SHE USUALLY WEARS BLACK
Mae dealt out death regularly. It really wasn’t a problem.
Death was clean on the battlefield, and there was no reason to dwell on what it meant. The kills were just mission objectives, and the people weren’t really people at all. It was you or them. And when the fight was done, you could just walk away.
But today? There was no walking away. Today, she was walking toward death, and that scared the hell out of her. Not much else did these days.
With a deep breath, she leaned her cheek against the living room mirror, closing her eyes and taking comfort in the way the glass cooled her skin. She repeated the soldier’s creed over and over in her head, using the familiar words to steady herself: I am a soldier of the Republic. I do not serve my own will but that of my country. I am its tool and will gladly lay down my life to further this nation’s glory. I am a soldier of the Republic. I do not serve my own will but that of my country….
A knock at the door startled her out of her mantra, and she straightened up. Another deep breath calmed the shaking of her hands, and she pushed her emotions into a far compartment in her mind. Locked away, those feelings could not touch her. They were powerless, and she was free. She double-checked her face in the mirror, but it gave nothing away. It was blank. Empty. In control.
Dag and Val were at the door, as she’d known they’d be. They greeted her with forced smiles that were a far cry from their usual happy-go-lucky selves. Both wore uniforms identical to hers: a mandarin-collared black jacket over black pants with black boots. Black everywhere. Even the buttons were black. The only color came from a scarlet pip on the collar, standing out like a drop of blood. To the inexperienced eye, these uniforms looked no different from the ones the prætorians usually wore into battle. To Mae, who could see and feel the dressy fabric of their formal attire, the uniform seemed flimsy and brought back her earlier fears of vulnerability. Being weaponless wasn’t helping matters.
“Here to babysit me?” she asked.
“Who said anything about babysitters?” Dag was always quick with a smile, though his eyes betrayed him that morning. “We’re just a bunch of friends going out together.”
“You make it sound like we’re going to a bar,” Mae said. She walked back to the mirror and examined the braided bun she’d so painstakingly worked on. Grimacing, she pulled out the hairpins and began unraveling it all.
Val made herself comfortable on the arm of the couch, lazy and limber as a cat, even under these circumstances. “What are you doing?”
“It’s messy,” Mae said.
“There wasn’t a hair out of place,” protested Val.
Mae didn’t answer. In the mirror, she saw her friends exchange troubled glances behind her. It’s worse than I thought,Val seemed to be saying. Dag’s expression said he was in agreement but didn’t entirely know how to handle it. Snapping a neck, lifting weights, donut-eating contests. Those were in his comfort zone. Therapy? Less so.
It wasn’t part of Val’s skill set either. Neither knew quite what to do with Mae, and she certainly wasn’t going to help them out—because she didn’t want them to do anything. She wanted them to treat her in their usual flippant way. And what she wanted most was for this day to be over, so that life could return to normal.
“How many times have you braided it today?” Val’s voice was uncharacteristically gentle.
“It’s not right,” Mae said, dodging the question. This was actually the eighth time she’d braided her hair. She kept pulling so tightly that her scalp had started to turn red, though the tiny metal implant in her arm dutifully dulled the pain. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Neither Val nor Dag ever had hair problems. Dag always kept his dark hair closely shaved, and Val wore hers in a pixie cut that suited her diminutive frame. I should cut mine, Mae thought. She’d considered it a hundred times but could never bring herself to do it.
“It’s okay, you know. Grief is a normal part of the, um, process.” Dag had apparently been reading self-help books before coming over. “You can even cry.”
“Why would I do that?” Mae pulled so hard on a strand of hair that she winced.
“Because that’s what people do when they lose someone they care about,” said Val. “You’re so tightly wound up that you’ll explode if you don’t relax. And do not undo that. It’s fine.”
Mae had just finished her hair again, neatly wrapping the braid into a perfect knot above the back of her neck. She really was on the verge of pulling it out again when Val grabbed her arm. “Enough, Mae. We’re going to be late.”
It was another bad sign, Val’s using her real name instead of her pet name, Finn. But Mae couldn’t deny her friend’s point. It was time to go. With one last glance in the mirror, she let them lead her outside to the subway entrance across the street. They took the blue line out to the base, earning a number of startled looks from other passengers. Prætorians weren’t that common outside of military and federal centers. A group of them was especially unusual. The passengers kept their distance and glanced around the train uneasily, wondering if they should expect a terrorist attack.
