Gameboard of the Gods

Page 6

Miguel’s advance was put on hold as the door opened and a woman stepped outside. Not just any woman. Her. The blonde from earlier. Everyone froze for the space of a heartbeat, and then, with impossible speed, she suddenly put herself between Justin and the Jessups, her stance protective and dangerous. A fighter’s stance. Huan’s words came back to him: She’s military, whoever she is. She made no other moves, but there was a tension in her that said she was a lioness that could strike at any moment.

You know, remarked Magnus conversationally, lionesses do all the work while lions sit around.

“Stay back,” she told Justin, her words verifying that she was indeed Gemman. There were only a few inches between them, and he became acutely aware of the neck and shoulders he’d admired earlier, as well as the way the silk wrapped her body. A few wayward strands of hair blew around her face, and the faintest whiff of what smelled like apple blossoms drifted over him.

The Jessups recovered themselves, and Paolo smirked. “Nice trade,” he said. “You fucked one of our women, now we’ll get one of yours. If you’re lucky, we’ll leave you conscious to watch.”

The others laughed, and Paolo, with death in his eyes, took two steps forward. Unfortunately for him, he never got any farther.



Whatever lingering hopes Mae had clung to of finding glory in Panama had been shattered when Gan had explained her assignment in detail. She wasn’t going to thwart an assassination attempt. She wasn’t even going to cause an assassination. Instead, all of her elite training and military technology would be used to accompany a couple of bureaucrats from the Ministry of Internal Security on their trip to retrieve an exiled servitor.

Neither of them had impressed Mae very much. The woman, with the unfortunate name of Cornelia Kimora, was a supervisor in Internal Security’s SCI division: Sect and Cult Investigation. She was in her fifties, with bobbed hair dyed an orange-ish color that bore a disturbing resemblance to an apricot. Every accessory and article of clothing Cornelia wore was beige, and she had one of the coldest personalities Mae had ever encountered—which was saying something, in light of Mae’s upbringing. At least in the Nordic caste, that kind of cool and supercilious attitude was usually paired with the ability to put on a smiling face and act like you cared. Cornelia possessed no such niceties and made her indifference clear to the world.

Her companion, Francis Kyle, was her opposite. He was similar in age but had a scattered and much sunnier—almost overwhelmingly so—attitude. That enthusiasm especially seemed to grate on Cornelia, but he held a higher title than her in Internal Security, meaning there wasn’t much she could do but grind her teeth. His bubbliness was a little over-the-top, but at least he was always polite to Mae.

Cornelia and Francis also held wildly different views of their task, which made for a long nine-hour flight. Cornelia thought the trip was a waste of time and was clearly opposed to their objective. Francis, on the other hand, could barely contain his excitement as they drew closer and closer to their destination.

“I’m so looking forward to this,” he told Cornelia at one point. She looked up from her reader with a grimace and waited impatiently for him to continue. “I’ve wanted to meet Dr. March for such a long time now. His work is outstanding.”

“Was outstanding,” corrected Cornelia. “And don’t confuse the work with the man.”

Francis looked pleasantly surprised at the clarification. “Oh? I’d think they’re one and the same.”

“Hardly.” Cornelia snorted unattractively. “Just wait until you meet him.”

“He’s brilliant,” Francis insisted.

“Yes.” Her words came grudgingly, and she held up a hand to enumerate points on her fingers. “Also arrogant, impertinent, and manipulative.”

Francis remained undaunted. “Those aren’t necessarily bad things in his line of work.”

“They’re annoying things that he tries to spin as charm. And let’s not forget his addictive personality.” This required Cornelia’s other hand. “Stimulants, alcohol, gambling, women…if there’s excess to drown in, he’ll find it. He probably fits in beautifully in Panama. Won’t want to leave.”

Francis’s cheerful disposition turned wry. “I sincerely doubt that. Besides, we need him. You know we do. No one else has his…perspective.”

“That’s exactly my problem. I don’t know that we really do need his perspective.” Cornelia’s tone was grim, and both fell silent for a while.

Mae didn’t know what that perspective was or what was so crucial that it would require Internal Security traveling to the provinces. From Cornelia’s description of Dr. March, he sounded like he embodied everything Mae hated in a guy, and she hoped she wouldn’t have to talk to him on the trip back. Although…she couldn’t deny her curiosity about his exile. What in the world would someone have to do to be exiled from the RUNA? If he’d committed a crime, why not imprison him? And most important, if he’d done something bad enough to be kicked out, then why would they want to bring him back?

