Belle watched as Rumpelstiltskin shuffled the cards. The cards flipped and blurred with a life of their own with only the slightest guidance, settling into a tidy stack in front of her.
He rolled his eyes. "Cut the deck."
She reached out and split the deck and sat back again. "I wasn't aware that playing cards would be part of my duties."
"I'm adjusting the agreement." He squared the alignment of the cards and started to deal.
Belle tilted her head. "Why?"
Rumpelstiltskin stopped mid-deal. "I was bored. Ran out of babies to skin. Thought we might kill some time before I go steal a soul."
Belle shook her head. It was hard tell whether he was trying to be funny or horrifying. "You could always take up gardening. Maybe painting?" She glanced at the wheel in the corner. "You could spin."
"I always spin." He set down the remainder of the deck and picked up his cards. "Didn't feel like it tonight."
Belle followed his lead and picked up her cards. She still didn't know what game they were playing. "You wanted someone to talk to."
"I wanted a distraction that did not involve desperate princelings, their foul mothers or fouler mother-in-laws." He fiddled his cards into an order that pleased him and sat forward with a hop. "I'm going to teach you a new game. I say new, but it's very, very old. What do you say, dearie?"
"Alright. How do you play?"
"Ah. First you need to know the purpose of the cards. First are the numbered cards. They are your pawns. I recommend that you rank them in your hand. Their symbols are less important than their value, but some versions of the game use them."
Belle moved her cards around and was left with a number of other cards. They were not so unlike those she grew up with, but the pictures were different and there were a few more types.
"All sorted? Good. Now you have your face cards. Each is ranked and the types matter. There are the diamonds, hearts, clubs, and spades. If you are quite lucky, or unlucky as the case may be, you have another which we'll come to in a moment. Group them by type and rank: knave, maid, queen, and king."
Belle did so and was left with cards painted with miniature landscapes and structures. "Okay. Now what?"
"Now you have your lands. You may play as many cards per turn as you have land cards, and if you have certain combinations, you can capture your opponent's land cards and play more per turn. Different combinations of lands or castles allow for different combinations of play. Is this clear?"
"I think so. How do you decide who plays first?"
Rumpelstiltskin sniggered. "If you are an adolescent boy you see who can hold their breath the longest, but I think we'll just roll for it, shall we?" He held out his palm and a carved cube appeared in a puff of vapor. He tossed it onto the table.
"I have a four." The cube nudged itself to her and she rolled it.
"Bad luck, dearie, because I have the other type of face card." He set a terrifyingly gruesome image down on the table with a snap. "This is the Joker." Rumpelstiltskin said with an introductory flourish. "He is a wily character, this one. His function modifies to suit gameplay with few restrictions. There is only one per deck, and he can hold sway over the rest of the deck. He can change the type of lands in the opponent's hand, which weakens that player's control over their hand, and he is capable of allowing its holder to reverse attacks." Rumpelstiltskin grinned in mocking triumph.
Belle picked up the card and examined the awful picture. The creature had sharp teeth, a pointy hat, a bulbous jaw and demented coloration that was stomach churning. This card was meant to intimidate. Then she set it down and saw it from another angle and saw a shape emerge from that face. An idea came to her. "Wait, there are no all-powerful cards in a deck. How do you beat this one?"
Rumpelstiltskin clucked his tongue. "Ahhh, very good. Only one card can stop him and it must be played before another action is taken. He is vulnerable to just one card, which is the-"
Belle set a card down on the table and sat back.
He stared silently.
"Did I get it right?"
"Yes." Rumpelstiltskin stood, leaving his cards on the table. "Do you understand why?"
Belle watched him as he walked slowly around the table. "Not exactly."
She took a breath as he stood over her, tabulating her every move. "The pawns would hold no sway over the Joker, they are just cannon fodder. The land cards are inert. The knaves are for strikes, so he would only reverse the blows. The kings are the match-enders, but not strategic. The queens are for trading and strategy."
"And the maids?" He said softly.
She glanced up. "No one expects the maids to be powerful."
"Indeed not, dearie." He leaned over slightly. "And why is that?"
Belle felt flushed and her skin prickled. "He has no need for treasure, can already manipulate the powerful, and does not care for authority." She felt a faint brush over her shoulder. "So the maid of hearts is the only one left who might have influence over him."
"And why do you think that is?" He spoke into her ear.
"I…um…" Belle stammered, his breath on her skin.
"Never mind." He said, standing up and striding toward the other end of the table. "Look, Belle. Your kna- pardon me, rose is quite lovely today." He stroked a petal and turned the vase to show its best side to her. "I'm going to spin now. Bring tea in an hour."
"Don't you want to play again?" Belle asked, gathering the cards into a neat pile again. When she looked at the Joker card upside down, the face resembled a heart.
Rumpelstiltskin turned. "I think not. When I am bested that quickly, I am careful to avoid taking the risk again." He waved her away with a flick of his hand and settled at his wheel.