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A Losing Game

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There isn't often quiet in the Libertine. Mercenaries don't tend to keep regular schedules in the best of places and Isapolis, swallowed up by Besek's constant twilight, is hardly that. The clock on the wall is the only thing in the place that's certain of the time -- the men and women who frequent the tavern don't pay it much attention, and Iryth only does, it seems, so that she can send them all away eventually and have a few hours to herself. What she does with those hours, nobody knows.

No, likely that's a lie. Likely, at the least, the man across the table from Rondemion right now could hazard an accurate guess. Count Duphaston seems to know more than any man should about the intricacies of the city -- and he claims it's only a matter of being a devoted lord, a good steward to his people, but Rondemion isn't some fresh-faced kid to be impressed by a claim like that. No. Duphaston has a plan, a strategy of his own, something he wants out of Besek as much as any of them and more than some.

And he smiles, thin-lipped, his eyes shining too bright. "Your move, my hero," he says. "Unless you concede?"

"Shut up," Rondemion says, and looks down again at the board. Iryth sometimes loans out gameboards for the stone-capturing game she enjoys so much -- it's pretty popular here, simple to learn and brutally difficult to master, deceptively complicated despite its straightforward rules. They've played it on other nights, once it became clear that Duphaston wouldn't leave him be to drink in peace.

Tonight, though, the count has brought a chess set from the manor, an elegant little thing with felt-bottomed pieces that all fit neatly into the hollow beneath the board. It's a trickier game, more elements moving at once, more rules to keep track of -- more like a battle, even with the weird restrictions on how the pieces move. Rondemion picks up a white bishop and moves it three squares into enemy territory, threatening the fortifications in Duphaston's back rows. Churchmen, never straightforward enough to approach a problem head-on, and the king in the castle keeping his secrets. It's a very Valdian game.

Rondemion isn't really seeing this battle, between his own moves: the smooth round heads of the pawns, the bristling manes of carved horses, don't hold his eyes for long. He can't keep from thinking of another battle, some twenty-five years ago: the legendary hero, the demon lord, the battlefield so wet with blood it became a mire. The soldiers and petty majin who fell, helpless before the power their commanders unleashed.

What is he missing? What did he overlook, that day? What did he not know? Why is he here now, looking for Morpheus, knowing the bastard is out there, when everyone tells him the monster is dead?

Duphaston's long white hand stretches out over the board, flicks a pawn forward almost contemptuously. "Something's troubling you," he purrs, his voice poisonous, too sweet.

"It's none of your business," Rondemion answers. He studies the board, and frowns. He can stop that pawn's advance, prevent it from becoming a queen, if he's willing to sacrifice his next two moves to do it. But if he does -- he frowns, looking again at the apparent chaos of Duphaston's attacking forces, watching them resolve into a series of clear, perfect threats. "You bastard," he says admiringly.

Duphaston laughs his terrible, insincere laugh. "You have an unpleasant choice to make, my hero," he says, leaning forward. Rondemion has the terrible feeling he's not talking about the chess game at all. "You still won't concede."

"Damn right I won't," Rondemion says. He's not talking about the chess game either.