This scene contains violence, death and intense emotional and mental distress.
Rangda — Serene Park, North Road.
Even under the cover of a moonless night there were obvious signs of military build-up.
Those who could not see through the darkness of the unlit roads and streets could still hear the sounds of pounding hooves and rolling track and chugging engines, and they could smell the smoke and gunpowder and the acrid reek of years-old reserve diesel.
Rangda’s trolleys remained silent in their stations, and there was not a cab or consumer vehicle on the road. Every lane of traffic was wide open. Conspicuously taking the place of commuter vehicles, processions of horses galloped down Ocean Road. They ferried cloaked men whose garb bulged with weaponry, carrying them down the main street and through the secondary roads, into alleys and toward parks and sports fields and other open mustering grounds. Occasionally the dark streets would light up with the beam from the headlights of a Goblin tank or an artillery tractor towing a covered-up bundle.
Police patrolled street corners and ushered stray civilians toward residential buildings, mumbling about a curfew that they would not explain to those confused by the news.
“Ma’am, stay off the road. Didn’t you hear about the curfew?” one shouted, at the corner of North and Ocean near the high point of Rangda city. At their side, a horse-drawn carriage trundled past, its contents fully enclosed within a canvas, its driver faceless.
Tearing open her trenchcoat, the woman confronted the volunteer officer.
When the woman’s fiery eyes met the weary gaze of the police officer, there was a flash of recognition. Not precisely of the woman’s identity, nor the eerie power behind her glare, but of the quality of her police uniform, of the numerous awards on her shirt, and the great silver badge over her breast. To the police officer, this woman was perhaps not Madiha Nakar, but rather a big-shot police Inspector, probably from the Marshal’s office.
“I’m so sorry ma’am!” He saluted. “I was unaware we’d be under inspection, ma’am!”
“That’s the point of an inspection. You arse.”
Owing to Minardo’s dubious contacts and methods, this ruse was proving effective.
But though she had the uniform, it was the attitude that would sell the part.
Madiha found it difficult to feign the antagonism necessary to play the part of a nasty, snake-like police inspector come to ruin the life of a young, organizationally mobile police volunteer. It took effort to demean and intimidate the police volunteer, and she felt rather uncomfortable. Judging by his terrified reactions as she invaded his personal space, staring down at him, she played the part better than she thought she would.
“What are you doing out here, you idiot?” She shouted.
She poked his chest and acted as if she was smelling his breath.
“You reek of booze, you dope!” Madiha shouted.
She tore his truncheon from his belt and pretended to swing it at him.
The police volunteer’s jaw hung and quivered. He raised his hands defensively.
“That’s- That can’t be! I haven’t had a drop ma’am, I swear!”
“You’ve had so many drops, you mackerel! How dare you? On this night of all nights?”
“Please ma’am, I wasn’t, I– I only had a little, hours ago! I swear it!”
In reality Madiha had smelled nothing; the confession was quite welcome, however.
She turned a vicious expression on the man, now with cause to do so.
“You disgust me! Kiss your promotion goodbye!”
“Wait, please, no– I won officer of the month in the Dahlia’s Fall! Please!”
Almost groveling at her feet, the officer burst into tears.
“Get out of my face, cuckold.” Madiha hissed. “And maybe I’ll forget your indiscretion.”
She was starting to reach a little too far for insults; nonetheless the man believed her.
“Yes ma’am! Thank you ma’am!”
Without stopping to request his baton back from her, the police volunteer took off down the street like a lost soul turned by a crucifix, choking down his sobs and cries as he went.
Removed from the situation, Madiha covered her mouth, shocked at her own malice.
She hoped the officer would be able to go on with his life, somehow.
Across the street, another patrolling officer pretended it was none of his business.
Sighing, Madiha turned around and faced back the way she came.
Surreptitiously she signaled two Gendarmes in volunteer uniform to follow at a distance.
They would play the part of patrolling officers while acting as her security detail.
From Ocean Road, Madiha traveled unmolested up the tighter streets in the densely populated northern quarter of the city, uphill from the rest of Rangda. This was the original city, founded higher up on the hills and around a slim tributary that stretched toward the ocean. There was little time to see the sights. Madiha hurried to Serene Park, a simple field of green grass wound through by cobblestone paths and dotted with trees, a fountain and several benches. It was a fresh-smelling, open space within the endless urban landscape of Rangda, and despite its humble character, it was a welcome sight.
Near the entrance to the park, seated on a wooden bench, Madiha spotted Chakrani.
Before engaging her, she shed the police disguise in a nearby bush, from which it could easily be retrieved. Beneath the collared police shirt, she had worn her battle dress.
She signaled for the Gendarmes to spread out and keep an eye out.
Then she approached the bench, and called out to the woman, seizing her attention.
Chakrani seemed almost shocked to see her. She appeared surprisingly bedraggled. Madiha always conceived of Chakrani as a very fashion-forward young woman, but found her in the same shabby suit she had worn the day before. Her normally luxurious ringlet curls were looking a little frayed, and her face glistened in the dim illumination from the lights around the nearby fountain. She was sweating, and short of breath as she acknowledged Madiha.
For a moment neither of them spoke. There was only the howling wind among them.
Chakrani stared at her and opened her mouth slightly. Not a sound came out.
“I apologize. I know you never wanted to see my face again, but you did request my presence, so I have complied.” Madiha said. She tried to sound affable. Like before, this too was an act that she found difficult to sustain. Especially owing to Chakrani’s hesitation.
“Yes. Okay.” Chakrani said. “Madiha, I– I’m not going to lie–”
She hesitated again, as if the word lie had caused her to trip and to fall mid-speech.
“I didn’t want things to end up this way, Madiha. I just wanted to do something, anything, to try to make up for the time I felt I wasted. I wanted to feel like I mattered.” She said.
