Happy July! Here’s a short story about Amastan’s cousin, Azulay – gambler, assassin, and soft cinnamon roll extraordinaire.
Ao3 Tags: anxiety, angst, gambling, pretending to be bad at this, cinnamon roll, bad choices, only choices, everything’s Fine, how (not) to make friends
CW: Mild violence, domestic violence, heights, death
“Four skies, six sands, and two squandered,” announced the watcher.
The crowded table erupted with a mixture of cheers and groans, washing the air afresh with the reek of guzzled wine and bad breath. Azulay grit his teeth and forced a conciliatory smile as the man across from him pulled the pile of baats to himself. At least Azulay didn’t have to fake his disappointment.
It turned out that even when he threw the bet on purpose, losing still felt like shit.
He sighed dramatically—something else that wasn’t faked—and dug deep into his coin pouch. He found one last baat and dropped it onto the table with a clatter of finality.
The cheering stilled. Faces turned to him, their expressions hidden by their wine- and spit-stained tagels but their eyes still—always—telling all. Surprise. Confusion. Amusement. Mockery.
That last one hurt. He’d gambled with this same group—or at least a collection similar to this same group—on a hundred separate nights. They knew his name. They knew his preferences. And they knew he always won.
Okay, often enough.
But all it took was a different tagel, a rougher voice, and a straight back and they didn’t even know him from Saben. And Saben habitually hit on the other gamblers, so really.
He knew most people couldn’t read a man as easily as he could, or at least he’d known that in principle. It was why he was so good at what games of chance. A man’s moods were as clear to him as the horizon to a stormsayer. He used to win every round of hands and downs, two games built around equal parts chance and deception. But after a particularly large win one night, he’d been caught in an alley and he’d been taught a painful lesson about men’s fragile emotions.
The worst part was that he could’ve taken all six of them. But that would’ve been suspicious and Tamella didn’t like it when they were suspicious. So instead he’d let them quench their anger through their fists, let them argue their point with bruises and blood.
He’d quit hands and downs after that, but he couldn’t quit gambling. It wasn’t the money that snared him, or the rush that came when a hand was called or a roll thrown, but the simple fact that he was so shards-cursed good at it. With three older brothers, he’d had so very few things to claim as his own, and even fewer that he received any praise for. Not that his parents would ever praise him for this. Nothing he did would be enough for them, so why bother? Azulay could shit wood and his parents would still fawn over his eldest brother writing his own dust-covered name.
It was freeing, if he could just look at it in the right way.
Of course, now he was good at other things. Tamella had seen to that. But being good at sneaking into someone’s room and taking their life wasn’t exactly the kind of accomplishment he could share with his parents.
Azulay picked up his drink and tipped it to his lips but swallowed only air. On the opposite side of the table, the mark mirrored his actions, but swallowed wine instead. Baby see, baby do, thought Azulay grimly. He had to focus on what was important here and for once at the table, for tonight, that wasn’t his pride. Well, maybe it was. Because if he shattered this, Kaseem would never give him another contract, and what was a cousin without contracts?
Plus the whole shunned and publicly humiliated and pro-ba-bly executed thing. Those could be problems, too.
The main thing was, if he broke this, he’d no longer be an assassin.
And he wasn’t about to let that go. Gambling was one thing—the roll of the tiddas bones, that held-breath moment before they settled and the watcher finished counting, when everything, absolutely everything, was up in the air. But it didn’t hold water compared to the thrill of a contract, the moment before a life ended.
Not that he knew how that felt. Not yet. Although he’d helped his cousin with two previous contracts, Dihya had always held the knife — both literally and figuratively. But he could imagine.
Beneath the table, he traced one finger along the edge of his knife as he met the watcher’s gaze. “Again.”
The watcher glanced around the table, met agreement, and nodded. He gathered up the tiddas pieces, a dozen and more carved bones, each a different shape, a different size, a different variable, and tucked them into his sack. Then he shook the sack—once, twice—before upending it across the table. As one, the gamblers leaned in. Azulay leaned with them.
The game was simple. The bone pieces were curved and could land in a variety of different ways. Each landing represented a different amount of points, and whoever placed their bets closest to the total points tossed, won.
There was no way to cheat at tiddas. No way, unless you knew a few things about the table’s surface, about the dealer, and about that particular tiddas set. And Azulay knew them all.
But so did many of the other players.
It was a game of chance only in theory. The trick was accounting for all of the variables. And there were other ways to play. If your bet was far enough off, you could push for double, keeping all bets on the table for a second throw. If two players were within a certain amount of the throw, you could call a triple, where everyone who held in could stay through three throws and whoever came closest two out of the three throws took a third of the pool. And there were other rules, too, rules that came with the particular dealer or the particular inn or the particular night.
