Read The Bard Speaks Online

Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey

Tags: #romance, #erotica, #fantasy, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales; Legends & Mythology

The Bard Speaks (2 page)

BOOK: The Bard Speaks
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They had heard the talents of the Courtesan Isabella had to be experienced to be believed. The gown she wore that night proved her reputation must be well deserved. She might as well have been standing there naked as the first woman Eve, dressed in shimmering cream that left them wondering where the silk ended and the flesh began. While they waited for the games to resume, the Gambling Man twirled Isabella around ending with the flourish of a low dip. A lock of glossy black hair came free of her coif and trailed along her laughing face when her partner pulled her upright. In a rare moment of natural radiance, her beauty was devastating. Those young men ached when they thought of the sensuous carnality their friend would know at night’s end, and likely for every night that season. If he continued to win as he always did, he would be the only suitor the Courtesan Isabella would invite to her apartments.

But it was not to be. Ella Bandita was in the casino that night and the Gambling Man was her chosen prey. She was clever enough to keep her distance. Instead of joining his party or the sullen opponents, she stood against the wall several paces away. She had a sharp view of the winner, staring at him until he saw her. He shook the dice in his hand, impatient for the games to start again. He saw her while scanning the room for the watchman with his chips. He thought her rather alarming, this woman watching him with glittering blue eyes, her mouth curved in a smirking grin. He frowned, wondering how she came to be in the casino. Her appearance could only be described as grubby, her skirts near to tatters and her long blonde hair hanging loose.

When the watchman finally came, he turned his attention back on the tables. The dealer called bets for the next round and handed the dice to the Gambling Man. There was a collective gasp when he pushed his winnings for the entire night to the middle. He took the dice and shook them hard between cupped palms before setting them free. He called the numbers with the tiny cubes soaring down the table.

It was a bold move. But that was the moment Fortuna turned her back on the Gambling Man. The dice gave him nothing. Silence was thick for an eternal instant, then a roar of jubilation rose from the other side of the table. The dealer pulled the mountain of chips and dispersed modest piles to those betting against the winner all night. The Gambling Man couldn’t feel a thing. He was vaguely aware that he started shaking, but it was the sharp peal of a woman’s laughter that cut through him and made his cheeks burn. He actually believed the capricious Goddess of Chance was mocking him.

The Courtesan Isabella wasn’t reputed to be the best in her profession for nothing. She was quick to soothe her escort.

“Darling, that was too audacious! It is every bit as spectacular to lose such a roll as it is to win. I’ve never seen such a move!”

The Gambling Man gave her a weak smile. Isabella pressed closer to his side and stroked his back. With alluring looks and a soft voice, she coaxed him to be a gentleman and leave the table with grace. She knew just the thing. There was a cabaret she wanted to see. She heard the show was naughty and fun. The next performance was to start in a few minutes, the last before the troupe moved on. Isabella was an artist of persuasion. She almost convinced him to go.

His color had returned to normal; he was even nodding his head in agreement. Then he heard that laugh again and the Gambling Man turned to face his coming doom. That strange girl had her head thrown back, her large teeth gleaming as she laughed at him. He was too arrogant to bear scorn and his face went white. Isabella followed his gaze, and saw nothing more than a homely beggar of a woman. Her eyes grew wide with disbelief. Yet there was nothing the Courtesan could do to entice the Gambling Man back to her charms once Ella Bandita snared his attention. He must have lost his sense along with his winnings. He made a complete fool of himself and his isolation was assured.

A Courtesan hated nothing more than being treated like a common prostitute. Suitors hoping for an invitation to her bed knew to treat such a woman with deference. The best of them were bold enough to demand respect almost equal to a marriage proposal, and anything less was an unforgivable offense. The Gambling Man pulled a thick clip of money from his pocket, peeled off several notes, and held them out to Isabella to the elated shock of his friends. He recognized his mistake immediately and tried to smooth it over with gallantry.

“I would be honored,” he said, “to treat you to anything you desire and I would love to meet up with you later.”

