I was wandering through a dense forest where shafts of morning light occasionally broke through the trees, and as I came to an open clearing I saw a white castle high up on the hill. There was a procession of knights and horses and banners coming down the hill from the castle, and there was a princess with blonde hair and a long purple gown at the head of the procession. From the other direction, a crowd of common men were approaching, an unruly mass of burlap and black leather. They met in the middle of the field, as though for a duel, and they stood waiting as an old white-haired man, the personal attendant to the princess, scuttled out from the procession and set up a table and a chessboard in the space between them. As the attendant laid out the board and the pieces, the princess stared with a cold and haughty expression, as though holding eye contact with every man in the crowd.
The princess was an extremely skilled chess player, and it had been ordained that a man would have to beat her in a game of chess before he could ask for her hand in marriage. No one had decided on this stipulation; it was simply the way that it had to be. Certainly neither her mother nor her father had wanted it this way. They wouldn’t have wanted any unnecessary obstacles in the way of their daughter’s happiness or their kingdom’s stability. And the princess herself hadn’t asked for this stipulation either. In fact, from the way that she took her seat at her side of the chessboard, pouting and petulantly shooing away the attendant that kept fussing over her, it was quite clear that she resented the whole arrangement.
However, despite her resentment, she could not throw a match out of disinterest or from an inclination to let one of her suitors win. They had to beat her fairly and honestly. This was either part of the stipulation or it was simply due to the fact that the princess was such a naturally skilled player that she was incapable of not seeing through the game to unravel the most brilliant strategies and calculate the most complex moves with the meer flick of a piece. In either event, it was clear, as the day wore on and one opponent after another was dismissed from the table in defeat, that she was growing impatient with the whole ordeal. She lounged sideways in her chair, not even facing the board and barely bothering to look at it, making her moves with the thought of a moment and rolling her eyes. And yet, she won match after match. If she could have thrown a game, she would have, just to be done with it.
A variety of men came to take their place on the opposite side of the board. They came with a variety of attitudes and demeanors. Some scratched their heads, bewildered by the game, and they stared at the board with their mouths open, shocked and crestfallen when the princess eliminated them with four or five easy moves. Others came smirking, sly and cocky. They would make their moves and then sit back with arms folded, holding their gaze steady on the princess. They tried to sneak their pieces around her. They would lay subtle traps. She flicked aside their pawns and rooks and bishops like they were clothes pins. They blinked at the board in disbelief before the attendant ushered them away. Then there were the older men in the crowd, the ones who had studied with the greatest grand masters in the realm. They pushed their way to the front, eager to display their skills before their peers. The princess laughed out loud at every one of them and she sighed impatiently as she countered all of their obvious textbook maneuvers.
The crowd thinned as more and more men left in defeat until, finally, there was just one man left. He had blonde hair, much the same shade as the princess herself. He took his place at the board with a simple, openhearted expression on his face. He gave the princess a bright, warm smile and then he bent to scrutinize the pieces laid out before him. The princess cast a knowing look at her attendant and shook her head. But after the man survived the opening exchanges and matched her ploys move for move, she began to sit up straighter. She turned to face the board. She leaned forward, her eyes narrowing in on her pieces, plotting her moves. And from time to time, she looked up at the man across from her, studying him as well.
With the crowd gone and only the players and the procession remaining, it was quiet on the field. Bees buzzed among the scattered wildflowers that had sprouted up here and there in the grass. The knights in their armor had dismounted and they stretched lazily on the ground, while their horses occasionally knickered and swung their heads. The banners stirred in the breeze. The attendant tapped the princess on the shoulder and hesitantly broached the subject of taking a break for tea. The princess just glared at him until he finally nodded and slunk away.
The game went on with long pauses between moves, as pieces both white and black fell from the board one by one. It was the princess plying her strategies now, probing for weaknesses, trying to get an angle on her opponent. The blonde-haired man matched each of her moves easily, as though he had anticipated them, as though he knew her heart and her mind. Something like hope, maybe even love, stirred in her eyes as she gazed across the table at him. She placed her knight and he slid his rook out of harm. She maneuvered her bishop and he blocked her play with a pawn. She made a fatal mistake with her queen and she gasped as he plucked it from the board. She looked at her remaining pieces, struggling to formulate a defense. Her pulse quickened. He had the advantage. There was an actual chance that he might win.
But then he made the wrong move at the wrong moment and he left his king vulnerable. She saw it immediately. She didn’t want to see it, but she couldn’t help but see it. Tears formed in her eyes as she moved her piece into position and whispered under her breath, “Checkmate.” He shook his head in denial. His fingers flexed over the board. There had to be a move! There had to be something! It couldn’t be over just like that! But it was. She was right. The tear rolled down her cheek as the attendant came and took her from the table. I saw her look back one last time as the procession started away, and then the horses and banners streamed back up the hill to the castle and out of sight. And the blonde-haired man was left alone on the field, sitting before the chessboard, wondering how he’d lost it all.