The Gamesters’ Wagers
By Aleyna K. Pleva


 
Life’s a gamble, they say

     She hadn’t meant to go into the coliseum. It was a mistake she always made when she entered the city by the Sanctuary Gate. The crowds there were so thick, so strong, pressing and squeezing into the auditorium to see the games and the jousts. Racelle struggled vainly the other way, but it was as useless as trying to swim against the current of a river. Everyone was pushing into each other, fighting like a school of fish to reach the great double coliseum doors. None of them could even imagine that anyone in the crowd might want to go the other way. After fighting helplessly for a few ridiculous moments, Racelle gave up and allowed herself to be carried inside with the wave of humanity. It was easier to enter with them and then leave by the back door than try to fight backwards.

     As she stood at the foot of the stands, staring about her, she noticed that the crowds filling the seats were mostly dressed in either red or black, the colors of the army. Racelle strained to see the rear exit. She did not want to be noticed by any of her fellow soldiers. They would force her to join them in the seats, drinking and carousing and cheering the combatants until dawn. Racelle ducked and pushed through the crowd, making her way around the center ring to the far exit. She had joined the military to fight and to serve the King, but for most of her compatriots the army was little more than an excuse to live in the capitol of the kingdom and be able to participate in the wild parties that the wealthy held for officers.

     “Ah, we have a real warrior among us,” a voice suddenly spoke in her ear, low and familiar. “We had best hide the dancing girls—here is one who will not approve.”

     Racelle stiffened and turned around. “Nightryst,” she said, desperately trying not to sound disappointed. Of all the people she had not wanted to see, Nightryst was chief.  When she’d joined the army last fall as a recruit, she’d been assigned to serve him as his squire. At first she’d been thrilled, judging by his many medals that he was a great warrior. Soon enough, though, she had discovered that most of his honors had been purchased for him by his wealthy father. The only battles Nightryst truly enjoyed were the massive food fights waged during the riotous spring festivities in the barracks.

     “My lord commander,” she said, saluting, and tried not to sigh. In her fiercely military heart, she could not bring herself to be disrespectful to a superior officer, even if he was a drunkard and more likely to be found in the gaming halls than in the weapons room.

     Nightryst saluted sharply back, but there was mockery in the gesture, and he swayed slightly on his feet as his pleasant face curved into a smile. Racelle did not trouble herself at the taunt in his eyes, though. Nightryst laughed at her sense of duty, but he was never cruel with her. Anyway, Racelle found it impossible to ignore the charm in his laughing blue eyes. In his voluminous cloak and rich sable tunic trimmed with silver Nightryst cut the picture of an ideal warrior, his hair as dark as his black uniform, his face the living image of his handsome father, who was depicted in stone on a statue by the barracks. Racelle shook her head a bit as she looked at him, and wished for perhaps the hundredth time that he loved warfare more than revelry.

     His face was suddenly serious.

     “I have a task for you, my dear squire, and one of the utmost importance.”

     “What is it, my Lord?” Racelle straightened her leather jersey and brushed the dust of the streets from the knees of her dyed wool gown. She hoped that the task was some military duty. She had heard that next month the King’s army was to march out in force against the barbarians outside the city, to push back their raids. Nightryst was one of the king’s favored officers, and perhaps he needed her to prepare for the campaign.

     “I want you to find me the oracle called Jadenvy. I think she lives in the Pauper’s Quarter. You must give her this scroll; I want to commission work from her. Then come back to the coliseum at once with her answer.

     “In the Peasant’s Quarter, my Lord?” Racelle asked dubiously, taking the soft scroll.

     “Yes, and here is coin to pay her with once she has given you a response.”  He handed her a heavy pouch. “It is too much to pay an oracle, but the money will be well-spent if you bring her answer promptly.”

     “But my Lord, the Quarter is so disgusting,” she began plaintively.

     “Soldier, there is no time to spare.” His face was suddenly solemn, and Racelle could not tell if he was joking or not. “If you cannot execute the duty your commander has assigned you, I will find another squire more willing to serve me.”

     That pricked her soldierly self-respect.

     “No, my Lord! I will go at once!” She bowed, and Nightryst laughed and ruffled her hair in the manner she hated, petting her as though she were one of his prized hunting hounds. “Thank you, my dear,” he said, and then was gone in the roaring crowd.

