High Stakes – a story from the Gamblers’ Frontier

Watching Ernie shuffle cards hurt Lizzie. It wasn’t that she wanted to hold them in her own hands, to feel the flow of magic through the deck. It was the sheer clumsiness of the man, the ungainly way he mashed the cards together. Watching someone make such a mess was unbearable.

The doors of the saloon swung open. Alfonse King stepped inside, his gleaming shoes clacking against the floorboards. He twirled the end of his moustache between his fingers. Behind him came Figgis in a crumpled old shirt, followed by half a dozen matching thugs, all wearing six-shooters.

“You came.” Lizzie pushed the empty seat away from the table. Alfonse dusted it off with a handkerchief before sitting down.

“I hear you beat the men hunting you,” Alfonse said. “I figure now you’ll get bored and start making me trouble. So I’m offering you the chance to leave town.”

“Just me?” Lizzie asked.

“I’ll release you from the spell so you can move on,” Alfonse said. “Let the past be the past.”

“Not interested,” Lizzie said, looking around the table. Laughing Wolf gave her a slow nod. Ernie just focused on the cards.

“But my offer still stands. One game, high stakes. If I win, you let down the barrier trapping folks here. If you win, I’ll marry you.”

“You said you’d marry me before.” Alfonse’s tone was bitter.

“This time I’ll be bound by my own magic,” Lizzie said. “You can put that old humiliation behind you.”

“What’s his stake?” Alfonse pointed at Laughing Wolf.

“My tribe’s knowledge of these lands,” the native said.

“Alright.” Alfonse nodded. “I’m in.”

Ernie slid a pile of counters in front of each of them and then dealt the first hand. The minute they placed their bets, Lizzie felt the power binding them to the game.

That was magic. It used you as much as you used it.

Within half an hour, Laughing Wolf’s stack of chips was almost gone. Lizzie wasn’t surprised. Alfonse had played in the most powerful cabals New York and Washington had to offer. It was all she could do to counter the card tracking spells and distraction cantrips he was using against her. Laughing Wolf never stood a chance.

“All in.” Laughing Wolf slid his remaining chips into the pot.

They flipped their cards over. Alfonse hadn’t been bluffing about his strength on this hand.

With a sigh, Laughing Wolf got up and went to stand by the bar, taking his brightly coloured coup stick with him.

The next hand went Lizzie’s way. Then two went heavily against her. She was down to a handful of chips. That meant less room to take risks, less chance to scrape back a win.

She gritted her teeth, trying not to let her frustration show. She’d thought she was onto a good thing. Instead, she risked having that snake Alfonse paw at her every night.

“You’ve been practising,” she said, trying to get him to open up a little.

“That and business are all I’ve got out here.” He ran his gaze up and down her body. “Until now, anyway.”

She won a couple of small pots, but not enough to balance the stakes. Then she let him win one so that she could run a spell through the winnings and try to expose his mood. But he sensed the magic and countered it by tipping Ernie with the critical chip.

Next, Alfonse hesitated over a big bet. She thought she had a winner and kept pushing the bets higher, only for him to reveal a full house, Kings over Queens, and take it all away.

Lizzie’s spirits sank. She was down to her last few chips.

“Why are you doing this?” Alfonse asked as Ernie slowly dealt the cards.

“I didn’t want anyone else to feel trapped,” Lizzie said. “Like I did back when we were engaged.”

Anger flashed across his face, the first real emotion he’d shown all game. Then he picked up his cards.

He tapped his finger and thumb together. Just a little gesture, but one she recognised.

The facade had cracked. He had a bad hand. But she didn’t have enough chips to make the most of it. He could just bet small, let her win, and wait to beat her later.

Or…

“All in,” Lizzie said. “And I’ll offer you something else too.”

“You’re going to marry me twice?” Alfonse asked with a raised eyebrow.

“My power with the cards,” Lizzie replied. “I’ll bet that against everything in front of you.”

“High stakes,” Alfonse said. He looked at his cards, then back at her. “Alright. I’m all in.”

As he pushed his pile of chips into the middle of the table, she felt the power flow out of her and into that heap. The game had heard her bet. It had bound her.

Everyone in the room held their breath.

Lizzie revealed her hand. A pair of Jacks. Together with the one on the table and the pair of threes beside it, that made a full house.

She smiled. Then a doubt gripped her. Why had Alfonse agreed if his hand really was bad?

Solemnly, he revealed his own cards.

A pair of threes. That made four of a kind.

Lizzie felt like the breath had been ripped out of her. Under pressure, she had missed the most obvious thing in the world. She stared in horror at Alfonse’s winning hand.

He tapped his finger and thumb together.

“Thought I’d forgotten how well you know my tells?” he asked, grinning.

He swept his winnings over to him. Lizzie could sense the magic of the game, could see the glow of power swelling around him.

Alfonse pulled a ring from his pocket and flung it across the table.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You’re going to be Mrs King.”

Lizzie stared at that tiny, gleaming prison. Then she picked it up and slipped it onto her finger.

What else could she do? She’d played and she’d lost.

“I need some air.” She stumbled to her feet, trying to control a sob as she stumbled out into the street.

* * *

 

This is part of me experimenting with serial flash fiction. You can read the preceding stories here:

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