He sat at a table in the back, slowly shuffling through a deck of cards, his black velvet Holocaust cloak piled around his shoulders. The candle guttered at his left hand. His hood drooped over his eyes so that only his mouth and chin really showed. As the cards milled around, sliding and recombining into new ranks, his lips moved endlessly but silently over...what? Incantations? Curses? A story?
On another level of the Tower, he would one day die telling the longest story of his life, but today he was in a different desert, listening to a different platitude.
"Where is he?" A dry growl came from outside, a voice like marbles in a millstone. "Where's the fucker that says he can tell my fortune? Mine? There ain't but one magician on this side of the Aemev, and by the Wolf, that's me." The front door slammed open and a gust of sunlight came in on rails of dust. A silhouette threw shafts of darkness on the board floor, a bald old man with a spotty pate and a heavy brow.
He paused under the lintel and teased his long beard with an addled right hand, a whorl of scar tissue marking the back like an old stigmata. Tattooed across his eyes like a domino mask was a spread-winged cardinal, marking him as a prisoner--and escapee--of the Thirsty Castle.
"Welcome," said the man in black.
The bald man stared, squinted. "Something dark," he said to the barkeep out of the corner of his mouth, and left a couple of coins on the bar. On this side of the ocean, they didn't have his nemesis Normand's face on them. Out here deep in the territories they used Delian nieras and the Bemos' beads, not council talents.
Then he went over to the table. "I heard you been goin' round doin' magic," said the bald, bearded man, settling his rickety old ass on the other side. He leaned forward on his elbows. "There ain't nobody out this way that does magic but me. I'm--"
"I know who you are." The Covenant Man's pale, nimble, long-fingered hands shuffled and shuffled the cards like a spider rolling up a dead fly in silk. "You're Templeton Lucas. The... 'All-Seeing Eye'. They say you can see in the dark and walk on water. You've been going around the territories hemming up the savages and marching them off to the old factories out west where their Glass God resides."
Tem Lucas eyed the darkness. It seemed the tavern was larger than it'd been the last time he was here. Was it a trick of the light, or had the barkeep taken out a wall somewhere? The curtains were thick linen and draped heavily like columns.
"That's right. And who, pray tell, are you?"
"I'm a man that's lived many miles and walked many years. Who I am is not important; not as important as what I do. And I do very well, you kennit?"
"Is that so?" The old gunslinger watched the cards dance slowly around each other. "What do you do, then, stranger?"
"I am a catalyst."
"What the shit is a cat list?"
"I am a trigger, a pivot, a fuse, the missing piece. I serve a function on every level, up every Beam--I make things happen. I boil time." The Covenant Man stopped shuffling and held the deck of cards in both hands as if it were a robin's delicate egg. "Would you like to see your fortune, Templeton?"
"Why not? I ain't got nowhere better to be. Not til tonight, anyway." Lucas tipped his chin. "What you got there, anyway? Is that a tookey deck?"
"It is, it is!" The man in black grinned. "I am very fond of your land's ...'tookey scuttens'. So much like my tarot cards back home in Gilead. Very clever, using them for games of poker. If I'd been a gambling
man back then, I might have done the same. But alas; the dealer ain't the wheeler."
"He's the stealer."
The man in black laughed. "Too true, too true."
"Well, let's get on with it. Let's see this 'magic' of yours."
"A man of alacrity." The man in black grinned, his gums clicking wetly. "So it goes." He thumbed the top card from the deck and placed it face up on the table between them. "Now, I hasten to tell you, this ain't magic," he said, and covered it with one spidery hand. "I never said I did magic. I only claim to know a man's road."
"Is that why they called you the Walkin' Man?"
The man in black's grin twitched even wider. Lucas could see the molars tucked way back in his cheeks. "Could be, could be." He uncovered the card to reveal a scutten of a man in a red cloak and a golden headdress, holding up one hand in a gesture of benediction. "The Hierophant, reversed. This is--"
"Hierophant?" Lucas tugged at his horsetail beard. "Looks like the Ersecad to me. I met him when I was a young man, you know."
"Aye, back when you and your fell woman drowned, hanged, and burned the people of this world at the stake for opposing your puritan Law of the Wolf. But that's neither here nor there. Where I come from, it's called the Hierophant, and in this circumstance it means that you are on a course of action that no one but you understands. And you think they ought to understand it, because it's the Right Thing," and Lucas thought he could even hear the emphasis on the capitalized letters.
"Yeah," said Lucas. "It's the Right Thing. Damn Normand, drivin' all us underground when he went to the throne thirty year ago and shot a hole in my drawin' hand. I'm gonna raise us all back up and push his narrow ass right off that ebony chair. The Weatherhead will be mine."
The barkeep brought Lucas a spit-polished glass of porter that tasted like a horseshoe out of a bucket of piss. He gulped down half of it and the man in black slipped another card from the tookey deck, placing it on the table.
"The Fool, reversed," said the man in black. "You have a new beginning before you right now. This could mean you're going to be given a chance to continue on your current path, or redeem yourself and work against the creatures directing you."
