Verse 1: THE TURN OF A FRIENDLY CARD
So it was that when, on a balmy summer night at the Greenhill Tavern, T'Lexigar Machallo, Licensed Minstrel of the New Traditionalist Guild [Local 366, City of Yorvadan in the Imperius Province of Drigala, on Kal: innermost of the Inner Worlds of Novagrove, Aspect Reality 000001], sat down to play a friendly game of poker with two Forest Trolls, a Captain of the Imperius Dragoons, and an Alchemist, he became part of a vast continuum of similarly situated poker players, stretching farther than any sane mind can safely comprehend. T'Lexigar was completely oblivious to his current place in the Great Design, and rightly so.
On the other hand, T'Lexigar was a firm believer in the wisdom of his mentor, the venerable Bard Roberlein, who had, on more than one occasion, remarked, "T'Lexigar, m'lad, it does not pay to have too great a sense of your place in the grand scheme of things. At best it would only confuse you, at worst… drive you mad. And rare is the customer who will pay to hear a mad Minstrel."
T'Lexigar was, however, all too painfully aware of three things; he had a piss-poor hand, a scant 42 copper rits (a decent week's pay) left with which to bet, and everyone else at the table was waiting on him to put up or shut up.
"I fold," he sighed, tossing his cards down on the table in disgust.
"Mine!" rumbled the taller of the Forest Trolls as it gathered up the pot with one massive, leaf-covered branch, its knot-like eyes unreadable pools. The Trolls were named something or other, no doubt, but learning the names of Forest Trolls was never worth the effort, since a) their names all sound alike to Weren ears (even ears as sharp and discerning as T'Lexigar's) and b) those names are virtually indistinguishable from the sound an axe makes chopping through an upholstered footstool. Throughout the evening, the Minstrel had come to think of the pair as Loud and Annoying, in no particular order.
The Dragoon, whose name was – thankfully – no harder to pronounce than Polglase, gathered the cards in her hands and began shuffling.
"Did you hear about Shim Po?" the Alchemist asked as Polglase shuffled with military efficiency.
"Shim Po?" the Dragoon repeated. "Cannot say I recognize the name. Then again, I’m only here on leave."
"He’s the geezer who lives in that tower just over the Greenhill," the Alchemist, whose name was Herold, explained. "You must have seen it. It's a prominent local eyesore."
Polglase snorted. "You mean the edifice of such stark and clichéd malevolence that it might as well bear on its tallest parapet a banner proclaiming 'Bwa-Ha-Haaaa!'?"
"The very same," T'Lexigar replied. "Actually, I think that is exactly what the Visitor's Guide to Yorvadan says about it."
"As you say," Herold the Alchemist concurred. "Rumor has it dear old Shimmy was drummed out of the Guild of Mystics earlier today."
"Really?" T'Lexigar was surprised. He knew Shim Po, at least in passing, since the gaunt Mystic was wont to visit the Greenhill Tavern on occasion, where he habitually drank great quantities of fruitifed brandy and inflicted his opinions on those too polite to ignore him or too inebriated to move away. They’d even played poker on two unmemorable occasions, although they were more unmemorable because T'Lexigar had done his level best to forget they had ever happened than for any other reason. Shim Po possessed three characteristics that make for poor poker companions: body odor, boring conversation, and dumb luck. "From the way the old blowhard talked, you would have thought he practically ran the Guild," the Minstrel commented.
"Apparently not," observed Polglase, offering the deck for T'Lexigar to cut, which he dutifully did, even though he knew Polglase to be both an officer and a lady. ("Everyone’s innocent until proved guilty, but always cut the cards," was another from Roberlein's endless store of maxims.) "The game is Five-Card Stud. Ante up," she announced and began to deal. Anteing a rit, T'Lexigar watched the cards hit the table with crisp cadence, a round face down followed by another face up. Polglase provided the traditional card-by-card commentary, as if the players could not see what lay before them.
"Ten to friend Minstrel, six to the Troll, Empress to the, hmmm, other Troll, five to the potionmaker, and the dealer gets The Sword. Sword bets two," she said without bothering to look at her hole card. "It’s to you, lad." The Minstrel prudently peeked at his down card before proceeding. It was, of all things, another ten. Perhaps his luck was changing at last.
"Call," he responded. He spoke the single word with just a touch of feigned nonchalance, sufficient to make the non-Fae players think he was holding garbage but too proud to fold only two cards in. Such subtleties were, of course, wasted on the Trolls. He could have burst into tears and threatened to fling himself from a cliff in despair and they would scarcely have noticed. The others called as well.
Polglase continued with the next round. "Five for the Minstrel, no help. Seven to the Troll, possible straight. Another lovely lady for its cousin. Assassin for the Alchemist, possible flush. Dealer gets a three, also no help. Pair of Empresses bets," she reminded the second Troll helpfully.
"Bet five," grated Loud.
Herold, whose flush evidently did not strike him as all that possible, folded. Polglase finally took a look at her hole card. She considered for a minute, refilling her pipe. The Alchemist, taking advantage of the lull, continued his story. "Anyway, getting back to Shim Po; I have few details but scuttlebutt says the windbag was tossed out on his astral manifestation 'cause he'd not come up with a novel idea in the last century. Guess they finally got fed up with all the pointless blather… and the incessant abuse."
