Conspiracy City — Unternehmen Solstice

50th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — 8th Division Base, HQ

“Let them in.”

At the Colonel’s exasperated command, the machine gunners guarding entry into the headquarters stood aside. Kajari and Chadgura stepped away from the interior doorway and held their rifles with their bayonets and barrels staring at the ceiling. Outside, the guards inspected the arriving car while its occupants cross the threshold into the HQ.

Parinita Maharani recognized the escort, but she was more surprised at the woman.

“Please identify yourselves.” Madiha said. It was a formality. She knew both of them too.

Haughtily, the woman with the ringlets and skirt suit crossed her arms and grumbled.

“Chakrani Walters, representative of the Adjar Civil Council.” She said.

Madiha nodded her head. “Padmaja, have her sign in, please.”

“Yes ma’am.”

From a corner, Feng Padmaja quietly and meekly procured a ring-bound book and presented a page and a pen to Chakrani. Normally the junior staffer was chirpy and energetic, but the gravity in the room seemed to have tripled for her, and she moved very slowly and deliberately. Chakrani stared at her with disdain as she approached, and begrudgingly signed the book before shoving the pen brusquely back into Padmaja’s hands. Stunned by the outburst, Padmaja stowed the pen between the locks of hair at the edge of one of her covered double buns, and walked sadly and stiffly back to her table.

“Can we talk now?” Chakrani asked. Her tone was turning downright bratty.

Madiha quietly nodded her head toward the man at Chakrani’s side.

“Identify yourself.” She demanded.

“I don’t feel like it.” He said.

“I will not ask again.”

Parinita averted her gaze. She felt the tension in the room constricting her chest.

Despite their previous liaison, Chakrani did not seem touched in any way by Madiha’s visible injuries. She seemed quite ready to treat Madiha as just somebody that had to be spoken to. Her posture was intimidating — Parinita thought Chakrani looked like a cat poised to lunge. Her crossed arms shook very slightly with pent-up energy. Her tapping feet hit the ground sharply and with a quick rhythm. Her gaze was cutting as her eyes slowly looked over the room, settling on every face she found. Her smoldering stare shook Bhishma and Padmaja.

She was such a contrast to Madiha; opposites truly did attract sometimes.

Madiha’s face was void of emotion. Parinita met her eyes from across the room, trying her best to silently communicate her support in this obviously painful situation. In response the Colonel’s expression and stance were neutral. Her voice, when she first spoke, sounded tired and vulnerable. But when she questioned the arrivals, she took a sterner tone. While Chakrani had come before them with fire in her chest, Madiha just seemed hollow.

“Just do it already.” Chakrani said, elbowing her escort.

At her side, the young curly-haired man in the disheveled uniform stared at the wall.

“Private Jota, mobility support.” He said. His tone was dismissive.

“I need your full name and unit. You can sign it in.” Madiha calmly ordered.

Padmaja stood up from the floor and approached cautiously with the ring-bound book.

Jota spat on the floor in front of her. “Nah. Find it out yourself, Colonel.”

Padmaja shrank away.

“Kajari, remove him.” Madiha said.

From the doorway, Corporal Kajari approached with her rifle in her hands.

Jota, visibly taller than her, half-turned and raised his hands.

“You don’t want to do that.” He said dangerously.

Kajari turned the bayonet on his neck and left a scratch.

“You can leave by yourself or in a bag, your choice.” Kajari said.

Chadgura stepped forward as well.

Jota sighed deeply. He turned carefully and left the room, rubbing his neck.

All throughout Chakrani stared with a mix of horror and rage.

“You’re on a power trip, Colonel! He is my official escort!” She shouted.

Madiha was unmoved.

“Anyone who enters this building and shows even a shred of antagonism,” She said, her tone suddenly dangerous and deliberate, “is a threat to myself, to my staff, and to the security of highly sensitive materials in this base. I am not playing a game here.”

Parinita shuddered a little at the response, but she knew Madiha was right.

Especially in the condition she was in, and after recent events.

One’s outlook on security changes when one is nearly beaten to death in a “safe place.”

“I’m absolutely sick to death of you! Your actions from the moment you received a command have been nothing short of savage!” Chakrani shouted. “I’m filing a complaint!”

“Is this the Adjar Government-In-Exile talking still, or just you?” Madiha asked.

At the sound of the Colonel’s words, Chakrani stood suddenly quiet and still, and seemed cowed with shame. Chakrani then quickly composed herself, standing straight and to full height, taking a deep breath and clearly making an effort to calm her voice. Her hands were still shaking and Parinita thought she could see some moistness in her eyes.

“Colonel Nakar, let us cut the acrimony short — I’ll talk, and you’ll listen. Alright?”

“That is amenable. You have the floor, Councilor.”

Parinita wondered what was going in Madiha’s mind and heart at the moment too. She knew Madiha was skilled in compartmentalizing her emotions and pushing through difficult situations. She had already been put on this spot with Chakrani before in Bada Aso, and she was under greater pressure then and did not buckle. But she must have felt something, to be seeing Chakrani again, and in this kind of position and situation.

Though the thought felt childish and self-centered, Parinita wondered if Madiha felt strengthened by their affection, by their moonlit and dawnlit oaths. She wondered if the image of Parinita at her side helped to support her and drown away Chakrani’s voice.

Chakrani’s inner war was visible and plain. Madiha’s seemed completely suppressed.

Nevertheless, Chakrani took the role of Councilwoman Walters and delivered a speech so thorough that it seemed as though read out of paper on an invisible podium. Judging by her own expressions before, this dry, official language did not seem to be her words.

“Colonel Nakar, the Council of the occupied Adjar Dominance is deeply concerned about your continued independent usage of arms, armor and personnel taken from the Adjar Battlegroup Ox without any attempt at communication or information-sharing with either the Tambwe Civil Council or the Adjar Government-In-Exile here in Rangda.”

Madiha interrupted briefly. “My isolation was not wholly of my own design.”

“Information given to the Adjar Government-In-Exile says otherwise.”

Her continued insistence on referring to this “Adjar Government-In-Exile” was confusing. Parinita had not once heard of such an entity existing within Rangda, and she did her best to keep up with the political goings-on despite their limited resources. She knew the Adjar Council had evacuated to Tambwe; Madiha had ordered the move and executed it just hours after first meeting with them in Bada Aso. It made sense that they would end up in Rangda, as it was Tambwe’s most important city that was also relatively farthest from the fighting at the time. However, the concept of a continuing Adjar government baffled her.

“Let me guess: Mansa put you people up to this today.” Madiha calmly said.

