WILD CARD

By Ian Nathaniel Cohen

Mia Ausa sighed as she looked over the paperwork in front of her. One expense report after another, all of them urgent, none of them affordable.

"This just isn't working out," she muttered to herself.

"Sorry?" she heard Nash say from behind her. Nash, like most men, dreaded hearing those words from a woman - especially one with whom he was romantically involved.

"I'm just looking over how much everything is going to cost to rebuild Vane," Mia said despondently. "We need new classroom buildings, dormitories and residences, a new library, equipment and tools, provisions...it's just too much. We've almost used up all of the contributions we received, and there's still so much left to do. Meanwhile, our students are living in tents like refugees, and we can't conduct our classes properly!"

Nash nodded his head in grim agreement; it had been almost a year since Vane had been destroyed by Ghaleon, and the rebuilding process had been going painfully slow. A few facilities were up and running, but Vane was still a long way off from completion. Contributions for rebuilding had been generous, there was no question about that, but it was nowhere near enough.

"Perhaps we should ask Jessica to help us prepare another charity banquet in Meribia?" Nash suggested. "Those have always brought in some cash."

"Maybe, but I'd hate to put her through all that trouble again," Mia said with another sigh. "Besides, it wouldn't make all that much of a difference. We need to get our hands on a lot of money, and soon. Our people can't keep living like this."

Nash went outside their tent to give Mia some space, looking morosely at the collection of tents and makeshift huts that now comprised the new Vane. He shared Mia's frustrations, and he really wanted to be able to help her in some way, both out of love for Mia, and reverence for Vane. Furthermore, it was his job as Premier of the city to keep things running, and part of those duties included getting Vane back on his feet.

However, none of the ideas he could think of seemed satisfactory. He was tired of imposing on friends and total strangers alike for handouts, and he couldn't think of any feasible get-rich-quick schemes. He cursed his helplessness, wishing he could think of a solution to Vane's money problems. If only there was some way he could...

Nash's thoughts were interrupted by a sudden shout. Nearby, he noticed several students clustered together on the grass, engaging in a game of cards. One of the players had obviously won a large hand, and she was eagerly gathering her winnings. Nash recognized the game as Royals, which had become quite popular over the past few years. He'd seen his fellow students play at all hours, something he had considered to be a waste of time when there was precious learning to be done or some errand on behalf of Ghaleon.

Nash continued to watch the game with growing interest when a thought suddenly occurred to him. It was a crazy idea, but it just might work...


"Nash!" Jessica exclaimed. "What're you doing here?"

"Hi, Jessica," Nash said, panting for breath as he stumbled through the doorway of the d'Alkirk mansion. He had ridden to Meribia as fast as he could, and he was more than a little fatigued. "Sorry to drop by unexpectedly, but it's urgent. Is Kyle around?"

"He's practicing in Dad's arena. Is everything okay?"

"Everything's fine," Nash said. "I just need his help with something."

Jessica's brow furrowed, not entirely convinced. "Well, c'mon in. Can I get you some water? You look like you need some."

"No, I'm fine, thank you." He took a few more deep breaths, finally recovering his composure. "How much longer will Kyle be working out?"

"We don't have to wait for him to finish," Jessica said with an odd smile. "It's not like he really needs the exercise. He's mostly just showing off in front of Dad's troopers."

Nash had few opportunities to visit the splendid d'Alkirk mansion in his lifetime, and every time, the opulence of the place managed to take him by surprise. Vane certainly had its share of majesty and splendor to it, but lacked the decadence of Governor Mel's mansion.

"How's your father doing?" Nash asked as they walked towards the arena.

"Pretty well. Still working on getting his armada built, although Althena knows why we need one. But I guess everybody needs a hobby. How are things in Vane?"

"Could be better," Nash responded with a shrug. He was reluctant to share Vane's money problems with Jessica, who had been more than generous when it came to raising money for Vane. He didn't want to come off as putting any sort of burden or guilt trip on her.

