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My One True Obligation

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    It was a lovely afternoon in Bangkok, Thailand.

    That is, a lovely aternooon to be anyone in the world but Anatoly Sergievsky.

    Molokov was circling him, hungry for blood. With Vigand in play, Anatoly knew that he had a big game ahead of him. Vigand had a reputation-- he was a machine. As Anatoly had been so many years ago, when he had taken down Freddie. But that had been different, he had been different. The victory had been clear then, guaranteed, inevitable. With Vigand, things weren’t as clear. But it wasn’t just Vigand. It was Florence, and it was Freddie, and it was Walter, and it was Molokov. It was even the Arbiter, how he loomed over it all in his own way.

    Yet, the world outside of Anatoly was unmoved by his own tragedy. Every day, the sun rose and set. Traffic came and went. Rain fell, then drained, and the world at large was entirely unmoved by Anatoly’s own tragedy. He didn’t expect time to stand still for his mourning, but he certainly did expect at least a bit more cloud cover. It would have been the poetic thing.

    He had always been too much of a romantic.    

    Svetlana had told him as much when she had still loved him.

    Now, she said nothing to him.

    And he, nothing to her.

    So they learned to relish in their little victories.

    When Molokov, had approached Svetlana, however, she had given pause to her pride. While she hadn’t allowed herself to get too caught up in the politics of chess, it was hard to know of the game without knowing of Molokov. He was ruthless and diligent, and Svetlana knew that he would stop at nothing to ensure Anatoly’s loss. He had approached her with a pitch. If she were to go to Bangkok and talk to Anatoly, to convince him to throw the game to Vigand, then he would pay all her expenses for the trip. Svetlana had no interest in making some bold move for Anatoly’s heart-- she had long since lost it to another woman. She was more interested in getting even. In showing Anatoly, even if only for a moment, exactly what he had become, what his beloved game had turned him into.

    How many times could he win a game before he would realize he had won nothing at all?

    The trip had been on a cold, personal airplane. The staff hadn’t spoken to Svetlana, but she hadn’t much cared for conversation. She had a lot to think about. Molokov had overestimated her empathy for Anatoly. To be honest, she had been hurt when she had first heard of Anatoly’s private affair with his second. But she’d held out hope, told herself that it was nothing. However, as his affair shifted to the public eye, things had changed. When a heart was broken enough, it healed differently. Scar tissue grew in, tougher and colder than the rest. Resilient, forged by recurring injury. After a while, Anatoly’s infidelity had grown to mean nothing to Svetlana. And thus, so had he. In the past, Svetlana had been soft for Anatoly. She had loved him with all her heart and body, and then she hadn’t. Anatoly had hardened her with his own callous greed, and Svetlana came to Bangkok not to bring him back, but to bring him down. She would show him the world he’d created with his blind ambition, and he would burn for it.

    This wasn’t to say that Svetlana wasn’t enjoying herself. Her lodgings were generous: an exquisite and foreign hotel with only the finest restaurants spread at its feet boded well for Svetlana, at least superficially. While Molokov was ambitious, he was also generous. Those on his side were certainly well situated.

    If she hadn’t known any better, Svetlana might have thought that Molokov had more on his mind than taking down Anatoly. However, she did know better. She understood. Molokov and her were caught in a careful game with no winners, and there was no way she would come up short.

   

    So there she stood, alone with Anatoly in his own hotel room, only a few hours before the match was to begin. The world seemed to move around them, the tiny space where they stood a vacuum of desperation and pride.

    A part of Svetlana still knew a part of Anatoly. When she looked at him, she looked at the face of a man that she had started a family with. He had, at one time, been her husband and lover. He had played chess with her on silent afternoons, and brought life to the quiet corners of their small house. And they had been happy. When Svetlana saw her, some distant part of her heart seemed to glow with a forgotten joy. He was handsome. It wasn’t as much an observation as it was a fact. And yet, Svetlana felt repelled by him.

    “Whose idea was this?” Anatoly asked anxiously, “Molokov’s, I bet.”

    “Mine.” Svetlana lied. “I wanted to speak with you.”

    “I’m sure.” He frowned, “Am I supposed to believe that he had no hand in this? That he wouldn’t want to bring you into play just to tear me down?”

