Rhys wiped the grit from the windows inside the bus with the already dirty end of his burnous. The clasp mechanism at the top of his window was broken; hot air and red dust blew in from the road and covered Rhys is a fine mist. He pulled his burnous over his nose and mouth. Red ants crawled along the floor. He kept wiping them from his boots. A man in a blue turban sat next to him, clinging to a carpet bag with arthritis-knotted hands. Rhys wanted to take the man’s hands in his and sooth them, but healing without permission got Chenjan magicians killed. Black-clad women sat three to a seat in the back of the bus, juggling luggage and children in their laps. The front was nearly empty. A few old men with wisps of gray hair and a young man just old enough to enter combat training took up a few seats.
Rhys didn’t know why the man with the turban sat next to him when there were so many empty seats, not until the man started speaking.
“I don’t see many men on the roads,” the old man said. “Not whole men, anyway. I sit alone in the opium houses. Some of them are run by widows now, did you know? Have you come from the fighting?”
“No,” Rhys said. “I keep a family in Dadfar.” He supposed Nyx and her bloody crew were something like a family.
“Is that so? How many sons do you have?”
“Just the one,” Rhys said, and thought of his father.
“Just one? Just one? A great misfortune, many men would say. You must punish your wives, or take another.”
“It is not their fault alone,” Rhys said. Most rural men still believed that women had some control over the sex of their children, and bore girls for spite. Even the men who knew better still clung to the old superstitions. It gave them someone to blame for their misfortunes. Someone besides God.
The turbaned man tapped his head and pushed up the blue turban to reveal a bald head. One half of the visible bald skull was a pale green. His head must have been blown apart at the front. Organic fixes often replaced missing or shattered skull bones.
“You see this? Too many boys in my family. I was first to the front,” the man said.
“And the rest of your brothers?”
The man readjusted the turban, crinkled his face. “Twenty brothers in all. Gone now. All gone.”
“Yes,” Rhys said. He thought of all the men at the front. Thought of the genocide of an entire gender. He waved his hands over his boots again, and the ants obediently dropped off. But they would be back. Red ants were notoriously finicky bugs to work with.
Bahreha lay in a wide river valley about thirty-five kilometers east of Dadfar. The bus wound down a low rise of mountains and looked out over the wasted river plain. Rhys’s father had shown him pictures of Bahreha before the first wave of bombings. Bahreha had been a desert oasis, one of the big trade centers along the border. What little trade from Nasheen that came down the river now consisted of shipments of red and black goods. They came in under the cover of darkness and departed in the same manner. Bahreha sold more slaves and illegal organics than it did bread and corn and lapis. The great palms that once shaded the river had been cut or burned, and the tremendous tiled fountains of the market and government districts were broken and dry. The green parks where children once played were now sandy brown lots infested with small dogs and feral cats and refugees.
The bus pulled into a busy transit station packed with informal taxis, bakkies, and rickshaws. Vendors dressed in colorful but tattered clothing swarmed the bus when it arrived and pushed fried chicken, hunks of bread, hard candies, and more useless items at the passengers as they disembarked – shampoos, bath caps, costume jewelry, fake leather belts and cheap cloth for turbans. A couple of creepers lurked at the edges of the crowds carrying their big nets and collections of bugs in little wooden cages.
Rhys pushed through the heaving tide and started walking through the center of the ruined city toward the riverfront. Ten years before, he would not have dreamed of walking through this city. His mother would have wailed at the thought. The city was full of Chenjeens, Nasheenian refugees, and Chenjan draft-dodgers, a seething mass of the unemployed and the unemployable. The few businesses still open had security guards with muzzled cats on leashes posted out front. Those businesses retired from service entirely had heavy grates over the windows and wasp swarms humming just behind the barred doors. Rhys could feel them.
Rhys walked the two kilometers to the riverfront high rises. Two decades before, the buildings were the most sought-after property in Bahreha. Inside their now barred courtyards, overgrown thorn bushes hid the blasted patterns of old succulent gardens.
Rhys buzzed at the gate of a wind-scoured building that needed a new coat of paint and a long visit from an exterminator. Geckos skittered in and out of crevices along the outside of the building, shielded by thorn bushes, and colonies of red ants pooled out all along the foundation.
He buzzed twice more before a tinny voice answered, “Who’s there?”
Rhys hesitated. “Am I speaking to Abdul-Nasser?”
There was a long pause.
“You an order keeper?”
Another pause. Then, “Come in quickly.”
The gate swung open.
