The woman in green won the second counter, and the Colonel won the third. The Brigadier won the fourth, though, with a ten high run in a hand in which none of the others could do better than an Emperor high and in which the Duchess could only manage a pair of sixes. The next hand was a battle between the Colonel and Whitebeard, though, with both of them trying to complete a running family. Whitebeard won in the end when he drew the Queen of Coins, but the Colonel was phlegmatic about it, knowing that the game still had a long way to go.
When the last counter had been won, the Brigadier still had only two, along with the Colonel, while Whitebeard had four and the Duchess had five. The other two players, the Redhead and the woman in the green dress, had no counters and watched unhappily as the croupier gathered up their chips with his stick. They made no move to leave the table though. They were evidently willing to try again when the next game started.
Once again the croupier spun the wheel and threw the ball in. The Brigadier watched avidly every time it bounced close to pockets one and four, but it was pocket nine that it eventually settled in. He watched as the croupier gathered in his counters, reflecting gloomily that hard working Helberions had paid for them with their taxes, expecting that they would be used to repair roads, build hospitals or something equally worthy. What would they think if they knew that their taxes were being used to finance his evening at a casino? He just had to hope that he would succeed in what he was trying to do. Uncover the people trying to plunge the Empire to civil war and, eventually, destroy all human civilisation.
He remained seated as the Croupier announced the start of another game, therefore, and counted out another thousand crowns worth of chips. This game was won by the Redhead, and the one after that was won by the Duchess, who was having a good night, now having seven thousand more crowns worth of chips in her velvet purse than she had started with. She had her own crowd of groupies gathered behind her now, cheering every time she got lucky with the cards, giving sounds of condolence whenever she was unlucky, while the Brigadier was being largely ignored. That wouldn’t do! His plan would only work if he attracted attention, a lot of it, and so he decided to take drastic action when the next game started.
He had come to the casino with ten thousand kelvon crowns in his wallet and had already lost three thousand of it without accomplishing anything more than a momentary buzz when he'd first sat down. He had to do better! Win or lose, he had to be remembered! When the croupier announced the start of the next game, therefore, he put all his remaining chips on the table at once. Seven thousand crowns, the biggest stake of the evening.
The effect was everything he could have wished for. A gasp of astonishment rose from the crowd, and the other players stared at him in disbelief. “Bored of the game so soon, Brigadier?” asked the Colonel. “Want to end it all so you can return to your comfy quarters in the embassy?”
“When you have seen as many battlefields as I have,” replied the Brigadier without looking at him, “a mere card game begins to seem tame in comparison. I long for the same thrill that I remember as shells explode all around and men are torn apart by shrapnel beside me. As a soldier of the Empire, which has not seen a real war for over a century, you'll just have to take my word for it.”
The Colonel turned red with fury. “The whole world knows and fears the Empire's reputation!” he declared.
“But when was that reputation last tested on the battlefield? Was it just the accusations of Helberion crimes that prompted your country to withdraw its support from ours, or was there another reason as the prospect of a real war with Carrow loomed ever greater?”
The Colonel jumped out of his seat, and his hand flew to his belt where he normally wore a sword and pistol. “You dare to question our...”
“Gentlemen, please!” cried the Croupier as a pair of burly bouncers began making their way towards them. “This is a place of civilised entertainment, not a brawling house! Colonel, take your seat or leave, and Brigadier, I urge you to keep your comments civil!”
“The man is right, Colonel,” said the Brigadier. “Please accept my apologies for my hasty words.”
“Accepted,” replied the Colonel, sitting again. The Croupier waved for the bouncers to return to their places by the wall, and with one more warning glance at the two military men, they did so.
“Good, good,” said the Croupier with relief. “All places are taken, all bets are placed. Let the game commence. Playing for the first counter...”
