“It’s a pretty near thing, Nicolette. A pretty near thing.” Cédric mumbled to a bare skull in an alcove, the half-dead candle encrusting its forehead giving off barely enough light to fill the corner of the old storeroom. The skull was not Nicolette’s; just a placeholder. Everything was a placeholder for his sister, these days. Even here, in the back room of a crumbling tavern, he could see her face. He could stitch it over any skull, see it lurking in any shadow.
The needle in Cédric’s ring bit deep into his arm, a pain so familiar now that it was a dull kind of pleasure, like the scratching of an itch. The blood flowed easily, and he caught it in a little pewter mug designed for that purpose—the sixth time he’d filled it in the past few hours. He passed an eye over the other wounds that tracked up and down his forearm. A near thing indeed. How much more of him could be drawn away before he finally died? His life seemed to have become an experiment in the limits of loss. He could hear his pulse thrumming in his ears; his feet felt light on the floor, like he might float away.
But if he was to play, he needed the blood.
And there was nothing else for Cédric but to play.
He poured the little cup of blood, hands shaking, into a glass phial, which he quickly stoppered. “Enough, you think?” he asked the skull.
The skull had no opinions. Neither, for that matter, did Nicolette. Not anymore.
Could he stand? If he fainted now, that would be the end of him. He’d wind up another bleached skull in some other forgotten nook to hold some other guttering candle. He tested his legs, keeping a hand on a cobweb-strewn rack of ancient wine long since reduced to vinegar. He stood. There was a moment of dizziness, but it passed. He took a deep breath. “Time to go, Nicolette,” he whispered. “They won’t wait forever.”
The common room of the Palace of Bones was no less neglected than its storeroom. A bar, thick with a carpet of dust. Chandeliers draped with spiderwebs, and tables broken and chairs splintered by some brawl that likely happened in the time of Cédric’s grandfather. He stepped over a skeleton in a moldering apron and headed to the big center table.
There, the dead waited for him. Three ghosts and wight, each with piles of silver coins, faintly glowing vials of trapped souls, and stoppered bottles of human blood in front of them. Cédric’s blood.
“Here I am, your excellencies!” He tried to sound cheerful. It was difficult.
The ghosts turned their ethereal heads to gaze at him with empty eye-sockets. These were defined wraiths—Cédric could see their clothing and their arms and their faces, all tattered and fluttering in an invisible current, as though sitting at the bottom of the sea. Two of the wraiths didn’t matter—mid-level goons in the syndicate, probably run-of-the-mill murder victims. The third was Mournful Tara, a Fetch for the Weeping Queen. In undeath, Tara was a professional killer, as sleepless as she was remorseless. Who she had been in life and what her life had been, Cédric did not know. She wore the tattered garb of a priestess for a long-dead religion, her face a skeletal ruin.
The wight—a blackened, armored hulk—kicked out Cédric’s chair for him and rapped the table with a gauntleted hand. When it “spoke,” it was in Gesture, as it had neither vocal chords nor the quintessence needed to form speech from will alone. Its fingers jerked through a simple phrase: Took you long enough, boy.
Cédric nodded and did his best to grin as to a friend, though nothing in the cold distant sparks in the wight’s empty eye sockets gave off any real affinity. The wight, though, was key to his plan, and it always paid to be nice to a mark. “Many apologies, sir. Took a while to hunt for the proper vein.”
Mournful Tara’s voice was powered by her quintessence—the only thing ghosts still had that resembled life. Her words were like a trickle of ice water on the back of Cédric’s neck. “Let us see the blood.”
“Of course, of course.” Cédric placed the newest phial on the table where they all could see. They all leaned over, gazing at it with their unblinking, hollow eyes. Pathetic things, the living dead—always hungering for what they had lost and could never get back.
I think I might understand them, Nicolette, he said to himself.
With a gesture of Tara’s hand, a bloodstained deck of cards slid across the table to him. “The deal is to you, my quick.” Quick—the pet name the undead sometimes used for the living. Cédric just then felt anything but.
“I’m not yours yet, milady.”