So long as every player agreed, anything went.
Tonight, they’d agreed on wine. Or rather, Azulay had suggested it and the others had gone for it. And now the mark’s cup quite literally ran over, he could barely keep up. His eyes were red-rimmed with drink and his calls increasingly slurred, but he was winning, dust cover him.
Azulay closed his eyes for a moment while the dealer counted; if tonight went as it should, dust would.
“Five skies, two sands, four squandered.” The watcher paused for a heartbeat, then said, “One for G-d.”
The table erupted into a chaotic mixture of cheers and groans. Without opening his eyes, Azulay pushed his last baat across the table to the mark.
He’d get it back soon.
“The street is spinning—is the street supposed to be spinning?”
The mark squinted suspiciously at the stones between his feet as he walked—well, more like stumbled—and then he rested that squint on Azulay. Or at least he tried to. He couldn’t seem to find Azulay at first, then his gaze locked on with a sharp keenness, his fingers tightening around Azulay’s arm.
“It shouldn’t be spinning,” continued the mark.
“No,” agreed Azulay. “That’s not very kind of it.”
“Not kind at all.” The mark nodded, but the motion was so overemphasized that he almost fell over. A giggle burst from him like a gasp. “But you are, sa. Thank you for helping me home, even though I took all your baats.”
That was the fifth time the mark had thanked him and they weren’t even a platform away from the inn. But Azulay smiled anyway so the warmth would reach his voice. “It was a fair game, sa.”
“Of course it was. It’s always a fair game.” The mark winked at him, his eye staying shut so long Azulay wondered if he’d forgotten to open it again. Then his other eye closed and Azulay wondered if the mark would just pass out here, on the street.
That wouldn’t do. The contract had been very specific. Azulay gave the mark a gentle shake and slowly, slowly, those red-rimmed eyes reopened.
“Huh,” he said distantly. Then, “What was your name again?”
“You remind me of my son,” said the mark, ignoring the answer. “We used to play tiddas together, too.”
“What happened?” asked Azulay, despite himself.
“He’d always call the bet as it landed,” continued the mark, his voice brightening with a smile. “Never got it, bless, but he thought it was more fun that way. He wouldn’t ever listen to advice. Now I haven’t talked to him in years. Moved out. Apprenticed. But also doesn’t want to be around me any more.” The smile broke and his voice turned wistful.
Azulay felt a stirring of compassion for the mark and tamped down on it as hard as he could. He wondered if Dihya could hear the mark from where she was, if she was following as close as she’d promised. She’d been breathing the warm night air on a nearby roof instead of sharing the same breath as a bunch of drunk gamblers.
They’d agreed early on that the weight of this contract would fall on Azulay’s shoulders. He was more at ease amongst gamblers, at soft touches of deception. They’d planned this contract together, but ultimately it was up to Azulay to carry it out. This was supposed to be an easy one. But the mark was still talking.
“Lost my wife soon after that,” he said. “It’s been… it’s been a hard year. By G-d, I miss her.” His voice cracked and his foot caught on the stone. He stumbled, but caught himself on Azulay’s arm. A chuckle hissed from him. “She’d hate seeing me like this. Didn’t use to be this way. Didn’t use to be…”
Now the compassion hardened into guilt. It was mostly Azulay’s fault that the mark was so drunk, after all.
“What’s your name again?” asked the mark for a third time. Then, without waiting for an answer, “I’m Lamek. Azal name, I know. But I’m not Azali. I mean, I am. My mother was. Came with a caravan and stayed. She always complained about the camels, hated the noises they made. Said it reminded her of someone throwing up. Or maybe it was the other way around.”
The mark chuckled and then groaned, hand rubbing at his forehead again and again. “Oh shards — what’s she going to think when I’m hungover tomorrow? Like I’m the sands-cursed son she says I am, that’s what.”
“We’ll get you home and cleaned up,” said Azulay. “I know just the thing to prevent hangovers.”
Lamek’s gaze locked on Azulay like he was the King of the Wastes. “G-d be praised,” he said with no small amount of reverence.
“No praise needed,” said Azulay with a grin and a chuckle, but the joke went over Lamek’s head. “The important thing is to preserve your breath.”
But Lamek didn’t take the hint. As Azulay guided him down the street—first the wrong one, until Lamek finally realized they were headed the wrong way, then back and down a different street—Lamek kept talking. Apparently Azulay had nabbed himself a chatty drunk. Couldn’t he have been the belligerent sort instead? Azulay found himself reciting Lamek’s list of crimes in his head, the reason for his contract, but it was increasingly difficult to place them at the feet of this bumbling drunkard.
