"Mine!" sniggered Silenus, reaching one plump hand to gather up his winnings. "Double or quits?"
Tash snarled, refusing to look at the broad shining round below, where mortals flickered in and out of their brief lives, and where immortals sometimes blessed—and sometimes gamed.
The other gods smiled, or shrugged, or sighed, according to their nature. Tash always played high, and if he lost, always lost ungracefully. It had been inevitable that this loss, with complete defeat of the Calormene forces, and the open mockery of his highest piece at the Anvard feasting, would bring out the worst in him—though it was an even question among them, indeed, as to whether he was more insufferable after losses or after wins.
"Epona's support would have served you well, Silenus," commented Azaroth, consideringly, "even without our elder brother's interventions."
"Pah!" Tash turned suddenly and savagely on the White Mare. "What in the name of the fire-stones were you doing running support for anyone other than me?"
The Horse-goddess tossed her head and moved away with precise, delicate steps, ignoring in silence her brother's continuing diatribe.
"Answer me! I had put in play two hundred horse…"
"And one A-a-ass," sang Bacchus, and danced lightly away out of Tash's reach.
"You both played well," Pomona offered hastily, and frowned a rebuke, aside, to the Wine-god, signalling don't wind him up; it just makes it worse. "Let's take a break from the betting for a while. Shall we all relax with something more co-operative? A round of Seasons?"
She sighed, and turned away to sketch a consoling fecund glow across Terebinthia. Bacchus, somewhat abashed, moved across and silently added a strong sweetness to the vintage being trodden out by the tiny fragile creatures there. She smiled in acceptance, but there was sadness in her whispered words: "It could all be so easy!"
Bacchus grimaced. "They don't either of them do easy. Well, Silenus is easy on himself, I suppose. But Tash isn't even that."
"It's such a waste. Listen to them!"
"Double or quits!" Silenus was persisting. "Bet you your pet piece—the current Tisroc's heir—doesn't last a month! Your pets can't take ridicule, can they, hey? Bet you he's on the way out!"
"Kkhhhhh….." Tash's dry wordless hiss signified mounting anger. Silenus chortled comfortably and raised the never-empty goblet which stood always near his hand.
"You promised them a thousand years, didn't you, Hatchet-head? My guess is… the loss of the battle, plus the ridicule…" He paused to take a long, contented draught. "Your piece'll be done for in a month, and your precious empire will be in battle again with those Zalindreh rebels! Hey? Are you game? Double or quits that I'm right!"
"Let be, Silenus." Azaroth's remote, judicial tones cut in. "This round of the game is over. It was neatly played, at least, despite the interferences,"
"Who asked you for an opinion?"—Tash, in no amiable mood—"I haven't called finish yet! Clean up your own squalid detritus and leave the play to the players!"
"As you will." Azaroth smiled impeturbably, and swept a darkness across the board; the corruscations which had been ungathered mortal souls winked out as if they had never been. "There! Gone! Safe-shrouded till the ending of all things. You're doubling up, then?"
"I'm thinking!" Tash turned back to bend his piercing gaze on the world of mortal struggle.
Pomona softly touched the Wine-god's arm. "Help him out, will you? He has a hard enough time, and it wasn't really fair, what Epona and elder brother did." Bacchus raised one eyebrow quizzically. "No! Don't get him started on that! Just… help him out a bit."
"He should have expected Epona to step in; his way of playing treats horses ill…" Pomona nodded disconsolately. "…and as for elder brother—you know him! He'll have been running one of his wildly detailed, totally unguessable long-term plans, where what happens to the pieces is as important as who wins the game."
He laughed, his eyes inviting Pomona to join in the joke, but she refused the diversion.
"I know—but… Dionysus?" The laughter in his eyes gentled; very few now called him by that older, more intimate name. "Please? I've never let you down."
"Ah! True!" He folded one golden arm around her shoulders in swift repentance. "What would I do without you? All right. I'll see what I can do—if he'll listen!"
He slipped away and was suddenly back with the gamesters.
"Tell you what, Silenus! Let's make a real match of it! Double or quits, you and Epona, me and Tash. What do you say?"
Silenus seemed taken aback at this unexpected entry of his former pupil, and only blinked; Tash sneered automatically, "Keep your drunken debaucheries for boys and Narnian fools!", then stopped, confused.
Bacchus grinned. "You and me, Tash? Think we can take them down?"
"Why would I want to work with you?" Tash muttered—but an uneasy shivering in his wings hinted at a half-disbelieving, half-hopeful interest in the offer; his company was not often sought by the more southern gods.
"Just for the fun of something different, hey?" Bacchus patted in comradely fashion the bony shoulder from which sprouted baleful wings. "Are you in?"
Tash jerked his head in a form of semi-acquiescence, and Bacchus waited for no more.
"Silenus! Tash and I have a mind to take you up on your boastings! What was it you said, O dissolute tutor of innocent youth? That the Tisroc's heir would be done for in a month, and Calormen's empire would be in battle with open rebellion—yes?"
"Two against one…" Silenus began. "If Tash has you…"
"Epona?" Bacchus called across to where the Mare stood, listening with ears tipped back. "You took Tash by surprise, giving those two Horses the extra stamina to make it across his desert. Are you game to try one more round, two against two?"
She snorted, contemptuously. "Let him learn with his pet Rabadash that Horses can make their own pace, not needing the whips of Men for speed! As for your game, I care not. Put my name to the wager, if you will."
"That's my Sister of the Shining Hooves! See, Silenus? Epona doesn't flinch."
"I do not." She blew a long breath through pinched nostrils. "I will be glad to see it done—the fall of one who drove two hundred of my own near to foundering, and the crumbling of the empire which enslaves them. Silenus, I walk with you."
"Then…" Silenus looked somewhat apprehensively at his irrepressible, unpredictable former pupil. "Then… yes, if I can have her help with the horses—that's horses, chariots, and baggage-ponies, mind! and couriers!—you can give Tash all the wine and song you like. But he hasn't said he's agreed yet."
Tash paused irresolute, then, perhaps goaded by the attentive silence of the other gods, suddenly and angrily burst out with, "Yes! Done!"
"So! Done and done!" exulted Bacchus. "Silenus! Epona! Prepare to lose your bet!"