19 Oct

The Coral

“Call or fold Hobbe, before we all die of boredom. Perhaps Lann there could help you count your score, if you’re having trouble?”

The man the others called ‘Grinning’ Hobbe scowled at his cards, ignoring the jibe as his lips moved in silent calculation. He reached one large hand to his cheek, idly stroking the ugly ridges of scar tissue that ran from the remains of his left ear down across his mouth and chin, twisting his lips into the expression that gave him his nickname.  His eyes flicked up to his smirking opponent.

“Your mother was a mangy bitch, you know that Mars? Keep that clever tongue of yours silent or I’ll rip it out and feed it to you.”

At hearing his barb strike home Marsuvial’s grin widened further, teeth white against tanned skin. Pushing his fine blonde hair back from his face, he glanced down the table at Lannister, to see if the older man shared his mirth. Lann’s weathered visage was set in his usual expression, that of a man who’d swallowed something particularly foul. Lann’s face seemed to have decided at a young age that it favored the expression and had held to it ever since, no one could recall ever seeing the man smile. Lann met Marsuvial’s gaze and snorted, he had little patience for Mars’ games, especially now that Mars had taken all of his money. Laughing, Marsuvial turned back to Hobbe.

“Now, now. A bitch she may have been, but she didn’t have the mange. A few fleas occasionally, yes, but my father kept the silly woman in the finest soaps and shampoos from Leimos, she barely ever scratched. ”

It was no secret that Marsuvial didn’t see eye-to-eye with his family. Mars had always been a wild one, a thrill-seeker and hellion, even more so than was usual for bored sons of minor nobility. But there was a limit, even for the noble class, and Mars had ever been one for pushing boundaries. When word spread through the gossip circles of Korrinport that he was running with the notorious Red Knives street gang, it had proven too much of a disgrace for his family. They’d disowned him, cut him off publicly and completely.

Mars said he’d found the whole incident amusing, reveling in the embarrassment he’d caused his parents. He’d long since embraced the lifestyle of the criminal underworld. With his quick wits and daring he’d thrived in it, hardly wanting for any of the luxuries of his previous lifestyle. He’d be leading the Red Knives by now if Jhendal and his Hands hadn’t eliminated or absorbed their competition when they’d arrived in Korrinport. Ever quick to notice the changing of the winds, Marsuvial had abandoned his fellows and joined the Hands with little hesitation. Most of the Knives had taken the opposite path, chosen to fight for their territory. And ended up floating face-down in the harbor.

Mars’ display of disloyalty might have hindered his prospects in another profession, but there were few illusions amongst criminals, to expect your peers to be motivated by anything more than self interest was naïve, dangerously so. The trick was to make sure that it was in their best interests not to turn on you.

Jhendal was a practical leader; he didn’t waste potential resources. For all of Marsuvial’s faults, incompetence wasn’t one of them. He had to be reined in at times, but he never failed to get the job done, quickly and efficiently. In a handful of years he’d climbed the ranks of the Hands and was now counted amongst Jhendal’s lieutenants.

Hobbe examined his stack of coins, keeping his hand close to his chest. Not a particularly skilled player, he’d stayed in the game this long thanks to a few lucky hands and the fact that Lann and Mars had been concentrating on countering each other. But Lann had risked his all on cards that should have won, would have won, had Mars not had the single hand that could beat them. With a curse the older man had declared himself done for the night, retiring from the game to watch it play out and drink that bitter Koethan ale he favored. Mars had then proceeded to whittle down Hobbe’s pile of coins, smirking as he watched the big man sweat and curse under the pressure. Hobbe was down to less than a third of what he’d started with, too little now to raise Marsuvial’s bet. With a snarl he pushed his coins into the centre of the table.

“Damn you, I call it.”

Expression carefully blank, Mars slowly placed his cards on the table, while Lann sighed and shook his head over his tankard. Towers, Mars had 3 Tower cards, beating Hobbe’s pair of High Priests easily. The bigger man snarled his frustration as Mars stood and, with exaggerated motions, swept the rest of Hobbe’s coins into his pile.

“You’re a cheat Mars. You always win. No one always wins!”

