47th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison HQ
As the sun rose to keep its noon-time appointments, the door to the temporary Regimental Headquarters slammed suddenly open. Logia Minardo wandered nonchalantly inside, singing a little tune to herself. Despite her visible pregnancy, she was as sprightly as a teenage girl, swinging her hips, tossing her shoulder-length hair, taking little dancing steps into the building. From her fingers swung a cloth bag that she used as a prop in her act.
Her feet thudded on the floor as she neared her desk, adding percussion to her voice.
Coming out of a quick spin, she set down her bag and snapped her fingers with a flourish.
Behind the main desk, Colonel Madiha Nakar and her pet dragon glared the Staff Sergeant’s way, both taking the same guarded posture and wearing exactly the same sour expression toward her. Neither of them seemed amused with Minardo’s antics. Kali was even growling. Fully uniformed, even wearing her officer’s cap, Madiha looked likewise unapproachable.
Minardo smiled and waved her hand at the pair. She spoke in a flighty tone of voice.
“Oh my, I don’t know if it’s pet influencing owner or owner influencing pet anymore.”
Madiha’s sour expression grew concertedly sour. Kali then mimicked her.
In the Colonel’s mind, a reservoir of good will toward Minardo was rapidly emptying.
“I am wondering why you failed to pick me up this morning, and why you are here so late in the day with that nonchalant expression on your face. Furthermore, I’m curious to see if you know the answers to those questions with regards to my assistant.” Madiha said.
Across the room, the staff sergeant quizzically panned her head around. Her gaze settled on each desk and table in the room, and it dawned on her what Madiha had known for hours now. Parinita had failed to show up for work; she hadn’t even taken a minute to tell Madiha where she was going, despite them living in the same building. It was the shock of a lonely morning and a lonely walk from her lodgings to the base, that had Madiha quite on edge.
That, and her building disdain for Minardo’s roguish sense of humor.
“Oh no! Perhaps she was kidnapped.” Minardo said, putting on a face of mock fright.
“Don’t joke about that.” Madiha said brusquely.
Minardo raised her hands defensively. “I’m sorry. I don’t think anything bad could have happened to her. She might have gone to the shops to get an outfit to wear to the festival.”
“She didn’t have any money. None of us do.” Madiha said.
“There are more ways to acquire goods than through money.” Minardo said.
She blew a little kiss at Madiha, who discovered then that what she hated more than Minardo’s roguish sense of humor was her coquettish sense of humor.
“Don’t joke about that, either!” Madiha snapped loudly, pushing herself to an irate stand, and Kali joined in with tinny growls, stretching up on the desk as if ready to pounce.
Minardo shrugged. “My, my, this is a tough crowd.” She then sighed heavily. “Anyway, I lent her some money, okay? I’m sure she is only out on the town. It is fine, Colonel.”
“And where did you get this money you lent her from? Are you suddenly a bank?”
“I just had it tucked away, and I decided to be kind. What do you want from me?”
Madiha grumbled. She irrationally bitter that Parinita had turned to Minardo for funds.
Even though she knew that she wouldn’t have been able to help at all in that arena.
“Fine. I’ll accept that. Go busy yourself for now.” Madiha ordered.
Minardo nodded her head and turned around to her desk.
Aside from Madiha and now Minardo, the room was empty. The Colonel dismissed Bhishma early; without Parinita around she had no idea what work she could even have Bhishma do. Padmaja had come fluttering in early in the morning, and took a few radio calls, and organized every desk. Then, having run out of things to do, Madiha had her go on errands.
For a few hours after, the Colonel was alone in the office.
Despite this, Minardo’s presence was not exactly welcomed.
Ever since they met, Madiha felt like her image of the Staff Sergeant was deteriorating.
She knew that she was on edge, and that her condition was heightening her low-key disdain for Minardo’s flighty but harmless antics. The Staff Sergeant was useful and could be more useful in the future; but in the present, Madiha wanted to be angry at her, and indulged that anger more openly than she had in the past. Her emotions bubbled beneath her skin.
If the Staff Sergeant sensed any danger, she hid that intuition well.
Minardo sat behind her desk, and for a moment she pretended to do some work. At a glance she seemed to busy herself, picking up papers, tapping them against the desktop, setting them down, and going over them. However, all of those papers were taken from a stack of blank requisition sheets, so there was nothing to read. And Minardo was constantly glancing over at Madiha’s desk. Despite meeting the Colonel’s disapproving gaze several times this way, Minardo did not cease her little facade until the Colonel called her out.
“What do you want, Minardo?” Madiha asked, exasperated.
“I am wondering if you have any hobbies, Colonel.”
Madiha frowned back, irritated and glum.
Suddenly Minardo interrupted. “No military stuff!”
She felt like replying with ‘go to hell’ but restrained herself.
Madiha gave a throaway answer. “Kali.” She said.
At her side, the dragon’s eyes drew wide open and it kneaded its legs happily.
“I happen to have an affinity for puzzles.” Minardo replied.
“What’s your point? Do you want to show me a puzzle?”
Minardo smiled and stood up from her desk. “Since we have nothing better to do.”
She withdrew a box from her bag, and set it down on Madiha’s desk.
“I was thinking,” she continued, “we could take up a little challenge.”
It was a chess board from Solstice Toys & Games, updated to match the sensibilities of the time. Pawns were laborers, Knights were revolutionaries, bishops Commissars, and so on. At the very top of the hierarchy of pieces was the Premier, or Central Committee Head; in this edition the piece was a small, ivory Lena Ulyanova. It was a rather cute board all told.
“Chess?” Madiha asked. Her demeanor softened just a little.
“I prefer crossword puzzles to keep my mind sharp, but this works for two.”
