he world was a square of stone.
It lay there, beneath the glowing sun and the shining moon, a vast square of marble, divided into sixty-four smaller squares, half of pearl, half of smoky blue. This geometric construction comprised the known world in its entirety; beyond lay only black desert, and the horizon.
And this world, like others, had its inhabitants.
King Cyrus of House Ivory advanced diagonally forward to Queen’s Knight Six to capture the pawn that checked him. With practiced ease he threw one of his needles, which spun in a tight arc and sunk a quarter-inch into the pawn’s neck.
The convulsions took hold before she could even start screaming. Cyrus watched her as she fell, savored her spasms, before he kicked her body aside to take her place on the square.
“Medics!” he bellowed. “Attend to the Queen!”
From the Southeastern Keep on Queen Five, a thousand tiny clockwork automatons flew on golden filament wings, over bodies and blood and rusted armor, toward Queen Alexandra Sicklefist of House Ivory.
She stood, an imposing figure in bright raiment, her armor like white enamel, her skirt of silver mail, on Queen’s Rook Four. Coppery hair cascaded to her waist. Where her hands should have been were instead a pair of wicked steel sickles. A mask in the form of an expressionless white face hid her features. She had survived many battles—most recently she had brought the Northeastern Keep to ruin—but now she was wounded in several places, and she favored one leg. King Cyrus dispatched the medical automatons because he wanted her healthy, especially now that the war was about to end.
But when the automatons reached Alexandra, she refused them. Instead, speaking softly to the tiny mechanisms, she pointed one sickle toward the still-convulsing pawn.
And in obedience, the automatons went there.
“What are you doing!?” Cyrus demanded.
But Alexandra ignored him as the automatons settled on the pawn and, through hundreds of pinprick injections, ended her suffering forever. The pawn’s spasms subsided, her body stilled.
“Idiot!” said Cyrus. “She was already as good as dead! I sent the automatons for you!”
Without a glance at Cyrus, Alexandra said, “She did us no dishonor. She deserved a better death than you gave her.”
“That does not entitle you—!”
“Sire!” called Bishop Malachi from where he stood on Queen’s Bishop Seven. “This act is not worth your anger. You will win the war easily regardless.”
“But that still doesn’t!”
“You can win the war just as easily without her.” With one hand, Malachi pointed to the Keep on Queen Five. “There will be plenty of time to settle this matter once we have won the war.”
Cyrus, placated, fell silent.
Indifferent to his anger, Alexandra turned to the Queen of House Sable.
“What was the soldier’s name?” she asked.
“Jane,” Queen Jacqueline of House Sable replied, conveying thanks through her gaze.
“Jane,” Alexandra repeated, then turned to the pawn’s silent corpse. She raised her right sickle hand in salute, and remained that way for a score of heartbeats. Then she dropped her salute, and turned forward to face King Melchior standing four stones away.
* * *
On Queen’s Rook One, King Melchior of House Sable knew he was doomed. Alexandra threatened him from King’s Rook Five, the Southeastern Keep from Queen Four, and none of his options led anywhere. But because the war was not ended, Melchior had to make a move. A choice between dooms.
“Melchior,” Jacqueline called to him from Queen One.
He looked to her. “Yes, love?”
Queen Jacqueline Hookhand wore the hue of her allegiance, blackened plates and a high collar protecting her torso and neck, a wide skirt of boiled leather reaching to the ground. Her close-cropped hair shone also black, as did her left eye. A patch covered her right socket. A hook had replaced her left hand.
She indicated the Queen of House Ivory.
“Let me take her.”
Melchior considered. It was a useless move, a spiteful blow before dying. But so was every other.
With a nod, Melchior granted assent.
* * *
Jacqueline strode toward Alexandra, drawing her sword. Alexandra readied her own weapons.
Jacqueline stopped. They regarded each other, facing a fight only one would survive. Jacqueline sensed the pride in Alexandra, and the bitterness of wounded pride.
Softly, Jacqueline asked. “Do you yield?”
Alexandra stood dumbfounded. It was a moment before she found the presence of mind to say, “What?”
