“Hey!” I say to him, planting a wide, naïve smile on my face. “Tremaine Blackbourne, right?” At the same time, I tap my fingers subtly against my leg and start downloading info on both him and Max. “It’s so exciting to be in the same space as the teams, isn’t it?”
“She’s excited to be here,” Tremaine says to Max while his eyes stay on me. “Guess I would be, too, if I cheated my way into the draft.”
You wish you were smart enough to cheat your way in, I want to spit back—but I take a deep breath and force my reply down.
At my tense expression, Tremaine’s smile stretches thinner. “Look at this peach. They bruise so easily, they need a Shield to escort them.” His eyes actively avoid Roshan in a way that lets me know that’s where his attention really is. “Ash must be losing his edge, picking you first.”
Max sizes me up. “Well, maybe Ash just wanted to pick someone who matched his team’s pedigree. Isn’t that right, Ahmadi?” he says to Roshan. Even as both Demons’ stares linger on me, they still don’t speak to me directly. Roshan’s hand tightens a little against my arm. “Can’t even get into a fancy restaurant with a Level 28 rank. She looks like she came from a used clothes bin.”
I pretend to lose my balance and stomp down hard on Max’s shoe with my heel. Max lets out a yelp. “Oh God—I’m so sorry!” I blurt out, pretending to be shocked. “It’s impossible to walk in these used heels.”
Roshan glances at me in surprise. A small smile hovers on the edge of his lips.
“Look, I know we haven’t started off on the best foot . . . literally,” I say to Max as he glares at me. “But I thought that maybe we could start over, you know, to show good sportsmanship.” I hold my hand out to them, waiting for a handshake.
Tremaine is the first one to burst out laughing. “Wow,” he exclaims over the music. “You’re as wild card as they get.” He makes a point to ignore my outstretched hand. “Look, Princess Peach, this isn’t how things work in the championships.”
I give him an innocent look of confusion. “Oh? Then how does it work?”
He holds up a finger. “I play you.” Another finger goes up. “I beat you. And then, if you ask nicely, I’ll sign an autograph for you. That’s pretty generous sportsmanship, don’t you think?” The fans around them smirk at me, and even over DJ Ren’s music, I can hear their snickers. It takes all my self-control to not ball up my fist right now and knock the smile off Tremaine’s face. I’ve gotten in plenty of fights over less.
Instead, I bring up all the info I can on both players. By now, my hack has worked its way into the Demons’ accounts. But nothing about the data on these two seems suspicious. I turn my attention to Max Martin’s info. His is surprisingly sparse, too. No odd security shields. Nothing useful.
Roshan comes to my aid before the Demons can add anything else. “Save your mouths,” he says coolly, his gaze lingering on Tremaine. “They won’t help you in the arena.”
Tremaine casts me a dismissive glance. I’m glad to see it—they are going to underestimate me. “Big words from the lowest-ranking team.” His eyes dart briefly to Roshan. “Go back to your Riders.” Then he starts to walk away, and Max follows in his wake.
“Who drove over their pets this morning?” I mutter to Roshan, my eyes on Tremaine’s back.
“It’s just a part of the Demons’ strategy. They talk the ugly talk and hope that some of it gets under the skin of their opponents, that it sticks there. Sometimes it works. Repeat an insult enough times, and anyone will start to believe it.”
A faint memory of past tournaments comes back to me, and suddenly I recall seeing Tremaine and Roshan frequently together, laughing and smiling. “Hey,” I say. “Tremaine used to be a Phoenix Rider, didn’t he? Weren’t you friends?”
Roshan’s expression darkens. “You could say that.”
“Tremaine wants to win. Always,” he replies. “Simple as that. So when the Demon Brigade became the hot new team, he wanted out of the Riders.” He shrugs. “It’s just as well. They suit his personality better, anyway.”
And then I remember that Roshan and Tremaine were both wild cards in the same year. Roshan had been the number one pick. I want to ask him about it, but the look on his face tells me that he’s eager to change the subject. Maybe they had been more than friends. So I just nod and let it drop.
