The Chess Match in the Tower
Lady Lydia of the Towerlands was the young queen's best kept secret. Not much was known of her within the Court, just that she was a rich heiress not old enough to debut.
It was a secret among secrets that she had played a vital role during the civil war.
Even more confidential than that was that she was barely fourteen.
Despite this, Lydia was happy to know the queen valued her intelligence, whilst being able to hear all of the old horror stories about her actions during the war.
They called her the Queen's Witch, a title that was oddly fitting.
Twiddling a strand of her untameable brown hair, Lydia frowned at her chessboard before placing another piece on it.
The game was beginning to take shape.
The black pieces had a full set, and many more pawns than normal, whereas white had pitifully few in comparison, its main forces seeming to consist of two Knights and a queen, with no king.
"The white Knight strikes at black," Lydia muttered, re-enacting her words as she went. "And captures a pawn."
Lydia held the black pawn within her palm, before dropping it to the floor and crushing it to dust.
Lydia's small doll-like smile faltered as she looked at the position of black's bishop.
"But the Knight" she said with a sigh, withdrawing the piece to safer ground, "barely avoids capture by the enemy before escaping."
Lydia closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, picturing her chequered battlefield in her mind's eye.
Her eyes suddenly snapped open and she reached with delicate hands for another white pawn.
"However, this morning saw the arrival of another piece."
Lydia twiddled the piece between her fingers, rolling it over her knuckles and palm.
"Where to place you?" she murmured to herself.
Lydia sighed and placed the pawn down beside the board. Some answers could only come with time.
Tired of the weight of her game, Lydia pushed herself away from her board and rose from her seat. She glided calmly to the window of her tower room, staring out over the neatly kept track.
Peeking through the trees lining the way to her home, was an approaching carriage.
Lydia smiled knowingly.
"Just in time," she said, turning away from the window abruptly before sweeping across the room.
The slight frame of the fourteen year old stared back at the room once more before shutting the door and turning a key in the lock.
With an easy grace, Lydia descended the stairs, passing the portraits of her ancestors that lined the spiral stairway.
A fleeting hand traced the brickwork down and down, resting when she reached the base of the steps.
"I was expecting you," Lydia said, gazing dispassionately out at the inhabitants of the room before her.
Lydia moved forward into the light of the room.
"What does the bastard princess want with me now?" she asked calmly seating herself opposite the foremost member of the group.
"Insolent child!" One of the visitor's sputtered angrily at Lydia. "Speak with more respect to her majesty!"
Lydia surveyed the woman who had the nerve to insult her. She was old, and rather plump, but still relatively self-assured. She bore a confidence, no, arrogance, that only served to irritate Lydia, even more than the fact that she was dressed in a gaudy manner that conflicted directly with how Lydia believed a woman should present themselves. Lydia shook her head in distaste.
"Your majesty," Lydia turned the youngest of the group, stressing the title with evident displeasure in her voice. "Please make more of an effort to keep your servants in line."
Lydia kept her tone flawlessly even as she said this, her eyes barely betraying just how irritated she was.
"Your majesty!" The woman turned and appealed to the youngest. "Surely you will not stand for such an insult to your name!"
Lydia rolled her eyes. The young queen had suffered far worse. Of course, most of the worse things she had been called had been nicknames circulated by Lydia, but 'bastard princess' was so tame Lydia considered it endearing.
"Maurice," the young queen said, speaking to her servant, but watching Lydia. "Please control your temper. I have still not informed you of why we are here, and for all you knew, this could have been an important peace meeting that you have now jeopardized."
Maurice, the woman, now backed down and sunk into the edges of Lydia's line of sight, though not without shooting a glare at Lydia. Lydia chose to ignore this.
A mischievous grin threatened to twitch the edges of the young queen's mask as she turned her blonde head of hair to directly face Lydia.
"As for the terrible insult to my name," she continued, "I would like to inform you, Lydia, that I am no longer a princess."
"My apologies," Lydia replied, a smile almost breaking through her control. "It was wrong of me to address you as such, bastard queen."
Watching Maurice bite down her rage was amusing enough to satisfy Lydia.
"What was it that you wanted, bastard queen?" Lydia asked, only keeping up with the nickname to annoy Maurice.
The young queen then turned to the last member of her party present, an old man by the name of Gerrard.
Lydia was rather impressed by his ability to remain impassive throughout all of the name-calling she had directed at the queen. It was impressive … but worrying. Maurice was either fiercely loyal or eager to please, making her easy to manipulate. This man … he was either extremely smart or of the opinion that the young queen was in fact a bastard.
