A Game Of Chance (Jasper)
Jasper grinned wickedly, keeping the knife in question clutched tight in his hand. “But I like it,” he said, admiring the shining length of metal. The hilt was wrapped in copper wire and had stylized letters etched into the base; the script read the trademarked initials of the smith who’d made it. The blade itself was about the length of his forearm: polished to perfection, perfectly balanced, and razor-sharp. It was a beautiful thing, newly made, and he couldn’t keep his eyes- or hands- off of it.
“Come on, we all know you can’t use it,” Alanna teased. Turning serious, she leaned forward over the table, her hand outstretched. “Besides, it’s mine, and I want it back.”
Jasper pretended to think for a moment before swiftly moving the knife out of reach. “It’s pretty and it’s dangerous. What more reason do I need to keep it?”
Alanna lunged at him over the table, barely missing his face by inches. Jasper scrambled backwards, his chair toppling over, watching her warily.
“I’m pretty and I’m dangerous,” she hissed. “And I’ll claw your eyes out if you don’t hand it back to me, this instant.” She drew herself up to her full height- which was a rather impressive feat, considering that she was a full head shorter than Jasper, if he had been standing- and her eyes glittered darkly as she held her hand out for the knife again. Jasper, who had crouched in a corner to avoid her wrath, and the blow he was sure she had been about to deal, silently admitted to himself that she could be rather scary when she wanted to.
The figure seated in the corner, half hidden by shadow, began to laugh at the whole exchange. “Jasper, give my sister her knife back,” came a gruff voice, though not without humour. “You know how possessive she is about her creations. Besides, she’s right- you have no use for it anyway.” Alanna’s twin brother, Damion, stepped forward to stand besides his sister, setting a calming hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t frighten the poor boy, Alanna,” he said, hiding a smile. “Else he might get ideas and start to think he can actually use the knife against you. And what does a politician need a knife for? You’ve said it yourself, Jasper, the only weapons you need are your words.” At the last part, he raised an eyebrow at Jasper, a mischievious twinkle in his eyes.
This elicited a quiet laugh from Alanna, alleviating some of the tension in the room, and Jasper felt the tips of his ears beginning to go red as he chuckled, shaking his head. He stood up, holding the knife out, and Alanna practically snatched it out of his hands. “I suppose you’re both right,” he said. He nodded appreciatively in Alanna’s direction. “But really, it is a beautiful knife. You certainly made a masterpiece out of that one.”
“Why, thank you,” Alanna said, cradling the knife as if it were a newborn babe just returned to her arms. Made of tempered steel, with a groove down the middle, it glinted in the tavern light, catching the red gleam of the overhead lantern and refracting it in dancing shadows across the walls. Alanna returned to sit at the table next to Damion, her eyes still on the knife. “Now, like I was saying before you decided to put your grubby paws on my knife-” she tore her eyes from the object in question to glare at Jasper, who grinned devilishly back- “the knife’s not for betting on. But I found a few other treasures that might be worth it.”
She produced a satchel from beneath the table, and Jasper looked up with interest. From the satchel came four objects, two of which Jasper dismissed immediately. They wouldn’t be worth it; they were mere trinkets, things of no value and little curiosity- objects he could have gotten anywhere. But the last two... he looked longingly at a pair of cream-coloured leather gloves, soft and supple to the touch, and an intricately carved golden key. He reached for the key, intending to study the markings, but his hands were quickly slapped away by Alanna. “Don’t touch my things.”
“Some of it may be mine pretty soon, once I beat you both,” Jasper replied, cradling his stinging hand, and gesturing to the gameboard in front of them.
Alanna guffawed. “We’ll see. That silver tongue of yours won’t be able to talk you out of a good, hard loss, fair and square.”
Damion chuckled, his eyes flitting over the pieces. “Now, now, let’s not get too hasty,” he said, but Jasper and Alanna turned and gave him a look at the same time; they both knew he was as much of a competitive player as they were.
