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A Few Less Problems
Whatever lingering hopes Mae had clung to of
finding glory in
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
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 importantly, 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.
“You want me to . . . deliver a letter?”
“Yes.” Praetorians 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.
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
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 praetorian might not have had any fear on
the streets of
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.
Women met little resistance at the door, much like at the nightclubs of her homeland. Unlike any Gemman establishment, however, this one had a gun check. It boggled the mind. The RUNA saw absolutely no reason for civilians to carry guns, and Mae watched incredulously as poshly dressed playboys and call girls strolled up to the guards and surrendered weapons as casually as their coats.
Inside the club, high-powered air-conditioning vied for control with the heat generated by so many people packed together. The latter was winning. Equally oppressive was the smell, body odor mixed with smoke from cigarettes and other substances. It created a haze in the dim room that made her eyes water. Between all of that and the deafening music, Mae’s senses were in overdrive. It might have been a party, but it was a dangerous one, and her wariness woke the implant up.
She didn’t entirely understand the intricacies of Panamanian gender roles, though she knew they were tied to class. There was an aristocratic demographic that kept its women out of the public eye, as well as a newer upper class emerging that was looser in its rules for the sexes. That latter group made up the majority of the club’s guests tonight, though there were also a number of less affluent women around who had no qualms about making themselves available to men of greater means. Being alone suggested to others that Mae was in that group, so she was eager to complete her task before anyone decided to test the theory.
As it turned out, she was hit on five times before finally finding Cristobal Martinez. Only one of her “suitors” turned hostile at her rejection, but a sharp look from a passing security guard saved Mae the trouble of standing up for herself. It was just as well, for the sake of discretion, though her increasingly darkening mood was still trolling for a fight.
She located Cristobal near an automated bartending machine, an antiquated one with poor voice recognition that gave Mae tequila when she asked for rum. Cristobal was a big, gregarious man who was energetically telling a story to his friends. When he noticed Mae standing near him, his face lit up.
“My pretty party crasher,” he said in English. He spread his hands out expansively. “Welcome to my humble home. Well, one of them.”
“Thank you for your hospitality.” Mae smiled as though they were having tea on the Nordic land grant. “I was wondering if you could give a message to Justin March.”
“You can give it to him yourself. He’s right over . . .” Cristobal turned and scanned the part of the room that held gaming tables. “Well, he was over there. No telling where he’s gone now. Probably in someone’s bed.” He looked apologetic about that. “But it’s hard to say. You might not be too late if you want him.”
Mae tightened her smile. “I just need to get this to him.” She produced the envelope from her purse. “Can you help me?”
“Of course.” He slipped the envelope into his pocket as deftly as a magician making coins disappear in his fingers. “Now, what else can I do for you? Name it, and it’s yours.” His show of generosity was as much for the onlookers as for her. “I like you Gemmans. I want to encourage more of you to come visit me.”
Mae nearly mentioned the rum but instead gave him a head-shake and another polite smile. “That’s more than enough. I have to go—but thank you for your help in delivering that to Dr. March.” She felt the need to mention it again because Cristobal’s personality seemed a little distractible.
He clasped his hands over his heart in mock pain. “So cruel, you Gemman women. No wonder Justin left. I hope you’ll at least make the rounds before you break my heart further. There’s food in the room over there, and I have an ash dealer around here somewhere—he’s got the real deal. Not that crap that gets smuggled into the RUNA. And the band absolutely cannot be missed.”
He was right about that. It was impossible to ignore them, no matter how much she tried. She thanked Cristobal again, hoped he’d remember the envelope, and then started to turn toward the door she’d come in. A group of men had just entered, all from the same gang, judging from the matching tattoos. They were dressed in the flashy attire of questionable taste that passed as high fashion around here and had the self-satisfied swagger of those on the prowl. Not wanting anything to do with them, Mae abruptly changed course and headed toward the doors she could just barely make out in the back of the room.
