The Longest Shard: 16

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Tale of Fortune, originally published in spring of 2020, is a time-hopping prequel to Soldier of Fortune, and offers no spoilers. 

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Day  861

A little over a year after he returned Renny’s shard, Gideon, Doc, Kneecaps, Renny, Nyal, and a new inmate named Joss were in the middle of a game of net the queen.

There had been some worry over Renny and Gideon playing on opposite teams, but Renny’s campaign had, to Gideon’s mind, become more habit than obsession, and both promised, on pain of sacrificing half their morning rations, that they would behave. 

Even that might not have been enough to soothe Doc’s concerns, but Renny had also allowed Kneecaps to keep possession of his beloved shard for the duration of the game.

Secure that the Morton rules of no killing or unnecessary maiming were in force, the game commenced without incident until the third quarter.

Gideon had just saved the queen—a non-regulation lump of pineapple leather filled with grit and sutured together by Doc—from a foul to left field when Nyal’s alarmed “Uh-oh” rose from the end zone, where the youngest inmate was serving as Keeper. 

Looking past Nyal’s shoulder, Gideon immediately spied what had caused the comment.

“Looks like Pavel’s lost his temper,” Kneecaps observed from her spot as scout. 

“Must be a day of the week,” Renny said as Gideon moved closer to see Pavel’s ire fixed on a grifter who’d arrived on the last transport ‘ship. Gideon thought the guy’s name was Harry… or maybe Horace. 

Could be Havarti. 

Anyway, rumor had it he was in for having run a long con on the wrong risto. 

At the moment, Pavel was hauling Harry-Horace-Havarti up by the collar, so his toes barely scraped the red grit of the yard. 

Harry-Horace-Havarti was raising his hands, palms out in the universal gesture of “Please don’t kill me, but if you have to kill me, please don’t let it hurt.” His expression was a perfect blend of panic, appeasement, and innocence. Probably the panic and appeasement were real. 

Innocence, as Gideon well knew, had relative degrees in the Barrens. But as Harry-Horace—Horatio, that was it!—Horatio didn’t look like a complete idiot, Gideon also doubted the young man had done anything to deliberately set Pavel off. It was just that Pavel was the living analogue of a flawed crystal… one wrong move and—boom.

With a resigned sigh, Gideon tossed the queen over to Doc, who nabbed it in a neat underhand, and set off towards the homicide in progress. 

“I’ll set up a cot for you then, shall I?” Doc asked as Gideon passed. 

“A little faith?” Gideon hefted his stick as he turned to walk backwards, facing Doc and the rest of the players as he moved towards Pavel and Horatio.

“I got two smokes says Pavel at least cracks a rib,” Kneecaps offered, coming up alongside Doc.

“I’ll take that,” Joss said in their soft Macintosh dialect while, from behind them, Renny loomed with his own stick in hand. 

“Try not to let Pavel kill you,” he called out to Gideon. “That’s my—”

“—job,” Gideon cut in as he came within range of his target. “Thanks. I got the brief.” 

As he spoke, he spun on one heel to swing his queen stick between Pavel’s fist and Horatio’s panic-stricken face. 

The crack of Pavel’s knuckles to the stick was prodigious, and Gideon felt the impact all the way to his shoulders. 

“Damn it to Earth and back,” Pavel swore, dropping Horatio and shaking his sore knuckles. “Why are you being so crazy?” 

“It’s a calling,” Gideon said as he swung the stick up to rest on his shoulder. “So, what’s the buzz?”

“I should be asking that,” Pavel groused, kissing his knuckles while reaching over to grab a quietly retreating Horatio with his free hand. “You interrupt my teaching this wasp a lesson.”

“Oh?” Gideon looked at Horatio, whose lips were moving quickly in what Gideon recognized as the mantra for inner peace. “What kind of lesson?” 

“I teach him not to be looking at me funny.” 

Gideon turned to Horatio. “Did you look at him funny?” 

“I don’t even know what the bloke means,” Horatio replied, his lower Nikean dialect thick as mortar.

Pavel gave him a shake. “You saying you did not look at me?”

“No!” Horatio’s hands rose again. “I was just looking your way, right? And you was looking my way, and you know, then we was looking at each other, like.”

Gideon squelched the sigh. Pavel had many skills, but reading facial expressions wasn’t one of them.

“You smiled,” Pavel growled the word. 

“Just bein’ friendly, mate.”

“We are not mates.” Pavel hauled Horatio close. “We are not even dating.” 

“No, not like that,” Horatio protested.

“Why?” Pavel gave him a little shake. “You would not want to be dating me?”

“Mind if I help out?” Gideon asked, before things devolved further.

Horatio’s deep brown eyes shot his way. “Oh, please.” 

“So, Pavel,” Gideon began. “I’m sure Horus—”

Horatio…” Horatio hissed, looking ashen. 

“Horatio,” Gideon corrected himself, “didn’t mean to offend.”

