Page 51 of The Lover's Leap

After my opponent left the table, there were several players anxious to take the spot. The next one I recognized as the handsomely dressed man who’d bested the axe thrower the other night. He set a silver on the table and nodded at me. “May I?”

I looked over the large bet with concern but pulled a silver out to match his bet nonetheless. “Certainly,” I said, trying not to obsess over the money in my purse. I would have to be very careful playing for a full silver.

“May we use your board?” The well-dressed man’s voice was pleasant, almost trustworthy. “I didn’t bring mine but am quite anxious to play.”

I felt the eyes of several watchers on me as I nodded deferentially at the man. “All right.” I set my board on the table, and he looked over the markings and wear as well as the nicely waxed checkers.

He nodded his approval, and we began. He won the opening roll and moved swiftly into an aggressive strategy. I was curious about the way he seemed to split his checkers, as if believing that the luck of the dice would be with him. It wasn’t, and it was clear within a few rolls that I’d defended my home so well that if I were able to land on one of his exposed checkers, he would be stuck. He rolled the dice hard, banging them against the board, but I didn’t sense any excess of emotion. He was just aggressive, demonstrative. No doubt a man with his glossy clothes and fine hair was very comfortable being seen.

The game moved quickly, and I suppressed a small smile as I rolled a double six, which allowed me to take four pieces off the board while he was still at least two rolls away from having all his pieces home. When I did finally win the game, he clapped and looked me over appreciatively.

“The silver is yours, miss.” He slid the piece across the table, and a chorus of cheers sounded from the watching players. He nodded and stood from his seat. “I look forward to challenging you again.”

I nodded and watched as another man took the vacant spot.

“Will you play without a bet, miss?” The familiar voice loosened the anxious tightness in my shoulders.

I set my lips and opened my eyes to the dark curls and warm eyes of my brother. “I don’t understand,friend,” I said, a challenge in my voice. “Isn’t the point of playing the chance of making a profit?”

His eyes darkened, and he cocked his chin, his long hair falling over one shoulder. “I prefer my games with lower stakes,” he explained. “Especially when I fear I will be easily outmatched.”

I glared at him, debating what type of a scene to make in front of those watching. I was here to win coins, to earn as much as I could off the backs of weaker players. If the ruse Syndrian and I had developed last night was to be successful, I could not appear too agreeable. And I certainly didn’t want to give the impression that Biko and I knew each other.

But before I could refuse him, the finely dressed man clapped a hand on Biko’s shoulder. “What’s this? Looking to test your luck before you spend your pennies in the tournament?” The man whose silver I’d taken nodded at me. He lowered his lips to Biko’s ear and murmured in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “You’re wise to watch your purse. I’d put my money on her, friend.”

Biko chuckled, and the well-dressed man wandered away.

“What say you, miss?” Biko’s eyes were locked on mine, and the crowd of watchers started stomping their feet, urging us to get on with it. I flicked a look at his hand, now wrapped only with rags.

“I’ll play you,” I said tightly, trying to still the excited thrum of blood in my ears. “But I wouldn’t mind getting a look at whatever’s under that wrap,” I added, a little fire in my voice.

At that, the watchers erupted in cheers and started calling out for Biko to unwrap his hand.

“We don’t abide cheatin’ in these parts!” someone shouted.

Biko nodded, giving me a curious look. “Just a minor burn,” he said, pulling aside the wrap to reveal what was left of the rippled red welt. “Nothing hidden up these sleeves except a bit of a stomach-turning wound right there.”

Satisfied that no one would later question him, I shrugged. “I’ve no objections to a game, then, friend.”

The crowd noises picked up around us as pub patrons placed bets over the outcome of our match.

Someone called out, “No-action game! No action!”

I tilted my chin. “What’s that mean, friend?”

The man leaned forward. “That means the players haven’t staked money on the outcome,” he explained. “Helps keep disagreements from breaking out after the fact over whether there was a bet on the table.”

I muttered a response and quickly set my pieces while Biko leaned forward. Under the commotion of the crowded pub, he spoke in a voice so low, only I could hear it, and even then, I had to strain.

“Best o’ luck to ya, miss.” His eyes bored into mine, and I felt a rush of nerves in my belly.

We’d planned for this moment, but still, having a strategy, working as a team—it felt thrilling, exciting. I almost felt guilty as I wondered if this was how my father felt working with a powerful crime family. Did it give him a sense of purpose? Of pleasure, even? I shoved aside worries that I was not all that different from my father. I was playing for my life here. My father’s game had worse and more complex stakes.

“Friend?” Biko’s injured hand was stretched over the board.

I dragged in an unsteady breath and clasped his hand in mine. I could only hope we didn’t fall into familiar teasing. We needed to appear as strangers if any of this was to work.

After Biko released my hand, he set his checkers and rolled a die. I rolled, and he won. He clapped his hands and moved his pieces. I knew my brother’s play so well, we could have finished an entire game in minutes, rapidly rolling and moving, rolling and moving. But I purposely slowed my pace, studying his fingertips as he made points and split checkers. I tried not to look into his face.

Tags: Callie Chase Fantasy
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