House of Thrones, Game of Cards
E. Christopher Clark
Nasha stood at edge of the loading dock, a pocket watch in their hand and a scowl on their face. They stared across the alley at the nothing that ringed the house and waited for the veil of the world to be drawn back one last time. Behind them, heels clicked and clacked against the hard wood of the hallway, but even as the person wearing them drew closer, Nasha made no move for the sword hanging on their left hip, nor for the gun strapped to their right. It wasn’t until a hand wrapped round the back of their neck that Nasha flinched.
“Late?” asked Inda as she pushed her fingers into Nasha’s hair.
Nasha said nothing.
“We could start without them,” said Inda, stroking the smooth skin behind Nasha’s ear.
Nasha turned to face Inda then, gave the damnable woman a scowl.
Inda pinched Nasha’s earlobe between her thumb and forefinger, then gave Nasha a wicked smile. Tugging at the ear, Inda said, “My little stickler.” Then she let go and sauntered across the dock, finally giving Nasha the space they knew well enough not to ask for out loud.
Inda waved a hand at the nothing. “How long has it been black now? Since the last game?”
Inda rolled her eyes and sighed a heavy sigh. “You don’t get sick of it?”
Nasha said nothing. The truth was that the black was easier to look at than any other color Inda had ever chosen. In the blackness, anything was possible. Anything imaginable.
Inda waved a hand and the nothing went orange. “Better?” she asked.
Orange reminded Nasha of the groves back home, the fruits of their mother’s labors stretched out behind the castle’s walls. It had been years since they’d seen home, since they’d laid beneath the trees with some girl they’d stolen from the market, or some boy, and made love with the smell of citrus in their nose. It had been ages since Nasha had seen the look of gratitude in a lover’s eyes, the look and the tears as they swallowed air that wasn’t festering and rank, as they felt hands upon them without callouses, without sores.
Inda waved another hand, sighed another sigh, and the nothing was black again. She was just about to quit the dock for the hallway when the veil of the world finally pulled back and two people appeared there in the alley, a desert stretched out behind them. One was resplendent in sea-green robes, a jeweled turban upon their head. They offered up their teeth and their bright eyes by way of apology, bowing to Inda as she descended the stairs to meet them. Nasha’s attention, however, was on the other person, the hunched one with a throne of ivory and gold strapped to their back.
Nasha leapt from the dock to unburden the second person, watching as the veil drew closed behind them. Nasha pulled their sword from its scabbard and cut the ropes that bound the chair to the person’s back. It crashed unceremoniously onto the cobbled stone of the alley as the person rose to their full height and thanked Nasha for their assistance.
“Careful!” said the person in the turban, stroking their long beard. “My family has sat upon that throne for a thousand generations.”
“Then you should know, sir,” said Inda, “that we do not tolerate lateness.”
“Yes,” he said, bowing his head again to her. “And we would have been quite on time,” he continued, “if the gentleman had simply ceased his arguments with his sovereign.”
“There are rules!” shouted the person who had carried the throne.
“Yes, yes,” said the man in the turban, “but — ”
But whatever words were left on his tongue, Nasha didn’t need to hear them. They grabbed hold of him by the scruff of his neck and drew their blade across his throat. And only then, as the turbaned man’s eyes widened in shock, as his hands flew to his throat, clutching at it as blood poured through his fingers, only then did Nasha speak.
“You carry your own throne,” they said. And then they kicked the turbaned man backward, into the nothing.
Inside the house, around a granite table cut into a circle, Inda introduced the game’s final player to the rest. “Your royal highnesses,” said Inda, “please welcome the seventh member of our fellowship.”
Nasha ushered in the person who’d carried the ivory throne and pointed at the empty spot at the table, directly to the left of the only empty chair. There was a stirring amongst the people already gathered and seated, for this was not the face they were expecting, but when they looked at Inda for some sense of reassurance—some manner of clarification—when they looked and were offered nothing, they said nothing in return.
“And playing on behalf of the house,” said Inda, “for the fourth year running, Her Royal Highness, the Princess Nasha of Onterey.”
Nasha did not wince at the pronoun as they took their seat. Back home, there was tolerance for much, but the rule of matrilineal primogeniture set down by their great grandmother remained unbroken. And there was a sister lurking in the shadows, waiting to ensure the rule remained in place if Nasha so much as breathed a word publicly about their preferences. So, while prudence dictated it, they would play the part of she. But they didn’t have to like it. And they did not.
