Crystal Lattice

Mimi had just finished counting her earnings at a substantial sum of three hundred silver shells when an old beggar entered the tavern. Clothed in tatters, the ancient vagrant presented a disturbing assortment of greys and greens over his skeletal frame. Mimi found it odd that he didn’t have a walking stick or cane of some sort. Well, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he couldn’t afford one. Mimi considered assisting him, but that would have required physical contact with the miserable creature.

“My sincerest apologies,” grunted Elston the Bartender, “but we don’t serve those who can’t pay their way.” A callous smile betrayed his true sentiments.

Unfazed, the old man pathetically swung his way to the playing table.

“I didn’t expect any kindness or respect from your like,” he chuckled, “but I daresay you’ve exceeded my expectations in terms of stupidity. Someone of my years no longer has the slightest appreciation for food or drink. I’m here to dance with fortune.”

Elston’s formless face blazed red with fury at the insult. “Well you can’t play if you can’t pay,” he spat back.

Amused, the old man slipped a stalky arm into his rags and pulled out a jagged, turquoise stone. At first glance, the stone appeared unremarkable, but as the tavern’s dim candles cast their flare upon it, a legion of colors exploded from within. Mimi hadn’t gazed upon anything half as beautiful since her days in the palace.  Sailors and scoundrels gasped and muttered with amazement. Quiet Kara let out a squeal that reverberated through everybody’s glasses.

“That’s a Mermaid’s Melancholy!” Mimi exclaimed. “There’s enough energy packed within one of those to keep a warship running for a century.” The room was lost in excitement as people clamored to get closer to the treasure, many shouting out offers as well. Elston had to slam his fist upon the counterpart to calm the din.

“Very good, my lady,” the old man applauded, turning around. Smiling with a jagged quilt of black and grey teeth, he tipped the Melancholy towards Mimi, casting a carnival of dancing rainbows on her unsuspecting face. “And this prize can be yours!”

Mimi was confused. “Me? You must be mistaken. Towns have been destroyed for specimens half the size of yours.” She wasn’t complaining, but everything seemed so implausible. A fake wouldn’t have shimmered like that, but I’ll be he has more than one trick under those rags.

“Oh, don’t worry. There’s something of yours that you can certainly wager.” The old man wheezed—a rancid geyser of  air particles expired from his cavern of a mouth. Half gasp, half laugh, it sent a shudder through the room. He pointed to her chest.

Mimi’s hand instinctively bunched up into a fist, ready to crack the lecherous freak across the face. The Port had plenty of that sort of woman and Mimi did not think it needed another.

“Not that, you silly fool.” The old man hacked through another grin, his finger circling the same spot near her bosom, “The necklace!”

The fist clenched harder. Mimi could hear crackling between her fingers. Somehow, the old man could tell her amulet was something of value. Truthfully, it had proven nigh useless for as long as she had it, and it was a liability, too—the only relic of her time in the palace. It was a trophy of freedom from her family that she couldn’t bear to lose.… Not that she would!

Brushing her hair out of her face, Mimi nodded—no sign of weakness. “I accept,” she said coolly, wishing she could have laughed in the bum’s face. No, that would require coming closer. Calmly, Mimi unclasped the amulet and lay it down on the playing table. A shiver went through her neck. It feels almost naked, but it won’t for long.

“I say, you resemble an old sweetheart of mine,” the old man remarked. After setting his treasure next to hers, he took the opportunity to blow her a kiss. Mimi could not help letting loose a glare at that gesture.

“Did you come here to blither or draw?” Mimi sniped. The sooner they finished this farce, the sooner she’d be able to hire a captain and rid herself of the port and all of its interesting characters.

“Although, truly, the likeness is only in appearance,“ the old man chortled.

Elston shuffled then dealt the deck, a sour expression on his face. Mimi yawned. I ought to buy drinks for everyone when we’re done—one for each of this moron’s jests. As they received their hands, Quiet Kara took care to refill their glasses. Mimi looked into the glass of her water and greeted herself with a smile. I have this.

