Blackjack. The bartender of Rancho Nuevo. He who stands apart from all things, protected from all that is fated to unravel, set aside from that which he watches, for he is merely an observer.

And it is a curse that falls upon the one who dispenses the drinks. He waits, but knows not for what he waits.

And then he knows.

All too quickly it comes to him. He has watched the fall of those whose pride and vanity brought them to believe they could thrive in this place. There is no way to thrive without surrendering onself to those who weave darkness within the gray colors that tint the ever stormy skies. He has watched them fail. He has seen their smiles disappear like chalk wiped clean from an eternal blackboard. He watches. He waits. And then he knows.

In walks one he believes he should know, but does not. In walks one who seems to know where he is and why he is there. One jack knows another. The cards are always on the table in Rancho Nuevo. At the same time he knows well there is only one reason why the red jack would appear. The red jack has been defeated. This might not mean much to those who suffer and struggle in this place, but to Blackjack it means his eternal reflection has fallen into the mirror.

"A shot of tequila and the best beer you have on tap."

"The best beer we have is also the worst."

"I don't doubt it. Nor do I care."

The beer was poured. The tequila found its way in front of the newcomer's place at the bar. Even Blackjack was amused by how quickly the other patrons cleared a spot for the Jack of Hearts at the bar. They knew he needed the seat and without question gathered together to offer all of the seats they occupied, even though the newcomer required only one.

"Failure is not part of destiny," Blackjack told him as the newcomer accepted the drinks he poured.

"I don't believe in failure. I gave up on that ideology a long time ago."

"Then why are you here? This is the end of the road."

"There is no end to my road."

"There is no way out of Rancho Nuevo."

"Bullshit."

The newcomer's words were not unlike those of the eternal thousands who had sat on the same stool he now sat, but there was something different in the way he leisurely tossed them forward. This was not one who had come to sit at the bar at the Blackjack Saloon with arrogance that defied the laws of this place. This was one who willed himself here purposely for reasons beyond the wretched norms. Blackjack saw himself in the newcomer's eyes, and as Blackjack was the seed soul, the one who had called this place into being and brought countless others here to toil in suffering, but as much as Blackjack was locked into Rancho Nuevo, the Jack of Hearts brought his own key. It did not fit the lock, but this did not matter. There was no lock except that which one created for oneself.

"Rancho Nuevo is surrounded by three kingdoms, although they would be better called queendoms, if there were such a word. There are four faces of the angel, and three manifest themselves in the queens that rule over these kingdoms. The fourth is rooted in Rancho Nuevo, and for this reason we avoid seeing the face of the fourth queen and we believe she does not exist. Even he who tries in vain to control this place does not confront the fourth queen, who is but a concept. Sometimes she manifests herself, but her manifestations are pieces and parts, never the whole."

"The fourth queen does not exist. That is a very old legend." Noticing the newcomer was dry, Blackjack gave him another glass of beer and another shot of tequila. The newcomer took both with a smile.

"I come in service of the angel who hangs on the cross on the hill, who is no longer with you. My passing has freed her to pass into the frame I have left in order to take her place here. Send out one of your waitresses to see. She has left and gone elsewhere. I am the acolyte. I pretend to have no wisdom aside from that she has granted me. It is my job to fuck up as badly as possible in order to increase the wisdom of her suffering, and I have run the end game for her. I have revealed the fourth queen and so forth. What doesn't kill me makes me more powerful. What kills me makes me more humble. It is a balance."

"No one dies in Rancho Nuevo. There is no way out."

"I wrote the legends. I lived the legends. I've seen the face of the fourth queen, who does not exist except in legends. I know the nature of the fourth queen. It is more than just a vision."

"Humor me."

"I can see this place requires you maintain good humor. The fourth queen rises not to enable any passage or understanding or wisdom. The fourth queen rises to keep the acolyte from from connecting with the first queen. Even the mythology of Avalon can teach you that."

"Who does she serve?"

"Such an easy question I might prefer not to answer it."

"Rancho Nuevo lives in shadows. The sky here never turns to gold and here it never snows. It fulfills only half of the prophesy that returned you to the world you knew. Here we not only dwell in shadows but we struggle to understand them. I've been here longer than any other. My understanding of shadows is deeper than any of theirs," Blackjack said, waving with his arm towards the patrons of his unfortunate establishment.

"The angel of shadows rules over the fourth queen. The fourth queen is a shadow of her sister."

"Her sister is the angel who no longer hangs on the cross of the hill."

"As you are my shadow self, you can read the shadows in me, but you cannot read beyond that."

"As I said, Jack of Hearts, I dwell in shadows and pretend to understand nothing beyond that. Roll again."

"No one in this place is capable of speaking the name of the angel. I suppose you know this."

"The name of she who hung on the hill?"

"Yes. Speak her name."

It was a challenge Blackjack could not meet. His inability to meet the challenge surprised him. It was the first time he had been surprised in the last two tenths of eternity.

"The angel who hung on your hill was called Anastasia and her sister in shadow is known as Ekaterina. Her purpose is to destroy her sister. Her servants all have names derived from hers. It is the purpose of Ekaterina to prevent Anastasia from bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to the mortal frames. The mortal frames must remain in struggle. This much I know. Anastasia guides the three queens, but Ekaterina guides the fourth. And if one so unworthy as me is able to touch the soul of the first queen, then Ekaterina will make the fourth appear. That is the simple answer. It is more than that. I am merely a single card in the deck. This has all been played out before. Over and over and over again it has been played. I am merely the current baptist."

"You live in dreams. Rancho Nuevo does not acknowledge dreams."

"You are the seed of this place. You can destroy it and allow the three kingdoms to take it."

Blackjack laughed and slipped another round in front of the newcomer.

"The others play with a standard deck. I play with a pinochle deck. I have two sets of queens and a third yet to come. The first queen must always remain out of reach, she is the soul queen. The second must fall, she is the queen of the physical realm. When I rise again I will bet all I still have on the third queen, one to inspire me and one to be my lover and the mother of my child, who will be the incarnation of Anastasia in my frame."

"A likely fairy story, but my friend, you are here now in Rancho Nuevo from which there is no exit."

"So you choose to believe."

And with that, the newcomer was gone. Another took his place and Blackjack poured him a drink. There was time enough for something. Blackjack was unwilling to consider what that something might be.


Dedicated with love to Tessye who renewed my faith, and to the twin Three Queens, as well as to the excommunicated One Queen and to she who does not yet understand what it means to be the Four.


The Rancho Nuevo Series:

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