There was a game played at the Untheileneise Court. A literal game – not a metaphor of politics and rumor and expectations. It seemed to require a board, decorated with squares of alternating colors; two players; and a great number of pieces, each one of a different shape. Maia had seen it played at various parties and entertainments, and though he was curious and would have liked to watch it being played more closely, he had dared not ask questions, lest his ignorance be obvious. Perhaps it was not a Court game; perhaps it was played everywhere – except for in a house run by his cousin Setheris.
It was after a dinner given by the Marquess Lanthevel that Maia first saw Csethiro playing the game. There had not been many guests at the dinner, and those that had attended were mostly people Maia considered, if not exactly friends, at least not strangers. He drifted closer to the table at which Csethiro and another young woman sat; surely it would not be inappropriate for the emperor to speak with his fiancée, and perhaps while he did so, he could spy upon their game without being noticed.
This game-set was one of particular beauty, unsurprising in Lanthevel’s rooms. The board was made of inset pieces of wood in alternating dark and pale shades; the pieces were intricately carved out of amber and jade, faintly translucent and exactly sized to fit comfortably in a hand. It all looked smooth and warm, and Maia clasped his hands behind his back to resist the urge to touch.
Csethiro and her companion rose as he approached their table, but Maia let them stand only for as long as was absolutely required by decorum, and then took a nearby chair himself, inviting them both to sit again.
“Thank you, Serenity,” Csethiro said, and though she used his title here in public, the light in her eyes seemed to say instead Maia. Maia was grateful his skin hid the flush of warmth he felt. Awkward, he looked down again at the game, and nearly asked What do you play? before managing to substitute a polite comment on the food that had been served. Csethiro knew his background, and that he did not know how to dance, but – perhaps admitting to one ignorance was enough for now.
They passed a few minutes with similar small talk, saying nothing of particular importance or interest. Csethiro’s companion was soft-spoken but seemed kind; when Maia could think of nothing to say, she looked at him with patience rather than scorn. Unfortunately neither she nor Csethiro took up the game again for as long as they spoke to him. Csethiro held one piece in her hand, resting lightly on the edge of the table: taller than most of the other pieces, it was slender, and topped with a carved crown. The amber lent a warm golden glow to her skin.
Finally Maia accepted that they would not play as long as he stood beside them. Swallowing his disappointed, he bowed his head. “We will leave you to your game.”
“Would you like to play, Serenity?” Csethiro asked. “If you will wait until we have finished, you might play the winner.”
“No, no,” Maia said too quickly. He let his first rush of terror out in a long breath, and then added with a smile, “It would not be fair for the emperor to play. Who would dare to defeat us?”
Csethiro nodded thoughtfully in response. “Perhaps on another occasion, then?”
Maia was still thinking of the matter the next morning, as Csevet read out his schedule for the day over breakfast. He must have been too obviously distracted, because Csevet paused to ask, “Is there some other matter that concerns you, Serenity?”
“No,” Maia said. But something of his feelings must have shown in his voice, because Csevet lowered the list he held.
“We are here to be of assistance to Your Serenity,” he said, his tone warm and a small smile on his lips.
Maia began another automatic denial, but then he reconsidered. There was no one in the room except for Csevet, Maia, and his nohecharei – Cala and Beshelar, this morning. They already knew of the ineptness of his education; likely one more example would not disconcert them. “There is a game we have seen played,” he began hesitantly, “with a board, and two colors of pieces, carved into little statues....”
“Your Serenity speaks of chess?” Csevet said, his brows drawn down in confusion.
“Yes.” Maia’s shoulders threatened to stiffen in embarrassment, but he forced them down. “Chess. We have read of it, but have never played ourselves. Do you know how?”
“Of course, Serenity. But we are an indifferent player, while Beshelar is reckoned to be greatly skilled.”
Maia turned to look at his nohecharei in surprise. The game had seemed like the amusement of delicate and idle nobility; he would not have expected a solider like Beshelar to enjoy it.
Beshelar cleared his throat, redding slightly under Maia’s startled gaze. “It is considered an excellent method of teaching strategy in battle,” he said.
“Oh.” Maia glanced at Cala. “You too, we suppose?”
Cala shrugged one-shouldered. “Most do.”
“Serenity,” Csevet said cautiously, “would you like to learn?”
“Yes. We should like that very much.”
Csevet fetched a set – his own personal one, Maia supposed – much simpler than any Maia had seen before. The board was merely painted squares on leather, which could be rolled up like a scroll and easily carried from place to place. The pieces were wood and bone, their carvings small and unembellished. They made room on the table by pushing aside the breakfast dishes, and Csevet set up the board, naming each piece as he did so and explaining its function; Beshelar and Cala occasionally interrupted to add some detail or addition. It was much more complicated than Maia had anticipated, and his excitement began to change to worry.
“The ultimate object of the game,” Csevet was saying, “is to capture the opponent’s emperor.” He glanced up as he spoke, carefully gauging Maia’s reaction, but Maia felt no outrage. “The emperor can only move one space at a time, and so the other pieces must protect him.”
Maia laughed. “A very accurate game, we see.”
Csevet returned his smile hesitantly. “It is older than the Untheileneise Court, and so we are certain that no specific emperor could be meant.”
“Of course.” Maia reached out to touch the emperor piece. It was plainer than many of the other pieces, marked only with a simple, unadorned circle. He felt sympathy for it.
“Shall we play, your Serenity?”
“What, now? We don’t know – we won’t remember all the rules –”
“It doesn’t matter,” Csevet assured him. “Should you forget, simply ask, and we will explain again. But the best way to learn, Serenity, is to play. The rules are all merely complicated abstractions, until you have seen them in action.”
Maia reluctantly agreed and, after a long moment, moved his first piece. Csevet responded much more quickly, forcing Maia to make another move. He found himself slowly drawn into the game, though he did, in fact, have to stop and enquire about how the pieces shaped like horses moved.
“Two spaces up and one over,” Cala said with a grin. “They’re my favorites.” He was watching the game from over Maia’s shoulder; both of the nohecharei had moved closer to better see the board, and now began to offer advice and commentary on the game.
Csevet had already won most of Maia’s pieces, which stood in a little group by the secretary's side of the board. Maia himself had captured two pawns, which was more than he would have predicted.
“You are not allowing us to win, are you, Csevet?”
Csevet looked quickly up from his contemplation of the board. “Of course not,” he said, but there was a guilty note to his voice that suggested he was just now wondering if perhaps he should have.
“Good,” Maia said. “We would not have our victories be false ones.”
Csevet smiled, but Maia was distracted by Beshelar bending low to whisper to him.
“We would not wish to impose, but perhaps we might direct the attention of your Serenity toward the proximity of your Queen and Csevet’s Knight?”
Maia looked, and the rules of the game suddenly clicked into place, allowing him to see what Beshelar referred to. Maia leaned forward and slid his Queen across the board, taking Csevet’s Knight.
Csevet won the game, of course. But Maia held the little horse-shaped piece in his lap until the end, inordinately proud of such a small accomplishment. He would not play the game in public. But that need not mean he could not play at all, not when there were those he could trust to give him their assistance.