Republican City, The United Republic of Provinces
Nasai, White Moon 3303 – September
It was well into the morning by the time Safiya reached Republican City and she was exhausted from the five hour trek. With her shoulder sack slung across her back and her ID papers in her hand, she walked over to what she hoped was the last security checkpoint that she would ever have to see. The clerk in the booth verified her identification and informed her that the Tribal Ambassador’s Office was located inside of the tall grey stone building called Legislation Hall, behind the booth and to the right, without her having to ask. Her feet hurt terribly and she could have easily collapsed onto the curb for a nap but she willed herself a few more feet forward.
Unlike the laborer cities, off-worlders were everywhere here: walking, jogging, driving in land transport vehicles, or sitting in the grass. Some of them openly stared at Safiya just as she openly stared at them, some with welcoming smiles and some without. She’d seen an off-worlder in Punji Village, a gruff city clerk with pink cheeks and a large round face, but these off-worlders had a different look to them: gentler and more refined. It really was remarkable how much they looked like the Sahyunese. Safiya had never seen off-worlders from the neighboring planets in person, but she’d seen still pictures and VisionComm films about Marduk and the Seneca star system, and the Mardukan and Senecani people did not resemble the Sahyunese nearly as much as the earthlings did.
Safiya reached the gray building and climbed the wide stone steps to the entrance. The entire lower floor was made of glass walls and windows with thick glass doors and she was required to show her identification again before being allowed inside.
“The Tribal Ambassador’s Office is at the end of the hall, last door to the left,” the Republican Guard behind the large reception counter informed her, again without her having to ask.
“Thank you, sirrah,” Safiya replied and crossed through the body scanner to the wide, well-lit corridor.
She was awestruck by the grandeur of the tall ceilings and hanging crystal lamps above her as light streamed into the hall through the glass walls and from skylights upon the ceiling. Off-worlders dressed in finely tailored suits of white, blue or gray strode past her, talking in pairs or in small groups, or speaking into small hand-held devices. Safiya reached the glass doors of the Ambassador’s office and pushed through them with a sigh of relief. The young man inside was bent over his desk and talking into a voicecomm when she entered the reception area.
The room was lined with windows along one wall and a row of potted winter plants reminded Safiya of Natar. Several cushioned armchairs carved in the dark wood of the whana trees and designed in the straight lines and simple style of Am’maahni carpentry were arranged symmetrically in pairs beside small square tables in the same design in front of the windows and the left wall opposite the entrance contained a slender, white marble fountain with water bubbling upward in thin, sparkling arcs beneath a large gilt framed plaque containing the laws of the Sovereign Tribes of Sahyun stenciled in gold lettering. There was a closed door behind the man’s desk and another in the corner beside the fountain.
The man looked up when Safiya stepped in front of his desk and took a double take before a charming smile spread across his face.
“Ok, yes. Thank you, Councilman,” he said into the voicecomm console as he prepared to disconnect. “You can expect the data by the end of the day. Good day to you as well.”
He was Am’maahni from the look of him, with curly black hair and light brown eyes, and greeted her warmly.
“Peace and blessings to you, sister. How may I be of assistance?” he asked as his eyes roamed appreciatively over her face and his smile widened when she spoke.
“And also with you, sirrah. My name is Safiya Al Akhad and I’m in need of exit papers for return to the Wards. I was told that the tribal Ambassador could secure those for me,” she answered cooly, entirely not in the mood for unwanted attention.
“Yes, of course. I’ll just need to see your identification,” the man requested, still smiling, but with more of a formal friendliness.
Safiya reached into her pack to retrieve her ID papers for what felt like the fiftieth time and handed it to the young man.
“Thank you, sister. Please sit down and I’ll inform the Ambassador; it’ll just be a few moments while I verify your information in the system,” he said and gestured towards the chairs before sitting behind his desk and keying data from her id cards into the CompuSole in front of him. “I’m Hijaz, by the way. We seldom get residents from the Wards here, but Natar is in the neutral zone, right?”
Safiya managed a small polite smile and nodded as Hijaz pressed a button upon another of the devices on his desk. A few moments later a deep voice came through it.
“Yep,” the voice announced.
“We have a Safiya Al Akhad from the neutral zone here to see you. She’s requesting exit papers,” Hijaz stated aloud as he continued to type information into the CompuSole.
“Al Akhad?” the voice clarified with skepticism.
“Yep, that’s what she’s said. And there’s a match in the system, I’m keying her in now,” Hijaz answered.
“I’ll be right out,” the voice responded and Hijaz pressed the button again.
He finished typing Safiya’s information and stood to walk over to where she sat to hand her back her papers.
“The Ambassador will be right with you. Your clan name has struck a chord with him, I think. And I’ve only ever seen eyes that color upon two Urnahi,” Hijaz observed and was about to ask her something more when the door behind his desk opened.
