A/N: My take on Numair's first few weeks in Tortall after fleeing from Carthak. I made up a lot of the geography, and of course I took liberties with his background. Very slight spoilers for Emperor Mage.
Jack of Spades
"Pick a card," he says, face shadowed by the thin, camel-colored cloak he has draped over his head. "Any card. Don't show me." The fascinated little girl picks one up and gives it a hard look before pressing it against her chest, trying to make sure that he wont cheat. His lips go up in a tired smile, a silent laugh in response to the expectant look his customer gives him. He decides to do something special for her. "All right. Close your eyes and think very hard of something you really want to see." She does as she is told, but he still doubts that the spell will manage perfectly – children do not usually have a good grasp of focus, and he's banking on her concentration for the incantation to work at all. When he makes the swift gestures of casting, however, the card instantly springs from her grasp.
She opens her eyes and watches as the paper sprouts wings and turns into the ghost of a bird, a beautiful dove, flapping upwards into the hot air of the marketplace. There are four hearts arranged in a square on its back. The bird rises up over the merchant's tents and flies away steadily. He hears the little girl give a gasp of delight, and starts to clear away the cards before she can ask for more.
"Another!" She demands. "I want to see more beautiful birds!"
"No more," he answers quietly, surreptitiously slipping the cards into his cloak. He lets his posture sag, pulls his knees up and settles back uncomfortably against the hot city walls, where he has set up his little magic show at the edge of all the pottery stands. "I think you had better go to your mother now. She's probably at the fruit stalls."
The child looks indignant for a moment, pouting at him with her fists against her worn little dress. He holds out both hands and waves them, as if to prove that there really is no magic left. With a sigh she fumbles in her pockets for three small coins – she drops them in his outstretched palms, and he realizes that she has taken his gesture the wrong way. He has a feeling that she won't accept if he returns the coins, though, so he puts his palms together and when he brings them apart, the money is gone.
"Thank you, little one." His voice cracks, and he swallows warily, attempting to ease the dryness in his throat.
"You're welcome, Mister," she answers politely, the pout gone from her face. "If I come back next week, will you do another trick?"
"Maybe," he answers. It's a small thing, but he really doesn't believe in promises anymore; since leaving Carthak, he has been as neutral as possible. The girl accepts his answer, anyway. She waves at him before running off into the swarm of market goers, and he waves back, one huge hand dancing carelessly in the air. He feels a little more hollow as she disappears into the crowd, and a little bit like a cheat – he knows the dove is now just a card lying on top of some dusty tent, the illusion having worn off. Then again, she doesn't know her coins are back in her pocket, because Arram can't stand the thought of taking charity from a child.
A stab of hunger makes him fumble for the stale bread he bought off last week's petty performances. He eats it with one hand curving underneath his mouth, to catch the crumbs that he can no longer afford to waste.
He misses Varice, but not as painfully as he thought he would. Sometimes he pictures her, with her beautiful blonde hair wrapped in a delicate braid, wearing the pure-white gown he had charmed to shimmer like the stars at night. Her laughter was sweet and careless as he trailed kisses up her arms and over her cheeks. Ozorne often rolled his eyes at their romantic displays, crossing his arms over his jewel-laden chest with habitual impatience. "Really, Arram, you could find better than a woman who enjoys prettiness more than anything else."
But he would smile and wrap his arms around her perfect waist a little tighter and retort, in the offended nature that young lovers often took, "You're just mad, Ozorne, that I give her more attention than I do you. I am not your mage alone, emperor." Directing his words to Varice, he added, "Besides, your love for prettiness doesn't bother me a bit. I must have a fixation with beauty as well, if loving you is any indication," And then he would kiss the crook of her neck before she could open her mouth and defend herself before their king, who, after sighing lavishly, often went away to feed his ridiculous birds.
He did not think to ask her to come with him, that dark night when he caught himself bleeding and sweating and making away on some foreign ship with the hatred in his best friend's eyes still burning in his mind. She was too beautiful and too pampered to live a life in exile; her magic would do them no good in a life of poverty, and besides, she couldn't execute spells properly without the leisure of time and materials. She did not like to exert herself. She did not strive to learn more powerful spells or gain any recognition – she would rather make icing curl in the shape of a castle than learn how to create a sleeping potion, or something useful like that.
He had loved her – I still do, maybe, he thinks, but his life now hasn't the luxury of considering such things, not when he needs to scrape together every copper just to eat a meal a day, not when he has mastered how to grow hair in every part of his face just in case he needs to put on a disguise in a hurry. She was always a little silly, he considers one night, when his stomach aches too bad for him to sleep properly. Not silly, I mean, but frivolous. Frilly. Fanciful, there's the word.
