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The Chess Set

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An intelligent young lady trained in codebreaking needs to solve a dead man's riddles. Her only ally? A handsome Duke. The problem? She doesn't like him very much. On the other hand, he certainly does

Romance / Humor
Age Rating:


Many a name, some quite insulting, had been given to Lady Elise Asterly by London’s fickle ton, but unintelligent had never been one of them. She was their belle, their heiress, till about two years prior to the beginning of our tale, when Lord Asterly passed on, and left his only daughter in the hands of his brother, the new Lord Asterly. After this rather unpleasant state of affairs, and amidst a lot of scandal, the new Lord Asterly, along with his daughter, moved into the Asterly country manor. And while Lady Alicia had been seen flirting at Almack’s quite often, Lady Elise, it seemed, had simply vanished. This occurrence was much to the displeasure of the ton’s gossiping matrons, who believed it quite their right to present the girl with such attentions as they might deem appropriate. But, let us continue with our tale, for we need not the approval of the ton anymore than our beloved heroine does.

Elise Asterly was not gifted with the classic beauty her cousin was, indeed she was quite the opposite. Perhaps the Duke of Rockford had put it best; “There is just something about her that is delicate, yet determined, beaten, yet hopeful, and overall, simply pulling,” he had observed to Lord Asterly, to the latter’s displeasure. Her pale skin, grey eyes and long black tresses caused some unsympathetic judges to label her insipid, but a minute of discourse was generally enough to set them right. When Lord Nathan had arrived at the Asterly manor, he had immediately deemed her mannerisms ‘unladylike’, her habits ‘rude’, speech ‘insulting’, and her apparel ‘unsuitable’. Thus the vivacious girl of nineteen was hidden far away from society till she had all but vanished.

Now, perhaps for another young lady of her age, this would be an insufferable punishment, but to Elise it was no trial. Her father had long encouraged her wild habits, and, as her uncle had discovered early on, she had much to say and a zest to learn. It was no punishment to be secluded from the ton, and she bore this supposed ‘hardship’ with ease. The only regular visitor to the manor, the Duke of Rockford, quite re-enforced her idea of the ton being a waste of her time, for apart from flirting with her cousin and teasing herself, he seemed to perform no task of consequence. What was a punishment, however, was Lord Nathan’s decree that she be instructed in sewing, playing the pianoforte and other activities of which a lady is to partake. This came from no kindness from her uncle, but rather a malicious wish to see her unhappy. She was also firmly kept away from the stables and her beloved horse until she consented to ride side saddle. After a few arguments, falls, gritted teeth and determination, she finally conceded.

The one indulgence Lady Elise was allowed, was free reign of the library. As the servants were wont to say, Lady Alicia could hardly string four words into a sentence and Lord Asterly seldom used the library to do more than impress visitors, thereby making it Lady Elise’s domain. In this large room, much beloved of her father’s, did our lady spend her days, and in this room shall her adventure begin. Now, it must be said that Elise knew her domain back to front. The turquoise draperies hid an alcove nestled in the wall, the third bookcase to the left shifted to reveal an ancient priest-hole. None knew the library’s secrets better than her, yet there were times when she felt as though there were more, and while eagerly devouring the vast resources, she always kept her eye out for an oddity, a book out of place, or mayhap a hollow tile, for it was to these friends she resorted when lonely or scared.

The morning had been pleasant yet Elise was forced inside. The Duke of Rockford was paying Alicia his attentions, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she was paying him her attentions. Nonetheless, in such situations, as always, Elise had been banished to her bedroom, from where, unbeknownst to the household, a chamber led to the library. So now the Lady was whiling away her time, longing for the Duke to leave, and her perfume anointed cousin to retreat to her chambers, that Elise may go for a rare ride. The morning however dragged, and to better pass her time, she took it upon herself to climb the rickety ladders to the upper levels of the shelves which had been collecting dust for many a year. She started with her father’s favourite section, three cases devoted to law and philosophy. It was almost untouched since his death, a fact she sadly noted as she shimmied up the ladder with the practiced ease of one well used to climbing trees. She gently gave the ladder a push from it’s corner, before pausing at a red volume that stood out from the sea of grey and black. Observing a lack of title she slid it out, having seen it many a time in her father’s hands, but never close enough to read. To her surprise, it seemed – locked? But why should a story be locked? What secret could have possessed her father to hide something from her? He had trained her in the art of riddles and code-breaking since childhood, then what may-

She unconsciously fiddled with a black thread that hung around her neck. It held a heart shaped locket, with miniatures of her parents encased, but it needed a code to open. Her father even coded her birthday presents, or locked them up with a trail of riddles to follow. She was accustomed to it, but for the life of her, she could not see why this book kept a secret. She slid down the ladder nimbly, and sat the book on the table, studying it with a critical eye. She sifted through her memories, trying to find a time when her father had given her a clue as to how to reveal this secret, all the while running her fingers over the hard book. The problem was, her father was nothing if not cryptic, she could barely remember the last time he had indulged her with a direct sentence. Suddenly frowning, she quickly turned the book around and fetched a jar of ink. Inking the back of the book, she found a clean sheet of paper, and pressed it to the top. After removing it with skilled fingers, she turned it, gasping as the book revealed it’s first secret, a letter in French. She alone in the house could read French, thereby this letter had been intentionally left to her, but the care taken to keep it hidden had evoked her natural inquisitiveness, and no secret had ever survived Lady Elise Asterly’s curiosity long. Smiling in a self satisfied way, she quickly translated the letter, the smile sliding almost instantly at its contents.

My dear Lisa,

Without effort, the fruit is rendered null, and without trial, the reward unimportant.
If you are reading this, I have passed on, and my brother is your guardian. If you are reaching the end of your tether, may I suggest a game of sorts to while the time?

Your birth-date, to be used twice
in your heart of hearts
then the numerals are your dice.
If you yet need help,
then answer me this,
What object,
are you most likely to miss?

My love resides with you forever,
Your affectionate father,
Ronald Asterly

Elise stared at the letter blankly before recognizing it. The first quote was one her father oft threw at her, but it had another meaning, it meant he had something for her. The second part, as even an imbecile would guess, was a riddle, one that was hers to solve. She threw her hands up into the air in irritation, why, oh, why, could her father not leave her straightforward directions? Obviously, that was much too unchallenging according to his mind. And what was this about a game? Clearly Elise was missing something here.

‘My heart of hearts?’ she quietly mused, clearing her mind of errant thoughts as he had taught her. ‘An object I would miss…his picture perhaps? Or mother’s box?’ No, papa knew not of her fixation with her mother’s trousseau trunk. But then, where else? She quickly darted up the stairs to her mother’s chambers and slipped out the trunk. Running a hand over the minute engravings, she ea`sed it open and held her breath. But it was for naught, the trunk was empty and bare as the day it had been made. Swallowing her disappointment, she once again began unconsciously began rubbing her neck before leaping right off the floor in shock. Her heart of hearts, and the object she was most likely to miss, for it contained a miniature of both her parents, why of course, it was her locket! How simply brilliant!

Hearing voices nearing, she scurried down and heaved a sigh of relief as she reached the warm safety of the library once more. With trembling fingers, she undid the clasp around her neck, and reached for the tiny encryptor her father had had made especially for it. To open the locket, she used the date of the day her mother died, but that seemed pointless, for why would she wish to open the locket? For some reason, it seemed her father wanted her to enter her date of birth, for he wrote every word with precision and while most would assume he meant birth day, she knew it specified the code. Quickly filling one-seven-three-one-eight-six-four into the slots, she stared in surprise as an ornate key neatly slid out of the heart. She grabbed it, as though scared it would vanish again if she let it go. She slid the key into the lock, relishing the solved challenge, and took out the book neatly. To her bewilderment, it was a perfectly normal book, one like the thousands on the shelves behind her. It was disappointing, for she had imagined a book of great value and interest to her, only to find this.

Unknown to her, a tall figure lurking in the library archway watched as she carefully threaded through the pages, letting out murmurs of frustration and annoyance. He ran his fingers through his disheveled locks and smirked at the girl getting more irritated by the minute. Shifting slightly, he prepared to watch for a while.

Elise was confused. The book, it seemed, was about the theory of communism, a boring political topic, which while in the wrong section in the library, had no significant importance pertaining to anything affecting her at the moment. She looked back at the riddle, striving to see what her father so easily had. Her birth-date was to be used twice. She had used it once in her ‘heart of hearts’, so now they were her dice? Dice…a small throwable object used in a game. A wrong roll changed the course of the game. Obviously the numbers were crucial, but crucial to what? She could not see their point…? Was she to use them as a code breaker? But she had no corresponding letters, nor indeed an actual code to crack.
‘The numbers…,’ she shook her head hastily, remembering one of the first rules of riddles, never assume. Not the numbers, the numerals. So, then…then WHAT?

17-3-1864. 1-7-3-1-8-6-4. The page numbers? Too simple, yet where else would there be numerals? She was, by now, mindlessly skimming through the book before reaching a page in which parts of words were underlined. Instantly, she understood, for the book was sectored by date, and in the margin of each page was the date on which certain events took place. The section she was in was 1864 and the page, devoted to March. The particular article, in which words were underlined, had been written on 17/3/1864, the day she was born. She had been giving too much importance to the word numerals and in the process forgotten she was to use the date, quite literally. Berating herself, and thanking God for the fact that she had miraculously chanced upon the right page, she painstakingly copied out the letters, separating them into words that made sense. This time though, the clue made her jump with glee, for it seemed her father had at last taken pity on her.