The game, called Sabre, was relatively simple, but made more complex by the stakes- the higher the worth of the object you placed your bet on, the harder it was for you to win said object. But Jasper had full confidence in himself, and not because he was an excellent player, but because he knew all the tricks and traps. Alanna and Damion were good players, but the blacksmith twins played hard and fast. Jasper knew how to play the long game, and he was willing to bet the twins wouldn’t be that patient. In fact, he had bet- or was just about to.
He hesitated for a moment, torn between the gloves and the key, but his curiosity won. The key had piqued his interest, and it might be worth something. “What does the key unlock?” he asked.
“No idea,” Alanna shrugged. “I found it earlier when I was cleaning out the forge. Someone had left it hidden behind one of the bricks. Not a smart idea, you know- it would likely have been melted down to scrap if the forge had gotten a bit hotter than usual- but it was in a section that was a bit sheltered. It’s shaped very oddly, too- I can think of no lockbox or door that it would fit in. But it is pure gold. I tested it earlier, and I couldn’t believe it myself. You might be able to fetch a pretty penny for it- assuming you’re not just all talk and no game.” She tapped the key, its golden hue in stark contrast to the dark wood grain of the table.
“Why didn’t you sell it yourself? I’m sure you wouldn’t have passed up the opportunity to make a bit more coin.”
“Never got a chance. Besides, I don’t have the time to go all the way to the central market square to find someone willing to buy it, and it’s not like we’re desperate. The money would have been nice, yes, but we can do without. Doesn’t make much of a difference.”
Jasper accepted her explanation and tilted his head, watching the key gleam. “Well, then, I suppose I really am lucky that you’d be willing to part with it.”
“If you want to bet on it, you’ll have to give me something to bet for that’ll make it worth giving up the potential profit. Now, what’ve you got for us?”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, I came prepared to meet all your high-strung demands,” Jasper said, rummaging around in his own satchel for what he’d found earlier. He laid out a pocket watch, its silver face gleaming brightly in the flickering lamplight. A low ticking filled the air in front of them, and Damion peered closely at the watch with a craftsman’s eye before nodding appreciatively.
“It’s of fine make,” he said, turning to his sister. “A worthy bet, no?”
Alanna pursed her lips before dipping her chin in noncommittal agreement. “I suppose.”
“Very well!” Jasper announced. “Shall we get started?”
Alanna began to set up the pieces, and Damion settled himself down, propping his head up on his elbow and studying the board intensely. Jasper smiled and readied himself for a long game, his fingers absentmindedly tapping out a rhythm against the table as he waited, forming strategies already. He shook his dark curls out of his eyes, cursing the way they fell in front of his face and obscured his vision, and met the silent challenge in Alanna’s gaze.
Oh, this would be fun.
Jasper stared at the cards in his hand disbelievingly. There was no way he’d scored two saints and a queen. He’d discarded his trio of knights, hoping for a possible noble or merchant card, which he could then use to bait Alanna into switching decks with him. He knew she had a good hand- he’d caught her smirking at Damion after tossing down her last hand. But this hand would easily trump hers. It was a straight shot.
Jasper moved his traveler piece across the board, dropping it in the middle of the market square. “Fool’s gold,” he said, issuing the challenge. Alanna narrowed her eyes at him and crossed her arms.
“What, are you seriously calling it? This early? It’s definitely a fool. No way you’ve got gold.”
“Why don’t you play your hand and find out?” he replied.
She paused for a second, thinking it over, and then slapped her hand down on the table. “Merchant’s silver.”
Jasper grinned and displayed his own cards. “All gold, no fool.”
Alanna’s eyes widened as she saw his hand. Her own had been two merchants and a noble- a good hand, but not good enough. She leaned back in her chair and muttered rapid-fire curses, clearly annoyed. Damion smiled good-naturedly at his sister’s frustration. He’d been played out of the game earlier, leaving it between Alanna and Jasper, but unlike Alanna, he had accepted his defeat with grace.
“I’d like my key now,” Jasper said, holding out his hand. Alanna glared at him before tossing the key in his general direction. “Thank you.” He snatched it out of the air and turned it over in his plam, the solid weight full of promises, and tucked it carefully into his satchel. “Another round? Perhaps for the knife this time?”
“Not happening. I’m not losing anything else today, and most certainly not that,” she replied curtly.
