The First Chapter in a potentially long series about a steampunk magical world where the Tarot function like Yu-Gi-Oh cards.
“I am NOT being the page of Cups!” screamed Lydia, charging down the hall with all of the blind fury that a scorned eleven year old can muster. “I am the Queen of Swords!”. The hallway was long and lined discreetly with coats of arms, suits of armour and stuffed animal heads mounted over guns. Lydia took a swipe at a moosehead as she passed, but it didn’t seem to mind. Lydia’s mother simply stood in the hallway, hands on hips.
“Lydia St. Jude, you will come back here this instant, or by the Tower, you’ll regret it.”
Lydia foot-swivelled in place abruptly and clenched her fists, her arms rigid by her side, her pouting lips chiselled from stone, staring down the barrels of her mother.
“You will not behave like this in front of our guest, YOUR tutor.” Lydia’s mother raised a finger to calmly quell the inevitable protests. “You will return to your studies, and you will apologise to Thomas.”
Lydia’s eyes flicked to the deck of cards sticking out of her handbag, and then back to her mother. Her fingers twitched as she stood stock still and stared at her mother for a good slice of a second. Then her shoulders sagged and she breathed out loudly. She muttered something under her breath and began to stomp back the way she’d come. Lydia’s mother leaned one-handed on the polished banister and watched her daughter head back into the study, the white-robed monk Thomas smiling genially and beckoning Lydia to a welcome return.
Satisfied her daughter was safely in the care of the unfortunate Thomas, Christine St. Jude lit a cigarette which she placed in a long silver holder. She was halfway through savouring puff number three when along came Daisy the maid.
“Madame, there is a gentleman at the door.” Said Daisy, her hand combing through her beautiful golden curls distractedly, as she tried with difficulty to tie her hair back with the aid of a particularly shiny suit of armour, apparently oblivious to the enormous mirror that occupied the wall behind her. Christine just stared at her.
“Is there more, Daisy, or is that tantalising trivium the end of the tale?” She asked, taking drag number four, but counting it in her head as a do-over on number three. Daisy continued to struggle with her hair, squinting at her grubby reflection. Christine coughed. “Daisy. Daisy. Daisy! For the love of The World! Who is at the door?”
Daisy turned and curtsied. “It is Mister Malanova, madame.” She said with a smile, and then turned once more to the suit of armour, to squint with her sky-blue eyes.
Christine rolled her eyes and considered stubbing out her cigarette on Daisy, but with some willpower disposed of it in a damp ashtray mounted into the wall. It hissed. “Thank you, Daisy. Next time maybe we could start with that.” She said, adopting a stride that was almost a run. As she took the stairs two at a time in heels, she shouted back behind her “And there’s a bloody mirror behind you.”
Mister Malanova had his dark hat in one hand and his long sleek black cloak dripped off of his other arm. His smile was fake and they both knew it, but he threw out his arms in welcome as Christine arrived. Christine had immense poise and slowed in an instant from a racecar to a riverboat as she glided into the room. They hugged from a distance, then Christine led Mister Malanova to a bright sitting room and offered him some tea.
“My dear, you are too kind, too kind by far.” He said, with a big smile. Christine shifted in her seat.
Daisy brought the tea and poured it without incident, which Christine thought was a minor miracle. Mister Malanova’s eyes paid Daisy close attention, especially when she bent over to pour the tea.
“Have you travelled far, Mister Malanova?” asked Daisy, as she tried to remember if he took sugar or not.
“Well, however far, it appears I have travelled worthily!” He said, with a halfways smile and a look down her top.
Daisy laughed and backed away as swiftly as politeness allowed.
“What brings you to our home, Armano?” Christine asked, to cover her maid’s retreat.
“To my home, my dear.” He corrected her. Christine nodded, but her breathing became deeper and faster. “I am here to ensure that all of my interests are being suitably cared for.” He said, steepling his fingers. He hadn’t taken off his bright blue gloves.
“If you mean Lydia-” Christine began.
“I know my presence is a discomfort to you, and so I will be brief. If I am satisfied that all is progressing as it ought then I shall leave you in the peace and relative autonomy to which you are accustomed. If I am unsatisfied, then you will find my visit even less comfortable than you first thought.” Said Armano Malanova, and clicked his fingers. “Bring the girl to me.”
