Rafe shuffled the deck fr the third time and handed it to the woman on his right so she could cut the cards. It was clear the other three players distrusted him, and even the card cutting didn’t reassure them he wasn’t cheating. But they were too convinced that the next hand would be the winning one to call him out or stop the play. They merely watched him with a narrowed suspicion and nodded to indicate they were still in the game.
Rafe dealt the cards slowly, deliberately, making sure all his movements were visible. As it happened, he knew how to slip a trump from the bottom of the deck, how to hide a wildcard up his sleeve, but he didn’t bother. Not with this particular group—two elay men barely in their twenties and a wild-haired sweela woman who was probably his stepfather’s age. None of them could play half as well as they thought they could, but all were too caught up in the gambling fever to admit it. Rafe shrugged to himself. That was an elay man for you—a dreamer, a misty-eyed romantic with no practical sense. And all the sweela souls he’d ever encountered were so impetuous that they ignored their impulses to cold reason whenever the stakes were high. Of course Rafe was winning handily; it would be more astonishing if he were losing.
Once the cards were dealt, everyone gathered them up and sorted them into suits. Rafe kept his expression amiable but impassive as he looked over his hand. Two wildcards; that was a stroke of luck. Only two trumps; a potential disaster. Ah, but he had six cards in the suit of skulls. He could probably turn that to his advantage.
As his opponents frowned over their own cards, each trying to formulate a strategy, Rafe glanced casually around the bar. The clientele tended to turn over pretty quickly as the night progressed; he liked to keep track of who had walked in while his attention was elsewhere. He liked to guess who might be interested in playing a round of penta with him, who might be desperate, and who might be trouble.
Trouble came with some regularity to this little bar, which was situated solidly inside the crowded, noisome slum district of the city of Chialto. But it was actually one of the more respectable establishments, given its location just south of the Cinque, the five-sided boulevard that made an inner loop around the city. Traders’ sons and merchants wives’ felt safe enough to come here for a night of excitement that might include high-stakes gambling, high-proof liquor, illegal drugs, and companionship that could be purchased. As long as they stayed within hearing range of traffic on the Cinque, they didn’t need to worry overmuch. But farther south, a little closer to the canal, and the illicit thrill could turn into a grim struggle for survival. No one walked those streets just for fun.
Tonight, at least so far, the bar was relatively quiet. The public space consisted of one big room, crowded with tables and a half dozen booths against the far wall. It was windowless here on the street level, so no matter what the time of day, the smoky oil-lamp illumination made patrons fail to notice how long they’d been sitting there, drinking or playing. The clientele was largely male, though a few women were always part of the mix. Some, like the one at his own table, were leathery old crones with a lifetime of hard experience chiseled into their faces. More were younger, prettier, plumper, not yet ruined by a brutal life, though clearly in peril of encountering a disastrous end.
Well, who isn’t? Rafe thought, turning his attention back to his tablemates. “Everyone ready to bid?” he asked.
One of the elay men nodded vigorously. He was a slim, pasty-faced blond with full, sensuous lips; Rafe had mentally dubbed him the Loser, since his reckless style of play was all but guaranteed to leave him bankrupt before the night was over. “More than ready,” the Loser exclaimed. He seemed almost feverish with excitement. Rafe assumed he had drawn the majority of the trump cards, and wasn’t hiding that fact very well.
“I suppose so,” said the other elay man, whom Rafe was calling Sad Boy because of his morose expression. Sad Boy had actually won a few hands by retaining trumps when Rafe had not expected him to, which argued a certain unexpected skill at the game, but his betting had been so erratic that he hadn’t profited much by his victories.
Sweela Woman merely nodded, so they all called out their bids and laid down the proper cards. Rafe had the low cards in flutes, roses, and horseshoes, which made the others smile; on the face of it, he had the weakest hand. Sad Boy had the low skull and Sweela Woman the low fish. No wonder the Loser was grinning like a fool, and pushing a stack of quint-silvers to the middle of the table. He probably had high cards and trumps.
It would be a pleasure taking his money.
Sad Boy and Sweela Woman made more conservative bets. Rafe offered a slight shrug, which he hoped they would interpret as disappointment over a bad hand, and pushed a silver toward the pile of coins. “Looks like it’s your play,” he said to the Loser, and the game was on.
