Fiction Week: New York Hold ’em

I am on a plane to London, where I will be doing a signing from 6-7pm this evening at The Forbidden Planet! I hope to see some of you there! And that means today’s story is getting posted early, and tomorrow’s will probably be late, ’cause I don’t get back to Ireland until mid-afternoon.

All right, all right, we’re starting to get to what you all really wanted in the first place, right? A story of the Old Races, just for you. :)

New York Hold ’em

Her ears and nape are cold. Neither the diamonds on her lobes nor the mink at her throat do much to warm her; there’s something in the difference between upswept hair and locks cropped short that lets the chill creep down her spine and leave her fingers bloodless. Women have worn their hair long her entire life. Embracing the daringly short new style is, to be honest, unlike her, which may be part of why she’s done it. That, and the blunt cut suits her angular face: she looks a little like a film star now, and glamour has never been something she’s aspired to. She finds it appealing, in a transient way. Time will bring her back to a more customary look; that much, at least, she’s already learned.

There’s a thin blue smoke in the room, enough of it to suggest a fire to take away her chill. But the heat here is electric, stolen from the city above, and the smoke is an affectation of the man who designed this room.

Everything about it is sumptuous: thick carpets, expensively upholstered chairs, rosewood and mahogany tables. The colors are red and gold, colors of warmth themselves, and the lights set into curving walls offer a cheery ambience. She could seat herself at one of the tables near a heater, entertain herself with the chess set, its pieces carved of ivory and ebony, whose game has been left to wither. Instead she stays where she is, a little too cold, examining one stained glass window and then another.

The speakeasy is an unnatural place for such art. Tens of feet beneath the surface, there’s no sunlight to spill through them and cast their colors on the carpeted flagstone floor. The architect has made allowances for this, has built electric lights behind the windows to illuminate them so they become more than dull colors bent inside the walls of an abandoned subway station. She wonders what will happen when the lights burn out, if there’s a way to reach them, or if they will be allowed to remain nothing more than blackened memories of what was once a brilliant pastiche.

The very mortal part of her, the dour aspect which accepts death as an inevitable part of life, whispers that such an end might be ironically fitting, reflecting in glass what is almost certain to be the fate of the Old Races.

“Vanessa, join us?”

For a moment she doesn’t answer, though her heartbeat jumps the same way it always does when she hears her name unexpectedly from that smooth voice. For a moment she pretends he won’t have heard it, and keeps her gaze on the stained glass.

She is the only human being who has ever seen the windows as they are meant to be, a layered tapestry depicting five immortal, inhuman peoples. A sinuous dragon winding its way around the outer border; the long-extinct selkies built into the ocean’s blue. Temperamental djinn at the sea’s shore, rising in dune-colored dervishes, and a gargoyle’s hunched grey form where beach turned to mountainous earth. Behind them all, hardly more than a murmur of black lines, was a man in a segmented cloak who was no man, but a vampire, whose true form no one lived to report.

The vampires, it was said, did not come from this world at all, and Vanessa Gray turns now to acknowledge the one who told her that, and who has invited her to their game.

“Winner takes all,” Eliseo says gamely, and Janx, the jade-eyed dragonlord, snakes out a long leg to snag the crosspiece of a nearby chair and drag it to their table. He even pats the seat, and offers a wink meant two parts in jest and one part in calculation: she has spent nearly forty years at Eliseo Daisani’s side, and if Janx can woo her away even now, then he will win another mark in their endless battle of wits, finances and lust.

“I’m very bad at card games, Eliseo. You know that.” Vanessa comes to sit with them regardless, taking her place as one of five at the small round table. Lazy, insouciant Janx is to her right; small dapper Eliseo, less handsome but equally compelling, is to her left. There’s no subtlety in placing herself there; it says she is his right hand, but no one in this room would doubt that anyway, not even the men across the table.

Vanessa has only come to know them recently. One is a djinn, a master of wind and glassworking genius; the other is a gargoyle with a heavily scarred face and the strength and stoneworking capability to have made the subway speakeasy a place of sealed-off, remote beauty.

