The House of Ahmed Ku’sai, Igwani Village, Ward 3 of the United Republic of Provinces
Tribal Reservation of Urnah,
Nasai, White Moon 3303 –September
Layla sat upon the porch of the home that she now shared with Yaqub and his family as a cold rain pattered against the thatched roof above her. She enjoyed the solitude and welcomed the cool breeze that ruffled the short curls of her hair. It was Saturday so everyone had gone to the temple to worship except for her; she had slept in and was supposed to have followed but had not yet left the cool dampness of the porch. She had awakened, bathed, and dressed in the traditional Urnahi abaya and khimar, but once she’d reached the porch and witnessed the quiet stillness of the usually bustling village, she’d decided to sit for a moment. That had been over an hour ago and everyone would be returning soon. She sat and sipped her tea, relishing every minute of solitude in anticipation of the noise and reprimand that would be coming.
Yaqub’s father Ahmed was strict when it came to following religious tradition and although Yaqub was lenient with her since Saturdays were the only days that she had to herself, he would never disrespect his father or the rules of his father’s house. Layla often wondered why Yaqub had not yet set out on his own by now especially since he would be 38 winters in a few weeks’ time. She had come to the conclusion that he must have some reason for staying, but she would not dare to ask what that was. Yaqub had been much like a father to her and Pua these past three years and very kind but he was not much of a talker. It was no wonder that he and Anti Lu had not yet married: she was not the same since they had recovered her from the burial grounds that night when Yaqub had come for them and she hardly talked either.
The day patrollers had beaten Anti Lu brutally and she had been very near death when Yaqub had found her, swollen, bleeding and with a broken leg after having been dumped beneath a rotted huta bush. Yaqub had insisted that Layla stay in the transport but she hadn’t – she had had to try and help to find her Anti. Pua had thankfully remained asleep the entire time and Anti Lu had not said so much as a word as Yaqub had removed his cloak and had carefully wrapped it around her to cover her nakedness. The officers were long gone by then and had left her for dead. Yaqub had been furious but had secreted them out of the Republic that very night and had brought them to the MFDT Headquarters here on Ward 3 where they had been ever since.
The MFDT – Militia for the Defense of Tribes – was considered radical among the Wards and had been organizing with the laborer cities within Republican walls secretly for decades. Time had taught the Urnahi on the res to be prepared to defend themselves against off-worlders who were willing to expend clansmen’s lives for the sake of their own gain and the MFDT mission was to protect their tribe from further exploitation, including the exiles, no matter the cost. The Governor of the Wards and his supporters challenged the authority of the MFDT and had been trying to have it dismantled but if the militia had never been formed, Anti Lu may have died that night, and Layla shuddered at the thought of what might have become of her and Pua.
The sound of approaching footsteps jolted her from her thoughts and she looked up to see Uncle Ahmed approaching. Ahmed Ku’sai was Commander of the MFDT and a hard man, but just. He had survived the attacks of ’89 but with a deeply rooted distrust for the off-worlders. Uncle Ahmed had welcomed her family into his house and had insisted that she and Pua call him uncle; he could very easily have passed for their grandfather in age but there was not a single wrinkle in his smooth brown skin.
Layla watched him climb up the small porch; he was dressed in his buff-colored doe-skin tunic suit with the traditional braided belt woven in his clan colors of red, black and orange around his waist. Wiry and muscular despite his age, Layla had reached him in height last summer, much to his delight, and he was proud of her success at Wi’shaw Temple, but she could tell from the set of his mouth at the moment that he was not pleased with her for having missed the day’s prayer services. He was at least alone for the moment with Anti Lu, his sisters and the children most likely still at the Temple greeting everyone after services.
“Sipping tea and daydreaming into space when you should have been worshipping at the Mosque?” Ahmed asked rhetorically as he stepped onto the covered porch of the weathered, wooden house that they all shared. He sat in one of the chairs beside her and held her gaze disapprovingly.
“Please forgive me, uncle,” Layla apologized guiltily under his gaze. “I have no excuse, I am sorry.”
He stared at her for a moment longer, his expression displeased, before his features smoothed out.
