King Merian sat across the gameboard from Lord Cliffton. They were in the royal game room, playing Warfarer’s Boon by candlelight. Lord Cliffton was taking forever to decide on his next move, a playstyle that drove King Merian nuts. Especially since he, as the creator of Warfarer’s Boon, had specifically designed it to discourage cautious consideration of each decision, a fact of which Lord Cliffton was well aware. But he was probably trying to make a statement.
At last Lord Cliffton stirred. He moved his Fenceman forward one space. “There,” he said.
King Merian sat forward, took hold of his Landbird, and once again set about laying waste to Lord Cliffton’s army, slaying the Onceborn, the Minoraxe, the Majoraxe, the Ripener, the Handunfolder, and the Goodlyhuntress.
“I think that about does me in,” said Lord Cliffton, rubbing one of his eyes with one of his hands.
“Nonsense,” said King Merian. “There’s always a chance in Warfarer’s Boon.”
“So you say,” said Lord Cliffton. “And I guess you would know.”
“I’ve told you several times,” said King Merian. “I’ve explained it to you over and over.”
“I just don’t understand all the rules,” said Lord Cliffton.
“That’s not what’s holding you back and you know it,” said King Merian. “It’s your refusal to embrace the aggressive spirit of the game.”
“Sure,” said Lord Cliffton. “Fine. That’s fine for a game. But, in real life, you’re not taking the army to meet King Vernon’s forces in the field. We’re staying here, behind our walls, and we’re waiting him out. We’re well supplied, our walls are tall and thick, and we’ve got plenty of men to man them should King Vernon attempt to storm them. And I know that you’re the king, we all know you’re the king, but I’m just telling you, if you oppose us on this, you will not be the king for long. Everyone agrees. The whole council. We will not let you lead us to ruin.”
King Merian stewed in silence, refusing to meet Lord Cliffton’s eyes, staring at the gameboard on which he, with his relentless, attacking style, was dominating, as he always did when he was allowed to follow his true nature, whether that be in a game of Warfarer’s Boon or while leading an army in real life. He’d never told anyone this, but the Landbird piece in Warfarer’s Boon was designed after a real person: himself.
King Vernon’s tent was large and opulent. He sat on a throne that did not look especially portable. King Merian pitied the servants responsible for lugging it around from conquest to conquest. King Vernon did a lot of conquering. King Merian had considered King Vernon an inspiration for his successful conquest of his own current kingdom, and now here they were, adversaries.
“King Merian,” said King Vernon with a condescending smile. He was flanked by his four generals, all standing, all looking as if they’d prefer to be sitting. Lord Cliffton had told King Merian their names, but he’d already forgotten all of them.
“King Vernon,” said King Merian, giving him a little dip of his head. He had no intention of slaying anyone during this negotiation, but he couldn’t help but plan how he’d do it if he had to. It was second nature to him. He was always in attack mode, even alone in a room full of hostile warriors. King Merian had been accompanied to King Vernon’s encampment by an armed escort, of course, but they had been forced to wait outside the tent during the negotiations.
“It’s late,” said King Vernon. “Can we just skip to the bottom line?”
“Of course,” said King Merian. “I don’t want to be here all night and I’m sure you don’t either.”
“No,” said King Vernon. “I do n-“
“But here’s what I want to make sure that I say,” said King Merian. “I want to be certain that you understand that if I had my way, I would be meeting you in the field tomorrow. My army versus your army, head to head, on horseback and on foot, face to face, eye to eye, hand to hand.”
“Why don’t you?” asked King Vernon.
“Because,” said King Merian, visibly uncomfortable. “My advisors have advised me that it would not be in the best interest of my kingdom. Which I don’t agree with.”
King Vernon fiddled with his newish black beard. “So?” he said. “Who cares what your advisors say if you think they’re wrong? Bring your army into the field tomorrow, let’s solve this like warriors.”
“Exactly,” said King Merian. “That’s exactly how I want to handle this.”
“So it’s a deal?” asked King Vernon.
“Well, no,” said King Merian.
“Why not?” asked King Vernon.
“I already told you,” said King Merian. “I’m heeding the advice of my advisors. Unfortunately. But that could very well be temporary. Very temporary.”
“Let me just tell you what I heard,” said King Vernon. “I heard that your advisors are running the show over there and that you have no real power. I heard you’re just a figurehead who the advisors keep propped up to keep your subjects from panicking. In fact, I’m guessing the only reason you’re the one who came to negotiate with me is because your advisors don’t want me to be aware of how impotent the great warrior-king King Merian is right now.”
“Ha ha,” said King Merian. “You’re way off, King Vernon. Who did you say told you all this? What was his name? Or her name? I only ask because whoever it was is really good at making up fanciful tales and I’d like to offer him or her a job as my royal bard. What do you think of that? If I was just a figurehead, would I be able to hire a new bard at will?”
“So,” said King Vernon. “Assuming you even know your advisors’ real plan, you guys are just going to hide behind your walls until I storm them or you starve to death?”
“Or,” said King Merian, “until we come pouring out of the gates like a swarm of demonic insects, devouring everything in our path, routing your army and sending those of you we don’t slaughter scampering home to have nightmares about us every time you close your eyes until you die in some other, uh, way.”
King Vernon cracked a smile. He had teeth that belonged in a better era of human history. “Tell your advisors I accept no terms short of complete surrender. I want your kingdom, King Merian, and nothing short of defeating me in battle will dissuade me from my pursuit thereof.”
“I will tell my advisors,” said King Merian. “So that they can advise me and then I can, as the king, the ultimate authority in my kingdom, make a decision.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” said King Vernon.
King Merian’s advisors were of one mind. The fact that King Vernon had openly challenged King Merian’s ability to meet him on the field of battle as befit two great warrior-kings didn’t bother the advisors whatsoever.
“Stop whining,” said Lady Helayna. “We’re staying inside our walls until King Vernon dashes his army against them or goes away.”
“What if he builds siege engines?” asked King Merian. “What then?”
“You used up all the suitable wood in the region for your siege engines when you conquered this city two years ago,” said Lord Histlethorpe. “As you may have noticed then, if not any time since then, your kingdom is almost entirely bereft of decent trees, your Highness.” Lord Histlethorpe was the only advisor who still addressed King Merian like a king, although that didn’t stop him from speaking out against King Merian’s wishes at every opportunity. He was a naysayer. A scrawny, mustachioed naysayer.
“What if he imports the wood for his siege engines?” asked King Merian. “He may already have the planks in his camp.”
“He hasn’t imported any wood,” said Lord Cliffton. “We’re monitoring his supply lines. We’ve told you so many times.”
“‘Monitoring,’” said King Merian, leaning back in his council room throne. “Your precious spy. Feeding you scraps of information, like, ‘oh, there’re no wooden planks in the camp.’” He drummed the fingers of his right hand on his left wrist. “So as long as we’re talking about spies, we might as well get to the bottom of which one of you three told King Vernon I’m not really in charge over here anymore.”
“You think we’re the only ones aware of that fact?” asked Lady Helayna. “The rumors are spreading and it’s mostly your doing. You’ve been telling everyone that you want to attack King Vernon in the field but that you can’t because we’re advising against it. What kind of message do you think that sends? If you would just publicly support the very sensible idea of letting our defenses defend us, everyone would assume that it’s your idea and that you’re still calling the shots.”
“Let me explain something to you,” said King Merian, rising to his feet, to his full height, all however many feet and however many inches of him. A heated, royal man, standing upright. “I excel at one thing: attacking. Being the aggressor. Do any of you understand that? Why do you think I’m your king now and not old King Dradgen? Because I attacked him and I took his kingdom from him. I acted swiftly and surely. And I left you, King Dradgen’s council of advisors, in place. Why? Because you understood this kingdom and its inner workings and I thought you understood me. You certainly led me to believe you understood me. But it seems like I was wrong. Because now you want me, me, to focus on our defenses. Don’t you see how wrong that is? How backward? King Vernon has more men than us, more resources, he’s got a steady stream of supplies into his camp. What do we have? Fewer men, fewer resources, no means by which to get more supplies into the city…and we have my irrepressible aggression a, trait of immense value that only increases in value the less it’s expected. I’m the only chance this kingdom has and you all know it. If you ask me to hang back and wait to be attacked and defend, then you’re robbing this kingdom of the only chance it has for survival. You’re dooming us all. You owe it to the subjects of this kingdom to let me be me.”