“Councilman Mansa helped us organize here and informed us that you have been acting independently, including recently detaining prisoners and withholding information.”

Chakrani was starting to verge on anger again. She had a frustrated expression.

Madiha drummed her good fingers on her desk throughout Chakrani’s explanations. She spoke up in a stronger tone of voice afterward. “I am acting independently because the Adjar Dominance does not exist, and you have no authority over anything anymore.”

“I beg to differ.” Chakrani replied. “Currently we are working with local authorities to help relocate 50,000 refugees from the Adjar Dominance. We are getting them houses and food and union jobs instead of sending them to the desert. What have you done lately?”

That was it then, Parinita knew; Chakrani’s loyalty came in exchange for Mansa’s help in integrating some of her people back into normal lives. There were millions of Adjar refugees, but any number of people resettled and happy was a good number. However, most refugees were heading farther out to Solstice because Dbagbo and Tambwe were already embroiled in combat themselves. Parinita did not dare say it out loud, but in her rush to accept Tambwe’s help for these people, Chakrani was likely only endangering them.

Madiha stared at her without expression and then delivered her own quick speech.

“What we have done is destroy multiple elite corps of the invading army, delay their assault on Tambwe and their march into North Solstice by weeks instead of days, so that you can come here and berate us in the stead of your nonexistent government instead of being dragged into a camp and shot by Nocht as a ‘terrorist leader.'” She said.

On the receiving end, Chakrani grew more furious with every word spoken.

“You can be as dismissive as you like once you’re back under the stead of the government to which you belong! Listen to me before you open your trap again Colonel: rehousing refugees is not our only project. We’re aware that this country is tenuous too. So we have plans to raise a force of people from Adjar to help protect our new home in Tambwe and rebuild Ox’s strength. We need you to cooperate for everyone’s good.” Chakrani said.

“Ox has been disbanded and I do not need it to return. It is useless to everyone.”

Chakrani charged headlong into her next point, ignoring Madiha’s response.

“We’re talking past each other then so I’ll get to my main point. We’ve given to believe you have a prisoner from Nocht in your hands and are restricting access to them. You can ignore our other requests if you like; but we demand to be able to speak to them. They are not under your jurisdiction. We wish to see what information they can give us about the occupation, so we might adequately prepare for our resistance. Can you spare at least that?”

“No.” Madiha said immediately. “I have already gotten as much relevant information as can be expected from the foreigners. They are under the protection of the KVW now.”

“You can easily correct your wide overreach of your authority by simply letting us talk to the prisoner, or by sharing any information you got from them.” Chakrani said. Her tone of voice and the construction of her words sounded threatening, as if she was ready to indict them.

Parinita turned her head from the scene, and stepped closer to the desk with the original Generalplan Suden files. She should have realized that was their objective all along.

“None of it is easy or simple. Further harassment of our guests is not productive and could be downright dangerous. So no, you will not be allowed to speak with them.”

“Your unwillingness to submit to lawful authority is what’s dangerous here!”

“Lawful authority? You mean Mansa’s crooked council, and the eternally lame duck council that are using you as their puppet to retain some form of political relevance?”

“Whether you like it or not, Tambwe and Adjar have legitimate governments that–”

Madiha raised her good hand, and stood up from her desk, stopping the Councilwoman.

“I am not here for Tambwe or for Adjar, Chakrani. I am here for the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. I am here for the Ayvartan people. I am here for what will be a long war. It is disturbing to me how you stridently you fail to see the bigger picture here.”

Chakrani’s face turned chalk-white and her expression contorted with disgust.

She shouted back louder than any voice heard during the entire discussion.

“Don’t you fucking dare say my name again! I will not suffer you for a second longer you animal! Everything you do, everything you touch– You cannot save a single thing, you miserable wraith! Mark my words! hope I never see your despicable face again, Colonel, but you will hear from Adjar again. We will do whatever it takes to save our nation.”

She turned sharply around and stomped her way out of the building, pushing Kajari and Chadgura away from the door as she went. Everyone inside and outside the building seemed to have heard the outburst, and there were heads turning everywhere. Even the Hobgoblin turned its turret as if judging her. Chakrani Walters, as quickly and suddenly as she came, returned to the car with Jota and the pair sped off back out of the base.

Parinita breathed a loud sigh of relief. Everyone else was silent and still for a moment.

“She really does not like the Colonel.” Padmaja meekly said, cutting the silence.

“She has reason not to.” Madiha said, her head sinking against her desk.

Parinita shook her head. She supposed that was the answer to her previous fears.

Rangda — Ocean Road Police Station

Through the speakers mounted in the ceiling, the interpreter’s voice filled the room.

“His favorite food is something called Pierogi.” He said.

Across the interrogation table, Bercik shot a skeptical look at a gently smiling Kirsten.

Minardo sat opposite the two guests of the Ocean Road Police Station. She rubbed her fingers across the smooth and shiny surface of the table, thinking about these Pierogi. She concluded she had never heard of that dish. She was also not sure that she could procure it in Rangda. Minardo thought she was quite worldly compared to most people that she knew — if she had no idea what something was then it was likely that a kitchen worker at a canteen would not know either. Despite this she resolved to be accommodating.

“Ask him what that dish is and how to make it.” Minardo called out.

Beyond the one-way glass, the military interpreter spoke through the intercom.

Was ist Pierogi? Wie wollen sie kochen Pierogi?”

Again the system on the ceiling broadcast his voice clearly into the room.

Bercik sighed openly. Kirsten smiled and lit up and started to speak energetically.

After a few minutes of what sounded mostly like utter gibberish to Minardo, Kirsten quieted and sat smilingly waiting for further response. Once more the interpreter explained.

“They are dumplings, Sergeant; he likes them filled with mashed potato filling and cheese. He shared a long recipe and instructions which I have written down.” He said.

“Well, I suppose you can pass that along to the canteen when you can.” Minardo said.

Können wir jetzt gehen?” Bercik said, holding his head up by the palms of his hands.

Minardo caught some of the words and shook her head at him.

After the scare last night, Minardo hardly slept, seated uncomfortably in a hard metal chair in the interrogator’s room. In the morning she tried to perform her usual routine. She drank some hot, honeyed tea and picked up the paper, more for comics and games than for the actual news. Soon as she was done with her morning crosswords and the funny pages, Minardo discarded the paper into the recycling box and fetched the interpreter.

She was of a mind to have a chat with Bercik and Kirsten herself before lunch.

Everyone gathered in Bercik’s interrogation room, save the interpreter who remained safely behind the bulletproof glass. Because the interpreter was drawn from the 1st Regiment, Minardo could trust him more than the civil police. Feeling secure with an agent of hers in the interrogator’s side, Minardo started the session. She brought out a high-tech spool recorder, set it on the table, started it going, and introduced everyone.

Words then came and went rapidly across the table, alien to each party. Communication became possible through the military interpreter, who recognized the guest’s Lachy accents and could easily digest the Nochtish and Ayvartan in a way each party found palatable.

Minardo thought to break the ice with food. Kirsten, the younger, and most delicate of the two Nochtish youth, seemed delighted to talk about food, but the topic failed to penetrate his coarser companion. Bercik insisted that he should be released, that his work with them was done. All he wanted was to return to the road and think of what to do next. Minardo had the interpreter remind him that he had nowhere to go if he did not know the language — Nochtish speech and literacy in Ayvarta was very low outside of the military.

Faced with this, Bercik resigned himself to sighing with frustration every so often.

Pierogi promises only seemed to go so far with him.

Minardo then asked what they knew about Nochtish military capability.

Kirsten said he tried to read Generalplan Suden but it was too complicated for him.

Bercik grumbled inaudibly.

Minardo asked about the Nochtish home front. What did people think of the war?

Bercik claimed to have left the country before the war, and therefore did not know.

Kirsten assumed everyone would be against the war, because war was bad.

Nobody dissuaded him from his naive hopes.

To establish trust, Minardo explained some of her own duties in the military. She told Bercik simple, non-confidential things about the 1st Regiment, about procurement, setting work schedules, delegating tasks, and caring for the soldiers under her command, in this case usually Padmaja. She tried to sing one of Padmaja’s songs for levity, but it made no sense to anyone, even the interpreter, because it was all Kitanese, butchered by Minardo.

Kirsten sang a little song of his own in Nochtish, “Der treue Hussar.” He burst into song so quickly and spontaneously that the interpreter had a difficult time keeping up with it.

He had a rather pretty voice though, very sweet and pleasantly high-pitched.

After the interlude Bercik made vague statements about his journalistic past. Though he got his start in tabloids, he said his best work was publishing articles about sex scandals, fraud, corruption in what he called the “party machines” that existed at local levels. He railed against these party machines and their iron grip on neighborhoods for close to fifteen minutes, repeating himself and the same few sentiments several times as he did.

For a moment there was a confusing translation issue, where Minardo thought he meant “party” as a form of revelry. Bercik was non-specific enough that she thought Nocht was devolving into some monstrous bacchanalia nation-wide, especially because he seemed oddly focused on the topic of political sex scandals and divorces. It was quickly cleared up by the interpreter that he meant a political party and specific verbiage was used from then on. Upon learning of this, Bercik pointed and laughed at Minardo for it as if she was stupid.

Before Minardo could get the interpreter to ask him what his problem was, she heard a commotion building up outside. Heavy footsteps and shouting led to banging on the door.

Minardo stood. As soon as she did the door swung open. Behind it was a man in a suit and tie accompanied by a distraught front guard who was holding his hands plaintively out to him. Minardo stared between the two of them, but the man in the suit seemed to ignore her, while the guard seemed to have nothing to communicate save for a pathetic look in his eyes. It seemed the suited man was the authority here, and it seemed that he was exercising that authority. He was sweating and red in the face and out of breath.

His every movement was carried out with an obvious and off-putting violence.

Swinging his arms as if ready to throw punches, he stomped right into the room.

Minardo stepped forward to block his path. She was half a head taller than he.

Grinding his teeth, he raised his hand with an accusing finger pointed her way.

“I demand an audience with the foreigners this instant!” He shouted.

“I demand you use your indoor voice.” Minardo snapped back. “Who are you?”

“You’ve no business making demands of me, soldier! I’m part of the Council and I’m taking these men into our custody. The Colonel has no right to hold them here and extract information without consulting us. Solstice has imposed on us enough!”

Again the man jabbed his finger, in a way that was growing irritating to Minardo.

He was getting too close to her. She felt his arm brush against her and bristled.

“Invasion of our borders by foreign agents is a military matter.” She replied. “We cooperated with police and are merely following proper security procedure right now.”

“Since demilitarization it is also a civilian matter! You act under our orders!”

“We received no orders from you or anybody. There was no objection until now.”

Up and down went the man’s finger, as if he was undecided as to how to hold it most threateningly in the air. He was shaking. He fidgeted with his tie as he continued to growl.

“Nocht is at our doorstep, and if these men hold any information that would be of diplomatic or defensive value to us, we demand to hear it from their mouths.” He said.

“We’ve already interrogated these men, Councilor. They are not threats and have no value to you. We will write you a report when we have fully vetted them.” Minardo said.

“Fine; then you will stay in this room until they are fully vetted, Sergeant. Guard!”

Almost shoving her, the councilman turned sharply around and walked out of the room.

He gestured to the guard outside.

At once the guard gave Minardo a regretful glance before stepping forward, shutting the door almost in her face and locking it shut. Interrogation room doors locked from the outside to prevent the people within from escaping — Minardo had no lock mechanism on her side. She had, in the blink of an eye, been detained by the police in the station.

It dawned upon her what had happened, and she turned sharply around herself.

“Lock yourself in the room and call the Colonel right now!” She shouted.

Behind the glass, the interpreter acknowledged with a quiver in his voice.

Bercik and Kirsten stared in disbelief.

Minardo herself could hardly believe it, but she was a prisoner of Rangda now.

Rangda — 8th Division Barracks, Training Field

Madiha was reasonably comfortable being out in the sun. Rangda was cooling off as the Gloom began to turn into the Frost. There was a clear sky above them and then sun was out, and a strong breeze blew her hair as she went. It was neither the weather, nor the possibility of an attack, that had led her to consider hiding in the Barracks until nightfall.

An attack at the moment was unlikely. Majini did not walk freely under the sun.

Unless they wore the brass masks — and she had dealt with all of those.

Though she once thought she had dealt with all of them in general and that proved folly.

Her motivation for wanting to hide was to spare her troops the sight of her.

She was hurting all over. Her arm was in a sling, her head was bandaged. One of her eyes was partially swollen and could not fully open — the severity of the bruise was lessened by a careful application of cosmetics and combing her hair over it. She tried to appear energetic as she walked around the base, but she was exhausted. When Parinita got to her she felt like her skull had been split open. Even healing hands could not repair all of the psychic damage. Morphine had to patch up a few lingering ills.

