Gameboard of the Gods

Page 38

Porfirio stepped toward her. “Why wait? We’re doing this now.”

“Now?” she repeated, but her voice faded among the cheers of the assembled prætorians. Looking up, she realized almost every prætorian in the place had gathered around them now, and they were all riled up for a match, many of them already placing wagers on Mae and her opponent. “There’s no room.”

“Trying to back out?” Porfirio pitched his voice for her ears alone. “Afraid to go one-on-one with me?” Locking gazes with him, she felt her heart rate pick up. The implant still struggled, unsure if there was a legitimate threat or not. That makes two of us, Mae thought.

“You wish,” she hissed. “I just don’t want you cheating.”

“We have a deposit on the place,” muttered a nearby Maize.

“And where are you going to get canes?” demanded Mae.

Porfirio glanced over at an Indigo woman standing near him. “Connie, go see what you can dig up. You’re good at this stuff.” She nodded and scurried off, which somehow annoyed Mae further. Was that typical of his dealings with women? A quick command and they jumped? Maybe that’s why he was so confident in his abilities against her.

Wagers flew fast and furious around them. Porfirio listened with amusement as he carefully retied the ponytail at the base of his neck. When he finished, he smoothed a few wayward hairs into place and then glanced at Mae. “What do you say? Want to put some money on the line? We can keep it low, if you want. I don’t want you to have to write home for a loan.”

“I don’t want your money,” she said. She paused for effect. “I want your hair.”

A few Indigos nearby fell into awed silence at her words, confirming what she’d suspected. Porfirio was a man in love with his hair. No one grew and touched his hair like that if he wasn’t completely obsessed with it. And, if he was like her, he’d probably been raised to flaunt his Cain-free features.

He smiled at her, like this was just some kind of funny joke he hadn’t quite caught the punch line on. “My hair?”

“Sure. If I win, I want you to cut it.” Mae helpfully mimicked using scissors. “I want to keep it on my dresser.”

More people—especially those who knew him—quieted to listen eagerly. Porfirio’s smile went away. “I am not cutting my hair.”

“Of course you aren’t. Because you’re going to win, right?” Mae felt like she was getting control of this situation now and had taken his measure. She raised her voice, playing to the crowd. “I mean, there’s no real risk—unless you’re afraid.”

This got catcalls and cheers, and then everyone waited in anticipation for his response. After several tense moments, he relaxed, and the old arrogance returned. “Fine. If that’s the wager you want, so be it. Like you said—makes no difference to me. But what do I get when I win?”

Mae smiled at the choice of “when” over “if.” “Pick,” she told him. “You want me to cut my hair?”

He looked her over with as much intensity as he had in his initial assessment of her, a brazen look that had an almost tangible quality. Only this time, not sitting behind the table, she had more to show. Some semi-reasonable voice inside her suggested signing on for a fight in a dress and heels was, perhaps, not the wisest choice.

“That would be a shame,” Porfirio said mildly. “Especially since I plan on seeing it fanned across my sheets. When I win, I want you. That’s my wager. You come home with me.”

There was a collective breath. This was high drama. The prætorians loved it.

“Done,” said Mae without hesitation. She shook his hand as the others whooped, and she tried not to imagine how those strong hands would feel on her body.

Porfirio’s lackey surfaced soon thereafter and had amazingly turned up two sticks, which, although certainly not regulation, weren’t that far off from what canne players used. A space was cleared on the far side of the room, despite some of the Maize prætorians’ unease that their venue was about to get trashed. Mae realized then that they actually had no clue what was about to go down. Porfirio strode boldly toward the makeshift arena’s center. Mae followed, and Val fell into step with her.

“You don’t have to do this.”

Mae scoffed. “Of course I do. Can you imagine their reaction if I bailed? Besides, it’s like Dag said. It’s the principle of the matter. And stuff.”

“Uh-huh.” Val’s eyes fell on Porfirio’s powerful body walking ahead of them. “If I were you, I think I might throw it.”

“Never,” said Mae fiercely. “I’m going to send him crawling back to his cohort.”

Val glanced back and gave her a searching look. “So help me, you’re serious. Goddamn it, Finn. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with you.”

