Kansal’s Ambition (24.7)

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44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, SDS Memorial Park

Putting a body count on the Ayvartan Revolution and Civil War was difficult. When did the Revolution start? Was it truly in 2007 when Daksha had taken over the radio station and declared war on the Imperial Authority? That was a stunt to get attention. She never thought that a year after that she would be in Solstice, shooting guards and police, arming workers.

When did it all end? Did it end with the creation of the SDS? Given the current circumstances it certainly didn’t feel like the revolution was complete. It had merely been postponed.

There were so many who had fallen for one reason or another. Even when she couldn’t see their faces in her mind anymore, if she had seen their blood even once she could still see it. Cracks of gunfire, slicing of knives, and the blood, dribbling down the inside of her closed eyelids.

Not everyone had graves and the graves that existed did not always have the right plaques.

There were too many people who did too many things. Daksha barely remembered them all. She barely remembered those she killed and robbed; she barely remembered all of those the police and the guards took from the movement and never gave back. There were fragments of memory that flashed most brightly, like lightning, and then vanished, perhaps for good.

Not everyone deserved to be remembered. But she still felt cowardly for forgetting.

It had been her idea to make an ostentatious memorial park. It helped her to remember.

But there was only so much that could be recalled and stricken on a metal plaque.

There was at least one person, however, whom she could remember perfectly well.

In the memorial park, one grave stood sentinel above the rest. It had the largest plaque.

Lena Ulyanova, born 1968 in Narodnaya, Svechtha. Died, 2022 in Solstice City.

She had lived to see the SDS formed and died before she saw it squabbling and falling.

Her death had been peaceful, happy, among friends and admirers. Her accomplishments were many. Too many to list, and there were many listed. Mother of revolutions; giver of weapons rhetorical and material; fierce fighter in papers and backstreets both. Daksha knew everything about Lena. When she closed her eyes she could still walk hand in hand with her as if seeing it in a film from her own perspective. She could never forget any moment with Lena.

She touched the plaque, first with her hand, and then touching her forehead to it.

“I’m sorry.” She said simply. She couldn’t offer her mentor anything but her apologies.

She had left her ambitions lying by the wayside; she had forgotten the future.

At no point had the revolution stopped. They had all merely decided to put it aside.

“Daksha, it’s me! I’m approaching from behind you! It’s Kremina!”

She turned around; Kremina was walking in from the other end of the park. There was no one else around — it was getting late in the day. Kremina knew Daksha was very jittery and so she never surprised her, she always announced her presence. It was thoughtful. It made Daksha smile. She stood up from the grave and spread her arms, embracing her lover.

“What’s the word from the Council?” Daksha asked.

They separated for a moment. Kremina shook her head.

“Are they passing anything?” Daksha pressed.

“They’re passing some parts piecemeal. Debating the others.”

Daksha grunted. “I didn’t give them an action plan for them to pass bits and pieces they liked. They have to do everything or nothing is going to work. What is Yuba doing?”

“Trying to keep it together. Councilors are resigning over this. It’s gotten messy.”

“Tell him I’m exasperated. I’m going to set them all ablaze soon!”

“Yuba is exasperated too. Is your speech ready for tomorrow?” She asked. “It’s important. He agrees that the speech will help give everything momentum, if you pull it off right.”

“I wrote all of it this morning.” Daksha replied. “Did you make the arrangements?”

“Yes. It will be televised; people in canteens and tenements and villages that have a communal television, and the few people with private televisions, will be able to see it on the national channel. You will also be live on the radio. We expect the audience to be significant.”

“Good. I want them to hear and consider me over the foolishness of their councilors.”

“Council has never addressed the public on television or radio. We’ll catch them off-guard.”

Daksha nodded. She glanced sidelong at Lena’s grave. She did not want to return to this place in a year and feel the need to apologize again — or worse, have no place here to return to.

With one hand on the grave for strength, she promised to commit to the future.

Her other hand procured an item from her pocket. She knelt down before Kremina.

“Is something the matter?” Kremina asked.

“Will you marry me?”

Daksha raised her hands, presenting a small box with a ring in it.

Kremina’s eyes drew wide.

She was overcome with emotion. She took the box. She couldn’t speak.

She raised a hand over her mouth, and started weeping.

“Yes.”

Daksha didn’t think she heard it right. “Yes?”

“Yes. Yes! I want to marry you!” Kremina said.

“Twenty years late, I think. I’m sorry.” Daksha said.

Kremina knelt and threw her arms around Daksha. She kissed her.

“We’ve been married all this time in my eyes. We’re just going public.”

Daksha nodded. They bowed their heads, foreheads touching, and wept together.

 

45th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Solstice Dominance — City of Solstice, Memorial Park

KVW Warden Daksha Kansal’s Emergency Community Address

Televised and radio-aired at noon on 45-AG across national channels.

Comrades of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice!

We must collectively open our eyes and awaken to the facts!

The Nocht Federation is nothing but a paper tiger!

Their technology is no better than ours!

Their strength of arms is no greater than our own!

Their vaunted morality, their claim to civilization, no more valid!

There is no area in which Nocht has an advantage over us!

To think ourselves inferior to them is to condemn ourselves to slavery!

Nocht is a false democracy that intends to rule the world with violence!

Nocht accrues cowardly victories by launching surprise attacks on peaceful nations!

Nocht’s industry, Nocht’s politics, Nocht’s beliefs, in no way grant them superiority!

That they have come this far is no testament to their strength!

It is a warning to us that we must further our own strength and resist!

Elements in our government and military have swallowed up the false words of despots like Achim Lehner and Mary Trueday and now believe that our struggle is hopeless. I cannot express to you with words the magnitude of the error that we commit in believing these lies.

For over 15 years the Nocht Federation has claimed a moral superiority over us, and over the nations of the world around us. They speak of their international trade and how it enriches nations; they speak of their democracy and free speech and private enterprise; they speak of their advances in science and medicine; they speak of their religion and ethical character. Nocht would have you believe they live in a golden age while the world wallows in the gloom.

But unclouded eyes should be able to see that Nocht and its virtues are an illusory edifice!

You can pick apart the fantasies one by one and discover that the Emperor has no clothes!

Every Republiksmark earned in their network of so-called international trade has been strong-armed out of nations that have been cheated out of their freedom and resources at the point of a gun. I remember a time not so long ago when Nocht condemned Bakor and the Higwe as nests of “pirates” and “barbarians,” chastising them for “blocking sea routes” and “terrorizing merchant shipping.” That rhetoric turned to gunfire not soon after that!

Nocht wants to wipe this history from the record! Nocht praises Bakor and the Higwe for their democratic governments, free markets, and for their newly relaxed international trade agreements. They treat the puppet democracies of Bakor and Higwe as if these nations had risen out of the ground one day, fully formed. But did the Bakoreans and the Higweans choose this state of affairs? Tell me, what language is spoken today in the Bazaars of Pampala?

So-called democracy has served only to submit unwilling people’s to Nocht’s will!

So-called democracy fell on Bakor and Higwe and displaced people in the name of profit!

So-called democracy crushed popular movements in Cissea for the benefit of capital!

Is this barbaric so-called democracy what they mean to bring to our shores as well?

I scoff at the insinuation that Nocht is a leader in Democracy. Nocht and its succession of eight-year dynasties have not earned the right to preach to anyone about Democracy. They have no right to speak to other nations about Freedom; it is evident Freedom is their least concern!

As I speak, Northern Aviation, General Oil, The Signature Motor Company, and many more corporations stand to profit immensely from the trampling of foreign peoples.

Violence is exported from the Nocht Federation across the sea, most recently to us, to Ayvarta. At the beck and call of massive arms-makers and resource-hoarders that reap massive profits, Nocht has dragged us into chaos. Can the liberated and enfranchised democratic peoples of the world cast their vote to stop this? Can those in opposition to this expansion and aggression, exercise their free speech and expression and representative democracy to stop this?

Is there a field in the ballot that asks the Nochtish people whether they want this brutality or not? What use is the Nochtish democracy if it cannot stop the Nochtish greed!

Achim Lehner was a name on one of those ballots once. What did he represent on that ballot? Did his competitor represent something different? Was there a man whom the Nochtish people could vote for that did not represent aggression and subjugation and misery the world over?

No! Their so-called democracy exists only to legitimize their adventurism and nothing more.

And yet, they have the gall, these Northern men, to claim they are superior to us!

Achim Lehner will tell you that he is a man of science, that Nochtish science has cured disease and revitalized industry and enriched its people; yet Achim Lehner must have never heard of the revolutionary sciences founded in Svechtha and brought to us by the Zaidis in the new millennium. Because his miracle cures for disease are all locked away in the chests of doctors who demand loot in exchange for health; his revitalized industry has come at a cost of workers laboring in awful conditions for interminable hours, under constant threat of replacement; and despite the rising of abstract numbers of jobs created, stocks and bonds and other monies traded, people still starve, still wander the streets homeless in Rhinea, right under the eyes of his administration! Is this the shape of a civilized, golden age? It is obvious: No!

Meanwhile Mary Trueday claims that she has been enlightened, and that she has access to a font of knowledge that supports Nocht as a moral leader in the world. Mary Trueday, in the face of all the heinous acts committed by her hosts, will without shame parade herself as a spiritual woman who is guided by a higher faith. Has Mary Trueday lost her mind? She has gone from a sniveling aristocrat to a deluded buffoon! Wherever Nocht goes you see the blind believers of the Messanic church wandering in their wake to explicate their atrocities. Mary Trueday is a coward and a zealot who has taken up this wicked mantle for a new generation of demagogues.

By adopting Messianism so strongly Mary Trueday has fully turned her back on our people! Because if you read their scripture then you will know that Hers is a religion whose texts outright condemn our culture’s expressions of identity and even sexuality; that believes in an eternal hell where we burn if we do not follow her strict dogmas; that condemns women like herself as the devil that brought ruin to mankind; that posits a ridiculous mountaintop battle where demons and angels will decide our final fate for us, because we are sinners and weak flesh and ignorant and eternally consigned to hell since the birth of our species.

What do these fairy tales prove to us? Do they justify the deaths and carnage that they have wrought in our country in a mere 27 days? Again, I say No! We must strongly resist these ideas! Nocht cannot write the world’s history any longer! Nocht is a paper tiger, comrades! Hands have folded and painted it and made it fearsome, but there is no flesh there!

Today, comrades, I beseech you to gather your strength and resist Nocht!

We are a socialist nation, comrades; we put, ahead of all consideration, the provision of food, shelter and health for all our people. Life is our value. I am asking you, comrades, to put ahead of everything the preservation of the communities that you hold most dear.

Right now, Nocht threatens to obliterate everything you have gained. Your food gathered by their bureaucrats, priced and sold outside the reach of your wages; your homes taken and valued above your means to live; your services, such as healthcare, the trains, the union cars that drive you to work, the civil servants who help you when a natural disaster strikes, all of those people and those resources will be taken from you to be sold at a profit to those who can afford to pay the better price. Nocht seeks to unmake everything that you believe in!

Nocht has come to put you to the sword, to cast you out on the street, and to make you beg for its scraps! They will rewrite your history to fit the narrative of their superiority.

We did not fight for close to a decade for our freedom to give it up to another Empire. So-called Empress Mary Trueday prattles about her birthright as though you, her people, are a trade good that she can buy and sell — those who talk of entire countries as their birthrights are nothing but despots! There is only one birthright here that matters. Your birthright as a human being to lead a life of dignity, free of preventable starvation, disease, homelessness.

That is what we fought for. And that is what we must keep fighting for.

Because of the cruelty and immediacy and totality of this attack upon us all, there is confusion in our government. There are many Councilors undecided as to what course of action to take. Over the years they have given themselves more and more responsibilities and yet now they forsake them! There are among them people who believe that we can appease Nocht. To appease Nocht, however, is to declare Ayvarta extinct. That is what they want most of all.

Nocht wants to destroy our way of life, because our strength calls into question their own.

It would be the darkest tragedy of our history if the craven indecision of a few doomed us all.

I am calling on all of you comrades, all of you who are truly free and still live in a free nation, to beseech your councilors, to beseech like the Nochtish people cannot, and through the true democracy of the proletariat, to prepare this nation to defend itself at all costs. We must awaken and make our voices heard; it must be shown to all that we will not rest until all our refugees and wounded are evacuated, rehoused and fed, until our army is rebuilt to defend us, until our most powerful weapons are being built and brought regularly to bear against the hated enemy, and ultimately, until Nocht is driven entirely from our lands.

Soon, it may come to pass that half of our beautiful lands are all that remains to house and feed a population meant to live on all of our beautiful lands. But we have a duty to each other that supersedes any hardship. Today, I am calling on you, because this country needs your support! We must secure the future of this nation, which has been so hard-fought for!

Comrades! Today you must awaken! You must shout! You must shout loud enough to awaken this country!

You must shout so loud that your comrades will hear, alive or dead! Your words cannot be misinterpreted!

You must shout so loud that the undecided councilors in the People’s Peak hear your voice unequivocally!

You must shout so loud that the factories, the fields, the streets, are filled with the sound of your resistance!

