Richelle Mead

New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Fantasy Author

Gameboard of the Gods (Age of X #1) Excerpt - Chapter 2

Available June 4.  Buy/pre-order it here!


 

Click here for Chapter 1 and here for the glossary!

CHAPTER 2

A Beggar at the Door

The ravens saw her before Justin did. For figments of his imagination, they were remarkably observant.

Hot, said Horatio. He was the blunt one.

She usually wears black, added Magnus. His commentary tended to be a little more esoteric. He reminded Justin of a guy he’d known in college who’d pretty much been high for four straight years. He’d somehow graduated with top honors.

Even if the bird was an annoying voice in Justin’s head, Horatio was right. The woman was a knockout, and it was a wonder the whole party didn’t come to a standstill for her. She paused in the doorway, scanning the tightly packed room. She had to be meeting a date, he decided. Or maybe she was just looking for the bar. Justin had already started his third drink and wasn’t sure that was going to be enough tonight. This was the sixth party he’d had to go to in just as many days, and he was tired of smiling.

The woman took a few steps forward, still searching through the haze of smoke. There was something in the way she moved that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Graceful, but not a dancer. Her stride was too purposeful, and she held her head up in a way that bespoke confidence and possibly some superiority. An athlete maybe? That didn’t feel right either, but he wouldn’t rule it out.

Her hair is like winter sunlight, said Magnus, almost sounding lovesick as he whispered in Justin’s mind. Still, it wasn’t a bad comparison. Not quite gold, not quite platinum. She wore it in a charmingly old-fashioned way that still managed to be stylish, pulled back and folded into itself at the back of her head. It revealed an elegant neck, which Justin rather liked.

“Justin!”

The booming voice was his only warning before a powerful hand slapped him on the back, causing him to stumble into the craps table and spill part of his drink. With one last look at the blonde, he put on the smile he knew was expected and turned his attention back to the game.

“Are you going to bet or not?” Cristobal Martinez, the party’s host and—more importantly—Justin’s benefactor, grinned down at him with teeth so white they glowed. Literally. It was a trendy new UV treatment. They tended toward the extreme here in Panama. “You’re not out of money—yet.” His tone implied that he knew how this night was going to end.

“Sure, sure.” Justin set his money on the line and then glanced back toward the doorway. The blond woman was gone.

By the bar, said Horatio.

Sure enough, there she was, accepting a drink from the bar’s automated dispenser. Justin touched Cristobal’s arm and nodded toward her. “Do you know who she is?”

Cristobal shifted his gaze toward the woman, a small frown appearing on his face. Half of it was covered by a stylized tattoo of flames, the mark of his gang. “Never seen her. One of my prettier party crashers.” He studied her a few moments longer and then promptly lost interest in that fickle way of his. He turned back to the action, whooping when someone rolled a seven.

“She’s military, whoever she is,” said Huan, standing on Justin’s other side.

Justin did a double take. “Her? No. No way.”

“Takes one to know one. It’s in the way she stands.” Huan gave her one more scrutinizing look before returning to the game. “She’s one of us too,” he added. “EA or RUNA.” He was from the EA, somewhere Justin would’ve run to in an instant, if he could’ve. Unfortunately, the Eastern Alliance honored its sister country’s policy toward exiles.

“How do you know that?”

“The dress. Next bet.”

Justin obligingly set down more money and pondered Huan’s words. He had a point. The woman’s dress was a deep plum crepe de chine, with no sleeves and a high neckline.

Who in the world knows what crepe de chine is? asked Horatio.

I had to learn that stuff a long time ago, Justin said.

The dress’s slim fit hugged her body and hit just above the knee. To Justin’s eyes, it was suggestive but elegant—and completely boring by local standards. Panamanian fashion favored garish colors and excessive embellishment these days, along with necklines that displayed a lot of skin and very little taste.

