(Fiction) The Game With No Winners


“I was a very spoiled girl,” I told her.

By the time I was 13, I had already noticed how the men looked at me differently. It bothered me at first—that they dared be so presumptuous as to cast their gaze on me in that manner—and I made loud, showy attempts to put them off. But no sooner had their gaze turned elsewhere than I found I wanted it back. I replaced the ribbons in my hair with pins of gold. I dabbed color on my lips. I started pestering my father for the latest fashion, dresses from Vienna and Paris. But no matter how successful I was at manipulating him, I knew there was one thing I would never be allowed, no matter how much I wanted it, no matter how much others were allowed to have it, which I suppose is exactly why I pursued it so relentlessly.
When I was 15, I lost my virginity to a hussar nearly twice my age. He was not especially handsome, but he was cocky and brave. I did not want a nice boy, someone my age who might in the moment be too noble or too timid to accept my offer. Nor did I choose a man of my station, who might spread rumors about me or otherwise let the act be known to the bearded men who, I discovered, held secret sway over me. I chose a young officer, the son of a tradesman, who was garrisoned on my father’s estate. I observed his habits, and finding that he was, like the servants, an early riser, I woke before dawn to bathe in the pond near the stables, as I had when I was a little girl. If I were caught, I decided I was just young enough to claim I had no idea why I shouldn’t do such things anymore. I would let my father fluster and fumble for an explanation, and then I would agree never to do it again, despite that I didn’t understand, and then kiss him on the cheek and waltz away humming some innocent tune.

I was not caught. But I was foolish. We were too close to the servants’ quarters, and my hussar glanced back and quickened his pace at the sight of my folded clothes on the bank. I splashed about and called to him from the water when he passed, pretending to be a girl at play. He stopped, and I stepped out. He admired me a moment before backing away slowly, and I knew he would be mine. Being an ambitious young cavalryman, he was taken to training even in his off time. I knew he used the rolling fields near the far border of my father’s land, beyond which was a great and old forest that I was forbidden to enter. There were highwaymen, I was told, who were dangerous but who would not dare step from the cover of the trees that ran in a crisp line along the border of the field, so crisp I was sure they were continuously cropped by the peasants from the nearby village. But I was wrong.

The forest and fields were to the north, so I rode east from the stables until out of sight and then turned to follow a dirt road that was bounded on one side by a trunk fence. When I finally found my officer practicing sword maneuvers—slicing the air, turning his horse this way and that on the grass—I slowed to a trot until he noticed me. I made a figure eight. I pranced. When he began to trot toward me, I fled, and he followed, leaping the fence at a full gallop as if it were nothing. I was breathless. He looked quite dashing in his navy blue coat with white embroidery. Epaulets hung from his broad shoulders. Stiff black boots rose to his knees. I was a girl, so I did what the girls did in my storybooks. I pretended to lose control of my horse. I did it so convincingly, however, that before long, I truly had. The animal careened wildly down a cart path that ran for a stretch along the border of the forest before turning into it. My hussar whipped his mount and charged after me. I was exhilarated. I was terrified. I had lost a cousin to a riding accident. An elder friend of my father’s, whom I called uncle, was bound permanently to a chair for the same reason.

Hooves pounded the earth in succession, but those behind me rambled faster. My hussar was gaining. Following the cart path on his own, my horse turned into the forest, which immediately closed over us in brilliant orange, like the color of the sun in the painted masterpieces in my father’s study. It was a bright fall day, and the forbidden grove was clad in its finest yellows and crimsons. My horse was a lady’s horse, not a war animal, and it slowed as it ascended a steep rise. My heart calmed. In moments, my hussar would grab the reins and I would collapse, first into his arms, and then to the earth, and he would descend his mount to catch me, and we would be alone and out of sight among the trees.

But we were not alone. At the top of the rise, my runaway steed whinnied and rose on his back feet. I clung to his neck for dear life as his front hooves flailed in fear. Something had startled him, and I heard him strike it with a crack.

Then everything was calm.

