Gameboard of the Gods (Age of X, #1)(6)

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.”

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