thleeny: (Default)
'Er, Esme ... er ... you know the money . . .'

'The money what we all gave you to keep in your knickers for safety?' said Granny. Something about the way the conversation was going suggested the first few pebbles slipping before a major landslide.

'That's the money I'm referrin' to ... er ..."

'The money in the big leather bag that we were goin' to be very careful about spendin'?' said Granny.

'You see . . . the money . . .'

'Oh, that money,' said Granny.

'. . . is gone . . .' said Nanny.

'Stolen?'

'She's been gambling,' said Magrat, in tones of smug horror. 'With men.'

'It wasn't gambling!' snapped Nanny. 'I never gamble! They were no good at cards! I won no end of games!'

'But you lost money,' said Granny.

Nanny Ogg looked down again, and muttered something.

'What?' said Granny.

'I said I won nearly all of them," said Nanny. 'And then I thought, here, we could really have a bit of money to, you know, spend in the city, and I've always been very good at Cripple Mr Onion . . .'

'So you decided to bet heavily,' said Granny.

'How did you know that?'

'Got a feelin' about it,' said Granny wearily. 'And suddenly everyone else was lucky, am I right ?'

'It was weird,' said Nanny.

'Hmm.'

'Well, it's not gambling,' said Nanny. 'I didn't see it was gambling. They were no good when I started playing. It's not gambling to play against someone who's no good. It's common sense.'

'There was nearly fourteen dollars in that bag,' said Magrat, 'not counting the foreign money.'

'Hmm.'

Granny Weatherwax sat down on the bunk and drummed her fingers on the woodwork. There was a faraway look in her eyes. The phrase 'card sharp' had never reached her side of the Ramtops, where people were friendly and direct and, should they encounter a professional cheat, tended to nail his hand to the table in an easy and outgoing manner without asking him what he called himself. But human nature was the same everywhere.

'You're not upset, are you, Esme?' said Nanny anxiously.

'Hmm.'

'I expect I can soon pick up a new broom when we get home.'

'Hm . . . what?'

'After she lost all her money she bet her broom,' said Magrat triumphantly.

'Have we got any money at all?' said Granny.

A trawl of various pockets and knicker legs produced forty-seven pence.

'Right,' said Granny. She scooped it up. 'That ought to be enough. To start with, anyway. Where are these men?'

'What are you going to do?' said Magrat.

'I'm going to play cards,' said Granny.

'You can't do that!' said Magrat, who had recognized the gleam in Granny's eye. 'You're going to use magic to win! You mustn't use magic to win! Not to affect the laws of chance! That's wicked!"

*



The boat was practically a floating town, and in the balmy night air no-one bothered much about going indoors. The riverboat's flat deck was dotted with groups of dwarfs, trolls and humans, lounging among the cargo. Granny threaded her way between them and headed for the long saloon that ran almost the entire length of the boat. There was the sound of revelry within.

The riverboats were the quickest and easiest transport for hundreds of miles. On them you got, as Granny would put it, all sorts, and the riverboats going downstream were always crowded with a certain type of opportunist as Fat Lunchtime approached.

She walked into the saloon. An onlooker might have thought it had a magic doorway. Granny Weatherwax, as she walked towards it, strode as she usually strode. As soon as she passed through, though, she was suddenly a bent old woman, hobbling along, and a sight to touch all but the wickedest heart.

She approached the bar, and then stopped. Behind it was the biggest mirror Granny had ever seen. She stared fixedly at it, but it seemed safe enough. Well, she'd have to risk it.

She hunched her back a little more and addressed the barman.

'Excuzee moir, young homme,' she began.

The barman gave her a disinterested look and went on polishing a glass. 

'What can I do for you, old crone?' he said.

There was only the faintest suggestion of a flicker in Granny's expression of elderly imbecility.

'Oh . . . you can understand me?' she said.

'We get all sorts on the river,' said the barman.

