“Just hear me out,” Jari was saying. He had to get Vott to understand. Every player had their blind spots. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t be confident. You’ve got the basics down, yes. But you need to be prepared for anything, Wissian.”
The two men were striding down a back alley in the Lows, close to the docks. The area was a maze of twists and dead ends, dark and narrow streets lacking the benefit the of magical lanterns which lined Market Street. These elements created the perfect habitat for the lowliest of roguish creatures.
He could tell his friend was on edge without his arms and armor. Both men were dressed in casual jerkins and hoods, which he assumed for the old sergeant was little better than being naked. Vott’s size offered a deterrence of its own sort though, not to mention the two younger watchmen following in tow who, despite being similarly dressed, were armed. He had met the spritely, blue-eyed Iric at the watchhouse. The other — a grim-faced young man named Pyri — he had only first seen at their departure.
“I don’t know what you’re so worried about,” Vott said. “Me being a player is just our way to get inside.”
“No, Wissian. There’s more to it than that. If I had to guess, I would think you’ll need to make it to the last four if you want to catch sight of the boss.”
“Now wait.” The big man came to a sudden stop like a wagon crashing into a wall. He pointed at his friend. “You never said I had to win. Several games in a row? You’re mad.”
“Why do you think we were practicing?”
“What’s wrong, Sarge?” young Iric asked, clearly confused by the halt.
“Quit with the ‘Sarge’, kid. We’re real close to the place now.”
Three blocks and two right turns later, the group came to an open intersection with a slanted building off to one corner. Five streets projected out from, and around, the place like wicked tentacles. Two rough men stood in front of a door at the top of a stubby set of wooden stairs. A clamor emanated from within. Jari followed Vott up to the guards, remaining one step behind, hoping the hood concealed his face. He recognized one of the thugs.
“I’m here to play.” Vott reached out a bearish paw to show the guards the tournament flyer.
“You?” one of the thugs said with a laugh. “A player?”
“What does it matter, if I am paying?” Vott shook the leather purse tied to his belt, letting the coins jingle.
“What’s your name, player?”
“Eadric,” Vott lied.
“You don’t look light a High Towner,” the second guard said. “Well, by all means, come in. But Jari isn’t welcome.” The gambler turned his head away in shame. “I’d recognize that crooked nose anywhere. Come to mention it, the rest of your crew isn’t welcome either.”
“Come now, friend,” Vott growled a deep-throated challenge. “These are my fans. They’re here to cheer me on.”
“I couldn’t give two bits about your fans, friend,” the guard replied with equal threat.
“It’s alright.” Jari grabbed the old sergeant by the shoulder to drag him away from the potential fight. “You’ll do fine, Wissian. Your boys can wait out here, in case things get out of hand.”
“And you?” Vott asked.
“I’m going to have a look around outside. Don’t worry about me.”
Vott nodded, then turned and went up the stairs, saying something to the guards and disappearing inside the building.
“I’m going to take a walk,” Jari said to the two undercover watchmen.
“What should we do?” young Iric asked.
“Just wait out here in case something happens, in case he needs you.”
“How will we know he needs us?”
“I’m pretty sure you’ll know.”
Stepping away from the two younger men, he followed one of the streets around the side of the old, ramshackle building. It was a place he had been in before, when the previous gambling ring had been at peak operation. Reaper must have recruited some of the old gangsters, like the thug at the door, and moved into the old real estate. But this could be to the Watch’s benefit; Jari recalled there being a little-known back entrance to this den of thieves.
As he skirted the side of the building, trying to remember where the door was, he heard muffled voices from across the street. Jari turned to see two figures concealed in the shadows of a cramped alley. He recognized one of them before she had the chance to turn her face away and rushed over to them, only to be stopped by a beefy hand on his chest.
“Frige,” Jari said nervously. “I know it’s you.”
The woman turned back to him, revealing a terrible burn scar on the side of her face. “You’re Vott’s friend, right? The gambler?”
There was an implication in her voice that Jari didn’t like, but he ignored it. “Yes. We’ve met before. At the watchhouse. Wissian is inside.” He tried to step closer, but the brutish hand held him back.
“It’s okay, Wolf. He’s harmless.” Frige looked the gambler up and down. “Should I presume why you are here? I thought you were done with the games…Wait, what do you mean Vott’s inside? Doing what?”
“Playing his first game, I would guess.”
“We’re wasting time,” the large man named Wolf said. His face was young and sculpted, like a gargoyle with a permanent frown. And scars. Many scars.
“We’re trying to get in there, too,” Frige said. “But neither of us is a player.”
“That’s alright,” Jari said. “I know another way in.”
He led them across the street and picked up where he had left off, skirting the side of the building to a narrow opening, where the old gambling hall met another rickety structure. The roofs of the buildings leaned against one another, but at ground level, there was enough space for two men to pass through. Inside the narrow crevice, they found the entrance, more of a wooden panel than a door. The old gambler pushed it aside and stepped in, followed by Frige.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” a voice hissed, as a fist wrapped around the collar of the his jerkin.
“Well, you see…” Jari struggled for an answer, and for breath.
“We have permission,” Frige said.
“What permission?” the thug asked incredulously, before a large fist met the side of his head with a crack.
“Mine,” Wolf growled.
“Ah…um, yes,” Jari said. “That works. Let’s go.” He led the way inside.
The rear entrance opened to a flight of creaky stairs that ascended to a balcony. From this vantage point, they an observer could look down on the gaming tables. Several rougish figures were also upstairs, milling about on the balcony, but they ignored the newcomers. The noise from the floor below was almost deafening — jeers, the clattering of drinks, shouts and fights in dark corners.
Jari stared down at the floor, searching the crowd until he found Vott hunched over a table. Vott’s opponent was playing the larks and running a typical scattered advance; Wissian had managed to align a Sigurd’s Grid in response. A perfect tactic. He wanted to shout out, to cheer on his friend, but to do so would give everything away. He knew a player needed to keep his strategy hidden until the last moment, the moment when all the pieces were position for the final strike.
Leaning over the banister, his face resting on his hands, he was drawn into the game. As expected, Vott won, much to the displeasure of his knavish opponent. But the boss of the gambling house was nowhere in sight. Vott would have to win a few more games before anyone of importance showed up to watch.
Glancing around, he found his two new companions had left him and he wondered what they were up to. Shaking off the thought, Jari returned his focus to the matter at hand. Things were coming to a head, and his sole concern was for his only friend, down there by himself in the viper’s den.