Nerissa's smile of amusement froze into a grimace of sour determination. "Very well, Maurice. Let her in." Nerissa leaned back in her chair and contemplated the cards again. Twice now they had won for her, and yet she had lost more with each game. But tonight would be different, she thought, and she poured herself a cup of wine. Tonight, if all went according to plan, it would not matter that this was almost the last bottle in the house, she mused as she rolled the spicy drink around her mouth. Of course, with this—this witch, or demon, or whatever the woman was, she could not be sure that things would go according to plan. But she was resolute. She had committed herself, and now it was time to see the game through. Stationing Maurice at the curtains had been her first move in the new gambit. She was not going to be taken by surprise this evening.
However, instead of the knock at the door, Nerissa heard the hard staccato clatter of that dreadful ebony cane on the marble floors. Maurice couldn't possibly have hobbled down to open the door that quickly, and in fact, she had not heard the great oaken door open at all. Yet Carlotta was in her house, already scuttling up her stairs, coming closer with each insistent crack of the cane upon the steps.
Nerissa listened to the noise mount the staircase and then approach the chamber, Maurice shuffling after it. Carlotta fairly stormed into the room, and Maurice announced, "Madam Carlotta," rather pointlessly.
Nerissa very deliberately did not rise to meet her guest. She sank deeper into the chair. She sensed that Carlotta was as hungry for the game as she was, and had decided to let the old woman pursue her this time.
Carlotta gave no indication that she had registered the slight, but Nerissa knew social politics too well to be fooled. The old woman sat down with a grunt, her hands gripping her cane. Nerissa finally raised her eyes from the cards and smiled a tight, artificial smile at her.
Carlotta smiled back, her teeth barely showing. "Thank you. No."
The women stared at each other, and Nerissa assessed Carlotta, no longer the rosy-cheeked dowager she had first met in the carriage. The cheeks were sunken, the lips cracked, the teeth... sharper somehow. A light of desperate, ravenous hunger gleamed from her eyes, and it occurred to Nerissa that the past nights might have been hard on the ancient creature. She had exerted herself to bring grave and horrible suffering into Nerissa's house and had taken nothing in return. Nerissa took another sip of wine, allowing the silence to hang in the air. Her mother had taught her it was a dreadful mistake to ever let your adversary know how much you wanted something—a necessity was a weakness, she had told her. Yet Nerissa knew just from the way that Carlotta's shriveled hands wrapped and twined restlessly about the head of her cane that this creature felt keenly the necessity of tonight's game. Very well, then. That would be the lever by which she moved her.
Nerissa picked up the velvet-covered jewelry box and opened it, holding it for Carlotta to peruse the contents. "We've wagered words and promises, but these heirlooms are diamonds and gold. Are you sure you wouldn't rather play for more... substantial stakes?"
Something like panic flickered in Carlotta's eyes, and her jaw tightened for a moment before she smiled obsequiously. "No, my dear. That would never do. If I am to grant you your dearest wish, you must offer me your most valuable possession." Her tongue flicked over her lips with reptilian dexterity, and Nerissa imagined it forked and hissing. She nodded her assent.
At that, Carlotta broke into a genuine yet deeply malicious grin. "And what shall I wager tonight? What, tonight, is the thing you wish for most?"
Nerissa smiled easily, but her heart beat forcefully within her chest. She had no doubt that this woman would somehow claim it if she lost. She framed her words carefully but cloaked them in nonchalance. "I would only have Elizabeth happy and beautiful again."
Carlotta drew breath to answer, but Nerissa cut her off with a raised finger.
"But, I will play tonight under the condition that Elizabeth also have her happiness and beauty for the duration of our game, until I turn my last card."
Carlotta glared at her, nonplussed. "You would have your stakes before you win them? Nonsense."
"If they are yours to grant, they are yours to take away if I lose." Nerissa smiled sweetly. "All I ask is that Elizabeth have some brief time of happiness and beauty. Unless, of course, you'd rather play for lesser stakes?" She vaguely waved a hand toward the open jewelry box, and Carlotta shook her head, her face torn between anger and anxiety.
"No. Of course not. But you ask too much. You cannot have your stakes before you win them."
Nerissa felt herself balanced on a tightrope of decorum, weighing Carlotta's determination to have her own way against the foul creature's obvious hunger. She smiled with practiced ease and gauged the uncertainty in Carlotta's eyes, the nervous twitching of the fingers, the eager pitch of her shoulders. She was the very picture of necessity, mask it though she tried.
Nerissa stared hard at Carlotta for a long moment, then shrugged her shoulders as if in defeat and indicated the jewelry box again. She cocked her head insolently to one side, daring Carlotta to accept the jewels and baubles.
Carlotta seethed, her teeth bared.
