From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Excerpt from The Queen of Hearts by Daniel Homan

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT! Here’s a sneak peek at The Queen of Hearts, by Daniel Homan.

Ante

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

His polished shoes hit the cold graying cobblestone of a crowded street. Stepping up onto the sidewalk to get his bearings, Renue takes in the faces of strangers and is overcome with panic. Where is he? What has happened? His shirt, in tatters, a flash of remembrance, leaving white gloves, suit, and vest in the forest, but he can’t remember why his clothes had been shed like snakeskin.

At least the market is a familiar place, reds and golds glinting in the afternoon sun. Merchants call out to strangers who call out to friends, yet he stands frozen, feeling breath on the back of his neck. No one has turned on him and perhaps no one will. With luck, the louts won’t know his face. With luck, the spades won’t see his hands. It’s searching for us. Yes, because there has been murder. And the eyes watch, the ears listen.

Stifling another rush of panic, Renue stares at his hands, blackened as though burnt. The humid sea air carries stray voices, rumors, conversation. He swallows, eyeing the crowd’s hypnotic walk, their daily business, running errands, buying loaves of bread, bartering, picking fruits, lost in chatter. Revulsion. He swallows against sickness, watching as the crowd flows down the street.

Suddenly, a finger brushes his elbow, but his mind is dulled as though 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, or a shadow of his broken memories and dark dreams, or a solitary, strange vision? Although he has forgotten his name and his mission, a single image is planted in his mind, a playing card, but he is caught in a paradox. To address this sole signpost of his past is to look, but to look is to be consumed. And he cannot be consumed again.

* * *

He waits as they pass, those lords and ladies, the guests, fashionable hillborns with their top hats, watches, ivory canes. Slamming doors and laughing, the hillborns leave their cars to the valets and amble up the grassy hill towards the Manor. Renue is from the Slants, from poverty, and yet he is at the great gates that lead to the home of Mesmer, the dictator. Does he even dare? Renue fingers the ten ceremonial coins in his pocket. He has been given a charge to win back the deed to his home, with the hopes that the deed will unravel the Pattern. When Mesmer took Ashkareve so many years ago, he placed a design so strict and final, where servitude is life and resistance death. With his secret police and surveillance, he shattered language itself, broke words, snipped tongues so the people were forced to speak in bursts, with blank words, in poems, using fingers, or not at all. Mesmer’s agents are always listening for a plot. Even think of escape, let alone revenge, and Mesmer sets Boran’s Black Hands loose. Murder, and the black thing will find you, even though none living can say they’ve seen it. For so long, Mesmer’s pet was confined to the nighttime stories parents and siblings tell to frighten young children. An irrelevant myth, many say, as those who kill, whose palms turn black, simply disappear, one way or the other.

Renue hears voices echoing in his mind: Alkor, the leader of the Damaskers, one of the most powerful wielders of the Gift, and Bardon, his second in command.

Just win the deed to Ashkareve.

And forget the names that tag and locate the source of our poor resistance. But remember, even within those Manor walls there is always someone listening.

With the deed and we can set upon unraveling the Pattern.

You’re like a son to me.

Renue, the perfect weapon. Our best hope.

Please be careful.

So much planning, years of deliberation, so many lives embedded in the persona known as Renue. In the end, he was selected for two attributes that the other candidates of the resistance did not possess: the absence of the Gift, and his lack of family, as the black thing hunts both. Renue’s mother vanished in his infancy and his father was taken years later, on a stale gray morning when Renue’s eyes were barely open. Fractured memories remain in his mind, a door opening to the minor rattle of early risers, morning smells, though his father’s final words are mute and lost in the rust of childhood sleep. By the time the boy woke, his father was gone. The boy left the house to search for his father, returning hours later to find spades ransacking his home. His neighbors hadn’t heard a thing, they said, but none were willing to take the boy in. Left with nothing but fear, he lived in the swarming alleyways of the Slants and Latchtown for almost two years, filching bread with other street kids, making friends with shadows, sleeping in religious houses, pick-pocketing, begging.

Then, near Feeble Street, on a day of abrupt luck, the boy stole from the right person and was taken in by Bardon, who came to be his teacher, his oldest friend.

Remember. Less risk. Make weakness strength.

He has nothing to lose.

Always have something to lose. Something to lose is something to live for.

