"Come on, come on, just give me one more six!" pleaded the young
man, beads of sweat dotting his forehead as he rattled the three dice
in his right hand. His name was Eron Malloy, he was eighteen years old
and a student at Piata's renowned center of learning, Motavia Academy,
and the fever of gaming was in his blood. If he could score just one
more six before tossing a throw that totaled ten, he would win a small
His hand shook as he hurled the dice onto the tabletop. One bounced
off a half-full tankard and stopped almost immediately, showing a four.
Another rattled to a stop--a six! A six, and already ten showing on
two dice so it would be impossible for it to be the final total. He
couldn't lose, not unless...
The third die, colored red instead of bone white, slowly spun to a
stop; the grinning skull that replaced the one-spot seemed to leer up
at Eron. The blood drained from the student's face. This was worse
than a ten, which would only have cost him the score for the round.
Under the rules of Motavian kishkar, three skulls rolled in a
single round zeroed out the player's score for the entire game.
And this was the final round...
"Too bad," commented one of the other players, a plump, mustachioed
man in the neat, slightly flashy clothes of a merchant. "You were
doing well until then."
Another of the gamblers, a burly farmer, was adding up the final
results laboriously on a scrap of paper. Eron had already calculated
the figures in his head--his specialized field of study was
mathematics, one reason why he thought he'd have an edge at dice--and
knew the bad news before Petro announced at last, "That's three hundred
and twenty for me, eight hundred to Bredt, and two thousand eight
hundred to Taben, who wins again."
The fourth player, a lean, dark-bearded man with aquiline features,
took in the trembling young man with an icy glance. Eron had never
felt comfortable around this opponent, whose name was Bredt Carlisle.
The man had a dangerous look of a soldier, a hunter, or a bandit--the
look of a man familiar with using violence to get his way. Eron had
been surprised to learn that he was actually a tanner, with a
leather-goods shop in Zema, but still had a feeling that Bredt was
involved in the underworld, smuggling perhaps.
"You can pay, can't you?" Bredt's voice was cold and smooth,
reminding Eron of reptiles and venomous things. The threat was barely
veiled, like a dancer's face behind a wisp of silk.
Eron bit nervously at his lip. The merchant, Taben, caught the
boy's look and stepped in to deflect Bredt's anger.
"Ah, don't stare at him like that. He's just had a bad turn of
luck; there's no reason to scare him out of his skin besides. He's
paid up when he's lost before, hasn't he?" He clapped the student on
the back and filled his cup from the clay wine-jug. "Here, have a
drink; it'll steady your nerves."
The young man gulped gratefully at the sour wine. It was a cheap
house vintage, but it cooled Eron's throat and gave him something to do
with his hands besides try to keep them from shaking.
"Hunh. That was what, a hundred here, a hundred-fifty there," Petro
said while scratching at his scraggly brown beard. "Meanwhile, he'd
won nearly six hundred, right? What makes you think he can come up with
four thousand meseta?"
"I can get the money," Eron said at once. The sordid surroundings
of the cheap bar had seemed exciting, part of the illicit thrill of the
game, but now the stink of alcohol, sweat, and vomit turned his
stomach. His parents had just sent him the money they had scrimped and
saved to pay his next semester's tuition. Now, he'd have to use most
of it to pay his gambling debt. It meant returning home in disgrace,
but what else could he do? The others wouldn't let him try to win it
back unless he paid up first.
"You'd better," Bredt said sibilantly, drawing a long-bladed dagger
and using the tip to clean his nails. It was a melodramatic, cliched
way of making a point, almost comical in its absurdity, but a boy who
envisioned nothing in his future except failure and shame didn't see
Someone else did, though.
"Why should he do something stupid like that?" a woman's voice
interrupted. A strong hand in a white glove clamped down on Taben's
left wrist and twisted. A slight shake caused a second trio of dice to
spill out of a hidden pocket in his sleeve. "I don't think loaded dice
are part of the house rules."
Eron sucked in his breath. Taben had been cheating him all along,
probably letting him get some small wins on other nights to set him up
for the kill, so Eron would assume his big loss was just bad
luck--which he had. If the woman hadn't intervened...
