The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Part II, Chapter 3: Tossing the Board

Though Janyn glimpsed magic on High Holy Days, the monks treated magic as a locked box of closed, occult books, something to truck out to impress the uninitiated, solve a problem, or conceal another ugly secret behind a smooth finish. By contrast, magic was on full display in the gaming hall, not only in the enchanted daylight that streamed from a copper sun at least half the width of the ceiling to crisp every shadow in every nook with its effulgence, but in the walls’ iridescent tiles that flickered moments from his life, and the silvery-gray marble floor that not only was invulnerable to dirt, but repelled it from his shoes, so that in moments they had the fine luster of new shoes, and within the space of a minute he noticed that his hand-me-down robes had become pressed and cleaned, looking better than the day he received them from the monks.

While the gaming hall’s magic did not miss a trick, investing even timeworn card and dice games with enchanted splendor, the central gaming tables were starkly bewitched, as they hosted a bewildering diversity of table games, all powered by sorcery. Based on the many table waiters, the most popular of these was Jituro, named for the ancient king. As he couldn’t get Czebek to budge from the spot, Janyn soon learned the essentials. In Jituro, the hovering board flipped between rounds to mark day and night, modifying the influence of each quadrant, the power of the pieces, and the game rules.

From there they stopped at the hopped-up, carved unicorns of Corneo, which raced through terrain that morphed in response to each player’s action. Since the pieces galloped as they willed, the players manipulated the board, not only to undermine other tokens, but to guarantee victory for their unicorn.

***

Not only had Janyn never set foot in Kanar’s gaming hall, but Eleita plotted his every waking hour. Even recreational time was filled with constructive activities and character-building library books. Now that he was full-grown, and his free time was allotted an hour at a time, he was lucky to be sent on business with Czebek, though since his self-importance was overgrown, he had become unimpressed by things he had not accomplished. Having once been marked to bear a magic sword forever ruined Janyn, making of him an overserious, underzealous, spiritless, apathetic, brat--in many ways, the mirror of his intended sword, though all had forgotten the sword’s vain personality, as it had remained quiescent since its vow.

Czebek had taken holy orders when he found himself in the library daily, and couldn’t think of a reason when Eleita suggested it, as he was otherwise unoccupied. When the King awarded Tilonus’s estate and position to a a dandyish count, who had no use for men that he deemed common, the new Captain paid Czebek three months’ severance pay, then told his old swordsmaster, and perhaps one of the best swordsmen in Cjantosk, to look for work befitting his station--“at best a craftsman, perhaps a miller or a grocer.” Though Czebek knew his own worth, and the words only stung, it pained him to yield his sword, the hilt of which he wore smooth and replaced a half dozen times over twenty-five years, and what rankled the most was that this foppish Captain carried not a longsword like Czebek taught him to wield, but a duelist’s sword so flimsy that it could be snapped by a good sneeze.

When Eleita accepted Czebek’s vows, he became the library custodian, and in the darkest stacks, their sword training continued in earnest. While the library closed at midnight and opened at dawn, it was infrequently used, and they were the only souls inside on some days.

Though Czebek did not miss the barracks cards and dice games in the monastery, after entering the gaming hall he felt the call of the magical games, which had tugged on his imagination since accompanying Tilonus on an after-brothel excursion to Kanar’s. “Janyn,” he said, “we made such good time that we can squeeze in a game before our appointment. Two, if we’re lucky.”

“These games look long. Let’s play dice instead.”

“No thanks,” said the swordsman in monk’s clothes, “If I lose myself in Corneo, take my robes to Eleita and tell her I’ve found a new calling.”

“Ridiculous. You can’t earn a living playing games.”

“Actually, some games require an intercessor, though I wouldn’t be a good dealer here, where I’d pine for the board games.”

“No one longs for games,” said Janyn. “only women, fame and money.”

“Why are there more people here than at daily prayers? Play is more natural than pray. If you can’t do either, Janyn, at least sit and watch.”

