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Chapter 46


Crickets chirped. LOUDLY. Bianca fluttered around agitatedly as Marcia momentarily disappeared into her tent to fetch one of her notebooks, a small sliver of moonlight from the airborne crescent above them glancing off her translucent blue wings as she beat them feverishly to stay warm. Drake felt a tinge of excitement, as if the Revealing of Dramatic Backstories meant that they were real heroes. Jack yawned and stretched out his arms, leaning backwards against a log with a lazy smirk on his face.

Marcia hurried out of her tent, carrying her notebook and several blankets, one of which she tossed to Drake. He smiled gratefully, for he had been too macho to ask for one. Despite having twice as many blankets as anyone else, Marcia was shivering noticeably, and her teeth chattered so hard it was difficult for her to speak. Drake's face and hands were so cold that they were in excruciating pain. Bianca snuggled up on the ground next to Marcia's legs in a wooly red tea cozy, beating her wings to keep warm.

Jack did not appear to be bothered at all. He reached across Marcia's lap and grabbed the notebook.

"I will be keeping score." He announced, scribbling something on the first available page.

"This is so great." Bianca squealed at the delightful irony of it. "Keeping score at backstories."

"Genius." Marcia agreed. "You are my hero, Jack."

Jack took a bow. Jack and Marcia had temporarily forgotten that they hated each other.

"Alright, so who would like to go first? Drake?"

Drake shook his head vigorously, blushing, and Marcia and Bianca laughed.

"I'll go first!" Marcia said eagerly. Jack gestured for her to proceed and all eyes and ears turned to her.

"I guess I have to start with parentage. No idea who my father was, doesn't matter as he's dead anyways. Mother was the infamous Black Widow, Morgan Widdow who killed all her lovers. She was tried for witchcraft and burnt at the stake when I was three."

"Bah!" Jack broke in loudly. "Minus ten points for cliché! You're an orphan and you don't know the identity of one of your parents?"

"That isn't my fault!" Marcia protested with a squeal of laughter as Jack snorted derisively and struck ten points from her score. "I'm in the negatives already? Oh, fine… After my mother died," she pressed on "I was taken in by my grandmother."

"Wise old mentor?"

"Crazy old hag."

"Still cliché. Better than a wise old mentor. I'll only dock two more points."

"Oh come on, this isn't fair –" She made a halfhearted attempt to take the notebook out of his hands, did not succeed, and sighed exagerratedly. "Anyways, my grandmother took me in and raised me. She raised me to be a witch, of course. From the day she took me in it was nothing but basic schooling, itchy black dresses, magic lessons, magic lessons, and more magic lessons." She smiled wryly. "I think it was somewhere around this time that I began to really, really dislike witchcraft. Rotten though my grandmother was, I have to be thankful for it. If she'd treated me well I'd probably be just like my mother today."

"Are you about to launch into the story of how your unshakable inborn sense of morality was awakened by her mistreatment, and this is how you survived without becoming a witch like her?" Jack asked irritably.

"No!" She said indignantly. "Morals had nothing to do with my hatred of witchcraft!"

"Then why did you hate witchcraft so much?" Drake wanted to know.

Marcia sighed. "Drake, what was your least favorite subject in school?"

"Oooh, metaphor time!" Bianca said gleefully.


"Alright then. Imagine then, that from the moment you could walk and talk, everybody told you that you were going to grow up to be a mathematician. You had no choice in this matter. Your father was a mathematician, your grandfather was a mathematician; you descended from the noblest line of mathematicians ever to exist, and if you did not become a mathematician you would bring shame to your household forever and ever and ever and possibly be stoned to death. From day one, the only thing you are taught in school aside from basic literacy…is arithmetic. Day in and day out arithmetic, from dawn until dusk, every day for your entire life. And imagine that you live alone with your arithmetic teacher, and your arithmetic teacher is a hateful old bat who expects you to spend all of your free time studying arithmetic. And imagine, as well, that you're no good at arithmetic. You can't keep the numbers straight, your equations are always imbalanced, and no matter how many hours you spend calculating and re-calculating, two plus two always comes out to five, and you can't get it to do otherwise. And your teacher, of course, berates you and tells you that you're a failure and you're going to disgrace your family, and demands that you study arithmetic for longer and longer hours each day. You get no dinner until you can make two plus two equal four. Now on top of this, don't forget that in order to be a mathematician you must never have any friends, you must never cry or show any sort of feelings, and you must wear always itchy black dresses and really ugly hats. …tell me, are you going to want to be a mathematician?"

