Gameboard of the Gods

Page 3

Gan chuckled. “I wouldn’t recommend that. I don’t think she’ll want to see you any time soon. I’d avoid the Indigo cohort in general, if I were you.” He studied Mae carefully, weighing her with those knowing eyes. “Go ahead. Ask your next question.”

“Sir…” She had to look away from that gaze. “Kavi was slow. She should’ve reacted more quickly, but she didn’t. Why? Why did she react so badly? What was wrong?”

Gan’s answer took a long time, and Mae dared a look up. “Maybe there was nothing wrong with her. Maybe you’re just that good.”

Mae knew she was good, but she was certain there was more to it than that. It nagged at her, but contradicting the general was unacceptable, so she let the matter go. He dismissed her, and as she neared the door, a final question popped into her head. “Sir, will I have my implant deactivated as part of my punishment?” It had been known to happen, and it scared her almost as much as full suspension or inactivity.

Gan actually looked surprised, which didn’t happen very often. “What? Of course not. I’d hardly send you to the provinces unprotected. And you’ll hold your rank and title too. Although…”

Mae froze. She didn’t know what was coming, but there was something in the tone of his voice that contradicted his casual demeanor. That, and all of this had been too easy.

“It’s a small thing. You won’t be allowed to wear a prætorian uniform until further notice. This mission won’t require a uniform at all, really, but if the situation arises for some other reason, you’ll have to wear gray.”

He was right. It was such a small, small thing, but his words hit Mae with the same force as a prison sentence would have. No black. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how big a role the uniform played in defining who she was. The implant and the title were part of it too, but the black lent a power of its own. It separated her from others who were less worthy. She looked down at what she wore, the dress uniform she’d been so contemptuous of earlier. Now she would have given anything to keep it on. How long until I can wear black again?

Gan tilted his head and gave her a puzzled look. “I assume there’s no problem with that?”

“No, sir. Of course not.” She swallowed. No black. “I’m a soldier of the Republic.”



The ravens saw her before Justin did. For figments of his imagination, they were remarkably observant.

Hot, said Horatio. He was the blunt one.

She usually wears black, added Magnus. His commentary tended to be a little more esoteric. He reminded Justin of a guy he’d known in college who’d pretty much been high for four straight years. He’d somehow graduated with top honors.

Even if the bird was an annoying voice in Justin’s head, Horatio was right. The woman was a knockout, and it was a wonder the whole party didn’t come to a standstill for her. She paused in the doorway, scanning the tightly packed room. She had to be meeting a date, he decided. Or maybe she was just looking for the bar. Justin had already started his third drink and wasn’t sure that was going to be enough tonight. This was the sixth party he’d had to go to in just as many days, and he was tired of smiling.

The woman took a few steps forward, still searching through the haze of smoke. There was something in the way she moved that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Graceful, but not a dancer. Her stride was too purposeful, and she held her head up in a way that bespoke confidence and possibly some superiority. An athlete maybe? That didn’t feel right either, but he wouldn’t rule it out.

Her hair is like winter sunlight, said Magnus, almost sounding lovesick as he whispered in Justin’s mind. Still, it wasn’t a bad comparison. Not quite gold, not quite platinum. She wore it in a charmingly old-fashioned way that still managed to be stylish, pulled back and folded into itself at the back of her head. It revealed an elegant neck, which Justin rather liked.


The booming voice was his only warning before a powerful hand slapped him on the back, causing him to stumble into the craps table and spill part of his drink. With one last look at the blonde, he put on the smile he knew was expected and turned his attention back to the game.

“Are you going to bet or not?” Cristobal Martinez, the party’s host and—more important—Justin’s benefactor, grinned down at him with teeth so white they glowed. Literally. It was a trendy new UV treatment. They tended toward the extreme here in Panama. “You’re not out of money—yet.” His tone implied that he knew how this night was going to end.

“Sure, sure.” Justin set his money on the line and then glanced back toward the doorway. The blond woman was gone.

By the bar, said Horatio.

Sure enough, there she was, accepting a drink from the bar’s automated dispenser. Justin touched Cristobal’s arm and nodded toward her. “Do you know who she is?”

