The only goal in chess is to prove your superiority over the other guy. And the most important superiority, the most total one, is the superiority of the mind. I mean, your opponent must be destroyed. Fully destroyed.
-Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, world chess champion
Zagorsk Monastery, Russia
Solarin gripped his little daughter’s mittened hand firmly in his own. He could hear the snow crunch beneath his boots and see their breath rise in silvery puffs, as together they crossed the impregnable walled park of Zagorsk: Troitse- Sergiev Lavra, the Exalted Trinity Monastery of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, the patron saint of Russia. They were both bundled to the teeth in clothes they’d managed to forage --- thick wool scarves, fur cossack caps, greatcoats --- against this unexpected onslaught of winter in the midst of what should have been Zhensheena Lieta: the Women’s Summer. But the biting wind penetrated to the core.
Why had he brought her here to Russia, a land that held so many bitter memories from his past? When he was just a child himself, when Stalin had reigned, hadn’t he witnessed the destruction of his own family in the dead of night? He’d survived the cruel disciplines of the orphanage where he ’d been left in the Republic of Georgia, and those long, bleak years at the Palace of Young Pioneers, only because they’d learned how very well the young boy, Aleksandr Solarin, could play chess.
Cat had begged him not to risk coming here, not to risk bringing their child here. Russia was dangerous, she ’d insisted, and Solarin himself had not been back to his homeland in twenty years. But his wife ’s biggest fear had always been not of Russia but of the game --- the game that had cost them both so much. The game that, more than once, had nearly destroyed their life together.
Solarin was here for a game of chess, a critical game, the last game of the weeklong competition. And he knew it did not bode well that this, the final game, had suddenly been relocated to this particular location, so far from town.
Zagorsk, still called by its Soviet name, was the oldest of the lavras, or exalted monasteries, forming a ring of fortress- monasteries that had defended Moscow for six hundred years, since the Middle Ages, when, with the blessing of Saint Sergius, they had driven back the Mongol hordes. But today it was richer and more powerful than ever: Its museums and churches were packed with rare icons and bejeweled reliquaries, its coffers stuffed with gold. Despite its wealth, or perhaps because of it, the Moscow church seemed to have enemies everywhere.
It was only two years since the bleak, gray Soviet Empire had collapsed with a pouf --- two years of glasnost and perestroika and turmoil. But the Moscow Orthodox Church, as if born again, had risen like a phoenix from the ashes. Bogoiskatelstvo --- “the Search for God” --- was on everyone ’s lips. A medieval chant. All the cathedrals, churches, and basilikas around Moscow had been granted new life, lavished with money and a fresh coat of paint.
Even sixty kilometers out here in rural Sergiev Posad, Zagorsk’s vast park was a sea of newly refurbished edifices, their turrets and onion domes lacquered in rich, jewel- like colors: blue and cranberry and green, all splashed with gold stars. It was, thought Solarin, as if seventy- five years of repression could no longer be contained and had suddenly exploded in a confetti of feverish color. But inside the walls of these bastions, he knew, the darkness remained.
It was a darkness Solarin was all too familiar with, even if it had changed its hue. As if to reinforce this truth, guards were stationed every few yards along the high parapets and the interior perimeter of the wall, each wearing a black leather jacket with high collar and mirrored sunglasses, each with a bulging gun strapped beneath his arm and a walkie- talkie in hand. Such men were always the same, regardless of the era: like the ever- present KGB who’d escorted Solarin everywhere, back in the days when he himself had been one of the greatest of Soviet grandmasters.
But the men here, Solarin knew, were the infamous Secret Service belonging to the “Mafia Monks of Moscow,” as they were called throughout Russia. It was rumored that the Russian church had formed a less- than- holy alliance with disaffected members of the KGB, Red Army, and other “nationalist” movements. Indeed, that was Solarin’s very fear: It was the monks of Zagorsk who had arranged for today’s game.
