Original Ending- INFIDEL
Writers have first readers for a reason. I've talked before about rewriting the second half of INFIDEL. Below is the original first draft of the last quarter of the book, in all its horrific unedited glory. It's...really bad.
I share this because it shows the importance of revising, and not settling for the first thing that falls out of your head. I basically just started over when my first readers pointed out that I pretty much had no plot. It's also a good example of what I'm talking about when I say my first drafts are mostly just dialogue and fight scenes. All the heavy lifting happens in revision.
Nyx has just been brought back from the dead, and is camped out at Behdis's place. This opening roughly maps to Chapter 30, page 247 of the final print version of the book. This is where it all went wrong. As readers of INFIDEL will note, I scrapped most of this while keeping a few conversations and set pieces. There are very few action scenes, Inaya has no subplot, and... no explosive ending. No plot, really.
WARNING: It's REALLY bad.
ALSO: MASSIVE SPOILERS. If you have not yet read GOD'S WAR or INFIDEL, you should read those first!
Nyx lay in bed, clean and fed. Eshe was curled up in the bed next to her, his skinny arms wrapped around her. Suha sat in a chair next to the bed. The radio was on, low. She could just make out the misty stir of images, the low chatter of Tirhani voices. Her head was still foggy, misty memories. Yah Tayyib. Blood. She was missing something, some great swath of something, but she couldn't reach it.
Instead, Nyx reached up and smoothed back Eshe's dark, unkempt hair. He raised his head to look at her with his black eyes. Yawned. Terrible breath. He needed a cut and a wash.
“You were dead,” he said.
“So I heard.”
Suha leaned forward. “We need to get out of Tirhan. And this house,” she said, low.
“I know.” Nyx patted Eshe's head again and gestured for him to get off her.
He sat on the edge of the bed.
“I don't trust these people, Nyx. That white bitch wanted you to die.”
“Who? Inaya? Inaya says a lot of things. What she does is a lot different than what she talks.”
“I don't trust the magician, either,” Suha said.
“He's really fucked up.”
“And we're not?”
“Don't know,” Suha said, and peered at her sharply. “That other magician, the old one. He said you might be kinda fucked in the head. Said we may not have woke you up in time.”
“Maybe so,” Nyx said. Mainly, she was thirsty, though, foggy-headed. And she knew there was some absence. God, what was the absence? “What were you planning to do if that was so?”
“Take Eshe and get the fuck out of here.”
“That might be a good idea anyway,” Nyx said.
“We're not leaving you,” Eshe said. “Not with them.”
Suha turned up the radio to drown out their conversation.
“We've got bel dames on you. They never came for me and Eshe, but they came for the magicians and the shifters. Why?”
“We killed a couple of bel dames on my old alien note. I figure there are some old bel dames running with this Shadha who I pissed off back then. One of them was likely a white raven. Don't know. Need to talk to Rhys about that.”
Rhys. Memories bubbled up. Felt like someone else's.
“His family's dead, right?” she said, because she wanted to hear it from them first. Not from him. God, no, not from him first.
“Yeah,” Suha said. “He ain't got no reason to like you much right now.”
“But aren't all of us a threat” Eshe said. “Because of the note for the queen? Why not kill us? No white ravens came to our place.”
“You sure about that?
He knitted his brows. “I don't know. I don't think... I don't think so.”
Nyx was trying to turn it all over too, but her head was fuzzy.
“Can you brief me, Suha? I'm still sorta... I'm a little gone, still.”
“Rhys's family's dead. The wife and the two girls. Inaya saved her children, but I guess you knew that. They had a magician fix you up.”
“Behdis?” That couldn't be right.
“No, some old guy.”
Nyx felt her gut clench. “Yah Tayyib,” she said.
“Yeah, that's the one.”
It was like some kind of nightmare.
“So they didn't cut off my head?” No, if they'd got the head, she'd still be... nothing. Nothing, she thought. God, there was nothing, wasn't there?
“No, that was the fucked up thing,” Suha said. “It's like it was a warning or something. But Rhys... shit, they fucked him up bad. Cut off his hands, killed his wife, his kids. What the fuck's up with that?”
They'd left Suha and Eshe intact. They had destroyed Rhys. To what purpose? What were they up to?
And then it came back to her, memory, like a wave. A dead woman's memory.
A dark shape. Familiar voices.
Rhys at the foot of her bed, there, by her knee. Big eyes. It must have been a bed, but she couldn't really feel anything.
“Do you know who this is?” That was someone else, just to her left. She didn't have the strength or motivation to turn her head.
A stranger? But she knew that voice.
Too lazy to place it. Things were slow, nice.
She smiled, felt the smile spill into her voice, like honey.
Rhys put a hand on her, on her thigh. There was something wrong with his hand.
And this place was very dark. Why was it so dark?
“You know where you are?” Rhys asked.
She looked up. Darkness. The ceiling was so dark. Heard something fluttering in the dark. Her sluggish brain tried to pull all the images together. There was light coming from somewhere, soft orange light. She heard something else now, someone else. A child, maybe.
She needed to piss.
Discomfort. The first she'd noticed.
She wanted to get up.
Some kind of pain. Somebody at her wrist. She looked, saw Rhys holding her still as some haggy woman dug deep into her wrist with a needle. The needle blinked at her.
Blood bubbled from her wrist, slipped from her skin like liquid mercury.
That's a lot of blood for such a small needle, she thought.
Then the pain. Digging.
“It's all right,” Rhys said. “The contagion's back. We're trying to neutralize it.” But was he talking to her, or someone else?
The contagion she had picked up for Kasbah. She wasn't due for an infusion yet, though. Had Yahfia been wrong? Had it snuck up on her?
“Sorry, sorry,” the old woman said, digging and digging into her wrist.
Nyx felt wetness at the corners of her eyes. Digging and digging. Bloody rivulets flowing down her arm. The blood wouldn't stop.
The old woman pulled the needle out, wiped at her sweaty head. Her headscarf was askew. Something about her ugliness, and the blood, reminded Nyx of someone. I should know you, Nyx thought.
“I can't,” the woman said. “My hands, they shake...”
“Give it to me,” Rhys said. Nyx saw his hands again as he pulled the syringe from the woman's trembling hand.
Those aren't his hands, she thought.
He plunged the needle into her arm.
Sound became muted. The world went gray and numb. Nyx stared at the ceiling.
The pain stopped.
So did everything else.
But she had talked to them, hadn't she? Yes, when they moved her. She remembered then, remembered Rhys and Yah Tayyib. How she had already known it was Yah Tayyib.
She remembered waking to find Rhys with his head on her thigh, holding her hand. The whole world was dark.
There was a moment of dissonance.
“Those aren’t your hands,” she said. She couldn’t remember ever holding his hand, but she had stared at them enough to know that this one wasn’t his. This hand was rough and veined, with the thick, short fingers of a farm laborer. They were not magicians’ hands.
Rhys raised his head. His eyes were bloodshot. Something pulled at the edges of his mouth, something like fear, anxiety, grief. Processing the emotion of that look felt like too much work.
She turned to look at the door opposite. There was a big sheet up. She heard something skittering along the floor.
“Are the plague sisters here?” she asked.
Rhys pulled the hand from hers. She wiped her hand on the sheet.
“We had to move you,” he said.
“Move me from where?”
“Khos and Inaya’s safe house. You were dying.”
Always dying. “Where’s this?”
No answer. She looked over at him. Her head was a massive stone. Just the moving was work. The world was blurry, indistinct.
“Where’s this, Rhys?”
“We’ve taken you to Behdis’s house. Yah Tayyib couldn't take you.”
She tried to push out of bed. “Can’t stay.”
“Hush, don’t.” He put the foreign hands on her again, pressed her back. “It’s all right. He brought you back.”
“He’ll sell us out you fucking fool. He knows where we are.”
“Then you would be dead already. You’re worth more dead.”
She pushed at his hands, wore herself out. She sat back in bed, stared at the ceiling. Why was it fuzzy? Why couldn’t she see anything? “Stupid, you stupid fool.”
Rhys stood. “You were dead, Nyx. Yah Tayyib brought you back.”
He walked through the curtain. Left her. She smelled something now, beyond the curtain. Curry? Was that curry? What was this, a Ras Tiegan tea house? Heard voices, low.
She stared over at her bruised right arm. Remembered bubbling blood, a blinking needle. Her blood. Pain. A knife to the throat, a roar of red.
Oh, God. She closed her eyes.
Suha and Eshe? She started to move again. Then stopped. Just. Stopped.
Dead. Tayyib had brought her back. Again.
“You fuck!” she yelled back through the curtain. “You fuckers!” But the yelling was too much. She lay back on the bed and broke into a coughing fit. Her chest hurt.
She thought of Eshe and Suha again. Alive? But the idea of death, of them being dead, she realized... Yes, probably dead. Of course dead. They had killed her. Why were Rhys and Behdis still alive, though. And Khos? Had she seen Khos?
Why the fuck were they all still alive?
And why had they brought her back?
Suha was shaking her.
Nyx started, still a little lost. “What? Yeah, I'm here. Yeah, yeah. You're alive.” They were all alive. All but Rhys's family.
“What the fuck? Of course we're fucking alive,” Suha said, and Nyx saw the distrust there.
“I'm all right,” Nyx said. “I'm all right, just went away for a minute.”
Eshe sat up on the bed, pulled away. “Sure you're OK?”
“Yeah, just thirsty. Get me something to drink?”
He pushed off the bed and walked out into the kitchen.
“I figure we can get back into Nasheen through the pass if we leave now,” Suha said. “We wait much longer and we'll have to get home by boat.”
“We're not going back,” Nyx said.
“What?” Suha said.
“I mean, you can go back if you want. But I have to... I have some stuff to say to everybody.”
“You're not serious?”
“I'm very serious.”
“Nyx, you've been dead for three days.”
“Yeah, and I'm not dead anymore. They wanted to scare us off, Suha.”
“Well, they did a pretty fucking good job.”
“Yeah? Come on out with me. I want to talk to them.”
Nyx eased off the bed. Suha helped her get her feet, and then she was walking into the tiny kitchen. Eshe handed her a cup of whiskey and water. Turned out to be mostly water. Disappointing.
She saw Rhys standing over the sink. When he looked up, she looked away. He looked different. She didn't want to know what she looked like.
“Here's the thing,” Nyx said. “I know you've all been fucked. I got fucked too. I paid for being weak and stupid. And you all did too.” She couldn't look at Rhys. My God, I can't fucking look at him, she thought. What a fucking coward I am.
“But I'm not turning tail,” Nyx said. “We need to find another way to run this.”
“What other way?” Inaya said. “How can you stand there, a day back from the dead, and say that? You have no idea what we've seen. What they did. They won, Nyx. I'm packing up my children and going.”
“Going where?” Nyx looked her in the face. She was older too, and like the rest of them, it looked like she hadn't slept in a week. They all needed to find a better safe house. She and Eshe and Suha had put one together. She wasn't sure why Suha hadn't taken them all there. Still had trust issues with the old team? Well, Nyx couldn't blame her.
