From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Queen of Hearts

VI
Pursuit

Clothes shed like snakeskin on cold graying cobblestone,
The faces of strangers in a familiar place,
His hands, blackened, burnt, the cold touch,
Consumed by the shadow of his broken memories.
Where is the Queen?

But one question remains. Did it begin or end in theft?

His polished shoes hit the cold graying cobblestone of a crowded street. He steps up onto the sidewalk to get his bearings. As he takes in the faces of strangers, he is overcome with panic. Where is he, and what has happened? His shirt is in tatters. A flash of remembrance, leaving white gloves, suit, vest, in a forest, but he cannot remember why his clothes have been shed like snakeskin.

The bazaar is laid out in front of him like a feast, reds and golds glinting in the afternoon sun. It is a familiar place, a place he once knew. Merchants call out to strangers who call out to friends. Yet he stands alone, feeling hot, coated breath on the back of his neck. No one has turned on him, and perhaps they will not. With luck, they will not know his face. With luck, they will not see his hands. They will think him merely an entertainer from another land. But the black thing is following me. Yes, because there has been a death, and the eyes watch and the ears listen.

Stifling another rush of panic, he stares at his hands, blackened as though burnt. He hears voices carried in the humid sea air. He swallows, studying the crowd’s hypnotic walk, their daily business, running errands, buying a loaf of bread, bartering, lost in chatter. Now these activities sicken him, but he watches in morbid fascination as the crowd flows down the street.

Suddenly, he feels a cold touch on his elbow, but his mind is dulled as if drugged, and he can but let the cold touch remain, though the hairs on his neck rise and beads of sweat collect on his temple. The touch produces a thought. Is this a nightmare, a shadow of his broken memories and dark dreams, the solitary, strange vision? Although he has forgotten his name and his mission, a single image is planted in his mind, that of a playing card. The queen of hearts. But he is caught in a paradox. To address this sole signpost to his past is to look, but to look is to be consumed. And he cannot. He cannot be consumed again.

I
The Manor
Heave open the manor gates,
Carve out your seat,
Beware, his table’s deadly
But the bet still stands.
Perhaps tonight?

He waits as they pass, those lords and ladies, those fashionable chaps with their top hats, watches, ivory canes. He is from the Slants, from poverty, and yet he is on the hill at the great gates that lead to the manor. Does he even dare? Ten coins in his pocket, he fingers them, cold to the touch. He has the wealth of Latchtown in his hands. The Slants in his hands, he has been given one, careful mission. To win back the deed to his home. When Asriael won the Slants so many years ago, he placed a magic so black, where servitude is life and thought is death. Language, impaired, and so the people speak in bursts to confuse the ears, his agents, who are always listening for a plot. The people, always a buzzing in their heads. Even think of escape, revenge, and Asriael sets the black thing loose.

The people, how they suffer in the shadow of the great manor. Win the deed, the teacher tells him, and the dark magic is unraveled. Win back the Slants.

But do not kill Asriael, the wizard warns, not until I have the deed and have undone his black magic.

Only the Slants, the teacher repeats. You are our best hope.

The deed first, the wizard drones on. And then options for our freedom will be considered.

Go. Go and perform the deed. Like a son to me. Our best hope.

Our best hope.

So much planning, so many lives wrapped up in those ten gold coins. He was chosen for his lack of family, as the black thing sniffs out blood lines, ends whole family trees who go against Asriael. His mother disappeared before memory and his father, soon after. Both taken by the lord of the manor, so he has been told. He took to the streets, stealing his bread until the teacher took him in.

Less risk, he hears his teacher say. Always make weakness strength.

He has nothing to lose, the wizard says.

All have something to lose, the teacher corrects. Something to lose is something to live for.

In training, he played the game best, showed his skill for cards, only red and black in his blood. It’s all in the first hand. The first hand shows all. One chance to carve out a seat. It cannot be called a life if the threat of death always hangs over. One chance to end the suffering of thousands.

But first he must get in.

He sees his chance, three ladies alone. “Might I have the honor?” he asks, flashing the smile. Together they walk on the carpet blood red. The ladies giggle and dance through the great doors of gold, which take three men a side to pull. The pullers, while pulling, are spinning a yarn.

