Jack of Hearts

Jack of Hearts

Ricardo Bare

April 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-260-6

Slave. Loner, Assassin.

Some boys throw their hearts away. Jack let a witch take his.

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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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He surrendered it long ago to the Lady of Twilight so that he would never feel heartache—or anything else—again. But there was a price. The Lady transformed him into a callous hunter forced to do her bidding, and now she’s commanded him to chase down and kill a thieving wizard named Moribrand. Love, hope, and human connection are concepts he can no longer comprehend, painful weaknesses he chose to cast aside. But when Jack meets a beautiful girl trapped in a mirror, the impossible happens—he feels an echo of his distant heart, and the sensation staggers him.

Cassandra, a spellbound girl who can only communicate through her mirror image, awakens something in him more dangerous, more impossible, than he ever imagined: a memory of who he once was and how it felt to care about another human being. She challenges his loyalty to the Lady and shows him his heart might be worth saving. What will it take for Jack to take his heart back from a witch, who has no intention of giving it up?


Coming soon!



Chapter 1

THERE WAS something wrong with Jack.

He should be dead. Any other fifteen-year-old boy would be. Dead as the dunes he marched across. Dead as the bleach-white splinters of glass that cracked under his boots in the sand.

But not Jack.

Jack was only dead on the inside, a thought that made him take a deep breath to see if it was still true, expanding the hollow in his chest as far as he could and holding it. He listened...


Only his thought, echoing: dead, dead, dead.

He exhaled and squinted at the horizon, tugging the hood of his cloak to shade his eyes from the baleful sun. Nothing showed yet in the distant blur except the rumor of foothills, so he slid down the face of the dune that had been his perch and trudged on.

A sudden hot wind screamed across the wasteland and heaved against him. It grabbed his cloak and shook it out like a war banner. He threw his arm up in front of his eyes until the gust expired, then broke into a steady run.

He ran alongside a road made of flashing glass and quartz that had been etched into existence long ago by a firestorm that crossed the entire desert in one day, dividing it in two, east from west. He was careful to avoid stepping on it, hopping over any stray chunks larger than his fist. Heat shimmered above the road, ghosting into the air. During the day, the surface could melt a horse’s hooves into glue, but at night it snaked across the desert, glittering white in the moonlight, guiding travelers who had the courage to cross the waste.

He ran until nightfall. The sun sagged beneath the world, slung itself around, and lurched into the air again. Still, he never stopped to eat or drink, or to answer the needs of a normal boy’s body.

At dusk the next day he spotted a man and a woman arguing beside the road. They paced, dark shapes against a livid sky. The woman made sharp chopping gestures with her hand, and Jack could tell by her shaking voice that she was weeping. He slowed so as not to frighten them.

When the woman saw him, she drew a veil over her mouth and nose and grasped the reins of her donkey tighter. The man stared. Two sacks the size of wine bottles hung from his fists. As Jack drew closer he could see the man’s body tense, read the questions forming in his wind-scarred face.

"I thought you were a sandwight,” the man said.

Jack didn’t respond. It was the same wherever he went. It wasn’t just that he walked through the desert, alone. It was the way he looked, especially in the vague dimness of twilight. How is that boy’s skin so pale? What’s wrong with his eyes? He had heard all of these things before, and even if they didn’t speak the words, he knew they were thinking them.

"Accursed,” someone whispered. A boy frowned at him from the donkey, a protective arm around his younger sister. Their mother shushed them.

Jack let his eyes linger on the siblings. The way the brother glared, ready to defend his sister despite the fear on his face, brought to mind the way Jack had tried to protect his own sister. For a moment, he could almost see her face, her smile—but he smashed down the thought, tearing his gaze away.

He had to stay focused. Stay focused and keep moving, or the Lady would punish him.

Around the family, boxes and saddlebags littered the sand as if they’d been dumped off in a hurry. An incense pole was spiked into the ground, issuing a pungent stench meant to keep sandwights away.

"How is it you wander the open desert in the day?” the man asked, licking his cracked lips. "You have no incense.”

