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God's War

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Nyx had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn t make any difference...On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there's one thing everybody agrees on--There's not a chance in hell of ending it.Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx's ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war--but at what price?The world is about to find out.
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God’s War © 2011 by Kameron Hurley

This edition of God’s War © 2011 by Night Shade Books


Cover art by David Palumbo

Cover design by Rebecca Silvers

Interior layout and design by Ross E. Lockhart


All rights reserved


First Edition


ISBN: 978-1-59780-214-7


For Jenn and Patrick


Listen to me, you islands;

hear this, you distant nations:

Before I was born God called me;

from my birth he has made mention of my name.


He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,

in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me into a polished arrow

and concealed me in his quiver.


He said to me, “You are my servant,

Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”


But I said, “I have labored to no purpose;

I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.

Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,

and my reward is with my God.”

(Bible, Isaiah 49:1-4)


“Say: My prayer and my sacrifice and my life and my death are
surely for Allah, the Lord of the worlds…”

(Quran, 6.162)





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 Jaks, and lost it
two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.

Nyx lost every coin, a wad of opium,
and the wine she’d gotten from the butchers as a bonus for her womb. But she
did get Jaks into bed, and—loser or not—in the desert after dark, that was

“What are you after?” Jaks 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

“I’m looking for my sister,” Nyx
said. It was partly the truth. She was loo; king for something else too,
something worth a lot more, and Jaks was going to help her get it.

The midnight call to prayer rolled
out over the desert. It started somewhere out in Faleen and moved in a slow
wave from mosque muezzin to village mullah to town crier, certain as a swarm of
locusts, ubiquitous as the name of God.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Nyx said, “what
I’m about to tell you…”


Nyx woke sometime after dawn prayer
with a hangover and what felt like a wad of cotton in her belly. Dropping the
womb had bought her some time—a day, maybe more if the butchers were smart
enough to sell it before her bloody sisters sniffed her out. She’d shaken them
in Punjai when she dumped the womb, along with the rest of her coin.

Jaks was long gone, off to catch a
ride to Faleen with the agricultural traffic. Nyx was headed that way too, but
she hadn’t said a word of that to Jaks. She wanted her next meeting with Jaks
to be a pleasant surprise. Mysterious women were attractive—stalkers and
groupies were not. Nyx had tracked this woman too long to lose it all by being
overly familiar.

Some days, Nyx was a bel dame—an
honored, respected, and deadly government-funded assassin. Other days, she was
just a butcher, a hunter—a woman with nothing to lose. And the butcher had a
bounty to bring in.

The sun bled across the big angry
sky. The call box at the cantina was busted, so Nyx walked. The way was unpaved,
mostly sand and gravel. Her feet were bruised, bleeding, and bare, but she
hadn’t felt much of anything down there in a good long while. Back at the
butchers’, she had traded her good sandals for directions out of the fleshpots,
too dopey to figure the way out on her own. Under the burnous, she wore little
more than a dhoti and breast binding. She had an old baldric, too—her dead
partner’s. All the sheaths were empty, and had been for some time. She
remembered some proverb about meeting God empty-handed, but her knees weren’t
calloused anymore—not from praying, anyway. She had already been to hell. One
prayer more or less wouldn’t make any difference.

She hitched a ride on the back of a
cat-pulled cart that afternoon. The cats were as tall as her shoulder. Their
long, coarse fur was matted and tangled, and they stank. The cats turned
leaking, bloodshot eyes to her. One of them was blind.

The woman driving the cart was a
cancerous old crone with a bubbling gash that clove the left half of her face
in two. She offered Nyx a ride in exchange for a finger’s length of blood to
feed the enormous silk beetle she kept in a covered cage next to her left hip,
pressed against her battered pistol.

Nyx had the hood of her burnous up
to keep off the sun; traveling this time of day was dangerous. The crone’s skin
was rough and pitted with old scars from cancer digs. Fresh, virulent melanomas
spotted her forearms and the back of her neck. Most of her nose was gone.

“You coming from the front, my
woman?” the crone asked. Nyx shook her head, but the old woman was nearly blind
and did not see.

“I fought at the front,” the crone
said. “It brought me much honor. You, too, could find honor.”

Nyx had left her partner, and a lot
more at the front—a long time ago.

“I’d rather find a call box,” Nyx

“God does not answer the phone.”

Nyx couldn’t argue with that.

She jumped off the cart an hour
later as they approached a bodega with a call box and a sign telling her she
was fifty kilometers from Faleen. The old woman nattered on about the wisdom of
making phone calls to God.

Nyx made a call.

Two hours later, at fourteen in the
afternoon on a day that clocked in at twenty-seven hours, her sister Kine
pulled up in a bakkie belching red roaches from its back end.

Kine leaned over and pushed out the
door. “You’re lucky the office picked up,” she said. “I had to get some samples
at the war front for the breeding compounds. You headed to the coast? I need to
get these back there.”

“You’ve got a leak in your exhaust,”
Nyx said. “Unlock the hood.”

“It’s been leaking since the front,”
Kine said. She popped the hood.

The bakkie’s front end hissed open.
Waves of yeasty steam rolled off the innards. Nyx wiped the moisture from her
face and peered into the guts of the bakkie. The bug cistern was covered in a
thin film of organic tissue, healthy and functioning, best Nyx could tell by
the color. The hoses were in worse shape—semi-organic, just like the cistern,
but patched and replaced in at least a half-dozen places she could see without
bringing in a speculum. In places, the healthy amber tissue had blistered and
turned black.

She was no bug-blessed magician—not
even a standard tissue mechanic—but she knew how to find a leak and patch it up
with organic salve. Every woman worth her weight in blood knew how to do that.

“Where’s your tissue kit?” Nyx said.

Kine got out of the bakkie and
walked over. She was shorter than Nyx by a head—average height, for a
Nasheenian woman—but they shared the same wide hips. She wore an embroidered
housecoat and a hijab over her dark hair. Nyx remembered seeing her with her
hair unbound and her skirt hiked up, knee deep in mud back in Mushirah. In her
memory, Kine was twelve and laughing at some joke about conservative women who
worked for the government. Rigid crones, she’d call them, half dead or dying in
a world God made for pleasure. A farmer’s daughter, just like Nyx. A blood
sister in a country where blood and bugs and currency were synonymous.

“I don’t have a tissue kit,” Kine
said. “I gave it to one of the boys at the front. They’re low on supplies.”

Nyx snorted. They were low on a lot
more than tissue kits at the front these days.

“You’re the only organic technician
I know who’d ever be short a tissue kit,” Nyx said.

Kine looked her over. “Are you as
desperately poor as you look? I know a good magician who can scrape you for

“I’ve been worse,” Nyx said, and
shut the hood. “Your bug cistern is in good shape. It’ll breed you enough bugs
to power this thing back to the coast, even with the leak.”

But the leak meant she’d get to
Faleen just a little bit slower. If there was one thing Nyx felt short on these
days, it was time.

Nyx slid into the bakkie. Kine got
behind the steering wheel. For a moment they sat in stuffy, uncomfortable
silence. Then Kine turned down the window and stepped on the juice.

“What’s her name?” Kine asked,
shifting pedals as they rolled back onto the road.


“I can smell her,” Kine said,
tightening her hands on the steering wheel. Her hands had the brown, worn,
sinewy look of old leather. Her lip curled in disdain.

“I’m working a note,” Nyx said.
“What I do to bring it in isn’t your business.”

“A note for a deserter, or one of
those dirty bounties you deal in? If you’re bringing in a deserter, where’s

Tej, Nyx thought, and the shock of
it, of hearing his name out loud, of thinking Tej, my dead
partner, was a punch in the gut.

“I couldn’t get him back over the
Chenjan border,” Nyx said. Another boy buried in the desert.

A clerk the color of honey had given
Nyx a bel dame’s note for a boy named Arran nearly three months before, after
he’d deserted his place at the front and sought refuge in Chenja. His officer
had called in the bel dames because she believed he’d been exposed to a new
Chenjan burst, a delayed viral vapor that hid out in the host for up to four
months before triggering an airborne contagion. The contagion was capable of
taking out half a city before the magicians could contain it. Nyx had gone into
the bel dame office and been inoculated against the latest burst, so all she
had to do was bleed on the boy to neutralize the contagion, then cut off his
head and take him home. Even clean, the penalty for desertion was death. Boys
either came home at forty or came home in a bag. No exceptions.

This was Nyx’s job.

Some days, it paid well.

So Nyx and Tej had tracked Arran.
Arran had gone over the border into Chenja. That part was easy to figure out.
Where in Chenja, though, that was harder. It took tracking down Jaksdijah so
Hajjij first. Arran had been a house boy of Jaks’s mother, a coastal boy raised
in the interior. Jaks was the last of his known, living kin. Nyx and Tej found
Jaks boxing for bread at an underground fighting club thirty kilometers inside
the Chenjan border. The mullahs didn’t like Chenjans fighting foreigners—which
made Jaks’s fights illegal—but it paid well.

Tej and Nyx bided their time for a
month, waiting for Arran to show up while their money ran out. Arran didn’t
disappoint. Tej was on watch the night a hooded figure knocked on Jaks’s door.
Just before dawn, Jaks and Arran were headed back to Nasheen.

Tej and Nyx followed.

But Tej hadn’t made it back.

“He was the only one of your
partners I liked,” Kine said, and pursed her lips, probably to hold back words
God wouldn’t permit her to say. Then, “You should partner with men more often.”

Nyx snorted.

They blew back out onto the road.
The shocks in the bakkie were going out too, Nyx realized, leaking vital fluid
all over the desert. She hoped Kine knew a good tissue mechanic at the coast.

“Where am I taking you?” Kine asked.
Sand rolled across the pavement.


“A bit out of my way.”

Nyx let that one go and looked out
the window, watching flat white desert turn to dunes. Kine didn’t like silence.
Give her a long stretch of stillness and eventually she’d change the subject.

Kine was government now, one of the
breeding techs who worked at the compounds on the coast. She had some kind of
slick security clearance that went well with her hijab and lonely bed. Nyx saw
her only when she was ferrying samples to and from the front—just another blood
dealer, another organ stealer.

“A ship came into Faleen this week,”
Kine said as she rolled up the window. Nyx saw the wide sleeve of her burnous
come down, flashing a length of paler skin from wrist to elbow—dusty sand
instead of sun dark. “If you’re looking for magicians to help you bring in this
deserter, there are a whole mess of them gathering in Faleen. I hear even the
lower sort are there, the sort who might—”

“Where from?”

“The magicians?”

“The ship.”

“Oh, yes. The ship is from New

Colonists had been barred from
Umayma for a thousand years. Nyx hadn’t even seen a ship in a decade. Umayma
sat at the edge of everything; most of the sky was dark at night. All she ever
saw moving up there were dead satellites and broken star carriers from the
beginning of the world.

“I’ve corresponded with them for
some time,” Kine said, “for my genetics work. They fight another of God’s wars
out there in the dark, can you believe it?”

“Does the radio work?” Nyx asked. Knowing
aliens were out there killing each other for God, too, just depressed her. She
leaned forward to fiddle with the tube jutting out of the dashboard.

“No,” Kine said. She pinched her
mouth. “How did you lose Tej?”

