Someone was already sitting at the table, her posture absolutely perfect. The chess pieces weren’t set up yet. She was staring straight ahead at an imaginary opponent.
Ixi patted my back. “Don’t worry. She just started playing chess two weeks ago. Unless she’s some sort of prodigy, you can easily beat her.”
I nodded. Unless. Ixi led me to the table, sat me down across from the girl, and walked away. I kept my eyes on the board, so I wouldn’t have to watch her stare at me. But I could feel her gaze somehow.
Suddenly, people started pouring in from all sides, filling each and every seat around us, and my opponent’s stare wasn’t the only one I could feel anymore. Now I felt thousands of pairs of eyes on me. One of them was Ixi’s.
I finally met the gaze of my opponent, and was forced once again to look away. Her stare was sharp and focused, unblinking, like Ixi’s. But this one didn’t have the caution or curiosity that Ixi’s had. This one had hatred, determination, and something like condescension. The latter got stronger as soon as I looked away, since I’d made it clear that I couldn’t stand looking her in the eye.
Music suddenly filled the room, and the spotlights left us, pointing upward to the ceiling, sweeping down along with the trapeze that fell, holding a thin, redheaded man dangling by his knees. As soon as the trapeze was close enough to the ground, he flipped off of it, landed next to the table, and bowed deeply. It seemed that everyone on this planet was good at dancing and falling safely at the same time.
“This match will now begin.” He didn’t shout, but his voice was projected loudly enough that there was little doubt about the audience’s ability to hear him, despite his lack of a microphone. I wondered briefly whether anyone in either country had microphones at all.
The man flipped a coin. The result: tails. My opponent went before me.
Throughout the whole match, I could feel myself starting to sweat from the pressure. It was, after all, my first competitive match, and the girl sitting across from me was so confident in her ability to win that it made me doubt my own ability, even though she didn’t say a word.
She barely looked at the board the whole game. She only watched me, and my reactions to her moves. I tried to remain as unreadable as possible, but it didn’t help that she kept coming so tauntingly close to putting me in check.
For what felt like eternity, I didn’t even know who had said the word. I only knew about two minutes after the redheaded man called, “Leonteria’s player is the winner!”
When it finally came to me, my face must have lit up, because the girl stood up at exactly that point and held out her hand to me. I stared at it blankly.
“You shake it,” she said, speaking for the first time since I’d seen her. “They don’t do that where you live?”
I blinked, startled. “W-We do.”
“Then practice.” She kept her hand extended. I shook it. As soon as I let go, she spun on her heel and walked away. Ixi ran down from her seat, thanking the redhead and putting a hand on my arm, leading me out of the room. I was still dazed.