Those were answers beyond Mae’s pay grade, ones that had little to do with her role here. She and the four gray-clad soldiers accompanying Cornelia and Francis were simply muscle. It was inglorious work, but Mae reminded herself that it was no less than she deserved for her breakdown at the funeral. One trip to the provinces, she told herself. One trip to get SCI’s brilliantly arrogant servitor, and then I’m back to regular duty—and my uniform.

Panama required no uniform—at least not a military one. Bizarrely, Mae had been instructed to bring formal wear. Once their group arrived and was settled in what was dubiously considered Panama City’s safest hotel, she was a little astonished to learn what exactly her dress would be used for.

“You want me to…deliver a letter?”

“Yes.” Prætorians didn’t intimidate Cornelia, and her small frown showed how displeased she was that Mae would actually ask a question. “He’s staying with a local gangster down here—Cristobal Martinez. Martinez owns all sorts of clubs and housing, and it’s impossible to know where exactly March is in that mess. Martinez should be easy enough to find. He’s a flamboyant man who’s always throwing parties. All you have to do is make yourself pretty, show up, be discreet, and give this to him.” She handed Mae an envelope with Justin March handwritten across the outside. “Shouldn’t be too difficult for you and your formidable skill set.”

Mae put on a look as polite and deferential as any she would give Gan, though inside, she was seething. All you have to do is make yourself pretty. The sneer on Cornelia’s lips and contempt in her voice suggested she didn’t like castals, but it was probably even more basic than that. She was just someone threatened by a younger woman, period—regardless of whether that person was one of the most feared soldiers in the RUNA.

And there was also the small fact that Mae would go where no one else in their entourage would. Both Cornelia and Francis made it perfectly clear they had no intention of setting one foot outside their hotel until they were headed back to the airport. For all their airs, the provinces terrified the two, which Mae took a little grim amusement out of.

But she kept all of those thoughts to herself, remembering that she was a soldier, one who was being punished. She accepted Cornelia’s condescension without complaint, only stopping to ask, “Do you want me to wait around and bring Dr. March back myself?”

“No. There’s no telling when Martinez will get around to finding him, and there are instructions on where we’re staying in the envelope. When March reads it, he’ll come, believe me.” Cornelia’s sneer returned. “And no need to escort him. If he’s managed this long on the streets of Panama, he can survive a little longer on his own.” It was probably Cornelia’s last effort to thwart the plan she was already against. Maybe she hoped he’d be gunned down on his way to the hotel.

And so, Mae found herself in her own room later that evening, in makeup and a mauve cocktail dress, arranging her hair into a Gibson tuck. Old-fashioned styles like that were trendy in the castes now, and no matter how far she’d strayed from her upbringing, it was hard not to fall back on old habits. Make yourself pretty. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so contemptuous of Cornelia’s attitude, because Mae suddenly had a weird flashback to her sixteen-year-old self, primped and polished to the same level of glamour, ready to be set out on display.

I am not that girl, Mae reminded herself, with one last look in the mirror. I am a soldier of the Republic.

A prætorian might not have had any fear on the streets of Panama, but a lone woman—especially a blond, foreign one in a short dress—certainly attracted attention. It was a flaw in Internal Security’s plan. If they’d really wanted a discreet message sent, they should have brought a male prætorian. Of course, they probably didn’t have any men in enough disgrace right now to deserve such a mundane mission.

Mae almost hoped one of the locals would start something. Her emotions were still in enough turmoil from the funeral that she would’ve welcomed the physical outlet. But although she received a few bold looks and dirty comments in Spanish, the tattooed teenage gangsters lingering outside her hotel left her alone. Most of her trip across town to Cristobal Martinez’s club was by hired car, and although the driver made no attempt to hide his leer, he too kept his distance.

In fact, the most significant encounter she had was with someone who wasn’t interested in her body so much as her soul. About half a block from the club’s entrance stood a man with a shaved head and ragged coat. He was beseeching everyone who walked past, waving crudely drawn pamphlets at them. Mae didn’t speak Spanish, but she did pick out words like “dios” and “salvación.” She didn’t know if he was peddling an old religion or one of the many newer ones that had popped up after the Decline, but it didn’t matter. They all ran rampant and unrestrained out here in the provinces, and one was as bad as another. She had no use for any of them and made that clear when the man ignored her polite refusals. After a harsh shove into the wall, he decided to keep his salvation to himself.

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