Gameboard of the Gods (Age of X, #1)(8)

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 f*ck 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.”

Richelle Mead's Books