Inda strolled across the room to the cabinet that stood behind the throne of Nasha’s mother. Nasha watched the woman unlock it with a key she wore round her neck, ignoring their mother as she tried to make eye contact. They watched Inda instead, trying to see which deck she might pull from the darkness, trying to gain the upper hand in some way, trying as they had for four long years. Inda, sensing this, glanced over her shoulder and offered Nasha a smile. Then she took a quick gander at the seventh player, as if trying to size them up.
“The game,” said Inda, as she withdrew a new deck from the cabinet and turned to face them, “is five-card draw.”
Half the old hands at the table nodded, understanding that this announcement was for the benefit of the new player. The other half rolled their ancient eyes.
“As always,” said Inda, removing the cellophane from the deck, “the house will not fold.” She smiled at Nasha, crinkling the cellophane in her hand until she saw Nasha grit their teeth at the sound. “Those who fold before the showdown will be allowed to leave with the seats of power they carried in.”
“And if we stay until the end?” asked the seventh player.
Inda laughed. “You seemed quite familiar with the rules outside,” she said. “Have you honestly no knowledge of how the endgame plays out?”
The seventh player looked down at their hands for a moment. Nasha looked, too. The hands were scarred and calloused, the hands of a craftsperson. How the player had learned the rule about the burden of the throne remained a mystery; that knowledge was usually kept secret from the masses. But, whatever the source of their knowledge, the seventh player seemed ignorant of the rest.
“My master told me that no one ever stays until the end.”
Inda laughed once more, ruffling the silver hair of Nasha’s mother as she did. “Oh, some stay,” she said. “And, if they do, they forfeit their thrones as recompense for the slight.”
“Or,” said Nasha’s mother, “something far more precious.”
Now it was Nasha’s turn to roll their eyes, which they did as they slouched into their chair, threw back their head in exasperation, and sighed the heaviest of sigh of the evening.
“But,” said the seventh player, “what if one of us wins?”
Nasha sat up straight at this, for they would not miss the chance to see the look on Inda’s face as she addressed this query that hadn’t been asked once in the four years that Nasha had been playing on behalf of the house. Nasha knew the answer, but they had only ever heard Inda give it at the end of long night at the bar in the basement.
Inda narrowed her eyes as she circled the table, keeping her gaze locked on the seventh player as she made her way to them. Then, when she had drawn up alongside them, when still the player would not avert their eyes and withdraw their question, then Inda crouched until her face was level with the player’s. And she hissed at them, “You will not win.” Then she smiled, rose once again to her full height, and handed the deck to Nasha.
“But what if I do?” asked the seventh player.
Inda would not answer. She stalked off to the darkest corner of the room and took her seat there in the shadows.
“Are we not owed an answer?” asked the seventh player, looking about the table while Nasha shuffled.
Across the table, Nasha’s mother said, “Excuse me, Mister—”
Our of the corner of their eye, Nasha watched for a wince, watched for any sign that their mother’s presumption had been in error, but saw none.
“Mister Upar,” he said.
“Mister Upar,” said Nasha’s mother. “I hope you will forgive the — ”
Inda grunted in the corner. “Forgive a deity?” she spat.
Nasha’s mother smiled kindly. “I hope you will forgive the reticence of our Lord and Savior, the one true Goddess, Inda of the Mount, because you see, the last person to win the game—”
“Was Inda herself,” said Mister Upar, finishing the thought, his gaze fixed on the shadows. “Most interesting,” he said. “Most interesting indeed.”
“Shall we play?” said Nasha, glancing around the table, waiting for a nod from each of them before moving on to the next.
They dealt the cards fast and furious, each one hurtling across the table to its owner. And when the dealing was done, Nasha was the first to pick up their hand. Everyone else waited for them, as was the custom.
Nasha examined their cards and found the hand strong, but before they decided what they might discard, or whether they would discard at all, they took a quick look around the table.
Nergard was running a hand through the wild tangle of red locks upon his head, stewing as he always did at the start of the game. Srima sat stoic in her kimono, still staring at the cards, not yet daring to pick them up. Merama had already folded and had turned her painted face to Roway, the Crowned Jester, who seemed to be torn between continuing to play and flirting with the other woman. Gentleman Tyon had already selected two cards to discard and was tapping them against the table. Upar held his cards close to his face, all but his eyebrows obscured. And Nasha’s mother, Queen Yona herself, was staring across the table at her child, trying once again to understand the flesh of her flesh. Trying and, judging by the way she was frowning, failing.