“If I did not know firsthand from Ali how hard you have been training this past week at Wi’shaw I would demand that you serve in the kitchens at Temple this evening to make up for having missed service,” he said finally.
“Thank you, uncle,” she replied.
He waived his hand gruffly with dismissal and leaned back into his chair to stretch his legs out before him, crossing them at the ankles. Layla followed his lead and leaned back into her seat as well.
“Your Antis will be arriving shortly,” Ahmed announced conversationally as he removed his pipe from his trouser pocket. “They gossip far too much for my liking.”
Layla hid a smile behind her tea cup and took another sip. Uncle Ahmed and his sisters were always bickering and always because he disapproved of their gossiping. Anti Kinza and Anti Fali were both widows, having lost their husbands during the strikes, and since Uncle Ahmed was the only surviving male relative, he was honor bound to take them and Anti Kinza’a children into his home.
He crumbled Chila leaves into his hand-carved pipe and lit its end before bringing it to his lips. The two of them sat silently, enjoying the quiet, as rain began to fall, beating a steady rhythm upon the roof overhead, but it wasn’t long before squeals of laughter sounded in the distance. Layla looked up to see Pua and Uncle Ahmed’s two nieces rounding the corner of the rickety wooden fence surrounding the baker’s shop a short distance down the dirt road. They were running full speed towards the house, racing and smiling with reckless abandon and were damp with rain and sweat when they barreled up the porch steps a few moments later. Pua fell into Layla’s lap, her two black braids wet with raindrops.
“I win!” she squealed, panting and out of breath.
Sahma and Aiesha fell against Uncle Ahmed’s legs with as much exhaustion and as loud in their peels of exhilarated laughter.
“I’m second!” cried Sahma, the oldest at eight moons.
Aiesha, the littlest with only three moon cycles, panted wildly as Uncle Ahmed lifted her into his lap; she was hardly able to breathe between laughing.
Anti Lu’anji rounded the same corner by the bake shop at that moment, but it took her a few more minutes to reach the front porch as she limped along the road upon her cane, her leg never completely having healed. When she finally reached them, the little ones had caught their breath and were smiling happily at her. She climbed the steps slowly; leaning lightly on the wooden cane that Yaqub had carved for her, and smiled back contentedly, her light brown eyes shining with pleasure.
“Greetings, Lu’anji,” said Uncle Ahmed. “Fali and Kinza are still at Temple?”
“Greetings, Uncle,” Anti Lu replied in her soft, quiet voice. “Yes. They are speaking with Sister Clari and Sister Fazia. They have asked that I begin preparing the evening meal.”
Anti Lu leaned over and kissed the top of Layla’s head in greeting as she passed into the open front door of the house.
“I won, Anti Lu, I’m the winner!” Pua exclaimed as Lu’anji kissed her head and lifted her from Layla’s lap.
“Anti Lu, can I have some sapa juice,” Sahma asked as she jumped up from where she sat upon the porch and followed Anti Lu into the house.
“And me too,” cried Aiesha as she climbed down from Uncle Ahmed’s lap.
“I should help,” Layla said as she stood and prepared to go inside. “Will you be coming in, Uncle?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No, you go ahead. Yaqub will be arriving soon. I will wait for him here.”
“Yes, uncle,” Layla replied. “Would you like some spiced tea?”
He smiled fondly at her then. “Yes, daughter, I would like that. Thank you.”
Layla returned the smile and went inside to get the tea.
Pua, Sahma and Aiesha were laying upon oversized floor pillows and drinking sapa juiced through covered cups with straws as Layla passed through the front room to the kitchen.
Anti Lu had already begun preparing the spiced tea. Despite not talking much, she seemed to hear everything.
“I missed you at service,” Anti Lu said simply in the quiet way she had as she lit kindling within the brick oven. Layla felt guilty.
“I’m sorry, Anti,” Layla replied as she removed the cooking pots from the ceiling rack for her.
“It was a lovely service. The Imam spoke about gratitude and being thankful for one’s blessings,” Anti Lu continued in her soft, sing-song voice. “I am very thankful for you, my Layla.”