Spouting fish adorn the fountain and baying wolves surround an elegant statue of a woman, hand to her brow, facing the twilight forest. How did Renue even get far enough to see the central fountain and chiseled stony steps of Mesmer’s home? Dumb luck? Hundreds of others in the resistance are working tirelessly to help him breach the hills and blend into the retinue arriving for the notorious Great Game. Ashkareve is a city ruled by paradox, both order and chance, by the Pattern, the black laws as they’re known in the Slants, and poker. In training Renue illustrated his proclivity for cards and beat out the resistance’s other candidates, red and black buried in his blood. But it’s all in the first hand, he thinks, watching the men and women he has always despised amble towards the Manor. The first hand tells all. One chance to carve out a seat, one chance to dispel a city’s collective nightmare. It can’t be called life if the threat of death hangs over like constant fog. What is that saying of the philosopher, Pestras? Fear long outlives its origins.

Renue sees his opportunity, three unescorted ladies wearing long flowing dresses, blue, green, and gold. “Might I have the honor?” he says, flashing the smile.

The prettiest of the three grabs his shoulder and scowls appear as her two companions faces. They withdraw their outstretched hands until Renue shows them a card trick and soon all are beaming again. Together they walk on an auburn carpet, the ladies giggling, dancing through the great doors that take three men a side to pull. The pullers, while pulling, are spinning a yarn.

“Table’s deadly tonight.”

“Say he’s grown bored.”

“It no longer pleases him?”

“Never has.”

“But now he bets in lives.”

“So bored he’ll bet his own?”

“Imagine the luxury.”

“Perhaps tonight?”

“Perhaps, perhaps.”

Arms round the women, Renue struts inside, his golden-brown hair lit by warm amber light. Beneath a chandelier, he recognizes from the resistance library photos and prints Old Faldor, the once-ruler of Qarash, his shoulder-length gray hair, his studious glasses.

The old man looks up from a ledger. “Welcome, sir. Name?”

“Renue Avatine.”

“Perenish?”

“Has my accent betrayed me?”

“No,” Faldor says. “But was I correct, sir? Perenish?”

“Yes.”

“Perenish—you must have a friend in the Manor.”

“One or two.”

“Fee?”

Renue hands the old man stacks of bills. “Here.”

“Lucky for you, poker is a game in which bias is to your advantage.”

“That’s what I’m hoping.”

The old man scrolls through the opened ledger, fingers crawling over the names of the country’s major Potens, names that test Renue’s composure. Too soon. He turns away. By the stairwell he spots Rady, the Poten of Ashkareve, a puppet of Mesmer’s, yet oddly respected by louts and hillborns alike. The common face, he’s sometimes called. Rady narrows his beady eyes, entertaining several prominent men of the city. Where are the other key players? If there were a deck of cards to illustrate the major powers in Qarash, the three, Debeau, Melnor, and Wildcard, would serve as the remaining aces, and Boran and Rady as kings. But where is the ace of spades, the dictator himself?

“Here,” Faldor says. “Avatine. Mark here.”

Renue takes a pen and signs, a drop of sweat blurring the ink. “I’m sorry—perhaps a fortunate drop. As you noted, I’m not entirely welcome here.”

The old man leans in. “There’s much to admire of Perenia, though I would never said that.” He straightens. “Welcome to the Game. I trust you know the stakes.”

“I do.”

Faldor snaps his hands and a porter appears. “Show him to his room.”

Only then does Renue breathe a satisfied sigh. The suit is perfect, the disguise exact. Now comes the act.

* * *

He sits on his bed and straightens his collar, staring at himself in the mirror. Even the slightest noise from the hall makes him break out in sweat. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. The door is locked. Will they come for him? He stares at the white gloves on the night table. Mere days in the Manor and already the taste of stale bread has been forgotten, replaced by summer soups, light and textured, made for more than softening bread. While he enjoys the excesses of the rich, the louts of Ashkareve continue to suffer. Our best hope. Renue puts on his gloves and unlocks the door, thinking of his mother and father. He has always risked his life in their memory.

Walking a white hall lined in foreign rugs, Renue studies the paintings and tapestries on the walls. Tonight is the night is the night is the night. The ten gold coins, the opening ante, is to the hillborns and foreign guests a paltry sum, but to Renue, this was once unimaginable wealth. In mere weeks, his well-crafted character has ascended from the murky lower tables on skill. Skill and luck. Once a number, now a face. Once a slum, now royalty. And the bet will come tonight, he thinks. It has to.

“Ah, the newcomer.”

The voice startles him, but it’s only the countess. She wears an elaborate maroon dress, silver earrings, a silver necklace. But because of the pills he has given her, she never remembers him.

“ . . . Renue, is it?”

“Yes, my dear.”

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

“I was shocked,” he says. “My stomach’s still upset.”

“Too bad about Faldor, though.” The countess frowns, holding a finger to her lips.