"First, Gerrard," the young queen said by way of introduction, not noticing the slight narrowing of Lydia's eyes. "I would like you to meet Lady Lydia of the Towerlands, my chief-advisor in head tactician. Lydia, this is General Harrikson, the current supervisor for military affairs."
Lydia smiled ingratiatingly.
"Pleasure to meet you, Gerrard."
The subtle use of General Harrikson's first name did not go unnoticed by Maurice, but by the way the young queen brushed it off, it was probably a normal occurrence for Lydia to address people in such a manner.
"Pleasure to meet you too, Lydia."
General Harrikson didn't even flinch at the use of his first name. Lydia liked him already.
Maurice was given no official introduction, much to her consternation and Lydia's private humour.
"Now that introductions are out of the way," the young queen moved on briskly. "Let us discuss the actual reason I have arranged this meeting."
Lydia didn't need to be told. She let out a deep breath, leaning back in her chair and gently massaging her temples.
"The Almagest," she said, sounding weary.
"Precisely," the queen agreed. "Harrikson, if you would," she said, gesturing for him to explain.
With a curt nod, General Harrikson placed the tips of his fingers together and began to explain.
"Well, if I am to fill you in," he started, "things have gone from bad to worse." His tone was grave. "Due to new intelligence being gathered by the Knights on this matter, it has come to light that what we originally presumed to be a mild nuisance is in fact a dangerous threat."
Lydia knew that already. She had her contacts within the Court.
"And what have you done to counteract this threat?" Lydia asked bluntly, seeing no reason to beat around the bush.
"We have assigned Lord Asther, Lady Reynolds and Lord Muriel to work on counter-intelligence, although the latter disagrees wholly with the modus operandi of the other two."
Lydia forced herself not to snicker. That was a mild way of saying that Muriel, Knight of Four, hated Aria and Leyrin's guts.
"But?" Lydia prodded, knowing what was coming next.
"It's not enough. Brilliant as they are, there's only so much they can do. The Almagest is a veritable web of smaller groups and spies, some of which we are certain have infiltrated our Court, making it hard for us to trust anyone with this assignment."
"Have you tried an inside man?" Lydia asked.
"Many times," General Harrikson said with a sigh. "All attempts made to infiltrate the Almagest had ended in failure and the death of the operative, with little or no useful information gathered.
"Assigning more men to the division isn't an option either. We can't afford to draw troops away from the important strategic locations in Lagurim as we are still stabilising from the civil war. Intelligence would be the only advantage we could gain, and we have pitifully little of that."
Lydia mulled the situation over in her head, conjuring up a mental image of her chessboard. She considered the pieces in play, her carefully planned defensive and offensive strategies, and then smiled.
"Your only option is to try again at infiltration," she said slowly.
General Harrikson didn't even consider the request. He just continued.
"We can't do that," he said. "Sending another trained soldier into the Almagest would be a suicide mission—"
Lydia interrupted him before he could finish.
"I know," she said. "But you have no other option. You said it yourself, you're pinned into a corner, with little or no idea of what the Almagest are planning. Gods know what else you can do in this situation."
Lydia frowned. "Sending another trained man into the situation would be suicide for said individual…" she murmured, closing her eyes. A slow smile crept to her lips. "Which is why you're going to send in a woman."
General Harrikson stared, mouth agape at Lydia, whilst Maurice looked absolutely horrified.
"You can't be suggesting—" Maurice began, only to be cut off by Lydia's hand.
"Yes, I can." Lydia turned to the young queen. "Bastard queen," she said. "What did we do when we needed intelligence on which nobles would be willing to join our cause?"
The young queen's eyes widened.
"We can't, Lydia," she protested. "You know Aria's mental state—"
"I'm not suggesting Aria," Lydia said firmly. "If we sent her in, we'd be dealing with a bloodbath before you could even blink. No, you need an outside factor."
"What do you mean?" General Harrikson asked.
"Yesterday morning, Aria 'saved' a young girl from being murdered in the alleys of Liyrest." Lydia explained, "Her name is Ashlin Hertfell. She has had no formal military training, but she's sharp and, despite appearances, more than capable of handling herself."
"Are you suggesting that we send an unprepared girl into this situation?" General Harrikson exclaimed in pure shock. "It would be a suicide mission!"
"Not unprepared," Lydia replied, sounding bored, "untrained. She's more than prepared."
The young queen studied Lydia's face. She trusted the fourteen year old girl more than her entire court of advisors, more than Maurice, more than Harrikson. She took a deep breath.
"Tell me what to do."