"A man came this way,” Jack said. "His name is Moribrand.” He said it with little inflection. His words flowed out evenly, not too fast, not too slow.

Recognition flickered across the man’s pinched features, then anger. "Yes. I met him. The pig-faced piece of dung robbed me.”

"Swindled,” the wife said under her breath.

The husband flinched. "Quiet, woman!” She turned away to stifle a sob, and he glared at her until she hushed, and then said to Jack, "What do you want with him? He claimed he was a wizard.” The husband grew braver in his anger. He took a step closer, jaw clenched, head thrust forward. "Is he a friend of yours?”

"I’m going to kill him,” Jack said, and he shifted his cloak, revealing the grip of a sword that hung from his back.

"Kill him?” The man halted. He eyed the sword, a wary frown dragging his face down. "Kill a wizard? But...”

The children were whispering to each other, but Jack could hear them.

"He’s only a boy,” the girl said.

"No he’s not,” her brother said. "Now be quiet for once.”

Their mother shushed them again, her breath hissing.

Their father eased back and nodded. "He wanted to buy my pack horse. I refused, of course. I’m a trader. I need the horse to carry my goods. But he offered two sacks full of gold.” He shook the two bags he held. "He showed me the gold. It was real!” He glared at his wife, daring her to contradict him. "But now it’s turned to dust with the setting sun. Dust!”

The man upended one bag, and a column of sand poured out. "What will I do now? I dumped everything I own into the desert and gave him my horse. What will I do now, with only a donkey to carry my children, and a pile of dirt, tell me that, eh?”

Jack stared down the length of the glass road, now a deep purple in the fading light, and pictured Moribrand riding for his life, reins lashing from side to side. The wizard would widen the gap between them significantly, at least until he killed the animal. He might even make it out of the desert before Jack could catch up.

He let his gaze return to the children and tried to think what might happen to them. Without his goods, their father would arrive at the city of Spiral as a beggar instead of a merchant.

Jack had never been to Spiral, but if it was anything like he’d heard, they were doomed. It wouldn’t be long before a slaver clamped chains around their necks.

Not that it mattered to Jack. They were just strangers passing on the road, weren’t they? At least, that’s what his mistress, the Lady of Twilight, would say. She would mock him for even considering their situation for more than a heartbeat. If they were in trouble, it was their own fault for trusting a man like Moribrand. A wizard. So let them perish. Even now, seeing the fear on their faces, imagining them in shackles or dead in the sand, he couldn’t feel the slightest twinge of sympathy.

Except, he had made a rule hadn’t he? Rule number one was Obey the Lady. That was her rule. It was the only rule she had, but Jack had made his own secret addition. Obey the Lady, but Don’t think like the Lady was rule number two. He had to. Otherwise, it was too easy to be cruel.

Jack opened a satchel at his side and plucked out a rough gemstone. "Take this to the market in Spiral. I think it might be worth more than the horse you lost.”

The man’s eyes widened at the uncut opal, a slice of tangerine against white palm, but he refused to touch Jack’s hand. After a moment, Jack flipped his hand over, letting the stone fall into the dirt, and walked away, following the tracks of Moribrand’s new horse.

THE SUN burned in the sky.

This day marked the four hundred and fifty-second day of Jack’s hunt for the wizard Moribrand. He had chased him beneath the Mountains of Black Glass all the way through to the Fire Stairs, and before that he’d found him dreaming up schemes like a rat in the City of the Sword Worshipers. Moribrand always managed to slip away. But each time, Jack came closer to catching him. At every turn, he forced the wizard to alter his plans, pack up, and flee for his life.

Now Jack stalked him in the Desert of Night Walking, where traders said the sun melted a person’s will long before he died of thirst. If he survived the heat, a wandering sandwight was sure to scour the flesh from a traveler’s bones and snatch his soul. Even if he carried incense to ward off the sandwights, he had to avoid the firestorms that screamed through the desert during the day and boiled the sand into glass. Warnings Jack mostly ignored.

