In the Chamber of Winds, the secret center of the known world, Raxtus paid too much for an ugly gold statue.
He’d had to call in every debt and every favor, and accrue a few of his own, to raise the funds. The black market price of the idol had been outrageous, not to mention Merk’s own inflated fee. As of now, Raxtus owned the tunic on his back, his apartment and its few contents—at least until next month’s rent came due—and one ugly idol of Magli. His buyer had offered more than enough to make it worthwhile. Raxtus was taking a huge gamble that he could deliver the idol without getting caught, but he’d never been able to resist a big wager.
Raxtus didn’t blink when Merk handed over the bundled sack in return for the last of his payment. Though Raxtus’s heart sped up, the crosswinds that gave the Chamber its name evaporated any visible perspiration. He didn’t so much as glance over his shoulder while he placed the bundle between two stacks of crates just inside the Chamber. One of the worst things he could do was look nervous. So he continued to work, joining Merk and the others in carrying more crates through the Doorway and placing them beside those already in the Chamber. Once the rest of the shipment was through, Merk and his fellows returned to the warehouse on the other side of the Doorway, and Raxtus was alone with the newly arrived crates. To the black-robed Domini monitoring the floor of the Chamber, he was just another workman, no more noteworthy than the goods he carried. That made his job all the easier.
Crouching behind the boxes, out of sight of the Domini, Raxtus pulled open the cloth bag to inspect the golden idol inside. “You’re even uglier than I thought,” he muttered. It had more arms than made any sense, and a twisted, fanged face. “Uh, sorry.” He didn’t want to offend any god, even one of Set’s strange ones. Set had hundreds of deities and thousands of idols to them, and prohibited removing a single sacred statue from the city. The Sovereign Cities jealously guarded their deities, especially gods of fortune like this one. Removing such an idol from Set might attract the favor of the god away.
Magli was supposed to be a god of both good and bad fortune. At a foot in length, the statue was bringing Raxtus ill luck already, as it was larger than expected. He couldn’t fit it in his belt pouch beside his dice like he’d planned. Damn Merk anyway! He could have warned Raxtus how big it would be.
Raxtus scanned the room, noting the Domini who managed the workers. The Chamber of Winds was a huge, round room with a domed roof, from which hung brightly glowing orbs. They illuminated a flagstone floor surrounded by dozens of Doorways—door frames detached from any wall and made of metal, stone, and wood, some extravagantly decorated, others starkly simple. But cross any Doorway’s threshold and one arrived at its companion, another Doorway that could be located anywhere in the world, allowing workmen like Raxtus to travel to distant cities in a single step. And this was only one room—albeit the biggest—in the Hub.
He returned the idol to its bag. With something this big, he would usually hide it in the Chamber until he could pass it to its destination, but the only hiding place was among the boxes right in front of him, heading out to Westmost first thing in the morning. The idol wouldn’t do the Aurian collector who had made a sizeable down payment much good there. Cold mountain air from the Auria Doorway stirred Raxtus’s hair, laced with the scent of mildew from the dank cellar where the other side of the Doorway was hidden beneath an Aurian warehouse. He once again looked to the Domini who were supposedly supervising, but the black-robed sorcerers all seemed to be clustered around something near the Overseer’s office. Raxtus caught a glint of metal. Even if he could get to Auria, he didn’t know where to find his contact Varentius right now, and he couldn’t afford to be caught carrying obvious contraband while he wandered around lost on the other side. He shivered in the chill, and picked up the cloak he’d discarded as he worked. It might just be worth the risk.
Raxtus jumped, and turned to face the cheerful young man approaching him. “Hi, Daven.”
Daven had been brought to the Domini’s island the same time as Raxtus, and he considered himself a friend. It was not a sentiment that Raxtus shared. Even if he hadn’t found Daven annoying, the man was too honest for his own good, and Raxtus had secrets to keep.
“What are you waiting around for? The shift’s over. We should get going.”
“Go ahead,” Raxtus said. “I’m right behind you.”
Daven shrugged and walked off. So much for sneaking off to Auria, with Daven waiting for him. He picked up the sack and draped his cloak over his arm to hide the idol. That would have to do.
He crossed the flagstones at a quick stride, keeping one eye on the Domini. The path to the Doorway to the Outer City brought him uncomfortably close to them, but as long as he didn’t do anything to draw attention, they were unlikely to notice him. They were too busy staring at . . . The sight of what they were ogling brought him to a standstill. It was a metal skeleton.
On second look, it wasn’t quite a skeleton. Though its articulated joints and narrow body made it look skeletal, it didn’t resemble bones. A bronze trapezoidal torso held together limbs and a head that was little more than a cylinder with hammered-out eyes. Even as Raxtus watched, it raised one arm and, in a fluid, all-too-human motion, waved at him. Uncertainly, he waved back. This brought the attention of the Nathan.
