19 years ago:

‘Everything is like a pattern, Axalia. A repeated score of music.’

The salsa wrap gripped loosely in his firm fingers had grown cold from the winds after an autumnal shower, and the city smelled of wet soil, leaves and a slow evening.

Someone had kept the radio on, far away from the place they were sitting – and it had a strange, old tune playing that he couldn’t really place anywhere in his mind. But it was familiar, he had heard it before. On a day just like this one – after a long, monotonous rain.

Axalia’s clothes still clung to her body, making her look skinnier than she was. His own hair was damp, but there was a strange warmth exploding from his insides.

If only it had rained on and on.

She is rain, if I am summer.

Gerard took another bite of the wrap, though Axalia hadn’t touched hers yet. In this part of South America, the people were used to the heat, and the rain, and then the heat again.

Patterns.

‘If I love you, I wait for a period of time to see if the feelings are reciprocated. If yes, I ask you out. You agree. The date goes well, it brings much enthusiasm for the future. Then we have a fight – and for a moment, the persona dominates the mutual interest, and then, when the ego seems too small compared to what a beautiful thing we had together, I’m scared that I’d never taste it again, that I’d never fly. So I text you, to see if the feelings are still reciprocated. If yes, I ask you out.’

She wasn’t in the mood today, for some reason. She looked so morose.

‘It’s not always a cat and mouse game, Gerard.’

Finally, she’s spoken.

‘Then what is it?’ He asked her.

‘Have you ever thought beyond this point? I mean, dates and making out and all this? Have you ever thought of us as more than just fun? We could have a family together.’

He contemplated her for a moment, then broke into his handsome, boyish grin.

‘Of course. If we have a boy, I’m gonna call him Hendrix, if it’s a girl… Well, we’ll have to figure that out. Hendrix is a character I made in my early teens, he’s pretty awesome.’

She smiled wryly. This imaginary Hendrix had lightened her mood, it seemed, or maybe just given her assurance that he had dreamed of a future with her.

‘You create characters? You never told me that.’

‘Just one. I mean, I’m not Linus; spewing out batshit crazy characters and expecting people to believe in them. But then, he’s an asshole anyway.’

‘He’s twisted and selfish, yes. Has a God complex. But forget him – tell me about this Hendrix.’

‘Sure. Hendrix is all that I ever wanted to be, Axalia. Genius level intellect, and a confidence strong enough to subdue anything I’ve ever had to face. And he doesn’t have this knack of forever playing the good guy, like I do. He can become what he wants to – he always has a choice.’

‘Maybe our son will be as good as that one day, Gerard.’ Said Axalia, kissing him. Her lips were colder than he had imagined, and her wet, dark brown locks were icy against his skin.

‘Till then, I’m lucky to have you.’ The boy smiled.

 

30 years ago:

Linus Delvano was always in wonder.

He had huge, brown eyes – uncommon in the Miraflores district of Peru, and wavy black hair. He was only eight, but didn’t see the world through the eyes of a child – he could look beyond just colours and shapes and the fairytales of old Latin America.

It was all amazing – how the sun tipped beneath the sea in the twilight, or how the autumn breeze swished past the winding roads of Miraflores to pave way to the winter. He looked at people, and saw that when they spoke to each other, how their eyes wandered, and how, sometimes, they didn’t. He could tell people from their eyes – the hate and the love. All the other emotions, he was too young to understand.

He had just one friend in the shabbier part of the city – an elder sister who would give him cupcakes every time he visited her. But that was secondary.

He listened to her stories, mesmerised. She didn’t tell stories, she lived them, and she made him live them.

He even loved the way she called him.

‘Little Linus’.

Rhea was her name, and she was supposed to be in college, but something called ‘cancer’ had put her in bed for a long time. Her body was shrunken, and she couldn’t speak continuously for more than five minutes at a time.

‘Cherry.’ He called her, from her reddened lips.

Rhea Cherry.

What he liked most about her was that he never shooed him away, but patiently listened to all that he had to say.

‘No one plays with me. Their mothers tell them not to run around with me, because my mum drinks and does other stuff they won’t tell me. I tried to find out! But as always, she locked me upstairs, and a few other people joined her, and she turned up the TV’s volume.’

Rhea sighed, looking at the child with great pain in her eyes.

‘Did she start all that after your father left?’

Linus looked at her in anger.

‘She says that he’s a scumbag, but I don’t think so. I love dad, he took me to trips every weekend, and I swear he’s going to come back!’

‘I hope so too, sweetheart.’

‘But right now, you’re my only friend, Cherry. My best friend.’

Her features hardened, as he took his small hands in her own.

‘I’m going to die, Linus. Within this year.’

He looked at her, amazed, and in disbelief. It was too much for him to fathom. And then childish arrogance took over.

‘No, you’re not. You’re going to stay with me, Cherry. When I grow up, I’ll make you my queen!’

She held him in a frail embrace, maybe because this would be the only place he’d ever get it from.

‘I’ll never leave you. One day, your dad is going to come back, and your mom will be happier, and everything will be fine.’

The little boy believed her, hugging her back.

Rhea died within eight months of the incident, and was buried in the countryside of Miraflores.

Linus was present at her funeral, as the casket was being lowered. For the first time, he felt anger and hatred towards her.

You said that you’d never leave me.

And his father never came back either.

 

Present:

Hendrix was just about six feet, with his mother’s thick, dark brown hair and pale complexion. He had often been told how beautiful she was at thirty eight, and he didn’t feel particularly glad about it.

Maybe because Axalia never tried to put herself on display like most even at her age did. It was some sort of inner radiance, mixed with the loving dutifulness of motherhood.

Hendrix loved his mother, and that’s why he was worried about how she would react to the letter he held in his hands.

It had been printed on cream coloured paper with rich, purple ink and the golden logo of Tokyo University was embossed upon it.

It read:

 

Dear Hendrix(the name was written in hand, surprisingly)

It gives me great pleasure to inform you that you have successfully cleared the final round for Swan Song, accepted by most as the best drama and film festival for undergrads throughout the world.

 We here at Tokyo University are thrilled, this year, to host this programme during the summer for a period of forty five days, from 15th May to 30th June, during which you are expected to remain here and choose one of the many options of acting, scriptwriting, costume designing, directing or others(Please note that the number of vacancies in each category is fixed).

This year, Swan Song will have over 350 participants across the globe, of which, we encourage the teaming up of students from diverse cultures to give you a truly global experience. We have made arrangements with Universetario de Lima, Miraflores, to help you choose a date for arrival at Tokyo. Your travel and lodging expenses will be covered by our sponsors, Parker and Yales.

We await your arrival by 7th May latest for registration into the programme. Hope you have an amazing time here at Hokkaido, and may your team win!

 

All the very best,

Iskender Patel

Cultural coordinator, University of Tokyo.

 

Hendrix reread the letter some five times or so, although he had known of the results weeks ago from the website. So, it looked like he wouldn’t have to pay a dime.

But what would his mom say? And his dad?

He hated his dad like hell. There was something innately wrong about that man – his way of always accepting whatever came in his path, may it be right or wrong. That manner of bending down to fate – it angered him. Not once in his life had he seen the man talk to him in enthusiasm or spirit, or maybe help him make choices, or even grow passionate with his mother. Even the way he limped while walking marked him as the loser he was.

What infuriated Hendrix further was that that Axalia loved this man with her life, always looking after him when he so needed, or trying to lift the sorry excuse of a person from his ever – drowned mood.

What was he? Just some editor in a regional chain of magazines and advertisements. Maybe the job paid well enough for them to afford college for Hendrix, with his mother teaching the piano at a local high school, but in neither of them was any urge to rise up the ladder.

No ambition.

His father looked older than thirty eight, with his hair having greyed prematurely with wrinkles around his eyes, and always was absorbed in some intangible thought .

‘Do you know what it’s like to be a man? Do you think it’s easy?’ Hendrix had once asked him. ‘Do you think that laying back and doing nothing makes you one?’

His father had said nothing to the boy.

‘Hendrix, apologise. Now.’ Axalia said, clearly more hurt than angry.

Their apartment was not too spacious, and it had been a summer evening, with the humid heat of Miraflores.

Hendrix turned to Axalia.

‘I don’t know what you see in him, or why you married him in the first place, but a woman like you deserves someone ten times better, if not more.’

And he had stormed out. Surprisingly, his parents hadn’t reprimanded him for the outburst, as if it had never happened.

Sometimes, he wished that he had brothers and sisters.

 

 

‘No, this I cannot allow.’

Hendrix was stunned, for he had never seen more determination in his father’s eyes than now, as they scanned the letter. His mother nodded in quiet agreement.

‘I’m the best background score composer in this university – you know that. I’ve done over 40 assignments.’

‘I understand, honey,’ Axalia said, ‘but Swan Song isn’t happening here, and Japan is far off. You certainly can’t go there. Why don’t you try out your luck here in America? Maybe brush up your skills for a couple of years? You’re just over eighteen.’

‘Are you insane?! Do you understand what kind of an opportunity this is? I get to meet the best in the world! And, in case you’re wondering, it’s written there, you don’t have to pay a cent. It’ll be covered by – ‘

‘Money is not the issue here, Hendrix,’ his father said quietly, reclining on the sofa, wiping sweat off his brow. ‘We want you safe, that is all.’

Hendrix got up.

‘Did you seriously say that to me? This is Tokyo, not Kandahar, for Christ’s sake! I mean, safety? Honestly, are you kidding me?’

His dad stood up as well, though he wasn’t as tall as his son.

‘You’re not going. That is all. If you’re going to be a great composer, you will become so here.’

‘What makes you think that I’ll listen to you? What have you ever done for me, you old man? In kindergarten, it was mom who walked me to school. When I scratched my knee as a child, playing, my mom put on the bandages. When I needed a prep school for university, my mom looked up the catalogue with me and got me admitted into one. What the bloody fuck have you ever done for me, to say this?’

The man looked at him blankly, and his mother stepped up.

Hendrix clearly saw her hand making an arc in mid–air and connecting with his left cheek, but he made no effort to stop her. The sound resonated across the flat.

‘Don’t you ever say anything like that to him, you understand? Ever!!’

But his fury was too great, and the stinging on his skin still fresh.

‘The ideal wife, aren’t you? Always on your feet, defending him? What has he ever done for you? Bored of you, was he, after he finished fucking you and I was born?’

Hendrix stopped, realising he had said something that would scar her, as tears began forming at the corners of her eyes.

‘Hendrix, sit down, my boy. Sit down.’

The trance broke, as his father’s calm voice beckoned him to take a seat. He wanted anything but calmness now. Maybe another slap, or a couple of them. He felt overwhelmingly guilty.

His mother began to cry earnestly, and his dad took her in his arms.

‘Axalia, we must tell him. This was bound to happen.’

She said nothing, just wept on his chest.

Hendrix wanted to apologise immediately, but his curiosity was aroused.

‘Tell me what, exactly?’

He made her sit on the sofa beside himself, and looked directly at the boy.

‘You need to know something that happened to us nineteen years ago, which is why we’re asking you not to participate in this festival. What you hear might change your opinions of us, or yourself. So, are you prepared?’

 

19 years ago; Universetario de Lima, Miraflores:

The Pawn’s Proposal:

Gerard Martinez was by nature a winner, just about six feet tall, with auburn hair ,almond eyes and a clearly cut face. He was perhaps the most handsome boy this city had to offer, and he saw to it that his looks were not wasted upon meagre matters.

He was an actor, and certainly not an actor who would play a character in the spur of a moment. He needed rehearsals, research and a lot of time alone to get into the mind of the person he was about to portray.

It was not that he had heard of method acting beforehand – it simply seemed to him that there could exist no other way to act.

Though the university’s film and drama wing did not possess the reputation of the science courses, he knew that this was his passion, and that he should pursue it.

Universetario de Lima is pretty massive according to Latin American standards, and most students here don’t opt for the dorms, leaving them largely empty and open for free use by students. Spanning over what could in yesteryears be called an estate, it’s college buildings were open, and quite state of the art.

Gerard was in an empty classroom, trying to analyse Marlon Brando in his smartphone, which was a storehouse of short acting clips, when another person interrupted him.

‘Hey there!’ The guy said awkwardly, a smile on his lips. He was massive – tall and round, with a nervous twitching of his right eyelids and black eyes.