For the first time the student looked up at his rescuer and got a
good look at her. She was as tall or taller than most men, an inch or
two shy of six feet, and had the striking looks to go with the height:
long brown hair framing a beautiful face and bright blue eyes that held
an expression made up of equal parts contempt and anger. She wore a
black bodysuit under a sleeveless red knee-length dress edged in white
along with white gloves and boots. Two folded slashers hung at her
belt, bladed throwing weapons used only by trained warriors, but in
spite of that she didn't have Bredt's aura of violence and danger. Her
attitude was controlled and professional.
The tanner's jaw tensed slightly, then he lunged for the woman
across the table in one lightning-quick movement while Petro clawed his
own knife loose. Eron could only gape helplessly as he realized that
all three had been in on the cheat together. He barely had
enough wits to scurry back to the edge of the room, where the other
patrons were eagerly watching to see what would come next.
As for the woman in red, none of this appeared to catch her by
surprise. Coolly, she yanked Taben out of his chair by main force and
dumped him on the floor in Petro's path. Not being particularly agile,
the "farmer" tumbled over his sprawled ally and met a rising kick with
the point of his jaw, leaving the "merchant" pinned under his
Bredt, meanwhile, had vaulted over the table and cut with his long
dagger at the woman's head, but she leaned back out of the way and got
a slasher out in time to block his second strike, using the folded
blades as a crude knife. The next few moments were a blur of cut and
parry too fast for Eron, who knew nothing of knife-fighting, to follow,
until Bredt disengaged, leaping back with amazement written plainly on
"Who are you?" he challenged. "Never before have I met my equal
with the blade?"
His opponent snorted derisively.
"You obviously don't get out much."
Then, since he had so obligingly opened up space between them, she
thrust out her empty left hand towards him, palm out, and commanded,
"FOI!" The burst of fire conjured by her technique exploded against the
gambler's chest and floored him, just as unconscious as Petro.
"As for my name," she continued, hauling Taben to his feet and
planting him back in his chair, "it's Alys Brangwin."
"Alys the Eight-Stroke Sword!?" Eron gasped.
"Oh, no. Now even kids who don't get out enough to spot a
fourth-rate pack of dice cheats know that stupid nickname? I must be
She efficiently patted Taben down, coming up with a holdout knife he
kept up his other sleeve, then tied his hands behind the chair back.
Alys then fixed her gaze squarely on Eron.
"You should thank your lucky stars that the caretaker at the
Academy dorm takes his job seriously. He suspected that you were
getting in over your head with something after you came in smelling of
cheap ale several nights in a row and threw around meseta you shouldn't
have had, so he asked the Hunters' Guild to send someone to look into
She turned back to Taben.
"Frankly, you ought to be thankful, too. Cheating at dice plus a
try at sticking a knife into someone would earn a free trip to the
gallows in Nalya or Uzo. Here in nice, civilized Piata, they'll
probably just give you and your crew, oh, maybe five years at hard
Taben's reply was neither that of a man who felt particularly
thankful nor appropriate for a lady's presence.
"You see, kid? You can always spot a cheap crook by his vocabulary."
Eron nodded mechanically.
"H-how did you know?" he asked. "I mean, I'm sure that you can spot
someone switching dice--"
"I haven't been nursing a beer under a hooded cloak watching you
play for my health," Alys noted.
"--but how did you know they were in it together?"
"They were cheating you."
"Um, I don't see..."
"Look, the guy who needs a bath was supposed to be a farmer, right?
And the one who thinks he's some kind of fairytale villain is a tanner
with business interests in more than one town? Yet the cheat plays
kishkar, a game where only one person loses, and he feeds the
weighted dice to an Academy student? Yeah, like that
makes sense. They had to be in it together, or this guy was the
dumbest crook on Motavia. Now, that's enough questions; class is over,
so get back to the dorm. Now that you've saved your tuition, I don't
think you want to be goofing off."
Eron scuttled for the door, still half in shock from his lucky
escape. Taben swore at Alys again, apparently displeased by her
"Just be happy I skipped the 'look at this guy; he's what you'll be
if you flunk out of school' bit," she told him.
Ignoring the cheat's dirty looks, Alys turned to the bartender and
called, "Hey, how about sending for the guards? And when they get here,
I could use a drink." She glanced at the table where the dice game had
been going on. "In a clean glass, if you don't mind."
Alys figured it was the least she deserved for not smashing any
furniture during the brawl.