Too refined to be from around here, Magnus said in agreement. At least he appreciated Justin’s fashion analysis. A woman among women. Can’t you see the stars and flowers?

Stars and flowers. Those were words Justin hadn’t heard in a long time—ones he wasn’t sure he was ready to hear. A nudge from Huan put the rumination on hold. “Your turn to roll.”

Justin did, earning groans when he turned up a three. He yielded his bet and tried to spot the woman again, but she had disappeared.

“Why do you play this?” asked Huan. “You always lose. You could make a killing over at the poker tables, you know.”

Justin did know. Cristobal often asked the same thing, but Justin couldn’t quite explain to either man how addictive the idea of random chance was. Too much of his life was spent reading faces and other social cues. He observed too much, deduced too much. Sometimes he just needed a casual throw of the dice to dictate his future.

To Huan, he simply said, “Too easy.”

Huan chuckled and shook his head. He had an easygoing nature that Justin liked. Justin also liked that Huan was from the EA. He had the same sort of mixed heritage that Justin did, though Huan’s features favored Asian ancestry a little more than Caucasian. The RUNA’s slang term for that mix was “plebeian,” and seeing it reminded Justin of home, as did the fact that Huan was probably the only other civilized person in the room. A large part of their friendship was based on discussing how much Panama sucked. The difference between them was that Huan always got to leave when he concluded his embassy’s business here. Justin was stuck.

“Cristobal, there you are!”

A woman pushed her way in between Justin and Cristobal. Justin tried not to wince as he watched her smile up at Cristobal. Well, she tried to smile but had a little difficulty with all the wrinkle injections that had numbed her face. Magenta eye shadow reached all the way up to her brows, and the shiny gold dress she wore was at least one size too small for her plump figure.

“I had to come tell you what an amazing party this is,” she exclaimed, cozying up to the big man.

“This?” Cristobal attempted a modest look but failed miserably. “This is just a little thing I threw together. Barely a gathering.”

Justin recognized an opening for flattery. “Oh, no. This is definitely your best one yet. I don’t know how you keep doing it. I’ve never seen anything like that band.”

That was the truth. Cristobal had dredged up some popular local group whose claim to fame was that they handled snakes while performing. It didn’t seem like that difficult of a feat, considering how limp the snakes were. The terrible music had probably killed them long ago. But they were in vogue, so Cristobal had had to have them. They made Justin want to gouge his ears out.

Cristobal laughed. “Save your charm. It doesn’t work on me.”

But it did. Cristobal was more than happy to give out cash and lodging, so long as Justin continued to smile and show up at parties. There were enough people still charmed by the idea of a mysterious Gemman exile to ensure Justin’s position was secure, but he had a feeling that someday Cristobal would get bored of him and find some other novelty to show off. So, stroking his patron’s ego seemed like good insurance.

The woman turned toward Justin, her eyes widening in a way that didn’t help her appearance any. His accent had tipped her off. “Is this your Gemman? I’ve never met one before.”

“Justin, this lovely creature is Ana Santiago,” Cristobal said. "Her husband is a dear friend and associate of mine."

“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 empty. “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.

“Hey!”

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.

“Watch where you’re going, you little bitch. Get one drop on me, and I’ll have Cristobal kick you out on the streets like that.” Ana tried to snap her fingers for effect, failed, and succeeded on the second try. “You can crawl back to whatever hole you live in and fuck your landlord for rent.”

Classy, said Horatio.

Justin knew the waitress. After four years, he knew every single person who worked for Cristobal. Her name was Sara, and she was half Ana’s age and size. Sara had a good head on her shoulders and a pretty face too, and in a sea of women like Ana Santiago, Sara was someone Justin wouldn’t have minded getting to know better. Sara was too smart to get involved with any of her boss’s party friends, though, and had made it abundantly clear her sole purpose in putting up with drunken gangsters and would-be socialites was to feed the two small children she had at home. Justin respected that. There was something in her that reminded him charmingly—and painfully—of his sister.