“Do you yield?” Jacqueline repeated. “Do you want to live?”
Alexandra frowned within her mask. Such a thing was within the rules. But it had never been done before.
“Do you want to live?” Jacqueline said again.
With the question phrased thus, the answer was obvious. “Yes.”
“Then go in there.” Jacqueline pointed to the Northwestern Keep on King’s Bishop Six. “You will be freed when this is over.”
“Jacqueline,” called Melchior, equally thunderstruck. “What are you doing?”
“This is not betrayal, my love,” Jacqueline replied with a gentle gaze. “I merely give thought to the future.”
Alexandra looked at her. “What future is that?”
Jacqueline only said, “Later. Go.”
“Oh, just go and be done with it,” said King Cyrus. “Why look a gift horse in the mouth?”
Alexandra’s jaw clenched. She turned, limped to the Northwestern Keep, and went inside. The gate slammed to with frightening vehemence.
With Alexandra’s capture completed, it was now House Ivory’s move. But Cyrus hesitated, as puzzled by Jacqueline’s actions as anyone.
Looking to Bishop Malachi, he asked, “What happened there?”
“It is hard to say, my king,” the Bishop replied. His left thumb rubbed the scars where two fingers had been. “But it was all legal and above board. And Melchior is yours for the mating. Kill him, you have one less problem to deal with.”
Cyrus nodded. “You’re right. Why postpone the inevitable?” He called out: “Southeastern Keep to Queen Eight!” He beamed at Melchior. “Checkmate!”
The marble fortress made its ponderous way to the northern edge, and stopped. Then, having achieved checkmate, it floated westward, toward Melchior.
The King of House Sable chose not to watch death approaching. Instead, he looked to his wife, who held his gaze, caressed him with her eyes. King Cyrus looked on with delight. Malachi clasped his hands in prayer.
A pawn of House Sable stood on Kings’s Knight Five, veteran of many battles, his beard streaked with white where scars lay beneath, his ears no less notched than his sword. His name was Simon. He stood at attention, feeling he should bear witness to his king’s demise.
The death was quick, though unpleasant to watch.
“And now,” said King Cyrus, turning to Jacqueline, “we will discuss your surrender.”
Jacqueline did not reply. After a moment, she started walking in Cyrus’ direction, sword still unsheathed. Fearing the worst, Cyrus readied his needles. But she ignored him, and strode on to the Southeastern Keep.
“What are you doing?” Cyrus cried. “Come back here!”
Jacqueline did not respond. When she reached the Southeastern Keep, she swung her blade and destroyed it.
Cyrus reddened. “How dare you? I am the victor here, by right and rule!”
Jacqueline looked on the wreckage with a vague smile.
“The war is over,” she said. “The rules no longer apply.”
Spinning on her heel, she went off in another direction.
“Where are you going?” Cyrus shouted.
Jacqueline entered the Northwestern Keep, slamming the gates behind her.
“What the hell does she think she’s doing?” Cyrus demanded. “I win the war, fairly and uncontestably, and everyone ignores me!”
He pointed at Simon. “You there! Go into that Keep and tell Queen Jacqueline that I demand to see her immediately!”
Simon hesitated. Victorious or not, Cyrus was not his king. But after a moment, he obliged. He was curious himself about Queen Jacqueline’s intentions.
II: PAWN AND QUEENS
Simon entered the fortress. The gates closed behind him, and echoes reverberated down the corridor.
Time and space did not behave within the Keeps as they did without. Seen from outside, the Keeps were simple monoliths, a good deal shorter than the Kings and Queens. Seen from inside, however, the Keeps were...larger.
Simon paused in the airy coolness of the Keep interior, looking up at lanterns flickering from rafters high above.
“Where is Her Majesty?” he asked.
“She went that way,” the gatekeeper replied. It was a clockwork automaton, a torso, head, and arms permanently affixed to the masonry—a machine that followed instructions. “To the dungeons.”
Simon made way down the corridor.
* * *
At about the same time, Jacqueline entered the dungeons.
On reaching the foot of the dungeon stairwell, she stopped, leaned her forehead against the wall, and wept for Melchior.
