Gameboard of the Gods

Page 71

“I don’t believe in spells and charms,” Justin had said, even as a chill of anticipation ran through him.

The god had snorted. “You will. And I know you believe in the charms of women. I’ll send you one. A woman carved of fire and ice, who will scorch you in bed and live and die for you outside of it.”

“Wisdom can’t be given, but love can?” protested the goddess.

“He didn’t promise love,” Justin had found himself saying. “He insinuated it.” That had brought a chortle from the half-shadowed man, whom the goddess had then called a cunning bastard. The smoky god, however, had been indignant.

“You want women? With the power I’ll give you, you can have more women than you ever dreamed of.”

“He only needs one,” the half-shadowed man had insisted. Even without seeing his eyes, Justin had felt that dark gaze boring into him. “A woman among women. You’ll see. You’ll know her by a crown of stars and flowers, and then when you take her to your bed and claim her, you will swear your loyalty to me.” Suddenly, almost comically, the god had jerked his head up in surprise. “Damn. You’re no use to me dead.”

A surreal feeling had swept Justin, of being simultaneously in the dream and back in his bed at the inn. And back in his bed, the world was burning around him. He’d managed to blink the dream back into focus and plead with the half-shadowed man. “Save me, and I’ll give you the apple.”

“And agree to the rest of my terms? All the words that have passed between us are binding. When you swear in a dream, you swear with your soul.”

“Yes, yes. Just get me out of here.” Justin had tossed him the apple and woken up to ravens.

Aside from the fact that he had two possibly imaginary birds living with him, Justin hadn’t thought much about the dream in exile. There’d been no glorious woman, no spells or charms, no godly apparitions. Mae had therefore caught him off guard, and he’d just barely been able to twist the god’s words around and dodge the deal. You’ll know her by a crown of stars and flowers, and then when you take her to your bed and claim her, you will swear your loyalty to me.

Justin had argued that according to the words of the deal, he didn’t have to swear loyalty until after he’d claimed her as the one crowned in flowers and stars. Since he hadn’t known who she was the first time, he therefore hadn’t technically claimed the crowned one. It was tenuous footing, but that technicality kept him safe, so long as he didn’t screw up again. He’d used a similar technicality to save him from the training in charms and spells the god had offered—and that was the key. Offered. Justin hadn’t actually promised to do any of it. The god had just assumed Justin would jump at the chance.

Our master isn’t going to assume anything with you anymore, Magnus said ominously.

When Justin arrived at the casino, the crowd was split pretty evenly between plebeians and patricians who had all sorts of relationships with each other. Most plebeians who came to grants were there on business. They were easy to spot, some in groups of their own while others mingled with Nordic associates. Other plebeian and Nordic pairings looked friendlier and of a more personal nature. Romantic pairings between groups were nowhere to be seen. That didn’t mean they didn’t happen, of course. In fact, he could already see groups of Nordic mixers—the slang term for patricians who went slumming—on the prowl, hoping for a discreet hookup.

He scanned his ego at the table to buy his chips, fully aware he wouldn’t have been setting out such a big amount if his emotions weren’t in such turmoil. It didn’t matter, though. He had plenty of money to burn, and as Horatio had pointed out, it didn’t seem like his luck could get any worse.

And it didn’t. That wasn’t to say it improved significantly either, but at least he more or less kept even, allowing him to lose himself in the thrill of random chance. Servers brought him drinks, dulling his memories of Mae. Other players moved in and out, and at one point, a young Nordic woman came and stood beside him. She placed no bet and simply watched the game unfold.

“Do you play?” Justin asked her.

She gave him a shy smile and shook her head. “No. I can’t follow the bets.”

“It’s not that hard,” he said. He generously gave her some of his chips and proceeded to explain some of the rules. She couldn’t grasp all of the strategy, but she caught enough to make some simple bets. A few paid off, and she clapped her hands in delight each time she won. It was cute.

They played for another half hour, and then the girl—who’d introduced herself as Katrin—took a step nearer him and murmured, “I actually didn’t come over here to learn to play. I came here for you. But I wouldn’t mind teaching you a few things.”

Don’t, groaned Magnus.

Justin looked down at her, and her early demureness was gone. There was a forward look in her eyes that brought back all the unfulfilled desires he’d been forced to shove away earlier. She wasn’t a tall, gorgeous ice princess, but she had pouty lips and a dress that managed to display a knockout body while modestly showing little skin. And she was blond. He’d found a mixer after all and hadn’t even had to put forth much effort.

