When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG and GELMAHTA expanded their interests in Dwarroway, including real estate holdings and eliminating a vengeful halfling crime boss – all in a day’s work for the dynamic duo. Now, they are on their way to Gatorsburg, where their friend INGA LIZARDBREAKER has asked for their aid…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Someone Blows a Funny Little Whistle
- Chapter 2 – In Which Iced Tea is Served
- Chapter 3 – In Which Innovative Firefighting Techniques are Tested
- Chapter 4 – In Which a Dizzyingly Complex Card Game is Played
Chapter 1 – In Which Someone Blows a Funny Little Whistle
Someone ought to write a song, thought Nutmeg, about being On The Road Again. It was such a common and frequent occurrence now to find himself somewhere in between two other somewheres, riding Piggles (or Numble, rest in peace) into the sun, chewing on a piece of grass, wiping little flecks of mister dusty from his mustache and watching the vultures circle offroad carrion.
He’d come to love the frontier-lands. The western border of the Hegemony was just wild enough. The woods grew thick and tall here on either side of the road, although a little thicker and a little taller towards the Hegemony interior. Out west, things got scragglier and scragglier. But the woods were no menace here, still only a week out from Dwarroway. The Hegemony authorities kept the woodlands trimmed back at least to a bowshot’s length from the road, so no murdersome goblins could ambush travelers unawares. And the inns and wayposts were frequent enough that there was still good company to be found on the journey. Which was good, because he had had it up to fucking here with Gel and Sister D.
Whatever the new high priest had told Sister D had gone straight to her newly-shaven head. Every person they met was another chance for her to tell them of the glories of Palladius; every wanted poster in every tavern was another grueling discussion about whether or not to pursue these ne’er-do-wells instead of riding down to Gatorsburg. And Gel wasn’t helping. The irritable prick was just as irritable and prickish as ever, but he seemed to be taking some twisted pleasure in needling Sister D.
It was good thing Nutmeg had drugs.
“Do you hear something?” called Sister D. She was riding at the head of their little trio, noble and proud as ever.
Gel shrugged. “I hear you.”
“That’s not what I meant.” D held up her hand. “I hear – fighting.”
“Fighting!” Nutmeg leaned forward in the saddle. “Excellent!”
“Perhaps some innocents are under assault.” Sister D raised her mace above her head. “Onward!”
Gel made a rude noise by blowing air through his clasped hands, but he rode with them. The road dipped here, flanked on one side by a burbling stream and on the other by a rocky scree. The incline meant that they had a wonderful view from above of the strange scene playing out on the road before them.
A half-dozen elves stood over the recently-dead bodies of a handful of halflings. The halflings were all dressed in laborer’s garb; a few of them carried homemade shivs and sharpened stakes. The elves, on the other hand – they were like nothing Nutmeg had ever seen. Each wore what looked like deerskin riding breeches, embroidered with beads and tassels and little discs of copper. Their chests were bare, although most had a deerskin strap across their body with a few decorations similar to those on their pants. Each carried a long, curved knife; they looked more like talons than knives, and were a curious white color. A few had bows, shortbows like the barbarian riders of the northern plains. Each wore, too, around their necks, a strange wooden whistle.
“Hark!” called Sister D. “What’s all this then?”
The elves looked up. They fanned out in a practiced formation, five behind while one approached.
“This matter, it is of no concern to you, traveler.”
“Did we miss the fight?” asked Nutmeg.
“Hardly a fight,” scoffed one of the elves. “A fight, would you call it that when a fish is caught by a fisher?”
“Enebor, silence,” said the leader. “Yes. The violence, it is done.”
“What happened here?” Sister D dismounted and folded her arms across her chest.
“Oh, who gives a shit,” said Gel. “Come on. Let’s leave these freaks to whatever it is they’re doing.”
“If I make an explanation, will you leave us in peace?”
“Sure,” said Nutmeg, quickly. “Totally.”
“These halflings – these brigands – they came upon us while were making camp, allowing our steeds some time to rest. From us, they demanded gold and silver. Coins of these sort – we do not carry them. We have no need of them. This land of yours – we are strangers here. But these explanations mattered little to the brigands. They produced weaponry. We dealt with them as we would any who challenge warriors of the Yoi Kal.”
“Yoi Kal?” asked Gel.
“Steeds?” asked Nutmeg.