"Anything I can do to help? You know you just need to ask."

"You've been more than generous already, Jessica," Nash replied. "But I appreciate the offer."

They finally made their way to the arena, where Kyle was engaged in a series of fencing drills. Nash couldn't help being impressed at Kyle's skill and surprising grace with the blade, even a heavy bastard sword like the one he typically used.

"Kyle!" Jessica called out. "You've got company!"

"Hey, Nash," Kyle said as he wiped the perspiration from his brow. "What's going on?"

"I just need a quick favor from you," Nash replied, and he looked at Jessica uneasily. "Do you mind if I speak to Kyle privately?"

Jessica didn't look too happy with the idea, but nodded her head.

Kyle's eyes narrowed and he folded his arms. "So, what kind of favor are we talking about?"

"You know how to play Royals, right?"

Kyle laughed. "You kidding? My dad taught me how to play when I was old enough to walk! Everybody knows that game!"

"Almost everybody," Nash said awkwardly. "That's why I'm here, actually. I'd like you to teach me."

"You came all the way to Meribia for that? Anyone could teach you the rules. It's not like it's some big secret."

"Not just the rules," Nash said. "But also how to play like a professional, and tell me where I could find a real high-stakes game."

"Finding a big game is easy enough," Kyle said, frowning. "Learning to play like a pro...not so much. What's this about, anyway? Use up your allowance on hair-care stuff?"

"Funny," Nash grumbled. "Anyway, it's not about me. Vane needs money badly, we're having trouble getting donations, and I've imposed on our friends so many times that I'm embarrassed to ask. I want to earn some money, and I figured that if I were to maybe gamble and win some at cards, I could..."

"Forget it," Kyle interrupted, shaking his head. "You'd go broke before you even knew it."

Nash laughed. "Come on, it's just a card game. How hard can it be?"

"It's not just about knowing the rules, Nash," Kyle said. "It's about luck, which no amount of skill can help you with - but it does take skill, and it takes people years to learn it. And in a tournament, you'd be going up against seasoned pros who know what they're doing and who've been playing cards longer than you've been alive. Trust me. You don't stand a chance."

"But I have to give it a try," Nash insisted. "Vane is counting on me! Mia is counting on me, Kyle! I can't let her down! I have to do this for her and for Vane, and I need you to help me. Wouldn't you take a chance like this for Jessica?"

Kyle rolled his eyes. "Do they give lessons in how to be hokey in Vane, or are you just a natural? If you really need money that badly, Jess and I can help you out. Trying something like this, you're setting yourself up for a fall here."

Nash clenched his fists. "I'm tired of asking for charity from people, Kyle. I want to be able to help Mia through my own effort, earn my own way, and this is the only way I can think of. Does that make sense?"

Kyle thought for a moment, and then shrugged. "Ah, what the hell. I'll help you out. But I still say you're taking a hell of a risk."


A few moments later, Kyle and Nash were seated opposite from each other in the mansion's dining room, each with a stack of coins in front of them.

"Alrighty," Kyle said as he shuffled the cards. "Now, a deck of cards has four suits: stars, scrolls, pearls, and herbs. For each suit, you've got eleven number cards, each one worth its number value, and five Hero cards: bandits, knights, priestesses, mages, and Dragons."

"So mages rank higher than all the others?" Nash smirked. "I like the sound of that."

"Yeah, yeah, very funny. Anyways, you've also got four special cards, two Dragonmasters and two Goddesses. In a lot of other card games, those are wild cards, meaning you can use 'em as anything. In Royals, however, they can only be used as part of a hand. The object of the game is simple: get a hand worth more than everyone else's. You get five cards, and you trade 'em in for other cards to get something better than what you have."

"How many can I trade in?" Nash asked.

"Up to three, but if you have a Hero card, you can take four. The way it works is each hand, you put in some money at the beginning before you ever see your cards - that's called the ante. You also bet before and after you trade in, and raise the bets, based on whether you think you can win or not. If you don't think you can beat the other guys, the best thing to do is fold, even though you lose what you already put in. This way you don't lose even more money."