Theft, threatening with a weapon, harassment, emotional manipulation, financial manipulation, assault, disfiguration —
And all of that against his wife, Hazul.
No wonder she’d left. But that hadn’t stopped the mark. The disfiguration had come after she’d packed her trunk and moved back home with her family. He’d drawn a knife on her in searing daylight and pulled its sharp blade across her cheek. The healers couldn’t stop it from scarring; it was too late in season and there wasn’t enough water to waste on something that didn’t threaten her life.
But it did, Azulay had thought while he’d read the contract. It threatened her life every day. It was a reminder that he was out there still, the one who’d hurt her. Able to take more at any time. Unpunished.
Hazul had petitioned her drum chief, but she’d been given a few days’ escort by the watchmen and nothing more. Despite the attack happening in public, in a street, she’d found no one who would vouch for her story. And so, her plea had been dismissed. The watchmen had satisfied their duty. And the mark walked the streets of Ghadid without a care while she spent every moment looking over her shoulder.
Not for much longer, if Azulay had anything to do with it.
The mark stopped suddenly, finger pointing at one door among many. “That’s it. We found it!” He patted Azulay on the shoulder, or at least tried to; he hit Azulay’s bicep instead, palm slamming into the knife hidden there. Azulay winced, but the mark didn’t seem to notice.
“G-d bless you for all your help, friend. I’d’ve fallen off a bridge without you.” The mark squinted at Azulay. “Saben, you said?”
Azulay nodded. “I’m not finished with you yet.” He stepped around the mark and opened the door for him, “Remember that hangover cure I promised you?”
“A hundred blessings,” said the mark reverently, stumbling through the doorway.
Ahead, just as Azulay had known there would be, were the stairs leading up to the mark’s room. The contract had been very specific in how the act needed to be carried out. An accident, of course. Lamek—the mark, Azulay corrected himself—was known for drinking. Not excessively, not often anyway. But Azulay knew a half dozen ways to up the chance.
And if the mark happened to fall down the stairs and break his neck, well. Accidents happened.
Azulay hung close as the mark heaved his weight onto the first step, leaning forward as if all the world were trying to drag him down.
“I have water to spare,” the mark was saying, still talking, as if silence might condemn him if he ever stopped. “If you have time, I can make some tea. It’s so quiet here—I still get lonely. Don’t worry—we won’t wake my mother. She can sleep through a storm.”
The mark was on the third step now. There were twelve total. Azulay matched him, step for step, the heaviness in his stomach spreading to his limbs. Could he do this? The mark seemed like such a nice guy. The kind of friend Azulay would make around the tiddas tables. The kind he’d share drinks with, learn his life’s story, commiserate with and advise. Despite his cousins’ teasing, Azulay gave good advice. It was hard not to when he could feel a man’s emotions as well as his own.
And Lamek’s loneliness spilled into the air around him like smoke from a fire.
A life. Azulay couldn’t believe he was hesitating, now. Of course, his cousin Amastan was always hesitant, always worried about what it meant to take a life. But Azulay had always known it was necessary. He’d taken several before, without even thinking.
Now he wasn’t so sure.
This guy—maybe there was more to the story. The contract had come from a friend of the wife’s. It could’ve been partially fabricated. The wife could’ve done equally terrible things to Lamek. Did the man deserve to die over a single, impulsive moment?
“I might get to see my son soon,” Lamek was saying. “He’s a performer, now. One of those with the swords and the silks. He’s amazing. He wouldn’t ever let me come to one of his shows. Embarrassed, I guess, to see his dad there. But this one will be out in the streets, part of the end of season celebrations.”
Halfway up. The bottom floor fell away, empty space on one side of them, wall to the other. Azulay could do it now, shove Lamek hard and he’d fall—but he might not die. He might break a leg, an arm—wouldn’t that be punishment enough?
But Azulay would be botching the contract, he’d be screwing up any chances for another, and he’d only be proving to the others that he really wasn’t good at anything but gambling.
They took the next step together.
“Of course, his mother might be there, too.” Lamek’s tone darkened. “She poisoned him against me, whispering lies in his ear like a jaani, confusing him about what’s real and what isn’t.”
“What will you do if she’s there?” asked Azulay, equal parts hoping for and dreading the answer.
“Dunno.” Lamek shrugged, the motion exaggerated with drink. “Depends, I guess. If she keeps her lies to herself, I won’t have to do anything.”