It took her a couple of tries to find one she wanted. One led to a room of people snorting some mysterious powder off a round glass table. Another looked like a storage room, though an enterprising couple had decided to turn it into a bedroom. At last, she found an exit and stepped gratefully outside to an alley—and into a fight.
The adrenaline shot up in her system as soon as she recognized the signs of an altercation, even though she knew none of its context. Six thugs with more of those face tattoos were shouting in Spanish and advancing on a lone man. She recognized the markings on his jacket as an EA diplomat’s, and within seconds, she was in motion. Loyalty to the RUNA’s sister country kicked in, as did a simple dislike of seeing someone facing such overwhelming odds.
The odds weren’t that overwhelming for her. They were kind of pathetic, really, but an easy fight was still better than no fight. She needed this outlet, and at least here, there were no morals about disrupting a funeral. Plus, if she took care of this quickly and quietly, she might still get away with being “discreet.”
She strode forward and put herself in front of the EA man, who looked understandably startled to see her. “Stay back,” she warned him.
The Panamanians looked equally surprised, but then that soon changed to mockery. One of them said something that made the others laugh, though that ended abruptly when she shot forward and punched him in the face. He flew backward into the opposite brick wall, hitting with a thump and sliding dazed to the ground. A sharp kick made sure he stayed down, and then she turned on one of his stunned friends. None of them had any real training. They got by on intimidation and brute force, which wasn’t enough to overpower her. Mae’s greatest challenge came from the fifth and largest guy she fought, simply because of his size. He outweighed her, but her implant-enhanced speed and strength still prevailed. As soon as she managed to get him on the ground, it was easy enough to cling to him and bear down on his windpipe until he passed out.
When she stood up, she saw the last of the gangsters had bypassed her as she fought and had gone after the initial victim. The EA man was on the ground, holding up a warding hand at his attacker. In a flash, Mae was at their sides. She caught hold of the Panamanian kid—because really, that was all he was—and swung his head at the wall, knocking him out in one blow. Barely a minute, and the whole fight was over. Endorphins churned through her, making her high and giddy. That dark otherness that had seized her at the funeral swirled within her as well and then slowly lifted.
She looked down at the Easterner, who was looking back up at her with amazement. “Are you okay?” She held out a hand that he took after a few moments of hesitation.
“I—yes.” He got to his feet without much difficulty and stared around at the scene. “You were . . . amazing. And slightly terrifying. But mostly amazing.” He spoke English exactly as she did, with no discernible EA accent, but that wasn’t too surprising. Gemman children learned Mandarin in school, Easterners learned English, and diplomats from either country would especially have to excel at the other’s language.
She grinned, feeling high from both the fight and a sudden and unexpected physical attraction. Every man she’d met today paled beside this one.
“We have to stick together, right?” She nodded toward his jacket.
“Together . . .” He looked down, as though noticing his coat for the first time, and then finally recovered himself. “Yes, of course. Of course.” He turned his attention back to her and smiled, his confidence growing by leaps and bounds. “Do I get to know your name? Or are you going to vanish into the night and just leave me with a sweet memory?”
His smile was nice. Really nice. After growing up almost exclusively around blond hair and pale complexions, Mae had grown to love and crave darker looks. This man had typically plebeian tanned skin and black hair and the kind of features that came from three generations of ethnic mixing. A shadow of facial hair covered his jaw, giving him a sort of roguish appeal. It could have been from neglecting shaving, but there was a meticulousness to the rest of him that made her think it was probably there by design. A flush of new endorphins swept her as she took all of him in . . . the knowing eyes, the chiseled features. He was already dangerous enough, and that smile just sealed the deal.
She held out her hand. “Mae Koskinen.”
He took it and then hesitated. “I’m . . . Huan Korokov.” His hand was warm, and he continued holding hers as his dark gaze wrapped around her, in a way that was both intimate and provocative. “Nordic?”