“Yes, yes,” said Lord Cliffton. “‘The best defense is a good offense.’ It’s a meaningless cliché. We’ve all-”
“No!” shouted King Merian, pounding his flinty fist on the table. “The worst offense is wasting valuable time on any defense whatsoever! That is what I’m saying!”
“So, Your Highness, if defense is so stupid, we should just throw our gates open,” said Lord Histlethorpe. “We should just knock down our walls.”
“Yes,” said King Merian. “If that’s what it takes to make you realize that we need to go on the offensive, then yes, we would be better off without gates and walls. King Vernon has no gates or walls. And neither did I when I attacked this city and took this kingdom for my own.”
“You,” said Lady Helayna, “are not a reasonable man, King Merian. I’m going to bed.”
“Me too,” said Lord Cliffton, rising from his seat at the council table.
“Wait, hold on,” said King Merian. “Anyone fancy a game of Warfarer’s Boon before bed?”
Lady Selista, who had been unlucky enough to be visiting King Merian’s kingdom for no particular reason when King Vernon laid siege to it and was now trapped therein, was awful at Warfarer’s Boon. After all the members of his council had turned down his offer for a pre-bed game, King Merian had been forced to roam the halls of his palace in search of willing competition. Lady Selista was the only candidate he’d been able to find who already knew how to play, although she was so bad at it that King Merian got little joy out of defeating her. King Merian had never lost a game of Warfarer’s Boon, but at least Lord Cliffton put up enough of a fight to make the games last for more than a few minutes. Lady Selista was terrible in a way that defied comprehension.
“You know,” said King Merian after defeating Lady Selista for the fifth time in twenty minutes, “I’ve never confided this in anyone before, but the Landbird piece?” He picked it up off of the board and held it up at eye level, turning it this way and that so Lady Selista could marvel at it if she so chose, which she did not. “I designed it after myself.” King Merian chuckled. “That’s right, Lady Selista, the Landbird is me.”
“I figured that,” said Lady Selista. “I mean, you designed the game and it’s the best piece, it just runs around dominating the action and killing everyone.”
“Exactly,” said King Merian, setting his Landbird back on the game board. “But if that’s so obvious to you, why don’t you utilize your Landbird piece?”
“Because,” said Lady Selista. “It’s a show-off.”
One night later, King Merian, in a long, dark cloak, passed out of the city through the small, little-used Gate of Simplicity. The guards stationed there didn’t hesitate for a moment to open the gate for King Merian once they saw who he was. To them, he was still the king, the one person to whom you definitely had to listen. King Merian appreciated that about them. Of course, the same guards also let the spy assigned to King Merian by his treacherous advisors waltz right out of the city too, so that was a mark against them. Fortunately, King Merian had foreseen this development and had hidden in the shadows against the outside of the city wall twenty yards down from the gate. King Merian watched as the spy hurried off in the direction of King Vernon’s encampment, no doubt assuming that was the direction King Merian had gone. King Merian gave the spy a short head-start, then followed after him, ready to drop to his stomach in the dirt at any moment if the spy’s silhouette were to turn to face in his direction. But the spy didn’t turn. He must have been baffled as to how King Merian had gotten so far ahead of him in such a short time. The spy hurried all the way to a huge, flat rock a hundred yards from King Vernon’s camp where he stopped to survey the scene for any sign of King Merian among the enemy tents. That’s where King Merian sneaked up on him and knocked him out cold with the hilt of his sword.
King Vernon was still awake, sitting in his throne room and eating grapes that a servant was warming one by one over a candle flame.
“I thought you’d have to be roused,” said King Merian.