My hussar came up behind me and stopped, his mount breathing hard. I was still clinging to mine and saw only the look of horror on the man’s face. I turned and saw a child lying still among the downed leaves. There was a scattering of sticks and twigs around him, as if he’d been gathering firewood. An old man appeared then. But he was not a man. He had leaves and twigs in his scraggly beard, and his skin was so tanned and wrinkled that if he had stood still, it would’ve looked exactly like tree bark. He cast his own gathered wood to the ground and collapsed over the boy.

A crow, who had witnessed the encounter from the branches, laughed then and flew away. The old man with the leaves in his beard looked up at me, and I saw blood on his hands. But it was his eyes I remember. They shone blue as the sky. And they saw me. They saw me the way my old nursemaid saw me, the way my mother would’ve seen me, I’m sure, had she survived. I could hide nothing. But rather than suffer the indignity of shame, I raised my head and said it was the boy’s own fault for gathering wood on the path.

The old man pulled a flint knife then, chipped from use but polished to a shine. He held it aloft, and my hussar moved forward to protect me, but it was unnecessary. With a flash, the old man slashed across his own throat. The blade was sharp, and at first all I could see was the faintest line in his barklike skin. Then drops of blood formed. He squeezed his neck until it ran over his hand, and he cast the blood into the leaves with a splatter that sounded like raindrops. He began muttering then, blue eyes fixed on me. He squeezed again and cast again and muttered. Then he squeezed and cast a third time and the crow laughed longer, this time on the wing, and the old man collapsed over the child in the leaves.

That night, I had sex for the first time. It was the farthest thing from my mind as my hussar and I trotted down the hill. I thought only of getting help, of reporting what we had seen. But by the time we reached the manor, without so much as a word spoken between us, we both realized that what was done was done and nothing could alter it, and that if we reported the incident, there would be questions—questions neither of us wanted asked. It’s not that we had committed any great crime, but my father and his officers were no fools. They would understand what had been meant to happen. The hussar would be sent away, his career forever tarnished, and I would be locked in the house to save my father from scandal until such time as a suitable husband could be found. Neither of us would be free again. We couldn’t bring the old man and the child back from the dead. What good would the rest of it do?

I galloped ahead and stabled my horse alone. After watching me leave, my hussar cut across the field and rode around the pond to converse with some colleagues camped on the far bank, making sure we returned separately and from different directions. I went to the house and took a hot bath. As the hours passed and I realized we would not be caught, a certain glee overtook me. The young men of the regiment liked to gather after dark by the old oak on the lawn to smoke their pipes and trade stories. I made sure I was seen walking to the stables to check on my horse, which would be expected after a hard day’s ride. He came up behind me some twenty minutes later, just as confused and aroused by the morning’s strange events. He grabbed and held me and I gasped. He breathed the scent from my freshly washed skin. He nuzzled my hair. He kissed my neck and felt my body in ways no man ever had and I opened my gown and gave myself to him.

He took me twice more before we parted, once in the kitchen while my father and his officers laughed in the parlor overhead. I fixed my dress after, the new dress from Paris that I had pestered my father to buy, and walked up the stairs and past the parlor to casually gauge whether or not we’d been heard. And also to tempt fate, I suppose. I lingered by the door until my father saw me and called me forward, his face flushed with wine. Only he and one very old man were seated. The others stood around the room or near the fire with pipes and drinks in their hands. They grew quiet and he boasted to them that I had mastered Latin by age 11 and played the piano and rode like a hussar, and he praised my beauty and my goodness. Then his face grew long and my heart quickened. My father touched my cheek and looked in my eyes, drunk, and told me in a whisper that my mother would’ve been so proud.