Safiya watched the man who she assumed was the Ambassador approach and felt as if she had been struck by a bolt of electricity that zapped her from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. He commanded authority and she stood up instinctively, but her heart began to thump loudly in her chest, and her stomach felt as if she’d swallowed a mouthful of zuma flies.
The man was tall and built more like a soldier than a civil servant. He wore a dark green uniform of stiffly ironed slacks and a pressed tunic jacket with gold cloth bands across the top of his shoulders and another gold band about the collar of his tunic. There was an emblem of gold, green and black thread woven into the jacket upon the right side of the chest but she could’t tell what the symbol meant. His hair was jet black and curly, his jaw square with a slight cleft in the chin, and there was an air of confidence and strength about him that was vaguely familiar and that made her think about her father. Safiya could not tear her eyes away and felt a strange, strong connection to him. The man clapped Hijaz upon the shoulder before greeting her.
“Peace and blessings be with you, sister, and welcome. My name is Sekel El Amra, the Tribal Ambassador to the United Republic of Provinces,” the man said and extended his hand towards her in welcome.
Safiya continued to gawk as she grasped his hand and his name was familiar to her too: Sister Rebecca’s clan name was El Amra. His lips were full and smiling, his eyebrows smooth and arched over gold-brown eyes framed by thick lashes, and his skin was honeyed brown.
“Uh, greetings, I mean, and peace be unto you, Ambassador,” Safiya stumbled as she grasped his hand. “Thank you for seeing me. I’m sort of stuck here, in the Republic, and I don’t have any more coins for crossing through the border gates. An ice-merchant from the laborer cities said that I could get exit papers here.”
“He was correct. Please, come inside,” the Ambassador said and waved her forward towards his office as he walked with her.
She shifted her sack to her right shoulder and obeyed. Once inside the office, she sat in one of the armchairs in front of his desk as he instructed and he walked over to a table beside a row of windows to pour two cups of spiced coffee. He placed three sweet rolls upon a small plate before returning to the desk. He handed one of the cups and the plate to Safiya.
“You’re a long way from home. Natar is at least five hundred leagues away,” the Ambassador said as he sat down behind his desk and took a swallow from his coffee cup. “What brings you to the Republic?”
Safiya hadn’t expected questions and wasn’t sure of what to say, but she also hadn’t eaten since yesterday afternoon and bit hungrily into a roll before washing it down with the coffee and answering.
“Exploring. I’ve never been to the Republic before and just felt the urge to see it,” she improvised.
This was partly true. She bit into the roll again, both to give herself enough time to come up with a believable story and because she was starving, as she hoped that he would offer her another one so she wouldn’t have to ask. She decided to volunteer as little as possible about her reasons for being there.
“Hm,” he responded tactfully, but she could tell that he didn’t believe her. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
His expression was calm and non-judgmental, but Safiya felt guilty anyway, even though technically, she didn’t have to be in school because she’d already passed her 21st summer.
“Well, no, not really. I’ve come of age and I’m not required to be in school,” Safiya replied.
“So you’ve dropped out of school?” Sekel probed and sipped again from his coffee.
Safiya frowned slightly and replied, “No, sirrah, but I don’t understand what that has to do with securing exit papers.”
The Ambassador grinned at her and she almost choked on a bit of sweet roll. No one should be so handsome.
“The URP is a little paranoid since the uprising on Ward 3 last winter and these kinds of questions are required, unfortunately,” the Ambassador explained. “Officers from the MFDT sneak through the borders regularly so I have to determine if you’re affiliated with them. Are you?”
He certainly was direct. She paused, only because she knew about the uprising and about the MFDT being flagged as a terrorist organization. Some of the clansmen from the reservation outside of the neutral zone had been killed during the revolts and their families had come to the convent to speak to the sisters about supporting the MFDT but the Sisters of Mercy could not pick a side and remain a neutral zone. The orphans were free to make their own choices but Safiya had never considered joining.
“No,” she answered simply and took a long swallow from her coffee mug.
He stared at her for several moments, waiting for her to say more, and when she didn’t her leaned back in his chair.
“No worries,” he smiled and wrote something down upon a CompuPad before continuing. “Ok, so exploring. Not in school. Were you visiting with anyone?”
“No, sirrah,” Safiya answered and finished the second sweet roll.
“Please, call me Sekel,” the Ambassador responded and looked up from his writing. “And you entered when and how?”
“Uh, two days ago. I drove in with a farmer from Ward 2,” Safiya responded.
“And which gate did you enter?” the Ambassador asked.
“I’m not sure. The one near Punji Village,” Safiya answered.
“Ok, good. That’s all I need. It takes about three days to have the papers issued and we’ll notify you as soon as they’re ready. Do you have somewhere to stay while you wait?” the Ambassador asked as he gave her a once over.
