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Sun River

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Sun River

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Original Fiction Alternate History

Sun River

Princess Mwadi of Everfair teams up with American actress Rima Bailey on a reconnaissance mission in Egypt in an attempt to thwart the European spies intent on destabilizing Everfair and…

Illustrated by Xia Gordon

Edited by

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Published on December 6, 2023

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Princess Mwadi of Everfair teams up with American actress Rima Bailey on a reconnaissance mission in Egypt in an attempt to thwart the European spies intent on destabilizing Everfair and its business interests…

“Sun River” is set in the world of Nisi Shawl’s acclaimed Everfair and its upcoming sequel, Kinning, available everywhere on January 23, 2024.

A version of this story appeared in the anthology, Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Tales of Egypt, published by Twopenny Books.


Princess Mwadi wheeled gracefully above the Nile. She flew in two birds, turning them in upward spirals to catch the last thermals of the day. Soon the sun would set, the air cool. But shortly before that she would be home.

She could have cut hours off her time. The desert route between Alexandria and Cairo was far shorter than this one. But Mwadi was kind to her mounts and didn’t often ask them to betray their true natures, and then not by much. Far easier to persuade seabirds to travel along a river than to force them to abandon the water entirely.

Far easier to make these periodic journeys to the coast by occult means than to persuade her buffalo-headed brother, Prince Ilunga, to “allow” her to go there alone, in her own body.

She switched her eyesight entirely over to the younger of the gulls she rode, then swooped that one ahead of its elder. A barge piled high with bales of white cotton floated toward her, passed beneath her. They traveled in opposite directions and in opposite conditions: the boat was headed north to Rashit, loaded full of merchandise to sell in foreign lands across the Mediterranean; the princess south to Al-Maadi, the aristocratic enclave outside Cairo, and sailed through the sky empty-clawed, delivered of the reports her birds had carried to visiting spies.

At last! The sharp downstream spit of Gezira Island appeared ahead, swelling as she glided on southward. A change in the river’s course had exposed this highly valuable land, Mwadi’s sources informed her. So then greedy Cairo had expanded to cover it. Greying shadows filled the wide new boulevards erected here in the opening years of this nineteenth century by the British, and over there on banks reclaimed by Egypt’s previous rulers, the Turks. But the low stone wall of the Corniche still gleamed as if made of gold, reflecting the sinking light of the sun for which, by many accounts, the city had been named.

From behind a raucous cry pierced her four ears, stirred her two hearts. Mwadi cried out too, struggling against both birds’ urges to dive. Fragrant garbage tossed from the decks of low houseboats called to her, bobbing temptingly up and down on the suddenly murky waters. Below the surface a flash of silver—a fish? But she had anticipated this.

Firmly she imagined the brackish, half-salt pond she had ordered to be installed in her villa’s garden, the schools of carp she raised there—picturing not just their bright colors but the barely visible tracks of their sinuous wakes, and more: the smell of their soft droppings falling to the pond’s silty bottom, the dampness rising off the water’s warm surface to cloud the air with their perfume. The birds’ attraction to the trash immediately available lessened sufficiently for Princess Mwadi to conclude her flight home.

Alighting on the tall spire of limestone she’d had the builders place in the pond’s center, Mwadi turned four beady orange eyes toward the pavilion on its shore. Yes. Her body lay where she’d left it, apparently drowsing on a divan. She turned her mounts’ fidgeting attempts to plunge into the pond beak-first into a double arc passing over her body’s head, and let go. And fell into herself.

Darkness. These eyes—the eyes she’d been born with—were shut. She kept them that way a moment more. Listening, she heard brisk footsteps—but far off. Good. Her instructions to the women who waited on her were to protect these special slumbers from intrusion. She stretched and moved her feet so they hung over the divan’s edge and sat up slowly. In the evening dimness, the pavilion’s silk awning and shadowy netting resembled the walls of a room in the “palace” where she’d spent several years of her childhood—the hotel her father, King Mwenda, had commandeered from Leopold II’s European thugs. The hotel’s gardens had crept in everywhere, green life seizing avidly on crumbling stucco and cement. And since her mother, Queen Josina, seemed to welcome it in, and also to prefer the garden’s nooks to her royal chambers, Princess Mwadi had joined her there back then. She found comfort now in those memories. . . .

Well, but that was long ago—before she’d learned to ride the birds, before Mademoiselle Lisette and Lady Fwendi taught her the rudiments of her craft. They would be glad to receive her latest intelligence report, but it would worry them. Perhaps they’d need her to act quickly—to hinder Ilunga in his idiotic flirtation with Britain before it bloomed into a formal relationship. Would the prince inherit their father’s throne only to become Victoria’s puppet? If so, how could she cut the strings?

Best to prepare for any likelihood. Mwadi stood, smoothing out her creased skirt. She pushed through the netting to the path that would take her to the terraces and up—and paused.

