Planet in Theory: Pluto Takes the Stage (part four)

(back to part one)

(reading time: 1 hour, 25 minutes)

One in a Simillion

Popcorn’s here finally. I’m starving. Hey, over here moron!” Toddy Hot raised his hand and snapped his fingers several times to get the crazy8’s attention. The person who’d been set to the task of fetching the refreshments barely knew where they were, and certainly didn’t understand what kind of crowd surrounded them.

Since they were wearing a red striped shirt and a little paper hat they assumed they were an employee of this entertainment venue and it was their responsibility to serve anyone else there. At the moment they were on the carpeted stairs between rows of descending seats, and down at the center there was a boxing ring, though the 2 men inside it were conversing instead of throwing punches.

The ‘employee’ checked to see if there were any other hands in the air requesting soda pops or hot dogs. It was not a hungry crowd, or a loud one, or one fully capable of sitting in the seats. Some of them had already sunk down to just heads, like a purse or toy accidentally left behind. How strange that only one man in 200 was peckish, but oh well.

They looked at their hands and saw what they had to offer. Someone had strapped trays to a pair of gloves, the objects rising in likelihood so their 8to1 hands could cart the 5to1 bags of popcorn and the 2 glass bottles of cola.

You got it,” Toddy encouraged them, standing. His frustration was obvious in the fiery glow behind the swollen forehead of his hot air balloon mask. Any less patient and his feet might’ve lifted off the floor. “Come on.” 20 seconds later man and snack were joined in glorious bliss, and the crazy8 was sent back into the bowels of the building with no particular goal.

Careful,” his colleague Punch Hawaiian warned when Toddy popped the cola open using the metal edge of his mask, “if my eyes get wet I can’t see straight for hours.” That was the downside to having a rotating punch card for a face, but at least everyone knew his specialty by looking at him. He wasn’t sure what purpose Toddy served yet, other than berating the unlikelies that were the Survivor Function’s primary resource, after the public computers of course.

Sure thing chum,” Toddy said, handing over the bottle gently. As dismissive as he was of hardluck, he was equally sociable with those who had taken up masks. “This’ll be a great fight; I can feel it.”

It doesn’t matter if they actually fight, as long as they wriggle around like they are.” He scooped up a handful of popcorn and shoved it in his mouth. Krik! Punch spit out an intact kernel.

What, did we put one of the idiots behind the snack bar too?” Toddy said with a snort.

No, I think it’s one of us, but I’d resent food duty if I got voted into it too.”

That’s no excuse for a job poorly done.” The man with the ignited nose took back the bag and examined it from the bottom. His nasal light revealed several more hard nuggets rolling around inside. With his other hand he stretched the balloon portion of his mask away from the burner and powered up the flame. 6 seconds later the stubborn kernels started popping.

Punch watched all the while, nauseated. Toddy was always touching his mask like it was a more playful part of the body, like an earlobe. The man tapped it, pulled on it, adjusted it like glasses sliding down the nose, and polished it with a handkerchief to get his oily fingerprints off. For Punch the mask was a sore spot, though not literally. It served its purpose, and to fiddle with a functioning machine was to invite disaster.

Toddy handed the bag over, hearing the thanks in his head even though he didn’t actually receive it. He expected to wince when he pulled the bag away, but the lighting above was much too weak for that.

What’s with the lights?” he asked nobody in particular. “Can hardly see down there.”

Lighting takes electricity and electricity costs money.” Punch felt the need to explain himself, given that he was in charge of utility allocation thanks to his wink-nudge relationship with the computers, something Toddy repeatedly joked was like an affair. His control over the system was almost complete, but every strange use of public resources risked drawing attention. Things needed to keep running smoothly so Saturnalia could take its natural course.

Sure, but we’re running a simulation here aren’t we?” Toddy reasoned. “When we do this for real the lights will be way brighter. The crowd will be more… lively. If I’m not having as much fun here as I would there, then this exercise is just underdone eggs.”

People are chaos,” Punch said as he rolled a piece of popcorn between his fingers, applying pressure, trying to stabilize it each time a crumb broke off. “The more specific we make this scenario the less likely we are to get it right. Keeping it broad and vague gives us wiggle room for the inevitable wild card.”

He pointed up, at a catwalk far above them. Though they were currently hidden he knew there were 2 more survivors perched up there, hopefully having a conversation much more relevant to the task at hand. His finger moved, in a perfectly straight line, down to the center of the boxing ring, and then again to the exit between the seats.

This triangle is all that matters,” he asserted. “We’re just here to see if the line from the ceiling to the ring is achievable, and should it fail, if the line from the ceiling to the exit is possible. What matters most is that the dimensions of this building are a nearly perfect match to the actual location.”

Lucky this place was abandoned then.”

Luck had nothing to do with it. I scheduled a fire brigade inspection covering 2 days. The owner thinks that’s what’s happening right now.”

Should I start a little blaze for added realism?” Toddy asked, turning his flame blue and raising it to its maximum height of 5 inches, practically a rhinoceros horn.

Bad joke. You are joking right?”

I don’t know. I might have to do something to liven this up if the fight doesn’t start soon.” He stood and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey! let’s go! You 2 stop pussyfooting around! Somebody ring the bell! Ring that bell! Ring that bell!” He clapped with each chant, hoping to get the rest of the crowd to join him, but most of them were more interested in the walls or the hardened gum under the seats, which often had a stronger constitution than they did.

They were mostly bycatch, brought in by the nets of Nth Degree Hall and deemed unworthy of the test of the inner corridors. Unworthy, but not useless. The Function kept them corralled in basements and warehouses until a purpose arrived, like a crowd to provide cover, or in this case enough presence to mimic a busy night at a club.

While Toddy investigated who had been assigned to strike the bell, storming his way down and around the ring, its contents had a conversation of their own. Neither of them looked like boxers, with stringy physiques and bad posture. Someone had clearly stuffed them into the colorful shorts and ripped off their shirts without their permission, before handcuffing them into pairs of boxing dice.

Oh nuts… I think it’s about to start!” the one with the receding hairline fretted. “I can’t get these things off!” He fumbled with the dice, knocking them into each other, only succeeding in making them spin, which changed their probability based on which number landed face up.

The weapons came in 2 main configurations: 6 sided and 8 sided. One face on the 6 sided was the entry point for the wielder’s hand, with the opposite face a neutral impact surface that took on the probability of which numbered or marked plate was currently facing up. A boxer could throw punches that were anywhere from 3to1 to 6to1, or 4to1 to 7to1, whereas the 8 sided, with the hand entering at a vertex and a pointed top on the other side, could strike from 2 all the way up to 9.

Far more expensive than thin electroglass cards with set likelihoods, boxing dice were usually custom made treasures, but these were unpainted metallic lumps, the numbers indicating probability barely glowing a phosphorescent blue. Both 6 sided pairs were just base models, tricked into shipping by a punch most Hawaiian.

Do you have any idea why they’re doing this?” the other prisoner of the arena whispered, managing to contain his panic a little more. He was a particularly small man, finding it difficult to even keep the dice hefted for more than 5 seconds. His green eyes struggled to see anything beyond the ring in the dim but focused lighting. The crowd looked like solemn ghosts, like a jury of the damned, except for the one boisterous torch bouncing down to them.

I don’t even know who these people are!” Receding Hairline insisted. “I was selling business insurance, door to door, you know for when Antichthon gets here, and I must’ve knocked on the wrong one. They just dragged me in and now I’m here!” He clacked the dice together.

Wait… insurance? What does that even do for when they get here?”

Nothing! It’s a scam okay! But I don’t think these are the coppers!”

Definitely not,” Green Eyes agreed. “I saw that crazy8 with the balloon mask attack somebody on the street; then somebody came up behind me and clocked me. What did they tell you?”

Nothing good and squat! They said we had to fight, and whoever wins gets to go free. You ever used these things?”

I’ve never even seen any up close. Listen, we’re against the wall as soon as that guy finds the bell. Our only shot is to work together. You onboard?” Hairline nodded frantically. “Okay, this isn’t much of a plan, but it’s what I’ve got. When the bell rings we mostly pretend to fight. We can set the dice so they don’t collide, mine on 5 and yours on 3.”

Aren’t they going to notice?” Hairline looked around, but then lowered his head as if it had been smacked away.

That’s why I said mostly. I think we have to get a couple real shots in… and one of us has to ‘lose’. When they come in here to deal with us we jump them, pummel them with these things, and make a break for it.”

So who loses?” Hairline asked. Green Eyes struck his dice against each other, sending them spinning, the numbers flashing rapidly.

The low roller.”

Far above them 2 survivors paced back and forth, waiting for the bell. The sections of catwalk were attached at various points to several large chandeliers, the decorations acting as roundabouts for maintenance traffic that didn’t exist. It was an unusual arrangement to say the least, and hastily constructed, but the Survivor Function’s spies had reported that was how the real club was set up.

They’d gone with the cheapest materials for both, chandeliers of iron instead of crystal and gold and simple grates for the catwalk. Calling it rickety was like calling a feather flighty. Still, the 2 women were so light on their feet that none of the rattling made it to the quiet crowd below.

1 grand, 2 grand, 3 grand,” the taller of the 2 counted out, placing simillions in the other survivor’s greedily outstretched hand. Only one eye was on her task, the other having crawled across the pleats of the fully opened paper fan glued into her head to peek over the side and see if that idiot Toddy had forgotten he was supposed to start the fight. If so it was just as well, since their new recruit insisted on going through with this payment charade.

Woah, stop there girl. Don’t give away the game,” Goldie Cider said, pushing the rest of the bills back. “This is just the advance payment. We get to do this again when I get it right.” Above her gremlin’s smile her eyes sparkled, literally so given their emerald substance.

