“I always thought you’d be taller,” Nyx said.
Queen Nasyaan smiled and stood. Nyx had seen images of her before, of course, but most of those were doctored.
The Queen was a short, plump woman with a halo of graying hair. Her face was too young for the hair – she wasn’t even forty. The desert tended to suck the youth from everyone else. Nyx supposed the Queen was attractive in the way of an older sister or blood cousin; cute, and immediately likable, but not someone you’d first tag as a bed partner.
Nyx caught Rhys looking at her, and had the peculiar feeling he was reading her mind. One never knew, with magicians.
“Sit, please,” the Queen said, gesturing to the two seats on the other side of the polished white table.
Nyx watched the woman’s hands – soft hands, hands that hadn’t seen much of the desert. The filters kept out the worst of the sun. This was a queen who would never have to be scraped for cancers.
“I guess I should say I’m sorry about your mother,” Nyx said. “Her dying.”
When Queen Abyyad died, Nyx had gotten drunk and told Rhys to thank God for her dying. Rhys told her God didn’t work that way. It hadn’t put a damper on her spirits.
“I never liked the old bitch anyway,” the Queen said.
“Not many people did,” Nyx said.
“Nyx?” Rhys said quietly.
She waved him away.
“So it is Nyxnissa so Dasheem?” the Queen asked.
“Nyx, a pleasure.”
“Thank you for answering my summons. I’m interested in expanding my pool of hunters. I heard you served time at the front.”
“A long time ago.” Nyx looked around for something to drink, found nothing. Did they have something against liquor in the palace?
“Two years of service, honorably discharged at nineteen, so I’ve read.”
Nyx stiffened. This wasn’t going to be cut and dry.
“You came back with burns over eighty percent of your body,” the Queen said. “Your military file says you were put into the care of the magicians for reconstitution.”
The Queen eyed her over, as if looking for evidence that Nyx had once been a charred, blackened husk of a woman. “Is that right?”
The Queen didn’t look convinced.
“I got a good magician. The best in the business,” Nyx said. And then he fucked me over and sent me to prison, Nyx thought. But she didn’t say that out loud.
“You’re a war hero, then. A true patriot. I went against the advice of my best counselors in asking you here.”
“I don’t get on well with most people. They don’t like me much,” Nyx said. “I’ve been a bounty hunter and a b?l damê a lot longer than I was at the front.”
“I read that you served some time in prison for black work.”
“You have some sympathy for breeders?”
“Not really. It paid well.”
“More than being a b?l damê? As I recall, collecting blood debt is quite rewarding, monetarily.”
“Only if you’re good at it,” Nyx said. “I wasn’t.”
“You brought in all of your notes. What was it? Twenty-eight for twenty-eight?”
“I did that in three years. Most b?l damês do two or three times that. They’re better at throwing away bad notes than I was.”
“You pursue your notes to the end.”
“I do,” Nyx said. “I’m stubborn. Maybe just stupid.”
“Neither of us have gotten where we are by being stupid,” the Queen said.
“Oh, I’ve done some pretty stupid things,” Nyx said.
“How long would you pursue a note for me?”
Nyx shrugged. “It’s all the same. I’d go until I got it, or until someone else did. Rumor has it you’ve called in a lot of hunters.”
“A handful. All but half a dozen of the b?l damês have already given up the hunt. I need someone –“
“Desperate?” Nyx suggested.
“I suppose you’d like to know about the money, then.”
“I want to know what I’m hunting first.”
“You’ve shown an incredible dedication to your country.”
“Uh-huh,” Nyx said. Government types had sweet-talked her with words like honor, dedication, service, obligation. She had burned for it, and much more.
“Tell me, why did you volunteer for the front?”
“My older brothers died at the front. My little brother got called up. I joined so I could watch his back.”
“He died of dysentery during basic training,” Nyx said.
“Sacrificing for the cause is truly –“
“Let’s go ahead talk money,” Nyx said. The last thing she wanted was to listen to the Queen of Nasheen tell her she was some kind of living saint for burning at the front. Nyx knew better.
