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.