The time has come for the Moon of a Thousand Horses, a gathering of desert tribes turned festival. The Moon lasts for three days at the marid-touched Oasis of the Blue Queen, where the tribes barter horses, court, arrange marriages, pledge friendship, settle rivalries, and indulge in games of skill. The festival is also very popular with merchants who come to purchase fine desert geldings, and with gamblers who come to bet on the spectacles.
Kismet and Abd walk the festival, Aya meandering off on her own, discussing the latest turn of events. Kismet had no interest in horses herself, but she’s here to complete an agreement — as guest and contracted employee. The Doomspinner assassins of Naas have called in their bargain with her. This evening she’ll have to play a game and win — and in such a manner that she can’t be accused of cheating.
The veiled Savaas, her representative and employer, joins the two of them. He explains that the game chosen is fox’s tail, a table game that requires skill at moving the “fox” and “hens” pieces as well as luck with the dice. Given Kismet’s inability to lose at games of chance, it would be easier for her to play a game with turns and moves of skill. If she plays badly — but not terribly — she should be able to win without dominating. He notifies her that the grand game will take place in the large tent with the blue and gold banners, and then leaves her to make whatever preparations she requires.
Nearby, Aya runs out of things to say in her conversation with the water genasi Vashma al-Korand, the keeper of the oasis’ waters. As she drifts back among the tents, she notices Mashaar the Golden-Fingered, somewhat to her surprise. Mashaar genially greets her, and mentions that she’s participating in the grand fox’s tail game this evening; Aya should come and watch. Aya considers for a moment, and asks what the stakes are. “Treasures,” responds Mashaar. “I wouldn’t wager anything I can’t afford to lose, but the stakes are too intriguing this year.” Aya smiles, excuses herself, and finds Kismet.
Kismet is less than pleased to find out she’ll be gaming against her employer. She seeks out Mashaar’s tent, and once in private, tells the merchant queen about the situation. She explains that she simply can’t lose at games of chance, but she can’t withdraw from the game; she’s associating with people who could easily kill her. Mashaar calmly invites Kismet to prove it, providing a pair of dice. The two throw dice for a few rounds, Kismet winning each one until Mashaar cheats.
Mashaar contemplates for a moment, then says that she can’t back out from the game. She’ll play, and she won’t reveal Kismet’s secret, and she expects that Kismet will be able to make it up to her somehow. Much relieved, the elven sailor thanks her and retreats to prepare for the game.
Late that evening, a number of wealthy travelers gather in the grand tent with the blue and gold banners. There is room for only six at the table, but the tent is crowded with observers fascinated by the players and the stakes. Abd stands at attention, one part guard for Mashaar and one part security for the game. Aya breezes through the crowd, the picture of the vaguely curious exotic beauty. Kismet takes one of the six seats, along with her opponents.
“I am Zezit,” says a sour-looking lean man in headdress, veil and robes, revealing a demon-faced helm, “and this is my stake.”
“I am Rudask,” says a weathered Og-Negun sheik, holding up an oddly decorated bridle, “and this is my stake.”
“I am Mashaar,” says the venturer-magnate, drawing a veil made of flowing sand from a box, “and this is my stake.”
“I am Kirazta,” says a dashing young woman in swordswoman’s clothing, motioning to a clockwork standing by her, “and this is my stake.”
“I am Captain Glory of Perception,” says a beautiful man in a uniform resembling a peacock’s coat, with a distasteful wave to an ugly leaden washbasin, “and this is my stake.”
“I am Savaas,” Kismet’s patron says, gesturing to her and opening a casket to show a jeweled orrery, “and this is my champion, and this is my stake.”
The game begins, and all attention is on the first throws. Abd surreptitiously looks over the staked treasures. His suspicions land on the helm and the basin in particular. The helm seems clearly to be a relic of the Slumbering King and his shaitan court; the basin has odd scratch marks in it, as if an iron-clawed beast washed its hands in it, and smells faintly of rot.
The game unfolds as it must. Kismet expertly masks her ideal rolls by making suboptimal plays, until a streak of excellent dice and clever moves takes her to victory. Each of her opponents congratulates her in turn, with variable sincerity; they range from the sour-eyed Zezit to the almost relieved-seeming Captain Glory of Perception.
As refreshments make the rounds, Mashaar introduces Kismet more formally to Kirazta, sister to the sultana of Hamaji. Kismet is somewhat taken with the dashing royal adventurer. Abd continues to stand guard, surveying the crowd for anyone who might make a poor decision regarding the stakes.
Aya and Captain Glory of Perception recognize one another, and fall to chatting. The captain, one of the various lesser courtiers of the Queen of Birds, seems not to regret his loss at all. Although it would have been grand to bring many presents back to Her Majesty, the basin is a distasteful thing. It once belonged to a ghul princess, and has a reputation for leveling curses when filled. The talk turns to assassins, as the captain seems aware that Zezit is from a rival organization to Savaas — and a stronger one, at that. “Spiders taste delicious,” he says, “but snakes eat eggs.” He mentions that the assassins are likely both trying for the construct, which was designed to instruct nobles in swordplay. With a little adjusting, perhaps it could cause an unfortunate “accident.”
Aya carries the news to Abd, and Kismet soon joins them. The genasi tells the others that Zezit is almost certainly one of the Brotherhood of Vipers, and he may attempt to claim his stake in another, deadlier fashion. She then moves to Vashma al-Korand, to warn the keeper that there’s a dangerous washbasin around that must be kept from the oasis’ waters.
