Jack knocked his fist on the table. His hand was awful – if he was lucky, he might have some arcane combination, but generally the rule of thumb when it came to Marker was that if you got a hand full of Grands you were probably better off getting it over with and calling rather than raising. When he played back in college, the rule had been to treat the Grands – cards with no particular number or suit, but with unique names – as wild cards. In Jack’s experience, this had been the norm, or they would simply play without the Grands in the deck, and only a handful of combinations would actually win, like the straight, or the flush, or the three-of-a-kind. The version of the game he knew was called “Gensdon Poker.”
He had not actually known anyone who played by the traditional “Romani Standard” rules until coming to the DFO. There were many twists on the rules, beyond the inclusion of the Grands. One drew seven cards instead of five, and you only played the cards that made up the combination you wanted – spare cards were kept in hand to be used in later plays.
“Gods and Men in two suits,” said Freya, with the twelve and one of Moons and Keys. She seemed quite pleased with herself.
Azjar only played three of his cards. “Just The Beast and a couple of twos,” he said, putting them on the table. The stakes were a mere seven tolls at this point.
“Whatcha got, Jack?” asked Freya. “Show ‘em!”
“Oh, I’ve got quite the hand, let me tell you,” he said, jokingly. He put all seven of his cards on the table – The River, The Thief, The Magician, The Mountain, the one (or, as the pros called it, “man”) of keys, the four of locks, and the seven of suns.
Azjar and Freya both looked at the cards. “Holy crap,” said Azjar.
“What?” said Jack. Freya looked over at Azjar and then down at the cards, and realization dawned on her face as well.
“That’s the Queen’s Gambit,” said Azjar. “I mean, if you take back these,” he said, pushing the Mountain, Magician, River, and seven of suns back to him. “That’s a good hand. A really good one.”
Jack looked down at them. “Well cool. Guess this is mine,” he said, and dragged the modest pot to his side of the table.
“You ever been to Retrein?” asked Azjar.
“No,” said Jack. “Why do you ask?”
“The Queen’s Gambit. It’s about the Queen of Retrein.”
“The card combination is?”
Freya took a swig from the bottle of beer in front of her. “Now you’ve got him started. It’ll be an hour before the next hand, if we’re lucky, that is.”
Azjar dismissed her with a flapping hand gesture. “You know of the Gods of Narcia, right?”
Jack smiled, humoring him. “Yeah. I have heard of them on occasion, given my nationality.”
Azjar shook his head with an apologetic frown. “Ok, so the story is that three gods came to help King Jarsa unite the people of Ganlea to fight off the wild spirits. Kerahn, Miru, Torem. But there’s a story – apocryphal, probably - that there was a fourth god. A dark god – not evil, but more… cynical, or really just pragmatic, I guess you could say. No one knows his name, but supposedly this god traveled to Retrein, and he was the one who made Queen Elona immortal.”
“Uh huh,” said Jack.
“Obviously, I wasn’t there or anything, so I couldn’t say,” said Azjar.
“So he says,” said Freya, and then she looked at him and gave a disappointed shake of the head.
“Damn it! I keep telling you I’m not immortal!” Azjar laughed.
Reacting to the confused look on Jack’s face, Freya smiled at him. “It’s a stupid running joke we have… just… when we found out Azjar is like three years younger than me and Tessa and we were… you had to be there.”
Jack chuckled. “Yes, I think so.”
“I totally set you up that time,” said Azjar.
“We’re kind of weird that way,” Freya told Jack as she put an arm around Azjar’s shoulder.
Tessa walked into the room in a bathrobe, her hair wet from the shower. “Azjar trying to claim he’s not immortal again?” she asked.
“I was this close to a confession,” said Freya.
Tessa pointed a mock-accusatory finger at Azjar. “One day, Azjar. One day.”
“Ok then,” said Jack. “Shall we continue?”
Freya nodded up to Tessa. “Want us to deal you in?”
Tessa shook her head. “Not right now. I want to get a new image compilation going.”
“Ok, enjoy,” said Freya.
Tessa touched Jack’s shoulder – he noticed that she was quite good at playing up these little physical touches to reinforce the notion that they were a couple. “I should be down in a couple hours. You’re fine here?”
“He’ll be fine as long as we win back all our money,” said Freya. “And all of his.”
Tessa went into her room to change. After Azjar had walked in on them, she decided it would be better if Jack were to sleep in the bed next to her. It was perhaps not inconceivable that she would make a boyfriend sleep on the floor – Redlanders were infamously touchy about this sort of thing - but she decided that, being true to her own character, if Jack really were her boyfriend, he would be in the bed.
When Azjar had stumbled into her room, Tessa was surprised to find herself embarrassed. Not because he had seen her in bed – the guy was gay (which was unfortunate for Freya, who had once confessed to Tessa on a long and drunken night how she wished to “conquer” him.) No, she had felt embarrassed at being seen with Jack there. Even if there was no reason for Azjar to be surprised to see Jack in her room, she nevertheless felt uncomfortable, as if her privacy had been momentarily and accidentally exposed.
Tessa put on some clothes – comfortable, soft cotton sweatpants and a similar sweatshirt, and tied her hair back. She looked in her mirror, seeing how tensed up her face was. She was probably just on edge because of the note Tall Man had slipped her. She still had not heard from him since then, nearly two weeks ago now. She had never been this closely connected to anything violent. Well, at least not since she was a little girl. She had not gotten any information about why the Flatfoot had been killed – for all she knew, his death hadn’t had anything to do with the House.
Even in a country like Arizradna, there was still the occasional crime, and people did have an undeniable history of hurting each other.
The DFO was safe, though. Tall Man had assured her of that. Her job was just to gather data. He had explained to her that the House had thousands of people throughout the world simply reading newspapers or browsing online, watching films or television shows, and just sending in what they had seen. She was a conduit for that information, a purveyor of raw material.
Tessa knew the House was not all like that, and that sometimes, it would act in a forceful and even brutal way, but the world was still there, so they must have been doing something right.
She owed the House her life. Had it not been for them, she… it was hard even to think what her life would have been like with the monster that had driven her mother to kill herself. In time, Tessa – and she would not have been named Tessa had it not been for the House – might have become a killer herself, or perhaps a victim. Instead, she had been allowed to grow up with Aunt Ellie and Uncle Hank, up in Arkos Province, with the safe towns and the decent schools.
There had been scares before. Once, when she was sixteen, Uncle Hank went missing for a couple days, but it turned out that he had simply missed the airship at the Ciczan docks and was under instruction to make no communications while he was on his mission. A month after Tessa had become an Agent proper, when she was twenty, an intimidating man in a dark suit had approached her and said some very confusing things in what seemed to be code, but when she told Tall Man about it he reassured her that it was not a problem, and Tessa had not seen the man since.
Tessa walked out of the lodge and down the path that lead to the observatory. Azjar would likely be along in an hour or so to check on his new adjustments, but for now she would have the cavernous building to herself.
As she walked along the path, she made a slight detour to the old Redwood stump near the overlook. She reached down into the hole made by the roots, where Tall Man’s notes would often arrive – how he got them there she could never figure out.
She scraped around, making sure that the wind had not blown the paper into a corner, but no. There was nothing.
He has gone silent, she reminded herself.
She exhaled. It was chilly, and she could see her breath.
She hugged herself, rubbing her arms, and made her way up to the observatory.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)