Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert. Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jax, and lost it two rounds later when Jax hit the floor like an antique harem girl.
Nyx lost every coin, a wad of opium, and the wine she’d gotten in exchange for her womb. But she did get Jax to bed, and loser or not, in the desert after dark that was something.
Especially considering Nyx’s profession.
“What are you after?” Jax murmured in her good ear. They lay tangled in the sheets like old lovers, a losing boxer with a poor right hook and a tendency to drop her left, and a wombless hunter bereft of money, weapons, food, and most of her clothing.
“I’m looking for my sister,” Nyx said. It was partly the truth. She was looking for a lot of people.
Jax could only get her halfway there.
Nyx woke sometime after dawn prayer with a hangover and what felt like a wad of cotton in her belly. The pain wasn’t supposed to kick in until noon. She should have started drinking to prep for the pain, but she had another sort of boxer to meet in Faleen, and four women and a eunuch on her tail looking for a womb she’d dumped at the butcher’s. They would take her without the womb, of course, but dumping it kept them occupied in the fleshpots a day longer.
She pulled on her burnoose and pushed into the short hall. Jax was long gone, and the cantina was mostly empty. There was a room charge to pay, the cantina keeper told her. She put breakfast on the tab and slipped out the back.
A girl was selling sand cats in a pool of smoke weeping out from the back end of the cantina. It was a bad day for smog, even this far outside the cities. The thick air trapped the smoke too close, cloying close. Nyx pulled her gutra over her face, tucked it up under the aghal.
“You seen any bakkies on this road?” she asked the kid.
The girl spit red. “You want a sand cat?”
The kittens in the cage were bloody, half-starved. Flies circled them. The girl didn’t look much better.
Nyx was shit and gone from Punjai.
She walked. She looked back, once, at the smoky cantina and the starving girl, and wondered who they were burning back there.
The sun bled across the big angry sky. The road was unpaved, mostly sand and gravel. She had traded her good sandals for directions out of the fleshpots, too dopey to figure her way out on her own. Under the burnoose, she wore little more than a dhoti and breast binding. She had an old baldric – her dead partner’s – buckled too tight.
All the sheaths were empty. Had been for some time.
She was reminded of some proverb about meeting God empty-handed, but morning prayer had come and gone, and she hadn’t knelt. Her knees weren’t calloused anymore. Not from praying, away.
She hitched a ride on the back of a snarling cat-pulled cart just before midday, and by late afternoon she found a bodega and a call box and a sign telling her she was thirty miles from Faleen.
She made a call.
Two hours later, Kine pulled up in a bakkie spewing red roaches from its back end.
Kine leaned over and pushed the door out.
“You’ve got a leak in your exhaust,” Nyx said, sliding onto the seat.
Kine was an unremarkable woman, big in the hips and slight in the bust, average height, long face. Her hands had the brown, worn, sinewy look of old leather, but her face was younger, fleshier. She wore an embroidered housecoat and hijab over her dark hair, but Nyx figured there was very little on underneath the coat. It was a hot day.
“What’s her name?” Kine asked, shifting the bakkie into gear.
“I can smell her,” Kine said.
“I lost a bet,” Nyx said.
“Dead. I couldn’t get him back over the border.”
Kine pursed her lips, a thousand daggers of disapproval in her dark eyes. She never frowned, never that, but the tight mouth held back words her God didn’t permit her to say. Nyx knew that well enough. She’d known Kine long before she went conservative.
They blew back out onto the road. The shocks in the bakkie were going out.
“Where am I taking you?” Kine asked.
Nyx looked out the window, watched the flat white desert turn to dunes.
“A ship just came in from New Canaan,” Kine said. Faleen was a landlocked city. Only one kind of ship docked there. “If you’re looking for the magicians –“
“Yebez. This is God’s war we’re fighting. They want a part in it.”
“God didn’t say anything to me about it. Does the radio work?” Nyx asked. She leaned forward to fiddle with the tube jutting out of the dashboard.
“No,” Kine said. She pinched her mouth again, then – “How did you lose Tej?”
Nyx was bleeding again. She could feel it. She needed something stronger than liquor.
“You have any weapons on you?” Nyx asked. She kicked the radio tube. It rattled. All the news was behind her.
“Who’s tracking you?”
“What is this, the fourth inquisition?”
Nyx pulled her gutra free, dipped her head out the open window. The air was clearing up.
“Raine,” she said.
Kine’s face scrunched up like a prune. She shifted gears. The bakkie rattled and picked up speed. Dust and dead beetles roiled behind them.
“You’re putting me in a pot, sister-mine,” Kine said.
“I wouldn’t be blood if I didn’t.”
“I’ll drop you at the gate, no farther.”
The gate was good.
“You never could get a man back over the border,” Kine said. Her expression hadn’t changed. She had liked all of Nyx’s partners, even the men. Kine thought she was a good progressive conservative for putting up with Nyx’s male partners.
“Tej was a good boy. The only one of yours I liked. You kill good men for a lost cause.”
“Raine always got us back out.”
“Raine isn’t a b?l damê, he’s a bounty hunter.”
“There’s not much difference.
“It’s all the difference in the world, in God’s eyes.”
They’d turned off the gravel track and onto the 101 Highway that bisected northern Nasheen from the Chenjan border to the sea. Splintered red rock jutted up from the dunes or lay scattered among them. A careful eye could spot the shimmering casings of unexploded bursts lining the highway. The road signs were popular shooting targets for Chenjan operatives and Nasheenian protestors, and most of the metal markers were pocked with bullet holes and smeared in burst residue.
Nyx supposed that there were worse places to go to sell the last of what she had, but she couldn’t think of any. Except maybe Chenja. And she’d already given Chenja enough of her. And enough of everyone else.
She tightened her baldric.
Eighteen miles to Faleen.