Kali drew close to the chess set, sniffed the box, and recoiled, snarling.
“Does it smell like me?” Minardo asked, leaning close to the dragon.
Kali blew a puff of white smoke into Minardo’s face.
Drawing back again from the desk, Minardo sighed audibly.
“Anyway, would you like to have a match, Colonel?” Minardo asked.
Madiha knew that the excuse of ‘I have work to do’ had all dried up. She had hardly the capacity to work in this office, and other than yelling at various suppliers to hurry up with her orders, she had little administrative work to do. And what little she could do, she needed Parinita to record and organize. Doing anything without her secretary would have led to confusion later, as both wondered what parts of the work were done or not.
So in those circumstances, the idea of besting Minardo sounded palatable.
“I wanted to go over the table of organization, but fine. We can play one game.”
Nodding her head contentedly, Minardo pulled up the top of the game box, and set up the board atop Madiha’s empty desk, putting all the pieces in their places. “Black or white?”
“Black.” Madiha replied.
Minardo flipped the board, and put her hand on a pawn.
“That means I go first.” She said, winking.
Madiha acknolwedged, and watched as Minardo made a simple opening move.
Out of the front ranks, a white pawn moved.
Figuring there was no better move at the time, Madiha mirrored her opponent.
She thought she could already see a game unfolding here.
Pawns drew out, and then knights started moving. Madiha thought it would become a pitched battle, and her mind was racing to plot out the moves that she would make. She viewed the knights as tanks, able to move around obstacles. Pawns were small but vicious infantry who could hold key positions. And then there was the Queen, most powerful of all.
She viewed it as the war of mobility that had been swirling in her mind for days now.
Her imagination got the better of her.
Despite this exertion of brainpower, Minardo was soon laughing in Madiha’s face.
Though in her head many moves had been made, in reality, only pawns had set out.
Two moves worth of pawns from both sides. White, black, white, black–
A white Queen came creeping out of her phalanx for a surprise victory.
“I can’t believe this! You fell for the fool’s mate! Are you eight years old?”
Minardo continued to laugh while Madiha surveyed the board in confusion.
She could imagine all she wanted, but she had never actually played chess.
As such, her play was apparently incredibly weak.
“I feel so cruel to have won this way! But I couldn’t resist trying it.” Minardo boasted.
Madiha rubbed her chin, quietly staring at the board.
Her sour expression returned.
Kali swiped its tail at the board, scattering the pieces on the desktop.
“Hey!” Minardo said, frowning childishly. “Don’t break my set!”
Feeling rather sour, Madiha did notthing to restrain her rampant companion.
She turned her head away instead.
“You need to be a better sport than this, Colonel!” Minardo said, picking up her pieces.
“Were it not for the restrictions of this game I would’ve beaten you.” She said.
Minardo blinked. Now it was her turn to put on a sour face.
“It is quite ugly of you to act so petulantly!” She said. “Chess is a simulation of war, Colonel!”
Perhaps her actions had offended the Staff Sergeant, but Madiha found it hard to care at the time. She crossed her arms and averted her eyes, but continued to talk in a haughty tone, feeling somewhat empowered by her sudden ability to needle Minardo on this topic. In fact she resolved to push the issue further and see where her Staff Sergeant would snap again.
“You can gloat about your skills in a game all you want. Chess is nowhere near the reality of war. Combat does not move on grids or follow turns. Had we both been on a real battlefield I would have had you in ropes in a captive’s tent easily, Staff Sergeant.” Madiha said.
Again this attitude seemed to put her opponent quite off-balance.
“Those are loser’s words indeed!” Minardo said, raising her voice.
It was poor sport; Madiha was still disassatisfied with the game and with Minardo.
Even prodding her was not cathartic enough for the Colonel’s frustrations.
She would not dismiss or discipline Minardo. She felt that would hurt her too much.
Instead she resolved just to try to ignore her.
“Well, whatever; you’ve had your fun, now leave me be.” Madiha said.
Unfortunately her Staff Sergant never seemed to relent on any issue.
“Not so soon! I have a game you could try then, if you’re so high and mighty!”
Minardo stood up in a hurry, and withdrew a file folder from her bag.
She slapped it down onto the table.
It was a red folder with the insignia of the Solstice Officer’s School.
Madiha’s eyes darted down to the folder. It immediately captured her attention.
“Well, Colonel, if chess is too simple for you, how about a wargame? You’ve taken part in these exercises before, correct? Then, you should have no complaints in this arena.”
“What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Madiha asked.
Minardo smirked. That mischevious glint returned to her eyes.
“I am merely curious about the legend of this so-called ‘hero of the border’.”
Madiha bristled. She did not particularly like that epithet and the burden it carried when spoken. However, she also felt a building anger at how easily Minardo took the name in vain, at how conceited she was behaving. Though Madiha tried to present a friendly and approachable face, she was the Colonel, and Minardo was showing her too little respect.
Had she done such a thing to Kimani, she would have been slapped across the face.
Madiha stood up as quickly as Minardo had, a determined look on her face.
“Fine! You shall see that legend first-hand.” She said.
They sealed the challenge with a hand-shake, and cleared the desk.
Thankfully this was the compact version of the wargame, playable even in a barracks.
Atop the Colonel’s desktop they unfurled a long map, and began to deploy chits that represented various army units. It was a map of Vassaile, an area between the Frank Kingdom and the Nocht Federation, and the game was set in during the Unification War. It was a scenario that Madiha knew well; she knew every battle of these modern wars quite well, but this scenario was rather common in officer training across the world.
