The train dropped Nyx off at a refueling station within view of Mushira where the local farmers collected fuel for their farming equipment and personal vehicles.

Nyx alighted and pulled up the hood of her burnous. She started to put on her goggles and then looked out over Mushira and stopped. She wouldn’t need those here. After the rolling desolation of the dunes and the flat white sea of the desert, the green terraced hills around Mushira were a jarring change of scenery.

She waited around at the train station until the hottest part of the day had passed, then began the long walk down to the river.

Mushira was full of fat, soft, happy people. These were the hills of her childhood, the terraced green and amber fields that she had run into the desert to forget. Mushira was an isolated oasis; they used up all of the local water for farming, so nobody came in to ship it out. Though there were some people who came into town to do business, Mushirans didn’t make a habit of traveling. Nyx had known Mushira was an anomaly even while she was growing up there, because the sand was never more than a few hours walk from her mother’s farm, and the trains and bakkies that ferried goods in and out of Mushira were operated by hard-bitten, skinny desert people who knew how to use a knife for something other than carving up synthetic fuel bricks.

Nyx remembered spending many evenings standing out at the edge of the fields and watching the sand blow over the dunes beyond the line of low scrub and fat bulb trees that held back the desert. Some nights she believed the encroachment of the sand was inevitable, and she welcomed it. Other nights she feared the desert would devour her, and she convinced her little brother Ghazi to go out with her and walk the tree barrier after dark, to scare away the sand. He had been afraid of sand cats, so they brought machetes with them – poor protection against the far more likely but less tangible threats of the desert at night: flesh beetles and airborne bursts, rogue magicians and wild shape shifters. But at the time, Nyx had promised Ghazi that she was the most dangerous thing in the desert.

It was the thirty-first, so Nyx had the afternoon to find herself a place and get cleaned up before the morning meeting at the mosque. The mosque was a domed structure at the center of the city, on the eastern bank of the river. Six spiraling minarets ringed the mosque, and during the call to prayer, all six were staffed with muezzins. Mushirians didn’t miss a prayer.

Nyx hadn’t been to Mushira since she had returned from the front at nineteen and found nothing waiting for her but a bit of charred, plowed-over land that no longer belonged to her mother. Her mother’s farm had been burned out by Chenjan terrorists as part of a wider raid on Mushira when Nyx was at the front, and by the time she was reconstituted the neighbors had bought the farm and her mother had died at the coast due to complications during her second pregnancy. Nyx hadn’t had any reason to come back.

Nyx walked down into the main square at the entrance to the grounds of the mosque and looked around for a couple of public hotels. There was a convention complex just south of the mosque that should do fine.

The people on the street gave her looks ranging from surreptitious glances to outright stares. Long lines of children followed after their mothers carrying baskets of starches and giant ladybird cages. Nyx kept tugging at her burnous in an attempt to hide her sun sore face. Most desert traders didn’t come down to the square during the off-season, and bel dames and bounty hunters generally stayed out of rural areas – Nyx hadn’t seen her first bel dame until she was sixteen. If Nyx didn’t want to be noticed at the mosque she’d need to buy some new clothes and swap out her sandals for work boots. She probably shouldn’t be going around armed in Mushirah, either. Not visibly, anyway.

She scouted out a hotel and walked over to the marketplace on the other side of the river and bought some new clothes that she couldn’t afford. She found a public bathhouse and changed, then unbuckled her blade and her pistols and stored them in her shopping bag. For a handful of change she got herself a bath and had a girl re-braid her hair in a style more suitable to Mushirian farm matrons. Her mother had worn her hair that way.

When she walked back onto the street she got fewer looks, but the boots hurt and she felt half naked with her sword in a bag instead of on her back. The hotel clerk gave her an odd look when she walked in, but the notes she handed the clerk were mostly clean and certainly valid, and after that she got no trouble.

Nyx spent an uneasy night staring out at the square from the filtered window of her little room. There was a balcony, and after it got dark she moved out there and leaned over the railing. She was tired, and hungry, and ordered up enough food to feed a couple of people, ate it all, and fell into a deep sleep that felt like water after a day in the desert. Her dreams were cloying things; dark and tangled, full of old blood and regret.

The call to prayer woke her at midnight, and after that she couldn’t get back to sleep. She went to the privy down the hall and vomited everything she’d eaten. After, she stayed curled around the hard stone basin with her cheek pressed against the rim while the roaches inside the bowl greedily devoured her offal.

Nasheen was being slowly eaten from the inside, and when somebody had cancer, it had to be cut out. Nyx hadn’t had a steady hand in a long time.

I can’t fuck this up, she thought, and she tried to hold that thought in her fist like a tangible thing, like a stone. But her resolve slipped away, trickled through her fingers like sand.

She couldn’t hold back the desert anymore.

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