Nerissa stiffened her spine and forced her nerves into submission. She looked around the room: the best of the remaining furniture, a pair of polished oil lamps burning brightly, a cart with nearly the last bottle of Kehjistani wine and two cups, and of course, on the dark, gleaming table, a deck of cards.
Nerissa had chosen these cards purposefully, adorned as they were with the Natoli family crest. She liked to feel that if she was playing for the future of the House Natoli, then she could at least choose cards that represented the stakes.
And, yes—the stakes. Nerissa looked again at the velvet-covered box that she had laid beside the cards. Within it was every last piece of jewelry she could muster, a fortune to a commoner on the street, but a small stake with which to attempt the redemption of her family's riches. Nerissa knew that she would have to win, and win repeatedly, to put the family on an even footing once again. But she could not afford to win so quickly that she scared the darling old crone off. No, this would require finesse, delicacy, and care.
Her thoughts were shattered and she jumped with a nervous start as her beaming sister bounded into the room. Elizabeth was covered head to foot in what appeared to be great flapping leaves of crimson, umber, and orange. Nerissa recoiled from the sight, but managed a slight smile to match the joy that lit Elizabeth's round, glowing face. Though she couldn't help occasionally resenting Elizabeth's seeming obliviousness to their growing plight, Nerissa also couldn't help being entranced by her sister's beauty and sheer vivacity. She would be perfect for any number of Westmarch gentlemen, and at least a few of the lesser nobility, if she only had a sufficient dowry. But the dowry went to pay Ashton's debts, and now Elizabeth faced a long and lonely life, or worse—a match to some ambitious commoner who would buy his way into the Natoli family name. Nerissa shuddered at the thought and tried to keep the smile on her face as Elizabeth leapt around the room in some sort of cavorting dance.
"Do you see? Do you see what I am?"
Nerissa restrained herself from the acid-tongued replies that came to mind, and settled on an indifferent, "I don't know... A court jester?"
Elizabeth seemingly stopped mid-leap to gaze in pure bafflement at her sister. "A jester? Do you take me for a fool, Sister?" She tried to look severe but broke into a smile and giggled an appealing arpeggio of laughter, twirling around Nerissa, nearly knocking her off balance. "The Lancasters' revel is in two weeks, and for once I can finally go again."
She gripped Nerissa by the shoulders with the earnest joy of a child, hoping to make her dull, unimaginative older sister understand. "You say I can't go because we can't afford new gowns. But Madam Lancaster says this time we must all make our own costumes! So I shall go!"
She leapt away and struck a pose. Nerissa steadied herself and checked to make sure the arrangement of cards and wine had not been disturbed.
"The theme of the revel is 'Time,'" Elizabeth intoned in mock seriousness. "Now can you guess what I am?"
Nerissa brought her attention back to the girl and looked her over. Upon closer inspection, she could see that Elizabeth was half-covered in scraps of parchment and cloth pinned carefully to an old brown gown. She did want to humor her sister, but now was not the time for guessing games. "A tree?"
Elizabeth dropped her pose with a sigh of exasperation and shook her curls at Nerissa. "No, you great pudding. I am autumn. Can't you tell by the leaves?" For a second, Nerissa saw the hint of genuine concern in her sister's large brown eyes, the faint uncertainty of a girl who was, after all, wearing last season's gown hastily adorned with cast-off pieces of parchment and gauze. Nerissa's heart melted, and she threw her arms around Elizabeth.
"Of course I can. You are the very picture of autumn. You shall be the talk of the evening."
"I shall!" Elizabeth spun out of Nerissa's arms with an imperious gesture, then giggled. "Oh, thank you, Nerissa. Now I really must get back to cutting out leaves. Maurice is helping me, but they do take ever so long to make."
