Sunday, January 24, 2016

Not Even Not Zen 28: A Bandit Accountant, 4.5

A Bandit Accountant

Chapter Two Pair
Scene Five: A Foolish Gamble

“Hey! Math teacher!” 

Denario turned when he heard the shout. He probably shouldn't have done that but there was something about Yannick that was hard to resist. Maybe it was his enthusiasm. Anyway, Denario reasoned, he didn't know anyone else in town besides Yannick and Moritz. And he had a couple of hours to kill before he could get a result from the wizard.

The gap-toothed man waved from his seat next to a low, stone table. He and four other men crouched stoop-shouldered over their playing cards. They clutched the red-backed rectangles close to their chests, much like the gamblers Denario had met in Ziegeburg. Denario's gaze naturally drifted to a place across the street. Sure enough, there was a sign in block letters reading POLEIZI. There really was a card game across the street from the guard house.

Denario didn't have a plan. He had just eaten a wonderful but early lunch in the stable, right out of his saddlebags. There had been two different wedges of cheese, apples, beef jerky, what might have been rabbit jerky, and a skin of beer. He'd fed his horse the apple cores and she apparently loved him for it. She'd licked his hand.

On the down side, Denario hadn't liked the way the stable master kept peering over at him. At least the man had disappeared from time to time. He had multiple visitors, one of them a pickle merchant with three mules. That kept him out of Denario's business.

“Come on, teach. Take a break from the math and have some fun.”

“But card games are math,” Denario insisted. The opportunity to show them what elementary arithmetic could do felt appealing. It had been a long time since he'd taught. He strolled up to the table, prepared to give them a numbers lesson, although not to actually play cards.

“Seat's open,” grumbled the oldest, baldest man. His gaze flicked across the tree stump to his left. Denario supposed that was a designated spot since only the bald man had an actual chair. Everyone else rested on oak stumps.

The fellow flashed a grin and Denario could see he was missing most of his front teeth. Either he was even older than he looked or that was the state of dentistry here. On his right side hunkered a withered-looking fellow in brown robes. He had a pair of chisels on his belt, so he was probably a carpenter or wheelwright. Next came a soldier or someone who looked close enough to one. His neck was thick, he wore a hard leather jerkin, and he was covered in crude, blue tattoos. Denario recognized his face, too. The soldier had been one of the horsemen who had arrived at the Hogsburg gate this morning.

Denario's gaze came back to Yannick for a moment but then he noticed something odd. The tattoos on the soldier's forearm looked similar to those on Yannick's. In fact, the largest ones were identical. They both showed spears crossed over what appeared to be a giant crown.

“Roll up your sleeves and have a seat, Furtim,” Yannick said.

“What are the stakes?” Denario put his hands on his hips.

“Half-penny limit per hand.”

“Okay, fine.” He pulled on the stump, intending to scoot it out. But it was heavier than it looked. He nearly pulled himself over. The other men smiled.

After he took his spot, Denario started to roll up his sleeves. But a breeze came up. He shivered. It reminded him of how cold it had gotten during the night. He decided to stay covered.

“It's still a bit chilly,” he said.

The muscular man chuckled. Yannick grunted. 

“How can ye be cold?” he asked incredulously. “It's springtime.”

“I grew up in Oggli, next to the sea. We don't get these frosty nights or, for that matter, these skin-burning days like you do here in the high lands.”

“True enough,” said the old man as if he didn't much care. “So do ye know how to play Glaistig's Fingers?”

“Is that the one that starts with four cards down?”

“Right.” The toothless man shuffled the deck one more time. “Like goat hooves. I think ye've got it.”

In fact, Denario used to play this game with the other apprentices, back in Oggli. Winkel had disapproved of them gambling but in such a relaxed, boys-will-be-boys way that everyone soon came to understand how much he would tolerate. Winkel frowned over the money lost, particularly if it was more than fifty pence, but he said repeatedly that the math practice was good for everyone. At any rate, he let the apprentices borrow his solitaire decks twice a week and made them a gift of their own deck, a red and yellow one with the Oggli and Angrili Accounting Seal on it, for a group present one holiday.

