"Game" by Romeo Esparrago
 

The Game of the Phoenix
by Arthur Sanchez

 

 

The canvas tent flapped softly in the warm evening breeze. It was a breeze laden with the smell of decay. Jahrel wrinkled her nose at the stench, but said nothing. In this part of the city there were worse things than the smell of rotting cabbage blowing in the wind. In her opinion, you took what small favors the universe offered and you didn't complain.

The tent in which she sat was nothing more than a threadbare sheet hung in an alley between two buildings. An old camel trader's carpet served as its floor. It was not the sort of hovel a thief of Jahrel's skills would ever have bothered entering but it was here that the information she needed existed, so it was here she came.

"The Sultana is a very generous woman," the beggar in front of her said as he revealed a yellowing smile. He sat cross-legged in the corner just within the meager pool of light his sole candle provided. A shell of a man; he had gaunt features, a ragged beard, and a haunted look in his eyes. The gold piece Jahrel placed in front of him had disappeared with remarkable speed, but the cynicism in his voice lingered.

"Do you feel ill-used, old man?" she said, her dark eyes narrowing. "Would you like me to be so generous as to help you to an early grave?"

"No! No!" the beggar replied with a start. "My mistress has been most generous already."

"Then get on with it!" Jahrel snapped. She sat on her heels by the entrance. Her black cloak wrapped tightly about her. "Time is short and I have much to do."

The beggar eyed her warily but a malicious grin remained fixed on his face. For even the most wretched dog is still master of his own pen. He would not be hurried. Of that Jahrel was now certain.

"There is a room," he began, after a pause long enough to make her grit her teeth, "of which only the Caliph and a few servants know. It lies in the very center of the palace and it is where the Caliph keeps his most precious possessions."

"And how will this room help me?" Jahrel asked suspiciously.

The beggar's grin widened. "The Caliph is a very greedy man, Sultana. He would not willing part with any of his special possessions. If a person were to ‘obtain' one of these trinkets, there would be little the Caliph would not give to have it back -- including, I would wager, the life of a Prince."

Jahrel remained motionless. A trait she'd perfected with years of practice. But inwardly, she was crying to the heavens. The life of a Prince, may the Gods prove it so! But despite the hopeful news, Jahrel focused on a new problem. She never said she sought to save a Prince's life.

"What makes you think I want to save anyone's life?" she asked slowly, her hand straying to the hilt of her dagger.

The beggar smiled. He had to know she would kill him if threatened, yet he showed no fear. "I am," he said humbly, "a poor man. But I have eyes and I have ears. It is for what I see and hear that those, such as you, visit me. So I know much of you -- Jahrel the Snake."

Jahrel slid the dagger from its scabbard. Now it comes, the demand and the decision whether or not to take his miserable life. "And how much," she said as the blade cleared the soft felt that muffled the metal, "will it take for you to forget that name?"

The beggar immediately began chuckling. His frail shoulders bounced up and down as his emaciated chest heaved with each breath. "You mistake me, Sultana. I do not want to forget you. I wish to remember you."

Jahrel held the blade against one knee beneath her cloak. "I do not understand."

The beggar nodded as if he expected such a response. "A coin lasts only a short time," he said wistfully. "Then I must find another. And as you can see I am fit for no labor -- except one."

"And that is?"

For the first time since she'd entered the tent he seemed to brighten. "Why, I tell stories," he said happily. "I have many of them: some true, some false, some to entertain, and others that enlighten. They are all I have so I treasure them and gather them up whenever I can."

Jahrel sheathed her dagger. The old man was mad. There was nothing she could do to him that would matter. "And what does your profession have to do with me?"

He looked at her with keen interest. "I know the beginning of your story: thief, child of a thief, from a family of thieves, talented in ways few women are. You have no love for the highborn for they have never shown any love for the low." He chuckled as if this meant something to him. Jahrel said nothing.

