Just as Pliny was about to make his move, Lucius lighted up the silver laden tobacco pipe.
“I don’t like smoking during a game, Lucius.” Pliny had rigid rules regarding the conduct of a game, and nobody broke them, even if he were a member of the Senate.
“My sweet Pliny, you know I can’t live without tobacco, it’s a necessity of life for me.” As Lucius tried to explain the transgression, his eyes never left Pliny’s hands hovering above the board, not making any move. Seconds passed by, and it stayed there, not moving an inch.
“Fine,” Lucius growled as he threw down the pipe, “Make your move.” A wry smile escaped Pliny’s otherwise blank face as he completed the move.
“Aha. I did not anticipate that. But your King is now unprotected, my friend”, Lucius had the devilish look of a commander witnessing his opponent stepping into a well-laid trap. “As I have always told you, whether you’re in a war or a game of chess, never leave your flanks open.” The black knight moved closer to the white King, cutting off its retreat.
Pliny remained unperturbed while he moved his pawn and promoted it. “And as I say, never underestimate the infantry,” He spoke with a malicious smile, “My dear Lucius, it seems like your King could be in trouble.”
Lucius could scarcely believe his eyes. “You white devil. You cunning old fox.” He rose in indignation. “You have tricked me !!”
Before Pliny could respond, one of the servants interjected. “Master Lucius. The last boat will leave in half an hour. You need to move quickly.” It was clear from the gasps that he had run a great distance to deliver this message.
“Go away, fool,” Lucius growled, “I need to teach someone a lesson in warfare.”
“But master Lucius, you will miss the boat. It’s the last one.” The servant seemed aghast.
“I said, go away.” Lucius thundered in his old general’s voice.
“Let us play the game, young man. Now go, shoot.” Pliny dismissed the servant with a gesture, who stood rooted to his spot for a few more seconds, staring at the two men engaged in a game of chess with an incredulous look on his face, and then ran away.
“What was your servant so excited about?” Pliny wondered.
“Don’t you remember, they are evacuating the town for some reason.”
“Then shouldn’t we leave? He said its the last boat.”
Lucius felt insulted by this suggestion. “Pliny me friend, you are sitting in the presence of a State Councilor. The boat won’t Presently, nothing is more important than this game.” Lucius sat down and lingered over the board as he pondered his next move while Pliny picked up the pipe and casually inspected it.
Meanwhile, the servant ran out of the quiet mansion into a city seized by mass hysteria and confusion. Storm clouds raged in the leaden sky and a storm brewed in the tides threatened the last few boats leaving a mob clamored over the few remaining seats onboard the last boats as out of the city. In the background of all this, the top of a giant volcano glowed red hot. Pompeii’s final judgement was to be decided in a few minutes.
This alternate historical account of Mount Vesuvius's eruption in 79 AD is inspired by "Shatranj ke Khilari" - an Indian short story from 1924 written by the venerated Hindi writer, Munshi Premchand.