Above the rustling leaves stirred by the evening’s rising breeze came another, similar sound: a rhythmic swish of fabric, the fluttering back and forth of another woman’s clothes. Whose?

Sudden as a storm, Rima Bailey swept around the path’s gentle curve and flung her bare arms wide. “Look at you! Ain’t you grown now? Litta bitty Bo-La turned into a fine young woman for sure.” Rather than prostrating herself on the ground before the princess like the tiresome Egyptians, the actress seized Mwadi by her shoulders and pulled her into a tight embrace. In Everfair they’d been equals despite Mwadi’s royal rank—troupers in Sir Jamison’s play Wendi-La. Bo-La was Mwadi’s role.

But the production was on tour. The last she’d heard they’d finished three months of engagements in Brazil.

Released from the actress’s strong brown arms as swiftly as she’d been gathered into them, Mwadi shook herself straight. “How did you get past my serving women?”

Miss Bailey threw back her head and laughed. “Them cobwebs? They couldn’t hold back a spider. They’ll be followin me down here soon, though, if we don’t head on up to your house mighty quick. I told them I had a short private message to deliver you from Queen Josina.”

“You do?” It had been nearly a season since her mother had contacted Mwadi.

“Naw, not actually.” The berry-dark lips quirked downward.

“Well, why say what you said, then? Why say anything? And what is it brings you here if you’re not coming from my father’s favorite?” Who could have sent whatever word she desired to send via a dozen other routes, now Mwadi considered the idea dispassionately.

Miss Bailey laughed again, an entirely different sound. Half a choke. “Child, you know my job is makin people believe lies.”

The princess was no longer a child. “Take a holiday from your work, then. We’ll join the rest of my household now, as you suggest, and on the way you can tell me the truth.”

“Yeah.”

They walked together to the arbor at the bottom of the terrace steps. As they climbed upward night descended, closing the blossoms of the jasmine bushes planted on either side. Moths and mosquitos came near, attracted by oil lamps along the paths being lighted by small, self-effacing boys. Some of these lamps bore the pierced brass shades popular in the country of the princess’s birth.

They reached the terraces’ third level in annoying silence. One more to go. Vexed, Mwadi stopped, and tugged on Miss Bailey’s wrist to make her stop, too. They stood in clear sight of the balcony where Ilunga customarily held a lax court with his friends, other students at Victoria College. The balcony was obviously occupied: drunken voices slurred indistinctly from its tobacco-scented shadows. There could be no excuse for her overzealous attendants interrupting her tête-a-tête with the beautiful actress here. But it was also doubtful she’d be overheard. “Why did you need to speak to me alone?”

“They said you was sleepin.”

Not an answer. “Why?”

“But I know better. You ride anything besides seagulls?”

Even less of one. How should Miss Bailey know about that? Had Lady Fwendi—or her husband, Sir Jamison—been indiscreet?

The princess found to her irritation that she held Miss Bailey’s hand. She released it. Her mother had taught her that power lay always with the questioner, never with the questioned. She tried again. “What do you want with me?”

The hand had somehow found its way back to hers, claiming it now as the other woman’s possession. “You know, Brother Mo-La is kinda stupid, but he can see plain enough if we only talkin. An then he’s gonna wanna know what’s bein said. Better make him think we makin love.” She suited action to words, kissing Mwadi’s rosy palm, stroking her wrist, rucking up her loose sleeve to reach the shivery skin that paled at the fold inside the bend of her elbow . . .

“No!” Mwadi drew away. Hard as it was.

“So you go with men?”

She shouldn’t answer that. “With you!”

“Ah!” Miss Bailey’s hands and mouth returned. They moved to the thin cloth over Princess Mwadi’s armpit and nestled in. They—didn’t tickle. Not really. No, not at all. A barrier she’d never before been aware of broke. Pleasure poured through it.

The princess fought to surface from the flood. “But I have to know where.” That must make sense. She didn’t trust her voice for anything longer.

Miss Bailey’s head rose. Her tongue carved a riverbed beneath Mwadi’s shoulder blade. Beside her spine. Flirting with the back of the girl’s tingling head, the actress buried her face in the naked crook of Mwadi’s neck. Then lifted her lips and murmured low: “You wanna know where you goin with me?”

Mwadi nodded, a response which would be felt if not seen.

“I was plannin on a little jaunt to a buildin site.”

That seemed more like Mademoiselle Lisette’s sort of excitement.

Mademoiselle had been Miss Bailey’s lover once. For some time. Perhaps an attachment still lingered on the part of the actress. Mwadi set her steady hands on the actress’s smooth-brushed hair and moved her away. Gently. But firmly.

The actress smiled confidently. “Come on. Sir Jamison heard from his Lady Fwendi you learnt to ride gulls so fast you asked how many other sortsa birds you could study for mounts. You ever try on any around here?”

