Whether or not it was his intention – and Azel knew better than to presume he could discern his brother's intentions – Alvis never failed to make Azel feel like a fool.
“Three moves, and you'll have lost. Again.”
Azel stared at the board, trying, as he always did, to see where he'd gone wrong. And Alvis, as he always did, stepped in before the problem was solved, swiftly moving the pieces through the paths he'd seen coming before Azel had even come up with them, ending, of course, in his own inevitable victory.
“Don't sulk,” he said firmly as Azel shrank into the back of his chair. “Learn from it. Study. You are my brother, after all.
Only Alvis could make brother sound like an insult, though he barely seemed to notice it. He left without further comment, leaving Azel to clean up the pieces left behind.
It would be one thing, of course, to learn a winning strategy at a children's game. Azel could beat near everyone he played – everyone, of course, except his brother. And even if through some miracle he ever did win, he would never imitate the intensity in Alvis' voice, the stern commands laced into every glance, the way he could walk into a room and make every last person take notice of his presence. He was the kind of man who was born to lead, and all Azel could do was try his best to follow and not disappoint.
Azel slowly pushed the pieces back into position, trying to remember how Alvis had gone before. He recalled the opening moves, the first few turns, feeling as if he might just win this time. A pile of pieces Alvis had lost, as if careless, left on his own side of the board.
Of course. There was the trouble. Alvis was never careless.
If nothing he does is ever an accident, Azel thought, then everything must be deliberate.
Azel's fingers ran around the smooth top of the chess piece as he mentally counted the squares over and over in his head. He remembered the path Alvis' pieces took, the order they went in, and, a bit sharper, the look on his brother's face as it all came together. Never letting a single detail show before its time.
He moved the piece as he remembered Alvis did and saw it – it was vulnerable to capture, but suddenly everything made sense. Taking this piece freed another to take his own. It seemed so obvious in hindsight, obvious enough that his foolishness made him feel a little sick.
No, he thought quickly. Not your fault. After all, with whom could he practice to face someone like Alvis? Lex would just push the few pieces he remembered the properties of ahead in the same bullheaded patterns, then get distracted by something or the other before Azel could ever officially win. And, well, there were few people who cared to waste time with a bastard child, no matter how noble that bastard's father might have been.
Azel swallowed and collected himself. He stepped the pieces backward, one by one, and tried again. He imagined what Alvis might have done had he not fallen for that obvious ruse – perhaps he'd have offered another one, and Azel, of course, would be sharp enough this time to catch it. He might take a few pieces himself – the pegasus, with its versality, or the mage, an odd choice but always Azel's favorite.
But even then, Azel found himself mapping out a win on his own end. It was a sure strategy, he thought. Enough that he might be able to best Lex before he got bored, even. And if it could do that, well, then, perhaps he stood a chance against his brother. Perhaps.
It was nearly a week before Alvis found time – or rather, before he decided to spare the time – to play Azel again. Azel couldn't tell if the wait was punishment or opportunity. He never really was. Regardless, it was as good a time as any.
He could feel his fingers shaking as he set up his side of the board and tried not to meet his opponent's eyes just yet. He focused instead on the high windows, the light drifting through the tinted glass and across the archways, spilling out into the floors, polished so highly that the sun bouncing off the tiles made him squint and wince. No, there was no way he'd lose this time. Not again. This time, for sure, he'd come out on top.
“White goes first,” Alvis prompted, quieter than Azel expected. He often forgot that Alvis was not quite the giant he made him out to be– in fact, his fingers were nearly as delicate as his own, and beneath the sleeves of his shirt, his arms were still the slender ones of a mage. There was still that regal edge to him, though, an edge Azel was sure he'd never have himself. Maybe it was from his mother. Maybe it was from his upraising. Or maybe it was just. . . Alvis.
Whatever it was, it made Alvis' words ring in his ears as he set his fingers on a soldier piece at the front of his lineup and sent it ahead. It was the sort of piece he'd never had trouble sacrificing before, but somehow now he almost worried for it.
No, he thought, as Alvis quickly mirrored his move on the other side. You're not going to lose this time. After all, there was no way Alvis would mimic a faulty choice. He wasn't one for mockery or show. Not usually. At least, not toward people he liked. Azel liked to think he was one of those people-- at least, some of the time.
A gulp. “I-I know.”
And so Azel moved. He forced himself not to linger too long– think too much, he remembered Alvis saying once, and you'll doom yourself all on your own– and to move quickly, efficiently, but never recklessly. And Alvis kept pace, only pausing rarely, never looking up to nod or speak outside the bare necessities. “Check.” “Your move.” And Azel himself didn't dare to speak out of turn, lest he break his own concentration. So the only sounds between them were the click of polished stone chess pieces on the board, the light tap of captor to captured, and that rare reminder from Alvis.
Azel forced himself not to cringe as he watched his lineup dwindle, and as he turned down chance after chance to claim one of his brother's men in return. He wasn't totally behind, but near every time Alvis left an opening, it was only to gain an even bigger advantage if it was taken. He seemed to operate two, three steps ahead at all time, in a way that was nothing if not totally maddening. After all, his blood could only grant him so much. Future sight, Azel was sure, was not among those gifts.
Don't lose. You can't lose. Not again.
Maybe if he won, if he came out on top somehow, he'd have proven himself. After all, if he were not only equal to but better than Alvis at something, there was no way he could be fenced in, treated like a child, kept away from his friends as if he were some kind of delicate glass doll – look, but don't touch . Not that he had many friends to begin with, but if he could just do this, maybe he wouldn't need them, either.
He made his move and regretted it near instantly-- too fast, too aggressive, though he couldn't pinpoint an exact failing in it. There was just a sense he had, despite the lack of vulnerabilities in his strategy that he could see, that he had made the wrong move.
He glanced up, hoping to see something in Alvis' eyes that might prove him wrong somehow. A glint of disappointment, a glimmer of dismay. But there was nothing but an easy smile, the kind of smile that set him ever so slightly on edge.
“You did study, after all, didn't you?”
Azel refused to nod.
“Perhaps I should not have taught you this game.”
Azel liked to think he was imagining the slight patronizing tone to his brother's voice. No, he was being honest. This was a compliment, a genuine show of approval, a mark that he was neither a failure nor a sympathy case. Alvis might be free with his condescension when he was in a mood, but surely he wasn't one for sugaring up the truth.
“But check. Again.”
How did I miss that? Azel gulped back the apology forming in his throat and focused on pushing his king back into safety. He looked back to the array of white on the other side of the board, and to his own decent claims of black at his side, only turning back once he heard Alvis had made his own move.
“And again, check.”
Azel pushed his king out of reach again, forcing his fingers, somehow, not to tremble under Alvis' fiery stare.
They continued on like that, putting each other in peril time and time again, neither, as far as Azel could tell, gaining a clear advantage over the other. Evenly matched was more than he had truly expected – though he'd hoped to win, somehow, it was never something he'd foreseen truly happening despite his ambitions. But as he caught the slightest twitch at his brother's brow, a bit more hesitation before his moves, he thought, perhaps, it might have been in reach. And the pile of black pieces lying prone at his side of the board grew larger and larger, even more so than the matching set of white across the table.
He forced back a smile as he took another piece. He was almost giddy. Victory was in his reach, finally. He could imagine the look on Alvis' face, the apology – “I underestimated you.” He was resting the claimed piece at the side of the board, marveling at the progress he'd made, almost congratulating himself for having avoided failure at last, when he heard Alvis speak.
But he looked down at the board and saw it was true. There was no move he could make that would keep his king safe. As Azel had taken all those pieces, claimed all those small victories, Alvis had laid a trap better than anything he could have anticipated himself.
But there was no snapping, no sighing, no disappointed shake of his brother's head.
“The last time we played, I was. . .short with you. I apologize.” It was more unexpected than the loss, somehow, and it sounded sincere. For once, Azel thought he could be sure of that intent.
“No, I. . .I shouldn't have lost, not after you taught me so much, don't apologize--”
“It's understandable. You aren't cut out to be ruthless, Azel. Not even in a game.” It sounded like an insult for a moment, until finally, Alvis smiled. “Try to stay that way.”
Azel gave one last remorseful glance at the pieces he'd claimed. So many worthless tokens strewn across each other, all in pursuit of a victory he couldn't win. I don't want to, he wanted to say. I want to be more like you. But he swallowed his words and said “yes, brother,” instead, and tried to pretend he didn't think Alvis was ashamed.