Know When to Roll 'Em
"Come on, come on, just give me one more six!" pleaded the young man, beads of sweat dotting his forehead as he rattled the three dice in his right hand. His name was Eron Malloy, he was eighteen years old and a student at Piata's renowned center of learning, Motavia Academy, and the fever of gaming was in his blood. If he could score just one more six before tossing a throw that totaled ten, he would win a small fortune.
His hand shook as he hurled the dice onto the tabletop. One bounced off a half-full tankard and stopped almost immediately, showing a four. Another rattled to a stop—a six! A six, and already ten showing on two dice so it would be impossible for it to be the final total. He couldn't lose, not unless...
The third die, colored red instead of bone white, slowly spun to a stop; the grinning skull that replaced the one-spot seemed to leer up at Eron. The blood drained from the student's face. This was worse than a ten, which would only have cost him the score for the round. Under the rules of Motavian kishkar, three skulls rolled in a single round zeroed out the player's score for the entire game.
And this was the final round...
"Too bad," commented one of the other players, a plump, mustachioed man in the neat, slightly flashy clothes of a merchant. "You were doing well until then."
Another of the gamblers, a burly farmer, was adding up the final results laboriously on a scrap of paper. Eron had already calculated the figures in his head—his specialized field of study was mathematics, one reason why he thought he'd have an edge at dice—and knew the bad news before Petro announced at last, "That's three hundred and twenty for me, eight hundred to Bredt, and two thousand eight hundred to Taben, who wins again."
The fourth player, a lean, dark-bearded man with aquiline features, took in the trembling young man with an icy glance. Eron had never felt comfortable around this opponent, whose name was Bredt Carlisle. The man had a dangerous look of a soldier, a hunter, or a bandit—the look of a man familiar with using violence to get his way. Eron had been surprised to learn that he was actually a tanner, with a leather-goods shop in Zema, but still had a feeling that Bredt was involved in the underworld, smuggling perhaps.
"You can pay, can't you?" Bredt's voice was cold and smooth, reminding Eron of reptiles and venomous things. The threat was barely veiled, like a dancer's face behind a wisp of silk.
Eron bit nervously at his lip. The merchant, Taben, caught the boy's look and stepped in to deflect Bredt's anger.
"Ah, don't stare at him like that. He's just had a bad turn of luck; there's no reason to scare him out of his skin besides. He's paid up when he's lost before, hasn't he?" He clapped the student on the back and filled his cup from the clay wine-jug. "Here, have a drink; it'll steady your nerves."
The young man gulped gratefully at the sour wine. It was a cheap house vintage, but it cooled Eron's throat and gave him something to do with his hands besides try to keep them from shaking.
"Hunh. That was what, a hundred here, a hundred-fifty there," Petro said while scratching at his scraggly brown beard. "Meanwhile, he'd won nearly six hundred, right? What makes you think he can come up with four thousand meseta?"
"I can get the money," Eron said at once. The sordid surroundings of the cheap bar had seemed exciting, part of the illicit thrill of the game, but now the stink of alcohol, sweat, and vomit turned his stomach. His parents had just sent him the money they had scrimped and saved to pay his next semester's tuition. Now, he'd have to use most of it to pay his gambling debt. It meant returning home in disgrace, but what else could he do? The others wouldn't let him try to win it back unless he paid up first.
"You'd better," Bredt said sibilantly, drawing a long-bladed dagger and using the tip to clean his nails. It was a melodramatic, cliched way of making a point, almost comical in its absurdity, but a boy who envisioned nothing in his future except failure and shame didn't see the humor.
Someone else did, though.
"Why should he do something stupid like that?" a woman's voice interrupted. A strong hand in a white glove clamped down on Taben's left wrist and twisted. A slight shake caused a second trio of dice to spill out of a hidden pocket in his sleeve. "I don't think loaded dice are part of the house rules."
Eron sucked in his breath. Taben had been cheating him all along, probably letting him get some small wins on other nights to set him up for the kill, so Eron would assume his big loss was just bad luck—which he had. If the woman hadn't intervened...
