~ started by drizzlestarstone
A single, silver knife, its tip embedded in wood.
A single, velvet voice, its every word smooth and amused.
“Shall we play the game?”
A momentary pause. A nod. And then –
His fingers, firm and sure around the rosewood handle, unclenched. Metal clattered against the table, even as the entire bar cheered. The bartender, belly distended, had to roar to make himself heard.
“200 times in 60 seconds!” was as far as he got before the crowd exploded.
And amongst it all he stood, posture triumphant, eyes sparkling with mouth split in a grin. To gamble with death was a game he played, and to toy with danger was his claim to fame. Each tavern he visited left his bag of gold a little heavier, the jingling of the coins matching the rhythm of the spurs that peeked out from the heel of his leather boots. He’d never broken a sweat, not ever, no matter the size of the crowd nor the measure of the stakes. His face was always calm, composed, his hat perhaps tilted at some cocky angle that inadvertently made more than one maiden swoon.
Only his eyes betrayed him, that feverish pleasure, the glimmer of wicked satisfaction, that oddly enough could only be derived from exposing himself to bodily risk.
Sometimes he would jump in the sequence. From thumb to pinky and back again he would change to alternate thumb and alternate finger, before abruptly converting to some other algorithm that played in his mind and blew others away. Occasionally he would do it blindfolded. That seemed to be the crowd favourite.
Because he had never lost.
The tavern he entered that day was packed more than most, and as such was the ideal fishing spot. His purse was feeling a little unwell, probably due to the roasted venison and ale he had last night. He settled his coarse traveler’s bag down on the stone floor and shuffled his chair closer. The table was pockmarked with age, carved and sculpted from cuts and cracks. Resting on the table his left hand could have been its brother; for it too was heavily scarred, the callowness of his fledgling youth having left traces on skin, traces brushed with time and soothed with experience.
A knife pulled out in a bar usually attracted attention, and he was not disappointed. Something began to spark in his eyes. With that deceptive smile he enquired, of no one in particular,
“Shall we play the game?”
The money came in many little piles, miniature towers of coins lining the edge of the table like fort sentries on watch. He gave the slightest of nods, the edge of his lips twitching, even as he reached back inside his bag to pull out a piece of old, worn cloth. With one fluid motion he had it tied around his eyes, and he heard the murmurs began. His fingers searched and grasped the knife, confident.
“One sandglass,” someone said. ” . . . Begin!”
He began and ended to thunderous applause.
And the moment he removed his blindfold was when his world changed. For the moment he removed his blindfold was the moment he saw her, the lady in red; her lithe figure enshrouded in enigma, her lips whispering a secret kiss, her eyes glinting a glint that fought his own.
She held a beauty that flamed like the corona of the sun.
She held an elegance as polished as the mirror surface of a lake.
And most of all, she radiated an aura that flared and burned and simmered, blazing with nothing but the taste of danger.
Pure, intense, undiluted danger.
He was drawn to her like a moth to a flame. One, two, three nights passed and still he stayed, the fernweh within him drowned out by the raging conflagaration of attraction. Was it lust? Was it love? He didn’t know. And he didn’t question it. What was more exciting than uncertainty?
She was silent. She was silent with him as a mute is silent to the world. She was cold. She was cold to him like the winter zephyr that was beginning to drift in from the north. But he was fire and he would have her, despite the warnings that this fire would only consume him, and despite the rumors that he was far from the only one. He would have this ice maiden, and thaw her heart with passion, he swore.
One day she spoke.
Her voice was silver bells.
“Lose a game.”
Her voice was sweet, sweet musk.
“And then I will marry you. That is my condition.”
After days of her silence he never expected such a condition to be set by her. Lose? How easy. He thought to himself. He decided that obtaining her would be his greatest accomplishment, so it wouldn’t matter if he were to lose one game.
The very next night, he again closed his eyes –
And when he opened them he saw . . .
He saw no wound and he felt no cut. No blood stained his hands, his knife, or the table. At that moment, the crowd went wild with cheers. They barely saw his knife as it blurred across his hands.
“I couldn’t even count that! It must have been more than 300!” the bartender yelled.
What just happened? Wasn’t I supposed to lose with a cut or two? he wondered. This was not how he imagined things would go. He went the fastest he could so as to lose extravagantly, yet he still managed to win.
He wondered how but immediately dismissed it as good luck.
The day after that, he tried to again do something incredibly difficult; he tried the game with his toes. He thought, without a doubt, that he would lose with such a seemingly impossible challenge. He had never even attempted it before.
As the seconds passed, his eyes became wider and wider. He wasn’t messing up. He wasn’t losing. He executed the technique with such precision that he himself felt it to be an amazing feat. Every second that passed without him tearing skin or shedding blood gave rise to greater amazement.
That was, until it ended.
The crowd was speechless and so was he. They all couldn’t believe their eyes and just stood there staring with utter astonishment plastered all over their faces. Then, the applause came suddenly and with great vigor as coins were thrown his way. This was easily the most he had made in a single night so far.
But he couldn’t enjoy it. He couldn’t even understand it. He just sat there staring dumbly at his foot and the knife stuck next to it.
He was at a complete loss and his mind was a blank. He didn’t even pick up the coins scattered around as he rose to his feet and, like the undead, staggered to his room. The scene replayed over and over in his mind, and it scared him. He felt like it wasn’t him who played that game. He felt like he was just another spectator, waiting for the outcome of this crazy attempt. And then, he thought of her. He thought of her promise, the one he still could not make her keep.
I can’t make her keep it.
That thought rung in his mind like bells. It haunted him as he closed his eyes. It haunted him when he woke up. It kept on haunting him as the sun reached high noon and sunk behind the horizon, replaced by the moon, when he again attempted to play that dangerous game. With the tip of the knife pointed to his feet he closed his eyes; achieving an even greater degree of difficulty of the game.
He heard her voice at the back of his head.
By the time he opened his eyes, the tavern was already empty of the spectators and all was quiet. He looked behind him and saw her standing there, looking back at him silently. Lose. He heard her say with her eyes.
Days went by like this.
He felt helpless. He won over and over again, each victory more astounding than the last. He felt like he was possessed; taken over by something whenever he played the game, all the while hearing the softness of her voice.
Eventually, he lost his sense of self. Without the slightest hint of light in his eyes, he collapsed in the middle of a game weeks later due to lack of sleep and food. He had finally lost the game. And as he slowly lost consciousness on the floor, he heard a voice, her voice.
Congratulations, I am yours.
He smiled as his eyes closed, forevermore.
finished by aimanabulas ~