Most Domini hardly noticed the laborers, but Nathan went out of his way to show his contempt. He frowned at Raxtus. “Stop gawking, slave. Get back to work.”
Raxtus ducked his head and murmured an apology. His heart racing, he dashed through the Doorway to the Outer City. No one noticed the sack hidden by his cloak. Perhaps he should thank the ugly god of luck for that.
Daven was nowhere in sight on the other side. Honest or not, he had the good sense not to wait around when the Domini were watching.
Once his fear died down, Raxtus remembered his dignity enough to be angry. Slave! How dare he! I am not a slave. Officially the Order of the Domini didn’t keep slaves, but even though he earned a salary, Raxtus was still indentured to work for the Domini for another two years. After that, he was free to do as he pleased, as long as he didn’t leave the island. No one left unless they earned enough of the Order’s trust to become one of their agents.
Raxtus sank onto the concrete bench that lined the wall of the staging room for the laborers coming and going from the Chamber of Winds. The room was empty now, as Raxtus’s tarrying to receive the idol had kept him past the end of the night shift. Almost empty. Olstin sidled up before Raxtus even noticed him.
“What took you so long?” Olstin glanced at the bag containing the idol, now clearly visible under the cloak.
“I got distracted.” Raxtus ignored the glance. He paid Olstin well enough not to ask questions. “There was this metal skeleton. It looked dead, but it moved on its own.”
“Oh,” Olstin said. “I was wondering why they told the next shift to take tonight off.”
“You know something, don’t you? What was that thing?”
“Supposedly that’s an automaton. A metal man that can do anything an ordinary man can do.”
“But what’s it for?”
“Well, we’re less sure of that. Some of the men figure it’ll be replacing us.”
“All of us?” Raxtus waved his hand in the direction of the bulk of the Outer City, where all the non-Domini on the island lived.
“Well, maybe not all. Probably just the Hub workers. That’s why they’re testing him out there now, when all the men are away.”
“If they replace us . . .” Raxtus had bet all his savings from his profitable side business that he’d be able to deliver this idol, and he couldn’t do that without access to the Chamber of Winds.
“I know, I’ll miss the pay too.” Olstin’s eyes went back to the sack. “But we supervisors have a good chance of being reassigned. We’re trusted enough that we can get a position off the island easily.”
Raxtus wondered whether he really wanted to become an agent for the Order. Feared and distrusted as the Domini were, they had to hide the Doorways from which they derived their income behind myriad shipping companies run by their agents. And if their means of shipping happened to be invisible to customs collectors, well, it was only right that they pocket the difference as a fee for their superior service.
And if Raxtus was going to help the Domini smuggle, it only made sense that he take advantage of the Doorways too. A few high value items moved through the Chamber discretely had brought in a nice second income, until Raxtus had bet he could double his wealth with one high stakes delivery.
“Well, at least you’ll do well for yourself,” Raxtus said.
Olstin smiled. “Maybe I can put in a good word for you, too. All you need to do is ask me for the favor.”
Olstin never did favors for free, and right now, Raxtus had nothing with which to bribe him. “Let me think about it,” he told Olstin.
Olstin’s smile turned into a grin. “I can’t wait for you to share your thoughts with me.” He turned and walked away.
Raxtus silently decided that he would not bribe Olstin for a chance to work harder for less pay. If he was going to lose his profitable business, then it was time to move on. Once he delivered the idol and received the rest of his payment, he’d buy out his indenture contract, and have enough left over to start a new venture, something he’d had in mind since before he came here. He picked up the bag. He just needed to get this to where it belonged first.
Raxtus took off his cloak and pretended to fiddle with a clasp while the other laborers lined up at the Doorway to the Chamber of Winds the next evening. What was the line for? Usually Olstin would just check his list of those assigned to the Chamber that day and wave them through.
The idol waited in its bag on the shelf above the bench. If he used the cloak to hide it again, he should be able to sneak Magli in. He was hoping he’d see Var today.
Enough waiting. He tucked the idol under his cloak and joined the end of the line. Only when he neared the front did he see what caused the delay. Nathan was standing beside Olstin, watching the laborers as they entered. What’s he doing? The idol grew even heavier in its sack.
There were only two people in front of Raxtus when the line came to a halt. Daven was speaking very fast to the Dominus.
“It’s just my knife. You can’t think—”
“I don’t think anything,” Nathan said. Daven’s belt snapped, and the knife in question lifted into the air. Magic. Raxtus saw a far more impressive example of it in the form of the Doorways every day, but he so rarely saw the Domini use their abilities directly that it sent a shiver down his spine every time. “No weapon is allowed into the Chamber. And you were clearly carrying a weapon.”
“It’s not a weapon. It’s just for cutting food—”
“Enough!” This time is was Olstin who shouted. Daven fell silent. “I apologize for this, Domine. I assure you, he will be disciplined.”
“This man is still indentured?”
“Yes, he has two years left.”
“In that case, responsibility for disciplining him belongs to the Order. I will deal with him.”
