Anjali's Red Scarf Ch. 09

Anjali's Red Scarf Ch. 09


* * * * *

Lucy and I had lunch together the next day at a Chinese-Vietnamese noodle house.

"Sorry about last night," she said. "That was kind of shit."

"It sure was. Maybe we can find another place—"

"Actually, Sarah, I was about to tell you... Trev already has one lined up. Tuesday nights at the Swan. You and Anjali are very welcome, but I think I'll give it a miss. Don't let me stop you, though."

"Oh no! How come?"

She scowled. "I'm trying to cut down on the amount of my social life that involves alcohol."

"Oh. Fair enough." I hadn't really paid attention to her drinking when we'd been out, but in hindsight, that would explain a few things.

"But like I said, don't let me discourage you from going. I know you two would still be very welcome on the team."

I thought about it. "We could do something else? Doesn't have to be trivia."

"Sarah, that's very kind of you to say, but Trev is a creature of habit and he's got his heart set on this new place."

"No, I meant us."

"Like, you and me?"

"And Anjali."

"Oh, yes, and Anjali."

She was frowning, so I tried to reassure her. "I'm not much of a drinker anyway. I'm happy to find something else, and... Trev is nice and all, but I enjoy hanging out with you, and I know Anjali does too."

"Aw, shucks. What were you thinking?"

"Hadn't got that far yet, but I'm sure I can think of something. By the way, what's 'Elsa time'?"

"Oh, that?" She smiled faintly. "Joke between Trev and me. It means 'let it go'."

* * * * *

Anjali and I had a date that weekend. She was helping me pick a birthday present for my mum, since I trusted her taste in clothes above my own. We'd settled on a nice jumper and we were about to tram back to my place for an afternoon of mild to moderate debauchery when I noticed a new sign: GAMES PIXIE - BOARD GAMES, CARD GAMES, RPGS - TRY OUR LIBRARY!

"Hey, Anj... Lily, how are you on board games?"

"Like Monopoly?"

I bit back an oh-god-no. "Sort of, but much better."

"I think I'd like them? I haven't played much except for a couple of sleepover parties and things when I was little. I had a roommate who played something called Magic, that looked interesting, but I was trying to save money."

"Probably a wise choice. Well, I think Lucy said she wanted to find a games group. Maybe that's something we could do? Want to give it a try first and see if you like it too?"

She smiled at me, and twirled the end of her scarf. "Madame, I am at your disposal."

It had been some years since I'd been inside a gaming shop—it had been one of those Edgar-and-me things that I'd reflexively avoided since our split—and my experiences back then hadn't always been good. Back before Ed transitioned, he'd been building a space-battle-nun army (best not to ask, really) and the only shop that carried the discontinued models he was after was the kind that comes with an invisible "no girls allowed" sign. When we managed to get the owner's attention, he'd assumed we were shopping for our boyfriends and answered us with monosyllables until we took the hint and left.

(Ed went back several years later, after the T kicked in and he'd grown out a scraggly kind of beard, and the same owner had fallen over himself to hook Ed up with an ultra-rare Mother Cruciatus Exterminatus still in her original blister-pack because "you're the sort of guy who'll appreciate her". Go figure.)

But, to my relief, Games Pixie wasn't that kind of place. The clientele were a roughly even mix of men, women, and several varieties of other, and behind the counter was a tall lady with a colourful punky 'do who smiled at us as we entered.

"Hi! Let me know if I can help with anything!"

"I was interested in the games library..."

"Sure! Two dollars gets you any game in the library for the day." She waved at a shelf in the back corner. "Just bring them back when you're done, and let us know if you find anything missing. And if you find anything you want to buy, the two dollars comes out of that."

I handed over a gold piece and we picked our way past the shiny new games in their shrink-wrap, and the even shinier dice, and the sleeves full of trading cards, and the racks of miniatures and paints, to the corner where the loaner games awaited us.

"Well, Lily, what would you like to play?"

My companion had already pulled out a box decorated with playing cards, each painted with a surreal scene. "I like the artwork on this!"

"Oh wow, that is cool... bah, minimum three players. Maybe we can try it with Lucy."

"Okay, what about this one?"

"Sure. I've heard good things about it, but never played. Let's give it a go!"

