Champion Page 2

I’ve only been in the booth for a few minutes when a girl cuts her way through the crowded dance floor and stumbles toward me. She looks flushed, her eyes bright and teasing; and when I glance behind her, I notice a cluster of laughing girls watching us. I force a smile. Usually, I like the attention in clubs, but sometimes, I just want to close my eyes and let the chaos take me away.

She leans over and presses her lips against my ear. “Excuse me,” she shouts over the noise. “My girlfriends want to know if you’re Day.”

I’ve been recognized already? I shrink instinctively away and shake my head so the others can see. “You got the wrong guy,” I reply with a wry grin. “But thanks for the compliment.”

The girl’s face is almost entirely covered in shadows, but even so, I can tell she’s blushing furiously. Her friends burst out laughing. None of them look like they believe my denial. “Want to dance?” the girl asks. She glances over her shoulder toward the flashing blue and gold lights, then back at me. This must be something her friends dared her to do too.

As I’m trying to think up some sort of polite refusal, I take in the girl’s appearance. The club’s too dark for me to get a good look at her, and all I see are glimpses of neon highlights on her skin and long ponytail, her glossy lips curved into a smile, her body lean and smooth in a short dress and military boots. My refusal fades on my tongue. Something about her reminds me of June. In the eight months since June first became a Princeps-Elect, I haven’t felt excited about many girls—but now, with this shadowy doppelgänger beckoning me onto the dance floor, I let myself feel hopeful again.

“Yeah, why not?” I say.

The girl breaks into a wide smile. When I get up from the booth and take her hand, her friends all let out a gasp of surprise, followed by a loud cheer. The girl leads me through them, and before I know it, we’ve pushed our way into the crowds and carved out a tiny space right in the middle of the action.

I press myself against her, she runs a hand along the back of my neck, and we let the pounding beat carry us away. She’s cute, I admit to myself, blinded in this sea of lights and limbs. The song changes, then changes again. I have no idea how long we’re lost like this, but when she leans forward and brushes her lips over my own, I close my eyes and let her. I even feel a shiver run down my spine. She kisses me twice, her mouth soft and liquid, her tongue tasting of vodka and fruit. I flatten one hand against the small of the girl’s back and pull her closer, until her body’s solidly against mine. Her kisses grow more urgent. She is June, I tell myself, choosing to indulge in the fantasy. With my eyes closed, my mind still hazy from my cigarette’s hallucinogens, I can believe it for a moment—I can picture her kissing me here, taking every last breath from my lungs. The girl probably senses the change in my movements, my sudden hunger and desire, because she grins against my lips. She is June. It is June’s dark hair that brushes against my face, June’s long lashes that touch my cheeks, June’s arm wrapped around my neck, June’s body sliding against mine. A soft moan escapes me.

“Come on,” she whispers. Mischief laces her words. “Let’s go get some air.”

How long has it been? I don’t want to leave, because it means I’ll have to open my eyes and June will be gone, replaced with this girl that I don’t know. But she pulls on my hand and I’m forced to look around. June is nowhere to be seen, of course. The club’s lights flash and I’m momentarily blinded. She guides me through the throngs of dancers, down the club’s dark hallway, and out an unmarked back door. We step into a quiet back alley. A few weak spotlights shine down along the path, giving everything an eerie, greenish glow.

She pushes me against the wall and drowns me in another kiss. Her skin is moist, and I feel her goose bumps rise beneath my touch. I kiss her back, and a small laugh of surprise escapes her when I flip us around and pin her against the wall.

She’s June, I tell myself on repeat. My lips work greedily along her neck, tasting smoke and perfume.

Faint static sizzles in my earpiece, the sound of rain and frying eggs. I try to ignore the incoming call, even as a man’s voice fills my ears. Talk about a buzzkill. “Mr. Wing,” he says.

I don’t answer it. Go away. I’m busy.

A few seconds later, the voice starts up again. “Mr. Wing, this is Captain David Guzman of Denver City Patrol Fourteen. I know you’re there.”

Oh, this guy. This poor captain’s always the one tasked with trying to get hold of me.

I sigh and break away from the girl. “Sorry,” I say breathlessly. I give her an apologetic frown and gesture at my ear. “Give me a minute?”

She smiles and smoothes down her dress. “I’ll be inside,” she replies. “Look for me.” Then she steps through the door and back into the club.

I turn my mike on and start slowly pacing up and down the alley. “What do you want?” I say in an annoyed whisper.

The captain sighs over the earpiece and launches into his message. “Mr. Wing, your presence is requested in Denver tomorrow night, on Independence Day, at the Capitol Tower’s ballroom. As always, you are free to turn down the request—as you usually do,” he mutters under his breath. “However, this banquet is an exceptional meeting of great importance. Should you choose to attend, we’ll have a private jet waiting for you in the morning.”

