Bahman Guru, or Bahman’s Pride, was the most prestigious chance house in all of Gamzhe. While the other chance houses and gambling dens welcomed all, Bahman’s Pride only opened its doors to those who could afford the twenty crown entry fee. Naturally only the upper class could afford to throw money away so flagrantly, but on the rare occasion someone got exceptionally lucky in one of the other chance houses they too were welcomed with open arms. Of course Gunnar was permitted entry regardless of the twenty crown cover, but the real winner of the night was his guest of honour. As Lord of Gamzhe, Gunnar’s indulgences in his city’s sources of entertainment—gambling dens, all hour bars, and the only legal brothels in all of Valara—came from his own pocket one way or another. A large percentage of the city’s income lined his own vault, but he never asked enough to force anyone into economic difficulties. As he had said, the people of the Sands looked out for each other, even when they were the source of one’s wealth. To be Gunnar’s guest of honour, however, was to have one’s every need and whim paid for by the house. It was an honour reserved only for the most sincere and modest of Gunnar’s faux paramours; the ones he could trust not to run Bahman’s Pride into the ground for want of luxuries.
Aoife’s hair was washed and rebraided for the event, a length of thin purple silk threaded through it though the orphan could not see the back of her head to admire the majority of it. Her dress—she still hadn’t found out the proper name for her attire—was changed to one that matched the purple silk in her hair, with gold trimming at each hem. She felt oddly regal trussed up in it all, and the overly servile nature of the staff within the chance house left her feeling like Queen Ashelia herself. Gunnar, who had otherwise worn nothing but the traditional grab of the Sands, had adopted a more Southern dress style. He wore a white dress shirt, with a waistcoat in the same shade of purple as Aoife’s dress though it was decidedly plain compared to some of the creations the artisanal seamstresses and tailors in Eturia had on display in their shop windows. His hair, which he usually left down and loose about his shoulders, was pulled up into a ponytail. By Southern standards, he was dressed rather simply; definitely underdressed for somewhere as elegant and opulent as Bahman’s Pride, but his kin’s perceptions he was severely overdressed. The heat of the Sands was not forgiving to the fashions of their Southern cousins, and sweat was already drenching the back of Gunnar’s shirt. All too suddenly he was thankful for choosing a black backed waistcoat instead of the caramel backed one his servant, Altan, had insisted upon. It wasn’t exactly in good form to appear as sweat soaked as he was in front of polite company, after all.
The Sandsman stood at a roulette table, carved from dark wood and furnished with ornate swirling gold patterns. The numbers on the wheel’s face were ornately painted in gold, and in place of the red and black tiles in the lesser chance houses were finely cut onyx and rubies; a gift from one of Gunnar’s former lovers on the Kaíri Islands. Athos and Videnza may have been famed for their vineyards, but Arkala was famous for its seemingly endless supply of precious stones—and its crumbling coast courtesy of the extensive mining of said precious stones. If a miner could steal a gem and escape the island, he could feed, house, and clothe his family for years. Such was the reason few were allowed to leave Arkala.
“You look ravishing,” Gunnar said politely, bowing his head as was customary with formal greetings to the opposite sex.
Rosy warmth spread through Aoife’s cheeks at the compliment. “You look very handsome yourself, Gunnar.”
Handsome but underdressed, she thought.
Gunnar crooked an elbow, and the orphan’s hand found a home there. He was taller than her, but not so tall that she couldn’t take his arm comfortably; an issue she had with Shay. He used their linked arms as a means of coercing her towards the table, where an array of equally underdressed and overdressed men stood with Eastern dressed trophy wives. Of all of them, Aoife looked the most out of place.
“Have you ever played roulette before, Aoife?” Gunnar asked, giving the attendant manning the table a small nod to proceed.
Cheating in Gamzhe’s chance houses was both legal and not entirely unheard of, but attendants in Bahman’s Pride were paid extra to ensure the games in its halls ran as fairly as possible. Allowing a thief or a cheat to continue his misdeeds in Gunnar’s presence, when his cükadın were most certainly lurking somewhere nearby was something best left for the mad or suicidal. That did not mean, however, that Gunnar couldn’t tip the scales one way or another.
“No.” Aoife gave a shake of her head. “The Maker frowns on gambling.”
“The Maker frowns on everything. How do you suppose people coped before His conception?” He didn’t give Aoife time to think on an answer, pulling her a little closer to his side and pointing at the roulette table. “Watch this, you will love it.”