Janin sat next to Czebek. Despite his dour front, he was enthralled by the table before him, which had a a rim thick enough to hold glasses and snacks, though the middle was hollowed into a luminous grotto stuffed with tiny gold coins and an assortment of toy weapons, imitation art objects, and other miniature commodities. All of it not only looked valuable, but to Janyn’s untrained eye, appeared to be sculpted from real gold, silver, and other precious materials. Whether the treasure was simulated or only miniature, the hoard was the bed of a turquoise dragon. Though its central body was slightly smaller than a yam, the rise and fall of its scaled chest, and the spurts of fire from its snoring nostrils, were chillingly real.

“What’s it called?” asked Janyn.

“No idea, but it looks brand new. I can’t wait to play.”

To Janyn’s right, a brown-bearded man said, “It is brand new. It’s called Lair.” The man had crumbs and flecks of beer in his beard. “I’ve just reset the game. Choose your token.” He pointed at the playing pieces one at a time: “Halkoffar, the wizard; Juniena, the thief; Miunanor, the warrior; and this one is Valuna, the saint.”

Czebek said, “They’re wonderful. How do I win?”

“By playing, of course.” Seeing Czebek’s consternation, the brown-bearded slob continued, “you meant the object. I am so accustomed to Kanar’s terminology that I am a thrall to his philosophy. The winning token is the first to steal a treasure from the lair. Hence the name.”

“What if two players bring something out?”

“Though there is a point system based on treasure value, cutthroat competition is fair game in Lair, and ties are rare.”

“I’ll take the warrior, then.”

“Miunanor,” the man corrected him

“I’ll take the thief,” said Janyn. “Um, Juniena,” he read from the token’s plaque.

“You made my win all the easier,” said Czebek.

The brown-bearded man said, “just as people have hidden potentials, so do the tokens. Juniena is just as good a piece as Miunanor. Lair is a balanced game.”

“How long is this game?” asked Janyn. “Not to be impolite, but we have an appointment with Kanar.”

“He’s here somewhere, probably playing dice or cards. When he grows tired of a new game, he likes to go to what he calls the beginning--what I call the monotony.”

“What’s wrong with dice or cards?” asked Janyn.

“What’s right with them? Don’t get me started. Let’s begin. Place your token on a path.”

“Some paths don’t lead to the lair,” said Czebek.

“Though every game has different paths, they all lead to Lair.”

“The board changes?”

“What’s the point of magicking a game if you don’t mess with the board? Traditionally, the boards are the most boring part of board games. Not only are they flat, but only one of two sides is used, which my master calls proof that non-magical minds are less gifted than wizards even in the commonplace.”

“My father,” said Janyn, “is a papercrafter, and everything he makes has two sides. While two-sided paper is useful in book making, if you flipped a non-magical board game, you’d scatter the tokens.”

“Why must the board be only piece?” countered the nameless magician. “Why not a three-fold, four-fold, or nine-fold board, or a hinged platform that folds one section over its neighbor? Imagine a game in which you play a god working miracles--flipping a piece could flood a segment, or signal a drought.”

“People prefer simple things, no matter how smart they are. If I wrote a scroll that didn’t read up to down, who would recommend it?”

“Games are not like other arts. While artists craft their message and guide their audience to a communal ending, game creators only take a game so far, and any of the game’s multiple endings do not exist until played.”

“You could also say plays do not exist until they are staged.”

“Plays have a single ending and a set cast of participants that follow a script and a director. Games have multiple endings and changing participants that collaborate by applying the rules, with no guiding principle other than diversion.”

“All arts divert, and the better ones are direct as they do so.”

“I will not rebut you, as we now have a full table.” The player that joined them during their discussion was slight and willowy, with that whitish blonde hair that might be natural, or the product of age or bleach, and Janyn was discomfited less by her vague age than by the desire kindled by her ambiguous beauty.

Though Lair’s simple rule was that the first seated took the first turn, the bearded man had played games all day. “Czebek, why don’t you set the tone for the game? Miunanor goes first.”