The threesome ended up reaching the base early, but plenty of other prætorians were already entering the ceremonial hall. And here, Mae faltered, stopping just outside the entrance. The spring sunshine was far too bright and cheery for a day like today. Dag touched her arm. “You okay?”
“You don’t have to go,” Val told her.
Mae saluted the flag overhead and continued forward to the hand scanner. “Everything’s fine.”
Neat rows of chairs filled the hall, which was nearly packed with prætorians. The news had come in less than a week ago, and it would have taken a fair amount of scrambling to pull so many of the guard back in from their scattered assignments. Some wouldn’t be here, of course. It was the nature of the job. But the death of a prætorian was so monumental that their superiors would’ve certainly done whatever they could to ensure a good showing.
Although there was no official seating chart, the prætorians were gathering in cohorts. Val waved at someone across the room. The Scarlets had already taken a middle position and were beckoning them over. Val and Dag started to head in that direction, but Mae stopped again, allowing her eyes to focus on the front of the hall.
There’d been no body to recover, but they’d still set out a casket made of a dark, gleaming wood. Prætorian black. A swath of indigo silk covered it, with the RUNA’s flag draped over that. Piles of gardenias sat on either side, their softness contrasting with the clean lines of the casket.
Not caring if Val and Dag followed her or not, Mae turned toward the center aisle that led straight to the shrine. A bubble of emotion—sorrow and panic combined—began to rise within her, and she staunchly pushed it down. Throwing back her shoulders, holding her chin high, she began the impossibly long walk toward the front of the room. People stepped aside for her, and those who hadn’t noticed her before now stopped to stare. She ignored those looks, along with the whispers that soon followed. She kept her gaze fixed firmly ahead, silently repeating the creed: I am a soldier of the Republic. I do not serve my own will but that of my country. Those words were echoed by her mother’s, spoken so many years ago: You can ignore the rest because you’re better than them. Empty yourself of all feeling, because if they can’t see it, then they can’t use it against you.
Those standing near the front also parted for her, moving away from the casket. Nearby conversation fell silent. There was a golden plate affixed to the dark wood, just under the flag. PORFIRIO ALDAYA, INDIGO COHORT. His dates of service were listed below, along with a Latin inscription that probably mentioned honor and duty. Mae ran her fingertips over his name, and suddenly the scent of the gardenias became cloying and oppressive. The world spun, and she closed her eyes.
Porfirio is dead. It didn’t seem possible that someone so full of life, someone who burned with passion and energy, could truly be gone from this world. She couldn’t bring herself to mull over what had happened to him after death. Had his consciousness ceased to exist? Or was he in some paradise that religious zealots preached about?
“You killed him, you know.”
Mae opened her eyes at the familiar voice and slowly turned around. Drusilla Kavi stood there, hands on her hips, her dark eyes flashing with a mix of grief and rage that mirrored Mae’s own feelings. Kavi was half a foot shorter than Mae, and Mae had no difficulty keeping her face still and flat in the path of that anger. Other prætorians standing nearby watched intently.
“You killed him,” Kavi repeated. The indigo pip on her collar was an echo of Porfirio’s. “You might as well have set the bomb yourself, you fucking castal bitch. He wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for you.”
Mae had been called worse and had learned to ignore that kind of thing long ago. “Porfirio made his own choices. No one could make him do anything.” She refused to be baited and tried to step around the other woman. Be calm. Be superior. “Excuse me, I need to return to my cohort.”
“Don’t walk away from me!” yelled Kavi. Her voice rang through the hall, and anyone who hadn’t been aware of the unfolding drama now was. Kavi grabbed Mae’s arm. “Do you even feel anything? Did you even care when he died? How can you be so cold?”
Mae jerked her arm back and felt the first kindling of anger. “Don’t touch me again. And don’t insult him by making a scene.” Mae turned around and saw that Val and Dag were standing nearby, as were a number of other Scarlets. Behind Kavi, several Indigos had also gathered. Backup. All of their faces were tense and hard as they braced to defend their own. The prætorians had a remarkable history of dangerous encounters, but brawling at a funeral probably wasn’t in the books.
