This scene contains violence and humiliation.
Rangda City — Ocean Station
“I can’t believe he escaped. I let him escape. After all of this.”
“Escape? Madiha, he jumped into a roaring river in a storm. He’s dead.”
“I wish I could believe you, but I’m almost positive he escaped.”
“Calm down. Move on to the next plan, okay?”
“Right.Right. Yes. We have to get moving. We can’t stay here.”
Everything felt completely wasted. Victory here was very hollow.
Despite everyone’s efforts it was clear that Rangda had fallen as a defensive position and as a livable city. Farther south the front line with Nocht was moving, Lubon was coming from the Ocean, that much was confirmed, and the defense of the city was in disarray. Coastal defenses had been compromised, and the rout of the airlanded Elven force only delayed the inevitable. No one wanted a naval confrontation with Lubon at this vulnerable juncture. On the eve of victory an evacuation was called. Tambwe would be abandoned.
Fighting in the city had all but died down. Though many Lubonin knights and air troops had fled and hidden in the city ruins, or even fled the city altogether, the bulk of Lubon’s remaining airlanded forces surrendered to the Ayvartans and their materiel was destroyed. Officers were taken prisoner, soldiers disarmed and left bound at the remains of the demolished port, to be rescued by their own navy whenever they arrived at the city.
Some food was furnished for them, but that was the only courtesy they would get.
Meanwhile citizens were freed from Mansa’s so-called “curfew.” From the airport, the University and other places, refugees from their own home were walked out by Ayvartan soldiers, briefed on what had transpired, and escorted to train stations and bus terminals. All land-based transportation in the city was slowly summoned, in a herculean effort of coordination, to begin a three-day evacuation of the city and its surrounding villages.
No one was happy with the arrangement, but there were no riots or upheavals. Time was given for things that could be carried to be collected, for old homes to be picked clean of anything that could find use in a new home. Exhausted soldiers traded places guarding civilians, keeping traffic going, keeping people moving. This effort started on the very night after the Battle of Rangda, as soon as the first civilians demanded the privilege.
No one was happy, but everybody worked, and everybody moved on with living.
“Colonel! Congratulations! It’s so good to see you here!”
“It’s good to be here, Private.”
“We’ve really only just started, but the evacuation is moving swiftly, I feel.”
“That’s good. It is thanks to your tireless effort. Keep up the good work.”
“Always ma’am! I’m proud to serve under you! Glory to the socialist peoples!”
Across the street, a private looking after some old folks smiled, called out, saluted.
She was full of vigor, but the people at her side were glancing askance at the Colonel.
They were picking through the rubble of what was once their home.
In light of that, the fabled Colonel, the savior of Bada Aso, was no hero to them.
But they said nothing. They were moving on.
For Madiha Nakar, it was hard to move on from being the hero. As she watched tragedy after tragedy transpire under the rain and the intermittent glow of the streetlights, she felt no sense of triumph. She had absolutely failed. This was not Bada Aso; this was not Adjar Dominance. Her soldiers still viewed her with respect and glowing eyes, and all of them veterans of Bada Aso, they knew hard fighting, and though exhausted, and hurt, and driven to extremes, they were thrilled now to have achieved another battle. But this was not a depopulated city used for a setpiece battle. This was a home. And she had ruined it.
When she blew up Bada Aso, everyone had left it. They had left in an orderly fashion. Those who remained, wanted to. They remained to fight with her, and to help her fight.
These civilians were not those civilians.
“You’re being real hard on yourself. I can tell.” Parinita said.
She wrapped an arm around one of Madiha’s own and curled up near her.
On her other hand she was holding open a muddy, slightly ripped umbrella.
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
“I always have to worry with you. It’s right on your face. You’re hurting yourself.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Parinita looked out over the street. They were walking to Ocean Station, having hitched a ride on a Hobgoblin tank back from the riverside, where their secret mission had failed to achieve its intended results. Both of them were a little gloomy; Madiha knew that for all she tried to play it off, Parinita was affected by everything too. She glanced over the ruins around them, and the people sifting through them for any remains of their old lives.
