The Jack of Hearts Dagger

∴ A Jack or Better ∴

For all the bustle of the alehouse, a silence opresses the low table by the back door. There two men sit across from each other unspeaking, barely moving, cold stares trained on one another as they finger dog-eared cards.

Their tankards are long past empty, but the tavern keeper’s daughter knows better than to bring them more. She knows their kind – shrewd men, hard men, consumed by their dice and their cards. The trick is to slake their thirst early, when the game is still fun and the coin flows freely, and to steer well clear in the later rounds.

Instead she hovers behind the makeshift bar, idly rubbing a rag over copper mugs as she keeps an unassuming eye on them.

The larger man with his back to the wall; she’s seen him here before. A mercenary if there ever was one, all boiled leather and riveted rings, jaw sinking into broad shoulders with little sign of a neck. A man of few words, but liable to rage if the odds aren’t in his favour.

The smaller man, now he’s a new one. Younger than the other, with auburn hair tucked into a neat queue at the nape of his neck. He is dressed in fine clothes – not the ostentatious sort that would get him mugged here, but sombre and well-cut with slight flashes of lace at the cuffs and collar. A dandy, the tavern keeper’s daughter thinks with a smile.

Her close attention has drawn that of others, so it is with a collective intake of breath that the drinkers watch the mercenary lay his cards down. Crimson diamonds grace the gnarled wood. A strong hand.

Eyes now turn to the dandy, with all pretence of indolence gone. This next hand could be the difference between a round of drinks and an all-out brawl. Already some are sliding their hands to their belts, patting reassuringly at the knives hanging there.

With a shrug and a wry grin, the younger man slaps his cards onto the table. Four aces. And a jack of hearts.

“Cheat!” the mercenary cries, rising to his feet and pushing the table hard into his opponent. “Villain! Knave!”

The drinkers slide down from their stools, assuming a rough formation between the bar and the would-be brawlers. Tankards are emptied, all the better to be weaponised. The tavern keeper’s daughter sighs as she reaches for the rolling pin.

But quick as a wink, the auburn-haired rogue is on his feet, reaching for the dagger at his back. The tavern keeper’s daughter catches just a glimpse of a red-gloved hand encased in black heart-shaped bars before the blade is thrust point-down into the table, scattering coins and yellowed cards.

The larger man looks down, eyes wide and mouth agape. The blade is sunk deep between his middle and index fingers. A hair to the left or right, and his days with a bow would be over. Shaking slightly, he turns his gaze back to his opponent.

“Another round,” the Jack of Hearts says. “I’m feeling generous.”

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The Leirion Longsword

∴ A Lily of the Valley ∴

You relax only slightly as your fingers slide over the smooth steel of the guard, finding their way to the fleur-de-lis at the tip of a curving quillon.

It is a familiar emblem. How could it be other? From where you stand you can count about twenty: on the painted wooden shields above the door, embroidered into the heavy linen curtains that half-shade the window, and on your mother’s gown as she paces the floorboards, scrutinising you.

Since you were but a child, you knew it meant something, this symbol. Something of family and belonging, but also something of honour and obligation. That three-petalled flower stood for you, in some way, and because of that you would someday be called to stand for it in turn.

Your fingers continue to play over the familiar shape as you stare dead ahead, mirroring the stoic heroism in the long portraits that flank the back wall. You imagine yourself into their battle scenes, lifting the beautiful blue-and-silver sword in both hands as you let out a terrible cry…

“Stop fiddling, for heaven’s sake!” you mother hisses.

Abashed, you snap your left hand to your hip, pursing your lips and jutting out your jaw the way she told you to. The telltale tingle of pins-and-needles spreads through your right foot, and you venture a wary glance at the painter, still furiously working away at your portrait.

Honestly, you think. The things you do for family honour.

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The Punishment Sabre

∴ A Just Reward ∴

For all its outer grandeur, the lodge is no sanctum of order. As you follow the Chief Constable inside, your eyes dart from detail to dust-rimed detail. The harlequin glass-inlaid walls, the heavy leather-bound tomes sagging in their spines, uncatalogued heaps of weapons and armour in various states of repair.

