The Master Patterns
by K. Stoddard Hayes
The little boy sat beside the kargat, tossing stones into the white sand. The spring sun was already warming this terrace on the western wall of the canyon, though the terraces and balconies climbing the east wall still lay in shadow. A breeze came off the river below and stirred the child’s black curls.
“Look, mama, I got them all inside the circle!”
Mirza got up from her cushions on the grass and came to look. Sure enough, all twelve pebbles lay inside the circle she had drawn in the sand. The sand itself was a circle a yard across, held in by a slender marble sill: a kargat, a game field. The drawn circle made a second concentric ring inside the marble border.
“Very good, Jafar.”
Jafar’s dark eyes glowed with pride, then he turned to his body slave, who had been squatting a few feet away, his arms folded across his knees. “Look, Asif!”
The young man’s impassive face softened and he nodded in approval.
“Asif helped me, mama. He showed me how to throw better.”
Mirza’s smile this time included the slave. “Can you do it again?”
“Want to see?” Jafar gathered the stones into a little heap in front of him, and showed her again, throwing them underhand, one by one, to fall within the circle.
“That’s just baby throwing,” a scornful voice said. Mirza’s stepson Kassim marched onto the terrace, trailed by his own body slave. Kassim stood over his half brother, his stiff crimson court robes in marked contrast to Jafar’s loose silk shirt and bare brown feet. Mirza wished that just once in a while, his mother Safia would stop grooming him to win the Crown, and let him be a child. He lifted his disdainful nose even higher over Jafar’s stones. “Those are all over the kargat. You’re supposed to keep them in your half!”
Jafar’s lower lip pushed out, and his little fists clenched.
“He’ll learn, Kassim,” Mirza said. “Don’t forget, he’s a whole year younger than you. And how are you today?”
Jafar started to pick up his stones again, head down. “I can throw them in my half if I want to,” he muttered at the sand, then peeked up at Kassim, expecting his brother to contradict him as usual.
Kassim had a better weapon today. “Who cares about baby throwing anyway? Look what I have!” He held a flat leather case under Jafar’s nose. “My mama gave it to me, because I’m six now.”
Jafar looked at the case, then away.
“It’s a set of real kargat stones,” said Kassim, in case Jafar missed the point. But of course, all children in Khasran knew what that case meant, and waited for their sixth birthday to receive one. True kargat stones, shaped and charged by the hand of a master kargat maker, held the living energy of the cosmos. An adult playing with real stones must hold to any stake or promise he committed to the game, because the power of his stones and his opponent’s would bind him to it.
Naturally, no child was allowed to play for any stake—not until he played his coming-of-age game at fifteen. For now, Kassim would learn to throw the patterns and feel how the ancient powers flowed and shifted through the stones and the circles in the sand.
“You know what this means?” Kassim leaned close to his little brother. “I’ll be a whole year ahead of you when it comes time to play before the Crown.”
Mirza winced. How could she keep Jafar a child when Kassim and Safia would not let him forget the rivalry of their manhood? Khasrani law allowed the Mukhtar to name his successor. When both boys were still babies, their father Faruk had put his foot down on court intrigue over the succession, by decreeing that when they were of age, Jafar and Kassim would play a game of kargat to determine who should wear the Crown. And not just any game: they would play in the presence of the Crown itself, whose great red ruby kept the powers in balance throughout the realm. The Ruby Crown would guide the forces of the game to call forth the true successor, whose leadership would bless all the clans. An extra year would make no difference before that power.
Jafar was too young to understand this. He gathered his play stones into a stack, making their small clatter a shield against Kassim’s bragging. Mirza laid a caressing hand on him and felt his rigid little shoulders relax under her touch.
“Jafar will have plenty of time to practice before he gets his first set. You must be very proud of yours, Kassim. Will you show them to me?” she said in her warmest voice. He was always kinder to Jafar when she was kind to him. And he wasn’t a cruel child really, if only Safia wouldn’t feed him daily on rivalry.
Kassim sat down beside her, eager to show off his treasure. The case was an old one from his mother’s homeland, black leather stamped with whirling gold designs. The stones inside were equally rich: twelve perfect spheres of jade, sized to fit a child’s palm. Something stirred in Mirza’s mind as she looked at them. Something about the sheen of the stones, the way they rested in their velvet hollows, like sleeping scarabs just waiting to waken…
She realized that Asif had moved in his almost invisible way, and was now kneeling at Jafar’s right hand as if he had always been there. He was still in position to offer immediate service, but he was also close enough to get a good look at Kassim’s kargat stones.