Hard lines of disdain froze on Isabella’s face. Her dark eyes narrowed; her full lips were tight and mean and she pushed the hand holding the money away from her. The gentlemen who had cheered the Gambling Man all night couldn’t believe their change in fortune. The most celebrated Courtesan of the season was suddenly vulnerable and without an escort. The flush of outrage in her cheeks and the cool contempt in the tilt of her chin made her more desirable than ever. Isabella pulled away and each of them vied to rescue her from humiliation, their friend forgotten. The noblemen assured her it would be a privilege for them all to accompany her to the cabaret, and then to any place she desired to go that night. Her pride restored, she laughed with spirit and proclaimed herself the luckiest lady in the casino with so many charming escorts. She even wished the high roller the best of luck before turning her back on the table. Linking arms with the two she thought most handsome, the Courtesan Isabella left the Gambling Man with his pack of friends in her attendance.

He must have felt strange standing alone on his side of the table. He knew luck was quick to change. Once the wheel of fortune turned against a player, it seldom came back, but he passed the notes in his hand to the dealer. The Gambling Man pushed all chips to the center and his opponents placed their bets against him. The dealer’s face was blank when he gave him the dice; the watchman behind him was grinning in the shadows. They didn’t understand his passion for games of chance wasn’t born of greed. With his face set in joyless determination, the Gambling Man shook one hand, called the numbers in a tight voice, and threw the dice.

The worst thing that could have happened to him in that moment did. He won. The Gambling Man was already shaking the dice and calling numbers while the dealer lined his winnings along the betting line. He rolled and won again.

A couple of hours later, some of his party sauntered by the table. They nodded their heads and whistled at the growing mound of chips. But the sight of the Gambling Man with sweat on his brow and fever in his eyes didn’t tempt them to join him. They suspected he wouldn’t be invited back the following season and they didn’t wish to be remembered with him. This was a fashion town built on pleasure, and his obsession with gaming was distasteful.

He won again and again, cheering alone on his side of the table. He even lost his audience of opponents after hours had passed. He didn’t stop throwing the dice and calling his predictions until he won back the chips he lost and the chips he would’ve won had that ill-fated roll came up in his favor.

The casino was almost empty by the time the Gambling Man finished. The only ones around were himself, the dealer, and the woman who stayed aloof standing against the wall. He was too drained to enjoy his usual euphoria after a night of victorious gaming. But he still felt alive, his skin prickling. He looked up and saw the blonde woman from earlier. This time her smile showed appreciation instead of mockery.

The dealer said he had never seen anybody win and lose and win again like the Gambling Man had that night. He said the high roller gave him the largest tip of the season. Then the dealer saw the woman who had been staring at the Gambling Man all night. Out of gratitude and alarm, he put his hand out to stop him from approaching Ella Bandita. He even had his mouth open to warn him. But the nobleman glanced to the hand on his arm and glared, and brushed him off without a word. The dealer let the Gambling Man go to his fate.

“Congratulations,” she said. “That was impressive.”

“Why feign your good wishes?” he retorted. “You certainly weren’t cheering for me.”

She chuckled and shrugged.

Once he was close to her, the Gambling Man was uneasy and returned to his senses. He remembered his friends and Isabella and groaned. He tipped his hat and wished the strange woman good night. He finished two steps before she arrested him.

“Why do you love it?” she asked. “What do you love about gaming?”

The Gambling Man stopped and turned around. Ella Bandita nodded to his caddy overflowing with chips, but kept her gaze fixed on him.

“Is it the money?” she continued. “Money you don’t need?”

He was shocked a woman would be so bold to question him like that. He was also excited. All his life, his friends had cheered him on and placed their bets, his family had scolded him, and his sweethearts had cautioned him. But nobody had ever asked him about his passion until now. The Gambling Man smiled for the first time since he saw her, his face glowing with rapture as he answered.

“No. It’s the games.”

“So you like to play games,” she said. “Why the games of chance?”

“Because I love to win them.”

“Why not games of skill? The victory would be sweeter.”

The rhythm of her speech was steady, her low voice mesmerizing. Ella Bandita was subtle. So much the Gambling Man didn’t realize she was taunting him. Instead, he shook his head in earnest.