     When she reached the Pauper’s Quarter, she found herself breathing through her mouth to avoid the stench. She searched the fronts of every shop, looking for the oracle sign of Jadenvy. She pushed past an old beggar. The streets were all mud, and she stumbled and slid, almost falling, then dodged quickly to avoid the massive oaken wheels of a cart that came rumbling through the mire.

     It was with great relief that she finally found the lopsided towering stack of buildings that housed the oracle. Inside the building, the corridors were narrow and the stairs cluttered with debris. “This must be the very poorest building of the Quarter,” she thought with dismay. Protective of Nightryst’s honor, she frowned. Should not her lord seek out one of the wealthy soothsayers who serviced the noble families, or even the house-oracle of his own father the Duke? Surely no clairvoyant who lived in such squalor could be very skilled.

     Still, she had been commended, and she made her way through the dim hallways toward the leaning door that bore the moon-star symbol of a diviner. The faded purple paint flaked off in large chips when she knocked.

     “Come in,” sang out a voice, but not the withered, ancient voice she expected from an oracle. She hesitantly pushed open the door.

     The domain of the oracle was one bare chamber. The only furnishings were an unpainted table and two rickety chairs. Not even a rug covered the worn, mottled boards of the floor. She stared about in disbelief at such poverty. One chipped clay bowl sat on the table, and a battered iron cup beside it. Beyond that there was no  adornment, no decoration or trifle of the slightest kind.

     “I am the oracle Jadenvy. What will you have of me?”

     Racelle turned her gaze to the woman who sat on one of the chairs beside the open window. This was no elderly fortune-teller like the ones who traveled the countryside and sometimes came to the barracks. This one was young, perhaps five years younger than her. She was slender, her red hair hanging almost to the floor. Her eyes were blindfolded by a purple scarf tied around her head. Racelle knew that diviners used blindfolds to read the future, but still it was discomforting to approach that eyeless face. “Lady seeress? I come here by order of my commander, Lord Nightryst of the royal family Kragnor. He wishes to procure your services.”

     “What need has the Son of Kragnor for an oracle’s work?” Her voice was deep and melodious.

     “I do not know. He gave me this scroll for you…” Her words trailed off helplessly. “It is sealed, only for you to read. Will you take it?”

     Jadenvy smiled, and Racelle thought how eerie it was to be unable to see someone’s eyes when they smiled. Jadenvy said mirthfully, “Child, I wear this blindfold not for ritual. I am truly blind. I took my own eyes the day I chose my vocation as an oracle.”

     Racelle shuddered. She had heard that the temple priestesses did that sometimes, but only when they were possessed by the gods and maddened with foresight, numb to the pain of the consequences. Jadenvy continued, “You must read the scroll to me.” Racelle paused, looking reluctantly at the wax seal that protected its message. It felt wrong to open a royal seal and read the words that Nightryst had meant for Jadenvy only. But he would be angry if she left without conveying his message, and he had said it was serious. She could not go away unanswered—the fate of the coming battle might depend on her.

     “What is the matter?” Jadenvy asked gently. “Can you not read?”

     “I can read,” Racelle snapped, embarrassed. She broke the seal and unrolled the parchment. “Why…damn him…the fool!” she thought as her eyes scanned it. The message was no secret of military importance, not even a request for divine help in some matter of state. Only gambling results, that was what he wished to buy! Nightryst wanted to know the outcome of the races tomorrow, and he had listed the horses on the page so that Jadenvy might place them in order of their finishing! A wave of white anger rushed through Racelle. No wonder he had sent her to such a petty oracle for his business. Why must he be such a fool? When he was not drinking and whoring, her commander was occupied with gambling. Would he ever cast aside his boyish vices and turn his mind to more solemn matters?

     She folded the parchment, aware that Jadenvy was yet waiting. Her rage began to simmer into frustration. What would become of Nightryst if he surrendered the king’s favor by using it as an excuse to carouse? “I will aid him in his lecherous games no more!”

     “Forgive me,” she said, trying to cover her hesitation. “My commander writes….”  She clenched her teeth around the lie. “My lord writes that he wishes to know of the battle next month, of what will happen when the king attempts to push back the barbarians with his troops. Will the battle be successful, and if not, how can it be won?”