“Is that what happens to the men you fuck? You kill them?” Kavi caught hold of Mae again and spun her around. “I told you not to walk away from me! You killed him!”
“And I told you not to touch me.”
That was when everything snapped. Kavi hadn’t just shattered the tight reins of Mae’s discipline; she’d also opened up all those boxes that Mae had used to lock up her feelings. All the grief, all the fury, all the guilt…every emotion that Mae had carefully packed and filed away since she’d learned of Porfirio’s death came pouring out. The floodgates burst, and Kavi was in their path.
Prætorians were fast, their reflexes surpassing those of ordinary soldiers. It was what defined them and was what the implant enhanced. When Mae struck out and punched Kavi in the face, Kavi should have at least seen it coming. Maybe she wouldn’t have had a chance to react fully, but she should’ve had warning. It was clear from the widening of her eyes as she flew backward into a row of chairs that she’d been completely unprepared for the attack.
Once the action started, though, her reflexes kicked in. She jumped up with little delay, but Mae was already on her again. Kavi made a few attempts to land a hit, but Mae dodged each time. A leap to the side, as perfect as anything she’d ever done in the canne combat of her youth, gave Mae the opportunity to shove the other woman backward. Kavi hit the ground, much more ungracefully than any prætorian should have. They were usually like cats, but Kavi had trouble righting herself. Her response was still fast by other people’s standards—but it took a couple of seconds too long by theirs. There was no chance for her to defend herself when Mae shot forward and kicked her in the stomach. It was immediately followed by a hit to the knee. Mae heard a crack, and Kavi screamed as she fell to the ground.
Battle mode kicked in so automatically that Mae was barely aware of what she did, only that she had to keep fighting and make sure Kavi stayed down. Endorphins and neurotransmitters surged within Mae, making her stronger and faster—but there was something else enhancing them today, a strange darkness flooding her senses and urging her to destroy. It overshadowed her like a cloak, an outside power that insidiously crept its way into her, letting her revel in the joy of violence and pain. Panic briefly seized Mae as she recognized the unwelcome sensation: No, not again. But her mental protests were soon swallowed in the haze of battle.
Kavi struggled a little, vainly trying to get up, but Mae kept her foe pinned down as she punched again and again. Mae became dimly aware of blood on the other woman’s face and the sound of shouts growing louder and louder around them. And all the while, Mae just kept thinking, Porfirio is dead, Porfirio is dead…
She didn’t know how much time passed before strong arms pulled her up and away. Her vision was tinged with red, and adrenaline, urged on by the implant, churned furiously within her. And then slowly, agonizingly, the world came into focus again. That grief-driven rage faded, and more important, the dark power that had descended upon her lifted. She saw regular gray-and-maroon-clad soldiers coming into the room, along with military police. None of them touched her, though. Two prætorians restrained her, the only ones who could hold her in full fight-or-flight mode.
“Easy, Finn. Easy.” Mae realized one of her captors was Dag. “You won. It’s over.”
That was when Mae finally dared to look down to the ground. Kavi wasn’t dead, though her breathing came raggedly, her eyes mere slits. One of her legs was bent at an unnatural angle, and blood covered her swollen face. It looked as though her nose had been broken. Mae stared in horror, unable to believe what she’d done. Prætorians fought among themselves more often than anyone liked to admit. When you had a group of people who were so physical and so chemically driven, it was hard for altercations not to break out. Usually, opponents were evenly matched. Sure, there would be a victor, but the fights were rarely all-or-nothing.
But this? It was nothing. Kavi was nothing. She’d never gotten in a hit. As Mae’s implant continued to wind down and metabolize the excess adrenaline, she tried to make sense of what had happened. The prætorians holding her finally deemed her calm enough to release to the MPs hovering nervously nearby. Mae offered no resistance. She allowed them to lead her out, but not before giving Kavi one last, disbelieving look.
They left Mae in a cell all day, which gave her a lot of time to analyze what had happened. There was no denying it: She’d cracked. She’d been weak and allowed her emotions to get the better of her. Even acknowledging that point to herself was humiliating. A little jabbing from Kavi, and Mae’s armor had crumbled.
