“Is Jeng-zai Heretical?”: a piece of Ninefox Gambit fan-fic.

[Warning: most of the content to follow is pure conjecture as to the exact nature of the jeng-zai deck of cards featured in Yoon Ha Lee’s fantastic Ninefox Gambit, which you should go read if you haven’t. – AL]

Is Jeng-zai Heretical? : An essay by Rahal Volare

(comments in red by Professor-Magistrate Rahal Sen Kann)

I would not dare to imply that any official action be taken against the playing of jeng-zai, a pleasurable and harmless (conjecture) tradition throughout the factions since before the hexarchate. I offer only a theoretical exercise on how the game and its variants could be interpreted as outside of Doctrine.

The Deck

The deck itself is a fairly simple matter: 27 cards in three suits (Roses, Gears, and Doors) running from ace to seven followed by two “noble” cards (the General and the Archate, or “Crowned” card). Yet the history, legend, and tradition surrounding these cards speaks to the effect they have on the shared minds of the populace at all levels of society.

Take, for example, the General of Roses, or “Drowned General” as it is known at jeng-zai tables. The standard depiction is of a military personage wearing a uniform decorated with rose-shapes, whose image is crossed at the lips by a line of waveform shapes clearly representing water. Overwhelmed, perhaps, or in failure. All manner of dramas can be found wherein a swarm leader draws the Drowned General and earns the mistrust of her crew. (cite these dramas for investigation) But some histories cite earlier forms of the card where several lines crossed the image at varying angles, representing bullets just missing the General. An error in the printing of one of the most-widely-distributed decks at the time made the waveform, and the tradition of the unlucky card (more here on luck. E.g. lucky unlucky 4 of any suit in Kel “dramas”, such as they are) has stuck.

Of course, the history of Shuos Jedao has lent deep meaning to the Deuce of Gears. Did the card choose the madman, or the other way around? (strike this from all drafts immediately) The lowest card in most jeng-zai variants, it is the only non-noble card to have oddities in its design: first, the varying sizes and shapes of the two gears and second, the lightning-strike shape. Design histories are unclear as to why this is the case. (end all investigation into this matter. handled by other scholars at length)

The Game

Jeng-zai is, at its most basic, a game of probability management and bluffing. Does your hand beat those of your opponents? Can you convince them it does even if it does not? The game draws interest from all factions for various reasons. The Nirai argue over the deep maths of the shuffle. The Shuos value the manipulation of others. (incomplete. what else do they value? what do they learn about a person by playing against him?) The Andan have an entire language of seduction built around the finer points of the game. The Kel love a winner-take-all game like the typically-Kel variant known as “F*ck The Calendar”, which rewards massive risks and presumed failure. (also breaking orders. this is a partner variant, with one partner as the lead, and certain card combinations only work when both partners contribute. but there can be only one winner. worth noting here that only in play will a Kel even think of disobeisance. the main social value of Fuck The Calendar is in allowing the Kel to flex any latent rebellious muscles a little in a controlled environment. see Shuos secret monitoring records of every game of Fuck The Calendar ever played in a military installation in the last 250 years). Even the Vidona find uses for the psychological strain the game can cause. (and what of us? and the Liozh? why bother writing about heretical gameplay without referring to them? see, but do not distribute, attached text)


We have seen that the individual cards have meanings beyond their values.  The game itself has an indelible and invariant (use different word) place in our society. These associations are social, and outside of any Lexicon. It may be possible, then, that the game and its deck could be heretical.

Could the arrangement of a deck of cards in the pocket of some fledge cause unintended results in a formation? A question for the Nirai, surely, but one worth asking. Calendrical stability is a delicate matter (strike), and if a dead soldier were to be found with the so-called Fire’s Own Fortune hand at the top of his favorite deck after a lost battle, the mental damage this could do to a swarm is worthy of investigation. Loyalty-states can be assessed by our weaponry, and loyalty is not immune to the effects of the near-exotic qualities our subconscious attributes to jeng-zai. (good Rahal reasoning here)

Indeed (awk), any social construct which operates by rules outside of Doctrine merits monitoring. All games are based in an agreed-upon rule set, and any rule set not measured and valued by Doctrine is a potential risk to the hexarchate and the Calendar. Thus, jeng-zai, while clearly not (conjecture), could be viewed as a heretical by its very nature.


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