The Multiverse Chronicles
Season One: Episode Ten
“A Friendly Game”
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Buford examined the black glass dragon tears sitting on the etched, wooden playing table before him. On either side of the table were two diamond-shaped slots, each covered by a silver coin. The diamond closest to him was his city-state. The coin was to buy the lady across from him a drink, while the glass dragon tears were to ensure he didn’t have to.
The general turned his attention to the cards in his hand. Each card had a path-symbol on its face, a series of black dots, dashes, and Xs. He placed one of the cards on the table, moved a dragon tear along the path of the symbol, and then replaced the card. He smirked. This game was going rather well. He already had four black dragon tears lined up in a row—a phalanx—the game’s namesake.
He raised his chin and gestured to the lady across the table. “Your turn.”
The lady, General Magnilda Eberhardt, eyed the table and then her cards. The backs were elaborately decorated in swirling, baroque patterns, a common trait in the Prussian version of the game. His own, personal version had an artistic rendering of a pack of wolves—a gift from the Prussian general.
But here, he used the tavern’s provided cards.
Eberhardt pursed her lips, hemming thoughtfully as she pieced through the cards in her hand. She glanced to the table, obviously considering her next move. She had her own silver coin to guard, and her own set of white glass dragon tears opposite of Buford’s.
Buford had lost count of the times the shrewd woman had beat him at the game. She was slender, all lean muscle despite her chubby cheeks, and she looked professionally sharp in her blue and black uniform that designated she was a high-ranking general of the Industrial Union of Prussia. She had worked hard to earn that rank, and Buford had watched her rise just as Ruger had watched his. Except age had been kinder to Eberhardt than Buford, thanks in part to her life-spirit power. Though her hair was still blond, with a few telling gray streaks, she was in her mid-60s. Her face revealed only parsimonious wrinkles, what he fondly referred to as marks of wisdom.
Eberhardt, by all means, was a force to be reckoned with.
She peered over her cards. “So, Harry, how are things in the camp?”
Buford grinned. He recognized Eberhardt’s tactic. Knew it too well. Oh, she would start him talking about his work and he would have to be careful that he didn’t reveal anything confidential. But—there was always a “but”—treading carefully meant sacrificing his attention to the game, and thus, his coin. He would have liked to say he never fell for that particular tactic, but he would be lying if he did.
“Things are going well,” he answered, taking note of Eberhardt’s move. “Then again, I only returned from Britannia yesterday.”
If he admitted to not knowing much, he might easily change the topic of their conversation. Though, admittedly, there was plenty to talk about since starting up the new operation in Francia. It was about a hundred miles north from the old one, but still perfectly near the Prussian trade routes.
Easy enough for him to make a trip to see an old friend.
He moved his phalanx ahead, connecting the line with a fifth dragon tear.
A rather daunting force, unless Eberhardt had an obstacle in her hand… or if she made that row of glass dragon tears across the board into a phalanx of her own.
“What about you?” Buford asked. He knew full well that she wouldn’t spill any information, but if he posed the question, maybe she would change the subject. “Any new developments?”
Eberhardt smiled coyly and placed a dragon-cursed obstacle in front of his phalanx. “Nothing much, really. Our mail service mixed up a deployment letter with wedding invitations. The mother actually wrote us a letter begging that we reconsider deploying her, given her age and the fact that her daughter was getting married.”
“Deployment, huh?” Buford peered at her from over his cards. There were so many things about deployments that had to be kept under wraps. If he could distract her…
He offered her a thin smile. “Where to? If you can say, of course.”
What he needed was to figure out how to maneuver that obstacle.
Eberhardt shrugged and slid her next piece across the board. “The usual pirate stronghold in the mountains.”
Buford chuckled, though he kept his eye on the white bead she wasn’t moving. The general was finally falling for her own tactic. A pirate stronghold in the mountains was just enough information to end the topic, yet not enough to reveal anything terribly important. He moved his ex-phalanx bead around the obstacle. “I bet the courier had the mother all in knots.”
“Indeed.” Eberhardt smiled as she moved her next piece. “I’m sure your postal service hasn’t had any such mess-ups.”
Buford laughed. “Don’t be so sure. We had a sabertooth cub come in earlier. My poor quartermaster checked his inventory seven times, just trying to find where it was listed.”
He moved his dragon tear in a corner path—which Eberhardt promptly captured.
“Poor fellow.” She shook her head sympathetically. “You’re such a cruel man, Harry. Laughing at his expense.”
Buford frowned at the offensive bead. He had fallen for her trick. He moved to capture the dragon tear. But rather than moving the piece that was in danger, Eberhardt selected a separate white glass bead from the other end of the board.
Tactical mistake, Buford figured. He dropped a card onto the table and plucked Eberhardt’s white dragon tear from the board.
“Hmm…” Eberhardt stroked her chin thoughtfully. She cast him a quick glance, smirked, and moved her piece dangerously close to his silver coin.
Cursed luck. Buford grimaced. He’d been so worried about her other tactics and his advance that he hadn’t noticed her slowly advancing on his city-state. There was no way for him to take her piece with his current cards, either.
