Episode #32: “The Subtler Art” by Cat Rambo

January 24, 2017

The Subtler Art

by Cat Rambo

Anything can happen in Serendib, the city built of dimensions intersecting, and this is what happened there once.

The noodle shop that lies on the border between the neighborhood of Yddle, which is really a forest, houses strapped to the wide trunks, and Eclect, an industrial quarter, is claimed by both, with equally little reason.

The shop was its own Territory, with laws differing from either area, although the same can be said of many eating establishments in the City of a Thousand Parts. But the noodles were hand shaved, and the sauce was made of minced ginger and chopped green onions with a little soy sauce and a dash of enlightenment, and they were unequaled in Serendib.

 

Full transcript after the cut.

[Intro music plays]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip, episode 32 for January 24, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

For some GlitterShip news: coming on February 1st, we will be open to poetry submissions. For more information, check the submissions guidelines page on our website, GlitterShip.com. Also, starting with our Winter 2017 issue, GlitterShip also has seasonal issues available via our Patreon (patreon.com/keffy) or at glittership.com/buy, for those of you who would like to read the stories before anyone else.

Our story this week is "The Subtler Art" by Cat Rambo.

Cat's fiction has appeared on GlitterShip before. Episode 13 featured her story "Sugar" , way back in September 2015.

Cat lives, writes, and teaches atop a hill in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She is an Endeavour, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominee. 2017 sees the publication of her second novel, Hearts of Tabat.

 For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and online classes, see http://www.kittywumpus.net

We also have a guest reader this week!

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, among other places. Their debut short fiction collection Singing With All My Skin and Bone is available from Undertow Publications. They unfortunately live just outside Washington, DC, in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.

 

The Subtler Art

by Cat Rambo

 

Anything can happen in Serendib, the city built of dimensions intersecting, and this is what happened there once.

The noodle shop that lies on the border between the neighborhood of Yddle, which is really a forest, houses strapped to the wide trunks, and Eclect, an industrial quarter, is claimed by both, with equally little reason.

The shop was its own Territory, with laws differing from either area, although the same can be said of many eating establishments in the City of a Thousand Parts. But the noodles were hand shaved, and the sauce was made of minced ginger and chopped green onions with a little soy sauce and a dash of enlightenment, and they were unequaled in Serendib.

It was the Dark’s favorite place to eat, and since she and Tericatus were haphazard cooks at best and capable of (usually accidentally) killing someone at worst, they often ate their meals out. And because the city is so full of notorious people, very few noted that the woman once known as the best assassin on five continents on a world that only held four and her lover, a wizard who’d in his time achieved wonders and miracles and once even a rebirthed God, were slurping noodles only an elbow length’s away at the same chipped beige stone counter.

Though indifferent cooks, both were fond enough of food to argue its nuances in detail, and this day they were arguing over the use of white pepper or golden when eating the silvery little fish that swarm every seventh Spring in Serendib.

“Yellow pepper has a flatness to it,” Dark argued. Since retirement, she had let herself accumulate a little extra fat over her wiry muscles, and a few white strands traced themselves through her midnight hair, but she remained the one of the pair who drew most eyes. Her lover was a lean man, sparse in flesh and hair, gangly, with long capable hands spotted with unnatural colors and burns from alchemical experiments.

“Cooking,” said the person on the other side of her, “is an exceedingly subtle art.”

“Cathay,” the Dark said, recognizing the stranger. Her tone was cool. The newcomer was both acquaintance and former lover for both of them, but more than that, Cathay was a Trickster mage, and you never knew what she might be getting into.

Tericatus grunted his own acknowledgment and greeting, rolling an eye sideways at the Dark in warning. He knew she was prone to impatience and while Tricksters can play with many things, impatience is a favorite point to press on.

But the conversation that the Trickster made was slight, as though Cathay’s mind were elsewhere, and by the time the other had tapped coin to counter in order to pay, most of what she’d said had vanished, except for those few words.