Kyle paused and gave a crafty smile. "Or, you can bluff the other guys - bet a lot, make 'em think you have something better than what you really have, and get THEM to fold. But you've really gotta be convincing to pull off something like that. If you're not careful, it'll be really obvious to everyone that you're bluffing."

Nash nodded. "So there's a psychological edge to the game."

"Yup. That's why I said that it really takes experience and skill as well as luck to play this game, 'cause you're not really playing the cards. You're playing the people. You've gotta be able to tell when they're bluffing and when they're not, how much to bet in order to sucker them in without getting them to fold, what the chances are of getting the cards you want...all kinds of stuff to think about."

"I see. So what are the different hands?"

"That'd take too long to explain," Kyle said as he began looking through the cards. "You're in luck, though - ever since Royals became popular, most decks of cards have come with a special card that lists what the different hands are. Just gimme a sec to find it...ah! Here we go!"

Kyle handed the card to Nash, which displayed the following:

HAND RANKINGS FOR THE GAME OF ROYALS

(From least to greatest)
Joint - two cards of the same rank
Double Joint - a pair of joints
Link - three cards of the same rank
Arc - all five cards in sequential order
Banner - all five cards of the same suit
Fortress - a Link and a Joint
Chain - four cards of the same rank
Banner Arc - an Arc with all the cards in the same suit
Hero Arc - a bandit, knight, priestess, mage, and dragon - combination of any suit
Royal Arc - a knight, priestess, mage, and dragon of the same suit and a Goddess or Dragonmaster card
Hero Banner - a bandit, knight, priestess, mage, and dragon of the same suit
Royal Banner - a knight, priestess, mage, and dragon of the same suit and a Goddess or Dragonmaster card.

"Think you can remember all of that?" Kyle said with a smirk.

"Try memorizing the proper incantation for a Thunder Shot spell," Nash retorted. "This is nothing compared to that."

"Don't get overconfident," Kyle warned.

"That's funny, coming from you."

"I'm serious, shrimpy," Kyle said icily. "People have gone bankrupt and lost everything on this game - especially rookies who think they know it all. Hell, people have even gotten themselves killed for cheating - or catching someone else cheating. And with all you've got riding on this, you need to keep your head clear."

"All right, I will. So now that I've learned the game, where can I find a place to win big?"

"You can always find a game anywhere on Lunar," Kyle replied. "In Meribia, there are lots of rich suckers who can afford to lose a few thousand, and they play like it too, but you'll need to play for a long time before you can win what anyone would call big bucks, especially in a pro's game."

"That won't do," Nash said. "Vane can't afford to wait for me to build a fortune in bits and pieces."

Kyle thought for a moment. "Well, I don't know if you're gonna be ready for this, but seeing as though you probably won't shut up about it, there's always the annual game Shaw hosts at the Thieves' Guild in Reza. Shaw's a professional gambler, and so are most of the people who are gonna be joining in. He and I go back a ways, and I've helped him out of a jam every once in a while, so I can probably get you in the game. But the entry fee is really gonna cost you."

"How much?"

"Two hundred thousand."

Nash paled. "You're kidding, right?"

"Nope. Like I said, these guys have been at this for a long time, and they know the game inside and out, and they've made a buttload of cash as a result. On the other hand, with six people playing, Shaw included, that's a million silver to the winner, plus you get to hang on to your entry fee."

Nash whistled. "That would certainly pay a lot of our expenses. It's worth trying. When's the big game."

"Four months," Kyle grinned sardonically. "That's how much time you've got to master the game and win enough moolah to enter. So we'd better get you started."


"I don't know about this," Nash said as he, Kyle, and Jessica approached the Hero's Haven, Meribia's most famous tavern.

"Relax," Jessica said. "These guys may be a bit on the crude side, but they play an honest game."