“No,” said King Vernon. “I never sleep. Well, rarely. All four of my generals hate me. Any one of them would be capable of sending an assassin to murder me in my sleep. My one consolation is that they all hate each other at least as much as they hate me. So none of them get any sleep either.”
“Ah,” said King Merian. “Yeah, my advisors hate me too. I don’t think they’d try to assassinate me, but they did try to have a spy follow me here tonight.” He hoped King Vernon would ask him what had become of the spy, but he didn’t.
“It’s rough,” said King Vernon. “I’m the only thing keeping this army intact. Without me, these four generals would turn on each other instantly.” He didn’t seem at all concerned that King Merian was hearing this. King Merian was a little insulted that King Vernon didn’t consider him enough of a threat to conceal such an interesting bit of information. Or maybe he was just feeling really open right now.
“I’ve got the opposite problem,” said King Merian. “I’m barely relevant in my own kingdom. I’m just an obstacle for people to step around and then get back to doing whatever they want.”
“So why are you here?” asked King Vernon.
“It’s funny,” said King Merian. “A couple of years ago, I had my army camped right where your army’s camped now. I envy you so much. You don’t know how much I wish we could switch places. In fact, who knows, if you hadn’t decided to come after my kingdom, I might have been on your doorstep with my army in the next few months.”
“Maybe so,” said King Vernon. He ate another warmed grape and made a face. Maybe it had been too warm.
“Anyway,” said King Merian. “I hate sitting inside my walls and just waiting to defend them and I don’t have command of my own army. And even if I decided to throw myself into the plan to defend, that’s not where my strength lies, and without taking advantage of its king’s natural strengths, my kingdom has nothing going for it, really. Nothing important. My point is that my kingdom is doomed to fall to you and I know it. So why don’t I just lower a rope from the ruined tower on the western wall so a few of your men can get into the city and, I dunno, open a gate for your army or capture my advisors and force them to beg me to concede in exchange for their lives or something?”
King Vernon did not react to this suggestion. He just kept taking warmed grapes from his servant and eating them. “Not enjoying the king life,” he finally said. “So, what? You pin the lowering of the rope on someone else? Or, what, don’t pin it on anyone in particular and the culprit is never found? You just lower the rope, go back to bed, and wait for us to come for you in the night? That way you lose your kingdom by treachery and no one blames you for the loss? You’re undone by circumstances beyond your control? You spend the rest of your life telling people how you were planning to bring your army into the field to face me the next day, but that darn traitor spoiled everything?”
“You’ve had similar thoughts,” said King Merian. “I can tell.”
“No,” said King Vernon. “But I’ve conquered a lot of kingdoms. Kings are weak.”
“Do we have a deal?” asked King Merian, ignoring the insult. “It has to be tonight. This is my opportunity. I’ve already got the rope stashed in the ruined tower.”
“I’ll get a small squad together,” said King Vernon. “And I’ll have the generals start readying the other troops. Go back to your city and wait in the ruined tower. When you hear this whistle:” King Vernon whistled a distinctive whistle, “then drop the rope to us. We’ll take care of the rest.”
“After this is all over,” said King Merian. “You and I should play a game or two of Warfarer’s Boon. I think you’d be a real challenge.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” said King Vernon. “But I like games.”
King Merian chuckled the whole way back to the city as he imagined King Vernon’s face twisting in outrage and agony as the Landbird ran rampant through his pieces, methodically slaying them all, winning the game.
The ruined tower was ruined because King Merian hadn’t bothered to have anyone repair it since it had been ruined during his attack on the city two years before. Now, as he sat there among the ruins, waiting for King Vernon’s whistle, King Merian was glad he hadn’t devoted any time or resources to fixing the tower. It was going to be King Vernon’s problem now. He would probably fix it right away, though. He definitely seemed more organized than King Merian. More practical. King Merian shivered and blew into his chilly hands. There was still time to not go through with this. He could just not throw the rope down when he heard the whistle. He could just go back to his chambers now, go to bed, and never even hear the whistle. In the morning, it would be like none of this had happened. King Vernon would think he was a flake, but, big deal, they were already enemies. King Merian stood and walked over to the piece of stonework to which he’d tied one end of the rope, the rest of which was lying coiled in a heap on the floor. Then he walked over to the hole in the tower wall that one of his catapults had put there. He stuck his head out and looked down. He couldn’t see anything. It was far too dark. He returned to his seat on a pile of rubble. King Merian would not miss being king. Taking the city had been the only part he enjoyed. That and the fact that, as king, people felt obligated to play Warfarer’s Boon with him when he asked.
And then King Merian heard it: the whistle. It sounded exactly as King Vernon had demonstrated that it would. King Merian stood and walked over to the rope. Would he pick it up? He picked it up. He turned to face the gaping hole in the wall of the tower. Would he walk toward the hole, rope in hand? He did, stopping a foot short of the edge. Would he throw the rope down to the enemy waiting below? He did. A few moments later, someone down on the ground gave the rope a few sharp yanks, testing its reliability. Then the rope went taut, creaking and straining, but holding firm. After a while, King Merian heard grunting and panting, the scuffling of boots on stone. And then hands appeared, and a head, and a man with a sword on his back pulled himself up into the tower. King Merian didn’t recognize the man. Just some soldier, probably. It made sense. They’d have to send up someone lowly before risking the climb with someone more important.
“You made it,” said King Merian, stepping out of the shadows.
The soldier gasped, staggering against a wall and struggling to get his sword off of his back.
“Whoa, sorry,” said King Merian. “It’s me. I mean, I’m the one who lowered the rope.”
The soldier sighed with relief, his right hand clamped over his heart. “You scared me so badly. I didn’t see you there. They told me there would probably be no one here when I got up, but I was supposed to make sure, but you were so hard to see in the shadows, I thought we were all clear, but then-”
“I just wanted to make sure it worked all right,” said King Merian. “I couldn’t test it before you guys got here, obviously.” He didn’t add how he’d been considering reneging on the deal up until the last possible second.
“Well, I made it just fine,” said the soldier. “It’s a long climb, but the fear of falling keeps you going. The adrenaline helps.” He walked over to the opening in the tower wall and whistled down to his compatriots below, the same whistle as before but with worse tone and pitch, over all. Then, as the rope grew taut and began to groan again, the soldier stood between King Merian and the hole, a little to the side, and drew his sword very casually. He didn’t say anything or make any threatening gestures, but King Merian could tell when he was being guarded.
Time passed. Sometimes the rope would stop creaking and moving for a while, but it never went slack. King Merian could tell that the soldier was nervous as he kept his eyes fixed mostly on the hole and the rope disappearing over its edge, but every once in a while, he’d glance back at King Merian and give him a nervous everything-is-fine smile.
And then, after even more time passed, including several more excruciating pauses, hands and a head at last appeared above the edge of the hole. Relieved, the soldier took one step toward the figure climbing up into the tower. But that was all he had time to do before the figure uttered a curse and, hands fumbling, then flailing, disappeared. One moment King Merian saw the figure’s silhouette coming slowly into view against the slightly-less-dark sky behind it, and the next moment the figure was gone. The soldier froze, one hand extended toward the hole. After what seemed like a minute but was probably more like a few seconds, King Merian heard a distant thud and then, a few moments after that, the voices of men, angry, afraid, shocked.
“Who was that?” asked King Merian.
The soldier didn’t respond. Instead, he walked over to the edge of the hole and looked down. King Merian followed him, stood beside him.
“Was that who I think it was?” asked King Merian.
“He insisted,” said the soldier, his voice hollow. “He insisted on being the second person up the rope. He said it was his right as the conqueror. ‘The primary conqueror.’”
“Huh,” said King Merian. “I guess he wasn’t that practical after all.”