Salt tears fell on the floorstones, for Melchior, for Bishop Jacopus, for Sir Robert, for all the dead. Houses Ivory and Sable had waged this war since time began. And now that the war was over...what? Queen Jacqueline Hookhand wept in no small part because she knew no answer to that question. She did not know what all these deaths had purchased.
But she had come here to find an answer. When her tears were spent, she composed herself and resumed her way.
At regular intervals along the corridor, more clockwork automatons sat moored, both guards and keymasters. They straightened to attention as Jacqueline passed by, until she arrived at Alexandra’s cell.
“Has she said anything?” Jacqueline asked of the automaton before her.
“No,” it replied.
“The door is locked?”
“Yes, as per dungeon protocol.”
“Unlock it. She won’t try to escape.”
As the automaton obeyed, a metallic rattling emanated from up the corridor. Turning, Jacqueline saw another automaton, a head, arms, and chest attached to a low wagon. Inside the wagon were various bottles and bandages.
“The prisoner was injured,” said the first automaton. “As per dungeon protocol, a medical automaton was summoned.”
“Of course.” Reaching into the wagon, Jacqueline picked up the bottles and bandages. “All the same, I think I shall tend her wounds. There are things I would discuss with her.”
And it opened the door.
Jacqueline saw Alexandra only as a dim blur in the darkness. Among the medical supplies were a candle, and matches. Jacqueline used these to illuminate the cell.
Alexandra sat in a far corner, still wearing those sickles, and the mask.
“So,” she said. “The war is over.”
Jacqueline nodded. “Yes.”
Alexandra sighed. “I am sorry. Your husband fought well.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Alexandra seemed to squint beneath her mask.
“And now that it’s over,” she said, “what now? You seem to have...ideas.”
Jacqueline indicated the salves and gauze. “I thought we might discuss that while I tended your wounds.”
Alexandra tilted her head to one side.
“First,” She held up her arms, “would you help me out of these sickles?”
It took time—there was only one hand between them—but eventually they removed the right-hand blade. It revealed a simple stump, long since healed over.
Removing the second blade revealed a whole and healthy hand.
There was a grin in Alexandra’s voice: “I lost the right hand early on—against Sir Robert, remember?—and when our automatons fitted me for the sickle, I said, ‘Make another for the left arm. They’ll think I amputated them both.’” The automatons worked at blinding speed, so the enemy would not see what was done. “Rumor spread like wildfire, didn’t it?”
Jacqueline laughed softly. “I think you’re intimidating enough, Sicklefist, without…”
She trailed off as her gaze fell on the mask.
When she raised her hand to remove it, Alexandra made no move to stop her.
There was only a long scar slashing across her right eye. The eye itself was askew, its pupil a gaping hole in a sea of white; the lids would not close properly. The other eye blinked at Jacqueline, an iris of metallic blue beneath an elegant coppery eyebrow.
Alexandra gestured with her stump. “Another deception.”
“It’s a shame,” said Jacqueline. “Your other eye is beautiful.”
Alexandra said nothing.
“We’d best see to those wounds,” Jacqueline said.
Alexandra grimaced as she tested her limbs. “I’ve been stiffening ever since I got here.”
“I am sorry.” Opening a bottle of ointment, Jacqueline applied it to a cut. “I should have told the automatons to assign you better quarters.”
“I should have asked for them.” Alexandra shrugged. “These wounds will heal, one way or another. When I came here, I...”
“I...needed to be alone more than anything.”
After a silence, Jacqueline ventured to speak.
“The best way to know someone is to fight them,” she said. “You and I have fought since time began. And I have come to...one conclusion, among others.”
She phrased her next words delicately.
“You don’t...approve of King Cyrus.”
Alexandra’s fist clenched. She ground her teeth.
“Needles,” she hissed. “Poisoned needles are the weapons of a coward.”
Alexandra went on. “And he sacrifices his men as if they were...were...” She shook her head. “He demands absolute loyalty and gives none in return! Their integrity was repaid with death!”
“He would probably argue,” said Jacqueline, “that that was how he won.”
“So do you want someone like that to rule?!?”
The automaton in the corridor peered apprehensively into the cell.
“It would seem,” said Jacqueline, “that you do not.”
Alexandra looked away. Eventually, a tear descended from her eye.
“I am ashamed to have served him,” said the Queen of House Ivory.
Jacqueline put a hand on her arm.
“There is something you should know,” she said. “Before coming here, I destroyed the Southeastern Keep.” She paused. “I hope you do not object?”
Alexandra shrugged. “Just a pile of stone. What of it?”
“Well, without the Keep—and without you—King Cyrus only has Bishop Malachi to fight for him. House Sable, on the other hand, still has one Pawn, this Keep, and myself.”
She held out her hand to Alexandra.
“And if you and I joined forces…”
Alexandra looked at the hand, stunned.
Jacqueline turned to see a pawn standing at the door.
“Begging your pardon, Majesty, but…what are we going to do? King Cyrus awaits our surrender. If he waits too much longer, he might decide to destroy this Keep, as you destroyed his…”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” said Alexandra.
“…and I wouldn’t be able to defend the keep by myself…”
Jacqueline nodded. “Of course not, Simon. But consider the situation.” She paused for emphasis. “This Keep currently rests on a light square. Bishop Malachi patrols the dark squares. We should have plenty of time to execute my plan.”
“Plan?” Simon blinked, confused. “Majesty…the war is over—”
“That simply means the rules have changed,” said Jacqueline. “Simon, listen to me.” She rose, stepped close to the pawn and spoke gently. “This war was fought according to the laws of Nature, and according to those laws, Cyrus won. But what did he win? Can you tell me that?”
Simon said nothing.
“All this war proved,” Jacqueline went on, “is that Cyrus is more cunning and ruthless than was Melchior. But I think it also proved that Cyrus is severely lacking in foresight. He gave no thought to anything beyond the end of the war. I plan to take advantage of that.”
After a moment, Simon asked. “What would you have me do?”
“Leave the Keep,” said Jacqueline, “and make for the southern border. If you can achieve promotion, that would give us a significant advantage.”
Simon bowed. “It shall be done, Majesty,” he said, and left.
Jacqueline turned back to Alexandra. “And what of your decision?”
“Join forces?” Alexandra queried. “Can we even do that?”
“You want to.”
Alexandra nodded, admitting it.
“I would have Malachi spared,” she said. “He has a sense of honor.”
“Can you convince him to join us?”
“I believe so.”
Jacqueline resumed work on the injuries. When she finished, she rose and offered her hand again.
Alexandra had only her left hand, Jacqueline only her right. There was some awkwardness, but finally they clasped hands, and Jacqueline pulled Alexandra to her feet.
III: BISHOP / KNIGHT
“Where the devil is that girl?” Cyrus asked. The pawn showed no more sign of reappearing than Jacqueline.
“Before she left, sire,” said Malachi, “Queen Jacqueline said, ‘The war is over. The rules no longer apply.’ Perhaps she is trying to determine what to do next.”
“There is nothing else to do!” Cyrus shouted. “Beyond the end of the war, there is nothing else except subservience to the victor!” He threw up his hands. “Does she think I went through the trouble of winning this war just so I could stand here waiting for her?”
“Understand, sire,” Malachi ventured, “that I am only trying to guess her mind.” He looked to the pile of rubble that had been the Southeastern Keep. “She captured Queen Alexandra alive, and sent her to the Northwestern Keep. So you were already minus your Queen. Then she destroyed the Southeastern Keep, depriving you of its power as well. So she has another Queen, a Keep, and a Pawn, whereas you have only…”
His heart sank.
“Another Queen?” Cyrus queried. “You mean Alexandra? She would never betray us!”
Malachi gaped. Surely Cyrus could not be ignorant of Alexandra’s contempt for him?
“She is House Ivory!” Cyrus yelled. “She always will be! Those are the Rules! They don’t change just because the war is over, or someone chooses to ignore them! Look at this!” He walked over and kicked the corpse of a horse from House Sable. Its only response was that of dead flesh. “The Dead remain Dead! And I doubt that Jacqueline could will it otherwise!”