'Then I was wondering if you could be so kind as to loan me a deck, I thinks it's called, of cards,' quavered Granny.

'Going to play a game of Old Maid, are you?' said the barman.

There was a chilly flicker across Granny's eyes again as she said, 'No. Just Patience. I'd like to try and get the hang of it.'

He reached under the counter and tossed a greasy pack towards her.

She thanked him effusively and tottered off to a small table in the shadows, where she dealt a few cards randomly on the drink-ringed surface and stared at them.

It was only a few minutes later that a gentle hand was laid on her shoulder. She looked up into a friendly, open face that anyone would lend money to. A gold tooth glittered as the man spoke.

'Excuse me, good mother,' he said, 'but my friends and I' - he gestured to some more welcoming faces at a nearby table - 'would feel much more comfortable in ourselves if you were to join us. It can be very dangerous for a woman travelling by herself.'

Granny Weatherwax smiled nicely at him, and then waved vaguely at her cards.

' I can never remember whether the ones are worth more or less than the pictures,' she said. 'Forget my own head next, I expect!'

They all laughed. Granny hobbled to the other table. She took the vacant seat, which put the mirror right behind her shoulder.

She smiled to herself and then leaned forward, all eagerness.

'So tell me,' she said, 'how do you play this game, then?'

All witches are very conscious of stories. They can feel stories, in the same way that a bather in a little pool can feel the unexpected trout.

Knowing how stories work is almost all the battle.

For example, when an obvious innocent sits down with three experienced card sharpers and says 'How do you play this game, then?', someone is about to be shaken down until their teeth fall out.

*

Magrat and Nanny Ogg sat side by side on the narrow bunk. Nanny was distractedly tickling Greebo's stomach, while he purred.

'She'll get into terrible trouble if she uses magic to win,' said Magrat. 'And you know how she hates losing,' she added.

Granny Weatherwax was not a good loser. From her point of view, losing was something that happened to other people.

'It's her eggo,' said Nanny Ogg. 'Everyone's got one o' them. A eggo. And she's got a great big one. Of course, that's all part of bein' a witch, having a big eggo.'

'She's bound to use magic,' said Magrat.

'It's tempting Fate, using magic in a game of chance,' said Nanny Ogg. 'Cheatin's all right. That's practic'ly fair. I mean, anyone can cheat. But using magic - well, it's tempting Fate.'

'No. Not Fate,' said Magrat darkly.

Nanny Ogg shivered.

'Come on,' said Magrat. 'We can't let her do it.'

'It's her eggo,' said Nanny Ogg weakly. 'Terrible thing, a big eggo.'

*

'I got,' said Granny, 'three little pictures of kings and suchlike and three of them funny number one cards.'

The three men beamed and winked at one another.

'That's Triple Onion!' said the one who had introduced Granny to the table, and who had turned out to be called Mister Frank.

'And that's good, is it?' said Granny.

'It means you win yet again, dear lady!' He pushed a pile of pennies towards her.

'Gosh,' said Granny. 'That means I've got . . . what would it be ... almost five dollars now?'

'Can't understand it,' said Mister Frank. 'It must be the famous beginner's luck, eh?'

'Soon be poor men if it goes on like this,' said one of his companions.

'She'll have the coats off our backs, right enough,' said the third man. 'Haha.'

'Think we should give up right now,' said Mister Frank. 'Haha.'

'Haha.'

'Haha.'

'Oh, I want to go on,' said Granny, grinning anxiously. 'I'm just getting the hang of it.'

'Well, you'd better give us a sporting chance to win a little bit back, haha,' said Mister Frank. 'Haha.'

'Haha.'

'Haha.'

'Haha. What about half a dollar a stake? Haha?'

'Oh, I reckon she'll want a dollar a stake, a sporting lady like her,' said the third man.

'Haha!'

Granny looked down at her pile of pennies. For a moment she looked uncertain and then, they could see, she realized: how much could she lose, the way the cards were going?

