Flash Fiction: How to Win (1485 words)

Zain kept his eyes on Silas as the kid realized that they had lost their wager. Zain wondered if Silas had ever lost a bet before, or if he’d seen before how quickly those conclusions came. Zain figured that he’d played through a hundred or two hundred in the last five years, but he still hadn’t figured out exactly where the lever was that turned the long rush of the game into the sudden weight of the ending. The most he’d figured out was how to breathe under it.

He watched Silas, knowing that the kid had been mirroring him all night, and hoping he’d keep the reflection a little longer. It was hard to tell though, whether he was still stunned by the abruptness, or if he was breathing too. Zain waited, one moment, then two, one breath, then four, and smiled slowly.

He nodded to Kibens, beside him at the table. “Thank you,” he said. Collecting himself, he started to rise from his chair and held out a hand for Kibens to shake.

Kibens looked at it, eyebrows rising, then took it firmly. “You’re welcome,” he said. “Any time you want another beating, come on back around. I’ll be happy to deliver.”

Silas was standing, too. He didn’t look at Zain, but nodded to the woman on his right, then the man on this left, and smiled a thanks of his own.

Zain breathed a little easier, smiled a little wider. It was near perfect. Still watching his little brother, he leaned closer to Kibens. “Any other night,” he said, voice low. “You’d be screaming at me for taking fourteen hands in a row, not beaming on top of one.”

Kibens shook his head, glared good-naturedly, dropped his hand and pushed it away. “Sit down then. Play another round.”

“It’s late,” Zain said. He nodded toward Silas. “I need to take him back home before I fall down dead asleep.” He shrugged at the table. “I’m getting too old for this.”

Kibens let out a breath that was less than an inch from a laugh and a grunt. “Get out of here, kid.”

Zain ducked his head and backed a single step away from the table.

“Thank you for teaching me to play,” Silas told Kibens.

Kibens considered him for a long moment. “You take the lesson well,” he said. Then he paused, thought of something else, and pulled back a little. “Keep learning. You’ll get where you mean to go.”

Silas held still a moment, listening. Then he nodded and smiled, weak but sincere. Turning, he followed Zain across the crowded room and out the taproom’s main door.

The night was darker than Zain remembered, and too clear after the hazy room. He blinked into it to clear his eyes. Stopping, he leaned back and sighed out, watching his breath curl in the still air. Silas paused at his elbow. His shoulders curled forward, maybe finally relaxing into his disappointment, maybe just stretching the fabric of his jacket close to his body to hang onto the warmth he’d had a moment ago. His fingers worked all his buttons tightly shut in moments, and he bounced a little on his toes when he was finished.

“That was fun,” Silas said.

Zain looked down at him, already nodding. “It really was.”

“Do you do that a lot?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Zain said.

Silas laughed at the quick response.

“I usually get into more trouble, though,” Zain said. He sized up his brother carefully. “You must be good luck.”

“Sure,” Silas said. “That explains why we lost.”

“You’re right,” Zain returned. “You must be terrible luck. I’ve never lost so badly in my life. We should have won a thousand hands! What was a thinking? I’m going have to throw salt over my shoulder for a week to get rid of your weal. I’ll have to burn incense for two weeks. I’ll have to wear a necklace of clover and climb a hill at sunrise. I’ll have to drink rain water and bathe in mud and walk around the entire city westwise, seven times, wearing a string of peach pits, at midnight.”

“Thanks!” Silas said and shoved him. Then he stuffed his hands in his pockets, and got quiet for a moment. “Thanks. For trying to get me hired on that ship.”

Zain shook his head, threw his arm around Silas’ neck and started half-dragging him down the street toward home. “Sure, kid.”

They stumbled two steps together before Silas managed to get a good enough hold for Zain to have to stop, dig in his heels and twist to stay with him. Another stumbled step backward and Silas broke free with a grin, slapping Zain, hard, in the side. Zain laughed and lunged for him, and they ran forward. Silas glanced over his shoulder, then tucked his head down to race him. Zain took in a wide lungful of cold air and then another, and ran right on his heels.

The door opened and slammed shut somewhere – a little far – behind them.

“Hey!” a woman shouted.

Spinning to look back, Zain skidded to a stop. Silas almost fell, tangled as he tried to turn as well. He touched down with one hand, and straightened as if to prove nothing of any importance was happening.

A dark-haired woman in a short coat stepped out into the street. She took two long strides to where she could see them clearly, arms crossed, and then waited a moment. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Zain Visade!” Zain called back.

There was another pause. She didn’t move in the dark. “You’re Cade’s son?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Zain said.

“You’re trouble under a sunny face?” she asked.

Zain paused, blinked, grinned in surprise. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You play a very obvious trick,” she called.

Zain looked at Silas, then put his hands in his pockets, shrugged and pushed his shoulders back. “I didn’t have any intention to hide anything.”

“Good,” the woman said. She raised one hand and waved him back toward her.

Zain didn’t move, but looked to Silas. Eyebrows pulling together, Silas looked back at him.

“Go on,” Zain said. Without taking his hand out of his pocket, he motioned Silas forward.

Silas blinked.

“Oh, I promise, she’s not asking for me. I’m trouble. She’s already yelled everything she had to say to me.”

Silas looked at him for a moment longer. Then he shook his head and sprinted back toward the taproom. He came to an easier stop in front of the woman. They exchanged a quiet hello that Zain couldn’t hear, and, on a moment, Silas pulled his shoulders square and his spine straight. For a full ten minutes he stood, nodded, spoke quietly, and Zain watched unable to hear them or read their expressions in the dark. When the woman finally pulled away, she went back inside and Silas waited a moment before walking slowly toward Zain.

“You’re a magical dolphin father,” Silas said numbly. He trudged the last few steps to Zain, then looked up at him, eyes a little wide, jaw a little slack.

Zain rocked back on his heels. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I am.”

“That was Captain Britomartis,” Silas said.

“I figured,” Zain said.

Silas stared at him.

Zain shrugged. “She was sitting behind Kibens. At the bar. She looked at me like I might have come to steal her socks when I first started talking to Kibens.”

Silas blinked.

“She looked surprised,” Zain clarified. “And a little angry. Like I might actually be one of those idiots who would demand that they give you a place just because I knew the right person to ask and he owed me.”

“She did give me a place,” Silas said, numb again. “On the Winter Woman. I ship out in four days.”

Zain beamed at him. “Congratulations, brother. I just made all your dreams come true.”

Silas shook his head, and started down the street rather than continue to look at his grin-split face. His boots clapped against the paved street. His shadow flickered in the dim street lights. Zain let him set the pace, and fell in beside him, hands in his pockets.

“You called in your favor for this,” Silas said. “You let me spend a ton of your money back there. You… Why did you do all this?”

Zain shrugged. “No need to profess your gratitude. I really don’t need a hundred sheet letter on linen stock and gold ink with every synonym you know for thank you. I don’t. You just looked like you needed the leg up.”

How did you do this?” Silas demanded, so quickly, Zain was sure he hadn’t been listening past his first cocky words.

Zain laughed silently, shrugged again. “I know how to gamble. You never place just one bet.” He rustled Silas’ hair as they made the turn toward home. “You’ll learn,” he promised.

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