This scene contains mild sexual content and social coercion.
51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building
At the turn of midnight the Rangdan Council building was abuzz with activity.
The Governor’s Office was particularly busy. There were civil servants elbow to elbow on the carpet and along the walls, and so much chatter that no one voice seemed to rise over the rest. There were drinks on hand, and many toasts called to seemingly nothing in particular. Arthur Mansa presided over the extravagant gathering, seated as if on a throne, behind the governor’s desk that should have belonged to his then-missing son.
Despite the chatter, the thrust of this spirited discussion felt impossible to follow.
As far as Chakrani Walters knew she was in a meeting to decide a course of action following the flagrant abuses of military power exhibited by the 1st Regiment during the events of the preceding days. It was very late at night, but Chakrani was not tired. She was accustomed to the night life, and indeed night was when she was most active. As a hostess, as a dedicated party-goer and as a lover, she was at her most vivid and alert in the night.
And yet, the tone of the conversation in Mansa’s office was inscrutable to her.
She felt drowsy trying to read the mood and to follow the discussion. There was nothing concrete being said. Mansa was laughing, drinking and carrying himself as if hosting a party. His closest officials were acting more like room decor. These men gained life only when prompted and only for the barest hint of agreement, a nodding of the head, a quick clap of the hands. There was no mention of Madiha or Solstice for the longest time.
Not that Chakrani was especially keen to think about Madiha these days, but it was necessary to put aside grudges for the good of the people, and she had to be ready.
Whether anyone else even cared about her feelings was another story entirely.
The scene reminded Chakrani of exoticized portraits of the old Imperial court. Had Mansa’s fingers been covered in golden rings and a crown been set upon his scalp, he could have been a king surrounded by smiling courtiers immortalized in acrylics.
Chakrani felt isolated. She sat on a padded chair, one in a line of several extending along a corner of the room parallel to Mansa’s desk, at once too near and too apart from his court. Everyone was dressed too well for the occasion, she thought. Though she had her ringlets done as pretty as ever, her attire was a drab skirt suit, her only good one, which had received quite a workout over the week. Meanwhile there were men in tuxes and fine coats and shiny shoes, and the occasional lady in a bright dress come to bring drinks.
Every other tongue was flapping, but she did not speak, for she knew not what she could say. Though she had prepared some notes, they felt irrelevant in the current climate. Nobody here seemed interested in the summary from her discussion with a trio of Adjar’s remaining Council members — three only because the rest had given up their posts. It did not seem like the time or place to talk about refugees, about food and work assistance.
She heard Mansa’s commanding voice and turned on her chair to address him.
“How do you like your wine? Red, white– palm, perhaps?”
Several sets of eyes turned at once to face her.
Chakrani contained a scoff. What a ridiculous question to be asked! She was not much of a wine drinker. She preferred mixed local drinks with a fleeting edge of hard liquor to them. Ayvarta was not a country of grapes. And what did it have to do with anything?
“I drink palm wine, but not often.” Chakrani wearily replied.
Mansa smiled, and beckoned someone close.
Through the doorway, a woman in a bright, elegant dress approached. She was tall and dark and very pretty, with a swinging figure and a heaving bosom and a large bottle of palm wine. She approached with a grin on her face and performed an almost lascivious curtsy for Chakrani, exposing some chest. Pulling up a chair, the woman sat beside her and poured her a drink. She remained at her side, laying a too-playful hand over Chakrani’s lap. Her body gave off a strong scent of mixed sweat and perfume and a hint of booze.
Once the drink was served Mansa gave Chakrani a smirk that sent her shivering.
He was as smugly satisfied as if he had done her a favor. She felt insulted.
Soon as he had brought her company, Mansa turned his attention elsewhere.
Perhaps she had been too quick to judge, but she had thought him a serious and committed person when they had met on and off the past week. Chakrani was aware of his strong track record in Solstice politics, thought of as an eternal incumbent with an invulnerable base of support and a grand diplomatic air. Not only that, but she knew him distantly through his father — the two of them had spoken and met and done business before the dire time of Akjer. She had thought of him as a man of leadership and scruples. Was this evening characteristic of how he carried out his vaunted diplomacy?
As the night went the strange procession continued. At her side the woman tried to make polite conversation. Mansa turned to her several times and asked about her days as a hostess, about her family life and upbringing; and each time he cut her off with his own tales of days past. He talked to her about his days as a patron of business. He talked about old Rangda, and he talked about the old Regional Court. It was stifling. She almost wanted to weep. She barely got a word in except to the lady he had provided for her company, who nodded and laughed and cooed at her, perhaps drunkenly.
Gradually Chakrani noticed the courtiers peeling off from the crowd and the room starting to thin out. Mansa grew more reserved; at her side, the woman in the dress, whose name Chakrani had not been able to coax out at all, clung closer to her and drank the remaining wine out of Chakrani’s glass. Chakrani thought this was her own cue to leave. But when she stood, the woman threw her arms around her and Mansa raised his hand.
