Chapter 1 The Game Begins
“If you want to know who you can trust, play them at a game of cards. Nothing’s as honest as a bluffer in hot water, or as deceitful as a fleecer with a made hand.”—Avery de Leon, on trust
Raisa sat at a table of liars.
A loan shark disguised as a banker, a sailor who smuggled weapons for warlords, a masked assassin who posed as a thief, and a woman who led every man she kissed to believe he was the only one in the world. Though the manor was full to brimming with false faces and lying lips, none came close to matching Raisa’s faculty for fakery. Her bust was padded, her waist girdled, and a wig of lush auburn curls concealed her shorn head. She was the queen of frauds. Even her interest in the card game was disingenuous.
Her attention was instead fixed on a modestly talented entertainer who threatened to knock her off her royal throne, taking the liar’s crown for himself. A fellow named Martin who, under any other circumstances, might have gone unnoticed amidst the more colorful personalities of Brazelton’s criminal syndicate.
Under the glow of an ironwork chandelier, Lion’s newest obsession enraptured party attendees with his mellow timbre and gifted fingers. Raisa saw him for what he was, though—a son of a cunt bard who was robbing her blind.
He had the build of a porter, the carriage of a ship captain, and the grooming habits of every deck hand she’d ever seen. Dark locks that hung to his cheeks and week-old stubble suited him as much as the garish costume he wore—too-tight trousers and a doublet unbuttoned nearly to his waist.
And he had secrets, too. When he sang, his inflection hinted at a recondite spirit stirring under the surface. A stark contrast to the minstrel vagabond image he presented.
While Raisa had yet to uncover the proverbial bones buried in Martin’s yard, she was happy enough to forgo that particular pleasure to just be rid of him. As soon as he finished the performance, she’d kick him out. It’s why she paid him up front, which she never did.
Despite every attempt to behave for her benefactor, Lion, at his birthday celebration, conducting herself as a caricature of the crime boss’ ideals, Raisa battled a lingering dour mood. She tried to brush it off as anxiety over the party budget or worry for her young ward, Cherie, while the house was overrun with rutting pigs. It was Martin, though, that she found so upsetting.
She folded her cards. Again.
Forget being a liar, he was a thief! Raisa could have hired a troupe of knife dancers for the same price. Regret was too soft a word for how Raisa felt after Martin’s first song. She was paying damn near a brass half-royle per word for the un-rhyming hunting ballad.
After the loyal hunting hound’s death, Martin bowed graciously. And when dog-loving Lion responded, beaming with blurry eyes, the bard hit him with a sucker-punch that finished the poor old fool off—a compliment on the mansion. Lion crumbled like a priest feasting on a still-hung over-the-next-afternoon repenter. During an intermission he led Martin on a tour of the property, including the kennel, where his favorite courser dined on scraps from supper.
It only increased Raisa’s agitation slightly that Martin hadn’t tried to buy her friendship as he had Lion’s. Perhaps he knew it cost more than a few cheap compliments and a feigned interest in an obscenely overpriced and ostentatious pile of wood and stone. The finest house south of the garden district. The kind that attracts middle-aged crime bosses like flies to shit.
If not for the joy on her benefactor’s face, she’d have thrown the bard out the first time she caught him appraising her. Raisa was used to drawing attention as Lion’s mistress, regularly receiving jealous or lusty leers, but Martin’s eyes implied none of that. He was suspicious of her.
And that made her suspicious in return.
Daveed cleared his throat, drawing Raisa’s attention back to the game. Despite being housemates, their relationship tended toward mutual tolerance rather than friendliness. Daveed was roughly a decade younger than Raisa, though neither of them looked their age. His hair hung in tight spirals, framing his face and making his head look bigger than it was. He had a peaky nose, a bit of an under-bite, and his unfortunate choice to wear a beard might have embarrassed any seventeen-year-old for its wispiness.