Her confrontation with Chakrani had inflicted a new set of wounds on her soul, perhaps, if not her brain and body. She tried not to let Chakrani get to her — she did not want to keep lingering on their failed relationship. She wanted to move on. But it was difficult to ignore. She heard the word “monster” as said by Chakrani’s voice, that voice that once said sweet things to her in bed, that greeted her every day, that told her she was loved and wanted. It reverberated in her head. On top of everything else, it shook her badly.

“You have nothing to hide over. You’ve done everything you could.” Parinita said.

Madiha was thankful to have Parinita at her side. It was the sight of her lover supporting her and telling her sweet words that empowered her to take these difficult steps outside. Parinita had a point; hiding in the headquarters all day would have had a detrimental effect on the troops. There was too much that was already being kept from them, and they were enduring every unreasonable event at this base purely on their faith in her.

She drew strength from Parinita. She tried to think to herself that Parinita deserved for her to be there, for all of her to be available, and none of her stuck in the past with Chakrani. They were lovers now; girlfriends in Parinita’s own view. She deserved strength.

So Madiha would be strong for her. She would go out with her head held up high.

As she surveyed the training field, the barracks, the reclaimed storehouses beyond the second gate, and the remaining facilities, Madiha was pleasantly surprised by the discipline of her troops. There were few gawkers, and everyone was quick to salute.

She stopped first at the edge of the training field, where Lieutenant Munira was teaching grenade throwing to groups of infantry. Madiha and the tall, gallant, brown-haired older lieutenant had been first acquainted in Bada Aso, where they defended a strategic hill from a relentless Nochtish air attack. Lt. Munira had proven herself gifted in speaking to her troops then, and this was no different. Everyone stood attentively as she explained how to “cook” grenades, proper throwing technique, and the purpose of a grenade.

“As a shuuja, the heroic rifle soldier of Mother Ayvarta, the grenade is the most lethal weapon in your disposal if you wield it properly. You cannot reach for your grenade in panic; you will only disarm yourself of a valuable weapon when you need it! You must use the grenade carefully and in concert with your allies. You can use it to suppress enemies, who will flee the grenade temporarily, allowing your allies to flank them; you can use it to attack around obstacles, such as sandbag walls and gun shields or around tight corners inside buildings; you can use them to clear enclosed spaces; never throw one aimlessly!”

As before, Lt. Munira’s voice was powerful, and her pronunciation never once slipped. Words flowed swiftly and strongly from within her and swept over the entranced crowd.

When Madiha appeared behind the Lieutenant, it took the infantry a moment to notice that she had snuck into the fore. When she was finally spotted everyone quickly and respectfully saluted. Lt. Munira turned over her shoulder and smiled, clapping her hands.

Salam, Colonel! Our field is elevated by your presence.” She said, bowing her head.

She then saluted, the same as everybody. A greeting, parts religious, and parts military.

Hujambo,” Madiha said. She saluted back with her good arm. Parinita did the same.

“If it is not out of place to say, Colonel, I am pleased to greet you. I know everyone had been wanting to see if you were well, after the incident last night.” Lt. Munira said.

“It is all under control, don’t worry. I will be recovered in a few days.” Madiha replied.

“I’m glad to hear.” Lt. Munira said. “Would you like to show them a quick throw?”

“What will I be throwing? Back when I did basic training, we threw water balloons.”

“No balloons here; we’ve been deemed worthy of something a little more tactile.”

Lt. Munira handed her a dummy grenade. Madiha recognized the device when her fingers wrapped around the smooth metal can. These units had token amounts of explosive in order to produce a bang that could be seen and heard by the thrower, but they were harmless unless one detonated while still affixed to a belt or inside a soldier’s bag.

Nodding her head in affirmation, Madiha held the grenade in her good hand. She walked through the group of soldiers, glancing briefly over their faces and forcing a little smile for them. On the other side of them was a cleared area of the field with distance markers and several black marks on the floor where previous grenades had landed and burst.

Holding the grenade under her injured arm, she used her weaker hand to pull the pin.

She waited, and then threw the grenade with all of the strength of her good arm.

Her entire body ached from the effort, but she hurled the grenade a good 50 meters.

She then immediately threw herself on the ground as was the training procedure.

Though this put even more strain on her arm, it was important to do things correctly.

In the distance, the grenade went off with a dismal pop. Behind her, everyone clapped.

Several soldiers stepped forward and helped her from the ground, dusting her off.

“Thank you,” she said to them, and then addressed the group at large. “Remember, however, that it is important to throw it accurately and not just far away. Our real grenades have a killing radius of 5 meters and an injury radius of 15. Sometimes you must throw them 20 meters exactly; sometimes you must do this while under stress. Practice your throwing whenever you can, and practice throwing near and far. It will serve you well.”

There were nods from the crowd, and Lt. Munira continued to clap excitedly.

Madiha walked through her soldiers once more, and watched them throw in her place.

Seated atop the ruin of a waist-high wall a few meters from the soldiers, Madiha and Parinita watched thirty throws from the Company’s 1st Platoon. There were some clumsy throws, and poor safety technique, but for the most part everyone seemed to have the fundamentals well in hand, and nobody had their grenade burst in their own hand.

Madiha congratulated the group before taking her respectful leave of them.

“May the light shine on you always, Colonel.” Lt. Munira said.

Parinita and Madiha bowed their heads and went on their way.

“What do you think?” She asked, once they were again walking in relative privacy.

“I’m pleased.” Madiha replied.

“Everyone has really stepped up since Bada Aso, haven’t they?” Parinita said.

“It was Bada Aso itself that made them stronger. They had to grow to survive it.”

“Yes, but I feel that they are becoming better refined now, and not just stronger.”

Madiha nodded her head. “Was I shaking when I threw that grenade?”

“You looked a little off-balance. But nobody was distracted by it.”

“Even as I walked among them, nobody was frightened by my wounds.”

“We’ve seen worse happen to other comrades.” Parinita said.

“But not to the ‘Hero of the Border.'” Madiha said. Though she felt uncomfortable with the moniker, she was pragmatic enough to see its usefulness at the moment. She was keenly aware that she needed to preserve this dignity in order to keep morale steady.

Parinita crossed her arms and looked skyward, thinking for a moment.

“Well; think about it, in an action film, you expect the hero to end up covered in wounds, but victorious! It’s no different here. Everyone saw the bandages, but they know you won.”

Madiha chuckled. She loved hearing Parinita make references to film.

Wandering through the training field they paused to watch artillery fires, tank driving, and infantry launching attacks on a house defended by a team with water guns. At each stop they chatted with an officer and received some demonstrations. Most of these activities were too high-impact for Madiha to participate in her current state, so she respectfully declined to demonstrate them. She especially did not want to be sprayed with red water.

