“All right, Arche, are you going to fold, or are you going to continue this farce of a game until we’ve won all your allowance?” Lamorak Gwynedd asked, and Tommy Pendragon was hard-pressed to keep the grin from his face.
The dark-skinned young man scowled. “I’ve not yet begun to play!”
“Oh, good,” Tommy replied. He waved his hand and the barmaid, always eager to attend to royalty, looked up. “Drinks are on him!” he said, pointing to Arche.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’d best fold before the Cardsharpers of Albion take half your inheritance,” Rob replied, his eyebrows lifting. “Take it from someone who knows.”
“I’m not a fool enough to bet more than I can afford to lose,” Arche replied, looking down his fine little nose at the commoner Rob. “And if you’ve already lost whatever pittance — sorry — vast family fortune you have, why are you still playing?”
The great thing about Rob was that he never rose to the bait dangled in front of his nose. Never. Instead he looked at his cards. “Nice thing about being a second son,” he remarked, “is that I haven’t got any vast family fortune entrusted to me to lose. And as for whatever spending money I happen to have, well …” He occupied himself with organizing his cards and lowered his voice so that even Tommy had to lean a bit forward to hear. “Funny thing — prices on, er, ‘tutoring’ always seem to go up once a certain amount of money changes hands.”
Tommy’s eyebrows went up. He’d never paid for tutoring: if he needed help, he had a best friend and a much smarter sister who would help him for free, and if “tutoring” was some sort of code word for paying for term papers or assignments, well, his conscience might be flexible but it wasn’t that flexible. But to judge by the flushed and guilty expressions both Lamorak and Arche wore … clearly Rob did not lack for customers.
Arche laid his cards on the table. “I fold.”
“Damn it, Rob, you scared him off,” Tommy mock-growled, but Lamorak only laughed and scooped up his share of the winnings.
As Lamorak counted up the silver coins, Arche scowled and marched away to the bar.
“It’s a pity we can’t get Will to give us a hand every now and then,” Lamorak remarked. “We’d make a killing.”
“From each other, maybe,” Rob remarked. “Do recall that there can only be four players.”
“Well, you and he would switch off, obviously.”
“I don’t think that would be such a great idea,” Tommy murmured, glancing over his shoulder at Will, who was at the bar with Milo. “Will’s not that great at playing a part.”
“Aye, aye, true. Well, let’s see … who can we fleece next …” Lamorak’s eyes wandered toward the door, and he swore. “Bloody hell.”
“Bloody hell what?”
He gestured. “Here comes trouble.”
Rob was off to the door like a shot, just as trouble walked in … trouble in the form of the merchant girl Danielle Ferreira, Tommy’s own lovely betrothed Lynn de Ganis … and … Tommy’s sister.
“Oh, bloody hell,” Tommy muttered, as he went off to meet the trouble.
“Well, ladies, what do you think?” Tommy heard Danielle Ferreira ask as she openly sized up the pub between her hands. “As big and bad and scary as you thought it would be?”
Lynn, bless her heart, was still looking about her with more than a little trepidation, but Jessie’s gaze contained nothing but frank interest … interest that grew even more engaged as Will left his half-finished pint at the bar and walked over to her more quickly than Tommy would like. Luckily Tommy was closer, and quicker.
“Excuse me, my ladies. Mind if I borrow my sister for a moment?” Tommy gave a broad wink at Lynn, then took Jessie’s arm and led her a little way from the group before anyone could object. Jessie shot him a look — the sort of look that said he would find himself turned into a toad very shortly if he wasn’t careful — and he let go of Jessie’s arm rather quickly. “I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me what you’re up to, coming here?”
“Don’t suppose you’d like to tell me the same thing?” Jessie replied, going back to her curious gazing about. “Shouldn’t you be studying?”
“You’re not studying –”
“I’m not inheriting a kingdom,” Jessie pointed out.
“And neither am I, not for a good long time at any rate,” Tommy answered. “Bloody hell, Jess, it’s one thing for me to be here, I can take care of myself –”
A shower of blue sparks shot from her hand. “And I can’t?”
“It’s not the same thing, and you know it … church won’t like it if you’re using magic on its property …”
“Church doesn’t like a lot of things,” Jessie pointed out. “Like gambling.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Well, I have to — er — augment my allowance somehow,” Tommy replied. “Can’t be bothering Dad every time I … er …”
“Want to treat Lynn to a lovely night on the town?”
Tommy scowled. Trust Jessie to know exactly what buttons to push — buttons like the fact that he’d been so absorbed in, well, everything that he hadn’t had a chance to take Lynn out. Yet. “You are evil.”
“You bloody well succeed, that’s what you do …” Tommy sighed. “I don’t suppose there’s any way I could talk you into going home?”
“You’d have to talk to Dannie, it was her idea to come here,” Jessie replied. “And she seems a bit … occupied.
Tommy looked over his shoulder to find that yes, indeed, Dannie was … occupied.
“So are you done being the protective brother?” Jessie asked, lights of amusement obviously dancing in her eyes … eyes that kept flickering over in a direction tha Tommy would have bet a kingdom held Will.
Oh, bloody hell. “I suppose,” he muttered.
“Wonderful! Enjoy your evening, Tommy.” And with that Jessie skipped off in the selfsame direction that she had been looking in.
