“I’m bored,” Shana sighed. She stared out the window at the endless expanse of glittering snow. It was unrelieved by the slightest trace of footprints, striped only by the navy blue shadows of tall firs.
“Let’s play chess,” suggested Ruby.
“The last time I played with you I ended up in the hospital.”
“You just didn’t watch where you were going,” said Ruby, shrugging.
“Getting hit by a griffon would have hurt less,” Shana replied.
Ruby laughed, rolling over on the bed. Her long, red hair caught the pale sunlight coming in through the window and it glinted gold and copper.
Shana looked at her, exasperated and a bit jealous. Her sister had everything. She was the eldest; she had beautiful hair and slanting green eyes; she was clever and could do the intricate dances the court required without once stumbling or forgetting the steps. “Mother will be furious,”she said.
“Won’t she just? It will serve her right, leaving us alone like this.
I hate winter. I’m sick of it. And Mother gets to do all the fun stuff.” Ruby sighed dramatically and flounced over to the window seat where she flopped herself down angrily.
“She is the queen,” said Shana.
“Queen bean.” Ruby breathed on the glass then wiped it with her hand. A large ruby ring sparkled on her left hand pinkie. It meant she was betrothed. She tapped hard on the glass pane with the ruby. The glass shivered and a million, hair-fine cracks appeared in it.
“Stop that!” said Shana. The last time you did that it broke and Mother made us eat all that glass.
“She’s so mean.” Ruby stopped though. The glass sighed deeply and healed itself with a low whine.
“You’re mean! Why hurt the glass beast? He’s never hurt you and he’s quite useful in winter. He keeps the cold air out.”
“Oh Shana, don’t recite the lessons at me please. The only thing nice about winter is the fact we don’t have to study. Old Mrs. Tilly hibernates.”
“She does not,” Shana giggled. “She stays home in front of her cozy fire.”
“That’s what she says. So, shall we play or not? Hurry up and decide, Mother won’t be gone all day you know. The reception will end and she’ll come home and make us do something boring.”
“Oh, all right. But don’t try any of your tricks, I don’t want to end up like the last time, my leg in a cast and my nose all broken. It still doesn’t look the same.”
“It looks better actually.” Ruby tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. ” Before, it was a bit pudgy, now it’s narrower. I think the doctors did a great job putting it right.”
Shana poked her finger at the glass beast and said, “Mirror!” When it complied by turning a shiny silver, she looked at her reflection for a moment, turning her face this way and that, lifting up her heavy mass of dark brown hair into a loose chignon, trying to see if her eyes were more gray-blue or blue-gray, and if her nose was indeed narrower.
“You’re too vain,” said Ruby. She caught Shana by the sleeve and pulled her out of the room. The two young girls ran down the steps, holding up their heavy velvet skirts so they wouldn’t trip, and went into the throne room.
The chessboard was on a round table next to a window, and the pieces were in a gold box covered with jewels and carvings of war. Two comfortable armchairs faced each other across the table. A blue, curly-fur rug warmed the floor beneath them. There was a long yellow rope near the window and Ruby gave it a tug when they sat down.
“Why did you do that?” Shana complained. “Now Mother’s bound to know we played–the servant will tell her.”
Ruby shrugged. “She’ll know anyhow, and I want some caffie.”
The two girls bent over the chessboard, setting up the pieces. When the servant came, Ruby asked for a cup of caffie. Shana asked for plain tea.
When the board was ready, Shana took a deep breath and moved her pawn. She was white, and so went first.
Ruby didn’t hesitate; she took her knight and moved him boldly in front of her bishop’s pawn.
Shana gnawed her lip; Ruby must have the whole game plotted out in her head already. She always knew just what she was going to do. Shana’s own hand hovered tentatively over her knight, but she just didn’t feel capable of confronting her sister so she decided on a defensive game. She moved her queen’s pawn up one space and frowned again when Ruby moved her other knight out. Shana positioned her pawns and her bishops while Ruby deployed her knights and only moved her pawns far enough to let her queen out.
“Watch out, you’re going to lose that black witch,” said Shana, trying to rattle Ruby, but her sister just smiled cryptically and captured one of Shana’s pawns with her knight.
The caffie and tea came and the two girls sipped their hot drinks while they studied the board. Shana felt the game slipping out of her control and wondered what she could do to capture the black queen. Ruby’s biggest fault, she decided, was her confidence. She would never suspect a trap set by her little sister. She would just think she’d lost her nerve again. She tried to look grim as she moved her queen’s pawn outward, leaving an open path to her white bishop.
Ruby didn’t fall for it though. She just smiled and knocked over another one of Shana’s pawns with her knight. The next two moves lost Shana one of her knights, but she managed to capture Ruby’s white bishop.
Ruby uttered an exclamation of annoyance as she pulled her queen out of reach of Shana’s other knight.
“Oh, the tingling started already!” Shana cried.
“Quick, finish your tea, it will be cold by the time we get back,” ordered her sister.
Shana gulped it down then wished she hadn’t. It would make her burp and she didn’t have as much charm as Ruby to start with. How would she persuade her remaining knight to fight for her if she burped at him? And those darn bishops with their stern eyes made her quail. Ah well, she still had one more trick up her sleeve. But she was afraid to think about it; in some ways Ruby was downright spooky the way she could read minds.
The tingling reached down to her toes then her hands became transparent. Her hair fell out of its ribbon and flew straight up as she felt her body twitch and seemingly shatter. There was an awful second when the room darkened, and then the window appeared to open in a huge yawn and swallow her with a clap like thunder.
Plomp! Shana’s feet slid out from under her and she landed in a heap on soft grass in a sunny meadow. She stood up and brushed her skirts off. The sky above her was clear. That was good, the last time it had rained and her silly rook had slipped and fallen just when she’d needed him the most.
She looked over to her right and saw the white king sitting on his throne. He waved. She waved back.
“Hullo, Shana! So you’re the white queen this time? How’s your leg?” He was an easy-going sort of fellow who never seemed to care whether he won or lost. Unlike the black king, who’d called her the most awful names when she made a bad move.
“Oh, hello, Hector. It’s fine, thanks.”
“Hi, Shana, long time no see.”
She turned, prepared to greet her knight, but the words died on her lips. It had been a long time. Twelve months ago she’d been a young girl of fourteen. At fifteen she’d started to grow up and for some reason Charlevagne, the white knight, made her blush now. She stared at him, her cheeks crimson, until he took her hand and kissed it formally.
“We better get going, Ruby will already have made her game plan,” he said kindly.
“I’m sorry about Rufous,” she said, stammering a bit. She meant about losing the other knight.
“Oh, that’s all right,” Hector said amiably, coming over to speak. “We’ll do fine with just one knight. You did well to capture Ruby’s bishop, he won’t be plotting against us this time.”
“True. Well, I suppose I’d better call to order. Bishops! Rooks! Pawns! Knights! Come one, come all! We go forward into battle.” The ceremonial words rang out in the clear air. She straightened her shoulders, steadying her nerves.
Across the meadow heads popped up. Figures stood, stretched, and some picked up weapons.
The bishops were the same as she remembered: tall, thin-faced men with pale green, globular, staring eyes. They were dressed in long, white robes and carried blue glass staffs that could knock down a horse. They conferred with Charlevagne in whispers, pausing now and then to ask Shana what she thought of the game plan.
The rooks stood near, shuffling their four elephant feet, flapping their flags noisily. Rooks, solid looking and quite fast when they wanted to be, were silent. They never spoke, but they followed directions. They had no weapons, they simply ran over the adversary, squashing them flat.
When the game plan was finished, Shana walked down the row of pawns standing at attention and greeted them by name. She apologized for losing two of them already, but they just shrugged cheerfully and bobbed their round heads. The only words they knew how to say were Yea’s and Nay’s. They looked a bit like a cross between a dog and a monkey and tended to get muddled if too many directions were shouted at them.
“Are you sure you want to get close to Guillaume, the black knight?” Charlevagne asked with a worried frown.
“I’m depending on you to cover me, but yes, I need to be able to talk to him,” said Shana firmly.
Charlevagne looked undecided, but he mounted his silver-maned steed, raised his trumpet to his lips and blew a long, clear blast on it.
The white king stood on his throne and raised a spyglass to his eyes. “I see the black flag,” he cried. “Let’s go!”
A trumpet answered and Shana felt her blood quicken. This time she’d win and she would, for once, be the queen.
