Chapter 38

A Game of Chance

“L-Lady Jasmine, are you sure this is a good idea?” asked Jonas Meeray.

Chris glanced over his shoulder. “You don’t have to follow us, you know?”

But Emily knew he would. He had to keep her within range of his magic, within that bubble of obliviousness centred on his enchanted crystal, both to protect them from aethereal eyes and to stop her reaching out to others for help. It was the desperate gamble of a desperate man, hoping to outwit not just his own sultan, and not just Seelie, but a seer, a Maiden.

She touched his hand, felt the sharp spike of fear and trepidation rush up his arm. “It’s okay,” she said. “Trust me.” With each smile she cast his way, his defences weakened. Perhaps, if she wasn’t wrapped in an oversized cloak and wearing a leather tunic and trousers, if she wasn’t hiding her true face behind a bronze tan and her hair beneath blue dyes, if she could have cast aside all pretences and personas, he would have fallen by now. No one could resist a Maiden.

They reached the arena stalls just in time for the announcer’s overdramatic introductory speech. It was supposedly the biggest match of the week and the first time Giovanni Veres had thought to challenge a newcomer since his famous no-damage victory over Emmanuel Beckwith five months previous.

A ‘no-damage victory’, that was, in a children’s card game.

“That’s pretty impressive,” said Chris. “Beckwith’s a pro. Won the Malkuth league two years running.”

“There’s a league?” Poker she could understand—Leira had cleared out more than her fair share of grotty gambling vaults in her time—but Gods and Monsters? That colourful piece of propaganda Seelie used to attract the interest of impressionable schoolkids? “Next you’ll be telling me that have professional video game tournaments.”

“Thank the Aristocracy for blocking the Seelie sports channels,” replied a deadpan Chris. “If you’re interested, I can sort you out a bypass when we get back to Torsten.”

“I think I’ll stick to books.”

“Books? I didn’t realise you were—” Before Chris could finish, the arena dimmed and a parade of spotlights circled the crowd before falling on an archway between the two farthest pillars. As fireworks flashed and a jaunty tune filled the stalls, a lone figure swaggered out to a collective chorus of whoops and cheers. ‘Giovanni Veres’ read the nearest screen, as it tracked his boogie down the red carpet path towards the waiting table.

Emily shook her head. It was like watching one of those embarrassing variety shows that the City put out. Her uncle had forced his nieces to sit and watch them on numerous occasions in an effort to indoctrinate them.  Alonie had developed some kind of strange, ironic love for them; Aliza had always sought escape in her own imaginary worlds.

In stark contrast to her opponent’s pyrotechnic welcome, Andromeda had to make do with a generic slice of electronic backing music and some rather pitiful sparklers. Her tailored suit didn’t go down to well with the audience, either, with a pair of men in front of Emily calling her “one of those wannabe fellas” and “a proper trait”. Not even the sight of Amanda, draped in a glittering, figure-hugging dress could deter their scorn, what with the way she slipped her arm through Andromeda’s—”bleddy bolgia-bandits,” as one of the men put it. Emily wanted to reach over and slam their heads together.

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Children’s card games are serious business!

(PS. Yes, I posted this chapter several days early, since I’m off on an adventure this weekend and scheduling multiple pages is awkward.)