Safiya hurriedly finished the coffee and rolls before standing and holding the empty plate and cup out to him; she self-consciously brushed crumbs from her tunic and chin.
“No, sirrah – Ambassador – Sekel,” she admitted and felt heat rush to her face. She had no idea how she was going to last three more days without food or somewhere to sleep.
The Ambassador took the dishes and placed them upon the corner of his desk as he nodded and smiled kindly, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll put you up in a sleephouse.”
He stood and pressed a button upon a device just like the one upon Hijaz’s desk and Hijaz’s voice came through.
“Yes, Ambassador,” Hijaz responded.
“Can you reserve a room in the sleephouse across the road for Sister Al Akhad. Make sure to add meals and a daily allowance for anything that she might need. At least three days while we wait for the papers. You can close up the outer office and walk her across when I send her out to you,” the Ambassador instructed.
“Will do,” Hijaz replied cheerily.
Sekel pressed the button again and addressed Safiya as he came around from behind his desk.
“Hijaz will take care of you and answer any questions that you may have. This is my card; you can contact me from the sleephouse voicecomm at any of those numbers should you need to,” he said when he reached her and handed her a small rectangular card.
“Thank you, Ambassador. I really appreciate your help,” she said and tried to dismiss the strange feeling in the pit of her stomach from his being so close.
“You are most welcome,” he said and noticed the bruise upon her cheek. “Are you ok, looks like you’ve been hurt?”
“No, I’m fine. I ran into a little trouble yesterday,” Safiya answered and gently touched her jaw.
He frowned but didn’t press the matter and instead asked wryly, “Exploring?”
“Um, yeah, something like that,” she replied as she remembered the peddler’s anger when she’d tried to talk to the street-walker he’d been harassing.
“Can you try to refrain from any more exploring while you’re here so that I can get you back to Natar in one piece?” he asked jokingly as he walked her to the door.
“I think I can manage that,” she replied as he held open the door for her.
“Good, then. Peace and blessings be with you, sister,” he said and extended his hand once more.
Safiya grasped it and this time felt the same jolt of energy she’d felt when she’d seen him pass up her arm as she did so. He flinched slightly and looked down at their clasped hands for the briefest of moments before looking back at her with a quizzical expression; he’d apparently felt it too.
“And also with you,” she replied awkwardly and at a loss for an explanation.
She had no idea of what had just happened. His expression smoothed over and he released her hand.
“You get some rest. If there is anything that you need please inform Hijaz,” he said.
“Ok, thank you again,” she said and walked over to the glass doors where Hijaz stood holding one of them open for her.
“And again you are most welcome,” the Ambassador replied and disappeared back into his office.
“This way, sister,” Hijaz said when she began walking towards the front entrance at the opposite end of the hallway. “The sleephouse is across the courtyard and it’s faster this way.”
He stood several inches taller than her as he opened another door and held it for her, this one to the right of the Ambassador’s office, and led her through a marble stairwell to an archway that opened onto a grassy courtyard. Tall black glass and grey steel buildings lined the horizon and although the smog blocked the light of the sun here as well, there were trees and perfectly manicured lawns colored by rows of summer flowers between the buildings, and the coast of the Yellow Sea was visible across the southern skyline.
“Wow,” she said as she took in the view. “This is nothing like the laborer cities.”
Hijaz nodded in agreement with a look of disapproval as he too eyed their surroundings as they crossed the manicured courtyard.
“I know,” Hijaz said. “We’re trying to change that, but it’s getting more and more difficult to get the parties to agree on how to get more money to the complex.”
“That’s what the laborer cities are called? The complex?” Safiya asked.
They reached a narrow, paved lane lined with blossoming whana trees and crossed to the sidewalk on the opposite side.
“Yes: the laborer and settler villages are called the complex. The off-worlders, well the old families, are big on separating bloodlines, so those with mixed bloodlines have to live in the complex. The laborer villages are mainly where the Urnahi live, and although some Urnahi live in the settler villages too, the settler villages are reserved for half-breeds and mixed breeds.”
“What are half-breeds and mixed-breeds?” Safiya asked.
A small group of off-worlders dressed in brightly colored clothing crossed their path and Safiya couldn’t help but stare.
“People with Urnahi bloodlines, either directly or indirectly depending upon the lineage,” Hijaz explained.
“Oh,” Safiya said.
They had reached a whitestone cottage surrounded by bright green manicured shrubs and four tall whana trees with pink blossoms.
“Here we are. Follow me,” Hijaz stated and walked up the pathway and through the opened front door.
If this was the sleephouse then something was seriously wrong with how the laborers were being treated. The sleephouse that she’d stayed in on here first night in Punji Village had been so filthy that she had been afraid to lay down upon the sunken mat that had acted as the bed and had instead slept on the floor, but the inside of this sleephouse smelled of freshly cut Lula flowers and was brightly light by suspensor lamps that hung from the ceiling above. It was impeccably clean with brightly colored upholstered furniture in pastels of pink, green and yellow and soft flute music resonated from hidden wall speakers. A petite off-worlder with curly yellow hair and friendly grey eyes smiled in greeting when they entered.
