Pawn by Timons Esaias

~4700 Words

 What Winstead knew about Squire Yvor was this: he was a pawnbroker. Years ago, he had brokered the more important pieces–your knights, your rooks–but for several years now, it was pawns only. Reliable pawns, but not the most expensive nor the most stylish.

What Winstead knew about chess was nothing, but his boss had sent him down here to get some decent material, and suggested that Winstead’s job might be on the line. Winstead knew that meant the boss’s head itself was probably pretty close to the block. O the times. O the business climate.

The real bitch of it was that he actually had to physically go to the place, with nothing but a monocle to keep him connected to the datastream. Brokers positively refused to deal material over the publink. Tradition or something. Customers had to get out of their workpit or pentsuite and march down to the shop to take responsibility for the choice themselves. And responsibility was another bitch in this bitchy business. Who took responsibility these days?

Taking responsibility stinks of bad form.

So, anyway, there was this going-out thing. Pitters like Winstead wore their agoraphobia as a medal of distinction, an effing croix de salary. Took him an hour to bring himself to ask his monocle for routing instructions.

And another hour to get started.

The taxi had four-inch armour. “Yeah,” the drivebot complained, “had to have this slab a junk plated with another two inches. All these buildings running a mile high, and they never think of the effect on the driving public. It’s no biggie for the trucks, cause they’re all down in the substreets. But stuff falls off those monsters all the time, and smacks the ground pretty hard. City don’t care, insurance companies don’t care. Guess they both make money off filling in the impact craters. And you can’t just armour the top, neither, ’cause there’s no telling what funny ricochets stuff’ll take when it comes down.”

Winstead toggled the viewcamera up to vertical so he could see the subject being discussed. The sky was a narrow line, interrupted by causeways. If that was the sky, and not some balcony lighting. Winstead hoped, suddenly, that it wasn’t the sky, so that he’d feel more enclosed. This cab was twice the size of his workpit, though the thought of the armour made it more comfortable. Cosy.

“Say, since I’m taking you to the renowned Yvor’s, I should ask you. Are you a player yourself, or just running an errand? I used to play chess myself, with some of my spare processing time, the old chess that is. Not what you folks play today.”

Winstead flipped off the viewer. Instantly he felt better. “I’m just rounding up a pawn for a game tomorrow. Our corporation’s sponsoring a player in the summer tournament.” “Ah,” said the taxi. “So what’s at stake in this tournament?”

He didn’t respond at first because he didn’t know, and then didn’t respond because he had never realised that he didn’t know. “Yeah, I know, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Think”, right?” The taxi swerved, and then seemed to be on an elevator. “Forget I enquired. There are just two serious games in the world, and at your level, chess is it, I bet. Don’t worry, just hope it stays that way. Life only gets tougher if you outgrow chess.”

When the cab let him out, the door’s tunnel didn’t mate tightly with the shop entrance, and some street air got in and bothered him. Car stink, and moss stink and what was that stuff plants sometimes grew in? Dirt? Dirt.

That’s what he hated about the outside. Things don’t fit together outside a building. Corners aren’t square and clear, joints don’t fit tightly, colour schemes go straight to netherland. It nauseated him, and his head was swimming as he entered the shop. Very odd place, very odd. “Are you the gentleman from NixFax? Mr Oglestairs, isn’t it?”

The voice came from above, and his monocle put the source crosshairs on a very tall gentleman several dozen yards up. The man was standing on a clear floor, so Winstead was looking at his feet, mostly, and foreshortened body. Even so, he could see the man was very tall.

His monocle also diagrammed the room, which he now understood to be sixty metres high, ten metres long, and three wide. The entire space was solidly walled with display cases containing shelf after shelf of chess sets, old-style chess sets with inanimate pieces. The boards were mounted vertically, behind the set each belonged to. His monocle started counting the sets, but Winstead lost interest before the result came in. “If you will step onto the hexagram, you can join me in my office,” said the man, who took a step into the glass wall beside him and disappeared.

