Flash Fiction: What We’re Playing (816 words)

“Don’t look at me like that,” Jaera told Galen. She pushed hard on the door, to shove it shut after Zain. She could see his back through the window, already halfway to the corner and heading back into the city. Without looking at Galen or Connell where they hovered at the side of the room, she turned back toward the table.

“Sorry,” Connell said, and didn’t sound it. “Still tryin’ to figure out whether I’m supposed to be huggin’ and spinnin’ you, or plannin’ how to skin a boy alive.”

“How about you deal the next game?” she told him. She slid into her chair, gathered the cards, split and shuffled, and kept her eyes on the tabletop.

Connell blinked. Glancing at Galen, he walked to his side of the table as quietly as he could. Jaera slid him the cards, watching him warningly. He split, shuffled, split, shuffled, and slapped out a deal, eyebrows still raised, but absolutely silent. She gave him half an apologetic smile.

Galen leaned against the back of his chair. “So, we’re just going to keep our secrets?” he asked.

Jaera picked up her hand of cards. “Yes,” she said. Pausing, she spread the seven cards in her hand. “What are we playing?”

“Fishin’,” Connell told her. “We’re gonna talk. I can’t talk’n study cards at the same time, and I didn’t want’ta lose any more t’you.”

Jaera looked like she wanted to throw her cards at him, but she threw them at the table instead.

“When were you going to tell us?” Galen asked.

“I didn’t see the need,” Jaera told him.

“The need?” Galen repeated. He leaned forward a little to catch her eye. “How about so we could see Zain coming and do something other than welcome him in with a smile? How about so you could have someone to yell and scream at? How about just because I’m Galen, you’re Jaera, and this is what we do?”

Jaera clenched her jaw, blinking, and wouldn’t look at him.

“Hey,” Connell said. He flicked through his cards. “Got any eights?”

Galen turned over his cards, one-handed. Passing one to Connell, he turned back to Jaera.

“I didn’t want you to be angry,” Jaera murmured.

“Angry?” Galen said.

She shook her head at the echo. “Terius asked me to marry him. He decided the plan where I’d just back away when it was time, when he found someone better suited, wasn’t good enough anymore.”

“Got that part,” Galen said.

Jaera unclenched her fists. They’d started to hurt. “He’s ending it all. He’s twenty-three. It can’t go on much longer anyway. I just didn’t expect him to end it so badly. I didn’t expect him to force someone else to end it for us, in an outrage over an engagement like that. And I’m angry enough for the both of us. I really didn’t need you wanting to shred him into chum on top of it all.”

“Fours?” Connell asked.

Jaera stared at him. Then she slid one of her cards across the table without looking at it.

Connell picked it up and shook his head. “I think that’s cheating, but okay.”

“I’m not angry,” Galen said slowly.

Connell flicked a look at him, then rested both hands on the table, cards evenly between his fingers.

Jaera dropped her forehead into her hand. “Don’t.”

“I’ve seen Terius stubborn, and I’ve seen Terius pig-headed, and I’ve seen him relentless, and aggressive, and dominating,” Galen said. “But I’ve never seen him cruel. It’s not in him.”

“Obviously, it is,” Jaera murmured. Jaera shut her eyes, hating that she’d said that out loud. Kindly, Galen ignored it.

“Yes, he’s decided the old plan isn’t good enough,” Galen said. “And it’s the smartest thing I’ve ever seen him do. It was a terrible plan, girl. One day you both up and decide to pretend you never loved each other, he gets a wife from some rich family, and you creep off like you’ve been kicked? There was no safety in it, either. Not for you.”

“We didn’t have a lot of options, me being what I am,” Jaera snapped. Raising her arm, she turned her wrist enough for him to see the blank leather band.

“Well, he’s mullish enough to beat another out of the sky,” Galen told her.

Jaera shook her head.

“Look,” Galen said. “You want to tell him no? You tell him no. It’s always going to be your choice. But don’t go keeping secrets from me now, Squidget.”

Jaera stared at the table. Her whole body felt tight enough to snap, and loose enough to fall apart. She took a deep breath, hoping that it would catch better in her chest than the last few had.

“Tens?” Connell asked.

Jaera slid her cards off the table. She flipped through them one at a time, slow. “Go fishing,” she told him.

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