“So you murdered them,” said Sister D.
“Murder!” declared the one who had interrupted before. “Would you call it that when a falcon slays a hawk in flight?”
“Enebor, come on!” said the leader. Zhe sighed. “For the last time, I say this: leave us in peace. Our matters have nought to bear on you.”
“I don’t know.” Sister D looked to Nutmeg. She did look conflicted. “Murder is, you know – you can’t just come into our lands and commit murder. Those halflings might’ve just been desperate, displaced by recent tragedies.”
“Oh my god who gives a shit,” said Gel. He had not dismounted from Bloodhoof, and sat picking his nails. “Can we just get moving? We were going to try to make it to Gatorsburg by the twenty-fifth. It’ll be summer by the time we get there at this rate.”
“Wait,” said another elf. “Alandor. Ask them if they’ve seen our prey.”
“Ah, but of course. Thank you, Uvendor. Travelers, tell me – have you seen goblins along this road?”
“Goblins?” Nutmeg shrugged. “I mean, there’s little goblin raiders all over. But no, we haven’t seen any lately in this specific part of the world.”
“A disappointment,” said Alandor. “I ask a favor of you, then, travelers.” He produced a little vial of something that glowed with a blue, unearthly light. “Should you come across the goblins we seek, on this road, shatter this vial and release the Light of the Moth Star. We will see.”
Alandor tossed the vial up, and Nutmeg caught it. Sister D frowned. “I’m still not convinced you are good people. And I can’t abide your crimes if you are not good people.”
“Is that really how you think morality works?” asked Gel. “Man, Palladius is a dumbass.”
“What.” Sister D’s voice was low and quiet. “Gel. I have had just about enough of-”
“HEY uh so thse uh GOBLINS,” said Nutmeg. “Anything to look out for before we move on and leave you guys alone and don’t drag this out?”
“They will be marked with a Red Hand,” said Alandor.
Sister D had been eyeing the elves with the look of a butcher sizing up a cow. Now, though, she stopped. Even Gel looked up from whatever strange thing he was doing with his necklace of toes.
“Did I say something to offend?” asked Alandor.
Nutmeg jumped from the saddle. “Alandor – Alandor, right? Why are you hunting the Red Hand?”
“These goblins – you know them?”
“We’ve met. In the west.”
“We come from the west. On the trail of these Red Hand goblins. I ask you again: you know them?”
Nutmeg bit his lip. This was top-secret shit. Mister E had made that clear. The Red Hand – whatever it was – had ties to the Duke, organized crime, maybe even some powerful politicians or something. These random elves from who knows where – what if they were actually spies? Or what if Sister D was right, and they were evil murderers?
“Look,” he said. “Look. We took out a base of theirs in the mountains northwest of here. They’ve been doing some crime and shit around here, but only in little groups. We’re not on their trail right now, though. Why are you hunting them?”
“I do not know if I can tell you,” said Alandor.
“Come on. I scratched your back. You scratch mine.”
“I am not familiar with this expression.”
“Yeah, you get the gist. Come on.”
“Very well.” Alandor nodded solemnly. “Our tribe, the Yoi Kal – we live far from here, in the Ra-Hest Fens. But these goblin raiders have plagued us as well. Goblins, and other things, creatures we have not seen before. All marked with the Red Hand. This particular raiding party – we have been sent to pursue them to their uttermost end. Our quest has brought us to your lands.”
“And they’re near here?”
“We believe so. They know we are following. They are fleeing. But they cannot outrun our steeds.”
Alandor raised his wooden whistle to his lips and blew. It sounded to Nutmeg like something that was both too high and too low to hear properly. Gel winced.
Noiselessly, the steeds arrived.
On silent wings they came – owls. Owls the size of cattle, monstrous against the sky. They dove and landed among the elves, and the elves greeted them like old friends. Each was fitted with a saddle and tack; each had decorations on its talons and paint on its beak. One of the owls landed at Alandor’s side and bent to tear a strip of flesh from the halfling corpse closest to it.
“That rocks,” said Gel.
“Fellow hunters, we may meet again,” said Alandor.
“You good, Sister D?” asked Nutmeg.
“I am.” She swung herself back up into the saddle. “We were well met, Alandor of the Yoi Kal. Happy hunting.”
They rode on, and left the owl riders with the dead.
