Authors: Jim Butcher
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
—FROM THE WRITINGS OF GAIUS QUARTUS,
FIRST LORD OF ALERA
Tavi made a steeple of his fingers and stared down at the
board. Squares of black and white lay in eleven rows of eleven, and painted lead figurines, also of black and white, stood in serried ranks upon them. A second board, five squares by five, rested on a little metal rod, its center over the lower board’s center, occupied by only a few pieces. Casualties of war sat on the table beside the board.
Midgame was well under way, and the pieces were approaching the point where exchanges and sacrifices would have to be made, leading into the endgame. It was the nature of
Tavi’s dark Legions had taken heavier losses than his opponent’s, but he held a stronger position. So long as he kept the game running in his favor—and provided his opponent wasn’t laying some kind of fiendish trap Tavi had overlooked—he stood an excellent chance of victory.
He picked up one of his Lords and swept the piece up onto the raised sky-board, representing the skies above the field of battle, bringing added pressure onto the beleaguered positions of the hosts of the white foe.
His opponent let out a low, relaxed sound that was like nothing so much as the growl of some large and sleepy predator. Tavi knew that the sound indicated the same emotion a mildly amused chuckle might have in a human being—but never for a second did he forget that his opponent was not human.
The Cane was an enormous creature, and stood better than nine feet tall when upright. His fur was dark and thick, a heavy, stiff coat over the whole of his
body, save for upon his paw-hands, and in patches where heavy scar tissue could be seen on the skin beneath his fur. His head was that of an enormous wolf, though a bit stockier than the beast’s, his muzzle tipped with a wide, black nose, his jaws filled with sharp white teeth. Triangular ears stood erect and forward, focused on the
board. His broad tail flicked back and forth in restless thought, and he narrowed scarlet-and-golden eyes. The Cane smelled like nothing else Tavi had ever encountered, musky, musty, dark, and something like metal and rust, though the Cane’s armor and weaponry had been locked away for two years.
Varg hunched down on his haunches across the board from Tavi, disdaining a chair. Even so, the Cane’s eyes were a foot above the young man’s. They sat together in a plainly appointed chamber in the Grey Tower, the impregnable, inescapable prison of Alera Imperia.
Tavi permitted himself a small smile.
Almost impregnable. Not quite inescapable.
As always, the thoughts of the events of Wintersend two years past filled Tavi with a familiar surge of pride, humiliation, and sadness. Even after all that time, his dreams were sometimes visited with howling monsters and streams of blood.
He forced his thoughts away from painful regrets. “What’s so funny?” he asked the Cane.
“You,” Varg said, without looking up from the
board. His voice was a slow, low thing, the words chewed and mangled oddly by the Cane’s mouth and fangs. “Aggressive.”
“That’s how to win,” Tavi said.
Varg reached out a heavy paw-hand and pushed a white High Lord figure forward with a long, sharp claw. The move countered Tavi’s most recent move to the skyboard. “There is more to victory than ferocity.”
Tavi pushed a legionare figure forward, and judged that he could shortly open his assault. “How so?”
“It must be tempered with discipline. Ferocity is useless unless employed in the proper place . . .” Varg reached up and swept a Steadholder figure from the skyboard, taking the legionare. Then he settled back from the board and folded his paw-hands. “. . . and the proper time.”
Tavi frowned down at the board. He had considered the Cane’s move in his planning, but had deemed it too unorthodox and impractical to worry much about it. But the subtle maneuvers of the game had altered the balance of power at that single point on the
Tavi regarded his responses, and dismissed the first two counters as futile. Then, to his dismay, he found his next dozen options unpalatable. Within twenty moves, they would lead to a series of exchanges that would leave the Cane and his numerically superior forces in command of the
board and allow them to hunt down and capture Tavi’s First Lord at leisure.
“Crows,” the boy muttered quietly.
Varg’s black lips peeled away from his white teeth, an imitation of an Aleran smile. Granted, no Aleran would ever look quite so . . . unabashedly carnivorous.
Tavi shook his head, still running down possibilities on the game board. “I’ve been playing
with you for almost two years, sir. I thought I had your tactics down fairly well.”
“Some,” Varg agreed. “You learn quickly.”