Nyx wasn’t sure she could answer
that question herself, let alone give Kine a good answer.

“You have any weapons?” Nyx asked.

Kine’s face scrunched up like a
date. “If you can’t tell me that, then tell me who’s tracking you.”

“You giving me the fourth

“Nyxnissa,” she said, in the same
hard tone she used for quoting the Kitab.

Nyx dipped her head out the open
window. The air was clearing up.

“Raine,” she said.

Kine’s hands tightened on the wheel.
She shifted pedals. The bakkie rattled and belched and picked up speed. Dust
and dead beetles roiled behind them.

“You’re doing black work, aren’t
you?” Kine said. “One of your dirty bounties. I don’t like dealing with bounty
hunters. Raine is the worst of them, and you’re no better, these days. 
I’ll drop you at the gates of Faleen, but no farther.”

Nyx nodded. The gate would be good.
More might get Kine killed.

Raine would bring Nyx in if he had
to cut up half of Nasheen to do it. Nyx had been a part of his team, once, and
it had been a great way of picking up skills and paying off some magician-debts
for having her body reconstituted. After a while, though, he’d started to treat
her like just another dumb hunter, another body to be bloodied and buried. When
she started selling out her womb on the black market, well, that had made the animosity
mutual. He had good reason to track her down now. Reasons a lot less personal
than cutting off his cock.

“Tej was a good boy,” Kine said,
“You kill good men for a lost cause just like Raine.”

“Raine always got us back over the

“Raine isn’t a bel dame. He’s a
bounty hunter.”

“There’s not much difference.”

“God knows the difference.”

“Yeah, well, we all do it our own

“Yes,” Kine said, and her hands
tightened on the wheel. “We’re all trying to cure the war.”

Spoken like a true organic technician,
Nyx thought.

“But there is a difference,” Kine
said, turning to look at her again, hard and sober now. “Bel dames enforce
God’s laws. They keep our boys at the front and our women honest. Bounty
hunters just bring in petty thieves and women doing black work.”

Women like me, Nyx thought.

Her black market broker, Bashir so
Saud, owned a cantina in Faleen. The cantina was first. Even on a botched
delivery, Bashir owed her at least half what it was worth. If Nyx had taken the
job in Faleen instead of through Bashir’s agents in Punjai, she’d have half her
money now and wouldn’t be so hard up. As it was, her pockets were empty. The
last of her currency had been eaten with Tej.

They turned off the paved track and
onto the Queen Zubair Highway that bisected Nasheen from the Chenjan border to
the sea. The road signs were popular shooting targets for Chenjan operatives
and Nasheenian youth. Most of the metal markers were pocked with bullet holes
and smeared in burst residue. A careful eye could spot the shimmering casings
of unexploded bursts lining the highway.

If dropping the womb kept Raine and
Nyx’s sisters busy long enough trying to track it down so they could tag and
bag it, she could collect her note, call in some favors from the magicians, and
maybe find a way to clear up this whole fucking mess.


A three-hundred-year-old water
purifying plant marked the edge of the old Faleenian city limits. The city
itself had lapped at the organic filter surrounding the plant for half a
century before a group of Chenjan terrorists set off a sticky burst that ate up
flesh and metal, scouring the eastern quarter of the city and leaving the plant
on the edge of a wasteland. The government had rebuilt the road and the plant,
but the detritus of the eastern quarter remained a twisted ruin. Chenjan asylum
seekers, draft dodgers, and foreign women had turned the devastated quarter
into a refugee camp. A colorful stir of humanity wove through the ruins now,
hawking avocados and mayflies and baskets of yellow roaches. Nyx caught the
spicy stink of spent fire beetles and burning glow worms.

As the dusty ridges of the refugee
camps turned into the walled yards and high-rises of what passed for the
Faleenian suburbs, the massive ship from New Kinaan came into view, rearing above
the old gated city center of Faleen like some obscene winged minaret.

Faleen was a port city, the kind
that took in the ragged handfuls of off-world ships that sputtered into its
archaic docking bay every year looking for repairs, supplies, and usually—directions.
Faleen wasn’t the sort of place anybody off-world came to on purpose. Most of
the ships that rocketed past Umayma were so alien in their level of technology
that they couldn’t have put into the old port if they wanted to. The port
design hadn’t changed much since the beginning of the world, and most everybody
on Umayma wanted to keep it that way.

They drove past women and girls
walking along the highway carrying baskets on their heads and huge nets over
their shoulders. Bugs were popular trade with the magicians in Faleen.
Professional creepers caught up to three kilos a day—striped chafers, locusts,
tumblebugs, spider wasps, dragonflies, pselaphid beetles, fungus weevils—and
headed to the magicians’ gym to trade them in for opium, new kidneys, good
lungs, maybe a scraping or two to take off the cancers.

Kine pulled up outside the towering
main gate of the dusty city, scattering young girls, sand, and scaly chickens
from her path with a blast of her horn. Another cloud of beetles escaped from the
leak in the back and bloomed around the bakkie. Nyx batted away the bugs and
jumped out.

She took one long look at the main
gate, then swung back to look at Kine. She half opened her mouth to ask.

“I’m not giving you any money,” Kine

Nyx grimaced.

“Go with God!” Kine yelled after

Nyx raised a hand. She’d left God in

Kine shifted pedals and turned back
onto the highway, heading for the interior.

Nyx turned toward the two giant
slabs of organic matting that were the main gates into Faleen. Rumor had it
they’d seen better days as compression doors on some star carrier the First
Families rode down on from the moons.

Nyx pulled up the hood of her
burnous and bled into the traffic heading through the gate. She passed the
broken tower of a minaret and walked through narrow alleys between mud-brick
buildings whose precipitous lean threatened a swift death. She didn’t much like
the stink and crowd of cities, but you could lose yourself in a city a lot more
easily than you could out in farming communities like Mushirah. She had run to
the desert and the cities for the anonymity. And to die for God.

None of that had worked out very

Bashir’s cantina was at the edge of
the Chenjan quarter, and the ass end of it served as the public entrance to the
magicians’ gym and fighting ring. Bashir made a pretty penny on fight nights
when all of Faleen’s starving tailors, tax clerks, bug merchants, and renegade
printers crowded in through the bar to watch the fight. The ones who couldn’t
get into the main fighting area contented themselves with drinking cheap rice
wine and whiskey, listening to the steady slap-slap of
gloved fists meeting flesh and the damp thumping of sweaty bodies hitting the

Bashir also made a little money on
the side as a black work broker.

Two tall women with shoulders as
wide as the doorway stopped Nyx at the cantina stoop.

“You have an appointment?” one of
them asked. “It’s private business only until we open for tonight’s fight.”

“Do I look like I have an

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Tell her I’m the bel dame.”

The women shifted on their feet.
“I’ll get her,” the biggest one said.

There was a time when Nyx had
enjoyed throwing that title around on a job. “Yeah, I’m a bel dame,” and “bel
dames—like me.” These days the whole dance just made
her tired. She’d cut off a lot of boys’ heads over the last three years. Draft
dodgers, mostly, and deserters like this Arran kid who came back into Nasheen
still contaminated with shit from the front.

Nyx pushed at her sore belly and
rocked back on her heels. She wondered if Bashir sold morphine before noon.

The bouncer came back and said,
“She’ll see you.”

Nyx ducked after her into the dark,
smoky interior of the cantina. Dust clotted the air, and bug-laced sand covered
most of the floor. It was good for soaking up blood and piss.

Bashir sat at a corner table smoking
sweet opium. Nyx could taste it. The smell made her nauseous. Bashir had two
bottles of sand-colored whiskey at the table, and someone had left behind a
still-smoking cigar that smelled more like marijuana than sen. Bashir had two
teenage boys beside her, both just shy of draft age, maybe fifteen. 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. 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. “Thought I’d seen the last of you.”

“Most people think that,” Nyx said,
sliding next to one of the boys. He flinched. She outweighed him by at least
twenty-five kilos. “Until I show up again.”

“How was your trip?” Bashir asked.
She wore red trousers and a 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 the 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

“Not as smooth as I hoped,” Nyx
said. She pulled off her hood.

Bashir looked her over with a lazy
sort of interest. “A bug told me you don’t have what we bargained for.”

“I need a drink,” Nyx said, “and
half of what you owe me.” She hailed the woman at the bar, but Bashir waved her
woman back.

“The bug says you dropped the purse
at the butcher’s.”

“I did,” Nyx said. “It was a
high-risk job. You knew that when your agent gave it to me.” She’d been
carrying genetic material worth a nice chunk of money in that womb. Bashir
wasn’t going to let it go easy, no, but bel dames made good black market
runners which made them valuable to people like Bashir—until they got caught.
Word got around when you did business with gene pirates.

Being unarmed made it easier to
resist the urge to shoot Bashir in the head and demand the contents of the
cantina’s till from the barmaid. She was too close to the magicians’ gym to get
away with that.

“It was a substantial purse,” Bashir

Nyx leaned back against the seat.
The boy next to her had a hold of his glass, but wasn’t drinking. Like many
Nasheenian women, Bashir was known to like boys, but these ones were a little
young and soft for a desert matron.

“Where’d you pick up these two?” Nyx

“Lovely, eh?” 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. From a friend.”

Bashir didn’t have friends. Nyx cut
a look at the door. The bouncers had closed it. The woman at the bar was still
wiping the same length of counter she’d been mopping when Nyx dropped in. I
shouldn’t have come, Nyx thought. She should have gone straight to the
magicians and asked for sanctuary. It had been only a matter of time before
turning Nyx in was worth more than a black market purse. But, fuck, she’d
needed the money from this job.

Nyx knew the answer but asked

“Who gave them to you?”

Bashir showed her teeth.

“You’ll get shit from the magicians
for crossing a bel dame,” Nyx said. They could take her money, her shoes, her
sword, her bloody fucking partner, but they couldn’t
take her title. “How much did you get for selling me out? I’m worth a lot more
than a couple of fuckable boys.”

“Your reputation’s been tumbling for
a good long while, Nyxnissa. The bounty hunters have your name in a hat now,
and if you’re lucky, it’ll be Raine who brings you in and not some young honey
pot trying to prove something by cutting off your head. What would your sisters

“Leave the bel dame family out of

“There’s been some stirring in the
bel dame council. Rumor has it they want to clean up this little mess with you
internally, the way Alharazad cleaned up the council. They’ll cut you up and
put you in a bag.”

“Then you and your pirates are
losing a good ferrier.”

“You don’t deliver enough to make
yourself worth the risk. And now you dropped your womb, so I don’t have
anything invested. Putting out a note on you got me a good purse for reporting
a pirate. Delivering you to the bounty office and claiming my own bounty makes
us even.”

So Bashir had turned her in for

“How much am I going for?” Nyx
asked. Her hands itched for a blade that she no longer carried. She was good
with a sword. The guns? Not so much.

“About fifty,” 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.

All right, then.

Nyx kicked up onto the tabletop
before the boy could steady the pistol in his other hand. The gun went off with
a pop and burst of yellow smoke.

She threw a low roundhouse kick to
the other boy’s face and leapt off the table before Bashir could get her
scattergun free.

Reflex sent her running for the back
door, kicking up sand behind her. She shouldered into the kitchen, knocked past
a startled Mhorian cook, and ran headlong out the open back door and into the

A strong arm shot out and slammed
into her throat. The blow took her off her feet.