"And they don't mind losing their money to big-shot Heroes like me and Jess," Kyle said with a chuckle.

Nash grinned. "So imagine how they'll feel losing to the three of us!"

"If you win," Jessica reminded him. "These people aren't exactly Royals champions, but they've been at this for a while. Also, don't forget that you're also going up against me and Kyle. In Royals, it's every player for himself. And after you not letting me in on what you and Kyle were discussing earlier today, don't expect any mercy from me."

"Look, I know, I already got the lecture from Kyle, and I'm sorry I didn't tell you right away," Nash snipped. "Now can we let it go? I can't project confidence if you two treat me like I'm totally incompetent!"

"Just trying to let you know what you're up against," Kyle said.

They entered the smoky tavern, where four young men waved them over. They were well-dressed, and Nash suspected they came from some of Meribia's more elite households.

"Evening, suckers," Kyle said with a grin. "Ready to go home bankrupt again?"

"Speak for yourself, Kyle," one of them said. "I got a feeling tonight's my lucky night!"

"Yeah, that's what you say every week, Namod," Kyle retorted. "By the way, this is my old buddy and fellow Hero, Nash Rumick. He wants to learn the game."

"Ah, a rookie, huh?" another man sneered. "You want us to go easy on 'im?"

"Nah, give him the works, Coburn," Jessica said sassily as she took her seat.

"You heard the lady," Namod said with a leer. "Let's show the rookie what a real game's like. It costs five silver a hand to play, and the most you can bet is a hundred. Can you afford that?"

"Yeah, once I've won it from you," Nash grinned.

Namod laughed. "Kid's got spunk, I've gotta say. Let's see if you play as well as you mouth off."

"If he did, he'd be the world's greatest Royals player," Jessica said.

The players anted, and Namod dealt the first hand. Nash smiled slightly as he saw he had a joint of Priestesses.

"Camp," said the player to Namod's immediate right.

"What does that mean?" Nash asked.

"It's what you do when you don't want to start the betting or when you can't fold," Jessica explained. "You just make the next person start the betting. So since Turo camped, Coburn has to start us off, unless he camps also."

"No, I'm gonna bet," Coburn said. "Five silver."

Kyle was next to bet, and he grinned broadly as he looked at his cards. "Let's make things interesting. I'll match your five, and raise you guys ten."

"Fold," said the player between Kyle and Nash as he tossed his cards onto the table.

Nash once again looked at the two priestesses in his hand, giving him what he thought was a hand worth holding on to. Besides, he wouldn't be surprised if Kyle was bluffing. "Match," he said, putting fifteen silver into the pot. Jessica and the last player also matched, while Namod and Turo folded. Coburn hesitated for a second before matching as well. "Three cards."

Kyle only took one card, and Nash took three. None of the new cards were helpful to him in any way, but the joint would hopefully be sufficient. Kyle taking only one card was certainly worrisome, but maybe he was going for a banner or an arc.

Turo again bet five, and Kyle raised him to twenty. Nash, now certain that Kyle was bluffing again, matched him, while the other players folded.

"Show 'em," Namod said.

"Link of nines," Kyle said, spreading out his cards.

Nash threw down his cards. "Joint of priestesses. I thought you were bluffing."

"I know you did," Kyle said. "I could tell you were holding something when you smiled, but most rookies think that just because they have a high pair, they're gonna win."

"I didn't smile!" Nash exclaimed indignantly. "Did I?"

Everyone else at the table nodded.

"Oh," Nash said, not a little chagrined. "Guess I'll have to work on that."

It was Turo's turn to deal, and this time, Nash found himself holding a one, three, nine, knight of stars, and a four of herbs - one card away from a banner.

"Ten," Turo said quietly, pushing some coins into the center of the table.

"Match," Coburn said right away.

Kyle looked at his cards thoughtfully, and gave a quick nod. "Match."

