Treyce woke with a start. He had dreamt of the prison again. The feel of the cold stone that turned to dust and gravel at a light brush, the scent and taste of sea water, the sound of men mourning their tragedy of a life…but that was all in the past now. He wiped the sweat from his brow and sat on the edge of the bed. No, this wasn't prison. He could hear the sound of people downstairs having a good time at the tavern. Those were the sounds of people who had never known such madness.

In the six months since he had left the Prison of Yew Island, he had travelled far, as far as he could from that damned place. His birthplace of Marx had been always been the peg by which he compared everything else. Prison had been so much worse that he could only compare everything to that now. Twenty-three years in Marx, two dead parents, many dead friends, and political turmoil at every turn, and he thrived. More than five years in a cell isolated from such chaos, and he had completely broke. The vigor of hatred in his heart had subsided. What was left for him to grasp for after all?

The man he blamed for his parents' murders was the late Lucian Weiss, previous ruler of Marx. The warden of the prison's cruelty was soft and constant. Weiss' cruelty would strike suddenly without sign or explanation as to why, and it would strike in your most vulnerable place at your most vulnerable time. And to rub salt in the wound, Weiss usually set up such a time through chess-like strategy beginning at your zenith. It was as if he was the architect of your own personal tragedy in four acts. Treyce clearly remembered the white hair and cold eyes of that man, that heartless abomination. But unlike before, he felt nothing. No fear, no hatred, not even smug satisfaction over his death at the hands of his own air-headed niece nonetheless.

Sylvia had shown herself to be even more conniving than her uncle, but she played the game with the aim of creating something greater, not out of some sick desire of an aging man to watch the world burn according to his own designs. Her personality grated on him to no end, but she was infinitely preferable to have in power than Weiss.

The country of Azara had devolved into civil war following his tampering, but now it laid broken into pieces. Queen Andraste lay dead, another cruel monarch obsessed with seeing the world burn under her direction. Instead, the idealistic Adriana ruled over her small fief near the coast and led the confederation of Azaran states. Etuskani had finally regained political unity again after so many years of occupation from Azara, and the native Karlonians had returned to their country to rebuild. Corth had become rich from trade between the north and south, and Lomany stood above its two sister kingdoms in wealth, power, and fame. It had all come at a horrific cost in dead and wounded, but even if by some insanity those in power would allow him to influence politics, he had no idea what he would do.

That which he wanted was impossible, and that which was possible he cared nothing for.

Treyce had occupied himself with odd-jobs and mercenary work these past months. Prison had sapped him of his fitness, but he had managed to regain much of his prior finesse with daily practice and constant discipline. A bit of plying people he met for work and some consistent results, and he was making enough money to live meagerly. It was absolutely nothing compared to how he grew up, but it was heaven compared to his imprisonment. He could actually bathe and did so regularly. In fact, he could still smell the soap residue on his skin from last night's wash. I never knew public baths would be entertaining. It's almost as interesting as eavesdropping at the barber's.

Today would be a good day. He was free. Free of prison, and free of the yarn. It had been several weeks since the last time he saw the threads, and his emotional state had remained pleasant since then. No threads meant he had to learn the less accurate modes of navigating social interactions, but he had done well in most cases. Men had proven significantly easier to deal with than women, a curious upset from the threads. With the aid of the threads, he could seemingly read the minds of women as their emotional turmoil would bubble up in various ways. Back in Marx, he had been renowned as a lady killer. He simply needed to exist, and the women would flock of their own accord. Men, in their more stable and direct manner, had been more difficult to read via threads as extrapolation proved fickle and often lacked sufficient information. Most of his peers had had more feminine dispositions in their neuroticism, but he had struggled to read the more grounded men in Marx. Now, he simply responded to what he saw, and more often than not, he could converse and interact with men positively. Just last night, he had mentioned something about the traders this season charging more than he could afford for some basic utilities, and he could share a laugh and a bout of comradery with a few men equally frustrated with the economic situation.