We repaired to an old pleather couch in a quiet corner behind a rack of plastic scenery and sat side by side reading through the rules together, close enough that I could feel the warmth of her leg against mine.

"...oh, so there are two different kinds of cards!"

"Yes, so these ones are the routes we're trying to connect, and these ones are what we spend to build our railroads."

"That makes sense." She pointed at New York on the map. "You know, back in the whaling days, the whaling ships used to bring their catch here to be measured?"

"Oh? I didn't know that."

"Yes, it was the whale-weigh station."

I sighed loudly.

Soon enough we were ready to play. She moved around to sit opposite me, in a high-sided armchair that made her look tiny, and for the first few turns we just picked up cards—there wasn't much we could do until we'd amassed enough to start building. I had just completed the set of greens I wanted when Anjali laid claim to the Seattle-Portland connection.

"NO, you can't do that!" I exclaimed. "I need that line!"

She picked up her piece. "I'm sorry! I can take it back if you want it!"

It took a moment to realise she was serious. When I did, I chuckled and shook my head. "It's okay, I was just trash-talking... huh, you really haven't played board games before. Hang on, time out a minute. No, leave that on the board, you earned it."

We paused the game while I shared a lesson that had taken me a long time to learn. "Different people have different playing styles. I get very competitive within the rules of the game, and I'll call people names if they're beating me, but it doesn't mean I'm really upset. It's just part of the game. And if you're not comfortable with it, I don't have to do it, so just tell me."

"Okay." She thought it over. "Like Lilabel and Tanglespine?"

It took me a moment to translate bedroom games into board game expectations. "Yeah, I guess so."

"When we played Monopoly, Mahesh used to get really angry if he lost. Usually I just let him win."

"Ah, yeah, don't do that with me. I expect you to play your best."

She nodded. "He was only five though. He'd probably be better now. Probably."

"Yeah. So, it's important that everybody agrees on a playing style they're all happy with. I know some people who cheat, like lying about their cards and so on, and that doesn't work for me. It's not the kind of game I wanted to play."

Anjali looked shocked at the idea that anybody would do this.

"Anyway, so yeah, you made a legit play and if that's what your strategy involves, you should do it. But unless you object, I will kick up a fuss about it."

She smiled. "I think that will be fine."

We resumed play. Gradually she drew her cards and laid down her lines, advancing her route one step at a time: Seattle to Portland, Portland to San Francisco, San Francisco to LA. Meanwhile I just kept on amassing more cards, occasionally building an isolated line here and there: Vancouver to Calgary, San Francisco to Salt Lake City, Houston to New Orleans.

"That's a lot of cards you're holding there," she observed, as she laid down LA to El Paso.

"It is, isn't it? Guess I should play a few." I lay down six greens, El Paso to Houston, and her face fell,

"I wanted that line!" She picked up a couple of reds.

"Really? So that means... you probably want this one too." I filled in Dallas to Houston, blocking off an obvious detour.

"Oh, that wasn't very nice, Sarah."

"How long have you known me?"

She shook her head ruefully. "Long enough to know better than to expect any kind of mercy from you."

"Good good."

She started drawing cards again, trying to repair her strategy, while I spent what I had amassed, filling in the gaps to coalesce my isolated lines into a network. El Paso to Santa Fe, Calgary to Helena, Helena to Salt Lake, Santa Fe to Denver and then Denver to Salt Lake. Then up through the east to New York, as Lily completed a laborious spiral to arrive at New Orleans via Atlanta.

(I had thought about grabbing the Nashville-to-Atlanta route, which would have ruined what I correctly assumed was her backup plan, but by that stage I knew I was well ahead and I didn't want to play meaner than I needed. From a mathematical perspective, in a zero-sum game there was no difference between gaining twenty points for my own network and forcing her to lose twenty points from hers, but I had learned at the cost of a friendship or two that human egos didn't work that way, and I didn't want her first gaming experience to put her off.)

"Ouch," she said, when we tallied up the score. "And you've never played this before?"

"No, but I've played enough other games to know some basic strategies."

Anjali nodded. "What did I do wrong, then?"

"Would I be right in thinking you looked at your routes, worked out the fastest way to link all those destinations together, and then just built it out from start to finish one line at a time?"

"Well, that was the plan, before some jerk ruined it."

I nodded. "Games like this, flexibility is usually important. If you make your plan too rigid, somebody's going to do something that destroys it. So you want to have multiple paths to victory. Like here, this line was important for me to link up Vancouver and San Fran, if you'd blocked that I would've been stuffed. So I concentrated on grabbing the important ones early on. After that, there are a lot of ways to fill in the middle, so even if you'd guessed what route I wanted to make, it would've been very expensive for you to block it. It does mean I'm probably giving away a bit more information about what I'm trying to do, but by the time you have that information, there's not much you can do to stop it."

"Oh, I see that."

"The other reason this one's easy for me is that it's not too different from some of the stuff I do for work. Trying to make things robust so they don't fall over if one link fails. So... what did you think?"

She frowned and studied the board a little while. "That was fun. I think I would like a rematch some time, but maybe we should try something different. How about the one with the hexagons? Is that the one you said you used to play with Edgar?"

"One of them, yeah, but I don't remember the rules very well. I think it's supposed to play better with three, but it works for two."

"All right, then. I think I need a coffee first. You?"

"Sure, thanks." While she was up getting drinks, I returned our first game to the shelf and started setting up the second. Sitting back on my couch in the corner, looking over the other players, I felt that comfortable sense of being among my people. Yes, I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed this.

She returned, handing me my coffee and sinking back into her chair. "So tell me more about trash-talking? Are all kinds of insults acceptable?"

"Hmm." I tried to compile my unwritten knowledge into tangible rules. "Not everything. It depends on the people you're playing with. The better you know them and the better friends you are, the ruder you can get. It's sort of... the game is to say something that they know you don't mean? So Ed used to call me an 'insufferable bitch' sometimes, and I'd call him an 'absolute shithead', and that was our way of congratulating one another for a clever play. But I wouldn't do that in front of strangers, or if Ed and I were pissed off with one another. And you wouldn't go for something that was actually a sore point with them. It's meant to be friendly, not hurtful."

"Okay. Now, how does this one work?"

"Well, we're trying to build settlements and cities on this island, and each space produces one kind of resource..."

Anjali went first, and she grabbed the most productive spot on the board, but she hadn't paid enough attention to the mix. Soon enough she was picking up all the wool and clay she could want, but not enough timber to use with them.

"It's not fair," she grumbled, not very seriously. "I should be getting more wood than you. My numbers are supposed to be better."

I shook my head. "Your individual numbers are better, but my combination is better. Wood on sixes and clay on eights, each of those comes up five times in thirty-six, but not together. So you need to get both those numbers, and when your wood comes up, you need to hang onto it and stop me from stealing it before you get the clay you need with it. Me, wood and clay both on nines, they only come up four times in thirty-six, but when they come up they come up together and I can spend them together right away. So in the long run, you'll get more production, but I'll hang on to more of mine and get to spend it sooner."

"Oh! Now I see." She beamed—Anjali was the sort who would happily lose a game for one iota of knowledge—and then pursed her lips. "So if I want to trade for wood..."

"You have to hand in four cards all of one kind to the bank."

"Even if I'm trading with you?"

"Oh no, if you're trading with me then we can trade any resources we agree to. But with two players, people don't usually trade, because anything that helps you is going to hurt me..."

"So you won't help me?"

"Well, what are you offering?"

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ll you have to give me is a boring old log."

"One for one? I don't think so. I'll give you a wood for two sheep. I know you have two. Or a sheep and another card."

"I can't spare the others. All I can give is one sheep. A lovely plump delicious sheep with the softest wool you ever did see."

"That's very sad for you, then," I said. "No deal."

Something brushed my ankle under the table. "One sheep and... I would be very grateful?"

"Oh? Just how grateful?" It was already warm inside, but her stockinged toes were tickling my calf and that was a different kind of heat altogether.

"Well..." Lily bit her lip, in a deeply distracting way that I suspected she might have practiced in front of a mirror. "A kiss, later tonight?"

"I'm pretty sure I'm already getting kissed by a beautiful woman later tonight."

She made a face. "Spoilsport." Then she sat forward and looked to either side before settling back into the depths of her armchair. "Perhaps something more immediate?"