The lodge is not a space, you think, as much as a lifetime. A chronicle of the Chief Constable’s whims and works. And for what? The Brotherhood has been disbanded. Its unending work curtailed.

It is here that the sword has been waiting: not in a state of grace, but of chaos. A symbol of duty discarded. Fitting, you think, considering your own circumstances. Like the sword, you have become something of an archaism. Like you, its purpose is suddenly uncertain.

Yet as the Chief pulls back the age-marked cloth, your own tired eyes meet the Eye carved into the severe triangular guard, and you feel a steely stab of recognition.

The politicians may have ended the Brotherhood. But Justice? Mercy? Such things cannot be dissolved so easily.

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The Spindle Smallsword

∴ A Curse Come Good ∴

“Briar Rose,” the old cook shouts as you streak through the kitchen, snatching an apple on your way.

“That girl will be the death of me,” she grumbles, watching you disappear into the maze of corridors beyond.

You do not pause to apologize – Cook is used to these fleeting visits. They keep her on her toes. Besides, the one-eyed ginger tom is already getting away.

It’s a rough-and-tumble fondness you have for the old mouser – you’ve been chasing him since you were a bairn, and he never fails to lead you somewhere strange. After twelve years, you’d think you’d have seen the castle in its entirity, but somehow there’s always someplace new.

Had it not been for the curse, you might have spent your days docile at your mother’s side, teasing and tatting the flax and learning the dainty motions for spinning thread. But cursed you were, and the spinning wheels were cast from the kingdom – and for lack of ladylike pursuit, you made your own fun.

Chasing the cat was always a favourite, or creeping across the steepled rooftops, watching slate tiles skitter to the guttered edge. Then there was fighting the stable lad. At first you brawled with fists and feet until the horsemaster sent you scurrying. Then you played at knights with sticks, clashing and clattering until they splintered. Once you tried to rescue a real sword from the wall of the great hall. But the Castellan spied you smuggling it up the horse stairs and sent you to bed with an earful.

The old tom takes a left, then shoots up a narrow wooden stair. You don’t recognize the spiderweb-rimed staircase, but you fancy it might lead to the servants’ quarters. You could play a prank on Cook, you think, as you scurry after the beast.

The door at the head of the staircase opens with a creak like a crone’s laughter. Beyond is an empty attic room, all loose floorboards and gnarled beams. And there, in a single shaft of sunlight dancing with motes of dust, is a sword.

It lies quite unassumingly on the ground, as if placed there by someone who went to fetch something then forgot about it. You walk toward it with unfaltering steps, and crouch down to examine it.

It is small and wiry like you, with beautiful braided wire and a black guard shaped like a butterfly. Or like the symbol your father’s alchemists use to mean eternity. The blade is narrow and straight, like a needle. You lift it toward the light, wide-eyed, and do you hear for a second time the creak of crone’s laughter?

“This sword will be the death of me,” you murmur.

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The Castore Sidesword

∴ An Alternate Viewpoint ∴

The carriage clatters over cobbled streets, its clangour at odds with your hammering pulse. Drawing a silver watch from your pocket, you mark with distaste your hand’s tremor.

Ten minutes to twelve. Nearly the alotted time. Nearly the alotted place. The chosen weapon sits beside you on the plush velvet seat, broad-bladed where its twin is slender. How keenly it will clash with its long-parted friend, you think. Keen where you are wretched.

Were this any other duel, the blood would run hot in your veins. You would relish the rush of impending danger, and wear pride like a red carnation as you descend the carriage steps.

Tonight, however, is one you hoped would never come – even as you knew it would. Even as you slipped into the sweet, forbidden embrace of the woman betrothed to your long-absent brother. The woman you’d loved since childhood.

As the hoofbeat staccato slows, you slip your right hand between the black-ribbon bars of the guard, then pass it to your left with a sad shake of your head. You were always the sinister twin. You will gain nothing by hiding your nature.

You brush the black bulb of the pommel to your lips.

“Forgive me, brother,” you whisper.

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