Let your voices be heard today! Speak before the imperialists take your voice away as they have already taken so many! Shout in the name of that great provider who has cradled you selflessly! For the Motherland, comrades! Lift your right fist, and shout, for Ayvarta!

Awaken, my proud and powerful country! Crush the paper tiger under your boots!

 

* * *

Night fell on Solstice after another busy, lively day in the capital. Everyone welcomed it.

Hours had passed since the speech, but the cheers were still with her; the wall of fists raised into the air in near perfect synchronicity to her own was still in her mind. Such a powerful response from the crowd boded well. She left the Memorial Park with her head up high.

When she returned to her office in Central she received reports that recruitment centers in Solstice City were being swamped with prospective trainees, and that they had run out of informed consent literature to hand out to laborers and students considering joining the armed forces. Reports from other locations in the nation were still forthcoming, but the response seemed promising. Daksha didn’t necessarily just want soldiers however. She needed people to pressure their councilors. She wouldn’t know whether that was happening right away though.

Still, she believed that this could be an entirely new beginning to the fight. Everything up to this point, the invasion, the loss of Shaila, Madiha’s rampage in Bada Aso, was only a prelude to their resistance against Nocht. She believed it; she had to believe it. The future rested on it.

She took her place behind her desk, committed to returning to the war work of the KVW.

But her head was still in the clouds. She toyed with her pen and stared at the black and white picture of Kremina she had on her desk. They were standing in arm in arm in the photo, during the naming ceremony for the SPV Kansal, their most modern naval Battleship to date.

They planned the wedding for 24-HF-2030. Daksha wanted it to be small and discrete.

Perhaps by then Madiha would be back in the city. Daksha wanted her as her best lady.

Madiha was the only person she had something of an amicable connection to who remained from those old, bitter days of revolution. Kimani was invited, but not “best lady” material.

She let out a long, fond sigh, thinking about it. A married woman; married to Kremina.

Her mind was strangely peaceful. The flashes of violence had subsided momentarily.

Someone let themselves into the office; Daksha looked up. But she didn’t snap like usual.

“Whenever Kremina comes in she gives me a warning, Yuba. For my anxiety.” She said.

At the other end of the room Councilor Yuba crossed his arms. “Sorry, Warden.”

“Have you come to deliver good news, or with more baffling legislative arcana?”

Councilor Yuba smiled at her. “How arcane does ‘Premier Kansal’ sound to you?”

 

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Kansal’s Ambition (24.6)

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This story segment contains some violence and death.

 

???th of the ???’s ???, 200? D.C.E

Core Ocean — Kuhamisha Isles, 75 km west from Bada Aso.

At the beginning of their exile the women did not talk at all, and it was torture for both.

Kuhamisha III was called Regret island. It was a kilometer from Kuhamisha IV and connected by traversable shallows. These two islands together comprised enough territory to feel like something other than a prison, despite their total isolation from civilization and the lack of absolutely anybody on them. Each island was the same — an irregularly shaped ring of sandy shore and shoal leading to ranks of palms and an interior of lush rainforest. A cool, salty breeze swept through the pale, sandy beaches, and the water was thick with fishes and crabs.

On every beach, the exiles could stand and see nothing but blue ahead for an interminable distance. Ayvarta was back out there somewhere, but it was far out of their reach.

Imperial Guard took them by boat to the islands, and showed them the eastern beach where the dock of Kuhamisha, a crude structure of wooden planks, had been erected. Despite the pistols in their hands the Guards were almost cordial. This punishment was lenient, and they were not really being treated as a threat. Kremina thought the guard must have been confident in their traitor within the Zaidis. She also thought that Daksha might decide in a moment of irrational rage that it’s the foolish navy C.W.O who was to blame for this all, and murder her here.

But when the guards unshackled them and departed, Daksha simply went off her own way.

On the beaches of Kuhamisha the air was cool and inviting but the sun was always bearing down. It dawned on her that they would be stuck on these islands for over four years if they served out their sentences, and that escape was essentially impossible. She looked into the forest, and she looked at herself, barely a few hours into exile. She was dressed in a plain white shirt and long pants, the only articles of clothing she had left. Daksha was much the same.

The Guards promised them a supply of food, water and any necessities to be delivered weekly. But there was no introductory shipment. When the boat left it left them only with the clothes on their backs, perhaps hoping they would die of neglect. During that first day, Kremina ate berries in the forest. She saw no small animals that could be hunted. She didn’t even see insects on the plants. She kept to the shade inside the rainforest and on its edge, avoiding the sun. As a Zungu of a particularly light and dusty pigmentation she would have burned badly under it.

Kremina didn’t know what Daksha did during the first few days because she didn’t see her. Daksha kept on walking. There was a shack near the southern beach on Regret that had been constructed for exiles. There were some containers there, presumably to save water, as well as a hammer, a flint and steel set to start campfires, a rudimentary fishing pole, and a bundle of colorful cloth. Kremina removed her pants and wore a flowery curtain as a makeshift skirt. She unbuttoned her shirt and slept in the shack. Daksha stayed missing the whole time.

Next morning it began to rain, and Kremina drank from the water sliding down the tin roof of the shack. She then set the containers out to start collecting rain. Much of that day she spent inside the shack, staring out at the sand, alone. She thought about Daksha, out there.

It gnawed on her. She had nothing to think about but that there was only a single human being out there, one who abandoned her, who might hate her, who might have awaited in this bush or that one to leap out and attack her. It started to occupy her dreams after a while. She didn’t know enough about Daksha to make a judgment, but under these extreme conditions her brain was fueled by this paranoia. She felt she would have a completely blank mind otherwise.

An undetermined amount of time later — the sun had gone up and down at least twice and perhaps five or six times but Kremina hadn’t the presence left to take note of it — there was cause for reunion. A horn sounded in the distance. There was a ship approaching Regret.

Daksha reappeared on the southern beach, though Kremina had no idea from where she had come. She had unbuttoned her shirt, and ripped her pants legs shorter. Her neck-length, bob-cut black hair was messy and dusty, windblown and clearly covered with sand. She was taller, leaner, stronger than Kremina — she looked like more of a soldier than the C.W.O. They stood together, quietly awaiting the ship on the dock. Daksha’s face bore a tired expression.

A small coast guard boat sidled up to the makeshift docks. Guards with rifles kept them at bay while a small crane lifted a crate and dropped it on the dock. Once more they sounded the horn and then left the dock. The exiles watched the ship sail off and disappear in the distance.

Silently, Daksha pried open the crate with a small bar affixed to its side. Inside there were two jugs of fresh water, a box of citrus powder to combat scurvy, rolls of bandages, boxes of millet, and bottled, pickled dates. There were a few books, including, perhaps as a joke, the complete Ayvartan penal code. There were a few plain white shirts and long black pants. One large bundle of rough cloth caught their attention. Daksha pulled it out — it was a hammock.

She shot a look at Kremina, who shrank back several steps from her in a sudden reflex.

“If it is alright with you, we can share the hammock.” Daksha said. She sounded calm.

Kremina blinked. She laughed nervously. “I suppose we could. You aren’t angry with me?”

“Why would I be? If you were a spy you wouldn’t be here dying slowly with me.”

“It could be part of a long con.” Kremina said. She felt ashamed for her fears so far.

“Foolishness ill suits you, C.W.O. Keep your wits about you and don’t let your brains bake any worse under the sun. I’m not planning on staying here for 4 years.” Daksha said.

“I see. So you’ve got a plan? When do we leave?” Kremina said excitedly.

Daksha averted her eyes. ” I don’t have a plan, but I’m thinking. Give me some time.”

Kremina sighed. “Well, until then, at least we won’t lose our minds from loneliness.”

“Yes, I am sorry I left you behind. I was still vexed about the situation so I went exploring and aimlessly wondered through Regret and onto Sorrow.” Daksha said. She looked overhead. The sun was rising toward the center of the sky right over their backs. “Let us get out of the sun.”

Side by side, they returned to the shack. A wooden frame with a thin roof and no windows. It had no door and no floor. Kremina had slept on the sand the past few nights, and she had hung a curtain over the doorway. Daksha did not even want to go inside. “We’ll find a way to get a roof over our hammock and sleep outside. I’m not too fond of cramped spaces like that.”

“I see. Any particular reason why?” Kremina asked.

“Bad memories.” Daksha said.

A few paces inland from the shack they found a pair of sturdy palms and hung the hammock between them. There was enough shade in the morning and noon from the cluster of nearby palms that they could avoid the sun while resting. Both of them climbed on the hammock and got comfortable as they could — there was barely enough room, but if they huddled together they could be warm and more accommodating than sleeping on the hot sand.

“What did you see on the islands?” Kremina asked. Daksha lay behind her.

“In the middle of Sorrow there’s a little freshwater pool we could drink from if we ever fall into dire straits. There is also thick bamboo that we can cut for tools, like a fishing spear. Or a guard-killing spear.” Daksha said. “There might be animals. I can’t be sure.”

Kremina nodded. “I’m glad I’m not alone here.”

“Me too. Don’t worry. We won’t waste four years here. We won’t.”

Kremina laughed. “I feel that even if we spent all that time here, it would not be wasted.”

Daksha chuckled. “Perhaps not.”

Time felt distorted on Kuhamisha. Kremina didn’t know how long she had spent on it. She did not know what day it was when the exiles reconciled and she stopped counting the sun’s journeys and the moon’s appearances. But she felt happy to have Daksha behind her back.

It was not just the isolation. Daksha’s words, written on the newspaper, had brought Kremina out of a dark place. She had nursed admiration for the mysterious socialist rogue. It was strange meeting her and finding the authentic person behind those words. Daksha might have been a thief and a rebel and a killer in the lore of wanted posters and street gossip.

For Kremina, who had always thought her skills in life to be a waste, and going further to waste, it felt like an opportunity to meet someone who was making a real difference in the world.

 

But in real life Daksha was a person who spent her days in exile fashioning crude tools and chasing after crabs and fish with limited success and no thought of resignation; a person who told bawdy jokes while taking a long walk around the beach; a person who looked at the night sky and fashioned her own constellations out of people she knew, Kaushik, Ulyanova, Grabin, Foana, Bastogne, Qote, and invented stories whole cloth about them; a person who recited old stories and religious hymns and folk poetry to lull herself to sleep; a person who awakened first and somehow always crept out of the hammock without waking her companion.

As time went by that presence became more intimate, and it was harder and harder for Daksha to leave unnoticed. Kremina grew used to those hands holding her by the waist and breast, to that face resting on beside her own, to the playful nibbling on her shoulderblade and the sliding of Daksha’s fingers across her thighs. Whenever Daksha left the hammock now, Kremina woke, and took her hand by the hand and pulled her into a kiss. Often it convinced her to remain.

Exiled on Kuhamisha, Kremina got to see the human behind the myth of Daksha Kansal, the monster that stalked the streets and papers of Bada Aso. She grew to love her more than the myth, not for the things that made her rare but for all the things that made her ordinary.

Ordinary things like her dreams, her childish-sounding, unpretentious dreams.

“I want people to grow up free of the pain that I felt and feel.” She would say.

Her phrasing was different, but it was her socialism distilled to its human core.

 

26th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2006 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

You couldn’t find a decent socialist paper in Bada Aso these days even if you tried.

Various circumstances had driven The Union Banner out of print. With it, a lot of the irreverent fervor of the revolution had quieted down. The Social Democrat’s paper, Sparka, gave gracious room to Zaidi figures like Lena Ulyanova, the mysterious Mr. Bastogne, and a rising star still known only as “M.Sky” or “Malinovsky,” who had all but switched sides to SD point of view. However they had rigid guidelines and a heavy editorial hand that frustrated the Zaidis.

Sparka was trash; Daksha needed only give it a good look a few hours from reaching the mainland, hooked on a piece of steel debris from the exploded IAS Cheche, to realize this. Dressed as sailors she and Kremina seized copies of the paper from a child courier and found the articles disappointing. Though well-written, the subject matter was far too tepid.

Only one thing about it inspired curiosity — why it was still printing in the first place.

There was also an answer to this and it was also easy to grasp from the paper’s contents.

Sparka was still illegal, but aside from the occasional inflammatory Zaidi rants it was seen as harmless and conciliatory with the Bada Aso government, and the Guards had for the most part given up on finding the latest hiding place for its precious secret printing press.

Setting out into the city to find the answer themselves seemed a daunting task at first. But it took Daksha only a few hours to shake and smack around the correct people to uncover its location, so she surmised that Sparka existed only because the Guards had gotten lazy.

“Do we attack now?” Kremina asked.

“At night — less potential collateral damage that way.” Daksha replied.

Ducking behind a steel garbage bin in an alley, the two women waited for the dark.

Because it printed only at the end of the week, and printed only three long pages, the SD printing press and the so-called editorial bureau of Sparka was based out of the basement of a small sports club along the Umaiha riverside. Daksha picked the lock and the pair stole inside. Past an entry hall lined with kickball trophies and storied team photographs, they found the door to the basement, drew their revolvers and tiptoed into dark below.

