"You have to choose. You just can't stay neutral."

We were in a close tent. The walls were dark, almost blood red and outside I could hear the happier noises of the fair.

"I'm sick of people telling me what I don't and don't have to do." I spat. "That's not what I came here for."

She held out the cards and I took one. It sneered at me in the flickering candlelight and I examined it silently for a moment.

"You know what that means, of course."

"No, that's what you're here for."

I gave it back to her and she took it like a ghost. "It means you're far from human."

"I thought you were a future teller. Not a fortune teller."

She ignored me. "And you lost it by leaving."

I smirked. "So I can never go back home?"

Her dark eyes bored into my head (or the spot right beside me).

"It's not so much that," she explained, "it's just that you no longer have one."


I had to stoop to get outside of the Gypsy's stall. And afterward, the entrance folded after me like there'd never been anything there at all.

It's my favorite part of the year, the Carnival. There's no set time when it pops up, just when the river freezes over everything seems to gather and build up of its own accord (sometimes there are accidents with thin ice of course, but generally there's good instinct in the vendors; so if you take after them you'll be all right.) Like a live thing, like a growth.

Her stall wasn't on the river itself, but on the bank beside. But today a thick layer of snow had fallen over it all so you couldn't actually tell; which made me disoriented when I thought that rivers and such are usually what gives a city and country its spirit.

Only the bridge looked weird, standing over in the distance over nothing. I used it for an anchoring point, stood a moment to take it all in.

"Hey there." A teenaged came up to me right at that moment of course. "What're you still doing here?"

I recognized him; he was a pickpocket. One of the best, or the police would've caught him right away (if they weren't so lazy and corrupt). Sometimes I still asked him back for my ring, which he used once for a magic trick. He would shift around one on foot. You can't force these things, he would say. You make stuff disappear into thin air and it doesn't want to come back sometimes. Where does it go? Where do all lost things go?

I let out all my breath in a big puff; it all came out in a white cloud. Look, I'm a dragon.

"Where's your sister?"

He didn't respond or shrugged. Probably beggaring the tourists. Some of my friends stay away from here (from the whole area in general) when the Carnival's on, just because it has that sort of reputation. I kind of like it though; it's all in good nature. Sure, the vendors are vicious serpents but it's so nice to see all the tents of all different colors built up there. Red, pink, yellow, green. I wonder what it all means.

"Is it for your book?"

Who told him that? It took all my strength not to burst out laughing. "Where'd you hear that?"

He examined me curiously. "I heard you were a writer."

"But not all writers write books."

In fact, most of them don't nowadays. It's all computerized, not at all like when I was a kid; the death of paper.

"What do you write?" he asked.

"Fantasies," I told him, "mostly delusions."

He had scruffy dirty blond hair, which he covered with a newsboy cap. To be honest, he reminded me a bit of one of those Dickens characters.

"Oh." After a while he decided I wasn't interesting and moved off to easier prey. That is to say, a group of tourists standing nearby. My fellow countrymen: they were talking loudly and not warmly enough dressed.

Looking after him, I wondered if I should tell him – and how he would react if he knew. He probably wouldn't care. Most people don't even read nowadays.


Is that where I got it, that desire? From a book? That I read long ago in a dream. To learn, I thought, would take an eternity. Standing in the half-light watching. All those counters moving in such an enigmatic dance.

The board was enormous, I remember. It covered every inch of that table (five feet long at least) easily. The entire world spread out before me. I observed them fascinated, entranced. And they sat around it like spectres, like the fates themselves.

They were friendly enough though, when they noticed me standing there. One of them, grey-haired looked up and smiled.

"Want to join?"

How the snake trapped the butterfly.


Weren't many people out here today; probably because of the weather. For instance, the ice rink (a patch of cleared snow really) was totally empty. The dogs at the sled ride were the main attraction; their keeper was feeding them. They were wolfdogs I think (or maybe just wolves). Anyway, they seemed pretty feral, that way they were tearing at the food.

Lost in thougt, I just missed tripping over a small girl. She looked up at me and beamed. "Andrei!" Gabriella, she always called me that. The end of some elaborate winding pathway that began at me being a foreigner and ended at me being a prince.