The crowd around the table had doubled in size as the Croupier started dealing, and more people were arriving all the time as word spread. There was a constant hubbub of conversation as the players examined their cards and decided upon their strategy for the game, and a tense silence fell as play began and they began exchanging cards. The Colonel still glowered with anger and his eyes scarcely left the Brigadier, who pointedly ignored him and kept his attention on the cards, keeping track of which cards had been rejected and which were still in the deck. As a result, he won two counters in the first half of the game, while the Colonel won none, and it wasn't until the seventh counter came up to play that the Colonel finally gained control of his anger and gave his full attention to the game.
He won the tenth counter as a result, while the Brigadier won the twelfth, giving him a total of three when play finished, the best result at the table. Everyone else had at least one counter, so there were six pairs of eyes on the wheel as the Croupier spun it and threw in the ball. “All down to luck now, Brigadier,” said the Colonel with a gleeful smile. “All the fancy trickery in the world won’t do you any good now.”
“Luck and trickery both have their places on the battlefield, as any seasoned commander can tell you,” replied the Brigadier. The Colonel's eyes narrowed and hardened, then returned to the ball.
The Brigadier had the three, the four and the twelve, and his face betrayed no emotion as the ball bounced towards one of them, then away again. He could feel a hundred eyes on the back of his head as the spectators watched with equal fascination, and even the players at adjacent tables had paused in their games to watch the outcome. The ball clattered and spun, and came to a momentary rest on top of the barrier separating the eleventh and the twelfth pockets. The whole room held its breath as the ball balanced there for three complete revolutions of the wheel, but then some barely perceptible vibration disturbed it and it fell.
Into the twelfth pocket.
The whole room erupted into a cheer that shook the casino from the basement to the attic. The Colonel uttered a blistering curse and slammed his fist onto the table in disgust, making his pile of chips fall over into an untidy heap. The Brigadier felt people pounding him on the back in congratulation, but he forced his face to remain expressionless. A nonchalance regarding large sums of money was a vital part of his plan. He had to make it seem as though this amount of money was nothing to him, and that it made almost no difference to him whether he won or lost.
“The Brigadier wins!” said the croupier, his face also showing no expression as he counted out a number of chips equal to four times the Brigadier’s stake from the bank. He then gathered in the other players’ chips, but even their addition to the bank left it visually depleted. The Brigadier now had thirty five thousand crowns worth of chips on the table in front of him, but he made no move to claim them. “You can borrow a velvet bag from the cashier, in reception,” said the Duchess, leaning closer to whisper the helpful comment.
“Thanks,” said the Brigadier, “but I think I'll let it ride for the next game.”
An eruption of astonishment filled the room. The Colonel gave a great booming laugh, while the Duchess could only stare, as if thinking she must have misheard. The Brigadier felt the crowd closing in behind him so that he could actually feel the warmth of their bodies, feel their breaths on the back of his neck. Their conversation created a constant background buzz against which people had to raise their voices to be heard. Every other game in the casino had come to a momentary halt. Not a card was dealt, not a dice was thrown, not a wheel was spun. Every eye was on the Brigadier as he sat behind his huge pile of chips, as calm and impassive as if he were sitting on a riverbank.
“I'm afraid I can't accept a bet of that size without permission from the management,” said the croupier apologetically.
“Very well,” replied the Brigadier. “We'll wait.”
The croupier stared at him for a moment, then beckoned for the two bouncers to come to the table. “Please watch the table while I'm gone,” he said, then turned and walked in as calm and stately manner as he could for a door in the far wall, under the two way mirror. He disappeared through the door, and it was a full five minutes before he reappeared and returned to the table. He thanked the bouncers and sent them back to their places by the wall.
“The management has agreed to accept the wager,” he said.
The hush that fell over the crowd contained a power that the Brigadier had only felt before on the eve of a big battle. He felt the weight of it pressing down on him like the pressure of water during a deep dive, and the power of it caused him a tremble of fear he'd only felt before when his life was in physical danger. The crowd was expecting a big show, something worthy of their attention. If this game was a great anticlimax, everything he'd achieved so far would be lost. The crowd would turn away from him and be lost for ever. He would become nothing more than a joke told around the city, the fool who had thrown away thirty five thousand crowns. He had to lose, of course. His whole strategy depended on demonstrating that money meant nothing to him, but it had to be a spectacular loss if he was to become the legend he needed to be instead of a joke. He tensed himself up, therefore, and prepared for the game of his life.