It was not so much valuables; nobody really had much need for them. It was memories that were important. People searched for records, and keepsakes, and family heirlooms. From houses, crumbled by shells or burned down by flamethrowers, they dug for old gifts, for priceless art, for their baby’s first boots, for the ashes of a venerable elder.
“If this was a scene in a color film, it would still be shot in grayscale.” Parinita said.
She turned her head from it and did not look at it again as they approached the station.
There were trains coming and going at an accelerated schedule. Rolling stock from all over Tambwe had been ordered to move to Rangda. Trains full of grain taken from collective farms near the front lines passed through, picked up as many passengers as could be stuffed with the food and around it, and took off overloaded as fast as it was safe to. Empty cars on obsolete engines were brought hastily back on duty, filled, and sent off again.
Everything was moving to the desert, to the eternal city of Solstice, the next battleground.
“There will be color again, Madiha!” Parinita said with a sudden energy.
Madiha nodded. She was downcast, but not defeated. Her heart was gripped with a great misery, but there was a fire inside that was burning up every depressing thought, and nursing a deep anger, a fiery hatred that was ready to burn bright, to lash out, to consume.
“I’ll make sure of it.” Madiha said.
“We will! Together. Alright?”
Parinita gripped her on the shoulder. They did not want to kiss in public.
Both of them knew it was a moment for a kiss, and they would have one when they could.
For now, they held hands on the way into the station.
Parked along the platform was a peculiar train that had come screaming into Rangda shortly after the battle was over. It was a KVW-marked armored train, bristling with guns and troop compartments, carrying a compliment of KVW rifle infantry, a super-heavy Vajra howitzer, and an amusing holiday car for the caboose. It was a quaint wooden car painted with warm colors and boasting a line of clear glass windows, much unlike the thick, enclosed, workmanlike armored sections of the train. There were lights shining brightly from within, and a sound like a gramophone record playing from inside.
“That looks like our stop.” Parinita said, laughing a little to herself.
“I would love for it to not be our stop.” Madiha replied.
“It’s the most picturesque thing here, it’s gotta be.”
Madiha sighed. She looked behind her.
Around one of the columns holding the platform roof, Kali was hiding.
She could see the little creature’s tail and wings peeking from the column.
It had been following them awkwardly ever since they left the riverside.
Perhaps the lightning and Madiha’s temper had made it nervous.
“Kali, stay there. We’ll come get you before we leave, okay?”
Kali’s head peeked out from around the platform. It blinked.
“Stay, okay? We’ll pick you up.”
Kali blinked again.
“I hope it doesn’t leave us. It’s so fun to have it around.” Parinita said.
“Kali’s also tactically useful.” Madiha replied.
It made no move to leave them, however.
Satisfied their pet was obeying, Parinita and Madiha walked around the back of the train.
They found the caboose door open. Inside was a colorfully decorated room with a table, furnished with a beautiful tea set. There were cakes, and tea, and coffee, and a pungent-smelling milk or cream, Madiha could not tell. On one end of the table, chained up, her wounds only slightly patched from when Madiha had first found her, was Paladin Varus, the highest value among the Elven captives. Across from her, seated on a cushioned chair, was a KVW officer, in the full red and gold regalia. Her dark hair was collected into a pair of long ponytails, and her skin contrasted with the bright color of her heterochromic eyes.
“Good evening, Colonel! You’re just in time.”
Standing up from the chair, KVW Commissar Halani Kuracha introduced herself.
She was a young woman, energetic, with a lithe figure and a strange ease of motion.
“Good evening, Commissar.”
Kuracha promptly took a cup of cream from the table, and poured it over Varus’ head.
“I’ve been trying to have a conversation with our guest here, but she’s so stubborn!”
Kuracha started twirling Varus’ cream-covered hair in one of her fingers.
She was laughing gently all the while, a tittering coo-hoo, like a bird.