As they passed the Church of the Holy Spirit and headed across the open court toward the Vestry, where the game would soon take place, Solarin glanced down at his daughter, Alexandra --- little Xie --- her small hand still grasping his. She smiled up at him, her green eyes filled with confidence, and his heart nearly broke with the beauty of her. How could he and Cat have created such a creature?
Solarin had never known fear --- real fear --- until he had a child of his own. Right now, he tried not to think of the armed and thuglike guards glaring down at them from atop each wall. He knew he was walking with his child into the lion’s den and he was sick at heart at the thought of it --- but he knew it was inevitable.
Chess was everything to his daughter. Without it, she was a fish taken out of the water. Perhaps this was his fault, too --- perhaps it was in her genes. And though everyone had opposed it --- most especially her mother --- he knew this would surely be the most important tournament of Xie ’s young life.
Through it all, and through a week of abysmal cold, snow, and sleet, the awful tournament food --- black bread, black tea, and gruel --- Xie had remained undaunted. She seemed not to notice anything outside the domain of the chessboard itself. All week, she’d played like a Stakhanoviste, raking in point after point in game after game, a hod carrier stacking up bricks. In the week, she ’d lost only one game. They both knew she must not lose another.
He ’d had to bring her here, hadn’t he? It was only at this tournament --- here at Zagorsk today, where the last game would take place --- where his young daughter’s future would be decided. She must win today, this last game at Zagorsk. For they both knew that this was the game that could make Alexandra “Xie” Solarin --- who was not yet twelve --- the youngest grandmaster of chess, male or female, in the history of the game.
Xie tugged her father’s hand and unwrapped her muffler so she could speak. “Don’t worry, Papa. I’ll beat him this time.”
The one she referred to was Vartan Azov, the young chess wizard from Ukraine, only a year older than Xie and the only player in the tournament so far to have defeated her. But he hadn’t really defeated Xie; Xie had lost on her own.
Against young Azov, she had played the King’s Indian Defense --- one of her favorites, Solarin knew, for it allowed the valiant Black Knight (in the guise of her father and tutor) to leap to the front over the heads of the other pieces, and take charge. After a daring Queen sacrifice that brought murmurs from the crowd and gave her the center board, it appeared that Solarin’s fearlessly aggressive little warrior would --- at the very least --- go over the Reichenbach Falls and take young Professor Azov with her in a deathlike embrace. But it wasn’t to be.
There was a name for it: Amaurosis Scacchistica. Chess blindness. Every player had experienced it at one time in his career. They preferred to call it a “blunder” --- the failure to spot a truly obvious danger. Solarin had experienced it once, when really young. As he recalled, it felt like falling down a well, tumbling in free fall with no sense of which end was up.
In all the games Xie had ever played, it had happened to her only once. But twice, Solarin knew, was one time too many for a mistake like this. It could not happen again today.
Before they reached the Vestry where the game would take place, Solarin and Xie encountered an unexpected human barricade: a long line of drab women in threadbare overclothes and babushkas, who had queued up in the snow awaiting the perpetual daily memorial services, outside the charnel house of the famous Troitsky Sobor --- the Trinity Church of Saint Sergius, where the saint’s bones were buried. These pitiful creatures --- there must have been fifty or sixty of them --- were all crossing themselves in the compulsive Orthodox fashion, as if seized by a mass religious frenzy, as they gazed up at the portrait of Our Savior high on the outer church wall.
These women, as they moaned and prayed in the whirling snow, formed a barrier nearly as impenetrable as the armed guards posted high on the parapets. And in the old Soviet tradition, they refused to budge or part ranks to let anyone pass through their queue. Solarin could scarcely wait to get past them.
As he picked up his pace to skirt the long queue, over the women’s heads Solarin glimpsed the facade of the Art Museum, and just beyond, the Vestry and treasury, where they were headed for the game.
The museum’s facade had been festooned with a large, colorful banner displaying a painting and hand- printed words that announced, in Cyrillic and English: SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS OF SOVIET PALEKH ART.
