The Avalonian version of chess can be played on a nine-by-nine square if the players wish to keep the game simple, or on an eighteen-by-nine rectangle if the players wish to stay entertained for several hours. In the first version of the game, each player starts with eighteen pieces, in the latter, twenty-seven. In either version, the most important piece on the board is the King, but unlike in the human version of chess, the King's movement is nearly unlimited.
Also, in Avalon, one does not win the game by trapping the King. Instead, it are the two pieces at the sides of the King that are the focus of the game - in capturing either of them, the opponent may find himself victorious, or not, depending on the circumstances.
To the King's right, predictably perhaps, stands the piece known as the Queen. She is flanked by a Messenger and two First Class Faeries, as faeries don't hold with the belief that buildings should be allowed to move around. It might give young, impressionable faeries the wrong ideas.
At the King's left hand, flanked by a Royal Inspector and two First Rank Secretaries, stands the piece called the Prime Minister. Its movements are more limited than those of the Queen, yet its ability to take other pieces is greater, provided it is near enough the King. Its defenders, too, are more formidable than those of the Queen, although it is debatable that this depends for a large part on the strategy of deployment one uses.
This may be significant of something, or not.
Charon wins about four matches of every five he plays against the King. That's four out of five more than most people who play against the King.
The first time he won a match, his mother cried herself to sleep (or claimed she had done so, anyway; Medea didn't get her sense for dramatics from a stranger). His father gave him a stern speech about duty and the future of the family, using a lot of words to basically say that someone who had yet to pass the entrance exams had no business going around beating the King at a game of chess.
Charon bent his head, mumbled an apology, and decided there and then that he'd skip the entrance exams and try out for a position right away, tradition be damned. False modesty had never been one of Charon's faults, and he'd been at court long enough to know that most of the Ministers didn't have even half his intelligence or dedication.
He slipped inside the hall where the service exams were held the next day, passed with flying colours, and the rest, as they say, is history - except that people still talk about it, of course.
The King plays chess the way he plays backgammon, checkers, bridge and, occasionally, poker, although with poker, it's harder to find people willing to play against him, because it's fairly hard to lose on purpose without being too obvious about it, or leaving an unfavorable impression of recklessness. One unfortunate Second Rank Secretary in the service of the Minister of Finance lost his position for the sole reason of 'displaying a disturbing lack of self-control when handling money' during a game of poker.
Charon, on the other hand, plays chess the way he plays politics. Cautious, but not shy. Daring, but not reckless. Most of all, he plays to win - not to defeat his opponent; simply to emerge successful. He keeps a close eye on what's happening on the board, predicts, calculates, guesses, and four times out of five, that attitude earns him a victory and a sour smile from the King who is, if not a sore loser, then also not an overly happy one.
When the King plays games, he wishes to be entertained. The mistake other people make is to assume that the King finds it entertaining to win, or rather: to have other people let him win, as the second thing Charon has learned at court is that the King is by no means blind or oblivious. The King plays chess according to his mood - reckless when he's annoyed about something, cunningly defensive when he's pleased, a mix of the two when he's bored.
The puzzling thing isn't that Charon wins four times out of five. The puzzling thing is that one time out of five, for no reason he can name or point out, he loses. Sometimes his offense breaks on the King's defense, sometimes his defense gets trampled in a half-suicidal charge, sometimes he doesn't even see it coming, but every once in a while, Charon's careful strategy fails him.
"Strip-poker," Pain says, when Charon asks him about his favorite game.
Which is just typical, and not at all helpful, although Charon admits that, in the privacy of his rooms, with a few bottles of wine (not enough to make him lose his edge, just enough to make the world outside seem a little further away than it really is) he can see the charms of it - or rather, the charms of a half-naked Pain who's obviously not the least bit bothered at losing.
The King likes games, all kinds of games, and Charon, as his dutiful servant and Prime Minister learns all of them, their rules and how to bend them, but sometimes he'll watch the King in an unguarded moment and get the feeling that in spite of all his efforts, there are still a lot of things he doesn't know.
"Is that a hickey on your neck?" the King asks the morning after the game of strip-poker with Pain.
Charon is in the middle of reading out a report, and giving serious thought to firing the person who wrote it, as it's not only tedious and boring but also twice as long as it could have been. There are about thirty other people in the room, and all of them have heard the King.
The only good thing is that Pain isn't one of them.
Charon hurriedly contemplates his options. The King smiles broadly and sucks on his pipe. Several of the faeries who've been giving Charon hopeful looks in the past start whispering. (Medea, by some miracle, is absent - although Charon bets she'll hear about it soon enough.)
"I requested a favor of the Royal Inspector," he says at last. He could say that Pain is not only fabulously good-looking but also fabulously good in bed, but then everyone would mistake him for a sentimental fool who's mooning over his crush like a love-sick mortal. Besides, Pain would never let him hear the end of it, and if Pain has one flaw, it's that he's too smug.
