Biko tore off a corner of a loaf and tossed it. Syndrian caught it and set half the apple on the bit of broken bread like it was a plate. He pushed it toward me and nodded. “Unless you’d prefer the whole fruit, miss?”
Nerves at Syndrian’s generosity and attention knotted uncomfortably in my belly. “No, thank you. Half is more than enough. Thank you.”
“Stop thaaaaankin’ him,” Biko bellowed, half singing, half talking. “And start playing him! Pali against Syn first. I play the winner.”
Syndrian snorted. “We might as well swap in a child to play in your place. One who’s never seen a checker. I’d put two silvers on the child gammoning you in under ten rolls.”
Biko whooped loudly and belched, then poured himself a mug of ale. “I’d put two silvers on that same child taking you down with two blows of a wooden dagger!”
“Son,” Idony crooned, lifting a single brow to settle the good-natured banter. “Let’s not assume Syndrian wants to play. We know that Pali does.” She sat in a chair at their square table and motioned for me to sit across from her.
My hands grew clammy with nerves, but secretly, I was excited Syndrian was here and hoped he’d play me. I wasn’t a performer like Biko—at least not in the same manner he was. While my brother loved to sing and make noise and certainly had the carefree soul of a man who saw play in every aspect of life, I was intensely focused. But we shared many qualities that, had our circumstances been different, would have marked us as siblings. Competitiveness, a drive for excellence in our work—although my work, the work of a woman whose future included running a household, could hardly be compared to the expansive duties expected of a crofter.
While Lady Lombard did not particularly appreciate the time I spent with my brother and the mother of her husband’s illegitimate son, arrangements had been made over the years. Biko posed no threat to my father’s land, title, or treasury. I never distracted them from their work, and they never called upon me at the manor.
My father had grown so weary of me seeking an opponent for my games after they’d dismissed my tutors, I’d been allowed to entertain myself in Idony’s company, learning everything from card games to my favorite of all—backgammon.
I’m certain my parents never dreamed that I’d find a second family and sincere joy in the hours I stole away from the Lombards miserable company. If they knew how deeply I loved Biko and Idony…I feared they would deny me that, too.
“Are you ready to play, sweet girl?” Idony reached across the table and took one of my hands in hers. She gave me a knowing look. “You can set aside your worries for a few rolls of the dice, can’t you?”
“Whoa-ho, speaking of dice.” Biko dropped into the fourth chair, opposite Syndrian. My brother shook out his hair while Idony set the smooth black stones, each of a slightly different size and shape, out onto her side of the board.
While my checkers were highly refined waxed wood, each a perfectly symmetrical version of the others, Idony preferred to play with items found in nature. Dark sea stones she’d gathered during trips to the shore stood in for one set of checkers. The light-colored pieces, the side that I would play tonight, were made from bits of bone that Biko had shaped and smoothed over the years. The bone checkers were far more irregular than the rocks, but they had so much character. I loved to feel them between my fingers, as if the marrow of the animal still lived within and spoke to me, guiding me how best to move.
Idony’s dice were made of ironspruce, just like the board—hard and heavy, impervious to the heat and warmth of the many hands that had held them over the years. Biko cupped the dice between his palms and pretended to shake them hard, then pantomimed rolling them across the board. Since he wasn’t playing this game, he instead set them gently down and turned to me.
“Did you hear?” he asked. “There’s a gaming tournament upcoming at Knuckles & Bones.”
“Now how would Pali know of a place like that?” Idony shivered, as if just the name of the place disturbed her gentle vitality.
“Perhaps she has not,” Biko said, getting up from his chair and clapping both hands on Syndrian’s shoulders. My brother shook him hard in a gesture of overly aggressive celebration. “But guess what fopdoodle has been asked to make all the dice that will be used in the tournament?”
I let myself look at Syndrian’s face and was met by an answering stare, as if he’d been waiting for my eyes to find his. Heat rushed to my cheeks, and I focused my attention back on setting my pieces. But I couldn’t resist complimenting him, even if it drew uncomfortable attention to me.
“That comes as no surprise,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. I felt as though the depths of my affection for him would come through my words if I poorly chose even one of them. “You’re a gifted craftsman, Syndrian. Congratulations.”
“Just a bit of side work,” Syndrian explained. I nearly lost track of his words listening to the playful, deep melody of his voice. “Every year there’s more blood spilled than coins traded in the tournament. There’s a pot at the end of each round, and a final prize much as a month’s wages for most of those who play. Accusations against the dice are common. One honest man with no ties to any of the players should make the fairest dice.” He grinned, his wide smile setting something ablaze in my chest. “If fewer fights break out, I’ll have earned my fee.”
“You’ll have earned your feeeeee,” Biko sang, watching as his mother rolled a single die between her palms. “And if there are more fights…you might just lose one of your pretty cutler’s hands.”
My throat felt painfully dry at the thought. “Is that true?” I asked, picking up the other die. “Is the work dangerous? Might you really…”
“Not at all, miss.” Syndrian glared at my brother. “Though the place is called Knuckles & Bones, it’s just a job. I’ll be perfectly safe.”
A look passed between my brother and his friend, but neither said more on the matter. The fire crackled, spitting a spark against the hearth’s iron grate. Idony rolled the single die across the board and landed a five.
“Hmmm,” Biko chattered, no doubt already calculating in his head the various starting moves based on a roll of five.
We began every game with the players each taking one die and rolling it. The higher of the two rolls was awarded the opening turn, but the winning player could only move the checkers according to the numbers already rolled.
I took a deep breath, feeling the familiar excitement of a particularly fortuitous dice roll. Idony’s five meant that no matter how my die landed, she’d be assured of making a point or, at the least, an aggressive opening move. There was only one number that could win the hand for me now.
I cupped the dice, shook them, and rolled.
“Pali!” Biko pounded his fists against the table, while Syndrian raised his brows and smiled. Idony nodded, as if she’d fully expected this result.
With Idony’s five on the board, I won the roll by throwing a six. I did not hesitate or worry over the choice. I swiftly moved the checker in the twenty-four position on the outer board eleven spaces toward my home.