Nash also matched, not wanting to be overzealous with his betting just yet. When the rest of the bets were in, Nash took one card, which to his disappointment, turned out to be the six of scrolls. He kept his face as impassive as possible, though.

Turo again bet ten, while Coburn matched and Kyle folded. Nash, however, had decided to go for a bluff. "I'll match your ten, and raise you...thirty."

Jessica stared at Nash for a long moment, her face completely impassive. "Match," she finally said. Nash felt his fingers tighten on the cards, and he was sure the other players still in the game noticed as well, for they all matched as well. Nash cursed silently, knowing his involuntary reaction to Jessica's bet had tipped off the other players, but how had Jessica known?

When the cards were shown, Namod was the big winner, his banner in pearls beating Jessica's link of eights. He shook his head at Nash's hand. "Almost had it," he told the young mage. "Stinks, doesn't it, being one card away?"

Nash shrugged. "It's not like I had much choice. I didn't have anything else to work with."

Coburn nodded. "Sometimes you gotta go for the long shots. You can't win this game by being timid."

Nash turned to Jessica in disbelief. "How the hell did you know I was bluffing?"

"Simple," Jessica said with a smile. "You only took one card, and whenever a rookie player gets a good hand, like a banner or an arc, they're almost always obvious about it. You didn't react at all, so I figured you either at a beatable double joint, which I could safely beat, or you had nothing. Either way, it was a safe move to match you."

"But you got beat also," Nash pointed out, not without some smugness.

"That's another lesson for you, shrimpy," Kyle said. "It doesn't always matter what you have. It's what everybody else has got you need to worry about."

The game continued late into the night, but Nash was not the least bit fatigued. He found himself picking up on the other players' tells, became somewhat better at knowing when to bet and when to fold, and even won the occasional hand. Kyle, however, was an unpredictable opponent, and Jessica seemed to play almost the same way as her fiancé. Nash suspected that Jessica had also been trained at Royals by Kyle, only she was a more adept student than he was. Not surprisingly, Kyle and Jessica continued to be the big winners of the night.

An indeterminable amount of time later, Namod was shaking his head as Kyle scooped the last coin off the table. "I really thought I was gonna take you down tonight, Kyle."

Kyle shrugged. "Next time, keep your expectations realistic. Same time next week?"

"Sure. Take care, you two. And Nash, keep practicing. I wanna see at least one of Kyle's proteges beat him one day!"

"I'll keep working at it," Nash said with a grin as he followed Kyle and Jessica out of the tavern.

"So how did I do tonight?" Nash asked anxiously.

Kyle shrugged. "Not much different from other first-timers still learning the game. You made some typical rookie mistakes, and you bounced back and forth between being too careful and not careful enough."

"And you really need to work on your tells," Jessica added. "You gotta work on keeping what you have secret, like when you were secretly keeping tabs on us for Ghaleon."

Nash glowered at Jessica. "That's a cheap shot."

"You're right, I'm sorry," Jessica said, holding up her hands placatingly. "Seriously, though, it's all about putting up a front."

"At least I've got plenty of time to practice," Nash said. "Any other games in town?"

"Man, you really are serious about this," Kyle said, not without admiration. "Well, if you really do mean to see this all the way through, just stick with me. I ain't making any promises, but I'm gonna do the best I can to make sure you walk away from that tournament with the prize."


Four months later, Nash found himself in the Thieves' Guild of Reza, waiting for the tournament to begin. He'd managed to win eighty-six thousand silver at various games in Meribia and Vane, and Kyle and Jessica had loaned him the rest of the money he needed, which he hoped to be able to pay back. He felt awkward about taking their charity, after all his insistence about doing this on his own, but he did need the money to enter the game.

He was nervous, and hoped he didn't look it. He had to project confidence, especially with all these other professional gamblers around. One of them, a tall bearded man in a cloak looked particularly intimidating, and was constantly smirking at Nash, making him feel uncomfortable. Another, a tall man with blond hair and sharp, aquiline features, was somberly drinking from a goblet. He was dressed all in black, and his cold blue eyes were eyeing everyone warily.