Behind stacks of old unused furniture, nets, cases of balls, and other sporting implements that dominated the room, there was one uncongested corner with a desk and the SD’s printing press, smaller even than the one at the Union Banner. On the desk, a young man slept near a flickering candle that could have fallen and set alight his papers at any moment.

It very nearly did when Daksha kicked the desk and awakened him. He sat up and looked every which way as though surrounded. He turned his eyes to Daksha. Dark bags had formed under them and gave him an even more nervous expression. He was paler, thinner than before.

“Kansal.” He said in a hushed voice. The word was almost lost under a panicked breath.

“Janta Mahapuri, or should I say, Malinovsky, in the papers.” Daksha replied.

“Daksha, where– Why are you dressed like that?” He asked. He started to shake. “And your hair is so long. I haven’t seen you in a while, I was so startled. Who is she, with you?”

“I am Kremina Qote. Pleasure to meet you. I was never a fan of your articles in the Union Banner, but a comrade is a comrade, right?” Kremina said with a big grin.

Daksha walked around the desk and hooked her arm aroung Malinovsky’s throat as though to choke him, but instead she gave him a friendly shake and messed with his hair.

“You should be happy to see us! We just got through hitching a ride on a naval cutter from Kuhamisha and then killing everyone and blowing it up.” Daksha said.

“You’ve got to be joking.” He said, still trapped in Daksha’s grip.

“It’s easy when you know exactly how bored ensigns patrol the deck.” Kremina said.

Malinovsky stared sidelong at Daksha while she laughed and toyed with him.

“Don’t you think the sailor suit fits me?” Daksha said, shaking him again.

“A little, but I think the um, the gentleman sort of look, fit you best.” He stammered.

“Perhaps, but I like trying new things. I wore my hair long all through my childhood. I kind of miss it, to be quite honest. My mother liked it a lot.” She said casually.

“I’m sure she did.” He said. “I’m sure she was a woman of great taste, like yourself.”

Daksha pressed the barrel of her revolver to his head and squeezed off a single shot through it.

“That was too good for you, you traitorous piece of shit.” She said. It was an odd relief.

His neck went limp against her elbow. She let him go. While his body fell aside, she took everything that was on the desk, stuffed it into his pack and took it around her shoulders. There were unfinished articles, SD codes and other things. Daksha urged Kremina out and the two of them ran out the back and disappeared into the tight streets and alleys of Bada Aso.

 

* * *

Under the name Lydia Kollontai, Lena Ulyanova had acquired a small apartment in the central district of Bada Aso, right under the nose of the Imperial Authority. Though her own country had overthrown its particular imperialists, Ayvarta lurched to freedom in fits and starts. Many in the Zaidi movement had been jailed or killed; she had more contacts left with anarchists than socialists these days, and begrudgingly published what little writing she did with the SDs.

She was waiting for her pupil to return. She had news to give her; a burden to give her.

Her feet had swollen some and she found it difficult to walk. So she could no longer stand under moon or rain, as she did in the past, waiting for Daksha to appear. She had the urge to do so, as if every night she did not spend watching the street was a night she delayed the return of her little star — but she simply did not have the ability. So she waited at home, hoping that the door would slam open one night and her child, covered in rain and mud, would return.

On the 26th, she felt under the weather and did not even leave the apartment to pick up a paper. A little boy courier dropped an edition of the Sparka through her mail slot but she had no motivation to read it. She laid on the couch in her little living room, eating paneer koftas, little fried balls of cheese and bulgur and bits of leek, and drinking sweet palm wine.

It wasn’t vodka, but it kept her throat from getting too dry while lounging around.

She felt miserable and started to question everything. What had she been able to do for Daksha all her life? Only get her into trouble. Only lead her to worse and worse things.

Perhaps if she had remained a compliant rich brat everyone would have been better off. She could have overcome her aversions and married and led an ordinary life, raised children, oversaw matters in narodnaya. She could have just given up and accepted the name–

No– that was the exhaustion talking. It was unconscionable. She refused to succumb to it.

She had to fight, because otherwise she left the blade of history in the worst of hands.

She had to fight to wrench it back, in whatever way possible.

Someone had to fight; someone had to sustain that fight.

But it couldn’t be her alone; it couldn’t be her in the lead anymore. The very fact that she was contemplating these things meant that her days in the forefront of this vanguard were done. She would not be the person who would free Ayvarta. She was not this land’s future.

It had to be someone to whom the Ayvartan sun had lent its fire.

Someone who was not averse to its heat like she was.

She heard a sliding noise and bolted up from her couch.

Daksha waved from the door. Her companion removed her own hat and smiled.

Lenochka,” Daksha said happily, in the way Grabin used to say it.

Shacha,” Lena said. She almost wanted to cry, but she was too tired for tears.

 

28th of the Postill’s Dew, 2007 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

Madiha felt a bit of trepidation working with the Zaidis. Though she liked Daksha well enough, and she seemed like a nice lady, other street children had told her not to get involved because the Zaidis were, as the children put it, “crazy.” They weren’t like the ordinary gangsters.

Still, Madiha liked Daksha. She wanted to follow Daksha wherever the woman went. She was tall, dark and graceful, long-haired, strong. She dressed in a suit and had a black fedora.

In a little corner of her mind Madiha wanted to dress in a suit and have a black fedora and shoot bad guys and rob banks, all the things she had heard others say about the Zaidis.

Perhaps, Madiha thought, she herself was also crazy. After all, she had killed a man to save Daksha several days before. Not one other street child in the world had ever shot a man in the head for anyone. Street kids didn’t fight, they ran. Fighting didn’t pay for a street kid.

There was something about Daksha, about the Zaidis, about their conduct and their ideas.

Everything fit with her own. She was tired of people hurting her and hurting others.

Justice attracted her, like her very own pied piper leading to the dark below of Bada Aso.

So she followed Daksha to a small butcher shop, and a basement drying room full of whole hogs hanging by hooks, completely skinned and looking disturbingly leathery. Madiha rarely ate any meat, and the sight did a lot to dissuade her from eating much in the near future.

Ducking under and squeezing around various hogs they came to a cleared area where a large machine with plates and rods and wheels stood next to big rolls and tall stacks of paper.

With a gentle smile on her face, Daksha scooped a stack of papers into a basket, and handed the basket to Madiha. It was a little heavy — she had to carry it with both of her hands.

“This is the Zaidi newspaper, Saca.” Daksha said. “I want you to distribute it on the streets. It costs 2 shells or 235 coral. You will not let go of a single issue until you get your money for it, no matter what. Stand at a street corner and act cute, and shout something in your cute little voice like ‘Workers of the world, read Saca and unite!’ to gather attention and get sales.”

Madiha blushed. She did not really think of herself as cute, though she was supposed as she was eight years old it was inevitable, even despite her size and bashful demeanor.

From the desk, Daksha withdrew a hat with a white ribbon and a small five-shot revolver.

“Here, wear this beret while you do it. You’ll look even cuter and maybe we’ll sell more papers. Those SD fools don’t have a cute little mascot.” She adjusted the hat on Madiha’s hand, and secured the gun in the basket, behind the papers. “And if someone gets funny, use that.”

“Um, whenever I shoot a gun, you should know, I always aim for the head.” Madiha said.

Daksha scratched her hair. “Can you, well, not do that? Can you shoot their legs or something?”

“I can try.” Madiha said. She had only handled a gun twice in her life, but before that she had handled rocks and bottles and bricks — her hand always tried to go for the enemy’s head.

“You don’t want to kill them, really, just make them think twice before bothering a Zaidi courier, whatever her age.” Daksha said. “Killing can get messy, maiming is just casual.”

“Will I get paid for this?” Madiha asked. She tried to put on a serious face.

Daksha smiled and rubbed the beret against Madiha’s head.

“Yes, I will pay you. You’ll also get to sleep somewhere nice, though whether it’s a guest bed, a couch, or a dog basket with blankets on it, will depend on who can host you.”

“That sounds good. All of that, I mean. I slept in a gutter a week ago.” Madiha said.

Daksha patted her on the shoulder. “We’ll have no more of that.”

“I want to ask you something else too, Ms. Kansal. I want to read the paper; I want to learn about you– about the Zaidis. About the things you said before; about sociabilism.”

“Socialism.” Daksha corrected.

“Socialism, right. Sorry.” Madiha flinched a little. It was reflexive. At the orphanage if you failed to recite an appropriate passage from the good book when asked, you’d get in trouble.

“It’s fine. At your age I didn’t even know it existed. I couldn’t even read well.”

“I can read. I memorized all of the Good Book. I had to or the sisters got mad.”

“Well, forget all of that, because it’s worthless rubbish fairy tales. Here, read this.”

From her vest pocket, Daksha withdrew a little pamphlet and put it in Madiha’s own vest pocket. It stuck out like a handkerchief and made her look a little more refined.

“It’s a primer for factory workers, written by Lena Ulyanova, one of our many genius writers. You’ll see as soon as you open it; if you’ve read that wretched messianic book then this style of writing will be easy for you to digest. And I’ll answer any questions you have later.”

Madiha smiled brightly. She felt excited suddenly. Socialism! She was going to learn with Daksha! She would sleep indoors tonight! Surely she would be the envy of the street kids. She hauled her little basket out the basement, up the steps, out the butcher shop front and all the way to the street corner. She set down her basket and looked around the crowd.

“Workers of the world, read Saca and unite!” Madiha cheered. “Only 2 shells!”

 

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Kansal’s Ambition (24.5)

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10th of the Postill’s Dew, 2003 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

4 Years Before The Ayvartan Revolution

27 Years Before The Solstice War

In the basement of a fine clothes atelier in the great city of Bada Aso a secret printing press noisily churned out illegal pamphlets and newspapers denouncing industrial farmers, the regional guard, the imperial authority, and, at times, the other illegal publications.

The Zaidi socialists of southern Ayvarta were fast applying the lessons of the Svechthan revolution. An official newspaper was a valuable tool for disseminating information to committed socialists and building socialist conscience in an undecided and unknowing proletariat. In Adjar, Dori Dobo had its Zaidi newspaper, Sitara, running for two years now.

In Bada Aso the struggle was still comparatively young, and the Union Banner stumbled up the basement steps of the atelier and out into the streets at an inconsistent pace, with an inconsistent page count and inconsistent personalities. That was all soon to change.

Through the glass door of the shop, an odd pair walked in. There was a pretty, dainty woman, barely taller than a young teen, complexion pale as a ghost’s, boasting ice-blue eyes and long blue hair, and a dress fine enough to hang on one of the mannequins in the atelier; beside her stood a tall woman, brown skinned, broad shouldered, hair cut short, wearing what would be considered a man’s ensemble vest, jacket and pants, along with a plain black fedora.

She was carrying an ordinary leather suitcase with her.

A young woman greeted them from behind a desk. She had her dark hair done into numerous luxuriant curls and her bronzed skin heavily flushed with cosmetics. Her eyes glanced at the suitcase but did not linger — she made eye contact with them quickly. “Welcome to Atelier Soie! We carry the finest fashions from Franz. My name is Genevieve. How may I help you?”

First they exchanged pass phrases. “Do you carry anything snakeskin? Hydra perhaps?”

Genevieve was all smiles. “Only for the valued customers.” She winked at the pair.

“Daksha Kansal.” The tall woman tipped her fedora at the girl, who giggled pleasantly.

“I must say, for a lady, I can only think to describe you as handsome.” Genevieve said.

“Her lady-ness only accents her handsomeness. I am Lena Ulyanova,” replied the Svechthan.

“I was informed of your arrival. You may head on down the back.” Genevieve said. “Unless this charming rogue wishes to keep me company on a lonely shift.” She smiled at Daksha.

“I’ll be just as charming in thirty minutes.” Daksha wryly said. Genevieve giggled again.

Lena gently nudged Daksha with her elbow, and the pair walked around the mannequins and sewing machines and took a door down to the basement steps. They descended into a room lit only by a few electric bulbs hanging from their cables, and sectioned off by large leather and fur and linen curtains hung as if to dry from a network of cables. Behind several such makeshift screens, they found the printing press in a corner along with the rolls of paper to be fed into it, and the front desk of their impromptu editorial office, currently presided over by two men.

“Ah, the central committee finally send someone to bail us out? Pity we couldn’t take over the big city ourselves.” Said the older of the men. He had black skin and curly brown hair that escaped from under his fedora, and a good suit. He spoke leisurely and seemed relaxed. “Name’s Bastogne. At least, that’s this week’s name. Sorry about the mess — we had to move this thing from a butcher shop a few days ago. It still reeks of offal, in my opinion.”

“I’m the new editor-in-chief, Lena Ulyanova.” Lena said, taking his declarations in good humor. She reached out a hand and she shook it softly. “Who is this young man with you?”

Bastogne hooked his arms around a skinny, bespectacled bronze-skinned youth with a bashful expression and slick dark hair. He avoided eye contact until Bastogne lifted his chin and pushed his cheeks up. He didn’t struggle — he looked permanently unamused, however.

“He’s our largely inanimate main writer. Introduce yourself for ancestor’s sakes.”

Cologne,” he said, “that’s my fake name when we got in here anyway. My pen name is Malinovsky. Trying to pretend like it’s Svechthans running this– did I pronounce it right?”