“We’re done for,” said the soldier. “The generals will be at each other’s throats as soon as they receive word. The whole camp will divide, will fight.” He paused, then turned to look at King Merian. “But,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “I can still-”
“Nope,” said King Merian, and he shoved the soldier out through the hole in the wall of the ruined tower. The hole his catapult had put there, remember. It was all kind of perfect. He started pulling the rope back up before he even heard the second thump. King Merian cut the secured end of the rope loose from the piece of stonework and tossed the rope among the rubble. Then he went down the crumbling steps of the tower, out into the street, back to the royal palace, up to his chambers, and to bed.
“I’ve modified the rules,” said King Merian as he set up the Warfarer’s Boon gameboard on the table in the royal game room.
Lord Cliffton, seated in the chair across the table from King Merian, sighed and his posture worsened. He was not comporting himself like the top advisor to the king of a kingdom that had been under seige until sometime late last night and now, miraculously, was not. He did not do the polite thing and ask King Merian to explain the new rules.
“These,” said King Merian, holding up a stack of unevenly cut squares of parchment, “are Boon Cards. Or, simply, ‘Boons.’”
“I thought the title ‘Warfarer’s Boon’ referred to an aggressive spirit,” said Lord Cliffton.
“It did,” said King Merian. “And it still does. But now it’s also much more literal. The more aggressive you are, specifically with your Landbird, then the more Boon Cards, or ‘Boons,’ you accrue. And then, if you’re ever in a tough spot, a situation in which escape seems impossible, you can turn over one of your Boon Cards, or ‘Boons,’ and see how the Landbird’s commitment to aggression has turned Fortune in your favor, you can-”
“I get it, I get it,” said Lord Cliffton. “‘Fortune favors the bold.’”
“No!” shouted King Merian, pounding the game table with his fist. “The bold don’t earn Fortune’s favor, the bold don’t care who Fortune favors! The bold make Fortune grant them boons through the power of their boldness!”
“Listen,” said Lord Cliffton. “I know you want to take credit for whatever happened to King Vernon’s army, but you got lucky. Just like you did when you were laying siege to this city and King Dradgen’s senile brother received King Dradgen’s plea for help and promptly took his army to assist their other brother, who was not under siege.”
“None of that could have happened if I hadn’t been aggressive,” said King Merian.
“Right,” said Lord Cliffton. “Sure. ‘Winners make their own luck.’ Whatever.”
“Wrong!” shouted King Merian. “Winners…uh, well, OK…aggression…let’s just play.”
For the first time, it seemed as if Lord Cliffton was really trying to win the game. He was aggressive, he moved his Landbird around with reckless abandon, but it wasn’t enough. King Merian won handily. He didn’t even have to use any of the many Boon Cards, or “Boons” he had accrued.
“This is what scares me,” said Lord Cliffton. “You think it means something. Everywhere you look, you just see giant hands giving you giant thumbs up.”
“That’s right,” said King Merian. “I’m proud of that. That confidence is what makes my aggressive nature possible.”
“I wasn’t supposed to tell you this,” said Lord Cliffton. “But we, meaning me and the other advisors, had spies spreading dissension in that camp from the moment King Vernon showed up. We had those generals hating each other, hating King Vernon. We had it under control. All we had to do was hang back and let their camp self-destruct. The only thing that could have ruined our plan was you charging out to fight them in the field. So I don’t know why you’re so smug. I don’t know why you’re so pleased with yourself. I don’t know what you think you did, but whatever happened, it had nothing to do with your ‘aggressive nature.’”
“Why didn’t you tell me about that plan?” asked King Merian.
“Because,” said Lord Cliffton. “You would have blown it, somehow. On accident because you’re dumb. Or on purpose because it didn’t fit in with your all-important self-image. Did you know that King Vernon always, always, always executed the kings of the kingdoms he conquered?”
“I wouldn’t have ‘blown it,’” said King Merian. “I only ever wanted what’s best for this kingdom.” He felt ill as he shuffled the Boon Cards, or “Boons.” “Let’s play another game.”
“No,” said Lord Cliffton, pushing his chair back from the table and standing up. “I’m never playing this stupid game again.” He slammed the door to the game room behind him when he left, leaving King Merian alone with the gameboard, all the lesser pieces, both Landbirds, and all the Boon Cards. All the Boons.