“I don’t understand it entirely myself, sire. But Jacqueline clearly thinks she can do something. How else do you explain her actions?”
Just then, the pawn emerged from the Northwestern Keep.
“Well?” Cyrus called out. “Where is she?”
The pawn said, “Her Majesty Queen Jacqueline has instructed me to set out for the southern border.”
He turned, and began walking.
Cyrus grew livid. “How dare he! They can’t—!”
“Sire.” Malachi pointed to the Keep. “Look.”
There, atop the battlements, emerged Jacqueline and Alexandra, both in miniature. They watched Simon as he marched southward.
“Sire,” said Malachi, “I was right. If that pawn promotes, the Queens won’t even need to join the battle!”
Cyrus paled as the full reality of it finally dawned on him.
“We’ll…we’ll destroy the Keep, as they did ours! Both Queens will die in one stroke!”
“Begging your pardon, sire, but that’s impossible. The light squares are beyond my reach, and the Keep rests on a light square! It can evade capture indefinitely! Jacqueline knows this! Sire,” Malachi said, his face ashen, “we are lost.”
This was not what Cyrus wanted to hear. He turned to the horse-carcass and kicked it again and again—
Then he stopped.
Cyrus stared at the carcass, wide-eyed.
“Yes,” he murmured. “Why not? If she will not abide by the rules, why should I?”
Malachi frowned. “Sire?”
Cyrus looked across the battlefield. “What is that pawn doing now?”
Malachi turned to look. But before he could respond, he felt a sharp pain at the base of his skull.
Even as he cried out, his sight began dimming. Sinking to the ground, he turned to Cyrus, and saw the needle in his hand.
“It’s only a sedative,” Cyrus assured him. “When you awaken, those light squares will be within your reach…”
Malachi’s last vision was of Cyrus picking up an abandoned dagger from the ground, turning to the horse’s carcass, and slicing it open.
* * *
“Is your plan to let Simon do this by himself?” Alexandra asked. From the battlements, she watched the pawn make his slow way southward.
“I would accept such an outcome,” Jacqueline replied. “But I am not counting on it. Cyrus sees the situation as well as we do. He knows he will have to do something. And when he does, we will react accordingly.”
Alexandra nodded. “I just thought you might have sent Simon on that mission to restore his sense of purpose. He seemed…confused when he spoke. Lost, I would say.”
“I noticed that,” Jacqueline replied. “Since time began, the war was his life, his reason for being. In that he is not unique. I think that is why House Sable fought on, even when the outcome was no longer in question.” She looked toward Simon. “Better to have an unachievable purpose than no purpose at all.”
Alexandra looked away.
“Far worse to have a purpose you don’t want to achieve.”
“You no longer serve that purpose,” Jacqueline said. “That was why I spared you.”
Alexandra returned Jacqueline’s gaze. “And I have not properly thanked you for it. I am grateful, Jacqueline.”
Queen Jacqueline Hookhand gave her a gentle smile.
“So,” said Alexandra. “Our purpose now is to bring down Cyrus—but what then? After that purpose is achieved, what is left?”
“You are right,” said Jacqueline. “Any purpose, once achieved, dies in the achieving.” She sighed. “We will, of course, give more thought to this once Cyrus is gone. But I thought it might be of interest to explore beyond this battlefield.” She gestured to the black dunes beyond the borders. “See if there is anything out there beside desert.”
Alexandra scanned the horizon, trying to find some landmark, something of interest—
When she looked northwest, she saw King Cyrus.
“What is he doing?”
Bishop Malachi had fallen. Kneeling over him with a knife, Cyrus had severed the Bishop’s torso from his legs, and now he …yes, he was sewing the torso to the headless remains of a horse.
“It’s clear what he’s trying to do,” said Jacqueline.
“Will it work?”
“Why give him the chance?”
Together, the queens left the battlements.
* * *
Cyrus worked quickly. If Malachi recovered too soon, it would complicate the operation.
