“What the hells do you think you’re doing, kid?”
Asten swallowed, tried to speak, but was then shaken so hard he failed to utter as much as a murmur.
The man holding him up in the air was the size of a bear, with a grizzly beard and wide nostrils, flaring with anger. When he finally stopped shaking him, Asten managed to stutter, “I-I am ch-challenging the h-house!”
Murmurs rose around them, as physical assault had attracted more spectators than was usual for the dukor table.
“Do you even understand what that means?” The man hissed, pulling Asten so close their noses almost touched.
“I-I do,” Asten said, forcing himself to remain calm, “And I have the right.”
“He’s right, master Crondon,” a soft voice said beside them. The grizzly man turned to face the speaker, and Asten followed his line of sight, seeing Jelene smiling at him. “He has the right, just as you all do. The house has been challenged, and the rules must be obeyed.”
“I do not know who you think you are, young lady, but I will make sure you are out of a job after tonight,” master Crondon said, scoffing contemptuously, “To speak in such a manner to a guest is unacceptable.”
“I am a simple servant of the Bason household,” said Jelene, calmly curtsying to the man who had just threatened her, “And the honor of the Bason family rests on the reliability of our games. The boy has played by the rules, and as such his rights must be upheld.”
“But the fool will lose us all of our money,” the man growled, still holding Asten up into the air, “Challenging the house is a sure way to make fool of us. How can I be sure that he is not some minion of the Basons, coming in here to swindle us of our money on your behalf!?”
A sudden and chilling change occured as master Crandon leveled his accusations. Every staff member, dressed in black and red turned their attention on the man, eyes glowing with hostility.
“Are you questioning the honor of the Bason family?” Jelene said, her eyes narrowed and mouth pursed.
“I… No,” the man admitted, “But this is still not right!”
“Let me play,” Asten said, suddenly regaining the man’s attention, “I’ll prove to you that I am not here to lose you money.”
Master Crondon studied him carefully, before he finally put him down and growled, “One chance kid. That’s all I’ll give you.”
“That’s all I need,” Asten said, smiling. He retook his seat at the table, looking over the two tablets facing him. For final confirmation, he looked toward the house manager, who awaited his call. Looking just above the manager’s shoulder, Asten got the sign. Nodding to himself, he said, “I challenge the house.”
“The house has been challenged,” the house manager said, showing an amused expression, “It will participate in the showdown. Final bets, gentlemen.”
“I thought you said you would withdraw,” master Crondon said, showering Asten with an angry glare.
“I said no such thing,” said Asten, smiling as the turn came to him, “All in.”
The murmur of the crowd rose once more, as Asten put everything he had into the pot. The other players had all called their stand with house, receiving half of their bet back. The turn finally came to master Crondon, who stared at Asten with nostrils flaring.
“Master Crondon, your bet, please.”
Shaking his head, Crondon spoke with a growling note, “I call.” With a wave of his hand, he met Asten’s bet, which was about half of his reserve. “You better be right about this, kid, or I will have your head.”
Excitement grew, as the house manager was about to call for the reveal, when Asten broke in, “Wait. The house has yet to fulfill its role.”
Wrinkling his brow, the house manager, looked at the table, trying to identify what he had missed. Since he was having trouble, Asten decided to help him. “When the house is challenged, it must meet the total bet of the players. The amount the players have asked you to protect is not sufficient, and so you must add to it with house reserves.”
“That’s… Certainly,” the house manager said, with a crooked smile, “Of course that is true, but is there really a need to go through the movements, just for this, master Asten?”
“I’m a stickler for rules,” Asten said, insistent, “Please add the amount required to the house bet.”
The house manager hesitated, then looked up just past Asten. Surprised, Asten spied Jelene through the corner of his eye, and saw her nod. Licking his lips, he understood that the woman was not a simple member of the staff, which also explained how she’d had the courage to stand up to master Crandon.
“As you wish,” the manager finally said, retrieving the required gold and placing it on the table, next to the bet that Asten and Crandon had made. “It is time to reveal, gentlemen.”
The house manager went first, unfolding his tablets and placing them on the table so that both sides were visible. With numbers running from one to fifteen, across six faces, the house had gotten a decent enough hand with a fifty-three count, not enough to make it impossible for a player to win against it, but enough that it would be nigh impossible to win against.
As the one who had issued the challenge, Asten went last, leaving it for Crondon to reveal his tablets first. The man scoffed and revealed a very impressive forty-nine, which should have been enough to win most games.
“Master Crandon does not have the numbers. Master Asten, please reveal your hand,” the house manager said, smiling.
Smiling right back at the man, Asten unfurled his tablets and put them down on the table.
“This is…!” Crandon stared at the tablets, then laughed, “A fifty-four! You godsdamn brat, you were serious!”
“I told you so,” Asten said, feeling the rush of satisfaction, knowing it had gone just as planned.