‘Franco!’ exclaimed Gerard, shaking the man by the hand, ‘it’s so good to see you again. Did you join this  year?’

‘Yeah, I transferred colleges, actually. My family moved from Sau Paulo this year. And how’re you?’

‘Not bad, except, you know, my dad’s the way he was – obnoxious, totally. But you’ve certainly gained plenty of pounds!’

Franco’s  Spanish wasn’t as fluent as Gerard’s, but he could express himself well nonetheless. The two of them were together in highschool, until Franco had to move to Brazil with his family.

‘So, well, dude, I wanted to talk about something that’s important. See, there’s a new drama competition that’s going to get started this year, and it’s called Swan Song, and I need to –‘

‘Wait. Swan Song? Doesn’t that mean the end of things?’

‘Well, yes, it’s kinda intriguing that way, but from what I know – because this started in Brazil, and the creators are pretty ambitious – this Swan Song or ‘last flight’ means that while you perform or stage your play, it must be as if it’s your very last. You must give it your all, or die trying – something like that.’

‘And who came up with this idea in the first place?’

Franco scratched his head.

‘Well, there was this girl back in Sau Paulo – Taynara- you could call her more of a snake than a girl, probably, and she had a dream of getting her theatre group to be the best in the world. She had friends- rich friends- and they helped her set up this competition, calling it ‘Swan Song’, and then they found the ideal place for the first round – here, in Miraflores, because everything’s so cheap here compared to the rest of the continent.’

‘How many teams are there?’

‘I dunno – Twelve, I guess? Thirteen? I mean, it’s just an initial stage, a prototype. But whoever wins the first round here, gets to go to Sau Paulo, where there are going to be subsequent rounds – and they’ll be calling better judges, calling teams from Europe and the States – maybe even Asia.’

‘And you want this university to participate in this global platform? I mean, we hardly have good people here.’

‘My point precisely! This university hasn’t fared anywhere well in theatrics in the last decade, though we have a club for that, with some fifteen people or so. But that’s specifically the problem – there are no talented people! Just mediocre who didn’t entry into any other club.’

Gerard nodded.

‘That’s true. So what’s your plan?’

‘Whatever that goes for this competition needs to be original – we can’t do a Shakespeare in an alternate universe or something. So I need a team of competent people – no, fuck that – a team of geniuses, literally – who can deal with this like professionals.’

‘Franco, anyone who’s known you would agree that you’ve got genius level directing skills – you’ve been at it since ten, I guess – I remember that ant short film that got an award in the fourth grade.’

Franco sighed.

All he wanted to do in his life was to give a graphic interpretation to a story, and therefore he chose stories that were visually stimulating – that didn’t deal too much with matters of the heart or excessive monologue. He had been through a whole pile of scripts and rummaged through scores of books to pen down a story that could actually be genuinely original yet highly capable of being dramatised.

He had been lauded for his talent in Brazil, but he knew that the Brazilians focused on making movies that were much too carnal – maybe the heat and sands of the place made the people there crazy about sex. He wanted a movie that could put forward an original idea.

And then he realised that he was just a director who needed a good script. And a good script came from a good scriptwriter.

‘Thank you, and I could say the same of you, Gerard, when it comes to acting. You’re the best. So, here’s my plan – I want to assemble a team of six geniuses who can take us far ahead of the competition than any other opponent.

There’s you, the actor, and me, the director.

I’ve found a girl who’s just as talented as you – department of history – called Nadezhda Pameira – who could play the lead opposite to you.’

‘Whoa.. her? She’s  the girl every guy hits upon here, and we dated back in first year.’

‘Doesn’t matter, really, Gerard. Will that relationship affect your performance?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Good. There’s a certain Axalia D’cruz – pianist – who will create the background music, heard she has some software skills as well. Then comes the costume and prop designer – a Celestine Aritza, that dreamy kind of person who’s accepted by everyone here as an art prodigy. Just that she spaces out much too often.’

‘I’ve heard of both of these people. They’re really good.’

Franco agreed enthusiastically.

‘So, finally, comes the last guy, who’ll be writing the scripts – and from the looks of it, only one person here is capable of taking up the mantle. Department of Classical literature – Linus Delvano.’

For the first time, Gerard frowned.

‘You sure about this, Franco? I’ve heard that this guy – talented as he might be- is sort of cold and condescending. I mean, everybody tries to stay out of his way.’

‘So have I heard as well. But I’ve seen his blog – the guy is bloody good.’

‘That’s there.’

‘Besides, Gerard, Linus is just the scriptwriter. He writes the thing, and off he goes. We execute the matter ourselves – the people you’ll mainly be with would be the shabby dozen from the theatrics club here, Nadezhda, Axalia and of course, me.’

‘That’s settled, then, old friend. A team of six geniuses for the Swan Song. Hope it works out.’

‘I intend to call it the Chessboard.’

‘And why’s that?’

‘You know, six pieces, just like in a Chessboard. The king, the queen, the knight, the bishop, the rook, and the pawn. It all fits. I’m the pawn.’

‘That’s an interesting logic,’ Gerard chuckled, ‘ But why the pawn, though?’

‘I’ll protect the five of you – the five most incredibly gifted people in Miraflores – I’ve always thought of it that way. And you will go and conquer.’

‘That’s good. In that case, which piece am I, Franco?’

‘The king, Gerard. You could never be anything else.’

 

 

The Rook:

Celestine Aritza had been thinking over Franco Huamani’s proposal, though it had been difficult to say yes at first. The boy was so full of energy, and she lacked it altogether.

Even now, driving past the limits of the city, the scenery grew darker and more desolate, with nothing but shrubs and bushes lining a disused road that led to the abandoned carnival.

The carnival in Miraflores happened every year in autumn, just before winter approached, and when she was a child, she’d be one of the first to visit it. The main circus tent would be stationed at the centre, with auxiliary shops and candy stores circling it. Just beside them would be the rides – sometimes horror tunnels if the owners could manage.

It was always the happiest time of the year, with the pleasant winds of the sea and the falling golden leaves. Strangely enough, the circus just stopped six years ago, that too midway. Nobody knew the reason, but they left the skeletons of the tents and shops behind as they went, never to come back.

With them gone, and a forlorn hope each year to return, the place turned into an eerie memory.

Nobody really spoke of the circus of Miraflores anymore, save a few hushed whispers.

And that was where Franco Huamani had called them. The Six, as he had said ostentatiously.

Wouldn’t a simple coffee shop have been better?

She parked her car in the abandoned parking lot, seeing that there were four others as well. There were weeds growing through the grounds, and the weather seemed too cold for autumn.

Celestine walked over, with a sliver of hope that maybe this would land her somewhere better. Maybe she would be noticed – and she could travel to the place she had always believed to be the hub of digital art.

The far east. Hokkaido, more like.

The only tent that had a faint light in it also had flickering shadows over the dirty, stained cloth.

 

‘Come in!’ Said Franco with enthusiasm, as Celestine looked for a place to sit.

There were no seats. Two girls and two boys, plus Franco himself, were on a cemented pedestal that was probably used by the magicians.

‘So there, we have the six. Nice spot here, isn’t it? Has that old world feel to it, like an era that’s been long forgotten.’

Celestine looked around her.

Nadezhda Pameira looked inquisitively at Franco, her black locks elegant in the dim light, the shadows making her cheekbones seem higher. She looked more beautiful than ever.

Axalia D’cruz, of whom she had heard once or twice, looked at the ground nervously. She was skinny, with a flaxen jacket over her.

Gerard Martinez was his confident, handsome self, nodding at her with some warmth in his eyes, the auburn hair flaming over his head.

There was another person – completely engulfed in the shadows of the tent, as if the darkness had taken a form for itself. She could barely make out his silhouette save that he was taller than them all, maybe except Gerard. This guy must be Linus Delvano.

‘Guys, I hope you know why you’ve been called here tonight, and I’m glad that you’ve agreed to give my proposal a consideration. Should this succeed, this would prove to be a quantum leap in your respective – ‘

‘Cut the shit, Franco. We haven’t got all night.’ Gerard said in a bored voice.

‘I agree.’ Nadezhda nodded. ‘When is the first staging?’

Franco sighed.

‘Forty five days from now. Okay, then, coming straight to the point, I want a place to practice, and probably the university grounds would be good enough for that. I head the drama club there, so, for accessory characters and help in setting or making the props, we’ll have people. What you need to understand is that you five, and me, are the pillars to our success in Swan Song. If the play is good, we get to tour South America, starting with Brazil. If it’s a hit again, who knows, maybe the whole world? And trust me, we will have an amazing play, because I believe in all of you.’

Nadezhda broke into a smile, and Axalia looked hopeful, as Gerard went and shook Franco by the hand.

‘So, people, I’d like to formally introduce you to each other –‘

‘I don’t like all this zeal before the job is done.’

The five of them turned to the darkness from which the voice emanated. It took the form of a boy with cold, brown eyes, and a smirk on his face. The voice was sharp, and cold, with a certain degree of mirth.

‘You really can’t stage a play in forty five days without a month’s rehearsals, that too assuming that a plausible script is prepared in a span of a fortnight. And the fact that you believe that you will be able to realise this idea is hallucinatory, won’t you say?’

Even the pitch of that voice made Celestine’s insides turn cold with an unknown dread.

What they say of Linus Delvano is true, then. A carcass of ice.

Franco fumbled with an answer, so Gerard came in between him and Linus.

‘Prepare a script, then. Something that lasts an hour and a half.’ He said tersely.

‘And you think that is easy?’

‘No. But it’s what the others are getting as well. Looks like a fair trade.’

‘A bad script may be enacted well with good actors, which is to say, the others may have better actors as well, which takes away your presumed fairness.’

Gerard clenched his teeth, looking down upon Linus.

‘Just as they might have better scriptwriters.’

‘Enough!’  Exclaimed Franco. ‘This is just an effort to give them the best version of what we produce, so please don’t bring comparison into question. And yes, in a manner, Linus has a point. We need the script prepared within two weeks, and the theme this time is just one word: “Opposites”. As soon as the writing is done, you, Celestine, will begin designing the costumes – don’t worry, the university will pay for most of the stuff anyway, from the money that flows into our club. Then, we can begin the rehearsals.’

‘There’s no network on my phone.’ Said Celestine, grimacing.

‘Yeah, exactly. Can’t make calls, and no internet.’ Nadezhda added.

‘This place is like that,’ said Franco, ‘ It’s a sad thing. Now the reason I brought you all here is because very soon, this place is going to be renovated. The play will be staged somewhere here for us, and a couple of other teams, which would include the host, as I came to know recently.’

‘That’s cool. Looking forward to it,’ Gerard smiled, now turning to Linus. ‘And you,’ he said jovially,’ you’d better give me an amazing character.’ He extended his hand.

Linus made no effort to shake it.

‘No character is amazing or deplorable – your ability or inability to portray it makes you opinionate upon it. And a truly good actor is never opinionated.’

And he left, leaving the five of them in the gloomy shadows.

‘What exactly is the problem with him?’ Gerard asked, looking at Celestine.

‘He’s just an asshole. Everyone knows that.’ She said.

They began to leave, one by one. Axalia, who had spoken nothing at all throughout the evening, took her satchel, and Gerard saw that there was a sheaf of music staff paper poking out of it.

There were just the two of them, and it was pretty awkward.

‘Hi.’ Gerard said, looking at her.

She shoved her brown locks away from her face, her fingers almost covered in her sleeves.

There was a strange innocence in those chocolate eyes, though the twitching of her eyelids was unnatural.

‘H-Hi there,’ she said clumsily, staring at the ground. ‘Nice to meet you.’

It was perplexing as to why she seemed so scared of him – he certainly did not look intimidating, in fact, quite the opposite, as girls throughout his life had made him believe.

‘Well, I noticed that you didn’t say anything all this time. So.. um… do you agree to all this?’

She looked at him, kind of in awe.

‘Yes, I’ll try my best.  I’ve heard of you a lot, Mr. Gerard Martinez.’

‘Whoa – what? You don’t have to call me mister! It’s just Gerard, Axalia.’

‘Oh – ‘ she looked at him with her huge brown eyes,’ my brother always asked me to address –‘

She stopped midway, stepping away from him. Her face came into the dim streetlight above the tent.