The croupier was equally tense as he announced the start of play for the first counter. He began dealing, and every eye close enough to see scrutinised every card as it was placed. “The Duchess has the start of a family...” someone said, until the croupier warned them to remain silent. “The players may not receive help!” he said. “Anyone interfering with the game will be removed from the casino!” The offending spectator said nothing more for the rest of the game, and neither did anyone else.
The Colonel won the first counter with a running family, but the Brigadier won the second with a family, Emperor high, and the third with four Queens. The Duchess won the fourth with three Emperors and Whitebeard won the fifth with a Crew consisting of two tens and three nines. When the Brigadier won a third counter with a run, Queen high, the crowd almost burst with excitement and expectation, and only the stern eye of the croupier prevented them from cheering out loud.
The Brigadier glanced up at the two way mirror and imagined the Manager and his senior staff up there, looking down on the game, as entranced by the excitement as everyone else. How would they react if he won, he wondered. Would they allow him to just walk away with one hundred and sixty five thousand more crowns than he'd come in with? That was a fortune that would set a man up in luxury for life! Stories were told of big winners being mugged by casino employees after leaving the building, the crime being blamed on the random criminals that filled any big city, but the Brigadier had always discounted them as improbable. Any casino that made a habit of such behaviour would soon find itself without customers, while the occasional big winner, splashing his money around town, would be the great publicity for the casino and would bring in more people eager to repeat the feat. Also, the Brigadier was already famous, and anything happening to him so soon after winning big at the Smokescreen would be so obviously the casino's doing that it might well ruin them. No, the Brigadier decided. No harm would come to him if he won. They would be cutting their own throats.
What would he do if he did win? he wondered. While winning would get him the attention he wanted, it would kill his chosen strategy for making contact with the conspirators. He doubted that the casino would let him let the money ride again. He would be faced with the choice of walking away with the money, and trying to come up with a new plan, or keep gambling smaller amounts until it was all gone, which might take several visits to the casino. He didn’t want to take that much time. He had the uncomfortable feeling that events were soon going to be moving very fast and he wanted to get to the next phase of his plan as quickly as possible. Could he lose on purpose without anyone noticing? No, he decided. Too risky. No, he would just have to hope that the ball chose someone else when the croupier spun the wheel.
He was rather disturbed to win two more counters in the second half of the game, therefore, giving him a total of five, almost a record. The Colonel and the woman in green had three each and the Duchess had two. The other two players scarcely noticed as the croupier took their chips. Their attention was as focused on the Brigadier as everyone else in the room.
“And now the moment we've all been waiting for,” said the croupier, taking the ball from its pocket in the table. “The Brigadier has placed a stake of thirty five thousand crowns. That’s the highest stake that has ever been placed in the three years I’ve been working here. For those of you who are interested, the highest ever stake was fifty thousand crowns, which was placed twenty years ago by Count Fembril on discovering that...”
“Get on with it!” someone shouted, accompanied by laughter from the crowd. The croupier glared, but decided not to irritate the crowd with more delays. He spun the wheel therefore, paused a moment to let the tension build, then threw in the ball.
The Brigadier's whole body trembled with nervous energy as he watched the ball bouncing around the wheel, and nobody would have guessed that he was praying to Those Above not to win. “Look how wound up he is!” he heard someone whisper. “All that money riding!”
“But no trace of it on his face!” His companion replied. “Now does he keep so calm?”
“Calm? Look at his hands!” Hearing it, the Brigadier realised his hands were clenched into fists. He forced them to relax and open, laying them flat on the table. He made himself breathe deeply, forced the tension to drain out of his body. In the middle of the table, the ball continued to bounce around in the wheel, showing no inclination to settle just yet.