But more than Kavi’s barbs had gotten through. Even now, Mae felt cold and nauseated as she remembered the dark force that had filled her as she fought, a force she was certain had nothing to do with her implant or sorrow. It keeps happening, she thought frantically. Mae’s life was focused on being the master of her body, and the idea of something else taking control shattered everything she fought for. It had to be some trick of her mind…because what else could it be? I should tell someone. I should see a doctor. But that thought was nearly as frightening. Prætorians who saw psychiatrists usually didn’t stay prætorians for long. No one was going to pair mental instability with a performance-enhancing implant.
One other question burned in Mae’s mind as she waited out the day. Why had Kavi been so slow to react? Or had Mae just been that fast? No, the more she thought about it, the more Mae was certain there had been nothing out of the ordinary about the way she’d fought. Yes, she’d been more emotional than usual, but that shouldn’t have affected anything. Even the rush of that dark power couldn’t create that kind of disparity.
Why had Kavi been so slow?
Mae had no answer by the time the MPs came to take her away again. They escorted her to a conference room, where she found General Gan sitting at the end of a long table. He wore the regular military’s uniform now, all gray, save for the jacket’s upper half, which was maroon. It was bedecked with the medals of his rank and a black stripe on the collar that showed he’d once been a prætorian. More silver laced his dark hair than when she’d first met him years ago, but the constant intensity and purpose in his eyes never changed.
Mae’s stomach sank further. She’d hoped someone else would be there to chastise her, maybe one of his many underlings. It wasn’t his rank she feared so much as the thought of disappointing him. He gave a small nod to the MPs, and they left, shutting the door behind them. Silence fell in the long room.
“Sit,” said Gan at last. He pointed to a chair about halfway down the table. Mae obeyed.
“So. I hear there was an incident today.” Gan was a master of understatement.
Mae stared straight ahead. She had never shirked responsibility and wasn’t about to now. “I was out of line, sir. I will gladly accept any punishment you see fit to give me.” Suspension, she thought bleakly. They’ll suspend me for sure, unless they just kick me out altogether.
He shrugged. “It was a rough day. It’s understandable that emotions would run high, especially in the wake of losing a friend.”
Gan knew perfectly well that Porfirio had been more than a friend, and his sympathy bothered Mae as much as Val and Dag’s. She would’ve preferred to be yelled at and told how completely disgraceful and inappropriate her actions were—because they had been. She decided to remind him of this, because obviously, his fondness was clouding his judgment.
“What I did was unacceptable, sir. Unforgivable.”
That brought a small smile to the general’s mouth, thought it didn’t soften the lines of his face. “I’ve seen worse, and half your cohort’s been in to tell me about how wronged you were. Valeria Jardin and Linus Dagsson have made particular nuisances of themselves.” Yes, they most certainly would. “That doesn’t mean we can ignore what happened, of course. The incident will be noted in your record, and you’ll be suspended from regular duty.”
Suspended from regular duty. She’d expected it, but it was still tough to swallow.
“Don’t worry. You won’t be locked away or confined to a desk.” He snorted. “I can’t imagine giving one of you a desk job. I can’t even imagine one of you sitting still for very long. Prætorians are too valuable to waste, and I have a task for you.”
“I’ll do anything you require of me, sir.”
He drummed his fingers against the table, momentarily lost in thought. “It’s a strange errand, but a necessary one—one that unexpectedly just came up and may be a good opportunity for you to…adjust to recent events. We wouldn’t ask it of you if it wasn’t important, of course.”
“Of course, sir.” His use of “task” and “errand” didn’t reassure her any, but Mae still hoped she might be sent to some volatile location. It’d be no more than she deserved, and maybe in glorious battle, she’d redeem herself.
“I need you to go to Panama City. Have you ever been there?”
It took Mae a few moments to answer. Panama City? There’d be no glorious battle there. The RUNA had no conflict with that region. In fact, she’d heard there were tentative trading negotiations in the works. Panama was still provincial, of course, filled with unchecked religion, a gangster-run government, and old and new aristocracies vying for power. Tame compared to other places.
“No, sir. I’ve never been there.”
“Well, you’re going there now. I’ll have the mission details sent to you, and we can meet again once you’ve read them over.”
