Chapter 1 :: ONE GOLD BALL

 

THE BLOND GIRL was the only one left. She knew it and else everybody knew it, so she should just get it over with. But she had a bad case of the jitters. For no good reason either…at least that was what her rational self was saying to her irrational jittery part.

“Hrrumf.” A nearby throat cleared itself, a sound meant to remind her to get on with it.

A sigh slipped past her lips. This was way worse than being on court in a big game. There she was cool and confident. Here, as the last Sixteener to make the final pull, she dithered, fidgeting, adjusting the ugly green Luckiest Day uniform and scanning the tally board for her name. Again.

The name Glendyl Fenderwell — her name — was almost exactly in the middle of the list, next to her total score for the bones, the jackspinner and the heavyhandle. Number 53 out of the 106 Sixteeners was pretty safe, she thought. With only one event to go, this Sixteener had good reason to believe that she wouldn’t be the one sent away on a deathwalk. Excellent position, but it didn’t feel excellent. It felt anything but excellent.

“We are waiting, Miss Fenderwell. You may now advance to the Grand Quincunx if you please.”

The impatient voice belonged to a cherub-cheeked, apple-shaped man wearing the traditional black robe of the Holy Quincunx Fatherhood. Father Cymbill, Glendyl guessed, although it was easy to get them confused. She turned to confirm her guess.

She let out the balky breath that had been cat-napping in her lungs. “Yes, Father Cymbill. I must have been daydreaming.” Glendyl chalked her lame fib up to whatever was churning her stomach. Probably too much Marvosauce on her munchburger.

Father Cymbill winked and whispered back. “Daydreaming on Luckiest Day? Well, if you say so. But had you been calculating your chances of becoming our next Quester, I should hardly be surprised. It appears you have nothing to worry about, however. So….”

Glendyl blushed and turned away. Truth and embarrassment sent her nearly skipping to the final station. It was almost over and she would just do it.

St Coriander’s Grand Quincunx began its life as a mathematical sculpture, a nod to Sir Francis Galton, the 19th century scientist who invented it. But for the past 250 years the sculpture had been pressed into service each May 30th as a means of determining St Coriander’s Luckiest 16-year old.

This deadly serious procedure had been mandated long ago by the Mad Sorcerer Exeter of Castle Ommergard. Originally, Exeter’s reasoning was this: since he had been unable to locate the last Nevergate himself, only an extremely lucky person might be able to accomplish what his genius had so far failed to achieve. Besides, his anger with the pacifist IsoTown was legendary. Having refused him aid in Ommergard’s battle with the Clans Dunnigan and its wyvern allies, they had earned whatever punishments and inconveniences he might choose to inflict upon them. Such had been Exeter’s view a quarter millennium ago.

Although Exeter hadn’t visited St Coriander in centuries, the annual Luckiest Day competition continued, morphing into an exercise of pomp and catharsis at the paltry expense of a single human soul.

For Exeter, the event had become no more than an annual reminder of the transgressions of the town’s long Elevated forebears. Would some St Clueless Sixteener would actually locate the last Nevergate? He had abandoned any hope of that and moved on. Still, it amused him to monitor the ludicrous melodrama from the comfort of his own quarters.

The Grand Quincunx pulloff was the climax of Luckiest Day.

Glendyl gazed up at the 50’ tall mechanical contraption. At the top was a transparent conical hopper containing 150 balls about the size of volleyballs: 149 were white, one was gold. At the bottom of the hopper was an outlet tube just large enough for a single ball. When the contestant pulled down the ornate gold activating lever, the balls dropped into the tube. At the bottom of the tube was the first of 120 pegs arranged in a triangle of fifteen rows. The balls would bounce down from peg to peg in a random path until they came to rest in one of sixteen tall bins that looked like carved stone columns from an ancient Roman temple, except for the fact that they were transparent.

Lights on the ends of the pegs blinked and made marimba-like musical tones each time a ball hit a peg. The effect was more almost cheerful…unless your 16-year old life was at stake.

According to the laws of probability, most of the balls would end up in the middle bins. But the only thing that mattered to the Sixteeners was where their gold ball ended up. If the gold ball landed in one of the two outside bins, the contestant would instantly be awarded 10,000 points, almost always enough to be declared Luckiest. Of course the odds of that single gold ball ending in an outside bin were extremely remote. In fact, it had never happened in 249 years.

Glendyl’s genius friend Lizbeth Marble could probably calculate the odds in an instant, but Glendyl was an athlete, not a math geek. So she just crossed her fingers, made a silent prayer to the Lucky Madonna and waited for the signal to pull the lever.

A single ringing chime chopped through the jumbled noise of the sanctuary like a meat cleaver. As the echoes died away a too-lucky Sixteener named Gordy MacIver squeezed his eyes shut and made his own urgent plea to the Lucky Madonna. He was the current points leader by a wide margin, so unless Glendyl’s goldie did the impossible he was going to be the one to follow the 249 previous Luckiests through the gates and into the wilds, never to return.

