The Fourth Board

By D J Muir

Jinli knows that the Tyrant will come this afternoon to take tea with her father. She knows that he will sit on the terrace in front of the teahouse, as he always does, and her father will serve him with precision, as he always does. Today, the Tyrant will ask Father to bring out the hao ryl set, sit down with him, and play a game. This the Tyrant does not always do; Father and he play perhaps once a season.

When the game is decided, the Tyrant will ask Father to bring Jinli before him, and to have her read his future, and this he has never asked before.

And Jinli knows that things will not happen this afternoon quite as anyone has planned.


It is early morning, and the sun sits two fingers above the mountains. Despite the snow which lies upon the square outside, there are butterflies in the air. Jinli sees one settle on the kitchen window. It is too fine and clever a creation for her to see the ways in which it differs from a real butterfly. But it is a facsimile, and if she had not known before that the Tyrant would come, she would be certain of it now.

As she waves the heating coils to life under the cauldron, and sets the teapots and cups on their trays, she worries what today will bring. Like the Tyrant seeking out her talents, this worry is something new. Since her mother died five years ago, Jinli has never had to worry about the future—at least, not the short future, the few-days-ahead future—because when she thinks forward she can direct her thoughts to a time and place and see it with absolute clarity.

Only this afternoon is a storm of fragments which fly like snowflakes in a blizzard, a broken whiteout time. She can hear, see, smell, touch nothing. And when she thinks of tomorrow, she sees fractured images, as though each shard of a broken screen were playing a different vid, and she hears shattered soundtracks screech like sirens. There will be a tomorrow; but for the first time, what tomorrow will be she cannot say.

The last clear moment she foresees is this afternoon. She sees the Tyrant, the bald crown of his head gleaming, and he will be asking her father to bring her out, and then everything dissolves.

Only a few people know that Jinli can see futures. Only she knows that today she cannot.

Her father enters the kitchen smiling, come to fetch more cups to set on the tables. He and the Tyrant are of an age, but his hair is still thick and black; the teahouse has aged him less than the conquest of worlds has weighed on his former comrade. Father has lived a gentle life in the years between.

"Father," says Jinli, "you will need the hao ryl this afternoon. He will be coming today, and he will want to play."

She doesn't have to say who he is; Father knows, and his smile fades a little.

"Can you fetch it for me, please? I'm running behind."


Jinli finds the hao ryl set in its place in Father's office. She pulls out the three wooden boards, the bowls which will hold the pieces, the bags which hold the pieces now. Father is proud of his skill at the boards, though he is no master. He has told her that he himself taught the Tyrant how to play long ago. But Father's longer experience no longer means he is the better player. He has said that the Tyrant learns quickly, that he is a clever man, and that his memory might very well be eidetic. And as the years have passed, the Tyrant has had more practice than Father, both at the game and at the art of strategy.

Some games, Father wins; some he loses.

Jinli does not play. Her father tried to teach her in the days before she could see futures, but the tactical intricacies held no appeal. Of course, once she could see what was yet to come, there was no point in playing. But she has not been able to avoid the transfer of his game-wisdom by a slow, persistent osmosis.

"If you cannot move the piece, move the board," he has often said. And also: "The game is won on the fourth board. The fourth board is in your opponent's mind."

She takes the set and places it on a side table in the tearoom. When the Tyrant calls for it, Father will have it close to hand.


Just before noon, Jinli has a few minutes to herself, and while she is in her room worrying, she sees another butterfly, on the outside frame of the window. The butterflies are Brigadier Thu's doing. Thu is the Tyrant's right hand, chief of security, and he sends these to watch ahead of his ruler. They are a net of scouts cast forth to ensure no one approaches the Tyrant without his knowing it in advance.

There was a time before the butterflies. Jinli can still remember it, in fragments.

In one fragment, she remembers standing outside, while nearby her father and the Tyrant faced one another, eyes intent on the pieces on the boards between them, the day brilliant summer, festival banners snapping in the breeze. Jinli remembers her mother standing in the teahouse doorway. As Jinli walked towards the doorway, past the game, she heard the Tyrant laugh, and looked round.

"See this, Jinli? Your father makes two moves, and everything's over and done. A turn of the board, so. Then he switches these two boards, so. And he wins."

"I don't know the rules, sir. Why does he win?"

"This," the Tyrant said, holding up a blood-red playing piece, "was my bulwark against all his attacks. When he swapped the boards, though, this is the piece that blocks me—traps me. My best defence has become my downfall."

The Tyrant was grinning, so she smiled back, though she still didn't understand.

The butterfly on the window frame is gold and scarlet. But on its back is an ugly grey parasite. It has been tampered with.

Jinli's break ends, and she goes downstairs to the kitchen pondering that grey protrusion. As she prepares a fresh pot with leaves harvested on New Antarctica, she concludes that the Tyrant's security has been breached; Thu will be receiving false reports. So something must threaten the Tyrant, and threaten him at the teahouse.

Jinli is worried, not because of the danger which may come, but by the thought that Thu could have been outsmarted. Brigadier Thu's realm is smoke and shadow; little is known about him, and less of it true. But if one thing is certain, it is that he excels at his job. Who can have out-tricked him?

Should Jinli warn the Tyrant? Should she warn her father's friend?


At 13:13, a tiltrotor sweeps over the square and drops softly to the snowy ground. Shimmering shapes ghost out and disappear into the scenery. When the security detail are in position, the Tyrant emerges alone, clad in scintillating robes of silver and amethyst, and walks to the teahouse.

Father has heard the turbos of the tiltrotor, and is emerging onto their terrace as the Tyrant approaches. The environment field flickers as the Tyrant steps through, passing from seven degrees below freezing to the pleasantly warmed and snow-free teahouse grounds.

Father bows low to the Tyrant and greets him. "Lord Gui Feng Simban, we are honoured once again by your presence."

"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm still Gui, and you're still Edro, and titles aren't important when I come to visit. How are you?"

"I'm well. Business is good. Sit down, please. Shall I bring your usual?"

And so the Tyrant Gui Feng Simban sits cross-legged upon a cushion before a low table on the terrace, and Father bustles inside to pick up a pot of Darjeeling Eridani.

When the Tyrant's tea is before him, he says, "Let your daughter and the automatics handle the other customers for a while. Make yourself comfortable. Sit and chat."

Father sits. From inside, Jinli can see them as they talk. She sees the telltale tension in Father's shoulders. He always begins these conversations wary and guarded, but she knows he will relax soon, and they will hold a conversation as old friends. This is why the Tyrant comes here. Some of his old friends are dead, and most are scattered across many worlds, and the rest do not trust him. Only Father remains.

Jinli turns away from the window, and a piercing kaleidoscopic agony cuts her. She staggers, puts a hand to the smooth wall to steady herself. The pain recedes. She draws a deep breath, feels the lingering throb at the base of her skull. The slicing intensity and the brilliant shattering of her perceptions make her think of what she has been told of migraines—but Jinli does not get migraines.

Troubled, she walks swiftly to the kitchen, and as she enters, she sees a shift and blur of shadow. Jinli feels a chill despite the humid warmth of the air: this can only be a soldier in his chameleoflage. The Tyrant's security guards do not normally enter the teahouse itself. She considers this as she steps towards the cauldron and its boiling water.

In the space behind the cauldron is a rounded grey box which does not belong there. As she catches sight of it, the headache surges again and she gasps.

The shimmer of the soldier's concealment gear is in the corner of her eye as she recovers. The soldier is watching her, watching what she will do. She will not let herself panic, forces herself to calmly fill a teapot, though her hands will not stop shaking, and tries to consider why.

She reasons that he must know about this grey box, and knows she has seen it. If he wanted it removed or destroyed, he could do it; so he does not want that. If he wants it there, and no one else is apparent here, it seems he is the one who placed it there. What is it, and why would he place it, she wonders?

When her hands finally steady, Jinli places the teapot onto a tray with cups, and walks into the tearoom to deliver it to the other customers. They have not seen the Tyrant's arrival, and are oblivious. Through the window she glimpses Father and their distinguished guest. Father's shoulders are shaking with laughter, and the Tyrant is grinning at some private joke.

When she swings through the kitchen door again, her head pounds and her vision flashes synaesthetic colours. She slumps heavily against a cupboard and blinks back the tears that form. In the corner, the soldier shifts. She stares at him, sending a clear message: I know you are here, invisible man.

It comes to her then.

His grey box has brought on her pain, and masked her oracular power. The invisible soldier's mission is to stop her telling the Tyrant his future. The butterflies would see the box, but they have been sabotaged with the parasites she saw. Someone knew that the Tyrant would come here today, and needed him not to know the future, and needed there to be no evidence of how he was thwarted.

Who would know the Tyrant's schedule, who would know or could guess at her power? Who would have soldiers loyal to them alone, soldiers willing to betray the Tyrant?

Who could have so many hidden pieces in play?

Only, she thinks, Brigadier Thu.

And why would the Tyrant's right hand not wish him to know his future?

Why indeed?


When she steps out into the front room to check on their customers, she sees Father picking up the hao ryl set. The conversation of old comrades is ready to morph into a meeting of minds upon the three boards.

She has the length of their game before Gui Feng Simban will call for her to tell his future. She knows now what he will ask, though the moment of the question is still lost in a storm of fate's snowflakes. He will ask, Who plans to betray me?

Brigadier Thu, thinks Jinli. And he thinks that if I cannot see the future, I cannot uncover his plot. But he does still fear discovery, Jinli thinks; if the butterflies' parasites are sending false signals, they are not for Thu to see. The Brigadier must suspect or know that someone else—someone still loyal—may see the scouts' reports. The false signals are for deniability.

She asks the other customers if there is anything she can fetch for them, if the tea is to their liking.

If she tells the Tyrant, what will the soldier in the kitchen do, this one who has done Thu's bidding? A prickling fear runs through her. She can almost feel the crosshairs.

In the kitchen, she ignores the corner where the soldier waits, and sets aside tea sets for washing.

Back in the front room, she glances out of the window. The Tyrant has the white pieces, her father the crimson. Gui Feng Simban has swept forward on both flanking boards, while Father consolidates an advantage in the centre.

Father turns the left flank board through ninety degrees, and two of the Tyrant's pieces are void. Despite the setback, he smiles. He says something Jinli cannot hear, and both of them laugh.


New customers have not been arriving; everyone who would approach outside can see the Tyrant sitting there. The last two who remained inside have just left, and Jinli has put her hands to her temples to stop the throbbing there, when she sees how close the game is to its end. Father's last pieces are trapped on just one board now. He might turn it or switch it with one of the others, but the mismatch is so great now, she thinks the advantage would be fleeting.

He concludes the same thing, and extends a hand, offering his surrender. The Tyrant shakes it.

All she has to do is say that she sees nothing. All she has to do is tell the truth. Brigadier Thu will do the rest in his own time: the Tyrant will surely die.

And if she speaks out, Thu's man is waiting.


"Edro, I have a favour to ask. I know Jinli has inherited Lixi's foresight. I need to ask what she sees."

Father pauses. "Are you sure, Gui?"

"I feel like I'm playing a game where I can't see one of the boards, Edro. Pieces are moving that I can't account for. I'm half-blind, and things are slipping away from me. I've got to make a move. And I can't think of anything else."

"People aren't always happy with what she sees."

"I've been unhappy with intelligence reports before. But I've always preferred bad news to no news. Please. I'm asking you as my oldest friend."

"All right," says Jinli's father. "Of course I'll let you ask her. I just wanted to be sure you knew what you're getting."


Out she walks onto the terrace. On the bowl which holds Gui's pieces rests a butterfly. She cannot breathe a word of Thu's treachery without his knowing what she has done.

