Games That Are Played
Muiyn was knocked to the ground by the newly shorn Uralic knight, his hair so recently cut short that his scalp was pink under the blond stubble. He made a surprised sound when she pulled him in on top of her and tucked his head into the crook of her neck, smooshing his face into the ribbons from her headdress and the grass underneath them. She held onto him while the large floating rock skimmed over them as it passed from the bushes on one side of the clearing to the bushes on the other side and, if anything, tried to pull him down more firmly.
They continued to lie there for a moment after the stone had passed out of view, just long enough for one of the other Uralic knights in their party to say, "Sir Evgeny, if you and the lady envoy aren't having a private moment down there, it is safe to get up now. Before that thing comes back, or a fellow follows it."
Sir Evgeny pushed himself up on his elbows and said carefully in Muiyn's native tongue, "My apologies, Lady Muiyn. I trust you were not harmed?"
"Startled," she admitted in the same language, "and potentially bruised, but far less injured than I would have been if that thing had hit me. Thank you. And what about you? It didn't cave in the back of your skull or carve a track across your spine while it passed over us did it? It was very low."
"I believe I would have noticed something like that," replied Sir Evgeny. "I seem to be unharmed." He added, "I should get up now, before my brother knights make any more comments."
"As you think best," replied Muiyn. "I think that might have been a scoring marker rather than a playing piece."
Sir Evgeny had been about to lift himself off her, but he stopped moving at that. "That was a piece from a board game?" Disbelief dripped off his voice. "Games where the pieces play themselves are unbelievable enough, but pieces of that size!"
"It was comparable with the others I've seen," replied Muiyn prosaically, "and according to our guide," she gestured in the general direction of the local tribesman who'd been delegated to lead them to the local dangerous wonder, "we're almost at our destination. Now, pleasant as our current position is, are you getting off me or not?"
His brother knight with the alleged sense of humour, one Sir Boris, chose to add in Imperial Muscovan, "Unless, of course, you are about to request a betrothal."
"If he does," commented the lady prosaically, "I shall refer him to my father, the Provincial Viceroy in Num. If you use diplomatic channels, I'm sure that a letter won't take more than two months to reach him, once you get it to His Holiness' Court."
The four knights of her escort and the local tribesman looked at her in surprise. "You speak Muscovan," said Sir Boris as he tried to remember the content of his various off the cuff attempts at wit since they'd left the Holy Imperial Court.
"And about eight others, including my own," replied Muiyn. "I'm an envoy investigating ancient wondrous relics - some skill with languages is useful."
"You didn't tell us you could speak Muscovan," said Sir Avros mildly.
"None of you actually asked," pointed out Muiyn, "and you all seemed to be having so much fun trying out your Chesirithan that I didn't like to ruin things for all of you."
Large, heavily scarred Sir Ratimir laughed and asked, "So how much did you understand of your conversation with the head woman of our guide's tribe?"
"The hetwoman and I understood each other quite well," replied Muiyn "The local language and the language they speak in Num are closely related. Probably because the Great Horde conquered Num and this was the northern reaches of the area that formed the Great Horde. Despite subsequent changes in regional administrations there are still strong trade links from here to there. There was an initial misunderstanding over my marital status but once that was cleared up everything went very well."
Sir Evgeny carefully climbed to his feet and then offered a hand to Muiyn to help her to her feet. "What sort of misunderstanding? You are dressed to indicate that you are seeking a suitable husband."
"According to the customs of the Holy Imperial Court, but those are not the local customs here," observed Muiyn. "She asked which of my husbands was my favourite and I misunderstood her to be asking which of my protectors I preferred." She shrugged. "It's one of the variations between the two languages that I wasn't aware of at first."
Sir Boris asked carefully, "Would this have been the conversation where you described Sir Evgeny as being 'very pretty'?"
"Well yes," admitted Muiyn as Sir Avros helped her to her feet, "I was trying to say something nice about all of you and that was the most obvious thing to say about him."
Their guide sniggered.
Muiyn gave the man a hard look and went on, "I also told her that you, Sir Boris, are good with words and that Sir Avros here is deft with his hands. Sir Ratimir, of course, is very kind."
Ratimir blushed while the other three knights looked at him in different versions of incredulous.
Sir Boris cleared his throat and said, "Perhaps it would be best if we returned to the subject of our expedition. Flying carved stones half the height of a man in diameter? Really?"
