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First pages

Prelude

He was a terror. Not the sort of terror who pulled girls’ ponytails and fried ants. Nor the sort who tortured animals and threatened you with a knife. He was the sort who stood over your bed at night, watching you sleep. When you awoke and asked him what he was doing and if something was wrong, he told you that the trees were whispering about him because they didn’t like his wallpaper. He was also the sort who spent 16 hours on the toilet trying to expel the devil (who, as everyone knows, lives “down there”). He examined a dead dog with fascination and then screamed in terror a week later when he saw a similar dog wandering about, because it must be a zombie. He thought his teacher was a ghost, and he’d once almost burned himself up trying to perform a self-exorcism.

His parents did their level best to keep the whole matter under wraps. They secretly took him to psychologists, each of whom diagnosed him differently. In the end, his parents settled on mostly isolating him from strangers and swearing the servants to secrecy. You see, his mother was the prefect of Avior Prefecture, and her political enemies would eat this up.

The isolation succeeded. Few of the vipers at court knew about the boy. The other prefects knew, but they barely remembered that Prefect Avior had two sons. When they did, they had nothing positive to say about Lucio:

“A sulky, bad-tempered boy,” Prefect Hemmel opined. “Constantly throws tantrums.”

“He must be an absolute terror to his parents,” Tey agreed—and they left it at that.

No one asked Lucio what he thought of all this. If they had, he wouldn’t have known what to answer. His parents baffled him as much as he baffled them; and although back then he still loved and trusted them with the fervor of childhood innocence, he sometimes wondered if they and other people were entirely real.

What was entirely real? There was the physical world, which most people wandered through and seemed to mostly accept. Then there was the spiritual world: religion and mythology, which were different because people accepted one and not the other.

Like most Carinans, his parents went to church. There, he heard words like “God” and “Jesus” and the “Holy Ghost,” but no one bothered to explain to him what these meant. It was years before he realized the Holy Ghost wasn’t a ghost, Jesus wasn’t a zombie, and that the pastor wasn’t using a naughty word when he said “God.”

Increasingly, as the years flowed by, Lucio was certain his parents weren’t real. Since they worshipped God, it stood to reason that the enemy of God—the devil—would be the realest thing there was. The question was how to find the devil. He knew the devil was in the details and people played devil’s advocate and made deals with the devil and had the devil of a time getting their insurance to pay out, but each of these things lacked practical application, e.g. instruction on how to get the devil to hire you as his lawyer.

Perhaps, he thought, he was reaching too high—or too low. God might care about falling sparrows, but the devil was a “proude spirit.” (And, though he seldom admitted this to himself, Lucio was afraid of the devil and suspected that summoning him would be a Bad Idea, no matter how real it was.) One of the devil’s lieutenants—a demon—would be much more sensible.

And that was it. A light (red and smelling of sulfur) went off in Lucio’s brain. He’d summon a demon and make it his own. It must be possible; he’d read so many accounts of other people doing it. The trick was to find more information on the topic. Perhaps consult an expert, if he could find one. Why, this was an excellent way to spend his adult years. Demonology was a science—because it had -ology at the end—and so his parents couldn’t possibly object to him spending his time studying it.

Lucio’s new passion consumed him. He barely noticed how, after his mother’s death, he was passed over for the prefectship in favor of his younger brother, Gil. He did notice attending his mother’s funeral, because it took him away from his work. He even had a pang of sadness, but only a pang—for after all, it wasn’t like his mother had been real.

Perhaps his mother’s death had a profounder impact on him than he realized, because the next few years were a confusing whirlwind. Without knowing quite how it had happened, Lucio found himself watching as a rather beautiful woman walked down the aisle to him, beaming the whole way. He regarded with awe the baby she handed him a year later, thinking that it felt almost real. For a time, he abandoned his research, although the idea of attaining true reality never stopped nagging at him.

