Amsterdam was the kind of town that members of society avoided at all cost.
Situated beyond the Border, it lay on the edge of the Lowland Territories, just to the north of the Wild Isles, but south of untamed Zealand. It was populated by men who made their money building ships on the docks or gambling on Company bids. The prospectors and sailors lived within the confines of an antiquated dome, even as the Company erected the Barrier around them. The main street, named for pioneer Anton Van Huen, was built on a rise overlooking one of the old canals. It featured a number of smooth-faced modern buildings, fashioned out of industrial-grade ceramic with a garish titanium-gloss finish. They had been designed for longevity, not aesthetics.
On the corner of Van Huen and Rolstadt Streets, a particularly nondescript low-rise sported a sign which read, “The Redlight,” in ironic neon-orange. It was the last refuge of one of the ancient city’s most time-honored comforts.
When it happened, it came so slowly that, at first, Ferdinand did not recognize it. He was playing chess on the little set the wardens kept in the reading room. He had extracted it while they were out on rounds, and brought it back to the shade of the oaks.
It had been a long time since he had played a game of chess against himself. There was something soothing about the exercise, or perhaps the pleasant weather and his sudden turn of good health had simply put him in fine spirits. The wind was up and the sun was shining; Ferdinand had the sensation that the darkness of the previous months was breaking and that soon, the bonds of his captivity would be shattered and he might once again breathe freely.
Then, in the middle of the second game, Joberg came over to the bench and sat down next to him.
“It’s a funny thing,” he said, looking at the chess board, “To play by yourself, when you have so many willing opponents.”
Ferdinand looked past him, moving the black bishop to C5. Perhaps if he ignored him, he would simply go away.
“Do you think you’ll win?” Joberg asked. “What’s the point in playing, without a reasonable expectation of success?”
“Go away,” Ferdinand murmured. The white king was exposed. He wanted to take it before the clouds rolled in and ruined the beautiful morning.
“Check,” Collier said, joining the conversation. His elegant fingers wrapped around the white knight, sliding it into an aggressive position at F3. “Your Excellency is becoming a cliché,” he observed cruelly, eyeing the weak points of the black defense. “You always keep closest your most vulnerable pieces.”
“Tell him to leave me in peace,” Ferdinand said to Joberg, lifting his gaze from the chess board to look him in the eye. “Only for the morning—just once more, I want to be alone.”
“I’d rather he weren’t here either,” Joberg said with a sigh, casting his companion a disapproving look. “But it’s time.”
Suddenly, Ferdinand remembered the cigarettes in his pocket. “Have a smoke,” he said, recalling his friend’s expensive taste. It seemed odd to him that he hadn’t thought of it sooner. Where were his manners?
He passed the pack to Joberg, who gratefully accepted. Ferdinand offered him a light. His hands were steady as a surgeon’s.
“Thank you,” Joberg said after a long puff. “I’ve always enjoyed Swiss cigarettes. Jan insists on bringing me Turkish ones.”
“Forgive me,” Collier said angrily, “For my superior taste.”
Joberg ignored him. Instead, he let his gaze drift up into the trees.
“No birds this morning,” he said sadly. “I had really hoped there would be birds.”
“On sunny days,” Ferdinand explained, studying the board as he spoke, “The wardens put out seed down by the flower gardens. I suspect that’s where they’ve gone.”
“Ah,” Joberg replied. Ferdinand noticed for the first time that his friend’s eyelids were dark and worn, as though he had been run to exhaustion by some great sadness. Or perhaps a great fear.
Taking pity on him, he said: “After the game, we’ll go down to see them. There is no hurry; I’ve seen them feast for hours.”
“It’s time,” Joberg repeated sadly, tossing his cigarette on the ground and stamping it with his heel.
“Time for what?” Ferdinand asked, puzzled.
“How should we know?” Collier said defensively, looking up from across the board. “You’re the one who invited us.”
“I did?” Ferdinand repeated. He looked to Joberg. “Did I?”
Rainer shook his head.