Lena smiled. “You did! I didn’t think knowledge of it would disseminate so quickly.”

“Well it has been a few years, and you are our inspiration in the struggle.” Malinovsky said.

“I’m glad to hear it. I look forward to reading your work, Malinovsky. My companion and protege here, Daksha, will write for us as well. She’s become quite a scribbler lately, and has no end of fire to deliver against the bourgeoise.” Lena said, gesturing to her pupil at her side.

Daksha had checked out of the conversation a while ago; she was examining the press instead.

On form factor alone, their press was laudable: it was a fairly small unit, capable of being taken apart and carried off in a hurry if necessary. In their line of work this was a great boon. However it came with the obvious drawback that a small press could only print a limited amount each day. Daksha knew enough about presses from her previous jobs in Dori Dobo to know that they would not be making the Union Banner a daily paper with this machine.

However it could certainly print enough for a workweek edition and a crucial Seventhday paper for the whole city of Bada Aso; six big pages, five or six articles, and some poetry or comedy.

Daksha set the suitcase down on the desk and undid the catches holding it closed. Inside were a few envelopes. She fished out a specific, larger envelope and tore it open. She handed Bastogne the manuscript and quickly began to explain its significance to him. “My first article; since I knew I would be moving from Dori Dobo soon I wrote about something universal, the character of a socialist state compared to a capitalist one. I’ll start researching for some more local articles soon, but since you seem hard-up for writing you can print that front-page.”

She had spoken very quickly and precisely, with a casual confidence that awed the room.

“Wow! A real firebrand.” Bastogne laughed. Malinovsky looked mortified for a moment.

“Oh ho ho; of course Daksha would come prepared.” Lena said, patting her pupil in the back.

“What’s in the rest of these?” Malinovsky said, picking one up with slightly shaking hands.

“Money to fund our operation.” Daksha said. “I gathered it. There’s 10,000 shells.”

Malinovsky dropped the envelope and scrambled a few steps away as if it was alive.

“That’ll keep us printing for a good while indeed.” Bastogne said. “How’d you get it?”

“Some of it was donated.” Daksha glanced at Lena, who smiled back. “Some expropriated.”

“Expropriated?” Malinovsky asked. “You mean stolen, but from whom?”

“People who deserved to be stolen from. I made personally sure.” Daksha sharply replied.

Malinovsky turned slowly away and stared at the wall as though in deep contemplation.

“Lad’s still new to all this, but he’s a pretty good writer.” Bastogne said softly.

“Have you got anything coming in?” Daksha asked, addressing the brooding young man.

“Not at the moment.” Malinovsky replied. He avoided eye contact, fidgeting with his glasses.

Daksha sighed. “Can you write filler material? Poetry? Write six or seven worker’s poems, about hard labor and bad bosses and such; something to get people riled up for a fight.”

“I don’t know. I can try.” Malinovsky said. He certainly didn’t seem the type to rile up.

“They don’t have to be great.” Daksha said. “They’ll be part of the back matter. I’ve got a few contacts who may be willing to submit articles, or I can write more. We should be ready–“

“You’d think she was the editor and not me.” Lena interrupted. Bastogne burst out laughing.

“Indeed! She’s taking the reigns right from the hands of all of us old-timers.” He said.

“I’m sorry.” Daksha said. She hadn’t been aware of how enthusiastically she was talking over everyone. “I meant no disrespect Comrade Ulyanova, I am just thinking that–“

“I understand! You’re excited. Big city, big work, girls already going after you.”

Daksha blushed; now it was her turn to grow bashful and avert her eyes. In turn Malinovsky looked like he wanted to be buried under the earth to avoid all this conversation.

Lena patted her cheerfully on the back, and hooked her arm around to pull her close.

“Let me handle the drudgery Daksha,” she said, “you focus on your specialties, alright?”

“Yes ma’am. Speaking of,” she grinned, “I don’t want to keep a lady waiting.”

 

57th of the Dahlia’s Fall, 2004 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — City of Bada Aso

Bada Aso was moving into the Aster’s Gloom, but it had not yet experienced the seasonal rains. They began irregularly, anywhere from the end of the Dahlia’s Fall to the start of the Hazel’s Frost. On the night of the 57th the sky was clear enough to count the stars and a fresh breeze blew across the streets carrying a hint of salt from the sea. It was a cool, bustling night.

Daksha waited for a contact in a dance hall off Penance road, sitting in a curtained-off booth table. While the singers and dancers gave it their all on stage and the couples on the floor stepped, kicked and twirled energetically to the beat, she drank old warm rice wine with a rough, woody taste and stared. She had bought a 2-liter bottle of the stuff to keep her busy.

Her social life could be exciting when she wanted it to, but lately she had been focusing on bigger things. The Union Banner; the Social-Democrats and the Anarchists and other groups bent on change; and plans for a few more expropriations. The Ayvartan Revolution couldn’t survive solely on Lena’s money — especially when she had given away most of her wealth and bourgeois status when the Svechthan revolution was completed and secured 4 years ago.

She didn’t want Lena to go through more difficulty — she felt that this was her responsibility. It was her country, and her people, and she should be the one handling the affairs here.

Early on she asserted her independence and initiative and it was paying off now.

A military contact was risky, but Daksha was confident in her ability to make a play.

She had agreed to meet in the booth, but Daksha keep peeking outside. It paid off eventually. She found her contact walking aimlessly toward the bar and into the dance floor. She was a woman with sand-colored skin and wavy, black hair tied into a high ponytail. She wore her naval uniform to the meeting, the fool; thankfully she had none of her pins or medals.

She turned her head and finally spotted the booth. Daksha waved her over and they sat together. She was good-looking; an understated, casual beauty. She was not a foreigner. Daksha was sure she was a Zungu Ayvartan. Judging by the tips of her ears, perhaps part-Lubonin. But she could be part-Nochtish too. For Zungu of long lines, it was hard to tell.

“Spirits defend, did Malinovsky not tell you to look discrete?” Daksha said.

“This is discrete! I’m sorry, I recently came ashore, and I’ve no civilian clothes.”

“Fine. But if we are to meet again, you’ll get a dress or a pants suit or something.”

Her new contact nodded her head. Daksha laid against the plush seating with her hands behind her neck, stretching. She’d had a couple drinks already, but they had little effect on her.

They sat in silence for a moment, sizing each other up. The naval officer decided to be friendly.

“Chief Warrant Officer Kremina Qote,” the woman said, extending her hand. Daksha shook it. “Logistics, Core Ocean Fleet. It is a pleasure to meet you. Pen name Shacha, right?”

“Corporal Shacha.” Daksha said playfully. It was one of her identities, at least.

“I didn’t know you were infiltrated in the army.” Kremina whispered.

“Do I look like I’m in the army right now? I go in and out as it suits.”

“I see. You’re every bit the mysterious rogue I thought I’d find.”

Kremina sat back in the booth, drumming her fingers on the table.

Daksha looked her up and down. She looked genuine. Nervous, but genuine.

“So, let us sort out our affairs. You’re willing to risk everything to spy on the navy. Why?”

“You inspired me.” Kremina said. “I first read your primer on the agricultural exploitation in Dori Dobo in the summer last year, and then I also read your Topic Of 14-AG, where you laid out various points against the army and government and the Empire. It dawned on me that I was not protecting our people in the navy — I am part of a government causing harm.”

“I see!” Daksha smiled. She took a sip of rice wine, and she felt terribly flattered. Though she tended to have a dim view of her own writing, she was proud of the Topic Of 14-AG. Even the curmudgeonly Social Democrats and the professional contrarians in the Anarchists had given her a hat tip for that piece, and it had made her a name in the city. To hear that it had turned a naval officer turncoat delighted her. She never expected it to be half as useful as that!

She poured from the bottle of rice wine and pushed the glass across the table with her fingertips. Kremina took it in hand and shook the ice up but seemed reluctant to drink.

“Alcohol not part of your aesthetic?” Daksha said.

“I can’t drink, I’m technically on duty–“

Daksha put her hand over her mouth to stifle laughter.

“You’re not on duty. Drink up and then tell me about good ships to rob.”

Kremina took a sip, and it loosened up her lips; she both smiled and started to talk.

Daksha’s main interest these days, aside from the paper, were expropriations. But stealing money that then had to be hidden or converted or otherwise quickly disposed of was troublesome. She had started thinking instead about stealing weapons and ammunition — things that could be distributed and used in the struggle. They had pistols and shotguns and vermin guns and even a few guardsman battle rifles but more would be good.

Bombs were a particular item on her wish list. She could do a lot with a good bomb.

She was thinking that with the proper information, a sea heist could prove lucrative. If they knew what armaments ships bound from Lubon to strike, they could potentially make off with modern automatic weapons bought from abroad to suppress the Empire’s enemies. Hit the ship in the right location, and they could toss the cargo overboard and dive for it later or rush it out to uninhabited islands and pick it up again at their leisure. It was a reckless plan, but if they had someone on the inside it was possible, and could yield a great reward.

Perhaps it was the liquor, but the more they spoke, the more Kremina grew quite confident that she could deliver a ship of increasing size to Daksha’s hands. First a merchant, then a frigate, then a destroyer, and soon Kremina was laughing and promising a Battleship would go turncoat and help Daksha bombard Bada Aso’s police stations to pieces for the struggle.

“I swear, on that handsome face of yours!” Kremina chuckled. “I’ll get y’the fleet!”

Daksha smiled and patted her in the back and, ultimately, took her over her shoulder and walked her out of the booth. All of the energy had drained from her, she was holding her hand to her mouth, limping along, turning frightening pale. Daksha propped her up and carried her out the door of the dance hall and into the street. It was long past midnight.

She looked out to the street, and found a pair of bayonets pressed to her neck.

From both sides of the building a dozen police officers appeared as if from thin air, armed to the teeth with bayonets, rifles, clubs, leather jerkin armor over their uniforms, black masks. They looked like they were readying to fight an army rather than some buzzed women.

Several years ago after murdering a man and setting alight his house, Daksha had imagined what she might have felt if caught in the act by the police. She thought she might have died on the spot, died at the feet of the guards, her heart collapsing by the weight of sin.

Dimly (perhaps it was the liquor) she congratulated herself on the fact that her reaction was one more mildly annoyed than desperately mortified. She smiled at them.

Knowing she was outnumbered, she absentmindedly held out her hands to be cuffed.

Kremina fell to the floor, dead drunk, spittle trickling from between her lips.

“I can take ‘em. Lemme at the pigs. For socialism.” She moaned from the ground.

 

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Kansal’s Ambition (24.4)

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This story segment contains scenes of graphic violence, death, derealization and extreme emotional distress.

 

8th of the Postill’s Dew, 1997 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — Dobo Broadlands, Agora Farms

10 Years Before The Ayvartan Revolution

33 Years Before The Solstice War

With the new year came the rains and the mud, but the toil remained ceaseless until it claimed her. All their meager paper money went to medicines that seemed to do her no good at all.

Daksha had grown bigger and stronger and taken on more and more of the work but it made no difference in the end, made no difference now; mother had succumbed to the new year’s mud and rain. No matter how much of the work Daksha did or committed to doing, no matter how much she successfully did — in the end the rains and the mud had drained the life from her mother. It was an impossible amount of work, done over an impossibly long amount of time.

They were committed to Volker’s crops, living on Volker’s land, and he had set them on an impossible task perhaps because he could, and now all of them were paying for that.

That morning the cows went unfed, unbrushed. Chickens roamed about, perhaps dimly wondering when their feed would be brought. No one was out on the farm. Crammed in the bedroom Daksha, Ms. Ulyanova, dodging house arrest, and the sons of the Foana and Noere families, there as friends and witnesses, looked over Yanna Kaushik. She laid in bed.

She was turning pale, coughing violently. Her strong arms and thick legs were limp and jelly-like. Despite all her muscle she simply had no inner strength left with which to move them.

She had worked under the rain, every day that Daksha ran to the village for school. They couldn’t afford not to. Daksha thought dimly that it was the rains that brought her low but in the back of her mind a voice screamed and raged and knew the real culprit behind this. It was not the rains and the mud and relative cold that put her mother in those fields all day.

“I’ve tried to contact a doctor I knew, but he is very far. I do not think he will arrive soon. I’m sorry.” Lena said. She was wearing a bright yellow dress with a voluminous skirt in her favorite style. She brought a strange touch of color to the dreary scene inside the house.

Yanna reached out a hand from the bed, and took Lena’s into her own. Lena’s hand seemed dainty compared to Yanna’s. But Yanna’s struggled visibly to maintain the contact.

“Spirits bless you, Ms. Ulyanova.” Yanna struggled to say. She coughed harshly after.

“Mother, conserve your strength, please.” Daksha said, trying to pull the blankets over her again. Both of the young men in the room turned their heads away. One wept openly.

“I am so sorry. I wish that I could do more for you. Had I been able to build you a palace here, I would have. I did as much as I could. I am sorry, Mrs. Kaushik.” Lena replied, stressing her voice. She gripped her skirts, and cast her ice blue eyes down at her yellow shoes.

