I managed to get to sleep that night. I slept a long time, much to my own relief. Playing chess against someone I’d never met was not something I wanted to do after two all-nighters. My parents woke me with kitchen noises. They didn’t work on the weekends, but they did still go out, to do who-knows-what. They probably just ran more errands or something. Whatever they could do to stay out of the house.
I heard them leave, waited five minutes, and got out of bed. I rarely ever talked to them, or even saw them. We just don’t really get along. But that kind of thing barely matters when you have a tiny chance of helping a whole country win a competition in your hands.
Ixi was waiting outside for me again. She wasn’t staring at anything this time, now that she understood what a fire hydrant was. She was sitting in the tree in front of the house, her bare feet dangling from the branch.
“Hi, Leo.” She hopped down. Her feet didn’t seem to get at all scraped from the impact with the pavement. “You ready for the match?”
“Yeah, I guess. From what you said, this person’s going to be an amateur. I can beat you, so I can most likely beat today’s opponent.”
Ixi bit her lip. “Leo… I wouldn’t be too sure if I were you. Unlike me, your opponents are putting their whole heart into the game. That means that they may use some sort of dirty trick to defeat you.” She suddenly grabbed my hands. “Can you promise me something?”
I squirmed uncomfortably. “That depends.”
“Promise me that no matter how many tricks get played against you, you’ll fight fairly without trying to do anything back. Please, please promise me that.”
“Of course I won’t do anything back. I promise, I’ll fight fairly.”
“Good.” She released my hands with an expression of pure relief. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now, how about we go to the match so I can win already?”
She laughed. “Alright, I’ll take you there. Try not to experience too big of a culture shock.”
And just like that, we were there. Not just in Leonteria, but in the building in which the match was going to take place. It was decorated in black and white, kind of like the chessboard itself. There was an emblem on a big wall: a crane, wings spread, about to take flight. The shape around it seemed to be a chipped shield. There were what seemed to be thousands of people there, all talking and whispering nervously and cheering loudly.
My head felt like it was spinning. I had never seen such a crowd before, or even such a large building. Ixi was holding my hand, I guess so she could make sure I wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. She dragged me through the crowd, not seeming to care who she bumped into. I got my foot stepped on three times and I lost count of how many times my arm had gotten bumped.
She finally stopped pulling when we were further away from the crowd, into an enormous room with spotlights of every color and a small table in the center. Empty seats surrounded the center, and just by looking I could tell that those would be where the audience would sit, though chess didn’t really seem like a game many people would find excitement in watching. Then I reminded myself: these games are different. People aren’t playing for themselves here. They’re playing for their whole country.
I’m playing for a whole country I’ve never lived in. And then I asked myself another question, as I’d found myself doing a lot recently. Why am I playing?