By Claire North
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The Gameshouse is an unusual institution.
Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost though games of chess, backgammon — every game under the sun.
But a select few, who are picked to compete in the higher league, know that some games are played for higher stakes — those of politics and empires, of economics and kings . . .
And now, the ultimate player is about to step forward.
Meet the Author
Table of Contents
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We have come – at last – we have come to the end. You and I, we have played this game so long, and never once made a move.
Come now, come.
The board is ready; the cards are prepared.
The coin which was spun must fall at last.
There is a story which is not a story told about a place which is not a place.
It is the story of the Gameshouse, where the great and the ancient go to play. Come, generals and kings, priests and emperors, you great factory men and you ladies of letters, come to the Gameshouse. Come and play for the mastery of a city, the conquest of a country, the wealth of a civilisation, the history of a palace, the secrets of spies and the treasures of thieves. Here our chess-boards are a grid which we lay across the earth; dice roll and strangers die; the cards fall and the coin turns, it turns, it turns, and when we are done, armies will be shattered, oceans will rise, and we will win and live, or lose and die. For it is not petty things that we play for in the Gameshouse, but life, time and the soul.
The curtain is parted, the music ceases and the player takes the stage.
They call me Silver.
My real name was lost centuries ago, gambled against a barbarian king. I cannot remember my name now, but he who won it was a sometime lord of horses and lost his life in battle, never knowing that he was a piece on that field, played by another hand. When he died, the death of my name was sealed, and it is no comfort to know that he too is not remembered. Only she knows it now – she, the Gamesmaster, the woman all in white who guards the halls wherein we play – but she is above all things, and will not tell.
And so, having nothing more, I am simply Silver.
Of the players in the Gameshouse, only one is older than I, and she has no interest in these things.
(“I have seen the world change,” she murmurs, spiking thread through needle, needle through cloth. “But the game does not. I am a player, interested in the game, not the world, so what is your adventure to me?”
“What if I said I played for love?” I ask one night when I have had too much to drink.
She laughs, raising her head briefly from her work to look at me with chiding eyes. “Silver, you love only the game, and she is a cold mistress.”)
I have played many games for many prizes, but the greatest game must now begin.
New York in summer. A city of two climates. Indoors, airconditioning lowers the temperatures to an Arctic chill; outside, the extraction fans add to the already shimmering heat until the air seems to melt in sweat-soaked, skin-slithering despair. I remember when New York was a colony on an island of mud, not deserving of even a few rolls of a lower league dice let alone a door to the Gameshouse. Yet there it stands, silver doors in a street where they do not belong. Lions’ faces, teeth bared, snarling at all who dare knock. Red brick above, a fire escape pushed awkwardly to one side as if the Gameshouse has transplanted itself into the architecture of this place, shuffling pre-established buildings a little to the left, a little to the right, to the confusion of the mortar around. Which, of course, it has.
The corridor inside hung with silk, feels old, smells old, and the closing door cuts off all the sounds of the city as if time had frozen upon a single second when no birds sang, no engines roared, no delivery boy shouted at the taxi that cut across his path, no siren soared, no door slammed in the city. Three weeks ago, this old place did not exist, and soon it will not exist again, and no one will remark on it, save those few players new enough to care.
The Gameshouse often comes to New York. It likes to be where the power is.
Come; follow me.
We move through corridors hung with white silk, smell the incense, hear the music, descend a flight of stairs to the club room where the newest players play, UV lights and champagne, cocktails with olives in, a fountain of ice, chess sets, backgammon and baduk, cards and counters, the usual paraphernalia of the lower league. New games too: Cluedo, Settlers of Catan, Age of Empires, Mario Kart, Mortal Kombat Whatever fought between a shrieking bishop and a deputy mayor. A judge, a police commissioner, a gangster, a congressman, a chief of staff, a general, a consulting doctor, a research fellow, a professor, a hit-man, a pharmaceutical king, an oil magnate, a seller of used cars and cheap cocaine – all the men and women who think they are someone, could be something more – they all come here as they have come through the centuries, across the world. They dream of passing through the doors which now open for me, and how many, I mused, will be played, rather than players? Most – perhaps all. That is one of the truths of the Gameshouse.
