Two Darigan youth sat across each other around a round table, burying their noses in a fan of cards, hardening their expressions until became like stone. Around them gathered four other Darigan knights who had already folded their hands, and now, they silently hedged their bets as to who would win this round.
"This hand is looking pretty good, I have to say," said one player, a dashing Darigan Gelert with a crooked smile. "Or pretty bad, I can never tell."
The other remaining player shrugged dispassionately. "Either way, I think I win, Yarald."
"We'll see about that."
Yarald slid his cards out on the splintered table. Three queens lay in a line next to a pair of kings, a nice full house. His Darigan Eyrie opponent smiled as he revealed his own hand: a royal flush of diamonds. Yarald glared at his cards in silence, as if they'd betrayed him somehow, and slammed his palms on the table.
He huffed out an annoyed sigh. "That's impossible--I was watching you the whole time! You couldn't have possibly done anything."
"I must have gotten lucky," came the usual reply.
That response always irritated Yarald to no end. Every time he heard it, he knew it was a load of bunk; everyone else did, too, but it wasn't as though they could prove it. “One of these days, I’m going to figure out how you’re doing this.”
“Dream on,” said Kass.
“Insufferable,” came a high, soft voice from behind the Eyrie. The speaker was a Kacheek, Evelyn Sokolov, who bore a passing resemblance to him. “You’re such a snake, Kass.”
This much was an agreed-upon fact by all present. When you played against Kass, you knew he was going to rig the situation in his favor in some way, and you had to resign yourself to that fact. The question was never if he’d cheated, but rather how he’d managed to do it.
“I bet you two are in cahoots,” said Yarald to Evelyn. “Come on, give us a little hint, tell us what he’s doing.”
“If I knew what he was doing, you’d better bet I would have been using it for myself.” Evelyn frowned ever-so-slightly. Just because she was Kass’s cousin didn’t mean she knew everything about him; it didn’t even mean they were all that close to each other.
Kass began gathering all the cards from around the table and shuffled them. He needed not ask whether anyone was up for another round or whether anyone wanted to call it quits for the night and go to sleep. He already knew they would all remain here.
It was near the end of the month, around the time where everyone’s food rations were running out, and restlessness and hunger ruled the day. People would dream and think almost exclusively of food given nothing else to occupy their minds, so they wanted to busy themselves with anything, no matter how trifling or pointless.
“Play legitimately this time,” said Yarald as a nearby Tonu took the deck from Kass and passed out everyone’s hands. “No tricks, nothing.”
“I’ll see what happens,” he replied. “Not like anyone loses out if I do it again. We’re not exactly playing for anything.”
“But Kass, that’s not fun at all for anyone if you already know what’s going to happen,” a small voice chirped.
Behind the group of knights sat a small, mousy Darigan Aisha with a huge tome of spells beside her, open to a page whose contents might as well have been gibberish. She raised her arm authoritatively like a statesman. The sleeves of her robes slid down to reveal its skeletal form.
Kass smiled weakly at her; he couldn’t possibly bring himself to disagree with such a little thing. “So quoth Chantelle,” he mumbled. “I guess she has a point.”
“Of course he does what the little runt says,” commented the stout, bulky Tonu in the group of knights. “She should be here more often, would certainly take a load off our backs having deal with this guy.”
“I’ll still kick your all hides to the curb, don’t get me wrong,” said Kass. “It’s just that this time, I’ll do it fairly.”
Paradoxically, this declaration proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. Kass’s skill at deception was by and large the most entertaining part of being around him. It wasn’t nearly as interesting when he was truthful.
“Sure, you’ll beat us all fair and square, and Lord Darigan will suddenly be competent and have the rations assigned on time, for once,” said Yarald. “Chances of that are very low.”
Kass picked up his hand and scanned it quickly. “I wouldn’t say things like that about our lord. I’m sure he’s just trying the best he can. It’s probably easier for us to criticize than it is for him to run an entire kingdom.”
“Maybe, but if I were ruling, I’d at least make sure all my citizens could eat,” said Evelyn, squinting at her cards. “It’d be pretty high on my priority list. Maybe I’d even make sure we’d fly above somewhere nice.”
“I can get behind that,” said the Tonu who had dealt the cards. “I think I’d be horrible, I’d make everyone wear impractical but cool-looking outfits.”
“Not the worst thing you can do, but yeah, Evie would probably be better,” replied Yarald. He took one look at his hands and groaned melodramatically. “But I don’t really think she’s really leader-material. She’s not charismatic enough.”
“And you’re charismatic?” asked a younger Usul who sat across from the dealer. She smirked at Yarald’s displeased expression. “I’m just saying, it takes a lot more than looking pretty to convince people to do what you want.”