Daven yelped as some invisible force lifted him off his feet. Whatever else he might have said was silenced by that same force. The Dominus turned to call one of his colleagues, which was all the opening Raxtus needed. If anyone saw him slip out of line, they didn’t say anything. It was so easy to forget how dangerous the Domini were. They reveled in mystery and secrets, hiding their true nature and power from nearly everyone, but when they did use that power . . . Raxtus stashed the idol on the nearest shelf and covered it with his cloak.
By the time he returned, Daven was floating away in the company of another Dominus. The Domini had bought Daven and Raxtus from the Novar slave markets at the same time. Unlike Daven, who’d been a slave since birth, Raxtus had sold himself into slavery when his gambling debts had caught up to him. Idiots that they’d been, they’d believed the Domini’s grant of manumission upon arrival on the island. Watching them carry Daven away reminded Raxtus that while they were no longer slaves, they were not yet free.
After that, the workmen were very careful not to carry anything that might be considered a weapon. As the days passed, and still no word came about Daven’s fate, other matters began to preoccupy them.
First among those matters was the automaton, which became the center of attention in the Chamber of Winds. It worked there most days, sometimes alongside them, sometimes alone, always overseen by at least one Dominus. Most of the time Nathan watched over it, and he would scowl at any worker who gawked or asked questions. But other Domini would also be in charge of directing the automaton, and they were often as perplexed by the thing as the workmen.
“No, I don’t know why it’s doing that,” Merrel said, as the metal man insisted on returning crates from the Westmost Doorway to the Set Doorway, while the workers were trying to move them the other way. The thrown back hood of Merrel’s black robe revealed a round, wrinkled head with wispy hair. Any place outside the Inner City, he would have hidden his face behind the hood and magic.
“I don’t care why,” Olstin said. “Can’t you make it stop? It’s impossible to do our job with that metal monster working against us.”
After Merrel had gone through a long string of ineffective command words and even more ineffective curses, Nathan had to be called. Olstin was furious, but Nathan only laughed. “Predicting his behavior is still a toss of the dice, and they still come up Dogs more often than Venus. I’ll get them properly balanced soon.”
Raxtus had never considered the possibility that a Dominus might play dice.
While the closed-mouthed Domini failed to say anything about the automaton’s purpose, rumors filled the silence. Many reached the same conclusion as Olstin, that the automaton was going to replace them all. There was only one, but it was tireless, and strong enough to carry crates that would have taken two or three men. But it did have its limits. For one, it couldn’t go through the Doorways. Raxtus found that out one day when handing amphorae through a Doorway to the automaton. It stood just on the other side, but refused to reach into the Doorway, instead waiting passively until Raxtus placed the amphora into its hands.
“Can’t it meet me halfway?” he asked Merrel.
“No,” the Dominus said. “Automata can’t enter Doorways.”
“Its magic could disrupt the Doorway. Which is more than you need to know.”
Varentius was agitated when Raxtus finally managed to talk to him while receiving a shipment from Auria. “You should have brought the idol today,” Varentius said as they manhandled a large crate across the Doorway between them, cooled by the gentle breeze coming through, though the musty air it carried made Raxtus sneeze. He had first started his smuggling operation to take advantage of Var’s transfer to Auria, and the two had been partners ever since.
“If I’d known I would be seeing you today, I’d have tried,” Raxtus told him. “Though I don’t know how I would have gotten Magli past the Domini.”
“It can’t be that hard,” Varentius insisted. He grunted as they set the crate down.
Var hadn’t seen Daven get taken. They still had no idea what the Domini had done with him. Rather than respond, Raxtus turned to head back for more crates, but Varentius grabbed his arm and leaned close. “Telerus is desperate for the idol. I think he believes that it will turn his luck around. He’s threatening us.”
“He’ll tell our superiors about the smuggling.”
Raxtus’s chest clenched. Telerus didn’t know Raxtus’s name, but if he exposed Varentius, Raxtus didn’t know how long it would be before Var gave him up.
“Do you believe him?” Raxtus asked. “If he’s really desperate, he must know that exposing us will just make it harder to get the idol.”
“Maybe he thinks he can make a new deal with our superiors. He doesn’t know we really work for the Domini.”
“That’s still an awfully big gamble to take.” With higher stakes than Telerus could know. Raxtus had no intention of ending up like Daven. He should have bought his freedom months ago; he could have afforded it until he’d decided the payoff from delivering the idol was worth the delay. “Tell him not to worry. It’s being shipped as we speak.”
“Gods, no,” Raxtus said. “Magli’s sitting on my dining room table like he owns the place. I just need to find a way to slip him past the Domini. Once I work that out, I’ll let you know and we can get him to Telerus.”
“Good. I’ll be happy to be done with this.”
“Me too.” Not least because he was starting to have trouble putting off his landlord and other creditors. “Now let’s move the rest of these crates.”