The emergency mask that was now part of her identity had a treasure chest theme. It was presented as overflowing, the box’s hinges forced open by a spilling mound of treasure right across her eyes. While her forehead and cheeks were the familiar wood and brass straps that every pirate worth his salt had buried, her temples and the bridge of her nose were a constantly shifting mass of gold coins, pearls, and gems, like there was a hoarding wyrm swimming underneath it all.

Any change in her expression, pun intended to be savored, clinked like a roll of chansinhells emptied into a slot machine. Normally a fine dresser on top of all that, Goldie had to switch out her bottoms for gray workman’s pants tied at the ankles while they were running through the big night, what she would actually wear a much larger concern than the target dummies below.

Are you taking this seriously?” Olive Martini asked, flicking her head to mostly close the fan and bring her painted eye back to the smaller younger woman. “If you miss we have to run this whole thing again; it doubles our expenses.”

Don’t worry, I won’t charge you again,” Goldie said, a laughing nip in her high voice.

You get the same stipend as every other survivor; why do you insist that I pay you this way?” Olive hated holding a wad of cash; it made her feel tawdry. She doled out what was deserved, and that was rarely payment. This job, and even the practice, by her estimation, was better suited to her own skill set, but she’d been outvoted in the matter.

Because I’m about to do a job,” Goldie insisted, rolling up the advance payment and tucking it into the chest lip that was her left temple. “And people get paid for jobs. I love getting paid, watching someone literally hand over power.” Her eyes twinkled, the facets of the gems spinning fast as tops.

We need you to focus. You’re here because you threw a card so far down an Nth Degree Hallway that we never found it, not because of your competitive rates.”

There really wasn’t much competition to speak of,” Goldie said, knowing full well she’d competed against Olive and 9 others in that little test of Express Mail cardistry. “What is it that you’re going to do when this is all over Ms. Martini? We can’t be scheming forever.”

No, at some point I’ll die of old age, but until then, scheme is the dream Ms. Cider. Life is a struggle to stay on the razor edge of the equation. If you don’t feel there’s a knife to your throat it’s because all your blood has already spilled.”

That sounds miserable,” Goldie said bluntly. “Not me. When the high rollers get here I’m going to take these stipends and hitch a ride back with them. I hear Antichthon is all about the simillions.” She rubbed her fingers together, spinning the gold electroglass card she held without bending it.

Did that mask Midas your frontal lobe?” Olive asked derisively. “Money is just one form of influence, and it’s not particularly useful right now. Saturnalia is much happier to accept liquor, cuts out the middle man.”

That’s where you’re wrong.” Goldie performed a spring flourish, emerald eyes spinning madly again, looking for the one in the stack of gold that really felt up to the task. An animation of a galloping racehorse, complete with jockey, played across the flourish like a zoetrope thanks to minute flashing patterns on the side of the cards. “Money is the realest thing there is. A government or a planet slaps some wisdom on some paper, just to let everybody know the number on its means business. Across time, across space, across the boardroom desk, money is money.”

Ting ting ting ting! Toddy had finally found the bell. Olive grabbed Goldie by the shoulders and marched her back to the edge of the final chandelier. She pointed straight down. Green Eyes and Receding Hairline were going at it, trading blows. They were faking it, obvious by the delay in their reactions, but it was a good enough approximation for the practice run. All that really mattered was that their 4to1 probabilities matched the current probability of their target. That their skulls were about as thick as his. That they had all the same major arteries.

Killing throws Goldie. If you injure them their paths will deviate; we might lose the angle.”

I know, I know.” The smaller woman selected 2 cards, maneuvering them to the top of her glittering deck with just her thumb. 5to1. Electromagnetically sharpened to 0.0008 edge thickness. Flexibility of 0.7 for the throw, 0.2 after the release. The king of lights, with the queen right behind him.

Take aim. If this was real it might be over already; they say he’s incredible with the dice.”

Be a doll and hold me,” Goldie requested, coins clinking as she batted her eyes, “without ripping anything.” She slipped out of her shoes and brought her bare toes to the cold iron edge of the chandelier. Without waiting for Olive to confirm she leaned forward. The other survivor caught the back of her clothes at a 38 degree angle. “A little lower.”

Olive sighed and dropped her to 45. It took impressive strength even though the compact woman was light, thanks to her coin-filled cranium being the heaviest part. Olive stabilized herself by wrapping her other arm around one of the chandelier chains.

The king zeroed in on his target. The distance was not even difficult, not for a master of Express Mail. The challenge came in the prediction, in reading his body language and deciding where he would be at the end of the 1.4 seconds it would take for the card to cross the gap. Goldie knew this practice run was actually pointless, but as long as she was getting paid she didn’t mind.

Their real target would move in a way all his own, and on that real fateful evening she would have to perform this calculation again, and it would take twists and turns that the receding hairline below her would never even dream of taking.

She could already tell Receding Hairline wasn’t a thinker. He was a scurrier, a rat. His eyes darted out of instinct from bangs and flashes. Nothing was dangerous unless it was stood right next to him, and even then the thinnest veneer of a barrier, like an open door or a social obligation, restored his unwarranted confidence.

He wasn’t worth what she was getting paid, not that there was any reason to admit that. A simillion was upfront about its worth, none of this annoying guesswork. By the time she was done getting frustrated with the sweaty glimmer in the lines of his forehead, there was plenty of energy tensed up inside her arm.

The king flew before the first round was even half over. He landed upright in the canvas of the ring, but he hadn’t missed, as evidenced by a red splatter across the off-white that any right hook would’ve been jealous of. Hairline tried to grab his sliced open throat, but the dice didn’t release. He stumbled back and fell, dice spinning, both landing on sides newly streaked with scarlet.

One down,” Goldie gloated, spinning her pointer finger in the air, essentially ordering Olive to rotate her for the next shot. She heard a grunt behind her as she was swiveled from one side to the other, giving her a view of the path between the rising sections of seating. Green Eyes was directly under the chandelier when they started, but he would run that way for sure. The shot was too easy, but the next step in their simulation hadn’t activated yet.

At least I know Punch will remember the-” 2 bangs interrupted Olive’s growl as small bombs went off somewhere in the seats. Explosives is what it usually takes to make hardluck panic, since they were likely to treat the fresh corpse in the ring as a friendly neighbor more than a disaster.

The 8s and 9s they’d corralled started running, leaping, and flying about, a few of them screaming. It certainly raised the challenge of finding one body in the chaos, but Goldie doubted this 2nd shot would ever be necessary. They had 2 men here to test the backup plan, in case her first shot missed and the target then fled the ring. She wouldn’t miss, thanks to the advance payment. The kill was already bought.

Green Eyes was no rat. He didn’t immediately appear from under them after the bombs. He was waiting, for the cover of the confused crowd to be at its thickest. Goldie and her cocked queen agreed that, at least among the 2, he was the thinker. It was his idea to fake the fight. It almost seemed a shame to cut down such an adorable little thinker, but he couldn’t be that good at it, otherwise he would already be masked and in the fold of the Function.

A 9to1 woman, wailing about a goldfish she thought she might’ve once had, drifted in front of Goldie’s shot, but she could see and throw through her. Green Eyes appeared in her thigh, sprinting up past her navel trail and into the copse of her ribs. He was faster than he looked, another indicator that he really understood what was at stake. His body was giving its all, but his gait was thrown off by the heavy dice flopping back and forth at the end of his arms, sometimes smacking into each other.

Goldie rotated her wrist. A kill on the back of the neck was possible, but a good curve would make that unnecessary. Her arm whipped and snapped, sending the queen off on her roundabout voyage. The golden card spun through the air, descended, and curled through 3 phantoms before casually passing by under Green Eyes’s chin. He slipped in his own blood and stumbled, queen of lights stuck in the wall a few steps back, wiping his blood from the corner of her dress. He disappeared from view as Olive hoisted her back to her feet and spun her around. Her hand was already out.

Pay up.”

The Thieving Type

The wildcats had left innumerable scratches in both wood and carpet. There was little she could do about the latter, but Minty’s storeroom had a large container of wood-colored hardening putty that was perfect for the former. After 3 hours of effort she had more than half of them filled in, and had traveled all the way to her bedroom door in the recesses behind the counter.

The animals had tried to get in there aggressively, so some of the bigger gouges were more than a foot long and fit the entire end of the putty applicator. She squinted and shuffled forward, knees sore despite the mat she’d put down. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to read, but I’d be too relaxed. The story would turn into Peachy’s story and then I wouldn’t do her or the book justice.

Want me to take over?” the shadow that stretched across the door asked her. Smaller shadows zipped around it in circles. Silver was always practicing with their cards, tossing each one as many times as a piece of gum might get chewed over the course of the same interval.

No thank you; I’m fine,” Minty sighed. “I need this to keep my mind off of everything that’s happening.”

Just ask if you change your mind. I feel I’m taking advantage of your hospitality.” There were no spare beds in the library, so for the 4 days since their creation Long Odd Silver and Minty had been sharing. The bookseller hardly noticed, as Silver came and went at befittingly odd hours, somehow sneaking in and out of doors and the bed without making a sound. Sometimes she woke up and they were there, other times there was only an equally flirtatious depression in the blankets, left like a calling card or an understudy. Sometimes, she didn’t know why, she flopped into the shape of the larger crazy8, putting her limbs where theirs had been and seeing how she compared, feeling the lotion-like comfort of their solid shadow.

It’s no imposition,” she said truthfully. “I like having you around, in case the Eudaemons come back.”

Not that you need my help.”

I absolutely do.”

I think you could take down 3 thugs with a single card, as long as you targeted all the right toes.”

