Kibens’ smile stretched while his eyebrows rose. He looked Zain up and down, shocked at his bluntness, and, perhaps a little, impressed. Zain hoped he was impressed.
“I owe you a favor,” Kibens repeated. He shook his head a little, teetering on the edge of a laugh.
“Yeah,” Zain said.
He held Kibens’ eye, purposefully avoiding the others at the table, but let himself blink to turn it into an easy stare. The other three players around the table glanced idly at Zain, then Silas, then Kibens, and continued to play. The one sitting closest with her back to Zain, glanced behind her, raised a quick eyebrow and remained quiet.
Zain knew he’d said it a little loud for Kibens’ taste, but he could see the risk of it threading away as Kibens rolled his shoulders and leaned back in his chair. There was some trouble in saying it in front of these people, but he could see Kibens sorting it out and counting the ways to solve his problem before half a second was past. He was sharp enough, and both of them knew it. He could get out of the questions that would come later, and never explain how Zain had wandered accidentally down a back street that Kibens had found on purpose, or how Zain had gotten him out of deal gone wrong with a little of Fate’s mercy and a well-timed street brawl.
Zain stayed quiet, proving that he was smart enough not to say anything about it either. Kibens finished sinking back in his seat on a breath, relaxed.
“Then what do you need, kid?” Kibens asked.
“I hear you have an opening on the Winter Woman,” Zain said. “That one of your cabin birds decided to take work somewhere else.”
“Yes,” Kibens said slowly.
Zain clapped a hand on Silas’ shoulder in front of him. “Have you met my little brother?”
Silas nodded respectfully if his eyes were a little wide.
Behind Kibens, the woman at the bar shifted. She turned her head just enough to see the three of them clearly and paused between sips.
Kibens blinked at him, then leaned forward in his chair. “That’s a bigger favor then I owe you. I just can’t take him like that,” he said, lowering his voice. It was a courtesy, gently signalling the others at the table that this had just become a more private conversation, even though he couldn’t actually whisper in the noisy room. The other players ducked their heads and examined their cards more intently. Zain liked that, smiled a little to himself.
“I know,” Zain said. “Which is why I’m not asking.”
Silas shot him a quick look. Kibens just leaned farther over the table, blinking again.
“I’d like to make you a bet,” Zain said. He left his hand on Silas’ shoulder and added a little weight to keep him calm. “And as a favor, I’d like you to accept it.”
The woman at the table turned quickly, smiling too, as she sized Zain up over the shoulder of her expensive red coat. Both men on the other side of the table – one balding and the other thickly bearded to compensate for thin, smooth hands – flicked their eyes up to his face again.
“What’s the bet?” Kibens asked.
“Silas and I would like to sit in on your game,” Zain said. “If the two of us can take every hand for the rest of the night, he sails out on the Winter Woman with you.”
Silas’ quick look turned into a stare, and he twisted to looked directly up at Zain. Zain just held his hand on his shoulder, and gently faced him forward again. It took Silas less than a breath to realize he was supposed to act like there was nothing mad about this.
“Every hand?” Kibens repeated, glancing from Silas’ shifting expression to Zain.
Kibens pointed a finger down at the table top, holding Zain’s gaze firmly to make sure he understand. “If you lose one hand to any person at this table, you get nothing?” Kibens tilted his head.
Zain shrugged. “Well, hopefully the game is good.”
Reading the dare, Kibens half turned away, but didn’t break gaze.
“How old are you, kid?” the man with the beard asked Zain.
“Seventeen, sir,” Zain told him.
“He knows his way around the cards,” Kibens said without looking. He flicked a glance toward Silas. “How old are you?”
“Twelve,” Silas echoed, his voice lighter and less certain. “Sir.”
Kibens looked at him closer. “Have you ever played Capture before?”
“No, sir,” Silas said.
The woman in the red coat laughed again, but leaned into the table to hide it.
Kibens looked at Zain, then Silas, leaned back and grinned. He turned toward the others. “Can they join our game?”
“It’s a bit cruel, don’t you think?” the bearded man asked. He took his turn in the cards, and didn’t look up for an answer until he was finished.
“Oh, don’t blame him,” Zain pleaded, easy. “You saw what a barrel I have him over. It’s hard to turn down a man who calls in a debt.”
“Sit,” the woman in the red coat commanded before anyone else could argue. She pushed the empty chair beside her out and motioned Silas into it. Zain shifted his purse out of his pocket, and handed it to Silas where the others couldn’t see, then took his place on the other side, between Kibens and the bald man. Leaning forward, Kibens gathered the cards in the middle of the table close to him with one hand. The others dropped their hands and Kibens swung his hand out to gather them as well.
“Do you know the rules?” he asked Silas.
Silas nodded, slow, shifting to get comfortable in his chair. “Zain explained on the way here.” When Kibens and the bald man started to laugh at him, he straightened and met their eyes evenly. “Pick up and discard on every turn,” he said, more sharply than if they’d politely asked him to recite lesson. “Ante up or fold at the head of every round. Lay three-of-a-kind or runs in suit. Capture another player’s set by either playing their fourth or the next highest and next lowest in their runs. Can’t capture unless you already have three sets in front of you, and can’t capture your own sets. First to capture three three-of-a-kinds or one run takes the hand and the pot.”