Played according to the rules of the Nochtish Kriegsspiel games, adapted for Ayvartan use, the scenario pitted the Frank 66th Army (Bluefor) against the Nochtish 11th Army (Redfor). In the battle of Vassaile, the 66th Army had crossed the border to Nocht in force, launching an offensive against Federation forces. Historically, the Nocht Federation retreated from Vassaile in disarray. It was the job of Bluefor to assail Nocht, and to achieve a victory better than history — the complete destruction of the 11th army. Meanwhile, Redfor had to attempt to keep the Nochtish lines straight while escaping from destruction. It was a scenario that helped prove the leadership qualities of the commanders on both sides.
Classically, it was a scenario that, when played well, had no victory for either side.
Redfor classically held on at the edges of Vassaile and prevented the Frank forces from entering too deep into Nocht; Bluefor classically took all of its objectives, but without destroying Redfor or managing to invade the Nochtish heartland past Vassaile.
“I’m calling Bluefor.” Minardo said, stamping her hand on a chit representing the 1st Chasseurs Division, light cavalry. Around her hand were dozens more Frank units. The Franks were noted for having the larger starting army, though Nocht had more reinforcements and reserves. Thus it was known Franz had an offensive advantage.
“Then I’m Redfor.” Madiha calmly replied.
It unsettled her slightly. In officer school she had played Bluefor and won the ahistorical victory, destroying the 11th Army completely through encirclement around Vassaile. She had not opted then to penetrate too deep into Nocht. Destroying the 11th Army was enough.
Likely, if Minardo brought this game here and called Bluefor, she intended to do the same.
“We’ve both played this game before, so let us settle things honorably.” Minardo said.
Madiha thought it certainly fit her roguish character to say such a thing.
She definitely intended to play Madiha’s game. That result was no secret among wargamers.
“I won’t kick up a storm; but you had best umpire it properly.” Madiha replied.
There was no use fighting it. Using good results from previous players was common.
Kali leaned over the map, flicking her tongue at the chits.
“No, settle down.” Madiha said. She wanted to see this game through.
Kali looked at her, and then curled in a corner of the table.
“This set is not my property, so let’s not ruin it.” Minardo said.
“Kali will behave.”
Madiha and Minardo shook hands over the table.
Thus the game began.
It was the 17th of the Lilac’s Bloom, and the Franks made the first move.
Minardo rattled off her orders.
“1st Division Chasseurs à cheval will move along the curve of Paix and Moltke on the Nochtish border, initiating hostilities against the 5th Grenadier Division. 5th Division Vernon Royal Hussars will ascend the Crux and Cateblanche line and attack the 10th Grenadier Division alongside the 1st Independent Scout Car battalion–”
Madiha acknowledged each move. These were standard openers. Madiha had performed all of them herself during her ahistorical winning game. 5th Grenadier and 10th Grenadier had historically arrived quite late, but early enough to be counted as standing units in the game. Unlike much of the Nochtish army at the time they lacked even minimal entrenchment along the border, and thus made prime targets for Franz’ few mobile units of the period.
As was standard, Nocht retreated both divisions, as they would be unable to stand and face the Chassuers and the Hussars in their early game condition. Even weak old horse cavalry was enough to burst these rushed Grenadier divisions. This created holes in the line that the standard Divisione D’Infanterie could then move through to attack Nocht entrenchments behind their lines. Madiha was forced into the standard early game retreat.
Beginning officers unused to the game would often muck about the border for several game periods, making for the impressive military fisticuffs that characterized the battle as it actually played out. But those with experience in the game always played it ahistorically, preserving their forces to try to game the system where they could do so later on.
Madiha began her retreat. Using a pointer, she pushed back her chits from the bulging Paix-Moltke curve at the Frank border, abandoning the Nochtish entrenchments and losing their defensive bonuses, but escaping what would have otherwise been an easy Frank trap and a sweeping early victory. This was all still standard; nobody had innovated at all yet.
She presumed that Minardo would not innovate; she waited for tell-tale signs of her own play, and soon found the first indication that Minardo was playing her old game to the letter. The 17th Royal Durst Pikers challenged the retreating Nochtish 19th Grenadier Division, an otherwise unassuming division that happened to hold Nocht’s only heavy mortars in the sector. Its destruction would greatly hamper defensive play for Redfor in the coming turns.
It was a move Madiha could not prevent, and she picked up the chit and discarded it.
All the while, Minardo laughed haughtily and grinned to herself.
“It’s interesting isn’t it?” She said, in a mock sweet voice.
Madiha could not disagree. She felt it was rather exhilirating to see this board again.
This was a bloodless battlefield where she had total control. Units could live or die only as necessary to achieve a victory. There was no complications, only pure strategy.
Madiha felt something close to elation, to entertainment, to purpose.
Her heart raced, and her skin brimmed with energy.
She felt the time had come for her first innovation.
“I will bypass the free entrenchment opportunity at the Lehner line. 11th Army will continue to retreat west. Let the umpire know I surrender the objective at Erfring.”
“Oh ho ho. So– You give up some points to me just like that?”
“Yes. You can have it.”
Minardo gleefully pushed her chits forward, and Madiha, though she kept a stony outward face was smiling inside. Someone who only read a list of Madiha’s winning moves or a summary of the scenario she played at the academy, would see this as a winning situation. In reality, it meant the entire nature of the scenario that Madiha played back then was fundamentally changed. Minardo’s memorized moves would no longer apply to the game.
Giving up the Lehner line forced Nocht dangerously close to a technical defeat.
After all, being kicked out of the battlefield almost entirely was a loss, in every sense.
Historically, Nocht had held on at the edge of Vassaile.
For Nocht to move too far past this line meant a total defeat regardless of objectives.
However, the way Madiha intended to play, this would not matter.
The 11th Army continued to retreat and finally took up its new positions in a strained, u-shaped curve straddling a forest and a large rural boom town called Schmelzdorf.