Rhys crossed the dead courtyard and went up a set of wooden steps. Someone had applied new paint to the center of the steps, but neglected the edges. Under the awning at the corner of the building, down a short open corridor, was door number 316. Rhys raised his hand to the buzzer, but the door cracked open before he pressed it.
Rhys saw half a face, one dark, weeping eye peering out at him. The cloying, too-sweet stink of opium wafted out into the corridor, mixed with the old, heavy smell of tobacco.
“Rakhshan,” the old man said.
Rhys felt something stir at the name. No one had called him that in nearly a decade.
“Hush. Come in.” Abdul opened the door just enough for Rhys to squeeze past him. The room was dim, and Rhys paused a moment in the door to wait for his pupils to dilate. Yellow gauze covered the windows.
He heard the door close behind him, and turned to see Abdul bolting it with three heavy bars. After, Abdul swept his hands over the bars, and a stir of red beetles swarmed the edges of the doorway.
“Now we can speak privately,” Abdul said, and offered his hands to Rhys. Rhys took them.
The sockets of Abdul’s black eyes seemed to sag in his lined face, like an old dog’s. The sleeves of his threadbare tunic were pushed up, so when Rhys took his hands he saw old and new bruises on the man’s wrists and forearms.
“You’re still taking venom,” Rhys said.
Abdul shrugged, but he pulled away his hands and pushed down the sleeves of his tunic. “You know what I need for my work,” Abdul said.
“I do,” Rhys said.
The little one-room flat was a ruckus of equipment; bits of old consoles and bug-pans, piles of disintegrating boxes and papers, worm-eaten books, tangles of leaking wires and cracked bottles of organic feed and roach fluid. Bug cages and aquariums took up one entire wall. Dead locusts littered the floor. The dim lighting was in part due to the strain on the room’s internal grid – most of the power was being re-routed to the water pumps that fed the frogs, cicadas, markflies, turtles, tadpoles, waterskimmers, and multitudes of fish in various states of living and dying that clogged the aquariums.
“How have you faired? Let me get you something,” Abdul said. “Tea, something.”
“Thank you,” Rhys said.
Abdul wended his way around the cluttered room to the wall of the kitchen. Dishes overflowed in the tiny sink. Flies circled the dirty plates. When Rhys followed after Abdul to help with the tea, he saw something crawling in the sink, and saw that the damp, filthy plates bred maggots.
“Maybe we can just sit and talk,” Rhys said.
Abdul shook his head. His hair was tucked under a turban, so Rhys did not have to look at the state of it, but he did stink, as if he did not wash even for the abulation.
“No,” Abdul said. “I am still civilized. We must have tea.”
He clattered around, rinsed out a dirty tea pot, and tried to get the fire bugs in his hot plate to stir.
In the end, the tea was lukewarm, in dirty cups, set on a tea table that had once been a com counter. There were no chairs. They sat on old cushions that stank of dogs.
“So you are a magician now,” Abdul said. “Those old women took you in?”
“No doubt they agreed with what you did.”
Rhys sighed. “It was some time ago.”
“Yes. I have not seen your father since.”
“Have you been to Chitra?”
“A time or two.
“You’ve seen my sisters?”
“Yes, all married now.”
“Best I can recall, a local magistrate. The one who mooned over them.”
“Nikou Bahman. The one my father hated.”
“Yes, that man.”
Rhys stared at the tea. He could not bring himself to drink it. He kept thinking of the maggots in the sink.
“He already had three wives,” Rhys said.
“Did you expect it would go differently? Your sisters were disgraced when you did not burn Jarerah for her crimes. She had to set herself on fire just to save the others. Your father nearly burned them all. He thought no one would take them, not even as a fourth or fifth wife.”
Rhys took a deep breath. “But they married.”
“All boys. You have four nephews.” Abdul picked up his tea, but did not drink it. His hands trembled. “But you did not come to me for that. Not after ten years.”
“No,” Rhys said. He pulled the transmission canisters from his tunic pocket and set them on the table. “I need to read these. Our com man may have died for them.”
Abdul set down his tea and took one of the rectangles into his hand. He rubbed it between thumb and forefinger, pressed it to his ear and shook it.
“Ah,” he said. “This is expensive.” He bit it. “This is government. Nasheenian.”
“Can you read it?”
“Yes.” Abdul stood and went to a tangle of equipment at the far end of the aquarium wall. He unpacked some material, uncovered a com console, and inserted the rectangle into the panel. He tapped out a signal to the chittering bugs in the console.
