Chapter 15
The Tinker Shop

Cangkong (San Miguel), Dayan County, Shanzhong Province

"Come on," Masako said. "This is our stop. San Miguel, you said?"
Batista grunted in the affirmative. It had been three days since the incident at Santa Jésica and though they managed to get across the border, the stab wound got infected. It didn't take long for Batista to get feverish and weak, to the point where he wondered if the knife used against him had been poisoned.
Even now that they were out of Shannanxi, Batista didn't think it was safe to go to a hospital or even some back-alley clinic. If news of the bounty had spread to this province, any hospital would be the end of the line for him. Though by now he was barely coherent, earlier he checked the route map and found a possible safe haven for them. He wasn't all that eager to go there, but they'd stand a slightly better chance of getting out alive and uncaptured. It was the best he could do.
It was difficult walking straight. The aching had sunk deep into his bones and his fever was so high that he could scarcely string two thoughts together. Though so much smaller than him, Masako tried to support him as they walked. It was taking all his garbled brainpower to navigate out of the train station and toward their destination. He had only been there once, but it was etched deep in his mind. Not even the fever could have much luck throwing him off course.
He was having trouble keeping his eyes open. His vision was getting hazy, but still he tried to scan his surroundings, looking for any potential threats. The people passing by, were they just staring at him because he was staggering along propped up by some kid or was it because they recognized him? Who might be gunning for him?
The temptation was to reach for one of his weapons, but that would only draw more attention to them. It was hard to rein in his paranoia as it was to keep his sluggish legs moving one step at a time.
Where they were going, it wasn't far from the station, wasn't far from the main road going through town. It had to be easy to find or how else would they get any business? Just a little bit farther...
"How much farther?" Masako asked.
Batista tried answer, but all he did was moan like someone who was sleeping restlessly. His eyelids were getting heavy. He steered Masako around the corner. He was the one doing the steering, right? Sure, had to be. They were almost there. Had to be.
Yes, there it was. Right where they needed to be.