"Not particularly." Drake admitted.

"That's what I thought. By the time I was eight, I was a contrary little brat. And I was more determined to disgrace my family than one would have thought possible at such a tender age. Don't laugh – it's true. I figured it was my calling. To hear my grandmother talk, you'd think I had a prodigious talent for it."

Jack snickered.

"Interesting ambition. You get five points for amusing contrariness and five more for the analogy about the arithmetic. Now you're up to negative two."

"You're too kind." Marcia said sarcastically.

"But where did the morals come from?" Drake wanted to get to the good-triumphing-over-evil part.

Bianca smirked.


"Let me tell it! My grandmother had a huge library. She encouraged reading to an extent, though learning spells always took precedence, and that was enormously time-consuming. But I would constantly sneak into the library and smuggle books back into my bedroom. I hoarded them. Sometimes I would grab three, read them all in one night, and smuggle them back before Granny Widdow could notice. I read like crazy. And that was where the morals came from. Mostly I read swashbuckling adventure tales with amazing heroes and dastardly villains. The usual stuff. Previously, of course, I had had no notion of Good and Evil, but you really don't need to read all that many stories to get a grasp of it, you know? And I read loads. Either way, it wasn't a very difficult leap. The one thing that I wanted more than anything else was NOT to be a witch, and according to all of my literary sources, witches were Evil. So I decided that I was going to be Good."

"Not bad, not bad. You get five points for being well read, minus ten points for having morals, and plus two for developing said morals out of spite. You are now at negative five."

"I don't think I'm being graded fairly." Marcia said dryly.

"It's not my fault your backstory sucks." Jack snorted.

"Oh, psh. I was ten years old when I found Bianca in a potion cabinet. How she got there is her backstory, of course. She had just emerged from her cocoon, had no idea where she was, and was in mortal danger of being thrown into a potion, so I took her back to my room and hid her in a secret compartment in the back of my closet where my grandmother wouldn't find her. I can't really talk too much about that, since she's got her backstory next, but basically we hit it off right away and she made the next four years a lot more bearable."

"Aww." Bianca grinned.

"Pfeh. Friendship. Minus five points."

"Oh, bah!" She laughed. "I bite my thumb at you!" She giggled, waving her hands around in a generally dismissive manner. "Quit interrupting me. There are only three things that stuck out at me about the next four years. Bianca, writing, and getting the hell out of there. Bianca was important because living with Granny Widdow and learning witchcraft was a whole lot less traumatic now that I had somebody to talk to. In fact…a lot of things that had plagued me for years became very, very funny. That was just our approach to things, I guess. We made everything into a joke, including puberty, which by the way was a scary, scary time for us because Granny Widdow didn't even warn me about my monthly courses and when I got them I thought I was dying, and Bianca didn't even have anyone of her own species to talk to about what she was going through – wing development and such, in addition to all of the things we humans have to deal with. But we laughed about it. It was all very funny if you had the right perspective on things, and I even began keeping a humorous diary about my life at Granny Widdow's – wish I still had it."

"Minus twenty points for mentioning your monthly courses in your backstory." Jack said, thin-lipped.

"Oh don't be such a baby!" Marcia scoffed, making to tug the notebook out of his hands. "Anyways, it was around age eleven that I started writing stories of my own. Mostly adventure pieces, all humorous, pretty much all with female protagonists – unusual, of course, but I didn't think it so at the time, I figured that the reason all the books I had read were male-oriented was because they were all written by men. My stories were, of course, all completely terrible up until I was fourteen. They were probably still pretty horrible at fourteen, but at the very least I had some grip on characterization by then. By this time, I had made up my mind that once I got away from my grandmother's house, I was going to become a writer. Bianca and I made extensive plans for how we were going to get out and make an honest living in the outside world – we planned ourselves blue in the face, didn't we Bianca? – and when I wasn't planning, I was writing, and when I wasn't writing, I was reading. The problem with that was, I wasn't learning much magic. I excelled at simple convenience spells – water heating, duplication of small objects, food preservation – and moving objects around by magic. I was vaguely talented at transformation, useless at common curses, passable at illusions, and utterly, morbidly pathetic at potion-making. My grandmother wanted to hex me into a puddle of funny-smelling green sludge."

"I swear I saw her try once." Bianca piped up, grinning.

