THE KING OF SPADES
, whose once-prosperous kingdom has gone to seed.
In his age, he has become an ascetic -- forsaking all worldly pursuits with the exceptions of botany and gravedigging.
The battlefields of four kingdoms have disappeared beneath his encroaching gardens; it is said that the cabbages that grow in unusual abundance from those dark plots of earth sometimes have the faces of men, and are eaten only in times of great famine.
THE QUEEN OF SPADES
, an herbalist and wood-witch with a knowledge of poisons and cures. She alone knows the secret names of every root and leaf in the four kingdoms; from a meaningless tumble of bracken, hers is the only hand that can pluck one shoot to sicken, one to restore, and one to grant uncommon visions.
It is said that death itself is the only ailment for which her gardens do not hold a cure; a reliable remedy for madness, though, is apparently beyond the powers of her tinctures and poultices, for her ministrations to the king have served only to hasten his decline.
THE JACK OF SPADES
: once the hope of his kingdom, heir to the prosperity of endless river valleys; now a gibbet of sunbleached bones overlooking scorched earth and blackened fields.
The legend outlives the man: a flaxen-haired prince who left his palace to work the fields with the common folk, and took up arms to fight alongside them. With his death, the royal lineage of the House of Spades was extinguished, and the King issued a final decree: that his son's body would keep its lonely vigil over the battlefield where he died until it saw the four kingdoms starve for their transgressions.
Each year, on the eve of his death, every field in the kingdom is burned to ensure a late planting and a scanty harvest - lest some unscrupulous peasant risk feeding the enemy in exchange for a few coins. Only two plots of land escape the ritual that has become known as the Prince's Harvest: the king's own gardens, lusher by the year, and the ravaged fields beneath the prince's eternal gaze; there, whatever weeds may grow from the hallowed ground are permitted to flourish.
THE ACE OF SPADES. Time past, the Kingdom of Spades held immense political sway as breadbasket of the four kingdoms, rich from the bounty of its agricultural labors. Its rule was widely held as a model of wisdom and prudence until the ravages of war, grief, and madness touched its royal house; now, though the kingdom grows ever more vulnerable - to seditious scavenging forces within, and to acquisitive greed without - its wardens take little notice.
What remains of the kingdom is a husk of its former abundance, and the entirety of the four kingdoms has suffered from its downfall. The common people who once made their livelihood working the land have largely turned to thievery, hermitical reclusion, and folkmagic to survive the darker and hungrier era that has befallen them.
THE KING OF HEARTS
, as the current pretender is known. Stepson (or so it is whispered) to the old king, who was prudent and just, the new king - regrettably - takes after his mother. A hedonist and a worshipper of strange gods, he has a keen eye for inner beauty and a host of unusual appetites.
The sprawling harem at the heart of the capitol (whose construction began at his decree upon assuming the crown, and has been the ongoing financial ruin of the kingdom) is a vibrant city unto itself: home to a raucous and ever-changing population of travelers, slaves, and supplicants from the furthest corners of the world. Nights in his inner palace, however, are said to be strangely silent.
THE QUEEN OF HEARTS
: still as lovely as she was on that long-ago day when the old king brought her home from his conquests in foreign lands - a painted treasure with infant son in arms and a multitude of peculiar customs in tow. Since her widowhood, many suitors have sought her favor - drawn to her beauty, or her crown, or both - but to a man, have been met only with rejection.
She is said to prefer a life of ritual and solitude; outside of the increasingly rare occasions on which she holds court for her supplicants, she spends her days alone at her mirror, letting her son squander the kingdom's dwindling wealth with impunity. The curiously frequent disappearances of her handmaidens are seldom remarked upon in noble company; after all, the four kingdoms are known to be full of perils for the innocent.
THE JACK OF HEARTS
: One of the many industrious souls who ply their trade in the mecca of vice the kingdom's capitol has become.
The orphaned son of a vanished handmaiden, his place in the palace was lost during the upheaval caused by the old king's death. His early life on the streets was marked by hardship, struggle, and desperate acts; but a boy so very much like the old king in face and bearing proved a novelty to delight even the jaded tastes of the capitol; through wit and industry, he has managed to rise from his humble beginnings to become a courtesan of the highest order.
It would seem he could want for little now - having earned his place as a sought-after tradesman in the finest courtly houses of the kingdom and even, it is rumored, the king's own palace. But ambition, unlike lust, is not easily sated...
THE ACE OF HEARTS. The Kingdom of Hearts, a former colonial power built to greatness over a dozen generations, has been undone in as many years by the feckless rule of its widowed queen and her son - newcomers to the kingdom who have rejected its staid puritanical rule in favor of outlandish influences and their own self-serving customs.
Under their watch, the kingdom has been bankrupted through excess and shortsightedness; the borders have been opened wide and the kingdom has been transformed into a mecca not only for wayfarers and tradesman, but also for hedonists and criminals. The current rule is generally acknowledged to be illegitimate, but the kingdom's native population has been pushed out by the influx of transplants from the very lands that it once sought to conquer; the original inhabitants are few enough in number now that there is little organized desire to restore the kingdom to its old ways.