“Mama says these belonged to my great uncle,” Kassim bragged. “He was a king and a sorcerer.”
“I bet he wasn’t!” Jafar said.
It was probably true, though, Mirza reflected. The lords of Rikkat were known for dealing in black magic. Blood magic they called it, because they drew their power from the blood of sacrifices. Some said the blood was human. She forestalled further bickering by saying, “These are very beautiful, Kassim. Have you played with them yet?”
“I’m going to play with my mama as soon as she comes.”
“Your mama’s coming?” Mirza concealed her dismay. “I shall be glad to say fair day to her. But then perhaps we should leave you together for such an important game. Jafar—”
She was about to call the child away, when Asif caught her eye. His glance slid from her to Kassim’s new stones. Unmistakably, he wanted her to stay. So there was something about those stones. In the years since Asif had joined her household as a frightened and defiant boy, he had never used openly whatever barbarian magic he might have learned as a child. In Khasran, the use of magic was reserved to those licensed by the Mukhtar or his Wizards. But Asif had ways of knowing things that mattered, and he used those ways to protect her and her son.
A morning in Safia’s company was the last thing Mirza wanted. But clearly, Safia was up to something that Asif wanted to investigate. And with the thought, came a shrill of music.
Even after seven years as the second wife of the Mukhtar of Khasran, Safia still maintained the Rikkati royal custom of being preceded by musicians who announced her importance. A drummer and flutist led her entourage, then came a slave carrying a small rolled carpet, two maids, a parasol bearer, and, under the red silk parasol, Safia herself. Her perfectly coiffed black hair was studded with rubies and pearls, her pale honey face tinted almost to ivory by the expert hands of her makeup artists. Her morning gown of the royal crimson bore as much gold lacing as Mirza would wear to a festival banquet.
Kassim’s body tensed as his mother’s eye fell on him. He snapped shut his kargat case and ran to her. “I was only waiting for you, mama. I didn’t say anything wrong.”
The smile Safia gave him made the morning seem chilly. “Of course not, my son. You never do what displeases your mama. Now come.” Kassim fell into place beside her, and she paced over to the kargat and stepped firmly on the carpet her slave unrolled for her. She looked down at Mirza.
“Fair day to you, princess.”
“Fair day to you,” Mirza said politely. She had long ago given up any hope of being Safia’s friend.
Safia’s eyes roamed over Mirza’s simple silks and unadorned hair, and the glance held an entire speech of disparagement. Mirza ignored it, and turned the conversation to the one subject that interested Safia more than finding subtle ways to belittle her rival wife.
“That is a fine set of stones you have given Kassim. You must be very proud that he is of age to begin using it.”
Safia glanced at the circle of sand, and Mirza saw that she intended to demand the use of this kargat, which was not only the older of the two on this terrace, but one of the oldest in the city. As the senior wife, Mirza had no intention of appearing as a subordinate obeying Safia’s demand.
“Naturally you wish to use the old kargat for his first game. I am happy to yield it to you for such an occasion.” She stood up, making herself the gracious giver and Safia a suppliant in her debt.
Safia was left with no option but to express gratitude. She did so with perfect etiquette and not a grain of sincerity, then gestured to Kassim to sit opposite her at the kargat.
Curiosity and Asif’s unspoken message prompted Mirza to linger a moment longer. Perhaps Jafar read her wishes with a child’s intuition, for he said, “Mama, I want to watch Kassim play.”
Safia’s glance at him was almost a shout. He recoiled from it and took refuge behind his mother.
Safia smiled graciously. “I prefer not, princess. Kassim must not be distracted.”
“Of course.” Mirza matched her graciousness. “Come, Jafar, let’s use the kargat by the railing. We can watch the horses on the drill field, and I’ll help you study your patterns.”
She gave fair day to Safia, and led her little son to the outer edge of the terrace, without a backward glance. Jafar looked over his shoulder, a tad enviously, she thought. His turn would come.
From the lesser kargat, they could see over terraces, gardens and balconies, clear down to the floor of the canyon, to the trees on the river bank and the wide green field where riders in the Mukhtar’s service drilled their horses. When Mirza took her position across the sand circle from Jafar, she could also see Kassim and Safia to the left, just within her field of vision. She was careful not to look directly that way, though Jafar couldn’t help stealing glances along his shoulder.
“We’ll take turns with our throws, almost as if we were really playing,” she told him. “You practice throwing on your half of the kargat, and I’ll throw a pattern for you to guess.”