Marcia laughed.

"Alright, so I've taken a long time with this, might as well get to the exciting part. Long story short: I go up to my room that day, the box of notebooks in which I kept all the stories I had ever written is not there. I panic. Tear my room apart. Nothing. Tear apart the whole floor. It's not there. Then I smell smoke."

Drake gasped. "No! Not your stories!"

"Yeah." She said bitterly. "My stories. Granny Widdow found the box, conjured a fire in the upstairs fireplace – magically, of course, using some potion we'd had stored for ages, because if she'd gotten close enough to actually start the fire she'd have been burned to a crisp – and tossed it in. Not a single page survived. By the time I got there, all of my stories were reduced to ashes." Marcia swallowed hard to fight the rising lump in her throat, mourning the loss of her early creative works, and Bianca hugged her neck. Drake muttered a soft "that's terrible" and patted her on the shoulder.

"What did you do when you found out?" Jack asked, sympathetically adding a point to Marcia's score.

"I pushed her into the fire."

"WHAT?" Drake and Jack chorused as Bianca burst into giggles and Marcia's face slowly spread into a grin.

"I pushed her into the fire. I mustered all my courage and in one big adrenaline rush of rage I ran up behind her and shoved her into the fireplace, where she was instantly incinerated. Then I found the presence of mind to grab the fire extinguishing potion and keep the house from burning down." She shrugged. "No need to look at me like that, Drake. Granny Widdow has killed more people in her day than you could count on all your fingers and toes."

"You killed her!" Jack burst out laughing. "That's great! Plus fifty! You're in the positives now, kid!"

"Oh for Pete's sake…" Marcia made a dismissive gesture.

"So is that it?" Drake looked extremely disconcerted. "That's the end?"

"Well, pretty much. I was only fifteen at the time. You already know the rest, we moved out of my grandmother's house, sold all her potions and bought a house in the most obscure village we could find, and made an honest living."

"Hmm…anticlimactic. Minus ten. You end with eleven points." Jack smirked. "Not bad for a cold-blooded murderer."

"Oh, hush!"

"Ooh, ooh, does that mean it's my turn?" Bianca interrupted, bouncing up and down excitedly.

"Yes," Drake said hurriedly, metaphorically edging away from the uncomfortable ending of Marcia's backstory in much the same way as he was physically edging away from Marcia.

"Yeah, you next. I don't want to hear Drake's backstory yet and we're saving mine for last." Jack declared haughtily.

"Has it occurred to anyone else that Jack becomes even more insufferable during competitive games?" Marcia wondered aloud.

"I was beginning to notice." Drake said pointedly.

"AHEM!" Bianca cleared her throat loudly, fluttering into the air. "Well, un… unbeknowed… unbeknowned… unbeknownsted to you all because Marcy didn't include this in her backstory, Granny Widdow had a colony of faeries in her garden. And she was all exploiting them! Stupid hag. There was a faerie nest in one of her trees and she knew it and let them alone but she would occasionally go out into her garden and when she found one of the poor little men getting nectar for the larvae she would all grab them and take them inside and make them potion ingredients!! It was not very nice. And nobody noticed that they were gone, we all thought they'd been eaten by a whatsitwhatsit, er, birdy-thingum – this happens sometimes – and so she got away with it! Isn't that so unfair?" She crossed her arms and made a huffing noise, sitting back down on Marcia's shoulder. "And I was all unsmart when I was a lil faerie child, so I made my cocoon on a random nearby flower instead of in the nest. And when I came out of the cocoon, I was IN A CABINET!!! And I was like AAAAGGGGHHHH because I didn't know what a cabinet was and it was scary and I'd never been inside a house before and the cabinet door was opened by a big scary person!!!!! But it was only Marcia. And Marcia knew about the faerie colony but couldn't do anything about it because she wasn't really allowed out of the house much 'cept when they took field trips to visit relatives and demonstrate the proper way to torture villagers. So she explained to me. And then she rescued me and hid me in her room and taught me to read. I could like speak to her because I had the Gift of Tongues now! You get that when you come out of your cocoon. So I like hid in her room for four years! It was nifty. We giggled a lot. And, and, and I realized that POETRY WAS MY LIFE!!" She dramatically threw her arms around Marcia's neck. "I could never have done it without you! I would have remained illiterate, un-be-knownst-ing of the vast and lovely realm that was poetry! How can I ever thank you?"

