Author Topic: Part 4: A Simple Game of Ajed  (Read 6704 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 4: A Simple Game of Ajed
« on: May 22, 2022, 06:29:19 AM »
The next few weeks passed quickly from Moss' perspective. Evidently other trejun ambassadors had been dispatched from their home continent. Moss knew that the Consensus was trying to prove it was serious about forming a lasting relationship with the Union, but the sheer effort they were putting into that relationship was impressive.

By now there was a trejun rooted outside of every grove in the Union! According to missives from the northern edges of Bura, the Consensus had even reached out to the northerners (the ones who hadn't attacked them anyway), and established relations with them as well. Apparently when Trejuna did diplomacy, they went all in on it.

Ter had proven to be quite popular here as well. Almost every night he could be found in the network surrounded by younger treqars, regaling them with tales from across the sea. He had even let some of them keep a few of his juns as temporary pets, just to see how they would handle it. Unfortunately it seemed juns were just as social as qars, and his loaned ones hadn't been happy at all until they'd gone back to being with their own kind.

Tonight was a bit different than the usual story hour. There was a competition planned in the middle of the grove, in which he would be the star player. Ter had been practicing with his enzyme controls and had a rudimentary understanding of how to direct the twenty or so qars he'd been given. Grovekeeper Jora had given only the youngest batch, so that they would have time to develop under his care. That was probably a good thing: the sheer noise of all those wings beating might drive more mature qars into insanity. Now, Ter was going to put his practice to the test.

Moss reluctantly connected to the network as his curiosity got the better of him. He'd been handling qars since the seed, but he couldn't help wondering how a much older person would adapt to suddenly having a score of crawling insects in his care.

The game was called ajed. It was an ancient contest of intellect and control, in a simulated combat between treqars. The board was made of torlo bark, which was very light and easily textured to identify position and team. It was triangular, which represented the three points of power within treqar society: the Core, the Void, and the People themselves. As such it was a game that required three contestants.

Jora was required to serve as referee, but there was no shortage of challengers eager to prove themselves against the Ambassador. With a certain vindictive glee, Moss could see his own father trying to restrain his eagerness. A politician's gloss could cover only so much, apparently.

In the end Ter was matched up against Rane, and then Solba, the grove's irrigation expert. He was older than his opponents, having been cutting waterways for nearly two hundred years now. Rane's presence was a surprise, given his limited skill at ajed. He must have worked extra hard to be noticed. It wasn't surprising really; Rane had been even more fascinated by their visitor than most.

Moss had kept meeting with Ter in private, trying to understand the trejun lord's culture and society. Over the past days, Ter had asked for and received multiple enzyme texts concerning Trejuna's history, which Moss had consumed hungrily. He would have liked to think he was special, and that was why he was being treated specially, but Moss knew better. No doubt Ambassadors all over the continent were sharing similar texts with their new friends.

They'd discussed philosophy as well. What role and responsibility did the People have to each other and to the Core? How could the Core be all-powerful, if the Void was everywhere else? At what point did worship of the Core impede true service to the Core? That sort of stuff.

Fittingly, Ter was assigned the role of Core for the game. Solba got the People, and Rane ended up with the Void. They were symbolic sides only; each team had equal resources and capability. Poor Rane looked a bit upset, though. For someone as kind-natured as him to be associated with the great evil emptiness out there must be grating.

The stone pieces were brought out then, and arranged on the sides of the triangular board. Several hundred qars from different treqars arranged them just so, making sure the points of the triangle were unoccupied. Each piece had been polished carefully, probably by artisan-trained qars. The board was Jora's most prized possession other than her qar queen.

There were seven different types of wooden pieces. Only three treqars of course: they were immobile and fitted into the board instead of being placed on top of it. The root pieces spread out from them, and were the slowest by far. They were needed for communication with the rest, just as had been done in real life for centuries. Then there were three qar queen pieces, which were the most powerful pieces on the board. Those were put directly in front of the treqar pieces, in the most protected location. Arrayed around that collection were qar warriors, builders, and suppliers, in a predictable pattern defending their home and master. Fortification pieces weren't on the board yet, because only builder qars could create them. All told between the three of them, there were ninety-nine pieces visible.

Traditionally the Core went first. Ter moved one of his suppliers forward tentatively, more towards Solba's position than towards Rane. His control was clumsy. It was to be expected, given that he'd only had a few weeks to train his real qars in how to interpret his enzymes. Everyone watching was polite enough not to comment on it.

