Was I running out of swear words, you ask?
I sure as fuck was.
It’s not that bad, Riya, you might say.
It’s just drawing the Fool, Riya.
At least you Drew an Upright, Riya.
It was that bad.
Number 0, the Fool. A Card that haunted the nightmares of every sensible person ever since Emperor Reverie III razed the Arcanis Empire to the ground in a display of carnage that haunts Arcani to this day. Guess who his Backer was? You got it!
The Madman, the Beggar, and the One and Only Jester Extraordinaire.
The literal definition of insanity and megalomania.
Was it as bad as I was making it out to be? I asked myself.
Probably, I answered, since I could probably be executed for this.
Being the mostly-sane person that I was, I stood up - now free from the Universe’s grasp, thank Balance - put my hands on the bottom of the table, and flipped the whole thing over. The cards fluttered to the ground as a big crash echoed in my ears. Good. That felt good. Sixteen-year-olds were allowed tantrums. I would probably get grounded for this, for making a scene in front of a bunch of nobles - they couldn’t see me, but they probably heard the crash - but it was good.
It felt good.
I heard an indescribable sound - a tear, perhaps, or more of the Universe ripping - as blood roared in my veins. I closed my eyes, reflexively, as I heard a chuckle.
Flipping the table? That’s a new one.
The voice resonated with revelry, the tale of a person in rags on the edge of a cliff, of the surge of a rush that came with danger and of foolishness, of oh-so-incredible foolishness and betrayal of trust. Of delirium, of everything being hazy yet being clear all at once.
You can call me Fool. They sounded amused. It’s alright. I haven’t been Drawn since - oh, it was good old Rev, wasn’t he? What did he do again?
“Nearly burnt the entire Empire to the ground, Your, Erm-”
Just call me Fool. Rev really was a pioneer of his time- right, you can open your eyes. Calm down.
I tried to pry open my eyelids, and I was met with a jester. Dressed in harlequin rags, They were holding a bundle of belongings in one hand. I couldn’t feel Their eyes, but They felt like blood. Youth, betrayal, trusting, rushing with no end in sight. No dream, no goal. No beginning, no end. Life, yet death. Impulse, urge, I-
“Could I keep them closed?” I asked.
I keep forgetting it’s overwhelming for first-timers. Oh, well.
You’re a noble, I assume from your clothes?
From which house?
“House Assail, the marquessate with a bunch of weapons."
The blood roared in my veins, the hairs standing up. I was in front of a god, I realized.
Not a god. An Arcana, Fool corrected.
“Right. An Arcana.”
Not surprising They could read minds.
So I have been tasked, as your Backer, with reading the Rules of Balance. After I make sure you understand them, you will be designated as either a Vanquisher or Relinquisher, your Foe assigned, their Lifestory shown, and all those things.
Fool’s voice was a soft yet lazy drawl.
Once you Draw a Card, you may not change, exchange, or participate either knowingly or unknowingly in any exchange of Backers in any circumstance, no matter how dire, unless Balance allows an Exception.
“Right," I repeated.
Once you Draw a Card, you may not change, exchange, or participate either knowingly or unknowingly in any exchange of Powers or Roles in any circumstance, no matter how dire, unless Balance allows an Exception.
I had already gotten it memorized, but there were formalities to be attended to, perhaps?
Once a Foe is Assigned, you may not change, exchange, or participate either knowingly or unknowingly in any exchange of Foes in any circumstances, no matter how dire. Exceptions will not be made.
Once a Relinquisher and a Vanquisher start a Duel, or Trial, in any circumstance, no matter how dire, they should not stop until one is Slain, Defeated, or killed, unless Balance allows an Exception. Interference will not be tolerated. Exceptions can be made based on the Backers in question. Once a Relinquisher and a Vanquisher end a Duel, no matter the outcome, ‘vengeance’ for the victim, committed by any under Universe, will be considered as interference. As such, it will not be tolerated under any circumstance unless Balance allows an Exception.
“Gotcha.” I listened, as They continued - Once a Vanquisher requests for a Relinquisher to Relinquish their Power to Balance, there will be allowed a count of twenty Seconds to comply with said request. After the elapsed time period, the Vanquisher is allowed to mortally injure and/or forcibly extract said Power and declare a Duel - and mulled over my situation.