Raxtus poured a trickle of wine into the shallow bowl and added a sprinkle of gummy resin onto the hot coals of the bronze incense burner. The sweet smell of tasset filled his small kitchen. Raxtus looked at the golden idol’s fanged face and dipped his head. “Mighty Magli”—he was fairly certain that even in his home city of Set, Magli was a minor deity, but if the rituals performed by the Novar priests were any indication, then much like mortal officials, the more minor the god, the more he loved flattery—”I apologize that I do not know the proper rites, but please accept these offerings with which I sacrifice to my own gods.” And please, lares, do not be offended that I offer your gifts to Magli. “If I have offended you by removing you from Set, I beg for your forgiveness, and ask that my offerings will please you and in some small way make things right.”
Raxtus hesitated. He could not return the statue to Set. Even without the buyer’s threats, everything he owned was tied up in this delivery. Without this income, he was broke and in debt. With it, he could buy his freedom two years early and have enough left over to start something new. Yet he needed to offer Magli something that would turn his luck around. “If you will relent and allow my fortune to improve, then I will give your idol to its true owner, who will render to you better offerings than the poor gifts I can give.” He bowed his head again, and waited.
After a moment, he began to feel silly. What did he expect, exactly? There were stories of sacred statues speaking in the Sovereign Cities, but he’d never heard any of his idols speak, and he didn’t believe that the gods of the Sovereign Cities were more powerful than the Novar ones. He opened his eyes and met those of the golden idol, wondering if Magli heard him at all this far from his native land.
Olstin approached Raxtus that evening when he arrived at the nondescript building that contained the staging area.
“Ah, Raxtus, you should hear the rumors.”
“It sounds like we won’t be needing to come in tomorrow night. They’ll be putting their metal monster through his paces.”
Raxtus sighed. “I don’t suppose they’ll pay us anyway?”
“Why would they do that? But here’s the interesting part: I hear they intend to leave their automaton unsupervised.”
“What do you mean by ‘unsupervised’?”
“Just that. They don’t want anyone in the Chamber with him: no Domini, no laborers, no one. They said they want to see how he manages on his own. They’ll give him a task and let him run.”
“How are they going to make sure none of the laborers enter while it’s doing that?”
“Why, they asked me to stand guard, of course,” Olstin said with a grin.
After that, it was just a matter of negotiating the price. To be paid later, of course.
“You’ll be there?” Raxtus asked Varentius. They were standing beside a shipment to Auria, trying to look like they were discussing something related to the task.
“I said I would, didn’t I?” Var snapped. The strain of the last week showed in the dark spots under his eyes, his flushed face, his haggard expression. “You’re the one who hasn’t been able to deliver.” He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “Sorry, Rax. It’s been tough.”
“I know, Var. But the Domini are watching us more carefully now. I guess they’re afraid we’ll riot if we think the automaton will be replacing us.”
“And they don’t realize we’ve figured it out?”
“They’re Domini. I doubt they’ve realized we can figure.” The sad part was that he would miss the smuggling. The risk and the payoff were as addictive as gambling. He’d been careful to avoid that particular vice since he’d come here, though he still carried his old dice as a reminder. He didn’t think his next project would have quite the same thrill as either gambling or smuggling, but it was as close as he could get without putting his own coin at stake. “My point is, I couldn’t sneak the idol in with them watching. It’ll be easy once it’s just you, me, and the automaton.”
“I’m not meeting you in here,” Varentius said. “I’m not going anywhere near that metal abomination without a Dominus around to control it.”
Raxtus tried not to roll his eyes. “It’s creepy, but I’ve worked beside it for hours on end. It’s not dangerous. If anything, it’s kind of stupid.”
“All the more reason to treat it like a savage animal. I don’t intend to approach it when it’s off its chain.”
“Fine. I’ll meet you on the other side of the Auria doorway. Just be there.”
“I will,” Varentius said with a scowl. “You don’t have to keep asking.”
When the workmen left the Chamber, the Dominus announced that they would not be needed tomorrow evening. Some grumbled about lost pay, but Raxtus was happy to learn that Olstin had been correct. He couldn’t predict what Varentius would do if he’d been unable to deliver yet again; the man was near his breaking point. Raxtus nodded to Olstin, who winked. His luck had turned around. He would need to make one last offering to Magli to show his gratitude, and to ensure that everything went right the next night.
What’s he doing here?
Raxtus managed not to freeze, but it was a near thing. He had walked into the workers’ staging area, Magli in the sack again and slung across his back beneath his cloak, only to find Nathan in the room with Olstin. He wasn’t supposed to be here, was he? Raxtus had expected a clear shot to the Doorway.
The two occupants were staring at one another from benches on either side of the Doorway leading to the Chamber of Winds. When Olstin looked at Raxtus, there was fear in his eyes. He obviously hadn’t expected Nathan either.
Nathan frowned at Raxtus. “What are you doing here?”
If Raxtus had had time to think, he might have come up with something better, but what he said was, “I came to keep Olstin company.”