Nyx hit the sand and rolled.

Still choking, Nyx tried to get up,
but Raine already had hold of her.

He twisted her arm behind her and
forced her face back into the sand. She spit and turned her head, gulping air.
She saw two pairs of dirty sandaled feet in front of her. She tried to look up
at who owned them.

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. She was as dark as a
Chenjan, and about the size of a twelve-year-old. The other feet belonged to
the skinny half-breed Taite, who wasn’t a whole hell of a lot older than
thirteen or fourteen.

“You must be desperate,” Nyx said,
spitting more sand, “to use Taite and Anneke as muscle.”

“That’s all the greeting I get?”
Raine asked. He pulled her up, kept a grip on her arm, and tugged off her

“Where did you lose your gear, girl?
I taught you better than that.” He shook the burnous out, probably thinking
she’d hidden something in it.

Raine was a large man, a head taller
than Nyx, just as dark and twice as massive. His face was broad and flat and
stamped with two black, expressionless eyes, like deep water from a community
well. The hilt of a good blade cut through a slit in the back of his brown
burnous. He was pushing Bashir’s age—one of the few who’d survived the front.

She grunted.

He took off her baldric and passed
it to Anneke for inspection.

“Nothing here,” Anneke said, and
tossed the baldric at Nyx’s feet.

“You’re clean,” Raine said, half a
question. “You know how much you’re going for?”

“More than fifty,” Nyx said.

He took Nyx by her braids and
brought her close to his bearded face. The beard was new, a Chenjan affectation
that would get him noticed on the street and pegged as a political radical. “Do
you know what the queen does to bel dames who turn black?” he asked. “When they
start selling zygotes to gene pirates? Those pirates will breed monsters in
jars and sell them to Chenjans. But you don’t care about that, do you? You need
pocket money.”

Raine had recruited her from the
magicians’ gym after she was reconstituted. They’d spent long nights and longer
days talking about the war and his hatred for those whose work he saw as
perpetuating it. Gene pirates—selling genetic material to both sides—were no
better to him than Tirhani arms dealers.

Raine released her.

“I didn’t train you to be a bel
dame,” he said. “I taught you to be a bounty hunter, to fight real threats to
Nasheen like young bel dames who sell out their organs to gene pirates.”

“I got issued a bel dame note for a
contaminated boy. I know he’s in Faleen. I needed the cash from the womb to
bring him in.”

“You should have given the note to a
real bel dame.”

Nyx looked him in the eye. “I don’t give
up notes.”

“Taite,” Raine said, holding Nyx
with one strong arm while reaching toward the boy. Taite had the half-starved
look of a kid who had grown up outside the breeding compounds. He reached into
his gear bag.

They were going to truss her up and sell

Nyx stood in the back alley of
Bashir’s cantina. At the end of the alley she could clearly see the back
entrance to the magicians’ gym. Anneke was leaning against the wall now, rifle
still in hand. Getting shot would hurt.

Getting trussed up and hauled into
the Chenjan district, though… that would be the end of the job. And probably a
lot more.

Nyx tensed. Taite pulled out the
sticky bands from his gear bag and threw them to Raine.

Nyx twisted and swiveled in Raine’s
grip while he tried to catch the bands. She palmed him in the solar plexus. He
grunted. His grip loosened. She pulled free and bolted.

Anneke jumped to attention. Nyx
pushed past her.

The rifle popped.

Nyx felt a sharp, stabbing thump on
her right hip, as if someone had set a sledge hammer on fire and hit her with

She staggered down the alley and
clutched her hip. A burst of mud-brick exploded behind her. She heard two more
rounds go off.

The red door of the magicians’ gym
appeared at her right. She stumbled and pounded on the door.

“Sanctuary!” she yelled. “Bel dame!
My life for a thousand! Sanctuary!”

She heard Anneke yell, “Fuck!”

The pack of them ran toward her.
Raine’s face was dark. Nyx screamed, “My life for a thousand!” and pounded on
the door again. There was nothing easier to shoot than a stationary target.

Anneke was a hand breadth away. She
reached for Nyx’s hair.

The magicians’ door opened. A waft
of cold air billowed into the alley, bringing with it the stink of sweat and
leather. Nyx fell inside, into darkness. She tucked her feet underneath her,
pulling them across the threshold.

“Fuck!” Anneke said again.

Nyx lay at a pair of bare feet
cloaked by yellow trousers. She heard a low buzzing sound, and a soapy organic
filter popped up over the doorway. Through the filmy gauze of the filter, Nyx
saw Raine standing behind his crew, her burnous still in his hand.

She looked up the length of
billowing yellow trousers and into the sapphire-eyed face of Yah Reza.

“You’re bleeding all over my floor,
baby doll,” Yah Reza said, and shut the door.



Rhys had never fought at the front.
He’d been through it, yes. But he had never picked up a blade or a burst or
dismembered a body. He had gone to great lengths to avoid doing so.

He had once walked across a
rubbish-strewn street with his father, anxious to keep up with the long-legged
man, and some piece of glass or serrated tin had lodged in his shoe. He had
kicked free of it and limped on despite the pain. When he arrived home after
morning prayer, he had pulled off his shoe and found it full of blood. It had
taken his mother and sisters nearly a quarter of an hour to stir him from a
dead faint, and by then they had cleaned and bandaged the wound. He did not
look at it again until the skin had healed clean. He threw out the shoes.

When Rhys crossed the great churning
waste of the desert, he’d been running not toward his father but away, across
the disputed border between Chenja and Nasheen. The sky had lit up every night
with deadly green and violet bursts. The world had smelled of yeast and mustard
and geranium. He had stayed as far from the contagion clouds as possible, but
when he stumbled through Chenja and into the nearest Nasheenian border town, he
was hacking up his lungs in bloody clumps, and his skin burned and bubbled like

What woman took him in then, he did
not know, but he knew it was a woman. Everyone alive in Nasheen was a woman.
They sent all their men out to die at the front. They had no family heads, no
clans. They were godless women who murdered men and bred like flies. The
Nasheenians took him for a deserter, but because they called in their magicians
before they called in their order keepers, they had saved him from a cold,
bloody death in an interrogation room somewhere in the Nasheenian interior.

The magicians had arrived with
sleeves full of spotted fungus beetles and cicadas in their hair, and when Rhys
next opened his eyes, he was in a bed at the center of a circular room deep in
the magicians’ quarters. A lightning bug lamp beside him brightened and dimmed,
brightened and dimmed, until he thought his vision must have been lost
somewhere in the desert along with his name. He moved his hands over the lamp,
and the bugs ceased their intermittent dance and glowed steadily.

“Is it better or worse, in the
light?” one of the magicians had asked, emerging from the darkness of the
doorway. From the raised bed, he could see that the doorway opened into more

The woman magician spoke to Rhys in
accented Chenjan, and she had brought him a strange still-wriggling stew of
grubs and gravy. She was a tall, bony woman with eyes the color of sapphire
flies; not their real color, she assured him.

“We know a thing or two about
illusion in Nasheen,” she had told him. He remembered how strange it was to see
her eyes at all. He had heard that Nasheenian women did not wear veils, but he
still found her vanity surprising, decadent. Chenjan women could submit to God
and wield a rifle with equal ease, but Nasheenian women had allowed their
propensity for violence to pollute their beliefs. Wielding a rifle, they
believed, made them men in the eyes of God, and men did not have to practice
modesty or submission to anyone but God. Nasheenian women had forgotten their
place in the order of things.

The woman’s mouth had worked
constantly at the wad of sen she kept in it. Her teeth were stained a bloody
crimson. She turned to the lightning bug lamp and laughed.

“You’ve figured it all out, haven’t
you, baby doll?” she had said, gesturing at the bugs. “We may find some use for
you yet.”

It was then that he realized he had
asked the bugs to light the room, something only a magician could do. They knew
what he was, then.

Her name, she said, was Yah Reza.
She said she would help him work on his Nasheenian and that hiding his ability
with bugs from another magician would have been like trying to pretend he
wasn’t Chenjan. She could see the difference. Now, she had said, he was hers,
unless he wanted some other life—wanted to get sold off to gene pirates or the
breeding compounds, or become a venom dealer or some mercenary’s translator.

“There are worse fates,” she had
said, and something on the stuccoed wall behind her had shifted, and Rhys
realized it was an enormous butterfly, big as his hand. “But I can make you a

A magician.

A Nasheenian

“One that can practice in Nasheen?”
he had asked, because he could not go back to Chenja. Something in his chest
ached at the thought of it.

He remembered rubbing at the backs
of his hands where his father had beaten him with a metal rod when he had
refused him. But the magicians had healed those wounds as well, and the skin
and bones were mended now, erasing the physical history of that night, those
words. But not the memory. His or God’s.

“I can even get you a proper
sponsor, once you’re trained. Better, I won’t ask what brought you across the
border in the dead of night or how you did it. You get on with the magicians,
you get immunity from the draft and the inquisition. What do you think of

Rhys did not fear the Nasheenian
draft—Nasheenians didn’t draft foreign men—or the inquisition; he was too smart
for them. But Yah Reza offered him magic. In Chenja, to reveal his skill would
have meant immediate training for the front, no matter that he was his father’s
only son. As a standard, his father’s lack of sons had given Rhys a place at
home. Men still headed families in Chenja. They still owned companies, acted as
mullahs, ran the government. But as a magician, he would have been forced to
the front.

“I’ll stay,” he had told her.

He spent some months among the
magicians, learning the intricacies of bug manipulation and organic tech. His
Nasheenian improved. He learned to look away from the women in the hall as he
passed. They stared at him openly, like harlots. It was up to him to allow them
to maintain some shred of honor. When he asked to leave the cavernous labyrinth
of the magicians’ quarters and boxing gym to go sightseeing in Faleen, Yah Reza
told him he was not yet ready. She encouraged patience. But her words did
nothing to distill the growing sense that he was a prisoner there, kept at the
discretion of Nasheen’s magicians until he proved worthless or useful. He did
not know what they would do with him when they decided which he best embodied.

Yah Reza caught him by the elbow one
afternoon as he hurried back to his rooms after another embarrassing encounter
with a magician teaching him transmission science. He was not used to a world
where women put their hands on him without reservation and regarded him as if
he were a young but dangerous insect. Chenja was full of women, of course, but
no Chenjan woman had ever grabbed him in the street, not even the lowliest of
prostitutes. And no Chenjan woman had ever done the things to him that the
women in the border towns had done before their magicians showed up. They would
not have dreamed of it. They would have been killed for it.

He was still trembling when Yah Reza
grabbed him.

“Come with me, baby doll,” she said.
She wore a billowing saffron robe and smelled of death and saffron. A furry spider
the size of Rhys’s thumb crawled along her sleeve, and a whirl of tiny blue
moths circled her head.

He tried to quiet his trembling.

Yah Reza beckoned him. Rhys followed
her through the long, twisting halls of the magicians’ quarters—cool,
windowless corridors that suddenly opened into niches and vaulted chambers
filled with locusts and cocooned creatures, lit sporadically by glow worms and
fire beetles and the ever-present lightning bugs flaring and dying in the dark.

