Read an Excerpt From The Knave of Secrets

Never stake more than you can afford to lose.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston, out from Solaris on June 7.

When failed magician turned cardsharp Valen Quinol is given the chance to play in the Forbearance Game—the invitation-only tournament where players gamble with secrets—he can’t resist. Or refuse, for that matter, according to the petty gangster sponsoring his seat at the table. Valen beats the man he was sent to play, and wins the most valuable secret ever staked in the history of the tournament.

Now Valen and his motley crew are being hunted by thieves, gangsters, spies and wizards, all with their own reasons for wanting what’s in that envelope. It’s a game of nations where Valen doesn’t know all the rules or who all the players are, and can’t see all the moves. But he does know if the secret falls into the wrong hands, it could plunge the whole world into war…


 

 

“You beat him, then? De Niver?”

She gave Valen a hard look for a moment, and he tried to guess what she was feeling. She never liked having to shut the neighbors up, but this time was different. Was there something else troubling her?

“We did,” Jacquemin said. “Us dumb peasants took him for every coin he had on him. I might have got some of those fancy silver buttons off him if we’d kept going.”

“We did not get his buttons, but I did take these,” Teneriève said. Between two slight fingers she held de Niver’s gold-rimmed spectacles by a rim. “The shepherd’s first clout knocked them off of his nose. If we’re going to have a gente after us, we may as well take everything we can. Try them on, Valen.”

Valen wanted his associates to leave so he could speak plainly with Marguerite. They had just risked themselves for him, though, so he supposed he had to play host a while longer. He took the spectacles from Teneriève’s hand and balanced them on his nose. He saw nothing of note through the glass.

“They don’t seem to magnify much. His vision must be fair.”

“Think back to school, Valen.” Teneriève had studied Divination at the Séminaire for two years by the time Valen had stumbled into the quiet old place. Despite being several years his junior, she treated him as a novice, then and now. “This man shot you under impossible circumstances, and he was wearing these when he did it.”

Cursing himself for not realizing it immediately, Valen saw the tell-tale signs of enchantment on the lenses, the faint tinge of a color he couldn’t describe. It was unmistakable once he looked for it.

Teneriève pulled a deck of cards from a pocket of her coat, slipped a single card out of it, and held it in front of her with its back toward Valen. “Now,” she said. “What card do I hold?”

The trouble with an unfamiliar enchantment was trying to figure out what it was for. Valen stared at the card back, wondering if he would be granted a vision of the other side, or if some aura would give him suit and number. Seven gossamer hands floating in a circle around Teneriève’s head or some such thing.

When nothing appeared, he looked closely at the patterns on the card back…

Absurdly close. It was as if he was inches away from the delicate whorls and figures of the card’s design. If it was marked, no matter how faintly, he could have seen it plainly even in the dimmest candlelight.

The corner of Teneriève’s mouth rose a degree. “That’s not it.”

He looked up from the card for a moment to meet Teneriève’s smug eyes. Eyes in which he could plainly see the card reflected.

“Nine of cups,” he declared, and snatched the card out of Teneriève’s hand to confirm it. “That bastard was cheating us.”

“Surely,” Jacquemin grunted. “Rich ponce out for a laugh, bit of the rough life, stealing money from the common folk as if he didn’t do that enough already. Cliché as they come.”

Valen removed the offending glasses and handed them back to Teneriève, happy to rid himself of them. “I think I’d be bored to sobbing. Where’s the fun if you know all the cards?”

“Fun enough for you, apparently,” Marguerite countered. “You play with marked decks.”

“Well, yes, but with these glasses there’s not even any craft to it. No deft fingers and fast eyes. We play with rigged cards, certainly, but to interpret them takes cleverness.”

“Cleverness? It’s a simple code, Valen.”

“Simple? My dear, nothing about your marks is simple. You try remembering the meanings of dozens of different miniscule marks subtly integrated in the design on the back of a card…”

Jacquemin interrupted in the sing-song cadence of a child memorizing something. “‘If the branch in the corner has three twigs, it’s a lamp. Two, a key.’ But that’s only on that blue design from Droulet’s. On another deck…”

“I know,” Marguerite said impatiently, “I made them.” She was still frowning. This was very much unlike her indeed.

Valen smiled. “And a fine job you did of it. But it takes a careful mind not to mix all that up when you need to win a hand to keep from losing all you have.” He took the deck from Ten’s hands and started shuffling. “Cardsharping is a skill like any other, mastered through careful study and persistent practice. It took me years before I was confident enough in my hook cut to use it in public.” He performed this trick cut with the cards face up, showing how it kept the last card on the bottom of the deck as he rearranged the rest of the cards. “De Niver just… spent some of his allowance for enchanted glasses.”

Teneriève smirked. “And even then the fool could not win.”

“How much do you think these things cost, Ten?” Valen asked. “They must have come direct from the Séminaire; no glazier would admit to selling these in the open. Custom made for our night poacher, most likely.”

“It has been some time since I’ve seen any of the fees charged by the Brothers, but I assume an amount which would buy these rooms outright.”

“He’ll want them back, I wager.” Jacquemin leaned his chair back, which Valen was certain would leave marks on his floors. He really did need to get a bigger rug. “Probably a shit hunter without them, too. Best not run into him again.”

“Agreed,” Valen said with a laugh. “Between that and the new scar on my shoulder I feel quite safe in saying I plan on declining any invitation to the de Niver estate for the season.”

Marguerite did not join the mirth. “This was not a good enemy to make. The favorite son of a powerful family.”

“Yes,” Ten said, surprising Valen with her agreement.

“You knew he was a gente, Ten.” Valen’s jaw tightened. “You didn’t see fit to mention any concerns before. And aren’t you the one who made off with his spectacles?”

“After he shot at you. Yes. We were meant to take his money and leave. We could have just walked off and been done with it. But something happened. Why did he start the shooting?”

“That’d be ’cause Valen opened his mouth,” Jacquemin grumbled. “Just can’t help yourself, can you?”

“I teased the fool a little,” Valen said hurriedly. “A little jab. That’s all.”

Teneriève stood as still as a post, angry eyes on his. “He will want satisfaction. We must avoid him. He will tell his friends also: a short young man who dresses terribly, a Mistigri woman, an older man who talks too much. They will look for us.”

“Excellent,” Valen forced a smile to his face. “Then we shall take their money, too. We shall play them for every kron over the course of years. We will let them win just often enough to make them think they have a chance, and we’ll drink honeyed wine as we take what we wish from them.”

Marguerite took a step to her friend’s side. “You might. If they don’t bring their hunting rifles.”

 

Excerpted from The Knave of Secrets, copyright © 2022 by Alex Livingston.

citation

Back to the top of the page

This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.