“Asriael’s table is deadly tonight.”

“They say he’s grown bored with trifles and gold. Gold no longer pleases him.”

“It never has.”

“Yes, but now he bets in lives.”

“Shh.”

Softer.

“Is it true the bet stands?”

“It’s true. So bored he’ll bet his life. Imagine the luxury.”

“Perhaps tonight?”

“Perhaps, perhaps.”

Arms round ladies, he struts insides, confident curls of golden brown lit under the warmth of lamps. He breathes a sigh of relief. The suit is perfect. The disguise exact. Now comes the act.

II
Opening Hand
Diamond, spade, club, heart,
Once a number, now a face.
Does he know the secret the house holds?
Bet his own life against the house and lost.
Twin black serpents, they fall, they crumble

A white hall, lined in Persian rugs, red and black. Always diamond, spade, heart, club. Tonight is the night is the night is the night. The ten gold pieces, to him, everything, to the lords a paltry sum. Yet in mere days, he has ascended to the ranks of the nobles on skill. Skill, and luck. Once a number, now a face. Once a slum, now royalty.

And the bet will come tonight. He will win back the deed of the Slants and free his people from Asriael’s dark design.

To commoners, once his family, friends, the gloves are forbidden, but now he wears them, the white gloves of a gentleman. The magic, like Asriael’s wrath, is not discerning. There can be no escape in death. End your life, end the lives of your family as well. Chilling simplicity is Asriael’s game.

He trembles. Many have been silenced before they even spoke, so quick and deadly is Asriael’s magic. So many lives have been lost for him to reach the green table, where even life is a trifle, where countries are divided on mere hands, where pain and suffering have become betting chips. Even the ten gold coins did not come cheaply. Days in the manor and already the taste of stale bread has been forgotten. The soups, rich, substantial, made for more than softening bread. Already, the manor consumes him. The Slants, his home, scrimped, saved, while he trained. But no one except the two know of his mission.

“Ah, Lord Renue.” It’s a countess, low-born, useless.

The name doesn’t fit, but he wears it. “Yes, my dear.”

“Congratulations. I’ve heard you’ve shaken up the house. The youngest in years invited to the Great Game. Quite the commotion.”

“I try, my dear,” Renue says.

“Too bad about Old Faldor. He played the game for many years.” She frowns. “Terrifying that it was done by someone from…within. Have they found the thing that murdered him?”

“I think not, countess. He is long gone, I am sure. Fled.”

The black thing cannot enter the walls of the manor, echoes the wizard’s words. And with my magic, it will not find you when you leave.

“Poor Faldor,” she says, shaking her head. “Those monsters. You know, Faldor was one of the first. He used to own the Slants, did he not?”

“I believe so,” Renue says, drifting from Renue to himself as a boy, when Asriael won the slants. Faldor was a tough master, but he did not use such means to control the people. But when Asriael took control, hope withered. His lust for power was limitless. Renue’s mother and father disappeared like so many others.

Weakness becomes strength.

“The Slants. Not worth one gold piece, if you ask me. Can’t believe that bet was taken. Well, I must go,” the countess says, shuttling in her peacock dress, sticks in hair. “Good luck tonight.”

“I thank you,” he says gracefully, wishing to say more.

In the long hall, he passes the portrait of a young woman. Concentrate on the mission. He sees the double doors that lead to the great game and exhales. The doors open to smoke, cigars, red embers hanging from mouths. There are the four, where once there were five. An empty chair. Dear old Faldor, murdered in cold blood. But it had to be done. Faldor was a strict but fair master, Renue has been told. But he betrayed us. The lives of others should never be wagered.

He scans the room. Tall maroon chairs, ornately carved wood. There’s Count Melnor. Old man, with glasses, long fingers, white vest. Next to him, much younger, long framing eyebrows, tangled black hair–they call him Wild Card. Once he bet his own life, and lost. The hooked nose one, Baron Debeau, with his long flowing red robe, thick red beard, a fighter, unpredictable. And last, only Asriael, piercing eyes, crooked smile. Twin black serpents carved on his chair. White gloves.

Asriael studies him. “Ah, the newcomer. Renue, is it? Welcome to the Great Game. I trust you know the stakes.”

“I know them well, my Lord.” He feels for his ten golds, the rest, brought in chests by the attendants, are fakes. The first game must be won, else all is lost.

A nameless woman tosses the cards. Renue slides them to the edge and flips them up slightly. Jacks high, threes low. Luck? Sweating, he maintains a steady hand and makes his opening. Wild Card, Debeau, Melnor, Asriael. They fall. They crumble.

III
The Great Game
This is the night is the night is the night
That white gloves grasp royalty, peasants, all.
His mother, used like a coin.
Red hands lie, black hands die,
Did his father once set foot in the manor?

“Deal.”

“Yours.”

“Yours.”

“Yours.”

“Newcomer.”

Two hands, four, hands exchange gold, sapphires, rubies, worthless, all worthless. Yet the cold touch of coin triggers innate desires. Renue composes himself. “I did not come all the way to the Great Game for coins. There is gold in my country.”

“And where is that?” asks Count Melnor.

Baron Debeau clears his throat. “Some call you the joker, do they not?”

“Only a nickname,” Renue replies.

“Yours,” Wild Card says, dealing.

Jack, seven, five, nine, two. Club strong. Loss. King, Queen, ten, six, six. Bluff. Win. White gloves grasp, royalty, peasants, numbers, suits, straights, flush, double jacks, triple nines. Commanding, powerful, Renue plays the odds, loses when he needs to, wins when he can. The Count, the Baron, soon they are broken. Cigars aflame, they sit back puffing, chuckling. “He’s good. He’s very good.”

“Too good.”

“Determined, merely,” assures Debeau. “Worried, Asriael?”

“Talk again,” Asriael says, “and I’ll show you hands of black.”

“What does he mean?” Renue asks to throw them off. “I was given gloves but did not know their purpose.”

“Red hands for those who lie, black for those who murder,” the Baron replies. “As it has always been to keep Latchtown at bay. Brilliant magic.”

Renue pauses. “And yet we wear white gloves?”

“Well, this is a gentlemen’s game.”

“I see.”

Like death, it comes before he could have imagined. The golden deed to Latchtown, thrown in the pot by Asriael like trash. Renue presses the others, deftly throwing the weight of doubt and gold on their minds. Bluffing. Bluffing for an entire people’s future. But it works. He wins and he is left with the deed in his pile and command of the table, game choice, ante.

Just the deed, the teacher affirmed. Then go. I would not risk your life for anymore. Like a son. Like a son to me.

Part of Renue wants to run, out of the manor, through the forest, downward to the Slants, to the wizard who commands the spell. His eyes find gold. It would be suspicious to leave so suddenly. Of course, he must stay till the end of the game. Besides, why stop at the Slants? Why return empty-handed? Money has its uses. No one from the Slants would disagree.

He wins twice, loses once—not his fault, there’s cheating afoot. Asriael, or Wild Card. He must break Wild Card. He bluffs again and Asriael folds. In short order, he closes Wild Card, a maniac, a wild better, whose sweat falls to the green table. Wild Card sits back trying to laugh it off, but is clearly shaken. “No one has such luck,” he sneers.

“What are you saying?” snarls the Count. “Without order, we fall.”

“Cheat.”

“How dare you sir,” Renue says, starting to rise. He has practiced this outrage.

“Calm, calm,” urges Melnor. “Without order, we fall.”

“I dare,” Wild Card says, then flashing the smile. “Check his hands for red.”

“This is a gentleman’s game,” Renue smirks.

“Then I’ll come back next week annd crush you in gold.” Wild Card’s wolf eyes watch the deed. “I wanted that, newcomer.”

“You’ll find the women in the Slants succulent,” the Baron says, licking his lips. “I owned one once, so many years back, I…” He kisses his fingers. “Asriael, whatever happened to that one you had?”

“She died,” Asriael says coldly. “The Slants. Good riddance.” Still, he eyes the deed. “Renue. My servant, of course, will continue to walk the streets. Such a magic cannot be undone easily. And another thing. The black thing answers only to me.”

“Of course,” Renue agrees. “I–”

“And my eyes and ears will remain. For safekeeping. After all, this is my home.”

“I wouldn’t think of it.”