“So you say.” Though her ruined face did not permit a smile, Cédric had sat around enough card tables to know when he was being taunted.
Tithe was a game played on a five-pointed star, this one drawn in blackened streaks of long-dried gore. Cédric took his phial of the fresh stuff and placed it in the center—his ante for the round. Besides this, he had precious little—a sad little pile of tarnished silver coins, shaven and battered by decades of abuse. His four undead competitors drew from their own substantial piles and matched him, as they had to—four more bottles of his own blood, taunting him.
Everything on the table was illegal. Silver was proscribed by the Blood Lords of L’Ombre, for obvious reasons—it was a potent weapon against the unliving—and blood? Well, blood was life, and that made it a controlled substance in a city ruled by the bloodless dead. Games like this were run by the ghosts and their criminal syndicates as a way to get what they were forbidden to have. The living who played them only had two ways out—take the table full of illegal riches or die trying.
For all his desperate positioning, for as close as he was cutting it, Cédric did have a plan. Cheating the dead was impossible, it was said—they never blinked, they were tireless, their eyes saw everything, and you always had to play with their cards in the place of their choosing—all ancient and beyond your reach. You couldn’t work with a second, you couldn’t false deal. Even marking the cards was near impossible—the blood-flecked cards the undead used were too messy in design to resolve any marks in the dim light the ghosts preferred. The only thing they lacked?
A sense of touch.
The cards were crisp, almost brittle in Cédric’s hands; he ran his thumbs along the corners as he shuffled, feeling where he’d marked them during the game with the same needle in his ring he’d used to draw the blood to let him keep gambling. It all came down to this hand, this moment. The moment he was going to cheat the dead at their own table.
Here goes nothing, Nicolette.
He handed the deck to the wight, who cut it in a few rigid, mechanical motions, then it was on Cédric to deal.
Cheating at Tithe was how he and his sister had survived childhood, each of them practicing for hours, inventing new ways to trick each other—palming cards, marking them, dealing from the bottom of the deck, playing all manner of mind games that, when applied to the average lunk-headed brute on the sunless streets of L’Ombre, would mean enough money to feed themselves another day, another day out of the orphanages and away from the gaze of their vampiric masters.
The saying went that there were no good lives in L’Ombre, just advantageous deaths, but death was never a concern to the young. Cédric and Nicolette slept in dry aqueducts and crept through rotting alleys, daring one another to greater feats. A charmed life, in some respects—free and clear of the blooded houses and the Church of Ascension. They traded silver they won off the wights of the Legion Invincible to the wraiths of the ghost syndicates in exchange for the bottled souls of the lost, which they then traded to mortals for food and clothing and shelter. They floated just beneath the surface of L’Ombre’s vampiric society—not so deep they were forgotten and lost, but not so shallow some blood lord could look down and gobble them up.
The trick had always been to know how far to push any particular scam. If you won a couple key hands and came out ahead, people just thought you were good or maybe lucky. But if you won too much, well, that was it for you. Word got around. He and Nicolette had lost a lot of friends that way—caught by the Church, their souls shrived from their bodies and reduced to some mindless husk left shoveling shit and dragging wagons until decay rotted them into oblivion.
Then he’d lost Nicolette that way, too.
Found her, chained by the neck, eyes blank, clearing the debris from a collapsed bridge under the guidance of a harrow’s hook. That had been a month ago, now. No, two. It was hard to tell; time behaved differently when pieces of you were missing.
“Well?” Mournful Tara asked. Cédric realized he’d paused in his dealing.
“Sorry,” he said, “Just... just a little dizzy.”
The wight reached over and clapped Cédric hard on the shoulder. It signed do you wish to take a break? The green sparks that floated in the depths of its empty eye-sockets didn’t leave Cédric’s face.
It had taken Cédric a while to figure out the wight and its presence here, but now he thought he knew. Cédric’s almost foolhardy determination—his desperate bets, his losing hands, his trips to back room to draw more blood—were amusing to what spare vestiges of a soul lingered in its body. To the wight, the game had become a show, with Cédric as hapless protagonist. That meant Cédric’s performance was working.
It was an old con but one of the best ones: when you were an outsider at a table, find another outsider and make a friend. Somebody who would back you up when things went sideways. In a few minutes, Cédric suspected things would do just that.
Cédric finished dealing, taking mental note of the cards he dealt each player, and then laid five cards on the intersections at the center of the five-pointed star, called the Circle. He had a poor starting position—weak cards faced him at his end of the pentacle, the Two of Skulls and the Four of Swords. The kind of Circle that made good players fold rather than lose more money. The five phials of Cédric’s blood at the center, though, were not as easily replaced as silver.
Tithe was a game of conquest. You played cards on the Circle, trying to match or beat them with dominant or servile suits. The rules were complex, but the goal was simple: to box out the players to your right or left by “conquering” their cards with cards that they couldn’t match or beat, which forced them to fold. In the end, when no more cards could be played, those left claiming points in the Circle split what was left of the pot. The trick was always how far to push your luck, how far to raise the stakes, since one never knew whether the other players were sitting on one key card that would knock you out and lose you everything.
The difference here was that Cédric at this point had marked just about every card in the deck. He knew what everyone had. He knew—with the certainty born of a lifelong player—how the conquest would proceed. He only had to leverage that knowledge into a winning hand.
Bets began to Cédric’s left. The wight made a modest opening bet in keeping with its modest hand. The first of the ghosts folded with an echoing curse, their hand affording them poor options. Mournful Tara matched the opening bet and raised—her hand was good, Cédric knew—and the second ghost matched, adding a little stack of silver to the pot at the center.
“You should fold.” Tara said to Cédric.
He elected to match the bet, though, which cleared out most of his remaining funds. A pair of sad little coins remained to him, the barely visible profiles of long-dead kings staring at each other, as though wondering how they had come to this.
Play began with the wight.
He and Nicolette had split up for the day, Cédric remembered. They shared a seaweed cake in a dank little alcove beneath a decrepit dock, the black waters of the bay lapping at the stones beneath their feet. Some fleshsmith had taken ill to his fleecing a week ago and had been on the lookout for them, paying harrows to send their packs of husks shuffling around, mumbling the aliases they’d given him when they’d pulled the con.
“He’s looking for two people,” Cédric had said, “not one. You head down the docks and I’ll play the bars. If we’re not together, we’re not who he’s looking for.”
Nicolette giggled. “I always said you were good with numbers.”
Cédric smiled—his sister’s best trick was pulling a smile even in the direst of places. And as all of L’Ombre was a dire place, life with her was a perverse joy. Cédric had revisited that parting, that paltry breakfast, a thousand times. He heard her laughter in his dreams. He remembered her little wave. “See you later tonight! Be safe!”
He’d scoffed at her. In twenty years of life, when had he not been in danger? When hadn’t she? Danger was their natural state; safety would have been an aberration. He knew now that it wasn’t what she had meant. She had meant “come back to me.”
The remaining players dropped their first two cards on the Circle, conquering and burying their opposition, wresting control of the game in their favor. Cédric had dominant suits over the wight, which let him capture a few of the wight’s lower cards. Tara was the winner of the opening rounds, establishing strong control of two points on the Circle, the other three players with one each.
Play paused for another round of bets. The wight folded, not liking what it saw. Its dry joints creaked as it laid its cards facedown on the table. The bet went to Tara.
“This could be the end of you, you know,” she seemed to whisper in his ear. “You don’t have the cards to win. You know it.” Her hollow eyes were fixed on him.
“Do it,” said one of the wraiths, their voice like an echo in a stone stairwell. “Let’s end this. I want him.”
Cédric shrugged. “I could always go get more blood.”
“Not in the middle of a hand! No! No!” The second wraith moaned. It clutched its throat with rotting fingers, its bloated lips barely shaping the words.
Tara ignored them both—her words only for Cédric. “Don’t end your life that way, my quick. Not by crouching in a dusty closet, bleeding yourself dry for silver. Die at the table. Die a man.”
Cédric smiled at her. “What do you know about how best to die? You’ve only done it the once.”
The wight thumped the tabled with a gauntlet. Good one, it signed. Don’t give the wisps the satisfaction.
