Gameboard of the Gods

Page 13

Mae’s obvious disappointment at this turn of events irritated Justin. She certainly hadn’t seemed that miserable around him in bed. “I’m sure it won’t be that unbearable, prætorian. I’m really not that bad once you get underneath everything.”

Her eyes looked more blue than green in this lighting, and he saw a flash of anger in them. It reminded him of the passion he’d seen earlier. I wish she wasn’t so hot, he thought wistfully.

You have to help her, said Magnus. She has gods swarming around her and no way to stop them.

No, Justin said. Don’t bring up gods anymore. This isn’t the time. Not when we’re on the verge of getting my life back.

It’s always the time, said Magnus. Besides, what do you think you’re going to be dealing with when you return?

Mae said nothing to Justin’s comment and directed her attention to the others as she stood up. “Do you need anything else from me tonight?”

“No, no,” said Francis, stifling a yawn. “You’ve done more than enough, my dear. Get some sleep. We’re leaving early.” He paused and laughed. “Ah, you don’t sleep, do you? Well then, do whatever you want. You’re young. Maybe you can find some dashing, exotic fling.”

Mae didn’t even blink. “I’ll just stay in my room, sir. There’s no one worth my time in this place.”

She turned with military precision, but her air was all castal, displaying an attitude that refused to acknowledge those people—or rather, the one person—she considered beneath her. As Justin watched her go, he barely heard Francis dismissing him as well and telling him to go fetch his “provincial girl.”

A haughty, lethal bodyguard. An assignment involving shadowy phantoms. This homecoming was starting to accrue a hefty price tag.

You still want to pay it? asked Horatio.




Tessa wasn’t asleep when someone pounded on the front door.

She wasn’t supposed to be awake. Her mother would kill her if she found out, but Tessa couldn’t help herself. Her father had acquired a reader from the Eastern Alliance and given it to her this morning. She knew it was old technology for them. Everything that trickled into Panama was. But to her, it was a miracle: a small, lightweight device that contained hundreds of books. Some were old, some were current. Most were written in Mandarin, which she couldn’t read. There were still enough from the RUNA to keep her busy, and she could read English as well as she could Spanish. Her father had made sure of that.

The reader became irrelevant when she heard the noise, however. She froze where she sat, tense and wide-eyed. It had been years since gangs regularly raided the houses of their rivals, and her father wasn’t even involved in anything that would attract attention or retaliation. Still, the drills her parents had made her and her sisters practice over and over were still fresh in her mind. Go to the tunnel, bring nothing. All it would take was one shout from the bodyguards, and Tessa would be out of her room in a flash.

But no shouts came. Whoever was there banged on the door again, and several moments later, she could hear loud voices engaged in some sort of argument. No shouts of alarm. No stomping of feet. No gunfire.

Tessa waited a little bit longer, but when the noise didn’t stop, her curiosity got the better of her. It was a problem she often had. Slipping out of bed, she found her robe and tied it tightly over her floor-length nightgown. Out of habit, she nearly pulled up her hair but then decided to leave it down to save time. She moved quietly and slowly as she left the room, still cautious of any possible threat, and prayed the old wooden floor wouldn’t creak. The closer she came to the staircase leading down, the more she relaxed. She recognized the voices. There would be no raid tonight.

She made it downstairs and paused just outside the doorway to the foyer, keeping out of sight but still managing a good view. Her mother stood there in a similar robe, arms crossed, but she’d taken the time to pull up her hair. Marta Cruz would never be seen with her hair down, not even in the middle of the night. Tessa’s father stood nearby, and his clothing suggested he hadn’t even gone to bed yet. Two of the family’s bodyguards were also on hand, looking more confused than concerned.

But none of them really caught Tessa’s attention. It was the sight of Justin March, standing in front of the door, that made Tessa take notice.

She hadn’t seen Justin in a long time. After her mother had insisted he move out, Justin had only been by a few times to visit her father. Most of their outings were now to restaurants and clubs, places that were inaccessible to Tessa. She’d never met anyone like him and missed having him around. Justin seemed glamorous and worldly to her, and most important, he never talked down to her. He always spoke in a frank, open way and wasn’t afraid to discuss the topics no one else would. “He has no sense of propriety,” her mother had once told Tessa. “But what can you expect from such godless people?”

Justin certainly didn’t seem so glamorous tonight. His clothing was soaked from the rain, and the hair he usually kept so carefully styled was equally wet and disheveled. There was a bright, almost fervent look in his eyes that even Tessa recognized. He was drunk or high—maybe both.

