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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Chess - A Between the Worlds Short Story

Several people have asked me to write a short story that gives some more backstory for a few of the characters in my fiction series, and I thought it would be a fun thing to do. In the spirit of that one person suggested incorporating 'strip chess', and since I love a challenge here you go.
    This story would take place after the fifth novel. Some caveats for those who don't read my fiction it does include themes of polyandry/polyamory, pansexuality, elves up to shenanigans, and chess.


December 26th
   "What is that?" Bleidd asked as he walked into the small reading room off the living room, drawn by the noise of Jessilaen moving something around. The formerly Outcast elf was bored and had been contemplating ways to entertain himself until his wife returned from work; finding his other spouse in the rarely used reading room piqued his curiosity.
    Jess was kneeling on the floor by a bookshelf next to a large wooden box. The blond elf looked up, his expression mildly perturbed, "My brother has sent my things from the Outpost, as I am living here permanently now."
    "Ah," Bleidd said slowly, unsure how best to respond. Their situation was an unusual one, since normally a married member of the Elven Guard would either live at the Outpost with their spouse - in this case spouses - or if the spouse refused then the marriage contract would specify that the Guardmember must take a leave of absence from the Guard for the length of the marriage. Allie, of course being half-Elven and growing up outside Elven society, had been oblivious to this when she'd negotiated the contract with Jess's family and since Jess had already had special dispensation to live with her it had put the Guard captain in a quandary. Bleidd had wondered if they were all going to be ordered to move to the Outpost, but after Allie had made it plain at Thanksgiving that she did not want to leave her home Jess had gone to great lengths to make sure they could stay in the house together. It helped that the Guard captain was his brother, and that Allie was pregnant with a child that would belong to Jess's mother's line, but still Bleidd suspected it had caused a rift between the two siblings. Looking at the box on the floor now he wondered if it had been an act of kindness on Zarethyn's part, or a reminder to Jess that he was choosing to separate himself from his people for the sake of his new family.
   Bleidd watched as Jess slowly pulled out several leather bound books and placed them on one of the bookshelves against the wall, then, after a slight hesitation, he carefully took out a cloth wrapped package. Unable to restrain his curiosity, Bleidd found himself repeating "What is that?"
   Jess smiled gently at the bulky thing he held, several inches tall and at least a foot and a half square. Bleidd couldn't begin to guess what it was. Jess looked up at his bondmate, still smiling, "This, Gadreene, was my Journeyman's project when I was still a wright."
   That grabbed Bleidd's attention immediately, and he followed Jess as he stood and moved over to the small table near the room's only window. Jess set the item down carefully and then unwrapped it, revealing an intricately carved chess board with a series of built-in drawers along the base. Without prompting Jess began describing it as Bleidd reached out to caress the satin-smooth wood. "The pale sections are birch and the dark are walnut. Everything is fastened together by the joints, without using any nails, screws, or glue; that is part of the challenge of the Journeyman's project to create something without the use of any external fasteners, something that holds together through its own construction."
     Jess pulled one of the drawers out, which was silk lined, and lifted out an amazingly detailed birch chess piece, carved into the form of a life like scale representation of an infantryman. Bleidd could see that the drawer held 7 more such pawns, each similar enough that they obviously belonged to a matched set, yet each with a subtle difference that marked them as individuals. "You see the birch have a birch leaf and moon for their standard, on their shields for the pawns and worked into the other pieces in similar ways. The walnut pieces have a walnut leaf and sun as their standard."
    Bleidd found himself smiling indulgently at his lover's enthusiasm. "It is a masterfully carved set, truly. Do you keep it only for the memory of your former craft Commander or do you use it to play?"
    Jess grinned at him, beginning to set up the board, "Would you play the game with me?"