She picked up her new hand of cards as play passed from quiet, smug Daveed to his polar opposite, the unreserved socialite of Brazelton’s criminal underbelly, Andrew Strange—the man she intended to solicit—who held the key to Raisa’s independence, quite literally.
The key belonged to a building that couldn’t be called a house of ill repute, as the word house might imply it was in some way habitable. A shack in the Red Lantern District, and Raisa needed it. No other would do.
From her vantage point on the gallery, Raisa perched above a sea of stale bodies, debating how to play the pair of knaves under her left palm. On display in a silk dress that hugged her fashionably distorted body, she stuck close to Strange, awaiting her chance to haggle. If she could convince the loan shark to part with the unimpressive piece of real estate, she’d have an overlooked boudoir all of her own. The perfect place to prepare for a risky severance from the crime syndicate.
Always, money problems.
Lion overruled Raisa when she wanted to order centerpieces to dress the hall in fragrant autumn blooms, claiming the hired security for the evening cost him too much to spend any more on frills. But he’d spent twice as much for booze as they’d settled on, and a dozen boxes of his infused cigars managed to make their way into the party and onto the bill.
For their annual Longnight celebration, Raisa decided, she’d insist he pay out for the flowers, if for no other reason than to keep their home from being mistaken for a seedy tavern. It was bad enough that the doors all had to be locked, and the kitchen and the servants’ staircase blocked off, to stop amorous partygoers sneaking off for a romp in any available corner.
With regard to the pair of knaves under her palm, slow-playing might entice action from Lion’s cocky top agent, who just raised. Like the greedy merchant who braves the stormy sea, Daveed would sink himself.
When it came her turn to bet or fold, Raisa tossed her coins onto the raspberry red felt and parted with a coy smile. “I’d pay that much to watch two dogs ****.” Dark eye powder and a dusting of crushed mica enhanced her insidious expression, as she winked to Strange.
Cosmetics, being the art of the elite chemist, gifted youth to the old and beauty to the plain, but Raisa used her collection of rare and special tints to instead create an ambiguous mask upon her rather unremarkable face. It helped her feel like a shrewd player, though she’d brought her coins and jewelry to take a stab at the desperate deals men make at the end of the night. Strange had something she needed and judging by the sweat sheen on his brow he was close to his limit. Primed to hear a reasonable offer. All she needed was an opportunity.
The dealer placed three cards face up. Eight of swords, three of swords, and a red knave.
“While I adore your smile, Raven,” the velvet-clad loan shark said, using the only name anyone knew for her, “it gives me quite the stomach upset when money’s at stake.”
“Another woman might take that the wrong way, Strange,” Raisa replied.
“Yes, but few have your acumen. You know how I intended it.”
“What’s to say I have a good hand?” she asked. “Maybe I’m just enjoying the company.”
“Maybe we could get on with the game,” Daveed said. His calloused hands cupped his cards as he took another peek—an indication he didn't have a pair, or anything else memorable.
Thaddeus, a retired arms smuggler with overgrown brows and a ridiculous floppy cap, spoke up. “Whose bet is it?” He puffed his pipe and did a good job of looking disgruntled. “I can’t concentrate with that racket downstairs.”
The golden goddess of Brazelton’s Red Lantern District, Rhynda, wrapped a fraying blonde curl around a painted fingernail, taming the unruly lock with a dab of wine before it could frizz. “Dark-and-handsome leads out,” she said, winking to Thorne, next to her. “I mucked my hand and judging by the flop, I shoulda kept it.” She wrinkled her nose on one side. “Next time, I’m just coming by for the show and a few drinks.”