"Minus fifty points for blathering." Jack snapped.

"Bleh! That's not fair."

"Keep going."

"Fine!" Bianca was now clearly flustered. "So, Marcia helped me to discover the poetry buried deep within my soul –"

"I will never forgive you." Jack said to Marcia. Marcia looked vaguely apologetic.

"I don't think you're all being very fair…" Drake protested on Bianca's behalf, somewhat anxious as to what they were going to do when they got to his backstory.

"Pipe down, you're interrupting." Jack ordered.

"You interrupted her!" Marcia practically shouted.

"Well?" He prompted. "Go on."

"You keep interrupting everybody and then shouting at them to get back on topic!" Drake threw up his hands in exasperation.

"ANYWAYS!!" Bianca said loudly. "I became a poet. Marcia wrote her stories and would read them aloud to me at night when she should have been practicing her spells. And together, we decided that one day we would BREAK FREE of her evil grandmothery person and STRIKE OUT ON OUR OWN as decent, respectable authors who would change the world with our art!"

"This was in her words, not mine." Marcia hastened to clarify.

"Yes, well, it was the principal of the thing." Bianca huffed. "All those years we…we…whatsit… dreamt!! That's it. Of the day when we would finally be free! Only, only when we DID get all free and stuff, I sorta found out that faeries…they were not like fairies. I mean, you only read about FAIRIES, ya know? And they're all wonderful and romantic and in tune with nature and they give special gifts to babies with their magic dust. And I always sorta wondered why I never had any magic dust, but I figured I was just defective or somethin. Or a late bloomer. But no. I was a faerie. And faeries…they're not like fairies at all. They haven't got magic dust. And they're not sparkly. That's cause they haven't gots the dust, y'see. And they're sorta in tune with nature, but that's cause they mostly act like bugs. Well, depending on where they live. Those that are close to civilization can interact with the peoples and be sorta human-ish. But most of 'em do not lead interesting lives. They take care of larvae. They get nectar for larvae. They make larvae. And that's it. And THEY DON'T EVEN MATE FOR LIFE! There is no love in faerie mating AT ALL! You just pick some random specimen with the right set of parts and go at it and have a batch of larvae, and then once you've had those larvae you do it again! We're like breeding stock! WHAT KIND OF LIFE IS THAT? A LIFE WITHOUT LOVE! A LIFE WITHOUT BEAUTY! A LIFE WITHOUT ART!" She leapt off of Marcia's shoulder and flew dramatically into the air, waving her arms about. "I couldn't live that way! No no no!"

"You know what? That's just negative one-thousand points right there for that rant. You lose."

Bianca shrieked indignantly. "THAT ISN'T FAIR!!!"

"Psh, I went easy on you." He scoffed.

"I quit!" She snapped, folding her arms.

"Excellent." Jack grinned, turning the scoring notebook to the next page. "Now it's Drake's turn."

"Now see here…" Drake protested. "That isn't very sporting…"

"Well if you have any complaints, why don't you keep score?" Jack challenged.

"I'd be perfectly happy to keep score." Marcia said loudly, making to take the notebook from his hands.

"Too bad." He retorted, tugging it away. "Drake's turn. As of so far Marcia has eleven points and Bianca has approximately negative one thousand fifty. Go."

"Alright." Drake cleared his throat nervously, getting the distinct feeling that his backstory, uninteresting as it was, was going to be laughed at "Erm, only child, grew up in remote village, apprenticed to horse groom at age ten, parents died at age twelve, lived and worked with the other apprentices at the local stables – we lived in an apartment above the actually stables – until the man we were apprenticed to died, at which point we stopped being apprentices and got actual paying jobs there, except for Harrison who's married now and I've probably been fired because I haven't shown up for work in several weeks, though I did tell Jeffrey that I was going off to save Charisse's life, and the new manager isn't all that bad, though he's no Mr. Frederickson, so as long as my shift gets covered he probably won't especially mind." Drake yawned. It had been quite some time since he'd thought of Jeffrey and Cameron and his job at the stables.

"Heeeey!" Bianca broke in suddenly. "How come Marcy loses ten points for being an orphan and Drake doesn't?"

"Because I say so." Jack fired back, sticking out his tongue exaggeratedly. "And losing your parents at twelve is not like losing them at three."