Was that all this was? The dalliance a cover for whatever scheme Miss Bailey wanted Mwadi involved in? She had said so. Shame pricked the princess’s eyelids, stinging them. To be used so, fooled so—

“Bo-La? You rather I invite you more formally? In front of your brother and all? As princess? I thought this would be nicer—”

“Hullo! What sport! Nigger hoors! Loongee, you’re the right sort, you are—no? Positive?” The jovial cries from the villa’s balcony ceased, hushed by others of her brother’s white friends. The unlucky merrymaker’s ebullience subsided as they repeated their assurances that the women on the lawn below had not been hired for his entertainment.

“Pardon me! So awfully sorry!” The apologies grew louder as Mwadi walked quickly toward the library’s French doors, then ceased abruptly as the women waiting there to open them swung them shut behind her. The noise revived briefly when, at the urging of Miss Bailey’s polite rap on the glass, the doors reopened.

The actress slipped into the room with the offhand grace Mwadi remembered admiring at rehearsals. “Aloli, ain’t it?” she asked the tall maiden on the door’s right. Who bowed almost as deeply as she had to the princess. “Sweet name. Juicy.”

“You would like water? Beer?” Many Egyptian Muslims frowned on alcohol, but Prince Ilunga’s retinue expected and got plenty of exceptions to this custom of his adopted country’s upper classes.

“I’ll take whatever you’re havin.”

After a day of fasting, Mwadi’s body ravened. She ordered a supper such as the queen would have offered to guests arriving from an embassy. Primarily Everfairer delicacies: well-spiced soups served alongside heaps of stolid grains. A course of freshwater fish, to which she had the cook add shelled creatures from the river’s highest reaches. Perhaps this was owing to her mounts’ lingering influence? The whole was to be followed by iced fruit. And to begin, bean cakes and a gourdful of the local, peasant-made barley brew. And two cups.

Upon these appetizers’ arrival the princess dismissed all her women but one. She ordered Aloli to stay, determined not to show any jealousy. Though she poured Miss Bailey’s beer herself.

The actress took a healthy swig. “Good as I remember from Everfair.” They sat on spindle-legged benches with curving backs, British furniture supposedly modeled on Egyptian antiquities. Ilunga treated these sorts of objects carelessly, so Mwadi had gathered as many she could into her private apartments, protecting and maintaining them. She took a strip of linen hung over Aloli’s arm and arranged it on the little table between them, then poured her own beer and set the gourd on the cloth. She drained her cup in one gulp. She hadn’t meant to. She poured more, but held off from drinking it. She ate a bean cake instead, dipping it in a fiery red sauce that did nothing to assuage her thirst.

A scratch at the door signaled the advent of the first course. The servant woman Aloli went to usher it in. Mwadi bent close to the table and leaned forward so Miss Bailey would hear her soft speech more easily. Or did she speak softly so she could lean forward?

“I’ve experimented to expand my reach, living so far inland as I do here. I found a flock of kattar-kattars—”

“What you call them?”

“That’s the locals’ name: kattar-kattar—after their call. They’re desert birds resembling pigeons, but far better fliers. I’ve ridden several at a time.”

“You think you can get em to go where—”

The servant Aloli returned bearing a tray of covered dishes. She transferred them to the table with fluid motions more careful than Miss Bailey’s, but just as pleasing to watch. If Mwadi had been in a mood to be pleased by them.

A loud knock came from the door. Swirling her shoulder scarf as if it were a cape, the servant turned to answer it, but before she took two steps it opened. Mwadi’s brother entered, face shining with an inner heat. “So sorry to disturb you,” he enunciated with too much precision. Behind him hesitated another man, his skin and clothing white against the passageway’s gloom. “Scranners insists on apologizing to you as well as to me. Personally. And to your guest.”

The white man followed the prince in then, crushing what looked like a slouch hat in his fidgeting hands. A shamed grin stretched his thin lips. “Deveril Scranforth at your service. Must beg your forgiveness for my very silly mistake a few minutes ago. I ought to have known—at any rate, abject abasement and all that. Are we quits?” One hand released his hat and was offered to the princess—to shake? Presumptuous of him.

“You served in Kenya?”

Scranforth started as if he’d overlooked Miss Bailey’s sprawling beauty till she questioned him. “Ma’am?”

“Rima Bailey. The other ‘nigger hoor.’”

White became red. “You oughtn’t say such words.”

“You did.”

“Completely different cases.” Her brother’s friend appealed to Mwadi with his rough-lidded eyes. “Aren’t they, Miss, umm—Miss?” The ungrasped hand dropped.

“Thank you for your apology.” Mwadi rose to curtsy stiffly, without inclining her head one inch. Would he go now?