He observes his sleeping quarters – the deserted grounds of last month's fair, with rats burrowing to his left and his only blanket a magicked quilt of throwaways from an unsuccessful rug merchant. He cannot imagine her lying next to him in these circumstances. She would whimper about the dust getting in her hair and the filthy animals all around, and even if she would never say so outright, Arram knew he was not so desirable with an unchecked beard growing over his chin and only the odd coin trick as his claim to fame.
There is a festival in the town he is residing in that day. He wakes up to hear trumpets blaring as confetti flutters in the sky. He rubs his eyes and yawns, muttering an incantation under his breath so that his blanket shrinks into a cloak that he can drape over his head. He has been adding bits of stray cloth to it as he goes along, in an attempt to make it thicker, but it has become a multicolored mess instead. He smooths it underneath his long fingers so that all the colors melt away into a shade of tan, and then he hides his head underneath it, as he has done for the last few weeks.
He follows the sound of music until he reaches town square, weaving through the new stands that have popped up overnight, selling paraphernalia for whatever event is ongoing. There is a large crowd encircling something he cannot see – he pushes his way through until he is near the front. A platform has been set up in the middle of the circle, where two men appear to be dueling. He quickly grows a beard to mask his accent as he turns his head to the spectator next to him. "What's going on?"
"Combat contest," the man, a middle-aged merchant with a stomach that looks so stuffed Arram feels another spasm of hunger, answers. "I love these matches. Anything goes – mages, mercenaries, even old men can join. There's a cash prize at the end."
A risky notion starts to flare in Arram's mind. "Isn't that dangerous?"
"Oh, you get hurt, but there's a referee that calls it off before anyone can get murdered out there." He points a fleshy finger to a man standing behind the platform, wearing a colorful uniform and holding a strange device in one hand – the mage remembers that it is used to amplify sound when one speaks through it. "This fight's between a blacksmith and the squire of some unheard-of knight," the merchant continues. "You can place bets or register over there." He waves his hand vaguely to the left.
Arram thanks him and moves away quickly, before the man can prolong the conversation. He considers the situation carefully, running a tongue over cracked lips as he slips through the crowd. He puts a hand to his side, feeling his ribs through the worn cloak. A cash prize would certainly do him good, but...
...I own you, Arram. You can't run from me. I will catch you, and bring you here, and torture you until you wonder why you ever sought to act against me in the first place...
Ozorne's warning makes him shiver despite the heat of Tortall in the summer. I can't risk it, he thinks – the idea makes him grim, and furious with himself for being so cautious. He skirts the edge of the crowd and goes to the side closer to the platform to view the match more closely. The two men have started to clash swords, sweat drenching their faces as they gasp and grapple. The squire has the Gift – he sees the orange haze shimmering through the young man's hands as he exerts all his force on his sword. The blacksmith's muscles are more trained, however – his veins stand out against his skin as he bears on the teenager, whose arms, Arram can tell, will not be able to hold up for much longer.
He means to bash the kid's head in, he realizes in alarm. This isn't a fair fight.
Suddenly the squire's sword is knocked out of his hand; he falls onto the platform from the sudden release of pressure and backs up on his heels as the blacksmith swings up his sword and starts to bring it down. Arram's lips move faster than he can stop them – a black shield laced with purple fire springs up between the two combatants, crackling with the powerful magic he has not called up in weeks. Both men scramble away in shock as the shield stretches and wriggles; Arram tries to dissolve it, but the energy it contains is too strong. He starts moving backwards through the crowd instead, palms slick with sweat.
"Who did that?" The blacksmith, outraged, steps close to the crowd and brandishes his sword menacingly. Arram can see the squire thanking Mithros under his breath as he slips away to the other end of the circle. The referee is also upset, scanning the spectators for the cause of the disturbance – he can feel the man's searching spell digging for the source of the shield. Frightened, he tries to call it off again, and this time it follows.
Gathering his cloak around him and letting his dark hair shrink into his scalp in case anyone thinks to chase him, Arram Draper flees again.
He has started to lose ideas for new names. The first few ones he tries are too obviously Carthaki; then again, he does not feel right claiming any foreign names. He crunches on a half-good apple he found in the trash, remembering the days when he would spend long hours thinking of what name to give himself when he became a great and popular mage. His own birthname was too simple and boring, lacking the luster and grandeur he had envisioned for himself. If he was to be the most powerful mage in all the lands, he needed something fancier, something to roll around in his mouth and boom out as he announced it.
He tosses away the apple core bitterly. He once dreamt of becoming a lion, but it was Ozorne who had the power after all; and Arram has been reduced to a rat. A street rat – such a far cry from the prestigious university scholar looking smug in his flawless black robes with the female students giggling over him and royalty as his mealtime partner. He cannot go back to those times, he knows he never will, but when he remembers the poisonous intrigue and misjudgment in those last days before coming to Tortall, he does not even want to.
He thinks he doesn't, at least – then the barkeep, crinkling his nose at Arram's smelly cloak, hands him a glass of water and a plate of bread, which is the best meal he has had in weeks.