"Is anyone noticing it getting colder?" Marcia scooted a tad closer to the fire and wrapped herself more tightly in her cloak. Her hands and face and all other exposed areas of her body felt absolutely raw with the cold, and she was shivering so violently that she had to back away from the fire a few seconds later, for fear of accidentally catching her cloak.

Drake nodded, his teeth chattering as he threw more wood into the fire. Bianca burrowed into the hood of Marcia's cloak, wrapping herself in the non-witch's hair. Jack feigned indifference, but his hands shook.

Drake leaned back against a log and smiled fondly, remembering his early teenage-hood.

"There were four of us apprentices. Me and three others. One of the boys was my age, two were a year older. Harrison, Jeffrey, and Cameron. All of us worked under Mr. Frederickson, the owner of the local stables. Mr. Frederickson was a wonderful man. We worked hard, but we always had decent food and bedding, and he was kind and taught us a lot."

"Wise old mentor." Jack smirked. "Minus fifteen."

"Mr. Frederickson was not old! He was very sprightly!" Drake said indignantly.

"This is boring! I wanna hear about Charisse!" Bianca fluttered her wings eagerly.

"Good God, why did you say that?" Marcia cried, as Jack's eyes widened in horror.

Drake smiled fondly.

"Wonderful. I couldn't actually tell you when I met Charisse or how I knew I was in love with her. I knew her from birth – her parents were vaguely familiar with my parents, and she was a horse lover and went often to the stables, which was where we really became friendly. She often came over to be around Cameron, Harrison, Jeffrey, and me and watch us do our chores. Usually she brought us food. This was a substantial part of why we all liked her." He chuckled. "By the time she was fourteen, and ready to be introduced into society – in other words, ready to be courted – we were all very, very close friends. It went completely downhill after her Coming Out Party. There were plenty of eligible young women in town, but Charisse being the most attractive, her being introduced into society was an enormous affair. Every eligible, marriage-aged person in the general area – from the stable boys to the old widowed men who owned large estates on the outskirts of town – was present, and every man among them wanted Charisse." He shuddered. "It was a nightmare. First she comes downstairs in this fancy ruffled ensemble with her waist all smushed and her face all powdered, so none of us can even recognize the girl who came to visit us at the stables. And then there were all these speeches about how she had become a woman now, and how very soon she would find a man to take care of her and provide her with a home. And of course every man in the room is thinking 'that's me.' Then everyone started to dance."

"Ooh, ooh, did you dance with her??" Bianca squealed.

"Not once."

"Ha! Plus ten points! You're pathetic, but you amuse me."

"I didn't know how to dance! And everybody else was so aggressive! There was this one boy there from out of town. Richard. Smarmy bastard. Wanted to dance with her all the time. Every time someone else got a chance he'd cut in. If someone cut in on him he'd make a fuss about it. If you protested he'd yank her out of your arms. And he was real grabby, too. Got way too close to her. It was obvious she didn't like him at all." Drake was clearly become very angry just thinking about it. "So Cameron, Harrison, and Jeffrey made it their mission to get her away from him. The whole night, Jeffrey cut in on Richard, Richard cut in on Jeffrey, Harrison cut in on Richard, Richard cut in on Harrison, Cameron cut in and so on and so forth. Charisse was getting passed back and forth like a hot potato. And spinning like a top, for that matter. She was swirling and dipping and being tossed all over the place. Richard figured out they teamed up on him and got really angry, gave her all these bruises on her wrists and sides." He frowned and clenched his fists.

At this point, even Jack and Marcia were listening with interest.

"Well?" Marcia encouraged him. "Go on."

"Charisse got less and less energetic in the dances. Pretty soon it was like she wasn't dancing at all, just being thrown around gracefully. I came closer to see that she was alright and she was panting. Her face was bright red and shining, she was sweating even through all that powder. Nobody noticed, of course. Everybody was too intent on grabbing her away from whoever was dancing with her at the time."

"That's horrible!" Bianca interjected.

"I agreed. I was the one who caught her when she fainted." Drake grinned proudly.

"Awww! That's great!"

Marcia groaned. "Romantic cliché!"

"Have to agree. Minus ten points."

Drake shook his head.

"I don't care what you say. She fell right into my arms, and I was the hero of the party. And me and the rest of the stable boys ambushed Richard on his way home and beat him senseless."

"You did?" Marcia and Bianca burst out with glee. "That's great!"

"That's terrible!" Bianca squeaked.

"That's a very satisfying ending. Jack said approvingly. "Plus twenty."