“You ain’t answered me.” Miss Bailey stood and stalked off from the table where Ilunga swayed over her neglected food, lifting the dishes’ covers.

“I—what?”

“I asked did you serve in Kenya. Because of your hat—the kind they used to wear there in the police force. ’Scuse me; the army. So?”

“Ah—no! It was my cousin’s. Grandison Sprague. He wore it when they were putting in the rail line under Lord Delamere. The Lion Killer?”

Lady Fwendi hated Delamere.

“Your cousin get eaten by one a them giant lions?” Looming now over Ilunga’s friend.

“As a—as a matter of fact he did. Look here, Loongee, you want to pack it in and talk about selling off those shares in the morning?”

“I’ll be fine once I have a bite. Fine. Need to soak up the excess spirits.” The prince picked up Miss Bailey’s abandoned porcelain spoon and helped himself to her groundnut stew. “Fine.”

“But—the ladies? That is, we don’t need to discuss business in your presence, Miss—boorish behavior by any standards.”

More boorish than labeling them prostitutes and thus businesswomen themselves? Mwadi took note.

The second course had arrived, barely noticed. The serving woman fitted more dishes on the already crowded table. Ilunga plopped down in Miss Bailey’s place and lifted another lid. A large fish stared up from its platter with one cloudy eye. Brown breading glistened with fat.

“This will only take a moment. I swear. When I’m done we’ll retire to my rooms. Finish the deal there.” The prince stabbed a three-tined fork into the fish and flaked off a bite. “Wait, though—Didi has shares to get rid of too. Don’t you?”

How Mwadi loathed her brother’s new habit of calling everyone by these “nicknames” he came up with. But as with his other and often more troubling habits—his Western dress, his immoderate consumption of alcohol, his gambling, his reckless abandonment of tradition-minded counselors for scions of Europe’s upper classes such as this very Scranforth—she practiced a pacific tolerance. For the moment.

So she answered him. “Yes, I have several shares in the Great Sun River Collector Company. Gifts from you. Why are they to be gotten rid of?”

Her brother gestured to his mouth, too full to talk, then to Scranforth.

The white man obliged with an attempt at explanation. “Well, the, er, the construction of the collector tube has hit a few snags. Delays, that sort of thing—reminiscent, actually, of Delamere’s Kenyan railway project, and of course the contractors your brother recommended aren’t to blame in the least. Though I’m led to understand cost overruns here have— Hang it! Difficult to describe the details of these things to a lady, don’t you know!” Scranforth twisted his mouth into a line as irregular as the brim of his nervously wrung hat. Mwadi wondered if what kept him from talking clearly about the situation was his own lack of understanding.

“No need,” her brother announced, shoving a bolus of boiled millet aside with his tongue. “Didi will dump any stocks I tell her to. Tell her tonight.” He swallowed, wiped his brow, and returned his attention to the fish.

“What’s your hurry, though?” Miss Bailey asked. “You got the Cairo Bourse right next door”—it was several miles away, in fact—“and you can be there soon as it opens just by leavin here first thing in the mornin.”

With a groan, Ilunga pushed the fish away. “I feel unwell.” Grabbing the platter’s cover from the bench pads beside him he inverted it and vomited into its shallow depths. As he slumped back, letting it tip dangerously, the serving woman ran to snatch it from the prince’s loosening hands. As she passed, a sour reek wafting from the improvised basin threatened to turn Mwadi’s half-filled stomach inside out.

“P’raps”—the white man shuffled backward to the door—“—p’raps that’s a better idea.” The prince rolled onto his side and emitted a series of moaning gasps. His arms waved in the suddenly thick air like the tentacles of a desperate octopus.

Miss Bailey plucked a brass vase from the hearth and dumped out the dried bulrushes it had held. “Here you are.” She thrust it at the hapless prince. Ilunga seized and used it.

No longer hungry, Mwadi ordered the food cleared away, climbed the stairs to her brother’s rooms, and sent his Egyptian valet to him. Then she walked the rich carpets to her own rooms.

Behind the door to her boudoir waited Miss Bailey.

“Where is my maid?” Not visible through the wide archway leading to her bed. Perhaps in the closet? Yet the louvres of the closet doors were dark.

“Hasina? I sent her away.”

Mwadi smiled. “Why don’t you ring for her to return, then?” Or move away from the bellpull.

“Awright. If you want. But I was thinkin we could learn to know each other better without company.” The actress got up from the gilt-armed chair where she’d been poised, uncrossing her pyjama’d legs. “Like I could show you my gun and my camera and tell you what I need you to do for me.”

“Gun?”

“Oh, I ain’t offerin violence. Look—I laid it down over there, on your vanity.”

Its curves interrupted by half a dozen shining crystal bottles, a brass silhouette showed on the vanity’s cluttered surface, familiar from Mwadi’s training as a spy: a shongun, the Everfair invention that flung poisoned blades at your targets in place of bullets.

