The shadow fell over every palm and limestone arch. A hush washed over the market as shoppers set down their baskets and gazed up.
In the distance, a gong announced the strike of noon.
That was Azai’s signal. Some people spent a few seconds in prayer, others minutes, but merchant and beggar alike took at least a moment to ask for health and a good fall crop. A moment was all Azai needed.
He’d been sitting against the baker’s shop, linen draped over his head to keep the sand-flecked wind from his face. As soon as the Sundial tower’s shadow touched this part of Sector Twelve, he slid up the wall and ducked into an alley.
For most people, noon meant the Sun had climbed highest in the sky and was at his most powerful, making him more likely to hear their petty little prayers. For Azai, though, it was the only time the Scarab gang fixed their eyes upward instead of on this passage. Why didn’t more street rats take advantage of it? Hell, you could cross the Dial to Sector Six and not find a better dumpster than the one behind the baker’s hovel. Who’d pass up a feast like that just to respect some god who never respected you back?
Not everyone can be fearless. They still have souls to lose.
Two knobbly-kneed Scarab kids were scouring through the dumpster when he arrived, but they scattered like mice at the sight of him. Anyone older than twenty in the Dial’s slums wasn’t to be taken lightly, and he knew his beard made him look near forty. He snarled at them as they passed, just for good measure.
“Get out of here. Go pray for Lord Kubrick’s happy marriage or something.”
One of the boys glanced over his shoulder before skidding around the corner, as if surprised someone so wild-looking could talk. Another had once looked at Azai like that, with mingled fear and wonder and a touch of jealousy. If only he’d paid more attention to those looks.
Suppressing the memory, Azai leapt into the dumpster. He’d need to be quick. Those shits would come back with the Scarab elders in a few minutes, assuming the elders had finished their prayers by then. Amazing how the worst people he knew were some of the most pious. He grabbed a husk of bread and didn’t bother scratching the mould away before sinking his teeth in it. The taste of mould had made him gag seven years ago, but now it had become food’s most basic component. You couldn’t dislike mould any more than you could barley or grain or rice. To think he’d once―
Azai pulled the onyx dagger from the sheath at his side, and in another second whirled and threw it at the newcomer.
There was a startled “Oh!” as it sailed an inch above her head.
The woman―at least two hand-spans shorter than the Scarab leader he’d expected―stood frozen with a wrinkled hand pressed to her chest. Azai studied her. The braided white hair and bangles around her wrists, the pleated black dress, the kohl-outlined eyes―this was no beggar come to steal his spot.
“I’ve heard of you,” she said. “The one whose weapons answer his call. You walk invisible in the moonlight and charm with a flick of your eyes.”
Azai’s mouth went dry. He forced a mad chuckle and stuffed more bread into his face until the half-masticated stuff slopped into his beard. “You charmed yet, or am I losing my touch?”
She looked unimpressed. Azai returned to the dumpster, feigning nonchalance, but kept his calves tensed in case he’d need to make a quick move, aggressive or otherwise. Yet another reflex that had never left him, like hurling daggers at people who surprised him. You didn’t forget that sort of instinct. Even if you no longer remembered your favourite songs, you still knew how to read music. You would always know, but what good was knowing when all the papyrus had been burned and the music lost forever?
“Call your dagger,” the woman said suddenly.
He sighed, setting down his bread. “Mother, if I could call things at will, I’d be eating cake instead of this. I am not the one you seek.”
“No,” she agreed, “but you will be again. The master of all trades, they called you once. The Faceless Mercenary. Nightstrider.“
Slowly, Azai turned. Her small eyes were bright even in the all-encompassing shadow, searching him. “You’re an Oracle,” he whispered.
Before Azai knew it, before he even processed leaping from the dumpster, he’d grabbed her by her robes and slammed her against the wall. She didn’t flinch, but he hadn’t expected her to. Oracles went out every night, unveiled from the Moon’s evil, to gaze upon the stars. Nothing frightened them. He’d been the same, once.
“I need my cards re-made,” he hissed.
“What you need,” she said calmly, “is a bath.”
“There must be a way.”
“Of course! You simply walk into the bathhouse and―”
He slammed her again. “Damn you! Without them I’m nothing, Mother, lower than an animal! If you need my services, I need my cards.” He managed to control himself long enough to release her and pull back. Every muscle in his body shook. “Otherwise all I can do is exterminate the fire ants in your hovel, if you have any.”
