"I'm looking for a card game," Saleetha told the barman. "My grandfather told me that haucha is the game of choice in these parts."
The barman assessed her calmly. "If you're not after high stakes or card sharps, I'd suggest the table in the far corner under the punctured shield."
Saleetha looked and there was, indeed, a long shield hanging high on the wall with a grey fletched arrow sticking out of it. The table directly under it had three men at it, all of them sitting with their backs to the wall. "They look like they could use another two or three players for a good game," she agreed. "Is it the custom here to take over a round of drinks by way of introduction?"
"In these parts folk are more likely to worry that a stranger bearing drinks has dosed the booze," the barman told her. "We still get impressmen in about here."
Saleetha paused in picking up her cider and turning. "You do? The Navy can't pay the crews they've got, and the Foot Regiments are reducing - all the 3rd Battalions have been disbanded. There are a lot of unhappy men about on the roads."
"Never was the Navy or the Foot Regiments in these parts." He nodded for emphasis. "You should be careful, and only take your drinks from me or the waitresses."
"I'll keep that in mind, thank you." Saleetha gave him a friendly nod and went over to the table of three men in the corner.
She would have placed all three as being more than ten years older than her, probably fifteen, and all wore well-tailored clothing in mostly darker shades. It was also well-worn clothing. Their cuffs weren't fraying but the signs of wear and tear were there. Two of them had noticeable silver threads in their pulled-back dark hair, and none of them were pale from lack of sun.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," Saleetha was smiling and cradling her cider as she spoke, frankly hoping that it would excuse her from bowing or curtseying. "I'm hoping for a game of cards and the barman suggested that you might be open to another hand joining you. My grandfather told me that haucha was the game of choice in these parts."
The three looked at each other, conducting a conversation of sorts with facial expressions that Saleetha could see but not entirely read. It was the one with his back to the corner who spoke, "We are, and it is. Are small stakes good enough for you?"
"As long as small stakes are copper part-pence, I am," agreed Saleetha.
"Pull up a chair," said the man on her left, who had intertwined silver snakes, swallowing each other's tails, embroidered on his waist coat. "If we start playing we should get one or two more to join us after a hand. Do you mind using Ulfman's cards?" He indicated the man across the table from him.
"Not at all." Saleetha pulled up a chair and settled herself at the table, her mug in front of her but out of the way of play. "I'm Sal Grimsdower, out of Runhaven."
The man opposite her nodded. "Runhaven's brimming with Grimsdowers. I'm Bailed."
Ulfman pulled a silk wrapped block out of his pocket and unwrapped the cards in the middle of the table. "You know who I am because Rais introduced me. Let's cut to see who shuffles - widdershins around the table." He lifted the top cards off the deck and laid them face up in front of him on the table.
When the cutting was done, Saleetha had been last and left a few cards on the silk in the middle, it was Rais who'd had the high card with the Bishop of Flowers, so it was he who dealt.
Saleetha's first hand was all flowers and hearts, with a single blade card. The Ace of Rubies, out of Bailed's hand, had set the first trump of the game so she spent her turns trying to build a winning hand run instead of trying for tricks she couldn't win. She failed and Ulfman won the pot.
Another two men joined the table for the next game, leaving Saleetha to shuffle her chair around so that she sat between Rais and a red-haired man with his beard plaited in two thin braids and wearing a gunmetal coloured waistcoat under his charcoal coat. The other man had brown stars tattooed around the finger knuckles of each hand. They played two more games, the star-handed man won the first, Bailed won the third, and Saleetha hadn't lost more than she could afford.
Then it was time to change the deck, if there was another deck at the table. When Ulfman voiced the query, Saleetha admitted, "I have one," and let the man gather up his cards and tie them away in their silk covering.
When the table was clear, Saleetha pulled the purple-indigo wrapped deck from her coat pocket and laid it as close to the centre of the table as she could reach, and opened it up. She cut the cards first, and as they went widdershins around the table it was clear that the deck was marked with dried fluids.
It was Bailed who asked, "What happened?"
"The nice, new, benevolent governor decided to clean house, so to speak," replied Saleetha as Ulfman gathered up the cards to deal. "Mirenpreese, Fartell, and Hanglorn Market have been levelled. There isn't a building or a man bearing the five black stars still standing in all of Runhaven." She paused. "I can't guarantee that I'm not being trailed to see where I go and who I talk to, but this was my only chance to pass early word of what happened."
Star-hands said quietly, "We thank you for the news. The bands and brotherhoods will hear it. We are sorry for your losses."
"Thank you." Saleetha's words were quiet as Ulfman dealt. "At least I have not yet lost myself."
This is now followed by "Wing It".
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