Kismet quickly returns to Savaas’ tent, where the Doomspinner is arranging further security for the winnings. She tells him of the Viper presence. After some back-and-forth, the two negotiate a new contract: if she and her friends defend him from the Brotherhood, and are instrumental in protecting the prizes, she may select one of the treasures as her recompense. Savaas agrees, and places an odd eyepatch over one eye, marked with four small rubies like a spider’s eyes. He then dismisses Kismet, and begins setting things in order for a departure in the morning.
Kismet, Abd and Aya conceal themselves around the tents of Savaas’ caravan. As the night deepens, Abd and Aya notice a man cautiously sneaking up to the water barrels; Kismet is sadly distracted by a hunting fennec. Abd moves with uncanny stealth and strikes the intruder unconscious. While the paladin drags his quarry into the tent, Aya sees another man that was lingering by the camels slip quietly away. She scans for other watchers, and finds a drunkard under a palm suspicious. At her command, a conjured wind throws sand into the sot’s face, but he sleeps through it, or pretends to.
Savaas and Abd examine the flask on the person of their captive. Savaas recognizes it as poison, one that would make them exceptionally sick over time, most likely in the middle of the journey. “I can give you specifics if they wouldn’t be wasted on you,” he says.
“They would be wasted on me.”
“I appreciate your honesty.”
The Doomspinner and his caravan pack up and leave early in the morning, the venturers alongside them. Not many are leaving the festival early, so their wagons have the trail to themselves. Abd and Kismet doze during the day, to be more alert at night. The first night passes with no sign of the Brotherhood of Vipers at their camp.
On the second day, the small caravan passes through some low stony hills. Abd notes that one particular stretch of trail would be an ideal ambush spot; the rising slope to their right and the falling slope to their left leave a fairly narrow trail. As they near a natural bridge stretching over the trail, rocks come bouncing down the higher slope, disturbed by some hidden movement. The venturers loosen their blades in their scabbards.
A small group of masked archers in weatherbeaten gear scurry out onto the bridge. More men and women pour out onto the trail. Abd races forward to engage them, backed by Savaas’ men, as Aya gathers and looses elemental power at the archers. Savass produces a crossbow and fires at the ambushers as well.
Before Kismet can join the fray, the earth buckles near her. An immense worm tears free of the soil near the second wagon, catching one of the rear guards and crushing his torso in its mandibles. Kismet draws her blade to defend herself, alone against the beast.
At the front of the caravan, Abd fights resolutely against the would-be robbers. His presence in the battle inspires the other guards, and helps them gain the momentum against the bandits. Aya turns her attention to the worm, striking it with the storm’s fury. The creature then surges after her, prompting Kismet to pursue it.
Abd leaves the guards to continue the battle and rides back to join in the fight against the worm. As he does so, Aya’s familiar spits something into the worm’s wounds, poisoning it. Abd and Kismet fence for a round with the wriggling predator, then Abd spots a man dressed in stealthy clothing slipping into the rear wagon, unknown to Savass. He breaks free of the melee, leaps onto the wagon’s buckboard, dives past Savass and brings an avenging strike into the intruder. The cloaked man responds with a jambiya, but Abd easily deflects the counter with his shield. A crossbow’s string sings, and a bolt from Savass whistles past Abd into the intruder’s thigh.
The worm convulses, succumbing to the poison. Aya returns her attention to the archers on the natural bridge. She summons a howling, fiery wind like a jinn’s wrath, and scorches the remaining archers to a swift death.
Kismet, intent on not being outdone, races after the last brigand. He lashes out at her, but stumbles on an unlucky stone, and catches her blade in his sternum. It’s still lodged in his breast as he falls away from her, tumbling down the slope. “I’ll get another one!” she shouts after him in angry tones.
Abd fixates the wounded assassin with a fierce glare and demands his siurrender. Perhaps to his own surprise, the intruder complies. Abd raises his shield to guard his new charge from Savaas’ next bolt. The Doomspinner pauses, then lowers his crossbow.
They take stock of the damage. The treasures are safe and sound. Six of the guards perished in the battle, though the bandits lost twice that number. The captive assassin tells his captors that Zezit is waiting at the caravanserai ahead; he has “buried himself” in preparation for finishing the job. After a short conference, Savaas agrees that it would be prudent to take a longer way around, avoiding the caravanserai.
Abd takes charge of his captive, and is sure to tell Savaas and the surviving guards that the Viper is under his protection. “If a man lays a hand on him,” he says, “I’ll take that hand.”
The extended route around the caravanserai is a success; though water runs a bit short, they at least have fewer guards to nourish. They reach Adwa safely. Savaas pronounces the contract complete, and as promised, gives the venturers their choice of prize. Kismet chooses the sand-bride’s veil, formerly in Mashaar’s keeping.
Abd takes the assassin to the temple of Jalisa. There he sees the killer sworn in as an acolyte of the Defending Shield, his former name forgotten and the new temple name of Kassan al-Jalisa laid upon him. Kassan begins training for his new life.
Kismet returns the veil to Mashaar, who is delighted. She not only accepts the gift as ending Kismet’s obligation, but she retrieves a fine blade from her stores as a present for the elven sailor.