“A CHOICE!” the raven squawked, taking flight. Rose didn’t even jump this time. She’d gotten used to the strange bird rather quickly. In fact, she reflected, she’d probably grow used to much stranger things when they made it to the tower.
“A CHOICE!” the raven repeated.
“How do we actually make our choice?” Alexandria wondered aloud.
As if in response, the raven flew over and settled on her shoulder. “A WHISPER!” it cawed. “UP OR DOWN!” Alexandria didn’t flinch, instead raising a hand to tickle it under its beak.
She turned to Rose. “You’re sure?” she said.
Rose should’ve felt nervous, but she didn’t. It was odd, how such a momentous decision seemed so easy. But it had always been that way for her. Maybe she spent so much of her anxiety on the small things that there wasn’t much left for the big ones.
Or maybe it was because she knew she was doing the right thing. Rose realized she hadn’t responded yet, and gave Alexandria a nod, hoping it looked firm.
Alexandria nodded back. She leaned over to the bird and whispered in its ear. The bird cawed, turning its head to look at the others.
Dexter held out his hand next, and the bird flapped over to land on it like a falcon. Dexter whispered in its ear, then handed it to Robin, who was still standing beside him. Robin whispered his answer, eyes flickering between Borodin and Rose.
Esper took the raven next, and then Borodin. Borodin stared at it grudgingly for an uncomfortable moment. Finally, he leaned forward and whispered to it. He carried the raven over to Rose, his face pensive.
“Your kindness will not be forgotten,” he said in a low and formal voice as he held the raven out to her. Rose brushing against Borodin’s knuckles as the raven hopped over. They were surprisingly hairy – the blonde hairs didn’t show up well in this light, but she could feel them tickle her hand.
Rose smiled as she took the bird. “Thank you,” she replied, unsure what to say. Borodin folded his arms, nodding emphatically. Now that was a firm nod.
She brought the bird to her face, and it tilted its ear toward her. “Up!” she whispered without hesitation. The raven took flight immediately, settling on the top of its cage.
“DONE!” it cawed. “DONE! DOWN IS BACK, UP IS HERE! MOVE! DOWN IS BACK! LEAVE!”
The group exchanged glances.
“LEAVE!” the raven cawed again.
“I think it wants us to go back down the stairs,” Alexandria said slowly. “All of us except Rose, anyway.”
Robin was already moving, heading back the way they’d come without a word. The others began to follow, Alexandria and Borodin glancing back over their shoulders as they left.
Dexter left last. Without thinking, Rose found herself interposed between him and the exit. He cocked an eyebrow, slowing as he neared her. “Second thoughts?” he asked.
Rose shook her head, emphatically. “I just wanted to make sure you remember what you promised.”
“What I promised?” Dexter sounded intrigued, but she saw his shoulders tense. What was the expecting?
“You said when we’re safe at the foot of the tower, you’ll tell me anything I want to know. About you. I’m gonna hold you to that!”
Dexter paused, his brow wrinkling for a moment, before fading so quickly Rose wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it.
“Of course,” he replied easily. He passed her, and clapped her on the shoulder, squeezing. Then he was gone, and Rose was alone with the eerie white light and the raven.
She turned to look at the bird, which stared back at her, unblinking. Then the lights cut out.
Rose heard a sliding noise, material rubbing against material. It was too quiet to be iron on iron, but it didn’t sound like wood, either. She back from the sound until her back was to a wall.
There was a soft clunk, and a dim light appeared far above her, past where the ceiling had been. She blinked and willed her eyes to adjust.
When her vision returned, she saw that the pedestal and the raven were gone. In their place was a narrow spiral staircase winding upward through the ceiling. The glowing white squares had vanished, perhaps retracted into the sides, and the staircase passed through where they had been, toward the new light.
Rose wasn’t able to help herself. She edged forward, carefully, and knelt to run her hands around the base of the staircase. It was made of stone. It seemed to be resting on the ground, as if it had descended from above her. She pressed against it and found it solid. Moving that much mass, with so little noise…
She felt a small draft of air on her face. It smelled fresh. She climbed the stairs eagerly, taking them two at a time. When her head poked up above the floor of the new room, she swiveled, taking in as much as she could. There was a heavy looking desk, with a glowing sphere in the corner, illuminating a mess of papers and a man–
She jumped, almost falling from the staircase, and had to slap a hand against the area where roof turned into floor to catch herself. The noise made the man behind the desk look up. She squeaked and ducked her head down.
“Hullo!” the man behind the desk called. His voice was surprisingly young, just barely an adult. “Who goes there?”
Rose could feel her heart pitter-pattering in her chest. She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. The man wasn’t even particularly scary, per se. It was just a bit of a shock to see a person. He must be from the tower. He had to be.