   The question hung in the air between them, weightier than it might seem. Young elves learned to play such games of strategy not for fun but as a form of training, to learn tactics and patience. Those who were too young to duel with bladed weapons often challenged each other to games of chess - or fidchell, or tafl, or the like - and the outcomes were taken just as seriously as any physical combat. So seriously were such games taken that elves would not deign to play them with non-elves at all, and even adult elves often approached the playing of chess with the gravity they would any other challenge-duel. Bleidd tensed at the underlying subtext of Jess's words, although he doubted his new spouse meant to imply any form of combat in the invitation.
    Still...he thought for a moment, because he did very much wish to play a game he considered himself skilled in, but he didn't want to cause any enmity between himself and Jess. Finally a potential solution came to him, and he grinned, reaching out to idly pick up and inspect the closest chess piece. "I would certainly love to play the game with you, but Elven chess may put as both in a frame of mind that might upset Allie when she gets home."
   Jess cocked his head to the side, interested, "You say that as if there is any other kind of chess to play."
   "Well, as to that," Bleidd said slowly, putting the piece back down. "Humans have a variation they use when playing games to keep them from being taken too seriously that I think would be perfect in this context."
    "Yes?" Jess said eagerly, and Bleidd knew that he had his partner well and truly curious. Curiosity had always been Jessilaen's weakness. He smiled.
    "Yes. For every loss an opponent suffers in the game they forfeit one article of clothing. Whoever runs out of clothing first loses the game."
    "Indeed," Jess said thoughtfully. He looked slightly perplexed, probably because nudity was not of any particular note among elves, but Bleidd could see a lot of potential fun in the game. "Do we lose the clothes permanently?"
    "No, you get them back when the game is over," Bleidd said, "Its just for fun. Although if you don't think the stakes are high enough we could of course add in some...other...forfeits."
    Jess smirked, "Well it is chess after all. Its not worth playing without something to play for."
    The two quickly set out a series of parameters for their game, beginning with the piece by piece loss of clothing and seguing into an escalating series of actions one would owe the other for the subsequent loss of a piece on the board. Bleidd doubted they'd get much past the clothing, unless they were either both much better or much worse at chess than he assumed they were, but still it was entertaining to set the rules and he was in high spirits by the time they began playing.
  The opening moves were predictably straightforward, with long pauses in-between as each player took the other's measure. Jess took his time considering his next move, saying, "Have you had much opportunity to play chess since you left your former Holding?"
   It was a personal question, and one that implied many things that were not directly asked about Bleidd's time as an Outcast, but after an initial moment of annoyance Bleidd had to acknowledge that if anyone had a right to such a question it was Jess. "In truth, no. I have not played the game now in a long time but I was once considered one of the most skilled players among my peers. I am quite confident that I can win against you Commander."
   Jess smiled, obviously not at all offended by the other elf's bragging. "You may very well be right. My brother has often told me that I am too impatient for chess, however much I love playing. I am bold when I should be cautious."
    Bleidd raised an eyebrow at this honest admission, surprised that Jess would tell him this but also sure that it was one of the best descriptions of the Guard commander that he had ever heard. Jess finally moved a piece into a position that Bleidd could take, but he kept his face blank, waiting to play his own move for the moment. "And yet you were a journeyman wright, nearly a master, when you left to join the Guard. I would think that woodworking takes a great deal of both patience and caution."
   "It may seem so, yet in truth I need little patience when I can see the progress of my work day to day and even moment to moment, even when that progress is minuscule. And one must be bold to work in wood, because one must be willing to risk with each stroke and cut. My own master often said that a timid wright will never create anything worth remembering, and I think he was very wise to say so."
   Bleidd looked at his companion with new respect, contemplating this insight, even as he moved his pawn and took one of Jess's pawns off the board. Grinning cheerfully Jess pulled off his shirt, folding it neatly and setting it down on an empty chair nearby. "It seems I am the first to suffer a loss."
   "The first, but of course it is the long strategy that matters,"  Bleidd said. Then, "If you enjoyed being a wright so much why did you leave to join the Guard?"