“I want to see him wriggle,” said one of the wraiths. “I want to see him beg, Tara. Please?”
Cédric ignored them, too. It was easy to ignore the dead—they gave you no sense of being with another. They were silent and empty—voids more than presences. He kept his attention on Tara, sweat trickling into the small of his back, the dusty room about them turning slowly, as though he might pass out right then. Do it, he said to himself, echoing the wraiths. Do it, you dried up old nun.
Mournful Tara spread her skeletal arms, and the whole of her winnings slid slowly into the center of the table. There were Cédric’s two other vials of blood, there was enough silver to keep him eating well for half a year, there was the glittering phial of a captured soul, more valuable than the rest combined.
The second wraith folded. Cédric tossed his two pieces of silver into the center of the table. “All in.”
“Not enough,” said Tara.
“I’m good for it.”
“Collateral?” the fetch asked.
Cédric licked his lips. “Myself.”
Cédric knew what had happened to Nicolette. Not the details, not the way it had gone down, but he knew. Seen it before, to others. He knew that scream—that long, final scream—as the shriving hook yanked the soul from the body, congealing it into a glowing syrupy mass of pure light. And afterwards, the hollow sound of the new husk’s hard breathing steadily slowing as that last thrill of vitality—the panic at their shriving—ebbed from them, forever.
Cédric tried not to imagine it happening to Nicolette. Couldn’t imagine it, really. The two things—the dancing sparkle of his sister’s smile and the hollowed gray of a husk—could not be reconciled together. He had searched for her, hoping to be proven wrong. Instead, he was proven right.
The harrow that had purchased her was named Abram Sharpe. A thick, heavyset man was Sharpe, reeking of fish oil and shoe-polish, his greasy hair plastered over his balding pate. “I take the very best care of my husks,” Sharpe told him calmly, even though Cédric had a knife under the table, tickling the crucial artery in Sharpe’s thigh. “But you understand there’s nothing I can do, sir. I didn’t shrive your sister’s soul—I merely purchased her husk. If you kill me, you’ll join her, and both of you may be sold to a much more careless owner.”
Cédric, a little drunk, and pale and sweating like someone half-drowned, managed to croak, “I don’t care.”
Sharpe speared a little hunk of crab meat from his plate and popped it in his mouth. He had experience with desperate people; it showed. “We can make an arrangement, I’m sure.”
The details were simple, and the best Cédric could hope for. He paid Sharpe to keep Nicolette’s husk “in reserve.” She was in a little attic room in Sharpe’s house with a mattress of dried seaweed. Here Cédric could visit whenever he liked.
Husks were devoid of all the instincts that kept people alive, short of breathing. They were aptly named, standing listless until prodded or ordered to do something. Left on their own, they would neither eat nor drink. They soon became blind from a lack of blinking. They developed injuries that festered and soon killed them. Even the well cared for would “wear out” in a few years, working tirelessly until their abused bodies died. Most of the husks one saw on the street bore little resemblance to their living selves—parchment skin drawn tight over a frame of ribs, their eyes milky, their mouths hanging open, their teeth rotted away.
Nicolette, though, was fresh. “Still vital” in the terms of the husk market. Cédric paid to keep her that way—he fed her twice a day, bathed her, kept a cloth around her eyes to keep her from going blind. He compelled her to lie in bed and rest, though true sleep would never come so long as her soul was absent. His ministrations to her were a kind of pain he had never before imagined—a prolonged, torturous grief.
Cédric became a constant visitor to Sharpe’s house. His world and all his efforts revolved around that little attic room, and the pale, listless body of his sister, staring at nothing. It was, in many ways, worse than her being dead. This was a wound that would not heal.
Sharpe and he would share a drink sometimes. Cédric knew then that Sharpe was plotting something, though he did not yet know what. He was hardly one to turn down kelp-wine, though. They would sit in Sharpe’s study—which had been his grandfather’s—full of dusty papers and candles of corpsewax, guttering in the gloom. They drank; Sharpe offered advice, usually bad. Always self-serving.
“You cannot keep going like this, Cédric.” Sharpe flipped idly through a rotten old book. Cédric wondered if he could read or if he just pretended.
