From the author: In the game of games you might win anything from wealth to godhood, but the wise consider what they might lose.
The night had begun with shooting dice for rounds of drinks, which had progressed into a card game, which had drawn the eye of the soothsayer. Gribb’s men were by that point drunk enough to brawl. As the soothsayer settled his old bones and smoothed the rumples in his patchwork cloak, Shift-Eye and Scrawny—the two midshipmen on either side of the empty chair the soothsayer had claimed—glared at him. They were on the edge of knocking his head into his ribcage, but the soothsayer’s voice lulled away their anger.
“Strong sailing men all,” the soothsayer said, “you have crossed and re-crossed every corner of the sea, yes? Seen many things. Known many secrets. Yet are you well paid? Enough for this rowdy liquid meal, perhaps, but enough for the life you long to lead? Are you respected? Perhaps feared by those you conquer, but not respected, not truly.”
As the senior officer present, Lieutenant Gribb’s hackles rose. The man was goading them into melancholy, reminding them of the dissatisfaction suffered by all navy men. Suffered by all men and women in the world, Gribb expected, but felt most keenly by the miserable, directionless sort who so often take to sea. In the verve of drunkenness Gribb pounded his fist on the table.
“Do you mean to stir up sedition? We’re loyal men here, one and all!”
“If you say otherwise I’ll string yer guts for rigging!” roared Cudge, the saltiest and longest serving of the lot.
“Aye!” peeped Ensign Runter, who had lied about his age to join the navy. “And we’ll crack your skull off for a piss pot!”
The soothsayer ignored Runter and fixed his gaze on Gribb. His bright eyes were red around the pupil, but clear as gin.
“Oh no, lieutenant, no,” the soothsayer said. “Not sedition. What I offer is an opportunity. A game with infinite stakes, and the prospect of infinite winnings.”
Silence settled on them. The Game of Games was a rumor, whispered in every seedy inn of every port town and harbor a ship might drop anchor. A game of infinite reward, and infinite risk. A man who drew the Sun might become a god, but the Skull brought instant, gruesome death. There were other cards, it was rumored, with greater or lesser gifts and penalties, but these were the two that concerned Gribb in that quiet moment while he and his men sat in drunken contemplation of their terrifying opportunity.
“Well boys?” Gribb said at last. He was becoming paranoid that the men might think him a coward if he let one of them speak first. “The opportunity of a lifetime, eh?”
The men exchanged glances. Scrawny and Shift-Eye nodded, then broke into matching grins. They were a fun-loving sort, the first to break out dice in calm seas.
“Aw Squall God’s hoary arsehole,” snarled Cudge. “What’ve I got to lose?”
“Your life, for one thing,” snapped Quimby, the young second lieutenant. The thin mustache he insisted on wearing wiggled on his upper lip. He jabbed a finger at the soothsayer. “And if not that, then this one will take every coin in your purse, and your clothes besides!”
“Don’t be a bore, Quimby!” Gribb said. Not that Quimby was wrong to be cautious. But Gribb wasn’t about to admit that a young officer had matched him drink-for-drink only to keep a clearer head.
“Yeah! Don’t be a fart!” squealed Runter.
“See!” Cudge threw his arm out toward the little ensign, and barely missed bashing him on the ear. “Even wee Runter’s game!”
“I assure you,” said the soothsayer, “I’ll not lay a finger on any man of you, nor on any of your possessions. You play against fate itself, and against your own willingness to draw.”
“Probably isn’t the real Game of Games anyway,” muttered Shift-Eye.
“Perhaps not,” Gribb agreed. “At least let us see the cards and the field, before we decide whether or not to play. If it is all a jest, we’ll be none the worse for wear, eh? And we’re all able bodied fighting men, are we not?”
The men voiced hearty confirmation that they were indeed able bodied fighting men. Also that they were not in the least bit afraid of this little, wrinkled, strangely dressed man whose voice had a lulling cadence to it but who surely couldn’t be much of a threat to the six of them—they being, of course, able bodied fighting men.
“I still say it’s some sort of trick,” Quimby grumbled.