“A TRUTH that is univerSally Acknowledged,
hides be
hind it
the way to the Sanctuary
grandmamma preferred to knit.”

Elise was already hurrying towards her next destination, how typical of her father! A clue that none but she would understand, for it had been she who had first introduced him to the works of the mysterious lady author, Austen, first Sense and Sensibility, then Emma and Mansfield Park, and finally her personal favourite; Pride and Prejudice, or First Impressions as she was wont to call it. A truth universally acknowledged, clearly led to the section where the Austens were, the very same bookcase which shifted to reveal a priesthole and tunnel. Her father had oft told her of her French grandmother who would only knit in a certain spot in there. Childs play!

She clambered up the ladder that would enable her to reach the lever which shifted the bookcase, when a deep voice spoke behind her. “You must be going somewhere interesting, my lady, to be in such a hurry.”

Elise promptly fell off the ladder in shock, protesting as strong hands easily caught her and set her right. “Your Grace, I-er-I actually-I was-that is to say, I-”

The Duke of Rockford laughed. “Well, well, my lady’s sharp tongue seems to be finally subdued, or as the case may be, rather flustered, does it not?” he mocked, noticing her discomfort at their position, and deliberately keeping his hands at their place on her waist. Elise frowned and calmly slipped out, placing herself a few feet away from him. “That, Your Grace, would hardly be one of your affairs, now, would it?”

Michael tutted. “Have you never been taught that a lady does not answer a question with another?” he asked, his eyes glinting.

“Indeed, I was not, as a matter of fact, I clearly remember my father telling me the best manner in which to answer a question is to put forth another query,” she tartly responded.

He grinned at her, “Be that as it may, I believe we were discussing your destination?”

“And I believe we had clarified the fact that it was none of your business?”

“It may not be mine but would it not be LordAsterly’s if his niece was treasure hunting on his property?”

That kept her quiet. Michael knowingly smirked. “Well? Let us go and get it over with!” he commanded, laughing at her disbelieving and irked expression. “It would be unchivalrous to allow a lady to undertake such a dangerous and challenging task without an escort. Allow me,” he bowed mockingly and gestured for her to go forward.

Clearly displeased, but certainly not willing to allow her uncle to learn of her current exploits, she went forward, head held high, mentally throwing unladylike insults at the handsome, not that she would admit it, Duke.

Crawling into the priest hole was a bit of a tight fit, as the six foot tall Duke was hardly easy to cramp into a five by five niche. Elise pushed on the flimsy back, and let out a sigh of relief when she noted the tunnel was as she had last left it a few months ago. Glaring at the rather annoying man behind her, she went forward, groping her way by memory. She stopped suddenly after they had descended quite a bit, and pushed at a section of the wall again. The room that was revealed as the door swung open was, surprisingly, filled with light. It didn’t have much more than a chair and a small accompanying table, but Michael could see why someone would escape to this sanctuary. Except, that did not expain- “Why are we here, Lisa?”

She seemed to be in a trance of her own, but she managed to snap at him almost instantly. “That is my Lady, or Lady Elise to you, Your Grace, and we are here because this is where the next clue of my treasure hunt, as you so eloquently put it, is.”

The Duke of Rockford looked around confusedly, then stared at Elise who was, in turn, staring intently at the chair. “I presume you observe something I do not, My Lady, for otherwise you cannot possibly look at a table and chair and see a clue.”

The lady in question resisted rolling her eyes and merely took her turn to smirk. “Kindly turn that table over, Your Grace, and I believe you will see exactly what I see.”

Michael followed this strange order, to note a random scramble of the alphabet. “Right. Now I do see a lot of letters carved on the underside of the table. Care to clarify, my lady?” he shot sarcastically.

This time she did roll her eyes, thoroughly enjoying the Duke’s befuddled state. “The maker’s name is carved into the right leg,” she explained, pointing it out. “In this case it is Caesar. My guess would be that there are a square number of letters, meaning these letters are encrypted in a basic Caesar’s square. As soon as we can simplify it, we will have our next clue.”

An intelligent man, under normal circumstances, The Duke of Rockford gaped at this chit of a girl confidently talking about Caesar’s squares, before sitting beside her. Within a half hour, the senseless letters were forming sentences in Elise’s neat handwriting. When she had finished, she pushed the page towards him, indicating that he help with solving it, but it seemed rather strange to him that the girl’s father would send her on a wild goose chase with clues that far surpassed his knowledge where the last clue was this;

“A tale that changes each time
garnished with castles, kings, and knights
beloved to the intellectuals,
It is crucial that some must fall
It leaves a challenge plainly in sight.”

For was it not too obvious? Surely no man who expected his daughter to solve a Caesar’s square by carving random letters under a table would hand her a clue this simple.