“No, Ms. Walters, as a serious woman of politics, I expect you to stay.” He said.
Another ridiculous notion!
Chakrani blinked and settled back down on her chair. She peeled the drunk woman’s arms away from her waist, trying to get her to sort herself out in her own damned chair–
And doing so, she spotted a small handgun clipped to her suddenly exposed upper thigh.
She tried to show no incongruous changes in expression, but it was difficult.
Chakrani had only ever seen a gun up-close once when she took off Madiha’s belt.
She was clearly unused to the particular world of politics that she had stepped into.
“Ah, good, good!”
Preoccupied as she was with whether the woman at her side was fictionally drunk or factually capable of operating a firearm, Chakrani did not immediately notice a new set of men coming discreetly through the door. Mansa clapped his hands once for the arrivals, and this caused Chakrani to turn her head. He in turn acknowledged her once more.
“Chakrani, meet the loyal men of Rangda’s own 8th Ram Rifle Division. They will help us take care of our little Nakar problem, as well as help your people regain their strength.”
Chakrani went along with it. Mansa said something else, about confronting Madiha, about how these men would protect her from Madiha; she nodded affirmatively at his every word and said her ‘yes’es and ‘thank you’s. She was not paying him the proper attention, examining the army men and beginning to fear for her own position in this discussion.
There were several ordinary men of some rank or other; but there was one man who drew her attention the most. He was fairly tall, athletic and slim, with a rugged, handsome appearance, tanned, with a hooked nose, and a hint of slick blond hair under his cap.
His chest was decorated with many medals. He had more decorations than she had ever seen, though her only point of comparison was Madiha’s chest, years ago.
When he spoke his name at Mansa’s command, Chakrani stifled a gasp.
Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen.
She was immediately sure no such person truly existed in Rangda’s armed forces.
And the looks of anxiety on the faces of the rest of the men seemed to confirm this.
Though they would not say it, these men were being dragged into something.
She, too, was being dragged into something.
Mansa, however, was delighted to have the man here. He welcomed him jovially.
“Our greatest asset arrives! Well, Let us speak discretely for now, General Drachen–”
“Von Drachen, my good man. You see, Drachen alone, does not convey–”
“General Von Drachen,” Mansa correct himself, cutting off the Brigadier, “I take it that your preparations are complete and you will be ready to assist me by the agreed date.”
“It should take my gruppen no later than the 54th to arrive. My jagers are here with me.”
Chakrani felt her face go white at the sound of Nochtish words, confirming her fears.
Mansa’s expression briefly darkened. “I believe I was clear that the date was the 53rd.”
“We could potentially make the 53rd, but I am being realistic. You never know what will happen in the field of battle, especially where deception is concerned. I believe in leaving some leg-room available when making predictions.” Von Drachen replied.
“You talk much to say very little, General.” Mansa replied.
“You could stand to talk a little more, Sir.” Von Drachen said, smiling.
For a moment the two men appraised each other in silence.
Mansa steepled his fingers and proceeded with the conversation. “I believe some of us in the room share a mutual acquaintance who is noticeably absent from this discussion.”
“Hmm?” Von Drachen made a noise and stared blankly.
“Ms. Walters, I should very much like for our misguided friend Madiha Nakar to come and sit with us soon. Would it be possible for you to fetch her for us?” Mansa said.
Chakrani felt her insides constrict with dread. All throughout she had been feeling like a hostage trapped in a dangerous situation, and she had been right. This Von Drachen was a man from Nocht and Mansa was plotting something. This was what they wanted her for; they just wanted to get to Madiha and she was the way that they settled on. Her eyes glanced over to the woman at her side, who was still clinging sleepily to her.
Would acknowledging any of this put her in undue danger? Chakrani was not some soldier or spy. She was a young woman under the stars who liked to drink and carouse and make love to women. That she put together these clues was no great feat, she thought. Anyone in this situation would have thought the same. But her sense of self-preservation, more developed than that of a reckless hero, screamed for her to quiet.
In this situation her blood chilled and her heart slowed. She helplessly complied.
“I could certainly try, sir. But would not an official missive be more appropriate?”
She thought the more respectful she acted, the safer she would be.
Mansa smiled. “I’m afraid she has become too unstable for official contact. At this pivotal time in our diplomacy, we cannot afford to let her run rampant. Surely you understand. You know her, after all; she has hurt you before. She cannot be swayed by the law.”
Chakrani felt her tongue grow heavy. Just hearing others speaking about that woman set off a chain reaction of conflicting emotions in Chakrani’s head and heart that she buckled under almost as badly as she did under the anxiety she felt at this predicament.
“Madiha Nakar is difficult sir, but I think if you take a peaceable solution–”
Across the room General Von Drachen’s face lit up with child-like glee.
“Councilman, do you mean to say Sergeant Nakar of Bada Aso fame, is here?” He said.