Hammie waving to us from the other side of the dance floor catches our attention. She’s pointing to a cluster of people gathered around someone. It takes me a second to realize that it’s Hideo, with the sleeves of his tuxedo shirt rolled up to his elbows and his blazer slung over one shoulder. Kenn walks beside him, greeting fans and players alike with his huge, animated grin. Hideo is more reserved, his expression as serious as I remember it, even as he gives polite greetings of his own.
Hammie pushes her way over to us and grabs us each by the arm. “Let’s go say hi.”
We end up jumbled in the back behind a group of Cloud Knight players and Team Andromeda, while ahead of us, Max and Tremaine shake Hideo’s hand in turn. Tremaine is saying something rapidly to him, while Hideo nods patiently without smiling.
I bite my lip, tugging self-consciously at my dress and cursing my decision to wear this thing.
Then Hideo’s gaze lands on me. My breath hitches. He bids a brief farewell to Tremaine and heads toward us. A moment later, he’s here, and Roshan is stepping forward to greet him.
Hammie slaps my wrist. “Stop fussing,” she says, glancing pointedly down at my dress.
“I’m not fussing,” I mumble, but then Hideo’s before me, and my hands freeze at my sides.
“Miss Chen,” he says. His eyes linger on my face. “Congratulations.”
Were you responsible for my number one draft pick status? I want to ask, but instead I smile at him and shake his hand politely. “Believe me, I was as shocked as anyone else,” I reply. Behind him, Tremaine and Max stare at us. If Tremaine could stab me with his eyes, he would be doing it right now.
“Every draft has at least one surprise,” Hideo replies.
“Are you saying you didn’t expect me to be drafted so quickly?”
A ghost of a smile appears on Hideo’s lips. “Were you? I hadn’t noticed.” He leans closer to me. “You look lovely tonight,” he continues in a low voice, so that no one else hears. Then he’s already nodding farewell, passing us by with his entourage, bodyguards, and a trailing, screaming mass of fans.
“Damn,” Hammie says in my ear, her eyes still fixed on Hideo. “He looks even better in person than he does in the news.”
Roshan is looking straight at me. “Did he just tease you for being first pick?”
“I don’t think he likes me very much.”
“It’s enough to put you in the tabloids,” Hammie says. “You know that, right? Hideo doesn’t talk like that to his players. It’s all business.” She elbows me hard enough to make me grunt.
“It’s not a big deal.”
Hammie laughs once, sending her curls bouncing. “I don’t even care. The way Tremaine was seething in the background will fuel me for the rest of the championships.”
As several fans line up for autographs from her and Roshan, I glance to where Hideo had disappeared into the crowd. He’d been watching me carefully during the Wardraft. I think back to him standing in his private box as the announcement of my number one draft pick status rang out. He doesn’t talk like that to his players. How does he talk, then? Hadn’t he exchanged words with everyone he met tonight? In the crowd, I catch one final glimpse of his figure as his bodyguards usher him down a hallway.
A name appears in my vision, and I look up instinctively. I’d made my way close enough to where DJ Ren is still standing up behind his mountain of instruments, spinning a fast-tempo beat, the gold wings of his headphones reflecting the neon strobe lights. I’d almost forgotten that he’s also an official player in the game—but now I’m close enough to him to pull his data.
I reach out discreetly and bring up DJ Ren’s info. Immediately, I halt.
His private information is walled behind a mass of shields—not just one, but dozens. Anything I’ve managed to download from him is encrypted. Whatever the reason, Ren is no amateur at dealing with his security, and he knows how to protect himself in ways far beyond the average player. In too many ways. I stare up at him, thinking. The figure I’d seen in the Tokyo Dome is one of the official wild cards.
And there’s only one wild card who was absent from his seat during the Wardraft.
The next morning, I hear Asher’s voice driftng up from the atrium as I step out of my room, yawning, my hair tangled in a messy bun. As I go, I run right into Hammie. She grunts in a half-asleep voice.
“Downstairs,” she mutters.
“What’s going on?”