Games of chance turned out to be the best way for Curo to learn fractions. His mind really turned on full force when spending money was on the line. He'd been the first player to introduce bluffing. Since he was a bit older and could read the younger fellows well, he knew exactly when to raise the pot. It didn't matter what the others suspected. The force of his personality made them give up.

“Winner deals,” said the old man as he started. “If no one wins, deck passes to the left. Costs nothing to see your down cards. Bids are a lead ring apiece after that. Limit, like I said, is a half-penny total. I'm Dolph. That's Jarl.”

He jutted his thumb to the probable carpenter in the brown robe.

“Gerhardt and Yannick, ye know.” He finished his deal as if he'd been tossing down from this deck for twenty years, which maybe he had.

Of course, Denario didn't know Gerhardt beyond recognizing his face but he nodded. Gerhardt inclined his head in return. Yan seemed to be sulking for some reason.

Denario lost a lead ring on the first hand. He'd been dealt a 2, a 4, and a 5, nearly the worst possible unmatched low cards. On the first turn from the four center cards, Dolph had showed them a knight. Jarl's eyes had twinkled. So Denario had folded and watched. Dolph chuckled at that.

He's really good at reading faces, Denario realized. He's been taking money from Jarl and men like him for years.

Sure enough, Jarl won with three knights to beat Yannick's tens and sixes. Dolph stayed in until the cards were all shown but, unlike the others, he seemed to know the outcome already. It felt as if he had decided to give Jarl some of his money.

On the next hand, Jarl dealt Denario a three, a duke, and a goddess. The first card up was Aeolian, the wind goddess. In these local decks, the goddess cards meant figures of Naakia, Obscura, Aeolian, or Glaistig. Denario held Glaistig as a down card so he knew he had to stay in. But he bid only a single lead ring to avoid scaring off anyone else.

The rest of the turns revealed a seven, the goddess Obscura, and a king. Everyone had good hands, of course, but Denario knew his was the best and, sure enough, he won nearly two pence from the group. Only Dolph dropped out at the end. Somehow, despite Denario's casual manner, Dolph had known the outcome again.

“Thank Mel,” Denario mumbled anyway. It was good to give thanks to the god Melcurio after winning his first pot of the game.

Denario lost two rings on the next hand. He dealt himself trash cards and he was relieved to see them because he didn't want to be a big winner, not during his first game in a small town. He cursed his luck as he won the next two hands in a row. It took eight hands for Yannick to take a pot, finally, and he did it when the up cards showed two dukes and he had another. Six more hands went by before Gerhardt finally won. The big fellow took the pot twice in a row. Denario finally relaxed.

The next hour of play went by so fast that Denario almost felt like he was back in Oggli. He went down by two pence at one point but mostly kept to the positive side of the ledger. So did Dolph. Denario got the impression that the old man could start playing in earnest at any moment but the stakes weren't worth it to him. Even the losers, Gerhardt and Yan, didn't seem upset. The amounts they lost were affordable.

Then came a strange hand. Yannick had won just before, so he was the dealer. That meant Denario was nearly the last to bet, a good position. And Yan had rolled down the sleeves of his yellowish shirt. Whatever he said about the weather being fine, he felt the breeze, too. Without his tattoos showing, he looked less like a rascal and more like a farmhand in brown overalls.

The first unusual event occurred after the cards-down bidding. Denario held the goddess of rings, Aeolian, and a pair of 8s in rubies and rings. That felt fine. Everyone else stayed in, too, and Yan reached to turn over a center card. But he picked up his own cards instead and turned them face up. He yanked them back in a flash but it was too late. Everyone had seen the 2 of ringlets, 7 of rubies, and 9 of ringlets.

“Damn it,” he cursed. The other men laughed except for Dolph. The old fellow pursed his lips as he considered saying something. Denario thought Dolph might make Yannick pay a fine since he'd made a mistake as dealer. That was a rule they had. But Yan had made the mistake with his own cards. Dolph tapped his lips and kept his peace.

The second strange event took place more slowly but it was more important than a mistake by the dealer.

