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There are several varieties of rak. Tonight we're playing palace rak, with the standard pack of forty-eight cards. Four suits, black, red, green and blue, cards numbered 1 to 8 followed by bishop, queen, king and dragon. Two cards are dealt to each player and if you like what you've got you make a bet. You get dealt another card and you can bet again. When your fourth and last card is dealt, if you still like what you've got, you can keep on betting. The highest hand you can have is four dragons. It doesn't happen that often.
The first two cards Moolifi deals me are a green three and a red eight. It's a poor start and I fold immediately. The next five hands are no better and I don't place a single bet. I'm not averse to bluffing when necessary, in fact I'm a master of the art, but I generally don't like to do it too soon.
There isn't a lot of action from anyone in the early hands. Everyone is treading cautiously. There's a long way to go and no one wants to find themselves financially crippled after only a few rounds. I sip my beer and study my opponents, looking, as always, for some telltale signs that might give me a clue as to their play.
Moolifi deals the cards quickly and skilfully. She seems to have dressed up a little for the occasion. She's wearing a long dress of dark red material, quite eyecatching in its way. It leaves her arms bare and I notice that though her limbs are slender, she's quite taut and muscled, rather like Makri. She's not soft, Moolifi. I'd guess she can take care of herself. As she deals out the next hand we're suddenly interrupted by a fit of coughing. Old Grax the wine merchant splutters violently then slumps in his chair, perspiration running down his forehead. Praetor Capatius, sitting next to him, draws himself back quite suddenly.
"He's got the malady!"
I'm already on my feet.
"No need to panic," I say. "There's a lot of it around."
I help Grax out of his chair. Makri comes to assist and we carry him back to the store room behind the bar, while Dandelion looks on with concern.
"You have more medicine?"
Dandelion nods. We're so used to this now that we take it in our stride. Grax is a tough old customer. A few days' rest and a good dose of the medicine and I've no doubt he'll be back on his feet.
Before I return to the table I draw Makri to one side and whisper in her ear.
"Moolifi is not quite what she says she is."
"There's something not right about her. I don't believe a Niojan chorus girl would be so good with a pack of cards."
Makri looks puzzled.
"Just a feeling. I wonder if she might be a Niojan spy."
"So what do you want to do?" says Makri.
"I don't know. Nothing, probably. I'm just mentioning it in case anything happens."
Makri nods, and I return to the table and retake my chair. There are a few polite enquiries over Grax's health.
"He'll be fine. There's a healer giving him some medicine right now."
No one is really that concerned. It would be unlucky to have a player actually die at the table, but apart from that, everyone is keen to get on with the game. Matters proceed quietly enough apart from a brief moment of excitement when Ravenius takes a large pot, beating Casax's three dragons with four sixes. Casax loses a lot on the hand but, like the cool gambler he is, he masks his disappointment.
So far Moolifi has dealt me nothing worth gambling on. It means I haven't made any serious losses but I haven't been able to get into the game either. I'm just starting to feel slightly twitchy when she sends me two queens in the first deal, giving me some hope that I might finally be on to something. When everyone has their first two cards, Glixius pushes thirty gurans into the centre of the table. The bet is covered by Ravenius. I slide thirty gurans across too. Acarius and Capatius do likewise. I sip my beer.
When the third card arrives it's another queen. I now have three queens and that's a good hand. I take a brief look at the archaically dressed ladies on the cards, put them back face down in front of me, and wait for Glixius to make his bet. He slides a hundred gurans across the table. I'm next to bet.
"I'll cover your hundred."
Ravenius considers for a few moments, then tosses his cards back to Moolifi, dropping out of the hand. General Acarius immediately folds as well. Praetor Capatius, however, confidently pushes forward his hundred gurans.
There's a lot of money riding on this hand and Horm isn't even involved. So far he hasn't made any sort of substantial wager. If I win this I'll go well ahead of him. If I lose, I'll be a long way behind.
When my next card arrives it's a nine. I'm disappointed, but three queens is still a good hand. It's Glixius to bet. He muses on his cards briefly, then counts out another hundred gurans and places it firmly in the middle of the table. A little too firmly, maybe. I get the impression he might be bluffing.
Ravenius shrugs. He hands his cards back to Moolifi, taking care not to let them turn over. Even when you're dropping out of a hand, you don't want your opponents to see what cards you were holding. It might give them some clues as to your strategy.
I can either call Glixius, or raise him further. I'm fairly confident I've got the hand won and I'd like to raise him but I'm aware that I don't have all that much room for error. Two hundred and thirty gurans is a hefty chunk out of my capital. I'd risk it for myself, but there's Makri to think of. I utter a silent curse. Now I'm having to think about Makri it's interfering with my normal aggressive style. I put in a hundred gurans and call Glixius, then lay down my three queens for all to see. Glixius turns over a run of 6, 7, 8, 9, all green. A straight flush which beats my three queens. And then he actually laughs, which is a very low-class thing to do at the card table.
"My game, I believe," he says, and scoops up his money like a man who's never seen a few hundred gurans before.
I'm seething inside though I don't let it show.
Cicerius approaches the table.
"Time for a break, gentlemen," he says. "There are refreshments at the bar."
General Acarius looks up sharply.
"Time for a break? We've hardly got started."
The Deputy Consul shoots him a serious look.
"It's time for a break."
Acarius shrugs, and the players rise from the table. I attempt to follow them to the bar but I'm immediately surrounded by a gaggle of concerned Turanian citizens, demanding to know what I'm doing throwing my money away in such a rash manner.
"You lost two hundred and thirty gurans in one hand!" hisses Cicerius. "It was far too adventurous. Have you forgotten what this game means to Turai?"
"I had three queens," I retort. "It was a reasonable gamble."
Cicerius snorts in derision, though I swear he doesn't know one end of a pack of cards from the other. Meanwhile Lisutaris has hobbled up, still with her blanket round her shoulders, and she doesn't waste any time expressing her concern.
"Thraxas! If you keep on like this you'll be out of the game in five minutes."
"I'm doing fine!" I insist. "Even the best card player gets the odd reverse. Look, Makri's got more at stake than anyone and she's not worried, is she?"
"She was burying her face in her hands the last time I looked," replies Lisutaris. "And I'm not surprised. Keep on the way you're going and we'll soon be buying her wedding presents."
"Could you try showing a little confidence in me?" I say trying to keep my voice somewhere below a bellow. "You can't expect me to play cards when you're on my back every five minutes."
Cicerius and Lisutaris both open their mouths. I'm guessing they're not about to express confidence in me, so I break free and head for the bar, where Makri is serving drinks.
"Nice going, Thraxas," she says. "So, will you visit me in Yal?"
"You're not going to Yal."