Even now, Sara was too savvy to offer a word of protest. She accepted the rebuke meekly, offering a soft apology as she delivered the table’s drinks. Justin handed her one of Huan’s larger chips as a tip, earning a nod of thanks.

Ana watched her go in triumph, apparently feeling proud of her ability to demean someone who was already at a much lower station in life. “I get that Cristobal wants easy ass around, but I don’t know how he puts up with the incompetence. She’s lucky she didn’t ruin this dress. It’s a Gemman import, you know.” That was directed toward Justin, as though he should be impressed. “Not that you’d expect trash like her to understand that.”

“Trash? She’s from the same place you are,” said Justin. He spoke quietly, but everyone at the table heard.

Ana’s eyes widened. “I live over on the west shore.”

Huan made a low noise of warning in his throat, but something in Justin snapped. He was so, so tired of this place. Tired of the games, tired of women like Ana, tired of dancing for Cristobal’s entertainment. The ravens often spoke of greatness and divine plans that lay in store for him, but Justin saw no greatness in his future. There would be no end to this place, and it made Justin angry, angrier still that Huan would get to leave it.

“But you grew up in San Garcia,” Justin told Ana. He rushed forward when she started to shake her head in denial. “It’s in the way you slur your S’s and use expressions like ‘easy ass.’ All the money and power in the world aren’t going to change where you came from, and trying to hide it with piles of fake jewelry isn’t going to work either.”

Ana flushed. “These are real!”

“The hell they are. I can see the brass tarnishing from here. And that dress is not Gemman—unless you managed to visit a post-Feriae costume clearance sale. That fabric’s just some flammable castoff from Guatemala. I know, because I saw it in stock at that tailor down on Flores Street, which is the same place I get my shitty knockoffs.” Justin paused to take a drink, then remembered he was out. “You can put on as many airs as you want, but in the end, that dress is the same as you: an old, cheap design dressed up to look like it’s worth more than it is.”

The table collectively held its breath, and then Ana, face furious, flung her wineglass at Justin, leaving a bloody stain on his shirt. “Looks like it’s time for another shitty knockoff.” She stormed away, probably straight to Cristobal, Justin thought bleakly.

Huan caught hold of Justin’s arm and steered him from the table. “Okay. Let’s go get a cigarette, Little Miss Charisma.”

“You don’t smoke,” Justin said, letting himself be led.

“It’s not for me. Here.” Huan took off his coat and handed it over. “You don’t want the world thinking you were shot. Unless you want to play dead when her husband comes seeking revenge.”

Huan must’ve come from some work meeting because he had one of the official coats he wore in his diplomatic dealings. It was navy, double-breasted, with the EA’s flag embroidered on the pocket and a series of colors edging the collar that correlated to his rank and position. Wearing it felt weird to Justin, but not as weird as walking around in a wine-stained shirt.

“Will this get me out of the country?” Justin asked ruefully.

Huan gave him a sympathetic smile as an answer and opened a door that led out to a back alley. Even with the heat and humidity, the outdoor air felt light and refreshing compared to the haze and crush of bodies inside. The sound of night insects buzzed around them, and above, clouds chased each other across the sky. In the distance, he thought he heard the low rumble of thunder, and the trees on the other side of the building were beginning to sway. Storms had a tendency to blow up fast and furious around here.

Justin groaned. “I don’t know why I put up with this.”

“Because Cristobal lets you live like a king,” said Huan, giving him a comforting pat on the back. “When you aren’t insulting his guests.”

“I’d rather be a beggar at the RUNA’s door than king of this nightmare,” Justin replied.

“If it makes you feel better, you did a great job with the story tonight. One of your best performances—even though I’m pretty sure it gets you a little closer to hell each time you tell it.”

“I don’t believe in hell, so it’s okay.”