“Hullo?” the man called again, more hesitantly. “Are you alright over there?”
She was being rude. Rose pushed off with her hand and stood up straight again, bringing her head back above level with the floor. Her hand found its way back into her cloak almost without thought, guiding itself to her lump of iron.
“Hello,” she said back. Her voice squeaked when it came out, making her wince.
The man behind the desk was young. He looked barely into his twenties, with spectacles and a mop of untidy brown hair that flopped onto his forehead. He was wearing gray robes with blue trim that covered him head to toe, only his hands and neck poking out. He wore a fine chain around his neck, suspending a perfect circle with a vertical cross inside it, all of silver.
Now that she was able to get a longer look at him, Rose saw that the raven from the room below – or, rather, a raven with similar red markings, no assumptions – was perched on his shoulder.
The man waved to her, smiling broadly. “Hullo!”
Rose hesitated. What was she supposed to say here, exactly? “Hello!”
“Yes, yes, hullo. Please do come in.” The man waved her forward energetically, and Rose forced her feet to carry her the rest of the way up the stairs, stepping lightly onto the surface of the new room. There was no railing or anything, and she edged a healthy distance away from the hole, making sure she didn’t get any closer to the man’s desk.
The man began to tidy his papers, sorting them into two piles. Rose found her eyes drawn to the glowing orb on his desk, the only other object she could see. It had the same steady light as the glowing squares – but the color was warmer, more like the sun. It was perched in a metal housing on a corner of the desk, and filled the room with just enough light to be usable without being bright.
Behind the man, mostly blocked by the desk, was a long passageway. That was probably where the fresh air was coming from.
The man slapped himself on the forehead, loud, making Rose jump again. “How foolish of me! I’ve forgotten to introduce myself. My name is Merzhin Breton – Merzhin with a z – and I am the Master of Games for new students. You can call me Master Breton, if you like. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Rose of Summervale,” Rose’s mouth replied automatically. She considered trying to execute a curtsy, but decided she would probably just embarass herself, and settled for making eye contact and smiling shakily.
“Just one, then, Archimedes?” Merzhin asked. The raven on his shoulder cawed, nipping at his ear, which the man didn’t seem to mind at all. “Well, I suppose that’s just how it is sometimes. Shall we begin, Ms. Rose? I would offer you some refreshment, ordinarilly, but I’m afraid you still belong to the catacombs at the moment.”
“Yes, yes, it’s the proper name for these passages in the mountain. I’d tell you more, but, well–we really should get started on your final test. Or tests, I suppose, since your companions went downward. I’d be happy to tell you more, but, well. Same problem. Shall we begin?”
Rose felt her stomach swim unevenly. Something seemed wrong, here. This man reminded her more of a friendly baker than an agent of the tower. He was quite familiar with the tower raven, but still…
The man reached under his desk, producing two wooden boxes. They were ornately engraved, with a pattern Rose couldn’t discern at her distance. She bounced on her toes, fingers running back and forth across her lump of iron, curiosity struggling against caution. It wasn’t much of a fight. She raced to the desk, cloak flapping behind her.
The man smiled up at her. “I don’t have a chair for you, I’m afraid. But if I may explain the games?”
Now that Rose had broken through her hesitation, dozens of questions welled up in her mind. What was a ‘master of games’? Where were his sinister tower robes? Why was he so young? Why wasn’t his face hidden in shadow? What was he so happy about?
“Games?” she said instead. She swept her cloak under her and knelt on it, bringing her face to just above table level, eyes locked on the ornate boxes. They were both well-laquered, carved with identical geometric patterns, circles connected with thick lines to tile their covers. There was script in a language she didn’t know, dead in the center of each.
The man’s smile broadened. “A girl after my own heart. I’m afraid you’ll have to play both at once, for your two tasks, although I wouldn’t be too broken up about it. That’s a little hint you see. But the games!”
The man opened the first box and lifted out a folded game board. It was light, from the way he held it; fine wood or pressed paper. He set it down and unfolded it. It was checkered white and black like a chess board, but in a rectangular 8x12 shape, rather than being 8x8. He reached into the box again, and retrieved an ornately carved chess king, which he placed in the upper right corner of the board.
Rose’s eyes stayed locked on the king as the man’s hands withdrew. It was jet black, even in the warm light, and it was flawless. Perfectly symmetric, as far as she could see, and she was a decent hand at wood carving. No scrapes or divots. Polished to a sheen. Precision.
What was it made of? She started to reach for it with her free hand, but stopped herself, hand hovering barely above the table. She was being incautious. Lightly, she released her iron and guided her hand to the pocket with her riverstone. She took a deep breath and felt her pulse slow.
