Freebie Mondays: A Game of Chess (Story 20 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Freebie Mondays: A Game of Chess (Story 20 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Since I write roughly 22 stories every year, I thought it might be fun to do a project for 2022.

In 2022, the 22 shorts I write for my blog will be taken from prompts related to the 31 stories in 31 days project from January of 2022. Each will relate to the multiverse that all of my stories take place in, and I will try to keep the main characters that appear on my blog to the background (unless I get a super cool idea).

I’ve written each of these stories on stream. If you want to witness this installment as it was crafted, the VOD is on youtube!

The prompt for this one was: “a game of chess.” (It was originally ‘a game of cards,’ but chess worked better for my purposes… so I guess maybe the prompt was just “a game.”)

This story takes place in a universe I call “Beyond the Mirror.” It’s tangentially related to my Aruvalia Chronicles series in that the main character started in that world but fell into a different one, a one where everything he knows is dark and twisted. But he cannot abide by the twisting of himself, so he resolves to make things right. (You can learn a little more about the setting here.)

I chose to feature this particular world because it was one I hadn’t used for the project yet. But also this particular narrator because I felt Sesha had fallen a bit through the cracks. He’s an important secondary character in the multiverse and I wanted him to get some air time.
. . .

The chess board was sitting on the general’s vanity, a thin slate of polished obsidian and white marble that must have been incredibly difficult to move, given the full weight of its contents. Every time Sesha walked into the room, the pieces were arrayed in some formation across its surface, the white pieces a series of pristine ivory carvings, the black made from polished onyx. Of course both the black and white sets were inlaid with sparkling red rubies, like crimson splashes of blood to denote the ultimate fate of each unit the piece represented.

For a long time, Sesha thought of the game board as a foolish indulgence. It had been many long years since the general sat in the officer’s lounge and challenged his fellows to a rousing game – most of them were now too afraid of the consequences of winning against such a high ranking member of the military. Not that it was in any way easy to outwit General Lorcasf.

But as Sesha brushed past the polished surface today, his eyes were drawn to the subtle shift in formation between yesterday and today. One of the white pieces had been nudged from its line and now stood nose to nose with one of the void-cut black pieces.

The general must have noted his frown because he made a soft, amused sound. “One of my guards got bold, I think.” He chuckled. “I would be furious, but it’s been so long since I had a chance to play an actual game. Not that I think anyone will be brazen enough to continue the ruse.”

It was rare for General Lorcasf to allow anyone to pass through this room without his direct supervision, so it would take more than just a brazen act to touch something that belonged to him. Sesha had a sinking suspicion about the origin of the shift, but he said nothing, merely pressing his lips into a thin line.

“Whatever passes the time, I suppose,” he sniffed, trying to make it seem as though he couldn’t care less about the general’s foolish pastimes.

The general chuckled again as he crossed the space between them and tucked an arm around the Archmage’s waist beneath his wings. Sesha’s eyes drifted to the chessboard one last time, mostly so that he wouldn’t notice the crawling sensation of his skin beneath the general’s hands. Any distraction was welcome if it kept him from thinking how long he would have to spend on the man’s arm before he could flee back to the solitude of his tower.

And even as his companion led him from the room and down the hallway, he couldn’t help but wonder what would possess his new friend to risk giving himself so horribly away.

*   *   *

“Did you play with the general’s chess set?” Sesha demanded almost the moment he swept into the study where his new guest tended to spend the bulk of his days. As anticipated, Domerin’s head was bent over a worn old history volume as he attempted to catch up on all the education he never received.

“I may have nudged a couple of pieces here and there,” he admitted. He was clearly trying to conceal a grin but, when Sesha’s eyes flashed, he gave up all pretense and allowed the expression to dominate his face. “Don’t worry, I was careful not to break anything.”

“That isn’t the point,” Sesha snapped. He folded his wings tightly against his back so they wouldn’t knock any of the stacks of books from their mooring as he crossed the floor to stand in front of his guest. “You are supposed to be keeping a low profile, blending into the shadows. If he noticed you-“

“I don’t touch anything when he’s around,” Domerin interjected, his tone wounded. “I am not some green recruit. You can trust that I know what I’m doing.”