“He doesn’t need your company.”
“Of course he does. Unless you’d like to dice with him.”
Nathan’s look was sharp enough to cut, but he turned away moments later. “Well, go ahead. I’m just here to keep an eye on my automaton.”
Raxtus sat on the bench near Olstin.
“I hope you brought some dice, because I don’t have any,” Olstin whispered.
His dice bag was stiff from disuse, but he managed to get the drawstring open and dump his wooden dice on the bench. They were long dice with pointed ends and four sides numbered one, three, four, and six. “What do you want to play? Knuckles?”
Raxtus drew a handful of copper coins from another pouch and dumped them beside him. That was most of his remaining wealth. He used the cover of retrieving his coins to let the sack containing Magli slip free and lay beside him, out of the view of the Dominus.
“How long is he going to be here?” Raxtus asked quietly.
“No idea. I wasn’t expecting him to show up in the first place.”
They diced for a while, until Olstin had a significant lead. So much for Magli granting Raxtus luck. Why was Nathan still here? If he’d just leave, then Raxtus could get on with what he came here for. He nearly jumped when he realized that Nathan had moved. The Dominus was no longer sitting on the opposite bench, but was standing about halfway across the room, where he could watch their game. His hands seemed to twitch.
“Would you like to play?” Raxtus asked him.
Nathan snorted. “Why would I dice with the likes of you?”
“Because I’d bet that most Domini don’t dice. But you’ve got the itch. I can tell.”
“And if that were true? You play for coppers. That’s hardly worth my time.”
“That’s not the point,” Olstin said. “It’s the game that’s important. The stakes are incidental.”
“Do you agree with that?” Nathan asked Raxtus.
“Not really,” Raxtus said. “Bigger stakes make for a more exciting game.”
“I agree. Tell you what, I’ll play a round with you if you put up something worthwhile. You’re playing highs and lows?”
“Yes,” Raxtus said. “You take first roll.”
Nathann picked up the four long dice, and rolled them. Four threes, a Vulture.
“High,” Raxtus said. Only one scoring roll, Dogs, would be lower. “What will you wager?”
“This.” From some secret pocket of his robe he took a gold coin and laid it on the bench between them. It seemed to be Manuelite. “Is this sufficient?”
“I don’t have anything to match it,” Raxtus said. Certainly not at the odds Nathan was facing.
“I’d accept your cloak as a wager.”
“My cloak’s not worth a gold coin.”
“But that cloak is worth more to you than the coin is to me. That’s what makes stakes worthwhile, isn’t it? The risk to something important?”
“All right, I accept.” Raxtus shrugged out of his cloak and laid it on the bench. Then he picked up the dice and rolled.
A one, two threes, and a four. In other words, precisely nothing. A non-scoring roll always lost. He needed four of a kind for a Vulture, or at least one six for a higher scoring Senio.
Raxtus sighed as he handed over his cloak. This was not going well. Was Var still waiting for him? How could he get rid of this annoying Dominus?
“What’s in the sack?” Nathan asked.
Raxtus’s heart sped up. “Just something I bought earlier.”
“Indeed? Then perhaps you should show it to me.”
“Are you proposing that as stakes?”
“I could order you to show me what’s in the sack.”
“Sure, but we’re dicing here. You want something, you need to roll for it.”
“Very well, your roll.”
Raxtus let out his held breath. He had been half-convinced that pushing back against Nathan would backfire, but it had been the only ploy he could think of. The man must really miss dicing. Raxtus tossed the dice, and again came up with nothing. Without a scoring roll, there was no betting, so the dice went back to Nathan.
The Dominus rolled three sixes and a four, the highest Senio.
“Another gold coin for me.” The Dominus said, before Raxtus could even say “Low.” The bastard knew that Raxtus couldn’t match the coin, so the only thing he could offer that Nathan would accept was the contents of the sack. He couldn’t lose Magli, not now. Raxtus could win with a low roll, probably even would, but how many coins did Nathan have? The Dominus could afford to keep going until he won. And if Raxtus refused the bet, then Nathan would just order him to reveal the idol, and Raxtus would be joining Daven in whatever hole the Domini had buried him in.
A glance toward the Chamber of Winds brought inspiration. It was time to raise the stakes.
“No,” Raxtus said. “The gold doesn’t mean anything to you. Like you said, what makes a wager worthwhile is that it’s valuable to the gambler. And nothing’s more valuable to you than the automaton.”
Nathan actually smirked at that. “I’m not wagering the automaton.”
“No, but how about this? If I win, you leave, and stop hovering over the automaton like a worried mother and let us dice in peace?”
Nathan looked over his shoulder toward the automaton. “I need to be here.”
“No you don’t,” Raxtus said. “You’re not even supposed to be here, are you? That’s why you’re hovering about here rather than in there with your metal man.”
