Gameboard of the Gods

Page 46

“The woman you asked about back in Apollo’s church.”

He nodded. “Geraki said she was returning to someplace where people still believed. These annexed borderlands are hotbeds of religion. Even after SCI sweeps them, plenty slip through the cracks. Nadia grew up here, and even though I couldn’t find anything on her, some of her family moved back after I shut her down. If I were going to set up a low-profile cult, I’d come here.”

“And Nadia can help us?”

“Maybe. I’m more interested in finding her associate—Callista. She’s the one that’ll help us.”

Mae had a hard time imagining groups that had been busted by servitors wanting to help him. “Are you sure?”

“Very sure.”

They stepped inside, out of the heat, finding no air-conditioning in the empty shop. A dirty glass case displayed potential designs. Mae had had a childhood fantasy of getting a tattoo but was pretty sure she wanted no part of this place’s unhygienic practices.

“Can I help you?” A tall, lanky plebeian man stepped through the door leading to the back of the shop. Justin stepped forward.

“Yes, I’m—”

“Justin March.” The man gave him a slow, long look. “I remember. I was there when you visited.”

Justin forced a smile. “Ah, well…nice to see you again. I’m, uh, here for the same reason as before. I’m trying to find Nadia.”

“Nadia? My cousin? You already disbanded her church.”

“That’s not why I’m here. Do you know if she’s in Mazatlán? I just need to speak to her.”

Mae approached, her wariness triggering the implant’s response. She didn’t like the man’s body language. He was nervous.

“Yes…yes, of course. I just need to get ahold of her.” The man managed a smile. “You know how she is.”

Justin nodded, still smiling but also confused.

The man moved back toward the door he had just come through. “Let me call my brother and see what he knows. It’ll just be a moment. Can I…get you anything while you wait? A chair? Something to drink?”

“We’re fine.”

The man disappeared through the door, which he left ajar, and Mae heard his one-sided conversation in Spanish. The only words she picked out were “Nadia” and “Justin March.”

“Something’s weird,” she said. “He’s too uneasy.”

“Yes,” Justin agreed. “But he knows what I am. These people are more afraid of federal visits than castals are.”

The tattooist returned, his smile bigger and more natural this time. “My brother knows where she is. He’s going to bring her over.”

“Excellent,” said Justin. “Thank you.”

Justin and Mae milled around the storefront, which saw no customers, for about ten minutes. Then they heard a door open in the back and a low conversation. Their host appeared and beckoned them forward. “Right this way.”

The back room looked like any messy workshop type of area. Assorted tools and outdated readers littered the tables and benches, and a large, wicked-looking metallic contraption hovered over a long pallet where the tattooing most likely took place. A bed suggested the tattooist lived here.

Mae knew immediately there was something wrong, because instead of a woman, she found three men waiting for them—three armed men. She promptly knocked Justin down, so strongly that he cried out in surprise. Her gun was out before he hit the floor, and she unflinchingly shot one of the attackers in the arm. One of his colleagues had the wisdom to drop to the ground also, and another joined him after Mae disarmed him and belted him across the face with the gun. She was on to the one who’d tried to elude her when she heard a voice behind her say, “Easy there. Drop your gun, or Dr. March’s career ends.”

Mae slowly turned toward the speaker. It was the tattooist, and he too was armed—holding a gun to Justin’s head. These damned annexed regions were still able to smuggle guns in. This would never have happened in civilization. She knew she was faster than the tattooist and could save herself, but that didn’t mean Justin would walk out alive. And as she met his eyes, her heart clenched. She felt a terrible, gripping fear—not for the mission, but for the loss of him. A scuffle at the back door told her others were joining them, and gritting her teeth, Mae set her gun down.

The motley Mazatlán cronies were poor excuses for captors, and their detainment was made more embarrassing when Mae thought about the lethal combatants she’d fought over the years. But she’d been stuck with that gun to Justin’s head, leaving her in this predicament. The two of them were kept tied up in the back room until darkness fell outside. That was when their captors decided they were safe to transport.

She studied the men all day and found only one who acted as though he might have had militia training from the region’s pre-RUNA days. He wasn’t adept enough to identify her guns as military issue, nor did he think to check her boot. She couldn’t use the knife while bound anyway, but she felt more secure knowing it was there.