All the other men, and some of the women, around the table all shuffled a few wooden disks onto a grid of numbers engraved into the table’s surface. Aoife had seen roulette wheels in action in Gamzhe before, and failed to see what could be so special about the jewel encrusted one, but she humoured Gunnar all the same. The velvet jacketed—and notably sweaty—attendant spun the wheel, flashes of red and grey kaleidoscoping on the faces of everyone gathered around the table as the light caught the gems in motion. The attendant let the wheel spin a few times before casting a ball—a pearl in place of the wooden and ceramic ones used by other establishments—spinning at the wheel’s centre. As the wheel span, the attendant pulled a small brass key from his jacket pocket though he waited until the pearl had come to a halt to use it. One of the men at the table had bet on 17 black, but he did not celebrate despite the pearl sitting quite comfortably on the ruby beneath his bet. The attendant looked at the wooden chips on the table, then looked to Gunnar for confirmation.
“Kaç kere, Gunnar Balfa?” he asked, oddly confident considering he was talking to a Lord.
“Birke,” Gunnar said, before leaning in to whisper a translation in Aoife’s ear. “He asked how many times he should turn his key. I told him once.”
As if on cue, the attendant inserted his key into a small hole at his side of the table, turning it once and removing it.For a second, nothing happened. The men around the table smoked cigars. The women sipped delicately at glasses of wine while those who were being paid for their company teased Nectar down the gullets of their clients in the hopes of making more money. From somewhere within the table the faint tick-tock of cogs spinning into life could be heard if one listened closely enough. As if by magic, the numbers marked around the wheel began to spin. What had looked like a seamless wooden band revealed itself to instead be a series of wooden panels. Each panel spun once in unison before settling once more. With one turn of that brass key, the victorious 17 black had become a losing 31 black.
“But… But that isn’t fair,” Aoife protested, watching as the attendant pulled the bidders’ chips towards himself with a miniature wooden rake.
“Gambling isn’t fair,” Gunnar said, arm circling her waist and leading her away from the table as the attendant prepared for another round. “They all know the risks. Our patrons can play roulette anywhere in Gamzhe; the game offered in Bahman Guru has to up the stakes to make it worthwhile, no?”
And the stakes in Bahman’s Pride were well and truly high. In any of the other gambling dens, a winning round would net the winner any and all chips bet in that round, as was customary. In Bahman’s Pride, however, a winning round would see a player double any bets placed on the table, while a losing round could be disastrous. Losing bets were also doubled and owed to the house. Those that could not pay their debts would soon find themselves in the velvet jackets of the chance house’s attendants, serving drinks and handing out Nectar until their debts were settled. With an annual salary of twelve crowns—a certified fortune compared to the wages in other cities—paying off gambling debts could take years.
“Higher stakes make for higher elation on winning, don’t you think?” asked Gunnar.
Gunnar led the orphan through the chance house, past more ornate wooden tables with men and women eager to throw their money away. Surrounding them she saw more brass clockwork contraptions, though she did not get to see them in motion—Gunnar promised her she would some other night. At the heart of Bahman’s Pride was a giant golden man, standing as tall as three. The effigy stood arms open and palms flat, with his beard tied off into three, and his hair tied up ceremoniously in a small bun at the back of his head. On his face he wore the same trademark grin that Gunnar wore almost constantly, and his pupiless eyes sent a shiver down Aoife’s spine. Unlike most of the Sandsmen, who stood lean and in good form, the statue had a rounded face with full cheeks and the gut of a gluttonous housewife. At his feet, also in gold, was a plaque which had but one word etched into it; Bahman.
Bahman was the god of wealth and prosperity. It was he who had first introduced the Ramela to games of chance. Bahman was the patron god of thieves, merchants and gamblers. Anyone who could accumulate wealth off his own back owed it to Bahman, and a chance house was the closest thing he could ever get to a temple. Gambling and thievery were the East’s equivalent of prayer to Bahman, and it was an arrangement that suited Gamzhe just fine.
“Tell me, Aoife, have you ever heard of Yeşi Tehli?” Gunnar asked, steering her towards another wooden table, tucked away in the back corner of the chance house.
Seated around it were four men and one heavily scarred woman. An empty seat broke the circle they formed around the table, a few of them nodded in silent greeting at Gunnar’s arrival.
Aoife shook her head. “But I get the feeling it has something to do with yeşi vipers.”
“You are a clever girl, Aoife.”