Authors: Brent Weeks
“Perhaps you know less about that history than you think. You ascribe more power to me than I had at the time.”
“Do I?” Kip said.
“I came from the outside myself, Kip. I was a nothing like you. I started from the bottom of the nobility to get where I am now. I had to make gambles, time and again, that would make your testicles quiver. And I didn’t win every time. When the war broke out, I was still heavily in debt from all the bribes it cost me to get onto the Spectrum, and there were masterful players at that table who’d seen me coming and wanted me ruined, if not dead. You see me now and believe that I was ever thus.”
“No, I hope that you weren’t,” Kip said. “You never got around to telling me how you closed off the chance for me to simply leave and not play your games.”
Andross’s eyes flashed, but then he suddenly smiled, and this time it hit his eyes. “This, this is why I’ve longed to play you again, Kip. You give me the uncomfortable pleasure of playing against an opponent who will bring out the best in me.”
Kip couldn’t help but suddenly remember those moments when he’d actually missed sparring with the old man. But this was insanity; they didn’t have time for this.
“But to answer your question: unattached young men are destabilizing,” Andross said. “Like the lover of fire who burns down homes for pleasure and wouldn’t altogether mind if the flames took him as well, a young man might tell you to go sodomize yourself, even if it’s the worst possible thing he could do for his own interests. This is why young men go to war. It’s why they gamble ruinous amounts. It’s why they jump off heights to impress others and bear the pain of their injuries for the next fifty years. Anyone who might kill himself to hurt you is dangerous, hard to predict. You were one of those. You’re not any longer. Why do you think I gave you a wife? Why do you think I gave you the Mighty? Why do you think I let you recruit your own army and have success with it? Because every bond is a fetter. Every extra thing you love makes you easier to predict.”
those to me,” Kip said.
Andross’s eyes glittered at the doubt he saw in Kip’s, and he went on. “I’d hoped you’d have a child on the way by now. I figured a young man who grew up without a father would be loath to abandon his own child. But you do have a wife to think of, and friends you wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to.”
Kip didn’t want to believe that the very happiness he’d enjoyed had been afforded to him by Andross Guile, and he knew the man wasn’t above taking credit for things he hadn’t done, but he was the master.
The phrase pulsed in Kip’s head: ‘The Master.’
That card. But it triggered no further memories or visions.
“You know you’re insufferable, right?” Kip asked.
“A common trait of the Guile men.”
Kip shook his head, trying not to smile. Dammit. “How do you do this?” he asked.
Andross waited for him to clarify.
“How do I
you, after all you’ve done? I should . . .” I should abhor you, Kip thought, but it wasn’t the time to say such things.
“Water seeks its own level,” Andross said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kip said.
“It means we’ll be playing three games.”
“That doesn’t answer my question in the slightest.”
“The first two will have stakes high enough to keep your interest, and by the time we’re finished with the third, you’ll understand why this is not only worth the time you’ll be spending away from preparing for the battle, you’ll understand that what we’re doing will quite likely decide the battle.”
“We’re on the same side,” Kip said, disbelieving. “If you want me to do something, just ask.”
“I want you to play three games with me to decide the fate of the world,” Andross said.
Kip had walked into that. He thought for a moment. What leverage did he have to refuse?
“Please,” Andross said. He gave a serpent-cold smile.
“Since you asked so nicely,” Kip said.
“Stakes for the first game are a secret for a secret. If I win, you tell me what happened to all of Janus Borig’s cards. Everything you know. Including the ones you left out last time.”
That sounded suspiciously non-terrible, though Kip knew there had to be some angle on it. “Understood. And if I win?”
Idly, Andross spun a ring on his finger. “I’ll tell you your mother’s story.”
“You mean my real mother.”
“Well, if you want Karris’s real story, you’ll have to ask her yourself. I think there are some things you might learn about the woman who called herself Katalina Delauria that might change how you feel about her.”