The group led Justin and Mae to a large, worn-down building that might have been an office space in better days. They entered through a side door, and she blinked as bright light shone down from an old incandescent fixture. The room they stood in was small and cramped, and it looked as though it had once been an administrative office of sorts. A door opposite the one she had entered stood firmly closed, but unless she was mistaken, she thought she could hear the sound of people on the other side. A lot of people.

Two plebeian men waited in the office, and they tensed when Mae’s entourage entered. One was older, with graying hair, but the two men shared such a strong resemblance, she assumed they must be father and son. The son looked to be a little younger than she was, but he was built like a tank, with well-defined muscles all over his body.

“Is this him?” demanded the elder, walking over to stand in front of Justin.

“Yes,” said the tattooist.

The older man struck Justin hard across the face, and Mae flinched inside, seething with anger as he staggered backward from the blow. She tried to surge forward, despite her bindings, but two sets of hands jerked her back harshly. The older man’s eyes flickered to her. “Who’s the castal?”

“I don’t know,” the tattooist said. “She was armed to the teeth, though.”

You don’t know the half of it, she thought bitterly. She looked forward to beating these people up once she was free and Justin secure.

The older man eyed her with disinterest and turned back to Justin. “You bastard.” The man’s voice rang icily. “You fucking bastard. Because of you, I lost my daughter!”

Justin made a quick assumption and blanched. “Nadia’s dead?”

“She might as well be! After you shut her down, she came here to start a new life but decided she needed guidance from her goddess. Nadia left to commune with her in the jungle…and crossed the border! She wasn’t allowed back in.”

“She’s a citizen,” said Justin. “They should’ve let her back when they scanned her chip.”

“She removed it for the journey,” said the man mournfully. “She wanted to purify herself and be free of all man-made devices. Now border security won’t let her back, and there’s no way to put it back in out there. We’ve been trying to petition, but in the meantime, she’s stuck. And it’s all your fault for shutting her down!”

It was, quite possibly, one of the stupidest stories Mae had ever heard and furthered all she believed about religion. Everything from the idea of communing with divinity to removing the chip—a major crime—had been foolish.

“Hey, I saved her from a prison sentence,” snapped Justin. “I shut her down for a paperwork error, rather than the fact that she was preaching sedition!”

The man hit Justin again, and this time Mae—prepared for the hands restraining her—skillfully slipped underneath them and managed to place a hard kick in the older man’s stomach. His eyes widened in pain as he fell while many hands now restrained her, shoving her forcefully up against the back wall. Her head hit hard against the surface, and the implant quickly compensated for the pain.

The solidly built younger man lunged at her. “You bitch—”

“Whoa, whoa, hey, wait there, Eugene. Save your strength for the fight,” soothed one of Mae’s captors, moving in front of her.

“Fight?” asked Justin. Half of his face showed an angry red mark from the blows, though he hid any pain he might have felt.

“Yes,” wheezed the older man, allowing one of the others to help him up. “The danza.”

The tattooist, seeing their blank looks, explained, “The danza is a fight used among Clans to settle matters of honor.”

“What kind of fight?” Mae asked.

“What kind of matters?” Justin asked.

“A knife fight,” declared the young man, Eugene.

A knife fight of honor? Clans? Mae was amazed. This place really did have a long way to go.

“Tradition requires it, as does our goddess,” explained Nadia’s father. “We must avenge what you did to her.”

“What are the rules?” Mae looked expectantly between her captors and the grieving father. “You can’t expect him to fight in it without knowing the rules.”

The tattooist shrugged. “The rules are simple. The combatants must stay within the marked boundaries. Each combatant gets two knives that they are allowed to use in any way on the opponent. The winner is the one still standing at the end. The loser is the one who bleeds to death.”

Playing to the death seemed right on par with the rest of this melodrama. It was straight out of a movie: an honor-avenging duel. Crude or not, Justin wouldn’t stand a chance, especially against Eugene. The man could probably win by mass alone.

“How are the combatants chosen?” she asked, trying to puzzle a way out.

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