An elderly man with spectacles and silvery hair walked over to Nash, grinning broadly. "Ah, a newcomer, eh? Looking to make your fortune the easy way, eh? Or do you owe money to a loan shark or something? Hee hee hee!"

Nash was about to declare his intentions to play for Vane, but he thought the better of it. Should he lose, he didn't want word to get out that he had failed Vane, or Mia. He had kept his intentions to participate in this tournament a secret from her for that very reason.

The old man extended a hand. "Name's Landau. I've been competing in this tournament for about...oh, sixteen years or so. It's nice to see a new face in the crowd after all this time."

"Sixteen years?" Nash asked incredulously. "Have you ever won?"

"Nope," Landau cackled. "But every year, I keep on comin' back for more! It's gotta happen sooner or later, right?"

"I'd imagine you've lost more money at these tournaments than you could ever win back, by those odds," Nash said.

"Bah! I can't take it with me, can I? Besides, it's only money, right? Hee hee hee!"

Nash smiled politely, although he had quite a different perspective. It might only be money to Landau, but for the people of Vane, and for Mia, it was the means for rebuilding a proud legacy.

"Well, well, well!" Landau whispered. "Look who's here! I was hopin' she'd show!"

A stunningly beautiful blond woman entered the Guild, wearing a form-fitting dress split in the front all the way down to the navel, showing an impressive amount of cleavage. Every eye in the room turned to her and just gaped at her. The bearded man in the cloak sauntered over to her and offered to take her cloak, an offer she accepted with a dazzling smile.

"Her name's Frost," Landau muttered to Nash. "She likes her competition to be looking at the goodies instead of payin' attention to their cards."

"Is that why you always lose?" Nash chuckled.

"Maybe. But it's worth it, don't you think?"

"I'm already spoken for back home."

Landau raised an eyebrow. "So? She can't possibly top that, can she?"

"Easily," Nash grinned.

"Really? Can you introduce me?"

"Don't count on it. Say, do you know who the man in the beard is?"

"Jealous, huh? I think his name's Jonas. I wouldn't get too friendly with him. He looks like the shifty type."

"They all look shifty to me," Nash mumbled. "Even the blond guy wearing black. Do you think any of them would cheat?"

"Nah, nobody would be that stupid to cheat in this game. I hate to tell you what happened to the last guy that tried it. Besides, Cregg - that's the blond fella - was last year's winner. He doesn't need to cheat."

Before Nash had a chance to respond, Shaw entered the room, sat himself at the round table the game would be held at, and boldly declared, "Alrighty, folks! Let's play some cards!"

Without any ceremony, the other players took their seats, and Nash's heart pounded even faster. The bearded man in the cloak sat at Shaw's left, and continued to stare at Nash, while Landau sat at Nash's left. The old gambler nudged Nash in the shoulder encouragingly. "Good luck, kid!"

"Thanks," Nash replied. "You too."

The first hand was dealt, and Nash picked his cards up anxiously, trying not to grimace. He held a two and a ten of pearls, a mage of scrolls, a six of herbs, and a four of stars. Not a good start. He folded instantly, and the hand went to Cregg. There was something almost inhuman about the returning champion and the way he seemed so detached from the game.

The game went on for several hours, barmaids supplying drinks and hors-de-oeuvres to keep the players energized, and lively music played in the background - Nash suspected it was to distract the players so that Shaw could win.

For the most part, he was doing quite well. He had gotten off to a bad start, due to a series of weak hands and easily detectable bluffs on his part, but eventually he found himself getting a feel for the game and the players, picking up on their tells and their bluffs, except for Jonas, whose hooded cloak hid his facial expressions. His voice was extremely raspy, which obscured tone and inflection in his voice. He periodically stared at Nash throughout the game, and at times, he could have sworn Jonas was mocking him.