Conversely, women tended to avoid him now. He knew he was too direct or blunt, but now he struggled to decode what would have been plain for him to see before. The men he talked with shared their annoyances with women, but they seemed to navigate them much more successfully than he could. He could see that they also didn't trust his outward appearance. As much as he tried to appear neutral or even friendly, his reflection always seemed to have a light scowl. Treyce tried making his hair livelier to match his bright, fierce eyes, but to no avail. Plus, his heart wasn't in it regardless. Anytime he managed to get close to a woman, he could only think of Alice.

What would she think of him now? Would she be content with his sentence? Or would she wish he were dead? He had heard little of her since his release other than she had gone south of the Barrier, the mountain range that only recently had been developed into a trade viable pathway between the north and south. Likewise, he had heard nothing of her little sister, Ine, or her husband, Toby. Ine and Alice were not related. Alice had de facto adopted the young girl five years ago. They had been on incredibly good terms the last time he had seen them, which was in the back of a cart bound for prison. Toby was the younger brother of Captain Cecil, the man he had almost doomed to death. At the time, Treyce had thought it simply the cost of strategy. Now, he could see his own cruelty and wondered if in his crusade to destroy Weiss he had in fact turned into Weiss. Prison had given him much to think about, and he believed he finally understood Alice's last words to him: "The word is 'friend,' not 'tool'." By talking to common folk here and in prison, he had learned the cosmic irony of his upbringing: the word for 'one who shares mutual affection' and 'a device meant for utility' were identical in his native language of Marxan. The difference would be in context and modifiers, usually called 'those who must not be used'. However, he could look back on his life and realize that many had considered him an actual friend whereas he had considered them nothing more than tools.

Alright, enough brooding. The sun's already up, and I need to do some info scouting.

Treyce stood up from the bed and stretched his back. Last night had been refreshing, and while he felt loose, his bones still felt creaky. The tavern he was staying had provided basic private utilities, and he relished washing his face with cold water. Aside from the nightmare of prison, he had slept well. Despite the town of Helvetium being rather small, it attracted enough trade to improve the standard of living above rural farming villages, and his comfortable bed was one of those niceties. Not goose feather, but he gladly would prefer this to the straw beds he had slept in along his travels.

In past times, Helvetium had morphed from a farming village to a mining town and now a stop along the road from Azara to Corth. Along the north of the Barrier, the widest and most well-maintained gate was situated between the heartland to the south and Corth to the north. Since the heartland had very little military prowess (being a collection of small-cities states) and Azara was located to the east, Corth had been protected by its terrain. Azara had more recently looked into directly going north through the Barrier and across the swampy marsh deltas of the Holt. While not strictly uninhabitable, maneuvering an army or large caravans through the land had been disastrous on numerous attempts. As one travelled back west through the Holt, it became more manageable. After the short lived but costly civil war, the Azaran Federation and Corth began created roads for mutually beneficial trade. Azarans had banked on being able to continue north into Vate to bypass Corth's trade rules, but Vate was separate from the continent by a large, raging river. So now, merchants had to either travel west and then north through Corth or cut north by northwest through the Holt and then Corth in order to connect with Lomany. And the main stop along that second route was Helvetium.

He had travelled quite literally across the continent to get as far away as physically possible from Yew Island. Honestly, he could have gone further east, but that would require becoming a hermit living in the swamp. No, not ready for that. As long as he kept his nose out of politics, he'd never risk going back to that damned place again. Life hadn't exactly been easy being a drifter from town to town, but he had managed to hone his skill at manual labor to have a serviceable income. He wasn't about to throw that away just to get a few dozen more miles away from hell.