Someone snickers. Charon keeps his face expressionless. The King gives him a royal nod, signifying he is free to continue reading the report.
The game after the morning-audience, Charon loses.
This may be significant of something, or not.
Medea gets into three fights over the two days after that - not of the magical variety, but with lots of hair-pulling and screeching about wanting to scratch someone's eyes out. Normally, Charon would talk to her about behaving more dignified, only this time, he knows she's doing it because of him, to defend his honor, or his reputation, or something along those lines.
He hasn't asked for it, and he doesn't like it, yet he doesn't have the heart to tell her off, because no matter how kind and roundabout he'll be about it, she'll still take it as criticism.
Pain remains conspicuously absent from the court - although Charon realizes that may simply be his imagination, because Pain has always traveled a lot; the position of Royal Inspector involves a lot of wandering around, looking for trouble. Quite likely, it's got nothing to do with what has happened between the two of them. Probably, Pain thinks nothing of it - a pleasant pastime, an evening's entertainment between friends. Possibly, it's never going to happen again.
Surely, Charon won't allow his mind to linger on something this unimportant when he's still got plenty of paperwork to deal with.
"Faerie Medea, would you like to join me and your brother in a game of Mah-Jong?" the King invites, and if he notices Medea's not-quite-healed black eye, he gives no sign of it.
Medea beams at him. "I'd be delighted, sire!"
Charon is happy to see her happy, but at the same time, it disturbs him a little to see his sister so ... dependent for her happiness on someone like the King, someone who'll never take more than a passing interest in her. Already, the King has turned away, to look for a fourth player.
"Faerie Fanta! You look glorious today. Would you care for a game of Mah-Jong?"
Even if she hadn't been Pain's sister, Charon wouldn't have begrudged Fanta the King's attention. It's as one-sided as Medea's obsession with the King, except that the King is the King, and Medea is simply another faerie of the court, not even a First Class Faerie yet. Charon visits the room where her gown is growing every day, seeing its potential for growth and beauty, but also seeing its stillness.
"No, thank you, sire. I'm really not that good at it." Fanta makes a bow - her mother has raised her well, for all that rumor has it that Lady Oran, she who is now known as Oreadia, cares little for her children.
"But we need a fourth player," the King wheedles.
There's hardly a lady in the court who wouldn't cheerfully commit murder for the privilege of playing a game of Mah-Jong with the King. Charon knows this, the King knows this, Medea knows this, and Fanta knows this, too.
"Why don't you sit next to me?" the King proposes. "That way, I can give you some playing tips."
Medea seems to have forgotten she's already been granted an invitation; the expression on her face as the King smiles winningly at Fanta is murderous. Charon wishes their mother had shown a little more restraint in coaching Medea for her future life at court, and setting her goals.
Fanta sighs and gives in to the inevitable. The King beams. Medea fumes in silence.
"Oh, sir, my brother got back from his trip to the Mist Mountains last night," Fanta says.
"Why would my brother be interested in that?" Medea demands, gracelessly dropping herself on her seat and slumping.
Fanta looks slightly puzzled, but apparently decides that since she's passed on the news, the topic is no longer of any concern to her.
"Thank you, Faerie Fanta," Charon says, politely, glancing at Medea, who grimaces and straightens.
"The audience with the goblin-representative is tomorrow," the King observes, idly toying with his pipe. "I don't think it would make a very good impression if my Prime Minister showed up with a hickey."
Medea makes a sound like she's choking. Fanta blinks.
"I agree, sire," Charon says blandly. "I assure you such a thing won't happen."
"Good," the King says.
Although there has never been an official survey, it is generally agreed upon that the majority of the chess-games played in Avalon end when one player check-mates the other player's Prime Minister.
The piece that's most commonly instrumental in accomplishing this is the King - either the opponent's King, or one's own, as the Prime Minister is more powerful when placed near the King, yet also more vulnerable to attack. Two Guards suffice to protect the King, but to protect the King and the Prime Minister both requires at least five Guards, and that's assuming neither King nor Prime Minister is moved which is, of course, an impossibility, as both pieces are vital to gain victory.
The second most commonly used piece to accomplish a check-mate of the Prime Minister is the Royal Inspector - a piece which gains influence both in the presence of the King and the Prime Minister, although most players will argue that the Royal Inspector is at its most useful when 'loose', roaming freely and unhinderedly through enemy-territory until that one moment when the piece is in the perfect position to gain someone the upper hand, if not the entire game.
A skillful use of the Royal Inspector can mean the difference between defeat and victory. Of course, one might argue the same goes for any piece, be it lofty King, or humble First Class Faerie, but one might also argue that it is particularly true of the Royal Inspector, since its freedom of movement is unequaled, which frees it from the limits placed on the admittedly faster-moving Messenger, a piece which may speed from one side of the board to the other in a single turn, yet pays a heavy price for that in its vulnerability to capture - a vulnerability the slower-moving Royal Inspector lacks.
This may be significant of something, or not.