My heart shrunk to a raisin. If I hadn’t been surrounded by the adoring eyes of so many old men, the rest of me would have done the same. I thanked my father in a meek voice and told the gentleman I was tired and they bowed and I stepped out the door. They hadn’t wanted me to stay long anyway. None of them could have me, which meant I was nothing but a distraction. As soon as I stepped away from the parlor door, I ran to the library, which was shut and dark and offered many places to hide. There I cried, although I knew not why. And while I sat there, hiding behind a hobby horse I had ridden as a child, I saw a picture on the dark oak wall. It was one of many, hung one by the next in that old house. Who knew how many times I had seen it? But I had never seen it. Not truly. It was a watercolor on tan paper. Three very official-looking fellows in tights and ruffles and buckled shoes traded paper with an old man standing before a cluster of trees. He appeared to be naked. His skin was like bark. There were leaves in his beard. And I understood then why my family’s estate stopped at the border of the old forest and why the line of trees was always neatly cropped. There had been a conflict and then a truce in the time of my great-great-grandfather. And I had transgressed it.

The next morning, I sent my hussar away. I told my father at breakfast that the soldier had spoken to me familiarly and made certain suggestions. He was gone by the afternoon. I never saw him again. I never knew if he was able to overcome the stain that my accusation laid on his record. Or even whether he was killed. Later that year, just before Christmas, at a grand ball held every year by the cousin of the Czar, I entered the world of courtesans and courtiers, already a journeyman, and excelled.

It was another fifteen years before I understood what had happened to me that day in the forest, the curse that befell me. I was nearing my 30th birthday, well past the age at which a respectable lady was expected to marry, when tragedy struck. Although I didn’t know it, I had effectively stopped aging. I thought it was just good breeding, as we used to say—a parting gift from my dead mother and nothing less than I deserved. I thought I would stay in the game of courtesans and courtiers until I had my first wrinkle, but it was not so. I had played too long. At the spring ball, the younger girls began to whisper about me. I told myself it was out of jealousy and fear, and perhaps it was. I was a master at our game, a game with no winners. The best you could do was not lose, and the only way to not lose was to make sure everyone else lost first. So that is what I did.

It was natural for my adversaries to want to respond in kind, but outside of a persistent rumor or two, nothing had truly stuck. I had always wriggled out. But there was no wriggling out of my age. And for an unmarried woman, age alone was cause for scorn. Suddenly I looked around and found the most eligible bachelors were younger than me. More than that, I had proved myself a difficult prize. I had made so many enemies that I was nearly universally scorned. The innocent blushing girls of 18 and 19 seemed much more agreeable and handsome companions, and in a season, I fell to the ranks of the second tier. After a performance by Beethoven, for which the only escort I could secure was a fat Prussian baron known to be incontinent, I turned tempestuous and immediately cast about for a husband, despite that I did not want one.

I was successful. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, by then I was so well-practiced at infidelity that, despite honest effort, I found it too awkward and ungainly to practice anything else. There was an incident. And a plot. The details are hardly important. All that matters is that my intended, a man of promise but no title five years my junior, had a plan to launch himself to the very heights of society, a plan that required my tragic disappearance. And since I had spent more than a decade humiliating, publicly or in private, anyone who might have warned me of his ill intent, I was left victim to his cruel ambition. He shot me after one final romp in bed. I collapsed against the wall in my nightgown, shocked. I thought it was because he had discovered my prior trysts, but there was nothing in his eyes. It seemed I wasn’t even worthy of his scorn. This man, whom I thought I had wrapped around my finger, shot me as if I were a lame horse. I was furious. I had been beaten at the one game of which I considered myself master.

On the third day, I rose to find myself buried in a shallow grave. I was as shocked as anyone at my return, although they did not know I had been shot. The story was that I had been lost at sea. My intended, feigning immeasurable grief, asked my father for a large sum with which to search for me, his only child. I corrected the matter, but I was new to such things, and in my fury at being bested, I told a story near enough to the truth that my intended was arrested and condemned with haste. It did not occur to me that in facing death, he would have no further need of deception. He confided to a priest the whole of our adventure. The priest confided to the bishop, the bishop to prominent officials at court. This was in the final decades of The Masters’ program to drive magic from the world, and men yet believed in such things, in fairies and devils and dark pacts, albeit less than they did even a century before. Whispers began to circulate. Was it possible the condemned man had told the truth? And even if not, why was it that I did not seem to age?

rough cut from the conclusion of FEAST OF SHADOWS.

cover image by Brom