Games of skill or chance, like everything else on the Hill, went in and out of fashion with all the urgency of a girl already out for a year and not yet wed. At present, Spin had begun a revival after a decade of disregard, and Two Across was enjoying a popularity it had not seen in living memory (although Lady Ferris’s ancient grandmother claimed her older sister had taught it to her lest her first season be a total disaster). Abandon Me, Impossible, Lovers’ Quarrel—it was a fair bet that, on any given afternoon, at least one noble house would be host to men and women feigning unconcern for hours at their gains and losses in rounds of these games.
Games of skill, games of chance, Diane de Tremontaine excelled at all of them.
But among the dizzying variety of options, one captured her imagination far more than the others, allowed her the fullest use of her considerable talents:
It was a game, she found, uniquely suited to her temperament. It left nothing whatsoever to happenstance. It required forethought, vision, and strategy. It required confidence and equipoise. It required an ability to dissemble.
And the willingness to lose a battle in order to win the war.
Melinda Lassiter, alas, possessed all these qualities in abundance except the last.
“It was a mistake, I fear,” Melinda said to Diane, not quite containing her glee, “to surrender that stag.” She swept her wizard to the far corner of the board and toppled a white peon. Diane’s remaining pieces looked quite forlorn amid the damask and mahogany of the Lassiter sitting room.
Diane found Lady Melinda fascinating. She had been married to the Raven Chancellor for just over a year, during which time Diane had witnessed a number of women enlighten her, concern in their voices, with the information that she was neither as handsome nor as young as Ranulph’s first wife. As far as Diane could make out, Lady Lassiter brushed off these slights as one brushes off a dog’s attempt to steal one’s dinner: That is, she found them irksome in the extreme, but one could hardly blame a dumb beast for being true to its nature. When it became clear that shesh was to be the game at the center of the coming season, however, Melinda had obviously glimpsed an opportunity; her shesh game, as Diane recalled from their few matches together, had always been very, very good. When Ophelia Argent, at the Galings’ season’s-end musicale, remarked in a thundering whisper that there did not in fact seem to be any way in which the current Lady Lassiter proved a match for the previous one, Melinda made her a very public wager that she would reign undefeated this season. The loser, they agreed between them, was to attend this year’s Swan Ball in the gown the other had worn to last season’s ball, for all to murmur of behind their fans for weeks.
So the stakes to each game Melinda Lassiter played this afternoon were high indeed, and Diane did not doubt that she was pleased by the growing heap of slain ivory beside her, chancellors and dragons and stags all fallen victim to her keen mind and terror of being forced to appear at the Swan Ball in yellow tulle.
But the duchess guarded her own hoard of polished ebony and, though it was smaller than Melinda’s, it had been just as strategically acquired. Lady Lassiter had yet to make a mistake, but even the best players can falter. “I feel certain that you are right,” sighed Diane, moving her chancellor two squares forward, the ivory hard and reassuring under her fingers. “But what is a woman to do in the face of such a strategist as you?”
“You are too kind,” said Lady Lassiter, moving a peon forward. “But at least you conduct yourself with a grace sadly lacking in other opponents.”
This was rather unsubtle; talk of Melinda’s recent match against the Duke of Karleigh, which had been notable almost as much for Melinda’s skillful play as for the duke’s hideous behavior, had finally begun to die down, and Diane found it unseemly to ride triumph farther than it would carry one. Nevertheless, she would use what she was given.
“It is you who are kind,” said the duchess, considering the board. “Poor players ought to be graceful losers. They could learn much from us—in many arenas, in fact. It will not surprise you, I am sure, to learn that at the Perry dinner, while you basked in the attentions of the Crescent Chancellor, I was being subjected to a colloquy with the Duke of Karleigh that managed to be simultaneously both the crudest conversation I have had this season and the most tedious.”
Lady Lassiter put a hand to the deep blue silk covering her breast, gratifyingly appalled. “So boorish!”
“Indeed. But I feel sure you will understand my discomfort, Melinda, better than most. First, Karleigh was uncouth enough to speak to me of my William, with his terrible state of exhaustion.”
“Oh?” Their moves on the board were slower now, further between, the casualties fewer. Melinda Lassiter was a worthy opponent.