Treyce pushed the thought of how far he had come in just over half a year aside. Reminding himself would only make him blue, and he needed to get some information about any more jobs he might find. Still…he eyed himself in the mirror. His physique had improved greatly since his release minus the scars on his chest and shoulders from yard time and disciplining. Those would always be there, but they had become a distant memory quickly. His body had turned from malnourished to lithe and toned. He would have liked to dress like he did back in Marx: fine clothes with rare dyes that moved with his body that spoke about what him. Instead, he dressed like he always did nowadays: a gray gambeson covering a cotton shirt and leather boots. Frugality meant everything now. Treyce grabbed his sword and main-gauche and strapped them to his hips. Helvetium was peaceful, but he felt more secure with a blade at his side. Plus, it was probably peaceful because most men carried a blade. Finally, he retrieved the coin he had flipped over a million times. Treyce carried this last vestige of prison with him as it reminded him of what it took to finally conquer the yarn: unyielding gazing into the capriciousness of chance. He had not flipped it once since then. He ran his fingers across the smoothened surface and where his fingers had made small indentations by flipping it. Something so simple, but he wouldn't know what he would do if he lost it. The coin had become an inextricable part of him. As he went downstairs, he passed on of the tavern girls cleaning a vacant room. She was much younger than him, probably by around a decade. Treyce never knew these kinds of things anymore without the thread. He stopped to wave hello a bit awkwardly, and she half-smiled before going back to work. Yes, the lady killed was now horrible with them. He sighed and then went on downstairs.

As soon as his feet hit the floor, a loud, raucous voice boomed full of laughter. "There he is! Treyce, my boy, how goes the shoulder?" The man was named Solomon Lindon, a burly, rugged man brimming with muscles from working at the forge. He had flecks of gray in his neatly trimmed brown beard and thick skin that shone every time he laughed. He was almost ten years Treyce's senior though acted much younger. At the table sat Joshua (the mayor's gamekeeper and guard), Hector (pig, corn, and lute farmer), and Finegold, the merchant. While one would have expected none of the men to have enough in common to have any sort of relationship, the tavern had a form of magic that brought them all together. And despite Treyce's reservation, he had become part of that as well. As far as Solly was concerned, and whatever Solly says goes.

Hector grinned. "You want to go for round two, Treyce?"

Treyce bit his lip. He had completely forgotten about his embarrassing defeat last night. Through some strange series of events, he and Hector had agreed to a wrestling contest, of which Hector came out on top. Literally. He almost tore Treyce's arm right out of its socket. Either the bath or the bed had soothed the pain away from last night, as he could barely raise his arm after the ordeal.

"No, Hec, I'm good," replied Treyce. The other laughed. Hector may have been getting on in years, but he was as spry as a gazelle. "Shucks, if you had I asked, I would have gone easy on you."

"So, Finegold, you know how to catch a hustler?" continued Treyce as he sat down at their table.

Finegold laughed while Hector scoffed at being ignored. "I got a few tips. First thing to look out for is if the bastard's a pig farmer. Can't trust none of those guys."

"Ah ha, ah ha, alright, touché, Treyce" relented Hector.

"Join us for breakfast?" offered Joshua.

"Gladly. Bacon, bread, fruit, got any coffee?"

"Carol just brought a fresh pot," sang the gamekeeper.

Treyce helped himself to a pile of fresh bacon. Carol, the owner, kept a running for him. He'd hate to see the bill after this morning, but the smell of coffee and the call of the bacon was too much. He listened to the four men as he ate and drank.

"Anyways, Joshua was telling us about this enormous boar he saw the other day eastward."

"Damn thing spooked my horse. I had to scare it with some arrows from its blind spot."

Treyce slurped his coffee a bit before commenting. "Sure it wasn't one of Hector's?" The farmer beamed but shook his head. "Nah, mine ain't that big. Wish it, but nope. I saw it the other day, too. Woulda spooked anyone if it was closer, to be honest."

"Do you think the mayor will put on a hunting party for it?" asked Treyce. The mayor would on occasion host hunting parties. Those who came along would earn a bit of coin for their trouble as well as a cut of the meat. It probably wouldn't be much, but anything was welcome at this point.

But Joshua shook his head. "Something ain't right about that boar. It looked black, and it didn't move well. Like, it was just moving but not with any purpose, you know?"

