Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Emperor's Game

It was a strange world when the fate of thousands could be decided by a few moves on a board game. 'Chess' the Emperor (may the sun illuminate him eternally) had called it, though 'Fate' would be a better name, at least that's what William thought.
It was difficult to pinpoint the crux of the dilemna Chess (or Fate) had brought him to, but the real tragedy was in the game itself, or rather his lack of ability to comprehend it's strategic subtleties. Only a year passed since the Royal Decree, which the Emperor (may the sun illuminate him eternally) himself had toured the lengths of his Empire to declare as the new method of settling local disputes between bordering rulers. In that year William's ability to play the game had changed much less than his borders had, by a longshot. He was a soldier, not a gentleman educated in the social sciences of leadership on a board game, and with no dice the element of Chance was gone. A soldier naturally gains respect for and even love for the maiden Chance over the years, and the game of chess had stolen her and locked her away in the proverbial tower that was one of it's pieces. Yes, over the last year, the game of Chess had become a tyrant in his life worse than anything the Emperor (may the sun illuminate him eternally) could inflict with any size army. Always at the mercy of any challenge, which multiplied like rabbits when word of his ignorance spread. He was losing every defensible hill and engage-able valley, not to the honorable art he was accustomed to, but metaphorical maneuvering he was completely unprepared for, and there was nothing in his life that taught him that could do a thing about it.
The smug grin on his opponents face, which somehow had made it's way around the teacup the man was holding to his powdered face, was a testament to his predicament. William had seen the look before, from this man even, as the coward of a ruler waited for William to make his first move. Being the host of the game made it custom, and the challenged ruler was obliged to host, making this his third experience playing Frederick, who now held over a third of Williams previous territory without ever meeting him on an actual battlefield. Frederick had been given the land of a previous ruler who'd been exiled when the Emperor (may the sun illuminate him eternally) ascended the throne. William hadn't liked the previous ruler, but now in hindsight almost missed the predictable nature of the man, who'd been more than willing to settle whatever dispute they had on the battlefield. Frederick had quickly take to the Royal Decree and in a single year managed to amass a kingdom with the luck of having a wealthy childhood and an Emperor (may the sun illuminate him eternally) as a friend. William had to admit that Frederick played an unparalleled Chess game, and he knew he was not the only victim of Frederick's rise to power. Many hills and castles had been dodged by the movement of these little stone pieces. William had learned enough to see when one of his pieces was threatened, but this manipulator would make moves that only made sense after he was caught in the unavoidable trap. Every time he lost, he was confused how or why until it was explained to him, and Frederick was always quick to fulfill the need with a tone that was too full of itself to even be insulted. Even after the conceit filled explanation, or afterwards when William was alone and playing it out again, the methodology eluded him.
This game was to decide the fate of a part of his land that had been his first conquest, and having been raised since a child in its field, he was loathe to let it go, especially to somebody like this groveling coward of a man. If not for the overriding fear of being persecuted by the Church, William would have sent the man to the underworld long ago, hands happily wrapped around his egotistical throat. A lifetime of traditional field combat and bitterly earned victory about to be turned over to a whelp who'd never earned a blister, let alone marched to battle. The man actually had servants carry him in a litter! It was difficult to condemn a man who seemed so oblivious, and William had to wonder what the Emperor (may the sun illuminate him eternally) saw in him to allow him such unchallenged authority.
All these thoughts meant nothing, and only avoided the ugly truth. William was about to lose his last piece of land, after a lifetime of conquest and bloodshed, to a newcomer who fortuitously came to the scene with an eagle's sight where everyone else was blind as a mole. Like playing dice loaded against you and being told its your fault for not having your own loaded dice.
Oh well, William thought to himself, resigned to fate (or chess), time to go back to sailing if he lost this one. If.
The flash of excitement in Frederick's eye was as unmistakable as the clatter of his teacup, both betraying his non-emotional aura. The game was on, and as Frederick knew, the victor was as certain as the messiah's date with destiny.
"Kings Pawn I see.." so few words yet full of contempt. Much less energy was spent as Frederick casually moved his horse on the queens side. "I guess it went well enough last time, and the time before.." With a chuckle hidden by the teacup, Frederick settled back into the cushioned seat, knowing would be a while.
Not this time. William suddenly had an idea, and with a sigh of satisfaction implying his epiphany, moved his horse. "I see you've realised the benefit of a knight.." Frederick said as he moved his own Kings pawn to the square next to William's. Does he know? Of course not William thought to himself, this man could not read minds, he was good at the game, not life.
"Perhaps." William replied as he moved his knight further down the board.
"Or maybe I think you're willing to sacrifice anything to acquire one."
"Maybe I am." Frederick moved his other knight out in direct line of William's knight attack. William took it.
"Let's see what happens without a couple of them." William said as Frederick took William's knight with his queen.
"See what I mean? must be important to bring 'Her Majesty' out."
"The queen always tends to the King's business best, so why waste time with underlings?" This guy was smug. William moved his queen out to meet her.
"Indeed, why waste time?" Frederick knew something different was happening, and he didn't know what to do. At least, anybody with a decent ability at cards would come to that conclusion. Subtle, but it was there. Fear. For the first time in a year, William smiled, then after Frederick moved his knight, William ignored the threat and moved his queen to take Frederick's queen, saying goodbye as he did. Of course it had to be a pawn that took his queen, but more important was the lack of smugness hanging in the air. It was William that finally broke the silence. As he moved his bishop to guard the pawn Frederick's knight was threatening, he had humor in his voice, "Time for the pious to do their duty, wouldn't you say Frederick?" Frederick moved one of his towers, but William had no idea why. Time to play a different game. William had read few books in his lifetime, and his favorite was 'The Art of War', which said to project strength when one was weak, and weakness when one was strong.
Time to be strong.
Moving a pawn to threaten the knight Frederick had entrenched, he obligingly retreated, though so too had the air of defeat that had been so pungent before. This was a new game and Frederick didn't like it. The next few moves were disorganized on both sides of the board, then, when William castled (a move he never dared use before), the sigh of satisfaction Frederick released made William instantly regret his recklessness. It was time to push forward, no matter what happened. This surprise approach had certainly won him back some confidence at least. Frederick had the sense that something was different about William's attitude. He must be suspicious, wasn't he? No, Frederick simply saw something only he could see. Pushing forward with a pawn, William was dismayed what the look of victory he had seen several times by now crept back onto Frederick's visage and back into his tone as he said,
"So we're both missing our knight and queen.. A bit like Camelot, wouldn't you say?" Something in his tone and subsequent laugh at his own wit convinced William the game was already over, at least, from Frederick's all knowing perspective. At least he stopped laughing when William took one of his pawns with a pawn of his own.
"I thought you'd be more considerate of your own little people William.."
Frederick took the pawn with another.
"My bishop will redeem them." William's bishop took the pawn in revenge.
"Of course, but without a tower-" William's bishop was replaced by a tower he'd forgotten about.
Moving his own tower to buy time, William sensed there was a trap coming, and he couldn't see it. Another pawn taken. Damn. Moving his bishop out of harm's way he could almost hear the heartbeat of his opponent it was so quiet. Or was that his own? William was doomed, he knew it, so he started plan B.
Sacrifice. Seemed fitting enough as he lost his second knight, even his experience at card playing couldn't have let him hide his dismay. Only two towers left, and William had no idea what to do with them against his opponents mostly intact force. With Five, no, make that four pawns left William was quickly running out of options.
Time for plan C. Suicide.
He made the move that signaled defeat, and the air instantly retained that pungent reek that had permeated before. Gone was the fear that William had been able to put into the cowardly man, and he reveled in the sight of it, knowing that it would live with him forever as a memory, even if it had only existed for such a short time.
"It is finished." Frederick's tone had all the pompousness returned. William sighed in resignation as he tipped his King over in submission to the unavoidable.
"Yes, it is."
There was a click behind William that Frederick barely had time to hear before his chair was pushed backwards with the force of the impact from the bolt fired. William had placed the man there with orders to fire when William said those words of resignation, and his fear had been profound while he waited for the fated moment. The genuine surprise covering Frederick's features gave William reason to smile as he stood over the dying man.
"I sent the Emperor, may the sun illuminate him eternally, a bird just before you arrived explaining my regret and responsibility of losing you to such an unlikely and dramatic fall as you made." The entire western wall of William's castle overlooked a cliff that boasted a death by old age before meeting the ground, and Frederick would not be the first to make the journey.
"I also petitioned the Church for the renegotiation of the borders, and with a caravan full of generous contributions to the church and state, as well an extra garrison for the Emperors, may the sun illuminate him eternally, conquest, I expect my petition should pass."
Stepping over the dying ruler, William walked out of the room, thinking about the lack of a good archer in the game. It was a shame Chess didn't have a Crossbowmen. Fate did, and a well place bolt could change the outcome of any war.