Kibens paused in the middle of straightening the cards to begin the shuffle, and glanced at Zain. “You’ve got it,” he told Silas. “You ready?”
Silas looked at Zain, and Zain thought he might shake his head. Instead, Silas smiled and set his elbows on the table. “Oh, yeah,” he said.
Kibens shuffled the cards quickly, then straightened them in his hand again.
“Double deck with this many, isn’t it?” Zain asked.
Stopping, Kibens looked at him doubtfully. “You want to try to control that many cards on the table?”
“Why not?” Zain said.
Casting another look around the table to make sure he had permission, he pulled second deck from his pocket. He shuffled them together easily, then threw the cards lightly as he dealt, landing rough piles of seven in front of each player.
“Best of luck to you,” he told Zain. He chuckled with the others as they picked up their cards.
Silas captured nothing on his first hand, though he laid down enough sets to try. Zain smoothly captured three three-of-a-kinds, playing the game mechanically while the others watched. The second hand he captured a three-of-a-kind in the same smooth fashion, waited a turn, and stole a run without so much as a flourish. Kibens looked up at him, unsurprised, while the others blinked like they’d missed something. The third round, just for the fun of it, Zain took three captures on one turn and discarded while the others stared.
“That was luck,” Zain said, more to Silas, than the others. His brother was looking at him like there was some strength Zain had to bend this table to him, and it was an awe that wouldn’t help Silas learn anything of his own. Silas nodded, sifted through the cards in his own hand and dropped them back onto the table for the next deal.
But Zain took the next hand as well. Then the next two, both as smooth and quiet as he could, as if he wasn’t starting to breath a little brighter at how well his luck was keeping stride with him. He kept his hands steady, his smile light and friendly, playing the magician tonight, unsurprised and unruffled at each win, rather than the joy boy as he raked in coins and stacked them in front of him. On the next hand, almost an hour in, he saw Kibens and the woman in the red coat aim for him, slow him down with two well-timed captures that kept him from taking anything of his own for a few rounds. But he won the hand just the same.
In the next hand, the entire table leaned on Zain. He couldn’t keep enough sets in front of him to take anything.
“Well, this is embarrassing,” Zain said, watching Kibens take a three-of-a-kind away from him. “I’ve never played so badly in my life. I’m so sorry. I’ll go back to thrashing you all in a moment, I promise.”
“Who says you’ll get to?” the woman in red asked. And she almost didn’t notice when Silas captured a run from in front of her.
Silas slid the set quietly in front of him, and looked at Zain. He mirrored Zain’s smoothness perfectly, and Zain had to clench his jaw hard to keep from grinning.
“I do,” Silas said. He looked at her, maybe to avoid smiling himself. “You didn’t think he brought me along to just hang on his tail, did you?”
Kibens laughed, threw his cards on the table and leaned back, shaking his head.
Zain tried not to look at the woman at the bar behind him while the bald man dealt the next round.
Zain won two more hands. Then Silas won the next, and Zain won the one after that, breathlessly racing the woman in red for it. Then luck handed him one more, easy as falling.
“Fourteen,” Kibens said.
Zain looked up, gathering the cards for his turn to deal.
“You two just took fourteen hands in a row,” Kibens said quietly.
Zain shrugged. “Did I?”
“Fourteen,” Silas assured him. The kid nodded, then he took a breath. Zain looked at him, and saw his carefully hidden grin, and also the weight that kept lowering toward him as the night rolled on. His eyes were bright, moving quickly around the table. His fingers were sliding a coin, back and forth, back and forth in front him. He turned it over nervously, pinned it against the table and slid it, slow, back and forth, back and forth.
“Well, that’s…” Zain paused listening to the clap of the cards as he shuffled. He took a breath in, thinking, and not looking at anyone. “A lot more than I thought we would take,” he said, finally.
Kibens burst out laughing. The bald man shook his head.
“But,” Zain said, brightly. “Fifteen’s a much nicer number, don’t you think? It’s got a completeness to it, feels wholesome or conscientious or something. And it’s just more fun to say.”
Dealing out the cards, Zain leaned back in his chair. He watched each set as it was laid on the table. He watched Silas spread his hand and shut it again, and lay his cards down carefully. He put his own cards on the table, quick and deliberate, and watched the discard line carefully. Kibens caught his eye from one moment to the next, and looked like he might say something, but always just shook his head.
Zain captured a three-of-a-kind from the bald man and slid it in front of him.
Silas captured a three-of-a-kind from the woman in red. Then one from Kibens on the next round. Zain raised his eyebrows at the kid, quietly applauding him. Silas smiled, and sifted through his cards again, refusing to lose his focus.
Zain captured a three-of-a-kind and slid it in beside the other.
And Kibens captured a run.
Zain watched, and nodded. It seemed to take a long time to fill his lungs, take more air to fill in his chest, and Kibens slid the set over his side of the table.
“Sorry,” Kibens said, quiet.
Zain shook his head. “Don’t be. There’s no need. It’s been a very good game.”