“What do you mean by
? What do you know about my mother?” Kip demanded. He’d sworn he didn’t care about her anymore, but his emotions went so hot so fast that he saw he’d only been fooling himself.
“Quite a lot more now than I did even a month ago. I had a visit with Lina’s father. Most illuminating.”
“I have another grandfather?!”
“Tragic story. Lina and Asafa were very close. They corresponded until she became convinced it was too dangerous for her to continue doing so. That, of course, was long after she’d run away. He’d love to meet you. Would you like to meet him?”
Kip had a whole other
His grandfather’s name was Asafa? Kip could meet him?
The questions piled on top of each other, throwing Kip’s heart to the winds—until he saw Andross’s coolly smug smirk.
This was Andross Guile’s favorite thing in the world, wasn’t it? Knocking people off balance, then lording his greater knowledge over them, then manipulating them with it: this was his real game.
“There’s a battle coming. This is all moot,” Kip said.
“I like to plan for the future, even if it looks like there is none. That’s what makes us emerge from them stronger.”
“Are you going to cheat?” Kip asked.
“Only if you let me,” Andross said. “Are you familiar with Keffel’s Variant?”
“I know what it
,” Kip said. It was a set of custom rules that made for a faster game. He’d never played it.
“It’s good for an analogy,” Andross said. “And it’ll give you a chance for luck to help you.”
“Classic decks?” Kip asked. The variant started the game at noon rather than morning, when the most powerful cards could be played immediately, and had an initial mechanic where you drew seven cards but had to discard down to four. Using classic decks, you had some idea what your opponent would be going for. Typical games were a quick slugfest.
“No, my decks,” Andross said.
Instantly, Grinwoody began sweeping cards from the surface of the table as if they’d been there for nothing.
Of course. Asshole. With the many cards out on the table, Andross had misled Kip into believing that Kip would be
his own deck. Instead, this was just another way of the old man putting him off balance.
“It’s traditional that the guest be allowed to choose the deck pairing, isn’t it?”
“I am . . . familiar with that tradition,” Andross admitted.
“Hoped I wouldn’t be, huh?” Kip asked with a quick grin.
Andross took a deep breath. “Beating you is going to be such fun. Do you know, I once stooped to playing Grinwoody? So capable in so many duties, and has surely seen me play a thousand times. Yet hopeless.”
“Almost as bad as I am?” Kip asked.
Again Andross smiled.
Grinwoody said nothing, but now brought over a heavy tray, seeming to struggle with the weight with the infirmity of his age. He set it on the playing table and pulled back the top. It unfolded to reveal a score of decks, each nicely inset in a samite surface.
“You choose the pairing. I choose which deck.”
“May I take a moment?” Kip asked as he started going through the decks.
“As you were so adamant to point out, we don’t have all day,” Andross said when Kip paused halfway through rifling through the second deck.
“Of course, grandfather,” Kip said. “It’s just been a while. Green Apple’s Gambit?” he asked, gesturing to the deck in his hand.
“With four substitutions,” Andross said. “As usually constructed, that deck’s a little slow, I always thought it needed a tertiary path to victory, though in my games I’ve never used it.”
“Never needed it?” Kip said.
“I’ve tended to be lucky,” Andross said. It was, perhaps, the first modest thing Kip had ever heard come out of his mouth.
Dammit. Andross had here collected the legendary decks of history, but then made his own adjustments.
“Brier and Fire. Good one,” Kip said, rifling. “But . . . lots of substitutions.” He frowned.
He was at a greater disadvantage than he’d thought. It didn’t matter how good his memory was, not with a time pressure like this. Studying each deck, recalling how close it was to the classic decks and rating its strengths, and then discarding most of the commentary he’d memorized to evaluate how strong it would be in this weird game variant?
Kip said, “I’d need days to prepare adequately for—oh, I see. This is an analogue for our defense against the White King. Not enough time to do what I’d like, so what do I do instead?”
Andross snapped his fingers, and Grinwoody disappeared to go fetch something. “Perhaps you read too much into a game.”