I wish I could do that, thought Winstead. Take one step and just disappear. Instead he took two, and rose on the elepad. Thousands of little kings and queens watched him, their armies seeming ready to move at command.

Squire Yvor proved to be about twelve feet tall, and stood in a depression in his office nook, so that his standup desk seemed normal from the other side. Normal if you were used to seeing a desk, which Winstead wasn’t. Only the rich and powerful, or the anachronistic, bothered with work surfaces. This made the swimming sensation in his head even worse, trying to guess which category this broker belonged to.

The next two questions deepened the mystery, because his monocle indicated that the answers were already known to the broker. This old-fashioned wordiness could also be an affectation of power, of pretending not to consult a monocle.

“What piece would you be in the market for?”

“A pawn. A queen’s knight pawn, whatever that is.”

“And what would you be authorised to spend on this pawn?”

Winstead hesitated, because this was the first point where he could make a huge mistake.

The broker nodded his head slightly, and a tiny but elaborately woven carpet rolled out onto a bench against the side wall.

“Please recline, my friend. I understand your hesitation. I have been given a budget, you are thinking, but how much of it am I really intended to spend. Should I hold back a portion for myself? Should I economise and return a percentage to my employer?”

Winstead sat on the bench and drew up one leg. “Let me advise you, then, from my considerable experience,” the man said, laying his hands palm up on the desk. Winstead noticed that undisguised scars crossed the palm on the left. “There are two factors I would emphasise. One is that this is obviously your first commission. Another is that tomorrow’s game involves a major business agreement. Your corporation is merging with the Moloch-Thanat chikarabatsu. The winners of tomorrow’s matches will be the dominant partners in each sector of the new entity.”

Why do I learn this now? wondered Winstead. Why am I sent in ignorance on so important a mission?

“With regard to the first point,” Squire Yvor continued, closing his left hand, “let me tell you why you are here. Usually when a new person comes in to buy a piece, with a smallish fee, it means that whoever sent this new person is unsure of themselves. If a client has a big budget and a sound position in the company, they come themselves. When the client fears failure, or has not budgeted well, then they send a potential scapegoat.”

Winstead could only nod, shakily.

The man gently closed his right hand. “On the second point, I would suggest that this game is too important to skimp on, and that your supervisors would not be happy with the diversion of any funds from the object at hand, even the return of a percentage into their accounts. In the future, very likely, you will be expected to benefit from handling such tasks, but today I suggest that you spend the full fifty thousand lucrechits.”

Winstead wondered whether the broker made more profit that way, than in helping a buyer skim a bit off the top. He supposed so. But the argument had force.

“As you say. The full amount.”

The dealer activated a bit of the desk top, displaying a chess board with various notations in some of the squares. “I took the liberty of finding out the previous choices that have been made. Yours will be the seventh pawn. I see that four of the others are to be Tungpins, which is sadly typical. Everybody goes for the big sword, the dragonslayer cachet. But it gives the set no balance. The other two are a Hanny and a Chang. Did you have a sense of the type of pawn you would prefer?”

Winstead admitted that he did not follow chess at all. “I am afraid I don’t really know the different kinds.”

The broker stifled a brief moue of disappointment, and studied the diagram. “There would be good value in Litis, or Chungs. Neither is very popular. But your side is deficient in ambiguity. Might I suggest a Lanny? Let me see who is available.”

He consulted a list, and muttered about casualties. Winstead vaguely recalled some pop-eds complaining that too many chess games used real weapons these days, but the company pished all over that. Can’t play for keeps in the business world with ritual restrictions on the most important encounters. That would encourage insincerity, and insincerity is the death of dividend. A broker, however, would probably not enjoy the combat turnover. “Yes. I have a proper candidate.” The area on which he stood, and Winstead’s bench, both became elepads and began to recede into the floor, so he tucked in his other leg.

