The Fool’s Mate

“She’s dead.”

Robert froze, hands quivering at the sound of her broken voice. He quickly stuffed the letter in his hands into the inner pocket of his jacket. Slowly, he turned to face the scarlet-haired woman, inwardly chasing the guilt clouding his mind away. She leaned against the mahogany door, and her hands, clamped into tight fists, turned white with anger. Her military badge, a signal of her commanding status, rested crookedly on the front of her army jacket.

“Pardon?” he asked, swallowing the bile threatening to rise. The letter tucked in his jacket rested uncomfortably against his rib cage. Unconsciously, his fingers felt his own army jacket, caressing the identical but more pristinely pinned military badge.

Shelia tucked a strand of scarlet hair behind her ear, shut the door behind her, and paced closer to him, footsteps heavy with unspoken burden. As she approached him, he could see her eyes more clearly. Instead of their usual bright, emerald color, they were dark with anguish and rage.

“A fighter jet dropped a bomb on a humanitarian camp near the border this morning, and they just told me that the Red Cross stationed Sofia there,” she hissed, slamming her hands on the desk dividing them and effectively knocking over a few chess pieces from the board he kept on his desk. “I told her not to go. I even told them not to place her anywhere near the skirmishes.”

Shelia began to pace across the room briskly, shoulders tense with unreleased despair. Robert could practically see the agony tearing at her mind, and he could feel her grip on sanity slacking. With each step she took, her eyes darkened more and more as if the life were slowly being extinguished from them. He stifled a smirk and rearranged the chess pieces on his board, fingers lingering on the black queen.

“Humanitarian workers are sometimes casualties,” remarked Robert calmly, observing his set board with satisfaction. “It’s just a fact.”

“How dare you. She was more than just a humanitarian worker.” She whirled around, hair a fiery storm and eyes flashing with blazing anger. Shelia stormed to Robert, and almost instinctively, her hand latched onto the front of his jacket. She yanked down roughly, bringing his startled face mere centimeters from hers.

For a few moments, as they held each other’s gaze in a nearly electric tension, Robert’s heart pounded wildly. However, upon noticing the tears threatening to spill from her eyes, he relaxed in her grip, doubting her capacity to do any real harm.

Almost as if she didn’t notice his nonchalance, Shelia howled, “I promised Mother that I would keep her safe. I gave her my word. Now what will I tell her? That her youngest daughter perished in the flames while I sat here safe and sound?”

Her chest heaved, and with her gaze acast downwards, she struggled to regain her breath. Seizing the opportunity, Robert brushed her arm aside dismissively, and unconsciously again, he straightened the badge on his army jacketdespite the fact that it wasn’t askew.

She stared at him incredulously, piercing eyes clashing with his stormy gray ones. He continued to hold her gaze with an unfathomable expression, and she regarded him with furrowed eyebrows and a questioning stare.

“Well, what do you propose?” he demanded, annoyed by her close proximity and incessant nonsense. “Nothing will bring her back.”

“I want war.”

            “Don’t be ridiculous. Learn to draw the line between your personal and professional life. You don’t even know who the fighter jet belonged to.”

            “I don’t care. I’ll fight every damn country and every damn terrorist organization  in this world.” She paused, trailing off into a momentary silence before speaking again softly. “In fact, I’ve been conducting some research.”

            “About?”

            “Fusion based nuclear weaponsmuch more deadly than the fission ones we have now. Destruction is more than twenty fold.”

            “You can’t be serious.”

            “I’m absolutely joking,” she deadpanned, crossing her arms and pacing yet again.

            “You’re out of your mind,” scoffed Robert, disdain flitting across his eyes for a brief moment. “Blowing the world to pieces won’t blow it to peace.”

            Finishing with a tone of finality, Robert started to leave, striding towards the door that would release him from this unpleasant affair. The noise outside called to him, lured him with a reprieve from his co-commander’s insanity. However, before he could flee from her hysterics, her somber voice called out to him.

            “Robert, wait.”

            What?” he retorted in exasperation. “You can take your ludicrous ideas elsewhere. I have places to be.”

            Shelia didn’t respond, and bemused by the silence, Robert turned his back to the doorway to face her again, ignoring the loud footsteps outside. Her hair draped over her face, almost like a bloody curtain shielding her face from the rest of the world.

            With her shoulders hunched over in resignation, she spoke quietly, so much so that he had to strain his ears to hear her. “You might be interested to know that Sofia left me a letter before she departed.”

            Time seemed to slow for Robert, and the pounding in his heart gained a faster beat, almost as if drumming to the beat of war. “What about?”

            “About you.”

            His hands released the doorknob, leaving a damp spot on the brass handle. “What about me?”

            “For one, she said you had a compulsive need to straighten your badge,” commented Shelia casually, eyes still cast on the hardwood floor and unwilling to meet his.