Layla placed the pots upon the cooking island in the center of the small kitchen and hugged her Anti around the shoulders from behind.
“And I am very thankful for you, Anti,” Layla responded, laying her cheek upon the silkiness of Anti Lu’s headscarf.
Layla’s mother, Haylu, Anti Lu’s older sister, had died giving birth to Pua and Layla had never known her father. Anti Lu was everything to her: all that was good and strong in this world. Her eyes welled with tears as she held her aunt and she was overwhelmed with love for her. Anti Lu was gentle and kind; had nursed Layla’s mother through her boona sap addiction and had pretty much raised Layla and Pua as if they were her own children after their mother had passed away, although only eleven years older than Layla. How anyone could ever have been so cruel as to strike and abuse her gentle, little aunt was beyond comprehension. She hated the off-worlders. They were nothing but alien monsters with no sense of dignity and she wished anew for some way to expel them from Sahyun.
Anti Lu patted Layla’s arm before extricating herself and walking back over to the boiling water atop the cook stove. Layla leaned against the island and folded her arms across her chest. It was no use getting angry over things that she could not change, but all of her hard work would pay off when she advanced from Wi’shaw next summer. She was certain that Uncle Ahmed would secure a place for her in the Militia and then she’d have a way to take revenge.
“Can you bring the tea to Uncle and Yaqub, Layla. I will start the stew,” Anti Lu said.
Layla blinked her tears away and picked up the tray containing the teapot and cups.
She stepped over the girls as she passed through the sitting room and noticed that Yaqub had indeed arrived and was sitting in the chair that Layla had vacated. His eyes were the same dark brown of his father’s and he wore his hair in an identical single braid as did many of the Urnahi clansmen in Ward 3. Although taller and brawnier than his father with thick arms and shoulders, his features were also nearly identical to Uncle Ahmed’s, down to the frowning eyebrows. Yaqub’s younger cousin Ali, an officer at Wi’shaw Temple and only a few years older than Layla, stood against the porch railing facing the two of them in their chairs. They did not seem to hear Layla approach.
“Everything has been stockpiled at the base in Ku’mon,” Yaqub stated as Layla placed the tray upon the table between him and Uncle Ahmed.
His head snapped up in surprise when he noticed her.
“Thank you, Layla,” Uncle Ahmed stated as Layla handed him a cup.
“You are welcome, Uncle,” she replied and handed the second cup to Yaqub.
“Thank you, Layla,” Yaqub responded and offered his reserved smile in greeting, his onyx eyes glittering with affection.
“Shall I bring another cup for Ali?” Layla asked, glancing quickly over at the young man before looking back to Uncle Ahmed.
“No, thank you, Layla,” Ali responded, his smile warm as always.
She hoped that he was gone by the time that Anti Kinza and Anti Fali arrived otherwise she was sure to get an earful of how overdue she was for marriage and another berating for having declined Ali’s second offer for her.
Layla hesitated by the doorway hoping to hear more of what they had been talking about, but they watched her expectantly, waiting for her to leave and Layla got the idea. She turned and went back inside, but lingered in the front room where she could still hear and began gathering the girls’ cups and discarded fruit rinds as she attempted to listen in on the conversation that had resumed upon the porch.
“And you are certain that the weapons are secure?” Uncle Ahmed asked. “We cannot afford for anything to be stolen or to be found out by the tribal council and have them confiscated. Qasim has been extremely inquisitive lately.”
“I am certain,” Yaqub replied. “Only I have the passcode and no one knows what is contained inside of the crates. I’m to meet with Onu Kamigashi in Am’maah tomorrow about obtaining body shields and to submit an inquiry about installing security shields for the village. Should it be true that the Republic is to attempt another attack, we will be able to protect our people and to defend ourselves this time.”
“And what of the Sahifah? Has Rabia been in contact with her?” Uncle Ahmed asked.
“No, not yet, but they have found her and she is back in Nasai. We expect that she will make contact before the next moon.”
Anti Lu stepped into the front room and startled Layla from her eavesdropping.
“There you are – can you please go out back and bring in some potatoes and star-root,” she asked.
Layla hurried towards her without looking back to see if she had been found out.