Moss wasn't actually watching in person. He was way too far away to be able to see the pieces directly. Thankfully the network allowed him to share the view from other peoples' oscilli, so he knew what was going on fairly well. For once the network was mostly quiet. Watching the Ambassador play was so riveting that the usual gossiping drivel was at a minimum right now.

Then came the Void. Rane pushed a builder forward and got it started on fortifications. It was a typical defensive move, but Rane had plenty of experience playing in a siege mentality. Solba responded by moving a fast warrior piece in a probing attack against him.

Then Ter moved again, extending a root up to his supplier. Round and round it went, with Jora keeping watch and tabulating resources. She did so by calculating root connections to suppliers, as well as judging the grace and reliability of the real qars as they moved the pieces around. Any obvious mistakes or delays, such as Ter's initial jerky movements, subtracted slightly from the resources necessary to grow roots, breed qars, and build fortifications.

The game shaped up predictably. Solba and Rane bashed against each other most often, clearly not willing to gang up on Ter's slow-growing force. Once Solba finally got past Rane's triple-reinforced armaments and placed a warrior qar atop the Rane's trejun headquarters, Ter had a moderately sized force on the board.

Rane signaled his surrender with good grace, and all his real qars retreated from the board. His roots and fortifications would remain inert, but his qar pieces were now up for grabs. Solba made a move for them, but Ter was much closer.

The Ambassador's understanding of ajed strategy was clearly up to the task, but his limited control was starting to show in his resource totals. Solba slowly wore him down, though Moss could tell he did so reluctantly. Who wanted to be known for beating a foreign dignitary at a game he'd never played before? In the end, Solba pushed through the final layer of Ter's defenses, and Ter surrendered before his queen and treqar could fall. The assembled crowd cheered through the network, congratulating Solba and consoling the others.

"A thoroughly enjoyable game," Ter said, letting out a broad stream of satisfaction. "Thank you for showing me how it is played, my friends. And thank you, Lady Jora, for allowing us the use of your board. It was most instructional. Reminds me of some of the games we have back home, actually."

"Use your juns!" A presence called out from the collected spectators. Moss couldn't tell who had said it, but it didn't matter. He also wanted to see the game played that way. From the crowd's messages, he wasn't alone either.

Ter put out some uncertainty. "I would enjoy that, but how will the game be refereed? It was built for qars, not juns. How will the referee decide how many resources to give me if I have no qars to judge?"

There were some murmurs from around the group, when Moss had a sudden inspiration. His chemical presence was near his father's, so this was a chance for his family as well. He simulated conversing privately with his father for just a moment, and then spoke up. "Excellent suggestion, Father. Why not just average the other two scores? That way we can have a game and see the juns play!"

His father's aura was completely unreadable, as was right and proper for a career politician. Moss thought he could sense the slightest trace of surprise and gratitude, though. The crowd reacted positively to the suggestion, and Jura eventually sent out some agreement as well. "Very well. Who will challenge the Ambassador? Other than Solba and Rane, I mean. It would be unfair to let them try a second time."

Moss immediately put forward his father's name. It was partially because he knew his own father would love to compete but was too socially conscious to make the challenge himself. It was also because it would take attention off of Moss himself. He was less likely to be 'encouraged' to compete if his father was already doing so. Tessa let out a trace of intrigue in his direction, as if she knew what he'd just done. She was no fool; if anyone could surmise it, she could.

Then she challenged Ter as well, as if rubbing Moss' leaves in it. She was a competent player herself. Moss' father was selected as Core, and Tessa as the People. This time Ter was the bad guy.

When it came to his turn, Ter shocked the whole grove with the speed and efficiency of his moves. Almost before his juns had started moving they were already still again! The pieces seemed to pop from place to place under his direction. Even Moss, who'd been up close with juns many times recently, was still impressed.

Now that he no longer needed to worry about a resource score, it was clear that Ter was in his element. He and Tessa quickly and systematically dismantled Moss' father's forces, as often happened in ajed. Once the game had been reduced to two players, Tessa and Ter both scrambled to claim the leaderless qars for themselves.

His father's ego was probably bruised, but Moss decided against speaking to him. It wouldn't do any good right now, and might even be seen as a sign of condescension. Besides, the game was just getting interesting.