The ball briefly touched the second pocket, one of the ones the Brigadier had won, and his heart leapt into his mouth until it bounced away towards the first, one of the Colonel's pockets. It refused to stay there either, though, and sailed high into the air to come down on the other side of the wheel, next to the ninth. Another of the Brigadier's pockets. The fact that he had won five pockets, almost a record number, preyed on his mind. No matter where on the wheel the ball went, there would be one of his pockets close by. For a moment, it seemed impossible that he could not win and an unfamiliar sense of despair swept through him until a great sigh went up from the crowd. Someone shouted in jubilation, the woman in green. The ball had settled while he'd been ruminating, and it had come to rest in the thirteenth pocket, one of the three she had won. Immense relief swept through him and he forced it down with an effort, making sure he remained impassive and relaxed to the rest of the world. He had lost, which meant he had won!
A deafening cacophony of conversation broke out in the casino. “All that money! Lost!” said someone.
“What a fool, gambling that much in one go!”
“But look at him! Cool as a cucumber! Is he rich? I never knew he was that rich!”
“My commiserations,” said the croupier as he gathered in all the Brigadier's chips and added them to the bank, filling it back up. “I hope this doesn’t deter you from coming again!”
“All that money!” said the Colonel with a wide grin. “What a shame!”
“Money is something you can always get more of,” replied the Brigadier. It was the line he'd been waiting all evening to say, and he was relieved to see the expression of surprise, disbelief and curiosity on the other man's face. The story would sweep through the city now, he knew. The man for whom money meant nothing. He would have to come to the casino again, of course. At least once a week, with just as much money as he'd brought today. He'd never create such a sensation as he had tonight, but he didn’t have to. All he had to do was lose money, steadily and reliably, to maintain the reputation he’d created for himself tonight.
He rose from the table. “I hope you don't take my earlier comments to heart,” he told the Colonel. “It's all part of the game. Put your opponent off their game long enough to gain an advantage.”
“Of course,” said the Colonel, still smiling like a shark.
“The reputation of the Kelvon armed forces are well deserved, and will surely survive a few tactical comments from a tired old gambler. Kelvon military tactics are studied in Helberion officer training academies. I myself was inspired by the tactics of General Kutuzov while countering the Carrow offensive of the river Ison.”
“Indeed?” replied the Colonel, suddenly smiling a smile of genuine pleasure. It was as the Brigadier had suspected. He was amenable to flattery. “Would you like to drink with me?”
“It would be my very great pleasure.” The two men wandered over to the bar, where the Colonel ordered two glasses of kermot. “The sixty two, if you please,” he said to the barman. The barman nodded and took a bottle from under the counter.
“You know your kermot,” said the Brigadier as the barman poured.
“Well, it’s not kelnish wine, but it's the best they've got here.” He pushed one glass towards the Brigadier and raised the other. “To high vuca!” he said, taking a long swallow.
“High vuca!” agreed the Brigadier, guessing that that must be the name of the game they'd just been playing. He took a sip of the aniseed flavoured drink and allowed it to trickle pleasantly down the back of his throat.
“My name is Colonel Alexei Diminov,” the Colonel then said. “You won't know my face, but...”
“The Tansk Lancers,” said the Brigadier. “Your men patrolled the northern frontier until they were moved to the west. You retired three years ago, as I remember.”
“Five years ago,” the Colonel corrected him, but he beamed with pleasure. “I sit on the advisory council now. It's important, demanding work but...”
“But it’s not a battlefield. It doesn't get the pulse racing in quite the same way as a charge across open land towards a line of cannons.” The Brigadier looked around the room, where the games were getting back to normal. “That's the attraction of this place for men like us.”
“Exactly!” exclaimed the Colonel, gesturing with his glass to emphasise the point. “The majority of the people here, they don't understand. They think we're just a pair of washed out old gamblers. They can’t know, they weren't there!”