Don’t say that please. I’m not after any toes. He’s trying to push me into this other life where I serve him, and fighting his people just-” The door clicked and creaked open. She swiftly dropped the applicator back into the container and stood. A dejected Peachy was on the other side, eyes wet, arms hanging limply in a soft rose gold nightgown that Silver had gone and fetched for her several hours ago.

Peachy? Are you feeling any-”

Oh Minty!” her friend sobbed, lips tying in various knots to try and find the exact configuration that fit her sadness. She wrapped her thick arms around the librarian and squeezed, crying into her collarbone. “The kid’s gone.”

I know,” was all she could think to say as she stroked her friend’s back.

It was so horrible. I saw them, floating out of me like they were out in space, waiting for the sun to come out and warm them awake. Then they dropped, and they were just there on the street. I dropped my baby!”

Minty and Silver didn’t say anything, but they both knew that wasn’t exactly what happened. Peachy had gotten herself into some trouble without fully appreciating the consequences. She thought her many friends would protect her from the doldrums of odds-counting, but far too many of her relationships were characterized by one-sided giving.

Subconsciously she knew this, but thought it had bee counteracted by the generous loan from the prince himself, the greatest being saying he was an authority in all the land. The truth had crept in no matter how much she tried to squeeze it out of her schedule. She gave too much. Her debts mounted. She played with her life like it was worthless, and the callous bean counters of the beyond took note.

Her probability had fallen to 5 and then, just outside the game hall, 6. That in itself might not have been so bad, 6 was still 2 big steps away from crazy8 after all, but her pregnancy had progressed to the point where the kid had odds of its own, starting at 4, where its mother had been at the time of conception. Once Peachy hit 6 the 2 beings were no longer physically compatible, and they passed by each other like strangers on a train.

Peachy had shown up at Aleatory Books 2 days ago, coated in blood, unable to explain herself until her first 11 hours of sleep. Her schedule was cleared for the foreseeable future by force, Minty tearing up the little calendar book Peachy kept in her bag right in front of her. They both hated that, Minty would rather tear the skin off her own arm than pull a single page from a book, but the point had to be made that her friend was now in recovery, and would only be receiving love for the time being.

Can I get you anything Peachy?” Silver asked, catching the last of their orbiting cards and leaning on the front desk. Where they had acquired a deck of their own was a mystery, given that they didn’t have a chansinhell to their name. It wasn’t difficult to go out in the midst of boisterous Saturnalia and scrape together a deck of random scratched and cracked street cards with 52 different themes from their places propping up bar stools and working part time as beer coasters, but this was not one of those decks.

Shimmering chrome silver on both sides. Displays that resembled fine etching and refused to show text in anything but flowing cursive. The default artwork of the kings and queens and jacks had something called a single edition watermark, in this case a round icon depicting a tiny scampering shorebird. That was the artist’s word that no other deck, or poster, book, gallery, or anything else, had a copy of those images.

It was the kind of thing very wealthy friends who kept their physically intimate relationship emotionally distant for reputation reasons might custom order for each other before waiting 6 months for delivery.

It was far from the only thing Long Odd Silver had enchanted into their possession in a very short time. Already they had half a wardrobe of clothing, all suited to their expensive tastes and fitting snugly despite their tall, but not as tall as they seemed, physique.

Most of the rest were not possessions, but contacts and information. Already they knew far more than Minty about what happened in the neighborhood and Atrium City at large, including the best places to go to suit any mood, though Silver was less of a creature of mood and more of weather, more affected by the electrical charge in the atmosphere than any insults thrown their way.

Minty supposed it was all that pirating they claimed to have from their old life, but she doubted Silver had stolen any of it. It was easy to picture people handing things over to them the way they might place a bundle at the feet of a freshly painted religious idol. As it stood they were wearing clothes of an unknown source, boots of an unknown source, wielding a deck of an unknown source, and running one hand through a sleek haircut of an unknown source.

Oh no thank you Silver,” Peachy said, but there was in fact something they could get for her: an embrace. She shuffled away from Minty over to the taller person and hugged their waist. Minty rolled her eyes. I don’t even remember properly introducing them to each other and they’re already thick as… jam.

You should eat something,” Silver advised, reaching into the desk with their one free arm and pulling out a box of crackers that Minty had never put there. “Or better yet, drink.” Out came a bottle from a space that was equally empty a few days ago: plum juice and tonic water. Often abbreviated as pluto, many being a stickler for the lowercase, or called underworld bitter, it was the planet’s official drink. Finding a nonalcoholic bottle of it during Saturnalia was by far Silver’s greatest accomplishment yet.

They popped the cork and took a swig straight from the bottle before pushing it between themselves and a still-hugging Peachy. The object acted as a surrogate, allowing them to slip out. Peachy looked around for a glass, but one look at Silver’s expectant eyes convinced her there was no need of one. She tipped the heavy bottle and drank.

It’s bitter,” she said after wiping her mouth with her fingers.

Medicine always is,” Silver attested. “You’re the sweetness Peachy; it doesn’t need any more.”

Oh Silver, you stop.” Peachy didn’t quite giggle, but Minty could see the urge in her body’s slight shimmy. Their quick intimacy was strange, but Silver seemed to have an effect on everybody, and if it was at all good for Peachy at the moment then it should be allowed to continue. I’d like to keep them both under this roof and out of trouble.

Peachy,” the librarian interrupted, “are you ready to talk about how this all happened? You muttered something about payments?”

Oh, I got a little behind,” she admitted, drinking as an excuse to stop talking.

Behind on what? There’s no official bank at the moment… was this a loan?”

A friendly one,” Peachy insisted. She tore the cracker box opened and nibbled on one like a mouse. Silver snagged the bottle of underworld bitter and went to lean against one of the shelves. Slim moved out of the way for them, and they thanked him with a shoulder nudge and a smile. Even him!? By the end of the day they might convince my ladder he’s secretly the world’s greatest pianist. There were more pressing matters, she reminded herself.

No it was not!” she argued. “A friendly loan is one you don’t worry about, one that might never get repaid. An arrangement in good will and good faith wouldn’t knock you down to 6. Who’s this friend?”

He’s your friend too!” Peachy insisted. “He even let you into his club, and now everybody knows it thanks to that new door.”

Roman!?” Minty groaned. She would’ve shouted, but she had a personal policy to never to do so in her place of business. People might be trying to read. Not even the wildcats had gotten a yell out of her. “Why not just ask Nemesis to rain jewels down on you instead?”

Our prince is running all sorts of rackets in the absence of a kingdom,” Silver commented. “Gambling, unlikely booze, protection, automobile refitting, and who could resist being a loan shark in these thoroughly chummed waters?”

Exactly,” said Peachy, misunderstanding the simple statement of fact, “everybody’s doing it. I know at least 5 other people who took out loans with the Eudaemons. They payments are small, and instead of interest you just have to take a job with him when things settle down. Everybody gets to have a good time!”

He’s a gangster,” Minty countered. “I didn’t tell you because there was so much going on, but while he was putting up that door, without my permission, he let a bunch of hungry wild animals in here with me and then just left!”

What? Why would he do that?”

He wanted me to prove myself in cardistry I suppose, but all I could do was scramble for my life. That’s when I found Silver and they saved me.”

You saved me first,” Silver pointed out, swigging again, seemingly forgetting the drink was originally brought out for Peachy’s benefit. “And incidentally, you did prove yourself in cardistry.”

You did!?” Peachy squeaked. “Oh that’s fantastic Minty; I knew you caught the brazen head’s eye for a reason. If you’re working for the prince now maybe you can put in a good word for me? The kid’s… but I do still have to keep my word.”

Peachy, listen,” Minty pleaded. “I don’t work for him. I work here. I put books in people’s hands and leave the rest to them. My greatest ambition is figuring out which of these volumes was written simply to be window dressing and which are deep felt truths. Separating the coffee table books from the great Plutonian novel. That’s my job.”

Right,” Peachy said, face sinking. She looked around, wondering if one of those great Plutonian novels had a few simillions as bookmarks. “I didn’t mean anything by it Minty; I know you love your store. Really, I don’t need to worry. It’s solved already! I’ll just start working for him immediately and they can garnish my wage until it’s repaid.”

Not the best situation to bring a kid into,” Silver noted.

Yes, you’re right,” the short woman, suddenly looking much shorter, admitted. “I’ll have to wait if I want to try again. Besides, I’ll have to shake off 6 anyway. A kid deserves odds better than that.”

You wanted to be the first of the maternal wave,” Minty reminded, stepping out from behind the desk. Something stirred inside her, something that would’ve been locked in a cupboard and denied an entry in the card catalog before. She took her friend’s hands and looked her in the eye. “This was your dream.”

Dreams can take a rain check,” Peachy said with a forced smile.

No. This isn’t right.” The librarian paced back and forth. “You can’t go back to him after what he’s already done to you. We’ll do something about it.”

Yes we will,” Silver agreed. The underworld bitter was gone, so they set the bottle down on the desk. Drizzle heard the sound and squeezed out from between a swashbuckling adventure and a comedy of manners, leaping up and pouring himself into the bottle. His eyes, magnified slightly by the glass, emerged from his inky body and stared at Silver.

They intuited what he wanted and picked up the bottle again, giving it a gentle swirl. His eyes went drifting around; the bottle vibrated as he purred. Knowing what people want so easily is a dangerous power. It’s supposed to take time, at least a few pages, to figure out where you’re headed. Otherwise you might dive right into something before you’ve worried about it properly.

We need to bring this to someone’s attention,” Minty said, walking back her statement a little, though anger still surged within. If it teamed up with Silver she wouldn’t stand a chance.

That part’s done; we’re already aware,” Silver said, not letting her reclaim the loose thread she’d tugged. Now they were pacing, Drizzle’s purr like a motor as they swirled him about. “There are so many things we could do that would have the effect of drawing his attention away from various small debts.”