Tessa had a bigger army, but the Ambassador's forces were better placed. As she grabbed the last of the leaderless qars, he pushed a pincer forward, with four warriors and two suppliers. The pincer cut off the right side of her forces, splitting them from her main group and severing the root connection, rendering them effectively helpless. Tessa let out a blast of chagrin as he spent the next three turns systematically annihilating them.

She was more careful from that point, but the damage had already been done. It took another thirty or so turns, but finally Tessa signaled surrender. There was no trace of animosity or hostility from her. If she was bitter, she was very good at hiding it.

The evening evolved into a more relaxed affair from there. Others played ajed after them, but on a less formal board. Jora had her qars retrieve her precious set and store it safely. Other contests abounded as well. There were qar races arranged, as well as obstacle courses or puzzles for them to solve. Light-hearted accusations of foul play abounded as well, partially because those contests weren't regulated and had no rewards other than temporary bragging rights.

What interested Moss were the physical contests. There were multiple calls for Ter to include his juns in them. The race wasn't even close unfortunately. Even without the use of their wings, the juns he provided easily sped past their qar competitors. They were just too light! Eventually it was decided that the only determining contest would be the wrestling match.

According to the rules, a qar only won such a match if it removed its opponent's legs from the ground completely. Whether that meant lifting it bodily up in the air for a few seconds, or keeping it on its back entirely, was up to the treqar issuing the orders. Solba brought out his aqueduct workers eagerly. He was widely acknowledged to have the strongest qars, given their back-breaking work bringing water closer to the grove. The qar he chose was Brute, who was recognized even by a shut-in like Moss.

By comparison, Ter brought out a large, furry insect which buzzed intimidatingly from the ground. It seemed that jun hives were much more densely populated than qar nests. There was no way Ter could name all of his like Moss had his own qars. This one was just 'jun' to the crowd.

Jora made a few adjustments to the rules to accommodate the jun. It was prohibited from using its wings to leave the ground, but it could use them as weapons. Ter warned the crowd that his juns had never been trained for anything like this, so he couldn't be sure how effective they might be. He was assured that was fine, so Ter issued the appropriate guidelines, and the match began.

From treqar perspective, animals like qars and juns moved lightning-quick. It would take a treqar several hours to move its branches to follow the Core as it sped above them, during which time a qar could have moved a full league or more. And a jun at least ten times that!

As such, physical contests had to be recorded and slowed down. Only Moss and a small percentage of other treqars had reaction times that didn't need such help. Jora observed the fight and then 'broadcast' it in a way to the assembled network. If this contest was popular enough, she might even send enzyme copies of it to other groves!

Even slowed down, the match was amazingly brief. Jora put it up for everyone to observe, but it was done in under thirty seconds! The jun circled Brute for a few seconds, using its superior speed to stay out of reach. Brute's antennae tracked it closely, and then stiffened when it came in to grapple. There was a flurry of wingbeats against his head as he tried to get ahold of his target, and then he just stopped!

As the crowd watched, Brute shuddered with his whole body, and then curled up on the flat surface of the arena.

It was clear to everyone that he was dead. The jun promptly leveraged itself under Brute's body, forcing it into the air. It held it there for exactly ten seconds and then dropped it, buzzing off to rejoin the hive.

"I am so sorry," Ter put into the network, as the rest remained in stunned silence. "I gave him the specifics of the contest, but neglected to mention his stinger. He must have felt that the most expedient way to win would be to kill his target first! Lord Solba, I am profoundly embarrassed and regretful of this."

Even Moss was shocked. Qars had stingers too, but they weren't often used. If they were trained for combat, qars usually used spears because of the advanced reach. They could carry tiny wooden or metal poles to impale each other. Even if they had to sting, the poison wasn't anywhere near this fast-acting or deadly.

Solba recovered quickly. His only emanations were regret and surprise. "Think nothing of it, Ambassador. Accidents happen all the time. Brute may be… may have been my strongest, but he's not my only bricklayer. I think we should hold off on any more wrestling matches with juns for now though, don't you?"

There was a trickle of nervous amusement through the group, which Moss felt as well. If treqars had been influenced by their qars into becoming the society they were now, it was safe to say trejuns had been changed in their own way: intelligence, sophistication… and deadliness.
« Last Edit: August 10, 2022, 01:32:16 AM by Daen »