No, not really.

"I've heard a few rumors, rumors mind you," interjected Finegold, "about some Azaran lab not too far south of here."

"Lab?" asked Treyce.

The merchant twirled his blonde mustache. "Yes. Apparently, the mages down there had been working on something. Something big. When Andraste lost the war, she started a chain of command that cracked open what was down in there. That released some wild magic that began affecting the wildlife nearby."

"Pardon the pun, but that's a load of hogwash," stated Solomon. "The queen's dead, and her sister's cleaned the place out. She's too naïve to be politically savvy."

That much was true. Treyce knew much of the previous political status of Azara. Adrianna had proven quite inept at her duties. Andraste was the driving force of their nation. With her dead, Adrianna was probably just a figurehead or a puppet for the federation council. If Andraste had indeed kept a secret lab full of wild magic, then it would have spread much more rapidly. Out of the five men here, he was almost certainly the most familiar with magic. Wild magic came from untethered energy: siphoning it from people, probably prisoners. Many a victim would have died in that lab. However, there were, broadly speaking, two kinds of the magic users.

The first was those who could cast magic by means of focus and amplifier. While not everyone, a good portion of individuals could use magic so long as they could focus it through an object and with a bit of help from an amplifier. The amount of magic within their body was miniscule but quick to rejuvenate. Such magic would dissipate in a flash if released, and the explosion would be minor. Hopefully.

The second was those born with magic, like Alice. Such individuals were labelled goring, or 'blessed'. These people lived off of magical energy, and it would morph according to their personality. If one were to siphon this kind of magic and then release it, it would spread across the land like a plague, turning everything into a chaotic storm. Neither events had happened, of course. Treyce sided with Solomon on this issue, but knowing Adrastea's past actions, he could easily imagine her imprisoning and siphoning the magic of the gomrin in her kingdom. But still…

"As much as I don't like to side with Finegold," scoffed Joshua, "I have to admit, it lines up with other things I've been hearing."

"Such as?" asked Treyce.

"His Majesty's Guild has been advertising for members and contractors in here and all around Corth specifically to hunt demons and monsters."

"Those things only exist in the Outlands."

Joshua shrugged. "I have no idea what they're doing, but it's not for war. Corth isn't going to jeopardize their position as the gateway between kingdoms, and Lomany isn't about to risk another war. The Fairheights are peaceful, and Vate is content with its lot at the moment. That only leaves the Holt, and like we've said, there's been some strange things going on."

Treyce finished his breakfast after several more minutes of verbal jousting with the guys but not before getting an earful from Carol for being late on his tab. As much as it pained him, he produced a payment as well as a bit extra for his tardiness. That seemed to have satisfied Carol, but his wallet was nearly empty. Now he really needed some information or some work today. As it turned out, today and next week or so would be a bit sparse. The harvest was imminent but not ready yet, and the merchants had already moved on. Treyce could probably count on Hector for some work on his farm, and Finegold would need some man power to help transport some of the goods or escort them. But that was about two weeks or so down the road. He needed money now.

Like every day, he stayed in the open-air market, eavesdropping and looking around for potential work. As he had expected, the market was even sparser than yesterday in preparation for the harvest. A few people were preparing some stalls early, and some were trading preserves from last year, but that was about it. Except for some members of HMG chatting with the local populace. The individuals were two men and a woman dressed for travel. Their clothes bore the blue insignia of Corth: something akin to a bird wrapping its wings around a tall flame. While they spoke easily and energetically, Treyce could see a sense of business in the dealings. He had no idea how they would respond to a prior member of the Falcians (and he couldn't very well hide it because of the tattoo on his back), but he could see no other choice.

"Hello!" called the women as he approached, "We're members of His Majesty's Guild, and we were wondering if you'd like some lucrative work."

Lucrative sounded nice, but he didn't need the threads to tell him to be wary. Treyce still remembered how to ply people for deals, and he didn't exactly appreciate being on the receiving end.