Thorne, with the leather mask covering from forehead to cheek, snuffed out his cigarette in a metal tray. “Check,” he said, exhaling a wisp of smoke that settled around his dark hood. His pointy nose appeared like a ship’s bow peeking through the mist on the midnight bay. The highwayman-style masks Shadow’s men wore made it irritatingly difficult to read the subtle twitches that divulge truth on even a trained liar’s face. Daveed was usually Raisa’s stiffest competition, unpredictable in his dimness, but Thorne, Shadow’s newest recruit and Daveed’s professional rival, had been picking up pots unchallenged since Shadow and Lion left the table. If he was playing an underhanded game, he was doing a fair job of being discreet.
Thaddeus harrumphed. “I’m here to play cards, not listen to a skirt-chaser sing love songs to Lion and his sluts.”
“Come off it,” Strange said. “The bard’s a lovely tenor and plays guitar good as anyone I’ve heard. Better than that woman Jackal favors. Marinda? Meridia?”
“Marina,” Raisa said. “I think perhaps her allure’s lost on you, my friend. The boys like Marina because she plays topless.” Of course she was speaking specifically about the dons.
He shook his head sadly, as if mourning the downfall of all artistic grace. “We forgo the moral and spiritual message of our culture, all for the pleasure of a fat breast flopped on a hollow piece of wood?”
Raisa smiled. “Not everyone’s looking to be moved by a melody.”
Rhynda leaned in close to whisper in Raisa’s ear. “She ain’t got a voice. If it weren’t for her gigantic tits, Marina wouldn’t have an act at all.”
“What you two whispering about?” Thaddeus asked, interrupting. “You in cahoots or something?” He jerked a thumb in Raisa’s direction, looking for support from the others at the table. “Whatever this one does, that one does, too. Like the dames are two hands on one body.”
“If Rhynda’s mimicking me, it isn’t a winning strategy,” Raisa said. “I just folded the last fourteen hands in a row.” It was true. She was too distracted by Martin to play the game right.
“Oh poo, and I thought we were doing well,” Rhynda said, dejectedly, drawing chuckles from the other players. Of all the professional women Raisa knew, Rhynda alone had mastered the mien of the giddy, empty-headed floozy. It was a fine line between comedy and tragedy, a show Raisa enjoyed to watch, though she watched it alone. Everyone else pitied poor, stupid Rhynda, who was good for nothing but selling her affection.
“Since when is table chatter disallowed?” Strange asked.
“It ain't just that.” One of Thaddeus’ gnarled fingers extended in Thorne’s direction. “That one’s check-raised twice. We’re playin’ awful loose.”
Raisa whispered once more to Rhynda. “Notice how etiquette’s only important when they’re face down in the mud, with only the imprints of coins left on the felt before them? Then, everyone’s a cheat.”
Semi-honest side bets were just as tolerated as plying the weak with booze until they gave away their wealth without argument. Both were typical fare for a don’s table. Downright cheating, however, was a one-way journey to the eastern kingdom of Adelmoor, where the wealthy still bought and traded slaves—though they didn’t call them slaves anymore. Or to the bottom of the bay, if the cheater wasn’t worth the expense of transporting. A mere accusation of cheating could lead to reputation ruination. Unemployment and future un-employability.
It was why Raisa cheated smart, because getting caught wasn’t an option.
Raisa had a secret. She could see deceit. It was a sort of magic power, or something. Useful in other situations too, perhaps, but she put it best use at the card table.
Thaddeus grumbled. “Don’t know why I’m sitting here still, with cheats and whores.”
“Watch your mouth,” Raisa growled back. “There’s no cheats or whores at this table.” After all, a mistress who doesn’t sleep with her benefactor couldn’t be called a whore. Neither could Rhynda, technically. “And Rhynda’s a madam. I suppose that makes her a pimp.” Raisa shrugged. “So we play loose with the rules. It’s the way it’s always been and Lion isn’t keen on change. Anyone who doesn’t agree can leave the table.”
“Whatever game you’re playin’, darlin’, you ain’t equal to the rest of us.” He glared. “Neither of you. Women ain’t cut out for real gambling.”
If he only knew.