Chapter 2 – In Which Iced Tea is Served
They found a farmer’s missing cow, frightened off a committee of scale-winged vultures, patched up a lakefisher’s busted boat, rescued an elderly gnome from a wild lynx, fixed a tinker’s wagon wheel, confirmed that a rumored ghoul was, in fact, just a local miscreant painted green, cured three cases of clabberpox, and helped an old lady cross the road. Every good deed – insisted upon by Sister Dondalla – put Gel in a fouler and fouler mood. Except the ghoul thing. That was funny. But as they rode into Gatorsburg, sticky already from the swampy heat, Gel felt only irritation. Since when did vacations involve volunteer work for every godsforsaken peasent within a mile of the border?
So far, Gatorsburg had not impressed him either. Shitty little town. He’d been to Sohorrisk before, that lovely decadent jewel set in the navel of the Hegemony, just around the jungled peninsula from this little town of Gatorsburg. If Sohorrisk was the belly-dancer’s jewel, Gatorsburg was the patchy, unpleasant hair on the trail down towards the groin. The farms were overgrown as hell, save for a handful of well-guarded plantations off the main road. The air here stank, a vinegary smell that could’ve been sewage or fertilizer, or both. It had rained recently, and the ground off the road was soaked through, puddly and swampy.
“Ugh.” Nutmeg rubbed his temples. “My head is killing me.”
“You alright there?”
The dwarf rubbed his nose with the back of his hand and sniffed hard. “Yeah. Yeah. Fine. Let’s get in and get done.”
Gel raised one eyebrow, but didn’t ask further. The dwarf had been growing more and more irritable these past few days, red-eyed and red-nosed and hitting the sauce.
“Excuse me! Excuse me!”
Someone was riding up the road towards them. A bald man, not in great shape, perched atop a squat little mare. “Excuse me!” called the man, again. “Is that you? Nutmeg?”
“Who the fuck is that.” Nutmeg spoke in a flat monotone, rubbing his eyes.
“I think – it’s the Mayor’s aide. Remember? What was his name?”
“Who cares.” Gel rode to the fore. “You’re excused, little guy. What’s the rush?”
“Mayor Denzel discovered you were on your way – hang on, I don’t recognize you,” he said, looking at Gel.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Nutmeg. “Keep talking.”
“Cubert!” said Sister D, snapping her fingers.
“Yes?” said Cubert.
“As I was saying! Mayor Denzel discovered you were returning to Gatorsburg, and wanted to, er, speak with you before you reached our, er, our town’s champion.”
“Inga!” Nutmeg perked up a little. “She around?”
“Yes, well, we know she sent for you, but the Mayor would like to speak to you first.”
“Are we in trouble? Because of the uh, the import thing? That was totally above-board and I stand by our choices.”
“No, no, no.” Cubert smiled. “That worked out alright. Come, come. I’ll take you to the town hall.”
By the time they reached the town hall, Gel had a thin line of sweat trickling down the back of his shirt. He felt disgusting. No trade winds to lift the thick air here. The big whitewashed town hall practically glowed; it was hard to look at. Inside, some thoughtful bureaucrat had hired a wizard to enchant the walls with an icy sheen, bringing down the temperature to something a little more humane. Cubert led them to a sitting-room decorated with various taxedermied alligators, and offered each of them a cup of some sweet-smelling chilled beverage.
“Hey, that’s good stuff,” said Nutmeg, perking up a little. “What’s in it?”
“Tea leaves and syrup,” said Cubert. “Mayor Denzel will be with you in a moment.”
Gel found the drink a little too sickly, but Nutmeg gulped his cup down in one go, wiped his lips, and reached for Gel’s.
“Any background I need?” asked Gel. “You seem familiar with this guy.”
“Eh.” Nutmeg shrugged. “Nothing to worry about. Probably just wants to, I don’t know, make sure we aren’t going to bill another blowout party to his office.”
“Are we?” asked Sister D.
“Could go either way on that.”
Through a back door, disguised in the wood-paneled wall, came Mayor Denzel. Wide-shouldered, wide-waisted, wide-headed, with a little pointy goatee. He looked this way and that, a furtive expression on his face.
“Were you followed?” He pointed to Gel. “And you. I don’t recognize you. Meanin’ no offense, but I don’t take kind to strangers these days.”
“Uh.” Nutmeg looked flabbergasted. “Well. This is Gel, he’s cool, no we weren’t ‘followed,’ and, most importantly, what’s got you hot and bothered?”