It felt surreal.
I tuned out for a bit. Fool probably knew, but They didn’t stop.
Arcana, I was a Backed now.
No, scratch that - I was a Backed of the Fool, now. But why? Why was I chosen by the Universe? If I asked that, they wouldn’t answer me; no one would. If it was a useless question, then it was best not to ask it.
No, the better question to ask would be what would happen now that I was a Backed of the Fool? My position in the Assail Marquessate, as unfavored as I was, was stable now that I had an engagement with Damian. Being cast out was a likely option, exiled to some corner outside Canus. They were going to do that anyway, I knew; but they would first annul the engagement, right?
Damian did have a lot of opponents, so shackling him to a heretic would slow him down. I would be used against his ascent to the throne, too.
Could I go on a rampage? Ask to see a couple important prisoners of war, bring a gun and shoot them, sabotaging diplomatic relationships? I would be killed, then no noble title could protect me from that, even if I had just newly turned sixteen.
Was I willing to die for Damian?
Even if I didn’t include Damian, I have to have at least some kind of leverage over the nobles to make my exile a light punishment, and to annul our engagement. A threat? Blackmail? Bribery was out of the question, but-
Power is gained through Trials. After a Trial, an Interpretation of a Card shall be given to you after the completion of said Trials. Interpretations give you Power. Both Trials and Interpretations are given by your Backer. Duels are considered Trials, Fool finished. I’m sure you weren’t paying attention. Don’t worry, I wasn’t either; I split my consciousness and my main body’s at a gambling den.
I blinked. “You gamble?”
If it were me, I would’ve been somewhere else, too. Preferably in a different universe.
I’ll teach you, Fool said smugly. All my Backed should learn.
“Right. I’m assuming next would be the Assigning of the Foe?”
No, next would be your questions, Fool corrected.
“Ah. Great. Could I ask your recommendations on my next course of action after the Card Drawing is over?” I asked politely.
Your Emperor, that Luci human, is planning to defend you. He’s on your side, although for his own personal interests.
Unsurprising, the latter was.
Your dad’s planning to send you off to the South after that Wheel of Fortune takes over. I believe you know her as Duchess Verity?
Surprisingly better than I thought it would be.
But even if you reveal yourself a Backed of the Fool, Lucianus will still be on your side, but the rest of the nobles will declare you a heretic, but will ‘take pity’ on you for your young age, keep the engagement, but take you out of the Assail succession line and will consider you the Marquis’ daughter no longer.
So I was right. I was doomed, metaphorically speaking
Which brings me to the helping bit, the Fool mused. Since you’re my first Backed since Rev - They sounded almost gleeful - I’ll help you blackmail the nobles and keep you in the Assail succession line, but send you to a mentor in the West, instead of Duchess Verity.
“A mentor? Would it be alright if you told me the mentor’s name, and whether there would be a cost for your esteemed help?” I tried to be polite.
You don’t need to suck up to me. I’m your Backer, and you’re now my pupil. You have much to learn under my tutelage, by the way. You think too much. A pause. If you want to kill someone, kill them. If you want to kill yourself? Go for it. Kill everyone around you, leap off a cliff? You’re welcome to do anything.
If I opened my eyes, I swore I would’ve seen Their eyes glint threateningly. This was a god, I reminded myself, a High Arcana. One who had seen more than the destruction of man, the destruction of nations.
But They sounded alluring, I realized. Doing whatever I want, whenever I wanted to. Was I accepting the situation I was in? I would have no choice to, technically. I was Backed by the Fool, and this was now a fact. I did not have time to wallow in self-pity. Arcana, I didn’t even have time to make a survival plan.
“I will, after I get stronger,” I decided. I smiled. “Then, I will do whatever I want.” Having enough power to do whatever I wanted. Destroy the Universe, the System that was so corrupted? Reform Canus? Shoot people?
Good. Fool’s voice had toned down a notch, but the glimmering malevolence was still there. What was I talking about, again?
Right. He’s a former Backed - he gained enough Favors, got the Universe to leave him alone, Quit, and he’s a personal favorite of mine. You might know him, in fact. Liv?
“Malus Livid, the Heretic of the South?”
I nearly choked.