    “Tear you down? Anatoly, listen to yourself!” She said, “This is too far.”

    “How is it too far?” He snapped, “Tell me what I’ve done that’s too much.”

    “You have torn the world apart, Anatoly. Are you proud of how you break everyone you meet?”

    “The most important thing in my life--”

    “Is chess.” Svetlana replied. “Trust me, I know. You want to follow your fantasies, right? They aren’t fantasies anymore, Anatoly. You’ve already won, you’ve already gotten your dreams. Come back home, please. Remember--”

    “What is there to remember, Svetlana? What have I lost?”

    Then, in the eye of Anatoly’s hurricane of rage, Svetlana’s heart was cut open in its last tender spot. “Me.” She said, voice low and growling.

    Maybe he noticed the mistake he had made. Maybe he didn’t. Regardless, Svetlana turned away, leaving him by himself, as he always had been.

    As he thrived.

    Anatoly the dreamer. Anatoly the winner. Anatoly the martyr. Svetlana had seen them all, seen them come and go and tear apart a man that she’d thought she knew.

    While Anatoly was caught up in the delusion of making history, festering in his own misery in a hotel room, Svetlana found her own demon in the lobby of the hotel.

    “Florence.”

    Svetlana didn’t pretend not to recognize the other woman. She was beautiful, dark-haired and slender and enthralling, all the things Svetlana wasn’t. Svetlana showed the signs of age and maternity. She was curvy, laugh lines etched deep into her skin, blonde hair graying at the roots. Looking at Florence was like looking at a negative.

    “Y-you.” Florence stammered her reply, obviously taken aback by Svetlana’s presence.

    “So he didn’t bother to tell you my name?”

    “Why are you here?”

    “Don’t be naive” Svetlana said, sizing Florence up, hatred for herself seeming to grow in place of hatred for the other woman. “I’m here to get Anatoly back.”

    “Back where?” Florence asked, seeming to have gained her bearings in the conversation. “Russia? He has no love for that place-”

    “I don’t care where he goes. He can go to hell, for all I care.” Svetlana said, tucking her hair behind her ear, “What I mean is that I want him to remember who he is. Who he really is, not who he thinks he is.”

    “You want him to lose.”

    “Yes.”

    Florence paused, obviously lost in thought. “Come with me.” She said, turning and leading Svetlana out of the lobby and outside into the busy Bangkok streets.

    And Svetlana followed. “Why did we leave?”

    “I needed fresh air.” Florence said, and for some reason, Svetlana believed her. “What is your name?”

    “Svetlana.”

    “And you’re his wife.”

    “ Was his wife.” Svetlana said, hoping Florence wouldn’t notice her lie.

    And maybe she did, but she certainly didn’t say anything. “I don’t want him to win either.”

    Suddenly, the roaring cars and buses passing the duo on the street fell silent, and again, all that mattered in the vast and spinning world was what they said. It was odd, how the size of one’s reality shrunk and grew with their own fear. One moment. Svetlana felt alone and deserted in a city too smart for her, and another, she was drowning in the truth of a woman she was supposed to hate.

    “But you’re his second.”

    “I know.”

    “But the game--”

    “You’re the same as him.” Florence laughed, “Obsessed with the game. I suppose you’re caught up in the politics, too?”

    “No.” Svetlana protested, wounded by the comparison. “I just want to humble him.”

    “That won’t happen.” Florence said, “If that’s why you’re here, then you’ve wasted a trip.”

    “Why are you against him winning?” Svetlana couldn’t help her curiosity. Florence had been inseparable from Anatoly for the past year,

    “I-” The second paused. “Have my reasons. Molokov-- do you know him?”

    “He brought me here.”

    “I’m not surprised.” Florence looked at the street, then back at Svetlana. “Molokov is like Anatoly. He makes this so much bigger than it really is. He thinks he moves continents with his pieces, changes the world with his victories. He might be wrong about that, but he has knowledge that I need. So I am pitted against Anatoly.”

    Svetlana nodded, processing the information. “We’re fighting a losing battle, Florence.”

    “I know.”

   

    And so they parted ways, but not for long.