Her look spoke of pity. “Is that what people hire you for these days? Sun’s rays, how many cards have you lost?”
“I’ve lost nothing,” Azai growled. “They were stolen.” She frowned and he added under his breath, “All of them.”
His Fearlessness card had blinded him. He hadn’t believed anything could hurt him, let alone the mousy young man with jet black hair who shadowed him on every job. He’d chosen to ignore every spiteful gaze, tear, and cautioning word from that man. Even after the poisoned wine had paralyzed Azai, he had laughed in his attacker’s face. You are nothing without me, he’d said.
The man had nodded as he heated his tools over an open fire. That’s why I’m taking you with me.
The Oracle’s voice jolted Azai from his reverie. “You mean to say that you haven’t tapped into a single card―”
“In seven years,” Azai finished. It was like losing every brain function save the basic bodily rhythms, like his senses had dimmed to the point where he wasn’t sure he was still sentient. You could live like that, unaware that you were alive. Most animals did. He rubbed his beard, remembering the way he’d growled at those Scarab brats. I don’t have enough humanity left to even mourn its loss.
“How did you find me?” he said. “I’ve spent years looking for one of you people.”
The Oracle shook her head. “A man who doesn’t pray at noon is a man with nothing to lose. You are by far the sorriest of these men I’ve tracked, Azai Nightstrider. I’d hoped you still had something.“
“I don’t. Find another mercenary to do your dirty work.”
“It has to be you,” she said. “The stars demand it. Only you can kill him.”
Great. Of all jobs, she wanted an assassination. Much to ask of someone who no longer even had the resolve to wash himself.
“I can’t kill a fuckin’ gnat without my cards,” he told her. “My Bravery’s gone, my Invisibility, Disguise, everything. I can’t even move soundlessly anymore.”
“That dagger didn’t throw itself. Reflexes like that―”
“Are useless without Precision, which I no longer have. If I did, you’d be dead.”
Her mouth tightened. “I cannot make you a new deck, Azai. As long as your cards still exist, they are bound to you. No Invisibility card will take you for its master when one of its brethren has already claimed you.”
“Give me new abilities, then,” he urged. “Make me fly, breathe fire, anything!“
“If your original deck didn’t include Flight, that power is not yours to harness.”
Sun above, this was too much. Azai banged his fist against the alley wall, savouring the crack of grinding knuckles, the pain that lanced through his wrist, and the fire in his chest filling him with life. “His deck didn’t include anything worth spitting on!” he screamed. “But now he uses my Disguise, my Silence, and all I have left is―”
She leaned forward. He bit his tongue.
“You still have cards,” she finished for him. “Show me.”
“They’re worse than nothing,” Azai said. “The bastard left me two of his weakest traits, and trust me when I say they are all pathetic. He thought I wouldn’t resist tapping in. Even though they’d make me weak, he thought I’d use them.”
The Oracle raised an eyebrow as if to say, And this degenerate state is what you call strength? Sighing, Azai reached past his waistband and pulled out two cards encased in glass. Most people didn’t carry cards on them for fear of being mugged, but Azai didn’t care much if these ended up stolen. They were so thin they all but disappeared when turned to the side, and silver designs curled like smoke around their edges. Azai’s old cards had never moved this much. These seemed almost alive, the way they extended long tendrils in and out again.
The Oracle studied them with a frown. “You didn’t let them adhere,” she said.
Azai’s hand went to the place over his heart where Bravery had sat. You could still see the groove in his flesh. He showed her the undersides of his arms, Disguise and Precision respectively, now just scar tissue. Catuna had pried them off with hot pincers. Despite getting rid of his weaknesses―the cards Azai now held―the bastard had cried as Azai screamed. The only thing worse than being betrayed by a brother was when that brother didn’t really mean it.
“These pieces of shit aren’t mine,” Azai said. “They’re part of him. I won’t have anything to do with them.”
I won’t have them! Catuna had screamed at the Oracle on his tenth nameday. They hurt, Mother. I want cards like Azai’s!
You know nothing, the Oracle had answered. Your cards must be opposites if you are to work together as one.