Nasha looked at their hand again, studied the sidelong glances of the three kings they found there, and wondered what to do with the ten and the nine that stood beside them. They wished that whole room did not wait on them, the whole world. They wished that someone at this table might be bold enough to prove a match for them, but they also knew all too well the price of hubris in the House of Thrones.
“Mister Upar,” said Nasha, “the house defers. You may begin the draw.”
Upar nodded, examined his hand one last time, then pushed a single card toward Nasha. Nasha dealt him a new card and wondered at his gambit. Did he have the cards to beat them? And did he have the stones to try?
This was the question. It might also be the answer.
As Nasha dealt cards to the others—three to Nergard, two each to Srima, Tyon, Roway, and their mother — they considered what might happen if they let Upar win. Nasha knew each of the others all too well to hand Inda’s house keys to them, knew all too well the iniquities of these selfish fools, knew all too well the tyranny of evil men. And women, they thought, looking for once into the withered face of their mother, staring deep into her now-watering gray eyes. All they knew of Upar was his respect for the rules of the game. Perhaps he would be a just god. There was a chance of it. And was there any real chance that he would be worse than Inda?
“Nasha?” said their mother. “The table waits for you.”
There was a creaking in the shadows, the sound of a chair being vacated, and then Inda stepped out of the darkness.
Nasha watched as Inda rounded the table, closed their eyes as they felt the goddess’ hands squeeze their shoulders, flinched as hot breath across the nape of their neck presaged a whisper in their ear.
“What are you thinking?” hissed Inda.
Nasha tried to wipe clean the slate of their mind, fearful of what Inda might do with what she found there, but they were not quick enough.
What if he loses? asked the voice of Inda inside Nasha’s head. What if you hand everything to one of the others?
None of them will play through to the end, thought Nasha.
If they see you lay down four cards, they might.
Nasha turned their head to look at Inda. Thoughts were one thing, not much more useful than words. The look in a person’s eyes, however…
I can give you what you want, thought Inda, smiling.
How? thought Nasha.
Inda smiled and nodded at Nasha’s mother. We can both have what we want, my bold princess. Stand pat, win the game, and your mother’s seat is yours.
On the day Nasha’s mother lost the game four years before, the veil had been lifted from the shadows lurking at the foot of Nasha’s bed. Face nuzzled between the breasts of the village girl they brought into the palace proper each time their mother absconded for her ritual, Nasha stirred slowly. In fact, it wasn’t the sound of their name that woke them at all—it was the chill creeping from the alley on the other side of the veil; they heard their name only the third time their mother spoke it, only when the two syllables were cleaved from each other by a choked-back sob.
Their mother could not look at their naked body as she told them to get dressed, to come as quickly as they could. Their mother could not look at them as they asked why, as they asked if this were a dream or if that really was the House of Thrones standing behind her. Their mother could not look at this body that had so delighted her in its infancy, in its juvenescence, this body that she had carved from her own and breathed life into. She couldn’t look, and she couldn’t even speak, at least not more than one word at a time. “Quickly,” she said. “Quickly.”
When they were a child, their mother brought them to bed with her to keep the bed warm and the nightmares at bay. When their mother shook in the night, it was Nasha’s job to judge the severity, and to wake her if necessary. And so, holding a hand to their mother’s quivering body, counting the shudders of its protest against the tricks the mind was playing against it, Nasha spent many a sleepless night wondering what would happen if they simply let their mother quake against them through the night, if they let her body sort itself out. What would happen if they grew numb to the violence raging beside them, if they slept on when their mother needed them most?
It was this tableau, of waking up beside the cooling husk of a now still body—it was this that took hold of Nasha’s imagination as Inda made her suggestion. Not some garish spectacle wrought by the poisoned cup that Inda held forth at the edge of Nasha’s mind’s eye, nor a pageant of gore made possible by the sword hanging heavy on Nasha’s hip. It was this image of their mother’s demise that confronted them as they held their cards before them, as the eyes of every person at the table focused on them.
“Nasha,” said their mother again. “What is your play?”
Nasha laid one card down upon the discard pile. Then another. Then two more.
Inda rose to her full height and stalked away, her heels clicking menacingly as she circled the table to stand behind Nasha’s mother. Nasha looked at the angry goddess for a moment, trying to read the blank look upon her face, then got back to the task at hand.