The nagging got worse after his second child was born, until his passion for demonology once more consumed him. But in the intervening time, he had learned many useful things: self-control, the running of a prefecture (something at which Gil had little skill and less interest), and the usefulness of allies.

Once again, Lucio studied until his eyes burned and his fingers ached. He tried every summoning ritual he could find and several more of his own invention. He scoured the internet for tidbits and experts, most of which fell through immediately and all of which fell through eventually. He began to despair.

Strangely enough, it was Gil who gave him the clue he needed. Late one evening, when one of Gil’s parties had passed from mostly sober but hadn’t yet achieved mostly unconscious, Gil and his latest fling staggered down the stairs to Lucio’s laboratory. Working inside, Lucio heard them speak.

“Won’t your brother mind you showing me this?” the woman giggled. “We wouldn’t want to interrupt him with one of his demons.”

Gil guffawed. “Him? That pathetic toad? What self-respecting demon would give him the time of day?

Pathetic toad, Lucio thought, tuning out the rest. Yes, I am, aren’t I? He passed out of the room and found a full-length mirror. He looked at his sunken cheeks and his watery eyes, and he thought about what he had to offer a demon.

Gil was rich. Gil was popular. Gil was powerful—the prefect of the richest prefecture in the nation. Lucio was—

Nothing. Pathetic toad.

He was going to have to do better.

Chapter 1

“And now he’s a fratricide,” I murmured.

My boss nodded. “There is no proof, but . . . yes. He’s taken the first step.”

I glanced over at him. He wasn’t watching me; his nose was buried in the paper. Gil Gaspar’s genial face covered half the front page along with all the folderol essential for mourning the untimely passing of a prefect. “Death by misadventure,” the newspaper termed it, in a show of generosity.

“There is one benefit to this, from Aviorians’ point of view,” I said brightly.

“Oh?”

“Sure. They’ll make an absolute killing in my-prefect-is-worse-than-your-prefect debates.”

“Only,” he said, “because Prefect Avior’s predilections are somewhat better known than those of his peers.”

He didn’t remove his attention from the newspaper, and I fell silent. I wasn’t offended; my boss is a creature of habit, and one of his habits is reading the paper on the way to work. Besides, there wasn’t anything more to say; we’d been waiting for something to happen for weeks now. Neither of us had expected it to be murder, but perhaps we should have.

I shook these thoughts off long enough to merge. We were downtown now, one black car among many, and the Carinan Security Service building wasn’t far away. Like most of its neighbors, it was built about seventy years ago, during the peak of Silvertip’s growth. It’s a grand structure of Cere stone, hunkered down like a lumpy gray elephant.

I thought, as I followed my boss inside, that there was nothing I could have done to save Gil even if I had guessed he might be murdered.

“Good morning, Tom,” I said, handing over my ID to our porcupine-haired security guard. Distant wails met my ears as I spoke, but there was nothing unusual in that.

“Mercedes. Jon,” Tom said in greeting, and kept up a pattering small talk as he swiped our IDs, scanned my handbag, and ushered us through the security sensor.

Like its exterior, the CSS lobby was a grand relic of an older time, one with plenty of marble but a distinct lack of air conditioning. With his good suit and meticulously parted hair, my boss looked like he belonged there. The same could not be said of most of his colleagues.

The distant wails neared and culminated into a blood-curdling shriek. A man—I call him a man only because scarecrows are not alive—stumbled into the lobby. He was patched and ragged, red eyes wide and face drawn, dirty blond hair flying. He waved a silver carafe with one hand and pulled his hair with the other. “Does everyone hate me?” he moaned.

Marta—who, rumor has it, used to work for that other branch of the Security Service, cough-wink-nudge—kept typing.

The man drag-stepped his way up to her desk, limbs contorting with the overpowering depths of his despair. He flopped his upper body on the desk, lowering the carafe onto Marta’s keyboard with boneless arms. “They hate me,” he informed her. “No one believes me, but it’s true. Go on; feel it.”

Marta politely declined.