'Yes!' she said. 'A dollar a stake!' She blushed. 'This is exciting, isn't it!'

'Yeah,' said Mister Frank. He drew the pack towards him.

There was a horrible noise. All three men stared at the bar, where shards of mirror were cascading to the floor.

'What happened?'

Granny gave him a sweet old smile. She hadn't appeared to look around.

'I reckon the glass he was polishing must of slipped out of his hand and smashed right into the mirror,' she said. 'I do hope he don't have to pay for it out of his wages, the poor boy.'

The men exchanged glances.

'Come on,' said Granny, 'I've got my dollar all ready.'

Mister Frank looked nervously at the ravaged frame. Then he shrugged.

The movement dislodged something somewhere. There was a muffled snapping noise, like a mousetrap carrying out the last rites. Mister Frank went white and gripped his sleeve. A small metal contraption, all springs and twisted metal, fell out. A crumpled-up Ace of Cups was tangled up in it.

'Whoops,' said Granny.

Magrat peered through the window into the saloon. 'What's she doin' now?' hissed Nanny Ogg.

'She's grinning again,' said Magrat.

Nanny Ogg shook her head. 'Eggo,' she said.

Granny Weatherwax had that method of play that has reduced professional gamblers to incoherent rage throughout the multiverse.

She held her cards tightly cupped in her hands a few inches from her face, allowing the merest fraction of each one to protrude. She glared at them as if daring them to offend her. And she never seemed to take her eyes off them, except to watch the dealing.

And she took far too long. And she never, ever, took risks.

After twenty-five minutes she was down one dollar and Mister Frank was sweating. Granny had already helpfully pointed out three times that he'd accidentally dealt cards off the bottom of the deck, and she'd asked for another pack 'because, look, this one's got all little marks on the back.'

It was her eyes, that was what it was. Twice he'd folded on a perfectly good three-card Onion only to find that she'd been holding a lousy double Bagel. Then the third time, thinking he'd worked out her play, he'd called her out and run a decent flush right into the maw of a five-card Onion that the old bag must have been patiently constructing for ages. And then - his knuckles went white - and then the dreadful, terrible hag had said, 'Have I won? With all these little cards? Gorsh - aren't I the lucky one!'

And then she started humming when she looked at her cards. Normally, the three of them would have welcomed this sort of thing. The teeth tappers, the eyebrow raisers, the ear rubbers - they were as good as money in the sock under the mattress, to a man who knew how to read such things. But the appalling old crone was as transparent as a lump of coal. And the humming was . . . insistent. You found yourself trying to follow the tune. It made your teeth tingle. Next thing you were glumly watching while she laid down a measly Broken Flush in front of your even more measly two-card Onion and said, 'What, is it me again?'

Mister Frank was desperately trying to remember how to play cards without his sleeve device, a handy mirror and a marked deck. In the teeth of a hum like a fingernail down a blackboard.

It wasn't as if the ghastly old creature even knew how to play properly.

After an hour she was four dollars ahead and when she said, 'I am a lucky girl!' Mister Frank bit through his tongue.

And then he got a natural Great Onion. There was no realistic way to beat a Great Onion. It was something that happened to you once or twice in a lifetime.

She folded! The old bitch folded! She abandoned one blasted dollar and she folded!

Magrat peered through the window again.

'What's happening?' said Nanny.

'They all look very angry.'

Nanny took off her hat and removed her pipe. She lit it and tossed the match overboard. 'Ah. She'll be humming, you mark my words. She's got a very annoying hum, has Esme.' Nanny looked satisfied. 'Has she started cleaning out her ear yet?'

'Don't think so.'

'No-one cleans out her ear like Esme.'

She was cleaning out her ear!

It was done in a very ladylike way, and the daft old baggage probably wasn't even aware she was doing it. She just kept inserting her little finger in her ear and swivelling it around. It made a noise like a small pool cue being chalked.