“Luck has no play in games of skill,” he said.

“Luck?”

“There were over a hundred men placing bets in here, but only a few of us were taking genuine risks. I nearly lost six months’ income tonight.”

“Ahhh, I see. And yet, you are the big winner.”

She paused with a smile. The Gambling Man thought her teeth large for a woman, and then he noticed she had the coldest blue eyes he’d ever seen. His stomach clenched, but he ignored the sign and shook his head.

“At least tonight you are,” she said.

“I’m the big winner every night.”

“You still haven’t told me why you love it.”

The Gambling Man knew she was playing with him. He was enjoying her game, because it was one he didn’t know. He couldn’t remember the last time he was so engaged by conversation.

“How many people do you think won tonight?” he asked.

“A few, I suppose.”

“Exactly. And how many of the real gamblers do you think won?”

“I suspect only you,” she said.

“That’s right. Only me.”

“You think that makes you special, don’t you?”

“I have luck on my side. And you think it doesn’t?”

“You really think you’re one of the chosen few?” Ella Bandita asked with one brow cocked, her mouth curved in a knowing grin.

“What a foolish vanity you have. Lady Fortune is fickle. Luck always changes.”

“Not for me, it doesn’t. You saw what happened tonight.”

“Tell me, Gambler, are you looking for the game you can’t win?”

“No, I’m looking to see that I always will.”

“Hmmm.”

“I win at games of chance,” he declared. “I always have.”

“Perhaps you only play the ones that are easy to win.”

The Gambling Man chortled. He turned and pointed to the table now empty of people, clear of chips, the dice put away until the following night began. Even the dealer had gone.

“You think it’s easy to predict which numbers of the dice will come up?”

“You misunderstand me. I meant games that are safe.”

“The only game of chance I’ve never played is the one I’ve never heard of.”

Her smile opened slowly, her eyes glittering in her sweep over her latest prey. She looked back to his face, her teeth gleaming. He must have been afraid in that moment. Ella Bandita wasn’t hiding her predatory nature. But she was challenging him and it wasn’t in his blood to turn that down. He was a Gambling Man.

“So if you know of such a game,” he said. “Don’t think I’m not willing to play it.”

“What are you willing to risk?”

“Whatever stake you want.”

“I don’t want money,” she said. “But I do want the most precious thing you have. So it’s only fair to warn you. If you play with me, you’ll lose.”

“I never lose.”

Ella Bandita raised her brows. Her last words to her prey were as soft as the stroke of a feather.

“I give you my word, Gambler. This time you will lose.”

“I always win.”

She didn’t act right away. Maybe she was giving him one last chance to cash in his chips and go home. Instead he waited for her next move. Ella Bandita turned her back and left the casino. She didn’t look back once. Her stride was long, her tattered skirts swirling around her, and the Gambling Man followed.

His friends were surprised he didn’t come back to the villa. But they saw no cause for alarm. They chuckled to themselves picturing their friend winning and losing, his fever for gaming keeping him in the casino all night and all day. When he hadn’t returned by the time they left for the evening, they started to feel uncomfortable. This really was not like him.

They didn’t find him in the casino that night. They didn’t find him in any of the cafes, dining parlors, and pleasure houses that made this place a legend of its kind. Finally, they were frightened out of their carelessness, for he was nowhere to be found. They had no choice but to go to the law.

The rest of that season was a ruin. This fashion town hung between rock and sea; its wealth was built on gratifying desire and the pursuit of pleasure. And now, for the first time in its history, the town was infected with fear.

The law found him after searching a few days. He was walking the town wall, weaving dangerously close to where the cliff falls to the sea. He might as well have gone over the edge, the arrogant fool. His eyes were glazed, his jaw slack—the man who lost his last gamble.

“Eh…eh…la bandita stole my heart,” he whispered.

The voice of the Gambling Man was as weak as the voices of the other men who had also been chosen by the most dangerous woman in the world.

Chapter Two

Eight years later...

 

BOOK: The Bard Speaks
10.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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