  Jess frowned, shifting slightly and for a moment Bleidd thought that he had overstepped with a question that was too direct and too personal, and Jess would not answer. Then the other elf inclined his head in a shrug. "As to that, I would have been happy enough as a wright, but my mother...she preferred having both her sons in the Elven Guard. When I was at an age to apprentice there was no opening in the Guard so she allowed me to go where I chose. But then, just before I reached my quincentennial and would have been tested for Mastership, she managed to arrange for me to join the Guard with my brother's sponsorship. So I did."
  Bleidd winced in sympathy, making a non-committal noise in response, knowing how hard it must have been for Jess to walk away from a career he loved and was obviously excelling in to fulfill someone else's desire. But he also knew that Elven society made no allowances for what a mere male might want, when the influential women who held sway over his life made a decision about what was to be done with that life. And Bleidd also knew why Jess's mother would prefer her sons in the Guard. The woman was manipulative but she wasn't stupid and with no daughters if she wanted to be able to negotiate for an heir through her sons she would have to have them in prestigious positions. The Elven Guard were esteemed and powerful; a master wright no matter how skilled would never have the same social value. That pompous woman has no idea how lucky she is that Allie came along, although certainly Jess knows, Bleidd thought darkly, watching Jess's next move carefully. I understand much better I think why Jess was so desperate that he flouted custom to ask Allie to marry him - I can't even imagine who his mother would have chosen for him. Probably some stuck up society climber just looking for a male to act as stud and get her with a child; someone who she'd treat like furniture until she didn't need his services anymore. Plenty of those in Elven society sadly enough and a good reminder of why this Bordetown is a better home than the Queen's Holding for us. I have no interest in being anyone's chattel ever again. He must thank the gods daily for Allie, she may be a Bahvanshee but she genuinely loves him and I think she'd cut off her own hand before she'd intentionally harm either of us.
   Jess's next move cost Bleidd a pawn although as far as Bleidd could see it didn't strengthen his overall position on the board. Shrugging slightly Bleidd reached up and pulled the hair tie out of his ponytail, letting his hair fall in a dark curtain around his shoulders. He tossed the small band on the chair with Jess's shirt.
   Jess frowned, his expression puzzled, "That isn't a piece of clothes."
   "Of course it counts as clothing," Bleidd replied smoothly, "It's something I wear isn't it?"
   Jess's head tilted to the side, his full attention on the other elf, but he could not find a flaw in Bleidd's logic so after a moment he inclined his head slightly in a shrug conceding the point. With a wolfish grin Bleidd quickly moved to take another of Jess's pawns. Laughing slightly Jess reached up and untied his own hair, adding the leather he used to bind his hair to the pile of forfeited clothing before running his fingers through his braid until his pale blonde hair hung free to his waist. "So," Jess said as he contemplated the board, "You have said before that you were in the Guard. Was it your family that urged you to join? Or did you choose it yourself? I know many mages do, because of the training offered."
    Bleidd focused on the board, trying to keep his face expressionless as memories from almost a millennia ago flooded back. When he spoke he was glad that his voice was even, "I chose the Guard. You would probably not be surprised to know that I was considered a pampered child, even though I was male. I am my mother's youngest and my sisters doted on me, especially my oldest sister. As my mother's heir of course she had a great deal of influence...when I was old enough to apprentice my mother preferred that I go to the college of mages, because she thought it would reflect well on our family - if she must be saddled with a son - to have a scholar. So naturally I pitched a fit and insisted I would be a mage in the Elven Guard or I would do nothing at all. It was quite...dramatic." he paused toying with a rook. "But my sister intervened in my favor, as she always did and convinced my mother to let me have my way. And so I joined the Guard and excelled there, if only to prove to my mother that I was correct all along."
    Jess quietly moved another piece, seizing another pawn without comment. Bleidd took off one of his shoes, adding it to the pile silently. Bleidd made his own move quickly, taking one of Jess's knights, and Jess mirrored him by giving up a boot. Finally Jess broke the silence, shifting his rook across the board. "You and your sister must be very close."
