The cards are old, older than Bonnie herself, or even her grandmother. They were a gift from a human artist back during what the mortals called their Renaissance, and each is a masterpiece of color and design. The back are by their tradition blank, but Bonnie still knows the cards like the shape of her face in the mirror.
She’s always had the goblins' own luck, people whisper, so when the visiting butcher demands a game to prove she ought to marry him, she agrees. Bonnie brings her betrothed, dear, sweet Cody, and Simon, called Simple, to show she isn’t afraid of the outcome.
She shuffles the cards after each of the men cut, feeling the thick paper slide smoothly in her hands. Jack of Diamonds for her, she decides- Puck may be a trickster, but he’s always been kind to her family.
Queen of Hearts for Simple Simon. He so loves the portrait of Titania on the card, and he’s easy to make happy.
For Cody, the King of Clubs- Oberon in all his military glory. She’s only met the Fae King the once, but that long ago mortal had rendered him perfectly in delicate ink and paint strokes.
She deals, putting the cards where she wants them. If the newcomer, Willie, had known her better, he wouldn’t have asked for this game to win her. Bonnie always wins at cards. She intends to give him nothing higher than an eight.
They flip the cards over, Bonnie letting her eyes smile down at the Puck, Robin Goodfellow, the Jack of Diamonds on her card.
Cody flips over the King’s card and smiles at her, reaching to squeeze her fingers gently. He knows her skill, and this isn’t the first time she’s made sure he won.
Simon giggles when he turns over his card. “Look, Bonnie, it’s the Queen!” he says, and Bonnie smiles at him. Then she turns her attention to Willie, and cocks her eyebrow.
The goblin is hideous by flower fae standards. He’s stooped, and bowed legged, with a hunch to his back and a limp from a misshapen foot. His features are heavy and thick, his eyes are split pupiled like a cat’s, and his hands are rough and gigantic. His clothes are barely more than rags, and his boots are hobnailed and enormous. Bonnie suppresses another shudder at the thought of touching his fingers, let alone being his wife.
The card in his hand looks even more delicate than they usually do, and he keeps his eyes on hers the whole excruciating time it takes him to flip it over.
Bonnie knows she brought at least part of this on herself, mocking him to her girlfriends as he appeared at their spring festival. But he had looked so funny, with his back bent nearly double under the weight of his offering, and she hadn’t realized how good his hearing was.
She knows now, and once he loses, she’s fully prepared to offer her apologies. Bonnie intends to be a most gracious winner.
Then he lays his card down, the final card, and Bonnie’s blood runs cold.
It’s not the eight she intended for him to have. It’s the ace of spades, a beautifully rendered painting of a sword. It’s probably even a famous sword of some kind, but flower fae aren’t warriors, so Bonnie doesn’t know it.
But the ace beats Cody’s King.
Her eyes fly up to meet Willie’s cat eyes, and he’s smiling, so pleased with himself.
For a long, long moment, Bonnie doesn’t understand. Then she remembers.
The goblins’ own luck, they say she has. But Bonnie had never before tried to use her luck against an actual goblin.
Willie mercifully doesn’t say anything, just keeps smirking at her, and Bonnie feels her cheeks go red, then white. Simple Simon is looking from one to the other, somehow able to sense the tension, and he shies away first.
“I gotta go, Miss Bonnie,” he says, and he knocks his stool over when he jumps up from the table. Cody steadies the table itself, and keeps looking at her as well.
Willie stands more slowly, unfolding his grotesque body to its full, if diminutive size. He’s nowhere as tall as Cody, barely taller than Bonnie herself, but in this moment, he towers over her in his victory.
“Tonight, then,” he says, and shuffles off, his drag legged stride not taking him away nearly fast enough for Bonnie’s liking.
She sits, frozen to her seat, heart beating in her ears so loudly she wonders that no one else seems to hear it. Cody waits with her, his face darkening the longer they sit in silence.
When he judges them unheard, Cody turns to her. “Bonnie! What was that?”
“The goblins’ own luck,” she says, and swallows a hysterical laugh.
“You can’t mean to marry him,” Cody says. It has taken him years to persuade her to yield him her hand and her maidenhead. Bonnie has never told him he has always been her choice. She had liked the attention, the gifts and songs and treats her suitors brought her. But she had always intended to wed Cody.
Bonnie says nothing, and Cody reaches for her hand, his fingers as always firm but gentle on her skin. “Bonnie?”
“I have to go,” she says, and she, too, nearly knocks over her stool as she stands. Bonnie holds the Jack of Diamonds still, and the Puck’s mocking smile has given her an idea.
