Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Black Desert (Excerpt)

Nyx didn’t touch the letters again until she and Eshe and Suha were back in Faleen, holed up in a little two-room rental with a terrace at the edge of the Chenjan district. The call to evening prayer rolled out over the city and was taken up by half a hundred muezzins out on their mud brick rooftops. The air vibrated with the sound of it; just another warm, close night in the desert. Warmer than the coast,

She sat out on a rickety wicker chair on the terrace with a whiskey in one hand and the letters in the other. Her burnous was wrapped snugly around her. Winter warmth was a different sort of warmth than the summer kind that drove rich First Families out into the hills and the poorer sort up onto their rooftops. Winter meant sleeping with your clothes on.

She tugged a letter out of the bunch at random. Rhys’s neat, familiar scrawl curled across the front of the pale beige paper, but she saw no return address. She flicked the page open and found the address there at the bottom, next to his signature. Rhys Dax, he had written, his old nom de guerre.

Nyx didn’t know Tirhan very well, but she knew the city he’d listed: Shirazi. She’d been thinking she’d have to get a boat and deal with all that water, but Shirazi was an inland city. That meant she needed to find some way to get across the border through one of the mountain passes. During winter. She’d heard about snow up in the mountains, and seen some pictures, but never experienced it. Frozen water, all around. It sounded bloody awful.

“Bloody hell,” she muttered, and put the letter back down with the rest on the low stool next to her. She sipped her whiskey. Nothing about this note was easy.

Suha came out onto the terrace with her. “You hear what’s on the radio?” she asked.

Nyx shook her head. A few muezzin calls still sounded at the outer edges of the city, moving out into the desert. Now, though, she could hear a low, tinny murmur that must be the radio on inside.

“They’re opening up Mushtallah tomorrow,” Suha said.

“What’s the final count?"

“Eighty-four thousand dead. Already burned.”

“Any First Families?”

“Huh. Don’t know. I’ll look into it.”

“Do that. I want to know who lost a first born and who didn’t.”

“Sure thing.” Suha leaned up against the railing, looked out over the narrow street below, the flat rooftops. The dark sky had a hazy orange-lavender glow, a perpetual haze created by dead and dying bugs of a hundred thousand kinds and the ruddy light from glow globes and other forms of bug light. There were no gas lamps this far from the interior, just the constant piss and reek of the bugs.

“Quiet,” Suha said.

“Usually is, after the muezzin.”

“Eshe’s asleep. Been throwing up since we got in.”

“I know. He’s got a sensitive stomach. Don’t want to take him in if it’s nothing.”

“Yeah, he’s all right, seems like now. I gave him some soda and he nodded off pretty quick.”

“Yeah. You know I need to look up a guy in Tirhan?”

“The magician? Yeah, I figured. Boat?”


Suha gave a slow nod. She continued to gaze out over the rooftops, eyes glassy, big mouth set. She worked her jaw for awhile. “I got a sister married to a gunrunner,” Suha said.

“I remember,” Nyx said.

Suha sighed. “They do a lot of work during the spring and summer running shit up through the mountains and into Tirhan, but I don’t know what they’re running this time of year. I’ll look into it. She can probably get us overland. Don’t know how long, though.”

“I’ve heard it’s a six or eight day trip.”

“I mean, how long til she can set us up.”

“Yeah, well, that part we can butter up. Tell her there’s a shitload of money in it if she wants to play guide.”

Suha clasped her hands. They were big hands, too, like her mouth, dark and bruised as wine-stained leather. “You want to take Eshe with us?

“Where else is he going to go?”

“Dangerous crossing for a boy.”

“He can shift it.”

“Long way to go and stay in that form.”

Nyx took another long pull of her whiskey. Steady burn, steady hand. “I’m not stupid, Suha.”

“Just wanted to say it out loud.”

“You think he’d stay behind if I asked?”


“Then don’t nag at me.”

Nyx let the whiskey burn into her belly. She lifted her head and gazed out over the street again. A group of women passed below, talking in loud, drunk voices. They wore bloody burnouses and had the confident swagger of tax clerks or university students. These were smart, rich girls who would never know death or disfigurement at the front. If they had brothers, they had never met them, or they took the Book at its word and didn’t care so much for it.

Nyx let herself wish for a body like that, a future like that. Why not? She needed another drink.

As the girls passed by the dark recess of an arched doorway mounted with metal studs, Nyx saw a shadow there at the mouth of the doorway, something more substantial than gaping blackness. The door was already cast half in shadow, lingering at the edge of the halo of light cast across the street from the big bug lamps at the front of Nyx’s hotel.

Nyx turned her head away from the door, but kept watch out of the corner of her eye. The shadow moved again; a figure pulled in the edge of a dark burnous that had a sheen of the organic about it – far too new and expensive for this part of town. A bel dame might know better than to dress that way in this quarter, but she’d risk it if it meant wearing an organic burnous that could effectively shield her.

Nyx finished the whiskey and set the empty glass on the stool.

“We have spiders,” Nyx said.

“I saw her,” Suha said. “The door? I wasn’t sure.”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“I have us set up with a back exit.”

“If they wanted us, they would have moved already.” Why hadn’t they moved, then? It was a busy street this time of night, sure, but her place didn’t have great security; no filters and one lonely house guard who spent most of her time snickering in the kitchen with the cooks.

“We’ll need to get out discreet in the morning,” Nyx said. “They may be hanging out to see where we’re going.” Or, to see how much we know, she amended. But know from who? Alharazad? What did Alharazad have to tell them? Did they want the reel back?

“You think they’ll follow us into Tirhan?”

“I’m not looking to find out. Don’t talk destination with any of the Faleen magicians. You run into them, you tell them we’re headed back to Mushtallah now that it’s opening up.” Nyx picked up her glass again, remembered it was empty, and set it back down. “That includes Yah Reza.”

Yah Reza, perhaps, most of all.

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