   "We were," Bleidd said, looking away. "She died a few hundred years after I joined the Guard. In childbirth."
   Jess made a small sympathetic noise, taking a moment to extend his hand out and clasp Bleidd's wrist. "I am sorry."
   Bleidd accepted the gesture, but inclined his head in a shrug before moving to take another of Jess's pieces, "It was a long time ago, and so it often goes with Elven women."
   Jess removed his other boot giving his spouse a thoughtful look. "Do you fear for Allie's life now?"
   That question startled Bleidd, and he met the other elf's eyes without thinking, seeing the genuine worry in them. He isn't worried for her, he realized, he's worried for me, for how I'm feeling about her possibly being in danger from this pregnancy. It was unexpectedly touching and he fought the urge to look away, suddenly uncomfortable with the emotional intimacy that was an unintended side effect of these new rules for the old game and the barriers they were lowering with usually strict social taboos about discussing deep personal things. He felt off balance and exposed in a way that had nothing to do with physical nakedness. Taking a slow breath he aimed for humor, "Well Commander there seems little point in fearing for Allie when she has proven too stubborn thus far to let death take her in far more dangerous circumstances than mere childbirth."
    Jess smiled tentatively back at him, but he doubted the Guard commander had fallen for the diversion in his words. Nonetheless he let the subject drop, perhaps sensing that he had pushed the former Outcast as far as he could be pushed on the subject. Instead he made a move that Bleidd hadn't foreseen and managed to take one of his bishops, earning a dour look from Bleidd as he relinquished his other shoe. The two played back and forth in silence for awhile, until both their socks were added to the pile, Bleidd grunting in annoyance to find they were more evenly matched than he'd anticipated.
    He frowned at the board now as he tried to find some way to leverage an advantage, because he absolutely hated losing. The thought of losing to someone 300 years his junior who didn't even consider themselves a good player wasn't something he wanted to contemplate, even if he hadn't played the game in more than half a decade. Finally he saw a path that would give him checkmate in several moves, if he was willing to sacrifice a couple pieces. "If we are discussing siblings, you seem very close to your brother," Bleidd said, breaking the silence and trying to throw Jess off balance. Not, perhaps the kindest strategy he thought to himself but if we are going to spill our emotions like blood then so be it. And this is chess after all.
    Jess didn't respond at first, moving instead as Bleidd had assumed he would to take the piece he had positioned for sacrifice. He pulled off his shirt and tossed it carelessly onto the chair, taking his time with his next move to hide his plan. Unconsciously Bleidd reached up and rubbed the scar on the right side of his chest, the mark of a bullet that had nearly killed him, feeling the familiar ache in the healed wound. Jess watched through lowered eyes, well aware that it bothered the vain elf greatly to bear such an obvious and disfiguring mark, and as always purposely ignoring the movement.
     When Jess finally spoke his voice was soft, "My brother and I have always been close, since I was a child. He has in his way been more of a parent to me than my mother, although I know he often doesn't understand my choices or why I am the way I am, so willing to embrace emotions and so steadfast when I should not be. He certainly understands me, for all that, better than my mother likely ever will. I know you and Allie dislike my mother - it is alright truly, I can understand why. She can be difficult, but she is my mother. She means well in what she does. But it was...hard...for me, a second son, with no magical aptitude, no great talent beyond some skill at carving. I am no poet or bard, no great warrior, no healer, no seer, not even magical potential that might pass down to children. My father was a passing tryst, my mother doesn't even know who he is nor did she care to find out afterwards, so I had no male line to look to for training in an inherited craft. I am nothing special -"
   Bleidd cut in sharply, regretting having started this, "Do not speak so. You are special Jess -"
   Jess held up his hand in a soothing gesture, "It is alright my love, truly. Truly. I am realistic in my own abilities and flaws, I think. I would have made a good wright, and I am a competent commander in the Elven Guard, but I am nothing more than that. And that is well enough. I am satisfied with my life as it is. If things had not fallen out as they have I would not be sitting here now, married to two people I love greatly, in a home that is its own odd sort of clan holding - in its way - anticipating our first child, and playing chess with you."