"I also know the middle of your story," he continued. "You were in Jatar before the Caliph turned his eye towards its white towers and rich marketplace, before the Prince disappeared amidst fire and smoke, and before the claws of the Caliph sunk deep into the heart of the city. You were actually residing in the Prince's palace, I believe."

Jahrel head snapped up and she regretted sheathing her dagger. How did the beggar know these things? None but a few servants ever saw her in the Prince's palace and none knew her real name. "Careful old man," she growled, "for you tread in dark places."

The beggar ignored her warning. "But I lack the end of the story," he said fervently, as if speaking only to himself. "What were you doing in the Prince's house? What brings you here to Danar? Why take such risks? And what do you hope to gain from this?"

Jahrel leaned forward and placed one hand upon the ground for balance. She appeared poised to strike. "And why should I tell you anything?"

A gold coin rolled across the carpet and came to rest beside her hand. "As I said, money trickles through one's fingers like water. Few can hold on to it for long. But a story worth telling," he sighed. "A story worth telling can last a lifetime and its rewards can be immeasurable. You needn't fear, Sultana," he said with complete sincerity. "If you fail, what I know won't matter. And should you succeed, you'll be beyond the reach of the tales I will tell."

Jahrel considered this. What she was planning had only two possible outcomes and neither would have her standing about to hear what was said of her in the morning. She scooped up the gold coin in her left hand. "Do you know what a ‘game' is?" She asked as she pocketed the coin.

The beggar began laughing. "I know of many games, Sultana. More than you can imagine. But I assume you mean a ‘deceit,' a thieve's game such as 'The Lost Bag of Money' or 'The Gambler's Remorse'."

Jahrel nodded. This beggar knew too much. "Yes, well this one is called 'The Distraught Daughter.' It is a good game for a burglar -- who is a woman. For it relies on the intentions of the victim to grant her entry to his house."

The beggar nodded his head excitedly. "Yes, yes, and one as beautiful as yourself would be well suited for such a game."

Jahrel ignored the compliment. "I've played this game many times but never twice in the same town. You cannot risk being recognized. I was new to Jatar, so I did not know its highborn. If I had, I might have reconsidered my choice." Jahrel breathed heavily of the cabbage-tainted air and remembered. She remembered Jatar.

She had been on the docks, where the smell of fish was strong and the press of rude men was stronger, telling a tale that would break your mother's heart. "I began by auctioning off my fake jewels to the crowd." Jahrel said, setting the scene. "How much am I offered? I cried, clutching a purple piece of glass to my bosom. How much for my father's ring? All that I have left of that once-noble patriarch." Jahrel shifted her position and leaned in conspiratorially. "A good start, for it draws attention and announces that I am both in need and without male protection." The beggar nodded his head, acknowledging the subtlety of the lure.

"'Twenty-five!', cried a Nubian sailor who was sitting on a barrel," she said in a voice low and gruff to imitate the man. "But I could see in his eyes that it was not for the ring. 'Fifty!' sputtered a fat merchant around a mouthful of dates. A possibility if his ugly jewelry proved real. 'Ten-thousand!' shouted a voice with authority."

"The Prince?" The beggar guessed, unable to contain his enthusiasm.

Jahrel nodded her head in disgust. "Ay, the Prince. With that one cry the crowd of haggling merchants fell silent. I did not see him at first, so I did not know if the offer was genuine. There are those who would play with a desperate woman. Then the mob parted, like wheat before a strong wind, and out stepped Aman."

"'Ten-thousand', he repeated, 'for one whose beauty outshines the stars.'" Jahrel shook her head again. "Can you believe that he actually said that? In public? What a fool he was. What a beautiful, tragic, fool."

The beggar cocked his head to one side. "Not so great a fool, for the words had their effect."

Jahrel scowled at him. "Fool I called him then and fool I call him now. All I saw was a man with money to lose."

"Then what went wrong?" the beggar asked.

