Gameboard of the Gods

Page 4

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Justin told him, shaking her hand. “‘Lovely’ doesn’t even come close to describing her.”

Another truth, but not in the way Ana interpreted it.

Cristobal laughed uproariously at the “compliment” and reached around her to slap Justin on the back again. At least this time, he saw it coming.

“Now, now, she’s married.” Cristobal winked at Ana. “I’ll leave you two to chat. Be careful, though. He’s trouble.” He collected his winnings and wandered off to find his next distraction.

Ana actually batted her eyelashes, which were decorated with multicolored crystals. That was excessive, even by the hideous standards around here. She was most certainly “New Money” if she was at a party like this. And if her husband was Cristobal’s “associate,” he’d probably amassed wealth through some questionable means. In the cutthroat world of Panama City, people rose through the ranks however they could. Ana had the feel of someone who’d been raised in the lower classes and was trying to compensate now.

With Cristobal gone, she slid over to Justin. The smile on his face was starting to hurt, but he knew that Cristobal’s guest had to be entertained. “Cristobal didn’t have to tell me you were trouble,” she said with a purr. “A little voice in my head told me that right away.”

Justin perked up. “You hear voices in your head?”

She looked surprised. “I mean, not literally. You’d have to be crazy for that.”

“Right,” said Justin flatly. “Of course.”

Ana tried smiling again and had the same trouble as before. “Not many Gemmans come here.”

“Well, they’re missing out. Believe me, their women don’t even compare to the ones here.” Justin knocked back the rest of his drink, looking down at the empty glass with dismay.

She giggled in a way that was completely inappropriate for a woman her age. “Aren’t you sweet. And just as cute as Blanca said.”

Justin’s smile almost slipped. Almost. “Blanca Jessup?” he asked carefully.

Ana nodded. “She’s a good friend of mine. She told me so much about you.”

Wonderful. Justin’s last encounter with Blanca had involved bad judgment and even worse tequila. Definitely not one of his finer moments. At least Blanca wasn’t married, but her brothers bore the same obsessively protective—and occasionally violent—attitude toward their women that was so common among the Old Money upper classes. He wondered what exactly “so much” entailed and if Ana was hoping for a similar experience. This party didn’t have enough alcohol for that.

He cleared his throat and groped for a subject change. “This is Huan Korokov. He’s from the EA.”

Huan wasn’t a bad-looking guy, and Justin hoped she might shift her attention. No such luck. She gave Huan the barest of glances and murmured a polite greeting before turning back to Justin. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Huan working to keep a straight face. This was probably the highlight of his trip.

She leaned forward on the table, giving her cleavage amplification that it most certainly didn’t need. “Blanca said you were some kind of witch hunter?”

He heard that a lot around here. Sometimes they called him a “priest killer.” “Nothing so exciting. I used to investigate religious groups for the government. Had to make sure they weren’t dangerous.”

“Doesn’t the RUNA think all religions are dangerous?” she asked.

Ha, maybe she’s not as vapid as she seems, said Horatio.

If you were of any use to me, you’d magically appear and get me another drink, Justin told him.

She’d be happy to get you a drink back at your place, said Magnus helpfully.

Justin placed another bet, noticing that his stack of money was growing smaller and smaller. “It’s a little more complicated than that. Do you know the Gemman charter?” No, of course she didn’t. “‘Belief in fictitious entities is a threat to the fabric of society and must be assessed and regulated for the well-being of all citizens.’” He could recite it in his sleep.

I almost believe you, Horatio said.

“I’d love to hear more,” Ana cooed. She moved even closer. “Perhaps we could go somewhere quieter to talk.”

Not on your life, Justin thought. Huan came to the rescue.

“Justin doesn’t like to talk about his past,” he said, looking award-winningly grave. “Too many painful memories. Justin, you should tell her the story of why you left.”

A few players standing nearby perked up. Cristobal’s pet Gemman was a topic of great interest around here, as was his shadowy exile.

Justin averted his eyes and put on the tortured look he’d perfected for this story. “I don’t know. It’s hard for me to discuss…besides, I don’t want to burden you with my personal drama.”