Hang on.” Am I losing? This is my house and I practically made them… how am I losing? “We don’t want to do anything that gets more cats shipped here… or something worse.”

They were just cats?” Peachy repeated. “That doesn’t sound so bad.” Silver stood next to Peachy, holding the bottle out, one arm behind their back like a waiter about to pour a wine dated before their own birth. Peachy snickered and held out her arms. “Yes, I think I’ll have a glass of that.” Silver tipped the neck; Drizzle poured out into her arms. She squeezed the cat so much that his head swelled to the size of a medicine ball. With her needs fulfilled, Silver really dove into corkscrewing machinations.

The prince could have an accident, stumble when getting down from his throne, but then the flailing headless body of his organization would almost certainly land on this vulnerable little outpost of ours.”

Silver!” Minty gasped. “I’d never dream of such a thing!”

Dreaming of it is nothing to get knotted up about,” they insisted, “and I’m just dreaming out loud. As I said, there are just so many things we could do. Sneak into their headquarters and erase the debt from their paperwork. Don disguises and threaten his people unless all debts are forgiven. Go out and find someone else terrible, take their money, and use it to settle Peachy’s account.”

I’m not the thieving type,” Minty protested.

I’ve got it!” Silver slid a card off the top of their deck, hiding the art behind their fingers. Gently they pinched the top, pulling it into view until only the head of the king of kisses was showing. “We’ll behead him.”

Spluck! It was the sound of Drizzle’s bubbled head popping; Peachy’s shock had caused her to apply a little too much pressure. She dropped the animal, but he landed more like a cat than an overturned bucket of water. His head reformed and his eyes took their proper place before he wandered off behind a shelf.

Silver!” they both exclaimed.

I’m certain of it,” Long Odd defended. “The only way is to remove his head.” Their devious grin made Minty think twice.

You’re being clever,” the librarian said, trying to craft the least impressed tone a human had ever used. “You mean you want to take the brazen head.” Silver clicked their tongue and pointed at her. They seemed a little drunk on their plan; it certainly wasn’t the neutral bottle of bitter that had them sliding around, twirling their fingers around their neck like a ribbon dancer deciding to garrote someone.

If we take his head the possibilities become limitless. We could ask it where to find enough money to cover the debt. We find out who to pressure to erase it. We unzip his whole organization and learn about the blemishes he’s hiding. Then we could blackmail him into letting her out.”

I told you I’m not the thieving type,” Minty reminded.

Then we can return it when we’re done. Borrowing at its worst, and it’s not like anything is illegal at this time. I haven’t seen a single copper. All of the people that will be coppers are currently doing everything they know they won’t be allowed to do when some real authority lands.”

There’s no point in discussing it. We don’t even know where the head is.” This is over already; why am I still arguing with them? We have to get that head. It doesn’t have the answers to this giant mess, but my books do. It knows which books.

We don’t know where it is, but we know where it will be in approximately 2 days and 10 hours,” Silver claimed. “Roman owns a casino club called Sure Thing. They’ve scheduled a dice boxing match.”

So?”

So that’s a few rounds where our prince will be demonstrating his skills to his adoring public. He’s one of the boxers. Word is that he keeps the head with him at all times now. I would bet he never lets it out of his sight, so that means it will be there too.”

Along with his most elite cardists guarding every corner of the ring!”

Which is why we’ll need a spectacular distraction. That’s where I come in. I’ll make this little soiree all about me, giving you a chance to snag the head. If I had to guess he’ll have it right there by the ring, maybe even acting as the referee since it will flawlessly know the winner.”

Silver that’s insane.” Which is why it’s the only thing Koch will respond to. Until I assert myself he’s just going to keep pushing me around, burying my store in Eudaemon badges and gifts… and pets.

The tickets are sold out already,” Peachy added, poking her head out from behind a shelf after her fruitless search for the seam Drizzle hid in. “I know several people who couldn’t even find out where to buy them in the first place.”

I can talk my way in,” Silver assured. Minty had never heard such a confident statement, even considering the baseline of Silver’s effortless glide through life. They’d already made the endless flow of their crystalline tears look constantly of laughter. “And Minty’s already invited.” The librarian arced an eyebrow. “Roman is convinced you’ll come around eventually; he has undoubtedly baited every benefit of his organization. You’re on the list.”

He’ll know it’s me.”

Nobody yet knows this is where I live.” There was a flicker of doubt across their face. “Peachy dear, you haven’t told anyone about me have you?” Even in her grief it didn’t seem likely she had cut off contact with everyone else.

Have I?” her high voice wondered aloud from somewhere out of sight. “I didn’t tell… or… and… no I haven’t! I’m sorry I haven’t talked you up! It’s so rude!”

No offense taken dear,” Silver said with a sigh of relief. “Let’s keep it that way.” Their voice dropped to a whisper aimed at Minty. “That was the biggest stroke of luck we needed for this little venture. Now the way is clear as a wedding aisle.”

Except that I would get caught, even if you somehow slip out of his grasp.” The librarian pushed her round spectacles back up her nose. Would I keep the books written by Pluto? 2 sections perhaps. 2 kinds of truth, for different situations. I’ll need lots of uninterrupted time to sort them one by one. If the head sleeps I could try pouring coffee down its throat.

Even if Roman learns that one of his people let you in, you’ll be on the bottom of the suspect list. He thinks you’re timid, and without a partner. He doesn’t know you have magic rings of silver and platinum. Between my distraction and the emergency mask you’ll put on at the start of it, it’ll be an age before he investigates you. We’ll have squeezed the head of its flowing knowledge and returned it anonymously by then.”

There are easier ways to help Peachy.”

I know,” Long Odd admitted, “but we’re not just doing that. I want to talk to it. It might know a few things about who or what put me in that book… and you can’t tell me that this beautiful little librarian in front of me doesn’t want to talk to the ultimate encyclopedia.”

Well I-”

Sure Thing had more money in it than any other building in Atrium City, and it showed. The stairs out front were red marble, a gorgeous stone found only on Pluto, and only in quarries that indicated indecisiveness on the part of the planet where it was trying to decide if it should be a human paradise or a dead cathedral of geological wonders.

The top windows were always flung open, and whenever someone won big the celebratory shouting burst out of them like waterfalls and washed over passersby below. Curious hardluck tried to congregate outside them and observe, but they were kept back by periodic small fireworks employees launched to disperse them.

Many of its games were gigantic, only parts of them visible through the ground floor windows in order to draw people in. There was a roulette wheel as big as a tennis court, and you were allowed to chase after the cat-sized ball and shout encouragement or criticism of it the whole way. Given the average inebriation of the participants it usually meant bodies stumbling and rolling into slots of their own, something the VIPs often secretly bet on from the next floor up.

This never interfered with the ball itself of course, as it was specially made as 8to1, and nobody worse off than 6 was allowed to enter, though they could certainly leave after their funds fell out of their pockets.

The Eudaemons were all too happy to accept electronic transfers from cards, but people still chose to use the novelty chips Sure Thing offered, which increased in size the more they were worth. Grinning fools couldn’t resist holding up disks the size of dinner plates and waving them around.

Many of the card games were played on mostly empty expanses of felt, the dealers standing at the center. Players were required to skillfully throw their hands back and forth, and if ever their toss didn’t reach the dealer they lost their bet regardless of the hand’s contents.

All of these were distractions from the main event, the boxing ring, though it didn’t function as one much of the time. It was actually a giant craps table, the canvas replaced by a much tougher red felt, the odds of roll combinations printed across it in gold. All the dice used there doubled as boxing dice, and should a dispute over a roll or bet become serious patrons were free to settle it with a match.

Surrounding the table-ring were hundreds of tables at various elevations, some on towers all their own meant to resemble stacks of betting chips and wrapped in spiraling stairs. Seating herself at one of those, preferably with a good view of that evening’s match, was Minty’s first job, but she hadn’t even set foot on red marble yet.

The sky was already darkening. The bell was supposed to ring in less than an hour. When she broke down everything the plan required of her it could fit in one bulleted list on one card. Yet. Her nerves were the screaming metal beams of a collapsing building.

The uncomfortable clothes didn’t help. A librarian was supposed to look cozy among her books; that was how people knew she was adept at cruising through shelves and pages to find just what they needed. The dress of a librarian was a bookworm’s pajamas, and she wanted nothing more than to curl up in them dearly. Instead she was stuck in a sparkly yellow dress, her least favorite color, nothing but green with jaundice, and a heavy fur coat. Wearing fur was also antithetical to her personality, but Silver had assured her it was a guilt-free garment, given that Pluto had raised the animals, slaughtered them, and stitched them together before the swing of things.

Even worse, feeling like a deployed bear trap in the coat’s pocket, was the emergency mask. As their purpose was usually to ground an identity while changing as little as possible, the items were rarely made to cover more than the eyes and nose. The one that Silver had brought her, from the mysterious void beyond Aleatory Books they seemed to get all their belongings from, covered everything, scalp to chin.

Artfully made, the mask’s aesthetic was based on the keys of a typewriter, all the letters stretched into elevated plates that conformed to the natural curves of the face. The craftsman had even gone so far as to make each one functional enough to take a press. What purpose the mask was meant to serve eluded Minty, but now it was meant to obscure her identity during their attempted heist of the brazen head.

Getting caught, with the delicate constitution she insisted she had, was the sort of thing that might instantly drop her probability. If things were to go badly enough that mask could become both her face and a steely incorporation into her soul. That was the thought that kept her from stepping up to the red marble. She couldn’t be a crazy8. Long Odd Silver was the best one she’d ever met, and they had convinced her to rob the lord of a crime syndicate.

