The Serpent

Gameshouse Novella 1


By Claire North

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In 17th Century Venice exists a mysterious establishment known only as the Gameshouse.

There, fortunes are made and fortunes are broken over games of chess, backgammon and every other game under the sun.

But those whom fortune favours may be invited to compete in the higher league . . . a league where the games played are of politics and empires, of economics and kings. It is a league where Capture the Castle involves real castles, where hide and seek takes place on a scale as big as the British Isles.

Not everyone proves worthy of competing in the higher league. But one woman, who is about to play, may just exceed everyone’s expectations.

Though she must always remember: the higher the stakes, the more deadly the rules . . .


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Meet the Author


Table of Contents

Copyright Page

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Chapter 1

She is gone, she is gone. The coin turns, and she is gone.

Chapter 2


Let us watch together, you and I.

We pull back the mists.

We step onto the board, make our entrance with a flourish; we are here, we have arrived; let the musicians fall silent, let those who know turn their faces away at our approach. We are the umpires of this little event; we sit in judgement, outside the game but part of it still, trapped by the flow of the board, the snap of the card, the fall of the pieces. Did you think you were free of it? Do you think yourself something more in the eyes of the player? Do you fancy that it is not you who are moved, but is moving?

How naïve we have become.

Let’s choose a place and call it Venice. Let us say it is 1610, six years since the Pope last declared this place heretic, barred from the blessings of his divine office. And what was this to the people of the city? Why, it was no more than what it was: a piece of paper stamped with wax. No Bishop of Rome could shake this sinking city. Instead the black rats will come, they will come with fleas and plague, and the city will rue its impiety then.

But we run ahead of ourselves. Time, to those of us who play in the Gameshouse, stretches like kneaded dough; fibres split and tear away but we persist, and the game goes on.

She will be called Thene.

She was born at the close of the sixteenth century to a cloth merchant who made a fortune buying from the Egyptians and selling to the Dutch, and her mother was a Jew who married for love, and her father fed her pork from infancy and made her swear never to reveal this terrible secret to the great men of the city.

- What will I be when I am old? she asked her father. - Can I be both my mother’s daughter, and yours?

To which her father answered, - No, neither. I do not know who you will be, but you will be all yourself, and that will be enough.

Later, after her mother dies, her father remembers himself speaking these words and weeps. His brother, who never approved of the match and dislikes the child as a symbol of it, paces up and down, rasping:

- Stop crying! Be a man! I’m ashamed to look at you!

She, the child, eight years old, watches this exchange through the door and swears with her fists clenched and eyes hot that she will never be caught crying again.

And a few years later, Thene, dressed in blue and grey, a silver crucifix about her neck, leather gloves upon her hands, is informed that she shall be married.

Her father sits, silent and ashamed, while her uncle rattles off the details of the match.

Her dowry is greater than her name, and it has purchased Jacamo de Orcelo, of ancient title and new-found poverty.

- He is adequate, potentially a fine husband given your degree, her uncle explains. Thene keeps her fingers spread loose across her lap. The act of keeping them so, of preventing from them locking tight, requires a great deal of concentration, and at fifteen years old, Thene has not cried for seven years, and will not cry now.

- Is this your wish? she asks her father.

He turns his face away, and on the night before her wedding day she sits down with him before the fire, takes his hand in hers and says, - You do not need my forgiveness, for you have done nothing wrong. But as you want it, know that it is yours, and when I am gone I will only remember the best of you; only the very best.

For the first time since her mother died, he cries again, and she does not.

Jacamo de Orcelo was not a fine husband.

For the sake of Thene’s dowry, this thirty-eight-year-old man of the city swore he would endure the snickering of his peers who laughed to see his fifteen-year-old bride, whispering that he had married the merchant’s daughter, and murmuring that beneath her skirts there was only cloth and more cloth, no womanly parts at all for a man to grapple with.

The first night they were alone together, she held his hands, as she had seen her mother do when she was young, and stroked the hair back from behind his ear, but he said this was womanly rot and pushed her down.

His aged mother told her that he loved fresh shrimp cooked over a smoky flame, the spices just so, the sweetness just right, and she learned the secrets of this dish and presented him a platter for his supper, which he ate without thanks, not noticing the efforts she had gone to.

- Did you like the meal? she asked.

- I had better as a boy, he replied.

She sang when first she came to this house, but he said her voice gave him a headache. Then one night, when she was walking alone, she sang one of her mother’s songs, and he came downstairs and hit her, screaming, - Jew! Jew! Whore and Jew! and she did not sing again.

