by Kate Heartfield
The Jack of Diamonds went missing on a cold November night. I was the last person to see him — or at least, the last who was willing to admit it.
He was unusually grave that evening. We sat in the clearing outside his house, warming our hands at his little brazier and watching the smoke rise. The Jack gazed at the coals, his breath curling around his sharp nose, his shoulders hunched in his new, miniver-lined coat. I asked him what the matter was.
“I’m worried about an Ace I know,” he said.
He nodded. “I’m starting to think it’s all too much for her. Being a tax collector.”
“Well, of course,” I snorted. “It’s against nature, setting an Ace up in authority over her betters.” To say nothing of taxes, I thought.
“I’m not sure the Queen of Periwinkles is her better. That uppity tart. She’ll pay all right, one way or another.”
“Well, that’s not the most powerful token, to be sure,” I said, fingering the fresh lily pinned to my breast. I could smell that flower through the leaf-mould and woodsmoke, sweet and just barely distinct from each of the ten other lilies I wore on my hat and wrists. “But a Queen is a Queen and it doesn’t do to cross one. It isn’t fair, asking a poor Ace to do such work. It isn’t how things have ever been done. Tell me, is the Ace of Diamonds doing this willingly? Collecting taxes, I mean.”
“She believes she can improve her lot.”
I snorted again. “And what do you think?”
He shrugged. “In the new order, the old distinctions will pass away,” he said. “Or at least be rearranged.”
I didn’t believe he was convinced himself, but I let it drop, and drained the last of my wine. The role of the House of Diamonds in the Beasts’ attempt to rule over all the other Houses was not a comfortable topic between us. He had changed his name just a few months before, saying “Knave” was an insult now, that a more respectable title would better suit his position in what he called the new government. He wasn’t the first Knave to change to Jack but he was the first one I knew, the first one I counted as a friend, although we never used that word between us.
We had seen less and less of each other, of late.
I couldn’t see the point of shuffling off a perfectly good name. The Knave of Lilies I am now and the Knave of Lilies I will be until I die and a new baby comes squalling into the world with a wry, loner’s disposition and the Knave birthmark somewhere on its body. Mine’s on my knee. I don’t know where the Jack of Diamonds’ is but I know it looks very like mine, whatever he chooses to call himself.
It’s an insult for a reason, I’d said to him. The word follows the fact, not the other way around. If the likes of us start using the name, Jack will soon be an insult too. You can’t change your colours.
He had protested vehemently before, but as we sat outside that last night, I could see from his hangdog look he didn’t have it in him to argue. So I let it be. Perhaps that was unwise.
When I left him, he was still staring at the dying coals, his profile like a poleaxe.
This is not the first time I have recounted that conversation. But it is the first time I’ve told the whole truth about it.
In general, the more difficult a token is to obtain, the more power it conveys to its wearer. We don’t choose our tokens, alas, nor our numbers. We come into the world with them marked on our skin. Once we come of age we must all get our tokens, by hook or by crook, and keep them, or we wither and slowly die. If I failed to keep my eleven lilies fresh, a torpor would overtake me and my energy would drain away in a matter of days or weeks.
But lilies are fairly easy to grow, and those of the House of Lilies have some facility with plants. Even now, when the frost has come, I have my little greenhouse. That’s the blessing.
The curse is that my House is not very powerful. I am not the greatest scholar in the world, although my skill with illumination has won some praise. An expanse of vellum is to me a pale petal, to be touched with gold and lapis lazuli.
Physically, we draw much of our strength from the power — the rarity — of our tokens. I could probably be bested by the Three of Beasts, perhaps the Six or Seven of Diamonds, even in my younger days. It’s no small feat to tame or subdue three wild animals, or to mine, steal, or purchase a handful of diamonds. Nature compensates the members of such Houses, and they win advantage through their power, and that makes it easier for the next generation of Beasts or Diamonds to make their way.
So a visit from the Ace of Diamonds to the Knave of Lilies was not as uneven a social occasion as one might think, from rank alone.
Two days after my chat with the Jack, as I was copying a borrowed book at my little desk near the south window, the Ace of Diamonds came rapping on my door. She burst in without waiting for an answer.
“Have you seen him? Have you seen the Jack of Diamonds?”
I put down my quill and peered at her. “Not since the night before last.”
She breathed out audibly. “And what did he say? Where did he go?”