"Your majesty!" General Harrikson exclaimed. "Surely you don't intend to bet the security of Lagurim on some far-fetched claim made by a teenage girl?"
Lydia gritted her teeth in barely suppressed rage. She wasn't a child. She'd fought in a war that she hadn't wanted, but knew was necessary when she was far younger than she was now. She deserved respect, even if people wouldn't give it to her.
"Care to say that again?" she asked, her tone falsely light.
The young queen saw the hurt on Lydia's face. This was troublesome.
"Apologise," she said. "Harrikson."
"For what? For speaking the truth?" General Harrikson demanded, then bit his retorts down, realising just who he was speaking to.
"How much do you know of the Witch in the Tower?" Lydia spoke softly, her voice echoing around the room.
General Harrikson's eyes widened.
"Yes," Lydia said. "That person was me."
Silence ruled over Lydia's sitting room.
"Apologies," he finally ground out.
Lydia, although she admitted that he wasn't her favourite person, had to admire General Harrikson's dedication to Lagurim. He obviously cared a lot for this kingdom's future. He would be fiercely loyal even when tested. He was a good piece to have in her hand.
"No, you're not supposed to bet the future of Lagurim on some teenager's claims," Lydia said. "You're supposed to bet it on mine."
Lydia watched the retreating carriage pull out from in front of her tower and leave. Well, that was an interesting afternoon, wasn't it?
Lydia walked back from her tower window and flopped onto her bed, her eyes wandering and settling on the chessboard.
Chess: a game she loved.
The pieces all followed rules, all obeyed their restrictions, all followed her orders.
Life was nothing like chess.
People weren't soldiers; they didn't follow rules. They thought and acted on their own accord.
Sometimes, when you only had three pieces on your side, this was a good thing. When you had entire legions willing to live and breathe and die for you, not so much.
Every move had to be balanced.
Unbidden, Lydia felt her hand brush under her neckline and onto her back. Every move had to be balanced, or you could be faced with a traitor within your ranks.
Speaking of traitors, Lydia had been worried to hear about the spies within the Court. It was to be expected, but worrying nonetheless.
It was so much easier to fight an enemy when you knew who they were. Right now, the bastard queen was paranoid enough to be barely trusting Aria and Leyrin… And that was disturbing.
Aria… She was one of the few Knights of the Realm Lydia would actually associate herself with. Everything that defined a noble, Aria took as taboo, from walking into Court in rags, to cutting off her hair; it was like Aria was repulsed by the very idea she should even try to act like a 'proper lady'.
When her disregard for social etiquette was added to her unsavoury background, it shouldn't have really been a surprise when she was held in the contempt of most other members of the Court. Still, Aria couldn't have cared less.
It was that lack of regard for the social mould she was supposed to fill that made Lydia like Aria.
At the same time, though, Lydia felt a sort of pity towards Aria. There were forces at work that even a drive like Aria's couldn't counteract and soon, everything that the Knight had worked so hard to build would come tearing down upon her.
"Secrets will be revealed," Lydia whispered, reaching for a quill as she did, ignoring the building headache. "Curses will fly. Swords will be pointed at trusted acquaintances and forgotten friends will stab you in the back. Liyrest will be painted red…" Lydia gasped as her head seemed to contract in on itself. "And it will burn, again."
Lydia blinked at the words on the page, her headache looming heavily as she tried to process them.
Some things were needed to be known. Others, were better left in the dark.
Lydia stared at what she had written on.
It was the first page of an old, battered tome, one which Lydia could remember her mother reading to her from.
THE LAZULINE CURSE
"Is that so?" Lydia murmured.
Lydia slammed the tome shut, before slotting it into her bookshelf. This was something that the bastard queen didn't need to know.
The Lazuline Curse was merely a fairy tale, children were told. Lydia's mother had refused to say this.
It wasn't a myth, Lydia had been told; it was a legend.
Lydia's finger traced itself down the spine one last time before she forced herself away from the bookcase. In need of another distraction, she slumped into her favourite chair and stared out over her chequered battlefield.
Her eyes fell onto the final pawn: white's hidden ace. She knocked it off the table in one feral swipe, allowing it to drop into her hand.
Finding her quill again, Lydia turned the pawn upside-down, before writing a tiny rune on the base.
"White," she read aloud.
Then, Lydia went over to her inkwell and dipped the pawn in, so that it's base remained white, while the rest was coloured black.
Lydia smiled as she placed the pawn deep within black's ranks, so that it would be undiscovered.
Lydia's eyes danced over the board.
She always won at chess.
She would never lose because she never played by the rules.
© Copyright 2012 Mari Thomas. All rights reserved.