THE KING OF CLUBS
, whose kingdom's enduring peace was bought with steel and blood. The few remaining souls who have faced his armies on the field of battle tell strange stories of teeth and claws, of warriors who eat human flesh and wear the skins of fabulous beasts.
His current life is one of quiet diplomacy behind high walls; his far-seeing eyes, though, are always trained on the uneasy world beyond his guarded borders. In his armories, the forge-fires are never permitted to go out, and his beast-skin armor is never allowed to lose its polish.
THE QUEEN OF CLUBS
, or so she might have one day become - destined to cover her face and sit by the fire among her aunts, or die in childbirth like her mother - had she not forged her own war-club and followed the tracks of a foundling she-bear into the forest beyond her father's high walls.
None can say for certain what became of her, although there are hunters from the borderlands who claim to have seen her among the trees: a warrior maiden clad in iron and ragged pelts, more animal than human, with lichen on her armor and wildfire in her eyes. Legend names her the Bear Queen, and only the very brave or very foolish would venture to set a snare in her woods.
THE JACK OF CLUBS
: a deserter who, having lost his taste for war, finds himself exiled and disgraced - condemned to live as a recluse and poach the dark forests of the borderlands for whatever prey he might find there.
There are few enough left now who remember his time at the right hand of the king who fostered and trained him; but for his own part, he still he dreams of blood, and smoke, and his lost place in the walled kingdom - a position to which he has not entirely abandoned hope of restoring himself. His final chance at redemption: a treasured and elusive prey, the hunting of which will require all the skills at his disposal...
THE ACE OF CLUBS. Behind its impenetrable walls, the Kingdom of Clubs exists in a state of perpetual readiness; for its people have not yet forgotten the turmoil and bloodshed from which their sovereignty was forged.
The kingdom's purposeful isolation has fostered an insular and unwelcoming society. Its people are said to speak the tongues of animals more readily than those of outsiders; as such, the Kingdom of Clubs is known less from firsthand accounts and more from legends - most of which populate its walls with everything from skinwalkers to berserkers. All accounts agree, however, on a few less sensational points: the kingdom's unforgiving class system honors valor over birthright; its armories are without equal; and the royal bestiaries are a rare jewel containing living specimens of every creature in the four kingdoms.
THE KING OF DIAMONDS
, seeker of knowledge and bringer of light. Alongside his laboratories and the unimaginable libraries contained within, all other wonders of the four kingdoms pale.
It is the subject of some debate how many decades he spent shut up in the darkness, bent over scrolls and beakers - but legend generally puts the number between ten and fifteen. The fruit of his labors: a kingdom renowned for its ceaseless industry and unsurpassed wealth, whose heights and depths alike are perpetually illuminated by the harnessed light of alchemical fires.
THE QUEEN OF DIAMONDS
: a title held by the eldest of the chosen girls, blinded by oleander, who trade the deceptions of their earthly eyes for inviolable vision of smoke and stone. In the temple beneath the mountains, they are taught to read the language of the true-sighted; the histories and philosophies lost to the rest of the four kingdoms are revealed to them in the darkness.
Upon the death of the Queen - often an early one, as the work of a vessel is not without its costs - a new girl assumes the title; by her vows she will be silent until such time as the stone speaks through her in a voice as old as the world - a voice that whispers the fates of men and foretells the rise and fall of kingdoms.
Her counsel is sought by kings, heroes, and other wanderers in the dark.
THE JACK OF DIAMONDS
: a fanatical priest of the new order, in whose righteous heart the divine fire burns.
Downriver of the mines and forges, in the blackest corners of the kingdom where the radiance of the alchemical fires has yet to reach, his doctrines have kindled a guiding light. His teachings reject the meditative studies of the old order in favor of a slavish devotion to fasting and purification; for only through purification (his writings teach) can the body become a conduit through which the devouring flame may burn without consuming, and irradiate through its brilliance the darkness of a wicked world.
THE ACE OF DIAMONDS. The oldest of the four kingdoms, the Kingdom of Diamonds represents the intersection of religious tradition and scientific advancement; even within the monastic framework of its culture, knowledge and reason have been permitted to flourish.
Chiseled into the barren peaks and bottomless caverns of the high mountains, its capitol enjoys a geographical remoteness that has long sheltered it from the discord that has been the downfall of other kingdoms. Its lofty position, however, does not exempt its people from their own trials: frailty, sickness, and other ill omens borne by the light-poisoned waters of its rivers.
THE RED FOOL: A former novitiate of the diamond temple, she has abandoned her calling and left her training unfinished. Half-sighted and half-learned, she wanders the four kingdoms bearing only a few meager possessions, and the stolen scrolls of wisdom whose language she can read but whose portents she cannot hope to decipher.
For one who might have been a speaker of prophesies and custodian of untold secrets, she has fallen far - becoming a charlatan and proselytizer for false gods, a teller of petty fortunes and a dealer in various low trades.
THE BLACK FOOL: A recluse and guardian of the forestlands, who owes fealty to kings older and darker than the crowned fools who squabble over their little patches of earth.
Over the course of many lifetimes passed in the forest, he has unlocked its secrets, yet has shared them with but a few; for those to whom the old tongue is not yet lost, he is a teller of tales older than the four kingdoms, and a keeper of histories forgotten even to the stone-speakers in their mountain temples.