He found a brown heap on the side of the road the next morning. Vultures squabbled for position around the carcass, their shadows long and wild in the light of the dawning sun. He scattered the carrion birds with his passing and spared the dead beast a glance. Moribrand’s horse, run to death. Its flanks were caked with dried sweat and blood, lacerated with a crisscross of whip wounds.

It seemed like an age since he had dreamed boyish dreams of fast horses. He would have wept for the creature back then.


Not long after passing the dead horse, he wondered if the waste would finish his work for him. There were signs—bladders squeezed dry of every drop of water, spare clothing tossed aside, and discarded books Jack couldn’t read—all forming a trail of debris leading to his quarry.

A clutch of rocks punched up from the sand near the road. In the shade, he found the ashes of a fire the wizard had made by burning a set of robes. The blackened pile still issued wisps of smoke, which meant Moribrand couldn’t be far now. A tangle of scorched bones that probably belonged to a lizard sat next to the fire. On the flattest part of the rock face a vulgar image had been scrawled with chalk. It depicted a cloaked boy, abused and come to a cruel end. Jack imagined the wizard, sweating and wild eyed, scratching out a last insult against him.

He squatted and plucked the remaining nub of chalk between his thumb and forefinger. He might have laughed at the wizard’s futile gesture, but the humor withered before it could reach him. Besides, it might be a spell of some kind.

Jack flicked the chalk away and rejoined the glass road. Where it met the horizon, mountains bulged into view, edges blurred by the heat. Dunes and sandy plains gave way to foothills. Shabby low bushes clung to life in the shade of stones, rooted in deep cracks. He saw a wild hare. The creature stood to pound a warning into the hard-packed ground with its long foot and then bolted away.

The tracks of other travelers multiplied alongside the road, so Jack figured he was nearing a settlement or an oasis. Cresting the next rise, he spotted a compound hunkered around the intersection of the glass road and a dirt road that coursed west along the edge of the foothills. A salmon-colored wall of rammed earth encircled the compound. Inside, clusters of large canvas tents billowed, reinforced with tall central poles. He thought it might be a mining camp of some sort.

He’d heard how powerful Barons were willing to risk everything for the valuable resources they could plunder from the fringes of the desert, despite the dangers. In all likelihood, slaves toiled inside the walls, dredging up gems, bones, or salt from furnace-hot excavations.

At the gates, soldiers with glinting helmets and spears, their faces half-veiled, watched the crossroads with suspicious eyes. More patrolled the walls. Incense poles spiked around the perimeter released black greasy smoke into the sweltering air.

He was sure Moribrand was inside. After slogging for days on end through the desert, half-starved, the wizard would be unable to resist whatever comforts this settlement offered.

Jack looked up. It was nearly midday, which meant he would soon be at his weakest. Already, he could feel his strength diminishing, pulling away from him like a slow tide. His senses would be their dullest, his limbs more leaden. Almost like a normal boy. Almost.

It was also when his mind was most prone to wandering, which was the best reason he had for finding somewhere to hide until nightfall. Besides, no one walked the desert in the day, not without incense. The guards would spear him before he came within ten paces of the gate.

Turning back, he abandoned the road and scrabbled over the rough boulders that littered the hills, searching for a niche to hide in. He found a narrow cleft in the ground with just enough space for his body and squeezed into the cool darkness.

Jack remained dead still, watching the shadows creep across the ground, unconcerned with the scorpions and lizards that scratched over his skin in search of prey. Nor did he flinch at the rasping moan of a sandwight that swept past.

Before long, it happened, as it usually did when he could do nothing but wait, when the influence of twilight was furthest from him. It was his encounter with the trader’s children that had started it this time. He noticed his hands shaking, then sweating. His breath quickened.

Jack couldn’t stop his mind from drifting back to a time when he was another boy, when he played on emerald grass under the shade of a giant oak. The memories lurked, crouching within him until he became still, then crept out like priests in a boneyard, beckoning with gaunt hands and counterfeit smiles, onward, deeper, so they could crush him with an unbearable grief.

An age ago, Jack would have cried out in despair, but instead he watched the memories as if they belonged to a stranger. Inside, he was numb. Inside, there was no reason for him to cry out, because the grief could not touch him. Because Jack had no heart.

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