“A subtle art,” the Dark repeated to Tericatus, letting the words linger like pepper on her tongue. “It describes what I do as well. The most subtle art of all, assassination.”

Tericatus slouched back in his chair with a smile on his lips and a challenging quirk to his eyebrow. “A subtle art, but surely not the most subtle. That would be magery, which is subtlety embodied.”

The Dark looked hard at her mate. While she loved him above almost all things, she had been——and remained——very proud of her skill at her profession.

The argument hung in the air between them. They both considered it. So many words could go in defense of either side. But actions speak stronger than words. And so they both stood and slid a token beneath their empty bowls and nodded at each other in total agreement.

“Who first?” the Dark asked.

“I have one in mind already, if you don’t care,” Tericatus murmured.

“Very well.”

 

Serendib has no center—or at least the legend goes that if anyone ever finds it, the city will fall—but surely wherever its heart is, it must lie close to the gardens of Caran Sul.

Their gates are built of white moon-metal, which grows darker whenever the moon is shadowed, and their grounds are overgrown with shanks of dry green leaves and withered purple blossoms that smell sweet and salty, like the very edges of the sea.

In the center, five towers start to reach to the sky, only to tangle into the form of Castle Knot, where the Angry Daughters, descended from the prophet who once lived there, swarm, and occasionally pull passersby into their skyborne nests, never to be seen again.

Tericatus and the Dark paid their admittance coin to the sleepy attendant at the entrance stile outside the gate and entered through the pathway hacked into the vegetation. Tericatus paused halfway down the tunnel to lean down and pick up a caterpillar from the dusty path, transferring it to the dry leaves on the opposite side.

The Dark kept a wary eye on the sky as they emerged into sunlight. While she did not fear an encounter with a few of the Daughters, a crowd of them would be an entirely different thing. But nothing stirred in the stony coils and twists so far above.

“This reminds me,” she ventured, “of the time we infiltrated the demon city of S’keral pretending to be visiting scholars and wrestled that purple stone free from that idol.”

“Indeed,” Tericatus said, “this is nothing like that.”

“Ah. Perhaps it is more like the time we entered the village of shapeshifters and killed their leaders before anyone had time enough to react.”

“It is not like that either,” Tericatus said, a little irritably.

“Remind me,” she said, “exactly what we are doing here.”

Tericatus stopped and crossed his arms. “I’m demonstrating the subtlety with which magic can work.”

“And how exactly will it work? she inquired.

He unfolded an arm and pointed upward towards the dark shapes flapping their way down from the heights, clacking the brazen, razor-sharp bills on the masks they wore.

“I presume you don’t need me to do anything.”

Tericatus did not deign to answer.

The shapes continued to descend. The Dark could see the brass claws tipping their gloves, each stained with ominous rust.

“You're quite sure you don’t need me?”

A butterfly fluttered across the sky from behind them. Dodging to catch it in her talons, one Daughter collided with another, and the pair tumbled into the path of a third, then a fourth...

The Dark blinked as the long grass around them filled with fallen bodies.

“Very nice,” she said with genuine appreciation. “And the tipping point?”

Tericatus smirked slightly. “The caterpillar. You may have noticed that I moved it from one kind of plant to another -”

“Of course.”

“And when it eats jilla leaves, its scent changes, attracting adults of its species to come lay more eggs there.”

“Well done,” she said. “A valiant try indeed.”

 

The Home for Dictators is, despite its name, a retirement home, though it is true that it holds plenty of past leaders of all sorts of stripes, and many of them are not particularly benign.

“Why here?” Tericatus said as they came up Fume and Spray and Rant Street, changing elevations as they went till the air grew chill and dry.

“It grates on me to perform a hit without getting paid for it,” the Dark said, a little apologetically. “It feels unprofessional.”

“You’re retired. Why should you worry about feeling unprofessional?”

You’re retired too. Why should you worry about who’s more subtle?”

“Technically, wizards never retire.”