It wasn’t fair—but Kip had agreed to it. Any time he spent whinging was time wasted.
He had to look at the weird rules as part of the game, not as the terms of the game. He got to pick the decks, out of which Andross would choose which one he wanted. Most people would think it was obvious to choose decks that were as equal as possible. With equally good players, it would be.
But why had Andross chosen this variant? And why these decks?
Turn the question from a disinterested analytical query to a human question, and it suddenly made sense to Kip. “I see: I can’t use my memory to simply pick the best decks and play it out as others have done before us. Neither the choice of decks nor the exact strategies involved in our game will have been covered by any book I might have read. So this is another test.”
“Not a test. I simply don’t want to play against your memories of what some card master from some earlier era did. I want to play against you,” Andross said.
So Kip turned everything backward. At the disadvantage he was starting from, he needed a deck that counted on luck. Of course, the games’ masters tended not to rely on luck, but many decks had secondary strategies—if you get unlucky and don’t draw X, Y, or Z, you might still be able to win by using A and B together. Many of the classic decks, however, eschewed those secondary strategies in order to make the original strategy even stronger. They’d simply take the loss if they got particularly unlucky.
Over many iterations, skill prevailed over luck.
Which meant that skillful players naturally gravitated toward decks rewarding skillful play, and few players were more skillful than Andross. So Kip decided not to go with the classically paired decks at all. Instead, Kip looked for a two long-shot, luck-dependent decks that even Andross wouldn’t have played against each other. In a minute, he had the two.
Each, in this variant, should be pretty weak—unless they drew one key card. The first deck was generally considered to be too complicated to be used regularly in standard play, Nine Mirrors. The second was Delayed Destruction, which hadn’t been played in centuries because Sea Demon and another card in it whose name had been lost were now considered Black Cards—forbidden from legal play.
Kip wasn’t sure what Andross would have used to shore up the deck, though, so he looked through the two decks for whatever changes the old man had made. “The hell?” Kip said. “What’s this?”
Sea Demon was in the deck. Naturally. But so, too, was the nameless card, lost to the mists of time. It was not nameless here: “Sea
“You’ve learned something about will-casting in this last year, I hear,” Andross said.
“Indeed,” Kip said. “And it’s left me with many questions.”
“Dolphins can be will-cast, but only by someone they like or by someone very strong. Whales can’t be will-cast at all. There are accounts of men breaking their minds against them, like waves against the rocks of the Everdark Gates. But sea giants, enormous and peaceful as they were, sea giants were trivially easy to will-cast. It is how the pirate kings first established themselves. A few dozen will-cast sea giants and a pirate queen named Ceres established such a stranglehold on the sea that they named it Ceres’s Sea. But then the other pirates attacked her, or she was murdered, and her followers couldn’t control the sea giants, or she murdered the underlings she had in charge of the sea giants—or perhaps none of those stories are true, but however it was, somehow their reins slipped from human fingers. The sea giants went insane, and destroyed every ship they came upon, everywhere.
“Nautical trade came to a standstill. There’s simply no defense against them. A few very strong will-casters had limited success against them, but it was rarely duplicated. Without nautical trade, every one of the nine kingdoms became utterly dependent upon its neighbors, and that only gave them all another reason for war. When the Chromeria gained control, the sea giants were hunted to extinction. The whales left thereafter. No one knows why.”
“How do you know all this?” Kip asked.
Andross shrugged, as if to say,
“These cards. They’re
“They’re the same, some say. Having no sea giants to compare our sea demons with, I have no way of telling. But some have said in bygone eras, before such talk was too dangerous, that our sea demons now are the last of those will-cast sea giants. They roam the seas, senescent, angry when roused from their near-immortal torpor.”
“Reminds me of someone,” Kip said.
“Damn, kid. I should beat you with my cane.”
“You know interesting stuff,” Kip said.
“Oh, high praise! You little shit. Have you decided yet?”
Kip shuffled through both decks one last time, trying to memorize them. Then he extended them.