“There is no trick,” said the soothsayer. “Nothing is decided until you choose your card.”
They filed after the soothsayer into the claustrophobic back room. Shift-Eye and Scrawny made a show of checking the room as they entered, and even crawled beneath the table, to ensure no ambush awaited them. Satisfied, the sailors took their seats.
“Now, lay the magic circle,” said the soothsayer, and he threw the cards, each one landing directly in front of a man, each coming to rest at the same angle. It was eerie, but they all had seen the same trick at many a card sharp’s table. They said as much and exchanged encouraging glances.
“Is this my card, then?” said Quimby, goggling at the back of the card in front of him as though expecting it to leap up and shave his mustache. “If I pick this up, I’m in the game?”
“No,” said the soothsayer, and then produced the sewing needle. “If you would play the Game of Games, leave life’s blood upon the table.”
Gribb stared at the needle. It was ordinary, neither carved with runes nor dripping with poison. Yet the thought of pricking his finger with it sent a wave of nausea to swirl the beer in his gut.
“I’m sick o’ all this mystical yammering!” Cudge snapped. He grabbed the pin, jabbed his thumb, and left a crescent smear of blood in the middle of the circle. “Deal me in, y’bastard!”
Slowly and with all the ceremony of a funeral the soothsayer lifted his deck, shuffled it thrice, and set it down upon the smear of Cudge’s blood.
“Draw, if you would challenge fate.”
Cudge set his jaw, drew the top card, flipped it, and slapped it down face-up. The sailors stared at the back of Cudge’s scar-seamed hand. His forearm began to quiver. His fingers arched, pressing into the paper of the card. If it were the Skull, would it wait until he lifted his hand? He waged some internal battle, but Gribb saw only the flexing of his jaw and arm, and the arching of his fingers.
“Bloody well show us already, Cudge!” Runter peeped, his voice cracking.
“I will when I’m ready, y’bastard!” Cudge growled, then, staring down at his fingers, which were going white for pressing on the card and table, he took a deep breath and lifted his hand.
The sailors craned their necks for a look at the card. Its face was a simple woodblock print, decorated with watercolors—no fancier and no more mystical than a common playing card. The illustration was of a winged serpent, colored in faded green, coiled around a horde of gems and jewelry. Though they were uncolored, the jewels seemed to glitter in the candlelight.
“The Wyrm,” said the soothsayer. “Drawn by one who will never know an empty purse.”
Cudge burst out laughing. His hands went to his waist.
“Aye? Never know an empty purse, y’say?” he cackled, shook his head, and gave the soothsayer an accusatory glare. “I knew this was all hockum. I already lost me whole backpay dicing with these louts! Never know an empty purse…my arse!”
He tossed his deflated purse into the center of the table. It landed with a clink and rattle.
Cudge snatched up the purse and glared around the room.
“Bit a’ parlor trickery is all…” he muttered. He reached into the purse, and his eyes went wide.
He sat there, hand in his purse, saying nothing, meeting no gaze.
“Well?” said Quimby, with a quaver in his voice. “What about it, Cudge?”
“None a’ yer business!” the big sailor snarled. His hands, and the purse, disappeared beneath the table, but before he could tie it to his belt Runter had snatched it. The little ensign darted away from Cudge as quick as a fox fleeing hounds. He up-ended the purse and pulled its mouth wide open. Nothing fell. Runter shook the purse, frowning. In his hands, it was empty as Cudge had claimed.
Cudge caught Runter by the scruff of his neck, hauled him into the air, and ripped the purse from his fingers. Gold rounds, silver marks, and copper chits poured from its open mouth and tumbled clattering to the floorboards.
Slowly, Gribb’s gaze shifted from the scattered fortune to Cudge’s frightened eyes.
“So it is for him,” said the soothsayer. “How shall it be for you? Which man here next wishes to tempt fate? Let him shed blood upon the table.”
They settled back into their chairs, even Cudge, though he was tense as an anchor-line in a storm and ready to bolt for the door. What did he expect? They had seen, the purse would be empty for any other man. Gribb, for one, felt suddenly inclined towards furthering his friendship with his good mate Cudge. The only thing he felt more keenly, in that moment, was envy.