She didn’t even have the comfort of thumbing through her card catalog. Her deck was too recognizable, and if she had to throw cards in defense and accidentally left one behind she would be found out. Instead Silver had equipped her with 4 identical decks of hideous cards: inky metallic centers and brass borders. Their suits, numbers, and odds were displayed plainly, any style and functionality they possessed existing only in the sharpening of their edges and intuiting of intended flight paths and bounces.

Only one card stood out, and it just so happened to be on top of the deck she pulled out and glanced at on the foot of the crimson steps. The platinum ace of wheels. Her reflected face stared back.

This is your fault,” she growled at it. “You should be up here in my head and instead you’re hiding out in that impenetrable metal frame. Look at how reckless I am without you. Look at what’s about to happen.” She flicked the card, letting it spin atop the rest of the deck, so the reflection could get a full view of her surroundings. “Don’t you have anything to say about this?”

It didn’t respond, but when she shoved the deck back in her pocket she noticed what it had been obscuring from view: her right foot. It was on red marble. She groaned and cursed her luck, but she did it while climbing the steps.

She had to stop before the top, as people were swarming the entrance. Banners hung everywhere, announcing the prince’s bout, against some opponent she’d never heard of named Mariner Grog. A few of the banners either disliked him or disagreed about his presence, because the name had been crossed off with black paint. Perhaps it was just graffiti; a woman standing next to her had also disrespected one of the banners by tearing it down and wrapping it around her like a sash. She must have thought it made her look distinguished, and like she belonged there, for when she got to the door she used an accent far too pretentious to be believed.

Good day to you my fine sir,” she addressed the large bald doorman. He had a glossy black clipboard in his hand with a stack of papers so thick that it required a small machine at the top to flip through them automatically.

Name,” he demanded.

Surely you recognize me, the famed Bonanza Daiquiri?” One of her hands glided across her sash. The doorman flicked a switch on his board, causing the block of paper to flip through itself as he scanned each page.

You’re not on the list.”

There must be a smaller list for the most important guests.”

There is not. Step aside and then away, at least several times.”

I’ll have you know that Roman and I have been chums ever since-” The doorman pulled a deck out of his jacket and flicked a card at her. It circled her body like an angry fly, forcing her to stumble away as she swatted. That brought Minty to the front of the line, and she immediately hated the way the man looked at her.

Normally secure in her fortress of wisdom, she had no need to ever be self-conscious, but feeling forced out into the public like a stubborn glob of apple sauce from the bottom of the jar brought forth some of those feelings all the same. Without her glasses she felt like her eyes were too small and squinty, like she was a mole probing about in traffic, failing to realize it had even surfaced.

Hello gorgeous,” he greeted her. She nearly hiccuped. “Please tell me your name is on the list.”

Minty Julip,” she said meekly, eyes darting to the clipboard to see if it burst into flame at her presumptuousness. He flipped through a few pages, stopping in the middle.

Looks like you’re right where you belong,” he crooned with a dopey grin. “I just wish your name was closer to mine. It’s Body by the way, Body Shotz.” He pulled the door open for her. Noise as well as the smells of felt and cocktail sauce washed over her. She tried to scurry inside, but the Eudaemon shuffled in front of her. “Can I buy you a drink? Not that we have to do a body shot… it could just be a normal…” He interpreted her locked-up terror as a no. “After my shift of course.”

He let her through and went back to taking names he was less interested in. I can’t believe Silver was right. Getting turned away was my last hope; now I actually have to do this. Wait, where am I going? She was still walking forward, but almost automatically, and if she didn’t turn soon she would collide with one of the potted palm trees stood outside what absolutely could not be an indoor beach, for that would be just too excessively luxurious.

May I take your coat?” a young man in a uniform asked her.

What? No! I mean- no! No thank you!” Minty swaddled herself in the fur tightly and rushed away, but one of the flashing signs above her informed her she needed to rush back if she was looking for the boxing table.

People looking for books were looking for stability. Even the wildest pages were just a record, something secure in its definitely-not-happening-right-now-ness. Aleatory Books was a place of fortification, and Sure Thing was the hell to its heaven. Inside was like the strongest strain of Saturnalia, the castoff hardluck being constantly filtered out by bouncers.

Everything was hard, from the luck to the drink to the expressions of many of the staff. Yet the attendees showed their softest underbelly, throwing themselves into the games with whole exposed heart. When she passed by the giant roulette she saw people trip and fall, forced to continue tumbling by the motion, laughing as they collected bruises and scrapes.

Mr. Shotz hadn’t seemed to recognize her, so she hoped the other Eudaemons would treat her the same way. Unfortunately, in order to get a table beside the bout, which was just 10 minutes away, she had to pass through another of them, wielding a much smaller list of names. It fit on just 3 sheets this time. A smaller list for the most important guests! That confused nobody knew more about this situation than I do.

Name?” the woman asked, her tone even more intimidating than Mr. Shotz’s despite her diminutive size. Minty was 2 inches taller, but the woman’s annoyed eyes suggested she could easily fold the bookseller and throw her over a shoulder like a scarf.

I’m not actually sure if I’m on this list… Minty Julip?” When the Eudaemon’s eyes stopped on the page her expression flipped like a coin. The change was so dramatic it was like 2 siblings living in the same head, forced to take turns at operating the levers of the facial muscles.

Of course Miss Julip,” she bubbled. “The prince would never forget you. If you’ll follow me please, your name is on a table as well.”

It is?”

Yes, and there’s a note here that your food and drink is on the house, so order as you please. I would recommend the sole. It’s a 4to1 fillet seared on one side in a 3to1 cast-iron. The duality of the flavor is worth every simillion you won’t be paying.” They were through a set of curtains and in a narrow dark hallway when she stopped and turned. “Can I take your coat?”

No thank you. I have an… unsightly skin condition.” Despite the Eudaemon’s stare she didn’t query further. It’s a little true; I don’t know if I’ll ever be rid of these goosebumps. Said bumps only further cemented their claim to the land when they exited through another curtain and came face to face with the ring.

Nearly all the tables were full, many of those on pillars looking like steaming stewing volcanoes thanks to the rising heat of their entrees. Waiters flicked orders on cards to each other, eventually placing them to act as coasters for their prescribed elixirs.

Diamonds sparkled on ears. One woman, a crazy8 now securely 4to1, appeared to have eyebrows made of powdered diamond. Satin tuxedos of every color dotted the arena like wildflowers looking to get wilder. Between the tables, under glass sections of the floor, streams flowed. The mechanism was probably meant for water, and maybe decorative fish, initially, but the prince had drained them and filled them with glittering golden coins.

For now the boxing table was still empty. Far above it, on a catwalk with a bottom painted like a cathedral ceiling, there stood a massive vessel attached to a hinged base. Minty guessed it was full of boxing dice, that when craps was being played they were dumped from that height to fall into the ring and distribute the financial fates of the guests.

She couldn’t gather more details than that, for while the table she was escorted too was on one of the pedestals it was one of the lowest, only 5 steps up required. Her eyes were drawn to the card sitting at the center, displaying her name in a circular animation. The Eudaemon woman dealt her a pair before she left: food menu and drink menu.

As she sat down she scrolled through them ravenously, out of the comfort of having something to read rather than hunger. 7 simillion breadsticks. 60 simillion 4to1 steak with 5 or 6to1 bleu cheese crumbles. 19 simillions for charcuterie. Highway robbery. Oh stars, I’m the one committing robbery.

A drink to settle her nerves would’ve been a raindrop on a grease fire, but she couldn’t let herself have even that. It seemed best to minimize her interactions with the staff, so when a waiter came by she simply told him that a glass of water would be sufficient for the evening.

6 minutes until the bell. Minty passed the time by composing a message on one of her hideous disposable cards, trying to figure out the best possible phrasing. Free coat. No, it’s suspicious if it doesn’t say more. Someone needs to take it. It should be a friendly coat. Try something like… free coat, pre-swing fur, please take. Too desperate. Get rid of the please part.

Long Odd Silver had kept her in the dark regarding the ‘distraction’ they would cause, ostensibly to protect her should one or both of them be captured, but she was beginning to suspect it was so she wouldn’t lose her nerve. It was wise, given that the stairs outside being red had almost made her change her mind.

Whatever this distraction was, she was supposed to know it when she saw it, and when she was sure everyone else’s attention was on it she needed to slip under the tablecloth and undergo her transformation, losing the heavy coat and donning the emergency mask to hide her identity. Hopefully, when she came out the other side the brazen head would be exposed.

The head! Minty looked around the boxing table for any sign of it. Nothing. There was a pole however, off to one side, striped in black and white. A knob at the top indicated something was supposed to slot in. That’s where he’ll put it. Silver was right; it’s going to be the referee. But look at it! That’s 10 feet in the air! There’s no way to get it down by hand… and if it’s screwed or glued no card can knock it off. That’ll be Silver’s problem. I told them I wouldn’t do anything more complicated than pick it up off the floor.

Mind if I?” a man built like a cargo ship anchor sort-of asked as he pulled a chair he had claimed from another table and dragged it up the steps. He dropped into it with a groan and grabbed the drink menu, scrolling through it with a meaty cracked finger like an aged sausage.

I suppose not,” Minty said, throat tight. “It is just… my name on the table though. Not that I mind! I just don’t want you to get in trouble.”

Don’t worry,” he grunted, biting the inside of his cheek. His clothes were odd, the white shirt very wrinkled and sweat stained, but at least it matched the shorts. There were red marks around his wrists. “These blighters just compensated me for the inconvenience. Free food and I can sit wherever I want.”

May I ask what that inconvenience was?” He looked up from the menu and stared, waiting for her to say something in response.

