It was a fair streak of luck he’d been having. More’n he’d had in a long time. More’n he deserved. Even so, this was something else, something special. He’d sat there stony-faced as it was dealt – one perfect card after another, unfolding like a summer’s dawn over the Stormspear Mountains – a thing of rare beauty in the long weeks and months since he’d left Trollheim and the North.
From the look of it, his opponents had been dealt a fair spread too – the peaky, rat-faced sonofabitch, in particular. Smug, self-satisfied, and practically jumping out of his skin to go all in. It was little wonder he’d lost three quarters of his coin already. The old trapper had a gleam in his eye, too. As a player, he wasn’t much better’n Ratty, but at least he kept his mouth shut. You could give him that much. Of his three opponents, only the mercenary had any clue. Confident betting, tactical folding, a calm steady hand to go with the calm steady eyes. Probably a useful man to have around if the fields turned bloody.
Cael affected an uncertain smile and glanced at Rat-face. What luck hadn’t delivered in cards, it had certainly delivered in this grinning idiot. Running his mouth all night, the banter and ribbing had quickly turned sour once Cael started lightening his purse. That’d all changed with this hand, though. He was a regular funnyman again. The laughing and joking was back, albeit with an edge to it that hadn’t been there in the beginning.
“Gonna sit on it all night, Northman?” he teased. “Anyone’d think it was a cock! Ha!” Laughing raucously at his own joke, he nudged the trapper in the ribs. Then, adopting a conspiratorial manner, he leaned forward to stage-whisper behind his hand. “They love a bit of cock, these Northmen,” he murmured, giving Cael a slow suggestive wink.
For his part, Cael had never been more in control. Even without the grandfather of all hands resting comfortably in his fingers, ol’ Ratty’s baiting would’ve had little effect. It wasn’t exactly a trip to Irrisen on the line. Besides, he knew a thing or two about keeping a cool head, did Cael Redhand. In the North, he’d had plenty of practice. ‘Angry man cuts his own throat soon enough,’ Sorrow’d once told him, and wasn’t that the truth.
Narrowing his eyes as if the jibe had struck home, Cael pushed his stack forward with a rush. Idiot. If it’s the northern dimwit you want, well here he is. “All in,” he growled, nostrils flaring mightily.
As suspected, the mercenary’s instincts were good. Calmly, as though there was all the time in the world, he picked up his cards and tossed them facedown into the middle of the table, folding his hand. Ratty and the trapper, on the other hand, leapt right in – eyes glinting greedily at all the coin on the table.
The trapper revealed his hand first. “Three Aspects,” he said with a small hopeful smile. “The Fool,” he added, spreading the cards on the table.
“Ha!” Rat-face snorted dismissively. “Too bad, old man.” Flipping his own cards with feigned nonchalance, he leaned back slowly in his chair, waiting for someone else to call it.
“The Hunt,” said the trapper, downcast.
“That’s right, my friends!” crowed Rat-face, triumphant. “The Hunt – Castellans and Queens!”
The smugness was almost unbearable. The little prick’s grin was so wide he could’ve swallowed half the Rimeflow. Cael wouldn’t have begrudged it a better man. The Hunt was a magnificent stroke of luck. On any normal day, a hand like that would’ve seen off pretty much anything.
“And what do you say to that, you bear-fucking, Northern bastard!?”
Cael locked eyes with the dirty, skinny man and held his gaze. Saying nothing, he sat with deathly stillness, letting the insult hang in the air – giving it time to ripen and take on a life beyond the game. The longer he left it, the graver it became, growing from flippant table banter to mortal insult in the space of one very long minute.
Soon enough, Ratty’s confident expression faltered. The colossal smugness of it morphing excruciatingly into a shit-eating grin of unsurpassing discomfort. Out the corner of his eye, Cael saw the trapper exchange an uncertain glance with the mercenary. The mercenary, he noticed, had eased back somewhat from the table, giving himself room to move if things turned ugly.
Inwardly Cael smiled, soaking up the tension. A familiar buzz tingled its way down the nape of his neck, and he welcomed it like an old friend. Savouring the feeling, he paused a moment longer before finally leaning in close.
With both eyes firmly fixed on Ratty’s face, he slowly flipped his cards over.
To his left, the mercenary whistled low, and the trapper blew out his cheeks. The Small Council was an unbeatable hand – the ’Dragon’s Nuts’, as it were. The odds against pulling it were almost impossible. Cael himself had only ever seen it once in a game, and he was fairly sure that was rigged.
Caught in Cael’s gaze, however, Ratty hadn’t looked down. Either unable or unwilling to look for fear of what he might see, the dirty little bastard just kept staring – like a deer, caught in a clearing.
“How does the Small Council work for you, friend?” Cael said, at length.