Her wealth bought him some redemption from his debts, but money dwindles, and the laughter persisted. Was it this, we wonder, that made their marriage so cold? Or was it the fumbling of the old man in the sheets with his teenage bride, his love of wine, his affection for cards and, as she failed to produce an heir, his growing fondness for whores? Which piece of all of this, shall we say, was it that most defined their home?

We watch their house, proud and tall in the heart of San Polo, hear the servants whisper behind their hands, see the wife withdraw into her duties, witness the husband spend more on less, see the coffers empty, and as the years roll by and Jacamo grows ever more reckless in the destruction of himself, what do we see in her? Why, nothing at all, for it seems that against the buffets of fortune she is stone, her features carved into a mask of perfect white.

Thene, beautiful Thene, grown to a woman now, manages the accounts when her husband is gone, works with the servants and hides in the lining of her skirts those ducats that she can best secure before he finds them and spends them on whatever – or whoever – it is that today has best taken his fancy. And as he grows loud, so she grows quiet, until even the whispers against her character cease, for it seems to the gossipy wives of Venice that there is nothing there – no merchant’s daughter or gambler’s wife, no woman and no Jew, not even Thene herself – but only ice against which they can whisper, and who has any joy in scheming against winter herself?

All this might persist, but then this is Venice, beloved of plague, reviled by popes, the trading heart of Europe, and even here, all things must change.

Chapter 3

There is a house.

You will not find it now – no, not even its gate with the lion-headed knocker that roars silently out at the night, nor its open courtyards hung with silk, or hot kitchens bursting with steam, no, none of it, nothing to see – but then it stood in one of those little streets that have no name near San Pantaleone, just north of a short stone bridge guarded over by three brothers, for there are only two things that Venetians value more than family, and those are their bridges and their wells.

How did we come to be here?

You – why, you have come with Thene, you have followed Jacamo, who is for ever looking for new ways to lose his wealth and heard rumour of a place where he might do so in most extravagant style. You have come with them both to the door, for Jacamo is angry with his wife, angry at her coldness, her constant politeness and failure to scream, and so he takes her with him now, that she might witness all he does and suffer in him. Follow them as they knock on the door and step into a hall hung with silk and velvet, pressed with the smell of incense and the soft sound of music, past two women clad all in white, their faces obscured by nun’s veils though they are of no such order, who whisper, - Welcome, welcome, please – won’t you come in?

Follow them inside to the first courtyard, where torches burnt about the pillars of the walls and the sad faces of martyred saints, mosaicked in the Eastern style, sadly look on from their hollows above the arches of the doors.

Like Jacamo, perhaps you spot the prostitutes, hair pulled up high and dresses hitched about their knees, cooing in darkened corners at their clients. The sound of music, the smell of meat, the soft chatter of voices, the roll of dice, the slap of cards – why, they all call to him, sweetest nectar.

But more.

Perhaps, like Thene, you see too the boys and men who coo at the wealthy ladies gathered here, their faces hidden by long-nosed masks or silver-woven veils. Perhaps you observe the other doors leading to other places, from which different voices and different smells drift like the reflected spread of candlelight. As her gaze falls around this place, and ours follow, we too now perceive that of all the games being played in this courtyard and the halls that surround it, there are more than the mere casual tumblings of chance from the gambler’s cup. For now we see chess, checkers, Nine Men’s Morris and many we alone can now name as toguz kumalak, baduk, shogi, mah-jong, sugoroku and shatranj – all the games of the world, it seems, have come here, and all the people too. Is he not a Mogul prince, a diamond larger than her fist in his hat, who now moves a piece against the Jewish physician, yellow scarf wound about his neck? Is she in red, rosaries slung around her wrist, not a Frenchwoman who now places her bet against a Ragusan pirate freshly come from plunder? And more – more exotic still! For it seems to us, as we inspect the room, that a Muscovite nobleman, who spits and curses at the foulness of Venice, now turns over a card which is beaten by a Bantu prince, who smiles faintly and says, - Another try? Is that not Chinese silk draped across the white sleeve of the veiled woman who brings drinks to the table, and is there not a hint of Mayan gold in the brooch of the man who stands guard before a silver door to a place that is, at this time, to us unknown?

Thene sees it all, and though she cannot so precisely pinpoint the origins of all these sights as we can, she has wisdom enough to perceive its meaning.

Chapter 4

Jacamo plays.

He loses as he plays.

He is a man who is played upon by players, and poor ones at that. We shall not bother much with him.

Thene watches. He keeps her close so that she can watch him lose twenty, thirty, a hundred ducats. When she does not react, he pulls her closer, one arm around her waist, so that she can watch him lose on the next hand, his father’s ring, his estate near Forli.

