him, he knows the odds of getting caught with something like that are way too high to mess with," I kept going. The dealer calmed down, but I saw him nodding over my shoulder. I swept around the mark, throwing one arm over his shoulder. "Come on, young man, let's go get a drink. We can toast to intellect, eh?"
Bing caught my eye with a smile and before I realized it, she was on his other side. "Are you sure he should be drinking more?"
"I'm sure the young man can hold his liquor."
"I- yes, yes, let's go somewhere else," he agreed, letting us usher him past the gambling hall staff and out the door. He looked green as we went outside, but we were barely down the sidewalk before he got his bluster back.
"Good thing I got you out of there, what?" he asked me.
"What?" I echoed before remembering to roll with it. "Oh, yes, very kind of you. Look, let me buy you a drink." I saw Malaam follow us out of the corner of my eye.
He sniffed. "You? Buy me a drink? It should be the other way around."
"It should, quite likely, but you lost most of your money to me and I daresay your purse has been lifted as well."
He reached for his pocket and went quite green again. "When? Why you thief!" He raised a fist to box with me, but I laughed off the punch.
"You'll find I had nothing to do with your purse disappearing." Behind his back, Bing was smiling, but when he turned on her, she was a mask of concern.
"You- did you-"
"You can hardly accuse me of stealing your watch-" she answered, offended. As the unfortunate young man discovered that all of his pockets were quite empty, I gestured for Malaam to come out of the shadows.
"What are you doing?" Malaam yelled at me in Cebuano. "This is a mess!"
"This is a young man who needs rescuing," I murmured to him. "And will owe quite the favor to his rescuer, I think."
He looked thoughtful for just a minute before nodding and jumping into the role. "Get out of here, the two of you. And you, you troublemaker, get your ass back to the docks where you belong! Leave this young man alone." Malaam shoved me lightly away, pressing a folded paper into my hand. I brushed myself off and made a show of complaining about it as he and his new best friend hurried toward the nicer hotels.
Once they were out of sight, I unfolded the paper Malaam had given me. Sure enough, it was a ticket for a private berth on a ship leaving in a few hours.
"Leaving so soon?" Bing asked, and I realized she was looking at it with me.
"Seems that way," I nodded, but the hair on the back of my neck pricked up. "Though maybe not soon enough." Something was wrong.
Bing yelped and swept out of the way as two large hands grabbed my wrists. Enforcers from the gambling house, I realized as they dragged me out of the street and into an alley. The ticket fell from my hand and Bing had disappeared. The alley itself was dark and smelled as if someone had already puked here tonight.
"What was that little show?" demanded a third man, also dressed in the colors of a gambling hall employee. One of the sorcerers, I realized.
"Just a friendly-" One of the enforcers punched me in the stomach, considerably harder than the mark had. "Friendly competition," I wheezed out.
"Don't bullshit me, con artist," the sorcerer growled.
"I'm just lucky," I protested, giving up the pretense of casual. "It's not magic. It just happens."
"Lucky?" He gestured and I got another punch to the stomach for my trouble, hard enough that I retched up what I'd eaten earlier. "You don't seem very lucky right now."
This was when Gerrund was supposed to come to my rescue, but he wasn't coming.
A heavy boot kicked me in the side and I collapsed to the ground. The sorcerer stood over me. "Let's see what he's got in his pockets."
"You won't find his luck in his pockets, Magician." Light filled the alleyway, silvery and cold, and the magician stumbled over me and fell, allowing me to see what was going on. There was a woman's shape, taller than any man I'd known, glowing softly. She had four arms, carrying both flowers and swords, and she smiled like a wolf. "I am the Dark Lady of Fortune and this man is under my favor."
The enforcers pressed their large bodies up against the alley wall, trying to remain somehow unnoticed. The sorcerer made a series of gestures at the spirit.
"Illusions, I cast you aside," he spat with magical force.
The image of the glowing woman sputtered and started to fold, but what I caught sight of behind it was bigger and more dangerous, less lady and more wolf. The image of the four-armed woman righted itself after a minute and the sorcerer shrank back. In a moment, I heard his footsteps running away down the alley, and the enforcers followed him.
