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one nerve remaining

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“I heard you’re a fan of calculated risks,” the Gentleman says.

Caleb’s jaw sets. “That’s true,” he says. He scrapes his hair out of his face -- it’s disgusting, full of sweat and dirt and apparently, blood -- his fingers come back rust-red. “Are we going to play poker? It’s a children’s game where I come from.”

The Gentleman laughs, just a little. There is no body to his laugh, just an empty ah-ah-ah . “I sensed in you a kindred spirit. I find card games child’s play as well. No, I was suggesting something a little more our speed.” He snaps his fingers. His goliath crony places something on the table between them. “With strategy, anyone can win. The real contest is a game of chance.”

Caleb looks at the object between them. He’s only seen things like this in textbooks, never actually seen one in action. But he understands its purpose.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the Gentleman says, assuming Caleb’s look is one of admiration rather than trepidation. “Someone traded it to me in order to get a mortal enemy killed. I truly don’t understand why she didn’t simply use this. But the man she stole it from was rumored to make things that were a little explosive, so perhaps she just didn’t want to risk it.”

“You don’t seem like you’re about to shoot me,” Caleb says.

“Let me explain,” the Gentleman says. “I will add a bullet to one of these chambers and then you will hold it to your head and pull the trigger. If you survive, I will gladly free one of your friends, or perform a comparable favor of your choice. Then, if you would like another of your friends to be freed, you may hand the gun back to me and I will add a second bullet. If you survive that, they walk, and you may continue with three, if you please, and etcetera. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” Caleb says. There are six chambers in the gun. He has six friends in the Gentleman’s prison. He is almost glad that they confiscated Nott’s wire when they took her into the next room; he would have no clue what to say if she sent him a Message. “What’s to stop me from simply shooting you when you give me the gun?”

“Nothing,” the Gentleman says. “Except for the fact that if you do, I have men in the next room with your friends who I know will be as loyal to my corpse as they are to me now.”

“I see,” Caleb says.

“Very good,” says the Gentleman. He pushes the pistol towards Caleb, who picks it up. The handle is wet where the Gentleman touched it. The little machine is heavier than it looks; if Caleb had time, he would love to examine it. “Begin,” the Gentleman tells him.

Caleb spins the cylinder. His hand is shaking, but he ignores it as he steadies the gun at his temple. He pulls the trigger.

 

 

Caleb is eight years old, looking down at the deep part of a pond his cousin has dared him to jump into. “I bet you won’t,” his cousin had said. “There’s a ghost in that pond that they say drowns kids like you.”

Caleb is a very good swimmer, but it’s easy to forget that from up in this tree. He’s at least ten feet above the water, which is anywhere from fifteen to thirty feet deep. He can feel his cousin’s eyes on him from down on the ground, but if he shuts his eyes, it’s easier to ignore that. Caleb takes a deep breath and tips off of his branch, and he seems to fall forever before he hits the water with a--

 

 

Click.

Caleb does not let out his breath, because it would come out in a rush. “Let Nott go free,” he says.

“Very well,” the Gentleman says. “Shall we have her brought in here? That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”

“No,” Caleb says. “You’d be signing your own death warrant.” It’s the truth, but it is much less important than the fact that he would do nearly anything to keep Nott from seeing this.

“If you say so,” the Gentleman says, clearly amused. “I thought you might want to see her. But, as you wish. Would you like to continue?”

“Yes,” Caleb says. He slides the pistol back across the table to the Gentleman, who deftly slips a second bullet into one of the chambers before handing it back. Oddly, it seems lighter than before.

Caleb spins the chambers, raises the pistol to his head again, and pulls the trigger.

 

 

Caleb is nineteen and he cannot breathe. He stares at the blank wall in front of him and doesn’t breathe, doesn’t breathe, doesn’t breathe. He’s gotten pretty good by now; if he concentrates, he can hold his breath until he passes out. Unfortunately, instinct takes over at that point. Caleb always was a fast learner when he put his mind to something; he thinks maybe if he tries hard enough, he could train his body to hold its breath even once he lost consciousness.

 

 

Click.

Caleb hands the gun straight to the Gentleman. “Jester,” he says. “Let Jester go.”

“Interesting,” the Gentleman says, pulling another bullet out of his pocket. “Another?”

“Yes,” says Caleb. When the Gentleman hands the gun back, Caleb spins the cylinder, raises the gun to his head quickly, before he can think better of it. He pulls the trigger.

 

 

Caleb is twenty-eight and he has never been hungrier or more tired in his life. Each urge fights for dominance, the emptiness in his stomach and the heaviness in his head, until he thinks nothing would satisfy them. Sleep requires less work, so he turns into an alley and lies down with his back to the wall. If he is robbed, let him be robbed. He has absolutely nothing of worth, and if he is killed for that fact, so be it.

He only grows hungrier as he waits for sleep to take him, but he cannot bring himself to care. In the moment before sleep, however, his pain deserts him -- not just his stomach, but his broken wrist, his aching knee -- and he thinks that if he simply never got up, it would not bother him in the slightest.

 

 

Click.

“Beauregard,” Caleb says. He hands the gun back and this time the Gentleman does not ask his intentions before slipping in another bullet.