“Sir Jamison give it to me in New York. Said I might need protection on our tour out West.” Miss Bailey shook her head and chuckled lightly, bitterly. “From Indians, I guess. Came in handy but not cause a them. Some cities ain’t so hot on mixed-race casts. Most of em.”

Mwadi picked the shongun up, checked the breech. Loaded. To be sure, it would be useless otherwise. She aimed it at her unexpected guest but immediately lowered its muzzle. After all, Miss Bailey could have shot her just moments ago, or poisoned her earlier, or— This was not about killing. “What are you doing? Why?”

“You don’t think I’d hurt you, do ya? I brought the gun to show how I’m serious about this.”

“About what?”

“About what the Lincolns hired me for. Stoppin the sabotage at the collector site.”

A few snags. “Is that the building site you wanted to take me to?” Princess Mwadi didn’t remember moving after she reached the vanity but here she was, within an arm’s length of Miss Bailey. She could smell the woman’s makeup cream. She could count the pulses throbbing in the hollow beneath her exposed collarbone. “And—and what was my job going to be?”

“You know the Lincolns, right? Hotel owners from Baltimore? They invested in the new production of Sir Jamison’s—”

“Of course I know them. I own Great Sun River stock.”

“Right—I hope you bought it cheap, back when they inherited the plans from the inventor—not them, but the daughter’s husband who worked for Mr. Shuman did, and it was practically worthless? Well, it’s been fallin lately till now it’s just about the same level of no good. They say they can put more money in another new show, somethin of mine if I— Bo-La, you need to sit down? This is a complicated story.”

Mwadi laid the shongun aside. With her emptied hand she reached for Miss Bailey and found that even the arm’s length between them had gone. She touched the beautiful actress at the juncture of hip and thigh. Taut muscles covered in pale yellow satin slid beneath her palm. “No. I don’t want to sit.”

“There’s a pitcher with water on the windowsill. Or maybe you cold? I seen a brazier in the corner.”

“No. Yes. Don’t be so obtuse. Come to bed. Isn’t that why you’re here?” She dared to hope. Despite the claim of what was really wanted: work.

“Yeah, Bo-La, but—”

Mwadi surged against the maddening woman’s warmth, threw her arms around her high neck, and clasped them behind that perfect column’s dark, near-iridescent sheen. Leaned up to kiss those berry-looking lips. Miss Bailey rocked back to avoid that but recovered her balance.

“But Bo-La, you—”

“In the garden you wanted me. What’s different now?” Mwadi began to tremble: little shivering crests of desire and troughs of doubt.

“Come on.” Irresistible arms guided the princess to the vanity’s bench. Away from the bed. Unyielding hands pushed her shoulders down so she sat there.

“Someone has to—to watch?” What sport!

“Naw.”

“I c-c-can get one of the servants—”

Naw! Aw, don’t look so sad. Scoot over.” Sitting beside her, Miss Bailey took Mwadi’s hands in her own. But then did nothing with them.

“Listen. How old are you, Bo-La?”

“I had my birthday markets and markets ago.” In the month the British called July. This was October.

“How old?”

“Thirty-three seasons.”

“Sixteen years. Where I come from that’s barely big enough to do what we already done. Let alone what more we imaginin.”

What we want. Mwadi stopped her shivering. So was her age all that bothered Miss Bailey? “But you aren’t where you come from—you’re here! My father ruled our country when he’d lived just a season longer than I!” She grasped the hands that had held hers. “I’m grown! A woman!”

“Yeah. Sure. I can believe that. If I work on it. And I been tryna make myself a hundred percent certain you understand I ain’t in love with you. I figure sayin it straight out’s best. Best for both of us.”

“Love!” Mwadi laughed, a little wildly. “That’s none of my concern!”

“Ain’t it? You young.” The actress sighed. “And lyin. I got no time for that.” She stood and strode to the door.

“Wait!” Mwadi followed her. Caught her by one slippery beige sleeve. “If I did—if I decided to be in love with you and expected you to love me back, what—what then?”

“Then I would tell you, ‘Not yet.’”

Not yet. “Then when?” Mwadi gathered the pyjama sleeve tighter.

“When I’m free.” Disentangling herself from Mwadi’s clutching fist, Miss Bailey paced slowly back to the room’s center. “When I’m done with this assignment.

“Which is why I called myself, comin here tonight to tell you what I gotta do. And gettin your help.”

Turning, Miss Bailey went to the bookcase next to the boudoir’s entrance and came back to the bench carrying a black box. Not plain—latches and a strap decorated its top and sides. Glass-covered holes pierced one end. “My Brownie,” she said proudly. “A witness everyone trusts. Because everyone uses them.”

“You’ll catch the saboteurs with this?”