There was a gasp, and Christine looked over Armano’s shoulder to see the eavesdropping Lydia, crouched down behind the screen door. Lydia turned and made to run, but Armano rose and thrust a gloved hand into his suit jacket. “Interference!” He shouted and pulled a tarot card out. It was dark black and had eight crossed swords on it. At once, Lydia was frozen in place and from the groung, a tight cage of sharp briars burst forth and began to twist around her legs. The thorny vines thrummed with an energy that made Lydia feel dizzy. Lydia’s fear fought Lydia’s nausea and won only to watch the hulking figure of Lydia’s anger push it aside and take over.
Lydia drew her own deck and began to fumble through them, pulling out the eight of wands and gripping it tightly before clenching her eyes and leaping out of the brambles. She moved superhumanly fast but the thorns slashed her legs as she flew out of their grasp and she cried out, dropping the card.
“Sloppy!” Shouted Malanova, and pointed the eight of swords at her like a gun. The thick vines shot towards her, and she backed away and raced through her deck, fanning it between her hands and desperately looking for a counter.
“Six of.. No, Four of, no, wait, wait!“ She shouted as her back hit wall and she had nowhere else to retreat to. The vines were almost on her and she could see their thorns, like teeth.
“The Ace of Wands!” She cried out, whipping the card up in an underhand swipe which conjured a great belch of fire. The wave of flame rolled forwards and turned the briar cage to ash, but also set fire to the settee and the carpet. Christine leapt from her seat, but did not move to put out the fire. Her eyes never left her daughter, and she felt a tiny surge of pride.
Armano Malanova saw the carpet fire in front of him and gave a nasty laugh. “Is that it? That’s your Ace of Wands? It’s pathetic. Let me show you what a real Ace of Wands looks like.” And so saying, he reached into his jacket again. Even as he brought the card out, the room started to swelter. A heat shimmer surrounded Malanova. A sweat broke out on Christine’s face, and the fires in the room flared up and tore across the floor, spreading to the walls. The air was filling with a thick black smog.
Lydia was panting and her skin was white. He hadn’t even called the card yet, and it was so hot. He was going to kill her. She rubbed the sweat from her brow and with bleary eyes picked through her deck and found nothing. She saw Malanova raise his hand.
“The Ace-” Malanova began.
“The Lord of Truce.” Spoke Thomas. The monk appeared in the doorway holding his own beautifully illustrated card before him. It was the four of swords. He touched Lydia gently on the shoulder and then caught her as she fainted. Immediately the tension drained from the room. Malanova paused, regarding Thomas, and then put his card away with a flourish that extinguished the fires.
“You will forgive me, my lord, but there is precious little value to a dead charge.” Said Thomas, carrying Lydia over to a sofa and placing her gently down.
Armano stared at the monk for a second too long and then spoke without passion. “Ah Thomas, you are right of course, but then neither is there much worth to a test without danger.”
“A test?” Asked Thomas.
“Did she pass?” Whispered Christine. There was silence for a moment.
“The Lord of Truce is a temporary respite. Keep training her. I expect to see marked improvement the next time I visit, or my hand will not be so easy to stay.” Malanova said, and then stepping over to collect up his hat and cloak he straight away drew a bright card that shone above him. Christine couldn’t make out what it was, but it flashed so brightly that she and Thomas had to close their eyes. When they opened them, Armano Malanova had gone.
They stood in the smoking wreck of the sitting room and looked at one another. “Well. You heard the man.” Said Christine, nodding towards her daughter. “Daisy!” Christine called. “I need you to tidy up the sitting room, I have Bridge at four o clock.” And so saying, she strode towards the kitchen in search of gin.
This was a blast to write. I want to write more. Magical Tarot Duels are my new favourite thing, and there’s so much to play with here. I’m attempting some line-by-line work here, trying to show more and tell less. That goes a bit by the wayside as the piece goes on, but it starts out quite well. First draft. Is more wanted?
As ever, Hit me up on Twitter @Sellpen, or leave a comment below.