When Czebek placed his miniature hero in a flanking position on one side of the main cave mouth, a minuscule storm cloud crackled and flickered over the board, both darkening and lighting the table. When the sparks revealed flitting dark specks, Janyn thought they were gnats until one swooped under his nose, tickled his peach fuzz mustache, then curved back over the dragon’s grotto to join the swarm of miniature bats.

As Miunanor stooped behind his shield and unsheathed his sword, the dragon’s flames licked out of the cave, and the rim of the board gleamed as fourteen small bowls of nuts, rolls, dried fruit, and pretzels appeared, as well as four steaming mugs of creamy coffee and four steins of frothy beer. “That’s a classic opening move for Miunanor,” observed the bearded man, a stein in his hand and beer foam already on his upper lip. “Though you can’t really flank a simulated path.”

“You want me to come head on, don’t you?” The pyrotechnics of Lair’s opening moves had attracted onlookers, as well as those that breezed by to latch on to the extra snack bowls with such a practiced hand that Janyn suspected the gaming hall had hangers-on that rarely left.

Janyn interrupted. “With this much magical ability, why waste it making and playing games?” When the roar of the small crowd of spectators dwindled to a murmur, Janyn looked around to see all eyes upon him.

“At the heart of that mood-killing remark,” said the white-blonde beauty, “is the age-old philosophical question ‘why are we here?’, often restated by the self-centered as ‘what’s the point of life?’ No offense, but no one in a gaming hall will indulge your egocentrism, whether it’s of a philosophical bent or not.”

“Does everyone here talk in a roundabout way?” asked Janyn.

“It’s your turn,” said the brown-bearded man.

Janyn considered belaboring the point no one wanted him to make, then placed Juniena the thief at the very front of the lair. “Let’s get this over with,” he said, scowling.

When the white-blonde beauty of inscrutable age placed Halkoffar on the path behind the grotto, this left the saint for the brown-bearded man, who beamed with delight. “I’ve never played Valuna. This should be interesting.”

“If it’s like the monks I know,” said Czebek, “it won’t do anything interesting.”

“Remember: hidden strengths. Just as the power of holy monks stems from divine authority, Kanar put a god in Lair to regulate Valuna, who produces different ‘miracles’ from game to game.”

“You’re joking,” said Janyn. “That almost sounds blasphemous.”

“Valuna’s less a devil than a wild card. Which is the reason I don’t play her--I’ve never liked using wild cards.

“We’ll invite the Holy Mother over for a round,” said the brown-bearded man. “But Valuna’s less a devil than a wild card. That’s the reason I rarely play her—I’ve never liked using wild cards.” He placed Valuna next to Juniena. “You’re up,” he said to Czebek.

When Czebek reached for the piece, the brown-bearded man said, “speak Miunanor’s name, then tell him what to do. If you order something against the rules or against its nature, like ‘fly,’ or ‘die,’ you’ll lose your turn.”

The game proceeded as ach player commanded their piece in turn

Czebek ordered Miunanor to squeeze through a narrow crevice, then crawl into a low tunnel that continued towards the hoard. When Janyn bade Juniena to enter directly and grab the first piece of loot she saw. the tiny thief grimaced and shrugged her shoulders; as if emoting her distaste for the idea, and the other players and the game audience laughed. After this token resistance, she did as he asked, though she creeped in silently.

“What’s it doing?”

“Following your orders,” said the brown-bearded man. “Sorry, no take backs in Lair.”

“Why is it taking so long?”

“When you didn’t specify how fast, you left it up to her. Your token can’t contradict you, but it’s allowed to make adjustments.”

Czebek snickered. “Juniena wants to survive your bad strategy.”

“It isn’t alive,” said Janyn. “It just acts like it is.”

“Acting is being, and we become what we pretend to be,” said the white-blonde woman, as if quoting something.

“That’s enough of that,” said the brown-haired man.

When she asked Halkoffar to fly over Lair and look for the safest entrance, a jewel topping the wizard’s staff gleamed and he hovered over the game.

Czebek said, “you said they can’t fly!”

“I said you can’t ask them to contradict their nature.

Nature is open-minded where wizards are concerned.”

The brown-bearded man then sent Valuna in behind Juniena.