“Explain it to them, Rhys,” she said. Now she did look over at him, at his ugly hands, his too-long hair and too-big trousers. Most days, he was beautiful. Today, he was not.
“Tell them what we're dealing with. This isn't just Nasheen, Inaya. This is going to take Tirhan. Ras Tieg. The whole world. There's nowhere to hide from this. I wouldn't have risked what I did unless this was big. Not an overview. I want you to give them the full story. The one you gave me.”
Khos sighed. “Nyx, maybe you should -”
“Sit your big ass down,” Nyx said. “Tell them, Rhys.”
For a long moment, she didn't think he would. He stared at the floor. Then raised his eyes. Met her look. She had never seen that mix of fear and hatred and awe all mixed up into just one look, not since the first time he looked at her from across a boxing ring in Punjai.
He told them.
About Shadha so Murshida, the Tirhani Minster, black arms deals, the attempt on his life downtown. And he told them about Kine and her work. Experiments on shifters. Ras Tieg's genocidal campaign against shifters and Nasheen's support of it.
“The country with that sand can rule the world,” Rhys said, “or destroy it. The bel dames want that to be a world ruled by bel dames in Nasheen and Tirhanis... until the Nasheenians breed a shifter army. Likely one that can eat or transmute, transform, the sand, making the Tirhani's leverage moot. Then guess who runs the planet? This isn't going to stop. Whether or not we act, this is the shape of the world. This is where things are heading.”
“What do you expect us to do?” Khos said. He gestured to the others in the room. “Have you taken a look at us? Either of you? We're bounty hunters and political refugees. Drug addicts. Deserters. We're not politicians, and certainly not bel dames. And they killed you, Nyx. They killed you and Rhys's family and you want to take them on? We need to split up and go our separate ways.
“Where?” Nyx said. “Where do we run? Tirhan is taken. Ras Tieg murders shifters. Rhys is wanted in Chenja and they don't take kindly to Nasheenians. And Mhoria? I'd love to see Inaya try and pray to her saints in Mhoria. She'll never see her son again after he's ten, either. You won't know the man your daughter marries, because she’ll be owned by the state. You want to leave Tirhan because you'll have to live here in fear? What world do you want? The one the bel dames are building for you? You want to sit here like fucking burn victims? What are we, cripples and martyrs?”
“We aren't heroes,” Suha said.
“No, we're not,” Nyx said. “Heroes are cowards, just one step to the right. They aren't all that fucking heroic either. They called me a hero at the front for getting my ass burned up. There wasn't a goddamn brave thing about it. Now I'm asking you all if you want to live. I'm asking you to choose the world you live in.”
“They'll fucking kill us,” Suha said. “You're asking us to kill ourselves. We don’t come back like you do.”
“I'm asking you to fight for something bigger than you. Something beyond your next meal, your next paycheck. We all did that once, you remember?”
“Yeah, and we got fucked for it,” Suha snapped.
“You're right. We did. But I'm not asking you to fight for God, somebody else's morals, or for some kind of blind patriotism. I'm asking you to take a risk for your future. Yours and your kids, if you got them.”
“Is that all?” Rhys said coldly.
“Yeah,” Nyx said. “That's all. And it's enough for me. I was dead once. I want what I got to matter. Don't you?”
The silence stretched.
Inaya shifted her shotgun to her other shoulder. Suha stared at her hands. Khos was like a statue, stiff and tight mouthed. Rhys looked up at Nyx. Eshe still gazed out the window, as if he hadn't heard a word of it.
Suha raised her head. “I fought at the front for God. Felt like I failed then. I'm no better now.”
“What's worse?” Nyx said. “Failing? Or not trying? What the fuck else are we living for?”
“I'll go,” Eshe said. He turned away from the window, arms crossed. “Just tell me where you need me.”
Khos looked over at Inaya. She met his look. Nyx watched them both.
“I can help with Ras Tieg,” Inaya said. “I can get the information about the shifter experiments to the right people. But I need solid proof.”
“Nyx,” Khos said. “What are you actually proposing that we do?”
“We buy the sand,” Nyx said. “Tirhan will send out a proper group for a proper sale in three months. What they gave Rhys's minister was a sample only. Unless Tirhani magicians can replicate it, they’ll need a large shipment of the stuff from the bel dames. We intercept it and we sell it. Or gift it. To Nasheen’s Queen. To Chenja. To Tirhan. To bloody Ras Tieg. A weapon everyone has makes the lot of them less likely to use it.”
“And the shifters?” Inaya said. “You propose to allow them to make us slaves to everyone?”
“No,” Nyx said. “We do what you suggested. We get information to your Ras Tiegan rebels. Then we burn down the compound. We take the records. We leak them to the shifter communities and start an uprising.”
“Against what?” Rhys said.
Nyx looked at each of them in turn. “The draft. The war. All of it. It’s time to end it.”
“Oh, is that all?” Rhys said.
“I've always been ambitious,” Nyx said.
Rhys snorted. “No you haven't.”
“I'm trying to plan here, Rhys.”
“If we can intercept it, I can get a package back to the border,” Suha said slowly. She was staring at her hands. “I ran covert ops on the Tirhani-Chenjan border when I was at the front. But I can't get it to anybody important once I'm back in Nasheen. My contacts don't go up that high.”
“I can have someone meet you at the border,” Nyx said. “She's good at running that border, too.”
“That leaves me Mhoria,” Khos said. “That won't be easy.”
“Especially not with the children,” Inaya said.
His shock was shockingly apparent. “The children?”
“We'll speak of it,” Inaya said.
No doubt they would. Nyx held onto what she had. “There's going to be a drop between the bel dames and the Tirhanis. It's our job to figure out how to intercept it.”
“First we need to know who's running it,” Khos said. “Then we need to figure out how to lie low for three months.”
“It could happen sooner than that,” Rhys said. “That was just the end date the bel dames gave them. They might make up their minds before that.”
“We know Shadha's serving as errand girl,” Nyx said. “What I want to know is who's behind Shadha. She isn't running this on her own. But that can wait. What we need first is to figure out what the fuck's been going on up in the Khairian wasteland. I need a desert dog for that.”
Suha snorted. “I was getting sick of all this wet anyway.”
“Good. I want you to ask around up there.”
“And me?” Eshe said.
“Yeah. I want you to go with her.”
Eshe and Suha exchanged a look.
“I'll be here with two magicians and two shifters,” Nyx said. “I think I'll manage.”
“When did you have time to come up with all of this?” Rhys said.
She let herself look at him. “I've been dead a long time,” she said. “I'm also going to need somebody keeping track of the Tirhanis. You translated for them once. I want you to do it again.”
“I told her to take me off the job.”
“Tell her you want back on.”
“And how will I convince her of that?”
“You just lost everything Rhys. What else do you have?”
He shook his head and walked back into the yard.
Nyx looked around at all of them. “You all go get something to eat, would you?” she said to Khos and Inaya. “Your kids are out there getting cancer. And I think you've got some stuff to talk about. Come on back tonight and we can talk about safe houses.”
Khos and Inaya collected their kids and headed out. Nyx walked out into the yard where Rhys was staring out over the high fence, arms crossed.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Always sorry,” he said.
“Yeah, well.” She sighed. “I'm not good at this.”
“There are a good many things you're not good at. People being one of them.”
“Maybe God brought me here,” she said. “Did you ever think of that?”
“To destroy my life? My family? You're a fucking monster.”
“Yes,” she said. “And you brought me back.”
He shook his head. “You have Yah Tayyib to thank for that. That wasn't my doing.”
“Why'd he do it?”
“You'll have to ask him.”
“How long have you known he was here?”
“I ran into him downtown, five years ago. He's built a respectable life for himself here.”
“Off dead Nasheenian magicians?”
“I'd talk to him before you dismiss him. He had his reasons for bringing you back.”
“That's what I'm afraid of.” She folded her arms, followed his look out over the fence, across the street, at row after row of tenements. Laundry on a line. Ras Tiegan saints mortered to the gutters. The elevated train roared in the distance.
“Are you up for this?” she asked. “I expected you to tell me to fuck off.”
“I should have.”
“But you didn't.”
He turned. “You were right. What else do I have? A cozy translation job. Should get a whole lot more cushy when Nasheen and Tirhan officially get in bed together and start tearing apart the world. Sounds fine.”
“Didn't bother you before.”
“I had something to protect, before.”
Rhys shook his head. “Now I have revenge.”
Nyx thought better when she was drawing in the dirt. She sat out under Behdis's tattered awning. She had a beer in her other hand. It was warm. The first sun had set, and blue dusk covered the world. She heard loud voices, the tinny whine of a radio set too loud for the strength of its speakers, the crack and squeal of kids playing a neighborhood game of cricket.
She had spent the morning running around on her own, despite the protests of her team. There were some things they needed to stay out of now. She'd been by Rhys's house. Not a great idea, no, but she'd needed some documentation there. Then she set up a bank account downtown, and tied up a few other loose ends.
Suha came outside and passed her a plate of hummus and rye bread. “That's all she's got left in the ice box,” Suha said.
“Where'd she go?”
“Gym. She's got work, she says.”
“Why'd you let them take us here and not the safe house?”
“Why do you think?”
“All right.” Nyx took a pull of the beer. Her head was feeling a little clearer. Oddly, the liquor helped. “You know if Tayyib did a transfusion on me?” she asked.
“What, like full blood? No. He didn't have the equipment for it. What are you doing out here?”
“Doubting my plan. No, I shouldn't say that. Double thinking it.”
“Looking for holes.”
“There are holes in that plan big enough to throw a dog through.”
“Yeah, but a Khos sized dog or an Eshe sized dog, huh?” She grinned.
Suha snorted. “I got a ticket north. My sister got me some papers that say I was employed in Tirhan. Should get me back across the Nasheenian border. From there, it's not hard to keep up to the wasteland.”
“You sure you're up for that?”
“You asking everyone that?”
Nyx grimaced. “You heard me asking him?”
“You two talk loud.”
“I need you to watch Eshe.”
“He's getting good at watching himself. We've all been getting good at that, Nyx.”
Nyx nodded absently, stared at her scratching in the dirt.
Suha cocked her head, scuffed one sandaled foot at the end of the scratching. “That all supposed to mean something?”
“Just something I'm working out,” Nyx said.
Suha stood there regarding the dirt with her for a long moment, then, “You aren't planning on coming back from this one, are you?”
Suha nodded. “What do you want me to tell Eshe?”
“Nothing. By then I'm hoping he'll be taken care of. Rhys back yet?”
“Yeah, just a bit ago. He says he's going out for rotis though, cause there's no food in the house.”
“Send him out, would you?”
Suha walked back inside.
Rhys joined her a few minutes later. He folded his arms, stood beside her.
“You think you can open a line to Anneke for me?”
“Anneke? From here?”
“It's the right time of day for it, ain't it? She's on the coast, not the front.”
“I can send a swarm. Might not get there for a day or so.”
“That's fine. Have them record something for me?”
She walked him to the center of the yard. He called up a red beetle swarm and coded a message from her to Anneke. Some of it she figured he'd understand, but a lot of it was code from when she worked on Raine's old crew. He'd sent everything in code, and everybody who'd served on his old crew knew it. She had never bothered to make up her own; her old com specialist was good enough that the only person cracking her com in the old days was Raine anyway.
After he'd sent the swarm away he said, “What the hell was that about?”
“Remember the guy who built the boat?”
“You know, that story. With all the animals.”
“Yeah, that's him. When did God tell him to build a boat?”
“Um. Before the flood?”
“Exactly. Before it started to rain.” She walked back toward the house. “Thanks.”
Inaya sat out on the front porch alone. She wanted to bring the children back to the mausoleum, but she was worried now, worried about what to do with all of them. With herself.
God, how could they have brought her back? It changed everything, but why?
She heard the sound of low sound of voices. Growing nearer. She shifted the gun into her hands.
But no, that was Nyx's voice. Nyx and Rhys. Bickering like two old men.
Inaya relaxed her grip.
Nyx, too, was just a woman. No hero. Certainly no martyr.
So why do we all believe in her? She thought. Because we don't believe in ourselves?
The front door opened. She turned. Khos came out and sat next to her.
“They're asleep,” he said.
“Good,” she said, and gazed out again at the dusty street.
“I want to talk about what you said. About Ras Tieg.”
Inaya felt her stomach knot. “Yes.”
He sighed. A great big sigh that made his dreadlocks tremble. “Inaya, I'm a shit husband.”
“Yes,” she said.
“But I believe in us. You and me. The children. I want to fix this.”
“It's not about us.”
“No. It's about doing what's right. What it's always been about.” She took a breath. “I've been spying for the Ras Tiegan rebels. At the embassy. They can get me papers, the train ticket. If she can get me the information, the things we could do in Ras Tieg...”
“They could do it without you, Inaya. We need you here.”
“How were Tatie's allergies today?” she asked softly, and turned to look at him.
Khos shook his head. “He'll need you here.”
“He needs a world where he's free. A world that doesn't despise him. I can do a lot of good in Ras Tieg, Khos. Much more than I could do as a Tirhani housewife.”
“You make it sound like a burden.”
“It's not. I...” She felt the tears welling up then, choked them back. “I love it, Khos. I love my children. I loved this life so much. I... but I have this thing. This thing inside of me, this rotten thing. And over there I think it could be a useful thing. I think I could use it to help finish what my parents started. How much longer should I... should I hate it. Sometimes I wanted to kill myself. I thought... I wanted to die. I still want to die, sometimes, but this...”
He put his arm around her, pulled her close.
She did not push him away, but the embrace made her feel claustrophobic. She let him hold her, not for her comfort, but for his.
“Take care of them. Don't raise them to hate me.”
“I won't he said.”
They sat in silence. She slowly drew away.
“This hasn't been working for a long time, has it?” he said.
“No,” she said.
On this half of the city, outside the lights of the city center, the stars were beautiful.
Nyx took Eshe out to run some errands the next morning. The biggest errand being finding a better safe house.
“What's wrong with the garret?” he asked as they walked through the Heidian district. The stink of cabbage turned her stomach.
“The problem is there's just one of them. And too many of us. I need to get my old team back on their feet, back to living, and I can't figure out a good way to get them safe.”
“They won't be safe unless we're gone,” Eshe said.
“Yeah,” Nyx said, and she paused and stared into a big refuse pile behind a Heidian deli. “I guess that's true.”
She thought about that a good long while as they trekked through the narrow streets. She bought Eshe a cinnamon stick and started toward the Ras Tiegan district again. She wasn't too keen on waking up every morning to the smell of cabbage.
They came up on Behdis's house from the back. The street there was on a low rise. From here, Nyx could just see into Behdis's yard.
“Wait,” Nyx said. She held up a hand and motioned him under the corrugated roof of a nearby tenement.
“What is it?” Eshe said.
“There's somebody in the house.”
“I don't -”
“You got some specs?”
“Yeah.” He handed them to her.
Nyx peered down into the yard with the specs. She could see dark shapes moving behind the windows. Three? Four. They'd sent four of them, enough to dust off Nyx for good.
“Somebody sold us out,” Nyx muttered.
A tall woman stepped out into the yard, weaponless. Raised her head.
Nyx pulled the specs away from her face and fell into a crouch. She dragged Eshe down with her.
“What is it?”
“We got sold out,” Nyx said. “Let's get back to Rhys. We need him to send word to Khos and Inaya. You fly over to Suha and tell her to meet me at our safe house. Got it?”
“What if they already found it?”
“Then we're fucked. Cause whoever sold out this safe house sold out Inaya and Khos, too, and I don't have a second weapons cache. It's this or nothing.”
Nyx pulled up the hood of her burnous and left Eshe to shift. She made her way across town to the garret, and the anger built up slowly as she walked. Which of them had done it? And why? If they didn't want in, they could have walked away.
It took them all away, but they came.
Khos and Inaya had the kids in tow. Thank God they'd taken them out for food. Both kids were whiny and screaming, and Inaya and Khos didn't look much better. She realized what a strange pair they made. A very recognizable pair. She would need them to break up.
Suha showed up not long after, Eshe behind her.
Rhys was last, looking surly and out of sorts.
“What the fuck is going on?” he said.
“You tell me,” Nyx said.
“Who the fuck sold us out?” Nyx said. “Nobody fucking knew we were here but Yah Tayyib. Did that fucker sell me out? Did he fucking sell me out, Rhys?”
She grabbed him by the front of his tunic.
He had his hands on her wrists, and his face went very still. “Get off. Get the fuck off,” he said. “You want to be dead? You'd be fucking dead without him! You think he brought you back so he could turn you in?”
She released him. “What the fuck is going on? What the fuck is this?” She paced. “Did they follow you from the mausoleum?”
“They didn't know about that safe house,” Rhys said. “I put up four swarms on our way out. Behdis monitored two of them. They couldn't have gotten within fifty yards without us sniffing them out. It's impossible.”
Inaya was crying softly. She had Isfahan clutched in her arms. Tatie was screaming. Screaming and screaming. Khos picked him up and took him into another room.
“Shut that kid the fuck up!” Nyx said.
“There's someone else who knew where we were staying,” Suha said. “Besides Yah Tayyib.”
“Nobody the fuck else knew,” Nyx said.
“Behdis knew,” Suha said.
Nyx swore. “You can't fucking -”
“She didn't bring you back, Nyx. Rhys and Yah Tayyib did. I was there. Her and Yah Tayyib together didn't do shit. You didn't move until Rhys came in. She wasn't helping us none.”
“Why bring us to her house then?” Rhys said.
“Because she had control of the space,” Nyx said. “Fuck. Fuck! So fucking stupid. Why didn't I fucking see that? She controlled the filters. She knew where the extra guns were. She knew the ins and outs. You knew the mausoleum and the grounds. We don't know this neighborhood. She had the upper hand. Goddammit.”
“Nyx -” Suha said.
“I want her.”
“Nyx,” Khos said, “let's just -”
“She'll be at the gym.”
“They know we got out. They'll protect Behdis,” Rhys said.
“They don't know we're on to them. They just know we haven't shown up yet. As for protecting Behdis - no they fucking won't. They won't give a shit about Behdis. She's a tool. Rhys, I need some magician drugs. You get me some?”
“I can see what I have, but -”
“Behdis didn't do this for a drip,” Nyx said, “and she isn't working for Shadha.”
“Then who’s she working for?” Rhys said.
“I don’t know,” Nyx said. “But I know how to find out. First, we need to get our shit together. We can't all share the same house. Khos and Inaya need to get back to their house. Rhys, you need to get back to translating. With you guys missing, we might as well be announcing we're on a job.”
“I'm not going back there,” Rhys said.
“Then work out of your storefront. Sell your house. Live your lives.”
“As long as you're still in the country, they'll keep tabs on us,” Khos said.
“Exactly,” Nyx said. “That's why I'll leave. Suha, I need you and Rhys to go to Behdis's gym. Make sure she's not there before you ask around. Maybe she's at lunch. Ask around the gym real loud. Rhys, you call Suha Nyx. You tell them you're looking for Behdis. Have some questions for her before Nyx goes back to Nasheen. You go to the tea house across the street, talk about how Nyx is going back to Nasheen. Have a fucking conversation on the street about how Nyx is going back to Nasheen. Then Suha, you and Eshe head north to check out the wastelands. See what you can dig up. Let them think we all crossed back over. In the meantime, I disappear for awhile. You have information, you get it to me. But for the most part, we lie low. We live our lives. They left you alive so you could live your lives. Now I want you guys living to be our cover.”
“You're really serious about this,” Rhys said.
“Yes,” she said.
“You honestly think they'll let us get back to living?” Khos said.
“Yeah, I do.”
“I won't be here,” Inaya said. “I'm going to Ras Tieg.”
“Don't give me the details,” Nyx said. “I just need a contact so I can get you the details of the breeding program.”
“And how are you going to do that?” Rhys said.
“I'll need you to make a call,” Nyx said. “I recommend that Rhys and Suha go asking after Behdis in the morning. Day after that, Suha and Eshe head north and Rhys gets back to living. Khos and Inaya, you do the same. I want you to live publicly. Get your kids back in school. Go to all the same social stuff. Inaya, if you're leaving for Ras Tieg, you wait a few weeks. Let them think it's unrelated, you get me?”
“Oh, I get you,” Inaya said.
And they did.
Inaya quit her job at the embassy. It was a formality, really. A week of unexplained absence, even in the light of her torched home, would have gotten her her security clearance revoked out of spite.
They collected the insurance money and on the house and rented a four room flat at the edge of their former district. There was nothing left to salvage from the old house. Inaya mourned the children's projects, the certificate of merit she had received from the Ras Tiegan ambassador (she loved it for the irony, if nothing else), and she had loved the big brass tub upstairs, the one with the clawed feet.
The new flat felt cramped and depressingly empty. They had stored all of their certificates and relevant documents in a safe deposit box downtown. The key had been at their safe house. So they had all of their travel documents, the certificate of insurance, all of the vital bits and pieces of paper they needed to rebuild their life.
Inaya took Tatie back and forth to school every day. She carried a pistol, fearful every morning and afternoon that someone would snatch them. At night, she kept a pistol next to her on the floor, and Khos hung his holster on a chair within easy reach.
They slept in the same bed, but did not touch, or talk much. Inaya waited through two weeks of scrubbing floors, taking children to school, cleaning up grasshopper heads and muddy footprints, before she finally said to him one night, “When I go, I'd like you to ask that woman here. I'm sure you would anyhow. I just wanted to say it. She will help with the children.”
Khos turned over, looked at her.
“You don't have to do this.”