Polglase snapped her fingers, thereby lighting her pipe. "One can hardly blame them. Dealer calls."
"It's all pointless blather to me," T'Lexigar observed, playing absently with his coins and deliberating over his next move. "The Guild of Mystics might know what they're talking about, but everything I've heard from that crowd about theoretical magic has been as clear as cheese, and not half as tasty. You ever hear two or more of them argue? It’s like listening to a Ghan-Tazyr describe his rock collection."
"You here pollinate or play cards?" Annoying grumbled. "Call."
"Keep your bark on," snapped the Dragoon.
"I call," T'Lexigar decided, carefully counting five more from his dwindling stack.
The Captain resumed dealing. "Pair of fives to T'Lexigar, Adept of Wizards to Grumpy the Troll, no straight. Grumpy's eight for Troll Two, and dealer gets… cold rations," she concluded with disgust as she dealt herself the deuce of Warriors. "Empresses bet again."
"Bet five," Loud announced with authority.
"That’s enough for me," declared Polglase, turning her cards over.
T'Lexigar pondered. It was clear to him that the Forest Troll had no better than a pair of Empresses. If it had three, it would have bet more in the previous round, since it could certainly afford to do so. Forest Trolls were, to put it delicately, too straightforward to undersell their cards. If Loud had two pair, it would undoubtedly have bet more than five this time. No, it could have no better than what was plainly showing.
Loud began to "sing".
"I'm a happy troll, a happy, happy troll.
Happy happy troll,
I'm a happy troll, a happy, happy troll,
Troll, troll, happy troll…"
Clearly, Loud was bored. For reasons beyond the ken of mortalkind, Forest Trolls and their even dimmer cousins the Swamp Trolls, always sang that particular ditty when bored, although calling it a "song" stretched the term to the breaking point. It barely had a tune. The timbre (if one will pardon the obvious and unfortunate, if appropriate, pun) of a Forest Troll's voice is ill-suited for music of any kind; even at its most pleasantly modulated their vocalizations sound like a lathe turning a chunk of oak into a table leg. Moreover, the vocal range of an adult Forest Troll is barely three notes.
"Raise five." T'Lexigar hastened to throw in ten coins, as much to shut the Troll up as a strategic move.
Annoying, who had taken up its comrade's drone, stopped abruptly. "Too rich my sap. Fold."
Loud continued singing for another three seconds, then stared at the Minstrel with all five of its eyes. It lifted its hole card as if to make sure it had not changed, then looked at T'Lexigar's fives, then at its own Empresses. It was quite clearly doing the math in its head, a process that could conceivably last long enough to accommodate a change of seasons.
"I'm a happy troll, a happy happy troll," T'Lexigar murmured softly, sure that the Troll – whose language had no word for "irony" – would totally miss the point.
"Call," Loud decided at last. "Elf bluff."
T'Lexigar was not an Elf, but since the Imperial Weren race did have some Alfaen ancestry (hence the ear-points) the Minstrel took no offense.
Polglase looked at each of the remaining players in turn. "Right then… last cards," she said, shifting slightly in her seat, surreptitiously verifying that her scabbard was not caught on anything. It wasn’t that she expected trouble per se, but she hadn’t achieved her high rank, let alone her relatively advanced age, by being caught off guard. She knew the Minstrel was up to something, and she had a strong suspicion that the Trolls did, too.
"Ten of warriors to the, um, Elf," she smiled. "Two pair showing." She flipped over the next card, which landed with a resounding snap in front of Loud. "The Merry Man, a wild card. Three Empresses. Your bet, my good Troll."
Then Loud did the last thing T'Lexigar expected. "Check to pairs," it said. This was strategic thinking on a level almost unheard of for such creatures. The Minstrel had expected Loud to bet ten, perhaps twenty, which he would have called. If by some miracle, Loud actually had a fourth Empress or another eight, T'Lexigar would still have four rits left, enough pocket money to last him until his next engagement. By checking, however, the Troll had taken that option away. Loud was laying an obvious ambush. Whatever T'Lexigar bet, the Troll would certainly raise beyond the Minstrel's apparent ability to match. In a table stakes game, that would put T'Lexigar squarely 'twixt archer and target. Naturally, he could check as well, but the very idea stuck in the Minstrel's craw. If word got out that he'd let a Forest Troll scare him off, his reputation as a card player would be lower than a Dwarf's underthings.
Throwing all caution to the West Wind, T'Lexigar pushed his entire stack forward. "All in," he declared. "That's twenty-four," he added for emphasis.
"See twenty-four," screeched the Troll in what was either great pain or glee. "Raise one, two, three, four..." Loud laboriously counted his remaining coins. "…forty, forty-one, forty-two, forty-three. Raise forty-three," it repeated with an unmistakable air of triumph.