It was displacement activity, that's what it was. They all cracked in the end . . .

She folded again! And it had taken him bloody five bloody minutes to put together a bloody double Onion!

'I remember,' said Nanny Ogg, 'when she come over our house for the party when King Verence got crowned and we played Chase My Neighbour Up the Passage with the kiddies for ha'pennies. She accused Jason's youngest of cheating and sulked for a week afterwards.'

'Was he cheating?'

'I expect so,' said Nanny proudly. 'The trouble with Esme is that she don't know how to lose. She's never had much practice.'

'Lobsang Dibbler says sometimes you have to lose in order to win,' said Magrat.

'Sounds daft to me,' said Nanny. 'That's Yen Buddhism, is it?'

'No. They're the ones who say you have to have lots of money to win,' said Magrat.* 'In the Path of the Scorpion, the way to win is to lose every fight except the last one. You use the enemy's strength against himself.'

'What, you get him to hit himself, sort of thing?' said Nanny. 'Sounds daft.'

Magrat glowered.

'What do you know about it?' she said, with uncharacteristic sharpness.

'What?'

'Well, I'm fed up!' said Magrat. 'At least I'm making an effort to learn things! I don't go around just bullying people and acting bad-tempered all the time!'

Nanny took her pipe out of her mouth.

'I'm not bad-tempered,' she said mildly.

* The Yen Buddhists are the richest religious sect in the universe. They hold that the accumulation of money is a great evil and burden to the soul. They therefore, regardless of personal hazard, see it as their unpleasant duty to acquire as much as possible in order to reduce the risk to innocent people.

'I wasn't talking about you!'

'Well, Esme's always been bad-tempered,' said Nanny. 'It comes natural to her.'

'And she hardly ever does real magic. What good is being a witch if you don't do magic? Why doesn't she use it to help people?'

Nanny peered at her through the pipe smoke.

' 'Cos she knows how good she'd be at it, I suppose,' she said. 'Anyway, I've known her a long time. Known the whole family. All the Weatherwaxes is good at magic, even the men. They've got this magical streak in 'em. Kind of a curse. Anyway . . . she thinks you can't help people with magic. Not properly. It's true, too.'

'Then what good - ?'

Nanny prodded at the pipe with a match.

'I seem to recall she come over and helped you out when you had that spot of plague in your village,' she said. 'Worked the clock around, I recall. Never known her not treat someone ill who needed it, even when they, you know, were pretty oozy. And when the big ole troll that lives under Broken Mountain came down for help because his wife was sick and everyone threw rocks at him, I remember it was Esme that went back with him and delivered the baby. Hah . . . then when old Chickenwire Hopkins threw a rock at Esme a little while afterwards all his barns was mysteriously trampled flat in the night. She always said you can't help people with magic, but you can help them with skin. By doin' real things, she meant.'

'I'm not saying she's not basically a nice person -' Magrat began.

'Hah! 7 am. You'd have to go a long day's journey to find someone basically nastier than Esme,' said Nanny Ogg, 'and this is me sayin' it. She knows exactly what she is. She was born to be good and she don't like it.'

Nanny tapped her pipe out on the rail and turned back to the saloon.

'What you got to understand about Esme, my girl,' she said, 'is that she's got a psycholology as well as a big eggo. I'm damn glad I ain't.'

Granny was twelve dollars ahead. Everything else in the saloon had stopped. You could hear the distant splash of the paddles and the cry of the leadman.

Granny won another five dollars with a three-card Onion.

'What do you mean, a psycholology?' said Magrat. 'Have you been reading books?'

Nanny ignored her.

'The thing to watch out for now,' she said, 'is when she goes “tch, tch, tch” under her breath. That comes after the ear-cleanin'. It gen'rally means she's plannin' somethin'.'

