Gentle readers, on this, the eve of the official publication date of The Marching Dead – sequel to The Corpse-Rat King and therefore the second novel to recount the misadventures of renowned scoundrel Marius don Hellespont, as told to us by the greatly esteemed and utterly unscoundrely Mr Lee Battersby – Angry Robot is delighted to present this short tale, by way of aperitif before tomorrow’s main event… enjoy!
An hour ago there had been six at the table. Now there were two. Marius don Hellespont, late of His Automancer’s Court of Taslingham, even later of the cells beneath the court, took a moment to glance down at his cards before casually flicking over a stack of riner coins so they splashed across the green paper tablecloth.
“Whatever that adds up to,” he said, deliberately yawning. The fat Tallian across from him pursed his lips.
“That is bad etiquette, sir.”
“In this fine place?” Marius waved a hand at the shabby, peeling wallpaper, the warped floorboards, and the boarded up windows that surrounded them. “Where are my manners?” He nodded at the coins. “Whatever that adds up to. See it or raise, tubby.”
The fat man waited enough that Marius knew he was beaten. The game of Kingdom was a complex one, if you paid attention to the cards, and it became more difficult the fewer players were at the table. Ostensibly, the object was to build the hand most closely resembling the current ruling class: Royal family, if you were in Scorby, Council of Elders in Zerpha, Automancer’s Cabal in Taslingham, and so on. If you were paying attention to the cards. Only the most trusting of beginners did that.
Real players, and Marius was a real player, knew that the object of the game was much simpler: to take your opponent’s money. The cards were immaterial. What counted was keeping your opponent off-balance– learning their tells, their psychological weaknesses, and then exploiting them. Like all truly great sports, Kingdom was won by the one who best played the man. The Tallian hesitated the tiniest smidgeon, and Marius had him.
“Gods damn it.” The fat man blew out his cheeks, aiming to recover lost bravado. “Gods damn.” He made a show of counting the coins, then counting them again. Marius very deliberately did not leer like a greedy baby snatcher. “All right,” his victim said. “All right.” He riffled his stack, came to the decision Marius knew he was coming to all along. “All in.” He moved his pile into the centre of the table.
Marius didn’t count them. He had no need. He knew he had the bet covered. He paused just long enough to make him sweat, then casually smiled and laid his cards face down before him. “Call.”
A queen, a prince, a knight, three nobles, a peasant. Pretty close. Good enough to win most hands. The fat man stared at them for several seconds, then raised his gaze to Marius.
“One peasant.” He snapped the card onto the table. “Three nobles.” Snap. “One knight.” Snap. “One prince.” He held up the last card, turned it so that it faced Marius. “One King.” He laid it down with a grin, slid it into place with the others. “My hand, I think.”
He reached out to draw in Marius’ coins. To their right, a door crashed open.
“What the fuck?” Both players reared back from the table as if stung. A soldier was standing in the doorway.
“The King!” he roared. “The King has been killed!”
“Assassins from the house of Belchester! The King is dead!” He flung himself back out the door. The room erupted in a mad scramble to follow him: off duty guardsmen and civil militiamen hurling themselves towards distant guardhouses, to swords tucked over lintels, to scythes and halberds and sharpening wheels in front yards. As the room emptied, Marius raised a sympathetic eyebrow at his stunned opponent, and began scooping coins into his pockets.
“Tough timing,” he said, and rose before the fat Tallian could recover himself enough to object. “Still, the cards never lie.”
Marius sat in a booth at the back of ‘The Hauled Keel’ and watched his young apprentice Gerd weave through the crowd, two tankards of Krehmlager in his beefy fists, plonking down opposite his master and passing one over. Marius raised it in salute, and took a long swallow.
“You hid the armour?” he asked, once he’d recovered his breath. Gerd took a sip, and choked.
“In a barrel on Pudding Alley.”
“Good. Good.” Marius removed a short stack of coins from a pocket and slid it over. “Your share.” Gerd accepted it without counting. Trusting lad. Stupid boy. Marius felt the weight of all the winnings secreted around his body, and took another swallow to help ignore a sudden pang of conscience. From outside came shouts, and a clattering so loud that even the seasoned drinkers within the pub were silent for a moment.
“What’s that?” Gerd stood, and turned towards the window. Marius tilted his head.
“Soldiers,” he said after a moment. “Forming up in front of Traitor’s Gate.”
“Isn’t that the…”
“Road to Belchester?” Marius nodded. Gerd slowly sat down.
“You don’t think..?”
Marius took a long draught of his lager, shook his head, and signalled a passing girl for another while he recovered the feeling in his face. Krehmlager was traditionally strong. The Hauled Keel’s brewing room deserved its own hospital. “No,” he said, finally, flipping a coin through suddenly-clumsy fingers. “And even if there’s a little skirmish or something, nothing will come out of it but opportunity.”
The new pints arrived. He picked his up and gestured to Gerd to do the same. “Drink up,” he said. “We’ve got to get our stuff and be ready to follow them.” He smiled, thinking of the riches to be had on the battlefield to come. “I’m going to teach you how to be a corpse-rat.”