“Follow me.”

#

They emerged in a lobby from which six hallways radiated, and actually walked down one of them past a number of closed doors. Winstead couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen an interior doorway sealed. “The doors are for our protection,” observed his host. “Can’t have missiles wandering around the hallways.”

They entered a room, at last, the broker’s robes swinging so wide they brushed the edge of the door, which sent a shudder through Winstead. Perhaps this was graciousness, the walking, the loose robes, the long hallways and closed doors, but it made him nervous. It had been a mistake to leave his workpit, he felt certain now.

The floor was soft, and the broker made a deep bow when stepping onto it. The room seemed far too large, though a shelftite had lowered into it cutting the space nearly in half. A woman stood in front of it, inspecting the amazing array of gunpowder weapons it held. There must have been two hundred machine guns, and she had already selected several that were draped from her cloak of body armour.

Her neck guard bore the emblem of a basket of red and white roses with one central black chrysanthemum, which his monocle informed him was the Lanny sigil.

She turned as they approached, and rested the long-barrelled drum-feed gun she had been inspecting on her hip. All the equipment she carried, guns, grenades, ammoclips and mags rattled quietly on their various hooks as her armour cloak swirled, lost its momentum, and became still.

Something about the way her outfit moved seemed odd. “Is that real fabric?” he blurted.

She gave the broker a look that made Winstead blush, and said, still not looking at him, “Visuwear isn’t much good at killing a laser pulse or stopping a bullet.”

The broker interjected smoothly. “Our client is not aware of the gritty realities associated with the game of chess. He is, however, prepared to pay full price for your services as a Queen’s Knight Pawn in a game between NixFax and Moloch-Thanat tomorrow in the Cassian Fields. I hope that this might be an opportunity you would find acceptable, a challenge worthy of your gifts and training.”

Her eyes changed six times during the few moments of the pawnbroker’s speech. The changes were more subtle than those Winstead knew from holvid women, but he thought she was both eager and fearful, pleased and calculating. As the pawnbroker bowed slowly after his little speech, she settled into a swordfighter’s stance. Only then did Winstead think: this person is trained to kill, and I am hiring her to possibly do so, to kill and to risk death.

His senses sharpened. The guns reeked of light machine oil and linseed oil and leather and neat’s foot oil and primer and gunpowder and cordite and Semtex and copper and the distinct solid odour of blued steel and the subtle cool smell of stainless.

The three people had their smells as well; hers were physicality and sandalwoody spirituality; the broker electronic business scent and lemongrass leisure; and Winstead, he now realised, stank of the pit and the cab and uncertainty.

The pawn turned to him and asked a direct question, directly. “Unbated weapons?

Winstead apologised, “I’m afraid… “

“There is no honour in modern chess, O warrior,” Squire Yvor observed, in slow clear syllables.

“The client class only understands defeat if they can see the blood.” The broker shook his head in the manner of a thespian expressing grief. “But there is still duty.”

“And self-knowledge,” she replied. “Era?”

The broker spread his hands. “Bronze.”

She sighed, slightly, and looked down at the gun still braced on her hip. Lovingly, and achingly, she cradled it in her arms. A pietà. She turned away from the two men, placed the gun back on the rack, and shouted ‘mycenae!’ which caused three things to happen: the gun rack shelftite began sinking into the ceiling, a garment of some kind fell from an overhead trap, and a second rack of shiny, almost golden, swords and knives and spears rose up from the floor. In the midst of the rising and dropping and sinking, which was making Winstead briefly dizzy, the pawn whipped off her cloak, all the guns and grenades included, in a single gesture with her left hand and tossed it into the sinking gun rack, and with her other hand caught the falling garment and whipped it around her so that only for a moment, if he had been paying attention, was she naked before them. Or had she been tattooed or in all-over lace, or merely shadow? The picture was burned into his mind, though he could not be sure of what he had seen.