Mister Frank drummed his fingers on the table, realized to his horror that he was doing it, and bought three new cards to cover his confusion. The old baggage didn't appear to notice.

He stared at the new hand.

He ventured two dollars and bought one more card.

He stared again.

What were the odds, he thought, against getting a Great Onion twice in one day?

The important thing was not to panic.

'I think,' he heard himself say, 'that I may hazard another two dollars.'

He glanced at his companions. They obediently folded, one after another.

'Well, I don't know,' said Granny, apparently talking to her cards. She cleaned her ear again. 'Tch, tch, tch. What d'you call it when, you know, you want to put more money in, sort of thing?'

'It's called raising,' said Mister Frank, his knuckles going white.

'I'll do one of them raisins, then. Five dollars, I think.'

Mister Frank's knees ground together.

'I'll see you and raise you ten dollars,' he snapped.

'I'll do that too,' said Granny.

'I can go another twenty dollars.'

'I - ' Granny looked down, suddenly crestfallen. 'I've . . . got a broomstick.'

A tiny alarm bell rang somewhere at the back of Mister Frank's mind, but now he was galloping headlong to victory.

'Right!'

He spread the cards on the table.

The crowd sighed.

He began to pull the pot towards him.

Granny's hand closed over his wrist.

'I ain't put my cards down yet,' she said archly.

'You don't need to,' snapped Mister Frank. 'There's no chance you could beat that, madam.'

'I can if I can Cripple it,' said Granny. 'That's why it's called Cripple Mister Onion, ain't it?'

He hesitated.

'But - but - you could only do that if you had a perfect nine-card run,' he burbled, staring into the depths of her eyes.

Granny sat back. >

'You know,' she said calmly, 'I thought I had rather a lot of these black pointy ones. That's good, is it?'

She spread the hand. The collective audience made a sort of little gasping noise, in unison.

Mister Frank looked around wildly.

'Oh, very well done, madam,' said an elderly gentleman. There was a round of polite applause from the crowd. The big, inconvenient crowd.

'Er. . . yes,' said Mister Frank. 'Yes. Well done. You're a very quick learner, aren't you.'

'Quicker'n you. You owe me fifty-five dollars and a broomstick,' said Granny.

no

Magrat and Nanny Ogg were waiting for her as she swept out.

'Here's your broom,' she snapped. 'And I hopes you've got all your stuff together, 'cos we're leaving.'

'Why?' said Magrat.

'Because as soon as it gets quiet, some men are going to come looking for us.'

They scurried after her towards their tiny cabin.

'You weren't using magic?" said Magrat.

'No.'

'And not cheating?' said Nanny Ogg.

'No. Just headology,' said Granny.

'Where did you learn to play like that?' Nanny demanded.

Granny stopped. They cannoned into her.

'Remember last winter, when Old Mother Dismass was taken really bad and I went and sat up with her every night for almost a month?'

'Yes?'

'You sit up every night dealing Cripple Mister Onion with someone who's got a detached retina in her second sight and you soon learn how to play,' said Granny.
thleeny: (Default)
Ruby City is a large-- well, city, standing alone amid rolling emerald plains. In the distance towards the north and the west, your character can see mountains; to the east, a vast forest, thick and green. Ruby City is located on a peninsula, surrounded by the sea.

Your character wakes up already onboard a train, one passenger among a handful of people being deposited to the station. Awaiting characters don't seem surprised by their arrival, but why should they? They've seen all this before. Once your character disembarks, they'll find a old-fashioned pocketwatch suddenly on their person. Opening it up, they see it's truly a communication device: voice, video and texting are all available to them.

For the next three days, they're free to explore the city and the locations beyond it. They might encounter some of the creatures that inhabit the peninsula. Should they wander the city, they'll find a majority of the buildings empty, but with clear signs that they had once been inhabited. Still, there are shops open for their perusal, and plenty of people for them to interact with: it's been a whole year since the city was flooded with so many arrivals.

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Thleen

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