“You’ll find Asriael among the slants still,” Wild Card says slyly. “His heart beats for filth.”

“Enough,” Asriael demands, pounding the table, sending gold flying. “We are done here.” The others leave, and Renue is left alone. Asriael hates the Slants, yet even hatred has roots.

Long after the others have left, Renue pauses outside the double velvet doors at the portrait of a young woman. He studies the face. She is blond, fair skin, with a graceful crane-like neck. Somehow familiar. The image triggers a thought, and suddenly he is propelled into memories of his boyhood again, always. He has only seen his mother once. His father disappeared when he was a boy, leaving him to steal and barter, to suffer with the louts. Impossible, he thinks, that this could be her. Yet could teacher have kept it secret all these years? Make weakness strength, train as a weapon. It is his mother. He always had a memory for faces–why he’s so deft at cards. But all his life he was told that both were dead. Had she have been living here all along? Then what happened to his father?

Even if the lives of many are held in the deed, Renue knows then he cannot leave the manor. Not until he discovers the secrets the house holds.

VII
The Slants
Does the body remember what was stolen?
Black beast haunts him in the streets,
Predator eyes, shadow voice,
Theft branded to his skin,
The Slants lost in one bad hand.

What do we do first? Where do we go?

The voice is surprisingly coaxing, enough to calm his nerves. He turns slowly and sees her. She is beautiful, fair skinned, graceful and soft to the eyes. And he was so sure what the touch was before. The black thing, who hunts and never stops, the insatiable dark spirit. Now, instinctively, because instincts never leave, he reaches his arm around her slim shoulders, across her crane-like neck. His words are barely a stutter.

“I don’t know where,” he says, staring at the rogues in the streets, and the vendors, and multi-colored garments that blur into swirls and currents. “Something’s been done to me. I can’t remember.”

Are you worried?

He manages another quick look. She wears an emerald green dress, torn. Her hair, like his, is golden brown, and curls just before it reaches her shoulders. But her eyes are different. He has seen those eyes before.

“No,” he answers after a moment. There were plans, if only he could remember. He searches, finds one word stuck to his tongue. Thief. His eyes survey the crowd to pick out the reds from the blacks. In his mind, visions of what he searches for, that nightmare, the black thing who haunts him, all cloak and shadow, eyes glimmering like furnaces. Rumors of the black thing abound, a demon discovered from the Krylight mines, trained as Asriael’s plaything. The twisted soul of what was once human. Someone from the Slants, twisted and horrible. The first who tried to kill Asriael. Made into a horror as a reminder.

He spies it behind an old man, those coral snake eyes, and freezes, but when he looks at the street, nothing still. He smiles, breathing in deep, letting nerves calm in the thick sea air. A voice within him cries. Escape. Make way to the teacher. Explain what happened. Seek the wizard’s protection. Yet he hesitates, looking at her. She is highborn, not used to the Slants. Will they help her or tear her apart? He looks down at his hands, naked and black. Who has he killed? His memory is returning, the magic of the forest fading. Old Faldor, only Faldor. A glance to her hands. They cannot remain in the open for long.

Betrayal, the commoners scream in his mind.

Her voice. No one escapes. You were warned.

The dim echo of the teacher reminds him to follow the eyes, so he tracks her line of sight to a table alight with jewelry, earrings, necklaces, pins like stars. His numbness fades, he feels quicker, swifter, more agile. Where is the wealth he won? Spilled in the wood. It weighed us down. Panic. She raises her eyebrows in question. Nodding, he casts a darting look in all directions vaguely aware of what he is oddly drawn to do. She’s eyeing the silver, heart-shaped locket on the corner of the jeweler’s table. Wealth in her blood.

Sounds of harping laughter give him pause, but it is so distant that it could not be for him. He focuses on the locket, stepping down into the thick of bodies. It is almost too much, the red and black clothing whirling around him. But he weaves fluidly through the crowd, past imagined glances. The strangers know a secret, his secret. Their scorn burns like fire. He examines himself. Where is the watch that left an imprint on his wrist? Where are the rings that have fled his slender fingers? The mind may forget but the body remembers.

