Appendix A: Chapter 21

[Editor's note: Chapter 21 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

Roland pulled his new cloak tighter around his body. At least, the merchant had claimed it was a new cloak, but Roland had his doubts. For one thing, it smelled distinctly like yak. Roland didn’t know why he was so sure of that, not being able to remember any time when he had encountered a yak himself, but that was the image that flashed in his mind whenever he took a breath. Under normal conditions he would at least have washed it before wearing it, but at the moment time was a luxury.

Actually, under normal conditions he wouldn’t have bought a new cloak in the first place, since he had a perfectly good one back in his room, one that was not a couple inches too long and that didn’t reek of yak. But that one was also emblazoned with the emblem on the Order. Roland knew, unfamiliar as the thought was, that being readily recognized as a paladin would be a liability for what he was about to do. His hand instinctively felt for where his sword would normally be on his belt, still not having gotten used to not having it with him.

Roland went over the plan again in his mind to reassure himself he knew what he was doing. He needed information about what happened to Derek. The last time Derek had disappeared, Anna managed to follow a trail of rumors that had been left in his wake, by virtue of having been carried along supply routes of the smuggling networks Mattias was involved in. After escaping the dungeon, Derek wouldn’t have anyone to turn to in Blackstone safely except for those networks. Therefore, if anyone would have seen him, it would be the black market types. And since Anna had apparently spent a lot of time in shady-looking taverns when she had been on Derek’s trail, that seemed like as good a place to start as any.

Maybe the yak smell won’t seem out of place there, Roland wondered as he flipped the hood over his head and pulled it down as far as he could while still being able to see.

He stalked the streets of Blackstone, which was rather easy to do given that aside from the moon, the only available light came from the windows of the buildings he passed. Roland kept his eye out for a tavern that looked like the sort of place he would generally have preferred to avoid, not that he spent much time in taverns to begin with.

After walking a few more blocks, a sign that read “Seb’s” caught his attention, not so much because of the faded red lettering but for the accompanying image of a donkey lying flat on its back next to a jug marked XXX. Roland braced himself and entered.

A thick haze of tobacco smoke and the crunch of discarded peanut shells underfoot greeted him. Between the haze and his watering eyes, he had trouble seeing how many people where there, but from all the shouting and clanking of glasses he guessed it was pretty full. Roland carefully waded through the tables looking for an unoccupied table and, finding none, settled on a seat at the end of the bar and tried to look inconspicuous. Quickly realizing he had no idea how to do that, Roland settled for hunching forward slightly and trying to scan the room without moving his head around too much.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender, whom Roland assumed to be the eponymous Seb, asked him, absently wiping a glass on his smock.

“Um… ale,” Roland replied. He had no intention of imbibing — he was here to work, after all — but even Roland knew ordering water was going to draw attention.

“You’re going to have to be a bit more specific than that, bud. I’ve got twenty kinds back here.”

“Oh,” Roland said, struggling to hide his utter lack of knowledge when it came to alcohol. “What would you recommend?” he tried.

“You’re not from around these parts, are you?” Seb asked, giving him an askance look.

“No, not really.” If he couldn’t fit in, maybe he could at least try building a rapport. “That obvious?”

“We don’t get many folk here looking shady and reeking of yak. If you don’t want to tell me your business, boy, believe me, I ain’t going to ask. Here, I’ll start you off with some of the lighter stuff.” Seb pulled a jug off the back counter and half-filled the glass he had been wiping, then slid the glass over to Roland.

“Thanks,” Roland said, putting a few coins down on the bar which quickly found their way into Seb’s smock. “Say, if I’m not looking to get into any trouble, is there anyone in here I ought to be watching out for?”

Seb grunted. “You see that table back there?” he said, pointing into the room. Roland followed the finger to a round table where five rough-looking men were playing cards, with at least a dozen empty tankards between them.

“I see them.”

“I don’t know if you’re much of a gambler, but if you want to be able to pay for your next drink, I suggest not getting mixed up with them.”

“Because I’ll lose or because they’ll rob me?”

“There’s a difference? I don’t trust any of them farther than I can throw them. And believe me, I know; I’ve had to throw a couple of ‘em out before. But as long as they’re buying drinks, I’ll keep serving ‘em. Now if you’ll excuse me…” Seb trailed off and headed to the other end of the bar to attend to the customers there.

Roland shifted himself on the bar stool to get a better look at the table Seb pointed out. Were they in the black market? They certainly had money to throw around, and they fit Roland’s loose mental picture of scofflaws, but so did half the people in the tavern. They were boisterous between hands, but Roland could never make out what they were saying from where he sat. But would they be talking about their business here anyway?