“Money isn’t an issue,” the Queen said. “Bring me the woman alive and I’ll give you however much you want. I’ll set you up in an estate by the sea with a hundred servants if you wish it. Women, of course.” She flicked a look at Rhys. “Unless you’d prefer half-breeds. We have no end of male half-breeds.”
“Until we start sending half-breeds to the front.”
“Bring me this woman, and we never will.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s say this woman has the power to end the war. The war that took your brothers, your life. I offer you a way to end the war, and get paid well besides.”
Nyx eased back into her seat. “Now I know why you called me up.”
“Your file makes for interesting reading.”
“So.” The Queen, too, leaned back in her chair. “What do you think of my offer?”
“I have a good team,” Nyx said. “We could put something off. When did you last see this woman?”
“She’s a foreigner, an off-worlder called Nikodem Jordan.” The Queen pulled a slate off the table and called up a photo. She handed the slate to Nyx. “This gives her likeness and her vitals. You’ll need to change the password. I require the utmost discretion.”
Nyx took the slate and looked at a display of photos. They had date and time stamps. Some were dated eight years before. She’d figured that. Nikodem was a small woman, Chenjan in coloring, with a broad nose and wide cheekbones, gray eyes. It was an arresting face, not so much alien as exotic in the way she’d heard off-worlders were. She was too little for real beauty, but the face, ah, the face! Nyx saw strength in it, and some cunning. It was a face that kept others out, kept secrets.
“You will bring her back to me?” the Queen asked.
“I’ll need to know everything about her,” Nyx said. She looked up from the slate, reluctantly. “How long has she been gone? Does she have friends, other travelers? Who did she meet with while she was here?” She paused, wondered if she should show her card. “This wasn’t her first visit. Who did she meet with the last time she was here?”
The Queen answered a few of the questions, talked a little about the off-worlders. Nikodem had been missing for a month. The Queen said that when the off-worlders had come into Faleen fore the first time sixteen years before, they came in speaking Arabic. That’s how out of touch off-worlders were with what was going on in Nasheen. It took some time to explain to them that Arabic had been dead in Nasheen for two thousand years.
“What did they come here looking for?” Nyx asked.
“Some of that is confidential,” the Queen said. “What I can say is that they were very interested in finding other followers of the Book. They found our particular brand of Islam rather contemptible.” She glanced over at Rhys. “And they didn’t think Chenja’s was much better, but they have an offer for us, and we’ve been in negotiations these last eight years. That’s the transit time from our world to theirs.”
“New Canaan?” Nyx asked.
“Yes. You know it?”
“I didn’t take geography or astronomy much past the ones, but I listen to a lot of stories. I hear they’re pretty conservative, and mostly looking to some dead white guy,” Nyx said. She thought of Kine, who hadn’t had sex or alcohol in nearly fifteen years. That couldn’t be good for anyone.
“They call themselves the Mujahadin. The Quran is their primary book, yes, but they’ve incorporated both the teachings of the prophet Jesus and the old testament of the Judeans. They believe that because they have a faith composed of this trinity, they are the only true believers of the one God, the only people who know and understand Him.”
“God is unknowable,” Rhys said. “That is his nature. For them to claim to know God is arrogance at best.”
“It’s true that only the Chenjans have a call to prayer anymore, and some of Mohammed’s proscriptions I find terribly contradictory and backward within our current society, but it is no business of mine to tell my women how to worship. There are God’s laws and women’s laws. Whenever possible, they intersect. When they do not, I tend to ere on the side of individual freedom.”
Nyx coughed. Individual freedom, sure. She remembered her brothers. Remembered how honor-bound she’d been to “volunteer.”
“It would be a fantastic opportunity to spread that sort of freedom to other worlds,” the Queen said.
Rhys said, “But wouldn’t that be Nasheen imposing on others the sort of trinity the Canaanites are coming here to spread among the Nasheenians?”
Nyx sucked her teeth and glared at him. The Queen laughed.
“We have different views of God, you and I,” the Queen said.
“So when can I see these Canaanites?” Nyx asked. The less Rhys talked about God to the Queen of Nasheen, the better.
“Come, I will take you to them,” the Queen said, and rose.