He moves predatorily past the commoners and in a split second leaps, grasping the cold silver locket with sleight of hand to hide it in a crease of his shirt. A memory surfaces, that of a card held by her slender hands, so slight, but the din shatter his concentration. Thief. Why do they call him that? What has he stolen? He looks at his hands again, charred black. Faldor. Only Faldor. Beneath the black, scrapped away like dead skin, red. Hands marked in lies.

When you leave, you will have little time to reach the hideout, the teacher instructed. Let nothing slow you down. No magic is without risk. No magic is fool-proof.

Nearby, two louts are talking. They smell of the docks.

“He’s lost Latchtown?”

“He’s dead.”

“Taken by the gold?”

“The cheat fled.”

“He’ll be down here with us, hiding in the Slants.”

“I’d kill him first.”

“I’d too.”

“We’ll sniff him out.”

“We’ll snuff him candle out.”

Renue shudders, feels the black crawling like a centipede on his back. Its icy touch creeps to his neck as he turns suddenly, theft branded to his skin. Have they found him?

She takes her hand from his neck. He lets out a faint scream and the crowd turns to stare. Images, a green pentagonal table, riches, ember smiles, cutting tension and hidden daggers. Once, he could take those stares, turn them around and use them, revel in them. But now his concentration is broken. Father, mother. Why are these names on his lips? To his relief, the crowd is busied by its daily errands. Unaware.

What will you give me now? He detects a hint of the shadow in her voice.

“I have something to tell you,” he whispers, “but we must hurry. Not now.” Above the town, he sees the manor, its marble steps, hedges, and central fountain. Hears laughter, which pulls him strangely.
“They say he lost big. One bad hand,” a lout continues.

“How will it end?”

“Don’t you know?”

Together. “In death.”

IV
The Queen
She knows his secret, knows his face,
Bet her life and lost
A life for a life, poor flickering lights.
The Queen of Hearts,
What hand has she played?

“I don’t remember you,” a woman says, stepping out onto the balcony to join him. Renue turns. The cool air soothes his beating heart. During each stroll down the long halls at night, Renue has heard a woman screaming. In each room he enter he feels his mother’s presence. He’s heard the whispers, asked careful questions. Speculation. His mother, taken from him before his eyes were open as Asriael’s plaything. His father, slain in the manor in which Renue now sleeps on beds of satin and pillows of dreams. It weighs heavily on his mind. Stay, and risk the Slants. Go, and forever lose the knowledge of his past. Renue shutters to think what the louts would do if they found out.

“You wouldn’t,” Renue says slowly, recovering. “And then again, who would?”

She lets out a waterfall laugh, cascading. “And what does that mean?”

“It means,” he banters, playing the game, “that I’m the joker. Unpredictable. And you?”

“They call me the Queen of Hearts.”

“Asriael’s?”

“Only partly true,” she answers in a curl of a smile. The breeze from the sea is carried by the wind. Salt crystals float like ice birds. She is tall, a crane-like neck, red lipstick, emerald dress, black tie round her hair.

“You’ve done well, Lord Renue. But who are you, I wonder.”

“I’m no one,” he laughs, tugging at his white gloves.

“And where is no one’s home?”

“Nowhere,” he answers, staring to the distant lights

Now, it is her turn to laugh, but instead she straightens. “My mother was from the Slants. She spoke of it once. I’ve never been, though.”

“So?” he says disdainfully, though inside he is screaming and his blood is boiling out of his skin at the glimmer of the thought that enters his mind. “It’s not a thing to mention.” This is practiced but rings false.

“Is it?”

“The Slants, you say?” Keep it lighter. He grins. “So I guess one could say that you’re crooked.”

“My mother was,” she replies in a half smile. “But she died a few years ago. Asriael’s hated Latchtown ever since. That’s why he does as he does.”

“How did she die?” he asks. The Slants are deathly quiet, like an animal trembling in anticipation of the final blow.

“In his way Asriael loved her, but then she grew sick and withered. He sought out every cure. The Game began in this way. He would do everything to heal her except give her the one thing that would. All things have a price.”

“And your price?” She laughs again. Renue presses up to her, nearly pushing her off the balcony. “Name it.”

“I am not to be bought or sold,” she says, moving from underneath him. “There are some things that wither when possessed. Asriael found that out, but too late.”