One limp hand rose, trembled, and unscrewed the carafe’s lid. “Do you see it?”

Marta replied that she did.

“No, you don’t,” he retorted. “No one can. It’s not there. One cannot see steam that isn’t there.”

Marta requested that he kindly remove the carafe before he spilled coffee on her keyboard.

“Keyboard! If you people spent less time on your keyboards and more time making coffee—!”

“Good morning, Basile,” my boss said with diamond-edged amusement. “I see you have begun suffering early this morning.”

“No one knows how I suffer, Jon,” Basile groaned. “You least of all. As long as you have your lovely assistant with her lovely hot beverages, you’re happy. But how are the rest of us supposed to work under these conditions?” He pivoted dramatically, demanding this last of God or the world or possibly the ceiling. “No one cares about my peace of mind! No one would care if I dropped dead right here!”

“I’m sure Marta would find it deeply distressing,” my boss said. “She has a gentle heart.”

“You mock me,” Basile lamented, limping away. “Mockery and cold coffee. This is my life.”

My brothers don’t believe me when I give them verbal sketches of the people I work with. But then, my brothers are also under the impression that CSS stands for Carinan Social Services (which is what the sign says), that my boss is a boring mid-level pencil-pushing bureaucrat, and that this means I should know how to do their taxes.

What’s actually going on in the building is one front of an eternal war between cryptographers and cryptanalysts, the former seeking ways to make a practical but randomized cipher while the latter seek ways to exploit the human element. Our branch contained about twenty cryptanalysts and several dozen support staffers. The support staffers were generally normal people. Among the cryptanalysts were linguists, computer geniuses, chess masters, crossword puzzle aficionados, mathematicians, and various other highly intelligent, highly skilled, and often highly mad individuals working full time to break ciphers—but we never seemed to be good enough or fast enough to break them all.

My boss mainly worked on ciphers of the ordinary sort, but of late he had been working overtime solving a new pattern. It went like this: people protested in the streets. The prefects met in secret. Money changed hands. Prefect Lindo spent a year rebuilding her manor. Prefect Avior died suddenly. The neighboring countries of Vela and Akter persecuted Carinan citizens. King Emil seemingly did nothing.

And then Marta called me to the lobby to tell me I had a visitor.

“You mean Mr. Nordfeld has a visitor,” I said. “I don’t get visitors.”

Marta was not amused by my questioning her judgment. Marta did not make mistakes. Marta’s sense of humor had been surgically removed.

“Sorry,” I said. “Where is he?”

“He’s outside,” Tom told me. “In his car.”

“No clearance to come in?” I asked, with the horrified thought that my visitor might be one of my brothers.

Or my parents, but “horrified” didn’t begin to cover my reaction to that calamity.

“Nope,” Tom told me as he checked me through security. “It’s double-parked. You can’t miss it.”

“Challenge accepted,” I retorted, but Tom was right. I saw the car the second I stepped outside, and it didn’t belong to my parents. It didn’t belong to my brothers either, unless they’d rented a limo for the occasion. But I didn’t see how they could have also rented the chauffeur, a strong-featured man with shoulders like beach balls. He looked like he had approximately Marta’s humor level, which was hardly surprising, because he wore the cream and sapphire blue of Avior prefecture. More precisely, of Avior prefecture’s head knight—it’s second-in-command. He took one look at me and said, “Mercedes Cartier?”

I blinked and shook my head. “I . . . think there’s been a mistake.”

“You are Mercedes Cartier?”

“Yes, but—”

He opened the limo door. “Please, get in.”

The limo beyond was half-lit, with all the baubles you’d expect from Gil Gaspar’s notoriously expensive taste. But the current occupant—I couldn’t see him, but I had no doubt he was in there—had elected to go without the neon lighting.

I licked my lips. “What’s this about?”

“Please, get in,” the head knight repeated.

