The Immortal Crown

Page 1

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.

That system had proved sound for most of the RUNA’s history until their government—covertly—acknowledged that there actually were unexplained forces stirring in the world. Justin had the unique and rather obscure position of being both a star servitor and a believer, which had landed him—depending on one’s view—the enviable or unenviable position of their lead investigator into such matters. And Mae, who had reluctantly seen enough to make her believe too, had been made his bodyguard. Most of their missions kept them safely within their comfortable and technologically advanced homeland . . . but every so often, they found themselves out in the wider world, in places like this.

After ten minutes of walking, the two of them reached their destination: the home of a woman whom the RUNA’s intelligence had scouted as potentially being involved with supernatural forces. Mama Orane’s barebones house was guarded by two hulking, armed men who looked Mae and Justin over with hard eyes. The small metal implant in her arm already had her on edge, and the sight of this new threat spun her up even more, triggering a greater flood of adrenaline and other neurotransmitters of battle. One wrong look from these guys, and she’d be on them instantly.

But once they saw the snake-engraved wooden charm Justin had bought that morning as a ticket to today’s show, the guards waved them through, barely acknowledging the guns. Inside the house, a young woman collected the rest of the admission fee, which Justin paid in local currency. Mae didn’t know the exact exchange rate but winced as what she saw as her tax dollars being handed over.

They were ushered through a beaded curtain, into a spacious living room filled with old velvet furniture and lit only by candles. At first, she thought that was simply for effect, until she realized there were no electric lights anywhere. For the price this place was charging, it seemed like they could’ve gotten on the island’s grid, fledgling though it was. Everything in the room was cast in flickering shadows, and incense smoked in the air. Considering the lack of flies here, maybe the incense was as much repellant as ceremonial. Mae put a hand on

Justin’s arm to stop him from going further as she scanned for hiding spots and points of entry. He leaned toward her and spoke softly.

“Look over there,” he said. “We’re not the only visitors from the RUNA.”

He was right. Across the room, occupying two couches were five loud, laughing individuals, two women and three men. They were passing two bottles of wine between them. Their clothing and mostly healthy features marked them as fellow Gemmans, the term their country’s citizens went by. This group’s red hair and pale skin in particular identified them as patricians: Gemmans whose ancestors hadn’t been part of the RUNA’s early forced genetic mixing program.

That program had resulted in a diverse ethnic population that had better resisted Mephistopheles until a vaccine was developed and had allowed the RUNA to become the dominant country it was today. Most

Gemmans born of this mixed heritage—nicknamed “plebeians”—had tanned skin, with dark hair and eyes like Justin. Patricians, in not being part of that breeding, had kept their recessive traits but faced greater health issues. Many had either died out or passed on Cain. Mae herself was of Finnish ancestry and a rare patrician to be born in perfect health.

Her safety assessment complete, Mae waved Justin toward a loveseat in the corner that afforded a full view of the room and its two doors. She sat down beside him, and they were immediately noticed by one of the Gemman men. He had shocking red hair and too-smooth skin that suggested cosmetic surgery to clear up Cain acne.

“Hey,” he called, holding up his glass in a toast. “Gemma mundi!”

Justin nodded back, instantly putting on that charm that never seemed to dim. “Hope you brought your own,” he called. “That stuff they sell here’s one step away from vinegar.”

The redheads whooped. “We got it from a guy over on Augusta,” said one of the women. “It’s EA rice wine. Not bad. You can have some.” She glanced around, apparently searching for a glass. Seeing none, she simply took the bottle in its entirety from the other woman and offered it toward him. “Come on, Roisin. We can share with our countrymen.”

“Got my own.” Justin pulled out a flask from his coat and held it up. “Rum—which they don’t mess up.”

After a little more friendly banter, the other Gemmans returned to their revelry. More guests began to trickle in, many of which were from neighboring areas in Central and South America. A couple of businessmen entered together, greeting the Gemmans with Eastern Alliance accents.

Justin was smiling like he was at a high-class party as he watched everything, but as Mae studied the way the candlelight made shadows play over his face, with its chiseled profile and dark, thoughtful eyes, she knew there was more going on beneath the surface. His sharp and cunning mind was always in motion, something others rarely realized beneath that friendly smile. Mae’s upbringing in the Nordic patriarchy had taught her to conceal her feelings. Justin had simply picked the habit up along the way and used it to full advantage.

His words were quiet when he spoke to her. “About what I’d expect for tourists around here—except for those other Gemmans.

Nassau’s bargain beach resorts wouldn’t be enough for them to leave the comforts of home, not when they could find safer escapes in Mazatlan.”

“Dubiously safer,” Mae corrected, recalling a trip they’d made there that had resulted in abduction and her fighting for her life.

“Maybe they’re here for the novelty. Maybe they want the risk.”

“Maybe,” agreed Justin. “Bored rich kids have certainly done stupider things. They’ll be lucky if they make it back to their inn, though.” His sharp eyes soon focused back on their surroundings, and she could see him taking in all the expressions and fragments of conversation that drifted their way. And more than that. Clothing, hair, posture, mannerisms . . . all of it was fodder for him. It was why, despite his many flaws, he excelled at a job that required him to use tiny clues to find dangerous influences.

“These latecomers are locals,” he continued, as a group of mixed ages and gender began filtering in. Most of the chairs and couches were gone now, but the newcomers happily took spots on the floor, laughing and chatting amongst themselves. “Friends or family. I’m guessing this is regular entertainment for them. And that must be the local beauty queen.”

A young woman entered, maybe eighteen at most. Although her braided hair had the brittle quality often seen with Cain, her dark brown skin was lovely and smooth, free of any flaws. She raised her hands, and the room fell silent.

“Welcome, friends,” she said. Although she spoke with an accent to Mae’s ears, the girl’s English was clear, her voice high and sweet.

“Welcome to Mama Orane’s house. She is honored to have such guests grace her home.”

“Well-paying guests,” muttered Mae.

“Mama Orane is special,” the girl continued. As she spoke, two young boys brought in a small, low table. “Mama Orane has been chosen by the spirits and powerful ones who move unseen in the world to be their vessel, so that we may hear their wisdom.”

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