My opponent was a merchant of middle age by the name of Brom Baltus who had stopped at the Quiet Canary Tavern hoping to acquire some female company and play a couple of rounds of Betwixt and Between before hauling his goods—a cartload of apples, cheeses, and fine wines—the final stretch of his route. It was to his great misfortune that he sat down at the card table with me; when I was done with him, he’d be lucky to leave with enough coin left to hitch a ride home to his unhappy wife, let alone purchase an hour or two of a Canary girl’s precious time. I’d have hated to rob them of good business, but from the smell of him, none of them were likely to mind.
Brom leaned forward to lay down his second-to-last play. His smug grin revealed a mouthful of tobacco-stained teeth. “Sad Tom,” he said, pushing the card toward me. “Time to up your wager, miss, or call the game.”
I frowned at the card and its depiction of a despondent, droopy-eyed lad clutching a withered four-petaled daisy. It was a surprisingly savvy move for a man who had accidentally singed his mustache trying to light his pipe not five minutes earlier. I’d already put down all the collateral I’d planned on staking—twelve gold crowns earned over two months of careful card-game conquests—and had little left with which to improve the pot. If I failed to provide Sad Tom with something to cheer him up, I’d lose all of it, and the cart of goods besides.
I hesitated only a moment before reaching into my pocket and retrieving the last thing of value left to my name: a fine white-gold ring set with an exquisite clear-cut stone. I hadn’t worn it for months, but somehow I could not bring myself to lay it away in a jewelry box. Even now, as I placed it in the center of the table and the stone caught the candlelight and bounced it back in a thousand rainbow shards, I felt a keen sense of trepidation at the possibility of its loss. But I had plans to keep, costly plans, and Brom’s goods would go a long way toward covering the costs.
“Finest Achlevan jewel crafting,” I said. “Pure luneocite stone, skillfully cut and artfully set.”
“And what makes you think it’s worth—?”
“It used to belong to the late queen Irena de Achlev,” I said. “It’s engraved with her initials and the de Achlev seal.” I steepled my fingers and leaned forward with a cocky tilt to my head, eyes still shrouded beneath my dark hood. “Imagine what the ladies at court in Syric would pay for such a souvenir.”
Brom’s eyes were gleaming—he knew exactly what kind of price it would fetch. Relics of the fallen de Achlev dynasty had become hot commodities among Syric’s social elite. And to have belonged to the last queen . . . the ring was worth double the pile of coins on the table. I said calmly, “Surely Sad Tom is not so sad anymore?”
“Indeed not,” the man said with a smirk. “Wager accepted. Make your next play, little miss.”
Little miss. If a man had placed that selfsame wager, it would have been met with suspicion. This fool would have at least asked himself, What kind of hand would warrant such an extravagant offer? But because I was a woman, and a young one at that, Brom Baltus saw the move as a signal that he’d already gotten the better of me. That he’d forced me into a corner and I’d naively cast out my last line in desperation just to stay in the game.
What had Delphinia said? You don’t play the cards; you play the player.
We were still two moves from the finale, but I had already won.
I waited for Brom to settle into his self-assuredness, using my next turn to play the Fanciful Blacksmith, resplendent in his great brown beard and frilly petticoats, hammering happily away at his forge. My opponent did just as I thought he would and mistook the balance card for a schism card and played Lady Loveless over the top of it. He sat back in his seat with a sneer, certain that he’d just secured his success.
“Lady Loveless has just sent your Blacksmith into the furnace,” he said. “Time to pay up.”
“Ah,” I said, “but the Blacksmith stands on his own. He has no need for Lady Loveless’s approval.” I allowed myself a tiny hint of a smile. “Which means I have one more card to play.”
I made a slow, deliberate show of turning over my last card, taking far more satisfaction than necessary in Brom’s changing expression—disinterest followed closely by chagrin, shock, and dismay—as he realized what I’d done.
Staring up at him was the Two-Faced Queen.
The card depicted two versions of the same woman, one with night-dark hair against a snowy background, the other with ice-white hair against a deep black wood. They echoed each other in the exact same position, as if the line dividing them and bisecting the card was a mirror. And indeed, the card itself acted like a mirror, reflecting the players’ own plays back onto them. My cards had all been balance cards, while his had been schism after schism. He had, in effect, annihilated himself.
I plucked the ring from atop the pile of coin and twirled it around my fingertips, allowing myself a single moment of melancholy before returning it to my pocket. “Now, then,” I said, brusque and businesslike, “where shall I collect my winnings?”
While Brom went to complain about me to the tavern’s proprietor, Hicks, I went upstairs to my tiny room to stash some of my winnings away. It was little more than a closet, my room—especially when compared to the lavish accommodations occupied by the Canary girls just down the hall—but it had a big window overlooking the front entrance of the tavern and the wide, grassy expanse of the Renaltan provinces beyond. I experienced bouts of panic sometimes if things got too dark or quiet; this room and the bustle of this building suited me just fine.
The Canary girls did not understand my stubbornness at keeping the room despite being able to afford a bigger one after my winnings began to accumulate, but then they were always fretting after me. The girls were easy to like, and despite my early reticence, we became fast friends. They coached me in card-playing strategies, and during my card games, they’d sometimes drop hints about my opponents’ hands. In return, I’d slip them a few coins whenever their hints proved to be especially valuable. They’d all been born with different names, but when, one by one, they came to work at the Quiet Canary, they each went through the process of choosing a new one for themselves. Lorelai, Rafaella, Delphinia, and Jessamine were what they went by now, names that had a lovely glint to them; saying them together felt like letting brightly colored jewels drip through your fingers.