Gameboard of the Gods

Page 57

“Wasn’t it his engagement party?” interjected Dag.

“Maybe. I don’t remember.”

“See? I knew you wouldn’t.”

“I know the important parts,” she snapped.

“The party,” said Justin, trying to get them back on track. “Ree. Half the guard.”

“Right,” said Val. “Okay, so yeah. Lots of us there, lots of us trashed. Dag’s walking to the bar and overhears this group of Indigos. One of them’s bragging how he used to do canne de combat. Do you know that sport?”

“I must’ve missed that somewhere,” Justin told her.

“It’s nuts,” said Dag. “Imagine fencing with wooden poles. And a lot of acrobatics.”

Justin could not imagine that. “It’s a real sport?”

“Yup. Finn’s awesome at it.” Dag looked as proud as he would have been of a star pupil. “Castals really dig it, but you find plebeian leagues too.”

Val was ready to move on with the story. “So, this Indigo guy, Porfirio, is—was—an ex-castal. Iberian.” Outside Mae’s caste, Justin realized. “And so, he’s there bragging about how great he used to be, and someone feels the need to call him out.” She paused and shot a glare at Dag.

“Hey,” he said, throwing his hands up indignantly. “You should have heard him. He was an arrogant prick. He always was, right up to the end. He needed to be put in his place.”

Val pointed accusingly. “If you’d kept your mouth shut, none of this would’ve happened.”

Dag fell silent, contemplating her words.

“So,” she continued. “Dag tells this guy—Porfirio—how his cohort sister could totally kick his ass. This gets the Indigos all riled up, and everyone starts making bets. The next thing I know, Porfirio’s swaggering up to the table I’m at with Finn, ready for a fight she doesn’t even know about.”

“Arrogant. Prick,” muttered Dag.

“That one Azure guy was hitting on her, you know.” Val’s brow furrowed in thought. “Albright, that’s it. He’s a nice guy. If you’d left well enough alone, she might have gone home with him. It would’ve saved us a lot of trouble.”

“Stop getting on me for stuff that’s already happened!” Now Dag pointed reproachfully at her. “And you know it never would’ve worked with Albright. She’s all stiffly proper in every part of her life, except relationships. Then she somehow ends up with the most messed-up guys out there. Cocky. Full of themselves. Makes me want to punch all of them.”

Justin shifted uncomfortably in the chair.

Somehow, despite constantly distracting each other, the two of them managed to relate the most bizarre story about Mae wagering sex in a fight involving sticks. In his mind’s eye, he could perfectly picture Mae—fast, deadly, graceful—engaging in this duel. He leaned forward, riveted by the drama of the story.

“It was all foreplay,” said Val as she neared the ending. “You could cut the sexual tension with a knife.”

“What happened?” asked Justin. “Who won?”

Both Val and Dag hesitated. “I’m not really sure,” she said.

“What? I thought you guys were there.”

“Oh, we were,” she said adamantly. “But it just went on forever. We got bored, and then this fight broke out in the Violets because one of them was cheating or something…so, we all just went over there.”

Justin was stunned. How could Val and Dag have been leading up to this big, climactic moment, only to drop the story now? Even more incredible was how blasé they were about it.

It doesn’t inspire much faith in the country’s defenses, does it? asked Horatio.

Justin agreed. Let’s just hope they’re more competent on the battlefield.

“I think she won,” said Dag. “Porfirio cut his hair the next day.”

“No,” said Val. “I think he won. I saw her. You know that look she gets after sex. She’s less tense for, like, five minutes.”

“Maybe they both won,” he said.

“Or lost,” suggested Val.

Justin wanted to beat his head on the table. Instead, he poured another glass of bourbon. “Is there more to this? What about the part where I’m punishment?”

Val gave up on analyzing the fight’s outcome. “I’m getting to that.”

Maybe by tomorrow, said Magnus.

“Whatever happened, they were together after that. And they were glorious. Her all fair and gold, him like some dark Mediterranean god.”

“He wasn’t that good-looking,” grumbled Dag.

“Yes, he was,” she retorted. “They didn’t serve together much. Word gets around, even to the higher-ups, and they keep couples apart so there’s no conflict of interest. But whenever they had time off together, they’d hole up and stay in bed for days.” Val’s gaze shifted inward. “I think she was happy.”

