When she first came to the Blackjack Saloon she took it upon herself to show up the rest of the bar's patrons by demonstrating her skill for drinking any man she met under the table. It was a mirror to her ego, crashing the system, when she learned it didn't matter how much liquor you consumed in Rancho Nuevo. The rules were different here. The body was little more than an apparition. No one got drunk in Rancho Nuevo.
"Give me another," she told the bartender. It was as good as any cover story she could have conjured. Here perception was everything, and here no one thought twice about another alcoholic at the bar.
He shrugged and poured her another glass of his best whiskey. She didn't impress him. It was rare that anyone ever did. He was the Black Jack, bartender of the saloon that bore his name. It was his reflection, the sting of a memory slowly fading, the memory of a life spent using a position of imagined power to take advantage of situations that presented themselves all too frequently. A beautiful woman at the bar drinking away her sorrows. In another life this would have played out quite differently, but no one got drunk in Rancho Nuevo.
"Who is that?"
A familiar face walked into the saloon, looking tired and disenchanted in everything and everyone. He took a seat at a table in the corner, pulled a tattered paperback book out of his back pocket and studied it. He wasn't reading. He never turned the page. He just studied, very intently, the contents of a single page.
"Just another lost soul from the wastelands."
She could tell by the way Blackjack looked at this man they knew each other. The man at the table looked back, throwing a knowing glance at the bartender before looking back at his page. The bartender poured tequila into a glass and told the woman to bring it to the man.
"Just another lost soul?"
The bartender shrugged. "Every face is familiar to me and at the same time a stranger."
She picked up the tequila and walked over to the man's table. She put it down in front of him, motioning towards the bar with her head, and waited for an invitation.
"Thank you," he said and continued studying the single page.
She pushed the envelope. "You look like you might benefit from some company."
"I am known as the mad monk because I do not benefit from company. You are better off not knowing me."
"Everyone here is broken, in case you hadn't noticed. From what I've seen most of these people are better off not knowing."
"And what makes you different?"
"I have a story."
"So do the rest of them."
"You are a Jack. I can tell by your eyes, and Jacks are required to listen, are they not?"
"Tell your story to the bartender. Everyone else does. That's what he's here for. That is his curse."
"Ask me to sit down." She tried to compel him with her voice, but it was not her voice that persuaded him. It was her eyes.
"You didn't come here the usual way," he said, studying her eyes with the same intensity with which he had been studying the single page of his tattered book. "You have unusual scars."
She took the invitation and sat beside him. She spoke quietly, acting as if she were trying to seduce him but her intentions were anything but. "They used to call you 'One Wing,' did they not?" He nodded. "I took great damage in getting here, but I did not come from the other side."
"It won't take long for some of these souls to recognize this," One Wing told her. "Where are you from?"
She exposed her breast to him, acting in accordance with what was meant to be perceived as a cheap seduction. There was a tattoo, a red diamond with a circle around it.
"I came across the river during the night. It wasn't easy."
"It never is. Why would anyone leave the First Kingdom to enter the wastelands? The last time I checked the First Kingdom was a paradise compared to this shithole."
"The last time you checked, yes. That is the point. The last time you checked the queen had been driven from the throne and replaced with a queen out of time who burned the lands and tore down the palace."
"I excommunicated her and now her horse wanders Rancho Nuevo as a reminder to me that I am--"
"No," she said, grasping his cold hand. "It is a reminder of something else. It is a reminder to you that you still need to cross the threshold. The First Kingdom fell under the rule of a queen of deception, a queen you placed on the throne, and now the land is without a queen. Haven't you noticed the wastelands are expanding? Haven't you noticed that Rancho Nuevo is slowly taking over the lands of the First Kingdom?"
"The river still marks the border."
"The river moves with the border. You know that. The river marks the passage of souls through this world and it decides their fate here. All three of the kingdoms are in limbo. The First Kingdom is without a queen. The Second Kingdom is ruled by a collection of weary queens. And the Third Kingdom has stopped communicating with us all. This is not the natural order of things, this is a state that will eventually allow Rancho Nuevo to take full control of all the lands."
"I will not attempt another crossing of the river." He finished his tequila and absently glanced down at the page of his book.
"You are the only one who can discover a new queen. It has always been your function."
"And what is your function?"
"I have come here to this place knowing I can never again return to where I was."
"Trying to pull at my heart strings by playing the sacrifice card, eh? Well, my heart strings are broken, pulling at them is futile."
She pulled the book out of his hand, driven by a need to see what it was on the single page of the single book that he was so fixated on. It detailed her appearance in the Blackjack Saloon and the details of their interaction. After the passage that described how she pulled the book from his hands and read the written documentation of their conversation it told of a young woman of the First Kingdom who had overcome personal disappointments and sorrows to take the lead in the rebuilding of the palace. She thought little of herself and what she had done, merely convinced by her childish belief in fairy tales and happy endings that the palace of the queen needed to be rebuilt if joy was ever to return to the First Kingdom.
"You know this woman?" he asked her.
"Yes. She is--"
"Go off the script. I already know what it is you say at this point. Tell me something I don't know."
"A few have tried to seize the throne after the excommunication but none proved worthy. She talks to the empty throne as if she is waiting for it to be filled."
"And she doesn't know, does she?"
She looked down at the book again. The words had changed to match the conversation they'd just had.
"Nothing is written, everything is possible. Long ago in another world a boy went to climb a mountain. It was actually just a big hill, but to him it was a mountain. Perception, as you know, is everything. He grew very tired trying to climb up that hill, even though there was a trail leading to the top and most people didn't think much of walking to the top. When he went to sleep at night he pictured himself as a great mountain climber assaulting the sheer and icy cliffs of a mountain so high no one had ever seen the top. These images gave him conviction and in their own way gave him peace within his soul. Each time he tried to walk up that hill and became too tired to continue he saw the images of this mountain and he was driven to continue. Then, when he could finally see the top of this hill he turned around and went back. Do you know why?"
"Because then there would be no more worlds to conquer."
"I know how to cross the river, darling. I'm just not sure I want to."
The Rancho Nuevo Series: