The Coming Storm (44.3)

City of Rangda, 8th Division Barracks — Regimental HQ

After the night of the festival there was a general weariness around the base as soldiers returned to their duties. Scores of young men and women were hung over from a night of drinking and partying, others nauseous, having eaten too much fatty and sugary food. Quite a few would not get out of bed, having slept nothing the night before and instead celebrated every second of darkness. It took some doing for the officers to get their troops out to the fields, but slowly the drills resumed in whatever laggard way they could.

Meanwhile the 1st Motor Rifles’ Headquarters had one of its most lively afternoons.

“Maharani, could you pass me those artillery tables? I know it isn’t my job but I would like to go over them before I have the batteries organized for today’s shooting drills.”

“Yes, of course, Colonel. I had them on hand for just such a situation.”

“Thank you. You’re always so efficient, C.W.O. I couldn’t command without you.”

“It’s because of your inspiring leadership, Colonel, that we can fight at all.”

Logia Minardo stared at her commanding officer and her aide-de-camp and adjutant as they fluttered eyelashes, and stroked each other’s hands and spoke in dulcet tones to one another. Hovering about the main desk, looking over a bundle of artillery papers thick with formulas and angle calculations and impenetrable arithmetic, they appeared to be working, and indeed, it was work someone had to do. But it was the way they carried on their work that drew her attention. They had an aura to them that was warm, gentle, rosy.

Both of them looked like they had gone through a hot-pressing machine. Parinita’s hair was shiny and bouncy, her uniform perfectly put together, her skin practically glowing. Meanwhile the Colonel, who was not known to take great care of herself, was impeccably clean and neat. And was that a touch of powder on her face, a bit of pigment on her cheeks? A bit of gloss on her lips? Who applied all of that? It couldn’t have been her.

Minardo’s gossip mind accelerated faster than a Garuda plane on final approach against a bomber formation. She could come to only one conclusion. Everything had gone just as she planned. She snickered to herself, crossed her arms, and swelled with pride.

Or maybe it was the baby swelling– no. Thank everything. It was definitely pride.

“You two really lit up the festival last night!” Minardo said, giving them a thumbs-up.

Upon seeing her expression, both Parinita and Madiha stared her way in confusion.

“Is she up to something again?” Madiha asked.

“I don’t know.” Parinita said. “She looks like she is.”

“No!” Minardo replied in a mock exaggerated tone. “I’m not up to anything!”

She was only half-joking.

She realized she had gone a little far and caused some mischief for the Colonel before, but that was just how she was. Her curiosity had gotten the best of her. Ever since she heard of the hero of the border whom she would be serving, Minardo had a hunger to learn more about her. She had served and suffered under heroes before, enough she routinely prefixed their titles with so-called. Though she had no choice but to serve in her capacity, Minardo had wanted to test Madiha. She needed to see whether this hero was noble or dangerous.

Madiha had handily passed Minardo’s tests. She seemed a very alright kind of gal.

Not Minardo’s type at all, but she immediately realized who’s type Madiha was.

So, while she openly tested Madiha, she also nudged something else along too.

Madiha seemed to notice the mischievous way in which Minardo was carrying herself.

“Sergeant,” Madiha said, “I can’t work if I’m expecting you to be a nuisance everyday.”

“Then stop expecting it! I’m not being a nuisance!” Minardo dejectedly replied.

“Thanks for the funds by the way.” Parinita interjected, laying her hands on the Colonel’s shoulders as she spoke, as if to remind Madiha to be a bit softer on Minardo. Ah, Maharani; that girl was almost angelic. Pretty and gentle, and intelligent, and never a downer like the Colonel always was. Not Minardo’s type either, but still, wonderful.

“Oh, it was an investment, dear, do not thank me.” Minardo replied cheekily.

“An investment in what, might I ask?” Madiha said.

Minardo put a hand delicately over her mouth, and laughed her oh ho ho! laugh.

Her mind soaring with elation, she felt that the time had come.

Reveling in her gossipy glorry, she revealed to them her master plan.