            Robert stared down at his jacket with mild confusion, and sure enough, his fingers lingered there against his badge. Affronted, he shook his head angrily and turned to leave, but her voice interrupted him yet again. The uneasiness in the pit of his stomach distracted him from the sound of stomping outside.

            “Of course, that could mean many things,” reasoned Shelia flatly. “She thought it was an obsession with your appearance, but I disagree. I think it’s an obsession with status.”

            He crossed his arms over his chest and observed her with an unsettled expression on his face, lips pursed and eyebrows furrowed in anxiety. “Oh?”

            “Yes, status brings arrogance. She told me that while you two discussed her position in the Red Cross, she played a few games of chess with you. Isn’t it intriguing that you lost on two moves? Status breeds arrogance, which breeds blunders if you’re too ambitious.”

            Robert observed as she began to pace again. She held her hands behind her as she shuffled along, barely making any noise this time.

            “The Fool’s Mate is a cheap move.” He laughed darkly.

            “The Two-Move Checkmate,” she corrected with a scowl, “was quite brilliant. Naturally, I found it a bit suspicious that you wanted to station her where she would ultimately die. Some also say that gameplay reflects reality, and so naturally, I found you a bit suspicious.”

            Shelia ceased pacing and glanced directly ahead, holding Robert’s gaze. She searched his eyes, and he saw a mixture of remorse and sadness in her emerald ones.

            “I found you a bit suspicious,” she repeated again, louder this time, and never once averting her penetrating gaze.

            “You’re inane,” he muttered, swiveling around to leave.

            However, upon bursting through the door, he was greeted by a row of soldiers, each poised with a rifle in hand. All were directed at him. His eyes widened with disbelief, and he stumbled backwards in shock. The perspiration on his forehead gleamed, and he blinked rapidly, as if checking if the scene unfolding before him was real.

            He bumped backwards into Shelia, who shoved him away.

            “I found you suspicious,” she reiterated, “so I distracted you in your study long enough for my men to search your other rooms. Then, I had them gather here.”

            She gestured towards the armed soldiers with a nod of acknowledgement. As he stared, stunned to the core, Shelia’s hand darted out, reaching beneath his jacket to seize the letter plastered against his body. Alarmed, Robert’s hand gripped her wrist to halt her, but upon seeing the aggressive flourish of rifles before him, he released his grip. He stared at Shelia with absolute loathing.

            “Of course, when I confronted you earlier, I couldn’t help but notice you had something tucked inside of your jacket,” she murmured contemplatively.

With deliberate movements, Shelia ripped open the letter. Robert grimaced at the sound of shredded paper, cheeks flustering with guilt, shame, and resignation. Shelia cleared her throat and began to read.

“To Commander Robert Jones, I can’t express how grateful I am that you decided to send us the coordinates of your humanitarian camp after all. I’m sure that our collaborative work will benefit the both of us very nicely,” announced Shelia with a tone of mockery. “Keep this in mind: if that co-commander of yours is out of the picture, you’ll have much more room to operate. Break what’s most important to her first, and then once she’s gone, you’ll have all the power you want. Per our agreement, I’ve arranged a handsome sum of money for our next transaction. Signed, Commander Rochambeau.”

Shelia stared at the letter silently for a few moments. Her eyes, still a dark shade of emerald, darted rapidly across the letter in a rereading. The corner of her lip lifted in a dark smile, and Robert watched helplessly, only able to fist his clammy hands together.

She laughed mirthlessly. “I couldn’t believe it when I read Sofia’s letter, but here it is. The Fool’s Mate manifests itself in reality.”

The twisted grin dropped from her lips as quickly as it came. She nodded to the soldiers and then to Robert. “Take him away. Treason is a crime punishable by death, but incarcerate him first and search the study.”

Robert’s eyes widened with horror as the soldiers dashed to him.

“You can’t do this,” he shrieked, voice hitching with hysteria as he struggled against his detainers.

A soldier ripped off his commander’s badge and sent it against the floor, sailing to Shelia’s heel as she turned to walk away. Bent over with his arms bound behind him, Robert watched the badge with a crushed spirit and mournful eyes.

Shelia glanced back behind her at him, eyes cold and voice frigid. “Checkmate. You stole what I loved, so it’s only fitting that you lose it all.”

© Yvonne Kuo

           

Bio: Yvonne Kuo emerged from a middle school group project with hot glue burns, bleeding cuts, and a deep loathing for group projects. To compensate for her pitiful inability to physically create, she escaped to writing, seeking the comfort of words. With a newfound passion for some form of creation, she published with Creative Communications and triumphed as a Judges’ Winner for the Hakka Foundation’s Writers’ Square Contest and third place in a local Martin Luther King Jr. poetry contest.