It lay behind the half-way point of a tactical map that began far on the right, near Franz.
Retreat beyond the forest would mean a loss for the 11th Army, opening Nocht to invasion.
It was the kind of bait no reckless player would let go.
Pressing her offensive advantage, Minardo launched several attacks with her 66th army.
She continued to move closer and closer on the map, bloodthirsty with victory after tactical victory. Madiha removed various chits, and shored up the line with reinforcements that had begun moving at the start of the game and only now reached the line, in time to plug it. Now Minardo was dubiously innovating. She was attacking much more than Madiha had been.
Perhaps she realized the game had changed; and this was her own original play now.
Regardless, Madiha had achieved her result, and now launched her coup.
“I’m calling for a rail movement.” She declared.
She indicated the length of the movement and the rail lines she would use.
Minardo nodded, and looked over the proposal.
Her eyes drew wide.
“You realize your rail point is behind my lines.”
Now it was Madiha’s turn to put on a fake sweet smile and a mock sweet voice.
“Did you cut the line? I did not seen any engineers moving.”
Minardo grumbled. “You’ll have to roll to move through enemy lines.”
So far, dice had not come into play, because most of the moves were easily agreeable.
Madiha picked up a pair of red arbitration dice, and cast them without looking.
Whatever the outcome did not matter to her.
She began to push chits through the rail line and behind Minardo’s group.
Then she repeated the movement, rolling the dice again.
And she repeated it again.
Finally, it dawned upon Minardo the shape that the battlefield was taking.
It was a cauldron.
Drawn into the sunken curve of the 11th Army’s long, tormented line, the 66th army fit inside the belly of the u-shape line as if it was always meant to go there. And now, 6 Divisions of Madiha’s Nochtish forces, having suffered some attrition from trying to rail through enemy lines but ultimately successful in doing so, were beginning to form a lid.
For the first time in the match, Madiha began to call her own attacks.
Attacks that hit by surprise from behind the battered, overstretched 66th Army, that had moved so quickly, so aggressively, against a constantly retreating army, that they were completely tired out. Madiha had baited them in, and now owned their strategic depth. Her “mobile” forces were cut off from supply behind the Frank lines, and their days were ultimately numbered in such a situation, but she did not care, because she was now winning.
Her play would end the game before the units engaged in deep battle ran out of supply.
Ignoring any strong units lagging behind Minardo’s advance, she struck her weak rear.
Seeing the events, Minardo started to stare at the board in the same way that Madiha had stared at the chess board before. Incredulous, rubbing her chin, twisting some of her hair around her index finger, she scanned every chit for some possibility. It was not only Madiha’s play that had stumped her. She had made some blunders too. For example, her cavalry and rudimentary early Unification War era cars were stuck in the center of the 66th Army, unable to move freely. Her front line was all Infantry, and her rear mostly artillery.
In several strokes, Madiha’s weak but cunning penetration units inflicted heavy damage. Minardo’s artillery blew up in her face. Her engineers division was slaughtered. Supply points were captured. To add insult to injury, a battered Grenadier Division parked itself on the Erfring objective, technically taking it back from the Franks. It was absolute mayhem.
Minardo picked up the folder and flipped through the rules.
“Oh good, you’ve got the manual out. If you have a second, Staff Sergeant: I don’t know the rules for capturing a Headquarters behind its own line. Please find them.” Madiha said.
Smiling as coyly as Minardo once did, Madiha brimmed with energy.
Minardo put down the folder, and sighing heavily she also put down her pointer stick.
She cast it atop the center of the map.
This was a sign of surrender.
“Alright, fine! Fine. It looks like I was wrong, Colonel. I apologize.”
Madiha stared at her, raising a skeptical eyebrow.
“I’m being genuine!” Minardo whined. “I am sorry. I got carried away.”
Madiha stretched out a hand, still smiling, high on the adrenaline of her dream war.
They shook. Minardo’s lips curled up a little.
“My, my, Colonel; you have such a beautiful smile. I’d love to see it more often.”
“I would smile more if you didn’t mortify me so much.”
“I said I was sorry! I was just trying to be friendly.”
“Trying to be friendly by bullying me?” Madiha said.
“My professional curiosity got the best of me. I told you I’m an awful gossip.”
“I’d advise you to stop gathering information on me.” Madiha replied.
“Will do!” Minardo said. “What say we let bygones be bygones?”
She withdrew her hand and saluted Madiha.
“Staff Sergeant Logia Minardo, at your service, ma’am! Pleased to serve under you!”
“You even manage to make that tick me off a bit.” Madiha said, grinning a little.
“Oh no, is your opinion of me irrevocably damaged?”
“It will need time to recover.”
Minardo’s whole body seemed to wilt, comically glum.
Ignoring her, Madiha poked the end of the map, and it rolled a little bit closed.
“Did you really memorize all of my play in this game?” She idly asked.
Minardo rubbed her index fingers together, putting on a bashful face.
“Ah, well. Once upon a time, I was shooting for an officer’s commission, and this game came up as a way. I had it in mind to impress someone; but they saw through the ruse.”
“Did you think it would work now?” Madiha asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Truth be told, I was hoping to be humiliated again.” Minardo said.
Sensing the game was over, Kali reared up to claw at the map, and knock it off.
“No!” Madiha said, raising her index finger. “Bad.”
Kali stared bitterly at Minardo and curled into a ball at the far edge of the desk.
Shaking her head, Madiha turned back to her Staff Sergeant. “Anything else?”
Minardo crossed her arms. “Just remember, we’ve only hit a draw right now. Someday soon, Colonel, I’ll make it 2-1! I’d advise you to polish up your Mancala skills!”
As quickly as it went, her wry, foxy little smile reappeared.