The mayor sat heavily on a divan. “Well, I appreciate you asking. I know our Miss Lizardbreaker asked you to come. We read her message. Been keepin an eye on her for a little while now. She’s not the Lizardbreaker you might’ve known from before, you see.”
“I don’t like the sound of this subterfuge.” Sister D set her drink down. “What’s happening?”
“I do apologize. I do. I must not be making much sense. Perhaps you recall our Inga’s, ah, well, bloodthirsty attitude towards the gatorfolk? Well, her mind has changed somewhat. Dramatically, in fact. No longer does she leave the spiked heads of gatorfolk outside my door. All well and good, all water under the lilies. But then the fires started.”
“Yes, that’s the cause of our difficulties as of late. A bright light appears in the midday sky to the east; then a fire breaks out in the town. We cannot determine by any means if there is a pattern to the places of attack, but these fires – they’re bad for business, you understand. And we’d only just begun to recover from that lighthouse debacle. Which – by the by, did you ever discover who was behind that unfortunate event?”
“I mean, we killed some pirates.”
“Yes, but I have had my suspicions, you understand, about who stood to benefit from their attack. I blame the city of Sohorrisk.”
“Can you give us, like, the briefest possible version of things?” asked Gel.
“No, wait, I’m interested in this. What’s going on here?”
“Sohorrisk, down the coast from us, around the Tongue – richest port on the Bridger Sea. All Hegemony trade flows through them in some way. But the merchants there – well, let’s just say I’ve heard some negative feedback from them regarding our role as an up-and-coming port town. I think those greedy sons-a-bitches sabotaged our lighthouse, and I think they’re setting fires now.”
“Okay, well, I see that line of thought,” said Nutmeg. “And Inga?”
“Well, I sure did talk to her about the fires. And you know what she thinks?”
“No,” said Gel.
“Neither do I, my boy!” Denzel exclaimed. “She won’t say a codswallopin’ thing! Every time we ask her about it, she goes on, and on, and on, sayin’ this and that about the gators – she said she ‘talked’ to ‘em, and they told her what’s going on, but she won’t tell us a thing!” He snorted. “Talked to the gators. Can you imagine?”
“Well, she probably did,” said Sister D.
“Bullhockey! No offense, priestess, no offense. But I find her behavior mighty mysterious. She’s coverin’ something up, and she’s claiming to have canoodled with the gators. You know our Inga – she’s a bloodthirsty lady, and thirstiest for gatory blood. It’s just not like her, I say, to hem and haw and say nothin’ at all.”
Nutmeg raised his hand, as if to ward off the tide of opinion. “Look, all due respect, who cares? We’re here to see our buddy, Inga. You can’t stop us from doing that.”
“And I respect that! I do, I do. I wouldn’t dream of stoppin’ y’all. But I do have a favor to ask. Keep an eye on Miss Inga, will you? At best, I think she’s a misguided individual, trustin’ the lizards. At worst…well, she’s quite popular around here, folks trust her, she’s got a lot of personal power in town. A perfect agent for the tentacles of Sohorrisk’s merchants, if you ask me.”
“That’s pretty fucking paranoid.” Gel sniffed the air. Something smelled off, although he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
“I have to agree with Gelmahta,” said Sister D. “She is a hero, and this is the treatment you give her?”
However Denzel intended to reply, he was cut off. Nutmeg lurched to his feet, sniffing wildly. “Smoke!” he shouted. “Something’s burning!”
“Oh gods above,” cried Denzel. “Another fire!”
“Yeah, no shit.” Gel slid up. “Nice meeting you, Daniel.”
Chapter 3 – In Which Innovative Firefighting Techniques are Tested
It wasn’t hard to find the fire. A column of black smoke interrupted the bright sky, rising from a tall, narrow house not far from the town hall. Gel looked to the jungle. Sure enough: a light, something impossibly bright and impossibly far away, winking and blinking over the emerald hell of the jungle.
But there was no time for that now. A bucket brigade had already begun to form up. The fire was springing to the thatched roof of the adjacent building – the flames roared, and the heat ballooned out in great waves. He turned to Nutmeg; the dwarf stared, transfixed, at the fire, idly rubbing his nose. Gel nudged him.