“You needn’t be sorry for anything.” Daksha said. She found her own voice oddly calm at the time. Calmer than Lena’s. “You’ve done more for us than anyone, Ms. Ulyanova.”

Yanna curled her fingers around Lena’s hand, squeezing as much as she could.

She smiled at her.

“You were the mother to her I wish I could have been.” She said.

Daksha sat speechless.

Lena was dumbfounded, and then her eyes overflowed with tears. She bowed her head into her hands, weeping copiously into them, sobbing, quite suddenly crying herself hoarse.

The Noere and Foana boys closed their eyes, clasped their hands and bowed their heads.

They spontaneously chanted a prayer. They changed with urgency. Perhaps they knew that by the end of the last verse, Yanna Kaushik would no longer be able to hear them.

Daksha stood up abruptly and ran out of the house, her head down, fighting back tears. All at once everything in her mind was annihilated, leaving agonizingly blank thoughts behind.

Outside she found unexpected company.

Colonel Grabin was waiting on the road.

“Condolences, child. I have to get Lena home. Her guards only allow so much.”

Daksha barely listened. She walked past him and started down the dirt road.

She kept walking, walking, fists at her side. He didn’t stop her.

Perhaps he understood; perhaps he gave his implicit approval.

 

* * *

She spotted the first guard along the eastern portion of the estate. He was a very pale man, like Volker — they could have been brothers. Maybe they were. He had a pistol in his hip and a cigar in his mouth. He ambled along the bushes skirting the property. Ostensibly on patrol he seemed to more keen to stroll leisurely, casting lazy glances toward the manor house.

Stopping along the bushes, he stared out into the sparse wilderness for a moment. Von Volker’s estate was set on the hilly terrain north of Agora. Irregular patches of woodland framed the property, intercut with uneven, grassy bumps and dips in the terrain. Volker’s guard briefly interrogated the surroundings but he grew quickly bored of the gloomy bushes and trees. He gazed skyward, and found the clouds thickening and darkening, perhaps a sign of rain.

He took a long drag of the cigar, its tip glowing red. He turned his back on the inscrutable vegetation, extracted the cigar from his lips and blew smoke. He started to walk away.

Daksha pounced from the bushes. She hooked an arm around his neck and squeezed with all her strength. Taken by surprise he reached first for her elbow rather than his gun.

Her free hand forced a machete through his flank, driving it handle-deep into his body.

Blood spilled copiously from him and other unmentionable things spilled with it.

Once the light had gone from his eyes and the weight from his limbs, she dragged him to the bushes, stripped him of his lighter, his firearm and an extra box magazine and crept away toward the house, a small and ornate silver pistol in one hand and her machete in the other.

A line of blood trailed behind her from the edge of the blade, tracing the ground.

Situated in the middle of a cleared-out area of the hilly woodland was the estate building itself, a modest mansion, rectangular with two symmetrical, front-facing gables framing a recessed, stone doorway with a triangular pediment, and a pair of small corner towers affixed to eastern and western wings expanding upon the main structure. There were plenty of fragile windows and no light from any. Daksha snuck along the side of the building and around the back.

Behind the manor she found a carelessly open equipment shed almost as large as her shack. From the manor and shed a winding cobblestone path stretched through a garden set atop and against a little slope. Along the trail were shaped bushes, all manner of flowers, palm trees–

A thickly mustachioed, pale-pink man in a bowler hat and vest, fidgeting with a pocket watch, staring downhill at a series of beautiful flower beds carved flat into the earth below.

Daksha put the gun into her overalls and crept toward the guard with both hands on the handle of her machete. She held her breath; she felt every minute vibration of the stones, every shift in the earth beneath her feet. There was nothing else on her mind but imprecise, muddled feelings of physicality, an obsessive focus on her tendons, on the cracking of her digits and joints.

He turned his head around his shoulder; she decapitated him before he could lock eyes.

She kicked the headless body and it rolled gently downhill, coming to lie on the roses.

Machete in one hand, gun in the other, she doubled back toward the shed. Inside she found a large tracked gasoline-engine tractor — and a canister of spare gasoline beside it, as she had dimly expected. She picked up the canister and carried to the mansion, setting it down beside the back door. Gun in hand, she pushed open the door and peered quickly inside.

There was a darkened and empty kitchen with a stove, a dish washing sink, a quite grand ice box and pantry, and long rows of porcelain plates and saucers and cups behind glass. Charcoal for the coal fire oven, and a tank of firestarting fluid, was stacked into a corner of the room. A spare block of ice for the ice box, packed inside a crate full of sawdust, occupied another.

Daksha dragged the gasoline canister inside the kitchen. She threw away the cap and kicked it down, careful not to get any of the fluid on her boots as it gushed over the floor.

From the kitchen, a gloomy, empty hallway connected a few rooms to the foyer. A grand set of ornate wooden steps led to the second floor landing. There were busts set on pedestals flanking a carpet of an off-red color. Daksha peered in and found nobody around. She heard nobody around. She walked out into the foyer and inspected the carpet. It looked bleached out and old, but in reality it was just covered in a layer of dust that distorted its bright crimson color.

She thought there would be more servants or guards but the house seemed empty. Nobody was in the foyer; nobody up the stairs, in the second floor hallway. She peered down both ways and probed a few rooms, opening doors and lunging inside. Row after row of empty rooms. She found dust in the walls, cobwebs in corners. Did Von Volker even live here? But there were guards. He had to be here, he had to be. Daksha felt desperate, gripping her machete.

Everyone in Agora could have lived in this house, and yet it was desolate. Not even a maid. She ran a hand across a wooden door and left a streak over the dust. It disturbed her. She felt like she was walking into the lair of a goblin or a demon. Could humans really live this way?

Her world started to crash around her. Mind a blank, she wandered aimlessly through the manor with no clear direction. She kept walking through those empty halls, her paces echoing across the walls and inside her own skull no matter how softly she tried to tread. Volker’s manor seemed interminable, featureless, a desert of brick and mortar and wood. Had he eluded her? Had he realized what he had done and fled justice? She felt a chill in her heart.

All of this, he had taken from her. He had taken it like a despicable bird and fashioned himself a nest out of their blood and skin and it was this place, this macabre, lifeless place, a graveyard plot for the barely living with its off-gray walls and its dusty carpets and hollow rooms.

She turned a corner and heard a noise; inadvertently she found herself face to face with Haji, Von Volker’s Mamlakhan servant. At the end of a long hall he was coming out of a doorway overlooked by a large portrait painting of Ms. Ulyanova, carrying a display cushion holding what seemed like fine jewelry, including a gold loop ring with a heavy diamond.

He stopped when he noticed her and he stared, dumbfounded.

There was a short silence as each recognized the other as flesh and blood, real, present.

Daksha drew her gun and shot him three times as he started to scream. He fell back onto the floor and she trampled over him and over the dropped pieces of jewelry as she rushed under the eerie painting and into the room. Inside she found Von Volker hunched over a desk.

His office was as fine a mess as the rest. His desk was diagonal to the walls and dirty. There were pictures of Lena on the desktop, on the walls of his office — photographs the guards took of her every quarter for their reports. How had he had gotten a hold of them was anyone’s guess. He had stacks of papers, perhaps financial in nature, strewn across the room, and there was an open safe, and a large mechanical typewriter that had a horrific paper jam and an ink spill that had gunked up over who knows how long. There was no order to anything.

She raised her gun to the villain from across the room; but she wanted to see his face. She wanted him to see her make the threats. She didn’t want to shy away from this.

“Turn around you piece of shit!” Daksha shouted. She cocked the pistol — it had a slide. He could hear it, she knew. He could hear the lead cycled through it, hitting the floor.

Von Volker turned his chair around and stared. He rolled his eyes and looked exasperated, as though she had drawn him out of something infinitely more important than this.

“Yanna Kaushik died today because of you, you miserable pig. Have you anything to–“

Nonchalantly, Von Volker interrupted her.

“I don’t like folks intruding on my privacy, but I don’t want to have to clean you up from my property so here is my final offer, girl.” He said. His Ayvartan had gotten incredibly better. “I’ll give you 500 shells to fuck off out of my sight. Don’t haggle; just take it and go.”

She pressed the trigger and shot a hole through his shoulder. Von Volker flinched so hard he kicked his own chair from under him, and fell on the ground writhing and hollering.

“Don’t you know who I am?” He shouted. “I own you! I own this fucking hole!”

Daksha shot him again and again, in the leg, through the waist, in his stomach, in his chest.

She smiled. It was risible. He was so despicable, so wretched. All of his money and power satisfied nothing. He died alone watched on all sides by a woman who hated him more than any other creature on Aer, in a massive house that lacked even a house maid to clean its floors.

Even when the gun clicked, even when Von Volker stopped moving. She kept pressing the trigger as though more bullets would come out, and she kept laughing as if more wounds were scored on the corpse. Even when the gun fell from her suddenly limp fingers, they kept twitching in the air all by themselves as though there was still a trigger there to pull.

Her teeth grit of their own accord, stifling a sob. She closed her trembling hands into fists and raised them to her face, pressing hard against her eyes and the bridge of her nose trying to dam the tears. She could not press anywhere near hard enough to stop them. She wept. Her knees shook. As the blood pooled she came to the realization that everything was undone.

Daksha mustered the last of her strength and charged out of the room and downstairs, and while her composure held she threw the lighter into the kitchen to set the place alight.

Bashing open a window, clearing out the glass entirely with her machete, Daksha extricated herself from the burning property and ran headlong into the wood, her sobs turning to screams, and her gait irregular as she felt her legs wobbling under her own weight.

In the future, though the burning of the Volker estate could be confirmed with fact, Daksha would think back upon her experience of the day, and revise it, revise it, and torment herself with uncertainty about which parts were real and which a product of the haze of anger and sorrow that overtook her throughout the whole Postill’s Dew, and perhaps forever on.

 

* * *

Winter and the new year brought rain and mud to Ayvarta. Though nowhere near as rainy and muddy as Dbagbo or Tambwe, the village of Garani saw its fair share of rainfall. The New Year’s Festival had to be cancelled on account of the rain. Many people had fallen sick as well.

At least one person had died. Garani was as a somber as a twenty-building town could be.

Under thick sheets of windblown rain, Lena Ulyanova stood on the edge of her lawn with an umbrella over her head and waited, straining her eyes to try to see through the storm. A few more steps and she would have violated her house arrest. She was strongly considering taking those taboo steps, and however many more steps were necessary to scour the Agora.

It was the rain that stopped her, not the guards. It was getting worse; colder, thicker.

Lena stood out in the rain in intervals of fifteen and twenty minutes before retreating back to her cabin and pacing around the rooms in fits and starts. She cursed her constitution. In the Homeland (she refused to call it Calanchi) she was used to cold, dry weather; Ayvarta’s hot days and cold rainy nights, its damp air, took a lot of out of her. She could die under this rain.

Hours after nightfall, having worked several shifts out near the road, Lena opened the door and picked up her umbrella, but found Grabin approaching. She urged him through the door, and he discarded his dripping cape into a basket set near the door. He sighed deeply.

“No sign of her, but I only got as far as her house. This rain is murderous, Lenochka.”

She nodded and made to go to the kitchen, to distract herself by fixing something warm for them, but Colonel Grabin raised his hand to get her attention before she could leave.

He dug his hand into his coat and drew an envelope out from his pocket, of the sort that Lena handed to Daksha every other day. Envelopes full of conspiratorial hopes, revolutionary dreams. Lena took the envelope from him and ripped it open. There was a letter inside.

“They’ve chosen the name. It will be Svechtha, and we will be Svechthans.” Grabin said.

Lena looked up at him with surprise. The Soviets had decided on a name for the country.

“It’s a nonsense word, but I like it.” Lena replied. It brought emotion to her — she couldn’t place it because it was difficult to be happy under her current circumstances. But she felt a muted elation. “I love it, in fact. I hope those barbarous elves can’t even pronounce it.”

Grabin nodded his head solemnly.

“The Colonial Authority is overstretched. The Soviets are getting ready for battle.”

“So, you will be going?” Lena said.

“Yes. We can arrange for your arrival soon after that.”

“I decline.” Lena said.

Grabin grinned. He chuckled once. “I expected as much.”

“I’m not a soldier; I can write papers and lend money from here.”

“Hah, Lenochka, ten years and you already love this place more than home.”

Lena smiled. “I love the world, Grabin. My objective is the world. And judging by what I’ve seen today, though Svechtha may soon be free, the world is far, far from freed. I must do more.”

“I understand. But I must warn you; I am old. I will die soon. I haven’t the time to think about the future, Lenochka. I need you to do that; you are pushing thirty, and your health is fragile. In my place, and in your own place, you must think about the future of this struggle.”

Lena realized this all too well. But she did not protest. She took his advice silently.

Suddenly the door slammed open behind them.

Wind and water blew in. The Svechthans turned sharply around.

“I’m sorry Ms. Ulyanova! Tell me I’m not a monster! Please tell me!”