“You know nothing.” Azai snapped his gaze up, a shiver running down his spine to hear those same words from this woman’s lips. The Oracle stared down at his cards. “Wittingly or not, Catuna Cardthief has left you a great gift. These can make you a more celebrated mercenary than Nightstrider ever was.”
“Do you take me for a fool, Mother?”
“I took you for a killer,” she said. Her eyes snapped to his, challenging. “Was I wrong?”
“You expect me to kill with Empathy and Selflessness?”
“If you were so certain of their uselessness, you would have destroyed them.”
And he would have, if only he… would have. Damn it!
“Tell you what,” he said, squeezing the cards in his fist. He could feel them squirming against their glass casings, trying to reach his flesh. “Ask Catuna to kill your target. He has all the skills I no longer possess. He’s the best mercenary in the Dial now, not me.”
The beginnings of a smile wrinkled the corners of her mouth. “I doubt very much that he would oblige me, Nightstrider. A man that powerful isn’t likely to kill himself.”
Silence stretched between them. In his fist, Empathy and Selflessness trembled.
“Tell me how,” Azai whispered.
“You’re incomplete. Empty. Bond with those cards and you will have what you need to destroy the Cardthief.”
It was rumoured that Oracles worked in strange ways, that their methods should never be questioned nor their visions doubted, but how in all the hells would these things help him when they’d only deterred Catuna?
These are the best and the worst of me, brother. Treat them well.
Azai unclenched his fist and stared down at the traits Catuna had resented so deeply, shuddering in their casings, weeping to be so alone. Only the thought of their suffering had kept him from bonding with them on those nights the withdrawal effects had made him delirious. As long as he suffered, some part of Catuna would suffer too. That had been good enough.
Now he carefully lifted Empathy from its case and held the card over his forearm. He paused there, watching it squirm. A scowl twisted his lips. Disguise would have never whined like that.
A man who doesn’t pray at noon is a man with nothing to lose.
He let go, and Empathy settled over the scar in his forearm, its grooves and designs melting into his skin. Azai fell to his knees as a burning warmth spread through him.
In the distance a gong rang, and the shadow of the giant Sundial tower lifted from the edges of Sector Twelve to settle over Sector One in the southeast.
That was just before the mudbrick smacked Azai across the temple.
Day had become night when Azai woke, and his lips were powdered with dust. Sand had settled in his eyelashes and beard, choking him every time he drew breath. Out of instinct, he stifled his cough.
Slowly, testing every muscle, he struggled to his knees. He’d been moved down into a deep, open cellar without a staircase in sight. His wrists and ankles were bound, but he’d woken up in worse situations. That wasn’t why fear strangled him. It was something else, something all around him, something cold, pervasive.
Legend had it that the Moon imposed evil thoughts upon the peasants who passed under her gaze as surely as the Sun warmed those he looked upon. Pure-blooded nobles had the Sun’s favour on their side and less to fear from that seductress, his counterpart, but Azai’s blood was as common as it came. Still, even after losing Bravery, he’d never been superstitious. Now he wanted to shrink away from the Moon’s milky light as if it were poison.
Leaning against the cellar wall, he tried to spit but found his mouth too dry. Blood trickled from his temple where he’d been hit, and sand crusted the side of his face. He couldn’t stop clenching his hand into a fist, an anxious mannerism that felt somewhat familiar. What the hell was going on?
Then he saw it: the human outline at the other end of the cellar, standing just shy of a beam of moonlight. The figure flickered in and out of view, posture hunched, right hand clenching over and over again.
Azai looked down at his own restless hand. He forced it still.
A ten-year-old boy had once stood with him in a perfumed parlour room, clenching his fist in that same agitated way until Azai had smacked him across the face and told him to get a grip. The boy had sobered, but the tension had never left his body. He’d looked ready to bolt. It was like he’d known, even then, he would never be whole. That his cards would be useless for a life in the black market without Azai’s cards to balance them out. After all, their master’s funds were limited and the man had already spent most of his money on Azai five years earlier.
It wasn’t his own unease Azai was feeling, but this boy’s.
As if on cue, it turned and ambled toward him. The patterns on Azai’s forearm stretched to his shoulder, and warmth spread through his body again. For that moment he saw everything through the shadow’s eyes. He understood. Catuna.
The bastard was using Invisibility, but his fear of the night took up too much of his concentration and caused him to flicker. A carefully contained anger burned within him. Despite the smirk on his face, he felt as uncertain as he’d been on his tenth nameday when his older brother had first taken him to see the Oracle.
“How are you enjoying Empathy, Azai?” the shadow asked, his voice resonating like a drum in a cave.
“I feel nothing, brother,” Azai lied.
Catuna settled into view. “What gave me away?”
“You were convincing enough with Disguise―in the sun. Now you’re overusing Bravery to control your terror of the Moon, and that makes Invisibility weak.”
Catuna grinned. “Was that a genuine piece of advice from He Who Brings the Night? Empathy works better than I expected.”
Shit, it was true. Azai hadn’t said that to poke fun at Catuna’s fear; he’d just felt this perverse need to… help.
“What’s the point?” Azai demanded, leaning against the wall. “I was weak before you did this. I was no threat to you, but you always have to make a show of things―”
Catuna aimed a kick at his ribs, but Empathy flared again and Azai dodged the blow. He fell sideways, sending a swirl of dust into the air. Catuna looked down at him with a frown. “I’d almost forgotten,” he murmured.
“That Empathy lets you read people’s minds?” Azai laughed, but it didn’t reach his heart. “What’d you keep complaining about? This is great!”
“Empathy is understanding and feeling,” Catuna explained, as if to a child. Azai saw the blue patterns of Patience grow starkly visible against his brother’s arms and neck. “That’s different than mind-reading. You understand what I’m inclined to do because you feel the same inclination. You’re paralyzed by my fears and limited by my weaknesses. What was my greatest weakness, Azai?”
Azai could think of a million snide retorts, but his heart ached at the thought of saying them. Empathy wound around him like a snake, bleeding him dry. Breathing heavily, he closed his eyes and said, “Being my brother.”
“And what made that a weakness?”
Azai remembered the Oracle’s words like the clear ring of glass, words he’d never comprehended until looking through Catuna’s eyes. You will bind your soul to him. You will understand him and be the conscience he cannot have. He will be the blade in your hand, the speed in your legs. Together you will make a whole. The most talented whole the Dial has seen in five hundred years.
“Empathy,” Azai whispered.
“And Selflessness. I was to sacrifice my own life to serve you, my better half. Tell me, brother: is that fair?”
White-hot rage washed Azai’s insides. He struggled to his knees again, then stared up at Catuna’s silhouette against the pale moon. “I was bound to you just as you were to me. I needed your Strategy, your Patience.”
Catuna shook his head. “You still don’t understand. You needed my skills to make you the master of all trades, so you put up with me. Ambition is one thing you never lacked. What kept me shackled to your side? I never received recognition for a job well done. No one would know how often I stopped you from an imprudent assassination or kidnapping. So the Oracle chained me in another way: with Empathy.”
Again that pang of rage, and Azai realized it was Catuna’s. His chains were tighter than mine. They left him raw.
“You couldn’t hurt me any more than you could hurt yourself,” Azai said for the both of them. “If I bled, you suffered. Your fear of pain kept you from destroying me all those years you dreamt of stealing my cards.”
Catuna grabbed a fistful of Azai’s hair and dragged him to his feet, then slammed him against the wall so hard Azai saw purple splotches, as if he’d been staring at the Sun. That’s right. He’s got Strength now.
“You’re a shit, Azai.” The voice came in waves. “But the Oracle was right; we’re incomplete separately. I need Empathy to temper Ruthlessness. Otherwise… ” His hand tightened on the front of Azai’s ragged tunic. “I do things no man should do, unforgivable things. They’re bad for business.”
Looking into his brother’s eyes, Azai saw the truth. Empathy snaked around his arm and branched onto his chest and neck, constricting every muscle it touched.
I grow stunted in the shadow of your greatness. I’m the brain nobody sees, the heart that pumps when you forget it’s there. What are you? The muscles, the tendons, the bones. I hate you, but I can’t hurt you without hurting myself.
Hatred? But that had been Azai’s card.
“You learned Hatred from me through Empathy. Then you ripped Empathy from yourself so you could hurt me,” Azai said. He wasn’t even biding for time anymore; he wanted to understand. “And you left Selflessness for good measure.”
Yet the Oracle’s words had held true. Without those cards Catuna was still incomplete, as both a human and a successful mercenary. He needed Empathy; he just didn’t want to suffer the pain of it. And because bonding with a card could only be done willingly, his best chance had been to trick Azai into making the bond.