It was a lifetime’s study to learn all the hundreds of kargat patterns, each with its own meaning and its own power in the balance of the game. Even a kargat master might not learn them all. A child always began by learning the Sun’s Thirteen, the foundation patterns that imitated each of the constellations along the sun’s path. They were simple patterns and simple to throw, demanding only a general relationship among the stones, not precise placement in the kargat. Mirza started with the first of the Thirteen: the Tiger. Jafar identified it as soon as she had thrown her last stone. And he managed to land most of his stones on his half of the circle. They picked up their stones together, and Mirza began on the next pattern, the Archer, still alternating throws with Jafar.
Asif sat at Mirza’s left hand and Jafar’s right, and watched the circle of sand between them. His eyes moved here and there over the sand, but never quite when or where Mirza or Jafar threw. She had the impression he was somehow watching the other game, the one taking place behind his back, on the old kargat fifteen paces away.
Watching him watch, she became aware that Safia was leading Kassim very quickly through his games. In the time it took her to throw one pattern for Jafar, she saw Safia and Kassim pick up their stones three times. At that rate, Kassim could hardly have time to aim his throws, let alone think about his patterns.
Once in a while, a trick of the canyon breezes brought their voices to her.
“You’re looking, Kassim. I told you to close your eyes.”
“Did you hear me? Don’t look. Just throw! Close your eyes. Now throw.”
Why would she have him close his eyes for his first game of kargat? That was like blindfolding a novice archer and expecting him to hit the mark.
“The Rains. Right, mama?” said Jafar.
“That’s right, love. This is the third pattern, the Rains. You’ve learned well.”
“Throw another one.”
They threw again. Beside them, Asif hardly seemed to breathe, he sat so still. And beyond him, she could see Safia’s rigid back and jutting chin, facing Kassim’s lowered head, and his fearful, placating glances at his mother. She heard Safia say, “Is that the best you can do?”
Before Mirza had thrown the tenth stone in this pattern, Jafar said, “The Tree! Do another one.”
“Let me finish the pattern. You know you should always finish a pattern, don’t you?”
She threw her last three stones, and was reaching to gather them, when Asif gasped, and turned his head as if compelled to look behind him. He checked the movement at once, and stared at the lesser kargat again. His hands clenched in his lap.
Mirza pretended to brush something off her left sleeve, so she could sneak a glance at the other kargat. Safia was giving Kassim a different kargat case. Mirza tore her glance away, confounded. A second set of stones, within an hour of the first? In wealthy families, which might own a number of kargat sets, a child’s first set of stones was always carefully chosen to suit his temperament. And children were allowed months or years to grow accustomed to their first stones; some kept the same set all their lives. To offer a child a second set, on the very day he tried his first set, seemed to defy both tradition and common sense.
Asif’s whitened knuckles told her that Safia had something still more serious in hand.
“Mama, throw the next one,” said Jafar. “The Heron is next, right? Right, Mama?”
Mirza pulled her attention back to Jafar’s game. “Yes, it is.” She threw the Heron, trying to keep her mind on Jafar’s throwing technique as he took his turns, rather than on the mother and son across the terrace, now clearly snarled in some kind of struggle in which Kassim, inevitably, would get the worst. Then Kassim jumped up from the kargat, ran onto the grass, and threw up.
Jafar stopped picking up his stones. “What’s the matter with Kassim?”
“Hush, Jafar, don’t stare. He’s probably too hot.”
They watched surreptitiously, as Kassim’s body slave helped him up and hustled him off the terrace. Safia followed with her entourage, and without a glance at Mirza and Jafar.
“Safia looks sulky,” said Jafar. “Was she hot too, mama?”
“My princess, we should go.” Asif looked as if he also might be sick at any second.
“Let’s go get a cool drink.” Mirza helped Jafar pick up the last of his stones, and they returned to their own suite of rooms. When Jafar was settled on an airy balcony with fruit nectar and some pastries, she led Asif back inside.
“What was the matter with those kargat stones?”
Asif pressed his hands together, still holding in whatever he had been holding since Safia had started her games. “They’re blood stones, my princess. She was testing Kassim’s gifts.”
“Blood stones?” Mirza had heard of them in old stories. “How do they work?
“She made him throw blind, and swiftly, without time to think. That would give the stones control, and they would fall into patterns by their own power. Safia could read those patterns, to see what gifts Kassim might have.”
“Gifts? She wanted to find out if he has any magical powers?”
“Magic is not the word my people use. But, yes.”