"Hey." I was glad of her conversation though, her eyes beaming up at me. "Just saw your bro."

"Yeah. Something's up with him, right?" she lowered her voice. "Suspect somebody caught him. Lifting 'is watch or something."

"Really? And they didn't cut off his hand or anything?"

She scowled and kicked at me. "Dumbass."

I laughed and gave her some money (though I suspect they didn't need it; generally kids are good at pulling heartstrings. But were they even orphans or anything?) and went off to walk around a bit more.

From here, as always, one could see the Castle. It looked different than when I'd seen it before, as a small child. Standing atop its hill blanketed in snow. Maybe made of ice underneath.

It looked like it was sleeping.


"You should conserve your points at first," he told me, "a beginner like you. You'll need them later if you want to take any offensive action at all."

When I was a kid I was meek; nobody needed to keep me in line. But now – I feel like I would be capable. Of something.


All the pieces are in place, what did he mean by that? There's something to be said for preparing yourself, but also resting too. Because in this silence, this absence (where was the crowd that pickpocket was leading around? Like the piper. Maybe they fell through a crack in the ice.) I felt the weight of the world, the calm in the storm.

There wasn't one on the door today, so maybe that was why I felt that way. Strangely free.

Walking, my thoughts turned to him. Some people jokingly called him my coach. But he was a good guy, Jan; he genuinely watched out for me back then and tried to give me good advice. Right up until I decided to go anyway; that's the reason why we broke off. Maybe I should try to get back in touch with him, write a postcard or something. They say that older people don't begrudge us as much (or do they begrudge us more?)

After a while I found myself wandering among the artist's stalls. All the vendors (a motley lot) looked dead bored, like they were only waiting for everyone else to leave so they could pack up and go home.

"Aren't you cold?"

She looked at my hands as I looked through her wares. I shivered at her words, even though I wasn't really (the wind cut right through my sweatshirt). Some necklaces and bracelets and things. A glint of light on metal, one of them caught my eye and I picked it up.

"Did you make this?"

She shrugged.

"It's nice."

It was heavy in my hand; a good weight.

"We get them from some factory." She informed me. "Mark 'em up five hundred percent or so."

My gloves were getting pretty worn, I noticed. My fingers were poking out and the colors were fading fast; she probably thought I was a hobo or something.

"Here." I disabused her of that notion quickly. I didn't even haggle for it (how much money did I have left anyway?)

She smiled as she toyed with the coins. "For your girlfriend, right?"

It was on a silvery chain, a wrought-iron key. I don't care what she said – it looked handmade genuine to me. Made only for me.

"Maybe."

She brightened up a bit after that. But after the usual pleasantries I walked away from the stand (why did I feel bad about leaving? The fair would be here tomorrow. It would be here for a long time.

I looked forward to coming back too. Later they would have competitions, building ice sculptures and things. Maybe I would try to improve my balance on the ice rink.

It always comforted me to come here. Made me feel – not that I belonged exactly. But that at least I wasn't observed.)

After I reentered the city, with all the businessmen rushing around me, I felt dumb carrying it so I swung it around my neck instead. It felt weird; the metal was cold against my skin. But soon it warmed enough.

Only its weight I continued to feel.


(Back at the hotel room)

With fright I realized I was accumulating objects at a rapid rate (or at least I had never been in this habit before). Of course, I could toss them all away, just to be done with it all. Just so much more trash to be carted away. But part of me, a nagging voice in my head, told me it this point it would be a fatal mistake to do so. Or maybe I was just overthinking things again?

(Knife

Key

Cross)


"Watch carefully; this is the opening gambit."

Zoya was the one who introduced me to the Games. She didn't play herself, she explained, it's just this group like to frequent her favorite café. Thursday nights, you should join them. It seems like something you would like.

"Your turn."

Those dark nights in a back corner. Or sometimes we sat outside, our conversation spilling into the night.

He stood at my shoulder, watching it all unfold.

"You can't just sit back and do nothing and expect to survive long."

I have it in me, I swear. I just need, I just need –

"The board's advantageous for you. Go for the main cities."

– beginner's luck.

"You just listen to what I tell you to do."