The set belonged to his grandfather. It is opulent in a garish sort of way—the squares themselves are marble, perfectly formed, no cracks, not even a scratch on them after so many years. And they're fine, simple black and white, just the way he likes it. There's a dignity to them. It's the border he objects to, sparkling gold inlaid with Zelant jade. The glare is nearly unbearable when the sun catches it.
The pieces, too, are marble, exquisitely carved—no artisan living in his day could equal such craftsmanship, of that he's sure. He feels a restrained satisfaction at the sight of them all lined up, two neat rows at either side, each piece perfectly centered in its respective square. Everything is ready.
When she arrives, he is seated at the far end of the little table, pretending absorption in the microcosm at his fingertips. He looks up, loving the nonchalance dripping from his features. She says nothing, only quirks an eyebrow, waiting for his lead.
"Care for a game of chess?" he asks.
The chair is carved wood, solid and steady, with cushioned seat. She eases into it, keeping her eyes on his. She will not fear him.
He is the master, and if he wishes to play games with his servant, it is his choice.
She knows what to expect; he has allowed her that courtesy from the very beginning. She had been in his employ scarcely two months when he took her to her first hanging: a cook's servant had been caught filching bread from the storerooms. "I have no tolerance for those who would betray me," he said.
She did not tell him that a hanged corpse is far less gruesome than one charred beyond recognition.
She will not fear him. She will not pay him that compliment.
"How did you find Sol-Falena?" he asks, awaiting her next move.
"Oh, capital cities are all alike." She has not looked up from the board. "They're all pleasantly ridiculous, fallible in a lavish sort of way." She does not say that Stormfist was once a capital city—they both know it is a step too far—and yet the suggestion is evident, somewhere, in the smile she does not give or the brow she does not furrow.
"And our future queen? What did you think of her?"
"You mean Princess Haswar?" she asks innocently.
He allows himself a frown. "Come now, naiveté suits you ill. Shahrewar has been dead nearly a year; why pretend further? I mean Princess Arshtat."
"Yet she seems of a different stock than Falzrahm," Lucretia pursues. "Will she not put matters to right, once her mother is no more?"
She knows the answer already, only poses the question to see how, specifically, he will phrase his answer, and he hates that. "An idealist Arshtat may be, but she knows as well as I do—as well as you do—that Falena will fall to ruin should that grinning idiot be allowed anywhere near the throne. The Queendom could not rightly fall to a worse heir."
"I agree with you there," she says. He has no idea whether she speaks true.
To hide it, he seeks refuge in his former question. "I asked your thoughts on Princess Arshtat."
"She is lovely." Lucretia moves her hand towards a pawn, then changes her mind. "She is perhaps too lovely."
He tightens his jaw. "There's bite in her still."
"Not enough," she says, and one of his pawns falls. First blood.
It is only later that he realizes her utterance was not gloating, but lamentation.
There's a noticeable smugness in the way Lord Godwin purses his lips as he takes the bishop. "Did they appreciate your skills, back when you lived in the Grasslands?"
Her smile is perfect: mildly self-deprecating without losing any of its amiability. "Certainly not. In fact, I'd say my clansmen were only too happy to send me off to Harmonia."
His left eye twitches slightly; she's caught his interest. "For what reason?"
She laughs, picking her next words leisurely as she surveys the board. "Why, Lord Godwin, surely you know that all the customs of the Karaya, indeed their"—she does not say our—"very nature revolves around ferocity in war? What is a young Grasslander to do when she is hopeless with bow and battleaxe, club, whip and every sort of sword? I could not ride horses, could not walk stealthily or read the tracks of animals. I couldn't even strike a flint correctly. Thus was I deemed a failure." She moves a pawn up one square, and the board is his.
"The fault lies with your clansmen, then," he says, "for not recognizing your worth." He adjusts his remaining knight—it seems there are no casualties this round.
She shrugs, and loves her ability to maintain posture while doing so. "Well, their loss is your gain, no?"
That might have been a inclination of the head, or else a noncommittal gesture—she is not paying full attention, wondering how she can sound so detached when she still feels the necklace's weight.
By his judgment, they are at the halfway mark. Most of their pawns have already been put aside, and they are just now starting to inflict damage on the other's more powerful pieces in earnest. She smiles less, now; he seems to have drawn her into the game in spite of herself, and he takes some pleasure in that, at least.
He cannot tell who is winning.
Lucretia likes beautiful things, so she is only half aware that she has been admiring Lord Godwin's newest tapestry—did he get it while she was at Sol-Falena?—instead of paying attention to the board. He makes no comment, so she stares a few seconds more before turning back to the game.
It is, no doubt, a weakness, but it is one she makes no attempt to hide. She does not mask the smile that springs to her face when he offers her some trinket from his travels, pearls or silk or carved ivory. He has surely discovered it, for he always brings her more, using the flimsiest of excuses to shower her with luxuries.
He thinks he can use it to control her. He thinks she will choose a music box or an opal ring over what she believes in, over that which is right. The very idea sounds ludicrous when one puts it into words; it can only be his pride that causes him to entertain it.
