Zeke rolled his eyes. “How predictable. Using chess to test our battle strategies, huh? Like something from a cheesy movie.”
Ixi frowned. “Unlike you people, we don’t destroy our own race all the time! I’m not making anyone fight.” Her frown went upside-down pretty quickly. “Chess is the challenge, silly. That’s what we’re fighting with.”
I blinked. “We’re actually playing chess? Why can’t you do that yourself then?”
“Oh, well, I would if I could. But there has to be a single human fighter on each side. So, I need to pick one of you for Leonteria.” She sighed. “Zia has most likely picked the player for Reginea by now.”
“Who’s Zia?” Mark asked, leaning on a fire hydrant.
“Could you ask that more specifically? I still have trouble when you ask for a person’s identity.”
“What is her significance to this situation?” I translated.
“Oh! She has the same job as me, actually. We do many other things that I won’t get into now, but we’re both people chosen by the king of either side to find a human being to fight by our sides. She just so happens to be Reginea’s king’s daughter.”
“Do you like her?” Mark asked. “I mean, you’re on opposite sides, but… you don’t seem to hold much contempt against her.”
“I don’t, you’re exactly right.” Ixi got a sad look on her face. “Zia’s hatred for me is completely one-sided.”
“Do you know why she hates you?” I asked, feeling sympathetic. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. Once, I had hated one of my friends for something that someone told me he did. As it turned out later, it wasn’t true, but I’d thought it was. That friend left town… He couldn’t handle the pressure of everyone, even teachers, even his parents, being against him. The very day he graduated from high school, he ran off. He had been my mentor, my role model, my best friend… He even saved me once in elementary school, when everyone had turned against me for something I hadn’t done. When I found out that I had been wrong about him, I had immediately felt guilty, remembering what he had done for me.
“Yes,” she replied, pulling me back to the present. “Yes, I know exactly why. One of you is going to be helping me, after all, so… I may as well tell you. It’s the least I can do.” She looked into the distance, away from us, as if that would remove the effect of actually speaking to someone about such an incident. “We’ve… been rivals for a long time. We’ve always been on opposite sides. We were friends when we were just starting learning, in the smallest division… Firstyear. We lasted from Firstyear to Fifthyear.”
I must have looked confused, so Mark spoke up. “From the way she mentions it, it’s like grades. So, she’s saying they were friends through all of elementary school.”
Ixi continued as if Mark hadn’t spoken. “We were a group of three. Zia, Jer, and me. Jer hates me too now. But he’s gone. We were best friends, then rivals when we became of age. She’d changed, a lot, and I had no idea why. But she no longer cared about whether or not things were done fairly, like she did in Firstyear to Fifthyear. All she cared about then was winning. But I still wanted things to be fair. So, in one of our school-issued duels… I remember clearly that the game was checkers… she tried to cheat. But I caught her. Instead of lecturing her, I just asked her why she was cheating. Zia was furious that I’d found out, and probably even angrier that I wasn’t angry with her. The teacher disqualified her, tarnishing her perfect record.
“She’d told me that someday she would defeat me. I ran away and stayed hidden for a year, and when I came back, she was completely cold-hearted. She didn’t even yell at me like she did in Seventhyear, when I defeated her… She didn’t even speak to me unless she had to. She wouldn’t let anyone say my name in her presence. I don’t know where Jer went. During Eighthyear, I guess he just disappeared.”
A full minute after Ixi stopped speaking, all four of us were silent.