"What makes you think something went wrong?" Jahrel countered.

"You wouldn't be here if things had gone right," he pointed out.

Jahrel did not argue. "He was honorable," she muttered. "That's what went wrong. I did not think the world could sustain a fool who was both honorable and rich. But there he was standing in front of me. The Game depends on the victim inviting me into his private chambers. He is supposed to . . . make demands. But Aman did not. He was gracious and gave me rooms of my own. He announced, in advance, whenever he would visit. He never came alone but always with a chaperone -- to protect my reputation. And when we met he spoke gently to me of music, and poetry, and of the art that filled his halls." Jahrel grimaced at the memory. "I could have strangled him."

"So," the beggar asked hesitantly, "he never invited you into his private retreat? He did not desire your . . . company?"

Jahrel glared at him. "Oh, he desired my company. He desired it so much he proposed marriage!" For the first time the beggar's eyes opened wide and he showed something akin to surprise. "But as I said, I am no fool," Jahrel stated before he found his voice. "I know such matches, though entertaining in tales, rarely fare so well in life. When he made that ridiculous offer, I knew my time was up, and so I slipped through the front gate one night and returned to where I belonged."

The beggar sat back and took it all in. "But then the Caliph came and you were not able to stay away."

"A thief does not like it when another steals her prize." Then, as if uncomfortable with having admitted so much, she added tersely. "Is that a good-enough ending to the story? Do I get the information that I want now?"

The beggar looked away and his eyes seemed to stare past the walls of his hovel. "An ending? No," he said in a distracted voice, "that is not quite an ending. But it could be the start to one that I have been seeking." His thoughts were obviously on something else and Jahrel wondered if she had wasted her time.

"I will tell you what you want to know," he declared as his eyes fixed on hers. And he began as if they'd spoken of nothing else. "There are many dangers in the palace but none that cannot be overcome by a woman of your abilities. Past the gardens and down the eastern corridor you will go until you reach the door of the Treasury. I will give you a map so that you do not lose your way. But the true dangers do not begin till you are inside the secret room. There are many things there, some are precious and some are not. Their value lies only in the Caliph's desire to keep them. But the Caliph has placed many traps among his possessions."

Jahrel knew all about traps, and depriving the Caliph of one of his special possessions appealed to her. But she was still uncertain of her source. "How do you know so much? Forgive me for my rudeness but you are not one the Caliph would allow to walk past, let alone within, the walls of his palace."

The old beggar flashed his grin at Jahrel again and drew close. He drew close enough that his rancid breath filled her nostrils, but she held her ground. "You told me of one game so I shall tell you of another. Do you know 'The Game of the Phoenix', Sultana?"

Jahrel looked at the beggar unkindly. "That is a ‘real' game, a game of chance played with dice and markers."

"My mistress is obviously a learned woman. Yes, it is a game of chance . . . and of skill. If one is good at the game he can, like the phoenix, rise from the ashes of defeat to claim victory."

The beggar's eyes became glazed as he remembered something long past. "The Caliph is very fond of the Game of the Phoenix," he said. "He is very good at it. So good in fact, that he has a difficult time finding players who can match him." The beggar's focus now returned to her with an almost predatory intensity.

"Would you believe that I was once a minister in the Caliph's court?" Jahrel looked doubtful but held her tongue. "Well, I was," he said guessing her thoughts. "I collected stories of a different sort then. I sought tales of kings and of their weaknesses. I obtained stories of nations and their treasures. And for years I advised the Caliph as to what to do with those stories. He and I used to play the Game of the Phoenix together quite often. I could never best him till, one day, I realized that his arrogance could be his undoing. I laid a trap that gave him the advantage and when he was about to claim victory, I snatched it from him."

The beggar began grinning and Jahrel caught that glint of madness in his eyes again. Then he raised the stump of his right arm. She hadn't realized he was crippled. "This," he said as he indicated the useless appendage, "was my reward." Jahrel gasped. "The Caliph is a very generous man. Don't you agree?"