Palekh art were those lacquered paintings that often depicted scenes from fairy tales and other peasant themes. They’d long been the only primitive or “superstitious” art acceptable to the Communist regime and they adorned everything in Russia, from miniature papierm‰chŽ boxes to the walls of the Pioneers’ Palace itself, where Solarin --- with fifty other boys --- had practiced his defenses and counterattacks for more than twelve years. As he had had no access all that time to storybooks, cartoons, or films, the Palekh illustrations of these ancient tales had been young Aleksandr’s only access to the realm of fantasy.
The painting on this banner was one with which he was well acquainted, a famous one. It seemed to remind him of something important. He studied it carefully as he and Xie picked their way around the long line of zealously praying women.
It was a rendering of the most famous Russian fairy tale, the story of the Firebird. There were many versions that had inspired great art, literature, and music, from Pushkin to Stravinsky. This picture on the banner was the scene where Prince Ivan, hiding in his father the tsar’s gardens all night, finally sights the luminous bird that had been eating his father’s golden apples, and he tries to capture her. The Firebird escapes, leaving just one of her fabulous magical feathers in Ivan’s grasp.
This was the well- known work of Alexander Kotukhin that hung in the Pioneers’ Palace. He was one of the first generation of Palekh artists from the 1930s, who was said to have hidden secret messages within the symbols he used in his paintings that the State censors couldn’t always easily interpret --- though the illiterate peasantry could. Solarin wondered what this decades- old message had meant, and to whom.
At last they reached the end of the long line of waiting women. As Solarin and Xie curved back to head toward the Vestry, a stooped old woman in a babushka and threadbare sweater and carrying a tin pail left her place in the queue and brushed past them --- still crossing herself fervently. She bumped into Xie, bowed an apology, and continued across the yard.
When she ’d passed, Solarin felt Xie tugging his hand. He glanced down to see his daughter extracting a small embossed cardboard placard from her pocket --- a ticket or pass to the Palekh exhibit, for it bore the same picture as the banner.
“Where did this come from?” he asked, although he was afraid he knew. He glanced after the woman, but she’d vanished across the park.
“That lady put it into my pocket,” Xie was saying.
When he looked down again, his daughter had flipped over the card, and Solarin snatched it away. On the back was pasted a small illustration of a flying bird set inside an Islamic eight- pointed star, and three words were printed in Russian.
Reading these words, Solarin felt the blood pulsing in his temples. He glanced quickly in the direction the old woman had gone, but she seemed to have vanished. Then he saw something flicker at the far periphery of the walled fortress; emerging from the copse of trees, she was vanishing again around the far corner of the Tsar’s Chambers --- a distance of more than one hundred paces.
Just before she disappeared, she turned to glance over her shoulder directly at Solarin, and he --- who had been about to follow her --- halted in shock. Even at this distance, he could make out those pale blue eyes, the wisp of silvery- blond hair escaping from her scarf. This was no old crone, but a woman of great beauty and infinite mystery.
And more. It was a face he knew. A face he had imagined he would never see again in this life.
Then she was gone.
He heard himself speak. “It cannot be.”
How could it be? People do not rise from the dead. And if they did, they would not look the same after fifty years.
“Do you know that lady, Papa?” Xie asked in a whisper so no one could hear.
Solarin dropped to one knee in the snow beside his daughter and tossed his arms about her, burying his face in her muffler. He felt like weeping.
“For a moment she looked familiar,” he said to Xie. “But I’m sure I do not.”
He squeezed her harder, as if he could wring her out. In all these years, he had never lied to his daughter. Not until now. But what could he tell her?
“And what does her card say?” Xie whispered in his ear. “The one with the flying bird?”
“Apahsnah --- it means ‘danger,’ ” Solarin told her, trying to pull himself together.
For God’s sake, what was he thinking? This was a fantasy brought on by a week of stress and bad food and miserable cold. He must be strong. He got to his feet and pressed his daughter’s shoulder between his fingers. “But perhaps the only danger here is of you forgetting your practice!” He gave a smile that Xie did not return.
“What do the other words say?” she asked.
