Once upon a time a Maiden stepped into a House of Sin. She was a Preacher’s Daughter, and the moment her foot crossed that threshold she stood out like a white bloom rampant on a field of vice. As her gaze took in what there was to see, glasses fell silent to the bar, the clack of dice and the clatter of the wheel faded, and only the needful sounds from inner rooms continued unabated. A blush graced her cheeks as her confidence wavered. But she was on a mission. The fire of purpose was in her belly. She would not be deterred.
The Madam looked down from where they lounged on high. Dark green eyes narrowed as their interest uncoiled. They observed the Maiden with mixed curiosity and caution and desire. They knew the girl’s pedigree but couldn’t fathom her reason for sullying herself with the dark of the House’s door. The Madam rose from their divan, letting long fingers trail the flesh of the collared thing that had been allowed to share in their pleasure. When they moved it was liquid and indolent, but something dangerous lay below those motions for those who had eyes to see. They idly wrapped a silk shawl of green and black around their nudity and leaned over the railing, looming down over the parlor below. As their shadow fell upon the Maiden, their lips stretched into a practiced smile as captivating as it was cold. All eyes turned upon them.
“What brings you to my parlor, young lady?” their voice was smoke and spice, “Your daddy would have your hide if he knew you so much as set eyes on this House, much less foot in it.”
The Maiden looked up, face hard with determination, mouth a thin line, eyes clear and blue as heaven. “I am a woman grown. My choices are my own. Besides, my daddy…” she said, but her voice caught ever so slightly, “My daddy has already damned me to hell. So, the way I see it, there’s not much more to fear.”
The smile on the Madam’s face grew wider, uncannier, and they laughed. It was a sound affected, tailored in its gentle mockery. “All have sinned, girl. But do believe me when I say that there is always further to fall. Go home.”
The Madam turned their attention towards a lithe little thing in silk and chains that offered a sparkling cordial on a tray. They raised it high over the parlor in dismissal of the Maiden’s presence. The sounds of drink and sin began again to swell as the patrons turned back to their diversions. The Preacher’s Daughter was ignored, for a moment forgotten. But she was not swayed. Her shoes clicked a determine rhythm as she walked across the parlor, and there was the clink of metal on metal as she threw her purse down upon a table and the room fell silent once more.
“All I own.” The Maiden said, in a soft voice. She was unable to look up and meet the Madam’s gaze, but each word was as clear as if the young woman’s lips were brushing against their ear.
The mocking smile and performative laughter were gone, a lean look of interest and need blossomed in their place. “And just what are you going to tell me that you seek to win?” The Madam asked.
“Freedom.” The Maiden replied, this time with nary a waver.
“The only freedom for you is out that door and back the way you came.”
“It’s not freedom for me that I seek.”
“Regardless, I think you’ll be disappointed.”
There was a pause, and then the Maiden said: “Only one way to find out.”
The money was collected, counted, stored under lock and key. And the worth of the Maiden’s life was doled out in chips of ash and bone. She rolled one between her fingers, marveling at how light it was in construction and yet how heavy it was with consequence.
And then the games began.
The girl wasn’t too knowledgeable in the ways of risks and wagers. But she was, as Luck would have her way, a natural. Either that or a bit of her family’s affection for the rituals and dogma of the Divine was paying dividends.
The clack of dice slipping from gentle hands.
The buzz of it didn’t come immediately. Rather it was a slow rise that worked its way through her. Each victory and each defeat added to it. The taste of winning after a losing streak was particularly sweet. And the sting of losing filled her with new determination. After all, her purpose was righteous. What could this House offer to stand in her way?
The whirr of a wheel and the clatter of a ball.
The pile of chips in front of her fluctuated with each wager. But over time it became clear that her winnings were accumulating. Chip by chip, inch by inch, she saw her goal in her mind. And seeing herself get closer to it made each chip feel heavier in her hand, made the value behind it mean all the more, and made the stakes drift ever higher. And as the stakes rose so did the sweetness of victory and the hot sting of defeat. Her head swam, pulled from one to other.
The shuffle of cards and the slick, quit slap as they were dealt to the table.
How much time had passed the Maiden could not guess. The room held no windows. The ebbs and flows of the crowd followed no schedule, no reason. It could have been an hour. It could have been eternity. She pulled her chips to her, tallying them one by one as best she could. The numbers were coming more slowly now as a twisting heat pulled at the edge of her attention. Her breath was coming quicker, blood fast in her veins, there was an edge of desperation to her movements. She counted it again, and then let her hand brush the locket hanging at her chest.