Daksha stood framed in the door, the wind beating her hair, tears falling down her cheeks and nose, her eyes bloodshot. She was sopping wet and caked with mud and brush. Her storm cape was ripped apart as if she had run through thorns. Her overalls and her shirt were filthy.

She walked forward, dropping her machete. Her legs wobbled and shook. Every step was crooked, as though she was perpetually falling. Lena had never seen her in such distress.

“You are not, Shacha! You are not a monster! Come here, come here!”

Lena  took her pupil into her arms. Shacha was heavy, taller than anyone in the room, rugged and lean and difficult to hold while weeping and screaming. Daksha’s legs gave out, and she collapsed to her knees. Lena held her, head to her chest like a babe, stroking her wet hair, matted with mud and leaves, while the girl cried and sobbed and spoke nonsense.

As she held her, Lena cried herself. What could she do for the world if she had allowed her pupil to fall into this state? She was holding the future in her hands; crying, hurting.

 

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Kansal’s Ambition (24.3)

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12th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 1995 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — Dobo Broadlands, Village of Garani

12 Years Before The Ayvartan Revolution

35 Years Before The Solstice War

Daksha woke with the sun creeping in through several tiny holes in the wall of their shack, but her mother had beaten her to the day once again. All trace of her was gone from the room.

Looking around drowsily, the teenager stretched her arms and hit the wall on her side. She grumbled a little. She was bigger now — mother and daughter now barely fit side-by-side on the mattress. Their new furniture was a big, sturdy frame bed raised off the floor. Someone dear to the Kaushiks donated it, and they painstakingly assembled it in their little bedroom.

One side effect of the bed, or perhaps the growing load of work around their corner of Agora, was that no matter how early Daksha woke she always found her mother gone to the fields.

She stepped off the bed, and pulled off the sack-like gown she wore to sleep. From a clothes chest she produced a plain shirt, a pair of overalls, and a sari. They were her mother’s clothes but there was not much distinction anymore. Daksha was a bit taller than her now.

Marching a few drowsy paces from the bed Daksha yawned before the pantry and served herself a piece of bread from a half-cut loaf on a shelf, sitting next to the knife used to cut it. There was already a boiled egg floating in a pot on the stove. Daksha peeled it, and put the whole of it in her mouth, chewing quickly. A metal pitcher sat on the table. When she inspected it, Daksha was mortified to find fresh milk in it. Yanna had done her chores.

She sighed a little. Mother should not have done that. Daksha could have taken care of it.

After breakfast, she picked up her encyclopedia, a thicker version of her old textbook meant for a more matured pupil, with smaller text, fewer pictures, and a greater breadth of subjects.

She hugged it to her chest — that much didn’t change — and left the house behind.

On the way out she clipped a machete to her belt. Just in case. That much had changed.

Outside she found her mother seated beside their two Brahmin and the new calf, brushing the animals and singing to them. Her voice was a little rough. Daksha found it a little grating.

“Mother, taking care of the cows is my job and I can do it.” Daksha protested.

“Not so much as a good morning?” Yanna replied, smiling at her daughter. “I couldn’t sleep, so I took care of it. You should be running along — make the most of your school day!”

“I can’t make the most of it if I’m worried about you collapsing in the afternoon.”

“Hmph, you think because you’re big now that you can underestimate me? Go Daksha. I did this much work every day before you were born, while you were in the womb, and after.”

Daksha sighed, shook her head and got going as instructed. There was no use debating with her. Back when she did all that work there was not as much work to do! Now they had more acreage and the landlord demanded more crop. She shouldn’t push herself that much.

But she had it in her head that it was not the lentils, but Daksha’s sessions with Ms. Ulyanova, that would push them forward. Teenage Daksha felt strangely resentful about this. She loved Ms. Ulyanova and her lessons, she loved spending the day in Garani with her. However she did not enjoy the interest that her mother had gotten in them, and how pushy she had become.

These thoughts would dissipate completely as she got going down that long road to Garani. As soon as the ankle-high sprouts of the lentils disappeared behind her and she passed the small eggplants and the soybeans and the tiny stalks of wheat her enthusiasm grew palpable.

A few more wooden buildings had popped up in Garani over the years, both on the outskirts of the town. The Imperial Authority had blessed the village with a postal office, making the freelance horse couriers of the village an official outfit, along with an outpost with two sleepy young guardsmen that had just barely made it out of cadet rank. Ostensibly they were there to guard against “banditry,” a disease that had recently metastasized in the countryside.

In reality everything had been set up for the convenience of Von Volker, who had erected a countryside manor several kilometers off Garani and moved to Agora to personally supervise his vast, and growing, parcels of farmland. Agora was practically his vegetable factory.

Lena’s cabin had not changed and neither had Lena — in the morning she sat outside under her tree, nibbling on some fruit and cheese and reading a book or a newspaper, courtesy of the new post office. Daksha, arms crossed over her encyclopedia, gave a shy smile as she approached.

“Good morning Shacha!” Lena said, raising her arm and waving from the little hill.

She set down her plate and paper and stood, spreading her arms to greet her pupil.  Daksha eagerly dove into the woman’s embrace. That little girl Lena had met years before was getting lanky now though — she was more than a head taller than Ms. Ulyanova. It was harder to sink into her and feel protected and cared for, but Daksha took warmly to her nonetheless.

Together they sat down under the tree. Lena offered her food but Daksha shook her head.

“What were you reading about?” Daksha asked, glancing at the paper Lena dropped.

“Trying to keep abreast about developments in my country.” Lena said.

“Are your people fighting?” Daksha asked. She knew Lena had been exiled in part because she criticized or resisted the Lubon Colonial Authority. She didn’t know all of the details, but she had gathered enough over the years to know that Calanchi was not very stable these days.

“Not among themselves. My people are struggling for their freedom.” Lena said gently.

Daksha looked at the village around them. My people, she had said; those in Calanchi.

“Theirs is what you call a class struggle, right?” Daksha said. These things were not exactly part of the curriculum, but as an interest of Lena’s they partially became an interest of Daksha’s as well. Piece by piece, across conversations, whenever Daksha could wheedle something out of the exile, there were certain ideas that recurred and the growing child picked up.

A battle for freedom from the rich men like Volker. This idea appealed to the girl.

“Indeed.” Lena said. She looked down at her hands. She seemed reluctant to say more.

“I wish them well. I think if you embrace it then theirs must be a very noble goal.”

Lena reached out a hand to Daksha’s shoulder. “We’ve both done much to help them.”

Daksha jumped a little. “I don’t understand! What have I done to help your people?”

“You’ve done my errands! I have done the best I could from my exile and house arrest to help my people’s fight, and you in turn have helped me. Someday you’ll be in their books.”

“Really?” Daksha’s face flushed, and she felt very awkward suddenly. She had butterflies in her stomach and perhaps dancing around in her skull too. Her name in history books?

Smiling, the exile took Daksha’s book and spread it open to the page they had left off on.

“Lessons time, little Shacha. We’ll tackle history; prove yourself witty enough, and I will poison your head with the notion of socialist struggle.” She winked at her with a wry smile.

 

* * *

Around noon, after a discussion of the 1st Knight’s War between Imperial Ayvarta and Lubon, and the resulting Ayvartan victory achieved by dragging Lubon’s forces across the red desert and then destroying them at their weakest, Lena called for a break, and handed Daksha a little paper envelope. She instructed her to walk to the shop and hand it to the owner.

Head held up high, Daksha dutifully went about her task. She marched with great energy up the street and proudly handed the shop owner the envelope. He checked it; afterwards she was handed a somewhat heavy covered package and took this back to the log cabin.

There she found an abominable horned creature picking its beak through the grass for bugs, tied up to a black phaeton with gilded bars. Daksha gripped the box and grit her teeth.

She walked past the fiend and ignored Haji’s exuberant waving from atop the thing.

She found Von Volker, insinuating himself beside Lena under the tree. He sat with his legs crossed, hat on his lap, cane propped up beside him. Lena had a neutral expression.

“Ah, it’s the little girl, good day, my dear.” Von Volker said. His Ayvartan had improved.

He was sitting on Daksha’s encyclopedia and either contrived it or did not seem to care.

“I must say it is a commendable act of charity on your part, Ms. Ulyanova, to teach this girl. Such a child has an opportunity of a lifetime in being so touched by you.” Von Volker said.

“She is my star pupil.” Lena said curtly, averting her eyes from the man.

Daksha stood, hiding her mouth behind the box and feeling like she wanted to kick Volker’s teeth out. Nothing in the world made her more irate than the man’s smug expression.

“Admirable that you are making reparations in this new land. It must get awful lonely.” Von Volker said. He crept his hand over her own, having no sense at all of her body language or perhaps just not respecting it if he did. He continued to talk while Lena stared away.

Daksha glanced at her own hip; she could take her machete and slice off Volker’s arms right now. Lena would be covered in blood but it didn’t matter as long as Volker was dead–

“Say, I have been pondering a solution, if you desire it; I could put in a good word for you with the Imperial Authority, and lobby for your freedom. I would love to have you at a party, my dear, and I can attest to the guard that this dreadful house arrest is no longer necessary.”

Parties? Daksha grumbled a little. This degenerate threw parties out here while they all toiled over vegetables? Who in the transient hell of the spirit-soul did he invite to them? Bloody thoughts were giving her a headache. She was nearly in tears with this surge of violence.

“You needn’t go out of your way.” Lena said, again curtly. She didn’t make eye contact.

“I insist!” Von Volker said. “This place ill suits a woman like you my dear.”

“Ain’t she the one who decides that, gryzun? Looks to me like she ain’t interested.”

Daksha and Von Volker both turned to face the grass, where a small man had crept up on all of them. Lena seemed the only one unsurprised by his appearance. Daksha knew him well, but she had not expected him, and she thanked the spirits for his arrival. He had puffy white hair and a very thick beard and blocky shoulders. He was a head shorter than Lena and two shorter than Daksha, and his face looked quite weathered, but he was very well built. He had a greatcoat on despite the weather and long brown pants, very indistinctly dressed. His Ayvartan was rougher than Lena’s in accent but all his sentences were appropriately spoken.

“Have you know, I’ve got an appointment with the lady, gryzun.” He said. He glanced at Daksha and smiled. Daksha smiled back, lowering the box from her face. “Both the ladies.”

Reluctantly, Von Volker stood up from the tree and Daksha’s book, picking up his cane and hat. He bowed to Lena, who tipped her head without making eye contact, perpetually disinterested. His self-satisfied smile settled into a blank expression, betraying none of the personal offense he more than likely felt. He did not bid any goodbyes to Daksha or to Colonel Grabin.

Off went the beast and the phaeton behind it, kicking up shot of dirt that managed to strike Daksha in her long hair. She shook her mane, grumbling loudly as the steed retreated.

“One day I will wrestle that beast.” Colonel Grabin said, watching the monster as it went.

Lena sighed deeply as if she had been holding in the breath all along. She smiled to Daksha.

“I’m very sorry about that incident Shacha. Von Volker is terribly persistent, and I have to seem an idle noblewoman as much as possible to outsiders like him.” Lena explained.

Daksha smiled. It felt good to hear that; it implied Lena was more authentic with her. She set down the box, and then found Colonel Grabin in front of her with his arms out.

“C’mere girl, lift up your old uncle Grabin in those wiry arms of yours! I wanna fly!”

Giggling a little because of his size compared to hers, Daksha knelt, hugged Grabin and then stood up, holding him in her arms. He was lighter than she expected. He waved his arms and stuck out his legs as though he were really flying, and he laughed heartily in her embrace.

“You’ve gotten big, my girl! All that work on the farm is making you tough!”

She set him gently down, wondering if she really was that much bigger than before.

Before they separated, he pulled the machete from its loop on her hip and looked it over with a big beaming smile on his face. It was a weapon designed for Ayvartans, so the handle and blade seemed a visibly oversized in the old Colonel’s grip. He swung it a little, getting a feel for it.

“Been practicing your strokes lately?” Grabin asked. “The ones I taught you?”

“Mostly on bushes that creep into the property, but yes.” Daksha replied.

“Good!” He said. He returned the machete to her, and she tied it to the side of her overalls again. “These tools are revolutionary, Trainee Kaushik. They will serve you well.”

Daksha laughed awkwardly. She could not tell whether Colonel Grabin was being too serious or a living parody of himself sometimes. Nonetheless she liked him well enough. He showed up periodically to speak with Lena, and while she fixed snacks or lunch for everyone he would show Daksha his revolver, or teach her how to swing a sword, or throw a proper punch.

She never asked of what he was a Colonel of; she figured that was him and Lena’s business.

Lena watched them, quiet and smiling. She pulled the box closer to her and opened it.

“Daksha, come to me now, I’ve got a gift for you. I’m sure that you will enjoy it.”

Inside the box there were several items. But Lena gave to Daksha something soft and firm, wrapped in paper. When Daksha opened it, there was a large piece of meat. She nearly gasped. Whatever cut it was, it surely must have been expensive. Her family did not eat chickens or beef — their cows and birds were too precious for farmers and held to be sacred. Meat also tended to be prohibitively expensive; they had hog jerky a few times a year, on Daksha’s birthday.

“It is pork belly; I had it brought in from Dori Dobo. For you and your mother.” Lena said.