The man ignored her internal struggle. He opened the other box and began removing disks. They looked like coins, but larger, and they made a dull sound when they hit one another. Clay, maybe? The man – Merzhin, his name was Merzhin – stacked the disks into 13 piles. 2 piles of ten, 7 piles of two, and 4 piles of one.
“Two games,” the man said, tucking the boxes away and gesturing at the table. “We will take turns. On your turn, you must choose one game and make a legal move. If you can’t, you lose!”
“Er, one moment,” Rose said. She dug out her notebook and wrote down what he’d said. “Sorry.”
“Not at all, not at all. In any case, the rules for the first game–”
“What about on your turn?”
“Excuse me?” The man blinked, seemingly a little taken aback at being interrupted. Rose bit her lip. She’d been distracted by writing, had forgotten who she was speaking to.
“Er, on your turn. You said that on my turn I must choose one game–”
“Right, right! My apologies. A little turn of phrase. The rules are the same for both of us, of course, perfectly symmetrical.”
Rose nodded, and the man continued, gesturing to the chess board with the single king in the corner. “In any case, the first game. There is a king on an oddly-shaped board. He moves as the king in Chess does, except that he can only move down and to the left.”
Rose opened her mouth to ask another question, but hesitated, remembering she was trying not to be rude. The man grinned. “Down and to the left from your perspective, of course. So he can move down, left, or both, as a single legal move. When he gets to the lower left corner, he’s stuck; no more legal moves.”
That made sense. She was starting to understand the shape of things. But the shape wasn’t enough; she needed all the rules, exactly. She couldn’t miss a thing.
“The other game,” Merzhin continued, “is one of my favorites, by the name of Nim. Some call it the game of games. Have you played before?”
Rose had, although it was usually played with stones in her village. Her mother had taught her the game when she was very young. But after a moment’s thought, she shook her head. No point making assumptions. Maybe the tower version had special rules?
“It’s simple, really. There are stacks of disks, thirteen in this case, of different heights. On your turn, you may remove any number of disks from any stack. Any number of disks greater than zero, to be clear. That is the only legal move. When there are no piles left, there are no more legal moves. Does that make sense? Any questions?”
It was the same game she’d played before. Rose stopped writing, bringing a hand to her chin as she stared at her notes. “A few…” she said, hesitantly. She flickered her eyes up to Merzhin’s face, to see him smiling indulgently. He didn’t seem offended…
“The obvious one,” she said, thinking back on the games she’d played with her mother, “is who goes first.”
Merzhin’s smile widened. “Of course, of course. In some sense that’s the only question, as I suspect you know. You may choose to go first or second, as you like. Anything else?”
Rose nodded. She understood the rules well enough, but it never hurt to be careful. Exhaustive. She hadn’t had the chance to clarify any of the earlier puzzles, but now that someone was offering…
“I do have a few more questions,” she said, flipping to a fresh page of her notebook.
Rose sat cross-legged in the corner of the room, as far from Merzhin as she could get. He was a distraction. She had so many questions, and he could answer all of them. Or if he wouldn’t, perhaps she could work it out, through careful prodding and observation.
But that wasn’t what she was here for. She’d have all the time in the world to explore once she was out of here. But first she needed to get out.
She put up the hood of her cloak and dipped her head, obscuring everything from view except her knees and the notebook perched on them.
She was feeling oddly tired. Not tired, not quite. Restless, distractable, with a bit of a headache. She pushed it away, going over the games again.
Two games. She got to decide whether or not to go first. Every turn she had to pick one and make a move. If she had to make a move, and there were no legal moves in either game, she lost. After that, Merzhin played, with symmetric rules.
First game: king in the upper right of an 8x12 board. Could move down, left, or diagonally down and left as a legal move. No more legal moves once the king was in the bottom left.
Second game: Nim with 13 piles. 2 piles of 10, 7 piles of 2, 4 piles of 1. Could take any number greater than zero from any pile. No more legal moves once all the piles were empty.
She rubbed at her eyes, trying to keep them focused on the paper. Yup, she definitely had a headache brewing. A strong gust of wind blew in from the hallway behind Merzhin, stirring the edge of her hood at the corners of her vision.
Wait. Was it–
Maybe. Probably. Oddly tired, couldn’t focus, a brewing headache, and wind from the outside air, probably a pressure front–
“Excuse me,” she said, raising her head. Merzhin looked up politely from the papers that he’d once again scattered across the desk in front of him. “I, um. I don’t mean to waste your time, but would it be alright if I took a short nap?”
“Please, please, by all means. Take your time. Er, if you’re going to be a while, I might pop back upstairs and grab a bite to eat, actually…”
Rose smiled, dipping her hood again so Merzhin couldn’t see. She folded up her notebook, leaned back against the wall, and closed her eyes.