What, you bought a ticket for this thing and don’t recognize me?” He smiled, showing a few broken teeth in his foggy pasture of stubble. One of his eyes was permanently wider than the other.

I was invited.”

Oh, well then I’m not offended in that case.” He chuckled. “The name’s Mariner.” She looked at his outfit again. White with blue trim. A nautical theme. The shorts were his costume.

Mariner Grog? You’re about to fight aren’t you?”

That would be the inconvenience. One of the prince’s people came and canceled me barely half an hour ago. Trying to fight my way through this city and they go and cancel the ultimate one. Guess I got to move on to Ventricle anyway.”

I’m sorry. Who is the prince fighting then?”

No idea,” the man sighed, throwing up his hands. “Somebody less challenging I can tell you that much. I’ve got a 6to1 haymaker that could floor a tractor.” He demonstrated by throwing a punch across the table. Minty flinched, but only when she saw what was behind his callused fist as it retracted. There were 2 people sitting at a table, disturbingly close. She recognized one as Vermont Red, the man she’d first seen extolling the wonders of the brazen head. He looked bored out of his mind, and was 7 stories up in his construction of a house of cards.

Of much greater concern was the small woman sat next to him, giggling and poking at the side of the house to see if it would collapse before he smacked her hand away. Even with nimble mischievous fingers her long and thick eyelashes could’ve been an even greater threat, looking as if one bat of her eyes could generate a gust that would bowl a man over.

Minty recognized the young woman, looking half a hair too young to be in such an adult place, as the chaotic creature that had invaded her bookstore and tossed a few tricks at her major arteries. According to the cards she’d left behind Vermont Red was a king, she was a queen, and Minty was a jack, with Roman above them all as the ace. Whoever she was she ranked very highly, and she would almost certainly recognize Minty with those lacquered lobster pot eyes.

Minty pulled out one of her cards and held it up horizontally, as if snapping a photo. Instead she just used the zoom function, pulling in on the tented cards on their table that displayed their names. Vermont Red and… Tequila Sunrise. So that’s her handle.

Would you mind doing me a favor?” she asked Mariner. “Could you shuffle around to about here?” She pointed across the table. “There’s someone I don’t really want to see me.”

At least I can be good for something tonight,” he chuckled, lifting his chair and waddling over. His broad shoulders perfectly blocked Vermont’s table. He smiled at her, a conversation already coiled on his tongue and ready to spring forth, but then he caught a glimpse of platinum atop her deck. Minty hastily returned her zooming card to the top of the pile, but it was still transparent, magnifying the features of the ace of wheels.

Please, don’t say anything,” Minty begged. “I don’t even want it; it just fell into my lap.”

It didn’t fall,” he said in all seriousness, eyes locked on her and the card as if they were the same entity. “It threw itself. It chose the random outcome. That’s what they do.” He looked around for the arrival of a very stiff drink, but he hadn’t ordered yet. “I won’t say anything miss; I wouldn’t want to interfere with business of your… caliber.”

I swear I’m just a-” Dut-dut-duh-dading! It wasn’t exactly a bell, it came from the live band playing nearby, a woman with a throat like a black cormorant’s singing along with it into a stand-mounted card with a crosshatch pattern, but it was terribly loud and quieted the arena. Minty wouldn’t get another chance to tell the burly Mariner that he didn’t need to be afraid of a bookmark like her.

The lights dimmed, remaining power focused in red around a set of double doors and the ramp out of them that led straight to the boxing table. The vocalist announced him, literally singing his praises as the doors flew open on their own and held wide. His boxing dice, the same color as the intimidating steps outside, hung from a cord around his neck. The brazen head was tucked under his arm.

Minty had never actually seen him in person, despite talking to him through the door of her home. The prince’s skin was dark and velvety, lights reflecting surprisingly little off his bald dome. While his height was average there was something, like Long Odd Silver, that suggested he should’ve been taller, perhaps the angry twitch in his immense biceps that would be better suited to the limb of a racehorse.

His small round ears were nonetheless perky and alert, paying vigilant attention while the eyes lollygagged, drinking in the crowd of loyal subjects. He smiled on his way down, hoisting the brazen head up into the air. His people cheered.

She wasn’t done taking him in, it might have taken the length of a 3 course meal to do so, before he shocked everyone by climbing the slick pole at the side of the ring with only one free hand. He placed the brazen head into its slot and, crucially, did not twist it. After that the prince stepped down onto the felt and slipped his hands into his dice, giving them a clack and a spin to show off. Minty started fuming, fingers tracing the spaces between the keys all over the mask in her pocket. Why couldn’t you just write me off? I had to look behind the shelves because of you.

Who has the nerve to step up and take a punch from the one and only prince of Pluto?” the vocalist crooned into her card microphone.

I do,” Mariner grumbled.

Someone who thinks they don’t need a ruler,” she continued. “Someone who likes the land better lawless. A surprise challenger. Not a sailor as we expected, more of a swashbuckler.”

Oh stars,” Minty gasped, hands clapping onto her cheeks.

The sultry somebody with the sparkling sadness.”

They didn’t,” the librarian assured herself.

Here they come to take their punishment, to learn why they need some princely authority in their life. Gorge your eyes on… the baffling brigand… Looong thih,” her breaths hissed between her teeth, “Odd thih Silveeer.”

Damn it,” Minty muttered. All of a sudden they glittered at the top of the ramp, wearing a new costume the librarian had never laid eyes on. Boots that swallowed their knees. A belt that already suggested they’d won a boxing title. A vest lined with silver chains that were surely pure as the crystalline tears running down their cheeks. They strode down toward the arena as the crowd booed, though those closest were so taken in by Silver’s appearance that they were speechless. Instead they sipped their drinks and crunched their ice.

They’ve got quite a pair on them,” Mariner commented. Minty was about to tell him he didn’t know the half of it when she realized he was referring to the boxing dice already spinning at the end of Silver’s long arms.

Where did they get- I can’t even begin to-” She couldn’t finish either. Sputtering in confusion was her natural reflex towards anything Silver did now, so there wasn’t much point in wondering where they had gotten the dice. The weapons’ faces swirled with liquid patterns of gray and silver glitter, like a showy hourglass that had lost which way was up.

This can’t possibly be the distraction they mentioned… right? No. Everyone’s eyes will be on the fight and they’ll turn to the head for the results. They’re going to do something else that draws attention away, but what diabolical plan from the heart of Nemesis can pull that off? Whatever it was, Silver didn’t appear to want to trigger it any time soon. They rolled into the ring gracefully and stood opposite Roman.

Ding ding baby,” the vocalist declared, the band behind her diving right into a new song fit for shuffling feet and throwing fists. Minty, Mariner, and every single other person, regardless of whether they were supposed to be busing tables or taking orders, watched as the bout began. The prince wasted no time, flying across the felt and throwing 5to1 establishing punches like cannon fire.

Silver spun out of the way and circled, using the side of one die to spin the other. They locked it into place at 6to1, having sussed out that Roman was sitting pretty at 4. As Roman closed the gap they put the other to 6 as well and went, to Minty’s surprise, on the offensive. Even with Silver floating the idea of murdering the man, Minty had never really thought of them as a violent person, capable of no more hostility than any other pirate that was trapped on the page.

They attacked sportingly, but there was still a predatory mongoose-like focus to their strikes. With the bulky dice at 6to1 they would go straight through Roman, but Silver’s 5to1 fists wouldn’t. While they didn’t hit as hard as the dice it was much easier to slip them between his defenses and land blows, at least until Roman spun his own to 6, blocked effectively, and returned fire.

Minty felt as if she took the first punch that technically struck Silver. Something about seeing the glancing blow, which nearly whipped some eternal tears from their face before they flowed back, bruised her heart. This was all too real. Silver was the effortless protagonist, so detached from danger that they were as vulnerable to the climax of the film as the title cards were.

Roman was too much of a main character himself, and he asserted himself fiercely, battering his opponent into a corner. Why are you even in there with him!? I know you’re more comfortable counting cards than rolling dice. She flinched in her seat as Silver took a blow to the clavicle. The prince clacked his dice, somehow getting one to land on 5 and the other 4. The 4 slipped between Silver’s dice and caught under their ribs. When their dice went down to block the prince sent the armored 5 right to their cranium. Long Odd stumbled to the side of the table and braced themselves.

They take a punch like they’re taking compliments,” Mariner said, amazed. “Now I’m wondering why they didn’t just send me out on my ass.” Minty was too busy cringing and looking away to respond. Her deck was gripped so tightly that it nearly cut into her hand, and the blood only came closer to the surface when she looked at it.

She didn’t remember nervously flipping the card that she’d used to zoom in on Vermont’s table, but she must have, because now it acted like a magnifying mirror. The platinum card supported it, acting as the background for the figures shuffling across the little screen. The librarian’s head shot up.

Far above the boxing table stood the giant dice cup, but there was just enough catwalk on either side of it to slip by, which at least 4 people had done. Even when the scrolling ball of Minty’s thumb brought the card to full zoom she couldn’t make out many details. A hand outstretched for balance. The tip of a shoe.

Technical staff, surely. Except they can’t be, because I’ve no reason to notice technical staff reflected on platinum. The card is showing me them, just like it showed me that shadowy corner of my own collection of configurations. So who are they?

All of a sudden one of them gave her a good look. A small woman appeared at the edge of the catwalk, directly over the fight, tilting in a way that gravity should’ve claimed authority over. One of the others must have been holding her by the back of her clothes or a harness. A crazy8. That was the only conclusion she could draw, given eyes so green and luminous that they had to be gemstones, putting her own tinted glasses to shame.

It couldn’t be an ordinary mask, not by the way it moved. Minty saw a treasure chest above the nose, but its hinged lid breathed, up and down, as the woman’s expression changed. Crazy8s do crazy things, and whoever that was pulled out a deck of cards to use in that endeavor. The ones holding her up turned her a little, lining her up with the match below as the 2 fighters shifted to another corner.

