Well, it was bound to happen.
For your amusement:
They were still three bounties short of rent when Nyx found the headless body in the trunk.
“You should have put some towels down,” Rhys said.
There had been dog carcasses in the alley that morning, tire treads on burst stomachs, fat rats squealing over tidbits, old women netting rats for stews. The accumulated filth of rotting tissue, blood, sand and the stench of human excrement had sent Rhys out onto the veldt for dawn prayer, and Nyx had grudgingly agreed to take the bakkie out and pick him up. She had made sure to arrive well after the end of prayer, because catching Rhys praying was about as uncomfortable as catching him masturbating. He was a Chenjan conservative, one of the old breed who still bothered adhering to sexual and religious “purity.”
In any case, she hadn’t thought to check the trunk.
“Whose is this?” Nyx asked. She was due to pick up a bounty in a quarter of an hour.
She needed the trunk space.
The body was draped in the white burnous of a cleric, gold tassels and all. The feet were bare. Though he had no head, a red newsboy cap was cradled under the left arm.
Nice touch, that.
“Khos’s,” Rhys said.
She should have recognized his work.
Nyx glanced over at Rhys, tried to read him. His dark face was pinched and drawn. He was a skinny man, too slender in the hips and shoulders – he’d been a dancer back in Chenja. He looked seventeen, pushing thirty.
She watched him gather his gear. “I’ll put this in the cab. I forgot about the body,” he said.
“Khos won’t get anything without the head.”
“He’s got a birthmark, Khos says.”
“Khos is an idiot.”
Rhys pinched his mouth. Nyx waited for a word of affirmation, but he only said, “Khos said he was one of the men on the boards. He had me open a file.”
Nyx guessed the body was Chenjan, judging from the color. Black, like Rhys. Chenjans had trouble mixing with the tawny brown of Nasheen. Rhys knew that as well as anyone.
She shut the trunk.
“The boards?” Nyx spat. “Looks like somebody’s going to revoke my license cause Khos can’t keep his bodies buried.”
They were late. Nyx moved around to the cab of the little bakkie, kicked the latch loose and propped open the door. She took the driver’s seat, pumped the ignition pedal. A growl came from under the hood.
“Hit the grill,” Nyx said.
Rhys banged the flat of his hand on the grill. Not much weight behind it. For a man as focused as Rhys, he didn’t have much energy to expend when the situation called for it.
The last time she was in front of a civil rights court, they’d taken away her bounty license for a year. Anneke had gone back to working for Raine, Kos had hit the bottle and the Wall, and Rhys had taken up painting.
“Would you put some shit behind it?” Nyx yelled. “You want to go back to whoring-out portraits? Shevaa din!”
Hurry up. Her favorite words in Chenjan. Right after muja-ah shevaa din.
Hurry the fuck up.
Rhys kicked the grill. Better.
The bugs hissed, the engine rumbled.
“In, in, let’s go!” Nyx called.
Rhys gave the bakkie a push and leapt forward as it began rolling down the dusty hill toward the city.
There was a hot desert wind blowing in from the western waste, pushing out the city’s black shroud of smog and settling a misty cloud of red sand – fine as silt – over the cityscape. Dawn had risen, and the new sun – filtered through the silt – caught the world on fire.
It looked like the city was burning.
“Not the best portent,” Rhys said as he buckled on his dueling pistols and shrugged into his black coat. He kept his dark hair cropped, a Chenjan affectation Nyx had always found repulsive. Only slaves wore short hair. She’d told him that once, and he’d said he didn’t do anything for her pleasure. Some days, talking to Rhys was like trying to argue with an antique harem girl.
Nyx shifted gears as the road straightened out. They hit gravel, and a couple of fire beetle nymphs wiggled free from a leak in a hose by her feet and flitted out through the open windows. She batted at them, switched pedals.
Punjai was one of the shittier city jewels on the Nasheen crown. It was a border city, meaning Chenja and the Wall were less than a day’s walk across the veldt. It was also a popular way-station for Chenjan terrorists coming into Nasheen and political criminals trying to get out. Most of the city’s wealth came in via trade on the red and black markets: the red being in blood and bounties; the black in sorcery and embargoed Chenjan goods.
The city was a jagged wound, a seething black groove torn out of the red wash of the veldt. At the edges of the city, the desert stirred, set free by decades of overgrazing and centuries of heavy warfare that had seared the veldt and carved deep pockets into mud-brick ruins and heaps of rock the color of old blood. At the center of the city rose the old onion-shaped spirals of the minarets, long since converted to more effective watchtowers equipped with long-range bursts and scatterguns. The only minaret that still called the faithful to prayer was a crumbling black spiral in the Chenjan quarter.
“Taite briefed you on the file?” Rhys asked. He had never trusted her reading ability. Dancers like Rhys got big educations in Chenja – he didn’t put much stock in non-readers. The state schools called her dead dumb. She got her letters backwards.
Nyx watched him fiddle with the frogged tie at his collar. The day was fixing to be scorching, but his public modesty superseded comfort. Chenjan men were like that, always covering up. Such a shame.
“You know,” Nyx said, “if God wanted you naked, you’d have been born that way.”
He stopped his fiddling.
Under her burnous, Nyx wore little more than a dhoti, breast binding, and her baldric and harness. The hilt of her short sword jutted up from a slit in the burnous.
“Yea,” she said, “I looked over the file. Some Chenjan terrorists on the edge of the Chenjan district. Expected to be armed. Good boxers, I heard. They’ve been competing for cash. I sparred with one of them at Faleen.”
“I should have expected they’d be friends of yours,” Rhys said.
“I run with a lot of questionable characters,” Nyx said. She wanted to pinch his dark skin, for emphasis. “We’re stopping at the hub. I need to offload your body.”
“I just do Khos’s paperwork. Is Anneke in?”
“She’s already posted. Less picky about where she spends morning prayer.”
“I hate this city.”
Nyx nodded at the radio tube jutting out from the dash. “Find something useful on. You have a cigarette?”
He obediently switched on the tube. It vomited a misty blue-green wash. A cacophony of low voices muttered at him. Local politics.
“I don’t smoke,” Rhys said.
Nyx grinned and waited for him to start in about bodily impurities. She could use the diversion.
The hunched black smudge of the city grew closer. Umber-clad women moved along the side of the road, balancing baskets on their heads. Girls herded spindly gaggles of geese and a couple of pigs along the drainage ditches flanking the road. A couple of sorceresses in blue and gold carried baskets of beetle creepers and grasshoppers in tiny wooden cages. Big dropping nets hung over their lean shoulders.
“Stop and get yourself a drink, then,” Rhys said, “if you’re looking to pollute yourself.”
There it was.
“I only drink the blood of my enemies,” Nyx said, showing her teeth. She touched one of the dozen silver loops ringing her left ear. Raine’s loop. “And sometimes a whisky and water,” she said. “Partial to dark beer with a little lime.”
Rhys didn’t even look at her.
She considered selling him to a mardana. It was one of her more popular fantasies.
They passed under the burst-scarred main gate, and into Punjai.
They were late.