“Apparently not,” said Dag ominously.

“Maybe.” Val focused on Justin again. “About six months ago, he proposed. I don’t know how he did it. He was always over-the-top, so I’m sure it was something gorgeous and dramatic. Didn’t matter, though. She said no.”

“Why?” Justin was getting hooked again and was barely aware of how much bourbon he was taking down.

Val shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s her business. But he certainly had all sorts of theories. He blew up and went off on her about everything. It was all behind closed doors, but I heard enough of it from her. He accused her of not being able to commit. He said she was too proud to leave her caste. He even told her she must have been cheating on him. I think he was pretty desperate to rationalize why she wouldn’t run off into the sunset with him. Whatever it was, it got pretty ugly, and if I had been there to see it, I would’ve made sure he never fucked anything again.”

Dag nodded in agreement, and Justin once again looked into the faces of the prætorians who’d been at his doorstep. No more levity. No more antics. They were hard and deadly, and if Porfirio had been there right now, Justin was pretty sure they would’ve ripped him apart.

They love her, said Magnus.

Justin agreed. Yes, they do.

Unhinged, wacky, lethal…these prætorians were many things, but they were also devoted to Mae with an intensity he rarely saw in the world. And although she hadn’t mentioned them yet, he would have wagered all he had that she felt the same way about them.

How does devotion like that happen? he asked. Is it because they have all that national loyalty drilled into them, and it just gets transferred to those they serve with?

There doesn’t have to be anything complex behind love, said Magnus. People just care about each other…because they do. Friends are like that. Lovers are like that. You should try it sometime.

I love Cyn and Quentin. Are you going to demean that?

No, that’s real, conceded Magnus.

Who are they more loyal to? Each other or the RUNA?

The ravens didn’t answer.

“Porfirio didn’t take it very well,” said Val, finally gaining enough control to continue on with the story. “He kind of got out of control. He wanted to prove himself. And he wanted to get away from her. He requested an assignment over in Europe—you know what a mess that is.”

“I do,” said Justin. Europe had never been a consideration for his exile. “What happened to him?”

“He died,” said Val simply. Her and Dag’s faces were grave. “Killed in combat from some explosion. I don’t know the details. I don’t want to know. When word got back, a lot of people—especially his cohort—said what happened was her fault.”

“It wasn’t,” said Dag fiercely. “That was that bastard’s own mistake.”

Val obviously agreed. “But plenty didn’t think so—still don’t. His funeral was three weeks ago, and one of the Indigos picked a fight over it.”

Dag lit up a little. “Finn cleaned the floor with that bitch. It was amazing. Kind of scary too. I mean, like we said, she’s good…but wow. It was unreal.”

“It was real enough to our superiors,” said Val dryly. “Drunken fights at parties are one thing. Disorderly conduct at a military funeral is completely different. She spent some time in confinement and then got officially reprimanded. They stripped her of her uniform and—”

“Wait,” Justin interrupted. “What’s that mean?”

“It means she can’t wear a prætorian’s uniform until the ban is lifted. If she has to go in military wear, it’s got to be gray and maroon.” Val’s eyes were troubled, filled with sympathy for her friend. “It’s a pretty big deal.”

A uniform didn’t sound like a big deal, but every cue from Val and Dag said it was. After a little consideration, Justin could understand it. The prætorians were very, very self-satisfied, confident in their power and position. The uniforms were a symbol of that. They were part of the public’s image of them: deadly, black-clad warriors. The greatest in the Republic. Being denied that had to be like losing a part of oneself, and with a pang, he suddenly realized why Mae had been so hostile when he’d suggested she dress up to meet Dennis.

“She also got cut from both active duty and ceremonial duty.” Val allowed a dramatic pause as the story finally neared its end. “She got assigned to you.”

“And that’s why I’m a punishment,” he concluded. They nodded, and Justin made no attempt to conceal his feelings.

“Don’t take it personally,” said Dag, almost kindly. “Your life’s kind of exciting.”

“But it could be a lot better,” said Justin.

A long pause followed, and then Dag repeated, “Don’t take it personally.”

Justin managed to summon his customary smile—though it was harder than usual tonight—and act as though he was taking this all in stride and had enjoyed their lively story. He tried to think of a topic that wasn’t his being a punishment.

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