Madiha heaved a long sigh.
Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison, Training Field
“A bullet will not kill your enemy by itself! It is the mastery of the shooter that kills!”
Inspector General Kimani stood before a hundred riflemen and women of the Regiment’s 1st Motor Rifle Battalion: Matumaini, and delivered a clear and precise speech on rifle discipline and marksmanship. Her audience was destined to be fireteam leaders, snipers and squad leaders under the proposed new organization of the Ayvartan army.
And though these proposals had not yet been approved, the Regiment still proceeded to line everyone up in a corner of the training field, in front of several wooden targets.
Such was the value of these young minds that the Inspector General would personally oversee their training, which, so far, had meant shouting their way for fifteen minutes.
“You cannot fall into the trap of thinking your bullets expert killers by themselves.” Kimani said. “Bullets are impressive; the way they fly invisibly through the air the instant after a trigger pull, causing great trauma and death to a human body, is extraordinary. But not every bullet is a killing bullet. A shot to the leg will cripple an enemy, but that enemy can still shoot and move. A shot to the arm may put an enemy out of the fight momentarily, but they can return with a pistol, or throw a grenade, or run to their allies to relay information.”
The Inspector General drew an example of the typical Ayvartan Bundu rifle out of a nearby crate, and in one precise movement she loaded a round into the weapon and pulled the trigger almost without aiming. A procession of men and women of the Regiment winced reflexively as Kimani scored a precise hit on a wooden target set up some 500 meters away.
Gulab Kajari failed to detect the bullet impact, as she did not know where to direct her attention at the time. When she looked at the target after the fact, she saw what seemed like a pinprick on the red center of a painted circle, one of three on the wooden board.
“It is vital that you aim for the center of mass! On a human body the torso is the largest target containing the most vital organs. Leave the heads and limbs to snipers! You, the simple rifle soldier, are most efficient when aiming at the core of the enemy’s body!”
Kimani pulled the bolt on her rifle, loading in a new round, and fired with nary a moment’s hesitation between the two actions. Again her shot scratched the wood on the thick center of the target. Overlapping circles were yellow, to represent the zone of the upper and lower body, and green, the largest circle, least likely to represent a fatal shot on the enemy.
Looking at the red circle, Gulab thought it must’ve been around a meter across at most.
“For today’s drill, you will split up into teams of spotter and shooter. You will each put 100 rounds through the rifle. Count your teammates’ hits judiciously using the provided chart.”
Though Inspector Kimani’s powerful voice made the exercise sound quite important, the barren stretch of training field between the firing line and the targets suggested other motives for the exercise. It was clearly something that could be done with limited ammunition and construction supplies. Gulab was not keen on shooting. She would have preferred to learn some new skills. She thought she was as good as shot as she’d ever be.
Nevertheless, Inspector Kimani was quite scary, and Gulab easily complied.
Everyone seemed to easily split up into teams, dividing themselves among the many targetss provided for the day’s exercises, and Gulab naturally joined forces with Charvi Chadgura as per the usual, and they paired up behind a low sandbag wall. They had one rifle between them and exactly two hundred rounds of ammunition in a bag at their feet.
“I hope we each get our own rifle in combat!” Gulab said jokingly.
She nudged Charvi in the chest with her elbow, but her friend looked quite inanimate.
“Something wrong?” She asked. She put down the rifle and looked into Charvi’s eyes.
Though her face was expressionless as usual, but something about her posture and movement suggested a limpness and vulnerability that was not the norm for her. Her face and voice could not be read, but Gulab knew well enough how to tell her friend was troubled. At her best, Charvi was reliably balanced, not a pitch too high or too low, neither too stiff nor too lose. She was a measuring stick. Should her neutral pose lean any one specific way, it meant that something was off. Gulab prodded her to see what was wrong.
At first she only made subdued little breathing noises.
“What was that?” Gulab asked.
Chadgura sighed. It was eerie. All she did was open her mouth and let out some air.
With her face, it did not look like a real sigh, but it felt like one.
“I foolishly allowed myself to hope.” Chadgura replied.
Gulab blinked. “It’s gonna be hard to follow that up, but please try.”
“Yesterday,” Chadgura continued, as if uninterrupted, “upon hearing tell of a ‘postal truck’ that comes to the base, I gathered up my very limited amount of pocket money, and I waited outside for this truck for several hours. Upon its arrival, I found that it carried no stamps.”
“Wait, what, when did you do this, I was with you all day.” Gulab said.
“Perhaps yesterday is inaccurate. It was today, but very early.”
Gulab shook her head, loudly groaning. “You’ve gotta control yourself.”
She picked up the rifle from the sandbag wall and thrust it toward Charvi.
Charvi took the gun, loaded it, aimed, and fired, missing the target entirely.
“Hah, you weren’t even close!” Gulab said. “Stamp stuff got you that down?”
Firing another weak shot, Charvi gave no immediate reply. Gulab patted her back.
“Come on, don’t let it get to you! Tomorrow we’ll have time enough for stamps.”
“No.” Charvi said. She paused for a moment. “It is something else on my mind.”
After those mysterious words she raised the iron sights to her eyes again and put another bullet through the gun. This time she chipped away at the edge of the target, on the green.
“Let me have a go, you count mine.” Gulab said.
Taking the rifle from her friend’s hands, Gulab kneeled behind the sandbag wall, bracing herself on the sturdy surface. Holding her breath, she took aim at the center of the target and pulled the trigger. There was a bit of kick, but she was grounded enough to control it, and her muscle memory for the rifle had gotten quite good. It felt natural to shoot now.
Charvi kneeled beside her, and they were cheek to cheek, looking down the range.
“Gulab, if I asked you to come with me to the festival, would you do it?”
“I already told you I would go.”