"But it's not the ending! It's the beginning of the whole town's struggle to win Charisse's heart. Jeffrey, Harrison, and Cameron all wanted her. Every other apprentice in town wanted her. Many eligible bachelors twice her age wanted her. She kept promising her mother she'd choose one she really liked, just to keep her from assigning her to the richest old man she could find. But when she was sixteen her mother died, leaving her with a small fortune and her own choice of whom to marry. Then it got nasty. Everybody was conniving and backstabbing like crazy to get into her favor. Rumors were spread, reputations were damaged, fights broke out, people shouted at each other in the middle of the marketplace. Cameron got the butcher's son drunk so he'd humiliate himself in front of her. All of the other maidens were furious. Charisse hated it. And I just kept growing closer and closer to her as a friend, because I never participated in it all."

"You didn't?" Marcia's tilted her head to the side, interested.

Drake shook his head.

"I'm not clever! Waging a war of wit and guile with the whole town would have been suicide. I just kept a low profile, played nice, and got as close to her as a friend as I could while planning my own proposal. I saved up for months to buy a ring, rehearsed what I was going to say. She always came to see us at the stables and I always walked her home at night. The next night that happened, we'd take the long way home, out of the way of everybody else, where it was quiet and we could look at the stars for a while. And then I'd take her hand and say," He took a deep breath "'Charisse, we've known each other for a long time, and over these years I have grown to hold you very dear to me. Your beauty and vitality are unrivaled, and I enjoy every moment spent in your company. I would be honored beyond compare if you would grand me the privilege of spending my life with you.' Then I would drop to one knee, kiss her hand, and ask her to marry me."

"AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!" Bianca screamed with delight.

"Minus fifteen."

"I couldn't do it. When the moment came, I took her hand, stared at it for a couple minutes, and then pointed out a constellation. I was wrong about which constellation it was, too." He said sadly. "I've still got the ring – I always carry it with me."

"Aww!" Marcia let out a little cry of sympathy and frustration.

"Since then, I have tried to propose to Charisse at least eighty-five times. Twice I just stared at her, three times I opened my mouth and nothing came out, once I opened my mouth and a string of gibberish came out, twice I said 'will you…' and then panicked and faked a fainting spell, five times I said 'will you…' and then asked her to hand me something, four times I gave up before I even started because I couldn't grip the ring because my hands were too clammy, once I went down on one knee and then pretended I had fallen down – "

"You're disqualified."

Everyone stopped and looked at Jack, confused.

"What?" Drake blinked.

"You're disqualified. We're playing Backstories, not 101 Times I Could Have Proposed To Charisse But Didn't Because I'm A Pansy. You're disqualified. You lose." He crossed out Drake's score on the scoring sheet, oblivious to Drake's halfhearted protests. "It's my turn now."

"Excellent." Marcia snatched the scoring notebook out of his hand quicker than he could react, looking way more proud of herself than common politeness allowed. It was revenge time, oh yes…

Her hands shivered, and she shook the bottle of ink to keep it from freezing. Bianca kept close to Marcia's neck, pulling the folds of her cloak around her. Drake shifted closer to the fire and rubbed his hands together. Jack stretched out, thoroughly enjoying himself.

"Well, my father was King Mathias Andrew Cringely IV of Wetherspring, and my mother was a gypsy fortune-teller who seduced him with a love potion she probably got from your mother, but an unfortunate side effect of the potion was that I was born a fully-formed adult, excessive facial hair and everything, thus my mother died in childbirth and I was raised by wolves – walking, talking wolves – on a diet of raw meat and whiskey, but then the alpha wolf kicked me out of the pack because he felt threatened by my extraordinary amount of influence and power, so I grew up on the streets and – "

"Jack!" Marcia broke in with a yelp of exasperation. Bianca was eyeing the con artist in disbelief, and Drake was eyeing him with considerably less disbelief than was appropriate.

Jack threw back his head and laughed as Marcia pressed her lips together and subtracted twenty points from his score for bullshitting. "Alright, alright. I was born on an island in the middle of this here river. I was the first of ten children. My father was a talented but not well-known thief, and my mother was a whiny, nagging wench. I didn't see my mother very much, because Dad went on 'business trips' a lot, where he would go to other villages, rob and con people, and send the money back to our family, and he always took me with him. When I was two years old, he would dress us up in rags and go up and down the street pretending that we were starving and begging people for money. I ceased to be cute enough for this to be effective when I was about six, which was, conveniently enough, around the time I started learning to pickpocket. I wasn't taught purse-cutting until I was nine because he didn't want me hurting myself with a purse-knife, bless him." He smiled fondly. "Of course, I was immensely talented. In fact, by the time I was thirteen I was a national legend, which was why I had to change my name, and I was so good that every day I robbed my father blind until one day he found out and beat me – "

"Jack!" They chorused.

