The household awoke to the pitter-patter of light rain. The dim lighting and the comfy beddings made the waking process slow and lazy. A chilly morning, necessitating an extra layer, a thin blanket wrapping around Marielle, as she performed her morning rituals.
There would be no breakfast, the fasting up to the dinner party would give a fashionable gaunt look. She was accepting of the fact that a good portion of the day would be spent preparing her appearance for the event. Maybe it was a blessing that it was raining outside, preventing her from even considering tending the garden. Augustus sat and ate while she accompanied him with an empty table set before her. Her stomach growled at the sight and smell of fresh bread and eggs. The fresh bread was particularly enticing with its warm wafting aroma.
"It'll be a quiet day today," said Augustus after swallowing a mouthful of the bread. "No one is to leave until the dinner party, except Heratio, and the weather will keep us under-roof. Perhaps I'll read a book."
She pondered upon her activity for the day before she would begin preparations, thinking to maybe take inspiration from her husband and find a book to read. She had none among her possessions, her cargo from Jorland mainly consisted of clothing and a few heirlooms. Augustus on the other hand had a chest filled to the brim in his cargo.
"Maybe I'll do the same," she prodded. "Do you have a book that would interest me?"
"I'm embarrassed to say, I'm not sure what your interests are. I have no books on gardening, I'm afraid. What else would take your fancy?"
"Stories about knights fighting pirates and saving princesses, or about explorers being swept up in a storm and being stranded on an island. I love exciting and romantic stories."
"I don't have any of those. I do have books on history, they have those elements, knights and explorers and such, but they are treated with a dry recounting of facts. I wouldn't call them exciting or romantic. I also have books on the laws of Venocia, they have a catalogue of the decrees passed by the Senate with a short summary of implications."
"I saw you had a chest full of books. Surely you must have something I would enjoy reading."
"The only other books, and I was planning to study one of them today, are my books on stixis. Maybe you would enjoy that, although the books I have are of quite a high level."
"I don't play stixis. In fact, I don't even know how to play," said Marielle.
Augustus' face lit up at the revelation. "How about, rather than each of us reading a book in solace, I teach you to play? Then we can play a game," said Augustus cheerfully.
"That would be splendid. I've always been curious about how to play."
He finished up his meal then went to the bedroom, as Sara and Bindel cleared the table, coming back carrying a wooden case. He opened it up and placed the board Marielle was somewhat familiar with on the table in front of her. It was a woodblock, with holes carved out of the top side in a neat grid pattern. The grid was twenty holes by twenty holes.
"This is the playing field. A twenty by twenty grid. Each of these holes will fit any of the pieces." Augustus placed an assortment of pieces on the table. They were painted either red or green. Each a carved figure atop a stick just big enough to fit in the peg holes on the board. "These are the pieces, this is the peg, and this is the face. Each piece has a face." He picked up a piece as an example, a horse figure, pointing at the head. "The direction the piece faces matters, if it faces your opponent, it counts as a point for you. If it faces you, it's a point for the opponent.
"You place your piece like so." He slid the peg in with the piece facing to the side, then turned it to face Marielle. "They flip easily from one direction to the other with a flick." With a quick motion of his index and thumb, he spun the piece around, with it coming to an abrupt stop facing Augustus. "The design of the peg and hole is such that it'll snap easily between the two states." With another quick movement, he turned it again to face Marielle.
"The game proceeds with us taking turns, placing one chosen piece in an empty spot, until there are no pieces left, at which point half the board should be covered. Then whoever has the most points wins. So you can count each side's points, or, as is usually done, you remove pieces in pairs until all that remains are pieces facing the same direction. Sometimes you don't even need to count if there's an overwhelming victory."
Marielle nodded, so far everything seemed simple.
“There are three types of pieces, the horse, the warrior, and the goddess. Each has a different effect on the board, and you have a different quantity of each at your disposal…” Augustus trailed off when he saw Heratio entering the room.
Heratio was wearing a cloak to ward off the rain. He walked directly to Augustus and bowed. “Master Augustus, I will head out now.”
“Yes, here is the coin,” said Augustus as he reached into a pocket of his nightwear. He pulled out two gilden and handed them over. “When can I expect you back?”
“I will be back in time to escort you to the manse.” Heratio, knowing nothing more needed to be said, released his bow and left the room.
Augustus turned his attention back to the board. “Where were we?”
“The types of pieces, you said we get a different quantity of each.”
“Ah yes, the player who goes first plays as green, the player who goes last plays as red. Green has one-hundred-seventy-five horses, twenty-one warriors, and four goddesses. Red has a slightly different piece count, with one more horse and one less goddess.” He placed some horse pieces on the board in a diagonal line, all facing Marielle. “When you place a horse, any piece directly next to it, and this doesn’t include the diagonally adjacent piece, will turn to face the same direction, except for a certain condition.” He placed a horse facing himself next to two horses that faced Marielle, then flipped those two so that all three faced Augustus.
“The only time it wouldn’t flip is if that piece is already next to three other pieces facing the same direction. This is called a wall.” He placed another horse next to the previous horse facing the same direction. Now there were four horses facing Augustus, forming a T-shape. “This one in the center is protected by the wall. Think of it as a battlefield, if you are surrounded by allies, you are safer, you won’t defect. These ones on the side though aren’t protected by the wall, they are exposed. If you get one of them to defect though, the one in the middle is no longer protected and is open to defecting again.”
“The warrior does similar, except instead of the adjacent positions, it turns the diagonally adjacent pieces, up to two away. It has a farther reach, turning a total of eight positions, in comparison to the horse turning four positions. Similarly, it won’t affect pieces that are protected by a wall.” He placed horses along two diagonals to form an X, leaving the center empty. Then placed a warrior in the center to turn them all to face the same direction as the warrior.
“The last piece, and probably the most important piece, is the goddess. It affects the four pieces adjacent to it, just like the horse, except its effect is different. As long as the piece isn’t protected by a wall, and is facing the opposite direction to the goddess, it turns. If it turns, it turns any piece adjacent to it that is also in the opposite direction to the goddess, and so on. It spreads out like a wave, punishing the over-construction of walls and over-concentration of troops.
“Finally, there is the balance. As you can tell, the game isn’t symmetric. One player goes before the other, and one gets more goddesses than the other. So to even out the game, a balance of points is given to the player that starts out at a disadvantage. Would you care to guess who gets the balance, and how much it is?”
“Didn’t you say the player who went first got more goddesses?”
“So, one player gets to go first and gets an extra goddess, which you said is the most powerful piece in the game. I feel like this is a trick question.”
“I guess, the way I presented it, it is. The player who goes first is considered to be at a disadvantage, and thus gets the benefit of the balance. Twenty-five points are added to the first player’s score. Castor would say it’s the first lesson to be learned from the game of stixis, that patience is a virtue, and the best way to gain an advantage is to make sure you get to be the last to act. So, let’s play a game, shall we? I will go easy on you, and try to explain the strategy in the game as we play.”
Marielle nodded. They cleared the board and set up their stacks of pieces for easy access. Marielle agreed to play first, still not completely convinced that the first player was at a disadvantage. She placed a horse in the corner near her to start, and Augustus did the same in the opposite corner. Marielle placed a horse to capture Augustus’ piece. Augustus smiled at that and captured the piece Marielle just placed.
They continued to play at a brisk pace, each making their decisions quickly. As they did Augustus lectured, “The part of the game that is the hardest to grasp, is to understand how things will play out down the line. It’s impossible to calculate it, so you need to develop an intuition as to how board states will play out. It’s often difficult to determine how the game stands at a midpoint. A horse can affect four positions, that’s a potential four-point swing, the balance of points shifting eight points from a single piece, the weakest piece. Things change quickly in stixis, that is why you don’t play the board as it is, you play for the board at the end of the game.
“How will things look when all the pieces are down? You need to form a vision, a realistic vision, based on how things currently stand and based on your reading of the opponent. Then develop the board based on that vision. Things won’t go exactly as planned, they never do, but you adapt. You adjust your plan and compensate.
“But, first and foremost, you must understand where you stand in the game. Are you at an advantage? Are you at the disadvantage and need to take risks to try and gain the advantage? If you don’t understand that, you can’t possibly plan for the future.”
They continued placing pieces. Sara brought out tea and they took sips in between turns. Augustus continued to give tips, and remind her of the rules if she made a slight mistake. It got to the point where Marielle was sure she was winning, but in the last few turns she had, she realized she was mistaken.
Everything changed so quickly. They each had three goddesses each, and as she placed each one she realized the mistake she had made. Augustus used them to connect separate areas of the field to create a large interconnected set of pieces. Marielle was forced to place her goddesses in areas that minimized their effect, realizing that any extra connectivity would help Augustus. Despite her last-minute efforts to thwart Augustus’ plan, when Augustus placed his last piece he won the game handily.
She pouted at the loss, “I thought you said you would go easy on me?”
“I did. I didn’t say I would let you win. Besides, it’s good for you to see the advantage that came from acting last.”
“I realized too late that my goddesses were almost useless. Any big play made by one of my goddesses would just be reversed in your final move. In the end, I just threw them away, somewhere away from the other pieces.”
“You are untrained in the game. There’s no shame in losing. The rules of stixis are rather simple, but mastery of the game can take a lifetime. Also, the balance is based on two experts playing each other. Often, when amateurs play, they increase the balance to make the game more even.”
“I think if we play again, I will take a different strategy. I’ll try to develop pockets of activity, with space in between to minimize the advantage you have.”
“Yes, that’s the strategy the first player usually takes. I’m actually impressed you caught onto that so quickly.” Augustus smiled, then looked to the side to see the rain falling heavier than in the morning.
“I believe it’s midday now. A bit past lunchtime. You should start preparing for the dinner.”
“No, it was just breakfast,” Marielle said with surprise.
“It can seem like that when you’re playing stixis. Time seems to move differently when you get so involved in the thought processes required to play. I assure you, knowing we completed an entire game, a considerable amount of time has passed.” Augustus stood up from the table and left to begin his preparations.
Marielle got Sara and they began their preparations too. First was a warm bath, then the hair was brushed and braided. With the hair braided, Sara placed flowers, picked the day before, into Marielle’s hair in between the braids. Then she was dressed in the elegant family dress Augustus gifted her.
Using the bottom side of a brass pot, polished rigorously, like a mirror, she made adjustments to her clothing and appearance. She stepped back out into the reception room to see Augustus waiting, already prepared in his own fine clothing.
“You look magnificent,” said Augustus. “My family will surely be impressed by your beauty.”
Marielle felt the sudden heat in her face as she couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you for the compliment. Hopefully, my conversation skills will keep up with my appearance. I tend to have trouble being gregarious in large groups of strangers.”
“I have faith in your ability to adapt,” said Augustus, he stepped forward to be directly in front of her and placed both his hands on her shoulders. “This whole time, since the wedding, has been a turbulent time for you. It would be for anyone. To have to leave your home behind, and then to have to deal with my unexpected new family dynamic, is a difficult ordeal indeed. It was too much of me to ask of you so suddenly. But you have taken it in stride and learned quickly. Castor did a fine job choosing you as my wife.”
The feeling in Marielle’s chest was overwhelming. She had to look away to some empty corner of the room to alleviate it. She said nothing letting the moment hang in the silence.
The silence was broken when into the room walked a very wet Heratio, accompanied by a very dry Gillivan. “Master Augustus, Lady Marielle, I have returned,” said Heratio bowing. Drips of water fell off his cloak and dampened the ground.
Augustus let go of Marielle and turned to the two guards. “How’d it go?”
“Everything should be ready,” responded Heratio and he stood up from his bow.
“Everyone, come into the room!” shouted Augustus and the three currently absent servants came into the room.
Once they were all together, and the servants had finished their bows, Augustus continued, “Marielle and I will be headed out now, with Gillivan and Heratio escorting us. Do not expect us to return tonight, as we will likely take overnight lodging at the manse, especially considering the current weather. You three girls will sleep in the same room tonight, and Heratio will lend you a blade to protect yourselves. It may seem to you I am being overly cautious, but since Castor died, I don’t want to be taking any unnecessary chances.”
The three girls nodded their acknowledgement of the orders.
“Let's head out then. Heratio, prepare the carriage at the entrance.” Heratio bowed and ventured forth, back into the rain. Augustus dismissed the rest of the servants, and he and Marielle went to wait at the entrance for the carriage.
The drizzle of the morning had turned into a downpour. Waves of raining intensity moved across the field of vision, dimly illuminated from the densely clouded sky. The carriage pulled up so that the overhang at the entrance allowed the two masters of the house to enter without having to brave the elements. Gillivan, now dressed in his cloak, joined Heratio on the perch as they set off down the road to the manse.
Flashes of light were followed, after a few counts, by the expected loud crackling thunder. “It’s terribly unfortunate weather for the dinner party,” said Marielle staring out at the rain.
“From another perspective, it could be considered fortunate.” Augustus paused for a count. “We have to spend our time indoors, at this party, that is without question. Better to not miss a beautiful day, too.”
“That’s a wonderful perspective to have. Praise Cyril for blessing us, by choosing today of all days to visit this storm upon us.”
“Praise Cyril indeed.” Again the loud sound of thunder, as if Cyril was responding to Augustus’ praise.
They arrived back at the manse, a place Marielle hadn’t been since her arrival in the city. Pulling in under the overhang, the two left the carriage as dry as they were before they left their home. Heratio and Gillivan on the other hand were completely soaked.
Heratio hopped off the perch for a final chat with Augustus before they knocked on the door. “Good luck in there Master Augustus.” They were a few steps away from Marielle, yet she overheard their conversation.
“Good luck to you out there.” They both had a chuckle. “Leave no witnesses alive.”
Heratio gave a solemn bow and jumped back onto the carriage to depart.
Augustus returned to his wife sticking out his elbow for Marielle to accept, which she did graciously. They walked up to the entrance door, and with his free hand, Augustus gave two powerful knocks on the door and shouted, “Your honoured guest has arrived! Marielle DeCastellian awaits entrance!”