“Colonel; but yes. She leads the 1st. Regiment her in Rangda. Though I tried to integrate her into our affairs I have found she leans too far from us to be of assistance, as she is now. But I desire to convince her; I’m sure that I can, given time and opportunity.” Mansa said. His voice was taking on a hint of disdain for the General he had so seemingly prized moments ago.
“I’m afraid convincing is out of the question.” Von Drachen clapped his hands. “If you are a man who wishes to neutralize the threat of her, I’m afraid only murder will suffice.”
Chakrani sat up tighter against the backrest of her seat in shock.
Mansa sighed. “We’re not going to murder her.”
“Oh, but you must! She will dismantle any well-laid plans you have with ruthless alacrity unless you let me dislodge her brains into a nearby wall post-haste, my good man!”
Mansa brought his hands up against his face.
“Councilman, what is he talking about?” Chakrani shouted. Some part of her brain simply could not suppress all of the scandal in this room enough to pretend that everything was still fine. In such a complicated situation even her desire to lay low and leave the room unscathed and out of bondage was overwhelmed by her sense of right.
Madiha Nakar was a killer, she had killed before, and she told herself her killing was right; that was the image Chakrani fought to hold in her mind. There were other images, some less grave, some distressingly fond, all of which battled in her mind and rendered her final perception volatile and erratic; but this unified picture was the one she thought she wanted to see. Madiha Nakar was a killer, her father’s killer. And yet, Chakrani would never agree to simply shoot her like an animal behind a shed. In any civilized world she could have been challenged and defeated and tried for her injustice.
That was what Chakrani wanted. She wanted justice! She wanted to be heard!
She wanted to have her suffering redressed! She wanted relief!
She did not want to have Madiha killed!
Every conviction she held screamed now that she had to oppose this meeting.
And yet she was the least of the powers in the room.
Her body remained frozen as the men continued to stare each other down.
Mansa remained speechless. Chakrani almost hoped he was not fully corrupted.
Meanwhile the gleeful Nochtish man seemed confident in his position.
Von Drachen ignored Chakrani’s outburst. “I will tell it to you plainly, Councilman.”
“I do not want to hear it!” Mansa shouted, standing up from his desk.
“You brought me here for a reason–”
“Yes, we have a deal and part of that deal is you listen to me, Cissean!”
Mansa was growing irate; while Von Drachen’s smirking expression never changed.
“We can do nothing about this ‘1st Regiment’ if Madiha Nakar is leading it. You brought me here to help check their power in your city, did you not? You want to remain capable of independent operation? You want to maneuver to power? Well you cannot do any of that effectively unless something is swiftly done about Madiha Nakar’s command.”
“Something will be done!” Mansa replied. “At my discretion, with my methods!”
Chakrani channeled her anxiety into a final surge of bravery. She shouted desperately.
“I have no connection to Madiha Nakar anymore, Councilman! I cannot help you!”
She stood up from her seat and started toward the door.
Chakrani felt the gun at the nape of her neck and raised her hands.
Behind her, the woman in the dress seemed almost disappointed to have to hold her up.
She was not drunk, nor sleepy; her sexualized act was replaced by cold stoicism.
Chakrani was sure that this woman would shoot. She froze completely.
Mansa sighed ever more deeply. He rubbed his hands over his face again.
“I am so upset right now. I expected all of this to transpire so much more cleanly. Mark my words, Cissean, your superiors will know my displeasure.” He calmly said.
Von Drachen shrugged childishly in response.
“It seems I am doomed never to be listened to.” He cryptically said.
After addressing the General, Mansa turned a stoic eye on Chakrani.
“Child, you will pen a missive and meet Madiha Nakar at a specified location. One of our agents will then persuade her to meet with our Council and make a peace. We will not harm either of you. I am merely answering her obstinacy with my own. A diplomat needs an opportunity to speak. I am merely seizing an opportunity to speak: with Madiha, with Rangda, and ultimately, with Solstice, and with Nocht. I am making my stage here. While the rest of the world devolves to madness, I will make Rangda a pillar of order. Alone, or not.”
Chakrani started to weep. She could not believe that she would come away unharmed from a request made at gunpoint. She had foolishly walked into something awful now. Not even Mansa’s calm and stoic words could assuage her. In fact, the calm with which he spoke made his words even more frightening. He was the most dangerous one here.
What kind of peace would he make with Madiha, when he was already preparing military force against her? What kind of peace could be made with Nocht other than giving up this city to their mercy? He might not kill anyone; but there would be blood nonetheless.
But she was helpless, and could say nothing more than “yes sir,” in a choked voice.
Mansa nodded his head, and raised his hand.
At Chakrani’s back, the woman laid down her weapon.
Mansa’s sweet, almost fatherly demeanor returned as he sat back down.
“I knew you would understand, Ms. Walters. Madiha will listen to you. I’m sure of it. Bring her here, and I will speak a truth to her that will change her outlook.” He said, smiling.