Halvard opened the carved wooden door, closed it behind him, and sat down at the table across from Braxton.
"So," Braxton said. "You made it." He smiled, as if that very fact was amusing. The harsh lamp dangling above the felt-topped table, set to swinging slowly from the draft of Halvard's entrance, glinted once off Braxton's fangs. He snapped his fingers and one of his men brought out a sealed deck of cards.
He handed it to Halvard to inspect, but Halvard only did so perfunctorily. Braxton had the power here--he was the local representative of the colonial government, and his authority was absolute. If he wanted to cheat, he would. Halvard handed the deck back, and Braxton smiled again as he cracked it open.
"You brought the stakes, of course?" Braxton said as his long fingers shuffled the cards rapidly. Halvard tried to avoid being mesmerized by the motion.
Before he could answer, Cisco spoke from behind him. "One hundred head, as agreed. They're being inspected right now, but preliminary scans are clean."
Cisco's men had been thorough when Halvard showed up with the herd. He'd arrived in late afternoon, hours early, anticipating the delay, but he was sweating as the sun set, even though the planet's thin air was cool. Halvard didn't doubt that Braxton's dawn deadline was quite firm.
"A hundred head," Braxton said. "I believe that works out to about two hundred kilograms apiece, doesn't it? Not that we'll slaughter them and weigh them all right now, of course. 20,000k in chips, then."
Halvard ground his teeth. It was closer to 250 or 275, but he'd expected Braxton to short him. Another of Braxton's men whose name Halvard didn't know made up a small stack of chips. A thousand-k chip was the smallest, so his pile was pitiful. Braxton had already made up a stack amounting to the estimated total beef output of the settlement, and Halvard was sure that he hadn't shorted himself there.
"So," Braxton said, "let's start small. 1000k ante, 10,000k limit. If your winnings increase, then we'll discuss raising the stakes. I presume you're familiar with the rules of Betelgeuse hold-'em?"
Halvard nodded, though this had mostly been the result of a whirlwind study session with the limited online files he'd been able to find on the subject. It was an antiquated version of the game, and it was only three days earlier that he'd found out those would be the rules in force.
"Our game ends at sunrise, local time," Braxton continued. "Or earlier if one player or the other loses all their stakes. Your winnings, if any, will be applied against the accounts of ranchers in the settlement, at my own discretion."
Halvard's blood ran cold. It would be Braxton's choice which ranchers got paid off. He cursed himself for an idiot. This whole game was by Braxton's rules, just as it had been when he'd first swooped down and called in all the colonial debts of the entire settlement. And, of course, it would be his and Laisa's ranch which would be the last paid off.
"Any debtors whose accounts remain unpaid will be taken as wards of the state, and their possessions sold off," Braxton continued. Halvard had expected to hear that. He knew what these bloodsuckers were really after.
He didn't know how most of the Alsuhail colony's administration had ended up being populated by vampires, but he knew that they quickly got bored with cattle blood, and went through all sorts of schemes to get human instead. They didn't see any significant difference between the two species they fed on, except that one tasted better.
But he hadn't realized that unless his meagre poker skills were sufficient to win all of Braxton's formidable bank of chips, he and his family would provide the first course.
Just then there was a knock on the door. Braxton sighed, annoyed at being interrupted. "Cisco, get that, will you?"
Cisco complied, while Braxton impatiently drummed his fingers on the felt. After a murmured conversation, Cisco returned with a slip of paper, which he handed to his boss. After a brief, disinterested scrutiny, Braxton passed it to Halvard. "Some kind of urgent personal message, I imagine," he sneered.
Halvard glanced at the message, and his heart nearly stopped. It announced that his sister Alayne had just given birth to a healthy 7-kilo baby boy. As a prearranged signal, it had sounded plausibly important enough to convey to him immediately, but highly unlikely to be true, given that Alayne had miscarried a month earlier.
Django had been sent on a highly illicit mission to the lowlands shortly after Alayne's miscarriage, which had been kept secret ever since. He'd been supposed to return two weeks ago, and Halvard and the other ranchers had given up hope. But apparently they had managed to find a local plant whose chemical properties were similar to Terran wood. Braxton's headquarters were near the edge of the plateau, near a cliff which was supposed to be unscaleable. Django claimed to know a secret route, though.
The attack would take place just before dawn...assuming that Django and his party were able to bring their newly-carved wooden weapons up to the plateau without being detected. Which meant that, whatever else he did, Halvard would have to keep the game going until then, to keep Braxton distracted.
"Let's play," he said.