She turned onto her side, looked at him. “You want me to stay and be a good mother? You think I'm a monster.”
“I didn't say that. But you asked me if I was committed to you, to this family. I said I was. I said you always came first. But you...”
“No, I did not swear the same thing,” she said. “But it's still true. I was committed to this marriage, and I will always be their mother first. But.”
“But I have the chance to build a better world for them. Especially if both are... are...” she choked on the word.
“Shifters,” he said.
“I love you,” he said. “Did you ever think I didn't?”
She shook her head. “I know you loved me. And feared me. I fear myself, sometimes.”
His eyes grew glassy. He's going to cry, she thought, and she willed him not to. If he cried, she would cry, and there was no room for crying anymore. It was too late for that.
She reached out, pressed her hand to his cheek. “I forgive you,” she said.
He pulled her into his arms for the last time.
Inaya packed her things an hour before the blue dawn touched the sky. She wore a full hijab, gray abaya that pooled about her ankles, and gloves.
She woke Tatie and Isfahan. They slept in the same narrow bed.
“Mam,” Tatie said, “I'm tired, Mam.”
“Why are you dressed up?” Isa said.
“I need you to know something, love,” Inaya said, and she choked back on the emotion of it, the memory. Her mother coming to her in the darkness, smelling of dogs and offal, saying, “I will never see you again.”
“I need you both to know that I love you very much. I'm going to help build a better world for you. But it means I may be gone for awhile.”
“How long, mam?” Isa said.
“I don't know. You'll be big when I see you again, though. There will be another woman here to help your da take care of you. I want you to be polite to her. You promise?”
Tatie looked at her suspiciously. “Like a housekeeper?”
“I want you to think of her as your second mam. You know, like your friend Akhshan has. You know Ashkhan's two mams?”
“My friend Riara has four,” Isa said. She held up three fingers.
“That's right,” Inaya said. “That's right.” She took Isa's hand and kissed it. And suddenly tears were spilling down her cheeks, soaking into her hijab. “It will be just like that. I love you. Don't forget that, all right?”
She hugged them both, so tightly that Tatie started to squirm away. She kissed them both.
“Get some sleep now,” she said. “I will see you soon.”
“I love you, mam,” Isa said.
“I love you too,” she said.
She kissed them both again and shut the door. She hesitated there just outside of it, pressed her head against the smooth resin. God, give me the strength for this, she thought, and she sent out a prayer then. Keep them safe, she thought. God, keep them safe.
Inaya locked the door from the inside. She left her key on the counter. She shut the door, stepped out into the blue dawn.
The morning was cool, almost cold. She walked carefully down the steps and into the waiting taxi.
When the second dawn broke, she was already at the train station.
Nyx cleared out the garret safe house on her own. She was going to need a place with a basement. Plenty of exits. And a lot of other single brown women. Preferably Nasheenian women. She and Suha had done a preliminary study of the city, and her walk with Eshe hadn't been totally useless, so she had some ideas, but nothing solid. What she really wanted was to leave Shirazi all together, but the logistics of that weren't in her favor.
She checked the dummy account she'd set up Rhys's wife's name at the big bank downtown. Her message to Anneke must have gone through, because the entire amount she'd asked to be transferred was sitting there coyly in her account. She cleared a quarter of it out then. The rest she would cull over the next few weeks. Less attention that way.
Suha and Rhys showed up just as she was loading the last couple of bags into her rented bakkie. Suha was eating some kind of curried chicken out of a to-go box with her fingers.
“How'd it go?” Nyx asked.
“That was really stupid,” Suha said.
“There's no way they bought that,” Rhys said.
“Don't underestimate hungry drug addicts,” Nyx said. “If they think they have information, they'll sell it.”
“But do you think the bel dames will buy it?”
“I think they'll want to buy it,” Nyx said. She shut the trunk. “This is what they wanted. Scare me off. Shatter my team. Inaya and Khos are setting up house again. Rhys goes home tonight, maybe sells his house, sets up in his storefront. And me and Eshe go north.”
“And what about Suha?” Suha said.
Nyx shrugged. “I'm not great at everything. Maybe Suha packs up a bakkie, cleans out her employer's account, and disappears into Tirhan.”
Suha knitted her brows.
“Let's hope it's what they want to see,” Nyx said. “If they do want me dead, we're fucked. But they don't want that.”
“You got me those drugs?”
He handed over a small box. She opened it. Inside was a loaded syringe. She shut the box and pocketed it. “You have a chance to visit your old employer yet?” she asked Rhys.
“Yes, this morning.
“Apparently, the woman I did the first drop for has a regular translator now. She wasn't too keen on me the first time.”
“You think she's the one who'll make the deal?”
“I think she'll assign the people who make it.”
“Then we need you in her line of sight. You know who the translator is?”
“I can find out.”
“I need a translator to have an accident. Don't kill her. I don't want the attention. Just break something. You up for it?”
“Sure.” Suha licked curry from her fingers.
“Is Eshe still with Khos?”
“Yeah. Told him we had a job. He wasn't happy about it.”
“You want the translator before or after Behdis?”
“After. You and me are doing Behdis tonight, after you help me set up the new safe house. Get in.”
Suha hopped into the bakkie.
Nyx regarded Rhys. He looked tired, a ghost of a man. Guilt tugged at her. How far was she going to push him?
“You're pretty quiet,” Nyx said.
“What do you mean?”
“I'm standing here talking about breaking kneecaps and you didn't even quote the book at me. Nothing to say about pollution and righteousness?”
“I want these women dead, Nyx. I don't care what we have to do, who we have to hurt, to do that.”
“Cause things might get messy here at the end.”
“Things are already messy,” he said, and started walking back the way he had come.
“So, how are we running this?” Suha asked.
“Standard grab. We scare the shit out of her and see if she squeals.”
Suha shook her head. “She won't squeal. Bel dames are scarier than we are.”
“We'll see about that,” Nyx said.
They jumped Behdis four blocks from the gym. Nyx made sure she was headed in the direction of the house. If she was out to meet up with one of her bel dames, going missing might put a little damper on the evening.
Suha stepped neatly out of the bakkie and put a bag over Behdis's head. Nyx neatly opened the bakkie door to shield what she was doing and plunged a syringe full of magician's drugs into her.
Behdis put up a lot of fight for an old woman.
Suha pushed her into the back. Nyx locked the door and closed it. Then casually walked over to the other side and pulled away from the curb.
Nyx hadn't bothered with finding a rental. Rentals, even in the shittiest parts of town, wouldn't allow her to do what need to be done. Instead, she found an old abandoned warehouse along the far bank of the viscous inland sea.
She and Suha hauled Behdis downstairs to a former ice house room, tied her to a support beam, and beat the shit out of her.
When they came upstairs, they were splattered in blood and offal, and about all Nyx knew was what Behdis had had for breakfast that morning.
“She's old,” Suha said. “I don't you she ain't gonna talk. The bel dames can do worse to her.
“Then we starve her out,” Nyx said.
Suha pursed her big mouth.
“Cut her loose and lock her up. Let her dry out. We'll have a name in thirty or forty hours.”
“Give me a better idea.”
Nyx sat out on the loading dock and watched the blue dawn come up. Somebody was playing a call to prayer on a radio, pumping it out over the sea. It carried with the wind. Nyx was finishing her second whiskey. She'd kept a stash in their old safe house. She watched the boats out on the sea, shuttling goods between Shirazi and the southern cities. Suha came up, hollow eyed and stiff in the shoulders.
“She's yelling,” Suha said.
“Just yelling? Or asking to talk to me?”
“Just yelling. Cursing Shadha so Murshida, mostly.”
“Then let her be. Wait until she asks for me.”
Suha sat down. “What if she's telling the truth? What if it's just Shadha behind it? Just Shadha and those thugs?”
“If it was just Shadha, she would have killed me. No, somebody else wanted me alive. The same person who's been playing cat and roach with me from the beginning. I want the name. I think she has it.”
“And if she doesn't?”
“Then we killed some old bitch for no reason,” Nyx said. “Want a drink?”
They went down ten hours later, when Behdis started crying for Nyx.
Behdis was crammed into the far corner of the room, hugging herself with her skinny arms. A long trail of blood wound out from underneath her ass, pooled into the drain at the center of the floor.
As Nyx stepped inside the old ice box room, she saw the glistening stir of maggoty venom worms thrashing in the blood, fine as silver thread, drunk on their own death.
Behdis was shivering so hard she knocked her head against the wall.
Nyx crouched next to her. The old woman's eyes were glazed over.
“I want to know where they are.” Nyx held out a phial of venom. Just the phial. No needle.
Behdis's eyes came back into focus. Her gaze rolled toward the phial. Hungry, terrified eyes.
“Who's leading this, Behdis? I know it's not Shadha's idea. Who got her started? Was it Fatima?”
“Kill me,” Behdis said. “Kill me.”
“You're dying now. A lot slower than anything she'll do to you. And a lot messier. You know how this works? That venom feeds the worms that keep you high, the buzz that burns out your senses. Now the worms are dying, bleeding black pus and shit into your body. Then they’ll claw their way out your ass. Ten more hours and they'll be crawling out your mouth and nose, too, pouring out every orifice of your body looking for food. If you don't bleed to death, you'll die from the toxins they're excreting in your blood. Good stuff, yeah? Is that how you wanna die?”
“Please kill me,” Behdis sobbed.
“I can do better. I can bring you back. But I want to know who wanted me alive.”
“Shadha wanted you dead,” Behdis spat, and her eyes were wild and yellow. Nyx held her ground. “She should have killed you. I told them! I told them! Yes!”
“Why didn't she kill me Behdis?”
Behdis whimpered. “Please kill me.”
Nyx stood, turned away. “Another ten hours,” she said to Suha.
Suha's look was grim.
“No!” Behdis shrieked. “No! She'll kill me!”
Nyx kept walking.
“Alharazad! Alharazad! She wants you alive! Oh God, kill me! Please kill me!”
Nyx felt her gut go icy. She turned. Saw Behdis spitting and slobbering.
“Kill me! Kill me!”
Nyx walked back to her, crouched next to her.
“Alharazad?” Nyx said.
“She wants you alive. I don't know! That's what I heard. I heard it. I don't know! Please kill me.”
Nyx broke the cap on the phial.
“Noooo!” Behdis shrieked. “Kill me, please!”
Nyx filled the syringe. She met Behdis's eyes. “I am,” she said, and plunged the syringe into Behdis's thigh.
Nyx stood, tucked the syringe into the pocket of her tunic. “Cut her down,” she told Suha.
Behdis's head slumped. She started convulsing.
“Where are we dumping her?” Suha asked.
“Near the house.”
They loaded the body into the bakkie and dumped it that night. Nyx dropped Suha at the train station, after.
Eshe waited for her, a pack slung over his shoulder. Suha walked over to meet him. Nyx waited until the two were within an arm's length of one another, then drove away.
She returned her rented bakkie and bought a new one – new to Nyx, anyway - from an orange vendor in the Mhorian district. She picked up some supplies. A table slide, enough food to last a week, some household goods she could covert to explosives, deadtech bugging devices, and homemade security traps.
She set up in the top floor of the abandoned warehouse, in a corner storage room with easy access to two fire escapes. She pulled up a big mattress from a dump heap in the Heidian district that stilled smelled of cabbage. She splurged on new sheets, a short sword, and a full sized scattergun that she immediately converted to a portable sawed-off.
Then she sat at her worktable and started putting together explosives.
She was due to pay a visit to Yah Tayyib.
It was a gorgeous day in Shirazi. Clear lavender sky, and the wind was blowing toward the sea instead of from it. The air didn't smell like rotting shit today, and Nyx figured the place could almost be pleasant if that wind kept up.
The big magician's gym downtown was typical of Tirhan. She swore some of the inlay was real gold. A swarm of locusts blackened the dome. She supposed that was supposed to look intimidating. The whole thing was surrounded in a filter, a filter that wouldn't take kindly to a Nasheenian woman's blood code.
The power supply wasn't hard to find. Tirhan was a soft city, drunk on love of itself, and the power station was just a little one-room checkpoint tower near the entrance where the magician in charge of feeding and directing the bugs kept the primary bug nest pumping out bugs with the correct instructions.
She walked right up to the guard tower saying she had a delivery, haggling with the actual guard on duty for a couple of minutes while she planted the mine.
Nyx kept hold of her package, found a good, unguarded entrance on the other side of the building, and waited for the mine to go off.
It was a small sound, a muted boom. Then the filter went down. She walked right in. She thought of babies and candy, and it made her think of Mercia with her sweet stick, running through the streets of Mushtallah.
She walked into a broad reception area and asked the woman in Tirhani if she spoke Nasheenian.
The woman said she did. Nyx said she had a delivery for Yah Tayyib. Behind the reception desk, Nyx saw the most amazing thing. A big shimmery display board with the names of magicians on it, in alphabetical order. And the call patterns for their offices.
Sweet fuck, Nyx thought, this really is a soft country, isn't it? Yah Tayyib was on the third floor, room 435.
The receptionist told her to leave the package.
“I'm sorry,” Nyx said, “it's from another magician. Yah Rhys Dashkham. I was given explicit instructions to deliver this to Yah Tayyib. I'll either need to drop it in his rooms, or you'll need to call him out.”
“I'm sorry - “ the receptionist began, and then seemed distracted. There would be some kind of emergency call light on her console by now. Somebody had probably sent a swarm as well. It wouldn't take long to get the filter back up. She didn't have much time.
“Listen, I can see you're busy,” Nyx said.
The receptionist's brows were knit. She was obviously having some trouble sorting out the screen.
“You're new here, aren't you?” Nyx said.
The receptionist raised her eyes, gave a guilty smile.
“It's no problem,” Nyx said. “I'll just take this to 435, all right? I've visited him before. Old friend, you know? Nasheenian.” She winked. It felt totally unconvincing.
You're going to get your ass thrown out, she thought.
But there were more people coming in now, and Nyx could see sweat on the woman's brow. She was reaching for her transceiver. “All right. Just hurry down, please,” she said.
Nyx headed left.
“Ma'am?” the receptionist said.
Nyx felt her heart squeeze. Dammit.
“The lifts are the other way,” the receptionist said pleasantly.
“Of course. Yes, totally forgot,” Nyx said. She went to the lifts and told the magician she needed the fourth floor, and then wondered what on earth she was doing using a lift to get to the fourth floor. Did no one in this country use the stairs?
The room was easy to find, but when she knocked, no one answered. It was locked. She checked the hall and jimmied open the door with the broken end of a spoon and a couple of hijab pins. Old Chenjan trick.
The door opened. She stepped into a dimly lit room, shut the door.
She noticed the sound first, the low hum.
“Fucking shit,” she said, and grabbed for the door again.
A wasp swarm engulfed her. She shut her mouth and covered her ears.
The swarm suddenly abated, and when she looked up, Yah Tayyib was standing in a doorway that led into another room.
She looked around. This was some kind of study. Half moon desk, books, a couple of bugs in jars.
“Seems kind of a shitty time to decide to kill me,” Nyx said. She spit out a wasp. At least it hadn't stung her.
“What are you doing here?”
“Alharazad,” Nyx said.
Yah Tayyib drew himself up a little straighter, sighed through his nose. “Yes,” he said. “Come in.”
He motioned her into the next room.
It was his operating theater. At the center was a great stone slab. The walls were lined in jars of organs. Flesh beetles squirmed around in the big bowl of the sink at the head of the slab.
There was a dead boy on the slab, his chest pinned open. The head was in a jar of solution sitting on a counter at the back. Roaches busied themselves at something in the boy's chest cavity.
“I'm interrupting?” Nyx said.
Nyx sat on a stool on the other side of the body. She watched Yah Tayyib as he began to work again.
“Why'd you bring me back?” she said.
“I thought you knew.”
“I'm too tired for games, Tayyib.”
“You and I have a mutual enemy,” he said.
“Just so.” He picked up a scalpel and cut something out of the boy, some fleshy bit, and placed it in a jar of solution.
“When did she turn?”
“At least two decades ago, when the first of the aliens visited. She saw the alien technology as a threat to Nasheen. Their meddling with the world, she believed, would ruin our world. She approached a good many of us with her concerns. It was never talked about in terms of treason, of course.” He waved his hand over the body, and four roaches crawled out. He pulled a handful of flesh beetles from the sink and drove them deep down into the boy's guts.
“You were working with the aliens, though,” Nyx said.
“I've worked for many sides, when I believed one was working harder than the other for what I wanted.”
“And what did you want?”
“What you want. An end to the war.”
“Shitty way of going about it.”
“You think so?” Yah Tayyib washed his hands in the sink. “Alharazad has moved many of us around over the years. Her little pawns. I decided I no longer wanted to be moved. I acted on my own. Perhaps my judgment was misguided, but -”
“Misguided?” Nyx said, “You wanted to teach Chenja how to breed monsters to kill our boys.”
“No.” He dried his hands on his operating apron. “I wanted the technology to end up on both sides. If one side has a greater technology, wars continue until one or the other is obliterated. There's a constant push and pull. One is up, one is down, then the other is up, then down. With equal technology, we are at an impasse.”
Nyx nodded. “Yeah, I've been thinking that too.”
Yah Tayyib smiled. “Thinking? Not killing?”
“There's been some of that too.”
“Ah, well.” Yah Tayyib sighed. “What are you here for, Nyx?”
“Verification,” she said, sliding off the stool. “What I'm about to do is a big deal. I need to make sure I'm not full of shit.”
“That's rather... prudent of you, isn't it?”
“Yeah, trying something new. You die once and suddenly dying again seems kinda redundant, you know?”
“All right, gotta go,” Nyx said. “Your filter's gonna go back up in five minutes.”
She walked to the door.
“Do not come here again,” he said.
“Not planning on it.”
And then she was out the door and away.
Six weeks. Nyx spent most of it in her warehouse room with a punching bag and a jump rope. The weather was turning. Cool days, cold nights. She hated it. She pulled up an old porch stove from a trash heap and kept her room at a reasonable temperature, but for once, a hot bath didn't so much bother her. At night, she dreamed of the desert.
Rhys was working with Tasyin Akhshan as her personal translator in Beh Ayin. She'd gotten a few reports from him out there, but nothing solid. Everything she asked him to do was talking around the issue. He wrote that it looked like Tirhan was going to make the deal. When, though, he didn't know.
And then, one cold morning, Suha and Eshe showed up.
They were both desert dark, and Eshe looked better. He stood up straight.
Suha pulled open her little slide and transferred the schematics onto Nyx's tabletop.
“There's a lot of shit going down in those fucking wastelands,” Suha said.
“I imagine so,” Nyx said.
“We asked around. They aren't chatty people up there. Thing is, though, we run into this group of women, say they're traders for these desert cities. She gives me the word. Bomani? Something like that. Some kind of hold fast way up north. But anyway, she's heard of Nasheenian women up there, dealing for red sand. They call it something else, some word. You remember the word, Eshe?”
“It sounded Ras Tiegan,” he said.
“Anyway,” Suha said. “She says her people have been passing it off to the bel dames here.” She pointed to a shallow valley on the map, just north of the Nasheenian border.
“Have they done it yet?”
“Don't know,” Suha said. “But I asked her why there, and she says because it has a big natural stone basin around it. If the sand gets loose, it's contained.”
“So, if the bel dames are smart, when they come down here, they'll look for a feature a lot like that for the handoff,” Nyx said.
“Beh Ayin,” Eshe said. “Isn't that where they passed it off the last time?”
“A big fucking rock,” Nyx said, and grinned. “Yeah, that would make sense.”
“Yeah, but Beh Ayin is pretty populated,” Suha said. “I'm thinking I pay some scouts in some more out of the way places. I've been looking over the topography of Tirhan.” She pulled the map down to Tirhan, enlarged it. “There are two other places, less populated. This one's a flat desert plain ringed in mountains on three sides, here, northeast of Beh Ayin. And then there's this one, southwest, toward the far coast. Used to be another inland sea, I think, but they drained it.”
“For what?” Nyx said.
“Probably salt, we think,” Eshe said.
Nyx looked over both spots. She kept coming back to the one northeast of Beh Ayin. She saw a scattering of jagged shapes near it. “What's this?”
“Ruins. Debris. They've got a lot of old junk off that way. The biggest ones get mapped, but most aren't identified.”
“Maybe good cover. Nice place for a sniper.”
“Ours or theirs?
“They'll have one first. I'll need ours to take her out.”
“So I guess I'm going with you after all.”
“You up for Alharazad?”
“I already died once. What's she gonna do?”
“Yeah, well, me and Eshe don't come back from the dead.”
Nyx put her chin her hand and stared at the map. Think like Alharazad. Then think one better.
“Let's see if Rhys can get this Tasyin woman a hired gun. See who she needs.”
“A plant? That’s suicide if she's caught.”
“That's why we have the sniper,” Nyx said, but there was something bugging her about the sniper, and planting folks in the pickup crew. Alharazad – or her cronies - would smell it. Snipers in the ruins and a bug among her crew. Death? Yeah, bel dames could smell it.
“She's expecting violence,” Nyx said.
“I have another idea.”
“I didn't think that thick head of yours could absorb anything else,” Rhys said from the doorway.
Nyx raised her head. “The fuck you doing here? You're supposed to be in Beh Ayin.”
“I've got leave. And I wanted to tell you this news in person.”
“She's making the deal,” Nyx said.
“She made up her mind last week. I heard about it three days ago.”
“Where?” Suha asked.
“Not too far out of Beh Ayin. She said it was a day trip.”
Suha grinned and pointed at the flat desert. “That's the place,” she said.
“You're good,” Nyx said. “Must have had a great trainer.”
“Something like that,” Suha said.
Nyx stared at the map again. “My way could work, if we've got the advantage in brains and firepower. But we don't. And the last time I went in out gunned and out thunk I got killed. Let's try something else.”
“Tired of dying?” Rhys said.
“Naw. I just don't want to owe Yah Tayyib anymore favors.”
“So enlighten us.”
“We run this slick or not at all,” Nyx said. “Ready?”
“I've been ready my whole life,” Suha said.
“Then let's call in Khos. He'll need to hole his kids up with that new wife of his. I need him for this run.”
“I'll call him,” Rhys said.
“Good.” Nyx took a deep breath. This was the worst part. “I want you all to do me a favor.”
She had their attention.
“I don't want any of you to kill Shadha. You get me?”
“What, you want to save her for yourself?” Suha said.
“No,” Nyx said. “I don't want her dead. I want your word on that.”
“That's catshit,” Suha said.
“If we're not going there to kill them, what the fuck is this for?” Rhys said.
“World peace?” Nyx suggested.
“Oh, fuck this,” Rhys said.
“One body, Rhys. She's not the one who torched your house anyway. You take whoever you want. Not that one. Shadha doesn't die. You all get that?”
Rhys shook his head.
Suha and Eshe didn't look happy either. Tough shit.
“We run it my way or not at all,” Nyx said.
“Fine,” Rhys said.
“You don't care about the others?” Suha said.
“No,” Nyx said. “Anything else?”
They kept quiet, then.
“Then let's do this,” she said. “We've got to figure out the pinch and the handoff. It's not just stealing the stuff. We need to get it the hell out of the country. Khos has Mhoria. He'll be working with the shifter underground to do it. Suha, you can get it into Nasheen, and I've got somebody who can get it to a higher up. I also know somebody who can get it into Ras Tieg. But we're missing a country. We need to find a way to get this into Chenja. That's the missing piece. They won't trust a Nasheenian. I have some low contacts there, but they aren't the sort who'll get a mullah's attention, let alone your mullah council's. It'll get them thrown into prison.”
Suha shrugged. “We can try and work something. I can maybe call some people, some of my sister's people.... But no, they won't listen to a Nasheenian. By the time they came around, it might be too late.”
There was no perfect run. Nyx started thinking through her list. Raine's old contacts didn't trust her. She had some shady people she could call in, but they were like Behdis, selling themselves – and their information – to the highest bidder. And what happened to Behdis was generally the sort of thing that happened to those people.
“I know someone,” Rhys said.
“Thought your contacts were dangerous,” Nyx said. “Like, you contact them, you die.”
“You think they're better than ours?”
“Who?” Suha said.
“Me,” Rhys said.
Nyx laughed. His expression didn't change. “You're serious?” she said.
“Yes. Getting me into Chenja from Tirhan won't be like getting me from Nasheen to Chenja. I'm a Tirhani citizen now. I have a free pass.”
“Don't you have a price on your head in Chenja?”
“I do. But weren't you the one who said I have nothing to lose?”
“You honestly have contacts that high up?”
“Nyx, why did you take me into your crew?”
Because you had pretty eyes, she thought. “Fuck if I know,” she said.
“I used to dance at the Chenjan court. My father... was influential. I can get it where it needs to go.”
“You realize you're dead if you get caught. Your father might even turn you in.”
“You said it yourself,” Rhys said. “What else do I have to lose?”
Not you, Nyx thought. It's me. I'll lose you. Goddammit.
“All right,” she said. “Then let’s talk about how we're going to pinch and drop.”
Nyx sat over the soft glow of the schematic, head in her hands, looking for alternatives. She wondered if chopping off Alharazad's head would be easier. Maybe it was. Easier than intercepting a drop and disseminating a weapon around the world, ending a war.
Fuck, chopping off heads was so much easier.
“There's no guarantee, you know,” Rhys said from the doorway.
She looked up.
He walked into the warehouse and sat across from her. He put a bag of what smelled like rotis onto the desktop.
“We can tell them the whole world has it,” he said, “but it might not stop them. People act before they think, more often than not.”
“I know.” She sighed, leaned back from the table. Her neck and shoulders were stiff. She'd been sitting over the schematic ever since she sent them all home. She reached for the bag. “And they'll test it. On innocent people. Maybe whole towns. It could get away from them. We could be destroying the world.”
“Or saving it?”
“I don't know about that. Putting off the end for awhile, maybe.” She pulled out a roti. “These are good,” she said.
“Why delay it, if you're so sure it'll end?”
“Everything ends.” She sighed, bagged the food again. “I don't fucking know, Rhys. I just know that doing nothing means they won. Being alive, us alive, doing shit... that means they don't win. Giving up? Give up, and they win. That's what they wanted. You know that, don't you? They wanted to break you. Us. Me. All of us.”
“Why not kill -”
“That's why they didn't take my head, Rhys. They wanted us broken, not dead.”
“You're impossible to figure out, did you know that?”
“You're no easier.”
“Is that why we keep coming together?”
“Do we?” She shook her head. “Just fate.”
She met his look. “What do you mean?”
It was his turn to look away. “I'm going to get your sand to Chenja. I don't know what they'll do with it, or with me. But I need you to promise me something.”
“I need you to promise that you won't look for me. You won't come for me.”
“You think I would?”
“If you needed me again. The way you needed me this time.”
“No. I want your oath, Nyx. I want a bel dame blood oath that when I leave here you won't look for me again. I need to know this time.”
She frowned. She slowly got to her feet, unsheathed the dagger at her hip. She made a smooth cut across her thumb. Blood welled up. She reached out and pressed her bloody thumb to his forehead, left a smear of red behind.
“I swear I won’t come for you. You want my bloody print on paper? You want witnesses?”
“No,” he said. He stood, wiped the blood from his forehead with his sleeve. “I leave tomorrow, after we finish up the details. I don't expect I'll see you again.”
“I don't expect so.”
He stood, turned.
He shut the door behind him.
Nyx sat. The room was suddenly colder. And somehow... less.
“That's over, then,” she said aloud, and wiped the schematic closed.
The desert here was a hard, flat plain. Nyx sat out on a craggy hill overlooking the vast flatland, wrapped in a burnous the same color as the flat desert. It was so bright here it hurt her eyes. The air danced in the heat.
Up on the crag, it was hot and lonely.
She was a bad shot from here, but she supposed most people would be, with the heat distortion. OK, so, maybe she was a bad shot from anywhere. She had sat a good hour already, mulling over how many women Shadha would bring, or if she would come at all. Meeting on the flat plain would have left them totally exposed on any other day, but the heat here was treacherous, like sitting inside some old clay oven, and that heat haze made the air across the plain ripple like water. You might see something out there, but you wouldn't know what it was, or where to shoot, unless you know what you were looking for.
Nyx donned her specs and swept the plain again.
For the first time, she saw real movement. She tracked it there at the edge of the rim where the mountains met the plain. Some bug swarm or giant lizard, she figured, or maybe a naked mutant – she'd seen a few of those in her time – but no. No, this was something else.
Hooded figures. Three she could see. Coming from the southwest. They blurred out of view for moment, flickered back. Enough for her to confirm what they were.
Nyx shifted her weight, went still again. She'd dusted her specs to reduce the potential for glare, but she took them off now, just in case.
She needed a receiver. And a smooth transition. One would be something, both would be better than dusk during the Prophet's month.
But this late in the show, she had control of neither. It was her job to wait, and see how it all panned out.
Rhys stepped out onto the hard, flat plain of the desert. The Tirhanis walked ahead of him, two magicians, Tasyin and Tasyin's assistant, Parsa, a slip of a young man with eyes the color of honey.
They had left Khos with the caravan. Rhys had wanted this to be an easy smash and grab. He wanted blood and flying heads. Instead, he was wrapped up in a burnous with a veil over his face, Suha behind him with two of Tasyin's personal guards and another mercenary. He walked differently now, a trick Nyx had taught him before they left.
“They'll know your walk before your voice,” she'd told him. “You'll need to alter both. Become another man for this.”
Becoming something other than the man these women had brutalized, whose family they killed, had not been difficult. He felt like another man entirely, and that was before Nyx coached his walk.
The bel dames stood out on the flat plain ahead of them, their legs lost in the heat shimmer. Four, no, five of them counting the one standing just off to the left. He wondered if that was Alharazad, or if she would bother herself at all with the drop. Why travel all the way from Nasheen when she could have her dogs do it for her?
He noticed Shadha right away, the matted hair, the broad shoulders, slim waist. The others, too, had familiar faces. Just as he'd hoped. The one standing far to the left, tall and lean, her face a narrow wedge, was Dhani. Though he did not know the names of the other three, he knew their faces. Their forms. Women who had tied up his children, wrapped his wife in barbed wire, and hung them over a well to die.
Rhys watched Suha out of the corner of his eye. They hadn't said a word before this walk, but she looked at him now. He gave a small nod. She bunched up her big mouth, stared straight ahead.
Nyx wanted to run this clean and neat and bloodless.
Eight weeks ago, Rhys would have wanted the same. Eight weeks ago, Rhys had a family.
“You're a slow bunch,” Shadha said as Tasyin halted in front of them.
Rhys translated. If Shadha or the others recognized his voice, they gave no indication. He had not thought they would, bel dame or no.
“Do you have what we agreed on?”
“Do you have our agreement in writing?” Shadha said. “I asked for a blood oath.”
“It's been signed, blooded, and agreed to,” Tasyin said.
Shadha reached out and took the agreement from Tasyin's hands. She pulled the organic paper from its protective sheath and looked it over. Handed to the bel dame next to her, who must have been a translator, someone besides Dhani, this time. She read it over, folded it back up, and tucked it into the bag at her hip.
“Good,” Shadha said. She gestured toward Dhani.
Dhani pulled some kind of flying beetle from her burnous. It took flight from her shoulder.
“They're bringing in the shipment,” Shadha said.
They? Rhys thought. He wanted to look back at Suha, but knew it would be too obvious. Four of them he could handle. Five, maybe. They had made plans for that many. Accidents and explosives. But not more.
And then the bel dames, all but Dhani, just walked away.
Rhys did look back at Suha then. She gave a barely perceptible shake of her head.
“Hey, what is this?” Tasyin said.
“You're getting what you came for,” Shadha said.
Sweat trickled down Rhys's back. She knew us, he thought. She knows who we are. He tensed. The security people were tensing too, and he felt the magicians probe for swarms.
Something was rumbling up to them across the flat plain. It took another few minutes to recognize it as a cat-pulled cart.
Two more women were there. He didn't recognize them. But on the shoulder of one was a white raven.
Dhani pulled back a big organic sheet from the back of the cart.
“Have a look,” she said.
The magicians approached the cart. Opened one of the cases. Rhys tried not to look interested. He could feel that same strange, distant humming he’d felt back in Beh Ayin, the first time he ran his hands over the cylinder. Apparently satisfied, the magicians nodded. Dhani replaced the sheeting.
The two women and the raven got down from the cart.
“All yours,” Dhani said. She walked off with the other three, back across the flat plain.