"Maybe, but I'm more interested in any information you have about the strange happenings recently."

One of the men nodded. "Some of the local fauna has been acting strange. His Majesty has ordered us to investigate or hire out people to do so. I know it sounds a bit too good to be true, but His Majesty has declared this matter of the utmost importance."

Treyce raised an eyebrow. "Strange doesn't mean dangerous. Why would he throw money at the problem so easily?"

"Who knows," replied the woman. "It just means you get paid more," she said with a small wink. Yes, she was definitely plying him.

"What would I be expected to do?" he asked nonchalantly.

The other man pulled out a map of the Holt and rolled it out on the ground. He pointed to a few places with circles on them; most of them clustered near the area Finegold had alluded to for a secret lab near Azara. "We have three types of missions: lone contractors, group contractors, and guild. Guild members get priority for the higher priority missions followed by group contractors and then lone contractors."

"That'd be you," said the woman.

"We pay more for more consistent work and for higher chance of something popping up. Look, we don't know what the hell is going on in the Holt, but we have pieced together a picture of monsters, so we have a good idea of what to expect. That said, if you find something very interesting, we'll pay you more than we agreed to. Most lone work is scouting and message delivery. Groups and guild missions will have to do with investigation or killing a monster. We don't hire loners on kill assignments."

"Then demons and monsters exist south of the Outlands?" asked Treyce incredulously.

"Correct, and just recently. You've probably heard some traveler tails about a lab or temple where magic has been leaking. We haven't exactly found anything like that, but neither have we been able to rule it out. One thing to mention: the guild claims no ownership of anything you find. Bring back evidence of completion, and that'll be good enough for us."

Treyce put his chin in his hand and considered the proposition. "How much could I expect to earn?"

"We scale the reward based on the time we think it'll take to complete. If it's close by, probably a dozen silver. If about a week, probably eighty or so. That's the base pay. So if you find some interesting info, we might pay one gold."

"A dozen silver a day then? Not exactly lucrative. Unless you pay for travel expenses?"

The woman bit her tongue. The answer was obvious. "We generally don't advertise lone contractors depend on us for a living, more of a side gig. Now, group contracting…"

The man nodded. "We pay for the mission, not the number of participants. So if you get together with one of our group contractors or join the guild, it is much more profitable for you. Kill missions generally pay about a hundred gold but of course are also pretty damn dangerous."

A hundred gold?! That's almost ten-thousand times more!

"Where can I find a group contract around here?" Treyce asked with more than a little interest underpinning his voice. The woman replied sweetly, "There's one group I know of. They're part of a smaller, private guild we're not familiar with. Maybe they'll let you join them?"

"Do you know what they look like?"

"I believe one of them was an Azaran mage," said the woman thoughtfully. "A young little thing, maybe eighteen. Pretty sweet. I'm not sure if she's cut out for this line work. The other was some woman from Vate I do believe. She was headstrong and honestly quite rude. Don't remember much else about them or if they have more members. Wait…the young girl had reddish-brown hair tied into twin tails and red and white dress."

A mage wearing red and white…probably one of the Kuv'Roatal acolytes. I wonder if she's a gomrin.

"Thank you. Do you have any idea where I could find them?"

The man with the map rolled it back up and replied, "I've seen the girl in and about the market. Not sure about the woman."

After several hours of looking around the market and even towards the roads leading out of town, Treyce had worried that he might not be able to find the girl before she left. It turned out that he didn't need to worry. At least about that. He found the girl down one of the off-shoots where extra peddlers would set up shop during prime season. She definitely matched the description to a T. The girl was wearing Kuv'Roatal attire: a pale red cassock and a white half-douillette that classed around the front with buttons and cloth straps. She had her auburn-brown hair tied into two tails just behind and above her ears so that nothing covered her face except a few loose strands. Her eyes, though tired, still shone a youthful light-green. The girl had set up a small makeshift stand soliciting for aid set out in front of one of the taverns. Carol had always huffed at the competition, but she also bragged how she was the only tavern in town that could high class serve ale and a high class bed. Considering that he preferred her food and drink and needed a place to live that didn't use straw for beds, he never bothered going out to this part of town. Many of the travelers passing through grabbed a quick drink and meal before heading out again as it was close to the road. Perhaps that's who the girl was looking for.

