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Capatius, Horm, Casax and I resume the struggle. The air is thick with thazis smoke and the fire burns brightly in the huge hearth, kept alight by the occasional word from one of the Sorcerers. No one looking at Lisutaris, Coranius, Anumaris and Tirini would guess that at this moment they were busy working on a spell to defeat Horm, but I know they are. Three of them are anyway. Tirini is probably planning her outfit for the next reception at the Palace.
Deputy Consul Cicerius sits with Samanatius. I'm a little surprised to see that Cicerius apparently regards the philosopher as worthy of respect, as does Lisutaris. I wouldn't have guessed the practical Cicerius had much time for that sort of thing.
With 360 gurans I still can't afford to do anything rash. So far tonight I've rarely tried bluffing, though it's something I'm good at. But Praetor Capatius, being obscenely rich, likes trying to throw his weight around, and it goes wrong for him in spectacular fashion when he tries to bluff Horm out of a hand and Horm coolly stands up to him, and triumphs. The Praetor is left almost moneyless, and scowls mightily as he throws in his cards.
"I'm out," he grunts, and stands up, stretches his limbs, and heads for the bar to see if there's any stew still on offer. The praetor is a large man, and a healthy eater, and if he's used to more exotic fare that the Avenging Axe stew, it's not a bad meal for a man who's just been beaten at cards in the early hours of the morning.
As Casax, Horm and I battle on I can feel the eyes of the audience on us. I've worked my way up to 400 gurans, and when Moolifi deals me three kings I raise a hundred. Horm drops out but Casax follows me. Once more I'm forced to put in everything I possess. My nerves are straining as Casax turns over his cards, but I win the hand. I've now got 800 gurans and I'm back in the game. Casax is rattled and the very next hand he stays in far longer than he should and I end up taking another 300 gurans from him. Now I'm the one with the momentum. Horm plays quietly and cautiously while I systematically win hand after hand from Casax in an exhibition of card playing that will undoubtedly go down in history. When I finally chase the Brotherhood boss from the table, grinding him to dust with a lethal combination of masterly betting skills and a few lucky cards, he rises to his feet wearily, throws his cloak around his shoulders and walks away without even offering a parting insult. His henchman, Karlox, glowers at me evilly but I ignore him. Thraxas, number one chariot at rak, and no one can deny it.
"Just you and me, Horm," I grunt, and call for beer.
Horm sips his glass of klee, and stares at me for a few moments. I can't read his expression. He has turned out to be a better card player than I expected.
"Indeed, Investigator. Just you and me. For the Ocean Storm, or Makri."
"Myself, I'm more worried about the money."
"Are you serious?" says Horm.
"Women and magical trinkets are never in short supply. Personally I prefer a solid pile of cash."
Horm hesitates. For the first time ever, I seem to have disconcerted him.
By now it's quite likely that everyone in the tavern knows the nature of our bet. It's been obvious from the start that this is no ordinary game, and as the whispers and rumours have spread the intensity of the interest has grown. There's hardly a sound save for the crackling of the fire. I'm suddenly gripped with a thirst that can't be satisfied by normal beer alone. I tell Horm and Moolifi that I need to collect something from my room, then hurry upstairs, returning with a bottle of the Grand Abbot's Ale. I open the bottle and pour some into my tankard.
"Are you quite ready?" says Horm, now a little more irritated.
Moolifi deals the cards. She gives me a black 8 and a black bishop. Horm checks his cards idly, lays them face down in front of him and pushes 100 gurans into the middle of the table. I cover the bet. Moolifi deals again. This time she gives me a black 7. Bishop, 8 and 7, all black. It's a hand that's worth pursuing. Horm raises 200 gurans and I again cover his bet, quite calmly, giving nothing away.
Moolifi deals me the fourth and final card. It is a black queen. I have a straight run in the same colour. It will beat anything except four of a kind. Horm studies his money for a while. It's laid out in neat piles in front of him, unlike mine, which is strewn around messily.
"I have seven thousand gurans," he says. "Around the same as you, I'd judge."
He pushes it all into the centre of the table, and looks me in the eye.
"It's your bet," he says.