"It had a glowing glyph on the underside," replied Muiyn. "I didn't recognise it, but I believe that I could sketch it. Given that the pieces on the Gameboard in Num and the Four-sided Disc on Mount Saskandwa move on their own, the only really surprising thing was that it moved without ground contact over an unpaved area." She turned to their guide and went on, "I believe you were saying that we were almost at the tiled floor with the sliding discs?"
"Indeed, noble lady. it is just beyond that screen of bushes." The man bowed and indicated the opposite side of the clearing to the one they'd entered from with a hand, as if expecting Muiyn to lead them.
"Before we so much as look through those bushes," said Muiyn, "some words of warning. If I am right, there will be a paved area or areas here. Do not set foot on them. These things look like games, they appear to play themselves as if they were automated games in a curiosity collection, but the pieces kill and use the blood of their victims to play themselves faster." The men looked at each other dubiously and she added, "The former royal family of Num made some extensive studies. I saw the effect myself after the Gameboard killed my mother and youngest brother. My stepmother saw it when the Four-sided Disc killed a visiting noblewoman who thought the game pieces would make appropriate garden ornaments for her home in the capital."
"If they are so dangerous, then why not simply destroy them?" That was Sir Ratimir, who was not looking at all kind at that moment.
"The last regnant King of Num's grandfather cleared the Gameboard with a light field gun following an...incident, and the next morning there was a new set of pieces, in new colours, set up on the tiles to begin the game anew." Muiyn looked at all five men and added flatly, "My stepmother appears to be the first person in reasonably available record to have seen both sites, and she was the one who pointed out that they are variants of the same thing. Now that it is clear that the Gameboard is not a singular installation, my Emperor has realised that we don't know how many of them there are or what they are meant to do. He and his advisers believe that the matter warrants investigation, and it pleases His Holiness to agree, which is how we find ourselves here today."
Sir Ratimir took a deep breath and asked, "Is there anything else we should know?"
"We believe it is likely that the games take advantage of physical and mental distractions to encourage bystanders to make mistakes," she added. "We all need to keep an eye on each other."
"Let's go then," said Sir Boris squaring his shoulders as he spoke. "I'll lead, shall I?"
"Please watch where you put your feet," urged Muiyn.
He did, pushing his way between two bushes and breaking off branches so no-one behind him was going to get smacked across the face. Sir Boris stopped when there were still a few branches before him and said, "Found it. I don't think it's quite like anything I've ever played."
"People say that about the Gameboard and the Four-sided Disc," replied Muiyn as she carefully made her way to his side, "but they are close to existing games in form and apparent rules." She reached the Uralic Knight and joined him in contemplation of the scene before them. "Dice?"
"Two different sets," agreed Sir Boris. "Three sets of playing counters, I think."
"The board's rectangular," remarked Sir Evgeny. "You know what those triangles on the playing field make it look like, don't you?"
"In that case you did save me from a scoring peg," observed Muiyn. "Thank you, again."
Their guide asked, "Your ladyship, what do we do now?
"Survey and map everything," she replied briskly. "Make notes on everything. Make copies for my Emperor and His Holiness, the local governor, the hetwoman, each of us, and my superior under the Emperor, Prince Oshjin. The more copies of the information in existence, the greater the chance it will be to hand if it becomes important."
"When that's done and the copies have been delivered or sent on their way, what do you do next?" asked Sir Arvos.
Muiyn shrugged. "Unless I receive other instructions, there's a suggestion of another interesting site near Wuxiang in the Han-Chiang Dependencies. I'll be going there to investigate, if the Warlords permit."
Sir Ratimir and Sir Boris exchanged looks, and Sir Boris said, "You're just going to walk into the Dependencies and poke at something within their territory?"
"I'm going to present myself through proper diplomatic channels," replied Muiyn, "as I did to His Holiness. The Imperial Diplomatic Service are both charming and persuasive on His Imperial Majesty's behalf."
"I doubt that I'm the only one who thinks you shouldn't go there alone." Sir Boris was beginning to get grim now.
"This task isn't finished yet," Muiyn reminded him. "There's plenty of time for you all to suggest solutions to my perceived problems before I leave."
The guide shook his head and told himself that the hetwoman had given the foreign noble ideas because the young woman seemed to be angling to get herself four Uralic husbands and he was certain that was not something any of these outlanders normally did. This entire trip was beginning to hold far too many games for his taste.