Daksha nodded energetically, and she bowed to her waist. “Thank you so much!”

As she bowed she glanced inside the box. She caught the glint of several steel pistols.

She made a mental note not to ask about it or acknowledge it. It was Lena’s business.

Satisfied with the gift, Daksha wrapped it up again and made to sit down beside Lena.

Lena reached out her hand and gently pressed against Daksha’s stomach, stopping her.

“Shacha, the Colonel and I will be discussing some things, so I will have to cut your lesson short for today.” She said amicably. “However, that does not mean that you have to leave.”

“Is that right?” Daksha replied. “Well, I don’t want to get in your way. I should go.”

“You are not ever in my way, Shacha.” Lena said. “I’d like you to stay and listen, actually.”

Colonel Grabin nodded. “It’s nothing bloody, just politics. I think you’d be interested.”

Shacha nodded her head. She felt a surge of energy as though she was ready to spring into the air. She tried to hide her excitement. Ms. Ulyanova wanted her to stay and have an adult chat!

She quickly took her place beside her, and Colonel Grabin sat with his legs crossed about a meter away on the grass. They started talking, about soviets, about bolsheviks and mensheviks, about the Lubon Colonial Authority, about fake passports and smuggling and border crossings, about organizing strikes and sabotage. Shacha could hardly keep up — but it was exhilarating. She asked no questions. She didn’t want to stop the conversation. She soaked everything in.

Hours passed under the tree and the little seed of revolution in Daksha’s heart grasped water.

 

* * *

On the way back home it started to rain. There were no clouds and it was only a dismal drizzle at first, its pace noticeable only by tiny dark brown marks left by drops of water on the dirt. Daksha stuffed the wrapped pork into her overalls and started running. In time the little drops grew thicker and faster and the wind began to blow. Clouds gathered overhead and blocked out the sun. Cold sheets of rain swept over her suddenly, and the roadside dirt turned to mud.

She rushed back home, embracing the bundle bulging under her overalls and bending forward so the water hit her back and trailed off her flank. Headlong she pushed around the corner.

Daksha found her mother soaking wet and toting an full bag of ground meal for the lentils.

“Mother! Get back inside!” Daksha shouted. She charged past her and took refuge under the tin awning stretching before the curtain that covered the threshold to their shack. Watching from the makeshift door, she grew increasingly irritated as her mother contained to spread meal over the muddy plots of lentils, doing nothing to shield or extricate herself from the rain.

“You’ll get sick!” Daksha shouted herself hoarse. “Mother, come in now! Right now!”

Her mother finally acknowledged her: she raised a hand behind her back and waved her index finger. Then she returned to fertilizing. Daksha was speechless. Did she want to die?

She stared, helpless and dumbfounded. She could have gone and dragged her mother back inside. But there was something about her casual demeanor out in the rain; she would have resented Daksha’s interference. For whatever reason she was resolute in this course.

Yanna stood under the rain for almost twenty minutes with Daksha in attendance, and who knows how long beforehand. When she finally returned to the shack, water dripped off her and her clothes in dozens of thin rivulets that muddied the dirt floor. Daksha seized a towel from their linens chest and helped dry her– but her mother took the towel, smiled and did it herself. She partially undressed, drying her hair and her back, her breast, smiling all the while.

“How were your lessons, dear?” Yanna asked. She reached out to stroke Daksha’s cheek.

“They were interesting.” Daksha replied. She held her own hand over her mother’s.

“I am glad. Take every word Ms. Ulyanova says seriously, Daksha. She is a great lady.”

“I know. I do.” Daksha said. “Colonel Grabin was there again today too.”

“Good, good! Say, what is that under your clothes? You can’t have grown so much overnight.” Her mother chuckled. Daksha looked down at her chest, and she removed the wrapped pork from under her clothes. She peeled off the paper. Yanna clapped her hands sharply together. She stared admiringly — perhaps hungrily – at the cut in her daughter’s hands. They hadn’t even seen a piece of meat since the new year festival and that had been over 70 days ago.

“Ms. Ulyanova got it as a gift for us. It’s pork belly, she says.” Daksha explained.

“We can have meat for supper today!” Yanna said. She threw her hands up and around her daughter in celebration. “Everything is turning around for us, everything!”

Daksha blinked, puzzled. “I’m glad you’re happy, but it’s just a cut of meat.”

Yanna pulled back from her daughter and stroked her hair and stared into her eyes.

“Child, today, Mr. Volker came to visit. He promised me a wage in place of the untaxed crop. Under the Thakur we had so little, but with this we will get money, and we can get things from Garani and farther off now! He wants to slowly turn the Agora into an industrial farm.”

“That sounds good,” Daksha half-heartedly said. Just hearing the man’s name made her blood boil. She was instantly suspicious. Nothing good could come from Von Volker.

“You’ll be able to see Lena again three times a week like before. Your mother is going to work her hardest, child. You’ll have everything our families did not. You will go right to the gymnasium in Dori Dobo and have a good job.” Her mother started to weep. She pulled Daksha close again and kissed her in both cheeks. “You will not toil here forever, my child!”

Daksha couldn’t muster a response. She felt guilty and angry and elated and anxious in dizzying succession. She guessed this was the reason that her mother had been out in the rain. Hard work for a steady wage, a ray of hope in the tumultuous life of the rural folk.

“Thank you, mother,” was all that escaped her lips. Her mother embraced her again.

 

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Kansal’s Ambition (24.2)

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20th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 1990 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance — Dobo Broadlands, Agora Farms

17 Years Before The Ayvartan Revolution

40 Years Before The Solstice War

For generations the Kaushik family had grown lentils. Knee-high, bushy green lentil plants covered the three acres of their farm, the rows situated along one side of a dirt road leading their little house. Across from their lentils there was plentiful unkempt grassland for a pair of long-horned Brahmin, lazing in the sun beside a little shed where hand plows and other tools were kept under lock and key. On one final acre was the family’s three-room house, a chicken coop, and a garden where they grew a few vegetables for their own use, mostly roots.

Under the heat of the Yarrow’s Sun the hardy Ayvartan lentils would come into their own. Sown in the new year’s mud, the crop took over 120 days to reach maturity, but it would soon yield its bounty, and then the summer lentils would be sown, and the process would continue.

Lentils sewn for the Dobo Thakur, cousin of the Emperor, who demanded tax from the soil. His share taken, the rest would be sold or bartered at the Msanii, the ancient marketplaces.

Such was the way of the world in the bread basket and soup bowl lands of the dominances.

Daksha Kaushik had seen ten years worth of lentils, though she personally remembered only five or six. Her hair tied in a ponytail, wearing a purple sari with gold trim over her weathered overalls and a patched shirt, Daksha walked down the dirt road on the crop’s side. She held a big book to her chest as if she were giving it a comforting embrace. Judging by the way the sun bore down on her she guessed it was around noon. She had a boiled egg, a piece of bread and a bit of cheese in her belly, floating in boiled milk, and she had brushed and fed the cows.

Now she was headed for her lessons in the little village of Garani, around 3 km from the farm. In her pocket she carried a little metal canteen with water to sustain her during the trip.

She walked to Garani and back every two days and hardly ever saw anyone along the way.

So she raised her head with surprise when she heard the distant galloping of a horse.

Along the road a black beast appeared, screaming down the road with a phaeton at its back.

It took the perpendicular corner toward her home without slowing and hurtled at her.

Drawing wide its bony beak and rearing back its horned head the beast screeched at her.

Daksha gasped and leaped headfirst into the cropside ditch as the beast charged past.

For a few seconds the shaking and noise brought to mind earthquakes, something Daksha had never experienced but that certainly had to possess comparable power to this disturbance. When the animal and its carriage finally stopped and the noise and the crashing of hoofs and wheels subsided, Daksha peeked her head out of the ditch, still hugging her book tightly.

A tall man in a black suit dismounted the Phaeton, screaming something incomprehensible at a finely-dressed horseman. He broke into a brisk run from the side of the massive horse pulling the carriage, and Daksha realized he was heading for the road, and then for the ditch. She stood frozen as he approached, her little head the only thing visible over the ditch. He stopped beside her, and looked down at her. He had a sparse yellow beard, pinkish skin and dark blond hair swept back. His spectacles were tiny and perfectly circular, and he had on a polkadot bow tie.

He started saying something Daksha did not understand; he then corrected himself.

“Are, alive, child?” He said. His Ayvartan was messy. He stretched out his hand to her.

Daksha looked at his hand. She trembled a little. He retracted it with a long sigh.

“Alive then.” He might have wanted to say well or healthy or unhurt but he kept saying alive and Daksha found the sentence startlingly odd. She didn’t know what to make of it.

Timidly she climbed out of the ditch. Curiously the man appraised her; abruptly, as if following the stream of his consciousness, he turned around. She followed the man back toward his mount, the horrific creature lifting its legs in succession and kicking up bits of the turf.

By then her mother had come out to witness the confusion — a broad-shouldered, stocky woman with her hair in a scarf and big cheeks. She was hassling the horseman, who had driven his phaeton over the cow grass and uprooted large chunks of the earth. She stopped throwing her hands up when she saw Daksha and the strange gentleman approaching from the lentils.

Her mother’s eyes turned from daughter to stranger and back. “Hujambo?”

In response the man adjusted his glasses, and waved his hand half-heartedly at her.

“Husband? Where?” He asked her. His Ayvartan was limited and grating.

Her mother looked at little Daksha again before responding. “Gone. Who are you?”

“Keister Von Volker.” Replied the man. These words came much more naturally to him.

“I am Yanna Kaushik. This is my farm, Mr. Volker. Not my husband’s.” She replied.

“I can see you.” Von Volker said. He might have intended to say he understood.

“What is your business, Mr. Volker? Your carriage damaged my grasses.” She said.

Von Volker bowed his head and rubbed his forehead with a handkerchief from his pocket. He was sweating profusely and breathing roughly. Daksha thought he looked frustrated.

His horseman suddenly stepped in, a swarthier fellow with a bald head under his cap.

Ich werde übersetzen.” He said, before turning to face Yanna and bowing his head to her. He spoke perfect Ayvartan. “Apologies for your grass ma’am. My name is Haji. Mr. Volker is a business-man from the Nocht Federation. The Thakur who owns the broadlands, owes him a hefty sum, and has chosen to repay by ceding land to Mr. Volker. Graciously, Mr. Volker has come to visit each farmstead personally, and to explain these matters to the laborers.”

Yanna narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “I don’t understand. The Thakur, indebted?”

Haji explained everything said to Mr. Volker in Nochtish. Von Volker tipped his head and said nothing in reply but Haji turned around and continued speaking on his own initiative.

“Yes ma’am. I’m afraid of late your Thakur has been taken by a love of liquor and fineries that has far exceeded his means.” Haji smiled as he spoked. Daksha found it alien. He could say all of these things with such a pleased expression as if nothing concerned him. “You could think of it this way — Mr. Volker is your new Thakur. He will collect on these lands from now on.”

Yanna stared critically at the pair, as if they were trying to cheat her. But Daksha knew this was all too real. Foreign men never traveled to cheat you; they traveled because they had already cheated and gotten away with it. These were not snake oil salesmen. This Mr. Volker was a prince in wealth if not in status — and status certainly did nothing for the luckless Thakur.

Von Volker outstretched his arm and laid his hand behind Daksha’s head. With a firm grip on her head, he nudged her gently forward out from behind him and toward her own mother.

Dass ihr Kind?” He asked in his strange, gruff tongue. Daksha felt a chill down her neck.

“Is this your child?” Haji asked. Yanna looked at Daksha with worry in her eyes.

“Yes, she is. Her name is Daksha. She is only ten. Forgive her if she inconvenienced you.”

Von Volker smiled. “Very cute. Enjoy her skin. Like dirt. Should travel from horses.”

Daksha bowed her head. She hated this man touching her head and saying odd things about her. He stomped into their farm like he had lived there his whole life, doing whatever he wanted. He stomped into their country without even being able to talk to them. She felt a terrible presence from him, from his wicked grip on the back of her head. She thought suddenly that if she tried moving, she would find that he is gripping her hair and she would be hurt.

She did not want to test that. She remained perfectly still. She felt trapped by him.

“Again, apologies for the disturbance. Someone from the Imperial Authority will be here soon to discuss the details with you, but Mr. Volker wanted to come in person.” Haji said. “You will find that Mr. Volker is very personable and agreeable. Not at all like your distant Thakur.”

Von Volker nudged Daksha forward again, lifting his hand from her. She walked the first few steps; then she ran to her mother’s side and hid behind her, gripping her mother’s long skirts and suddenly exposing her fear and desperation. She wept a little and clung and grit her teeth. She trembled openly. Daksha felt a churning in her gut and a horrible and sudden panic.

Across from them, Von Volker chuckled. He laughed all the way back to his Phaeton.

 

* * *

Even after Von Volker left the farm there was no respite for little Daksha. Her eyes still red and puffy with tears, she received from her mother little more than a soft slap in her buttocks, nudging her toward the road. Silent and obedient she resumed her trip to Garani from the beginning, now certain to be at least half an hour late. She sobbed to herself and wiped her tears on her sleeves. Her panic lasted past the lentils and a neighboring field of soybeans.