* * *

"Demon Bottles" by Andy McCann

The walls of the palace were not difficult to scale and the courtyard even easier to enter. The guards were careless. They strode boldly along the parapets and acted as if they thought themselves invulnerable since their Caliph was a sorcerer. Jahrel could not fault them. A person would have to be mad to want to enter the place.

The moon had just risen over the eastern wall but the shadows within the palace were deep. Jahrel crouched low as she moved along the tiled hallways, pausing every now and again to listen for an approaching guard. At an intersection of corridors she stopped to extract her map. The beggar was remarkably accurate. Had he really been an advisor to the Caliph? She doubted it, but who would have believed that a Prince would propose marriage to a thief? If you accepted that, then stranger things could happen. She was very close to the room now. Carefully, she folded the document and returned it to her pocket.

The door to the Treasury was a rather ordinary-looking thing. It was made of wood and lacked adornment. No one would have guessed that it led to the Caliph's most prized possessions. It was locked with a large brass device that was all springs, and levers, and rods as thick as your wrist. But things are not always as they seem. The lock was a deception. The method of gaining entry depended upon pressing the correct panels on the door. That secret had cost Jahrel two gold pieces. The beggar might have been crazy but he was no fool. Jahrel pressed the proper places and the door obligingly opened a crack.

Light streamed out to greet her and she hesitated. Here was the moment that Jahrel feared the most. For upon this moment all of her plans and hopes depended. If the beggar had lied . . . If his memory was flawed . . . She would not allow herself to think of it. Clutching the handle, Jahrel pushed open the door only enough to peer in. What she saw took her breath away.

The room was filled with all sorts of wondrous things. There were toys the size of elephants and chests laden with gold. In the corner stood a peacock frozen in time and to the left were chess pieces that warred amongst themselves. And all this she could see from the door!

Quickly she slipped inside and shut the door behind her, so that no one would notice that something was wrong. Her blood pounding in her ears, she did not know where to begin. She found stacks of tapestries and precious rugs from the east, chairs that would follow you about so that you would always have a place to sit. By a wall stood a camel that could talk and discuss the lineage of kings, and to the left there was a tank filled with fish that mimicked all the colors in the world.

Jahrel was taken aback. These were trinkets? She never imagined that there could be so many things. What could she take? She expected to take a gem or other small item. But these, these were not things she could place in her pouch and then scale the wall. But she could not give up. There had to be something she could use to ransom her Prince. But nothing she saw was suitable. The bird that spoke five languages would squawk too much. The suit of armor that was made of glass weighed too much. The mirror that revealed faraway lands was too large.

She was close to despair when she came upon a cabinet, quite plain and ordinary. It was because it was so plain that she noticed it. It stood out among the garish possessions of this sorcerer/prince for its very simplicity. It was half as tall as she was, made of dark wood, with two doors. Jahrel felt gently about the edges for a trap and, satisfying herself that there were none, opened it. What she found were rows and rows of bottles. They were all about the same size but of varying colors. Jahrel gingerly picked up a green one and tried to see through the glass but couldn't. It was sealed and its contents were a mystery. Jahrel picked up a second bottle and shook it.

"Welcome, thief!" a voice shouted from behind her. "How nice of you to visit me."

Jahrel spun around, a bottle in each hand. She could not reach for her daggers for fear of dropping the bottles and their unknown contents. Before her stood the Caliph of Daran.

The Caliph, tall and thin, had the look of a hungry man -- though Jahrel knew that could not be the case. He wore silks of a dark color and had a short, neatly trimmed beard that came to a point. Upon each of his long, articulated fingers he wore a ring worth easily the price of a kingdom. Jahrel scanned the room expecting guards but saw that the Caliph was alone.

