She knelt before her sovereign in a bright golden room and blathered like a fool. The White Queen let her talk; coaxed the story out of her question by calm question. Calming, comforting, ignoring stumbles and repetitions and suggesting words for the things that the Parcel Mistress could only hope to convey through clumsy gestures.
It was a relief to ramble the whole tale out and hand off responsibility for it. Her monarch would be able to understand the situation, could assess the options, would know how to deal with it. It was clear now: she had done the right thing to seek an audience, because now she could deliver the story like an unusually abstract package and then go back to her daily rounds.
That was what passed through her head as she knelt. Her White Queen's presence felt like the promise of absolution, a calm that tamped down the nervous possibilities in her mind into one or two likely futures. Maybe soon she put down the matte black sword the Dersite gave her, and maybe the Queen herself would entrust her with the delivery of a plan.
Talking was difficult. The White Queen seemed not to think so straightforwardly as any old Prospitian: her questions spun the Parcel Mistress’s story off along odd tangents, little sidelines, and although they hooked back in to the tale sooner or later, it was hard to tell what she was looking for in them, whether they joined up into some kind of secret plan or whether they just interested the reclining monarch.
It was hard to judge how long they asked and answered questions. Kneeling still and respectful for so long was tiring, but the Parcel Mistress was glad to be able to show respect like this. She had no formal clothes to wear or flowers to offer, so she knelt with humility and was glad to be able to make at least that gesture of esteem.
At the end of her subject’s last answer, the Queen paused. She waited for her subject to meet her eyes, and only then did she move their conversation on. When she did there was more gravity to her question than there had been in any of her earlier enquiries.
“Tell me, how well do you understand this game?”
The Parcel Mistress did not know any games. Her job was to deliver the mail.
The Queen read that in her face and laughed, ever so gently. “Sit up. You were good to come to me, young one; I will help you on your way. Come, let me teach you how our war works.”
Lessons from a monarch. This was less scary than leaving to get the package back from Derse, but not much less. The Parcel Mistress knew what was and wasn’t enemy territory, not the why of it. Holding a sword shook her as it was; she worried that she would stop being the Parcel Mistress if her knowledge expanded out any further.
But her Queen was her Queen.
Behind the throne room was something like a parlour. A maid brought them tea and tiny cakes iced in yellow and lilac, and the White Queen sat on a soft chair and slowly undid the game of chess that sat in progress on the table between them, playing each move backwards until the pieces were in their starting positions. She did this thoughtfully, wistfully, like each step was a sentence of a story that she didn’t want to lose her place in. The Parcel Mistress watched from across the board, the regisword across her knees. Like everything in the room, the thick patterned rugs under them were too beautiful to set an edge to. It did not look like a room designed for a general.
With black and white set in their starting positions, the Queen turned the board around so that the black pieces were on her own side. She took a sip of her tea, leant towards the Parcel Mistress. Her voice was a little hoarse, but it was also confident and soothing and wise.
“Throughout time, Prospit and Derse have fought the same battle out again and again. A battle that moves through phases: in the first, the monarchs of each circle one another. With the same range, the same amount of space, they are equally matched: neither can win the opposition. In the second, they gather troops to hold space for them. These are immutable parts of our war. From that point onwards, each prototyping of the battlefield adds an unknown. They change its landscape or the abilities of the combatants; we who fight there cannot predict how, only adapt to the changes as they happen. From that point, our war depends on that ability to learn the rules of them as they happen.”
The Parcel Mistress wondered what use there was, then, in understanding this static game on its static board.
“We know the rules for the first and second stages completely. Normally, the extra layers of complexity grow out of these, and you gain advantages there by understanding the roots they grow from. The reason this box of yours matters so much is that it comes from outside that set of rules: if the dreaming players need it and Derse has it, it may well have more material worth than any troops we can set on the battlefield. Do you understand? It matters because it’s an unknown that my strategy doesn’t allow for yet.”
“So I must retrieve it for you.” The Parcel Mistress closed her hands around the sword.
She did not feel sure she would be able to kill the Dersite Archagent. He looked like he was used to violence, and having the longer reach was not worth much in compensation for that.
The Queen gave her a fond look. “No, no, my precocious ministrant, put that weapon aside for the moment. I would not send you back there undefended on such an order. I had another plan in mind: let me teach you something of these battles of ours, and when you understand the shape of them I will give you the terms on which you'll go on your way.”
So she listened.
“This is a fight to gain and keep space, and it is the pawns that are key to that…”
The Parcel Mistress listened as well as she could. There was a lot to learn, and only some of it settled in her mind easily. At the opening, each side’s pawns moved to claim the centre of the battlefield, and by doing that they closed down their enemies' options and made space for their own side’s pieces to come forward and prove decisive. In the midst of a deadlocked struggle, though, it was the humble pawn that could push through enemy lines and change the course of the war; and, as each side’s losses grew heavy, they could pin their hopes on a pawn advancing across the board until it could gain decisive power.
