Featured image unidentified.
This ballroom was not in the Arx Ciceronis, but it was in the swankiest part of Godtown outside the fortress. The décor was in a regional style blended with Western elements, the effect of which was jarring. The ceiling was a vast, honeycombed vault, each pit in its surface inset with a colorful mural depicting Rajputs hunting or in combat. A great crystal chandelier hung from the center of the dome; covered with candles rather than electric lights, it flickered wildly as the air played around it. Along the walls, horseshoe arches topped the tall, rain-drenched windows, between which were pilasters meant vaguely to give the room the appearance of a pillared courtyard. Most of the construction was of marble and plastered brick, but the ballroom’s highly polished sprung dancefloor was genuine hardwood, undoubtedly imported at great expense. On a raised stage, a light orchestra was already deep into a waltz. Several couples were dancing.
It looked simply like a wealthy party, but Nicky immediately noticed, against the walls, six stiff-backed, hulking marjaras dressed in long, maroon kurtas embroidered in gold. On their heads were high turbans edged with gold lace and decorated with golden brooches topped with white feathers. Each of these marjaras had the red fur, thick mane, and protruding fangs of a Kshatriya, a man bred for war.
As he had promised, Nicky made his way to the bar and threw himself down on a stool. “Hey,” he called, “drink-wallah.”
The barman, a mustachioed native human in a neatly folded turban, raised one eyebrow.
“Gimme something stiff.” Nicky idly pulled his glucose checker off his trousers and pricked his finger.
The barman cleared his throat. “I am sorry, sahib, but are you not with security?”
“What? Don’t I look like a man who can hold his liquor?”
The barman glanced at the glucose checker. “Not exactly. Are you diabetic, sahib?”
“Then how about a fizzy drink instead?”
“How about water?”
Nicky grumbled and resolutely turned his back on the barman, who set down a glass of ice water at his elbow. Ice in Godtown at this time of year was a rare luxury, but Nicky failed to appreciate it.
“It’s filtered,” the barman said by way of assuring his customer that he was safe from the infamous “Godtown Gut.”
Nicky watched the others in the room. Old, young, mostly expats. The men were all in dinner suits, but the women came in a wide variety of lavish gowns, with heavy pearl necklaces, rings on their fingers, and huge hats decorated with feathers and jewels.
This crowd was clearly well-heeled. And it didn’t take Nicky long to notice that most of the men wore their jackets a little too loose, like his, and that most of their jackets had an unsightly bulge on the left side.
Soon, out on the floor, Lady Jeanne was swaying—or stumbling, rather—in the arms of a rakish young man with gleaming white teeth and a dreamy look in his eyes. He appeared to be having trouble figuring out where to put his right hand, what with the rifle dangling against Jeanne’s back. The man was gazing into Jeanne’s eyes, or trying to, but Jeanne’s head was down, her eyes fixed on her own feet, in the preferred posture of the inexperienced dancer.
Alex threw herself down on a stool and cradled her machine gun in her lap. “Look at that,” she said with obvious disgust as she waved a hand toward the dancefloor. “Lady Jeanne is dancing with another guy.”
“You mean she’s dancing with a guy. She can’t be dancing with another guy, seeing as how—”
“Shut up, Nicky.” Alex spun around, planted a fist on the bar, and rested her chin on it. “What does he have that I don’t?”
“Where should I start?”
She waved the barman over. “Hey, yo, I wanna drown my sorrows. Lemon Coke, please.”
A moment later, her drink was before her. She picked it up and chugged it. “I’m getting revenge on you, Nicky. I’m going to sit here all night drinking sugary stuff, and all you can do is watch.”
“I’m male,” she muttered, slamming her glass down and splattering the bar with soda pop. “I have a DNA test that proves it.”
She wasn’t exactly wrong. She had Swyer syndrome—like any boy, she had a Y-chromosome, but a defect in a single gene had made her develop as a girl, minus the ovaries. Whether she was male or female depended on whether you were looking at her chromosomes or at her body.
Nicky preferred to look at her body.
He glanced up behind the barman. On the wall above the liquor bottles was a mural depicting the graceful form of the god Ardhanarishvara, who was divided down the middle: on one half, he was Shiva, and on the other half, Parvati. A white river of soma flowed from the top of the androgynous god’s head.
Nicky said quietly, “Alexis—”
She bristled at the sound of her full first name.
“Alexis, you know I don’t care about your genetic code. It’s no more screwed up than mine.” He gestured toward the image above the bar. “Look up there. You’ve even got your own patron deity.”
