∴ A Jack or Better ∴
For all the bustle of the alehouse, a silence opresses the low table by the back door. There two men sit across from each other unspeaking, barely moving, cold stares trained on one another as they finger dog-eared cards.
Their tankards are long past empty, but the tavern keeper’s daughter knows better than to bring them more. She knows their kind – shrewd men, hard men, consumed by their dice and their cards. The trick is to slake their thirst early, when the game is still fun and the coin flows freely, and to steer well clear in the later rounds.
Instead she hovers behind the makeshift bar, idly rubbing a rag over copper mugs as she keeps an unassuming eye on them.
The larger man with his back to the wall; she’s seen him here before. A mercenary if there ever was one, all boiled leather and riveted rings, jaw sinking into broad shoulders with little sign of a neck. A man of few words, but liable to rage if the odds aren’t in his favour.
The smaller man, now he’s a new one. Younger than the other, with auburn hair tucked into a neat queue at the nape of his neck. He is dressed in fine clothes – not the ostentatious sort that would get him mugged here, but sombre and well-cut with slight flashes of lace at the cuffs and collar. A dandy, the tavern keeper’s daughter thinks with a smile.
Her close attention has drawn that of others, so it is with a collective intake of breath that the drinkers watch the mercenary lay his cards down. Crimson diamonds grace the gnarled wood. A strong hand.
Eyes now turn to the dandy, with all pretence of indolence gone. This next hand could be the difference between a round of drinks and an all-out brawl. Already some are sliding their hands to their belts, patting reassuringly at the knives hanging there.
With a shrug and a wry grin, the younger man slaps his cards onto the table. Four aces. And a jack of hearts.
“Cheat!” the mercenary cries, rising to his feet and pushing the table hard into his opponent. “Villain! Knave!”
The drinkers slide down from their stools, assuming a rough formation between the bar and the would-be brawlers. Tankards are emptied, all the better to be weaponised. The tavern keeper’s daughter sighs as she reaches for the rolling pin.
But quick as a wink, the auburn-haired rogue is on his feet, reaching for the dagger at his back. The tavern keeper’s daughter catches just a glimpse of a red-gloved hand encased in black heart-shaped bars before the blade is thrust point-down into the table, scattering coins and yellowed cards.
The larger man looks down, eyes wide and mouth agape. The blade is sunk deep between his middle and index fingers. A hair to the left or right, and his days with a bow would be over. Shaking slightly, he turns his gaze back to his opponent.
“Another round,” the Jack of Hearts says. “I’m feeling generous.”