I'm in,” said Gerhardt after the first up card, which was Faschnaught, the king of rubies. Jarl and Dolph stayed in. Denario's pair of 8s were still good plus he had a goddess, so he considered raising the pot. That seemed greedy. Anyway, from the grins of Jarl and Gerhardt, they were holding royal cards, probably kings. So Denario tossed in his lead piece like everyone else.

Dolph hesitated with his bid in hand. He seemed to considered dropping out right then. He'd noticed their reactions, too. But he stayed in. Denario worried about those kings but it was only a tenth-penny to stay, after all. Then the next card up was Obscura, goddess of rubies. That did it for Denario. There were only two cards up and he already had two pair, goddesses and 8s.

“Red again,” said Yannick.

That was the first sign of oddness. Denario glanced around the table. Gerhardt and Dolph didn't seem happy to have two red cards up, although their color wasn't important. It was strange, though, that Yannick had accidentally shown three red cards, Denario held three more, and the first two up cards were red. The chances of that were only 1 in 128 deals. More importantly, it made it likely that the next card up would be one of the blue suits, swords or maces.

“Ssh,” hissed Jarl.

The carpenter's irritation made it apparent that he was holding red cards, too. That wasn't incredible by any means but it affected the odds again. If Jarl held three ringlets or three rubies, he was closer to a flush than Yannick.

“Who's in?” Yannick asked. Gerhardt tossed his bid into the center. So did Jarl, who had been waiting impatiently. 

Dolph sighed. He knew he was getting beat. His fingers found a lead piece from his stack but he held onto it. Then he tossed his cards down instead of his bid.

“I'm out,” he said.

Denario and Yannick stayed in to see the next card. 

“Huh.” The dealer turned over the 6 of rubies. The face up cards were all red, two rubies and one rings. Foolishly, Yan seemed pleased about it. Didn't he realize that he'd needed a ringlet card, not a ruby? Denario had needed it, too, for a flush. Yannick couldn't make a decent hand anymore, no matter what the last card revealed. At most, he'd have four of the same suit, not five.

“Ye wonder,” Gerhardt said, “Who has the highest flush? And can anyone beat that? I doubt it.”

“Don't worry,” Denario answered automatically. “The odds are way against it.”

“Mmm?” Gerhardt studied the red center cards. He didn't seem to be aware that Jarl probably held red but he knew that Yannick did. After a moment, he said, “Ye didn't deal, did ye?”

That was tantamount to accusing Denario of cheating somehow. But Yannick chuckled. So did Dolph. And Gerhardt didn't seem to mean anything much by it. He didn't even seem aware that Yan was out. He still thought his friend could make a flush in the next turn.

The only one not laughing was Jarl. His best hand included a pair of kings, probably, which was good but not good enough. Two pair happened pretty often with five players. So he wanted to get that flush. He must have held two ruby cards. That explained why he couldn't take his eyes off of the last center card awaiting its turn.

“I'll pass,” murmured Gerhardt.

“I'm in,” Jarl countered quickly. He added two rings. “Up to the half pence.”

Denario matched. He nearly choked when Yan matched, too. That was crazy. He had nothing, not even a deuce pair. There was no card that could make him beat the pair of kings he should have known that Jarl had.

For Jarl's part, if he had four rubies between his hand and center cards, the odds of him getting the suit he needed in that one card were, at best, seven out of forty-two. That was because Denario and Yan each had one of the suit, making six cards total already out of play. Taking six from the thirteen of the suit left seven. There were ten cards known, meaning that there were forty-two unknown. Seven chances out of forty-two worked out the same as one in six. Jarl had a slight chance, yes, but five times out of six, Denario would beat him.

“I'm done,” said Gerhardt. He must not have had anything to go with his kings. He pushed his cards into the discard pile with Dolph's.

“Ready?” said Yan as he reached for the last down card.

“Yer awfully sure about this, Furtim.” Jarl put his hand out to make Yan wait for a moment. He wagged his eyebrows at Denario. “Care to make a side wager? Half pence, like the limit.”

“Is that allowed?” Instinctively, Denario turned to Dolph.