“Sun and stars! If Faruk knew—!” Mirza sat down, suddenly breathless. Their husband had once caught Safia trying to control him with blood magic. He would have banished her then, except that her marriage kept the fragile peace with Rikkat. But all magic was forbidden to the royalty of Khasran, ever since wizard princes, fighting over the Crown, had unleashed a magical plague that devastated the land. No wonder Safia had waited until Faruk and his Wizards were away from the city.
“Asif, I thought I saw her give him a second set.”
Asif looked grave. “Those were her own stones. No doubt she thought they would give a better result, as they are more powerful.”
“Her stones? You don’t give a child your own stones for his first game, it’s too much—” Mirza stopped, realizing the full meaning of what Asif had said. “They were blood stones, too? All these years, she’s been playing kargat with blood stones.”
“You didn’t know?” He seemed surprised. But then, “Forgive me, my princess, how could you know? She has always been careful to keep their power bound when she plays. She knows the Mukhtar’s wise men keep watch over her. But to have Kassim play with those stones, to release their power on a child…”
“Asif, what can we do? Will she get caught?”
“You don’t want the Mukhtar to know?”
“Think how much trouble there would be! If he banished her, we might have another war with Rikkat.”
“Then we should go to the kargat during the midday rest, and I will make sure that no trace of the blood stones’ power remains for the Mukhtar’s wise men to find.”
An hour after noon, the three of them returned to the terrace. They met no one in their walk through the shaded colonnades. Most of the city was still at rest—particularly, Mirza hoped, Safia and Kassim.
The midday sun scorched the redrock pavement, and no breeze stirred. Mirza sent Jafar to play by the fountain, where the spray would keep him cool. She sat on the grass not far from the old kargat, and turned to Asif.
He was standing a few paces away. He looked around for several minutes, watching the balconies and terraces above them on the canyon wall, and even those across the canyon. Finally, he stepped up beside the circle.
“Please watch the higher levels, my princess,” he asked, “and warn me if anyone comes.”
Mirza changed her position so she could discreetly observe the balconies.
“Mama, come play with me!” Jafar called from beside the lesser kargat.
“Don’t you want to play in the water? All right, I’ll come in a minute.”
Jafar knelt down, and when Mirza glanced his way a moment later, he was drawing in the sand with his finger, marking the circles for himself.
Asif stooped beside the old kargat and studied the sand closely. Mirza watched him, wondering how he could clear away residual magic. Would he use his hands, or was he doing it right now, with just his eyes or his thoughts?
Asif closed his eyes, then inhaled deeply, opened his eyes and began to blow. He blew long breaths all across the sand, back and forth and around in circles, until he had shifted the top layer on every inch of the kargat. Then he stood and stepped away.
“It’s done,” he said. She saw that he wasn’t even short of breath. And for a moment, he seemed a man mature in his powers, not a boy of twenty. The white sand looked clean and smooth, dazzling in the sunlight.
Mirza still didn’t feel safe. She had expected to feel relief, as soon as all trace of Safia’s magic was erased.
“Asif. Is there any chance Faruk could learn about this? What if Safia tries to test Kassim again?”
Asif’s eyes glinted. “Be at ease, my princess. I doubt she will try again. She did not get the results she wanted.”
“You mean Kassim has no magic?”
“Certainly he does. We all do. Even the Mukhtar, though he will not acknowledge it. But Kassim’s gifts are not of the kind Safia would call magic. She is only interested in dominion, whether she bends minds to her will by the blunt force of compulsion or by secret manipulation of thoughts and desires. She hoped to find such gifts in Kassim, or at the very least, perhaps, some power that might help him win the game for the Crown. She found none, no matter how she pressed him, no matter which stones she gave him. His gifts are all for the arts of peace and beauty.”
Mirza didn’t even notice that Asif was speaking to her almost as an equal, calling Kassim and Safia by their first names. “He disappointed her, then. Poor child. I hope she can forgive him for it.” But at least, perhaps, this incident was over. “So, we will pretend it never happened.”
“Yes, my princess. And so will she. She will have ordered Kassim to keep silent. And likely, the blood stones she gave him will disappear before the Mukhar and his wise men return tomorrow.”
“Mama, what pattern is this?” Jafar called.
Mirza walked over to the lesser kargat. “Are you throwing patterns now, my sweet—? Oh, ancient powers!”
She had thought Jafar was playing with his own stones, but the little silk bag lay unopened beside him. The stones on the kargat were shining jade, and the pattern! For the second time today, Mirza had to sit down quickly, or be overcome by shock and fear.
“What pattern is it?” Jafar asked again.
“The River in Flood,” Asif answered from over Mirza’s shoulder. A Master pattern, so difficult that only a kargat master could play it.