And just like that, she was gone, flitting out of the chamber like a spirit. Nerissa sighed and found that she was no longer tense or anxious. She picked up the deck of cards and began to shuffle idly. As much as Nerissa cared about the house, Elizabeth was the great weight that lay on her heart. Recovering enough of their fortune to marry her sister well would ease her mind more than anything else, and lift the shame that daily visited her over Elizabeth's diminished prospects. A good marriage for Elizabeth, she thought, and she ground her teeth with impatience. It was hers for the taking, and she intended to take it tonight.
"Oh, no, my dear. I'm afraid I no longer take spirits at all." Carlotta waved away the offered cup of wine with her tiny hand, and Nerissa returned it to the table, a little disappointed. Sometimes alcohol provided a slight edge, but Nerissa hadn't counted on it. She had her wits about her; she was alert, ready, almost eager for the game to begin.
"At my age, you know, well... certain things simply must be given up." Carlotta grinned knowingly, and Nerissa politely chuckled in response, although she really had no idea how old this strange woman was. Merely that she had passed "ancient" some time ago, but had not yet arrived at "dead."
"So." Nerissa smiled. "What shall we play? First Light? Destiny? Wild Geese, perhaps?" Nerissa secretly hoped for Wild Geese, as she was particularly adept at the rapid bidding and counter-bidding of the Kehjistani game. But she was prepared to play any of them, or for that matter, any game her guest might suggest.
"Oh no. Wild Geese is far too fast paced for me. I prefer something simpler. Very simple." She nodded her head as if in agreement with herself, and Nerissa waited to hear the game. She began to feel the tension rise again and took a sip of wine.
"But first," Carlotta rasped, her hands gripping the head of an ebony cane that seemed far more than necessary to support such a frail body, "the stakes. We must discuss"—and here, she appeared to harden slightly, to contract in upon herself in some unnatural way—"the stakes."
Nerissa finished the cup of wine and fumbled it back to the table. She picked up the velvet box, displaying it proudly, and opened the top. The contents glittered. "I have my jewelry," she replied with as much dignity as she could muster, "and some of these pieces have been in my family for generations. This one, for example"—and she lifted out a filigree comb of spun gold with a single large sapphire—"was given to my grandmother on her wedding day. Or this," she said as she carefully withdrew a stiletto, the sheath dotted with three rubies, "was kept by my great-uncle when he was at court. It's really just a showpiece, but he fancied himself quite the soldier." She laughed self-deprecatingly but found herself in an unsettlingly steely gaze from Carlotta. She returned the knife to the box and waited for the old woman to speak.
"No," the crone breathed, her eyes never leaving Nerissa's. "No, I think we should play for more... significant stakes." She waved away Nerissa's stammering objection with a tiny movement of one hand. "I think we should play for the most significant stakes of all. What, my dear, would you want more than anything else in this world?"
Nerissa hesitated, unsure if the old woman was mad, jesting, or something else entirely. Was this her way of offering to pay off the family debts altogether? Nerissa's head swam with the possibilities.
"Before you answer, mind that you be careful what you ask for. The things we want often have a way of turning themselves against us." Carlotta smiled, and Nerissa realized with a flash that this was a test. Of course. The old woman wasn't just offering to take care of the debt; she was testing Nerissa to see what she would say. She crafted her answer meticulously, as if it were the heartfelt longing of a loyal wife and not a calculated economic decision.
"I would see my dear husband, Ashton, return. Sober, reformed, and with all his wealth." She tried to make the last sound like an afterthought instead of her most desperate desire.
"Very well, dear. And in return? What is your most valuable possession? What has always been at your inmost core and is yours alone to give away?"
Nerissa, who fancied herself rather quick at riddles, almost burst out with, "My heart," as the obvious answer. But the thought of this decrepit old thing claiming her heart nearly made her laugh out loud.
Instead, she considered the odd gleam in Carlotta's eye and hesitated again. What would be the best answer? It came to her, and she favored Carlotta with an ingratiating smile of indulgence, as one might give a child who was asking for a treat before dinner.
"I would have you choose, of course. Against my deepest desire, I wager anything of mine which you would have."