So much for the lower league; I do not slow my step for it. Next, the higher league: another hall, larger, where the ancient and the learned, the oldest players of the game, now gathered over TV screens and digital maps, plotting their next game. Why, there, one who wagered her good health on the price of gold and won – after some market manipulation – the excellent eyesight of the now-blind man who limps away. There, another who played battleships against an air force and lost his carrier in the first wave, now growing old and shrivelled as his life is forfeit. Why, she won a court case, he won a city; she won a state, he lost an oil rig and on, on the game winds, the game that covers the world, the game we tell ourselves we have played all these years for joy, all these centuries for joy, and which has, by our playing, changed the world in the Gamesmaster’s form for she…
She is waiting for me.
I climb the stairs at the back of the hall, and no one bars my way. Usually two umpires – all in white, their faces veiled, their fingers gloved – stop trespassers, but not tonight, not me. She is waiting upstairs, as she has been waiting for so long.
She sits, her face covered, her arms in white, on a curved cream sofa beneath a shroud of silk. I have not seen her eat or drink or smile since she took the white, but she is still her, still after all this time.
She says, “Is it that time already?”
I find I do not speak.
She offers me water.
I find I cannot drink.
She says, “You look tired, Silver. You look old.”
“Not as old as I feel.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she murmurs. “As long as the house endures, so can you.”
“Thank you; I have had my share of eternity.”
The gloved fingers of her left hand ripple along her thigh, just once, a pianist warming up with a scale. “So,” she says, “shall we?”
“Yes.” My voice is not my own; I speak again, louder, claiming the sound. “Yes.”
“You do not have to. Once you make this move, there is no going back, and I know you are not ignorant of what will come when you fail.”
“I will not fail.”
“Will you not? You have spent centuries preparing for this, but the house is mine, the players are mine and of the two of us, I was always the stronger.”
“I will not fail.”
“The house will have you if you lose. It will have your soul. I would be…saddened…to see that become your fate.”
“The house has me already, ma’am,” I reply. “I have been the house’s slave for almost as long as you.”
I imagine a smile behind her veil, and that imagination perhaps leads me to hear it in her voice. “Very well,” she says. “Then make your move.”
I draw in breath.
I speak the words.
“My lady of the veil,” I say, “my lady Gamesmaster, mistress of this house – I challenge you.”
What is this?
I walk away from the Gameshouse and there is a hotness in my eyes.
What is this?
I taste the moisture on my lips and it is salty.
It cannot be sorrow, nor is it a useful response to fear. For so many centuries I have waited for this day, and grief faded with time.
Or did it? Perhaps grief never leaves us but is merely drowned out by a flood of life overwhelming it. Perhaps the wound that bled once is bleeding still, and I did not notice it until now.
I find the thought unhelpful, and walk away a little faster.
There have been only three challenges that I know of against the Gamesmaster.
The first was before my time and exists only in allegory and myth. I will not bother with its telling.
The most recent was in 1774, and none of us expected the challenger to win. Nevertheless, for nearly forty years the Gameshouse closed its doors, and the Gamesmaster and her rival fought the Great Game, setting assassins, spies, kings, diplomats, armies and faiths against each other until finally, in 1817, the challenger was defeated, his princes dead, his armies smashed, and he vanished into the white. Who he is now, no one knows. Death is simple and the Gameshouse does not grant it easily – rather, it eats its victims whole, and somewhere beneath the white veils that are worn by the servants of the house, I do not doubt that he lives still, slave to the bricks and stones of that endless place.
And the other?
Why, the greatest challenge was made before, in 1208, and the woman who challenged the Gamesmaster was…
…a player greater than any I have ever known.
For twenty years they fought each other, the Gamesmaster and the player, and by the end of it no one could say for certain who had lost and who had won. All that was known was that the player vanished, some said into the service of the house, lost to the white, others said no, no, not at all! She vanished into victory, she conquered the Gameshouse, but who can really conquer that place? She is not the player any more, they said, but rather the Gamesmaster. In victory she become her enemy, and perhaps in this manner, her success was her ultimate defeat, for she is no longer herself but only the Gamesmaster again.
Did she see it so? Could she see anything greater than the game? Could she see me?
The coin turns, the coin turns.
Let the game begin.
We agreed terms long before I issued the formal challenge.
She said, “Assassins? No – too crude. Hide-and-seek? Too juvenile, perhaps. Risk – it’s been a while since I played Risk.”
I replied, “Risk lost its appeal with the onset of the nuclear age.”
The Gamesmaster sighed. “Very well: chess it is.”
Four weeks later, a player by the name of Remy Burke, a man who owed me a favour, sat down next to me in a bar in Taipei, put his elbow on the table, his chin in his hand and said, “Tell me you didn’t agree to play chess with the Gamesmaster.”
