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Gambit

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No one cares about pawns, really. That they are there during active battle, in formation and following orders, is all that anyone ever notices. They can do anything in their spare time, be anything, without regard for propriety. They are infantry, strong mainly in numbers; they are slow to move and not particularly agile; in some sense they are capture fodder, a distraction for the enemy. All of the other pieces -- the knights on their high horses, the bishops with their tall hats and swift gliding diagonal movements, the rooks in their solid glory, the queen that is mistress over the battlefield, and the king that everyone and anyone would die to protect -- all of them think nothing of pawns, that can only move one shuffling step at a time and are pretty much interchangeable.

It's not that they serve no purpose, for all pieces have their place. It's not that they don't have strength, for they all to the weakest pawn can take down any enemy that gets close enough, even the opposing queen. It's just that they're ... Well, they're just pawns.

Until, on very rare occasions, they aren't.

#

She stands for a moment, breathless from both exertion and nerves. Pawns can make it this far, but mainly in theory. She's never seen it done, that a pawn reaches the rear of the enemy line.

But she's done it. She made it. And for that moment, the whole board stands silent with her, waiting, expectant.

From here, she can become anything she wants.

It isn't a hard choice.

"My name is Shira," she declares, feeling daring for staring that first, "and I wish to be queen."

And with a dizzying tilt to the universe, she is.

#

Queens are taller. That's what she notices first. As a pawn, she'd had a limited view of the battlefield: no more than a square or two past where she was positioned, less than that if taller pieces blocked her view. As a queen she is the tallest, and can see the whole spread, and a lot more things make sense suddenly.

But although being a queen comes with more power, both physical -- she can move in any direction for any length, and only the knights can perform maneuvers still impossible to her -- and social, commanding the battlefield and giving orders, it didn't come with a sudden spate of tactical knowledge. The main thing she has is the strong instinct -- more than that, a compulsion -- to protect the king.

For now, though, the original queen, a dominating presence named Aisha with a strong voice and stronger personality, is still in play. She observed Shira's promotion with a smile, but she still gives the orders with the air of one used to being obeyed, and Shira lets her. Which works for a few more rounds, until an opposing knight puts their king in check, and Aisha is the only one who can capture him.

Shira sees something else too, an opposing bishop in a direct diagonal line with the knight, and looks over in startled horror to meet Aisha's calmer gaze. Aisha nods in acknowledgment. "You will do well, pawn who is queen. You must. It is up to you now, to lead us to victory."

"My name is Shira," she says shakily, "and I am ready."

She isn't, not deep inside, but it doesn't matter. There is no alternative.

She watches, all of them watches, as Aisha sweeps over and captures the knight and then stands with silent grace as the bishop comes inevitably in and captures her in turn.

The queen is dead, Shira thinks, long live the queen.

"All right," she says, trying to sound more confident than she feels. "This is the plan..."

#

The game moves on. Shira is getting used to this, to being in command. It still guts her every time a capture happens, but that is the nature of what they do, and she is able to wreak equal destruction on the opposing team.

Then she comes to a point where the most effective play involves using a pawn to bait the remaining knight over, which will then allow Shira to move into a position that can give them a win in four moves. It is the best option. She knows this, even with her limited experience.

She can't give the order.

The pawn in question is not just any other pawn. The other pieces tend to think of the pawns as interchangeable, but to other pawns they aren't. And the pawn that is available to use as bait may not have an official name, because pawns have no use for names, but Shira calls her ahuva, beloved.

They have both been captured before; it is a common fate for pawns. But always it has been someone else's order, someone else's burden. Now the responsibility falls to Shira, and she does not want to do it.

(Capture is not permanent, she knows. Once this match is over, once one group has one and one has lost, they will all return safely home to wait for the next one. Once this is over, Shira will be a pawn again, and the two of them can be together again. She knows this. It does not help the heartache.)

If there were another way--

Shira gives the order, and forces herself to watch as the knight takes her ahuva out of play. It should be a triumph; it feels like a failure.

Queens do not weep, she told herself. Not even when the king is captured, when she has lost the game, so definitely not when a piece is captured, one ordinary pawn that brings them one step closer to victory.

Forgive me, she mouths silently, as she moves into position.

#

They win, and Shira offers a half-bow of respect to the opposing royalty before making her way back home. She is a pawn again now, no better or stronger or braver than any other of the pawns.

Her ahuva greets her with a kiss, and Shira relaxes for the first time since she stepped to the far edge of the battlefield. "I'm sorry," she says. "It was necessary."

"I know." They kiss again. "What is it like, being queen?" she continues, as she strokes Shira's hair, and Shira settles into her lover's embrace with a sigh.

"Tall. A little scary. There is so much responsibility-- it is more comfortable being a pawn, I think. Though I should someday like to try a different role; it would be fun, I think, to be a knight."

"Pawns don't become knights, silly."

"They can if they want -- if they can get promoted, they can choose any role they like."

"Does that mean you won't choose to be queen, next time?"

It is unlikely for a 'next time' to happen any time soon, but Shira laughs and gives her ahuva a fierce kiss. "Not on your life."

It is unlikely, but she can still dream about it.