There were dark circles beneath her eyes. Without them, she’d barely look like a girl of sixteen, leave alone her own age. She was surprisingly thin and frail, with hair that reached up to her upper back.

Her face was strangely attractive – something otherworldly, beyond the comparison of beauty normal people are accustomed to, with signs of fragility all over it.

Fragility.

Strength, he could crush easily – he was a strong man, but this sense of fragility was something he had no idea how to face. Just seeing her there – delicate, on the verge of breaking, made him feel that he had no power left – that his weakness was weakness.

‘If you don’t want to speak of it, that’s alright.’

He noticed that all the cars were gone, save his own.

‘How would you go home, Axalia?’

She fidgeted with her sleeves.

‘I’ll walk a bit from here, and take a bus, I guess.’

‘I’ll give you a ride home. Come.’

She looked at him in a strange surprise. He noticed that her fingers were shaking in an odd manner.

‘You-you don’t have to. I’ll go alone. Thank you, though.’

By then, he saw the first drop of rain hit the skin of the tent above him.

Now, she would have to agree.

 

The place she lived in was in the other end of the city, and looked a bit run-down.

‘Thank you.’ She said again, attempting a smile.

‘Don’t mention it. May I ask you something, Axalia?’

She nodded, twisting a strand of hair on her forehead.

‘Why do your fingers shake when you’re speaking? Or your eyelids? I’m sorry if it’s personal – you don’t have to answer if it is.’

Axalia sighed in relief, as if she was anticipating something else.

‘I’ve an anxiety disorder, and my nerves are weak. The only time everything’s okay is when I’m on the piano.’

‘Maybe you should consult a doctor.’

She shook her head, staring at the ground.

‘I can’t afford one. Goodnight, and thank you for the ride.’

As she left, Gerard practically wanted to hit himself for being a jackass.

Why the fuck did I ask that question? Why?!

He would find her the next day at university, and apologise to her.

 

 

She who holds the candlesticks:

Nadezhda Pameira  parked her car behind Linus Delvano’s, though he had long left it for the bar that was another street ahead. The roads here in Miraflores were far too narrow to allow vehicles to pass.

For the first time in many years, she had a hint of an interest for a person.

Everyone who knew her well enough called her Nady, because her original name was far too long to pronounce and remember. Her father had been a communist at heart, swept by the tide of socialism that had hit Latin America, and named his only daughter after the wife of Lenin, Nadezhda Krupskaya.

She didn’t like her name particularly, because of the Soviet feel to it, but Nady was just fine.

The bizarre lighting of this part of the city always hurt her eyes, though she was almost a regular here. One of her resolutions for the year had been to reduce her consumption of alcohol, but like most resolutions, it was deserted midway.

This bar and restaurant, particularly, was slightly different. Unlike the entirely public space for use, it had a partitioned drinking ground and separate dining chambers behind the counter, for customers who would like privacy. She had been to them with a few guys before, and things had escalated quickly.

If her father would have been alive still, he would brand her a whore, surely, but at this point of life, even repentance was futile.

Nady took a seat a bit far away from Linus Delvano, who seemed to pay no attention to the people all around him, absorbed deeply in staring at his plate of Feijoada.

‘Hey Nady!’ someone said from behind her – probably one of her friends – and she waved without looking. After the third shot of whisky, it seemed good enough for her to go and talk to him.

‘Hey there,’ Nady said, the heat of the room making her slightly nauseous.

Linus looked up at her, frowning. Cold as he might be, being approached by a beautiful woman was always disarming.

‘Oh, hi.’ He said curtly, fiddling with his fork.

Nady sat down beside him – thinking it might bring him discomfort, causing him to backlash at her.

Linus said nothing, just took a forkful of meat and began chewing it. He was not unattractive, from his lean appearance, but those brown eyes were amazingly expressive – as if trying to resist a violent depression every moment.

‘This theme – Opposites, what are you going to write about it?’

He looked at her in scepticism.

‘What’s the point of telling you now? You’ll come to know of it eventually anyway.’

She nodded, as some other people asked her to join the dance floor, taking a few more shots. Today was indescribably hot, she could feel her shirt sticking up to her back.

‘You’re interesting, Linus. I’ve never seen another guy stand up to Gerard that way. He’s like a god.’

‘Every god needs a devil to counter him.’

‘You certainly don’t look like a devil to me. Never seen you sin – at least not here.’

Linus clenched his fist – looking up at her. There was some primal anger in his eyes she couldn’t fathom.

‘Your sins might not be my sins.’

The world was spinning around her now.

‘Oh fuck, Delvano – you can’t-fucking – imagine – how much I’ve sinned. I mean, you should know that – I’m always with one guy or the other, don’t you ever see it?’

He said nothing, just looked at her in condescension. It angered her even more.

‘Nowadays, I don’t even want to go home, because just the look of it is so horrid, and the silence – that bloody silence. And when I do, the first thing I do is lock myself up in my room and turn the TV’s volume to maximum.’

For the first time, the look of hatred vanished from his eyes, replaced by one of shock, and then she felt a tug on her arm to get her on the dance floor. The alcohol was making her dizzy, and this other guy – did she know him?

She couldn’t remember… she couldn’t remember.

Someone kissed her on the lips, and she broke into violent coughs, her vision completely blank now. How many shots had it been?

Nady felt her body being dragged, almost, to the door – and  suddenly, the dragging stopped. Whoever was handling her body roughly had retreated, and the atmosphere was completely silent.

I’m going to be sick.

Her vision returned, and she could make out the faces of a few people, utterly intimidated, by a certain person who was holding her in his arms.

‘Leave her alone.’

It seemed godlike – or devilish, to her – how a single person could face a crowd without a trace of fear.

A few moments later, Nady threw up, and her senses rushed back to her.

She was in a back alley behind the bar, drenched in sweat, and someone was gently patting her back. He was taller than her… and… black hair… and then she passed out.

 

Nadezhda woke up the next day in the same clothes as she was in the last night, accompanied by a searing headache. Surprisingly, she was in a clean, purple bedsheet, in a room she had never seen before. It looked recently whitewashed and so utterly clean.

There was practically no furniture, except the bed a small teatable with a chair. At the corner was a bookcase, with volumes she had never seen before, and a small balcony from where the diffused sunlight poured in.

Her throat burned with thirst, and she gupled down some water from the jug on the table.

Now, where am I?

Isaac Asimov, Authur C. Clarke, Jack Vance, Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert…

Nope, none of the authors on the shelf rang a bell either.

I passed out, and then something happened.

Nady unbolted the door, to see a narrow staircase going down, made of wood. Further below, the hall was huge, but just as scanty, with large, lined bookshelves and a table that seemed to serve the purpose of both dining and studying. A person was sitting on a sofa, his back to her, working on his laptop.

‘Excuse me?’ Nady said timidly.

‘So you’ve woken up,’ said Linus, without looking back, ‘if you’re feeling well, you’re welcome to leave.’

This would’ve made her angry, but her head hurt a lot, and she sat down beside him.

‘Is this your house, Linus?’

‘Hmm.’

She nodded, looking at the filthy state of her clothes, sniffing at her sleeves. They had the reek of alcohol.

Linus looked at her again.

‘There’s something I need to tell you, Nadezhda, and it is that you may go out whenever you want at night, and fuck whoever you want – I don’t care. But for the drinking – I’d advise you to control it. All it does is harm.’

‘Why did you bring me here last night?’

‘Isn’t it obvious? Your face had gone white, and you were choking, almost. Besides… leave it.’

‘No, tell me. What?’

‘Your friends looked crazed with lust.’

‘My friends? I couldn’t even recognise those people!’

Linus shrugged. Nady put her hand on his shoulder.

‘Thanks a lot for that.’

‘It’s not about you,’ he scowled,’ I just remembered someone else who was, kinda, like you once. I don’t want you to take her path, that’s all. It’d be a shame.’

Nady rubbed her eyes with her hands.

‘Was she your ex or something?’

Linus looked at her in a grim, unsmiling face.

‘No.’

He expected her to go away, but Nady looked at him directly this time.

‘Was she your mother?’

The cold composure went out once again, as if in a freezing shock. For the first time she had seen him, Linus looked afraid. And then the steel got back in again.

‘Leave, please. I’ve kept you in my house for far too long.’

Nady looked at him, not in resentment but with a strange compassion in her eyes.

‘I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you. Didn’t mean to. My mother died too when I was young – I know how it feels.’

Linus got up.

‘No, you don’t.’ He said, pointing to the door.

Nady nodded, feeling the keys of her car in her pocket. It must have been parked downtown all night.

‘You know Linus, you’re a good person trying so hard to be bad.’

And she left.

 

 

The next time Gerard Martinez met Axalia D’cruz was in the cafeteria of the university. She always chose corner spots that would attract very little attention, and kept on fiddling with the lined papers, occasionally putting in a strange mark or two with a stub of a pencil.

‘How’re you, Axalia?’  Gerard sat down opposite to her, much to her surprise.

‘I’m good,’ she said in a low tone, ‘and you?’

‘I’m fine as well. See, the other night, it just slipped out of me – ‘

‘It’s fine,’ she said, staring at her coffee and its translucent vapours, ‘it was kind of you.’

‘Oh, good.’

She said nothing, and the weather seemed amiable for the onset of a very cold winter.  Her hands were smaller compared to his, and there was a lock of hair near the nape of her neck – and the skin there was almost pink, and he wondered how soft it could be.

Restrain yourself.

‘Are you composing something, by the way?’ Gerard asked, his pulse now slightly erratic.

‘Oh, yes,’ her chocolate eyes were suddenly alight, ‘something for the rain that showers in the autumn. The quiet afternoons, and the swaying grasses in the evening winds. Isn’t it wonderful?’

‘Of course. And when can I hear it?’ He asked, smiling.

Her fingers started trembling just like before.

‘I don’t know. You can come to the piano room sometime later, maybe. It’s empty most of the time, and it’s on the top floor right wing. Near the store cupboards and all.’

‘Alright. And have you thought about your piece on the Chessboard?’

‘I’m sorry, miste-I’m sorry, Gerard, but I can’t do that until I get the script.’

‘I didn’t mean a piece of composition. I meant the piece you’ll represent in the team. Like, Franco is the pawn, or Celestine chose to be the Rook, as she later told him.’

Axalia looked down again, frowning.

‘Anything is good. I’d be glad if you chose something for me, after you’ve chosen one for yourself.’

‘ I will, of course. So, tell me about yourself, Axalia.’

‘There’s really nothing to say.’

‘That can’t be true. There sure must be something. For example – I’m the son of a retired Colonel who fought in the civil war, and the guy is an douchebag.’

Axalia looked at him, confused.

‘Are you comfortable in saying that to me? It might be private.’

Taking a deep breath, Gerard took a tiny hand of hers in his, trying to do it as genially as possible, to mark it as camaraderie rather than an advancement of love. He felt her body jolt back, but his grip was firm. It was probable that she hadn’t expected a boy as sought after as himself to harbour even the mildest of interests in her.

‘Privacy is a shady term, Axalia. Many times, we try to hide the wrongs done to us, citing privacy – thereby, ironically, twisting the term itself, because privacy is meant to protect us from wrongdoing. If I’d had to face abuse, why should I hide from the world, using a veil of privacy to protect the person who’s harming me? That’s fucking cowardice.’

The girl stared at him with her innocent, wide eyes, digesting the piece of logic.

‘Will you come to the piano room sometime, Gerard? I’d like to tell you a few things – of course if it’s not… um… boring for you, because – ‘

‘It will never be. You can tell me anything you like, I’m not going to judge you.’

She smiled genuinely this time, giving his hand a soft pat.

‘See you.’ She said, visibly red, leaving behind a half-finished cup of coffee.

I could bet all my money that she’s never gone out with a guy before.

Gerard chuckled, taking the cup and draining it himself. No, there wasn’t any mark of a lip gloss. This girl probably didn’t even use make-up.

The Queen, he thought. The Queen by my side – that’s your piece.

 

The rooftop is always empty in Universetario de Lima – and so was it that day, only the boundless blue sky with its salty sea breeze swept the white clouds.

The roof had just one entrance – and a lot of free area in front of it.

‘Knew I would find you here, loner.’ Nady said, between short, exasperated breaths. ‘And I’m the Bishop, get it? I’ve decided to quit drinking – so I’m the holy girl now.’