And she found one. Well, three.

Three shady-looking men were at her stand conversing with her bawdily. She reacted with polite embarrassment but apparently couldn't say "no" to the men, and she fidgeted nervously with her sleeves. Had she been doing this all day? He felt sorry for not finding her sooner. That said, it wasn't his problem, technically speaking. The girl was an outsider, and the three hooligans were just his size though a bit more muscled. Perhaps he should slink away and wait until the men got bored? The part of him that was born in prison reviled that idea; she wasn't a means to an end of getting paid. Of course, he wouldn't survive getting paid if he intervened now. Probably. He wasn't sure if he was going to risk it. Treyce absentmindedly placed his hands in his pockets and felt for his coin.

Damn it. Alright, heads I help, tails I leave her.

"Look, me and my boys know which way the end of the swords goes where," said the gruffest of the three. "You need our help to kill that damned pig, don'tcha?" The effort of conversing had gotten to the girl. She replied as politely as possible while trying to decline. "Well…Nessy and I…we just need one person, really…"

"Oh come on, you know you ain't gonna kill that thing with just three guys. Besides, we're taking a hit on our value: 66% for the three of us is only 22% for each."

"But…Nessy said we can't…we need to take a bigger-."

The man finally lost his patience and slammed his hand on the countertop, dropping any pretense of civility. "Listen, girlie, you're not gonna have anything without our help. You wanna get greedy? Go right ahead. We'll just bump our share to 28% each. That's 84% for all three of us now."

"What?! But the bounty's only eight gold!"

"Take it or leave it."

"How about some healthy competition?" interjected Treyce. The three men turned toward him abruptly as if he had materialized out of thin air. They weren't from around here, probably from Corth or some of the inland plains. He didn't exactly like his odds of 1-on-3, but he had to show some amount of force now that he had dived right in to the fray. No turning back now.

"Wha…get the hell out of here, kid. No more room for a sixth wheel."

"Now, now," Treyce said airily. "There's no need to make a scene." He flashed his blade before returning it to its sleep. The men grumbled, nostrils flared and brows furrowed. Treyce smirked. "Miss, how about I join you instead of these three, and I only take 60%?"

"60?!" cried the man.

The girl thought for a moment. "That's less that Jake's first offer, but-."

"Fine!" Jake yelled. "We'll do it for 55%!"

"50," replied Treyce immediately.

"Damn you. We're already getting less than 20% of the cut each now! Alright, we'll do it for 40%."

"38."

"FINE! You can just hire me then for 37%!" cried Jake. The other two men yelled out in disgust. "You backstabber," yelled one of them, "I'll go for 35%." The third faced his now ex-companions and yelled back, "I'll do it for 33!"

"21%," said Treyce calmly.

The three men went silent. None of them were about to risk their lives for less than 2 gold pieces. After a bit more blubbering, they each threw their hands up and walked away, each cursing the others as the afternoon sun began to turn to evening. Treyce watched them disappear on the other side of the market, getting into another heated discussion about something he couldn't hear. Turning to the girl, he sighed. "Now that that's taken care of, would you mind bumping that cut up to at least 25%?"

The girl laughed warmly. "I'd be happy to give you 45% for what you did."

"That'd be a bit too much. How about I get three and you and your friend get the other five?"

"Sounds good to me." The girl bowed her head. "Again, thank you. Cecilia Pennaul. I'm a traveling acolyte of the church of Eish'tal."

Treyce held out his hand at an awkward angle before adjusting it hurriedly. "Treyce Yates. I'm just a drifter looking for work. I can fight. That wasn't just all talk, by the way. You know. Just so…you know."