Rhys got up and stood next to him.
A strong female voice bled out from the speakers.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said, “what I’m about to tell you…”
They listened to both canisters.
“Can you get me a transcription of this?” Rhys asked with a growing sense of dread as Nyx’s dead sister spun out her plan.
Abdul pressed a button on the console. “Put your hand here,” he told Rhys, and Rhys put his hand on the faceplate next to the printer button. He felt a soft prickling on his hand.
Blank organic paper began to roll out of the console.
“It will respond only to your touch,” Abdul said. “I’ve locked it as well, for forty-eight hours. It won’t open until then. Keep it close until you need it. I hope you have a trustworthy employer.”
Rhys stared at the paper as it came out of the machine, even as Kine’s voice continued to speak to him about how she would destroy his country.
“What sort of trouble have you gotten yourself into?” Abdul muttered, staring at the speakers as if the voice would take on human form and step from the machine so he could throttle her.
“More than I know,” Rhys said. “You’ll destroy these transmissions?”
“Oh yes. The moment it’s done transcribing. You best not stay long.”
“I’m sorry, uncle,” Rhys said.
“You were bound for trouble. Born under an inauspicious star, your mother said.”
“Have you seen my mother?”
“But she’s all right?”
“Why did you come back here now, after ten years, to ask such questions?”
The printer stopped. Abdul tucked the papers into a leather case and handed them to Rhys.
“This is important,” Rhys said. “You heard what this woman said. I need to get this back to my employer and decide what we’re going to do with it.”
“Your employer is Nasheenian,” Abdul said.
“Think what you will,” Rhys said. He tucked the leather case into his satchel. “I should go. I said I wouldn’t be long.”
“Said that to a woman? How old are you, Rakhshan?”
“You sound like my father.”
Abdul grunted. He rubbed at his arms. “Eh,” he said.
Rhys moved to the door. He waved the red roaches away and unbolted the doors.
Abdul stayed close behind. Rhys could smell him. Rhys turned, looked into his uncle’s weeping eyes.
“I did the right thing,” Rhys said.
Abdul said, “That is between you and God.”
Rhys gripped the old man’s arms. “Stay away from the venom,” he said.
“Be careful among the women,” Abdul said.
Rhys made to pull away, but Abdul held him.
“And know this,” Abdul said. “You are our last boy, the only one with our name. Whatever you do, whatever you need, you come to me. Ten hours or ten years from now.”
“I know, uncle,” Rhys said.
“Good.” Abdul released him and quickly shut the door.
Rhys pressed his hand to his satchel and the transcription, reassuring himself it was still there. He started back down the corridor and down the open stair.
He walked back to the taxi ranks. The call sounded for afternoon prayer, and he found the mosque nearest the ranks and knelt. He unrolled the prayer rug from his back. After, he went for lunch at a Mhorian restaurant that served kosher food. The afternoon heat kept the crowds away from the taxi ranks, and after lunch he sat out under the shade of the weather stalls at the ranks and waited.
He read from The Good Book. A bus pulled up ahead of him. When he looked at the sign in the window, he saw that it was headed for Chitra.
Rhys stared at the bus. He thought of what his mother would say if she saw him. Would she merely ignore him? Shriek? Turn away? He wanted to think that she would open her arms to him and invite him to her table. She would cook a heavy meal – eight dishes – and his father would come home and laugh and smoke and tell him how proud he was to have a magician for a son.
He enjoyed the fantasy.
He stirred from his dream, then jerked himself awake. It was dangerous to fall asleep in public, even while sitting on your purse.
Rhys squinted up at the big figure in front of him. He did not recognize him. Two more dark figures stood off to the man’s right. Rhys saw very little. The sun was directly behind them.
“What do you want?” Rhys asked, raising his hand to his brow. “I think you have me mixed up with someone else.”
“No, I don’t think so,” the big man said.
Rhys’s fingers twitched. He prepared to call a swarm of wasps.
“Let’s not be hasty,” one of the other figures said, and something rolled toward him, blew smoke.
Rhys coughed and raised his hands.
The big man grabbed him by the burnous and dragged him to his feet. Rhys reached for his pistols, but the man twisted both Rhys’s arm neatly behind him.
“So you’re her beautiful boy,” the big man said. “I don’t see you much at the Cage. Thought you were just a rumor.”
“You’re mistaken –“ Rhys began.
“No, I think not,” Raine said. “Let us see if she cares any more for you than she does her little half-breed boy.”