I didn’t have to obey him. This was Silvertip, not Avior. I could run back into the Carinan Security Service building, and nothing less than a royal command could extradite me. That’s what the panicked shrew voice in my brain wanted to do. But the more sensible part said: It’s broad daylight, and Marta and Tom know where you went. He can’t hurt you.

He’s a homicidal maniac!

No, he’s a man who plans his murders carefully. Why would he kill you? He has no reason to believe you know what he did—but if you run, he might guess.

So why does he want to talk to me?

I ducked into the limo. The door shut softly behind me, but I didn’t hear a lock click until the engine started up and we drifted into traffic.

“Miss Cartier,” said the limo’s other inhabitant, smiling awkwardly at me. “Thank you for joining me.”

He was five foot seven and in his mid-forties, but he looked older: he had the unhealthy, prematurely aged skin of someone who lives off mayonnaise and popcorn and doesn’t believe in fresh air. He was stringy rather than soft, and had a haggard look.

“Prefect Avior,” I said faintly. His hand was clammy when it shook mine, and I wondered just how bad it would be to use pepper spray in a closed environment.

I was not, I should note, afraid of him because I thought he had any power over demons. Did I believe demons existed? I guess, maybe. Did I believe you could whistle one up as your personal slave? About as much as I believed it might suddenly start snowing purple unicorns.

But lack of demon hadn’t stopped Gil Gaspar from taking a nosedive off a third-story building into concrete. It hadn’t stopped Lucio from hiding the evidence so cleverly that the only thing that saved Gil from the epithet “suicide” was his 0.17 blood-alcohol concentration level.

“Please, come sit closer,” Avior said, patting the seat across from him. “You’re not in trouble, I promise. I just wanted to talk to you.”

He’s putting me at my ease, I thought, and suppressed a giggle. Then I changed my mind and let the giggle out, because it’d only make him think I was an idiot. “I’m not used to talking to prefects,” I added as I moved closer, to complete the picture of vapidity.

“Oh, but you have no reason to be nervous of me,” he said. “I believe—correct me if I’m wrong—I believe you lived in my prefecture for several years. University, wasn’t it?”

“Degree in history, yes.”

“With an emphasis on warfare. However did you end up as a personal assistant to a cryptanalyst? If you didn’t want to teach, there was always the military.”

“Oh, no,” I said, “I’m not a violent person. Wait . . . you don’t want to hire me as a knight, do you? I’m really sorry, but that’s not for me. It’s different on paper, you know. You don’t have to see the blood.” I gave a delicate shudder. “I don’t mean to disappoint you . . .”

Avior patted my hand kindly. “No, nothing like that. I was just curious about what could draw a person like you to your job. I thought, perhaps, it might have to do with your boss. Jon Nordfeld—isn’t that his name? Is he a very extraordinary man?”

So now we’re getting to it, I thought. “Oh, yes,” I said enthusiastically. “He’s brilliant, truly brilliant at what he does. There’s no one like him.”

“I can see you’re a perspicacious young lady.”

I smiled shyly, tilting my head. “Thank you. Is that why you wanted to talk to me? You want to know what Mr. Nordfeld is like? Because I don’t mind telling you, prefect.”

“Go on.”

I thought about it, picking my words precisely. “Well, he’s brilliant, like I said. And I’ve never had any problems with him, and he’s never—never come on to me, if you know what I mean.”

“You’re a very pretty woman, Miss Cartier.”

I went twice as bashful at that, and Avior had to coax me back with, “He sounds like the kind of man who likes to talk about himself.”

I shook my head in honest chagrin. “Hardly ever. I’ve worked for the man for three years, and I know I’ll never understand him. He isn’t like ordinary people. He’s too smart. He’s beyond us. You don’t mind, do you?” I asked earnestly. “You wouldn’t be disappointed if you hired him, I promise. He always delivers. Like I said, he’s the best.”

Avior’s face grew dark as I spoke, and he was almost growling when he asked, “What has he told you about my hiring him?”

I shrank away from his anger, clutching my handbag and hunching my shoulders. “I only thought—isn’t that why you wanted to talk to me? Because you want him to break ciphers for you? I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to assume—I’m sorry!”