“Now you’ve reversed our roles,” Azai whispered. “Only you kept Planning and Patience and everything else you needed to be your own mastermind.”
Moonlight danced in Catuna’s eyes. “Enjoy your new chains, brother.”
With a flick of his dagger, he cut Azai’s bonds.
No sooner did the rope fall than Selflessness began expanding up Azai’s other arm until its cold silver tentacles snaked up his cheek. He shook with the power flowing through him, more terrible than the physical power he’d held before. It was certainty, clarity, and a deep suffering that brought the world crashing down on his shoulders.
“Even with Empathy and Selflessness,” he heard himself say, “you couldn’t love me.”
Catuna blinked. “Oh, I did. I just couldn’t keep it up. I understood you too well, and after a while I had to stop pretending I saw something there.” He stepped forward until only a sliver of moonlight separated them. “You’re empty, Azai.”
I sit in the shadows, crying as you complete the murder I orchestrated on our master’s order. When you come for me, you smell of blood and dirt and rain. I look into your eyes and see nothing, not even the pride of a job well done. The cards I’m missing make me physically weak, but you are nothing but a vessel of death.
“Not you, though,” Azai murmured. His eyes stung. “You have a good heart that you’ve poisoned with cards meant for someone else. Someone with nothing to lose.”
Catuna’s anxiety speared through him, though Azai saw none of it on the man’s smiling face. “Nice try, but I’m not giving them back.”
Azai barely heard him. His mind worked furiously, putting together the pieces that had never before fit. Of course he hadn’t been able to mourn the loss of his humanity after losing his cards. He’d never had any. He hadn’t really been alive until now.
I try to wake you up, but you refuse to think. You smile at me but there’s no one home. Charm tells you the words to say, but you don’t know their meaning.
There was still a sliver of life in Catuna, life he’d unwittingly breathed into the tool in his hand. The man had grown attached to his sword and then resented it when it couldn’t love him back.
“You miscalculated just one thing,” Azai said. Selflessness met Empathy on his arms and they intertwined. “I’ve never feared pain.”
Catuna stopped mid-turn. Though he had Dexterity and Strength on his side, Azai could anticipate how Catuna would react. He feigned left―he was left-handed―and then darted for the dagger on Catuna’s right as his brother took the bait. Seeing him with the dagger in hand, Catuna paled, then forced a laugh. Empathy shot pangs of fear down Azai’s spine.
“You can’t hurt me,” Catuna said, dark hair vivid against the pallor of his skin. “Empathy won’t let you. I’m stronger than you are. Smarter. Don’t you see? I’m finally whole.”
“No.” Azai flipped the dagger in his hand. “Not yet.”
Catuna’s eyes grew impossibly wide. He tried to become invisible, but his natural tendency toward anxiety had him flickering in and out of view again. What sort of creature, Azai felt Catuna think, can break Empathy’s bonds so easily?
But Azai wasn’t breaking Empathy. He was using it, and Selflessness, to right his master’s wrongs. He and Catuna had been created greedily, he with too much physicality and not enough mental and emotional intelligence, Catuna the opposite. There needed to be a whole.
The dagger found its way between Azai’s ribs and black blood oozed between his fingers.
Catuna came into sharp focus again. He stared at Azai even as Empathy and Selflessness detached from their dying host to reach long tendrils toward him. Azai crumpled to his knees. He grabbed Catuna’s robes in a shaking fist.
Catuna stepped back.
“Take my hand,” Azai said. “Take the cards. Don’t be afraid.”
Still Catuna hesitated. Using his draining Empathy, Azai blinked away the darkness and said, “Don’t let me die alone.”
Hands eased him to the ground. Empathy and Selflessness bled from him like the life from his body, and he only vaguely became aware of the black mist that was Ruthlessness evaporating from Catuna into the night. There was no room for it now… no room…
Disguise went too, and Invisibility, replaced by intertwining strands of silver and purple that made Catuna glow. He was screaming something, holding Azai’s face in both hands. Azai knew too well how it felt having all your best cards chased away. Oh, he knew.
And as the last strands of Empathy left him, he smiled. Nightstrider always got his revenge.
© 2015 by Raluca Balasa
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