Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker. — Rounders
Tesara Mederos, reluctant magic user, has another talent — that of card sharp. In The Sisters Mederos, she hustles the merchant ladies and their husbands at the elegant gaming tables of high society, pretending to be the breathless ingenue and really taking them for all their money.
Note: there are some people who are seriously into this whole cheating at cards thing. Here’s a fabulous explanation of how to based on math and, well, sleight of hand.
I love that Tesara counts cards. I love that she’s disreputable like her Uncle Samwell, who taught her how to cheat at cards when she was twelve, just before her magic gets out of control and she raises the storm that causes the family to lose all their money. I love that while she fights to control her powers, she also waltzes into the houses of the people who have betrayed her family, and rakes in the dough.
Look, I don’t pretend to write blameless characters. Tesara and her sister are both criminals and justify their criminality because of how their family has been destroyed by the Guild. And who doesn’t like a rogue?
Here’s a bit of backstory for Tesara, in an early version of The Sisters Mederos:
“Coast all clear?” he said, looking around with exaggerated alarm. Tesara giggled. Uncle could always cheer her up. He breathed a sigh of relief and came in. Uncle Samwell always made fun of Alinesse, calling his older sister the Admiral and occasionally saluting her, which served to enrage Alinesse and make her lose her temper and call him names. It was their secret that he taught Tesara how to play cards, including how to shuffle the deck the way the dock sharps did when they set up their three-card monty games for the marks. She had become rather good at palming cards even with her small hands.
“Good. No officers on deck,” he winked, and pulled out a small child’s chair from the table, turned it around, and sat down with her, resting his forearms on the back of the chair. He pulled out a greasy deck of cards. “We have time for a game before dinner. Are you in?”
She nodded eagerly. Samwell Balinchard was much younger than Alinesse and Brevart, but he was going to seed, Brevart said. His face was fleshy and slack and his body ran to fat. He was barely thirty years old, and Tesara had heard Brevart say he would eat and drink himself into an early grave.
“What’s the state of your holdings, Monkey?” he asked.
“I don’t want to play for money,” she said, stalling. She had only two half-guilders left after a rampage at the sweets shop after church last week.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “You’ve won before.”
“And you always make me play one more hand, and then I always lose.”
Sometimes all of her allowance went to Uncle Samwell. She had learned that he always knew when Papa doled out their pin money.
“This time you can stop whenever you want,” he coaxed. She eyed him with a mutinous look. He gave her an innocent look back, then leaned forward. “You’re getting very good. You know you can beat me.”
That convinced her. This time she would win. And that would teach him.
“We stop when I say,” she warned. He crossed his heart and yanked his earlobe, which he had told her was swearing solemnly. He shuffled and dealt and they settled down to play. Samwell brought out a tin of anise-flavored drops and shared them with her. She loved the strongly flavored sweets.
“All right, Monkey, remember how to count the cards?”
“That’s easy,” she said, too young to understand it was not. She never once questioned that she could learn the formula for remembering when the cards came up in the deck and yet was always considered the dunderhead.
“Now, depending on where you play, you try this trick at the wrong table and the night watch will find your body floating in the harbor with an extra smile.” He made a throat-slash motion.
“Uncle!” she protested, shivering with delight. “It’s the truth.” He leaned closer to her. “I tell you this for your own good. Why just the other night I threw down with several gents o’ the night. We had a rare old time, them thinking I was just a know-nothing toff without a clew, and me counting cards on them.” He shuddered with exaggerated fear.
“I had just about won all their money and the silver-chased pocket watch one of them had stolen from a drunken bounder with more money than sense. Then my luck failed, and the ringleader got suspicious, saying I had a card up my sleeve.”
She gasped. Counting cards was one thing. Only stupid people played fair, Uncle said, and she had no reason to disbelieve him, because her parents and the other merchants said almost the same thing about trade. But cheating was something different. “Did you?”
“Yes, but that was neither here nor there. I was just counting. Still, I couldn’t let him find the card as he’d never believe me that I wasn’t about to use it.”
“What did you do?” “As they closed in on me, I grabbed the pot and the watch, threw over the table, and ran for my life.” He winked at her with great good humor and she laughed. Uncle Samwell was the best.
She drew a card and busted. He chuckled and swept up the coins from her first bet, stacking them meticulously. With ceremony he popped an anise drop in his mouth. His breath always smelled of the strong drops. She had enough for one more bet. She had to win this one.
Narrator: She doesn’t.
When I wrote the character of Uncle Samwell, I really meant for him to be a jerk who stole his niece’s money and then tried to marry her off to a sleazy friend. And yeah, he does all that, but he redeems himself too, sort of. I like Uncle Samwell, or at least, I’m sympathetic to him.
But that’s a story for another time.
I can’t believe he taught his niece to cheat at cards, though.
Addendum: Port Saint Frey is based in part on an alt-history San Francisco. From True West Magazine, here’s how to cheat at cards in the Old West.
Without getting killed, as Uncle Samwell might appreciate.