God’s War, Part Two:
They passed the big water purifying plant just outside the refugee camps. Nasheen didn’t leave out much open water anymore. Chenjan operatives were notorious for poisoning wells.
Faleen was a port city, not the kind by the sea but the kind that took in the ragged handfuls of off-world ships that sputtered into its ancient docking ports every year looking for repairs and supplies and usually, directions. Faleen wasn’t the sort of place anybody off-world was looking for on purpose. Neither was any other place in Nasheen for that matter, or any other place on the planet.
Faleen was where you ended up when you were out of options.
They drove for an hour more before the big ship from New Canaan came into view, rearing above Faleen like some obscene, winged minaret.
They drove past women and girls walking along the highway carrying baskets on their heads and big nets looped over their shoulders. Bugs were big trade to the magicians in Faleen, and everybody was always looking for locusts.
Kine pulled up outside the towering main gate of the dusty city, scattering young girls, sand, and chickens from her path with a blast of her horn. Another cloud of beetles escaped from the leak in the back. Nyx batted them away as she jumped out of the bakkie.
“You watch yourself,” Kine yelled at her.
Nyx raised a hand, and Kine shifted gears and turned back off onto the highway, heading for the coast, and home. Nyx hadn’t been to the ocean in an age.
She turned toward the two big slabs of metal that were the main gate into Faleen. They had seen better days as compression doors on an old star carrier.
Nyx pulled up the hood of her burnoose and bled into the traffic heading in through the gate. She found a boy crouching outside a mihrab near the broken tower of a minaret. She tugged at his ear.
He took her to a gangly girl selling a couple other girls in a back alley who demanded a steep fee for showing tourists around Faleen.
Nyx reminded her she was a b?l damê on a blood debt, and the girl worked for the magicians. Barring that, she could always threaten violence, but her stomach hurt and she was really fucking thirsty.
The girl turned gray and acquiesced.
They moved through narrow corridors and skirted around the edges of mud-brick buildings whose precipitous lean threatened a swift death by asphyxiation. At the edge of the wooden gates into the Chenjan quarter, the girl pointed her to a cantina with a bright red awning. On the other side of the cantina was the magician’s traveling boxing gym: never in the same place for two consecutive fights.
Two big women stopped Nyx at the battered blue door of the cantina.
“You have an appointment?”
“Do I look like I have an appointment?”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Tell her I’m the b?l damê.”
The women shifted on their feet. “I’ll get her,” the biggest one said.
Nyx pushed at her sore belly and rocked back on her heels. She wondered if they sold morphine before noon. She wondered if any of this was going to work. She had some doubts. Doubt wasn’t good. She knew better.
The woman arrived back at the door and bid her enter. “She’ll see you,” she said.
Nyx ducked after the bouncer and into the dark, smoky interior of the cantina. Dust clotted the thick air, and sand covered most of the floor. It was good for soaking up blood and piss. Boxing fans weren’t the best behaved, and they liked to pack Bashir’s cantina before and after a fight.
Bashir sat at a corner table smoking sweet opium. Nyx could taste it in the air. The woman had a couple bottles of sand-colored whiskey at the table, and someone had left behind a still smoking cigar that smelled a lot like a B-40. Bashir had two teenage boys beside her, both just shy of draft age, maybe sixteen. They were sallow and soft-looking and kept their hair long, braided, and belled. Somebody had kept them out of training – letting adolescent boys go that soft was illegal in most districts, even if they were prostitutes. When they were called up, they wouldn’t last a day at the front – the Chenjans would mash through them like overripe squash.
“Nyxnissa,” Bashir said. She exhaled a plume of rich smoke. Her eyes were big and dark. “Thought I’d seen the last of you.”
“Most people think that,” Nyx said, sliding next to one of the boys. He flinched. “Until I show up again.”
“How was your trip?” Bashir asked. She wore red trousers and stained short coat, but kept her head uncovered. Her skin was a shade paler than those who worked in the desert, but the tough, leathery look of her face said her wealth was recently acquired. Like her boys, she was getting fat and soft at the edges, but unlike the boys she’d fought it out on the sand with the best of them in her youth. There was muscle under the wealth.
“Not as smooth as I hoped,” Nyx said. She pulled off her hood and shrugged out of her burnoose so her shoulders were bare.
