Anatoly Sergievsky sat at a small table overlooking one of the many parks in Moscow, nursing a cup of tea. She was late, as she almost always was these days, but he didn't particularly mind. Not to put too fine a point on it, he had a lot of free time these days. He could wait. Her constituents couldn't.
And wasn't that an ironic twist of fate; that he, once one of the most notorious and polarizing figures of the day should come to be overshadowed by his wife – his ex-wife. When people heard the name Sergievsky, the first things to come to mind were no longer chess, grandmasters or a humiliating defeat in Bangkok. Instead, they thought of a tough but fair woman who had risen out of obscurity to find a place in politics with Yeltsin and his reformers. The very face of Russia had been changing and she had been right there in the heart of the maelstrom, pushing and fighting for the reforms that were so sorely needed.
As unsettling as it all was to his personal feelings, he didn't begrudge her one iota of her success. After the first few years, their marriage had hardly been a source of joy. He had left her to raise their children and manage things all on her own while he travelled the world, chasing his desire to become the greatest grandmaster in the world. She'd been forced to stifle her own dreams and ambitions for the sake of his career and the image his handlers had so desperately wanted to show the world.
His defection to the West and public unfaithfulness had been the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. Upon the conclusion of the sordid debacle that was Bangkok and his return to Russia she'd declared she was seeking a divorce and taking the children with her. He could hardly find strength to argue -- couldn't have even if he hadn't felt she was completely and utterly justified -- and so it had been done.
He'd languished in obscurity and self-imposed exile, grateful to still be breathing after the embarrassment he'd caused Molokov and the Soviet Union. She had everything to play for and nothing holding her back and he would have had to be, well, Freddie Trumper to hate her for it.
If her eclipse of him was the strangest thing to happen in his life, the fact that they had actually become friends after their divorce was the second strangest. It would have been all too easy to assume their acrimonious split was only a foretaste of what was to come and leave it at that, but after the initial dust had settled and custody agreements had been worked out, they discovered they were capable of civilized, even pleasant conversations. Some of this could be attributed to the desire to try to make a difficult situation more bearable for the children, but the truth was that with a whirlwind courtship and hasty marriage, there'd not been a whole lot of time for sitting down and having long, in-depth conversations. It was only after everything had fallen apart that they had taken time to really talk.
"Anatoly?" The familiar voice broke into his thoughts and he looked up to see Svetlana standing before him, dressed elegantly as ever. "I'm so sorry I'm late."
He smiled in greeting and stood, waiting for her to sit down before he retook his seat. "Please, you have nothing to be sorry for. I know how busy you are."
"Very busy," she said, smiling faintly. "But then, what else is new? It's a good job and a necessary one, and I'm proud to do it, but sometimes I think to myself that the work will never end and I will die at my desk, a slave to duty at the very last."
"You wouldn't have it any other way," Anatoly said as he waved to get the waiter's attention. "And who would know better than I the feeling of being chained to your work and enjoying it?"
"Who else, indeed?" Svetlana answered wryly once she'd ordered herself some tea. "You know, I used to wonder why you didn't just take the chessboard to bed with you. You certainly were devoted enough to it."
Before he could answer, she held up her hand. "But that is all in the past and I've made my peace with it, so please remember that before you start twisting yourself into knots of guilt again."
Anatoly could only laugh ruefully, having been about to do just that. It might be all over and done with now, but he couldn't shake the incessant need to continue to apologize for his actions. "It's almost as if you know me, Sveta. But enough of that now. How are the children?"
"Oh, you haven't heard from them either?" Svetlana asked dryly. "It's nice to know that I am not the only one who they have forgotten. Last I heard, they were doing well enough. Yelena still seems utterly happy to be dancing at the Bolshoi. And Dmitri …he writes every once in a while to reassure me that he has not been blown up yet. That is something, I suppose."
Anatoly nodded soberly. The moment Dmitri had turned 18, he'd stated his intention to join the army and nothing anyone said or did had dissuaded him. "At least he writes you."
"You know how he is," Svetlana answered. "Give him the space to work his issues out and then he will talk to you. His problem is that he's stubborn, much like someone else I could mention. Let him have time. It's the only thing you can do."
"The Sergievsky Stubbornness. Yes, I think I know that well. I can only hope you're right."
For awhile there was no conversation; only the sounds of drinking tea, the occasional visits of the waiter to refill their cups, and murmured reassurances that all was well.
Finally, Svetlana stirred. "As pleasant as all of this is, I'm sure you had a reason for asking me to come, didn't you?"
Anatoly nodded slowly, loathe to disturb the peaceful camaraderie, but he couldn't put off the moment forever. He took a deep breath for courage before speaking. "I received a letter from the International Chess Federation the other day. They wanted to know if I would be interested in a rematch with Trumper."
Svetlana stared at him, her cup halfway to her lips. "I --a rematch? …I see. I suppose if anything could restart excitement in the game, that would be it."
"I imagine that's their intention," Anatoly agreed. "Though they didn't say it as such. They only said it had been fifteen years since our last match and how it would be a triumphant comeback for both of us no matter who the winner was and other things of that sort." He took a deep breath and continued, "I was hoping you would give me advice."
"Advice?" Svetlana repeated incredulously. "You want my advice? On what? Surely not how to play?"
"No," Anatoly hastened to say. "No, on whether I should accept."
She stared at him for so long that he felt his cheeks turn red with embarrassment and he ducked his head, taking refuge in staring into the remains of his tea. "I know it sounds strange, almost insane, even, but there's no one else's opinion that I can trust."
"I can't even believe you're asking me this question," she said, setting her cup down and gesturing emphatically at him. "Of course you must accept. You can't do anything else and still call yourself a grandmaster. You want this opportunity. I know you do. In fact, you need it. It is the only way for you to regain what you have lost."
"What I've lost?" He looked at her in confusion. "Svetlana, I - "
"What you've lost," she repeated firmly, her gaze unwavering. "You and I know both know that match in Bangkok was not fair and what happened was a disgrace, no matter how it was spun otherwise. You could have beaten that man, Anatoly. You should have beaten that man. It was only your damned insistence on martyrdom and grand gestures that made you do otherwise. Since you returned, you have been a shell of the man I knew before. And while it might have made dealing with certain things easier… it's not you. Where is your passion? Your fire? If you don't go and prove that you are the better player, you will never find it again, and that? That would be an even bigger disgrace."
Her vehemence surprised him and for a few moments he could do nothing but stare in shock. Still, he had to admit that she was completely and utterly right. He needed to do this, he needed to go back and wipe that damnable smirk from Trumper's face once and for all, to show him and the entire world what he was truly capable of.
"You really think I should do this?"
"Yes, Anatoly. I do."
"Will you throw me a parade when I win?" He didn't feel as confident as he sounded, but in making the decision to agree, he could feel that long-dormant fire rekindling. This could be the fresh start in his life that he needed.
Svetlana smiled in amusement and leaned over to lightly kiss his cheek. "I don't think there's enough in the budget for that, Tolya, but perhaps something can be arranged. Just promise me one thing."
"What is that?"
"Win for yourself. Not for me, not for the children, not for Russia, not even for Florence. Just for yourself."