Roland stifled a sigh. He wished he had asked Anna about precisely how she did this sort of thing, but it was too late for that now; Roland was on his own. He knew she had waited tables at the Iron Flagon at least, and Roland saw now how that would have given her a chance to mingle with all the tables and figure out who to focus on.

But staying at the bar and watching wasn’t going to accomplish anything. Roland took a deep breath, removed his hood, and made his way over, glass in hand, stopping when he stood behind an empty chair. The men at the table stayed focused on their game and didn’t seem to notice.

Roland made his move once one of them swept the coins in the middle of the table into the pile in front of him. “Do you gentlemen have room for another player?” he asked, pouring half the contents of his coin pouch in front of the empty seat.

The men accepted his offer, a little too willingly, he thought.

“I assume you know five card draw,” the one with the eyepatch asked.

“Doesn’t everyone?” Roland replied. Roland did know how to play, but didn’t get much practice. Despite what most people thought, playing cards wasn’t forbidden in the Order, but opportunities for games were few and far between, as people who liked to gamble tended not to sign up for a lifetime of service to the Lady.

Roland knew he had to enter the group’s confidence before he even tried to ask any productive questions about Derek. That meant lasting in the game a little while, which proved to be more difficult than Roland had anticipated. He won a couple small pots early on, but then hit a decidedly cold streak, as he watched the little mound of coins in front of him start to dwindle.

Roland started taking Seb’s warning about the men around him to heart. Having seen the sorts of things Anna could do with a deck of cards, he started paying more attention to the hands of the other players, hoping to catch them doing something suspicious. Roland found it difficult to focus on what five separate people were doing all at once, but he persisted anyway.

Finally, he noticed something out of the corner of his eye to his left. Or at least, he thought he noticed something. Roland focused his attention there as the man with the long black beard scooped up another pot and the next deal began. As each player drew cards, Roland saw the hand of the man next to him linger briefly at what Roland now noticed was a suspiciously large opening to his other sleeve.

“Aha!” Roland shouted as he grabbed the man’s arm and yanked it away. Roland reached into the sleeve with his other hand and pulled out a jack of spades. Roland held it up for everyone else to see. “This man’s been swindling you!”

The men around the table burst into laughter. Including, Roland was surprised to find, the man next to him, who seemed to be enjoying it more than the others.

“That’s the one you noticed?” the man with the beard asked Roland incredulously.

“Yes, he was — wait, what?”

“You mean you didn’t even notice when I swapped the deck for one with a completely differently colored back?” the man with the hat guffawed.

“Pay up!” the fat one said to him. “I told you this sucker wasn’t going to notice!”

“Seriously, you didn’t see me using this at all?” the man with the eyepatch said. He flipped it around to reveal a mirror and a perfectly normal eye.

“And I’ve been dealing from the bottom of the deck the last three deals!” the man with the beard added.

“Wait… you were all cheating?” Roland asked, confused.

“Of course!” the man with the sleeves replied. “You think I’m going to trust these idiots to play fair?”

“You’re kidding me,” Roland said, feeling any hope of getting any useful information out of any of them slipping away.

“Any fool can play cards,” the man with the eyepatch said. “But cheating everyone else at cards takes skill.”

“Especially if you don’t want to wind up with six aces on the table,” the man with the beard added.

“Well, thank you gentlemen,” Roland said as he stood up and grabbed his few remaining coins. “It’s been… educational.”

“Any time!” the fat man called after him as the five erupted into another round of laughter.

Roland headed straight for the door and burst out into the cool nighttime air. He groaned. After that performance, there was no way anybody there was ever going to take him seriously, which meant Roland was right back to where he started, with no clues and nothing to go on.

“Roland?” a voice behind him asked.

Roland turned around instinctively and saw the man with the hat standing just outside the door to the tavern, holding something in his hand.

“Well, what do you know,” the man continued. “I was thinking you kind of matched the description, except for the sword. And he didn’t say anything about the yak smell. But other than that, I guess it really is you. Here,” he said, holding out a folded piece of paper.

Roland stepped forward and took it.

“Here Bruno had bet me if anyone was going to come snooping around, it was going to be the girl. Good thing, though; now Bruno’s the one who owes me. Anyway, next time you’re in town and looking for a game, you know where to find us.” He tipped his hat, then went back into the tavern.

Confused, Roland unfolded the paper and read the first few lines, written in shaky handwriting:

Dear Anna,

I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through. By the time you get this, I’ll be

Roland quickly skipped down to the bottom of the page:

Love,

Derek

Chapter word count: 2,023 (according to wc)
Total word count: 38,554 / 50,000 (77.108% complete)