The old man cracked a grin. “Sure. I'll hold 'em.”

“Okay. My half penny is on blue.”

“'Course. Mine's on red.”

So Denario and Jarl each gave a half penny to Dolph before the dealer turned over the last card. Which was blue, the 8 of swords.

“Wow.” Denario felt awed. With that 8, he would have beaten a flush anyway.

Dolph immediately scooted the pair of half-pennies over to Denario. When Jarl revealed his kings, goddess high, Gerhardt swore.

“Damn me. I had kings, goddess, duke. Should have stayed in.”

“No,” said Denario. He showed. “Eights over goddesses. Full boat.”

Gerhardt chuckled. Jarl and Yan cursed.

“Full boat?” cracked Dolph. “We call it a full house, here. But that's damn good. Tell me, why were ye so sure that blue card was coming up? I know it weren't even odds. But it weren't too far off.”

“Oh, but it was!” In a strange way, no question could have made Denario happier. “Can I show you? I mean, are we all agreed that this is a friendly game and I can teach the math?”

He checked Yannick's face for any signs of resentment. But he saw none. The others were a little suspicious but mostly they were plain curious. 

“Sure,” said Dolph. The other men echoed him. Someone, probably Yannick, murmured the phrase 'free math lesson' and then everyone was chuckling, even Jarl.

Dolph rose slowly to his feet. “Go on. We'll all draw in the dirt.”

Denario threw himself into it. In Ziegeberg, he hadn't needed any side jobs and, after he met Pecunia, he didn't have time for teaching. He'd forgotten how much he missed the wonderful sense of holiness that came from sharing his little discoveries about math.

As Dolph copied, he immediately began to argue about the number of cards per suit and how Denario had known. It was fun. He was laughing. Within a few minutes, so was Jarl. Gerhardt and Yannick were left scratching their heads as they tried to keep up.

All of the various gambling games, whether in dice, tiles, or cards, involved an understanding of odds. And odds were all really fractions, so Denario enjoyed working on them. With four suits in a deck, the odds of drawing the suit you wanted seemed to be one in four. But they weren't. If, in a five card draw, you held four of that suit in your hand, the odds nowhere near as good as that, only 8 in 47. Little factors like keeping track of how many of a suit or number had been played made a lot of difference to a careful player when calculating the odds of getting cards you wanted.

He could tell by Dolph's smile that he was making a friend. This wasn't like the gambling in Ziegeburg at all. In Hogsburg, everything was going right.

“Thank Mel,” he whispered as he momentarily thought of his escape from the larger town. But he'd done it. He'd had to defend himself from those Ziegeburg gamblers and he'd gotten lucky there, no doubt, but he'd managed. He was wanted man in Ziegeburg if for no other reason than the mayor feared that Denario would run to Baron Ankster with information on the mayor's tax fraud. And then there would be war.

Or would there? Would the baron really attack the town over that? It seemed a shame. Denario tried to tell himself that it wasn't his business. He'd fulfilled his contract. 

The death of the gamblers weighed on his mind but not for his soul's sake. He'd worried about Kurt ever since they'd parted ways. The boy would be home by now. He'd get over it, surely. He'd bury the shovels and hide everything else. He was a smart lad.

Denario had been careful not to wear the gambler's clothes in Hogsburg. He was as safe as he could be.

“So seven is to forty-two as one is to six,” he said as he finished his drawing. 

“By the gods!” Yannick fell to his knees in front of the dirt picture. “I see it now. It makes sense. Do you see it, Gerhardt?”

There was a scowl of concentration on the bigger man's face as he counted the lines Denario had drawn.

“Seven is to forty-two as one is to six!” Yannick shouted. He began repeating it. Gerhardt and Jarl joined in. Dolph laughed and tossed down the stone he'd used to draw.

As they chanted and laughed, Denario sat back and put his arms around his knees. He thanked Melcurio, the god of accounting, one more time. But at that moment he felt a hand on his shoulder. It gripped him hard enough to hurt.

“Yer nicked, chum,” said a steady voice.

Chapter Five, Scene One

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