Miunanor continued to crawl, Juniena continued to sneak, Halkoffar continued flying and Valuna continued following.

They were all too absorbed in their manikins to notice the crowd give way to a new observer.

“I don’t see any winners,” he grumped. “Sly Juniena goes in through the front door, brave Miunanor burrows like a gopher, Valuna follows, and Halkoffar squanders his magic, all contrary to their nature.”

“Does it matter?,” asked the white-blonde woman. “These aren’t real people, and their personalities are contrivances in a game that provides no incentive for staying in character. While your opinion carries weight, who is to say these aren’t hidden dimensions to the characters?”

“Who is to say? The god of Lair,” he said. “who gives points for style.”

“I say our audience is the pantheon, and they might be more entertained if Halkoffar flew upside down.” When Halkoffar looked back at her, she added, “you heard me,” and the gaming piece flipped in mid-air, so that his wagging feet stuck straight up, and his head straight down, in which position he craned his neck around, as if striving to spy details of the dragon’s hoard.

“This is ridiculous,” said Janyn. A moment later, when the repartee sunk in, he asked, “are you Kanar?”

“Do you think so? What if I am? And aside from losing games, why are you here?”

“We just covered that,” said Janyn.

“Don’t encourage him,” whispered the brown-bearded man, but Kanar ignored them both.

“While I’m playing badly, I’m well-behaved and enjoying myself,” said Czebek. “But we’re here on business.”

“So what if you are?” The quizzical wizard cast his hands.wide. “Why couldn’t you pick another day of the week?”

“We could come back,” offered Czebek. “I wouldn’t call it urgent.”

“It isn’t,” said Janyn, “though it’s necessary.”

“Necessary but not urgent? You’ve tapped my curiosity. Let’s go somewhere private, and you can tell me what this is all about.”

“What of our game?” said the brown-bearded man.

Kanar cleared his throat. “Miunanor and Juniena: commence autonomous play.” When the warrior backed out of the crawlspace, and the thief retreated from the entrance, both climbed the rocky exterior of Lair.

“What are they doing?” asked Janyn.

“Fixing your mistakes,” Kanar said matter-of-factually, then led them out of the game room, down the main hall of his manse, where pipe smokers vented the stinging aroma of tobacco, dilettantes and flirts chatted about their interests and themselves, and a few idlers argued passionately about games.

A side hall took them past the dining room, which was being swabbed, floor, walls, and ceiling, by flying mops and waddling, suds-sloshing buckets, and the kitchen, which was staffed by human hands, eyes, and noses, as you would expect in a kitchen making human food, though the rest of the chefs were nowhere to be seen, and the disembodied organs bobbed in midair over the food.

The next room seemed to be another game room, though it was a fraction of the size of the main gaming hall, and was stocked only with two tables, one of which had the Chavoru board etched into its top, while the other had an unfamiliar game unfolded on its surface between two players, both of whom were armored head to toe. Not only were their faces visored, but their eye slits were fitted with a translucent green lens.

At the end of the short hallway, they walked through an open door to a disordered room with an immaculate desk as its hub. Reams of paper, boxes of chalk, ink bottles, quills, dice, playing cards, and game boards cluttered the counters lining the walls; charts, graphs, and half-finished sketches rested on easels; and, a half-dozen stuffed bookshelves overflowed with piles of books stacked on the shelved books; but on the desk, there was nothing.

“Have a seat.” When Kanar snapped his fingers, throw pillows leaped from the clutter to hover at waist level. When Czebek sat Though Czebek hopped up on one of the perches to find it rigid, Janyn prodded the other levitated platform to reassure himself that it was unyielding. “Please...?” Kaaar drawled laconically “What business do you have, and is it any of my business?”

“Your eminence, I mean lordship, um, forgive me for not knowing the correct mode of address...”

“Kanar,” cut in the wizard. “I’ve been called worse than my name.”

As Czebek spoke, he unfastened his sword belt and handed it to Kanar, who unsheathed the dimly luminous blade. “When Eleita begged you to take Drucona’s power of speech. you recommended she swear it to a vow of silence...”