“Assassins do,” the Dark said. “It’s just that we don’t usually get the chance.”

“Get the chance or lose the itch?”

She shrugged. “A little of both?”

Tericatus expected the Dark to go in through the back in the way she’d been famous for: unseen, unannounced. Or failing that, to disguise herself in one of her many cunning alterations: an elderly inmate to be admitted, a child come to visit a grandparent, a dignitary there to honor some old politician. But instead she marched up the steps and signed her name in bold letters on the guestbook. “The Dark.”

The receptionist/nurse, a young newtling with damp, pallid skin and limpid eyes, spun it around to read the name, which clearly meant little to him. “And you’ve come to see...” he said, letting the sentence trail upward in question as his head tilted.

The Dark eyed him. It was a look Tericatus knew well, a look that started mild and reasonable but which, as time progressed, would swell into menace, darken like clouds gathering on the edge of the horizon. The newt paled, cheeks twitching convulsively as it swallowed.

“Simply announce me to the populace at large,” the Dark said.

Without taking his eyes from her, the newt fumbled for the intercom, a device clearly borrowed from some slightly more but not too advanced dimension, laden with black-iron cogs and the faint green glow of phlogiston. He said hesitantly into the bell-like speaking cup, “The, uh, Dark is here to see, uh, someone.”

The Dark smiled faintly and turned back to the waiting room.

After a few moments, Tericatus said, “Are we expecting someone?”

“Not really,” the Dark replied.

“Some thing?”

“Closer, but not quite,” she said.

They glanced around as a bustle of doctors went through a doorway.

“There we go,” the Dark said. She tugged her lover in their wake.

Up a set of stairs and then they saw the doctors gathered in a room at the head where an elderly woman lay motionless in her bed.

“The Witch of the Southeast,” Dark murmured. “She’s always feared me, and her heart was frail as tissue paper. Come on.”

They drifted further along the corridor. Dark paused in a doorway. The man in the wheelchair wore an admiral’s uniform, but his eyes were unseeing, his lips drawn up in a rictus that exposed purple gums.

“Diploberry,” Dark said. “It keeps well, and just a little has the effect one wants. It is a relatively painless means of suicide.”

Tericatus looked at the admiral. “Because he heard you were coming.”

The Dark spread her hands in a helpless shrug, her grin fox sly.

“And you’re getting paid for all of them? How long ago did you plant some of the seeds you’ve harvested here?”

“The longest would be a decade and a half,” she mused.

“How many others have died?”

“Three. All dictators whose former victims were more than willing to see their old oppressors gone.”

Tericatus protested, “You can’t predict that with such finesse.”

“Can I not?” she asked, and pointed at the door where three stretchers were exiting, carried by orderlies in the costume of the place, gold braids and silver sharkskin suits.

She smiled smugly. “Subtle, no?”

Tericatus nodded, frowning.

“Come now,” she said. “Is it that hard to admit defeat?”

“Not so hard, my love,” he said. “But isn’t that Cathay?”

Dark felt another touch of unease. You never know what a Trickster Mage is getting you into. And there indeed stood Cathay at the front desk, speaking sweetly to someone, a bouquet of withered purple blossom in her hand, more of it in her hair, a smell like longing and regret and the endless sea.

Dark murmured, “She always loved those flowers and yet did not like contending with the Daughters.”

Tericatus said, “She had lovers here, I know that. No doubt she has five inheritances coming.”

Cathay turned and smiled at them. The Dark bowed slightly, and Tericatus inclined his head.

#

“But,” the Dark finally said into the silence as they walked away, headed by mutual accord to the bar closest to the noodle shop, “we can still argue over which of us exercises the second most subtle art.”

END

 

"The Subtler Art" was originally published in Blackguards: tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues edited by J.M. Martin in 2015.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

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Thanks for listening, and we'll be back on February 13th with two original stories: "Curiosity Fruit Machine" by S. Qiouyi Lu and "The Slow Ones" by JY Yang.

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