The stitches were crude. The scar tissue would be hideous when healed. But the fruits of victory that Cyrus had rightfully earned were in jeopardy, and he would use all means necessary to keep them.
Finally, the work was finished. Cyrus examined it, looking to see if every knot would hold. As he did so, Malachi awakened.
“Get up,” Cyrus said. “Look at yourself.”
Not knowing what else to do, Malachi obeyed. He found it difficult—there were more legs than there were supposed to be, and they did not feel right.
“Come on!” Cyrus snapped. “Part of you must remember what it is to be a horse!”
At that, the part that had been a horse took charge. It lifted itself off the ground, standing on iron-shod hoofs. The part that had been Bishop Malachi flailed, making frightened, incoherent noises until the jostling stopped. He faced King Cyrus, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, trembling.
“There,” said Cyrus, nodding. “Now the entire battlefield is within your reach.” He pointed southeast. “Your mission is to slay that pawn before it reaches the southern border. Go.”
Not knowing what else to do, Malachi obeyed.
Cyrus watched him go. If all went well, the King might try further experiments. It would, for instance, be a shame to let Malachi’s legs go to waste…
* * *
Simon made steady progress. He had only King Cyrus and Bishop Malachi to worry about. Simon would be safe from Malachi as long as he stayed on the light stones, and he could easily outrun Cyrus. Promotion was all but his.
He looked back toward Cyrus and Malachi, to be certain before he made his next move. Then he saw that Bishop Malachi had fallen. Simon froze, wondering whether to take immediate advantage, or wait to see if this was a trick.
His orders were to make for the southern border. So that is what he did. For without orders, without purpose, what was he?
But after reaching the next stone, Simon turned back for a second look. Malachi’s fall was clearly Cyrus’ doing, and the king did not do such things on a whim.
King Cyrus had bisected Malachi through the waist. Then he had severed the head from a nearby horse.
When Cyrus began sewing them together, Simon took off at a dead run.
But it was too late. Before Simon could reach the border, Malachi cut him off.
Simon drew his sword and stared horrified at the aberration before him. The combined abilities of a Bishop and a Knight against a simple Pawn—this would be a complex dance at best.
Simon risked a glance toward the Northwestern Keep to see if Queen Jacqueline had seen. But she was not visible on the battlements.
Simon assumed a defensive posture. The creature moved to a different stone. It raised its iron-shod fore-hoofs; Malachi’s hands swung a Bishop’s staff…
But the creature seemed to fight itself as much as Simon. The two halves of its nature, being of different Houses, pursued different purposes. The horse’s body reared, trying to shake off Malachi’s torso. Its throes became so violent that blood began to trickle from the surgical stitches.
Eventually, Simon no longer felt in danger. He lowered his sword. He watched as the Malachi-creature stumbled, then fell to the ground, writhing in agony.
“Help me!” it screamed. The voice was Malachi’s, though he might have been speaking for both halves. “I am torn! Part of me remembers you as a comrade! The other is under orders to slay you!” He put his hands to his ears, trying to silence the cacophony in his own skull. “Please help me! Even if it’s by slaying me!”
Simon raised his sword, but tentatively. He pitied Malachi, and would have granted his wish. But he could not help thinking there might be another way.
Then it occurred to him.
Lowering his sword, he said, “Malachi…who did this to you?”
Through his anguish, Malachi managed to get out: “King…Cyrus!”
Simon stepped closer, brought his face close to Malachi’s.
And he said, “How then do you owe him your loyalty?”
Malachi stopped struggling. His body went limp, but he still breathed, and for a long moment he lay there, his mind focused on Simon’s words.
Finally, he got up. There was no duality of purpose now; all parts of the creature moved as one. He faced Simon, as one soldier to another, and saluted him.
“Thank you,” Malachi said. Then he turned and sped toward Cyrus.
Simon watched him go. He himself could not go in that direction.
* * *
The queens emerged from the Northwestern Keep to see Malachi approaching at full speed. Fearing the worst, Alexandra stepped in front of Jacqueline and raised her sickles.