"Done," Carlotta shot back, almost before Nerissa finished. The sharpness of her agreement startled Nerissa, and the hardness in her eye seemed to deepen to a metallic spark for just an instant. Or did it? Nerissa caught herself and poured another cup of wine. This old woman was playing tricks with her mind. Or, more likely, sheer stress and anxiety, coupled with the breathtaking prospect of paying off the family's debts, were simply agitating her nerves. She looked closely at Carlotta and saw nothing but doughy-soft cheeks and the deeply etched lines of a plump face accustomed to smiles and laughter. Nerissa chided herself for thinking evil of the woman. A little off-kilter she might be, but this was her soon-to-be savior, a harmless elderly eccentric, and if she wanted to play for imaginary stakes before bestowing her fortune on Nerissa and Elizabeth, so it would be. She would sing nursery rhymes and play pat-a-cake if that was what the old fool desired. So long as there were gold and silver at the end of it.
"Very well, then." Carlotta reached out for the cards, deftly cutting them with one hand. "It shall be a simple game. I shall draw a card, and then you shall draw a card. We shall continue until each has three. Then we shall reveal our cards one at a time." She nodded to Nerissa as if questioning whether she was following. "By the end, whoever holds the highest card wins."
What was this? Nerissa was more certain than ever of the old woman's dotage. This was no game of skill; this was mere luck. Was she to gamble her family's remaining fortune on the turn of a card? Everything about Carlotta had suggested that she was looking for an invigorating game, but this was no more than a foolish bet on random chance. Still—she was the one with the fortune to dispense or withhold, and Nerissa was going to do everything in her power to humor her.
"High card wins. Certainly." She gestured for Carlotta to draw a card. The old woman nodded her head gently, the snow-white curls bobbing slightly, and reached forward to take a card. Nerissa followed suit, and soon each had three cards face down on the table before them. Without a word, Carlotta turned over her first card.
"Oh, drat," she muttered, and giggled like a child. The card was the three of crowns, not likely to win the game. She stared at Nerissa with eager eyes, her hands bunched in her lap. A little unnerved by her ardor, Nerissa turned over her first card, anxious to get the game over with so that they might get down to the real business at hand, and revealed the twelve of serpents. Not a bad card at all.
Carlotta whipped over her next card, the seven of serpents, and looked up at Nerissa again with those burning, eager eyes. Nerissa hesitated; there was no thinking to be done, no strategy, but still, she did not like the idea of blindly flipping cards until the game was over. She deliberated between her two remaining cards and finally turned over the eight of lions.
She relaxed slightly. This was foolish. A foolish game, foolish stakes, and a foolish old woman, but the real game—the real stakes—could not be more serious. Nerissa considered how to make her next move after the game was over. She had always been skilled at reading the faces and judging the behavior of her opponents, and she scrutinized Carlotta now as the old woman's hand hovered over her last card.
Nerissa gasped involuntarily when she saw the empress of crowns. That would be hard to beat. Carlotta looked up from the card, a gleam that bordered on the predatory in her eye. Nerissa drew back, then composed herself. What madness was this? Here sat a darling old woman, poised to bestow a fortune on her family, and here Nerissa was, treating this game of imaginary stakes as if it mattered. She laughed, and smiled at her benefactor. "Well, you certainly have the advantage now, my dear. Let's see what I can come up with..."
When Nerissa saw the empress of stars, she felt a palpable wave of relief wash over her. Carlotta merely clucked her tongue and immediately gathered herself together and rose. Nerissa didn't even have time to suggest a second hand before the woman had excused herself and left the chamber. Nerissa chased after her, half-frantic that she had somehow offended her or missed her chance.
"Well played, my dear. I shall show myself out." Carlotta didn't even look back over her shoulder, and Nerissa tried to keep the pleading tone out of her voice but failed.
"One more hand, surely? You almost had me there. Perhaps a cup of Kehjistani white? Or a—"