A Small Side Story

In his fever Nin dreamed of many things. Great gods and old demons, the lives of rabbits; the fate of rabbit-kind. In the midst of these visions one small memory kept doggedly resurfacing.

Nin had been invited to watch a Gunjaro match. I will not explain the rules of Gunjaro, for it is a subtle and complicated game, but it has often been compared to chess, except played with a number of sticks of various lengths, and the board is scratched into fresh earth that has been pounded down and flattened before the match. It is a popular game among rabbits, and most play, or at least, are familiar with the rules.

Today’s match, that Nin had been invited to observe, was between two masters, who, although both famous and respected in their own right, had never before played against each other.

The two masters—a black rabbit named Li, and a white rabbit named Tin—had sharply contrasting play styles, of which they were both famous for pioneering. Many young students would pledge themselves to the Li school or the Tin school of Gunjaro. Other styles existed, but none were nearly as popular.

Therefore this first, unprecedented match between the two masters was not only highly anticipated, but hotly debated. Although students of both schools naturally favoured their own master, few were willing to outright claim their style superior—both were highly respected.

Nin—the seeker—had no allegiance, and simply wished to enjoy the match for what it was.

And it was an amazing game; each play was slow and methodical, each stick was laid with a care and purpose that only a master could achieve. Nin could hardly follow the match. Every time he thought he had deduced one of the players’ strategies, they would make an unexpected move, and throw the game askew. It was like the board was being reset, and Nin was forced to constantly reevaluate his understanding of both the match and its players, and even the nature of Gunjaro itself.

The black rabbit Li, Nin noted, would often tweak their ears while studying the board. Tin, the white rabbit, had a habit of stroking each stick before a move.

They played for hours. Neither could gain an advantage over the other; any lead or shift in momentum was quickly checked. Neither spoke, or acknowledged the other, or let their attention wander from anything but the game and the board in front of them. It absorbed their attention so completely that Nin began to feel that he, as spectator, was trespassing on their game somehow.

But if Nin, or the audience’s presence bothered them, the masters gave no indication. They played as if they were alone.

The game wore on. Many rabbits grew tried and left. Some grew frustrated with the apparent lack of progress. Slowly the crowd dwindled until only five spectators remained: Nin, a small child, the two foremost adherents of the Tin school, and one novice of the Li school.

Nin grew weary. His mind began to drift away from the match. It was then that one of the remaining spectators—he could not say which—made a small noise. The game had changed. It was a small change, almost imperceptible, completely indescribable. The master’s movements had shifted in rhythm, and those who knew to look saw it plainly: the match would soon be over.

Nin studied the board, but could find no clear advantage—the two masters still seemed locked in perfect balance. Victory seemed, to his amateur eyes, to still elude both.

They played on, and sticks were laid with increasing speed and fervour. Moves were made rapidly, without delay, as if both masters had already seen some inevitable conclusion in their minds, and were rushing headlong towards it.

These moves, Nin noted, seemed less like competitive play, and more like a cooperative dance. They had transcended a mere game, and had become art.

Then came a succession of brilliant turns, of play and counter-play, that stunned the audience. Later, these moves came to have such an impact that scholars, when discussing the history of Gunjaro, would describe this match as the beginning of the Litin reformation.

Still, to Nin, no victor seemed readily apparent.

Finally, after one last burst of action, the masters Li and Tin stepped back from the board, and indicted that neither wished to continue play. “The game will be declared a tie,” said Tin. “The game will remain unfinished.”

They bowed to each other, then turned to Nin and the audience, and bowed to them as well. “We have come to an understanding,” said Li.

The spectators were dumbfounded. “Understanding?” they asked, confused. “Masters—we beg you to explain.”

“We are getting married,” said Tin. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to find a priest.” And without another word they went off together, the white rabbit and the black rabbit.