“You seen cameras before?”

“Yes, but—”

“I ain’t gotta catch em, just show what they doin in a photograph. Lincolns will bring the law into the picture.”

Mwadi eyed the camera box askance. “And you want me to do what? Fetch it to you? Fetch it away? I’ll need more than one bird to lift such an awkward thing as that.”

For answer, the actress pulled a small spool from her pyjama pocket and held it up between finger and thumb. “Think you can handle a couple of these, though?”

At dawn flocks of kattar-kattars gathered by a water hole miles to the house’s east. Under the awning which had yesterday been erected behind the villa, Princess Mwadi stretched out on her divan. Sleep would have been welcome after the restless night she’d spent in Miss Bailey’s—Rima’s—embrace. But she had agreed to remain awake and enter her chosen mounts.

Cool air stirred—the sun’s breath blowing across the waking desert, entering the tent where the southern wall had been rolled up. Filling her lungs with it she sang, high and pure as light from heaven, falling, sliding, gliding down to the sand before her open door. Chicks fluttered nearer to her, nearer to their mother, gathered their courage and strutted all the way in, bodies brown and grey and black and buff, barred with yellow-orange and olive green. Preening heads bobbed once, twice, then stopped, transfixed by her stare.

Without stirring an inch Mwadi leapt into their eyes.

After that the supine form on the divan called to them no more. Her four kattar-kattars rejoined the rest of their flock. Together they swooped above the Cadillac Saloon in which Rima waited, parked alone on the rough track back to the rough road. Though they kept flying with their fellows they dived lowest, braked hardest, and flirted nearest the actress’s scarfed head. She waved to signal her understanding of the princess’s success and drove off.

Last night—this morning? Sometime during the tender hours of darkness, Rima had drawn a map showing where the seemingly ill-starred Great Sun River Collector rose and slumped and rose again. The princess had memorized that map, then burnt it in the brazier furnished to perfume her sleep. The sandalwood normally used to fuel it she left untouched. Another, saltier smell had driven out the bitterness of the map paper’s smoke. Now, though she kept pace with the Cadillac, she recognized the winding route it traveled.

Soon the sun rose. Bright beams broke widening gaps in the dispersing clouds. Her mounts split once more from the rest of the birds—normal behavior for this time of day. But they wanted to go west, toward the promise of green shoots sprouting in the wheat fields nearer the Nile, while Rima swung off on a graveled track to the east, following it deeper into the desert.

She changed the birds’ contrary impulses into a circle. Spreading her feathers, she caught the spiral currents of gradually heating air and cupped them beneath her wings. Not high—no higher than they’d go normally. But high enough that she saw what Rima must have missed: Ilunga’s lilac-and-grey Napier speeding toward them through the sparse morning traffic.

How far away? A mile? Two? Hovering over the crossroads, Mwadi couldn’t decide what to do. Should she shadow Rima and if necessary retrieve the film she shot, as they’d planned? Or switch to watching Ilunga, to see what he was up to? Or—

Both. With a nauseating wrench Mwadi tore her mind in half, riding three birds east and one north. Though she’d long ago gotten used to how the land tilted and whirled beneath her when she flew, the vertigo caused by heading two ways at once threatened to toss her headfirst from the sky.

She’d done it before, going in different directions like this. Once. In a pair of gulls. She shut her panicked beaks on confused cries of “ga-ga-ga!” and continued to come apart.

Strongest were the blinding shards of sun spearing her eyes as she floated above the Cadillac’s dusty wake, but simultaneously she plunged up the map toward her brother’s swift approach while wondering why he’d come, was he still suffering from the evening’s overindulgence, which it was best not to remember or she’d spew the contents of her crops like droppings on the sand—the road—the sand—the road, and she was past him! Bank with these wings, not with those, and come around flapping hard to catch up, but not so fast because the Cadillac had stopped. Rima jumped out. Lay flat. Undulated along the ground, like a snake, to disappear below the rim of a long-gone stream’s dry bed.

Where had Ilunga’s motorcar gotten to? Paying too much attention to Rima’s movements, Mwadi’d lost control of her fourth bird. She prayed those remaining would be enough to provide any necessary backup. But how to arrange them so their presence would seem natural?

Her mounts proved attracted to a large patch of asphodel nearby. She let them settle, and as they gorged on the plants’ buds she caught glimpses of Rima’s goal: a sort of staging area from what she could judge, perhaps in the shape of a semicircle. Piles of pipes marked its approximate edges, some winking and glinting metallically in the morning sun, some a dull black.

The grinding roar of an engine grew louder and louder. It sounded nothing like Ilunga’s Napier. Easy to take her mounts aloft again; they wanted to scatter, but Mwadi held them loosely yet effectively, keeping their restless circuits confined to the staging area. Beyond, rows of empty wooden cradles lined the grey sand.