“Lucky sonofabitch!” Runter squeaked. He grabbed the needle.
“Wait!” Quimby reached across the table and caught Runter by the wrist. “Think about what you’re doing, lad! Yes, Cudge was lucky, but that deck…the Game of Games…you’ve heard the stories! What if you draw the Skull, lad?”
“If I do, I won’t hardly know it, eh?” said Runter. “But if I draw that snake thing like Cudge did, I’ll be set for life!”
“Y’can’t draw the Wyrm again, boy,” said Shift-eye. “There’s only one o’each card in the deck, I hear.”
“True ‘nough,” said Scrawny. “But there’s other good cards, eh? What about the Sun?”
“You sound as though you intend to draw!” Quimby said, horrified. “Surely there must be one evil in the deck for every good! The Skull matched with the Sun, and so on!”
Scrawny and Shift-eye frowned, exchanged a glance, and shrugged.
“Way I see it,” said Shift-eye, “each time we set sail we’re wagerin’ our lives. Ship may go down and us with it. We’re all gamblin’ men either way, eh?”
“Aye,” said Scrawny, nodding sagely. “Save setting sail promises only a chance for a bit ‘a pay and, if yer lucky, a promotion and a share o’ profits. This here,” he waved at the deck, “promises…well, everythin’!”
“If the worst thing that can happen is I die,” said Shift-eye, “but the best thing is I become a god…bleed me like a pig, I’ll take the chance!”
“Aye aye!” shouted Runter.
“Madness!” Quimby cried. His mustache quivered like a nervous inch-worm on his upper lip. “You don’t know what the worst outcome might be! We know nothing about this game, other than its incredible power.”
“Aye,” said Scrawny, “and I like what I’ve seen so far.”
Gribb sat drumming his fingers on the table, watching and listening to his men’s conversation. As the ranking officer present, he knew the course of action he ought to take. There would be no getting Cudge back on the ship, but it was his responsibility to see the rest of them returned to their duty. He ought to call an end to the Game of Games then and there. Honestly, he ought never to have let things progress this far. Responsibility and duty demanded as much, and he felt vaguely ashamed that Quimby, his second, had played the level head that night.
But the sight of all that gold and silver, still on the ground…
“I’m ending this now!” Quimby declared, rising from his chair, holding Runter by the wrist. “Men, the night is over. Back to the ship, on the double!”
Shift-eye and Scrawny grit their teeth and turned towards Gribb. He ought to say something—either to overrule Quimby, or to back him—but before he could speak Runter slammed his hand down on the pin. A great drop of blood dripped from Runter’s palm and splashed onto the table.
The soothsayer shuffled thrice, and set his deck atop Runter’s blood.
“Draw,” he said. “If you would challenge fate.”
“Haha!” Runter yelled, swiping a card before Quimby could protest.
The card fluttered, flipped in the air, and settled face-up on the table before an empty chair. Its face was blank. Quimby looked at his outstretched hand, curled as though it had been grasping something, and frowned in confusion. A chill worked its way through Lieutenant Gribb. There must have been a draft in the room that had caught the card and twirled it thus.
He wondered, for a moment, at the blank face of the card. Perhaps the cards were all blank, until drawn in their proper course during the ritual? The thought sent another chill up his spine. Though, after what he had seen of Cudge’s purse, he reasoned that nothing the soothsayer and his deck might be capable of would surprise him. At any rate, the question still stood. Would the remaining four of the five sailors play the Game of Games, or would they, as Quimby desired, return to ship, never knowing what their card might have been?
“Lieutenant?” Shift-eye said.
“Mister Quimby,” he said. “If you do not wish to play, I respect that choice. No man can force another to stake his life, not even for the prospect of infinite reward. However, neither can any man deprive another of the right to make such a gamble. No… Mister Quimby, there is no mutiny in what these men do, any more than there was in the dicing and cards we played earlier, for we are all free men who freely chose the sea, and who might freely choose some other life if the opportunity presents itself to us. So, Shift-eye and Scrawny, if you wish to draw, then draw. The same for you, Mister Quimby. I deny no man his right.”