Sister D was well ahead of them. She joined the bucket brigade at the tail, where an old man was drawing water laboriously from a deep well. Sister D gently shifted the man aside, then hauled the bucket up with such ferocity that it sent the water spraying up the shaft.
“Nutmeg!” someone yelled. “Gimme a hand here!”
Gel followed Nutmeg over to a short, stocky woman with a shock of tight-cropped black hair. She was dressed in breeches and a plain, sleeveless tunic. On her right shoulder, a tattooed gatorskull glared out at the world. “Inga!” said Nutmeg, joyfully. “Hey!”
“We’ll catch up later – listen, we gotta – hold on – Jornup, I swear to Our Lady of the Reef, if you drop one more bucket I’ll roast your ass my damn self! Sorry, old pal. Listen. The Kalrymas house is done for, but we gotta demolish the one next to it before that fire jumps further. You still got a hammer?”
“I’ve got an axe.”
“Even better. You, elf – you strong?”
“He mostly works on his glamor muscles,” said Nutmeg.
“Not true, I just go for tone over bulk.”
“I assume you’re a friend of Nutmeg’s, so I feel comfortable saying: shut the fuck up and give me a hand here.”
Without another word, Inga Lizardbreaker dove into the small house with its roof aflame. Nutmeg followed. Gel sighed and pulled up his face-cover. Stiflingly hot, but better than breathing smoke.
The interior of the house was a red-black haze. Inga had grabbed a firewood axe from beside the door, and hacked away at the central wooden pillar holding up the roof.
“Should we do that while we’re still in here?” asked Nutmeg.
“We’ll make it,” grunted Inga, sweat flying from her body with every swing. “You got an idea?”
“I do,” said Gel. “Nutmeg – the north wall. Give me your axe, go outside, count to…thirty…and then run into the north wall. As hard as you can.”
Nutmeg squinted – whether from doubt or smoke, it was hard to say. “Alright, Gel. Let’s do it.”
“What’s your plan, elf?” asked Inga. She paused in her hacking. A bit of roof fell in, straw and thatch burning white-hot until they flashed out.
“You keep doing that,” said Gel. “You’ll see.” He raised Nutmeg’s massive axe – good gods, how did the dwarf do it? The thing swung like a bag of bricks. He gave an awkward crooked blow to the timbers of the north wall. They splintered. He swung again. These were not muscles he used often. Raised the axe, took a step back, threw himself at the wall, axe-first. More splinters flew. It was weakening, he was sure. Would it be enough? Was thirty seconds enough time? It had to be.
“It’s ready to come down!” called Inga. “One more hit and this baby’s flat. We gotta get out!”
“Wait for it!” Gel raised his hand, panting through his mask. From outside he could dimly hear Nutmeg’s voice:
Gel whirled around and ran for the door. “Let’s go!”
He looked back over his shoulder as he ran. He’d done enough. The north wall exploded in a shower of splinters as the dwarf crashed through it, shoulder-first, bellowing something unintelligible and probably foul. The shock snapped the last bit of timber holding the central pillar up. Inga grabbed Nutmeg by the collar and hauled him out behind them as the little house collapsed inwards. They tumbled to the street in a pile.
The tall building was still burning, but they’d at least prevented the fire from spreading further. Inga patted Nutmeg on the back. “You alright there?”
“Ugh.” Nutmeg rolled over. “I think I broke a rib.”
“Better you than me,” said Gel, cheerily. “Here. Your axe.”
“Yeah, next time you get to run through a wall.”
Inga rolled over and extended a hand to Gel. “Nice going back there, elf. Name’s Inga Lizardbreaker.”
“Gelmahta,” he said, panting. “Lucy’s nephew.”
“No shit.” She looked him up and down. “I see the resemblance.”
Chapter 4 – In Which a Dizzyingly Complex Card Game is Played
Nutmeg blinked awake. His room at the Mareillagough Club was just as he remembered it: a little tacky, a little run-down, but exactly his style. A fly buzzed over his head, and he watched its chaotic path, thither and yon, back and forth, sometimes so fast it became nigh-invisible. Then, it landed on his nose.
“Phaw!” he shouted, and slapped his own nose. The fly buzzed away, probably laughing. His nose stung. So awakened, he sat up.