Too much fondness for beauty is an acceptable flaw, but pride is much thornier. Pride can destroy you, if you let it.
She has never, will never broach this subject with him. He will argue it with her, and by the very act of arguing he will prove her point.
Resuming her offensive, she betrays a small amount of satisfaction as she takes the second knight. His ambition will have its casualties, of that she is certain.
She does not intend to be one of them.
As she waits for him to make his next move, she examines the board, now an untidy, asymmetrical mess. Chess is odd like that: no matter how much black and white you throw together, there's never any gray.
As he sweeps the piece off the board, Marscal is torn between disbelief and a sort of ecstasy. But the pale marble is solid and real in his hand, and it joins the others in the box with a satisfying little scraping of marble on marble.
The white queen has fallen.
If he can hold this advantage, he will beat her. Despite his best efforts, the thought of actually winning excites him more than he'll admit, so excites him, in fact, that he tips his hand. "What think you of the Rune?" he asks.
"The Sun Rune." It is not a question.
But he is not a man who retreats. "That's right. The Senate has squabbled over it and the question of its proper uses for decades. What would you do with it, were it yours?"
For the first time that afternoon, she is looking neither at him nor at the board; her eyes turn upward, staring through the ceiling. "I'd destroy it, if I could," she says. "Barring that, I'd leave it where it lies."
He tries to mask his shock, but his features won't quite obey him. "Nonsense. It is a True Rune! You would wish to defy fate itself?"
The look on her face is almost a smile. "It is impossible, of course. But if it were not… if there were some way to eliminate fate altogether, to turn this world over to man's own ingenuity, without the power to scorch fields or unleash tempests… would that not be something?"
He manages a wry laugh. "Fine words indeed. But you lie." His rook moves a touch more emphatically than is necessary, toppling her final pawn with a harsh clatter. "If you could, you'd seize your chance at power, just as I would. Just as anyone would." It is a dodge. Now they both know her question will never be answered.
The shake of her head is gentle, defeated. "Oh no, my lord. Power suits me ill."
He says nothing, just waits for her next move. And when it's made, he can barely conceal his triumph.
"Checkmate," he says, moving the last piece into place.
It is over.
She has not been in her chambers twenty minutes when she is interrupted by her master's young son. The knock on her door is merely a formality; she knows he will let himself in either way, and so she bids him enter.
He is nearly thirteen, handsome and growing tall, just starting to smile often (his mother, by now, has long since grown cold). He dresses well, speaks better, and debates better still. He is precocious and self-possessed.
She finds him charming, and for this reason she trusts him even less than she trusts his father.
"Good afternoon, Master Gizel," she says. "What can I do for you?"
He still has a tendency to fidget, shifting his weight from one foot to the other—it's the only vestige of childhood she can detect in him. "My father seems quite pleased with himself," he says.
She turns a chair around so she can sit while still keeping an eye on him—courtesies be damned, she's tired. "If you like, I can tell you how to put a stop to that straightaway."
"How?" He stills his movements for a moment, awaiting her answer.
"Just ask him who shall hold more sway in the years to come, you or he."
His frown is more puzzlement than displeasure. "Over Stormfist?"
"Among other things," she says, casting her eyes about the room in search of a fan.
But then a crafty smile steals over his face. "You want to see the look on his face, but you're too afraid to ask him yourself, is that it?" He is nearly gleeful at divining her motives, at his ability to see what another would fain keep hidden. She does not tell him that it is a gift that will cease to bring him pleasure, with time.
She wags a finger at him. "Master Gizel, I believe the word you're looking for is cautious."
His gaze is intent. "You are not afraid?"
She matches his solemnity; it is no less than he deserves. "Not of your father. Of you, perhaps, one day. But never of your father."
Power, she knows, is a curse disguised as a blessing. Power burns like fire, turning the beautiful to ash. And if she has any say in the matter, power is something Marscal Godwin shall never have.
"My father says you are a snake," Gizel says.
"Your father is entirely correct," she replies.
"You let me win," Marscal says, over breakfast.
She looks up from her plate. "I beg your pardon?"
He had meant to bring it up casually, offhand, as something of no consequence. But he cannot take the words back now, nor change the tone in which he uttered them. And then, again, as always, he is not a man who retreats. There's that.
"Yesterday," he says. "Our game of chess. You let me win."
"Of course," she says, as if it's the most natural thing in the world for a strategist to deceive her master. And, perhaps, it is.
Yet he cannot shake his irritation. Everything was planned. She orchestrated his successes as surely as she did her own. Even the enjoyment the game brought him is odious to him now.
She allowed him the win, and he cannot bear that.
There's a rare flicker of curiosity in her eyes. "How did you guess?"
"You are far too consummate a strategist to lose to me in a game of war," he says, and the statement stings only slightly less than it did when he first realized its truth.
Lucretia tilts her head, and the one verdant lock slips to her temple. "If it bothers you so, perhaps I shall exact recompense from you some other time, my lord," she says, silken and sweet on the last two syllables.