“Who is this asshole?” Rhynda demanded before Raisa could ask the same question, if a bit ruder. “I run Brazelton’s elite pleasure house, which sees its fair share of card tournaments, and Miss Raven’s hosting this table! Are you stupid enough to insult us both in one breath?”
Thaddeus hemmed and hawed, his reaction slow even for a drunken has-been trader with gray in his beard and gold teeth to fill in those that were missing.
“Don’t you worry about my game, old man,” Raisa said. “If you spent time studying your opponents instead of worrying who’s pulling the wool over, you’d see what’s what. You can’t figure me out, so don’t even try.”
And indeed he didn’t. Before Raisa could call for them, a pair of mismatched security guards responded to Thaddeus’ reflex to go for his pocket. The big one, with a mane of gray fur draped over the shoulders of his wool coat, gave a smile that increased in its unpleasantness until it was well past discomfiting and bespoke an imminent threat. The shorter guard, a woman in baggy men’s clothing and with only three fingers on her left hand, caught Thaddeus by the back of his shirt. With a surprisingly civil rendition of get the **** out, the two helped the retired smuggler find his coins and his coat, and moved him down the stairs.
“Asshole’s the right word for it,” Daveed said. “That’s the last game he’s playing here.”
“He broke the first rule of etiquette,” Strange said.
“What’s that?” Daveed replied. “Calling cheat? Being too drunk?”
Strange raised his hand to his mouth, as if relaying a secret to one intended listener, and whispered loudly, “Don’t ruffle the girls.”
“Laugh if you want,” Raisa said. “I’m not going to tolerate being called a cheat.”
“Nor should you,” Strange said. “He was well out of line.”
“Gambling’s no hobby,” Thorne said. “It’s rough and serious. Old men don’t do well with all the counting.”
Rhynda donned her best vacant stare. A cross-eyed rendition of awe and amazement. “When I run outta fingers, I slide my slippers off. And if someone’ll volunteer me a hand or two to borrow…” She scooped up her lacy petticoat. “They could rest right on me thigh till I need ‘em. You know, since I got no use for numbers more than thirty.”
“Thirty?” Thorne asked, missing Rhynda’s parlor humor. “What’s so special about thirty?” He puffed a new cigarette and blew a smoke ring, shaping his lips into a circle that might have suggested a response to Rhynda’s offer, if he hadn’t been so enthralled with the little ring and watching it float away, with juvenile pride.
“What else do I need?” Rhynda asked. “There’s thirty days in a woman’s cycle, tracked by Muir’s path across the night sky. Thirty groats in a half-royle, for making change. Thirty minutes of silence before you knock on a door and barge in.”
“And thirty convincing apologies when you discover the fun ain’t over and done when you barge in,” Raisa said, with a smirk.
Daveed threw down four silver coins depicting the head of the mayor’s wife on one side and the seal of the city on the reverse. “Four Lorraines to raise,” he said, giving nothing away in his voice. A feeler bet—one to test whether anyone made anything on the flop. Raisa’s triple knaves were looking better with every coin that found its way into the center of the table.
It took Strange a moment to consider, but he eventually tossed his cards, frustrated. His sloppy assortment of brass and silver was beginning to look sparse, though he’d spread it out to cover as much felt as possible. He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and pulled at his cravat to loosen his collar. “I’m sitting out for a few,” he declared, rising from his chair.
Raisa felt a cold prickle of anxiety shudder through her arms and up her neck. What if Strange didn’t return? What if he found the dicing or wheels of chance more amusing than a quiet card game? He might turn from a grape ripe for picking into a dried-up raisin. Or worse, he might bet away the very thing Raisa had her heart set on owning. That’d be entirely ****ing perfect. Raisa and Cherie would be back where they started—with Raisa doing the truly awful jobs, while keeping fourteen-year-old Cherie as far from the parlor as possible, lest she actually start to believe from the parlor girls that sucking cocks was a valid way for a girl to earn a living.