The sun hadn’t set yet, which was good. He’d wanted to take care of a few things before he lost the daylight entirely. But gods, he needed that sleep. It wasn’t just the busted rib – Sister D had fixed that up fine. It wasn’t even their long tete-a-tete with the Mayor. No – it was his head. And everything. Everything. He was tired, he was irritated, he couldn’t stand being around people. And his bag of dusty was empty.
Was that it? Maybe a little, maybe a little. He rolled over, groaning. Had to get up. Had to get moving. But gods he just wanted rest. He’d been feeling great the past few weeks on the road. Feeling great! Ever since that business with – ever since the misadventures of the Dark Duchess of Dwarroway – he’d been on the up and up. Until now. Until the dust ran out.
There had to be more dust in Gatorsburg.
He splashed his face in the basin and wandered down to the bar. The barkeep, Jiryk’t, was cleaning a glass; zhe waved when Nutmeg descended. It was early enough that there were few other patrons.
“You want the usual?” asked Jiryk’t, pouring a shot of Gator’s Blood. “Last time you put me through near a whole bottle of the good stuff.”
“Sure.” Nutmeg sat at the bar, leaned in. “Say. Let me know if this is a rude question. But if a fellow was looking for some, well…” he paused, touched a finger to the side of his nose, sniffed. “Some of that. Around here.”
Jiryk’t raised an eyebrow. “Oh you’ve got quite some taste, huh? Well, I might know, and I might not. I hear all sorts’a things when I’m tending bar.”
“Yeah?” Nutmeg knocked back the Gator’s Blood. Just as good as he remembered. Went down nice and easy. He made a mental note to buy a bottle for the road before they left. Fishing in his coinpurse, he pulled out a couple gold and set them on the bar. “Well, I’d be interested in knowing what you hear.”
Jiryk’t pocketed the gold with a practiced hand. “You’re in luck,” said the elf, sotto voce. “The Lily Sun sails tomorrow morning for the gnome lands, but there’s a mate on that ship, fellow named Mollo, who runs a little off the side.”
“Yeah. He’s probably down at Butterfly’s Hole, gambling away his wages.” Jiryk’t sighed. “He used to come here, but he can only afford the cheap places now.”
“Shame,” said Nutmeg, feeling nothing. “Butterfly’s Hole, huh? Where’s that?”
“Jungleside. Down near the water. Real rough place.”
Nutmeg flipped another gold onto the bar. “Jiryk’t, you’re a saint.”
The long walk down the waterfront was lit by a magnificent sunset, cut through with reds and oranges, streaking across the seaside clouds. Nutmeg turned his back to it and walked into the blue twilight. He was on the shore road, a path which ran parallel to the docks. The night breezes were lifting, the tide was coming in. Waves lapped against the hulls of the ships. There was a smell from the water, a sewagey smell. Nutmeg chose to find it bracing, a delightful curiosity of port town living.
At least Inga was doing well. Better than ‘well.’ She was great. In her prime. After the fire, she’d brought them to the club and shared a drink with them. She had some clear answers, too. Answers to the questions which Denzel had posed. Denzel. What a dumbfuck. Inga wasn’t some Sohorriskan agent. She was just a cool broad who did rad shit. And this time, well, that included talking to the gators.
“The Khatchakkanak tribe,” she’d said. “They was tradin’ with the lighthouse folk. I kept in touch – been keepin’ in touch – since we met ‘em on the beach. Nice folk, them Khatchies. I stayed in their village a couple’a times. They’ve got good food, make good stuff. Anyways. Them Khatchies. I asked ‘em about the fires. Had a hunch it was gator stuff. Khatchies been dealin’ with some stuff, too. Some weird shit in the deep parts of the jungle, where no civilized gator – let alone folk like us – would ever dare go. Dark magic and shit. I figured, well, I could use some backup. Who better than y’all?”
Dark magic and shit. She’d gone on to explain some more – blah blah blah, gator cult, ancient temple, travel by canoe – but the important part was: he trusted Inga. Far more than he trusted Denzel. He wondered if he ought to offer her a job. Deputize her, too. Nutmeg, Gel, Sister D, and Inga, traveling the world, punching goblins. He doubted she’d ever accept, though. In some way, she was Gatorsburg, or at least its patron saint, there to guard and watch over the town. Maybe there had always been an Inga in Gatorsburg, sitting at the bar, laughing at the out-of-towners, popping off arrows from a time-worn bow. What would that be like, he wondered, to have a place? To be situated somewhere?
