This week’s prompts are:
sniffle :: font :: northern :: powdered :: pick a card
A Game of Chance
I couldn’t remember how long it’d been since I’d last taken the Northern line, but I’d been glad to see the station hadn’t changed a bit. It had settled around me like a favourite dress, comfortable and familiar, as I’d waited to depart. I had no luggage to speak of, besides one small valise, and so I felt I’d made a neat and pretty package as I perched on the platform. I’d almost wished there had been someone to see me, but the place was, as I’d expected, cavernous and deserted. The train had hissed into the station without conductor, guard or driver; there had been no whistles or flags. It had just waited, patiently, for me to board, and so I had. I hoped it was the correct service – but then, I thought, this train only has one destination. I knew where I was going. I checked my ticket against my seat number one more time; all was well. This was where I belonged. I tried to settle against the uncomfortable springs, realising the sniffle I’d had upon leaving home was beginning to turn into something more substantial. My throat ached, and I wished for the liberty to press my forehead against the cold, condensation-covered window beside me. I was alone, of course, but I had to maintain standards, nonetheless. I had a novel to read, but I’d long put it away; my mind was too full to focus on it. My eyes fell upon a notice – perhaps a map of the line, for some strange reason – pinned to the wall a few feet away. It was faded around the edges, as though it had been there for many years; it was, nevertheless, new to me. My vision swam as I tried to focus on it. The elegant font nipped at my eyes, at first like a playful pup and then – painfully – rather more like a biting wind. I blinked away tears as I fumbled for my handkerchief.
‘So,’ came a voice, as sudden as lightning. ‘Here again, are you?’ I tried to cover my shock by turning a gasp into a delicate cough. My eyes were still running, but the pain had eased.
‘I beg your pardon?’ My eyes refused to open fully. I couldn’t clearly see the figure seated opposite me. The only impression I could get was one of bulk, and a colour like powdered darkness, soft and smudged as a charcoal drawing.
‘You beg my pardon,’ repeated the strange voice, its tones warm. ‘Isn’t that amusing. I suppose it’s appropriate, considering you’re taking this journey again, without so much as a by-your-leave.’
‘Whatever do you mean?’ I asked, dabbing at my eyes. The dark shape before me was beginning to solidify. ‘I am in the correct seat, on the correct train. I made sure to check most thoroughly.’
‘Yes,’ agreed my companion. ‘You are nothing if not thorough.’
‘I am not sure I quite understand,’ I replied, hoping my words would not sound impertinent. ‘Have we met?’ My burning eyes had finally begun to calm. I could make out that my seatmate was a lady, older than I and corpulent with it. Her dress was dark as eternity, her head adorned with jet beads. Her hair, where it was not speckled with grey, was a similar colour to my own. Her eyes were steady.
‘Shall we play a game?’ she asked, smiling. Even as she spoke, her fingers slipped into the black bag she wore at her wrist.
‘A… a game? Of what sort?’
‘Oh, it’s not a difficult game,’ she hastened to reassure me as she withdrew her hand. I saw she clutched a pack of playing cards.
‘I’m afraid I do not gamble, ma’am,’ I said, straightening my back.
‘Not with money, perhaps,’ she said, beginning to shuffle the pack. ‘You take your chances only with things more precious than mere currency.’
‘I beg…’ I began.
‘My pardon, yes,’ she finished. ‘You may beg, but I will not grant it.’ She continued to shuffle the pack, her movements hypnotic. ‘You will draw a card,’ she instructed, ‘and then I will draw. If your card beats mine, you may continue your journey. If I beat your card, however, you must disembark at the next stop and turn back. Those are my conditions.’ Her hands kept moving, gracefully and quickly. Her fingers were pale against the darkness of her dress. I noticed she wore a ring not unlike the one my father had given me for my last birthday. My pulse began to beat, painfully, in the hollow of my throat.
‘But this train does not stop,’ I objected, in a small voice. ‘It… it is an express service.’
‘Not this time,’ she said, her shuffling movements slowing. ‘Can’t you read the map?’ I forced myself to look upon the pinned-up notice once again. This time, my eyes stung but they did not fill. My companion was correct. There was a junction up ahead. To make my destination, I would need to change trains. I wondered when that timetable alteration had been introduced, and I fought my feelings of irritation.
My companion cleared her throat, drawing my attention. She had finished shuffling. A strange trembling overtook me as she pierced me with a look. Her eyes were so familiar.
‘Pick a card,’ she said, smiling gently. She looked almost kind. ‘Any card.’