“Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily, to them will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions.” Quran, Chapter 16, Verse 97
He lay bleeding at her feet as the spectators for the weekly fights streamed past, muddying the dusty street with his blood. She had not meant to shoot him, but she was drunk, a common condition during her exile. The boy had grabbed clumsily at the knot of her dhoti where she kept her currency. Her response had been unthinking, like breathing. She had pulled the scattergun from her hip and shot him in the chest. It was the only weapon she carried, these days, because she was generally such a poor shot. After nearly seven years in exile without incident, she hadn’t expected she’d ever use it. What a boy his age was doing on the street instead of at the front, she didn’t know. He was likely a deserter anyway.
The homestead site had been Anneke’s pick, a seaside compound with whitewashed walls and tangled, sandy gardens. The sound of the wailing ocean kept Nyx up at night and the contagion sensors sounded off more times a day than the muezzin in Mushtallah. They usually lost everything in the garden to giant beetles and blight. It’d been a season since she ate a green vegetable.
Nyx turned off the rutted main road and onto a logging trail half covered over in massive evergreen branches. The trees here before the land turned to dunes were tall as a Nasheenian tenement building. They made Nyx claustrophobic. A single fallen branch had pulverized one of Anneke’s kids two years before. Just like that, and Anneke’s bakers’ dozen had been culled to an even twelve.
Nyx drove through the towering seaside grove and down the long drive to the house. Eight foot walls squared the compound.
As she pulled around the circular drive, Nyx saw a foreign bakkie parked in the yard. It was a sleek blue-black hybrid. The whole front end pulsed purple as it sucked up the sun, feeding the bugs in the cistern that powered it. She’d seen fuzzy images of bakkies like this one playing in the background on the radio at a bath house in Sameh. They were some new thing out of Tirhan. Expensive, but efficient. No need for juice. The bugs had chlorophyll that fed on solar. At any rate, the tags were foreign on this one. Foreign to Druce, anyway… Familiar to Nyx.
Nyx slowed her bakkie to a crawl and killed the juice to the cistern. She pulled her scattergun from behind her seat. Nobody drove a Nasheenian government bakkie over the border, not unless they were part of an armed caravan of politicians headed for the interior. That said, even caravans didn’t cross the border at the coast – it was too contaminated. They would have come down the Sunskin Way E., from Mushtallah. Fifty kilometers from here.
Nyx pulled on her hat and slid out of the bakkie. She held the scattergun at waist height. The big white compound fence gave her some cover. She got close enough to the foreign bakkie to make out the footprints scuffed across the soft, sandy ground.
Three sets of prints. Two heavy folks, and somebody a lot smaller. Heavy bel dames – the Nasheenian government’s preferred assassins – didn’t use vehicles with government tags. So the little one had to be some government official – and young. All the old ones were soft and fat.
Most Nasheenian politicians were First Family matriarchs – snobbish, inbred, smooth-skinned folks with a taste for languages and distrust of anything that hadn’t passed through an organic filter. They wouldn’t be caught dead inside a shoddy seaside compound in a backward Nasheenian vassal state.
Nyx circled around to the back of the house and listened for the kids. They were always up to some shit in the garden or on the grounds. But out here, behind the fence and filter, she didn’t hear a damned thing but the thrashing sea.
She crouched next to the back gate. She didn’t see any footprints around the back. No sign of anything being tampered with.
The gate was coded for her and Anneke’s family. They’d invested in the filter and the codes first thing. Trouble was, you exiled yourself long enough and you started to get comfortable. You started getting drunk and going to fights. You started bringing women home. Nyx should have known somebody would find her.
She pressed her palm to the faceplate. There was a brief prickling as the plate extracted and verified her blood. Then the gate clicked.
Nyx shoved the door open with the end of her scattergun. She waited a half breath before chancing a look into the compound, gun first.
Anneke was waving her arms around like a woman on fire, caught up in some animated conversation with a Ras Tiegan woman. It took Nyx a minute to recognize the foreigner.