"It is not often that I get an opportunity to entertain a thief," the Caliph said as he swept back his robes and prepared to sit. A chair scuttled across the room, placing itself beneath him.

"You mean," Jahrel replied defiantly, "that it is not often that you entertain one of your own kind."

The Caliph's lip curled in a sneer but he did not reply to the taunt. "No Jahrel, my sweet, sweet, Jahrel, it is not often." As he said her name, his tongue rolled over the syllables as if he were caressing them. Jahrel shuddered at the thought of such a man caressing even her name. Her name! He knew her name!

The Caliph's smile was a crooked line across his face. "That bit of information only cost me five copper pieces," he said as he straightened the folds of his robe, "and the beggar his other hand."

Jahrel cursed the Caliph.

"Now then," he continued, "I can see that you are a very skilled woman and I commend you on having gotten this far. But I am rather busy and I don't want to waste any more time on this than is necessary. You may have Prince Aman, if you so desire him." Jahrel tried to hide her surprise. "Provided, that you can find him. I will tell you now that fortune has favored you and he is within one of the two bottles that you hold. But I must also tell you that the other bottle contains something rather unpleasant. The trick here is to choose the correct bottle." The Caliph grinned, showing his small, sharp teeth. "I will give you a moment to think about it."

The entire sequence of events caught Jahrel by surprise, but it did not leave her without her wits. "And if I choose right, what then? Will you allow us to leave unharmed?"

The Caliph's eyes sparkled. "Of course, you have my word on it."

"The Caliph is a most generous man," Jahrel said with a bow.

"It is my nature," the Caliph replied.

Jahrel considered the question. She could avoid this game by simply taking both of the bottles and escaping. The Caliph was alone and unarmed. Surely she could get past him. But then, knowing the Caliph, the wrong bottle did indeed contain something unpleasant. Would she be able to deal with it? Wouldn't it be better to open the bottles here, and draw the danger to the Caliph if possible? The Caliph appeared rather calm. Could he deal with what was in the second bottle? Jahrel decided to test him.

"I think I will open this one," she declared loudly, raising the bottle in her right hand. The Caliph did not react. "Or perhaps this one!" She raised the bottle in her left hand. There was still no reaction. The danger was to the one who held the bottle, she thought. How else could he be so calm?

"You could open both," the Caliph offered, "but then who knows what you might get?"

Jahrel held back a curse. She considered both bottles once again. They were of the same weight and look. One was green and the other blue. Gods preserve her, there was nothing she could do. To delay too long would be to allow the Caliph to change his mind. Jahrel decided that if she were to die from the contents of either bottle then she'd take the grinning jackal with her. She closed her eyes and with her teeth pulled out the cork stopper of the bottle in her right hand.

A loud hissing immediately filled the room as smoke poured from the bottle. When Jahrel opened her eyes she was struck with terror. A dhijin stood before her. It stood the height of three men and had horns upon its head. Its arms were the size of tree trunks and its hands ended in claws the size of daggers!

"It would appear that you have chosen the wrong bottle," the Caliph said calmly. "But I will show you that I am generous. Strike now before I command it to destroy you, and you may kill it. Quickly, thief! If you wish to live, strike now!"

Jahrel drew her dagger, the edges of its dark blade gleaming evilly -- but then hesitated. "Generous?" How many times had Jahrel seen the Caliph's generosity? The beggar certainly could attest to it. And was not the Caliph fond of deceit: the empty corridors, the door to the treasury, the traps amongst his treasure. Everything in the palace was not what it seemed. Why should she assume . . . She looked at the creatue with its baleful eyes and lowered her dagger. "Aman? Is that you?" It was like a dream. Jahrel blinked her eyes, and where there had been a monster now stood her prince.

