“Here you go.”
Grend accepted the beer, squatted, passed the umbrella back to Martin.
“I’m still white?”
“Pawn to King six.”
“About the best thing for me to do would be to take this pawn with this one.”
“‘I’d say. Then I’ll just knock off your knight with this one.”
“I guess I’ll just pull this knight back to K2.”
“…And I’ll take this one over to B3. May I have another beer?”
An hour and a quarter later, Martin resigned. The rain had let up and he had folded the umbrella.
“Another game?” Grend asked.
The afternoon wore on. The pressure was off. This one was just for fun. Martin tried wild combinations, seeing ahead with great clarity, as he had that one day…
“Stalemate,” Grend announced much later. “That was a good one, though. You picked up considerably.”
“I was more relaxed. Want another?”
“Maybe in a little while. Tell me more about bars now.”
So he did. Finally, “How is all that beer affecting you?” he asked.
“I’m a bit dizzy. But that’s all right. I’ll still cream you the third game.”
And he did.
“Not bad for a human, though. Not bad at all. You coming back next month?”
“Good. You’ll bring more beer?”
“So long as my money holds out.”
“Oh. Bring some plaster of paris then. I’ll make you some nice footprints and you can take casts of them. I understand they’re going for quite a bit.”
“I’ll remember that.”
Martin lurched to his feet and collected the chess set.
Martin dusted and polished again, moved in the player piano and scattered sawdust upon the floor. He installed a fresh keg. He hung some reproductions of period posters and some atrocious old paintings he had located in a junk shop. He placed cuspidors in strategic locations. When he was finished, he seated himself at the bar and opened a bottle of mineral water. He listened to the New Mexico wind moaning as it passed, to grains of sand striking against the windowpanes. He wondered whether the whole world would have that dry, mournful sound to it if Tlingel found a means for doing away with humanity, or—disturbing thought—whether the successors to his own kind might turn things into something resembling the mythical morning land.
This troubled him for a time. Then he went and set up the board through Black’s P-Q3. When he turned back to clear the bar he saw a line of cloven hoofprints advancing across the sawdust.
“Good evening, Tlingel,” he said. “What is your pleasure?”
Suddenly, the unicorn was there, without preliminary pyrotechnics. It moved to the bar and placed one hoof upon the brass rail.
As Martin drew the beer, Tlingel looked about.
“The place has improved, a bit.”
“Glad you think so. Would you care for some music?”
Martin fumbled at the back of the piano, locating the switch for the small, battery-operated computer which controlled the pumping mechanism and substituted its own memory for rolls. The keyboard immediately came to life.
“Very good,” Tlingel stated. “Have you found your move?”
“Then let us be about it.”
He refilled the unicorn’s mug and moved it to the table, along with his own.
“Pawn to King six,” he said, executing it.
“Give me a minute. I want to study this.”
“Take your time.”
“I’ll take the pawn,” Tlingel said, after a long pause and another mug.
“Then I’ll take this knight.”
Later, “Knight to K2,” Tlingel said.
“Knight to B3.”
An extremely long pause ensued before Tlingel moved the Knight to N3.
The hell with asking Grend, Martin suddenly decided. He’d been through this part any number of times already. He moved his Knight to N5.
“Change the tune on that thing!” Tlingel snapped.
Martin rose and obliged.
“I don’t like that one either. Find a better one or shut it off!”
After three more tries, Martin shut it off.
“And get me another beer!”
He refilled their mugs.
Tlingel moved the Bishop to K2.
Keeping the unicorn from castling had to be the most important thing at the moment. So Martin moved his Queen to R5. Tlingel made a tiny, strangling noise, and when Martin looked up smoke was curling from the unicorn’s nostrils.
“If you please.”
As he returned with it, he saw Tlingel move the Bishop to capture the Knight. There seemed no choice for him at that moment, but he studied the position for a long while anyhow.
Finally, “Bishop takes bishop,” he said.
“How’s the warm glow?”