Renue almost falls, but catches himself, staring out at the Slants, his home, those poor flickering lights. The touch produces a memory. His mother, looking up into the sky, buildings crowding around him. His mother. His father he remembers more, his chiseled, honest face, his tree-brown eyes, and now he sees all too clearly the plot. His father in the manor, trying to save his wife. The Slants suddenly shrivel in his mind and he must know the truth. The table is deadly tonight.

“If you think you’ll get away with it, you’re wrong.”

“What do you mean?” he stutters. Is she a reader of minds? Does she know who he is?

“No one leaves the manor,” she says in his ear. “I know what you want, but you will not get it. The house always win. Leave now before it is too late.”

“Too late? All is bet, won, and lost in the Great Game,” Renue insists, suddenly afraid. He has given away too much. “All.”

“Asriael,” she muses, leaning over the balcony, “is only a man. He won’t bet his own life.”

“A life for a life, my queen,” he mocks. “And you’re wrong.”

“About what?”

“I never lose.”

V
Draw
Straight to the heart, go or fold,
Hand and hand so goes the deed,
What cards do they hold?
The queen is all he needs.
A true player always plays dead.

Renue’s simple plan. Make Asriael bet his life. Make him lose. Make him pay for what was stolen. Thief. He enters the room. Only Asriael sits across the table in his twisted throne. Is it a trap?

“Where is everyone?” Renue asks, stone-faced.

“No one will play with you anymore,” Asriael comments. “Didn’t you know that?” He shakes his head. “Deadly luck. Deadly. But tonight your luck’s run out, newcomer. I have a feeling, that is.”

“I never lose.”

“I can see that,” Asriael says, scratching his chin. “You know, I met a man once from the Slants who thought as such. Never lost. So cocky, the underclass. Never lost, but once. When you have nothing to lose, I find, you bet wildly. Have you heard this story? They tell it in the Slants, now and again, I am told. He made a bet, yes, lost, and became my faithful pet. Pity.”

“The black thing?” Renue asks, secretly fearing. Asriael nods. “Ante. It seems no one else is coming.”

“What’s your game?” Asriael asks.

“Straight. High stakes.”

“What stakes?”

Renue lays his hand flat on the table. “All.”

“All?” A curl of Asriael’s smile. “Let’s warm our palate with trifles, shall we?”

They play furiously, and Renue maneuvers carefully to glean the cards, back and forth, two minds, alert, hands twitching, eyes staring, ears listening. Asriael almost taken, the gold piled and piled.

The door opens and she enters. Renue did not expect this, not part of the plan.

“Ah, so good of you to come,” Asriael says, standing.

She takes a seat next to Renue. “Not yours tonight,” she says in a flat voice to Asriael. “See how you play without me.”

“I’ll strip you bare.”

“So will he,” she laughs.

“How dare you!”

“Quiet and play,” she says slyly. “Perhaps you can win me back tonight.”

“When did he win you? I don’t recall the bet.”

“I was never yours to bet.”

“You are mine.” Asriael smiles. “Do not forget it.”

Cards fly across the table, one, two, three, four, five. More gold, more. He lets Asriael win so he’ll grow overconfident. Now Renue sees Asriael’s weakness, always pride.

“Need your pet?” Asriael asks sharply.

“She is not mine,” Renue answers.

Cards are dealt. He can’t help it. Another win. Meaningless. Renue looks to his side. Three chests full of gold, gemstones, deeds, more than the Slants would ever need, yet gold no longer matters. This is a mission of revenge now. This is for the death of his mother, taken from him before memory. And for his father. Two deaths on the table, and a debt that must be paid.

“I want you to leave the manor after tonight,” Asriael says suddenly, folding.

Renue brings the gold to his chest. “Deal.” The chests spill out on the table, more wealth than he has ever known.

“Are you ready? She will shuffle and command the cards,” Asriael commands. “So none can say it was not fair. Straight. Double ins, aces over, no wilds, agreed?”

“Fair.”

The Queen gathers the cards, shuffling deftly. “You have noble blood, yes?” Asriael remarks slowly as she deals. “Is this true?”

“Yes.”

“I could take off your gloves. I could check your hands for red.”

“Not red,” she informs, tugging on one glove below the table.