The Tonu placed the deck of cards in front of him. “Aw, don’t worry, Yarald, if we had elections, I’d vote you in to be our great leader, if only out of pity.”
“I appreciate your hypothetical support.”
“Can we get back to our game?” said Kass, banging the edges of his cards on the table, producing an unusually loud sound that echoed through the empty, decrepit room. “None of us are ever going to rule the citadel, so talking about what you’d do if you were in charge is useless.”
“You’re just upset that no one would get behind you,” teased Evelyn.
Kass stared blankly at her. “Okay, okay, you’ve got me, I’m so upset that no one’s behind me on a position I will never want in my life.”
“I’d be behind you if it makes you feel better,” he heard Chantelle’s voice come from the back. Evelyn smiled at the little Aisha and directed her attention back to Kass.
“Well, you’ve got one little supporter,” she said. “Kass, you shouldn’t take everything so seriously, we’re just joking around.”
“You can’t just ‘joke around’ about our lord, you know how seriously he takes it. Besides, I have a sense of humor, I just don’t like jokes when they waste time and get in the way of me absolutely beating you all at this game again.”
“Let’s just knock you off your high horse quickly, hmm?” said Yarald. He raised his voice: “Come on guys, sit down for this one, okay?”
In a few moments, everyone was in their proper places, putting on the most emotionless faces they could. They sat quietly, either upping an ante of old, useless ration tickets or calling the one before them. When the time came to switch some cards out, everyone but Yarald obliged and replaced whatever amount of cards from their hand with some in the deck.
A dull thud from afar broke this constricted, controlled silence. Despite himself, Kass turned his head behind to see that Chantelle had fallen on the floor. Her head lay on her book, and her spacious violet robe covered her like a shroud.
Kass did not wait even a moment before throwing his hand on the table and rushing to see what was wrong with her. He shook her a few times until she made a sound. Her large, soft eyes dragged open—they were much too large for her face, he’d noticed.
“Hey, kiddo, it’s me,” he said. “You okay?”
Chantelle shut her eyes again and shook her head.
“So I take it this means you’re quitting on us, huh?” said Yarald. “Too bad, too, you had a real nice hand.”
“I guess so,” replied Kass as he picked Chantelle up. She was a lot lighter than he remembered her to be. “The kid probably just stayed up a little late, so I need to walk her back home.”
After a few hasty goodbyes, Kass left the room, barely remembering to take the tome with him. Chantelle’s arms hung around his neck while he trudged on through the darkness of his old family house, lined with stiff, frowning portraits of his ancestors in backgrounds and settings that looked like they’d come from a different, and better, time.
Sometimes, he doubted how much better it truly was. Those older and worldlier than him had always said that the citadel before the curse was much more prosperous and happy, knowing nothing of war, or disease, or the thousands of things that plagued the world. Now the people lived only knowing the plagues of the world.
Or, at least, that’s how the story went.
Kass stopped abruptly in front of a portrait of a green Eyrie who lived however many generations ago. He wore the traditional navy-blue general uniform, with golden accolades practically weaving in and out of every seam.
No war, huh? he thought, staring at the named attached with the portrait: FEDERISME SOKOLOV. For a few moments, his imagination conjured up the image of his mother walking him through these halls and stopping at this very spot.
“You were very young when it happened, Kass,” she would say, “You don’t even remember what you were supposed to look like, do you? Before all this, I mean.”
Kass would answer, “no.” Then his mother would shrug and start explaining, “When you were very young, just a baby, your fur was the best shade of blue I could think of, like the daytime sky . . .”
He remembered many conversations that went to that vague tune, though he didn’t quite remember any one of them very well. Kass extended one paw out in front of him, staring unseeingly at his obsidian-black, jagged talons.
“Kassy,” Chantelle’s voice squeaked, “you’re not really going to take me back to Morguss, are you? I don’t want to go back. She’s a horrible, horrible mom and she hates me.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that about your mother.”
“But it’s true,” she mumbled.
Kass knew full well it was. If he didn’t prefer that his head stay attached to his body, he would have probably overtly agreed with her. He started walking again, slowly becoming more aware of the fairly light weight on his back. She should have been heavier.
“Chantelle, when was the last time you ate anything?” he asked.
“A while ago,” came the response. “There was this bread you gave me a while back, but . . .”
“How long is a while?”
Chantelle counted on her fingers. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine . . . I think it was thirteen days ago.”
Just a little more than two weeks, then. Kass had little doubt in his mind it was because her food rations were “mysteriously” short-changed again. “Why didn’t you tell anyone? I’m sure someone out there has to have a few more ration tickets—”
“Nobody will just give those away,” said Chantelle. “Besides, I don’t want to be a burden on anybody.”