His dark hair was disheveled, his beard unkempt, and his eyes were barely able to focus on her. "Jahrel, my love," he said as he stumbled forward. She caught him and he felt light in her arms, as light as a child. "Is this where you'd gone?" he asked in a daze. Then anger shone in his eyes. "Did he imprison you as well? I will kill the dog for this with my bare hands!" But the strain was too much. Almost as he spoke he lost consciousness and collapsed into her arms. Jahrel lowered him gently to the floor.

Jahrel looked up at the Caliph with a fire blazing in her eyes. To see her beloved Prince reduced to this was too much. "You motherless son of a --" With a movement that defied belief, she flung her dagger at the Caliph with all of her might. An ordinary man would have died then. Between one moment and next, between thought and action, that dagger should have found its way home. But this was no ordinary man, this Caliph who was a sorcerer. With a flick of the third finger of his left hand, he struck the dagger down from the air. The dagger skated along the floor, sending up sparks where the point bit into the marble and came to rest at the very feet of its intended victim. The Caliph smiled benignly at her.

"Very good, thief, you played well, but now the game is over. Enjoy your reunion. It will be brief." The Caliph rose to his feet and the chair that was beneath him scuttled off.

Jahrel's heart fell. She knew she could not stop him but she also knew she had to. She did not come all this way only to give Aman up for a second time. "But what about our agreement? You said that if I chose correctly you would let us go."

The Caliph's eyes blazed with a malevolent fire. "Honor my word to a thief who raised her hand against me? I shall see you quartered first! It is better than you deserve but I choose to be generous." With a laugh the Caliph turned and headed for the door.

Jahrel grew desperate. She had to stop him before he could call the guards. Her hand reflexively reached for her dagger but it now lay a dozen feet from her. In her left hand she still held the other bottle. Jahrel looked down at the bottle. The smooth polished glass gleamed dully in the torchlight. This was the trapped one, she thought, the one that would have destroyed her. Perhaps she could use sorcery against a sorcerer. She weighed the bottle for balance. The Caliph had already reached the door. His hand was upon the handle. It was now or never.

"In that case, Caliph," she cried out, "let me show you some of my generosity!"

The Caliph turned briskly. "What are you --" Jahrel snapped up her left hand and launched the bottle at him.

The Caliph was again quicker than thought. Reflexively his left hand rose and the third finger flicked out. Then a look of horror crossed his face as he realized too late what it was that Jahrel had thrown at him. The bottle flew through the air in a blur of reflected light and was struck down as the dagger had been. Then hell erupted as the bottle exploded into a pillar of flame that tumbled forward head-over-heels and careened into the Caliph with the force of a wall. With a muffled scream the Caliph of Daran ceased to exist.

Rapidly the flames grew and spread throughout the room. It was never meant that the bottle should be opened in so violent a manner. What was intended for a single victim now claimed the entire room. Jahrel tore a tapestry down from the wall and wrapped it around Aman and herself. The room was an inferno and the flames were already spreading to the adjacent rooms. In the corridors, panic had broken out as many ran to and fro in an attempt to fight the blaze. The guards were in disarray as they searched for a Lord they would not find. Amidst this chaos no one paid any mind to two servants huddled together in fear.

He had called her his love. Was it true? Could you trust the word of a man barely conscious? Could you trust the word of any man? But she did save his life, and his throne, and that should count for something -- shouldn't it? She had planned to leave him on a boat bound for a foreign port. But now Jahrel dared to make new plans – and to hope. Like a pair of ghosts they escaped unseen . . . and unseeing.

* * *

On a hill overlooking the city stood a beggar, his yellowish grin reflecting the flames that consumed the palace. In the dark he danced and capered and laughed, and some thought him mad. But he wasn't mad. He had found an ending to his own story. For he had played his last gambit, made his last move, and from the jaws of defeat had snatched victory -- in The Game of the Phoenix.

 

 

Story © 2003 by Arthur Sanchez Arthur@ArthurSanchez.com


Illustration © 2003 by Romeo Esparrago romeo@planetmag.com and Andy McCann andy@planetmag.com




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