“It looks a little like the River,” said Jafar, too absorbed in his play to notice that his mother and his body slave seemed to have turned to stone. He gathered the blood stones and threw them again, and they fell unerringly in another Master pattern. For several minutes, Mirza and Asif watched as if spellbound, while Jafar threw four Master patterns in perfect order on the white sand.
“What does it mean?” Mirza whispered. Asif said nothing. And she hardly needed his answer, anyway.
Jafar was six throws into another pattern, when Asif hissed, “Behind you!”
Mirza looked toward the colonnade just as Safia came out on the terrace. No entourage, no music or fanfare, no warning. She came straight toward them.
It was far too late to stop Jafar or to pick up the stones. Choked with panic, Mirza looked back at the sand, to see what Master pattern he had thrown this time, and whether she could possibly explain it away.
All the stones had moved. A whirl of sand was blowing off the kargat, as if a sudden wind had swept the pattern away.
“Why don’t they make patterns?” Jafar asked.
“Hush, child! Give fair day to your stepmother,” said Mirza.
Jafar rose and greeted Safia politely, then his eyes swung back to the kargat, as if pulled. Safia followed his glance and saw the blood stones scattered at random, patternless. She gave a sour smile. Nothing to see here.
“Forgive me, little prince,” she said. “It was careless of Kassim to leave these. They belonged to my great uncle, so I must have them back, you see.”
“That’s all right. I like the stones my mama gave me better.”
Safia smiled even more, and gathered up the blood stones. She could not have left those stones here by accident. She meant for Jafar to find them, and use them. She meant to find out if Mirza’s son had powers that her own son had not. And now—somehow—she had the only answer that would satisfy her. She put the last blood stone in the case, made a formal salute to Mirza and Jafar, and left the terrace.
“Good. She’s gone,” Jafar said. “Now we can play again.” He smoothed the sand as if he was wiping away Safia’s touch.
Asif buckled to the grass. Mirza thought he had fainted, until she bent over him and saw his eyes looking back at her. He was pale and out of breath as if he had just climbed the canyon walls.
“Jafar! A cup of water! Quick!”
It was disgraceful for a prince to fetch a drink for a slave, but no one was present to see this breach of etiquette, and Asif’s blood-drained face alarmed her. By the time he had drunk a little, his color and his wind began to return, and he was able to sit in a more seemly position.
Mirza coaxed Jafar to play in the grass, then sat beside Asif. “What just happened?”
“You saw the patterns, my princess.”
“Master patterns. How could he throw those, a child of his age? Was it the blood stones?”
“The stones only focused his power. The mastery came from within.”
“But when I looked back after she came in, the last pattern was gone.”
“Asif broke it,” Jafar said as he trotted past. “He blew the magic away with his eyes.”
“You did? You moved the stones with your mind?”
Asif shook his head, more in deprecation than denial. “That gift never came easily to me, my princess. But this was an emergency.”
Mirza thought back on what she had seen and felt in that strange moment. “You…”
“I dispersed his power. He would be in great danger, if Safia even suspected he might have a gift like that.”
And finally, Mirza was able to put into words what had frightened her. “He’s going to be a kargat master. She would try to kill him if she knew.”
“Yes. When they play their game before the Crown, he will win.”
Jafar tumbled back into hearing range and flopped down on the grass. “Mama, will you give me stones like that, so I can throw the patterns all the time?”
“That would be cheating, my prince,” Asif said. “Do you want the stones to play for you, or do you want to learn to play properly, by yourself?”
“I don’t want to cheat. Papa wouldn’t want me to, would he, mama?”
“No, my love, your papa never cheats at anything. Besides, when you turn six, I have a beautiful set for you, one that belonged to me and to your grandfather before me.”
“Oh, thank you, mama!” Jafar hugged her, and ran off to climb an almond tree.
They watched him go.
“He’s still just a little boy,” Mirza reassured herself.
“My princess, forgive me for not knowing your history well. When was the last time Khasran’s Mukhtar was a kargat master?”
“Khaled the Young. He reigned for nearly seventy years. The Golden Century, we call it.”
Asif nodded. “Khaled the Peacemaker, my people called him. The only Mukhtar in many generations who made peace with the Wandering People, instead of war. Our stories say that in the patterns of the game, he could see through any lie, and settle any dispute.”
“And my son will have that gift. Oh, ancient powers, may I raise him well!”
“You do, my princess. Think of it! Seventy years of peace.”
They watched Jafar straddle a branch and ride it like a royal courser.
Copyright 2007 by K. Stoddard Hayes