“It truly is. An unbearable loss.” Renue pulls up both gloves, his long dress shirt meeting above the wrist. “How do I look?”

“Young, confident.” She winks. “Virile.”

“That’s just the costume.”

She cackles, then shakes her head sadly. “Those monsters—the old man didn’t deserve such an end.”

“No, he didn’t,” Renue says, drifting back to himself as a boy, and to his father’s stories of how the regime took the country twenty-nine years ago. When Mesmer seized the city, all hope withered, his lust for power limitless, his tactics compulsive, calculated, obsessive. The dictator slaughtered all those who stood in his way, betrayed half his friends, branded them disloyal, sent them to the gallows in the plain of day, televised it no less. Then he spread his men through the streets of Ashkareve and Qarash and ate away resistance year by year, until the country was reduced to a poor frame. Mesmer, even the name meant to disillusion, that single name the root of Renue’s greatest strength and most profound weakness. Mesmer. The butcher who stole his parents.

“ . . . never the same since the war,” the countess is saying. She sniffs a purple powder from a vial in her purse and shuffles in her peacock dress. “Well, I should go.” Wiping her nose, she staggers, grabbing Renue’s chest. Her hand rubs down to his belt and she tugs, glancing up innocently. She bites her tongue lustfully. “Good luck. Oh, and a few of the flowers in the hall are batting eyelashes over you. You might find yourself in a foreign bed tonight. Perhaps mine, if you play your cards right.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” He watches her stumble across the carpet.

Midway down the hall, Renue pauses at the portrait of a young woman bathed in late afternoon colors, burned-orange skin, a deep lavender dress, light purple flowers spotting her hair. Recognizing the double doors that lead to the table, he exhales. Behind those doors is the man who silenced thousands before they even spoke a word, before first breath. Until now Renue has only seen Mesmer from afar, at the far end of the banquet tables or peering from the balcony above the entrance stairs. Beyond those doors is the table of the Great Game, where cities have been lost and won and countries divided on mere hands, where lives have become betting chips. But the game is merely an extension of how most live, of life itself, Renue thinks. The world in the hands of a few.

Two spades open the doors to escaping smoke. The room is dimly lit and red embers hang from darkened mouths. Renue moves towards the open seat. Tall maroon chairs, ornately carved wood surround the green table. To his left sits Melnor, an aging man with reading glasses, long piano fingers, a white double vest. Melnor controls Belruth and the cities of the west. A man of implacable logic. Renue has heard rumors of the Poten’s dissent during the war with Perenia, before the war began to turn. Sitting beside Melnor is a man known as Wildcard, the leader of Valadrine and the eastern cities. Still touched with youth, with long, framing eyebrows and tangled black hair, Wildcard is a prodigy, perhaps thirty, thirty-one, only a handful of years older than Renue himself. Last year, there were rumors that Wildcard bet his own life and lost, though Renue could not say on what conditions Wildcard was pardoned. Beside the young Poten leans a bulky, hooked nose man, Baron Debeau, with his flowing robe and thick red beard. A warrior, powerful but predictable, Debeau holds Grenore and the icy southern cities. Years ago, his father Dregen ran into the thick of battle at full speed, briefly turning the tide of the war with brute abandon for the sanctity of life or the rules of war.

Renue has stared nightmares in the face every day he has spent in the Manor, but his insides freeze at the final figure at the table, the ace of spades himself. Mesmer sits calmly, studying Renue with his piercing eyes, a crooking smile, his long, gaunt face and dirt-black hair. Myths of Mesmer: he came from poverty, a small town in the northeast. He fought in the old campaigns of Faldor and was injured, dug a bullet out of his thigh with only a pocketknife, received the scar midway down his left eyebrow that officials and officers now maintain as a symbol of loyalty. Twin gray wolves are carved into his chair. The dictator pulls up his gloves and stares at Renue. This is the man whose hands must be blacker than infinite space, than the darkness of the sea floor. This is the man who took Renue’s mother and father, who plucked his family before memory, in its infancy.

Mesmer wipes his mouth. “Glad you accepted my invitation. Welcome to the Great Game.”

“It’s an absolute honor. Truly.”

Renue feels for his ten ceremonial gold pieces. The first hand must be won. A fifth presence steps from the corner shadows, a striking woman with long blond hair and light blue eyes. She deals the cards, barely glancing up, bows to Mesmer, then abruptly leaves. Renue slides his cards to the edge and flips them up slightly. Jacks high, threes low. Luck? Sweating, he maintains a steady hand and makes his opening. Wildcard, Debeau, Melnor, Mesmer. On equal playing ground, how they fall, they crumble.

* * *

“Deal.”

“Yours.”

“Yours.”

“Yours.”

“Newcomer.”

Two hands, four, hands exchange betting chips, red, yellow, blue, white. Yet the plastic coins trigger innate desires, the sting of hunger as a street kid, mealie and brown beans. Renue composes his voice. “So when does the fun begin? I didn’t come all this way just for—”

“And where did you come from?” Melnor says.

“Perenia.”

“Lumbar side or Troland?”

“Lumbar’s next door.”

Debeau clears his throat. “Some have taken to calling you the Joker, have they not?”

“Penchant for bad jokes,” Renue says. “Only a nickname.”

“Yours.” Wildcard deals briskly.

Jack, seven, five, nine, two. Club strong. Loss. King, Queen, ten, six, six. Bluff. Win. White gloves grasp faces, numbers, suits, hearts, straights, flush, double jacks, triple nines. Commanding, powerful, Renue plays the odds, loses when he needs to, wins when he can. Soon, Melnor and Debeau are broken. Cigars aflame, they sit back, puffing, chuckling.

“He’s good.”

“He’s very good.”

“Too good,” Debeau says.

“Determined, merely.” Mesmer ashes his cigar. “Spades suit you, Renue.”

Wildcard grins. “Worried, meathead?”

“Call me that again and I’ll show you black hands, little one.”

Renue antes. “What does he mean? I was given gloves but not their purpose.”

“Red hands for those who lie, black for those who murder.” Melnor wipes his face. “A brilliant accompaniment to order and law.”

“I don’t trust the Sickness,” Debeau says gruffly, glancing over at Mesmer. “But I suppose it has its place.”

“That’s because even your brain is muscle, Red Beard.” Wildcard stares intently at Renue then winks, anteing.

“Card.”

“Face it,” Wildcard continues. “You distrust what you don’t understand. And might I add, that is a hefty slice of the world, my friend.”

As Debeau rises angrily, Renue clears his throat. “But we wear gloves?”

“Well, this is a gentlemen’s game,” Melnor says.

“Of course.”

Like a disappearance, the deed to Ashkareve comes before it can be imagined, a faded yellowing paper thrown in the pot by Mesmer like garbage. Alkor believes the deed to be infused with the Gift and a means to locate the Pattern, perhaps a way to destroy the black thing itself. Renue fans a handful of blanks, a spattering of numbers and suits that don’t match and the weakest spread possible, at least for those who rely on only luck. He presses the other players, deftly throwing the weight of doubt on their minds, bluffing, provoking weaknesses. Wildcard throws down chips haphazardly but Renue has already discovered his tell. The young Poten flicks his hair back when he bluffs. Soon, the others bow out and Renue wins, left with the deed in his pile and command of the table, game choice and ante.

Holding the paper between his thumb and forefinger, Renue fights the urge to flee the Manor, through the forest, downward from the hills to the market to the bell tower and eastward across the face of the city to the Slants and the underground. But it would be too suspicious to leave so suddenly, he thinks. Of course, he must stay until the end of the game. But as long as he remains, the deed can still be won back. Renue takes the next two hands, then loses several times to low stakes. Not his fault, there’s cheating afoot. Mesmer or Wildcard. Renue must isolate and break Wildcard. Renue bluffs again and Mesmer folds. But Wildcard is a maniac, a feral bettor, and thus harder to read. The next turn in, Renue receives three Jacks, and closes him for the day.

“Bullshit!” Wildcard sits back but is clearly shaken. “No one has such luck.”

“What are you implying?” Melnor says.

Debeau chuckles deeply. “Not as clever as you thought, eh, Card?”

“At least my kind continues to evolve, you bloody barbarian.”

“Temper, temper.”

Melnor shakes his head slowly. “Calm down.”

Cheat.” Wildcard sits back and sneers.

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

“Compose yourself,” Melnor urges. “Without order we fall.”

“I dare,” Wildcard says. “Check his hands for red.”

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

“Then I’ll come back tomorrow and crush you.” Wildcard eyes the deed. “I wanted that, Newcomer.”

“Good riddance,” Mesmer says, watching Renue.

There have been rumors of the dictator’s growing impatience in the recent years, long bouts of silence followed by immediate, harsh actions. In the beginning of the regime, Mesmer appeared in the streets often, at smash ball games, parades, festivals. He traveled the country, the world. But in his closing years, the dictator has become more reserved and secretive. Whispers of these matters splinter polite conversation in the Manor, how Mesmer’s doubles stand in for him constantly, how the man himself hasn’t left the grounds for a decade or more.

“Renue,” Mesmer says, his voice wax-thick. “The paper is, of course, only a trophy. Before you leave, bring it to an attendant and they will prepare a facsimile.”