“Well, let's get this back,” Tasyin said. “I'm terribly thirsty.” She smiled at Rhys. “Wasn't so terrible, was it?”
They had gotten on better terms since he started working with her. He smiled before he realized his face was veiled, and she could not see it.
The mercenaries drove the cart back to the caravan that served as their cover. There were four carts there, piled high. Khos drove one of them.
Rhys nodded to Khos when they came in.
They made good time back to Beh Ayin that night, but not good enough to get them back. Rhys and Suha had ensured that. Wheels broke. Two cats got sick. The mercs both got bitten by scorpions, and Tasyin's assistant, Parsa, started vomiting not long after dinner.
With half the camp down and out, Rhys and Khos and Suha spent the night moving sand canisters from the bel dame cart into Khos's cart. They replaced the canisters with bags of regular sand.
“Better hope they don't check on that come morning,” Suha said.
But that turned out to be an unnecessary worry.
Just before the second dawn, during the middle of prayer, the bel dame cart exploded.
Rhys nearly pissed himself. He covered his head. There were three other carts with the caravan, carrying goods from Heidia into Tirhan, their cover caravan, and the cats had already been harassed for the day. They took off in three different directions.
Rhys looked up in time to see Khos's cart moving off into a fourth direction, Suha clinging to the back.
The explosion killed one of the mercs and a magician. Parsa was dead of dehydration by the time they reached Beh Ayin that afternoon.
“How did they do it?” Tasyin asked Rhys, again and again, as they walked back to Beh Ayin, the remaining members of the party dragging what would become Parsa's body behind them.
“How did they switch it? If the sand was really in there, we'd be dead. How did they do it?”
“They're bel dames,” Rhys said. “There's no telling what they can do.”
“Too easy,” Khos said.
They made a little half moon around the table: Khos, Suha, Eshe. Nyx looked them all over. Dusty and a little colorless, but uninjured. Incredibly alive.
“You had to kill half of the Tirhani team,” Nyx said. “I don't know that I'd call that a smooth job. Where's Rhys?” Her stomach knotted when she said it. Fuck, if they'd killed him....
“He took his and left,” Suha said. “He said you'd understand.”
“You make half sound like a lot,” Eshe said. “There were only three.”
“Let's hope they weren't daughters to dignitaries,” Nyx said. “Let's see it.”
Suha unpacked the seven cylinders from the chests they’d brought in. She lined them up on the table in the little hotel room Nyx had rented north of Beh Ayin.
Nyx pulled one out of the line. “Nasheen,” she said, then, “Mhoria,” and finally, “Ras Tieg.”
“That leaves four,” Khos said.
“It wouldn't hurt to have some backup,” Nyx said.
“In case one of us gets killed,” Suha said.
“Let's hedge our bets,” Nyx said. “We need to get better at that.”
“Then where are we storing it?” Khos said.
“Good question.” Nyx stared at the four cylinders for a long time.
“They come with me,” she said.
“To Nasheen?” Khos said. “You'd give them an edge -”
“With me,” Nyx said firmly.
Khos sighed. “I don't like -”
“This is where we part ways,” Nyx said. “Are you all ready?”
The three of them looked back at her. Eshe, Suha, Khos. All that was left.
“Let's go,” Suha said. “We're not getting any better.”
Suha tucked the cylinder into her organic bag, cinched it tight. “You gonna make it?” Nyx said. They stood on the hard, flat plain of the desert. They’d taken her as far north as they could in the bakkie. The rest of the way, she'd have to walk. Anneke would be waiting at the end. “Maybe you were right, what you said.” “What part?” Nyx said. “Save the world, all that.” “Anneke will meet you at the border. I wouldn't have tagged you unless I thought you could do it.” “I know.” Suha put her hand on her bulging pack. “I know.” She gave Nyx a thumb-nosed salute, a parody of the salute a grunt gave an officer, the kind Nyx and her crew back in the trenches gave each other just before a push. Suha wrapped her scarf over head and pulled at her burnous. She started across the hard pan of the desert, the tail of her brown burnous curling behind her. Nyx got back in the bakkie and tapped the dash. “Let's go.” Khos started up the bakkie and turned around. She saw him look at the rear view mirror. Nyx kept the silence, waited for him to ask. “Alone?” he said. “You're doing the same. So am I. Alone. I just need you to come back, you hear? Need somebody to take care of Eshe.” “I think he'll take good care of himself. He's angry with you.” “Yeah, well, I'd be angry too. But he can't go back there. You know that.” “But if this ends the war...” “There are no guarantee. In two years he hits draft age. He stays with you. He knows why.” “He's going to hate you.” “He won't be the first.” Khos gazed back at the road, that long stare. She reached over and pressed her hand to his thigh, briefly. She was going to say something, but all the words got jumbled up, so she looked back out and road again, and pulled her hand away. Chapter 34
Getting back into Nasheen, as a Nasheenian woman, alone, wasn't so tough. Taking a boat, back, though, was really shitty. She spent the whole trip sick. When she stumbled back onto dry land, she was on the Nasheenian coast, and though she fucking hated the coast, it was sure as fuck a lot better than the ocean. They asked for her papers. They checked her blood, her sex, checked her papers again. “You're traveling alone?” the customs officer asked. “Yeah,” she said. They noted that down. She was pretty sure she knew why. Eshe would thank her someday, after he stopped hating her. She bought a bakkie off an avocado vendor and kept half her cash stuffed in the seat, and the other half in her dhoti. She drove the bakkie out into the wastelands alone. She had trouble finding the place. She didn't remember the last time she'd driven a bakkie on her own. Since long before she got sick, she supposed. There was freedom on the road, a rush of adrenaline, speeding through the desert, wearing nothing but her dhoti and breast binding. The sand gummed up at the corners of her eyes. The heat sucked her dry. She felt clean, free. So bloody fucking free. She wound up the pitted drive, and watched the derelict rear into view. She half expected a couple of bel dames on watch, maybe a sniper on the roof. But that wasn't Alharazad's style. Nyx ground the bakkie to a halt and stepped out. Her burnous billowed out behind her. She left her goggles inside. She stood a moment behind the bakkie door, taking in the derelict, the opaqued windows. She kept one hand just behind her, within reach of her scattergun, as she approached. Dead cicadas littered the walk. Some of the kill jars on the porch had recent additions. A couple of hooked-nosed creepers, an enormous butterfly the size of her palm, a mutant owl bug with long stalks for eyes. Nyx knocked at one of the windows. As she waited, she took another look around the yard. The weather had turned, even out here, and the heat was bearable. At night, the bugs in the jars would be lethargic. She saw her, then, coming down from the shallow rise that looped behind the house. Alharazad wore a green organic burnous and goggles. Three bug cages hung from the end of a pole slung over one shoulder. Her windswept hair was knotted at the back of her head. Alharazad trudged toward her, weaponless. Spit sen. “I suppose you're here to kill me,” Alharazad said. “What fun would there be in that?” Nyx said. Alharazad stepped up onto the porch and pushed in the door. Unlocked, unfiltered. A perfectly insecure door. Nyx followed her inside. The marijuana plants were gone, replaced by what looked like opium seedlings and cardamom. New season, new crops. It reminded Nyx of Mushirah. They would be planting saffron and ambergrass this time of year. Alharazad stacked the bug crates on the table. Kept her goggles on. “I don’t believe you won’t bring in this note,” Alharazad said. “I’m retired,” Nyx said. “I don’t believe either of us is retired.” “Why? I’ve already died once. Didn’t like it much. I don’t think you’d like it either. Everything stops.” “That so? A lot like living in the desert, then.” Alharazad pulled off her goggles, regarded her with bloodshot eyes. “What you here for, then? You want my head, you'll have a hard time getting it.” “Why didn't you take mine?” Alharazad grinned and spit. She began pulling the bugs from the cages. She slipped them into the kill jars she kept on the floor. “Why didn't you kill Shadha?” Nyx chewed on that for awhile. “Why'd you want Shadha dead?” Alharazad smiled. She set the now empty cage back on the floor. “Let me tell you something, girl. I've been bringing in black sisters and terrorists, aliens and gun runners, since long before you were born.” “Behdis says you were behind the deal, not Shadha.” “Did she? How long did it take you to get that?” “About twenty hours of detox.” Alharazad clucked her tongue. She walked over to the ice box, pulled a bottle down from on top of it. “Whiskey?” “I ain't staying long.” Alharazad poured herself a glass. “Let me tell you about women, Nyxnissa so Dasheem. There are hot young things from the front - crazy, bloodthirsty, good at being butchers. Your Rasheeda is like that. She's an excellent tool, when used properly. It's when you lose control of her that she becomes a threat. I put Shadha on the council myself. You figured that out?” “Sounds about right.” “Wasn't so bad. She needed direction. I was happy to give it. Then she comes to me about the Queen. She tells me about black deals with interstellar gene pirates. She tells me we're giving the monarchy to a magician. She tells me the Queen's looking to end the war with a Tirhani treaty. Imagine that? Chenja and Nasheen, signing a truce in Tirhan? That fucking bloated body? Nothing but rot, there. And you know what I realized, Nyx? You and I have seen the whole bloody world. The best and worst of it. We've given life, and taken it. That Queen? That woman we swore to? She's done none of that. She's sat behind a filter from the time she's born. You ever seen her hands? Not a scratch. Not a callous.” “You wanted Shadha to take the fall for the bel dame coup. You didn't think it would succeed?” “Succeed? We're fucking bel dames. We ruled the world once. We could do it again. And we would have.” “But?
“But not her.” Nyx snorted. “You aren't serious.” “It made sense, though, didn't it? You would have done the same. It's why you know.” “You really think the Queen would have called you to court? Asked you to help clean up the council?” “You didn't kill Shadha. I've already turned her in to the Queen.” “I don't get it.” “No, you don't. How do you take out an enemy Nyx, when it's just you and a handful of your elite? What do you do?” “Infiltrate.” “Exactly. And how do you do that?” “Sacrifice.”
