-scratched, at least, and probably not too inconveniently
-while carrying Coinspinner in the thick of a ferocious battle. Well, maybe that light scratch had somehow been lucky for the man who was to rise from commoner to prince-maybe it had even brought him his exalted rank. Anyhow, fate, working through the Sword of Chance, had brought Mark out of obscurity into a great position in the end, hadn’t it? He, Kebbi, was ready to accept a light wound for a similar result. The gods knew he’d already had some bad ones for much less reward.
One of the younger loungers was coming toward Kebbi now, indicating with a servile smile that he was ready to act as groom for this obvious gentleman-soldier. And now, from somewhere inside the building, a villainous-looking landlord materialized to wonder aloud if the new arrival was seeking food and lodging.
“I’ll take a drink first,” Kebbi told the man. “Ale, if you have it. And some care for my mount. After that, we’ll see about the rest.” He was thinking that, magically protected as he was, he’d rather take his chances sleeping in the open at trailside than endure the bugs and noise and stench that were undoubtedly provided to every guest at this inn along with his room-or his share of floor space. The Sword’s power would doubtless keep him from being murdered as long as he slept with it at his side; but he doubted whether Coinspinner’s activity would condescend to reach so far into the inconsequential as to protect its owner from all vermin.
Surprisingly, the beer brought to him was pleasantly chilled, and its taste not all that bad. By the time Kebbi had swallowed a third of his first mug, a game of chance involving dice was beginning to get under way around one of the outdoor tables positioned in front of the ramshackle building. A worn blanket, once issued in someone’s army, had been smoothed over the table’s rough wooden surface, and on this cloth the dice were dancing. Kebbi had hardly turned his gaze in that direction before several of the players invited him, with false heartiness, to take part.
Kebbi’s first impulse was to refuse-ordinarily he didn’t think of himself as a gambler. But then, this would hardly be gambling, would it? And in truth he was very short of coin.
When the invitation was repeated, he nodded his head in acceptance. As he moved to take a seat on one of the curved benches that ringed the table, he noted that some of the players were aiming curious glances at the black hilt of his Sword.
“Unburden yourself, why don’t you, stranger, and sit down.”
Acknowledging the invitation with a smile, Kebbi shifted the burden of Coinspinner into a comfortable position. He rubbed the sheath of his weapon familiarly, with one hand. “It brings me luck,” he told the company, and saw their answering grins. No one alluded to his Sword again. He wondered if any of them could possibly have recognized it for what it was. Certainly no one here would think it odd that a stranger playing in this game would want to keep his weapons handy. Perhaps, he realized suddenly, one or more of his fellow players were also using some kind of gambling magic. Well, let them try.
As might have been expected from the general appearance of the company, there was as yet no great amount of money in evidence on the blanket-covered tabletop, where now the landlord, bending over carefully, was setting down a pair of flickering and flaring lamps. The table itself was wobbly-as Kebbi had also expected-and groaned and tilted whenever someone leaned on it. The local rules, as the landlord now proclaimed, required the dice on each throw to be bounced off the rectangular base of a lamp- which lamp the thrower used was his own choice-an ancient and reasonably effective prescription against mundane manipulation.
With Kebbi sitting in, there were now six participants in the game. The remaining male loungers and the women- who for the most part remained somewhat more distant- formed a casual audience. From among the women there came the desultory sound of tambourine and drum, and eventually two of the least repulsive of them began to dance. None of the men paid much attention to the show.
When the dice came around to Kebbi, he cast them out casually, taking care only that they should strike the base of the nearest lamp. He won his first throw.
On his second throw, which followed immediately, he won again.
According to the commonly accepted rules of this game, he now had the option of letting the dice pass on, and so he chose to do.
The play went around the table, others winning or losing in their turns. So far only trivial amounts were being wagered. The rules were somewhat complicated, but every soldier knew them, and every bandit and wastrel as well.
Betting on every throw was not required. So far Kebbi had made no losing bet-he doubted it would be possible for him to do so, as long as he had Coinspinner strapped on-and the modest winnings on his first two throws remained intact.
Still, he could not manage to develop any great enthusiasm for the game. No matter what happened, Kebbi was sure, he was not going to win any important amount of money here, not from these poor-looking men. But luck had led him to this inn; and doubtless Fortune, as directed by his Sword, had some great plan for him that started in this inauspicious way. Well then, let Fortune indicate to him what she wanted him to do next.
At last he drained his mug-it had been refilled only once-set it down on the edge of the blanket with a decisive thump, and got to his feet. “Well, gentlemen,” he announced cheerfully, “the road waits for me.”
His announcement was greeted with unanimous scowls around the table. “Not yet it don’t,” a large man grumbled immediately.
“That’s right,” chimed in another. “How ’bout giving us the chance to get some of our money back?”
Kebbi, who had been half expecting such protests, had already decided in the interests of peace to give in to them the first time they were offered. The next time matters would be different, and no one could say he hadn’t given them a chance to recoup their trivial losses. Perhaps when the protesters had lost more, they would be willing enough to see his back.
“As you wish,” he said, shrugging, and resumed his seat.
“This time,” announced the physically largest of his adversaries in a challenging voice, “we use my dice.”
“That’s all right.”
A few moments later, the owner of the crooked, probably magical dice was staring at them in disbelief. His pet artifacts had obviously betrayed him; whatever spell or other trick he’d used had been overridden as if it did not exist. The pattern of the pips represented a very ordinary combination, but obviously it was not a pattern the owner had expected from these particular dice on one in a million throws.
And naturally it was a pattern that won for Kebbi yet again.
A series of muttered remarks among the locals, only partially audible to the stranger, revealed that their opinions had now begun to differ sharply. One faction was definitely ready to let the over lucky stranger go his way in peace. But another faction, fast becoming dominant, was entertaining quite different ideas.
The biggest of the local men stood up. Glowering at Kebbi, he proclaimed: “We don’t need any wizards in this game.”
The Culmian shook his head. “I should think your friends would pay more heed to your protest-if it didn’t come from a man who brought crooked dice into the game.”
As he finished speaking, Kebbi pushed back from the table and stepped free of the encumbering bench. From that position he backed away, intending to get his back near one of the scrawny trees in the inn yard. Not that he doubted the power that protected him, but somehow he saw no need to make things unreasonably difficult.
One or two players remained at the table, waiting for the interruption to be over. The rest of them came after Kebbi, unhurriedly, methodically. Now they were beginning to surround him, and some of their hands were reaching toward weapons. Their proposed victim had his right hand on the black hilt of his own blade, though he’d not actually drawn it yet.
There was a pause. So far the air of confidence displayed by the stranger was holding the others back. But none of them seemed to recognize a Sword, and Kebbi understood that in a matter of moments things were going to get really ugly.
Before the storm could break, there came an interruption.
Kebbi, his attention warily on his fellow players, was among the last to notice the arrival of a tall and handsome man, who now appeared silently, standing at the edge of the firelight, with a shadowy and much smaller attendant poised just behind him. It was as if the two of them had just arrived by walking-there had been no sight or sound of any animals they might have ridden-along the lightless road. Coinciding with the arrival of the pair, the moon emerged from behind a fragmentary cloud, and in the change of light the two figures took on a spectral look.