Lamek’s hand tightened on the railing. He paused. He was over halfway up the stairs now. Azulay’s heart was in his throat; how could this stairwell be so long? But at the same time, he could see the street outside after season’s end, the dancers and performers filling it with color and movement. A boy among them all, deftly spinning in bright reds and yellows from the top of a ladder. Below, one woman among the many watching, her head tilted up and eyes on the boy, a wisp of a smile on her face.
But not for long. She’d glance around and check the crowd soon, worried, weary. The sun would catch her face, spill silver down the scar across her cheek. It’d highlight the fear that would spread her pupils, flush her cheeks, and catch her breath. And then she’d be gone, like a wisp of late-season cloud, blown away by her own terror.
All so Lamek could walk free, unpunished.
Azulay’s will hardened.
“We’re almost there now,” he said with a lightness he didn’t feel. “We’ll get you safely in bed and your hangover cured and you’ll never have a worry again.”
“That sounds lovely,” sighed Lamek.
Finally, his grip loosened. Finally, he took another step. Over halfway now. A few more steps would put him high enough.
“Tea, though,” continued Lamek. “You should stay long enough for tea. I owe you that much. There aren’t enough people in this G-d-spat town that would be so kind to a drunk. And people don’t talk to me like they used to, not since… well.” He shook his head. Another step.
“Since?” prompted Azulay, despite himself.
“Since the accident,” said Lamek. “And it was an accident,” he added fiercely. “The drum chiefs saw that, even if my own neighbors don’t. They shun me, like I’m a madman.”
“But you’re not a madman.”
“No! No, of course not.”
“You did what any reasonable person would do.”
A sigh. A step. Then, “You understand.”
Azulay did. He hated it, but he did. He could understand the anger of a moment, an act cast and too late reconsidered. The harm called, the bones what they were, what they always would be. Too late to take back a bet. Too late not to have taken a chair at the table, too late never to have set foot in the inn.
But then you dealt with the dust-cursed consequences.
Lamek took another step.
“I do,” said Azulay. “And I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” said Lamek.
It was a simple thing. A nudge at the back of the knees. A pull on the shoulder of the wrap. A stumble. A stutter. A fall.
Lamek let out an “oh” of surprise before his legs betrayed him and the stairs took him. A crack, clatter, thud—and then silence. No movement, no sound, nothing but a body crumpled at the base of the stairs like so many cast bones.
Three squandered, thought Azulay. One for G-d.
He waited for a heartbeat, then two, his own blood roaring like wind in his ears. His mouth tasted like ashes and his chest felt as heavy as lead. Distantly, he heard voices next door, loud and concerned. But the body didn’t move. Slowly, slowly, Azulay did.
He didn’t remember climbing out the window. He didn’t remember how he got to the roof. But he must have. Dihya was waiting for him on the rooftop, her wrap a plain beige and her face bare. She uncrossed her arms and started toward Azulay, a hand out, a smile warming her features, then paused. She dropped her hand and her smile.
“His neighbors heard the crash,” she said. “I saw one leave to get a watchman. Someone will find the body soon. You did well, Az’.”
“Yeah.” Azulay kept walking past Dihya, unable to stop, unwilling to turn back. He’d done what he had to, he told himself. He’d thrown the bones and now he’d deal with the consequences. “We’ll get a lot of baats for this one.”
“It’s not supposed to be easy,” called Dihya.
But knowing didn’t change the roll’s outcome.
The heat beat like a drum against Azulay’s skull, almost in time with the real drum that filled the street with thunderous reverberations. Color pulsed with the beat and between that and the crowd and the sun, it was all Azulay could do not to be sick. He’d told Dihya he was going to go fill his skin at the pumphouse and it’d only been half a lie to get out of the dark house and away from her postmortem.
He did need the water, but first —
The beat quickened. Fabric in reds and blues and yellows swirled, vibrant and blazing in the full light. Between and beneath, boys and men and others danced, their bare arms glistening with oil and paint. A ladder rose in the middle of the performers, hoisted aloft by half a dozen hands. A boy burst from the bustle of movement, climbing the ladder rung by rung until he balanced at the top. He couldn’t have been older than Azulay had been the very first time Tamella had broken into his room and held a knife to his throat.
The boy spread his arms and the fabric with them, thin enough to blaze with sunlight and wash the crowd in gold. Azulay scanned the crowd, found the one upturned face that glowed with love instead of light. Azulay didn’t see a scar, but he didn’t need to.
He didn’t know if the boy was Lamek’s son. He didn’t know if the woman was Hazul. It didn’t matter. It was enough to know that out of a thousand different casts, one could land correctly. It was enough to know that it was possible.
He didn’t have to wait for the watcher to call it.