“I do,” said Porfirio, catching that last bit. “Let’s do this.”

Mae kicked off her shoes and took up a position opposite him, both of them striking starting poses. Val subbed in as a ref, beginning the match, and then scurried out of the way as it started. Mae had mostly sobered up by then, and the implant was now fully on board as she engaged in the fight. Its positive feedback system, sensing her body producing neurotransmitters, encouraged it to create even more. Honestly, she didn’t even believe she needed the implant to beat him. She’d meant what she said: She’d nearly played professionally. She was good. Very good. And she could tell within the first few minutes that that took him by surprise.

The prætorians also seemed surprised. Most had no clue what canne de combat was. All they’d known was that some sort of competition would go down and that floor space was needed, leading most to believe it would involve people and objects being thrown around. In reality, it was far more controlled. Canne resembled fencing and involved a lot of the same precision and alertness. Every part of Mae had to be on guard to anticipate what Porfirio would do, both to dodge and to plan her attacks. She became in tune with the way he breathed and the way muscles flexed in that remarkable body. They had agreed on Mae’s favorite variant, one that allowed a number of fairly acrobatic maneuvers. Porfirio made a small grunt of approval when she pulled off a particularly graceful backflip that eluded his reach.

“You’re flexible, I’ll give you that,” he said, his eyes watching her with just as much scrutiny. “That’ll be to my advantage later, I suppose.”

“Yeah?” She tried to get inside his guard, but he was too fast. “Then why haven’t you landed a hit on me yet?”

“I don’t like to rush things, as you’ll soon find out.”

Mae made no response as she narrowed her world back into the fight. Exhilaration filled her. She loved this bizarre, antiquated sport with all of her heart, and even though she knew the military had led her to a nobler calling, there was still a part of her that ached with the realization that if not for her mother’s strong will, Mae could have very well devoted her life to it. Porfirio had been right that it was an art. She threw herself into this match, and despite his continuing commentary, she loved that she finally had someone to play against who was such an even match. She had him on speed, hands down. That and agility were both skills she’d honed over the years, skills she’d had to develop against male opponents who almost always outweighed her. Porfirio still moved admirably fast, but it was his strength that took its toll on her whenever their canes slammed together. It was magnificent.

The observing prætorians, however, were less enchanted. After the initial cheering and shouts of encouragement, their enthusiasm had dimmed when no real action or hitting occurred. Mae was vaguely aware of shouts of “Get on with it!” and then eventually, no commentary at all. Porfirio noticed as well.

“We didn’t set any round limits. We should’ve had someone timing this,” he said. A faint sheen of sweat could be seen on his forehead.

He was right about the time. Matches were usually only a couple of minutes long at most. Neither of them had thought about that when starting. They’d just wanted to get right to it. She had no idea how much time had passed and didn’t care.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Maybe you’ve got trouble going a long time after all.”

“Darling, I can go as long as—shit!”

Mae’s stick made contact with his abdomen. Apparently, all it took was one dig about his sexual prowess to throw him off. Typical. She expected some kind of reaction from the crowd but heard nothing. That was when she noticed something that brought her to a stop.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, still in his attack stance but not advancing.

“They’re gone,” she said in disbelief.

He looked at where she nodded, his face mirroring her astonishment. The prætorians, bored, had all gone back to their drinking and bantering on the other side of the room. If he really did share a similar background in canne, Mae suspected that he too was used to audiences composed of enthralled fans who could appreciate the subtleties of the sport. Porfirio’s lips curled in contempt.

“Children. All of them. Oh, well.” And with speed that Mae didn’t anticipate, Porfirio lunged forward and tapped her on the calf—twice. “Match.” He tossed his stick onto the floor.

“Hey,” she exclaimed. “That’s not fair at—ahh!”

He picked her up bodily and literally threw her over his shoulder. “I had more points. Ergo, I win. Let’s go home.”

She pounded on his back as he effortlessly carried her out of the hall like some sort of war prize. Both knew she was fully capable of freeing herself, or at least doing serious damage—which would’ve probably restored their audience—but she held back and contented herself with verbal protests and Finnish insults. Once they were outside in the misty night, she finally broke his hold and pushed herself away, settling onto her own two feet.

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