They are all, Vanessa assumes, terrible cheats at cards. Eliseo’s impossible speed could allow him to look at every card on the table without anyone being the wiser, while the blue smoke sailing from Janx’s nostrils (whether his cigarette is lit or not) is distraction enough should he wish to work a bit of slight-of-hand. The djinn can become incorporeal and drift unseen around the room; there is no guarantee, certainly to her dull human senses, that there is not a second such creature in the room, observing the hands that have been dealt and whispering them on a breath of wind to his compatriot.

The gargoyle, she admits after a moment’s consideration, may not be well-suited to cheating. His people are supposed to be honorable–honorable to the point of irritation, to hear Janx tell it–and though she understands that their stony race can use a kind of mental sharing between one and another, a second gargoyle in the room could not go unnoticed. It’s possible that of the five players, Vanessa and the scarred man called Biali are the only two who will not be cheating.

It is likely, in fact, because of the five players, she suspects only she and Biali are uninterested in the outcome.

“I’ve nothing in the pot,” she says even so. “Are you sure you want to play it winner takes all?”

“I’ve seen you play cards,” Janx says drolly. “I think it’s a safe risk.”

Her heartbeat jumps again. After forty years, it shouldn’t, not anymore, but even after all this time, it seems the slightest reminder of her mortality, her presumed inferiority, her humanity–even in teasing, even as a joke–still stings. She was fifteen and in pinafores when she met Eliseo Daisani; twenty-three when she learned his secrets and the world he belonged to, and became his life-long companion. In all those years she has never imagined herself to want to be like him, but only to share the life he knows. And yet the needle pricks sharp and deep when she’s obliged to face any comment that she isn’t one of the Old Races, and never will be.

Someday, she realizes in a rare moment of clarity, someday this truth will make her bitter.

“Your deal,” Janx says, and offers her the deck of cards.

Her fingers are clumsy and thick as she shuffles, then deals out the deck. It’s partly that her hands are cold, partly that she can’t help remembering the slick swift sounds of Janx’s own dealing; in comparison, even the most skilled of human dealers are slow and numb-fingered. Janx, imagining he is doing her a favor, glances away as if to avoid pointing out her awkward deal.

Across the table, the djinn’s lip curls as he regards his cards. Vanessa might think it a tell, except she’s rarely seen another expression on Tariq’s face. His is the quintessential lemon pucker even at the best of times, as though such expressions had been invented to accommodate him and him alone.

The gargoyle, of course, is impassive. A poker face worthy of the phrase, which almost brings a smile to Vanessa’s lips. She has no idea if he wants the thing they play for; he has certainly put as much time and work into the speakeasy as any of them, but gargoyles are creatures of mountaintops and the sky. Had she wings, Vanessa would not want to live under the earth.

Janx and Eliseo are uninterested in the other two; the game is between them, as far as they’re concerned. It always has been and always will be, long after the vitality supped from Daisani’s blood has left Vanessa dead and ashes. She lifts her cards with that thought in mind, wondering, as she sometimes does, how many years two sips of a vampire’s blood allows a mortal woman.

More than a century: that much is clear. She was born before the War Between the States, though it broke out only a few weeks after her first birthday. She is over sixty now, and looks hardly older than she did the day she drank of Eliseo’s gift. One sip for healing, he told her; two sips for life.

Three for death.

The cards are a blur of hearts and diamonds, red as blood as she places them face-down and deals new cards to the men who have, as it were, discarded theirs. Tariq is an impatient player, demanding four new cards; Janx, whose very personality bubbles over with acquisitive eagerness, only asks for one. If Eliseo is cheating, there should be a breeze from his motion, a ruffling of the cards or a stirring in the air. Perhaps he’s decided not to in light of her own incapability. Even her heartbeat, so mercurial and alive, could give away the strength of her hand. In that light, the fact that it betrays her so often may be a gift; perhaps there’s no telling a thump of excitement from a crash of desire.