Silence fell around them, and Huan spoke his next words hesitatingly. “I was just in your old stomping grounds, though.” His expression almost became compassionate. He knew these conversations tormented Justin . . . but he also knew Justin yearned for them. “Had a meeting in Vancouver.”

Justin jerked his head up. Vancouver! The very word had power. “How . . . how was it?”

“The same as always. Beautiful and perfect. The jewel of the world.”

“The jewel of the world,” Justin repeated. He raised his unlit cigarette in a toast. The same ache welled up in his chest, the longing he felt whenever anyone talked about the RUNA. All the drinking and drugs and other vices in Panama City could never make the pain go away.

“I’m sorry,” said Huan.

“It is what it is. It has been for a while.”

A hint of Huan’s old smile returned. “I don’t suppose you’ll ever tell me the real reason you left?”

“Nah. I know how much you like the Penelope story. Wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.”

“I thought it was Phoebe. Or Pamela.”

Justin waved it off. “Doesn’t matter. She’s a shameless whore.”

“Right. You’re better off without her.”

“Exactly.”

Huan chuckled and held out his hand. “You going to be okay if I go?”

Justin shook it. “Depends if I can keep the coat.”

“Sure. I’ve got lots more where that came from.” Huan moved to the door. “Until next time.”

“Until next time,” Justin repeated, watching the other man go. Party noise flared briefly as the door opened and then faded once more. A dark mood settled on Justin, and he welcomed the solitude as he lit up.

Smoking outside was a habit from the RUNA. No one cared what or where you smoked here, but there were strict laws back home. He took a deep drag on the cigarette, feeling a pleasant buzz that enhanced the alcohol, which had already made him light-headed. He wouldn’t have been able to smoke cigarettes like these back home either. The RUNA was conscientious of its citizens’ health. Of course, seeing as the RUNA had stopped caring about him, he figured he was welcome to whatever self-destructive behaviors he wanted. Huan’s words replayed in his mind.

Beautiful and perfect. The jewel of the world.

“Goddamn it,” Justin muttered.

Which god? asked Horatio.

Whichever one sent me here, Justin answered.

Judging from Magnus’s reply, the ravens were back in insolent mode: You sent yourself here. The gods merely helped. When they weren’t criticizing his life, the ravens were always talking about gods.

Quiet, Justin told them. I’m trying to have a moment.

Watch out, said Horatio.

Six hulking figures suddenly loomed out of the darkness off to Justin’s right. Moonlight shone off Paolo Jessup’s shaved head, along with the many gaudy earrings he wore. Beside him was his brother Miguel, and Justin soon recognized the other thugs as Jessup-family cronies. He had a sinking feeling that he might be closer to Huan’s hell than he’d realized.

“Hey, Paolo, how’s it going?” Justin managed a smile and wondered what the odds were that this wasn’t about Blanca.

“Don’t fucking waste my time. Did you think you could get away with that? You think you could just take advantage of my sister like that?”

The odds, it would seem, were not good.

Tell him she wasn’t that unwilling, Horatio suggested. Justin ignored him.

“There’s some mistake,” he told Paolo. “I’d never do anything to Blanca.”

“That’s not what she told Dora Ramirez,” growled Miguel.

Dora? And Ana? How many people had Blanca talked to? Justin at least hoped she’d been complimentary about that night.

He also wondered where the hell Cristobal’s security was. The outsides of his establishments were usually crawling with henchmen, and Justin speculated on whether the Jessup brothers had bribed them. He couldn’t imagine Cristobal would be happy about the untimely demise of his favorite houseguest . . . or would he? Cristobal would certainly get a lot of mileage out of the tragic tale. Justin could practically hear the big man already: He was like a brother to me. . . .

Miguel took a few menacing steps forward, snarling like one of Cristobal’s badly trained dogs. He kind of smelled like one too. “I’m going to rip you apart!” he yelled.

I don’t think Blanca was worth it, Horatio told him. She wasn’t even that good.

Magnus’s comment was more enigmatic: Your Valkyrie.

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.