‘Go away.’ Said Linus, scowling at her, while typing on his laptop.

‘No.’ She said sharply, ‘tell me, what’s your piece?’

‘The knight.’

‘Hundred bucks you stole the idea from The Dark Knight.’

Linus looked at her, and there was admiration in his glance.

‘I’m writing the script – it’s done halfway.’

‘That’s cool,’ she said, sitting down beside him, ‘what’s it about?’

Linus had, while carrying her up the stairs, noticed how beautiful Nady was, but his hatred for alcohol had kept him from appreciating it, but now, with her face inches from his, there was a strange stirring in his insides he hadn’t felt before.

Restrain yourself.

‘In some little town of England, centuries ago, when the moon would still be low and the darkness would put the people of the countryside in their homes by twilight, there was a gravedigger.

His work would begin when the fields would be deserted, and he would work all night for the funeral days later, which he could never see.

Now night after night, he worked here, thinking how his money helped him give a better life to his wife and children, whom he wouldn’t get to see, for they left before he came home in morning and returned after he left for the night.

One day, he meets a woman there, passing by in a solitary carriage, who asks him why he’s engaged in this profession, when even a guy who piles horse dung in a stable has a happier life. He says that he wants his family to live happily, and he brings the extra clothing and jewellery buried with the corpses for his wife.

The woman smiles, and tells him that the only constancy in life is death, and death poisoned by betrayal is even worse. The man is lured by the idea of death, and every night, the woman tells him of all that which lies beyond – the eternal calm and peace, the garden under the stark moonlight.

The man, who wanted to live, becomes quite the opposite now, because the calling of death makes him see the purposelessness and filth in the world – he falls in love with this mysterious woman who comes to him every day. He goes back and discovers about his promiscuous wife and wasted children – and in time, he murders them all.

Then, when he’s completely smitten by this woman, he sees that she arrives only on nights someone is buried, and that she is death herself. And finally, in that final moment of fear, he wants to cling to his sorry life – but then there’s nothing left for him. Nothing.

The next week, a new gravedigger comes to work at the same place, digging beside a fresh grave, and a middle-aged man, much like himself, comes to see him, accompanied by a strange woman.’

Nady looked at him, slightly scared.

‘I’ll have to play this woman, I guess?’

‘Yes, and Gerard will have to be the gravedigger. These two occupy ninety percent of the time – we just need good props and music otherwise.’

‘Don’t you think it’s a bit nihilistic?’

‘Everything I ever write is, Nadezhda.’

 

 

The top floor had always been empty, even during freshman year, and Gerard could hear the music from the stairs.

She plays like the falling rain.

It was incredulous that he should fall for a girl like Axalia – she was very pretty, but not quite endowed when it came to the body, quiet, timid and always trying to hide something from him. He had dated a variety of girls before – the best of the lot being Nady herself – and never imagined developing feelings for any sort that was not physically gorgeous. Guess with the human mind, one can never tell.

The room itself had huge, transparent windows, and the grounds looked so green and small from here. Axalia continued playing for a few minutes more.

‘I’m glad that you came, Gerard. Almost no one comes here.’

‘It’s a serene place – this one. I’d like to come here often, if you wouldn’t mind. The music is so sweet, and so are you.’

She looked at him, blushing and confused, her fingers shaking frantically.

Gerard sighed, holding her hand in his firm grip.

‘There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just calm down.’

She clasped his fingers and looked at his well-built torso, then turned her eyes to the ground.

‘No,’ he said, kneeling down to her level, for she was seated. ‘Look at me. Why do you keep turning down, there’s nothing there.’

‘I..’ She began in a small voice, and gulped. ‘You’re a very nice person, Gerard.’

He broke into a smile.

‘See? That was so much better. May I sit down?’

‘Sure. The chairs are a bit scrambled here and there. I’ll bring you one.’

He sat down on it, though it looked rickety.

‘So, well, tell me about yourself, Axalia.’

She shifted uncomfortably in the seat beside the piano.

‘I’m orphaned – orphaned before I was three, I guess. Then my big brother brought me up, and when I was eleven – a few guys came looking for him, and they took him away. That was the last I saw of him. Ever since, um… I’m trying to do stuff on my own.’

Gerard was shocked.

‘That’s horrible. You never went to the police? Never tried to find him?’

‘He was in the police force. And yes, never tried.’

‘Why?’

Axalia looked at him, for the first time, directly in the eyes. There was rage in them.

‘Because I never wanted to see his face again. He beat me at his leisure, forced me to take drugs – which damaged my nerves, and used a kitchen knife on me once. There are scars on my back.

Weeks later, they said that they had found a body that resembled him, but I just didn’t care.’

Gerard didn’t know what to say. He just patted her back – he had heard stories of abuse before, but not many as gruesome as this one.

‘Everything will be alright, Axalia. Try to see the brighter side of things.’

She nodded, shoving away a dark brown lock from her face.

He wanted to hold her in his arms, maybe brush his lips against hers – but none of those were going to work on her, he knew.

She wasn’t a girl who would be wooed by those cheap measures.

‘Would you have coffee with me tomorrow, in the evening?’ He asked.

‘Where?’

‘I don’t know – anywhere where they brew it well, What matters is your company.’

‘I would love to. Thank you.’

I think I’m in love with you. Should I say it? Should I try?

Nah.

And Gerard smiled and left.

 

 

Linus Delvano certainly didn’t expect Nady, as Nadezhda had directed him to address her, to come around again the next evening on the rooftop.

‘Do you sit here all day? I mean, don’t you have classes and all?’

Linus sighed. He didn’t want to be angry with her – it was a queer thing.

‘I don’t like people.’

‘And why’s that? You wrote something in your blog about the vengeance in afterlife – it was good. People were talking about it – in fact, some might compliment you regarding that, if you show up at the writing club.’

‘Do you like compliments, Nady?’

She shrugged.

‘Not particularly fond of the cheesy ones, but for plain praises – who doesn’t? It really lifts up one’s mood, that’s for sure.’

Linus shut his laptop, looking sceptical.

‘I dunno… Whenever I got a compliment, it seemed that they were mocking me in a roundabout manner.’

‘What – are you crazy? People say good things when they feel good – I mean, you’re a writer, come on! You, of all people should be able to separate out those little emotions.’

‘But so can you, Nady. You’re the best actress this university has ever seen.’

Nady looked at him, speechless. Then she broke into a girlish smile.

‘See? You just complimented me, and it was so damn awesome! Was there any mockery? Absolutely not!’

‘Um, thanks.’

‘No, thank you!’

‘You’re the first person here I did that to. Just saying.’

Nady nodded, eyeing him with some mischief in her eyes.

‘I didn’t bring my car today, I’ll have to take the bus.’

‘Same here.’ Said Linus.

‘What kind of a man are you? Take me home.’

He thought upon her proposal for a moment, and then reluctantly agreed.

‘Yeah, well, I’m finished with the story anyway. Maybe you’d like to listen on the way?’

‘I would love to. Thank you.’

 

 

‘This is bigger than I expected,’ said Linus, looking at the pale pink walls of the apartment that was stuffed with a dining table with some canned food, a sofa set with wrinkled covers and cutlery that was cluttered all over the porcelain plates. The television set, hooked to the wall, looked the freshest of the lot, since the window glass had a coating of the autumn dust.

‘This sofa is good to have sex on.’ Nady said lazily, ‘ see how plump it is? You can get the requisite bounce during the thrusts.’

The boy almost choked on something he was about to say.

‘That is extraordinary.’ He said dryly.

‘Such an austere face. Why, don’t you like it, once in a while?’

‘Sex in real life has never fascinated me as much as when scripted on paper.’

‘I know why.’

‘You do?’ He almost smirked.

‘That’s because you’ve never had any.’

She saw the anger building up in his eyes, and she patted him on his chest lightly.

‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes, I regret all this.’

‘Really?’ He said. ‘I thought you enjoyed this lifestyle – the freedom of the entire matter.’

‘That’s not true. You live alone as well – there’s just as much freedom.’

‘Then why do you regret it?’

‘You know, I wanted it to just.. click.. with someone. That never happened- I’ve just been searching and searching, and now even the simple acts of love seem so practised and strenuous that I’m beginning to lose interest. But true love must exist- centuries of evidence prove that it does- then where am I going wrong? I’m just acting all the time – in fact, I think I’m losing the person I am into this hobby altogether. Now even being myself looks like another role in the script.’

‘Then you might need a scriptwriter. Someone who could write your role for you, so that it’s effortless acting.’

‘Yeah..’ Nady said… ‘Wait! Wait there!!’

Linus smiled, after quite a long time. How much? A year? Two?

‘Did you just propose to me?’ She said, the blush creeping up to her cheeks.

‘Then you understand subtlety. That’s commendable.’

I feel happier than I should – what’s with this guy?

‘You’re weird,’ said Nady. ‘But clever.’

‘Uh, yes, I guess so. So, now, would you listen to the story?’

‘Yes. It’s actually a feat that you finished it in four days – it was supposed to be fourteen.’

‘Thank you. You didn’t answer, though.’

‘Answer what?’

‘Whether it’s a yes or a no.’

Nady shifted a few inches from him.

‘It’s not like that with me, Linus. I like someone – I bring him over, and after weeks, the charm wears off, and then we shake hands and bid goodbye. I’m not looking for anything stable.’

He didn’t say anything.

‘I’m sorry, Linus.’

‘It’s alright. Do see the story – I’ll mail it to you. See you, then, Nady – I’ll be off.’

Don’t go. Don’t fucking go.

‘Yeah, bye, then.’ She smiled a practised curve of her lips.

Stay – Tell me the story yourself.

Linus left.

Nady clenched her teeth, going to the refrigerator and taking out a bottle of Vodka. To hell with resolutions – she was furious with herself.

You bastard, she thought with every glass, you motherfucking bastard.

And then came the rain.

 

 

It was pouring pretty heavily when Linus heard a screeching sound outside his home. Moments later, there was a frantic knocking on his door.

It was uncommon for him to have any visitors – that too at ten thirty in the night.

He opened the door, and there was the most unlikely person, soaked to the skin.

‘I’m sorry,’ She sobbed, ‘I’m so sorry.. I didn’t want to –‘

She was unsteady on her feet, and Linus took her in his arms.

‘It’s alright. Come in.’ Despite all his anger inside, seeing her in this state melted him completely.

Nady stumbled, and he found it hard to keep her standing.

‘Were you drinking again? I thought you quit.’

‘I’m sorry.’

Linus put her on the sofa. By now, half his clothes were wet as well. She was semi-conscious.

‘No, don’t fall asleep. You need to change into dry clothes first – I’ve got some, and you’ve got to do it yourself. Can you?’

‘Hmm…’

He almost carried her to his bedroom, giving her a set of his own nightdress.

A while later, when she had changed into the new clothes, Nady collapsed on the bed, the dizziness almost tamed now. Linus was sitting on her bed.

‘Thank you.’ She said quietly.

‘Why’d you come here?’

‘It was lonely in my house, and I didn’t mean to say all that – ‘

‘But that was the truth.’

She said nothing, and the silence continued.

‘I’ll leave tomorrow morning as soon as possible. Sorry for bothering you.’ Nady said finally.

Linus extended his arm, and touched her neck softly with his fingers.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Checking your pulse. I thought you might have a fever – it’s good that you don’t.’

She took his fingers in hers.

‘I feel safe with you here. I’m scared of going back to that place.’

Linus growled in anger, pinning her to the bed, sweat trickling down his forehead.

‘What’s wrong with me, Nady? I want to forgive you, but I can’t say it, I want to hold you tight, but I can’t do it – and I want to tell you that I’m still in love with you, but I just can’t get over my goddamn ego. I don’t want to give you this cold treatment, I don’t care for what you did in the past, but – what on earth is wrong with me?!’

Nady smiled.

So that was his problem. He didn’t hate her after all.

‘Bend down and kiss me.’

Maybe for the first time since Rhea’s death did the proud Linus Delvano obey someone so helplessly. He had no idea that a girl’s lips were so soft.

‘That was amazing.’ He said, almost in a trance.

Nady got up on the bed.

‘You weren’t my first, Linus, but I’m pretty sure that you will be my last.’