"Don't worry," she laughed, shaking his hand, "Nessy will want to put you through your paces before we set out the day after tomorrow."

"'Nessy'? Should I-."

"No. Only me. Call her 'Neassa'." Cecilia beckoned Treyce to follow her into the tavern. Carol would have a conniption if she say one of her best (albeit late) customers patronizing a rival tavern. What she doesn't know won't hurt me. Treyce, being the gentleman, opened the door for the young acolyte. Once she walked in, he followed after her but smacked his hip against the doorframe and let out a string of curses. Cecilia asked, "Are you ok?"

"Yeah, I'm alright. Which one is Neassa?"

Cecilia got on her tip toes and looked over the crowd of energetic people. "Uh…" She grimaced. "Oh…Nessy, where are- ah! There she is!" Cecilia pointed enthusiastically into the crowd like a child. Treyce followed her finger to a table occupied by several men, a few serving girls, and hooded woman playing poker. The woman had bright red hair and a mottled green cloak that gently fluttered at her feet. To her right was a small glass of ale half-drunk. Treyce suspected it had been watered down. She had her unstrung bow, quiver, and sword set aside so she could maneuver with more ease, but her eyes darted to her weapons whenever a patron happened to get a smidge too close. Her face bored no expression. The hooded cowl over her head cast a shadow across her face. Treyce noted that she possessed no discernable ticks. She hardly looked like she was breathing. It was as if he was looking at a painted statue. Despite his efforts to keep them at bay, the threads appeared at the edge of his vision and very slightly connected him to the woman.

Treyce regained his voice after a few second of stuttering. "Is…that…?"

"Nessy? Yeah. She's pretty serious, isn't she?"

The pot had grown to several dozen gold pieces, and the audience clamored excitedly. Each player had placed their hands facedown, and while a few drummed their fingers in nervous anticipation, a couple were still mulling over their moves.

"I'm good," said one of the serving girls. Treyce couldn't imagine any waitress in this backwater being particularly adept at poker. It required years of practice to get the finer points down, and she couldn't have been older than sixteen. Don't judge a book by its cover. That how you got hoodwinked by Sylvia.

In contrast, the woman closed her eyes and mulliganed two cards. Treyce suppressed his curiosity and kept the threads from telling him what the woman drew. As far he could tell, she had a perfect poker face. One by one, the players showed their hands, a few tossing it in dramatically. Neassa smirked at the highest so far and showed her hand: a king, queen, jack, ten, and nine of spades.

"Royal Flush," she said coolly.

A few others who hadn't showed yet grumbled at their lower hands. One of the losers scoffed. "Cool it. We're playing ace-high. That ain't a royal flush."

"Exactly," replied the serving girl. "This is."

Ace, king, queen, jack, and ten of hearts.

Neassa's color drained out of her face as the girl grabbed thirty-nine gold pieces off the table and into her shirt. A few of her friends and some "friends" congratulated her, encouraging her to spend it. All the while, many of the men who had good spirits laughed at hand fate had literally dealt Neassa. She glowered at the girl before silently getting up from the table and skulking off. She had bet the last of their money. That table had been full of fish with a few decent sharks. She should have come out on top. She had bet properly and played well, and that was the sixteenth hand. How the hell did that bitch clean her out?

"Nessy?"

"WHAT?!" she snapped. "Oh, Cecilia. It's just you. And someone I hope who know what end of the sword goes where?"

Treyce gritted his teeth. What a great first impression.

"Um, how much money did you lose?" asked Cecilia.

Neassa looked down out of shame.

"Nessy, you didn't!"

"Look, we'll make the money back soon. It'll all be ok." Neassa rubbed her temples as she leaned on the bar. Treyce remained silent, fingering his coin. If there was one thing the coin taught him, it was that chance was fickle. The suspense surely was entertaining, but the idea that one would expect to make money off of it was laughable. At least, it would be. Cecilia became distraught at their lack of funds but said nothing.

Treyce sighed deeply.

Dear Eish'tal, what have I gotten myself into?