Laughing again, Mars sat, drained the rest of his ale then leaned back so that his stool balanced on its hind legs. As he did so he turned his head, eyes tracking the passage of their young waitress as she passed their table. Somewhat harried looking, but attractive nevertheless, just come into the full bloom of womanhood. Without turning back to Hobbe he replied “Ah, but that’s a valuable lesson right there, my friend. If you’re going to play in a rigged game, make damn sure you’re a better cheat than they are. Consider your coins fair payment for the lesson, aye?”

The girl had noticed Mars’ gaze. Smiling that dazzling smile of his, he held up his tankard, indicating its emptiness then gesturing to the other men at his table, winking at her as he did so. Smiling now herself, the girl turned and headed back towards the bar, spine straightened, shoulders back, the rolling passage of her hips deepening, slowing, flaunting.

Marsuvial’s expression tightened hungrily as he watched her cross the room. That is, until his gaze shifted and he noticed Mistress Alda glaring at him from the kitchen doorway. Jhendal had directly forbidden Marsuvial from touching Alda’s girls. Mars was a charming one, certainly. Despite his attempts to distance himself from his refined upbringing, despite the earrings, despite the Sharran tribal tattoos writhing across his shoulders and curling up his neck, despite the worn leathers and tattered vest he wore, he still had an aristocratic air about him, a sense of nobility. That combination, the mix of nobleborn and street thug, was one many women found impossible to resist. Marsuvial had never lacked for willing bed partners.

But that fine-featured face and charming mannerisms hid a black, violent temper, Mars had a reputation for leaving bruises on his conquests. No one had dared to call him on it though, not until Mars had beaten one of Alda’s girls so badly that she’d been unconscious for two days. Alda had gone directly to the master of the Silken Hands himself, rage lending her courage enough to demand he intervene. Jhendal wasn’t usually inclined to respond to requests for aid, but he worked at cultivating the public appearance of decorum and civility for himself, his holdings and his known associates. He had been most displeased with Mars.

The girl must be new then, not to have already been warned about him. Mars’ grin turned sour, a night’s entertainment wasn’t worth risking Jhendal’s wrath for. There were other girls, other taverns. Only the Coral had received Jhendal’s protection, it was the primary haunt for most of the Hands, near as it was to Jhendal’s docked ship. Alda tolerated the fact that her clients were members of Korrinport’s thieves guild, burglars and muggers and killers all. In return, the Coral was under Jhendal’s direct protection, exempt from “protection fees” and it never lacking for clients.

Ignoring Alda’s suspicious glare, Marsuvial pocketed the last of his newly acquired wealth, rose and headed for the door, indicating for Hobbe to follow him. The big man opened his mouth, ready to argue. Then he saw the dark expression on Mars’s face and quickly shut it again. Draining the last of his ale, he followed Mars out into the cold Korrinport night.

Mars had stopped just outside the doorway, silhouetted against the light spilling from within. He’d lit a match and was holding it up to the cigarette clenched between his teeth, coaxing it to crimson life. Discarding the match, he inhaled slowly, drawing tobacco smoke deep into his lungs, then turned and stared along the wharf at the colored lanterns strung around the Summer Breeze, Jhendal’s ship. The sounds of laughter and music could be heard on the wind, Jhendal was hosting another of his parties. Ignoring all this, Hobbe walked to the edge of the wharf, unlaced his trousers and, with a groan of relief, began urinating into the murky waters below. Without stopping, he called back over his shoulder “What’re we doing Mars? It’s cold tonight, why don’t we stay in the Coral with the lads, order a few more rounds?”

Marsuvial’s gaze lingered on the Breeze for another moment before he turned and looked at his companion. “We’ve got some business to take care of in the city. Jhendal’s orders, we’re to do it while they’re all at his party. Come on, let’s be quick about it. You’ve got your knives?” Hobbe was the Hands’ primary enforcer, he wasn’t particularly sharp of wit but he had a talent for blades, most folk in Korrinport paled at the thought of a visit from Grinning Hobbe.

The other man finished off with a sigh then turned, lacing up his pants. His predatory smile was all the answer Mars needed. He flicked his cigarette to the cobbles, snuffing it under his boot.

“Let’s go then.”