“I—I guess we can wait a little before sending you off home,” decided Kass after a long pause. He changed his trajectory slightly, going into the house’s kitchen instead of leaving it entirely. With a sigh, he plopped Chantelle on a counter.
The little Aisha sniffed the air and stuck out her tongue. “It smells weird in here.”
The odors of what remained of Kass’s culinary concoctions filled the air, and Kass was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good cook. A few months ago, Evelyn had forced him to this duty because he wasn’t “pulling his own weight,” unafraid of the quality that Kass would bring to the table every day.
It was rather devious of her, in retrospect. As sub-par as Kass was at the task, he would at least be trying to do it as competently as he could. He wouldn’t try to intentionally ruin what little food they had.
Or, at least, it would have been rather devious of her if they didn’t have quite a bit more food than the rations allowed. Kass opened a false wall near the doorway and took out a few fruits and vegetables kept nice and cold with ice magic. He lit a fire under a three-legged pot and started to prepare some stew.
“It’s really fine, Kassy, I—I don’t really need anything, really. You have rations of your own, I’m sure . . .”
“Even if these were from my rations, I wouldn’t really mind,” he replied as he chopped up a few legumes. “I’m almost done growing, and you have a lot of it to do. I don’t want you to stay as tall as a shrimp forever.”
“I’m not a shrimp,” whined Chantelle. She crossed her arms. “And you shouldn’t steal food from other people, they need it.”
“It just so happens that the people that so kindly gave this to me were surface-folk,” said Kass. “They have plenty—whole fields of it, as a matter of fact. A few pounds isn’t much to take.”
“You’ve been to the surface before?” Chantelle widened her eyes before pouting. “You should tell me things like that! I’ve always wanted to know how it was—wait a minute, are you even allowed to go there?”
Kass ignored her very last question. “The surface . . . well, it can be a good or bad place, but that really depends on where you are. I can say that the people are very, very nice.” They were very nice indeed; so nice, in fact, that all it took for Kass to trigger their endless generosity was to simply stand in their farms menacingly until they ran away and screamed, “Here, take whatever you want, just don’t hurt us!”
It was touching to see how quickly misguided fear could bring out the best—or worst, depending on how you looked at it—in people.
Kass threw the vegetables in the cooking pot, along with some oats, onions, beans, and water. He added a few pinches of salt and started stirring. “All in all, I’d say it’s overrated.”
“Maybe, but I want to see it myself, you know? You think Lord Darigan will let me down there someday?”
He won’t let you do anything as long as he needs your mother to retrieve that orb, little one. And there was absolutely nothing Kass could really do about it, no matter what kind of a person Morguss was. He was just going to be a lowly knight. The ruler of the citadel, on the other hand, was free to do whatever he wanted, blast the consequences. And unfortunately, that old, senile man who couldn’t get his head out the past was ruling.
Kass stopped and stared at the swirls he was making in the stew. For a few moments, he was surprised at how cruel his thoughts toward Darigan really were. He knew he shouldn’t have been so harsh.
“I don’t think little girls like you are allowed to go there, not until their wings grow big and strong. It is a long way down, after all.”
“How about when that happens? You think he’ll let me go?”
“Sure,” he lied. “Sometimes, you have to be a little patient to do what you want to do, that’s all.”
“Then I can’t wait to see what’s down there,” said Chantelle. She went off to describe all the things she’d read about in history books, all the ways which the citadel should have been different, all the good and wonderful things that were waiting just below.
Kass listened until the stew was done cooking. He got the largest bowl he could find and scooped out a good share of it for Chantelle, who stared disbelievingly at the amount of smoke coming out of the bowl. She leaned over it and sniffed.
“This looks really good,” she said quietly. “I think you’re getting better at this.”
“You only think it’s good because you’re hungry,” replied Kass, patting her on the head. Her tangled tangerine curls wrapped around his fingers. “Once you’ve had a good fill, I’m sure you’re going to change your mind.
Judging by how hungry she looked, how she’d patiently stared at the stew from the corner of her eyes, just waiting for it to cool down enough to be edible, he highly doubted that was going to happen anytime soon.
In the silence, he again found his thoughts wandering back to Lord Darigan. He started to think of all the little things he’d do differently if he were ruler, and was only able to cut himself off when he’d forcibly reminded himself that it was easier for anyone to criticize from the sidelines than to make weighty decisions on a throne.
It was a waste of energy to think about what you would change if you couldn’t change it, after all. Nothing was ever going to happen that would put him in a position to do so, so just thinking about it was useless.
And yet . . . and yet he never really did stop thinking about it.
Things would be different with a Lord Kass.