“Of course.”

“You’ll find Mesmer among the Slants still.” Wildcard yawns. “His heart beats for filth.”

Mesmer glares. “I’m done for tonight.”

Renue watches Mesmer standing in the hallway, staring at the wall. He reaches out to touch something, then moves further down, out of Renue’s view. Wildcard, Melnor, and Debeau file out slowly until Renue is alone at the table.

Long after the cigar smoke has settled, he exits the double velvet doors, pausing at the portrait of the young woman midway down. He studies her face. She is blond, with fair skin and a graceful, crane-like neck, somehow familiar. The image produces a thought, and suddenly he is propelled into memories of his boyhood again, always, into his oldest, deepest, most protected memory: a warm, smiling face, beaming from above his infant body rocking in a creaking wooden cradle. Impossible, he thinks, that it could be her. He turns away. He touches the coated tempera paint. He closes his eyes. A coincidence brought on by the stress of the disguise, he decides. Nothing more. Bardon would have told him had he suspected anything. He couldn’t have kept it secret all these years. But what grand possibilities lie in the fallacy of memory? It’s my mother, Renue thinks, running his hand over the frame. He can still hear her voice, feel her sweet breath on his eyelids. Staring at the portrait, he can remember her smell, a soft, sweet fragrance, honeysuckles. Renue always had a memory for faces, which is why he’s so skilled at cards. He runs his fingers down her face. For all his life, Renue was assured both his parents were dead. Had she have been living here all along? He takes a final glance at the portrait, then continues down the hall. Quiet, tonight.

In his room, Renue packs up clothing, fills his suitcase with bills, leaves the coins. But he can’t force the image out of his mind: her face, looking down on him, smiling, singing, honeysuckles. In the brittle silence, Renue pictures the sunken living room where he played Saturday mornings, his father’s voice muted behind a door, arguing at his mother. Maybe she left him, Renue wonders. Maybe she’s alive. After his mother vanished, Renue’s father drank constantly, eyes red as a dog’s. He can hear the clank of the glass bottle slamming on the kitchen table, an indentation the boy later would run his hand across just before he left the house that last time, trying to picture his father’s fleeting movements. It comes slow as a faucet drip, earlier memories trickling in, his father feeble attempts at smiling, at hiding the loss. Where is Mother? the boy asks. They took her. Who took her? It doesn’t matter. But. Leave it alone, Bren. Why? Let it be, boy. She’s gone. Just gone. The hum of a car, backfiring, the sound of sloshing liquor. There used to be photographs but his father hid them all. What happened to them, Dad? It doesn’t matter. You burned them. I don’t want to see her face anymore. Why? Mesmer took her from us. I miss her. Forget her.

Later that night, Renue walks the lonely halls to stare at the portrait. A shadow is leaving the hallway, but Renue can’t tell who it is. Someone else. Thinner, possibly feminine. Alone, he runs his hand over the paint. His mother. Though his mind tells him otherwise, he knows he cannot leave the Manor. Not until he discovers what secrets the house holds.

* * *

“Where are you taking me?”

He recognizes her voice, the servant girl, the one who dealt for the opening game. Renue turns slowly and studies her. Beautiful, a graceful face, soft on the eyes. And he was so sure what the touch was before: the black thing, the nightmare that hunts those who murder and never stops, Mesmer’s insatiable, invisible assassin. Now, instinctively, because instincts never leave, Renue reaches his arm around her slim shoulders, across her crane-like neck. His words are hardly a stutter.

“I don’t know,” he says, staring at the crowds in the streets and the vendors and multi-colored garments blurring in swirls and currents. He smells something earthy, a fungus, and then he’s in a garden of Mesmer at night where there is no breeze. “It’s the forest. I can’t remember.” Her green dress is torn and her hair, golden, curls just before reaching her shoulders. But her eyes are different than he remembered.

“They’re coming for us.”

There were contingency plans, though now he can’t find them. He finds one word stuck to his tongue. Thief. His eyes are surveying the crowd to pick out the reds from the blacks, louts from the spades and secret police. But he knows what he is really searching for, the nightmare, the black thing. Its origin is unknown though its purpose blunt: maintain a city free of murder, deter the foreign powers from invasion, hunt down the Manor’s enemies, and ensure that no one can ever depose Mesmer. The Blanks believe the black thing is an ancient god discovered in the Krylight swamps, but many louts whisper it was an assassin who tried to kill the dictator, transformed as a warning, a reminder. Renue spies a curious, bending shadow behind an old man, but when he looks down the street again, nothing still. He breathes in deeply, letting his nerves calm in the salty air. If it hasn’t found them already, then the Damasker barrier might be working, he thinks. A voice within Renue cries. Beware. He hesitates, wrapping his hands in green cloth, memory corrupted by the purple leaves of the forest. Whom did he kill? Her hands, also wrapped.