I count my money. I have enough to cover the bet, just. If I go along with it one of us will be forced from the table. With this one bet I can save Makri and rescue the Ocean Storm for Turai. Or I could lose everything. My straight run is a good hand. Horm's might be better. I could back out, escape with the loss of just a few hundred gurans. I wonder if Horm is bluffing. I can't tell. I take a sip of my excellent beer and think for a few moments.
I remember once when I was fighting as a mercenary away in the south, the captain of our company tried to force me out of a game by betting 100 gurans on a pair of 2s. One hundred gurans was all the money I had in the world and I'd had to fight hard and long to earn it. I covered his bet. I lost. I ended up fighting for six months as a mercenary and I was worse off than when I started. Gurd had to buy me food on the way home, and it was lucky he was with me or I'd have starved to death in some far-off land.
I start sliding my money across, pushing each ragged bundle of coins in one after the other. It takes me a few moments to count out the seven thousand. I stare at Horm.
"So, what do you have?"
"The Ocean Storm isn't yours to gamble," comes a voice, familiar but not entirely normal. It's Sarin, looking quite crazy. She's pointing a crossbow, illegal inside the city walls, but still her favourite weapon. From the wild look in her eyes I'd say she was deep in the grip of the fever. As a powerful Sorcerer in an alien land, Horm is undoubtedly protected by some powerful spells. But I don't know how safe he is. A full-size crossbow at such a short distance is a very deadly weapon. At this range the bolt would go right through a normal man and through the man behind him as well. I've seen it happen, and I wouldn't want to be the third man standing behind them either. I wouldn't lay much money on Horm's spells saving him from harm.
Before anyone can move, Sarin fires the crossbow. As soon as she releases the string, I jerk my head towards Horm, expecting to see him driven back from the table, but instead I find that Moolifi has raised her hand and caught the bolt, which is quite impossible. No one can catch a crossbow bolt in mid-flight; you can't even see it in the air. There are a few gasps from around the room. I turn towards Moolifi.
"Are you by any chance another Sorcerer in disguise?"
"I am," says Moolifi.
"I'm guessing Deeziz the Unseen?"
"Then you have guessed correctly," says Moolifi.
"Ridiculous," cries Horm. "Deeziz isn't a woman."
"I assure you I am. Though it's suited me till now to hide myself with veils and sorcery."
All around the tavern chairs are tumbling over as Lisutaris and her fellow Sorcerers leap to their feet. They're not the only ones. Captain Rallee is already upright, a baffled expression on his face as the shocking news that he's been dating the most famous Sorcerer in the Orcish lands sets in.
I turn towards Lisutaris.
"You see? I told you Deeziz was in the city."
But Lisutaris isn't listening to me. She's already speaking a spell. I get myself out of the way quickly but Deeziz remains in her chair. She appears quite untroubled. She raises one hand and moves it a few inches. There's a sort of ripple in the air, and nothing more.
"You can't harm me," says Deeziz. "I've negated your sorcery."
"We'll see about that," growls Coranius the Grinder, and lets loose a powerful bolt. Or tries to. The shaft of purple lightning that flies from his hand travels no further than a few inches before dissipating into the air.
"You are wasting your time," says Deeziz. "I am more powerful than any of you."
"I doubt it," says Lisutaris.
"Whether you doubt it or not, it's true."
Deeziz the Unseen rises gracefully to her feet.
"I spent ten years on a mountaintop while you attended parties and balls, Mistress of the Sky. I took my skills to new heights while Sorcerers in Turai cast horoscopes for princes. You doubt my power? Me? The Sorcerer who made you fall sick and sapped your strength?"
"The Sorcerer who fooled me into thinking she was a singer from Nioj!" roars Captain Rallee.
I can see why he's upset. It was hardly civilised of Deeziz to trick him. If we get out of this alive, it's not going to do his reputation in Twelve Seas any good at all.
"Disguising yourself as a beautiful woman when all the time you're a foul Orc!" continues the Captain.
Deeziz looks slightly pained.
"That's uncalled for, Captain. I wouldn't say I was foul."
She waves her hand again, and the Human disguise drops from her features. Her skin darkens, her hair turns black, her features become a little stronger. She looks at me.
"Do you think I'm unattractive?"