"Oh, alright! By the time I was thirteen I was reasonably good, ok? I was fifteen when my Dad died. Hanged for thievery, of course. So I had to go home to my mother, who absolutely hated me, because she had absolutely hated my father for going out and conning people and leaving her alone to care for nine children all by herself – forget that his illegal business dealings were the reason she had bread on the table, the ungrateful hag – and she told me every day that my father was good for nothing and I was going to grow up to be just like him. And that was annoying, plus I didn't want to help her tend to all nine of my little siblings, so I moved out."

"Jacky!!" Bianca squealed reproachfully.

"Wow." Drake said, with every appearance of being absolutely astounded. "You're an asshole."

"Oh, come on…"

"You raise nine children all by yourself and tell us how ungrateful your mother is!" Marcia said indignantly, striking fifty points from Jack's score. "I'd have cut your father's thing off after the fifth pregnancy."

"Like mother like daughter." Jack retorted, and Marcia swung wildly for his head and missed, bristling at the castrating witch joke. "Anyways, since then I haven't really lived anywhere. I go from town to town like my father did, and sometimes I'll go back to the island, visit my family, give Mom some money – see, I'm not a complete asshole, I appreciate that she has no source of income except for hiring out my younger brothers – and just go around conning the locals. I stay in hotels mostly, sometimes I stay with friends, but mine aren't the friends you can trust, you know? Oh, and when my father died I also got this nifty jacket." He gestured fondly to it. "Unlimited storage space. Anything that anyone has ever put into these pockets and not taken out is still in there, and it's light as a feather. Absolutely ideal for any packrat, klepto, or both."

"Oooh, give him points for the jacket!" Bianca poked Marcia insistently in the neck.

"Alright, alright!" Scowling exaggeratedly to hide her laughter, Marcia added a measly two points to Jack's score, bringing him up to negative sixty-eight.

Jack chuckled. "Right now, my many occupations include conning, street robbery – picking pockets, cutting purses, etc – gambling – well, with extensive cheating – smuggling, highway robbery, selling stolen goods, trading contraband – I've got some excellent banned books for you, Marcia, but you'd have to have some way to pay – shoplifting, sneak thievery, extortion, armed robbery, and blackmail. I was a hit man for a while but didn't like it – too competitive."

"That's one hell of a resume." Marcia commented.

"That's terrible!" Drake reprimanded.

"That's life." Jack yawned and stretched. "So what's my score?"

"Plus ten for the extensive, evil but interesting resume. Your score lies at negative fifty-eight, therefore you lose. I win. The end." She closed the scoring notebook and stood up. "Now it's time to go to sleep. I'm exhausted and it's freezing out here."

"Hey!" Jack stood up as well. "That's not fair! My backstory was awesome!" Indignantly he tried to snatch the notebook out of her hands.

"Catch!" She said suddenly, tossing the notebook over Jack's head into the arms of a bewildered Drake, who dodged just in time as Jack lunged at him, throwing it back to Marcia, who giggled delightedly as she caught it, stumbling backwards as she fumbled to keep a hold of it and avoid Jack's grasp.

"Watch out!"

Marcia shrieked, a startling cry of terror as the hem of her dress ignited in the campfire.

In one fluid motion, Jack grabbed the pail by the handle and swung wildly, drenching Marcia and Bianca and spilling water all over himself as well, dousing both Marcia's cloak and the campfire.

Marcia collapsed onto her knees, visibly shaken.

"Are you ok???" Drake and Bianca chorused, Bianca in a register only audible to birds and whales, Drake kneeling beside Marcia and throwing another cloak over her as she began to shiver from the icy water.

"I'm fine, I'm fine…" she gasped, shuddering. "It just…scared me…"

"You could have DIED!" Bianca yelped.

"I'm acutely aware!" She shot back.

Jack extended a hand to help her to her feet, looking utterly unfazed.

"Plus one million points for heroism." He grinned, picking up the notebook off the ground. "I win."