The Chessmaster’s gaze fell and darted about; his hands fumbled and brushed his cloak. Victor leaned forward on the stool and rested his elbows on his knees. “Shall we begin?”
The Chessmaster scratched his ear and cleared his throat. “Uh, yes, let’s begin… begin the chess game… which I am really good at. But wait! Do you really think you stand a chance against me? Remember—if you lose, you die.”
“Well,” said Victor, “we all have to go sooner or later. And playing chess in a cave isn’t a bad way to go.”
“Fine,” huffed the Chessmaster.
He shifted forward on his regal chair and extended his wiry arm toward the board. Back and forth his hand hovered over the pieces like an arcade crane claw, before dropping and snatching up a pawn.
“Ahem,” interrupted Victor. “White makes the first move, doesn’t it?”
“White goes first in chess, I think. And since I’ve got the white pieces, I go first.”
“Aha! Yes, of course,” answered the Chessmaster, replacing the pawn. “I see you are no stranger to the game. Very well—make your move.”
Victor advanced a pawn one square. The Chessmaster leaned forward and studied the board.
“Yes, yes,” he said, stoking his beard. “I read your strengths, and your weaknesses are plain to see. I already have your king in my sights.” He grinned and nodded.
Victor looked at his watch. “Are you going to make a move any time soon?”
“Don’t rush me!” hissed the Chessmaster.
He picked up a pawn and mirrored Victor’s move. The game was underway.
Five minutes later Victor had a neat row of black chess pieces beside his end of the board: eight pawns, two rooks, a bishop and the queen. In the entire seven games of chess he had played in his lifetime, he had never captured so many pieces. The Chessmaster sat back in his throne, biting his nails. He leaned forward again, and, after a long, strenuous hesitation, reached and selected his surviving bishop. His eyes scanned the board, and then suddenly widened—stranded at the side of the board, a white pawn, open for the taking. The Chessmaster slid his bishop across the table with such eagerness he fell from his chair. Victor stifled a laugh, and attempted to assist the wizard back to his feet; the Chessmaster declined the offer with a swipe of his hand. He stood up and brushed off his cloak, and then inspected his throne, muttering (loud enough for Victor to hear) that one of its legs seemed to be shorter than the rest. The Chessmaster sat down again, carefully, shaking his head at the furniture’s “shoddy workmanship”.
“Now,” he said, “where were we? Ah, yes. I just took your pawn.”
He grinned and leaned forward to remove the piece and set it off to the side. As the Chessmaster leaned back in his throne with satisfaction, Victor moved his rook up the board to take the Chessmaster’s bishop.
“Skit!” blurted the Chessmaster through clenched teeth. He banged his fist on the arm rest. “Jävla slott!”
“What?” said Victor.
The Chessmaster stroked his beard, digging his nails into his chin. He exhaled an indignant breath and then shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “A strategic sacrifice, that’s all. I lured you into a rash attack, and now you have exposed your king.”
“Really?” said Victor, looking at the board. “Another strategic sacrifice, huh?” He set the bishop down next to the other fallen black pieces. “That makes it… thirteen strategic sacrifices in a row. Quite a battle plan.”
The Chessmaster sneered and shook his head. “You know nothing,” he said. “A simple mind like yours understands only taking the next piece. You are incapable of seeing the big picture, the grand design, and so you gloat over a minor victory, unaware that it is just another domino in the line, toppling toward your inevitable destruction. If you had any sense at all,” he went on, lowering his eyes and adjusting his cloak, “you would retreat now, leave this cavern and save yourself, and return when your skill is worthy of me.”
Victor digested the advice and nodded. He smiled. “Well, you know,” he said, “that sounds good, but there’s a family motto that prevents me from leaving. So I think I’ll stick it out, see how this game ends.”
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