"So be it." She clapped her hands, and Nerissa gasped in spite of herself. For an instant, the lamplight had flickered, and in the shadows Carlotta's eyes had glowed like burning embers. The old woman smiled, triumphant and predatory, and Nerissa fought to regain her composure. Carlotta was even more withered and worn-looking than she had been just a moment ago. But she had never looked more deadly.
Immediately, the patter of bare feet came down the hallway, almost at a run. Carlotta held Nerissa's gaze, the hint of a satisfied smirk twitching one corner of her mouth. Nerissa smiled benevolently, as if regarding a favored guest at a dinner party. Her stomach twisted in a painful knot, but her face beamed with bland goodwill.
The door burst open, and neither woman moved. Elizabeth ran to Nerissa's side, wearing only her shift, her golden tresses loose about her shoulders, her fine features more radiant and beautiful than ever.
"Oh, Nerissa, I've had the strangest dream. It was... it... oh, dear." She giggled, her fingers to her mouth. "I've forgotten what it was."
Nerissa finally looked up at her, turning her head with casual precision. "That's quite amusing, Elizabeth, dear. But I'm afraid I have a rather important guest at the moment."
Elizabeth seemed to see Carlotta for the first time and recoiled slightly. "Oh, I'm so sorry to interrupt. Whatever was I thinking?" She appeared to be at a loss, terrified by the horrid crone but too entranced to break away. "I should... go now?"
The old woman regarded Elizabeth, and the girl shrank back behind Nerissa's chair. "Yes, Elizabeth," Carlotta croaked, her fingers tightening on the head of the ebony cane. "Say goodbye to your sister."
Nerissa's eyes narrowed to slits, and Carlotta grinned with plain cruelty, all pretense of civility gone. Nerissa kept her gaze fixed on Carlotta a moment longer, then turned a genuine and loving smile on her disconcerted sister. "Goodbye, Elizabeth," she whispered, and Elizabeth involuntarily backed away.
"Goodbye," she answered uncertainly, then turned, nearly running from the room.
"Now." Carlotta cut the cards, and Nerissa hesitated, then drew. When the six cards lay on the table, she felt doubt flicker through her again. She forced it down, determined to see this through. She revealed her rightmost card and repressed the excitement at seeing the bishop of stars. Carlotta made a tiny noise of disapproval and turned over the five of serpents. She looked up at Nerissa with rank eagerness in her eyes, and Nerissa had to restrain herself from drawing back.
She reached out, uncertain, then flipped the left card and heard Carlotta's rude giggle. The two of lions wasn't going to help much. Nerissa glanced at the jewelry box as Carlotta's hand hovered over her two remaining cards, finally descending on one.
She positively crowed with delight as she snapped over the archangel of stars. She chuckled and bobbled up and down in her seat, while Nerissa's head swam. The highest card in the deck. She looked down at her last card, knowing that it mattered not in the least. And yet...
"Come now, dearie." Carlotta didn't even bother to mask her malevolent glee. "Turn it over. Let's bring this to an end, shall we?" Her smile was pure predation, and Nerissa found herself wondering how the old witch took people's hearts. Did she suck them out of their mouths? Rip open the chests with those clawlike fingers? Or simply chew through the breastbones like a hideously oversized rat?
She shook her head to dismiss such horrors and smiled at Carlotta. "Of course, it's not too late to call it a draw. Or to change the stakes..." She picked up the jewelry box once again and fingered the sapphire on the comb, traced the jewels of the stiletto's handle.
"No," snapped the old woman, leaning forward in her chair. "You agreed. You have lost. Now turn over the card and let us finish the game."
"Yes," Nerissa answered, pure steel in her voice. "Let us finish the game." And with a swift motion, she drew the stiletto from its sheath. Carlotta shrieked and raised the cane to ward off the blow, unnatural flame flaring from its handle, but Nerissa flipped the knife and plunged the blade into her own chest. Crimson blood spurted, splashing the cards, and Carlotta recoiled, snarling in animal rage. The bright arterial blood hit the table with gouts of steadily decreasing force, until Nerissa's eyes rolled in her head and she slumped back into her chair. The blood leaked gently now, slowly soaking her brocade bodice.
Carlotta sat still for a long time, her breath coming in shallow pants, her forked tongue licking scaled lips. Her gaze shifted from the cooling corpse to the unfinished game on the table.
From somewhere in the house she heard the muffled patter of Elizabeth's feet and realized, with mounting distaste, that the spell she'd cast on the young woman would last until the game ended. The crone hissed and reached out to flip over Nerissa's final card, but she stopped herself short. The act would be futile. The terms of the game were set, unbreakable.
Until I turn my last card, Nerissa had said.
With great effort, Carlotta rose to her feet, leaning heavily on her cane.
"Well played, my dear. Well played indeed."
She turned her back on the blood-soaked cards and, with slow, painful steps, hobbled from the room.