“It’s not enough.” She said, finally.
The Madam detached themself from where they had been watching the games and came up behind the girl. One hand touched her shoulder, unwanted, possessive. But the Maiden did not have it in her to brush it away. The Madam’s hand ran up to her neck, entwined in her hair. Those full lips brushed so close to the Maiden’s ear, warm breath teasing her neck. “Not enough? I’m surprised at such greed from a girl like you.”
“That’s not. I’m not.” The Maiden swallowed as her mouth felt dry, hear head heavy, and words were coming slow and thick. “You don’t understand.”
“I don’t have to understand. The only thing I have to do is keep playing. Same as you.”
The Madam caressed the Maiden’s face, fingers tracing delicate lines, and then with a quick flick that skillful hand produced a chip out of thin air, and let it fall to the table. Another and another followed, spilling out, falling casually, and the Maiden’s eyes were transfixed by each one.
“It’s a gambler’s dream.” The Madam said as they walked a chip across their knuckles, back and forth. “When there’s so much on the line, how could you ever know where to stop? When there is so much to gain, how could you ever make yourself say no?” They slid into the chair opposite the Maiden, resting their chin atop their hands. They looked across the table and held the Maiden’s gaze, those predatory green eyes somehow more transfixing than the promise of riches that graced the felt. “Of course, if you want to win big, or rather, If you need to win big, you could always challenge me directly. No limits. High reward. High risk.”
The Maiden’s hands touched the locket again as if in prayer as she failed to break the Madam’s gaze. She swallowed hard. She thought of her purpose, she thought of her winnings, she reminded herself what all this was for.
“I’m in.” She said.
For the third time the crowd fell silent. The Madam’s only response was a smirk and a snap of their fingers.
An attendant approached through the crowd of onlookers, a deck removed for a box of rust-stained wood, the table cleared, and the cards passed between the two players for inspection. As the Maiden touched the deck she shivered. The cards felt cold and slick beneath her fingers. The images drawn on them at once seemed severe and sensual, grotesque and desirable. A flush came over her cheeks as she stared a bit too long at some of the court cards, watching how they almost moved before her eyes. The fascination was only broken by the polite throat clearing of the attendant who had brought them.
The Maiden nodded and didn’t meet his eyes. She passed back the deck, but the feeling that lingered on her hands was unclean.
The Madam made a sound of satisfaction as the attendant passed them the deck. “River Taroch. Know the game?
“Yes.” The Maiden said. “My daddy plays. He’s not half as holy as he puts on.”
“None of us are. You’ll learn that in time.”
Antes were placed. The cards were cut. The Madam dealt.
If Luck had had favored the Maiden before, or if angels above smiled down, nobody was smiling now. Piercing blue eyes looked across the table into a that cold deep green. And ever so slowly, as those cards sullied her hands, as her head spun, as her throat burned, the Maiden began to sweat.
Cards were exchanged. Points were called. Tricks were taken.
One hand, two, three, her winnings ebbed and flowed. With each moment the victory became sweeter, the loss more bitter. And yet, with each moment the distance between the two seemed to contract, to clench. The Maiden tried to fix her purpose in her mind, tried to concentrate on the virtue of her goal, but it slipped from her the way the too slick cards slid between her fingers. Four hands. Five. The images on the cards taunted her, laughed at her, posed seductively, welcomed her in, screamed warnings, and everything that she was felt like it was on the verge of slipping away into the game and being lost forever.
And then, just like that, she thought she had a break. It wasn’t her fault. An honest mistake. Happens to a lot of folks. The cards were dealt, the cards were exchanged, and she struggled to control her excitement. The sight of the royal court held between her fingers made her head spin with anticipation. They whispered conspiratorially to her, told her that her goal was in her grasp. She raised as each round of points was called, wagering with an eager heavy hand. The Madam meanwhile looked downright bored, calling in kind. Until, when the time came for taking tricks, and the Maiden had invested so much of herself, the Madam fixed the Maiden with that cold gaze and raised. Excessively.
The Maiden’s heart pumped ice instead of blood. Her breathing was shallow and her eyes hard as she took in the scene. Her brain fumbled with the math. She had this. Didn’t she? And if she didn’t… She looked at just how much she stood to lose and felt sick. But there was no way. She surveyed her cards, saw the possible outcomes, dismissed the most unlikely. A bead of sweat ran down her neck. With a slick feeling of surety within her, she realized that the Madam was underestimating her. Clearly, they were bluffing. She had to call. If she folded now, it would mean that fear won, this creature won, the House won. It would mean that she would have to go home. It would mean that she would have to be wed to him. It would mean that she would never see-. She broke that last thought off. She couldn’t lose. She could never.