When even this does not cause a flicker in her brow, he grabs the nearest girl by the thigh, kisses her neck.

Thene says, - Shall I fetch wine?

And rises and walks away. Her hands, folded one on top of the other across her belly, are perfectly relaxed. Jacamo knows the meaning of this, though others do not, and is satisfied.

He swears tomorrow they shall return.

Chapter 5

We are not the only ones watching.

The umpires, as they shall come to be known stand apart from the servants who bring delicate foods and sweet drinks from some unseen kitchen. They watch, their faces masked, and they guard the silver door.

- Where does this door go? we ask.

- To the higher league.

- What is the higher league?

- It is a place for games.

- So is this place, so is this entire house. What is different about the higher league?

- The games are different.

- Can I join?

- Have you been invited?

- No.

- Then you cannot join.

- How do I get an invitation?

- We watch. You play.

And so the door remains shut. For now.

Thene watches too.

She watches her husband, his fortune steadily obliterated by men of meagre skill and poor strategy. She watches the lucky and the poor, the calculating and the giddy, as they move through the room, daring each other to greater odds. She spots a member of the Council of Seven, and two from the Council of Ten. She sees judges and merchants, lords and priests, and more – she sees women. Wives and daughters, mothers and ladies of the night: some play, some watch and there are some who are let through the silver doors to the unknown place without a whisper, without a sound, their faces hidden by the masks of carnival, their eyes watching her watching them.

Then there is the man.

Let us call him Silver in honour of the tracery of thorns that runs in that colour so softly, a thread wide, along his sleeves. He approaches her, and it is testimony to how innocuous he appears in all other senses that she does not mark him doing so, and as she turns at the sound of breath he says:

- Do you play?

No, she does not.

He smiles, half shaking his head.

- Forgive me, he says. - I misspoke. Will you play?

She looks at her husband’s back, the empty glasses at his side, the coins on the table, and realises that there is anger on her lips, a tempest in her belly and her hands hurt – they burn from not clenching – and with the softness of winter mist in her voice says simply, - Yes.

They play chess.

He wins the first.

She wins the second.

They do not speak more than a few words as they play. The wager is information, for there must be a wager.

- Is it not enough to play for joy? she asks.

At this, terror flickers across his face. - You would wager your happiness? You would gamble with your self-esteem? Good God, don’t play for joy, not yet; not when there are so many lesser things you could invest in!

This sentiment should have felt strange, and yet it settles over her as sure as the altar cloth across cold stone. - For information then, she says. - For answers.

When he wins the first game, he asks her even before the king has hit the deck, - Do you love your husband?

- No, she replies, and is surprised at the candour of her words.

When she wins she thinks a long time, and asks then, - What do you want of me?

And he replies, - One day I shall need a favour from a stranger, and I am curious to learn whether that stranger could be you.

Then Jacamo is up and drunk, and she takes him home.

The next day she dismisses another servant who they cannot afford to pay, and two nights later, they return to the house.

Again, Jacamo, the cards, the drink, the losses.

We are delicate watchers; we do not stare every night, but we have come here enough and seen him in this state before, and can surmise that there have been many more times that we were not privy to when this pattern played out.

We tut, perhaps, but say no more. Who are we to judge?

This night, however, we observe an alteration in events. Tonight he falls asleep after three hands, spittle falling from his lips onto the tabletop. Thene would feel ashamed at her husband’s display, but regret, like the sound of her mother’s songs, was lost a long time ago. Then Silver is by her side and says, - Will you play?

They play.

She moves too quickly on the first game, barely glancing at the board. When her final piece falls, he asks his question, and it is, - What do you fear?

She thinks a long time before answering.

- The things I might do, she says. - The woman I have become.

Their second game is slower, harder, and three moves before he’s checkmated he says, - I should probably resign, but that would sully an otherwise superb win. So he plays through and she wins, and asks even before his king has toppled, - Did you poison my husband tonight?

- Yes, he replies. - How did you know?

- I saw you watch him play, stand close to his elbow. You have never watched him before, nor shown any interest in his playing as it is so poor. You smiled and laughed and sounded like one of them, the men with their cards, but you are not. I can only assume you have some other intention, and now he is asleep and nothing stirs him.


  • "An astonishing re-invention of the time travel narrative. Bold, magical and masterful."—Mike Carey, on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

On Sale
Nov 3, 2015
Page Count
100 pages

Claire North

About the Author

Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who wrote several novels in various genres before publishing her first major work as Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It was a critically acclaimed success, receiving rave reviews and becoming a word of mouth bestseller. She has since published several hugely popular and critically acclaimed novels, won the World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. She lives in London.

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