"...Work against?" Lucas stared down at the card, but then something twitched in the corner of his eye. He looked up and saw a dark figure in the corner, half-hidden by one of the linen curtains. Black dead eyes stared out of a porcelain-white mask. Another one of these cloaked phantoms stood on the other side, and also another crouched by the piano.
Lucas shook his head subtly at them. The man in black didn't see this because he was still staring at the Fool card, lost in his own interpreting. He put down another card. "Justice, reversed. You're going to have to deal with the repercussions of someone's actions...someone close to you."
"My... adopted son. He's a bit of a wild card. He does what he wants with that mystical sword of his. He hears voices, says they're the Muses. Says they're doin' all this for the betterment of the universe, or some weird shit like that. Says they're gonna give me the world when they're done. I don't know if I believe it, but I ain't never been one to turn down a good time, so I go along with it. Me and Jethro, we do what we can for him, old as we are. You say he's gonna screw up and leave me to deal with it?"
"Could be. Do you trust him?"
"Trust." Lucas took another drink of the piss-puddle beer. "I love him, but I can't tell you I trust him as far as I can throw him."
"Then why do you follow him? Why do you let him govern you?"
"Cause he's all I got. I'm an old man with dust for jizz. He's all I got."
The old villain sighed. "How much longer is this going to take, pecker-neck? I got shit to do."
"Am I making you anxious?"
"...No. Not at all."
"Hey, Jude," said the man in black, dimples forming around his shit-eating grin. "Don't be afraid."
"I ain't afraid of fuck-all. Just keep dealing." He put up that garbled hand at the barkeep and pointed at his empty pint glass. "I'll tell you both when to stop."
Finally, the Covenant Man thumbed one card out of the tookey deck and placed it on the table by the other two, making three. "Past, present, and future," he said, and tapped each card in succession with a bony, callused finger. There was a picture on it that looked to Lucas like a whirlwind, a sand-colored funnel coming down out of a dark sky, but then he realized he was looking at the scutten of the Citadel upside down. Many people said it looked like the Thirsty Castle, but what would they know? They'd never been in it like he had.
"The Tower, reversed," said the man in black.
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"It means something you were counting on isn't going to be reliable forever, Templeton. It's going to turn on you. The match in your hand is going to burn you."
Lucas chewed the inside of his cheek. "Somebody's going to betray me?"
The man said nothing, his unceasing grin mottled white like indian corn at the bottom of his hood. He passed one skinny hand over the first two cards and they were gone. He shuffled them back into the deck, leaving the Tower card on the table. "Now for your payment, Templeton Lucas."
"Payment?" Lucas blinked and leaned back. "Who said anything about payment?"
"What, you think you get magic for free, son?" said the man eloquently, carefully, diplomatically. "Perhaps you should have discussed that with me before I went to the trouble of drawing cards for you. Or are you accustomed to getting what you want without paying for it?"
"Why, yes." Lucas stared at him. "Yes, I am."
The white-faced shadows lurking at the back of the tavern came gliding in, their hands extended, the nails and razor-blades pushed into their fingertips glittering. They took hold of the man in black's upper arms, pinning him to his seat. A queasy brine of rotten meat followed them, clouding over the table. The lenses over their eyes, round black portholes set in white atavistic faces, afforded a glance only at darkness inside and tiny pinpricks of lambent orange.
The candle-flame licked and twitched. "Oh, come now," said the man in black. He made no move to resist, as if he expected this to happen. "Surely we can palaver over this in a civilized fashion. Your Wilders are unnecessary. No need to come to blows, yes?"
Lucas almost burst out with, I'll blow YOU! but caught himself in the nick of time. "How do I know you were telling the truth? How do I know you weren't just tryna to take the piss out of me? Are you one of Normand's men? Did he send you to undermine me?"
"Oh, not at all," said the man in black. "I don't work for the White, Mr. Lucas. I'm only here to be an agent of change. You see, I've already taken my fee. Well, a down payment on it, anyway; I'll get the rest here in a couple of months."
"What are you playin' at, you double-talking bastard?" asks Lucas, reaching for the Tower card.
"You'll see." The Covenant Man's tongue slipped over those too-many teeth and licked at his flaky chapped lip. "You will definitely know when it comes." Quick as a snake, he came up with a dagger and plunged it into the Tower card, thunk!, barely missing Lucas's hand. His head darted to the left and he blew the candle out, dropping the tavern into darkness.
"Shit!" growled the old man, snatching his hand away.
The Wilders' luminous eyes orbited nervously over the table. He could hear the shifting of the man's cloak, but it was a sinuous, easy movement, without struggle. Lucas reached into his threadbare jacket and took out a box of matches, fumbling one out and striking it on the ball of his thumb.
A tiny flame winked to life. The man in black was gone, leaving Lucas's monsters standing there in confusion, holding up an empty cloak. They draped it between them like bunting, clawing through the fabric as if they would find him hiding somewhere deep in its folds.
His eyes trickled down from the cloak, like a pebble tumbling down through a deep crevice, and he glimpsed the Tower card he'd reached for. The dagger-point still stood in it. But where it had been a gritty ecru color before, the color of sandalwood, the structure had changed color.
Now, he saw just before the match burned his fingers, the Tower was dark. 🔫