The west watchhouse was as silent as it had ever been, at least in the many years Vott had called the place a second home. Of course, silence was all part of the plan. Vott needed to think, without the constant bickering of the rowdy youngsters encroaching on his thoughts. He had told the others—in his usual way, a manner Vott considered to be stern but loving—to get out. The big sergeant had not needed to repeat himself.
But then there was Iric. The youngest of the watchhouse’s officers, the boy was peering over Vott’s shoulder like a child eyeing a craftsman adding the finishing touches to a toy. Big, blue eyes wide. Mouth agape. The expression of an innocent with no sense of the darkness creeping back into the city like a morning mist. A familiar but unwelcome visitor.
“You know, Sarge,” Iric said, “I learned a few tricks to this game, from an old man in Culprit’s Alley. Old guys seem to be good at this game.”
“Are you calling me old?” Vott asked.
“Oh, then you must be suggesting that I am not very good.”
“No, that’s not—”
“Leave the boy alone, Wissian,” Jari said from across the table, as he placed the last few pieces on the game board. “He’s just trying to be helpful.”
“I don’t need helpful,” Vott said with a grunt. “I need a miracle.”
“What did this old man say, Iric?” Jari asked.
“He said the best strategy is not always a direct line of attack.”
“Wise words,” Jari said in agreement.
Vott shoved the young watchman back with an elbow, giving himself much needed space, as he looked over the board. Foxes and Larks. To the uninitiated, it seemed to be such a simple game. Just a child’s boardgame. And yet…
“How did this game ever become a gambling problem?” Iric asked suddenly. “I don’t get it.”
“That’s a good question, Iric,” Jari replied. “It’s not a complicated answer, once you consider that after The Skirmishes, most traditional betting games were outlawed. Cards and dice and the like. Too many veterans were falling into debt, or worse.”
“If the burned Triumvirate and Wizards Council would ‘ev done more to take care of folks,” Vott said, “especially those who needed it most, maybe they wouldn’t ‘ev resorted to gamblin’” He could hear his Lows-drawl spilling free, which meant the big man was growing agitated.
“Those good-for-nothin’ wizards sent us of to fight and then left us on our own to lick our wounds. They’re more concerned with experiments and petty debates than with the lives of the people they supposedly govern.” Vott could see a sudden uneasiness on Iric’s face. He turned and put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Nevermind my grumbling, kid. It’s just a rough spot with me.”
“We get by because of people like you, Wissian,” Jari said.
“Don’t you get sappy on me, old friend.”
“As I was saying,” Jari continued, “of course, gamblers weren’t going to just give up, just because their typical games were prohibited. Gamblers can bet on anything. Who’s going to be the first to pass out at the One-Horned Bull? How many times will old missus Turner shout ‘this fresh river trout is a real catch,’ before giving up? Not only is Foxes an established, professional game with tournament rules, it actually lends itself well to betting.”
“How so?” Iric asked.
“Well, you can obviously bet on the winner of the match. But you can also bet on the spread. How many larks will this player capture in game one? And so on.”
“Speaking of capturing,” Vott interjected. “Reaper’s goons are not going to imprison themselves. You’re here to teach me the game, so teach.”
“Alright,” Jari said. “Don’t have a fit, old man.” That made young Iric laugh. Vott glared at the kid, who stepped several feet back from the grumpy sergeant. “The first thing to discuss,” Jari continued, “is the concept of turns and which play you should choose first. As you know, one game consists of two rounds. Each player must play the foxes and the larks once, and then the scores are compared. But given the choice, which side do you play first?”
“Foxes, of course,” Vott said. “It gives me the first chance to score. And if I capture a high number of larks, I can discourage my opponent.”
“That might be an effective strategy, if a match was only one game. But you’ve got to play three sets in full match. Even if you win the first two, you must play the third in order to get the total score. It’s more important to learn your opponent as soon as possible. If you start as the larks, you can get a sense of your opponent’s style. Are they aggressive or defensive? Do they play it straight or tricky?”
“That makes sense,” Vott conceded.
“So, let’s give it a try. You start as the larks.”
Jari spun the game board around so the side with the birds was facing Vott. The big man had twenty pieces to Jari’s ten, but he knew this imbalance was only a small part of the game. Larks could only move in straight lines, whereas foxes had several movement patterns, including the “swap.”
As the larks player, Vott was the first to move. Knowing the skill of his opponent, he started out slow, moving his first piece a single square ahead. Jari moved one of his center foxes to the right. This play continued—Vott inching his way forward, Jari consolidating his pieces to the right—until Vott thought he saw an opening… his opponent’s left side was exposed. Vott proceeded to move all his pieces through the gap, moving them as far as possible and ignoring the raised spaces. These represented trees and were squares the foxes could not move over. Suddenly, Jari swapped a fox into the front of Vott’s formation of fleeing birds. The game ended soon after, with the big man only managing to get five birds to the opposite side. Obviously, Jari was one of the tricky players.
Now playing foxes, Vott assembled the board for round two. Jari started out aggressive, moving his first pieces out as far as they were allowed to move. Vott saw his opponent had left one lark isolated in a tree and moved his pieces in to surround it. If a lark was unable to make a legal move, it was automatically captured. One of the more nuanced rules. Perhaps Jari doubted Vott would know it. The sergeant’s smile was short-lived. By the time three of Jari’s birds had escaped, Vott realized he had been fooled again. When all was done, Jari had swept the game 16 to 5.
“You have to remember, Wissian,” Jari said, his tone that of a teacher instructing a young child, “this is a numbers game. It doesn’t matter if I lose a few birds in the process, as long as I get more through than you do.”
“That one on the right,” Vott said, “it was a diversion. A sacrificial play.”
“Exactly. You have to think of the end game. Sometimes, protecting the group means leaving one member behind. Birds know this. What happens when they see a predator coming? They scatter, knowing at best the enemy will only get one of them.”
But Vott knew this sad idea only too well. He could still see the faces of the dozen men who had been left behind at Whittler’s Creek, as the Kingston vanguard fell upon them. A distraction which had allowed the Marudalian regiment to cross downstream and flank. Some high-brow officer had received a medal and a title for the tactic. Those men at the creek had received only arrows, their names washed away by the rich and powerful current of history.
Would he be forced to make such a choice? Would he have to put one of his men out on a tree, if that’s what it took to end the gambling ring? Maybe Jari, or even Iric? Birds scatter. But men aren’t birds, and watchmen stand together. It was that wall of steel which had kept chaos at bay for generations. Fighting together wasn’t bad tactics. It couldn’t be.
“Let’s try that again,” Vott said. “I’ve got a new strategy.”
Jari looked the old sergeant in the eyes and smiled.