“Hello, Mr. Hijaz, and welcome. How are you today?” she asked.
“Hello, Clara. I’m well, thank you. And yourself?” Hijaz asked.
“Very well, thank you. Is this the Ward resident that you spoke of earlier?” Clara asked.
“Yes. This is Safiya Al Akhad,” Hijaz introduced.
The woman smiled at Safiya and handed her a small round disk.
“Hello, Safiya,” Clara said to her. “This is your house key for accessing your room, your meals and your allowance. Welcome, and if I may be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to ask.”
Safiya accepted the disk curiously and turned it over in her hands; she had absolutely no idea what to do with it.
“Thank you, Clara. And what room is it?” Hijaz asked.
“Room 2C,” Clara answered with another smile.
“I’ll just see her up,” Hijaz stated and placed a guiding hand upon Safiya’s elbow to lead her towards the staircase a few yards away.
They ascended the carpeted staircase to the second story of the cottage and turned down a narrow corridor to a door marked 2C with silver characters. There was a round, silver indentation upon the center of the door and Hijaz reached for the disk in her hand imploringly.
“May I?” he asked.
She gratefully handed it over to him.
“These are called disk readers,” he said as he pressed the disk into the indentation upon the door. “They are affixed or built into the walls and doors for accessing your rooms and meals. There’s a dining room downstairs where you can use your disk, or you can use the voicecomm to call down to the kitchen for placing an order to have sent up to you in your room. Have you used a voicecomm before?”
The door swung upon when he removed the disk and he waited for her to enter before snapping it closed behind them. The room was brightly lit by suspensor lamps and it too smelled of Lula flowers. There was a wide, neatly dressed bed against a pair a windows overlooking the sea to the right and a door opening onto a bathing room and indoor privy to the left. Directly across from them was a desk and chair pushed against another pair of windows and in the center of the room was a small, upholstered sofa with a beautifully carved wooden table before it.
“No, actually,” Safiya answered as she looked around the room. “But I can’t imagine that it’s too hard to figure out.”
She walked over to the bed and sat down; it was even more comfortable than it looked. He followed her and picked up the receiver to the voicecomm upon the bedside table to demonstrate its use.
“You need only pick this up and enter the number you’re trying to reach on the dial pad here,” he said and randomly pressed the small square buttons upon the surface of the voicecomm. “The contact numbers for the front desk, kitchen and dining area are programmed into the voicecomm so you need only press the button for whichever location you need to reach. The button with the image of a cottage upon it is the one for the front desk, the one with the plate is for the kitchen and the one with the table is for the dining hall.”
He placed the receiver back onto its holder and retrieved a rectangular card from his pocket much like the one that the Ambassador had given her.
“Our contact numbers are here on this card so you need only enter them in sequence to reach us,” Hijaz instructed and handed it to her.
“Thanks,” she said and tucked it into her tunic pocket beside the other one.
“Sure,” he replied and appeared reluctant to leave her. “Do you have any questions?”
She smiled at his concern as she involuntarily read his vibrations: he was sincerely worried about her. She was surprised. She’d never met anyone who sincerely cared about her feelings or safety before. Safiya, on the other hand, was not worried at all, and finally felt safe enough to relax a little. She was so eager to bathe and to sleep that she was considering holding off eating until after she’d slept.
“No, not really, but I can call you at any time by using one of those numbers if I do?” she asked more so to reassure him than anything else.
“Yes, at any time; day or night,” Hijaz was quick to reply. “Being here in the Republic can be confusing. It took me a year to learn all of the rules and how their gadgets work.”
Safiya did her best to focus upon his words as fatigue inched its way over her mind and observed that he didn’t look much older than she was. His brown eyes were kind and there was a resemblance between him the Ambassador.
“I doubt that I’ll be leaving the room much so I should be ok, but thank you, and I will contact you if I get into any trouble,” Safiya said and stood up from the bed with her hand extended as the Ambassador had extended his to her.
Color rose to Hijaz’s face as he accepted her hand and she sensed a change in his vibrations; but she didn’t feel a shock or anything like she’d felt with the Ambassador when she shook his hand. She hoped she wasn’t crossing some unspoken rule by offering her hand.
“You are most welcome,” Hijaz said and quickly let go before striding back towards the entrance door. “I’ll be in contact again tomorrow with an update about your papers. Peace and blessing be with you, sister.”
“And also with you,” she responded.
He smiled self-consciously before closing the door behind himself and as soon as the door was secured, Safiya collapsed face first onto the bed in sheer exhaustion. Bathing and eating would have to wait.
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