For a moment, Raxtus thought he might have said too much, but Nathan’s glare dissolved into a chuckle. “You are correct. I’ve been ordered not to interfere with the automaton, or even enter the same room.”
“So you’re cheating.”
“Not cheating. Getting around the rules.”
“Sure, sure. That doesn’t change the fact that you’re not supposed to be here.”
Nathan’s eyes narrowed. “Are you planning to report me?”
“Of course not,” Raxtus said. “Not since we’re such good friends who are willing to dice for reasonable stakes, right?”
Nathan’s expression was very hard to read. “I’m not going to wager that at those odds.”
“What if I call High?”
The look Olstin gave him almost made him question his decision. But Nathan wasn’t going to take the bet unless he believed the odds were in his favor, and Raxtus didn’t see any other way to get him to leave without seeing what was in the sack.
To his surprise, what he felt was not fear, but excitement. He had missed this. The smuggling had its own excitement, but he had always been careful to mitigate the risks and maximize the reward. This was risking it all on the roll of the dice. He hadn’t felt this alive in a long time.
“If I win, I want whatever’s in your sack,” Nathan said.
“Very well, let’s see if you can roll a Venus.”
Magli, if you want to go home, you have to help me here. Raxtus scooped up the dice without a word. Please, good luck for once, and I’ll get you there. Then he rolled.
He was sure his heart skipped a beat when the dice stopped spinning. A one, a three, a four, and a six—a Venus. The highest roll of all.
Nathan’s smirk vanished. “You cheated. You had to have.”
“How could I? We rolled the same dice.” Raxtus was careful to keep his voice calm. Nathan could still just order him to turn over the sack.
Nathan looked back and forth between Raxtus and the dice. “I suppose sometimes you get lucky. Very well, I’ll keep the terms of our wager. But if you interfere with my automaton, I’ll make the next one out of your rotting corpse.”
Raxtus nodded because he didn’t trust himself to form words. He had no intention of getting anywhere near the automaton.
Nathan turned his hood up, and instantly both his face and hands were wrapped in shadows. That had to be magic. The hood wasn’t that deep, and the sleeves didn’t fully cover his hands. Without another word, he left the staging room, taking Raxtus’s cloak with him as he headed out into the street to avoid entering the forbidden Doorway.
Raxtus slumped in his seat. “That was close.”
Olstin grinned at him. “Sure was. I thought you didn’t gamble anymore.”
“Usually not. Too much temptation. Besides, the real money’s not in playing the game, but in running it. Ensure that the dice are honest, and people will give you a cut, no matter who wins.”
“Is that what you intend to do when the automatons take our jobs?”
“Something like that.” Raxtus had thought about it a great deal. He needed enough cash to get his gambling house up and running, but once he did, he was sure he’d be able to make plenty. “First, though, I need to deliver this.” He hefted the sack. “I just hope Var hasn’t left already.” Raxtus left the dice with Olstin and stepped across the Doorway into the Chamber of Winds. Time for the big gamble. Though he couldn’t imagine facing worse odds than the last toss of the dice.
No one was there but the automaton, who was walking across the middle of the floor, carrying a bolt of blue linen. The wind whipped the trailing cloth back and forth. The shining orbs hanging from the domed ceiling illuminated two stacks of items, one at the Westmost Doorway, which the automaton was walking towards. The other stack stood in front of the Auria Doorway, of all places. That one was a haphazard heap of junk—crates, barrels and amphorae, bolts of cloth, even wagon wheels. The pile assembling on the other side of the room was considerably neater.
Despite the confidence he had expressed to Var, Raxtus walked wide of the metal man, circling the room along the edge as he hurried to reach the Auria Doorway well before it did. He needn’t have bothered. The automaton was still fussing with the placement of the bolt of cloth when Raxtus arrived at the Doorway.
Varentius was nowhere in sight. Not at the Doorway, or in the windowless brick room on the other side, or the dark hallway leading from it.
“Var!” Raxtus hissed, in hopes that his partner was waiting nearby. He raised his voice. “Varentius!” No one answered.
Var must have given up on waiting for him. Raxtus glared at the shape of the heavy idol hanging in its sack. “Is this your fault?”
Raxtus needed to look for Var, but he didn’t want to be caught carrying what even the slowest of the Order’s agents would recognize as contraband in the most restricted part of the Auria warehouse, where they hid the Doorway. Nor did he want to leave it where anyone might find it. Now that Nathan had taken his cloak, he didn’t even have that to hide it under. He couldn’t see any place to conceal it on the Auria side of the Doorway. Fortunately, there was space between the free-standing Doorway and the wall on this side, where it would be hidden from both the Hub and Auria sides. That should be safe enough for a few minutes, at least.
