Raike - Book Two
I had a good hand in front of me. Three of a kind. Plus a tankard of ale that was among the worst I had ever been served, presumably the tavern owner’s way of encouraging me to leave before I was drunk enough to stab someone in the kidneys. Four other players at the table. To my left, a woman of wealth, playing for pocket change while her husband’s thunderous snores rocked her upmarket inn down the road. To my right, a duo who had traveled together. They knew each other well enough to take turns ordering another round of drinks without needing to double-check with the other. Ahead of me sat number four. Quiet. Calculating. His eyes flicking every now and then towards the door, keeping track of who walked in, his attention always darting to their waist. A man who wanted as much of a head start as possible in case someone came at him with a sword. Our eyes had locked when I first pushed the heavy door open, only for him to completely die inside the moment I sat down at his table. Since then he had refused to make eye contact. The other three he had no problem looking at. Only me.
In hindsight, I should’ve paid the rest of them just as much attention as I paid him.
One of the fellas to my right checked his coins. Nodded for a moment as he ran through the numbers. He pushed a stack forward, the tower toppling over as it reached the pile of pennies that would’ve easily covered my room for the night. “Fourteen.”
Asshole. I had fifteen in front of me and he knew it. It was a tease, pointing out that I was all but broke at that table. Leaving me with one coin was a quiet ‘fuck you.’ I would have to stare at it for the rest of the game, not quite leaving me out for the night but certainly able to do little more than fight over the crumbs of whatever everyone else was playing at. Or, I could look less like a fool and dig into my pouch and cash in the last of my money to stay at the table. Unfortunately, it really was the last of my money.
But it was the best hand I’d had all night. If I could squeeze a raise from a couple of others then it would go some way to exonerating the last few days of trudging from one city to the next, breaking into barns when it rained or sleeping on the roof tops when it was dry enough to tempt the gods.
I gave myself a moment of anguish, hoping that I wasn’t about to scare away Miss Money Pants to my left, or force Number Four into fleeing right when I needed him to stay the most.
I pushed my stack of coins into the middle, holding one in reserve, and sent the guy to my right a glare. He looked away, the contents of his beer now a lot more interesting than trying to count the loose change in the middle of the table.
Money Pants sent a quick look to Number Four, the one who was stringing us all along with his nervous lip bites and deliberations. He had a large pile of cash in front of him and was about to take command of bidding, trying to win an easy haul if he could figure us out. Money Pants matched the nineteen marks.
Number Four stared back at his bones as though the marks on them had magically changed. A slight bite along his lips. Deliberating. A quick glance to his coins, then to the woman’s beside him, then to the two travelers. Not a single glance to mine. “Fifty.” Confident voice. No hesitation.
Number Four and Money Pants looked my way, sizing me up. I had three marks in my pouch – sixty penny’s worth – and nothing else. Literally. My entire takings since being kicked out of the company had carried me for a few months, but it hadn’t been easy. Even just a couple of weeks of tavern food gets expensive real fast. Worse still was not having a permanent bed to sleep in.
My stomach growled loud enough for the table to hear. Bad ale on an empty stomach. Not a great combination.
I peered into the soul of Number Four. Was he simply trying to scare me away with his bet of fifty or was it to secure his release as soon as the game was done? And was Money Pants just in the game to pass the time? I had no idea, but she hadn’t been shy with her coin. I let her slip from my mind and instead focused on Number Four. A decent player the whole night. But the bones were on my side and I wouldn’t get a hand like this again.
Plus, I needed a room for the night.
I reached to my belt.
No money pouch.
I double checked.
Still no money pouch.
Shot to my feet. My stool clattered behind me, skittering across the floor. Woozy with a head rush. The tavern owner grimaced the moment he saw me reach for what could’ve been a weapon.
I checked the ground. Checked the patrons nearby. I had been at the table for an hour. Twelve people had left the tavern in that time. Nine since I paid for my drink. Still woozy. Checked my belt again. The cord holding my pouch was frayed, broken like it had been yanked free. That might explain why I didn’t notice anyone getting close enough to slice the cord with a knife, but I should’ve at least felt a tug, and even then someone would’ve picked it up by hand. My head still spinning, I scooped up my stool and dropped back onto it, my pulse now thumping against my eardrums as a wave of anger crept over me.
Someone was going to die.
Money Pants took one hand from the table, nudged her hip, returned her hand. The two travelers peered into their coats, needing visual confirmation that they hadn’t been robbed. Number Four didn’t move.
I sniffed my murky ale. Either it was foul or drugged. On an empty stomach that would only make things worse. I arched my back. My blade was still there. I was pretty sure no one would be able to take that from me, but I had thought the same of my money.