He shrugged. “Have it your way.” He knew Alanna wouldn’t be angry at him for long; she was just miffed that she had lost. They’d invariably end up playing another round sooner or later, and Jasper had his heart set on that knife. It was a rather foolish thing to want, and it was even more foolish to think she’d willingly part with it, he admitted to himself. He had no need for it, but it called to him. But he had the key, and he was content with that for now. He’d take a look around in the market later and see if anyone- the jeweler, perhaps- could tell him its purpose; if not, he’d melt it down and fetch a considerable sum for the gold. He’d been rather surprised Alanna had been willing to part with it.
Usually they bet on things of little worth; curious objects with intriguing designs that would do little more than sit on a shelf and offer something to gaze at. But the key had a strange feel to it, almost as if it exuded an energy or a presence of some kind. Jasper cleared the strange thought. Keys weren’t alive. He was probably imagining things, and besides, his head was starting to cloud a bit from the mead he’d drunk earlier, while they were playing.
An empty tankard sat on the table and the scent of spiced honey mead was heavy in the air. Damion had adopted a similar position to Alanna, with his eyes closed, and the twins seemed much more intoxicated than he was. Jasper ignored the pang of guilt he felt as he beheld his empty glass. He wasn’t supposed to be drinking, especially not now, when he knew he’d have meetings to attend and things to do later in the day. But the mead wasn’t strong- or at least, it wasn’t supposed to be. He sighed as he realized he must have misjudged the amount he’d drunk. He’d gotten carried away, and he knew he’d pay the price for it later on. He didn’t handle such drinks well- he’d have a major headache by the end of the day.
He was glad the tavern was mostly empty, save for them. A busy and bustling atmosphere would have spurred his headache on much faster, and Jasper did not at all relish the thought of throbbing temples.
“Well, thank you for the game,” Jasper said, standing up and ignoring the sudden bout of vertigo. It wouldn’t do to stay here any longer; he had several things to attend to, and he had a sneaking suspicion he’d let the time get away from him. “I’d better be off before the rest of my fellow politicians miss me.”
Alanna waved him off with a lazy hand. “Go have fun with your trade disputes and petty problems,” she said, titling her chair back even further and propping her feet up on the table. “Have fun wasting your time. You’ll never get anything done in time. The first frost will have come and we’ll all be neck deep in snow before your precious Congress manages to solve any actual crisis.”
“Now, now, Alanna-” Damion began, but she held up a hand to stop him and sat up straight, her eyes fixed on Jasper.
“I’m serious! They never spend their time arguing over anything of worth; only squabbling over nobles and their land and ways to cheat off the people.”
“That’s not true, and you know it,” Jasper said, his voice rising. “Who was it who stepped in when you nearly burned down your forge and the hay barns? Who was it who helped you out when those merchants tried to run off with your tools? Me and my fellow politicians. We were the ones who roused the people to help you rebuild. We were the ones who tracked down that merchant and brought back your wares.”
“Only because without us-” she jabbed her finger at Damion, indicating the two of them- “no one would have any plows or tools with which to harvest their crops. The entire city would be crippled. We’re the only blacksmiths in town, and that’s the only reason anyone cares- to protect their own interests. You all only elected to help us because we’re useful to you. Not out of the goodness of your hearts.” She said the last part with such derision, Jasper physically took a step backwards. His temper was beginning to flare up.
“What, you think I wouldn’t help you if there was trouble? You two are my good friends. I’d help regardless.”
Alanna rolled her eyes. “Sure, maybe you would, but the rest of them wouldn’t. What with all the other problems everyone has, and the Plague, no one can afford to look out for anyone but themselves.”
She had a point, but Jasper couldn’t admit it. “That’s-”
The rest of what he was going to say was cut off as the door slammed open and he quickly flattened himself against the wall to avoid being hit. The sound startled Damion, and he caught himself right before he would have tumbled to the floor.
A friend of Jasper’s, Myr, stood in the doorway, red-faced and panting. She doubled over, her hands on her knees, and her blond hair was plastered to her face with sweat. “Jasper, you idiot, where’ve you been?” she asked, the words tumbling out in one breath.