The hanging woman pulled out a single card, a 3 of kisses, and pulled her arm back slowly, as if loading a bolt into a crossbow. Minty’s throat tensed. Her eyes followed the angles. The treasure-faced woman wanted to kill someone in the ring, but who? It couldn’t be Silver; Minty doubted anyone but them knew they would be in the match an hour before it started. Perhaps Silver hadn’t even known that. Which left the prince. An assassination. Her mind was only halfway through the word that took longer to say than perform when the 3 of kisses started its flight.

Minty was standing before she knew it, thumb doing just as much work as the assassin’s arm. With a flick of wrist, thumb, and card, and all the kinetic force of a snub nosed revolver, her 6 of drinks bounced off the table and toward Roman. It had a long trip, especially considering that an accurate throw using Cat Steps from that distance required 2 bounces, but the deadly card from above had to go a little further.

The librarian’s card cartwheeled below the edge of the boxing table, stabbed the felt, and bounced up into Roman’s face. Shfit! One card embedded in the other, the entwined combative lovers falling to the felt. Roman and Silver hopped back, staring, waiting to see if either of them exploded. They couldn’t wait long however, as cards started a rainy season of their own from on high.

Dozens of them stuck in the felt, all trying to take bites out of the prince, but now that he was aware he had his dice tuned back to 4 and used them to deflect the incoming barrage. The few that came in from wider angles were shot out of the air by Silver, who had ripped the dice from their hands, put them around their neck, and broken out their deck.

I don’t think either of us know why we’re helping him. He’s the cause of all my problems, but I certainly don’t want the man dead! I don’t want anybody dead! The whole planet’s just started; how can they be this angry already? The assault suddenly ceased. Most of the attendees were on their feet, some eyeing the door and some with hands tucked into their vests, waiting for a clear shot of their own.

This fight just got dirty,” the vocalist growled into her microphone. The drummer behind her was still playing, tapping his cymbals. “They’ll have to do their own introduction ladies and gentlemen; this wasn’t on the sheet music.”

With the element of surprise gone, the intruders did just that. 2 of the 4 slid down on black ropes, their hands protected from burns by wrapped cards. The 3rd, the short woman with the plundered face, was wrapped around the waist of the 4th, who glided gently down unaided. His forehead had swelled like a hot air balloon and had an orange glow inside, both of which died down when he landed. 4 of a kind. I don’t like the look of this hand.

If the Survivor Function wanted an invitation they should’ve just asked,” Roman boomed at them. Despite his volume he was still very composed, though he did miss Long Odd Silver’s casual stroll behind his attackers, off toward the corner where the brazen head watched the proceedings.

We told you,” Olive Martini said as she brandished 2 full fans of cards, her fanned eye joining them, “you’re either in the fold or you’re not a survivor. You turned us down, so you’re already dead.”

Which is why we don’t have to feel bad about any of this,” balloon-headed Toddy Hot added, a little too enthusiastic. For his part, Punch Hawaiian just had a pair of punched out angry eyes feed across his masked face. Goldie Cider similarly didn’t feel like talking; as long as the prince could draw breath she couldn’t withdraw payment.

Her introduction took the form of stomping forward and flinging cards at her target, but the prince didn’t even have to defend himself anymore. Cards flew in from the sidelines and knocked hers out of the air before they could get within 5 feet. It was Vermont, stood behind his house of cards, flicking floorboards out of the middle to protect his boss. When there were no more nonessential pieces he swept his arms, collapsing it all at once and sliding them into 2 piles he fired from. Tequila Sunrise, and about 10 bodyguards that came out of the woodwork, joined in.

The Survivor Function, at least a few of its less cavalier members, always had contingency plans, and this time it involved Punch Hawaiian pulling out a thin silver whistle. He blew into it. Minty couldn’t hear a thing, but the thinner ears of lower probabilities did.

Hands and heads rose out of the floor like cadavers digging their way out of their graves. They were dressed for all sorts of occasions, and very few of them seemed aware of where they were. Minty backed away from her table as a woman in a badminton outfit spiraled out of its center like a dancing ballerina unfolding from a music box.

Suddenly the hardluck were everywhere in the arena, 7s, 8s, and 9s, the latter drifting around in the air, trying to spit in people’s drinks. The evacuation of Roman’s guests started, 49% fear of the Function and 51% disgust with the rabble. The band stayed put, even dove into a new number as the battle began in earnest, because the prince had paid top simillion for the sounds of Roxy Clink and the Imminent Danger, so he was going to get them even if they were his funerary dirge.

What does the platinum card want me to do?” Mariner asked, grabbing Minty’s arm. The pressure squeezed some words back into her mouth.

What now?”

Just tell me what I can do for it!” Thinking quickly, she pulled out the typewriter mask, slipped the heavy fur coat off, and shoved it in his arms.

It wants you to keep this free coat and get out of here, quick as you can,” she instructed.

That I can do,” he blurted with a smile and a salute. As he jumped down the steps and barreled away Minty realized that, since Silver hadn’t fled, their plan was still on. I guess we have a new distraction. She ducked under the tablecloth to prepare. 2 deck holsters around her thighs were pushed down to the ankles and tightened, right where a Cat Steps cardist wanted them.

She stopped the mask 3 inches shy of her face. Still 4to1, there was a much greater risk of dying than becoming so unlikely in the next 10 minutes that it would bond to her face and change her, but she feared it all the same. Unsure what it would accomplish, she held up the platinum card and looked at the mask’s reflection to see if there was a more suspicious expression staring back. Nothing.

Here goes,” she hissed as she pulled the strap over her hair and adjusted it on her face. When it was clear it wasn’t clawing at her cheeks she stopped holding her breath. It was time to get that head and the answers stored within. For Peachy. For Silver. For conclusions. The disguised thief crawled out from under the tablecloth, half a deck in each hand.

Roman’s guards were kept at bay, outnumbered by 7to1s who knew enough to remember what they were told to do. They didn’t have cards unlikely enough to get through the floor, so they simply tackled and fought any 6s that crossed their path. The most pivotal battles were still limited to the boxing table, all 4 masked members of the Function duking it out with Roman and his 2 lieutenants.

For now they were so doggedly after the prince’s blood that Long Odd Silver was free to clamber up the referee pole and hang off the end like an experienced topman in the rigging. They eyed the brazen head, and it eyed them back with a smile.

Finally I can get a good look at you,” they greeted.

Yes,” it said, and if they weren’t mistaken the tone was quite friendly.

My confidante and I are going to help you expatriate; would you like that?”

Yes!” it stressed.

You know, you seem very familiar. Have we met before?”

Yes,” it confirmed flirtatiously. Before it could elaborate in a binary fashion, the intimidating colors of Toddy Hot rose behind it. The survivor had used his ballooning mask rather than climbing the pole, so both hands were free to snatch at the head. Before he could, Silver threw a card straight through his swollen crown, both pushing him away and unleashing a gust that blew the head off the pole, along the edge of the boxing table, to a stop at a masked Minty’s feet.

It winked at her, but she refused to engage with it at all until she checked its reflection in her platinum card. That turned out to be flummoxing, as its face in the card looked much more like a severed head, someone not too dissimilar from Mariner Grog in appearance.

You’re not supposed to raise more questions,” she scolded it through the mask as she scooped it up into her elbow. Now that she had acquired the prize it was time to escape, so she turned and ran through the stacked tables toward the exit still stuffed with people trying to leave. Silver was still back there, but if they thought they could escape after making themselves the center of attention then the arrival of the Function likely didn’t change that.

The librarian kept her platinum card held up, using it as a mirror to watch for any pursuers. She was right to do so, though the first pursuer was a jack of lights. The card was just the tiniest flash in the mirror before it was gone, but her instincts wrestled control away from her panicking brain and stopped her dead.

The jack spun by in front of her not a moment later, right where the most vulnerable part of her neck would’ve been. Though it saved her life it caused enough of a delay for a 7to1 cardist aligned with the Function to reach her, and he was present enough to know that if he couldn’t kill the prince he was supposed to snatch the head.

A glance at his hands revealed 2 full fans of cards, 9 in each, but only 3 that were of any concern. He had color-coded his cards to track their probability, a common tactic if your memory wasn’t what it used to be, so Minty guessed the outer ones in each set of 3 were 6to1 while the black inner ones were 5to1 and fully capable of slicing her open. She only had one free hand to fend him off, but the brazen head encouraged her with every dodge and toss.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes! Yes!”

I don’t need the peanut gallery!” she snapped at it. “Waah!” Her foe had combined the 2 fans into a full circle like a painter’s palette in one hand and drawn out a dagger of 3 with the other; he thrust with it, outer and middle cards nicking her finger, only the 2nd one drawing blood.

No!” the head barked, perhaps trying to scare him off, but Minty would have to fight.

Do me a favor and hold these!” she ordered the head, stuffing most of her cards in its mouth. It obediently bit down. She ran back toward the arena, putting 2 floor level tables between herself and the 7to1 survivor. They were no obstacle to his unlikely self, so he waded right into them, right into her trap. I set my first snare; Silver would be so proud.

Minty dropped to her knees, curled her throwing hand, and started tossing. Each one she gave a different path, and though she threw them all to return she hoped they wouldn’t, deciding to vacation in her foe’s calves for a while. She too had to throw in trios to reach his likelihood, and since she hadn’t been expecting an opponent like this she only had 12 total cards at 6to1.

All of them moved in figure 8 patterns of varying size, disappearing under the table cloths. Unable to see anything below his own belt, the survivor yelped and hopped around, but one of her flying fangs caught him. He collapsed into the table and disappeared under it. Oh no, he’s not dead is he!? She could breathe a sigh of relief when every card but one came back for her to catch; there was no way one poke in the lower leg took his life.