It unfolded almost exactly as Rafe had anticipated, with the Loser scooping up the first four rounds with ill-disguised triumph, and recklessly expending his trumps without any regard for which cards it would be prudent to hold in reserve. The Loser was clearly astonished when Sad Boy won a play and wrested control of the game for the next two discards, and even more astonished when his next trump was overmatched by Rafe, who had been keeping track. No trumps, no wildcards left.
“Skulls,” Rafe said, and laid down the eight. Sad Boy and Sweela Woman tossed in skulls, and the Loser pouted and flung down the three of roses. Rafe spread the rest of his cards on the table. “I think the remaining rounds are mine,” he said in a pleasant voice.
Sweela Woman groaned and Sad Boy actually laughed. “I wondered where all the skulls were!” he exclaimed. “All I had were flutes and roses, and they didn’t do me a damn bit of good.”
Sweela Woman was watching him appraisingly. “Even if you’ve been cheating all night, you weren’t cheating on that hand,” she said. “You’re brilliant at this game. I suppose you know that.”
He smiled at her. He’d always rather liked the sweela folks he’d encountered. They tended to be self-absorbed and overbearing, but embued with a certain irresistible charm. As if it never occurred to them that, despite their loud voices and arrogant attitudes, people might not like them.
“Since much of my income depends on being brilliant at penta, I am aware that I play it well,” he replied.
“Hell of a way to earn a living,” she said.
Rafe shrugged and gathered the cards, straightening them into a neat pile. “Every job has its downside,” he said. “The ills of gambling are no worse than those of working in a factory ten hours a day, building smoker cars for rich people.”
Sweela Woman laughed at that, and even Sad Boy looked amused. The Loser frowned, leading Rafe to guess he was one of the rich folks who owned an elaymotive. In the past five years, the gas-powered vehicles had gone from being gape-worthy curiosities to commonplace carriages, though horse-drawn conveyances still accounted for three-quarters of the traffic along the Cinque.
“Never did want to spend much time working myself to the bone just so a rich man got richer,” Sweela Woman agreed. “But I still don’t think a gambler’s life is the one for me.”
Rafe shuffled the cards, loving the quick, ruffled sound they made as they interwove. “You might like it better than you think,” he said. “Gambling favors the folk of mind and fire.”
“Gambling favors the cheaters,” the Loser muttered.
In response, Rafe offered him the deck. “You deal,” he invited. “Count them first, make sure they’re all there. What can I do to convince you I play a fair game?”
The elay man hesitated, as if thinking up tests. His friend said in a tone of great irritation, “Either trust the man and play, Edwin, or don’t trust him and walk away. Frankly, I think he’s honest.”
“But he keeps winning,” Edwin complained.
“I think it’s more that we keep losing.”
Rafe left the cards on the table and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms on his chest. Let them see him relaxed and sure of himself; let them believe he didn’t care whether or not they played one more hand. In truth, he’d prefer to win another few silvers, even a quint-gold or two. He rented a small apartment on the third story above the bar, paying by the nineday, and the money was due tomorrow morning. He had enough to cover it, but he might go hungry a day or two until he had another run of good luck.
The elay men were now arguing in earnest, keeping their voices low enough that Rafe could pretend he wasn’t listening. Since there was a break in the action, Sweela Woman opened her handbag and pulled out a small, delicately carved box. Rafe wasn’t surprised when the lid opened to reveal a couple of small, gilded bags and a ceramic cup no bigger than a thimble. She carefully opened each bag, shook out fine white powder from one and coarsely ground green leaves from the other, and combined them inside the cup. As soon as the ingredients began to curl with smoke, she dumped the mixture into her wine and began to slowly sip it down.
Once that particular drug took hold, Rafe thought, she’d have the energy and focus to play for another five hours.
The men were still arguing, so Rafe glanced around the bar again, noting that it had thinned out a little. He guessed it was two or three hours past midnight, and most of the casual visitors had already called it a night. The ones left were the professionals and the diehards, too drunk or too stupid to go home. Or unlucky enough to have no home to go to.
Movement caught at the edge of his vision and he shifted to get a better look. A young woman was coming in through the front door—slinking in would be a better way to put it, opening the door just wide enough to admit her small frame and then skulking along the wall until she came to an unoccupied booth. She dropped onto one of the benches and shoved herself back until her hunched shoulder hit the wall. Then she seemed to draw herself together in a tight ball and ducked her head down, trying—or so it seemed—to make herself invisible. She even leaned down to blow out the guttering candle on her table, to put herself in shadow as much as possible.
