“Carnymancy’s good for a lot of things, Y’Majesty,” said Dove, expertly shuffling the deck of cards. Her hands moved like swords in combat, but her manner was relaxed. “You’d be surprised. People don’t understand it. If you wanted your fortune told right, for example—if you wanted a happy ending—you should maybe-a come to me first. Predictamancy’s a trap. But with Carnymancy, ya always got an angle. A sneaky way out. Cut ‘em.”
She held out the neatly stacked deck to the King with a mischievous smirk. He tilted his head, selected a bit more than half of the cards, and set them on the tabletop. “I’d say that’s exactly why we want to hire you. We need a sneaky way out.”
“It was a sneaky way in you needed first,” said Bucky Bits wryly, “getting down here.”
They were holding this meeting in the Portal Room, among the clutter. Digdoug, Bucky, Dove and even King Posbrake all sat upon ordinary trunks and crates. A single white powerball floated in the air above the little square table they were seated around. The purple frame of the portal behind her gave Dove’s black curls an eerie, magical-looking sheen.
“Trivial matter, for a Ruler,” scoffed Posbrake. “I know more or less where everyone is. I just had to avoid people. Take a few less convenient stairways. That was all.”
“You know where the Homekey units are,” said Chief Bucky. “Who do you think shooed the Delkey troops out of your way?”
“Mm,” acknowledged Posbrake.
“Secret stuff,” grinned Dove, as she dealt out a hand of three cards to each of them. “What, you can’t even let your own people know I’m here?”
Digdoug didn’t know what game they were playing, but since Dove picked up the cards she’d dealt herself and looked at them, he did the same. He had an eight of spades, an eight of clubs, and the seven of diamonds. He arranged them with the eights paired to the left.
Posbrake made a resigned face. “My own people, yes. My allies...” He studied his hand of cards thoughtfully. “What are the rules of this game?”
“The rules of this game,” said Dove, her bright smile twinkling under the powerball, “we make up as we go along, except for one secret rule that I will tell you before we start. We’re each going to lay down a card face down. Then we flip them over all at once, and the high card wins the ‘trick.’ Other than that, you tell me. Lord Digdoug, you start, hon. Make up one rule. Could be anything.”
Digdoug’s eyebrows went up. He guessed since he was sitting to Dove’s left, it was his turn. “Oh um, okay. Eights are now the highest card.”
Dove nodded in approval. “Very good. Everybody got that? Eights are the highest card.”
Bucky nodded, studying her hand. King Posbrake eyed Digdoug askance. “Eights?” he said skeptically. The Dirtamancer shrugged, trying not to look too pleased with himself. With two eights, he should win two of the tricks. He guessed that would win him the game, or at least this round.
“Now you make a rule, Y’Majesty.” There was a rustling under the table as Dove nudged the King’s leg with her own shapely, stockinged one.
Posbrake studied his hand for a moment, and nodded to himself. “Black cards have no value at all,” he announced.
Digdoug and Bucky both looked at their cards and groaned. “No fair,” muttered Bucky.
“It’s all fair,” said Dove in a kind of sing-song. “The rules are the rules. Now make one up yourself, y’Chiefness.”
Bucky’s eyes narrowed at her hand, and then she shot the King a wicked glance. “Very well. Every time I play a card, I win the trick,” she said.
“What?” exclaimed Posbrake. Digdoug also leaned forward to protest.
“That’s my rule,” said Bucky.
She looked at Dove, who nodded. “That’s her rule.”
“But she might as well say, ‘I win the game,’” Posbrake objected. Digdoug agreed aloud.
“Ooh, may I change my rule to that?” said Bucky.
“Nope,” said Dove. “Every time Bucky plays a card, she wins the trick. That’s the rule.”
“Well then, now you’re going to pick the ‘I win the game’ rule,” said the King, gesturing at Dove.
“Nope,” said Dove again. “Dealer doesn’t get to make a rule. But I will tell you the secret rule now: ‘you cannot use the rule you made, to win a trick.’”
The three of them sat in stunned silence, looking at their hands and trying to process what it meant for their chances. “So I screwed myself,” said Bucky, “I can never win a trick now.”
“You can still win a trick if you have the high card,” said Dove. “But your rule will never count, because it would always make you win. Y’see?”
Posbrake nodded and grunted, seeming to re-evaluate his opinion of the game. Bucky examined her cards dubiously. “I see,” she said.
“Now everyone take a card from your hand and lay it face down.”
Digdoug didn’t have any idea at this point what would be a smart play, so he chose the eight of clubs and put the card down in front of him. When everyone else had done so too, Dove said, “Now flip ‘em over.”
The cards revealed were:
Digdoug — 8♣
Posbrake — 5♦
Bucky — A♠
Dove — 10♦
“High card. Do I win?” asked Bucky.
“Black cards do not count,” said Posbrake.
“Your handsome King is correct,” said Dove, pointing at the cards in turn. “Chief Bucky and Lord Digdoug each have zeros, because of His Majesty’s rule. And my red 10 beats your red 5, so I win the trick. Everyone see that?” Dove swept up the four cards and placed them face down in a little stack in front of her after they had all acknowledged the win. “Pick another card and lay it face down.”
With his eights apparently invalidated, Digdoug decided to play the seven. The cards flipped over this time were:
Digdoug — 7♦
Posbrake — 6♥
Bucky — Q♣
Dove — 4♠
Bucky looked resigned. “It’s Digdoug.”
“It is Digdoug,” affirmed Dove. “Blacks count zero, and the 7 beats the 6. Take your trick, hon.”
He gathered the four cards and placed them face down. Dove dropped the card she was holding, face-up, onto the table. The queen of diamonds. “Throw down your last card.”