He nodded, staring at her silky black hair.

‘Now tell me about yourself. Your past, your hobbies and stuff.’

That night, she came to know a lot about him – of what made him the way he was, or that she was the first to have broken his shell, or that those unpronounceable names on that shelf she had seen before were actually authors of science fiction.

Saying  ‘yes’ at this point of time would be too stupid – the lack of subtlety ruins the flavour of life.

 

 

 

All Hail the King:

‘This kind of stuff gives me the creeps.’ Gerard pored into this phone,’ but on the brighter side, didn’t expect him to finish it so quickly. The first meet will be this week – you better start working, Axalia.’

‘The story is brilliant, but too pessimistic,’ she said. ‘I guess the music, too, has to be that way.’

‘I’d hate seeing your talents getting used that way.’

Gerard, she had come to know, didn’t really like grim and sordid atmospheres. His tough parents had never gone easy on him – being the only child – and made his life hell within the walls of their mansion.

She had seen the Martinez residence from afar once, at the very extreme end of the city – it was situated uphill, and it looked ancient and massive.

‘You are really rich.’ Axalia told him one day, in awe of the gigantic structure.

‘I hate that place. Honestly. It’s like a goddamned cage – and I know that they’ll be watching me like hounds. I hate them – the both of them. I wanted them to send me to the States for acting school and they just didn’t.’

‘Maybe you’re better here, at Miraflores.’

‘Maybe. And you know, my dad, the Colonel, has a few pistols and revolvers with him still, and whenever he’s angry – he waves them around me. Goodness, all I sometimes want is to burn the house down, Axalia. Burn it until there’s nothing left at all.

‘Don’t say that. You’ll have it to yourself one day.’

‘And so will you. I intend to make you my wife.’

No, don’t stare at the ground. Look at him. Don’t tremble.

‘I – I don’t know what to say to that.’

She was so submissive that it turned him on unlike anything else – how the first time her body had gone completely rigid when he had pecked on her lips. He was very careful with her, like a sculpture of glass…it took as much effort to preserve it as it did to create it.

 

 

If there was anything that seriously irritated Linus Delvano, it was a submissive character, and he was glad that Nady wasn’t that way.

What had surprised her initially was that he was so indifferent to guys randomly hitting on her, or eyeing her curves in a lewd manner.

‘I don’t care,’ he had shrugged ,’I know that I’ve unlocked the part of you no one else will ever be able to.’

He had a strange charm to him – like an omniscient master on his winter throne, watching over her- his spring, as he once called her- for all eternity.

An ice dragon.

She knew that far north up America, the Greenland folk had legends of this mythical reptiles existing in the most unorthodox fashion – away from their beds of magma, in giant, forgotten glaciers and bottomless crevices – to unleash the breath of cold that brought winter to the land, freezing the rain to ice.

 

‘Rehearsals! I’m so glad that this could materialise so fast,’ beamed Franco, ‘the only other team so far I’ve heard with a finished script is Taynara’s team, Grimgar.’

‘She’s the pioneer, right?’ asked Celestine.

‘Oh, yes. Sends a chill down my spine, she does.’

So does Delvano, she thought, but said nothing.

It was ten days since their first meet, and Axalia seemed to have made some progress with her work as well. Nady and Gerard had their parts, and the rest of the drama club, too, was present, to act out some auxilliary characters and think about the stage settings.

‘Rennovation work has begun on the circus grounds. The stage ought to be quite big, so make sure you either cover the stage with your movements or have some props there. Unused stage space is detrimental.’

‘I think I’m ready.’ Said Nadezhda.

‘What? Really? I mean, it’ll take me hours to just get into this character. He’s a bloody psychopath.’

Nady didn’t know as much of Gerard as Axalia did – but having dated him for a few weeks a year ago, she knew his ways.

‘That’s because you’re a method actor, Gerard, and I’m not. Why don’t you give it some time? That’ll help. Or maybe ask Linus – he could show you the intricacies.’

‘Er.. I’d rather figure out them myself.’

Nady called Linus nonetheless.

‘Could you explain this guy – the lead guy – to Gerard? It’ll help.’

Gerard was startled at the amount of fondness in her for the boy.

Linus sighed.

‘It isn’t a lot to explain – initially, that is. He’s just a normal gravedigger, the kind of guy that works honestly for money – the poorer class in Victorian England – you may get an idea of it by reading some Oscar Wilde, or maybe – ‘

‘I don’t have time to read all that stuff,’ Gerard said staunchly. ‘Continue.’

Linus looked at him, and a flicker of rage passed between the almond and the brown pair, and the scriptwriter began once more.

‘Once death comes, he realises that he has been procrastinating for all his life, trying to shove the finality of one’s demise into the oblivion that his future promises to be – but with the knowledge of how little he’s got, whatever that’s inside him turns him into something opposite of what he was.’

Gerard looked exasperated.

‘And that’s the best you could come up with? Honestly?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, a dude who digs in dead people, visited by death, inspired by death, kills his family, then dies himself, and joins the undead – what the fuck?! Is that all you know – a thousand and one tales of death?’

‘I don’t expect you to understand,’ said Linus dismissively, ‘death is the only finality in life. Death changes people – and rather than making petty tales about two different twin brothers or an honest and a dishonest senator, this would have a much more profound impact.’

‘People don’t want to die, Delvano! The thought of it irks them.’

‘I don’t care. I never wanted my readers to be in a comfort zone anyway.’

Gerard was furious, struggling to keep his tone calm.

‘You think you’re too smart, don’t you, Delvano?’

Linus smirked.

‘Some things are too obvious to be spoken of.’

Gerard’s eyes flared, and Franco, once again, came to the rescue.

‘As much as I like the concept of the writing, Delvano, there are some scenes that are too spread through the pages and we need to cut them short – these conversations, for example. And if the entire thing is to happen at night in a countryside graveyard save one scene, it really saves up the time to turn the lights out and alter the background every twenty minutes.’

‘Yeah, that’s there.’ Said Linus, ‘You could cut down on a few dialogues – but don’t alter the lead monologues. They’re important.’

The dais in the university was not particularly large, and Franco asked Gerard if he remembered his lines from the first two scenes. Then he asked Nady the same question.

They did.

He asked Axalia to observe the sequences and make a score for it later. Simultaneously, Celestine should begin imagining a visually depressing backdrop and costumes that fit the Victorian era.

Linus was just required to observe the play, and alter the lines when they couldn’t match the pace of the play.

The rest of the crew just played out a few spare characters for the time being.

Three hours passed, and it was called a day.

Franco looked almost satisfied.

‘Good – Nady, exceptionally good, in fact – but Gerard, you need to show the melancholy a bit more. We meet again in four days!’

Linus confronted Gerard the moment everyone had begun leaving.

‘This is insane – you are simply destroying the character. That jolly, nonchalant guy – that’s the portrayal of someone contented, and this person is nothing like that.’

‘Can’t help it,’ chuckled Gerard,‘I’m contented at the moment.’ He looked at Axalia from afar, ‘Very contented, in fact.’

‘Then you are no actor.’

‘The record shows otherwise. In fact – you are no writer, Delvano. Staying away from spotlight all the time has left you with no record at all.’

Linus was out of things to say.

‘Are you doing this purposefully?’ He asked at last.

‘Even on the Chessboard, a king is a king, and a knight is only but a knight. All hail the king.’

Linus looked completely defeated, beads of sweat visible on his neck. Gerard took his backpack, and arranged to leave. Then, he heard a cold voice seething with malice.

‘You will not ruin my tale.’

He turned to Linus, suddenly drained of his usual confidence.

‘Excuse me.’

‘Imagine losing her,’ Delvano motioned to Axalia D’cruz, ‘imagine her dead, and you’d be able to play your part better.’

He grabbed Linus’s collar and slammed him into the wall.

‘Talk of her like that again, and I will see to it that you never talk at all. Psycho.’

And he left him, walking away briskly, a strange fear dwindling in his heart.

 

That autumn night, Gerard went to Axalia’s home, in the same shabby part of the town. It was in a low lit, clustered housing complex, and only in the second floor’s right wing did he find her little flat, while the rest of the floor was abandoned – maybe families had long left them for a better neighbourhood.

Her home was strangely clean and organised, with the minimum furnishing and a tiny balcony overlooking the wastelands of Miraflores.

It was strange – the way she was dressed tonight. There was no formal wear as there always was, and she was in a short floral skirt that ended inches above her knees. The sleeveless shirt over that was probably too loose for her small, firm breasts, and hung dangerously low over the chest. Her lovely brown hair was dishevelled – maybe she had been sleeping.

He embraced her tightly to his own broad chest, inhaling the sweet scent of her skin. Strangely, it reminded him of the rain – and those cold winds that brought the scent of the wet soil after a fresh downpour.

‘What’s wrong, Gerard?’ She could feel his anxiety from his touch.

‘I love you, Axalia. With my life.’

She kissed him, and he carried her light body to the bedroom.

‘I know. Is everything okay? You seem so – ‘

‘It’s just that I had this strange foreboding – somebody said something to me about death and dying – and I thought of you. What am I ever going to do without you, Axalia? My parents see me as an asset, nothing else. And all this stuff that I’ve done so far – wasting my life on parties and beaches and girls – it all seemed wrong the moment I saw you. For that one moment, I knew that happiness isn’t those momentary fragments of joy, but a quest that’s destined with the right person. And my right person is you, sweetheart.’

‘I can’t even think of any other person but you,’ Axalia said, as he went on top of her in bed, ‘you’re my very first, Gerard. I could never imagine that a guy like you would love a girl like me.’

‘Never say that again – never think that you’re inferior to me,’ the boy said amidst short breaths, kissing her passionately,’ you aren’t. I’m the one who was drawn to inferior sorts.’

‘My God!’ She gasped, as he slid one hand inside her shirt, giving a breast a tight squeeze. In that extreme moment of heat, he stopped himself, facing her.

‘May I?’  He asked for her permission.

And she broke into a fit of giggles, looking at his sweaty, sincere expression. Gerard was puzzled for a moment, and then smiled.

‘I’ll never let anybody hurt you, my queen,’ he said, undressing her, ‘never.’

Linus Delvano was in a sour mood, though Nadezhda had been trying her best to cheer him up.

‘It’s got nothing to do with you,’ he said. ‘You were outstanding.’

‘Guys, thanks for staying back. She’ll be here any minute.’ Said Franco.

I don’t want to see this woman, Linus thought, but Nady had convinced him to stay with her and Franco.

Taynara Rodriguez was shorter than any of them – her skin thoroughly tanned and her hair so blonde that it was obvious that the colour could not be natural. She had a voluptuous body clad in a black dress and a finely sculpted face- but what caught both Nady and Linus the first time were the eyes.

Almost a shade of gold, with small pupils – like a snake’s.

There wasn’t any other person with her, and she looked at the three of them with a slightly condescending smile.

‘The copy of the idea that you sent has been extremely well received by the judges. You have, more than any other team, a chance to win this round.’ She said, the eyeballs swaying dangerously in their sockets.

‘Why, thank you!’ Franco exclaimed jovially. ‘I assembled my team that way – every person here is top notch in the entire country, you could say. Well, this is Nadezhda, the lead actress and that would be Linus, who wrote the script.’

‘Oh, is that so?’ She looked at Linus, ignoring Nady completely. ‘You are a talented man, Mr. Linus.’

‘I know that.’ Linus said in a bored voice.

‘Oh, yes, of course you do. My team, Grimgar’s scriptwriter, Karen, came up with something on two brothers, and I thought that might be the best – after yours.’

Then she turned to Franco.

‘I’m sorry, but I don’t think my team would be flying to Peru for this round. We’ll join you directly in Sau Paulo – though a couple of other teams will compete here. I hope you do manage to qualify.’

‘We will.’ Said Nady curtly.

Taynara still didn’t look at her, but faced Franco instead.

‘Record your plays and mail them to us at Swan Song. The first round doesn’t have live judging, though the other teams would rate your play.’

‘Who are the judges?’ Asked Linus.

‘You will know, in the course of time. Well, I should be leaving now. Best of luck to the Chessboard.’

And she left, in a black retreating form.

‘She’s a dangerous woman.’ Said Franco, rubbing his huge hands together. ‘Was involved in some police case back in Brazil. I don’t remember what, though.’