“Why would I ever do that after four months of incubating a mind, several alphabets, and a sardonic wit, in ten pounds of steel? And why would it ever agree to snuff out its uniqueness?”

“Though it sounds senseless to hear you say it, this sword isn’t the brightest match. Though Eleita recanted her vow, Urgu forgot us, and there is no purpose for the sword’s silence, it remains mute. Though we’ve tried dropping it, taunting it, and begging it for advice, its vanity sleeps. Is it broken, or forgetful?”

“More likely stubborn. Drucona has a long memory by design, as I designed her to win. Place it on the desk.” After Kanar sat at the desk, he examined the naked blade. “Drucona: suspend objectives.”

The sword sat inert.

“Drucona: acknowledge your creator.” Silence. “Drucona: reset calendar to four years prior.” Stillness. Over the next ten minutes, though the wizard issued various commands and countermands, the sword neither shivered nor spoke.

At a knock, the wizard muttered “open,” and the door swung wide to reveal Vituro’s fist raised mid-knock.

“What?” barked Kanar.

Vituro looked a trifle winded. “Master...Munienor and Juniena are missing.”

“Did you invoke the seals?”

“We did, and the Baronette Kalita and Sir Jeris threaten to complain to both Holy Mother and Prince.”

“Unimportant. Look everywhere.”

“We have.”

“If you had looked everywhere,” Kanar said with a thin-lipped smile, “you would have them. Did you alert all the apprentices”

“Yes, master,” said the middle aged apprentice.

“What of Scelaga and Ouroto?”

Vituro’s jowls waddled and his nose twitched. “I thought not to disturb them.”

“You thought not...” Kanar fumed. “They would have already found my game pieces.”

“What if they weren’t mislaid?”

“What are you suggesting? Were they lost, stolen, or did they ran away?”

The wizard raised his hands with an exasperated groan, as if pleading to the ceiling.

“Didn’t you tell them to do as they wished?” asked Janin. “Not that I care what happened to your little toys.” Though that earned an ugly look from Czebek, Kanar fury was even darker.

“They’re not just playthings,” spat Kanar. “They’re game pieces. For the handmade, there is no nobler duty. Everything else spawned by human hands has utility--contributing to or fulfilling self-interest. A hammer builds a house, a sword kills the soldier, a plate holds food, a stein fills the drunk with drunkenness, and chairs, beds, and coffins are the vessels of our aging flesh. And though you speak contemptuously of toys, in the way that they distract a child from their material needs and pacify curiosity, they are half-way perfect, but it is game pieces that awaken us from our mortal calling to grasp our immortal sense of wonder. Not only do game pieces kindle our minds to new life, but as the symbol of our will, they sublimate our drives and passions, and as a symbol for our selves, they negotiate rules and strategies like we adhere to the geometry of the social contract.”

“And as these playthings are gone,“ said Vituro, “they may approximate to our free will and desire to vex our creator. Perhaps the boy is right, and they interpreted your last command as permission to depart.”

“I’m no boy,” said Janyn.

“If I was four inches high and made of spirited wood,” said Czebek, “where would I go? Not very far.”

“Don’t underestimate them,” said Kanar. “Tiny heroes are nonetheless heroes. Moreover, the capabilities of real humans pale beside the self-confidence of these fictions.”

“They both have feet of clay,” snickered Janyn, “like their creators.”

When the wizard looked at Janyn, as if for the first time, Janyn felt that his face was being checked for flaws in the sculpt and the paint.

“What are you,” snarled Kanar, “but broad strokes layered on by the changing colors of fortune and the brush of the gods? You are caprice and whim, just as you have lived. And whence comes your vain hopes for victory but from the unseen hand that counts your steps?”

“If I had tripped over giant dice, like you must have done, I might also doubt my flesh and resent the gods.” When Kanar broke off his inspection of Janyn’s face, the young monk was proud that he had stared down the wizard.