All eyes – not only those of the players but also those of several onlookers who possessed that uncanny instinct common to dogs and Necromancers that alerts them to something potentially dangerous in the offing – shifted to T'Lexigar. He willed himself not to sweat. Reaching behind his head, he slid the heavy platinum guild badge from where it kept his long, thick, blue-black hair in a ponytail. From within the badge's recesses, his dexterous fingers tripped the secret catch, releasing a hexagonal talen from its hiding place.
"For emergencies only," Rhadavatra, his mother, had advised as she’d pressed the coin upon him more than thirty years earlier, the day he'd left home to begin his apprenticeship. His father, Hussak, on the other hand, had spared him not even a parting glance. Well, this most definitely qualifies, he mused, certain his mother would not have agreed. He laid the coin, its flawless silver circuitry winding through clear smooth diamond, dazzlingly bright, on the table by the dull coppers.
"Three short," growled Loud.
T'Lexigar removed his belt knife from its sheath and laid it on the table. It was a fine blade, a gift from a generous – and flexible – female admirer. "Who will advance me three rits against this dagger?" he asked.
Several onlookers chorused their willingness, but Polglase quickly tossed three of her own coppers into the pot. "Done and done," she said with no-nonsense finality. "Time to showdown."
Loud flipped over its hole card – a pretty but pointless Magister. "Beat that," it dared the Minstrel, who sighed inwardly in great relief.
"Very well," the Minstrel agreed, keeping all trace of gloating from his voice. "Castle, tens over fives."
"HA!" Loud barked. "Troll win!"
"No," Polglase countered calmly. "Troll lose. You have three Empresses. He has a Castle." She spoke slowly, using clipped syllables. "Castle beats three Empresses. Minstrel Win."
"Have FOUR Empress!" the Forest Troll protested. "One. Two. Three. FOUR!"
"No." Polglase spoke even slower, tapping each card in turn with her pipe. "One Empress. Two Empress. Three Empress… and one Magister. Magister, not Empress."
"Pretty like Empress!" Loud insisted.
"That is as may be," the Dragoon retorted mildly. "You lose,Minstrel win."
"Not four?" Annoying wondered, sounding almost plaintive.
"No." affirmed the Dragoon. "Better luck next time."
T'Lexigar retrieved his dagger first, slid it back into place, and repaid the three rits loaned against it. He then raked in the pot with swift but not rushed movements, all the while keeping one eye on the Trolls, now staring at the space where, moments before, all of Loud's money had been. As the last of the coins entered his pouch, T'Lexigar slipped it into his purse and rose from the table.
"Good friends," he said, "I have a long journey ahead of me on the morrow, so I reluctantly bid you all good fortune and good…"
But before he could finish his gracious exit line, Loud interrupted with the very last words in all creation that T'Lexigar wished to hear.
"Elf cheat," Loud declared.
An almost theatrical hush fell over the vicinity and rippled outwards until it filled the room. Loud was not really accusing T'Lexigar of trickery. In essence, and to the Trollish mind, "Elf cheat" was shorthand for "You won the hand that I should have won, and I want my money back."
T'Lexigar, failing to understand such subtleties of Trollish thought, tried appealing to both logic and forbearance, two commodities not well-stocked in a Forest Troll's mental larder. Using his most calming tone of voice, and as a Licensed Minstrel T'Lexigar had a voice that could make charging wild boars halt in their tracks and have a nice lie-down, he made a good faith attempt at placating Loud. "Now that is just not true, noble Troll. T’was merely the turn of the cards. As I am sure you remember, this worthy officer dealt the hand." T'Lexigar indicated Polglase. "I am a much less trustworthy fellow, to be sure, but I had no opportunity to influence the cards. Besides, I would never dream of cheating such a stout and, um, upstanding” (the aggrieved Forest Troll had risen to its roots and drawn itself up to its full six spans, half again as tall as the Minstrel) “example of Trollkind as yourself. Next time, perhaps the soothing kiss of Kativa, Goddess of Good Fortune, be placed sweetly on your backside."
"Elf cheat!" repeated Loud. [Translation: "You are talking when you should be giving me my money back and then beating yourself over the head with a cudgel for daring to have a better hand than I did."]
"Elf cheat!" agreed Annoying [Translation: "What it said!]. The other Troll, too, rose from its crouch. Polglase and the Alchemist also stood. The latter took a few steps back, trying to blend in with the retreating crowd of onlookers, but Polglase stood her ground, resting one hand on the hilt of her sword.
"Let's keep this peaceful," the Dragoon warned quietly, but with as much hard steel in her voice as in her scabbard.
"I'm sure we can…" began T'Lexigar, as he took the nine-stringed mandojo from where he'd slung it over the back of his chair.
But before he could sling the instrument across his back, thereby freeing a hand with which to pick up his rapier, both Trolls roared in unison with sufficient volume to knock three fleeing patrons off their feet, "ELF CHEAT!!"
Loud took a mighty swing with one of its five grasping branches, hitting Polglase squarely across both breasts, the impact propelling the Dragoon backwards over an adjacent table, in the process sending a pitcher and two glasses clattering to the floor and somehow spinning a plate of sausages right into an ogre's gaping shark-toothed maw, where it lodged tightly.
Then all hell broke loose.