“I’m sure Señora Santiago wouldn’t mind. She seems like a great listener.” Huan was playing a good supporting role. Maybe Justin could work him into the act more often.

“I am,” she said, nodding eagerly.

“I can tell.” Justin gave her a small smile. “It’s in your eyes, you know. That kind of understanding and kindness…it shines out from the soul.” Huan cleared his throat and had to look away.

“People say that all the time,” Ana replied, moving even closer. “Now, please. Tell me what happened.”

Justin took a deep breath. “Not much to tell. You see…there was this girl….”

“I thought so.” Ana squeezed his hand with hers. It was sweaty. “As soon as I saw you, I thought, ‘He’s a hopeless romantic.’”

“People say that all the time,” he said, echoing her.

I’m impressed you said that with a straight face, Horatio remarked.

Shut up, Justin told him.

“Anyway, when I met her, it was love at first sight. I’m sure it was the same way for you and your husband.”

Ana’s face suggested otherwise. “What was her name?”

“Phoebe,” he said promptly.

“I thought it was Pamela,” Huan interrupted.

Justin shot him a warning look. “Phoebe. I’ve never felt so connected to another person. It was like we were made for each other, perfectly matched in every way. Every moment with her was like living in a dream. I knew we had to be together forever, so I finally proposed to her on a beach at sunset. There were doves flying in the sky. I can still see the way her face glowed in the light when she said yes.”

“What happened next?” Ana asked breathlessly.

He sighed and looked down again, fully aware that half the table was listening now. “Oh, the usual. We began making plans for the wedding. It was going to be in this amazing arbor. The greenest place you’ve ever seen, filled with flowers and butterflies. We were going to have a cellist and a choir of children to sing wedding songs.”

“Don’t forget the horse,” said Huan. “Pamela was going to ride in on a horse.”

“Phoebe was going to ride in on a horse,” Justin corrected.

“A white one?” asked Ana.

“Yes, of course.” He never mentioned the horse’s color when he told this story, but women always guessed white. “Everything was perfect. Then, a few days before the ceremony, we had our compatibility test. You know what that is?”

“They force you to do it to get married,” she said promptly.

That wasn’t exactly true, not anymore, but he’d found it was a common belief in the provinces. It carried more mystique and romantic intrigue. They loved that out here.

“Well, we weren’t a match—not by their standards, at least.”

Ana gasped. “So you weren’t allowed to get married.”

“Oh, we could, but there were…penalties.” He left it at that. Her imagination would do far more than his storytelling skills could do. “We didn’t care, of course. We still went forward with the wedding and planned to leave the country afterward, before they could come after us. Only when the day came…she didn’t show up.”

“They…they got to her first?”

He shook his head. “Worse. She backed out. She was too afraid of what would happen. She wasn’t brave enough to be with me. And so, after that…well, how could I stay in the country that had torn us apart? It was too painful. I had to leave.”

So help him, Ana actually had tears in her eyes. She squeezed his hand even tighter. “You poor thing.” He hoped she wouldn’t try to “comfort” him later. It happened sometimes when he told the story. Sometimes that was actually his goal but certainly not this time. “I can’t imagine what you must have gone through.”

“It certainly seems unreal, doesn’t it?” asked Huan. “It’s impossible to believe anyone could endure a tragedy like that. You’re out.”

Justin looked down. His pile was gone. “Shit.” He hadn’t been paying attention while talking. There went his stipend for the week.

Huan shook his head in mock sympathy. “Tragedy just follows you around, doesn’t it?”

“Aren’t you going home soon?” Justin asked pointedly.

“Tonight, actually.” Huan waved his hand when the bet came around to him and gathered up his winnings into a large pile. “In fact, I should go right now. The plane’s probably waiting on me.”

The news hit Justin harder than it should have. Current diplomatic dealings with Panama had put Huan and his delegation in town longer than usual for this trip. Justin had gotten used to having his friend around and suddenly felt as though he was about to be swallowed up into darkness.


Ana’s snarl snapped Justin out of his self-pity. A passing group of men had bumped into a waitress, in turn knocking her into Ana. It was a sign of the girl’s poise that she recovered herself quickly and managed to right her tray without spilling any drinks. Still, the motion had startled Ana, and she fixed a nasty glare on the waitress.

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