‘She’s scared.’ Nady replied calmly.

‘Exactly. She almost knows that Grimgar can’t beat the Chessboard – provided Gerard plays his part well.’

‘I want this woman to be screwed,’ Nady licked her lips savagely. ‘And yeah, it totally depends on the king now – we’re merely a knight, a bishop and a pawn.’

 

Three more weeks had passed, and the play seemed to be getting better and better – with a bone –chilling score Axalia had composed, and Nady’s portrayal of death. She had this innate skill of delving into character just five minutes after she had revised her lines, and somehow, it felt like Linus had made the lines just for her lips. Every mannerism of the entity was matched effortlessly by Nady.

The costumes were designed by now, and they, within the budget, were impressive. Franco had to coordinate all these activities, and he was exhausted most of the time, but mostly with Gerard.

‘You’re not really getting into character – I mean, I know that it’s a bad choice for someone as charismatic as you, but just try to show the pain and obsession, alright?’

‘I’m trying, Franco! But this gravedigger guy is like a polar opposite to me – maybe Delvano should have played it himself.’

‘A king is a king, and a knight is only but a knight.’ Said Linus, smirking.

But inside, he was just as worried about Gerard as Franco was.

 

 

‘There’s a storm coming, and it may cause the coast a lot of damage. It’s all over the weather report,’ said Nady, taking Linus’s car for a refuel. ‘I should take a road more interior to the city. Would you be coming?’

‘No,’ he said,’ I’ll fix us some lunch.’

Because you, my lady, can’t even chop some lettuce properly.

She nodded, and went out, to return some thirty minutes later.

‘Condition’s pretty bad outside, honey. They’re not allowing cars on the highways – if this carries on, the hurricane could cause some major disturbance in the life of the city.’

‘I know – it’s all over TV.’

‘There’s no TV in this house.’

‘Yeah, but you can stream the news live on the internet. Anyway, you shouldn’t go out anymore. Stay in my house, we’ve supplies for over a week.’

The storm had stifled by then, and Nady had the dust from the storm, splattered with rainwater, all over her dress.

‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ she said, taking her bright blue top off.

‘And once this… er… play is over, I wonder if we could, you know, live toge–‘ Linus’s words were drowned in a lack of courage, as he felt his body temperature rise, his back to her.

‘What? Can’t hear you.’ She said from behind him.

‘I meant – ‘ he turned around to face her, and saw that her upper body was completely bare, with her trying to rub the dust off her shorts.

He could say nothing – his throat was dry, and all the sixteen hundred books he had read so far had abandoned him when he needed to find a word. The sight was heavenly.

‘What?’ Nady said again, and saw him staring at her like a complete idiot.

Ohh… You’ve never seen a girl like this before, have you?’ She teased him.

‘No..I.. internet…’

‘I meant in real life.’

He shook his head, trying desperately to look down at the floor.

Nady took him in her arms, kissing him dearly.

‘It’s alright – I’m yours, just yours. Take me.’

He wanted to – more than anything else in the world, but at the very moment, it dawned to him that what attracted him to her was a bit more than her body, or those occasional coy advances, or even the way she spoke about her dreams of becoming an actress with all the stars reflecting in her eyes.

He loved all of her, and she was his gem – something a bit more than his proficiency with words could describe, something a bit more than all of her skin that he could caress.

‘No.’ Linus said, running a hand through her long, wavy hair. ‘I never imagined it to be like this – not like dogs – anywhere in a room, just upon a hint of arousal, but in a truly regal fashion- a night we can recount till the end of our days. Go take a shower, Nady. We need some extra stuff for food – I’ll go buy it in the nearest supermarket.’

At that moment, in Nady’s eyes, Linus Delvano surpassed any other guy she had ever met till then.

I love him. I love him like hell.

 

 

Linus drifted lazily across the shelves, looking for a good brand of cornflakes, because Nady loved them – when he first heard the crash. The ground shook, and several bottles of edibles crashed into the tiled floor. Some people screamed and fell, while ketchup oozed out from a broken bottle, ruining his shoes.

He looked behind, and from the great transparent doors of the supermarket, saw what he thought was impossible.

An entire bridge, part over land and part on water, had collapsed, and some of the massive fragments still seemed to be in precarious positions.

He couldn’t see it from here, but it had probably landed on a traffic-filled road.

Oh my fucking God.

There were wails and screams, but more people tried to run away from the site where the hurricane had struck. He rushed to the topmost floor, now to witness the devastating impact of the whole thing.

The bridge had crashed over vehicles and humans, and a lot of the gigantic structure trapped the people – provided they were not dead already.

At least Nady is safe.

He shouldn’t leave for home now, at least not until the hurricane subsided – but the second after, he saw another chunk of the bridge fall on the road. Another tremble in the ground.

More people dead.

The city of Miraflores was devastated, from the looks of it. Minutes later, he got a call from Nady. She was crying like he had never heard her before.

‘Are you alright, honey? Are you okay?!’

‘I’m perfectly fine, Nady. But it’ll take some time for me to reach home.’

‘I don’t care how long it takes – you just come home safe, you got that?’

‘Got it. Don’t panic.’

‘I love you, Linus!’

‘Me too.’ And he hung up, as the sirens of police cars and ambulances were heard from nearby. Lots of people had been affected.

 

Linus got his car from the parking lot, and began driving through the opposite part of the city – down the undulating, winding lanes of Miraflores past the shopping complex when he saw a very familiar person, standing at the corner of an alley, looking completely demented.

Her usually pale skin had gone completely white, and even from a distance, he could understand that she was shaking badly.

His car came to a halt beside her, and he got down.

‘What’s wrong, Axalia?’

Her trance broke, and she looked at him, aghast.

‘L-Linus Delvano.’

‘Yeah. What’s the matter?’

She began to say something, but all he could hear was some choking in her throat. Then she broke down completely, in a flood of tears.

Linus wasn’t used to outbursts of emotion – but he held her awkwardly.

‘I-I saw those people get buried. I was just there, just b-beside the bridge, and I would’ve been dead, if I didn’t leave the place earlier. Two more minutes and I would’ve died? And I can’t call Gerard- network’s gone – he knows that I’d be here. What do I do, Linus?’

Linus looked at her, amazed, for a few seconds.

And then, a devilish idea played into his mind.

Death is the only finality in life. Death changes people. And dear Gerard is a method actor.

‘Don’t worry, Axalia, you could come to my home for the time being – Nady’s there, and we’ll help you sort things out.’

‘Thank you so much.’ The girl said innocently. That submissive nature usually enraged Linus, but tonight, he was going to use it to his advantage.

‘Hendrix,’ said the girl as he begun to drive,’ it’s a nice name, isn’t it, Linus?’

‘I don’t know – I guess it is.’

 

 

Knightfall:

‘It’s just a little plan to help Gerard out, don’t you think?’ Asked Linus.

‘It’s horrible! Can you imagine what he’ll go through?’ Exclaimed Axalia.

‘It’s just about ten days anyway,’ Nady said, ‘ and then everything will go alright again. The play gets staged in ten more days – you know that.’

‘It’ll seriously help him get into the character. Since he’s a method actor – he derives his acting skills from what he feels – this mindset will make him ace the character.’ Linus looked confident.

Linus had, after taking Axalia to his home, suggested that since it would take over two weeks for the police to clear the wreckage and shove out the bodies- it was best that Axalia not contact him until the play was done. He would assume her dead, because most living people would be evacuated within the day, and while she would eventually meet him in ten more days – the sudden loss would help the actor get into character, and fix the final flaw in the Chessboard. Sacrificing the queen to save the king. Perfectly legitimate.

‘This is crazy,’ Axalia said, ‘I don’t like the idea one bit.’

‘I second that – it sounds insane, but then, most of Linus’s ideas do.’

‘Axalia, you need to stay in my or Nady’shouse for just over a week. As for the music score, has it been finalised yet?’

‘Yes. Franco has a copy of the final product.’

‘Outstanding. So we don’t need you anymore after all.’

‘Linus!’ Nady said in a threatening tone.

‘Okay, I’m sorry. Just go with the plan, and trust me, our team will be the best there is.’

 

 

Franco, but not Celestine, was informed of Linus’s little trick – and he vowed lot to spill the secret until the play was staged.

Gerard was devastated.

He called up police stations, and shelters, personally visiting each of them with a photo of Axalia, asking them if they had seen the girl. A large part of the structure was yet to be removed – and dozens of bodies were still trapped – though it could be doubted that these people were inevitably dead.

By the second evening after the disaster, with Miraflores still coping up to it, he realised that he would be seeing Axalia anymore, maybe – at the luckiest of circumstances, her smashed and rotting corpse.

He didn’t speak , shout at the heavens, or even sob hysterically, as Franco expected him to, but just looked around blankly.

‘Why did I let her go that day, Franco? I should’ve gone myself – it should have been me, not her.’

‘Come on, be strong, Gerard, she would want you to.’

And she still wants you to – as she’ll tell you after a week. God, this is thrilling – like the resurrection of Jesus or something.

’What’s even the point of me living anymore, Franco? I’ll just get bullied at home, and here –without Axalia – what do I have to live for?’

‘The play.’ Said Linus, ‘Live for the play.’

Gerard looked at him in plain disgust.

‘The love of my life is dead, and probably her body is still in that wreckage – and this is all you care for? The play?’

Nady caught Linus’s arm.

‘Linus, this is not the right time.’

Gerard just shook his head in despair, tears streaming down his cheeks.

‘Would you be able to just go work on the play if she died, Linus? How would you feel.’

Linus smirked.

‘Nady, leave us alone. And you too, Franco. ’

They did.

Linus sat down beside Gerard.

‘This was meant to happen to you, my king. Remember, I asked you how it would feel if she was dead? Well, now she is. Do you understand your character now – the gravedigger who comes home and finds that all he loved is now lost? Now there’s nothing, absolutely  nothing left for him.’

Gerard looked at Linus, a primal rage contorting his almost angelic features.

The God and the Devil.

Summer and Winter.

Day and Night.

Opposites.

‘You are happy about this, aren’t you, you fiend?’

‘You may hit me, if you so wish to – but I doubt it would change anything. She is dead, and you are bound by your word to Franco Huamani to play a puppet to the lines I wrote, which you will. All I ask is for you to make the best use of her death – by perfecting the gravedigger.’

The king looked completely defeated now in front of the knight. Linus had a faint recollection in mind – he had read how desperate and hopeless King Arthur had looked when he lost his queen, Guinevere, to his best knight, Sir Lancelot. It was old English lore.

Use her death, Delvano? I wish I could do that – make use of the loss of the woman I loved for some personal gain – like you imagine. I wish you had died in her stead.’

‘This is collective gain, not personal. That is all I can say.’

And he left.

 

 

‘She’s pregnant, Linus. Apparently, the first time, they hadn’t used protection. That’s why she had asked him what they could name their kid.’

‘Are you fucking kidding me, Nady? I mean, she’s just nineteen!’

Nadezhda raised her thin eyebrows in exasperation.

‘Well, stuff happens – you know, when you’re in the heat of sexual need-‘

‘Don’t give me that bullshit. I could have fucked you the day you bared your chest to me- and I was full on it- until my conscience got the better of me. If you have a will that’s strong enough, there’s no heat that can’t be cooled.’

‘That’s why you are the ice dragon, Linus. Everything about you is so cold.’ She snapped.

‘Nady, honey, listen to me. Axalia and this – foetus – can wait for a week more, can’t they, before a proper abortion?’

The word made her cringe.

‘I don’t know if they would decide to do that – I mean, if I was pregnant, you wouldn’t want that for me, would you?’

‘Nady, I love you and I respect you enough not to put you in a position such as this – and I never would. When we have a kid – and I want a daughter, if fate is so kind – we will have years of planning before that. I’ll never have anything compromised for you or for her – you understand? I’ll never do anything that pushes you into making a tough choice.’

She smiled, and hugged him tightly.

‘I believe in you, my dragon knight.’

 

 

By now, there were rehearsals every day, and Gerard had suddenly improved by light years in the wink of an eye. He played the part so immaculately that even Nady was pushed to the background at times. He never smiled, and rarely made eye contact with anyone – even when Celestine came and offered him her sincerest condolences. She, too, believed that Axalia was dead.

