Frost grinned. “Trust me,” he said. He pushed open the door.
The air, even before entering was warm and sticky. The room was well lit with candles and torches and a large fire in the hearth on one wall. Yet even so it was difficult to see. Smoke and haze also filled the air. It was difficult to distinguish features on anyone they saw.
It was easy, however, to distinguish the mood. The entrance of a Struct and a furleen, even with two humans, was clearly neither common nor particularly welcome. Nearly everyone near the door turned to look and glared. Not a single one was friendly. But neither did anyone move to threaten or stop them
Frost was the only one of the group that could conceivably fit in. Vrash was human, true, but he bore himself erect. His shoulders were perpetually broad, like a soldier. Dink noted the irony of a slave being so proud, but he also marked the similarities between thralls and uniformed militia. With great effort he filed the combination of ideas for future consideration. He sensed that he might be needed to fight.
The people in the alehouse, however, were unilaterally shabby. Slumped. Closed postured. Possibly dirty, certainly not meticulous. There was an air of weariness. Dink was uncomfortable – almost everything about the team was contrary to the regulars.
Frost, apparently, wasn’t bothered by the ill-fit of his companions. He interlinked his fingers and popped his knuckles. He weaved his way through the common area to a particularly shady corner at the back. There at a small table sat a grizzled man. Stubble covered his craggy, weather-beaten face. One eye was half open. His hair was largely gone, and the sparse, dark hair that remained was unkept, but flat against his head. His body was shapeless, somewhat drooped. He was more of a mound of humanity poured onto a chair than he was an actual person. His spindly but dexterous fingers shuffled a deck of playing cards over and over as he sat there.
The man didn’t look up at them or seem to respond as the team arrived at his table.
“Gentlemen and lady,” Frost said, almost reverently. “This is the Man of Cards.”
There was a short pause. It was another moment in his life when Dink wondered if he would have blinked if he had eyelids. This man did not seem like the sage he had expected. He was neither a dignified prophet nor the crone-like gypsy. He was just a broken man. He looked to the others for a reaction. Vrash, as expected, betrayed no expectations or surprise. Linella, on the other hand, was apparently of the same mindset.
“They’re not Tarot,” she said. It sounded like a complaint.
The Man of Cards coughed loudly. Dink wasn’t sure if it was an expression of contempt or a symptom of illness. When the cough finally calmed he spoke with palpable scorn, “The Tarot is just slight of hand. It’s utilized by cons and fools. It’s simple lies about an interested god. A clever fiction clothed in mysticism to make it seem like it has meaning.”
He coughed again. “Cards of chance. The holy mathematic. Only through the random can the pattern of a random universe come forth. We play a game to learn the answers that we want.”
His hands suddenly tapped the cards into a solid stack and he started dealing five hands.
“I wasn’t…” Dink hadn’t planned on playing. He knew the rules, but he didn’t play.
“We will all play. All involved folk.” The Man of Cards used a tone that broached no argument. The others sat, and Dink, resigned to his fate, lowered himself to the floor by the table as the Man of Cards finished dealing and distributed five equal piles of dull wooden tokens.