Time: In transit, just after Hell for the Company
“I thought you both said you enjoyed this game?” Ness fidgeted uncomfortably with his cards, gaze shifting from Shax to Verin and back.
“We do, cupcake.” Shax murmured, then he raised his head from his cards, one perfect red-gold eyebrow arched. “Whatever’s the matter?”
“You’re so very serious. And Verin’s scowling.” Ness flicked his wings carefully so he wouldn’t scatter cards. “This doesn’t appear to be fun at all.”
“Verin’s always scowling, my dear,” Shax murmured, returning to the earnest contemplation of his cards.
“It’s how you play, Twinkles,” Verin said on a puff of steam. “You can’t let anybody know what you’re holding.”
Ness pulled his cards in closer. “I understand that part. I’m not showing anyone my cards.”
“Hmm, yes.” Shax removed two cards from his hands, placed them face down on the table and tapped them. “Two please, Ver. It’s more than that, Ness. You can’t let anyone know what you have, good or bad. If you’re not careful, your face shows what sort of hand you have.”
Verin slid two cards across the table to Shax. “Get your hand out of your fucking pocket, your highness. We agreed to no cheating. Ivana, are you watching him?”
“I have my eye on our hot little captain, don’t you worry,” Ivana sang out from the ship speakers. “He’s not cheating. Yet.”
“Always so suspicious.” Shax rolled his eyes and handed a plasfilm printout over to Ness. “The ranking of hands. In case you forget. It’s a lot to remember at first.”
Ness thanked him and divided his attention between the list and the cards Verin had dealt him. He was supposed to make a valuable pattern from what he had been given, much of which had to do with chance, though there were definite probabilities involved. The cards included three red ones and two black, the red ones all displaying the same symbol, the parallelogram up on its point, and the black ones both showing different symbols, the clover sort of shape and the one that looked like a stumpy tree. Bottom lip caught between his teeth, Ness removed the two black cards and slid them toward Verin.
“See, that sort of expression, cupcake. You look worried. Tense. Other players will read into that,” Shax murmured as he rolled one of the foil-wrapped chocolates they were using as money across his fingers.
“Oh.” Ness tried his best to look blank and serious, or blank, or serious, knowing he probably looked ridiculous. He picked up the cards Verin gave him, and managed to stifle a gasp in a sniff. Both new cards were also red, both with the four-sided symbol. That had to be good, yes? He checked the value of each card and after some shuffling, realized he had a sequence…but only four in a sequence. Frowning, he studied his chart. Ah. The sequence would have to be all five cards to count, but wait. All five cards with the same symbol--suit. That was a flush. Even better than a sequence.
Calm. Uninterested. He wasn’t to give himself away. He put his first chocolate out in the center when Shax and Verin did, into the pot, which was silly. There was no pot. Not even a skillet.
Shax, still wearing his most serious face, tossed two more chocolates into the center. “Raise. Ness?”
The rules of betting had been explained several times until Ness believed he understood. He felt terribly wicked gambling, but he supposed since it wasn’t for money, it wasn’t truly sinful. “I, ah, see your two and raise two.”
“Damn it. I got less than shit,” Verin grumbled. He put his cards face down with a huff. “Fold.”
One of Shax’s eyebrows crept up, but he met Ness’s bet and raised again. This went on for several rounds, each time Ness becoming more and more nervous under Shax’s skeptical gaze. Finally, he only had two chocolates left and he had to concede.
“You must have something truly astounding, love,” Ness said ruefully as he lowered his cards. “I suppose I must fold, too.”
“So? What’d you have, bonehead?” Verin growled.
Shax’s grin spread slowly over his handsome face as he placed his cards face up on the table. Ness leaned over to decipher what had beaten his lovely flush—a tree king, a heart two, a tree three, a clover 7, and a four-sided 9?
“But…” Ness checked his list and tried to make sense of the cards. “But that’s…nothing!”
“And that, my dear…” Shax unwrapped a chocolate and popped it in his mouth, still grinning madly. “Is how you win on attitude alone.”
“That’s not—” Ness wasn’t certain what he would’ve said. Not fair. Not right. Not cricket. Just not nice. But in that moment he understood both the game and the universe according to Shax. It was a good thing Ness loved him.