“What do you mean? He went to bed, I imagine, after I left. We had a tipple outside his cot and I went not long after sundown. Why? What’s happened?”
She pulled out a large handkerchief, blew her nose, and sank down onto my spare stool.
I had met her predecessor once or twice. A jolly fellow. Killed by a gang of Swords. That was in the bad old days, soon before the other three great Houses began offering protection in exchange for tribute, to create a kind of peace — enough peace, anyway, to allow men like me to become comfortable, and to pay little attention to politics.
This new Ace of Diamonds was a sweet-faced young woman. Her birthmark was high on her cheek: a single red diamond, like a tear. She wore her golden hair braided round her head, and dressed as a boy in a red doublet and woad-blue hose. I supposed she needed comfortable clothes for escaping unhappy taxpayers.
In the centre of her chest she had pinned one small diamond, dangling on a little silver chain, sparkling in the sunlight from my best window.
When I was growing up, it was considered gauche to display one’s tokens unnecessarily. Some of us can’t help it, of course. My lilies would be crushed if I tried to force them into bags and pockets. The Birds and Beasts go about with chattering menageries. The Queen of Beasts, they say, is followed by eleven white lions and one brown unicorn, which lays its head in her lap while she conducts her rare audiences.
And then there are the Wodewoses, dragging their slaves behind him. Carting them, sometimes. They sicken me. The Knave of Wodewoses tried to convince me once, in a tavern argument, that the wild men don’t mind being taken as tokens. And anyway, he said, what choice did their masters have? The Wodewoses couldn’t help being born to carry wodewoses any more than I could help being born to carry lilies. A fair point, although I didn’t admit as much.
Perhaps this new government could at least try to make the Wodewoses come to some kind of just arrangement with their wild men, I thought. Change is not always bad, I told myself, looking at the frightened woman with the pitiful little diamond pinned to her chest. It might not even have been her own choice, to display it that way. I wasn’t quite clear yet on what freedoms the so-called government would and would not permit.
“You might have been the last one to see him alive,” she said. “He’s gone. He didn’t show up to the moot this morning.”
“Is that so strange?”
“It’s unheard of! The King of Beasts himself presides, you know. The Jack would never dream of missing it if he were alive and well. When he failed to appear for the moot, the King went red in the face and sent the Four of Beasts and the Nine of Diamonds to his house to see if he were sick, or in his cups, or what. But they said his place was neat as a pin, and that there was no sign of him. His fire was cold.”
I considered this. The Knave of Diamonds, in all the years I had known him, had never been a man to travel, and never a man to take a foolish risk. He was careful and cunning. Loyal enough, in his guarded way, to his King and Queen, to his House, to his few friends. Loyal as a Knave could ever be; we look after ourselves first, and always have. He was mistrustful to a fault with everyone else.
But that was the Knave, and now he was a Jack. Did it make a difference after all?
“I’m sure he’ll turn up,” I said, not bothering to try to make it convincing.
The Ace made an exasperated noise. “What did he say the night before last? What did he talk about?”
I rubbed my chin, pretended to try to remember, to give myself time. I didn’t want to hurt the girl’s feelings. No need to tell her the parts about herself, about how he implied she wasn’t up to the job.
“We talked a little about books, as we usually do. And about the gambols the Knave of Cups is planning for the winter feast. And of course we talked a little about politics. Tell me. What are you worried has happened to him, exactly? Do you believe he’s dead?”
She nodded, glumly. “Or soon will be. Because if he’s left, you see, he’s a traitor. The King of Beasts will believe he’s gone over to his enemies.”
Neither of us acknowledged that I might well be counted among the enemies of the King of Beasts, at least by association.
The four most powerful Houses — the four most vicious Houses, some would say, depending on who was listening — had been jostling each other for position for years now. Beasts. Wodewoses. Hearts. Swords. They each collected their own tribute from lesser Houses — tribute that was held to reasonable levels, because there was a kind of market in protection. If a lesser House was feeling unduly squeezed by the Beasts, it could always switch its allegiance to the Hearts, Wodewoses, or Swords. It was risky but it could be done.
Now, though, the King of Beasts was demanding tribute from all the Houses, including the other three and all their tributaries. He called it taxes. He called it government.
And the Diamonds, the Beasts’ most valuable tributary among the lesser Houses, had been pressed into service as collectors, record-keepers and money-counters. They had given the Jack — who had been, as a Knave, a gifted writer of cutting prose — a chequered table. He pushed bits of wood and bone around on it.