The preponderance of bugs in the
magicians’ quarters made his blood sing, as if he was attuned to a bit of
everything, able to touch and manipulate pieces of the world. He felt more
alive here than he had anywhere else in his life, among those who spent their
days coming up with new and interesting ways to kill his people.

I’ll take what I need from them and
return, he thought. I’ll make it right.

The boxers’ locker rooms were three
steps to the right of the transmission rooms, a corridor away from the internal
betting booth, and three long bends of the hall from Yah Tayyib’s operating
theater, where magicians and bel dames came to receive treatment for cancer and
contagion. The corridors within a magicians’ gym were never the same length,
never quite in the same location. Beneath each gym, the world was bent and
twisted. The distance-bending corridors were relics from the times before
Umayma was habitable, back when magicians lived belowground while they remade
the world. This made it possible to step into a gym at the coast and emerge a few
minutes later at a gym in Mushtallah or Faleen and Aludra. Practical for long
distances, but dizzying over short ones.

As they approached the locker room
for outriders, Husayn—the magicians’ favorite boxing nag—passed them in the
hall, heading one twist of the hallway down to her own locker room. Husayn was
a stocky woman with a face like a shovel. A novice magician scurried after her,
carrying her gear.

“Hey, chimba!” Husayn called at
Rhys. Too loud. The women in this country were all too loud.

Rhys did not look at her.

“Those magicians haven’t been able
to wash that gravy stink off you, you know it?” Husayn persisted.

“I am still perplexed as to why it
is that Chenja retained the veil and Nasheen discarded it,” Rhys said. “Perhaps
Nasheen’s women sought to frighten away God with their ugliness.”

“Well now, if all your boys are as
pretty as you, your boys best start covering up
too,” Husayn said. “Ah, the shit I’d like to do to you.” She laughed.

What a fool, Rhys thought. Chenjan
mullahs taught that men’s bodies were clean, asexual. Closer to God. Women,
real women, were not stirred to sin at the sight of men. If these godless
Nasheenian women were stirred at the sight of anything, it was blood.

Yah Reza shooed her away. “Come,
now, this isn’t a whorehouse.”

Husayn cackled and moved on.

Rhys ducked into the other locker
room. Inside, the light was dim, and a lean woman sat hunched on one of the
benches, staring into her hands.

When he stepped in, she looked up.
She was long in the face, like a dog, and she had narrow, little eyes and a set
to her mouth that reminded Rhys of one of his sisters, the look she got when
she wanted something so badly she made herself sick. He hoped this woman didn’t
vomit. He knew who would have to clean it up.

Yah Reza moved past him and greeted
the outrider.

The outrider stood. She looked
uneasy, like a cornered animal—a dog-shifter in form, or maybe some scraggly
adolescent sand cat. He might have guessed her for a shifter if he had seen
only an image or picture of her, but in person he was able to see clearly that
she was not. The air did not prickle and bend around her as it did a shifter.
She was just some kid, some standard—just another part of the world.

Yah Reza talked low to the girl and
rubbed her shoulders. She spit sen on the floor. Rhys knew who would have to
clean that up too.

“This is Rhys. Come here, boy,” Yah
Reza said, and Rhys walked close enough to see that he was a head and shoulders
taller than the outrider.

“You bring your wraps?” Yah Reza
asked the girl.

The outrider stabbed her fingers
toward two long, dirty pieces of tattered muslin on the bench next to her.

Yah Reza spit more sen. “Rhys,” she

Rhys went to the locker at the back
of the room, where they kept the extra gear. He unraveled a couple of hand
wraps. He grabbed some tape and took a seat on the bench and finished
unraveling the wraps.

“He know how to box?” the outrider
asked, and even Rhys, with his nonnative Nasheenian, noticed her mushy inland
accent. Where had they picked her up? Working some border town? The magicians
were notorious for pushing girls into the ring before they were ready. It made
the fights bloodier.

“I don’t believe in violence,” Rhys

“A shame too,” Yah Reza said. “He’s
a damn fine shot with a pistol. But don’t worry none about his technique. He’s
a magician, girl. He knows hands. You get on, and I’ll meet you in a
quarter-hour. We got some fancy visitors want to meet you and Husayn before the

Yah Reza petted the outrider’s

The outrider sat back on the bench
and eyed Rhys like he was a beetle turned over on its back, not sure if it was
harmless or just playing at docility until she got close.

Rhys asked for her right hand.

She hesitated, and he thought that
was odd from a woman who was about to go toe to toe with a seasoned fighter in
a magicians’ gym. He realized then how young she was, maybe seventeen. It was
hard to tell with Nasheenian women. They grew up fast, bore the marks of their
short, brutal childhoods on their bodies and faces. Most of them were broken
old crones at thirty.

He taped the wrap in place and began
to loop it around her wrist and between her fingers. She had her palm flat and
her fingers wide.

When he had first come to Nasheen,
he’d thought he would hate all of its women for their ugliness, their vanity,
but as he put the wraps on this little dog-faced girl, he found himself
admiring her hands. She had strong, beautiful fingers, calloused knuckles and
palms, and he saw her scars, and the dirt under her bitten nails. There was
something splendid and tragic about her all at once.

He tied off her right hand and moved
to the left. When he took her left hand in his, something about the way she
held it, the way it felt beneath his fingers, made him hesitate. He pulled at
her fingers.

She winced.

“You’ve done an injury to this
hand?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said.

“An old injury,” he amended as he
pressed his thumb against the back of her hand, rubbed her knuckles, pushed in
slow circles up to her wrist. She had hairline fractures in the small bones of
her left hand. Some had healed, but badly. It was a brittle hand.

“You shouldn’t be fighting with
this,” he said.

She pulled her hand from him, and
her mouth got harder. Her shoulders stiffened. “I can wrap myself. They told me
magicians used tricks.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t finish.” He
took her hand in his again. His ability to diagnose illness and injury had been
the first sign that he’d inherited his father’s skill as a magician. A more
talented magician might have been able to heal her hands, if the injuries
weren’t so old, but Rhys’s skill was limited, his knowledge incomplete. The
longer he stayed among the Nasheenian magicians, the more he worried things
would stay that way.

“Does your family approve of you
boxing?” he asked to fill the cool silence. Three locusts climbed up his pant
leg. He moved his hand over them, and they dropped to the floor.

“Don’t have much family,” she said.
“Where you learn to wrap hands? They teach you that in magic school?”

“My uncle took me to fights in
Chenja,” he said, “when I was too young to know better. I wrapped his hands.”

“You got soft hands. You aren’t a
fighter. You never fought?”

“I don’t believe in violence.”

“You ain’t answered the question.”

He finished taping her bad hand. He
squeezed her fist in his palm. “There, that good?”

She made fists with both hands. “I
been taped worse.”

“I’m sure,” Rhys said. He hesitated.
If she had had a proper husband, or a brother, or a son, that man would have
told her not to fight. He would have taken care of her. “You shouldn’t fight
with that hand,” he repeated.

“I been doing it a long time. It’s
fight or die where I’m from. Sometimes you have to run away just to live. I
suppose you know something about that.”

Rhys did not answer.

“I don’t mind you’re black,” she
said, magnanimously.

“It doesn’t matter what we mind,”
Rhys said. “God sorts all that out.”

“Our God says your god is false.”

“They’re the same God.” He had not
always believed that, even when he pressed his head to the ground six times a
day in prayer and intoned the same litany in a dead language, the language of
Umayma, brought down from the moons with the Firsts at the beginning of the
world: In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and

For years he had believed what the
Imams told them, that Nasheenians were godless infidels who worshipped women
and idols brought in from dead worlds, worlds blighted by God for their own
idolatry. But when the muezzin called the prayers here, those who were faithful
went to the same mosque he did with the other magicians, prayed in nearly the
same way, and spoke in the same language—God’s language—though his birth tongue
was Chenjan, and theirs, Nasheenian.

They were all Umaymans, the people
from the moons who had waited up there a thousand years while magicians made
Umayma half-habitable—all but the Mhorians, Ras Tiegans, the Heidians, and the
two-hundred-odd Drucians, who had come later. Survivors of other dead worlds,
worlds out of the darkest parts of the sky.

In the mosque, forehead pressed
against the floor, Rhys never understood the war. It was only when he raised
his head and saw the women praying among him, bareheaded, often bare-legged, shamelessly
displaying full heads of hair and ample flesh, that he questioned what these
women truly believed they were submitting to. Certainly not the will of God. On
the streets he saw widowed women reduced to begging, girls like this one
earning money with blood, and bloated women coming in from the coast after
giving birth to their unnatural broods of children. This was the life that
Chenja fought against. This godlessness.

Whenever the bakkie got sick or the
milk soured, his mothers would blame “those godless Nasheenians, daughters of


He looked up from the outrider’s
hands to see Yah Reza in the doorway. A dozen fungus beetles skittered past her
into the room. The outrider flinched.

“Yah Tayyib needs you in surgery,”
Yah Reza said.

Rhys squeezed the girl’s fist a
final time. “Luck to you,” he said.

“We have some visitors come to see
you boxers,” Yah Reza said. “You up for it?” She was slipping further into
whatever vernacular the girl spoke.

“What sort of visitors?” the girl

Rhys stood, and put away the tape.
He walked toward the door.

“The foreign kind. They don’t bite,
though, so far as I can tell.”

“Yeah, that’s fine, then.”

Yah Reza clapped her hands. “Come.”

Rhys turned past the magician and
walked into the dim outer corridor. He saw a cluster of figures outside
Husayn’s locker room and paused to get a look at them.

Two black women wearing oddly cut
hijabs spoke in low tones. Though the hijabs were black, their long robes were
white, and dusty along the hem. They wore no jewelry, and instead of sandals
they wore black boots without a heel.

Despite their complexions, he knew
they were not Chenjan, or even Tirhani. They were too small, too thin,
fine-boned, and the way they held themselves—the way they spoke with heads
bent—was not Chenjan or Tirhani but something else.

One of them looked out at him and
ceased speaking. From across the long hall, he saw a broad face with high
cheekbones, large eyes, and dark brows. It was a startlingly open face, as if
she was not used to keeping secrets. Her skin was bright and clear and smoother
than any he’d seen save for the face of a child. She was old, he knew, by her
posture and her height, but the clarity of her skin made him want to call her a
girl. It was not the face of a woman who had grown up in the desert or even a
world with two suns. Unless she was the daughter of a rich merchant who had
kept her locked in a tower in some salty country, hidden from the suns by dark
curtains and filters for a quarter century, she was not from anywhere on

“You’re very young to be a man,” she
said, and laughed at him. Her accent was strange—a deep, throaty whir swallowed
all of her vowels, and when she laughed, she laughed from deep in her chest. It
was a boisterous sound, too loud to come from a woman with such a narrow chest.

“You’re not from Nasheen,” he said.

“Nor are you.”

She was not from anywhere in the
world. But that was impossible. The Mhorians had been the last allowed refuge
on Umayma, nearly a thousand years before. They had brought with them dangerous
idols and belief in a foreign prophet, but they claimed to be people of the
Book, and custom required that they be given sanctuary. It was a custom soon
discarded, though, and the ships that followed the Mhorians were shot out of
the sky. Their remains had rained down over the world like stars.

Were these women people of the Book?

“You’re an alien,” he said,
tentative, a question.

