A Game of Chess... Or Not
(Author's Note: Whee, a Christmas short! The characters are from my Shadow of the Xweetoks saga, but you don't need to read any of the official installments to understand everything. Just wanted to let you know... Anyways, I wish you a merry Christmas, and insert another holiday cliché or your ad here!)
Just in case anyone asks you to take something that you don't have somewhere, say no. Every time. Don't believe me? Read this. Oh, and never, ever borrow a modified chess set from someone who has no idea how to play. Ever. EVER.
I closed my eyes with a sigh. The sound of rainfall outside soothed my ears so much that I forgot all of my worries and cares, despite my lack of them to begin with... I inhaled the earthy scent of my hot herb tea and took a sip, reclining in my plain wooden throne.
No, I'm not a ruler or monarch. In the 'endless forests' (so they call Creation), thrones are a custom for the master of a house to have. Due to a complex series of events, mine was there even though I wasn't the owner of the home, which had been carved out from under one of the unfathomably large oaks.
Typically, most pieces of furniture (such as many tables) were taken from the roots of the tree that the house was carved under. Chairs were leaf-covered dirt mounds; sophisticated, I know, but they're actually pretty comfy. Thrones were not actually benches covered in velvet but elegant objects cut from wood, a rare use of furnishings. Beds were a very unique and intriguing matter entirely, as they were the biggest segments of roots hollowed out and made water-tight by intricate processes involving smoke and different berry rubs.
I took another drink of my tea, lifting it to my mouth with my dark brown Xweetok paw. Rubia always made the best tea... It was so hot, so smooth, so refresh-
I did a brief spit-take and looked up. A tiny striped Kacheek was on the ground directly in front of me. She flicked her long, topaz-embedded tail once with impatience. Embedding gems was another forester custom. I blinked.
"Callie? When did you get here?" I questioned.
"She let me in." Callie jerked her finger at a red Xweetok, who was closing the door.
"Oh, you mean Faith? I don't think you've met yet, she's been living here since-"
"Never mind that," the Kacheek said, shaking her head. "I've come to remind you that the Winter Feast is coming up soon... And I need a rematch."
"Huh?" my fellow Xweetok asked from across the room.
"Every Winter Feast, Callie and I play chess and see who wins," I explained, gesturing for her to get closer to me. She trotted up to a chair next to my throne and sat down on it.
"We are widely regarded as the two best chess strategists in Deepwood County," Callie elaborated. "This has been a yearly tradition since-"
"Last year," I interrupted. "Ownage."
"Whatever. What I'm saying is that I'll win this year. You'd better bring your chess set... It isn't missing half the pawns."
With that, she flicked the door open and slammed it behind her. Faith opened her mouth as if to say something, but changed her mind. I got up and gently rested one of my white, feathered wings on her.
"She isn't normally like this. She'd probably be a little bit interested in at least introducing herself to you, but I guess she's just remembering the match from last time," I assumed.
"Really? What happened?"
"I beat her on my second turn."
"How is that even possible?"
"Her king was exposed."
"...Wait. It still isn't possible."
"Well, half the pawns are missing. It's easy when you use a queen and the set is like that."
"And that's why she wants you to bring our set? I didn't know we had one."
"That's because we don't."
"Well, that makes perfect sense."
We stood in silence for a few moments.
"When is the Feast?" she inquired.
"And I didn't know until now because...?"
"The cooking doesn't start until the day beforehand or the day before that so that stuff is at its freshest, you know how slow news can sometimes travel around here and Rubia's been having a lot of work this past week and not much time to talk casually with us. I'm not sure that I'll get the chance to tell Callie that we don't have a chess set, so I'm going to go see if I can get one from Rhubarb or at least borrow some spare pawns. Wish me luck."
As I moved towards the door, already determined to accomplish my task, a scarlet Hissi entered the room.
"I swear, we have got to get some new hinges for that door," she said partially to herself as I slammed it.
"So, Rubia, what exactly is this Winter Feast?" I asked her. As it was apparently tradition for the females to cook the food, she had immediately employed me with helping her bake bread. I was busy rolling the dough into pots to cook them in.
"It's a feast in winter, Faith."
"Oh. Why is it held?"
"They say to honor the Creator."
"Oh. Did you watch the chess game last year?"
"Not really, nobody but Cerulean and Callie considered it a big deal. Wait, cross that—he didn't care too much. But he told me exactly what happened; because of the missing pawns and him going first, he could move his queen to the edge of the board immediately, and Callie's king was exposed. She moved a pawn forward in absolute uselessness because Cerulean forgot to say checkmate and she didn't notice her king was in danger, and then he just took it with his queen like that and won."
"Do you know how long it lasted?"
"Probably ten seconds."
At that bit of dialogue, I slapped my forehead and sniggered somewhat. I had always thought Cerulean's intelligence seemed primarily to be in virtue and common sense, but that was just insane logic. Deep inside, I hoped against hope that his search for a complete (or even not) chess set would be fulfilled. This would prove entertaining.
The way to Rhubarb's house was short and well-known to me. I took no time walking among the vast trees and a single foot of snow until I arrived.
I rapidly knocked on the door to his house. It was also carved out of the tree it was in, and was a well-known symbol to me of the woodcarver. My wings fluffed up a bit and I put them together as I waited. The snow had melted and soaked my fur.
I didn't have long to linger on the doorstep. The brown Cybunny opened up his door and let me inside. He gently scratched his floppy left ear once with his paw.
"Can I borrow a complete chess set?" I requested, my eyes wavering over to the many rows of figurines and things lined up on his shelves inside.
"A what?" he questioned, picking up a trinket in the shape of a Peophin and toying with its tail.
"A complete chess set," I repeated. He muttered something under his breath as the fin broke off.
"Oh, yeah," he said as something clicked inside of his head. He threw the Peophin (and its departed fin) over his shoulder and dug around in a pile of thin wooden boxes. They were mainly large and flat. He set ones aside with names of other board games scratched into the lids until he found a couple labeled 'Chess'.
"Lessee here," he muttered and opened one. "This one's got the rooks missing, but you can use these plain blocks, they won't make a difference."
Throwing a few chunks of wood into the container, he closed it and shoved the set into my arms.
"Yeah, that should do you. See ya."
I headed outside, thanking him.
I was exhausted from being sent in and out for different berries and herbs all day. Rubia had done most of the cooking. She had long since memorized all of them. Many had required more uncommon plants, which I had only discovered after a lengthy search. Still, I was willing to do all she required for me. After all the inner turmoil she and Cerulean had saved me from...
"That's enough for today," she told me once I arrived with one last basket of plants. "Rest awhile, we'll do more tomorrow."
I curled up in a chair and my eyes drifted shut, only for Cerulean to burst inside. They immediately snapped open.
"Got the chess set!" he proudly exclaimed, setting a box on the table.
"Mmm-hmm," I mumbled.
"Can I practice against you later?"
"How much later?"
We were in the storage room, the only place in the house where there were two chairs across from each other with a table in between. Rubia herself had forgotten why they were there, but they were convenient at the time. Different books she had collected, empty bags, dusty cloaks and forgotten oddities were either stacked in an orderly fashion or tossed into heaps. It hadn't been accessed in some time, so we had taken a minute to relight the torches which had gone out, but then we had started the game.
I let Faith go first. She had played the game before but I never saw her, so I wanted to see what happened when she got a head start. What she seemed to be doing at first was moving her bishop out from behind.
What I spent my turns doing was my typical strategy; trapping the most valuable pieces. When I was about to claim one of her knights with my queen, I realized that the bishop would then be capable of reaching my queen. Everything somehow got inched over into a corner of the board, and other pieces were blocking its escape route. So, my own most valuable piece was stuck.
Things went from there. I had only three left: king, queen and a single pawn. She had a knight, bishop, two pawns and, of course, her king. There was no way I was risking my king to get hers, and the queen was a last resort. I practically banged my head on the table then and there. The pawn was my only choice.
Slow. Steady. Everlasting.
Things happened. That pawn experienced more use than it probably would in the rest of its lifetime. Square by square, it inched towards her king. Faith completely ignored it until the last second. It was just a few spaces away from her king-
She used her knight to push it off of its space. I took one glance at where her miniature Uni had been before she did that. It was a legal move.
"Seriously?" I asked, face-palming.
"You still have your queen," she replied.
An aura of tension hung in the air as the next several turns passed. I surprisingly managed to move my queen in a circle and pick off everything but her king and bishop. She wasn't going easy on me; I could tell she was focusing. All I did was keep it out of her reach. In the meantime, she tried to make her bishop slowly go towards my king unnoticed, but she didn't realize I kept an eye on it.
I grinned and moved my queen towards her king... One more turn, and then I could finish it...
...She used her bishop to claim it.
I stared at her with an open mouth. She shrugged.
"I think it's in everyone's nature to do the best they can when they're enjoying themselves," she said. "And you still have your king."
