"You really are a self-centered prick." Though she says it to see a reaction on his eternally passive face, even as the words leave her mouth, she knows they are true.
He lifts his eyes from the board in front of him, and looks at her over the top of his glasses. “And you, my dear, are a coward.” The words are coated in sarcasm.
As she watches him make a small adjustment to his formation, she thinks that she should have known better than to expect any other reaction.
He evaluates the adjustment he’s just made, nods slightly, then leans back in his chair and takes a sip of his Merlot. A small satisfied smile hovers around his mouth.
She considers the board. Nothing is ever as it seems when playing with him. She suspects he has laid a trap for her, one of his favorite gambits, and that little smile reinforces the suspicion. He is a master at building a false sense of security in his opponents, allowing them the illusion of success. He dangles victory before their eyes, almost close enough to grasp. Like a hungry animal lured by the scent of nourishment, many times she has reached for it, only to tumble into one of his traps and lose the game in a heartbeat.
The game is treacherous. When she first discovered it, she lurked, watching others play and admiring their skill. It most reminded her of sitting in the game park at Washington Square, watching the players who congregated there, hunched over their boards. As she had in the park, she finally mustered up the courage to get in the game, only to be trounced royally and in short order.
In subsequent battles, her game improved, but a win always stayed just out of reach. And she has developed her skills over time; she knows that. Since she entered the game, she has won some of her rounds with the other players. But he is a master strategist, and she has never managed to outwit him. As much as it irks her to admit it, she knows that the challenge she faces in her sorties against him must be given credit for honing her game play.
Now, as she studies the field, she sees no obvious trap. In fact, she sees little she can do to move her position forward. With his last move, he moved one of his lieutenants a few paces to the left, tightening a gap in the security of his line. Of course. She’d been planning to slip a scout through that unprotected opening and ambush him from the rear. Time to devise an alternative strategy.
“Sometime today would be nice, sweetheart,” he says, strumming his fingers lightly on the tabletop.
She knows he is trying to distract her and she ignores him, keeping her focus on the board. That’s been her problem all along. His diversions are often successful with her. She notes that the other players seldom fall for his ploys, and though it doesn’t happen often, every one of them can claim a victory.
Of course, the other players, save one, didn’t fall into bed with him either. Big mistake. B.I.G. mistake. She feels the fool every time she thinks of how easily she was seduced. When he shone his considerable charm -- which he could turn on and off as easily as flicking a switch, damn him – in her direction, she was toast. She fell, as surely as her troops eventually fall in the game.
She shakes off the thought. Holding her breath slightly, she positions her squad in the burned out village just south of his line, and then moves one of her courtesans out of the building where she’s been concealed, and into the open. It’s risky to step into the open so early in the game, but she’s hoping it catches him by surprise. After all, risky moves have not been her forte. It’s not for no reason that she has earned the epithet of “coward” from him. Since the beginning, he’s been encouraging her to get outside her comfort zone. All her life, she has operated on the belief that until one is sure of a safe landing, jumping off a cliff is best avoided. But she’s finally coming to realize that he may be right: timidity wins no wars.
She lifts her glass to her lips and takes a sip of her wine, willing her heart to settle down. And this is the problem. She has never been able to handle risk well. Her palms moisten, her breath becomes short, and her heart pounds as though trying to escape her body. Her “tells,” which she knows he is able to read. Heaven knows, he has called her on them often enough. She fights to hide her nervousness as watches him study the board. She prays the risk will pay off, rather than bringing the swift defeat she has become so familiar with.
Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
She watches the smug look creep across his face. He’s going to take the bait. She knows he sees her move as foolish, placing a member of her team out in the open and exposing her position. And she knows he smells victory in her apparent vulnerability. She represses her own smug smile as she thinks, That’s not victory you smell, pal. That’s a whore’s perfume, which I knew you couldn’t resist.
He turns his squad and moves them to surround the village, deploying a pentagram gambit.
He raises his glass to her in mock salute.
His eyes gleam with their own message. “Was there ever any doubt?” She knows that there was never any doubt that his intent was to crush her, to “take her out,” as he always has.
She allows him a few moments to gloat, then she moves each member of her team from concealment. The move puts every one of his squad into a direct line of fire. Even the whores have a weapon trained on them.
She lifts her eyes to look into his astonished face as she drains her glass. The wine has never tasted sweeter.
Written for the Tenth Daughter of Memory.