It was funny, Caesar thought as he consulted Thomas's board, that they should be celebrating the three-year peace accord among Zexen, the Grasslands, and Harmonia by attempting to kill emperors.
"Check!" Hugo announced proudly, sitting to Thomas's left. "I took your Holy Guard!" Caesar glanced over; the Grasslander was waving the horse-headed game piece.
"I'll get to it in a minute," Caesar said absently, turning his attention back to Thomas's board. The young master of Budehuc Castle had been playing for less than a year, and he'd been eliminated from the tournament in only the second round. Caesar could have crushed him easily from the start, even while keeping track of the other two games, but it was more interesting to draw the game out and see what Thomas would do if he was given an opening.
The late afternoon chess tournament, held in the library, wasn't the only recreation in honor of the day. Thomas had invited nearly all of Fire Bringer to Budehuc for the three-year anniversary of the end of the war and the following period of approximate peace among Harmonia, Zexen, and the Grassland tribes. The celebration was a whole-day affair, full of drinking, dancing, competitions, and general festivities. The Grassland-Zexen peace treaty was set to be renegotiated the following day. Caesar considered this a surprisingly shrewd move on Thomas's part. With everyone hung over from the day before, they'd be more impatient to finish the negotiations – and more willing to go along with whatever Thomas suggested.
Caesar had risen to the finals quite quickly, and so there were still several games that needed to be resolved before he knew who he would be facing. Of course, if Albert were there, the question of the finals – and the eventual winner – would be settled. There would be no point in playing; Caesar had never been able to beat his older brother, and Albert never failed to mock his minutest error in play.
But the invincible Albert wasn't there – he had plenty of convoluted plots and schemes on which to expend his grand intellect, political games to play that were far grander endeavors than an amateur chess tournament. So Caesar's opponent in the finals would probably be Salome or Apple; in fact, the Zexen strategist was facing off against Caesar's old mentor in one of the corners. Caesar hoped that if Salome won, the man wouldn't bear a grudge against him for thoroughly trouncing Lady Chris in the semi-finals. Either way, theirs would probably be a long game.
He'd have liked to watch, to gather information for the finals, but Apple had shooed him away. So Caesar was entertaining himself by playing against three opponents at once - Thomas, Hugo, and Ace, who had all been eliminated earlier but weren't quite ready to be done with chess for the day.
"I got his Holy Guard, I got his Holy Guard," Hugo chanted quietly, clearly pleased with himself. He'd lined up the pieces he'd captured near his board, and now the short column of pawns was being lead by a horse-headed piece of ebony. Caesar hoped his friend wouldn't realize he'd let him have the piece.
"Don't you mean Knight?" Thomas asked Hugo. "At least, I thought…" he darted a glance at the corner where Salome and Apple were playing their match with Apple's own, well-worn set. So that's who Thomas was learning chess from. Politics and strategy, too, if the rumors were correct.
"That's just the Harmonian name for it," Ace said to Thomas in knowing tones. "Pretty much anywhere south it's called a Knight, or sometimes Cavalry. The rules are pretty much the same everywhere, but the names of pieces change in different countries."
"Castles in Zexen, Towers in Harmonia…" Caesar made his move on Thomas's board and moved on to Hugo's. "The Queendom of Falena calls them Twilight and Dawn palaces. Falena reverses the roles of the Emperor and Empress. Calls them Queen and King, and the game's over when the Queen falls." He moved his own tower across the board, taking Hugo's remaining bishop and the Grasslander's triumphant smile.
"Ahh! You took my Fool!"
"Now that's a name I hadn't heard before," Caesar said as he approached Ace. "Bishop, pilgrim, shaman, sorcerer – it's usually a name for a wise person." Caesar moved his emperor and watched Ace's grimace with satisfaction. The man had a weak opening game, so Caesar had let him have a quite a few pieces just to make things interesting. It had been a mistake to underestimate him quite so far as that, and Caesar found to his dismay that was sweating the endgame. "You almost had me in check," he told the mercenary with a grin. "Can't be having that."
"It looks like a fool's hat," Hugo explained. "And they're only allowed on one color of square, which makes them a bit silly. Anyway, that's what Beechum told me they were called when he showed me how to play. And he learned in Dunan during the war there."
"That's probably more a reflection of Beechum's opinion of Harmonian bishops than proof of Dunan's name for it," Chris Lightfellow said dryly from the other side of the library, where she was watching Borus losing slowly but surely to the young scholar Ernie. "Bishop Sasarai was involved in the conflict, representing Harmonia's interests. He was only fifteen at the time, and even during our war he was somewhat naïve." She made a face. "Of course, so was I."