“No, I don’t mean in that way. I mean go together.”
“We are going together.”
“I don’t mean together. I mean, together, together.”
Gulab turned her head and faced her friend. She had a quizzical expression on her face, and a dense fog around her brain. She did not understand what exactly Charvi was trying to say. After all, just repeating words did not lend them any better context. In her mind, they were both saying the same thing repeatedly without agreement. What was she missing?
“Back up a little here; what is the difference?”
Both were still kneeling behind the sandbag wall, only centimeters apart.
When Charvi spoke, Gulab could feel the breaths leaving her.
“I will try to illustrate. Two people can go to the festival, as individuals in the same place. Instead, I desire to go with you to the festival as a unit. Does this make sense?”
“No. You are actually making less sense.”
Charvi clapped her hands. “I have trouble with words, you know.”
“I know. I’ll give you time.”
“Thank you. Here’s my idea. We could hold hands, and share a sweet yogurt.”
“Units don’t really do that, I think you mean more like, a couple?” Gulab said.
Charvi awkwardly evaded her eyes.
“Perhaps, or perhaps not.”
Her friend’s evasiveness came like a kick that jumpstarted Gulab’s brain.
It dawned upon her then what word she had used, without thinking. Couple; it had come unbidden to her mind and she had blurted it out mindlessly. Not a unit, but a couple, two people, holding hands, sharing a yogurt, having a grand night out, making love–
Her own mental image quite ran away from her and she shivered.
“SO, UM,” Gulab tugged on her own shirt collar. “Couple, huh?”
Suddenly, Charvi clapped her hands several times.
It was as if she was trying to hide the sound of her own voice.
But nonetheless Gulab heard her muttering.
“Couple sounds nice.”
Gulab said nothing, watching the claps.
After over a minute it seemed, her friend was finally all clapped out.
Slowly, her hands ceased to smack together.
“I am able to accept it if you do not desire to go with me.” Charvi said suddenly.
Her eyes drooped toward the ground as if in defeat.
Gulab thrust out her hands and grabbed hold of her friend’s shoulders.
“No, no! I want to go with you!” She said. “Let’s go as a couple if you want!”
Charvi stared into her eyes, initiating another long silence.
This one she also broke through non-stop clapping.
Gulab felt like an idiot; words were streaming out of her mouth faster than thoughts could form in her head. She was nervous, she felt the brimming of anxious skin beneath her clothes, all over her body, like a swarm of ants consuming her. In her head she recalled everything everyone was saying about the festival, about how romantic it was, about how beautiful and serene and fun it was, about sweethearts and soulmates and first loves.
She should have connected the dots sooner! She felt so dense and foolish.
Even more so because she had accepted, without really thinking it through.
But looking at Charvi, as bashful as she could be, right in her hands, it felt less odd.
In fact, it felt like it could be enjoyable.
“I, uh, I don’t really have anything to wear though.” Gulab said.
“That is fine. Neither do I.” Charvi replied.
Kneeling behind the sandbags, they both averted their eyes, faces blushed a fierce red.
At their side, their rifle lay discarded.
“Will we still get stamps?” Charvi asked, glancing sidelong.
“Of course! We’ll get anything you want.” Gulab said nervously.
Charvi clapped her hands once. “Anything?”
Gulab swallowed hard, beginning to sweat.
“Well, now, let’s not get too hasty.” She said, half through a laugh, half through a hiccup.
Rangda City, 8th Division Garrison HQ
Past noon the door to the headquarters creaked gently open. Madiha did not hear the whistling of the old hinges, not over the song coming in from outside. It was sung in a language that Madiha did not know, but in her mind, she heard both the Kitanese words that she did not know, but also singing in Ayvartan, “Oh little yellow cabbage, left by your mother at two or three, Oh mother, dear mother!–” all sang by the same beautiful voice.
At first it was slightly surprising, but soon only the Ayvartan passed through Madiha’s head, perfectly translated. It was another part of the strange affinity that had returned to her.
Through the open threshold, Padmaja entered with a stack of boxes in her hands.
She walked a few steps, obscured by the stack, and laid it on Minardo’s desk.
“There’s mail for the Colonel, and a big box for you, ma’am. I also brought food. Today’s spread is a little anemic compared to yesterday, but there’s still a salad and breads.”
“Many thanks,” Minardo said, “Colonel, come get your mail before I open it!”
Madiha stood from her desk, and joined Padmaja and Minardo. She picked up the box; it was not very heavy, but it was still fairly solid, and clearly packed with something. She shook the box, and confirmed that whatever was in it was not rattling and shaking. Minardo and Padmaja stared hard at the box, as if tracking its every movement in Madiha’s hands.
They started to surreptitiously lean forward and around, hoping to catch sight of it.
Annoyed with them, Madiha laid the box down on the table and drove her combat knife through the top, slicing it open. Minardo and Padmaja instinctively backed away from the Colonel’s savage knife slash, shaken up by the attack; inside the box, the first thing Madiha saw was an old black fedora. There was a brown envelope and some clothes there too.
Picking up the fedora piqued an old memory.
“I recognize this.” Madiha incredulously said.
Padmaja and Minardo quickly recovered, and leaned back in toward the box.
“That’s a real lady-killer hat!” Minardo said.
Madiha set the hat down on the desk and lifted the clothing folded into the box. There was a grey vest, a white dress-shirt, a dark-red silk tie, a sharp black suit jacket and a pair of astoundingly soft and sturdy black pants. There was not a stain or a string out of place on any of the articles, but they smelled woody, like they had been dug from a very old closet.
“I think I know who these all belong to.” Madiha said, aloud but mostly to herself.
“Who is it?” Padmaja asked.
In lieu of a response, Madiha picked up the envelope and ripped open the side.