Frost, however, was losing heavily, her impressive figure and the amount of it her dress revealed doing little to distract the players. During one hand, after the players had received their cards, she shook her head. "I might as well try for a quick and painless finish. I'm going all in."

Her eyes had a sad, disenchanted look to them as she slumped forward in her chair, allowing the design of the dress to show even more skin. The other players eyed her warily. A lot of money had gone into the hand already, and Nash realized she could easily be bluffing, hoping to "buy" the pot by getting everyone to fold. On the other hand, she could have a really strong hand and was trying to convince everyone she was bluffing.

Nash was holding a link of bandits, and thought that it was worth taking a chance. "Match," he said. Frost's eyes widened apprehensively as he pushed his money into the center of the table.

"Match," Jonas rasped in his harsh voice. All the other players had folded. Now Nash was more tense. He was confident he could beat Frost, but not Jonas, who was still a nearly impossible player to read.

Frost scowled as she threw her cards onto the table. "Just a high card," she grumbled.

Nash showed his three bandits, and Jonas nodded. "I only got a double joint, elevens and fours," Jonas rasped. "Good job."

Nash eagerly scooped up his winnings, suddenly liking his chances of success a lot more. Landau clapped him on the shoulder eagerly. "Nice haul, kid! And you put one out of the game!"

"Speaking of putting out," Frost said as she rose from her seat and approached Nash, "Perhaps you can make it up to me later on? Hmmmm?"

Frost ran her fingers through Nash's curl, but he gently swept her hand away. "Hands off the hair, lady. Besides, like I told Landau earlier, I'm spoken for."

Frost reared her head back like a serpent ready to strike before turning her nose up in the air and exiting the guild in a huff. Everyone stared at Nash in amazement.

"Geez, kid," Jonas said as he shook his head. "That must be a hell of a girl you've got back home."

"You have no idea," Nash grinned. "So, whose deal is it?"

The game proceeded at the same steady pace, but Nash was feeling more energized than ever. After a while, it was Landau's turn to be at the end of his rope. It was just him and Cregg, and all the other players had folded. He too, had gone all in, and Cregg had matched him.

"Double joint, dragons and elevens with a Goddess kicker!" Landau exclaimed, slamming his cards down.

Cregg looked at the cards, then at Landay, and merely flicked his wrist to reveal his arc. "Not good enough, old man."

Landau shrugged off his loss, and chuckled. "Well, there's always next year. Good luck to the rest of ya!"

"Thanks," Nash said. He felt bad for the old man. As much as he wanted to win, he couldn't help feeling sorry for Landau. He'd liked the old man for some reason. He hoped that he would be the one to take down Cregg.

However, about half an hour later, Cregg was indeed taken out of the game, his chain of fives easily thrashed by Jonas's banner in herbs. "Not good enough, champ," Jonas said mockingly, using the same words and tone Cregg had used after he had cleaned out Landau. Cregg fixed Jonas with a cold stare before storming away from the table.

"Well, now it's just down to the three of us," Shaw said. "Now the game gets really interesting. Just me and two strangers. Maybe now it'll be my turn to clean out one of you now."

Jonas chuckled. "I wouldn't count on it."

Nash said nothing, his palms starting to sweat. Two more players eliminated in a short amount of time, and he was slightly behind both Jonas and Shaw. He was closer to victory with each player eliminated, but there was always the risk of defeat. Would he be the next one to be taken out, or would he be the last one standing?

The crowd, comprised of guild members and out-of-town spectators was just as excited. Only three players left, and all of them closely matched, although Jonas was maintaining a lead.

The game continued at a painfully ponderous pace now, with the coin lead bouncing back and forth between the three players. Shaw, however, eventually starting to get overconfident, and it ended up costing him, with most of the hands now going to Jonas and Nash. Shaw hadn't been doing exceptionally well throughout the game, and it was apparently starting to get to him.

After a particularly heavy round of betting, Shaw asked for one card. Nash, holding a double joint of mages and eights, did likewise. Jonas took two cards, and as usual, he gave away nothing. Shaw, however, was grinning like a cat as he scooped up his cards.

