Everyone is a part of the Game, but few realize it. Fewer still are chosen for the Long Game. I have yet to encounter someone who truly knows the rules, but we all seem to share one firm conviction: the Game ends when the King is defeated. Some seek this end, while others seek as fiercely to prevent it. Most simply muddle about and let the pieces move as they may.
I first met the knight after the Sarzens sacked Ruka, when the holy shrines were pillaged and emptied of their riches and relics, loaded onto waiting ships and ferried off to Sarze. He caught me trying to make off with some gold plates from the walls of the temple, and would have lopped my head off if I hadn’t happened to scream in my native tongue.
“You are from Bernia?” he asked, voice muffled by his face mask.
“Aye,” I answered, heart rattling. “And yourself?”
He hauled me into a side room and pulled off his helmet. His hair was as red as his sunburnt face, eyes blue like sapphires, and I realized I had no idea which side he’d been fighting on. Worse, I could see the mark of the Long Game on his forehead, like a hook or a spear depending on who you asked.
“I’m from Brettan,” he said. “How did you come to be so far from home?”
I hesitated. He knew how to use his sword, and the last Game piece I’d met had tried to poison me after a rather refreshing private evening. Still, it wasn’t often that we came across others like ourselves, and it was never by chance.
With a shrug, I removed my hat and brushed the hair back from my forehead. “Long Game, same as you.”
I needn’t have worried. He dropped his sword and fell to the ground, grabbing the loose fabric of my pants.
“I… It’s been… I had never thought to meet another.” Tears filled his eyes, and I remembered my first meeting with a piece. A holy man from Pardesh, kind and wise and over a thousand years old at the time. They crucified him eventually, then stuck him up on a burial tower for the birds to finish. Took him an age to climb down, but he wasn’t exactly in a hurry.
“Easy, man, we all move as we must.” I kept an ear on the remnants of battle as he collected himself.
“I have tried to return home,” he said. “Years and years, by land and sea and air, to no avail. I am thwarted by bad luck at each turn.”
The clang of blade and shield grew louder in the corridors outside. I thought of the gold stashed in my undershirt and itched to put a few miles between me and the city.
“We should talk somewhere safer,” I said. “Follow me.”
“But I have so many questions–”
“Later.” I threw open the door and leapt sideways in time to avoid an axe that had been meant for someone else. We darted outside, and I left him crossing swords with three men who looked to be Sarzens by their green sashes. So he was with the Rukans; a shame, they were losing. A few hours later I was trading gold plates to a smith for smaller coins, and the knight was a fading wistful figure among many others in my long life.
I didn’t see him again for another hundred years or so. By then I’d made my way across the continent and taken up with a merchant in the Hanging Market, in the shadow of the Crystal Mountains. I was his translator, aide, and occasional lover. We dealt in spices, exotic and expensive, and reputation eventually put us in the path of the local nobility.
One cool day in the waning season, a richly dressed messenger brought us an invitation to present our wares to the royal cook of the queen herself, so we bundled up in our finest white furs and made our way to the palace. Behind crystal doors worth a kingdom each, who did I find lounging in an antechamber but that red-haired piece with his deep blue eyes.
“You!” he exclaimed. “I thought you’d been killed!”
“I almost was,” I said. As the merchant didn’t speak our language, I explained to him that this was an old acquaintance and left it at that.
We were interrupted by our business, which was concluded to mutual satisfaction, at which point the knight accosted me and I begged leave to join the merchant later. We retired to his chambers, a surprisingly opulent suite attended by two servants in the pale green of the royal house.
“You’ve done well for yourself,” I said.
He waved it off. “It’s all thanks to Her Highness. She is in the Game as well, did you know?”
“Is she? What a coincidence.” Three of us together was a strange turn, and my skin flushed at the implications. What gambit might this be?
“She has told me much,” he said, pacing as he spoke. “How we each have a role to play, guided by the fates to fulfill our great destiny.”
Ah, a fanatic. I’d gone through that phase myself. “And what does fate hold for her, and you?”
“She is a queen, of course, destined to rule by the king’s side. We need only find him, that we might ensure his power and protection.”
I examined the glittering brocade on his curtains and wondered if they would be missed. Old habits died hard. “How does she know she’s a queen?”
He stopped pacing to stare at me. “Because… Because she’s a queen, obviously.”
“It’s not as simple as that. There may not even be such a thing. We could all be soldiers, or–”
“But there is a king?”
“Probably. Yes. Somewhere.”
“And must we not see to his welfare?”
“Only if we want the Game to go on.” I fell silent as servants brought in warm spiced wine and sharp cheeses for us. He drank quickly, and by the servants’ reaction this was odd of him. They made obeisance and left, and he resumed his pacing.
“Do you not wish to continue in the Game?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I think… We cannot remove ourselves, and I find it hard to wish others ill, for all that it may increase my own position.”
This was tricky territory, as it was mostly speculation compiled over centuries. “Some say that if you kill another piece, you take on their role and powers. If indeed any such powers exist.”