“And what is that?” Sesha sniffed, displeased to have his concerns dismissed in such a manner. No one else would ever dare speak to him this way. He had to remind himself that his guest was still a stranger, unfamiliar with the ways of the court. It made the Archmage willing to grant him a little grace, though he was burning through that good will rather quickly.

“I’m getting a sense of my enemy,” Domerin replied as his eyes drifted back toward his reading. Clearly, he didn’t consider this matter worth further discussion.

He had said something similar when he asked Sesha to craft the disguise that allowed him to move undetected through the halls of Dark Haven’s palace. The Archmage had initially been against taking the risk in the first place, especially if a mistake could be traced back to him. The repetition of the purpose gave him pause.

“I thought you wanted to observe the general on the battle grounds,” Sesha retorted sharply, hoping to indicate that his conversation would not be over until he said so.

Domerin glanced over the rim of his book, his demeanor casual until he noticed the Archmage’s scowl. That caused him to lower the book and sit back as he lifted his chin to give Sesha his undivided attention.

“I do need to know how the general fights,” he agreed. “But that isn’t enough. If I want to outwit him, I need to know how he thinks.”

“And a chess game will tell you that?” Sesha sneered, not bothering to hide his skepticism.

“Yes,” Domerin replied, though his tone suggested he was slightly confused by the strength of Sesha’s reaction. “But I’ll learn a lot more than just how he plays the game. His reactions to the results will tell me a lot too.”

His voice was steady, once again unwavering in the face of Sesha’s mounting anger, and that was enough to break his mounting tension.

This Domerin did not think the same way as the one he was used to. His methods and culture were strange, to say the least. But Sesha suddenly worried the man would think him foolish.

He inhaled deeply, lifted his chin and squared his shoulders, “I would advise you to be careful,” he said before spinning on his heel. “I do not wish to waste time crafting a number of useless disguises if you get yourself discovered.”

He passed under the arch of the room’s exit before his guest had a chance to offer any form of reply.

*   *   *

He found the general bent over the chessboard a few days later, one hand tucked beneath his chin and a look of consternation on his face. It had been such a long time since the general allowed his veil of absolute confidence to drop in the presence of another that Sesha was momentarily taken aback.

Was there merit to this newcomer’s claims after all?

“Some member of your guard continues to be bold,” he said with a thin smile.

Many of the chess pieces of both colors had been disturbed from their original moorings. They now spread across the center of the board. Sesha didn’t know enough about the game to guess the meanings of any of the positions, but they had clearly brought the general up short.

“I suspect it is actually a running game among several of the guard members,” the general announced with an amused smile. “There is little chance they could be doing so well otherwise. I suspect planning and strategy meetings have taken place behind closed doors to workshop the best option for next move. But I will best them, don’t you worry.”

Sesha worked hard to conceal his reaction to this statement. The general was not acting the way he expected. He wasn’t outraged. He didn’t seem to care who had touched his things.

He only cared about winning the game set before him.

“You seem oddly pleased by this little distraction,” Sesha murmured. He was tempted to knock one of the pieces from its current setting, but then he might disturb the game and both versions of the man sitting in front of him would be displeased with the interruption of their efforts.

“It has been a long time since I challenged a worthy opponent,” the general replied with a light shrug. “If it were any less interesting, I might question the decision to toy with my personal belongings. But I have made a thorough check of my chambers and nothing is missing. What is a harmless bit of fun among soldiers?”

That depends on how long it stays harmless, the Archamge thought, though he offered a thin smile in return. “Can I draw you away from your deep thoughts, or do I need to wait until you have determined your next move?”

The general peered at the chessboard again, his eyes rapidly scanning several sections of the board. When he slid to his feet, Sesha thought he would step away, continue contemplating the problem and return later. Instead, he reached down and slid one of the dark black pieces into a new location. Then he motioned toward the door to his chamber.

“There,” he announced with a grin. “Now you can have my undivided attention.”

But he glanced again at the board as they made their way past it, making Sesha wonder how much that statement was true.

*   *   *

He found the other Domerin, the strange one from the other world, perched over a map spread across the wide table of his dining room. He had asked for the map, so Sesha probably shouldn’t be surprised to find it spread across the only table large enough to accommodate its full length, but it still irked him that the man felt so free to make use of his personal space without permission.