“How else should I go on?” Cédric asked. “Where am I going on to?”
“You pay me to keep a dead woman alive, but she isn’t coming back. Not without a soul. Not without a fleshsmith willing to restore her soul. You know this.”
Cédric drank his sweet wine and stared into the empty eye sockets of a skull on the bookshelf. He had already taken to stitching Nicolette’s living face over the bones of the dead. He was already speaking with her, though not in the presence of Sharpe. “You telling me my money isn’t good here anymore?”
“You know, not a lot of people can play Tithe so well as to pay me what I’m charging you and eat besides.” Sharpe slowly slid the book back on the shelf.
“What are you getting at?” Cédric asked. “Spit it out.”
Sharpe shrugged. “What if I told you I knew who had Nicolette’s soul and how you could get it back?”
Cédric had a good gambler’s deadpan, so even though his heart began to race, he sipped his drink and made a show of thinking things over. “I’d ask what the catch is.”
“You’ll need to Tithe the Dead. High stakes. You keep the soul, I get the rest.”
“And a fleshsmith?”
“You need to get the soul, first.”
Sharpe had him. There was little point in denying it. “Where,” he asked. “When?”
Mournful Tara had three cards to Cédric’s five. He knew what cards they were, too—the Lord of Coins, the Six of Swords, the Five of Crowns. Since the two of them were all in, there would be no more bets—they would play their hands out to the end.
It would go like this:
Tara would take the Four of Skulls with the Five of Crowns. Cédric would lay the Nine of Coins on either the Five of Crowns or the Seven of Hearts. In either case, the Lord of Coins would come out. And then Cédric could play his Tomb of Swords—ordinarily the lowest value card in the game, but the only one that could beat a Lord—to not just beat but capture Tara’s Lord of Coins, as Coins were servile to Swords. This would put him in an unbeatable position. There was some variation, but nothing in her hand could beat that combination. With three of the five Tombs already spoken for in other players’ hands and one she’d played herself, the odds Cédric held that specific card at this specific moment were vanishingly small.
Tara played the Five of Crowns, as predicted. Cédric played the Nine of Coins. He was close. This was it.
Tara dropped the Ten of Swords. A card she did not have.
A card that meant he was about to lose.
“Wait,” he made himself blurt.
The ghosts at the table sighed like a storm wind through leaky shutters. Mournful Tara seemed to grow, looming over the table, over Cédric. “Did you think, my quick, that you were the only one here who cheats?”
Cédric felt dizzy. He pushed himself away from the table, trying to clear his head. To think straight. He was impressed—how had she done it? It didn’t matter—what mattered was his performance. What mattered is what he did now. “Now, wait a second here, you just... you cheated!”
“There it is!” one of the other wraiths moaned. “Yes! Beg! Demand another hand! Offer us moooore!”
Cédric made his chair tip over as he pushed backwards, as though caught on a warped floorboard. He flailed his arms to maintain balance but fell on his back with a thump. It hurt. “If... if you’re just going to cheat, then why do this? Why draw it out?”
The wight stood up, its mail jingling. It watched Cédric closely. All the dead did.
Mournful Tara fell over him, her whirling, translucent robes covering him entirely. Her skeletal face floated a few inches above his own—a lover, leaning down for a kiss. He shuddered, closed his eyes as he felt the chill of the grave leech the warmth from his cheeks, his nose, his throat...
She whispered in his ear, her voice like an icicle along the spine. “There is something in your struggles, my quick, that makes us remember. What it was like to live. What it was like to die. What it was like to struggle in a world with hope.”
Cédric didn’t need to act terrified—he was. He kicked his feet out, tried to push her away, but his limbs found nothing but that terrible, fatal chill. “Help!” he yelled.
Mournful Tara snickered. “Oh yesss... that’s what we’ve missed. Better than any wine I drank in life, than any lover I enjoyed. Thank you, Cédric, for so perfect a feast.”
Cédric reached out again. Not for a weapon, not for escape. He reached out to the wight.
Tara laughed with full force, now—a sound hollow and distant. An echo of an echo. She was going to draw his life from him an inch at a time and enjoy every second. Cédric knew this would happen—knew this was where it would end the moment he’d sat at the table.
Before taking Sharpe up on his offer, Cédric had done some asking around on his own. Had anyone ever managed to Tithe the Dead and live? He’d heard stories but never met a single living soul who had, nor anyone who had known someone. Everybody knew somebody who had tried and died. What did that mean, then?
That the dead cheated. Nobody won that often. Nobody. It was the win record of a careless cheater—careless because they honestly did not care. Who would bring a complaint to the ghost syndicates? What could the living do about it? When he had talked to Sharpe about this, Sharpe had said as much, “So you’re saying it’s impossible, is that it? You won’t go through with it?”
“No,” Cédric had said. “All I need is another player at that table who likes me and doesn’t like being cheated.”
“I don’t understand, Cédric,” Sharpe said, frowning. “You will be the only person at that table.”
“I never said it needed to be a person.”
The wight’s silver sword slithered from its scabbard. Its free hand made three sharp gestures. Let. Him. Go.
Mournful Tara rose from Cédric. “What?”
Cédric permitted himself a small grin. “I’m not the only one you cheated here, you know.”
Tara gazed down at him, her withered face somehow managing to display shock, after all. “You... you...”
“Got you to admit to cheating in front of a wight?” Cédric nodded. “Exactly.”
The two other wraiths took up positions on either side of Tara, facing the wight and his gleaming, deadly sword. The wight took a step in their direction. And another. When the fight came, Cédric readied himself to take advantage of the confusion. He spotted Nicolette’s soul among those piled at the center of the table. It was his polestar.
The fight didn’t come. Mournful Tara’s shriek of rage flipped the table with the sheer force of her anger, and her and her two flunkies darted from the room like an ill wind. Silver and blood and gleaming souls went scattering.
Cédric rolled onto his stomach and scrambled. There! Skittering beneath a table—Nicolette’s soul. The glow through the smoky glass was like her smile put into a bottle.
He stretched across the dusty, ruined floor, reaching, reaching. His hand closed around it.
An armored boot trapped his wrist.
The wight had its sword lined up—one strike and Cédric’s head was gone. Of the ghosts, there was no sign—only the dim green lights of the wight’s eyes were lighting the room, now. It was too dark to see what it signed, but Cédric didn’t need to see—he knew: You also cheated.
“Please,” Cédric said. “It’s my sister. You can have the rest of it—my blood, the money. Just give me back my sister. I beg you.”
The wight watched him as it had been watching him—remembering, perhaps as the ghosts had done, a time when it had been a whole being, not some half-alive thing stitched together by magic and need. No, Cedric realized, it wasn’t amusement that so entranced the wight in his struggle. It was envy. Envy of a life lived boldly. Wights had been soldiers in life—warriors, sell-swords, and champions—and here was Cédric, scrambling for a treasure, for a promise. In him, the wight perhaps saw echoes of what it had been. The sword remained steady.
“Isn’t this why you came? To taste the agony of life again, just like those old ghosts? A soul does you no good, sir, and you didn’t come for the money. Please... it—she is all that matters to me. Taste that, for once. Taste joy.”
A long silence drew out.
At length, the wight’s dry bones creaked as it lifted its foot from his arm.
Cédric hugged his sister’s soul close and staggered to his feet. The phial was warm in his hands. He kissed it, cradled it like a child. His heart, so hollow for so long, seemed to swell, pressing against his lungs, forcing tears.
The wight watched him, the green flames in its empty sockets blazing with focus. Trying to swallow this moment, this experience. Trying to remember what it had lost, so long ago.
“Thank you.” Cédric said.
The wight only nodded.
Cédric ran into the dark alleys outside. He did not look back. We did it, Nicolette! We did it!
She was not whole, true, and there were many trials yet ahead. Trails that would also have to be won with blood, wits, and desperate gambles. But for right then, Cédric was happy in the knowledge that, even if he and his sister were torn into pieces, all those pieces were once again in the same place. He felt whole, if in parts.
It was all over but the stitching.