Gerard never talked much, or even move about a lot in the auditorium like he previously used to – just stared into space with reddened eyes. Sometimes, Linus would find him staring at him- with an abominable magnitude of hatred in his eyes.

The atmosphere of the Chessboard upon losing their Queen became as grim and morose as the play itself. Nady and Franco were the only ones who talked, and maybe a person or two from the drama club – since Celestine often was away, looking for a make-up artist – and somehow, every day, Gerard’s anger for the knight grew.

Linus simply didn’t care – and was just using him with a dead memory. Nothing ever had ever enraged him so much.

The autumn was almost at its end now, and Franco said that the renovations in the abandoned circus ground was completely, and the other teams had arrived. Their show was scheduled at the very last – from eight to nine thirty in the night, and in his opinion was perfect to leave a chilling final impact.

Gerard didn’t remember when he had last eaten – or how many hours it he had been awake – his hair was unwashed and he needed a shave. They would be performing the day after tomorrow.

I shouldn’t have allowed you to leave the house that day.

He imagined her stopping at the very doorstep.

‘Hey, let’s watch the TV instead. I’ll go later’.

‘Hey, I’ve got a sore ankle. I’ll go later.’

‘Hey, I haven’t made dinner yet! I’ll go later.’

‘Hey, let’s make out. I’ll go later.’

Why didn’t she… why didn’t I…

‘Are you Gerard Martinez from The Chessboard?’

His trance broke, and his head was throbbing badly. Where was he? No, not his grand manor up the hill with his godforsaken parents. This was a cafe, a small one at the corner of the street.

When did he come here? Must be sometime before.

A girl of his age sat opposite to him, with unnaturally blond hair, golden eyes, and a very tanned skin.

‘Hello, I am Taynara Rodriguez. I helped in arranging Swan Song.’

‘What do you want?’

‘I’m here to offer you my condolences regarding the death of the composer – I heard that you were in a relationship with her.’

‘Thanks.’ He just wanted this girl to leave.

‘Has her body been found yet?’

‘No.’

‘I’m so sorry. The fact that you’re still participating in Swan Song is very inspiring.’

‘Look, if you don’t have anything good to say, just fucking leave, alright? As it is – I’m being used for this gooddamn piece of shit!’

She looked intently at him, and the golden snakelike eyes brought over him a strange calmness and a sense of longing. He wanted to speak to her.

‘Who’s using you, Gerard?’

And he angrily blurted out everything about himself – his parents and Axalia, and Linus – the scum who made Axalia’s death look like a boon.

‘I just want to see him suffer – that fucking son of a bitch – ‘

‘There’s a better way that you could be happy, Gerard.’

‘And what’s that? Right now, I’ve nothing to live for!’

‘That also means that you have nothing to lose.’ She smiled coyly.

‘So what’s your grand plan?’ Gerard snarled.

‘That’s what I intend to tell you.’

 

 

 

It was the day of the showdown, and it was evening.

Franco was possibly the most tensed of the lot, pacing over the newly cemented path. The makeshift auditorium here was quite impressive, with the dome reflecting the faint moonlight. The winds swept the fields nearby, and there were quite a lot of people – some of them participants, some viewers, and a few people from the press who had come to cover the event.

Swan Song.

The banner itself was huge and very skilfully designed – red on black, and hung with pride over the auditorium.

Linus sat with the director – looking at the people nearby, and thinking of going to a nearby food stall that had mushroomed here to buy themselves some tacos.

Behind the grand auditorium, the place was strangely empty, and the site for the abandoned carnival stretched on and on – and very far away, was the little tent where they had first gathered – the Chessboard.  The winds were so strong tonight that Franco had to shout out his words for Linus to hear them.

‘Sent in Nady, Gerard, Celestine and the rest of the crew an hour ago – they’re ready in costumes and all. Now I need you prompt the parts, Delvano, in case someone forgets.’

‘No problem, I’ll do that. And what about Axalia?’

‘What did you say? Can’t hear you.’

‘I said – where’s Axalia?’ Linus almost yelled.

‘Oh, her – well, she’s in the audience – back row, and I gave her a little party mask to keep her hidden. The girl is so bloody excited to see Gerard act – heard that he has knocked her up. Is that true?’

‘Yeah, she’s pregnant. There’s good sex, and there’s bad sex – and this is an example of the latter.’

‘Happens, happens. But just imagine Gerard’s joy when he finds his girl back, and a kid to boot!’

‘Yeah, whatever. Let’s get in the green room – it’s getting cold out here.’

 

Gerard was in character even before the play began. He looked cold and angry and had an ominous look in his eyes – as if ready for meeting death. Nady read her copy of the script for one last time.

‘The show begins in ten minutes guys, give your best. Linus, you stay backstage – so they can hear you.’

He didn’t need to.

The play went so well – so unimaginably well that Linus simply stared at the actors.

The background was perfect, Axalia’s music was perfect, Nady was perfect, but the one who really stole the show was Gerard. He gave the performance of a lifetime.

Linus almost had tears in his eyes – his plan had been a success.

The viewers in the auditorium gave them a standing ovation – the only group that evening that got one.

It was undisputed as to who had won this round of Swan Song, as the applause went on for over a minute.

The first thing Nady did backstage was to kiss Linus full on the lips – he tasted her strawberry flavoured lip gloss, taking in the sweet fragrance of her skin.

‘We did it, sweetheart, we did it! We can now dream of working as scriptwriter and actress.’

‘I’m so glad,’ he almost lifted the beautiful girl off her feet, ‘I’m so bloody glad!’

‘Hey you lovebirds – Gerard left a message for you.’ Celestine came looking.

‘Oh shit!’ Nady said, ‘we’ve got to tell him now – poor boy – he’s gone through hell over the past week.’

‘Well, yes,’ Celestine looked irritated, ‘About Axalia – you could’ve at least told me, you know. I really thought that she was dead – and I only came to know of her from Franco once Gerard had left.’

‘We’re sorry, Celestine. But where did he go?’

‘He wants to apologise to you, Linus, because of his rudeness to you before. Now seeing that the two of them are always at each other’s throats, why don’t you go too, Nady? The guy is real embarrassed and is waiting for you at the tent where we first met.’

‘Sure, I’ll go!’ Nady said happily, ‘ and yeah, since this may take some time, go find Axalia in the audience, Celestine. I want to bring Gerard back and get a look at his little queen!’

‘He’s a good guy, I’m sorry I misunderstood him and had to make that plan. Anyway, let’s go, Nady – can’t wait to break the news to him.’ Linus smiled.

Once they had left the auditorium via the back gate, the night descended in its full might once again, and the winds played with the dry grasses, making a deafening noise. The streetlamp oddly situated in a field that was over the desolate tent flickered at irregular intervals, and as far as they went towards it, the life from the auditorium began to die.

Linus chuckled – he loved atmospheres like this.

The tent was empty and almost filled with shadows, the streetlight and the gloomy moonshine. The cloth fluttered in the wind.

‘Gerard, where are you?’ Nady yelled mischievously, ‘Say sorry to my little knight and get a handshake!’

A gloomy form emerged from the shadows – a tall, ragged figure, unshaven for days, and his eyes reddened.

‘There he is, our king!’ Nady smiled.

‘Gerard, you were amazing. Literally.’  Linus added with enthusiasm.

Gerard smiled wryly.

‘I’m sorry, Linus.’

Linus tried to smile as normally as possible.

‘It’s perfectly alright, bro.’

Then he gestured to Nady, mouthing the words, now go and tell him.

Nady nodded, moving towards Gerard.

‘Gerard, there’s a surprise –‘

And then, suddenly, in the dim light, Linus saw something flash against Gerard’s body.

Phut.

A moment passed, and Linus saw Nadezhda’s body fall, almost in an arc, on the cemented ground. There was an aghast expression on her face.

Phut. Phut. Phut.

Her body jerked three more times, and crumpled on the floor again. This time, he saw a blackish red fluid pooling on the floor beneath her.

‘NADY!!!’

He got down to his knees at the girl’s body, the blood now seeping all over her dress, and her face contorted with pain, gasping for breath, as she choked on her own blood.

Gerard smirked.

‘Two to the chest, one to the stomach, one to the gut – she can’t survive that.’

He pointed the revolver down, the silencer on it.

‘Nady, Nady, look at me, honey, everything’s gonna be alright, okay?’ Linus desperately tried to stem the blood flow with his hands, but to no use.

She’s been shot in a lung – she’ll just choke to death this way. Oh God, help me!

She had tears flowing down her eyes – as her breathing became more strained. Her eyelids began to droop.

‘Nady, stay with me- FUCKING STAY WITH ME!!! I’m not gonna let anything happen to you!’

‘Oh, come on, sir knight,’ Gerard said from behind, ‘Don’t you think this is fair? Taynara was right- I’ve got nothing to lose – so why not take an eye for an eye? Kill Nady first, she said- that’s the revenge part, and then see to it that you’re never answerable to these lowlives. Now do you understand what it feels like? But you’ve got a poor taste, Delvano, this girl was a bloody whore.’

Linus took his cellphone, trying to contact someone.

No network – just like it had been the day they first met.

He tried taking her bleeding body in his arms to take her across the meadow, her blood now having stained a lot of his own shirt.

Phut.

It felt like something in his lower right leg had exploded – and Linus fell on the ground, trying to shield Nady’s battered body from Gerard.

‘You’re going nowhere, Linus. And my dear daddy’s revolver will take care of that. I want you to watch her die – helpless, as the blood drains her body – and then I’d like to hear your fond thesis on death again.’

‘Linus.’

The faint words from her lips made him forget the tremendous pain of the bullet wound, getting close to her face on his good leg.

There was blood everywhere.

She tried to say something, but choked, spurting out blood from her nostrils and mouth, as her body went into an involuntary shudder. Her beautiful face had gone chalk white.

‘HELP!!! SOMEBODY HELP!!!’ Linus screamed.

The winds would never let the words travel across the meadow.

Linus began to cry hysterically – knowing that there were people waiting for him on the other side, people who could save Nady, but who would never reach there.

‘Victory is mine, sir knight. For I am a king, and you are but you. Now, live with this, until I meet you again in hell.’

Gerard shoved the barrel into his own mouth, and fired.

His tall, muscular body fell on the ground like a rag doll with blood and brains scattered everywhere.

He was dead.

Linus felt dizzy and nauseous – the world was revolving around him. He wanted to sleep.

In his arms, Nady had stopped breathing – why? Maybe she was, maybe he couldn’t just hear it? But why was she just staring at him blankly? Maybe she was bored? Oh God, she’s lost too much blood, she’s lost way too much blood….

She’s dead, you fool.

And the tears came like a flood to Linus Delvano – his throat was burning, he was with Nadezhda’s bleeding corpse staring at him, and his leg was seeping out blood.

No.

No.

No.

He clasped her body with all his might.

I will never let you go. Never.

And then, his consciousness left him, and the deathly pale tent around him was submerged in darkness.

 

 

A Queen’s Lament:

It didn’t hurt him much when he woke up in a hospital to Axalia’s screams and countless accusations.

All my fault.

The matter of the faking of her death was hidden from the police, and they just assumed that Gerard had gone insane.

He didn’t have anything left in his life.

He’d have to go bury Nady’s body in the cemetery, for she had no family, just like him.

The same one where he had buried Rhea and his mother.

‘You are the reason he’s dead – it was all your game, all your ego and arrogance and superiority- and now see where we are. You murderer, you fucking murderer.’

Axalia’s words had been laced with venom.

Despite securing first place, Chessboard was scrapped off the list the moment a police investigation began, and it was found that the lead actor and actress were dead.

Franco simply lost interest and went back to Sau Paulo, and the hospital was where Linus saw him last. Celestine planned to leave for the far east.

But Linus remembered Gerard’s words. It wasn’t he who had caused him to kill Nady and himself.

Taynara Rodriguez.

She had corrupted his mind, somehow, to muster the courage to kill himself; and perform the final act of revenge.

The girl’s team, Grimgar, won the Swan Song that year, and they went on to make the event an international one. And from then on, she knew only success.

 

It was a rainy afternoon when Linus came to visit Nadezhda’s grave, almost having planned to leave Miraflores, the poisoned place that bore so many dark memories.

