This is the prelude to my next series of short stories, written (hopefully) in conjunction with Keith and Ed. It's a little bit dull, I'll admit, because what I was trying to do with it was set up a 'the story so far' sort of tableau, indicating what's going on with everyone and what everyone's been doing. Of course, almost all of this information is couched in the riddle of the chessboard.
Flight Squares, Prelude
In the long peace that lent the still, dusty air of the chantry the fresh, tangy taste of the aftermath of a storm, it was the chessboard that worried him.
Tristan sat at his desk, a frail porcelain doll ensconsed in an ethereal cloak of flickering shadows, and worked, listening to the crisp turning of the stiff, yellowed pages of his ancient book, and between these faint rustles, the tireless tick-tick of the fanciful clock from the sixteen hundreds, his ironic reminder of the unstoppable march of years. The flickering flames of the candles on his desk cast shifting shadows across the crabbed latin on the pages of his book; they lept and dipped a frenzied dervish dance across the garishly colored pictures that illuminated the margins. He found his eye drawn increasingly to the waltz of light and darkness, to the detriment of his studies, and for all his hundreds of years of training and discipline, he couldn't keep his mind from wandering.
He was perfectly aware that it was the chessboard that was serving as such a formidable distraction. Throughout the peace of the last two months, the boy-ghoul could find no task so important or engrossing that he didn't occasionally glance at the Louie XIV table and the chessboard atop it. The intricate chesspieces never moved; their faceted gemstone eyes glittered in the shifting light and crawling shadows as the leered at him, The intricate chesspieces never moved, and it was presicely for this reason that Tristan was trapped in a state of concern.
The worrysome omens of the chessboard aside, the last few months had been as pleasant and calm as even he could ask for. Regent Brae spent the better part of that time recovering from her ordeal of fire, that wretched business with the Toreador, von Drachen, at Mr. macFionn's cabin. As she often did when she was called away, she left Tristan to the task of keeping the chantry running smoothly in her absence. He attended to this duty in his way, quietly and methodically, but always he glanced over his shoulder at the chessboard, like a fieldmouse waiting for an owl to strike from above.
The thing that troubled him -- and this troubled him more and more as January dragged on to the ill-omened month of February -- was the fact that both kings remained on the board. The game wasn't over. After a harrowing showdown in the middle of the ivory and onyx checkered battlefield, a bloody exchange of piece capturing piece, both sides had simply retreated to their respective home rows to lick their wounds.
The crackle of paper that accompanied the careful turning of an ancient page brought Tristan's attention back to his reading, and to the fact that he couldn't remember a single word of the last few pages he'd read. He sighed and sat back in his stiff-backed old chair and rubbed his temples with elongated, pale fingers. Then, giving in at last, he stood up. The shifting patches of darkness enveloped and gently released his long, willowy limbs as he walked around the large oal desk and approached the Louie XIV table and the chessboard that it bore. Even though he had long since put the positions of the chesspieces to memory, Tristan nevertheless bent his head to examine them.
The conclusion that he boy-ghoul had infered long ago was that the game was at a temporary stalemate; all of the major pieces were, as the board stood now, safe from being taken, but almost none of them could safely move. In fact, some of them couldn't move at all -- the only remaining white rook, for example. It had appeared on the board shortly after Regent Brae's conflict with Anton von Drachen at the lupine tribunal, but instead of entering in the fray, it had been immediately drawn into a castle, and was now pinned with the king on one side of it, and two pawns in front. The rook, a man in a chariot drawn by winged horses that rose up on a stylized pillar of gleaming silver wind, looked as though it might soar over the heads of the two pawns that blocked it, but alas, in chess this was impossible; even on Tristan's enchanted board, white and a tendancy to follow the rules.
The black king had castled as well, and the ruby-eyed serpent that rose as if to strike was as immobilized as the flying chariot; white could use this as an advantage in the endgame that was unfolding, but it didn't make winning a certainty. It was an advantage that white would have to take.
Which led Tristan's silver-flecked gaze, as it had been led so many times before, to the two white knights. If any of the pieces was to break the stalemate so that the endgame could commense, it was they. One of them, the stern looking man with the unflinching sapphire gaze, was locked in a web of threat and counter-threat with two black pawns. The closest of them was a hideously deformed creature with bulging eyes, many greeily gaping mouths, and flesh that seemed to pitch and roil beneath its hide. It reached out hungrily, as if it might outright devour the steadfast knight and his unicorn mount, while the other pawn, a slender man in perfectly styled armor, completed the flanking maneuver with finesse. Although the knight made a great show of fending the both of them off with his twin swords, the fact was that none of the three could safely make a move without intervention from the outside. And that left white's second knight, the careless, smiling youth in the piecemeal armor. At present, he stood safe in the back row, protected by two pawns of his own, but he could, at any time, leap out into the fray. White's next move would be -- had to be -- his.
With a sigh, Tristan turned away from the board. As much as he waited in anticipation for the proverbial other shoe to fall, for the game to end, he dreaded the moves that he knew must begin the endgame. He lowered his head slightly and closed his eye, so that all he was aware of was the methodical ticking of the clock from the sixteen hundreds.