"But that's the bare minimum," I pointed out. She said nothing. "Listen, can we go ahead and call it a draw? There are three pieces left on the entire board. Things get painful when it boils down to this."
"Well, how long do you think it would take if we kept going?"
I thought for a moment.
"Three hours, plus the time it would take to clean up my exploded head," I told her.
She chuckled a little at my comment. "Plus the time it takes to clean up my exploded head."
"I'll go ahead and put things away so we won't have to worry about that."
I grinned at her as I opened the chess box, took the last pieces off the board, folded it up and put it inside. I wasn't expecting it, but she dropped the king and bishop on top.
"Faith, you don't have to-" I started, but she interrupted me.
"What if I want to?"
The question caught me off guard, but she didn't seem to expect an answer as we put the rest of the pieces in the wooden box and I set it aside.
"I think you probably would've won if you went first; the match against Callie is just on your mind," she said.
"But you're pretty good, really," I blinked.
"No, I can tell that you're concerned."
"Faith... It occurs to me now that I've never, ever heard you brag."
"...Do you want me to?"
"No, it's just the truth."
"I guess I don't see the point in it. I'm too grateful to be here."
Between those sentences, she anxiously scratched the back of her neck. The second one reminded me that, even if I lost before it was even started, it didn't matter in the end.
The next day was rather uneventful; it was like we were all lying in wait for the feast. Wait—we were. I was, anyways. I spent the morning running around with Bronco, a mutant Kyrii who I considered my best friend outside of home. When I had told Rubia that I really did want to help her and Faith with the cooking, she had told me to stick to the custom of only the females preparing the food.
After I came home to see them quietly drinking tea and enjoying the scents of bread baking, the Hissi said that the brunt of the work was over and I could stay. So, I merely joined. I played a few games of chess against each of them to warm up a little (I won every time), and then we went to bed.
The bedroom had no furnishings aside from the cluster of three beds in it. I tried to get to sleep quickly, I really did; maybe that's why I didn't. After the first few minutes, I was mocked by the quiet mumbles of Faith's slumber; but what surprised me was Rubia soon joining her with a steady hiss. Looking back, it wasn't so bad. I only a couple of hours trying to get to sleep, yet it seemed like an eternity at the time.
I awakened a little bit late in the morning. Faith was still curled up in her bed, her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth like it usually did when she slept. The scent of forester bread assaulted my nostrils as I opened the door to the foyer.
Rubia handed me half a loaf of bread with jelly on it to me as I stepped into the room. I thanked her and settled down in my throne.
"Today's the day, Cerulean," she said to me. "...Are you nervous?"
"I doh' she wha efryone'sh maki' a bi'h deaw ouh of," I muttered around a mouthful of bread.
"What?" She blinked as I swallowed.
"I don't see what everyone's making a big deal out of."
Rubia raised her wing and knocked on the door to Tor's house, where the feast was being held. A huge sack full of bread was clenched in my jaw and slung over my back. I glanced over my left side at Faith, whom my wing would be rested on as we usually did whenever we walked, only she was standing on her hind legs so she could carry the borrowed chess set.
The elderly yellow Lupe answered us and gestured inside as he leaned on his walking stick. I nodded in greeting whilst my companions quietly acknowledged him.
"You can put the bag over there." He motioned to the back wall of his huge living room, where a few lumpy sacks were leaned up against it. I set my load down and, as he began amiably chatting with Rubia (the only words I caught were something about a new throne), approached the first person I truly noticed besides him. I made my way through the crowds to where a certain striped Kacheek was standing, my fellow Xweetok trailing behind me.
"Hello, Cerulean," Callie addressed me. The few chairs Tor owned were at the back wall along with a door; the rest of the room was empty, save the bonfire pit carved out of the opposite wall and the shallow curves dug in the ground to sit in.
"Hey there," Bronco said. Faith nodded at him, likely knowing Callie and I would be talking most.
"Hi, Callie, I-" I started, to be interrupted.
"This year will be different, Cerulean. It will be."
"I'm not losing again, Cerulean."
"You'd think that for a four-syllable name, you would be tempted to use it less-"
"That means nothing. Where's your set? Oh, she has it."
"You know, I thought you'd probably have introduced herself to Faith by now-"
"I think it's starting."
"We assemble today," Tor began, raising his paw to signal silence. "In honor of the Creator's many gifts to us..."
Since the rest of it was rather lengthy, I won't repeat it. I remember almost falling asleep whilst standing up and Faith seemed to completely space out. The next thing I knew, Rubia shoved a full plate of food in my face.