A freight truck—source of the engine noise—became visible. It stopped in the staging area and two strangers opened its doors and clambered out. They spoke in Arabic, too rapidly for Mwadi to understand more than a few words. Something about finishing their task before the builders ripened. Opening the gate of the truck’s rear compartment, they laughed and greeted a third man, who cursed them. Probably. But he laughed, too, when the crate he shoved off the truck’s bed exploded open at their feet. Shattered glass tumbled out of its broken sides. More cursing. More laughter, shared by all the men now. The two from the truck’s cab climbed up to join their coworker in tossing the entire shipment out to smash on the ground.

Mwadi’s mounts saw curving shards of mirrors poking up from the ruins of a few of the crates. One had cracked apart to show a parabolic panel surviving miraculously whole—till a man jumped down to kick at its unprotected back. A shiver and it became a sparkling curtain collapsing into a heap of uselessness.

A few snags.

One man looked up to where her mounts circled. He pointed at them and the others shaded their eyes and looked too. Mwadi decided to fly the kattar-kattars a bit farther off. She wheeled over Rima’s dry watercourse; when Rima saw the birds she beckoned for them to land.

Small stones lined the empty streambed. Mwadi reminded her mounts they needed grist for their gizzards and set them pecking.

“Good,” said Rima. “I wound up the film and stuck the spool under that rock there. See it? You can carry that back—I’m gonna have a little talk with them saboteurs before I leave.”

No. But Mwadi couldn’t stop her. Already she was gone. And the princess had promised. Mwadi abandoned two of her mounts and pushed the last toward the crevice Rima had indicated. Dangling the heavy film roll from her gaping beak she launched herself into the pale blue sky. Stubborn woman.

Her bird’s neck ached. She should have kept control of the other two kattar-kattars and traded the work off between them. How long could she stand the strain? How long did she have to? Focused on ignoring her pain, she let her mount’s ears miss the purring advent of Ilunga’s motor. But then she saw the Napier itself, its colors unmistakable, though half-concealed in the dust cloud kicked up by its tires and blown ahead of it. Blown in the direction of the saboteurs and Rima.

She shouldn’t turn back. The photographs were precious. Rima would want her to save them, to make the risks she’d taken worthwhile. Mwadi struggled grimly on, flying through air that had somehow become thick as porridge.

BANG! That wasn’t Rima—shonguns fired quietly! She dropped the precious film and reversed her mount, going faster without her burden. Reaching the site again she smelled blood and gunpowder. Heard a muffled scream. BANG! Another shot.

She flew higher, out of bullet range she hoped. Below, the three saboteurs made fast feints toward Rima, who knelt on one knee, one long arm hanging loosely at her side, the other aiming the shongun at their faces. Behind the Napier crouched Deveril Scranforth holding a small, gleaming pistol. Of her brother the princess saw no sign. He would never have lent his motor out—not even to his closest friend. Where—

A sudden, dizzying shift in perspective and there he was—lolling head first off the motor-car’s driver’s seat. Bright rivulets trickled across his dark face and dripped to the floor—but he lived. In tentacle-like motions reminiscent of last night’s drunken flailing, his arms fought to grab the steering wheel, the gear shift, anything with which to right himself. He kept hitting them and slipping ineffectually off.

Could she help? Where was she? Still riding a kattar-kattar—but a new one? No—a lost one regained. Once more her consciousness was doubled: she found herself both up in the air and perched on the Napier’s roof, head tucked down and cocked sideways to peer in at the windscreen. What had triggered the link’s resurgence? Proximity? Lack of movement?

The bird’s protective coloration blended somewhat with the Napier’s dust-covered grey paint. That and the gun battle had kept it from discovery so far. But surely—

Shhk!

A guttural cry burst from a saboteur stumbling, falling, clutching his thigh. The curling edge of the shongun’s three-lobed poisoned blade protruded above his red-stained fingers. His cry subsided into whimpers and curses.

“Shut up!” commanded Scranforth. “You’re not dead yet. I’ll kill you myself. You’ll tell no tales—”

“My photographs gonna reveal everything! Your whole scheme!”

The white man shot at Rima over the motor’s bonnet without aiming and missed. Mwadi’s recovered mount “ga-ga-ga’d” and tried to flee. She forced it into the Napier’s interior through the passenger-side window. Shhk! Rima’s return fire sent the bird screeching and flinging itself at the windscreen, pale gobbets showering from under its tail. The princess tried to calm it but her brother’s moans and bloody thrashing wouldn’t let her.

From above she saw Rima seize the shongun by her teeth and attempt to crank it one-handed. After every two shots it had to be rewound—but why not use both hands? She must be hurt.

