Cenwalh throws me an even look as he leans back into his chair, casually checking my mask. Roskal is playing with her sword’s pommel but she doesn’t seem half as angry as she should be.
The Duke that attacked me does seem mad but he doesn’t have to the guts to go any further than he has with the air-needle. The King flicks his hand at a servant who runs away at double pace.
“Bring double the pawns, please!” I call out at the servant’s back.
“You spoke of a bet.” Cenwalh suddenly speaks up.
“Of course, it’ll bring some spice to this small party.” I nod.
“You declared that you would not lose.” Cenwalh notes while tapping his massive chair’s armrests with the tips of his fingers. “We will see your face when you do, Elizabeth Vil.”
Leomi takes a sharp breath in but then she realizes that she’s the only one who sees my face on my head and relaxes only to then tense again because it still puts me in danger. I chuckle, finding her throes adorable.
“Then I gracefully ask for the gold that Izla Meria and Port-Odo need to rebuild if my words stand.” I reply, rigidly bowing in the least graceful way possible.
“That is acceptable.” Cenwalh agrees without hesitation or even much consideration.
He’s either confident to the point of foolish arrogance or the concession doesn’t hurt him in any way. He might have planned to do something like this for Izla Meria and Port-Odo anyway.
I notice that the man to the King’s left, the one who hid his sword’s pommel, shifts just slightly and touches the back of the large chair with his fingers. A moment later, Cenwalh lifts his left hand to start rubbing his shaved chin.
“If gold moves you, Elizabeth Vil, perhaps you would accept a coffer in payment for the Rykz’ lightning construct.” The honor guard speaks up, his voice is gravelly.
“I don’t know it.” I lie. “The Rykz provided me with runic items that function only a few times, as far as I can tell they’ve been locked to only work for me.”
“Unfortunate.” He replies, bowing just slightly.
He might not believe me but the explanation fits with the Rykz’ secrecy so it’s not like there’s any hole for him to poke at in this story even if he knows for a fact that I lied. I wonder how involved Aisha is in this offer for forgiveness in exchange for the Order’s leash around my neck.
“A low-born entirely unshaken when offered five thousand gold.” Cenwalh laughs. “How interesting.” I swallow my saliva, having failed to realize exactly how much I had been offered. Not that it changes anything.
I remain quiet, using my other sense to scrutinize the array of lesser Nobles behind Edusa. If I go by their clothes, most of them are Barons and Baronesses. The arc of Nobles around the King seems divided into three factions through spacing, the most numerous one is directly to Cenwalh’s right including Roskal and the Duke that tried to attack me.
Edusa’s group is small, and isolated, while the last one is of a medium size but hard to separate from Roskal’s side as their ranks seem to mix. The overwhelming majority of Nobles appear aligned with the King, I wonder if it had been this way before or if it’s new.
Either way, I don’t doubt my conclusion that these vague groups represent factions as there are Nobles shifting from one to the other to exchange words with each other.
They’re making use of the sound construct Cenwalh used to have their talks without their words being heard. Heh, naive, there has to be a reason the higher Nobility isn’t doing that beyond their more important position relative to decorum.
“If you’ll excuse me until the servant returns, King Cenwalh.” I speak up.
“Of course.” He nods.
I head up to Leomi, extending my hand out. She immediately takes it and pulls me close, resting her chin on the top of my head. We aren’t quite hugging, but it’s pretty close.
“That sound construct, it smothers any kind of noise.” I tell her.
“Indeed.” Leomi nods.
“But it likely allows King Cenwalh to listen in.” I add. Cenwalh doesn’t react in the slightest to what I’ve just said.
“It would not surprise me, my King has a reputation for being astute.” Leomi agrees, rolling her eyes for herself alone. “How confident are you?”
“Eh, it can always go wrong but I doubt King Cenwalh will go so low as to argue my changes as long as they’re logical.” I shrug. “As I’ve said, it’s only a small demonstration.”
“With high stakes but I trust you know what you’re doing.” Leomi mutters with a hint of anger in her tone, revealing her clear dislike for my actions. “We have a bit of time, I can recap the rules of Shah if you want.”
“That would be helpful.” I agree despite it not mattering all that much.