Under this humiliating treatment, Varus bowed her head with a miserable expression.
“You should tell her, Colonel, maybe she’ll listen to you, after all, you did best her in glorious battle,” with a vicious grin, Kuracha pulled Varus’ head up and stared into her eyes, as she spoke, “tell her that were it not for Helvetia’s opening of diplomatic talks with us on this crucial evening, her rudeness would be strongly corrected by my presence.”
“You should stop making playtime of this interrogation.” Madiha said.
Everything about Kuracha was far too twee, childish and deliberately affected and Madiha was immediately growing to hate it. From what she knew of the woman, thought they had seldom met before this night, Kuracha gained repute as an administrator, prisoner processor, labor camp taskmasker, and some dabbling in military command. She was trustworthy, loyal, if eccentric. Her methods, though, could certainly be rebuked.
Once called out, Kuracha let go of Varus’ hair.
“Don’t worry, that cream was cold. It was sitting out for a while.” She said.
Kuracha walked around the room, and came to a stop with a little twirl in front of Madiha.
“Burning someone would be against the accords.”
Madiha was over a head taller, so Kuracha had to crane up to look her in the eye.
She looked like she had something vicious to say; but it was swallowed by a sweet smile.
“But there are forms of duress which have fallen through the cracks.”
“Why was I summoned here?” Madiha asked.
Kuracha blinked, and clapped her hands together with a sweet expression.
“I had been monitoring your progress in Rangda, Colonel. My unit did what we could to preempt 8th Division reinforcements coming in by train. We could’ve never predicted the Elven attack, however. We believe the Royal Navy to be a ways out; our air force will be scouting in the coming days. So that is why I called you in. I will be taking command of the evacuation here. You are required at Solstice: you will fly out there post-haste.”
Kuracha, having delivered her message, twirled back around and walked back to the table.
Madiha watched her go quietly, and spoke up again as the Commissar sat down.
“I would like to put in a request.”
Kuracha did not even turn around to meet her eyes again.
“I would like you to leave my car now.” she dismissively replied.
Her tone was still dripping sweet, but it was just harsher enough than before.
Madiha started to feel a pressure in her temples.
“I want my troops to be evacuated first. They fought hard. They deserve it.”
“Hmm? Excuse me?”
“i see no reason to repeat myself.”
“I’m afraid I’ll need a refresher.”
“My troops will be evacuated first.” Madiha said again, more sharply. “They have spent far too long already in this hole; I want them on the first train to Solstice. They earned it.
Kuracha started speaking in a machine-like, procedural sort of voice.
“Unfortunately priority is materiel first, then units, but don’t worry, there will be–”
“Why are you making this a problem?” Madiha said.
Kuracha turned back around and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
Madiha did not budge from the doorway. Parinita looked uncomfortable beside her.
But she was seeing too red to move now. Kuracha blinked hard and shook her head.
“You are the one becoming over-emotional here, Colonel. Though the distance will be only a few hours, no, they will not be first, I’m afraid. This has been left under my authority.”
“Commissar, there is precedent for this–”
“Not under my command.” Kuracha cut in.
Madiha closed her hand into a fist.
“It would vastly recover the morale of this nation’s finest soldiers if–”
“You are dismissed, Colonel. Your troops will be safe and home, in an orderly fashion.”
Kuracha continued to act as if she had gotten the final word, and turned back to Varus.
“So, my dear, who was this Gwendolyn you kept mumbling about, hmm?”
Madiha walked up to the table.
Parinita gasped, but was not quick enough to stop her.
In a flash, Madiha raised a leg and kicked Kuracha’s backrest, knocking her down.
For an instant it seemed as though she would kick the dainty woman in the chest.
Such a blow would have broken bones. Knocking down the chair was merely surprising.
Nevertheless Kuracha hit the floor hard.
She scurried onto her back with great quickness and stared up at Madiha.
Her hands were shaking slightly, and it seemed like she wanted to reach for a gun.
Something, however, stayed her hand, and she recollected herself.
