The goddess leaned over the card table and whispered, Go all in.
She hovered before Caleb, cloudy and diaphanous, then cold and clear as desert stars. Her body swelled beneath garments of fog: a sea rock where ships dashed to pieces.
Caleb tore his gaze away, but could not ignore her scent, or the susurrus of her breath. He groped for his whiskey, found it, drank.
The cards on the green felt table were night ladies, treacherous and sweet. Two queens rested facedown by his hand, her majesty of cups (blond, voluptuous, pouring blood and water from a chalice), and her majesty of swords (a forbidding Quechal woman with broad face and large eyes, who gripped a severed head by the hair). He did not have to look to know them. They were his old friends, and enemies.
His opponents watched: a round Quechal man whose thick neck strained against his bolo tie, a rot-skinned Craftsman, a woman all in black with a cliffs face, a towering four-armed creature made from silver thorns. How long had they waited?
A few seconds, he thought, a handful of heartbeats. Dont let them rush you.
Dont dawdle, either.
The goddess caressed the inner chambers of his mind. All in, she repeated, smiling.
Sorry, he thought, and slid three blue chips into the center of the table.
Life faded from him, and joy, and hope. A part of his soul flowed into the game, into the goddess. He saw the world through her eyes, energy and form flowering only to wilt.
Raise, he said.
She mocked him with a smile, and turned to the next player.
Five cards lay faceup before the dealer. Another queen, of staves, greeted the rising sun in sky-clad silhouettea great lady, greater still when set beside his pair. To her right the king of swords, grim specter, stood knife in hand beside a struggling, crying child bound upon an altar. The other cards struck less dramatic figures, the eight and three of staves, the four of coins.
Three queens formed a strong hand, but any two staves could make a flush, and beat him.
Call, said the man in the bolo tie.
Call, said the Craftsman with the rotting skin.
I see your raise, said the woman, and raise you two thousand. She pushed twenty blue chips into the pot. The goddess whirled, a tornado of desire, calling them all to death.
Fold, said the creature of thorns.
The goddess turned again to Caleb.
Did the woman in black have a flush, or was she bluffing? A bluff would be brash against three other players with a possible flush on the board, but Calebs had been the only bet this round. Would she risk so much on the chance she could drive three players to fold?
Calling her bluff would take his whole reserve. Hed have to give himself to the game, hold nothing back.
The goddess opened her mouth. The black within yawned hungrily. Perfection glinted off the points of her teeth.
You can win the world, she said, if youre willing to lose your soul.
He looked her in the eye and said, Fold.
She laughed, and did not stop until the black-clad woman turned over her cards to reveal a king and a two, unsuited.
Caleb bowed his head in congratulations, and asked the others leave to go.
Caleb bought another drink and climbed marble stairs to the pyramids roof. Dandies, dilettantes, and high-society corpses clustered near the edge, glorying in the panorama of Dresediel Lex by night: gleaming pyramid-studded city, skyspires adrift like crystal scimitars above, the ceaseless roll of the Pax against the western shore. A ceiling of low clouds confronted the metropolis with its own reflected light.
Caleb was not interested in the view.
A carved black stone altar rose from the center of the roof, large enough to hold a reclining man, or woman, or child. From the iron fence around the altar hung a bronze plaque embossed with a list of dates and victims names.
He didnt read the plaque. He knew too much history already. He leaned against the railing, and watched the old altar. Dew rolled down his whiskey glass and wet his hand.
Teo found him twenty minutes later.
He heard her approach from the stairwell. He recognized her stride.
Its been a long time, she said, since Ive seen you leave a game that fast. Not since school, I think.
I was bored.
In modest heels, Teo was Calebs height and broader, built of curves and arches. Her lips were full, her eyes dark. Black ringlets framed her round face. She wore white pants with gray pinstripes, a white vest, a ruby shirt, a gray tie, and an expression of concern. Her hand lacked a drink.
She joined him at the rail.
You werent bored. She turned her back on the altar, and looked east over the city, toward the gleaming villas atop the Drakspine ridge. I dont know how you can spend so much time staring at that old rock.