“I can tell you a hard truth, or a comforting lie,” I replied.
Remy let out a long, low puff of breath. “Silver,” he breathed, “the Great Game is one thing, but letting her play chess under Great Game rules is a death sentence.”
“It’s still only chess,” I replied. “We eliminate each other’s pieces and position our own until we are in a position to capture the king; there is nothing remarkable in this.”
“Except that you are the king.”
“And so is she.”
“And your pieces are going to be the fucking World Bank!” he hissed. “For bishop, read pope or ayatollah, summoning the faithful to crusade or jihad. For knight, read Mossad; for pawn, read the government of Pakistan, Silver! It’s not your death that troubles me here, though I am certain that you will die – it’s the death of every pawn, rook and queen the pair of you throw at each other as part of your game. Great Game rules mean you bring your own pieces to the table, and how long do you think it will be until she breaks out the big guns? Are you going to let countries fall, people die, economies crumble just to move a little closer to finding and capturing her for this game?”
I thought about the question a while, rolling the cold stem of the glass between my fingers. “Yes,” I said at last. “To win the Great Game: yes.”
He rolled back in his chair as if pushed in the heart, and for a moment he looked disgusted. I met his eyes and attempted to see my face in their reflection, my condition. Was there shame there? Did I feel a start of doubt at the lives that would be destroyed, the cities shattered, the countries overthrown, all for a game?
He turned his face away and I realised that I did not.
There are no cards dealt in the Great Game save those that you bring with you. There is no mercy either.
I fled through New York.
Fled in that it was my person, my body, which the Gamesmaster must capture if she is to win the Great Game. And not fleeing, not so much, in that already I was putting pieces into play. I called the police captain whose services I won over a game of blackjack; the admiral who swore he would do anything for me, anything at all, if I spared him his forfeit when the last card fell; the arsonist whose burns I helped to heal when, gambling his life against a powerful man’s skin, he stumbled on the final move. I called the FBI agents who had assisted me when I played Cluedo in a house in Oregon, and whose lives I had saved before Colonel Mustard could finish his work with the candlestick. I called the senior engineer in the traffic control centre whose husband had bet his fortune on a throw of the coin, and whose life I had rebuilt after the dime had fallen.
All these I called through a single number, for they were pieces which I had gathered in preparation for this moment, an opening move I had already prepared, and by the time I reached JFK airport and the chartered jet – one of nine – that would carry me to my next location, traffic in Manhattan was at standstill, protests blocked the bridges, fires were blazing in Brooklyn and FBI agents were conducting drug busts on East 39th Street, where the Gameshouse stood.
Or rather, where the Gameshouse had stood.
For within minutes of my leaving it, it was gone.
Preparations made on a plane out of New York City.
In a lower league game of chess, you can see your king, the piece you must secure. In the Great Game, the board is the planet, the pawns are legion and finding your target can be as challenging as checkmate.
The pilot on this chartered plane, on which I am the only passenger, is Ghanaian. He lost his licence when the father of his fiancée discovered their liaison and called the ministry and screamed that his would-be son was a Muslim and a terrorist and a villain and had dared to sleep with his beautiful girl. I gave him his licence back, and a plane, and his wife lived in Paris, and his children were seven and nine and knew they were going to be astronauts or dinosaur hunters and had never asked why granddaddy didn’t visit.
I sunk into the co-pilot’s seat, handed him a slip of paper. “There are coordinates for an island in the Atlantic.”
“What’s it called?”
“I’m not sure it ever had a name.”
“Father-in-law trouble?” he asked with a smile, a pain that he had made a joke.
“More like fiancée.”
“Oh man, you should never run away from love. If it has to end, it has to end, but don’t just leave things unsaid!”
“It’s not like that.”
“If you say so; it’s your life.”
We flew for three hours.
One thousand and eighty-nine kilometres off the coast of America, a senior officer in GCHQ (“sometimes the cards just don’t fall the way you want”) alerted me to a satellite re-tasking over my rough location.
I alerted a cybercommunity called “Big Brother Lives”. Their leader (“I can beat anyone at this game; you just watch me”) responded within twenty seconds to my message, and launched the DDoS attack against the responsible servers.
- "An astonishing re-invention of the time travel narrative. Bold, magical and masterful."—Mike Carey, on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
- On Sale
- Nov 3, 2015
- Page Count
- 100 pages