“I tried to warn you on the balcony,” she says. “Why didn’t you listen? Say something—don’t leave me again.”

He remembers the dim echoes of his training and what Bardon taught him to do when one sense fails: follow another. Touch. Where is the wealth he won? Spilled in the wood, he remembers. It weighed us down. Without coins, they’re defenseless. Her dress will attract attention. The girl from the balcony. His sister. She raises her eyebrows. She’s shaking, her mouth half-open. Even her tongue quivers. She’s heard the stories. The black thing’s already inside her. It just hasn’t found the body. He tracks her line of sight to a table alight with jewelry, earrings, necklaces, pins shaped as stars. Something to calm her. Nodding, he casts a darting glance in all directions, vaguely aware of what she wants, a silver, heart-shaped locket on the corner of the jeweler’s table. She thinks it will protect her.

Harping laughter. Renue focuses on the locket, drawn into himself at seven, his band of street kids deciding on targets to pickpocket, but quickly he assumes the confident mantel of Renue again, stepping down into a stench of bodies, overpowering aromas, clothing and voices swarming. He weaves fluidly through the crowd, focusing solely on the locket. But the louts know a secret, his secret, and their stares singe accusingly. He traded millions of lives for the memories of two. Renue pauses to examine himself. Something is missing. 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 a gabbing lout and in a split second leaps, grasping the silver locket with sleight of hand and tucking it in a crease of his shirt. A memory surfaces, that of a card held by her narrow fingers, quick, so slight he almost didn’t see her tuck it from the deck, but then the din shatters his concentration. Thief. Why do they call him that? What has he stolen? He studies his hands again, imagining them beneath the cloth, charred black. He returns and pushes the necklace into her palm.

“It’ll protect you,” he says.

“It will?”

“Come on.”

Nearby, two men are gabbing. One smells of the docks. The other has an Inverter’s accent.

“Big reward.”

“What’d he steal?”

“They won’t say—just fled.”

“He’ll be down there.”

“With us.”

“Big reward.”

“I’ll get him first.”

“Met too.”

“We’ll sniff him out.”

“We’ll snuff him candle out.”

Renue shudders, feeling centipedes crawling on his back up his neck. Her fingers. He turns. She takes her hand from his neck and he lets out a faint scream, the crowd turning to watch: images, a green pentagonal table, dueling staircases, a hysterical peacock, Rady, riches, ember smiles, puffing cigars. Once, he could take those stares and twist them around and revel in them, but now his persona has shattered.

“I have something to tell you,” he whispers. “Something important. But not here.” More images flash in his mind, marble steps, hedges, the central fountain, the portrait of his mother, which pulls him strangely.

“Say he lost big.”

“One bad hand.”

“How will it end?”

“Don’t you know?”

“As always.”

Together. “In death.”

* * *

“It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?”

Renue turns as the woman who dealt the first hand of the game steps out onto the balcony. A servant girl? The daughter of some hillborn? The cool air soothes his speculative heart. During each stroll down the long halls at night, Renue has heard his mother wailing. In each room he enters, he feels her presence. Yet in the past days, even with careful questions, he has come up with almost nothing material. Many mistresses in the Manor, countless paintings, all brimming with stories, mysteries of their own. Best not to ask about a tyrant’s lovers, a young hillborn advised. Without a trace of his mother, Renue contemplates leaving later in the night.

“Gorgeous view.”

“I love those lights,” she says, pointing to Latchtown.

He’s stalled enough. What is left to make him stay? Mere speculation, unsubstantiated theories about the fate of his parents: his mother, taken from him before his eyes opened, stolen perhaps as Mesmer’s plaything. His mother, raped and killed by a spade. His father, part of the resistance. His father, died drunk in an alleyway, too cowardly to raise a boy alone. These thoughts enter Renue’s mind and cloud his reason, but soon, a decision must be made. Stay and compromise the mission. Go, and forever lose the opportunity for knowledge of the past.

“So, who are you, Newcomer?”

“I’m no one,” he says, tugging on his white gloves.

“And where is no one’s home?”

“Nowhere.” He grins. “And you?”

“Just a woman.”

“Mesmer’s?”

The breeze from the sea is carried by the wind. Dusk carries in the air like ice birds. She is young, perhaps twenty, and tall, red lipstick, black tie round her hair, emerald dress. “So you like the view?”

He nods. “Stunning.”

“Have you been to the Slants?”