I dont know how you can look away.
Its bad art. Mid-seventh dynasty knockoff, gaudy and over-ornamented. Aquel and Achal on the side look more like caterpillars than snakes. They didnt even sacrifice people here often. Most of that happened over at our office. She pointed to the tallest pyramid on the skyline, the immense obsidian edifice at 667 Sansilva. Calebs father would have called the building Quechaltan, Heart of the Quechal. These days it had no name. This place did cows. The occasional goat. People only on an eclipse.
Caleb glanced over his shoulder. Dresediel Lex sprawled below: fifteen thousand miles of roads gleaming with ghostlight and gas lamps. Between boulevards crouched the houses and shops and apartment buildings, bars and banks, theaters and factories and restaurants, where seventeen million people drank and loved and danced and worked and died.
He looked away. We have an eclipse every year, a partial or a lunar. For a full solar like the one this autumn, the priests would work through all the prisoners and captives they could find, throw in a few innocents for good measure. Blood and hearts for Aquel and Achal.
And you wonder why I dont look? Its bad art, and worse history. I dont know why Andrejthe bars ownerkeeps it around.
You wouldnt have thought that way seventy years ago.
I like to think I would have.
So would I. But your grandparents, and my father, they werent born different from the rest of us, and they still fought tooth and claw to defend their gods back in the Wars.
Yeah, and they lost.
They lost, our boss won, kicked out priests and pantheon, and now we all pretend three thousand years of bloodshed didnt happen. We put a fence around history and hang a plaque and assume its over. Try to forget.
Whats put you in such a good mood?
Its been a long day. Long week. Long year.
Why did you fold, at the table?
I catch hell from the goddess, and I need to explain myself to you, too?
The goddess doesnt know you like I do. Shes reborn every game. Ive watched you play for eight years, and Ive never seen you cave like that.
The odds were against me.
Screw odds. You had to know the lady in black wasnt suited.
He turned from the altar. Southwest winds bore the sea scent of salt and death. Cant you go stalk some girl fresh from university or something? Leave me in peace?
Im reformed. I am no longer a dirty old woman.
Could have fooled me.
Seriously, Caleb. Whats wrong?
Nothing, he said, and patted his pockets for a smoke. Of course nothing. He quit years ago. Bad for his health, the doctors said. The odds were against me. I wanted to get out with my soul intact.
You wouldnt have done that four years ago.
A lot changes in four years. Four years ago, he was a fledgling risk manager at Red King Consolidated, recovering from a university career of cards and higher math. Four years ago, he was dating Leah. Four years ago, Teo still believed she was interested in boys. Four years ago, hed thought the city had a future.
Yes. A tiny copper coin lay at Teos feet, a bit of someones soul spooled up inside. She kicked the coin, and it tinged across the roof. Question is, whether the change is for the better.
Im tired, Teo.
Of course youre tired. Its midnight, and were not twenty-two anymore. Now get down there, apologize to that table, and steal their souls.
He smiled, and shook his head, and collapsed, screaming.
Images burrowed into his brain: blood smeared over concrete, a tangled road into deep mountains, the chemical stench of a poisoned lake. Teeth gleamed in moonlight and tore his flesh.
Caleb woke to find himself splayed on the sandstone floor. Teo bent over him, brow furrowed, one hand cool against his forehead. Are you okay?
Office call. Give me a second.
She recognized the symptoms. If necromancy was an art, and alchemy a science, then direct memory transfer was surgery with a blunt instrument: painful and unsubtle, dangerous as it was effective. What does the boss want with you at midnight?
I have to go.
Hells with her. Until nine tomorrow, the world is someone elses responsibility.
He accepted her hand and pulled himself upright. Theres a problem at Bright Mirror.
What kind of problem?
The kind with teeth.
Teo closed her mouth, stepped back, and waited.
When he could trust his feet, he staggered toward the stairs. She caught up with him at the stairwell.
Im coming with you.
Stay here. Have fun. One of us should.
You need someone to look after you. And I wasnt having fun anyway.
He was too tired to argue as she followed him down.
Copyright 2013 by Max Gladstone