“I’m always happy to learn new things,” he told her, just as quietly. He kept his eyes back on the table, trying not to be obvious to others.

“Some men find the things I teach…intimidating.”

“I don’t scare easily.”

You are so stupid, said Horatio.

A hot Nordic woman wants to do “intimidating” things with me, Justin retorted. What would be stupid is not taking advantage of this opportunity.

Justin nearly asked her back to his room, but memories of Mae suddenly popped back into his mind. He didn’t want to take Katrin into that bed.

“Do you have any place we could go?”

She didn’t answer right away, which only made things that much more tantalizing. He gripped his bourbon glass tightly, waiting for a response that seemed to take forever.

“You said you don’t scare easily,” she finally said. “Are you afraid of the women’s bathroom?”

Whoa. He hadn’t expected that. He’d figured she’d give him an address that they’d slip off to separately. Not that he had a problem with bathroom sex. In his younger days, when privacy hadn’t always been so easy to come by, it had been a necessary option sometimes.

“It takes more than that to scare me,” he assured her. And actually, the more he thought about spreading her legs on a bathroom counter, the more on board he was with the idea. There was just one problem. “But it might not be the most, uh, secure place—which could be an issue here.”

“Not the ones on this floor,” she said in agreement. “But there’s one in the basement for employees that doesn’t get used much. Do you see the stairs over there? There’s a service door that’ll take you down.”

She seems to know that bathroom pretty well, observed Horatio. I wonder how many men she’s held “class” for down there.

“I’ll go now,” Katrin continued. “Meet me in five minutes.”

She cashed out and, without another glance, sauntered away. Justin played a few more rounds, watching every second on the clock, and then left for the rendezvous. He had to seize a moment when no one was near the stairwell before slipping into it. They might very well have had cameras in it, but he was pretty sure that bathroom sex, while frowned upon, wasn’t actually a crime, even among castals.

The lower level was a daylight basement, and the long corridor he entered ran down to a glass door that opened out to the casino’s back property. Otherwise, there was little activity. A few servers scurried back and forth between stockrooms, but no one was down at the end that contained the restrooms. With a deep breath, he strode toward the door marked WOMEN and knocked softly when he reached it. For half a second, he had a panicked thought that Katrin might have played him and some dour Nordic matron would open the door.

But it was Katrin who answered, with a sly smile on her lips and fervor in her eyes. She beckoned him in and locked the door. For a moment, he was a little thrown off by the bathroom. First of all, it was a lot bigger than he’d expected. Everything in it was aqua blue, from the paint to the satin-covered chair near the entrance to the two faux-marble stalls. Soft violin music was piped in from unseen speakers, and everything smelled like freesias. Justin wasn’t sure if this was a castal thing or some secret of women’s restrooms he’d never known about. It kind of took away from the kinky element of everything, but that was a concern easily forgotten.

Katrin wasted no time in pushing him against a wall and kissing him with an almost ferocious intensity. Her mouth tasted like rum and strawberries, and her teeth nipped at his lips. He moved his hands down her hips and pulled one of her legs up, bending it so that he could slide his hand up the back of her thigh. Her skin was sleek and soft, and the fabric of her dress yielded easily as he pushed it up. Yearning flooded him as she ground her body against his, giving him one of those rare moments where the continuous spinning of his mind stilled and gave in to instinct and emotion.

He still held high hopes of getting her onto the counter and wasn’t really picky about which way she faced. But when he tried to move her in that direction, she pushed back, her hands resting on his chest to keep him pinned against the wall. Maybe this was part of what “intimidating” meant. It reminded him a little uneasily of Mae’s dominance, and he hoped this would have a happier outcome.

It didn’t.

He had Katrin’s underwear partway off when he felt the wire against his neck.

The kissing also abruptly stopped, and when he opened his eyes, he saw that the ferociously passionate look on her face had simply become ferocious. He tried to speak, but the words were choked off as the wire bit into his flesh. With a strength born out of sheer terror, he pushed back against her and managed to momentarily escape the wire. Katrin surged toward him again with remarkable strength, but he dodged in a way that kept his neck from strangulation. He managed to wriggle away and grabbed the first weapon he could find: a ceramic vase filled with freesias. With no thoughts of chivalry, he swung it toward her and managed to clip the side of her head. It slowed her for a moment, and then, improbably, she came at him again and hardly seemed fazed at all.

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