Cody stands, still holding her hand. “What about our wedding?”
She shrugs, not able to answer him until she finds some answers of her own. “I don’t know,” she says, and Cody withdraws, his brilliant eyes shimmering with tears. “I’ll try,” she promises, and flees to her rooms.
The cards are special in another way: they’re focuses, and if you know the proper ritual, you can summon the fae depicted on the card. It’s considered somewhat gauche and rude, but Bonnie’s desperate, now. And she knows the rituals.
Puck comes when she calls, laughing even before the smoke of his arrival clears. “That luck finally caught up with ye, eh, Bonnie?” he jeers, and Bonnie digs her fingernails into her palms.
She needs his help. She can’t give into her anger.
“I need advice,” she says, and Puck laughs again, but he doesn’t say anything. “I can’t be his wife, Robin, he’s hideous. And I’m promised to Cody.”
“Oh, Bonnie,” Puck says, and there’s the faintest hint of pity in his tone. “Ye’ll not marry Cody come the morning, girl. Ye’re bound for a butcher’s bride now.”
“I can’t,” Bonnie says, needing him to understand, and the Puck smiles at her, ages of sadness in the expression.
“Were I ye,” he says, turning in place to survey the room they’re in, “I’d make up that bed, the one yer father had yer mother in. And I’d turn my father’s portrait to face the wall, so he’d not see the goblin’s work.”
Bonnie opens her mouth to protest again, and Puck holds up a hand. “And I’d hand Old Robin my mother’s silver ring.”
She fumbles a little taking in off- she’s not removed it since her mother died and her father handed it to her, just before following his wife to the grave. Puck holds the ring in his hand to his eye, then bends over his cupped hands, whispering words Bonnie can’t quite hear, though she strains her ears.
When he straightens and takes his hands apart, a silver dagger winks between his fingers, impossibly thin, but impossibly sharp. He hands it to Bonnie.
“There, pet. If ye’ll rid yerself of him, that’ll do it. But ye’ll have to pay in blood to spill his.”
Bonnie feels her blood run cold, though the metal of the dagger is surprisingly warm. “What do you mean?”
The Puck laughs and dances a caper, waggling his hips obscenely. “Ye know what I mean. That dagger’ll do ye no good if ye attack him openly: it’s too fragile, and he’s too strong. But ye let him wear himself out between those milky thighs of yers, and he’ll sleep.” He gives her a lusty wink as Bonnie colors ferociously. “All men sleep after. While he sleeps, ye use that, and ye free yerself from yer unwanted husband.”
“But I can’t!” Bonnie bursts out. “He’s vile! None would want me after he has his way with me!”
“Ye might be surprised,” Puck says. “But ye have no choice. He’ll not be denied, and ye agreed on the cards. He’ll have ye, will ye or nay, but ye needn’t stay his.”
Bonnie stares at him, then the dagger in her hand. The handle has a faint tracery of petals, the same as the ones on her mother’s ring. She feels despair settle over her, but she can’t deny the Puck’s words: she had agreed, assuming her luck would serve her again as it always had.
“How do I use it?” she asks, and Puck shows her on his own thin chest the gap between the fourth and fifth ribs.
“Aim true, Bonnie,” he says. “Goblins are fearsome hearty, and if ye don’t pierce the heart, he’ll survive and steal ye away to the underground. A pretty flower like ye’ll wither there right quick.”
She shivers, and puts the dagger down, taking a deep breath. The Puck, the Diamond Knave, has been more helpful than she’d expected. The price will be high, she imagines.
Nothing like the one which awaits her at midnight, but still, high.
Bonnie swallows hard. “What do I owe you?” she asks, and Puck laughs again, cackling as though she has told him the funniest joke he’s ever heard.
“Oh, Bonnie,” he says, between chortles. “Bonnie, bonny bonny Bonnie.” He reaches up and takes her hand, pulling to his lips and giving her a truly evil grin.
“I get to watch,” he says, and vanishes again as Bonnie cries out in denial.
Blast the knave! How dare he, she thinks, but she cannot refuse his price.
He’ll watch her humiliation, and knowing Robin Goodfellow, he’ll bring others to watch, too. They won’t help her, or do anything but watch. Bonnie shudders, and pulls on her coat of rabbit leather, made for her mother.
She’s cold. She has a feeling she’ll be cold for the rest of the night.
Still, the Puck’s advice is sound, so she dresses her home as he’d advised. Bonnie hides the dagger beneath her bed, deep in the shadows under the overstuffed feather mattress.