     Jadenvy stood up suddenly and walked with purpose to the tiny cupboard over the table, moving without hesitation as though she could see. Racelle was startled by her grace and vigor. She had expected the oracle to move with the hesitating caution of the sightless. But upon consideration she realized that Jadenvy must know every inch of this chamber as though she had eyes.

     The oracle removed a bottle sealed with the mark of a priestess. Breaking the seal, she muttered a brief prayer in the sacred language, then drank the contents swiftly. Racelle had never seen anyone consume an entire bottle of wine that quickly except Nightryst. The oracle returned to her chair by the window, and for a long time she said nothing. Racelle wondered if the woman were asleep, so easy was her breathing. But finally after another long, silent moment, the oracle spoke.

     “The campaign which the King plans will never occur,” she began, and Racelle gasped. “The King’s men are too comfortable within the strong walls of the city, and they have come to think that no one can touch them.” Her voice was strangely different, with an unearthly quality that Racelle had not heard before. “But they have forgotten that these walls were built with blood, and only blood can sustain them. The King’s men have grown soft, drinking fine wine and eating fine food and sleeping too long on soft beds. The barbarian nations are strong and hardy, and they will move against the city long before the King can organize his armies to react.”

     “When?” Racelle cried in terror. “When will the barbarians come, and where?

     The oracle was silent again, for a long, long time. Racelle shifted anxiously from foot to foot, but dared not break the quiet. “They shall come when the moon is full over the capitol square,” Jadenvy lisped, and Racelle calculated quickly. Why, that astronomical position would occur in only two weeks! “And they shall break the Sanctuary gate, and storm the city while most of the soldiers are in the coliseum watching the games.”

     Racelle felt her mouth go dry. “Thank you, Lady Jadenvy,” she croaked past her tight throat. She stepped forward and pressed the pouch of coins into the oracle’s hands. “My lord thanks you…and I thank you. You may have saved the city.”

     Jadenvy smiled a knowing smile then, and when she spoke her voice sounded as normal as it had before she had tasted the sacred wine of visions. “And you may tell your lord that the horse called Knightsbreath will win all three races.”

     Racelle blushed, then stammered, amazed by the oracle’s power. “My lady, I…”

     “Say nothing,” the oracle commanded. “You have much to do, I think.”

 

     “Do you know where I have just been?” Nightryst demanded, staring down at Racelle. The barrack kitchens were empty, and Racelle took her supper alone, seated at one of the long wide benches closest to the stove.

     “No, my Lord, where?” she asked innocently, stirring her thick stew with a ladle and blowing on it, although it was already cool.

     “I have just come from an audience with the King.”  He frowned. “His Majesty summoned me to personally congratulate me for hiring an oracle to foretell the battle. It seems he received a parchment signed with my name that claimed there would be an attack on the city in two weeks at the Sanctuary gate.”

     “Really?” Racelle raised her eyebrows.

     “Really.” Nightryst tapped his chest, flicking a new medal that was pinned to his tunic. It was a star fashioned of gold and painted with scarlet lettering—the King’s Reward, it was called, given for particular acts of bravery or cunning. “It seems I am a hero of some sort, though I am still trying to figure out how you dared to steal my ring and seal my letter’s wax. It is too late to feign surprise. I saw the parchment you delivered to the King sitting on his desk. Your script.”

     “Well, you do often leave your seal of state on the bedside table.”

     His face finally collapsed into a smile. “We move against the barbarian hordes tomorrow. You and I will be riding in the first rank. Perhaps I can allow you to save my life, and then I can bestow this blasted award on you.”

     “But my Lord, it looks quite well among your other unearned medals.”

     Nightryst laughed. “My father spent good wealth on those honors, but this one is yours in truth, and I cannot wear it in good conscience.”

     She drained her bowl and stood up, smiling. “Well, those coins you gave me to pay the oracle were well spent.”

     “I agree,” Nightryst said, grinning. “I bet a great fat ruby on Knightsbreath in all three races, and when these battles are over I shall have enough wealth to join the most elite gaming tables in the whole capitol!”

CONTENTS