With the sun at his back, it was easy to find the sign for the Butterfly’s Hole. A crude butterfly was painted next to the squiggles, although some of the squiggles had been scratched away by vandals. Idly, he wondered what the words said now.
This place was hopping. One room, one story, a whole bunch of ancient wooden tables and a creaking, crooked chandelier so thick with old, drippy wax it was almost a new candle. A lot of halflings in here, but a lot of everyone in here. Sailors all, from the muscles, tattoos, and raggedy, salt-stained attire. No one paid Nutmeg any mind. He squeezed past a table of half-orcs throwing dice and made his way to the bar.
“What’ll it be?”
“Grog.” The barkeep slammed a stone cup down and filled it with something the color of dehydrated urine. “Two copper.”
“Thanks,” said Nutmeg, sliding a silver across the bar. “I’m looking for Mollo. He here?”
The barkeep indicated the busiest table in the joint, where no fewer than a dozen halflings sat playing a raucous game of high card bust. “He’s the one winning.”
Nutmeg clocked him right away. One of the biggest guys at a table of big guys, hair cut to a fine stubble, jaw like a lintel. Mollo slapped a card down on the table and declared “Gnome’s high! Anyone beat it?” When his fellow players all groaned and threw their cards in disgust, Mollo bellowed a laugh and scooped his winnings towards him. A few of the halflings got up, shaking their heads and muttering to one another, leaving Mollo to gloat.
“Aw, come back, ya sissies! Can’t handle a little gambling? Come on!”
Nutmeg tossed back the grog – it tasted as pissy as it looked – and elbowed his way to the table. “Deal me in.”
“Hey, a new face!” Mollo snapped his fingers. “Eyo! Wench! More grog!”
“What’s the game?” asked Nutmeg.
“High card bust,” said Mollo. “You know it?”
“Obviously. I was asking which card was the coronet.”
“Well well, we got a real ace here!” Mollo slapped a fellow gambler on the back. “Aw, don’t look so glum, Humbort – you might lose money to him, instead’a me!” He guffawed at his own joke. “Gnome’s the coronet, house rules say halfling plays twice, except on the double board.”
“Naturally. What’s the wager?”
“Five silver minimum.”
“For a guy like you?” asked Nutmeg. He gestured to the stack of gold and silver in front of Mollo. “That’s a little cheap. Come on, let’s raise the stakes.”
“Something in mind?”
Nutmeg tapped the side of his nose and winked. Mollo slapped the table. He did a lot of slapping.
“Hah! Alright! Fine. I’ll put a bag on the table. Sale value thirty gold. That’s thirty gold, ya reprobates,” he said, addressing the other gamblers. A server brought him more grog, and he slopped it down immediately. The other gamblers were pushing their chairs away, shaking their heads.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, stranger.”
“Fine by me,” said Nutmeg. “You draw first.”
As far as games of chance went, he preferred to throw dice. Less jargon, more raw probability. But high card bust was a time-honored street game, quick and dirty, with more rules than could fit in any library in the Hegemony.
Mollo drew. “Dragon!” he claimed.
Nutmeg drew. A Pensieve Knave. “Second dragon’s in!” he claimed.
The drawing phase continued. “Majesty’s Tourniquet!” “Tower Thrice!” “Yeoman, Inverted!” “The Fool!”
“Gnome!” claimed Mollo, completing his board hand with a triumphant flourish. It was a good claim. Nutmeg drew. Halfling. No reason to lie. “Halfling!” he claimed.
“Ah, shit.” Mollo gestured to the deck. “Double-draw.”
“Tell you what,” said Nutmeg. “I’ll forgo the double-draw if you raise the stakes again. Another bag of dusty.”
“Another bag?” Mollo squinted. He looked at his cards. Then at Nutmeg. Then at his cards. “Alright. Alright.” He tossed another on the table. “Come on. Let’s do the double board.”
