WAVERLY SPLAYED his cards on the tavern's grooved table. "This isn't your lucky day."
Hendrik snarled, the seadog's canines stark against black fur and pink gums.
Sitting back, Waverly toasted him with his shot glass. "May the winds be at your back my friend."
"And up yours." Hendrik pushed away from the table, causing the pile of gold and silver to slide.
Waverly belted his drink and pitched his glass at the empty seat Hendrik left behind. The shot shattered against the chair's slats and shards rained onto the spit-spattered floor. Chuckling, Waverly tilted forward and gathered up his earnings while Bonny shuffled cards and Cole poured another round.
"Do you have room for one more?"
The speaker's husky breath blew across Waverly's busy hands. He peered up from the bullion and into female curves outlined in twilight. Shade masked her face, but he grinned nonetheless.
"Seems you're in luck." He squinted, catching a lean neck, prow-worthy breasts, and full mouth. "Or perhaps I am."
"We'l have to see."
With a graceful sway, the newcomer descended onto the chair. Shadows twisted around an oval face. Her blackened curls draped half-covered shoulders, errant tendrils tumbling along the v-neck of her dress. The sea-foam hue matched her eyes, the amusement in her gaze mirroring the two dimples adjoining her smile.
"It's a pity I haven't seen the likes of you around," said Waverly arranging his stacks of coin, "worse yet, I don't know your name."
Her grin spread. "Call me Fortune."
"My own making."
Waverly chuckled. "That's a name I can live with." He tipped his chin byway of introduction to the other three at the table. "The seadog's my rudder master, Cole. Bonny Read, second on The Bluster, and Augustine, gunner for The Kenning."
"And you?" asked Fortune.
He held her gaze as Fortune placed a pearl-studded ditty bag on the table. "Waverly. Captain of The Returner. But you," he flipped a golden florin across his knuckles, "can call me Solomon."
"The Returner?" Fortune hummed in thought. "I believe I've heard of that ship."
Bonny rolled her eyes and tapped the cards against her rope-rubbed palm. "Are we talking or are we playing?"
Fortune folded her hands over her pouch, her fingernails tinged dark as night. "Playing. By all means."
Dealt cards, flung coins, and folds and flops, joined a round of drinks, then a second, then another.
Cole dropped after a failed straight and run of bad beats.
"Mess o' trouble she is, Capt'n." The seadog nodded once to Fortune before lumbering off for the bar, his tail hanging.
Once the furry brute had gone, Augustine started scrubbing his eyes, no doubt fighting to keep his count straight. His silver and the rest of his gold fled first and Augustine followed, his head thumping to the table, cushioned by brackish dreadlocks. His light snore punctuated the clatter of coin as Waverly stacked his earned pot into towers and Bonny dealt another hand.
Around them, Calico lit his tavern's lanterns, warding off the deepening dusk. New arrivals poured through the door and claimed stools. Crowds gathered about tables, rolling dice, telling salted tales, or drowning their pay in the bottom of a cup.
Waverly sensed his crew about, enjoying their time ashore as they liked.
Boss's guffaws rode over briny conversations, while a slap or punch told of Cassandra mucking about with a fellow or two. He felt Cole's watch from across the hall, his eye on the pot, then the cleavage across the way.
Belting another shot, Waverly joined in, appreciating the blend of Fortune's white skin and sea green.
"I'm out." Bonny sloughed her cards. Downing the last of her drink, she teetered toward her dart-tossing mates.
The lights seemed to dim, the room to tilt, the voices to blend, when Fortune caught Waverly's eye. "What do you say, Captain?"
Waverly steadied his smirk and the rest of him on the table's edge. "Call o' course."
He dragged his gaze from her and skimmed the table. His stacks had traveled to the center pile where they shimmied like waves at dawn. Bonny's joined them along with the seemingly endless stream from Fortune's pearl pouch. Chuckling at the grooves in the exposed wood, Waverly slouched into his chair.
"Well?" asked Fortune.
With glass in hand, Waverly mused on the hazy quintet of cards laying face down beside the bottle they'd emptied. Calculations swirled with Calico's liquor, the numbers misty, the suits leaping over one another like dolphins riding a bow's wake.
When knowledge of the cards he held returned, brisk as a breeze after doldrums, Waverly chuckled and finished his drink.
"I call with The Returner."
"Your ship?" Fortune pursed her lips. "What do I need with boat? With planks and canvas?"
"The Returner?" Waverly tilted forward and thumped his finger onto the table making glass clink, coins shimmy, and Fortune's face blur. "She's more than a boat. More than planks an' canvas. She's me." He thumped his chest. "She's my crew," he added with a sweep of his arm. "My ship's the open sea and untethered lives. She's freedom in its purest form."
The corner of Fortune's lip curved, carving a dimple and adding a glimmer of starlight in her eye. "If she's all that, then suppose I'll have to up my ante."
Holding her fist over the pot, Fortune uncurled her fingers. Diamonds, emeralds, and a shower of rubies tumbled atop the scuffed bullion.
The gems quivered when Cole posted himself at Waverly's shoulder, the hint of toothy canine under his gray muzzle's lip. Wariness joined the seadog's musk of salt and sweat on matted fur.
Waverly rubbed the scent from his nose. "Call."
He flipped his cards one by one, revealing the full boat of Laughing Jacks over nines.
Fortune tilted her head, raven locks spilling over her shoulder. "What a pity."
"Don't worry 'bout it, lass." Plucking a buckle-sized diamond, Waverly spied her through the facets. "Your night doesn't have to be entirely lost."
"Oh it's not," said Fortune. "It's just those poor fellows look so merry, I hate to mar their good mood." With a graceful turn, she exposed her cards, showing four aces and the Spade’s Queen.
Dropping the jewel, Waverly stared at the four suits and the sharp eye of the royal.
The Queen snared him, drowned him, pulled him under. His vision clouded and a storm swirled in his gut.
Fortune appeared before him and he fell against his chair's slats. She filled his lap, and the space between his chest and table. She claimed the rest of the tavern too, her sea-foam gown billowing, her face round and as silver as a full moon. Waverly sank into the dark pools of her eyes when she leaned close, her smile soft, her voice lapping his ears like surf on shore.
"This," she whispered, "is definitely my lucky day."
When she kissed him, the storm in Waverly's belly built into a rightful hurricane, one strong enough to rip rigging, snap masts, and submerge a deck. She slipped her hands along either side of his head, her fingers through his hair, and pressed against his mouth.
The storm's energy gushed in reply. The torrent tore through Waverly's lungs and charged up his throat. His tongue burned and the sun seared the backside of his eyes. The storm scorched his innards, from each curled toe to the tip of his ponytail, before the current charged out of him and into her.
As the last ounce trickled free, Fortune released his lips and stroked the stubbled sides of his face.
"It has been a pleasure, Captain."
She stood and the lantern's light warped her face into the oval one he'd seen when she'd arrived. Shadows flickered and he saw a hundred more.
"Expect my call."
Nodding once to Cole, Fortune pivoted and a swish of skirts took her smile out of Waverly's sights. He followed her saunter pass the bar and to the tavern's door. It opened as if ordered and closed again, sealing them all back inside.
When Cole slapped his back and the world jolted out of slow motion.
"Sorry Capt'n, seemed she'd be a keeper."
"You know what?" Waverly ran his fingers across lips, the burn of her kiss bitter, the seas within him frothed. "I think she is."
TITANS TACTICS: THE GAMES BEGIN. Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen A. Magner and Imbalanced Games, LLC.