How the fuck did someone rob me?
Number Four’s bet stared back at me. Like it or not, I now needed that money. I looked to Money Pants. “I need a loan. Thirty five pennies. If I win the pot I’ll give you fifty in return.”
She eyed me carefully, amused. Thirty five was nothing to her. Nor was fifty. Her clothes alone were worth ten times that. “What if I win the pot?”
“I’ll owe you a favor.”
A flick of an eye roll. “I’m going to need something a little more tangible than a favor, my dear.”
I looked to the rest of the table. “Anyone? Thirty five for fifty in return?”
The two travelers chuckled, dismissing it at first until they started to consider their options. Both had at least that much in front of them. “Double in return,” the asshole said.
I checked with the woman. She shook her head at me.
The two traveler’s paid up, topping me up to fifty pennies. I was still in the game.
Money Pants reached into her purse. Dropped some heavy coins onto the table. “All in.”
I mean, I would’ve done the same, simply to piss off someone who was broke, now in debt, as well as pissing off the two debtors who I owed a favor to.
Number Four folded, chewing on his lips once again at a hand that wasn’t the worst at the table.
Miss Money Pants shrugged at me. “Glare at me all you want. It still won’t help you.”
She carried herself well. Refined, but able to handle the gods-awful ale better than me. Her nearly expressionless down-turned eyes gave off a perpetually bored attitude. Good in a game like this but the lack of smiling probably gave her a stand-offish aura. She had started the day with light touches of make up and hadn’t freshened up since. Her hair had been neat and orderly in a thick plait, now frayed with every tired scratch of her head from her long fingernails. They themselves were a sight. Manicured and perfectly done as far as I could tell. A woman in her late twenties who had never worked a laborious day in her life.
The travelers wouldn’t pony up any more cash. I asked Money Pants, “Care to spot me?”
“You need a lot more than what you came to the table with. I’ll loan it to you, but I want triple in return.”
Now I really was fucked. If I won I’d be completely wiped out. Not break even. Out, with no marks by my side and no pennies in front of me.
But if I folded I’d still be wiped out and I’d owe three and a half marks to the two assholes beside me.
We flipped. She had shit. She knew it as well, but she was now a lot richer than before, despite losing.
I paid each of the travelers their money. Money Pants smirked beside me. I continued counting. Paused. Counted again, breaking it all into stacks of ten. One two three four five six seven eight nine …
Not only had she cleaned me out, I still owed her ten pennies more.
Someone was not only going to die, but they were going to get my fist in their face a few times for good measure.
I pushed everything I had towards her. While she didn’t smile, her tone certainly sounded like she was uniquely amused. “I guess I’ll be taking a favor as well. You’re not going to run out on me, are you?”
“Where are you staying?”
“I’m not sure, yet.”
She hesitated. “You don’t have a room?”
“I’m playing it by ear.”
“Looks like you can’t afford one right now.”
“I figured if I got lucky I could find a stable or something. And if I got really lucky I’d share someone else’s.”
“I’m not sure if luck favors you today, Mister ...”
“Raike. I can have the rest of the money to you tomorrow morning.”
She held off a snort, dismissing my claims immediately. She continued gathering up her take of my winnings, dropping the coins into her pouch and clipping it under her skirt. “Your accent. You’re not from here, are you?”
“I’m passing through.”
“And yet you’re confident that you’ll have half a mark to me in just a few hours.” She leaned in, striking me with a hint of perfume. Another power play, considering that I hadn’t had the chance to bathe in a while. “Am I going to find out tomorrow that I’m one of your alibis?”
“Despite how I may look, I am not a thief.”
“No? Then what brings you to Verseii?”
“I’m here for work.”
“Dare I ask?”
“I wouldn’t. Tomorrow. Mid-morning. I’ll either have your money or you can claim a favor that will keep me busy for the day.”
She shrugged. “What, like you’ll load my luggage onto my carriage or something?”
“Your choice, really.”
Number Four rose from the table, a lot poorer than when we started and now thoroughly disgruntled. He swished the remains of his beer around. Downed it. I wasn’t sure if that was to show me that he hadn’t drugged my drink or that he was desperate to show me that he had no idea I had been drugged in the first place. Even so, there was a buzz going on between my temples that shouldn’t have been possible from the little I’d drunk, despite the lack of food within me.
“Where will I find you?” I asked the woman.
She flicked her wrist towards the door. “The tea house down the road, having breakfast. Not that I expect to see you.”
“I’ll be there.”
Number Four left the table. Made a move for the door.
Two things were about to happen. The first: Number Four was going to run for his life. The second: one of the world’s most gifted assassins was about to strike.