The Hearts, Swords, and Wodewoses had not quite formed an alliance against the Beasts. Not yet. But they were unhappy about the King’s self-styled government. They refused to recognize its authority, and they would not deal kindly with any of their tributaries who did.
My House, the House of Lilies, was an old tributary of the Hearts. Because Lilies are the flower of death and pallor. And the Hearts have only one way they can obtain their tokens. I would never think of changing my allegiance, no matter how much tribute they demanded of me. I have seen what even an Ace or Deuce of Hearts is willing to do.
“So the King of Beasts believes the Jack of Diamonds is a traitor,” I said. “What do you think?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. I think it’s far more likely he’s been assassinated. To send the King a message. One of the other Houses might have done it. Hearts, probably. Maybe Swords.”
I shook my head. “It would be a declaration of war, an assassination of a Knave. A Jack, I mean.”
The Ace looked at me with solemn brown eyes. “Maybe that’s why they did it.”
I hadn’t thought of that possibility. Perhaps I had underestimated her. Perhaps the Jack had too. His anxiety about her, her angelic face, her melodramatic door-banging and nose-blowing, had given me an impression I was beginning to mistrust.
I offered her a cup of tea. She refused politely and informed me she was duty bound to take me to the King’s Court, where I could give my account in person.
“The King of Beasts has no authority over me. And please don’t think me impolite, but neither do you.”
“Then think of it as a request,” she said, sweetly.
What can I say? I was curious. I’d never seen the King of Beasts.
She drove me in a little pony cart that seemed to hit every rut in the road, me sitting behind. We passed a few people on the road, from various Houses. A few of them spat on the ground as she drove by.
I asked her, during one of the smoother bits, whether she really believed either side would want to start a war.
“Nothing could be worse than this uncertainty,” she shouted back, her eyes on the road. “You question the King’s authority. So do many taxpayers. And I understand. I do. The other big Houses are still demanding tribute. So people pay twice: tribute to their old masters, taxes to the government. And no one’s authority goes unchallenged. It’s the worst of all possible worlds.”
Ah, to be young, I thought. To not remember the old days, before the four great Houses rose, when every House had to fend for itself against all the rest. When there were no protectors, only predators.
“Believe me,” I said. “Things could always be worse.”
I had expected the hall of the King of Beasts to be large; when a man must go about with thirteen large animals, he needs large rooms. I had expected it to be grand, and it was. But I had not expected to see so many different kinds of tokens. Diamonds and Beasts everywhere, of course, but others too. The Four of Acorns hobnobbing with the Two of Harps. The Knave of Bells, looking pious. The Nine of Spades, looking nervous. Spades had been tributaries of Swords for a long time; if I were him I’d look nervous too.
The variety in the tokens alarmed me. The reach of the so-called government was growing.
And beside the throne, bent and whispering like a vizier, was the King of Diamonds, looking satisfied.
The King of Beasts himself paced, which was no small enterprise. Florid and enormous, he held a long leash that split midway to hold wolves, bears, leopards, always changing their positions in a kind of train behind him. There must have been thirteen but truly it was impossible to count. The leashes never tangled, which seemed a miracle. The king’s shoulders were massive as boulders, no doubt from pulling those leashes behind him always, somehow keeping those snarling creatures from tearing each other apart. The power of a House is not only in the value of its tokens but also in their breadth. The King of Leopards must bow to the King of Cats, and the King of Cats in turn to the King of Beasts.
“So you admit that you spoke with him two nights ago?” the King growled. “And he has not been seen since.”
“So I understand.”
“And what did you two speak about?”
I shrugged. “This and that.”
“I see. Did you speak of politics?”
Best not to mention the Jack’s comment about the old hierarchies changing, or however he’d put it. Not if the King suspected the Jack of treason.
“No,” I lied, easily, as Knaves do. “We often took a cup of wine in the evenings. Our houses are not far apart.”
“I didn’t think Knaves had friends.”
“A common misconception.”
He stopped pacing. “You are allied, I believe, with the recalcitrant Hearts, who insist on extorting money from weaker Houses, who suborn the authority of the state. Who are known, I might add, for their cavalier attitude toward murder.”
I should have seen it sooner: he meant to accuse me of murdering the Jack. To accuse both the House of Lilies and the House of Hearts in a conspiracy — and maybe other Houses too. To start a war.