She walked toward me slowly, her face impassive until she was standing directly over me.
"Well played, Jaisukh." She smiled and reached for me with her empty hand. I took it and let her haul me to my feet. "If you ever do something that careless again I will desert you."
"I do careless things all the time."
"You disrespect my gift."
I sighed. She was right. "I apologize. I have not been well."
"I noticed. You need to be somewhere else."
"Well I'll be going-" and panic seized me. My ticket! Shit. I'd lost it. Maybe it was-
She laid a hand on my chest. "You'll be fine. Take her with you, it will be important later."
I started to ask her what she was talking about, but in a breath she was gone, her energy unfolding from around the human she was riding - Bing, I realized. I caught her as she stumbled and she stared at me in confusion.
"Yeah, most people haven't. Sorry about that," I tried to sound casual.
"So ah..." She looked even more uncomfortable than me. "I take it you're my ride out of here?"
"Well I would be, but I lost my ticket..."
"This thing?" she held it out. "I grabbed it when they dragged you off."
Before I thought about what I was doing, I hugged her tightly. She tensed and I nearly jumped away, apologizing.
"Where are your things? Do you need to get a lot before we go?"
"Oh, I keep my things with me," she said. Before I could ask, I watched the space under her hand ripple and reveal a canvas rucksack.
"That seems... useful," I told her. "But how did you keep it hidden in the gambling hall?"
"Oh, I hid it outside, charmed to look like something else," she said offhandedly. "Can we go get your luggage now, Mr High Maintenance?"
"High maintenance? Me?"
"You're the one who needed rescued. Also the one who needs to go get his luggage before we can leave town."
I couldn't argue with that, and so I led her off toward the hostel where I'd left my things.
The ship wasn't fancy, but it was leaving at dawn and that was all I cared about.
"Hold up, who's that?" asked the fellow at the dock as we started to board.
"She's with me, mate. We're sharing."
"Hey now," the sailor argued, "this ain't that kind of ship."
Bing glared at both of us.
"No, not like that," I quickly clarified. "She's a-"
"-coworker," Bing offered. "We're reporting back to our boss on the mainland. Very hush hush. The empire will make it worth your time to overlook it."
"Oh will it now?" he challenged.
"It certainly will," she said, laying a heavy string of coins across his palm. I wasn't sure where she'd picked them up, but they looked an awful lot like some of the winnings I'd pocketed at the gambling hall.
Still, I could hardly begrudge her that, could I? It was nearly what I'd planned to do.
He obligingly inked '& guest' on my ticket and turned the other way to count while we stepped aboard.
Most of the people we saw onboard were the crew getting ready to leave - no doubt more respectable folks would be seen off in the morning instead of climbing on board in the dark of night. I was too tired to mind, but I wondered if Bing was bothered.
"I'm not surprised that there's only one bed," she said when we entered the small berth, "but I'm hoping you won't take advantage."
I sighed. "I'll sleep on the floor if you insist, for propriety's sake, but I'll admit my sore ribs and I were hoping for a bed."
She looked me up and down and scoffed. "We can share as long as you aren't handsy."
"I'm no such thing," I assured her, took off my boots and fell almost immediately to sleep.
<Attack, my vikings!>
My German is incredibly rusty, but it would seem the secret to getting me to understand you is to wake me out of a sound sleep with a robot viking attack. Now that I know that, it doesn't seem surprising at all.
I hit the floor with a bang, landing hard on my already bruised shoulder. Bing was already on her feet, dressed and armed with a tiny firecracker pistol that she hadn't mentioned having before.
"We're under attack," she informed me as I stumbled to my feet.
"I noticed. Damnable vikings." I started to reach for my boots, but the ship was tossed again and I nearly cracked my head on the bedframe. Instead I grabbed my satchel and threw the door open in my stocking feet, reaching inside it for my own firecrackers.