He was about to snap about it when he noticed several wooden markers were spread across the map, each splashed with a different color.

Army representations, Sesha realized as he stepped closer. Each arrayed into their actual positions. But what were the stray markers, the ones outside of known troop positions? Had Domerin intercepted some information Sesha wasn’t aware of? Potential movements, perhaps? Or were the new markers meant to represent something else?

Domerin seemed completely unaware of his approach. He leaned down and shifted several of the blue markers into a new position, and Sesha suddenly realized what he was looking at.

Another game of chess, though with stakes much higher.

Was that the point of the other game then? A trial run? A test to see if he was up to the task of matching wits with the general?

Sesha had to believe he could be, otherwise he had been foolhardy about where he’d thrown his support.

He cleared his throat, and Domerin glanced up. He didn’t start, so he must have at least been aware of Sesha’s presence. But why, then, did he not offer some form of greeting?

“How goes it?” he asked in that easy, casual way of his when Sesha didn’t speak.

He put words together in such an odd order sometimes.

“Well enough, I suppose,” the Archmage replied. He knew what Domerin was asking, and yet, he didn’t want to answer. He wanted to make the man jump through a series of hoops, ask the right questions, earn his answers.

But he didn’t conduct conversations that way and, sometimes, it was oddly refreshing.

“He’s starting to get suspicious,” Sesha murmured, answering the unasked question. “The game isn’t a harmless distraction anymore. He wants to know who’s pulling the strings.”

“It was inevitable,” Domerin replied with a thin smile of his own. “He likes to believe he has control of every little thing. It makes sense that he’d grow restless if something slipped beyond his reach.”

It wasn’t the answer Sesha expected. There was no concern in his strange companion, no worry that he had taken his little ruse one step too far. He seemed undaunted and fearless.

For some reason, that troubled Sesha more than the rest.

“You do realize that if he discovers a singular man has come so close to defeating him, he will absolutely destroy you?” Sesha pressed. He wasn’t angry anymore, he was worried. He didn’t think this new friend of his realized the danger of the water he dipped his toes into.

At last, the stranger from another world turned his attention away from the map and the markers to meet Sesha’s gaze fully. What the Archmage found in those storm blue eyes made him shiver.

It was the first time he thought the man seemed anything like the general he opposed.

“You worry a little too much, Sesha,” he soothed, some of the hard edge seeping from his gaze. “Technically, in this world, I do not exist.” And he snorted a small laugh. “That will make it awfully hard for your general to hunt or punish me.”

“Not so difficult if he catches you in the act,” Sesha replied, surprised by the force behind his snarl. “If he catches you in his snare, do not think I can protect you.”

“This is not my first attempt to infiltrate a dangerous enemy stronghold,” Domerin repeated for what felt like the hundredth time. “I know the risks I take.”

Sesha wanted to seize his collar and shake him, still not convinced he had appropriately conveyed the severity.

“If you capture his king…” the Archmage breathed, but he was unable to complete the thought. Thinking of the rampage that might follow made him shudder. “Do not forget that he started this venture unable to contemplate that another member of this army could unseat his supremacy.”

“Indeed,” Domerin replied dryly as he turned back to the contemplation of his map tokens. “I need to know how deep that arrogance runs.”

But Sesha was fairly sure he could have told the man that.

*   *   *

Sesha heard the sound of heavy stone striking wood then trickling to the floor even as he passed the threshold of the general’s quarters. He almost turned back. It would be best not to be here at the current moment, not to witness what was about to unfold.

But he could just hear the disappointment in his new companion’s voice if he returned without a full report and, for some reason, disappointing that man troubled him far more than anything else these days could.

He closed the door softly behind him and padded across the sitting room until he stood in the doorway that led to the general’s quarters. General Lorcasf favored black. The walls of his room were stained as darkly black as it was possible to force a pigment, and many of the accents were built from black tourmaline. The floors were polished black basalt, and even the wood of the doors had a blackened sheen.

That made it difficult to locate the scattered black chess pieces as Sesha inched forward, though the white stood out in stark contrast to everything surrounding them.