The new garment looked like nothing more than a silk burnoose. Her attention was not with them anymore, however. Her eyes were on the gleaming gold, the ivory-hafted, weapons. “I accept,” she said, but gave them no heed.

All the way home his mind replayed and replayed and replayed that instant when she might have been naked. And he wondered at how decisively she had shocked him, how deeply shaken him. And how casually.

#

He was glad to be back in his workpit the next morning, effing glad to be interacting over the publink and not looking anybody for Thorsake in the face. Winstead didn’t even show faces on the commlink, waste of bandwidth, invasion of privacy, and used the simplest cartoon rep. Not much more than a talking kanji, that’s how he liked to see folks.

Yesterday had thrown him right out of stride with faces. He kept seeing the pawn’s reluctant face when she had to give up that Tommy gun, and the broker’s look that said your-job-is-on-the-line-and-you-don’t-have-a-clue-do-you. Which he hadn’t.

And that pawn. The women he knew, and that mostly meant holactors, smiled at a guy no matter how tough they were. Gave a guy a feeling of importance. But she had looked at him the way a programmer looks at client code. And here he sat thinking about chess again.

Task at hand: supervise the adaptation of a CRP-series robot to the task of collecting and reprocessing the droppings of wild giant sloths in an urban environment. Somebody else’s job to get the robot to distinguish a megatherium from a mastodon; and some other department’s brief to cleave to sloth droppings while forsaking all others; and not his job either to give it wall-climbing skills so that it could follow the sloths that pulled themselves from balcony to setback in search of munchy vegetation above street level. His task, which chess should never have interrupted for a minute, to keep the CRP from getting clobbered by the nine or ten-foot megafaunal arm swipe, with the nasty hooked claw attached. Scores upon scores of the competitor’s street cleaners had come to crunching grief because they annoyed the giant sloths, and then couldn’t clear out fast enough.

Winstead loved this assignment, because he knew it could be done, and any problem had to be with the team integrating the software. No risks. No responsibility. Not a chance of a face-to-face meeting anywhere.

So it annoyed, annoyed terribly, annoyed beyond anything when a flash came down from his supervisor. “Your Presence Required Our Box Cassian Fields 1400 Hours Today.”

This chess game is ruining my life, he thought. And he thought of the pawn, his pawn, and how she hadn’t cared if he saw her naked. Hadn’t cared at all.

#

“This is the moment of foreboding,” said the executive seated just behind him. The NixFax box, high above the chess field, was steeply pitched and entirely glass in front. Winstead felt horribly exposed. Scores of thousands of spectators could see him, his whole body, not just above the neck. “Especially for the pawns, because they abide in the forefront of the battle line.”

“Most wise,” Winstead managed to say, nearly strangling on the words. He distracted himself from the huge stadium on the other side of the glass by bringing up a hol of the NixFax side of the board, and looking for his queen knight pawn. He had done a primer on the rules of chess on the way over, but couldn’t follow much about it.

About all that he had grasped was that the King was the CEO of the pieces, and the Queen the COO. The pawns were the foot soldiers, the pitters and dataclerks of the game. And each side moved in turn. And when pieces tried to take a square that was already occupied by an opposing piece, they fought, winner take all.

He felt cold wetness on his knee. His boss leaned over, her arm reaching awkwardly for the seat back directly below Winstead. Her drink had slopped, and dripped disgustingly over her fingers. It startled him so much, he looked into her eyes. The pupils seemed very small.

She caught herself, slurring out, “Interesting choice, a Lanny. Girl, too!” She made an attempt to sit down, but couldn’t manage it. “Guess that’s all I could expect for fifty. Hardware guys spent two hundred thousand for their pawns.” She swore bitterly, then leaned in to whisper spittily in his ear. “Budget! We’d have sword guys, if we had that kinda coin.”

