The Poison Gamble

By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 2
An Inadvertent Theft

Less than a week before: Monday, October 22, 2700

Merrill knew it'd be one of those days when he inadvertently stole a crown.
"You take it!" the youth cried to his tall companion.
"I don't want it!"
"You don't?"
"No!"  Even as they ran the lanky blonde lobbed the crown back to Merrill while behind them guards gouted out of Hospitality Museum like flames from a burning oilgourd. (It all started so innocently--Merrill just wanted to build Don's confidence.) He skidded turning on wet grass, but kept his feet as he led Don veering from more cops. (So Merrill had dragged his homely friend into the Hospitality Museum for that display on the royal treasures of Neyth, the massy chunks of hammered metal and semiprecious stones, glinting like the flicker of an ancient memory.)
"Crown's yours, Don, it should be yours," he panted as they ran through several nonexistent walls in a row.

"Whoa!" Don gasped. "They've got illusionists against us!"
"This way," Merrill said. He hooked his best friend's elbow and hauled him down an alley that wound through the architectural hodgepodge of Til Institute. "Of course not; you worry like a granny--we're too small a catch." (But Don had just meekly followed where Merrill led, looking at the displays like they had nothing to do with him.) He shinnied up the first lattice that he found, Don right behind with his face in Merrill's heels. "Those walls? Just illusion-students at practice." (So--just to build up his confidence, or maybe just to make him do something, Merrill had teased him into testing his psychometry and trace-telekinesis on the alarm-fraught cabinet of the Crown of Neyth.) They rustled up through scratchy foliage and the smell of bruised leaves, while the lattice wobbled and bent to their weight.
"What do you know about grannies?"
"Hush." Merrill looped the crown around one arm as he climbed, where it kept snagging vines at inopportune moments. (Typically, Don took it as an intellectual challenge, forgetting the illegality of the act completely.)
They scrambled onto the roof, wincing at the sound of lava-pebbles underfoot, slipping now and then on the slant, hearts in their throats. (Sensitive fingertips had pressed against the glass, the homely scholar's eyes half-closed, till the lid quietly popped open.) They rolled behind a chimney just in time to hide from the police who ran beneath them. (Then Don lifted out the jeweled circlet, just to study the hammer-strokes upon the metal and see how, exactly, they had sunk the stones into it. He really meant to put it back.) Bystanders came out at the sound of all those drumming feet; one little girl glared straight up at them, but Merrill pressed a finger to his lips and gave her his most charming smile. (Who would've thought that the guard would walk in just then?) The child just kept on staring, but fortunately nobody noticed.
"Consider this education, Don," Merrill whispered, wishing that at least one of them were a telepath. "Agents do this sort of thing all the time."
"What, steal?"
"Perhaps." Merrill said no more, but worked instead to catch his breath.
He'd almost gotten it back when Don hissed "No!" just as the sound of running feet returned. "They've gotten a telepath on us--and don't argue!" Don growled to the handsome one. "I can feel it."
"Got it," said Merrill as they dropped from their refuge. They doubled back the way they came, just like their lessons said that a good agent should. "First..." Merrill panted between breaths, "an unlikely...direction." He pushed Don's gangliness into the nearest doorway. It opened to a cubicle with a manhole in the center.
"That smell!" Don groaned. "This leads to..."
"Sewage recycling. I know." He shoved Don in, then followed. Merrill could crouch his way through the tunnel but at a full foot taller Don had to go on all fours. They made the quickest progress they could towards a larger chamber mostly filled by an unspeakable tank.
"You still got the crown, Merrill?"
"I thought you didn't care about the crown."
"If you drop it in the sewage, I care." Their nostrils warned them that they'd reach the chamber soon. "Merrill, this is one mess I'm not sure I'll forgive you for."
"I'm suffering enough! I'm ruining my best suede boots to wade through here."
"Your boots! Fop! What about my hands and knees?" Don waved a gooey fist. "Wait'll I can stand--you'll see what it feels like, face-first!" And yet he kept crawling after.
They reached the chamber. They found a slippery rim to stand on, which they inched around very slowly. The stench just about fried their nose-hairs. Despite the fumes, Merrill found it easier to breathe now that he no longer ran. So why'd action always have to come first from Merrill, not Don the healthy, Don the brilliant...Don the passive?
"That telepath'll find us anyway," Don choked, trying not to gag.
"Oh, yeah. Wait a minute..." Merrill fumbled in his shirt for a packet. "Here." He dealt some cards to Don. "Seven card stud, roll your own. Display cards outward in one hand, hidden cards held to the chest in the other. One-eyed jacks are wild."
"You're mad!"
"Concentrate! Think of cards, not smells or crowns." Think of cards. Merrill played life harder than Don, with the lesser cards dealt him; he had to bluff his way through or fold.
Don pulled a will-o-watt from a pocket and pinned it to his shoulder. Any form of Gift could light its tiny grain of magentine, so of course Merrill couldn't kindle it. Its glow made Don's deep-tanned face look even longer than usual and seemed to paint on lines that awaited him in decades to come. Merrill appeared as a floating face and pair of hands, his black hair and clothes blending into the wall behind. The light gilded to gold the backs of the cards and Don's bright hair, and silvered the streaks on Don's wet knees and the queasy mess below.
"First bet," said Merrill calmly, while he tried to handle two hands of cards, a deck and a crown.
"What if we fall in?"
"You can hold your breath!" Merrill snapped. "Now make your first bet."
Don studied his cards. "Winner gets to choose the next camp-site."
"I match you. Have a card."
"You'll have to throw these away," Don said as he took it in befouled fingers.
