The impact was all he could have wished. Though they might scornfully disdain involvement with such mundane matters, none knew better than the Lords of Teq how many were kept employed to ensure their affluence, through what different and varied skills. To bet one servant was occasionally a last-resort gesture after a bad night; to bet fifty at one go was unprecedented.
Captain Achoreus chortled at the dismay which overcame the visiting lords, and nudged Torquaida in the fleshless ribs. “The greatest winner!” he murmured, and signaled for another mug of wine.
Yet, when the dominoes were dealt, the Star of Eve fell to Lord Nusk, and only the Inmost Planet to Lord Fellian.
Lord Nusk, who was a fat man with a round bald pate fringed with black, grinned from ear to ear and rubbed his enormous paunch. Scowling, Lord Fellian trembled and made challenge to Lord Yuckin at the same game.
Lord Yuckin, thin and gaunt, eyes blank behind lenses of white crystal, named as much gold as a particular man might carry, and won, and challenged back, and Lord Fellian staked the other fifty servants.
Whereupon he displayed the chief prize of shen fu, the Crown of Stars, and mocked Lord Yuckin’s petty deal of Planets Conjoined.
A few minutes later, on a hopping toad, he won back from Lord Nusk the former fifty servants, and again from Lord Yuckin a fresh batch, including three skilled armorers that lord could ill afford to lose, and beyond that a farm in the Dale of Vezby, and a whole year’s vintage of sparkling wine, and three trade-galleys with complete crews, and then from Lord Nusk the High Manor of Coper’s Tor, with the right to make a celebrated ewe’s-milk cheese according to a secret recipe; then lost for five short minutes the Marches of Gowth with all four fortresses and the Shrine of Fire, but won them back on a spin of the four-part wheel and along with them the Estate of Brywood, the Peak of Brend, and the territory from Haggler’s Mound to Cape Dismay.
Securely positioned now, he commenced the calculated process of attrition that he had long dreamed of, the process which ultimately would reduce his rivals to penury: a cook who knew how to make sorbets without ice, a kitchen enchanter who could produce strawberries in winter, a charmer who could bring game from barren ground by playing a whistle, an eight-foot-tall swordsman, champion of the last public games…
Torquaida might have grown harried trying to keep track of the winnings and match what was in hand against what remained to the rival lords. By a supreme effort he remained in control, always remembering to send a clerk to inform Lord Fellian when a stake was unworthy, to say for example that this concubine had suffered the smallpox and was scarred, or that guardsman had a palsy and his sword-arm shook, or that coffer of coins bore a geas, and touched by the winner would turn to pebbles.
Lord Fellian awarded him free of feoff the Estate of Brywood as reward for his valuable support, and laughed joyously night-long at the disarray of his opponents.
Far down below that ringing laughter, cast back by the high-vaulted roof of the banquet-hall, reached the ears of those miserable deportees from Wantwich who were still awake. Some were asleep-on straw if they were lucky, on hard flags if they were not… but at least asleep.
One who was wakeful even on a mattress of eider-feathers, draped in a diaphanous gown of finest lawn embroidered with seed-pearls, was the girl Viola, surrounded by other female pleasure-objects destined for Lord Fellian’s delight. At a footstep on the floor beside her couch, she started and peered into dark, seeing only a black form outlined on greater blackness.
“Is someone there?” she whimpered.
“It is I,” said the traveler.
“How-how did you get in?” Viola sat up. “I tried the doors-and the windows, too. And all are locked!”
The traveler forbore to explain.
After a moment, Viola began to weep. “Go away!” she commanded. “I never want to see you again! You did this awful thing to me, and I hate you!”