Glendyl reached up and grabbed the golden handle with both hands. Then she hesitated. For no reason she could fathom, a zigzag of fear jolted her body. A premonition?

“That’s quite enough drama, Miss Fenderwell,” whispered Father Cymbill. “It has been a trying day for all of us. You are the last act, so to speak; just pull the lever and let’s be done with it.” Father Cymbill’s whisper had lost its canned cheeriness, but Glendyl barely heard him. It was as if her body had been flash frozen like a fish fillet or a bag of shrimp.

Father Cymbill rolled his eyes heavenward, turned and smiled his most beatific smile to the assembled Sixteeners. “Miss Fenderwell has asked that we all take a few moments to contemplate the object of our Questings,” he lied. “Since you are all well-educated Eastac or Westac students, I trust that you can recite the particulars of the two so-called Nevergate Wars and the Dunnigan Retreat during which all Nevergates on the planet disappeared. You may not know that the Fatherhood has been entrusted with certain secrets, and perhaps….”

KA-CHUNG! A sound much like an ancient cash register rang through the sanctuary for the 106th time that day, interrupting Father Cymbill’s impromptu speech. Glendyl’s arms had unfrozen themselves at exactly that instant and yanked the handle down with every erg of energy at her disposal.

The reaction to the KA-CHUNG was remarkable. It was as if invisible strings tilted every eyeball in the room up toward the hopper. Every eyeball except the two in Glendyl Fenderwell’s eyesockets. She couldn’t bear to watch.

One by one the balls entered the tube. One by one they bounced off one peg and then another and then another. As though being manipulated by a hidden Master of Melodrama, the gold ball was the very last to enter the tube. It seemed determined to take the leftmost trajectory with every peg it hit, even after a series of dramatic moments where it seemed to hang on the peg and wobble toward the right.

When Glendyl’s goldie finally fell into the leftmost bin, Gordy MacIver had to bite his tongue to keep from bellowing something enthusiastically rude. The Lucky Madonna had answered his prayer; almost impossibly, Glendyl Fenderwell had become Luckiest. Just like that.

From the gilt-faced Music Box high in the north wall, Musicmaster Jonas Mapplethorpe let fly the bombastic first organ notes of “As Luck Will Have It,” the traditional “victory” fanfare. At the same instant fountains of green sparks spouted from the tops of the thirteen massive chandeliers.

Before the sparks had faded, a troupe of thirteen 6-foot tall white-furred rabbits’ feet emerged from around the walls to converge on the central portion of the sanctuary. Then they began a lively dance: so much had been standard Luckiest Day tradition for more than a century, originally a magical production of the Spellfellow Society.

What was different about Reveta Bunsavver’s somewhat ironic interpretation was that the huge rabbits’ feet appeared to be freshly and messily severed. Endless gobbets of blood spewed from the ragged ends while they cavorted like a troupe of blind zombies, a comic ballet of bumbling pratfalls.

The crowd held up their hands to ward off the bloody rain, but it evaporated in pink poofs before it landed. Applause was both instantaneous and thunderous. The “Dance of the Bloody Symbols” would earn a mark in the record books, right alongside Glendyl’s recordbreaking encounter with the Grand Quincunx.

Glendyl barely noticed the dancing symbols. And she barely noticed as Father Cymbill firmly grasped her elbow and escorted her to the dais. She stood straight but empty while Father-Mayor Gullwimple presented the 250th Luckiest to all of St Coriander. His animated speech to the local audience of Sixteeners and by holo to virtually all of St Coriander was one of his more bombastic performances.

For a fact, all but three people in St Coriander cheered, or at least breathed a sigh of relief. The two who were Glendyl’s parents lapsed into pungent expressions of grief. The third, a wooden faced Glendyl, dutifully repeated the Quester Pledge and made the other expected responses, blinking back all but a faint sheen of tears.

“Well done, Miss Fenderwell,” whispered the Father-Mayor when the formalities were over. “No one expects a Luckiest to be a bastion of good cheer, after all. Am I correct, Father Cymbill?”

“Indeed,” agreed Father Cymbill. “And the reception will give our new Quester Designate a chance to relax.” He turned and gave Glendyl a sympathetic look that might even have been genuine. “Champagne and the good company of your friends will be a fine tonic for your wounded spirits…you can count on that. But first, let us make a stately exit.”

The pair of portly priests escorted the Quester Designate out of the sanctuary to Mapplethorpe’s solemn rendition of “Quest for Glory,” the customary recessional. She put on her best face and began to look forward to the champagne.

Sometimes endings are also beginnings. Glendyl had heard that somewhere, but she knew that not even champagne would make her believe that tonight was the beginning of anything good.

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