"So, shadows-man. What's your name, and what's your story?"
He is too tired to grow a beard, but that does not mean his story has to be any less honest – the hard life has made his voice gruff, even without the fuzz around his mouth. "Derrek Reed," he answers, before remembering that Reed was his former teacher's name. "Derrek Reeding, I mean." Certainly running out of ideas. He drinks the water slowly, to make it last. "I lost my family in a fire. Don't wish t – don't wanna talk about it." Street slang. He has to lose his customary court language, if he doesn't want anyone to get suspicious.
"Huh," the barkeep says. "We've all seen the hard side of life."
But not all, he thinks in between slow bites of bread , have seen the better side, and for them the loss is not as bad.
Some days he can't stand to do magic at all. He does one small coin trick for a fruit-stall owner, making it vanish from knuckles and instead appear at the tip of his own long nose. With their graces he departs with three round fruit, and then he stands somewhere crowded and juggles them steadily, an act only noticed by the very bored or the very innocent. When the day is done he gathers his meager earnings, then hastens to the latest hideout – a hole in the wall, an abandoned cooking wares stand. He peels the fruit with dirty fingernails and crams it into his mouth, sucking even the seeds for juice to abate his thirst.
"I would never betray you," he shouts, but Ozorne's hot fire is upon him – he brings up a shield before it can scorch his flesh, backing away, unable to turn a spell on his closest friend. "What reason would I have?"
"Power," Ozorne seethes. "There is no other motive for treason."
"But why would I want to take yours?" He yells again, cooling the flares that have sprouted on his clothes as he fumbles backwards in the darkness for a way out of this suffocating room. "I never thought of taking your crown! My own magic is enough for me!"
"Silence!" Another jet of fire springs towards him – his hand finds the wall and blows a hole in it, and he turns and runs, desperate – palace guards lunge at him from every direction – Ozorne's voice is a scream in his ears and his eyes are filled with the Emperor's gift of flame – "You will never escape me, Arram – you belong to Carthak, you belong to me. Your talent will not save you. You are mine. Your life is mine..."
Arram clenches his teeth, the memory making his gut wrench with hatred, instead of the usual hunger. Ozorne was not afraid of me taking his power, he realizes with numb fury. He was afraid of the power that was already mine. The thought makes him feel sick with anger – he has the skills, he always did, but now the emperor has won. He cannot put his magic to use for fear of being caught. There are exotic torture devices kept in the palace of Carthak, and the guards would not hesitate to use them, not even on an innocent man – what else can he expect from a country that has turned its eyes from the very gods? He might be able to use his Gift after Ozorne is dead – but unless the king is assassinated there is little chance of Arram outliving him. Especially with the life he is leading now.
With some labor he spreads his tattered cards around him, attempting a weak fortune-telling. Shakith, please, he whispers, the most prayer he can muster without wanting to grind his teeth at the unfairness the gods have shown him. He lays the cards out in the circles of past, present and future. When he flips them over to do the reading, the past speaks of grandeur, anger, and royalty. The future speaks of magic, a child, and more royalty.
He sighs, then turns over the present. Pain, courage, and self.
With a jolt he remembers that he is twenty-one that day. They had talked the feasts over the last three months. Ozorne wanted his friend to have a celebration no less great than his own. Varice had been designing the cake for ages, wanting to show off her skills as much as give him a good birthday treat. Master Reed had promised him brand new texts of more dangerous, complex spells – he had only managed to study a few before he had had to flee. The palace had bustled around him in hushed, reverent tones, and a few of the girl students had already begged him for an invitation.
Now he is celebrating his birthday with rats and insects, huddled in the corner of a wrecked market stand, wary of getting caught, his magic loose with fatigue and lack of practice, his hair too long and unclean. He sweeps the cards together, trying hard not to cry. Once he has them all in his hands, he thinks hard of the thing he wants most to see. When he opens his palms, and a flock of doves fly out into the empty air.
Hope, he wonders, surprised that it did not take the shape of Varice or Carthak, or even magic. He watches the birds spiral their way towards the moon, then drift apart from each other with their practiced, airy grace. When the last of their wingbeats have faded, he curls up on the floor, closing his eyes in a habitual forcing of sleep - for a moment he considers the taste of revenge; then he decides that redemption would be sweeter.
The next day the streets are lined with feathers and playing cards.
A/N: The title is a play upon the fact that the Jack of Diamonds is sometimes known as the "laughing boy" - irony in Arram's case. I took much of the basis here from short scenes in Emperor Mage, as well as Numair's reference to juggling in the ending of Realm of the Gods - but I obviously made up a lot of the magic, which was fun. All my knowledge of the Tortallan world come from Protector of the Small and The Immortals, so there might be a few things about Numair I don't know yet, from the other series. Corrections would be welcome.
Thanks for reading. Any feedback would be very greatly appreciated. :D