Half an hour into her walk the sobbing and weeping turned to grumbling and grinding.

She started wishing Von Volker’s beastly steed would trip and send him flying out.

Stomping a little harder as she went, Daksha left behind fields of maize, eggplants, peppers in turn; every family had lands that they cultivated. Through marriage, barter, debt and death the Thakur’s lands had been passed around the various families living on Agora, such that some families had ten acres and others had seven and some had a paltry two or three to plant. So long as the Thakur got his tax for every acre he did not particularly care who worked it.

She passed a spirit shrine, an unmistakable monument in its own acre off the road. The shrine was a structure built into the hollow of a broad tree, this tree being about five meters tall and three wide, with thick roots and thin branches and a lopsided canopy. One person at a time fit into the shrine, where there was an embroidered, thick mat set down before a figure of a many-armed man, a local deity for spirit worshipers. Sometimes she stopped inside it to pray, but she did not want to tarry any further. Daksha kept on moving and left the shrine behind her.

Besides, praying to the spirits hardly ever seemed to help matters any.

About an hour into her trip the village came into view. Flanking the dirt road on either side were about a dozen wooden buildings and a pair of water wells. Standing prominently where the soft, rich farmland segued into dry, hard village grounds, there stood a cobbler’s house and a mason’s workshop. Past them were a few houses arranged in a semi circle off the right side of the road. Daksha walked past them, waving half-heartedly at the windows and porches.

She left the roadside and walked across a field of short yellow grasses to a large wooden cabin, set apart from the core of the village and sprawled across a cleared circular plot. There was a water pump, and a big shed full of kindling for a stove. There was a big tree standing on little bump in the earth that could hardly be called a hill. A plastic cord ran from a branch to one of the house windows; an embroidered petticoat and a purple dress swayed in the breeze.

Daksha climbed the porch steps and knocked on the door. She waited, book hugged tight.

From behind the door a young woman peered out. She gasped with delight; the door burst open. In her voluminous skirts Lena Ulyanova knelt and threw her arms around little Daksha.

Though the woman herself was also little — only ten or twenty cm taller than Daksha.

After pulling Daksha into her bosom, she pulled back, looking over the child at arm’s length.

“I am glad you appear unharmed.” the woman said, her accent light and her words clear and quick. “Had you arrived any later I would have taken to the road myself, house arrest be damned. I feared something had happened. You’ve never been late before today.”

Daksha smiled at her. “I am fine Ms. Ulyanova, thank you. I am sorry for worrying you; a strange man visited our house and made a nuisance of himself Ms. Ulyanova! I was scared!”

Lena stroked Daksha’s shoulders. “What kind of man? Did he do anything to you?”

“He was a foreigner– I mean, well, he couldn’t speak Ayvartan, and he was pale–“

Daksha looked suddenly unsure of her descriptions. Lena giggled and reassured her.

“Do not fret Shacha, I know what you mean when you say those things. So, a foreigner.”

Good, she wasn’t offended. Daksha continued. “Yes, he had a big nasty thing with him, it looked like a very sick horse with horns! It was pulling a phaeton and it ruined our grasses.”

“A sick horse?” Lena rubbed her chin. “Probably a Balan, if it was pulling a Phaeton.”

“Whatever it was, it was ugly.” Daksha said. She trembled a little just thinking about it. She raised her arms to Lena’s shoulders, reciprocating the comforting little massage she gave.

Lena beamed brightly, her ice-blue eyes looking fondly at the girl. “So what did this man want? Come in and tell me about it dear; your lesson can wait a little bit. Come on.”

Lena turned around and ushered Daksha into her home. She was a Karlik from Calanchi, one of the colonies of the Kingdom of Lubon far in the north. These were the words that Daksha knew to describe her, the ones she had learned from her book — but she felt bad thinking them because she knew Lena resented them. Lena had no better words of her own, but she had taught Daksha that Karlik just meant “small person” and Calanchi was not the name of her land, but the name the elves gave it, “the dead land.” Elven slurs went into the books while the nomenclature of the small folk had over time been erased by the Colonial Authority.

Karliks (Daksha cringed internally thinking it) were somewhat small folk who reached full adult proportion while topping out at 130-140 cm; Daksha herself was 140 cm already, and Lena was particularly tall for her people. Physically she was visibly foreign, very pale in appearance with long, flowing blue hair. Her clothing was the finest Daksha had ever seen, and she was elegant and pretty and mature; all kinds of adjectives floated inside the girl’s head.

“Make yourself at home as always, Shacha. Sit and rest; I will pour you some tea.”

Though unable to leave this plot by law, Lena was quite better off than anyone in the area. She had a wood-burning stove with an exhaust pipe channeled out the roof, and several cabinets worth of food and tools; a bedroom with a big bed all to herself; a tea room with a music player that played big black discs; an indoor latrine connected to a modern septic tank; her own porcelain bathtub that could be filled with buckets from the pump outside.

This was as close to a palace as Daksha had ever seen in the flesh. Her own house was one barren room with a mattress on the floor and one with a stove, a pantry and a table.

Daksha followed Lena to her tea room. She set down her book and brought out two porcelain cups from the nearby cupboard, arranging them and and their white saucers on top of the table while Lena walked ahead to the kitchen. Along with the stove, the kindling box and the wooden pantry and spice rack there was a nondescript metal box in the kitchen. Lena knelt down in front of it and opened the top. She withdrew a silver pitcher of brown tea that had been prepared ahead of time. She brought it to the table, popped it open and stirred sugar into it.

“Unfortunately my ice box is now a water box, and it takes several days for my ice man to replenish it. So rather than cold tea I am forced to serve tepid tea.” Lena admitted.

“No problem at all Ms. Ulyanova, thank you!” Daksha smiled and held her cup out for Lena, who filled the cup with the sweet tea before filling her own. This was a drink Daksha could only have here — tea, sugar and ice were prohibitively costly. Even sans the ice the drink would have cost too much in Dobo. All of the ingredients arrived here from a long distance away.

Lena put down the pitcher and sat next to Daksha. Smiling warmly, she set her hand on the girl’s lap and watched her drink. “Tell me more about this annoying stranger of yours.”

Daksha filled her cheeks up with tea and swallowed slowly, delighting in the sweet flavor.

“He was called, um, something, something, Volker.” Daksha replied. “His servant said that he owned the Thakur’s lands now or something like that. I don’t know if I believe that.”

“I heard something like that myself.” Lena said. She looked out the window at the grass outside, her fingers rubbing the handle of her own cup. “A wealthy foreigner collecting a debt from an Ayvartan prince; that is part of the price paid in courting the wealth of the Federation.”

“I don’t understand how a Thakur can fall into debt. They own everything don’t they?”

“Not anymore.” Lena said. “They claimed to own everything in Ayvarta, once upon a time. But the Empire is opening its doors to an entire world; in the face of such vastness the Thakurs can no longer claim to own it all. Your Thakur became addicted to temptations of such scale even his wealth cannot thoroughly satisfy — because men overseas set the price of them.”

“That seems unfair.” Daksha said. This was still a little hard for her to take in. She started to feel that this event was too big for a ten year old girl from a farming family to understand.

Lena did not help settle the child’s anxieties. Instead she seemed prompted to show her own.

“Unfairness is the way of wealth; in the end it is the poor who suffer. Because a rich drunkard could not pay the debts of his greed, your family must swear to a new master now.” Lena sighed a little. Daksha tipped her head. She felt as if the older woman was looking and speaking past her now, off in her own world. “Rich men like to think of themselves as carnivores but parasites is what they truly are. They embed themselves in society’s organs and feed ravenously.”

Daksha blinked. She tried to pick through Lena’s speech in her mind, word for word.

“Oh.” Lena seemed to awaken from her reverie. She patted her hand on Daksha’s lap and laughed. She had a wonderful laugh — a soft and infectious o ho ho ho. “I’m sorry Shacha; these are adult things that frequently occupy my thoughts. Let us put them aside now and return to your lesson. We’ll take care of your arithmetic for today. What do you say?”

Spontaneously the child beamed and clapped her hands and laughed. She ran off her chair and out the back door with her book in her hand, racing to the tree on the little bump beside the house. She sat with her back to the tree, taking in the breeze under its shade, and she waved as Ms. Ulyanova approached from the house with a little basket full of wooden blocks and cubes. Daksha huddled close to her; Lessons with Ms. Ulyanova were the highlights of the week.

Lena took the book and opened it to the section on Arithmetic. It was a standard textbook for school children in the Empire, brown and somewhat thick with a featureless cover and back cover  — Lena had bought it herself and given it to Daksha so they could have their lessons. Two days ago they had done some work on reading and poetry. Now they would do division.

“So Daksha, you know what multiplying means: to take a number and add it up as many times as the multiplying number, so four times three is four plus four plus four, which is–“

“Twelve!” Daksha answered after a short pause. She remembered the groups of blocks.

“Good! And you know the multiplication tables, we did them together. Do you remember the little trick I taught you for figuring out how to multiply nine by other numbers?”

Daksha held up her fingers, with the pinky down, so 9; then she put all the fingers down except for her pinky, so there was 1 up and 8 down, or eighteen; she raised her ring finger, so there were 2 fingers up and 7 down, for twenty-seven. Lena laughed and stopped her, satisfied.

“Very good. Today we’re going to start dividing. Dividing is the opposite of multiplying; you split a number into groups instead of adding more. We can use the blocks to show this.”

Lena picked up wooden cubes from her basket and set them on Daksha’s lap. There were 4 cubes, and the girl felt comfortable, because it was an even number and she found them very easy to think about. She paid a lot of attention to Lena’s fingers running over the blocks. Then Lena brought out a few additional pieces — a pair of saucers from the cupboard.

“So, think of it this way. We have the number, four. There are four blocks. Now, we want to divide four by two; two is the divisor, the number we are dividing four by. We have four blocks and two saucers. We want to divide the blocks equally among the saucers, so every saucer has the same number of blocks. How many blocks would you put on each saucer, Shacha?”

Daksha did not have to think of it too hard. She split the blocks two to a saucer.

“Good! So four divided by two is two.” Lena said. “What if I added a saucer?”

Daksha gave it a moment’s pondering. “There would be a block left over.”

“Indeed. That block would be the remainder. But you can put 1 block each on the three saucers, when dividing 4 blocks across 3 saucers. Your answer is 1, remainder 1.”

In this way they carried on for a few hours, dividing blocks among saucers, talking about cows eating equal amounts of hay bales and dividing acreage equally among certain crops, and other examples the child found relatable, until the sun began its descent from the sky. To get home before dark, Daksha would have to set off soon. She picked up her book and kissed Lena in the cheek. Before she left however, Lena had a little errand for her that had become usual.

“Set this down by the scarecrow in the corn field when nobody’s looking.” Lena said.

She handed Daksha a blue cardboard envelope with a white symbol printed on it. It looked like a hammer and a sickle meeting, but fanciful Shacha thought it could also be a snake with two heads. She had heard of such things in stories. The child concealed the enveloped in her book and went on her way, waving goodbye and feeling quite sorry to leave her tutor behind.

Twenty minutes into her journey, starting from the village, Daksha always walked past the corn fields of the Foana family and the scarecrow with its straw hat, wooden machete and roughed-up overalls watching over the crop. She crept into the corn, laid down the envelope at the feet of the scarecrow like an offering, and went on her way. This was the only price that Lena Ulyanova put on her tutoring — simple errands. Letters dropped, delivered, brought to persons.

Despite being exiled from her country, Ms. Ulyanova had plenty of money and no need or want to take anything from a poor child. She had been the one to suggest the lessons to begin with, and had this form of compensation in mind from the start. Daksha found it amusing.

 

* * *

When she returned home the sky was bloody red and her mother was pacing outside near the wounds cut by the phaeton on their grasses. Daksha waved her hand over her head to signal her, and she didn’t smile. When the child approached, she knelt down and took her by the shoulders. There were no tears in her eyes — her mother never cried — but Daksha knew that if she were one to cry, now would be the time. Perhaps she made that face so Daksha would cry in her stead. Certainly whenever her mother looked at her so seriously, she wanted to weep.

“Shacha, there was a man from the Imperial Authority here, while you were gone.” Yanna said. “He explained what was happening. From today we will working for Volker. He will be taking more of the lentils than the Thakur did, and he will want more grown; in exchange he will give us two more acres of land, the empty ones around the back, and we will be paid with more paper money that we can use at the store in the village. We will have to clear out those acres and prepare them, and it will be rough. You’re going to have to stay and help me five days of the week now instead of four; you can visit Ms. Ulyanova the other two days. I am sorry Shacha.”

Daksha gripped her book harder around her chest. She nodded her head quietly. She would obey; she had no choice, and her mother already did so much work alone. Without her help, how could they possibly grow even more than they did now? But she felt very bitter about it. Farm work was not what fulfilled her. She wanted to learn about the world with the strange and glamorous exile in her town. Mr. Volker’s lentils wouldn’t get her anywhere in this world.

 

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