Outside, sailors were yelling in the distance, but the other passengers around us seemed to be mostly hiding and praying. A few others were stumbling out of their berths as well. Bing ran toward the deck without stopping and I hurried off behind her.
When we burst into the open air, she almost immediately pulled me out of the way of a small explosion. I could smell nothing but gunpowder and oil in the air. True to what I'd heard earlier, clockworks were attempting to board the airship armed with battle axes and hammers. They clicked and hummed in ominous silence, while their creator stood behind them on his flying longship, calling out to them in German.
"I thought he retired," I grumbled as a clockwork viking swung at me and I ducked out of his way. I assumed Bing could take care of herself, as she had done so far, so I made my way toward the longship.
"Dr. Mekanika!" I shouted as I prepared to board the longship. The vikings didn't seem to have any programming to stop me, since I wasn't stopping them from reaching their target. He realized this weakness in programming at the same time I did, but he didn't look concerned.
"Ah, Herr Rose, it has been a while, has it not?" he switched to Anglo as he always had when we met, largely to avoid what he called the inestimable damage I did to his mother tongue in trying to speak it.
"Didn't you go back to Germany? I heard they'd given you a full professorship."
"Ah, they tried, but no university could contain me!"
I raised an eyebrow at that. "You destroyed it, didn't you?"
He looked offended. "No!"
"How much of it did you destroy?"
"Just a few buildings! Hardly anything, and yet they cast me aside, misunderstanding my true talent!"
"So you're back to going a-viking, eh?"
Dr. Mekanika shrugged. "Well, a man has to do something to keep busy."
"You know this lunatic?" Bing demanded. I hadn't even heard her sneaking up behind me.
"Lunatic?!" Dr Mekanika repeated, offended. "I'll have you know that I have been certified as completely within my right mind."
"Well that's a relief," she muttered.
"You have to admit this isn't the most, um, common way to spend one's retirement," I pointed out.
He huffed. "If mere popularity determined sanity, Rose, you'd be at least as bad off as me."
"I've never objected to being called a lunatic," I pointed out. "Nor have I ever tried to board an airship with a bunch of clockworks that aren't even programmed to defend me."
"Yes, well, I'm sure I'll work that bug out in the next round of tests." He reached into his coat pocket. "In the meantime, I have a few other toys to take care of the immediate problem."
I aimed my firecracker and debated whether to fire, but before I could reach a conclusion, Mekanika was dropping to the floor of the longboat.
"What?" I looked over and saw that Bing had fired her small pistol with surprising force and excellent aim, taking him in the shoulder.
"Unsporting," the good doctor complained as I removed the device he'd been reaching for from his hands. "It's hardly a duel if your second is firing on me."
"It was never a duel," I pointed out. "Do you have any bandages around here? You're bleeding quite a bit."
"I never plan for failure."
"I'm unsurprised," Bing leaned in to look him in the eye. "How do we turn off the vikings?"
For the first time, Mekanika looked genuinely mad. "Turn them off? No!"
"It's that or the crew keeps putting them over the side," she pointed to the deck of the airship, where half a dozen sailors had surrounded a viking and were herding it over the railing. Nearby a second group had just finished doing the same.
"No! Don't let them!" he called out. The sailors completely ignored him, of course. Mekanika crumpled and pulled out another device. Bing started to reach for it, but he pulled away.
"Allow me," he insisted, and flipped the switch. The remaining clockwork vikings on the deck stopped fighting immediately and turned to Dr. Mekanika. The crew stepped back, sensing that something was going on. Surely enough, they began retreating to the longboat.
"Well thank you for that," I told Dr. Mekanika as the last viking stepped onto the longboat. "We'll just see you off now."
"I fear not," Bing said, and I turned to see that the airship had hurriedly shoved off as soon as the last viking clockwork had deboarded.
"No! Damn you!" I shouted at them. "I liked those boots!"
If they heard me, they gave no indication.
Bing sat elegantly in one of the empty seats belonging to a sea-lost viking. "So, good doctor, I expect you'll be giving us a ride?"