“A new bet.”

“Blind?” Renue asks.

“Blind.”

“I want the Slants back.”

“Why?”

Asriael smiles. “To remember. One last time.”

“I want your life,” Renue responds.

“My life, oh my,” he laughs, sitting back. “Yours…for mine?”

“The Slants for your life. Many lives for one. A fair trade.”

“Add your life to the ante,” Asriael grits, “and we shall play. I could take it if I wished.”

“Deal.”

Renue looks over at her, so beautiful, so familiar. Her face is expressionless as she tosses the cards. He takes his hand, studies it quickly, the places the cards face down. Ace, King, Jack, Ten, all hearts. Jack of spades. Almost a royal flush. Is it a sign? He looks at her. Still no expression. “One.

“One?” Asriael asks, narrowed eyes. “Two.”

The cards are dealt. King, Jack, Ten, Ace, Ace. Coincidence? Should he take the chance? She brushes up against him. “A further bet?” Asriael asks.

“Her,” Renue says coldly, “If you want her so bad.”

Asriael laughs. “She is mine, but very well. The deed, they go hand and hand. And for you. What would you accept? You’ve already won so much tonight. No no, don’t say it. Ah, the opulence of words.” He glances at the deed in the center. “The throne? Good, yes? No need for her on the table, though” he smirks.

“Stand.”

“Raise.”

“Raise what?” Renuse asks as the fear creeps. He has nothing more to give.

“But you do,” Asriael says, gritting his teeth. “There is always more to give. Service.”

Renue looks at his cards slowly. King, Jack, Ten, Ace, Ace. Two aces will not beat the house, or will it? Is Asriael bluffing? Is it worth it, his life, even for parents slain? “Service?” Renue repeats.

“Yes, like the black thing. How fitting. That, or you must fold.”

“Then I must play. Do you see me?”

Asriael scoffs. “I could have you killed right now. But, let us be fair. I will give you the manor, for you to rule as you please. Hand it down. You already own the Slants, which were mine, and so it follows.”

“But why?” Renue asks, dreading the answer.

Asriael leans back. Suddenly, he looks like skin, like bones. “I cannot eat,” he says. “I cannot sleep. Food tastes like ash. My soul is stretched thin. All that once held me here has left me. I am already dead. So it is a fair bet.”

“They do say a true player always plays dead,” Renue comments. “A dead man cannot give anything away.”

Asriael glances at the Queen of Hearts. “And why did you come, my dear? Leave us.”

“Do not stall. What are you waiting for?” Renue asks. He checks his hand and goes for the straight flush, raises one finger. He’s counted the cards and iåt will come. Such confidence.

“Before we show, I must ask. Are you trustworthy?” Asriael asks. “Are you a gentlemen?”

The queen of hearts. It is the card he needs for the straight flush, and he knows he will get it. The Queen passes the card to him and without looking, he adds it to the four. She hands Asriael a single card and circles around him.

“I am more a gentleman than you,” Renue says.

“Then I call,” Asriael says finally. “Show your hand.”

Without looking at them, Renue spreads the cards. Ten, Jack, Queen, King, Ace. A double-take. Blood rising. The queen of spades. The death card. A royal straight, but is it good enough? He looks as a smile spreads across Asriael’s face as his cards are flipped. Three Kings, two sevens. Full house. The death hand.

Renue grabs the deck, searches frantically for the queen of hearts. “It’s impossible.” She’s disappeared. Did she steal it? He backs away, struck, eyes wide. The cheat. Theft. The Black Thing. Servant.

“Full house, too bad,” Asriael smiles. “But I do love family reunions.” Then, a puzzled expression appears on his face. He opens his mouth, blood dripping out of the corners. The gleam of a dagger as it twists to the side. Renue panics. The glint of steel again as Asriael falls.

The Queen of Hearts appears behind the great throne and grabs his hand. “Come. We must go.”

Does she not know of the curse?

Too late, he crumbles.

VIII
Death
Flee through the murmurs and cries,
The highs and the lows, the cursed hands.
The Great Game, played and lost.
A pause reveals what he always knew,

So much bought, so much sold. Renue checks his pocket. Beware, the black thing cries.

The heart lies there.

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