* * *

"Here," the woman said, offering Masako a cup of amber-colored tea.
"Thank you," Masako replied in her awkward attempt at the Infernal language.
Though there were more accomplished polyglots than her, Masako was fluent in the three main dialects of Zhong as well as the native tongue of her ancestors. She could generally follow what her Zhao servants were saying and had a working knowledge of five of the so-called archival languages. These availed her little on the surface. The closest thing to a lingua franca among the Infernals seemed to be a much debased version of the Xi language. Without Batista, she had to make do combining the classic form she learned in school with what she had picked up over the past several weeks. It seemed to be just enough to get by, but she would be grateful when Batista regained consciousness.
The woman went back to Batista's bedside, taking the washcloth on his forehead and dipping it in a basin of water, wringing it out enough so that it did not drip too much and then placing it back on his forehead.
As Masako was taking a sip of the tea, the woman glanced over at her and asked, "You like?"
Masako nodded. It was sweeter than anything they would drink at the Capital, as bitterness was seen as a virtue in the tea drunk by the highborn. Just sweet enough to be pleasant if not particularly conducive to enlightenment.
"What's your name?" the woman asked. "You've almost been here an hour and I haven't even asked. I'm Nayeli, by the way."
Even though these were people Batista trusted enough to seek out for refuge, it did not seem particularly wise for Masako to give out her real name, but so much had happened that she could not remember which alias she was supposed to be using now. She would do just as well to make one up.
"Li..." she replied. "Li Aimei."
"Let's see if I remember," Nayeli said, holding up her index fingers to illustrate her mind at work. The two crossed over each other as she continued, "Last is first and first is last, so Aimei."
It seemed rather forward to use Masako's given name right away, but all Nayeli gave was her given name, so perhaps it was the custom here for people to drop all propriety and address each other as children who had not yet learned proper manners.
Nayeli seemed to be about Batista's age, maybe a little older. She was pretty enough as Infernals went. Perhaps with Charter School training, she would have made a suitable maidservant, but she seemed more suited for the surface, so it was just as well that she remained here below.
"How did you meet Batista?" Nayeli asked.
Masako did not know how to answer. She could not very well tell the truth, but she had no confidence in any lie she might make up. Silence seemed to be the most prudent course, even if it would only serve to make her look all the more suspicious. She continued to sip on her tea while Nayeli proved to be the sort who was compelled to fill in during awkward silences.
"We haven't seen him in years," she said. "Didn't expect him to come back like this and with a girl in tow, no less. You do seem a little young for him, though. What happened to your hair, if you don't mind my asking?"
That at least seemed like something she could answer with little consequence.
"He cut it," Masako replied glumly. As with many women of her rank, her hair was her pride and having it hacked off by a barbarian with a knife remained a sore point for her.
"I see he still understands girls about as well as he ever did," Nayeli said with a disapproving glance down at Batista. "Well, maybe I can straighten it up a bit later. I'm no beautician, but I'm sure I can do better than him."
"Thank you."
Nayeli smiled pleasantly and said, "Don't mention it." After a brief pause, she then resumed her questions. "Where are you from? I can't place that accent. Are you from out west? I seem to recall that Batista went out west."
"God, you talk too much."
Masako was spared the trouble of answering by Batista's weakened voice inserting itself into the conversation. Nayeli turned to him and softly rested her hand on his forehead.
"You're awake. Welcome back."
Batista moaned.
"You had one hell of a fever," Nayeli said. "I've brought it down a bit, but you still have a ways to go. Care to explain what's going on?"
Batista's arm could be seen moving around under the sheet that was covering him. He seemed to be checking his wounds, and then he asked, "Where're my damn clothes?"
"I couldn't very well doctor you over your clothes," Nayeli replied. "And it's not like you got anything I haven't seen before."
Nayeli gave him a mischievous grin, like some pranking pixie, prompting Batista to look away in annoyance. Now that he was looking at Masako, he asked her in curt Celestial, "What'd ya tell her?"
"Not much," Nayeli replied. Apparently she could understand some Celestial even if she couldn't speak it. "Are you gonna tell me?"
"You're better off not knowin'," Batista told her.
"The hell I am," Nayeli retorted. "We haven't see you in years an' you come back outta the blue lookin' like you just had a run-in with the Pale Rider, armed to the teeth with all these cuts an' bruises an'... Did someone get you with a shotgun or somethin'?"
Batista stared up at the ceiling and sighed.
"There's been some shit."
"No shit," Nayeli said, demonstrating a surprising capacity for crudity when pressed. "An' now that you've dumped it on our doorstep, I think I'm entitled to hear what it is."
"I'm jus' doin' a job," Batista replied, grunting from the pain and holding his shoulder. "We ran inta some trouble. I wouldna come here if I wasn't in the shape I was in. Soon as I can be one my way, I will. You an' Jorge might wanna take a coupla weeks off, though."
"How bad is it?"
"Not that bad," Batista lied. "I jus' think ya wanna be somewhere else for a while."
Saying out his full name like a scolding mother, Nayeli told him, "Juan Batista Avilar Rodrigues, you know you can't lie to me. You might try it, but it doesn't work."
"The less ya know, the better."
Nayeli stood up and took hold of Batista by his shoulders. In a voice so soft Masako could barely hear, she said, "Tito, tell me."
Batista bit his lip, as if it were taking all of his willpower to keep quiet. Something stirred inside Masako, forcing her to speak up.
"He is helping me," she said. "He is taking me home."
"And who exactly are you supposed to be?" a man's voice asked in Celestial.
Masako turned to see the big man who was apparently Nayeli's husband, probably the Jorge Batista mentioned earlier. His Celestial was a little more polished than Batista's, but still rough as you would expect from an Infernal.
"I'm tellin' ya, the less ya know, the better," Batista said irately.
The big man was having none of it, though.
"You come to my place of business, my home, with a foot in the grave, all beat to hell, carryin' the papers of a Cisneros bounty hunter an' you think I'm gonna settle for blissful ignorance? You better start talkin' or I'll kick you out right now."
"You stay out of this, nena," the big man said. "Well, Batista, what'll it be?"
Batista scowled at the big man and without saying a word, started to get up out of bed. Nayeli immediately tried to push him back down, saying, "No, Batista, you shouldn't be getting up yet." She then shot a mean glare to the big man and said, "Jorge, you take it back this instant or I swear--"
The big man--who was indeed Jorge after all--was not easily budged.
"I'm not gonna let him keep us in the dark while he's puttin' us in danger. Batista, if you're fool enough to think you can just walk out in the shape you're in, I'll be damned if I'm gonna stop you."
Again, Masako found herself compelled to intervene, for better or for worse.
"I was, I was taken," she said, not knowing the word in Infernal for 'kidnapped', "and sold to a, to a..." She stumbled again, not knowing how to say 'brothel' and reluctant to admit it even if she did. "Batista saved me and now we are hunted. Three times they tried to take us, three times Batista fought them off."
"Dammit, princess," Batista growled in Celestial. "I didn't want 'em gettin' involved."
"We're already involved," Jorge replied, also speaking Celestial, if for no other reason than to remind him that he could not obfuscate by switching languages. "What's the price on your head?"
Realizing that he had been beaten, Batista slumped back and sighed.
"A hunnerd dan alive," he said, "ten dead. Fifty for the girl."
"Madre de Dios..." Jorge muttered under his breath. "Okay, now I want you to tell me everythin' that's happened. You've got us into this mess, so we gotta figure a way out of it."
"I'm sorry," Batista said weakly. "I didn't mean for this ta happen..."
"You can stuff your sorries in a sack," Jorge replied. "Now get ta talkin' so I can get ta plannin'."
Masako could not help feeling a little wonderstruck at Jorge. He did not show the slightest fear or apprehension. His steely resolve reminded her of Batista, only without the impatience. Just who was this man?
Jorge looked to Batista and his stern expression gave way to a grin.
"Aw, don't gimme that look, boy," he said. "This ain't the first time I've pulled your ass outta the fire. Least I can do for my favorite nephew."