Trumps of Winter

39 - Perdition

Mika plays her way into an audience with Wotanfel.

Irikya escorts Mika to the riverboat’s upper floor, and the other bogatyrs follow. The upper salon holds only a single gaming table, with the rest of the room holding a bar and comfortable furniture; a pair of bouncers, a bartender, and three “hosts” wait quietly about. Three other players and a dealer sit at the table. Irikya seats Mika at the table, and tells her that the upstairs game of choice is Perdition.

Mika settles in, establishing herself by demanding a drink. The others settle in on the furniture; Anfisa scowls at a host’s greeting and chooses to sit alone. Gena takes a drink and discreetly studies the interplay between Irikya and the dealer, keeping an eye out for secret cues. Kazimeer declines the drink but also watches the two, carefully watching how each of them look at the various players. The Hell Deck they play has familiar enough designs for its face cards, but the Fool is different — it features a glimmering single star in a black sky shining down on the contorted Fool.

Mika joins the game in earnest and chooses to play her best in hopes of changing the table. Her opponents are a well-to-do Volyar horse merchant, a glamorous woman approaching middle age, and a younger woman whose dress is a touch faded and whose jewels appear to be paste. Mika’s talents for deception and insight serve her fairly well, but she comes up short when the poorer-seeming woman Aneska, to her own surprise, wins a sizable pot with a Full Court of Shades. The powerful hand eliminates the more glamorous Rovona. Gennadiy approaches her as she leaves the table, but she’s clearly in a foul temper and shrugs him off before her exit. The Volyar horse merchant Grunyich is more sanguine about the loss. “Another hand like that,” he says, “and I’ll get you to marry one of my sons.” “Another hand like that,” replies Aneska, “and I won’t have to.”

The game resumes in earnest. Mika keeps a close enough eye to see Aneska covertly throw a round, losing much of her money on a bad hand. Grunyich and the dealer don’t seem to realize it was intentional, but Mika is sure of it. Aneska leaves the table and visits the bar, the picture of despair. Irikya follows her, and the two converse quietly. Eventually he signals for a bottle, gives her a bottle of Double Venom, and the young woman leaves.
Mika starts throwing all of her own stake in as well, and also subtly plays to lose. At one point she allows the witchery that hangs about her to take hold, and draws the famously ill-fated Gate of Damnation hand — three nines, an Ace, and the Fool. She feigns devastation, muttering to nobody in particular. “That was it. That was everything. I’ve lost everything.”

Irikya is there when she rises, and he courteously guides her to the bar. Grunyich seems somewhat awkward in his success, and winds up conversing with his fellow Volyar Anfisa as an attempt to break the uncomfortable atmosphere. Gennadiy moves over to “check on” Mika, and she whispers that she saw Aneska throw her losing hand before Irikya appears to offer his solace. Gena withdraws, and Irikya begins to express his condolences and willingness to help. He mentions that he knows someone who could offer guidance, and she seizes on the mention. At her encouragement, Irikya gives her a bottle of Double Venom, one of the house’s Fool playing cards, and instructions to take the two “passports” to the Honey-Apple establishment in Miska and offer them as “a gift for Silver.”

With the game conclusively over, the bogatyrs make their excuses and return to the shore. It’s well past midnight when they finally return to their rooms at the Bear King. The next morning they weigh their options and decide to visit the Honey-Apple in the early afternoon.

The Honey-Apple turns out to be an inn in a modest section of town, a establishment with a green roof and yellow shutters, of the sort that offers good food and drink as a respectable trade and a discreet side of “hospitality.” As they approach, the door opens and one of the gamblers from last night, Aneska, emerges. They size her up and she sizes them up in return, and finally she says, “Be aware they’ll let only one of you in.”

“Unless we figure something else out,” smiles Gennadiy.

“Unless that,” she concedes, and with a nod, she passes the group. They watch her enter a tavern farther down the street, the Lazy Trout, and then they enter the Honey-Apple.

They get a privacy booth in the tavern area, and order drinks and a small platter of edibles; Anfisa goes all in for a meal of pork with honeyed apples and pirozhki, and upon tasting it, orders a second meal for Kostya. Gennadiy asks the barmaid if Silver is in, and she tells him he’ll have to ask the bartender Frisa. He does so, and mentions the gift. “You’ll have to give it to me,” she smiles.

Gena goes back to the booth to pick up the bottle and the card, and he escorts Mika to the bar; the young priestess walks slowly, with an affected cough. They give the “gifts” to the bartender, and she shows them down to the wine cellar.