Sesha nearly crushed the head of a knight beneath his feet, and leapt back, lest he make the situation worse.

“What happened?” he asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.

The general sat bent over his dark wood vanity. Several pieces had managed to scatter there, but he swiped them onto the floor with a savage snarl.

“Some joke by my peers, no doubt. Slipping in here to make it seem as though I lost at this little distraction.”

The chessboard was propped askew at the base of the vanity. Sesha arched an eyebrow as he bent and carefully lifted it. “You think your opponent cheated?” he asked as he traced his fingers along the smooth edges of the board. He watched the general’s reaction closely without ever appearing to look directly at him.

“I cannot be here every second,” the general snarled as he shot to his feet and began pacing the far side of the room.

And he cannot believe that there is someone in the keep smarter than he is. Wonder of wonders, his new friend was right!

“I will have to track down whatever fool decided to undertake this mockery,” the general muttered. Sesha wasn’t even sure if the man was still talking to him anymore. “They will need to pay for their arrogance. Perhaps I need to make an example.”

Sesha pursed his lips but hid the expression behind the board, waiting until he was able to appear neutral again before he slid the chessboard into its former position. “I doubt anyone will admit to being the mastermind behind this plan,” he suggested. “All are aware of your legendary prowess.” Not to mention his legendary temper. “But if you have need of my services, let me know.”

The general nodded, but then he made a sharp gesture of dismissal, apparently unwilling to allow even one of his closest friends to participate farther in something he believed made him look even remotely unfit.

*   *   *

“So our general is a sore loser,” the new Domerin chuckled when Sesha relayed the details. “I should have guessed.” After a moment of consideration, he nodded. “I can use this.”

A few weeks ago, Sesha never would have believed that a simple game could reveal so much. He had certainly gone to great lengths to make his disapproval apparent but, now, he felt like he had been childish and short-sighted.

It had never been about the game, after all. It had been a war simulation, of sorts, a test of how the general would respond to the matching of wits with someone who worked on his level.

Above his level, apparently.

“I cannot help but think you have poked a sleeping bear awake,” Sesha murmured, not bothering to hide his worry. “Would it not have been better to strike unexpectedly? Now he knows that you are here.”

“He knows only what he will allow himself to believe,” Domerin countered, laying a gentle hand on Sesha’s thigh, a gesture he intended to be reassuring. “He does not expect the same events to play out on a battlefield. He thinks this was an attempt by his peers to make a fool of him.”

He made a fool of himself.

“Did you cheat?” the Archmage asked, his voice low and soft. He wasn’t sure why it mattered; they had the information they needed.

But for some reason, he needed to know if the simulated victory was genuine. Especially if he was going to back this man on an actual battlefield.

Shock registered on the strange Domerin’s face. His eyes grew wide, then narrowed and, at last, he chuckled. “Is that what he said?”

Sesha only nodded.

Domerin threw his head back and laughed for several long seconds before he finally regained his breath. “I had no idea he was that petty. Well then, this little exercise proved fruitful indeed. The more I keep him off balance, the more I stoke that fire of his ego, the more mistakes he will make.” The man from another world nodded thoughtfully.

“So you beat him?” Sesha pressed, not sure why he needed to know in light of the rest.

“What point would there have been in cheating?” Domerin retorted, his eyes gleaming. “If my skills are less than his, I would need to know.”

There is no way in which you are less than him. Sesha desperately wanted to say the words out loud, but language momentarily fled his mind, leaving him to nod like a simpleton.

He should have been happy. He had clearly chosen the superior Domerin. It was obvious he had a plan, and there seemed to be a good chance that plan would work.

So why was he suddenly terrified?

Because I know exactly what the general will do if he manages to locate and identify his opponent, whether or not he is the more skilled of the combatants.

And if there was one thing General Lorcasf was good at, it was finding those who opposed him and making sure they could no longer make his life difficult.

Again, he felt as though he should say these things. But when he looked at the man sitting next to him, when he noted the intelligent gleam in his eyes, he swallowed the words, instead trying to reassure himself with the reminder that the newcomer was superior to his old friend in every way.

That should make him exceedingly difficult to catch.

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