She laughed again, and the laughter
filled the corridor. “Your first?”

He nodded.

“Not the last, I hope,” she said.

And then Yah Reza and the outrider
entered the hall and blocked his view, and Rhys turned away and walked quickly
past a bend in the corridor, where he could no longer hear the alien woman’s

The memory of her laugh tugged at
something inside him, something he thought he’d left back in Chenja. He wanted
to pull back her hijab and run his fingers through the black waves of her
unbound hair. He squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head. He had been too long
in Nasheen.

When he arrived at Yah Tayyib’s
operating theater, he saw blood spattering the stones, hungry bugs lapping up
their fill. Another hard-up bel dame had come to collect zakat.
Another godless woman was destined to die.



Nyx struggled out of a groggy half
dream of drowning and fell off the giant stone slab in Yah Tayyib’s operating
theater. The floor was cold.

Yah Tayyib helped her up. One curved
wall of the theater was lined with squat glass jars of organs. Glow worms
ringed the shelves and hugged the glass. Nyx noted the long table at Yah
Tayyib’s left and the length of silk that covered his instruments, but her gaze
did not settle there long. She was interested in the medicine wardrobe at the
back. The one with the morphine.

She was naked. Blood trickled down
one leg.

“How do you feel?” Yah Tayyib asked.
He wore a billowing blue robe. Carrion beetles clung to the hem. He was a tall
thin man, well over sixty and gray in the beard. His face was a sunken ruin,
the nose a mashed pulp of flesh. But his hands, his all-important magician’s
hands, were smooth and straight-fingered.

Nyx wondered how she was supposed to
respond to that. Her head felt stuffed with honey.

“You were missing a kidney,” Yah
Tayyib said. “I replaced that as well.”

“I traded it for a ticket out of
Chenja. The other one wasn’t mine either.”

“I didn’t think it was,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I put it in there six months ago.”

“Ah,” Nyx said.

“I’m quite sorry about the womb,”
Yah Tayyib said. “It was your original, you know, and uniquely shaped.
Bicornuate. I would have bought it myself, though for much less than you likely
sold it.” He always talked about body parts like bug specimens—dry and purely

“I don’t care much how it’s shaped
or whose it is,” she said. “I care about what it can do for me. What time is
it? I’ve got Raine on my tail.”

She looked around for her clothes.
They were stacked neatly next to the operating slab. She started to get
dressed, slowly. It was like trying to work somebody else’s body. She was still
a big woman, but she was down to her dhoti and binding, and both were tattered
and loose, hanging off her like a shroud.

“You have a price on your head,” Yah
Tayyib said, and turned to wash his hands at the sink. Flesh beetles clung to
the end of the tap, bundling up drops of water in their sticky legs.

“Yeah,” she said. “More than fifty,

“You should turn yourself in to your
bel dame sisters. The bounty hunters won’t be so generous. They say it’s black
money this time. Gene pirates.” He wiped his hands dry on his robes and
regarded her. “What were you carrying?”

“Zygotes,” Nyx said. “Ferrier work.
I was supposed to hand it off on this end, but I had to drop it and sell it to
some butchers to keep my sisters busy. I figure they lost at least half a day
trying to figure out where I dropped it. No womb, no proof, no way to fully
collect their note on me.”

The fist in her belly tightened,
contracted. She felt dizzy, and leaned back against the stone altar.

“You’ve indebted yourself to us
again,” Yah Tayyib said. “This is not the place to settle a blood note. Yours
or theirs. Keep your bloody boys and your bloody sisters out of my ring.”

“Still got something against bel

“You’ve never been a boy at the

“I can’t imagine you being
frightened of anything, Yah Tayyib.”

“We all manage our grief
differently,” Yah Tayyib said. “Three dead wives and a dozen dead children make
me more human, not less. You have chosen your path. I have chosen mine. This is
the last time I do this for you, Nyxnissa.”

“You say that every time. Is it too
late to bet on the boxers?”

“What in this world do you own to

Nyx prodded at the red scarring
tissue on her right hip. “I’ve got good credit,” she said. She always paid her
debts to the magicians… eventually.

“I doubt that,” he said. “You’ve
nothing more than rags and flesh.”

She shook her head. Her vision swam.
“I’ll get paid when I’ve cleared the blood debt. I can buy whatever I need
after that.”

Yah Tayyib sighed. He walked over to
the big wardrobe next to the medicine cabinet.

“Am I done bleeding?” Nyx said.

Yah Tayyib pulled out a deep
mahogany burnous. “You’ll expel the usual bugs in a few hours. They’re aiding
in the last of the repairs. Here, this is the most inconspicuous I have.”

Nyx donned the burnous. It was
surprisingly soft. “Organic?” she asked.

“Yes. It will breathe for you, if
you need it to.”

“Great,” she said, as if that would
make any difference tonight. “Walk me out?”

Yah Tayyib escorted her back through
the labyrinthine halls of the magicians’ quarters, all windowless. He took her
to the internal magician’s betting booth, where a young woman Nyx knew from her
days at the gym stood at the window collecting baskets of bugs.

“I still have credit here, Maj?” Nyx

“You always have credit,” Maj said.

Yah Tayyib huffed his displeasure as
Nyx set down a bet on Jaks so Hajjij for fifty.

“You’re a mad woman,” he said as Nyx
picked up her receipt and then pushed back through the crowd of magicians.

“Maybe so,” she said. But this would
get her Jaks, and Jaks would get her the boy, and the boy would put money in
her pockets—and save some Nasheenian village from contamination.

That was the idea, anyway.

Yah Tayyib brought her back to the
gym, which had been transformed into a fighting arena. The lights outside the
ring were dim. The last of the speed bags had been put away. A man who looked
remarkably like a Chenjan dancer moved under the ring-lights and it took Nyx
half a minute to realize the dancer really was Chenjan—and
male. Some instinctual part of her thought he’d look a lot better blown up, but
there was something she liked about him, something about the way he moved, the
delicacy of his hands.

She and Yah Tayyib negotiated the
crowd to a bench at the back, along the edges of the darkness. Nyx kept her eye
on the dancer.

“Who’s he?” Nyx asked.

“The boy?”

He was probably eighteen or
nineteen, old enough for the front. Not so much a boy, in Nasheen.

“Yeah,” she said.

“A pet project of Yah Reza’s,” Yah
Tayyib said. “A political refugee from Chenja. He calls himself Rhys.”

“What kind of a name is that?”

“A nom de guerre,”
he said, using the Ras Tiegan expression. “Yah Reza tells me he used to dance
for the Chenjan mullahs as a child. When his father asked him to carry out the
punishment of his own sister because he himself was unable, Rhys refused, and
was exiled. That’s the story he tells, in any case.”

“Does he do anything besides dance?”

“He’s not a prostitute, if that’s
what you’re asking,” Yah Tayyib said.

“Then what’s he do?” she asked.

Yah Tayyib folded his hands in his
lap. “He’s good with bugs.”

“A bel dame could use someone good
with bugs.”

“He’s worth three of you.”

“You saying I’m a bad girl?”

Yah Tayyib’s expression was stony.
“I’m saying you’re less than virtuous.”

Well. She’d been called worse.

The dancer slowed and stilled. The
match was about to start, and his time was up.

Nyx scanned the crowd for Raine and
his crew, in case they’d gotten in through the cantina entrance. Her gaze found
a handful of very different figures instead. Three tall women with the black
hoods of their burnouses pulled up, the hilt of their blades visible at their
hips, moved through the throng of spectators, sniffing at glasses of liquor and
brushing bugs from their sleeves.

Her sisters.

Not the kind she was related to by

Nyx hunkered on the bench. Her
insides shifted. She winced.

“How much longer until it starts?”
Nyx asked.

“A moment. The visitors wished to
speak with the boxers.”

“The visitors?”

“There’s a ship in from New Kinaan.
Had you not heard?”

“What do they care about boxing?”

“Not only the boxing,” Yah Tayyib
said. “The magicians. Ah, there she is.”

At the far end of the room Yah Reza
stood in a door that opened into blackness. Husayn strode in from the darkness,
followed by a wave of purple dragonflies that coasted out over the heads of the
spectators and swarmed the ring lights. Nyx had known Yah Tayyib’s blind-eyed
boxer for years. They’d trained together back when Nyx came in from the front.
Husayn was a decade older than Nyx, big in the hips and thighs, with the beefy
legs of a woman who spent most of her days running—from what or to where, only
Husayn knew. She had a mashed-in pulp of a nose and a misty right eye that
wasn’t commonly talked about. Husayn kept a long list of dead men and women in
her locker—the ones she’d served with at the front.

The spectators were finding their
seats. Nyx watched her sisters take up a position along the far wall. They did
not sit. They would look for a lone woman congratulating the winner at the end
of the bout—Nyx knew enough about the game not to bet on losers.

Unless she wanted to.

Jaks appeared from the more
traditional entrance, the one from Bashir’s cantina. She was a tough, skinny
little fighter with a face like death—long and hard and forgettable. She was so
sun sore she looked Chenjan. She had her chin tucked and her shoulders rolled,
and she walked with her hands up. She had no patron, no cut woman, no manager.
She walked alone and looked just the way she should: like a scared kid pulling
her first fight in a magicians’ gym.

Another of the magicians, Yah
Batool, stepped up into the ring and announced the fighters.

Jaks and Husayn touched fists. The
stir of dragonflies circled the lights, casting wide, weird shadows over the
faces of the crowd.

When the buzzer sounded among the
caged insects kept just below the gym’s water clock, Jaks leapt forward and
opened with a neat right double-jab-crosshook combination. She was young, and
overeager. She could probably outlast Husayn if she wanted to, but when the
bugs signaled the end of the round, Jaks was already breathing hard, and her
face was bloody. Husayn had clipped her open. Yah Batool sealed the cut and
sent her back out.

Rounds were three minutes long, and
in a magicians’ ring, the boxers fought it out until somebody was knocked down for
the duration of a nine-second count or tapped out in their corner. Nyx had seen
outriders go down three seconds into the first round. She’d also stayed up all
night watching two magicians pummel each other until one of them had an eye
dangling from its socket and the other was spraying blood every time she

Jaks’s bleeding made Husayn
arrogant. Jaks knocked Husayn down in the third round. The knockdown sent Yah
Tayyib and the rest of the crowd to their feet. The air filled with a
collective roar of dismay.

Nyx took the opportunity to slip
past Yah Tayyib’s elbow and make her way toward the back of the room.

Yah Batool started the count.

Nyx circled around to the front of
the cantina, keeping to the darkness at the rear of the ring and avoiding her
sisters. Behind her, Nyx heard the crowd give a yell at the count of seven, and
she turned to see Husayn back on her feet.

Husayn wouldn’t lose this fight. It
was why Nyx hadn’t bet on her. Jaks would visit the
betting booth to collect her money for the night, and like every new boxer at a
magicians’ gym fight, Jaks would want to know who had bet on her. Jaks would
check the books and see Nyx’s name. There was no faster way to get a losing
boxer to take you home than to bet on her when nobody else did. And if Nyx had
done her job the night before, Jaks would be giddily looking for Nyx in the bar

The bodies inside the cantina were
packed so tight that Nyx had to shoulder her way through to a free patch of
counter space. She edged a smaller woman out of a seat and ordered a whiskey
from a slim half-breed barmaid.