"Naivete doesn't make one foolish, least of all Sasarai," Ace commented. "We step carefully when he's involved."
"I do not know about the rest of Dunan, but in South Window we call the piece kaku," Sanae offered, then ducked her head shyly as most of the room turned to look at her. "The rules are somewhat different."
"Do you play shogi?" Eike asked, materializing from behind a bookcase. Everyone jumped. "I would like to play a game."
"After she's done with me," Sanae's Duck partner said, ruffling her feathers crossly. "Or after Ernie finishes beating that Knight. Whichever comes first."
"Just because she's taken my Captain - High Priest – Empress - whatever name you use, doesn't mean she's going to win!"
"That's what Hortez said when I played him in the first round," the Duck retorted. "And he couldn't keep the names of the pieces straight either."
Thomas intervened at that point to dispel the sparking Zexen-Grassland hostilities.
Caesar returned to Thomas's board while the younger man soothed ruffled feathers, and suppressed a grin. Maybe Hugo's name for the bishop wasn't so odd after all – Thomas had moved his to threaten Caesar's High Priest, but it now blocked his own Tower, which had been all that kept Caesar from moving in to dismantle Thomas's defenses. Now… he could move in and clean up, ending the game in just a few turns, but where was the fun in that?
Caesar made his move as Thomas returned, having successfully soothed both Borus and the Duck.
"So who do you think you'll be playing in the championship?" Hugo asked Caesar cheerfully. "When I heard there was going to be a chess tournament, I guess I figured the finals would be Silverberg vs. Silverberg, like the war was." When he saw Caesar's distaste at the mention of his brother, the Karayan amended hastily, "I'm not saying I wanted him here, just that I expected him. That's all."
"Thomas invited him," Caesar said sourly. "But he's apparently too good for us. I bet he didn't even bother to respond to the invitation." He bent over Ace's board and put a hand to his mouth, to hide his irritation.
Apple looked up from her game to frown at her former pupil. "That's hardly fair, Caesar. He is your brother, after all."
Caesar took a deep breath to tell Apple what he thought about his thrice-cursed, double-crossing, self-important, arrogant Grandfather-favored bastard of a brother, but Thomas broke into the conversation first.
"Albert did respond to the invitation, actually. He was quite polite in declining it. Scrupulously so, in fact. If I didn't know better I would have said he was in a contest with Sasarai on who could be more thoroughly polite."
"Sasarai declined, too? Is that why he's not here with Dios?" Hugo asked. "And why there aren't really any Harmonians here that weren't originally Grassland tribes? And Geddoe's group," he added as an afterthought. "And Nash."
"Thanks so much for remembering us," Ace said sourly.
Hugo shrugged, ears reddening. "I keep forgetting you're really Harmonians. I guess during the war I got used to thinking of you as being on our side."
"I don't know about the limited Harmonian attendance in general, but you're right about Sasarai and Dios." The young master of Budehuc castle shrugged. "They sent a different team of ambassadors, along with Nash, to negotiate the treaty. Sasarai sent his sincere regrets, and said he had some very urgent state affairs to tend to. He seemed very sorry to miss the celebrations."
"It would have been better to have Sasarai here and that adulterous letch in Harmonia," Borus groused.
Caesar wasn't entirely why this set the other Zexens to laughing, but it did. This more or less ended the conversation, and everyone in the library returned to quiet contemplation of patterns of ivory and ebony laid out before them.
Eventually Borus lost to Ernie. The Duck (Caesar still hadn't caught her name) began playing against Ernie. Salome and Apple were still quietly fighting a battle of attrition, with hardly any pieces remaining on the board.
"Check," Caesar said to Hugo as he took his knight, then moved on to Ace's board. Hmm, tricky. He really shouldn't have given up so many pieces in the start. Behind him, he heard the Flame Champion grumble as he tried to find an escape for his emperor.
He finished with Ace, shook his head over Thomas's bishop's poor placement while he took a tower, and was back harassing Hugo when the master of Budehuc quietly spoke up.
"Check. No, wait. Checkmate. I think."
Caesar glanced over his shoulder before returning his eyes to Hugo's board. He'd expected Thomas would move him into check, but he'd meant him to – he had an easy escape, and Thomas's move to threaten Caesar's Emperor drew Thomas's High Priest out of the way. "Just a moment."
The library door swung open and Nash stepped in. The Harmonian's face was absent its usual playful look, his mouth in a thin line. He was carrying a large, patient bird in his hands.
"I have a message from Bishop Sasarai of Harmonia."
Thomas looked up, frowning. "Before the negotiations start? That's odd. Shall I take it in another room, or-"
Nash cut him off. "It's for Caesar Silverberg."
Caesar blinked in confusion. "For me?"
Nash nodded, and offered a roll of paper tied with a ribbon. "It came on Dominguez Jr. just a few minutes ago. I haven't read it."
Caesar fumbled the knot and unrolled the message-scroll.
Dear Caesar Silverberg,
It is with great regret that we write this letter to you on this day. With grave sorrow we must inform you that your brother, Albert Silverberg, has been executed for treason against the Sacred State and Empire of Harmonia and His Holiness, Emperor-Priest Hikusaak. We hold no animus against the House of Silverberg and do not suspect any of your kith or kin of having taken part in your brother's duplicitous schemes.
We are deeply sorry for your loss, but please understand that it was necessary in order to preserve the safety and welfare of the people of the Empire.
With Deepest Regret,
Caesar's mouth wouldn't work at first, it was too dry. "He's dead," he managed to croak out. The paper of the message was rattling in his hands. "My brother is dead. Harmonia executed him as a traitor."
He was dimly aware of the clatter of chess pieces falling to the ground, and then a silence that seemed too loud in his ears.
"Let me see," Apple demanded, making her way past the pieces she'd knocked over, her voice catching. Numbly, Caesar handed her the letter.
"Caesar, I'm… I'm sorry," Hugo said, and there was a warm hand on Caesar's shoulder. "It's… I don't know what to say. I'm sorry."
There were other's voices full of condolences, mumbling into the silence, but Caesar wasn't paying attention to it. Albert was dead. The impervious quadruple-crossing bastard was dead. He'd never lost a chess game to Caesar and he was dead.
"You knew." Apple's accusing voice drew his attention, and Caesar came back to the present. "You knew, Nash, but you said you hadn't read the letter."
Nash took a deep breath. "Sasarai had told me that he was planning to have Albert Silverberg taken into custody and executed. But I'd suspected Albert was committing treason long before then."
Caesar found his voice. "What was he doing?"He shook his head. "I know, I know. What wasn't he doing? I know he was working for at least one other major power..."
"That wasn't it." Nash grimaced. "There was never any evidence, there. He was too careful, there.
"But there is a military campaign going on right now, to obtain land held by a few scattered farming settlements far to the north. Albert wasn't involved in that campaign, we had him doing other work for us. The natives had hardly any army, their weapons were shoddy, primitive things, their tactics even worse. But then overnight, that changed – they were acting as a guerrilla force, making raids on our supply trains. Our progress slowed to a crawl. Someone was advising them."
"Albert. Albert was advising them." Caesar swallowed. "And he was caught."
"So he was good after all." Hugo said softly.
Nash shook his head. "Don't misunderstand me. He didn't do it to help them – even with his aid they didn't have a chance. It was a game to him." The bird he was holding squawked suddenly, and Nash shifted a hand to stroke it. "Sorry, sorry…" he said to the bird. He looked back up at Caesar. "Just a small, easy game that he was playing on the side of his big one."
That was Albert, all right. Caesar nodded. "I understand. Everything was a game to Albert." He looked at the three chessboards he'd been playing on, not really seeing them, blinking furiously.
Then suddenly, stupidly, the games came into focus. He'd been trouncing Hugo, no question. And his game with Ace was almost won – two moves, and it was over.
But his game with Thomas… yes, that was checkmate. Thomas's blasted bishop was for once in Caesar's way, making his planned escape into an illegal move.
Eventually he looked up. Only Apple, Nash, Thomas, and Hugo remained; presumably Thomas had quietly ushered out the rest. Apple was carefully gathering the scattered pieces of her chess set.
"I canceled the tournament," Thomas said quietly. "Would you like me to make any public announcements to others? He wasn't part of Fire Bringer, but your brother was instrumental to our winning the war."
Caesar shook his head. "No, don't spoil the day for others. Let things go on as they would. I'll probably come out later tonight. I just… need some time now." He bent over, retrieving a carved ivory pawn from Apple's set. It wasn't chipped. That was good – Apple had gotten the set as a gift from a teacher, and it was important to her. Words were carved around the base, and he rubbed his thumb over them distractedly.
"What's that say?" Hugo said, eventually, to break the silence.
Caesar glanced down. "Memento mori. I forget what it means."
"Remember you are mortal," Apple whispered.
Caesar blinked. "Oh, yeah. Of course. My family's motto. I keep forgetting it."
"That's the trouble with your family," she said, sadly. "You people always do."