“It was an investment in creating a sexy, mature power-couple to set the festival ablaze! Pregnant and single as I am, I could not dominate the festival as I have in years past. But you two exceeded my expectations! Why, I hear you gave a saucy little display of affection for a crowd at a shooting gallery! You two are really the talk of the town!”

Parinita’s face flushed red as a tomato, while Madiha’s mouth hung, shoulders slack.

“People are talking about us?” Parinita said, covering her mouth.

Madiha looked horrified at the thought. “I’m– I’m what?” She said in tandem.

Minardo continued to laugh delicately as her superiors grew ever more awkward.

“You should consider it an honor that the goddess of matchmaking, Logia Minardo, deems you a worthy project! I told you I never miss the mark in romance!” She said.

Both Parinita and Madiha were left amusingly speechless at this revelation.

Mercifully for the two of them, the door to the headquarters swung open right then.

Corporal Gulab Kajari and Sergeant Charvi Chadgura, rifles in hand, arrived with a young man from the gendarmerie, marked as such by his yellow armband and the blue beret he wore in place of a garrison cap or helmet. They were agitated. Minardo saw their chests rising and falling with heavy breathing, and their foreheads soaked in sweat. The Gendarme was stiff in posture and spoke in short sentences as if trying to mask his shortness of breath. Had they been running all the way here? And if so, from where? Gendarmes were never good news.

“Colonel.” He said, pausing for a moment after. His sentences were terse. “Requesting your presence. Ocean police station. Very important matters, require your attention.”

The Colonel appraised them warily, forgetting her previous embarrassment.

“May I ask what for? I am finalizing a training program for the batteries. Without my presence we will be further set back in getting this unit ready to fight.” She said.

“Colonel, there’s a spy.” Gulab said, her trembling voice barely audible in the room.

“What did you say?” Madiha asked, standing from her desk.

The Gendarme shot an aggravated look over his shoulder at Gulab.

“Nothing’s confirmed.” He said. He drew in a breath. “We have to hurry. Please.”

With a serious look, Madiha nodded to Parinita, who nodded silently back.

“Hold down the fort, Maharani. Minardo, come with me. And please, be serious.”

“I am perfectly serious.” Minardo replied. She felt her own voice tremble.

“Be careful, Colonel.” Parinita said. Madiha waved her a gentle goodbye.

Sergeant Chadgura remained in the barracks, rifle up, bayonet in place, guarding the headquarters as someone who had proved she could be trusted. Corporal Kajari and the Gendarme led Minardo and Madiha to small parking lot on the other side of the base, where they took a car. The Gendarme drove them through the base gate, around a corner and through Ocean Road to the police station, a building lost amid the many similar constructions with small windows, inexpensive masonry and stuccoed walls.

Across the main road, the storefronts and clubs were busy taking down their decorations and attractions. Bystanders barely paid them attention; most who stopped to look turned their eyes to the police station, where a dozen armed officers stood outside for security.

In their blaring red shirts and pants, the volunteer civil police had unsteady grips on their bundu combat rifles. Being called to action was rare, and combat utterly unknown to them. In all her years living in Rangda, Minardo had never seen a civil policeman or woman with a rifle. On patrol, they had metal clubs. A select few neighborhood officers had a revolver and carried no more than twelve bullets on their person at any given time.

It was thought unconscionable to assign rifles to policefolk in a civilized Ayvartan city.

Abandoning the car just off the street adjacent the station, Madiha and Minardo jumped over the side of the car, and hurried through the phalanx of police officers and into the station. Kajari and the Gendarme quickly followed. At the front desk, a young woman waved the Colonel over, and hit a button on the wall. There was a buzz, and a locked door on the other side of the lobby opened into a gloomy stairwell to the basement level.

“Dangerous persons are confined down there.” She said.

“Are there interrogation resources?” Madiha asked.

“There is a special room.” replied the receptionist.

“You stay here. We’ll handle the rest.” Minardo told the Gendarme.

He saluted, and remained with Kajari in the lobby, guarding the hidden door.

Minardo followed Madiha down the steps into the gloom.

She wondered what the character of this spy would be — and how the Colonel would handle it. Now it was not her testing Madiha. It was the circumstances themselves.

How would the Right Hand of Death handle this?

For better or worse, Minardo had to see.

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