Not a chapter header, but an exchange between a young inspector chatting with an old Bluecoat.
Taff looked him in the eye for a long moment, taking his measure. “Cellar, my boy,” he said quietly, “you screwed up. You lost the hand, and since you kept upping the ante, that’s going to sting.” He slid his hand across the counter, spreading a deck of pasteboard cards face-down.
“You always keep a deck of cards up your sleeve?” Cellar asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Pockets, sleeves, lapels, palm of my hand,” Taff shrugged. “Now pay attention, I’m saving your life right now. You can get tetchy with me, I’m old and indulgent; you take that tone with the chief inspector again and you’re likely to disappear into the Ministry’s filing pool, which may be worse than drowning,” he said. “Now, you know these cards,” he continued, tilting one end of the row of cards up so they all flipped over.
“Standard Dimmerdeck,” Cellar agreed, looking at the celestial suites; the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Void.
“Just one deck,” Taff nodded. “It’s standard, everybody’s got one. But you could find yourself playing Hunt the Leviathan, Corpseriddle, Jumping Three, Settle, or Fishflank,” he shrugged. “So many ways to arrange the rules. One tool can shift the balance between numbers, chance, people reading, and risk management. You get some cards and some people with at least a half a mind each and you can unpack the challenges forever.”
“How have you not retired to become a card shark?” Cellar asked, deadpan.
“Hush, the grownups are talking,” Taff replied. “This isn’t just for games, Cellar. You can do divinations and read the past, the future, your own secrets, the secrets in other people, or even the plainest truths filling up your blind spots.” He tilted the cards back and forth along the line, then swept them together with a wince. “I used to be able to make these things dance ,” he said, flexing his swollen knuckles. “Now I can barely shuffle.”
Cellar took the cards and twisted the deck into a pair of stacks, blending them with a crisp rattle and snapping the deck against the counter.
“This city,” Taff said, watching the deck of cards. “It’s a goddamn deck of cards. You can play all kinds of games. There’s rules set up by the City Council, another set of rules for basic human decency, your family will give you a set, the Bluecoats got one, Inspectors got one, Crows got one, Church of Ecstasy, the Skovs, the Whispers… Everybody at the table, everybody using the same cards.” He looked Cellar in the eye. “It’s a rare few who focus so hard they can only play by one set of rules at a time.”
“Sounds like a mess,” Cellar said quietly.
“It absolutely is, in case you haven’t noticed,” Taff replied, a shadow of a smile under his stained stubble. “Cellar, there’s nothing special about the law,” he murmured, leaning in close. “Written-down laws are no stronger than orders to keep the peace. There’s blood rules, son,” he added as his red-rimmed eyes bored into Cellar. “Rules of revenge and love and sacrifice. Life and death. You know that better than most, and that’s where you got pinched.” He poked Cellar in the chest, hard. “Between the games.”
Cellar studied the old man and said nothing.