   Bleidd smiled at that, but he still wished he had never gone down this road with his lover. Seeing Jess so vulnerable was not something he had counted on, and it hurt him to think of how many times the other elf must have been told he was nothing of any note to have internalized it so thoroughly.
   The somber moment was interrupted by one of their human roommates turning the corner.
   Shawn walked into the room and then stopped dead, taking in the scene of the two partially clad elves and the chess board. "Ahhh. Sorry? Am I interrupting something?"
   "No," Jess replied innocently, "We were just playing chess."
    "Strip chess," Bleidd corrected smiling wickedly and enjoying Shawn's obvious discomfort. He leaned forward, watching Shawn watch him, as he moved his rook to take Jess's last knight.
    "Right," Shawn said slowly. "Well, ah, I uh, was just heading out to work. So. Ummmm. If you could let Allie know I left the rent in an envelope on the kitchen table? Because, ah, you know, I'll be gone, umm, ah, visiting family. For the next few weeks. On mortal earth."
    "Certainly," Jess said, his attention already back on the chessboard as he contemplated his next move. Bleidd tried not to laugh as he watched Shawn back away slowly, wide eyed. His good mood returned immediately and he thought This is even more fun than I'd anticipated. 
     He watched Jess carefully move his remaining bishop, unwittingly setting Bleidd up to put him in checkmate in two more moves. But Bleidd thought to himself no more serious discussion. He moved his knight to take Jess's queen, reveling in the shock on the other elf's face. "I believe that's your pants forfeited. Best be careful Commander you're down to only one last piece of clothing. Lose that and you'll have to start on the additional forfeits we agreed to."
    Jess stood and slid out of his pants slowly, giving Bleidd a wry look, "Of all the days to not wear I belt I choose today. Honestly Gadreene I suspect you are drawing this out on purpose just to be certain you get some of those extra forfeits."
    Bleidd laughed, wishing that was true and more than willing to let Jess give him credit for it when in actuality he was just having a hard time getting back into the game after so long. "Could you blame me if I were? I can see you nude any time I like but those extra forfeits are where the real entertainment is. Ah, but here, just so you don't think I'm being unfair, if you move that pawn there you can take my knight and my pants with it. Would that make you feel better?"
   Jess regarded him suspiciously but after a few minutes of studying the board couldn't see any other likely moves, so despite feeling like he was walking into a trap he took Bleidd's advice. The black haired elf cheerfully pulled his jeans off and tossed them onto the chair, lounging back in his seat and looking innocently at the board. Jess sighed, "I just set myself up didn't I?"
    "I would never betray your trust that way," Bleidd said, smirking, "Especially not while you're sitting there in nothing but your underwear. As it happens I already have you set up for checkmate and that move was inconsequential."
    "You what?" Jess sputtered, leaning forward as Bleidd laughed.
     "Hey guys, I'm home," Allie said, heading for the little reading room automatically, following her empathy to them. She turned the corner mid-sentence, then looked up and froze, taking in the scene: the beautiful chess board, the pile of clothes on one of the chairs, the two mostly naked elves.
    Bleidd laughed harder at the look on her face, "Welcome home babe. Care to join us in a game of chess?"
    "Strip chess," Jess corrected, still frowning at the board.
    "Strip....chess?" she said looking back and forth between the two of them.
     Bleidd confidently moved his queen to take Jess's last rook, picking the piece up and holding it like a prize. "Alright Commander, hand over your underwear."
    Sighing Jess stood up and surrender the last of his clothes as Allie muttered incoherently in the doorway. Bleidd set the rook down with the other captured pieces then leaned back in his chair, "Now the real fun begins."

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