The wind rose again, began to howl. The building creaked.
“Okay,” Tlingel finally said, and moved the Queen to Q2.
Martin stared. What was he doing? So far, it had gone all right, but—He listened again to the wind and thought of the risk he was taking.
“That’s all, folks,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Continued next month.”
“Don’t run off. Fetch me another. Let me tell you of my wanderings in your world this past month.”
“Looking for weak links?”
“You’re lousy with them. How do you stand it?”
“They’re harder to strengthen than you might think. Any advice?”
“Get the beer.”
They talked until the sky paled in the east, and Martin found himself taking surreptitious notes. His admiration for the unicorn’s analytical abilities increased as the evening advanced.
When they finally rose, Tlingel staggered.
“You all right?”
“Forgot to detox, that’s all. Just a second. Then I’ll be fading.”
“I could use one, too.”
“Oh. Grab hold, then.”
Tlingel’s head descended and Martin took the tip of the horn between his fingertips. Immediately, a delicious, warm sensation flowed through him. He closed his eyes to enjoy it. His head cleared. An ache which had been growing within his frontal sinus vanished. The tiredness went out of his muscles. He opened his eyes again.
Tlingel had vanished. He held out a handful of air.
“Rael here is my friend,” Grend stated. “He’s a griffin.”
Martin nodded at the beaked, golden-winged creature.
“Pleased to meet you, Rael.”
“The same,” cried the other in a high-pitched voice. “Have you got the beer?”
“I’ve been telling him about beer,” Grend explained, half-apologetically. “He can have some of mine. He won’t kibitz or anything like that.”
“Sure. All right. Any friend of yours…”
“The beer!” Rael cried. “Bars!”
“He’s not real bright,” Grend whispered. “But he’s good company. I’d appreciate your humoring him.”
Martin opened the first six-pack and passed the griffin and the sasquatch a beer apiece. Rael immediately punctured the can with his beak, chugged it, belched and held out his claw.
“Beer!” he shrieked. “More beer!”
Martin handed him another.
“Say, you’re still into that first game, aren’t you?” Grend observed, studying the board. “Now, that is an interesting position.”
Grend drank and studied the board.
“Good thing it’s not raining,” Martin commented.
“Oh, it will. Just wait a while.”
“More beer!” Rael screamed.
Martin passed him another without looking.
“I’ll move my pawn to N6,” Grend said.
“Nope. Then you’ll take that pawn with your bishop’s pawn. Right?”
Martin reached out and did it.
“Okay. Now I’ll just swing this knight to Q5.”
Martin took it with the Pawn.
Grend moved his Rook to Kl.
“Check,” he announced.
“Yes. That is the way to go,” Martin observed.
“I’m going to win this game another time,” he said.
“I wouldn’t put it past you.”
“More beer?” Rael said softly.
As Martin passed him another, he noticed that the griffin was now leaning against the treetrunk.
After several minutes, Martin pushed his King to Bl.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d do,” Grend said.
“You know something?”
“You play a lot like a unicorn.”
Grend moved his Rook to R3.
Later, as the rain descended gently about them and Grend beat him again, Martin realized that a prolonged period of silence had prevailed. He glanced over at the griffin. Rael had tucked his head beneath his left wing, balanced upon one leg, leaned heavily against the tree and gone to sleep.
“I told you he wouldn’t be much trouble,” Grend remarked.
Two games later, the beer was gone, the shadows were lengthening and Rael was stirring.
“See you next month?”
“You bring any plaster of pads?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Come on, then. I know a good place pretty far from here. We don’t want people beating about these bushes. Let’s go make you some money.”
“To buy beer?” Rael said, looking out from under his wing.
“Next month,” Grend said.
“I don’t think you could carry both of us,” said Grend, “and I’m not sure I’d want to right now if you could.”
“Bye-bye then,” Rael shrieked, and he leaped into the air, crashing into branches and treetrunks, finally breaking through the overhead cover and vanishing.