The person who was second on the may-we-never-see-them-again list after Reverie?
Yes, I believe Malus was his actual name. Liv sounds much better.
Were They going to give nicknames to everyone?
Of course, Riri. What do you think I am, one of those Backers that give formal stuffy names like the High Priestess? Don’t even get me started.
“So, you’re going to help me blackmail the nobles after the whole Card-Drawing shindig?”
After I finish this round, too, sure. I can’t promise my undivided attention, but this should be good enough.
“Next would be the Assigning of my Foe, right?”
No. It’s the Foe’s Lifestory.Fool sounded a bit - on the edge? Nervous wasn’t a good term to apply to a god, but that no sounded a bit reluctant. You’re probably going to hate me for this one...but blame the Universe, not me, alright?
“Excuse me?” I raised my eyebrows.
It really is such a pity to lose such a nice plaything to hate so soon...but oh, well.
Confused, I opened my eyes and directed my gaze towards the floor. Fool didn’t cast a shadow, but there was an electric hum amongst the soul-light.
Victoriya la Assail, Secondborn of House Assail, your Foe Assigned to you by the Universe, the Vanquisher to your Relinquisher - Relinquisher? Great - and the Lifestory of your Foe shall now begin.
Whether it was anxiety or excitement, something bubbled up inside of me. A spark, perhaps, or some kind of electricity in my already-roaring blood. Was it the Arcanum’s equivalent of a drumroll?
And then all went black.
Water. Water in lungs, water in the nose, water burning.
Throat on fire, eyes closed as air slowly faded away.
The fading surface of the lake, and of the bright sun rays in the cold, cold water.
The reflection of the person in the canoe’s figure, imperial robes and all, faded away.
Everything went hazy.
Save me, Father.
It was not Father who dragged the boy back to shore.
It was a maid.
It was dark. Everywhere was dark.
Before, there was light. There were hands, and not a sweet voice but a shove and a crash. The smell of deep, damp wood. Skin crawling.
Breathe in, out.
A spidery sensation on skin, bugs with their creepy-crawly legs.
In, out. In, out.
A cramped space, arms wrapped around a lone boy’s body. In the ears, they were in the ears-
In, out. In, out.
Fear. Silence, screams went unheard. Not even a crack of light.
In, out. In out.
Eyes, but from where? Someone was watching.
Cobwebs tangled in hair, but alone in the darkness. Damp wood, but there was no hands and no savior.
Before, there was light. But then it was dark. Everything was dark.
A silent scream.
A cold, distant mother.
Icy fingers, always never warm.
As long as you are of the Imperial Family, no one will hear your screams.
No one will come to save you.
Books, words, and swords; words that were used as swords and cut even deeper.
False promises, and false faces, and smiles that slowly turned into sneers.
Even if his screams were heard, who would come to save him?
It was only him. Only he could save himself.
The boy leaned against his wall, tears now dry and green eyes hollow.
Mother was right.
Poison. Eyes watching as choking sounds rattled out in the air. The liquid seeped through the boy’s throat, leaving scathing trials in its wake. It was as if a snare tightened around his neck.
No one moved to save him, not even his blood relatives, as the boy collapsed, falling to the ground.
A thought, a memory, a glimpse.
Save me, Riya.
The boy’s eyes opened, and there the girl was, worried eyes peering at him beside the physician.
No one saved him, but his screams were heard.
He would survive.
If he screamed, who cared if no one heard or came?
He would save himself.
He would strike back, with words as swords and swords as words.
And he would murder those who got in his way, and smile while doing it.
His siblings looked at him from across the jeweled table, and the boy could see the scornful glares along with the glances of pity.
What's your name again, boy? the Emperor asked, lazily. Don't make me repeat it twice.
Damian, your first son, Your Imperial Majesty.
He would make people remember.
The bowed head of the servant with the dirty mouth.
The boy didn’t call the guards, but instead picked the sword off the nearby cabinet, and swung.
A pink, slippery tongue, now lacerated, disattached.
It fell to the ground.
The servant could not scream.
The boy smiled.
A gunshot. Blood. Hidden beneath a door, the girl shot the tongue-less servant in the leg.
The boy watched, secretly.
Some semblance of respect, from the nearby faces.