The cellar was as empty on the other side as it had looked from the Chamber of Winds, though the odor of mildew was much stronger. He followed the dark hallway and rounded the corner into deeper darkness, feeling his way forward until his toes hit something hard and he stumbled onto some stone steps. He climbed the stairs with his hands touching the walls to either side, but he still ended up rapping his crown hard against the ceiling. With a few muttered curses, he felt along the ceiling. It was wood and gave a little to his touch, accompanied by squeaking hinges and a rasp of metal on wood. A trapdoor. Raxtus traced along the edges until he found a lever. Once unlatched, the trapdoor lifted a few inches easily and Raxtus peered upward.
“Who’s there?” a voice called.
The voice, and the feet in front of his eyes, startled Raxtus so much that he dropped the door, which thudded painfully atop his head. He nearly tumbled back down the stairs but caught his balance at the last moment, hands braced against the sides of the stairway while he waited for his vision to clear and the crown of his head to stop throbbing from the repeated abuse. The trapdoor creaked open before that could happen, and the large shadow of a man peered down at him. He held an oil lamp suspended on a chain, which did little to illumine his figure. Raxtus froze, barely daring to breathe until he heard a familiar voice say “Rax?”
“Var?” Raxtus managed. “Jove’s teeth, man! You scared me half to death.”
“Sorry, Rax. What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you.”
“I ran into one of the other agents. It took a while to get free. Do you have it? Were you waiting long?”
“Long enough.” Better not to admit that he had been delayed himself. “I left the idol hidden on the other side.”
Varentius squeezed past Raxtus and led the way back to the Doorway. The light was just enough for Raxtus to find his footing on the steps. Shadows chased each other across the discolored wall and floor.
They stopped when the clanking metal man came into sight. “I’m not going in as long as that thing’s there,” Var said.
“Don’t worry, I—” Raxtus fell silent when he heard the muffled clink of metal against metal. The automaton was carrying a sack which bounced against its leg as it walked.
“No,” Raxtus whispered. “No, no, no! Magli and I had a deal!” Raxtus darted into the Chamber. When he reached behind the Doorway, his hand found nothing but gusting wind. The automaton was walking away with his prize.
Why in the world had it claimed his sack? The idol should have been hidden, unless the wind had whipped the cloth sack into view. Magli must be a fickle god indeed. Raxtus sprinted after the stupid metal skeleton.
“Raxtus! Where are you going?” Varentius shouted. “I’m not going close to that thing. Do you hear me?”
By then, Raxtus had almost caught up to the automaton. It didn’t even slow as he approached, its fist holding the sack by one corner. Raxtus winced as the heavy bag clanked against its leg with each step, imagining the damage done to the gold statue each time it banged against the bronze. Would Magli be angry about that, even if it was his own fault that the automaton had carried his idol off? Raxtus didn’t know. He held his breath as he snatched the sack from the bronze skeleton.
Raxtus breathed again when the automaton continued forward. For all of two steps. His breath caught when it stopped, and the fingers of its hand clacked as they closed and opened one by one. Its crude parody of a face turned all the way around until the sunken eyes looked directly at Raxtus and the sack in his hand.
“It’s not yours,” he told the automaton. “It’s mine.”
The bronze man did not seem to understand Raxtus, because it started walking towards him, backwards, the knees reversing themselves. Raxtus turned and ran. Given the pace at which the automaton usually moved, he assumed that he could outdistance it. He was wrong. As he neared the Doorway to Auria, cold metal fingers seized hold of the back of his tunic, dragging him to a halt. His still running legs flew out from under him and, arms flailing, he tumbled backwards, right into the thing’s torso. His weight overbalanced it, and they both went down.
The ringing of metal on stone hurt Raxtus’s ears, though the bruising from landing atop the bronze torso hurt worse. With a groan, he tried to roll off of it, but the automaton still had a hold on his tunic, and now seized the wrist which held the sack. The thing’s grip was as strong as the bronze from which its hands were made.
“Let go of me, you stupid”—he kicked at its leg—”metal thug!” His kick produced nothing but a bruised heel. Try as he might, he couldn’t break free.
“Stop!” he said, trying to remember the commands the Domini used. “Cease! Sleep! Go back!” He continued through the list, lacing his orders with obscenities like Merrel had, but to no avail. “Var, come and help me!”
“I’m not going to fight it,” Varentius said. “Let it have the idol if it wants.”
That wasn’t an option. The stakes had gotten too high to quit the game now.
The automaton had amazed Raxtus when he first saw it, but familiarity made it less threatening and more ridiculous: dumb and slow and biddable. The bronze monstrosity that held him now was none of those things. It was relentless and unyielding, unmoved by fear or empathy or any motivation that Raxtus could comprehend. Nothing he said or did would convince it to stop until it accomplished whatever task its masters had set for it. Raxtus struggled to control his rising panic.
He looked again at the sack. Then he twisted until he could grab a corner of it with his free hand and dump the idol on the ground. Raxtus flung the sack away from them both, only for it to be caught by the wind and brought back.
The metal man released him as it turned its attention towards the fluttering sack, letting Raxtus scramble for the idol. Several dents marred the ugly god’s arms and face, but Raxtus scooped it up nonetheless. Before he could rise from his hands and knees, though, cold metal closed around his ankle.