The sun climbed higher in the sky then started its slow slide down. Shana lost most of her pawns and her bishops. The white king, for all his apparent serenity, started to gnaw on his fingernails. Shana motioned her rooks ahead and watched as one fell to the black queen’s laser scepter.
“Yoo-hoo! Shana! Do you give up?” Ruby shouted from the distance as she posed dramatically, one foot on the fallen rook.
“No, not yet!” called Shana. “Look over there!” She had the satisfaction of hearing Ruby shriek when she saw her own rook fall to Charlevagne’s silver mace.
Just as she’d surmised, one of the knights was staying close to Ruby. The other sulked down by the river. Shana guessed that Ruby had flirted with Guillaume while Arnaud, the other knight, was within hearing. The problem with knights, reflected Shana, was that they were too romantic. And Ruby was a flirt. Shana nodded to her remaining rook and he smote the far knight with his massive chest, knocking him into the river. Ruby stamped her foot, her face a mask of fury. She turned and shouted something to Guillaume, who nodded and galloped towards Shana.
Shana held her ground. She knew he couldn’t strike her, she was out of alignment. But the next move would doom her unless her plan worked. Guillaume stopped his great, black steed so close she felt the heat of its body and heard the harsh breath rushing in its nostrils.
“Prepare to be captured, white queen,” he said in a deep voice.
Shana smiled. “Did you admire Ruby’s new ring?” she asked sweetly.
Guillaume snorted. “What ring?”
“Her new ruby ring. A ruby on Ruby’s left-hand. You know what that means, don’t you?”
“A ring on her left hand?” Guillaume was nonplused. “You mean, she’s engaged? She’s played me false then?”
“Afraid so. What did she promise you? Eternal love and devotion?” Shana asked. She kept one eye on Ruby, and was pleased to see her waving furiously. Unfortunately for Ruby, Shana now had Guillaume’s complete attention and Ruby had to move another piece.
“Oh dear, Ruby just moved her bishop. I’m sorry, but it’s my turn now.” Shana tried to look contrite.
Guillaume stiffened. “‘Tis none of your business what she promised me. My heart is broken, I concede this square.” He touched his helmet with his mace and didn’t flinch when Shana reached up and zapped him with her light-scepter. He fell with a loud whomp onto the grass. Shana poked him a bit with her toe to make sure he wasn’t going to leap up and whack her with his heavy mace once her back was turned. He didn’t move, he just uttered a low moan. She nodded in satisfaction and climbed up onto his back to better see what was going on over on the far side of the field.
Ruby’s remaining bishop protected the black king and she stalked Charlevagne with a murderous expression on her face. The sun dipped below the horizon and its golden rays seemed to set her head aflame. She paused long enough to scream an insult at Shana, then lunged at Charlevagne, her black scepter shooting sparks. Just before Ruby touched him, though, Shana’s remaining rook ran her over with a satisfying crunch.
“Oh, damn!” said Ruby crossly, then she passed out.
“Hah, see how you like getting run over by a rook,” Shana snorted.
Charlevagne neutralized the remaining bishop and Shana captured the black king. Perhaps she hit him a bit harder than necessary over the head with her scepter, but twelve months hadn’t made her forget his biting sarcasm.
“Oh, Charlevagne, thank you, you were wonderful,” she told him, as he cantered off into the sunset, holding her on his lap.
“Shouldn’t we send Ruby home?” he asked.
“No, not quite yet. She’s fine, I checked her out. Nothing a little surgery won’t fix,” Shana smiled grimly. “She left me nearly three hours last time; I even missed the feast. I think I’ll do the same. Besides, I’ve never won before. Now what shall we do?”
Charlevagne smiled. “We can do anything you want, you’re the queen and you won.”
“Won’t Mother be furious when she gets home,” Shana sighed contentedly. “Let’s go to the White Palace. I want to have some vanilla ice cream and hear the minstrels sing. You can stand next to me and hold my hand, and then when the stars come out, we’ll walk in the white rose garden and sit beneath the silver moon. You can tell me all about your heroic deeds and maybe you can teach me how to kiss.”
The stars came out and the moon sailed across the sky. All the players, including Ruby,woke up, rubbed their wounds and limped to the White Palace where a fire burned brightly and a banquet was set up for the new queen.
And Shana sat in the rose garden with her knight in shining armor and kept an eye out for her mother.