Ten minutes later and they were sitting in a dark part of the room so they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Ishak had acquired a checkered board and some wooden pieces from somewhere and was busy setting them up on the squares. Rowena watched him intently, trying hard to memorize which pieces went where.
‘Now,’ Ishak said once he’d prepared the board. ‘This is how you set up a chess board, all the white players on one side and all the black ones on the other. Now the first thing you need to know is your objective. What you’re aiming for, is to take the other players king.’ He held up a piece in front of him to show Rowena what the piece looked like. She could see a vague hint at a crown on the top of the piece but on all other counts she didn’t see how this resembled a king.
‘How are you meant to ‘take’ your opponents king? It’s just a piece of wood.’
‘OK we’ll get onto that. First I need to tell you what all the different pieces are and what they can do.’ He then proceeded to pick up every different shaped piece on the board and tell her what it did. It was a lot of information to take in all at once, but Rowena managed to keep up with Ishak’s brisk way of explaining things, trying to remember every detail he told her. ‘Do you think you’re ready to give it a go?’ Rowena nodded, looking down at the black chess pieces on the board in front of her. ‘OK then, I’m white so I get the first move.’
The game began and it lasted only a matter of minutes before Ishak had taken Rowena’s king. ‘How do you do that?’ She said, astonished by the speed and ease with which she had been beaten.
‘Years of practice,’ he said modestly. ‘Another one?’ They set out the board again and this time Rowena paid close attention to everything Ishak did, every move he made and where he put his pieces. The second game lasted a little longer, but Rowena was still soundly beaten. They played game after game in complete silence, the hours passing slowly as they focused on what was happening on the board in front of them.
‘So how did you meet Artem?’ Rowena finally asked as they set up for their eleventh game.
’I was already at the court when he arrived. He was sixteen, had no past, no parents, no home. I took him in, gave him somewhere to stay and sleep at night. As it turns out, at that age he was already a master thief, competing with some of the best.’ He smiled, a strange thing to do Rowena thought, considering he was talking about a young boy committing crimes. ‘You wouldn’t have recognized him if you’d known him back then. He was a skinny little thing, no muscle. I suppose he’d begun his career in small market villages. There isn’t much violence there,’ he explained, ‘so he wouldn’t need to build up strong muscles.’
‘So what happened when he arrived?’ Rowena asked as she made her first move.
‘He made quite an impression, that’s for sure, outsmarted the King of Thieves himself.’
‘Really? What did he do?’ Rowena leaned forward, listening intently.
‘I remember it was one of his first days in Peria. I didn’t know the extent of his skills at that point. I’d sent him out to the market to collect some fresh vegetables to eat at dinner and when he came back he had this bulging purse hidden under his tunic with the fox embroidered onto it. Where did you get that I asked him, and he told me he’d stolen it from a rich-looking man in the market. I think his words were he looked like he’d got plenty of money to spare.’ Ishak chuckled. ‘Then I said didn’t you know that the fox is the animal of the King of Thieves?
‘His reaction was the best I’ve ever had. He had no idea what to do with himself, if he should return the purse or burn it and hope no one would ever find out.’
‘So what did he do?’ Rowena moved her knight diagonally across the board, taking one of Ishak’s pieces.
‘Concentrate Ena, you can’t move knights like that, it’s the bishops that move diagonally.’
‘Please tell me,’ Rowena asked sweetly as she moved the knight back into position.
‘Well, I finally convinced him to return the purse. The King at that time was very lenient on newcomers to his court, particularly the ones with talent, and Artem had certainly shown talent.’
‘So what did the king say?’
‘Well Artem approached the King’s chair and knelt in front of him, head bent. I can remember his legs were shaking so badly I was surprised he didn’t fall over.
‘The King bade him to rise and express why he’d come. That was when Artem confessed to what he had done and held out the purse for the king to take. I can remember, the room was silent as the King stared at the purse in Artem’s hand. I could tell by the look on his face that he hadn’t expected that.
‘He took the purse from Artem without saying a word. The whole room was waiting. You could have cut the air with a knife it was that tense . But finally the King looked Artem in the face and thanked him for his honesty and for returning his purse. He said he didn’t know many thieves that would be able to steal from another thief.
‘From that day on Artem was a trusted friend of the King, so when the time came for the re-election of the king, Artem was the favourite to win.’
‘That’s such an amazing story,’ Rowena said, a smile on her face.
‘One of the best I’ve ever known. Of the ones that is actually true that is. But Artem would never tell it, he’s too modest about his skills. But between you and me,’ he whispered, ‘I don’t think there is anyone better with a dagger or can steal things half as well as Artem does. But that didn’t come from me.’ He winked.
‘Don’t worry, I heard nothing.’
‘Well that’s check mate again,’ Ishak said as he removed Rowena’s king from the board yet again. ‘You’re making this far too easy for me. Are you sure you’re trying?’
‘You’re just too good,’ Rowena protested, but it was only half hearted. ‘Right then, I’m going to beat you this time,’ she said with determination, putting her chess pieces in position.
‘Well, we’ll have to see about that.’