Rafe continued to watch her from the corner of his eye, not wanting to draw attention to her by staring outright. Though she would be something to stare at. Her trousers and tunic were lacy, delicate, and highly expensive items, though they were ripped and muddy, as if she’d fallen down during a mad run for freedom. Her bare arms bore fresh cuts and scratches; her thick red hair was a wild mess. She wasn’t wearing any visible jewelry, but Rafe fancied he could spot a little lumpiness on the undercurve of her bosom, which should have been lusciously smooth. His bet was that she had stuffed a necklace down the front, and maybe a bracelet or two, when she realized she was making a detour through rough territory.
He could only guess what disaster had sent her off into the night, but that she was in dire distress was clear enough. She looked like she couldn’t be more than fifteen, was rich as a queen, and was pretty close to terrified. Surely she knew she was in absolutely the wrong part of town for her age, sex, and social standing. Surely she knew that any of a dozen hazards could sweep her into calamity before the night was even an hour older. This place could not have been her intended goal, and Rafe thought she must not have the faintest idea what to do next.
But she didn’t look entirely defeated. He watched as she examined the welter of plates and silverware left at her booth by the last patron. He thought at first she was trying to gain the nerve to eat some of the less-poisonous-looking scraps, so he almost laughed when the first thing she picked up was a dinner knife, sharp enough to cut fried meat. Actually, she found two knives among the dinner dishes and briskly pocketed both. Rafe silently applauded.
Next she sorted through the soiled napkins, grimacing a little at the unidentifiable stains. Rafe watched as she turned herself sideways in the booth so she could draw up her left leg, bringing that foot close to her body. She rolled back the silken edges of her fancy leggings and used the napkins to bind her ankle, biting her lip as she did so.
Ah. So her dash from danger had resulted in a twisted or sprained ankle. Rafe guessed that adrenaline had kept her going when there was no choice but to run, but if she’d sustained a real injury, the pain was going to become excruciating pretty quickly. That would make it difficult for her to flee again if fresh trouble presented itself here in the little tavern.
As it most probably would.
Not until she had armed herself and taken care of her ankle did the runaway survey the table again to consider her food choices. She was so obviously a well-bred girl—maybe even from one of the Five Families—that Rafe would have expected her to prefer starvation to eating off of strangers’ plates, but she surprised him again. She picked through the scraps, ate a few roasted vegetables and a strip of discarded meat, and drank without hesitation from a glass half full of water. His opinion of her went up several notches. Whoever she was, this girl was a fighter.
A slight clatter across the bar caught her attention—and Rafe’s. They both glanced over to see one of the serving boys gathering plates from some of the other unoccupied tables. That would be a complication for her. As soon as she was discovered, the owner would expect her to pay for something or leave. Rafe thought she had come to the same conclusion. He saw her delicate face pull into a frown as she drew herself farther back into the shadows to try and figure out what to do next.
“Well, all right, then, another hand, but if he wins that one, too, I’m gone,” Edwin said suddenly in a defiant voice. He had spoken loud enough to make sure they all heard; clearly the private colloquy was over.
Feeling great reluctance—but not showing it—Rafe withdrew his attention from the runaway and presented a genial countenance to the table. “I can’t promise to lose just to continue the game, but I’m happy to play another round,” he said.
“And I’m dealing,” Edwin added, still in that belligerent tone.
Rafe pushed his sleeves back and placed his hands palm-up on the table, so everyone could see he wasn’t hiding any cards. “Happy to have you do it,” he said. “Let’s play.”
As it happened, he did lose the next round, and only partly because he thought it would appease the whining elay boy. Partly it was because half of his attention was on the redheaded girl who huddled in the booth trying to elude discovery. He couldn’t help it; his attention was caught. He wanted to see what happened to her.
And he wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything too terrible. His chivalric impulses were rare but powerful. All he had to do was imagine his younger brother stumbling through the slums and he couldn’t turn away from whatever lost soul he’d encountered. He’d handed out money more often than he could afford, intervened in a handful of fights, even offered the occasional stern lecture. He’d stopped mocking himself for these grand and probably wasted gestures. They were the price he exacted of himself for living the life he’d chosen.
So if anyone threatened the little runaway, he’d have to intervene.
He was so distracted by his thoughts that he misplayed a trump and heard Edwin the Loser crow in satisfaction. “My hand, I believe,” the elay man said grandly as he raked in the pile of coins. “Anyone care for another one?”
