The whole thing was going better than Vott could have dreamed. He’d beaten three other worthy opponents to make it to the final round of the tournament. All on his own. He hadn’t needed Jari in his corner, whispering strategy in his ear. He thought he’d seen the old gambler once or twice, up in the balcony, but couldn’t draw his focus away from the game long enough for a good look. There came a point when you just had to trust your friends were out there.
Now he sat at the last table remaining in the center of the room, across from a broad-shouldered, bald man who looked like he knew more about strangling pesky foxes with his thick-fingered hands than he did about maneuvering them across a game board. One of Reaper’s men.
The man’s allegiances revealed themselves in a couple clear ways. The first was the snake tattoo on the back of the man’s hand. If that didn’t make things obvious enough, though, there was the fact that all the gangsters in the game house seemed to be members of Baldy’s fan club. They cheered their hairless brother on and shot daggers at Vott for each little victory the old watchman seized. Those daggers were about to turn to claymores.
His current opponent had more amateur habits than anyone else he’d played today. The man had fallen for the old sergeant’s feints and focused his foxes all on one side of the board. Vott’s birds were now free to scatter to the finish. Sure, he’d lose a few as sacrifices to maintain the ruse, but the only thing that really mattered was the end count. By the time the round was over, the old watchman had cleared ten larks, an impressive number for a tournament finisher.
It was now time to spin the board, to give his opponent the chance to play as the larks. As Vott reached a hand over the table to grab the remaining foxes, a door burst open at the side of the room. A leather clad thug entered, carrying a box in his hands.
“Yes, bring it over here.” The voice came from somewhere in the crowd of gangsters. It was a deep and dangerous voice.
Just as Vott was placing the last fox on his side of the board, a random brute pushed the whole thing out from under his hands. The game crashed to the ground, little metal birds scattering like the shards of a shattered window. The chimes of bouncing metal did not have time to cease before another loud thud filled the room. Vott turned to see a new game board on the table, one unlike any he had ever seen.
“What’s the meaning of this?” The old watchman jumped to his feet, only to be shoved back down by strong arms on either side of him. He shook off the grip on his shoulders and glowered at the two men. The thugs took a step back.
“This tournament has been a bore,” the dangerous voice said.
A stout man, average in height, cut a path through the crowd of miscreants like a heavy ship through a fog. His hair was black, tied in a long braid behind a misshapen head. He had an equally misshapen scar along the side of his face, the two features creating some sort of odd equilibrium.
“This board gives your man a clear advantage,” Vott said, his tone low and angry.
And clearly it did. On this board, the elevated squares used by larks for defense had been rearranged. Now, instead of being spread across the board in an even pattern, they were concentrated on one side, creating a sort of defensive road for the larks to pass from one side of the board to the other. Vott would be lucky if he could take half of his opponent’s birds with a setup like this.
“My house, my rules, friend,” the boss said.
What Reaper’s men were doing here was far beyond common double-dealing, much more blatant than loaded dice or pocketed cards. If they were willing to go this far—in public no less—then there was nothing preventing them from slapping the chains of fraudulent debt on any gambler who made the mistake of wandering into one of these gaming houses. The same chains that almost sent Jari to his final dirt.
But the man in charge had revealed himself at last. No more waiting.
“It’s a cheat,” the old sergeant said, loud enough so everyone in the room could hear.
“You dare accuse me of duplicitous conduct?” the boss hissed. “In my own house? You’re pretty brave for an old gambler.”
A taller thug, dressed in a sleeveless black shirt which showed off biceps, stepped next to the boss and said, “I wonder if he’ll play as well with half as many fingers.”
The two men laughed. The bald man sitting across from Vott smiled a vicious smile, his chipped and jagged teeth giving the appearance of a rusty saw.
All heads turned to a sudden commotion up in the balcony. There was the heavy thud of punches then a scream, which grew louder in intensity as the victim plummeted to the ground, landing in a crooked heap at the crowd’s feet. It was another one of Reaper’s men. Vott glanced back up to see Frige leaning over the banister, a glorious grin on her face.
Before the throng had a chance to react to what was happening, the old watchman shoved down on his side of the game table, the opposite catching Baldy under the chin. The man flipped backwards out of his chair and onto the floor. Chaos broke free from her stable.
Up at the balcony, Frige had already disappeared back into a melee. Returning his focus to his own fight, the old sergeant planted his feet as a skinny rogue came rushing forward to tackle him. Vott might as well have been a tree the way the young thug bounced off.
There were three more advancing, and these had the sense to draw their knives first. The old sergeant’s hand dropped by instinct to his side, where the handle of his longsword usually rested. Of course, he had no weapon or armor, and it seemed like he was the only one so naked. The sound of weapons being drawn all around was like an orchestra of death.
Thinking quick, Vott grabbed one of the legs of the table he had just tossed. Bending his knees for a little extra force, he tugged, trying to break the improvised club free. The table leg seemed quite content to be left out of the fight. He dodged to his right, just as a short sword whistled past his ear. The blade bit into the soft wood of the game table and stuck. The old watchman kneed its owner in the groin and grabbed the handle of the sword. At that moment, Vott could have sworn his hand had never felt so comfortable.
A glint of metal. The old sergeant tugged the sword loose and parried an incoming stiletto, the blow leaving his new opponent off balance. He grabbed the man by the collar and pulled him close, just as two more knives approached. The thug found his balance finally, on the ground, with two daggers in his back. Vott slashed at the two, now disarmed rogues standing before him. He cut one across the neck and the other along the chest. Both wailed in retreat.
Vott could just make out a thick black braid bobbing its way through the bedlam. Ugly was running away, his frantic voice sounding a lot less dangerous than before. But there were still eleven men glaring at the old watchman with weapons raised.
Make that ten. Mr. Eleven was on the ground, the pieces of a broken chair scattered across his back. Frige motioned a sarcastic salute in her sergeant’s direction. Then the large, leather-clad man behind her lunged forward with a bone shattering punch, leaving only nine.
From behind, Vott heard the sound of a door being kicked open and the clatter of armored feet. He heard young Iric shout “City Watch!”—more in the meow of a kitten than the roar of a lion, but it did the trick. The gods of battle changed chaos into pandemonium, with a splash of panic added for good measure.
Vott looked Frige in the eye and pointed to the back door. “Don’t let him get away! We’ll clean up in here.”
She nodded in silence and bolted for the door, her muscled friend following close behind.