But the real question was whether he himself had kidnapped or killed the Jack, or whether one of the rival Houses had. His theory might even have been right, in the main: the Hearts might have done it.
“Why would they send me, then?”
“You were his friend. You were in his confidence. You could take him unawares.”
I tried to think quickly but the blood was pounding in my ears. All thirteen of the beasts were showing me their teeth.
The great oaken doors burst open behind me and I turned, as a gasp swept the hall.
“If I want to kill a man,” said the Queen of Hearts, “you can be sure I won’t send the Knave of Lilies to do it for me.”
I had seen the Queen of Hearts a few times, although I’d never before heard her say my name. She stood tall and dark, nothing but a circlet on her short hair. Her gown was cut close to her slim body but the sleeves of her coat fell nearly to the ground. She had started the fashion for long sleeves; people said it was to conceal her knives. She pulled a little wagon with a pewter chest in it, a chest just large enough to hold a dozen human hearts.
Beside her stood the Queen of Lilies. My Queen. My patron. I had seen her many times, but always seated, arranged. She could not sit today, for she was wearing her lilies all around her skirt, hanging upside down in a net of gold wire. Above, a short ermine-lined jacket. The Queen of Lilies had auburn hair to her waist, adorned with a simple twelve-stemmed crown. She was a pale contrast to the Queen of Hearts.
“What makes you think the man is dead?” My Queen did not raise her voice; she made everyone listen. “Has a baby been born with his mark?”
If a baby comes into the world and all the ten numbers and three ranks are filled in all of the Houses, a new House begins, with that baby as King, bearing a new mark. But it is seldom indeed, especially in times of war, that there are no empty places to fill. Most of the time, a baby will bear the mark of whatever number or rank has been vacant the longest, in any House..
The King of Diamonds answered, at a wave from his master. “From what I can ascertain, none of the women in the country are expected to give birth for some weeks, at least. And the Four of Bells died of great age last month, so in any case the next baby will bear his mark. But we do not need to wait to avenge the loss of the Jack. Assassination or abduction seems the most likely possibility.”
The Ace of Diamonds was still standing next to me in an annoyingly proprietary fashion. She made a little gulping sound and I turned to comfort her, thinking she was worried about the Jack. But to my shock, the look on her face was one of exultation. Her eyes darted from the King of Beasts to the two Queens and back, as they traded accusations.
I looked away quickly and thought hard. The Ace’s life, now that she was a tax collector, was made miserable by the tension between the new order and the old. Perhaps she thought a war would result in a Beast victory, and even if it didn’t, a return to the old order would be better than carrying on as she was.
And she knew the Jack. He had seemed to care about her, as much as a Knave — a Jack — could. She could have slipped a knife into him as easily as smiling. I wouldn’t have thought she had it in her, but then, I didn’t know her. She knew more than she was telling; of that I was sure.
Meanwhile, my own position seemed to be getting less comfortable by the minute.
I decided to play a little trick.
“It might interest the Court to know,” I said, “that I saw a small bag in the possession of this Ace of Diamonds, as she brought me here. A bag that looked like it held a few pebbles or something of that kind. But now that I hear the Jack of Diamonds is thought to be dead, I wonder. I wonder if it might have held precisely eleven pebbles. Eleven shiny pebbles.”
“He lies!” the Ace cried.
The King waved his hand, the one that didn’t hold the leash. “Of course he lies. Pay him no mind. He’s a Knave, trying to save his own skin.”
“Well, well, I do wonder why anyone gives you fealty if this is the sort of justice they can expect from your Court,” sneered the Queen of Hearts. “An accusation has been made. Perhaps we should investigate, before we dismiss it? It’s a simple matter to search the girl and whatever conveyance brought her here.”
My gut was in knots. I was wholly in it now; once the search turned up nothing, I’d be no better off, and probably a good deal worse. But I needed to make the Ace fear for her own skin. I had no other ideas.
The King snarled. “An Ace can’t carry more than one diamond. She’d be overwhelmed by eleven. It is ridiculous on its face.”
But I saw the doubt in his eyes. Who could say what was impossible, now?
“The world is changing,” I said. “You gave her authority beyond her power. Perhaps she was trying to increase her power to match.”
“Perhaps you carry the Jack’s diamonds yourself,” said the unctuous King of Diamonds. “A more likely scenario. She can’t be hiding much in those clothes, anyway.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. But let’s start with the cart, then,” I said. “You’ll find I’m telling the truth.”