Four blades left—the shongun had been fully loaded when Mwadi checked it last night in her boudoir. If Scranforth didn’t have any extra ammunition—or if he’d left it in the Napier, out of immediate reach—Rima and her attacker were evenly matched. But add in the two saboteurs still standing—

Without allowing herself time to think of the consequences, Mwadi dove. Claws out like an eagle’s, she aimed for the face of the man with the gun. Predictably he shot at her. Twice. Fortunately he missed. Pulling out of her unnatural stoop with just inches to spare, she felt her mount’s wing muscles tearing. Only a little, she hoped. She was able to gain the heights again, the men’s voices shrinking beneath her like their foreshortened figures.

Unless she viewed them out of the eyes of her other bird. Drying blood and shit smeared much of the glass, but the open window showed the pair of unwounded saboteurs huddled together. Indistinct murmurs escaped their conference. Then in silence they turned toward Rima and leaned forward, their intent clear: to rush her together.

So close! Mwadi urged the panicking kattar-kattar to exit the window she’d entered by. That would distract or deflect them. She couldn’t move! Ilunga’s arms wrapped her in a tight embrace. The bird panted, its heart speeding toward death. She should leave it before she died too.

Quickly she twisted her other mount midair and plummeted downward. The saboteurs gave up their charge and ran shrieking for the cover of their truck’s cab. A third shot. A nearer miss. The fallen man sobbed something and began crawling toward the truck as well. Much better odds.

“Didi?”

Who had called her? Only Ilunga mangled her name so. Trapped against his heaving chest, her exhausted mount listened to his weakly whispered words with failing ears.

“I know. It’s you. In there. Listen. Jealous. Don’t be. Like me. You can’t. Help.” Alone each phrase made sense, but how to connect them? She couldn’t ask him what he meant. She couldn’t let these be his last words.

On her bird’s next breath she fled it. Barely in time.

From the sky above she could see Scranforth duck beneath the Napier. He’d be able to hit Rima from under there, and he’d be safe from her one functional mount. But with only one bullet left—probably—

BANG! The actress hunched forward, caught herself with her shongun hand. Where was her wound—

The white man rolled free of the motor’s chassis and sprinted toward Rima, launching himself at her silently like a striped hyena. He bowled her flat. The shongun shone in the sun just a foot away, but Rima struggled fruitlessly to retrieve it till Scranforth choked her motionless. Then he raised himself up on one elbow and stretched across the sand to steal his opponent’s weapon.

Mwadi reached it first.

As she flew off with the shongun’s trigger guard firmly in her mount’s grip, Rima recovered. The kattar-kattar’s last sight of her was of her flipping her scarf around Scranforth’s neck, presumably a preliminary to strangling him as he’d strangled her.

Mwadi heard the freight truck roar to life. It passed her and turned north onto the Cairo road, going fast. Following her memory of the map she did the same, more slowly.

Far heavier than the film roll, the shongun was slippery, too. Her mount’s feet ached when she finally unclenched them to let it plunge safely into the waterhole where her human body rested. And where she woke it.

Beside her head a brass clock told the time: one and one quarter hours till noon. Her servants would wonder where she’d gotten. But it could take a day—or longer—till they traced her here. She sat up carefully and poured a goblet of water while she considered her plight. And Rima’s. And Ilunga’s. Should she walk to the road she’d flown along, flag down assistance from whoever happened to be faring by?

But then the Cadillac appeared on the horizon. Then it came close and parked and disgorged her love. Stepping into the light, Mwadi greeted Rima’s tired and radiant smile with her own, almost as battered, equally bright. They exchanged a quick, light hug—not tentative, only cautious, and even so Rima winced when Mwadi touched, once again, the juncture of hip and thigh.

“Damn fool grazed my side. Ricocheted a rock off my shoulder, too. Sir Jamison ain’t gonna be happy how I spent my vacation.

“But look. Least I got your brother back alive.” The actress pointed to Ilunga lying on the motor’s rear bench, her cape spread to cover him. A grimace told Mwadi he felt pain. Better than feeling nothing. “What he got to tell us about how he and his ‘friend’ turned up is worth more even than them photographs I sent you here with. I’ll take em anyway, but later.”

Princess Mwadi thought she could find the place where she’d let them drop.

“No room for the tent with the prince in there, but we ain’t got time to take it down now anyway. Need to get him to a doctor.”

You too, Mwadi thought but didn’t say. “I’m ready.” She climbed in behind the steering wheel.

“Sun River” copyright © 2023 by Nisi Shawl
Art copyright © 2023 by Xia Gordon

A version of this story appeared in the anthology, Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Tales of Egypt, published by Twopenny Books.

Kinning, Nisi Shawl’s new novel, is available everywhere on January 23, 2024.

 

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Sun River
Sun River

Sun River

Nisi Shawl

About the Author

Nisi Shawl

Author

Nisi Shawl (they/them) is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories and a teacher. They are the co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Their short stories have appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.
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