“I’ll play as long as you want!” exclaimed Sweela Woman. The drugs had brightened her eyes and brushed more color into her cheeks; she was grinning maniacally. Rafe figured she’d feel like strung-out death in the morning, but that wasn’t his concern.
Sad Boy nodded without much enthusiasm. “Why not?”
Rafe nodded at Sad Boy. “Your deal, I think.”
He had even worse cards this round, but it hardly mattered; the game couldn’t keep his attention. In the past few minutes, the redhead had had a low-voiced argument with the serving boy, which she appeared to have won, because the boy tramped off to the kitchen and returned moments later with a steaming mug. The girl must have had enough coins to pay for that much, earning herself the right to stay at the table another hour or so. But her luck was no better than Rafe’s. A thin, weaselly man from another table had spotted her during the transaction. As soon as she was alone again, he slithered over to her booth and dropped down next to her on the bench, effectively pinning her in place.
Rafe, playing his hand almost at random, watched as he made her some kind of offer and she vehemently refused. The man pressed for a different answer, and she dumped the contents of the mug into his lap. Even from across the bar, Rafe could hear the man’s howl of pain.
“You don’t crack a smile all night, but you lose a wildcard to a high trump and you’re grinning like a fool?” Sweela Woman demanded.
He turned his smile on her. “There’s no other way to respond when you become the plaything of fate,” he said. “You laugh, or you die.”
Edwin grunted. “That kind of attitude, I’d have expected you to be dead a long time ago.”
“Not at all,” Rafe said, shaking his head. “I’ve thrived.”
The random motion or the long night had caused a lock of hair to come loose from the ponytail he habitually wore, and he absently pushed it back behind his right ear. Sweela Woman’s overbright eyes sharpened as she stared at the sight suddenly exposed to view. He smiled faintly and fingered the triangular points sliced into the outer curve of his ear. There were five, and each one had been set with a small gold hoop.
The serrated edges he’d had since he was a baby. The hoops he’d added himself, an act of defiance against the world. If I’m forced to be different, then I’ll celebrate my differences. It was a credo he wholly believed in—though he generally preferred to keep his ear covered just to avoid conversation about it.
“I bet there’s a rare story there,” Sweela Woman observed.
“Rare and rarely told,” he replied, still smiling at her. The others hadn’t even noticed his ear, and he casually brushed his hair back in place to cover it up. “As I’m sure some of your more interesting tales are.”
With a sweela mind’s quick understanding, she realized he wanted to change the subject, so she cheerfully did. “I bet I can guess your blessings,” she said. “Luck, am I right? You look to be mostly coru. Luck and resilience and charm.” She grinned at him. “A little sweela fire thrown in.”
In this situation, he routinely lied, sometimes claiming one set of blessings, sometimes another, depending on his audience and his mood. “Close enough,” he answered. “Luck and resilience and honor.”
Sad Boy didn’t look convinced. “Any man can claim a blessing. That doesn’t mean it was actually bestowed on him, or that he lives up to it if it was.”
That made Rafe laugh out loud. “True enough,” he said, tossing the three of skulls onto a pile of flutes. He might go the whole hand without taking a trick; this night had taken a decided turn for the worse. “Do you live up to yours?”
Now the sweela crone was swaying in her seat, either moved by some internal music or too dizzy to sit upright. “I do,” she cackled, tossing out a high flute and taking the hand. “Grace and contentment and courage.”
He couldn’t tell if she was joking, picking the three blessings that probably described her least, or exposing her own personal irony for all of them to enjoy. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that she then led with a trump, which would take his own final trump and ensure he didn’t win any points for this hand. It didn’t matter that Sad Boy groaned and Edwin said angrily, “Is everyone at the table cheating?” Rafe was watching the redheaded runaway, and her life had suddenly gotten very perilous.
Two men had joined her this time, one sitting beside her, one across from her. A third had sidled up to loiter at the head of the table, opening his coat and setting his arms on his hips to prevent other patrons from watching the action inside the booth. Which was clearly some kind of forceful persuasion—maybe a knife to the jugular, a concoction down the throat, or a pair of hands around the neck, tight enough to render her unconscious without killing her outright.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Rafe said politely, throwing down his cards and shoving away from the table. In a matter of seconds he was at the other booth, elbowing the lookout aside and slamming his hands down on the table loud enough to make the dishes rattle.
Everyone stared at him in astonishment—the girl, the men, the people sitting nearby. In this instance, the more attention the better, so he raised his voice to make sure anyone who was interested could hear.