She cannot bring herself to open the door when Willie knocks, though, his fist heavy and loud as a hammer on the slender birchbark portal. His hobnailed boots make loud, deliberate booms on her floor, and his tattered rags sound like birds in flight.
Bonnie sits on her bed and shivers, trying to remind herself to be brave.
Still, when he confronts her, she cannot keep from begging. “Please, Willie, please, have mercy. I was a fool, a vain, cruel fool, and I was wrong. I am so sorry.”
Willie laughs, and it makes the hairs stand up on the back of Bonnie’s neck. “Mercy? Nay, flower maiden. You mocked me, then you wagered on the cards. You lost.”
He rakes those disturbing cat-eyes over her, and grins. “You’ll not need that coat,” he says. “Take it off, or I shall, and you’ll not wear it again.”
Shaking, Bonnie rises to her feet and sheds her mother’s coat. It’s precious to her, and she can’t lose it. But when he makes the same demand of her dress of daisy petals, Bonnie shakes her head and shrinks back against the bed.
“Please,” she tries again.
Willie rips the flowers from her in response, and Bonnie squeezes her eyes shut. She tries to go elsewhere for the rest of it, but part of her is aware the whole time: the softness of her bed against her back contrasting the roughness of Willie’s skin against hers.
Despite her best intentions, she cries and begs as he takes her, until Willie closes one hand over her mouth. “Enough,” he growls, and Bonnie retreats further into herself.
It takes an extraordinarily long time, Bonnie thinks later. All her life the older fae women had joked over men’s lack of stamina, and how fast the act of love can be. For Bonnie, it is an age of the earth until Willie grunts out his finish, and rolls to lie beside her, one heavy hand still clutching her waist.
Bonnie lies still and thinks of the cards, picturing each in her mind. She has not heard anything, no stray laughter or rude comments, but she knows Puck would have been there, invisible, as she paid her price. She holds in a frown as she pictures his card, and forces her thoughts to the next card in the suit. Anything to take her mind from where she is.
Willie paws at her head, and it takes all Bonnie’s will not to cringe from him. “There, now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asks, sleep heavy in his voice.
Bonnie doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Soon his snores shake her rafters, and Bonnie slides her body away from him, and out from under his hand.
Liquid slides down her legs when she stands, but Bonnie ignores it as she reaches under the bed for the dagger. Despite its long stay on the floor, the metal is still warm in her cold hands.
She trails her fingers down Willie’s chest, counting ribs, and he stirs in his sleep, making a soft grumpy noise. Bonnie freezes, then forces herself to keep petting his coarse skin until he settles again.
Once he is deeply asleep again, she resumes her count. Between the fourth and fifth, Puck had said.
The dagger breaks in his chest when he roars awake, and Bonnie is left holding the hilt. “What have you done?!” he shouts, and Bonnie dodges back.
Already, he is slower, and his red, red blood is staining her parents’ bed. “Get me a pillow, you fool!” he orders. Bonnie shakes her head.
His expression changes, becomes softer and more wheedling than any she’s seen on his face before. “Darling,” he says, and Bonnie shakes her head harder.
“I’ll not be your darling,” she says, brandishing the dagger’s hilt. “Not while I breathe.”
“Then on your head be the doom of your house,” he says, his voice somehow weaker than ever and yet the strong, true, tone of a spell. “May your line find nothing but torment until you die, thanks to your pride.”
The light goes from his eyes on the last word, and Bonnie gazes at him in dismay. She is the last of the Browns, her parents having died years before in one of the infrequent but deadly waves of violence that engulfed even the flower fae. There is no line to curse.
Bonnie drops the dagger hilt to the sound of pealing laughter, and Puck appears from nowhere like a bad dream. “Oh, Bonnie, how ye do entertain!” he says, and Bonnie turns to him in horror, not even caring that she is still naked, and now spattered with fresh blood.
“What did he mean?” she says, and Robin Goodfellow capers around her room, kicking his feet in the remnants of what had been a dress of daisy petals.
“The goblin’s had his revenge,” the Puck tells her, hardly able to speak for laughter. “Ye’ll bear a cat-eye son, and ye’ll torment the poor lad till ye die.”
Bonnie shakes her head in denial, but she can feel the truth of Puck’s words settling in her bones. “No. No, he couldn’t, it was just the once.”
“Once is all it needs,” Puck says, and vanishes again, his mocking laughter echoing in her room for a long, long time after he’s gone.