Gameboard of the Gods (Age of X, #1)(11)

“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.” Pr?torians 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 pr?torian 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 pr?torian. 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.

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