Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

“I play,” said he, “for the Revolution. As I planned.”

And he moved his first piece.

Outside, in the night, five hundred farmers moved against the city gates.

She moved all her Common Persons at once, which was a popular way to open the game. They move one square at a time.

So did he.

In back of her Common Persons she put her Strongbox, which is a very strong offensive piece but weak on the defense; she moved her Archpriest—the sliding piece—in front of her Governor, who is the ultimate object of the game, and brought her Elephant to the side, keeping it in reserve. She went to move a set of Common Persons and discovered with a shock that she seemed to have no Common Persons at all and her opponent nothing else; then she saw that all her black Common Persons had fled to the other side of the board and that they had all turned red. In those days it was possible—depending on the direction from which your piece came—either to take an enemy’s piece out of the game—”kill it,” they said—or convert it to your own use. One signalled this by standing the piece on its head. The Lady had occasionally lost a game to her own converted Vlet pieces but never in her life before had she seen ones that literally changed color, or ones that slipped away by themselves when you were not looking, or pieces that made noise, for something across the board was making the oddest noise she had ever heard, a shrill, keening sound, a sort of tinny whistling like insects buzzing or all the little Common Persons singing together. Then the Lady gasped and gripped the edge of the Vlet board until her knuckles turned white, for that was exactly what was happening; across the board her enemy’s little red pieces of Vlet, Common Persons all, were moving their miniature knees up and down and singing heartily, and what they were singing was:

“The pee-pul!”

“The pee-pul!”

“‘An ancient verse,” said Rav, mountainous across the board. “Make your move,” and she saw her own hand, huge as a giant’s, move down into that valley, where transparent buildings and streets seemed to spring up all over the board. She moved her Strongbox closer to the Governor, playing for time.

Lights on late in the Councillors’ House; much talk; someone has gone for the Assassins…

He moved another set of Common Persons.

A baker looked out at his house door in Bread Street. In the Street of Conspicuous Display torches flicker and are gone around the buildings. “Is it tonight?” “Tonight!” Someone is scared; someone wants to go home; “Look here, my wife—”

Her Tax-Collector was caught and

stabbed in the back in an alley while the rising simmer of the city, crowds spilling, not quite so aimlessly, into the main boulevards

Rav horrified

“We’ve got to play a clean game! Out in the open! No—”

While she moved the Archpriest

Governor’s barricades going up around the Treasury, men called out, they say the priests are behind

And in horror watched him shake his fist at her and stand sullenly grimacing in the square where she had put him; then, before she could stop him, he had hopped two more squares, knocked flat a couple of commoners whose blood and intestines flowed thinly out on to the board, jeered at her, hopped two more and killed a third man before she could get her fingers on him.

“He killed a man! With his own hands!”


“The Archpriest!”

“Get him!”

So she picked up the squirming, congested Arch-priest, younger son of a younger son, stupid, spiteful, ambitious (she knew him personally) and thrust him across the board, deep into enemy territory

Trying to flee the city by water, looks up from under a bale of hides, miserably stinking—

Where the Commons could pothook him to their hearts’ content

Sees those faces, bearded and unwashed, a flash of pride among the awful fears, cowers—

“We don’t do things that way,” said Rav, his voice rolling godlike across the valley, across the towers and terraces, across the parties held on whitewashed roofs where ladies ate cherries and pelted gentlemen with flowers, where aristocratic persons played at darts, embroidered, smoked hemp and behaved as nobles should. One couple was even playing—so tiny as to be almost invisible—a miniature game of Vlet.

“We play a clean game,” said Rav.

Which is so difficult (she thought) that only a Grandmaster of Grandmasters attempts it more than once a year. Pieces must be converted but not killed.

The crowd on Market Street is turned back by the troops.

Her Elephant, which she immobilized

Men killed, children crushed, a dreadful silence, in which someone screams, while the troops, not knowing why

and set her Nobles to killing one another, which an inept player can actually do in Vlet

stand immobilized, the Captains gone; some secret fear or failure of will breathes through the city, and again the crowds surge forward, but cannot bring themselves to

She threw away piece after piece

not even to touch, perhaps thinking: these are our natural masters? or: where are we going? What are we doing?

Gave him the opportunity for a Fool’s Kill, which he did not take

The Viceroy to the Governor walks untouched through superstitious awe, through the silent crowds; he mounts the steps of the Temple—

Exposed every piece

begins to address the crowd

While Rav smiled pitifully, and far away, out in the city suburbs, in the hovels of peasant freeholds that surrounded the real city, out in the real night she could hear a rumble, a rising voice, thunder; she finds herself surrounding.

Arrest that man

the Red Governor who wasn’t a Governor but a Leader, a little piece with Rav’s features and with the same pitiful, nervous, gallant smile.

“Check” said the Lady, “and Mate.” She did not want to do it. A guard in the room laughed. Out in the city all was quiet. Then, quite beside herself, the strange Lady in the black gown of the night, seeing a Red Assassin with her own features scream furiously from the other side of the board and dart violently across it, took the board in both hands and threw the game high into the air. Around her everything whirled: board, pieces, the magician who was one moment huge, the next moment tiny, the onlookers, the guards, the very stone blocks of the hall seemed to spin. The torches blazed hugely. The pieces, released from the board, were fighting in mid-air. Then the Lady fell to her knees, rearranging the game, surrounding the last remnant of Black, snatching the Red Leader out of his trap, muttering desperately to herself as Rav cried, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” and around them the palace shook, the walls fell, the very earth shuddered on its foundations.

“Check,” said the Lady, “and Mate.” A rock came sailing lazily past them, shattering the glass of the Governor’s foreign window, brought at enormous expense over sea and marsh in a chest full of sawdust, the only piece of transparent glass in the city. “Trust a mob to find a window!” said the Lady, laughing. Outside could be heard a huge tramping of feet, the concerted breathing of hundreds, thousands, a mob, a storm, a heaving sea of Common Persons, and all were singing:

“Come on, children of the national unity!

The glorious diurnal period has arrived.

Let us move immediately against tyranny;

The bloody flag is hauled up!”

“My God!” cried Rav, “you don’t understand!” as the Lady—with unLadylike precision—whipped off her coiffure and slammed it across the face of the nearest guard. Her real hair was a good deal shorter. “Wonderful things—fifteen pounds’ weight—” she shouted, and ripping off the robe of night, tripped the next guard, grabbed his sword, and put herself back to back with the ex-bodyguard who had another guard’s neck between his hands and was slowly and methodically throttling the man to death. The servant girl was beating someone’s head against the wall. The Lady wrapped a soldier’s cloak around herself and belted it; then she threw the jewelled wig at one of the peasants, who caught it, knocked over the two remaining guards, who were still struggling feebly, not against anyone in the room but against something in the air, like flies in treacle. None had offered the slightest resistance. She took the magician by the arm, laughing hugely with relief.

“Let me introduce myself,” she said. “My name is Alyx. I—”

“Look out!” said Rav.

“Come on!” she shouted, and as the mob poured through the Governor’s famous decorated archway, made entirely—piece by piece—of precious stones collected at exorbitant cost from tax defaulters and convicted blackmailers, she cut off the head of an already dead guard and held it high, shouting, “The Pee-pul! The Pee-pul!” and shoved Rav into position beside her. He looked sick but he smiled. The People roared past them. He had, in his hands, the pieces and board of their game of Vlet, and to judge from his expression, they were causing him considerable discomfort. He winced as tiny lances, knives, pothooks, plough blades, and swords bristled through his fingers like porcupine quills. They seemed to be jabbing at each other and getting his palms instead.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred