Fantasy game

Playing Kiwan (excerpt from The Silk Betrayal)

By Daniel Ausema
May 28, 2020 · 1,269 words · 5 minutes

Elderly men play a "Banqi" game to kill time

Photo by Macau Photo Agency via Unsplash.

From the author: Kiwan is a game of strategy and skill. Pavresh must play the game against the man he wants to be his mentor in arcist magic. The scene is from early in The Silk Betrayal, before intrigue and revolution tear apart everything Pavresh had journeyed to find.

“Let’s play kiwan.”

The voice woke Pavresh up from the corner he’d crawled into to sleep, and not long enough ago judging by how tired he still felt and the way his cheeks pulled down on his eyes. Chaitan waited in front of him, supported by two figures who were blurry in his half-lidded sight. He climbed to his feet.

A few others were also sleeping in the room, but most of the people had left, including the musician, Namrani. He supposed even these most daring and accomplished performers must have tedious day jobs of some sort.

Pavresh rubbed his eyes, ran his hands through his dark hair, and followed the halting figure toward one wall. Chaitan and his two attendants—were they his children, perhaps?—formed a single blurred form moving slowly. Pavresh yawned and did his best to wake up.

The kiwan table stood near a window made of oiled paper, so muted sunlight fell onto the pattern of lines. Kiwan was usually played standing, but this table had been lowered for Chaitan’s sake. His attendants lowered him onto a pile of cushions. Once he was situated, he gestured for Pavresh to seat himself on the bare floor, which put him too low to play, so he kneeled. The rim-wall that ran around the table was perfectly polished, the wood grain showing striking contrast both on the outside and on the inner curved ramp that led down to the table.

Pavresh scanned the squares and lines and raised wooden bumps that marked the board. It was the finest kiwan table he’d ever seen. Chaitan handed him two heavy bags.

“Check these. Make sure you’re satisfied that both sets are fair. Choose whichever one you want.”

Pavresh opened one bag and poured out the markers. They were all disks painted green, but beyond that, they showed a great variation. Some were metal, small and heavy, some wood and some clay and even a few that were a mixture of materials. They varied in size, and some had other ornamentation that would affect how they rolled and spun.

Keeping the green ones in front of him, he opened the other bag, ran his fingers casually through the blue markers there and handed the bag to Chaitan.

“Looks good to me.”

“Then you go first.” Chaitan shifted his back and shoulders, moving the pillows until one of his attendants leaned forward and adjusted them for him.

When he’d finished and appeared comfortable, Pavresh selected a medium clay piece and held it against the edge of the ramp. Chaitan gave the traditional nod, and Pavresh released the piece with some backspin and watched it roll down and settle on the edge of a black square.

Chaitan held his wooden piece, waited for the nod, and sent it directly into a corner.

Pavresh was selecting his next piece when Chaitan spoke. “Why are you here?”

He paused and looked at the sickly man across from him. “I want to learn the magic.”

“Don’t stop playing. Just talk while we play.”

Pavresh dutifully sent a metal disk with topspin bouncing over the wooden bumps and into the center of the board.

“You know the magic already. You’ve been laying it on so thick since you came here I can barely breathe.”

Chaitan’s piece curled around the edge and settled along one side. Pavresh eased up on the magic and picked his next piece without answering. He could feel his cheeks warming with blood.

They continued in silence for some minutes, in some rounds sending new pieces onto the board, in other rounds moving those that were there, capturing each other’s pieces and taking strategic positions.

Finally, Pavresh spoke again, meekly. “I know the magic, but I haven’t had the experiences you’ve had. I haven’t talked to all the people you’ve talked to. I guess I know the magic, but I want to understand it.”

Chaitan nodded as he took a heavy piece, flicked it so it was spinning on its edge, and sent it careening into two of Pavresh’s pieces, taking over the strategic spot between them. Pavresh had never seen such a move. He stared at the piece, trying to replay in his mind how Chaitan had done that.

“Good,” Chaitan said, as if he hadn’t done anything special. “It’s good you understand that difference.”

He gave Pavresh the ceremonial nod to continue play without adding anything else. Pavresh debated trying to duplicate the spinning move, but instead, he slid one of the pieces on the board into a better position.

“So, why don’t you just go out and talk to people? Have experiences like mine. Easier than learning it at a remove from an old, dying man.” Chaitan moved a piece into an attack position.

Pavresh studied the board in silence to decide how to protect his own pieces. No clear path ahead., He slid a new piece down to rest beside Chaitan’s attacker.

“I guess because you’ve understood the stories you’ve heard. I want to understand them. I try to understand my own feelings, the events I witness, the people I meet. But you have, umm, a frame for them, I guess.”

He looked at the board for a moment, then continued. “It’s like I’m trying to play kiwan without the squares and lines on the board, just guessing where everything goes. I…I need your help to draw the pattern on the board so I can actually see what I’m playing.”

Chaitan was looking at him now. Not just looking at him, but studying him, examining his face, his mind even, it seemed. He leaned closer, as if to see Pavresh, actually see him, for the first time. Pavresh realized he had completely dropped the arcist persona that he’d put on before entering the house. He was simply himself.

“Well, then.” Chaitan was smiling now, though Pavresh noticed how uncomfortable he looked, even on his pillows. “Very insightful. And you admit you need help. Maybe you don’t fit the image of overly confidant youth exactly after all. We’ll see.”

He picked up one of the oddly shaped disks and bounced it in his palm. “But for now, let’s finish the game.” The disk bounced down the ramp and twisted among the bumps and other pieces to land in a protected space on Pavresh’s side of the board. To Pavresh, it looked like the advance troops of a conquering army, one he had little hope of defeating.

Telling himself—and the pieces that remained to him—that he was fighting a just war, a war to defend his own land, he planned his next moves and hoped his pieces would perform the best they could.

The game lasted much of the morning before Pavresh lost, but he was sure it could have ended much sooner if Chaitan had wanted.

When Pavresh’s last piece was captured, Chaitan sat back with a sigh and closed his eyes. “I have enough people lounging around here with nothing to do.”

Pavresh looked around the room at the few people moving about, most seemingly engaged in work for Chaitan himself, certainly not lounging around.

“Other arcists who fill the air with their overly dramatic performances. If you wish to be my heir, I’ll teach you and tell you stories, but during the mornings, you need to be out of this house, talking to people and learning their stories and experiencing everything the city offers. In the evenings, you may perform if you wish. In between, we can talk and create this frame in your mind.”

“Thank you, sir.” Pavresh dipped his head as the old arcist’s attendants led him away.

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The Silk Betrayal

Pavresh hoped to master the intricacies of arcist magic. Instead, he finds himself entangled in the city's politics. While princes scheme for power, revolutionaries plot to overthrow the rigid castes. Poets try to inspire change with heretical words; militants plan more forceful action; a woman born upper caste, rendered untouchable by a disfiguring accident, sees in revolution a better life. These strands meet at the home of Chaitan, the elderly magician from whom Pavresh wishes to learn.

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Daniel Ausema

Daniel Ausema writes lyrical tales of other worlds, stories of strangeness and wonder.