And as for Tommy, well … he consoled himself in his defeat by seeking one young woman who would, at least, be glad to see him.
The evening continued to progress smoothly. Tommy had himself well occupied with Lynn — it was a damn good thing there were no bedrooms in this second-rate dive bar, or else things might have gone a bit farther than either of them had planned — Rob and Dannie sat at the bar, drank, told each other jokes, and kissed when they could catch their breath from activities one and two, and Will took advantage of Tommy’s distraction by sneaking in a dance with Jessie.
The only one lacking a young lady from home was Lamorak … and even Lamorak didn’t lack a young lady for long; out of the corner of his eye Tommy caught him chatting up a rather pretty young black-haired woman in pink.
Tommy, however, had rather more important things mind than wondering what his friend was up to … which was his mistake.
His first indication of trouble came with a crash of glass. “Your betrothed?” Lamorak shouted. “I doubt it! She certainly wasn’t acting betrothed, sirrah!”
Tommy’s ears perked up at the insult; he glanced over to find Lamorak’s finger jammed in the tunic of a young blonde man. Lynn squeaked and Tommy’s hand snaked around her waist, pulling her closer.
The young man looked up with an expression that Tommy, had Lynn not been melting into his side, would have called murderous. “She is, my lord,” the young man snarled. “And you’d best keep your hands off her, if you want to keep them attached to your arms.”
Tommy looked around, feeling rather than seeing the mood of the bar go sour, like ale left out for far too long. Will and Jessie suddenly appeared at his side — or rather, Will appeared at his side, and Jessie at Lynn’s. “Come on, Lynn — Dannie said we ought to go.” Tommy glanced toward the bar, to see Dannie taking a farewell from Rob that would have been brief — if it hadn’t been so protracted by the quick kisses they kept giving each other.
Other young women — including Pink-dress, the one whom the fight was about — were also edging toward the door. The men, however, were standing, hands going to swords or knives on belts. No sooner had Jessie and Lynn gotten ten feet away from Tommy than Milo materialized where Lynn had been. (Well, not quite where Lynn had been.) “Tom, we should go.”
Tommy and Will exchanged glances. “Go?” Tommy asked.
Will said nothing, looking around. If he was seeing the same thing Tommy was, then he was seeing the angry glances being cast in Lamorak’s direction. Flirting with unattached young ladies was one things, but the betrothed … the betrothed were sacred. You didn’t mess with another man’s woman. And if you did so unwittingly, you quickly apologized, backed off, and made sure it never happened again.
Trouble was that “apologize,” so far as Tommy was able to figure, was not a word in Lamorak’s vocabulary. And while he could get away with that with one upset man of merchant stock … against a whole bar, Tommy wasn’t so sure.
“Lamorak will get flattened if we let him handle this on his own,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth to Will.
Will grunted, noncommittal. Then again, he never was into commitment where Lamorak was concerned. Sometimes Tommy wondered why … the rest of the time he was glad he didn’t know.
“Tom …” Milo murmured.
“We came in together, we leave together,” Tommy decided. “Milo, get Rob. Will — watch my back. I’ll get us out of here.” Will nodded once, and Milo, frowning, obediently went off to fetch Rob.
The merchant man was glaring at Lamorak, but not quite daring to strike yet — Lamorak was practically daring him to try — when Tommy marched up to him. “You!” he shouted. “I should have known I’d find you harassing another man’s betrothed!”
Lamorak’s jaw dropped as he stared at Tommy. “B-b-but –”
“As if trying to cop a feel on mine wasn’t enough!” Tommy shouted.
“M-m-m-my lord! I never –”
“I think,” Will murmured in an undertone to the enraged merchant, “that you’ll find my prince has a prior claim. You wouldn’t mind waiting a bit to get a piece of Sir … er … Lamorak, here, would you?”
Poor Lamorak blanched. “B-b-but I n-never –”
“You never! My ass, you never!” Tommy replied, shoving Lamorak forward. He snapped his fingers once, and Milo and Rob quickly flanked him, leaving Lamorak with only one viable direction: the door. “I think, sir, we had best take this outside.”
“O-o-outside? But I –”
“Unless,” Will interrupted, “you want to declare yourself a coward and recreant now, and spare us the trouble.”
Tommy could barely restrain himself from grinning; good of Will to revert to the ancient formulas! That would get Lamorak’s honor involved for long enough for him to get outside.
Lamorak’s nostrils flared and he drew himself up. “Since you insist upon it, sirs, I have no choice.” He turned toward the door, then looked askance at the four men blocking all other exits. “I hope, however, that the fight will be fair?”
“You think our prince is as much of a coward as you are, to fight at unfair odds?” Milo added — good of him, Tommy would have to buy him a round the next time they dared show their faces in public. “We simply come as witnesses.”
Lamorak gulped, but he quickly passed through the door. Tommy, Will, Milo and Rob followed him out, Rob shutting the door behind him.
As soon as they were out in the blessed cool air, Lamorak turned around. “Tom, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but–”
“Shut up, you’ve already gotten us into enough trouble, I won’t have you ruining our head start as well.”
“Head — eh?”
“Head start.” Tommy lowered his voice. “So we can begin Phase B of the operation.”
“And what would that be?” Milo asked.
“The only sensible thing to do when you’ve got a whole bar full of people pissed at you, mate,” Tommy replied. “Run!”
And so they suited the action to the word.