When a full plate of food was shoved in my face, I wasn't typically one to argue. I merely grabbed a bowl of mushroom stew and inhaled it as I settled down close to the fire.
All were silent, save for the poor souls still getting dished up, who calmly conversed amongst themselves while in line. On either side of me were those I lived with and others I knew were clustered around us. Suddenly, it was just absolutely perfect; I don't know why, but everything made sense. From that hour on, my newest moral was that there is no trouble in the world when you eat with those whom you love, while there is trouble when you eat those you love.
As some finished their meals, I closed my eyes in satisfaction. A few singing voices rang through the air as a typical group of forester musicians gathered. Those voices were joined by the sound of drums pounding and shrill flutes ringing. Little by little, the music increased.
Faith, too, was focusing her attention on the song; I could tell by the way her ears twitched towards them and how she slowed the actions she made to feed herself. My heart stirred; it was time to forget everything. Did chess even matter?
Everything seemed to fade away after the melodies of the band did. Faith mingled with another nearby forester as Callie approached me and told me something I've forgotten, yet I haven't lost the meaning of her words. When Faith saw me coming to her with Callie by my side, she handed me the chess set without question.
A sour stillness choked out the idle chatter of the gathering. All eyes were on us as we set up the chess figurines.
Callie unfolded the board onto the ground as a few nearby guests shuffled away. I was slightly preoccupied with the fact that the Kacheek still hadn't given me a chance to meet her, but the concern faded away as I shifted my gaze to Cerulean.
I noted that he was setting up the black pieces on his side. White goes first, I recalled. He's letting Callie go ahead of him. That's his typical consideration; any grudges people have against him don't change his good qualities.
He put the last pawn in place as Callie put her king down. "I always put the important pieces down after everything else. You know, good luck," she remarked. Cerulean said nothing, but gave her a meaningful glance.
"Right, right, I'll go. Let's see..." she started, but her eyes scanned across the board once and she stopped. "We can't play with this set."
"...What?" he muttered.
"The rooks all look the same."
"Well, yeah, but this is all I've got. Just keep track of which are yours and which are mine."
"But what if we forget?"
"They're four pieces. How can we forget?"
"It's possible if we don't focus on them."
"Would it be better to remove them altogether?"
"No, because it wouldn't be chess. You can't castle without rooks."
"When has castling ever helped you? I didn't use it last year!"
"You can't castle in two moves!"
A brown Cybunny near me started muttering to himself.
"Maybe I shouldn't have used those for the throne..."
"What?" I questioned him. He snapped out of his reverie and noticed me.
"Oh! I, uh, loaned Cerulean that chess set. Chess pieces make good throne embellishments, so I put rooks on Tor's new throne and just put some wood blocks in for the missing pieces in the set."
I glanced over at the wooden throne Tor the yellow Lupe was sitting in.
"Are those alternating black and white bits on the back of it pawns by any chance?"
"I think maybe. I've never played chess much."
"Have you ever given a chess set to Callie?"
"I think maybe. I tend to forget stuff like this."
While I had been focusing on Rhubarb's words, the feud between Cerulean and Callie had erupted into a full-fledged argument. Cerulean ended up standing on his hind legs to make a point, but I didn't catch what he said. Callie did, too; probably to put less height between her and the winged Xweetok. Of course, since one was naturally muscular and bulky while the other was born slender and low, it didn't quite make much of a difference.
Cerulean took a step towards her as he roared, "I CAN'T EVEN READ CHESS NOTATION, IT JUST LOOKS LIKE A JUMBLE OF RANDOM LETTERS!!"
The step did it. A cluster of pawns were on their sides, but that wasn't the worst thing that happened.
I thought that the king had looked like it was made of delicate wood. It was a pile of splinters beneath Cerulean's foot.
"Well, it wasn't over in two turns this time, to say the least."
"Rubia, it ended before it began. And Tor keeps his home too clean for random pieces of wood to be lying around, so we couldn't even find anything to use as a substitute king."
"...Why'd everyone just leave like that? I mean, a couple of kids just got worked up over a broken game."
"You and Callie aren't quite a couple of kids. She's seventeen and you're more mature than she is sometimes."
I thought for a second.
We sat in silence. She calmly wrapped a wing around me.
"Well, Rubia, there are a lot of morals you could probably pull from this, but there's only one that's obvious to me."
"And that is...?"
"Never borrow a chess set from Rhubarb."