“You have nothing to fear from me,” said Malachi, slowing to a stop. “I know who my enemy is. He bowed to the Queen of House Ivory. “You have ever had my allegiance, Majesty. You were always loyal to your people.”
Alexandra lowered her sickles.
“Together,” said Jacqueline, “the three of us should be more than enough. Shall we go, then?”
“Yes,” said Alexandra.
* * *
From where he stood on King Seven, Simon watched Malachi join forces with the Queens. Then the three of them set out toward Cyrus.
This would soon be over. And Simon’s presence was not required.
Since time began, the war had been his life, his purpose. Now that even this second war was ended, what purpose was left? Not just for himself, but for all remaining in this world?
Was there nothing they could—?
Simon turned his gaze southward.
Queen Jacqueline’s orders were for him to reach the southern border, and achieve promotion. Simon had yet to do that.
If, in carrying out those orders, he gave her something unexpected…
He took the final step, and arrived on King Eight.
Cyrus saw them coming, and knew he was doomed. But he would not go quietly. If he had any chance of surviving, it would not be by doing nothing. He would live forever, or die in the attempt.
* * *
In a concerted advance, Jacqueline Hookhand, Alexandra Sicklefist, and Malachi bore down on the King of House Ivory. Alexandra tore open his left sleeve with a flick of her sickle, and two score needles fell to the ground.
Deprived of his weapon of choice, King Cyrus resorted to a sword plucked from the battlefield. He fought well, it had to be said. He served the cause of his own preservation with as much passion and dedication as he expected others to.
But with two Queens and a Bishop-Knight hybrid as opponents, the outcome was all but inevitable. Presented with an opening, Malachi landed a kick to the jaw, and before Cyrus could recover, Jacqueline impaled him with her sword. Alexandra brought both sickles forward in a scissors motion, severing his head from his neck.
There followed an immense, empty silence.
Breathing deeply, Alexandra looked around, first at Malachi, then at Jacqueline.
“It is over,” she said. “Finished.”
Malachi gazed at the corpse, this final addition to the carrion strewn about the battlefield.
Jacqueline turned to him. “We are grateful for your assistance, Malachi—especially considering what you have gone through.”
“You have your Simon to thank for that,” Malachi replied. “He could have slain me—I had begged him to. Instead, he made me understand who my true enemy was.”
Jacqueline smiled. “Then this victory is Simon’s as much as ours.”
She looked to the south, searching for Simon—
Then her hands leapt to her mouth, and she screamed.
Alexandra and Malachi followed her gaze. A dark granite Keep stood on King Eight where Simon had been. He had stepped to the edge, and promoted himself.
Jacqueline ran, ran all the way to the castle, as if through sheer speed she might bring Simon back. When she reached it, she placed her hands on the lifeless masonry, calling out Simon’s name.
By the time Malachi and Alexandra joined her, she had already shed many tears.
Alexandra gathered Jacqueline into her arms, letting her weep on her shoulder.
“He was lost,” Alexandra said. “He saw no purpose beyond this end. As you yourself said, the war was his life.”
“But I told him!” Jacqueline protested. “The end of the war simply meant a change in the rules! With Cyrus gone, we would have been free to explore! To search for a purpose!” She tried to swallow against a constricted throat. “I told him…”
“Majesties,” said Malachi. “The gate is opening.”
They looked up to see the heavy iron door swing open. Intrigued despite their grief, they stepped up to look inside.
Just within the gate, moored in granite, sat another clockwork automaton. It looked just enough like Simon to make Jacqueline weep anew.
Seeing the newcomers, the automaton pointed further within the castle and said, “This way.”
Following the gesture, they caught sight of…something…but it was too bright outside for them to see. So they stepped over the threshold, and inside.
Now they saw it with perfect clarity. For a long while they stood and stared in absolute silence, bathed in a warm white glow.
At last, Alexandra turned to her companions.
Malachi, mute in his amazement, nodded.
Jacqueline stared, hardly breathing as the tears of her grief dried away.
“Is this why you did it, Simon?” she whispered.
“Come,” said Alexandra.
And the gate closed behind them as they went forward, out of this story, and into another.