Nyx perused the bar. She saw Anneke
standing outside the door to the street. Raine and his team were likely worried
the magicians had filtered the place against them. Bashir should have been looking
for Nyx too, but Bashir spent fight nights watching the fight, and business
dictated that she attend the postfight parties with the local tax and gaming
merchants. She wouldn’t be running the bar.

Nyx looked for a good way to blend
in with the chattering locals and decided to flirt with the sour-faced woman at
her left, who turned out to be a gunrunner from Qahhar.

Nyx heard the fight end in round
five. A wave of celebratory dragonflies cascaded from the arena and into the
cantina through the open door. They brought with them a wave of scent—lime and
cinnamon—that drowned out the musky stink of sweat-slathered women and warm
beer. Dragonflies meant the magician-sponsored fighter had won.

The bar got louder. The winning
betters bought rounds of drinks, and the gunrunner started weeping into her
beer, grieving for her wayward girlfriend. She bid Nyx good night.

Nyx watched Anneke leave the doorway.
Anneke would take up a position on higher ground, where she could get a better
view as the cantina began to clear out en masse.

Jaks came through the door half an
hour later, both eyes going purple, lip swollen. Blood oozed through a heavy
wad of salve smeared above her brow. She walked like she had the last time she
lost a fight—like a woman who believed she’d never see another break.

When Jaks got close, Nyx tugged her
hood back so Jaks could see her face.

“Buy you a drink?” Nyx asked.

Jaks grinned. It wasn’t an
improvement on her face. “I suppose I owe you money,” she said. “I saw that you
bet on me.”

Nyx shrugged. “Seemed like a fine
idea at the time. What kept you so long?”

“Those off-world women chewed my ear
clean off with all their talk,” Jaks said.

“What, the ones from New Kinaan?”
Yah Tayyib hadn’t been shitting, then. What kind of alien came all the way out
to this blasted rock to talk to boxers?

Jaks sat next to her. “Yeah. What
about you, what the hell you doing in Faleen?” Jaks asked.

“Looking for you,” Nyx said. She had
never been a good liar, so whenever the truth worked, she used it. “What are
you drinking?”

“Whatever you are,” Jaks said. She
was still beaming, and Nyx had a twinge of something like guilt. She let the
feeling slide away, like oil on the surface of a cistern.

The barmaid brought their drinks.
Nyx moved closer to Jaks, so their knees touched. “You have family in Faleen?”
Nyx asked.

Jaks chattered about her kin. They
lived just outside Faleen, she said. She’d been trying to build up to a
magician’s fight since she was fourteen. She had two sisters and a handful of
house brothers. Her mother was on the dole, the waqf,
and not well off.

“Boxing keeps me in bread,” Jaks
said, polishing off her third whiskey. Like Nyx, she drank it straight. “And
it’s good for picking up girls,” Jaks added.

“I don’t have a place,” Nyx said.
“You empty tonight?”

“Mostly,” Jaks said. She was
grinning like a fool now, like a kid. She was probably sixteen. She’d never
been to the front, never been a bel dame. You could see the difference in the
grin, in the eyes.

Jaks leapt from her seat and bounced
around. She paid the tab and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Nyx hunched and shifted her weight
to alter her usual walk as they crossed the bar. Jaks moved out the door, and
Nyx looped an arm around her narrow waist and turned to press her lips to
Jaks’s neck, letting her hood shield her profile. She saw a stir of figures
hanging around outside but couldn’t catch their faces in the dim night. Her
sisters would be figuring out soon that she had bet house credit on the wrong
boxer and wouldn’t be showing her face at the betting booth to collect.

Jaks was only a little drunk; the
liquor made her happy.

“Listen,” Jaks said as they stumbled
down the alley, groping at each other. “We need to be quiet. I’ve got company.”

“I’m a spider,” Nyx said.

Jaks took her down a dead-end alley
near the Chenjan district. Something hissed at them from a refuse heap. Nyx
reflexively pushed Jaks behind her. Three enormous ravager bugs, tall as Nyx’s
knee, scurried out from the refuse pile. One of them stopped to hiss at them
again. It opened its jaws wide. Nyx kicked it neatly in the side of the head,
crushing an eye stalk. The bug screeched and skittered off.

Jaks laughed. “I should have warned
you. They don’t spray around here. Lots of mutants.”

They climbed a rickety ladder to the
second floor. Nyx felt like she’d been running forever, since the dawn of the
world. Time stretched.

A boy’s sandal hung from the top
rung of the ladder. In that moment, Nyx saw the pile of Tej’s things again, the
detritus the Chenjan border filter had left of him. A sword, a baldric, his

Nyx caught her breath as she peered
into the little mud-brick room. A couple of worms in glass lit the place. There
were two raised sleeping platforms on either side of the room. A boy looked
down at her from the one at her right. He looked nothing like Jaks. He was
large and soft where she was small and hard. His hair was curly black and too
long for a boy his age.

“My house brother,” Jaks said.
“Arran. Sorry, he doesn’t do tea.”

He didn’t look like he’d spent a day
at the front, but he was the right age. Nyx had expected to feel something when
she saw this one. Rage, maybe; bloodlust. But he was just another boy. Another
body. Another bel dame’s bounty.

Along the far wall was the kitchen
space: a mud-brick oven, all-purpose pot, two knives, and a sack of what must
have been rice or maybe millet, knowing a boxer’s take.

Arran rolled back into the loft.

“Come up,” Jaks said.

Nyx came.

She kissed and licked Jaks in a
detached sort of way. It was like watching two people she didn’t know having

Nyx lay awake after, until Jaks
slept. She was aware, vaguely, of being hungry. She moved like a dream,
smelling of Jaks, and slunk down the ladder and into the darkness near the
oven. She reached for the biggest of the kitchen knives and put it between her

She climbed up the ladder to Arran’s

He came awake before she reached
him. She heard the straw stir. She took the knife from her mouth, cut her palm,
and as she met the top of the ladder, said, “Arran.”

Following Jaks to find this boy had
cost Nyx a kidney, her womb, and a year’s worth of zakat
from Yah Tayyib.

It had cost Tej his life.

Nyx shoved her bloody hand against
the boy’s mouth and brought up the other hand with the knife.

When infected boys came home, they
jeopardized the lives of women like Jaks and Kine and little Maj. It’s what she
told herself every time. It’s what she told herself now as she shoved her knife
fast and deep into Arran’s naked armpit three times.

Arran flailed in the straw. Nyx
listened for Jaks. Sex and liquor and a hard fight would send even the worst of
sleepers into a dead quiet, but anybody who lived like Jaks might be able to
shake off worse.

Arran tried to catch her wrist with
his other hand. Nyx rolled the rest of the way up onto the platform and pinned
him still. She waited until the strength bled out of him, then began to saw at
the neck with her stolen knife. For a stretch of time while she cut off Arran’s
head, she wasn’t a bel dame at all—just another body hacker, another organ
stealer, another black trader of red goods. The only difference was, when she
brought this boy in, her sisters would forgive her. Her sisters would redeem

She had collected the blood debt
this boy owed Nasheen.

Nyx tugged off her burnous with
sticky fingers and bundled up the head. She was an hour’s walk from the local
collector’s. Her feet were numb, and her legs ached.

This was all she knew how to do.

She got lost somewhere outside
Jaks’s place and turned around in circles, listening to the scuffle of feet and
bugs. She remembered what Jaks had said about the mutants. Dark shapes hissed
and skittered through the alley, some of them big as dogs—only without the cozy
fur. She stumbled over a head-size ravager gnawing on a human hand. It caught
hold of the end of her bloodied bag and tried to jerk it out of her hands. She
bludgeoned the enormous bug to death with Arran’s head.

Light and noise from the apartments
hanging above her seeped into the street. Her bundle grew heavier as she
walked. She kept losing her grip, and the head thudded onto the dusty street,
picking up more sand. The organic burnous would eat most of the blood, but not
for much longer. Even bugs got full.

She’d just turned off onto a lane
she recognized when she caught the sound of footsteps behind her. She didn’t
turn, only picked up her pace. Her insides were hurting again. She needed a
second wind, but she’d already spent her fourth getting into Faleen.

The footsteps behind her broke into
a run.

Nyx ran too.

The way was mostly dark, cut through
with rectangles and lattices of light. She ducked in and out of darkness. Bugs
hissed and scattered around her.

She was twenty-four years old, a
bottom-feeder among the bel dames, and she was about to be far less than that.

“Nyx! Nyx!”

She kept running. Just keep going.

Two shadows leaked out of the alley
ahead of her. She knew their shapes before they leapt—a fox and a raven.
Shifters tracked better in animal form. The third would come from behind. She
put one arm over her head to deflect some of the blow.

Her sisters cloaked her from all

I’m a fool, Nyx thought as she hit
the dirt, suffocated by the weight of her sisters’ bodies. It took three of
them to pry the burnous from her clenched fingers.

Nyx howled. She twisted, found an
opening through fur and feathers and long, black burnouses.

They shot her. Twice.

Nyx heard her sisters’ voices in
hazy snatches, little clips of song and breathy whispers. Rasheeda, the raven,
had once been an opera singer. A soprano. Nyx had never much cared for opera.
It was all about virgin suicides and widowed martyrs. She got enough of that in
real life.

The air was sultry and smelled of
death and lemon. Nyx saw tall women wearing the white caps of Plague Sisters
moving through the hall. She could hear the click and scuttle of insectile
legs. The Plague Sisters were a guild of magicians specializing in the
decontamination of bel dames and the refurbishment of discharged soldiers. Nyx
had been among them before, back when her carcass was hauled in from the front,
charred and twisted. But she’d been too ruined even for the Plague Sisters, and
they’d sent her to Yah Reza and Yah Tayyib, two of the country’s most skilled
magicians. Nyx’s first memories of reconstituted life were of Faleen. The sound
of cicadas. Yah Reza’s eyes, the color of sapphire flies.

Fatima minced into the room with a
white raven on her shoulder… Rasheeda the raven. Fatima spent a moment fussing
with the gas lamp near the bed. Fatima was picky about things, and had gone so
far as to pose her bodies for pick up. She also dabbled her fingers in bel dame
politics. She had the patience for it, and the bloodline. Bel dames ran through
every generation of her family.

Gas lamps meant they were in
Mushtallah or Amtullah, one of the major cities in the heart of Nasheen. If
that was true, it meant Nyx had been out a long time—and she was in a lot of
trouble. Behind Fatima was a long, thin window that looked down onto a street
the color of foam. Extravagant figures cloaked in peach and crimson milled past
the smoky glass like burned jewel bugs. Nyx no longer wondered if she was still
half asleep. Her dreams were never so colorful.

“She’s coming around again,” Fatima
said to the raven.

The raven shivered once, hopped from
Fatima’s shoulder, and began to morph into her sister Rasheeda. A few minutes
later, Rasheeda was mostly human again, naked, covered in mucus, tossing her
head of dark hair and snickering. Feathers rolled out across the floor.

Rasheeda came alongside the bed and
wiped the worst of the mucus from her face and neck with one of Nyx’s
bedsheets. She had a peculiar way of cocking her head that put Nyx in mind of
the raven.

“You look terrible,” Rasheeda said.