“Slow down,” Tessa’s father was saying. “You aren’t making any sense.”

“I’m making perfect sense,” Justin insisted. He raked a hand through his wet hair and began pacing back and forth, a habit she recalled from when he was engaged in some intense mental exercise. “This is her out, Sergio. This is my out. Don’t be a fool and waste this chance. It’ll never happen again.”

“Mr. March, you are out of line.” Tessa’s mother always refused to call Justin “Dr.” and was driving home her disapproval now by using the Voice. It was the one she reserved for lectures that usually resulted in Tessa being confined to her room. “If you truly have something important to say, please return in the morning when you are in a more presentable state.” Her tone implied that she sincerely doubted there was anything important here at all.

Justin completely ignored her and focused his attention on Tessa’s father. “I’m not screwing around here! We have to—” His eyes flicked to the far side of the room, toward the doorway, and Tessa realized she’d been spotted. “There you are! Come here. Your life’s about to change forever. You can thank me later.”

Tessa hesitated for a few seconds but then realized she might as well take the plunge. There was no more hiding. She stepped forward, and her mother nearly passed out.

“Teresa! What do you think you’re doing? Return to your room this instant!”

Belatedly, Tessa realized that maybe she should’ve pulled up her hair after all. It was bad enough for a non–family member to see her in her robe, even if it did completely cover her nightgown. Wearing loose hair, at her age, wasn’t something that women of her status did. It was the kind of thing you’d find in New Money or the lower classes, in women who worked beside men or ventured out alone.

“No, no,” said Justin, taking a few steps forward. He didn’t go too much farther. Drunk or not, even he knew getting closer to a girl in her nightgown might spur the bodyguards to action. They knew him and liked him—and had won a lot of money from him—but some lines still weren’t meant to be crossed. “Let her stay. This is important.”

“I don’t even know what ‘this’ is,” her father said, looking weary.

Justin took a deep breath, seeming to finally realize he needed to approach the matter in a calmer way. “I’m going home, Sergio. Back to the RUNA.”

Her father lit up. “You got your citizenship back?” Tessa noticed her mother looked happy too, but probably because she thought they’d be getting rid of Justin once and for all.

“Not exactly.” Justin’s enthusiasm dimmed for a moment. “It doesn’t matter, though. I’m going back and talked them into making a visa exception.”

Tessa’s father’s forehead wrinkled in confusion as he tried to parse the words. Then, suddenly, his face transformed. Never, never, had she seen such joy within him. “You did it,” he breathed. “You’re bringing us back.”

Justin shifted and looked uncomfortable. “Um, not all of you.”

That radiant joy went away. “But you always said—”

“I know, I know. And I tried, but the borders are too tight. They can’t allow a group that big in, but…” Justin took a deep breath. “I can bring Tessa back with me.”

Tessa hadn’t seen her mother look so horrified since the time Tessa had worn black shoes to Donna Carlos’s spring tea. “Why on earth would you do that?”

“Why do you think?” exclaimed Justin. “To get her out of here! I can only take one of you, and she’s the obvious choice. You can’t abandon your family, but she can strike out into her own future. She can get a student visa. She can study there—get a real education.” He stepped forward, catching hold of Tessa’s father’s arm. “Sergio, can you imagine it? Tessa in the RUNA, getting a Gemman degree. It’s the kind of thing that could get her citizenship, you know. I’ve seen it happen. And from there, it might open the door to the rest of you.”

Her father caught his breath, his eyes going wide. Justin knew exactly how to get to him, exactly what words would make Sergio Cruz’s world come to a complete standstill. Tessa had seen Justin work that magic on others before.

Her great-grandparents had left the RUNA years ago, back in the days of the first genetic mandates. In the beginning, the RUNA and EA had forcibly swapped large amounts of their population in order to create optimal genetic mixing. Those who tried having “nonoptimal” children were fined and imprisoned. Eventually, mandatory contraceptive implants ensured the government’s control. Her refugee great-grandparents had had to scrape and crawl their way to the top of Panamanian society, and they’d believed it to be a worthy sacrifice in order to be together and have their own children. But that hadn’t stopped them from singing the praises of their homeland, instilling a worship of the RUNA that had been passed down to their children and their children’s children and so on. The RUNA had almost become a mythical fairyland to Tessa, which was why Justin had always seemed so larger-than-life.

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