Alex grunted. “Godtown. There’s a god for everything here. What is that, anyway? Isn’t that the god of the hijras?”
The hijras were the transvestite caste. They blessed weddings and took on others’ bad karma. Often, they worked as prostitutes. Most were men, but they had some hermaphrodites in their ranks as well.
“I think so,” Nicky said.
Alex curled her lip. “If you’re trying to make me feel better, Nicky, that’s not the way to do it.”
Once the orchestra finished its latest song, Jeanne extracted herself from the embrace of her beau. Stumbling in her high heels, she clomped to the bar and sighed in relief as she collapsed onto a stool between Nicky and Alex. Alex attempted to put an arm over her shoulders, but Jeanne automatically, from ingrained habit, threw it off.
Jeanne’s horn-rimmed glasses sat lopsided on her nose, her buckteeth protruded from her lips, and her limbs were gangly and loose, as if her body was an ill-fitting suit worn too many days in a row. Still, Nicky knew why she inevitably had suitors hanging off her wherever she went: her eyes, the color of an empty sky, could freeze a man in his tracks from across a room.
She gave Nicky her heart-stopping glance now over the rims of her glasses, so he quickly turned his head aside. Even so, he could feel her gaze boring into his temple.
“Nicky!” she gasped.
“Yo,” he said as he sipped his ice water.
“I need you to do me a big favor!” She clasped her hands together and squeezed her eyes shut.
“You will seriously owe me.”
“Anything you want!”
“My math homework—for a week.”
“What do you need?”
“I need you to tell everyone you’re my boyfriend!”
Nicky tipped his head back and laughed, almost slopping his drink. “Forget it. Nobody would believe me anyway. You look too old for me.”
“I have a girlfriend, remember?”
“No,” said Alex, spinning around on her stool, “that’s not decided yet. You’re in a trial period. And I will be your boyfriend if anything.” She leaned toward Jeanne. “That is, unless you want me to be your girlfriend, milady, because I would immediately drop Nicky for—”
Jeanne pressed a hand against Alex’s cheek and shoved her away.
Nicky rolled his eyes. “Look, Lady, just relax. You know Sastravidya, so if the guy gets fresh, just break his arm. You could snap that punk in half.”
Jeanne pouted. “That’s not the point, Nicky.”
“Between the two of us, we could probably take out everyone in this room.”
Alex raised a hand. “And I’d help.”
“I doubt it,” said Nicky. “You’re in a trial period.”
She patted her SAW. “Hey, you two can do your fancy fisticuffs, but with this bad boy, I can deliver eight hundred hello-theres per minute.”
“I don’t think we could fight everybody here,” said Jeanne, chewing her knuckles as she eyed the stiff-backed marjara heavies near the walls. “Those guys are Rajputs. I can feel their prana from here.”
Nicky shrugged. “Rags could take ’em.”
Jeanne jumped from her stool. “Oh no, here he comes again!” She gracelessly lurched off into the crowd.
Her recent dance partner, breathing hard and running his fingers through his thick hair, dropped onto the stool she’d vacated. “Cor! Barman!”
“What would you like, sahib?” the barman asked.
“Something to thaw me out, by gawds! Brrr, fires of Jahannam above the Himalayan ice! Like looking into liquid helium poured over sapphires. I’m surprised her eyes didn’t give me frostbite. If it came to fighting, I daresay I’d rather face the Ragamuffin herself than that Lady Jeanne.”
“She told you her name?” Nicky asked as he swirled his glass.
“Just her first.” The man held out a hand to shake, but then swiftly pulled it back and did a clumsy namaste. “Mine’s Rich Watford-Collins. Yours?”
Nicky sized him up. He looked to be about twenty, and his accent was similar to Jeanne’s, so he was probably a Briton. His hyphenated name hinted of peerage, and his trim build suggested fencing, horsemanship, or some other upper-class sport. Rich and Jeanne probably had similar status; too bad their compatibility ended there. He had a handsome, open face with eyes that crinkled when he flashed his broad smile, and Nicky decided he liked him.
Nicky did namaste. “I’m Nicky—just my first.”
“Ah, you’re also with the Ragamuffin, aren’t you? I should have guessed from your age.” Rich’s eyes slid down to the bulge on the right side of Nicky’s jacket. “Funny, I wouldn’t have thought someone as old as Lady Jeanne would be in your group. I’d heard all the Ragamuffin’s companions were children.”