The first card they drew was a Jack of Hearts, the second its queen, the third its king. When Nasha looked up in between the third and fourth cards, Inda was smiling.
The fourth card was, of course, the Ace. And the card they’d kept — they blinked, then checked again just to be sure — was the Ten.
The faces around the table were stunned by how much she’d laid down, wondering at what she’d received in return. Their eyes were wide, their eyebrows raised, and their jaws agape—except for Roway, who wore a devilish grin now, and seemed to be on the verge of laughing with delight. Presently, they hid themselves back behind their cards, trying to make their decisions.
But Nasha wanted it over with, so they delivered the one line they had left to give in this absolute farce: “Does anyone fold?”
Nergard, with an exasperated grunt, laid his cards down and pushed them away from himself. Srima closed her eyes whilst she ran her free hand back and forth along the pearl-encrusted arm of her throne, then she folded too. Tyon and Roway exchanged glances, as if each was trying to see if the other was bold enough to take the risk. There was a great deal of squinting and several tilts of each head before they nodded and laid their cards down, leaning back into their chairs to see what happened next.
That left Upar and Nasha’s mother. Nasha gave Upar a sidelong glance and found him just as stone-faced as he had been for most of the game. So they turned their attention to their mother, whose chest and shoulders heaved with each deep breath she took.
“Yona,” said Inda as she massaged the shoulders of Nasha’s mother. “Do you fold?”
Nasha’s mother breathed in deep one last time, then shook her head in a silent “no.” She could not see the smile worn now by the woman standing behind her.
“Lay down your cards then,” said Inda.
Nasha’s mother fanned her hand upon the table, revealing four Nines and the Four of Hearts. Upar laid down one card at a time, beginning with the One of Clubs, then the two, his smile broadening with each reveal until his skin was as flush as the hand he’d been dealt.
They looked to Nasha then, everyone waiting to see what cards fate had seen fit to grant their host. And though Nasha did not want to see what was about to happen, they knew there was no sense in prolonging the inevitable. They laid their cards down.
There was an uproar as Upar’s head hung low, as Queen Yona sobbed. “How?” asked Tyon as Nergard bellowed the word “LIES” in every tongue he could muster. Roway laughed maniacally. Srima sat silent as Merama muttered, “Such luck has never before been seen in these hallowed halls.”
Nasha felt a hand on their arm, a gentle squeeze. They turned to face Upar as he asked, “What happens now?”
“You go home,” said Nasha. “Your throne stays here.”
“But who will rule?” said Upar.
Nasha nodded at Inda and said nothing more.
“And what of your kingdom?” said Upar. “Will it be the same there, now that your mother has lost for a second time?”
“Oh no,” said Inda from across the room and above the din. “There is much hubris in the hills of Onterey,” she said, the room quieting around her as she moved her hands from the shoulders of Nasha’s mother to top of her throne. “One cannot rule such a proud people from afar,” said Inda. “I will need a regent, of course.”
“But who?” said Nergard, waving a hand at Nasha’s mother. “Do you mean to go easy on this vain wench once again?”
“Oh no,” said Inda, smiling. And then she yanked the throne backwards, the crowd leaping back from her as she did. Nasha’s mother toppled to the floor, and was just about to right herself when Inda raised her leg as high as her skirt would allow, then stomped her heel down upon the back of the old queen’s neck.
The room was silent except for a choking sound that ended only with the squelch of heel withdrawing from flesh. Then Inda said, in a calm, cold voice, “Leave,” and all but Nasha did as they were told.
Nasha rounded the table and stood above their mother’s lifeless body for a moment, taking in what dream made reality looked like. Then they fell to their knees and cradled the head of their mother’s corpse in their lap.
“You will return to your kingdom,” said Inda, stalking away, leaving a trail of bloody heel prints on the stone floor behind her. “You will rule in my stead, but as you see fit.”
“And what of the game?” asked Nasha.
Inda sat upon the far end of the table, wiping the blood from her shoe with one bent card after another. Distracted, she said nothing.
“What of the game?” shouted Nasha, ashamed of the sob that choked their voice.
Inda smiled. “You will return each time I call for you,” she said. “And you will play for the house as you have these four years. For there has never been a more shrewd gamesman than you, my dear. No one has ever played the game, as well,” she said.
Except me, she thought, loud enough that Nasha could hear her above the cacophony of memories of orange groves, and warm beds, and a heart that, they finally realized, loved them the only way it knew how.