Avior’s expression cleared as I spoke, and he patted my hand again as he said, “Quite all right, Miss Cartier. As I said, you’re a very perspicacious woman. I should have known you’d guess.”

I didn’t have an answer for that, so Avior made another effort:

“How would you feel about moving to my prefecture?”

“Me?” I asked in a tiny, amazed voice.

“I’m sure your employer would never dream of leaving you behind. Competent assistants are hard to find. I’d hire you if he didn’t.”

“Thank you. That’s very kind.”

Avior frowned. “But there is one other thing,” he said. “This is awkward and embarrassing, but as a native Batatan, you must have heard rumors about me—the whole demonology nonsense that my enemies spread to slander me.”

“Um . . .”

“It’s all right,” he reassured me. “I’m used to it. It’s even proven somewhat useful, because I end up hearing about other people who really are interested in that sort of foolishness. In fact, someone told me that Jon Nordfeld is actually considered something of an expert in the demonology community! You know him better than anyone. Is that true?”

I drew myself up at this, tart and offended. “Mr. Nordfeld is a very brilliant man,” I said coldly. “He is an expert on anything he wants to be an expert on. But he is also the most respectable of men, and I can’t imagine him ever getting involved with witchcraft or demonology or seidr or anything like that.”

“So he’s never mentioned demonology to you?”

“Certainly not!”

Avior’s dark eyes examined me closely, hunting for signs of dishonesty. When I kept up my righteous indignation, he said, “You’ve taken a weight off my mind.” He leaned back into his seat and knocked on the barrier blocking off his driver.

“I hope,” Prefect Avior said as the limo slowed, “that you’ll consider this conversation privileged.”

“Of course,” I sniffed, still affronted by the slight to my boss. “I know my duty.” I softened. “I’m sorry I spoke so harshly, prefect. It really was an honor to meet you, and I know you have to ask these things.”

“And I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said kindly. “Have a nice day, Miss Cartier.”

“You too, prefect.” I scooted down the limo and let the driver help me out. Standing on the sidewalk, I watched the limo until it was out of sight—to make sure it left—before returning to work.

I didn’t return directly to my boss; I stopped by the kitchen on my way to make a pot of tea and steady my nerves. That didn’t work; my nerves wouldn’t steady. I was bursting with the need to tell someone what had just happened. I poured the water before it was boiling and slopped tea on the carpet on the way back to the office.

My boss was bent over his desk, concentrating too deeply to notice me. I put down the teapot, shut the door harder than strictly necessary, and locked it. “Mr. Nordfeld,” I said, putting my hand over the paper he was staring at. “I need to talk to you.”

He blinked up at me like an edenbear emerging from hibernation. “Is that tea?” His brows lowered. “Your hands are shaking.”

“Run-off adrenaline,” I said. “Guess who I just had a chat with?”

I didn’t make him guess; I told him everything. My memory’s good, not perfect, but I didn’t think I’d forget that conversation for a long, long time.

“Did he suspect you?” my boss asked, when I was done.

“No.”

“Are you sure? If he did, you could be in danger.”

“I’m sure.”

He relaxed. “Good. Then we’ll proceed as planned.”

Chapter 2

That was Tuesday. On Friday, I arrived home to the pervasive, greasy smog of frying eggs and bacon.

“Luc!” I complained, slamming the front door behind me and storming into the living area. “How many times have I asked you—”

“I’m innocent!” he squeaked, raising both hands. The orange juice carton was in one, and there was no drinking glass in sight. I made a mental note to stick to water.

“Good evening, Mercedes,” Francis said, toweling off his hair as he threw himself on the sofa. His cheeks had the lingering flush of a long shower, and his fingertips were puffy and wrinkled. Shower after work on a Friday evening often meant a date, but it could’ve just been that the rain had made construction work muckier than usual. I held out some hope it was the latter, in case it meant girlfriend #44 had dumped him.