Winstead had had just about all the personal contact he could manage without screaming, but it got worse. Some senior manager slid into the place beside him, his tunic embroidered with the badges of four ancient family orders. “Your pawn is moving first, from the sound of it. Larsen’s Opening.” The man arranged his clothing fussily. “I see she carries a short billhook. Very adaptable weapon.”

Out in the stadium a trumpet fanfare was playing, which his monocle explained was signalling NixFax’s first move. Which meant that somewhere above him the company’s hired chess master, with the help of the Board, had declared a move. And, indeed, Winstead’s pawn was preparing to move, and he zoomed in on her.

As the hol grew in front of him, he learned his pawn’s name for the first time. Hadn’t thought to ask it, before. Hadn’t thought she’d have one, somehow.

Artemisia.

The name broke his heart.

A lump stuck in his throat, and the pressure of tears throbbed behind his eyes, all in an instant. He’d put a girl named Artemisia in danger of death because his drunken boss couldn’t scrape enough funds out of the budget to get a decent pawn.

How noble she looked. How composed. She was stepping forward, an oval shield with a shining boss held above her head. A tight leather cap with metal cheek pieces covered that head, and a long silken sheath reached nearly to the ground. She wore a thick quilted jacket, covered with something white and bumpy. An inquiry put diagramicons around her image, explaining that her armour consisted of small clam shells sewn to her jacket, in the style of Bronze Age Scythians; and her underdress was silk, which would not be torn by arrows or spears, and thus allow them to be easily extracted, by pulling on the silk. A sheathed sword was strapped to her back from left shoulder to right hip. A pair of short spears from right shoulder to left hip. In her hand, she held a short stick, almost a wand, with a hook at the end.

She strode forward one square, and then lowered her shield into the rest position. Only then did he realise that she had one foot bare.

The Moloch-Thanat side moved the Queen’s Bishop Pawn forward one square, and then the NixFax bishop stepped into Artemisia’s first square. Moloch-Thanat responded with the Queen moving, very ceremoniously, one square diagonally.

The manager gasped the moment the next fanfare rang out, the NixFax bishop marching boldly down across the field, a bulky leaden mace in his hand, and disdaining to unhook the shield from his back. This should be no contest, he knew, for bishops are far better trained than pawns, but the dagger the pawn drew looked more deadly than the mace.

“If I might ask, good sir,” Winstead forced himself to say, “Is this move dangerous?”

But even as he put the question the bishop flung the mace with a single sharp gesture. The unfortunate pawn, half hidden under raised shield, was hit squarely on the knee, and not the knee forward, but the one he was bracing on behind, and therefore couldn’t move. A sickening crack, heard even through the glass, and the pawn wobbled for a moment on his leading leg, both shield and dagger reaching forward briefly to steady him.

The moment was enough. The bishop’s next move, upstroke with a blade sheathed in his boot, sent the pawn unconscious or dead to the ground.

There was a scurry of spoils boys as the bishop leaned over the fallen pawn, stripping off his opponent’s armour and picking through his weapons for anything useful. The bishop cast aside his own blade, now dulled perhaps, and took the pawn’s. He recovered his own mace, and then let the boys put the victim on a stretcher and the prizes on another and haul them away.

“Winstead, isn’t it?” the manager finally replied as the boys worked. “What is dangerous is the next move. Their bishop will now attack our bishop, while he is still fresh from a fight. Fortunately, our piece didn’t have a hard struggle.”

And so it happened, and the bishops exchanged hideously crashing blows, until the Moloch-Thanat piece threw a mace at his opponent’s face, and missed. In four quick blows the NixFax bishop won again, but two moves later, he was knocked unconscious by the trunk of the rook’s elephant. Play continued for several moves, when the enemy Queen Rook Pawn stepped into the square diagonal to Artemisia. In reply, Artemisia advanced diagonally into the rook pawn’s square.

“I’m afraid your investment is about to be squandered to wear down a rook, my friend. Well, let’s see how she does.”