Digdoug — 8♠
Posbrake — K♥
Bucky — J♥
Dove — Q♦
They stared at the cards for a bit. “I believe it’s me,” said Posbrake, but he seemed uncertain.
Digdoug cleared his throat. “Your rule that invalidates my black 8 can’t make you win, Sire.”
“That’s true, the eight’s not a zero,” said Dove, “but your ‘eights are highest’ rule can’t make you win, either. I’m afraid what you’ve got there, my friend,” she said, pointing to Digdoug’s card, “is just a plain old eight of spades. So the King with the king...is king. You win, Y’Majesty.”
“I win the trick,” nodded Posbrake. He left the cards on the table. “How does one win the game?”
“There’re different ways to play it,” said Dove, shrugging. “Usually we play first to fifteen tricks and keep score. Most games, we reset the rules every hand, but sometimes we let ‘em accumulate until it becomes a memory game to see who can keep track of ‘em all. We can keep playing, if you want. I know I’m havin’ fun...” She aimed a grin squarely at Posbrake, and Digdoug was pretty sure she rubbed the King’s leg with hers again. Bucky gave her a glance. “But the reason I showed you this was that it was actually a demonstration of Carnymancy. Here, let’s lay out these tricks again.”
Lady Dove collected all the cards that had been in play, and reproduced the arrangement of the tricks on the tabletop, oriented so they faced King Posbrake:
1st — 8♣, 5♦, A♠, 10♦
2nd — 7♦, 6♥, Q♣, 4♠
3rd — 8♠, K♥, J♥, Q♦
“Prob’ly the most common spell in Carnymancy lets you break one rule, for one turn, for one unit.” Dove punctuated her words by holding up an index finger. “As you get more powerful as a Carny, there are more and more rules it’s possible to break. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it can be. It really can.”
She looked at each of them in turn, holding the table’s full attention now. “Each of you picked a rule to favor yourself. You were counting on that rule to work for you and make you win. You, especially,” she wrinkled her nose playfully at Bucky, but the Chief was wearing that professionally neutral face she’d used on Digdoug in her office. “When the rule was broken only for you, what happened?
“Chaos, right? Everybody thought Her Chiefness had the lock, because her rule was so strong. But she didn’t win any tricks at all, despite havin’ high cards. The stronger the rule in your favor, the more it hurts when someone takes it away. And Digdoug...”
Dove turned to him and beamed that cute little grin. “You won a trick, but it was with your weakest card. Betcha didn’t expect that seven to be your winner.”
“No,” he said, smiling and shaking his head.
“Your Highness, though,” she said, turning to Posbrake and pointing at the cards. Her bosom hovered over the table as she leaned in. “Your plan pretty much played out as expected. That king of hearts stayed strong, and it won. And hey, that card miiight even be telling a little bit of a fortune for you,” she threw him a wink, “if you’re lucky.”
The King raised an eyebrow, looking mildly pleased.
“So Carnymancy is about changing the game, but it’s not all-powerful. Some plans get disrupted, and some stay robust. I should point out that your rule was a kind of Carnymancy, too. You made their strongest cards not count. Very well done. That’s thinkin’ like a Carny.
“As for me, I didn’t do squat,” said Dove, “but I benefited from the chaos, just by being in the game when everything was falling apart. That happens, too. For every surprise loser, there’s a surprise winner. I got a trick handed to me. Free money, take it when it comes to you. Speaking of which...”
She swept the cards into the deck deftly, shuffled them once, and set them on the table. She folded her hands neatly in front of her and smiled sweetly at King Posbrake.
“Yes, your fee,” said the King, straightening his posture. Bucky leaned forward, also putting her hands together on the tabletop.
“It’s very reasonable, I promise,” said Dove. “I’ll need you to feed me, and assume my upkeep of 75 Shmuckers a turn for as long as I’m working for you. If I solve your problem with the Prediction, I want two thousand, straight up.”
King Posbrake looked over at Bucky, whose narrow eyes and tight mouth were telling him “no.” His own lips tightened, and those worry lines appeared on his forehead.
He looked back at Dove. “Do you believe you can solve our problem?”
The Carnymancer shrugged a little. “I’m not sure. Cheating Fate is a very tricky business. Predictions are pretty robust, you know? It might not take actual Carnymancy to undo it, but more just ‘thinking like a Carnymancer.’ But yeah, I’ve got a few ideas. I’d be more than happy to share them with you, if you hire me.”
“I would like to hire you,” said the King cautiously, “but our treasury is under close scrutiny from our parent side at the moment. They have actually sent their Moneymancer here, and are attempting to audit our expenses.”
Dove’s brown eyes went wide, and she threw Digdoug a quick glance. “Ohhh. ‘One too many Moneymancers right now.’ Got it. Hah! I was wonderin’. Okay.”
She leaned in a bit, and Digdoug struggled to keep his gaze above her chin. “You need your books cooked. That is definitely Carnymancy. Hire me tonight, and if their Moneymancer goes away satisfied tomorrow, I’ll take five hundred off the top, plus food and upkeep for two days. Deal?”
Once again, the King and his Chief of Staff held a brief, wordless consultation. It ended with Bucky giving him a shrug.
“Deal,” said Posbrake. “You may align.”
Almost at once, Digdoug could see the Barbarian as an allied unit. “My pleasure,” said Dove. “This’ll be fun.”
“Let’s hear your ideas, Caster,” said Bucky, in a clipped monotone.
Dove flashed another smile. “All right! So. You got a Prediction of a massive attack on this city by air, right?”
King Posbrake nodded.
“And you don’t know by who?”
“No,” said His Majesty.
Dove put her elbow on the table and supported her chin with her thumb and fingertips impishly. “Have you considered attacking yourself?”