Despite this everywhere they went they received warm greetings.

Even the most exhausted soldiers were cordial and energetic to them.

“See? You’re still the hero to them.” Parinita said.

“I’d rather not be a hero at all, but I’ll accept it for now.” Madiha said.

From the field, they made a quick stop at the canteen. Different training groups ate at different times. Food was prepared around the clock to keep the Regiment’s few thousand mouths fed as they came. Madiha dropped in on the cooks at the canteen and thanked them for their service — it was its own form of heroism keeping everyone fed.

Though they were noncombatant staff, they saluted as strongly as any shuuja.

Madiha then visited the infirmary. There was a squadron of soldiers ill with something they caught together in their barracks, and a few knocked out by food poisoning and allergies. One woman was bedridden with a sun-stroke. Everyone was pleased to see the commander, despite her own injured state. Some felt emboldened to go out themselves — the medics quickly set them back toward their beds and had none of that.

After the field, barracks and facilities, her final destination was the depots.

Through the gate, Madiha and Parinita approached the first set of depots. There were engineers moving equipment into each depot, re-purposing the abandoned buildings as workshops and storage spaces. Madiha found herself naturally attracted to a big, open, hangar-like depot behind the rest, where she spotted a familiar comrade from afar.

Sergeant Agni, the brown-skinned, dark-haired, stone-faced engineer who had proven key to the operation in Bada Aso, sat outside this depot, atop a rather large tank with a unique appearance. She had her hair in a ponytail, and the ponytail pinned in half against her head by a large clamp. She was dressed in greasy pants and a tanktop undershirt that was, judging by some spots, originally white. Now it was caked black, along with her arms and breast.

Hearing their footsteps, she turned around from the tank’s turret and greeted them.

“Hujambo.” she inanimately said. She raised her hand and waved a hammer.

“Hujambo! What’s the hammer for?” Parinita asked.

Agni looked at it briefly and threw it over her shoulder.

She shrugged. Parinita stared at her.

Madiha smiled. “Say, Agni, what is that tank? It’s not a hobgoblin is it?”

“No, it is not.”

Madiha examined the new vehicle.

Over the course of the battle of Bada Aso Madiha had become better acquainted with the Hobgoblin. Though most were assigned to defend the Kalu, a small group had remained in the city. She had found them quick, reliable, well armored and well armed. Agni’s tank had the familiar turret, with a bulging and rounded turret front and a block-like gun mantlet from which the 76mm KnK-3 gun extended, and long, sloped, partially rounded sides that overhung its squat, narrow neck, and a pair of hatches at the top.

That was where the similarities ended. While the Hobgoblin mounted the turret toward the front, this tank had it in the center. It had a squat and thicker body with a more steeply sloped front, and tracks and guards that were as tall as the rest of the body rather than a step shorter. It appeared more substantial than the hobgoblin, yet more compact.

“It looks similar, because the Hobgoblin is a generic unit.” Agni explained. “It has a long history. After the Goblin’s dismal performance in the Cissean war and the Mamlakhan affairs, a prototype was developed called the Kashyapa, produced secretly by the KVW along with the M.A.W and A.A.W firms. From the Kashyapa, there were two paths we could take. A revolutionary design called the Raktapata greatly expanded its capabilities, but was almost impossible to reliably mass produce, so only a few were ever built for continued experimentation. Meanwhile the Hobgoblin fixed a few problems, but it was closer to the original and easier to produce. Solstice wishes to mainline the Hobgoblin.”

“So the Hobgoblin is a fixed-up, genericized Kashyapa, and this is a Raktapata?”

Agni shook her head. “Yes, and then no, respectively. This tank,” she rubbed her hand on the armor atop the tank, “is a bunch of Raktapata spare parts that we were given, cobbled together with a Hobgoblin engine and Ogre tracks to create a mostly functional vehicle. I call it the Rakshasa Command Tank, because it is yours, Colonel Nakar.”

Madiha blinked. “Mine? I thought I would get a command truck.”

“I thought you might appreciate this more. We received a bare chassis and a bundle of parts, but with some help, I mounted the turret, added tracks and installed the communications kit. Then I did some work on the engine, and lubricated everything–”

“Wait,” Parinita interrupted, “Agni, does this vehicle have long range radio?”

“I spent all day going over it. I believe it does.” Agni said.

Parinita clapped her hands together and beamed with joy.

“Good. So we have more dependable communication now. Do the Hobgoblins have radios?” Madiha asked. “And what about the Ogres, Giants and Chimeras we received?”

“Most of them do. But the radios on non-Command models are very limited.”

“That’s fine. As long as we’re not completely cut off the waves in case of emergency.”

Agni nodded her head. “Would you like to see the interior?”

“Is it really greasy?” Parinita asked.

“Not as much as it would seem from looking at me.” Agni said.

Madiha smiled.

With Parinita’s help, she climbed atop the Rakshasa’s engine compartment at the back of the tank, and then helped Parinita up onto it. They opened the twin hatches at the top of the tank and climbed down into the commander and gunner’s positions, seated side-by-side with the gun before them. In place of the extra storage on the turret’s rear extension and sides, there was radio equipment mounted on brackets, with a little space between the walls and the radio boxes to lessen the transfer of vibrations from the armor to the vacuum tubes.

Parinita’s seat was closer to the tank’s right side and to the lower shell stowage. In combat, she would switch from radio operator to loader. Madiha was seated closer to the front of the turret with the gun controls. She would command, and also shoot the gun.

It was not an optimal arrangement, but it allowed them to stretch their tank personnel.

Unlike Nocht, they could not count upon thousands of expert, purpose-trained tankers.

Below them was the turret basket with the remaining equipment. This framework existed in the neck of every turreted armored vehicle, anchoring their seats, and housing the turret drives, oil pumps and various mechanisms for turret operation. Madiha could, if she leaned down, see the back of the driver’s seat, and the floor of the tank was not too far below. She could still “drop” down and hurt herself if she was too clumsy, however.

Compared to the Goblin, it was fairly roomy, though the gun mechanism was larger.

Madiha looked through the sights, while Parinita tried out the radio equipment.

Satisfied, Parinita and Madiha climbed out of the tank and sat atop the turret.

“Looks good. A significant improvement in firepower.” Madiha said.

“I love the radios! I almost want to relocate the HQ into this tank.” Parinita said.

“We should. It would probably be safer.” Madiha said. She gave a bitter little chuckle.

“Due to its improvised nature, this tank will certainly not perform as well as the original Raktapata could, and will certainly be slower than a Hobgoblin.” Agni warned. “However, the armor profile was taken directly from the Raktapata and is very strong. It will keep you safe.”

“I guess my dreams of becoming a frontline tank ace have been dashed.” Madiha said.

“Don’t even joke about that, it sounds like something you might do!” Parinita said.

“It will work adequately as a fire support and command vehicle.” Agni said.

“As long as it can fire colored smoke and make radio calls, I’m fine with it.”

“It can carry 35 shells, divided as you desire.” Agni said.

“Can’t the hobgoblins carry 77?” Madiha asked, momentarily downcast.

“Radios.” Agni said, pointing sharply back to the turret.


“We also received another gift. Follow me.”

Parinita waved a hand in front of her face. “Can we follow upwind from you?”

Without cleaning herself up one bit, Agni dropped from atop the tank and started walking. Madiha and Parinita carefully stepped off the armor and followed her back out to the street, and a few depots down. There was more activity at this part of the base than Madiha had seen in days. In the distance she saw rows of tanks parked outside. Chimera, Giant and Hobgoblin were becoming well represented among their number. There was also a smaller tank model among them, though it was not a Goblin.

“That’s a Kobold,” Agni explained, “it’s a new light tank. Has a 45mm gun. Boring.”

“How many of those things will we be saddled with?” Madiha asked.

“Only 20, as a reconnaissance group.” Agni said. “Most of ours will be Hobgoblins.”

Madiha breathed a sigh of relief. Light tanks in all their forms seemed a waste to her.

Agni led them to a small vehicle park at the end of the rows of depots, fenced off but with the lock on its chain-link doors welded in half. Having forced entry, the engineers arranged many of the incoming vehicles that would not fit in depots. These included a pair of Giants that had yet to be thoroughly inspected and made fit for use — they would lie among the trucks and artillery carriers in disuse until they could be thoroughly vetted. Agni weaved through the assembled vehicles toward a singularly tall and broad half-tracked truck.

Tied to the back of this truck was a very large object covered in a tarp.

Pulling off the tarp, Agni revealed a very large artillery gun. It was mounted on a set of tractor tracks, but it was not self-propelled. It had a bore larger than a human head, and upon its enormous barrel was an exterior recoil cylinder about as tall as a fully-grown Ayvartan adult. On the whole the construction was incredibly robust.

It was an intimidating weapon.

Madiha became suddenly excited. Her eyes lit up visibly at the sight of the weapon.

She even smiled like a girl being handed a beautiful doll.

“It’s a 203mm Vajra!” She said aloud. She rushed to its side and touched it.

Parinita, giggling, followed behind her. Both were dwarfed by the size of the gun.

“We received a trio of the guns, likely to take it off the hands of the Tambwean forces moreso than for our own use.” Agni said. “We really can’t service them properly yet.”

“Oh, really?” Madiha said, deflated. Of course, she suspected that as a mobile force, the sluggish, gigantic 203mm gun was not meant for their kind of warfare. Even the Giant was a significant drain on their mobility, and that was a tank with a smaller gun. The 203mm was so large it could only be transported either by train, in pieces on a heavy cargo plane, or by the equally massive Vifaru 10-ton half-tracked carrier parked with it.

“More important than the gun, I believe, is the associated ammunition.” Agni said.

She unceremoniously pulled a tarp off from over the back of the Vifaru’s truck bed.

Stored beneath that tarp were several strangely-shaped artillery shells. Each had a different overall design, though they all shared a sharp, likely explosive warhead similar to those on the 152mm gun on the Giant. None were like the gigantic 203mm Vajra shells Madiha had seen previously. Instead they had strange frames around slimmer shells. Some had cylindrical bumps around the shell exterior, while others ended in conical exhausts.

Madiha could not make heads or tails of what they were meant to do.

“Are these supposed to be rockets?” Madiha asked, throwing out a wild guess.

Agni nodded her head. “Experimental ramjet shells. Supposedly 40 km max range.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, though I doubt I ever will.” Madiha replied.

Rockets were not unheard of. Most advanced nations had some kind of rocket.

Ayvartan planes operated ground attack rockets fired from the wings of their planes, much like the Nochtish Luftlotte‘s rockets. These rockets were shot by diving at a steep angle and firing them at line of sight targets. Because of their inaccuracy, several rockets had to be fired to hit a tank or other valuable target. Most of the time, aircraft rockets were used to bombard infantry. In such a role the effect was comparable to a heavy mortar attack.

Though the velocity and potential range of a rocket were enviable, Madiha seriously doubted a rocket fired out of a cannon would ever be as reliable or useful as a shell.

“You probably won’t ever see it in action. I believe the project is close to shutting down. Agni said. “They’re hard to shoot anyway; and even then we’re not authorized to use them.”

“Do you think you could shoot one?” Madiha asked with a smile.

Agni twined a lock of hair around her index finger. “Probably.” she said.

It was hard enough to fire an ordinary shell out at the distances the 203mm gun could hit and do so accurately. Taking into account the unknown factor of a ramjet rocket being shot out of the gun, the mathematics involved would likely stump any of their artillery commanders and render the weapon nearly useless at its intended, extreme ranges. However Madiha had faith Agni could do it if she tried. Agni was sort of a genius.

After Agni put the tarps back over the gun and shells, Parinita clapped her hands.

“Looks like that’s the end of our inspection.” She said. “Let’s go eat!”

She smiled sweetly. Madiha thought she heard a low, wet growling noise.

“Agreed. I could use a good plate of lentils.” Madiha said.

“I will have a curry.” Agni said, raising her hand over her shoulder.

Madiha and Parinita stared at her. Sweat glistened over the greased caked across her.

“Oh, in that case, give me a moment.” Parinita said.

She hopped over the couplings on the back of the Vifura, and disappeared.

Madiha stared from Agni, who made no expression, to the Vifura, confused.

Moments later, Parinita returned, dragging along a white hose.

Under the Vifura’s chassis, Madiha could see the hose trailing along to the far back of the vehicle park, where there was likely a water truck waiting for its moment to shine.

“Colonel, step aside!” Parinita shouted.

Madiha fled instantly.

Agni stared at the hose without so much of a twitch of the eyes.

Parinita pulled a lever on the metal head at the end of the hose.

A low-pressure jet of water gushed out of the nozzle and instantly doused Agni.