The Ras Tiegan was Mercia sa Aldred, a diplomat’s daughter who Nyx had been charged with keeping alive six or seven years before. Mercia was a slim young woman now, with the flat face and tawny complexion of a Ras Tiegan. Her eyes were big and dark, half-lidded. As she turned to Nyx, the corners of her wide mouth moved up. Paired with her flat forehead, the broad nose, and strangely delicate frame, she was not a handsome woman. Mercia kept her hair uncovered now, but Nyx noted the scarf wrapped around her neck, stitched with the little x-shaped symbol that marked her as a follower of the Ras Tiegan messiah. No doubt she’d prayed to some minor god of diplomats before coming here. Ras Tiegans had minor gods for everything.
Behind Mercia stood two government-issued bodyguards. Nyx recognized their type. Former vets – underworked and overpaid. They wore loose, dark trousers and matching tunics. Their burnouses were less somber. Smoky gray instead of black. Both women had cropped hair and the peculiar hyperawareness about them that came from spending too much time at the front. Veterans were always the first pick for government security.
A delighted smile lit up Mercia’s face. She made the leap from unremarkable to handsome when she smiled. Mercia stood in one clean movement, and even if Nyx hadn’t known her, the polite, easy way she stood to greet her with that plastered-on smile would have given her away as some kind of diplomat or politician.
“Mercia sa Aldred,” Nyx said.
The smile broadened.
“You remember,” Mercia said.
“Where is everybody?” Nyx asked Anneke. “How the hell should I know?” Anneke said. Her dark little face was scrunched up like a cicada husk. “It’s fight night. You don’t think the kids are going to hang around here with a couple old women, do you?”
Mercia’s smile vanished. “I—“
“Oh, Eshe the Ras Tiegan rogue called, did he?” Nyx said. “Well, let in every wandering creeper who caught his eye, then.” Then, to Mercia. “Who sent you? Bel dames? Queen? Your slick diplomat mother?”
“My mother’s dead,” Mercia said.
“You don’t listen to the news?” Mercia asked.
“Not if I can help it.” Nyx said. She hadn’t sought out news of home in three years. All the news was the bloody same. “I’m not in Nasheenian security anymore, I don’t give a cat’s piss for politics. So tell me why you’re here or go home.”
“Fatima sent me!”
“She must be very desperate to send you here with an offer like that,” Nyx said. “Or she must think I’m very stupid.” “Things are bad, Nyx.”
“Get the fuck off my porch,” Nyx said.
“You going to fuck her or kill her?” Anneke asked when Nyx sent Mercia off with her bodyguards. “You never look that close unless it’s one or the other.”
Nyx stood with Anneke in the prayer room on the second floor, watching Mercia and the bodyguards get into the bakkie. Downstairs, the rest of the kids had come home and joined Avava and Sabah, still arguing about who was going to make dinner. Nyx supposed their choices would be fried locusts, yam noodles, or something unsavory that they had fished out of the ocean. They had pulled some globular one-eyed monster out of that seething, viscous sea the week before, and the thought of it still gave Nyx the dry heaves.
“Not sure yet,” Nyx said.
Anneke sighed. She had a stooped way of walking now, something to do with the degeneration of her spine. Genetic, the magicians had told her. Shouldn’t have hauled around forty kilos of gear for twenty-five years of mercenary work, either. But what was done was done, and though bone regeneration was possible, eliminating the root cause of her disease was not, and no matter how often Anneke went in to get it fixed, her body would just fail again. Anneke’s hair was shot through with white now, and her pinched, Chenjan-dark face was the face of an old woman, though she wasn’t much older than Nyx.
“You gotta make a decision sometime,” Anneke said.
Nyx said, “She upstairs?”
“Who? Oh. Yeah.”
“Mercia see her?”
“You tell Mercia about her?”
“Fuck no, why’d I do that?”
“Mercia’s got a pretty story,” Nyx said. She watched Mercia’s bakkie roll off down the rutted drive. “I just don’t know that I believe it.”
“Believe her or not, they know where we are now,” Anneke said.
“I got that.”
“You going to risk it?”
“Just got to tear it all down,” Nyx muttered.
Anneke pursed her mouth. “She’ll understand. She knew what you were before you hooked up with her.”
“Nobody really knows what I am,” Nyx said. “Not until I put a bullet in their head.”
Nyx went upstairs. Opened the bedroom door. There sat her lover, Radeyah, sketching the view of the sea from the balcony on a foolishly expensive slide that devoured each stroke. She was joyously lit up in that moment like a woman at peace with God.
Radeyah turned as Nyx entered, and the light went out of her face.
“It was one of them wasn’t it?” Radeyah said.