“How would you be knowing this?” Pavel asked, lowering Horatio a fraction, enough for his toes to touch the ground. 

“Because we met on the Outside.”

“You have?” Pavel asked. 

“We have?” Horatio murmured. 

“Sure,” Gideon said, sending Horatio a look that said stop talking now.

Luckily for Horatio, he was better at reading facial expressions than Pavel, because his mouth snapped shut so fast, Gideon heard his teeth clack. 

Satisfied, Gideon looked at Pavel. “We crossed paths back in the day,” he explained. “We were both working the same street in Nike, I caught Har-Horatio, here trying to pull a two-finger dip on one of my marks.”

“I thought you were being a soldier, back in the day,” Pavel said, his heavy brow furrowing. 

“Sure,” Gideon agreed, “but a guy’s gotta keep a hand in. Anyway, I warned Horatio off, and he showed the appropriate professional courtesy and moved on.”

“So you are not friends,” Pavel said.

“No,” Gideon said, and as Horatio’s expression fell, added, “we’re more than friends. We’re family—all part of the clan of thieves, grifters, dippers, killers, and cons. He’s one of us,” Gideon said, fixing his gaze on Pavel. “And being as he is one of us, maybe you could see your way to giving him another chance?” 

For a moment, he watched Pavel’s face working through the philosophical implications of Gideon’s statement. 

At last, Pavel’s eyes cleared and flicked from Horatio to Gideon. “I think this is true, about all of us being family,” he said. 

“Bloomin’ marvelous,” Horatio began.

“But,” Pavel cut him off with a glare. “Even family has a hierarchy, yes?”

It took a few seconds for Gideon to get past hearing the word “hierarchy” coming out Pavel’s mouth to respond, “I guess so?” 

“And in the Barrens’ hierarchy,” Pavel continued, “I would be the Papa. Only, some of the little brothers are looking to be the new Papa,” Pavel said, sending a glance over the yard, now filled with watching eyes. “So if they think Papa is being soft, they might start to make life hard for him. And he is me,” he added, in case Gideon was having trouble keeping up.

“So you can’t afford to look soft,” Gideon said, because it was, in fact, far too easy to keep up.

“Exactly,” Pavel beamed, then frowned, because smiling would, no doubt, contribute to the perception of his going soft. “So in order to hold on to my place in hierarchy, I can either continue to teach the little man a lesson—”

I’m five-ten,” Horatio muttered. 

“Or I can teach the man who interrupted the lesson a lesson,” Pavel continued, looking from Horatio to Gideon and back. 

“Either way you’re looking at solitary,” Gideon pointed out.

“I do many days alone,” Pavel said. “It is good meditation time. Plus, I keep my place at the head of the family.” 

Gideon considered Horatio, who was looking like a man resigned to death, then at Pavel, then lifted the stick from where it rested on his shoulder. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll do you both a solid, but try not to break anything important.” 

“Wait,” Horatio said, waving his hands. “You can’t—I can’t let you get beat up for me,” he protested, his dialect suddenly sounding a lot less Nike gutter. 

“Sure you can,” Gideon said, easing back and gripping the stick with both hands. “For old times’ sake.” 

“But…” Horatio began, then let out a whoop as Pavel flung him aside. 

“Quinn!” Pavel roared, squaring off with Gideon. “You cause me trouble for last time!” And then he dove straight at Gideon in a full-body tackle.

Gideon, though he’d tried to prepare himself for the attack, soon discovered there was no preparation great enough to withstand the shock of a charging Pavel. 

He did get the stick moving, and even heard it thud against Pavel’s shoulder, right before his ears were filled with the thunk of his body hitting the hard ground and the whoosh of air escaping his lungs as Pavel drove him to the ground.

He felt, more than heard, the crack of a rib under the giant’s weight.

Pain, and a redness that had nothing to do with the rising puffs of dust, filled his eyes, while he heard, as if from very far away, the sound of the COs’ whistles and authoritative shouts. 

He also caught a distant “Tokk” in Pavel’s Stoli accent, and then a thick Nikean “Thanks, mate.”

That last was followed by a distinctly Adidan, “There’ll be a reckoning for this.” 

Distantly, Gideon wondered when Renny had joined the party, and what the swarm he meant by that. 

He wanted to ask, but he was still having trouble making air move in and out of his lungs in a proper fashion.

* * *

Later, while Doc wrapped his ribs, Gideon explained the details leading to his, once again, taking up space in the infirmary. “Really, it could have gone worse,” he concluded, after describing Pavel’s reasoning, 

“No doubt,” Doc replied, fastening the bandage around Gideon’s cracked ribs. “Kneecaps says thank you for the cigarettes, by the way.” 

“Hey, at least my negotiating skills are improving,” Gideon offered.

Doc held out a cup of water and two anti-inflammatories. “You could write a book.”


In case you missed it previously, check out my dream casting of Horatio Alva!

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