Chapter 52: Tactics
Strolling in [Thurgau]’s streets, Nisha was happily marveling at everything, from the smallest flower growing in between two disjointed pavements to the largest building blocking the sun, she was freely discovering a brand new world.
She had kept her promise not to leave the Dharnas Estate before having understood all of the old butler’s teachings, but it did not mean that she hadn’t been throwing longing glances at the outside world, being constrained in a golden cage did not quite match her free spirit.
The country girl had still somewhat became acclimated the to the noise of the city through the systematic examination of the busy roads she could see from her window. No longer would she almost pass out from a ride in a carriage.
Her destination was the Eel’s park, a place where she would be able to fulfill a desire that had been lingering for a while.
Ever since Eldrin had passed away, there was no one left to challenge her bright intellect in chess.
Annabelle and Lydia are serious about learning how to play, but it’s not the same. Even with both of them playing together, they can’t pressure me like grandpa used to.
Nisha remembered the games she had played against the old elf, how she had almost never been winning a game, and the pleasure she had felt upon winning, as she had known that she had earned her victories, her grandfather had always been facing her seriously after having been scolded by his granddaughter once.
The Eel’s park had apparently various tables where the nobles and rich citizen dwelling in the district could meet up to chat over a chessboard – or so grandpa Galan had told her.
On her way to the park, she came across several exotic items that almost managed to swerve her destination, but the directions the old butler had given her were quite straightforward. Still elated about leaving Luthais’ house for the first time, Nisha soon arrived at the iron fence surrounding the recreational area.
The stretch of greenery, bustling with life, small animals running around, reminded the dragon of her home back in the Wilderness, and a small sting of homesickness disturbed her cheerful mood.
Aware of the sad thoughts that would follow the homesickness, the little girl sped up, looking for the location Galan had described.
Not long after she had started her search, the soft sound of conversations, laughter, and the crisp echo of stone hitting stone rang in her ears, pointed directly at the path she had to take.
After one last turn of the road, Nisha reached a great clearing, and the stone path she had walked on became a big plaza littered with stone benches and tables, a fountain flowing in its center.
Each table was carved with a grid of black and white spaces, and was surrounded by two benches.
Nearly all tables were occupied, women and men of all ages were seated and playing chess while others were watching their battles, conversing on the outcome of the player’s matches.
Nisha’s presence didn’t particularly stand out amongst them, some were leaving, other were arriving… furthermore the elvish girl had made sure to wear one of her plainer dresses.
Walking in such a large crowd of people for the first time felt strange; she was flinching every time someone was looking at her, fearing that a stranger would discover who she truly was.
But nothing happened. The conversations continued, the games carried on, and apart from passing glances itching her back – due to her charming appearance more than the recognition of her peculiar state – there was no outcry nor any commotion.
Two children were laughing together, they were sitting on their parent’s lap, trying to play chess while the adults were explaining them the rules; and this, coupled with the kind smiles on the people’s faces, and the general lively air on the plaza, finally helped Nisha relax.
I guess it’s time to look for an opponent then. Someone who can put up a fight … let’s see.
Her first clue was a crowd of people, surrounding one of the tables near the fountain. Every now and then, the spectators would break out in acknowledging or disapproving murmurs, commenting on an a contestant’s especially spectacular move.
Relying on her sweet smile to squeeze her way through the dense mass of people, she quickly arrived at the front where she had a direct view on the playing field.
On the white side was a calm lady – called so for a lack of better words. Elegantly clad in a silken dress and drawing on a thin pipe carved out of precious amber, she was a brown haired beauty condescendingly observing the battlefield, imperceptibly sneering.
The woman, shaped like a goddess, was only moving her left hand from time to time to place a figure forwards, aggressively claiming the ownership of the board.
Her age was hard to guess for Nisha, but she estimated her to be at least twice as old as she was herself.
Her opponent was a gentleman with a grey head, too focused on the game to pay attention to the beauty’s alluring charms. His wrinkled hand was lying on the table, his fingers tapping nervously a calm rhythm as the other was racing over the board, defending against the white troop’s vicious assaults.
His clothes were made of the finest materials and had apparently been crafted with great care, something Nisha had noticed thanks to her experience as a tailor.
“Don’t be that smug, Alice. Today’s the day of your downfall, I’m going to beat you, I know it.”
By pushing his bishop forward, he opened a path for his knight to threaten the white queen and her king.
I guess the game is over now. It might be worth it to challenge the winner …
Losing interest in the two opponents’ moves as one of them had already lost, the dragon was trying to think of a good reason to convince the victor to play against her, when someone’s behaviour caught her attention.
Wearing a suit similar to that of the old gentleman in the black corner, a nobleman in the audience was evidently not interested in the game anymore, as he was leaving without looking back, his two younger companions – regretfully throwing some glances at Alice as they were still interested in her play – following behind him as he sought out another battle to watch.
Realizing that he was the only one acting this way, and considering the glance he threw on another board before shaking his head and moving on, the different pieces of the mystery this human represented fell in place in her head.
Rushing after the departing party, Nisha only heard the lady’s answer, and the excited whispers of the audience responding to her bold attitude.
“Don’t be too sure, Marko. Here, watch this …”
The three men, moving slowly towards the end of the plaza, were conversing in low voices when Nisha in cut their path.
The most brilliant smile she could muster painted on her face, the elvish girl waited for the two followers’ confusion to settle down as the older man was sizing her up.
His piercing gaze was akin to her grandfather’s, she had the impression that he could see right through her and her secrets.
The left minion recovered faster than the other, his head turning slightly red out of anger.
“Hey, move out of the way! You dare to block our path? Don’t you know who we …”
The group’s leader placed his open hand on his underling’s chest, instantly silencing him, the third man quietly watching the exchange.