"Don't think about it! Expose a card." Don showed a three of clubs. Merrill exposed a nine of diamonds with some difficulty. The crown bit into the arm it looped around, this crude, heavy ring of gold with greenish stones. He tried to think of anything but its weight, then gave up and shifted it to the other arm. "Second bet," he told Don.
"Whoever loses cleans the barnacles off our boat."
"I see you and I raise you one apartment-cleaning. You memorizing all this?"
"You betcha."
"Don't raise," a voice called down the tunnel. "He's got four of a kind already."
"The telepath!" they both shouted before the echoes died. Cards rained down into the sludge below.
"You didn't concentrate!" Merrill accused as they slithered as fast as they could to the passageway on the other side.
"Why blame me?" Don protested. "I'm not the one who keeps flunking meditation classes." Don found the next passageway and hustled into it. Merrill slipped on its wetness, fell to his knees and just kept crawling. They burst out into daylight like a belch of bad odor. They both gasped in as much clean air as they could, but Merrill couldn't let it all out again.
"Oh great--just great!" Don muttered as he shoved the smaller kid ahead of him. They darted through a maze of walls.
Merrill caught sight of a clock-tower and stopped in his tracks. "Hey, I know this place," he wheezed, "and these aren't walls." He pushed Don into one. "See? Bushes--a garden."
"Yeah--full of thorns."
"Tough." They burrowed under a hedge and hid there. "I think I hear them com..."
"Shhh!" They listened for a clatter of feet to pass them. Sometimes it worked to your advantage when illusionist students cluttered up Til Institute with their homework and mistakes.
Merrill whispered, "Four of a kind, huh? Not bad."
"Shhh!" Don repeated. Merrill fidgeted under the prickles and felt each minute crawl across his skin.
The footsteps did not merely run past them. They paused, they circled, they searched. Merrill didn't even realize that he pulled twigs apart till Don dug nails into his hand to make him realize how each least fidget crackled in their ears. He didn't dare move, ached to move, couldn't quite believe he lived if not in motion.
Merrill tried an old trick of meditation; he poured awareness into his fingertips, concentrated on cataloguing the sensations there. He felt the scratching of old leaves, tried to think like the leaves, like the trunks of old shrubs, like soil. Perhaps concentration could keep even him still.
He heard footsteps near their hiding place. He lay petrified. He longed to bolt like a squirrel. He pretended that he'd taken root there, put out branches, then twigs...he couldn't flee anywhere. His nose itched even as his chest tightened. He imagined no need for nose or chest; bushes breathe through their leaves. He felt like he breathed the thorns above him.
The steps drew away a bit. Merrill started to exhale in relief, but found that he couldn't, not very well. The decaying leaves and the dust had already choked him up.
He wanted to rub eyes that burned, that swelled like the panic in his breast. He lay still. No one ever guessed that Merrill could lay so still. He felt something tiny move in his hair. Just as he began to move a slow hand up to it, the steps returned.
Allergy-tears streamed down his face as he clenched his fists in rage, helpless to stop them. He couldn't stay there; he heard his own wheezes, loud and harsh even as his pulse hammered with the need for silence. If this went on he'd start to cough again--then the police would simply drag him, semiconscious, out from under the shrubs and into disgrace.
"Let's go, Don."
"You're crazy!" Don scrambled after him anyway.
Each step stabbed Merrill through the chest and into the heart, but he preferred suffocation on the run to strangling in a trap. In a few steps Don clamped both hands on him to keep him up; the wiry young scholar had muscles under his shirt that few expected. Merrill needed Don's help; every second he thought he'd lose consciousness, but he kept it postponed one leap more, one after that, one more...
"Where?" Don gasped as boots and shouts pounded close behind. Merrill couldn't talk; he pointed, barely able to see the escape through eyes near swollen shut. Don saw the rainpipe down to a lower terrace and dragged Merrill to it.
The slide down scraped Merrill's hands when he hit the metal that joined sections together, and tore off the knees of his pants, but he held on anyway, leaving a streak of blood on the metal. Behind him he watched Don yelp in pain and let go. The youth landed with an explosion of curses, ending with "I sprained it! I sprained my bloody ankle!"
"No time." Merrill sacrificed precious seconds that he could've used to catch his breath; he doubled back and forced a shoulder under Don's arm. "Hop," he ordered. Skinny Don might be, but his muscle and bone weighed twice as much as fat and stretched to a considerable height. They staggered forward, Merrill blinking hard and trying to see.
"Merrill! Where's the crown?"
"Left...inna...bush," he wheezed. They hurled open the nearest door, crashed through a toddler's startled class and out the other side, while the police above them tried to figure out how to pursue low-priority felons without cutting their own hands. Then they scrambled down a cobbled alley between buildings. The two young men saw an open doorway ahead and beelined for it.
"Good," said Don. "It was an ugly bauble."
"Shouldn't talk...that way...'bout Neythian...culture."
"Thieves shouldn't judge," Don replied.
"But...didn't...feel good?"
"No. It felt like desperation."
The doorway beckoned like all the temptations of hell. If they could slam in and block the door, they'd make time to breathe, time to bind Don's ankle and clean their scrapes, to wipe the allergens from Merrill's eyes, time to figure out a better escape route.
"No it's not."
Merrill wasted no more words. He gulped after air like a wolf snaps at the flesh that outruns him by just a step. His vision grayed, the pain in his chest stretched to encompass his world. He made his feet keep pounding. He could not allow himself to pass out till he passed that doorway, that beautiful doorway as black as the cool night sky.
They ran straight towards it, smack into brick, knocked unconscious. It was an illusion.

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