“I didn’t have time to tour the city,” Renue says. “Perhaps before I leave.”

She straightens. “That’s where my mother was from. The Slants. What about you?”

“Oh,” he says disdainfully, though inside a strange thought occurs. She looks roughly six years younger than him. His father disappeared when he was six. Looking at Latchtown, Renue suddenly feels heavy and desperate. “The Slants, you say?” Keep it lighter, he reminds himself. Work out his suspicions later, when alone. He grins. “So I guess one could say that you’re crooked.”

“My mother was,” she says. “But she died when I was little.”

“ . . . she worked here?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a servant, then.”

“More a prisoner.”

He braces against the balcony. “But you don’t know really know your mother, do you? Just a ghost of her. A shade.”

“Something like that.”

Renue gazes at the city, oddly quiet except for the summer wind. Collecting stories and rumors as puzzle pieces, he forces a fit. Could his mother have given birth in the Manor? Is that what she’s hinting at? Could she be his sister?

“How did she die?” he says. “If that’s not too rude.”

“Poorly. She wasted away.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Well, money can only buy so much,” she says. “My father says he would have done anything to save her, except give her the one thing she wanted. All things have a price, I suppose.”

“And yours?”

“Priceless.” The lines of her face tighten, as though she’s angry. “Most things wither when possessed. That, I know.”

Renue stares out at the Slants, his home, those poor flickering lights. Her fingernail catches his hand as she turns away: the touch produces a memory, his mother, holding him up to see the Manor, clouds rolling over the mountains, buildings crowded around them. Of his father he has more years to sift through, a chiseled, honest face, his tree-brown eyes, a gravely voice. Once his father told night stories to put the boy to sleep. But in Renue’s fraying recollection, his father’s face almost always appears eternally dark and drawn. Now he sees a possible plot: his father tried to save his stolen wife as well as their unborn child. And then the Slants, the mission, fade. There is only one man in the Manor who would know. The table is deadly tonight, Renue thinks. For Mesmer.

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

“ . . . I’m sorry?”

“He’ll never let you leave,” she says in his ear. “You won’t even remember me. I’m a ghost too. I know what you want, but you won’t get it. You know the expression. The house always wins.”

“What are you talking about?” He frowns. “There must be some misunderstanding.”

“Perhaps. But I’d go now, tonight. Before it’s too late.” She leaves him on the balcony, staring out at Ashkareve.

* * *

Renue’s new mission: make Mesmer to bet his life, then force a confession. He enters the room. Four chairs are empty. Only the dictator sits across the table.

“Where is everyone?” Renue takes a seat.

“No one will play with you anymore,” Mesmer says snidely. “Didn’t you know that? They’re all down in the city, celebrating.” He shakes his head, tisking. “Deadly luck. Deadly. And here we are, the last day. Between you and me, I think your luck’s run out.”

“We’ll see.”

“So cocky,” Mesmer says, scratching his chin. “You’ve done well, squirreled away quite the fortune, my advisors tell me. But only when one has nothing to lose does one bet wildly. I certainly did. Have you heard this story? They tell it in the Slants, now and again, I’m told.”

“Ante.”

“What’s your game?”

“Straight.”

“What stakes?”

Renue lays his gloved hands flat on the table. “All.”

“All?” Mesmer’s cold expression twists slightly. “Let’s warm our palate with trifles first, shall we?”

They play furiously, back and forth, two players, alert, hands twitching, eyes unblinking, testing, teasing, smoking, listening. Mesmer’s pot is almost taken, the chips piled and piled on Renue’s side. Then the door opens and both turn as the woman from the balcony enters. Why is she here? Can it be a sign?

“I didn’t call for you,” Mesmer says. “Go away. I’m busy.”

“Not tonight.” She takes the cards and beginning to shuffle.

Cards fly across the table: Jack, nine, three, King, seven, four, Ace, five, hearts, clubs, spades, diamonds, gold, cards, hands, decks, runs, losses, straights, blanks, flushes. Renue lets Mesmer win a few hands so that he will grow overconfident. Now he understands a tyrant’s true weakness. Pride. Always.

“Need your pet?” Mesmer says sharply.

“This old maid?” Renue says. “She can go as she pleases.”

Renue can’t help it but he seems unable to lose. A crawling doubt—Mesmer is wasting time, waiting for something.

“Ridiculous luck,” Mesmer says, folding. “You could buy your own country with what you’ve won.”

“I don’t care about the money.” Renue flicks a chip away. “Deal.”

“A final game?”

“Of course.”

The woman gathers the cards, shuffling.

“A new bet—blind.”

“Blind?”