She couldn’t hide her surprise. It was hard enough for Gemmans to distinguish her caste from all the other blond ones, and the EA had no comparable frame of reference. “How’d you know?”
He seemed very pleased with himself. “I know a Valkyrie when I see one.” He finally released her hand but stayed close. “What I don’t know is how a beautiful one came to save me. Are you military? Or just an avid self-defense fan?”
“Both.” She chose not to mention she was a praetorian. It unnerved people, even Gemmans and Easterners, and she didn’t want to undo the mood that had settled around them. Simply admitting to being a castal woman in the military was already odd enough, and she tried to gloss it over with the first moderately plausible story she could think of that would diminish her role. “I’m just here for a little while as research support to our military attaché.”
Too late, she realized acknowledging a connection to Gemman diplomats might not have been a good idea. If he was part of an EA delegation, he could have connections that would undo her lie. She tensed, waiting for him to ask if she knew so-and-so, but he let the matter go and simply said, “They’re training support staff pretty well these days.”
“They wouldn’t send us to the provinces if they didn’t,” she pointed out.
He gave the unconscious men one last curious look and then seemed to accept her story—or at least not feel like questioning it. Before he could say anything else, a streak of lightning cut the sky, followed instantly by deafening thunder and a downpour. Both of them moved toward the doorway and the shelter of the building, not that it did much good. Within seconds, Mae’s hair and dress were soaked. He glanced at the door and grimaced.
“You want to go somewhere else and get a drink? By which I mean, my place,” he added quickly. “No more of these dives. I’m sure you’ve had a lot of fun dodging fumbling provincial advances.”
“Sure,” she said. Maybe going off with a guy she’d just met would have been dangerous for most women, but Mae wasn’t most women. Besides, her gut told her he was safe, or at least safer than anyone else she was likely to run into tonight, and Cornelia had told her to take as long as she needed to deliver the message.
He led Mae back through the crowded club and out to the street. Those lined up to get inside were huddled against the building, trying to protect their party clothes as best they could from the rain. The sprawling apartment she was led to was only a few blocks away and was actually above another of Cristobal’s nightclubs. That club was in full swing too, and they could faintly hear music below them when they entered the apartment. The music faded to a dull beat as her companion shut the door.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s one of the downsides of this place. I can put on something else to cover it—unless you play.” He gestured toward a dusty piano on the far side of the living room and took off his coat, revealing a wine-stained shirt underneath.
Mae walked over to the piano. “You don’t?”
“Nope. Came with the place. Be right back.”
He disappeared down a hallway, and Mae sat down at the bench. She played a few lines of Danse Macabre and then let her hand drop as it began to shake from the implant’s metabolism. Her brief experience with Panamanian décor, at both the hotel and the club, hadn’t been pleasant, but this place was decorated almost as tastefully as something she’d find back home. Neutral colors. Fabrics that looked expensive without being gaudy.
He returned wearing a clean shirt and tossed her a towel. She did what she could to pat herself dry and then moved over to the living room’s brown leather couch. Two empty wineglasses sat on the coffee table, and he knelt in front of a nearby cabinet. “All I’ve got are Argentinian reds,” he told her. “They drink that stuff like water here, but it’s pretty good.”
“That’s fine.” The wine made no difference. The implant regarded alcohol as a toxin and metabolized it quickly, making it nearly impossible for praetorians to get drunk.
He filled their glasses and then settled
beside her on the couch, wincing slightly as he shifted.
“Another glamorous day in
“Why were they after you?” she asked. Her hands were still trembling, and she kept them tucked into her lap to avoid attention.
“I beat them at poker,” he said quickly. “Not that it matters. Those young ones have so much to prove around here that it doesn’t take much. If you see where they come from, you can almost understand and feel bad for them. Almost.”
He didn’t elaborate on what work had brought him to Panama, and she assumed it was something government related that was none of her business. In fact, as the evening progressed, he spoke very little about the EA at all. He had plenty of funny Panamanian stories to share but seemed most interested in hearing her talk about the RUNA.