“I’m not so sure,” Tavi said in a dry tone. “What is it I’m supposed to be learning?”
“My mind,” Varg said.
“Know your enemy. Know yourself. Only then may you seize victory.”
Tavi tilted his head at Varg and arched an eyebrow without speaking.
The Cane showed more teeth. “Is it not obvious? We are at war, Aleran,” he said, without any particular rancor beyond his own unsettling inflections. He rolled a paw-hand at the
board. “For now the war is polite. But it is not simply a game. We match ourselves against one another. Study one another.”
Tavi glanced up and frowned at the Cane. “So that we’ll know how to kill one another come the day,” he said.
Varg let his silence speak of his agreement.
Tavi liked Varg, in his own way. The former Ambassador had been consistently honest, at least when dealing with Tavi, and the Cane held to an obscure but rigid sense of honor. Since their first meeting, Varg had treated Tavi with an amused respect. In his matches with Varg, Tavi had assumed that getting to know one another would eventually lead to some kind of friendship.
For Tavi, it was a sobering thought for perhaps five seconds. Then it became bloody frightening. The Cane was what he was. A killer. If it served his honor and his purposes to rip Tavi’s throat out, he wouldn’t hesitate for an instant—but he was content to show polite tolerance until the time came for the open war to resume.
“I’ve seen skilled players do worse in their first few years in the game,” Varg rumbled. “You may one day be competent.”
Assuming, of course Varg and the Canim did not rip him to pieces. Tavi felt a sudden, uncomfortable urge to deflect the conversation. “How long have you been playing?”
Varg rose and paced across the room in the restless strides of any caged predator. “Six hundred years, as your breed reckons it. One hundred years as we count them.”
Tavi’s mouth fell open before he could shut it. “I didn’t know . . . that.”
Varg let out another chuckling growl.
Tavi pushed his mouth closed with one hand and fumbled for something relevant to say. His eyes went back to the
board, and he touched the square where Varg’s gambit had slipped by him. “Um. How did you manage to set that up?”
“Discipline,” Varg said. “You left your pieces in irregular groups. Spread them out. It degrades their ability to support one another, compared to adjacent positioning on the board.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
Varg started positioning pieces again, as they were at the confrontation, and Tavi could see what the Cane meant. His forces stood in neat rows, side by side. It looked awkward and crowded to Tavi, but the overlapping combat capabilities more than made up for the difficulty of arranging it, while his own pieces stood scattered everywhere, each move the result of seeking some single, specific advantage in order to dominate the board.
Varg restored the table to its game positioning, flicking his tail in emphasis with his words. “It is the same principle as when your Legions face our raiding parties. Their discipline mitigates their physical weakness. No amount of rage can match discipline. Unwisely employed aggression is more dangerous to oneself than any enemy, cub.”
Tavi frowned at the board and grunted.
“Concede?” Varg asked.
“Game isn’t over yet,” Tavi said. He couldn’t see how to defeat Varg’s positioning, but if he pressed on, he might find an opportunity, or Varg might make some kind of mistake Tavi could capitalize upon. He pushed a Knight to Varg’s Steadholder, taking the piece and beginning the vicious exchange.
After a dozen moves, Tavi did not find a way to beat the Cane. His defeat
looked inevitable, and he grimaced and lifted a hand to knock his First Lord onto its side in capitulation.
Someone pounded on the door to the cell—really, Tavi thought, it was more like a Spartan apartment than a prison, a large suite that included a bed large enough to suit even the Cane as well as a sitting area and a reading area—and a guard opened the wooden door outside the prison suite. “Excuse me young man. A courier from the Citadel is here upon the Crown’s business. He wishes to speak to you.”
“Hah,” Tavi said, and flashed Varg a smile as he lowered his hand. “Duty calls. I suppose we’ll have to call this one a draw.”
Varg let out another amused growl and rose as Tavi stood to face him. The Cane tilted his head slightly to one side. Tavi mimicked the gesture, though a little more deeply. “Until next week, then. Please excuse me, sir.”
“Duty neither makes nor needs excuses, cub,” Varg said. He flashed his fangs in another smile at the guard. The man didn’t precisely flinch, but it seemed to Tavi that he had to fight not to do so.