The girl knew about all the deeds he did, but still was there regardless - perhaps she was worse, in a way. The girl was capable of much more than him, the boy thought.
The boy was not happy, nor was he content, nor did he long for more.
Life would come. It was inevitable.
Could he change the future? No, he could not.
So let it come.
He would face it with a grin on his face.
Malus Livid frowned at the entity in front of him. Fool, they called themselves. Usually, Arcana were addressed with a capital T for Them, but Malus had never been the type for formalities. Or religious ceremonial formalities either, for that matter.
Fool had gambling chips stuffed into a purse in their hands, their form currently an elegant Siletian young lady with a diamond necklace glittering on her throat.
Old friend, Fool greeted.
Malus had gotten used to the lingering concepts that came with hearing an Descent and an Arcana's voice.
“I’m guessing since you’re not completely corporeal, this is just a strand of consciousness. Isn’t this a bit too little for your oldest pupil?”
You’ve always never liked grandiose things, Liv, Fool said with mirth. Well, as much mirth as a god who was neither human nor monster could fake. But Malus never took it personally - they called him a monster, too; just because he had broken out a few prisoners of war and burned them alive in public in a Forbidden Ritual after he Quit. It wasn’t a grandiose gesture, but more of a warning. A threat. And a whim. I see you got a haircut, Fool added. I’ve never been a big fan of the long hair, myself. Good for you.
Malus had taken a scissor to the Heretic of the South’s signature braid. He was sure Fool was reading his mind - everyone was - but Malus slammed up all his mental defenses he had accumulated before he Quit. Fool didn’t flinch.
“I Quit,” Malus voiced his thoughts, calmly. “I have no Power. You are obligated by Balance to leave the Quitters alone, Fool.”
It’s just a personal favor. Fool smiled. Nothing more, nothing less, my love.
Malus scowled at the endearment.
“What is the personal favor? Make no mistake, I’m not accepting.”
We have another Heretic joining our midst, Fool elaborated. She needs a Mentor, to help her get adjusted. Once she has enough training to last her at least a year in the world, you’re free to let her go.
He frowned. “I won’t do the personal favor,” Malus decided. “Let’s make a deal.”
Malus crossed his arms underneath the flowy robes. He had built an underground hut before he Quit, hidden from others using his Power from being Backed from the Fool. It was situated secretly in a corner of the Cornerstone, disguised as an unassuming tool-shed at the surface. How Fool had found him, Malus knew. And Malus also knew, after his fifty years of living, what was important and what was not.
Malus pointed at the gambling chips inside the slightly-open purse. “All of those chips in exchange for training the Heretic.”
Fool’s grin grew wider as they shifted into their usual appearance, the young man with the flowery robes, as the purse transformed into a bundle of possessions instead. Bloody eyes, a smile that always chilled Malus - not to the bone, but deeper than that, almost to his existence.
There was a fifty-fifty chance that Malus would get what he wished for. Fool was unpredictable, the Wildest Card of the Wild. No one could predict their whims, not even their only living pupil. When gambling, there was half a chance they were in it to win and put their Blessings on the chips, and half a chance they were just in it for the fun.
I, the Fool, accept your offer. The amount of gambling chips in my hands, in exchange for training my new Backed for a period of time until she is self-sustainable.
“And I, Malus Livid, also known as the Heretic of the South, have heard your acceptance. The amount of gambling chips in the Fool’s - also known as Fool - hands, in exchange for training the Fool’s new Backed for a period of time until she is self-sustainable.”
The deal is struck.
“The deal is struck.”
“Hand over the gambling chips, Fool,” Malus outstretched his hands, and with small clicks the discs ended up in his palms. Closing the fingers over the round chips, Malus didn’t feel any soul-light or any residue of Power as Fool chuckled.
You lost the bet again, Liv. See you next time, I need to reunite with my other consciousness, my Backed’s watching her Foe’s Lifestory.
A resigned sigh. “See you.”
- probably somewhere drinking unhealthy amounts of milk tea and coffee
Incarnadine, Incarna, Nadine, fine with either [Author of RIQ & Folly]
Make sure to PM/comment if you have any questions, concerns, or just want to talk!
Yes, I read manhwas/mangas, watch anime, and read light novels, feel free to drop any recommendations :)