They continued to draw. Mollo’s expression grew tighter. Nutmeg watched the draw deck dwindle. He was pretty sure he knew which cards Mollo had bluffed. But he was drawing strong now, this halfling. Faking that tight expression, that dismay with each claim. He even claimed a Ransom Trench on his third draw in the double board – what sort of bluff was that? Had to be something good. Nutmeg felt sweat drip down his forehead. The table was going quiet. The other gamblers watched. The board was done, the double board as well – now it was time for the winnow. He watched Mollo’s cards carefully as the halfling tossed them from hand to hand, moving this one to the sink and this one to the mirror, back and forth. Complex. Trying to buffalo Nutmeg. Trying to make it look tricky. He had to have the high Gnome again. He wasn’t lying on that first draw. But then – no, he was lying, Nutmeg was sure of it. Mollo would start with a good bluff like that. Bold halfling. No, he picked up the Gnome later. In the double board. And if he picked up the high in the double board, he could be beaten. By just the right draw. By the play they called the Adulterer’s Gambit.
“Final draw!” announced Mollo. “Guest first.” They’d lain their cards in the sink and the mirror – now there was only one chance left to change the tides of fate.
“No, you first,” said Nutmeg. “I insist.”
“Ask me twice, why don’tcha!” Mollo drew, laughing. He kept laughing as he added his final card to the mirror. “Bad move, dwarf. Go ahead.”
Couldn’t have made any difference. Mollo was going to ride it all on the high Gnome again. Was he cheating? Hiding a gnome in his pocket? Maybe, but it didn’t matter. Nutmeg drew. And smiled.
“Alright! Bust!” Mollo played his card, the last card in his hand. Yes, there it was: the Gnome. “Gnome’s high!”
The other gamblers groaned. One even patted Nutmeg on the shoulder apologetically. But Nutmeg laughed.
“What’s the joke?” asked Mollo, leaning back and smiling. “You quit dusty years ago?”
“Oh no,” said Nutmeg. “No, no. Gnome’s high, I know. And when bust comes to bust, that’s what counts. But I think you’ve been reading me wrong.”
“Yes.” Nutmeg played the final card from his hand. “The Circular Window!”
Mollo frowned. “Well, that just lets you -”
“I know how it works,” said Nutmeg. He shuffled his mirror cards. “Go ahead. Shuffle yours.”
“Fine.” Mollo’s pleasure had vanished; like a storm at sea, a dark mood was blowing in. “Fine.”
“On the count, we both do a secondary bust from the top mirror card – after shuffling, of course. If I have the high card, it forces the tertiary bust from the sink. Go ahead. Second bust first.”
Mollo shuffled his mirror and threw down the card. He grimaced. “Majesty’s Tourniquet. Fuck.”
“I thought as much.” Nutmeg threw his down. He breathed a sigh of relief. “A Pensieve Knave.”
“Fuck!” said Mollo again, tossing his mirror cards aside. “Fuck!” He picked up his sink cards and shuffled. “Fuck!” he said, while he shuffled.
Nutmeg kept his hands steady. It all came down to this. It was a gamble. A real gamble. No way around it. He could still lose, even after putting into play this perfect version of the Adulterer’s Gambit. The Adulterer’s Gambit almost never worked. That’s why they called it that, he assumed.
Mollo finished shuffling. He threw down his card. His face lit up. “The Tower Twice!” he shouted. The audience groaned. A good card. A high card. Hard to beat. Unless –
Nutmeg shuffled. He drew. He threw down.
“The Tower Thrice,” he proclaimed.
The place exploded.
Mollo leapt onto to the table to try and grab his dusty back. A few gamblers started punching each other, apparently for the pure sport of it. One of them fell into a half-orc; the half-orc stood, and got his head caught in the creaky chandelier like an ox caught in a yoke. Nutmeg threw one of his cards at Mollo with a flick of the wrist. He knew what he was doing. This was what he was good at. He caught Mollo in the eye. The halfling lurched back, roaring. Nutmeg grabbed the bags of mister dusty. He dipped a finger into one, rubbed it on his gums. Good gods. Good gods almighty that felt incredible. Mollo lunged for him. Nutmeg kicked out and broke something in Mollo. Someone tried to grab Nutmeg from behind, some bold seaman. Nutmeg swung his head back and broke the individual’s nose. With a terrific yell, he turned and bolted for the door. A half-orc stood in front of it, methodically punching out a halfling’s teeth, one by one. Nutmeg veered towards the window.
For the second time that day, Nutmeg exploded through the wall of a building in Gatorsburg. With the might of mister dusty in his veins, he sprinted down the shore road, away from the Butterfly’s Hole. Had to get some sleep tonight. Tomorrow, they were setting off, via canoe, for the strange and unknown dangers in the heart of the jungle. But tonight?
Well, tonight was pretty good.