“They’ve asked me to go back to Nasheen.”
Radeyah and Nyx had grown up together in Mushirah, a farming settlement on the Nasheenian interior. Friends first, lovers later. Then they fell apart when the boy Radeyah fancied came home from the front with half his body missing. Radeyah stayed on in Mushirah, and Nyx went to war.
Nyx thought that was the end of it, until a boozy night in Sameh, now thirty years later, when she saw Radeyah sitting out on the levee sketching the sea. Nyx had known her immediately. Radeyah was older, and plumper, her face was still warm and her body, if anything, more inviting. Nyx knew it could only end badly.
It’s why she was so shocked when Radeyah came to her two weeks later at the local tea house and said, “I’ve been wondering all week why you were staring at me. But you’re Nyxnissa so Dasheem, aren’t you? Do you remember me?”
In answer, Nyx had ordered her a fruity drink, and asked if she had finally bought the seaside house she always talked about. Radeyah laughed, and it was a liquid laugh that stirred something long since dead and buried inside Nyx – some whole other life that she had to forget in order to lead this one.
Radeyah ceased her sketching. “Tell them no,” she said. Nyx admired the nimble way she held her stylus. She imagined Radeyah would have been a fine swordswoman, if she ever had a mind to pick up a sword. But Radeyah had spent her entire life on a farmstead in Mushirah. After her family died, she said she came to Druce to paint the sea, but when Nyx saw her moth-ridden flat with the leaky tub, moldy ceiling and surplus of drugs in the bathroom, she suspected Radeyah had not come to Druce to retire. She had come here to end it all.
Nyx didn’t like that idea. When she was with Radeyah, she dreamed less of the ring.
“I have to go,” Nyx said.
Radeyah’s jaw tightened. “I suppose we’ve been playing at being lovers a year now. Like children. It was bound to end soon enough.”
“You know what I am. What I’ve done –“
“That was all a long time ago –“
“The Queen has a very long memory.”
“Just tell them –“
“They know I’m here now. They’ll come for you. All of you. They’ll burn it up and scatter your corpses. That’s who I deal with. That’s the kind of person I am. If I don’t go with them now, you’re dead.”
“How long?” Radeyah said.
“Could be two or three months. Could be a year. I don’t know.”
Radeyah wasn’t good at hiding her emotions. She never had to. The pain that blossomed on her face made Nyx’s gut clench. She had to look away. Had to start cutting out that part of herself again, the one that cared about a thing because somebody else did. I’ve gotten soft, she thought. This woman made me soft.
“I waited for a man most of my life, and when he returned, he was little more than a hunk of charred meat. Is that what you’ll come back as? Or something worse? I have spent my whole life waiting to live, Nyx. I’m too old to wait.”
“I’m not asking you to wait.”
Radeyah closed her slide and stood. “I should go.”
“Stay for dinner.”
“I should have known you would go.”
Nyx walked up to her. Took her by the arms, leaned in. “If I didn’t give a shit about you I’d tell them to fuck off. I’d wrap you up and cart you off to some other house and fuck you on the porch all day until they burned it around us. But I do give a shit. And I’m too fucking old to see everything me and you and Anneke and the kids built destroyed because I couldn’t do one last job.”
Radeyah wrapped her arms around Nyx. Nyx pulled her close. They made love there on the floor as the light purled through the billowing curtains. Nyx traced Radeyah’s scars from her two births, all dozen children lost to the war. When Radeyah came, she bucked beneath Nyx’s hand, revealing the twisted collection of scars on her backside where the magicians had pulled shrapnel from her after a commuter train accident north of Mushirah. There were more scars, more blemishes, a lifetime of Nasheenian living mapped out on her body. Nyx loved her for it, a little. And feared for her – far too much.
Radeyah stroked her hair, after. “I won’t wait for you,” she said.
“I know,” Nyx said.
Even as they lay together in the cool breeze, Radeyah soft and comforting next to her, Nyx felt herself pulling away, boxing herself back up, until soon she was nearly numb, and the spidery tattoo on Radeyah’s ankle that still bore Nyx’s name no longer gave Nyx the same flutter of affection. It was easy to become everything she hated again. Remarkably, maddeningly easy.
Nyx closed her eyes, and stepped into the ring.
How to participate:
Although not required, it sure would be nice if you: