The Callous Luck of Cards
Notes: Image associated is from Ironage.media, specifically their prompt 'The Protégé'
Timothy sat at the low table in the workhouse, across from his friend Josiah. It was packed today, even more than yesterday. It seemed to Timothy that it had slowly been becoming crowded, now over-crowded, over the last weeks. He asked Josiah what he thought had been going on to cause so many to visit the squat, gloomy building.
"World's been taking bad turns, kid. We'll be seeing far more days like this ahead than the days before." Josiah unclenched the pipe set in his mouth as he awaited his pupil. No smoke was coming from the pipe today. None had come from it for some time, despite Josiah's evident familiarity and care of the carved piece, made of two kinds of wood that Timothy had never seen elsewhere. Josiah called part of it ebony, supposedly taken by his father from some far-off place called Africa, and the other briar from France. It was quite the stunning little thing when it caught a rare shaft of light, the ebony seeming to be a pool of endless black, like what Timothy saw when he slept, and the briar shone like the ripest cherry, a gem inset within the black.
Surprisingly, Josiah pulled a small tin from a pocket within his faded wool coat. Opening it carefully on the rickety table, he pulled a small pinch of tobacco from the little tin, pressing it into the pipe with his thumb. Timothy wanted to ask what Josiah meant but had learned better than to interrupt his friend when he loaded the pipe. It was part of the first things Josiah taught him, all being called 'manners.' Josiah was insistent on teaching them, and he was quick to remind Timothy if he broke the seemingly arbitrary rules Josiah had saddled him with. Even if Josiah wasn't around, he had some method of hearing about it if Timothy broke a rule and rebuked him for each instance the next time they spoke.
"The adults who claim to run the world, kid, have made a right mess of things, playing with new toys they don't understand, ya see. Something they started calling credit has bit them back as they found out not everyone tells the truth. Which is one reason it is important to tell the truth, as you've been doing this week." Josiah struck a match and held it in the pipe, breathing in as the flame touched the contents, a thin smoke flowing from the man's mouth, adding to the apparent size of his short white beard about his face. "Ya see they forget 'credit' was once something that relied on your reputation, on how well you knew the owner of a business, and he you. It was something you earned by being a trustable sort, which not everyone is. And when everyone is saying they'll 'pay you later', at some point, someone will want what's owed, and that is what's bit people hard now."
"But I know half the people here, and they seemed to deal fairly with me." Timothy objected to the latent accusation in Josiah's words, thinking to himself that a mood had struck upon his friend, as had happened from time to time.
"Indeed." Josiah pulled out a set of cards that he had used to teach Timothy many subtleties of manners before continuing, "Which likely means that someone lied to them on what could be paid. Ya see, who lied is only important when searching for who is responsible for the outcome. But the outcome doesn't care who lied. It hits everybody, knocks everybody down. These," Josiah gestured to the room, "are the people who didn't have enough to outlast the pinch." He shook his head in his way when he saw something as senseless. "However, you still need teaching, so let's table that for now."
"More manners?" Timothy said, his tone betraying his boredom at what he assumed was to be taught.
"With that tone, it may be necessary. But no, I promised to teach you a game after you'd learned, and you have. So collect your cards." Josiah pointed at the pile of 5 cards he had set near Timothy as he leaned back, looking at his own set of cards as he leaned back, his coat shifting and showing his waistcoat, cotton in black and red stripes.
"What's the goal of the game?" Timothy asked as he picked up his cards. In his hand, he had the 8 of Clubs, the 5 of Hearts, the 9 of Spades, the Queen of Clubs, and the 9 of Hearts.
"To have the most of the best, to be perfectly opaque," Josiah said, smoke rolling out at each syllable. "I'll show my hand so you can learn how to pick your cards." Josiah laid out his hand, the 7 of Spades, the King of Diamonds, the King of Clubs, the 9 of Clubs, and the Jack of Hearts. "You see the two Kings? Only one card can beat them in this game, the Ace which I don't have, so I'll keep the kings, but switch out the other three." He pulled 4 cards from the deck, ignoring the first one, and laid out three new cards: the Jack of Diamonds, the 5 of Diamonds and the King of Spades. "Now I have three Kings, the Jack of Diamonds, and the 5 of diamonds. Now you need three of the aces or four of anything to win. Would you like to change out a card?"
Timothy handed over all but his 9's, hoping he could pick up the other two in the deck. Four cards were drawn, and he received the Queen of Diamonds, the 2 of Clubs, and the 4 of Diamonds. Showing Josiah his hand, both versions, Josiah winced at the boy's bad luck but congratulated his choice of strategy.
"You have the right idea already. A shame the cards weren't on your side. Another game?" the aged man asked, a twinkle in his eye, and Timothy shook his head in agreement, enjoying the game already. Dealing out a second hand, after impressing Timothy with a few fancy shuffles, Josiah had the Jack, 8, and 6 of Clubs, the 9 of Hearts, and the Ace of Diamonds, a messy hand. Timothy, however, had the 10 of Spades, the 7 of Diamonds, the 8 of Hearts, the 9 of Clubs, and the 4 of Hearts, an equally valueless hand. Josiah turned in his 8,6 and 9, as Timothy turned in his 4 of Hearts, and the new cards were dealt, with two cards burned from the deck. Now their hands stood as the Jack of Clubs, the Ace, 5, 8, and Jack of Diamonds, for Josiah, and the 10 and 4 of Spades, 7 of Diamonds, 8 of Hearts and 9 of Clubs for Timothy. Each revealed their cards, and Josiah asked which card Timothy had exchanged. Timothy sourly pointed at the 4's of Spades and Hearts, leaving Josiah puzzled.
"What were you hoping for?" Josiah asked, unsure why Timothy would only want a pair in his hand.
"I thought it would be kinda neat if I could get a pattern of the numbers in order." Timothy shrugged, his fragile hopes defeated by the callous luck of cards.
"Hmm, I wonder, that would be quite the thing, wouldn't it? Let me see." Josiah began reshuffling the deck, burned the top card, and pulled five more cards, finding the 9 of Spades, the 8 of Diamonds, the 10 of Clubs, the 6 and the Ace of Hearts. "Hmmph, one shy again. I think you may have come up with an idea for a new winning hand, my boy."
Thanks for reading NMBR Stories! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Writer’s note: Cards were chosen at random via 2d4 for the suit, and 2d12 totalled together (subtracting 13 if the total was 14 or higher) plus one to account for aces being high in poker games.
For example, a 1 and 3 on the d4s equals 4, values of 4 and 8 were Hearts. A 9 and 10 on the d12s is 19, subtracting 13 is 6, and the 6th card above a 2 in Aces high poker is the 7. So the 7 of Hearts has been pulled. If any reader knows this formula from anywhere else, let me know in the comments, and I’ll happily append a link to it.