Mimi looked at the cards in her hand. Her options were wide and varied. Behind her cards, she turned her head ever so slightly towards her glass. “Let me see. Let me see,” she murmured to herself. In the dark pool, the shapes of the old man’s cards came into view, swirling in the glass just as he was moving them around on the table. Three low numbers and a shark. Nothing to worry about here.  Now, if she could only see the last card. Oddly enough, its face was dark and convoluted, impossible to tell.

Mimi arranged her other cards accordingly. By putting a dolphin at the head of her pile, she would easily overcome his low numbers as well as counter his shark. In the final position, she put down her ace, the Mermaid. Perhaps I am too cruel. Neglecting to repress a smirk, she peered down into her glass again to verify the final card.

“Trying to tell your fortune, girl?” the old man cackled, “I’m afraid you need tea for that.” He accompanied the joke with a sound that was very much like a teapot before slapping his final card onto the table. Mimi ignored him, her eyes peering deeper and deeper… she saw a card with her face on it, but something was very wrong. The features were twisted and discolored. It was as if someone had beaten and bruised her very likeness. Trying to forget it, Mimi swept her drink from the table.

Elston the Bartender yelled, “You’re going to have to pay for that!” Mimi didn’t hear him. Slapping her final card onto the table, Mimi signaled her opponent to reveal. The first four cards came exactly as she had seen them, but a spike of doubt pierced her heart as the old man revealed his final card.  The mirror at the end of his pile spelled Mimi’s defeat. The mirror was an oft-ridiculed card for lacking in utility, but in the face of a total loss, the mirror could reverse the outcome.

“Nobody ever wins with the mirror! You had to have cheated.… You vile beast. You’re nothing but a swindler, a cheater, and a thief!” For the first time since life in the palace, Mimi found herself losing control, throwing her cards wildly.

“I’ve always said harsh words are nothing more than shards of glass. Ignore the cutting sensation, put them together, and you have a mirror,” the old man replied curtly as he took Mimi’s necklace and the melancholy in the same hand. “I only did what I had to do to rebalance the game. It’s not cheating if both sides are guilty.”

“What do you mean?” Elston asked.

“If it wasn’t obvious already, this girl is a sorceress. A water witch in fact. She’s been using her drink as a scrying device—to cheat at cards.” Quiet Kara hissed, “You little slag.”The tavern shook, as angry patrons demanded Mimi give back her winnings.

The old man continued, “Unfortunately for you, I recognized you as a verbalizer right away. When I heard you say ‘see,’ I knew exactly what you were doing, though I haven’t been completely honest either. You can call me Chack. I’m the Royal Wizard. Now, I must arrest you for illegal practice of magic. Is there anything you’d like to tell me before we take you in for questioning? Like where you got this priceless relic?”

“Who’s we?” Mimi retorted through gritted teeth.

“I don’t normally do this kind of thing, but you’re making it a pleasure.”

Chack clapped his hands ceremoniously. In a flash of blue, seven armored Ultramarines surrounded the table. Each of them aimed a bare hand at Mimi, as if beckoning, Halt or we’ll fry you.

“Might we be compensated for housing this little exchange?” Elston asked, hoping to profit. Chack smiled, but shook his head. Elston moaned, “That’s not fair.”

Sighing Chack replied, “A lot of things aren’t fair.”Visibly vexed, he snapped his fingers. As if pulled by one string, the Ultramarines aimed their hands at the bars’ workers and customers. It was there that Mimi found an opening. “Farewell,” she half whispered, half-sighed, to the scoundrels she had deluded herself into thinking were her friends. No sooner had she said the word than a blizzard blew into the room. From the glasses and the bottles around her, Mimi summoned a thousand flakes of multicolored snow. Under a cloud of frozen elixirs and wines, Mimi fled The Mildly Surprised Tern. If she had looked back, she would have seen the blue lightning reduce it to smithereens.

This story is excerpted from a novel in progress.