“You helped,” Nyx said.

Nyx tried to sit up. Rasheeda
snickered again. Unlike Fatima’s illustrious line, Rasheeda’s was nothing
special—she’d been just another grubby kid from the coast whose mother was into
career breeding. Nyx heard that Rasheeda had gone mad at the front, ripping out
entrails and eating Chenjan hearts. There was only one suitable occupation for
a madwoman from the front after she was discharged.

Nyx gazed down the length of her own
body. She swam in the black nightdress of the Plague Sisters. She pushed up the
sleeves and saw her own tawny wrists and arms, like sticks. She dared not look
at her belly or legs. The bullets her sisters shot her with had been tipped
with bugs. They’d whittled her down to almost nothing.

“Get me something to eat,” Nyx
croaked, and Rasheeda laughed.

One of the Plague Sisters strode
into the room, white skirt trailing behind her. A cloud of spiders clung to her
hem, darkening the fabric.

The Plague Sister fussed with Nyx’s
bedding and probed at her arm with the puckered snout of a semi-organic needle,
which blinked at Nyx with half-dumb eyes. Nyx flinched. The sister gave her a
disapproving frown and pulled away from her arm, taking the blood sample with

“I’ll mark her for final analysis,”
the sister said, “but the venom should be out of her system.” She walked back
out, her entourage of insects pooling behind her.

“Are you all they sent?” Nyx asked.

Rasheeda snickered again, still
sticky and naked.

“They couldn’t spare any more of us
to go running after a rogue sister,” Fatima said. She was tall, skinnier and
darker than Rasheeda, almost Chenjan in color, and stronger in the face and
shoulders. She bore a perpetual frown on her long countenance.

“Dahab’s here,” Rasheeda said
absently. “Luce went for sodas.”

Dahab and Luce. If they’d sent
Dahab, it was a wonder Nyx was still alive. Four mad, skilled bel dames had
tracked her across the desert. Why the fuck was she still breathing?

“What am I doing in the interior?”

“A suit’s been filed,” Fatima said.

“Catshit. You don’t have anything on

“I know a number of butchers outside
Punjai,” Fatima said. “One of them even bought a womb that matches your tissue
samples. She sold it back to us.”

“That doesn’t prove—”

“We have Yah Tayyib,” Rasheeda said.

“Yah Tayyib’s taken an oath. He
wouldn’t testify. About black work or anything else.”

“Wouldn’t he?” Fatima said. “He
knows the place of a bel dame. He knows we’re just as happy to haul in rogue
magicians as black sisters. We used to hunt magicians when they went rogue too.
Black bel dames ruin our reputation.”

Nyx lay back on the bed. Yah Tayyib,
who had mended her when she was barely human, who recalled her body and mind
from the front when she thought she had lost both there. The man who taught her
to box.

“He wouldn’t make a charge,” she

“There was another complaint,”
Fatima said. “Not as potent as Yah Tayyib’s, but a formal complaint

“Raine,” Nyx said.

Fatima raised her brows. “You
expected it?”

“I’ve been expecting him to file a formal
complaint ever since I cut off his cock.”

“It was deserved,” Rasheeda said.

“Deserved or not, he’s filed a
formal complaint about a bel dame doing black work,” Fatima said.

“Lucky you left him his balls,”
Rasheeda said, “or you’d get a fine for reproductive terrorism.” She waggled
her index finger and snickered.

“So what happens now?” Nyx asked.
“You give me some kind of probation?”

“No,” Fatima said. “We terminate
your contract and send you to prison.”

“What?” Nyx said. Prison was for
draft dodgers and terrorists. Prison was for men.

“The sentence came from the queen.”

“I’m bored,” Rasheeda said. “Where’s
my soda?” She went naked into the hall, calling for Luce.

Nyx stared into her skinny, veined
hands again. It was like she’d woken up with someone else’s body.

“How long do I serve?” she asked.

“A year, maybe less. We could have
had you sent to the front.”

“How did you find me?”

“We had Rasheeda posted at Jaks’s

Of course. She’d seen only three of
them at the fight. “So you knew about Jaks?”

“We looked up your note,” Fatima
said, then wrinkled her nose. “You look and smell like death. I’ll get you
something to eat.” She walked into the busy hall.

Prison, Nyx thought, with all the
criminals Raine and people like her had put there.

Nyx tried to pull her legs off the
bed. They were numb. How long had she been here? The window overlooking the
street was barred, and the walls were solid stone. How the hell could she get
bars out of stone?

But Fatima was coming back into the
room with a Plague Sister bearing a tray of something that smelled a lot like
food, and Rasheeda had her arms full of bottles of soda. If there was a way out
of this one, Nyx couldn’t think of it. Didn’t even know if she wanted it. Her
body was done.

“Here,” Rasheeda said, throwing her
a bottle. Nyx’s reflexes were off. She ducked instead of catching it. “You
won’t get any of those in the box.”

“When she’s done eating,” Fatima
told the Plague Sister, “I have a team coming to get her.”

Nyx didn’t finish eating, but they
still came for her.

And prison was pretty shitty.



“It’s time,” Yah Reza said.

Rhys entered the plague hall. Yah
Tayyib and two other magicians sat at a large circular stone table at the
center of the room. Three Plague Sisters, the hems of their white robes dripping
with spiders, sat across from them. Like Yah Tayyib’s operating theater, the
plague hall was a cavernous room lined with jars of mostly human organs. And
like the magicians’ quarters, the whole room hummed with the sound and feel of
bugs. Rhys’s skin prickled. He had waited some time for this.

Yah Reza followed Rhys inside and
bid him stand next to her within a pace of the table.

Three months after Rhys saw his
first alien, Yah Reza had deemed him ready for a magician’s trial. He had come
to the interior and been independently tested by the Plague Sisters. He had
read his performance in their faces, in the hard line the bugs themselves drew
against him. The Plague Sisters kept a diverse colony of insects within their
care, but he should have been able to manipulate them far more effectively than
he had. If the organs and entrails he’d mended on the slabs had been those
belonging to real human beings, he doubted his patients would have entirely
recovered. Some may not have lived. He knew the outcome of his evaluation even
before Yah Tayyib spoke.

“We have spent some time discussing
your evaluation,” Yah Tayyib said. “My fellow magicians and Plague Sisters
agree that you have some skill in the arts. No doubt Yah Reza would not have
undertaken your tutelage if she did not believe you were gifted.” He carefully
pressed the tips of his fingers together. “Unfortunately, we have not deemed
your talent sufficient to grant you a practicing government license.”

Rhys exhaled. What had he expected,
that a Chenjan man in his prime would be given leave to walk through a palace
filter and perform surgery on the Queen’s ministers? There would be no easy
road, no well-paying government job. But hearing it out loud felt better than
he thought it would. Something, some expectation, had been cut away. Hope,

“However,” Yah Tayyib said, “we find
it acceptable to grant you a provisional license that allows you to practice so
long as you are employed. Yah Reza has expressed interest in keeping you on at
the magicians’ quarters as a teacher, if you wish it. Otherwise, you’re free to
take up gainful employment with whatever employer you see fit. Do you have any

Rhys looked over at Yah Reza. She
smiled her sen-stained smile. She intended on keeping him prisoner for the rest
of his days, then.

“Yes,” Rhys said, turning back to
Yah Tayyib. “Is the denial of my government license based on my talent or my

The old magician shook his head.
“Rhys, if you were as talented as Yah Reza hoped, we would have no choice but
to grant you a government license. Nasheen could not turn away one with such
skill. But your talents are middling. We have no place among the palace
magicians or within the First Families for a mediocre Chenjan magician. You are
better suited for the private sector.”

Rhys swallowed his words. What was
there left to say? His father had cursed him the night he refused him. Cursed
and abandoned him. This is my penance, Rhys thought,
this time among godless Nasheenians.

“Thank you,” Rhys said finally.

Yah Reza led him out.

When the door closed behind them,
she said, “It is not such a terrible thing, to teach Nasheenian magicians. You
are capable with children and the teaching of standard arts.”

“I will not be staying long,” Rhys
said. “I’ll find employment elsewhere.”

“Of course,” Yah Reza said, and he
should have realized then that she knew something he did not.

The magicians did no end of business
with bel dames and bounty hunters. Both groups often came to the gym looking
for new recruits—petty magicians and women just back from the front. Government
officials frequented the fights as well, recruiting veterans and magicians as
order keepers. Rhys spent week after week at the gym acting the part of a cheap
harlot, trying to sell his services. But no bel dame would have him, and the
order keepers, of course, would not even speak to him. The magicians could
afford to pretend not to notice his accent and his coloring, but the rest of
Nasheen… the rest of Nasheen saw him for what he was—a Chenjan man, an infidel,
an enemy.

Yah Reza caught up with him one
afternoon in his chambers as he penned a response to an ad for a tissue
mechanic he had found in the morning’s newsroll. If they wouldn’t hire him on
as a magician, he would spend his days digging into the guts of bakkies in
Mushtallah. It was better than a lifetime of servitude to Nasheenian magicians.
Most tissue mechanics were just like him—failed magicians working for bread and

“Why not give this up, baby doll?
Are things in my gym so bad?”

“A well-appointed prison is still a
prison,” Rhys said.

Yah Reza clucked her tongue. She
waved a hand toward his lamp and increased the light. Rhys felt the message she
sent the bugs, the chemical tingling in the air. Why did it take so much more
effort for him to produce the same reaction? Why gift this stubborn old woman
with enough skill to raise the dead but relegate him to the role of messenger,
with the occasional talent for staunching blood and fighting infection? God did
not grant talent indiscriminately.

Gift or curse, it was not enough.

“I keep you on for your protection,”
Yah Reza said. “Nasheen will eat you alive, boy. Even if you had the talent for
the real stuff, how long do you think you’d last in Mushtallah among the First
Families? How long before a gang of women cuts you up and feeds you to the
bugs? This isn’t Chenja, doll, where all you men get a free pass. Boys play by
rules here. Chenjan boys don’t play at all.”

“I’m going mad,” Rhys said.

“Weren’t you already? No sane man
would be sitting there in that chair—not unless I was interrogating him.”

Rhys met her look. Yah Reza was an
old woman, but how old? Always hard to tell in Nasheen. Sixty or more, surely.

“How long were you at the front?” he
asked. She had never spoken of it.

“Thirty years,” she said. “Give or
take. Intelligence, you know. Taught Yah Tayyib back when he was just Tayyib al
Amirah, eh? One of my best students.”

“You mean torture and

“Oh, there was some of that,” Yah
Reza said absently. She sat across from him. Three cicadas leapt out of the
wide sleeves of her robe and crawled across Rhys’s letter. “Yah Tayyib lost
three wives to the war, you know it? And all of his children. You think he
would give you a license? If you were his charge,
he’d have turned you over to interrogation from the start. You’d be bleeding
out in the interior right now.”

“Why didn’t you do the same?”

“Me? Ah, doll.” Yah Reza spit on the
floor, and a dozen blue beetles scurried out from under the end table and
lapped at the crimson wad of spittle. “More death doesn’t cure the war, eh?
Just makes it drag on awhile longer. Yah Tayyib, yes, he would do whatever it
took to end the war. He would end it one Chenjan at a time. But then, so would
most men. Women too. That’s why this war never ends. Nobody lets go.”