Elise, meanwhile, was racking her brain desperately and mentally compiling lists of all stories she had read with castles, kings and knights (a rather daunting list). Challenges, intellectuals, perhaps a dead hero who had fallen in battle? She jumped as the Duke tapped her shoulder with a raised brow.

“My lady, do you believe your revered father is mocking us with such an easily solvable riddle?” he asked, strangely sounding sincere.

Her eyes widened. “You know what he speaks of?”

The Duke stared at her with a puzzled expression. “But of course, the riddle pertains to the game of chess! Castles, kings and knights, no two game plans are exactly alike, it is played by the intellectuals of society, and to win you must allow some pieces to fall. It is chess, is it not?”

It was now Elise’s turn to gape. How, how, infuriating for the duke to solve a riddle that she should have been able to! The ivory chess set in her father’s study. How perfectly ironic, the room right next to the library and the chess set in plain view for all to see! She picked up her skirts and hurried out, closely followed by the duke. Dashing into the study, she jumped at the sound of approaching footsteps. Immediately placing at least five feet between herself and the Duke, she would have laughed at the sight of her flustered cousin, out of breath, having clearly scoured the manor for her dear Duke, had it not been for her heart noisily thudding in her chest.

Alicia’s eyes bulged at the sight of the two in the same room. “Why, Your Grace, we have been looking everywhere for you!” she simpered.

“Indeed, Lady Alicia, you could not have looked quite everywhere else you would have found me,” Michael commented, dryly. “As a matter of fact I was admiring the Asterly library.”

“But what were you doing with her?” the blonde stage-whispered, quite loud enough for Elise to hear. She instantly shot Michael a pleading look, and while he answered, his eyes never left Elise’s face. “I was asking her for the location of a work by Emily Bronte, it is called Wuthering Heights. I see I have been asking the wrong person, perhaps you could inform me of its location?”

Alicia squirmed uncomfortably, never having heard of either the author or the book, before mumbling something about her father needing the Duke and literally frog-marching him out of the room.

Elise sighed with relief, reaching over to the chess set. She ran her fingers over the base, immediately finding the telltale hinges. Sliding the false bottom out, she quickly picked some papers up, and retreated to her room before she could be caught.

The next morn, she arrived for breakfast with red rimmed eyes and dark circles brought from a sleepless night, and a heart lighter than it had been in two years. The papers –OH! They had been beyond her wildest dreams!

Her uncle, the Duke and Alicia arrived slowly. As soon as they had sat down, Elise began. “Uncle, despite being grateful for your presence in my home during these trying times, I would now prefer you and my dear cousin to leave.”

Nathan Asterly stared at his black haired niece and snorted. “This is our home now, need I remind you that your stay here rests solely on my goodwill, Elise?”

She laughed, eyes twinkling. “Nay, uncle, I think you’ll find that your stay rests on my goodwill right now.” Removing a copy of the papers, she handed it to them.

“The estate is entailed to the next male heir. That is ME, girl!” Lord Asterly roared.

Elise merely smiled. “My father found a way to circumvent that, as his will, which is currently in your hands, clearly shows. The entire estate and the grounds are mine, as is a monthly income of two hundred pounds.”

Rising from the table, she delicately dabbed her mouth. “Well, I will be with my father’s lawyers if you need to contact me. Kindly clear the estate of your belongings by the week after next.”

Ignoring their dumbstruck expressions, she curtsied and left towards the stables. She had mounted her horse, sitting astride in the saddle, her skirts bunched around her legs, when Michael came running out.

“You must have noticed my ardent admiration for yourself. I have never respected a lady more, Lisa. Would you do me the honor of allowing me to call upon you, perhaps next week?”
His tone was grave, eyes sparkling with confidence, despite the uncharacteristic display of formality.

Elise raised an eyebrow and pondered the proposal. Then her face cleared, as though she had sorted out her chaotic thoughts. She smiled. “It’s Elise. And I did not escape my fetters to be bound with fresh ones, Your Grace. I bid you good day!” so saying she laughed, with the air of one who realizes she is understood, and galloped off, alone and free, as she had always dreamed of being.

(45 years later)

Duke Michael of Rockford had just attended the funeral of an old acquaintance who had never quite slipped from his mind. He shook his head when he reflected that it was just like her to pass on in the midst of a heated debate at an Milanese cafe. Leaving the graveyard as it started to rain, he was stopped by a young man clad in black.

“Your Grace,” he panted, “The deceased left something for you in her will.” Handing Michael a box, he bowed, then scurried off.

Michael opened the box with curiosity, one hand on his silver topped cane. Then he threw back his head and laughed. He laughed loudly and freely, in a graveyard, ignoring scandalized looks from passers-by.

Oh, she had nerve! That chit really had nerve!

The box contained an expensive, perfectly made, ivory chess set.

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