“No, uh, that’s very kind, but…” I wasn’t sure what to do. We’d agreed we should not speak or get close to each other in any way while at the pub. If anyone were to discover a connection between us or even remember that the well-known and trusted cutler had engaged with a player… Our entire plan would be destroyed. I looked over my shoulder and saw Biko near the axe game again, close to the rear door. Exactly where he was supposed to be.
“Please, miss, take it. I’ve been warming that chair long enough,” Syndrian insisted, staring at me, his blue eyes bright but unreadable.
I moved close to him to claim his empty seat before someone else took it. “Ah, all right, friend. If you’re through here. Thank you, then.” But before I could sit, there was a commotion behind the bar.
“Hey!” One of the men in black lifted a hand and emitted a shrill, high whistle through his teeth.
The finely dressed man clapped loudly to clear a path through the crowd, chattering easily with everyone he passed like a gregarious bard and gracious host bundled into one very unpredictable man. When he reached the bar, he lifted his chin in annoyance.
“What is it?” he demanded. “Do we have a problem?”
An enforcer urged him to come around the bar. The finely dressed man’s face changed immediately. He hurried to join the enforcers and peered into one of the mugs of vinegar. I could see his back stiffen, and he ran a shaking hand through his hair. He murmured low under his breath, but I could not make out the hushed conversation that followed. Finally, he turned and faced the room.
“Friends!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Put your hands down! These games are over!”
As he shouted, some of the players froze, dropping their cards and game pieces. Others continued playing, either indifferent or unaware due to the noise that there’d been an announcement.
“I said…” He rushed out from behind the bar, waving his hands in the air. “Put your godforsaken handsdown!”
At his repeated order, an uncomfortable silence filled the tavern. Players muttered complaints about distractions, and those placing wagers on the games grumbled about keeping track of whose turn was up. I felt Syndrian tense behind me. I pushed past him to slide onto the chair, but he did not move away. He stayed protectively close, just inches from me, his eyes fixed on the man barking orders. Biko began moving through the crowd, getting even closer to the rear door. With all the enforcers behind the bar, I knew it could be seconds before they reached for their weapons and moved into action against the crowd. But why, by the gods, would they stop the tournament?
“Someone in our midst is not a friend but afraud.” The finely dressed man closed his eyes dramatically and placed his palms together. Then he pressed the tips of his thumbs against his eyelids and sighed. “My team has discovered a counterfeit coin among those we collected from the winners.”
A gasp sounded from someone in the crowd.
“That means that someone playing in the tournament tonight is a cheater. Someone who has come here not to put their skills to the test but to steal! From you and you and you and me!” He gestured wildly, his demeanor changing in a flash. He leaned forward in the face of a player still holding his cards and shrieked at the top of his voice, “Don’t you people know what happens to cheaters?”
His scream sounded unhinged, uncontrolled. I had no idea what he would do… What could he do? How, with all these people trading so much money… How could they find the person who’d brought in fake silver?
“Now,” Syndrian whispered, his words barely a breath against my hair. I felt his fingers nudge my back, but I was frozen. Transfixed by whatever brand of shire justice this thug for the Otleiches planned to carry out.
“That means,” the man continued, waving two fingers in the air, “that we’re going to have to check…every. Single. Person. Every single player, every single betting person, every watcher. Every last one of you in this pub!”
Two of the enforcers behind the bar bent low, and when they stood, menacing spiked maces were braced over their shoulders.
“And when we find the cheat…thefraud…” The man sputtered, spitting saliva with his vigorous rage. “We will have justice. Nobody move!”
“Now,” Syndrian whispered and grabbed my elbow.
I peered past him to find Biko in the crowd. My brother blinked very slowly, which I knew was the sign that meant he was ready. I said a quiet prayer to the gods. Then, just like I practiced last night at the Oderisi manor, I concentrated on the fires and the lamps. If there was ever a time to embrace my darker side, to focus everything I had on the very little power I could control, that time was now.
With just the concentration of my thoughts and the slightest movement of my hands, the candles flickered in their lamps. It was working, but it was only the beginning. Knuckles & Bones had two roaring fireplaces and more than a dozen lamps mounted on the walls. Doing this would be a test of my skills unlike the pressure of any game I’d ever played. And the stakes had never felt more critical.
The mounting tension in the tavern felt like overly tight clothing closing around my throat. I tried to focus on two fires at once, but closing out the sounds around me was harder than I’d realized. As two of the enforcers waded through the crowd, I felt Syndrian stiffen further. He stood in front of me, blocking me between the chair and his body. I knew he had to be aware that I was trying to put the lights out, but I’d not prepared for doing so under this kind of pressure.
The enforcers’ boots pounded the floors. The finger-long sharp spikes on their maces glittered in the warm light. A few nervous people darted toward the doors, and a sudden rush of bodies toward the exits brought another level of panic into my already frayed concentration.
“You can do this.” Syndrian turned his head quickly, not making eye contact with me as he whispered. Then he turned away and stared into the crowd, his eyes never leaving the chaos that was unfolding around us.
I couldn’t respond. I was as focused as I could be, but when I heard the first swing of a weapon, the first shrill shriek of a terrified player, my concentration scattered like checkers spilled on the floor. I was aware of the lamps, the heat in the place, the nervous stink of the terrorized people around me.
The candles I’d made flicker burned bright and strong in their lamps. The fires in the dual fireplaces seemed enormous and powerful in a way that I was not. The noise of the tavern and the threat of real harm was nothing we’d prepared for. Last night, in the peaceful sitting room, I’d practiced putting out fires and lamps. This was supposed to be nothing more than a getaway trick, a prank like what I’d tried to pull on Norwin so many years ago. My resolve shook in my soul like that day so many years ago. When my father’s fury had stifled any hope I’d had of understanding and controlling my gift. My curse, it felt like now.
I was overwhelmed, but folding this hand, sitting this play out, was not an option.
Somehow, thinking of my father working with these men—these people who made fear and power into lethal weapons—enraged me. I gripped my hands into fists and closed my eyes. Syndrian still shielded me from the finely dressed man, who screamed at players and enforcers alike. I pictured his red face and smooth hair, letting myself get angrier. This was the type of man who’d driven me to the depths of a goblin lair. This was the type of fear that had made me want to abandon everything I knew and loved—just so I didn’t lose it all.
I could stay here in the tavern and let the gods guide my fate. I’d done nothing wrong. I’d not brought counterfeit coins into the game. If I stood in place and obeyed, just listened, maybe all three of us would make it out of here alive and unhurt.