He had begun seeing things when he was alone at his home- one winter evening, he saw Nady sitting on his couch, her breasts bared like before, and four rotting bullet holes in her body.

You’ve never seen a girl like this before, have you?

He had thrown up, just to see later that the couch was empty – the couch where she used to sit. And then she began appearing everywhere – he woke up once at three in the morning to find her beside him in bed, staring at him with a fixed, hungry gaze.

He had run out of the house.

There was someone in the graveyard besides himself, kneeling before another fresh grave, the raindrops rolling off her umbrella.

‘I’m so sorry, Axalia.’

She said nothing, not even looking at his face.

There was a long silence, and the rain stopped.

‘I’m going to raise this child myself. It’s my last reminder of him.’

‘Can you affor –‘

‘I don’t know. I went to his family and told them that this was their grandchild, and the old woman said that I was the reason that their son was dead, and that should I ever step inside the house again, they’ll call the police. They aren’t going to help in any way.’

‘Then how will you –‘

‘Work somewhere, part time? If I can’t get that, maybe starve? Who knows – raising a bastard is tough. But why are you asking all this anyway? Just go. Leave. Have a great future. I’ll have my kid and I’ll face everything myself – I don’t need help.’

At that moment, Linus made the biggest decision in his life.

A knight is an honourable man. He is sworn to protect.

‘Axalia, marry me.’

She looked at him incredulously.

‘What?!’

‘The child will not be a bastard. It will have my name, and your honour will be untarnished. I’ll support you with whatever I have, and we’ll raise the child together, because I know what losing a father is like. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to make the career I dreamed to – but I must make amends.’

She remained silent for a long time, then spoke.

‘You’ll raise the child of a man who murdered the woman you loved?’

He said nothing, and began walking away.

 

 

 

Present:

The envelope from Tokyo University had his name printed on it in tiny, black letters.

Mr. Hendrix Delvano.

Delvano, and not Martinez, as it should have been.

His world had shattered to pieces in the last two hours, and he didn’t even have the strength to console his mother, who was crying bitterly. Then he looked at his father, the supposed loser – Linus Delvano. When they had been married and had him so soon, Linus had lost all respect from the people around him – who thought that he had double-crossed Gerard into making his girlfriend pregnant. Maybe he was somehow responsible for the good actor’s death?

The couple had moved into a different neighbourhood in Miraflores, struggling to survive, so that Hendrix could have a protected childhood, free from his horrible past.

This person sacrificed his career and reputation for me, and the reason I am even alive is his sacrifice. And I told him that he didn’t know how to be a man.

He is ten times the man I am, or what my homicidal biological father was.

Hendrix stood up.

‘I’m so sorry, mom and dad. I’m so sorry.’

‘It’s alright, sweetheart,’ Axalia hugged him tightly, ‘We want you safe, that’s all, but please don’t hate your father – he has not mistreated me once during these nineteen years. He’s a good man – maybe he had done a mistake in the past – but he’s a good man. He respects me, and he loves you.’

Linus sighed. He got up too, limping – the place where Gerard had fired the bullet in his right leg had never healed completely.

‘We had a good thing going, Hendrix, and then it went terribly wrong. Anyway, I’m not your father, and you don’t need to call me so anymore. Just use my name, that’s enough.’

Hendrix now had tears in his eyes.

‘I want to say something good to you – but I’m not gifted with words, as you were. All I can say is that you’re the kind of man they write stories about – a man who kept standing despite everything they put him through. You are my dad, not that guy who escaped the world like a coward.’

Linus had a painful smile on his face – suddenly looking much older than thirty eight.

‘This is why we don’t want you to go to Tokyo, Hendrix. This Taynara Rodriguez is now president of the club Grimgar that’s become an international community recruiting the best in the world, and she has a lot of power in the event, Swan Song. She’s dangerous, and she knows that you’re my son. Axalia’s son. She would try to harm you, and we could never imagine that.’

Some cold fury burnt inside Hendrix.

Born of summer and brought up by winter – a prince raised by a knight.

‘The Linus Delvano nineteen years ago would not have said this,’ said Hendrix,‘And neither will I. I am your son, father, and I will avenge what she did to you and mom, and to Gerard and Nadezhda. I will go form the Chessboard again, this time, with the very best that come to Tokyo, and we’ll fight Grimgar and beat them.’

‘This is why I never wanted to tell him,’ said Axalia, ‘he’s like Gerard – he’ll just choose the path of revenge.’

‘I’m not like Gerard!’ Hendrix growled, ‘And I never will be.’

‘You look exactly like him,’ Axalia said with a sad smile, ‘Except the dark brown hair – that’s from me. That’s another reason why we shifted homes – otherwise it would have been too obvious.’

Something stabbed Hendrix’s insides.

So, Linus has fed and warmed me, seeing that I was growing up, looking exactly like the man he hated.

‘Do you honestly think that people would team up with you to beat her in her own game – assuming that is even possible?’ Linus asked.

‘They will. I just need to find the right people. And tell me, what happened to Celestine and Franco later?’

‘Celestine is dead,’ said Axalia, ‘I heard that she messed up her life in Japan, and died in some accident. She probably had a kid too – though I’m not sure. As for Franco, nobody knows anything about him. It’s like he disappeared off the map.’

‘Good. Now listen, I will have to go, but not before I do something first – to honour somebody’s last wish.’

 

 

This was the most sloping terrain in Miraflores, and now, in the first week of May, the summer air made the evening intolerably warm.

Hendrix Delvano walked the deserted road that led to a ragged manor that eclipsed the moonshine. His dark brown hair was sweaty. The object in his left pocket felt strained against his jeans.

After this, Gerard, I would owe you as much as you do me, by spilling yourself into my mother – nothing, that is.

Martinez Manor looked unwelcome, the massive house dark except a few light windows. It probably hadn’t been repaired in years, and would home rats better than humans. Even the lawn spread in front was brimmed to the full with weeds.

This would have been mine.

He walked up to the rotting wooden door, and rang the ancient doorbell.

It took time before a stout old woman answered it – her face lined with wrinkles, and her black eyes in such fear as if they had witnessed a ghost.

‘You-you!’

‘Hello, grandmother.’

He hit her squarely in the chest, and the old woman reeled. Then he used one straight punch to knock her unconscious.

That’s for my mother.

Her gasps had probably awakened her husband, and the tall, frail old man rushed to the door, only to drain his face of colours, though composing himself quickly, rushing to his wife.

‘You fiend – I know who you are – you are not welcome here. I will call the police – no, I will shoot you with my own gun, you bastard!’

Bastard.

That sparked something inside him.

The bastard of summer.

Fathered by winter, mothered by rain.

What am I? Something in between?

Ah yes, I am the autumn.

It was an autumn that I was conceived in.

It was an autumn in which your son died.

Hendrix Delvano simply looked at the old man – almond met almond, and the force of his gaze was such that the man was reduced to silence.

‘I am going to kill you both tonight,’ he said softly. ‘Have you any last words?’

The man looked at him, confounded, as he saw his grandson’s devilish figure.

And then it dawned to him.

The boy was nothing like the obedient Gerard – nothing at all.

A devil born of an angel.

Hendrix strode into the house, and tore the curtains off the windows, as the old man watched him, helpless. He then tied them to the curtains, rendering them immobile.

It’s the summer of Miraflores – the weather is really… crispy.

‘Goodbye, grandfather.’

And he took the metallic lighter from his jeans, gagging both of them. He spilled some gasoline he had brought in his backpack – and threw the burning lighter in it.

In a moment, the room was ablaze.

By the time he had left the gates, the fire could be seen from afar. Very soon, some people would gather – but looking at such a remote location, it would take an hour.

The manor burns tonight, just as Gerard had wanted.

The newspapers the following day reported that an accidental fire had erupted in a manor inhabited by an old couple, and though no remains of bodies could be found in the ashes, owing to the weather hastening the fire, it was regrettable and should warn the citizens of Miraflores to handle fire carefully.

Linus shook his head, reading the news.

‘Despite denying it, he just proved that he is Gerard all over again,’ he said to himself. ‘One may raise him in a Knight’s castle, but a prince grows up to be a king anyway.’

 

 

 

Haneda International Airport, Tokyo:

Tokyo airport was huge, and far superior to the one in Peru. The elevators were cylindrical and transparent, and it felt like you could fly.

The massive place boasted of multiple restaurants, a variety of stores ranging from clothes of the latest fashion to Apple products everyone coveted.  Hendrix was almost lost, looking at the entrances of the terminals, when a voice announced where the luggage from his flight would be unloaded.

He looked at the skyward dome – it had been damaged a few years back, and had been redesigned to its present glory by the genius architect Vishnu Patel, whose son Iskender had sent him the letter in the first place.

He was confused – there were so many rollers, each with bags and suitcases. He waited near one, mostly with Japanese people, when the familiar violet suitcase moved towards him. Relieved, he took it up.

‘Excuse me, please?’

He looked back, to see a white blonde girl of his age calling him. She had pale skin, and green eyes, and though with a stoic expression, she was very beautiful. He had never seen a white blonde before.

‘Yes?’

‘That suitcase is mine. You must have mistaken it for yours.’ She said politely.

He turned it to a side, and yes, the marking ‘H.D.’ wasn’t there.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, embarrassed, his eyes on his own case, that was slowly moving on another roller strip altogether.

I’m a jackass.

‘It’s alright,’ she smiled, ‘you look Latin American. Are you?’

‘Oh, yes,’ he said, taking the luggage in his trolley,’ I’m Hendrix Delvano, from Peru. And you?’

‘I’m Diana Gregorovitch from Russia.’

Hendrix’s eyes went wide.

‘Diana Gregorovitch?! You’re Raphael Gregorovitch’s daughter?’

‘Yes.’ She said quietly, ‘I’m here for Swan Song in Tokyo University.’

She didn’t have a trace of pride on her, despite being the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize and Hugo Award winner. He had heard that Raphael Gregorovitch lived partly in Moscow and California – and had a pair of twins – Demyan and Diana Gregorovitch. Additionally, the two of them were the grandchildren of the legendary Howard Moritz, whose unfinished work, Spectrum, was completed by Raphael himself.

First, Iskender and now her. I’ll be in the company of great people.

‘Me too,’ he said. ‘So, are you boarding in the university dorms?’ He tried his best to control his sense of awe.

‘No.’ Diana replied,’ Demyan and I have booked two hotel rooms. By the way, it’s great to talk to a Peruvian, Hendrix. I’ve never been to the south before.’

‘Is that so? Well, there are a lot of things that make Peru attractive.’

He found her company warm, and they chatted about many things.

 

 

From afar, a boy, fall taller than an average Japanese but with the features of one looked at the pair.

He was only interested in the boy. After all, it was his university that he’d be visiting. His mother had told him all about the Latin American before she died.

The king’s bastard, Hendrix Delvano. It wasn’t difficult finding him on Facebook.

Yamato Senjougahara felt adrenaline rush into his lean body – the black eyes sparkled with delight.

I’ve been waiting for you all this time. Together, our revenge will be sweet.


 

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Now this was pretty stressful to write, compared to all the others so far. As you might have correctly guessed, The Chessboard will be continued in a sequel, which will probably be named ‘Swan Song’. It will feature characters from all the stories in this blog, that is, The Game, Catalyst, Request, Spectrum and this one to bring the entire fictional universe  to a grand conclusion. So yes, before starting Swan Song, please see to that you’ve read( and remember) all the previous stories.

Swan Song will be released somewhere in 2017, as it will entail a very complex plot design, remaining true to the previous characters and their back stories that I’ve been creating since 2014. This has been a big project- and so far, thoroughly enjoyable.

Lastly, for The Chessboard- I’m sorry, but I was growing tired of happy endings, though I promise you that its sequel might be a bit more optimistic. As far as references- they are the usual many. I’ve tried incorporating the traits of two of my fellow members at Brownian Emotions, Bharath and Shrayani, into Gerard and Axalia, also taking into account Sourima’s love for gore(which I, personally, am a bit scared of). Moreover, thanks to my sister for the proofreading. Hope you enjoyed this one! ~Rayan

Advertisements

One thought on “The Chessboard

  1. Very interesting and complex characters. Wonderful writing. Enjoyed the read a lot. I have nothing to add to improve. Let me read all your stories and get ready for swan song. All the best. Looking forward to it. All the best. 🙂

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s