“Of course, sir.” She hesitated over her next words. She had no business asking questions in light of what she’d done. Obedience was her only path. Yet, no matter how much she denied it around others, she knew she was one of Gan’s favorites. He’d let her ask. “Sir…how is Prætorian Kavi?”
“She’s fine—well, considering the circumstances, that is. She’ll be hospitalized for a while and then be off duty as she recovers. You did a neat job of breaking her leg.”
Mae winced, and an image of Kavi’s bloody face flashed through her mind. Prætorians were difficult to hurt. And even more difficult to kill, but it happened to Porfirio. “I’m sorry, sir. I should visit her and apologize.”
Gan chuckled. “I wouldn’t recommend that. I don’t think she’ll want to see you any time soon. I’d avoid the Indigo cohort in general, if I were you.” He studied Mae carefully, weighing her with those knowing eyes. “Go ahead. Ask your next question.”
“Sir…” She had to look away from that gaze. “Kavi was slow. She should’ve reacted more quickly, but she didn’t. Why? Why did she react so badly? What was wrong?”
Gan’s answer took a long time, and Mae dared a look up. “Maybe there was nothing wrong with her. Maybe you’re just that good.”
Mae knew she was good, but she was certain there was more to it than that. It nagged at her, but contradicting the general was unacceptable, so she let the matter go. He dismissed her, and as she neared the door, a final question popped into her head. “Sir, will I have my implant deactivated as part of my punishment?” It had been known to happen, and it scared her almost as much as full suspension or inactivity.
Gan actually looked surprised, which didn’t happen very often. “What? Of course not. I’d hardly send you to the provinces unprotected. And you’ll hold your rank and title too. Although…”
Mae froze. She didn’t know what was coming, but there was something in the tone of his voice that contradicted his casual demeanor. That, and all of this had been too easy.
“It’s a small thing. You won’t be allowed to wear a prætorian uniform until further notice. This mission won’t require a uniform at all, really, but if the situation arises for some other reason, you’ll have to wear gray.”
He was right. It was such a small, small thing, but his words hit Mae with the same force as a prison sentence would have. No black. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how big a role the uniform played in defining who she was. The implant and the title were part of it too, but the black lent a power of its own. It separated her from others who were less worthy. She looked down at what she wore, the dress uniform she’d been so contemptuous of earlier. Now she would have given anything to keep it on. How long until I can wear black again?
Gan tilted his head and gave her a puzzled look. “I assume there’s no problem with that?”
“No, sir. Of course not.” She swallowed. No black. “I’m a soldier of the Republic.”
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.
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 important—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 gone. “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.
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.”
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.
A FEW LESS PROBLEMS
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.
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 prætorian. 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 prætorians to get drunk.
He filled their glasses and then settled beside her on the couch, wincing slightly as he shifted. “Another glamorous day in Panama. Nothing broken, at least.”
“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 Vancouver. They were more than halfway through the wine. “Find me, and I’ll show you around.”
“Ever been out to Vancouver Island?” He looked astonished when she shook her head. “It’s gorgeous. And in the middle, there’s this observatory from before the Decline. They’ve restored it, and you can go out there and stand on the hill and feel like you’re in the center of the galaxy.” He spread his hands out. “Stars everywhere. And so quiet. Not many places are that quiet anymore.”
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?”
His 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 prætorians, 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.
EACH OTHER’S UNDOING
She was a dream made flesh, with a body even more exquisite than the fantasies his mind had conjured earlier. Her skin was alabaster and felt like silk, a soft contrast to the strong muscles he could feel when he ran his hand over one of her long, sleek legs. His athlete assessment hadn’t been far off. She was definitely someone who trained her body hard, but it hadn’t been at the cost of sensuality or femininity. She was still slim and lovely, with curves that he couldn’t keep his hands off of, and blue eyes that flirted with green.
Her hair, dry and unbound now, cascaded around her face like some golden veil, and her beauty made his chest hurt—which made it surprising when she turned off the lights in the bedroom. Someone like her was meant to be gazed upon while making love, worshipped even. But he didn’t question it. He was too lost in the taste of her wine-sweet lips, intoxicated by the scent of sweat and apple blossoms.