“Here, obviously. What’s wrong, Myr? You look like you’ve been running across the entire city.”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been doing, trying to find you,” Myr said.
Alanna, whose head had swiveled back and forth as Jasper and Myr exchanged words, spoke up. She never could keep quiet for long, Jasper thought to himself. “Who on earth are you?”
Myr turned towards her as if she’d just noticed Alanna and Damion were present, but Jasper answered Alanna’s question before she got the chance to speak. “This is Myr-vek Zie, a visiting diplomat from Tevoksan. She’s part of the delegation that came a few weeks ago to reestablish commerce routes.”
He didn’t mention the two of them had become fast friends during Myr’s time in the capital city, nor that he had been her informal guide around Círre. Tevoksan was a neighboring country to the north, well-sheltered by mountains, and visitors rarely came to Rhunne, the nation on the other side of the mountains- and Jasper’s home country- unless it was absolutely necessary. The mountain paths were treacherous, and the steep peaks had claimed many lives.
“Commerce routes? There’s been a problem with the caravans?” Alanna asked, eying Myr suspiciously. Jasper fought the urge to roll his eyes at her, knowing what she was thinking. Myr, to her credit, took no notice, or at least pretended not to. The suspicion on Alanna’s face quickly dissolved into thoughtfulness.
“That explains a lot, actually. I was wondering why I couldn’t find any of the ore I needed to craft more armour. The good stuff you can only find in Tevoksan, and I can only get it through the caravans.”
Jasper gave her an odd look. “Yes, you didn’t hear about the cave-ins? The cave systems the caravans usually use collapsed several days ago, and the mountain paths aren’t even an option; they’re too treacherous for anyone but the Tevoksans. And what do you need armour for?”
Myr grinned. “It’s not my fault us Tevoksans are the only ones brave enough for those paths.” Jasper punched her jokingly in the arm, and she punched him back harder, but with a smile on her face.
“The armour’s not for me, it’s for the patrols,” Alanna explained. “The only city between here and the border with Fennaïr is Nevalon, and I’ve been getting a lot of demands for more armour. Apparently Fennaïr’s close to a civil war, and the disputes often cross over into our land. And they say Damion and I are the only decent blacksmiths around.” She laughed at the absurdity, but Jasper could see the obvious pleasure written on her face. “We can’t keep up with the demands. The business is good, but there are only two of us.”
Jasper furrowed his brow, surprised. “That’s strange. I should have heard about that. Something that big would have been brought up in Congress. Fennaïr on the brink of civil war is a big deal… they’re a powerful nation, and I shudder to think of what might happen if whatever new leader they end up with isn’t as friendly towards Rhunne…”
Myr’s eyes widened. She turned back to Jasper, and said, “Speaking of Congres, that’s the entire reason I came here to find you. The Council called an emergency session of Congress. I thought you knew.”
Jasper tilted his head, his expression confused. “No, I didn’t. I must not have heard the bells.”
“Well, we were all called into session twenty minutes ago. Apparently something’s come up, and you’re needed. You’re one of the few who can speak Tevoksan, and we need you as a translator. I’m one of the only delegates that speaks Rhunnese, and I’ll be addressing your Congress. I can’t translate for the rest of my people; they’ll need you. I’m set to address them in a few minutes, and we couldn’t find you anywhere. It’s by sheer luck one of the other members saw you come to the tavern.” She eyed Jasper’s surroundings, her distaste apparent. “I didn’t think you’d be sitting here playing Sabre and shirking your duties.”
Jasper flushed, stammering, “I-I’m not-”
She cut him off brusquely. “We need to head back now.” Grabbing his arm, she steered him towards the door, pushing him through without so much as a second glance. They exited the tavern into a world of bright sunlight and cobblestone roads, the Congress building gleaming white in the distance. A clock chimed atop a tower, marking the passing of a quarter hour, and Myr swore colorfully in Tevoksan. Jasper only caught her general meaning, but he figured he’d rather not know the exact details.
“Hurry up!” Myr called. She was already far ahead of him, waiting impatiently for him to catch up. They shared a look, and Jasper broke into a mad sprint, hoping against hope that they’d reach the Congress building in time.