“You forget your place, Colonel.” She hissed from the floor.
“No, you’re confused as to your own.”
Madiha took a knee and stared down, as if to say, ‘I’m still bigger even doing this.’
She loomed over Kuracha, making herself a dangerous physical presence.
“This is not your personal playground anymore, Commissar. This is not a labor camp full of ne’er-do-wells for you to boss around. This is not a KVW political office for you vault ranks through parroting a party line. While you were hunting stray trains my troops were in this city steeped in its death and treachery. They will be evacuated first. I’m very short tonight, Commissar. And I know for a fact, right now, I am more valuable than you.”
Kuracha stared at her defiantly. She was not threatened, not in the least.
In fact, she looked just as flighty as ever. Her words dripped with sarcasm and skepticism.
“Colonel, has anyone ever taught you the power of please? It is a magic word.” She said. “I am a person of respect, and this frankly. It is beneath you; beneath your legend.”
She practically spat out the last word like venom.
Madiha remembered a pair of ruffians some time ago who told her, while withholding information she needed, that if she made friends and asked nicely, instead of demanding, she would have gotten what she wanted. That was back before she knew these people would betray, kidnap and torture her, and that she would ultimately murder them all.
Kuracha was someone she would come to blows with. She knew this already.
There were all kinds of communists. Even those who agreed politically may not personally.
Madiha had hated many of her own people. But Kuracha was something else altogether.
She felt it, as if it was being carried in the air around her. Kuracha was dangerous.
She radiated something unseemly, something vitriolic to people.
Was this part of her power too? She had felt Varus’ weakness, felt the blows that the Paladin had taken, felt her defeat enough to almost see it. Now from Kuracha, she smelled the wantonness, and felt the frustration, and the casual application of power, the lust for dominance over others. Kuracha was cloyingly, sickeningly sweet, and she turned sweet like the sugars in a plantain: activated by fire, by violence, by the application of force.
Kuracha loved to have others under her power. That love was sweet as death was dark.
And perhaps some part of her loved to be captive and to be forced and driven down.
It confirmed to her the power she still had, even towered over by someone stronger.
Madiha shook her head. All of these things had flooded her mind in an instant.
She was almost reeling from the shock of it. Like a lightning bolt outside had stricken her.
A bolt of insight, of empathy, all of it unwanted.
“I will evacuate your troops first. But only because this isn’t worth fighting over.”
Kuracha acquiesced, and perhaps in her mind, it was all a sign of her strength.
Madiha had lost control.
She stood, turned her back, and made for the door.
“Colonel, I can be an angel or a devil. It’s entirely your choice.” Kuracha said.
“I’ll consider it, Commissar.”
Madiha did not look at Kuracha’s face as she pushed through the doorway.
Parinita bowed her head respectfully at the door and followed right after.
Walking aimlessly, in a random direction, Madiha was stomping her feet. She went out under the rain, slowly soaking. She felt the shame sinking in with the water, and started moving faster. Everything about Rangda, everything that had happened, she realized it was all characterized by a lack of control. Madiha’s impulses had driven her through all of it. She felt suddenly as if at no point had she truly mastered herself, and been a willing pilot in her own life. She projected that anger, that frustration, that recklessness, to everything that had transpired. From the Mansas, to the Elves, it was all wanton id.
Soon she was running through the rain, as if trying to outrun her thoughts.
“Madiha, are you okay? Talk to me!”
Someone came running in from behind, struggling with an umbrella.
Catching up, Parinita laid hand on Madiha’s shoulder and tried to slow her down.
“This isn’t the way to the airport.”
“I apologize. I made a fool of myself, of you; of us.”
Madiha stopped dead under the storm. She felt tears starting to gather in her eyes.
Parinita ran around her and stood in front, holding her hands.
“That was reckless back then, but you were doing it for deserving people.” She said. “Please don’t hold yourself in contempt for it, Madiha! You had good intentions, and that woman was definitely trying to get under your skin. I don’t hold any of it against you.”
Madiha could not bear to look at her. She felt like a monster.
“No. It was all my own self-righteousness and stubbornness. It’s always been.”
It seemed totalizing; she projected this event throughout all of her life.
She felt like she was realizing how wrong she had always been.
It was not liberating. It was like falling in a pit. It was like dying.
“First Mansa’s subordinates got a rise out of me; then Chakrani made me lose my composure; Von Drachen put me off balance; and now this. This is all such a mess.”
“Those were all infuriating things. You’re human. It happens. You’re not perfect!”
Madiha sighed, and it came out as a heavy sob, and shook the tears out of her.
Parinita looked around to see if anyone was there.
She seemed satisfied; they appeared to be deep in the station, amid empty, waiting trains.
With the coast clear she raised her hands to Madiha’s cheeks, parted her hair, and tiptoed.
Madiha did not resist the kiss.
She did not reciprocate with much energy, but did not resist.
“Madiha, please calm down. You’ve been through a lot. Give yourself some space. Please.”
Madiha sighed again, feeling frustrated with herself for this weakness.
“I fear I am devolving back into the impulsiveness of my youth.” She whimpered.
She locked eyes with her lover, and found an unruly sort of stare meeting hers.
Parinita grinned coquettishly, one hand over her lips. “Oh~ really~? Well, I for one am excited at the prospect of a more passionate and hot-blooded Madiha Nakar.”
She moved her hands in a cute little flourish.
Madiha burst into an involuntary chuckle.
“I can’t believe you’d tease me when I’m this vulnerable.” She said.
“Aww. I’m sorry. I was trying to make you smile.”
Madiha turned her head awkwardly, her face flushed from crying and from kissing.
“You nearly got me.” She said. Her mind was slowly clearing, just a touch.
Perhaps it was Parinita’s influence over the flame of Madiha’s power, like magic.
Or perhaps, Parinita was just that sweet and that good.
Madiha’s distress started to turn into embarrassment.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got us both soaking wet. I’ve been acting like a child.”
Parinita backed away a step, still holding Madiha’s hands, and smiled.
“Forget it. At any rate, you said in Bada Aso you reconnected with lost memories, right? It’s only natural you’d change after that; and after everything else that’s happened too. You’ve been hurt and exhausted and you’ve never once thought of yourself in all of it.”
Parinita sighed and looked out over the trains.
“I’m so worried, and I just, don’t know what to do sometimes. But I’m here for you.”
Madiha squeezed her hands. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to worry you.”
“Just let me take care of you every once in a while. Okay? If you can’t do it for yourself.”
They started to walk again, this time the right away to the airport. Parinita held up the umbrella, but they were both dripping wet, and cold, shivering, and the storm was making them struggle to keep the thing over their heads. Once more they had to pick up their space and start running, until they returned to the platform. Making sure to remain out of sight from Kuracha’s car, the two of them sought shelter at the station. Dripping all over a bench, they waited for a car to come that could be hailed and pick them up.
It was a pathetic scene, but not every battle ended gloriously.
Probably most events in history simply transitioned to inglorious peace without warning.
Madiha sighed deeply.
“Hey, don’t. Just cuddle up to me for warmth and stop thinking about it.”
Parinita seemed to readily preempt Madiha’s dark thoughts.
Wrapping themselves up in a towel provided by a nearby soldier, they clung close.
“I meant what I said, by the way. You’re taking some time off to recover.”
Madiha tried to work up a little smile. “I will readily acquiesce.”
“I’ll schedule a relaxing film just for us. And a warm bed right after.”
Parinita whispered in a sultry voice.
Madiha felt a momentary titillation at the thought.
“I’d like that.” She said awkwardly, remembering their last time.
Parinita, meanwhile, had a face like a fox poised to devour.
“Please calm down about it though.” Madiha added.
Together they waited, for the car, for the plane, for a change of clothes.
And in the sky, and off in the distance, and with time, they saw the edge of the desert.
One more inglorious transition in history.