This is dedicated to SamanthaKari at ADF, who pulled a prompt out of her head for me: Playing board games in the Arctic.

For reference, 1 cubit = 18 inches or 45 cm


Ashte Kashte

"I don't understand why we're doing this," Edward sighs.

"Shall I explain it again?" Tanya says mirthfully, aware that no repetition is needed.

"I know the rules," Edward grouses. "I just don't see why we're out here carving lines in the snow. There's a perfectly good solid oak board at home, and real cowry shells."

"Half the fun," she informs him, "is tossing boulders instead of mollusks." The other half is being alone with him…

Edward hears this stray thought but does not respond to it. He drags his foot, making furrows of equal length and spacing, forming a seven-by-seven-block grid roughly the size of a three-bedroom home. Forty years ago he would have enjoyed this activity, would have taken a simple pleasure in splattering yellow paint in the center square as his companions dyed the four starting squares blue or purple or red or green. Now he only thinks that this game is a simplistic version of the already simple pachisi, and he doesn't much care if he wins or loses. He'd rather someone teach him to play Chaturanga, the mysterious Indian ancestor of chess, but there are only a handful of immortals left in the world old enough to remember the rules, and Tanya is too young to be one of them.

Tanya collects her four playing pieces. She and her sisters, who have always loved this game, took native rocks from the land long ago and chiseled them into shapes that resembled cowries. Each piece is approximately two cubits long, but the weight varies depending on the type of mineral. As usual Tanya chooses the light grey schist from Wrangell; it contains almandine garnet, her favorite gemstone. The color reminds her of her maker's eyes. She refuses to think of her mother's name, but the hurt is still fresh, even after six centuries.

Edward chooses the rhyolite, a sand-colored stone from Tetlin Junction. The surface is laced with beautiful, dark purple dendritic manganese oxide bands forming patterns that almost appear to be ancient fern fossils. He thinks it makes the fake cowry look more like a real sea shell plucked straight from the ocean. Always, always, he chooses that which most closely resembles life.

"We need two other players," he reminds his opponent. If there had been four people to begin with, he wouldn't have fussed so much about playing the outdoor version.

"Everyone else is busy," she replies casually. When Edward shoots her a look, she pictures her sisters and their current conquests, with whom they've engaged themselves for the afternoon. Even Carmen and Eleazar have decided to enjoy a romantic interlude.

"Ah," Edward answers, looking at the larger cowries that serve as their dice. They could always use real dice, but his kind prefer a certain amount of historical authenticity. Measuring three cubits long each, all four of these shells are thrown into the air, away from the Ashte kashte grid. The number of shells that land with their openings upward is the number of spaces the player can move, with all four openings pointing down awarding eight spaces and an extra turn. Until now Kate has always carved the throwing shells out of large bricks of salt, since they're readily available and have the interesting property of being difficult to see in the snow, but they also melt too easily in the slush. Now the Denali family will use pink granite, freshly chiseled by Tanya herself. Edward sent for the blocks of stone all the way from a quarry in Texas, a customary gift for his hostess, thinking she'd create a new sculpture that would keep her busy and out of his hair for a few days. Judging by the sly turn Tanya's thoughts have taken this week, he wonders if perhaps it was a miscalculation on his part to give her anything at all.

The pair plays their game, moving their pieces in opposing spiral patterns, with Tanya managing to capture Edward's pieces twice. He must be distracted.

"Do you know where the word 'cowry' comes from?" she asks, rolling a three.

"No," Edward answers. He does not ask for an explanation. He knows it is coming anyway.

"From the Hindi word kauri. It's what a Sikh woman is called when she becomes a full-fledged member of her community." Tanya gives Edward a suggestive smile. "The cowry shell resembles a vulva."

Edward sighs and waits for Tanya to move her game piece before he speaks. "Kaur is the Punjabi word for a woman of standing, and it means princess. Kauri is a Hindi derivative of the Sanskrit kaparda. It's nice that you've embraced modern technology, but Wikipedia is hardly the best place to gather your information."

"I stand corrected," Tanya says stiffly. She watches as Edward rolls a two and woodenly moves his final piece into the center square.

"You win," she murmurs, looking away. Ashte kashte.

"Thank you for the game," Edward says formally. "I think I'll be heading off now. Would you like some help cleaning up?"

"No, thank you," Tanya replies in kind. "I'll manage."

She watches Edward turn and scamper off. She isn't quite sure what made him show up so suddenly in the first week of January or how she could have made such a gross misjudgment of his intentions, but she's grateful that he didn't embarrass her with a direct rejection. Such subtleties have become rare on this continent. He'll return to his family now, to whatever has troubled him so, and she hopes he'll face it with the grace and fortitude she knows him to be capable of.

Edward jogs at first, listening to Tanya's well-wishing before he sprints away to his father's Mercedes. There's a brown-haired girl in Washington he needs to say hello to.