For the first time the student looked up at his rescuer and got a good look at her. She was as tall or taller than most men, an inch or two shy of six feet, and had the striking looks to go with the height: long brown hair framing a beautiful face and bright blue eyes that held an expression made up of equal parts contempt and anger. She wore a black bodysuit under a sleeveless red knee-length dress edged in white along with white gloves and boots. Two folded slashers hung at her belt, bladed throwing weapons used only by trained warriors, but in spite of that she didn't have Bredt's aura of violence and danger. Her attitude was controlled and professional.
The tanner's jaw tensed slightly, then he lunged for the woman across the table in one lightning-quick movement while Petro clawed his own knife loose. Eron could only gape helplessly as he realized that all three had been in on the cheat together. He barely had enough wits to scurry back to the edge of the room, where the other patrons were eagerly watching to see what would come next.
As for the woman in red, none of this appeared to catch her by surprise. Coolly, she yanked Taben out of his chair by main force and dumped him on the floor in Petro's path. Not being particularly agile, the "farmer" tumbled over his sprawled ally and met a rising kick with the point of his jaw, leaving the "merchant" pinned under his unconscious body.
Bredt, meanwhile, had vaulted over the table and cut with his long dagger at the woman's head, but she leaned back out of the way and got a slasher out in time to block his second strike, using the folded blades as a crude knife. The next few moments were a blur of cut and parry too fast for Eron, who knew nothing of knife-fighting, to follow, until Bredt disengaged, leaping back with amazement written plainly on his face.
"Who are you?" he challenged. "Never before have I met my equal with the blade?"
His opponent snorted derisively.
"You obviously don't get out much."
Then, since he had so obligingly opened up space between them, she thrust out her empty left hand towards him, palm out, and commanded, "FOI!" The burst of fire conjured by her technique exploded against the gambler's chest and floored him, just as unconscious as Petro.
"As for my name," she continued, hauling Taben to his feet and planting him back in his chair, "it's Alys Brangwin."
"Alys the Eight-Stroke Sword!?" Eron gasped.
"Oh, no. Now even kids who don't get out enough to spot a fourth-rate pack of dice cheats know that stupid nickname? I must be cursed!"
She efficiently patted Taben down, coming up with a holdout knife he kept up his other sleeve, then tied his hands behind the chair back. Alys then fixed her gaze squarely on Eron.
"You should thank your lucky stars that the caretaker at the Academy dorm takes his job seriously. He suspected that you were getting in over your head with something after you came in smelling of cheap ale several nights in a row and threw around meseta you shouldn't have had, so he asked the Hunters' Guild to send someone to look into it."
She turned back to Taben.
"Frankly, you ought to be thankful, too. Cheating at dice plus a try at sticking a knife into someone would earn a free trip to the gallows in Nalya or Uzo. Here in nice, civilized Piata, they'll probably just give you and your crew, oh, maybe five years at hard labor."
Taben's reply was neither that of a man who felt particularly thankful nor appropriate for a lady's presence.
"You see, kid? You can always spot a cheap crook by his vocabulary."
Eron nodded mechanically.
"H-how did you know?" he asked. "I mean, I'm sure that you can spot someone switching dice—"
"I haven't been nursing a beer under a hooded cloak watching you play for my health," Alys noted.
"—but how did you know they were in it together?"
"They were cheating you."
"Um, I don't see..."
"Look, the guy who needs a bath was supposed to be a farmer, right? And the one who thinks he's some kind of fairytale villain is a tanner with business interests in more than one town? Yet the cheat plays kishkar, a game where only one person loses, and he feeds the weighted dice to an Academy student? Yeah, like that makes sense. They had to be in it together, or this guy was the dumbest crook on Motavia. Now, that's enough questions; class is over, so get back to the dorm. Now that you've saved your tuition, I don't think you want to be goofing off."
Eron scuttled for the door, still half in shock from his lucky escape. Taben swore at Alys again, apparently displeased by her comments.
"Just be happy I skipped the 'look at this guy; he's what you'll be if you flunk out of school' bit," she told him.
Ignoring the cheat's dirty looks, Alys turned to the bartender and called, "Hey, how about sending for the guards? And when they get here, I could use a drink." She glanced at the table where the dice game had been going on. "In a clean glass, if you don't mind."
Alys figured it was the least she deserved for not smashing any furniture during the brawl.