“Francis,” I replied. “You’re getting water all over the couch. Can’t you use a towel?”

Francis lolled his eyes and head back disparagingly. When I didn’t budge, he propped an elbow on the sofa arm and his head on his hand. Straggles of black hair dangled through his fingers like seaweed. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”

“Or in the wrong bed,” Luc put in.

“Pathetic,” I said. “But then, that’s the sort of insult I’d expect from someone with the intelligence of a particularly dim larva. Although that might be giving you too much credit.”

I wasn’t doing so well myself, on the insult front, and my voice sounded weak to my own ears. At a guess, probably because someone was taking a sledgehammer to my sternum.

“It was pathetic, Luc,” Francis agreed, “not to mention tasteless. Impugning our sister’s virtue is only acceptable when it involves improbable targets.”

Luc rolled his eyes. “I’m deeply ashamed of myself. I know you two took me seriously. And that Mercedes is devastated.” He pulled a glass down from a cupboard, probably to make us think he hadn’t been drinking directly out of the carton. I put on a sarcastic smile to show how not devastated I was.

“When are we going to meet your boss, anyway?” Luc asked. “You should set up a meeting. Or tell us his name so we can stalk him online.”

Despite the fact that he used a computer in his work and had every upgrade a phone could hold, I had a hard time imagining my boss on social media. He was too old fashioned, and the internet was too undignified.

“You will never, ever meet my boss,” I informed Luc, praying that this was true. “I would kill you first. For your own protection. Are any of those eggs for me?”

“Make your own,” he said. “Or have cereal. Francis finished the Frosted Flakes.”

I placed my hand over my heart to show how much this blow hurt me, but inside I celebrated. I had a box of specially treated Frosted Flakes hidden under my bed, all ready and waiting to go for the next time Francis decided to steal my cereal. Out loud, I said, “Francis, Luc is being mean to me. I call rocket launcher.”

Francis grinned at me and finally got his wet hair off the couch so make room for us. Luc came over immediately—he always has new video games he wants us to help him test. This one didn’t actually have a rocket launcher, shamefully, so I had to make do with a machete. I teamed up with Francis long enough to take down Luc and then immediately turned on him. This was only fair, since he was turning on me at the same time, and the screen exploded in blood.

My brothers didn’t suspect a thing when I said good night early. They heard nothing when, in the privacy of my room, I got changed, slung on a backpack, and climbed out my bedroom window.

We live on the second story, and our windows aren’t meant to be climbed out of, so you’d think that was tricky. It was tricky, and it wasn’t made any less tricky by my backpack. But although it’d been years since I’d last snuck out of a window, I hadn’t lost my touch. It took me about ten minutes to get to the bus stop and fifteen more to the train station, where I boarded the last train south.

Dirt and concrete, gasoline and metal; these are the smells of train stations to me. Onboard, they are joined by odors of seldom-used luggage, trampled carpet, and astringent sanitizer. Cold, humid smells that render food unsatisfying and stretch minutes into hours. Books are harder to read and less interesting when you try; games are less absorbing; and your fellow passengers are the dullest creatures on Earth.

I will never understand why I enjoy traveling by train.

I elbowed my way through cars until I found my boss in the very last one. His backward-facing seat shared a table with an empty forward-facing seat. Artificial light bounced off his brown hair (thinning slightly at the front) and made clusters of half-hearted shadows about his feet.

I sat across from him, backpack next to me, and waited for his attention. A finger rose off the top edge of his book to ward me off. By the look of it, he was adding another obscure language to his collection.

I kept my mouth shut and took stock. My boss was sensibly and plainly dressed in dark-gray sweater and trousers, and the meticulously folded pile next to him included a matching scarf and black hat, gloves, and coat. I imagined his briefcase was underneath all that.

He had chosen our seats well. I could see almost everyone and he no one, and no one but our nearest neighbors could see us. Even the toilets were in the opposite direction.