His pace quickened. “So if I killed you, then your role would pass to me?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not, if we are all the same in essence. And imagine if I were a mere soldier while you were a knight, or general; your role might be diminished, or remain unchanged.”
He collapsed into a chair. “I only wished to go home for so many years,” he murmured. “And yet I have never been so far. I am compelled onward, ever south, until I suspect I will find myself on the edge of the world and see only ocean’s fall and the darkness beyond.”
I finished my wine and stood, patting his shoulder. “At least you have found a lovely respite here with your queen. We can only hope for as much, we wanderers. We all move as we must.”
I excused myself, as I had work awaiting me, and he seemed to have sunk deep into thought.
Within days the queen was dead and the market in an uproar preparing for the funeral. Her younger sister took the throne, and at her coronation, I saw the knight by her side. I had no evidence, of course, but I wondered if this was the play we’d been put here to make.
I found myself moved again not soon after, and just as well, for the power of the knight grew until he was able to wrest the throne from the next queen some years later in a bloody coup. He set himself up as a god-emperor, his claim bolstered by his apparent immortality, having well outlived everyone in the court as well as surviving several assassination attempts. Luckily, he seemed content to stay in his mountain kingdom and rule as he saw fit, and for centuries no other neighboring ruler stirred up trouble. The god-emperor became almost a myth to outsiders, some quaint custom by which the title was passed without fanfare each generation, for the Long Game was a secret one and its players, whoever they might be, cared little for time.
Eventually I found myself back in the Crystal Mountains, where the Hanging Market had given way to a series of floating platforms with regular air ferries between them, but the people were little changed since my last visit. Still, it was beautiful, and I was rich then, and so I took my pleasure in their crystal singers and light sculptures and cold, clear pools. I even received an invitation to a royal banquet and foolishly accepted, little thinking that a god-emperor would deign to mingle with mortals in such a mundane fashion.
The palace was the same carved crystal with few additional embellishments, and the food was delicious if uncreative. To my surprise, we were each presented to the god-emperor in a boring and lengthy ceremony whose purpose I realized when it was my turn to be introduced. My head wrap was stripped from me and I was made to kneel with my face raised to his, forehead exposed, and quick as that I found myself in a private chamber that was probably the most comfortable jail cell I’d ever occupied.
The knight joined me, dressed in a plainer robe and crown than his dress costume. I didn’t move from my seat when he entered, though it was probably rude of me. I didn’t want to make any sudden moves, given my treatment.
“You again,” he said finally. “Why are you here?”
I shrugged. “I thought I was just visiting. Did you need me for something?”
He shook his head, staring down at me. “I should probably have you killed.”
“As a precaution. You may be here to usurp my position.”
I laughed. “No, thank you. The life of a god-emperor isn’t for me.”
“Oh? You envied all this, once, did you not?”
I nodded, regarding the rich fabrics and glowing gems set in the silver walls. “I even fancied stealing your curtains, last we met. It’s the staying in one place that gets me. My feet itch to feel the world move under them.”
He clasped his hands behind his back, a half-smile on his lips. “Mine never did, you know. I never wanted to leave my home, my lands, my liege. I have made a life for myself here, but still, it is not my home. Not really.”
“Yes, well. We all move as we must.”
“You always say that.” He loomed over me suddenly, grasping the back of my chair. “You never seem to have a purpose, yet you turn up like a bad coin and leave destruction in your wake.”
“Whoa, now, easy!” I leaned back, arms up. “I guess it might look that way to you, but–”
“But you are not the one who killed the queen,” he muttered, eyes vacant. “I think she was not really a queen, you know. Not in the Game. Maybe you are right, and we are all soldiers or pawns or stones. Maybe I am a castle, fixed to this place now when before I had moved ever forward.”
“Could be. Maybe you’re the king, eh?”
His eyes narrowed and pinned me to my seat. “And maybe you are. Or perhaps it is you who are the queen, moving freely as you do over the face of this world. Perhaps you could help me return to my home, if I take your power…”
That was enough of that. I hadn’t gotten almost two millennia under my belt by inviting Death in for drinks. I bit down on a secret tooth the guards hadn’t thought to check for, and spit poison into the knight’s eyes, sliding out from under him as he screamed and writhed in pain. Guards rushed in, but I evaded them, and sent the next wave of guards rushing to the chamber to look after their god-emperor.
He didn’t make it, alas, and I’m sorry to say that the Crystal Kingdom was torn apart by war for over a century before it splintered into smaller fiefdoms that ruled by some strange committee model involving duels with poison knives. I haven’t gone back yet, and I certainly hope not to.
But who knows? Maybe I will, someday. Maybe I am a queen, and I can go where I please while others are stuck in place, or ticking forward a little at a time. Maybe I’m the king and I don’t know it, and the pieces move to protect or destroy me while the players watch in silence. Maybe one day I’ll find out.
Hell, maybe I won’t. We all move as we must, and the Long Game goes on into eternity.
* * * * *
For Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge for May 17.