Quimby stared in disbelief at Lieutenant Gribb, then began shaking his head slowly.
“Madness… some madness has gripped you…”
The door slammed behind Quimby, rebounding open with the force of his exit. Cudge took the opportunity to escape and dashed after him, likely never to be seen again.
“Thank you, sir,” said Shift-eye, when the echo of the door had quieted.
“Aye, well said,” said Scrawny. “But…if I might ask, sir…will you draw a card as well?”
Gribb’s heart began to race, for he had been asking himself just the same question since Cudge’s purse spilled onto the floor.
“It is an interesting problem we face, Scrawny,” said Gribb, stroking his chin in an effort to look introspective. In truth, he was paralyzed by the vastness of the danger and reward facing him. To not draw was the safest thing, to be sure. He was a well-respected man on the ship, and well liked, and would probably become captain of a ship of his own before too long. Earlier that day his prospects had felt solid, his future bright.
Yet in a single moment, in the drawing of a card, Cudge had become wealthier than Gribb could comprehend. Envy worked in him. Seeing Cudge’s fortune, he became violently dissatisfied with the life he had led thus far, and with the future he had built and imagined for himself.
“To draw is, at worst, to lose the known, finite, damnably ordinary lives we have led thus far,” Gribb mused. “At best…well, what if one of us draws the Sun, boys?”
“Aye aye, Captain!” Shift-eye said with a broad grin. “Bleed me dry if I’ll be content as a damned midshipman, while Cudge runs about in velvet and satin!” He pricked his thumb and left a smear of blood. “Deal me in, soothsayer!”
The soothsayer shuffled thrice and set his deck atop Shift-eye’s blood. When the soothsayer had said his sonorous phrase, Shift-eye drew a card, looked at it, and frowned.
“The hell is this?”
Shift-eye set the card down, face up. Its illustration depicted three old crones, spinning a great tapestry of shimmering silk. The thread from their wheel shone with every color at once. The tapestry they wove drew Gribb’s eye much as the horizon did during calm seas on a cloudless day. He might have stared forever, had the soothsayer not spoken.
“You are a man of infinite fortune,” said the soothsayer, leaning forward. “The Fates. He who holds this card may, once, rewrite the story of the world.”
“Bleed me…” Scrawny muttered. “That’s near as fine as the Sun, isn’t it?” He shook his head in wonder, and tried to meet his friend Shift-eye’s gaze.
Shift-eye’s attention fixed only on the card.
He stared at it, brow slowly furrowing, as he considered its powers. Gribb could not imagine what he would do in Shift-eye’s position. There were plenty of sad tales in Gribb’s past. That girl, back home, who had married the banker’s son. He could have her back with that card. But that was thinking small. He could make himself the son of a king. Or of an emperor! Even that was too small. A man with that card could make himself dictator of the world. Respect, admiration, wealth, and power, all at his fingertips for the taking.
What was Shift-eye thinking, as he stared at the card? Envy welled in Gribb more deeply than it ever had. What he would not give, what he would not do for that card!
“Bleed me!’ Scrawny said firmly, then pricked his finger and spread his blood. “With this string of luck, I can’t help but win! Watch, Shift-eye, I’ll get the Sun! Deal me in!”
Thrice shuffled, and placed on his blood.
“Draw, sir, if you would challenge fate.”
Scrawny drew eagerly. He turned his card with a flourish. His face went white, and his arm slack. He slumped forward, and the card fell face-up.
Gribb stared at the card and at the dead sailor on the table. Scrawny’s eyes bulged and his face was drawn and pale, as though some long sickness had taken him. But he had been hale only a breath before. Gribb felt a crawling horror in the back of his skull—even more distressing, he felt the tension building within him unwind, if only slightly. Scrawny had played before him, and likely saved his life. More, the Skull had been drawn, which meant that Gribb could not draw it himself.
“How do I use it!” Shift-eye was demanding, waving his card beneath the soothsayer’s nose.
“You are blessed among mortals,” said the soothsayer, ignoring Shift-eye to address Scrawny’s corpse. “For your suffering is brought to an early end.”
“Bleed you!” Shift-eye screamed. “I want my friend back!”
Sadness passed over the soothsayer’s face. The first expression Gribb could recall the man wearing.
Scrawny sucked air in a ragged gasp, then flailed backward, upsetting his chair to sprawl on the ground, where he lay twitching, breathing hard, and struggling to right himself.
“Scrawny!” Shift-eye’s voice was choked with relief. He fell to cradle his friend and help him to his feet. Scrawny leaned against the table. His limbs quivered and his breath came in shallow gasps, but he was alive again. His eyes, glassy a moment ago, now bright and feverish, saw the soothsayer as a man overboard sees the fin of a shark.
“Get me out of here,” Scrawny rasped. He began shuffling toward the door, dragging Shift-eye after him. He looked back at Gribb, who now sat alone with the soothsayer. “Lieutenant?”
“I’ll join you men in just a moment,” said Gribb. His heart was racing. Everything in the room became brighter, and sharper. Especially the cards in the soothsayer’s hands.
“Lieutenant,” Scrawny said desperately. “It ain’t worth it!”
“Oh, come now,” said Gribb. He glared at the sailors. “Nothing’s changed, has it? The stakes are the same as when you played, aren’t they? One bad outcome doesn’t make it any more or less rational to take the risk, gentlemen. I will join you in a moment.”
The sailors exchanged a worried glance, then left, pulling the door solidly shut behind them.
“Alright then,” said Gribb, grasping the needle. He pressed it to his thumb. A flash of panic struck him, and he nearly threw the needle aside. The Skull was gone from the deck now, lying there upon the table where it had fallen from Scrawny’s hand, and what could be worse than death to dissuade Gribb from drawing? He might draw a card opposite to Cudge’s which left his purse always drained and flat. Or perhaps find himself cursed with syphilis, or boils, or lose his mind.
No matter, he decided. None of those consequences could stand against the possibility of godhood. No threat of finite suffering could dissuade him.
He pricked his thumb. A single drop fell.
The soothsayer shuffled. Every pass of the cards set Gribb’s hair on end. He shivered as the soothsayer placed the deck. His heart pounded, his blood rushed behind his ears so loudly he did not hear the soothsayer’s words. It astonished him to see his hand reach steadily for a card. He swallowed against a stubborn lump as his fingers touched thick paper, as they pulled the card free. He gritted his teeth, turned it, and slammed it to the table.
Its illustration was simple. A man, dressed in rags and a patched cloak, with a rucksack over one shoulder and a card-box in the other hand.
The soothsayer began to cackle.
“Oh you poor, poor unfortunate…” the soothsayer said, then interrupted himself with laughter.
“What!” said Gribb. That simple drawing, though it bore no malice, filled him with dread. His imagination sought a name for the image. The beggar, to curse him with poverty? The fool, to strip his mind of reason?
“What is it?” he demanded.
The soothsayer only laughed, and he began to collect the cards scattered about the table. As the soothsayer returned his card to the deck Gribb thought for a moment—only a moment, and only a glimpse—that he recognized the face of its ragged illustration as his own.
Impossible! Some trick of the light, or his paranoid, drunken mind.
Gribb slammed his fist on the table and grabbed the soothsayer by the front of his shirt.
“Tell me!” he said.
The soothsayer shuffled the deck, then put it into a small box of balsa wood. With the cards stowed he removed his cloak and set it on the table. His clothes were all rags, and for the first time Gribb saw his drawn skin, nearly showing his cheekbones and the joints of his arms and knuckles. His eyes were bright points in deep pits. An illusion had fallen away, it seemed, with the removal of that cloak.
“What curse have you laid upon me, specter?” Gribb said, steeling himself. “Why do you unmask yourself to me?”
The soothsayer, holding his bundled cloak and cards, stepped around the table. He pressed the bundle into Gribb’s hands, showed his pitted teeth, and cackled one last time.
This story originally appeared in Flame Tree Press: Pirates and Ghosts.