Midnight observations in games of chance. (Gaspar, McDohl)
His father was the first in Kaku to enforce the rule of the bowl in his games; white glazed or blue, chipped, cracked, it didn't matter. They used what was at hand. Ceramic, he told Gaspar, was smoother than wood. The grooves and whorls of a wooden table, with its bumps that would turn the set of a dice at the lightest jostle, were death to the serious gambler. Gaspar's childhood memory absorbed the information along with countless other gems of the gambling table, grown so automatic over the years that he no longer recalls them consciously except in the unthinking nimbleness of his fingers.
All his life he has known the rhythm of the sleepy fishing town; the salt worn men who like a hand or two after their supper, over drinks and a pipe. The empty sag of pockets before market day and the full clink of them after reflect, in the gambling den, the same ceaseless tide as the men see upon the shore every day of their lives. To Gaspar it is his life's blood, that weekly tide carried on worn coins and the eager grasp of hands for bone dice.
Joining the Liberation Army, he thought at first, was a grand idea. Surely soldiers would have more coin - and more time to fret it away - than the average fisherman. And anyone as lucky as their young leader (dear gods but the dice had smiled on that boy the first time he had walked through Gaspar's door!) would surely lead them to victory and all of their pockets would be full to bursting.
Gaspar knows how naive he had been. He admits it only with a self deprecating shrug - hadn't they all been naive back then? The rhythm of an army is nothing like the rhythm of fishermen, even if the soldiers are fishermen, and he had despaired at first, set adrift with the tide he had known his whole life swept away in the tsunami of war.
Over the months he has found it again. Soldiers are, after all, just men, and the lure of the dice when their purses are flush is no different now that they wield swords instead of hoes or fishing poles. War, Gaspar finds, has its own rhythm; marked not in the steady ebb and flow of market day, but in the more irregular staccato burst of campaigns. It is, to Gaspar's well hidden amusement, a form of gambling in and of itself - will the troops return triumphant, pockets full of spoils? A victorious soldier is a free and easy gambler; one who has tasted defeat is not. Unless defeat has turned to bitterness, in which case he is a sour and reckless gambler, but a gambler none the less. And so the new rules unfold, and Gaspar absorbs them as surely as he took in those early lessons at his father's knee.
His modest den in the castle is still modest - never let them know how much you have, his father had told him once - and his door is always open. They come to him, sooner or later, at the dictate of their own internal rhythms. The men come in the evenings, after supper, no different now than they were before. The women sometimes in the afternoons, when the days stretch long and there is little to do. The grand generals and the aristocrats - former, all of them, just more faces in the army now - sneer at his chipped dice bowl and peasant dice, but in the late nights even some of them have been known to throw a hand or two. Gaspar has seen them all and knows their types; the casual player, the dabbler, the professional, the addict. He works them now as he did at home - a win here, a loss there, always just enough to whet the appetite and bring them back for more. A thousand king's ransoms have passed through his hands, scraping across the table back and forth. It isn't the money. It's never been the money. It's all about the clink and rattle of the dice.
But there's only one person, in all the castle, who comes in the dark hours before dawn. Gaspar has learned to listen for him, for the quiet whisper of his shoes on the stones. A hungry man, his father had once said, needs less sleep than a well fed one - and Gaspar is always hungry, enslaved in his own fashion to the six sided ladies that rule his life.
He wonders, sometimes, what their young General is hungry for.
It has taken him longest to puzzle out the rhythm that guides Tir McDohl. The boy - and he is still that, in face if not in spirit - is unlike any gambler Gaspar has ever known. He has no love of the dice. He does not play for entertainment. Nor for avarice; his pockets might be full but he shows it no more than Gaspar does himself. There are mended rends in his tunic and stains that no amount of scrubbing will take out; he is neat and washed, but hardly the height of fashion and Gaspar has never heard of the General taking any more for himself than the least of his soldiers.
At first Gaspar thought it addiction - the furtive game in the depths of the night, the sporadic visits that come every other day and then nothing for weeks until, when he least expects it, he hears Tir's step once more. An addict who didn't want to admit to his addiction might act so, Gaspar reasoned. A man who was fighting the lure of the dice might seem to dislike them as much as their General, yet always be called back no matter how hard he resisted.
But, no. That didn't seem to quite fit. And so Gaspar set himself to the puzzle before him, watching and waiting and watching again, comparing that one face to every other familiar face he has ever known and trying to make sense of the pattern that he can't quite grasp.
It was a week since their last game but after the first time Gaspar knows better than to think anything of it. Tir will come when he comes, and the dice are capricious mistresses. But that quiet step in the sleeping hallway is pleasant to hear, his own personal challenge, and it is a wide awake Gaspar with an easy, welcoming smile who greets the young man who darkens his doorway.
There is little talk when they play and most of it from Gaspar himself. Tir, when he speaks, is as quiet as his step - soft spoken, and Gaspar would wonder at how such a quiet young man could command ten thousand if he didn't already know quite well, for when the boy does speak one can't help but listen. There is a presence to his words that draws the ear, and Gaspar has had the rare privilege of watching that presence sharpen over time to become something even stronger.
So apart from the meaningless pleasantries that Gaspar speaks even when Tir doesn't respond, there is little to mar the late night silence beyond the pure, perfect rattle of the dice. That first phenomenal streak of luck is occasionally still with the boy and Gaspar lets him win more often than not in any case; it's prudent, he tells himself - after all, Tir /is/the General.
Tir is a controlled player. He knows the rules and something of the laws of chance; he always leaves Gaspar's den with more than he entered with, and not just because of luck or Gaspar's own generosity - no, Tir knows the best rule of every professional gambler, which is when to quit. His dark eyes, lit only by the flicker of the lamps, never leave the table and the dice. Gaspar, throwing dice that might as well be an extension of his own bones, whose pips he knows by the sound they make when they settle in the bowl, never takes his eye from Tir.
If there is an actual set rhythm to Tir's appearances at the table Gaspar has yet to find it. It doesn't follow the tide of their campaigns or any other measure that Gaspar has learned to read. Likewise, Tir's playing is random; always in control, knowing when to throw and when to walk away, but there are nights he will begin their bets with mere change, working slowly up, and other nights when he will start off high, risking it all in the first reckless throw, and then building from there. His expression rarely changes - he would, Gaspar thinks, be a fine card player as well - and, win or lose, it never provokes any verbal response from him. The clink of coins joins the rattle of the dice, but it might all be one to Tir.
Gaspar rolls his own hands by reflex. There is an art in it that was born into his wrist and fingers; angle, momentum, the perfect combination in conjunction with the dimension and irregularities of his favorite old chipped bowl - they are the oldest of lovers, all but family, and they have never failed him. So he throws, making certain to lose a hand here or there or throw no scores that must be rethrown, the motions perfect and natural honed by years of practice.
Tir, when he throws, does so left handed. The lamp light shines white off of old scars across square knuckles and flickers along slender fingers that, Gaspar thinks, could learn the tricks of hiding and producing a coin on demand very easily. The hand is paler than the sun browned arm it is attached to - the heavy hide glove that usually shields it is held in the grasp of the other hand, the one that is never ungloved.
But gloves are unwieldy on small dice, so every time Tir sits at the table the one glove is tugged off and held secure until their business is complete. Tir is not a professional player. He does not know the dice as Gaspar knows them. They tumble awkward and amateur in his hand, hitting the bowl as much by luck as by any skill. That luck - and the boy has more of it than most can claim - is what first drew Gaspar to follow after Tir, and what draws him still to chip away at the puzzle before him.
There is a frown to the boy's brow when he throws, a study in concentration that pulls at the corners of his mouth, as though he might set the dice to a pattern by willpower alone. Sometimes Gaspar thinks he does, unexpected luck turning the tide in Tir's favor. A win will only lessen the frown by the smallest amount, a loss makes no change at all, and Gaspar waits after the coins make their way across the table - miniature gold armies on a barren battlefield - to see if Tir will begin the cycle once more or take what he has gotten and walk away.
A moment's deliberation, the frown deepening once more, and then the sum total of their accumulated bets is shoved once more onto the table between them. There is a not inconsiderable heap there, more than any common soldier would be able to bet, but they have worked up to it from the handful of coins Tir produced as Gaspar greeted him. The night is still beyond Gaspar's doorway; the shop stalls that surround his den in their town inside a castle are all dark and quiet and only the slow descent of the oil in the lamps marks the passage of time over the endless clink of the dice.
This will be the last throw of the night, Gaspar is certain. The majority of the coins on the table are his own, lost to Tir's wins either by luck or by design. If Tir loses this throw he will walk away with his pockets not much lighter than he began with - if he wins then he will walk away all the same, because Tir is not one to trust his luck farther than it can take him. Gaspar reaches for the dice, smooth and perfect in his hand, and begins the familiar ritual that sets the game in motion even as he watches his opponent's face.
It is not the frown, so much, as the pinch at the corners of the boy's mouth. There is something there, in the set of his chin and the thin press of his lips, that Gaspar thinks he has seen before. Hungry. They're all hungry, all of them, every soul that crosses his door, but hunger has shades and avarice is its own tone. Addiction is another. But there is something there, in that look, that is another shade of hunger altogether.
Gaspar lets the dice go and hears the clink of their final results without surprise - a two, a four and a five. "No score," he says quietly. Tir only nods - he knows the rules as well as anyone else - and Gaspar scoops the dice back up as he watches that telltale pinch deepen, a muscle moving along the boy's jaw.
Hunger, he thinks. Hungry for what? The dice roll again - a one, a two, a six - and Tir might be carved out of stone, only his eyes flickering as Gaspar takes the dice up once more. "Last throw," Gaspar remarks, but Tir says nothing.
Hunger. It tugs at his memory, a thin faced fisherman with bad luck in nets, never mind dice. A fisher with a wife and two small boys at home, in their patched homespun and all with the same look in their eyes that was reflected in their hollow cheeks. He had come to Gaspar once, that fisher, in sheer desperation. It had been real hunger that had driven him to the gambler's doorstep - not the hunger for the dice, or the attraction of the coin, but desperate hunger, the hunger of a man looking for a way to stretch a single coin to feed a family of four.
Gaspar had refused the bet. Had sent the man home with three more coins, one for each belly, and if the charity stung it didn't matter - the fisher hadn't had the luxury of pride. They had left Kaku, that family, seeking better luck in the fields than they had scraped from the shore. But the look remains in Gaspar's memory and now, with the feel that one has when the last piece of the puzzle finally slots into place, he matched the line of Tir's mouth and jaw, the pinched tension there, with the tight, desperate look of that long ago fisher's.
But Tir McDohl, years younger than that unlucky fisher, barely out of boyhood, does not have a family of four to feed. Tir McDohl, called General, has a following of ten thousand to feed, clothe, arm and shelter. Tir McDohl has a war to fight.
He would, Gaspar thinks ruefully, have made a truly exceptional card player. The quiet that deceives those who haven't felt his strength is a mask; it hides the granite core, but it also hides the fears and doubts. It is cold in Gaspar's belly, that realization - that in the dark hours of the night it is not a bored and sleepless young General who sits at his worn dice table, but a desperate young man with too large of a family - the men and women who will bleed and die for him and his cause - to care for.
The dice fall from his hand to clatter into the bowl - a one, a two, a three, landing exactly as they left his fingers. "A storm," Gaspar says. "Your win. I pay double." And he does, the coins drawn from the chests that he never leaves unguarded, the chests that are sometimes full and sometimes not, all on the whim of the dice. He watches the tension drain from the young General's mouth, watches that pale, ungloved hand scoop up the coins into pouches, the pouches stowed in pockets that muffle their clink. It is the last throw of the night, and once he steps across the threshold there is no telling when Tir will be back.
Gaspar counts out the last of the coins, worn disks that have seen the rounds of the army's palms before coming to rest in Gaspar's hands. Pushing them across the table to Tir, he finds that the cold has melted and his smile is neither forced or merely professional. "Consider it," he says, "my contribution to the Liberation Army."
There is, for one fleeting moment, an answering smile on the boy's lips. It flickers in his dark eyes, there and gone again. The last pouch finds a pocket and Tir pushes himself to his feet, hand already finding its home once more in its familiar leather shroud. "Good night, Gaspar," he says simply.
"Good night, Tir," Gaspar replies to the young General's back. The quiet steps on the stones retreat, passing out of earshot, and Gaspar stirs himself to put away the dice and trim the lamps before seeking his own bed for a few hours before breakfast.
He wonders fleetingly, as he dances with slumber, how many of their breakfasts are won over his dice table. The thought chases him, smiling, into sleep.