Sweet Starfire (Lost Colony #1)

Chapter 22

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Only after they had eaten what corresponded to the evening meal did Severance again bring up the idea of teaching Cidra to play Free Market. She had secretly hoped he might forget the whole thing. Games rarely interested her. But she forced herself to agree politely. Perhaps accommodating him would insure that his mood remained stable. There had been occasions during the short time she had known him that she had wondered about the reliability of his temperament.

He had been gentle with her when she was recovering from the effects of the Screamer, but he had also been inclined to goad her into responses that would have been impolite and angry. She didn’t understand him all that well, which was only to be expected under the circumstances. No one raised in Clementia could always predict the behavior of a Wolf. Wolves weren’t very good at explaining themselves. But Cidra sensed a restlessness in Severance that worried her. She didn’t want to do anything that would make him snap.

So she reluctantly agreed to learn Free Market.

Severance first poured two full-size mugs of the Renaissance Rose ale he seemed to enjoy so much. Then he set out the markers, the sardite chips, and the three-dimensional playing field that constituted the game of Free Market. Cidra watched the process with a tinge of wary curiosity. She sensed a carefully leashed anticipation in her teacher. His was not going to be the formal, patient style of instruction to which she was accustomed.

“Think of this as broadening your education,” Severance said blandly as he straddled the stool across from Cidra. He absently shook the handful of numbered cubes he was holding in his left fist. The small table they used for eating had been set up with the field and playing pieces. “Harmonics are very big on broadening their educations, aren’t they?”

“Yes.” She watched as he tossed the cubes onto the top level of the playing field. “But games don’t generally interest us… them.”

He smiled, again showing ominously white teeth. “That’s probably because they don’t believe in gambling.”

“It’s not a question of not believing in it. More a matter of simply not finding it very interesting or pleasant.”

“Cidra, my sweet little would be Harmonic, you’ve missed something along the way.” He leaned forward. “Now pay attention. I’d just as soon not have to explain anything twice.” He pushed half the sardite chips over to her side of the table. “The goal here is to take every last sardite your opponent has.”

She picked up one of the dull green chips. “I don’t see why. Sardite is neither particularly beautiful nor useful. It’s also extremely common.”

“Don’t give me the innocent-as-a-Saint bit. In a real game each chip represents whatever your opponent is actually wagering, and you know it. Here, count the cubes and check the numbers on each.”

“Why?” She removed them from the top level of the playing field and obediently counted them. Then she added up the numbers on each cube.

“Because it’s one way you make certain your opponent isn’t trying to cheat you.”

“I imagine that’s an important consideration in a game between Wolves.”

Severance’s hand closed over the cubes she had just counted. “A very important consideration.”

“I won’t cheat you, Severance,” Cidra promised, offended by the way he was now making a show of counting the cubes himself.

He didn’t bother looking up as he checked each cube. “You better believe you won’t.” He tossed the cubes back onto the field. “All right, let’s get started.”

He was right about one thing, Cidra decided twenty minutes later: He certainly didn’t believe in explaining things twice. She was fortunate she was such an adept learner, for her new mentor was not long on patience. Too many years alone in the confines of a mail ship, together with very little grounding in the rules of etiquette and ritual, Cidra concluded.

By the time Severance had run through an explanation of the basic playing strategy of Free Market, she was still wondering why anyone bothered to play the game. The process of tossing cubes, tabulating the results, and shuffling the playing pieces down through the various levels of the playing field seemed innately dull. There appeared to be an almost endless number of rules, none of which were written down anywhere. So many rules, in fact, that it occurred to Cidra that a few could be added or deleted, and a novice player would never know the difference. No wonder Wolves had to worry about protecting themselves from being cheated. There was skill involved, but winning seemed basically dependent on a combination of luck and the ability to outguess or out bluff one’s opponent.

At the end of the basic lesson Severance insisted that they start a game.

Cidra was doubtful. “I’m not sure I’ve memorized all the rules.”

“You’ll pick them up as you go along. Easiest way to learn is to play. Take the cubes.” He lounged back against the bulkhead, every inch of his long body giving the appearance of a casual, relaxed player about to begin a friendly game.

Thoughtfully Cidra launched the cubes on the field, resolved to do her social duty and play. With any luck she would lose her chips quickly and the game would be over.

As it turned out, she did lose her chips in a very steady, rapid stream. A little too rapid, Cidra decided a short time later as she frowned at the pile in front of Severance.

Severance caught the frown and asked smoothly, “Want to try it again?”

“Perhaps once more. I’m still not certain I have all the rules straight. And there are certain elements of the strategy that I don’t fully understand.” She reached out to take back half the sardite chips.

“You did fairly well for a beginner.” He watched her pile the sardite into neat little stacks. An odd smile hovered at the edge of his mouth.

At least he seemed to be in a good mood now, Cidra thought as she carefully counted the cubes. It was worth playing the game if it kept Severance in a mellow frame of mind. Fred appeared to be enjoying the spate of good temper also. He was lazily draped over his master’s shoulder, proving himself to be as good at sprawling as Severance himself. There was no sign of the small button eyes or the teeth. Cidra had long since decided that both Fred and Severance were more comfortable to be around when their teeth weren’t showing.

She dropped the cubes into the chute and picked up her playing pieces. Brows drawn together intently, she studied the numbers on the cubes.

The sardite chips disappeared from her side of the table a little more slowly this time, but they disappeared just the same. The ale in Severance’s mug vanished relentlessly too. Cidra tried a sip of hers and found the potent brew more interesting than she had expected. She didn’t try any more, aware that she needed her full attention to be on the game, but her opponent didn’t appear to have any similar concerns. Severance seemed blessed with an endless capacity for Renaissance Rose ale. A very small, unexpectedly churlish part of Cidra hoped at one point that the famous backlash effect of the strong ale would go to work on Severance’s playing ability. But the thorn stayed hidden, and Cidra was left feeling ashamed of her unethical thoughts. As if in punishment, she promptly lost the last of her sardite chips.


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