Cristobal shifted his gaze toward the woman, a small frown appearing on his face. Half of it was covered by a stylized tattoo of flames, the mark of his gang. “Never seen her. One of my prettier party crashers.” He studied her a few moments longer and then promptly lost interest in that fickle way of his. He turned back to the action, whooping when someone rolled a seven.

“She’s military, whoever she is,” said Huan, standing on Justin’s other side.

Justin did a double take. “Her? No. No way.”

“Takes one to know one. It’s in the way she stands.” Huan gave her one more scrutinizing look before returning to the game. “She’s one of us too,” he added. “EA or RUNA.” He was from the EA, somewhere Justin would’ve run to in an instant, if he could’ve. Unfortunately, the Eastern Alliance honored its sister country’s policy toward exiles.

“How do you know that?”

“The dress. Next bet.”

Justin obligingly set down more money and pondered Huan’s words. He had a point. The woman’s dress was a deep plum crepe de chine, with no sleeves and a high neckline.

Who in the world knows what crepe de chine is? asked Horatio.

I had to learn that stuff a long time ago, Justin said.

The dress’s slim fit hugged her body and hit just above the knee. To Justin’s eyes, it was suggestive but elegant—and completely boring by local standards. Panamanian fashion favored garish colors and excessive embellishment these days, along with necklines that displayed a lot of skin and very little taste.

Too refined to be from around here, Magnus said in agreement. At least he appreciated Justin’s fashion analysis. A woman among women. Can’t you see the stars and flowers?

Stars and flowers. Those were words Justin hadn’t heard in a long time—ones he wasn’t sure he was ready to hear. A nudge from Huan put the rumination on hold. “Your turn to roll.”

Justin did, earning groans when he turned up a three. He yielded his bet and tried to spot the woman again, but she had disappeared.

“Why do you play this?” asked Huan. “You always lose. You could make a killing over at the poker tables, you know.”

Justin did know. Cristobal often asked the same thing, but Justin couldn’t quite explain to either man how addictive the idea of random chance was. Too much of his life was spent reading faces and other social cues. He observed too much, deduced too much. Sometimes he just needed a casual throw of the dice to dictate his future.

To Huan, he simply said, “Too easy.”

Huan chuckled and shook his head. He had an easygoing nature that Justin liked. Justin also liked that Huan was from the EA. He had the same sort of mixed heritage that Justin did, though Huan’s features favored Asian ancestry a little more than Caucasian. The RUNA’s slang term for that mix was “plebeian,” and seeing it reminded Justin of home, as did the fact that Huan was probably the only other civilized person in the room. A large part of their friendship was based on discussing how much Panama sucked. The difference between them was that Huan always got to leave when he concluded his embassy’s business here. Justin was stuck.

“Cristobal, there you are!”

A woman pushed her way in between Justin and Cristobal. Justin tried not to wince as he watched her smile up at Cristobal. Well, she tried to smile but had a little difficulty with all the wrinkle injections that had numbed her face. Magenta eye shadow reached all the way up to her brows, and the shiny gold dress she wore was at least one size too small for her plump figure.

“I had to come tell you what an amazing party this is,” she exclaimed, cozying up to the big man.

“This?” Cristobal attempted a modest look but failed miserably. “This is just a little thing I threw together. Barely a gathering.”

Justin recognized an opening for flattery. “Oh, no. This is definitely your best one yet. I don’t know how you keep doing it. I’ve never seen anything like that band.”

That was the truth. Cristobal had dredged up some popular local group whose claim to fame was that they handled snakes while performing. It didn’t seem like that difficult of a feat, considering how limp the snakes were. The terrible music had probably killed them long ago. But they were in vogue, so Cristobal had had to have them. They made Justin want to gouge his ears out.

Cristobal laughed. “Save your charm. It doesn’t work on me.”

But it did. Cristobal was more than happy to give out cash and lodging, so long as Justin continued to smile and show up at parties. There were enough people still charmed by the idea of a mysterious Gemman exile to ensure Justin’s position was secure, but he had a feeling that someday Cristobal would get bored of him and find some other novelty to show off. So, stroking his patron’s ego seemed like good insurance.

The woman turned toward Justin, her eyes widening in a way that didn’t help her appearance any. His accent had tipped her off. “Is this your Gemman? I’ve never met one before.”

“Justin, this lovely creature is Ana Santiago,” Cristobal said. “Her husband is a dear friend and associate of mine.”

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