Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

It was then that she stepped forward.

“You woke up Sweetie,” she said.

That she was not a Lady in truth and in verity might have been seen from certain small signs and in a better light—the heaviness of her sandals, for instance, or the less-than-perfect fit of her elaborate, jewelled coiffure, or the streaking and blurring of the gold paint on her face (as if she had applied cosmetics in haste or desperation)—but she wore the semi-transparent, elaborately gold-embroidered black robe Ourdh calls “the gown of the night” (which is to be sharply distinguished from “the gown of the evening”) and as she came forward this fell open, revealing that she wore nothing at all underneath. Her sandals were not noticed. She closed the robe again. The Captain, who had hesitated between anticipations of a bribe and a dressing-down from the Governor, hesitated no longer. He put out his hand for money. Several guards might have wondered why the Governor had chosen such an ordinary-looking young woman, but just at that moment—as she came into the light, which was (after all) pretty bad—the Lady yawned daintily like a cat, stretched from top to bottom, smiled a little to herself and gave each of the five guards in turn a glance of such deep understanding, such utter promise, and such extraordinary good humor, that one actually blushed. Skill pays for all.

“Poor Sweetie,” she said.

“Madam—” began the Captain, a little unnerved.

“I said to Sweetie,” went on the Lady, unperturbed, “that his little villa was just the quietest place in the city and so cutey darling that I could stay here forever. And then you came in.”

“Madam—” said the Captain.

“Sweetie doesn’t like noise,” said the Lady, and she sat down on the Governor’s gilded audience bench, crossing her knees so that her robe fell away, leaving one leg bare to the thigh. She began to swing this bare leg in and out of the shadows so confusingly that none could have sworn later whether it were beautiful or merely passable; moreover, something sparkled regularly at her knee with such hypnotic precision that a junior guard’s head began to bob a little, like a pendulum, and he had to be elbowed in the ribs by a comrade. She gave the man a sharp, somehow disappointed look. Then she appeared to notice Rav.

“Who’s that?” she said carelessly.

“An assassin,” said the Captain.

“No, no,” said the Lady, drawling impatiently, “the cute one, the one with the little beard. Who’s he?”

“I said—” began the Captain with asperity.

“Rav, Madam,” interrupted the young man, holding his sore arm carefully and wincing a little (for he had bowed to her automatically), “an unhappy wretch formerly patronized by the Governor, his ‘magician’ as he was pleased to call me, but no Mage, Madam, no Grandmaster, only a player with trifles, a composer of little tricks; however, I have found out something, if only that, and I came here tonight to offer it to His Excellentness. I am, my Lady, as you may be yourself, an addict of that wonderful game called Vlet and I came here tonight to offer to the Governor the most extraordinary board and pieces for the game that have ever been made. That is all; but these gentlemen misinterpreted me and declare that I have come to assassinate His Excellentness, the which” (he took a shuddering breath) “is the farthest from my thoughts. I abhor the shedding of blood, as any of my intimates can tell you. I came only to play a game of Vlet.”

“Oooooh!” said the Lady, “Vlet! I adore Vlet!”

“I have been away,” continued Rav, “for nearly a year, making this most uncommon board and pieces, as I know the Governor’s passion for the game. This is no ordinary set, Madam, but a virgin board and virgin pieces which no human hand have every touched. You may have heard—as all of us have, my Lady—of the virgin speculum or mirror made by certain powerful Mages, and which can be used once—but only once—to look anywhere in the world. Such a mirror must be made of previously unworked ore, fitted in the dark so that no ray of light ever falls upon it, polished in the dark by blind polishers so that no human sight ever contaminates it, and under these conditions and these conditions only can the first person who looks into the mirror look anywhere and see anything he wishes. A Vlet board and pieces, similarly made from unworked stone and without the touch of human hands, is similarly magical and the first game played on such a board, with such pieces, can control anything in the world, just as the user of the virgin speculum can look anywhere in the word. This gentleman with me” (he indicated the ex-bodyguard) “is a virtuoso contortionist, taught the art under the urgings of the lash. He has performed all the carving of the pieces with his feet so that we may truly say no human hands have touched them. That gentleman over there” (he motioned toward the cook) “lost a hand in an accident in the Governor’s kitchens and these” (he waved at the peasants) “have had their right hands removed for evading the taxes. The beggars have been similarly deformed by their parents for the practice of their abominable and degrading trade and the young lady is totally deaf from repeated boxings on the ears given her by her mistress. It is she who crushed the ore for us, so that no human ears might hear the sounds of the working. This Vlet board has never been touched by human hands and neither have the pieces. They are entirely virgin. You may notice, as I take them from my sleeve, that they are wrapped in oiled silk, to prevent my touch from contaminating them. I wished only to present this board and pieces to the Governor, in the hope that the gift might restore me to his favor. I have been out of it, as you know. I am an indifferent player of Vlet but a powerful and sound student and I have worked out a classical game in the last year in which the Governor could—without the least risk to himself—defeat all his enemies and become emperor of the world. He will play (as one player must) in his own person; I declare that I am his enemies in toto and then we play the game, in which, of course, he defeats me. It is that simple.”

“Assassin!” growled the Captain of the Guard; “Liar!” but the Lady, who had been gliding slowly towards the magician as he talked, with a perfectly practical and unnoticeable magic of her own, here slipped the board and pieces right out of his hands and said, with a toss of her head:

“You will play against me.”

The young man turned pale.

“Oh I know you, I know you,” said the Lady, slowly unwrapping the oiled silk from the set of Vlet. “You’re the one who kept pestering poor Sweetie about justice and taxes and cutting off people’s heads and all sorts of things that were none of your business. Don’t interrupt. You’re a liar and you undoubtedly came here to kill Sweetie, but you’re terribly inept and very cute and so” (here she caught her breath and smiled at him) “sit down and play with me.” And she touched the first piece.

Now it is often said that in Vlet experienced players lose sight of everything but the game itself, and so passionate is their absorption in this intellectual haze that they forget to eat or drink, and sometimes even to breathe in the intensity of their concentration (this is why Grandmasters are always provided with chamber pots during an especially arduous game) but never before had such a thing actually happened to the Lady. As she touched the first piece—it was a black one—all the sounds in the hall died away, and everyone there, the guards, the pitiful band this misguided magician had brought with him and the great hall itself, the pillars, the fitted blocks of the floor, the frescoes, the torches, everything faded and dissolved into mist. Only she herself existed, she and the board of Vlet, the pieces of Vlet, which stood before her in unnatural distinctness, as if she were looking down from a mountain at the camps of two opposing armies. One army was red and one was black and on the other side of the great, smoky plain sat the magician, himself the size of a mountain or a god, his lean, pale face working and his black beard standing out like ink. He held in one hand a piece of Red. He looked over the board as if he looked into an abyss and he smiled pitifully at her, not with fear but with some intense, fearful hope that was very close to it.

“You are playing for your life,” she said, “for I declare myself to be the Government of Ourdh.”

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