“Byrihgyees pahzhar,” he told her. “I think it’s just a reference to the firebird or phoenix in this picture here.” Solarin paused and looked at her. “In English, it means, ‘Beware the fire.’ ” He took a deep breath. “Now let’s go inside,” he said, “so you can beat the pants off of that Ukrainian patzer!”
From the moment they entered the Vestry of Sergiev Lavra, Solarin knew something was wrong. The walls were cold and damp, depressing like everything else in the so- called Women’s Summer. He thought of the woman’s message. What did it mean?
Taras Petrossian, the dashing nouveau capitalist tournament organizer, in his expensive Italian suit, was handing a large wad of rubles as a pourboire to a skinny monk with a big ring of keys, who’d unlocked the building for the game. Petrossian, it was said, had made his fortune through under- the- table dealings in the several designer restaurants and nightclubs he owned. There was a colloquial word for it in Russian: blat. Connections.
The armed thugs had already penetrated the inner sanctum --- hey lurked everywhere in the Vestry, leaning conspicuously against the walls, and not just for warmth. Among other things, this low, squat, unobtrusive building served as the monastery’s treasury.
The glut of the medieval church’s gold and jewels were displayed on pedestals in brightly lit glass cases scattered around the floor. It would be hard to concentrate on chess, thought Solarin, with all this blinding glitter --- but there was the young Vartan Azov, already seated beside the chessboard, his large dark eyes focused upon them as they entered the room. Xie left her father and went to greet him. Solarin thought --- not for the first time --- that he would like to watch Xie wipe the board with the arrogant brat.
He had to wipe that message from his mind. What did the woman mean? Danger? Beware the fire? And that face he could never forget, a face from his darkest dreams, his nightmares, his worst horrors ---
And then he saw it. In a glass display case far across the room.
Solarin walked as in a dream across the wide-open floor of the Vestry and he stood looking down at the large glass case.
Within was a sculpture he had also thought he would never see again --- something as impossible and as dangerous as the face of that woman he’d glimpsed outside. Something that had been buried, something long ago and far away. Yet here it was before him.
It was a heavy gold carving, caked with jewels. It portrayed a figure dressed in long robes and seated in a small pavilion with the draperies drawn back.
“The Black Queen,” whispered a voice just beside him. Solarin looked down to see the dark eyes and tousled hair of Vartan Azov.
“Discovered only recently,” the boy went on, “in the cellar of the Hermitage in Petersburg --- along with Schliemann’s treasures of Troy. They say this once belonged to Charlemagne and was hidden --- perhaps since the French Revolution. It may have been in possession of Catherine the Great of Russia. This is the first time it has been shown in public since it was found.” Vartan paused. “It was brought here for this game.”
Solarin was blinded by terror. He could hear nothing further. They had to depart at once. For this piece was theirs --- the most important piece of all those they had captured and buried. How could it be surfacing here in Russia, when they had buried it twenty years ago, thousands of miles away?
Danger, beware the fire? Solarin had to get out of this place and get some air, he had to escape with Xie right now, the game be damned. Cat had been right all along, but he couldn’t see the whole picture yet --- he couldn’t see the board for the pieces.
Solarin nodded politely to Vartan Azov and crossed the room in a few swift strides. He took Xie by the hand and headed for the door.
“Papa,” said Xie in confusion, “where are we going?”
“To see that lady,” he said cryptically, “the lady who gave you the card.”
“But what about the game?”
She would forfeit if she wasn’t there when they started the clocks. She would lose everything they had worked so long and hard for. But he had to know. He stepped outside, holding her hand.
From the top of the Vestry steps, he saw her across the park. The woman was standing at the gates, looking across the space at Solarin with love and understanding. He had been right about her. But then her look changed to one of fear, as she glanced up toward the parapet.
It was only another instant before Solarin followed her gaze and saw the guard, perched on the parapet high above, the gun in his hand. Without thinking, Solarin shoved Xie behind him for protection and glanced back at the woman.
“Mother,” he said.
And the next thing he saw was the fire in his head.
Excerpted from THE FIRE © Copyright 2011 by Katherine Neville. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.