His playing companions were Wulz, a grizzled mate on a pirate ship from Dharijor; Eleus, a slave trader from the Purple Towns; Lodz, a one-eyed, wily crewman from Cadsandria; and Holym, a local man who affected the dress of Filkhar. The company was, to begin with, taciturn, but, as the game progressed and the ale flowed, they became more amenable and voluble. Adralat only sipped at his drinks, taking his time, and taking frequent sips of water to counter the effects.
‘You say you come to buy slaves?’ Eleus said, during the third hand. ‘Did you bid today?’
‘Buy was probably the wrong word,’ Adralat said, and played a Shield card onto Eleus’s Sword. ‘My Lord bid me to visit the market at Ryfel to see the quality of the merchandise first.’
‘And which lord do you serve?’ Lodz inquired, fixing Adralat with his good eye. ‘Your accent is… curious.’
‘I serve Baron Meliadus of Kroiden,’ Adralat lied. ‘A fine and upstanding individual with an impeccable taste and style.’
Wulz played a Horse to seal the trick. ‘Never heard of him. Kroiden, you say? One of the Unmapped Kingdoms?’
Adralat smiled. ‘Most certainly unmapped,’ he said. ‘ He watched as Holym played his Empress; a good move, but premature. Adralat held both the Emperor and the Knave.
‘What did you think of the stock?’ Lodz asked. Adralat shrugged.
‘Some nice specimens. That dark skinned warrior took my eye, but the finest were the final three.’ The group grunted and murmured their agreement.
‘Dragon-kin,’ Holym said, shaking his head. ‘Some bastard got lucky and rich as a result.’
‘And, I was most intrigued by the procession from the manse,’ Adralat said, noting the Knave Eleus produced, ‘The governor?’
‘Boorg,’ Eleus said. ‘And his flunkies.’
‘Who was the tall, thin man?’
Holym answered. ‘That’s Nhagren, Boorg’s cousin. He runs the city. Boorg just gets fat, gets fucked and fucks the city. Its Nhagren who administers things.’ He played a Coin; a bluff, perhaps.
‘The ugly one in the human cloak,’ Wulz said, ‘is Malagan. A sorcerer,’ He spat the word. Lodz passed his turn and so Adralat played the Knave he held. It trumped Eleus’s and would secure him the trick.
‘Are you sure you’ve never played Nine Fingered Whist before?’ Lodz said, gruffly.
‘Never,’ Adralat said, ‘But in Kroiden, I played Contract Bridge with Baron Meliadus. I was taught it by one Omar Sharif and it shares some similarities with this game.’ He scooped the cards and his winnings. ‘My deal I believe?’
Adralat dealt the cards and spoke whilst doing so. ‘I’ve seen this Nhagren here in the inn,’ he said nonchalantly. Lodz answered.
‘He has a thing for one of the whores. Worships her, he does. Gets very jealous when other men hire her.’
‘He had one of her customers taken to the manse,’ Wulz added. ‘Last anyone ever saw of him. Until his face ended-up on Malagan’s cloak.’
Adralat studied his hand. Not good. Too many low-value cards, but a couple of face cards that would make for a fine bluff. ‘Yes, you said this fellow was a magician.’
‘He’s no magician,’ Lodz said. ‘He’s a sorcerer. Worships the murder gods of Chaos. Nasty bastard.’
‘Nice dog though,’ Adralat said. Lodz sneered.
‘Dog? Demon, more like. I’ve heard it can talk.’
Wulz played a weak first card: not surprising, Adralat thought; he always did so. ‘I hadn’t realised sorcery was so strong in these parts.’
No one said anything as the trick played through and Eleus won it. Then he spoke.
‘I got invited to one of Boorg’s gladiatorial contests once, about four years ago,’ he said, quietly. ‘He had many strong slave warriors assembled in that arena. Malagan walked in, naked, towing a slave girl behind him. He took her there, to the crowd’s roar, and then slit her throat. Then, he let her blood drain into the sand whilst he carved some drawings into the stuff using her blood.’ He paused and took a long, deep slug of his ale. ‘Then he started chanting. The girl’s body rose and all the flesh dropped from her, like a summer gown to a lover, and all that was there were the bones. Upright.’ Adralat noticed he swallowed hard, recalling the scene. ‘Then, the blood in the sand boiled and rose up, clothing her. When it was finished she was… something else. A monster. Twice the size of the girl, and with twice the arms.’ He drained his cup. ‘When his chanting was finished there was a creature eight feet high and fanged and taloned. The warriors were set against it. It… slaughtered them, one by one, in… hideous ways. I remember the crowd baying for it. Revelling in it. Boorg clapped and cheered. Those warriors sent to face it soiled themselves and wept for mercy but it gave none. None. More ale.’
Adralat poured it.
‘When the thing was finished it… ate the remains. Like a starving beggar at a banquet. Bones, brains, all. Nothing left, save for the blood. When the thing had finished, it just crumbled back into the sand, leaving more blood and the girl’s bones. Malagan collected up the bones in a sack and bowed to the crowd.’
Wulz made a noise and laid down a card even though the energy of the game was now gone. ‘I sense you hated what you saw,’ he said. Eleus stood. He was shaking.
‘No.’ He said, resolutely. ‘I loved it. I loved every second of it. I bayed and screamed and delighted with the rest. I enjoyed it.’ He took his cup and drained it again. Adralat watched him carefully. ‘And, every night since, I have dreamed of what I saw. Time and time again. Horrible dreams where I was that girl or one of the warriors. Nightmares. Horrible. Malagan….’
Adralat collected the cards together. His face betraying nothing. ‘Do you still dream, friend Eleus?’ The look in Eleus’s eyes confirmed the question. Adralat nodded.
‘I can help you,’ he said.
To be continued…