“Giant dice. Very droll.” Kanar then turned his back on Janyn and spoke to Czebek as if the younger man was not in the room. “Forgive me. Though you believe yourself on an errand of importance, it slipped my mind in the wake of this new crisis.”

“The sword!” exclaimed Janyn. “It’s on your desk.”

Kanar rolled his eyes in such an exaggerated circle that the expression seemed augmented by illusion, then said, “There is nothing wrong with Drucona. One of the best pieces I ever made.”

“I’ve seen better swords,” said Czebek. “Not any that could talk, but those with better balance and edge. What’s so good about it? No offense.”

“None taken. Though Drucona wouldn’t take home an honorable mention in a best sword contest, I stand by my assertion that he’s one of my best pieces.”

“Then why isn’t he talking?” asked Janyn.

Kanar looked at the youth as if he was a quivering larva. “It took a vow. I know imagining things troubles you, so I’ll guide you. All you have to do is weigh my words with a little thought. Imagine if a clock was conscious of its ticking hands. Its awareness of the slipping seconds and minutes could never lend it any haste, regardless of the urgency or import of its thoughts. Similarly, time runs differently to a magic sword. Drucona’s content to sit in his scabbard and play the long game.”

“Even if it was discontented,” said Czebek. “It would still depend on a helping hand.”

"Quaintly phrased, but apt. There is nothing wrong with Drucona. Let me rephrase that: while its magic is functional, and its intelligence is active, the sword was broken by its fundamental dilemma, that of purpose without power. Since the vow has helped it adjust itself to the verities of its situation, whether or not it is broken and can be fixed depends on your views of vows, religion, and faith.”

“Is there anything you can do?” asked Janyn.

“Yes.” The wizard waited for the flicker of a smile on the youth’s face before continuing. “Will I? No. Thank you for your conversation. Though I’d love to collect your opinions on Lair, Juniena and Miunanor are in more dire need of collection. Whether the avarice of competitors or the incompetence of apprentices are at fault, I must turn the tables.”

On his way out, Kanar clapped his hands, and the throw pillows dropped, spilling Czebek on his rump. By wheeling his arms forward to counter his backwards stumbling, Janyn kept his feet.

“Follow me,” said Vituro, who waited by the exit. “I can help you, but we can’t be seen.” Though it was hard for Janyn to feel any sense of urgency from a man with crumbs and beer flecks in his beard, he followed Czebek when the older monk grabbed his sword belt and Drucona’s scabbard from Kanar’s desk, then fell in behind the wizard’s apprentice.

“What are we doing?” said Janyn.

“Shh.” In the gatehouse, two guards played Jituro. “Good day, gentlemen. Would you be so kind as to raise the gate?”

“Right away,” one muttered, as both stepped away from the game and climbed the steps. The gate creaked as they winched it open.

Vituro’s arms were crossed in his voluminous sleeves. When he slid his arm a few inches out of his left sleeve, Juniena and Miunanor’s wooden heads poked out. “If you’ll take these with no questions asked, I’ll mend your mute sword.”

“You want us to steal them?” asked Janyn, his voice piping to a shrill whistle.

Czebek swatted his face lightly. “No questions asked, the man said.”

“I want to know what’s going on,” said Janyn.

“I’m helping you,” Vituro touched the pommel and incanted arcane syllables.

“Wait! What did you do?”

“I tossed the board. Both games,” he giggled. “Though our suggestions for Lair fell on Kanar’s deaf ears, I now have an excuse to put it back on the drawing board.”

“What did you do to Drucona?”

“I told you. I tossed the board.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“If you have little tolerance for nonsense, stay away. It’s best your faces become forgotten, because if Kanar suspects who tampered with his favorites, all cheaters will become miniatures.”

The apprentice wizard then turned to shuffle the way he came.

“Let’s count ourselves blessed,” said Czebek. “Having come here to fix a broken, enchanted sword, we’re leaving two rarities richer.”

“What good are four inch heroes?”

“They might prove more playable in the days ahead,” said Czebek, “than a stubborn piece that knows not the path.”

Janyn was so annoyed that they walked the squares of Cjantosk silent as chessmen on the way back to the monks' castle.

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