He grunted, and then placed an obstacle of his own. Maybe, just maybe, the piece would hinder her attack. “I may still have a chance at this,” he assured her.
Eberhardt chuckled. “Sorry, Harry. Unless you’re talking about a chance to buy me a drink, I don’t think you do.” She plopped down a U-shaped path card, bypassed his obstacle altogether, and dropped her bead over Buford’s coin. “Now, what do you say to making our way to the bar?” She flashed him a bright smile, highlighting the dimple on her cheek.
Buford shrugged and removed his coin from underneath the white dragon tear with a heavy sigh. “Sure thing.”
At the bar, the two generals ordered drinks on Buford’s tab, then moved to a table. Another pair of officers had already moved in on the Phalanx board and deposited their coins into the respective slots.
“So…” Eberhardt took a sip of her drink, then rested her cheek against her knuckles. Wrinkles creased around her eyes, concern. “What’s your take on the ordeal with Princess Cassandra?”
Buford shook his head. He had never met the princess, though he had seen her in a parade once, dutifully riding a young dragon behind her mother. Seemed like she had been studious enough, and well-attuned to politics, but if common rumor were to be believed, she had been in as little favor as her mother due to the way she ignored the lower class and the misfortunate. Of course, none of that mattered now, except to find who would have killed her, and why.
“The situation is certainly not good,” he said finally. “Rumor has it she was killed by a Prussian assassin and that the prince ran off with one his guards as if they were having an affair.”
“Lies,” Eberhardt said carefully. “Prince Alfons is a loyal man. He wouldn’t do that.”
“Let us hope the queen believes you. If not…” Buford paused. His queen had the temper of a dragon and the whole of Britannia’s army on her side… and a tendency to behead anyone who did her ill will.
If someone—especially a Prussian, with their relaxed class structure—thought Princess Cassandra might have the same tendencies, Buford could easily see why they might try to prevent the marriage.
He bit his thumb worriedly. “We haven’t had a true war in ages, but we haven’t stopped training. I’d hate to see what the queen does if she decides these rumors are true.”
Eberhardt fixed Buford with a stern, blue gaze. “Neither have we. Let us hope your Dragon Queen has an accurate source of information, and a clear head.”
“Agreed,” Buford said. He lifted his glass. “To peace?”
She nodded. “To peace.”
They clinked their glasses, and then fell into uneasy silence.
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Out of uniform and a safe distance away, Captain Bess and Lieutenant Kerner inspected the lone, cinderblock building that lay deep in the woods. The large building resembled that of an abandoned warehouse, complete with boarded windows, a rusty tin roof, and ivy crawling along its cracked walls.
From Kerner’s vantage point, it had one entrance with a patch of sparse grass in front.
“The place looks abandoned,” he commented.
Captain Bess shook his head. “That building is meant to look that way, but look at the door.”
Kerner eyed the door, but nothing stood out as unusual. He frowned. “I fail to see the significance.”
Bess nodded to the ground. “Most of the shrubbery, which would normally obscure the passageway, is gone. There is only grass. Look around. There are shrubs everywhere else. Besides, do you see any other buildings around?”
Kerner readjusted his position behind the bush, wishing they hadn’t chosen such a prickly hiding spot, then took in his surroundings. “No, you’re right. Odd that someone would build a warehouse out here with no other infrastructure. No roads to bring in supplies, no barracks to house guards…”
“Precisely,” Bess agreed. “Which means that when this warehouse was built, there was other infrastructure around, and that infrastructure must have deteriorated while this building remained kept. Or, perhaps, there was no other infrastructure around to begin with, and this warehouse was built within the confines of this forest to hold items that were not meant to be found.”
Kerner let out a breath. Not meant to be found— “I have a hunch of who might be keeping this place, and if I’m right, we should proceed with caution. Let’s look around a bit more, shall we?”
He doubted they would find anyone of good standing.
Staying out of the building’s line of sight, they searched the nearby woods for any other sign of habitation. But the only tracks were their own, and the only sound that of breaking twigs, the warm, damp wind, and the chitter of squirrels.
Finally, they approached the building, though they cast wary glances to the woods behind them. Upon reaching the sparse grass in front of the door, Kerner spotted a small chi symbol charred on the wood above the handle. He stopped abruptly and put out his hand to stop Bess. “I was right,” he whispered. “Pirates.”
Bess twisted the hair of his sideburns. “Pirates are not known for assassination.”
“No, but they are known for collaboration.” Kerner stole a glance from the woods behind him, but the only movement came from a swallow that swooped between the trees.
“In that case, let us uncover who these ruffians might be working for,” Bess stated with confidence.
Kerner eyed him suspiciously. This Britannian was proving far more adventurous than he had expected. “How do propose we do that?”
“The pirates are known for taking on new crew members who are looking for a change in lifestyle, correct?” Bess quizzed.
“Yes…” Kerner hesitated. He didn’t like where this was going.
The captain beamed at him, a mischievous light glinting in his eyes. “Then we should join them.”
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The adventure continues in the next episode, where the prince and his bodyguard are outwitted by local mischief makers as they search for a way out of the Deep…