That was certainly one way to start a conversation about their differences.
Madiha didn’t know whether it was appropriate to talk, but she couldn’t stop herself.
“You haven’t done anything wrong.” Madiha said. “I may disagree politically, but–”
Chakrani raised a hand to her own face.
“Madiha, you– you haunt my thoughts so bad. I, I hate you but– but also–”
Her eyes teared up. Madiha fought back her reflex to try to comfort someone crying.
It wouldn’t be appropriate to approach Chakrani like that.
She might even see it as an aggressive act.
So Madiha stared at her from two meter’s distance, the size of a whole other human.
“I’m afraid. I’m afraid you’ll–”
It hit her like a dagger in the chest. Afraid. As if in the presence of a monster.
“I won’t hurt you.” She mumbled.
“Shut up! Just shut up, Madiha. Just listen.”
“I’m sorry. I’m listening.”
Madiha averted her eyes. She felt like a glass window under a deluge of stones.
“I know you’re not gonna hurt me. I know. I know you, Madiha. I mean– I thought I did. I still do! I know some of you. There’s a lot– there’s a lot I never knew.” Chakrani said.
Her voice was so choppy between the sobbing and choking-up.
“Maybe, maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe I kept the real you at arm’s length. Maybe I just wanted to take you out and dance and drink and fuck and feel good, I don’t know!”
It was painful to listen to. Madiha filled in every pause with curses she expected to hear.
“I’m not afraid of you! It’s not you that I’m afraid of. There’s parts of you I– I wish I could still feel something! Parts that I want! And I’m afraid of that, of what’ll happen now–”
Chakrani grit her teeth and raised her hands to her face. She looked at once furious and in agony. Her whole body was shaking, and tears were cascading down her cheeks.
“Fuck! What is wrong with me? Why am I falling apart now?”
She stomped her feet.
“Why did you have to come back to try to apologize, you idiot? Why did you have to get involved in all of this? Couldn’t you have just stayed away? I didn’t need to see you!”
Her voice nearly cracked from the shouting.
“I thought I could make up the hurt I caused.” Madiha weakly said. “But you’re right, I was an idiot. I was being selfish when I showed up in Bada Aso. When I appeared at your establishment. You didn’t have to suffer through that. I just caused you more pain and I made a big scene for no reason. I am truly sorry for everything, Chakrani.”
She made a mistake. She said her name. She had been trying to avoid doing so.
But it was hard not to say it. It was too hard to accept all of that hate and its prohibitions.
“Shut up!” Chakrani shouted back. “Stop acting like you’re above all of this now!”
Despite the downward turn of the conversation Madiha found it hard to show emotion.
“I’m not trying to. I just want you to know that I realize what I did. I will stay away.”
Chakrani’s eyes lit up suddenly. She almost smiled amid her misery.
“Good! Good. Just go away, Madiha. Even if I call you back, just go!”
“I’m sorry.” Madiha said. She felt like she couldn’t just leave now. Not after all of this.
There had to be something more she could say, something that would expiate.
She didn’t want to think of where Chakrani would go now in this state of mind.
But Chakrani desperately seemed to want her gone from her sight.
“Madiha, just, please, go away. Get out of Rangda, right now!”
This was not just a pair of hurting women shouting down their hurt now.
Madiha caught the word Rangda and found it so incongruous with the rest.
Why specifically Rangda? It was innocuous and yet it felt like it made no sense.
It felt like a warning as opposed to another cry of desperation.
She thought over the conversation and realized that Chakrani was not afraid of her.
“Chakrani, what is it that you’re afraid of–”
Her voice choked mid-sentence.
She felt a sharp jab into the back of her neck. She reached fearfully for her nape.
In front of her Chakrani froze and started to weep.
Madiha’s shaking fingers plucked out a hand-carved dart, dripping with something.
Wavering eyes glanced over drooping shoulders at a nearby tree.
Madiha saw it, clad in a black robe with a brass mask that split down the middle.
Teeth, rows and rows of teeth, the mask cut across like a jagged mouth.
It was laughing, laughing mockingly and soundlessly.
Two arms holding the old blowgun.
Two more arms lifted from under its cloak, holding the gendarmes, their necks snapped.
She did not even feel its presence approaching or nearby. She never felt the cold of it.
It was a master of its foul arts.
This was perhaps the oldest one, perhaps the first one. Perhaps the worst of them.
Stunned, Madiha turned back around to Chakrani, who was on the floor, weeping.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” She mumbled. “I didn’t want this. I didn’t want any of this. I’m so torn up. I can’t hold it anymore. I just want to stop hurting Madiha. I’m so sorry.”
Gasping for breath, Madiha smiled dumbly as her faculties left her.
“You didn’t do anything, Chakrani.”
Everything went dark and she felt herself hit the floor, and Chakrani screaming.
It was a small room and everything was dark.
She opened her eyes, but she couldn’t see anything.
There was an impression of light just beyond her eyes. Was she blindfolded?
Feeling in her body had not yet fully returned.
“Ah, there goes your chest, rising and falling. Quite a relief.”
It was Mansa’s voice.
“So, since she’s not going anywhere, can I shoot her now, or–”
“Quiet, you babbling fool.”
Was that the man from Bada Aso? Drachen? Madiha felt dizzy.
There was a pause in the room, a silence.
Madiha felt a cold breath at her side.
“At any rate. Pardon the uncouthness of my new associate. Welcome back to the world of the living, Colonel Nakar. Or, I should say, Empress Nakar I? It is an honor.”
That cold breath turned into a hateful hiss.
There was a Majini very close. Too close. It was barely restraining itself.
“You didn’t give me a proper opportunity to talk before. Let us talk, your majesty.”