The Brigadier nodded, while wondering how much excitement there was in patrolling thousands of square miles of open ranchland, almost devoid of human habitation. Maybe chasing down the occasional rustlers, the occasional fugitive from justice hoping to lose themselves in the immense emptiness. “I still miss it to this day,” he said. “Being almost continually exposed to danger, never knowing if that day might be my last, and not just on the front line! Even our own cities hide unknown dangers. Anarchists, malcontents, troublemakers. You daren't let your guard down, even when you're off duty. Having to take up arms against one’s own citizens, that’s the hardest thing of all!”
“You're right! You're absolutely right! We risk our lives to protect them, and what gratitude do they show? We give them safety and freedom, and they call it oppression!” He tossed down the remainder of his drink in one swallow, then gestured to the barman for a refill.
The Brigadier nodded. “They don't understand that, when we're forced to crack down hard, it’s for their own good. Crime and lawlessness hits the common people more than it hits the upper classes. The very people who shout that we're oppressing them are the very ones who benefit the most from our actions!”
“And the more we help them, the more they protest!” agreed the Colonel.
“Still, I didn't come here to talk politics,” said the Brigadier. “I came to relax and enjoy myself. Come, my dear Colonel let us turn out conversation to more pleasant matters.” He indicated the table they'd just left, where another games had just begun. “Tell me, Colonel. What's the most you've won in a single night?” The Colonel took another sip of his drink and then began the first in a long line of vuca anecdotes.
Three hours later, in the small hours of the morning, the Brigadier stepped out of a carriage, paid the driver with a large tip and walked wearily into the grounds of the Helberion embassy. He was tired. The conversation with the Colonel, having to pretend to be interested in minute tactical details of a game of cards, had exhausted him in a way that an all night battle never had. He wanted to go to his rooms, get undressed and climb into his bed, but there was more business that had to be conducted first. Fortunately, ambassador Mornwell had waited up for him. “I was beginning to think you weren't going to be back before dawn,” he said, stifling a yawn. He led the Brigadier into a side room where they could talk in private.
“If that was what it took. Fortunately, I was able to lose the money faster than I’d expected, and in a more spectacular fashion than I'd dared to hope.”
“It went well, then.”
“I've lain the groundwork for what follows. I've entered the Farwell social scene with something of a large splash. I have to admit that it gave me a rather good feeling. Dispensing with large amounts of money in public, in front of famous and important people, I can see the attraction it holds for some people.”
“So now we wait.”
“Yes. Hopefully, someone from the Kelvon government will try to make discrete enquiries about me. It's important that none of your people give out the information too freely or they may not believe it. They must say that it’s not their policy to give out that kind of information.”
“As it is not,” said the ambassador.
“This time it must be, but only after they've been persuaded. I'm hoping they’ll try bribery. I have absolutely no doubts about the honesty of your staff, but on this occasion they must take the bribe, and then give out the information about me.”
“About your gambling habits back in Helberion.”
“Yes. And, if possible, we must discover the identity of the person making the enquiry. There is a very good chance that he will be a member of the conspiracy, or working for one.”
“That will be difficult. They will be taking great care to protect their identities.”
The Brigadier nodded. “Anything they can tell us will be useful. Male or female, young or old, accent, anything at all. The smallest clue might turn out to be important.”
“You understand that casinos all over the world keep in touch with each other. Exchange information about valuable clients. The owners of the Smokescreen may wonder why the Helberion casino owners haven't told them about you before.”
“The King himself is taking care of that. He has people telling them that their licences to trade in Helberion will be pulled unless they say what we want them to say, that my gambling habits have been covered up in order to maintain my reputation. I'm hoping that our casino owners will cooperate of their own free will. They're patriotic Helberioners, after all, just like everyone else. As loyal to the King as anyone else.”
“The only thing they’re really patriotic to is money.”
“If money is what it takes, then that is what the King will use.”
The ambassador nodded. “You realise that people are going to wonder how you're funding your gambling habit. They'll wonder where you're getting your money from.”
“The Brigadier nodded. “Exactly!” he said.