The train was about half full: couples off on a brief vacation, tucked close in conversation; college students visiting home for the weekend, laughing together near the front of the car and playing with their phones; lone businesspeople staring dully out their windows or stuffing themselves with oily food; one elderly lady intent on her knitting and another buried in a book. For the moment, we were spared small children—probably because the train was a late one. The youngest I spotted looked about fourteen, and except for her firmly planted earbuds, she might have been asleep.

The train juddered to life, and my boss lowered his book, not marking the page anywhere except in his memory. “You had a pleasant evening, I hope?” he said. I translated this as, “Did anyone notice or follow you?”

“My brother Francis, the monster, ate the last of the Frosted Flakes,” I said, “but I killed him with a machete before I died of my wounds. You?”

“I paid the Craftsmen a visit,” he said placidly, tucking the book away. “Everything has been completed to my exact specifications, as promised.” He withdrew something from beneath his coat, and for one astonished second I thought he was going to show me then and there. But no, it was only a checkered ash and rosewood case, ten inches by five by two, expensive and old. From experience, I knew that a thin magnetic strip lay under the wood, the better to travel with.

I looked at it sorrowfully, though I wasn’t surprised. I resigned myself as he opened the case and set up the board.

Chess is the classic strategy game: a collection of pieces able to move in preordained ways, each side equal in theory but never in practice, because in practice the players are never truly equal, and there must always be a winner.

I never was one for turn-based games. Why would I willingly wait for someone else’s move when I could take the initiative? If white wants to think that I’ll sit back and do nothing while he takes the first move, let him. I’ll send my black pieces around the board for a sneak attack and destroy him from behind while he’s wondering whether he wants to push this piece only diagonally or this piece only in an L-shape.

But maybe I only think that because I’m no good at the game. It makes my head hurt, trying to remember what move I should make from this or that formation and why.

“I do not like the game either,” my boss told me, “but it is essential to understand nevertheless. A good chess player uses tactics at two levels: the level of individual moves and the level of the whole game. At one level, a computer can play chess. A good program can determine which move is best in any specific situation and make that move.

“But a good chess player also sees the game as a whole—not necessarily every permutation or every possibility, but how his opponents think. Most chess players have favorite opening moves and use them over and over again. If you play enough, you’ll begin to see patterns. An opponent who favors a certain opening move will likely favor similar, parallel moves later on. Once you understand how moves combine, you will be able to predict, even before the game begins, what your opponent will do in any given situation. If you predict thoroughly enough, you can instruct someone else on exactly which moves to make in exactly which order, allowing them to win the game without you being present—or them understanding it.”

“Sounds like a lot of work,” I said, drearily pushing my queen around. “I’d rather wing it.”

“And lose?” My boss chuckled. “This sort of strategy is not harder; it is easier. In any actual game, you have time limitations. But if you know what your opponent will do, within reason, you can spend as much time as you like preparing your responses. Not only will you have fewer permutations to compute—”

Like I was capable of computing chess permutations.

“—you will be able to use your opponent’s tactics against him more effectively. Let him maneuver himself into his own destruction.”

“Is that what Agnetha does?”

I’d hit a sore point. Agnetha is one of the other cryptanalysts, and she beats my boss at chess nine times out of ten. She’s a world-class grandmaster, which doesn’t make it easier for him to bear.

My boss grimaced. “As I said, I do not like the game. And no, not because she sometimes beats me.”

I made a vaguely affirming noise. I thought the conversation was over, and it was for that game. But two games later, he picked it up again.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I'm originally from Montana, got my degree in Scotland, and currently reside in Colorado with my dog. I'm a copy-editor turned school teacher.

Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
I like to read a large variety of authors and genres to research different aspects of my story. I read books on cryptanalysis, psychology and influence, myth and legend, history and communication. My favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones -- but Cipher owes more to Alastair MacLean and Timothy Zahn.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
Because I cannot NOT write.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
Actions have consequences. Mercedes must endure them -- and flourish or die.

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