Out slid an old black and white photograph, landing on the desk.
There were several people standing together for a group shot.
Most prominent in the center were a tall, serious-looking woman with short, messy hair, dressed in that same suit and fedora now in Madiha’s posession; beside her was a woman with dark hair in a wavy ponytail, leaning lovingly on the tall woman in the center. There was a plump, sweet-looking woman in an apron and dress holding the couple by the shoulders. A rather small woman in an ornate dress seemed to stand in all their shadows, and several men posed with shotguns and old rifles and pistols behind all of the women.
There was a hammer and sickle flag on display as well.
And in the middle of the shot, was a girl a meter and a half tall in a little newsboy cap, wearing a little vest and shirt and short pants. Her dark hair was cut to the level of the neck, and her eyes looked fiery even in the colorless photograph. She had a basket with her, full of newspapers, and there was a little bulge in her vest where she clumsily hid a small revolver.
Madiha felt tears drawing from her eyes as she beheld the picture and remembered.
“That was me, and the original Zaidi crew in Bada Aso.” She said.
She wiped the tears from her eyes. Padmaja and Minardo looked on, stunned.
From hand to hand the photograph passed between them.
“Wow. That really does look like you. And is that Warden Kansal?” Minardo said.
“Yes.” Madiha said. She felt a little choked up. “She’s there in the center.”
“So these clothes are hers. Put on the fedora for a moment!”
Minardo picked up the hat and handed it over. Madiha laid it on her head.
“Hmm. Your hair is a little straighter than hers, and your face is just a tiny bit smoother around the edges and the nose, but you honestly quite resemble Daksha Kansal, you know! Could she be your mother, Colonel, hmm? Is that your dramatic birth secret?”
She chuckled and smiled. Madiha felt a tiny bit of the humor.
“She kind of was, when you think about it.” Madiha replied.
“Ah, but I mean, your mother-mother!” Minardo said, rubbing her own belly.
“She was definitely not the type who would carry a pregnancy.”
“Hmm, I see your point!” Minardo replied, clapping her hands.
“Colonel, there’s definitely more in the envelope.” Padmaja said.
She picked it up and shook it.
Inside, Madiha found a letter, and many bills of paper money in high denominations.
She unfolded the letter and read it quietly.
Your victory at Bada Aso will change the course of this nation and this war. I only wish I had been able to better prepare you for the trials you have suffered and will continue to suffer in your life. Those days we spent in Bada Aso ill suited a child; and they ill suited a leader of open warfare. But you have nonetheless boldly risen to the occassion. I am quite proud.
Enclosed you will find some items of nostalgia that I wish to bequeathe to you. I’ve learned that you are big enough now for my hand-me-downs. My lady-chasing days are long over; in fact, I hope that a wedding invitation will soon make its way to you. In my place, I hope you have plenty of warm evenings with beautiful women in my best cut. Remember to wear the hat — it is the key to everything. I also got a copy of a photo you might enjoy. We seldom got everyone together for a group shot. It is unfortunate you were being bratty that day. I would have liked to have a picture of my little soldier smiling and happy. But it is what it is.
Also enclosed are my royalties for the overseas sales of my books and Lena’s books. I caught wind of the fact that you had not been properly paid. Spend the money as you wish.
I will try to push through your salaries and your supplies as best as I can.
I hope we can speak in person about these things and more soon.
Your watchful benefactor,
Madiha put down the letter, and went over the bills.
“How much money is it?” Minardo asked.
“Too much.” Madiha sighed.
It would have quite helped to have had this fund yesterday.
She couldn’t complain, however; she rather liked the look of Daksha’s old suit.
Rangda City, Streets
As the sun was setting on this last day before the festival, Madiha felt a mix of disappointment and shame and trepidation. Minardo had declined to drive her, and remained around the Headquarters for some reason, so she was again walking the relatively short distance from the base to her apartment. It was not a physical burden, but it felt tedious after the lively drive down she had gotten used to.
Kali hung behind her like a big purple back pack, but the dragon had gotten so comfortable that Madiha heard and felt nothing from it but snoring and the expansion and contraction of its belly and chest against her back. It was asleep, contented.
It was not an entirely lonely event, but she did not feel well accompanied either.
There was one overwhelming thing on her mind.
She had not seen Parinita all day, so the question of the festival had been ripped from her hands. She was not especially worried about her secretary. Minardo cleared everything up. Crime in Ayvarta was low, too; and if anyone would have been kidnapped or harmed in order to get to her, it would have better happened much earlier than now.
She realized there was a bit of possessiveness in her longings that was wrong to feel, but she had strongly wanted Parinita to tell her where she was going and what she was doing. She had wanted Parinita to confide in her, and seek her help, and desire her.
And yet, she also wanted to have the strength to keep her at arm’s length too.
Under her arm, Madiha carried the box Daksha had sent.
She was 40,000 shells richer off Daksha’s overseas royalties, collected over some undisclosed period of time. It was a lot of money in Ayvarta, and Madiha was not sure she liked that fact at all. It was a strange load in her pocket; a sign that buying and selling had not been eradicated, that vestiges of sin remained in her beautiful socialist land. As someone who quoted Lena from memory, it just felt wrong to carry this.
There was nobody on the street. It was evening enough that orange had become the predominant color of the sky and it tinged the surroundings. She walked alone down Rangda’s streets, without even the comfort of familiarity. It was not Bada Aso or Solstice, places whose streets she had well worn down both in her far-away past and her quite-near past and present. Now she was isolated in this place with nothing but her newly-regained memories of those older streets. At least she had that much with her now.
Thinking of all the people in that old photo who could not be here made her feel petty.
Her little problems seemed childish. She needed to become more decisive, and soon.