The automaton held the bag in one hand, shaking it, as if puzzled that it was empty. Its other hand held firmly to Raxtus’s leg, and its face pointed in the direction of the idol in his hand.
“It’s not yours!” Raxtus yelled at it. “Why can’t you understand that?” Was this Magli’s revenge for removing the idol from Set in the first place?
Still on his hands and knees, Raxtus scrambled toward the Doorway, dragging the metal skeleton with him. Merrel had said that the automaton couldn’t go through one, and Raxtus hoped that the same rules applied to being towed. Never had he been so relieved to smell musty air. He was only paces away from the Doorway.
The automaton didn’t resist being dragged, but it was heavy, and Raxtus had trouble getting enough leverage to move it while cradling the idol in one arm. Strong hands gripped his free arm, and Raxtus looked up to see Varentius, finally braving the automaton to help him.
“Come on,” Varentius grunted, pulling him and the automaton both toward the Doorway.
“Just get me through,” Raxtus said, trying to push with his free foot. The automaton’s grip didn’t loosen and its inhuman head remained focused on the idol, while still holding the sack in its other hand. With a great deal of scrambling and grunting, Raxtus and Varentius struggled through the Doorway, hauling the metal man behind them.
It didn’t stop at the Doorway, as Raxtus had expected. In fact, its grasp felt tighter once they were mostly across the threshold, as though the automaton was trying to squeeze all the way through his ankle. Raxtus pulled his leg, but couldn’t so much as shift his weight in the thing’s grip . . .
“Raxtus!” Varentius shouted.
Raxtus looked over his shoulder, and was amazed to see the automaton becoming transparent. Everything on the far side of the Doorway was vanishing. The brick wall behind it on the Aurian side became visible through the fading image of the Chamber of Winds. Alarm shot through him when he saw his foot fading too. The damn Doorway was taking his foot with it. He pulled with all his strength, but that only made his ankle hurt more, until he screamed and his leg finally came free.
Gasping with the pain, he turned over to see what had happened. A metal hand still clutched one ankle, but there was no automaton to be seen. Neither was there any foot. Blood pooled on the floor beneath the stump of his ankle, leaking through the threshold of the now defunct Doorway. The Chamber of Winds was gone and had taken his foot with it.
Raxtus would have screamed again, but he couldn’t find the breath. He reached for his stump to try to stem the flow of blood, and fresh waves of agony rushed up his leg. Tears streamed down his face.
“Help!” he croaked to the horrified Varentius, as his hold on consciousness loosened.
“I can’t go back,” Raxtus said.
Varentius kept his mouth shut. There was no arguing with the obvious. The rumors Varentius had picked up from the Domini, who had other ways to communicate aside from their vanished Doorway, said that the Chamber of Winds was roiling with activity, as Domini and their agents tried to figure out what had happened. Varentius hadn’t heard Raxtus’s name mentioned, but the empty Doorway, the damaged automaton, the severed foot, and Raxtus’s disappearance were clear enough evidence, even without Nathan’s and Olstin’s testimony, and he was certain that either one would happily share all they knew. He was only surprised that the Domini hadn’t questioned Var yet.
While Raxtus hid in Varentius’s apartment, his friend had found a competent physician to help him. She had even provided a wooden foot for him, but her fees had eaten away most of Raxtus’s cut from the sale of the idol.
Telerus had refused to pay more than half of the agreed upon second payment because of the damage to Magli. The few coins left from his share were all Raxtus owned now. It would have to be enough.
“Farewell, Var, and thanks,” Raxtus said as he stood up. He took a faltering step toward the door, wincing when the new foot’s leather cuff ground against his stump. “I doubt we’ll see each other again.”
“Good luck,” Varentius said, clasping his hand. That was all the farewell they needed.
Raxtus went out into the bitter chill of late spring in the mountains. He took a deep breath of the clean, fresh air. So this was what Auria smelled like outside of the warehouse’s cellar. It was a good deal better than where he was going.
Raxtus began to walk. Each step hurt, and he had a long way to go. He hadn’t told Var where he was going, so his friend could honestly tell the Domini that he had no idea where Raxtus was, but there was only one place for a man desperate for new opportunities. Novaro. And when Raxtus arrived at the greatest city in the world this time, he wouldn’t be sunk in gambling debts and forced to sell himself into slavery. That put him one step ahead of last time. One limping step, he thought with a rueful chuckle. Still, freedom minus one foot was a small net gain.
Hopefully, his next gamble would have a better payoff.
Donald S. Crankshaw has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from MIT, which was more useful for writing fantasy than he expected, but less useful for writing science fiction than he had hoped. He has published stories in Nature Futures, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Black Gate. Donald lives near Boston with his wife and fellow writer, Kristin Janz, with whom he publishes the online magazine Mysterion at www.mysteriononline.com. He can be found online at www.donaldscrankshaw.com.