The White Queen made this sound like something you could understand completely. She made it sound like you would gain everything from that understanding if you reached it.
The Parcel Mistress listened with all her attention, and when she bowed and took her leave of the other Prospitian, a crown and a ring and a sword to bear, she took with her the shadow of the shape of a battlefield, the plans and chances and risks that governed it.
When the real battlefield stood in front of her it stood in three dimensions with a whole army of deserters and a cacophony of sound, and it terrified her. It washed the abstract one out of her mind. It was chaos and blood and nothing more.
Still, when she held the crowns out to Jack, she hid her fear. He had enjoyed intimidating her on Derse, he would not have that pleasure again. He was not worse than the slaughter around her just because he knew her, so she kept a blank face when she looked at him even though she couldn’t wait to turn away, and she harboured a secret hope that her stoicism made an impression, that he would resent having scared her more as a bureaucrat than a prototyped murderer.
It was only once she had taken the box from him and turned away that she thought beyond her fear. The White Queen’s lesson came back in one single clear moment of regret, a calm voice explaining to her: pawns map the shape of the game. They need to be watched as closely as any other piece, and they are the pieces whose value has the potential to change most over the course of a game.
The Queen had given her this task because she knew Jack needed watching, and she had won the box back too late at too high a cost. And with too little forethought: Jack had used it already, promoted himself already, and Prospit had never even seen that there was a threat to intercept until he had had his moment.
She had lost them the exchange. The shame at failure as she realised it let her fight and kill, but even that was far too little to equalise the fight. She had lost the ring and the crowns. She had done no good as successor to her sovereign.
In what she had tried to be for the White Queen, she had failed. All that was left to her was to deliver the mail.
Many, many years after that moment, she came across a Windswept Questant, a creature with elegant eyes who seemed just a little familiar. Just a little, that was, until she smiled. When she smiled, her eyes were so piercingly wistful that the Peregrine Mendicant had to look away. This avoidance did no good: she dreamt about the Queen and her abdication night after night.
She had enjoyed forgetting. The mail lady who toppled her own empire.
The other Prospitian remembered her and made her admit she remembered. Never in many words, though, just in looks and rasping phrases, and the Mendicant felt sad when she remembered the beautiful calm voice the Queen had spoken before. But they only had a little water, and if they talked the Mendicant knew she would cry, and then they'd have to drink warm Tab to save themselves from dehydration and feel sugar-saturated and headachey and ill. With this justification she kept her peace and never apologised out loud. To be the Queen meant knowing the capabilities of your subjects, and she had only fallen short of her ruler's hopes because they'd been pinned too high for a more pragmatic strategist to count on.
The former monarch crowned her, even though the Vagabond cared so much more about being a leader. It was a shame; she enjoyed his talk of democracy and enthusiasm for people. And although the Mendicant kept wanting to tell them no, he should do it, she was almost as bad at people as she was at plans, the words somehow never came.
Part of her wanted a second chance.
No part of her wanted that chance the way it finally came. She knelt in front of a murdered friend and a ring that had haunted her and realised at last that for her, the game they were apparently all playing - this twisted game with no surrender except through death, no escape even in exile - for her that game was and had always been played out with only two pieces.
There might have been beauty in the gambits and strategies and measured careful choices the Kings and Queens had made, but those weren't steps she could play out herself. She couldn't think like that, not in systems and strange lateral leaps towards a subtle advantage. Instead, she had moved forward and forward and forward through names and hopes and lands and despair, and now this final step in front of her beckoned.
All four stones on the ring were lit now. She remembered the White Queen putting this ring aside during their audience on Prospit and smiling like a weight had lifted from her with it; she thought of Jack pulling a sword from his chest like murder was the only thing he understood.
It made sense, that only now could she rise as the successor to her Queen. Of course she couldn't stand in for the King and Queen until the game had pared itself down: now they stood one from each side left, a ring apiece. Neither of them were subtle enough to lead an army from the shelter of their own ranks, neither of them had the cunning to do anything than advance through their own strength to claim space themselves. Minds utterly fixed on each other’s death, blind to any of the rest of the war’s branching possibilities. This was the one fight she understood better than her wistful Queen could have, with few moves available and only one aim. It would be an even match, almost: she had the longer reach, he the longer training in murder.
She put the ring on and changed - make him pay - and rose up with her mind burning with the green sun's fire and looking ahead through the routes her foe could use. For half a second she was all-aware and yet utterly single-minded.
And then she saw through the fading heat of a carapace body bleeding out and in it the bud of a branch of possibility: the Wayward Vagabond was still breathing.