“…It’s lovely, beautifully if plainly bound, has some historical interest, and is worth about eighty bucks. Which means I pay forty.”
She blinked. “But my uncle told me it was a great treasure — that he was…” She was shocked; clearly she’d expected a lot more.
“He was wrong, I’m afraid,” the bookseller said as kindly as he could manage. He had himself fallen in love with the little set, even though he knew it would never sell. “The trouble with genuinely rare books is… well, they’re rare. You’ll probably never see more than a couple in your entire life; I’m in the business, and I’ll only ever handle a few dozen. This set is scarce, at least, and somewhat important. The rest…” He waved his hands over the litter of books scattered on the counter. “Most of these are relatively worthless, I’m sorry to say; they’ll never sell, and I can’t offer much. This Thackeray set — it won’t sell either, but it’s important enough to keep.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “I mean, I get what you’re saying about these being worthless; if they won’t sell, you shouldn’t buy them. I get that. But this… “Tregennis”–”
He smiled. “Pendennis“, he corrected. “No, it’s true; I shouldn’t buy it. But I’m lousy at business, which is why I’m a bookseller. If I wanted to get rich, I’d sell drugs or something.”
She laughed, startled; he went on. “I’m in it because of the stories…”
The soldiers spent three days clearing out all the strange junk the settlers had brought. Colonel Huang didn’t mind; in fact, when there were no battles in the offing, it was better to have busy work to keep the troops occupied. And they did enjoy pillaging.
By the second afternoon, the few useful items had been divided among the men. Everything else was piled in the town square for burning. Metal objects too heavy to carry were piled on great carts to be hauled back to the new capitol, and whatever livestock could be caught was penned up. The empty houses they would keep; this would make a fine barracks for the frontier outpost, and the former servants would learn to feed soldiers instead of settlers.
Now the Colonel strode across the square, scowling as a small boy scurried past, pursued by an angry private. He had no time to spare for foolishness. He had to deal with the puzzle that was his strange prisoner, who was being held in a small shed behind one of the houses.
The first thing he saw when he stepped in was the shrub. The broken twig had been bandaged, carefully tied back in place with threads almost too small to see.
The second thing he saw was that the prisoner still had his sword.
The third thing he saw was an eight-by-eight grid of squares that Master Sun had drawn in the dirt floor and was studying with a startling intensity of concentration.
General Huang scowled. That knight had come from nowhere and broken up his entire attack. Now he had to choose between losing a bishop outright or trading a rook for the knight. The books told him the trade was the better move, but he preferred to stay on the attack. He moved the rook, lost the bishop, threatened the knight — and back it went to its place on the rim, innocuous. He would watch it more carefully.
But for now, back to the attack. “There’s your economy of motion!” he crowed, forcing Master Sun away from his precious pawns.
“Indeed. The weakness of the spear — and the bayonet. They face only one way, slow to reverse,” replied Master Sun. He castled, and one by one his center pawns fell. General Huang scowled; it seemed he was making his enemy’s argument for him.
But it was all right; he was still winning. His enemy was trapped in a corner and his queen was on the run.
“Sergeant! Put this man in a house. Quiet, and a room with a window. Detail three shifts to see to his needs. Anything he asks for, treat it as a command from me unless it involves shooting someone. And deal with that racket!”
The racket in question was the boy, who had finally been captured by the now out-of-breath soldier and was kicking and screaming. The sergeant looked on, bemused, as his colonel stomped away. The former prisoner came up behind him and softly said, “I’ll take the boy. That should quiet things.”
And it did. The soldier was reprimanded for having done his job, and a room was found for Master Sun and his shrub. The Master had stopped by the burn piles and selected several books, which he gave to the boy to carry. Then he rummaged through the furnishings until he found a chess set. Two chairs and a table were also secured, plus mats for sleeping for himself and the boy.
Later, Colonel Huang came by and they played the first of many chess games. On the way out, the colonel glanced curiously at the books, for which the boy had scrounged a small shelf. Military treatises, he was told. He nodded, satisfied.
This night his escort included a soldier with a back still stiff and bloody; he had been caned. The soldier looked at the books and the boy. He scowled, but said nothing.
You know how this works: Send me money and I’ll keep writing.
I still don’t have any idea how this story is going to end. It’s going somewhere, but where exactly appears to be somewhere in the past, and that still eludes me. But I think I know who now, which is something.