Obadiah grabbed four stones and spread them out around the rectangular board counterclockwise, one stone per scooped-out hole. He tried to do it quickly, like the Iggy bastard across the board from him did, but he knew he wasn’t moving the stones nearly as fast and that made him feel big and awkward.
The board and stones were nothing special, just a plank with its edges smoothed and depressions scooped out of it and a fistful of polished pebbles from the river. It was the speed at which the Igbo played that made the game impressive to watch, a whirl of sparkling color and nimble brown hands.
Except when Obadiah played.
“Take,” Obadiah grunted, and snatched three stones off his opponent’s side off the board.
The Igbo grinned under his little cap, rounded and brimless and embroidered with a wreath of interlocking green leaves. He might have been fifty, but his curly hair didn’t show the slightest trace of gray and only a few deep lines around his smile gave him away. Obadiah thought his name was Udo, but he insisted on being called Michael. He was a cacao trader, he said, which almost certainly meant that he was a smuggler. It hadn’t escaped Obadiah’s attention that Michael had sat down first, and he had chosen the seat with the unimpeded view of the highway.
Most of the Igbo were smugglers. If they weren’t evading the Emperor’s men, they were sneaking past the Chevalier or the Dons of Ferdinandia. They were old hands at it, as a people; it was said that the great John Hancock himself learned the arts of forged custom stamps, fraudulent bills of lading and systematic graft. This traditional occupation didn’t make the Igbo too different from the Dutch, really, except that the Igbo seemed to do everything in organized families or towns, whereas the Dutch, Obadiah knew from experience, were every man for himself.
The Igbo apparently gambled in families, too. Obadiah wouldn’t have minded so much the circle of brown faces around him staring at the game and cheering on the plays, except that he couldn’t shake a deep-seated feeling that he was about to lose. Again. Witnesses didn’t improve the experience.
Michael’s brown, long-fingered hand scooped up stones and whizzed around the board. “Take!” he rejoined, and then frowned deeply. “But woe, I take a mere two stones. Are you sure, Mr. Dogsbody, that you did not grow up in Egland playing Okwe as a boy?”
There was scattered clapping and cheering among the spectators.
Michael dropped his two taken shells into his pile. His pile and Obadiah’s seemed to be approximately the same size, but Obadiah knew that Michael was still one ahead, because he kept track in his head. When he wasn’t drunk, Obadiah was a good gambler.
He just wasn’t good at this game. After all, he’d only just learned it.
They sat at a small, nicely-planed table in a large, one-story building with a high-peaked roof thatched with fronds and no walls at all. The roof rested on four round pillars that might have been tree trunks growing right out of the ground, with the floor built around them. The pillars were carved like trees, and the sturdy wood floor was scattered with reeds, just like the biggest buildings of the Academy had always been.
Obadiah thought the platform might be some sort of market building or town hall; he’d seen similar constructions in the other Igbo towns they’d ridden through, and like that one, the others always seemed to be roughly in the center of town, beside a large open square with a short, wide road leading to the Pike. It seemed to Obadiah that all the Igbo towns were laid out more or less the same, and they had all been planned by traders.
Obadiah didn’t really like the Igbo. He didn’t like their thatched houses in their tidy little villages just off the highway (fifty feet off the highway, no doubt, he cynically guessed, and therefore not subject to direct Imperial taxation). He was unimpressed by the nudity of their children, by their little round hats, and by the knee-length tunics that their men and women alike wore, no matter how ornately embroidered they were. He was positively irritated by the constant chatter of buying and selling and of a bustling daily life that assailed him among them—it gave him the strong and unpleasant impression that the Igbo were determined to be happy. He hated banjo-picking, and he couldn’t bear the taste of rice and yams. He disliked the unfailingly happy sound of their accent—how could an entire people sound happy all the time? It was impious. It was an affront, it was the thumbing of an impish brown nose at the hard tragedy of life.
He had agreed to sit down at the Okwe table because he thought he could at least still get a little entertainment from a game of chance, even if it meant he had to learn to play something he’d never played before. He was sorely disappointed and vastly irritated to find out he had been wrong.
Just like everything else in his life, Obadiah found Okwe hollow. Also, he couldn’t quite see how, but he had the distinct impression that he was about to lose. He eyed the pile of coins to the side of the board: Michael’s Ferdinandian pesos against his own Imperial shillings, a decent sum.
“Shall I point out to you your legal moves at this point?” Michael asked politely. His polite and cheerful voice made Obadiah want to punch him.
Some of the crowd made less polite noises that sounded a lot like jeering.
Obadiah growled and spun stones around the board.
Michael moved; neither of them had taken. A player took when he ended his turn on the other man’s side with two or three stones in the hole, and the game would end when there were four stones or fewer on the board in total.
Obadiah squinted, saw his shot, moved. “Take.” Two. He was up one.
“Oooooooh,” groaned the spectators in suspense.
Michael moved. “Take, and to my joy it is three.” He grinned.
The leftmost depression in front of Michael held one stone, and the third from the left held two. Obadiah’s side of the board was empty except for three stones at his right.
He only had one legal move, but it was a winner. He picked up his three stones and plunked them, one, two, three, in front of Michael.
“Take,” he rumbled, and snatched away the three stones, tossing them into his pile. “Four stones left means that the game be over, Udo.” He used the man’s Igbo name on purpose and said it with a bit of a sneer. It made him feel better for the two previous games he’d lost. He reached for the pile of winnings—
“ooooooooh,” said the crowd—
swelling in closer—
and Michael grabbed his hand.
“’Ere now, Michael,” Obadiah said slowly. “The game be over.”
“Yes, the game is over, friend Obadiah,” Michael said, the smile not leaving his face. “But we must calculate our scores.”
“I’ve been calculatink,” Obadiah growled. “I win by one point.”
Michael nodded at the board. “You are forgetting the stones still on the board,” he suggested.
Obadiah looked at the board. Michael was right. Stones left on the board went to the player whose side they were on. That was three more points for Michael, and that meant that he won by two.“’Erne’s bloody ’orn!” Obadiah spat, and staggered to his feet.