Once below, Frisa takes them to a wall and opens a secret door in one of the largest casks. On the other side is an underground passage, with a single masked guard carrying a strangely forged halberd. The guard lets Mika through, but when Gena tries to follow, the guard puts his hand on Gena’s chest and pushes the powerful bogatyr into the wall. “You stay out,” he says through the mask. “I’ll guide her. She will be safe.” Gennadiy looks him up and down, then nods and steps back out into the cellar. He tells the bartender that he’d like to wait in the cellar for his charge. She agrees, but with a look at the various wines, tells him that he’ll need a chaperone. She sends down one of the bouncers to wait with Gena, a good-looking and clean-cut young man who’s politely apologetic about the oversight.

Mika follows the masked guard through stone passages into the sewers. He guides her, lamp in hand, to another door well below surface level. On the other side is a small lounge where two acolytes dressed in green and purple welcome her in and offer her refreshments. The room is sparsely furnished, with the most notable feature the thick door marked with runes on the opposite wall. Once Mika is settled in, one of the acolytes raps on the door, and shortly thereafter, Wotanfel emerges. The dwarf’s beard is dyed a deep black; he wears more elaborate green and purple, and carries a metal staff with runes cut in bands.

Mika begins the conversation seeming desperate, but after a few vague platitudes on the dwarf’s part, she openly wonders just what makes him more than a charlatan. Wotanfel harrumphs, and then produces a deck of cards — he removes one in, shows her the face of the Fates, and then meditates on the card. He speaks of her past: a great loss, a former name, and three companions, all set against a crown — a tsar. He talks of witchcraft, and a cold goddess: “I see her skeleton hand on your shoulder,” he intones.

The sickly demeanor falls away from Mika as she grows more irritated. She claims that Wotanfel could be gaining his information from traditional channels. The also irritated seer says that she seems to have come here on false pretenses, with no genuine willingness to work toward altering her fate. He asks what she’d be willing to give for a second chance.

“I have nothing to give,” she says.

“Do you not have loyalty?”

The interview goes downhill from there. Wotanfel seems to doubt her sincerity, and Mika is unwilling to commit to too much, in particular Wotanfel’s implications of giving up faith in her goddess. She says she’ll think about the offer. One of the acolytes guides her back through the passages, where the masked guard opens the door and lets her into the Honey-Apple’s wine cellar.

Mika collects Gena, and the two go upstairs to gather Kazimeer and Anfisa. They leave the inn and head down to the Lazy Trout. Anfisa gives Kostya his pork with apples and pirozki, and then the four go in. There they see Aneska in a large booth, talking to an unfamiliar man.

The bogatyrs take a separate table nearby and order proper food and drink. They make it most of the way through their meals before one of the staff brings over a special drink — a Blood of the Comet — for Anfisa, with the compliments of the gentleman in the booth. She makes eye contact, and he waves her over.

Aneska introduces the shaggy-haired man with a sash hiding one eye as Huntmaster Koden, in the service of Tsaritsa Kascha Silverchild. He greets Anfisa by name, and says he knows of her by reputation. “I believe our purposes align,” he says with a nod toward Aneska. “Would you call over your companions?”

The booth is large enough for all six. Huntmaster Koden greets the bogatyrs, recognizing both Gennadiy and Kazimeer by name and by their ties to notable forces. He says he knows less about Mika, and she doesn’t offer any new information.

The group explains their purpose in Miska: the presence of the Donjon, the Ruin, and the Idiot. They stress that the Donjon seems to be chasing the Black Chalice itself, no doubt to bind more powerful warriors to his cause. Koden nods and says that he knew about the Idiot — Wotanfel in particular — and that he suspected the others. He adds that the hags called the Grail Maids are perhaps moving again, for the Euryale and the Black Chalice knights.

Koden says that if the group is pursuing Wotanfel, he can offer some resources in return for not having to use his own people. He’d be glad to coordinate the effort. Gena asks that if they help, there’s no publicity in it: he doesn’t want the Donjon hearing about his efforts to aid the tsaritsa. “I’m not in the business of proclaiming people’s names,” reassures the Huntmaster.

He follows up by saying that Wotanfel’s powers as a diviner are real. The bogatyrs resolve that if they can’t tell what he will be able to learn about his pursuers given time, they should move quickly. But the Huntmaster stops them before they can leave. “I don’t want you kicking in the front door of the Honey-Apple and disrupting an inn in the city.”

The bogatyrs give each other some sidelong, not entirely guilty looks.

Huntmaster Koden turns to Aneska, and instructs her to find someone that can navigate Miska’s sewers. “Give me half an hour,” she says to the adventuring band, “and I’ll get you a guide.”

“Deal,” nods Gennadiy, and the bogatyrs settle into a tense half-hour’s wait.

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