“I want to call, but I’m short. That last raise, it’s more than all I have.” She said at last.
The Madam affected a yawn. “It’s more than the money than you have. But I’d hardly call mere coin all you have to offer.”
“What do you mean?”
The Madam smiled that taunting smile. “It’s always charming when the pretty ones are slow on the uptake.”
The Maiden blushed. “A debt. You’re saying I could go into debt to you.”
There was a long pause as the Maiden considered her position. But at last, with surety, resolve, and faith at her back, she agreed.
The Madam turned back to the table, eyes burning, alight with hunger.
The cards were played, tricks won and lost. The Maiden couldn’t help but smile, until the moment she would smile no more. She was frozen. She was screaming inside. She was ruined.
The Madam’s smile was genuine this time, hungry this time. It was a fox’s smile when it knows the hare is running out of places to hide. They reached across the table to collect the chips, as the Maiden slumped in her chair. The Maiden was utterly defeated, her inner dark and fear welling into a deep despair. She knew of nothing else she could wager.
“You know,” the Madam said slowly, “I would hate for it to be said that I didn’t have mercy in me, or that I didn’t show deference to a daughter of such a significant member of the township. We could always go double or nothing.”
The Maiden’s breath was a ragged sob, her face hot with shame and something she didn’t truly understand. She couldn’t meet the Madam’s gaze, she just looked down at her hands as they lay upon the table. “What else do I possibly have to give?” The words were as blood thick and clotted, welling up from her misery.
“Oh, there’s one last little thing that’s yours, and I’m willing to let you walk away with your life and your winnings all for the chance to take it.” They tapped meaningfully at the skin between their breasts.
The Maiden’s hand gripped protectively at the locket that hung from her neck. “No.”
“That’s not just mine to risk, I can’t. N-“
With a snap of the Madam’s fingers the word was jerked from the Maiden’s mouth. The girl grabbed at her throat, gasping.
“You’re in my debt. Remember? That word isn’t in your vocabulary anymore. Now, I’m giving you one chance to get it back. To get yourself back. And to walk away with a nice pile of winnings, enough to save the one you love with plenty spare to build a life far beyond the reach of the Church. The only thing you have to do in return, is to keep playing. And the only thing you have to do to keep playing is to risk the one thing you never thought you would.”
Tears streamed down the Maiden’s face. Her hands moved slowly but inevitably to the clasp of the locket. She held it out towards the Madam and gently placed it on the table.
“There we go. Was that so difficult? You really should be thanking me.”
“Thank you.” The words slipped unwilling from her mouth as her eyes gazed longingly at the locket in a look of anguish that was anything but thankful.
“Good girl. Now deal.”
And she did, with the same stilted pace to her hands, with the uselessly trembling anger and shame that came to nothing.
The game was perfunctory: no antes no buy-in no raises, cards dealt, exchanged, points called, tricks taken. The Maiden’s hands never stopped trembling. The smile never left the Madam’s face. She lost. Whether the game had been rigged or whether Luck had just fled her, she would never be able to say. As she sat and stared emptily at her cards, the Madam leaned forward and pulled the locket from the table. They popped it open and gazed within with lazy satisfaction. If asked, the Maiden likely wouldn’t be able to remember the other girl in the locket. She likely didn’t even remember herself.
“Drinks on me!” The Madam shouted as they rose from the table. The tense silence that had persisted through the last two matches was broken by a raucous cheer. “Enjoy yourselves, my dear patrons, while I teach my new employee the rules and expectations of this most hospitable House.” And with a little bow and a handful of chips scattered to the crowd, the Madam pulled the Maiden up by her collar. Attendants came and some began to clear the table as the Madam led the Maiden to the darker inner chambers of the House. They would not return to the parlor that night.
And in those days and forever after there were two new girls around the House. One fair and innocent, the other strong and lithe. Both bore the mark of the House branded on the smooth flesh of their left thigh. They had lost themselves and found that a Madam always collects what a Madam is owed. And sometimes it was said that, when they dealt cards at adjoining tables, when they hung off the arms of high rollers, or when they set their bodies to obedient service in the inner chambers that their eyes would meet. And, in the moment of their eyes meeting, there was a small, helpless thing that briefly fluttered and died over and over again in their gaze. It was a thing that looked a lot like love.