She sits on her father's still-warm cushions; he stands behind her, reassuring hands on her shoulders. She loves him so much at that moment, fears for him so much. Imagined crosshairs glide like phantom spider-steps on her neck.

She sees the hao ryl boards, pictures the pieces turned to butterflies. In her mind, the boards turn, and invisible soldiers shimmer between them.

"Hello, Jinli. How are you?" asks Gui.

"I'm not feeling well today," she blurts out. "I've had a headache for hours."

"Have you taken anything for it? Edro, can you get her something?"

She puts her hand on her father's to stop him. "Thank you, but it won't help."

"If you're sure, then. I wanted to ask you if you can look into the future for me."

"I . . . I can try. But . . . the headache . . . I don't know what I'll see."

Gui is frowning now. "I don't want you to hurt yourself. Just . . . please, tell me if you can see who plans to betray me."

The Tyrant Lord Gui Feng Simban is her father's good friend. His old and loyal comrade-in-arms.

She wants to cry out, Thu!, but she does not.

She imagines it now as never before, the fourth board, the mindspace. Thu's mindspace. The game is not hers, but Gui's. Gui and Thu strive for mastery, but Gui is reaching into darkness to make his moves. And there she sits, one of Gui's pieces upon the fourth board, every move she can make taking her into the jaws of a trap.

A trap? Her memory stirs.

If you cannot move the piece, move the board.

Memory. Not the future, but the past. That is what Gui needs to see. That is the board she needs to move.

Jinli's brow furrows in concentration. She needs to remember. Long ago, that summer day, banners flying in the wind. She turned to see Gui laughing, though Father had won the game that day. She tries to picture the board that Gui showed her then. She tries to remember the words he spoke that afternoon.

Jinli places her hand on the first board.

"Today, I can see no futures for you. Everything's too fluid. Like . . . a turn of the board, so," she says, and turns it.

She reaches out to the second and third boards, and says, "Then switch these two boards, so."

Her eyes burn with concentration as she stares into Gui's eyes and says, "And, I suppose, someone wins."

Father's fingers tense on her shoulders; it is his turn not to understand the game. Gui pauses, his frown deepening. Jinli hopes that his memory is all that Father believes.

Then the Tyrant says, "Why does he win?"

Jinli knows then that he remembers, and understands what she is doing; but he does not have his answer yet. She picks up a blood-red piece, and holds it up to his inspection. "You know the rules, my lord. I do not. But no doubt the reasons are the same as they always are."

Your best defence, your bulwark, your sentinel—your right hand. You lose because he has betrayed you, trapped you.

"I am sorry," Jinli says. "As I say, I can offer you nothing of the future today. Only pieces of the past."

Gui returns the intensity of her stare. "Are you sure of that?"

"Certain."

"Then I am sorry to have troubled you, Jinli. Many thanks for your efforts on my behalf."

The Tyrant rises, and at his gesture, the shadows slink back towards the tiltrotor. Jinli feels her father's hands on her shoulders, and they are all that keep back her tears of relief until the aircraft has become just a speck against the evening sky.


D J Muir's fiction has appeared in Hub magazine. He is a graduate of the Clarion West writers' workshop, and currently lives in York, England.

Comments

Lovely, haunting and leaves me wanting more. I really enjoyed this trip to this world. Thank you for sharing. If there is more please let me know.

Oh, I loved this. The atmosphere was so well done and I loved how the images of the gameboard, the tea house and the butterflies all tied in. The plot was really clever too, wonderfully circular in how it came back to the memory which at first seemed just a reflection/insight into Jinli's past. Seconding Dawn's comment I would love to see more of this world, or just more of DJ Muir's writing! :)

I've read other pieces by D J Muir & think he's a very clever writer, always full of surprises & sudden stretches of great imagination

Thought this was wonderful.

Amazing, vivid, suspenseful, not a word wasted, the perfect short story!

Leave a Comment

The following HTML tags are allowed: <em><strong><cite><strike><b><i><a>