Grease and sweat and oil slicked off the engineer as Parinita targeted her limbs and her breast with several dozen gallons a minute, and arced the gray-blue lash up into the air to rain water down over Agni’s head. Throughout the aqueous assault, Agni stood as still as a pillar with her arms limps at her sides, her face inexpressive and covered by her wet hair. Water cascaded down her clinging top, over her pants, into her shoes, pulling down gunk.

More and more pleasantly brown skin was exposed from under muck.

Black goo pooled at Agni’s feet and glistened with a myriad colors beneath the sun.

Parinita shut off the hose and dropped it behind the Vifaru.

She clapped her hands repeatedly, as if wiping them clean of this matter.

“You’re welcome!” She said cheekily, before starting back toward the road.

She left behind an engineer thoroughly drenched but free of accumulated filth.

Agni pulled her hair from her face and squeezed it as dry as she could.

She turned a flat gaze to Madiha, who had sought cover around the vehicles.

“Am I cleared to eat now, Commander?” She asked, spitting out water.

Madiha could not honestly tell whether she was resigned, miserable, or what.

She was distracted from the sight of the soaked Agni by the sound of the fence clinking.

Looking between the vehicles, Madiha spotted Padmaja running in from the road.

Her eyes were moist and red and her voice cracked with stress and fatigue.

She barely paused for breath upon meeting Madiha and Parinita, clearly distressed.

“Colonel, Colonel!” She shouted. “Colonel, Sgt. Minardo is in trouble! She’s trapped!”

Madiha’s felt her chest sink into her stomach. “Trapped how? What do you mean?

She knew where and she knew how. There was only one place. Ocean Police Station.

“She’s being detained!” Padmaja shouted. “The Rangdan Council is detaining her!”

Parinita’s face turned white. Madiha could not believe what she was hearing.

“How is she detained? What happened?” Madiha asked, struggling to process it all.

“I don’t know! Her military interpreter says that a man came and detained her!”

“That’s just– they were supposed to be cooperating! This is against the Akjer act.”

Madiha raised her hand to her face, rubbing on her injured temple. Parinita covered her mouth with her hands and stared between Padmaja, who was weeping and distraught, and the Colonel, who struggled to cope with the sights and sounds and torments her mind was suddenly conjuring up and buckling under. Minardo was in danger; and so were Bercik and Kirsten. If the morning was any indication, this was all Mansa’s doing.

And if it was Mansa’s doing then he did not care about the laws and regulations.

He was in Rangda and he had decided that here, he would become the law now.

“What are we going to do, Madiha?” Parinita asked, her lips quivering.

“We’ll demand she be turned over.” Madiha said. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Parinita shook her head. “Will they do it? If they went through this mess to grab her–”

Madiha looked at her with a sudden fire in her eyes. “We’ll make them do it.”

Rangda — Ocean Road Police Station

“Everyone knows the plan? Good. Dismount and mind your trigger discipline.”

Civilian cars and trucks cleared the thoroughfare as a large convoy took over Ocean Road. There was a collective shiver across the ranks of the civil police squadron stationed outside the ocean road police station as the Rompo trucks lined up across the street. There were twenty trucks in a long line, each packed with ten soldiers and their supplies.

Ramps went down from beneath the tarps fastened over the truck beds, and dozens of men and women piled out of them in hasty but disciplined ranks of their own. They formed their own makeshift firing line ten times the strength of the police line, and much more heavily armed. There were Danava-type light machine Guns, BKV anti-tank rifles and Rasha submachine guns on the soldier’s hands. All of this automatic and semi-automatic firepower was passively opposed by old police-issue bolt-action bundu rifles.

Civilians on the street rushed past the scene as if they had urgent business elsewhere.

From among the soldiers a startling bugle sounded, further shaking up the police forces.

In the middle of the procession, an armored half-track with a 45mm gun turret let down its own metal ramp, and from the back appeared Colonel Nakar, making a most unexpected visit to ocean road. One of her arms hung almost limp at her side, rarely moved as she approached the station, flanked by a pair of well-armed women. On her head was a large peaked cap, and she boasted an intimidating black eyepatch as well.

Those accompanying her knew that she had a bad arm that was causing her much agony, that the eyepatch hid an inflamed and suffering eye and that her hair had been styled to cover bandages, but the police were too busy contending with a full-blown motorized Rifle Company at their doorstep to examine the woman’s physical condition.

“My name is Colonel Madiha Nakar of the 1st Order of Lena, Defenders of Bada Aso, Gold Banner Askari Motorized Rifle Regiment.” She shouted toward the police line. “In violation of civil-military cooperation you are illegally holding a soldier of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice in detainment without lodging a formal compliant and without the presence of a military advisor or commissar. I demand Staff Sergeant Logia Minardo be released into my custody effective immediately, or I shall take extraordinary measures to recover her. In addition I demand the transfer of the two Nochtish Suspected Subversive Persons into military custody as per the terms of the Akjer Intelligence Act of 2025.”

At once, as if by mere coincidence, the rifle troops pulled the bolts on their weapons.

Atop the armored half-track, the 45mm gun scanned across the police line.

“Failure to comply with my demands will be met with the full force of military law!”

Gulab Kajari tightened her unsteady grip on her submachine gun. Standing at the Colonel’s side along with Chadgura and Nikka, she pulled the bolt on her own gun as instructed. She then raised her gaze back to the police line, her weapon held against her chest, at the ready, but with the barrel facing the floor. Her heart pumped viciously. She felt her pulse more acutely than usual, hyper-aware of her own physicality in this nerve-wracking situation.

To every deity she could think of, she prayed she would not have to shoot anyone.

Everyone around her, for all their composure, likely had the same thought.

All of them trusted Colonel Nakar. She had a plan to get everyone out safe.

She prayed the plan worked; that the plan ended up bloodless.

She did not want to have to fight volunteer police. There was not one face in the phalanx that looked to her like a fighter, much less a killer. There were old men and women who were trying to keep active; late teens freshly graduated from the youth league and trying to do their communities a service; adults who just wanted to keep the kids out of trouble or who felt drawn to a novel street job and never thought they would have to pick up a rifle.

Gulab had never even seen the volunteer police fighting or armed. Normally she just saw them walking around in uniforms. They helped get pets out of trees and cleaned up sidewalk trash for goodness’ sakes — they were by no means any kind of tactical force.

She did not want to shoot anyone here! She didn’t want to have to fight civilians!

Particularly because Colonel Nakar had them all load up with training ammunition!

Their counterparts, though the weaker force, had real ammunition to shoot back.

At this range however, even dummy shot would have caused injuries.

Intimidation would be their chief weapon; their only weapon.

Gulab kept her expression an icy neutral, modeling herself after Nikka.

Compared to the civil police, she certainly looked like an aloof, experienced killer.

She marveled at the bravery or boneheadedness of the volunteer police in front of her, who though clearly distressed and outnumbered never broke rank or retreated. They visibly fretted in front of her, shaking in their boots and quivering with their old rifles in their hands. They did not so much as make a peep in protest, perhaps prepared to be blasted to pieces to defend the doorway. Or perhaps they had a plan of their own.

“I demand to speak with an officer immediately about the conduct of this station!”

Colonel Nakar’s words hung in the empty air. Nobody seemed to have the authority to respond. Across the street the unsteady rifle phalanx remained in place in front of the door to the police station, guarding the main entrance. There did not seem to be an officer among them — everyone manning this naked barricade was a simple volunteer.

Facing the silent deadlock, Colonel Nakar raised her open palm into the air.

At once Lt. Munira’s M-Company moved forward step by step until they were about a meter behind Colonel Nakar, who herself was only about a dozen meters from the police.

The Colonel kept her hand in the air and open. A closed fist would mean “shoot.”

It was this sight that nearly broke the police line. Many cowered back closer to the police station, until the phalanx ceased to be a bayonet square and became an amorphous mob. Gulab felt a terrible taste in her mouth, having to scare these men and women like this; but they had left them with no choice but to do so, given their own crooked actions.

Come on, let her go, Gulab silently begged. For a tense moment there was no response.

Colonel Nakar made an exasperated noise. Gulab thought she saw her fingers moving–

Then there was a sign of life; the inscrutable glass doors to the police station opened and disgorged a large group of rifle-armed volunteer police flanking a smaller group of people and escorting them out. Gulab immediately spotted Staff Sergeant Minardo and felt a great sense of relief. She was walking with her hands cuffed behind her back, being handled somewhat roughly by a man in a suit and tie. Directly behind her were two men of a paler complexion, also handcuffed, and a taller, darker-skinned man who was being held by two shorter men. All of them were walked out to the street, unshackled, and promptly pushed past the phalanx. Throwing a last contemptuous look at the man in the suit, who grinned malevolently back at her, Minardo started toward Madiha with the young men in tow.

Everyone watched as she crossed the line of military weapons without incident.

In this fashion the standoff was quite abruptly diffused. M-Company promptly climbed back on their transports. Gulab followed Chadgura and Nikka, behind Colonel Nakar, the Staff Sergeant, the interpreter and their new guests, all packed into the back of the Gbahali armored half-track. They sat on the floor and on benches along the walls of the vehicle. Above them, the 45mm turret returned to its neutral position, and the gunner disarmed the breech.

“Are you unhurt?” Colonel Nakar asked.

“Aside from being manhandled a bit, I’m fine.” Sgt. Minardo replied.

In the reverse of the order that they arrived, the Rompo trucks peeled off from the line and turned around, driving down Ocean Road. Once again the Gbahali was in the center of the procession. Gulab let out a breath she felt she had been holding for an hour now. She was thankful the plan was executed well; but worried that it was needed at all.

“What exactly happened in there?” Colonel Nakar asked.

“I was locked in the interrogation room after refusing access to these two.”

Sgt. Minardo pointed her thumb over her shoulder at the two men.

Both of them had glum, worried faces, and were quietly rubbing their wrists.

“Was that an authority from Rangda?” Colonel Nakar said.

“He was a councilman. He had me locked up after objecting to our secrecy.”

Colonel Nakar pulled up her eyepatch and rubbed her bad eye.

“I take it then that Mansa is trying to put pressure on us.”

“Yes, he must be. Colonel, I believe this was all a provocation.” Sgt. Minardo said.

“Provocation to what? For what purpose?”

“He wanted you to take an aggressive action; he will wipe away the catalyst for that action and make it into a story of your overreach and make some demand of you.”

Colonel Nakar took in a deep breath and exhaled miserably.

“He sent a councilor from Adjar to the headquarters this morning. A woman from my past. She started making absurd demands and ended up bickering with me. He probably knew we have history and that it would help rile me up or make me panic.” She said.

“It could have also been a distraction while he worked to isolate me.” Sgt. Minardo said.

Gulab could not fill in all of the blanks here, but she knew these were dire events.

“Whatever his plan, he got a rise out of me.” Colonel Nakar bowed her head. “All of this is my fault. When I recovered the Plans, I should have taken these two back to the base with me, and you as well. I should not have taken for granted the police’s cooperation. I was too focused on securing the Plans and didn’t think of the possible consequences.”

“Now, now,” Sgt. Minardo said, “you acted in good faith and according to the law.”

“I acted stupidly; I was naive. I should’ve been more careful.” Colonel Nakar said.

“Less trusting? More forceful?” Sgt. Minardo said, looking at her with concern.

Colonel Nakar averted her eyes and stared into the armored wall of the vehicle.

Sgt. Minardo reached into her military coat and withdrew a piece of paper.

“I’m almost positive this is what has emboldened him to act.” She said.

She handed the piece, a bit of newspaper, to the Colonel, who looked it over.

“When it rains, it pours.” Colonel Nakar grumbled, crumpling up the paper.

Gulab only got a glance at the words “8th Division” and wondered what it meant.

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

“Ah, good, good!”

Councilman Mansa exclaimed with amusement at the sight of the men coming through his double doors. It had been a good day for the Councilor. His enemies had acted predictably and he had made many new friends. Seated meekly in a corner of the room was one of them, a fascinating young woman from Adjar whose father Mansa had met many times in the simpler days before Akjer. He had insisted Chakrani join him in greeting the officers of his 8th Ram Rifle Division. He had assured her that unlike Nakar, they were disciplined and loyal, and they would do the utmost to help her reclaim the strength of her people.

“Chakrani, these are the men who will help us. You can count on them. They will protect you from that barbarian Nakar. When next you confront her, it will be at our advantage.”

“Yes sir.” She said unenthusiastically. “Thank you sir.”

Though the 8th Division was arriving half tomorrow and half another day, Mansa had the officers flown in to begin setting up the temporary headquarters in the Council building. There were a few familiar faces among their roster, loyal and stern, but one man stood out among them as a new friend. Tall and sleek, with a hooked nose, and brown-blond hair, dressed in the muted green uniform and garrison cap of the Territorial Army.

He was a welcome sight.

Chakrani stared at him skeptically, crossing her arms over her chest.

“In Ayvarta, it is customary for the visitor to introduce themselves first.” Mansa said.

Across the room, the foreign man flashed a friendly grin and tipped his cap at them.

“Ah, truly? In that case: I am Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen.”

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