“I assume you’ve done the math,” the Gentleman says, handing it back. “You seem intelligent enough. You’re a dead man more likely than not this time.”

Caleb spins the cylinder. “I’m aware,” he snaps. He has to prop his elbow on the table to keep the gun steady. He pulls the trigger.

 

 

Caleb is thirty and he is about to die for an apple. He knew the law was strict in this city, but if that really bothered him, he would have skirted around the city center. Instead, he tried to filch a single apple and currently has six broken bones in his hand for his trouble, not to mention the cracked ribs and internal bleeding. The guards didn’t even bother locking him up. Caleb wonders absently if they’re short on jail space or if they thought he would just die of organ failure too quickly to bother.

He reaches into his bag with his good hand, searching to see if the healing potion he’s been portioning out has even a drop left, when he touches something smooth. They never took the apple from him. Slowly, Caleb brings it to his face and takes a bite.

It’s not the best apple he’s ever had, but as last meals go, he could imagine much worse.

 

 

Click.

Caleb lets the gun fall from his hand. “Mollymauk,” he says. He feels lightheaded.

“Are you good to keep going?” the Gentleman asks, reaching over for the gun. “The game’s no good if you faint partway through.”

“I’m good,” Caleb says. He holds out his hand for the gun and spins the cylinder without looking this time. As he holds the gun to his head, he resolutely pushes out the mental image of the single, empty chamber, and pulls the trigger.

 

 

Caleb is thirty-two, and the guards have an inside joke he does not know the punchline to. From what he can gather, his new cellmate nearly bit someone to death this morning. The guards are having fun speculating what on earth this creature will inflict on Caleb.

Caleb briefly considers trying to form some sort of weapon, but he gives up the idea pretty quickly. He has none of the materials he would need for a spell, and he doubts that Frumpkin would be much good between him and certain death. The cell is bare, without so much as a bed to hide behind, and Caleb is far too weak to hit anything and actually damage it.

At the end of the hall, Caleb can hear a growl echoing as the guards continue to laugh. He presses himself into the corner and closes his eyes.

 

 

Click.

Caleb lowers the gun. “Yasha,” he says. He pushes the pistol back across the table. The Gentleman looks bemused.

“What do you expect to happen?” the Gentleman says. “There’s only one more chamber.”

“I pulled the trigger once for each of my friends,” Caleb says. He is proud his voice does not tremble. “If I do it once more, will you let all of them go?”

The Gentleman considers him. For the first time, there’s something like respect in his eyes, though it could just as easily be pity. “You know what you stand for,” he says. “I admire that.

Caleb doesn’t say that he couldn’t be more wrong. He holds his hand out. It isn’t shaking anymore.

The Gentleman crooks an eyebrow at him. “Who am I,” he says, “to deny a man his last wish?” He pulls a bullet out of his pocket and puts it in the final chamber. This time, he spins the full cylinder for Caleb -- a pointless gesture.

Caleb takes the pistol from him and presses it one last time to his temple. His heart is beating out of his chest, so loud in its cowardice that it must be audible from across the table. The Gentleman smiles at him and Caleb shuts his eyes, if only because he does not want a smug, dripping crime lord to be the last thing he sees. Instead, he thinks of Frumpkin, who was poofed out of existence by a stray arrow and may not be summoned back to this plane for centuries without Caleb there to call him.

Mentally, silently, he apologizes to his cat. Without bothering to take a deep breath first, he pulls the trigger.

The gun clicks so loudly this time that Caleb jumps. The Gentleman begins to laugh again.

“That takes balls, my boy,” he says brightly. “I didn’t think you were onto me until the last few. Still, it was a good show.”

Caleb lowers the gun slowly. “You’ll let us all go?” he asks. His voice doesn’t sound quite right in his ears.

The Gentleman nods cheerfully. “With a performance like that, how can I not? You have to admit the bullets were convincing fakes, though, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Caleb says, after a moment. “I, uh. Ja , it took me a little while to catch on.” He swallows. His mouth is dry. The Gentleman clicks his fingers and someone hands Caleb a glass of water. Caleb had forgotten that anyone else was in the room.

“Someone will escort you outside,” the Gentleman says. “Your friends will meet you there in a few moments -- we just have to get all the shackles off, you understand.” He fixes Caleb with a sharp gaze. “You’re my new favorite,” he says, with what seems like sincerity.

“Fuck you,” Caleb says, mostly because he feels like he can get away with it.

Sure enough, the Gentleman laughs. “Quite right,” he says. “Go on, you can leave.”

Caleb stands on unsteady legs and walks around the table. “Erm,” he says. “Any chance I could keep the gun? It could come in handy, I think.”

The Gentleman looks at him again, and there’s something strange in his expression. “No, I don’t think so,” he says. He stands. He’s a good six inches taller than Caleb, who resists the urge to step back. “Better not, I think. Just in case.”

“Just in case of what?” Caleb asks.

Before Caleb can react, he leans down and presses a wet kiss to Caleb’s temple, just where the gun rested. Caleb half-flinches away. “In case you’re not as good of an actor as I think you are,” the Gentleman says. “Tell your friends good evening from me.”

Caleb says nothing. The Gentleman leaves.