But alone on those streets, she still felt too wavering to put up a strong front.
Madiha turned the last corner to the red banner apartments, approached the steps, and walked through the front door. Crossing the threshold was undramatic, and again she found herself alone in an empty place. She almost expected Parinita, dramatically waiting at the top of the steps, perhaps for Madiha to rush to and embrace. It was a cutting absence, as if she was the last woman on Aer. Bowing her head, she pushed on.
Carelessly she slammed into someing while turning blindly into the ground floor hallway.
Both women fell back in their opposite directions, shocked.
Kali snarled and cried out, flying out from under Madiha before the Colonel hit cement.
It flew out the hallway, and perhaps out the building.
“I’m terribly sorry.” Madiha said. She turned around from watching her dragon.
Parinita had fallen on her buttocks and now rubbed her belly, where Madiha struck.
“No, it was me! I’m so sorry! I should’ve watched– oh! Madiha! Hujambo!”
She went from pained apologies to peppy greetings in an instant.
This moment of absurdity forced a quiet laugh out of Madiha.
“Good evening, Parinita.” She said, coughing a little.
Parinita’s elbow had hit her right under her breasts.
Despite the abrupt nature of the meeting, Madiha felt overwhelming relief in her assistant’s presence. Her anxieties vanished; the fire in her mind was snuffed out.
Parinita looked perfectly healthy, and indeed, better put together even than the Colonel herself. She dressed in her skirt uniform, and like Madiha, wore the cap and all of the accouterments. They had agreed to do so together the day before, to try to inspire greater professionalism in the forces; it was nice to see that her companion had adhered to the little pact. Her wavy strawberry hair was well combed and looked silky and bouncy. She had a touch of pigments on her lips and around her eyes, and shiny heels.
Together they stood from the carpeted floor, holding each other’s hands for support.
They did not let go very easily after that.
“Madiha, I’m sorry I didn’t show up today. I wanted to fetch something.”
“Please file a request for time off next time.” Madiha said.
Parinita yanked her hand back, crossed her arms and turned her cheek.
“Hmph, if this wasn’t also a treat to myself, I would postpone it just to be spiteful.”
Madiha raised her hands plaintively. “Sorry!”
Parinita glanced sidelong at Madiha. “Close your eyes and open your hands.”
“Alright.” Madiha replied, a second’s worth of stutter in her voice.
On command, she shut her eyes and spread open her hands, smiling, excited.
She heard the jingling of a key and then her room door clicking open behind her.
“Half-turn! To your right!” Parinita ordered, in the tone of a drill sergeant.
Madiha shifted slightly on her feet. She was turned in toward her open door.
She heard a few clacking footsteps, and then felt fingers curling around her own.
“Open your eyes.” Parinita said, her voice now soft and fond again.
When Madiha opened her eyes, she found Parinita in front of her, holding her hands tightly; behind her, inside the room, there were plastic, transparent bags hanging on the clothes racks, marked with the brand of a local outfitters shop. There was a dress, and a suit, protected inside the bags. Madiha felt something between her fingers and Parinita’s preventing them from fully intertwining. When she looked down from her companion’s beaming, exhilirated face and down to her hands, she found slips of paper — tickets.
“Madiha, would you go out with me on the night of the festival?” Parinita asked.
Though she registered the words and turned them over in her mind, Madiha was incapable of responding at first. It was as if her brain had split into warring sides over how to interpret what Parinita said. She wanted so badly to believe it, but also to ignore it. Her heart pounded, and she felt her face turning hot. Words stumbled up her windpipe and fell drunkenly on her tongue, never quite making it out through her open lips.
Parinita smiled at her while Madiha rubbed the tips of her fingers against her soft skin, overwhelmed by the pressure, and the joy, and the sheer emotion of the moment.
Such a mixture of sensations poured over her head, hot and cold all at once.
Several times she opened her lips, enough for the red flesh and pale teeth to become briefly visible, but still she could not speak. She recalled Bhishma, and what he had said and done, and in a paranoid instant she thought Parinita would break away from her any second, that her hesitation and weakness would cause her to dissipate. But Parinita was patient as the sky awaiting earthbound souls. In her face Madiha saw such gentle understanding, and not any hint of malice or insistence, and she began to calm.
For many minutes they stood, silent, framed by the door threshold, half-in and half-out, fingers wrapped tightly around, eyes ever locked together despite the difference in height. Madiha’s breathing quickened then slowed, and she spread her lips again.
Parinita suddenly preempted her. “Maybe something like this will help you decide.”
After finally speaking, Parinita leaned forward and up, standing on her toes.
Madiha felt drawn into her gaze, obscuring the world around them.
Smiling, Parinita shut her eyes and turned her head slightly.
Her lips brushed Madiha’s own and then closed around them.
Madiha tasted a hint of strawberry.
Fingers tightened around held hands.
They remained locked in a gentle kiss until Parinita’s feet were shaking.
Madiha leaned down instead, inching forward to spare Parinita any discomfort; there was a clumsy shift in their faces as Madiha took the lead then, their mouths meeting and sliding, trading close, hot breaths. Unaided their lips then closed together anew.
This kiss they held until they were out of breath. Lips and sly tongues parted.
Panting, beginning to sweat from their shared heat, they stared into each other’s eyes.
Breathing with a heavy, tantalizing desperation, Madiha smiled rapturously.
“What do you say?” Parinita gently asked, her own breathing just as ragged.
“I have my own suit. I want to wear it.” Madiha said. “It has a matching hat.”
Parinita smiled back, raising a hand to Madiha’s cheek. “I look forward to seeing it.”
She had made her decision then. Perhaps impulsively; but she would live with it.
Nobody in that old photo would have told her to deny herself this happiness.