“You want something. What is it?”
Neither pleased nor annoyed, his brown eyes were pinning down Nisha like a hawk examining a potential prey, minus the bloodlust of course.
A formidable enemy. I wonder at what rank he is, he has a very bright radiance.
Not retreating in the slightest when faced with his scrutiny, Nisha briefly considered whether the uncomfortable feeling was worth a good game of chess, but she had longed for it for too long to shrink back at the first hurdle.
“I want to play against you.”
On this plaza, it was needless to specify what game she was referring to, but the inquiring glare didn’t soften in the slightest in front of the seemingly innocent request.
“There are many other players here waiting for a challenger, I’d suggest you look for one of them. I’m afraid I won’t be your opponent.”
“That’s not true! Out of everyone here, you’re the strongest.”
Nisha’s exclamation was met with the surprised glances of the two lackeys and the middle-aged man’s chuckle.
Gesturing her to come closer, he made a suggestion.
“I’ll tell you something. You explain me why you think that I’m the strongest chess player out of all the people here, and if you can convince me I play a round with you. How does that sound?”
The jesting glimmer in his eyes was warning her that he was serious about leaving her without answering her challenge if she was unable to properly support her speculation, therefore Nisha quickly thought over her observations and tried to put her intuition into words.
“When you were watching that game between the lady and the old man, and even that other game … whenever the outcome is decided, you walk away. Even if the pieces haven’t moved yet, you know how it’s gonna end. That’s why you walked away when you saw the old man move his fortress, then his bishop.
The lady is going to win. The counter attack is good, but she anticipated it. She sacrificed her own queen and made him think that he could get her king so that her bishop could assassinate the black king.”
Confirming her words, the crowd behind them started clamoring, in between excitement and surprise, the scraps of words coming from them corroborating her prediction.
Finally the trio’s leader was unable to hold himself back anymore, and he bursted in laughter as he ceased to pressure the girl standing in his way.
“Very well, that’s good enough I guess. Let’s find a table and see if you can play as well as you can observe. It has been a long time since someone saw through me.”
The first minion still had an angry expression when he stepped towards his chief upon the discovery of a free table, quickly saying something in a voice too low for Nisha to understand anything.
“Enough. I’m in a good mood, it can wait. I need to see if this young lady truly has attained that level or not. You wouldn’t understand.”
“But Sir, I’ve never seen you play chess … it’s a waste to -”
“Enough! Just watch!”
Finally defeated, the underling returned to the side, next to his friend who consolingly patted his shoulders.
“I apologize for that. Now, let’s start. Black or white, my dear?”
Wordlessly picking the black stones, Nisha waited for her competitor’s opening move.
It was a fairly standard one; he pushed one of his pawns forward.
“Do you really have no idea who I am?”
Somehow managing not to sound too self important although his declaration was quite brazen, the gentleman shifted his pieces into a defensive position, steadily responding to Nisha’s actions.
“No, do you know who I am? No? Good, we’re even then.”
Without even waiting for him to answer, the elvish girl had replied -more snappily than she had intended actually, as the situation on the board was increasingly irritating her.
He was coaxing her into an aggressive way of playing, perfectly guarding his wall of white pieces and offering her small opportunities here and there to attack.
Thanks to their fairly isolated position – the outer ring of the plaza -, no one stopped by to observe, the only spectators were the white army’s master’s two companions who were talking nearby, and glancing at the table from time to time.
“Such a hot headed young lady. But that’s not the best thing to do now, don’t you think sweetheart?”
Clearly exhilarated by her actions, the somewhat older gentlemen kept blocking her offense, turning each attempt into a breach in her defense.
When she was about to see the end of the game, he suddenly moved forward his fortress, a figure he hadn’t touched so far.
He wouldn’t dare! But he’s doing it, isn’t he?
Frustrated, Nisha studied the board, pausing the otherwise flowing game. So far it had been a smooth back and forth, an evenly matched game of offense and defense clashing against each other.
Checking one last time, the angry girl was about to place a figure in the way her adversary was forcing her to, when she finally had enough.
“You taught chess to Lady Alice, right?
This isn’t fun, I’m not playing anymore. You’re a bad guy.”
Irked by the game’s outcome, Nisha heavily stomped away, not even looking back at her battlefield.
Chuckling quietly, the middle-aged man looked at the board, placing the last figure his challenger should have been forced to move in the location he had intended for it to be.
“Damn brat, who does she think she is. To challenge Master Elye in a game of chess, she’s truly clueless. It’s only natural for her to lose against our leader.”
Observing his aide, Master Elye beckoned him to take a closer look.
“Here, examine the board. Can you discern the winning pattern?”
Even with their chief pointing directly at what he wanted them to see, the angry lackey and the quiet one who had also came nearer could only shake their head and admit their inability in that matter.
“She won the game. And she’s angry because I made her play the exact same strategy that was played in the game between Alice and Marko.
Here, she exposes her queen, I take it and in five moves my king will fall. Remarkable, really.
Maybe she’s also angry because I was holding back. Interesting.”
Picking up the stones from the abandoned board, Eyle put them back into their stone box before standing up and straightening out his suit.
“Let’s go and meet the guild leaders, I’m afraid they’re already waiting.”
Leaving the Eel’s park, the glimmer in the man’s eyes returned, and he turned around one more time, hoping to catch a glimpse of his small opponent.
“Probably should have asked for her name.
Let’s see if she is around to play next time I come.”
The flustered angry man noticed that his superior was whispering something, and considered asking if he was addressing him, but ultimately settled for hurrying along, the three of them were very late, one of the reasons why he had objected to the chess game.
Seeing that the best chess player they knew had lost, even if he had held back, gave both of the retainers something to think about.