Bashir looked her over with a lazy sort of interest. “A bird told me you don’t have what we bargained for.”
“I need a drink,” Nyx said. She hailed the woman at the bar, but Bashir waved her back.
“The bird says you dropped the purse at the butcher’s.”
“I did,” Nyx said. Bashir wasn’t a stupid woman. Being evasive would just get Nyx chopped into more pieces.
“That was a big purse,” Bashir said.
Nyx leaned back against the seat. The boy next to her had a hold of his glass, but wasn’t drinking.
“Where’d you pick these two up?” Nyx asked.
“Aren’t they lovely?” Bashir said. Her dark eyes glinted in the low light. The place was too cheap for bulbs. They were still using worms in glass. “They were a gift.”
Nyx felt suddenly uncomfortable. She cut a look at the door. The place was mostly empty. The woman at the bar was still wiping the same length of counter she’d been mopping up when Nyx dropped in.
Nyx knew the answer, but asked anyway.
“Who gave them to you?”
Bashir showed her teeth.
“You’ll get shit from the magicians for crossing a b?l damê,” Nyx said.
“Will I?” Bashir said. “Even a b?l damê who sells her womb out for black money?”
“I do a little side work.”
“What would your sisters say?
“Leave the family out of it.”
Bashir clucked her tongue. She prodded at one of the boys with her opium pipe. “Pretty aren’t they? So much better than the ones that come back old and scarred from the front.”
“I’ve seen better,” Nyx said. And she’d certainly fucked better.
“Raine can be very generous,” Bashir said, fixing her gaze back on Nyx, “when I have something he wants.”
“How much am I going for?” Nyx said. Her hands itched for a blade that she no longer owned.
“More than the purse you were carrying,” Bashir said.
Well, that was something.
The boy beside Nyx took his hand away from his drink.
The woman behind the bar moved toward the kitchen.
Nyx kicked up onto the tabletop before the boy could steady the pistol in his other hand. The gun went off with a burst of yellow smoke.
She threw a low roundhouse kick to the other boy’s face and leapt off the table before Bashir got her scattergun free.
Reflex sent her running for the back door, spewing sand behind her. Too late, she remembered who taught her the back-door default retreat. She would have had better luck with the bouncers at the front.
Nyx shouldered into the kitchen, knocked past a startled blind cook, and ran headlong out the open back alley.
A strong arm shot out and slammed into her throat. Nyx was going so fast it took her off her feet.
She hit the sand and rolled.
Still choking, she tried to get to her feet, but a big man already had hold of one of her arms.
He twisted it behind her and forced her face back into the sand. She turned her head at the last minute, so only her cheek thrust against the burning ground. She saw three pairs of dirty feet in front of her, two in sandals, one bare. She strained her eyes up to catch their faces.
Little, ropy-muscled Anneke hadn’t broken a sweat. She stood chewing a wad of sen, one arm supporting the weight of the rifle she kept lodged just under her shoulder. The other feet belonged to skinny half-breed Taite and big, broad-shouldered Dakar, whose face was so pale he couldn’t go outside unless it was covered.
“You must be desperate,” Nyx said, spitting sand, sucking in air through her bruised throat, “To take on Taite and Anneke as your muscle.”
“That’s all the greeting I get?” Raine asked. He pulled her up, kept a grip on her arm, and tugged off her burnoose.
“Where you lose your gear, girl? I taught you better.” He shook the burnoose off on the ground, thinking she’d hidden something in it.
She made a grunting laugh. He didn’t know how hard-up she was.
“You’re clean,” he said, half a question.
He was half right. She had one more thing to sell and one more thing to do, but if she was lucky, only the magicians knew that.
Raine cuffed her hands with sticky bands and turned her around to face him. He draped her burnoose back over her.
“You know how much you’re going for?” he asked.
“Over fifty,” Nyx said.
Raine was a big man, a head taller than Nyx, just as dark and twice as massive. His face was broad and flat and stamped in two black, fathomless, expressionless eyes, like deep water from a tribal well. The hilt of a good blade cut through a slit in his brown burnoose. He was pushing Bashir’s age: men didn’t come back from the front until after they were forty or dead. Mostly, they came back dead.
Raine was an exception.
It made him dangerous.