The house manager visibly swallowed, before carefully intoning, “Master Asten has the numbers. The house has been beaten. Do you wish to keep, or will you split?”
“Split,” Asten said, without hesitation. Beside him, Cordon laughed even harder. “I’ve never made such a stupid bet before,” the man said, hiding his face behind a hand, “Nor such a good one.”
Normally, the game was winner-takes-all, but in the case of a house challenge, anyone who stood with the challenger against the house could gain the split benefit, meaning their bet would be returned twofold. Only one player had to win against the house for everyone to win out.
The greater the amount of players who stood with the challenger, the more the house would have to fork out to match their bet. Potentially, the players could challenge the house every turn, and take the chance that just one among them had a better hand. However, that strategy only worked if the players had total trust among one another, since it was the winner’s call whether to keep everything, or split it with the others.
The shocking result of this gamble was clear to everyone, not least the players who had stood with the house. They had only received half of their bet, while Asten and Cordon had both doubled theirs.
“Hah! Look at those disappointed faces! Gentlemen, I am a fool who is too trusting for my own good,” Cordon said and slapped Asten’s back, “But today that trust has paid off.”
“Who’s trusting, you bloody miser,” one of the other player’s mumbled, and took a huge swig of his drink.
Cordon just laughed. “True, true all. I am a bloody miser. Therefore, I have to ask,” Cordon turned his eyes, which before had been wide with fury, now narrowed with greed, “Can you do that again, boy?”
Asten had been busy scraping together his winnings, but looked up to meet the grizzly man’s face. “I can,” he said, nodding confidently.
Another rousing round of murmurs ensued, before Cordon clapped the table and said in a loud tone of voice, “Well? You heard the lad, let’s play already.”
“Eh… Certainly, master Cordon,” the manager said, acting confidently, but Asten saw the signs he made to the surrounding staff. Asten’s confidence was both a declaration of war against the gambling house, but also and admission that there was a trick to what he had just done.
It took mere moments for the number of staff observers to double around the table. They would be scrutinizing his every move from here on out. Just as master Halifax predicted, Asten thought to himself. Now, the real game would begin.
“Another round, please return your tablets.” The manager smoothly began the game again. Every tablet was split back up into two, and their faces covered with a piece of cloth. Every tablet was returned to the pool, from which players drew one at the time.
As soon as they drew their second piece, the players connected the tablets into one complete version and placed it in front of them, before drawing the next two. Only when everyone had drawn and placed their tablets, did they remove the cloth.
The first round of betting immediately ensued, in which Asten began with a conservative play. He needed time before he knew whether he could immediately follow up the success from before. Looking over the manager’s shoulder, he saw the sign, and after another round of betting, he resigned.
The other players looked disappointed with him, but Cordon nodded and resigned as well, leaning back and grinning. Meanwhile, every staff member around them threaded through the crowd, taking note of anyone who could be giving signals, and asking spectators to change their position at random intervals.
The Bason house of gambling would not be taken lightly.
Asten threw the next two games, before he once again received the right signal. As soon as the next player forfeited, he said, “I challenge the house.”
Cordon grinned and bet all he had, as did two out of three players. One elected to watch from the sidelines, leaving the house with a massive bet to match. The house manager swallowed, looking over Asten’s shoulder for any help.
Asten noticed the slight shake of Jelene’s head. They had not discovered how he did it. Without proof, they would not move, not unless they wanted to lose all their credibility for facilitating honest games.
Grinning, Asten revealed his hand as the last, beating the house by two points, this time. The rush of winning such an extreme amount of money made his head spin.
“You are quite the gambler,” said a soft voice in his ear, “I wonder how you do it…?”
“What?” He turned and looked straight into Jelene’s huge eyes. She was looking at him with something akin to amusement, and yet there was a tone of danger in her voice.
“Oh… I’m just lucky… I guess,” Asten said, half-mumbling.
“I don’t think luck’s involved,” she said, baring her teeth.
Asten turned to the game, trying to ignore the woman even as he could feel her eyes burning into his back like hot pokers. Nonetheless, nothing the observers did could stop him from winning. As soon as he received the signal again, he challenged, and every other player at the table stood with him.
“You win again, master Asten,” the house manager said, wiping off sweat from his brow, “I suppose it is meaningless to ask whether you will keep or split?”
“Split it,” Asten confirmed, to the delight of the other players. The amount of gold on the table was unlike anything he had ever seen before, and it was far beyond what the house had initially gained, before he joined the game.
In the end, he knew it could not last, and would not last. What he had been dreading ever since he stepped into the game finally happened.
“It seems we have something of a savant among us,” a deep voice said on his left side. Turning, he was faced with an old gentleman, dressed in the same black and red as the staff, but with emblems and embroidery indicating he was far more than an overseer.
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, young master Asten,” said the old man, leaning forward so he loomed above the young apothecary, “I think you and I need yo talk.”