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I'm sitting at the largest table in the tavern. Young Ravenius is on my left and General Acarius is on my right. Next to him is Praetor Capatius and then Casax, the Brotherhood boss. Directly across from me is Glixius Dragon Killer. Beside him is old Grax the wine merchant. There's an empty seat between Grax and Ravenius.
The front door of the tavern is closed. The public isn't being admitted. Cicerius has decided that with so much at stake, and Horm on the premises, it would be best to keep everyone away.
If the rich card players find it peculiar to be playing in humble Twelve Seas, they haven't said so. Rather, they seem grateful to have the opportunity to gamble. General Acarius is quite effusive in his thanks. Since their friend Senator Kevarius had to close his house because of the malady, they've been searching for a good game, and if it means traipsing down to the poor part of town, they don't mind too much. Even Praetor Capatius isn't too objectionable. Like much of the senatorial class, he's very conscious of his status, but the prospect of an evening's gambling goes some way to making him forget about it. Indeed, with the people currently in the tavern, Capatius, Acarius and Glixius aren't as out of place as they might normally be. Some faces here are very well known to them. Deputy Consul Cicerius for one, who outranks everyone, and Lisutaris, one of our city's most famous residents. As for Grax the wine merchant, as a member of the Honourable Merchants Association, he's not unfamiliar with the city's aristocracy. He's a very wealthy man, and he's played with Acarius before. There's a good deal of surprised recognition and greetings when they all arrive. The Praetor wonders what the Deputy Consul is doing here, but Cicerius diverts the question.
Lisutaris, Coranius the Grinder, Tirini Snake Smiter and Anumaris Thunderbolt have all remained to watch the game. No surprise, given who's also due to attend. If it turns out that Horm the Dead is hatching some evil plot as yet unknown to us, the four Turanian Sorcerers should be able to take care of him. The Avenging Axe is now one of the best-protected buildings in the city. The whole area from here to the harbour is crammed full of soldiers and Sorcerers. If Prince Amrag is planning on sailing in tonight he's not going to find us unprepared.
Captain Rallee would normally play, but he's declared the stakes too rich for him, and is here merely to observe. The Captain puts a brave face on it but I know he'd rather be taking part in the game than sitting with Moolifi, no matter how much he likes her.
Karlox takes a seat close to his boss Casax, while Hanama and Samanatius both sit quietly at the edge of the room, observing the proceedings. As for Glixius, he greets Lisutaris politely, but he's his usual glowering self as he takes his place at the table.
"Who's the empty chair for?" he asks.
I slip away towards the bar for a beer. Makri frowns as I approach.
"You've already drunk a lot of klee," she says. "You need to keep your wits about you."
"I had one small glass of klee."
"You had four. I was counting."
"Makri, did we get married without me noticing? Since when are you keeping track of how much I drink?"
"Since I became the stake in your card game," says Makri.
I'm gripped by a moment of doubt.
"Do you want to back out? There's still time. I don't much like this."
"You seemed keen enough upstairs," says Makri.
"I got carried away when Cicerius offered me more money."
Makri laughs. I'm not feeling much like laughing myself. I've never sat down at a card table before without confidently expecting to win. But I was never gambling over a person's future before.
"What if Horm wins?"
"Then I'll be a fantastic Orc bride," says Makri. "And captain of the armies. You might see me outside the city walls one day, leading a phalanx."
"It's not funny. Tell Cicerius you've changed your mind. To hell with Horm. Let him keep the Ocean Storm. We'll beat the Orcs anyway."
Makri shakes her head.
"We won't. We'll all die. Anyway, this way I get to go to the university."
"We could think of another plan. You can get to the university some other way."
Makri raises her eyebrows.
"Haven't you spent the last three years telling me I have no chance whatsoever?"
"Yes. And now I've changed my mind. I don't want to play with you as the stake."
"Are you losing confidence again?" says Makri. "What's the matter with you? Just get in there and give them hell."
Makri pours me a beer and hands it over.
Makri's dressed in her standard serving-wench attire, her chainmail bikini. It's still an impressive sight. Men look at her with lust and I'm sure I saw Tirini glaring at her physique jealously as she passed by. I drink the beer down in one gulp and hold out the tankard for another.
"I told you to get confident," says Makri. "Not hopelessly drunk."
"I'm a long way from hopelessly drunk."
"A glass of klee, please."
I recognise the voice. It's Horm, who's arrived as silently and mysteriously as ever. The collar of his cloak is raised, preventing anyone behind from recognising him.
Makri pauses briefly, then pours him a glass of klee. She holds out her hand for the money. Horm smiles, and drops a coin into her palm. The sight irritates me.
"Does Prince Amrag know you're gambling with the Ocean Storm?" I ask.
"Prince Amrag is no concern of yours," replies Horm.
"You're going to be in trouble when he finds out."
Horm raises an eyebrow.
"If you're trying to unsettle me before our game, you're wasting your time."
He smiles at Makri.
"My mountain kingdom is a wild and beautiful place. It will suit you perfectly."
Makri glares at him, and remains silent.
"She's never going to go there," I say. "I doubt you will either. Amrag will have you killed once he knows what you've been up to."
"Who is to tell him?"
Good point. I'm stuck for an answer.
"How about Deeziz the Unseen?"
"What? Deeziz? Deeziz is hundreds of miles away."