The opposing pawn threw a spear at Artemisia, missing. She did not throw back, but calmly advanced, holding her small wand at her side. He drew a long dagger, and thrust it at her, and then moved with great suddenness, in an attack Winstead would only see in the repeats. Leaping forward while whipping the blade behind him he brought it down as a chopping weapon, straight for her head. But Artemisia responded by stepping very slightly to one side, hopping onto her bare foot to change her centre of gravity and motion. Her wand rose and hooked above the descending blade, bringing it down even faster than her enemy intended. Yanking backward as his sword hit the ground, she made him fall to his knees with the force of his own blow.

As her right hand hooked his sword down, her shield had risen high in the air. Now she turned toward him and brought the edge of it down viciously into his exposed neck.

The blow bent her shield badly, and his seemed too bulky for her, so she let the boys carry them both off. Winstead realised he had been holding his breath, and gasped. “Not bad.” The manager offered Winstead a nibble tray. “But the rook will finish her.”

But the rook did not finish her, though as he advanced atop his elephant, it would have been impossible to believe it.

#

Winstead met his pawn again at the victory reception, his mind still reeling from the few moments with the CEO. The Great Dame herself had bowed to him, had congratulated him on his choice of pawn, had handed him a ferule of honour, had made him understand that he would rise in the new, merged, NixFax-driven chikarabatsu.

But CEOs are one thing, Artemisia another. After the surviving winning pieces, both shoulders bare to emphasise their strength and one leg exposed to the hip to reveal fitness, she had been introduced to the bigwigs; after he had watched her for half an hour, she strode across the room directly to him.

“I wish to thank you, sir,” she said, and smiled most sweetly. It took him several seconds to take in what she had said, and that she had said it to him.

“Well, I mean… ” “This chance you gave me means much to my career. I will now be trained as a knight, without having to spend years seeking recognition as a pawn in minor games.”

“Well. That is,” he stumbled, “you’ve made my career as well.

“Then it was a well-omened day that we met,” she replied, with more poetry in her voice than he expected from so attractive a killer. Sensing that he must say something to keep her there, he stammered the first thing he could think to ask.

“Well… but… That is, how did you do it? With the elephant, I mean?”

She smiled and leaned forward, her head conspiratorially next to his, the second woman to do this today.

“I watch the elephants train. I knew if I touched them with my little hook they’d think it was a mahout goad, and be confused. So, I just gave the elephant the signal to lie down on its side, figuring to catch the rook off guard. His getting pinned under his own mount just made it more dramatic.”

Winstead laughed. He had never laughed with a woman before, and certainly never laughed about a real death before, and most certainly never about a death he had paid for, and would be promoted for; but he couldn’t think of another thing to say. He wondered if chess pieces ever married the managerial class, he was just thinking, just getting ready to ask his monocle, when his boss grabbed his arm.

Artemisia bowed and slipped away in an instant, seeing that business was at hand; before he could say anything. Before he could even think anything.

“Don’t waste your time getting to know her,” the boss said, honey dripping from every word.

“Nobody will be sending you to chess games any more. You and I are going to be strictly big leagues from now on. We”ll be playing chikarabatsu against the world! We’re going to play Go!”

“Are there pawns, in Go?” Winstead asked, hesitantly. “Or knights?”

“Nothing of the sort,” the boss assured him. “Go pieces are a different type altogether, much more austere. No overlap at all.”

He turned his head furtively, quickly searching the room for Artemisia, but saw only company employees, their spouses, the servants. All the chess pieces had been cleared away.


Author Bio:  Timons Esaias is a satirist, poet and writer of short fiction, living in Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in fifteen languages. He won an Asimov’s Readers Award; and was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award. He has had over a hundred poems in print, including Spanish, Swedish and Chinese translations, in markets ranging from Asimov’s Science Fiction to 5AM and Elysian Fields Quarterly: The Literary Journal of Baseball. He is Adjunct Faculty at Seton Hill University, in the Writing Popular Fiction MFA programme.

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