“Very good.” Alharazad opened up the other cage. “And now I'd suggest that you get in that bakkie and get on the road. You won't have a lot of time.” “Time for what?” “Sacrifice, Nyx.” Alharazad bottled up a foot long centipede. “Turns out you were working with Shadha, too. Why else would you go to Tirhan, or send your black man to Chenja with sand? To swing a deal with the bel dames, desperately hoping they would reinstate you. The one reward the Queen could never grant you.” “You're full of shit.” “Am I? Why else would you fail to bring in a note? The one note you couldn’t deliver, Shadha so Murshida. Your partner.” “Zaynab won't believe a word of that.” “Won't she? Better check the red notes at the Cage, then. And your bank accounts. You may find them regrettably seized by the monarchy. Terrorists' accounts generally are.” Nyx stared at the bugs in the jars. She was glad, then, that she had come alone. “You said to me you can't kill people,” Nyx said. “You gotta kill ideas. We killed an idea out there. The idea that anybody could win this war.” “Yes. You did. And this country will hate you for it.” “Maybe. For awhile. How long you think we'll have a monarchy?” Alharazad met her look. “Longer than you can hold out.” “You think? How long did you hold out here, old woman, waiting for your move?” “You want me to kill you? I can do that.” “Can you? I figure you'd have done it all ready, if you could.” “Maybe I have other plans for you.” “Might be I have some for you, too.” Nyx moved back toward the door. “See you around.” “Here,” Alharazad said. She picked up a jar. Inside was a dead dragonfly, perfectly still, perfectly preserved. “What the fuck?” Nyx said. “Take it. You'll know why soon enough.” “You bug it?” “Nothing so predictable. Take it or don't.” Nyx took it. She tucked the jar under her arm and walked back out into the sun. She tossed the jar onto the passenger seat and started the bakkie, turned around in the tight, sandy drive. She turned the radio on, turned the radio up. Long way back to civilization, but she was breathing. That was something, and more than it felt like she'd had in a long time. Three miles outside of Faouda, she tossed the jar out the window and drove on.
Rhys sat next to her at the bar. It was a borderland dive, some hole along the Tirhani-Chenjan border. He knew they had to get her while she was still in Tirhan. He wanted the others, too, but this was the only name his knew. The only one he could get on such short noticed. If she crossed, he would never be able to get into Nasheen. But he figured they still had some time left between when Suha delivered the goods to Nasheen and when Nasheen finally announced what they had. So Suha had time to help him do reconnaissance. The lights were low, just worms in glass. He'd pay the bar tender a pretty penny to drug her second and third drinks, but the low light, and the late night, helped. So did her spirits. Nyx always rode high after a job well done. Drank too much. Got sloppy. When the bartender saw him sit down, she quickly walked into the back. Behind him, he heard Suha convincing the last two patrons in the bar to hit the street. “I've been waiting for you,” Rhys said, in Nasheenian. Dhani swung her head around. She didn't place him at first. Rhys didn't expect her to. He imagined all black men looked the same to her. Rhys turned and smiled and let her see him. She reached for a weapon. “I think that's enough,” he said. Suha came up casually behind her and slipped a knife between her ribs. Dhani let out a choking sigh, keeled forward. She snatched at him. Rhys stepped neatly away. She fell. He let her fall. She cracked her jaw on the barstool, spit blood. He took hold of her by the hair, bent her head back. He took the pistol from his hip. He shot her four times in the back of the head. Suha chopped off her head. They burned it in a little porch kiln on the top of the roof of their rented tenement in the border town. “You'll keep an eye out for Rasheeda?” he said, after the head had burned down to bone and ash. Rasheeda. The only other name he knew. The rest, maybe… He might be able to track down their names sometime. Take them down a bel dame at a time. It would take awhile, yes. A good long while. They were bel dames. But even bel dames got lazy. And when they did, he would be ready. “Yeah. You want me to get word to you?” “I don't know where I'll be. I may not make it back from Chenja. But I'll be in touch.” Suha poked at the bones in the fire. The midnight call to prayer rolled out over the desert. Suha knelt to pray. Rhys did not. He donned his burnous and walked out onto the street. He had a long way to go, and it wasn't going to get any easier come dawn.
Chapter 36 Nyx washed her hands in the ablution bowl next to the door. Her storefront was still more or less intact. Some kid had thrown a hunk of concrete through the window, and a nest of roaches had taken up residence under the big gear wardrobe in her study, but the place was still more or less the same. A little worse for wear, but serviceable. She packed up all the gear first and stored it in the basement. Then in went the transcriptions, the slide records, and some head preservatives. She threw out jars of dead bugs, some old throw rug of Anneke's, a couple of broken pistols Suha had no business trying to get functional again, and about six bags worth of errant black feathers. All cleaned out, the place reminded her of the mausoleum. A place for dead people. She didn't belong here anymore. Nyx pulled the sign out of the window. Nyxnissa so Dasheem Personal Security Blood Bonds Bounty Reclamation & Bel Dame Consulting Services
Somebody knocked. Nyx pulled out her scattergun and waved her hand over the door. She saw the familiar outline of Mercia sa Aldred, head bowed in her burnous, wearing expensive but dusty sandals. Nyx checked the street to either side, then pulled the door open. “Thanks for coming.” Mercia lifted her head. She looked good, Nyx decided. Clear-eyed, determined. There was something different about her, but she couldn't peg it. Something smarter. I made the right decision, Nyx thought. She shut the door behind Mercia and asked her to sit. “Sorry I don't have any tea,” Nyx said. “Looks like you're going somewhere fast,” Mercia said. “I was wondering what had happened to you.” “Checking up on me?” Nyx said. Mercia gave her a small smile. “Something like that. I guess... there's just been a lot going on. A lot of stuff at the embassy. They called my mother back into town this week. I guess you know that?” “Yeah.” “Is that what this is about?” Not a stupid kid. It's why Nyx picked her. “Sorry there's no tea,” Nyx said. “Ain't exactly a social call. I need to give you something.” Nyx walked over to the three bags of stuff she had collected from the storefront to take with her. The cylinder was still in her old pack, wrapped tight in organic cloth and dog hide. “I need you to give this to your mother,” Nyx said. She held it out to Mercia. The girl reached out, hesitantly. She took it, lifted her eyes to Nyx. “What is it?” “A weapon. Like nothing you've seen before. But it's a weapon Ras Tieg will be seeing a lot of, unless you have it too.” Mercia's brow crinkled. “I don't understand.” “Tell you mother this is what Nasheen and Chenja and Tirhan have. Then Mhoria will have it not long after. I'm sure Heidia and Druce will follow suit, but they're just bed bugs, you know? They're not the ones I'm worried about.” Mercia seemed to be measuring the package. “Why not give this to her yourself?” “Let's say I'm not exactly welcome around the nice parts of town right now.” And she wasn't so certain what an embassy filter would do to her, now that Tayyib had been tinkering with her blood again. “Is this a trick?” “What do you think? I guess if I wanted you mom dead, having you do it would be a great idea, but I'm not too keen on seeing your mom dead. She's not a great conversationalist, no, but shit, neither am I. I'm not gonna hold that against her. I just need you to get this to her. Don't open it, or it'll fucking eat you. You got it? It feeds on blood. Have her give it to a magician.” Mercia didn't look alarmed, just cautious, which suited Nyx fine. Mercia secured the package in her shoulder bag. Then she looked around the nearly empty storefront. “Where are you going?” “Away. You can tell you mother that, too.” “I don't understand. If you're still alive, it means those bel dames didn't kill you. Doesn't that mean you won?” Nyx laughed, but something hurt when she did it, and the laugh turned into a wince. “No, honey pot, I didn't win. Nobody won this one. Let's call it a draw.” Mercia cocked her head. “Is delivering this part of the draw?” “Yeah.” She nodded and stood. “All right. I'll give it to my mother. If I open it, it eats me. Have her give it to a magician. All the other big countries have one. Anything else?” “That covers the good stuff.” “All right.” Mercia started to the door. Nyx followed her out. “Thanks, kid.” Mercia pulled her hood back up and stepped out onto the porch, turned. “Good luck.” “You too. Something tells me yours will be better.” Mercia smiled. She walked out into the street. Nyx watched her go, until her little skinny ass turned down into the next side street, out of side. Might be a pretty fine ass, Nyx thought, if she put a little meat on. Give her a couple more years and she’d be twenty, and dangerous. To men and women alike. Nyx closed the door. She walked back down into the basement and started locking things down. Set a couple traps. Rigged a few flying transceivers. Then she climbed back up and sealed the trap door into the basement. It took an hour to seal and paint seams. When she was done, it looked like just another battered piece of cheap faux resin flooring. She washed up again in the ablution bowl and heard afternoon prayer roll out over the city. There was something about that sound, something so regular, so bloody fucking certain. The call to prayer was home. It said, the world's fucked up, God's an asshole, but life goes on, doesn't it? Life goes on. You're not dead yet. Anneke let herself in. The door was still coded for her. Nyx picked up two of her duffle bags, turned to face the dark little woman in the doorway. Anneke spit sen on the floor. She had a pistol on either hip and a side satchel with some kind of burst in it. The butt end of a shotgun peeked over one lean shoulder. “You ready?” Anneke said. “Let's do it,” Nyx said. Anneke picked up the third bag, and they walked out to Anneke's waiting bakkie. Loaded up Nyx's things. “What did you do with all the gear?” Anneke asked. “Saving it for a bloody day.” “Thought you were getting out of those.” “You never know.” “Heh. Yeah, that's it, I guess. You never know.” Nyx rolled down the window. Anneke started up the bakkie and drove her down the old familiar streets of the bad end of Mushtallah. They blew out of town, out past the filter; it made Nyx's ears pop, but it didn’t kill her, which meant Alharazad hadn’t taken her code out of the bel dame banks yet. The desert rolled out ahead of them. Anneke drove around a big sand drift that was eating at the road, and then it was east, southeast, where the sun would rise tomorrow but right now it was getting dark, so dark, and Nyx couldn't help looking back over her shoulder at the sunset, the bloody, gorgeous dying of the world. “It'll still be there,” Anneke said. Nyx turned back around. “Yeah, I guess. Just wondering how I'm going to pass the time. I ain't playing mom to your fucking brats.” “Yeah well, rumor has it you're a bad shot.” Nyx grinned. “That so?” “Figured somebody outta do something about that. You being unemployed and all, you got plenty of time.” “Time for what?” “To learn how to fucking shoot. It drives me fucking nuts.” Nyx laughed, and it was a real laugh this time. It broke something up inside of her, and she was laughing so hard that tears bunched up at the corners of her eyes. She wiped them away, salty tears, gritty sand. “I had three bosses tried to teach me to shoot,” Nyx said. “I don't know you can do any better.” “So how's it feel?” Anneke asked. “What?” “Ending the war.” Nyx snorted. “Nothing's done yet. They’re just starting to talk, now. Word’s just getting out. Heard the embassies are calling folks in.” “Things'll be better, though, when the news gets out.” “Better? For who? Now the boys come home. Now we find out what kind of country we’ve built.” There was something on the radio. Loud talking heads. Politics. Family voices with rich, privileged voices. “You hear that?” Nyx said, nodding at the radio. “When people are afraid it means they’ve got something to lose. People with something to lose have hope. I won’t believe the war’s at an end until Nasheenians are afraid. And those old women, they aren't scared of shit yet.” “They will be,” Anneke said. Nyx stared out the window a good long time, watched the desert blow by. She saw the cratered remains of old city gates, the ruins of the old city. “All you ever do is learn how to fight a war,” Nyx said. “Nobody ever teaches you how to stop.” “Yeah,” Anneke said. She changed the radio station. Not politics or talking heads or news now, but some border town group with a cantina beat. “Turn the radio up,” Nyx said, and then remembered that Anneke was the one driving. It was Nyx's turn to fiddle with the radio. She turned it up. They blew out over the desert.