The gargoyle asks for two cards; Vanessa passes them over with the unguarded idea that he, the other party who seems uninterested, holds a handful of dark suites to complement her bright ones. Eliseo declines new cards altogether: either he is confident or he is cheating after all. Vanessa discards and collects two for herself, and coughs lightly on Janx’s exhalation of smoke. He puts a hand over his heart and offers a mocking seated bow, a pretense at apology that amuses her, though she doesn’t let a smile curve her lips.

“Fold,” Biali says in disgust. Vanessa is caught unawares, blinking wide-eyed at the scarred gargoyle as he throws his cards down. She had decided this game was between him and her, in the same way Janx and Eliseo played no one but each other. She wonders, briefly, where Tariq fits into these unlikely alliances; it seems no one has partnered him.

This, she thinks, is why the Old Races are dying, but it’s not a thing she would say to any of the men she shares a table with. They’re right not to trust humanity, and they deny their natural alliances with one another.

She believes she has many decades to live, maybe even centuries, but if the vampire blood that runs through her veins is kind, Vanessa will die before the last of the Old Races does. She would not wish solitude on anyone, least of all the dark-haired vampire who has been the center of her life for forty years, but even less would she wish it on herself. It is small and petty, but it’s easier to think of Eliseo Daisani going on without her, than of herself going on without him.

“Fold,” Tariq says after a much longer silence, and the look he gives Vanessa is poison, as though he suspects her of deliberately giving him poor cards. She tries to imagine, briefly, how she might have succeeded in doing that without his superhuman senses catching it, and then puts the worry away.

Eliseo and Janx are watching each other like predators, neither willing to lay his hand down prematurely. She has seen this time and again over the decades, whether in cards or at the horses or in building empires and watching as they crumble down.

And yet, even after so many years of observing them, she can’t see the moment of exchange, the instant of unspoken agreement that lets them move in tandem and spread their cards on the table. They do not give way to one another, these two not-men, and their ability to dance around the point of concession is a thing of legend, at least to Vanessa’s mind.

She looks to Eliseo’s cards first, naturally; he is, after all, her lover and her friend, and his hand is a very good one. Good enough that she understands why he risked taking no cards. In a game with five players, a full house is more than a safe bet: even Vanessa, who professes to know little of card games, knows that. Eliseo displays nines and sevens, three of the higher cards and two of the lower.

Janx, though, has lain down a straight flush.

For an astonished moment they all stare at his cards, a glittering row of red diamonds numbering five through nine. Triumph flashes through the dragonlord’s jade eyes, his charmer’s smile laced with avarice. “It’s only fair,” he says in a tone Vanessa recognizes as meaning to be magnanimous, “that we should all make use of this place we’ve created together. You are all welcome here any time, of course.” Welcome, but at Janx’s leisure: it is a draught he enjoys drinking of.

“Forgive me,” Vanessa murmurs, and watches both her lover and his rival turn surprised gazes on her. They’ve forgotten she’s playing, just as she dismissed Tariq only moments ago.

With a heart-pounding glee she barely remembers from childhood, she places her cards on the table in a fine, carefully spaced arc.

The ace of hearts, and its king. That card is Eliseo Daisani, in Vanessa’s world, and when she dares she imagines herself the queen lying alongside it. The jack that sandwiches them is the son they’ll never have, and the ten which completes the royal flush is a number, nothing more, like the ageless years she’ll have with her immortal lover. “Forgive me,” she murmurs again, “but I believe the speakeasy is mine.”


Months later, visiting her subway sanctuary, her hands are once again cold. She sits at the card table and makes a mess of shuffling the deck, thick clumsy fingers full of awkward motions. She remembers the uncomfortable air that surrounded her as she dealt cards to the men who’d built the speakeasy, and feels a warm blush come to her cheeks at the recollection.

She remembers, too, the grandfather who played at cards and magic tricks when she was a child, a man whose livelihood came from the skill to distract as much as to shuffle a deck. She turns her cuff up to consider how an astonished dragonlord and a delighted vampire never thought to check her sleeves after she’d taken their prize away from them, and smiles.

After all, she is only human, and could never manage to cheat the Old Races.

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