Men plan. Fate laughs.
- FROM THE WRITINGS OF GAIUS QUARTUS, FIRST LORD OF ALERA
Tavi made a steeple of his fingers and stared down at the ludus board. Squares of black and white lay in eleven rows of eleven, and painted lead figurines, also of black and white, stood in serried ranks upon them. A second board, five squares by five, rested on a little metal rod, its center over the lower board's center, occupied by only a few pieces. Casualties of war sat on the table beside the board.
Midgame was well under way, and the pieces were approaching the point where exchanges and sacrifices would have to be made, leading into the endgame. It was the nature of ludus. Tavi's dark Legions had taken heavier losses than his opponent's, but he held a stronger position. So long as he kept the game running in his favor-and provided his opponent wasn't laying some kind of fiendish trap Tavi had overlooked-he stood an excellent chance of victory.
He picked up one of his Lords and swept the piece up onto the raised sky-board, representing the skies above the field of battle, bringing added pressure onto the beleaguered positions of the hosts of the white foe.
His opponent let out a low, relaxed sound that was like nothing so much as the growl of some large and sleepy predator. Tavi knew that the sound indicated the same emotion a mildly amused chuckle might have in a human being-but never for a second did he forget that his opponent was not human.
The Cane was an enormous creature, and stood better than nine feet tall when upright. His fur was dark and thick, a heavy, stiff coat over the whole of his body, save for upon his paw-hands, and in patches where heavy scar tissue could be seen on the skin beneath his fur. His head was that of an enormous wolf, though a bit stockier than the beast's, his muzzle tipped with a wide, black nose, his jaws filled with sharp white teeth. Triangular ears stood erect and forward, focused on the ludus board. His broad tail flicked back and forth in restless thought, and he narrowed scarlet-and-golden eyes. The Cane smelled like nothing else Tavi had ever encountered, musky, musty, dark, and something like metal and rust, though the Cane's armor and weaponry had been locked away for two years.
Varg hunched down on his haunches across the board from Tavi, disdaining a chair. Even so, the Cane's eyes were a foot above the young man's. They sat together in a plainly appointed chamber in the Grey Tower, the impregnable, inescapable prison of Alera Imperia.
Tavi permitted himself a small smile. Almost impregnable. Not quite inescapable.
As always, the thoughts of the events of Wintersend two years past filled Tavi with a familiar surge of pride, humiliation, and sadness. Even after all that time, his dreams were sometimes visited with howling monsters and streams of blood.
He forced his thoughts away from painful regrets. "What's so funny?" he asked the Cane.
"You," Varg said, without looking up from the Indus board. His voice was a slow, low thing, the words chewed and mangled oddly by the Cane's mouth and fangs. "Aggressive."
"That's how to win," Tavi said.
Varg reached out a heavy paw-hand and pushed a white High Lord figure forward with a long, sharp claw. The move countered Tavi's most recent move to the skyboard. "There is more to victory than ferocity."
Tavi pushed a legionare figure forward, and judged that he could shortly open his assault. "How so?"
"It must be tempered with discipline. Ferocity is useless unless employed in the proper place..."