The scuffle had eaten up enough time to empty the exit, so Minty ran for it again. She made it out of the corridor and back to the main gaming floor where the giant roulette was centered. Only the VIP area had flooded with hardluck and violence, so even as the torrent of fancy gowns and suits tumbled down the red marble stairs there were still more than 100 people going about their bets.

A 9 of drinks protested her exit, burying its corner between 2 of the typewriter keys that made up her mask. The card struck with enough force for her to stagger and stop. She flicked it out with a corner of her own and turned to see a new opponent sprinting toward her, hinged brow clacking with the effort.

I welched because of you!” Goldie Cider screamed at the mysterious saboteur, but she didn’t allot opportunity for response, machine gunning cards off her hip in its place. They flew so fast they looked like a conveyor belt, a delivery of expertly wrapped death. Minty panicked, only able to think up one move. She fanned a full hand back and forth, the air it pushed proving just enough with each swish to send the cards off to the left and right.

The survivor was at an impasse, her Express Mail cardistry most effective at long range, but her rage pushing her close enough to strangle. The latter was winning out, as the gap between them closed, even as Minty ducked under the conveyor belt and tossed a few tricks across the floor. Goldie stomped each of them flat, even tossing one back with the tip of her shoe.

Minty wasn’t used to dealing with returns; she was lucky she had a final card to toss straight down. It embedded upright in the carpet and caught the return. She ripped the rest of her cards out of the brazen head’s mouth, happy that it didn’t generate any kind of coating saliva. Her hand still fumbled with the stack though, as it was thicker than it should have been.

One that she tried to toss merely looped in the air and fell, as it wasn’t the currency of their fight, just regular old currency. She glanced at her deck to see it was topped with a wad of simillions. Roman kept his pocket change jammed in its mouth. Now I’m just a mugger. Why would he do that? Trying to shut it up?

Are you crazy?” Goldie asked, stopping her electroglass artillery long enough to pick the simillion up off the floor and pocket it. “Unless you’re trying to bribe me?” Minty went goggle-eyed, her confusion luckily hidden by half the alphabet. Eventually she held out all the bills and shook them. “My price would be quadruple. You got that much?” Minty answered with a bouncing toss meant to hit her in the knee. Negotiations were officially over when Goldie stomped it down and rushed forward.

Minty ran out of room to back up, colliding with a felt topped podium manned by the croupier who handled the roulette treadmill just beyond. She needed the dead weight out of her deck, so she slammed the simillions down on the felt in front of him. She was halfway to another toss when another card struck her in the forehead, again sticking between 2 keys. If she hadn’t been bending down for proper Cat Steps technique it would’ve struck her right above the collarbone.

Reeling back, she accidentally stepped onto the roulette wheel, which almost never stopped spinning during open hours, barring vomit that needed cleaning. She fell, striking hard on its sloped surface, dropping the brazen head. It bounced across the numbers and out of her sight. Nuts! Get back here before I lose my lunch!

Hey, what do you want me to put this on?” the croupier shouted at her. He hadn’t tossed one of the house balls in yet, but the brazen head was an official member of staff and Roman had previously enjoyed giving it a few tosses on the wheel to see the outcome. He’d been instructed to let it serve as a substitute for any guests that borrowed it. “Red?”

No!” the head shouted as it rolled.

Black?”

Yes!”

You should be ashamed of yourself!” the survivor barked at the croupier, but she didn’t have time to delineate the various sinful aspects of gambling, the 2nd worst being winning money you didn’t earn and the worst being losing it for no reason. She channeled that anger back to Minty as the masked librarian passed around the prince’s carousel once more.

By the time she was onboard Minty was hidden on the other side, stumbling after the head. Her fingers were inches from it when a card flew between them. It was joined by others; Goldie could throw a perfect circle twice the size of the roulette if she wanted to. Stabilizing on the slope was not the simplest task, but vital if Minty was going to deflect all of the incoming.

They started coming from both directions, splitting her focus. She tried tossing half a deck between hands, but failed to account for the spin of the wheel and lost them all to the number 14. Without the respect for her card catalog she’d been throwing the replacements around like trash and was now down to just 24 cards. The survivor had more than that in the air, pestering her like Stymphalian gadflies.

Losing confidence in her prodigious ability, Minty couldn’t bring herself to continue her double-sided resistance, so she threw herself down and rolled across the roulette as if winding herself up in a carpet. Goldie, only expecting cards, was bowled over when Minty struck the back of her ankles with all her weight. The 2 tumbled through the numbers together, dropping all their cards, vying for dominance.

Who even are you people!?” Minty squeaked as they both slammed into a divot and halted.

The shrinking percentage, now hand over the head!”

I’m not even with the prince!”

Then why on Nemesis’s port wine stain would you get in my way!?”

Bad as he is, Pluto doesn’t have a death penalty,” was all she could think to say. It did nothing to temper Goldie’s anger as she grabbed a single sharp card off the slowing wheel and tried to slash Minty’s throat. A sound stopped her. Bunk, bunk, bunk- The brazen head bounced into view; its copper forehead collided with Goldie’s. Coins, of unknown supply, perhaps constituting brain damage, flew out of the survivor’s face-chest as the impact knocked her away. Minty sat up and watched her prize bounce to a stop in black.

We have a winner!” the croupier declared, counting out the simillions. Desperate to get out of there before the survivor recovered, Minty launched to her feet only to wobble and stumble wildly. One last card flew by, but it wasn’t hostile in its speed. She caught it reflexively: platinum.

Of course. Can’t go anywhere without-huh-you.” She stuck it behind her ear before snatching up the head and running for the exit.

No!” it whined.

Fine!” Minty shuffled backward, to the podium, holding the head out so it could bite down on its winnings. “Now can we go!?”

Yemph,” it said through a mouthful of doubled down cud. She was starting to experience hope, burning inside her lungs along with her breath, as they crossed the building without interference. As they rounded the final corner that feeling was extinguished. The doors were closed, people pooled in front of them, royal guards wading through the crowd, interrogating and inspecting. Word of the dual plots had spread across Sure Thing’s entire steel nervous system. Her mind was blank of ways to get by them, not even bothering to pull her back around the corner so her very suspicious mask wasn’t visible.

Luckily Silver was on that task, snatching her hand and pulling her away with fluid force. Minty let it happen, caring less about where they were going and more about the marks on Silver’s face that marred the trail of their permanent crystal tears. They have cuts. For a while I didn’t think Silver could get hurt. They’re truly more than a storybook character.

Long Odd didn’t explain the thin bloody cuts, though they obviously came from someone’s cards, be they Eudaemon or survivor. Only one of the wounds was deep enough to drip, and they’d already smeared it across their collarbone to make sure the red didn’t reach their ensemble. There was some blood on the dice hanging around their neck, but one of the items was about to suffer a grievous injury of its own.

With their backs against a quiet unpopulated wall, Silver’s hands probed their left die, eventually popping open a panel and sliding out some sort of mechanical pad with a small dial that displayed the number 5. Their fingers pinched, but didn’t turn, not yet.

You know, you were fantastic,” Silver told her breathlessly. “If I could keep my eyes off you I probably wouldn’t have gotten this.” They pointed to the smear. The brazen head was about to emphatically agree, but their free hand slipped over its mouth until it got the hint.

Not that it matters,” she fretted. “It doesn’t look like we’re getting out of here. We stole the head, but I also saved his fool life for some reason, so maybe they’ll go easy on us. We should ask it as many questions as we can before they take it.”

But the only question I have is for you.” They placed the die part flat against the wall, leaned closer to Minty, and gently removed her mask. Her sweat prickled in the air, breath free to come and go, though Silver’s nearness made it timid. Their smile was electric, velvet, sublime. Their big dark eyes reflected nothing but her. “Can I kiss you?”

Yes.” Minty didn’t have time to wonder why she said it, busy as she was realizing it was her first kiss in the swing of things. And swing it did. Silver kissed like music, but this wasn’t the greatest hits album. This was a collaboration, a duet. It couldn’t have happened outside such a treacherous den of beasts, because it took such prompting for them to really hear her sing, to know there were only 2 voices right for this song.

While their lips were joined Silver twisted the knob on the pad to 7. It hummed. Each face of the boxing dice had one of these devices under it to alter the overall probability of the object, but they worked just as well on anything solid. With the entire wall moved from 5 to 7 the 4to1 and 5to1 pair slipped through. Silver guided her so she wouldn’t fall.

All at once the air was cool and quiet. The smells of perfume and booze were gone. Their kiss came to an end, Minty’s smile fading into confusion as she looked around and saw nothing but one of Atrium City’s cleaner alleyways.

That was-”

Transporting, I know,” Silver finished. “Let’s go home and settle down with a good book.” They rubbed the brazen head’s dome for luck.

Yes,” it agreed with relief. The bookseller searched her mind, finding nothing in particular to say, the few thoughts slipping through her focus like sand through fingers before they could make it out of her mouth. So she just followed Silver to the mouth of the alley, where they paused and swiveled around on the ball of one foot.

Oh I almost forgot.” They took the boxing dice off their neck, spun them around on the cord until they were a blur, and tossed them into the air of the alley, where they exploded in a fantastic cloud of sparkling gray dust, like the ashes of 100 magicians pouring out of a malfunctioning box meant to disappear them, like the collapse of a building where silversmith dwarfs toiled away.

The cloud spread into the street, obscured everything. Minty couldn’t see a foot in front of her face, but Silver’s hand was on her wrist again, pulling her, taking their prize home.

That was supposed to be the distraction.”

(Continued in the Finale)

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