“Blind.” Mesmer flicks his cigar, resting it on the table. The cigar has left a black ring, like worm rot.

“What do you want?”

“I want the deed back.” He smiles. “I’m feeling sentimental.”

“Why?”

“To remember. One last time before I leave.”

“Where are you going?” Renue says.

“I haven’t decided, actually. A trip.” He lifts his chin up. “To see the gray world with fresh eyes. Lyle. Do you know that poet?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Never mind. The deed—what will you bet for it?”

“I want your life.”

“My life? Oh my.” Mesmer laughs, sitting back. “You have no idea. No, you don’t want my life.”

“One life for many—a fair trade.”

“Death would give me a new perspective.”

“Death is no perspective.”

“Pestras says only the dead can tell true stories,” Mesmer says. “You don’t think so? Tell you what. Add your life to the ante and we’ll continue. After all, I could take yours if I wanted.”

Renue tries to read the woman’s face, cold and expressionless as she deals. He studies his cards quickly, places them face down. Ace, King, Jack, Ten, diamond strong. Jack of spades. Almost a royal flush. “One.”

“One?” Mesmer says with narrowed eyes. “Two.”

The reinforcement cards are dealt. King, Jack, Ten, Ace, Ace. “Raise.”

“A further bet?” he says. “What would you accept? You’ve already won so much tonight. No, no, don’t say it. Don’t say it, poised on the tip of your tongue. The opulence of words.” He glances at the deed in the center. “The seat? That’s what you want, yes?”

“The seat?”

“Yes. The country, I mean.”

“That’s not what I want.” Renue says. “You must have a very good hand, though.”

“What do you bet?”

“I have nothing more of interest beyond money.”

“But you do. There is always more to give. Service, for example. Yes, service. That, or you must fold.”

Renue takes in his cards slowly. King, Jack, Ten, Ace, Ace. Two aces will not beat the house. But under what conditions does a man bluff with his own life? he wonders. “Service?”

“I could use a man like you.”

“If I fold, I die?”

“I believe so.”

“Then I’m forced to play.”

“That’s the nature of a game with such stakes.”

“No different then ruling a country,” Renue says. “Like the lives you’ve so callously taken over the years.”

Mesmer scoffs. “What would you know? What inkling would you have of the sacrifices one must make to rule? I could’ve had you killed weeks ago, when you first strode so arrogantly into my home. But I’m feeling charitable tonight. So if you fold, I’ll cancel your debts. Just leave me the deed. Or, play, and we’ll simply see what side lady luck chooses.” Mesmer regards the table slowly. Under the sickly overhead light he looks like skin, bones. “I can’t eat,” he says. “Sleep. Food tastes as ash. My essence is stretched to the breaking point, Renue. All that once held me here is gone. Want to know my secret? I’m already long dead. So if you continue, it’s a fair bet. If not, you can leave right now. Leave the Manor. I can summon a car to take you beyond the forest. Leave.”

“They do say a true player always plays dead,” Renue says. “A dead man can’t give anything away.”

“You believe that?”

“I’ll continue.”

Mesmer shakes his head. “Before we show, I must ask. Are you a gentleman?”

“More than you.”

The queen of diamonds is what Renue needs for the straight flush and he’s confident he’ll get it. She passes a card to him and adds it to the four. She hands Mesmer one.

“Call,” Mesmer says. “Show.”

Renue spreads the cards, ten, Jack, Queen, King, Ace. A double take, aware of the ice racing through his veins. Queen of spades. The death suit. Still a straight, he thinks. A confused expression spreads across Mesmer’s face, his cards flipped. Three fours, two sevens.

“Full house, too bad.” Mesmer leans forward. Underneath the dictator’s confident smirk Renue finds a curious conflict, but before he can beg for his life, a puzzled expression appears on Mesmer’s face. He opens his mouth, blood dripping out of the corners and dribbling onto the table, pooling, and the gleam of a dagger as it twists through his chest, poking between pink ribs. A glint of steel surfaces through Mesmer’s chest as he sighs. His body crumples. Renue stares dumbly at the fallen man. The woman appears behind the great chair.

“What have you done?”

“Go,” she says. “Now.”

“Come with me.”

Beware, a voice within him cries. The heart lies there.

* * *

Read more in THE QUEEN OF HEARTS: Available now!

Trade paperback / $14.95 / 256 pp. / ISBN 978-1-60701-204-7

Daniel Homan was born in Gainesville, Florida. His fiction has appeared in Crab Creek Review, Word Riot, and Fail Better. Currently, he is seeking representation for a non-fiction book, The Israeli Trail, about his travels in South America with Israelis recently released from the armed service.