The Immortal Crown (Age of X #2)


by Richelle Mead

CHAPTER 1

Electi

Mae Koskinen was one of her country’s most elite soldiers. She’d excelled enough in her early training to be hand-selected for the Praetorian Guard, a regiment of warriors whose lethal training was enhanced by small, high-tech arm implants that used natural endorphins to increase speed and strength. From that distinguished tier, she’d gone on to join a secret government mission involving the improbable—yet alarmingly real—return of supernatural forces to the world, putting her face to face with atrocities and wonders her fellow countrymen would never have believed. There was no one else in a position quite like Mae’s, no one who’d seen the things she had. She was feared by ordinary people. She was feared by her own military.

“So why,” she muttered to herself, “am I always breaking up bar fights?”

The well-dressed answer, she knew, stood a few steps behind her, staying out of the way as she swung a bar stool at a furious man who was charging her with more emotion than skill. The stool broke into pieces as it made contact, knocking him backward to land on the dirt-packed floor with a thump. He lay there, momentarily dazed, and Mae used the opportunity to quickly scan the rest of the room. Thankfully, none of his cronies seemed too eager to join the fray in their fallen comrade’s place. The implant had Mae churning with fight-or-flight chemicals, and as much as she might have actually enjoyed further altercation, she knew the smart thing to do was to get out of here while they still could. Their mission parameters always advised discretion, and they’d kind of blown it this time.

She tossed the splintered bar stool leg on the floor and turned to the man standing behind her. “Come on, let’s go.”

Dr. Justin March—her partner and cause of this fight—hesitated.

After a moment of deliberation, he pulled some local currency out of his pocket and set it on a nearby table. “Sorry,” he called to the bartender, who was watching them in a stunned state of disbelief. Mae grabbed Justin’s arm and led him out, moving at a brisk pace before someone thought to come after them.

“Really?” she snapped, once they were outside. “Is it possible for you to go one day without hitting on someone?”

“That girl?” He sounded legitimately offended. “I wasn’t hitting on her. I was just making conversation while I waited for my drink. How was I to know her boyfriend would flip out?”

Mae said nothing as they hurried through the busy, dusty streets.

Part of her was too angry to respond to his excuses. The rest of her was too focused on their surroundings, as she scouted around them for any signs of danger. No matter how many times she left her homeland in the Republic of United North America, she never quite got used to the shocking and often primitive differences found in the provinces. Nassua was no exception. It was like something out of a movie, with dirt-filled streets crowded with pedestrians, horses, and bicycle taxis. Street vendors hocked their wares, and many sets of eyes followed Mae and Justin. She knew they stood out, not just because of their lighter complexions but also because of their clothing and general healthy appearance. The Bahamas had had a mostly African-descended population when religious extremists had unleashed the Mephistopheles virus on the world a century ago. Countries with diverse genetic backgrounds had shown greater resistance to the virus, but being on an island had cut the Bahamans off from the chance of mixing with other gene pools. As a result, many had died from the virus, and those who’d survived had passed on Cain, Mephistopheles’ hereditary parting gift that marked its victims with hair and skin damage, infertility, and asthma.

The region was poor too, and Justin and Mae appeared wealthy to many of the locals. They’d already dodged two attempted robberies on this trip. Usually, the sight of her gun dissuaded would-be thieves, but many thought a foreign woman was an easy target. Mae was always quick to correct them.

“Come on, Mae,” said Justin, when he realized she wasn’t going to answer him. “I wasn’t hitting on her. You know I have higher standards than that.”

Mae wondered if she should feel flattered. Working with Justin these last couple of months had certainly given her a lot of insight into his preferences for flings—particularly since she’d been one of them.

Things had ended abruptly when, after their one night together, he’d tersely informed her she held no appeal a second time. His subsequent cycling through of other women had only driven home how meaningless she was in his list of conquests. What infuriated her the most was that she herself was no stranger to casting aside lovers. The problem was that, until Justin, she had never been the one cast aside.

Her pride didn’t handle injuries well, but she supposed she should be grateful Justin had walked away so easily, unlike her previous boyfriend—who’d wandered into dangerous obsession after their relationship had ended.

Justin sighed in frustration. “Fine. Be that way. We might as well head straight to Mama Orane’s anyway. Maybe if we’re there early, I can get a drink.”

Mae certainly didn’t mind staying away from their cramped hotel room, which had an unscreened window as air conditioning and only one fly swatter as pest control. Justin’s readiness to turn to drinking, though not unexpected, was more of a concern.

“Don’t you think you should keep a clear head for this?” she asked. “You need to see what this woman’s up to.”

He seemed pleased to have drawn Mae out, and a little of his former professor mode took over. “I’d be very surprised if she turns out to be real. Fortune tellers have been around since the dawn of time, no supernatural powers needed. It’s easy to pick up on cues from people and make them believe what you want to hear.”

Mae nearly said, “That sounds like what you do.” She refused to be petty, though, and instead remarked, “Like Geraki?”

Justin grimaced at the reference to a would-be prophet back home.

“Fortune telling isn’t the same as prophecy, and unfortunately for all of us, he’s the real thing.”

The weirdness of their conversation wasn’t lost on Mae. Three months ago, she would’ve thought it was crazy. Their society denounced religion and the paranormal as blind superstition. The RUNA was so cautious of that kind of influence corrupting its citizens that it went to great pains to rein in those who worshipped higher powers. Anyone deemed dangerous was stamped out. The rest were cautiously allowed to continue but watched very closely. Justin, and the other servitors like him, were the ones who investigated and passed judgment.