As we walked in the throng to the yard, the King’s guards on either side of us, I whispered in the Ace’s ear.
“I’m a wealthy man. You might find it marvellous, being only an Ace, what wealthy men carry in their purses. Diamonds, for example.”
She stumbled and blanched. “You didn’t.”
I nodded. “They’ll find the little bag in your cart.”
I was lying, of course. I’ve never carried diamonds around in my purse. It would be ridiculous. But I was betting on her ignorance of what life was like for the Court Orders. And I was right.
“Now everyone will know that you killed him,” I hissed.
She stopped walking altogether. “But I didn’t! He isn’t even dead!”
She’d forgotten to whisper.
It was not the confession I’d expected. So she’d abducted him then, somehow. No matter. I had her now, and she knew it. She looked around at the shocked faces, and her own sweet face fell.
I knew I should have been lying low but I couldn’t resist visiting the Jack of Diamonds to see how he was. He was sitting by the brazier, alone, two cups of thick red wine on a little table beside him. It was as if he’d been expecting me. By then there was snow on the ground and it crunched under my feet as I approached.
The hollows in his cheeks had deepened.
He told me everything, one liar to another. The day after his talk with me, he had gone to see the Ace. She was desperate, heartsick. They had concocted the scheme between them. The Jack had offered to go into hiding, to make it look as though he were a victim of foul dealing. They hadn’t intended anyone to pay for the crime; there would be just enough suspicion on all sides, they thought, to trigger open war. By the time he came back, telling some story of being hurt or lost in the woods to account for his absence, the war would be at a point where there was no turning back. All the Houses needed was an excuse.
And then there would be change, one way or the other. He’d had his doubts about the scheme, all along, but he confessed to me that he, too, was sick of living in limbo. His heart yearned for a return to the uneasy truce between the Houses, when every one of us at least knew where they stood, and could pay their tribute and be left alone. His mind yearned for the stable, prosperous future the Kings of Beasts and Diamonds had promised.
The joke, if you want to call it that, is that the scheme worked after all.
The King of Beasts refused to punish the Ace of Diamonds. So the three other great Houses crowed that it had all along been a conspiracy, an attempt to frame me for murder.
They were readying their troops, all of them. The Queen of Hearts had posted a guard in the woods a few steps from my gate and he followed me everywhere, not speaking, not asking permission. My guard didn’t bother to hide from me. There was nowhere to hide in the bare winter forest. Even the nests were exposed in the skeletal trees. I couldn’t see him now in the gathering night but I could sense him, behind me in the shadows, watching the silhouettes of two old Knaves having their last conversation.
“I suppose,” I said, finishing my wine, “our friendship is at an end.”
The Jack of Diamonds nodded. “More than that. Soon, I suspect, we’ll be enemies indeed.”
That had been his idea all along, his and the Ace’s. But he didn’t look happy about it.
I never saw the Jack of Diamonds after that, and I don’t expect to see him again.
I am under the protection of three powerful Houses. I’m a symbol now, up in the tower in the Castle of Hearts. They’ve provisioned a writing desk under the narrow window to keep me occupied while I wait for the inevitable assault. I have no reason to fear for my safety, not while the defences hold, not while they are still able to furnish me and the others of my House with lilies from the castle’s conservatory. But I know I may not survive. I worry sometimes, at night, that none of us will. And I suspect that whatever comes after this war, the old ways will pass away, and be gone.
So I have written this account to confess my sorry part in history to children yet unborn, to tell them how it came about that all the Houses went to war. I have written it in plain black letters because I don’t know how much time is left to me. If I am spared long enough, I’ll draw some pictures.
– THE END –
In the fall of 2012, I took a speculative-fiction course on LitReactor taught by Kat Howard. One of the assignments was to write “50 first lines.” That was the genesis of the first line of this story. I’m grateful to Kat and my fellow students for their feedback as I tried to figure out what happened next. I was inspired, in part, by old playing cards such as those created by the Master of the Playing Cards. I kept imagining the story with artwork by Ottawa illuminator Kathryn Finter, whom I met through our mutual friend, Nan Sussmann. One day, I decided to just send the story to Kathryn and ask. I adore the result.
If you would like a print chapbook version of this story, with Kathryn’s artwork on the cover, please email me at kateheartfield(at)gmail(dot)com.