“You could just visit, you know,” she teased
at one point, after he’d quizzed her extensively about the
latest happenings in
“Ever been out to
Mae wasn’t one for fantasies, but she could suddenly picture it and found herself taken with the idea of some starry escapade with a guy she’d just met. “Then you’ll have to show me.”
He gave her that heart-pounding smile, though it was tinged with a little wistfulness. “I’d like that, but . . . I’m pretty busy here. I don’t get home—or anywhere—very often.”
“Diplomacy’s hard work, huh?” She nodded toward the jacket he’d tossed aside.
“I suppose,” he said in amusement. “I don’t really think of what I do as diplomacy, though. Mostly I read people and figure out puzzles.”
“Are you any good at it?” He was right about the wine. It was excellent. Too bad she couldn’t experience the full effect.
“Well, I’d be fired if you were part of my job. You’re not so easy to read.” When she didn’t say anything, he gave a low chuckle. “But you like that I said that, which starts to tell me something after all.”
She lifted her eyes from the wineglass. “Like what?”
Those eyes held her once more as he pondered for a few seconds. “That your whole life is—and has been—about different images. What people think you are. What people want you to be. What you want yourself to be. You don’t like people making assumptions about you, but you don’t want to show them the truth either.”
“And what truth is that?” She tried to sound joking but couldn’t quite manage it. His words hit too close to home. Again, he took a long time to answer.
“That you’re sad, for one thing.” He reached out and brushed messy, damp hair from her face. It was a gentle gesture, but it sent a spark of electricity through her. “What does a devastatingly beautiful Nordic woman who can throw grown men around and play piano arrangements of Saint-Saëns have to be sad about?”
Something in Mae tightened, and she suddenly had to fight an overwhelming urge to tell this handsome stranger about everything: her father, Porfirio, the praetorians, the recurring sense of an inexplicable force controlling her . . . Instead, she smiled at something he’d said. “You know Saint-Saëns.”
“Of course I know Saint-Saëns.” The tone of his voice implied it would be ludicrous if he didn’t. “You’re trying to dodge answering.”
“Will you answer the same question? Why are you sad?”
Because he was. She hadn’t noticed it right away, not until he’d called her out. He’d been all charisma and wit tonight, and that disarming smile and the rest of his looks had done a good job at keeping her distracted by what was outside rather than within. But she could see it now as he studied her so intently: a melancholy inside him that resonated with her own. She expected him to respond with a quip, but he answered in all seriousness.
“I’m sad because you remind me of home.” He dropped his hand from her and sighed. “Because you’re beautiful and bright and dynamic and a whole lot of other things I haven’t seen for a long time . . . and won’t see again any time soon.”
Mae rested her hand on his. She felt an ache in her chest for the pain she sensed, even as the touch of his skin on hers again sent heat through her body. They’d barely known each other for two hours, but there was something about this man, who flipped effortlessly between charming and brooding, that drew her in. Mae had been adrift in her own life for the last few months, and being with him was the first steady moment she’d had in a very long time.
And yes, she wasn’t going to lie to herself about the effect he had on her physically. It was more than those dark good looks—not that those weren’t working too. It was his attitude, she decided. It was in the way he looked at her and flirted, with a confidence that was magnetic all on its own. Men like him get that self-assured because they know they’re good in bed, she thought. The chemicals of desire weren’t all that different from the ones that governed battle, and the implant, sensing the change in her, “helpfully” began increasing her body’s response. Maybe it was fitting. Sex and battle were each dangerous in their own ways.
“You’re talking like I’m already gone,” she told him at last.
“You will be,” he said.
“But I’m not.”
Mae leaned forward and found him already moving toward her. Their lips met and parted, and with that one kiss alone, she was lost. She couldn’t fix all of his problems any more than he could fix hers, but as she wrapped her arms around him and let him pull her body against his, she hoped that maybe when the night was done, they’d each have a few less problems weighing them down.