He entered her slowly, almost reverently, exulting in the way she felt around him. She was so wet, her body soft and yielding. She arched it up against his, murmuring softly in Finnish, as he began to move more forcefully. He lost himself in her, and everything in the world vanished, except an urgency to drive his body into union with hers. Her nails dug into his back, and then, without warning, she pushed up and rolled him over. Her hips straddled his, and she rode him into ecstatic oblivion, until at last, he couldn’t hold out against the mounting pleasure. He came with a great cry, finding release in that glorious body. Slowly, they both stilled, staying as they were and holding on to the weight of the moment. She was only a dark silhouette in the doorway’s scanty light as she looked down upon him, but for the space of a heartbeat, he could see her crowned in stars and flowers. It left him breathless for an entirely unexpected set of reasons.
Sated, she shifted off of him and curled up at his side. He wrapped an arm around her, drawing her close as both of them breathed raggedly. They lay like that for a long time, and then he reluctantly disentangled himself to go get the wine. At least it gave him the chance to turn the lights back on and take her all in when he returned. There was a faint sheen of sweat on her brow, and her cheeks were flushed from her own climax. Her disheveled hair spilled over his pillow, and he thought she looked more beautiful now than she had primped and polished for the party. She accepted a glass of wine with trembling hands.
He regarded her fondly for long moments, amazed at how she completely undid him. It wasn’t just the stunning looks either. He’d meant what he said: She reminded him of home. That, and she was a tangle of intriguing contradictions. A castal princess. An avenging Valkyrie. That kind of puzzle was what he lived for, a turn-on in and of itself.
From the long, languid smile she gave Justin, he knew he wasn’t the only one captivated here. They were each other’s undoing. “Why does a devastatingly beautiful woman like you have sex with the lights off?” he asked. “I’ve known women who need to do that. You aren’t one of them.”
“I just like it, that’s all.”
He touched her lips gently with his fingertips and had the satisfaction of seeing her shiver with desire. They’d taken their time, but the night was still young. “You really have walls within walls around you, don’t you?” His fingers moved down her neck and then on to trace the curve of one of her breasts. “What are you afraid I’ll see with the lights on?”
“Everything,” she said simply.
“You like to be in control,” he guessed. “And you’re afraid for me—or anyone—to see you lose it. To see your emotions unbound. To see your soul.”
Her smile grew. “You believe in souls?”
“I believe the next time we do it, the lights are staying on.”
“You sure have a high opinion of yourself, thinking it’s going to happen again.”
“Well, why not? You didn’t seem to have that bad of a time. Besides, you got anywhere else to be?”
She hesitated. “No. I don’t think so.”
“Then it’s settled.” He rested back against the headboard. “We’ll have a nice wine break, and then—lights on.”
That earned him an outright laugh. “You’ll have to fight me for the lights.”
“I don’t think you’d win.”
He set the wineglass on the bedside table and leaned toward her. “Then I’ll tie you up and keep you down.”
She seemed even more amused by that—but also intrigued. Her pupils were dark and dilated with desire. She could do it again right now, he realized. “Hope you tie a good knot.”
“I tie an excellent knot. And then I’ll drag things out as long as I want, do whatever I want. You don’t beg much, do you? But you will…you will, and you’ll love it.” He trailed his lips along her cheek, and his arousal had returned. He was already imagining her face when she came with him inside her. “And all the while, I’ll look at you as much as I want with the lights on—your body, your face when you come…all those emotions you won’t let anyone see…”
Mae’s breath came fast, and the wineglass slipped from her hand, spilling onto the floor. He didn’t care. His lips found hers again, and all that mattered was his burning need to possess her again and—
A soft chiming sound that he barely heard made Mae sit upright and pull away. With more of that remarkable speed, she sprinted from the bed and out the door. She returned moments later, more slowly, looking at something in the palm of her hand. At first, Justin was too transfixed by the sight of her naked body to notice much else. Then he realized she was holding an ego.
Careful, said Horatio. Dashing Eastern Alliance diplomat Huan Korokov wouldn’t even blink an eye at that.
I know, I know, Justin said.
He wished he could get a better look but knew Horatio was right. Telecommunications were sketchy around here, and it was hard enough getting a good portable phone, let alone anything as sophisticated as an ego. It governed a Gemman’s life. It made calls, provided unlimited access to the stream, managed money, verified identity…. Being without one for four years had been a huge adjustment for Justin. He’d grown up with people and information instantly accessible, and that lack had only increased his feeling of isolation in exile.
Mae sighed and looked up from the ego’s screen. “I have to go. I took too long.” She began hunting around for her dress. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he said. His words were gallant, but there was a sinking feeling welling up in him, not unlike when Huan had announced his departure. “I’m honored to have even had such a brief moment of a Valkyrie’s time.”
She gave him a wry smile as she tugged the dress up. “You already had me in bed. You don’t have to keep laying on the charm.”
“I don’t know how to stop it.”
That got him a bigger smile. He found a robe and walked her to the door. She opened it and then lingered in the doorway, looking at him in a way that managed to be both bold and shy at the same time. “I hope you find something to make you happy.”
“I already did,” he assured her.
“It really doesn’t stop with you.” She gave him a long kiss good-bye, one even she was reluctant to break. “If I ever get back here, I’ll look you up again.”
He smiled. “I look forward to it.”
Won’t that be a nice surprise for Huan the next time he’s in town, said Horatio.
Justin watched her walk away, feeling both light and weighted down at the same time.
The bargain is complete, said Magnus. You’ve claimed the crowned woman.
That startled Justin out of his melancholy. What? No. Not her.
You saw the crown of stars and flowers, insisted the raven.
Panic suddenly seized Justin as he remembered that moment, in the throes of postorgasmic bliss, when he had indeed had a brief vision of Mae crowned in glory. A conversation from long ago, with a figure in shadows, replayed in his head. Justin knew the words by heart: 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.
After a bit of analysis, he relaxed.
No, he told the ravens. I didn’t claim or take the crowned woman to bed.
Really? Horatio was incredulous. You were most definitely in bed with her. And there was a lot of claiming going on.
No. The deal was that I would know her by the crown and then claim her. Key word: then. The woman I took to bed was a lovely Nordic. I didn’t see the crown until afterward. So, therefore I didn’t claim her when I recognized her.
The ravens were silent for long moments, and Justin held his breath, more terrified than he was willing to admit of the precipice he stood on. It was a tenuous argument, but he had a feeling their master appreciated such subtleties. In fact, he wondered if they were conferring with him now. Finally, Horatio admitted grudgingly, You’re right. You’re a slippery bastard, which is why he likes you.
But you know her now, Magnus warned him. You’ve seen the crown. You know who she is. No more excuses. The next time you make love to her, the deal is done, and you must fulfill your part and swear loyalty. Do you understand?
Yes, Justin told him smugly, amazed he’d gotten away with this. And I also understand I’ll never see her again.
Just then, one of Cristobal’s henchmen rounded the corner and approached. Justin sighed, unhappy at this intrusion on his afterglow. “Are you here to break my knees for pissing off Señora Santiago?”
“Nah.” The guy fished an envelope out of his pocket. “I’m just supposed to deliver this to you.”
Justin took the envelope, nearly dropping it when he saw its seal. The RUNA rarely used paper for correspondence, but when it did, there was a type of sticker used to ensure the envelope’s security. It was a metallic square that showed the country’s seal in glowing blue. As soon as the edges of the sticker were lifted even a little, the seal went dark.
“Where the hell did you get this?” Justin demanded.
“I don’t know. Someone gave it to Cristobal.” The guy waited expectantly, and Justin realized he wanted a tip.
“I’m out of money. Hit me up next week.”
“You spend it on the blonde I just passed?”
“Didn’t need to.”
Justin shut the door without another word and moved toward the couch like a sleepwalker, unable to take his eyes off the seal. He sat down, took a deep breath, and then opened the envelope. It contained a small piece of paper reading:Perhaps there are supernatural forces in the world we can’t rule out after all. —CK. Below that was the address of a hotel across town and a room number. Justin felt his mouth go dry. He closed his eyes. This had to be a trick. There was no way—not after four years—that this could be real.
One way to find out, said Magnus.
Justin opened his eyes and sprang up from the couch. He made the effort to find dry clothes but did little else to improve his disheveled state. Five minutes and two shots of courage bourbon later, he was out the door, on his way to the hotel in the note.