“You’re letting go?”

“Completely? Ah, no. Maybe one
Chenjan at a time.”

He leaned toward her. “Then let me

She gave him a sloppy smile. “You
aren’t a prisoner.” She stood, and the cicadas flew back up into her sleeves.
“Go see Nasheen. But don’t expect it to love you.”

Yah Reza set him up with his
passbook and paid his train fare to Amtullah. The interior. He did not use the
space-twisting magicians’ gyms to travel. He had wanted to see the country, to
be on his own. If he’d made himself an exile, he needed to live as one.

When he arrived in the city, he set
up several interviews with merchants looking for magicians to accompany their
caravans north, through the wastelands.

During the day, Amtullah was a
raucous mass of humanity, full of half-breeds and chained cats and corrupt
order keepers and organ hawkers and gene pirates. He had trouble following the
accented Nasheenian of the interior, and the fees for everything—from food and
lodging to transit—were far higher than he’d anticipated. At night, the sky
above Amtullah lit up with the occasional violet or green burst, remnants of a
border barrage that managed to get through the anti-burst guns. The sound of
sirens sent him to bed most nights, as regular as evening prayer.

But when he went to his interviews,
he was cast off the porch or stoop or simply turned away at the gate more often
than not. His color was enough. They did not wait to hear his accent. A little
more talent, perhaps, and he could have perfected a version of Yah Reza’s
illusory eyes to mask the obvious physical evidence of his heritage. As it was,
he kept his burnous up and his hands covered when he traveled, and spoke only
when he had to. It saved him harassment on the street, but not from his
potential employers.

He spent many months in Amtullah
getting thrown off doorsteps and turned away from tissue mechanic shops. Hunger
made him take up employment as a dishwasher at a Heidian restaurant in one of
the seedier parts of Amtullah, the sort of place he did not like walking around
in at night and liked living in even less. He worked fourteen-hour days, six
days a week, and came back to the buggy room he rented smelling of sour cabbage
and vinegar. The other three days of the week he spent at the local boxing gym
looking for real work—magician’s work—something that made his blood sing.

And every day, six times a day, he
prayed. He submitted all that he was, this life, everything, to God.

He was pinched and spit on at work
and on the street. His overseers were Heidian women, mostly indifferent, but
the patrons were a mixed group, largely Nasheenian, and when he walked among
them uncovered he was jostled and cursed and jeered. Retaliation would have
meant the loss of his job. A few women, it was true, were disinterested—some
were even kind—but the daily indignities of being a Chenjan man in Nasheen
began to wear him down. He spent less time at the boxing gyms looking for work.
He spent most nights with his forehead and palms pressed to the floor,
wondering if his father had cursed him not to death but to hell.

One late night, he decided to walk
home from work down a street that would take him to the local mosque in time
for midnight prayer. The streets were quiet that night, and the air tasted
metallic, like rain. Or blood.

A group of four or five women walked
toward him on the other side of the street. He paid them no attention until
they crossed over to his side of the empty road and called out to him.

“You have the time?” one of them
asked, and as they neared he could smell the liquor on them. They were young

“I’m sorry, I do not,” he said. “It
is near evening prayer.”

“The fuck’s that accent?” one of
them said.

Rhys picked up his pace.

“Hey, man, I said, what’s that

The tallest girl pulled at his
burnous. She was stronger than she looked. The tattered clasp of his burnous
snapped, and it pulled his hood free. He staggered.

“Fuck, you’re kidding me!” the tall
one said.

They started to crowd him. Like all
Nasheenian women, they seemed suddenly larger there together, in the dark along
the empty street. And they spoke in loud voices. Always too loud. Overwhelming.

“That’s a fucking Chenjan!”

“Smells like a pisser, though. You a
cabbage-eater, Chenjan man?”

“Look at that face! Not a day at the
fucking front.”

He made to push through them, but
their hands were on him now, and their liquored breaths were in his face. He
raised one arm to call a swarm of wasps. One of the girls grabbed his arm,
twisted it behind him. The pain blinded him.

“Where you going, black man?”

“You know what Chenjans do in the
street after dark?”

“Fucking terrorist.”

He didn’t know which of them threw
the first punch. Despite their belligerence, he hadn’t expected it. He never
expected violence from women, even after all this time in Nasheen.

She caught him on the side of the
head, and a burst of blackness jarred his vision. He stumbled. Someone else hit
him and he was on the ground, curled up like a child while they kicked him.

“Turn him over!”

“Get that off!”

One of them had a knife, and they
cut his clothes from him. They cut a good deal more of him.

The midnight call to prayer sounded
across Amtullah.

Rhys recited the ninety-nine names
of God.

Rhys took what was left of his money
and his ravaged body and shared a bakkie with eight other hard-luck passengers
to Rioja, a northern city, closer to the sea. Towering above Rioja was the
Alhambra, a fortress of steel, stone, and ancient organic matting built at the
top of a jagged thrust of rock of the same name. Rhys painted portraits in the cobbled
square that lay in the shadow of the Alhambra. He sold them for ten cents
apiece. At night, he slept in the steep, narrow streets among creepers, black
market grocers, and junk dealers. When he was cold, he called swarms of roaches
and scarab beetles to cover him. When he ran out of money for canvas and paint,
he sold bugs to creepers and the local magicians’ gym. And when he was too poor
to eat—or the creepers were no longer buying—he ate the bugs that made his
blood sing, the bugs that tied him to the world.

He dreamed of his father. Of his
house in Chenja. The smell of oranges.

A woman threw a coin at him one
morning while he sat huddled in a doorway in his stained, tattered burnous.

“Find yourself a woman,” she said.
She wore sandals and loose trousers, and her face had the smooth, well-fed look
of the rich.

“I used to dance for Chenjan
mullahs,” Rhys said.

The woman paused. The morning was
cool and misty; winter in Rioja. Damp wet her face, beaded her dark hair. He
suddenly wanted this strong, capable woman to hold him, Nasheenian or not. He
wanted her strength, her certainty.

“But you don’t dance for them
anymore,” the woman said. “Let me tell you, boy: Whatever you were in your past
life, you aren’t that any longer.”

She continued up the narrow street.

In the end, it was not so hard to
return to Yah Reza.

Rhys walked to the magicians’ gym in
Rioja and asked for her at the door. He waited on the street in front of the
dark doorway for some time while they found her there, somewhere within the
bowels of the twisted magicians’ quarters, the world with so many doors.

When she entered the doorway, she
was wearing her yellow trousers and chewing sen, unchanged though it had been
well over a year since he last saw her.

“Hello, baby doll,” Yah Reza said.

“Sanctuary,” Rhys said.

Yah Reza smiled and spit. “I put on
some tea for you.”

She gave him some tea and sent him
to Yah Tayyib.

Yah Tayyib dewormed him and cut out
the old scars from his assault in Amtullah. He did not ask about what had

“I have seen far worse,” Yah Tayyib
told him. “You were lucky they just cut flesh and not entire body parts—though
I have plenty of those to spare as well.”

Rhys ate his grubs and gravy. After
a time, he no longer urinated blood, and his persistent cough eased. One
morning he found himself in the locker room the outriders used, and he stood
there in the doorway thinking about the little dog-faced girl and her
beautiful, imperfect hands. The old stale smell of sweat and leather filled the

Soon he would go back to teaching
magic to Nasheenian children. He would lose himself again to the dark bowels of
this prison. Hell on Umayma. But was it any worse than the hell outside these

“Rhys?” Yah Tayyib asked.

Rhys turned and saw the old man
approaching from the direction of the gym.

“I need you to wrap a woman for me.”

“You don’t wish to do it?”

Yah Tayyib pinched his mouth in
distaste. “I have no time for her.”

Rhys walked out into the boxing gym.
He saw Husayn in the ring, surely on her last legs as a magician-sponsored
fighter. The last year had not been kind to her either. She was well past
thirty, too old to make much more money for the magicians. She was gloved and
warming up.

It was the other woman who caught
his attention. She stood in the near corner of the ring, and she turned as he
entered. She was as tall as he was, broad in the shoulders, and heavy in the
chest and hips. She wore a breast binding, loose trousers, and sandals. Her
hair was jet black, braided, and belled. It hung down her back in one long,
knotted tail. She put both hands on the ropes and leaned forward, looking him
straight in the face. The boldness of the look stopped him in his tracks. He
didn’t know if she wanted to cut him or kiss him.

“I know you,” she said.

“You’re a bel dame,” he said. He
knew it the same way he’d known the dog-faced girl had a bad hand, the way he
knew a magician or a shifter by sight on the street.

“Was,” she said. “Not anymore. I’m

Husayn bounced over to the former
bel dame’s side and punched her on one of her substantial shoulders. “Let’s go,
huh?” Husayn said.

“You’re a dancer,” Nyx said.

“Was,” he said.

Nyx let go of the ropes. She looked
out behind him, toward the entrance to the magicians’ quarters. Rhys followed
her gaze and saw Yah Tayyib in the doorway, watching her with black eyes.

A broad smile lit up Nyx’s face. It
made her almost handsome. “You need a job?” she asked Rhys.

“Doing what?” he asked.

“Bugs,” Nyx said. “It’s what you can
do, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said. He’d discovered that
he could do little else. “I’m not the most skilled, but… I’ve been told it’s
enough for petty employment.”

“I’m a hunter. I need a team.
Magicians get ten percent.”

“On a two-person team? No less than

“There’s three of us for now, but
it’ll be five, eventually. Fifteen.”

“Five ways is twenty.”

“That assumes we’re all equal.
Nasheen’s not a democracy, and neither’s my team.”

“Fifteen. I won’t kill anyone for

“Fifteen, you don’t kill anybody,
and you sign a contract today.”

Rhys turned again to look at Yah
Tayyib. The old magician moved out of the doorway, back into the darkness.

“Yes,” Rhys said.

She squatted and reached through the
ropes for him. He started, expecting violence. Instead, she clasped his elbow.
He recovered quickly and clasped hers in turn. And in that one moment, that
brief embrace, he felt safe for the first time in more than a year.

“You’ll do all right with me,” Nyx
said, straightening.

“You think so?”

She grinned again. Her whole face
lit up. It was dynamic. “If you don’t, I’ll cut your fucking head off. It’s
what I’m good at.”

“Not so good as all that, if you
aren’t a bel dame anymore.”

She caught hold of the ropes and
leaned back, still grinning. “A shitty magician and a shitty bel dame. We’re
two of a kind, then, aren’t we?”

He wasn’t sure what scared him most:
that she was right, or that she was now his employer.





Nyx came out of her year in prison
with all of her limbs and organs intact, though she had a new appreciation for
open sky and food that hadn’t been grown in a jar. After that, time licked by
in a blur of boys and blood. Seven years of putting together a crackerjack
bounty hunting team, starting with Taite, her com tech, then her Chenjan
magician. Seven years of boys and blood—girls too. Bounty hunters took up notes
on girls and women, and that’s all she had a license to be anymore, just
another body hacker. Another organ stealer. In Nasheen you hacked out a living
or spent your last days hacking out your lungs.

She knew which she preferred.

The war still raged along the
ever-changing border with Chenja. Nyx started up her storefront with the dancer
and com tech in Punjai, a border city at the heart of the bou