“The King, or Queen depending on your gender, can move a single space in any direction. The consort Queen, or consort King, can move diagonally, horizontally, or vertically. Rooks, or Towers, can move horizontally, or vertically. Fools can move in a diagonal. Pawns can move two spaces forward for their first move but from then only a single space forward, and only if the square is unoccupied, they can kill enemy pieces which are a single space in diagonal in front of them, when they reach the other side of the board they can promote to any other piece. The last ones are the Knights, which is a term that fell in disuse but that qualified high-born or Templars who wore plate armor into battle, they can move one square horizontally or vertically and then two squares towards a different angle while skipping over pieces to kill only the one at the arrival, it reflects the cavalry’s ability to charge through regiments without destroying them or maneuver around to flank.” Leomi explains.
“Repeat the last one if you don’t mind.” I tell her.
“Think of it like a ‘7’ or an ‘L’ when they move, one square to the side and two forward, or two forward and one to the side.” She replies. “Think you can win?”
“Nope, zero chance.” I chuckle.
“Thought so.” Leomi groans. “You need to stop doing this to me.”
“You’d be the first to complain if I did.” I smile behind my mask. “How did your little scene go?”
“Better than I could have ever hoped among the army, worse than I wished among Nobility. The various factions now appear closer than Edusa reported while the exchanges between them seem to have increased.” Leomi shakes her head. “King Cenwalh is ultimately King of Caeviel, so my position among them is a mere political game.” If that were true, you wouldn’t be saying it or have even bothered to influence them to begin with.
I shift to the side as the servant returns with a marble Shah board that has black and white squares. He deposits it in front of the King, setting four pouches down, two on either side of the table.
I walk back to the table, swearing under my breath about the King’s gigantic chair which allows him to be taller than me while sitting down. Definitely some kind of trick involved beyond that piece of furniture. The impertinent Tiny one communicates amusement at my offense. You’re smaller.
My symbiont pinches my thigh, making me jump in surprise. Edusa along with the others on my left side throw me looks that communicate very clearly that they caught it while the rest are either puzzled or indifferent.
I giggle, annoyed but very amused. Cenwalh affections an appearance of untouchable patience as I sift through the pouches, finding two sets of black Shah pieces. The King doesn’t even blink as a servant steps forward to set his white side of the board for him.
“You are the King and so have command over your entire set of pieces.” I speak up. “While I am but a simple low-born, I am Elizabeth Vil. I think it quite logically means that I can be represented by a fool.” I set the black fool on the first line and in the center where a Queen would be if it functioned as a consort.
“Appropriate.” Cenwalh agrees without a hint of mockery.
“At the same time, there are a lot of people who would follow me for a casual outing. I think I could fill my side with a few words, promises, and favors.” I say, setting pawn after pawn until I have sixteen pieces on the board, fifteen pawns and one fool. “Would you agree, Majesty?” I ask, doing my best not to sound like I’m making fun of him.
“In the interest of fairness, we would.” He acknowledges, looking down at my side with interest. “Although, we find that it would be difficult to avoid defeat in these circumstances.”
“We shall see, won’t we?” I rhetorically ask, grinning behind my mask. “Would you mind if I keep the rest for myself until we encounter the situation, King Cenwalh?”
“You’ve framed the game as relevant to the current political climate, we think that a little unknown between two armies is fitting and brings some realism to an exercise in logic that is otherwise mostly entertainment.” Cenwalh replies somewhat pompously.
Nobility is watching intently in surprising silence. I would have thought that the King would enjoy bootlickers but it is quite apparently not the case or one of them would have stepped up by now, even with my previous rebuttal to Roskal.
King Cenwalh slowly reaches out with his left hand to take hold of the pawn in front of his Queen to move it two spaces forward on ‘D4’. I move a pawn which is diagonal to my fool one space forward on ‘E6’. He moves ‘G3, I move ‘G5’, he takes his knight and places it on ‘NG3’.
I move ‘G7’, he eats my pawn, ‘FxG5’, while raising his eyebrow just slightly. I play ‘F6’, caring little about the loss. He retreats his fool on ‘FE3’. ‘E7’, ‘FH3’, ‘F7’, ‘NC3’, ‘D6’, ‘FF4’, ‘E5’. ‘xE5’, he eats my pawn with his, his eyes glazing over like he’s already getting bored. ‘xE5’ I eat the offending pawn with one of mine.
‘FxC8’, his fool eats the pawn right next to my fool. I go ‘xF4’, eating his other fool and replacing the pawn that just did that with one of my spare fools, provoking an outburst of protestation from Nobility.
“Quiet down.” Cenwalh orders, leaning over the board with a frown, the glimmer of interest in his eyes rekindled by my unexpected play. “The implication is that these soldiers have learned from experience, correct?” He asks me.
“Correct.” I nod.
“We require precision, are these low-born to learn as much as you have after a single battle with a powerful enemy?” Cenwalh questions.
“Not as singular fighters, but as a regiment? Yes, it can be reasonably simplified in this way.” I explain.
“Ah, you estimate yourself as powerful as a regiment of fools.” The King nods with a slight smirk. “Let us continue.”
He plays ‘xF4’, eating the fool I just obtained with one of his pawns without changing it to a fool, which he could have done since I’ve thrown that rule in but doesn’t. Either out of pride or, if I’ve read him correctly when thinking this gimmick up, a simple refusal to break order and venture into chaos.
It could also be the result of clarity for Cenwalh as I have a rebuttal ready. If he tried, he could have realized that I would have told him that foot soldiers do not rise above their social rank in Caeviel, which might have been enough to provoke anger and retaliation. Then I go ‘E6’, ‘E3’, ‘FF6’, ‘RG1’, ‘E5’.
“Would you sacrifice yourself?” Cenwalh asks while playing ‘xE5’.
“I am certain that my reputation as a madwoman precedes me.” I reply with an amused voice, playing ‘FxE5’ which puts my piece up for grabs.
“Is the game now over with your death?” He asks while taking my fool with his knight, ‘NxE5’.
“Not quite, I have never been a leader so my fall does not affect the overall situation beyond the loss of my battle prowess.” I reply, quickly eating his piece with my pawn, ‘xE5’, and then changing it to a knight.
I can’t give him too much time to think on how to win because he’ll catch on to my main trick if I do. It seems to work as he starts tapping the table with his fingertips, thinking of his next move instead of my answer.
“This is quite a bind for us.” He proclaims, admitting weakness for the first time.
It surprises me as I’ve noticed that Cenwalh hadn’t said anything that could have suggested uncertainty on his part so far, even when he had no knowledge of the rules.
“What is the issue, King Cenwalh?” I ask, knowing very well what the problem is.
“We cannot permit a regiment of low-born to reach a position on the board that threatens us, even if only for a brief moment before they are put to death.” He unexpectedly replies. “At the same time, we had also determined not to make use of ourselves or of our dear consort as pieces in this war-game.”
“Such is the nature of war, the unexpected happens.” I carefully reply.
Cenwalh is referring to the fact that he has no piece in position to take my knight while I can move it to attack his King next turn. I wanted to use this to make a point, I hoped that he would fail to see it but that was very optimistic of me.
He may not have seen the threat before the pawn turned to a knight, but that was because of my changing the rules. He caught on without delay once I set the piece on the board.
“You are correct.” Cenwalh declares as he moves himself, ‘KE2’. “When a King moves, he must do so decisively and without a hint of hesitation.”
I hum as I move one of my pawns to ‘H6’. Cenwalh’s hand, which was headed towards his right rook, stops and shifts to the pawn next to his King, moving it to ‘F4’. ‘NC4’, ‘NA4’. I swear as that play counters the one I planned to make next.
I move my pawn to ‘F6’ to open up the game as I don’t see any other attack vector. He counters with moving his fool to ‘FE6’. I groan as he takes advantage of my forgetting that the pawn was protecting my knight from this precise play. I hear mocking giggles coming from the gallery of Nobles but don’t care enough to react.
“Silence.” Cenwalh commands in an icy tone of voice. “The peasant presents more of a challenge than many of you ever have.” He adds, apparently having taken insult.
I throw a look up, having caught signs of movement. I find that more than a few Baronesses and Barons have shifted slightly closer to Edusa’s side, likely because they took offense. She responds by taking a single step to the left, widening the distance between her and them. Ugh, humans are plain silly, they’re finding ways to scheme as they are told to be silent.
“Will you trade a regiment of professional cavalry for one of low-born, knowing that the horses and weapons will be captured by mere foot-soldiers who will use them against you, King?” I ask, returning the earlier question as I play ‘NB6’, placing my knight in reach of his but under the protection of a pawn.
“We would not, were this not a game.” Cenwalh replies. “But in this case, we shall out of time constraints.”
He plays ‘NxB6’, I eat the knight that just ate mine with the pawn on the ‘c’ file, ‘cxB6’, replacing it with yet another knight. Cenwalh moves on ‘B3’, completely trapping that piece in its current position.
I go ‘A5’ to try to unblock its path but Cenwalh plays ‘A4’ which blocks that pawn from going any further. ‘A6’ to free a retreat square for my knight. I notice that Leomi is growing more and more nervous behind me as I run out of options.
The King plays ‘C4’, likely planning to attack my knight. It’s quite frustrating to find that knowing about it isn’t helping me find anything to do to counter it. I take a while to search for a move that doesn’t sacrifice one of my pieces, finding ‘H5’ as my only safe play.
Cenwalh plays ‘C5’, threatening my knight and forcing me to retreat to ‘NA8’ which I opened up before by moving my pawn. He keeps attacking, moving his fool on ‘FD5’. I almost move the pawn that he put in danger but then realize that saving it would cost me my knight.
“Continuing seems almost trivial.” I note.
“Quite.” Cenwalh agrees. Yet, he doesn’t look disappointed or bored, it seems like he’s figured out that I haven’t emptied my bag of tricks and that he is looking forward to what I’ll do next.
“But let us do so anyway.” I say, moving my knight to ‘NC7’.
He takes my pawn with his fool, ‘FxB7’. I play ‘H4’ because it’s one of the only two moves I can see that doesn’t sacrifice a pawn. He takes hold of his rook and places it, ‘RB1’. I continue wasting time with ‘H3’, he plays ‘B4’. I eat that pawn with one of mine, ‘xB4’, only to have it taken by his rook, ‘RxB4’.
I move my next pawn to ‘A5’, one of the six I have left. I could press harder to threaten his King again but I don’t want to seem to be exclusively aiming for that, which I would be doing if this were a battle, because it could be taken as a provocation or paint me as single-mindedly pursuing his life.
He protects his rook, ‘RD4’. I attack it with ‘NE6’ which makes him frown and play ‘RD5’ to protect a pawn that I could have taken if he hadn’t. I play ‘NC7’ to keep going for the rook. He smiles and plays ‘RD8’, threatening two of my pawns, neither of which I can save.
“Do you admit your loss, Elizabeth Vil?” Cenwalh asks with a satisfied, arrogant, grin. Heh, finally.
“The rules do say that you must capture the King to win a game of Shah.” I calmly reply.
The King blinks, his smile fading in moments as he realizes that I have no such piece. He reaches out to his Queen but immediately pulls back, likely because his pride can’t let him sacrifice her just to give me a piece that I can use as a ruler.
“Ah, we cannot win unless we sacrifice a ruler first.” Cenwalh says. “But then we would have lost. Reality is not such but it is indeed quite an entertaining demonstration.”
Never said I was doing this to entertain you, arrogant prick. I roll my eyes. The King suddenly barks out in laughter, making every single Noble around us startle and straighten up.
“How would we resolve this?” I ask, smiling.
“In no way is there a need to, the land is in our possession.” Cenwalh waves his hand at the board. “It belongs to us, which places the Kingdom in a state of perpetual victory even if your defeat cannot be confirmed according to these rules.”
“Yet, a knight and six pawns remain, or five since it is your move and you are able to take one.” I note while slowly assembling a fire construct in front of his eyes. “They are in quite the state of desperation, such hatred they feel for this land they once called home after seeing their comrades fall one after the other.”
“Tragic.” Cenwalh soberly nods, watching me without intervening.
I activate the construct, scorching the marble board’s surface and making the flames glaze over every piece, slowly turning them all black. Cenwalh casually reaches out into the blaze, toppling one pawn after the other with his bare hand, both mine and his.
“And thus, peasantry falls.” The King proclaims, smothering the fire with a wave of golden energy that ‘saves’ every remaining piece and returns them to a white color.
I bring my left hand up as I assemble a lion strike. The honor guards raise their spears but Cenwalh raises his right hand to tell them to hold. I punch down at the marble board, shattering it. The broken pieces fly in every direction.
More than a few projectiles go for the King but they hit a golden ovoid barrier that flashes into existence just long enough to block them before fading again. It appears identical to the ones Suxen and her Numbers used, I’m now certain that this isn’t an air-shield.
“And thus, Nobility shatters, taken down from within by starvation and civil war.” I calmly respond.