“So, anyplace else ya got in mind?” Justin asked his friend.
“Not really,” Shades answered. “In the last couple days, I’ve already checked the dock registry,” wishing he hadn’t brought that up, along with the fee he had to bribe them with for a look at that info, “the local constabulary,” such as it was, while Justin refused to set foot within sight of it, “as well as every inn and tavern I’ve heard of, so I doubt John or Amy have been to this town.”
Of course, one thing he had learned was that Bodeen was but one of four cities on the island of Sarna, so that still left the possibilities of Andora, Kasko and Ranco. From both the descriptions he had heard, as well as the couple maps he got to look at, this island was a lot bigger than any of the Konas, or St Lucy, probably larger than Centralict, with the four coastal cities that seemed to preside over the interior. Consisting of both alternating lowlands and hilly, bordering on mountainous, terrain toward this side of the island, the four city-states coexisted (at least most of the time, from what he gathered) in an uneasy peace. Then again, now that he had seen Bodeen…
“And I suppose you’ll wanna go to the other cities, won’t you?” Once upon a time, Justin would have been at something of a loss to understand why anyone would go traipsing about the world just to find two people, but now he wondered if he wouldn’t find himself doing the very same thing if Max, or, dare he admit it, Shades, just up and disappeared on him. “Well, I just hope they’re not like this one.”
“I’ll second that,” Shades agreed. Even beyond the seaport, most of Bodeen was a rambling maze of disjointed roads. All standing in the shadow of three-to-five stories of stucco and terracotta, of peeling plaster and narrow, crooked-looking windows. Every turn feeling like they wandered into the wrong neighborhood, and Justin’s frequent comparisons to the seedy side of his former home of Benton didn’t inspire confidence, either. In his time here, he had seen far fewer motor vehicles than he had in Centralict, or even in St Lucy, and those who apparently had lots of extra coin to toss around were taxied about by the occasional rickshaw or sedan. Instead, most everyone traveled on foot in most parts of town, pedestrian traffic consisting of entirely too many types that inspired him to watch both his back and his wallet. On that note, he added, “Especially the docking fees.”
“Don’t even get me started on that,” Justin muttered, as they were almost twice as much for visitors as they were for locals. “We can’t keep going like this.”
“I hear ya there,” Shades concurred. They had already purchased the most important supplies yesterday, but he was worried about the next place. Between replacing weapons lost in their battle against that guardian robot thing on Adnan’s, restocking their pantry, and an assortment of unexpected ‘fees’ and other expenses at every turn, Bodeen’s unforgiving prices were taking a toll on their dwindling funds. While the profits of Justin’s haunted exploits, plus the reward money from Kona Council, added up to a substantial chunk of change by most realms’ exchange rates, this place seemed to suck up money like a vacuum. And it didn’t help that Justin blew so much of it on specialized bolts for his crossbow. “I also asked around about odd jobs, but for how damn expensive everything is around here, nobody wants to pay enough to cover more than food and docking fees.”
“Where the hell does it all go?” Justin gestured to the dirty streets stretching haphazardly before and behind them. Though the buildings were bigger and, he’d wager, newer, than those of his former home, by and large, the place still had a very similar vibe to Benton. A quick glance at those who walked these streets was all he needed to tell to that they walked in the midst of pickpockets, cutthroats and swindlers of every stripe. Much as he hated to admit it, he was glad Max and Bandit stayed behind to watch the ship in a town like this. To borrow a phrase from his friend: “Does money just burn a hole in everyone’s pockets around here?”
“Maybe it does,” Shades remarked, leading him off to the side of the way, “maybe it does.” Bright and flashy, and looking a good deal newer than the crumbling plaster it was pasted to, was a poster. “And I think I have an idea where a lot of it ends up.”
“What? You mean that fighting arena?” Justin asked, reading the promotional spiel for fighters to test their meddle, and everyone else to try their luck betting on fights. An entire blurb devoted to a thousand credit purse for anyone who could defeat the arena’s undefeated champion. Nikopolas Arena, spanning the top of the poster in huge letters. “That many people are gambling there?”
“From what I’ve heard,” Shades replied. “According to my information, it used to be an ancient gladiator arena, from an era when this city apparently ruled the rest of the island, before the current island coalition. It’s been everything from abandoned ruins to a museum since. At least until a couple years ago, when some outfit remodeled the place and started hosting fights there. They seemed to have made some lucrative deals with the local government, using it as a training facility for the militia, in exchange, I would presume, for first dibs on the gambling revenue…”
He trailed off for a moment, watching a pair of rough types stride past, glancing at the two travelers for only a moment before continuing on their way. Shades had seen folks like them about during his stay in Bodeen, no formal uniforms like the Militia guards who sternly patrolled most of the town, all carrying batons or the occasional power pistol, but not operating in any law-enforcement capacity. But all wearing those same red arm bands, like an unsavory cross between guards and gang members.
“The Nikopol faction,” Shades said, recalling the name he’d picked up in conversation with the locals.
“The Red-Bands?” Justin thumbed after them, now that they had passed safely around a corner.
“Yeah, but that’s mostly just around the port district,” Shades told him. “Up here they’re called Nikopols. From what I hear, they run the gladiator arena.”
“That ain’t all,” Justin warned him, wanting to compare notes. Though Shades might have a nose for local history, Justin Black was attuned to the seedy side of port towns, the kind of rumors his friends were less likely to be in the right time or place, and blending in with the right crowd, to overhear. “I keep hearin’ some nasty shit about those guys. Don’t know how much of it is actually true, especially the one about them making prisoners fight in there, but I keep hearing warnings about getting on their bad side.”
“So I’ve heard,” Shades mused, “like they’re above the law, or something…” Justin’s words confirming his own impression of them. “Even so, I still want to take a look at it before we go. I bet Max wants to check it out, too, don’t you?”
“Sure, why not?” Justin paused for a moment, an idea starting to take shape. “Bet… Max… I got it! Max is a damn good fighter. Why don’t we bet on the fights?”
“No,” Shades put his foot down, “we’re not putting Max at risk just for money. He finally recovered from that broken arm, and now you want him to fight for us?”
“Well… when you put it that way…” Justin backpedaled. “But we could at least bet on other fights. This is a gambling town, that seems to be where the money’s at here.”
“Maybe so,” Shades said, turning back toward the seaport, “but we should at least talk to Max before we decide to gamble any of our remaining funds. I, for one, don’t trust the House or their odds.”
“Max should be up by now,” Justin said as he joined him, “so let’s talk to him when we get back to the ship. I just think it would help if we could make some money before we set out again.”
“Maybe we should check out Kasko or Ranco next,” Shades suggested, “there might be something going on there.” Though nothing he had heard while out and about inspired confidence in that regard, he got the distinct impression these city-states were long-standing rivals. Probably a holdover from those same wars mentioned in the histories he had browsed. “I suppose we’ll be alright with Bandit watching the ship for a few hours.”
“And let’s grab a bite to eat while we’re at it. These restaurants cost way too much, and the food tastes like crap.” Justin didn’t care too much for standing around hungry for hours at a time anymore. “I don’t know if Max wants to fight or anything, but I bet he’s hungry, too.”
“And I’m sure he wants to at least check out the fights.” Shades would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit his own curiosity as a martial artist. “You can learn a lot from watching others in action.”
Morning was fast edging toward afternoon, as the two of them continued to speculate about the arena while they made their way back to pick up their friend and some lunch before their visit to Nikopolas Arena, one last bit of sightseeing before bidding this place farewell.