An exceptional meeting of great importance? Ever heard so many fancy words in one sentence? I roll my eyes. Every month or so, I get an invitation to some goddy capital event, like a ball for all the high-ranking war generals or the celebration they held when Anden finally ended the Trials. But the only reason they want me to go to these things is so they can show me off and remind the people, “Look, just in case you forgot, Day is on our side!” Don’t push your luck, Anden.

“Mr. Wing,” the captain says when I stay silent, as if he’s resorting to some final argument, “the glorious Elector personally requests your presence. So does the Princeps-Elect.”

The Princeps-Elect.

My boots crunch to a halt in the middle of the alley. I forget to breathe.

Don’t get too excited—after all, there are three Princeps-Elects, and he might be referring to any one of them. A few seconds pass before I finally ask, “Which Princeps-Elect?”

“The one who actually matters to you.”

My cheeks warm at the taunt in his voice. “June?”

“Yes, Ms. June Iparis,” the captain replies. He sounds relieved to finally have my attention. “She wanted to make it a personal request this time. She would very much like to see you at the Capitol Tower’s banquet.”

My head aches, and I fight to steady my breathing. All thoughts of the girl in the club go out the window. June has not personally asked for me in eight months—this is the first time that she’s requested I attend a public function. “What’s this for?” I ask. “Just an Independence Day party? Why so important?”

The captain hesitates. “It’s a matter of national security.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” My initial excitement slowly wanes—maybe he’s just bluffing. “Look, Captain, I’ve got some unfinished business to take care of. Try convincing me again in the morning.”

The captain curses under his breath. “Fine, Mr. Wing. Have it your way.” He mumbles something I can’t quite make out, then goes offline. I frown in exasperation as my initial excitement fades away into a sinking disappointment. Maybe I should head home now. It’s time for me to go back and check up on Eden, anyway. What a joke. Chances are he’s probably lying about June’s request in the first place, because if she’d really wanted me to go back to the capital that badly, she—


A new voice comes over my earpiece. I freeze.

Have the hallucinogens from the meds worn off yet? Did I just imagine her voice? Even though I haven’t heard it in almost a year, I would recognize it anywhere, and the sound alone is enough to conjure the image of June standing before me, as if I’d run across her by chance in this alley. Please, don’t let it be her. Please, let it be her.

Did her voice always have this effect on me?

I have no idea how long I was frozen like this, but it must’ve been a while, because she repeats, “Day, it’s me. June. Are you there?” A shiver runs through me.

This is real. It’s really her.

Her tone is different from what I remember. Hesitant and formal, like she’s speaking to a stranger. I finally manage to compose myself and click my mike back on. “I’m here,” I reply. My own tone is different too—just as hesitant, just as formal. I hope she doesn’t hear the slight tremor in it.

There’s a short pause on the other side before June continues. “Hi.” Then a long silence, followed by, “How are you?”

Suddenly I feel a storm of words building up inside me, threatening to pour out. I want to blurt out everything: I’ve thought about you every day since that final farewell between us, I’m sorry for not contacting you, I wish you had contacted me. I miss you. I miss you.

I don’t say any of this. Instead, the only thing I manage is, “Fine. What’s up?”

She pauses. “Oh. That’s good. I apologize for the late call, as I’m sure you’re trying to sleep. But the Senate and the Elector have asked me to send this request to you personally. I wouldn’t do it unless I felt it was truly important. Denver is throwing a ball for Independence Day, and during the event, we’ll be having an emergency meeting. We need you in attendance.”

“Why?” Guess I’ve resorted to one-word replies. For some reason, it’s all I can think of with June’s voice on the line.

She exhales, sending a faint burst of static through the earpiece, and then says, “You’ve heard about the peace treaty being drafted between the Republic and the Colonies, right?”

“Yeah, of course.” Everyone in the country knows about that: our precious little Anden’s greatest ambition, to end the war that’s been going on for who knows how long. And so far, things seem to be going in the right direction, well enough that the warfront has been at a quiet stalemate for the past four months. Who knew a day like that could come, just like how we’d never expected to see the Trial stadiums sitting unused across the country. “Seems like the Elector’s on track to becoming the Republic’s hero, yeah?”

“Don’t speak too soon.” June’s words darken, and I feel like I can see her expression through the earpiece. “Yesterday we received an angry transmission from the Colonies. There’s a plague spreading through their warfront cities, and they believe it was caused by some of the biological weapons we’d sent across their borders. They’ve even traced the serial numbers on the shells of the weapons they believe started this plague.”

Her words are turning muffled through the shock in my mind, the fog that’s bringing back memories of Eden and his black, bleeding eyes, of that boy on the train who was being used as a part of the warfare. “Does that mean the peace treaty is off?” I ask.

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