Steadily, Nash picked up his own card, and did his best not to leap out of his chair. It was third eight, giving him a fortress. The two smiling mages in his hand seemed to be congratulating him on the victory that was surely his. He couldn't possibly be beaten with a hand like this.

Finally, it was Shaw's turn to bet, and he looked at Jonas and Nash. "I think it's time we finished this once and for all. I'm going all in."

"Match," Nash said instantly as he shoved his coins into the pile.

Jonas looked at his cards, hesitated for a moment, and shrugged. "Match," he rasped. Once again, he was staring inscrutably at Nash. Was he trying to intimidate him, or encourage him?

Chuckling, Shaw revealed his hand. "Banner in stars, priestess high. Beat that, if you can."

"If you insist," Nash said smugly as he laid down his cards. "Fortress, eights and mages."

The crowd gasped in surprise, and Shaw grimaced at Nash's hand. All eyes then turned to Jonas. "Well?" Shaw grumbled.

The enigmatic bearded gambler gave a slight shrug. "Just two small joints. Fives...and fives."

Nash could almost feel the floor drop out from under him as he stared at Jonas's hand. A chain! A bloody chain! He had almost done, come so close to victory, only for it to be cruelly snatched away at the last second!

Nash sat grimly at his seat, trying to take in his loss, oblivious to all the commotion around him. He had been so sure, so confident, so close to success. He knew it wasn't his fault - any other player in his position would have done the same. Still, he couldn't bear to face Mia after his loss. To have come so close...

He had no idea how long he'd been sitting at his seat when he was suddenly aware of someone standing next to him. He looked up, and saw Jonas holding the bag of prize money.

"I think this is yours," Jonas rasped as he plopped the bag onto the table in front of Nash.

"What are you talking about?" Nash said, bewildered as he looked up at Jonas. "You won that money fair and square."

"Yeah, but Vane and that little lady of yours needs it more than I do."

Nash's brow contorted in confusion, barely registering that Jonas's voice was no longer rough and gravelly, but smooth, and oddly familiar. "Wait a minute - how'd you know about that? I never said I was from Vane."

The gambler grinned as he removed his beard and wig, revealing...

"Kyle?"

"Surprise surprise," Kyle chuckled. "Whaddya think of my cunning disguise?"

Nash shook his head, still reeling from the revelation. "Well, at least you're not wearing a dress this time. But what the hell...?"

"Call it a Plan B," Kyle grinned. "I knew you had your heart set on winning, and you really did have a good run today. But like I told you - you just aren't in the same league as these other guys. So I wanted to make sure that you ended up getting the money for Vane, and if you couldn't be the one to win it, I figured I could be."

"Why didn't you tell me? Why the disguise?"

Kyle shrugged. "I didn't want to shake your confidence by showing up as me, like I didn't trust you to pull it off. If you'd won, I'd have just vanished into the night and pretended to be surprised once I heard the good news about your victory. Now go on, take your money. I already took out the amount Jess and I loaned you."

"I can't accept this, Kyle. I was supposed to win this on my own. This was supposed to be my achievement."

Kyle laughed. "Who says she has to know it was me that won it?"

"Oh, I think the truth would come out eventually somehow. It has a way of doing that, especially where significant others are concerned. Besides, even if she didn't know, I would."

Kyle shrugged. "All right, fine, so you didn't win the money. But you still made it happen. If you hadn't come to me, you'd never have given me the idea to compete in the tournament, and some greedy shmuck would've won. Now get off your high horse and take the damn money. It doesn't matter who won it. What matters is that Vane is gonna get the money it needs, and I have the satisfaction of knowing I kicked your ass."

Nash chuckled. "Well, when you put it like that, then fine. I'll take it. But on one condition."

"Yeah? What's that?"

Nash folded his arms. "One day, one day soon, you owe me a rematch."

"Deal."

THE END