"What did you have in mind?"

"You tell me, Miriam. You're the boss. But I'm relying on you to keep a lookout."

I could feel myself blushing like a teenager as I checked the angles. Her chair was large enough to hide a lot from anybody behind her, so unless anybody was to peek at us from behind the scenery display we should be able to get away with a certain amount.

Besides, I had not forgotten that one of the options on our to-do list—the list which had been intended as a challenge to Lily, but had ended up becoming just as much a challenge for myself—was "in public".

"Give me your foot, dear."

"For a timber?"

"Your foot, and a sheep."

She grinned, and handed over a card, and as I gave her mine in return I felt her toes again, stroking my knee. Had I known how things were going to turn out today, I'd definitely have worn a skirt. As it was, I'd have to make do in jeans.

I reached down and caught her foot between my fingers, gave her an affectionate squeeze, and then stroked her just lightly enough to make her squirm, just on the very edge of tickling. Her eyes rolled back and I teased her foot for a minute or two before I said, "It's still your turn."

"Oh!" She collected herself, checked over her cards, and laid them down. "That's a settlement."

"It is. Purchased through questionable means, but nonetheless a settlement for that."

Lily placed her little wooden token on the board and then passed the dice. I needed both hands for my turn, so I positioned her foot between my thighs and clamped it there. She had the good manners to go on wriggling her toes while I rolled the dice and collected my cards. The combination of thick denim and an awkward position put limits on what she was going to be able to do for me from there, but it was at the least a pleasant sensation, warm and snug.

Play continued. As soon as I sold Anjali my wood, of course her luck changed and she began producing a timber surplus. I built up my road network and expanded while she focussed on upgrading the settlements she'd already placed. For that she'd need wheat, which was in short supply.

"I don't suppose I can... persuade... you to part with some?" she asked me.

"I don't have any," I replied. "I'd be open to persuasion, but you need to roll my wheat numbers first."

"I suppose I'll be saving up, then."

After trading a fistful of wood for a wheat card, she was on the verge of cashing in sheep for the other when disaster struck. "Seven, that's the robber," I said. "You need to discard five..."

"Nooo! I was so close!" Reluctantly, she handed in the resources she'd amassed over several turns of frugality. "Goodbye, little sheep. And you. And you, I'll miss you most of all, Mr. Fluffy."

"'Mr. Fluffy?'"

"Shut up, I'm grieving here." She kissed the card, laid it down with the other two, and then discarded two wood. "There. Happy now? You've ruined me."

"Not quite. Now I get to put the robber on one of your hexes and steal a card from you."

I parked the robber on her wheat fields and she held up what remained of her hand. I reached for a card at random, but as I began to pull it free her grip tightened.

"No, not that one! You can't take that one. It took me so long to save up for that... please please pick a different one." Wheat, then.

"But I'm the robber. I'm supposed to be awful to you. It's my job."

"Can't you find some other way?"

"Hmm." I looked her over. She had a light skirt on, and a summery blouse with a hint of décolletage. "All right, then." I leant forward, squeezing her foot that much tighter, and gave her my best dastardly grin. "Let's undo that top button, shall we? Actually, make it the top two."

"And you'll pick a different card?"

"Deal."

Lily complied. The hint of décolletage became rather more than a hint, now framed at the edges by navy-blue lace. I took a little while to appreciate the view before I nodded, and picked a different card. Iron ore.

She'd made a good bargain. Losing the ore was far less of a blow to her than the wheat would have been, and in a few turns' time she was able to cash in most of her hand to upgrade the settlement of Ganymedeville to majestic Zeusopolis.

(In all the time Ed and I had played together, it had never occurred to either of us to name our settlements, but Anjali seemed to consider it the obvious thing to do, and I found it delightful.)

Meanwhile I continued along my way, a road here, another nameless settlement there...

"Hey Lily, do you have a metal? I can trade you wheat for it."

"How much wheat?"

"Two?"

"Agreed."

We made the deal, and before she had re-sorted her hand I slapped down another card. "Monopoly. You have to give me all your wheat."

"What? But you just traded me that!"

"I did. Now I'm stealing it back."

"Ed was right. You really are an insufferable... witch." She handed over the cards I'd just given her, plus another one she'd been hoarding.