Alex cleared her throat. “Yeah, about that—”
Rich started and spun around. “Huh? Oh, hullo. I’m sorry, miss. For a moment there, I thought you were a boy.”
Alex grinned. “Why, thank you. That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
“Don’t mind Alex,” said Nicky. “She’s a little special.”
“I’m Nicky’s gay lover,” said Alex.
Nicky sighed and rubbed his temples. “That’s her way of saying she’s my girlfriend.”
Rich looked unfazed. “You’re both with the Ragamuffin, then?”
“I’m the automatic rifleman,” said Alex. “Emphasis on man.”
“I do a bit of everything,” Nicky replied.
Nicky looked Rich full in the face. He saw no hint of guile; Rich looked like the kind of honest, naïve young man who was likely to get fleeced or worse in a city like Godtown. Nothing sinister or hard was in his eyes.
Lady Jeanne was a lot younger than she looked, and the makeup she was wearing made her look even older. This sleazy, crime-ridden city had more than its fair share of kiddy-fiddlers, and Nicky had personally broken the skulls of several of them, but he decided Rich wasn’t the type: Rich simply didn’t know whom he was dancing with.
A tumbler of palm arrack on the rocks appeared on the bar in front of Rich, who took it gratefully. “Barman, you are a lifesaver.”
“My pleasure, sahib.”
“No, my pleasure, believe me.” Rich gulped most of the liquor. “Ah, that puts fire in the belly. Nicky, was it?”
“You’re new in Godtown,” Nicky said.
“You can tell?”
“I can tell.”
Rich took another gulp. “Can I ask you a question? Lady Jeanne, is she seeing anyone—?”
Yeah,” said Alex, “about that—”
Nicky interrupted. “Not that I know of.”
Rich’s grin grew wider, and he downed the rest of his arrack. “She’s absolutely stunning. Keen mind, gorgeous hair … and did I mention her eyes? Her artlessness has a certain charm—”
“Just watch out for frostbite,” said Nicky.
Rich laughed and swayed slightly as he patted Nicky on the back, rose from his stool, and headed back toward the floor.
Alex leaned toward Nicky and hissed, “You coulda let me tell him.”
Nicky shrugged. “He’ll figure it out.”
She hunched low and finished her soda. “I don’t like that guy.”
No, it’s not that. Call it woman’s intuition—”
“You got one of those?”
“I got gods-damn everything. Alex Taliaferro is the best of all possible friggin’ worlds over here.”
“All right, all right. Calm down. If you think the Lady’s in trouble, let Rags know.”
“Where is Rags?”
“Good question.” Nicky pulled back his right sleeve to reveal his two-way radio watch. He put it to his mouth and whispered, “Sugar Boy and Girly Man calling Doll Face. Come in, Doll Face.”
The radio crackled. “I’m ten feet away from you, Nicky!”
Nicky scanned the crowd until he spotted a cluster of elderly women with thickly plastered makeup on their faces and ropes of pearls around their necks. In their midst stood Rags, arms crossed over her chest and a deep pout on her face. One of the women, with a sickly grin, reached down and pinched Rags’s left cheek. She might have been the city’s most notorious crime-fighter, but she was also a pretty little girl in a frilly dress, and her reputation for ruthlessness couldn’t stop old ladies from petting her.
Nicky leaned toward Alex and muttered, “Things better move soon, or Rags is gonna go ballistic and hurt somebody.”
The double doors swung open, and everyone turned to look as a heavyset Chinese man, his sleeves straining around his thickly muscled arms, walked in. He tugged on his ill-fitting dinner jacket as a young woman in a sequined red dress leaned on him. Behind him, the butler runebot announced, “Mister Lung Shi-yu, commonly known as Iron Lung.”
A murmur ran through the crowd. Rags lifted her radio watch to her mouth and whispered, “Go time. Sugar Boy, Jail Bait, get in position. Girly Man, stand by. Dead Eye, wait for my signal.”
Nicky slammed his glass of water on the bar. “Drink-wallah, fizzy drink, please.”
The barman lifted an eyebrow. “Sahib?”
“Don’t argue. Just get it.”
“Any kind, so long as it’s sugar.”
The barman hesitated a moment, but finally dropped a glass of ice on the bar and poured cola into it.
Nicky picked up the glass, but he didn’t drink it—not yet.
Rags left her radio on, and the noise of the room buzzed from Nicky’s watch, so he put it on silent mode, pulled the earpiece from its underside, and shoved it into his left ear. Now he could listen in on everything Rags said.